The Mustelids of Algonquin Park

Pine Marten

Pine Marten

Deb and I went to Algonquin Park on Saturday, and we couldn’t have picked a better day to go. We drove west under a bright blue sky, and while it was only -4°C when we left, the warm sunshine quickly heated the day to a balmy 8°C. We started the day with a drive up Opeongo Road which was an adventure in itself – the road was badly plowed with deep ruts, and the rising temperature made the surface slippery. We didn’t see or hear anything until we got to the gate, where we found piles of sunflower seeds left on various snow banks. Several Black-capped Chickadees, American Red Squirrels and Blue Jays were eating their fill; a single Gray Jay was also looking for handouts, and spent most of its time approaching the people coming and going rather than sampling the seeds left in the snow. Three Common Redpolls also flew in, while a single Pine Grosbeak seemed content to pick up grit from the parking lot. Then I heard a Boreal Chickadee calling from the edge of the parking area. His song is a slower, raspier version of the Black-capped Chickadee’s chick-a-dee-dee-dee. Deb managed to find it bouncing among the branches of a spruce tree, a beautiful little bird dressed in rufous and brown.

We found two more Boreal Chickadees at our next stop, the Spruce Bog Boardwalk. They were taking turns at the suet feeder along with a couple of Black-capped Chickadees and two Red-breasted Nuthatches. We could hear several Blue Jays squawking all around us; a couple of photographers staking out the suet feeder told us that a Pine Marten had just climbed a nearby tree and was hiding among the branches at the top. Deb and I peered up into the treetops but were unable to see anything. We returned our attention to the feeder and watched as the two Boreal Chickadees came and went, never sitting still for more than a moment. I don’t have any decent photos of this species and was hoping they would perch long enough for me to photograph them; fortunately, one of them took his time at the feeder.

Boreal Chickadee

The ground was sprinkled with bits of food, and both the Boreal and Black-capped Chickadees were quick to take advantage of the fallen crumbs. This is the best of the Boreal Chickadee photos that I took that day; I like it because it shows off his brown cap, brown back and rusty-coloured sides.

Boreal Chickadee

Then someone said he could see the Pine Marten running along the ground. I looked, and caught a glimpse of him running over the snow. He paused in the middle of the path a short distance away; then, when a new group of people walked in from the parking lot, he darted into a hole beneath the boardwalk. Both groups of people held their breath as they waited for him to come out, but he remained there until the new group crossed the boardwalk and joined us. It didn’t take long for the pine marten to poke his head out of the hole; he looked directly at us as though assessing the situation.

Pine Marten (American Marten)

The Pine Marten (Martes americana) is also known as the American Marten and belongs to the Family Mustelidae which includes weasels, otters, and mink. Smaller than the Fisher and larger than the Ermine, the Pine Marten can be recognized by its gray head, brown body, black legs, and yellowish-orange throat. Like other mustelids, the Pine Marten has a long, slender body. It has large paws with sharp, curved claws which are semi-retractable to help them climb.

Pine Marten (American Marten)

The marten eventually came out from under the boardwalk and started walking toward the suet feeder. We followed slowly, taking care not to spook him. He found some food on the ground and spent a good ten minutes eating the scraps beneath the tree. Pine Martens are opportunistic feeders. While their diet consists mainly of rodents, including red squirrels, mice and voles, they may also eat birds, birds’ eggs, and carrion, as well as fruits, berries, and insects in the summer. They hunt mainly at dawn and dusk when prey animals are most active. Although they are agile climbers and spend a lot of their time in the trees, they do most of their hunting on the ground. Like the mink and the otter, martens also swim and dive well.

Pine Marten

Once it had eaten all the scraps on the ground, the marten demonstrated its tree-climbing skills by climbing up to the feeder. This is my favourite photo of the marten; you can see his sharp claws and the different colours of his coat.

The Pine Marten can be found across Canada in mature, old-growth forests, particularly those containing lodgepole pine, Douglas fir, spruce, and mixed hardwood. They can occur at all elevations where such habitat exists, and make their dens in hollow trees, crevices, or vacant ground burrows. While logging and the destruction of coniferous forest habitat has led to a decrease in population, the Pine Marten is not considered a species at risk.

About 20 minutes after we first saw the marten it wandered back off into the woods. Although there were about six or seven people photographing it at the feeder, the marten seemed wary but not too concerned with our presence. While he may simply be used to people, the Canadian Museum of Nature’s Natural History Notebook notes that their insatiable curiosity and appetite are often mistaken for tameness.

We didn’t see much else on the Spruce Bog Trail and went to the Visitor Center to eat our lunch. There were no Evening Grosbeaks at the feeders this time; however, they were lively with several Common Redpolls, Black-capped Chickadees, a Downy Woodpecker, a single Pine Grosbeak, and several Blue and Gray Jays. At least four red squirrels were foraging below the platform feeder, and we saw our first chipmunk of the year as well. It was so warm a fly even buzzed by my ear.

The sightings board mentioned that an otter had been seen at the Beaver Pond Trail, so Deb and I went there next. We made our way down to the first pond where two Gray Jays flew in to greet us. I had forgotten what their soft calls sounded like, and how they often glide in without flapping their wings. The two Gray Jays were inquisitive though both were reluctant to land on my hand. I threw the peanuts onto the snow instead and watched as they took turns flying down to grab some.

Gray Jay (female)

You will notice that the two jays are wearing coloured bands on their legs. Gray Jay research in Algonquin Park began back in the 1960s when the late Russell J. Rutter developed the technique of colour-banding to identify individual Gray Jays so that he could observe them and learn about their ecology and nesting behaviour. Every jay was given its own unique combination of coloured plastic and standard aluminum bands, and Russ spent many years observing and documenting the birds in the park. When Russell died in 1976, Dan Strickland continued and expanded the study up until the present day; it has now become one of the longest-running studies of a marked population of vertebrates anywhere in the world.

I emailed Dan my photos and he was able to give me some information on the two jays. The male is called OOBLKOSR for its combination of bands (Orange Over Blue Left, pinK Over Standard Right). The female is GOSLYOYR (dark Green Over Standard Left, Yellow Over Yellow Right). OOBLKOSR, the male, is almost two years old and was banded as a nestling near Rock Lake in April of 2011. The female, GOSLYOYR, was only banded a few weeks ago in late February when Dan found her in the company of OOBLKOSR. She is only one year old based on the shape of her tail feathers. Dan says that the two are a new pair that have re-occupied a vacant territory that includes Opeongo Road and the area just west of the Beaver Pond Trail parking lot. Their territory is undoubtedly much larger than this, but with no other trails in the area and no way to access the dense interior, these are the only spots people have reported seeing them. By coincidence, Dan found their nest on March 14th, five days after my visit, about 200 metres south of the highway. Assuming their nest is successful, Dan will be banding their offspring sometime in April.

Gray Jay (male)

Gray Jays are present in Algonquin Park year-round; they do not migrate like most other songbirds that call the park home. Instead, they are able to survive the winter by storing thousands of pieces of food behind pieces of bark, under tree lichens, and in other nooks and crannies during the summer and fall when food is plentiful. Each pair has a permanent year-round territory which, in Algonquin Park, can be as large as 150 hectares. The territory has to be large enough to produce enough food to last throughout the summer and winter. Gray Jays are ominvores and feed on insects, spiders, berries, fungi, small rodents and amphibians, birds’ eggs, nestling birds and carrion. Further north, near the Arctic Circle, Gray Jays have been known to store up to 1,000 food items a day during the summer. The large number of food caches provide enough food for the jays to survive seven or eight months of winter.

Gray Jay (female)

Gray Jay (female)

Gray Jays store their food in multiple caches over a wide territory in order to prevent them from being depleted by other birds or squirrels, and research suggests that they are able to find each cache again through memory. As a result, most Gray Jays survive the winter, with an average death rate of less than 20 percent. This is an excellent survival rate compared to other birds in Algonquin that have to migrate to warmer climates; approximately 40 to 50 percent of the adults that migrate south do not return. While most migratory birds only live four or five years, Gray Jays often live for more than ten years, and the oldest known Gray Jay in Algonquin Park lived to be 16 years old. Most of Gray Jays die in the summer, when migratory raptors such as Sharp-shinned Hawks and Merlins return to their breeding grounds in the park and need to feed their own offspring.

Despite their high winter survival rate, the Gray Jay population in Algonquin Park has nevertheless been declining since the 1970s, with one or two territories going vacant almost every year. While virtually all the land along Highway 60 was once occupied by Gray Jays, very little is now. Researchers believe that this decline is the result of climate warming, which is causing the food stored over the winter to spoil faster. This results in less food to feed the jays’ offspring in the late winter months, and thus fewer young being born. Preliminary research has shown a correlation between warmer autumns and a declining production of offspring the following spring.

Gray Jay (male)

We left the two jays after giving them all of my food and continued on our walk. The boardwalk that crosses over the first beaver pond was still covered in snow. It looked inviting beneath the deep blue sky.

Boardwalk at Beaver Pond Trail

On the other side of the pond we made our way up and down several short flights of steps. The steps were covered in snow that had been packed down at angle, making going both up and down difficult. We placed our feet on the outside edges of the stairs where the snow was softer while clinging to the railings for dear life. Over the first ridge we found a creek which was open in places; the sound of the running water was wonderful.

We made our way up another set of stairs – this one without any railings to hold onto – and found ourselves looking at Amikeus Lake. Something was sitting on the ice a long distance , and when Deb checked she said it was an otter! He was sitting next to a hole in the ice, presumably enjoying the warmth of the sun.

We followed the trail and noticed a second otter sitting on the ice in front of a beaver lodge. The trail took us right past the otter, which was actively diving and bringing up fish to the surface to eat. Unfortunately the sun was directly behind him so I was only able to get photographs of the otter’s silhouette. This was the closest I had ever been to an otter, and the first time I had photographed one.

Northern River Otter in silhouette

Like other members of the Family Mustelidae, Northern River Otters are highly aquatic; they live in areas where there is easy access to water and a permanent food supply. Their diet consists primarily of fish, but they may also eat crayfish, amphibians, crabs, rodents and birds. They live in both freshwater and coastal marine habitats, and may be found in rivers, lakes, marshes, swamps, and estuaries. Although river otters can tolerate a variety of environments, including cold latitudes and high elevations, they are sensitive to pollution and disappear from areas with polluted waters.

Across the lake I noticed this otter slide in the snow. It curls off to the left before ending at the shore of the lake.

Otter Slide

It was thrilling to see two members of the weasel family in one day, especially as I had never gotten a good look at either species before! Funnily enough, though I’ve now seen fox, Black Bear, Pine Marten, and Northern River Otter at Algonquin Park, I still have yet to see a moose there!

The rest of our walk was uneventful. The only other birds were saw were a pair of Red-breasted Nuthatches and one mystery bird; I wasn’t able to get a good at it before it disappeared. It had a high, thin chip note that might have belonged to either a Golden-crowned Kinglet or a Brown Creeper. The scenery, however, was beautiful.

Along the Trail

Along the Trail

This cliff overlooks the first beaver pond; you can see a snow-covered beaver lodge and the boardwalk in the distance.

View from the top of the Beaver Pond Trail

After leaving the Beaver Pond Trail, Deb and I decided to drive down Highway 60 one last time to look for the Great Gray Owls. We had been unsuccessful in our first attempt, having missed one at the Centennial Ridges Road earlier in the morning. However, he was back when we got there at 4:15; we spotted the cars parked along the shoulder before we spotted the owl. He was a magnificent bird.

Great Gray Owl

We left the park after that encounter and settled in for the three-hour drive back to Ottawa. It will be hard to top a day that included so many wonderful and exciting wildlife encounters; from the tiny Boreal Chickadees to the large Northern River Otter, it was a fabulous day and one of our most memorable visits there yet!

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16 thoughts on “The Mustelids of Algonquin Park

  1. Your pine marten photos are amazing! Theoretically we have those here as well but they’re very rare. I’ve seen a fisher (once, briefly), otters, mink, and small weasels, but never a marten.

    • Thanks Rebecca! They come to the suet feeders at Algonquin Park, which makes them easier to see. On two previous visits I had only gotten a glimpse of one running away, so I was thrilled when this fellow spent so much time out in the open. He was terribly cute!

      Best,
      Gillian

    • Thanks Chris. I needed a day like that away from Ottawa after the way things have going here lately. This was probably my best day-trip to Algonquin yet!

    • Thanks Heather! Drop me a line when you get here if you need any information.

      The temperature has fallen again, so we’re still waiting for spring. I wish it were rainy here!

      Gillian

      • weather is never perfect – it would be great if i could phone you when i get there – i used to live in ottawa and am so looking forward to going back – any good birding in the Gatineau Hills?

  2. Pingback: The Rarest Heron | The Pathless Wood

    • Hi Jason,

      We had a fabulous trip to Algonquin, and many awesome wildlife encounters. This blog post really helps to bring it all back to me….it is definitely one of the highlights of 2013!

  3. Pingback: Algonquin Park: Finches, Martens, and Canada’s National Bird | The Pathless Wood

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