Bob and I learned about Amherst Island from fellow birders who touted it as the most reliable location to see Snowy Owls in the winter. On our first ever trip there, we were not disappointed.
Having planned to stay in the area for one night, we took our time in the morning and so arrived at the car ferry around 11:00 a.m. on a bright, sunny November day.
Amherst Island lies in Lake Ontario 10 kilometres west of Kingston and about 3 kilometres offshore. The 33-car Frontenac II provides service to and from Amherst Island 365 days a year.
Bob and I felt that we were on a real adventure so even delighted in the 20-minute boat ride across North Channel from the ferry dock in Millhaven. Choppy waters made it difficult to spot shorebirds, but Bob did manage to see a couple of Great Black-backed Gulls bobbing on the waves.
Amherst Island is home to a year-round population of residents and a vital farming community.
Together with open farm fields, protected wetland areas, and wooded lots, there is sufficient variety of habitats to make the island desirable as a wintering ground for many birds of prey. As a result, birding on Amherst Island is akin to doing an African safari. We simply drove around on the interconnected roads scanning for birds and wildlife.
We discovered that the island has a healthy population of White-tailed Deer. In fact, a week after we visited, Owl Woods was off limits to birders for a 4-week span to allow for hunting.
It was after Bob and I left Owl Woods that we finally spotted our first Snowy Owl of the day. It was perched on a distant knoll so stood out against the weathered brown grass.
The second Snowy Owl that day was a little harder to pick out…further away and at first hunkered down next to a rock as it tried to blend in with the scenery. After watching the Owl for a few minutes, it began to reposition itself, stretch its wings and ruffle its feathers.
Then the Snowy Owl took flight heading east, so we moved along the roadway in the same direction and continued to scan the landscape for more sightings. It helped that there was no snow on the ground yet.
Bob and I had no idea how many Snowy Owls were residing on Amherst Island that early in the winter, and certainly more would be arriving as the next couple of months passed, so when an incoming Snowy Owl at low level came towards us, we felt totally blessed.
We were breathless as this third Snowy Owl approached…
then took a spot on a utility pole about 100 feet off the road. It was positioned to scan the fields for mice and voles before the sun set for the day.
Though we were bundled up in layers against the weather, brutal frigid winds pulled at our clothes and seeped through our mittens whenever we stepped from the car. It didn’t help that we kept the car windows down for better viewing as we navigated the island roads.
My fingers became so numb that I could barely feel my camera. Still we braved the affront of the wind and dropping temperature to get some decent photos while we waited to see if this Snowy Owl would pounce on some prey.
Instead, the Snowy Owl took to the sky again,
and as it headed off in search of better hunting grounds, we found relief from the icy winds back in the car with hot air blasting from the heater.
On this particular visit, the Snowy Owls tended to occupy territories on the east end of Amherst Island. Since we were going in that direction to complete the circular route back to the ferry dock, the late afternoon sun was in our favour for photographing these majestic birds.
With great excitement, Bob spotted yet another Snowy Owl just after a gravel truck passed us. The Snowy Owl did not budge despite the noise of the larger vehicle, so we felt encouraged to pull our car onto the shoulder of the roadway and to cautiously exit the vehicle. The Owl was a good few hundred metres away from us.
Advancing very slowly in the general direction of the Owl, Bob and I stopped every few steps to snap a few more photos. We were so disappointed when the Owl took flight, but then elated when it landed just a short ways over and right beside the road.
This was our 4th Snowy Owl of the day! And this particular individual was so focused on hunting that it stayed put on an old fence post for the longest period of time. Large trucks were driving by as construction work came to an end for the day, and one driver even stopped to chat and admire the Owl himself.
The Golden Hour was upon us, and with no shadows cast upon the Snowy Owl, we had perfect conditions for photographing this beautiful creature. At times, Bob and I just stood and admired the experience of having this Snowy Owl all to ourselves.
Seeing this Snowy Owl under perfect conditions had really fulfilled our expectations for the day, but it goes without saying that many other birds of prey had been seen and photographed over the few hours we spent on the Island.
There were countless Northern Harriers doing aerial acrobatics above almost every meadow and field, and we often saw one come up with a vole in its grasp.
We lost count of the Red-tailed Hawks that often were so well-camouflaged in the tops of deciduous trees that it was almost impossible to detect them.
And we did have occasion to spot two different Rough-legged Hawks.
Bob and I continued to scan the landscape as we drove onward to the boat landing, and did see two more Snowy Owls, but they were very distant. Here is Snowy Owl #5 sitting under the tree…
and Snowy Owl #6. What fun it was lifting the binoculars to our eyes any time we detected a white blob on the horizon. Sometimes, it was only a boulder or occasionally a discarded plastic container that fooled us, but there was no doubting that we had seen half a dozen different Snowy Owls on this particular day.
It was 4:15 p.m. by the time we reached the ferry dock and a small lineup of vehicles was already awaiting the return of the boat from the mainland. A colourful sunset painted the sky red as we boarded the Frontenac II and readied for its 4:30 departure. By 5 p.m. we were onshore and headed in search of our lodgings. We hoped that the next day would be as rewarding.
Frame To Frame – Bob and Jean