For an Introduction to this series (my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020) go here.
The Story Behind the Shot: I’ve only visited Algonquin Park in the Winter twice. On this occasion, in March 2017, I was actually searching for this particular bird (one of the rare times that I have a target species in mind, I’ll be recounting another one for my next photo). The Canada Jay had only recently been rebranded as such, the common name used to be the Gray Jay and some people still refer to it as such (after all, common names can sort of be whatever you want them to be). Part of the name-change or name-shift was to do with a campaign by the Canadian Geographic Society to name the Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis) as Canada’s National Bird. For more information about this story, see the Canadian Geographic article here: https://www.canadiangeographic.ca/article/meet-our-national-bird-gray-jay. Having read up on this story I wanted to encounter this emblem of our country and was able to catch a glimpse of it in the parking lot of the Spruce Bog trail in Algonquin Park.
The Story Behind the Species: The Canada Jay is a permanent resident of cold northern forests across North America (Cadman et. al. 1987). Algonquin Park is at the southern edge of their range in Ontario (Tozer 2012). Canada Jays are able to live and breed in their northern habitats because of their food-storing abilities. They are highly adaptable birds, feeding on a wide variety of food, obtained in a wide variety of ways. The Cornell All About Birds website sums it up like this: they will “snap up flying insects in the air, wade in shallow water to capture invertebrates and amphibians, kill small mammals, raid the nests of other birds” (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Canada_Jay/lifehistory). The food they gather in the summer is cached throughout their territories in preparation for the long winter. This food store allows them to start nesting as early as the end of February in Algonquin Park (Tozer 2012). They prefer to nest in spruce forests, and there is some evidence to suggest that the antibacterial properties of some conifers actually work to preserve the food the jays store in them (Tozer 2012).
Amazingly adaptable, clever and curious birds. I certainly support its status as unofficial National Bird of Canada.
Cadman, M. D., Eagles, P. F. J., and Helleiner, F. M. 1987. Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario.
Tozer, Ron. 2012. Birds of Algonquin Park.
For the previous articles in my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020 series, see:
For an Introduction to this series (my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020) go here.
The Story Behind the Shot: For several summers, I have stayed in Algonquin Provincial Park for a week, camping in Pog Lake Campground and exploring various trails and locations along the Highway 60 corridor, attempting to photograph interesting creatures that I encountered. One of the most quintessential Algonquin animals is the Moose, and I didn’t spot one on this trip until we were on our way out of the park, driving down the highway early in the morning. This family group of Moose (a mother and two calves) was an amazing treat to watch as they continued to browse some foliage and walk through the clearing adjacent to the road.
The Story Behind the Species: Moose are large mammals, the largest land mammal that one can encounter in Eastern North America. As such, they have been the subject of plenty of research and interest. For this post I want to focus on their reproductive cycle since the photo I captured features a mother and her two calves. Calves are born in May, after 7 months of growth within the mother. Pregnant Moose will often seek out islands in lakes as the location to give birth as it provides some protection from roaming bears or wolves (Strickland and Rutter 2018). You may be wondering how a mother moose can reach an island that a bear or wolf won’t frequent. Moose are actually quite excellent swimmers, they can feed on underwater plants, can swim to depths of 5.5 m and stay under for more than 30 seconds (Naughton 2012). The two young in my photo are likely twins since they appear to be the same size. Apparently, “twins are not uncommon under good conditions” (Naughton 2012). The young stay with their mother for a full year before they disperse (Strickland and Rutter 2018).
A fascinating animal and one I’m sure I will return to explore further on my blog in the future.
Naughton, Donna. 2012. The Natural History of Canadian Mammals.
Strickland, Dan and Rutter, Russell. 2018. Mammals of Algonquin Provincial Park.
For the previous articles in my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020 series, see:
The temperature was up, the sun was out, and with it the invertebrates were active and visible. I arrived at the Spruce Bog Boardwalk Trail with my macro lens equipped, and I used it quite extensively.
At the beginning and near the end of the trail, I took pictures of Hooded-Owlets (Cuculia), which are not baby owls with their faces obscured, but instead the name for a genus of moths (these moths have some crazy names. One of the species I observed is similar to a moth that goes by the common name “Asteroid Moth”… I have no idea why…). The first was a brightly striped caterpillar of the Brown Hooded-owlet (Cuculia convexipennis).
Near the end of the trail I found another Hooded-Owlet, and I’m not so sure on the identification for this one, but it was much less colourful than the first.
Landing briefly on a flower was a Tachinid Fly in the Genus Phasia. Tachinids are fascinating Flies and incredibly diverse. This is what Stephen Marshall has to say about them in his incredible book about Flies: “The Tachinidae is in many ways the ultimate fly family. With almost 10 000 named species and thousands more awaiting description, this ubiquitous group… exhibits an unparalleled variety of sizes, shapes and colors. The range of life history strategies is equally amazing, at least within the constraint that every known species in the group is a parasitoid that develops inside another insect… or related arthropod.” (from Marshall 2012, p 386). Phasia tachinids are parasitoids of True Bugs in the families Pentatomidae and Pyrrhocoridae (Marshall 2012).
Another flower was visited by a wasp of the Ectemnius genus. These wasps are part of a group of wasps called the “Square-headed wasps” (Subfamiily Crabroninae) and I think you can see that characterization borne out here. I certainly noticed its huge head right away while taking the pictures. Members of the genus Ectemnius hunt mostly adult Flies (Diptera) which they store in their nests for their larvae to feed on. Some species of Ectemnius wasps nest in soil, while others nest in rotten wood (O’Neill 2001).
Visiting flowers for nectar is a common activity for many groups of flying insects. This fact has been exploited by predators, and I spotted one of these on a flower nearby: a Jagged Ambush Bug (Phymata) lying in wait with raptorial (that is, grasping) front legs at the ready to nab unwary pollinators.
I spotted some mating grasshoppers on a leaf, which were otherwise engaged and allowed me to take some decent photos. If you know something about Orthopterans (members of the Order Orthoptera, which includes Katydids, Grasshoppers, and Crickets) you might know that unlike butterflies and moths (Order Lepidoptera) and many other insect groups which have very distinct larval forms, young stages of grasshoppers appear the same as adults except for the absence of wings. This photo might be confusing then… since these grasshoppers are clearly mating (a strictly adult activity) and they clearly don’t have wings (a characteristic of larvae). The problem is solved when you find out that the species is called the Wingless Mountain Grasshopper (Booneacris glacialis). Although possessing wings as adults is a characteristic of all major insect groups, there are members of all groups which have later (as in evolutionarily later) lost the wings.
Within the sparse woods of the Black Spruce Trees, I found a caterpillar of the Datana genus. These caterpillars stick together in their younger stages, and separate when they are in their final larval stage before adulthood (Marshall 2006).
Growing out of the side of the railing on this part of the boardwalk trail was the beautiful branching form of a Beard Lichen (Usnea). Lichens are truly the Corals of the terrestrial realm: they have similar appearances and colours (some are green, brown, orange etc), but they also consist of a partnership* between two very different forms of life. Corals consist of an animal and algae living together and Lichens consist of fungi and algae.
*this is of course a very simple way of describing the relationship between a lichen fungus and a lichen alga. In fact, there can be many variations on the degree of partnership, with many relationships resembling parasitism rather than traditional ‘symbiosis’.
Once past the railing I came upon the wildflower meadow, which housed an appropriate medley of visiting Insects. Hymenoptera were present in abundance. A Yellow-Banded Bumble Bee (Bombus terricola) busily moved from flower to flower, thrumming through the air. Bumblebees amaze me, and they almost seem like they shouldn’t be able to fly with their stout fuzzy bodies but they fly quite well enough for their purposes.
A brief appearance by a member of the Sand Wasps (Bembicidae) was an exciting find (have to continue the Sand Wasp series some time, I’ve only done the Introduction and one tribe!). The Sand Wasp I observed in Algonquin is possibly a member of the genus Gorytes. Species in this genus fill their nests with True Bugs, mostly Hoppers (members of the families Cercopidae, Cidadellidae, and Membracidae) (Evans and O’Neill 2007).
The Spider Wasp Episyron was a very distinct Hymenopteran. Although it sort of has a squat appearance somewhat reminiscent of Spiders, the name “Spider Wasp” comes from the fact that these wasps (members of the Family Pompilidae) hunt Spiders which they feed to their young. Species in the genus Episyron hunt specifically Orb-weaver Spiders (Araneidae) (O’Neill 2001).
Flower Flies (Syrphidae) were of course frequently seen visiting the flowers. Frustratingly, a new one to me was elusive enough that I didn’t manage to get a very good picture of it. This was the largest Flower Fly I’ve ever seen (though not large in most terms, probably about honeybee size) a member of the Genus Sphaerophoria.
Not as common, and certainly not as associated with flowers were a couple of Beetle species I observed visiting the flowers. One was a click beetle (Elateridae), possibly of the genus Dalopius. Apparently click beetles aren’t usually desirable flower visitors as they are often feeding on the flowers and pollen themselves (as opposed to the nectar), and don’t contribute to pollination very often (Willmer 2011). Dalopius feeds on other Insects, so perhaps it’s hunting among the flowers for prey, and/or snacking on pollen in the meantime (Marshall 2006).
By contrast, the other flower-visiting beetle that I observed was part of the Family Cerambycidae (the longhorn beetles), which is a group that includes important and frequent pollinators (Willmer 2011). The Red-shouldered Pine Borer (Stictoleptura canadensis) is part of the aptly named subfamily Lepturinae (the flower longhorns) within Cerambycidae.
One wildflower that caught my attention as I was continuing down the trail was a small purple flower with strangely square-shaped petals. The flower was a Common Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris). As you can guess from the common name, this flower was used in the past to cure many different illnesses, particularly of the mouth and throat because of the flower’s resemblance to a yawning mouth (Wernert 1982)… because that’s how things were supposed to work…
Leaving behind the multitude of flowers and insects of the wildflower meadow area, I was arrested by the sight of a peculiar tiny insect: a Barklouse (Order Psocoptera). As Marshall writes in his excellent overview of Insects “One doesn’t hear much about barklice.” (Marshall 2006). Indeed, though this individual is beautifully patterned and distinctive (I believe it’s Metylophorus novaescotiae) I can find little information about this creature. If my identification is correct, I can say that this species lives on shrub and tree branches (Mockford 1993), and presumably feeds on lichen there. Most members of the Order Psocoptera produce silk out of their mouths (specifically, labial glands), and some use this to cover their eggs, while others use the silk to construct shelters for themselves or others (!). There’s a tropical group called the Archipsocidae which can create silken shelters that “enshroud entire trees”, and in which there is some form of sociality (Costa 2006). I would love to learn more about these amazing insects.
The final observation of my hike forced me to switch back to my telephoto lens. I actually thought for a second I was seeing a bird zooming back and forth above the path because of the size of the animal, but it was in fact an insect, and more specifically a Variable Darner Dragonfly (Aeshna interrupta). These Dragonflies are among the more acid-tolerant of Ontario Odonates so it makes sense that this individual could have developed as a larva within the acidic waters of the Spruce Bog (Pollard and Berrill, 1992). This amazing dragonfly (possibly about 15 cm long) was my last observation on the Spruce Bog trail and an excellent contrast to the diminutive (less than a cm long) barklouse, demonstrating once again the incredible diversity of the Insects.
Costa, James. 2006. The Other Insect Societies.
Evans, Howard and O’Neill, Kevin. 2007. The Sand Wasps: Natural History and Behavior.
Marshall, Stephen. 2012. Flies: The Natural History and Diversity of Diptera.
Marshall, Stephen. 2006. Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity.
O’Neill, Kevin. 2001. Solitary Wasps: Behavior and Natural History.
Pollard, J. B., and Berrill, M. 1992. The distribution of dragonfly nymphs across a pH gradient in south-central Ontario lakes. Canadian Journal of Zoologyhttps://doi.org/10.1139/z92-125
Wernert, Susan. 1982. Reader’s Digest North American Wildlife.
Willmer, Pat. 2011. Pollination and Floral Ecology.
And with that, I have finally completed my five-part journey through my 2021 Algonquin Observations series. What’s next for the Norfolk Naturalist? More nature observations, this time in Norfolk County itself (a fungi-spotting hike in Backus Woods with the Norfolk Field Naturalists), and a Podcast Review. Also, I attended Tetzoomcon 2021 this past weekend and it was awesome! A detailed post about the event will follow hopefully soon…
The Spruce Bog Boardwalk is a trail that runs through (and also, over) the fascinating ecosystem of a northern bog. Bog “soil” is composed of decaying plant matter known as peat, and this substrate is extremely acidic, allowing only certain types of plants to grow within these wetlands. The ones that do are hardy species and the most conspicuous is the only species of tree to thrive here: the Black Spruce (Picea mariana). Black Spruce are scraggly trees, but they are trees which live in such a difficult environment that they are truly impressive.
Certain portions of the Spruce Bog trail feature beautiful wildflowers and insects, but on this occasion I rushed through the trail for personal reasons*, only stopping to snap a picture near the very end of the trail. The bird I photographed is related to the Eastern Kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus) that I saw perched near the Opeongo Lake Road, it was an Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe).
*essentially it had to do with a small tired person accompanying me
Eastern Phoebes are part of the Tyrannidae Family of birds and if you’re thinking that sounds like a Family of Dinosaurs then I’d like to mention briefly that you would be 100% correct. Tyrannidae is a Family of Dinosaurs, because ALL Birds are Dinosaurs that have survived the mass extinction of other branches of the Dinosaur family tree (including the branch called Tyrannosauridae, ie Tyrannosaurus and kin, which is the one you were probably thinking of). Tyrannidae (the Tyrant Flycatchers) is not especially close to the Tyrannosauridae (the Tyrant Dinosaurs) of course, but they are both included within Dinosauria.
Anyway, another extant (as opposed to extinct) Dinosaur species that I observed was on the Logging Museum Trail, floating swiftly between Water lilies: the Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus). The photographed individual (a female, I believe) isn’t raising its headfeathers into a crest, which is where it’s name of “hooded” merganser comes from. These ducks nest in tree cavities (so not just Wood Ducks do this… huh…) using old Woodpecker nest cavities most of the time (Tozer 2012).
Two wildflower species caught my eye on the same trail that day. One was a relative of the Steeplebush (Spiraea tomentosa) (see Peck Lake observations), being part of the same Genus Spiraea. White Meadowsweet (Spiraea alba) is more popular with Butterflies than the Steeplebush, as it produces more nectar than the former (Runtz 2020).
The other wildflower was Virgin’s-Bower (Clematis virginiana) and it was being attended to by Blackjacket Wasps (Vespula consobrina).
Let the Blackjacket Wasps serve as a teaser for the final chapter of my Algonquin observations: Spruce Bog: the Reckoning, in which I return to the Spruce Bog trail and take a very long time to walk it, Macro Lens equipped! Move over Birds and Flowers (well, there will be some flowers)! It’s finally time for the Insects to take their usual place in the spotlight of my camera!
Morning in Algonquin Park is a wonderful thing. Monday August 2 was cool and the air was filled with heavy mist that blurred the edges of the tall Red Pines of the Pog Lake Campground as I set out for an early morning hike in the hopes of some interesting sightings.
I had decided to head to the Peck Lake Trail, because as the name implies, it circles a Lake and I thought it might afford some nice views in the morning mist, and some rare creatures to photograph. The first Bird I photographed on the trail was one I had never seen before (or at least never captured with my camera): the Blue-headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius).
As I came upon an opening in the woods I was rewarded with an excellent view of the misty lake in the morning, with its signature Algonquin Park inhabitant: the Common Loon (Gavia immer). No matter how many times I hear that undulating call or see this distinctive bird dive beneath a lake to reappear surprisingly far away, I will be amazed. In Ancient Life of the Great Lakes Basin it’s mentioned that Loons are an ancient group of birds with fossils being found in the Cretaceous Period, contemporary with non-avian Dinosaurs. “One gets goose bumps imagining the characteristic tremulo calls and haunting wails of the loon song echoing over the lakes and swamps of the Cretaceous over 60 million years ago.” (Holman, 1995). We will likely never know if these ancient members of the Loon lineage (Gaviiformes) had similar calls, but the image is certainly a beautiful one.
While admiring the majesty of the Loon on the lake, I was distracted by a series of strange noises from above me in a tree. The noises were certainly a bird, but I had no idea what sort until the bird took off and flew away with heavy wingbeats. The bird in question was a Common Raven (Corvus corax) and they’re renowned for being diverse vocalists. One of the vocalizations they don’t make is a “caw”ing sound, unlike their relatives and the species often confused with them: the Common Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos). The power and size of a Raven impress me every time I see them, enhanced always by my readings of Bernd Heinrich who has devoted much time and energy into exploring these magnificent birds’ ecology and behaviour (see Mind of the Raven, Ravens in Winter, and most Bernd Heinrich books mention Ravens at one point or another).
As I continued down the trail, I was once again startled by the movements of a rather large Bird except that this time the Bird was on the ground, directly in front of me on the trail rather than flying away across the treeline. I am quite disappointed by how my pictures of this bird turned out, and I’ll blame the bird’s constant movement and the poor lighting conditions of a shaded woodland in the early hours of the morning for their poor quality. The Bird was a Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus), one of two Grouse species found in Algonquin Park.
Back to the trees, I spotted another Bird, one I had already photographed during my trip here, though this particular individual looked rather different. It was a Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata), though the pattern is quite obscured on this individual. I believe it’s either a Juvenile or a Female since it doesn’t carry the distinctive colours and patterns of the mature males (see my photos of a Male in the first part of my Algonquin Observations series).
Along the edges of the lake, there were some beautiful flowers growing so I decided to take some pictures of them as well. The plants were Steeplebush (Spiraea tomentosa) which prefer to grow in wet areas. Their flowers are attractive to Beetles and Bees, and not as attractive to Butterflies because they contain little nectar, but have masses of heavy pollen (Runtz, 2020). On this chilly morning, neither Insect group was out and about.
A part of the trail crosses a marshy area via boardwalk. I crept across this boardwalk, listening closely for the movements of animals, hoping to hear the movement of an elusive mammal or bird. Instead, by listening so carefully I was startled several times by creatures to either side of the boardwalk, making their swift escapes known with a loud squeak. The creatures were Frogs, likely all of them part of the American Water Frog genus Lithobates (which includes the Green Frog (L. clamitans), the American Bullfrog (L. catesbeianus), and the Mink Frog (L. septentrionalis), as well as many others, but these three are the most common that I’ve encountered in Algonquin). The only one that sat still enough for a picture was the one below, which I believe is a Green Frog because you can just maybe make out a ridge of skin (called the dorsolateral fold) which runs from its eye down part of its back (Harding and Mifsud, 2017). This feature distinguishes it from the similar-looking Bullfrog.
The final observations on the trail were several Spider webs caught beautifully in the early morning light. I recently read a passage in the book Spider Communication which gave me a new appreciation for Spider Webs. “Many spiders have compensated for the absence of a suitable substrate over which a vibratory signal can be conducted…by extending the perceptual range of the legs with a silken structure…Suddenly the radiating shape of the web takes on a new meaning for the observer: the web extends the perceptual range of the sense of vibration from about 15 mm to more than 500 mm” (Witt, 1982). Not only do they act as prey-catching snares, but they are sensory extensions of the Spider, extending their senses beyond the limitations of their small bodies. Fascinating, beautiful constructions.
Yet MORE Algonquin Observations to come! More Birds, More Wildflowers, and eventually the Invertebrates will have their usual spotlight!
Harding, James H. and Mifsud, David A. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region: Revised Edition. 2017.
Holman, J. Alan. Ancient Life of the Great Lakes Basin. 1995.
Runtz, Michael. Wildflowers of Algonquin Provincial Park. 2020.
Witt, Peter N. 1982. In Witt, Peter N. and Rovner, Jerome S. (eds) Spider Communication: Mechanisms and Ecological Significance. 1982.
During our stay at Algonquin Park, I made a few trips down Opeongo Lake Road watching for wildlife. It’s a good place to see some of the rare creatures of Algonquin Park, as it forces you to go slow and there are wetlands and woodlands on either side of the road, ending in a lake. My sightings along this road were good even if I didn’t see any of the target species: Moose (Alces alces).
One of the most common species sighted on the trip were Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias). It seemed as though these tall predatory birds were stalking every waterway, and I guess they might have been. Herons’ sinuous and powerful necks and the way they creep around slowly so as not to disturb their prey never ceases to catch my attention.
Another common bird spotted in the water was the American Black Duck (Anas rubripes). Two years ago, I had a few of these Ducks visiting my campsite, searching for handouts and I assumed then that they were female or juvenile male Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos). When I posted my pictures from October 2019 on iNaturalist, the ducks were instead identified as American Black Ducks. They really do look like female Mallards superficially, the main difference being that female Mallards are “paler and sandier” and the bill is orange/black in the Mallard, whereas the American Black Duck has a greenish bill (Bull and Farrand, 1994). Because of changes in land practices and overhunting in the past, as well as hybridization with Mallards, the American Black Duck is rarer than it used to be. Within Algonquin Park however, the American Black Duck is one of the most common Ducks (Tozer, 2012).
The other Duck (member of the Family Anatidae) spotted occasionally was the Wood Duck (Aix sponsa). Wood Ducks are remarkable (to me, at least) for nesting within tree-holes, something that seems strange for a Duck to be doing. I photographed a female Wood Duck leading a group of young across the marsh. Interestingly, the adult has something in its bill, I believe it’s the flower of a lily (Nymphaea).
One of the only Mammals* spotted on my trip was the animal responsible for creating some of the wetlands I observed: the Canadian Beaver (Castor canadensis). These giant Rodents (second in size among Rodents only to the Capybara of South America) engineer their surroundings, turning rivers into ponds where they create lodges. Beavers do not eat fish, unlike their smaller lookalikes, the Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus).
*(the only other Mammals were the ubiquitous Red Squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) and Chipmunks (Tamias striatus))
Perched high in the trees or on wires was a Bird which I always confuse with Swallows (Hirundinidae): the Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus). This bird also has one of the best Scientific names ever, which is apparently because of its aggressiveness in defending its nest or territory, but also the “Kingbird” is because it has a crown of yellow (or sometimes red) feathers that is only displayed when its head feathers are parted in aggressive displays, which I have never seen (Cornell Lab of Ornithology website). This aggression in defending its nest extends to such formidable foes as crows, ravens, and hawks (Tozer, 2012)!
The rarest sighting on the Opeongo Lake Road tours was a group of foraging Snipes, specifically Wilson’s Snipe (Gallinago delicata). I didn’t get amazing pictures, because they were far away and they were really difficult to keep track of. I love the way these birds move, so I also attempted to take a video of them, which isn’t great but it demonstrates the way they start and stop, dipping their long beaks into the marsh to probe for invertebrates.
More to come from my Algonquin Observations series!
Bull, John and Farrand, John Jr. National Audubon Society Field Guide to Birds of North America: Eastern Region. 1994.
Tozer, Ron. Birds of Algonquin Park. 2012.
For Other Nature Observations in Algonquin Park, see:
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: