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 palate.

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)

 

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)

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) 

merganser mating party

PHOTO POST

The Red-breasted Merganser is one of the most striking birds that passes through this area but they don’t stick around for long. For several years I’ve been hoping to get some good photos but I only managed a few fleeting glimpses. So the last week has been special, with a half-dozen or more of these visitors hanging out on Lake Ontario each day on calm waters.

To get out to launch the kayak, though, I first had to get through the yard, where spring beauties are also calling for attention. On a sunny morning it’s hard not to notice the Siberian Squill coming up in the yard, though the blue flowers are just a few centimeters above the soil.

Siberian squill

A recently returned Song Sparrow, too, wants to be noticed – and it helps when a well-timed gust of north wind lays on a deluxe coiffure.

Crested Song Sparrow

A cute Grey Squirrel has been known to distract a photographer as well.

Tall Dark & Handsome

At the waterline Canada Geese are enjoying the fresh water and warm air.

Tempest

In Westside Marsh a Belted Kingfisher has made it back before the Ospreys, and uses an empty Osprey platform to practice its dives.

Kingfisher Form One

Kingfisher Form Two

But when I make it out to open water on the big lake I find the mergansers, several days in a row.

Dawn’s Early Lights

They are excellent divers, but sometimes in shallow water they seem happy to stay on the surface while scanning for fish.

Focused Gaze

At other times they splash past each other with wings and feet churning the water.

Madly Off in Two Directions

And then comes the move that really baffles me. Is this a class clown pretending to be pulled under by a fearsome sea monster and calling for help?

Never Mind Him

But no – the indispensable allaboutbirds.org fills me in: “Males dunk their chests and raise their heads and rears in a ‘curtsey’ display for females.” And in this case, the response seems clear enough: “Better luck next time.”

 

Photo at top of post: Your Attention Please (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)