Amherst Island Owls

Northern Saw-whet Owl

It’s not often I choose to make the trip to Amherst Island twice in one winter, but it’s been such a long, cold, snowy winter with few real birding highlights that I decided to indulge my thirst for a change of scenery and join Jon on another excursion to the famed island. We had had a fabulous trip in December with a large number of birds of prey including 31 Red-tailed Hawks, 16 Northern Harriers, 14 Rough-legged Hawks, 4 Bald Eagles, 4 American Kestrels, 2 Cooper’s Hawks, 1 Short-eared Owl, 37 Snowy Owls, and one 1 Northern Shrike (a songbird that feeds on voles and other birds). Other highlights included Northern Mockingbird, Swamp Sparrow, Winter Wren and Great Blue Heron. The weather was cooperative, and with little snow on the island, we were able to see many Meadow Voles (the chief attraction for all these raptors and owls) running around on the ground.

This trip was different. The lake had frozen completely over except for the narrow ferry channel, and accordingly, we observed no waterfowl on our outing. There was a lot more snow on the ground, too, with no Meadow Voles to be seen. The temperature was colder, with a light but persistent wind in the morning that made being outside for too long unpleasant. Eventually the wind died down, but flurries followed in the afternoon.

Still, we saw similar numbers of raptors, including 16 Northern Harriers, 4 Bald Eagles, 23 Red-tailed Hawks, 13 Rough-legged Hawks and 2 American Kestrels. Sixteen Common Redpolls were the only notable songbird – we didn’t see the Northern Shrike again.

The hawks and eagles weren’t very cooperative for photos this time. To my surprise, neither were the Snowy Owls – all but one of the 37 Snowies we saw in December had departed. We wondered if they had been pushed out by all the other over-wintering hawks and eagles, or were weary of being flushed by over-zealous photographers. I am grateful I had the opportunity to see so many in December, and that I had such wonderful views of one at the end of the day.

The hawks and single Snowy Owl were too distant to photograph, but I had already gotten a number of satisfying photos from my previous visit so I wasn’t too upset; I was mainly looking forward to photographing the small owls in Owl Woods again. The first highlight of the day was a pair of Long-eared Owls that Jon pointed out to us – though difficult to see through the branches, I was able to get my binoculars on two birds as they slept. I haven’t seen this species since it was a life bird back in 2007!

Owl Woods, fortunately, was productive for Northern Saw-whet Owls once again. We asked a couple of people leaving if they had found any, and they advised they had found two very close to the trail. It didn’t take us long to find the first one in a tree well above head height, snoozing in a cozy cedar.

Northern Saw-whet Owl

We found the second one by tracing fresh whitewash at the base of the trunk up to the branch on which it was sleeping. Whitewash is composed chiefly of urea, the same chemical found in mammalian urine, and looks like a white paste coating the branches and ground where an owl has spent a lot of time roosting. To our surprise, the Saw-whet Owl was sleeping with a vole still clutched in its talons, probably saving it for later – Saw-whets typically eat a single vole or mouse over the course of two meals. You can see some whitewash on the horizontal branch to the right; the best way to find small roosting owls is to look for fresh whitewash on the branches and trunks of cedar trees in thick hedges.

Northern Saw-whet Owl with prey

We eventually found two more Saw-whet Owls on our own. One was tucked deep inside the densely packed branches of a cedar tree, and not easily photographable, and the other was visible only from below, as too may branches concealed its face and upper body. We’d already had marvelous looks at two Saw-whet Owls anyway; finding two more was just a bonus.

We headed to the Jack Pine plantation at the back of owl woods. Once again it was eerily silent, with no Golden-crowned Kinglets or chickadees foraging along the edge this time. We found a Barred Owl feather in the woods and were encouraged by its presence.

Barred Owl Feather

We found the two Barred Owls themselves again fairly easily; they didn’t seem easily disturbed this time, and sat patiently while we all took a couple of photos.

Barred Owl

After that we turned around and headed back through the cedar grove. We encountered a few chickadees, Blue Jays, and two White-breasted Nuthatches, and although one of my goals was to find a Red-bellied Woodpecker we came up empty. We did find one last Northern Saw-whet Owl close to the feeder area, sitting on a cedar branch with no cover whatsoever. It was tucked up against the tree trunk on the side opposite of the trail, so we had missed it on our way in. Northern Saw-whet Owls are actually considered one of the most common owl species in forests across northern North America, but are rarely seen due to their highly nocturnal nature. Then again, there are a lot of trees in North America, and it would take a lot of time searching each tree from every angle! Amherst Island is still the only place I’ve ever seen them.

Northern Saw-whet Owl

We left Owl Woods satisfied with all the owls we had seen, then started our customary drive around the eastern side of the island. The snow that had been threatening for the past half hour started to come down; the day was darkening quickly, and we didn’t see much on our drive up Lower Forty Foot Road – certainly nothing as exciting as the Northern Harrier perching right next to the road as last time. As we were driving west along Front Road we stopped to check out a couple of large birds perching on the fence posts adjacent to a large field. We stopped, delighted to find a couple of Short-eared Owls! We scanned the area, and observed more Short-eared Owls perching on various shed roof-tops, farm equipment, and a whole row of them perching on the next fence over!

Short-eared Owl in the snow

We drove up ahead a bit, stopped, then scanned the area again, this time counting all the Short-eared Owls we could see. A careful count revealed a total of 56 Short-eared Owls sitting out in the open. I had never seen this number of Short-eared Owls before; in fact, I’d never seen one perch for more than a couple of minutes! There is a wonderful photo on Jon’s outing summary page; click to enlarge to see the 13 owls all lined up in a row!

This was the best outing for owls at Amherst Island I’ve had in a long time. It was great to see the Long-eared Owls after such a long drought, and I always love seeing the tiny, fierce-looking, but utterly cute Northern Saw-whet Owls in Owl Woods. The flock of Short-eared Owls at the end of the day, however, was the high point of our trip, and a sight I won’t soon forget.

*Author’s Note – although dated for March 2, 2019, the day of our trip to Amherst Island, this blog post is being published over 10 months later on January 12, 2020 and backdated accordingly. As mentioned by the Kingston Field Naturalists, a condition of the general public being allowed continued access to the Owl Woods is that observations of owls seen there are not posted to the Internet (in any form) during the current season. Access may be revoked if the rules are broken. As such, the publishing of this blog post has been delayed in order to comply with the rules.


2 thoughts on “Amherst Island Owls

  1. I’m glad to see there are still owls there but not sure it’s really helpful posting at all, even off season. Here am I looking in Jan 2021 and finding this….

    • CM, I’m not sure what you are trying to get at with your comment. You’re looking at a post about an outing that took place almost two years ago, which was published many months after these photographs were taken in accordance with the rules put in place by the Kingston Field Naturalists and owners of the Owl Woods. I believe it is necessary to suppress owl sightings during the season that they are being seen, as there are many horrific stories on the web about the disturbances and even harm that the owls endure from too many unethical people trying to get a photo. I don’t believe it is necessary to hide those sightings once the owls have left….regardless of whether they are likely to return.

      This is because everyone already knows that there are owls on Amherst Island; it has been a well-known overwintering spot for owls and raptors since long before I started birding. My blog is not the only site on the internet where this is mentioned. It is mentioned on other personal blog or photography sites, the KFNs’ website, other birding clubs’ websites, NeilyWorld, eBird, local bird guides’ outing pages, Project Snowstorm, and more. Even without up-to-date sightings on the internet, every fall birders and photographers start visiting Amherst Island to see how many raptors and owls are present, and word quickly spreads among both communities if any unusual species are wintering there. I don’t think someone who has never been there before would start visiting now after reading a blog with two-year-old information.

      The landowners and the KFN are very aware of the pressure on Owl Woods and its inhabitants. They have developed rules that all visitors are required to obey if the they wish continued permission to access to this place. I do not see the harm in posting old photos with a reminder of the current rules.

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