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)

 

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)

growing up

PHOTO POST

Not long ago they were fledglings. Now they’re on their own.

And with no helicoptering parents issuing shrill warnings whenever a suspicious character approaches, some of the adolescent birds in the neighbourhood can now be seen right out in the open.

The juvenile Black-Crowned High Heron, above and below, is both more handsome and less cautious than its rather stodgy parents.

Awaiting the Night (click photos for larger views)

A juvenile Northern Flicker, on the other hand, lacks a distinctive red crest and looks awfully scruffy after a rub-down on a fence rail – but it already possesses the gilt-edged feathers that make it a flashy flyer.

Gilded Scruff

As much as I’d like to believe otherwise, not every creature with a scraggly bit of fluff on its head is in the flower of youth. The White Admiral butterfly, below, is by definition in the final stage of its life, with egg, larva and pupa now in its past.

Black-and-White in the Pink

Likewise an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail shines brightly among the flowers but its fragile wings already show signs of wear and tear.

Stripe & Curve

Around the edge of Bowmanville Marsh there seem to be more frogs this year than in the previous few years – a hopeful note given frogs’ reputation as “marsh canaries” who are very vulnerable to pollutants.

Green Sparkle

While there were few sightings of Snapping Turtles this summer, Painted Turtles have often been seen sunning themselves on logs in late afternoon.

Island Paradise

Fish-eating birds must celebrate the many creatures swimming about in the marsh. A few Cormorants have recently joined the Great Blue Herons, Black-Crowned Night Herons and Green Herons.

In the Eye of a Cormorant

The adult Green Heron is one of the stealthiest of the marsh-dwellers, and this year I’ve only caught one fleeting glimpse of this bird.

The youngster is a different story, and has posed on an open perch while I drifted by in a kayak three different times.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Heron (II)

One bright morning the Green Heron and three Otters were all working the same corner of the marsh. I can’t be sure I understood their whole conversation but I think it went like this:

Standing Tall

Ringleader of the Otters: “We’ve been wondering, how will you ever fly? As far as we can see you’re just a two-eyed neck on stilts.”

Soon-to-be-Green Heron: “Yeah well, if you had a spear like mine you wouldn’t have to swim so hard just to catch a fish. I gotta admit, though, you’re pretty cute for a gang of overgrown weasels.”

A Little Time for Small Talk

That’s all I heard before the wizened Otter and pals got back to play.


Photo at top: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Heron (click here for full-size view)

If the insects go, we all go

An illustrated review of Buzz, Sting, Bite: Why We Need Insects

Also published at Resilience.org

Buzz, Sting, Bite is a breezy read with a sobering message: insects are so deeply woven into the web of life that the worldwide drop in insect populations threatens every other species. (Buzz, Sting, Bite is published by Simon & Schuster, July 2019)

Author Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson is a Norwegian ecologist who specializes in the interactions of the thousands of species that live in dead wood in Scandinavia. But here she writes for non-specialists, with the goal of inspiring more people with fascination, respect, awe and concern for insects.

So she’s happy to sprinkle the text with anthropomorphic metaphors, to showcase strange tales of insect sexual practices, and to regale us with ghoulish examples of insects who devour other insects in bizarre and inventive fashion. She explains why, in scientific terms, insects, spiders and centipedes belong to different phyla, while bugs are a specific order of insects – but she doesn’t let those formal distinctions get in the way of a good story.


Damselflies in Summer Meadow. Sverdrup-Thygeson writes: “Have you ever seen damselflies … perching or flying around in pairs? … The sole purpose of this tandem position is that it allows the male to keep watch over the female and make sure she doesn’t mate with any rivals until she has laid (what he hopes are) their jointly fertilized eggs on a suitable aquatic plant.” (page 34)


Though the book is illustrated only with a few eloquent black-and-white illustrations, Sverdrup-Thygeson’s story-telling is vivid. In just over two hundred pages the reader will absorb much fundamental biological understanding, along with compelling anecdotes about species from all over the world.

She concedes that a small number of insect species cause us harm, from annoying but temporarily itchy bites, to sudden crop failures, to epidemics of deadly diseases. Her focus, however, is on the other side of the ledger – the far more numerous species whose activities are indispensable to the biosphere that supports us.


Red Wasp on Hydrangea Paniculata. “Insects’ visits to flowers contribute to seed production in more than 80 percent of the world’s wild plants, and insect pollination improves fruit or seed quality in a large proportion of our global food crops …. A study of forty different crops across the planet showed that visits from wild insects increased crop yields in all systems.” (Buzz, Sting, Bite, page 85)

Green Metallic Sweat Bee on Echinacea.


At the end of the book she quotes Harvard professor E.O. Wilson: “The truth is that we need invertebrates but they don’t need us. If human beings were to disappear tomorrow, the world would go on with little change …. But if invertebrates were to disappear, I doubt that the human species could live more than a few months.” And by the end of the book, Sverdrup-Thygeson has helped us to understand why Wilson was so right.

Insects evolved hundreds of millions of years earlier than larger species did, and as a result our ecosystem is built on a foundation of insect biodiversity. More than half of all bird species, for example, eat insects, as do most freshwater fish. For about 80 per cent of wild plants, as well as most of the plants that we eat, visits from a variety of insects are either essential or measurably beneficial.


Red Admiral Butterfly on Coriander. “Most insect species on the planet undergo complete metamorphosis. This includes the dominant insect groups, such as beetles, wasps, butterflies, flies, and mosquitoes. The ingenious part of it is that they can exploit two totally different diets and habitats as child and adult ….” (page 5)

Green-Eyed Dragon. “The dragonfly excels as a lethal hunter, succeeding in more than 95 percent of its attempts. … Their vision makes a significant contribution to their success …. Almost their entire head consists of eyes. In fact, each eye is made up of 30,000 small eyes, which can see both ultraviolet and polarized light as well as colors. And since the eyes are like balls, the dragonfly can see most of what is happening on all sides of its body.” (page 16-17)

Disappearing Damselflies. “Freshwater fish live largely off insects because some insects take infant swimming so seriously that they keep their young permanently submerged until they reach the age of reason: mosquitos, mayflies, and dragonflies, to name but a few.” (page 101)


And then there’s decomposition, AKA composting and recycling. All over the globe there are sophisticated teams of bugs, bacteria and fungi which transform rotting animal flesh, fruit, leaves, trees, and dung into nutrients that then feed other species.


Ants in Tree-House. “Once fungi and insects, mosses and lichens, and bacteria have moved in, there are more living cells in the dead tree than there were when it was alive. So ironically enough, dead trees are actually among the most living things you can find in the forest.” (page 113)


There are many reasons for a rapid decline in insect numbers in many countries, including habitat loss, widespread pesticide use, and climate change. Typically, the rare and most specialized species are the first to go, Sverdrup-Thygeson says. And though extinction is a frightening (and increasingly frequent) outcome, she warns that:

“It’s too late to worry when a species is on the brink of extinction. Species cease to function in the ecosystem long before the last individual dies out. That is why it is so vital not to focus exclusively on species extinction but to turn the spotlight on the decline in the number of individuals.” (Buzz, Sting, Bite, page 178)

Buzz, Bite, Sting is an easy read for a summer day – but the book is meant to spur important action and change:

“We have everything to gain by caring a bit more about insects. I believe in knowledge, positive talk, and enthusiasm. Be curious about bugs, take the time to look and learn. Teach children about all the strange and useful things insects do. Talk nicely about bugs. Make your garden a better place for flower visitors. Let’s get insects onto the agenda in land-use plans and official reports, agriculture regulations and state budgets. … My hope is that this book will open more people’s eyes to the weird and wonderful world of insects and the extraordinary lives they live alongside us on this planet we share.”


Photographs taken by Bart Hawkins Kreps in Port Darlington, Ontario. Photo at top of post: Meadow Sunset Dragonfly (click here for full-size version)

 

the view from up here

PHOTO POST

A chorus of squeaks and squawks comes from on high as birds scout out good feeding territories, warn of possible predators, or call out “bring me another worm!”

 

Bright Shade (click images for larger views)

A Purple Finch is interested in tasty seeds – and likes to wait between snacks in the cool shade of lower branches.

On The Fence

A Chipmunk often watches from near the top of a wood fence until it seems safe to grab seeds on the ground.

Eastern Comma

Bright butterflies are now flashing around the yard as well. Above, the Eastern Comma Butterfly, and below, a Monarch on a favourite flower which has dibs on the grand title “Butterfly Weed”.

Butterfly Weed

For more than two weeks, Bergamot blooms have attracted the Hummingbirds.

Hummingbird & Bergamot

Hummingbird & Bergamot II

A strange creature landed in the garden recently and I tried to find its name. I learned that the Crane Fly, with its astonishingly long and delicate legs, often breaks at least one – which is probably why the insect below has only five legs. That apparently doesn’t matter a lot – once this fly graduates from maggot stage, I read, it is not known to eat anything and needs to survive just long enough to reproduce.

Crane Fly & Hydrangea Paniculata

Damselflies are typically active predators but on a calm cloudy evening they were busy pairing up, landing on a marsh surface where couples were reproduced in reflection.

Damselflies & Dusk, Bowmanville Marsh

The water was soon rippled with raindrops and a rainbow rose over the lake at sunset.

It’s Mostly Sky

Photo at top: Flicker & Birch (full-size version here)