Sunday, 22 April 2012

Algonquin Bound Part 2: Quest for the Missing Boreals

As I write this blog on April 22, it's my sister Sonya's birthday,(insert reminder to say happy birthday to sister), Spring is here, migration is gearing up and I am back from the first of perhaps half a dozen organized Birding trips for me and Sue this spring.  This one was up to Algonquin Park for the Ontario Field Ornithologists outing, led by Ron Tozer, who's OntBirds updates brought me up to Algonquin earlier in the year.  My goals for the day were simple: Spruce Grouse, Ruff Grouse, Purple Finch, Pine Grosbeak and Boreal Chickadee, all of which I missed the fist time.  Anything else would be a bonus.

It was also the first real organized group birding trip I had had ever gone on, and I didn't really know what to expect in a large group of birders, all congregating around one bird.  I had previously been with a group of birders, but that was by accident years ago when I was walking on a nature trail in Florida and, when it started to rain, was all but kidnapped by the group and shuttled me from place to place on their "party bus."  Say what you want about conservative, fussy, boring birders, but this bus had a stripper pole, though it was not being used for anything more than support when the bus went over a bump or rut in the road.

What we encountered in Algonquin, on this blustery, snowy, chilly, grey day, was a group of about 55 exuberant men and women, of every conceivable age and description.  No way to pinpoint the typical birder.  Some wore floppy hats, some wore what looked more like fishing gear, some were bundled against the cold, with warm hats and gloves or mittens.  I had on several layers, including pyjama bottoms as a substitute for long-johns.  Along with my LL Bean Snow Sneakers I was quite comfortable most of the day.

Ron Tozer is a funny, smart, guide who knows that a leader leads, and lays down the ground rules before we even started.  One such rule had to do with playing tapes,(he still does use a tape player), or iPhone bird calls.  He started by telling us this wasn't up for debate, he's not asking for feedback, in fact look at his as more of a sermon: "I am gong to be playing calls occasionally to bring the birds in.  I know there are some out there that are against it," he said, but went on to say that there is no evidence to show playing calls in controlled settings has any negative affect on the birds whatsoever.  So take that, anti-pishers!  He did say that there are places so crowded that if 20 people are playing bird calls it does become a distraction,  probably more for the other birders than the birds, I suppose.

After the "sermon" Ron got us going and kept us in order and focused on the birds we were after.  Mostly boreal species, plus anything else that might have turned up.  He, along with his helper Justin, kept us moving and amused, and after a slow start at Spruce Bog, had us finding birds everywhere.  Of course, Spruce Grouse was on the menu at Spruce Bog, but after half an hour of searching, we were off in our cars and heading for a second location.  Second time I've been to Spruce Bog without finding a Spruce Grouse.

But sometimes you find one of the things you've looking for after you've started looking for something else.  In this case, we had headed out to find a Black-backed Woodpecker and perhaps a Boreal Chickadee.  We stopped along the Opeongo Road I had been to earlier in the year,(when I vowed to get these very same warmer shoes I was now wearing).  It's a good place for Boreal Chickadees and Grey Jays.  There was a lot of searching and it took a while, but we finally found one Grey Jay.  I was up the road when the call came.  Suddenly 55 grown men and women turned into kids in a candy store, racing to see the bird.  This would happen over and over again during they day.  It was fun.  It was right out of the movie The Big Year.  For all you Birders out there that were offended by the portrayal of Birders in the movie, it's mostly true.  I may only have been at this a little over 3 months, but I've seen everything,(and more), that they showed in the movie, while out in the real life Birding World.  And I am not ashamed to admit I am one of them.

Sue's biggest gripe about group bird outings is when someone sees a bird and says, "It's in the tree," as they look toward a forest full of them.  I didn't rush to the front of the group, as I  had seen the Grey Jays on my previous trip to Algonquin, but was still interested in looking again, only I couldn't find it.  I slid up next to Sue, who pointed to a narrow tree where everyone was looking.  Still no bird.  Was I a victim of "it's in the tree?" Nope.  I was a victim of looking in the wrong tree.  I do need to work on my finger following skills.

We did not get the Boreal Chickadee or the Black-backed Woodpecker, so we were back in the cars and searching again.  It was like a caravan or a not so somber funeral procession.  As long as you kept an eye on the car in front,(the car in front of us had a bumber sticker that read "Magic Happens."  I agree), it was hard to get lost.  There is a scene in The Big Year when on Attu, in Alaska, a call goes out for a particularly rare bird.  And they are all running back and forth, changing directions as the bird keeps shifting locations.  It's funny.  It's true.  Calls would go out for one bird and then another would be sited and everyone would run.  We were not having much luck with the Black-backed and were heading to our cars when someone spotted the Spruce Grouse.  We all ran.  We jockeyed for position.  It was in the woods. It was on the ground.  No, it's on a a tree.  It's dropped down.  Ron tromped in to try and get the bird to move closer to the crazed Birders by the road.  One guy had been searching 25 years for his Life Spruce Grouse.

Finally it did come out close enough to see.  Up and down it went.  It was here, it was there.  It seemed to be everywhere.  Except in the lens of my camera.  I did finally get a good look at it on a branch, but by the time I had my look through the binoculars it was gone again.  Justin even used his laser pointer to guide people to the exact spot.  The older gentleman finally had his bird.  Was that a tear in his eye?  I let him in front to get a photo.  All we got is a shot of it's wing Sue managed to snap as it flew into the woods and was gone for good this time.

We weren't done yet.  As we were heading back to the cars to drive to the Visitor's Centre for lunch, I thought I heard a Boreal Chickadee.  But I figured it was just someone playing a call to get it out in the open.  However, just as I had started the engine, the call came that the Boreal Chickadee had not only been heard, but spotted.  We all ran.  It was great.  It was also getting quite cold and windy.  And snow was blowing too.

And there it was.  The little guy was flying across the road, back and forth between two trees.  I got another good look through my binoculars, but he was too flitty and too high in the tree for a good photo.  But I got an adequate shot, before we finally headed to the Visitors Centre for lunch and a nice selection of birds at the feeders.  Just no Purple Finches, and the Pine Grosbeaks head left for the season.

The next stop after lunch was for a Pine Warbler and perhaps some ducks and other assorted waterfowl, in Mew Lake campground, where I had once before searched, in the dead of winter, for the Spruce Grouse.  We walked to the water and did not see much in the way of waterfowl, but as we were heading back into the woods, Justin heard the Pine Warbler and it wasn't long before 55 sets of eyes had found it in one tree, before it flew into another tree and held still long enough for me to get at least one photo of a Year Bird on this trip.  Not the best, but what can you do?

Next it was off to the old air field, a one time emergency landing strip in the middle of the park, where we intended to flush some sparrows.  Now flushing sparrows is something I have had experience with back in Florida when I got the LeConte's to come out for a photo.  I got my best flushing mojo going as the group trudged through the short grass, and did succeed in flushing a Song Sparrow and an Eastern Meadowlark, but no LeConte's.

It was getting near the end of the day and Ron decided to give the Black-backed Woodpecker one more chance to make an appearance for the group.  Last year his big miss was the Spruce Grouse, and I am sure he didn't want to let anyone leave without the boreal woodpecker they had come for.  I, myself, had seen it my first time in the park, and actually did see it in a dead tree today, as did a few other lucky folks on this trip, as we drove down to look for Grey Jays.  I slowed and tried to have Sue get a look at it, but she was too close on the passenger side window and couldn't get her head at the correct and possibly whiplash inducing angle it would have taken to see it.

We all walked the length of the road down the river and back and though the sun made an appearance, finally, the Black-backed Woodpecker did not.  When we returned to the cars, one of the women, who had also seen the woodpecker earlier, was just coming out of the woods, reporting that she had seen an American Woodcock.  Had flushed it out.  I, for one, was excited about the news, as I love flushing.

Before I could head into the bush one last time, Ron gathered us in a group and thanked everyone for coming out to Algonquin and made us all feel like we contributed to all the birds seen that day.  We clapped, thanked Ron and everyone went on their merry way.  Except for me and Sue.  I convinced her to stay 5 or 10 more minutes to see if we could flush the Woodcock too.  We tramped around in the underbrush for  a while, Sue hanging back while I did the dirty work, and low and behold, I flushed another bird.  The Woodcock must have been almost under my feet when it when it flew up in front of my face and into a tree about 10 feet away, where it vanished once again, blending in with the forest until the next intrepid birder comes along.  Sue got a good look at it too, so I didn't feel bad about dragging her into the woods.

Before heading home, we tried for some Rusty Blackbirds that had been seen roadside, as we were flushing the Woodcock, but they had left by the time we returned from a washroom break at the West Entrance.  Still and all, it was an altogether  great day.  We met lots of nice people, I got to put a face to Ron Tozer, and Sue reunited with nice woman she had met on previous bird trips.  Sue added about 10 new birds to her Year list and I added 4: Spruce Grouse, Boreal Chickadee, Pine Warbler and American Woodcock, giving me 72 birds for March and pushing my Big Year Total to 310.

I enjoyed the group birding, more than I though I would, as I do love just going out on my own, or sometimes having a guide with me, or even running into a fellow birder and working the birds together.

There are lots more of these outings coming up and I am sure there will be more bird flushing in my near future.  And frankly, I can hardly wait.

The Grackles are getting quite iridescent compared to their winter coat:

As close as I could get to photographing the Spruce Grouse.  At least I saw it quite nicely through my binoculars:

A much closer look at a Northern Flicker than I had in Florida:

And finally, the Pine Warbler from his underbelly:

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