fall on beach

PHOTO POST

The weather along the lakeshore of late has been frosty, soaking, bone-chilling, blustery – with “warm” definitely not part of the list. Yet elusive rays of sunlight have teamed with the wind and waves to create beautiful sights.

These sights are ephemeral, of course – even softball-size rocks roll around in the force of the waves as the beach is reconfigured almost every day. Still, grains of sand, leaves, and even feathers have all changed the landscape in their own ways, if only for a moment.

Point line plane (click photos for larger views)

 

Weight of a leaf

When westerly winds made it hard to stand up straight and the biting cold made it even harder to focus a camera, sparkles of sand flew swiftly along to the east. But a tiny feather slowed the wind just enough to catch a drift of sand in its lee.

Feather rocks wind

On a slightly colder but sunny and calm morning, a leaf celebrated its equally complex relationship with frost, sand, wind and time.

It’s complicated

The lack of wind and waves made that a good morning for fishing out on the breakwater, never mind the cold.

Perpendicular

When wind and waves inevitably returned, foragers of a different sort stationed themselves along a shifting stripe of blue light, pecking in the sand each time the water washed past their feet.

Round stripe

Top photo: Draw the line (click here for full-size view)

heat of summer

PHOTO POST

As the most intense heat wave in years takes hold of the lakeshore, the growth of some plants accelerates, others parch and wither, and many marsh-dwellers seek mid-day shade or the cool of twilight hours.

With a still bountiful supply of moisture, green plants in the marsh are tall and lush, though the air is steamy with transpiration.

Featured Creature (click images for larger views)

Water levels are dropping, exposing little isthmuses and giving grasses a chance to spring up out of the mud. This killdeer is feeding by sunset in Westside Marsh.

Stepping to the Sunset

Garden plants are remaining lush only if they are watered every day or two – but these Evening Primrose blossoms did grab onto a generous morning dew.

Primrose by Morning

 

Blooming Bergamot

Bergamot, above, and Viper’s Bugloss, below, answer the mid-day sun with particularly intense bursts of colour.

By a Thread

 

Ring Bill

Ring-billed Gulls, above, and Osprey, below, keep watch over waters of marsh and lake, and swoop down frequently to grab small fish.

Balance One

 

Balance Two

 

At Roost

The chilly waters of Lake Ontario can usually be counted on to keep the air a bit cooler – though on a calm night the cooling effect seems not to make it even 50 meters inland. Perhaps that is why two Great Blue Herons forsook their fishing grounds in the marsh one night and joined the gulls out on the Port Darlington breakwater.

 

Heron at Light House Rock


 

Top photo: Red Goose (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

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

St Marys mine – Article Index

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

what goes up

When you live beside a wide-open lake, you can’t really tell yourself “It’s a dry cold.” Even on Tuesday morning, with the temperature at –17°C, plenty of moisture rose from the warm waters and condensed on any handy object – tiny dust particles in the air, for example, or leaves and stems in the waterfront marsh.

Reed – February 13, 2018 (click images for larger views)

In the most sheltered areas the frost formed feathery trees more than a centimeter long, but in windswept areas the frost was reduced to tiny glittering crystals.

Steppes – February 13

 

Summer Red – February 13

On warm afternoons strengthening rays of sunshine patiently worked through the thick coatings of ice over driftwood logs.

Window – February 12

One at a time drops of water formed at the ends of the icicles, pausing before splashing to the pebbles.

Counting Time – February 12

 

Snowy Geese – February 10

And sometimes the clouds of vapor over the lake come right back down as wet snow. That doesn’t seem to bother our resident geese at all.

Blue Light – February 10

 

Photo at top: Shadow – February 12 (click here for larger view)

horizon

Photo Post

Immovable object, meet irresistible force.

Mid-winter thaws soften the shore ice, brisk winds move the floes around the bay, and each morning we greet a new coastline.

Overhang – January 16, 2018 (click images to see larger view)

The massive frozen shelves grow icicle beards in the cold spray day after day, then suddenly topple as waves undercut them.

Tilt – January 6

Shore ice reflects the many tones in the winter sun’s low rays, while also picking up colours from sand and silt which freeze into the mix.

Blue Bear – January 17

 

Bubble – January 17

Incoming waves meet other waves bouncing back from the ice shelves. The resident buffleheads steer clear of shore to avoid the turbulence.

Rollin’ – January 17

In a rare moment when all the snow has blown off a small patch of frozen beach sand, the multicoloured grains form an otherworldly landscape.

Sandstream – January 14

In a small clearing in a cedar forest, all boughs pick up a fluffy load of new snow. But the sheltered cove also soaks up the heat of sunshine and the white hats shrink hour by hour.

Red Seed – January 4

 

Top photo: Island – January 5 (click here for larger view)

point of light

Some of us like to explore new geographies when we go on vacation. The wonderful thing about a cold winter on Lake Ontario is that the shoreline takes a new shape every day, and each day’s excursion becomes an exploration.

Just three days ago a fierce wind was pushing huge waves our way.

Winter Waves  – January 2, 2018, 3:30 pm (click images for larger views)

But after a day of new snow and gentle breezes, slush and ice chunks drifted into the bay and then froze into place.

Icefield – January 4, 8:45 am

These expanses of ice may look dense but that is often deceptive. Imagine quicksand, with some hard chunks of ice thrown into the mix. A good way to learn about this is to step through the snow and ice in a spot where the water below is waist-deep or so – deep enough to fill your boots with icy water – and do it in a place where you can walk home before your feet freeze. (A bad way to learn is … well, let’s not go there.)

Bridge – January 4, 9 am

 

Gravity – January 4, 9 am

By Friday morning, after a night with windchill of –35°C, the new coastline was deeply carved with new fjords.

Blue Light of Dawn – January 5, 8 am

 

Shelter – January 5, 8 am

 

Flow – January 5, 8:30 am

I love these mini-vacations just a short walk from home, but for our newest neighbour this truly is foreign territory. Will our Snowy Owl find enough to eat to stay warm in these new environs?

Profile – January 5, noon

Lemmings are scarce in these parts but there are lots of rabbits and smaller birds. During Wednesday afternoon’s snowfall I was pleased to see the owl sitting in the middle of the frozen marsh, working on a meal. When she had moved on I found a few bits of red meat left on the snow, along with what appeared to be a duck’s foot. The next morning three crows were polishing off the remains.

Marsh Diner – January 3, 2 pm

For all my efforts so far I have failed to snap a clear picture of the Snowy Owl in flight. Yesterday just before sunset, however, as the owl waited far out on the breakwater, a beautiful treasure came drifting by along the snow, pausing here and there before a gentle puff of wind carried it away.

Soft Landing – January 4, 4:30 pm

 

Top photo: Points of Light (click here for larger view)