January 1 2018. Vinemount ON. As I took in the always novel privilege of seeing a placid Snowy Owl far out in the ice today I got thinking how, except for one major fly in the ointment, there might be quite a tourism business opportunity in Snowy Owl watching; the trouble is it’s almost always so perishing cold when the owls are here. There’s usually at least one or two snowies seen each fall and winter but every now and then we get a bumper crop, this year is shaping up as one of those big ones although it doesn’t yet compare to the winter of 2013 / 2014 when there were dozens maybe hundreds around the lower Great Lakes. Snowy Owls are one of the prizes among birds of the world; it’s just everything about them: owlish inscrutability, owlish mystery, and who, other than Santa Claus, leaves the far far north at year-end to visit us and yet remains virtually unseen.
Today’s owl was one of four special birds of winter; I’m including a Peregrine Falcon and a bunch of Bald Eagles in that description. The peregrine was spotted flying with a freshly-seized Rock Pigeon in its talons, obviously fresh because it was still flapping, almost as energetically as the falcon. The flapping made life difficult for the peregrine that was clearly wishing the pigeon would stay still for a minute. My money was on the peregrine.
The Bald Eagles, seven of them at least, I could see far away out over the harbour ice. One or two of them were adults (white heads and tails) but most looked just massive and black against the spindrift snow. On winter days like this the deep cold and gathering ice is a dire threat to over-wintering ducks, geese and swans and the Bald Eagles are there for the pickings; so much for the noble eagle as national symbol.
Best bird, Bird of the Day, was a spectacular Rough-legged Hawk patrolling the landscaped rim of a deep limestone quarry. The brisk north wind piled up in a cushion of lift over the cliff edge giving the hawk a wave to ride like a surfer. Rough-legged Hawks breed in tundra or taiga in arctic and subarctic North America, they migrate south to spend the winter in the open landscapes of southern Canada and the northern U.S. They exhibit quite variable plumage and today’s was a light-morph (see photos below). It’s dramatic the black belly and wrist patches contrasting against otherwise pale body and wing-undersides. I have included two photos, one taken four years ago because it’s better, but note the individuals (while both light-morph Rough-legged Hawks) are not identical. Today’s bird has less well-defined wrist patches, a faint barely discernable terminal band on the tail and perhaps lighter markings on the throat. I have done quite a bit of reading trying to pin age and /or sex on either of these birds but the texts aren’t a lot of help and frankly I’m happy enough to revel in the beauty of the bird regardless of age or sex.