Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Mysterious Affair at Amherst, Epilogue

Forgive me for I have committed a cardinal sin. I started a series of posts and then left them floating in the webosphere as I dropped off the face of the Internet. St. Jerome, Patron Saint of Sarcastic Bloggers, pray for me.

I'd keep this pithy "whodunit" going a while longer, but I'm afraid I'm not exactly sure where I was going with it in the first place. It started quite by accident, a silly mood brought on by one too many drinks, one too many good birds on a (then-recent) trip to Canada, and long-standing love affair with Agatha Christie novels.

I suppose this would be the part where Hercule Poirot gathers all of the suspects in a room and, after employing the little gray cells, exonerates everyone except the guilty party, the one person or duo we never dreamed of suspecting. I didn't give out many (any?) clues, so there was nothing to figure out - sadly, I don't have Ms. Christie's talents, particularly planning and forethought, so I will spare any attempt to gracefully dig myself out of this.

So, some explanations. Who were the victims? Two cousins, Aegolius funereus and A. acadicus, known to their friends as Boreal and Northern Saw-whet Owl, and their buddy Asio otus, or Long-eared Owl. The killer? Strix varia, a.k.a. Barred Owl (No way! I'd never have guessed!). And what in the Sam Hill was going on at Amherst? Elementary, my dear Watson.

But first, what is Amherst? In this case, an island situated in the northeast portion of Lake Ontario. No bridge connects it to the mainland, a ferry is the only way to get back and forth. If the ferry stops running, you're quite cut off from civilization - sounds like a set up for The Mousetrap or And Then There Were None, mua-hahahhaha! Sorry, we're done with that now, aren't we?

You're not really cut off. It's a 15-minute ferry ride, every hour on the hour. There are no public restrooms, but there is a Bed and Breakfast. And the wonder of Amherst Island, to birders, is the wintering population of raptors, especially owls, and especially in irruptive years. You're likely, even guaranteed, to come across birders as they patrol the roads, searching the fields for Snowy and Short-eared Owls, Rough-legged and Red-tailed Hawks, American Kestrels, Northern Harriers, and (fingers crossed!) a Northern Hawk-owl or Great Gray Owl.

The star of the island is a grove of conifers, cedars and pines, mostly, known as "Owl Woods." A short trek from the road and you are surrounded by needle-laden branches, any of which can hold a Long-eared, Northern Saw-whet, or Boreal Owl. Getting to be a pretty good day list, right? No wonder it's an attraction for birders. But what's the attraction to owls?

In the fall they migrate south, in some years, those with food shortages in the boreal forest, they arrive in high numbers. The birds have no problem flying over land to southern Ontario, they easily handle the short moat between the mainland and the island. But then they're faced with the lake, miles of open water which they're reluctant to cross. So they stay put, settling in for the winter. As long as the rodent population holds things are wonderful for everyone involved.

We planned a trip for early February to explore the Kingston, Ontario area and make a day trip to search for owls on Amherst Island. Here's a tip: if you're going to take an almost-five year old birding, owls are a great target bird, especially ones that are perched low and are disposed to stay put when stared at.

Anyway, while checking the Ontario listserve I found some depressing reports. The number of individuals residing in Owl Woods was steadily dropping. Mid-December reports counted three Boreal Owls, which soon dropped to two, then down to one. Reported numbers of Long-eared Owl were also decreasing, as were Northern Saw-whet Owls. Carcasses of both Boreal and saw-whets were found by birders trudging through the woods. And shortly before all of this happened the population of Barred Owls increased, from zero to one. Because it's a small area and there's virtually no migration off the island until spring, the interpretation was the Barred Owl was depredating the smaller owls.

Makes for a nice mystery, if the Barred Owl didn't enter the picture with a reputation of preying upon smaller owls. Maybe if it was another, more innocuous species, maybe a handsomely-attired Snow Bunting. Who knows, perhaps something like this inspired Ms. Christie to start writing mystery novels. I know your interest is piqued: what did we see on our trip? Did we find the Barred Owl? Any carcasses? Were any smaller owls left at all? More shortly (I promise!).

By the way, here are some alternate names I thought about using, along with their original titles. Got any others I should have considered?

Murder Most Fowl (William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I, Scene V)
Evil Under the Moon (Agatha Christie, Evil Under the Sun)
The Owltrap (Agatha Christie, The Mousetrap)
The O.W.L. Murders (Agatha Christie, The A.B.C. Murders)
And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie, And Then There Were None)



nishiki_85 said...

Amherst Island is on my list of places to go birding. Is it just me or do the majority of postings on the Ontario listserve come from the Ottawa and Kingston areas of Ontario?

noflickster said...

Hi nishiki_85 - Definitely hit Amherst, especially in a good irruption year! Our first visit, in 2001, scored six out of seven owls we targeted: we missed a Great Gray near Kingston, but picked it up in Enterprise, ON 2005.

It sure seems I'm either reading about the owls and winter goodies they have in the Ottawa-Kingston stretch, or what gulls are hovering around Niagara Falls. Come to think of it, I haven't noticed gull reports in a while.

Looks like you've got some "down province" bird posting to do!


ps Did I just make up a geographic reference, or is there an accepted term for the Toronto - Hamilton - St. Catherines stretch?

nishiki_85 said...

Hi noflickster,

I believe you're the first to use the reference "down province" for Southern Ontario.

The area outside of Toronto, following the curve of Lake Ontario's shoreline is known as the Golden Horseshoe. Includes Hamilton and Halton Regions.

My home base for birding is known as the Niagara Region or Niagara Peninsula.

I'll do my best to post.


noflickster said...

Nuts, "Golden Horseshoe" sounds much better than "down province." I guess those terms had been presented to various focus groups through extensive marketing research.

I'll keep my eye out for good birds from the Niagara region - the Curlew Sandpiper was awesome, mostly because I did see it. I needed that after the failed Ross's Gull search in January 2008.

Hope to run into you at the Falls sometime!

Locations of visitors to this page