Ontario Owls and More (February 25-March 4)

With all the reports of Great Gray Owls and Northern Hawk Owls from Minnesota, I decided that a winter trip was necessary. I missed out on the great owl invasion back in the early 1980’s on Amherst Island, so I was determined not to miss this one in Minnesota. With Mike Fialkovich and Paul Hess, we discussed going to Minnesota, but then learned that the same things were being seen in Ontario, which is a lot closer. Once we set the dates for our trip (February 25 to March 3 or 4), we all watched the Ontario Birds list serve and kept track of where target birds were seen.

Of course when you plan a trip like this, you want to get it all. Our list of desired birds included King Eider, Great Gray Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, Boreal Owl, Snowy Owl, Gray Partridge, Bohemian Waxwings, Black-backed Woodpecker, Gray Jay, Boreal Chickadee, Spruce Grouse, Northern Shrike, Common and Hoary Redpolls, Pine Grosbeaks, and perhaps some of the vagrants that were around including Harris’s Sparrow, Varied Thrush, Townsend’s Solitaire, and Gray-crowned Rosey Finch.

When we started to plan the route, it became very clear that the Rosey Finch was out because it was so far away (near Sudbury), but we had a real chance to get everything else by taking a route from the Niagara area to Stoney Point (along the Lake Ontario shore) to Brantford to Bolton to Orillia to Bracebridge to Algonquin Provincial Park to Amherst Island to Welcome to Whitby. Included in this circuit were multiple chances to see Great Gray Owls and Northern Hawk Owls.

After spending Friday night in the Buffalo, NY area we first stopped at Stoney Point to search for the adult King Eiders that had been sighted here earlier in the week. Unfortunately, the huge rafts of ducks seen earlier were not evident on this morning. Among the clumps of ice we did find plenty of Long-tailed Ducks and White-winged Scoters, but no evidence of any King Eiders.

Our next stop was the Brantford airport to search for Gray Partridges. Logistically, we made a huge mistake here, taking suburban roads that were more direct, but that took far longer to navigate, costing us at least 30 minutes of extra travel time. On the roads around the airport, we found Snow Buntings, Horned Larks, Red-tailed Hawks, and Bald Eagles, but no partridges. On one road, I pulled over to allow another car to pass me. Bad move! My window was down from scanning the fields and the road was covered in slush. Paul and I were splashed with slush along with the dash and the inside of the windshield. What a mess!

We decided to abandon the partridge search and headed for Bolton, just a short distance north of the Toronto airport. Here, a Northern Hawk Owl had been regularly appearing across the street from a Wendy’s restaurant. What a strange place for an owl - suburban shopping plazas and apartment buildings with a few open fields. The owl was frequently observed on the wires and utility poles around the landscaping of an industrial park. After lunch and an hour of searching, we gave it up and headed for Orillia. Strike one on Northern Hawk Owls! This day was not going well at all!

We planned to arrive in the Orillia area in the late afternoon to search for the Great Gray Great Gray Owl — Muley Point, near Lake Simkoe just outside Orillia Ontario Owls as they came out of their roosts to hunt in the fields. We followed the directions onto Muley Point Road and turned onto the first side road. We hadn’t gone more than 200 meters before Mike spotted our first Great Gray Owl. When we saw how well this owl blended into the hardwood forest background, it was amazing that Mike saw it at all. We spent a lot of time watching this first owl because we had no idea how many more we would see. The owl looked at us occasionally, but was intent upon hunting for rodents, frequently looking straight down at the ground. Later, while exploring another side road, we found our second owl, this one sitting in a large tree at the end of a dead end road. While keeping a respectable distance, we were able to photograph and videotape these magnificent owls, which barely acknowledged our presence. Completing the circuit of roads in the area, we found a total of four Great Gray Owls. At one point, an adult Northern Shrike flew in front of the car and landed along a fence line. (I believe that this was the first adult Northern Shrike that I had ever seen.) Another interesting observation was a Porcupine feeding high in a tree on one of the side roads. There was heavy car traffic along these roads as the evening progressed. Later, we learned that the owls were not coming out as much on weekends due to all of the traffic. If we had come during the week, we could have expected to see up to 30 Great Gray Owls on this loop of roads.

After finally getting two of our target birds, we headed to our bed and breakfast inn, the Siberi Inn, operated by Mike Pidwerbecki. Common Redpoll — Siberi Inn Bed & Breakfast, Orillia Ontario Mike has two beautiful and gentle Siberian Huskies that have free roam of the house. He also has multiple Nyger feeders and hundreds of redpolls coming to them, which was the real attraction of this place. Mike prepared a gourmet breakfast for us on Sunday morning, with the first redpolls arriving as we sat down to eat. Here, we saw Hairy Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatch, Black-capped Chickadees, and literally hundreds of Common Redpolls coming to Mike’s feeders. Unfortunately, we could not pick out a Hoary among them. Before we left, we got directions to a house where a Harris’s Sparrow had been appearing on a daily basis. After a short five minute drive, we parked, walked to the back of the house, and saw the bird immediately! We watched it for as long as it stayed at the feeder and promptly left as soon as it did.

Our next stop was location number two for a Northern Hawk Owl, this time at Bracebridge, about an hour north of Orillia. We arrived at the location, which was an industrial park, but could find no trace of the owl. Strike two! An immature Northern Shrike did appear and perched on probably the same trees that the Hawk Owl was frequenting earlier.

From here we drove on to Algonquin Provincial Park. We stopped at the West Gate Visitor’s Center for T-shirts and directions and proceeded on to a campground where there were active feeders. There were lots of Blue Jays, Black-capped Chickadees, and Hairy Woodpeckers, but none of our target birds. At the main Visitor’s Center, we got sandwiches and watched the feeders where we added Red-breasted Nuthatch, Downy Woodpecker, and a Red Squirrel. It is truly a spectacular view from the back deck of this center, overlooking a vast bog.

A short backtrack took us to the Spruce Bog Trail parking lot, Common Redpoll — Siberi Inn Bed & Breakfast, Orillia Ontario where we could take a boardwalk trail through the bog and surrounding forest. As I got out of the car, a chickadee landed at my feet. I held out my empty hand and the bird immediately flew up to it! Obviously, there were tame birds here. Soon, we spotted Gray Jays in the trees. Mike got out his peanut butter crackers and the feeding was on! We all had Black-capped Chickadees and Gray Jays feeding out of our hands! The Blue Jays would come close but couldn’t quite bring themselves to land on our hands. Instead, they either fed on anything that dropped to our feet or they mobbed a chickadee that took an extra large piece of cracker! Even a Red-breasted Nuthatch came to our hands. As we started along the trails, the chickadees would follow us, feeding out of our hands again and again. Unfortunately, the rest of the trail was uneventful. We saw flaked bark from the evergreens, a good sign of Black-backed Woodpecker, but no birds.

Our last stop in Algonquin was along Opeongo Road. Here we drove to the end of the plowed section and spotted birds feeding on the ground where someone had left some seed. Among the Blue Jays and the chickadees was a male Pine Grosbeak! We watched this lone grosbeak for quite a while until it flew high up into the spruce trees, where it fed on spruce needles. We reluctantly left Algonquin and headed for the Lake Ontario shore.

We stayed in Napanee, where we were within a few minutes of the Amherst Island ferry. Unfortunately, on the next morning we missed an exit on the 401 and missed the first ferry to Amherst Island. Birding the area produced a few American Kestrels and Red-tailed Hawks, but not much more. The short ferry ride was uneventful. On Amherst Island, we drove immediately to the Kingston Field Naturalists property where many owls had been seen, including Boreal, Great Gray, and Long-eared in the evergreens and Short-eared and Snowy Owls in the fields. Chickadees seemed to follow us along the trails, getting very close. We hiked to the feeder area and immediately saw the Brown Thrasher that had been staying there all winter. Other birds here included American Tree Sparrows and American Great Gray Owl — Amherst Island, Ontario Goldfinches. A metal box was here with sunflower seed inside. I took a handful of seed and placed a cash donation in the box. Basically, any time I saw a chickadee, I pulled out some seed and they landed in my hand to feed! They followed us everywhere until we fed them. We began our search for the Boreal Owls in the feeder area. One was reported in a cedar tree close to the feeder area, while another was reported in a cedar tree close to the Jack Pine plantation. After about twenty minutes, Mike found one of the Boreal Owls, in a tree that I had thoroughly searched minutes earlier! It was only about eight feet off the ground. We could not see its face until Mike tripped on a stick, making a loud snapping noise. Briefly, it looked around and we could see its yellow eyes and the finely lined forehead. After savoring the experience of this life bird, we moved on to the pine plantation, where up to ten Long-eared Owls had been staying. We found none, but we did find one very large Great Gray Owl, our fifth of the trip! As we exited the pines, an adult Bald Eagle flew close by over the ice of the nearby marsh.

We left Amherst Island after vainly searching for a Snowy Owl in the fields. On the return ferry,  Paul noticed an animal out on the Lake Ontario ice heading for the mainland. It was a Coyote and he was panicking now that a ferry was seemingly chasing him. He would run as fast as he could, stop and catch his breath, and run again.  Then, all of a sudden, he seemed to be trying to run in front of the ferry! The ferry path had open water and broken ice, but the Coyote tried to cross it! He must have seen the danger because he stopped on the broken ice and turned around. As soon as it was apparent that the ferry was not chasing him, he slowed down and took a more leisurely pace back to Amherst Island, apparently unwilling to venture across the ice any more that day.

It was after noon and we had one more shot at a Northern Hawk Owl near the town of Welcome. We followed the directions to where the bird had been seen frequenting a series of utility poles along the farm fields. It was not there, so we continued slowly driving along the road until we came to a farmhouse. There, sitting upon a rooftop television antenna was the Northern Hawk Owl! Northern Hawk Owl — Perched on television antenna Welcome Ontario I think we all saw it at the same time and all shouted at the same time! It was now overcast and breezy due to a weather front that was moving in, but we all got leisurely looks at the owl before breaking off for lunch. After lunch, we returned to the same spot and found the owl again, getting one last look before heading off to Whitby.

At Whitby, we hoped to find ducks and gulls in the harbor. By now the snow was coming and the temperature was dropping. We found both scaup species, Common and Hooded Mergansers, Buffleheads, Long-tailed Ducks, and Common Goldeneyes. The gulls were too far away to identify. Along Hall Road, we spotted two Ring-necked Pheasants, but no Great Gray Owls out yet. From here, we drove through Toronto traffic until the snow got too bad. We stayed in Oakville for the night. All day Tuesday was spent driving home between light snow showers.

Mike and I both got one life bird – the Boreal Owl. Paul got five life birds, including: Great Gray Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, Boreal Owl, Pine Grosbeak, and Harris’s Sparrow. It was a long drive, but the weather was surprisingly cooperative. We started this trip on a Friday evening and would have been home on Monday night if the snow hadn’t hit that evening. I’ve got to remember about bed and breakfast homes for future trips. There were two on Amherst Island that we could have stayed at on Sunday night and had even more time to hunt for owls on Monday morning. The Siberi*inn was a real find! We had a pleasant stay, a gourmet breakfast, and great directions for local dining and birding. Our trip was a great success and I would love to do it again and next time find those darn partridges!

— by Jim Valimont

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