Having a Hoot in Algoma
“Hoo, Hoo” knew birding for owls could be so much fun! Winters can be long in the Algoma Region due to short daylight, frigid temperatures and mountains of snow but winter is a great time to get out looking for owls!
It has been a banner season in Algoma Country for many different species of owls in the area. Various species of owls have been spotted in Sault Ste. Marie, in the Goulais River area but most have been found east of the Sault on St. Joseph Island, in Tarbutt and Johnson Townships as well as Bruce Mines, Thessalon, Iron Bridge, Blind River and Elliot Lake.
Algoma has a very active and wonderful birding community with many birders belonging to the Facebook Group called “Algoma District Birding”. Carter Dorscht is the administrator of this group and runs his own touring business called “Dorscht Birding”.
Carter is very well known in Algoma for his knowledge of birding and his work at the Kensington Conservancy. If you want private or group tours to find bird species in Algoma, he is your go-to.
Birding is fun and enjoyable but finding an owl is exhilarating and hard work. It takes a lot of studying the different species, habitats, and times of day and year to find them. I use a few resources to help me in my quest. Books that I have read to acquire some knowledge are: Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America by Roger Tory Peterson, First Field Guide Birds by Audubon and The Best Places to Bird in Ontario by Kenneth Burrell & Michael Burrell
One of the best websites which also has an app to complement it is eBird.
“eBird is the world’s largest biodiversity-related citizen science project, with more than 100 million bird sightings contributed each year by eBirders around the world. A collaborative enterprise with hundreds of partner organizations, thousands of regional experts, and hundreds of thousands of users, eBird is managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.”(quoted from eBird.org)
Once you learn how to use eBird, you can get data on each owl species, its range in both summer and winter and the latest areas it may have been spotted. This holds true for all bird species in your area. It also will keep all of the statistics of your findings once you start entering your data as you start finding different bird species. What an amazing website to use to acquire knowledge, have fun and help science!
Owling entails a very early morning rise and heading out the door in the dark to get to your destination as the sun is coming up. You have a much better shot at finding owls at sunrise as they like to actively hunt at dawn. The same holds true at dusk. There are some species of owls that will hunt throughout the day, especially in winter.
In the winter, it is much easier to spot owls as the deciduous trees have lost all of their leaves. Even then, owls still can be hard to spot as they camouflage well with the bark of the trees or hide deep inside the coniferous trees depending on the species. Owls can be found during all seasons in Algoma. Check out eBird (https://ebird.org/home) to see which ones!
Many Owlers use scopes and binoculars to scan for owls once they reach their destination.
As I drive, I am always scanning for owls on poles, wires, roofs, treetops or sitting in fields.
Owling takes a lot of travel and gas as you have to cover large areas. I drive with my binoculars ready on the passenger seat of my car and my camera turned on with the proper settings ready in case an owl is spotted. I am a birder but also a wildlife photographer. The two complement one another! If you have any questions or you need to purchase scopes, binoculars or cameras, James and his staff at Camera Craft are my go-to in Sault Ste. Marie. Camera Craft is a local photography business with amazing hands-on service!
Sometimes you come up empty-handed after many kilometres and hours of looking for owls but sometimes you strike gold! What was that quick wing movement I just caught with my peripheral vision or that shape perched on the tree or pole that doesn’t normally belong there?
At a closer glance, it is an owl!!
You learn to skim and scan for movement and shapes that don’t belong when out Owling. Persistence and tons of patience are qualities you quickly learn you have to acquire!
It is important to put safety first before you jump out of your car to see the owl! I pull my car over and off the road to the park. I always turn off the car and turn on the hazard lights as a precautionary measure for oncoming vehicles. It is important that when you do spot an owl, you do not cause it to stress by approaching too closely or quickly. It is also important to not bait owls (https://www.audubon.org/news/why-you-shouldnt-feed-or-bait-owls ) as it can lead them into harm’s way by flying low over the road and get hit by a car or die from rodents that have been human raised or digested poisons.
Getting the shot as a wildlife photographer is a thrill. I use a very long lens so I can get the shot I need without stressing the owl. It also allows you to watch the owl for a while from afar and learn and appreciate its hunting habits, and preening rituals and if lucky enough, hear it vocalizing.
You will actually be able to find an owl by hearing them first before seeing them especially when other birds will give up the owl’s location by being very vocal and harassing the owl. I often drive with my window down listening for crows, blue jays or chickadees causing a ruckus.
Once I see the owl getting nervous or agitated, I leave the area immediately. Signs of agitation can be the owl sitting up very straight and skinny or the owl starting to rotate its head side to side faster than when it is just perched looking for prey.
If you want to be able to enjoy the owl for another day, you need to respect its space and not chase it away. Upsetting an owl can also mean the difference in whether it eats at that time or not because you may have disturbed its hunting.
Another bonus to Owling is the wonderful people you meet out in the middle of nowhere enjoying the outdoors.
I have come across birders and photographers from as far away as Toronto, Detroit, Ohio, and British Columbia and as near as Iron Bridge, Blind River and Wawa.
Come and stay at the Ruffled Grouse B and B in Desbarats! Jean is wonderful and loves Owling!
Algoma is truly blessed and rich with various bird species throughout the year, but winter and spring bring out the “Owlers”. “Hoo” is lurking in your neck of the woods?
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