This winter has been one of the most brutal winters southern Ontario has seen in years. And in spite of that, it’s been my best birding winter by far. I’ve already managed to rack up five owl species, including the legendary Great Grey.
We encountered the monumental Great Grey Owl one freezing day in January in the small hamlet of Brooklin (sp!), a mere hour east of Toronto. There he was in a field, posing for us atop a branch. About thirty or so birders greeted the bird with an emotional welcome — I even saw one lady burst into tears. She cried because she knew that her subsequent sightings would never be as momentous as the first time she held the owl’s gaze. It’s an emotional business, this here birding. I’ll admit that I let out a small yelp when I finally got my binoculars on the Strix nebulosa, resident of Boreal forests — the tallest North American owl with the largest wingspan. But it was the owl’s coiffure that I couldn’t quite get over: a cacophonous blend of competing plumage hues and patterns. Grey majestic circular patterns around the somber eyes set off against a furry greyish and white head and neck, and a brownish fluffy body. Even the poshest, most avant garde salon wouldn’t have dared produce a hairdo so textured and layered. A miracle of an owl.
The Great Grey was followed by a magnificent rufous Eastern Screech Owl in a cemetery on the border of Hamilton and Burlington. We saw it hanging out in its usual spot, poking its head out of a hole in a dead tree. The adult red morph is rare, since they’re usually grey, so this was a particular treat.
Last weekend was my true Owl Extravaganza day. In one afternoon, I saw a fabulous Snowy Owl, followed by a Great Horned, and an elusive Long-Eared. The regal Snowy (Bubo scandiacus) was hanging out in Oakville, near a marina. (Birders had found a number of dead, half-eaten ducks not far from the Snowy; clearly, Bubo scandiacus won’t leave Ontario hungry.) The Snowy happens to be the largest North American owl by weight. The one we saw was a heavily streaked, greyish female, and she was also gargantuan. The day we saw her, she was lazing about, contemplating the weather, perhaps entertaining deep philosophical questions. In any event, she did some neck twists, and went about her business of surveying her terrain. I did detect a nervous Red-breasted Merganser not far from the Snowy. Swim, little duck, I wanted to shout! Away, while you can!
I was thrilled to see the Great Horned, since the Bubo virginianus was my introduction to owls. I haven’t seen one in two years, so this felt monumental. I never tire of the Great Horned Owl’s austere look and his dark eyebrows and furry ears. I would have loved to hear his deep hoot, but he was saving his voice for a more exciting opportunity, I suppose.
The last owl of the day was the elusive Long-eared, which I’ve only seen as a fly-by. This time, alas, was no exception, but the owl really did fly towards me and over my head, and the whole thing happened in slow motion, so I got a great look at his slightly elongated, striped face. He seemed to be in a hurry to get somewhere (a rodent caught his eye?) so we didn’t interrupt him by tagging along.
All in all, it’s been a glorious winter!