Sunday, May 2, 2010

Algonquin Birding

April 18

The weekend of April 17, Jean and I travelled north for some birding outside of the Niagara Region. The destination, our favourite provincial park to attend the annual OFO trip led by retired park naturalist Ron Tozer. During last year's trip we added 4 birds to the life list which included 3 sought after Boreal species. This year, I was hoping to add the same species to the 2010 provincial list to reach my goal of 200 birds. If I was to tick a lifer, all the better.
Algonquin Provincial Park is approximately 4 hours from St. Catharines so a day trip would be highly unproductive. We spent the weekend in Huntsville, a mere 30 minutes away from Ontario's oldest provincial park.

As planned, we met at the west gate of the park and like all birders, scanned the area for avian activity while waiting for the trip leader. Ron arrived with his daughter Laura (a former park warden) and discussed the hot spots we would visit along the Highway 60 corridor. There are many hiking trails and campsites along the 56 kilometre corridor (marked with kilometre markers indicating the distance from the West Gate) and a handful of them were included on the itinerary.

Our first stop was at Kilometre 8 to check the utility poles for Black-backed Woodpecker. No woodpeckers but Winter Wren (2) were heard calling as we walked along the shoulder of Highway 60. On Tea Lake Dam road, we heard an Eastern Phoebe calling and spotted an Osprey overhead. Great! Three species added to the year list.

En route to our next stop, Jean and I observed our first Common Raven of the year. I sometimes think it may be difficult identifying this member of the Family Corvidae but the raven's large size and wedge shape tail leave little doubt that you are looking at a Common Raven. We picked up a helpful i.d. tip while vacationing with Jean's family in 2008. Jean and I (along with our nephew) attended a birding walk with a park naturalist at the Old Airfield and he informed the group that when American Crows land they flick their wings. Common Ravens, do not. Next time you see these two birds, watch them as they land in a tree top.

Our next stop was at the Cache Lake Marsh. Another tick for the year list. From the gravel shoulder, the group had a brief glimpse of a Wilson's Snipe as it landed in front of us and quickly took flight upon realizing it had an audience. While exploring the area, we observed Ruby-crowned Kinglet and had some great views of a beautiful, singing Blue-headed Vireo (another first for the year).

At the Lake of Two Rivers campground, we searched the pine trees for, you guessed it, Pine Warbler. Two males were setting up boundaries for their territories.

From the beach we looked eastward and spotted a Common Loon near the island in Lake of Two Rivers. Firsts of the year at every stop so far.

On to the Spruce Bog Trail for an observation of the star of the field trip. Last year we observed great displays from a male Spruce Grouse. Someone should have informed the male grouse he was wasting his time. The female, a "Franklin's" female, was mounted.

The OFO group spread out as we entered the Black Spruce west of the bog. It did not take long for an OFO member to spot a male Spruce Grouse. Playing recordings of a female grouse (a "Franklin's" female) did not elicit a response from the bird. The male continued on, oblivious to the photographers capturing its every movement.

Unlike last year, the fake female did not produce the courtship display. The male still appeared disinterested. Moments later, the Spruce Grouse performed a "flutter flight" onto a branch.

This differed from last year's display. The tail feathers were only slightly spread and the red combs erect. The reason for the courtship display was soon revealed. A real female Spruce Grouse.

At the Visitor Centre, Jean and I checked the feeders and added Purple Finch to the year list. Unfortunately, no Ruffed Grouse were observed this year.

After lunch the group travelled along Opeongo Road but could find no Boreal Chickadee in the Black Spruce. The road ends at Lake Opeongo and Ron led the group on foot to the Harkness Laboratory of Fisheries Research. A pair of falcons are nesting near the laboratory and as we arrived both a male and female Merlin were observed in flight. One of the pair landed in a distant tree and though instructions were exchanging between birders, it was still difficult to get on it when using the binoculars. Eventually all viewed the falcon as it sat in a swaying tree. Another tick for the year list!

We still needed Black-backed Woodpecker though. Last year, we found this Boreal species on a utility pole near the Leaf Lake Ski Trail. This was the group's next destination. The long line of cars followed the leader to the line of poles near kilometre 54. Our car was close to the back of the convoy and as we passed one of the utility poles Jean spotted the group's target bird.

I pulled the car over to the shoulder, well back of the car in front of us, while the cars behind continued on. I guess they did not see it or they just wanted to fill in the very large gap between the vehicles. Yes, there was at least 50 metres between us and the next car in the line. We waved to the OFO birders down the road and pointed at the utility pole with the Black-backed Woodpecker on it. While the rest of the group worked their way back on foot, I set up our spotting scope so Jean could start capturing digiscoped images of the male Black-backed Woodpecker. A birder from Buffalo jokingly said, "I assumed you were not pointing at the Great Blue Heron..." as he arrived to view the woodpecker and a couple of women stated Jean deserved a scotch for spotting the bird. All in the group had great views of the woodpecker as it continued to work on a hole it was excavating in the utility pole.

"Yeah, I think she'll be impressed with this one!"

We checked out the parking area of the nearby Logging Museum but came up empty for adding any birds to the day's list.

We had covered almost the entire length of the park's corridor so the group turned around and headed for the Old Airfield. Along the way, it was Laura's turn to spot a bird at the side of the road. A single Gray Jay near kilometre 40. As usual, when a long line of cars has stopped at the side of Highway 60, other park visitors assume there is a large mammal, preferably a moose, present.

Our group spent 30 minutes on foot exploring the Old Airfield and though we enjoyed the aerial display of a Northern Harrier there were no firsts of the year for Jean and I this time.

One last chance for Boreal Chickadee. The group hiked a section of the Mizzy Lake Trail. The trail is 11 kilometres long and a few years ago Jean and I set a day aside to hike the entire length while vacationing for a week at a resort outside of the park. The OFO group travelled up Arowhon Road to reach the old railway section of the trail. This turned out to be a long hike.
I estimate we walked 3.5 kilometres before turning around. It was worth it for some in the group. Though brief, some lucky birders had good views of 3 Boreal Chickadees. Unfortunately for Jean and I, the bird remained unticked on our year list. Black-capped Chickadee continued to appear in the open but the shy Boreal Chickadees did not reappear.

Walking back to our cars we came across two pairs of Gray Jays. One nesting pair along the old railway at West Rose Lake and a second pair near the chain gate along the old railway. The pair near the chain gate readily took food from Ron's and Laura's hands. As we approached our cars the Gray Jays followed us and continued to take any handouts offered, including some of Jean's trail mix.

A nice way to end a day of birding. Some in the group went on to search for Swamp Sparrow but Jean and I called it a day. It was close to 6:00 PM and the group had birded for over 8 hours. Jean and I were hungry so we thanked Ron and Laura for the great field trip and returned to Huntsville. At the Three Guys and a Stove restaurant (this may become a tradition) we discussed the birds observed and our plans for the Monday over an Algonquin Lager and a gin martini. Yes, we had another chance at finding Boreal Chickadee in our favourite provincial park and thanks to a tip from Ron, a possibility of a lifer along the way.


  1. great report,thanks for sharing,nice to see that the Black-backed Woodpecker has sure helps when you can be told to which pole you can expect to find him.
    Algonquin inn

  2. Thanks Tina.

    You'll like the next Algonquin post. It will include a lifer seen at......the Algonquin Inn.