Thursday, 5 April 2012

Grouse, Owls, and Woodpeckers in the north

The alternate title to this post is "Cocks, Hooters, and Peckers in the north".

On Tuesday, I finally finished my final project for Evolutionary Ecology and I was excited to hit the road and head north. As I mentioned previously, there were a few species that I needed to knock off the list - species that I had hoped to see before spring migration really heated up. Those species were Boreal Owl, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Sharp-tailed Grouse, and Spruce Grouse. If I could get these ones under my belt, the only northern birds I would need would be James Bay birds or Rainy River birds.

At about 9:30 I was on my way, headed straight for Algonquin Provincial Park. Spruce Grouse, though ranging throughout much of Ontario, can be notoriously hard to find, except in Algonquin at April! I was hoping to see a displaying male - something that I've never seen before.

I arrived at 1:00 AM and fell asleep to the sounds of Northern Saw-whet Owls hooting to each other. It was great to be back in the "north"! First thing in the morning, after unsuccessfully looking for the chickens along Opeongo Road, I went to the most accessible, reliable spot in the park - Spruce Bog. I was actually surprised when I noticed a male Spruce Grouse, in full display, standing at the side of the trail! The little guy was all puffed out, black neck feathers, red crest and all, with his tail sticking up right behind him. I was wondering where his lady friend was - he was probably wondering the same thing. At this point I realized I should get some photos, so I fumbled with my camera instead. This is all I could manage as he sauntered into the forest, realizing I wasn't a suitable mate choice. Maybe there are more lady-chickens in that direction. Best of luck, little guy!

Spruce Grouse - Algonquin Provincial Park

I spent the rest of the day doing not a whole lot other than driving, and I eventually made it to Marathon around 10:45 PM. Along the way I spent a few hours searching for Sharp-tailed Grouse east of Sault Ste. Marie to no avail. They are common in Rainy River District (where I will be going later in the spring), but I had never seen them and wanted to at least try here. At one point I took a break and went for a run down a side-road to stretch my legs. I noticed a flash out of the corner of my eye and watched a small, streaky, orangey sparrow flush into some bushes! Without my bins, it sure looked like a Le Conte's, but I wasn't sure and it was hard to get a clear, unobstructed view of it. By the time I had retrieved my optics, the thing was nowhere in site! That's how it goes, sometimes...Le Conte's breed in the area, but they normally don't show up until very late in April. I did see what looked like a Western Red-tailed Hawk soaring by in the area - definitely a highlight! It basically looked like a normal red-tail but completely black (still sporting the red tail though).

Welcome to Marathon (it was 16 cents cheaper in town, though)

As soon as I arrived in Marathon I drove down a side road which cut through some decent looking habitat. Michael Butler had Boreal Owls here once when doing an owl survey so I figured it was worth a try! At the first few stops, I didn't hear a sure was nice however being outside with the night sky completely lit up with stars. The fourth stop was a bit better as I heard a Northern Saw-whet Owl tooting in the distance. Suddenly, as I was about to go back in my car and continue on, I heard the telltale call of a Boreal Owl, way out in the distance!

The rest of the night was more of the same and after 15 stops I had 4 Northern Saw-whet Owls and 2 Boreal Owls (the second one much closer than the first). I parked my car on the side of the road, fell asleep, and it was morning much too quickly. At this point, I had my main target of the trip and anything else would just be bonus!

The next morning I met up with Michael who was free and able to go birding. The first spot we checked out, Peninsula Harbour, was a location where he had found a Western Meadowlark a few days prior (check out his post, Unfortunately the western was no longer present, but a few other birds kept us occupied including a singing Northern Cardinal (rare in Thunder Bay District) and a few ducks.
Next up was a check of Pukawska National Park, where Barb Charlton and I struck out for Three-toed Woodpeckers with Michael earlier in the year. Unfortunately today was no different, and despite beautiful weather and a scenic walk, we couldn't turn one up. We suspected that while this part of Pukawska is a great wintering ground, they breed elsewhere. We did, however, see another chicken - this one a Ruffed Grouse. His lady-friend was also nowhere in sight.

Ruffed Grouse - Pukaskwa National Park

In a different area of the park, the male Redhead was still hanging out with a few goldeneye. Michael only occasionally gets this species in the area - usually about 1 per year.

Redhead - Pukaskwa National Park

We parted ways at this point. Michael recommended I try Neys Provincial Park - the only place in the area where he had seen Three-toed Woodpeckers outside of winter. I walked in, and I hadn't been going for more than 200 meters when I heard the distinctive drumming of a Three-toed Woodpecker to my right! One followed suit to my left a minute later. Despite some effort, they refused to come in and I continued on, satisfied but still wanting more. After about 20 minutes of not hearing anything of note, I came across a little flock of chickadees (both species), nuthatches, and kinglets. I played the Three-toed Woodpecker call note to bring in the Boreal Chickadee, and as I did, a real Three-toed Woodpecker called ahead! I had fleeting glimpses as he scaled the bark, only managing this photo.

American Three-toed Woodpecker - Neys Provincial Park

It turns out that in this area were 3 Three-toed Woodpeckers, all actively drumming and working the bark. I was ecstatic to get such great prolonged views of them. This was my 338th species of bird for Ontario, and my 300th "self found".

American Three-toed Woodpecker - Neys Provincial Park

On the way out, I stopped to photograph this female Ruffed Grouse. She let me get quite close, and I eventually sat down on the road next to her.

Ruffed Grouse - Neys Provincial Park

Ruffed Grouse - Neys Provincial Park

She slowly started walking across the road, taking care to stay "hidden" in the shadow that stretched all the way across, all the while keeping a wary eye on me.

Ruffed Grouse - Neys Provincial Park

Eventually she made it across and slowly stepped into the forest, confident I hadn't seen her!

Tomorrow I leave the generous hospitality of Michael and Martha and make my way back to the south. It was a great visit, though much too short. I would love to spend a lot more time in this area - there is just so much amazing, beautiful habitat.


  1. Josh,

    I can say with confidence that the Esso Station out on the highway at Marathon REALLY sucks. Whatever you do, never eat there!

    But Robins Donuts in the morning for your usual intake is awesome. WAY better than any Tim Horton's!

  2. Great 1.53/litre. going to cost me on my bimonthly commute to Rainy River this summer.

  3. Alan,
    I'll keep that in mind next trip! Don't worry, I would never eat at any gas station.

    It felt great to "only" have to pay 135.9 in Toronto on my way back.

  4. Josh, the Three toed Woodpecker is awesome. I would love to see one someday. The chickens are awesome as well! -DM

  5. Thanks Dwayne! You should make it up north sometime - definitely worth the drive (unless its winter)