Getting out of the Toronto Pearson Airport meant having to navigate through a maze of winding roads before exiting onto the big multi-lane highways of Toronto. Thankfully, it was my friend Reuven Martin driving – not me.
Our destination was Guelph, where I would be staying with him and my other friends: Mark Dorriesfield, Muhammad Zwink, and Emma Cushnie. I hadn’t seen any of them for three years; not since we met at Long Point during the 2010 Doug Tarry Young Ornithologists Workshop. A reunion was long due and much looked forward to!
After meeting their classmates/roommates Mason, Todd, and Beverly, and catching up and telling stories, a good night’s sleep was definitely in order. Being constantly on the move via bus, ship, and plane for 2.5 weeks meant my bed felt strangely still and the house unnaturally quiet when everyone retired for the evening.
Birding was the plan for our group of birders and naturalists. It was difficult to keep track of where we went – the communities all blended together and I could not tell where we were most of the time.
The weather was mostly overcast, and everything was a sheet of ice – the sidewalks were skating rinks in the morning and deep puddles in the afternoon. With some wind it got fairly chilly, making a hot lunch of pizza subs more than welcome! (Thanks Emma :) )
We visited this place just outside Guelph University called ‘The Arboretum’, which I had been quite curious to see. My stubborn mental image of a glass dome containing a garden of tropical plants was shattered as everything I had been told about it previously appeared before my very eyes.
The Arboretum is a nature reserve. There is a visitor’s centre and a few other buildings, walking trails, some garden areas, and groves of endangered tree species. The most interesting place is a marsh where tall Beech and Oak – riddled with cavities nesting wood Ducks use – grow right in the water. You can check out a detailed map of the reserve here. In the evening our crew attempted calling in the local Eastern Screech Owls, but none responded. It made me reminisce to an evening during the YOW when we were highly successful, having two screech owls respond to our calls.
Something I found very apparent in the Arboretum at night was the light pollution of the city in the overcast sky. It was late and everything should have been dark, but the whole area glowed an orange colour that gave the evening an eerie feeling.
One of the good birding spots we hit was ‘Burlington Ship Canal’, where ducks gathered by the hundreds. The flock consisted mainly of Long-tailed Ducks and Greater Scaup, but there were some other duck species, a few Mute Swans, a lone Common Loon, and a lifer female King Eider! The eider was a great surprise – a bird we had planned to find going there, but one that I had not originally expected when coming to visit. It was distant, right at the edge of the flock in the windiest of conditions and continually diving, but it could not escape Reuven’s sharp eye!
Our objective at Adam Beck in Niagara was to find my lifer Iceland Gulls. Being unfamiliar with the species, it took some time to pick out the adults amongst the Herring Gulls at a distance and it was only with Mark, Reuven, Muhammad, Todd, and Emma’s help that I did. The juveniles were much easier to see, being noticeably pale compared to the adults. A lifer Northern Mockingbird decided to make an appearance as well, and before we left we heard a Blue Jay mimicking the call of a Red-tailed Hawk. Too cool!!
One of my favorite birding destinations was Dufferin Islands at Niagara Falls, where we tracked down the Tufted Titmice I had longed for. A pair travelled with a mixed flock of Black-capped Chickadees, Brown Creepers, White-breasted Nuthatches, and a Golden-crowned Kinglet. The kinglet, though not a lifer, was wonderful to watch as it was the first I had seen away from a bird observatory. Tiny and drab gray, nothing about them really stands out until they tip their head and flash a sunny crown.
Another great area was LaSalle Park and Marina, Burlington, home to wintering Trumpeter Swans and ducks. The warmer weather and the sound of the swans honking made me think of April at home, when they gather around Tagish Bridge by the hundreds. Unlike in Tagish, they all wore yellow tags in their wings which was strange to see.
We walked down a trail past a busy birdfeeder to an area where squirrels sat and begged along the boardwalk. Toronto squirrels are nothing like the little Red Squirrels we have here in the Yukon! The secure, fairly danger-free location, and friendly people with food to hand out allow the squirrels living there to get absolutely obese. A particular squirrel inspired an engaging conversation with Mason (the known squirrel guy) back at the apartment about the thesis work he plans to do concerning the relationship between squirrel genetics/adaption and their environment. I was thrilled to meet someone with a passion for squirrels instead of dislike towards them.
Snowy Owls had been invading Ontario and most of the southern provinces in Canada all winter, which meant there were plenty around to twitch. Over the course of two days we saw ten Snowy Owls – that’s about 40lbs of owl, and eight more than I had seen in my life :D We had amazing views of some, but others were difficult to pick out of the snowy areas.
We tried twitching a Great Gray Owl just outside of Guelph, unsuccessfully; the same went for Long-eared Owls. We walked through the thickly wooded areas of Bronte Creek Provincial Park searching for roosting Long-eareds, but all we found were trees with old whitewash. We were lucky enough to see a Short-eared Owl twirling through the dusky sky late in the evening at Fifty Point Conservation Area though, which got our adrenaline going as we ran for closer views!
Sadly, at the end of the second day Muhammad had to say goodbye and head home. I’m so glad that he was able to make it for the two days – having a nearly complete YOW reunion was wonderful!
My last day was mostly spent exploring a bit of Guelph on my own and packing, as everyone had classes at the university that day. Out walking I spotted a lone female Brown-headed Cowbird mixed in with a flock of House Sparrows – an uncommon winter bird for the area.
That evening I went with Todd to a university Wildlife Club meeting, where we watched an interesting presentation on a student’s trip to the Amazon. The Wildlife Club is a group whose members are avid naturalists and crazy about wildlife; a great crowd and really interesting to talk to.
Later that evening I left with Reuven to stay overnight at his parents house, ensuring early arrival at the airport in the morning. It was heart-wrenching to have to say goodbye to everyone again, but at the same time I felt the north calling me home.
I had the window seat all the way back and was able to see Tagish and Carcross as we passed over to Whitehorse. Whitehorse looked puny compared to the big cities, barely casting any glow from the murky darkness below the jet. The minutes seemed to tick by as I impatiently waited to get off the plane, and when I finally saw my family the relief of being home was overwhelming.
My travels over those 2.5 weeks were beyond words… the things I experienced, saw, did, the people I got to know, and those I got to see again made for a truly stunning adventure. It was so nice to get back and see my family though – after all, there is no place like home!
Thank you to all of the YOWs and my new friends in Guelph for having me, and making me feel at home. It was a blast; I hope to come back sooner than last time :) Thank you especially to Reuven for making the long drive to and from the airport, taking us birding, and everything else he did to show me a great time.