Unprecedented sightings of spring migrants

“There are several redwing blackbirds near Eardley.” Well-known Ottawa-based birder Tony Beck left this message on my answering machine on Monday, February 25. He was obviously excited, adding, “It’s late February! This is an unprecedented sighting!”

This wasn’t the only spring migrant he and his group of Ottawa-area birders discovered that day.

“A Northern Harrier flew over our car near Eardley. This bird definitely didn’t overwinter here. It probably came up from Amhurst Island or somewhere else in the States.”

Tony and I had spent five hours together on Sunday, driving the backroads of the Pontiac along with another nature writer, Moira Farr. We were an intently focussed group hunting for birds.

That day, we turned south of Highway 148 onto Cochrane Road, continuing its long crescent circuit to Royal Road, where we spotted the hawk owl that I noted in this column two weeks ago. I had followed Mario Gervais’ directions (as printed in a previous column) the day before, on Saturday, and in that day’s brilliant sunshine I was rewarded with a spectacular, up-close view of this northern bird.

If you want to add this owl to your life list of birds, or simply thrill to the sight of this beautiful owl, take the time to drive just east of Quyon. If you’re lucky, you will spot it. Its silhouette resembles that of a hawk, as it typically perches at the crown of a tree, as do raptors like the rough-legged hawk.

Of course, there’s no guarantee you will see this or any other bird “on demand”: although I saw it on my own on Saturday, and then again while with Tony and Moira on Sunday, it was not there on Monday, when Tony was guiding his group of bird watchers around our region. This is all part and parcel of “the hunt,” for nature sometimes obliges, sometimes does not.

“This bird nests in the northern black spruce forest,” Tony said. “Hawk owls do come here occasionally. Sometimes there are eruptions of them.”

“Eruptions?,” I asked him. “What are they?”

“This means a sudden surge of a particular species in a region.” But what, I asked, would be an eruption of hawk owls. Surely, I thought, these birds are solitary individuals that do not flock. How would an “eruption” of hawk owls manifest itself?

“You’re right,” Tony clarified. “You wouldn’t see a flock of these birds. Last year (2001) I saw a huge eruption of hawk owls… but that was seven individuals that I saw between North Bay and Lake Superior. These birds are usually very solitary and, as is typical in hawks, the female is larger.”

That same day, we spotted three horned larks on the Steele Line. Birds of Canada describes the horns of these birds: “The male has a black band across the front of the crown, which extends backward narrowly to join a pair of slender black “horns” (erectile feathers).”

Otherwise, the birds have intriguing black markings: a black cheek patch curves downward from the quite sharp beak, under which there is a faint hint of primrose yellow. Beneath this “chin-patch” of yellow is a bold black band resembling a necklace at the top of the breast, extending to the “shoulder” or top of the wing. The breast is white, the back of the horned lark is a pretty light brown. Look for these late winter migrants at this time of the year.

I have spotted horned larks along the Wolf Lake Road just beyond Onslow Corners, in the stubble cornfields behind Armitage’s farm, along the Luskville flats, and now on the Steele Line near my home.

On our Sunday bird hunt, we stopped several times to admire flocks of snow buntings, which will soon be flying north to their summer breeding grounds in the Arctic tundra.

But Moira and Tony saw one bird as they drove to my home, that the three of us later searched for again, in vain. At the junction of Wilson Road and Steele Line, they spotted a young golden eagle. Again, these are relatively common here, but not as frequently sighted as their cousins the bald eagle. A few years ago, Tony spotted six bald eagles together, near Eardley. This, he told me, was another unprecedented sighting for our region of Canada.

Another bird they saw after dropping me off, was the northern shrike. This bird, known as the “butcher bird” because of its habit of hanging its prey (shrews, voles, mice) on a thorn of a hawthorne tree, is rare here due to habitat destruction.

A bird that eluded us on Sunday, but which I had seen on Friday was the barred owl.

That day, my neighbour Clem Foran called to say that if I wanted to see an owl sitting on his bird feeder, that I should come by. So I did, and was thrilled to identify a barred owl, calmly seated on a puff of snow atop a bird feeder. Both Clem and Joan Foran have enjoyed observing this individual for days. I was astonished that the chickadees, siskins, common and one hoary redpoll, hairy and downy woodpeckers and red-breasted nuthatches were flitting about it.

Wouldn’t they be “light tasty snacks,” I asked Tony?

“It’s unlikely an owl would be fast enough to get a bird. They normally eat rodents like mice and voles.”

But on Monday, Tony “ate” his words! While guiding his group, he visited the Foran’s feeder. Not only did he locate the barred owl, but discovered it perched in a tree, with some tell-tale feathers beneath it. “It looked as if it did catch a bird, there were plucked down feathers beneath where it was sitting.” Meanwhile, Joan Foran had called saying that she and Clem had observed it catch a mouse, right in front of their eyes.

It is really quite something to see a barred owl so close to a house. If you are in the vicinity of Steele Line and Lac des Loups, you might just be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of it. Although not unusual in our region, it is exciting to see one.

I thought these birds were diurnal, because I have seen barred owls only during the day. My first sighting was while researching my book on Gatineau Park: I was hiking behind Lusk Lake when all of a sudden I heard what resembled hounds baying. The source of this cacophony in the middle of the woods turned out to be two barred owls: a male and female. Tony was astonished to hear this story, saying it was most unusual to hear them so active in the day. He tells me that these birds are nocturnal: so it is very interesting that this barred owl is so active at the Foran’s home, during daylight.

Tony mentioned that the redpolls at this feeder appeared fluffed out and weak, and that he is sure that they are suffering from the salmonella poisoning. One common redpoll at my feeder was obviously in trouble, too, flitting about on the ground close to my feet. I thought the cat would surely get it, but I watched as it flew off.

Please do clean your feeders, everyone. Birds catch salmonella poisoning from one another’s feces. Last week, I stressed the importance of feeding natural foods to birds, not our well-intentioned but potentially harmful human food. But the salmonella virus itself is not in the food, but in the feces, which means it’s important to keep our feeders clean.

Keep your bird reports flying in: all are welcome and I’m particularly interested in hearing about the spring migrants. This morning (Tuesday February 26) there are redwing blackbirds at our farm — the earliest sighting since we arrived in 1989!


Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer who telecommutes from her electronic cottage north of Quyon.