Drive 2.5 hours northwest of Ottawa and you will be transported to a world where winter finches adorn the treetops, Spruce Grouse feed on conifer needles and interesting mammals like the Pine Marten roam the woods. It’s also a world where, if you step off the beaten trail, you will immediately sink down past your waist in snow (I learned this lesson the hard way!).
This world is Algonquin Park in winter, with all its boreal species on splendid display.
This article was originally published in January 2017
Solo Saturday: Lifer Mission
On a recent overnight trip to Algonquin Park, I went up on the Saturday to do some initial birding and photography before meeting up with a group guided by Jon Ruddy of Eastern Ontario Birding on the Sunday.
Saturday was a fantastic day that felt like an adventure. I had never been to Algonquin Park in winter so I had some exploring to do. My target birds for the weekend were Evening Grosbeak, Spruce Grouse, White-winged Crossbill and Black-backed Woodpecker. All would be lifers.
Algonquin Park Visitor’s Center
I had been wanting to see Evening Grosbeaks for years and had gone chasing them around Ottawa on numerous occasions. I finally decided enough was enough, I had to get up to Algonquin Park where they are almost guaranteed. I knew the Visitor Center’s bird feeders were the place to see them and I decided to make it my first stop of the day. Before even pulling into the parking lot I caught a glimpse of a yellow finch-sized bird fly over the road. Fantastic!
I took my time photographing a small group of Grosbeaks at a feeder in the parking lot, thinking this was as good as it would get. But, little did I know what was waiting for me off the balcony at the back of the Visitor’s Center. The balcony offers fantastic views of the surrounding landscape as well as of numerous bird feeders. There had to be nearly 50 Evening Grosbeaks there! It was a sight (and sound) to behold. Turn up your volume ↓
There were also dozens of American Golfinches, Pine Siskins, Common Redpolls and Blue Jays.
The other big ‘draw’ off the balcony was a road-killed Moose carcass that had been strategically placed in the valley so people could watch the mammals and birds feeding on it. The Friends of Algonquin Park have put up a webcam so you can watch the action from home! There had been two Fishers earlier in the day and, while I was there, a Red Fox stopped by.
Spruce Bog Trail
Once I’d had my fill of the bird feeders I decided to walk the Spruce Bog trail, just down the road from the Visitor’s Center. When I got out of my car in the parking lot, my ears were met by a symphony of winter finches. There were birds everywhere.
I started walking down a trail, but noticed a flock of finches further into the forest that were moving to the right. Backtracking to the parking lot, I ended up spending an hour birding and photographing beside my car. I only caught a fleeting glimpse of those particular finches, but I managed to take a 2 photographs and confirmed they were White-winged Crossbills! Lifer #2 of the day.
I then headed back down the original trail and noticed 2 large birds deep in the conifer needles of a spruce tree up ahead. At first I thought, oh maybe those are just Blue Jays… what else would be that size high up in a tree. But the more I looked, the more I thought these birds seemed particularly large and one thought kept forming in my head “Spruce Grouse.” I quickly moved closer to tree and confirmed, yes my lifer #3, two Spruce Grouse right there!
I hadn’t expected to find them up in trees, but I later read that during the winter they almost exclusively feed in trees (versus the rest of the year where they would be on the ground).
Sunday Funday: Social Birding
I met up with Eastern Ontario Birding on Sunday morning. Jon had put together a fantastic group of people who were all really excited to see and photograph beautiful boreal species.
Highway 60 Birding
Jon guided our convoy of cars down Highway 60, using walkie talkies to communicate about the species he was seeing from his car at the front. One of my hopes for the day was to get better views of my lifer White-winged Crossbills. I wasn’t disappointed as Jon was able to find various flocks of them along the highway feeding on conifer cones. He was also able to find a flock of Pine Grosbeaks that came down and landed on the road right in front of us.
We wound our way along the highway and made a stop where we found 3 Pine Martens climbing up and down trees and running along the ground at the edge of a trail. They are an adorable boreal forest animal, with a face that melts your heart. They are also really adept at climbing trees with their semi-retractable claws and it was amazing to watch them in action.
The Spruce Bog trail was excellent again on Sunday and, among other things, we had great views of a Boreal Chickadee! Some of you may recall the story from my last trip to Algonquin, shortly after I had upgraded to a DSLR. I hadn’t figured out the camera’s settings yet, so all my shots of what was then a lifer were blurry. It was a huge disappointment for me and one that I was happy to rectify on this trip.
Before we left the Spruce Bog trail, I had a moment looking around me watching Gray Jays swooping in to collect peanuts, listening to Evening Grosbeaks chattering away in the trees and seeing a Spruce Grouse silently feeding overhead and I thought, wow this place has got to be one of the best winter birding spots around.
The group went on to the Visitor’s Center for a late lunch and I decided to head back to Ottawa, feeling completely satisfied after such a successful trip birding Algonquin Park in winter. The Black-backed Woodpecker is on my list for next time 🙂
Click here for the trip bird list.
Birding Algonquin Park in Winter – Practical Information:
- For a guide to visiting Algonquin Park during any season, read my article: Your Guide to Birding Algonquin Park
- I stayed at the East Gate Motel in Whitney. It’s run by a wildlife photographer who has excellent tips of where to go in the park
- Eastern Ontario Birding runs winter birding trips to Algonquin Park. Details can be found here
- For the latest bird sightings, check out the Algonquin Park Birding Report