Winter birding in Haldimand County

Story and photos by Shelia Smith

The moon was sailing in and out of clouds and the
wind was howling when I woke on January 20th. It
was not a promising looking day to go on a hike to
find birds but I’d signed up to go with the Norfolk
Field Naturalists to see what we could find. “Well,”
I thought, “we probably won’t see much but it will
be an adventure.”

So I joined the hike leaders, Audrey Heagey
and David Okines along with about 20 members
and friends of NFN on the Port Dover pier. We
exchanged greetings and introductions. A lady, two
boys and a dog were feeding the ducks and gulls
at the pier. This gave some of the beginning birders
in our group a chance to see some common birds
up close. Among the Mallards and American Black
Ducks and the gulls was one special duck: a male
Hooded Merganser. Mergansers have thin beaks
equipped for grabbing and holding fish, so this bird
was not interested in fast food. But there is a
certain safety in numbers, even if they are not of
your kind.

We left the pier and moved on to Silver Lake, or
what’s left of it, where Dave set up his scope to
give everyone a closer view of some new birds.
Both Dave and Audrey did an excellent job at
helping people learn about some birds. Dave found
a Great Blue Heron skulking in some reeds. The
stop was brief as the wind never stopped.

We moved on, following the lakeshore east,
identifying several kinds of waterfowl and gulls.
There were Tundra Swans, which surprised many,
but in fact, earlier in the week there were probably
more than a thousand in the inner bay at Long
Point. They have stayed over winter in years of
open water, as have Scaup and Redhead ducks,
which Dave explained enjoy a good meal of zebra

Small birds are always harder to find on a
windy day but someone spotted a speck of blue in
a sumac grove. Closer inspection turned up at least
five Eastern Bluebirds. There were also House
Sparrows and a few others braving the elements. I
think it was where our convoy stopped to see the
Bluebirds that I dropped a glove. It now has joined
the company of all the stray articles of clothing we
see on occasion along the roads…a lone shoe, a
cap, a sock. Truly gone-with-the-wind. Audrey
kindly gave me a pocket hand warmer.

We admired Bald Eagles, a Rough-legged
Hawk tipping back and forth, teetering low over a
field in the wind. One Red-tailed Hawk simply sat,
temporarily grounded. The sky got brighter although
wind and clouds continued to dance.

Later in the afternoon, willow twigs turned
golden in the sun. Osier clumps in ditches glowed
red and maroon. The colours of farm buildings
were intensified. Looking out over the lake, we
could see distant streamers of snow, which don’t
reach the surface, called virga. Waterfowl and gulls
mostly sat tight on, or near, the lake. And one flock
of gulls produced the best find of the day which
Dave was able to show everyone. It was a Glaucous
Gull, large, pale, lacking black wing tips. An Arctic
species, they seldom get this far south.

We deserved, needed, a pit stop in Selkirk
where it took us a little while to warm up with hot
drinks. And then, still in a convoy, we followed
Audrey and Dave into an area of Haldimand known
for its wintering flocks of Short-eared Owls.

As the sun dropped, we stopped
where shoulder-to-shoulder cedar trees along a
fence line protected the fields from the wind.
Audrey and Dave came down the line of cars to
explain that the most recent owl sightings had
been in this cedar hedge. At sunset, if we were
lucky, they would fly out and start to hunt. But, it
was a waiting game and there were no guarantees.
So we waited. And waited. The wind still
howled. If there were any owls they were wiser
than we were and stayed put in the dense cedars.
Finally, we gave up.

Disappointed? Only a little. It was, after all,
a winter adventure in good company.