Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Winter Survivors

Waterloo County, ON
16 February 2015

     Overnight we set a record for the coldest temperature ever recorded in our area. The mercury dipped to minus 34°C -  and that is air temperature without any effect of wind chill.  By the time I went for my walk along the Benjamin Park Trail mid afternoon it was a sunny minus 16, and that's about as high as it got. We are enveloped in a stationary system of frigid arctic air and no amelioration is predicted for a few days yet.
     It is quite incredible that birds survive these conditions, but they do so, and by first light they will start to visit my feeders to replenish the reserves of fat consumed during the hours of darkness just to maintain their core temperature. Many of these species, such as this Dark-eyed Junco Junco hyemalis, are little more than tiny little bundles of feathers.

     And therein lies the secret, of course. Their insulating plumage is such a model of efficiency that they are able to totally trap the warm air from their bodies without having it escape.
     In most years both local species of nuthatch visit my feeders regularly, but this year other than for one visit of a Red-breasted Nuthatch Sitta canadensis only the White-breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinensis has been a regular.

     This bird is very adept at extracting a peanut in almost no time at all. Sometimes it is eaten right away but most often the bird flies off with it and we follow it to a tree where it can be seen hammering its prize under the bark or  into a suitable cavity.

     Black-capped Chickadees Poecile atricapillus are one of our most abundant species and their cheerful chickadee-dee-dee call on a cold winter's day is a welcome addition to the crisp and snowy landscape. Now I am already hearing their fee-bee mating repertoire as they start to pair off.

      As I walked along the trail a Hairy Woodpecker Picoides villosus was busily probing the surface of the trees to find whatever source of protein and fat was there.

      American Tree Sparrows Spizella arborea breed much farther north and spend the winter at this latitude.

     Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis  is a relative newcomer to Ontario, having first been recorded in 1910. It has slowly expanded its range northwards and now seems well-equipped to handle whatever winter brings. A friend of mine told me that he heard the first male singing the other day, so we know that spring is not far behind.

     Obviously it is not only passerines that endure the cold winters here and this Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis was perched stoically in a tree, sitting out the frigid conditions.

     Despite its challenges winter brings a charm all of its own and beauty is all around for those who care to get out and look.

     Much as we all might prefer a constant temperature of around 20° life is just not like that. I can tell you that I have experienced 40 below and 45 above and I know which I prefer, if I have to endure either one. No matter how cold, one can always layer up and stay warm. In oppressive heat one simply cannot escape it and there is no recourse but to head indoors. It's going to be cold again today, but I will be outside regardless. Want to join me for a walk in the snow? And by the way, a few birds will be sure to come along with us. They might even sing to you.


  1. Nice variety of birds and photos.. I love the cute Woodpecker.. Have a happy day!

  2. That's the coldest temp I've heard of. But it's so nice to hear those spring bird calls. I like those last two photos of drifts.

  3. Hello David. I don't join you for a walk, but look forward to the pictures of you and all those bloggies walking in that beautiful winter wonderland.
    The todays weather forecast promises more arctic wind so winter isn't over yet!
    You'll have to keep the fire burning!
    By the way.....nice pictures!! Gr Jan W

  4. Now that is really, really cold David.Your right of course about birds' ability to survive the conditions and it is truly amazing how tiny birds survive through a long night outdoors at 34°C -.

    By the way, I must thank you for your advice on introducing my lively granddaughters Olivia aged 8 and Isabella aged 3, to the joys of bird watching. I intend to follow your advice as soon as possible.

    In the meantime, and in the interests of friendship and understanding between our two nations, I have promised them a two week stay in Ontario, Canada with Uncle David and Aunty Miriam. Naturally I will provide a course of Vallium for you both plus 28 bottles of red wine for any evenings you manage to get them to bed and then find time to relax.

    I am positive you will both find the experience rewarding and enriching. Good Luck.

    1. Your dedication to your family is truly commendable. Please send the consignment of wine ahead of the arrival of the girls. We want to be sure that the vintage is suitable to our discerning palates. As for taking care of them, we are up for the task!

  5. This is what we miss the last years, snow. As a child I remember that we used to go skating on frosen ponds. My father used to make sculptures of snow. I do still have a picture of me standing between the legs of a snow horse he made.
    It is indeed a miracle that the bird know how to survive these tempatures. Love the capture of the Red-tailed Hawk and the Northern Cardinal so outstanding in the snowy landscape with his red coulars.

  6. Hello David.
    It is very cold in your country.
    Here in the Netherlands almost no winter, today + 7 degrees.
    Beautiful scenery with the snow.
    Beautiful series of images of the birds.
    Photo 2, 3 and 7 are my favorite.
    Best regards, Irma

  7. It is quite amazing how these birds survive. I keep the feeders filled. Lovely shots David. I really enjoyed seeing the White-breasted nuthatch. We only see the red here. I am a winter person, so the cold and snow are not bothering me at all!

  8. Que preciosidad de pájaros, esas especies no las vemos por aquí. Excelentes fotografías mi amigo David, saludos cordiales desde España.

  9. bird! Wonderful collection of your backyard buddies.

  10. Nice reportage. Wish you a good Wednesday!

  11. Gorgeous captures of the birds! We've had a mild winter, but I actually prefer cold weather to really hot weather.

  12. Wow .... that is a lot of birds. The tit is really a great photo but other birds are magnificent to behold. It's a good thing we feeding them in winter or they have very heavy.

  13. My word, that's cold!!! Whilst my tolerance of hot weather seems to be improving with old age, whereas I feel the cold much more than I used to, I agree, it's somewhat easier to defend against the cold than the heat.

    You may know the answer, David, but I've sometimes wondered how birds keep their exposed legs from frost-bite in extremely cold conditions. It seems that very few of them have significant leg feathering.

    Best wishes to you both - only just over five months now!

    1. As a matter of fact I do know the answer, Richard. The inner parts of the lower leg of a bird are mainly bone, ligaments and tendons, with the mass of muscles requiring constant blood flow concentrated up near the bird's centre of gravity. Because the lower leg has so little soft tissue an extensive network of blood vessels is not needed, reducing heat loss through the walls of veins and arteries. Some birds, (gulls and waterfowl, for example) have a counter-current heat exchange mechanism whereby heat in the arterial blood going out into the leg is transferred to cooler venous blood returning from the legs and feet to reduce heat loss due to cold wind or water. I hope this helps.

  14. Bonsoir,
    Tous ces petits oiseaux ont tant de charme !... Vos photos sont merveilleuses.
    Lorsque je me trouvais à l'Île Maurice les petits cardinaux venaient picoter les miettes de pain que je mettais sur la terrasse. Ils n'avaient pas de houppette. Ce devait être une autre variété de cardinal !
    Brrrr... toute cette neige ! Je ne sais pas si je résisterais ! Le spectacle est en revanche fabuleux.

    Gros bisous ♡

  15. Beautiful birds have photographed.
    But the snow pictures are also very nice to see.
    Greetings Tinie

  16. Your winter birds are lovely, David, and so are your snowy field shots! I have an especially soft spot for chickadees and sparrows. Such tiny fluffs of life! You had my sympathy as I looked at your snow covered neighborhood. Wow!
    take care!

  17. Thanks for sharing your fantastic winter shots !
    Have a nice weekend

  18. Hello David,
    I guess wild birds do fairly well in winter since more and more humans feed them throughout the colder months.
    The Black-capped Chickadee is really very pretty with its soft and delicate tinges.
    A lovely and eclectic post!
    Keep well, hugs to share with Miriam :)

  19. I agree about the temperatures, so perhaps you are lucky even though you have that extreme cold, it's better than 40C! We've had a relatively cool summer though. That's a really interesting post, and I may use some of the information in it when I do a presentation titled 'Some Cool Birds of the Ice and Snow' for my local BirdLife branch in April. I hope signs of spring are continuing, and that its not long before you can enjoy some slightly warmer weather!

  20. Dear David,
    I could cope with cold better than heat, too - but sooo extremely low temperatures?!I cann't remember having ever experienced -34 degrees. Hats off to the birds to withstand this cold! Your pictures are wonderful portraits!
    Best Wishes & thanks for your nice comments!

  21. Brilliant images, my favourite is the Red-tailed Hawk, superb.

  22. I thoroughly enjoyed your photos David. Those certainly are frigid temperatures.

  23. Hello David,
    Very nice shots!! That northern cardinal is so amazing.
    Good shots of the lot of snow on shot 8 and 9. Wonderful!!

    Best regards,

  24. Minus 34! My god.............................

  25. I see it's really winter in your area, David. Wow! I already freeze when I read your post about the low temperature. Yes, I also wonder how these tiny birds survive in these extreme weather conditions. I feel always sorry for them and pamper them with nice bird food, although the temperature here is much higher. We didn't had a winter. Great series again. You have beautiful birds at your feeder. I hope you will soon get spring over there. Greetings from the Netherlands, Joke

  26. That's some serious frosty weather you've got there..... great to see some birds surviving.