Trip to Carden Alvar
For a couple of weeks, my wife and I had been itching to get to Carden Alvar, located in the Kawartha Lakes region of Ontario. It is a unique environment of thin soil, sparse grasses, and unique plant life which attracts birds that are less commonly seen in The GTA, some of which are threatened species. I was particularly keen to see an Eastern Meadowlark. When I first got into birding about 10-years-ago, I saw one of these birds in a hydrofield and I was struck by how different its song is. I hadn’t seen one since.
As the sun began to peek out above the horizon, we grabbed a quick coffee and hit the highway at just before 6am ready for the hour-and-a-half drive. You are always more likely to see animal activity early in the morning.
Initially we arrived at a small gravel parking area at an area named “Cameron Ranch” where a trail allowed you to walk through the alvar. It was a mind-meltingly hot and humid day, but we spent an hour or so walking the trail. I have seen the odd Brown Thrasher before, but never so many in one place. It seemed like there was another one squeaking and squawking every few hundred feet. Like The Northern Mockingbird and Grey Catbird, the Brown Thrasher is a mimic bird that attempts to copy the songs of other birds. It is larger than its cousins, has a brown speckled chest and bright yellow eyes.
There were a lot of distinctive looking flowers and plants that I had never seen before.
During the first stretch of the trail, we saw three different types of sparrow. The first, the Song Sparrow, I am very familiar with and it is plentiful in Toronto. It has a speckled breast with a circular spot in the centre and a very familiar song (hence the name!). I heard the song of a second species, which turned out to be a Savannah Sparrow. It has a speckled chest like the Song Sparrow, but is missing the spot and there is a yellow line above the eye. This is a new bird for me and is “Lifer” number 183.
The third sparrow species I saw wasn’t a very cooperative photo model, insisting upon perching with the sun directly behind – but my “Lifer” number 184 is the Grasshopper Sparrow which looks similar to the above but also has yellow underparts and a larger beak. Identification was helped by the fact that it buzzed excitedly with a grasshopper in its beak. We also saw, far in the distance standing high in a bare tree, an Upland Sandpiper. Too distant to photograph, but this is “Lifer” number 185 for me.
We pushed through a wet, muddy area to avoid mosquitoes before coming to a turn in the trail. There was a bit of a ruckus among some quarrelling birds – a Blue Jay, as they often do, was causing some upset. A Brown Thrasher yelled from the top of a tree. A Red-Eyed Vireo flitted around and something else was calling and hiding in a shrub. Sara was able to get good eyes on it and she correctly identified it as an Eastern Towhee. I tried “Pishing” it (making bird sounds to draw it out) and managed to snap a photo of its head peeking out.
We continued a little further, but the activity seemed to die down and it was swelteringly hot. Several Great Blue Herons flew overhead and I saw a couple of butterflies – a European Skipper (known as an Essex Skipper in The UK – it is introduced into Ontario) and a pretty Bronze Copper.
Running low on water, we turned back and followed the trail back to the car. Several times on the way back (and it would continue throughout the trip), I kept hearing the song of Eastern Meadowlarks. They nest in the long grasses and so I couldn’t actually see one – until we were about halfway back to the car. There was one in the distance. Because it was distant, the rising heat in the air means it doesn’t really matter how good your camera lens is – the heatwaves makes the image blurry, but hey, I saw one! We briefly saw another later in the day, closer to us, but too brief to photograph. It quickly sang and flew away. Sara aptly commented that when the bird sings, its beak opens so wide it looks like its head will split open.
We were unfamiliar with Carden Alvar and figured that there must be more to the area than this one trail. Much frantic Googling later, we made our way to a gravel/mud road which cuts North/South through the alvar and has several areas to stop and park. We heard many more Eastern Meadowlarks, saw a male/female pair of Eastern Bluebirds, and saw dozens of Tree Swallows that were making use of the man-made nesting boxes. Some contained chicks and the adult Swallows would frequently visit with the insects they had caught.
We decided to drive the length of the road, circle back to the beginning, and then drive it again but stopping off. It took a long time to drive the full-length of the road and a 4-by-4 vehicle would be better equipped. My hatchback struggled over the large potholes and, in places, deep puddles of muddy water. It was worth it, though. After about 20 minutes, I saw a large black shape at the side of the road. “F***! BEAR!”, I swore, before it quickly ran off. Since I was driving, the best shot I got was of its backside. It was the first time I’d seen one.
Quite some time later, after circling the alvar and returning back to the beginning of the road, my car covered in mud and dust, we started over. This time we stopped off a couple of times, but didn’t see much. It was the middle of the day, the sun high, it was humid, most animals would be having a siesta. We decided to walk one of the trails without much hope. There were lots of White Admiral butterflies around and a few moths. Sara was a little ahead of me on the trail and we were contemplating turning back. Suddenly Sara shouted “Moose!”. And there it was. Just a few hundred feet away stood eating grasses in a marsh rivulet. Suddenly the crazy beast charged at us, splashing water all over itself.
It took several quick steps in our direction before pausing and staring at us. It was so close I didn’t even have to zoom. Perhaps Sara had surprised it. Perhaps it had a calf nearby. Fortunately for us, she thought better of attacking us. She turned and ran a short distance away. She looked over at us a couple of times, then ran into the scrub.
We sat in a hide for a while (in the shade, with a lovely breeze), listening to more Eastern Meadowlarks, but I was unable to get any photos while they hid in the grass. We decided to leave for the day. We stopped off at a couple of other places, explored the lakeshore east of Toronto a little (Lake Ontario), but nothing as exciting as a rampant moose to write about!
A few local trips that I need to write up! A possible return trip to Lynde Shores with a workmate. Who knows what else? (not me!)
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I drove up to Algonquin Provincial Park with the wife on Saturday. I had made plans to meet Malcolm. He and I had followed each other on Instagram for a while and had occasionally chatted. Malcolm spends much of the year living and working at the park and is really passionate about the place (check out his cleverly named Instagram profile page, Malgonquin Photography). If I was ever up his way, I should let him know. So I did!
We talked about birds we might see, or like to see. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers had been plentiful, there had recently been a nesting Northern Flicker, and a Spruce Grouse has been incubating eggs on her nest for the last three weeks. It was also “National Black Bear Day”, so we hoped perhaps we might come across one. Plus, of course, a moose would be nice. I suppose you can tell I already saw one of those from the picture at the top of the page.
Sara, Myself, Malcolm, and Malcolm’s other half Morwen met at The East Gate and visited some lesser-known locations. Highway 60 runs through the park and by pulling off at various trailheads you only get to take in a tiny fraction of the park. Algonquin can be more fully appreciated by kayak, but that would have to wait for another day. Today’s tactic was to pull over from place-to-place, just to see what the park would throw at us.
Our first stop was to the location where a Northern Flicker had been seen nesting, but this was not fruitful. Nevermind, another pull-over a little further into the park and we practised our tactic of stopping just to see what we could see. After a few moments, I caught a flash of movement and a bird flew up onto a telephone pole. A Yellow-belied Sapsucker was disappointed that the pole was not offering much in the way of tree sap. This is a “lifer” for me, though they are ten-a-penny in Algonquin.
We moved on towards Opeongo Lake and we were pleased to see a pair of Common Loons close by. I wasn’t able to capture a great shot, but we also saw a Hare (a Snowshoe Hare, I think?) hopping and running around a grassy area. There were also dozens of Canadian Tiger Swallowtail butterflies mud-dabbling. We probably saw hundreds of these through the park, particularly in the east.
We moved further West into the park and made our way through a wooded area where I photographed a number of plant species I hadn’t seen (or at least noticed) before, such as Starflower, Bunchberry, Swamp Laurel, and Fringed Polygala (Malcolm was adept at identifying these plants). Well camouflaged amongst the flora was a female Spruce Grouse who was incubating eggs. We wondered where the male was and pondered how involved he remained during the incubation and rearing of chicks, for Malcolm hadn’t seen him for some time. The Spruce Grouse was another “lifer” for me. I need to check and update my list, but I am at around 180 bird species.
We hiked the short Spruce Bog Boardwalk trail. Morwen has adopted the trail and has the thankless task of cleaning it of trash. Who drops their garbage on a hiking trail in a provincial park? Accidents happen, but to watch Morwen retrieve an empty Timbits box that had been tossed aside was just sad. I saw a Green Comma butterfly on the trail and we took photographs of a fearless Common Raven that allowed us to remain quite close. I also saw another new butterfly, a Silver Bordered Fritillary.
Further into the park, we stopped once again in a lay-by and walked a short distance from the road. I noticed that there were quite fresh moose prints in the mud. Sure enough, a short drive after returning to our vehicles, many people had stopped to watch and photograph a pair of moose – a female and her heavily molting yearling.
The day was flying by, but we made a couple more stops. This time we walked part of the Mizzy Lake trail and saw lots of Midland Painted Turtles, which are researched in this area. In a wooded stretch of trail, Malcolm spotted some kind of finch which I managed to photograph and identify as a Purple Finch. Not an uncommon bird, but one that had managed to allude me until now. This was a “lifer” for both Malcolm and I. I also saw another Green Comma butterfly and a Western Pine Elfin. These are very uncommon in Ontario (as the name suggests, they’re usually found in Western Canada). The Eastern Pine Elfin is usually found in Ontario, but Algonquin Park is home to a population of the Western species according to The ROM Butterfly Field-guide and the help of a specialist that helped me to identify it. Also seen was a Red-breasted Nuthatch, many Chalk-fronted Corporal skimmer dragonflies darting among us hunting the black fly that were bothering us, a friendly Hudsonian Whiteface dragonfly that landed on Sara’s head, a Northern Petrophora Moth, a couple of Yellow-rumped Warblers, an unknown flycatcher, and a solitary Common Loon.
A couple of other stops. Malcolm showed us a tree that had numerous claw marks where a Black Bear had climbed up to make a bear nest. He also wanted to check out a hawk’s nest. Although there was no hawk present, I flushed an extremely well camouflaged American Woodcock by almost stepping on the poor thing. It waddled away alongside the slowly trickling water running from a culvert, cleverly eluding our increasingly desperate attempts to photograph it. The Woodcock was a “lifer” for Malcolm, which he was pleased about. I had come across one before in an unusual location – the drive-through of a McDonalds where it had probably collided with a wall while migrating. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in good shape. Sara and I turned it in to Toronto Wildlife Rescue and hoped for the best. It was great to see one in much better circumstances.
Somehow eight hours had passed by. Algonquin had been kind to us today – apart from the black flies. One managed to get up my sleeve and make a mess of my wrist. But the park had shown us a few creatures and allowed me to do something I enjoy… snap photos of something I know nothing about and fall down a rabbit hole of research the next day!
We bid farewell to Malcolm and Morwen and prepared for the drive back to Toronto. Until we return!