An island trip in the winter calls to mind a long flight, sunscreen, and swimsuit. How about trading that for an uncrowded ferry ride, sparkling snow, and scaups? For those looking for an out-of-the-ordinary Canadian winter nature experience, there are few more easily accessible winter wonderlands than Wolfe and Amherst Islands, locations that boast some of Ontario’s best birdwatching. Although these quiet country communities seem like a world onto themselves, they are within very easy reach of city dwellers in southern Ontario or the northeastern United States. A short ferry trip from Kingston or near Bath, these islands occupy a prime spot at the mouth of the St. Lawrence Seaway and along a major migration route.
For many years, these islands have drawn expert birdwatchers from across North America, particularly in the autumn and winter. In fact, Wolfe and Amherst Islands made the Days Out Ontario travel blog’s list of Best Winter Birdwatching spots in the province. The country backroads reveal a charming landscape romantically reminiscent of family farm country of decades past.
Even very young children will be thrilled by their first sighting of a magnificent snowy owl. And in blustery weather, some of the waterfowl watching can be conducted from the car; in fact, using the car as a blind can be very advantageous. So grab your binoculars, and head off for a truly out-of-the-way escape from it all.
The best, and in fact only, way to get to either Amherst or Wolfe Islands is by car ferry, which leaves every hour on the half hour (except for the first ferry of the day which leaves at 6:20am). Service is frequent and regular, but fill up on gas before departing. The birdwatching can start from the ferry, if the lake waters are open. In late winter, you will be able to spot large rafts of ducks: goldeneye, scaup, ring-neck, canvasback, and redhead will be in the greatest numbers. Depending on ice conditions, the ferry may not head for the usual dock but to another landing point east of Marysville.
As any birder will tell you, sometimes the most unlikely, least glamourous places are where you make the best finds. The top place to head for on Amherst Island is a 250-acre reserve owned by the Kingston Field Naturalists located at the southeast corner of the island, although that spot is only open to members. Here, the snowy fields are the place to look for rough-legged hawk and snowy owl. There are several small conifer woods on the islands, and it is recommended that you look carefully in the trees for not only snowy and saw-whet owls, but occasionally boreal owls as well. Occasionally, great grey owls are seen in tall deciduous trees, but these are special sightings and of course can’t be guaranteed! In fact, while you are driving the quiet country backroads, be continually scanning the telephone wires and poles for owls and hawks.
Wolfe Island has several good owling locations as well as good waterfowl watching. The water birds will only be present in good numbers whenever the lake ice melts, which is likely March. Bayfield Bay is particularly rewarding, and you will hear the yodelling of old squaw long before you have your spotting scope set up. Bayfield Bay is the staging area for thousands of migrating geese, including occasional snow geese, as well as scaup, Barrow’s goldeneye and the occasional ruddy duck. Any children in your group will be amused at the early spring antics of bufflehead, who are eager to get on with the process of migration and mate-finding. There is also plenty of action in nearby fields, where, in late winter, there are flocks of migrating horned lark, snow bunting and longspurs. Reeds Bay is the place to find large numbers of common mergansers and goldeneye.
The website of the Ontario Field Ornithologists is a wonderful resource. Do check out their report on Amherst and Wolfe Islands for maps. Their recommended spot for Wolfe Island snowy owls is along County Road 96 between the 11th and 14th Line.
While You’re There…
There are plenty of other winter activities to partake in on the islands, including ice fishing, sleigh rides, and snowshoeing.
Where to Stay:
Kingston is well-known as one of Ontario’s most spoiled cities when it comes to romantic B&Bs, highly ranked inns, and historic hotels. From the Rosemount Inn and Spa to the Frontenac Club Inn to the Hochelaga Inn to the Hotel Belvedere to the Secret Garden Inn, you won’t lack for top-of-the-line accommodation options where you can warm your feet after a day of tromping through the snow.
On Wolfe Island, your best bet is The General Wolfe Hotel, a circa 1860 inn boasting updated rooms and both casual and fine dining options with an unmatched view of Kingston across the waterway.