cloudy with sunny breaks

PHOTO POST

A long stretch of warm but gloomy weather finally made room for a week of old-fashioned winter, with brisk winds, the odd sunny day, and even some ice buildup on the shoreline.

Lightshower II

Lightshower

How cold did it get? Cold enough on Saturday that there was only one person fishing at the breakwater – but not cold enough for him to keep his gloves on.

Fishing at the edge

The cold weather was a delight to some of us, providing the kinds of sights we may only see for a few days a year.

Construction

Construction II

Waterline

We knew it wouldn’t last, of course. By Sunday night a warm wind picked up from the southwest, and by Monday morning the waves had chopped much of the shore ice into slush.

Splash at sunrise

By afternoon we were treated to a typical lakeshore squall, with warm fluffy snowflakes whipped along in a biting wet wind.

What Great Teeth

The snow drifted along with the sand, moving across the beach and straight into the harbour channel.

Heritage Winter

A storm like this might put you in mind of seeking shelter in a forest. If you’re small of stature, though – an ermine, perhaps, or a rabbit – quiet pathways through the lakeshore marsh are an even better place to get in out of the wind.

Shelter among the reeds


Photo at top of post: Cloudy with sunny breaks (full-size version here)

 

going the distance

PHOTO POST

In September many migratory species head south from these shores. Not all of them have feathers.

The birds that nest here, but spend winters in warmer climates, cross paths with those which nest further north and only stop here in passing.

Autumn is sweet, with many opportunities to see and hear these beautiful friends before the quiet winter. Autumn is scary, too, with growing uncertainty whether each species will find safe travel to a winter haven, safe travel north again in the spring, and a safe place to nest and raise young next year.

Killdeer beside still waters

The elegant Yellowlegs, which often spends a few weeks around here in the fall, is one of my favourite visitors. In recent days a pair of Yellowlegs worked a mudflat favoured by Killdeers. On a single high-pitched signal they all took off in the same instant, circled around, and then landed together on a nearby mudflat. (I believe the bird pictured below is a Lesser Yellowlegs and not its larger cousin the Greater Yellowlegs.)

Dance of the Yellowlegs

A juvenile Green Heron landed beside the shorebirds but was after larger prey than insects, and it soon moved on.

Sharp left

Lurking in the shadows nearby, a furtive Swamp Sparrow briefly crossed a bare rocky patch.

Swamp Sparrow on the rocks

As the sun set a juvenile Sora cautiously stepped out from reedy cover.

Sora at sunset

On the migratory flightpaths, birds are joined by smaller and more delicate creatures.

Saddlebags

If I am correct that the above picture shows a Black Saddlebags, it is one of a dozen dragonfly species that conduct a multi-generational annual round trip from north to south and back.

The Green Darner, below, famously migrates to the southern US states, Mexico, or Caribbean islands.

Green Darner on Burning Bush

A tall clump of pink aster in our yard has been particularly attractive lately to migrating butterflies.

Pink Aster Sky

Monarch on pink aster

For weeks we have had many monarch sightings every day. All of them continued to move west, likely heading around Lake Ontario before flying south to Mexico.

On a couple of afternoons, though, the monarchs were joined by a smaller butterfly with similar colours.

American Painted Lady on pink aster, 1

This appears to be the American Painted Lady, part of a family known for migrations on and between several continents.

American Painted Lady on pink aster, 2

May all our winged relations, with or without feathers, find safe passage into a new season.

close encounters

PHOTO POST

A severe restriction can sometimes be a blessing in disguise – at least when it comes to noticing beautiful sights.

Deep Well (squash blossom)

So it was for much of this summer, as eye trouble encouraged me to focus on small things, close at hand.

Where does the bee stop and the flower begin?

With my better eye out of order (temporarily, I hope), and strict doctor’s orders to avoid physical exercise throughout recovery from retinal surgery, I tried to make the most of reduced vision.

Hanging on Pink

With my particular type of myopia, I can see well when focusing on fine detail at very close range. Thus I spent more time than usual gazing intently at flowers in our own yard – and if I stayed motionless for a while, a pollinator often landed right in front of my eye.

Heat Wave

Day Lily Reflects the Sun

Cranesbill Geranium Spire

These photos were taken in our back yard over the past two months, as cool and dewy summer mornings finally gave way to a real summer heat wave once September had arrived.

Hoverfly on Sylphium

Wasp on Porcelain Vine

Since I like flowers, and I also like to eat, I’m happy to admire a wide variety of pollinators going about their rounds.

Crystal Ball

Wet Pigment

Many insects, of course, are in precipitous decline. In this locale that certainly seems to apply to dragonflies. I was pleased to spot this Green Darner resting on the still-wet grass on a chilly morning – and especially pleased that it took to the air once the sun had warmed it and given it strength.

I gazed at this dragonfly through my one good eye, while it gazed back with its thousands.

Dragonfly at rest, 1

Truly a sight for sore eyes.

Dragonfly at rest, 2

 

in the weeds

PHOTO POST

Most of the summer slipped by and I didn’t get out to the marsh … but at least I saw a Bittern.

Over the past two weeks I’ve made several excursions, hoping to see a few of the sandpipers that like to run along from lily pad to lily pad. Or a beaver, plying the placid waters while chewing on fresh greens. Or dragonflies, or … well, the marsh often has surprises.

Wapato flower

One of my first discoveries was the flowers of the Wapato, which I hadn’t noticed before.

The more obvious white flowers, scattered across the marsh’s surface, are lily pad flowers. In late August, the flowers and lily pads are home to countless tiny insects, which attract the bigger insects that eat them, which attract birds and fish fingerlings and frogs and turtles.

Circle Segments

Still Life with Painted Turtle

Refracted Reflection

As I’d hoped, telltale motion along the lily pads alerted me to Spotted Sandpipers darting about and gobbling insects.

Spotted Web

In addition to the adults, several juveniles – still without their spots – were out hunting on their own. (If the bird in the photo below is not a juvenile Spotted Sandpiper, I’m grateful to anyone who can let me know the correct ID; just send me a note through the Contact link.)

Spotless One

Then an odd motionless shape protruding from the lily pads caught my eye. Zooming in, I saw it was a juvenile Least Bittern.

The smallest of the heron family, the Least Bittern is zealously secretive and usually stays hidden in the reeds. I’m not positive I’ve ever seen an adult, but the juveniles seem to be less cautious and I see one every year or two.

Step by Step

I watched quietly for an hour while dear Bittern fed from floating platforms. A step here, a step there, an occasional jab, and down the gullet went a dragonfly or a minnow.

Step One

Step Two

In one moment the Least Bittern appears stout and stocky. The next moment, it is clear that most of its body is just a storage compartment for the feathered slinky that is its neck.

Zap

At Least I Saw a Bittern

It was encouraging to learn that somewhere nearby, a pair of Bitterns had nested and fledged a young one this summer.

Could there have been a better way to spend a Sunday morning than watching a Least Bittern explore the marsh?

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Heron (III)


Photo at top of page: Poised Pose (click here for full-size view)

ruffled feathers

PHOTO POST

Where have the Herons gone?

Through the month of May I wondered: isn’t the marsh looking and sounding kind of empty?

As I make my local rounds I’m often achingly aware that many bird species are in decline, across the continent and around the world. This year, there has been the added danger of avian flu reducing bird populations.

But from a limited perspective in one neighbourhood, it’s hard to know if yearly changes in activity amount to a trend.

In early May a good crowd of mergansers swam along the lakeshore each calm morning, but soon enough they departed for points north.

Triangle

A Grackle cuts a striking figure on a piece of driftwood at the water’s edge, inflating to maximum girth and belting out a one-note croak.

Crooner

From the marsh the songs of Marsh Wrens ring out from the hiding places in the reeds. In our yard we were treated to a similar huge call from a tiny House Wren.

Between the lines

A solo Trumpeter Swan made several appearances through May, though I’ve seen no sign of a mating pair recently.

Swimming into the sun

Trumpeter Swan Portrait

Looking through a local lens, that’s what matters, really. Will this Trumpeter stay healthy, find a mate, eventually raise one or two or three healthy Trumpeter cygnets?

And will the pair of Killdeer on a nearby mudflat, and another pair on a rocky stretch of beach, keep their nestlings safe through the danger season, successfully luring potential predators with their beautiful diversionary tactics?

Killdeer on mudflat

Semaphore. A Killdeer has the right colours for effective camouflage. It can also use these colours to wave a bright flag, grabbing attention and leading a predator away from a nest.

Will the Spotted Sandpiper, the Gallinule and the Sora and the Virginia Rail, the Green Heron and the Black-Crowned Night Heron, return to safe nesting sites in these marshes year after year?

Steppingstone for Spotted Sandpiper

(For many birds, of course, the “local” neighbourhood extends to the Gulf of Mexico coast, or the jungles of Central America, or Patagonia. If they don’t find safe places all the way along their annual migrations, they won’t be able to return here for another summer. And each time they do return, it’s a blessed miracle.)

Through most of May, the open waters of the marsh were home to very few ducks, and not many geese either. The minnows were jumping, though, frogs were singing, and carp were splashing.

Just when I thought the Herons had gone far away this season, a turtle offered a clue.

Looking Up

I looked up high, and to my surprise six Great Blue Herons circled far above the marsh.

Six Herons Circling

Just a few days later Herons appeared on perches to the north in the marsh, and more often to the south along a lakeshore breakwater.

Where the marsh opens into the lake, gulls were constantly circling and diving. Finally I understood: this is a great place for a Heron to hang out just now.

Where marsh meets lake

A patient slow stride, a sudden strike into the water, a toss of the head; that meal is down the hatch.

Swallow, swallowing, swallowed

bumblebee and scilla

PHOTO POST

Which is prettier, a Wood Duck or a Bumblebee? The reddish orange of a Robin’s breast, or the orangey red of Staghorn Sumach fruit? The sunrise or the sunset?

This April there’s no need to pick answers to silly questions – there’s a different beauty around every corner.

Closest to home, at just a few meters from my office window, a Downy Woodpecker makes quick rest stops on convenient branches.

Downy Woodpecker takes a pause

The Red-Winged Blackbird is named for two simple colours flashed by the male, but on an early-spring evening the female shows a richer palette.

Blackbird Evening

Long-Tail Ducks are beginning to show some of the rich colours they will wear when they arrive in their breeding grounds far north of here.

Long-tailed Duck times two

Though only scattered hints of green are visible in the marsh, life is stirring.

Muskrat Wave Mirage

A recently-arrived Killdeer checks out a muddy island in Westside Marsh.

Killdeer on mudflat island

Across the marsh a black-and-white Ring-necked Duck catches sunlight and reflects back red and brilliant green.

Ring-necked Duck in Westside Marsh

Mute Swans are establishing territories and building nests, but not all of them have paired off.

Two-Swan Takeoff

McLaughlin Bay landing

A pair of Red-breasted Mergansers have lingered close to the lakeshore on several recent mornings. Even in monochrome backlight they cut striking profiles …

Merganser pair in monochrome

… while in another light their colours really sing.

Mergansers swimming in colour

Still, in this area no other water bird competes with the Wood Duck in the colour olympics.

Wood Duck says Wake Up

The unseasonal warmth of early April brought a few flowers into full bloom. You need to get right down to ground level to fully appreciate the beauty of Scilla.

Scilla above and below

Will any pollinators be awake to visit these early blooms? I wondered. But in the afternoon warmth a huge Bumblebee hovered near, grabbed onto a tiny blossom, rode the swing down, then quickly moved to another and another.

Bumblebee and Scilla may sparkle together again next spring.

Bumblebee swings with Scilla


Photo at top of page: Robin feeds on Staghorn Sumach (full-screen image here)

waves of spring

PHOTO POST

Spring comes with a splash, and it comes with a sigh.

The first Red-winged Blackbirds and Robins arrived several cold weeks ago. On calm mornings the air rings with the songs and screeches of many recent arrivals, but nest-building is just beginning.

Even the cold-weather stalwarts – gulls, the winter ducks, geese and swans – are picking up the pace of activity.

Searching the waves

A quick bite

Scaups, long-tails, ring-necked ducks and goldeneyes dive in the marsh, the creek and the lake.

Winter Duck Medley (Long-tailed Ducks, and Ring-necked Duck at lower left)

Stiff afternoon breezes shape sand into waves that shape the sunset.

Perpendicular Log

In sheltered, sunny spots succulents like Autumn Joy Sedum are poking through the leaf litter.

Autumn Joy in Spring

Some of that leaf litter may soon be part of a Robin or Grackle nest.

Just One Robin

Goldfinches compete at the feeder just as they did all through the winter – but now their plumage is taking on much brighter colour.

Five Finches

Still, each warm spell is followed at this time of year by another quick reminder of winter. With two days before April another fierce snow squall brought a coating of white. There are some around here who pray this will be the last snowfall for many months.

Westerly wind on beach

Goldfinch, gold grass, snow

The Snowdrops take it all in stride, having lived through several winter reruns in just the past six weeks. By an hour past dawn they are already melting off the previous night’s snowfall.

Snowdrops in March sunshine

Hooded Mergansers show their spring colours against the backdrop of the marsh.

March’s Mergansers

On this beautiful morning in this beautiful place, the music of a Song Sparrow sounds just about right.

Reaching for a high note

fragile february

PHOTO POST

A few days of very early spring, brief periods when it felt like the depths of winter – and now and then, a few days somewhere between those extremes. February, we hardly knew you.

Not many of the diving ducks which typically winter here have been hanging around Port Darlington this year. Perhaps there are just too many other options, with almost no ice anywhere on Lake Ontario and many creeks and rivers flowing freely through much of the past month.

We’ve still seen the dabbling birds, though, especially Mallards and Canada Geese, who are content to stand on shore-fast ice when they aren’t feeding in shallow waters.

At Ease in Swift Current

Flight of Five

Scaups have been scarce. But as the sun dipped low one afternoon, this female Greater Scaup swam through the rippled reflection of a dry-docked red boat, to spectacular effect.

Greater Psychedelic Scaup

One place birds were not scarce was around our backyard feeders. As many as two dozen goldfinches, mourning doves, juncos, sparrows, nuthatches and chickadees gathered for hours each day. When there wasn’t room on the feeders or on the ground beneath, they waited their turns from the trees.

Blue Sky with Gold Finch

American Tree Sparrows (foreground below) and Dark-Eyed Juncos (background) were just as happy feeding directly from the finch feeder as from the ground.

Sparrow one and Sparrow too

On snowy, blowy days appetites seemed to be sharpened and the feeders were seldom unattended.

Sheltered Finch

Snowy Squirrel

Cardinal on Vine

Junco with Winter Grasses

The swift swings in weather reshaped the shoreline almost every day. Strong waves piled up banks of stones and freezing spray locked the stones into place. No matter. The next day’s warmer waves carved the formations from underneath while sunshine loosened the icy cement from above.

Just This Minute 2

Just This Minute 3

If you were lucky you could see colorful stones illuminated by sunrise – and remnant ice-shells illuminated by sunset.

Just This Minute 4

Just This Minute 5


Photo at top of page: Just This Minute 1 (click here for full-screen image)

 

the north side of a storm

PHOTO POST

On this edge of Lake Ontario the wind did blow, but for the most part the snow did not fall.

Beach Breeze

The great Christmas storm of 2022 brought us gale-force winds for thirty-six hours but very little snow. At the height of the storm there was almost as much sand as snow blowing across Port Darlington beach.

But the waves crashed and plumes of spray blasted the breakwater through the cold night.

Night Waves

By the light of day it was clear the bay had churned over until each breaking wave was heavy with sand.

Standing Still, Three

Standing Still, Two

Standing Still, One

To some residents the aftermath of the storm brought good cheer. Flocks of gulls found lots to eat amidst the undulating slush and kept watch for the best spots.

Gull Wing

Close Quarters

Even small floes, just big enough to stand on amidst in the ceaseless motion, were prized real estate.

Maintaining Focus, Two

Slush Surfing

As gulls fluttered, grabbed, dodged and shrieked, partially congealed waves whispered to the setting sun.

Frequency Modulation


Photo at top of post: Maintaining Focus, One (click here for full-screen image)

 

Osprey and Otter have a message for Ford

On most summer afternoons, if you gaze across Bowmanville Marsh long enough you’ll see an Osprey flying slow above the water, then suddenly dropping to the surface before rising up with a fish in its talons.

But the Osprey doesn’t nest in Bowmanville Marsh – it nests about a kilometer away in Westside Marsh. That’s where a pair of Ospreys fix up their nest each spring, and that’s where they feed one or two chicks through the summer until they can all fly away together. Quite often the fishing is better in one marsh than the other – and the Ospreys know where to go.

Otter knows this too. You might see a family of Otters in one marsh several days in a row, and then they trot over the small upland savannah to the other marsh.

Osprey and Otter know many things that our provincial government would rather not know. One of those is that the value of a specific parcel of wetland can’t be judged in isolation. Many wetland mammals, fish and birds – even the non-migratory ones – need a complex of wetlands to stay healthy.

To developers and politicians with dollar signs in their eyes, a small piece of wetland in an area with several more might seem environmentally insignificant. Otters and Ospreys and many other creatures know better. Filling in or paving over one piece of wetland can have disastrous effects for creatures that spend much of their time in other nearby wetlands.

A change in how wetlands are evaluated – so that the concept of a wetland complex is gone from the criteria – is just one of the many ecologically disastrous changes the Doug Ford government in Ontario is currently rushing through. These changes touch on most of the issues I’ve written about in this blog, from global ones like climate change to urban planning in a single city. This time I’ll focus on threats to the environment in my own small neighbourhood.

Beavers move between Bowmanville and Westside Marshes as water levels change, as food sources change in availability, and as their families grow. They have even engineered themselves a new area of wetland close to the marshes. Great Blue Herons move back and forth between the marshes and nearby creeks on a daily basis throughout the spring, summer and fall.

In our sprawl-loving Premier’s vision, neither wetlands nor farmland are nearly as valuable as the sprawling subdivisions of cookie-cutter homes that make his campaign donors rich. The Premier, who tried in 2021 to have a wetland in Pickering filled and paved for an Amazon warehouse, thinks it’s a great idea to take chunks of farmland and wetland out of protected status in the Greenbelt. One of those parcels – consisting of tilled farmland as well as forested wetland – is to be removed from the Greenbelt in my municipality of Clarington.

The Premier’s appetite for environmental destruction makes it clear that no element of natural heritage in the Greater Toronto area can be considered safe. That includes the Lake Ontario wetland complex that I spend so much time in.

This wetland area now has Provincially Significant Wetland status, but that could change in the near future. As Anne Bell of Ontario Nature explains,

“The government is proposing to completely overhaul the Ontario Wetland Evaluation System for identifying Provincially Significant Wetlands (PSWs), ensuring that very few wetlands would be deemed provincially significant in the future. Further, many if not most existing PSWs could lose that designation because of the changes, and if so, would no longer benefit from the high level of protection that PSW designation currently provides.” (Ontario Nature blog, November 10, 2022)

The Bowmanville Marsh/Westside Marsh complex is home, at some time in the year, to scores of species of birds. Some of these are already in extreme decline, and at least one is threatened.

Up to now, when evaluators were judging the significance of a particular wetland, the presence of a threatened or endangered species was a strong indicator. If the Ford government’s proposed changes go through, the weight given to threatened or endangered species will drop.

The Rusty Blackbird is a formerly numerous bird whose population has dropped somewhere between 85 – 99 percent; it stopped by the Bowmanville Marsh in September on its migration. The Least Bittern is already on the threatened species list in Ontario, but is sometimes seen in Bowmanville Marsh. If the Least Bittern or the Rusty Blackbird drop to endangered species status, will the provincial government care? And will there be any healthy wetlands remaining for these birds to find a home?

Osprey and Otter know that if you preserve a small piece of wetland, but it’s hemmed in by a busy new subdivision, that wetland is a poor home for most wildlife. Many creatures need the surrounding transitional ecozone areas for some part of their livelihood. The Heron species spend many hours a day stalking the shallows of marshes – but need tall trees nearby to nest in.

Green Heron (left) and juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron

And for some of our shyest birds, only the most secluded areas of marsh will do as nesting habitats. That includes the seldom-seen Least Bittern, as well as the several members of the Rail family who nest in the Bowmanville Marsh.

There are many hectares of cat-tail reeds in this Marsh, but the Virginia Rails, Soras and Common Gallinules only nest where the stand of reeds is sufficiently dense and extensive to disappear in, a safe distance from a road, and a safe distance from any walking path. That’s one reason I could live beside this marsh for several years before I spotted any of these birds, and before I ever figured out what was making some of the strange bird calls I often heard.

Juvenile Sora, and adult Virginia Rail with hatchling

There are people working in government agencies, of course, who have expertise in bird populations and habitats. One of the most dangerous changes now being pushed by our Premier is to take wildlife experts out of the loop, so their expertise won’t threaten the designs of big property developers.

No longer is the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) to be involved in decisions about Provincially Designated Wetland status. Furthermore, local Conservation Authorities (CAs), who also employ wetland biologists and watershed ecologists, are to be muzzled when it comes to judging the potential impacts of development proposals: 

“CAs would be prevented from entering into agreements with municipalities regarding the review of planning proposals or applications. CAs would in effect be prohibited from providing municipalities with the expert advice and information they need on environmental and natural heritage matters.” (Ontario Nature blog)

Individual municipalities, who don’t typically employ ecologists, and who will be struggling to cope with the many new expenses being forced on them by the Ford government, will be left to judge ecological impacts without outside help. In practice, that might mean they will accept whatever rosy environmental impact statements the developers put forth.

It may be an exaggeration to say that ecological ignorance will become mandatory. Let’s just say, in Doug Ford’s brave new world ecological ignorance will be strongly incentivized.

Marsh birds of Bowmanville/Westside Marsh Complex

These changes to rules governing wetlands and the Greenbelt are just a small part of the pro-sprawl, anti-environment blizzard unleashed by the Ford government in the past month. The changes have resulted in a chorus of protests from nearly every municipality, in nearly every MPP’s riding, and in media outlets large and small.

The protests need to get louder. Osprey and Otter have a message, but they need our help.


Make Your Voice Heard

Friday Dec 2, noon – 1 pm: Rally at MPP Todd McCarthy’s office, 23 King Street West in Bowmanville.

Write McCarthy at Todd.McCarthy@pc.ola.org, or phone him at 905-697-1501.

Saturday Dec 3, rally starting at 2:30 pm: in Toronto at Bay St & College St.

Send Premier Ford a message at: doug.fordco@pc.ola.org, 416-325-1941

Send Environment Minister David Piccini a message at: david.Piccini@pc.ola.org, 416-314-6790

Send Housing Minister Steve Clark a message at: Steve.Clark@pc.ola.org, 416-585-7000


All photos taken by Bart Hawkins Kreps in Bowmanville/Westside Marsh complex, Port Darlington.