After an eventful first day to our trip to Ontario, we were excited and ready to start birding around Ottawa. We had a hearty breakfast and made our final plans for the route we would take for the day. Due to the shear number of good birds around Ottawa, we were planning on dedicating the whole day to birding the area. Of course, we were in search of anything that would be a lifer for anyone of the 21 people on the trip, but most importantly we all wanted to see owls. Up to four Great Gray Owls have been reported along the Rockcliffe Parkway in Ottawa and there were multiple Snowy Owls and Northern Hawk Owls in southwest Ottawa. Interspersed around the city were some other great birds like a continuing male Barrow’s Goldeneye, Gray Partridges, Bohemian Waxwings, and Black-backed Woodpecker.
After breakfast we drove to Giroux Rd, the eastern-most location we were going to during the day, and planned on working our way westward. There had been fairly reliable reports of Gray Partridges along Giroux Rd, including a flock of 15 and 30! Gray Partridges are an introduced species of gamebird that has can be found living wild in the northern Rocky Mountain states across to the northern prairie states. There is also a second, isolated population around Ottawa and Montreal. The bird would be a lifer for most people on the trip, and I felt like with 21 pairs of eyes it would be a sure bet if we drove up and down Giroux Rd. Instead the birds completely eluded us, proving that seeing a bird is never a sure bet. After an hour of searching, we had to give up and head to our next target bird. A young ‘Arctic’ Peregrine Falcon perched on a stump made up for things a little bit (although perhaps its presence was the reason for the lack of partridges).
By 10:15am, we had made it over to the Rockcliffe Parkway. We parked in the lot and starting preparing to walk out to where the Great Grays were being seen. I was lucky to see a Great Gray Owl at the Sax-Zim Bog in MN back in 2010, but that was 3 years ago and I was incredibly excited to see another one! Certainly Great Gray was the number 1 target bird for most people in our group and the overall sense of excitement coming from everyone was almost enough to make us forget that the temperature was in the negatives.
On the walk out to the owl spot, we passed a few photographers walking back our direction. They told us the owl had been out all morning but had just gone back in to the woods, likely to roost for the rest of the day. They said we should try coming back this afternoon. Coming back later in the day would not be possible, or at least if we did it would through a huge wrench in to our plans and likely cost us another rarity. Once we got to the spot, there were still a handful of photographers around. It was clear they had been baiting the owl prior to our arrival, so our chances at seeing it were even less realistic.
After waiting and hoping for the owl to return to the edge of the forest, we quickly grew worried. It seemed pretty clear that the owl was probably roosting and wouldn’t be back out till evening. About a half hour later we decided to leave and go to the next target and try to come back to Rockcliffe for a Great Gray later in the day. We started our walk back to the road which lead back to the parking area, when I heard Ian Gardner yelling to us. I turned around and saw Ian jumping and waving, he is famous for walking off and finding good birds on our trips, so I wasn’t too surprised to find out he had gone off for a stroll and stumbled across the owl. We walked up to the far corner of the field and the owl was perched back in some pine trees, surveying the area. We all enjoyed incredible scope-views and photo opportunities. We all celebrated seeing such a beautiful and iconic bird! There were up to four owls in the area, so even though photographers had ruined our chances of seeing the one (which they had likely tortured with baited mice), Ian was able to find a second owl!
Our final target bird before stopping to grab some lunch was the continuing male Barrow’s Goldeneye at the Hurdman Bridge in the heart of Ottawa. We knew from eBird reports that the goldeneye is sometimes found in the open area of river about a quarter mile north of the bridge or in the open water just to the south of the bridge. We split up into two groups and each went separate directions to hopefully find the duck faster. After a few minutes, the group on the south side of the bridge radioed to say they had found the bird! We were able to get some really great scope views but the distance and horrible lighting conditions made photography difficult. Nonetheless, it was a great bird to see and a lifer for quite a few folks in our group! From there, we stopped for a quick lunch and then got back to birding. Check back for Part 2, coming soon!