Friday, 24 March 2017

Northern trip - boreal woodpeckers, Northern Hawk Owls galore

We were met with another cold and crisp morning, around -25 this time, as I recall, but with only a slight breeze meaning the windchill had trouble getting below -30. Downright balmy!

Todd and Mark left the hotel about half an hour before Jeremy and I, with a plan to meet up at the burn. We came across another Northern Hawk Owl as we backtracked from Longlac towards the burn. Our third of the trip - we couldn't believe our luck...

Northern Hawk Owl - east of Longlac, Thunder Bay District

No other wildlife species delayed us on the drive and by mid-morning the four of us set out on foot to explore the Hearst 4 burn.

Hearst 4 Burn, Cochrane District

The snowpack was a good meter in depth but a warm spell in late February had melted enough of the snow that the surface was hard and crusty, making for easy walking. No snowshoes necessary!

Hearst 4 Burn, Cochrane District

The Hearst 4 burn was active in the summer of 2016 and at its maximum size was approximately 475 hectares. The reason for our interest in exploring the burn was a pair of boreal woodpecker species, the American Three-toed Woodpecker and the Black-backed Woodpecker. These species often congregate in burned areas as recently killed trees attract high densities of bark beetles (Scolytinae) and wood-boring beetles (Cerambycidae and Buprestidae), a favored food source for these woodpeckers.

Woodpecker evidence - Hearst 4 Burn, Cochrane District
Woodpecker evidence - Hearst 4 Burn, Cochrane District

Within minutes of our arrival we had tracked down a Black-backed Woodpecker, flaking the bark off of a spruce. The irregular tapping which can be heard from a surprising distance in calm conditions is one of my favorite sounds of the boreal forest.

Black-backed Woodpecker - Hearst 4 Burn, Cochrane District

It did not take long until I located the first American Three-toed Woodpecker of the trip, a female that was quite approachable as she busily fed. I called the other guys over who soaked in the views of this infrequently seen species. Jeremy in particular was happy to see one as it was one of the few missing boreal species he needed for his Ontario Big Year.

Not far from the first American Three-toed Woodpecker we came across some interesting tracks in the freshly fallen centimeter of snow that lay over the hard-crusted layer below. Mark figured that they belonged to a Fisher, the second largest Mustelid (weasel) species that can be found in Ontario. The largest of course being the Wolverine, a species that very few have seen in the wild in Ontario. Fishers are common in the boreal forest though rarely seen.

Fisher tracks - Hearst 4 Burn, Cochrane District

Our focus returned back to the woodpeckers, a rare opportunity for a bunch of southern Ontario boys. Black-backed Woodpeckers were incredibly abundant and quite confiding at times, though with the bright sunlight and abundance of small twigs and sticks on their favored trees, it was difficult obtaining a clear photo! Even though the weather would have us feeling otherwise, evidently the woodpeckers felt that spring was imminent and territorial drumming and rattling calls provided the soundtrack to the morning.

Black-backed Woodpecker - Hearst 4 Burn, Cochrane District

Black-backed Woodpecker - Hearst 4 Burn, Cochrane District

 One big highlight for me was watching a pair of Black-backed Woodpeckers feeding within sight of each other, only a few meters from where I was standing. Eventually the male called and took to the air to find a new tree, and she was not far behind him. But first she landed on a snag less than one meter from my face, curiously looking me over for well over a minute.

Mark exploring the Hearst 4 burn, Cochrane District

Later in the morning, Mark, Todd and I came across a pair of American Three-toed Woodpeckers feeding low on some trees, providing a great opportunity for us to study and photograph them. Like the Black-backeds, these individuals were incredibly tolerant of our approach; gorging themselves was a bigger priority for them.

American Three-toed Woodpecker - Hearst 4 Burn, Cochrane District
 American Three-toed Woodpeckers, while superficially similar in appearance to Black-backed Woodpecker, actually appear quite different when one has a good look at one. The main difference that everyone cites is the white-marked back on the American Three-toed (can you guess what color back a Black-backed Woodpecker has?). American Three-toed Woodpeckers are also noticeably smaller and squatter, with a slightly shorter bill. I find that they appear more black and white in general, while Black-backed Woodpeckers have a bit more of a blueish sheen to their plumage.

American Three-toed Woodpecker - Hearst 4 Burn, Cochrane District

Mark (left) and Todd (right) watching the American Three-toed Woodpecker - Hearst 4 Burn, Cochrane District

American Three-toed Woodpecker - Hearst 4 Burn, Cochrane District

These next two photos were my favorite of the bunch because of the visible explosions of wood chips.

American Three-toed Woodpecker - Hearst 4 Burn, Cochrane District

American Three-toed Woodpecker - Hearst 4 Burn, Cochrane District

American Three-toed Woodpecker - Hearst 4 Burn, Cochrane District

Soon it was time to leave as we were thoroughly satisfied with our experience at the burn and other sites beckoned. A Boreal Chickadee came by to check us out as we were walking out to the cars, another new bird for our trip.

Not long after leaving the burn, our progress down Highway 11 was halted with the sighting of yet another Northern Hawk Owl, our fourth in 24 hours. This is a species that I never tire of!

Northern Hawk Owl - west of Hearst, Cochrane District

This bird was actively hunting while we watched. I was fortunate to have my camera ready when it locked in on a target and dropped from the peak of the spruce.

Northern Hawk Owl - west of Hearst, Cochrane District

Northern Hawk Owl - west of Hearst, Cochrane District

Eventually the Northern Hawk Owl flew a few dozen meters into the treeline, alighting on a branch deep in the forest. I have always associated this species with perching on conspicuous locations such as at the top of a spruce or on a utility post. It seemed a little foreign to observe one acting like a Barred Owl.

Northern Hawk Owl - west of Hearst, Cochrane District

Northern Hawk Owl - west of Hearst, Cochrane District

Northern Hawk Owl - west of Hearst, Cochrane District

The owl paid us no mind and went about its business, listening and acutely aware of the slightest scurryings on the forest floor. It flew directly over our heads on occasion to switch perches. Jeremy and I were just blown away by this bird.

Northern Hawk Owl - west of Hearst, Cochrane District

We continued driving east, birding along the way. We were hoping for Great Gray Owls but it was not to be, despite checking some good looking fields in the area. This Northern Shrike near Mattice was great to watch, however.

Northern Shrike - Mattice, Cochrane District

Yet another Northern Hawk Owl made an appearance, though this was one of the repeat birds from the previous day.

Northern Hawk Owl - west of Opasatika, Cochrane District

The rest of the day was relatively slow - mostly we were just trying to put kilometers behind us on Highway 11. We spent an hour around dusk north of Cochrane checking some fields, though some Ruffed Grouse were some of the only birds we noticed. Instead of staying the night in Cochrane we decided to keep driving, pulling into New Liskeard several hours later to share a hotel room with Mark and Todd.

The following day Jeremy and I finished the drive home, skipping out on birding in Algonquin so that we could beat rush hour traffic in Toronto. Let's be honest, after all of the excitement of Northern Hawk Owls, boreal woodpeckers, and all the other highlights of the trip, the prospect of a couple of hours along Highway 60 in Algonquin just did not have the same appeal.

It was a great trip with three great guys - thanks to Jeremy, Todd and Mark for joining me. I can't wait til my next trip to the boreal forest.

From left to right: Jeremy, Josh, Mark, and Todd - Opasatika, Cochrane District (photo taken by Jeremy Bensette's camera)

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