Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Weekend in Algonquin Provincial Park 24- 25 March 2018

     Last year we decided to take a late winter break in Algonquin Provincial Park and enjoyed it so much we decided to make it an annual event.
     Thus, for the second time, most of the members of The Tuesday Rambles with David group, namely Franc and Carol, Jim and Francine, Judy, and Miriam and I prepared for a couple of days of birding in the near north. This year we were joined by my daughter, Caroline, and son-in-law, Andrew, who journeyed from Ottawa and met us in the park.
     Last year we arranged with Spring Lake Resort in Dwight, ON to open up four rooms for us ahead of their normal opening date of 1 May, and this year they kindly obliged us with five rooms. It is an ideal spot for us to stay, about sixteen kilometres from the west gate of the park. Irene Pobojewski, our congenial host, permitted us last year and again this year, to swing by in the morning to plug in a crock pot of chili which was Francine's contribution to the dinner we would all enjoy together in one of the rooms that evening.
     Having taken care of this chore, we headed for the Spruce Bog Trail where Caroline and Andrew awaited us in the parking area. It was cold, minus 11.5°C, with a bit of a wind, but in the shelter of the dense stand of spruce the effect of the wind was mitigated. This is the best spot in the park for Spruce Grouse (Falcipennis canadensis), a species that will sometimes walk right up to you, but at other times can be frustratingly difficult to find. We had no luck today.

Carol, Caroline, Francine, Miriam, Judy, Jim
     Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) were both numerous and noisy and they were quite happy to feast on the bird seed we left for them.

     As we moved across the exposed area of the bog, a classic northern peat bog by the way, the wind made its presence felt, and we were happy when we finally returned to the car to go down to the Visitor Centre to have lunch and check the feeders there.
     We had seen both Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra) and Two-barred (White-winged) Crossbill (Loxia leucoptera) feeding on minerals and grit at the side of the highway, but at the visitor centre we had much better views; with the male Two-barred Crossbill being the star of the show. Many Pine Siskins (Spinus pinus) were still present and a lingering cohort of about twenty Evening Grosbeaks (Hesperiphona vespertina) took advantage of the feeders.

Red Crossbill
Two-barred Crossbill (male)
Pine Siskin
Evening Grosbeak
      And a pair of Purple Finches (Haemorhous purpureus) was an added bonus and a lifer for Franc and Carol.

Purple Finch - male

Purple Finch - female
     It was good to sit inside with hot coffee and the lunches we had brought from home. There is a great book store to check out, but unlike last year, I don't recall anyone buying anything this year.
     After lunch we went back out on the deck where it was quite a bit warmer than it had been earlier and I ran into my old friend, Rayfield Pye, and it was great to do a little catching up. It was incredible to look back on the time we have known each other, and birded together and manned hawk watches - almost thirty-five years! Where does time go?
     Northern Raven (Corvus corax) has expanded its range south in recent years, but it is still one of the signature birds of the park, a wily opportunist that survives the worst of winter's challenges.

     After lunch we went down the Opeongo Road, one of the very best locations to see Grey Jay (Perisoreus canadensis) and we were not disappointed. This was the species Caroline had looked forward to seeing most of all and they put on a show for her. 

     Following the encounter with the Grey Jays we moved on to the Logging Museum where we spotted a Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus  almost right away and even though it played hide-and-seek with us a little we finally managed to get some fairly decent shots.

     Miriam decided this was a great spot for a group photograph.

Franc, Jim, Carol, Francine, Caroline, Andrew, David, Judy

     It was already late afternoon and we decided to head back to the motel. The Logging Museum is almost at the east gate of the park and from the east gate to the west gate is 57 km and we had a further 16 km beyond there to get to Spring Lake Resort. This is a big park, and the Highway 60 corridor cuts through the narrow part of it in the south.

     We checked in with Irene and paid our bills, then all assembled in Jim and Francine's room where the wine flowed and the food was plentiful. This really is a perfect way to end the day, much better than having to drive and find a restaurant. And the variety of food we all brought was fabulous.
    Following a good night's sleep we went to Judy's room where she made copious quantities of coffee for everyone, and even filled our thermoses for later in the day, and provided her homemade Morning Glory muffins, bran muffins and Caroline contributed a fresh fruit salad for a great breakfast. Birding on a full belly is always better than feeling hungry!
     Black-backed Woodpecker (Picoides arcticus), one of the two three-toed species in the park, is always high on the list of the special birds, but it is not an easy target to locate. We had checked the locations for recent sightings and tried our luck at the Tea Lake area, but we came up empty. The other area where a bird had been seen was the Mizzy Lake parking lot. Here we hit the jackpot. We parked and stationed ourselves at different spots around the perimeter of the parking area, and within about ten minutes Franc called with great glee, "I have it!" 

     We all saw the bird, but it then flew back and we lost sight of it. Again we all fanned out and checked different sections of the stand of dead trees where we had first seen it. Finally, Jim called us all over and the woodpecker was there in front of him feeding on a downed log.

      We watched it for at least fifteen minutes and even when it flew farther back it was still visible for us. 

     This is only the second time that I have had this kind of protracted session with this species. It was very special indeed.
     Following this excitement we went to the Visitor Centre where we had lunch from the ample leftovers from dinner the previous night and checked out the feeders again, but the activity was relatively subdued as more and more birds are moving off into their breeding territories. We decided to head home from there and bade farewell to each other, well satisfied with our weekend. We needed to go into Whitney for gas, but everyone else left to get on their way.
     We had an uneventful drive home happy in the knowledge that we will do it all again next year. Francine already has me on notice that she wants a Boreal Chickadee (Poecile hudsonicus)!

All species: Ruffed Grouse, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Black-backed Woodpecker, Grey Jay, Blue Jay, American Crow, Northern Raven, Black-capped Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, American Robin, Red-winged Blackbird, Purple Finch, Red Crossbill, Two-barred Crossbill, Pine Siskin, American Goldfinch, Evening Grosbeak.  Total: 18

Monday, 26 March 2018

Grey Jay (Mésangeai du Canada) in Algonquin Provincial Park

     We just returned from a weekend in Algonquin Provincial Park, one of the jewels in the Ontario park system, and a full report of this adventure will follow in the next day or two.
     In the meantime I would like you to meet the Grey Jay (Perisoreus canadensis), a bird which for me symbolizes the park.

     The great trove of research done on this bird was carried out primarily in Algonquin Provincial Park by Dan Strickland, a park biologist, now retired. The work that he did, and the techniques he developed to follow the birds and locate their nests is the stuff of legend. 

     Unfortunately, the birds in the park are in trouble. Their numbers have declined substantially over the last twenty-five or thirty years, due to the effects of global warming. It still staggers me to think that virtually the entire US government denies that it even exists and its leaders are actively rolling back measures enacted to combat it.
     One of the main issues facing the Grey Jay, which is already nesting in February, is its inability to successfully store winter food. Grey Jays have extra large mandibular glands that produce a sticky saliva for forming sticky boli (singular, bolus) of food which they then attach to the bark of trees and cache them away in various nooks and crannies. Winter in Algonquin used to mean solid freeze up from November through early April. Now repeated thaws are causing the food to rot, or at the very least develop the equivalent of freezer burn, which diminishes the nutritional value of the stored winter supply. Without adequate food to feed their young (and sometimes themselves) birds are simply not laying eggs.

     These birds are quite confiding and it gives visitors great pleasure to stretch out their hands and experience the joy that contact with a wild creature uniquely brings. Most people provide sunflower seeds or peanuts, a welcome supplement for the birds, but as we witnessed, visitor largesse is not always benign - we saw a well-meaning woman feeding them banana bread.

     Grey Jay is a northern species, and Algonquin Provincial Park is its southern limit. We can only hope that it will continue to do well in the vast boreal forests of northern Ontario and beyond.
     Grey Jay (also sometimes called Canada Jay, and in times past Whisky Jack or Camp Robber) is Canada's unofficial national bird. A poll was organized a couple of years ago by Canadian Geographic Society and Grey Jay was the clear winner (in case you are wondering it was not my choice!), but the Government of Canada has never officially enacted the necessary legislation to enshrine it as our national birds.

     It's understandable; they are far too busy trying to get pipelines approved, against the wishes of everyone who lives along their routes. People protesting construction and extension of pipelines routinely get arrested, including recently the leader of the Green Party of Canada. Now that's important stuff. Who has time for a national bird?

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Twenty-ninth Annual Canadian National Wildlife Carving Championship

17 March 2018

     This year I had the distinct honour, and great pleasure, in being asked to be a judge at the Canadian National Wildlife Carving Championship, an annual event I always look forward to attending as a lover of this art form (and that is what it is), and as a collector, so to be a judge was a rare and much-appreciated privilege. 
     The Grand Valley Woodcarvers Club is a primary organizer of the event and deserves much credit.
     I owe a great debt of gratitude to Peter McLaren for asking me to take part, to Lyn Burnett for her superb organizational job, but most of all to Jeff Krete, (; a five-time world champion carver, and to Jason Lucio (;, a three-time world champion, with whom I formed one of the judging teams, for their great kindness and willingness to explain the myriad nuances of what makes a good carving, and the techniques, thought processes and design decisions that go into it.  I saw carvings in a way I never saw them before; my astonishment at the creative forces behind a carving grew exponentially. I have little doubt that my meagre contribution in terms of ornithological knowledge was insignificant compared with the expert assessments of these world class artists.
     The show was opened by the Mayor of Waterloo, Dave Jaworsky, with suitable words of encouragement.

      We were judges in various categories and skill levels, beginning with the Master Class.
     One of the pieces in our first group was this male Belted Kingfisher, perched on a branch, draped in an epiphyte looking down on the water, where Yellow Perch were hiding beneath aquatic vegetation and submerged logs.

     In the same grouping was this female Green-winged Teal, carved and painted to perfection. 

     I should mention here that sometimes it was relatively easy to narrow the choices down to three finalists, but then selecting between the final three was much more difficult. I relied heavily on Rick and Jason to guide me through these final steps, knowing that the characters between first and third place were both subjective and subtle. I am sure that in some cases if the winner could be assigned a score of 100, second was 99.9 and third was 99.8. It was sometimes that close.
     African Pygmy Falcon was the subject for one of the Purchase Awards and there were several carvings of this beautiful, diminutive little bird that I have had the pleasure of seeing in both South Africa and Ethiopia.

     This one was in our group, characteristically perched among the sharp thorns of an Acacia, and as you can see we accorded it first place. The red sticker indicates first, blue second, yellow third and green honourable mention. Once the judging has been completed appropriate name tags are added, with the names of the species and the artist.

     Here are some of the other renditions of African Pygmy Falcon.

      We had to judge a group of carvings in which Jeff had an entry so he had to excuse himself from participating.  A substitute judge was added to our crew and I say with pleasure that we unanimously came to the conclusion that Jeff's rendition of a Griffon Vulture high above a carcass on the African savanna was the clear winner.
     Look how Jeff has given the perception of the height of the bird descending from the sky, by minimizing the size of the zebra and presenting it in a muted way so as not to draw attention away from the bird.

     The details in the wing were quite remarkable to me, where moulted feathers are shown, with some positions already showing emergent new plumes. The margins were emarginated in classic vulture fashion; I swear that if that bird had flown off the wire it would not have surprised me!

     The detail on the underside was completed with the same precision and attention to detail as the upper surface.

     Was I biased because I knew it was Jeff's work? I don't think so, and the verdict was unanimous in any event. And Jeff would have only wanted a totally honest approach from all of us.
     Just before lunch we did some judging in the Interpretative Class, where there is a very wide range of styles, and evaluating one piece against another is highly subjective and far from easy.

     A fine lunch of soup and wraps was provided and a lively discussion took place around the table. As an "outsider" it was fascinating to hear the shop talk of carvers and competitors.

     By the time we returned from our lunch break the public was starting to arrive in increasing numbers.

     A female Belted Kingfisher was the subject for another Purchase Award.

     As was a miniature Northern Cardinal.

     Working decoys have a long and storied tradition, and it is probably in these utilitarian objects that decorative carving originated. These modern working decoys must have a keel and be able to float and self-right from any position to qualify for the competition.

     Here is part of one group of Intermediate Class carvings we had to judge.

     And more....

     Looking at these Killdeers, one gets the impression that perhaps these carvers all took the same class!

     I found this portrayal of an Elf Owl especially appealing.

     Don't forget that every element has to be carved; look how well the artist has rendered the effect of insects or caterpillars feeding on the leaves.
      A Northern Saw-whet Owl is guaranteed to earn the approbation of everyone!

     And I thought this approach to presenting an Eastern Screech Owl was bold and creative.

     As you can see we awarded it second place in its category.
     After our judging I walked around and chatted to various friends and acquaintances who had come to the show, and took a few more miscellaneous photographs of carvings that caught my eye.

     From Novice to Master Class, from the most humble beginner to a world class artist, all of these carvers deserve our respect and admiration for their commitment to their craft, and the continuation and enhancement of what is still primarily a North American art form.
     Long may it continue.

Land Acknowledgement

We acknowledge that the land on which we are situated are the lands traditionally used by the Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabe, and Neutral People. We also acknowledge the enduring presence and deep traditional knowledge, laws, and philosophies of the Indigenous Peoples with whom we share this land today. We are all treaty people with a responsibility to honour all our relations.