2023 Moose River Atlassing Trip Log

On June 8, 2023, six keen volunteers arrived in Cochrane, Ontario where they would begin their 12-day atlassing adventure on the Moose River from Moose Crossing to the James Bay. The crew was known as “Have a Hoot” and consisted of Angela Brooks, Catherine Killen, Alex Stone, Sheila Craig, Barb O’Neill, and Amy Brunning. Over the course of their 75-km journey, the team documented 117 species, about a third of which were Atlas-3 “significant species”.   The team conducted 25 Point Counts in each of 3 priority squares (17UMS83, 17UMS94 and 17UNS17).  Due to difficulty accessing some previous point counts, the team created some new point counts conducted 100 – 1200 m inland from the river.  General atlassing was conducted while paddling on the river, at or near camp sites, as well as in and around the town of Moosonee.  

The route taken by the "Have a Hoot" crew
Teepee of paddles to provide gravity for the water filter (Photo credit: Catherine Killen)
Teepee of paddles to provide gravity for the water filter (Photo credit: Catherine Killen)
Dry Spruce Bog (Photo credit: Catherine Killen)

Day 1 (June 9): Cochrane to Moose River Crossing to “The Eagle Bar”

On the night of June 8 we stayed at the Thriftlodge budget motel in Cochrane, and on the morning of June 9 headed to the train station, where we loaded the canoes and gear into a freight car, paid for the freight, and then boarded the train to Moose River Crossing, a “whistle stop”.  We had arranged with the Thriftlodge to park the cars for the duration of our trip, a 10 minute walk from the train station.

Moose River Crossing has a couple of small buildings, and there were two people there when we unloaded. The drop off point is on the south/east side of the river. There is a trail from the drop-off about 500m to the put in.  See map.

We encountered our first confirmed breeding evidence on the portage: a pair of Killdeer, one of which did its very best to get us away from its nest every time we came past with a load of gear.  

At the river, we had another interesting wildlife experience: a five foot long Lake Sturgeon, feeding in the shallows. This magnificent creature seemed to us to be the spirit of the Moose River welcoming us!

Packing the canoes for the first time at Moose Crossing (photo credit: Sheila Craig)
Train drop-off point and put-in location. Courtesy of Google Maps.
Our camp on the Eagle Bar (photo credit: Barb O’Neill)

Day 2 (June 10): Windbound on “The Eagle Bar”

Overnight, the temperature plummeted from hot and humid to 3° C as a strong cold front blew in. A north wind was blowing at least 30km/hr all day so we couldn’t conduct point counts.  It was very cold, no warmer than 7° C, and felt colder with the strong wind. Stuck for the day, we explored our small island (about 500m long, comprised of sand and gravel and covered with small willows and a few large snags), discovering nesting Common Terns, and watched sandpipers (3 Least Sandpipers and many Semipalmated Sandpipers) and ducks (including one Long-tailed Duck) migrating downstream. When we got too cold, we huddled in our tents and sleeping bags to warm up.  

We made a foray off the island mid-afternoon to retrieve and redeploy the Autonomous Recording Units (ARU)s on the mainland. We observed that the wind was almost imperceptible once we were 200m from the river in the forest, so possibly we could have done point counts. One party went to the north shore, another party to the south shore. The south shore (where the point counts are) consisted of mixed forest for about 100m, then dry spruce bog. The party who visited the north shore (where there were no point counts) reported different terrain: a meadow with a stream running through it. The north shore team were hoping to find a Sandhill Crane nest, since we had heard them bugling. They did see two fly over, but didn’t find a nest.

The water rose about 15 cm through the day. Before bed, we packed all the gear we could, and moved the canoes higher on the gravel bar in case we had to bug out (the downside of our gravel bar campsite).

Semipalmated Sandpipers on the beach (Photo credit: Sheila Craig)
Long-tailed Duck floating past the island (Photo credit: Sheila Craig)

Day 3 (June 11): Point Counts and Move Downriver to “Mourning Warbler Beach”

We awoke at 4:45 to a very cold morning (2° C), but fortunately the water had not risen any more in the night.  The wind was still blowing strongly from the north, but as we observed the previous day, once we were in the woods, we could hardly hear the wind. Therefore, we did conduct the local point counts in 17UMS83. This required a scramble up the bank of the river (due to very low water levels), then bushwhacking through 100-200m of mixed forest, then slogging through dry spruce bog. Most of the actual point counts were in the dry spruce bog. In the bog, it is easy to navigate between the sparse black spruce, but tough going for the thighs wading through sphagnum moss. It is similar to walking through 30 cm of fresh snow. The highlight for several of us was Connecticut Warblers, so rarely seen in the south and so ubiquitous in the spruce bog!

Having completed the point counts, we had brunch, packed and headed downstream. We kept to the right (south/east) side of the river as much as possible, in accordance with the local knowledge. We had to walk / line the boats through shallow rapids several times. We crossed the river to the north/west shore above Louise Island to make camp near one set of point counts. Mourning Warblers sang us to sleep. It didn’t take much as we were all exhausted from a very long, tough, but rewarding day.

Arriving onshore. (Photo credit: Shiela Craig)
Connecticut Warbler (Photo credit: Sheila Craig)

Day 4 (June 12): Point counts and travel to “Merganser Meadow”

It was our second day in a row of rising at 4:45 to a cold morning for the purpose of conducting point counts (still in 17UMS83), and then eating brunch, packing and travelling down river to the next location. There were designated point counts on both sides of the river here, but it was impossible to get to the ones on the opposite south shore as they are in the middle of a set of rapids, so we focused on the ones accessible from near the campsite. Like yesterday, our three teams of two each conducted four point counts.

Again, we had to walk / line the canoes through gravel beds and rapids. There was one fun CI-II rapid we were able to run. We had a stiff headwind (~30 km/hr) for the last hour. We were very glad to finally reach our planned destination at 5:00 pm, which we nick-named “Merganser Meadow” for the Common Mergansers we saw there. While the day started cold, it rose to about 22° C, which was very welcome since we spent much of it wading in the river. We were exhausted after our second very demanding day in a row, but all in good humor.

Barb recording bird sightings between point counts (Photo credit: Sheila Craig)
Canada Jay found on a point count (Photo credit: Sheila Craig)

Day 5 (June 13): Point Counts and travel to “Fox Sparrow Beach” on Wikikanishi Island

Today we graduated to a new priority square (17UMS84). We got up even earlier this morning (4:30) to cover more territory. We made the decision to conduct 25 point counts in the vicinity of our camp, rather than try to cover the two sets of point counts established during Atlas-2 as we just didn’t have time to travel that distance. This meant that each team of two would need to do eight or nine point counts this morning. It took each team about 5.5 hours to cover the territory needed for the points. Each team covered 7-9 km, of which the majority was in the dry spruce bog and very tough going.  

The paddle this afternoon was delightful as there was actually WATER in the river and we didn’t have to walk the canoes. We covered about 20 km in three hours.  We camped on the north/west end of Wikikanishi Island at a spot we named “Fox Sparrow Beach” due to the lovely serenades we received here. En route we discovered the prints of a Canada Lynx!

Alex conducting a point count (Photo credit: Catherine Killen)
Barb recording bird sightings between point counts (Photo credit: Sheila Craig)
Canada Lynx track (Photo credit: Sheila Craig)

Day 6 (June 14): Downriver to the top of the Kwetabohigan Rapids

Having left our priority squares, we had no point counts today (WOO HOO!) so we slept in (until 5:30 – 7:00, depending on the individual), and enjoyed a leisurely tour of the island before breakfast. Unlike with point counts, we were able to take the time to actually LOOK for the birds we heard. It was nice to get views of the warblers and sparrows. The big “find” was a Spotted Sandpiper’s nest. We also found plenty of bear and moose tracks. Sadly, we never saw either a bear or a moose on our trip.

After brunch, we broke camp and were on the river before noon. Again we had to deal with walking the canoes through a number of shallow gravel bars. We made camp just above the Kwetabohigan Rapids on the south/east shore, which allowed us to scout the rapids and be prepared to descend them early the next day. This was the least comfortable campsite of our trip. Here there was no beach or gravel bar. Rather we scrambled up the bank and camped on large rocks, or on top of alders, or for two of us, hacked our way through the alders into the woods and carved out enough space for a tent there. This is the night we learned the value of a good camping mattress!

Walking through the shallows. (Photo credit: Sheila Craig)
Spotted Sandpiper nest with eggs. (Photo credit: Sheila Craig)
The happy finders of the nest (Photo credit: Sheila Craig)

Day 7 (June 15): Running the rapids and downriver to Little Gull Island

According to local knowledge, the Kwetabohigan Rapids are the one set of significant rapids on the Moose River between Moose Crossing and Moosonee, CII-III, and running about 2km long. The advice is to run it at high tide and keep right. Below the rapids, the tide influences the river. At low tide, there can be large haystacks at the bottom of the rapids. In our case, because of the extreme low water, this was not an issue. The entire right (south/east) side of the rapids was completely out of water. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much water anywhere in the rapids.  

Having scouted the day previously, we were ready to go early and started our descent about 10:00, three hours before high tide. We hugged the right shore from eddy to eddy. We had to line/walk the boats through some of the drops, but were actually able to run enough to actually enjoy the experience. It took us over an hour to get clear of the rapids. We enjoyed a long break on the north/west shore on a beach at the mouth of the Kwetabohigan River, where the highlight was watching adult dragonflies emerge from their nymphs. Of course we named it “Dragonfly Beach”. 

We continued downriver for another few hours, again against a strong north wind. This stretch of the Moose is near to and navigable from Moosonee and we saw cabins along the river. Despite the wind, we made steady progress. It was the most pleasant paddle of the whole week.

We camped on another sandbar on this last night of our river trip. From our campsite, we did see a couple of people in freighter canoes at the Moose Cree First Nation camp one km downriver from us – the first humans we had seen in a week! As we approached what would be our campsite, we saw a flock of terns and gulls. Among the ubiquitous Common Terns and Bonaparte Gulls, were THREE Little Gulls! Our camp was therefore christened “Little Gull Island”.

Dragonfly Beach (Photo credit: Sheila Craig)
Kwetabohigan Rapids at low water. (Photo credit: Sheila Craig)
Little Gull (Photo credit: Sheila Craig)

Day 8 (June 16): Final paddle to Moosonee

After a cold night, we awoke to sunshine, and for the first time in days, NO WIND! We broke camp early this morning and were on the river by 8:40, our earliest start of the trip. We had a long but lovely paddle in mostly deep water all the way to Moosonee. A highlight was seeing the third Bank Swallow colony of the trip, a large one, with at least 200 nest cavities.

En route to Moosonee, we passed by the west end of the island of Moose Factory. There was quite a lot of boat traffic here, mainly water taxis. Be aware and stay out of the main channel when possible.   

In Moosonee, we beached beside the water taxi dock (note that the dock is for water taxis ONLY!), and a pickup-truck taxi showed up almost immediately. The locals can see you coming from quite a distance, and news travels fast.  

Be sure to negotiate a fare with the taxi driver. The standard when we were there was to charge $10 / person. Although only 2 people (and all our gear) rode in the taxi to the motel, the driver charged us $60 (having counted us). On subsequent trips, we negotiated for $25.  

We used the pickup to carry our gear to the motel, and three of our team portaged the canoes the 600m from the river. We had booked to stay at the Super 8 Motel, the only accommodation in Moosonee. The motel was suitable for our needs, although there was no secure location to store the canoes. We stayed two to a room. It was very nice to have a shower and get cleaned up. Note that there are no real restaurants in town. Take-out was available from KFC and Pizza Hut. There is a good grocery store (Northern) which had some prepared food. The motel includes a kitchen and lounge where residents can cook and eat.  

In the late afternoon, a few of our group took a taxi to the sewage lagoons accessed from Quarry Road where they enjoyed a large selection of waterfowl, including ducks we didn’t see anywhere else on the river, even rare Redheads. We highly recommend this “side trip”. 

Alex on the Moose River approaching Moosonee (Photo credit: Catherine Killen)
Bank Swallow colony (Photo credit: Sheila Craig).

Day 9 (June 17): Atlassing along Quarry Road to “Waxwing Bluff”

The final day of official atlassing was conducting point counts in priority square 17UNS17 which required access by road. The fact that this square could not be accessed from the river was discovered only three weeks before the trip by the participants. However, this square is accessible from Quarry Road, which runs south-west from Moosonee. Some of the previous point counts were very difficult to access as the road doesn’t extend that far. Our three teams covered as many existing point counts as we could, and created new ones where necessary. It is possible to arrange for a taxi to and from the point count area. In our case, we prearranged for a driver to pick us up at the Motel at 4:30 a.m. and drop our teams off at three locations along the road, and pick us up again at 11:15 a.m. The terrain was similar to that which we had experienced to date: mixed forest, dry spruce bog and stream crossings. We also encountered a maintained ATV trail, hydro cut, rail line and open marshes.

After a long, grueling morning in the bush, we returned to the motel for a shower and lunch. We then packed up and taxied and portaged our gear back to the river. From here, it was a short paddle to our home for the next two nights: Tidewater Provincial Park on Charles Island. The park has very nice campsites with privies and picnic tables. It was luxury! We named our particular campsite “Waxwing Bluff” after the resident Cedar Waxwings.

Portaging through Moosonee (Photo credit: Sheila Craig)
Our campsite at Tidewater Provincial Park (Photo credit: Sheila Craig)

Day 10 (June 18): Leisure and James Bay

Today was our day off!  We were officially DONE with atlassing (although we did submit several further “general atlassing” checklists)! In the morning, we walked around Charles Island, alone and in small groups, to see what birds we could find there. Warblers were plentiful, including a rare Black-throated Green Warbler. Another highlight was a Boreal Chickadee that visited our campsite both mornings. It was delightful to be able to spend the time to actually look for the birds we heard, now that we didn’t have to race to finish point counts, or paddle to our next camp site.

We had arranged with a local guide, Randy Kota, to take us down river to James Bay in a James Bay Freighter (no paddling = luxury!). Our outing took place in the afternoon to take advantage of high tide. This allowed Randy to take us through the (sometimes very) narrow channels of the estuary on the way downstream. While we did not see a huge variety of birds, the outing was thoroughly enjoyable. 

James Bay (Photo credit: Sheila Craig)

Day 11 (June 19): Moose Factory and the train south

The train departs Moosonee for Cochrane at 5:00 p.m. We took advantage of our last day to see Moose Factory. Randy Kota arranged for us to visit the Cree Cultural Interpretive Center. Our guide there, Kim, showed us the centre and then took us to visit the Hudson Bay Staff House, a relic from the hey-day of the Hudson Bay Company in the north. The building, built in 1850, now houses an interesting museum and is also used by the community for meetings and events. We all found our visit to Moose Factory well worth the time.  

Back at Tidewater Provincial Park, we packed up one last time and paddled back to Moosonee. Three of our team portaged the canoes about one km to the train station, while our gear travelled by pickup taxi. The train trip back to Cochrane was on schedule, arriving at 10:00 p.m. It took quite a while to retrieve the gear from the freight car, retrieve the cars from the Thriftlodge, secure the canoes very well on their trailer, pack the cars, return to the Thriftlodge and unload our gear. It was midnight before we were in bed. What a change from our habit of 8:30 bedtime for the past 10 nights!

Last dawn on the Moose River (Photo credit: Sheila Craig)
The Hudson's Bay Staff House, Moose Factory (Photo credit: Sheila Craig)

Day 12 (June 20): Cochrane and Home

Our team had breakfast at the delightful Railway Café before splitting up to head for home. The Southern Ontario group decided to take one more detour and visited the Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat which they declared was definitely worth the time. The Eastern Ontario group hopes to have another opportunity to visit it!

The "Have a Hoot" Crew: Amy, Ange, Barb, Sheila, Catherine, Alex (Photo credit: Barb O’Neill)

Over the course of the 2023 breeding season, atlas staff completed an astonishing amount of work over a vast area of land. Read on to hear each crew’s story!

By Scott Da Rocha, Karl Heide and Claire Atherton

Northwestern Crew (Scott Da Rocha, Evan Sinclair, Erik Van Den Kieboom, Mark Duchene) 

For the Atlas’ North Crew, the 2023 field season was filled with many interesting bird (and other wildlife) encounters, a ton of breeding evidence, many kilometres of hiking, smoke from forest fires, and lots of bugs! We experienced everything from the more populated areas of northern Ontario to the most remote areas. Some of the places we stayed included Ontario Provincial Parks such as Macleod and White River, as well as more remote areas like the Okogi and Kopka rivers. 

Among the 93 species for which we confirmed breeding evidence, we found fledged young for notable species like Sharp-tailed Grouse, Black-billed Magpie, and Barred Owl, with an interesting find of Trumpeter Swan cygnets at the northwest side of Lake Nipigon. We also found many species carrying food to young, including Boreal Chickadee, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and Brewer’s Blackbird, with an interesting observation of a Common Grackle carrying a Red-eyed Vireo nestling (two species confirmed in this case, COGR Carrying Food and REVI Nest with Young!). 

Many nests were encountered during the field season, with highlights including a Black-backed Woodpecker nest with young and a Northern Goshawk sitting on a nest. Of all our records, the most memorable were our encounters with Connecticut Warblers. Although we were never able to confirm breeding, it was spectacular to experience this hard-to-find bird singing in its breeding habitat on multiple occasions throughout the season.

Central Crew (Karl Heide, Dana Latour, Arnaud Valade, Abbey Lewis) 

From the rock barrens of the Georgian Bay to the old-growth pine forests of Marten River Provincial Park, this year’s Central Ontario atlas crew got to experience some of the most beautiful, remote and under-birded parts of the southern shield region. We targeted squares that had received little to no attention thus far in the current atlas, making a significant contribution to the coverage of regions 28-32 and improving the atlas’s ability to draw spatial comparisons in bird abundance with Atlas-1 and Atlas-2.

Our field season was highlighted by large numbers of Crossbills (both White-winged and Red), a surprising abundance of Canada Warblers, many excellent sightings of boreal species like Canada Jay and Black-backed Woodpecker, a close encounter with a Northern Goshawk, and a used copy of Yahtzee that someone picked up at a thrift store in Sudbury. Some of the most significant finds from the season included the confirmed breeding of Sedge Wren in a fen north of Sturgeon Falls, the discovery of an extralimital population of Marsh Wrens at the Burwash Farm southwest of Sudbury, and Ontario’s second and third known records of Wiegand’s Sedge (Carex wiegandii). 

We found a total of 179 active nests of 44 species, a truly impressive number for a crew of atlassers whose primary goal was not nest-searching. Among the most notable nests found were those of Northern Harrier, Brown Thrasher, Canada Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Wood Thrush, Brown Creeper, and Merlin.

The season was not without its challenges, most notably a week-long period of heavy wildfire smoke which eventually became so thick visibility dropped to less than 100 metres. Coincidentally this occurred at the same time we were on crown land and dealing with a disabled field vehicle. More expected were the swarms of biting insects that relentlessly plagued us throughout the summer, many days of extreme heat and periods of drought, which probably exacerbated the wildfires burning to the north of us.         

We are grateful to Ontario Parks for letting us stay free of charge at 5 provincial parks (Sturgeon Bay, Grundy Lake, Restoule, Marten River, Windy Lake). The hot showers and electricity were much appreciated! For our final three weeks, we camped on crown land in two locations; McNish Lake north of Sturgeon Falls, and the Wanapitei River along route 637. Each location we stayed at graced us with a  unique experience and its own assortment of vegetation communities and bird assemblages. I think all 4 of us would do the season again in an instant (and some of us probably will, next year!).

Algonquin Crew (Claire Atherton and Marie-Ève Gagné) 

The Algonquin Crew got the privilege of spending a large part of the spring and summer within beautiful Algonquin Provincial Park. We spent our days in the heart of Algonquin witnessing first-hand the sheer volume of songbirds that this Park produces each year. We had the unique opportunity of accessing Algonquin through a network of roads interspersed throughout the Park, which are normally closed to the public. This gave us an opportunity to explore areas not normally accessible to other Atlassers and volunteers.

We were able to locate 17 different nests throughout the peak season, including those of Song Sparrow, Nashville Warbler, and plenty of woodpeckers. We even had a Blue-headed Vireo nesting across from our campsite at Bonnechere Provincial Park! We encountered plenty of courageous Ruffed Grouse who challenged us (or our vehicle!) if we accidentally got too close for comfort. Towards the end of the season, we watched as fledgling Black-capped Chickadees, Mallards, and American Redstarts learned to navigate the world, while still under the watchful eye of their parents.

Since Algonquin Park is mainly dominated by deciduous or mixed forests, we encountered large numbers of forest songbirds. Some of the most abundant species were Ovenbird, Red-eyed Vireo, White-throated Sparrow, and Nashville Warbler. We also encountered some unexpected species for the area, including Field Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Sandhill Crane, and Cape May Warbler.

As with any field work, we had our fair share of challenges. We ran into the usual hiccups such as minor vehicle troubles, illness, and unrelenting mosquitos. Unique to this season was the intensity of the smoke from wildfires in northern Quebec. There were times when our visibility was limited to only a couple hundred metres ahead of us! However, these challenges made us appreciate our work and made each cool bird and wildlife sighting all the more rewarding.

We’d like to extend a huge thank you to Algonquin, Bonnechere, and Samuel de Champlain Provincial Parks for allowing us to camp for free this season. The staff were helpful with any questions we had, and very accommodating when we had to make last-minute changes.

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