Being Taken Under Wing Provided Learning Opportunities About Owls And Life

Captions: Top left, an image of the second Great Horned Owl that we spotted on our outing; below, Clements gesturing at a hard-to-spot nest in the treetops; next, a heronry with no birds in nests this particular day; next, a stick nest in a hydro tower. Top right, Clements scours the bush with binoculars looking for nesting owls; below, Clements keeps detailed accounts of his travels and findings; next, sticks and branches obscured our view of the first owl we sighted; next, more record keeping; and adjacent, Brad Clements, face of a devoted birder. / Photos by Joe Barkovich.

By Joe Barkovich, Scribbler-at-large

VINELAND – After numerous flings with Blue Jays, Cardinals, Red-breasted Nuthatches and Black-capped Chickadees, the invitation to a possible date with a Great Horned Owl was too hot to pass up.

It came from Wellander Brad Clements, a birder for more than 50 years.

I’d known about his interest in our feathered friends for some time but not the depth of his experience. Not just local, Clements has a birding profile that is national and international.

In January, this rank amateur reached out to him by e-mail to identify a bird photographed on Welland’s Merritt Island.

 “From the length of the bill & the fact that there is no red on the head this is a female Downy Woodpecker. Feel free to contact me anytime,” was his polite, accommodating response.

Later he wrote about going out one day to look for nesting Great Horned Owls and asked if I’d come along. 

HOT SPOT’ BOUND

We drove to one of the acknowledged “birding hotspots” in Niagara, Victoria Avenue and environs in Vineland. Some of the  roads we travelled include: Quarry Road, Saan Road, Tufford Road, Merritt Road and Cream Street.

“Hawkeye” as I started calling him, scanned tree tops as we drove along these country roads and highways.

He pulled to the side of the roads two or three  times and we stepped out to study lofty heights in the distance. Based on previous outings, and tips from other birders, he knew where to look for nests. What he didn’t know was whether they would be occupied. These were not.

NEST RAIDERS

Great Horned Owls are not nest builders, Clements told me. They “expropriate” the nest builders, often Red-tailed Hawks, taking over their properties. Clements said the Red-tails build large stick nests high in the trees and they appeal to Great Horned Owls.

He pulled over at two other sites. Using binoculars for closer scrutiny of the tree limbs, he found a tree with a nesting Great Horned Owl. But even with binoculars and camera lens it was barely visible because of so many sticks and branches between our vantage point and the nest.

But the second site was better, especially after shuffling up and down the roadside, inches at a time,  jockeying for the clearest view. And there she sat in her grandeur, high above the ground, two tufts at the top of her head that look like horns – the visual giveaway for this novice – and eyes so piercing I could feel her looking through us. Unforgettable!

Clements said he starts his “driving around” in search of the nesting owls early in the new year, usually February. 

“They want to have their young when the mice and voles have been born, when the food is at its maximum.

“Once she gets on the nest she can’t leave. If she leaves, the eggs would freeze. She won’t leave until the young have enough feathers, that’s when she can leave and do some hunting on her own. Until then the male feeds her by bringing her his catch every night.”

A female can lay from one to five eggs, Clements said. 

TAKING FLIGHT

The veteran birdwatcher’s interest took flight back in the 1970s while his family was on vacation at the Geneva Park Y Conference Centre near Orillia. One day, he went to the nature station, took out binoculars and a book and went to see what he could find. His liking of the experience was immediate.

But it wasn’t long before he found himself “frustrated” not knowing what he was looking at in the trees or flying by. So he went out and joined the Niagara Falls Nature Club and you might say it opened the skies to a lifetime of adventure and learning.

For Clements, there’s more to birdwatching than driving around in search of species, or watching a gathering of feathered friends at the front-yard birdfeeder through the living room window.

It also involves detailed note taking and record keeping, something he has done over many years for Royal Ontario Museum’s Ontario Nest Records Scheme. Also, according to the authoritative compilation, Niagara Birds, he worked on two Ontario Breeding Bird Atlases involving trips to northern Ontario and participation in Niagara. Clements has taken part in various  inventories, surveys and studies of various bird species. A member of the Ontario Eastern Bluebird Society, he is co-author of a scholarly piece in Niagara Birds titled The Eastern Bluebird In Niagara.

DEDICATED TO RECORD KEEPING

I asked him why he does so much paperwork and wouldn’t he rather be out and about devoting all his time to travelling the great outdoors looking for birds.

“One of the things I’ve enjoyed doing most was finding nests and recording them, with the Royal Ontario Museum. 

“Some people just go out and see the birds. I want to make a contribution to our knowledge, that’s why I do backyard surveys, nesting counts, Christmas counts. All these things add to our knowledge. I accept the fact compiling data is an essential part of why I go out and see something. I want to share it with others.”

Of course, the conversation would not be complete without asking Clements to name a few of his favourite species. Here is what he chose:

  1. Diademed Sandpiper Plover. This “stunning” shorebird was sighted in Peru by Clements and his group in the 1990s. They were at about 12,000 feet in the Andes and had to go up to 15,000 feet to find it. A white diadem, or crown, encircles the top of the bird’s head.
  2. Painted Bunting. With its green, yellow and red colours, one of the “prettiest” birds Clements has come across. Found in Florida and other southern states.
  3. Great Horned Owl. Clements looks forward to seeing the Great Horned Owl every year. “Nothing argues with a Great Horned Owl. They will even take a skunk.”

So many stories, so many adventures in a lofty pursuit that first took wing decades ago. Clements talked about finding 29 of the 31 indigenous (birds that can be found only in that particular country) species in Dominican Republic,  three weeks in Peru in pursuit of 700 species, birding visits to Goa in India and to Bahrain, Dubai, Myanmar, Nigeria and Morocco among others. Stories and adventures for another day here in this space.

THE FUTURE

Now 80, Clements still looks forward to his outings as much as he did earlier in life. He hits the road once a week (the week I went with him, he was back at it next day!) and doesn’t mind in the least.

Asked how much longer he can keep going, Clements winged it with an open-ended answer: “As long as I can get around, I’ll continue to do it.”

But he gently groused about losing a “considerable amount” of his hearing in recent years and how it impacts his work in the field.

“There are now a lot of bird songs I can’t hear or can’t hear very well,” he said and I could tell that it saddens him.

My long-time friend the bird watcher turned philosophical.

“One of the things I’ve learned in life: ‘Listen to yourself! What turns your crank, what makes you feel good?’ As long as it makes me feel good, that’s how long I’ll keep doing it.”

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