South For Winter

Many migrating bird species fly south for winter – often seeking areas that offer more food sources so that they can forage and enjoy more temperate climates. Canadians are well aware of the ‘snowbird‘ analogy as many of our retirees try to escape the deepest dark and wrath of winter. I’ve linked a little bit of retro musical Canadiana above so you can listen while you read.

Flying south for the long harsh winter is common.  But did you ever stop to consider that WE are the south some species fly to? It’s a perspective we rarely embrace but to some northern species, Altona Forest is their version of the balmy south.

Altona Forest is a part of Lake Ontario’s north-shore watershed system and greenbelt – part of the fertile mixed wood plain that surrounded the great lakes and lies just south of the boreal shield. All of Rouge National Park also falls into this area – a supportive ecozone and food producing destination. We are a natural wintering ground for a number of species – though we have made this area nearly barren for birds with streets and houses.

Dark- Eyed Juncos:

I know fall is winding down when the juncos arrive. This year they arrived in the edges of Altona Forest a little early – about mid-October. These are the original snowbirds – the common birds the song references. They are social, gregarious, and charming and bring a flurry of activity to the yard. They prefer to feed on the ground but will happily also use tray feeders. They resemble sparrows in their size and body shape, but have a distinctive white breast and a slate grey top and tail.

We are on the edge of their year-round and their wintering ranges but in the GTA I have only observed them in winter. Would you like to draw juncos to your garden? Offer a tray feeder with wild birdseed or scatter the seed on the snow. They like a wide variety of seeds. Once they know the way to your garden, they are regular and annual visitors.


Junco in the snow – image pixabay


Redpols are like a number of other birds (and each of the bird species that follow) in that they are erratic and sporadic winter visitors. This irregular wintering style is called an ‘irruption’ – flocks may or may not come to parts of their wintering range and this varies annually.

Redpol spend their summers on the tundra and in northern boreal forests that favour birch. They have a wide range of where they might go in winter so they may be here one year and not the next. Redpols are finch-like in shape and behaviour and might have just a small splash of red, or have red on their breasts as well. They are gregarious, winter in flocks, and will visit feeders – especially those offering nyger or thistle.


Just a splash of red on females – males will have a red breast as well – Image pixabay

Evening Grosbeaks:

I am new to evening grosbeaks, and I am not entirely sure that they come to Altona Forest. However, we are part of their traditional southern wintering ground and last year I noted that a number were sighted in Toronto. They are stunningly beautiful birds with yellow and black markings on their heads and bodies and resemble large finches in shape. They like to flock in winter so if you see one, you’ll likely see many!

While Altona Forest is a likely spot for them to visit, they are irregular visitors and one visit might not mean a return. It’s hard to predict if you will see them – however a platform feeder with sunflower seeds would be a favourite treat. Since I don’t offer sunflower seeds in regular supply, I will this year and keep my fingers crossed. If you see any of these beautiful birds, please let me know!


Evening grosbeak in high colour – image pixabay

Snow Buntings:

Here’s another species I haven’t yet seen in the Altona Forest area – let me know if you have! Snow buntings are from the far north tundras and resemble sparrows in wing markings and their size. They are mostly white with tan and rich brown mottling on their faces, bodies and wings though some birds have a very dark wing colour.

Since these are tundra birds they don’t tend to winter in forests, but seek open fields and lakeshores where they feed on grass and sedge seeds so watch for them along shorelines, in open fields and in natural clearings.

Snowy Owls:

Last winter and the year before saw many of these majestic and stunning birds come to the GTA. It’s often young snowy owls who wander this far south – and only in years of famine in areas further north. The journey (a forced migration to survive) to our far-south region depletes them greatly and if we see them we should stay well away, not stress them or have them use up the last of their energy stores for anything other than hunting.  Many people don’t realize that every bit of wasted energy they expend at the end of their long journey can be mean life or death – so gawkers, birders, and photographers can do real harm. 

Snowy owls are distinctive by their snow-white plumage or white with dark bars – since there are more than one colour-stage for these owls. Snowy owls are surprisingly large at over two feet at maturity – there is only a small difference between the size of snowy owls and great horned owls. They are unlikely garden visitors, but watch barren winter fields in northern Pickering, along highway corridors, Frenchman’s Bay, and the Whitby marina area where they have been previously sighted, and take a look along the hydro corridor to see if they are passing through. They might sit on a hydro pole or a snag to hunt in the open spaces they enjoy.

Snowy Owl - image Pixabay

Snowy Owl – image Pixabay

Fall and spring are the times when birds undertake their migrations. While there is no overarching rule for how all Ontario migrating species operate, generally the summering grounds for birds are their northern nesting sites. Then, as the winter comes, they relocate further south to areas where food is more readily available and the winter is not as harsh. As winter creeps into Altona’s woods we can watch for them and admire their tenacity.

Some Snowy Info:

Resources ~ Begin Your Reading Here

An excellent guide to our region’s birds: Birds of Toronto

South For Winter ~ © 2015 Natasha G



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