Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Team Hawksauce in Canada - Day 2: The battle from Niagara to Huntsville - Jan. 9, 2015

     Libby and I started out our day with a snowy trek to the B & B's dining room followed by an absolutely delicious breakfast made-to-order by the in-house chef at Niagara Grandview Manor!  I had a cheese, mushroom and pepperoni omelet (whites only) and Libby had a fruit crepe with a side of real maple syrup. From my seat at the breakfast table I could watch the gulls flying up and down the Niagara River gorge. The food and atmosphere was so perfect that we ended up dawdling over breakfast a little longer then anticipated and thus got a late start to our birding.  After we packed up the vehicle and I removed around 4-5 inches of snow from it, we were on our way to our first stop!

Niagara Grandview Manor in the snow! Our room was the one in the bottom right of the photo.
Our trek to breakfast.
The view of the gorge from the breakfast table.

My omelet
Fruit crepe
     We headed straight to an area that was said to have pretty reliable sightings of Snowy Owl and Short-eared Owls, but the only birds we saw were hundreds of American Tree Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, and of course an American Kestrel watching over them all. Our next stop was at Bayfront Park in Hamilton, Ontario where we spent almost an hour and a half enjoying the waterfowl. Although the wind was gusting pretty strongly and temperatures were in the low teens, the birds were active and beautiful! Seeing over 100 Common Goldeneyes was a real treat, along with a Cackling Goose, Greater Scaup, Common Mergansers, Red-breasted Mergansers, and four species of gull. My favorite was our lifer Glaucous Gull that swooped by at close range giving us great looks! In fact, we enjoyed this gull so much that both of us failed to get a photo of it.

Panorama of the Bayfront Park tundra situation. (Photo credit: E. Errickson)
     Our third stop of the day was at Lasalle Park and Marina in Burlington, Ontario. Here there were even more waterfowl, including Buffleheads, American Black Ducks, Northern Pintails, Mallards, Canvasbacks, Greater and Lesser Scaup, Common Goldeneyes, Common Mergansers and American Coots. Best of all, there were many trumpeting Trumpeter Swans, all of which were wing-tagged for research! Although there are many signs around the marina saying not to feed the waterfowl, it was obvious that people still do it because the Mallards and Trumpeter Swans had no fear of us. I was literally able to walk past my lifer Trumpeter Swans (within two feet) without them even so much as flinching! There were also very cooperative black phase Gray Squirrels in this park which made me very happy.

LaSalle Park madness!

Pretty swan face.

Just chillin'.

This one has been digging in the mud.

These squirrels are the best!

Comparison of the normal versus the black phase of the Gray Squirrel

The cuteness is just overwhelming!
A clip of the LaSalle Park birding bonanza.

     We had inadvertently spent way too much time at our first two stops, so we were now pretty far behind schedule. However, it was impossible to not try for the male Painted Bunting that had been hanging out at a feeder in a residential area in Oakville - a suburb of Toronto. Besides, it was on our way. When we arrived at the Painted Bunting stakeout, there were a few birders and at least two photographers waiting for the bird to appear. Sadly, even after waiting for over 30 minutes the bird failed to appear for us. We learned from one of the bystanders that the bird had appeared at around 11am but hadn't been seen since. This was the 4th time in my life that I have failed to see a Painted Bunting. Thus, they remain a frustrating nemesis bird for me. At least we hadn't been standing in the cold since the late morning like some of the those guys!
     It was almost 4pm by the time we left the Painted Bunting stakeout and starting heading for our motel in Huntsville, Ontario. This was supposed to be an easy 2.5 hour drive...except today. We ended up in the middle of Toronto in Friday night rush hour traffic. Travel plans came to a crawl as we inched our way through the city. My on-board navigation system (aka Libby) was doing everything she could to see if we could reroute ourselves onto less busy roads, but there is not much you can do during rush hour. At least we weren't at a standstill. It took us 3 hours to just get through Toronto. To fight the boredom we spent the time trying to find real bird alpha codes in license plates and making up fake bird names for any combination of 4 letters that we spotted. The craziness was just starting to surface.
     Once we made it out of the greater Toronto metropolitan area we were able to make good time and the roads were in great condition. When it became dark enough to have to use the headlights I discovered that they looked very dim. Turns out that they were so crusted over with road salt that it was necessary to use some water from Libby's water bottle to wash them off. In fact, we ended up stopping at least twice to wipe them off. Once we reached Barrie we decided to make a quick stop for some dinner, which turned out to be the best decision of the night. If we hadn't taken the time to get some food the next few hours would have been absolutely grueling. Just north of Barrie we exited off Route 400 onto Route 11 to head towards Huntsville. Somewhere between Barrie and the next town (Orillia), it started snowing. The roads were still okay, and had obviously been plowed recently, but the snow intensified. By the time we realized just how intense this lake-effect snow was, the only way out of it was forward. We were forced to go no more than 25-30 mph, and visibility quickly decreased to 20-30ft in front of us. I flipped on my 4WD, turned on my 4-way flashers, and turned on my fog lights for the second time since I obtained this vehicle in 2010. The fog lights helped considerably, and showed me that pulling off onto the shoulder to wait it out was not an option. The shoulders (where I could see them) were either sheets of ice or covered with 5+ inches of snow. The exit ramps that I could see were not even touched by the plows. At least the road in front of me was plowed down the middle and sanded so I could have one front and one back tire on semi-cleared pavement. The only real problems occurred when large trucks or tractor trailers would zoom by me at 60+ mph and create snownados in their wake that decreased visibility to 5-10ft. Things could have been worse, it could have been a blizzard. At least I could still see the flashers of the person in front of me and the snow was a dry, powdery type that did not stick to the windshield at all. In fact, I didn't have to use the wipers at all during this whole ordeal. I thought I was home free when we finally got behind a snowplow, but it was going much faster than I and I eventually lost it.  When Libby wasn't gripping onto her seat for dear life she was checking her radar apps and keeping my spirits up by telling me how much further it was until we were out from under this lake-effect snow. She also called the inn a few times to advise them of our situation and anticipated time of arrival. It was nice to hear the hostess at the inn tell us that it was clear in Huntsville.
     We finally arrived at the Rainbow Inn in Huntsville at around 11:30 pm, and had to wake the innkeeper to check-in. Although she could have been very grumpy, she was super nice about everything and even had the gas fireplace started in our room when we walked in! The free wifi even worked great! I was very lucky to have a heavy 4WD vehicle since the area had gotten a fresh 6 inches of snow that day, and the parking lot was not only located off a steep hill, but it was also not plowed. We were just happy to have made it to Huntsville and to have a nice warm place to sleep.

Rainbow Inn from the main parking area. 

Stay tuned for our adventures in Algonquin Provincial Park!

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