[Ontbirds]Harrier, Shrike, Redpolls, Grosbeaks - Newmarket area

RON FLEMING flemingron at rogers.com
Sat Dec 1 19:57:50 EST 2007

Mike Van den Tillaart and I birded Newmarket, Keswick and Bradford this morning, mainly in search of Snowy Owls.  In this area north of Toronto and south of Barrie, the two best places for Snowies are located east of Hwy. 400, in what was once the huge Holland Marsh.  The marsh is now fragmented and in many places virtually non-existent, but the low-lying flatlands currently used for agricultural purposes near Bradford and Keswick annually attract Snowy Owls in winter.  Having said all that, we did not find one today, nor has one been reported from either place yet.  (This preamble was fun to write, though, and the information may be useful enough for some birders to keep filed away for a "snowy" day.)
  In our travels across the chronically windswept Ravenshoe flats on the southwestern perimeter of Keswick we encountered a large flock of approx. 200 Common Redpolls (likely the same flock reported by Keith Dunn in this general location last weekend) accompanied by two Snow Buntings (who, by the way, really dwarfed the redpolls they were standing next to when they landed on the road together).  Mike and I walked one of the dikes that runs north to Cook's Bay in case any Snowies were lurking out on the ice but we only encountered a bone-chilling wind and three more Snow Buntings.
  East of the open fields along Ravenshoe Road, where the baseball diamonds now sit under a long blanket of snow, we observed four Pine Grosbeaks (female/immature types) in the front yard of a house at the base of the hill leading back to Leslie Street.  (The house sits on the south side of Ravenshoe Rd.) 
  Driving past Holland Landing, we checked the north end of Bathurst Street but it yielded virtually nothing.  The section of the Holland Marsh that sits just south of Bradford and east of Hwy. 400 (long-since drained and now used exclusively for vegetable "muck crops") was much better.  First, we observed an adult Northern Shrike on the roadside wires east of #195 Strawberry Lane; this was the second day in a row that the shrike was observed there.  Then, along the  eastern stretch of Devald Road (just east of Day and Wanda Streets), we had a flock of 150+ Common Redpolls, several American Tree Sparrows, and - to our pleasant surprise - three White-crowned Sparrows that we felt would have been much further south by now.  
  Shortly after we passed the redpoll flock - all of them still feeding busily among the goldenrod stalks at the roadside - we looked back to see a male American Kestrel fly in and perch on a roadside wire not far from the little red-pates.  He sat there and pumped his tail for a moment and we speculated about whether kestrels would take birds or not.  I said I'd only ever seen them take insects and small rodents and that they probably wouldn't.  Within seconds, of course, the little falcon proved me dead wrong.
  With a marvellous little hunting display much more typical of a Merlin, the kestrel dropped stealthily from the wire he'd been on and began to fly slowly toward the redpoll flock.  We could see that he was gathering speed and steadily descending as he did so.  Soon he was mere inches from the road surface.  From our perspective along the roadside it was fascinating to watch - when the kestrel suddenly cut from the south into the margin of snow, crates and goldenrod, a cloud of redpolls exploded in panic to the north.  We waited for a silent moment, wondering what the result had been, then the kestrel came back into view and away southward, empty taloned.  Mike and I looked at each other and shared a big smile, not for the redpolls' survival, but for the pleasure of having just witnessed this great little drama.
  We soon got back into my van and returned eastward.  At the corner of Simcoe Road and Tornado Drive, Mike spotted a male Northern Harrier coursing low over the frozen river.  We watched him continue to follow the line of pampas grass (?), flying low and moving steadily westward.  When we returned to Canal Road to make our way home to nearby Newmarket we observed a male Sharp-shinned Hawk perched on a low branch beside the frozen canal just east of Jonkman's Corners.
  Ron Fleming
  For more specific directions to any of the places mentioned here, please e-mail me privately.  York Region is halfway between Toronto and Barrie. 

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