flight paths

PHOTO POST

Amateur photographers who try, as I do, to capture birds in flight soon learn that the smaller birds tend to be more difficult to catch than the big birds.

You need to get that much closer to a small bird, and with some exceptions they tend to be skittish. Their takeoffs are amazingly quick and their wings beat very fast, which means you need a very fast shutter speed, which in turn means only very strong light will do.

So it’s a great idea to start with the Great Blue Heron.

Launch Pad (click images for larger views)

These beautiful birds hang around from April until November, giving you lots of time to learn their habits. When they fly, they often settle down again not far away, giving you another chance for a photo if you missed the first try, if the lighting is wrong or the background is too cluttered.

Scout

Our medium-size feathered residents are more challenging. Many duck species, for example, have famously fast take-offs. Though you may see them often, it’s easy to get a collection of pictures showing colourful blurs, or just some tail feathers exiting the photo frame.

Gulls, on the other hand, can glide along in the face of a fierce wind with only the occasional wing movement. When a Ring-Billed Gull swoops along close to shore, just above the waves, it’s possible to get some easy photos. For the photos below, the Gull’s fishing habits helped. Over and over it made a slow pass against the wind, then swooped high and caught a ride downwind a hundred meters, then came past me slowly again.

Reading Right to Left

With birds that are just migrating through, serendipity plays a larger role. Six Short-Billed Dowitchers visited Bowmanville Marsh a few nights ago, likely on their way to nesting grounds near James Bay or in sub-arctic Quebec. We’re on their flight path, but opportunities to photograph them may be rare as they only drop by briefly, unannounced.

Stopover

Serendipity also played a starring role in the following photo. While I was training my camera on a window-mounted feeder intent on getting some snaps of hummingbirds, a Baltimore Oriole set down for just a few seconds on a wicker chair just below the feeder. A quick framing and re-focus gave me a chance for just one shot – but it worked, with a clay planter and indoor greenery on the other side of the window adding complementary colours.

Oriole with Wicker Chair

Fortunately three hummingbirds soon arrived as well, and it was clear this feeder was disputed territory.

Hummingbirds, Face to Face

The determined hummingbirds thrust and pounced as fiercely as some of their distant dinosaur ancestors, and none of them got much to eat for the next hour.

Archilocus Rex

At last a single hummingbird settled in for a long drink at another feeder. “Watch this”, he seemed to say, “Flying isn’t my only trick!” – and with slight movements of his neck a patch of beautifully-patterned feathers flashed from black to ruby-red and back again.

Light Tricks

Photo at top: Time Flies Like an Arrow (Osprey, Great Blue Heron, Red-Winged Blackbird) – click here for larger view

13 seconds in march

PHOTO POST

In these parts we can usually hear spring coming long before we can see it.

On the second day of March when this coyote was making midday rounds, the marsh was frozen solid and it didn’t even feel like spring – except that the snowflakes landed almost like soft rain.

Midday Rounds (click images for larger view)

But non-wintering birds had already started to appear, and the quiet of winter was punctuated by sounds we hadn’t heard here for months.

Smooth Operator

A few Long-Tailed Ducks started to show up in late February. This one was taking shelter in the harbour on a blustery early-March afternoon.

A more surprising visitor on the same day was a Common Loon, which had been stranded after landing on a rooftop in Oshawa. Unable to launch into flight except from water, this one was rescued and set free in Bowmanville harbour.

Portrait of a Loon

A quick look around

One way to gauge the spring was by watching the ice dwindle on the harbour breakwaters. Though the ice at the very ends of the breakwaters is still hanging on, ice on the lower rocks was gradually washed away by waves or melted by the strengthening sun.

Breakwater, March 13

Breakwater, March 27

It was a warm sunny afternoon when we had a delightful surprise visit from a pair of Trumpeter Swans.

Nice to meet you

The largest native bird in North America, Trumpeter Swans were nearly extinct in the mid-20th century, and had been extirpated from Ontario some 200 years ago. But dedicated work by volunteers over the past 30 years has resulted in a population of hundreds of these birds in Ontario, along with as many as 50,000 on the continent as a whole.

These feet are made for swimming

In spite of a few warm afternoons, most nights and mornings have stayed below freezing, and it’s hard to think how some of the really small birds stay warm.

Fluffed

The Black-Capped Chickadee seems to stay comfortable right through the winter – but at least it has the ability to fluff up its luxurious plumage for maximum warmth.

Announcement

The Red-Winged Blackbirds return from their migrations long before there is a hint of new growth in the marsh, and perhaps they stay warm through aerobic vocal workouts.

Slippery Slope

The song of a Killdeer in March is more surprising. A pair stopped by the harbour on March 27 and found the sand at water’s edge was still an icy slide.

But each spring sunrise lets us know the chill is only temporary.

Due East plus 13

Top photo: Due East (click here for larger view). The top photo and the bottom photo were taken 13 seconds apart.

the light of a nearby star

PHOTO POST

A tree at the base of the Port Darlington breakwater stands watch over wind and waves and grows a new coat during winter storms.

Last week’s blasts from the west whipped up the waves and funnelled splashes high into the tree.

Crescent (click images for larger views)

By the heat of the noon-day sun the glow was a glorious spectacle.

Splash, slowed

But the sun’s rise through this tree called me to the beach at dawn, day after day.

A moment of sunrise

Cold fire with twigs

Sunrise moment II

Convergence


Photo at top: Arcs (click here for larger view)

rumours of spring

PHOTO POST

When small talk first turns to the coming of spring, that’s generally a good sign that we’re entering another phase of winter – and I mean that in the nicest way.

The light is the most obvious, of course, with the sun rising much earlier and climbing higher. But we also start to see some of the earliest migrating birds.

The Long-Tailed Duck is primarily a sea bird and summers along the arctic coast. Though they are said to sometimes winter in the Great Lakes I haven’t yet spotted them here in mid-winter. In the past week several have been hanging around Port Darlington, sometimes mingling with the swans and buffleheads.

Twilight Buffet (click images for larger views)

It’s worth noting that only the male Long-Tailed Duck (top photo) sports the namesake appendage. The female (below) apparently functions quite well without those extra feathers.

Who needs that silly tail?

In February the stronger sun has worked with rain, snow, fierce winds and wildly fluctuating temperatures to sculpt new scenes along the waterfront each day.

Beach scene, sand

 

Beach scene, feather

 

Beach scene, ice

A recent storm distributed rounded chunks of ice across the beach, then coated the whole lot with a slick new surface of ice. This made for treacherous travel for a wobbly biped with a high center-of-gravity – even before a thick blanket of fluffy new snow hid all the hazards. In such conditions, obviously, it’s safer to make your pre-dawn rounds on all fours.

It’s this way

The break-up of ice takes a different form on our creeks, as recent rains pushed huge slabs through valleys and low-lying woods.

Water under the bridge

On the lake, massive walls of ice provided a shield for the shoreline until these formations were cut away by pounding waves.

Bergs

 

Whitewater

I’m happy to mark the last day of February in calm conditions with a celebration of the vivid colours at dawn and twilight.

Bright ripple

 

Cliff face

 

Blue whale

Top photo: Long-Tailed Dive (click here for larger view)

 

edge effects

PHOTO POST

Storm surges, snow squalls, frozen rain, creeks on the rise, ice jams, gale force winds, soft waves of slush – February’s weather has been, shall we say, entertaining. Here’s a small selection of pictures from the past week.

 

Quicksilver (click images for larger view)

What colour is ice, you might ask? After a fierce storm on Lake Ontario much of the ice is deep dark brown, as breaking waves have scoured up sand and pebbles, piling the mix into new peninsulas along the shoreline. The next day’s winds then carve out new fjords, bridges and islands.

Cathedral Ceiling

After frozen rain coats a log on the marsh, the sun carves equally complex patterns in the shimmer.

Waterlog

Where the geese have been, we can always find our feather-of-the-day.

Acrostic

Cold temperatures, bright sun, gentle waves spilling over beach pebbles – a recipe for beautiful edge effects.

Topography I

 

Topography II

Let’s have one more shot of cold water on the rocks:

On the rocks


Top photo: The light gets in (click here for larger view)

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)