To see, or to be seen? That is the question.
The birds and plants in the woods and waters of Port Darlington show us some of the ways in which the invention of the eye has shaped life history.
Many birds (for example the Yellow Warbler, above, and the Scarlet Tanager, below) are famously flashy. It seems unlikely that the beautiful appearances of these birds would have evolved if they never saw each other, but only sensed their world through hearing, smell, taste and touch.
Yet the urge to be hidden is just as influential as the urge to be seen – leading to a fabulous array of camouflage schemes. Sometimes one bird manages both tricks.
The Cedar Waxwing has a striking crest, and seen from one side its red wing tips and yellow tail tip really jump out. Yet with its predominantly subdued earth tones it can blend into shadowy forests very well.
Many creatures can’t see but still leverage the power of vision for their own benefit. Look at some of our woodland flowers, whose stunningly vibrant colours call out to pollinators.
In this regard one of our most common woodland flowers is a marvellous mystery. The Mayapple spreads mostly by runners. Its pollination strategies have a poor rate of success, partly because its flower produces no nectar. And its striking white flower grows underneath large leaves, facing downward.
The chilly spring has delayed the bloom of Mayapples into early June this year. To savour this beauty, stand in a patch of Mayapples, bend down until your nose touches your toes, then rotate your head 180° so you can look upward into the beautiful flower just about 30 centimeters above the ground. And while relaxing into this pose, remember to breathe, so you can drink in the rich aroma of this flower.
But back to the creatures of the sky and water – one of the recent visitors to our shoreline was a Ruddy Turnstone, named for its colour and its habit of turning pebbles over to spot the insects on which it feeds.
The Turnstone nests in the high arctic and didn’t stick around here long. But a summer resident bird uses similar colours in an entirely different pattern. And like the Turnstone, Woodpeckers use their eyes both for long-distance navigation and for close-up work in dining on tiny bugs.
This Red-Bellied Woodpecker appears to have found a good home high above a flooded woodland along Bowmanville Creek.
Waterfowl have been foraging in the same woods, including this Blue-Winged Teal spotted just before sunset.
A resident Beaver also swims back and forth through these woods, perhaps enjoying the fact that large branches can now be floated home rather than dragged through the bush.
Beavers are said to have poor eyesight, and if you’re quiet you can get very close before they spot you and dash back to the water or do their slap and dive. But they do their best work at night and underwater, and their eyes cope with these challenges very well.
To see, or to be seen? The Grackle is famous for its flashy iridescence but its appearance is striking in another way too. As it patrols the rich ground under a bird feeder, its eyes not only see but are seen. With those intimidatingly stark black-and-white eyes shouting “I see you!” the Grackle warns all rivals.
Just another in the myriad ways that vision has shaped life.
And without eyes, we would neither raise our eyebrows nor sit in wide-eyed wonder.
Photo at top: Yellow Warbler in Thicket (click here for larger view)