An Ontario Lakeshore Excursion

 

(This 827th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on February 4, 2007.)

 

File written by Adobe Photoshop® 4.0

Red-headed Woodpeckers

painting by Allan Brooks

 

Surprise. We are having winter after all.

 

As November tailed into December and December into early January without any significant snow, some of my friends claimed that this was global warming.

 

Don't believe it. Global warming is bringing a slow increase in average temperatures but not a quick change like what we had late last year. Instead, informed meteorologists predict that we will have wide swings in weather.

 

And I had other evidence as well. My son lives in Denver where they had the other extreme. When I talked to him one day before our local weather broke he had just shoveled two feet of snow from his driveway. The next day he called to tell me that they had another foot and a half. Wide swings indeed.

 

In any case now we are having more normal winter weather. Until it arrived our lawn was strewn with ugly piles of sawdust left when our trees had to be sawed down. The October storm had left them a mass of widow-makers. Now those mounds are covered with far more attractive white snow.

 

A trip with Mike Galas along the Lake Ontario shoreline of Niagara and Orleans Counties was an excursion into this new world. Instead of the calm water of a week earlier, the lake was whipped into a frenzy. The strong wind pushed six foot whitecaps over the pier at Point Breeze.

 

We had to shelter behind a building to look for the Barrow's goldeneye that had been reported there for several weeks. Mike finally found it but we got only brief glimpses, our eyes tearing. This bird and the common goldeneyes with it kept disappearing behind walls of water or dove just as we had them in our binoculars.

 

Farther inland along County Line Road we came across a large flock of horned larks, attractive sparrow-sized birds that are distinguished by their so-called horns: actually little black feather tufts. In just a few weeks we will hear the lovely tinkling that is their spring song.

 

At first the hundred or more larks fed on the ground in a field of corn stubble. As we sat in the car watching them, however, they began to fly up to the road nearby to gobble up roadside gravel. Tiny stones replace the role of teeth for birds; they grind food in their crops.

 

With the larks came a few snow buntings, a dozen Lapland longspurs and a single tree sparrow. Most of the time we see longspurs here, they look like rather drab little sparrows, but at about the time they leave in spring the males will molt into mating plumage. I've never seen them in that striking black and white pattern, but in Montana I saw their cousins, McCown's longspurs, not quite as well dressed but suggesting how attractive these birds are in their spring garb.

 

We stopped at Lakeside Beach State Park to look for the red-headed woodpeckers we often find there. Sure enough, there was one huddled against a tree, its feathers fluffed up to give it additional insulation.

 

Many people call downy or hairy woodpeckers red-headed, because the males have a small red patch on the back of their heads. But the whole head of the red-headed woodpecker is a beautiful crimson that is set off in striking contrast with its black and white body.

 

Equally interesting was the number of blue jays in the woods. There must have been well over fifty. We usually think of jays as permanent residents because we see them here all year, but many jays migrate and this might be a group that had been fooled by our mild weather into gathering to move north. It was interesting to watch them. Dozens gathered on the ground apparently looking for insects among the fallen leaves. Other groups searched low shrubs for berries and still others ranged high up in the trees. They joined and then scattered with no seeming order to their activities. They were, that is, acting just like human guests at a cocktail party.

 

We missed several other expected species. I had hoped in particular to see rough-legged hawks and possibly even a snowy owl. No luck this time. We'll return later.-- Gerry Rising