Just as winter drives many of the city’s winged inhabitants south, it also brings in some hardy northerners. Of these cold-season visitors, the Dark-eyed juncos are the most familiar. They fly in on early autumn cold fronts from remote spruce-birch forest clearings. These slate-gray, white-bellied and pale-beaked birds form flocks of 10-30 ground-foraging groups. Like juncos, Tree sparrows also forage for seeds that rain down from tall, dead stalks of grass and wildflowers. Sporting a black spot in the centre of a plain gray breast, the streaky brown, rust-capped sparrows are off-season visitors from the northern treeline. Both juncos and sparrows love millet from birdfeeders.
Snow Buntings have the same criteria for sticking around in winter. These white-breasted Arctic voyagers nest farther north than any other land bird – on Ellesmere Island and Greenland – before coming south to spend the winter in open, snowy fields. Large, skitty Snow Bunting flocks swirl up en masse on wings displaying large white patches. They dig into the snow on cold nights for a warm, insulated sleep.
Migrant waves of Golden-crowned kinglets, Horned Larks, Brown Creepers, and Red-breasted nuthatches also all leave small contingents behind to winter in southern Ontario. Flocks of rambling, seed-eating finches come here for the winter when food becomes scarce in the north, joined by Evening Grosbeaks, the most popular of northern finches. Wandering Pine Siskins and Purple Finches sometimes join them at feeders, preferring thistle seeds, like the Common Redpolls. The latter are sparrow-like birds with a bright red cap and a reputation for surviving colder temperatures than any other songbird. In addition to frequenting the feeders, these tiny scrub- and tundra-nesters happily pick away at cones in birch trees and cedar hedges.
Smaller numbers of Great Gray and Northern Hawk Owls fly in from northern boreal forests. Other birds of prey, such as Goshawks and Great Horned Owls, can also become more common in winter when food sources diminish farther north. Cooper’s hawks and Sharp-shinned hawks are staking out neighbourhood birdfeeders during the cold months to snatch up unsuspecting birds.
Cities on large lakes and rivers that remain unfrozen are further graced with tens of thousands of overwintering northern-nesting diving ducks. There are up to 282,000 waterfowl of up to 36 species that hang around the shores of Lake Ontario.
Good news for the survival of a prairie bird
It is not often that environmental victories happen. When they do, they are thus even more appreciated.
One case to celebrate is the fact that Canada’s iconic prairie-dwelling bird, the Greater Sage Grouse, received an emergency protection order from the federal government – the first time ever that the Canadian government has issued an emergency order to protect an endangered species.
The bird is on the brink of extinction in Canada, due to habitat destruction and other pressures that have brought the species to its knees. The bird’s population has plummeted by 98% since 1988. Experts estimate that the total Sage Grouse population in Canada is down to just 100 birds.
It is hoped that the emergency order will stop harmful new oil and gas developments in sensitive areas of Sage Grouse habitat. The order applies to approximately 1,700 km² of land in Alberta and Saskatchewan, but a larger area eventually needs protection to guarantee survival of the Sage Grouse in the prairies. That requires cooperation between the federal and provincial governments.
Still, it is a laudable achievement so far. Nature conservation organizations across Canada are celebrating the rare victory. Let’s hope there will be more to follow.
Nature happenings in this quarter
White-tailed deer normally breed in November, but a rare few occasionally hold out until early January.
By mid-January, Roseate terns have left their early wintering grounds.
In late January, the mating season for beavers hits its peak. When the kits are born in May or June, female beavers drive the males from the lodge.
In early February, some of the Snowy Owls that winter in southern Canada are gathering in small groups to prepare for their return migration to Arctic breeding grounds.
Among the first birds to return to their breeding range in most of Canada are the Red-winged blackbirds. The males arrive first, in mid-February, to stake out a territory. Then the females follow about three weeks later.
In late February, last year’s lynx kits are leaving their mothers as the adult females prepare for their next breeding session.
February 2 is World Wetlands Day, and March 22 is World Waters Day.
Let me end with another quote, this time from Gary Snyder: “Nature is not a place to visit; it is home.” Have a happy time in your home this year. S.G.
Sources: Canadian Wildlife Federation, Nature Canada, Wild City (Bennett & Tiner), field notes.