Winter Trip North


(This 725th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on February 20, 2005.)


A few days ago Mike Hamilton, Gail Seamans and I ventured north on a two day, thousand mile driving trip that took us to Algonquin Park and Sudbury in Ontario. The main goal of our adventure was to see a rare visitor from the Rocky Mountains: a gray-crowned rosy-finch that had been regularly appearing at a feeder near Sudbury.


By setting out at 2:30 a.m. we were able to beat the terrible Toronto commuting traffic. At daybreak we were driving around Lake Simcoe looking for the great gray owls that had been reported in the area. Thank goodness the weather had warmed from the thirty below temperatures of the previous week, but it was still a brisk morning with thermometers registering teens.


Near the lake we were encased in dense fog and could see only a few yards into the haze. As it lifted, we found ourselves surrounded by ice-covered trees twinkling in the filtered light.


Dozens of owls had been reported from along these roads, but we began to think that they had departed. Finally we sighted one, however; then another, two within a few yards, and still more until we counted 13 of these spectacular birds. Coming as they do from the far north, they show no fear and we were able to photograph one perched on a fencepost no more than ten feet from our car.


They were very big owls but what most impressed us about them was how they could perch atop the tiniest of branches. The reason: their great volume is almost all fluffed-out feathers and these emaciated individuals probably weigh little more than two pounds. We could just imagine the high R-value of that plumage.


When we were finally satiated with owls, we headed for Algonquin. There we hoped to see boreal chickadees, a species that Mike, whose life list is more than twice mine, had not yet observed in Ontario. No luck, but we did find plenty of ravens and a number of other northern species. The croaking of ravens was one of the few sounds that broke the silence of the woods.


In the park we walked along the unplowed road toward Opeongo Lake followed by a group of inquisitive gray jays. Each time we stopped they approached evidently hoping for another handout of sunflower seeds. I always enjoy the company of these big chickadee look-alikes that have earned the colloquial name camp robber.


Suddenly a flock of white-winged crossbills flew overhead to perch in the highest branches of nearby spruce trees where they began to use their strange x-like bills to pry open cones. The males are especially attractive, their torsos washed with soft pink.


On another trail we found two black-backed woodpeckers quietly pecking at the bases of conifers. Unlike our other eastern woodpeckers, males of this species sport yellow instead of red caps. Later as we drove back out of the park two pileated woodpeckers flew across the road ahead of us.


Our trip to Sudbury was not uneventful. Driving at night I suddenly came upon a big deer carcass in the road. I managed only to straddle it. That wasn't enough, however, and a bang announced a broken tailpipe. For the remainder of the trip our presence was announced by a drum roll.


Early the next morning we drove to the house at whose feeder in Chelmsford the rosy-finch had been seen every day for weeks. We placed bets on the first species that would appear. A black-capped chickadee won for Gail. Then two others appeared that I rarely see: pine grosbeaks and redpolls.


The plumage of the male pine grosbeak is a lovely pink and gray. In the females the pink is replaced by soft yellow. There must have been at least thirty of these handsome birds.


Redpolls always make me think of the old "Call for Philip Morris" page boy of advertisements, because these small, sparrow-like birds have red caps on their foreheads and also sport a black chin strap. Among them were two almost white hoary redpolls.


The rosy-finch didn't turn up. The only other species we saw at the feeders was a single evening grosbeak, like an outsized goldfinch stuffing itself on sunflower seeds.


But we were not done yet. A few yards from where we pulled off the highway to change drivers, atop a small tree sat still another owl. We thought at first that it was a great gray but it turned out to be a hawk owl, another rare winter visitor.


We missed both target species; however, we returned happy with the many birds we had seen.-- Gerry Rising