Thursday, 5 January 2012

Dofasco Trail and Bird Watching – What Gives This winter?

If you haven't been out enjoying the mild winter yet, you are missing out on an incredible birding season in Hamilton. So far this January there have been two hot spots for birds in Hamilton, one, along the Bayfront Trail below Dundurn Castle, where significant rare warblers have been found since the middle of December. Which leaves the second hotspot, the Dofasco Trail. The east end of the Dofasco Trail has been known as a bird watching hotspot for some time now, and this winter it has proven itself to be very popular with not only the birds but also with bird watchers (including myself).

The centre of the activity on the Dofasco Trail is right where the trail intersects with 10th line and the Railroad tracks. If you want to see a variety of raptors, hawks and owls, this winter it seems these two hotspots  are going to be the place to be in Hamilton. 

Redtail Hawks, Harriers (Marsh Hawks), Kestrels (Sparrow Hawks), Rough Legged Hawks, Turkey Vultures  and Northern Shrikes have all been spotted where the trail crosses  10th Line.  So far Short Eared Owls have not been spotted, but they should be showing up soon, (if history repeats itself like other winters). Short Eared Owls are usually seen flying over nearby fields just before dusk, searching for their prey. 
Hawks are common in the winter but they have been seen in unusually high numbers this season, and have brought along  some rare birds with them.

You may find yourself asking "Bruce what is with all of the hawks?" The answer simply put is the abundunce of Meadow Voles, and right now there is no snow cover making the voles easier for aerial predators to find them. Meadow Voles also know as field mice, are small rodents that are dark brown or grey in colour, have four short legs and burrow in the grass where their tunnels are in places that are easily visible in the tussocks of grass even in the low wet fields.

Harriers are not unknown as winter visitors to the agricultural areas in Hamilton but at 10th Line, they are almost guaranteed to be spotted, and up to four at a time!
Rough Legged Hawks find their winter home in Southern Ontario. They summer in the Arctic. They come in two colour phases, light and dark. Light phases have only been seen so far.  They are about the size of Redtails but appear to have narrower wings and may be seen hovering low over the fields searching for rodents.
Both Adult and immature Redtails can be seen. The adult has the rusty red tail and the immature hawks have a brownish tail. They are both the same size.

The Northern Shrike, a rare bird, at any time is usually seen in the field that is full of hawthorn trees which happens to be north of the trail immediately east of 10th line. It is a small aerial predator not much bigger then a blue jay. They feed on small birds like sparrows and meadow voles.  Shrikes are known as butcher birds. They often will impale their prey on the sharp thorns on hawthorns. For more information on shrikes check out Conservation Halton, Mountsberg Raptor Centre video all on Eastern Loggerhead Shrikes

In this same area a Bobolink has been seen in the field to the south of the railroad tracks and to the east of 10th Line. Bobolinks are rare in the summer and to see one in January is astonishing (considering they usually flock south to Argentina.) In the same fields you may also see Eastern Meadowlarks. Again another bird that should be much further south. These birds are not expected to be around much longer as the real winter starts to set in.
In this area bird watchers are also seeing Horned Meadowlarks. The novice bird watcher may have some trouble in finding all of these species but there are plenty of other birds that are easy to identify.

To find some easy birds walk along the Dofasco Trail west of 8th Line along the Vinemount Swamp Boardwalk heading west. There is good flock of Robins there feeding on Buckthorn black berries.  Yes Virginia, there are Robins in Hamilton in the winter especially where there is open water and Buckthorn trees. 

Along the Boardwalk expect to see Black Capped Chickadees, Downy Woodpeckers, Blue Jays and Winter Wrens. Winter Wrens are the smallest bird in the swamp and sometimes they make themselves easy to see. The wrens are usually hiding under the boardwalk and fly out from under it when they hear your footsteps. Look for a small brown bird with a small tail trying to hide from you.

Even if you are not interested in birds, the Dofasco Trail with Ontario’s longest boardwalk is always exciting. The Dofasco Trail runs from the Devil’s Punch Bowl on the Stoney Creek Mountain to 11th Line in Winona. 

Remember to keep your eyes and ears open and you may just spot one of the many birds in the area, this winter. 

Bruce Mackenzie
Manager Customer Service & Operations. 
Hamilton Conservation Authority

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