In last week’s Pocono Outdoors article, my friend Jim Hoyson and I shared some of the highlights from our owl prowl on Wolfe Island, Ontario, in pursuit of snowy owls and winter waterfowl. It was certainly “Wild of the Wolfe” with numerous sightings of waterfowl, a snowy owl and an impressive eastern coyote. This week’s article continues our journey hundreds of miles north of Wolfe Island to remote Algonquin Provincial Park, in search of animals that inhabit the Canadian boreal forest.
Our journey to Algonquin Provincial Park started before sunrise after spending the night in a roadside hotel nearly 100 miles away.
Algonquin Provincial Park is massive in size and happens to be the oldest and largest park in Ontario. For comparison, Algonquin Provincial Park spans nearly two million acres, which is equivalent in size to the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.
Jim and I arrived at the Algonquin Provincial Park main office to purchase a visitor’s permit and inquire information of recent wildlife sightings. The receptionist was very informative and said that the Visitor Center opens at 9 a.m. but are welcome to search for birds near the feeding stations if you arrive there earlier.
“Pine siskins, evening grosbeaks, red crossbills and white-winged crossbills were seen at the feeders yesterday afternoon,” she shared. “But make sure you search along the roadside berms as finches often feed on road salt.”
We drove along the scenic snow-covered Highway 60 corridor, which passes through the southwestern section of the park and leads to the Visitor Center, and sure enough, dozens of finches were feeding on road salt and grit along the berm. Much to our delight were pine siskins, common repolls, American goldfinches and hundreds of purple finches.
In fact, we observed more purple finches at one roadside stop than both Jim and I had seen in our lifetimes. The male purple finch is a beautiful songbird. It is not brilliantly colored like the male northern cardinal but resembles a sparrow dipped in velvety cranberry juice. The female expresses streaked tones of brown with a distinctive white eyebrow.
Suddenly, overhead we heard the plinky “chit-chit-chit” call of red crossbills as they nervously flew across the snow-covered mountainside.
“There they go!” I pointed. “Let’s go to the feeders!” enthused Jim. The moment we arrived at the Visitor Center parking area dozens of American goldfinches and purple finches were feeding on road salt in the recently plowed parking area.
Within the flock were two red crossbills - one of our target birds. “Awesome!” leered Jim. We were able to capture several photos of a stunning male red crossbill while it perched on the top branch of a small red maple tree.
Crossbills are peculiar-looking songbirds, and in my opinion, looks like a cardinal that flew headfirst into a window. Crossbills are appropriately named due to their mandibles having crossed tips as their bills never touch at the end, but flare to the sides. Both the red crossbill and white-winged crossbill feed primarily on the hidden seeds inside conifer cones.
Their uniquely shaped bills are nature’s perfect tool for prying seeds out from cones. To achieve this task, the crossbill bites between the scale of a cone and pries it open simply by opening its bill. It then uses its tongue to dislodge the seed. Fascinating to say the least, and another highlight of our trip.
After being entertained by finches and crossbills we went inside the Visitor Center and then outside to a raised platform deck which overlooks a breathtaking landscape as well as a series of bird feeders below.
Within minutes, several flocks of songbirds flew onto the feeders and surrounding trees. Hungry black-capped chickadees, American goldfinches and pine siskins feasted upon the hanging thistle feeders, while blue jays, purple finches, white-winged crossbills and evening grosbeaks dined upon sunflower seeds. Evening grosbeaks are showy northern finches marked in spectacular yellow, white and black.
They are one of the largest members of the finch family about the size of a northern cardinal. The name grosbeak is derived from the French word “gros-bec,” that means- “big beak.” They use their large strong bills to crack open seeds found on conifer cones as well as sunflower seeds on bird feeders.
Our next adventure was to search for birds that inhabit the dark and cold boreal forest with the hopes of spotting our target species - the gray jay.
We drove to a trail that passes through a dense conifer forest and bog. Upon entering the trail head with encountered a man carrying a large telephoto lens that was about to leave. We shared our interest in bird photography and asked what he had seen along the trail.
“There are a few gray jays up ahead on the trail, but I just found two spruce grouse walking on the snow in the conifers near the bog,” he shared. Jim’s eyes lit up so brightly that I could have used him as a flashlight. “Let’s go for the spruce grouse,” he gleamed. The spruce grouse is quite rare and like the gray jay – is an icon bird of the boreal forest.
The spruce grouse is similar in size to Pennsylvania’s state bird- the ruffed grouse but is unbelievably tame. We followed the photographer’s footprints along the bog trail, but no spruce grouse were to be found. We did encounter the tracks of eastern wolves, which are very rare and endemic to Algonquin Provincial Park.
It was a real treat in finding wolf tracks and quite fascinating that we were venturing within the same domain as wolves. “How much further do you want to hike on the trail?” I joked. “It seems like we hiked pretty far from where the photographer had initially found the spruce grouse,” sighed Jim.
“So, let’s head back and search for the gray jays.” We returned to the trail head and were greeted by two inquisitive gray jays expecting a handout. I took out a handful of peanuts from my backpack and placed them on a tree stump. Within seconds, the jays enjoyed our snacks.
Gray jays have entertained old-time trappers and lumberjacks for centuries and readily accept their scraps and handouts. Gray jays were even known to cunningly steal a trapper’s sandwich or lumberjack pancake at the blink of an eye. The gray jay, in which our northern cousins call “Canada jay” is as large as a blue jay.
The back and tail of the gray jay is gray, hence its common name, while its breast and sides are dull white. The most striking features of the gray jay are its large dark eyes, big round head, bright white cap and black nape, as well as its fluffy and puffy plumage. Jim then walked a few steps at the beginning of the trail then stopped in his tracks. He pointed up in a spruce tree ten feet above his head and smiled, “Spruce grouse!”
Perched up in the branches was a beautiful spruce grouse feeding on spruce needles. Oblivious to our presence and cameras, the grouse continued to feed as if we were inanimate objects.
The male spruce grouse is dramatically speckled in gray, brown, black and white such as in appearance to a New Guinea hen. It wears a brilliant red lipstick as eyebrows and has a black feathered tail bordered in brown. The spruce grouse is quite “arboreal” spending much of its time up in trees.
We watched it forage amongst the branches as it moved from side to side, but for some unknown reason, the grouse turned it back to us and displayed its spectacular patterned tail fan. Like a can-can” dancer it flashed its showy tail in boreal burlesque fashion, then retreated deep into the spruce boughs.
What a dramatic ending to a phenomenal afternoon presentation in finding gray jays, wolf tracks and spruce grouse. However, what we did not want to experience was an approaching snowstorm forecasted later in the day.
We discussed whether staying another day or high tailing out of Algonquin ahead of the snowstorm. “Let’s go home,” we agreed. It was five hours to the Canadian border and a few more hours to Pennsylvania.
I told Jim I felt pretty good and was willing to drive to Customs, and that he can take over driving once we enter the United States. We stopped for dinner along the way in southern Ontario, but by the time we reached the United States Customs & Border checkpoint at the Thousand Island Bridge, I felt like I had driven for two straight days.
Prior to the checkpoint, we gathered our Passports and proceeded to the last gate and stoplight. We were then directed to proceed to the Border station booth where a Border Patrol officer asked for our Passports.
No problem at all.
That was easy, as I handed him our Passports.
“Where did you come from?” he asked, while staring into my tired and bloodshot eyes. “Canada,” I replied. There was a moment of silence.
Oh no! Did I just say what I think I said?
In the back of his mind, I am sure he wanted to scold, “You’re at the Canadian border moron. Where else would be coming from?”
He then asked how many days did we spend in Canada? “Two days,” I replied.
Jim quickly intervened and said, “We only spent one day in Canada, Sir.”
Oh no, another nervous blunder.
With the corner of my eye, I saw Jim shake his head in disbelief to my stupid answers. Our immediate concern was hearing, those terrifying words, “Please pull the car to the side.”
The Border Patrol agent held back a smirk, handed our passports and said, “You can proceed and drive safely.”
As soon as we entered the United States we roared in laughter and assumed that the agent did as well.
He probably thought by my moronic and oblivious answers that I was a harmless buffoon and too stupid to be a threat to our country. Jim and I laughed for hours which made the trip back home seemed like minutes.
Just like that famous comedy film, “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” starring John Candy and Steve Martin, we experienced our own entertaining and comedic version appropriately named, “Owls, Howls & Laughing Jowls.”