Today was Family Day here in Ontario, a newly-created holiday courtesy of our provincial premiere, who believed that the unbroken stretch between New Year’s Day and Easter was just too long for an employee to reasonably have to suffer through. This was the first year the new holiday has been in effect, and there’s still some kinks to be ironed out. Federal employees such as postal workers and some unionized groups were on the job today because the holiday hasn’t been negotiated into their contracts.
Blackburnian had the day off today, however, and I’m basically self-employed at the moment and take whatever days I want off, so we decided this afternoon to take advantage of the mild temperatures and head out to the Rouge Valley, out in the east near the Toronto Zoo. Back when I was in university I had a job for a couple summers inventorying the birds of the Rouge Park. It was very informal, I basically spent the summer hiking around as I pleased, trying to cover everywhere but not following any sort of rigorous protocol. It was a fabulous job, and I have a very fond spot for the Rouge because of my time spent there getting to know it and its birds. Despite this, I’ve rarely been back since then, and I’d never been there in winter.
The top photo is an image of the valley, taken from the top of a high bluff overlooking the Rouge River. Blackburnian’s standing at the top of the cliff, to give you a sense of scale. This isn’t a little bluff that you’re going to shimmy down to the water. The Rouge Valley contains two primary rivers, the Rouge and the Little Rouge, which joins it. This is the Little Rouge. Doesn’t look so little here, but the Rouge is a bit wider and deeper. Most of the river is upland forest, but there’s the odd patch of wetland here and there.
The Rouge is a gorgeous, mature woodland through most of the Park’s valleys, and it can be easy to lose yourself among the extensive habitat. However, reminders of the city next door are hard to ignore. On the horizon are apartment buildings and rooftops. The trails run 1.6 km along either side of the river, between two roads. Road noise from the city carries the short distance into the park. People come out here to walk their dogs, and many of the dog owners don’t pick up after their pets.
But the scenery is beautiful. The trails cover a number of different habitats, starting in scrubby meadow at the edge of the woods, passing through a powerline corridor, and then entering into mature upland forest. It’s a mixed deciduous-coniferous forest, with the evergreen component mostly hemlock. The trees here are no western Red Cedars, but put in perspective are pretty impressive themselves.
We didn’t see many birds. Of course, winter birding is like that, very hit-or-miss and sparse even when there’s hits. This guy was the indisputable highlight of the outing. A Hermit Thrush, very out of place in the Toronto snow. Seeing a Hermit in the Toronto area isn’t unusual, per se, but it’s certainly very uncommon. This is the first one I’ve seen around here in the winter. Virtually all Hermits leave the province for the winter, though they don’t go far and may winter in the northeastern states.
This guy had found himself a stash of Black Cherry berries. I didn’t even notice the cherries until I saw him pop one. I watched him eat three or four before a movement I made, possibly shifting my weight or adjusting the camera, startled him and he flew off to a nearby hemlock.
Frozen berries such as these are a large component in many overwintering birds’ diets. Two species of northern birds (Pine Grosbeak and Bohemian Waxwing) will feed pretty much exclusively on frozen berries such as crabapple, chokecherry, buckthorn, hawthorn, etc. There seemed to be a fair bit of Black Cherry in the forest, which should give the Hermit Thrush lots to eat.
The first group of birds we came across were these robins, perhaps 20 of them. Nearly all robins leave the Toronto area in the winter, too, although in recent years increasingly more will stick around through the winter and feed on frozen berries in the woods as well as urban gardens. Another great reason to plant berry-bearing bushes!
We found a few groups of chickadees foraging in cedar stands along the floodplain of the river. Blackburnian pished at all of them, but these were the only group to respond strongly. They were seriously pished off! You can even see the right one yelling, “dee-dee-dee-dee-dee!” Chickadees drop the “chick-a” from their call when they’re responding to perceived threats or dangers. Some research has suggested the number of “dee”s is correlated with the seriousness of the threat, with more meaning a greater danger.
This Red-breasted Nuthatch pished in with one of the flocks of chickadees. It was the fourth and final species of the outing. I was thinking as we were leaving that it wasn’t a great diversity or abundance of birds, and would’ve made for a very lacklustre Christmas Bird Count. I loved the haziness of the periphery of this image created by peeking through a gap in the foliage.
We walked nearly 4 km on very uneven, slippery trails (not groomed trails, so they were simply packed down by many feet, and every step you were trying not to slide). It’s the furthest I’ve walked since the fall, I’m pretty sure, and the addition of the trail condition means we’ll probably be feeling achey legs tomorrow! Ah, but it was good to get out.