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
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.
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!).
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.