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A long cold winter finally recedes on April 1-2 weekend in Gatineau

April 3, 2017

This winter was up and down and all over the place with copious snow falls, several pulses of milder air, the occasional rain and one or two extended periods of extreme cold.   The net effect on the landscape in our region is that the river was frozen and the land covered with snow – whereas areas a mere 75 km away fields were bare.   The birds get this – so the usual earliest migrants associated with open water – Ring-billed Gulls and Canada Geese, really only showed up in numbers after March 25th.  The classic “winter” finches have been absent- only American Goldfinch has been regular this winter and House Finch showed up in the last two weeks!  Until today, April 2, I had only recorded 25 species from the apartment and balcony for the year.   Balcony birding has really been too cold anyway and all of my records were from inside.

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I started this morning (April 2) with a ski on perfect conditions in Gatineau Park.  Minus 3 when I started at 8:30, Plus 3 when I finished at 9:30!

Today the temperature soared to 10 degrees C, so I was out there for a few hours on the balcony when I returned from cross country skiing, and almost matched my year total of 25 species in a few hours of birding.  Twenty three species, including five new ones – the first blackbirds – Common Grackle and Red-winged Blackbird, a Turkey Vulture, a Cooper’s Hawk and the morning started with a serenading Song Sparrow.   Some of these species have been in the city in other areas for the last week or more but have been avoiding my place, at least when I have been at home paying attention!

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Our beautiful Goldie just didn’t want to change out of his handsome suite

Despite the relative slow start to the year (not unlike last year which eventually took off, shattering my previous species totals), birding from the balcony has not been without highlights.  Take “Goldie” for example. From November until the end of February, a brilliant golden and black male American Goldfinch periodically visited our feeders.   Not moulting into its drab fall plumage, this bird has been a stunner throughout the winter.   I put this strange phenomenon out to my ornithologist friends to seek an explanation of how or why this would happen and if there are known examples of a species that goes through two distinct moult cycles a year skipping one of them.  No one I spoke with heard of this or had an answer.  Now, after the end of February, we stopped seeing Goldie – there had been periods of a couple weeks when this had happened earlier, so we did not know if the bird had perished or moved on, or perhaps moulted.  In March, particularly towards the end of the month, we started seeing a few males with bright feather patches and one with an almost entire black cap and considerable gold – though not in the immaculate plumage of our Goldie.

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Elementary forensic evidence – victim male House Sparrow

The second highlight was a bit of a repeat from last year with a slightly changed cast of characters – at least the predator.   Last year I witnessed a Cooper’s Hawk hunting birds near our place.  It was successful in capturing a male House Sparrow.   This year it was a Sharp-shinned Hawk that captured a male House Sparrow.  It prepared and ate the sparrow on the snow in the neighbour’s yard behind a cedar hedge.   I could sort of watch it pluck feathers from its victim over many minutes (though I was unable to identify the victim), then slowing consume it by tearing shreds of meat off the bird.  Like last year, I was fascinated by the amount of time the hawk took to eat – probably an hour.  Lots to learn from these hawks about not eating too fast.  Afterwards I visited the crime scene and found many body feathers from a male House Sparrow – likely showing off, unaware of the danger lurking on the other side of the hedge and paying a dear price for its vanity.

So my ears are cocked each night as I anticipate the next warm southerly breeze and the new visitors it might bring.

T.

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