Ducks, Owls and a VATH

With the absence of the usual winter birds around Orillia, I am having to travel to find photographic subjects.  A couple of weeks ago, my good friend Scott Martin and I met for what has been become our annual winter photo trek.  Using information from bird boards, sightings on and good old-fashioned networking we were able to plan for a full days adventure.  Our first stop was to be in the Hamilton area at sunrise to find the Eastern Screech Owl, a bird I had not seen since I was a child.  Two months ago, during the Christmas holidays my family and I stopped at this location hoping that we would find it but we weren’t very lucky so Scott and I had great expectations.  We were not disappointed and despite the Screech Owls excellent camouflage we were able to spy it peacefully sitting at the entrance to its tree cavity home.  The Eastern Screech Owl is small, only weighing in at 4.3–8.6 oz  or 121–244 grams.


The next stops were for the Snowy and the Short-eared Owls in the Niagara Peninsula, home to a number of vineyards and wineries.  The Niagara Peninsula provides perfect habitat for the Snowy Owl in the winter with its wide-open fields resembling the open tundra of the Arctic.  The Short-eared Owl also favours wide open areas where it hunts for small mammals.  We were successful in finding both species but neither provided a photographic opportunity so we moved on to the next objective, Long-eared Owls that had been reported close to Grimsby.  Fifty Point Conservation area is a very popular place to watch bird migrations in the spring and fall since the park juts into Lake Ontario and birds are easily seen and counted.  The conservation area is also popular for picnics and camping and hosts a full-service marina.  We noted that although the marina was largely frozen over, the outlet still had open water and was playing host to a variety of waterfowl, one of those being a life-bird for me, the White-winged Scoter.  The Scoter is a large diving duck that breeds on large freshwater  lakes and ponds in an area west and north of Manitoba and often winters in the Great Lakes where numbers have been increasing possibly due to the invasive Zebra mussels.  Accompanying the Scoters,  other waterfowl were there,  all in their beautiful winter plumage.  I have to apologize for the image of the White-winged Scoter with the zebra mussels.  Even though there is a blurry object is in the bottom right corner, I thought the image still conveys a good story.

Common Goldeneye 1Common Goldeneye 2White-winged Scoter with zebra musselsWhite-winged Scoter maleWhite-winged Scoter femaleRedheadLong-tailed Duck 1Long-tailed Duck 2Red-breasted Merganser 1Red-breasted Merganser 2

We were also fortunate to locate a couple of Long-eared Owls in the general vicinity of the conservation area.  The Long-eared Owls are widespread across North America, roost during the day and hunt at night so locating them is very difficult since they normally hide in coniferous trees, in particular ones with plenty of cover and concealment.  It is very seldom that one can get a clear shot of these owls without debris such as twigs, branches or needles in the way.

Long-eared Owl 1Long-eared Owl 2Long-eared Owl in flight 1Long-eared Owl in flight 2Long-eared Owl close-up 1Long-eared Owl close-up 2

In the birding world, this year will be known as the year of the Snowy Owl.  A large invasion or irruption is currently underway with hundreds of specimens spread through eastern North America.  There are many theories as to why the irruption is occurring and one of the most common theories is the cyclical lack of prey.   Click on this link to see the reports of Snowy Owls registered on between Dec 2013 and February 13 2014.  Even though I have seen Snowy Owls earlier this year and posted an image in my post ‘Winter Birding‘ I needed a more natural image instead of the typical ‘Snowy Owl on a telephone pole’ shot.  I planned a major drive from Orillia to Guelph with stops at over 12 locations where Snowy Owls had been reported being seen within a few days of my planned trip.  I picked Guelph as my turnaround destination since a rare Varied Thrush had been spotted and I hoped to be lucky to see it too.  I took my trip on Feb. 6 and after 505 kilometers and 9 hours of driving, I was successful in spotting 10 Snowies and I was pleased to find one on a natural perch.  I was also able to photograph 4 other ‘pole’ Snowies.  According to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, male Snowy Owls are barred with dark brown and get whiter as they get older. Females keep some dark markings throughout their lives giving them a salt & pepper look.

Snowy Owl 1 - ShelburneSnowy Owl 2 - ShelburneSnowy Owl 3 - Mulmur TwpSnowy Owl 4 - Clearview Twp.Perched Snowy Owl - Amaranth Twp.

A female Varied Thrush was being regularly seen at the Guelph Lake Conservation Area during the last days of January so I thought that this would be a great bird to see during my Snowy Owl prowl.  Despite the freezing and biting winds, the Varied Thrush put in two appearances giving other birders and myself good looks but the photo opportunities were fleeting since it stayed amongst the shrubbery where it feed on crab apple berries.   The Varied Thrush is normally a summer west-coast resident and migrates south like other passerines or perching birds.  This bird seems to have lost its way and we can only hope that the crab apples will sustain it until spring if it decides to stay.  VATH refers to the Alphabetic Code that is used by birders, banders and ornithologists.  The alpha code allows for quicker data entry instead of using the full English or Scientific name and usually consists of the first two letters of the birds English name with some exceptions for birds with three or four words in their name.

Varied Thrush - female 1Varied Thrush - female 2

The final paragraph in this post is about the Great Gray Owl, a bird that generates plenty of excitement among birders and photographers alike.   If you recall, I was fortunate to have photographed one last year  in Algonquin Park.  Unlike remote Algonquin, this particular bird decided to visit a more populated part of Ontario a mere 10 minutes north of homes for ten’s of thousands of Ontarians and 90 minutes south of Orillia.  I thought that I would try and see this Owl when all the excitement died down but for 2 weeks at the end of January the Great Gray seemed to have disappeared.  I thought I had lost my chance until last Saturday when I learned that it was back.  A quick call was made to Scott and by late Sunday afternoon the four of us were 50 feet away from a Great Gray in the midst of a small snow storm, what a thrill!  By the time we left, I think there was over 30 people there, a combination of birders and photographers.  I am still going through my images but here are my four favourites so far.

Great Gray Owl 1Great Gray Owl 2Great Gray Owl 3Great Gray Owl 4

Thanks for stopping by and feel free to leave a comment here or on my Facebook page.

This entry was posted in Birds, blog, Nature Photography, News, winter and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .


  1. Rob Smith February 14, 2014 at 12:51 am #

    Mate, you have some truly gorgeous shots here. That Snowy is stunning as are the others. Love the little thrush – so pretty. You and Scott seem to have all the fun

    • Arni February 14, 2014 at 11:14 am #

      Thank you Rob. I have to agree with you that Scott and I do have quite a good time when we get together.

  2. Scott Martin February 14, 2014 at 12:17 pm #

    This blog includes three great outings for you Arni and it was a pleasure to be with you for two of them. The Varied Thrush images make me wish I was with you on all three 🙂 Excellent post as always and your images are superb.

    • Arni February 14, 2014 at 9:17 pm #

      The past 2 weeks have been very kind to me and it was certainly nice to be able to share the joy. The Varied Thrush is still being reported so you still have time 😉 Looking forward to seeing your images too!

One Trackback

  1. […] It is always a pleasure to spend time out taking pictures, however it’s even more special when you get to do so with great friends and on the day we took these pictures Deb & I were joined by Arni & Dianne who made the trek south from Orillia to see the Great Gray Owl.  You can see Arni’s shots of the Great Gray Owl posted on his blog. […]