Is there any harder time of the year for a northeastern naturalist than February? Even the slow-down of November is better. February is tough. By February, I’ve mostly exhausted the easy winter subjects and have to hope for encounters of wildlife or other unexpected occurrences to keep my interest up. By February, I’m getting really tired of the cold and the snow and the paucity of living things. I do like winter; I don’t think I could move to someplace like Florida where snow is virtually unheard of. I’d like to have a little bit of snow to enjoy. I could just use about a month less of it than what we get here in eastern Ontario, I think. But I love this landscape during the other 11 months too well to want to move simply for the sake of a shorter winter.
My posts have been slogging a little bit the last couple of weeks because of this winter wall, but for the first time since Christmas I actually have a backlog of topics right now. It’s gotta be a sign that spring’s just around the corner. And in fact, it will probably be only three weeks until the first moth of spring appears at our porch lights. The migrant birds will start returning around then, too. Three weeks; it’ll be here before I know it.
As perhaps a herald of warmer days to come, I was treated to my first “migrant” bird on the weekend. I was walking Raven down the road (the afternoon temperatures being above freezing and the snow therefore wet, such that snowshoes wouldn’t work well) when we flushed up this American Robin from the shoulder of the road. There, the snowplow had exposed the frozen grass and mud and the mild, sunny afternoon was working to melt away what thin layer was left. The ground would still be mostly frozen so he wasn’t hunting for earthworms, but it’s possible that some other invertebrates such as spiders might have been crawling about in the relative warmth. He wouldn’t let me get close enough for much of a photo, and naturally I’d only brought my short lens. But you can tell it’s a robin. Can even tell it’s a male robin.
We tend to think of robins as migrants, but not all of them head south, and those that do may not end up going far. It could be that this bird has been hanging around the area and I just haven’t run into him, or he might have moved just into town or someplace where foraging was a little easier. I doubt he came from very far, in any case. The true migrant robins probably won’t return till March at the earliest, as well. The cluck of the robin is such a warm-weather sound to me, it seemed out of place while there was still a foot or more of snow on the ground.
That same afternoon, on the way back up the road, Raven and I popped into the 100-acre woods briefly. I didn’t go far, but we followed the trail in a couple hundred meters. One of our neighbours uses the trails on the property for snowmobiling, and the heavy machine had packed down the snow sufficiently that I was able to walk on it even without my snowshoes. I’d paused near one of my favourite groves of hemlocks to let Raven bound around off trail when I heard a muffled squawk and some heavy tapping coming from the forest. Finally, after a bit of scanning, I located this Pileated Woodpecker several dozen meters away. He was working away on a dead snag, and continued there for a few minutes while I watched. It’s been at least a couple of months since I’ve seen one of these big beauties, so I was delighted by the sighting. Even if both my binoculars and long lens were at the house.
And finally, as if those two encounters weren’t treat enough, two days later I was walking back up the driveway with Raven when we flushed this Barred Owl from the pines that buffer our house from the road. At this time of year owls are starting to mate. I’ve heard a Barred Owl calling at night on a couple of occasions when putting Raven out at night, before bedtime; late winter they seem to be the most vocal. They also seem to be more active during the daytime. When I visited my parents a couple of weekends ago there were two separate Barred Owls perched on the roadside wires, scanning for rodents (naturally I hadn’t bothered to take my camera, not expecting to use it). This one perched in the tree a dozen meters away at most, looking very unperturbed. I took a few photos with my short lens and watched it for a couple of minutes, then decided to try going back to the house for my long lens. Unfortunately, in the four minutes I was gone the bird moved on.
At this time of year, so many great bird sightings practically back-to-back was exactly what I needed.