A small yellow-headed grey and white bird preched on a lichen-covered branch

Photographing the birds of the boreal

Nagagamisis Provincial Park is a very special place for birds — just ask camper Edith St. Martin.

During her stay this summer, Edith combined her deep love of learning and teaching with paddling and photography.  Her captivating photos of birds in the park, and her willingness to share them, show us just how diverse and beautiful the birdlife is here at Nagagamisis.

A large deciduous tree leaning off the shore over a clear lake of water on a sunny day.
A view of 15 km-long Nagagamisis Lake looking east. Its waters, shores and forests are a haven for nesting birds, and an oasis for birds migrating that nest further north.

Known as the bird nursery of North America, the boreal forest is an ideal nesting ground for approximately 1 to 3 billion migratory birds that travel north each spring to breed.

A gull with a white body and black head standing on a rock in front of water
With its striking black head, Bonaparte’s Gull makes a bold fashion statement. This gull is a true Boreal Forest resident, nesting in coniferous trees high in the canopy close to the water’s edge.

Edith’s photos literally provide a snapshot of not only the busy breeding season in the boreal forest, but also the importance of places like Nagagamisis as critical habitat for migrating birds that need a special place to stop, rest, and feed on their long journeys back south in the late summer and fall.

A bird with a black and white body and yellow head singing while perched on a mossy branch.
A Black-throated Green Warbler male sings to defend his nesting territory from other males. Warblers migrate great distances from the Caribbean, Central and South America to nest in the Boreal Forest. They face many dangers on the way because there is so much food in northern forests to help raise their young.

“I’ve always been curious about everything about nature”, says Edith.  Growing up in a family that travelled a lot, Edith was given a polaroid camera at a young age and invited to create her own scrapbook of the travels from her perspective.

A white and brown speckled bird perched on a mossy branch
The Northern Waterthrush, actually a species of warbler, spends almost all its time looking for food at the waters edge – lakes, swamps and bogs are its favourite places. It hunts for caterpillars and other insects in the leaves, but will even look for invertebrates and small fish in the shallows!

Now, she uses an 800mm camera lens with an F11 setting for most of her shots, achieving incredible detail in her subjects. “This year with my cameras, it’s just wow! The details are phenomenal on birds.  Each of the little feathers has a function.  It’s just grand.”

A white bird with brown wings and a pointy black beak floating in water.
A young, Red-necked Phalarope wades the shallows looking for small invertebrates. This bird was likely raised along the shores of Hudson Bay this summer and is stopping in for a snack before continuing on to winter far away in the oceans of the southern hemisphere.

During her time at Nagagamisis, Edith would often excitedly check in with park staff about her discoveries that day.  Her deep love of the park and its natural inhabitants is contagious.

Side by side pictures of two birds in flight, an osprey and a bald eagle.
Ospreys are fish hawks, known for spectacular dives into lakes to catch fish in their sharp talons. Bald Eagles also like fish, and sometimes steal fish caught by the Osprey. Both love Nagagamisis for its great fishing!

Looking back at each photo (she took close to 32,000 during her stay at Nagagamisis this summer!), Edith says, “it gives me an emotion and I know where I’ve been and what was happening during that day.”

An adult loon and a baby loon in the water. The baby is holding food in its beak.
A Common Loon feeds its chick a fresh-caught fish.

With the volume of photos that Edith has amassed, a budding birdwatcher might wonder how she even finds all these birds.  Like many campers, she is happiest spending her time in nature, exploring and that helped her with her search.  “Eventually, you know where to look,” explains Edith. “There are certain birds that are ground feeders, while other birds are way up there in the trees.”

A white and brown bird with red eyes perched in an evergreen tree.
A Red-eyed Vireo gives Edith’s camera a peak at its unusual eye-colour. This common Ontario songbird is known for its ability to sing – thousands of songs a day! Most songbirds sing in the morning, but this one sings all day long.

Edith is careful to respect the space of the birds she photographs, getting around mostly by kayak.  “I have lots of energy, and kayaking is my meditation.”

A white and brown bird with orange legs on a pebble beach
Just passing through! This Semipalmated Plover is a shorebird that nests in the tundra and along the coast of Hudson Bay, and may have been nesting in Polar Bear Provincial Park this summer!

Edith spent so much time observing the birds she photographed that she began to notice not only their beauty, but also their behaviours, personalities, and interactions.  As a retired teacher, Edith reflected “[among] some of my favourite students, there are always one or two that stand out, that are not like others, they just don’t fit in.  And I noticed that in the ducks, too.”

“It really is a beautiful park.  There is so much for all people.” We couldn’t agree more, Edith. Like the birds who call it home, Nagagamisis is unique and worth the journey to see.

Nagagamisis Provincial Park opens for the 2023 season on May 19, when we welcome back our migrating birds and campers alike!