Amherst Island Raptors

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

On January 30th I joined Jon Ruddy’s Eastern Ontario Birding outing to Amherst Island. I haven’t been there in three years – not since the last OFNC outing on January 26, 2013 – so a trip there was long overdue. Late January is a great time to go, as by this time of the year the winter birding blahs have set in and I find that a change of scenery really helps to get me through the rest of the winter. A trip to Amherst Island with all of its overwintering birds of prey is the perfect antidote to the Ottawa birding blues that usually start creeping in this time of year.

Jon picked me up dark and early at 6:30 am, requiring the early start in order to pick up another member in Perth. On the way to the ferry dock in Millhaven we saw an adult Bald Eagle and a muskrat on a two different lakes along Highway 7. We arrived at the ferry dock at 9:15 am, where we met the rest of the group and began checking out the ducks in the bay.

As usual, a few gulls were flying around the ferry dock, though the light was too poor to get a good look at their bills. A few mallards were swimming east of the dock, along with at least five Gadwalls. It was cold and very windy, making for an uncomfortable experience while I tried to photograph the Gadwalls. I rarely see these birds up close in Ottawa; they are usually quite far out on the water at Shirley’s Bay or the Moodie Drive quarry pond. I was thrilled to see how close they were to the shore, and my 60x zoom caught the spectacular feather detail on the male:

Gadwall and Mallards

Gadwall and Mallards

The Gadwall can be distinguished from other dabbling ducks by the white wing patch (called a speculum), which is usually visible. The female tipping up behind the male can be identified even without seeing her distinctive “puffy” head and black and orange bill.

Gadwall

Gadwall

Interestingly, I got my “lifer” Gadwalls on my very first trip to Amherst Island back in February 2007. It was great seeing them again on this trip.

Gadwall (male and female)

Gadwall (male and female)

We didn’t see any mink this time as we waited for the 9:30 ferry, but an adult Bald Eagle flew right over the dock as we waited to board, giving us all fantastic views. This was the first time I had seen an eagle on any of my trips to Amherst Island. Once the ferry got underway, we all got out of our cars and scanned the water for ducks. The water was completely open – this was the first time I had seen no ice covering the lake. We saw a couple of Common Mergansers, three Tundra Swans, and about 15 or 20 Long-tailed Ducks. Unfortunately the waves were too high and the birds too flighty to get any photos of these handsome ducks. They had also been life birds on my trip in 2007.

First View of Amherst Island

First View of Amherst Island

We started our outing with a drive around the “less productive” western half of the island. Almost immediately we spotted an adult Bald Eagle perched in a tree along the northern shore. We also saw a couple groups of Tundra Swans and a few pairs of Mute Swans during the drive, and stopped to take some pictures.

Tundra Swan

Tundra Swan

A couple of pairs of Mute Swans were swimming close to shore as well, and did not seem as wary of us as the Tundra Swans were. Unlike Tundra Swans which breed in the remote north, Mute Swans breed close to human habitation in the shallow wetlands, rivers and lakes of southern Ontario where they are often fed by well-meaning people. An introduced species in North American, Mute Swans have gained a bad reputation over the years for many reasons. They are bad-tempered and aggressive; they outcompete native waterfowl for food; they displace native waterfowl and other wetland-dependent species from breeding and staging habitats, attacking and even killing them; they cause nest abandonment in terns and skimmers; and they destroy large quantities of wetland vegetation through over-grazing and nest-building. For such a beautiful bird, the Mute Swan wreaks a lot of havoc in our ecosystems, and attempts to manage the growing population are often met with resistance from good-hearted people who are unable to believe that such majestic, graceful birds are capable of great harm. I was pleased to see them, for the only Mute Swans we see in Ottawa are the captive birds put out on the river every spring; a wild one means another tick for my year list.

Mute Swan

Mute Swan

I was even happier to see the Tundra Swans, which are native to Ontario and do not have such an adverse affect on the ecosystem despite being North America’s most numerous swan. The last time I had seen this species was in February 2007 on my first trip to Amherst Island, and views were very distant and poor on that gray, snowy day. I was happy to finally get some decent looks at this striking bird, especially when we encountered a flock of eight of them on the north shore. Its habit of forming large flocks, as well as its distinctive straight-necked posture, help to distinguish the Tundra Swan from the Mute Swan when the birds are too far out to see the bill colour.

Tundra Swans

Tundra Swans

Distinguishing the Tundra Swan from the Trumpeter Swan – both of which have black bills – is much more difficult. The Tundra Swan is smaller than the Trumpeter Swan, which is the largest swan in the world. However, judging the size of a lone bird can be difficult for someone who has little experience with either species, particularly when the bird is far from shore. With a good look at the head, however, these two species can be identified fairly easily.

A bird with yellow lores (the area between the eye and the base of the bill) is much more likely to be a Tundra Swan than a Trumpeter Swan, but not all Tundra Swans have yellow lores, and a few Trumpeter Swans have pale spots at the base of the bill. Generally, however, the lores on a Tundra Swan are bright yellow, with a clearly-defined shape, and are positioned immediately in front of eye, whereas the pale spots on the Trumpeter Swan are dull yellow, mottled or poorly defined, and may be closer to the nostril. The black eyes of the Tundra Swan are noticeably distinct from the black bill, while the eyes of the Trumpeter Swan appear connected to the black bill.

Head and bill shape are useful field marks, too. Tundra Swans have more rounded heads and slightly concave bills, while the top of the bill follows a curved line between the eyes. The Trumpeter Swan has a flatter head and a sloping bill, giving it a wedge-shaped profile. The top of the bill meets the forehead in a V-shape between the two eyes, unlike the U-shaped forehead on the Tundra Swan.

Tundra Swan

Tundra Swan

Once we had our fill of looking at the swans we continued driving west. We spotted a Rough-legged Hawk and a couple of Northern Harriers way out in the middle of a field, but raptors in the northwest corner of the island were relatively scarce.

Open Fields of Amherst Island

Open Fields of Amherst Island (click to enlarge)

Just as we were driving through a small pocket of trees between two fields we saw three large dark birds on the ground together. Our first thought was Wild Turkey, but once we cleared the trees we realized that they were much better than turkeys – they were Bald Eagles, and they were busy eating the remains of an animal carcass. The adult and one of the juveniles flew off as soon as we stopped, even though the carcass has a halfway across the field, but a second juvenile didn’t seem as bothered by our presence. I was glad for the 60x zoom on my camera, for the distance was challenging.

Bald Eagle on Carcass

Bald Eagle on Carcass

We didn’t see any Snow Buntings or Horned Larks on our drive, but we did get lucky and see a Red-bellied Woodpecker right next to the road.

The southern and eastern portions of the island were much better for Snowy Owls and raptors, and we saw plenty of each. The first Snowy Owl was an almost completely white bird tucked in against a small stand of vegetation in a farm field, while our second was perched on a small bank running between two fields.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

Our third was sitting beside a fence right next to the road, and Jon and I only saw it when it took flight. At first we thought it was a while plastic bag or sheet flying off with the wind, but then it landed and we realized what it was. Fortunately it didn’t fly off when we got out to photograph it; the owl was very active and alert, gazing all around while paying little attention to us.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

The owl seemed unhappy with the strong winds blowing from the south, for it soon flew up onto a fallen tree trunk, then hunkered down behind it. Although the temperature was beginning to rise, the wind coming in off the lake was still quite cold. I didn’t blame the owl for wanting to get out of it for a while.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

The waves on the lake were quite strong, and although there were quite a few flocks of ducks flying around, most remained too distant for me to identify. Jon was able to narrow down the identity of some of the ducks as Greater Scaup based on their flight formation, but as I have very little experience with this species, I left them unidentified on our eBird list.

Lake Ontario

Lake Ontario (click to enlarge)

Diurnal raptors were abundant in the southeastern section of the island. We started seeing Northern Harriers coursing above the fields, and even came across a male perching on a fence post. It is rare for me to see Northern Harriers perching in an accessible location, so I started shooting through the driver’s side window before anyone getting out of their car could scare it off. Of course the bird had turned his head away in the only photo that ended up in focus.

Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier

By that time the others were getting out of their cars, so I slid out and managed to get two more photos before the Northern Harrier decided it didn’t like the look of us and flew off. Those photos weren’t in focus either, mostly due to the fact that I was having a hard time keeping the camera steady in the strong wind. At that point I noticed something large crouching in the tall grass in the second field beyond the road. When I got my binoculars on it I was surprised to see a light-morph Rough-legged Hawk eating something. I called Jon’s attention to it, and he alerted the others.

Rough-legged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawks come in two different colour forms, called morphs. This one was a light morph hawk; it has a pale head and breast with dark streaks. Dark morph Rough-legged Hawks can look almost entirely dark. They are open-country birds found in southern Canada and the U.S. only in the winter time, where they are most often found perched on a pole or tree top, or hovering over a pasture in order to watch for small rodents.

Rough-legged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawk

Of course when it realized it had an audience, it took its prey and flew off behind a nearby rock.

Rough-legged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawk

As we left the area we came to this bend in the road where it looks as though the road ends at the lake. I love the colours of the water in this image:

Lake Ontario

Lake Ontario

We saw more Northern Harriers, Rough-legged Hawks and Red-tailed Hawks on our swing through the western half of the island. Some were flying over, while most were perching on very distant trees. I was worried about double-counting the birds flying over, and ended up with at least 12 Rough-legged Hawks, 12 Red-tailed Hawks and 9 Northern Harriers for the day. This was one of the closer Red-tailed Hawks, and one of the few that I have seen with next to no belly band:

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

Our final tally of the other birds of prey included at least seven Bald Eagles, two American Kestrels and eight Snowy Owls (most of which were seen near the center of the island as the daylight started ebbing away). We didn’t venture into the Owl Woods to look for other owl species, and didn’t see any Short-eared Owls despite looking in several fields once dusk began to fall. I was really hoping to see the Short-eared Owls as I haven’t seen any at Amherst Island since November 2007.

Still, seeing all those raptors, the Tundra Swans, the Gadwall and the Long-tailed Ducks made for an awesome trip, and gave me a much-needed break from the much quieter Ottawa birding scene. Jon was a great leader, and his enthusiasm and detailed knowledge of all kinds of birds really contributed to the enjoyment of the day.

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