Where our winter birds go

By Claire Curry | Published Wednesday, August 29, 2012

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This past month I had the opportunity to visit Ontario, Canada. I spent five days exploring Algonquin Provincial Park.

The park is famous for moose (of which I saw at least one most every day), but I saw lots of our winter birds in their summer haunts. Lots of our migrant warblers breed in Algonquin at the southern edge of the northern coniferous forests. Some other birds live in deciduous hardwoods such as sugar maple forests that still are northern to us but are a southerly ecotype at Algonquin.

In many of the bogs and by rivers, too, I heard the whistled, repetitive song of White-throated Sparrows. Their song is commonly interpreted as “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” or “Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada.” I hear it once in a while here at home, so I recognized it quickly.

White-throated Sparrows come in tan and white morphs (males and females can be either color). I mostly saw the understated tan morphs. Apparently Algonquin is where several of the studies on these color morphs were conducted. I can see why, since they were so common.

Golden-crowned Kinglets also have a vocalization with which I am familiar, a very high “see see see.” I heard and saw them everywhere. They were often foraging lower in spruce trees, making them easy to see. Some years at home we have tons of them. Other years they are harder to find.

Yellow-rumped Warblers are common here at home in the winter. I don’t usually hear them sing, though, so I had to work to figure out which of the many singing warblers they were. I did finally see several and sometimes would just find a juvenile one foraging in a tree by a beaver pond.

I saw a few other familiar “faces,” too. Brown Creeper, one of our winter species, breeds in Algonquin, and I saw one with a mixed flock of young warblers and chickadees. I got a quick look at a Blue-headed Vireo in that flock, too. It only migrates through Wise County.

A few times I heard what I believe was a Winter Wren singing. They have a fast, bubbling song. I never could see the bird to confirm it. They are rare winter visitors here but are a breeding species in Algonquin.

Speaking of chickadees, in Ontario they have Black-capped Chickadees. They look very similar to our Carolina Chickadees but are a tiny bit bigger, have a bit more white on the edges of the wing feathers and have hoarser voices. The song also differs fewer whistled notes. Mostly I heard them calling. There were family groups of young chickadees and their parents everywhere.

Spruce bogs were at several places in the park. The first one I wasn’t expecting to see. It was at the end of an 11-kilometer (about six to seven miles) hike past many beaver ponds and through maple forest.

I suddenly came upon a lake with a spruce bog around the edge. There were these really weird, smooth, maroon-and-green flowers growing out of the bog. I noticed their leaves were an oddly bright lime green with ruby-red veins. As I continued along the trail, I found more of the flowers and finally got a better look at the leaves.

Many were folded together into a rounded shape. Pitcher plants! These are carnivorous plants that use the insects they trap to get nutrients like nitrogen that are not available from acidic bogs.

Once I realized what the pitcher plants were, I knew I should look for another carnivorous bog plant called a sundew. It is a smaller plant, with a modified round leaf that has sweet secretions to attract insects and sticky droplets to catch them. I quickly found several near the boardwalk. On a different boardwalk the next day, I saw even more sundews and a few more pitcher plants.

It was fun to see both new critters and habitats and our winter friends in their northern breeding haunts. I’ll think of the sparrows singing in the bogs and the kinglets making their familiar calls in the spruces when I see them again this winter.

Whether you are here at home waiting eagerly for winter, or at least cooler weather, or traveling, keep your eyes peeled for whatever surprises nature has for us.

The next monthly field trip on the Lyndon B. Johnson National Grasslands is Sept. 5. We will depart at 9 a.m. from the Forest Service District Office in Decatur. For information, contact Mary Curry (see below) or the Forest Service at (940) 627-5475.

Claire and Mary Curry are nature enthusiasts based in Greenwood. To contact them, email

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