Algonquin Park: Finches, Martens, and Canada’s National Bird

Gray Jay

Gray Jay

It’s been a while since I’ve been to Algonquin Park – over three and a half years! – and after having a camping trip with Dad last summer and a birding trip with Deb this winter both fall through, I wasn’t sure when I’d get to visit that beautiful park again. When Jon Ruddy announced an excursion to Algonquin this month, I jumped on the chance to go. The birding there this winter has been excellent, with not only the usual Boreal specialties being found on most visits (including Gray Jay, Evening Grosbeak, Boreal Chickadee, and Spruce Grouse), but also most of the winter finches as well. In addition, the park naturalists had put out a road-killed moose carcass in the valley below the Visitor Center, and foxes were being seen feeding on it. Pine Martens have also been observed at the suet feeders and Mew Lake garbage bins in the park on occasion.

Jon picked me up just before 6:00 am, and after picking up two more participants we were on our way by 6:15. The sky was only just starting to get light by the time we stopped at Tim Horton’s in Renfrew, so we didn’t see much in the way of wildlife until after reaching Highway 60. Notable sightings included two different Pileated Woodpeckers flying over the road, five Wild Turkeys on the shoulder, and a single flock of about 30 finches, most of which were Pine Siskins, swarming a couple of cedar trees near the edge of the road. We met up with the other members of the excursion at the East Gate, and while we were discussing the plan for the day, two Gray Jays flew into the trees, our first Algonquin specialty in the park.

Our first stop was the pull-off at Brewer Lake. There weren’t any birds in the parking area, but with Jon’s scope we were able to see an Evening Grosbeak and a White-winged Crossbill perching in the trees across the frozen lake. We saw other birds flying over, but they were too far off to identify.

From there we drove slowly down the highway toward the Mew Lake Campground, and came across a group of four or five finches feeding on the grit at the side of the road. We weren’t able to stop and pull off in that area, so the finches flew without us being able to confirm their identity (Jon thinks they were were Red Crossbills; if so, those were the only ones that we would see). A little further along his eagle eye spotted a Pine Grosbeak perching in a tree fairly close to the road, and when we stopped to get out we found a flock of about seven of them feeding in the conifers. Then, to our amazement, all seven of them flew down to the snowbank on the shoulder and from there onto the road! We had great views of these large, gentle finches, and even if there were no raspberry-red adult males among them, their beauty was captivating. We heard them calling as they fed, given two soft, whistled notes reminiscent of a Lesser Yellowlegs in tone. Eventually a car came along and they all flew, scattering in all directions – including directly in front of the oncoming vehicle. Pine Grosbeaks are often the victims of vehicle strikes, as they fly slowly and often can’t get out of the way in time. Fortunately they all made it safely out of the way, and we continued on our way.

Pine Grosbeak

Pine Grosbeak

A little further along we came across another group of finches in the trees next to the road, and this time we found male and female White-winged Crossbills. It was difficult to photograph them as they seemed to prefer feeding at the top of the spruce trees behind a cover of branches or deep within the shade, but at last a male came out and fed out in the open. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen these finches, and it was great to be able to watch them and listen to their vocalizations as they fed.

White-winged Crossbill

White-winged Crossbill

White-winged Crossbill

White-winged Crossbill

Unfortunately we were able to get a much better view of a male White-winged Crossbill when Jon spotted one on the road that had been struck by a car. Finches feeding on grit on the side of the road are often hit by cars, and it was sad to see this one, which had only recently been hit. Jon collected it so that he could give it to the park naturalists for their collection.

Eventually we made it to the Mew Lake Campground where Jon navigated the twisting roads past the heated yurts and winter campgrounds to the garbage disposal area. Upon our arrival a few Black-capped Chickadees flew out to greet us, so a couple of people immediately began offering them seed. When the Blue Jays flew in – three at first, then six, then ten! – I put some peanuts on the snowbank and they didn’t hesitate to swoop down and grab them. In fact, each time I put some food out a single jay ended up taking it all, storing the seeds and peanuts in the gular pouch at the back of the throat and upper esophagus. This left none for the other birds, so I ended up having to put more food out than I intended. I also allowed the pair of Red-breasted Nuthatches that accompanied the chickadees to feed from my hand. The only other birds in the area were a Common Raven flying over, a woodpecker calling in the woods, and a chattering group of finches flying over.

Blue Jay

Blue Jay

Blue Jay

Blue Jay

It wasn’t the birds we were here to see, however, and it didn’t take long for our target to appear: a Pine Marten that Jon spotted running through the woods toward the garbage receptacles. A member of the mustelid (weasel) family, the Pine Marten lives in old growth coniferous or mixed woods forest where it preys on voles, mice, hares, grouse, squirrels, shrews, birds’ eggs and amphibians. While they capture most of their prey on the ground, they are excellent tree-climbers, and spend much of their time in trees.

American (Pine) Marten

American (Pine) Marten

We watched as the marten quickly approached on foot before taking to the trees to look around. It seemed hesitant when it saw us standing around the garbage bins – apparently they frequently raid them for food – so we all moved back a good 15 feet. That’s when a second one appeared from the woods, followed by a third!

American (Pine) Marten

American (Pine) Marten

The bright orange throat is characteristic of this species. The marten’s luxurious, rich brown fur is highly valued by the fur industry; its pelt, marketed as Canadian or American sable, is often sold for a high price. This is one of the reasons why marten populations have declined drastically since European colonization of North America – over-trapping in the past, which saw over 100,000 martens being harvested a year during the mid-1800s, caused the extirpation of this forest predator from many areas. Today, trapping is now regulated, but the destruction of old-growth forests by logging is responsible for the current population decline. Martens don’t fare as well in new-growth forests, which generally can’t support the same number of martens as an undisturbed old-growth forest of the same size.

American (Pine) Marten

American (Pine) Marten

At one point two martens crossed each other on the same branch; despite their proximity, there was no outward display of hostility or aggression. I thought this might mean they were all part of the same family group. Martens, however, are solitary animals, and males and females only interact with each other during the mating season in late July and early August. The young are born in February as a result of delayed implantation, and only stay with their mother until late August or September when they disperse. As such, these three were likely not a family group, but perhaps were able to coexist because there was enough food (garbage) to supply the three of them without creating any conflicts.

American (Pine) Marten

American (Pine) Marten

Although the Pine Marten is one of the fiercest mammalian predators of the forest, its cute face makes it hard to see it as such. I was glad we were able to see the three of them, and to get such great views of them out in the open. We left after about 15 minutes, and although I never did see whether they were able to successfully invade the garbage bins, I imagine they must be able to get into them for them to risk coming around with such a large group of people standing around.

American (Pine) Marten

American (Pine) Marten

Our next stop was the famed Spruce Bog Trail, one of my favourite areas of the park. We didn’t even have to leave the parking lot to see the Boreal specialties, for we could hear the musical chirps of a group of Evening Grosbeaks as soon as we got out of the car. A couple of them were perched in the trees overlooking the boardwalk on the way into the woods, while several Blue Jays, chickadees, and a Red-breasted Nuthatch came to feed on the large piles of sunflower seeds on the snowbanks and boardwalk railing. Three Gray Jays were hanging around the parking lot as well, and although I offered them some food, they ignored me in favour of the food on the ground and the snowbanks.

Gray Jay

Gray Jay

As we were watching, more Evening Grosbeaks flew in, and eventually began landing on the boardwalk railing as well! The handsome black and yellow males made for a fabulous sight all lined up together, and just at that point my camera’s battery decided it had had enough of the cold and died on me! I have never had this problem with my Coolpix P610 before, and of course didn’t have a spare battery handy for such emergencies. I put it in my back pocket to warm up for a bit, all the while missing out on some fantastic shots of these lovely birds. This was the last photo I managed to take before the battery quit on me:

Evening Grosbeak

Evening Grosbeak

A few minutes later someone noticed a male Spruce Grouse eating spruce needles in a tree right above the boardwalk. I grabbed the camera battery out of my pocket, warmed it in my bare hand for a few moments, and put it back in the camera hoping it would at least work long enough to get a few shots of the grouse. Thankfully, it did!

Spruce Grouse

Spruce Grouse

The Spruce Grouse has always been something of a nemesis for me. Even though I’ve been to Algonquin Park about 10 times now, I’ve only seen them twice before. I got my lifer – a male – on a camping trip in August 2009, and my second one – a female – in October 2011. I’ve circled the Spruce Bog Trail several times in search of them, and checked Opeongo Road in the winter on almost every winter visit. I was quite thrilled to see this male high up in the tree above the bridge, especially when someone noticed a second Spruce Grouse in the tree beside it!

Spruce Grouse

Spruce Grouse

I’ve never gotten such good views of the male before and was happy my camera cooperated long enough to get some photos! The intricate patterns of the feathers make this a truly stunning bird.

Spruce Grouse

Spruce Grouse

After everyone had finished taking enough pictures we headed into the woods to search for the Boreal Chickadee that was being seen regularly at the suet feeder. When we got to the feeder we found a few chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches taking seeds from the ground, and a couple of photographers told us that the Boreal Chickadee – which looks like a Black-capped Chickadee coloured in hues of chocolate and caramel – had just been there a minute ago, coming regularly to the feeder and even taking seeds at their feet. Jon said he was going to use playback to bring it out into the open, but before he could I spotted it near the suet feeder and told him that playback wasn’t necessary – the bird was right in front of us!

The Boreal Chickadee is a gorgeous little bird that never seems to form large flocks the way that the Black-capped Chickadees do. This was my third sighting of this species, and as my camera battery died on me again, I wasn’t able to get any photos worth posting. The forest was quite dark, anyway, and given that the chickadee was landing only briefly on the branches of the spruce trees, which made for a better background than the snow, I put my camera away.

As we watched the chickadee come and go, a few Evening Grosbeaks, Blue Jays, and Gray Jays flew in to the feeder area as well it was great to see so much activity in this tiny little corner of the trail. We found more activity in the spruces beyond the open bog when a group of White-winged Crossbills landed in the trees right above us. I was thrilled to get such great looks of these uncommon finches, even if I wasn’t able to get any photos.

We circled the trail and found a Common Raven perching in a tree near the parking lot, calling hoarsely several times. It flew off, and as I watched it landed right on the ground in the parking lot! I was in the lead and motioned for the people behind me to come up slowly and quietly. Still, it knew we were there and took off after grabbing a few seeds on the ground. It is difficult to appreciate the sheer size of these birds until you see one on the ground.

Even though we didn’t get a Black-backed Woodpecker, the Spruce Bog Trail amazed me with the variety of northern species present. The number of Evening Grosbeaks present was incredible, and I enjoyed seeing the Spruce Grouse, Gray Jays, Boreal Chickadee, and raven. I didn’t want to leave, but our next destination – the Visitor Center where we planned to eat lunch – was calling. That’s when Jon discovered he had locked his keys in the trunk – when we arrived, we had seen Ron Tozer, the park naturalist, in the parking lot, and Jon had retrieved the dead crossbill from his trunk to give it to him. At that point he had either dropped his keys or placed them on something in the trunk, and then shut the trunk door before heading out on the trail. Fortunately a couple members of the group were able to tie a bootlace to a stick with a hangman’s noose at the end, force the stick into the door, and use the noose to grab the lever on the floor and pop open the trunk door. We lost about 20 minutes altogether, but what could have been a bad experience turned out to be no more than a small glitch in an otherwise perfect day.

When I got to the Visitor Center the first thing I did – after using the facilities – was head out to the back deck to check out the action at the feeder and at the road-killed moose. To my delight, a fox was feeding on the carcass. Apparently a couple of fishers had been seen there first thing in the morning, but they were gone. At the feeders we saw about 80 American Goldfinches, a couple of Blue Jays and Evening Grosbeaks, a chickadee, and a Hairy Woodpecker at the suet feeder. After a few minutes of study we eventually located a single Pine Siskin and Common Redpoll in with the flock of goldfinches.

Common Redpoll

Common Redpoll

I was disappointed that there were so few Evening Grosbeaks present; I was able to warm up my camera inside while eating lunch in anticipation of shooting some of these gorgeous birds, but couldn’t find any perching in the trees. I guess they were all at the Spruce Bog Trail!

After we finished eating, watching the birds, and browsing the bookstore we headed out to our last stop of the day: Opeongo Road. Before we got to the locked gate Jon noticed a Gray Jay perching out in the open, and stopped the car for a look. To our delight, the Gray Jay flew in closer, landing on the telephone wires overhead. I opened the window and stuck my hand out with some seed on it to see if it would fly in; to my delight it landed on my hand and took some food! We all got out of the car and started feeding them. Unlike the Gray Jays at Spruce Bog, they were very happy to take our food!

Gray Jay

Gray Jay

The four colour bands are completely visible on this bird. We had been provided with a list of the banded birds along the Highway 60 corridor; this one is referred to as ROSLKOGR, which stands for “Red Over Standard Left pinK Over Green Right”. According to the spreadsheet we had been provided, this bird is 6 years old and he is one of the Cameron Lake Road birds.

Gray Jay

Gray Jay (ROSLKOGR)

Although one of the bands is hidden on this bird, the three that are visible would be coded _OBLBOSR. According to the spreadsheet, there is only one bird in the park that has this configuration of bands; his name is GOBLBOSR (Green Over Blue Left Blue Over Standard Right). He is at least two years old, and is an immigrant mature male that shares the same territory as ROSLKOGR and his mate. Gray Jay pairs typically share their territory with one other bird, usually one of their own young; in this case, the third jay is not one of their own offspring and came from a different territory – likely after being kicked out by its dominant sibling in its first summer. It has been hypothesized that Gray Jay pairs can store only enough food to last three birds for the winter, in which case they will allow one of their offspring to overwinter with them. The remaining young are ejected from the parents’ territory in June, and need to find an adult pair without any offspring to accept it. Up to 80% of the ejected juveniles die before winter, while that rate is much lower for the dominant juvenile that remains with the parent – about 50%.

Gray Jay

Gray Jay (GOBLBOSR)

At least one other Gray Jay was present, this one showing a red band over a white one on the right leg. I never did get any other photos showing both legs; the code for this bird is ____ROWR. Only two birds in the park have this configuration of bands, one of which is ROSLKOGR’s mate, WOSLROWR (White Over Standard Left Red Over White Right). In April she will be one year old, which means she would not have been with ROSLKOGR last winter or produced any young. This in turns explains why GOBLBOSR was able to find a place with them.

Gray Jay

Gray Jay (WOSLROWR)

It was fantastic to spend this time with Canada’s unofficial National Bird, watching them fly in softly and gently take what was offered before retreating to the woods. Having the spreadsheet was quite handy, too – I was quite happy to see that one of the Gray Jays photographed on my visit in March 2013, OOBLKOSR, is still around at the “Opeongo Turn” territory and is now 6 years old. The female that we photographed, GOSLYOYR, is no longer with him, and as Gray Jays remain with their mates for life, this suggests that GOSLYOYR has perished.

Gray Jay

Gray Jay

After feeding the jays we parked the cars and headed up Opeongo Road. We weren’t able to find any Spruce Grouse, winter finches, or Black-backed Woodpeckers, and although Jon played the call of a Barred Owl to draw them out, only a single Blue Jay responded. On our way back to the cars we saw a pair of Common Ravens soaring overhead. It always surprises me that there are no crows at Algonquin Park in the winter; they are quick to leave the park in the fall, and any sightings must be carefully documented.

It was after 4:00 by the time we got to our cars, and we checked a few spots along the highway looking for Great Gray Owls. None were obliging, but we had a great view of a beautiful Red Fox standing atop one of the rocky ledges right beside the road as we headed out of the park. I had a fantastic time with Jon and his group, and thoroughly enjoyed all of the wildlife that we saw. Even though we only tallied 15 bird species in the park (not including the Downy Woodpecker Jon tracked down through the deep snow of Spruce Bog Trail – I didn’t see it, and it wasn’t calling), the birds that we saw were all stellar examples of winter life in the Boreal Forest. I can’t believe it’s been over three years since my last visit; Sunday’s outing proved just how fabulous and amazing Algonquin Park can be for winter wildlife, and already I’m yearning for my next visit!

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