the north side of a storm

PHOTO POST

On this edge of Lake Ontario the wind did blow, but for the most part the snow did not fall.

Beach Breeze

The great Christmas storm of 2022 brought us gale-force winds for thirty-six hours but very little snow. At the height of the storm there was almost as much sand as snow blowing across Port Darlington beach.

But the waves crashed and plumes of spray blasted the breakwater through the cold night.

Night Waves

By the light of day it was clear the bay had churned over until each breaking wave was heavy with sand.

Standing Still, Three

Standing Still, Two

Standing Still, One

To some residents the aftermath of the storm brought good cheer. Flocks of gulls found lots to eat amidst the undulating slush and kept watch for the best spots.

Gull Wing

Close Quarters

Even small floes, just big enough to stand on amidst in the ceaseless motion, were prized real estate.

Maintaining Focus, Two

Slush Surfing

As gulls fluttered, grabbed, dodged and shrieked, partially congealed waves whispered to the setting sun.

Frequency Modulation


Photo at top of post: Maintaining Focus, One (click here for full-screen image)

 

three gulls before sunrise

PHOTO POST

It might be daybreak or it might be day’s end, when sunshine suddenly streaks across the autumn landscape.

Even on a cloudless afternoon, a low-angled sun heats up the remaining flowers for just a few hours.

But rain or shine, on the wide expanse of mudflat in the marsh clusters of dabbling ducks are feeding. The smallest of the lot, the Green-Winged Teal, came within camera range late one afternoon, minutes before sunset.

Green-Winged Teal on mudflat

Green flash on mudflat

Green-Winged Teal feeds on mudflat

Slurping primordial soup

A lone White-Throated Sparrow preferred the mid-morning hours for forays beyond the thickets and onto the mudflat.

White-Throated Sparrow on mudflat

White-Throated Sparrow on mudflat

At the marsh edge a forest of inky cap mushrooms sprang up, spreading their rich stain on anyone who reached out to touch, before withering back to earth a day later.

Inky Cap mushrooms

Inky Caps at marsh edge

On the marsh edge, too, I found another treasure: a cracked, fragile, translucent clam shell. When washed by ripples at the lakeshore the shell channeled many colours of sunlight.

Standing shell

When a wavelet toppled the shell into sandy water it appeared a whole new creature, ready to swim away.

Swimming shell

For a few days in the last week of October, the bright air warmed enough in early afternoon to activate bees and hover flies.

Green Metallic Sweat Bee on Rudbeckia

Green Metallic Sweat Bee on Rudbeckia

Hoverfly on Calendula

Hoverfly on Calendula

Back in the marsh a Mute Swan found a patch of water deep enough to float in.

Mute Swan on marsh

Stretch, swan

A small flock of wading birds – I believe these are Pectoral Sandpipers – preferred to feed in very shallow water at the far edge of the mudflat.

Pectoral Sandpipers at Bowmanville Marsh

Pectoral Sandpipers

Like many other pipers who stopped here this fall, they seem now to have departed for points south.

Pectoral Sandpipers in flight

Pointing this way

The gulls, though, will stick around for the winter, sometimes all together on the marsh, sometimes in congregations on the waters of the lake, sometimes strolling quietly in early morning along the shoreline.

Ring-Billed Gulls at sunrise on Lake Ontario shoreline

Three gulls before sunrise

At last, suddenly, the bright light rises out of the lake.

Sunrise at Port Darlington breakwater, Lake Ontario

Sunrise at Port Darlington breakwater, Lake Ontario

september’s shine

PHOTO POST

“If I were a Hudsonian Godwit, I’d probably take advantage of this chilly north wind and be on my way today,” I said to myself on Sunday morning. After all, the Godwit has a long way to go en route to its wintering grounds in Argentina and Chile.

It was presumptuous to think I could read the mind of Godwit, of course, considering I had never seen a Godwit until two days earlier. That’s when I had learned, from avid birders who had come to Bowmanville Marsh in late September, that the famous and rare visitor they were hoping to see was a Hudsonian Godwit.

Hudsonian Godwits only nest in a few small areas along Hudson’s Bay, the Beaufort Sea coast, and Alaska. I’m told they don’t typically stop in this area during their migrations. So the reports of sightings quickly made waves among birders.

The Godwit was only one of September’s highlights. For much of the month I was focused on the many stunning flowers – for some reason, most of them yellow – that light up the early autumn.

At the side of one busy new road, a great variety of Rudbeckia had taken root in the gravel and come up through tangles of vetch and thistle.

Chocolate Kiss

Ring of Pollen

Double Beauty

Calendula just keep on giving from August into October. Here a fly seems to have used its brush-like antenna to paint delicate outer tips around the flower, and then paint itself onto one of the petals.

Brushwork

Some flowers provide colour long after they’ve bloomed and dried – in this case by providing a perfect perch for dragonflies.

Spark

The resident population of monarchs grew during September, joined by a stream of butterflies gathering for their migration to Mexico. They were still in the cool of early morning, but especially active in the warmth of afternoon.

Waiting for Warmth

September’s Shine

On one such warm late September day a small flock of birds surprised me by landing just a few feet away on the marsh mud flat. Fooled by the distinctive black polka-dot eye, I first assumed this was some variety of grackle.

Rusty Blackbird

But it was a Rusty Blackbird sporting its gorgeous autumn plumage. I haven’t seen one before, but I dearly hope I will see one again. Allaboutbirds.org says this bird is “in steep decline” with populations having dropped from 85 – 99% over the past 40 years, adding that “scientists are completely puzzled as to what is the cause.”

Low water levels this fall make for extensive mud flats on the Lake Ontario marshes. For a lot of migratory birds all that mud is a magnet.

Mudwalkers IV

The Yellowlegs are a reliable spring and fall visitor here.

You loom large in my life

Two Yellowlegs

There were many more members of the sandpiper class stopping by recently, and one attracted wide notice.

Godwit & Yellowlegs

The Godwit, pointed out to me by a birder on September 30, stands a good bit taller than the Lesser Yellowlegs.

One Godwit seemed to favour the same small region of mudflat day after day.

Beakwork

When a cold north wind arrived early Sunday morning, and I couldn’t spot the Godwit anywhere all day, I guessed it had departed for a stopover further south. I guessed wrong.

In Monday’s sunshine it was back in its spot. As the sun sank low the Godwit preened its feathers, oblivious to the commotion caused by a couple of Northern Shovelers.

Godwit & Shoveler

It’s a great trick, to stand in soft mud on one foot and scratch your ear with the other foot.

Godwit, very clean

Watching all the preening and cleaning, I thought perhaps the Godwit was getting itself in tip-top shape for a long flight. But you’d be better off asking a bird who knows.

Mirror Gaze


Photo at top of page: Tall Godwit (larger image here)

night moves

PHOTO POST

The days grow shorter but marsh birds grow bolder.

With nesting finished and fledglings close to adult size, both the parents and the juveniles are easier to spot in that short interlude between the brightness of afternoon and the deepening dusk.

Black-crowned Night Herons lurk at the edges of the cattails, but their light colouring makes them conspicuous even in the shadows.

Night Heron awaits the dark

A young Great Blue Heron, with just the first few wisps of an adult’s plume, catches the last direct rays of sunlight.

Profile of a young Great Blue

Dense congregations of lily pads cover much of the water. Young Spotted Sandpipers, looking all grown up except that they have no spots on their bellies, nearly disappear behind upturned leaves as they hunt for insects.

Pipers dashing after supper

Compared to the pipers, an almost full-grown Gallinule looks shockingly large and nearly sinks through the lily pads in spite of its huge feet.

Gallinule looms large

A Green Heron hides in semi-darkness, but a turn of the head makes its bright eye patch stand out.

Conspicuously hiding

At this hour even the Virginia Rail sneaks out beyond its usual cover to grab worms from the mud.

Virginia Rail reflection

Profile of Virginia Rail

Virginia Rail – the edge of the shadow

• • •

To close, something completely different. A look at the dry loose sand in the full heat of an August afternoon shows sand wasps working tirelessly to dig tunnels where they can lay their eggs. They have no interest in any picnic lunch humans might bring to the beach – they just want to get their larvae hatched, and then bring the larvae enough tiny insects to get them on their way.

In the meantime sand must fly.

attention to scale

PHOTO POST

It’s a great idea – but does it scale? 

“Warm-blooded flying dinosaur” is not only a time-tested concept, but one that works at a wide range of scales. This post stars the tiniest bird in our neighbourhood – but a distant relative a thousand times as big also makes an appearance.

If we expand the view beyond birds to include the smallest insects one can see clearly with the naked eye, I guess we would need two or three more zeroes to express the scale range.

But enough of arithmetic.

At the foot of a hummingbird

We leave plenty of room in our garden for Bergamot, not only because the long-lasting flowers are gorgeous, but because we can expect Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds to drop by many times a day to sip the nectar.

When there are no hummingbirds to be seen, we might spot equally beautiful, though much smaller, flying insects.

Dragonfly on Bergamot

Angel Dance (Hoverfly on Bergamot)

This year the Hummingbirds have become quite accustomed to our presence, and now that the fledglings are also feeding we can watch from a distance of just a couple of meters.

Totally tubular

Face-on

A clothes-line proves a perfect resting place with a great view across the gardens.

Clothes-line with Hummingbird

Due to the nearby marsh we see many damselflies and dragonflies in the garden, including this male Long-Tailed Skimmer.

Long-Tailed Skimmer

It can be difficult to get away from the gardens at this time of year but there was a special show in the marsh one recent evening.

Gathering of Swallows

Scores of Northern Rough-Winged Swallows were chattering up a storm, with many swooping low over the water in pursuit of insects, then suddenly switching places with others to sit on slender reed perches while they groomed themselves.

Judging by the vivid highlights on their wings I’m thinking some of these were juveniles, said to have cinnamon streaks which the adults lack.

Sitting Swallow

As the sun sank low that evening a Great Blue Heron flew by.

Blue Streak

And as the sun rose over the garden in the morning, a hummingbird was waiting in a cherry tree.

Morning’s glow

as big as life

PHOTO POST

On a bright day in July it’s hard to go a more than a few fathoms in any direction without coming across some arresting sight.

Just off the front step, a web of spider silk has caught the rain over a cluster of sedums.

Suspended Rain

At the end of the lawn, Black Mud-Dauber Wasps favour a flowering Rue.

Mud-Dauber Wasp on Rue

Scattered throughout the marsh are floating yellow pond lilies.

Pond Lily by Setting Sun

It’s a safe bet that Sora have raised their young in this marsh every year, but I had never seen a juvenile Sora until a few nights ago. Then, just an hour before sunset, a bright shaft of light chanced across a young Sora and there it was, big as life.

Shaft of Light

The next night, same time, same place, I drifted by again and saw not one but two young Sora.

Sora on quiet evening

Portrait of a Young Sora

On a bright July morning, the nearby savannah is alive with Cedar Waxwing, Goldfinch, Savannah Sparrow and Willow Flycatcher*.

Outlook is Bright

A short rest

Savannah Sparrow

Flycatcher on a very green morning

In meadows, gardens and orchards another flashy creature has made its appearance. As beautiful as Popillia japonica may be, it is not a welcome sight as it does a lot of damage to fruit and vegetable crops.

Popillia japonica

Bees moving between Geranium flowers, on the other hand, are a sight for sore eyes.

I can’t stay long

Roadsides are festooned with blue Chicory, which attract pollinators including the Eastern Calligrapher fly.

Calligrapher on Chicory

Back home in the vegetable garden, the blossoms of sugar-snap peas would be beautiful even without the promise of the delicious green pods just a week away.

Real Sweet


* Flycatchers are reputed to be extremely difficult to identify unless you hear the bird’s song, and this one didn’t sing for me. Based on the pictures I consulted, a Willow Flycatcher was the closest match – but I’m no ornithologist.

bright lights of june

PHOTO POST

In the first week of June, the last of the far-north migratory birds were still passing through. By the end of the month some local nesters were ushering fledglings out into the world.

Ruddy Turnstones and Red Knots at Port Darlington breakwater, June 5, 2022

In the meantime a wide variety of flowering plants made up for a chilly spring by growing inches a day – aided by lots of sunshine and frequent rains.

Primrose rays

But bees of all sorts have been noticeably, worryingly scarce this year. I was glad to see this bumblebee shake off the water and resume flying after a drenching shower.

Bumblebee shower

Some of the beautiful insects I first mistook for solitary bee species turned out to be flies of the hover fly family (aka “flower flies”, aka “Syrphid flies”). They make their way from flower to flower harvesting pollen, so they are important pollinators.

Fleabane after rain

Daisy fleabane is one of the first meadow flowers in our yard each spring, and the hover flies are busy.

Fleabane and Syrphid

Daisy dew

A spread of white daisies also beckons pollinators to unmown areas of the yard.

Daisy flower fly 1

Daisy flower fly 2

Virginia spiderwort blossoms, each only the size of a twenty-five cent piece, look a deep blue in shade and purple-lavender in full sun.

Virginia Spiderwort

Though I spotted what appeared to be a single small grey bumblebee visiting the spiderwort, it didn’t stick around for a photo. There was a much smaller creature grasping the spiderwort’s yellow anther – not a bee as I first thought, but likely a hover fly known as the Eastern Calligrapher.

Eastern Calligrapher

Meanwhile, overhead, the Baltimore Orioles have filled the air with chatter and song – especially as the fledglings were coaxed out of the nest.

It’s time to go

It’s such a nice nest

Perhaps the most ancient beginning-of-summer ritual, in these parts, is the march of turtles to lay their eggs. This Painted Turtle came out of the marsh and made her way across the lawn to the sand. She dug a hole for a nest just a few meters away from last year’s chosen spot, she deposited her eggs, she carefully covered them, and she tamped down the sand. We looked away for a moment, and she was gone.

Turtle procession

a whistling of whimbrels

PHOTO POST

It’s always fun to gaze across the water looking for our usual residents. But in springtime you never know when a beautiful stranger might drop by for a few hours or a few days.

On a warm evening in the marsh, you might spot an ancient snapping turtle looming large at the surface, ready for any meal that might come within striking distance.

Swim a little closer please

Looking through clouds of midges in the calm of early morning, you spot Cormorants and Ring-Billed Gulls looking for breakfast.

Sparkling Shadow

Splashing Gulls

Red-breasted Mergansers are usually here for just a few months. When they come close to shore they make great entertainment, disappearing for long dives, skittering around the surface in boisterous play, and then suddenly, simultaneously, rising up and away in flight.

Fish is the Point

Skitterskatter

We’re outta here

But one quiet afternoon this week I could hear that something different was going on, somewhere near the breakwater. A chorus of peeps – or was it squeaks, or tweets, or whistles?  It wasn’t a familiar sound so I set out to investigate.

What should I find but a few dozen Whimbrels (or Hudsonian Curlews, as some older references call them).

Over the ridge

They mingled with the Gulls, sang their songs, stretched their wings, and then departed in smaller groups until, shortly before sundown, they were all on their way to the far north.

A Singular Bird

Don’t Cross Me

Whimbrel Wings

Come morning, a bright sun rose on another group of visitors, the Dunlins, likewise stopping for a short rest during a long journey.

Merry Company of Adventurers

Down to the Waterline 2

Rise and Shine

Different Strokes

By mid-morning they too had departed for parts north.

But back to the title of this post – do whimbrels whistle, or is that wordplay just whimsy? You can listen and decide for yourself:

an eye on the sparrow

PHOTO POST

One morning last week two of the less-seen sparrows visited our front yard together.

White-Throated Sparrow

White-Crowned Sparrow

These two sparrows, plus the Song Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, American Tree Sparrow, and the Dark-Eyed Junco, often search for food in the lawn and gardens. The Savannah Sparrow and the Swamp Sparrow occasionally allow themselves to be seen in a nearby meadow and marsh.

Wouldn’t it be fun, I thought, to do a post just on the various sparrows in this neighbourhood?

Well, it probably was fun … for the sparrows. I frantically tried to be everywhere at once, searching all the right habitats, while of course also moving as slowly and as close to soundlessly as I could manage. All while scanning the ground and thickets with great care, and equal futility – since I never saw the tiny bundles of camouflage until the second they darted for deeper cover.

Keeping an eye on the sparrow is easier said than done.

Was the exercise a waste of time? Not at all. When you go outside and you pay attention to what’s right around you, you’re likely to see and hear things you didn’t expect.

Stairway to Heaven

A Grackle showed off its colours, and I got glimpses of a Brown-Headed Cowbird, a Yellow-Rumped Warbler, and a Yellow Warbler. And one evening a soft squawk caused me to look a long way up, where I spotted a larger bird shape.

It was a Northern Flicker hollowing out a nest near the top of a dead tree. The nest was on the east side of the trunk and the sun was setting in the west – but at least I knew where to focus in better light.

The next morning I was back, lying on the forest floor with a convenient tree root serving as my pillow, watching a drama unfolding close to the sky.

Flicker Builds Nest (larger views – top section here; bottom section here)

Based on what happened next, I’m guessing the nest was nearly ready for eggs.

Flicker Duet for Spring

The embrace was brief, but brought on spectacular fireworks.

Northern Flash

When I returned my gaze to earthly matters I saw that a few fiddleheads were unfurling.

Soon, Ferns

In the very shallow water at the outside edges of the marsh, where it’s almost impossible for wind or waves to disturb the placid surface, I puzzled over tiny floating seedlings. This is one effect, I think, of the gentle rise and fall of the marsh as it equalizes with every slight fluctuation in the level of Lake Ontario.

Sprout

Even occasional tufts of moss had detached from land and were sinking down to become part of the rich muck –  but not before creating some beautiful ripples.

Moss Makes Waves

And just when I thought I’d see everything except sparrows, one ventured out on a rotting log along the creek bank.

Swamp Sparrow by Evening Light


Composite at top of page, clockwise from top left: Swamp Sparrow, White-Crowned Sparrow, White-Throated Sparrow. (Click here for full-screen view)

in and around the woods

PHOTO POST

The forest floor is still cold and in many places soggy. But the flowers that live there are in a hurry to bloom before the canopy fills in and blocks the sunlight.

That means there is a lot of beautiful change happening every day – and a lot of delicate growth that might be crushed by a hasty, careless or disrespectful step.

The first blooms of Trillium are just now emerging.

Leaf Over Leaf

Skunk Cabbage is a common Ontario woodland plant but I haven’t seen any within walking distance of home. The one photographed below is along the Seaton Hiking Trail in north Pickering. I saw scores of them popping out of the mud in particularly wet areas. Botanists use the word “spathe” for what most of us would call “that purple and gold pointy-curvy thing that sticks up beside the leaves.”

Let’s call a spathe a spathe

American Goldfinches are singing their songs throughout the neighbourhood, including from the branches of small trees at the edge of the woods.

Sunny As Spring

The tiny perfect flowers of Coltsfoot light up muddy creek banks.

Coltsfoot on Creekbank

Within the woods are many species of mosses. I found that by holding a reading magnifier in front of my camera lens I can get slightly improved pictures of the delicate features. The trick is to get down low enough on the ground so I can look up through the moss. The more detail I see, the more I think “I’d really like to get a more powerful lens.” (If I do get one, obviously, I’ll think “I should get an even more powerful lens.”)

Floor to Ceiling

Periscope

In the marsh next to the woods I was lucky enough to come across this female Common Merganser. (Not a fair name for such a splendid bird, I agree.)

Merganser Watch

This male Wood Duck may live nearby; Wood Ducks nest in trees although much of their diet comes from the marsh.

Marsh Moiré

Tree Swallows spend many hours swooping gracefully over the waters of the marsh while dining on insects. This pair was checking out a prefab house now available in the savannah just between the marsh and the woods. Location, location, location.

Sheltering Swallows 1

Sheltering Swallows 2

Sheltering Swallows 3

Skittering from tree to tree are the squirrels, keeping the forest lively throughout the seasons.

Upon Closer Inspection


For full-screen view of composite at top of page, click here.