Algonquin Park Pine Martens

American (Pine) Marten

On March 16, 2019 I joined another Eastern Ontario Birding excursion to Algonquin Park. It was much colder than our previous visit in December (especially for mid-March!), and the goal of this tour was to visit Algonquin Park until mid-afternoon, and then do some driving around the farmland near Cobden to look for birds of prey before heading home. We started the day at the winter gate on Opeongo Road where we had our best bird of the park: a Boreal Chickadee feeding in the trees right above the parking area. Both nuthatches, some Black-capped Chickadees, and a Downy Woodpecker were also present; the Canada Jays and Blue Jays were noticeably absent. A walk down the road produced no finches, no Black-backed Woodpeckers, and no American Martens (also known as Pine Martens). It was a taste of things to come.

The Spruce Bog trail was similarly quiet. There were no finches, no jays, no Black-backed Woodpeckers, and to our disappointment, no Spruce Grouse. This was the second time this winter I’ve missed them.

We headed to the Visitor Center early – around 10:30 – to spend some time watching the birds at the feeder. We finally saw a Blue Jay, as well as our first (and only) winter finches of the visit: three Pine Grosbeaks (including a brilliant rosy-coloured male at the feeder) and two Common Redpolls. These species were also at the feeders on our previous visit, but there were fewer of each on this visit. There were no Evening Grosbeaks, and the sky was empty of raptors.

Pine Grosbeak

Common Redpoll

Our next stop was the Trailer Sanitation Station where a Black-backed Woodpecker had recently been reported along the road; we missed the woodpecker, but finally saw our only two Canada Jays of the visit. Unfortunately a large group of people were getting ready to go dog-sledding, and although the Canada Jays seemed interested in the food in our outstretched hands, neither flew into take any, perhaps due to the large amount of activity nearby. We also saw a Bald Eagle soaring high up in the sky. We’d already had one on the drive in, but it was neat seeing one within the park itself.

The best part of our day at Algonquin was, for me, visiting the garbage bins at the Mew Lake campground. There weren’t any birds of note – the Wild Turkeys from our December visit were gone – but the Pine Martens were still there! One was busy eating peanuts on the ground, while another lingered on a tree branch as if deciding whether our group was a threat or not.

American (Pine) Marten

Although we’ve always called them Pine Martens, they are also known as American Martens. They are trapped and sold for their furs, which are known as sables – there are several marten species across the globe, including the well-known Russian Sable. In the winter, the Pine Marten’s coat is a rich dark brown colour, with a distinctive orange throat patch – this helps distinguish them from other mustelids, such as fishers and mink. During the summer the Pine Marten’s fur is lighter in colour, and not nearly as thick. I’ve never seen one in the summer, as they are much more reclusive during breeding season and don’t need to feed on garbage since food is much more easily found in the warmer months.

American (Pine) Marten

American (Pine) Marten

Despite their rather cat-like face and posture (especially when sitting up or resting on a tree branch like the one in the photos above), once they start walking along the ground their weasel-like nature becomes apparent. Their head seems disproportionately small, their feet overly large, and their bodies unusually long and lanky. In the winter, the marten’s fur extends to the soles of its feet to protect them from the cold and act as snowshoes to cross over deep patches of snow.

American (Pine) Marten

Martens are solitary mammals – except during the breeding season. Mating season occurs between June and August, and polygamous males may breed with several females. The young are born the following spring as a result of delayed implantation and are raised solely by their mothers. It takes four or five months for them to reach full size, usually in September or October, at which time they disperse and leave the den.

American (Pine) Marten

Few predators would try to take an Pine Marten, but those that have been documented feeding on them include Golden Eagles, Red Foxes, wolves, wildcats, hawks and owls. Populations are more commonly limited by human activities such as over-trapping, and availability of food – if the prey they depend on starts to decline due to disease or lack of food, the marten population also declines.

American (Pine) Marten

It was fabulous to see these gorgeous mammals again, and after enjoying their antics we returned to the Spruce Bog trail once again to see if we could find a Spruce Grouse, winter finch, or other Boreal specialty. Once again we struck out. Similar return visits to the Visitor Center and Opeongo Road proved fruitless.

We left the park around 3:00, and managed to count seven Bald Eagles soaring overhead on our journey to Renfrew County – a high total I’ve never seen before on any of my trips to Algonquin Park. Two Rough-legged Hawks and a Red-tailed Hawk were also notable finds.

Despite the quietness of the park and lack of Boreal species I greatly enjoyed my time there. The Pine Martens alone made the trip worthwhile, as these wonderful mammals are difficult to see anywhere else.

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2 thoughts on “Algonquin Park Pine Martens

    • Happy new year to you, too, David and thanks for the compliment!

      No, I’ve never been that far north. I generally travel to places where there is something to interest both me and my fiance, and I don’t know how he’d feel about a trip north! We’ve talked about Newfoundland and I’ve talked about BC (those Steller’s Jays!) but have no definite plans yet for Canada. We are going to Las Vegas in a couple of weeks, so get ready for some more desert birds and scenery!

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