Algonquin Park: Four seasons in one day

Yesterday Deb and I spent the day at Algonquin Park. Although it was supposed to be cold (the high was supposed to be only 8°C), it was also supposed to be sunny. Dawn was breaking over thick, dark, cloudy skies in Ottawa, but by the time we reached Eganville we could see plenty of blue sky ahead. We saw a couple of Great Blue Herons, a flock of Wild Turkeys, four Turkey Vultures, large flocks of blackbirds, a Belted Kingfisher, and a couple of unidentified hawks on our drive; then, by the time we were about half an hour away from the park, several large, misty clouds had swallowed up the sky. In Whitney a light, misty rain began to fall; by the time we reached the park gate we saw – to our horror – snow mixed in with the rain!

We stopped at the Visitor’s Center first to check out the sightings board and the view from the observation deck. No birds had been reported thus far, but a moose had been seen along the Highway at kilometer 27. There were no birds in the trees beyond the observation deck, either, so Deb and I set off in search of moose.

There was a body of water near kilometer 27 (Jake Lake), with a small parking area next to it. We found a path to the water, and although we didn’t see any moose, we did find 11 female Common Mergansers swimming in a line. We also scared up a couple of sparrows but weren’t able to get a good look at them. A little further up the highway we found another small parking area looking out onto another small lake. This time we saw a Northern Flicker fly over, but no moose.

There was a trail leading into the bush across the road, so we went exploring. The trail was a portage, a path used by canoers to get from one body of water to another. We saw a couple of Yellow-rumped Warblers here and that was it.

By then the rain and snow had stopped and the clouds were beginning to break up. We got back in the car, and headed to our first trail: The Mizzy Lake Trail at Wolf Howl Pond. This is one of the better areas for seeing the northern species most birders come to Algonquin to find. No dogs are allowed on the trail, which is 11 km in length and takes about 6 hours to walk. However, birders can access Wolf Howl Pond directly from an old railway bed which itself is accessed from Arowhon Road.

As soon as I got out of the car I heard the sound of a flock of birds moving in the thick shrubbery next to the road. I saw two White-crowned Sparrows foraging on the ground, one adult and one juvenile, and when I started pishing I saw Golden-crowned Kinglets, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, White-throated Sparrows, and a couple of juncos (my first of the fall) as well.

We hadn’t yet reached Wolf Howl Pond when we found our first Gray Jay. Or rather, I should say that he found us! Deb heard a noise in the tree above her, and when she looked up there was a beautiful pale bird looking at us! I had brought some food just for the occasion, pulled out my baggie full of sunflower seeds and peanuts, and held out my hand. The jay landed on my hand (he’s quite a bit heavier than a chickadee) and quickly snatched up a couple of peanuts.

Gray Jay

We fed him for a while, then continued our way to the pond. We heard more White-throated Sparrows and Golden-crowned Kinglets along the way but encountered nothing noteworthy until we reached the pond.

Wolf Howl Pond

A Pileated Woodpecker flew by overhead, and we saw one Wood Duck and a pair of mallards on the water. Two more Gray Jays were being fed by a group of people as well. I was surprised to find a couple of meadowhawks in a sunny, sheltered section of the trail, particularly when I realized that there were a few White-faced Meadowhawks among the more expected Autumn Meadowhawks.

White-faced Meadowhawk

We continued on to West Rose Lake, which is beautiful in the fall. We didn’t see a single duck on the water, which was a bit disappointing, but a flock of American Pipits – including a single bird which perched in a dead tree fairly close to us – helped to make up for the lack of waterfowl.

West Rose Lake

A couple of Yellow-rumped Warblers, Golden-crowned Kinglets and White-throated Sparrows were the only songbirds we found here, which is not surprising as these were the most numerous species on the trail.

West Rose Lake

We turned around at West Rose Lake and headed back to the parking lot. This time we found a Hooded Merganser at Wolf Howl Pond, and heard a Gray Jay vocalizing further along the trail. It sounded a bit like a hawk, which surprised me. We encountered another (or perhaps the same) flock of songbirds near the parking area. I heard a couple of chickadees and stopped to scan them in case there were any Boreal Chickadees. One did sound a bit different, and when I raised my binoculars I was delighted to find it was in fact a Boreal Chickadee! Deb missed it, so we followed the flock trying to get a better look. I pulled out my iPhone and started playing a Boreal Chickadee vocalization, and at least three responded! Finally we saw one out in the open, and it stayed just long enough to confirm its identity.

Autumn Foliage

Our next stop was the Spruce Bog boardwalk where we hoped to encounter more Algonquin specialties such as Spruce Grouse, Black-backed Woodpecker, and any of the Boreal finches. There were lots of people on the trail, so I didn’t really expect to see much. I couldn’t believe it, then, when Deb pointed out a Spruce Grouse right on the trail near the boardwalk! She was relatively cooperative, allowing us some great looks even as she meandered into the bush.

Spruce Grouse

The only other birds we saw on the trail were a pair of Palm Warblers and a pair of robins; the woods and the marsh were pretty quiet. Still, we were happy with our three boreal birds thus far and took a drive up Opeongo Road to look for more. We didn’t see any mammals, and the only bird we saw was a single Great Blue Heron standing in a wetland next to the road. The only birds we saw at Opeongo Lake were about a dozen Ring-billed Gulls.

Ring-billed Gull

Altogether we found 28 species of bird within the park, including two species of warblers (Yellow-rumped and Palm Warbler) and one finch (American Goldfinch). The highlights were definitely the Spruce Grouse and Boreal Chickadees, as this was only the second time I’ve seen either species. We encountered no unusual mammals, which was a bit of a disappointment.

The colours were beautiful, too. Even if the weather was not all we had hoped it would be, it is not often one gets to experience all four seasons in a single day: the snow flurries of winter, the rain of spring, the dragonflies and sunshine of summer, and the gorgeous colours of fall helped to make it a memorable trip!

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