OFNC Trip to Amherst Island

Common Merganser

On Saturday, January 27, 2013, the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club (OFNC) trip to Amherst Island finally took place after being delayed twice, the first time because of deer hunting in Owl Woods and the second time because of the weather. We couldn’t have asked for better weather for trip; although it was -20°C when we left, it warmed up to a beautiful -7°C with periods of both sun and cloud. The deep freeze had ended just in time.

We left at 7:30 am in order to catch the 10:30 ferry, stopping briefly at the Mallorytown service center to refuel our cars and our bodies. We saw at least three Red-tailed Hawks, one flock of Wild Turkeys, and two porcupines sleeping in a deciduous tree on the drive down.

We met our leader, Justin Peter, at the ferry dock in Millhaven. While we waited for the ferry we saw several ducks on the water and a mink running along the shore (my first of the year). I had to go back to the car get my camera after Deb pointed it out, though it had disappeared among the rocks by the time I got back. The lake had frozen except for the ferry channel, and several birds were taking advantage of the open water. There were no coots this time, but we spotted about half a dozen Common Goldeneyes and a female Common Merganser diving in the water.

Common Merganser

A female Bufflehead was also swimming in the open water, occasionally diving from time to time.

Bufflehead

Several birds were resting on the ice, including about two dozen mallards, two dozen Canada Geese, one American Black Duck, two Herring Gulls and two Ring-billed Gulls.

Leaving the Mainland Behind

Justin had seen a coyote on the ice before we arrived, and once the ferry got under way we saw him crossing over to the island. He paused about halfway to the island before turning around. This is the second time I have seen a coyote on a trip to Amherst Island, and the second time I’ve seen a mink at the ferry dock!

Coyote on the ice

Coyote on the ice

After we disembarked from the ferry we drove counter-clockwise on Front Road to the Lower 40 Foot Road. Along the way Justin pointed out a Red-Tailed Hawk (our first of many), several Mourning Doves, a Northern Shrike (the only one of our trip) and an American Kestrel on the KFN property. As we watched the kestrel pounced on a rodent on the ground, and flew back up into a tree to eat it.

We found more open water off the southeast tip of the island. Only a few ducks were present, likely mallards given their size. I had thought it would be teeming with waterfowl and was disappointed that there were no swans, Long-tailed Ducks, or other diving ducks in the area. We didn’t stop, likely because there was nothing to see. After we reached South Shore Road Justin accidentally drove past the road to Owl Woods, but this gave us a chance to see a couple of Common Redpolls at a feeder in front of one of the houses and a small flock of Snow Buntings flying up into a tree.

We turned around and parked at the end of Marshall 40 Foot Road as the road leading to the Owl Woods entrance had a couple of large, frozen snow drifts that made it difficult for cars to navigate. After watching one car bump along the road we thought that Justin had made the right decision. We saw a set of fox tracks on the way in and a fresh set of pheasant tracks on the way out which we would have missed otherwise.

The Red-bellied Woodpecker was at the feeders when we arrived but quickly flew off as our group filled the clearing. We were immediately besieged by chickadees and so I put out some seed for them on the benches. A couple of American Tree Sparrows, White-breasted Nuthatches, and a Downy Woodpecker were in the same area.

In the first grove of cedars Justin pointed out some whitewash on a tree. Although this is a sign that a bird had been roosting here, it didn’t necessarily mean that it was an owl. We spent some time checking the cedars in the area and found nothing.

Whitewash on a Tree Trunk

Justin discussed the rules of Owl Woods with the group before we entered the Jack Pine plantation. These rules, which are posted in a number of places throughout the woods, have been put in place by the landowners in order to reduce the disturbance to owls caused by the large numbers of people visiting in the fall and winter. Most of the rules are based upon simple common sense, encouraging people to treat the owls, the property, and other visitors with respect:

  • Keep a minimum distance of five metres from owls.
  • Be silent; speak in whispers.
  • Do not linger in front of an owl more than a couple of minutes.
  • If you cause an owl to fly, do not pursue it.
  • Do not bait owls with rodents.
  • No flash photography allowed.
  • No sound devices allowed.
  • Do not remove branches or vegetation.
  • Stay on the existing trails. Persons entering roped-off areas will be prosecuted.

In addition, because of the increased pressure on the owls, the landowners have respectfully asked people not to post owl observations from Owl Woods on ONTBIRDS.

Just as we were crossing an open field toward the pine plantation we noticed a large, pale owl flying out of the woods. It looped around and flew back into the trees. Justin thought it might be a Long-eared Owl based on the way it was flying; I thought it could also be a Short-eared Owl or a Barred Owl based on the colour. We entered the woods and began searching for it, but one of the members who remained in the field told us later that as soon as we entered the woods two Barred Owls flew out toward the feeders.

It didn’t take long before we found an owl roosting in a tree. It was a tiny Northern Saw-whet Owl, one of my favourite species. He was sitting several feet above our heads, clutching a tiny mammal in its claws.

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Unfortunately, that was the only owl we saw in the woods. And although we looked, we didn’t see either of the Barred Owls on our way out.

We did see the Red-bellied Woodpecker again in the feeder area. He flew in while we were talking there, but didn’t land on the feeder itself. I managed one quick shot of him before he flew off; I was quite happy to see him, as I hadn’t seen one since my last trip to Point Pelee in 2010. Here you can actually see the red on his breast that gives this species its name.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

After leaving the Owl Woods we drove around the western half of the island. We stopped by the ferry dock to use the washroom only to find that it was locked. This came as an unpleasant surprise to those of us who did not want to use the “natural facilities” in the woods. However, we did see a mink running across the ferry dock itself which made the stop worthwhile.

On the western half of the island we found more Red-tailed Hawks and two American Kestrels, one a brightly coloured male, sitting on telephone wires. We also saw two Snowy Owls perching on fence posts in the middle of the same field. One was a pure white male, and it was he who caught our attention gleaming in the sun. He was too far away for me to photograph, but I took some photos of the afternoon light later on.

Island fields at sunset

A quick trip to the eastern half of the island produced a Northern Harrier flying over a field and a dead Great Blue Heron. The heron was relatively intact, but quite flat. This was our saddest find of the trip.

Although we had hoped to stay on the island until 6:00 to watch the Short-eared Owls to come out, Deb and I and the others in our car decided to leave the group to catch the 5:00 ferry. Neither Deb nor Suzanne have ever seen a Short-eared Owl, and I hadn’t seen any since my trip with Tony Beck in 2007. I was a bit disappointed that we didn’t stay, but I was getting cold and tired after the long day outdoors and needed a washroom and a hot meal. Fortunately the washrooms on the ferry were unlocked, and heated too!

As the ferry was leaving I noticed a couple of ducks swimming close by, including a female Red-breasted Merganser that nearly got run over twice and a young male Common Goldeneye.

Common Goldeneye

The sunset was gorgeous, with a sun pillar visible above the sinking sun.

Sun pillar

Sunset over the ice

In the east, a beautiful pink full moon was rising.

Moonrise over the ice

Pink Moon

Although the number of raptors and owls overwintering on Amherst Island has been lower this year due to a decrease in the population of meadow voles, I had an awesome time. Justin was a terrific leader, and we saw lots of great birds that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen in Ottawa, such as Red-bellied Woodpecker, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Northern Harrier, and American Kestrel. It was a good day for mammals, too, with American Mink, White-tailed Deer, Coyote, Red Squirrels and Porcupines seen on the trip. Hopefully it won’t be another four years before the OFNC leads another outing there!

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2 thoughts on “OFNC Trip to Amherst Island

  1. I remember how many little branches were around that Saw-Whet Owl…impressed that you managed to get an unobstructed shot of him!

    I too hope for a return trip to Amherst Island, when rodent levels are higher. Maybe I can talk my husband into the expedition sometime.

    • Thanks Suzanne. I had to stand practically right beneath him to get this shot…in the past they have been much lower (about shoulder height).

      Perhaps next year will be better for the meadow voles. If the OFNC doesn’t have another outing next year, Deb and I are thinking about going ourselves. We want to see the Short-eared Owls (and apparently they showed up three minutes after we left 😦 ) so we might head out a little later in the day.

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