the eyes have it

PHOTO POST

To see, or to be seen? That is the question.

The birds and plants in the woods and waters of Port Darlington show us some of the ways in which the invention of the eye has shaped life history.

Many birds (for example the Yellow Warbler, above, and the Scarlet Tanager, below) are famously flashy. It seems unlikely that the beautiful appearances of these birds would have evolved if they never saw each other, but only sensed their world through hearing, smell, taste and touch.

Scarlet Tanager (click images for larger view)

Yet the urge to be hidden is just as influential as the urge to be seen – leading to a fabulous array of camouflage schemes. Sometimes one bird manages both tricks.

The Cedar Waxwing has a striking crest, and seen from one side its red wing tips and yellow tail tip really jump out. Yet with its predominantly subdued earth tones it can blend into shadowy forests very well.

Cedar Waxwing

Many creatures can’t see but still leverage the power of vision for their own benefit. Look at some of our woodland flowers, whose stunningly vibrant colours call out to pollinators.

Wild Violet

 

Trout Lilies

In this regard one of our most common woodland flowers is a marvellous mystery. The Mayapple spreads mostly by runners. Its pollination strategies have a poor rate of success, partly because its flower produces no nectar. And its striking white flower grows underneath large leaves, facing downward.

 

Mayapple in June

The chilly spring has delayed the bloom of Mayapples into early June this year. To savour this beauty, stand in a patch of Mayapples, bend down until your nose touches your toes, then rotate your head 180° so you can look upward into the beautiful flower just about 30 centimeters above the ground. And while relaxing into this pose, remember to breathe, so you can drink in the rich aroma of this flower.

But back to the creatures of the sky and water – one of the recent visitors to our shoreline was a Ruddy Turnstone, named for its colour and its habit of turning pebbles over to spot the insects on which it feeds.

Ruddy Turnstone

The Turnstone nests in the high arctic and didn’t stick around here long. But a summer resident bird uses similar colours in an entirely different pattern. And like the Turnstone, Woodpeckers use their eyes both for long-distance navigation and for close-up work in dining on tiny bugs.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

This Red-Bellied Woodpecker appears to have found a good home high above a flooded woodland along Bowmanville Creek.

Room with a View

Waterfowl have been foraging in the same woods, including this Blue-Winged Teal spotted just before sunset.

Twilight in Flooded Forest

A resident Beaver also swims back and forth through these woods, perhaps enjoying the fact that large branches can now be floated home rather than dragged through the bush.

Sunset Shift

Beavers are said to have poor eyesight, and if you’re quiet you can get very close before they spot you and dash back to the water or do their slap and dive. But they do their best work at night and underwater, and their eyes cope with these challenges very well.

To see, or to be seen? The Grackle is famous for its flashy iridescence but its appearance is striking in another way too. As it patrols the rich ground under a bird feeder, its eyes not only see but are seen. With those intimidatingly stark black-and-white eyes shouting “I see you!” the Grackle warns all rivals.

Eye On You

Just another in the myriad ways that vision has shaped life.

And without eyes, we would neither raise our eyebrows nor sit in wide-eyed wonder.

I Wonder …

Photo at top: Yellow Warbler in Thicket (click here for larger view)

 

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

walk on the wet side

PHOTO POST

Through the past week’s intermittent rains returning migrants have joined our full-time residents around the bird feeders and in the marsh, while green shoots have begun to decorate muddy creek banks.

Cardinal Number Two (click images for larger view)

This Black-Capped Chickadee looks for food in a freshly-pruned Forsythia.

Black-Cap Times Two

Our many sparrows include a Tree Sparrow (which likes to feed on the grass beneath a bird feeder) and a Song Sparrow (seen below on a fallen tree beside Bowmanville Creek).

Tree Sparrow on Wet Canvas

 

Still Life with Song Sparrow

Tree branches would barely show against the sticky mud flats along Soper Creek – except for the vivid mosses growing on the wood and the lichens growing on the moss.

Branch of Green

One such lichen, Cladonia asahinae, grows particularly on Chorisodontium aciphyllum, Polytrichum strictum, and Andreaea species of moss. You may prefer an alternate description: these are the cups used by forest pixies to collect and drink the morning dew.

Pixie Cup Lichen

But the tall stems on this moss also do a good job of hanging on to a morning fog.

Forest on the Forest Floor

Just a few steps away some of the first big leaves are emerging from the same saturated mud.

Green Red and Blue

The abundant moisture helps bring out the rich colour in fractured tree stumps.

Robin on Wet Stump

Even on a dull morning in the marsh, Canada Geese have ways of adding their own colour.

Interpretations May Vary

But by late afternoon on a calm, clear day, it can be warm enough to climb up onto a log and dry off in the warm sun.

Sunset Turtle

Top photo: Cardinal Number One (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.

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)

rivers of light

PHOTO POST

Just when winter temperatures drop the farthest, the sun shines its brightest and snow floats across open space like liquid light.

But the current cold snap, like many before it, was preceded by a squall. The geese settled on the marsh to wait out the wind.

West Wind (click images for larger views)

 

West Wind Two

When the storm was over there were lines on the surface of the marsh …

Aftermath

… and lines on the shore.

Aftermath Two

With the air temperature hovering around –20°C, waterfowl sought the warmth of liquid water …

3 + 1

though liquidity was fickle.

Sail to the Sun

In Port Darlington harbour the flow of water and ice became a stream of steam and light.

Winter Harbour 

Top photo: Rivers of Light (click here for larger version)

 

searchlight

PHOTO POST

Have we ever had an autumn and early winter with so little sunlight? Perhaps, but with so many gray days and so little snow, one has to look a little harder for a glimpse of colour and glow while exploring the waterfront this season.

When the sun pokes out along the beach for a few minutes at sunrise or sunset it’s a treat.

Anchor (click images for larger view)

 

Magnification

But just as often the only light seems to emerge from the nearly-frozen water along the edges of the marsh.

Filigree

 

Climbing Feather

When the sky is as wet as the mud and twigs underfoot, it falls to feathers to illuminate their scenes.

Spiny Feather

On this morning the beavers may be among those glad there’s just a dusting of snow – at least they don’t need to shovel their walks.

Beaver Trail

This route leads from the water’s edge to a favoured feeding site.

Dentition

Though the beavers can make short work of a clump of trees, the next summer brings forth twice as many new shoots.

Last year’s chew

Closer to home, another rodent is grateful for our hard work in the garden. In early fall we had a nice crop of beets, but a few weeks later when we went to dig up our harvest the beets had all disappeared. The mystery was solved when we saw this adorable little varmint dig up a treasure from the lawn and scamper up a tree to eat, in what has become a daily performance.

Eat your vegetables

Top photo: Afternoon Fog (click here for larger view)

reading the fine print

PHOTO POST

Who knew there was a Green Heron in our neighbourhood?

I’m sure many birders knew, but until this spring I didn’t know there is such a thing as a Green Heron, or that the Green Heron is hardly green at all, or that I had in fact seen and photographed a Green Heron a year ago.

More on herons later, but let’s agree that one can study and admire the fine features of many creatures while being quite unaware of their names.

Wingspan

The dragonflies that buzz around the reeds and lilypads at the edge of the marsh, for example, come in many colours, and might change their looks depending on the angle of the sun – but whatever their species, they are among the most beautiful sights on a steamy summer evening.

Stained Glass

The same can be said of Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), whose delicate orange blossom would be as beautiful by any other name.

Jewelweed

But of course the details matter greatly in many ways. While the native Jewelweed is no more or less beautiful than the somewhat similar Himalayan Balsam (see previous post, Before and After Flowers), the latter, recently introduced species is unfortunately far too successful in this environment, with the result that it can quickly crowd out most other plants.

Frogbit One

The same is true of European Frog-bit, whose tiny and delicate white flowers are now popping up around the edges of Bowmanville Marsh. Brought in to an Ottawa area experimental farm in 1932 as a possible decorative plant, it began to colonize many other bodies of water and is now widely established in southern Ontario and some northeast US states. Unfortunately, its miniature “lily pads” soon multiply to great numbers that snuff out many other plants, and which also spread easily when moved by contact with boats or moving water including the wake from boats. (See Ontario government fact sheet on European Frog-bit)

Frogbit Two

 

Shore Lunch

On the other hand, the Turkey Vulture is one of our more majestic indigenous birds, though it has the unglamorous job of cleaning up carrion. (They do not eat fresh meat.) When Turkey Vultures glide on thermals over the beach they are a welcome sight, as that usually means there is a dead fish or waterbird sending a pungent odour heavenward, and the Turkey Vultures have arrived to deal with it.

Sharp Look

One of the inescapable facts of living on the lakeshore is that there are lots of spiders – thousands, millions, gazillions? They make a mess of windows and outdoor walls, and ensure that the first person to walk through a doorway in the morning can expect a spider web across the face. Most of them are too small to successfully photograph with the equipment I have, but this beauty, stationed on the gatepost to our vegetable garden, is an exception.

Garden Guardian

 

Night Heron by Day

A fine heron by any name

And now about those herons. The Great Blue Heron is unmistakable and can be sighted on most paddling excursions in Bowmanville and Westside marshes, but the small herons are more elusive.

Adult Black-Crowned Night Herons are fairly easy to spot, as their white body and black-cap head stand out clearly against the green reeds. The youngsters, though, wear a better camouflage. Though the adult Black-Crown Night Herons and Green Herons don’t look at all alike, their youngsters bear many similarities.

I first became aware of the Green Heron a few months ago, when I spotted one in the still-short fresh green reeds along Soper Creek. Following that sighting I tried many times to spot the bird again, with little luck. But by late July I started to see young small herons, and learned it is easy to confuse the Black-Crowned Night Heron with the Green Heron – they both have predominately brown and white mottled feathers.

The juvenile Black-Crowned Night Heron does not have a black cap, I learned, while a Green Heron wears a dark cap as both a juvenile and adult.

Looking at old pictures, I realized that in a post a year ago I had misidentified the bird at right as a Black-Crowned Night Heron, at a time when I wasn’t aware that Green Herons exist or that they might be found in this area.

At Roost

In the past two weeks I believe I have spotted juveniles of both species, though they are far more cautious and skittish than the Great Blue Herons. The youngster above, for example, retreated to a hiding place high in the trees beside Bowmanville Creek. It was only by drifting by very slowly that I found one angle with an almost unobstructed view.

And after many excursions at dawn and at sunset, I think I’ve finally captured a clear view of a Green Heron, below.

I Was Here All Along

Top photo: On An Arc (click here for larger view)

Disclaimer: the foregoing is not to be construed as advice from a certified authority, including but not limited to, ornithologist, entomologist, arachnologist, angelologist, ichthyologist, neuropsychopharmacologist, lepidopterologist, numismatologist, phytologist, dendrologist or other ologist, and is accompanied by no guarantee, either express or implied.

before and after flowers

PHOTO POST

With most summer flowers now fallen away or drying, it is up to butterflies and damselflies, grasses and fruits, to provide flashes of colour. While monarchs are drawn to the late-blooming Silphium, their caterpillars chew through Milkweed leaves.

Perspectives in pink (click images for larger views)

A wide variety of dragonflies and damselflies drift across from the marsh to our gardens – and clearly, for them this is a busy time of year.

Freefloat

 

Stars Came Out

 

Orange arrangement

Some of this season’s lilies are strikingly colourful even as they dry in the sun, and a few are still attracting pollinators.

Firedust

 

Listening Post

But sometimes you want to escape the heat. This rabbit relaxes on the beach in a cool morning breeze, having earned a break after a long night of pillaging gardens throughout the neighbourhood.

Coming-of-Age Story

On Westside Marsh, a trio of Mute Swan cygnets now look almost grown up, though their grey bills and mottled grey feathers still set them apart from their parents.

Under the Canopy

The flowers that are just now coming into bloom tend to be very tall. At two metres or more, the Himalayan Balsam is a good bit taller than its native cousin the orange-blossomed Jewelweed, which blooms a bit earlier. (The crushed stems of both species yield a clear juice that sooths the burn from Poison Ivy.)

Himalayan Balsam’s hollow but sturdy stalks are beautiful in their own right, though they are usually hidden deep in the understory. A tenacious competitor, it can quickly take over an area and produce a thick stand that leaves no room for other plants. Those who have had the experience of struggling to control a well-established stand realize this plant’s magnificence comes at great expense.

Jewelweed One

Its pink flowers are succeeded by an equally elaborate exploding seed pod that can distribute hundreds of seeds several metres in every direction. If you see a few of these flowers you might want to enjoy their beauty now – and then pull up the plants before they can seed next summer’s forest.

Jewelweed Sundown

 

Top photo: Monarchs’ Realm