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13 February 2010 @ 10:49 pm
The Gray Jays of Algonquin  

On Sunday Deb and I took a drive up to Algonquin Park. Although there have been very few winter finches reported this year, a single White-throated Sparrow and a lone Pine Grosbeak have been visiting the feeders behind the Visitor Center regularly. Spruce Grouse, Boreal Chickadees and Black-backed Woodpeckers have also been scarce, while Gray Jays have been seen regularly at the Visitor Center feeder, along Opeongo Road and at the Spruce Bog Boardwalk.

It was not the birds that prompted us to bundle up and make the journey west to Algonquin, but rather several enticing mammal reports from the Park. Between three and six Pine Martens have been visiting the Visitor Centre feeders daily to feast on the suet, but have not been following a predictable schedule. Moose have been observed regularly along Highway 60. Finally, in the latest Ontbirds report from Ron Tozer, a road-killed deer which had been placed in the Sunday Creek bog had been largely consumed by up to three wolves, eleven ravens and a fox. Another road-killed deer, also visible from the Visitor Centre viewing deck, had been placed there on Thursday, although only ravens have been seen feeding on it.

Gray Jay

Deb and I believed that we could reasonably expect to see at least two of the mammals mentioned in the report, though of course luck is a big factor in seeing wildlife. We were particularly intrigued by the Pine Martens (Martes americana) being seen at the suet feeders. Pine Martens are small mammals which belong to the weasel family. They have soft, thick fur which may be pale buff, reddish brown, or dark brown in color, pale throats, black tails and black legs. Two vertical black lines run above the inner corners of their eyes. They have long, bushy tails, approximately one-third the length of their body. I have only seen one, perhaps two, of these cute little animals. Last March, Deb and I caught a glimpse of one at the Spruce Bog Trail parking lot; a few years before that, I was walking along the boardwalk on the Rideau Trail one winter with snowbanks waist-high on either side when I came across a small mammal with cute teddy bear-ears running along the boardwalk in front of me. I never got a photo, and to this day I am not sure what it was. I am reasonably sure it wasn't a groundhog given the time of year.

We left at 7:00 in the morning, and didn't see much on the way down - there were no hawks, no mammals, and very few birds. The only birds of interest that we did see were a flock of Snow Buntings on a side road and a Wild Turkey feeding on some seed that someone was tossing on her lawn. Upon our arrival we went immediately to the Visitor Center and spent maybe 45 minutes on the viewing deck watching for the Pine Martens. We could also see the deer carcass in the bog although nothing was feeding on it at the time. The bird activity at the feeders, however, was plentiful. The goldfinches numbered close to one hundred, and several chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Blue Jays and Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers were gorging themselves on the abundance of food. We also saw three Gray Jays visiting the suet feeder and the White-throated Sparrow on the ground beneath one of the feeder.

Gray Jay

We didn't stay long as there were too many people on the viewing deck talking and walking around. Most of the deck was covered in frozen snow which crunched annoyingly underfoot, and most of the people made no attempt to walk quietly. Deb and I decided to try the Spruce Bog Boardwalk, intending to return later when (hopefully) there would be fewer people around.

We found chickadees, nuthatches and a couple of red squirrels at the Spruce Bog parking lot, so I scattered some more seeds around hoping to entice other birds and mammals to the area. We then set out on the trail, and were disappointed not to see a single bird along the entire path. The scenery was beautiful, however, so I took a few pictures of the snow and icy rock formations along the trail.

Rock formations along the Spruce Bog trail

Spruce Bog Trail

We were further disappointed when we reached the parking lot and found no new species feeding on the bird seed, so we decided to drive along Highway 60 to Arowhon Road to look for moose and other wildlife. Although there were plenty of tracks in the snow beside the road, we didn't see a single mammal, and the only birds that we saw were ravens flying overhead.

We did stop to take a picture of the "frozen waterfalls" along the highway. These are caused by ground water seeping out from the rock and freezing. Water from the earth's surface moves downward through soil, porous rock and fractures in the bedrock until it hits a dense, impermeable layer such as granite or clay. When the water cannot penetrate any further, it tends to pool in the porous layers and flow in a more horizontal direction until it reaches a lake or river, or in this case, the rock's edge several feet above the ground. These water trickles are very common along highways cut through the Canadian Shield, where the layers of bedrock are exposed.

Along Highway 60

Icy Waterfalls in the Bedrock

After driving back from Arowhon Road we stopped at the Visitor Center once again to check on the feeders - still no mammals other than the Red Squirrels - and then drove up Opeongo Road. Although the gate was open this time, we parked the car and walked up the road hoping to hear the tapping of a Black-backed Woodpecker, the calls of a Boreal Chickadee, or see the tracks of a moose or wolf alongside the road. Although we saw all kinds of tracks, mostly belonging to rodents, the road was silent. A couple of Black-capped Chickadees called from deep within the woods, but that was it.

Since a chilly breeze was blowing down the open road, we decided to turn around early and go back to the gate. That was where all the activity was, anyway; both nuthatches, Black-capped Chickadees, Blue Jays and even a Hairy Woodpecker were all foraging by the gate. A raven flew by overhead, croaking hoarsely, and then Deb pointed out a Gray Jay perching in a spruce tree! I tossed some more seeds in the snow bank below the gate, and watched the Gray Jay fly in.

Gray Jay examining the seeds

Two more flew in, so I scattered some more seed in the area. Deb and I then watched as the chickadees, nuthatches and jays took turns landing in the snow to feed.

Gray Jay

As I watched the Gray Jays, I had a hard time believing that they belonged to the same family as Blue Jays, crows and ravens. These three corvids are bold, aggressive, and very vocal birds. They bicker and call constantly to one another and to the world in general, often for no reason that I can see. Not only do they appear fearless, they seem to have a high opinion of themselves and their place in the world. It is my personal and inexpert opinion that the corvids see themselves as the top of the pecking order in the bird world, outranking ferocious and deadly predators such as eagles, hawks, and owls. I believe this is one of the main reasons why they harass and mob predators much bigger than them: it is not so much that hawks and owls pose a threat to their lives, but rather that they pose a threat to their status as the dominant species in their territory! I think that this is why they try to drive the predator away: to prove that they are at the top of the avian hierarchy!

In contrast, the Gray Jays I have witnessed do not squawk or screech as the crows and jays do. They murmur softly instead. They seem gentle and less excitable in comparison, and don't even resemble their corvid cousins. They have proportionately longer tails and smaller beaks, looking more like oversized chickadees.

Gray Jay

It was a delight to watch them flutter down to the ground and snatch up the peanuts, and Deb and I spent almost half an hour watching them.

Waiting Patiently

After leaving the Gray Jays and chickadees we took a trip down Highway 60 all the way to the West Gate, then turned around, hoping to spot a moose. It was growing late, so we stopped at the Visitor Center one final time. To our disappointment, there were still no mammals around. We spent some time at the bookstore, where - thinking of spring! - I purchased an insect net. Deb was still browsing, so I decided to take one last look at the suet feeder outside....and finally saw a Pine Marten on the ground below the feeder! I was torn between trying to get a photo and running to get Deb....so I decided to move closer to the rail to get a better look (and maybe a photo). As I slowly walked toward the edge of the platform, the ice crunched loudly beneath my boots. The marten looked up at me, and we made eye contact; it clearly didn't like the look of me, for it immediately started scurrying down the slope toward the bog.

Intensely disappointed, I went back inside to tell Deb and the woman at the bookstore. The woman - one of the park naturalists, I assume - mentioned that it would probably come back, as it hadn't shown up at the feeder all day. She also said that once it started feeding, it could stay there for an hour or more. Deb was still finishing up with her purchase, so I went ahead of her to look for the marten. Tiptoeing quietly this time, I reached the deck rail in time to see a long mammal with a bushy tail run toward the corner of the Visitor Center and disappear. Deb came out, and we waited quietly for over 20 minutes, speaking in whispers in case the marten was close by.

We waited in vain, and as the sun was dropping lower in the western sky, we decided it was time to head back to Ottawa. Although I was pleased to catch a glimpse of the marten, I was also disappointed that I hadn't managed to get a better look at it than the one we had seen at the Spruce Bog Trail a year ago.

Still, the Gray Jays were cooperative, and it was nice to see the White-throated Sparrow in the middle of winter. We didn't do too badly, but I wished I lived a lot closer to Algonquin so I could visit the park more frequently!

Xray Is As Xray Doesxraytheenforcer on February 19th, 2010 07:46 pm (UTC)
Wow. Those jays have such small bills for corvids!
Soul Diasporasoul_diaspora on February 20th, 2010 03:56 am (UTC)
Oh my...I'm so envious. I've never been to Algonquin. Gray Jays have been on my wishlist since forever.

My husband and I vacationed in Gaspe peninsula last summer. It's in the range for Gray Jays and I was hoping to see one there, during one of our many hikes on mountainous forest trails, but no luck. Did see a Boreal Chickadee though.
Gilliangillianm on February 20th, 2010 02:06 pm (UTC)
Hi Suzanne! Algonquin is THE place to find Gray Jays. Some are so tame they will take seeds from your hand...or land on your head (as they did to Deb last winter)! My birding partner and I have made a couple of day trips to Algonquin a couple of times, and I've gone camping there in August twice...it's a stunningly beautiful park.

I've read some of your adventures in Gaspe...and now I want to go there too to see all the seabirds! Unfortunately neither my fiance or I speak French fluently, so I doubt it's a place we'd go for a vacation.