Winter Finches at Algonquin Park

Barred Owl

On Family Day I accompanied Jon Ruddy’s Eastern Ontario Birding trip to Algonquin Park to look for winter finches and other Boreal specialties. As predicted in Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast back in September, the winter of 2019-2020 was not an irruption year; most finch species stayed up north in the Boreal Forest given the abundance of mountain-ash berries, spruce cones and birch seed crops there. This meant that while berry-eaters such as Pine Grosbeak and Bohemian Waxwings remained on their breeding territories in the far north, Pine Siskins, Evening Grosbeaks, and both crossbill species were widespread across central Ontario – including the traditional winter finch hotspot, Algonquin Park.

We arrived in the park at a little after 9:00 on a sunny, bitterly cold day. The temperature was -14C at the East Gate, but thankfully the air was completely still – there was no wind at all. We proceeded directly to the Visitor Center where most of the finches were being seen at the feeders. As soon as we got out of the car we heard the chattering of a large flock of Pine Siskins in the trees surrounding the parking lot. A couple of Blue Jays were at the feeder out front, and several more were calling from the feeder at the side of the building. When we reached the observation deck out back, Jon pointed out a Red Crossbill and a couple of White-winged Crossbills in the trees on the south side. I had only ever seen Red Crossbills once, along the Eardley-Masham and Steele Line Roads in Gatineau, and needed this bird for my Ontario list. However, by the time I had reached the observation deck the bird was gone.

There were still plenty of other birds at the feeders, mostly Blue Jays and Pine Siskins.  I could hear the Evening Grosbeaks giving their musical calls, but could not see them; I could also hear a Red-winged Blackbird calling from a tree near the feeders.  A few chickadees, American Goldfinches, a Purple Finch, and a Pine Marten were also present.

The White-winged Crossbills kept landing at the top of the spruce closest to the Visitor Center deck, almost close enough to touch.  The sun was directly behind them, however, so I wasn’t able to get the best photos.  The first was a young male that had a combination of red and yellow on its face and breast.

White-winged Crossbill

Later, a female flew in and took its spot.  Crossbills are chunky finches that are named for their long, curved bills in which the long lower mandible overlaps and crosses to either the left or the right of the upper mandible.  The lower mandible is much more likely to overlap the mandible on the right side –  there are three times the number of individuals with this bill structure than with the lower mandible crossing to the left side.  The bills are designed so that they can be inserted between the scales of spruce or other conifer cones in order to extract the seeds – with a twist of its head and the combined action of its tongue and upper mandible, approximately 3,000 conifer seeds can be eaten each day.

White-winged Crossbill

Pine Siskins are slightly smaller than the crossbills, and the few that were present were wary of landing on the feeder – they stayed in the trees for the most part, while the occasional goldfinch or chickadee flew onto the feeder to take some seeds.  Eventually the Red-winged Blackbird flew out of a spruce tree and spent some time feeding as well.  This overwintering bird was first seen at the feeders on January 8, 2020, and has continued throughout the months of January and February.  The scaly pattern on its back and flanks, and the incomplete red shoulder patches indicate that this male is in non-breeding plumage – a plumage I don’t often see in Ottawa.

Red-winged Blackbird

Eventually the Evening Grosbeaks emerged from their hiding spots among the trees as well; the males are a gorgeous golden-yellow with bold black and white wings, while females are a drabber gray colour with pale yellow feathers around the neck.

Evening Grosbeak

Having successfully found six species of finch in the hour we were there, we left the Visitor Center to head over to the Spruce Bog Boardwalk. We heard the “jip jip” called of a Red Crossbill and found it perching at the top of a small tree right next to the cars. I was thrilled to finally add this species to my Ontario list, especially such a beautifully coloured male!

Red Crossbill

Our next target was the Spruce Bog Boardwalk where a male Spruce Grouse had often been seen feeding high in the spruce trees near the first short boardwalk by the entrance. Sure enough, we spotted this large bold black-and-white bird high up in the tree, walking out on the thin limbs to feast on the buds near the tips of the branches. We spent some time photographing it until it finished with the branch it was working on and retreated closer to the trunk.

Spruce Grouse

Spruce Grouse

There were no Evening Grosbeaks at the boardwalk this time, but three Canada Jays kept flying in from across the highway to snatch up the nuts and cranberries left on the snowbanks. We were able to see the distinctly-coloured leg bands, and identify three different individuals.

The trail itself was birdier than on our previous visits last winter, although the suet feeder was quiet – there were only a handful of chickadees, a couple of Red-breasted Nuthatches, and several Blue Jays in the woods. We were hoping for a Boreal Chickadee, but this species has not been reported in the park since late December.

I was surprised to see a junco walking on the trail ahead of us at one point; both American Tree Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos are usually absent from Algonquin Park during winter, except when seed crops are abundant and snow depth is lower than normal, as is the case this winter. These two sparrow species depend on fallen tree seeds for food, so when cone crops are poor in the Boreal Forest they may move further south where there is less snow cover to contend with.

We also heard several White-winged Crossbills singing in the forest beyond the long, open boardwalk – at first they sounded like juncos trilling at a few different pitches while giving “meep” notes intermittently. I had never heard one singing before, so it was an amazing experience to hear at least two or three of them. White-winged Crossbills do not usually breed at Algonquin Park, but this opportunistic species may start nesting at any point in the year when food is sufficient for the female to form eggs and raise young. In fact, White-winged Crossbills have been recorded breeding in all 12 months! A few pairs may likely breed in the park this year because of the abundant cone crops.

White-winged Crossbill

Our walk around the Spruce Bog loop produced no Black-backed Woodpeckers or Pine Marterns either, but we heard a few Red Crossbills flying over, giving two distinct vocalizations. The Red Crossbill is an interesting case. What we normally think of as a single species is actually a complicated species complex comprising at least 10 “types” in North America. Each type each has its own ecological niche, preferred conifer seeds, appearance, core range, and pattern of movement. Each type also has its own distinct flight call, which is the chief way of identifying the types that are present. Type 10 is the most common type now in the Northeast, but there are also some Type 3 from the west and a few Type 1 and 2 individuals. Unfortunately I come across Red Crossbills so infrequently that I have little experience recognizing any of their calls, let alone identifying them to type.

After finishing up at the Spruce Bog Boardwalk with no further specialties (the Black-backed Woodpecker was also conspicuously absent) we returned to the Visitor Center for lunch. We were too busy eating to photograph a beautiful adult male White-winged Crossbill perching in the sun on the right side of the deck, but when I went outside later I was able to get some more finch photos.

Pine Siskin

After lunch we drove over to the Mew Lake campground where, for the first time ever, we found no Pine Martens, followed by a drive up Opeongo Road to the gate, which was extremely quiet as well – no Canada Jays, no Pine Martens, no Black-backed Woodpeckers, and no Boreal Chickadees. The road had only been recently plowed, though, to allow researchers access for their nesting Canada Jay studies, so without a reliable source of food from birders many of the birds that typically overwinter here might have moved on. We moved on as well, stopping to check the trails behind the logging museum for a reported Black-backed Woodpecker; instead we found a Ruffed Grouse budding high up in a birch tree. In the parking lot, we found two Canada Jays flying in for food from a birder who was feeding them.

Canada Jay

I always enjoy seeing these birds and wished they were more common in our area; they are so soft and gentle that it amazes me they belong to the same family as Blue Jays and crows!

Canada Jay

We left the park after a successful outing, and enjoyed one last species on our way home before it got dark: a Barred Owl sitting out in the open along the side of Highway 60 in the glow of the setting sun. It was amazing to watch it sit there even when we pulled up to it; I was even able to get out of the car and shoot over top of the roof for a few photos.

Barred Owl

It was a great end to a wonderful day at Algonquin Park, one of my finchiest visits yet!

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