Of birds, asteroids and city planning

Last week was a welcome holiday for staff at The Equity, as well as for freelance contributors such as myself. But a few days off doesn’t stop the news from happening, all the same.


Ted Fort and Marcio Melo report seeing a male cardinal at their home studio at Moffat Lake.

For some of you, this won’t be a sighting of particular note: I have heard from some readers that residents of Quyon regularly see cardinals at their feeders. However, I have only spotted one male cardinal once in our 12-years here on the Steele Line, just north of Quyon. That sighting was on May 5, 1989. I thought nothing of it at the time, as I grew up with these birds at our feeding stations in Toronto, and had sighted them at my Ottawa home for 10 years, too.

However, many of you know that the Pontiac represents the outer range of these birds, so sightings are noteworthy.

How long will the bird stay? Will it find a mate? Neither man has spotted the less dramatically coloured female, whose buff-to-orange coloured body and red beak give her a more subtle beauty. Both sexes share the characteristic pointed crest as well as the jet black “face mask” or patch which covers the chin, throat, and forehead of cardinals.

If this male remains until breeding season and finds a mate, observation will be rewarded. Perhaps because of the male’s brilliant “cardinal” red (this bird is so-called because of the robes of the Catholic Cardinals) it is quite easy to observe its mating ritual, whereby the male gathers food, flits to the side of the female, and feeds her, seed by seed.

Other readers have been noting the large hawks perched on solitary trees in the middle of fields or on fenceposts. One person reported seeing a red-tailed hawk last week near Shawville.

And the dark and light phase rough-legged hawks remain visible periodically throughout the day in my area north of Quyon.

The light phase rough-legged gave a splendid demonstration of its characteristic hovering technique, where it peers at the ground while its wings beat the air. I was fortunate enough to be in the right place (Lac des Loups road just north of Highway 148) at the right time on January 2, and witnessed this spectacular bird giving a thirty-second or so demonstration of its prowess. Its sharp eyes must have seen what it thought could be prey, roadside. I had the binoculars in the car and could see its magnificent black wrists and powerful-looking primary wing feathers as it beat the air.

(Note: to check what parts of the bird I’m referring to, look up the “Topography of the Bird” diagram in your Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies, or equivalent guide. Why is a diagram called “topography” when it refers to a living creature? Because it describes physical characteristics, just as does the topography of land, or a topographic map. It’s a good idea to get to know the parts of a bird so that when you are trying to identify it, you can make a mental checklist of what its field marks are, then compare your sighting to what you see in your bird identification book.)

The light-phase rough-legged flew off to a nearby tree and perched there, buffeted by the wind. It is obviously an extremely powerful bird to be able to withstand such gusts, which rippled its feathers.

On January 7 I saw another light-phase rough-legged perched in a tree near the Gilpin Line, east of Shawville. Although a long-way off as I drove past, this bird is unmistakable because of its size and because a full-frontal view gave me an excellent view of its chocolate-brown breast. On on this specimen, it almost resembled a dark band, offset as it was so brilliantly by a white chin and white belly.

The dark phase rough legged is also hanging around the Lac des Loups road. My 12-year-old nephew Trevor Schell was thrilled to see it four times in one day, particularly when one time it swooped spectacularly up and out of the ditch alongside our car, to beat its way to its perch atop its tree in the field. Nothing like seeing something like this to turn a youngster onto birding!

I’m still exploring why dark and light phases — or “morphs” — of birds exist. A writer colleague in New York State, who is also viewing rough-legged hawks at this time of the year in her area, wrote saying that the phases are genetically determined. According to her, nests of these hawks reveal baby birds that are either light or dark phase.

I’m going to pursue this more. Certainly the Field Guide sheds no light on this topic. Moreover, it confuses the issue, as the light phase rough-legged is labelled also as the immature bird… which would tend to go against what my friend suggests. Intriguing..

Other news: Asteroid

Did you hear the CBC morning news on Tuesday January 8? If so, you might of heard how an asteroid “just missed” Earth, according to astronomers and the way they measure distance in space. Apparently it sped past us on Monday morning, January 7, two times the distance of the Earth from the Moon. If it had hit Earth, it could have “vapourized the core of Toronto while knocking people in Vancouver off their feet” so we were advised.

Pontiac’s expanding universe

Closer to home, the morning news on January 8 also announced that Ottawa Mayor Bob Chiarelli has invited a representative from the new City of Gatineau to sit on his high-powered economic development committee. This is a notable first, demonstrating a new era of cooperation between Ottawa and the Outaouais. Such cooperation was promised by Chiarelli and Gatineau’s new Mayor Yves Ducharmes, but Chiarelli’s follow-up announcement is a most welcome follow-through of the politicians’ verbal promise. The National Capital Region — of which the Municipality of Pontiac is a part — needs such planned vision from both sides of the river.

Although the Gatineau observer will not be able to vote, he or she will be privy to how Ottawa planners intend to develop their city.

And this is important to us here in Pontiac. Why? The projected population increase in Ottawa in the next 19 years is 400,000 and in Gatineau, 100,000. That means half a million new residents. You can bet that the resulting pressure upon existing infrastructure including roads, housing, shopping, and bridges spanning the Ottawa River will affect us.

What do we want our Pontiac to become in the next twenty years? Do we want to preserve our agricultural and natural resource base? If so, how? Do we care about the natural beauty we now can take for granted? How will such population pressures impact Gatineau Park? In the context of the twenty-year projected growth, how should we plan for recreational trails such as the still-contentious rail-to-trail issue on the old railway line?

We cannot control asteroids: but we can plan for our future economic development. Let’s stay tuned: after all, the City of Ottawa western boundary lies just across the river from Quyon. Close? I’ll say.


Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer who telecommutes from her farm north of Quyon, in the Outaouais region of Québec. Contact her at fletcher.katharine@gmail.com