Another hastily-chugged cup of coffee. Another early-morning stagger out into the bitter cold. Another Tim Horton’s stop and fuel-up. Another voyage on the ferry across the icy spur of Lake Ontario, another careening ride down rutted dirt roads.
Another chance – our last chance – at the Owl Woods and its bounty of Strigiforme goodness.
The difference in the woods soon became apparent. For one thing, someone had spent time on Sunday laying out small tree trunks at the entrance to form a path. Not exactly a velvet rope, but it did funnel every visitor directly in front of the sign with the rules. Subtle, but fierce. A bit like a Saw-whet.
Moreover, it being both a weekday and earlier in the morning than our previous visit, there were far fewer people in the woods. Oh, we weren’t the only humans, but the others were pairs and singletons, not vast groups. Even the Chickadees, not put on high alert by the prospect of food, seemed more subdued.
So we began, once again, the process of moving slowly from cedar to cedar. This time the group, perhaps more confident or merely less patient, fanned out to check trees each on their own.
I was dubious about this strategy – the other thousand times I’d checked trees on my own, at the Olde Homestead and Prospect and Central Parks, had always come to naught – so I hung back and looked at pellets. The pellets were gray, and rich with the bones of the meadow voles who enthusiastically populate the island and make it an owl (and hawk) Mecca.
Suddenly, I heard a frantic whisper. The rest of the group was making a determined beeline for a tree at the very edge of the wood. This tiny, non-descript, and twisted pine, upon inspection by one of my tripmates, had proved to contain a Boreal Owl.
The Boreal Owl is a dream-bird, not just because it is nocturnal, not just because it is small (I would say ‘elfin’ but that should probably be properly reserved for the Elf Owl itself), not just because it is remote, but all three. When I told people about the trip in the planning stages, this was the species that I made sure to mention, and the response was always one of congenial jealousy. I had put it down as nice, but not necessary, in an attempt to manage my expectations. Now here it was. I felt a strange urge to get – not closer, but further away; to not risk even in the slightest disturbing or harming something so perfect. I tried not to breath.
After the exquisite agony of balancing the owl’s well-being with our own desire to stare at it forever, we moved away. I couldn’t tell you how long it took, although I think not very. It was still forever-ish enough.
The story was over, the happy ending written. But birding trips are not stories, so even though we were now moving towards our cars and lunch and goodbyes and the long drive back to New York, we kept checking the trees. We were, perhaps, halfway back when The Inimitable Todd stuck his head into a cedar and came out looking like he wanted to shout for joy, but was nobly refraining.
Yes, The Inimitable Todd – the world’s most patient non-birder – had found the trip’s only Saw-whet Owl, provided me with a seventh life bird in three days, and provided another happy ending.
But birding trips are not stories. Before we left the woods, we stumbled over the Barred Owl once again.
Then we drove around the island several times, searching for Rough-legged Hawks and finding many Red-tails, Kestrels, and more Tundra Swans before finally finding a light-morph bird hunting over the fields.
Then we had lunch.
Then the IT and I made the long drive towards home, in the snow. As we drove over the bridge into the United States, a Raven paced our car…. only to turn back mere inches before joining my NYS list.
Then the birding part of the trip was over.
Looking back, I have to say that it was a wonderful trip, despite the challenging weather and a couple of dips. Lakeshore Nature Tours won my appreciation from the start. I probably won’t be going back to Amherst Island any time soon, but only because the heavy human pressure on the island makes me think I should give a turn to someone else, someone who – like me – will love it, and spread that word that it should be respected and saved.