Colour in the eye of the beholder

Photo Post

The marshes are a sea of green, wild and garden flowers are coming into bloom, and one 24-hour period this week saw a burst of nesting activity by the Snapping Turtles.

Notwithstanding all the vivid hues, the tranquility of many midsummer days comes across beautifully in photos of minimal colour.

Waterbug (click images for larger view)

 

Spin

In our garden the Asiatic Lilly (above) and Sea Holly (below) were just about to bloom.

Sea Holly

The lawn is dotted with Daisy Fleabane (below).

Pink & Yellow

Even in the compost bin, an occasional “flower” sprouts from the dark decomposition.

Compost Flower

 

Beach Path

On the dunes and on the marsh, elegant forms rise from the sand and water surfaces.

Making Waves

 

Sunset Stride

As the sun dips below the horizon, a family of swans climbs out on a mud flat, while a turtle digs a lakeside nest to deposit her eggs.

Excavator

 
Top photo: Close Look (click here for larger view)

 

light lines

PHOTO POST

Bright light and shadows run through this week’s post, with photos from garden and forest, marsh and lakeshore.

When there’s a fork in the road, take it (click images for larger views)

 

Mullein

This Mullein plant, lit from the other side by early morning sunlight, grows just beneath a bird feeder. The spot is a favourite hangout for squirrels, who encourage the Blue Jays to spill as much seed as possible.

Feeding Grounds

Purple Finches (who always look more red than purple to me) also visit the same feeder.

I See Red

 

Goldfinch

The Goldfinches and Hummingbirds get their own special feeders.

Wing

 

Antennae

The above photo comes from a bit farther afield, on the bank of a small pond within the grounds of the Darlington Nuclear Station.

Below, the shadows of sunset play across the surface of Soper Creek where a submerged branch breaks the gentle current.

Ripple

On the same evening, a Kingbird rests above a logjam on Bowmanville Creek.

Kingbird

Dozens of Dunlins swirled along the lakeshore on a breezy afternoon, plucking insects as waves splashed over the stones.

Landing

 

Seven

 

Fast Runner

Every so often the birds would rise together in an instant, swoop out over the water in a fast-moving cloud, and circle back to a new spot a bit further down the shore. What caused these sudden flurries? The Dunlins, it appeared, didn’t appreciate the company of a Grackle, whose stroll along the beach repeatedly got too close for comfort.

Grackle

The edge of summer

 PHOTO POST

While a few migratory birds are still stopping by on their way to nesting grounds far to the north, some resident birds have already hatched big broods. Meanwhile woodland flowers are hurrying to develop before the leafy canopies above cast a blanket of shade.

A few days ago a pair of Dunlins paid a colourful visit to Port Darlington beach, pecking at the wet sand in search of tiny insects. Since they nest along the Arctic coast and the shore of Hudson’s Bay these birds still have a long way to fly.

Travellers (click images for larger views)

Along Bowmanville Creek just north of the harbour, a ramshackle beaver lodge has appeared vacant since it was submerged by last spring’s high water. But this curious Mink seems to be quite at home.

Guardian

 

Preaching to the Choir

Two weeks ago there was little trace of these ferns beyond the stumps of last year’s growth. Now they have emerged and unfurled their fronds more than half a meter high. In the interim the muddy forest floor was dotted with fiddleheads.

Fiddlehead Duet

Another woodland plant is just about to present a well-kept secret. The intoxicating aroma of the Mayapple blossom will soon be present –  but you have to get down on hands and knees and peer under the umbrella-leaves of the Mayapple to find its single flower. The single delicious yellow fruit, similarly hidden, will ripen in August – and the squirrels will be ready.

Promise of a Flower

Under a tree on a sand dune, Vinca is now in flower.

Ground Cover

 

Rafting

In the marsh, shoots of green are just emerging amongst the sun-bleached stubble of last year’s reeds. A pair of Common Terns found that a couple pieces of the pithy cattail stalks make a fine raft.

The Great Blue Herons keep watch around the marsh’s edge for the many fish that ripple the water’s surface.

Focus

 

Sunday Morning

Pairs of Canada Geese are watching their nests throughout the marsh and along the creek banks – but some families have really gotten a jump on the season.

Slipstream

Top photo: Beachcombing (click here for full-size image)

Don’t blink, you’ll miss it

PHOTO POST

Spring is a long time coming this year, especially along the lakeshore – so we can expect it may give way to summer in a great rush.

In the marsh the vegetation looks brown and dry – but a muskrat can still find a fresh green salad, simply by uprooting a cattail.

Underneath the trees in the garden there isn’t a lot of colour either, though last year’s hydrangea leaves still cut a sharp figure against the dark damp soil.

Leaf Litter

Just a few inches away, however, things are changing fast. Like rhubarb, the Mayapple is one of those plants that emerge from the ground with leaves already fully formed.

Mayapple One

Within a few days, these new shoots have spread their umbrellas.

Mayapple Two

 

Scilla siberica

The Scilla is next to flash some dazzling colour, followed within a few days by Lungwort.

 

Lungwort

Robin in late afternoon

Robins have been hanging around waiting for spring for a full month. Likewise, the Red-wing blackbirds have endured weeks of freezing temperatures, not to mention an ice storm in mid-April.

Redwing One

 


Redwing Two

It’s a long time to put up with unseasonable cold, just to be first in line for prime nesting sites. Fortunately for these birds, the clouds of midges that often darken our skies can provide a change in diet after weeks of scrounging last year’s leftover seeds.

 

Scissormouth

 

Top photo: Eats roots and leaves (full-size version here)

Acoustic conditions, conservation planning, and the St. Marys mine

How much external noise can you add to a wetland environment before the wildlife inhabitants really start to suffer?

Relatively little scientific research appears to have been conducted on this subject. Yet an understanding of cumulative noise pollution is essential to properly assessing the long-term impact of the proposed St. Marys Cement under-the-lake mine south of Bowmanville.

A recently published research paper found biochemical markers of increased stress levels, as well as reduced hatching success, among birds chronically exposed to industrial noise. We’ll get to that paper below, but first, here’s a refresher on the setting for the mine proposal.

The St. Marys mine proposal (official Project Description here) describes a mine-entrance tunnel near the bottom of the existing limestone quarry on the Lake Ontario shoreline. The tunnel will lead to under-the-lake caverns, which will be excavated over a 100-year period.

The project site is adjacent to two Provincially Significant Wetlands, Westside Marsh and Bowmanville Marsh. These wetlands are among the remnants of what was once a very extensive array of coastal wetlands all around Lake Ontario. The remaining coastal wetlands are still of key importance to resident and migratory bird populations and to many freshwater fish species who depend on the wetlands at some stage of their life-cycles.

If the project is approved as proposed, 4 million tonnes of limestone will be blasted and hauled out from these caverns each year. The operation will require ventilation fans moving fresh air into the mine and exhaust air back out, to enable work to be conducted throughout a network of chambers that will eventually extend approximately 14 square kilometers under the lake.

Mining trucks will carry the limestone out of the mine and into the quarry, where it will be crushed into aggregate suitable for construction use. Then approximately 500 truckloads per day (based on seven days/week haulage) will leave the St. Marys site carrying aggregate to the primary market on the east side of the Greater Toronto Area.

The environmental viability of the project must be assessed by looking at the cumulative effects. The blasting, drilling, ventilation fans, trucks and crushers will add noise to an environment that is already anything but quiet.

At present both Westside Marsh and Bowmanville Marsh are subject to significant anthropogenic noise levels on a 24-hour basis. The operations of St. Marys are just one component of that noise.

Noise from St. Marys existing operations comes from blasting and hauling limestone immediately to the west of Westside Marsh, trucking of cement products, and major excavation and berm-building directly north of Westside Marsh.

Another constant noise source is Highway 401, just to the north. At present the traffic noise consists of a constant loud hum, punctuated by accelerating trucks, motorcycles, and sirens. The St. Marys mine would add to that traffic noise, as 500 or more additional trucks come and go every day. (The route in and out of the St. Marys property, and on and off the 401, are shown in yellow on the above map.)

One of the busiest rail lines in Canada passes directly north of the quarry, about 500 meters north of Westside Marsh, and through the north end of Bowmanville Marsh.

Above, an eastbound CN freight train skirts the St. Marys quarry and cement plant. Below, a CN freight train on the bridge over Soper Creek at the north end of Bowmanville Marsh.

 

Noise and stress in bird populations

A recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (US) notes that noise pollution “alters habitats, degrades natural acoustic conditions, and partially or fully excludes species that are sensitive to noise exposure from affected areas.”1

Among the species that remain in noise-affected environments, the effects on survival and fitness are complex. One way to study this is to correlate measured noise levels with measured levels of baseline circulating stress hormones (glucocorticoids) in birds. The paper notes,

To date, no studies have simultaneously examined relationships among noise, GCs [glucocorticoids], and fitness in animals that settle and breed in natural areas exposed to chronic anthropogenic noise.

The paper looked at three species of cavity-nesting birds with different noise tolerances, in a New Mexico wildland which is now interrupted by an array of natural gas compressors. The evidence “strongly suggests that chronic anthropogenic noise induces stress and hypocorticism in birds.” Furthermore, with one of the studied species, the western bluebird, increased noise was correlated with a lower rate of hatching success.

There are a number of explanations for the stress response.

At lower exposure levels, anthropogenic noise is more likely to elicit stress responses indirectly by increasing the difficulty of coping with external challenges (e.g., territory defense) or by creating anxiety through reduced detectability and predictability of threats (e.g., acoustic masking of predator alarm sounds), or both.

Given the capacity for chronic noise to consistently mask biologically relevant cues, animals living in areas with high levels of noise may fail to receive information about their local habitats, leading to a continual state of perceived unpredictability and reduced security.

Citing a range of other studies, the authors further explain how chronic noise pollution disrupts the normal sensory perceptions of wildlife.

The distance over which birdsong and other sounds are effectively transmitted, their ‘active space’, is significantly reduced by increases in ambient background noise. Anthropogenic noise, acting as an acoustic blanket, can reduce or inhibit detection of hetero- and conspecific vocalizations that birds and other animals use to gain information about predation threats. For example, the presence of birdsong and chatter is thought to signal the absence of nearby predators.

How does noise pollution affect the wildlife in Westside and Bowmanville Marshes? Are there species which would otherwise make these wetlands home, if it weren’t for chronic noise levels? With increasing noise levels, will some of the existing species be driven out, or will the populations be weakened due to lower reproduction rates? These are complex questions – but they must be answered before the impacts of additional noise, due to a major mining/extraction project, can be properly assessed.

In spite of huge environmental challenges these wetlands remain home to a wide variety of species. Within this small area there are cattail marshes, open water, wetland forest, upland forest, and even a small fen. Among the many species that live here are various waterfowl, fish, wading birds, osprey, kingfisher, beaver, muskrat, and predators including otter, weasel, marten, raccoon, coyote and fox. These wetlands are also vital staging areas for the many migratory birds which fly over Lake Ontario in the spring and fall.

Raccoon on the bank of Westside Creek at the north end of a beaver pond; ospreys which nest each year on platforms in Westside Marsh; juvenile Black-Crown Night Heron photographed in Bowmanville Marsh.

These wetlands are officially designated as “Provincially Significant Marshes”. The review process for the St. Marys under-the-lake mine must make us ask, how much significance does the province actually afford to this environment?

The authors of the paper on noise pollution and avian stress levels note,

In this era of unprecedented, large-scale human-driven environmental change, preservation or recovery of natural acoustic conditions should be a key aspect of conservation planning and is a critical step toward successful conservation of protected species.

Given the importance of natural acoustic conditions to conservation planning, should the province of Ontario give the OK to increased noise pollution from St. Marys Cement?

 


1“Chronic anthropogenic noise disrupts glucocorticoid signaling and has multiple effects on fitness in an avian community”, Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, 14 November 2017

leaf to leaf

While fall colours quietly creep into woods and wetlands, one group of leaves remains vibrant green: the lily pads. In Bowmanville Marsh and Westside Marsh you may spot a sandpiper treading lightly from leaf to leaf while feeding on aquatic insects, or a beaver swimming from one lily patch to another while happily munching on a flower.

The herons, too, keep watch over lily pads for signs of movement from fish or frogs. Here a young black-crowned night heron hopes for a meal, at the edge of a dense stand of cattails which have lost nearly all their summer colour.

Toehold (click images for larger view)

The fall palette is reflected in the water as a beaver makes a swift passage across the marsh by setting sunlight.

 

Straight Ahead

The resident mute swans are often seen feeding among lily pads – and they leave their mark even when the birds themselves are nowhere in sight.

Feather Two

 

Feather One

 

Sandpipers prove that there are great advantages in being light of weight but wide of foot. On a quiet end-of-summer evening the surface of the marsh teems with insects, and the lily pads make even the deeper waters accessible to this wading bird.

Fast Forward

 

Afloat

In the vegetable garden, meanwhile, another nimble footed creature is springing from leaf to leaf – a grasshopper feasting on collard greens.

Copper Tack

Top photo: Sandpiper Buffet (click here for larger view)

season finale

On a chilly late August morning you may feel that your best-before date has come and gone, your colours have faded and your once-splendid wings are tattered. But by the warmth of the noon-day sun, when you’re sipping nectar from a silphium flower eight feet in the air, you can still make the most of the summer’s glories.

Ragged Red Admiral (click images for larger view)

Once-bright petals are curling and falling to the ground, but a new round of flowers is taking over in meadows and gardens.

Light-Emitting Dandelion

 

Aster

 

Meanwhile the marsh is alive with a profusion of dragonflies and damselflies.

Dark Dragon

 

Dragonfly Sky

 

Whether in the marsh, harbour or along the breakwater, the ducks are no longer skittish – they continue feeding while a kayaker drifts within a few feet.

Duck Diner 1

Duck Diner 2

An adult Black Crowned Night Heron is not a flashy bird, but this nearly full-grown juvenile shows real sartorial flare.

One Fine Heron

Several Great Blue Herons can often be seen in one small part of Bowmanville Marsh.

Wingspan

Along this coast there is another distinct sign of summer’s end: salmon are approaching the mouths of creeks, and that means fishing charters linger near shore while hopeful anglers line the breakwater.

Observation

 

Illustration at top of page: Red Dragon and Blue Dragon

Shiny Things

This week’s photo post is all about things that catch the eye with a flash of sunlight – even when that light is first reflected by the moon.

Campanula. This bellflower, one of the nearly 500 species of campanula, grows well on the shoreline sand dune. (click images for larger view)

 

Hang on. On a breezy summer afternoon this dragonfly keeps a steady grip.

 

Sequined wings.

 

Red currants.

In our garden the first of the summer fruits are just about ready to eat. Meanwhile out in Bowmanville Marsh the water smartweed (persicaria amphibia), whose seeds are snacks for waterfowl and raccoons, is sending up its flowers.

Water smartweed.

Just down the coast, the channel where Westside Marsh meets Lake Ontario is a favoured fishing spot for local birds. As night falls a Great Blue Heron often waits at water’s edge, and if there is still enough light you may catch a glimpse of a shiny fish before it is swallowed in one gulp.

Your turn.

The full moon rising over the lake is a spellbinding sight all on its own. But if a heron chooses that moment to leap from the gravel bar into flight, and you’re lucky enough to have your camera ready, you may as well press the shutter.

That was now.

 

Top photo: Squirrel-tail grass on sand dune. (click here for larger view)

birds birds birds

Today’s post features just a few of the birds seen in the waters, on the shore, and in the treetops in recent weeks in our neighbourhood.

Dive (click images for larger views)

 

Angles

 

Swimming in green

 

Perched

 

Killdeer in dune grass

 

Rocky shore

 

Portrait

 

Night falls

 

Motion studies, or Thanks for all the fish

 

Higher Ground

With Lake Ontario at record high levels, coastal marshes have now spilled over large areas which are normally more or less dry land.

Edges (click images for larger view)

To take pictures along the walking trail along Bowmanville Creek at the north side of Bowmanville Marsh, you need to add hip waders to your photography kit – mere knee-high boots will only get you around the edges of this wetland.

Mirror

Suspension

Though the bare ground has been well under the waters for weeks now, many of the moist woodland species appear to be thriving.

 

In the Catbird Seat

Layers

Mollusc II

The meadow at the east end of West Beach Road, just 100 meters from the Lake Ontario shoreline, also teems with activity.

With masses of rotting wood from generations of huge willow trees along the edge of this meadow, there are billions of ants – now all flushed out of the ground to find a dry perch. Anything sticking out of the water – a blade of grass, stem of last year’s goldenrod, or the odd passing photographer – soon acquires a population of ants. Myrmecophobes be forewarned.

Colonies

But there are bigger animals making the grass rustle – schools of carp now swim and splash through this meadow.

Velocity

Patterns

If you are a bottom feeder this is fine dining.

Mouth

Top photo: Return (click here for larger image)