I’ve been fascinated by owls since I was about five years old. I can’t remember how or why it began, but it’s just my thing. It was after going on an owl-centric guided birding tour to Sweden in 2009 that I started to get more into birding in general, and I’ve been slowly working my way through seeing the various owl (and other bird) species that we have in Europe ever since. My favourite bird of all is the Long-eared Owl (two trips with David Lindo to Northern Serbia took care of this species for me, although I’ve still never seen one in the UK), but the owl that I believe to be the most iconic is the Snowy Owl. Seeing a Snowy Owl in the wild has been top of my bucket list for some time and although they sometimes find themselves fairly close to home I’d prefer to experience them in their more ‘natural’ habitats.
With this in mind we started to look at tours we could go on that would give us a good chance of seeing them, and the country that seemed to be the best for this was Canada. With Jem’s brother and his family living just outside Rochester, NY, we realised that there would be potential to make this into a bigger holiday. Eagle-Eye Tours from Canada provided the owl solution with a short tour (three full days of birding) in Manitoba, starting and ending in Winnipeg itself and heading out towards the Winnipeg River in between. Being a huge Pittsburgh Penguins fan I took the opportunity to book us a few days there for the hockey and a bit of sightseeing (I had previously visited back in 2007 and had a very good time), and then we could stay with Jem’s family in Rochester before heading back via Niagara Falls for an extra final bit of touristy stuff. I hadn’t had a proper two-week holiday since I went to Australia in 2009, so this trip was going to be much needed and very exciting.
It started with a very early Tube journey to Heathrow to get our 9am flight out to Toronto. Everything was fine until we landed at Pearson International. Our connecting flight to Winnipeg had been cancelled, we’d been automatically re-booked onto the next one (even before we’d arrived in Canada), and then that second flight had been cancelled too. Air Canada had then re-booked us again onto an entirely new (i.e. previously unscheduled) flight which would get us to Winnipeg around dinner time. It wasn’t a great start, but the big plus was that as we waited in the departure lounge at Toronto Jem noticed a large white bird in the distance. A look with our bins certainly suggested Snowy Owl (and I had previously noted that there had been reports of them there in the preceding weeks) and then we found a second one, much closer this time, and a definite Snowy Owl. It was still distant and the conditions were pretty awful – grey skies, poor visibility, snow and sleet – but at least it was a 100% Snowy (#518 on the lifelist – at time of writing last year’s addition of Barbary Falcon has now been downgraded to subspecies of Peregrine). We eventually arrived at our hotel having missed going for an evening meal with the rest of the tour group, but we were so tired it didn’t really matter. A protein bar each, a bit of ice-hockey on the TV, and it was time for bed.
After breakfast we finally met up with the rest of the group and our leader Rudolf and then we headed out. It had snowed overnight but was clear blue sky all around now, and very cold at around -15°C. Ice crystals were floating around in the air like glitter and we also experienced a very impressive sundog. The first stops on the outskirts of Winnipeg brought our first North American Black-billed Magpies (#519) and lots of Grey Partridges. We headed to a small parkland beside the river where we looked for Eastern Screech Owls but they weren’t around this time. Instead we got good close views of White-breasted Nuthatches coming to scattered food (#520) and a Bald Eagle flew down the river but I didn’t get a good enough look at it. We then headed out to the Oak Hammock Marsh reserve for a quick look to see what was around. No sign of the Short-eared Owl that had been recently visiting, but we did get some views of Common Redpolls. As we left the reserve we stopped briefly for Snow Buntings in the fields beside the road, and then a second stop a bit further on where we got even better views of them. As would be a familiar sight in Canada we started to notice the abundance of Ravens.
After a quick lunch at a Tim Horton’s we headed south-east out of Winnipeg to look for Snowy Owls. A quick stop at a house brought us our first Wild Turkeys (#521) and Black-capped Chickadees (#522) and then at a second house we looked for Great Horned Owl. We didn’t find it but the owner came out and told us of another one at her sister’s house not far away. As we approached the house we got a glimpse of the owl flying through the trees. We repositioned ourselves back out on the road and waited. A Bald Eagle flew overhead (#523) and then the owl reappeared, flying between two stands of trees, briefly perching, and then flying back into the woods and out of sight (#524). I couldn’t get a photo but I did get a good look at its face as it flew. Following this we went looking for the Snowy Owls. Eventually, after we slowly drove alongside several almost-featureless fields of snow, I spotted a likely shape in the snow and we watched it – a male – take off and grab a rodent before returning to its original spot. We got out the minibus to have a better look and get some photos. Luckily the light was still very good and despite the ridiculous wind chill I managed to get some reasonable photos from distance. Soon afterwards a second owl – this time female – was spotted in another field and we did the same. The routine for getting out and photographing repeated a couple more times as we added a second female, and then finally a second male which was perched on an electricity pole beside the road. This male eventually dropped down and flew across the road right past us and perched onto a different pole further away.
With our Snowy Owl mission completed we headed off and skirted around Winnipeg before making our way north-east to our second base of the tour up at Powerview-Pine Falls beside the Winnipeg River. We settled into our hotel and had dinner before heading out again at dusk to look for more owls. We didn’t manage to get any Great Greys but we did have a nice Northern Hawk Owl in silhouette perched up on a tree. We also heard a Tengmalm’s Owl calling from in the forest before we eventually headed back for the night.
We were out early to look for more owls. Again, the Great Grey was the main target but no matter how hard we tried we just couldn’t find one. Instead we found a number of Northern Hawk Owls (including at least one pair), Pileated Woodpeckers (#525), Gray (aka Canadian) Jays (#526), and a Ruffed Grouse perched in a distant tree (#527). We eventually returned for a morning snack and then headed out again around the streets of Powerview and Pine Falls. Plenty of Pine Grosbeaks (#528) were found munching on berries, along with a lot of Redpolls. A short drive brought us a Hairy Woodpecker (#529) beside the main road and on our return to Powerview we stopped for better views of a perched Bald Eagle on a gnarly trunk beside the river.
After lunch in Subway we headed back out again and had a great stop at a house in the woods. Here the feeders were bringing in all kinds of species, including Blue Jay (#530), Downy Woodpecker (#531), some stunning Evening Grosbeaks (#532) and amongst all the Common Redpolls, one Hoary (Arctic) Redpoll (#533). We moved off to look for Sharp-tailed Grouse but instead found a Northern Goshawk, whose presence was probably the reason why we couldn’t find any grouse.
We had an early dinner back at the hotel before heading back out on the owl trail again. Northern Hawk Owls were again being found with relative ease, but still no sign of any Great Greys.
It was back out early again to look for Great Grey Owls under overcast skies, but still no luck. Northern Hawk Owls were still around but little else. Eventually, with too much daylight, it was decided to call it a day on the owls and see what else we could find. It didn’t take long before we got an American Crow (#534) and our first two Sharp-tailed Grouse on a ridge in the middle of a field (#535). For the rest of the morning it was mainly more and more grouse that we were seeing. We tried for woodpeckers down a straight track and one did briefly fly across in front of us but we couldn’t be sure which species it was, and it didn’t show itself again.
After lunch in a Chinese restaurant we started to make our way slowly back towards Winnipeg. One stop brought us our final addition the list: A Black-backed Woodpecker which gave fine views on a broken tree (#536). I spotted a shrike by the side of the road as we headed onwards, so Rudolf stopped and we had a look at it as it flew across the road and into a tree. At the time he indicated that the Northern Shrike was the same species as the Great Grey Shrike we see at home, but a bit of research since and I’ve found that it has now been split as a separate species (#537).
We finished our Manitoba tour with a hearty Italian meal back in Winnipeg and then it was back to the hotel for the night. Twenty new species for the lifelist and some great views of some fantastic birds. Hard to believe we’d only been in North America for four days at this stage.
Another early start – this time too early even to have breakfast – and it was off to Winnipeg Airport to catch our flight back to Toronto. More snow meant we ended up in a queue for de-icing and we eventually arrived in Toronto late. Crossing the US border takes place within the airport itself and it was a bit of an ordeal. Too much of an ordeal in fact as we finally arrived at our gate for the flight to Pittsburgh only to find that it had already departed. As it turned out our bags hadn’t made it onto the flight and so we hadn’t been expected to be on it either. Air Canada managed to get us onto the next flight but that meant an eight-hour wait in the US-bound terminal. Due to ongoing renovations it was probably the most boring terminal to be in – on the ground floor with no views out onto the airfield – and the few windows that did offer anything like a view were obscured because of the construction work. We’d been given meal vouchers by the airline but the only places we could spend them in were a small Starbucks kiosk and a small diner.
Eventually we got our very short flight to Pittsburgh, jumped in an Uber and finally reached our hotel around midnight. A tough day and the only birds of note were the Red-tailed Hawks congregating around the airfield at Pearson.
Having wasted most of the previous day in an airport terminal we weren’t going to waste any more precious time, so it was up early and out for breakfast with a quick wander around the gardens beside the hotel. Plenty of American Robins were on the grass and we could hear something else having a good sing. Eventually we found it – a Song Sparrow – in the top of small tree (#538). Wandering on southwards we added a small group of Common Grackles (#539) and a Mourning Dove (#540) and then made our way towards the Monongahela Incline. Unfortunately it was out of service for maintenance so we had to navigate our way towards the Duquesne Incline instead. This actually worked in our favour though as on the way we found our first Northern Cardinal (#541) singing from a tree and then two Northern Mockingbirds (#542). We also noticed raptors – Turkey Vultures and Red-tailed Hawks – flying across the ridge of Mount Washington. We reached the Incline and trundled up to the top and took cityscape photos from the various viewpoints before nipping into a little library so we could use their bathroom. Following that we made our way back down and headed off for a long walk via the Fort Pitt and Fort Duquesne Bridges across to the North Side and onto the National Aviary for an afternoon with the captive birds. Following that we wandered back to the hotel via PNC Park (noticing a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers in the Allegheny River as we crossed) and then we headed out for a meal at Emporio Meatballs (one of the best meals we had on the holiday – I definitely want to return in the future).
We tried to get out of the hotel nice and early, but it happened to be St Patrick’s Day weekend and and that’s a very big deal in Pittsburgh. It meant we had to wait a while for a table for breakfast, and instead of walking we took the subway back to the North Side to spend some time in the Warhol Museum before it was time to go to the hockey game. I last visited Pittsburgh to see the Penguins play in October 2007, soon after they’d announced they were going to demolish the old Civic Arena and build a new state-of-the-art home. I specifically wanted to experience the classic old igloo and had a great time while I was there. Despite being built just across the street, the new arena (currently called PPG Paints Arena) is a world away from the old one. Absolutely fantastic monument to sport and it made it a great experience as a fan. On my previous visit a young Evgeni Malkin scored the only goal of the game in a 1-0 win over the New York Rangers. This time Geno was being honoured before the game for recently reaching the milestone of 1,000 points in the NHL. Sadly the Penguins had an off-day. Despite recording 41 shots on goal compared with St Louis’s 26, the Blues won by a convincing score of 5-1. Never mind.
After the hockey we had downtime to kill. The St Patrick’s Day festivities had transferred to the various bars by this time so we went for a leisurely stroll through Downtown and ended up at Point State Park where we got better looks at the gulls, Ring-billed Gulls, to be precise (#543). After that it was more waiting around (and snacking) in the hotel before leaving Pittsburgh and getting the overnight train to Rochester via Cleveland.
The day ‘began’ on the train from Pittsburgh to Cleveland. We arrived in Cleveland just before 3am, waited a few hours in the waiting room and then boarded the 5.50am towards Rochester. As we neared Rochester it began to snow, which was a surprise given it had been 22°C just two days prior. Peter met us at the station just before 10am and we headed off to the house in Pittsford to meet up with Katelyn, Ellen and Jasmine. After settling in to our basement room we drove out to a small woodland reserve nearby – Mendon Ponds Park – where the birds were obviously used to visitors and would happily feed from the hand. We soon had Red-breasted Nuthatches (#544) and Tufted Titmice (#545), more Northern Cardinals and a nicely-perched American Tree Sparrow (#546). We then had a good look around a small raptor sanctuary called Wild Wings that sits nicely within the woods before heading back to the house to get some rest.
Before we came out to North America I emailed the Rochester Birding Association about where we should consider going whilst we were in the area and I got a very nice – and detailed – email back from Andrea, the President of the RBA, with loads of good information. Peter and Katelyn were up for taking us out to a particular part of the Braddock Bay Park on the shores of Lake Ontario that’s known for its owls. Before we left the house I added House Finch to the list thanks to the feeders by the kitchen window (#547).
When we arrived at Braddock Bay we tried to get to the bird observatory only to find it closed at this time of the year, so we headed a short distance back out and down to the water’s edge. The trees were full of Red-winged Blackbirds, various sparrows and a couple of Northern Cardinals and three Turkey Vultures circled overhead. We could see down to the water that there were lots of wildfowl, and we soon managed to pick out Ring-necked Ducks (#548), Hooded Mergansers (#549) and Buffleheads (#550). Jem noticed a lone Waxwing in some scrub and after I’d managed to get a good look myself we realised that it was a Cedar Waxwing (#551). Closer to the water we noticed Black-necked Grebes, two juvenile Bad Eagles that headed past, and also some American Wigeon (#552). We decided it was time to head off but I’d worked out that the Owl Woods which we’d really hoped to see were just on the other side of the road, so we went to have a quick look, not expecting to see anything much. As we followed the trail into some pretty dense brush I noticed a bird just heading out so I asked if he’d seen any owls. He casually mentioned there were two Northern Saw-whet Owls in amongst some nearby pines. I soon heard voices of where there were a few other birders and they pointed the first owl out to me, just a few feet away on a head-height branch (#553). The second owl was in a similar position in a tree a few feet away, dozing in the morning sun. After we’d all had a good look we decided to leave the owls to it and headed back towards Pittsford for lunch. The afternoon was spent relaxing as we watched the garden receiving another fall of snow from the warmth and comfort of the house.
We went out in the morning to watch Jasmine in the Purim Festival parade at a local Jewish community care centre and then Jem, Peter and I had a little tour of a few parts of Rochester, namely the Cobbs Hill Reservoir where we heard woodpeckers in the trees and the Lamberton Conservatory in Highland Park. After reconvening with Katelyn and Jasmine for lunch we went for a walk at the Tinker Nature Park. This was a very rewarding afternoon where we saw an Eastern Bluebird (#554) coming to a nestbox near a visitor centre, and once in the woodland itself we also added Red-bellied Woodpecker (#555) and a surprise Cooper’s Hawk to the list (#556). We also had good views of White-tailed Deer (as we would also have in the garden too).
Peter had to work today so Katelyn took us out for the day, driving south-west out of Pittsford in sunny conditions to Letchworth State Park. We stopped first at the overlook of the Mount Morris Dam where Turkey Vultures floated around us in the strong wind. Heading on we made it – via a large detour – to a good spot to view the Middle and Upper Falls of the Genesee River and get some long-exposure photos. On the way back we dropped in at a Tractor Supply Company depot to pick up some bits and pieces before getting back to Pittsford and relaxing until dinnertime.
Our last full day in Rochester was cloudy and grey, but that didn’t matter as we planned to visit George Eastman’s house and museum. It was an interesting afternoon and I regret not purchasing a signed copy of Jason Lee’s A Plain View from the gift shop (it was expensive, it had a damaged cover, and it wouldn’t have fitted in my luggage). After an ice-cream in the cafe we went back to Pittsford for the afternoon to have a drive around to a local fish hatchery before heading out for an evening meal at the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in the city, followed by a visit to the Genesee Brew House to test out the Cream Ale. It was a pretty good way to finish the Rochester part of our trip.
We left Pittsford by car in sleety and snowy conditions and eventually crossed the border at Niagara Falls where Peter and Jasmine said goodbye and Jem and I spent the rest of our last full day in North America wandering alongside the falls. The weather had been pretty poor on our arrival and it left me a little underwhelmed after I’d built the Falls up in my mind, but after lunch it had turned sunny and clear (although still freezing cold) and we experienced the Falls in all their glory. Ring-billed Gulls and Long-tailed Ducks were in plentiful supply here. Our hotel room also had a good view of the falls and we enjoyed seeing it illuminated at night from the steakhouse on the ninth floor, but then a major blizzard moved in and we saw the town get covered in snow as the night wore on.
We got up early to enjoy the sunrise and clear conditions from the hotel and after breakfast went for a frozen walk along to the Bird Kingdom to do a final bit of touristy stuff before getting our shuttle bus back to Pearson Airport. On the way, just before reaching the airport itself, we added one final bonus bird: an American Kestrel hovering close to the freeway (#557). The flight home was uneventful and we arrived back in London the following morning.
It was an epic trip – my first full two-week holiday in almost ten years – and we got much more than we’d hoped for. Forty bird species were added to my lifelist, including great views of my most sought-after bird: the Snowy Owl. The short excursion to Pittsburgh was fun (and I unexpectedly added some species there too), and then we had a great time spending most of the second week near Rochester with the family. I’d wrongly assumed we wouldn’t add many species there, but we ended up with thirteen additions, including the Saw-whet Owls. Despite the problems with missed flights and time wasted in the airport in Toronto, and the poor performance of the Penguins in Pittsburgh, it was an amazing trip.
The final list of new species was: Snowy Owl, Black-billed Magpie, White-breasted Nuthatch, Wild Turkey, Black-capped Chickadee, Bald Eagle, Great Horned Owl, Pileated Woodpecker, Ruffed Grouse, Gray (Canada) Jay, Pine Grosbeak, Hairy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, Downy Woodpecker, Evening Grosbeak, Hoary (Arctic) Redpoll, American Crow, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Black-backed Woodpecker, Northern Shrike, Song Sparrow, Common Grackle, Mourning Dove, Northern Cardinal, Northern Mockingbird, Ring-billed Gull, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Tufted Titmouse, American Tree Sparrow, House Finch, Ring-necked Duck, Hooded Merganser, Bufflehead, Cedar Waxwing, American Wigeon, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Eastern Bluebird, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Cooper’s Hawk and American Kestrel.
Loads of birds seen, loads of good food eaten, loads of family fun, loads of good experiences enjoyed. I want to go back.
A full photo album can be seen here.