Amherst Island is world famous for raptors and includes the “Owl Woods” where many birders have seen their life owls of several species. During years when meadow vole numbers peak it supports hundreds of wintering hawks and owls. It is proposed that 36 massively tall wind turbines be constructed on the island, four of which will be close to the Owl Woods. According to the Toronto Star newspaper adjacent Wolfe Island has the second highest bird mortality in North America caused by wind turbines. Amherst is a quiet and serene rural island, and is one of the treasures of the birding world. Are we about to alter greatly, both ecologically and esthetically, one of the most important birding areas in North America?
Jean Iron and Ron Pittaway, Ontario Field Ornithologists
From the November 2014 Amherst Island Beacon
Janet Scott, the Bird Lady of Amherst Island
Welcome to Amherst Island. Is anyone visiting Amherst Island for the first time? Be careful it might be catching. I moved here 30 years ago and I am still here. Owls are one of the many species that come to visit Amherst Island and can be seen in the Owl Woods. There is not such a place as The Owl Woods located on any official map and the unmaintained road that people refer to as The Owl Woods Road is really the Marshall Forty-foot. I hope today to take you on a magical visit in words to the Owl Woods of Amherst Island. So why is the Owl Woods a significant birding area?
In the July/August 2003 copy of “Wildbird”, Kevin T. Karlson wrote this article “Owl Capital of North America. “ and I quote: “In Ontario, Canada, Amherst Island attracts birds of prey with mild winters and abundant food. Memories of our short visit to this special location still carry a sense of disbelief. My photographs are proof that we really saw these hawks and owls, but nothing has come close to duplicating the intensity of that experience. An occasional glance at these ‘owls in wonderland’ always brings a smile to my face.”
The Owl Woods is the only place where it is possible to see ten species of owls in one day. There are 19 different species of Owls in North America and most are living in hard to reach places like mountains or desert areas but once in a very long time ten different species can be seen here. On one occasion I met people from as far away as Australia, California and England gathered in the Pines looking at the same Boreal Owl.
We would not have this wonderful treasure to enjoy if it were not for the private land owners who recognized the value of keeping this pristine woodlot and maintaining the habitat. Mr. Stuart Miller who was the Amherst Island Roads Superintendent by day but also an avid naturalist dug ponds to provide water habitat for ducks, geese and amphibians. His sister Gwen tells me that many a time he would get her up at 5 am to go for a walk in the family woodlot that we now call The Owl Woods.
After his death Gwen and her husband Paul have continued to welcome groups to visit the Owl Woods and meet the wildlife up close and personal. Never realizing what a difference it would make thirty years later, Rod Barr, a Supreme Court Judge, husband of Rhoda Marshall, a daughter of the Marshall farm family that had owned that property, began an extensive tree planting programme. Most of the trees he planted were eaten while young by the pesky voles or died in droughts but eventually a substantial forest of young Jack Pines took hold and today that is where we find most of the roosting owls. These trees replaced so many that were damaged and later died in the Ice Storm of ’98. Stuart wanted to cut paths through the woods to make it easier for access to the owls so he and Alex Scott planned where the paths should go and removed rocks on the paths so that Alex could follow the bush hog with his riding lawnmower. Alex trimmed the edges of the openings with clippers so that nylon jackets brushing against tree branches would not scare the roosting owls. During winters of deep snow Rick Welbanks, a young man living on the South Shore, would drive his snowmobile over some of the wider trails so that we could access the woods with Cross Country skis or snowshoes. Alex began the hand feeding of Chickadees while he searched the cedars for owls and today his grandchildren and hundreds of others feed the descendants of those happy little balls of fluff.
We became lovers of the owls even before we moved to the Island because our son, as a member of the Junior Kingston Field Naturalists, took part in a banding programme at the Prince Edward Point Lighthouse. They needed a driver and once Alex met these cute Northern Saw-whets the whole family returned for the next banding and we soon went on a trip to Amherst Island to see these roosting owls.
Northern Saw-whet – The Saw-whet is a small 8” owl with warm reddish- brown above with whitish below and reddish-brown streaks. The call is like Noel’s vehicle’s back-up signal and is primarily heard in Springtime. It’s a cavity nester and can be found just north of the Great Lakes. Marni Matthews, a biologist living on Amherst Island, found 6 eggs in a Wood Duck nesting box in 1976. I like to describe the Saw-whet as butterscotch and the Boreal as chocolate.
Boreal – The Boreal Owl is sought ardently on Amherst Island because it is so difficult to find it on its circum-polar nesting area in the Boreal forest at least 700 km. north. Birders come from around the world in the hopes of seeing this small 10” owl. The marks on its head are more spots than streaks, the beak is bone-coloured rather than black like the Saw-whet.
Barred – This owl is more common and nests here in Marshy areas. It calls “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all”. It has brown eyes unlike the yellow ones that most other owls have. The horizontal streaks around its neck appear like a muffler and the streaks on its breast are vertical. It’s about 21 inches tall. Unfortunately it likes little owls for lunch!
Short-eared Owl – Amherst Island is one of the few places where this endangered 15” owl is found both winter and summer. It nests in the fields, right on the ground, and is crepuscular which means it hunts the hour after dawn and the hour before sunset. This friendly fellow barks rather than hoots. It is tawny coloured with dark wrist patches on the light underside of the wing and flies like a moth.
Long-eared Owl – The 15 inch warm butterscotch coloured, slender owl is usually shy and retiring. Its rusty red-brown facial discs are prominent and under the wing are dark wrist patches. It roosts during the day and hunts at night emitting horrible shrieks as it flies. It nests here in the Owl Woods and sometimes gathers in winter with as many as 30 roosting by day in the Pine Forest on Barr’s property.
Eastern Screech – We did not feel that Screech Owls were nesting here until the KFN BIoblitz of 2009 discovered a Screech Owl in The Owl Woods in June. They had been regular nesters just across the water at Parrot’s Bay. They are night hunters about 8 and 1/2 inches and come in gray or red morph.
Snowy Owl – This heaviest of all the owls is most easily recognized because of its white colour. This owl nests on the tundra in the Arctic but comes south to find food in the winter months. A Snowy Owl can eat 10 voles a day so the years that 25 Snowies stay at least 5 months here they require Amherst Island to supply about 37, 500 voles (Microtus Pennsylvanicus). They are diurnal and relatively common having been seen every year since 1979. They usually perch on elevated poles so they can survey the surrounding grasslands.
Northern Hawk Owl – The Northern Hawk Owl is an elusive and rare visitor but when one arrives it tends to pick a territory and stay there for awhile. The last one that came in 2011 hung out on the South Shore for about 8 weeks and became so predictable that we could just tell birders the house number and they could see it. It is 16 inches and looks like a long–tailed Boreal but has a smaller head than its shoulders hence the name Hawk.
Barn Owl – In 1976 there were several sightings of Barn Owls in the Kingston area. One spent August in a barn at Eves’ marsh on Amherst Island and a pair laid eggs in Fleming’s barn on Amherst Island in early August. The five young that hatched were banded by Ron Weir in November 1976 but were all found dead by December 1976. Syke Fleming told me that there was a lot of snow that winter and that they were unable to find enough food to survive. Barn Owls have light, heart-shaped faces and brown eyes.
Great Gray Owl -The tallest Owl in North America is the Great Gray. It is very tame and exhibits a white bowtie below its very circular facial discs. In the owl invasion of 1993-94 Alex and I walked from the church on the Stella Forty-foot to the Owl Woods and saw 23 Great Gray Owls in one day. It was 23 degrees below so I wouldn’t recommend this walk in mild weather, too wet.
Great Horned Owl – a 22 inch owl showing prominent tufts. Nests on Island and is most shy. Fears man and uses old Red-tailed Hawks’ nests or broken stubs for sites. This one hoots. One roosted in a broken stub at Raymond Wemp’s and he probably knows more about this shy species than anyone else on the Island.
Before leaving the Owl Woods don’t miss an erratic rock in the North-west area. Erratic rocks are glacier- borne blocks of stone which can be as large as houses. A famous example in Ontario is the Bleasdell boulder in Glen Miller in Hastings County. It weighs in at 2000 tonnes and stands approx. 7m. high and is one of the largest of its kind in N. America. Okatoks Rock in Alberta is another such rock. In the Owl Woods our erratic is not as big but it can hold 11 Kindergartners. Erratics are not the same composition as the surrounding rocks.
Thank-you to the Barr family and the Laurets for their continuing welcome to those who love Nature. Please treat their properties with the respect that they deserve.