Friday, 31 March 2017

Algonquin Adventure

28 - 29 March 2017


28 March 2017
Waterloo - Algonquin Provincial Park - Dwight

     A while ago I proposed to the "Tuesday Rambles with David" group that we expand our reach a little and opt for a two day visit to Algonquin Provincial Park, about a four hour drive from Waterloo.
     The response was immediate and enthusiastic so I went ahead and secured accommodation and made plans to visit the park to see the unique species to be observed there. Algonquin encompasses habitat from the deciduous hardwood zone found in the southern part of the province, and the boreal forest which reaches its southern limit at Algonquin, so there are representatives of birds from both habitat zones.
     We set off from home at 06:30 and had a smooth and uneventful drive north. We were staying at Spring Lake Resort and stopped there around 10:00 so that Francine could plug in her crock pot of chili which would be part of our dinner that night. 
     A couple of Common Ravens Corvus corax flew overhead, croaking loudly, just to let us know we were in the north.
     We set off for the park and entered in high spirits, ready for a day of discovery.


     Algonquin is still firmly in the grip of the icy hand of winter with lots of snow on the ground. The bogs, lakes and wetlands are for the most part still frozen, although the first spring melt was starting to open up small patches of open water, and rapids flowed freely.
     Soon Black Bears Ursus americanus will awake from hibernation, Moose Alces alces 
will give birth to their young in late May and the park will be filled with warblers arriving from the neotropics. For now, however, the number of species is low and we set out to find the boreal specialties for which the park is renowned, and which we had come to see.
     Our first stop was at the Spruce Bog Boardwalk where, immediately upon entering the trailhead, Blue Jays Cyanocitta cristata descended from all around. After a whole winter of hikers, snowshoers and birders the jays have quickly recognized that the presence of humans means food.
      And we had sunflower seeds and peanuts with us and were happy to share.


     

    American Red Squirrels Tamiasciurus hudsonicus do not hibernate, but restrict their activity in the dead of winter to a couple of hours during the warmest part of the day. Clearly, spring had arrived for them, however, for we were seldom out of sight of several scampering around, looking for food and scolding us..




          The forest was still deep in snow with many animals locked in their burrows and dens beneath it.


     Red-breasted Nuthatches Sitta canadensis were very common and they had no hesitation in coming to us for seed.



     Carol did not even have time to take seed out of her jar before this bold individual landed on it, beating its competitors to the food.
     Set against the lichen on the conifers this tiny bird looks splendid indeed, the pattern of the lichen creating a Christmas card look.


     As we set off across the frozen bog, the landscape which will be buzzing with mosquitoes and black flies in a few months, looked foreboding and still. It had felt quite warm deep in the cover of the spruce, but the wind blowing unimpeded across the open space lent a frigid chill to the air.


     We were happy to regain the cover of the trees. 


     The temperature both days went above freezing and spring melt is starting to occur, but the mercury dips below freezing at night and deep snow is still the most common condition.



     Just before regaining the parking area we were both surprised and delighted to see three Snow Buntings Plectrophenax nivalis, in advanced moult; soon their breeding plumage will be complete.




     Algonquin Provincial Park does not have many open spaces with weedy fields, the preferred habitat of Snow Buntings, so it is a rare visitor.
     It was by now lunchtime and we went to the Visitor Centre where we could sit inside in the warmth and enjoy our meal together. Hot drinks were available too and most of us took advantage of them.


     The planners have done a magnificent job with this structure and the view from the deck is nothing short of sublime.


     One of the great attractions of the Visitor Centre is the presence of numerous well-stocked feeders attracting a variety of birds. Chief among the desirable species is Evening Grosbeak Hesperiphona vespertina, a spectacular bird by any standards. Here are several resplendent males.






     And the females look pretty spectacular too.






     Pine Siskin Spinus pinus was very common at the feeders.


  

      As they are right in our backyard, American Goldfinches Spinus tristis are transforming themselves from their olive drab of winter to their rich gold of spring.


     From the Visitor Centre we travelled farther east in the park to the Logging Museum and the East Gate where we encountered mainly Blue Jays and Pine Siskins.
     Our last stop of the day was at the Opeongo Road, generally a reliable spot to find Grey Jay Perisoreus canadensis, a species with northern affinities, which is found about as far south as it gets in Algonquin Park. We were not disappointed!




      This population has been studied intensively for years and most birds are colour banded. Much of what is known about Grey Jays is based on the lifelong work of Dan Strickland, a park biologist now retired.
      An added bonus was the presence of a pair of Red Crossbills Loxia curvirostra. This species, although common sporadically in irruption years, is generally rare, and it is many years since I saw one in the park.



Red Crossbill - Male

     Muskrat lodges thrust up above the ice; before long these animals which for so long formed a critical part of the fur trade, will be swimming  along the waterways unmolested by humans.








     We headed back to our accommodation after a full and very productive day of birding. We had a fine feast together, anchored by Francine's chili, but with a whole array of other food and lots of wine to help it all go down. Everyone contributed something different so we dined well to say the least.



Accommodation: Spring Lake Resort, Dwight, ON  Rating: Four stars

Cost: $99.00 per night plus tax - $111.87


29 March 2017
Dwight - Algonquin Provincial Park - Waterloo

     We slept well and had a coffee in the room, after which we all went for breakfast at a little quick stop/restaurant in Dwight.
     An American Robin Turdus migratorius was singing and several Common Ravens soared overhead uttering their loud cronking call.


      Along the road I spotted a pair of Red Crossbills and we wheeled around to get a better look and take some photographs.

Red Crossbill - pair
  
     We had been searching for Ruffed Grouse Bonasa umbellus yesterday, without success.
so we returned to the Visitor Centre, where this species sometimes feeds on seed spilled on the ground in the early morning. We did not find the grouse, unfortunately, but it was a great pleasure to revel in the species we had seen yesterday, including a very large congregation of Pine Siskins.


       As already mentioned, the Visitor Centre has been very well executed. This sculpture is located right inside the entrance.  


     We made a trip into Whitney on the east side of the park to get gas, since Jim felt he was sufficiently low he might not have enough to make it back out of the park, and we would all need to refuel before heading home anyway.
     We then returned to the Spruce Bog Boardwalk where we had  enjoyed so much success yesterday. Blue Jays and Black-capped Chickadees Poecile atricapillus immediately descended on us and scrounged for a quick meal.



     We had only been standing there for a few minutes when Franc called out "Grey Jay" and a bird came in really close. Eventually we discovered that there were two or three individuals in the vicinity.


     It truly is a delightful species and was recently named Canada's National Bird based on a nation-wide vote. All that needs to be done now is to have parliament vote to make it official.
     We were all thrilled to see a Red Fox Vulpes vulpes come to visit us.


     This animal was in prime condition with a sleek, glossy coat. There was a large suet feeder nearby and we figured that the fox had probably been attracted to it during the winter when birds drop morsels onto the ground and it had become accustomed to humans. It was wary and maintained a safe distance between itself and us, but it was nevertheless unafraid, and sufficiently habituated to know that it could get an easy meal.


     Miriam took the time to gather us all together for a group shot......



     ..................and I took one of her and the illustrious Judy Wyatt.


     A fine representation of Canadian womanhood if ever I saw one!

     As we walked along we saw Grey Jays and two female Hairy Woodpeckers Picoides villosus exploiting the forest resources.



     Finally, we decided that it was time to head for home and we meandered back to the parking area. Miriam, the picture taker, was obviously bringing up the rear.


     It had been a fine outing and we saw most of the species we had hoped to see. There were a few misses, but we'll have to save those for next year.
     Our drive home was uneventful and we were back at our house, where Judy had left her vehicle, by a little after 16:00.
     To Franc and Carol, Jim and Francine, Judy and Mary (who couldn't make this trip) thanks for great companionship every single week. It is a delight to hang out with you guys.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Book Review - Raptors of Mexico and Central America - Princeton University Press

     I have always appreciated both the field skills and published works of Bill Clark, so when I was made aware that a new work Raptors of Mexico and Central America had gone to press, I anxiously awaited its publication, and was delighted when asked to review it.
     Having travelled through Central America on several occasions I am well aware of the difficulty of identifying raptors not seen on a regular basis, especially birds in flight. This volume really makes the job easier, providing a wealth of information to help the itinerant birder and resident ornithologist alike.




     The colour plates by John Schmitt are nothing less than superb and truly capture the jizz of the birds depicted. I can well imagine the discussions that might have taken place between Clark and Schmitt as they refined and perfected these illustrations. Often pictures in a field guide are flat and lifeless; in this case they portray the vitality and fluidity of the birds.



     Instead of following a pedantic taxonomic structure, birds with similar features, lifestyles and habitats are shown together, making for ready comparison of species that could easily be confused one with the other. In the pages shown above all of the Peregrine Falcon subspecies found in the area are illustrated with explanatory notes for each one. To compress this into a single page, without losing any clarity is a tour de force and one of the features that makes the book so enjoyable. 
     That most variable of raptors, the Red-tailed Hawk, is similarly depicted in all its colour variants, with adult and juvenile plumages illustrated..



     But not only are there superlative illustrations, photographs accompany the detailed text for each species covered.



     And the text really is comprehensive with the following coverage for each species: Identification Summary; Taxonomy and Geographic Variation; Similar Species; Status and Distribution; Habitat; Behaviour; Moult, Description; Unusual Plumages; Hybrids; Etymology; References. The combination of the illustrations, the photographs and the text provide a complete picture - and all in a book portable enough to be taken into the field.
     The range maps are nicely done and there is a section dedicated to helpful facts for raptor field identification.The glossary is very detailed indeed and covers all the terminology associated with raptors.
     In the interests of balanced coverage I tried to find shortcomings, but without success. This is a work that comes as close to perfection as you can get. It combines the expertise of one of the world's leading raptor experts and an artist sans pareil.
     At US$39.95 or £32.95 it is very reasonably priced and merits a place on every birdophile's shelf - but don't just leave it there, take it with you in the field to make your task of identifying raptors so much easier.
     This is a work you will cherish for years to come.