Algonquin Park: Return of the Canada Jay

Ruffed Grouse

On December 18th I accompanied Jon Ruddy’s Eastern Ontario Birding trip to Algonquin Park. This was an early Christmas present to myself as it’s one of my favourite parks in Ontario and I don’t get to go that often – it’s been almost two full years since the last time I’ve been. As usual, the goal was to find winter finches and Algonquin specialties such as Spruce Grouse, Black-backed Woodpecker, Boreal Chickadees and Canada Jays (formerly known as Gray Jays); we were excited when Jon told us just a few days earlier three Spruce Grouse had been photographed right in the parking lot of the Spruce Bog Boardwalk.

The drive down was pleasant; notable birds seen along the way included an American Kestrel perching on a wire near the town of Douglas and a juvenile Bald Eagle soaring above the car just past Barry’s Bay. When we got to the park and paid for our permits, the East Gate was quiet; we heard only a single chickadee calling in the trees.

We started our exploration with a drive up Opeongo Road to the gate. This spot can be hit-or-miss with the birds; usually it’s busy because of the seed put out on the snowbanks by previous birders. We were early enough that no one had yet been there, but when we started leaving piles of sunflower seeds on the snowbanks the chickadees started flying right in. Two Red-breasted Nuthatches joined them, while a Brown Creeper spiralled its way up a tree; I was surprised to see no Blue Jays on this occasion, as these opportunistic birds are almost always present wherever people are handing out food! Although we weren’t able to detect any Boreal Chickadees hanging out with the Black-caps, two Canada Jays soon found us and delighted us by taking food from our hands.

Canada Jay

All Canada Jays along the Highway 60 corridor are banded as part of the world’s longest-running bird study. The bolder of the two jays showed off his leg jewelry long enough to get several photos; to the scientists conducting the study he is known as ROSLKOGR, which stands for “Red Over Standard Left, pinK Over Green Right”. Interestingly, this is the same bird we photographed along Opeongo Road on our visit in January 2017! At the time I noted that this bird is 6 years old, and is one of the Cameron Lake Road birds. He is now about 8 years old and clearly knows that by venturing over to Opeongo Road in the winter he is guaranteed an easy meal!

Canada Jay

The bird we know as the Canada Jay now was originally known as the Canada Jay from at least 1831 to 1957; this was the name used by John J. Audubon used on his original, hand-engraved plates when painting the birds of North America. The American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) proposed the name “Gray Jay” in the late 1940s as part of a proposal to standardize the English naming system where birds with geographical names had two or more subspecies – which were also to be based on geographical regions. Thus the subspecies of Canada Jays found in Alaska would be known as Alaska Canada Jays. This proved to be an awkward naming system, so, despite the AOU’s commitment to preserving traditional names wherever possible, they decided that Perisoreus canadensis was to be known as the Gray Jay.

Canada Jay

Then, in 1954, the AOU made a new decision: subspecies would be given Latin names rather than common names, which would be reserved only for the main species. This eliminated the geographical awkwardness created by the “Alaska Canada Jay”, and the AOU said at the time that the affected species would retain their original names. Yet the AOU failed to change the Gray Jay’s name back to Canada Jay in 1957 when it published the Fifth Edition of the “Checklist of North and Middle American Birds”, and it has been called the Gray Jay ever since.

In 2016 as Canadians were called to vote on an unofficial national bird, Dan Strickland, Algonquin’s Chief Park Naturalist from 1970 to 2000 and a key member of the park’s Gray Jay banding study, decided to research the possibility of changing the Gray Jay’s name back to the original Canada Jay. His sleuthing took him to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington where he discovered that the AOU violated its own naming conventions in not changing the Gray Jay back to Canada Jay to preserve its long-used traditional name. He submitted a proposal in 2017 to the successor organization, the AOS (American Ornithological Society) to change the bird’s name back to Canada Jay, which was accepted in a 9-1 vote. In July 2018 the Gray Jay officially became the Canada Jay once again.

Canada Jay

This was not the only good news for the Canada Jay in 2018. Researchers noted that populations have rebounded from the previous two record-low breeding years with 34 nestlings found in 18 nests during the 2018 breeding season. This rebound was backed up by a fall count which confirmed an increase in population. Canada Jays have been declining along the Highway 60 corridor since the 1970s, and climate change is believed to be the cause – warmer winters, along with unusual freezing and thawing patterns, are causing the perishable food stored by the jays in caches over the winter to spoil, leaving less food for them to eat by the time nesting season begins around February. (From The Raven: A Natural and Cultural History Digest, Vol. 59, No. 5 dated December 1, 2018)

The surprise species of our stop at Opeongo Road was not a bird, but a rather bold American (Pine) Marten that also came out to investigate the food left on a snowbank. These gorgeous members of the weasel family become almost tame in the winter when food is scarce, approaching food sources such as suet feeders, garbage bins, and apparently the dried cranberries someone put out on the bank!

American (Pine) Marten

American (Pine) Marten

While we were watching the marten, Jon – who had wandered off on his own for a bit – returned to the group and said he could hear a woodpecker tapping in the woods just beyond the road. We climbed up the steep bank and crossed the deep snow (mindful of the tangle of fallen tree limbs and roots beneath the surface) until we were able to spot the bird high above our heads, tapping away. The Black-backed Woodpecker is easier to find in Algonquin Park than anywhere else in southern Ontario, unless they are attracted by a recent forest fire such as was the case in Stony Swamp in 2012.

We headed out back to the road, and while we were walking along listening for finches, Jon heard a second woodpecker tapping. We followed him into the bush once again, and found a second female Black-backed Woodpecker right at head height!

Black-backed Woodpecker

So far it was shaping up to be an amazing day, so we headed over to the Spruce Bog Trail to look for Spruce Grouse and winter finches. A Common Raven sitting in a tree right in the parking lot was a nice surprise.

Common Raven

We headed into the bog, checking the trees for the Spruce Grouse and came up empty-handed. There were no Evening Grosbeaks this time, and no winter finches of any species. A few chickadees, two Red-breasted Nuthatches, and two more Canada Jays were the best birds of our walk.

We had better luck at the Visitor Center where we saw a couple of Wild Turkeys in the parking lot before heading to the back deck to watch the feeders. There were plenty of goldfinches eating the seed, but again no Evening Grosbeaks. One Canada Jay and one Blue Jay were also present, as were both nuthatches and the two small woodpecker species. It took a few minutes before we saw our first northern finch, a Common Redpoll! About five of them were present altogether.

Common Redpoll

Not long after that we heard the call of a distant Pine Grosbeak and waited as we saw a small flock fly closer and closer, landing in the spruce trees as they neared the feeders. Eventually they made it to the trees above the feeders where we had excellent views of both the males and the females. More of them flew in until we counted a total of 18 grosbeaks! Their presence helped make up for the lack of winter finches elsewhere in the park.

Pine Grosbeak

A blackbird also came in and landed on the feeder. We were surprised to see a Common Grackle eating the seeds, as these birds fly south for the winter; while some are often found overwintering in southern Ontario, it is rare for one to linger at Algonquin Park. We learned then that it has been present since mid-November (it would last be seen on December 23rd according to eBird).

Common Grackle

After eating lunch and watching the feeders we headed out to the Mew Lake Campground. The garbage bins there are a known hotspot for American (Pine) Martens, and there are usually a few birds looking for handouts from the people watching the martens. We were surprised to see another flock of turkeys in one of the campsites, especially when they all started moving into the road in front of the car. We were driving slow anyway, but then they started walking along the road right in front of the car, heading away from us; they didn’t seem to realize we wanted to go in the same direction, for they started running all the way down the road to the garbage area. We were curious why they didn’t just fly off until we parked the cars, got out, and realized we’d been led into an ambush. The turkeys knew exactly why we were here, and they knew we had brought food. Jon was willing to comply, and hand-fed one of them before dumping a pile of seed on the ground.

Jon hand-feeding a Wild Turkey

In the meantime we realized at least three American Martens were hanging out in the trees close to the garbage bins. There was something almost feline about them as they sat up on the branches, baring their sharp teeth while they waited for the opportunity to come down to feed.

American (Pine) Marten

American (Pine) Marten

I suggested we back up a little bit to give them some room, and at that one point one of them descended to the ground and vanished into one of the large bins.

American (Pine) Marten

A little while longer it appeared to want to come back out, and kept poking its head out of the small gap. Nothing says nature quite like a wild animal foraging in a dumpster in the middle of the Boreal Forest!

American (Pine) Marten

At that point Jon wanted to check the Old Airfield for birds, but all we found was a Brown Creeper and a Hairy Woodpecker. We crossed the open space beneath the light of the westering sun, and to my delight I noticed two patches of colour visible in the clouds. A sun dog gleamed palely in the clouds to the right of the sun, while an undefined pearly rainbow of colour shone in the clouds directly above the sun. This was not an arc or beam of light I had ever seen before, and when I got home I spent some time researching the pearly colours in the sky.

Iridescent Cloud

Cloud iridescence is caused by light diffraction through clouds that are thin and are made up of similar size droplets. It occurs in clouds that are close to the sun, showing patches of colours reminiscent of a soap bubble or oil on a water surface. These colours show as random patches or bands at cloud edges. If the water droplet size is uniform right across the cloud, the colours appear as a ring called a corona. Coronae are much smaller than the familiar 22° halo and can appear around the moon as well as the sun. Iridescence occurs mostly when the cloud is forming, as all of the droplets have a similar size. The size and colours of the bands change or disappear and reappear as the cloud evolves.

The iridescent clouds were the most interesting thing about our visit to the Old Airfield, until we turned around and returned to the parking lot. There we found a beautiful Ruffed Grouse budding in a birch tree; it fed on the seeds high in the sunlight until the sinking sun slowly cast the bird in shadow.

Ruffed Grouse

It was another fantastic trip to Algonquin Park, despite the low numbers of winter finches and the utter lack of crossbills, Evening Grosbeaks, Boreal Chickadees and Spruce Grouse. We still had an amazing time, and it was definitely worth the trip to see the newly renamed Canada Jays and American (Pine) Martens!


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