What are your favourite winter activities? In Northeastern Ontario, many people will typically name frosty pleasures like skiing, snow-shoeing, snowmobiling and ice fishing. For some reason, few ever mention winter bird watching. That’s a shame because winter is an especially good time of the year to see some of the most amazing and beautiful feathered creatures on the planet! Nature even throws in a few bonus perks to make up for the chilly temperatures.
Even before the snow falls, wild creatures become easier to spot against a forest landscape because the leaves of many trees and shrubs have fallen away. Once the thermometer dips below zero, silence also descends in the wilderness. Experienced bird watchers learn to use their ears as much as their eyes. The sound of a woodpecker drumming on a hollow stump, or of a spruce grouse feeding in the upper branches of a coniferous tree can carry for hundreds of metres in a silent winter forest.
More than 60 species of birds call the Ontario winter wilderness home. They range from mighty eagles to tiny songbirds. Each has found their own unique way to cope with the season’s scarcity of food and constant low temperatures.
Meet Canada’s Bird, the Gray jay
During the warmer months, gray jays store tens of thousands of bugs, bits of carrion, fruits and seeds around their territory. This decentralized food cache not only gets them through the worst days of winter, it also allows them to get a jump on the nesting season by enabling them to hatch their offspring in March and April while snow is still on the ground. They have been known to lay eggs in minus 30-degree temperatures.
Like their close relatives, ravens, crows and blue jays, gray jay’s live in multi-generational clans. The feeding of the young is often assisted by at least one juvenile bird from an earlier nesting season. This extra set of eyes and wings give gray jays yet one more advantage over rival species.
Gray jays are also known as Whisky Jacks. The latter name is an adaptation of the indigenous Algonquin word, wisakedjak, which meant trickster. Gray jays have been known to steal food off a camper’s plate or even out of a frying pan set over a camp stove. For this reason, the gray jay is also known as the Camp Robber. In recognition of its intelligence and ability to survive in extreme winter conditions the gray jay was recently named Canada’s national bird by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.
The Regal Snowy Owl
The snowy owl is a true snowbird because North America’s boreal forest is a snowy’s idea of Florida. All snowy owls are arctic-born. They begin life in a ground nest on the Canadian tundra during the endless sunlight of the Arctic summer.
When they are old enough to leave the nest, they fly south to hunt and mature. Because they were born and raised in 24-hour sunlight, snowy owls have adapted to day hunting unlike most of their nocturnal cousins like the barred and great horned owl. Snowy owls have developed extraordinary senses of vision and hearing that enables them to detect and catch small mammals like mice and lemmings even if they are hidden under several centimetres of snow.
The Humble, but Friendly Chickadee
For me, the true ambassador of the winter woods is the humble black-capped chickadee. There are more impressive looking birds in the northern woods like the wild turkey or the pileated woodpecker. There are also flashier birds like the purple finch or the pine grosbeak. But no other species can compete with the humble little chickadee for sheer personality. You do not have to go looking for chickadees, they will find you!
Walk along any trail in the Ontario wilderness and you will soon encounter the cheeky little fluffballs who will flit from branch to branch just metres in in front of you, greeting you with their distinctive song “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee!” They are the one species of wild bird that actually seems to seek out and enjoy human company. Their cheerful presence, in even the most adverse weather, is a perfect boost for the spirit.
A Bird Watcher’s Paradise
With its abundance of woodland trails, Northeastern Ontario is one big bird watching paradise, but some spots are better than others.
For a wild winter bird watching emersion experience, visit the Canadian Ecology Centre just off of Highway 17, near Mattawa. Book in advance to arrange overnight accommodation and take advantage of their many nature programs and events scheduled throughout the year. Day trips are free – just drive in through the front gate and pick a nature trail to hike, ski or snowshoe.
If you’re hoping to see a bald eagle, the CEC is one of your better than average bets – as long as wolves don’t make you nervous. Wolves are the natural predator of deer and the carcasses they leave behind in the park become magnets for bald eagles, ravens, and other scavenger feeders. Carry on, carrion birdwatchers!
If you’re planning a trip to North Bay, there is a bird sanctuary called Laurier Woods Conservation Area. More than 10 kilometers of trails wind around the 240 acres of wetlands and forest. As you walk these trails it is hard to believe you are within city limits. Click here for directions and a trail map.
Common Northeastern Ontario Residents
Song Birds – Common Redpoll, Bohemian Waxwing, Dark-Eyed Junco, Black- capped Chickadee, Boreal Chickadee, Purple Finch, Northern Cardinal, Pine Grosbeak, Evening Grosbeak, Pine Siskin, White-breasted Nuthatch, Red-breasted Nuthatch, White-winged Crossbill, Red Crossbill, Snow Bunting, American Goldfinch, Brown Creeper, European Starling, Northern Shrike.
Woodpeckers – Downy, Hairy, Three-toed, Black-backed, Pileated
Game Birds – Wild Turkey, Spruce Grouse, Ruffed Grouse, Mourning Dove, and the occasional Ring-Necked Pheasant that has escaped from a local barnyard.
Corvids – Blue Jay, Gray Jay, Common Raven, American Crow
Owls – Snowy, Great-horned, Barred, Great Gray, Saw-whet, Boreal, Northern Hawk
Raptors – Bald Eagles, Northern Goshawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk and Merlin Hawk