gazing into the reeds

PHOTO POST

On an evening in late April as I walked along the road, my eye was drawn to a bird swimming across the marsh in a peculiar, herky-jerky fashion.

Gallinule the First (click images for full-screen views)

When I zoomed in with my camera and saw the distinctive black and white markings plus the brilliant red beak, it was clear that this bird was hitherto unknown to yours truly.

Upon learning the bird is called a Common Gallinule, and it is indeed a common, summer-long resident in marshes throughout North America, I felt like a particularly inept amateur ornithologist. If it’s so common why had I never spotted one in five summers of prowling this marsh?

Thus began a long quest to learn the habits of the gallinule. Before long I’d caught many fleeting glimpses, in all corners of the marsh, and I learned to recognize some of its extensive vocal repertoire when it was lurking out of sight. Months went by without my ever capturing a reasonably good picture.

But this frustration was such fun! While I peered into the reeds where the gallinules dwell, I saw many other birds including several that I had never known before.

The nimble Marsh Wren is a good bit more numerous than the gallinule, but is likewise hard to catch in a still photo.

Slanted Perch

Somewhat bigger are the various sandpipers that feed on the mudflats and occasionally walk across lily pads.

Piper Two

I can’t be sure of the identity of this piper spotted just this week. To me it looks like a Greater Yellowlegs, which typically move through here only on their way to and from nesting areas far to the north. I’d be grateful to any reader who can identify this bird; please send me a note here.

Piper Three

Gazing into the reeds, you might also spot a juvenile Green Heron, like this one seen in the bright light of the setting sun.

Sunset in Green

The Great Blue Heron is not typically shy, but even they will sometimes hide in the tall reeds.

Great Blue Sky

A Great Blue Heron inadvertently played a key role in allowing me to finally get a good close look at the gallinules. As I watched this heron swoop down on a convenient log and nail the landing, we both had a surprise.

Don’t Scare Me Like That

The heron’s landing startled a female Wood Duck, tucked almost out of sight at the left end of the log. The Duck gave a loud quack, which prompted a louder squawk from the Heron, who re-launched from the log with great comic effect.

And all this high drama distracted a gallinule family who hang out behind this log, as they didn’t notice a photographer slowly drifting closer.

Walking Home

For once I got more than a fleeting glimpse, and I was thrilled to see an adult with two chicks. Clearly, feet which can straddle floating sticks or reeds are essential equipment, as the young ones had already grown toes nearly as long as their downy bodies.

Little Bigfoot

When I’d had time to take several photos my presence was duly noted. The birds disappeared into the shadowy reeds and left me with their squeaky serenade.

Who You Calling Common?


Photo at top of page: Piper One (click here for full-screen image)

 

regarding the ways of the marsh

PHOTO POST

A long period of hot dry weather has hastened the fullness of summer in the marsh. Where you and I might see a smelly mess, many creatures are seeing a fertile, fecund, bountiful bouquet of life.

The dropping water levels have exposed squishy mudflats – great dining areas for pipers including the Killdeer.

Killdeer Goes to Dinner (click images for full-screen view)

Turtles both Painted and Snapper can frequently be seen floating near the surface with just their heads sticking up.

I’ve Got Time

Flies, mosquitos, water boatmen, and many other insects are flying just over the water or propelling themselves across the surface. They help feed hungry frogs, birds, fish, turtles – and larger insects such as dragonflies.

On a hot summer evening, the dragonflies are also busy laying their eggs just below the surface.

Dragonfly Arch

When a dragonfly pauses its rapid zig-zag flights an emerging water lily also makes a good perch.

Observation Post

The White Water Lily is one of the showiest plants in the marsh. But in full sun its white is so blinding that you may choose to see this flower through dark glasses.

Shadow Play

Another beautiful flowering plant, alas, contributes little but colour to the marsh. The Bitter Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara), introduced from Eurasia more than 150 years ago, is poisonous to almost every local animal. With nothing to keep it in check it has spread widely throughout the Great Lakes area, and has become the dominant vegetation in sizable sections of Bowmanville Marsh.

Bitter Nightshade

For the time being, though, there is enough other tasty foliage to feed a thriving population of muskrats.

Reflections in Green

On a warm evening this beaver couldn’t be bothered to take supper home to the lodge.

Finger Food

One of the Great Blue Herons, perched at the edge of the reeds, caught sight of a Mudcat in striking distance.

Mudcat Special

Early in the spring I had two sightings of the gaudily spectacular male Wood Duck – but then concluded that this bird had just carried on in its migration. To my surprise, though, I spotted this Wood Duck hen and duckling swimming to cover in the reeds just before sunset earlier this week.

Swimming to Shelter

There is more to know in the marsh than can be learned in a few years, or even in a few human lifetimes. After six summers here there are still birds I’ve rarely or never glimpsed. The Virginia Rail has a reputation for being heard much more than seen, as it moves slowly and carefully through the shadows where the reeds meet the water. With patience and luck you may get your first sighting – and with extra luck I hope to get a second sighting some day soon.

Virginia Rail

There are few marsh dwellers as beautiful as this Green Frog1 – especially as frogs are known as Marsh Canaries, who are so sensitive to pollutants that they provide a warning system of unhealthy conditions. Frogs have been scarce in this marsh, but in recent years they seem to have made a bit of a comeback. May the bright yellow flash and the deep twangy call of the Green Frog be seen and heard through the coming days and eons.

Five O’clock Frog


Photo at top of page: Close-Up, Five O’clock Frog (click here for full-screen view)


1This helpful name distinguishes true Green Frogs from mere green frogs. The website naturewatch.ca explains that a Green Frog may also be bronze or brown, with a white belly, and the males have a bright yellow throat.

 

keeping watch

PHOTO POST

From the least of the sandpipers to the greatest of the owls, today’s post is all birds.

Even while they’re out looking for food – whether seeds, bugs or fish – the birds around the marshes also need to look out for other birds who are looking for food. There’s always a chance that a bigger bird might swoop down and make a meal of a smaller bird.

Goslings are now roaming the marshes, shorelines and meadows in great numbers.

Soft Focus (click photos for larger views)

The Eastern Kingbird waits on high perches where it can spot its primary prey – flying insects.

Flycatcher

On the mudflats in Westside Marsh or on the rocky lakeshore, Least Sandpipers and Spotted Sandpipers can often be spotted probing for insects.

Least Sandpipers

The Least Sandpiper (above) has the distinction of being the world’s smallest shorebird, with an adult weighing in at about one ounce (28 grams). The Spotted Sandpiper (below) is the most widespread sandpiper in North America.

Spotted Sandpiper, Early Summer Evening

The Green Heron is much harder to find as it tends to hide in the shadows along wooded creeks.

Green Heron in the Shadows

You can’t help but wonder how this bird got its name. I imagine it went like this:

After the Great Blue Heron began to attract so much attention, their smaller cousins decided it was time to hire their own branding consultant. They advised this professional, “You’ve got to know we’re secretive birds, not at all flashy. We like to keep a low profile, so we need a modest, low-key name.”

After a thorough round of focus groups the naming consultant unveiled the new brand: “I propose you are henceforth known as the Green Herons!” And when the grateful clients had stopped laughing, they responded, “Brilliant! If people are out looking for a Green Heron, they are very unlikely to spot us.”

“And yet there’s a smidgen of truth to the name – if you see one of us in the bright sunlight and you squint just right, there is a green-ish tinge on a few feathers.”

Green Heron by Morning Sun

Branding trivia aside, however, the Green Heron along with all the smaller marsh birds have good reasons to keep under cover and keep watching the skies. Only seconds after I photographed the Green Heron, I caught a glimpse of huge wings gliding through the canopy above. Moments later I spotted a large predator gazing down through the branches: the Great Horned Owl.

Great Horned Owl

The Great Horned Owl is the largest owl that resides in this area. The Great Horned Owl also has the most varied diet of all the raptors – from mice to rabbits to waterfowl to other raptors.

Whoever you may be in the marsh, you’d best look out for those who are looking for you.


Photo at top of page: Young Green Heron Takes the Sun (click here for larger image)

bloomin’ weeds

PHOTO POST

Full disclosure: not all the plants pictured here are wildflowers strictly speaking. Some have been introduced to the area, have escaped from gardens, and now roam the countryside, feral.

The Wood Anemone at the top of the post grows across North America, including local meadows and at the edges of some marshes.

A beautiful Flowering Cherry, on the other hand, may well have been brought in by a long-gone nearby nursery.

Flowering Cherry

Another flowering shrub, which I believe is a Nannyberry (a type of viburnum), also grows near the former nursery.

Nannyberry

The Barberry is much closer to home, having taken a post in our yard. Though most people grow it for its foliage its flowers are spectacular too – though at just a few millimeters in diameter you need to get really close to appreciate them.

Barberry in Flower

The beautiful Speedwell is just a wee bit bigger. If you google it you may learn as I did that this flower thrives in some lawns, giving fits to those determined to eliminate botanical diversity from their expanses of grass.

Speed Thee Well

And let us not forget the noble Dandelion, here looking resplendent after a morning dew.

Tall Dandelion Syndrome

On our marshes, a very different bloom often happens – an algal bloom. According to NOAA, the vast majority of algal blooms do not produce toxins. This patch of vivid green appeared at one end of Bowmanville Marsh and disappeared just as quickly a few days later. It may or may not be a reflection of ecosystem health, but it did not appear to concern the muskrats.

Muskrat Quest

Very few other aquatic blooms have appeared so far this summer, but these grasses and water catch the evening light as beautifully as any flower.

Spectrum

In wet woodlands beside the marsh, the Starry False Solomon’s Seal is widespread. (It should hire a spin doctor – surely it deserves a name of its own rather than being named by what it is not.)

What’s Solomon Got To Do With It?

At sunset in a meadow, you can savour the delicate colours of the Wood Anemone, which will soon be submerged in waist-high vegetation.

Wood Anemone Two


Photo at top of page: Wood Anemone One (click here for larger image)

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) 

the right beak for the job

PHOTO POST

The birds now nesting, hanging out, or just passing through the marsh carry beaks ideally suited to their ways of life.

Many have a sort of “Goldilocks” facial protuberance – not too long, not too short, strong enough, but not so big as to be unwieldy.

Nestbuilder (click images for larger view)

The Red-Wing Blackbirds (female above, male below) eat a varied diet – small insects pried from the fleshy stalks of aquatic plants, small seeds, even larger grains from farm fields or bird-feeders – and their strong but slender beaks are great for this range of foraging.

Redwing Symmetry

The Grackle also grabs many meals in the marsh, and as many as possible from bird-feeders. They readily eat animals as large as grasshoppers, frogs, even mice – and their larger beak has a specialized hard keel that can crack acorns.

Willow Grackle

The reclusive but talkative Sora gathers its food from floating vegetation in the interior of reedy areas – Smartweed seeds, snails, dragonflies and other insects on the marsh surface.

Sora at Twilight

The Turkey Vulture looks for larger fare, spotting dead animals while it soars over meadow, marsh or beach. Its unusually keen nose sniffs out “freshly dead” food even in thickets or under a forest canopy. Its beak can tear through the scales and skin of fish, the fur of rabbits, and the bones of other birds.

Just Wait

This time of year the Double-Breasted Cormorant spends a lot of time catching fresh fish in the marsh. With its heavy body the cormorant launches into flight awkwardly – but it dives with ease, propelling itself underwater with huge webbed feet, and its long beak is great for grabbing the squirming fish that make up nearly its entire diet.

On a Scale of 1 to 10

Canada Geese also get a lot of their food underwater – but they eat vegetation, not fish, and in shallow water only so they don’t need to dive. Their medium-size beaks, AKA bills, are ideally suited to a vegetarian diet that includes grasses and seeds as large as corn or wheat.

New Line of Geese

A visitor with an exceptionally large bill dropped by last week. The Northern Shoveler’s bill is lined with scores of fine projections that form a sieve, allowing it to swim with its open mouth in the water catching tiny aquatic animals as well as seeds.

Northern Shoveler

The shovel-filter is a clever adaptation – but the Greater Yellowlegs takes a different tack. This slender shorebird wades in shallow waters in the northern boreal forests. Its long, skinny, pointy and lightweight beak is just right for probing mudflats for aquatic insects, or occasionally grabbing a small frog or a minnow.

Six Yellow Legs

The Swallow species really go for beak minimalism. These superb flyers seem never to stop moving, swooping down low over the marsh surface or circling over the tops of trees. As they fly they are gobbling tiny winged insects one after another. A big beak would be pointless extra weight.

Flying Light

Composite photo at top: The Right Beak (click here for larger view). Clockwise from top left: Greater Yellowlegs, Turkey Vulture, Northern Shoveler, Sora.

 

brushes with light

PHOTO POST

A chilly month of April has slowed the appearance of most green leaves and flowers – but the blooming that has begun seems all the more colourful for its scarcity.

On savannah and at forest’s edge, trees and shrubs were budding out even on frosty mornings.

Red Elbow

Dogwood, Early Morning, Early Spring

Specklebranch

Muddy creek banks took longer to warm but small trees soon sent out leaves.

Curlicue

In the deep forest Mayapples were ready with their parasol-leaves fully formed underground, poking up and unfurling to catch the sun before the tree canopy envelopes them in shadow.

Mayapple Shadow

On a creek bank a showy willow bursts into flower before forming its first leaves.

Willow Light One

Willow Light Two

A fresh willow twig is beautiful, yes … but tasty? The beavers think so, and it’s not hard to find clusters of willow with each stem neatly chewed off. Here our Castor canadensis is coming home with groceries.

Long Lunch

The Muskrat, too, enjoys fresh salad in the spring. Though the marsh vegetation still looks dry and lifeless, beneath the waterline the cattails are sending up new shoots. You’ve got to wonder – how does someone who forages in the mud at the bottom of a swamp keep such beautifully clean nails?

Dainty Eater

The Mute Swans who have moved into the marsh also spend a lot of time pulling vegetation from beneath the water. But this time of year they’re busy sorting out nesting sites and territories. During the daytime there are frequent bursts of thunder as determined swans chase others away, huge feet slapping the water and the whoosh of wings audible for hundreds of meters.

Full Tilt

Before sunset peace returns, while nesting pairs circle one another in their slow spin dance.

Light and Lighter


Photo at top of page: Brush With Light (click here for larger view)

reaching for spring

PHOTO POST

The first growth of the season is just beginning to emerge in the plant realm, but in the avian world spring moves are well underway.

Many of the visiting waterfowl – Long-Tailed Ducks, Scaups – have apparently ended their sojourns in our marsh to carry on north. A few Ring-Necked Ducks and more numerous Buffleheads are sticking around for now.

Ring-Necked Ducks (click images for larger views)

These ducks tend not to be noisy types, which is more than you can say about the Grackles who make sure to announce their presence.

Crackle Grackle

The Grackle is also famous for its iridescent splendour – but the black-and-white Buffleheads can play with the spectrum of sunlight just as beautifully.

Low-Profile Flash

When the Buffleheads begin their playful skitterings across the marsh surface they splash the evening light in all directions at once.

Buffleheads Three By Three

Nesting waterfowl, meanwhile, are getting serious about staking out spots to build this year’s homes. Mute Swans have started their thunderous stampedes across the water to warn interloping Swans, as well as Canada Geese, to keep their distance.

Pursuit

Muskrats appear more placid but they too can cause a hubbub, thrashing about in the reeds, perhaps all in good fun? Whatever their motives, they were actively exploring the whole marsh through the past week.

Swimming To Home

On Closer Examination

The ranks of Red-Wing Blackbirds grow by the day and so their calls fill the air.

From This Lofty Perch

But when it comes to reaching for the sky, a mere lack of wings is no reason to stay earth-bound. As the first fresh fruits of the spring emerge, Gray Squirrels climb to the tops of the tallest trees at the edge of marsh to savour the choicest buds.

Treetop Garden


Photo at top of page: Three Plus One (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)