Winter. It’s the season that many dread the most: a time when temperatures drop, days grow short, and the streets are coated in ice and slush. Enjoying the outdoors also becomes much more difficult. You often need at least three layers of clothing, proper gear, and what’s more, there seems to be far less going on outside to make all this effort worthwhile. Winter is when nature winds down as well, with many animals having migrated south or remaining inactive throughout the entire season until temperatures rise and food once again becomes abundant come spring. So, what can someone who likes the outdoors do throughout the long, deep freeze?
The good news is that even in the winter, some wildlife in the Ottawa River watershed remain active and, if you’re lucky, you might even be able to catch sight of them. Here are 5 species that call the Ottawa River watershed home in the winter months that might just be able to inspire you to get out and explore the outdoors, even when it’s -15°C out!
Photo: Jennifer Haughton, Riverwatcher
That’s right! Canada’s national animal stays busy in the watershed all year round. The beaver’s thick fur and waterproof coat allow it to swim in frigid waters. Like us, beavers tend to prefer to stay indoors in the winter, so they build lodges made of wood and mud near their dam with an underwater entrance to avoid any unexpected visitors. Some clues indicating that you might be near a beaver’s home in a wetland or pond are chewed trees and branches, and perhaps rising steam from a suspicious-looking mound of wood and mud. As well, you might even catch sight of North America’s largest rodent swimming around or briefly walking on land, looking for extra food.
If one national symbol wasn’t enough, another happens to spend its winters in the Ottawa River watershed. Moose are mighty mammals that are well adapted to winter thanks to their long legs and snowshoe-like hooves that allow them to remain mobile even in heavy snow. While in the summer moose use their swimming skills to dine on aquatic plants, this is a more difficult option in the winter, so they mostly stick to forested areas where they can eat shrubs and branches. Calves will stay with their mothers throughout this time, so if you do happen to come across a pair (like the one featured below), as with any wildlife, make sure to watch from a safe distance, particularly because mothers are very protective of their young!
Photo: Howard Powles, Riverwatcher
Photo: Tim Carey
Most people know that many of the birds that nest in the Ottawa River watershed throughout the summer tend to migrate somewhere warmer in the winter. However, for many species that come from even farther north, this area is that warmer winter vacation! A wide range of birds – from finches and shrikes to snowy owls and hawks – fly down from as far as the Arctic tundra to the Ottawa River watershed, where food tends to be more abundant. Of course, other species (like ducks, gulls, doves, robins, starlings, and wild turkey) call our region home all year round, including during the winter. Some great places to see these birds include the Lac Deschênes-Ottawa River Important Bird Area (IBA), which includes much of the Ottawa River between Fitzroy Provincial Park near Fitzroy Harbour, Ontario and the Chaudière Dam in Ottawa, where many water birds congregate. Additional notable spots include Britannia Conservation Area and Shirley’s Bay. Other birds prefer to inhabit fields, forests, and even our own backyards for the winter months. So, keep your eyes to the skies this winter – you’d be surprised at all the birds you might see!
Photo: Martin Lipman
The river may freeze over, but that doesn’t mean the fish do, too. Beneath the ice, life continues deeper underwater, although less food and energy is available. The best way to see fish when the river is frozen is by ice fishing. On the Ottawa River, many licensed fishers set up ice huts, drill holes, and start fishing once the ice is thick enough. Walleye, pike, crappie and sauger are some of the most common catches. But be aware that some of the species in the river are threatened and even endangered, such as the American eel and the lake sturgeon, who already face a whole host of challenges from dams, development, and disruption to the food chain, without being hunted by us on top of that.
Photo: Owen Wilson, Youth Water Leader
Finally, perhaps the easiest place to look for wildlife when everything is covered in ice and snow are the tall coniferous trees that dot the landscape and riverbanks. These hardy giants have adapted to our long winter season over thousands of years, with dark green, needle-like foliage that retain water, prevent snow from piling up, and continue photosynthesizing all year round. As well, these trees act as a combined home and food source for countless other species, from the squirrels and birds that nest in the branches and feed on seeds and needles, to the bigger animals, like beavers and deer, that graze on twigs and use the tree’s canopy as shelter from the cold. When adventuring outdoors, show these trees some appreciation – they are the strong but silent species that make surviving the winter possible for so many others.