This past weekend, I joined the Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology (PSO) on a four day birding trip through Ontario. This would be the second time I had ever been to Canada, and the first time I had been there for birding! I had been dreaming about this trip for months and it was finally happening – I had a chance at 6 lifers and the opportunity to explore a part of North American I had never been to before. My friends and I left State College at 2:00am on Friday, February 15th and drove up towards the border. Our first stops once we got in to Canada were going to be Amherst Island and then Ottawa, however a continuing female Tufted Duck at Oswego Harbor in New York was just too good to pass up. Nate Fronk, Ian Gardner, Chad Kauffman and I arrived in Oswego as the sun was beginning to rise. We met up with Drew Weber who lives an hour from there and followed him over to the harbor where the duck has been seen. We arrived at the Oswego Harbor at 7:15am and were immediately welcomed by a flyover Peregrine Falcon!
The five of us starting scanning, hoping to find the Tufted Duck and keep tabs on it while the other 4 cars worth of birders that were also coming along on the trip to Canada got there. Nate spotted a first winter Iceland Gull, always a treat to see and later we found a second Iceland and also two first winter Glaucous Gulls! Finding the Tufted Duck was proving harder to do than I had anticipated. There were literally thousands of waterfowl in the harbor and canal – mostly Redhead, Greater Scaup, and Common Mergansers but also 14 other duck species! Drew picked out a very strange-looking leucistic duck that we IDed as a Redhead based on size and structure. The duck was entirely white except for its black eyes and gray bill!
After a little more searching, Drew also spotted the Tufted Duck which was swimming happily among Greater Scaup and offered really great views through our scopes! This was my second Tufted Duck ever and my first female! We watched as the bird preened and bathed itself, and its floppy tuft blew around in the wind. Soon the rest of the PSO folks arrived and were also able to get really nice looks at the duck as well as the two white-winged gulls. We said our goodbyes to Drew and headed north, around the east end of Lake Ontario to the border crossing in the Thousand Islands.
As we drove, the snow started to fall harder and harder but driving conditions were still ok. We could see distant flocks of waxwings along the highway and thought they could possibly be Bohemians but couldn’t be sure. We also saw two light type Rough-legged Hawks, including one that was perched in a snag right along the highway!
Right before the border crossing, we stopped at the Collins Landing rest stop to get all our things in order and to discuss plans with the rest of the group. As we were loading back in to the cars to get going, Ian spotted some birds in the ash trees across the parking lot and then yelled out “Pine Grosbeaks!”. Everyone jumped out of their cars and ran over – we couldn’t believe it! Three Pine Grosbeaks (1 immature male and 2 females) were foraging in an ash tree and allowed us to approach fairly close, not seeming to mind our presence at all! This was my first lifer of the trip!
After we had all gotten the looks and photos we wanted of the grosbeaks, we loaded back up and headed over the border in to Canada. We drove through the Thousand Islands area, seeing Bald Eagles soaring along the highway and then took the Macdonald-Cartier Freeway west towards Kingston and ultimately Amherst Island.
Amherst Island, famous for its ‘Owl Woods’, has been a birding hotspot I have been dreaming of visiting my entire life. Almost every year I hear stories of birders going up there and seeing multiple roosting Northern Saw-whet Owls, Long-eared Owls, and sometimes Boreal Owls as well as there being Snowy and Short-eared Owls around the island. We arrived at the ferry terminal at 1:15pm and soon all five of our cars were loaded up and we were officially going over to the island! Ice was formed on the water, but the ferry was outfitted as an ice-breaker to easily push its way across the channel.
Once we arrived on the island, we took a slow drive around the northern edge and down the east side, wrapping across the bottom of the island. American Kestrels, Red-tailed Hawks, and the occasional Rough-legged Hawk were hunting the fields and many species of waterfowl were floating just offshore in good numbers. One of the cars we were with spotted an adult-type Northern Shrike perched on a telephone wire in the distance which allowed for nice looks for a few minutes before it flew off. A little before 3:00pm we parked along the entrance road to Owl Woods and started the walk back, through the snow. I was incredibly excited, hoping that in just a few minutes we would be face-to-face with a saw-whet, long-eared, or perhaps a Boreal Owl – one of my most-wanted birds ever.
As we got closer to the woods, the chickadees became more and more friendly often landing on our hands in return for a sunflower seed. A nice flock of Common Redpolls, including a single female Hoary Redpoll, were at the bird feeders and a pair of White-winged Crossbills flew overhead, calling. Sadly, after an hour and 40 minutes of the 21 of us scouring the area for owls, we couldn’t find a single one….there weren’t that many conifers and with 21 people, I felt like we did a pretty thorough job searching the area. Somewhat depressed, we walked back towards the cars to make one last loop around the island and then take the ferry back across.
We drove around more farm roads, searching for raptors but especially trying to find one of the Snowy Owls that had been reported recently. More red-tails and kestrels were around but we couldn’t spot a Snowy. As it was getting darker, we drove up on a spot where Chad had seen a Snowy Owl on past visit to the island. Sure enough, as we slowly drove past, Ian spotted a very distant white blob perched in a bush. We quickly parked and jumped out, confirming that it was a Snowy Owl in our scopes!
Although it was distant, it was still a Snowy Owl and did a really great job of raising our hopes again after the somewhat disheartening time we had in Owl Woods. As the sun set, we loaded back on to the ferry and rode back across. From there we drove towards Ottawa where we were planning on spending the entire next day birding. Overall, it was a really great way to kick off the trip and many people had picked up multiple lifers already! Check back for more about our trip soon!