On Sunday Deb and I drove to Algonquin Provincial Park to enjoy some late winter/early spring birding. It has been a good winter for Boreal finches, with small numbers of Pine Grosbeaks, Common Redpolls, Red Crossbills and White-winged Crossbills reported in the park regularly and large numbers of Evening Grosbeaks (particularly at the Visitor Center feeders) and Pine Siskins seen daily. Spruce Grouse, Black-backed Woodpeckers and Boreal Chickadees have also been seen regularly throughout the winter, and the mammal reports intrigued us – moose sightings have been sporadic along Highway 60; a lone wolf was seen crossing the highway in January; a red fox was eating black sunflower seed at the Visitor Centre on January 25th; and Pine Martens have been found regularly at Opeongo Road, the Spruce Bog Boardwalk, and the Mew Lake Campground. With so many species around this winter, we were sure to see something interesting!
The drive up was relatively uneventful. The sun was shining, and we watched the temperature climb from 3°C to 11°C on our journey. We saw a single Red-tailed Hawk, numerous Red-winged Blackbirds, and a group of Wild Turkeys on one of the back roads, the males displaying with fanned tails for the females. I counted three Pileated Woodpeckers on the drive – two flying over the highway and one in a dead tree next to the road. We had to slow down for four White-tailed Deer crossing Highway 60; however, our best mammal sighting was a Red Fox crossing the road just inside the park about half a kilometer from the East Gate!
We stopped at the gate on Opeongo Road first to see if we could spot one of the Pine Martens. People have been leaving seeds on the snowbanks for the birds, and it is this food that attracts the martens. Although several birds were busy eating the seeds, including Black-capped Chickadees, Pine Siskins, Red-breasted Nuthatches and a single Gray Jay, the only mammal present was a Red Squirrel.
Several Blue Jays were chattering noisily, and both ravens and crows flew over. It was the single Gray Jay that captivated me, for this is a species that we don’t have in Ottawa and they are fun to watch.
Next we drove over to the Visitor Center. One of the park naturalists was giving a presentation on animal tracks and signs, so we stayed to test our knowledge on which animal made which tracks (we only got two wrong). We learned the difference between grouse and raven tracks in the snow, saw what a pile of grouse scat looks like, and learned how otters, martens, and wolves move in the snow. After that we went to check the feeders in the back. As soon as we opened the doors we could hear a large number of Evening Grosbeaks calling. While most appeared to be perched in trees, a few were at the feeder and others were getting a drink from a puddle of water. The males are gorgeous, with bold yellow, black and white colours.
Female Evening Grosbeaks are much more muted and subtle in colour but are just as lovely.
The Evening Grosbeak’s bill is bone-coloured during winter, but turns a pale green in early spring, a colour which precisely matches the green of fresh deciduous buds and the new needles of spruce boughs around these finches’ nesting sites. This protective colouration helps to conceal the brightly coloured Evening Grosbeak; when it lifts its head the bill looks like a young green spruce or balsam cone. The bills of the birds in the above photos have not yet begun to change colour; the bill of the male in the photo below has.
The song of the Evening Grosbeak, described as “a series of abrupt warbles”, is seldom heard. Nevertheless, they are noisy birds and possess a wide repertoire of calls and cries. The call heard most often is a monosyllabic chirp that sounds similar to the chirp of the common House Sparrow but louder and more musical. This call is used by each bird to proclaim its place in the flock. A lone individual – such as the one Deb and I found at Opeongo Road – uses the same call to advertise its presence to all within hearing range.
Although Evening Grosbeaks feed on any seed that is available, they have a close relationship with budworm, a forest pest. In areas where there are large infestations of budworm, large numbers of grosbeaks move in to breed and raise their young, feeding on the budworm larvae and pupae. When the infestation declines, the grosbeaks move elsewhere. Because of its appetite for this destructive pest, the Evening Grosbeak is one of our most beneficial birds.
After leaving the Visitor Center, Deb and I headed to the Spruce Bog Boardwalk next to check out the suet feeder. We waited for several minutes, but the pine marten didn’t show up. We saw Black-capped Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, a Hairy Woodpecker, and several Blue Jays but little else. Then we heard a tapping. I turned to look for the source but couldn’t find it; a minute later Deb pointed out a Black-backed Woodpecker!
This is a female, as evidenced by the lack of a yellow cap. These woodpeckers breed in the northern coniferous forests, preferring burned-over sites where wood-boring beetles are abundant. However, after the breeding season, individual Black-backed Woodpeckers may move south in search of food.
This is only the second time I’ve seen a Black-backed Woodpecker, and it was a lifer for Deb. It also turned out to be the best find of our trip. We saw no birds on the rest of our walk around the trail, and when we returned to the suet feeder the pine martens had still not shown up.
We decided to try the Mizzy Lake Trail and Wolf Howl Pond next. There is still significant snow cover in Algonquin, and the warm weather had made it soft in spots. Only a small part of the trail had been packed down, about a foot wide in the middle of the path, but every time we ventured too far to the left or the right we sank up to our knees in snow. This made for some rough walking, and when this Gray Jay flew in to greet us we were happy to stop and offer him some food.
These birds are as friendly as the chickadees in Ottawa, and will even land on your hand to snatch a peanut.
After feeding the Gray Jay and resting for a bit we continued on our way to Wolf Howl pond. We heard a couple of Blue Jays and Pine Siskins, and startled a Ruffed Grouse right beside the trail. There were lots of Ruffed Grouse tracks in the snow. Unfortunately we didn’t see anything at Wolf Howl Pond itself, which was still frozen, but on our way back to the car the same Gray Jay flew in to extort more food from us. On Arowhon Road we found another Ruffed Grouse, this one crossing the road in front of us. Fortunately we were driving very slowly because the road was very muddy and slippery.
We returned to the Visitor Center just before it closed to check the feeders. The Evening Grosbeaks were gone, but we did see our third Ruffed Grouse of the trip feeding on the fallen seeds!
After that we returned to the Spruce Bog Trail to watch the suet feeder again. Neither the pine marten nor the Black-backed Woodpecker put in an appearance after about 20 minutes of waiting, so we went back to Opeongo Road. The pine marten failed to show up here as well, but we did hear a Pileated Woodpecker calling from somewhere close by and saw a single Common Redpoll in the area.
Although we were disappointed that we didn’t see the pine martens, the fox was a splendid surprise, and the Black-backed Woodpecker made the trip worthwhile. Deb and I were fortunate to have such great weather, too, though it surprised us that there weren’t more people visiting the park that day. While Algonquin Provincial Park is a fantastic place to visit in any season, winter is clearly the best time to see Boreal species such as Gray Jay, Evening Grosbeaks, Black-backed Woodpeckers, and the various “winter finches”. No birder should miss a winter trip to Algonquin!