Friday, January 23, 2015

Team Hawksauce in Canada - Day 1: Getting there - Jan. 8, 2015

     Sometime around the beginning of December I hatched an idea to take a birding trip to Ontario, Canada over a long weekend in January. Starting off 2015 with a few lifers in a country for which I had never submitted an eBird list sounded like the perfect adventure! I knew that the Niagara Falls area would be great for gulls and waterfowl, and had heard of some great birding spots along Lake Ontario in the Toronto area, including a continuing male Painted Bunting. I also knew that Algonquin Provincial Park, located about 3.5 hours north from Toronto would be a fantastic place to explore for winter finches, owls, and boreal specialties such as Boreal Chickadees and Gray Jays. However, I was not willing to do a trip like this alone, so I convinced the other half of Team Hawksauce (Libby) to come with me on this adventure. I told her in the very beginning of the trip - "I can't promise you birds, but I can promise adventure".
     Our drive from central Pennsylvania to Buffalo, NY was sunny with blue skies most of the way. It wasn't until we were about 25 miles away from Buffalo that the lake effect snow began to threaten our travel plans. Libby was tracking the snow on her many radar apps (birders always have more than one of these apps) as I was driving, and we were discussing whether to reroute ourselves and go around the "storm" or if we would be okay with our plan of crossing the border at the Peace Bridge. Since the snow was moving northwards, away from us, we decided to continue on our original path. The clouds looked ominous but we didn't actually see any snowfall until we were within a few miles of the border, and the only slippery roads were the ones between the border checkpoint and the entrance to the highway on the Canadian side. 
    Our border guard was a friendly chap who ultimately determined that two girls crazy enough to go look at birds in the winter in Canada were no harm to national security. When I handed him the passports he barely looked at them, but wanted to know what we were doing in Canada, where we were going, etc. etc. All normal questions. I told him that we were bird watchers and informed him of our plans to bird along the Niagara River, along the shores of Lake Ontario, and in Algonquin Provincial Park. He looked at me like I was telling him a wildly unbelievable story. Understandably, since it is winter, he had the misconception that there were no birds worth seeing. Thus, I had to explain to him that we were primarily looking for gulls and ducks in the Niagara area, rarities along the lake, and birds that do indeed spend the winter in Algonquin.  He accepted the notion of looking at ducks, he had seen those around; however, he didn't know what gulls were, and I refused to say the dreaded word "seagulls" (shiver). Luckily, Libby is slightly less adverse to this word and leaned across me to inform him that we were looking for seagulls. Now that he understood what kind of birds we were intending on looking at, he gave me yet another very confused, doubting look, and asked - "Why on earth would you be looking for seagulls? They are everywhere!" So now our conversation turned into a teaching moment where I explained a few things to him about bird movements and migration during winter months. He finally asked us what we do for a living. For simplicity's sake I told him we were both wildlife biologists. His response: "OH! THAT makes more sense! Ok, have a good time!" Apparently only people who do this for a living would be looking at birds in Canada in the winter. I hope he at least learned something from us and will spare the next vehicle of birders the look of ARE YOU HIGH?!?!
     We had begun our journey at 8:39 am, and were finally officially in Canada at 1:15 pm. Our first task was to scout out the Niagara River and get the touristy photos out of the way. We also managed to see a few birds, but the wind was howling, making using a scope nearly impossible, and we weren't dressed for single digit temperatures with negative windchills (F). Thus, we gave up on serious birding for the time being and decided to go find our lodging for the night. 
     I had gotten a great off-season deal for the Niagara Grandview Manor which is an adorable bed and breakfast with great views of the Niagara River gorge. To my delight, as soon as I pulled into the parking lot, a fat, fluffy black squirrel appeared on the tree in front of my vehicle! At that moment I knew that I had picked the right place to stay. Things just got better and better from then on. We were allowed to check in 2 hours early, and the lady who checked us in was very friendly and helpful. She even gave us many recommendations for places to eat that were out of the tourist area, and thus much, much cheaper. 

We had a the purple themed room at Niagara Grandview Manor!
      It was now almost 3 pm, and we probably should have used what little daylight was left to do some birding, but we hadn't eaten solid food since breakfast and really needed some lunch. We decided to try a place that our B & B girl had suggested, called Taps on Queen - Brewhouse and Grill. It was difficult to find at first because it doesn't face the main road and thus is easy to miss if you are driving down the road a certain direction. There was one girl running both the bar area and the sit-down area, but she was super nice and helped us choose menu items that would suit our tastes and dietary restrictions. My only complaint is that she erroneously told me that one of their breaded items was gluten free because it was coated with Panko breading. Luckily, I know what Panko breading is, and knew that she was wrong. Our waitress was also SHOCKED when she learned that we were going to Algonquin in the WINTER. Her words went something like this: "I hope you have really warm sleeping bags and bear proof containers! I know people who are no longer here because they went to Algonquin!". We assured her that we had a motel room reserved and would not be sleeping outdoors. She was very relieved and finally gave us her blessing to continue on our adventure. On the positive side, Libby and I both had our first plate of poutine here, which is basically loaded french fries with gravy. We also managed to have a delicious meal for under $20 CAD. 

Pizza Poutine with BBQ sandwich in the background. 

    There was still a bit of daylight left when we left Taps, so we decided to try and track down the Eurasian Tree Sparrow that had been hanging out at a private residence in Niagara-on-the-lake. Unfortunately we dipped hard on this bird (didn't see it), although the owner of the house was super nice and informed us that he had seen it the day before. By the time we got back to our B & B the sun had set so we took the time to unload the vehicle. We then gassed up my vehicle which was now encased in a thick crust of road salt, and drove around the tourist area a few times looking for cheap parking near Casino Niagara. 

The road salt was out of control!
Super crusty.

     The cheapest lot we could find cost $5/hour or $10 for the night, so we decided to make a night of it and went for the $10 rate. As soon as we got into Casino Niagara I headed straight for the cashier to exchange some of my USD for CAD since the rate of exchange is always best at a casino. Then we wandered around the slot machines looking for all the ones with birds on them, identifying them to species. After all, what else do two birders on a budget do at a casino? We also checked out the comedy club called Yuk Yuk's and decided to attend the show that night. With at least an hour to kill before the show started we bundled up, braved the frigid temperatures, and took a walk down to the falls to see them lit up at night. Once our hands and faces were numb we headed back to the casino to warm up. Going to the comedy show turned out to be a fantastic decision, and one that still has us laughing! 

American Falls

American Falls (left) and Horseshoe Falls (right)

     By the time we got out of the comedy club some serious snowfall was happening, with a couple of inches already on the ground. Driving back to the B & B proved to be slightly challenging, but thanks to the 4WD capabilities of my SUV we were able to make it without too many problems. We even stopped at a 24 hr doughnut shop that sold other random items such as soups, pepperoni rolls, cold sandwiches, etc., so Libby could pick up a late dinner. That place sure was busy for 11 pm on a weeknight! Perhaps it just seemed busy because there was one woman doing everything from taking money and orders to preparing food. It was definitely one of those places only the locals go. Looks like I already made good on the promise of adventure!

Niagara Falls, Canada 

Stay tuned for the story of our first full day in Canada!

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