I love Algonquin Provincial Park. There is a special place in my heart for the vistas of trees, lakes and rock that extend to the horizon. Whenever I stay in the park, I encounter new creatures and make new observations, or if I encounter familiar organisms, I often appreciate them in a new light.
The first observation of my most recent trip (over the July/August Long Weekend) was a familiar bird creating a familiar knocking sound as it chipped away at the outer bark of a pine tree. The bird was a Hairy Woodpecker (Dryobates villosus), and its hammering into the edge of a tree is common in Norfolk County as well as Algonquin Park.
The other species of Woodpecker I encountered on this trip was not so familiar, and certainly not a species I could encounter in the more southern parts of Ontario. The Black-backed Woodpecker (Picoides arcticus) has a range across the Boreal Forests of North America, and Algonquin Provincial Park is at the southern edge of its range. They are a species tied to the disturbance of fire, as they mainly feed on insects (such as bark beetles and wood-boring beetles) which increase in population in fire-killed stands of trees (Backhouse, 2005). I observed the female and male of this species (likely a mated pair) foraging on the trees surrounding our campsite, and I also observed the male digging into what must have been a stump (the stump was obscured by vegetation, but I could see the yellow spot on the male’s head as he knocked away from ground level). As just mentioned, the male and female can be distinguished based on the presence or absence of a yellow patch on the head (the male has the yellow patch, the female does not). Not only did I see this species foraging but within the campground at Pog Lake there was actually a nest! Like most Woodpeckers (maybe all, but I’ve learned not to make rash generalizations), the Black-backed Woodpecker creates a new nest each year, carving a hole into a tree to house its young. I could hear the young inside the nest cavity, producing almost continuous begging calls for food. I saw the male drop by to drop off food he had collected, and I also got some pictures of the male on nest-guarding duty, sticking his head out of the nest entrance which was not too much higher than eye level.
The Hairy Woodpecker I first spotted was not the only familiar bird encountered within Algonquin Park. Robins (Turdus migratorius) are a common sight throughout the campground, and the screams of Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) frequently break the solemnity of the sky-stretching Pines. Another vocal bird which is quite common in suburban backyards is the Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula). Grackles patrolled through the campground, searching for any scraps of food left out by unwary campers. They may not be everyone’s favourite bird sighting, but I think their metallic blue heads are quite beautiful, and their overall appearance and movements are striking.
Two birds very much associated with Algonquin Park in my mind (even though I’ve also seen both on the Lynn Valley Trail in Norfolk County) are common ascenders and descenders of trees. The Brown Creeper (Certhia americana) often swirls around a tree trunk as it descends and then begins to work its way up in leaps and bounds, plucking insects and spiders from their secluded hiding places. I wonder if the rapid spiralling descent is some sort of signal to other members of its species (I’ve seen Brown Creepers foraging in pairs, or more than two) or if it’s a way to locate potential prey for their way up.
The Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) doesn’t move up and down a tree in the same stereotyped way as the Brown Creeper, and it certainly stands out more from the bark with its attractive white-and-black face, blue back and red breast feathers. Nuthatches are renowned for their ability to walk head-first down a tree rather than up like most other bark-foraging birds (including Woodpeckers, Chickadees and Brown Creepers).
Possibly the most beautiful bird observation in the Pog Lake campground was this Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata). These birds are often migratory through more Southern Ontario, arriving in the coniferous forests of Algonquin in mid-to-late April to breed (Tozer, 2012). According to the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario (Cadman et. al. 1987), they will breed in coniferous or mixed forests across Ontario (though they are more abundant in the more Boreal regions).
Usually Insects are my focus, and part of the reason for that is their abundance, diversity, and accessibility. Because of the rainy and cool weather for most of my visit, there were not as many Arthropods out and about (at least not as noticeable). A few notables made themselves known however. One striking spider was resting on the side of my car.
A Northern Pearly-eye Butterfly (Lethe anthedon) was resting on someone else’s car and I had to snap a picture.
A very impressive Insect sighting in the Pog Lake Campground came on our last day in Algonquin. I found a massive Northeastern Pine Sawyer Beetle (Monochamus notatus). The Sawyer was very cooperatively still on the cool damp morning, allowing me to get some really great closeups. It was also silent, despite being moved to a more convenient location for photos. That may seem like a strange observation to make, but apparently Longhorn Beetles (Family Cerambycidae, of which Monochamus notatus is a part) make a “squeak”, not with their mouth but with parts of their thorax rubbing together (Marshall, 2006).
A few points of interest for this particular Sawyer Beetle. As the image above demonstrates, its antennae were almost as long as the rest of the body which marks it as a female. The males are the ones with the really long antennae, often twice the length of the rest of the body. Here’s a male of the same species to show you what I mean. (photo from wikipedia):
It may be hard to see in my photo above, but these Beetles (including the female I observed) often have invertebrate hitchhikers. From a different angle it’s a bit clearer that my Beetle had a cluster of red Mites on her thorax.
These Mites are presumably hitching a ride to dead/dying trees which the Beetle will be seeking (Monochamus beetle larvae feed inside of dead/dying trees). I’m not sure what the Mites will do once there, as Mites are incredibly diverse and have numerous ecologies and life histories and I don’t know what kind of Mites these are. The other interesting thing to note in my closeup picture above is the eye of the Beetle. Notice how it curves around in a crescent shape around the base of the antennae. Just thought that was sort of a strange arrangement for eyes/antennae. One more closeup shot of this Beetle because it was so cooperative:
As I mentioned above, Insects are often what I notice and focus on. During our trip, I couldn’t help but take note of the wonderful beauty and diversity of some of the plant life in Algonquin Park as well. I suffer from “plant blindness” and I have been trying to rid myself of the condition as much as possible (see my book review of Flora of MiddleEarth for more on this subject). So I will end this post with a plant observation (and there will be more to come as I continue to write up my Algonquin observations). Throughout the Pog Lake Campground, there were some beautiful bright red berries amid ground-level green leaves. I found out that these plants are Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis).
Bunchberry has white flowers which spread pollen via the wind and insects in order to reach other flowers and reproduce (ie. form fertile berries). Amazingly, Bunchberry flowers are equipped with a mechanism to launch their pollen on an insect that triggers them, unfolding their petals at incredible speed to fling pollen onto the insect and up into the air (for possible wind-dispersal of pollen). This truly impressive feat is accomplished in 0.5 milliseconds. To put this into perspective, the Mantis Shrimp has the fastest movement of all Animals, and its record-holding strike lasts 2.7 milliseconds… five times as long as the Bunchberry flower petals take to open (Runtz, 2020). If that doesn’t make you want to pay more attention to plants, I don’t know what will.
Stay tuned… more to come from my trip to Algonquin, including more Birds, more Plants, and more Insects!
Backhouse, Frances. Woodpeckers of North America. 2005.
Cadman, Michael D., Eagles, Paul F. J. and Helleiner, Frederick M., Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario. 1987.
Marshall, Stephen. Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity. 2006.
Runtz, Michael. Wildflowers of Algonquin Provincial Park. 2020.
Tozer, Ron. Birds of Algonquin Park. 2012.
For Other Nature Observations in Algonquin Park, see:
And if you’re interested in seeing more of my photos and learning some facts about the organisms I’ve observed, follow me on Instagram at norfolknaturalist.