Winter Bird Watching

This is a special winter for bird watching in the hills.

January 12, 2021 | | Notes from the Wild

For the first winter in years, a full complement of northern birds has arrived in southern Ontario to feed on our mice, seeds and berries. These exciting birds that breed in Canada’s boreal forest and in the Arctic, include redpolls, snow buntings and rough-legged hawks.

The farmland and old fields of the Headwaters region offer the winter habitat that these three species need.

Redpoll feeding on aster seeds. Photo by Yves Scholten.

Redpoll feeding on aster seeds. Photo by Yves Scholten.


Snow buntings, Amaranth, Dufferin County. Photo by Don Scallen.

Snow buntings, Amaranth, Dufferin County. Photo by Don Scallen.

Redpolls, like snow buntings, travel in flocks. They are alert and jumpy, rarely staying in one place for long as they forage for weed seeds and swallow grit by roadside. They’ll also sometimes assemble in trees, briefly ornamenting them in white and red.

Snow buntings, hardy songbirds that breed on the tundra, overwinter in similar looking landscape here in the south. Their tightly packed flocks ebb and flow like an aerial ballet choreographed by a collective intelligence.

When the winter sun illuminates their white breasts and underwings as they fly, the effect is glorious.

Rough-legged hawks, like redpolls and snow buntings, also favour open country and have arrived in strength from the far north this winter.

These dapper raptors feed primarily on small rodents and often hover as they look for them. This behaviour offers a clue to their identity, but red-tailed hawks, common year-round residents, will sometimes hover too.

So best to fix your binoculars on these large hawks to clinch their identity. You won’t be disappointed. Rough-legged hawks are sharply delineated in black and white.  Some are whiter, others blacker. All of them are beautiful.

Rough-legged hawk, Luther Marsh. Photo by Yves Scholten.

Rough-legged hawk, Luther Marsh. Photo by Yves Scholten.

Rough-legged hawk, Wellington County. Photo by Yves Scholten.

Rough-legged hawk, Wellington County. Photo by Yves Scholten.

If you are inspired to see these birds, take a slow ride along rural roads that pass through agricultural land. A partner – someone from your Covid-19 bubble – for company and to help you look is recommended. This is a special winter for birds. It’s time to rise from the sofa and seek them out.

About the Author More by Don Scallen

Don Scallen enjoys sharing his love of nature through his writing and presentations. Check out his blog "Notes from the Wild".

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