Sunday, 11 January 2009

Amherst Island and Other Winter Birding

10 -11 
JANUARY , 2009
David M. Gascoigne and Miriam Bauman

10 January, 2009 

It was bright, cold and clear when we left home at 05:45h to drive to Millhaven to catch the Amherst Island ferry.
Traffic was light and we sailed across the top of Toronto without slowing down at all and made good time the whole way. We stopped just outside Port Hope at a Tim Hortons to get a coffee and, in what has now become part of our birding ritual, share an everything bagel, toasted, with herb and garlic cream cheese. Conventional wisdom says that you get set in your ways as you get older - we prefer to think that we are carrying on with our traditions!
Roadside thermometers along the highway bespoke of temperature varying from minus 11 C to minus 19C as we proceeded northeast.
We arrived at the ferry terminal just before 09:30h and the ferry was just readying for departure. We were permitted to drive on board and left the dock almost immediately. The very modest tariff of $8.00 for two passengers and a car must surely rank as one of the best deals on the continent. As the boat surged through the channel of open water we saw a lone Canada Goose dozing on the edge of the ice.
Our annual pilgrimage to Amherst Island has been a trip that we always anticipate eagerly, but this year will rank as our most successful so far. Aside from the birds it was such a classic mid-winter Ontario day; crisp, clean snow was everywhere, the sky a gun metal blue and the air clean and refreshing.
Upon driving off the ferry we turned east on Front40 Foot Road and in less than ten minutes came upon our first Snowy Owl. It was a juvenile/female with dark markings. If I lapse into anthropomorphic semantics when referring to these owls I offer no apology. No matter how often one sees them (and we are fortunate that in southern Ontario this is virtually an annual event) one never ceases to be left breathless at the unrivalled magnificence of these creatures. They are undoubtedly one of nature’s divine creations. Within minutes we saw a second juvenile/female type on the Kingston Field Naturalists’ property
and then on the opposite side of the road, perched atop a small tree, an ethereal male, white as the snow forming its backdrop, unconcerned at our presence and clearly aware that we were the inferior species!
Before leaving the island we would see nine Snowy Owls. If this experience thrills us beyond belief, how must it affect those fortunate souls who are seeing one for the first time?
We observed a female Northern Harrier coursing over the fields, hunting for its next meal. At a farm house with active feeders, we saw about forty Snow Buntings, some on the feeders knocking down as much grain as they ate, with the others content to wait below to feed on that which fell to the ground. House Sparrow were ubiquitous and there were three American Tree Sparrows. This is a species that seems to have declined significantly in recent years and we never have them at our feeders at home any more; nor do we find them on our local trails. There were Common Pigeons, American Crows, Blue Jays and House Finches, all common species but all adding in their own way to the delight of this grand birding experience.
The high point of any excursion to Amherst Island is to walk through Owl Woods. The owl populations that inhabit these woods in some winters is legendary and this winter merits elevated status on the honour roll! It bears mention that these woods are situated entirely on private property and the two landowners have very kindly consented every year for many years to permit birders access to their properties. It behoves all birders, and especially those photographers who think it quite acceptable to break branches and disturb the owls for a better shot, to remember that we are all visitors by the grace of the property owners and their permission can be withdrawn at any time. Good behaviour courtesy and respect for both the environment and other visitors is paramount at all times.
On the first section of the walk we were greeted by numerous Black-capped Chickadees and dark-eyed Juncos. After walking for a while one arrives at a clearing in the woods where numerous feeders are maintained. A Red-bellied Woodpecker (relatively rare in this area) was feeding on a peanut feeder and a Downy Woodpecker was hammering away at a tree branch. Other species present were White-breasted Nuthatch, American Goldfinch, Black-capped Chickadee, Dark-eyed Junco and a single American Tree Sparrow.
It was not far past these feeders that we located our first Northern Saw-Whet Owl. This was the bird that got my daughter into birding and it is easy to see why. What could possibly be more appealing than this little bundle of feathers and big eyes? Marching farther through the coniferous woods we located two Long-eared Owls and in the field at the edge of the trees five Short-eared owls were flying like giant moths. It resembled nothing so much as a sky dancing routine.
One the way back to the car we located a second Saw-whet Owl and (perhaps the prize of the day) a single Boreal Owl in a small spruce, perched at eye level, with our view unimpeded by branches or foliage. I think that for many this is the mystical northern spectre that scarcely exists! A friend in California always insists that we have been drinking when we tell her that we have seen one. She claims that it is a mere figment of our vivid northern imagination!
Before leaving the island we added ten Rough-legged Hawks, several Red-tailed Hawks, two of which were very dark morph birds. One Red-tail was feeding on the carcass of a White-tailed Deer and we witnessed another one catch a rodent. It quickly bit off two chunks and then swallowed the rest whole. A female American Kestrel was the only falcon of the day and in patches of ice-free water we added Common Goldeneye, Lesser Scaup and Bufflehead. Just before arriving at the ferry wharf we were thrilled by a male Northen Harrier, silvery and ghostly, patrolling the fields in search of food.
We left on the 16:00h ferry and were accompanied by sixteen Mallards.
It had been a very successful day indeed.
As has been our practice over the last few years we spent the night at the Best Western Hotel in Belleville. The price ($126.00 per night) is really quite ridiculous for Belleville in mid-winter. We may reconsider this arrangement next year, especially since on this occasion we had the misfortune to be staying at the same time as a bunch of youngsters in town for a hockey tournament along with their parents. I fully appreciate the boisterous nature of youth, but not when it involves running up and down the hallway of the hotel yelling and screaming! Our heater controls were erratic and mostly we could not coax hot air out of the register.
We find that after a day’s birding we don’t really feel like getting ready to go out for dinner, so we had taken food with us to eat in the room - and delicious it was too. Our feast comprised Asiago Cheese, Noah Martin’s Summer Sausage, Baba Ghanouj and rice crackers, all washed down with a fine Robertson Winery Shiraz which we had discovered in South Africa. For dessert we had a delicious selection of fresh fruit.

11 January, 2009
A continental breakfast was included with the room at the Best Western Hotel. It was served from 06:00h to 10:00h. We arrived there around 08:00h. One of the items was a miniature omelette filled with peppers and onions. It was quite tasty, but there was only one left - and when we say miniature we mean it - two perhaps three bites. Another fellow asked whether more were coming and he was simply told "No." No explanation, no justification, no logic nor reason - just "No;" this a full two hours before the termination of the "Complimentary Deluxe Continental Breakfast."
As a complete aside, the first hotel chain that offers breakfast food with real flatware, plates etc will receive my patronage. I am appalled at the amount of disposable items used at one of these breakfasts. Every single item is packaged in and served on throw-away material.
While driving down Highway 401 we decided to extend our trip a little by calling at Whitby Harbour and Cranberry Marsh to do a little birding before continuing on home.

Whitby Harbour

We had thought we might see both Great Black-backed and American Herring Gull at the harbour, with a chance for Iceland and Glaucous. None of these species were there! The highlight was a couple of Trumpeter Swans, but we also added Mute Swan and Red-breasted Merganser for the trip.

Cranberry Marsh

The first bird we saw was a stunning female Northern Goshawk. What a magnificent bird this is - big and powerful and regal.
It was very pleasant to run into some old friends and the birding was great too. At the feeders near the hawk watch platform there were large numbers of American Tree Sparrows much to our delight, as well as an over-wintering White-throated Sparrow. The local birders told us that Rusty Blackbirds had been frequenting the feeders occasionally, but none showed up while we were there.
There was a tree full of Mourning Doves, many of which had a decidedly pink hue. It was all very beautiful with the dark green of the conifers and the pristine white of the snow. Everywhere one looked next year’s Christmas card was waiting to be taken.
While driving out along Hall’s Road we were treated to the fine spectacle of about twenty-five White-winged Crossbills.

Benjamin Park Trail, Waterloo

Just minutes before arriving home, Miriam spotted a flock of birds fly into the top of a tree on the Benjamin Park Trail, in a location where she thought she might have had Common Redpoll on her walk a couple of days ago. Indeed, this is what they turned out to be - a first for the winter and a first for the year.

All Species Seen
Canada Goose Abundant
Mute Swan Common
Trumpeter Swan 2
Mallard 20
Lesser Scaup 40
Bufflehead 7
Common Goldeneye 50
Red-breasted Merganser 2
Northern Harrier 5
Northern Goshawk 1
Red-tailed Hawk 8
Rough-legged Hawk 10
American Kestrel 1
Ring-billed Gull 10
Common Pigeon Common
Mourning Dove Common
Snowy Owl 9
Long-eared Owl 2
Short-eared Owl 5
Boreal Owl 1
Northern Saw-Whet Owl 2
Red-bellied Woodpecker 1
Downy Woodpecker 5
Black-capped Chickadee Abundant
White-breasted Nuthatch 2
Blue Jay 18
American Crow Common
European Starling Common
House Sparrow Common
House Finch 2
White-winged Crossbill 25
Common Redpoll 20
American Goldfinch 3
American Tree Sparrow 50
White-throated Sparrow 1
Dark-eyed Junco Common
Snow Bunting 40
Northern Cardinal 4

Total species 38

Land Acknowledgement

We acknowledge that the land on which we are situated are the lands traditionally used by the Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabe, and Neutral People. We also acknowledge the enduring presence and deep traditional knowledge, laws, and philosophies of the Indigenous Peoples with whom we share this land today. We are all treaty people with a responsibility to honour all our relations.