staying close to land

PHOTO POST

These days can be ever so quiet.

Some mornings the marsh is filled with geese and gulls, but other days the honks and screeches are far away.

Sparkle and Shadow

A pair of foxes might criss-cross the marsh before dawn, tracing the edges of every island, but leaving no evidence that they found a single mouse to eat.

If you come to a fork in the road, take it

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quiet passage

PHOTO POST

We’ve slipped into a new year, but perhaps not yet into a new winter.

With no ice on the lake and patchy ice on the marshes, moisture rises to the sky and cloud mutes the light of many sunsets and sunrises.

 

She Sells Seashells (By the Lakeshore)

 

Swells Come Ashore

The morning of January 2nd was one glorious exception, as a bright sun rose in time to light up the freshly fallen snow.

Light in the Woods 1

 

Light in the Woods 2

 

Light in the Woods 3

The shipping season on Lake Ontario, typically finished by the end of December, is still in swing with two ships coming to port in the past week.

Shipping Lane 1

Shipping Lane 2

At the end of December we also had a fortuitous patch of clear sky, as the Long Night’s Moon rose over the lake before 5 pm.

Long Night’s Moon

This full moon, named for its proximity to the Winter Solstice, is often also called the Cold Moon –  but this year even the nights have been mild.

Do the birds expect the warm trend to carry through January? I couldn’t help but wonder when I saw this Great Blue Heron on January 4, a good month later in the season than I had spotted any herons in previous years.

Winter Vigil


Photo at top of page: Fragments (click here for full-screen view)

at the end of december

PHOTO POST

With the longest nights behind us we await the crisp clear days of winter. But wait we must – the Christmas morning snowstorm gave us just a thin crust of white and temperatures right at the freeze/thaw mark.

Fortunately we’ve had a few hours of bright sunshine recently, when frost glitters on every reed in the marsh …

Moment’s Frost

…and even the squirrels were able to hold still for a few minutes just to bask in the warm glow.

Sun Soaked Squirrels

For the most part, though, colours have been softened in cloud-filtered light.

December Meadow

The most vivid hues around sometimes decorate the forest floor.

Forest Garden

Ring-billed Gulls on the thin ice of the marsh do their best to add some flash.

Can you hear me now?

Few kinds of birds remain in the area, but they always leave behind a feather or two. And it often seems that no two feathers are exactly alike.

Feathered Blue

Feather on Ice, Morning

When the sun comes out, if only for a few minutes, it’s a treat – and never more so than at dawn on the morning after the winter solstice.

Assemblage at Sunrise

the woodpecker’s tongue 

PHOTO POST

If I hadn’t gone grocery shopping on bicycle, I probably would have missed the oversized woodpecker checking out some local trees. But as I pedaled down the street towards home I heard a bird speaking a language I didn’t recognize, and I turned my head just in time to spot the flashy red crest of Dryocopus pileatus.

The colourful sight was a welcome treat given that nearly all migratory birds have left, vegetation is now mostly faded, and the sun’s glancing rays are often dulled by clouds. The views across marsh and lake often present in a nearly black and white palette.

Light Curves (click images for full-size views)

The Lesser Yellowlegs was one of the last traveling birds to come through from shores far to the north. On a cloudy evening the shallow muddy water made an austere background for this wader.

Dotted Lines

But in the afternoon sun the waters picked up reflected colour from surrounding plants.

Soft Splash

And a nearby stand of sumach turned the surface to crimson.

Red Dive

Warm days soon gave way to chillier mornings and the welcome sight of steam rising off the lake.

Sunrise Parade

The autumn still held a surprise, though, for the spectacular Pileated Woodpecker made a sudden appearance just a few days ago. Since this is not a migratory species, perhaps she has moved in nearby.

Listen Here

A bird this large needs to carve a deep hole for a nest, and the Pileated Woodpecker is up to the task. “Pileated Woodpeckers use their long necks to pull far back from the tree, then make powerful strikes with their heavy bills, pulling with their feet to increase the strength of the blow.” (allaboutbirds.org)

It’s convenient that some of the tastiest food lives in trees: “The birds also use their long, barbed tongues to extract woodboring beetle larvae.” (allaboutbirds.org)

Woodpecker’s Tongue


Photo at top of page: Exploration (click here for full-size image)

 

october’s glow

PHOTO POST

It’s the time of year when the afternoon sun feels as warm as summer – and then darkness sets in when the evening has barely begun.

One last ray of light steals into the secluded cove where mallards are settling for the night.

Light from the Horizon (click images for full-screen views)

Just minutes of subdued light remain as a Great Blue Heron flies high across the sky.

Sunset Arrow

The Night Heron crouches in the shadows, quietly awake.

Ready For Night

This low light suits a small shorebird – but makes positive identification difficult.

Solitary Stroll

My best guess is that this is an olive-legged Solitary Sandpiper, though it also looks much like a Lesser Yellowlegs. (And truly, if a Yellowlegs is walking in the mud after dark, does it still have yellow legs?)

Solitary Double

While most bright flowers have long since faded, bursts of New England Asters (aka Michaelmas Daisies) still decorate roadsides.

Purple Daisy

Out in the marsh, fall colours are deepening with the occasional lily pad turning to red.

Structure of Colour

A lily pad, an overnight shower, and the early morning sunshine work together to create a collection of liquid rubies.

Rubies

In October the photographer’s “golden hour” – when a low-shining sun bathes everything in a warm glow – lasts a good bit more than an hour each morning and again at the end of the afternoon.

It’s a great time to slow down and behold one of the smallest birds in the marsh, the Swamp Sparrow.

Swamp Sparrow Two

Working the rich mud where roots meet water, the Swamp Sparrow darts from one tiny insect to another. 

Swamp Sparrow One

A muskrat’s siesta ends and it’s time to open those eyes.

Siesta’s Over

A Night Heron moves into hunting territory at water’s edge.

Sunset in Green

And for a brief moment the Wood Ducks put on a light show that rivals any sunset.

Iridescent Autumn


Photo at top of page: Belted Kingfisher, Touched by Colour (click here for full-size image)

 

summer’s flight

PHOTO POST

In the shadowy woods autumn has already arrived, while sunshine on the marsh still reflects summer’s heat.

One More Fruit (click images for full-screen views)

The striped berries of Starry False Solomon’s Seal – if that’s too much of a mouthful, just say Smilacina stellata – make good food for birds, mice, and perhaps for a plump-cheeked chipmunk.

Facing Fall

Migratory birds are already passing through from the far north. Both the Greater and the Lesser Yellowlegs are likely to pass through here, and I can only guess that the bird below is a “yellowlegs, more or less”.

Pointed South

We are right on the edge of year-round habitat for Wood Ducks, so this female could be planning a short flight south or getting ready for winter here.

One Gold Ring

The young ones that were born here this summer are now full-grown. One of them appears to have done fine so far in spite of missing an eye.  

Three birds, two eyes

The Black-Crowned Night Herons are much easier to find lately, now that their young ones are just as big as the adults and no longer so vulnerable.

Great Hair Day

Green Herons are also easier to spot, as they stalk along the marsh edges for a quick meal.

Slowstep

Swift and Swifter

As summer gives way to fall, the damselflies and dragonflies are growing scarce. A damselfly, below, is warmed by the morning light while resting on a hydrangea paniculata leaf.

Balancing Light

The Green Darner, too, moves only slowly in the early morning cool. But unlike most other dragonflies, this species can migrate as far south as the West Indies to prolong summer.

Green Darner on Hosta


Photo at top of page: Trending Orange – a Pearl Crescent butterfly on yellow echinacea flower (click here for full-screen view)

putting your best foot forward

PHOTO POST

If you were a beautiful Mallard you’d probably be happy to stand on a pair of coral-orange webbed feet …

Art of Contemplation (click images for larger views)

and perhaps you’d take care to keep them clean.

Pedicure

A mallard’s webbed feet are great for swimming along the surface of a pond. But if you eat by beating fish at their own game – diving down and out-swimming your catch – you’d like the even bigger flippers at the end of a Double-crested Cormorant’s legs. Never mind that they only come in basic black.

Ready to Dive

For walking in the muck of a marsh, though, you need something altogether different – footwear that spreads out effectively, but that you can just as easily lift out of the sticky goo if you need to move in a hurry.

And so it is that many birds in Bowmanville Marsh have long slender toes, like those of the Virginia Rail and the Least Sandpiper.

Mudwalker I

Mudwalker II

Whether you are the smallest of the sandpipers or the largest of the herons, it’s great to be able to walk through deep mud – but lift into flight in an instant.

Mudwalker III

Clean Getaway

Each of our local heron species have similar feet. The short and stocky Night Heron, below, has long, strong toes that propel it from its perch fast – whether that’s to strike at a fish or frog in the water or burst into flight.

Striking Distance

The Green Heron is even more versatile, with long toes that allow it to patrol the shoreline one minute, and make like a squirrel the next, grabbing slender twigs and swaying in the breeze at the top of trees.

Get a Grip I

Treetop Heron

Get a Grip II


Composite at top of page, clockwise from left: Green Heron, Mallard, and Virginia Rail. All photos taken in Bowmanville Marsh during the last six weeks.

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 Editor’s note, Aug 27 – I believe my original identification here was wrong, and this is actually an adult Least Bittern. (click here for larger image)