Towards the east end of Amherst Island sits a funny woodlot. Pine trees galore. With a large part of the island developed for agriculture, this chunk of land provides awesome cover and stands out as a beacon for owls in migration. Overwintering owls use it, too. More and more people seemed to be heading to this island for owls. In my case, Boreal Owl.
After taking the ferry, we took a swing around the island before heading to the Owl Woods. Within minutes, we had one white plastic bag and two Snowy Owls. When we arrived at the Owl Woods parking area, a flock of passerines flew in. At least 25 White-winged Crossbills stopped to feed. The moment we got out of the car, we were viciously attacked. Coyote? Rabid wolf? Bald Eagle? No, no, and no. How about Chickadees? Yup. Apparently, they get fed there and when we got out, they were expecting freebies. Zipping around us like Kamikaze pilots going for the kill, they almost landed on us at one point. It was enough to make even the most seasoned birders lose concentration. Before we could say "Banzai", the crossbills were gone. I'm not sure, but I think one Chickadee was wearing a headband with a big red dot and was muttering something about an Emperor...
The following hours were spent walking patiently and quietly through acres of conifers. Jack Pine, cedar, and spruces. They ALL needed to be checked for owls. Saw-whets are basically the size of a beer can while Long-eared Owls are about the size of a two-liter bottle of pop. Boreals? Slightly larger than the Saw-whets. With so many trees and such small birds that hide so well, we had our work cut our for us. We opted for the "divide and conquer" approach. Hours of looking. One Saw-whet and perhaps 5 or 8 Long-eareds. No Boreal. Knowing our perfectly cold bagels would be perfectly good in the 10 degree temps, we opted to head back to the car for lunch. We crossed paths with Steve from Pennsylvania. He needed Boreal Owl as well. His efforts the day before turned up nothing so he was back for day two. We told him the areas we covered while we returned to eat.
By 2:00, we were back at it. Steve turned in a few more Saw-whets, but he eventually had to go. At that moment, I started to wonder if he would take the role of the Sacrificial Birder. It is a simple concept - a bird that you know is there but can't be found won't be seen until someone leaves. Once the birder has left the area, the planets realign, individual karmas re-adjust, barometric pressure increases, and voila!, and the bird appears. It happens time and time again. Everyone plays the role of Sacrificial Birder at least once in the course of a birding career.
By 3:00 or so, we were getting a bit frustrated (at least I was) and a bit cold. Sure, we had three species of owls on the island, but the target bird for the entire trip was not to be had. Knowing we had to continue looking until sundown, we were trying to make a new plan when this fellow appeared. No, he was not nude, but given the temperatures, he might as well have been. Mind you, it was 10 degrees, and he was wearing a sweater. Gloves, too, but no hat. Our noses and cheeks were all but numb, and here he comes wearing a sweater. But, he had bins, so we immediately put aside the thought that he was an escaped psycho patient. He even looked like he knew what he was doing.
"Don't suppose you have seen the Boreal Owl?", I said.
"Yeah, its right over here..."
"Yes. I can show you."
"Thanks! Its really cold out here. Why aren't you dead?"
"I'm good. I've got layers on", he said with a grin.
Alex took us on a short walk to a portion of the woods we managed to somehow miss in our own search and there it sat. Perhaps 15 feet or so up the tree. A key thing to look at in the this photo is the bill color. Saw-whet Owls have a black beak while Boreals have an yellowish-white beak. Also, Boreals have silvery spots on the forehead. They tend to be slightly larger than Saw-whets but this one was a monster. A female for sure. In fact, it was so big, the photographers who arrived a few minutes later were convinced it was not a Boreal Owl; they thought it was too big. It wasn't until I showed them my photo they were okay with the call. I think their perceptions were complicated by the fact they had photographed one the day before. Their photo was clearly a male. Just a tiny thing compared to this one.
So, I think it might be appropriate for us to thank two people: Alex for showing us the bird, and perhaps more importantly, Steve for leaving....
With a little bit of daylight left, we circled the island one more time. We were hoping for a Short-eared Owl (which would have given us 5 species of owl for the day), but we missed them. One of the Snowys sat nicely for a photo in the fading light. Other island arctic goodies over the course of the day included Pine Grosbeak, Common Redpoll, Rough-legged Hawk, and Northern Shrike. The coyote in the fading sunlight was pretty cool,too.
Dinner that night was at the Kingston Brewing Company. This tiny little pub crammed into downtown Kingston was quite good. The chicken pot pie was super, but we did not go there for pies. Beer,folks. Beer. I enjoyed three half-pints. The Regal Lager (#525) was pretty fair, as far as lagers go, I guess. 3 out of 5? The Dragon's Breath Real Ale (#526), on the other hand, was superior. A cask ale, it was smooth, slightly creamy and dark. The head? Holy crap. It lasted damned near forever. The finish was a bit dry (note: the finish could have been complicated by my meal. I was having vinegar with my fries.). All in all, 5 out of 5. My third and final half pint was the Dunklenacht Dark lager (#527). My notes are incomplete on this one. After all, we were in a pub on New Year's Eve. I drank it. Good stuff.
Lodging was in Kingston again.