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)

the woodpecker’s tongue 

PHOTO POST

If I hadn’t gone grocery shopping on bicycle, I probably would have missed the oversized woodpecker checking out some local trees. But as I pedaled down the street towards home I heard a bird speaking a language I didn’t recognize, and I turned my head just in time to spot the flashy red crest of Dryocopus pileatus.

The colourful sight was a welcome treat given that nearly all migratory birds have left, vegetation is now mostly faded, and the sun’s glancing rays are often dulled by clouds. The views across marsh and lake often present in a nearly black and white palette.

Light Curves (click images for full-size views)

The Lesser Yellowlegs was one of the last traveling birds to come through from shores far to the north. On a cloudy evening the shallow muddy water made an austere background for this wader.

Dotted Lines

But in the afternoon sun the waters picked up reflected colour from surrounding plants.

Soft Splash

And a nearby stand of sumach turned the surface to crimson.

Red Dive

Warm days soon gave way to chillier mornings and the welcome sight of steam rising off the lake.

Sunrise Parade

The autumn still held a surprise, though, for the spectacular Pileated Woodpecker made a sudden appearance just a few days ago. Since this is not a migratory species, perhaps she has moved in nearby.

Listen Here

A bird this large needs to carve a deep hole for a nest, and the Pileated Woodpecker is up to the task. “Pileated Woodpeckers use their long necks to pull far back from the tree, then make powerful strikes with their heavy bills, pulling with their feet to increase the strength of the blow.” (allaboutbirds.org)

It’s convenient that some of the tastiest food lives in trees: “The birds also use their long, barbed tongues to extract woodboring beetle larvae.” (allaboutbirds.org)

Woodpecker’s Tongue


Photo at top of page: Exploration (click here for full-size image)

 

october’s glow

PHOTO POST

It’s the time of year when the afternoon sun feels as warm as summer – and then darkness sets in when the evening has barely begun.

One last ray of light steals into the secluded cove where mallards are settling for the night.

Light from the Horizon (click images for full-screen views)

Just minutes of subdued light remain as a Great Blue Heron flies high across the sky.

Sunset Arrow

The Night Heron crouches in the shadows, quietly awake.

Ready For Night

This low light suits a small shorebird – but makes positive identification difficult.

Solitary Stroll

My best guess is that this is an olive-legged Solitary Sandpiper, though it also looks much like a Lesser Yellowlegs. (And truly, if a Yellowlegs is walking in the mud after dark, does it still have yellow legs?)

Solitary Double

While most bright flowers have long since faded, bursts of New England Asters (aka Michaelmas Daisies) still decorate roadsides.

Purple Daisy

Out in the marsh, fall colours are deepening with the occasional lily pad turning to red.

Structure of Colour

A lily pad, an overnight shower, and the early morning sunshine work together to create a collection of liquid rubies.

Rubies

In October the photographer’s “golden hour” – when a low-shining sun bathes everything in a warm glow – lasts a good bit more than an hour each morning and again at the end of the afternoon.

It’s a great time to slow down and behold one of the smallest birds in the marsh, the Swamp Sparrow.

Swamp Sparrow Two

Working the rich mud where roots meet water, the Swamp Sparrow darts from one tiny insect to another. 

Swamp Sparrow One

A muskrat’s siesta ends and it’s time to open those eyes.

Siesta’s Over

A Night Heron moves into hunting territory at water’s edge.

Sunset in Green

And for a brief moment the Wood Ducks put on a light show that rivals any sunset.

Iridescent Autumn


Photo at top of page: Belted Kingfisher, Touched by Colour (click here for full-size image)

 

putting your best foot forward

PHOTO POST

If you were a beautiful Mallard you’d probably be happy to stand on a pair of coral-orange webbed feet …

Art of Contemplation (click images for larger views)

and perhaps you’d take care to keep them clean.

Pedicure

A mallard’s webbed feet are great for swimming along the surface of a pond. But if you eat by beating fish at their own game – diving down and out-swimming your catch – you’d like the even bigger flippers at the end of a Double-crested Cormorant’s legs. Never mind that they only come in basic black.

Ready to Dive

For walking in the muck of a marsh, though, you need something altogether different – footwear that spreads out effectively, but that you can just as easily lift out of the sticky goo if you need to move in a hurry.

And so it is that many birds in Bowmanville Marsh have long slender toes, like those of the Virginia Rail and the Least Sandpiper.

Mudwalker I

Mudwalker II

Whether you are the smallest of the sandpipers or the largest of the herons, it’s great to be able to walk through deep mud – but lift into flight in an instant.

Mudwalker III

Clean Getaway

Each of our local heron species have similar feet. The short and stocky Night Heron, below, has long, strong toes that propel it from its perch fast – whether that’s to strike at a fish or frog in the water or burst into flight.

Striking Distance

The Green Heron is even more versatile, with long toes that allow it to patrol the shoreline one minute, and make like a squirrel the next, grabbing slender twigs and swaying in the breeze at the top of trees.

Get a Grip I

Treetop Heron

Get a Grip II


Composite at top of page, clockwise from left: Green Heron, Mallard, and Virginia Rail. All photos taken in Bowmanville Marsh during the last six weeks.

gazing into the reeds

PHOTO POST

On an evening in late April as I walked along the road, my eye was drawn to a bird swimming across the marsh in a peculiar, herky-jerky fashion.

Gallinule the First (click images for full-screen views)

When I zoomed in with my camera and saw the distinctive black and white markings plus the brilliant red beak, it was clear that this bird was hitherto unknown to yours truly.

Upon learning the bird is called a Common Gallinule, and it is indeed a common, summer-long resident in marshes throughout North America, I felt like a particularly inept amateur ornithologist. If it’s so common why had I never spotted one in five summers of prowling this marsh?

Thus began a long quest to learn the habits of the gallinule. Before long I’d caught many fleeting glimpses, in all corners of the marsh, and I learned to recognize some of its extensive vocal repertoire when it was lurking out of sight. Months went by without my ever capturing a reasonably good picture.

But this frustration was such fun! While I peered into the reeds where the gallinules dwell, I saw many other birds including several that I had never known before.

The nimble Marsh Wren is a good bit more numerous than the gallinule, but is likewise hard to catch in a still photo.

Slanted Perch

Somewhat bigger are the various sandpipers that feed on the mudflats and occasionally walk across lily pads.

Piper Two

I can’t be sure of the identity of this piper spotted just this week. To me it looks like a Greater Yellowlegs, which typically move through here only on their way to and from nesting areas far to the north. I’d be grateful to any reader who can identify this bird; please send me a note here.

Piper Three

Gazing into the reeds, you might also spot a juvenile Green Heron, like this one seen in the bright light of the setting sun.

Sunset in Green

The Great Blue Heron is not typically shy, but even they will sometimes hide in the tall reeds.

Great Blue Sky

A Great Blue Heron inadvertently played a key role in allowing me to finally get a good close look at the gallinules. As I watched this heron swoop down on a convenient log and nail the landing, we both had a surprise.

Don’t Scare Me Like That

The heron’s landing startled a female Wood Duck, tucked almost out of sight at the left end of the log. The Duck gave a loud quack, which prompted a louder squawk from the Heron, who re-launched from the log with great comic effect.

And all this high drama distracted a gallinule family who hang out behind this log, as they didn’t notice a photographer slowly drifting closer.

Walking Home

For once I got more than a fleeting glimpse, and I was thrilled to see an adult with two chicks. Clearly, feet which can straddle floating sticks or reeds are essential equipment, as the young ones had already grown toes nearly as long as their downy bodies.

Little Bigfoot

When I’d had time to take several photos my presence was duly noted. The birds disappeared into the shadowy reeds and left me with their squeaky serenade.

Who You Calling Common?


Photo at top of page: Piper One (click here for full-screen image)

 

keeping watch

PHOTO POST

From the least of the sandpipers to the greatest of the owls, today’s post is all birds.

Even while they’re out looking for food – whether seeds, bugs or fish – the birds around the marshes also need to look out for other birds who are looking for food. There’s always a chance that a bigger bird might swoop down and make a meal of a smaller bird.

Goslings are now roaming the marshes, shorelines and meadows in great numbers.

Soft Focus (click photos for larger views)

The Eastern Kingbird waits on high perches where it can spot its primary prey – flying insects.

Flycatcher

On the mudflats in Westside Marsh or on the rocky lakeshore, Least Sandpipers and Spotted Sandpipers can often be spotted probing for insects.

Least Sandpipers

The Least Sandpiper (above) has the distinction of being the world’s smallest shorebird, with an adult weighing in at about one ounce (28 grams). The Spotted Sandpiper (below) is the most widespread sandpiper in North America.

Spotted Sandpiper, Early Summer Evening

The Green Heron is much harder to find as it tends to hide in the shadows along wooded creeks.

Green Heron in the Shadows

You can’t help but wonder how this bird got its name. I imagine it went like this:

After the Great Blue Heron began to attract so much attention, their smaller cousins decided it was time to hire their own branding consultant. They advised this professional, “You’ve got to know we’re secretive birds, not at all flashy. We like to keep a low profile, so we need a modest, low-key name.”

After a thorough round of focus groups the naming consultant unveiled the new brand: “I propose you are henceforth known as the Green Herons!” And when the grateful clients had stopped laughing, they responded, “Brilliant! If people are out looking for a Green Heron, they are very unlikely to spot us.”

“And yet there’s a smidgen of truth to the name – if you see one of us in the bright sunlight and you squint just right, there is a green-ish tinge on a few feathers.”

Green Heron by Morning Sun

Branding trivia aside, however, the Green Heron along with all the smaller marsh birds have good reasons to keep under cover and keep watching the skies. Only seconds after I photographed the Green Heron, I caught a glimpse of huge wings gliding through the canopy above. Moments later I spotted a large predator gazing down through the branches: the Great Horned Owl.

Great Horned Owl

The Great Horned Owl is the largest owl that resides in this area. The Great Horned Owl also has the most varied diet of all the raptors – from mice to rabbits to waterfowl to other raptors.

Whoever you may be in the marsh, you’d best look out for those who are looking for you.


Photo at top of page: Young Green Heron Takes the Sun Editor’s note, Aug 27 – I believe my original identification here was wrong, and this is actually an adult Least Bittern. (click here for larger image)