Jan 162017
 

In late December 2016, a Moose was killed in a vehicle collision on Highway 60 in Algonquin Park. On January 5, 2017, this Moose was moved to the valley below the Visitor Centre. For Algonquin Park’s predators, winter can be a challenging time to find food. Animals feeding upon prey, either alive or dead, is rarely observed. Strategically placing a Moose carcass in an easily observable location, such as below the viewing deck at the Visitor Centre, provides a rare opportunity for visitors to watch in person or via the Algonquin Park Webcam.  Ravens, Eastern Wolves and Fishers have been feeding at the carcass, among other species.

Moose carcass as seen from Visitor Centre – Algonquin Park

 

 

 

Dec 152016
 

Most readers are probably now aware that the Royal Canadian Geographical Society has chosen the gray jay as Canada’s national bird. It beat out better-known contenders like the common loon and snowy owl in a countrywide vote, followed by a panel debate. Personally, I think the gray jay fits the bill from every perspective. If you have ever “met” one, you will understand how easy it is to fall in love with these tame, gentle birds. And, if you were looking for a bird that represents our great northern forests and the tenacity of life in the dead of winter, this is the species.

Only slightly smaller than its blue-feathered cousin, the gray jay is a study in black, white and grey. It has a soft, almost rounded appearance, thanks to its short bill, large eyes and fluffy plumage. The gray jay’s silent, gliding flight and soft melodious call notes project this same aura of softness. You can almost think of it as an inflated chickadee – and equally friendly! Some would also argue that the gray jay’s lack of flamboyance is a good match with the nature of Canadians.

Gray Jay eating from my hand on Spruce Bog Trail - Algonquin Park - January 2012

Gray Jay eating from my hand on Spruce Bog Trail – Algonquin Park – January 2012

Behaviour

Gray jays – or Canada jays as they were once called – are both tame and venturesome, two characteristics that endear them to people. They seem to have an instinctive sense that humans are an easy source of food. They are well known for visiting hunt camps, traplines, nordic ski trails and backcountry campsites. They will take just about any edible scrap. Gray jays often shared meals with the men and women who built our nation – explorers, prospectors, lumberjacks, north country settlers – and no doubt eased their loneliness. They are also known as “camp-robbers” and “whiskey jacks”. The latter name was derived from “wiskedjak”, an Ojibwa word meaning a mischievous spirit who liked to play tricks on people. Choosing the gray jay as Canada’s national bird honours our First Nations. Gray jays are permanent residents. They do not migrate – not even for short distances. Mated pairs occupy a territory of about 70 hectares, which they sometimes share with a third, non-breeding individual. Staying put may partly explain why they are so long-lived – up to 16 years.

Gray jays have evolved to store food as an adaptation to surviving the winter months. Food items are saturated with sticky saliva from the bird’s enlarged salivary glands. The saliva coagulates on contact with air and becomes a viscous glue, which is used to cement the food to nooks and crannies in trees. They guard against thievery from other species by covering their food caches with a piece of bark or lichen. Gray jays can make hundreds of caches in a single day, especially in late summer and early fall when food is plentiful. This will provide nearly all of the nutrition they need from November through May. What is most astonishing, however, is that the birds actually remember where they have hidden their food! Maybe this isn’t so surprising, since gray jays belong to the Corvid (crow) family, arguably the smartest birds on the planet. The jay’s habit of putting away resources for future needs is an important lesson to all Canadians, especially at this time of record personal debt.

Gray Jay in Algonquin Park - Jan. 2012 - Drew Monkman

Gray Jay in Algonquin Park – Jan. 2012 – Drew Monkman

Nesting

Gray jays begin nesting in early March, when sub-zero temperatures and heavy snow cover rein supreme. One reason the young are able to survive the cold is superb nest construction. Unlike the blue jays’ flimsy nests, those of the gray jay are bulky, deep and well insulated. They are lined with feathers and even bits of fur. The three or four nestlings are fed food that the parents cached the previous year. By nesting early, the young get a head start on amassing the food stores they will need to get through their first winter.

Juvenile gray jays are a sooty grey all over and almost look like they belong to a different species. In June, they begin a serious struggle for dominance. The young jays chase each other more and more aggressively until one of them will have expelled its siblings from the parents’ territory. This more dominant bird will continue to live with its parents for two or three years, or until a nearby territory becomes available. This is why you often see gray jays in groups of three. Sometimes, however, the third bird is an “ejectee” from another territory that is now living with unrelated adults. The weaker siblings are forced to leave the territory and most will die before winter arrives. This strange behaviour on the part of young jays makes evolutionary sense. They are probably not skilled enough to store sufficient food for their first-winter needs and have to rely on help from adult birds. It is unlikely, however, that there would  be sufficient food for a second or third juvenile, hence the fight for dominance.

Range

Gray jays are found from coast to coast in Canada and in all of our provinces and territories. In Ontario, their range extends from the edge of the tree line in the north to the last isolated spruce bogs where the Canadian Shield meets the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence Lowlands in the “Land Between”.

However, you won’t find  gray jays in our towns and cities. This might make you wonder why we would  want a national bird that so few of us can easily observe first-hand? David Bird, Emeritus Professor of Ornithology at McGill University, argues that this very fact might motivate more Canadians to visit the northern forests to see their national bird and learn more about its increasingly threatened habitat.

Gray jays can still be found in the northern Kawarthas, although their numbers are decreasing. Up until about 15 years ago, at least one pair had a territory at the Kawartha Nordic Ski Club north of Woodview. Skiers would enjoy sharing a few bread crusts or sunflower seeds with the birds at the Tanney Cabin. They were also present in Petroglyphs Provincial Park and in the Apsley area. In “Our Heritage of Birds” (1983), Doug Sadler wrote, “In winter, gray jays…have been found even in the southern parts (of Peterborough County) as early as September and as late as April (Miller Creek Conservation Area). They sometimes visit feeders.” The birds Sadler describes were probably immature jays, which had been forced out of their parents’ breeding territory.

There is still a pair of gray jays coming to a feeder on County Road 507, north of Flynn’s Corners. There are also occasional sightings from the large bog on Jack’s Lake Road south of Apsley and even scattered reports from Petroglyphs Provincial Park. Whether there is still a breeding pair at these locations is unclear, however. Just this week, I also learned of a lone gray jay spotted on Algonquin Boulevard in Peterborough.

Gray Jays - Nov. 17, 2016 - County Road 507 - Marie Windover

Gray Jays – Nov. 17, 2016 – County Road 507 – Marie Windover

Your best chance of seeing and feeding gray jays, however, usually requires a trip to Algonquin Park. Late fall and winter is an excellent time to find them on Opeongo Road, at the top end of the Mizzy Lake Trail and on the Spruce Bog Trail between the parking lot and the boardwalk. If you hold out food, they will glide down from a tree and land on your bare hand. The sensation of the bird’s talons on your skin and the close-up view of their fluffy plumage and big black eyes are unforgettable.

You will also be able to witness their caching behaviour. When you share food with  jays, they hardly eat any of it. Instead, they continually fly back into the forest and conceal each tidbit. Your handouts are being transformed into survival insurance. How can you not be impressed!

Climate change

Even in Algonquin Park, gray jay populations have suffered a marked decline in recent decades. The population is only half of what it was in the 1970s. It may be that a warming climate is speeding up the decomposition rate of perishable food caches like insects and pieces of meat. In other words, the birds’ natural refrigerator is failing. This, in turn, may be making winter survival and successful nesting more difficult.

Gray Jay on nest in late winter - Dan Strickland

Gray Jay on nest in late winter – Dan Strickland

This hypothesis comes from  a decades-long study of gray jays in Algonquin Park by Dan Strickland, a former head naturalist. Annual air temperature in the park has been increasing by about 0.7 degrees Fahrenheit per decade. Habitat that once supported breeding jays, including many areas along Highway 60, is now abandoned. The worst losses have been in areas dominated by hardwood forests, while the least attrition has occurred in boggy, lowland areas covered with spruce. It is thought that the antibacterial properties of spruce bark and resin may help preserve cached food.

Despite – or maybe because of – the many challenges the gray jay faces, I am delighted with its choice as our national bird. Although the loon, snowy owl and chickadee would have also fit the bill, the gray jay is something fresh and new and just might encourage people to get outside and to explore the north – if only Algonquin Park. For that reason alone, you have to like the selection. And, just in case you are a stickler for Canadian spelling, please note that the bird’s official name is indeed gray jay and not “grey jay”!

 

 

 

Jun 022016
 

When we debarked from the shuttle that takes birders out to the tip of Point Pelee National Park, it was clear that something was up. Hundreds of people lined the trail along the west beach, fully engrossed by the activity around them. Birds were everywhere – on the ground, flitting about in trees and shrubs, and even perched out in the open. I had never seen so many smiling faces in my life. Decades ago, birders would say that there are days at Pelee when the birds are “dripping from the trees”. Now, for the first time ever, we were witnessing one of these days ourselves.

In addition to large numbers of white-crowned and white-throated sparrows, most of the migrants were warblers, a group highly coveted by birders in the spring. The variety of species and sheer number of individuals was overwhelming. Just in our section of the trail, there were dozens each of Cape May, black-throated green, northern parula, American redstart, chestnut-sided, palm and blackburnian – just to name the most abundant. It was a veritable feast for the eyes. The majority were males, adorned in the stunning yellows, oranges and reds of spring plumage. Many of the birds moved through in waves, sometimes making their way northward up the tip but then changing direction and heading back out towards the lake. At times, it was hard to know where to look, especially since people were continually yelling out rare species. I could simply focus my binoculars on a given branch only metres away and the birds would move through my field of vision. They paid no attention to the awe-struck crowd, but were strictly focused on gorging themselves on the midges that swarmed in and around the vegetation. When we turned our attention skyward, other species streamed by overhead. The oohs and awes were loudest when a red-headed woodpecker, followed by six eastern bluebirds, flew by.

All I could hear were superlatives: “The best morning in decades!” ….”This is amazing!” …”C’est incroyable!” Everywhere, there was a constant  clicking of cameras. I can only imagine some of the stellar images that must have been captured. Despite the excitement, there was no pushing or shoving, even as people rushed by to catch a glimpse of a rarity like a Cerulean or Canada warbler. As birders always do, people helped each other locate and identify the birds. After three hours of uninterrupted action and suddenly aware of our aching necks and shoulders, we finally headed back to the visitor centre, thrilled with having tallied no less than 20 warbler species, not to mention numerous flycatchers, kinglets, gnatcatchers and others.

Prothonotary Warbler - Greg Piasetzki

Prothonotary Warbler – Greg Piasetzki

Over coffee and muffins provided by the Friends of Point Pelee, people shared theories as to why this amazing “fallout” of birds had occurred. Up until that morning, birding had been quite slow. So, what had changed? It seems that winds from the south had materialized the evening before, allowing a huge backlog of birds on the Ohio side of Lake Erie to finally head northward. Sometime in the early morning hours, however, the winds had changed to the northeast and, not able to fly against the strong headwind, the thousands of migrants descended en masse on the first land available – the tip of Point Pelee.

Over the four days at Pelee and one day at Rondeau Provincial Park, we tallied no less than 140 species, ranging from the warblers described above to large numbers of avian gems like scarlet tanagers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, black-bellied plovers, and both Baltimore and orchard orioles. We were also treated to a great horned owl nest containing three very inquisitive owlets. Close-up views of more than 100 short-billed dowitchers were a real treat, as well.

Short-billed Dowitchers - Blenheim Sewage Lagoon - May 12, 2016 Drew Monkman

Short-billed Dowitchers – Blenheim Sewage Lagoon near Rondeau Provincial Park – May 12, 2016 Drew Monkman

Bearing witness each year to the wonder of spring migration provides a tangible sense of the change of season and a profound feeling of reverence. How can you not be amazed at tiny songbirds that have used solar and magnetic orienteering to fly from the rainforests of Central and South America all the way to Canada? It is no less than an affirmation of life itself and the wonder of evolution.

 Baxter Creek

You don’t have to travel all the way to southwestern Ontario to enjoy the birds of spring. The Kawarthas offers numerous locations to enjoy rich birdlife. Upon my return, a friend and I spent an especially pleasant morning walking the Baxter Creek Trail, which is part of the Millbrook Valley Trails system, located on the edge of Millbrook. The first birds we saw were arctic-bound lesser yellowlegs and pectoral sandpipers that were feeding in the shallows of the millpond. As we watched, we could hear the shrill whistles of an Osprey soaring overhead and the clattering rattle of a belted kingfisher.

Osprey - June 18-19, 2016 - Lower Buckhorn Lake - Robin Blake

Osprey – June 18-19, 2016 – Lower Buckhorn Lake – Robin Blake

Black-throated green warblers, winter wrens and a wood thrush were singing in the deeply shaded cedar forest at the trailhead. Together with the rays of sunlight streaming through gaps in the canopy, the songs created a cathedral-like ambience. An exquisite patch of red trilliums in full bloom enhanced the feeling of connection with the natural world. The trail then winds through rich wetland where the voices of yellow warblers and common yellowthroats competed with beautiful marsh marigolds for our attention. We also had great views of a male rose-breasted grosbeak pouring out its robin-like phrases from the top of a giant black willow. Some birders remember the song as “a robin that has taken voice lessons.” As crazy as it sounds, memory aids like this really work. Other birds of note heard or seen along the trail that morning included great crested flycatcher, black-and-white warbler and eastern kingbird. Spring azure butterflies were also quite common. Shaded pools along the creek make a great place to sit and simply soak in the tranquility of the area. After the walk, we stopped for a great lunch at the Pastry Peddler on King Street in the village.

Algonquin Park

Savoring the rich diversity of May nature is not complete without a trip to Algonquin Park. I fell in love with the park on my very first visit in September of 1964 when my father took me on three-day canoe trip. I still remember the stunning leaves at peak colour and the schools of brook trout in the Crow River. Doug Sadler, a well-known local naturalist, writer and mentor to many young birders in the Peterborough area, also came along and helped me to identify my first-ever gray jay – a huge thrill for a twelve year-old.

So, when our friends Mike and Sonja Barker invited Michelle and I up to their campsite at the Lake of Two Rivers Campground last week, we jumped at the opportunity. Their site overlooked a wetland that was alive with bird and beaver activity. Algonquin’s signature sound – the high clear whistle of the white-throated sparrow (“Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada”) – was everywhere. The highlight of the visit, however, was riding the Old Railway Bike Trail from Lake of Two Rivers to Cache Lake. The trail follows the abandoned bed of the historic Ottawa, Arnprior, and Parry Sound Railway and winds through a variety of different habitats such as open field, coniferous forest and wetland. Only metres down the trail, the strangely gentle tapping of a woodpecker caught my attention. Sure enough, a beautiful male black-backed woodpecker was flaking bark off a red pine, only a couple of metres above our heads. The all-black back and alluring yellow crown make it quite different from any other woodpecker.

White-throated Sparrow - Karl Egressy

White-throated Sparrow – Karl Egressy

Riding along the trail through thick stands of fragrant balsam fir, we stopped to take pictures of a remnant block of ice, hidden away in a rocky crag. Our attention was also drawn to numerous patches of trailing arbutus, which was still in bloom and smelled wonderful. At least 10 species of warblers were singing along the trail including the Tennessee, a bird of the boreal forest that reaches the southern edge of its breeding range in Algonquin Park. Another highlight was an olive-sided flycatcher that Mike heard calling (“quick, three beers!”) from a huge marsh we passed through. The trail crosses the scenic Madawaska River in several locations where we stopped to admire the many shades of green on the distant hills. Because Algonquin Park is so much higher in elevation than the Kawarthas, most of the trees were just coming into leaf. Some, like bigtooth aspen were still leafless. The trail is flat along its entire length and has numerous interpretive signs. There are even washrooms at the Cache Lake end.

The next day, we walked the Beaver Pond Trail, which is an easy two kilometre loop offering excellent views of two beaver ponds and a classic beaver dam. The free guidebook at the trailhead provides an introduction to Algonquin’s fascinating beaver pond ecology. Before leaving the Park, we also stopped by the Visitor Centre, which has one of the best nature bookstores in all of Canada. There are also interactive exhibits on the Park’s human and natural history.

View from lookout on Beaver Pond Trail - Drew Monkman

View from lookout on Beaver Pond Trail – Drew Monkman

I feel so fortunate this year to have been able to get out and enjoy so much of what May has to offer. Although it’s hard to talk of a favourite month, for anyone who takes pleasure in watching the seasons unfold, May has no equal. And, by the way, June is pretty good too!