Tuesday 14 June 2022

I Love This Park: Part 2

Click here to read Part 1.

Before I went out on Lake Travers, I decided to try and air out my feet a little bit. I learned at this point that not only did I forget to bring my boots, but for the first time ever, I apparently also neglected to bring a surplus of extra socks! This was going to be a rough 24 hours, especially if it rained as much as it was forecasted to do.

As I sat in my car doing so, I noticed something scrambling over the rocks on the other side of the river. It took me a second to figure out what it was...a baby moose!

Finally, I figured my feet were about as dry as they were going to be, so I put them back into my damp boots, loaded up the canoe, and launched. 

I'm not sure if I have really introduced Lake Travers before. This lake is arguably my favourite one that I have visited in the Park. It is part of the Petawawa River system, located in the northeastern part of Algonquin. Because of its location, it is a great spot to look for birds, especially during periods of bad weather, that otherwise are very rare in the Park. Over the years, a number of rarities have been found here, and on this trip, I was hoping to get to add to that impressive list.

The campsite I like on this lake is not a very far paddle, so I got there in quick fashion and set up camp. It was mid-afternoon and sunny...not really much for me to do, so I took a nap. After that short siesta, I headed out on the lake for an evening paddle. 

There was a White-winged Scoter, which is always nice to see. I would have preferred one of the other scoter species however :)

I also had one of my most memorable mammal encounters that evening. A (presumably different) baby moose was on the shore, and I was able to get quite close in the canoe without disturbing it. This was my first time seeing a moose this young. I will admit to becoming a bit complacent in regards to seeing moose—after all, I see them almost daily—but it is always nice to get to enjoy one by yourself for a prolonged period of time in a "natural" setting (i.e. not the shoulder of Highway 60).

Other than those sightings, no real highlights. It is just nice to get out on a calm lake sometimes!

Just as I was going to bed, the rain began to start softly. I hoped that with the rain, some goodies would drop down...

The next morning, I woke up around 4am to try and listen for any birds calling in the dark as first light approached, but it was quit hard to do with the rain pounding the tent. Had I made a mistake coming here? I could be sitting at home, warm and dry. Then, right around 4:30am, I heard a Black-bellied Plover calling as it flew overhead. This was a new bird for my park list. I scrambled out of the sleeping bag, threw on some clothes and my rain gear, and ran down to the lake's edge (not very far). The light was still dim, but I could hear Black-bellied Plovers, Semipalmated Plovers, and Least Sandpipers calling as they flew around. I couldn't believe it...it was actually happening.

I was in the canoe by 5am, and began to make the rounds, checking the little marshes and bays on the lake. The rain had sort of subsided by this point, and the shorebirds gone quiet, so I was getting a bit worried that the show was over. I persevered nonetheless. 

After a bit over and hour of paddling around, the rain had begun to fall again, and in the distance I noticed a couple birds that ended up being Brant, also new for me in the Park. Not too long after those two, a small flock flew low down the lake. 

So cool to see in this context! Being from Southwestern Ontario, and not really travelling too far very much, I had only ever seen this species on one occasion prior. 

It was raining pretty steady by this point. I continued north up the lake, picking up species here and there, but noting too crazy. I looped around a small island at the north end of the lake, and began to make my way back south. 

When I got to the south end of the lake, shorebirds started to fly around a bit more. Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Least Sandpiper, and Dunlin were tallied. Unfortunately, no mega rarities were mixed in! It was really fun to encounter these species in these numbers regardless.

Black-bellied Plovers

Least Sandpipers and Semipalmated Plovers


There were a number of Canada Geese moving on this day as well. I figure they are molt migrants. Around 8:30am, over the southern marsh, a large flock of geese approached. I snapped a couple of photos to count the flock later, and then turned my attention back to the shorebirds that were flying around. Just a minute or two later, I heard a very odd wheezy whistle vocalization that I did not recognize. Was it some sort of shorebird call I was unfamiliar with? Unlikely. I looked around frantically, and spotted something smaller with the flock of Canada Geese that were flying up river. Perhaps that was the source of the call. I snapped a few photos, and zoomed in. The first photo I looked at didn't show much. I scrolled to the next photo, and instantly felt my stomach drop. No. Freaking. Way.

It all clicked. The wheezy whistle belonged to none other than a Black-bellied Whistling Duck. This is a rare vagrant in Ontario, let along the middle of Algonquin Park. 

I tried to get some more photos of it as it flew away, now that I knew what it was, but was unsuccessful. It was gone, never to be seen or heard of again. 

The adrenaline rush that followed nearly made me tip the canoe. I couldn't even fathom that I had just seen a whistling duck in Algonquin Park, of all places. Needless to say, it is a first record for the Park. It also happened to be a lifer for me, and just like the Black-legged Kittiwake in October, seemingly the least likely place for me to see my first one. Although I sure hope I do, I very well may never find a better bird in Algonquin Park.

I'll be the first to admit that my photos aren't great, but they are diagnostic, showing the large striking white wing pattern, pink feet, and a bright red bill. Here is another photo, lightened, colour enhanced, and extra cropped to show these features. 

So yeah. Make sure you check those flocks of migrant geese for whistling ducks, I guess.

I wasn't really sure what to do after that. It was still early in the morning, and there was no way to top that! Every bit of me wanted to hop in my car and get back to cell service to share the sighting with everyone, but I told myself I must carry on and see what else I could find!

The goose flight continued. A couple flocks of Brant went over. I didn't end up with a huge number of these geese, but I would have been happy with one!

This photo is one of my favourites from the day, despite maybe not being the best quality. I think it really captured the spirit of Lake Travers that day. This was part of a flock of 160+ Canada Geese that put down to rest on the lake.

I stopped in at the campsite for breakfast/to let my heart calm down, and then went back out for another lap of the lake. There were a few different species of ducks that appeared. I'm not sure exactly where they came from! Perhaps dropped in when I wasn't looking.

Long-tailed Ducks

White-winged Scoter

Red-breasted Mergansers

Lesser Scaup

The rain cleared, and the wind started to pick up, so I decided to try and make my way back south. I was paddling into the wind, so it was really slow going, but I made progress. 

As I was still a kilometer or more from camp, I noticed a few white birds swooping around the marsh directly beside the site. Oh crap. I was sure they were terns, all of which are rare in the Park. I picked up the paddling a little bit. They moved over a creek mouth. No, no, no, no, no. I opted to snap a few photos as I got tossed around in the wind and waves. Soon after I did that, the three terns built altitude and left the lake, heading south and out of sight. I checked my photos...Caspian Terns!

There are surprisingly few (less than ten?) records of Caspian Terns from the Park. The only one that would be rarer I think is Arctic Tern (one record). This excludes Forster's Tern, of which there are no records. 

I arrived back at the campsite, feeling quite accomplished. I packed up camp, loaded the canoe, and headed back to the access point. It was mid-afternoon by this point, and I was ready to get back home (I still had a three hour drive). Perhaps I should have stuck it out longer, but I doubt I could have topped the best sighting of the day! My eBird checklist for the day can be seen here.

That day cemented my belief that Lake Travers is a truly magical place. Algonquin Park is such an incredible place once you get to know it...and the truth is, I really don't even know it very well! I am looking forward to a lifetime of exploration and similarly exciting discoveries. I love this park. 

Sunday 12 June 2022

I Love This Park: Part 1

I've spent too much time exploring Algonquin Park, and not enough time writing about it! I'll have to play some catch-up. Today's post will be about a three day trip I did on the East Side of the Park in Late May.

Back on May 23, I met up with Jeff Skevington and Vince Fyson for a couple days of Breeding Bird Atlassing in the interior of the Park (Jeff had an interior access permit to use logging roads). Our destination was Odenback on Radiant Lake, but also planned to do a bit of exploring along Bissett Creek Road, Shirley Lake Road, and Hogan Lake Road.

We met at Achray in the evening, and after a night of listening to Long-tailed Ducks migrating overhead, we left in the wee hours of the morning for Radiant Lake. The drive was pretty uneventful, although we did encounter a couple Whip-poor-wills along the way.

We arrived around 5:30, and got right to it. It was pretty cold out, and with nights of north winds in the days before, there weren't very many migrants to look at (Odenback has hosted a number of rarities over the years that we were keen to try and find). Overall, not really anything to write home about, other than a Brown Thrasher, which are very uncommon in the Park. We still garnered a decent list though: https://ebird.org/canada/checklist/S111264330

We got back into the car and went for a drive, stopping along the way whenever something piqued our interest. One of our first stops of the day was at an interesting looking wetland that the Little Madawaska River meanders through. Jeff wanted to put up a song recorder, so we got closer to investigate and scope out possible locations. As I approached, I heard a pair of Virginia Rails, which are always a great bird to encounter in Algonquin Park. There were also a number of Yellow Warblers, another very uncommon breeder in the Park. Then, as we were talking, off in the distance, I heard it. It stopped me dead in my tracks. A simple, but beautiful, "Fitz-bew!".

I couldn't believe it. A few tense seconds passed, and then it sang again.


Could it be? Jeff heard it when it sang for the third time, and his heart rate must of spiked to the same dangerous levels that mine had. We took off running in the direction of the vocalization.


We found ourselves in the presence of the Holy Grail of Algonquin Park birds. It was a Willow Flycatcher. But not just any Willow Flycatcher, the first Willow Flycatcher to ever be observed in Algonquin Provincial Park. 

This species is a true enigma. It has left Algonquin Park birders scratching their heads for the better part of the last century, wondering why this species had never been recorded in the Park. It is a species that I have long dreamed about finding, and now, there it was, in front of me.

I should mention, I forgot my rubber boots at the office, so my only pair of footwear for the entire three days was my steel-toe work boots. There was a wet sedge-y area between me and the flycatcher, so I did what any reasonable person would do—I took off my boots and socks, and cut my feet to pieces on the sharp edges (scabrous, for those who are botanically inclined) of the Carex stricta leaves in order to get closer to the quarry. Jeff had done the same, although he left his boots on. 

Willow Flycatcher habitat, apparently

We managed to get great looks and audio records of this flycatcher. You can see some photos and recordings taken by Jeff here: https://ebird.org/canada/checklist/S111264301

I didn't have my camera...

Needless to say, that was the highlight of the day. We did some more exploring, but didn't find any more new park birds. In the evening, we went back into that wetland by canoe to try for Yellow Rails, but had no success. Not super surprising, I suppose!

The nest morning we were back at Odenback, and it was COLD. There was frost on the ground, so it was right around zero degrees. Again, it seemed as though there were no new migrants which was a bit discouraging. We looked regardless. At one point, Jeff and I were on the far side of the field, and spotted Vince waving us over. What could it be? Well, it turns out we got at least one migrant—Vince had found a singing male  Golden-winged Warbler. This is an excellent bird for the Park, and one I was very happy to get to see. He was moving around quite a lot. Habitat is decent, so in the unlikely case a female shows up, perhaps he has a chance.

It was another decent morning, but again not a ton of movement. A pair of Green-winged Teal were a bit odd. https://ebird.org/canada/checklist/S111264124

We left Odenback and started to make our way back to Lake Travers, were my car was, and we would part ways (Jeff and Vince were on their way out to Saskatchewan). We stopped at a bridge over the Petawawa River at Radiant Lake to look at a pair of Barn Swallows (a nest was found), and decided to bird around a bit. It paid off, as we soon found a Blackpoll Warbler (new for my Park List), and got very brief looks at a Northern Mockingbird, a rarity. A stop that was worthwhile! My feet were also killing me at this point due to the dampness and the sedge scratches, but no pain, no gain...

The rest of the drive back to my car was uneventful. We said our good-byes, and then went our separate ways. Although, I didn't have to go very far, as I would be spending the night on Lake Travers...and there was rain in the forecast.

Part 2

Thursday 5 May 2022

Marsh Madness

If you are connected to the birding world in any way, by now you have likely heard about the absolute mindboggling bird that is the Marsh Sandpiper in Thedford, Ontario.

On Saturday evening (April 30), I was texting back and forth with Jeff Skevington, planning a day trip to the north part of Algonquin Park (Brent, on Cedar Lake). We were all content and set for the next day (which included a 4:30 am meet-up in Pembroke), when he called me with an absolute bombshell: James Holdsworth, birder extraordinaire, had found the first Canadian, and Eastern North American, record of Marsh Sandpiper. Pretty crazy. Unfortunately, Jeff went on, there would be no access, and we couldn't very well go sneaking in. Alas, we would continue with our plans the next day. I wasn't bummed out, I was much looking forward to birding in an area of the Park I hadn't been in several months! 

About 30 minutes later I get another call from Jeff. He had managed to arrange access for birders the following day. To make a long story short, I made a split second descion, and agreed to meet him in Belleville at 10pm. 

A couple hours later, I left my Jeep in a parking lot (after taking a couple photos, as I expected I would have to report it stolen), and was in a car with Jeff and Paul Lagasi on the 401 headed west. The Marsh Sandpiper had been seen flying away to the northwest earlier that evening, so our hopes weren't high ("5% chance its there"), but at least it would be a fun trip, and we would be able to reconnect with some people we haven't seen in some time.

We arrived at Jeff's parents house near Woodstock around 2am, and quickly settled in for a few hours of sleep. While I'm sure many birders were not sleeping well that night because of the prospect of the bird the next day, I had trouble falling asleep thinking about my Jeep that was probably on some cargo ship halfway across the Atlantic by now. I did, eventually, drift off to sleep, and, not a word of a lie, dreamt of birders trespassing in sewage lagoons (which for the record, we were NOT doing the next day). 

5am came early, especially since we had set our alarms for 5:45am. I guess the coffee pot had other plans for us, and decided to beep, rousing us from our short slumber. After a quick breakfast, we were on the road towards the Thedford Sewage Lagoons. We got there shortly before the gates were set to open, but dozens of birders had already beat us.

The municipal worker with the key wasn't there at 8am sharp, but that was no problem for the nearly 100 birders there. When he finally arrived at 8:05am, he was met by the sight of everyone already scoping the sewage lagoons from the middle berm. Jeff and I had remained at the gate (I was in no hurry to not see the bird that had definitely already left the night before), and he seemed pretty chill with it. Or maybe he was just too stunned to speak. 

Jeff and I sauntered up to the crowd, and figured that the bird had not been seen as there didn't seem to be any direction to where people were pointing their optics. However, just a couple minutes later, miraculously, the Marsh Sandpiper was spotted. It wasn't long before everyone got on it. A collective sigh of relief was breathed. 

Over the course of the next few hours I think I spent more time looking at birders than the bird. This will be my one Southwestern Ontario birding trip of the spring, so certainly nice to see so many familiar faces, and to meet some new ones! All in all, I'd say close to 400 people saw this bird over the course of the day.

Our group left mid-day to go explore some other local areas. Not too much of note to speak of, but I was kind of shell shocked seeing so many birds! I think I forgot that it was spring...

We got back on the road after 4pm, and made our way east. It was around 9:30pm that we got back to Belleville, and I was relieved to see that my Jeep had somehow survived the time I was away from it. 

Three hours, two deer, many cookies, and one quick nap in Bancroft later, I arrived back home at the East Gate in Algonquin Park, all in time for work Monday morning. What a crazy day it had been. I'm sure we missed a Great Crested Grebe up on Cedar Lake, but hey, what we don't know can't hurt us? 

Wednesday 27 April 2022

The Perfect Storm

If you've been keeping your finger on the pulse of Ontario birding, you'll know that earlier this week we saw some of the best migration of the year to date. Ontario saw a massive influx of early migrants, and localities along Lake Erie recorded 20+ species of warblers (including such gems as multiple Yellow-throated, Kentucky, Prairie, Golden-winged, and Worm-eating), multiple species of flycatchers, tanagers (all three!), orioles, and lots of special sparrows. 

Back at the beginning of April I was planning out my work schedule, and decided to take Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday (April 24-26) off, and then hope for the best. Well, I guess I know how to pick time off, as these days perfectly coincided with the "best" days for bird action! Three days off, good weather for birding...any birder in their right mind would make a beeline for Point Pelee or Rondeau, but I opted for something much closer—the Old Airfield in Algonquin Park. 

There were lots of birds in the air Saturday night heading into Sunday, and I could barely sleep just thinking of what was going to be found the next day. Still, my alarm seemed to go off much too soon. After some stumbling around and throwing a couple of sandwiches together (see Mom? I'm feeding myself), I was out the door and in my car heading towards the best birding location Highway 60 has to offer. I soon met up with Jeff and Angela Skevington, and we spent the day birding together.

One of my first birds of the day was a new one for the year, a Palm Warbler. A good sign.

As we continued to walk around the airfield, we flushed up a pretty exciting bird: a Vesper Sparrow! This is the second one reported in the Park this spring, but I had missed the first one. It was a new park bird for me, ending a dry spell of a couple weeks. This is a very uncommon bird in Algonquin Park, and appears to be on the decline. 

After that nice little flurry of activity, we set up shop in the east end of the airfield and waited to see what would fly by us. I wish I could tell stories of flyover Red-bellied Woodpeckers and House Sparrows, but alas, it was fairly quiet overall. We did, however, see one very good bird...a Cooper's Hawk! It was pretty distant, but unmistakeable. This is another rarity in Algonquin Park, and a new one for my list. 

In terms of year birds, the first Chipping Sparrows and Savannah Sparrows were seen. Another large flight of 3330 Common Redpolls was observed. Why these birds are moving in such large numbers, and why this movement is really only being seen in Algonquin Park, is unknown. We ended up with just over 50 species for the day at the airfield, my first time breaking that threshold this season. You can see the eBird checklist here.

We spent the rest of the day birding around the Hwy 60 corridor. We found the first Barn Swallow of the year at the Opeongo Docks, and then some more of them at East Gate. It was a great day.

Now, while Sunday was a great day, looking at the forecast, I was sure that Monday would be not quite as good. Sure, the winds were south, but rain was going to hit during the night, shutting down migration, and the temperatures were going to drop. Oh boy, I was wrong.

I actually got a slightly later start at the airfield than usual (I wouldn't see much, I told myself). I opted to do my usual loop backwards to get to the marsh/river mouth first, just in case the rain grounded any ducks (a fairly rare occurrence in Algonquin Park). As I approached, in the distance I saw a group of three American Wigeon flying with some Mallards over Lake of Two Rivers. Nice, I thought, but I was half expecting the species (which is very uncommon in the Park) today with the rain. I continued on my way, and spotted a male Blue-winged Teal in the distance all by his lonesome. Huh, things were getting good. I then rounded the corner and nearly dropped to my knees as I spotted as many as ninety Ring-necked Ducks all huddled together in the river mouth. By far the most I have seen along Hwy 60, this could only mean one thing: fallout. I scanned that group of Ring-necks, and came up with several more Blue-winged Teal, as well as some Northern Pintails. A few flocks of ducks started flying around, and I got on some more pintails and wigeon and teal. There actually seemed to be too many birds! I couldn't get on all of them, and it haunts me thinking about what I could have missed.

Northern Pintails

As the fog lifted, I spotted something even crazier: a large raft of scaup in the middle of Lake of Two Rivers. I would later count as many as sixty Lesser Scaup, a very high count (if not a new high count) for the spring in Algonquin. The duck raft was a bit too far to see all of it from the airfield, so I made the decision to pry myself away and go over to the picnic area, which would hopefully get me closer. 

I arrived at the picnic area beach, and soon was sorting through the flock. Unfortunately, nothing super crazy (I wanted a Redhead), but a small group of Red-breasted Mergansers was nice. As I scanned, I spotted a Pied-billed Grebe, which was a new (and slightly overdue) park bird for me. What a day it was turning into. 14 species of ducks for the day already by this point. 

Pied-billed Grebe

I returned to the Old Airfield and carried on with the rest of my day. Birds were in constant motion, despite the rain. My best birds of the day was a pure flock of eight Cackling Geese that flew by, another rarity in Algonquin Park. I ended with 64 species of birds at the airfield. I had other places I wanted to check, so I decided to leave around 3pm. You can see the eBird checklist here.

I had gotten word of some ducks down on Smoke Lake, so I went over that way to investigate. Along the way, I noticed a few ducks flying out of Cache Lake, so I quickly turned into there. Right from the parking lot, I found two pretty nice birds—a pair of Long-tailed Ducks and my park bird Horned Grebe. Nobody quite likes the rain like an Algonquin Park birder! 

Long-tailed Duck

The ducks were gone off Smoke by the time I got there, so I turned back around and headed east. I checked the PLE Pond near East Gate before calling it a day. I was dead tired, but had seen nearly 80 species of birds, including three park birds. It was the kind of day that I have long dreamed about having, and is right up there with the most fun and rewarding birding days that I have ever had.

Tuesday I figured would be a bit more subdued, and I was right to a degree. Because the rain continued into the night, many of the waterfowl lingered into the next day (which is fairly unusual), so that bolstered the day list. As the weather cleared, many had left by mid-morning. Because of the rain, very few new birds arrived overnight, and I got the impression that many of the same birds I had seen the day before were still around.

American Wigeon getting outta there

I spent the whole day in the airfield, and had a few highlights.

As I sat in my chair freezing my butt off, I noticed a bird come flying out of the small trees on the north side of the airfield. It took me a second, but...

"HOLY [I'll let you fill in the blank, be imaginative]!!!"

I was looking at a Short-eared Owl. Sure, not the rarest of rare birds, but for Algonquin Park, this is a very, very tricky bird to nail down, and not a ton of people have seen one in the park before. This is subject to revision, but I believe this is around the 20th record for Algonquin Park. As is typical of Algonquin Short-eared Owls, it continued on its way, never to be seen again. Lucky for me, I managed to get off one good record shot in my excitement/panic. 

Well, hard to top that, and it was only 8:30 am. I spent a good chunk of the rest of the day telling myself "just another little bit" fighting off the uncomfortable cold. The next most interesting thing to happen was spotting some grebes on the lake, both Red-necked and Horned. I had seen one Red-necked in the park prior, but it was certainly still nice to see. 

Red-necked Grebe

Horned Grebes

Other than that, I wouldn't say there was really anything else to write home about, so I'll just let the eBird checklist do the talking. I ended with 72 species, which I thought was pretty cool. I probably could have turned up a few more if I had put a bit more effort in seeking out certain species earlier in the day (I would've had I known I'd tally so many!).

In all, over my three days off I tallied 94 species, including 15 year birds and six new birds for my park list. I would chalk that up to being a success! Sure, we didn't get anything super flashy like Point Pelee or Rondeau or Long Point, but hey, it's early yet ;) 

Tuesday 12 April 2022

More Algonquin April Birding

Last Thursday, there was a little bit of rain in the forecast, but with the south winds, I figured I should head out birding at the Old Airfield in Algonquin Park anyways. Lucky for me, the rain subsided early in the day, and I ended up having my best day of birding of the year thus far.

Not a ton of new arrivals per se, but certainly a good number of species on the move. The day started off well with an Eastern Phoebe soon after the rain stopped, the first of the year. 

In late morning, an Eastern Meadowlark dropped in, which was great to see. I believe this is a different bird than the one from a couple of days prior. 

I saw two Sandhill Cranes fly over, which are pretty scarce migrants and breeders in the Park.

A short while later, a lone Double-crested Cormorant flew by, far away and high up. I think this ties the early record.

And just five minutes after that, I spied an immature Golden Eagle migrating in the distance. No (conclusive) photos of that one though! 

A nice male American Kestrel also visited in the early afternoon.

The headliner for the day were Common Redpolls. I counted an incredible 3740 individuals migrating southbound. Why they were headed that way, is beyond me. Here is a portion of a flock of 500+ that I saw.

Here is my eBird checklist.

In some other Algonquin birding odds and ends, Winter Wren was a new one for the year on April 8. April 9 brought two new birds: Northern Flicker and Blue-winged Teal. The teal are of particular excitement, as they are a very uncommon spring migrant and were a new species for my park list.

Yesterday yielded no new year birds, despite spending most of the day birding on good winds. Perhaps driving from London and getting back at 3am was not the best idea after all! That's just how it goes sometimes! This morning I found a little bit of movement had occurred, as I found Hermit Thrush, Green-winged Teal, Bufflehead, and Wilson's Snipe in the Old Airfield. 

I've been quite happy with what I've been seeing so far (it somewhat offsets my sour feelings about missing a Black-necked Stilt back home), and am quite excited to see what else is to come. The beauty of Algonquin Park birding...it doesn't take much to make us happy! 

Wednesday 6 April 2022

April in Algonquin Update

 A title I just may reuse later if I feel so inclined...

Spring migration is well underway here in Algonquin Park. After months of seeing the same species day in and day out, it is nice to see some new arrivals.

With it being spring once again, I have made it my goal to bird the Old Airfield as much as possible. It makes a good place for a walk before work, even if I do have to back track to get back to the Visitor Centre! The Old Airfield has hosted many rarities over the years, and with any luck, I will add some to that list. 

The first Turkey Vultures and Great Blue Heron of the year showed up at the airfield on Sunday, which were lovely to see.

Yesterday, Jeff Skevington found an Eastern Meadowlark in the airfield. This is an almost annual migrant in the park, but very hit and miss, and was a big target of mine this spring. I was really hoping to find my own, so it was with reluctance I decided to twitch it after work. I might not get another chance to see one this spring, after all. It wasn't long before I heard its song, and located it in a tree. 

This is an extra special sighting for me, because it marked my 170th species of bird seen in Algonquin Park. As of writing, this is the threshold species count to get on the "short list" of Algonquin bird listers. I still have quite the long way to go, but it was nice to finally reach that milestone. 

I decided to hang around the rest of the evening and see what else was moving. As it turned out, not much. I had a Killdeer fly over, only my second in the park (and my first since being on contract), which was nice to see. After sunset, the first woodcocks of the year were displaying.

This morning, the weather looked like it might be a good day, so I, of course, headed to the airfield. 

The river mouth was pretty productive in terms of waterfowl, with the first Ring-necked Duck and Wood Ducks of the year. There were also a number of black ducks, a Common Merganser, and Hooded Mergansers. 

Ring-necked Duck

Lots of robins were on the move, by the end of the day I counted nearly 80. Probably more that I missed.

American Crows were moving in small numbers. I only saw a few ravens.

After I walked around for a bit, I picked a spot to sit down and just watched. It wasn't really a hawkwatching day as it would turn out (took 8 hours to spot my first hawk), but it was neat seeing a few birds drop in. Nothing too crazy, and no new park birds, but there were some spring migrants that were on the early side. These included a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Eastern Bluebird, Belted Kingfisher, American Kestrel and a Tree Swallow.

Belted Kingfisher

Eastern Bluebird

The "best" bird of the day was probably an American Pipit, which appears to be record early by about two weeks. I am sure Ron Tozer will confirm or deny this statement before long!

I ended my 10.5 hour day tired, wind burnt, and with 39 species. I just couldn't keep going and find that 40th! Woodcock would have been guaranteed, but as I push "publish" on this post, they would have only just started to display!  Here is my eBird checklist.

Tomorrow is supposed to be wet. Rain means one of two things to the Algonquin birder: good birds or a bad time! Will be interesting to see how it plays out.

Wednesday 9 March 2022

Algonquin Park Winter List 2021-22

Well, a week and a half into March already, but better late than never.

Each winter, birders in Ontario (and beyond) may keep what is known as a "winter list". These winter lists record birds seen between the dates of December 1st and February 28/29th. Birders and obscure lists, I know. This past "winter listing period" was a record setting year in Ontario, with 229 species recorded. The total for Algonquin Park, however, as you can expect, was slightly lower than that.

Best that I can tell, the final tally for Algonquin Park was a grand total of 42 species. This is pretty impressive for Algonquin, I think. Of note, 30 species were recorded on the Christmas Bird Count on January 3rd, which is slightly above average.

Some species highlights include:

- Common Goldeneye (Tea Lake Dam February 17 onwards)

- Hooded Merganser (Western Uplands Backpacking Trail on January 3, Tea Lake Dam on February 19)

- Herring Gull (Brewer Lake on December 2)

- Common Loon (Lake of Two Rivers on December 8)

- Golden Eagle (Mew Lake Campground on February 7)

- Red-tailed Hawk (Opeongo Road on December 22)

- Sharp-shinned Hawk (Visitor Centre from late December until January 3)

- Merlin (Old Airfield until January 3)

- Northern Shrike (Spruce Bog Boardwalk on January 8)

- Boreal Chickadee (Black Fox Portage on January 3)

Many of these species are usually not seen in Algonquin Park during the winter months, or are quite uncommon in the park (note Boreal Chickadee!). Some other highlights included three species of owls (Barred Owl, Great Grey Owl, and Northern Hawk Owl) and all nine expected species of finches, including a rostrata Common Redpoll. 

The mild start to the winter, as well as several mild patches here and there throughout the remainder of the winter, likely attributed to the numbers of American Tree Sparrows (two wintered at the visitor centre, several others encountered throughout) and Dark-eyed Juncos (one wintered at the visitor centre, others throughout). Snow Buntings, a species that typically departs once snow covers the ground, was recorded a few times throughout the winter listing period. 

As for misses? Nothing really stands out to me. American Crow and European Starling both just narrowly missed the count period, both showing up in the park on March 4th. Slightly later than average for crow, and slightly before average for starling. Crows were seen just outside the park in Dwight as early as February 16th or 17th.

Now, how about my winter list? Since I would be living in the park over the winter, I thought it would be fun to see what I could tally. I ended up with 35 species. I will admit, I didn't really go out of my way to add species—although an early December trip to Brent or Lake Travers likely could have yielded something of interest, I had a Glaucous-winged Gull that I wanted to see! In the new year, I kind of got a bit lazy with it, and as such only added a few species (Purple Finch, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Hoary Redpoll, and Common Goldeneye).

My biggest miss was the Old Airfield Merlin. Despite first observing this individual back in mid-October and seeing it almost every time I birded there throughout November, I did not see it in December on the few times I went out. Other than that, I don't feel robbed on really anything other than the Boreal Chickadees. Although I thought about it, I never did make that four kilometer hike in to where they were seen. Oh, and Barred Owl, but I never tried for them!

My biggest highlights, other than the Sharp-shinned and Common Goldeneye I mentioned prior, was Common Loon, Red-tailed Hawk, Northern Hawk Owl, and Herring Gull. Seeing all nine finches, plus a rostrata Common Redpoll, was pretty neat, and kept the winter lively and entertaining. 

Evening Grosbeak

Pine Grosbeak

Hoary Redpoll

rostrata Common Redpoll with flammea

Bottom line...had some fun with it and didn't take it too seriously. A nice change of pace! 

Now, to find a Boreal Owl...

Tuesday 18 January 2022

Plants That Do Weird Things: Part 3 (Carnivorous Plants)

Plants are a very diverse group of organisms, so as one could expect, there are a number of them that do "weird" things. There is no shortage of fascinating techniques that plants employ in order to survive in their environment. This is part 3 of my little series "Plants That Do Weird Things". Check out part 1, where we look at myco-heterotrophy, and part two on haustorial parasites if you haven't already, as they will explain certain concepts that I refer to here.

In this post, I want to look at a group of plants that may be much more familiar to even the casual observer: carnivorous plants. Carnivorous plants are a plant which are able to catch, kill, and digest prey, and then use the nutrients from said prey to grow. 

Recall in part 2, I mention that we were done looking at the heterotrophic plants. You may be wondering, since a heterotrophic plant is one that feeds off other organisms, then is that statement still true? Yes it is. Despite having the ability to intake nutrients from digesting other organisms, carnivorous plants would be considered autotrophic, as they are perfectly able to grow and survive by creating their own energy through photosynthesis. That being said, the extra nutrients from prey items helps the plant to not just survive, but thrive, often growing larger and producing more seeds. 

In order to capture their prey, carnivorous plants employ one (or in some cases, several) of five trap mechanisms: flypaper traps, pitfall traps, bladder traps, snap traps, and "lobster-pot" traps. All of these traps are derived from highly specialised leaves. Carnivorous plants in Ontario utilize one of the first three methods. 

Plants with flypaper traps simply use a sticky glue-like substance, known as mucilage. The leaves of these plants have many glands that secrete mucilage, and these glands may be short or long. Once a prey item (almost always an insect) is trapped, then these plants respond by actually growing or moving their parts in response, which not only helps ensnare it further, but also digestion. This is called thigmotropism, which simply put, is directional growth in response to touch. To digest their prey, these glands will release a series of enzymes, which break down the insect, and this is true regardless of the trap type. 

In Ontario, there are two genera from two families that would be classified as using flypaper traps. Perhaps the most well known are the sundews (Drosera, Droseraceae). Sundews have many long "tentacles", which are tipped in mucilage. Many species also have short glands, which are sessile (attached at the base without a stalk). When an insect is trapped, these tentacles are mobile, and move into the centre of the leaf so the insect is in contact with as many of these tentacles as possible. 

There are four species known from Ontario, as well as a couple of hybrids. Round-leaved Sundew (D. rotundifolia) is likely the best known. Spoon-leaf Sundew (D. intermedia) is another common species that tends in inhabit a slightly different habitat than Round-leaved.

Round-leaved Sundew

Despite having seen all of the sundew species in Ontario, I have never made a point of actually taking good pictures of the mucilage glands. A reoccurring issue in this project is finding I don't have adequate photos for quite a few of the things I want to illustrate—sounds like something to tackle this year! In this cropped image of the above picture, you can see a couple of prey items (insects), as well how the tentacles have moved to contact these unlucky critters.

The other genus in Ontario with flypaper traps is Pinguicula, the butterworts (Lentibulariaceae). This is a bit more of an inconspicuous genus, and not one I have personally seen in situ (a bit hard to believe, I know!). Much like the sundew, this plant has mucilage-secreting glands. However, unlike the sundew, these glands are very short and close to the surface of the leaf, so there are no obvious tentacles. When an insect is captured, thigmotrophic growth occurs, and the leaf may curl over, or form a shallow "pit" for digestion to occur in. 

Two species occur in Ontario. Common Butterwort (P. vulgaris) is more widespread than Hairy Butterwort (P. villosa). Common Butterwort is portrayed below.

From Wikimedia

From Wikimedia

The second type of trap which occurs in Ontario genera is the pitfall trap. There is but one species in the province that uses this method, the Purple Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea, Sarraceniaceae). As one can imagine, the pitfall works when a prey item falls into the fluid-filled "pitcher", where it is digested. In the case of pitcher plants, although newer plants secrete and use enzymes, as the plant ages, it tends to utilize the bacterial community and microorganisms (mutualistic species) that live within the pitcher to break down the prey into a form that the plant can absorb nutrients from. In order to lure the prey to enter the trap, a series of methods may be employed, including use of scent and colour. On the inside of the pitcher, there is often a number of red venations, and there is evidence to show the bolder these are, the more prey items that are attracted.  From there, it is gravity that does the rest of the work!

On the inside of the lip, there are downward facing hairs (yet another thing I wish I had a better photo of!) These act to stop insects from being able to crawl back up and out of the pitcher. 

You can see the hairs in this image

And its not just insects that pitcher plants consume! A few years ago in Algonquin Park it was discovered that pitcher plants around Bat Lake (a well studied area of wildlife research) were catching recently metamorphosed Spotted Salamanders as they emerged from their breeding pools. These prey items are of course rather large, but there is some evidence that the plants are at least partially digesting them. I haven't seen this bog in person, but from what I have heard, many of the pitcher plants are larger than average, likely from the extra nutrients they are receiving. This story was all over the news, and you can read a little more about it and see some pictures here.

Lucky for this little guy, no Sarracenia nearby...

The last kind of trap found in Ontario are the bladder traps. There is only one genus in the world with this design, Utricularia, the bladderworts. These are in the same family as the butterworts, Lentibulariaceae. Nine species are found in Ontario, and they range from being aquatic to nearly terrestrial.

Horned Bladderwort (U. cornuta)

Northeastern Bladderwort (U. resupinata)

The bladder traps are typically submerged, at least in most of our species. To put it in the simplest terms, these bladder traps work as a vacuum. Through osmosis (the diffusion of water, or flow of water from an area of high concentration to low concentration, across a membrane), the bladder traps are "primed" when water is pumped out of the bladder. The walls of the bladder are sucked inwards with the negative pressure created from this. The traps are triggered when a prey item (which are very small aquatic invertebrates) touches a "trigger hair" near the entrance or door of the trap, which then breaks the seal, and water flows back into the bladder, and with it the prey item. 

"Bladders" of Common Bladderwort (U. macrorhiza)

Much like the pitcher plant, a community of microorganisms may in part help the bladderwort break down and digest its prey. 

The other two trap mechanisms, snap traps and "lobster-pot" traps, do not occur in Ontario, but are still worth a mention. Only two plants in the world use snap traps, one of which is the poster child for carnivorous plants—the Venus Flytrap (Dionaea muscipula), which is endemic to the southeastern United States, found in wetlands in North and South Carolina, and are introduced to Florida. This plant is related to the sundews, both being in family Droseraceae. The "snap trap" likely needs very little explanation. There are a series of trigger hairs on the specialised leaf, which when triggered, causes them to shut close around the prey item. In order to avoid closing unnecessarily, such as if a raindrop were to hit a trigger hair, the Venus Flytrap will only close if there are two or more touch stimuli a certain length of time apart. 

From Wikimedia

"Lobster-pot" traps are found in a tropical group of plants, the corkscrew plants (Genlisea, Lentibulariaceae). This trap works much like a lobster pot or a minnow trap. It is easy to get in, but part to get out due to downward facing hairs, which force prey deeper into the trap. 

You may have noticed that Lentibulariaceae was mentioned three times. Quite neat that within one family, which only include the three genera detailed here, all employ different trap styles! 

On a similar note, if we take a step back and look at how these plants are all related to one another, we would likely be quite surprised. You might assume that since these are all carnivores they would be closely related, as we saw with several of the heterotrophs. However, each of the three families mentioned here, Droseraceae, Lentibulariaceae, and Sarraceniaceae all belong to different orders, Caryophyllales, Lamiales, and Ericales respectively. Because of this, carnivorous plants are an excellent example of convergent evolution, which is when distantly related organisms independently evolve similar traits, in this case carnivory, to adapt to similar situations. 

But, why carnivory? We have already established that carnivorous plants are autotrophs—they are able to photosynthesise their own energy. Why would a plant that can produce its own food adapt to be able to digest prey items?  If you were to stand over and observe a carnivorous plant in its natural habitat, the answer would likely lie directly beneath your feet. For many of our carnivorous plants, especially in the Ontario context, they live in very nutrient poor habitats. Take things like the sundews and pitcher plants for examples, which often grow amongst Sphagnum moss in fens and bogs. Sphagnum moss actually lowers the pH of the soil, making it more acidic. Acidic soil tends to be quite nutrient poor. Since there is a lack of nutrients, in particular nitrogen, then these plants had to look elsewhere, and that was to carnivory. By being able to get energy from an additional source, these plants have that much more of an edge in this harsh environment. 

Carnivory is not without a cost, however. By developing these specialised leaves, such as in the sundews and pitchers, the plant will sacrifice some of its photosynthetic ability. A pitcher plant with a pitcher that is roughly vertically inclined (so that it can catch prey) is not photosynthesizing to the same extent that a leaf that is broad and flat, facing the sun, would. Is it worth it? Evolutionarily speaking, it must for for the plant if it continues engage in this behaviour. That being said, a study done on pitcher plants found that each pitcher only has a prey capture efficiency rate of 0.83% - 2.1%, depending on how you wish to calculate it. This is quite low, but an insect once every couple of weeks must be better than trying to live in acidic soil on just your own photosynthetic processes alone!   

Carnivorous plants are certainly some of the oddest members of the plant family, employing a number of different methods of capturing and digesting their prey, as well as being able to survive in some the harshest conditions a plant can live in. Carnivores have a fascinating evolutionary history (which I largely didn't touch on here!), and have long been of interest to naturalists. Even Charles Darwin, considered by many to be the father of evolution (perhaps contested by Wallace), had a strong attraction to these plants, writing in 1860, "I care more about Drosera than the origin of all species in the world". 

While I believe this will conclude (unless I dig up something else) the look at plants that get their nutrients in unique ways, whether through heterotrophy or carnivory, there are still plenty of special things that plants do I wish to cover! Plants do weird things, and I want to talk about them.