Surveying the pine barrens

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1st panamoric shot of wetland/pine barren habitat

The first of two point count survey routes through rock barren environs in Frontenac Park was completed this past week. It has been tough going for scheduling and conducting surveys this season as the weather has been largely uncooperative for both roadside and off-road surveys of breeding birds. Cool temperatures, high winds and precipitation limit bird activity, which greatly reduces the validity of the data being gathered. This is the main reason why these surveys have yet to finish, however they should be wrapped up by the weekend (fingers crossed).

106 point count stations are now “in the books”, the last batch of which were drawn from rock barren habitat in Frontenac Provincial Park on June 20th, 2009. It was a long day of hiking, spanning over 12 kilometers through the deep interior of the park’s southeastern portion. The habitat was stunning and full of birds and other wildlife, which made for yet another exhilarating day of field studies on the Frontenac Arch. This particular section of the park is HEAVILY laden with irregularly sized and shaped wetlands ranging from beaver ponds, lakes, swamps and sloughs. More than once I was forced to wade through the water waist high in order to stay on course-there was simply no way of getting through it without a long and wasteful detour. I don’t normally object to getting a bit wet as needed but these wetlands are very soft-mud bottomed types with imperceptible footing and a great deal of mushy unpleasantness-not to mention saturated with unseen snapping turtles! In the end though, my way was found and I took in the ordeal with a balanced sense of bemusement and humour.

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blueberry season arriving

Blueberry, probably Vaccinium corymbosum or High-bush Blueberry, was a dominant ground cover species in areas with enough moisure (i.e. everywhere). The fruit is just starting to mature and should be edible soon. I have yet to associate any particular bird species with this plant but I can imagine that Nashville Warblers would find it an appropriately dense-low growing cover for their shallow cup nests. Blueberry is common throughout the park but is particularly abundant in rock barren areas running in a gradually narrowing band from the park’s south end through to Big Clear Lake in the northeast.

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Prairie Warbler turf

The very first survey of the day yielded Virginia Rail, multiple pairs of Wilson’s Snipe and a distant Prairie Warbler-not a bad start! The next station, some 330m away, got me closer to the Prairie Warbler territory, which is pictured above. The male was constantly singing from the the dense shrubs lining a wet draw astride a rock wall. I had no time to investigate this particular territory any further but I’ve been pleased enough overall with having mapped several territories of this species in interior and atypical habitat associations. Prairie Warbler is a rare breeder in Canada with a very patchy and sparse distribution along the southern shield ecotone in Ontario.

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Mixed-forest habitat near Slide Lake (FPP)

The route carried through a habitat I hadn’t yet sampled this season, mixed-forest dominated by Eastern White Pine and Red Pine. This area was “loaded” with Yellow-rumped and Pine Warblers, Chipping and White-throated Sparrows and lesser numbers of Blue-headed Vireo. The highlight of the birding was an adult Great Horned Owl with a fluffy youngster within 75m during a survey. Great Horned Owl is considerably less common than Barred Owl in this region.

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Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida)

The best non-avian find of the day was of a mixed stand of pine, which included some Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida), a species endemic to the Frontenac Arch and 1000 Island regions in Canada. This pine species is the primary species of the well known New Jersey Pine Barrens, although it is found in small quantities south to Georgia. Interestingly, this is the only native conifer to sprout shoots (epicormic sprouts) from its trunk in response to damage, an adaptation to surviving forest fires.

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More Pitch Pine

Pitch Pines are a scraggy looking conifer species, a trait that probably drew my initial attention to it. All of the plants in the stand were roughly of this size and shape, no more than perhaps 10m tall.

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Distinctive needles

This is a closeup of the needles and cones of the Pitch Pine with its characteristically long, flat and twisted needles in bunches of three. The Pitch Pine is not listed as a species known to reside in Frontenac Provincial Park so I hope I haven’t botched the ID as I’ve now gone into some irreversible length about this subject:)

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panoramic shot of pine barren habitat

This is the last of the panoramic shots I took of the area during the day. I was hoping that the widescreen view might help in providing a sense of scale and depth of the habitat. Vegetation in the area is quite stunted, reflective of shallow till and extensive rock outcrops. This park “ecozone” is a stark contrast to the mature woodland featured earlier, with its abundant Cerulean Warblers and towering century old ash, maple and oaks. Just a few kilometres away, Wilson’s Snipe, Eastern Towhee, Field Sparrows and Common Nighthawks, among others, inhabit vast expanses of moss and lichen covered rock with ripening blueberry shrub and stunted pines. These contrasts are a defining feature of the Frontenac Arch, an undulated, ever-changing landscape of immense diversity.

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One thought on “Surveying the pine barrens

  1. What a cool looking place!

    I’m still wrapping my head around the number of point counts you are maintaining, let alone the details concerning things like slogging through swamps. Waist high water & mucky bottom? Huge yuk factor there. If there were a weekly wish-list prize for extraordinary fieldwork effort, you’d take it away this week, hands down!

    Having said that, the satisfaction of encountering such a variety of bird species and experiencing wonderful habitats must be huge.

    Any chance of your sampling those blueberries? ;s)

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