The title of this post may seem strange, given the beautiful spring weather that has arrived in Ontario in recent days. But even as southern Ontario sees temperatures soaring to the high teens, with frogs singing and migrant birds arriving by the minute, it was not that long ago that I was surrounded by cold, crisp weather in northern Ontario. Winter held the landscape firmly in its icy grip, and signs of spring were quite difficult to locate. Even the migrant American Crows had not made it this far north.
I had a reason to leave the relative balminess of southern Ontario behind and make the long trek to the Cochrane area and beyond, where the snow was close to a metre in depth and the temperatures were -20 and below. That reason was to search for Willow Ptarmigans. This species breeds in the Arctic but it is migratory, and some years they appear far enough south that they can be searched for along the roads south of James Bay. This winter was shaping up to be a good one. Ptarmigans had been reported in many locations on the Quebec side, and in late February, adventurous birders Jeff Skevington and Vincent Fyson located a group of them on the Ontario side. They had discovered the birds over 150 km northeast of Cochrane, along the paved road leading to the remote Detour Gold Mine. Several other birders made the trek in subsequent weeks, finding success as well. As I had never observed this species before in Ontario, I was keen to take a detour up to the mine.
In the days leading up to my departure I began to hear from other birders who had tried for the ptarmigans. They had struck out. You see, birders were not the only individuals interested in ptarmigans, but hunters had keyed in on them as well, gleefully displaying their trophies on their Instagram accounts. Who knows if this was the main factor causing the ptarmigans to not appear for these birders, but it very well could be.
I will spare you the suspense - I did not see any Willow Ptarmigans. But despite dipping on the main target bird, the trip was worthwhile in many different ways. I love the rugged beauty of far northern Ontario and the road to the Detour Gold Mine was chock full of it. Several excellent mammal species appeared during my time along the road. The birds, though few and far between, included several species that I rarely get to enjoy. We don't see too many of the boreal specialties down here in Niagara, the 'banana belt' of Ontario!
My first stop on the drive up was the Huntsville area, where a Townsend's Solitaire had been wintering. This western species occurs rarely but regularly in Ontario, with perhaps 4 to 8 records each year. This particular bird was loosely associating with a flock of Bohemian Waxwings along the south shore of Hunter's Bay.
The Bohemian Waxwings were easy to locate. I obtained some decent recordings of their soft trilling, while I also photographed them as they perched high in a tree. I do not think that I could ever tire of this sleek species.
It took a little bit of time, but the Townsend's Solitaire appeared as well. It gave itself away by vocalizing - a whistle repeated at regular intervals.
The Townsend's Solitaire aggressively chased the Bohemian Waxwings away from its preferred berries. It seemed to be holding its own!
The Hilliardton Marsh is always a worthwhile stop, regardless of the time of year. Here, some Hoary Redpolls were mixed in with the Common Redpolls, while the first Canada Jay of the trip appeared. I did not break out my camera here, so pictured are a few Hoary Redpolls from a previous visit to Hilliardton.
The Detour Gold Mine is over 170 kilometres northeast of Cochrane and the bird and mammal watching opportunities are excellent along its length. I had planned for one full day of birding the road, along with a second half-day. Several other birders were in the area and so we teemed up in a convoy, hoping to miss as few birds as possible.
It was a grouse kind of day. We noticed several Ruffed Grouse feeding on buds along the roadside, and a little while later we found three Sharp-tailed Grouse as well. The Sharp-tailed Grouse is a true northern bird in Ontario. Some are found in open grasslands and scrubby areas in Rainy River and Manitoulin, while other populations are found in vast bogs and their deciduous fringes in northeastern Ontario. My only previous sightings of these northeastern birds were viewed from the train traveling to Moosonee. I was thrilled to improve on those previous sightings!
Two out of three ain't bad, but we were hoping for the grouse sweep. Finally, by mid-afternoon, I spotted a male Spruce Grouse taking cover under some spruce along a quiet laneway that branched off the main road.
While Spruce Grouse has a more varied diet during the warmer months of the year, they subsist almost entirely on spruce needles during the winter. Delicious!
Finches are a mainstay of northern Ontario, and include some of the few migratory or nomatic species that spend the winter in the boreal forest. On this particular day, the only common finch was the Pine Grosbeak, and individuals or modest flocks would occasionally fly over. We also noted two small flocks of White-winged Crossbills and the occasional flyover redpoll, but in general it was quite slow for finches. The strong wind did not help matters.
While we did not see any Willow Ptarmigans, we certainly had the right search image in our mind since we noticed about a half dozen Snowshoe Hares, resting quietly against the treeline (just like how a ptarmigan might!). It will not be long until its white pelage is replaced by earthy brown tones, which you can see just peeking through in the image below.
On day two, I teemed up with the same birders from the previous day and we drove as a convoy back up to the Detour Gold Mine. We added a few new sightings as the day wore on - Red-breasted Nuthatch, Black-backed Woodpecker, and Boreal Chickadee included. But without a doubt, my favourite bird species of the day was Northern Hawk Owl. They were surprisingly absent during the first day, perhaps due to the strong winds. But the calm weather this day may have enticed some to perch more prominently near the roadside.
Northern Hawk Owls are incredible birds and it was enjoyable to watch three individuals at different locations. There is something special about watching them here in the north, in locations where they may even stick around to breed this summer. This is their domain.
A random roadside stop was fortuitous as we noticed a couple of Canada Jays, eager for handouts. Perhaps these ones are used to workers from the mine stopping here, or maybe they are just naturally curious and bold. Fortunately, some peanuts were in our possession. The jays eagerly took them from our hands and stashed them somewhere unseen in the forest. Canada Jays can survive the winter in the boreal forest, in part by stashing food in hundreds of locations throughout the rest of the year.
Placing a peanut on your hat is a good way to practice taking selfies with Canada Jays, I quickly discovered!
Perhaps the most exciting encounter occurred as we began heading south for good. A Canada Lynx crossed the road, trotted up the embankment, and disappeared silently into the forest. The sighting was quick, giving no opportunities for photos. The only evidence left behind was several tracks in the deep snow. It is amazing how little they sink into the snow.
While the Willow Ptarmigans refused to show themselves, a weekend in the true north was good for the soul. I love this part of Ontario and can't wait to return.