hiding in plain sight

PHOTO POST

Depending on your life style, there are times you might stand out a little more than is good for you. But the creatures of our marshes and woodlands generally know how to stay out of sight when that’s important.

The Osprey may seem to have nothing to worry about – beyond the challenge of bringing home enough fish to feed rapidly growing chicks. Yet Osprey eggs and chicks would be welcome meals for foxes, skunks and raccoons. Building their nests at the top of dead trees or on human-constructed platforms helps protect Ospreys, especially when the trees or poles are surrounded by water.

X Marks the Osprey (click images for larger views)

Mute swans, too, are big enough to take on most potential enemies other than malicious or stupid humans. Newly hatched cygnets quickly begin to roam the open waters of the marsh – with the advantage that when they get tired, they can climb aboard and rest.

Cygnet Trio

Cygnet Rides

Things are a little trickier for ducks. Adult Mallards can escape predators with their explosive speed – they go from watery hideaways to full flight in a split second. The young ones don’t have this skill. But they do have both the colouring and the instinct to hide. As they feed near marsh edge or creek bank, they can disappear into the reeds or the shadows from overhanging trees within a few seconds.

Make For The Shadows

Another recent sighting comes from away – and they won’t have their young until they reach the coastlines of the central arctic. Kayaking on the lake one morning, I spotted a clump of geese that were acting strangely – Canada Geese don’t usually hang out in groups like this at this time of year. Approaching slowly for a closer look, I could see they were Brants, a smaller (and to my eye more elegant) cousin of the Canada Goose.

Brants On a Stopover

Going down the size scale a step farther, the Sora does nest in this marsh. Its flexible wide feet enable it to walk on floating reeds where it feeds on insects, snails, and aquatic seeds. Sora usual stay out of sight but the low rays of the setting sun sometimes cast a spotlight.

Feat of Flotation

One of the brightest birds in local woods and at marsh edge is the Yellow Warbler. Though it typically darts from branch to branch in dense thickets, on this evening it was singing from the top of a tall wild apple tree.

Yellow Warbler, Warbling

Slightly smaller still – but with a large voice – is the Marsh Wren. The songs of dozens of Marsh Wrens echo through each reedy section of our marshes. But they are much harder to see than to hear, and getting a clear and unobstructed view takes patience and/or luck. (In my case, many attempts over several years.)

Marsh Wren

On a quiet note, we’ll soon be blessed with multitudes of wild flowers. One of the earliest and most splendid is the Red Trillium, scattered among the far more numerous White Trilliums and Mayapples.

Red Trillium

Along the Waterfront Trail in early summer, one is treated to a feast of perfumes as whole thickets burst into blossom. The earliest of these flowers have arrived.

Sunset in the Thicket

The Mossy Stonecrop Sedum has yet to flower but it is fantastically colourful nonetheless. Yet it is seldom noticed, growing as it does in scrubby patches of grass. To really appreciate its forms and colours, you need to get right down on the ground and gaze nose-to-nose at this sedum, which at full growth is only a few centimeters high.

Stonecrop Sparkles


Photo at top of page: Party of Seven (click here for larger view) 

merganser mating party

PHOTO POST

The Red-breasted Merganser is one of the most striking birds that passes through this area but they don’t stick around for long. For several years I’ve been hoping to get some good photos but I only managed a few fleeting glimpses. So the last week has been special, with a half-dozen or more of these visitors hanging out on Lake Ontario each day on calm waters.

To get out to launch the kayak, though, I first had to get through the yard, where spring beauties are also calling for attention. On a sunny morning it’s hard not to notice the Siberian Squill coming up in the yard, though the blue flowers are just a few centimeters above the soil.

Siberian squill

A recently returned Song Sparrow, too, wants to be noticed – and it helps when a well-timed gust of north wind lays on a deluxe coiffure.

Crested Song Sparrow

A cute Grey Squirrel has been known to distract a photographer as well.

Tall Dark & Handsome

At the waterline Canada Geese are enjoying the fresh water and warm air.

Tempest

In Westside Marsh a Belted Kingfisher has made it back before the Ospreys, and uses an empty Osprey platform to practice its dives.

Kingfisher Form One

Kingfisher Form Two

But when I make it out to open water on the big lake I find the mergansers, several days in a row.

Dawn’s Early Lights

They are excellent divers, but sometimes in shallow water they seem happy to stay on the surface while scanning for fish.

Focused Gaze

At other times they splash past each other with wings and feet churning the water.

Madly Off in Two Directions

And then comes the move that really baffles me. Is this a class clown pretending to be pulled under by a fearsome sea monster and calling for help?

Never Mind Him

But no – the indispensable allaboutbirds.org fills me in: “Males dunk their chests and raise their heads and rears in a ‘curtsey’ display for females.” And in this case, the response seems clear enough: “Better luck next time.”

 

Photo at top of post: Your Attention Please (click here for larger view)

 

a fond farewell to winter

PHOTO POST

In truth it wasn’t much of a winter, with only a few cold days and a modest amount of snow. But now a wide variety of returning species are expressing their faith that an early spring is in progress.

Mild temperatures did not, of course, mean that the winter was easy for all creatures. The lack of any shore ice left the shoreline open to the pounding of the waves, which were many and fierce. By the end of February a beloved tree was toppling into the water.

Willow, fallen (click images for larger views)

Weight of the world

Marshes were still frozen at the beginning of March and this Fox could still take its shortcut across the harbour channel.

March 1 Fox

By mid-March, though, a wide variety of migratory ducks – Ring-Necked, Scaup, Mergansers, Mallards, Long-tails – had arrived and the Muskrats were enjoying the open water too.

On point

Shed no tears for me

Spring forward

Regatta

In the thickets around the marshes, winter stalwarts the Cardinal and Downy Woodpecker have been joined by Cedar Waxwings.

Blue window

Top ’o the morning

Downy Woodpecker

Most arresting of all on a sunny Sunday morning was a Broad-Winged Hawk taking a long look across the marsh.

Broad-Winged Hawk


Photo at top of page: Broad-Winged Hawk, Profile (click here for larger view)

 

the fastness of february

PHOTO POST

The problem with February, you may feel, is that it goes by much too fast. This year we award ourselves a free bonus day of February – though it looks like we’ll still end up with a good bit less winter than we used to take for granted.

Sea Light (click photos for larger views)

The mild weather seems to suit the ever-growing population of winter-resident geese. As temperatures climb each morning they begin to stir, fly north to nearby fields where they can fuel up on corn kernels, then return before sundown to settle on lake or marsh.

Pas de deux

 

Imminent Splash

Snow cover has been intermittent but parts of our marshes have gathered small drifts.

Prevailing Wind

Open areas of the marshes have mostly stayed frozen but thin ice at the edges has made for uncertain hiking and skating.

Zigzag Story

Bright clear skies have been a rare treat all winter, with none more beautiful than daybreak on the coldest morning, February 14.

Valentine

Steam hung over the lake as the sun rose, but moisture took a very different form in sheltered locations on the marsh.

Branches

Even the tangle of sticks and reeds on the beaver dam took on a sparkle that morning.

 

Contraflow

By mid-morning the woods were alive with birdsong.

Best Regards

The cardinal’s flashing red was a surprise, but even on the quietest snowy days there are glimpses of colour in the meadows and woods.

Mullein Spear

 

Gift

Photo at top of page: Snow Load (click here for larger view)

 

just this side of freezing

PHOTO POST

Winter proceeds in fits and starts. The marshes have frozen, thawed, filled with January rain, frozen again.

Perhaps that suits the otters just fine. They certainly appeared to enjoy playing on thin ice in recent weeks. There was enough open water to dive into while chasing mud-cats, and enough ice to climb onto while munching on fresh fish.

Otters on Thin Ice (click images for larger views)

The freeze-thaw cycles on the lakeshore tossed up playful effects too. Softly breaking waves piled pebbles and froze them into place, and just as quickly started to melt pieces out of the stone walls.

Assemblage

What shape is water? Is it round or made of sharp angles? The waters of Westside Marsh yield complicated answers.

Breath of the Marsh

Above, a gently bending shelf of ice remains from a previous period of high water. Insulated under that shelf, the warm mud of the marsh pumps out humid air. And where the breath of the marsh meets a crisp overnight breeze, a profusion of frost crystals have gathered by the time the warm sun wakes.

Our local waters showed a very different face this past Saturday, with wet snow blowing into the waves under a relentlessly grey sky.

Across the Channel

It was just the sort of a chilly, windy, damp day when people like to say “It’s a nice day – if you’re a duck.”

But is that true? I set out to find an answer.

Sentry

Now, engaging a duck in small talk is not as easy as you might think. There was the problem of finding a duck in a blizzard, of course – and then getting close enough for comfortable conversation.

Edge of the Visible

On this day the ducks were not to be found at sea. In the relative shelter of the harbour, however, I came across several clusters of buffleheads and long-tailed ducks, dodging the ice chunks together.

Mixed Company

When at last I had worked myself close to the ducks and out of the howling wind, I popped the question.

Long-tailed Three

“Is this really a nice day for a duck?”

And I was met with a steely silence which seemed to say, “Well, you’re supposed to be the homo sapiensyou figure it out.”

You Tell Me

And so I came home from this encounter none the wiser. I can only say that it was a nice day to be out watching ducks.

 

Photo at top: Drift Wood Diptych (click here for larger view)

colours of summer past

PHOTO POST

Vivid colours are not so easy to come by this time of year, but when you look close to the ground the garden still shows some hues as bright as a summer flower.

Striped Composition (click images for full-size views)

The play of sun and cloud on water seldom disappoints and seldom holds one shape for long.

Curtain Rises

Though the colours in the marsh fade fast a few of the shrubs are as loud as a flight of geese.

Fast Company

Frequent rains keep the beaver pond full and keep beavers busy plugging leaks.

Making Progress

Out in the pond it is strangely quiet with the birds of summer now gone south.

 

Alphabetical Order I

 

Alphabetical Order II

The forested bank of a creek preserves some of summer’s stories just for a moment.

Bed of Leaves

The life stories of these trees move more slowly.

Start at the End

I’m All Ears

November roared in with a gale that threatened every warm memory of summer. But as dawn rose on November 1 the winds softened and our beautiful neighbourhood was mostly unscathed.

First Sun of November

 


Photo at top of post: Points of Presence (click here for full-size view)

 

sincerely, july

PHOTO POST

As June gave way to July there was a whole lotta catchin’ up goin’ on along the north shore of Lake Ontario. Finally, summer at its finest – the weather hot, but not too hot; gentle breezes, but no storms; lots of moisture, but a break from big rains every-other-day. And creatures of all sorts have hurried to get back on pace after the long, wet, chilly spring.

 

Occupy a niche

Selecting nest sites, laying eggs, a whole lot of sitting, and if all goes well, feeding a hungry brood – everywhere you look there are busy birds.

The Song Sparrow, above, can be seen and heard in the woods and around backyard feeders. The Yellow Warbler, for all its colour, is usually harder to spot and even more difficult to photograph, given its habit of flitting rapidly about in deciduous bushes and trees. So when a Yellow Warbler male settled on a bare branch over Bowmanville Creek it made for an unexpected photo opportunity.

Hiding in plain sight

Fortunately a pair of Yellow Warblers also made a nest in a nearby shrub and soon four hatchlings were sharing that tiny bowl.

Placing an order, 1

You could almost see them grow every hour. Only 48 hours elapsed between the photo above and the photo below – and in another 36 hours, the four youngsters each glided out of the nest to the ground, took their first steps, flapped their wings, and quickly flew to safety while both parents hovered nearby.

Placing an order, 2

In the marshes some birds have had to start over after their first nests and eggs were lost to record-high waters. So some goslings and cygnets are far more advanced then others.

Sunset paddle

Big stands of reeds have floated around, driven by the wind, and areas that would typically be mud flats are fully submerged. But this Spotted Sandpiper has found a small outpost in Westside Marsh.

Spotted Sandpiper

Insect populations certainly seemed to be lower through the cold spring but now it’s not hard to spot a new variety every day.

Blade Runner

With a profusion of flowers everywhere, pollinators can get busy – and the Vipers Bugloss flower attracts lots of different bees.

Bumblebeeblur

 

Honeybee’s turn

A few Yellow Salsify plants have bloomed in our lawn. I’ve been hoping they’d spread enough so that I could harvest a few of their tasty roots one of these years – but alas, the rabbits seem very fond of the flowers too. Only one has matured enough to produce a beautifully patterned seed head, below.

Semisalsifysunset

Fishing, it would appear, has been good for those who know where to go. In one evening on Westside Marsh recently, the resident Osprey pair was joined by a Green Heron, a Black-Crowned Night Heron, at least two Great Blue Herons, and a pair of Belted Kingfishers.

West marsh lookout

This Great Blue Heron waited up in a tree, then suddenly pirouetted and flapped away toward the sunset.

Time’s up

The Kingfishers darted back and forth across the marsh but stopped occasionally to rest on a perch beneath an Osprey platform.

Sharing a perch

Though Kingfishers almost always fly away, with their typical cackle, just before I can get into photo range, finally this female Kingfisher touched down at the edge of the marsh and waited while I drifted close enough to get a good angle and a good shot. It only took a few short years of trying, and every one of those hours in a kayak was time well spent.

Evening rays

 

Photo at top: Wetlands Broadcast System, in Westside Marsh (click here for full-size image)

 

plastic swamp

The billions of pieces of plastic floating in ocean gyres begin their watery journeys in ditches and creeks in almost every location inhabited by people. Many are tossed into tributaries in the centre of continents, far upstream from any ocean, including the small watershed where I live.
Also published at Resilience.org

The neighbouring coastal marshes where I spend many hours have much in common but there’s an important difference: they belong to separate “garbagesheds”.

There should be no need for such an ugly word, but as water moves through watersheds in our disposable civilization, that water gathers a lot of garbage and deposits it, at least temporarily, in catch points such as marshes.

Westside Marsh is part of the tiny (5.4 km2) Westside Creek watershed, which includes only a small amount of residential or commercial development – and thus this garbageshed1 collects relatively little garbage.

Bowmanville Marsh, by contrast, belongs to a watershed with thirty times as much area, including nearly all of the “developed” areas of the town of Bowmanville, Ontario, Canada. Throughout this marsh, wherever water can sometimes flow and vegetation can filter that flow, there is garbage.

The plastic garbage may or may not be the worst of it, but since it tends to stay on the surface it is the most visible.

In the Bowmanville/Soper Creek garbageshed which drains through this marsh, the ditches and brooks carry plastic bottles toward Lake Ontario, and log jams on the creeks often catch hundreds of pieces. Flimsy and ubiquitous mass-market water bottles make up by far the biggest share.

Hydration (click image for larger view)

It only takes one good downpour to jostle some of the bottles out of this trap. Some pieces move quickly downstream and into Lake Ontario, while other pieces float a short distance into flooded woods or into the reeds where they stay for weeks, months or years.

Hydration with Straw

As a nature lover I usually go into the marsh to marvel at all the life and beauty that remains here, and that beauty is the usual focus of my photography. At the same time, it’s hard not to be aware, and often to be sickened and appalled, by the presence of plastic waste in every nook and cranny of the marsh.

Hydration with 150 Calories

There once was a time when people didn’t need to have a drink in their hand, their pack or their purse at all times, every day, everywhere they go. Obsessive fear of dehydration generally guided only those making long journeys across inhospitable drylands.

There once was a day when people could routinely spare the time to sit down and drink hot beverages from open cups which afforded them the aroma of fresh coffee.

But advertising factories relentlessly manufactured new needs, and materials wizards cooked up mountains of packaging that was cheap enough to throw away after one use.

Hydration with Sugar and Milk

 

Hydration with Less

 

Hydration with Intoxicant

Were it not for this seemingly never-ending stream of garbage, there would be no need for “adopt-a-roadway” clean-up campaigns by civically-minded citizens – and in the long run, we’d be much better off taxing single-use plastics out of existence rather than trying to pick them out of grasslands, forests, marshes, creeks, lakes and oceans.

But in the meantime, it is far easier to pick up trash bottles from easily accessible roadside ditches than it is to wade into creeks, pick through logjams, or push canoes through stands of reeds trying to grab plastic detritus piece by piece.

Every bit of trash picked up from a ditch is one less piece making its way downstream.

Hydration with Additives

But when high water lifts long-trapped bottles out of the marsh and into Lake Ontario, our plastic avatars move into a far wider garbageshed – perhaps, one day, joining a great garbage gyre in the ocean.2

Hydration at Sea


Photo at top of page: Hydration with Shine (larger view here)

 


1When this word popped into mind I suspected that others must have thought of it too. But my internet search turned up just one similar usage of “garbageshed”, by theologian and ethicist Malinda Elizabeth Berry.

2According to Wikipedia, the North Atlantic garbage patch “is estimated to be hundreds of kilometers across in size, with a density of over 200,000 pieces of debris per square kilometer.” Researchers from The Ocean Cleanup project claimed that the Great Pacific garbage patch “covers 1.6 million square kilometers. … An estimated 80,000 metric tons of plastic inhabit the patch, totaling 1.8 trillion pieces.”

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.