attention to scale

PHOTO POST

It’s a great idea – but does it scale? 

“Warm-blooded flying dinosaur” is not only a time-tested concept, but one that works at a wide range of scales. This post stars the tiniest bird in our neighbourhood – but a distant relative a thousand times as big also makes an appearance.

If we expand the view beyond birds to include the smallest insects one can see clearly with the naked eye, I guess we would need two or three more zeroes to express the scale range.

But enough of arithmetic.

At the foot of a hummingbird

We leave plenty of room in our garden for Bergamot, not only because the long-lasting flowers are gorgeous, but because we can expect Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds to drop by many times a day to sip the nectar.

When there are no hummingbirds to be seen, we might spot equally beautiful, though much smaller, flying insects.

Dragonfly on Bergamot

Angel Dance (Hoverfly on Bergamot)

This year the Hummingbirds have become quite accustomed to our presence, and now that the fledglings are also feeding we can watch from a distance of just a couple of meters.

Totally tubular

Face-on

A clothes-line proves a perfect resting place with a great view across the gardens.

Clothes-line with Hummingbird

Due to the nearby marsh we see many damselflies and dragonflies in the garden, including this male Long-Tailed Skimmer.

Long-Tailed Skimmer

It can be difficult to get away from the gardens at this time of year but there was a special show in the marsh one recent evening.

Gathering of Swallows

Scores of Northern Rough-Winged Swallows were chattering up a storm, with many swooping low over the water in pursuit of insects, then suddenly switching places with others to sit on slender reed perches while they groomed themselves.

Judging by the vivid highlights on their wings I’m thinking some of these were juveniles, said to have cinnamon streaks which the adults lack.

Sitting Swallow

As the sun sank low that evening a Great Blue Heron flew by.

Blue Streak

And as the sun rose over the garden in the morning, a hummingbird was waiting in a cherry tree.

Morning’s glow

as big as life

PHOTO POST

On a bright day in July it’s hard to go a more than a few fathoms in any direction without coming across some arresting sight.

Just off the front step, a web of spider silk has caught the rain over a cluster of sedums.

Suspended Rain

At the end of the lawn, Black Mud-Dauber Wasps favour a flowering Rue.

Mud-Dauber Wasp on Rue

Scattered throughout the marsh are floating yellow pond lilies.

Pond Lily by Setting Sun

It’s a safe bet that Sora have raised their young in this marsh every year, but I had never seen a juvenile Sora until a few nights ago. Then, just an hour before sunset, a bright shaft of light chanced across a young Sora and there it was, big as life.

Shaft of Light

The next night, same time, same place, I drifted by again and saw not one but two young Sora.

Sora on quiet evening

Portrait of a Young Sora

On a bright July morning, the nearby savannah is alive with Cedar Waxwing, Goldfinch, Savannah Sparrow and Willow Flycatcher*.

Outlook is Bright

A short rest

Savannah Sparrow

Flycatcher on a very green morning

In meadows, gardens and orchards another flashy creature has made its appearance. As beautiful as Popillia japonica may be, it is not a welcome sight as it does a lot of damage to fruit and vegetable crops.

Popillia japonica

Bees moving between Geranium flowers, on the other hand, are a sight for sore eyes.

I can’t stay long

Roadsides are festooned with blue Chicory, which attract pollinators including the Eastern Calligrapher fly.

Calligrapher on Chicory

Back home in the vegetable garden, the blossoms of sugar-snap peas would be beautiful even without the promise of the delicious green pods just a week away.

Real Sweet


* Flycatchers are reputed to be extremely difficult to identify unless you hear the bird’s song, and this one didn’t sing for me. Based on the pictures I consulted, a Willow Flycatcher was the closest match – but I’m no ornithologist.

a whistling of whimbrels

PHOTO POST

It’s always fun to gaze across the water looking for our usual residents. But in springtime you never know when a beautiful stranger might drop by for a few hours or a few days.

On a warm evening in the marsh, you might spot an ancient snapping turtle looming large at the surface, ready for any meal that might come within striking distance.

Swim a little closer please

Looking through clouds of midges in the calm of early morning, you spot Cormorants and Ring-Billed Gulls looking for breakfast.

Sparkling Shadow

Splashing Gulls

Red-breasted Mergansers are usually here for just a few months. When they come close to shore they make great entertainment, disappearing for long dives, skittering around the surface in boisterous play, and then suddenly, simultaneously, rising up and away in flight.

Fish is the Point

Skitterskatter

We’re outta here

But one quiet afternoon this week I could hear that something different was going on, somewhere near the breakwater. A chorus of peeps – or was it squeaks, or tweets, or whistles?  It wasn’t a familiar sound so I set out to investigate.

What should I find but a few dozen Whimbrels (or Hudsonian Curlews, as some older references call them).

Over the ridge

They mingled with the Gulls, sang their songs, stretched their wings, and then departed in smaller groups until, shortly before sundown, they were all on their way to the far north.

A Singular Bird

Don’t Cross Me

Whimbrel Wings

Come morning, a bright sun rose on another group of visitors, the Dunlins, likewise stopping for a short rest during a long journey.

Merry Company of Adventurers

Down to the Waterline 2

Rise and Shine

Different Strokes

By mid-morning they too had departed for parts north.

But back to the title of this post – do whimbrels whistle, or is that wordplay just whimsy? You can listen and decide for yourself:

an eye on the sparrow

PHOTO POST

One morning last week two of the less-seen sparrows visited our front yard together.

White-Throated Sparrow

White-Crowned Sparrow

These two sparrows, plus the Song Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, American Tree Sparrow, and the Dark-Eyed Junco, often search for food in the lawn and gardens. The Savannah Sparrow and the Swamp Sparrow occasionally allow themselves to be seen in a nearby meadow and marsh.

Wouldn’t it be fun, I thought, to do a post just on the various sparrows in this neighbourhood?

Well, it probably was fun … for the sparrows. I frantically tried to be everywhere at once, searching all the right habitats, while of course also moving as slowly and as close to soundlessly as I could manage. All while scanning the ground and thickets with great care, and equal futility – since I never saw the tiny bundles of camouflage until the second they darted for deeper cover.

Keeping an eye on the sparrow is easier said than done.

Was the exercise a waste of time? Not at all. When you go outside and you pay attention to what’s right around you, you’re likely to see and hear things you didn’t expect.

Stairway to Heaven

A Grackle showed off its colours, and I got glimpses of a Brown-Headed Cowbird, a Yellow-Rumped Warbler, and a Yellow Warbler. And one evening a soft squawk caused me to look a long way up, where I spotted a larger bird shape.

It was a Northern Flicker hollowing out a nest near the top of a dead tree. The nest was on the east side of the trunk and the sun was setting in the west – but at least I knew where to focus in better light.

The next morning I was back, lying on the forest floor with a convenient tree root serving as my pillow, watching a drama unfolding close to the sky.

Flicker Builds Nest (larger views – top section here; bottom section here)

Based on what happened next, I’m guessing the nest was nearly ready for eggs.

Flicker Duet for Spring

The embrace was brief, but brought on spectacular fireworks.

Northern Flash

When I returned my gaze to earthly matters I saw that a few fiddleheads were unfurling.

Soon, Ferns

In the very shallow water at the outside edges of the marsh, where it’s almost impossible for wind or waves to disturb the placid surface, I puzzled over tiny floating seedlings. This is one effect, I think, of the gentle rise and fall of the marsh as it equalizes with every slight fluctuation in the level of Lake Ontario.

Sprout

Even occasional tufts of moss had detached from land and were sinking down to become part of the rich muck –  but not before creating some beautiful ripples.

Moss Makes Waves

And just when I thought I’d see everything except sparrows, one ventured out on a rotting log along the creek bank.

Swamp Sparrow by Evening Light


Composite at top of page, clockwise from top left: Swamp Sparrow, White-Crowned Sparrow, White-Throated Sparrow. (Click here for full-screen view)

back yard blizzard

PHOTO POST

When a blizzard blew over a few days ago the wintering birds knew what to do: gather round the feeders and feast.

Like most blizzards in Ontario’s deep south, this one was mild in temperature. But perhaps the birds sensed that much colder weather was on the way. They were so intent on taking their turns at the feeders they paid little attention to pesky paparazzi.

Finch and Junco (click images for full-screen views)

American Goldfinches (above right) worked at the nyjer thistle seed all day. Dark-eyed Juncos (above left) gave it a try too, though their fatter beaks aren’t a good fit for the narrow holes in the finch feeder.

Woodpecker Candy

The Downy Woodpecker (above), as well as its larger lookalike the Hairy Woodpecker, hammered away at their high-calorie treat – seeds frozen in a suet block.

Inspector Starling

The Starlings gave it a try too but had a harder time of it.

American Tree Sparrows found their picnics at ground level.

Tree Sparrow in Tall Grass, 1

Their name is a misnomer, since they nest and forage on the ground. Grass seed is a favoured food, and a deep drift of snow put the seed heads on tall stalks within a short hop.

Tree Sparrow in Tall Grass, 2

By the time the sun rose the next morning the wind had calmed, the snow was no longer drifting, and the skies were clear. There is no better time to stroll the beach, watching the light show play out where sand and stones meet ice, waves and the first rays of sunrise.

Sedimentary Colours 1

Sedimentary Colours, 2

Sedimentary Colours 3

Sedimentary Colours 4

The rest of the beach is equally beautiful with bright cottage colours set off against new snow.

Cottages at Port Darlington

When I return home the birds are again busy in the back yard and this Junco waits for a turn at the feeder.

Junco on White


Photo at top of page: Snowy Morning Doves (full-screen version here)

the crakes and their ilk

PHOTO POST

Do we have Crakes in North America? That depends on whose definition you follow, but I like this one from Merriam-Webster: “any of various rails, especially a short-billed rail.”

At least four species from the Rail family, including three short-billed ones, have made appearances within a kilometer of my home this year – so at least we can say that the Crake cousins are well represented here.

The first one to show up this year was the American Coot, in early spring. I only saw one individual, and it only stuck around for a few days. Likewise, the Common Gallinule and the Sora have also put in appearances here.

Consider the Coot (click images for full-screen views)

The Coot spends somewhat more time swimming than do most Rails, but when it gets out of the water you can see one of the distinctive adaptations shared by Rails. Their feet, which can spread across floating mats of roots and reeds in soupy mud, make it possible to stride through swamps where you and I would sink to our waists.

A Coot’s Feet

The Rails usually hang out in the marsh interior, and they’re not easy to find. But while you prowl the marsh’s edge looking for a good vantage you can spot all sorts of wonders. A multitude of snails, for example (which just happen to be one of the favoured foods of Rails).

In a wet light

Milkweed grows beside the marsh in great profusion, and the blooms attract the Virginia Ctenucha Moth.

Contrasticity

I’m convinced the spelling of Ctenucha was devised merely to confuse people. (The first letter is silent.) But apparently “ctenucha” means “having a comb”.

Tcomb

In the lush meadow at water’s edge there are several storeys of growth. Near ground level I pondered this botanical apparition.

It’s not easy thinking green

With a clear view of the marsh interior, on the right day, with the right light, you just might get a glimpse of some Rails – in this case, the Virginia Rails. The chicks appeared to be just a few days old and, camouflaged in coal-black fuzz, they remained all-but-invisible unless they ventured out of the shadows. (See if you can spot the one in the background below).

Illuminated Marsh

The Virginia Rail chicks already sported feet nearly as long as their tiny bodies.

In the spotlight

Nine days later I got a look at two more chicks, now foraging on their own, and beginning to show the Virginia Rail patterning.

Giant Steps

Taste of independence

While the Rails spend their summer walking among the reeds, seldom swimming or flying, most other marsh birds have different ways of life. Wood Ducks (below) swim throughout the marsh though they nest in trees close to water.

Under the Arch

Flycatchers are fond of the thickets at marsh edge. The different species are notoriously hard to distinguish except by their songs, and I didn’t hear this one sing before it flitted out of sight. Perhaps, some day, I might make its acquaintance once more.

Flycatcher


Photo at top of page: Learning the way (click here for larger view)

family planning

PHOTO POST

In early June some marsh birds are still picking out their nest sites, while others are already preparing their hatchlings to leave home.

The Marsh Wren (at top of page and below) is the tiniest bird in the marsh and not always easy to spot, but its song rings out far and wide. Somehow, in spite of singing incessantly, the male manages to build not one but many nests. As All About Birds explains, “males routinely mate with 2 or more females and build at least 6 dummy nests for every female they mate with.”

Listen Up (click images for full-screen view)

Once More, With Feeling

While Marsh Wrens hide their nests deep in the reeds, the Great Blue Heron favours sites in nearby trees.

Their sensitive eyes allow them to hunt day and night – but this one greeted the warm morning sun with a big yawn.

Pegleg’s Yawn

Mallard ducklings were among the first hatchlings I spotted this year, on May 21.

Formation Four

Cygnets were swimming around the marsh just a few days later.

Dive Five

Where there are young waterfowl a Parental Unit is close at hand, watching over the little ones and demonstrating how things are done.

Cygnet Lesson One

As twilight approaches the Mute Swan leads the cygnets out of the water to bed down on what remains of their nest. Before sleep a thorough grooming session is in order.

Cygnet Lesson Two

Just before dark I’m lucky to spot a group of less-usual visitors. Short-Billed Dowitchers* migrate far to the north, where the lengthy days allow the nesting season to be compressed, and their stops here seem to be brief.

Dowitcher Huddle

As twilight deepens the Marsh Wrens often sneak down to the waterline for a drink.

Marsh Wren’s Nightcap

For a brief moment, Yellow Pond-Lilies seize the light and shine as bright as the setting sun.

Liquid Sunset


Photo at top of page: Marsh Wren Prepares a Nest (click here for full-screen view)

* There is little difference in bill length between the Short-Billed and Long-Billed Dowitchers. Judging by the colour and patterning I think this bunch are Short-Billed.

 

juggling mudcats

PHOTO POST

Near the end of a gray spring afternoon a distant white flash caught my eye. A large bird settled at the other side of the marsh and its landing pattern was not at all swan-like, but just like the landing of a large heron.

“It must be a Great Egret,” I thought – though I had never seen one in these parts before. 

As soon as I could grab my camera I headed out on safari. The mysterious white bird was nowhere to be seen. At the far end of the marsh, however, a hedge of herons was assembling.

Heron Trio (click images for full-screen views)

First one, then two, three, and finally five Great Blue Herons were stalking one area. It became clear that fishing in this particular puddle was very good.

Mouthful

The fishing was so good, in fact, that our Egret made a sudden entrance to join the hunt.

Egret’s Entrance

At this point, alas, I must confess that my headline – “juggling mudcats” – is mere click-bait.

You were lured by the prospect of precocious little catfish juggling several tennis balls at once, perhaps while riding unicycles along a tightrope. But the best I can offer are pictures of birds tossing poor mudcats into the air, one at a time.

That being said, it is not easy to consume a squirming spiny catfish, which is much longer than your neck is wide, unless you serve your meal just right. For herons and their ilk, juggling a single mudcat is no mere parlour trick, it’s an essential life skill.

Catching the fish is just the first step.

Clean Strike

Next you must throw the fish high enough that gravity helps you swallow, then catch and re-catch the fish until it lands between your jaws at the ideal angle.

Tiger by the tail

Toss-up

Crosswise

Ready to eat

You might cock an ear to check that your supper has settled – and then you look for another fish.

Just checking



Photo at top of page:
White Shadow (click here for full-screen version)

 

magic in the mud

PHOTO POST

The water level in Lake Ontario is extraordinarily low for this time of year, and so the shoreline marshes don’t have much depth. The diving ducks – Buffleheads, Mergansers, Long-tails and their ilk – are staying out on the lake or just migrating further north. But the dabblers – Northern Shovelers, Northern Pintails, Mallards and Ring-Necked Ducks – are happily feeding in the shallows.

Pintails up (click images for full-screen views)

A flock of Pintails (above and below) landed on a recent morning. After a quick look around their surroundings above the surface, they got to the real business: feeding on the vegetation below the surface.

Pintails down

Well out from the edges, the water in Bowmanville Marsh is so shallow that a migrating Yellowlegs can wade.

Ready to Fly

It might appear that a Robin has stowed away on a drifting log. But the Robin, like so many other small birds, is happy to bathe and drink right at marsh’s edge. This log was just a short jump away.

Robin Embarks

The low water also results in wide mud flats all around the marshes, and the Killdeers are loving it. Their shrill cries fill the air as they dash from one great feeding spot to another to another.

Breakfast right here

It’s better over here

Frogs are thawing in the spring sun’s warmth. These were spotted just a hop down the coast, at McLaughlin Bay on the east edge of Oshawa.

Leopard Frog I

Leopard Frog II

Frogs can be difficult to identify, but from my googling I’d say we have a Leopard Frog, above, and a Wood Frog, below.

Wood Frog

The water in much of Westside Marsh, as in Bowmanville Marsh, is only 15–20 centimeters deep. But Westside Marsh is a better swimming hole this spring for the large dabblers, including swans.

Trumpeter Trio

A trio of Trumpeter Swans, above, stopped by at least briefly. Meanwhile the locally more common Mute Swans were all over this marsh, and one pair, below, apparently ran aground.

Plumbing the Depths

On the muddy banks of marsh and creek, one bright flower is already marking the season. The tiny Coltsfoot blossom sparkles just a few centimeters above the cold mud.

Coltsfoot flower

And when the winds are still and the sun shines through the shallows, bright-coloured shoots light up the silty bottom. There’s life in all that mud.

Underwater Garden


Photo at top: clockwise from top, Northern Shovelers, Grackle, Killdeer, Mourning Dove (click here for full-screen version)

 

wintering at sea

PHOTO POST

In our house, if a lake is big enough so that we can’t see across to the far shore, then we’re allowed to call it “the sea”.

Many ducks, we’re pleased to report, agree with our interpretation. In winter we have as company several species of ducks who ordinarily shun frozen lakes and typically hang out along the New England coast. The open waters of Lake Ontario, they seem to believe, are as good as the sea.

In recent months groups of Goldeneye, Scaup, and Long-Tailed Ducks have been visible off the coast in Scarborough, Pickering, Whitby and here in Port Darlington – though they don’t typically get within good camera range.

Blue Rainbow

On a recent excursion to Cranberry Marsh, at lake’s edge south of  Whitby, the diving ducks kept their usual distance but a pair of Trumpeter Swans swam right up to the shore.

Young Trumpeter

These beautiful birds had been hunted nearly to extinction but are now making a steady recovery, thanks in no small part to determined work by Ontario conservationists over the past four decades.

The Trumpeters’ resurgence is apparently not welcomed by the Mute Swans who have taken over much of the habitat for large swans.

Trumpeter, chased by Mute

Mute Swans will also chase each other or will chase Canada Geese – but there was no obvious reason why all these geese suddenly decided they had to take to the air.

All Together Now

At home in Port Darlington, the north winds have been cold enough to shape some shore ice.

Lively Ice

Where waves bounce against ice, feeding conditions seem especially attractive to true diving ducks.

Bluebill

Though most of their number stay well off-shore, one or two Greater Scaup (above) and Common Goldeneye (below, with Mallard) have plied the narrow harbour channel recently.

Goldeneye

By the heat of the morning sun, as steam rises off waves, fishing near the breakwater is well-nigh irresistible.

Hot Sun

Making Strides

Drops of Ice

Swells break against the shore ice, the water churns and foams – and now and then a Long-Tailed Duck or two ventures close to play in the surf.

Home on the Waves

That’s winter at its finest, down by the seashore.


Photo at top of page: Scratching the Surface (click here for full-screen view)