Thursday 20 December 2012

Is it a hawk or an owl?

This morning, I met up with Brett Fried and Erika Hentsch at the brutal hour of way-before-sunrise. We had plans to look for the long-staying Northern Hawk Owl west of Peterborough, a species that they needed for the year. Brett was stuck on 299 species this year in Ontario, and with time running out, it might have been his last chance to hit the magical mark of 300.

The drive to Peterborough took much shorter than I remembered from previous trips to that part of Ontario, and we arrived at the site before sunrise. After unsuccessfully checking Meadowview Road as the sun rose, we turned our attention to the rail trail running parallel to it; a location where the owl had been seen the previous day.

As the sun rose, the bird life became active. It wasn't long before we had our first chickadees and crows, and while we were scanning the chickadees a high rattling trill was heard. Bohemian Waxwing! This was a lifer for Erika, though we couldn't see it. After a bit of pishing, the Bohemian made its location known as it flushed out of the cedars. Not a great look, but still better than nothing.

Eventually, Brett and I were scanning when we both saw this odd lump at the top of a tree along a farmer's hedgerow. Could it be?

Indeed it was - the Northern Hawk Owl! As we walked closer, the owl left its perch and flew right towards us, alighting at the very tip of a tree along the edge of the path.

Northern Hawk Owl - near Peterborough, Ontario

Northern Hawk-owl is one of the 3 species of highly desirable "northern owls" that show up in Ontario, along with Great Gray Owl and Boreal Owl. During the summer this generally uncommon species breeds in birch and poplar stands, and more commonly large bogs in the boreal forest. They generally stay in their breeding range year round, though some winters occasional individuals will irrupt southwards. Despite being extremely conspicuous when they are present, they are rarely seen this far south in Ontario with usually less than 5 reported each winter.

Northern Hawk Owl - near Peterborough, Ontario

I was excited to get this bird for the day. I had one previous sighting of this species this year - a single bird perched on a hydro wire in the Rainy River District. Unfortunately my camera was packed away at the time so I was unable to photograph it. This was another species which I can take off the "only seen once this year and with no photos" list! I don't need to photograph a bird for it to count on my big year, but there are definitely skeptics out there so it certainly doesn't hurt!

Northern Hawk Owl - near Peterborough, Ontario

After checking out some more spots around Peterborough and generally not seeing much, we debated heading north to Haliburton. A "possible" Slaty-backed Gull (one I still need for the year) had been reported, though the identification wasn't certain since gull identification is tricky. Unfortunately it hadn't been seen since. Since that would have added 3 hours in total to our drive, we decided to skip it. Instead, we stopped in Oshawa on the way home to take a look at a Western Tanager which had shown up in a sketchy looking park.

The tanager took a bit of effort, but eventually I caught a glimpse of it and called Brett, Erika, and Doug McRae over. Doug was on his way to Toronto so he popped in to take a look at the tanager. Of course, it had disappeared when they arrived, so while Brett made fun of me for mis-identifying a chickadee (screw you, Brett) we waited for it to show up. Eventually it did and we watched it for a while foraging for whatever it could find on this chilly December day. I only managed a couple of distant photos since the bird was very fidgity and constantly on the move.

Western Tanager - Oshawa, Ontario

This was another species which I had only seen once this year before this sighting. It was the third one of the year for Brett.

That afternoon, on an unsuccessful quest for Barred Owls, we happened across a little mob of chickadees and nuthatches. Unfortunately we had no bird seed and so the birds were none too pleased. This is what an angry Red-breasted Nuthatch looks like!

Red-breasted Nuthatch - Oshawa, Ontario

It was a successful day in the field - perhaps one of the last times I will get out before the year ends. It appears all but inevitable that I will end the year with 344 species. Special thanks to my mom for letting me borrow her camera today! The Northern Hawk-owl was my 300th species photographed in Ontario this year.


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Zadore said...

Great shots of the Hawk Owl Josh! I headed up there after seeing you in Oshawa, and didn't even have to walk up the trail. It was sitting on the wires right next to Hwy. 7 by the bridge. Swooped down and caught a vole right in front of me, ate for a bit, then took off to the west. Some video of it at
Glad you guys found the Tanager as well...I went back in the afternoon and couldn't re-find it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Phil, I'm glad you got it. I'm a little jealous that you got to see it catch and eat a vole too - that's pretty awesome!!