Birding in Ontario

Winter Weather and Winter Owls

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snowy owlHappy New Year! And thanks to everyone who let us know that they enjoyed our first update on our Big Year of Birding, and asked us to keep it coming. We are a few days late with this update, partly because there wasn't a lot to report until our latest trip on the first weekend of January.

Turns out the "finch forecast" was right on, at least so far.

Instead of the dozens of Redpolls and Siskins we normally feed in early winter, this year we have had zero. Judging from the Christmas Bird Count results around southern Ontario, no one else has them either. Even Algonquin Park has very few finches, as these flocks of feathered nomads have stayed north in the boreal forest to feed on rich seed crops there. Hopefully a few will show up later in the winter so we can add them to our count.

Some northern migrants have appeared, though, especially birds of prey.  We skipped out for 15 minutes before a family turkey dinner in southern Bruce County, and soon found both a Snowy Owl and two Rough-legged Hawks.  Both of these species nest on the tundra, and like open pasturelands with lots of mice and voles for their winter habitat.

Buoyed by this success, we decided to squeeze in a two-day trip along the Lake Ontario waterfront to start 2010. The weather forecast sounded reasonably benign - breezy with scattered flurries. That soon turned into a frigid gale with driving snow squalls, making a normal 2-hour drive into a 4-hour white-knuckler.  And one of our target species - a Barnacle Goose hanging about the Grimsby waterfront - was right beside a part of the QEW closed by a multi-car pileup!  We gave up on that one, but did check off another uncommon goose species called Brant at the Burlington waterfront, and a chilly search of the waters off Mississauga yielded Harlequin ducks, one of the most beautiful waterfowl species.

Our next day was much better, as we took a 20-minute ferry ride to Amherst Island near Kingston. This island is mostly pastureland and hayfields on shallow limestone, with pockets of shrubs and woodland. For some reason, it seems to have an especially high population of small rodents, which makes it the most reliable place in the province for winter owls. And it didn't disappoint this year!

The place to go on Amherst Island, appropriately enough, is "Owl Woods".  Some local birders supply feeders in the middle of the Woods, and the Chickadees have learned that visiting birders often are good for a treat, much to Janet's delight.

Some of the owls prefer open country, and are easy to spot - a couple more Snowy Owls perched over an open pasture, and a pair of Short-eared Owls hunting with floppy flight just at dusk. Other species spend their days snoozing in thick conifers, and require much more work to locate. After about 4 hours searching through a scruffy pine plantation, we did manage to find both a Long-eared Owl and a special treat, a Boreal Owl. This little predator, only about 7 inches tall, spends most of its life in the boreal woods of the north, and is a "lifer" for me (i.e. I had never seen it before).

Ironically, we missed finding one of the more common Amherst Island specialties - a Saw-whet Owl, but we hope we can pick up that species later in the year.  And on our return to Orillia, we were treated to yet another winter visitor - a Northern Hawk Owl - sitting on the edge of Highway 11. Sometimes, with good fortune, the birds come to us!

Long-eared OwlThis shot of a Long-eared Owl, from the website, shows the narrow body typical of this species, and of course the "ears" which are actually tufts of feathers.

So with this latest addition, our total to date stands at 92 species. But we don't expect that to climb much more until the flood of spring migrants starts to return. Our list of sponsors, on the other hand, keeps steadily increasing - now at over $37/species and nearly $5800 in general donations, with all funds going to the purchase of Wolf Run Alvar. It's not too late to add your support, or to pass on our updates to friends who you think might be interested in helping out.

A few quick updates from our earlier tales - after 5 weeks entertaining hundreds of visitors, the Brampton Phainopepla finally disappeared, presumably southwards to escape the cold. And the Cannington Screech Owl is doing well in rehab, with hopes that it may soon be released again into the wild.

Best wishes for a happy and prosperous 2010, and thanks to everyone for your support.

Ron & Janet