altered landscapes

Also published on Resilience

My home sits beside one of the world’s great bodies of fresh water, Lake Ontario, and beside one of the precious shoreline marshes that even today offer refuge to more species of wildlife than most of us will ever see.

Yet large-scale industrial transformations are visible in nearly all directions. This post pictures some of these alterations.

Twilight Telegram (click image for full-screen view)

Though their influences have been profound since the day they were built, the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific rail corridors draw relatively subtle lines through local geography. Unless you get stuck waiting for a long train at a level crossing, or have your ears blown out by a nearby diesel horn blast, it’s easy not to notice the railroads.

Angular Momentum

The St. Marys limestone quarry and cement plant makes a more dramatic imposition, with its tall silos, its kiln, its smokestack, and its pier reaching into Lake Ontario.

Auto expressways are virtually inconceivable without vast quantities of concrete, and no single piece of infrastructure changes the landscape here quite so pervasively as route 401, Canada’s busiest highway.

Though There Be No River, Yet Shall Thy Crossings Thereof Be Great

In contrast to the railroad’s slender ribbon, the 401 gobbles vast tracts of land. The tangle of ramps and bridges above constitutes just one T-junction, allowing drivers to connect at full speed to a short new north-south spur (Highway 418).

Another neighbouring industry, the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station, is nearly invisible to people passing on land. But skeins of high-voltage transmission lines, with steel towers jutting into sky, run north, east, and west from the station.

Network Effects

Force Field

Radio Free Moon

The altered landscape continues into Lake Ontario, with the St. Marys pier protruding 650 meters out from shore. The pier allows freighters to dock, carrying away cargos of cement clinker and bringing shipload after shipload of coal and petcoke – some of the carbon-intensive fuels that make our current way of life possible, and which may make life impossible for our descendants.

Plastic Coating

On the direction we are traveling, the concrete and steel of our highways and towers may soon crumble, rust and collapse. The much larger-scale but invisible transformation of our world – elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide levels – will outlast us and will wreak climate havoc for millennia.

Empire of Coal

the crakes and their ilk

PHOTO POST

Do we have Crakes in North America? That depends on whose definition you follow, but I like this one from Merriam-Webster: “any of various rails, especially a short-billed rail.”

At least four species from the Rail family, including three short-billed ones, have made appearances within a kilometer of my home this year – so at least we can say that the Crake cousins are well represented here.

The first one to show up this year was the American Coot, in early spring. I only saw one individual, and it only stuck around for a few days. Likewise, the Common Gallinule and the Sora have also put in appearances here.

Consider the Coot (click images for full-screen views)

The Coot spends somewhat more time swimming than do most Rails, but when it gets out of the water you can see one of the distinctive adaptations shared by Rails. Their feet, which can spread across floating mats of roots and reeds in soupy mud, make it possible to stride through swamps where you and I would sink to our waists.

A Coot’s Feet

The Rails usually hang out in the marsh interior, and they’re not easy to find. But while you prowl the marsh’s edge looking for a good vantage you can spot all sorts of wonders. A multitude of snails, for example (which just happen to be one of the favoured foods of Rails).

In a wet light

Milkweed grows beside the marsh in great profusion, and the blooms attract the Virginia Ctenucha Moth.

Contrasticity

I’m convinced the spelling of Ctenucha was devised merely to confuse people. (The first letter is silent.) But apparently “ctenucha” means “having a comb”.

Tcomb

In the lush meadow at water’s edge there are several storeys of growth. Near ground level I pondered this botanical apparition.

It’s not easy thinking green

With a clear view of the marsh interior, on the right day, with the right light, you just might get a glimpse of some Rails – in this case, the Virginia Rails. The chicks appeared to be just a few days old and, camouflaged in coal-black fuzz, they remained all-but-invisible unless they ventured out of the shadows. (See if you can spot the one in the background below).

Illuminated Marsh

The Virginia Rail chicks already sported feet nearly as long as their tiny bodies.

In the spotlight

Nine days later I got a look at two more chicks, now foraging on their own, and beginning to show the Virginia Rail patterning.

Giant Steps

Taste of independence

While the Rails spend their summer walking among the reeds, seldom swimming or flying, most other marsh birds have different ways of life. Wood Ducks (below) swim throughout the marsh though they nest in trees close to water.

Under the Arch

Flycatchers are fond of the thickets at marsh edge. The different species are notoriously hard to distinguish except by their songs, and I didn’t hear this one sing before it flitted out of sight. Perhaps, some day, I might make its acquaintance once more.

Flycatcher


Photo at top of page: Learning the way (click here for larger view)

family planning

PHOTO POST

In early June some marsh birds are still picking out their nest sites, while others are already preparing their hatchlings to leave home.

The Marsh Wren (at top of page and below) is the tiniest bird in the marsh and not always easy to spot, but its song rings out far and wide. Somehow, in spite of singing incessantly, the male manages to build not one but many nests. As All About Birds explains, “males routinely mate with 2 or more females and build at least 6 dummy nests for every female they mate with.”

Listen Up (click images for full-screen view)

Once More, With Feeling

While Marsh Wrens hide their nests deep in the reeds, the Great Blue Heron favours sites in nearby trees.

Their sensitive eyes allow them to hunt day and night – but this one greeted the warm morning sun with a big yawn.

Pegleg’s Yawn

Mallard ducklings were among the first hatchlings I spotted this year, on May 21.

Formation Four

Cygnets were swimming around the marsh just a few days later.

Dive Five

Where there are young waterfowl a Parental Unit is close at hand, watching over the little ones and demonstrating how things are done.

Cygnet Lesson One

As twilight approaches the Mute Swan leads the cygnets out of the water to bed down on what remains of their nest. Before sleep a thorough grooming session is in order.

Cygnet Lesson Two

Just before dark I’m lucky to spot a group of less-usual visitors. Short-Billed Dowitchers* migrate far to the north, where the lengthy days allow the nesting season to be compressed, and their stops here seem to be brief.

Dowitcher Huddle

As twilight deepens the Marsh Wrens often sneak down to the waterline for a drink.

Marsh Wren’s Nightcap

For a brief moment, Yellow Pond-Lilies seize the light and shine as bright as the setting sun.

Liquid Sunset


Photo at top of page: Marsh Wren Prepares a Nest (click here for full-screen view)

* There is little difference in bill length between the Short-Billed and Long-Billed Dowitchers. Judging by the colour and patterning I think this bunch are Short-Billed.

 

small wonders

PHOTO POST

Flowers. Birds. Bugs. The first two generally come as part of package deals that include the latter.

Around here we happen to like cherries so we’re glad when pollinators discover the blossoms.

Cherry Blossom Special I (click photos for full-screen views)

Cherry Blossom Special II

Deeper into woodlands, the forest floor has been carpeted with Wood Geraniums.

Wood Geranium I

Wood Geranium II

In the treetops a Baltimore Oriole eats bugs by the dozen. (Sweet nectar is a nice dessert, but insects are the primary food, especially in springtime.)

Hunting in the Canopy

A springtime visitor patrolled the marsh edges for about a week in May. The Least Sandpiper (who might also be called the Least Mudpiper) is the world’s smallest shorebird, weighing in at 30 grams or less. It flies north of the treeline for summer nesting, perhaps because it’s hard to beat the abundance of bugs under the midnight sun on the tundra.

Least but not Last

Dunlins nest even farther north along arctic coastlines, and though they put on an air show here one recent afternoon, they appeared to have departed before night fell.

Choreographed Chaos

A flock of about 50 made repeated landings on the beach, but on some invisible signal they would rise up and fly swiftly out over the water, making turns together in tight though apparently random formation. Just as suddenly they would settle again just a few meters down the shoreline.

Flock of Fifty

Dunlin Trio

As I walked along the beach to get a closer look at this murmuration, I met an elderly gentleman who was grinning from ear to ear. “I’ve lived around here for more than 60 years and I’ve never seen birds like those,” he told me. “Made my day!”

A few more swoops around the bay and they were gone.

A Thousand Points of Flight

Banked Turn

Some birds pay us the briefest of visits, but others like the Grey Catbird will stick around all summer. Sometimes they sing a beautiful, long, complex song – and other times they play the comic, letting out a convincing cat’s “meow”.

Sunset Song

At last, a noisy bunch of Grackles (plus free bonus Redwing) take up watch from a tall dead tree. It is time for the night.

Grackles Guard the Moon


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

 

juggling mudcats

PHOTO POST

Near the end of a gray spring afternoon a distant white flash caught my eye. A large bird settled at the other side of the marsh and its landing pattern was not at all swan-like, but just like the landing of a large heron.

“It must be a Great Egret,” I thought – though I had never seen one in these parts before. 

As soon as I could grab my camera I headed out on safari. The mysterious white bird was nowhere to be seen. At the far end of the marsh, however, a hedge of herons was assembling.

Heron Trio (click images for full-screen views)

First one, then two, three, and finally five Great Blue Herons were stalking one area. It became clear that fishing in this particular puddle was very good.

Mouthful

The fishing was so good, in fact, that our Egret made a sudden entrance to join the hunt.

Egret’s Entrance

At this point, alas, I must confess that my headline – “juggling mudcats” – is mere click-bait.

You were lured by the prospect of precocious little catfish juggling several tennis balls at once, perhaps while riding unicycles along a tightrope. But the best I can offer are pictures of birds tossing poor mudcats into the air, one at a time.

That being said, it is not easy to consume a squirming spiny catfish, which is much longer than your neck is wide, unless you serve your meal just right. For herons and their ilk, juggling a single mudcat is no mere parlour trick, it’s an essential life skill.

Catching the fish is just the first step.

Clean Strike

Next you must throw the fish high enough that gravity helps you swallow, then catch and re-catch the fish until it lands between your jaws at the ideal angle.

Tiger by the tail

Toss-up

Crosswise

Ready to eat

You might cock an ear to check that your supper has settled – and then you look for another fish.

Just checking



Photo at top of page:
White Shadow (click here for full-screen version)

 

chew on this

PHOTO POST

Spring is doing its best to supplant winter, but menus are still sparse for many creatures, herbivores in particular.

Understory

A few grasses are shooting up but the marsh reeds are brown and the earliest trees are just beginning to leaf out. The first flowers of the season, meanwhile, grow on plants that aren’t attractive to critters like rabbit and deer – an important trait for plants that want to get through much of their lifecycle before later and taller plants have time to shade the ground.

Damp Squill (with Sedum)

Squirrels make do with last year’s nuts and seeds, sometimes washed down with a sip of maple sap.

Red Squirrel

It makes sense that birds who survive primarily on seeds are particularly drawn to bird-feeders in our backyards right now. 

Beak & Crest

Both the Northern Cardinal, above, and Tree Sparrow, below, have sturdy short beaks especially suited to cracking seeds. Both species eat a lot of insects later in springtime, when insects become abundant and seeds are scarce or stale.

Tree Sparrow, on Fence

The swarms of midges are welcomed by those who eat insects, and those who eat those who eat insects.

Welcoming spring

On a warm afternoon spiders begin to stir, though the temperatures are still too chilly for spiders to be active most hours of the day.

Mute Swans are counted among the “flexitarians”, who eat primarily aquatic plants plus the occasional tadpole, mollusk or insect. Their characteristic feeding pose may not be their most elegant move, and occasionally they seem to come up empty.

Good Form

Cold Water, straight up

The low-lying woodlands now have some of the lushest vegetation, in the shape of many mosses.

At the root, moss

While few creatures eat moss, many birds, including Robins, do gather moss for use in building nests.

Robin, deep in the wood, at sunset

The woods are where food is found, for so many species. And for one of our largest local mammals, the woods are food. The Beaver builds its lodges and dams with wood, and also picks the tastiest and most nutritious tree parts for dinner.

Going to dinner

But at this time of year, with new tree growth just beginning, a Beaver can spend hours chewing away at fallen trunks from years past.

One bite at a time


Photo at top of page – Two Front Teeth (click here for full-screen image)

 

magic in the mud

PHOTO POST

The water level in Lake Ontario is extraordinarily low for this time of year, and so the shoreline marshes don’t have much depth. The diving ducks – Buffleheads, Mergansers, Long-tails and their ilk – are staying out on the lake or just migrating further north. But the dabblers – Northern Shovelers, Northern Pintails, Mallards and Ring-Necked Ducks – are happily feeding in the shallows.

Pintails up (click images for full-screen views)

A flock of Pintails (above and below) landed on a recent morning. After a quick look around their surroundings above the surface, they got to the real business: feeding on the vegetation below the surface.

Pintails down

Well out from the edges, the water in Bowmanville Marsh is so shallow that a migrating Yellowlegs can wade.

Ready to Fly

It might appear that a Robin has stowed away on a drifting log. But the Robin, like so many other small birds, is happy to bathe and drink right at marsh’s edge. This log was just a short jump away.

Robin Embarks

The low water also results in wide mud flats all around the marshes, and the Killdeers are loving it. Their shrill cries fill the air as they dash from one great feeding spot to another to another.

Breakfast right here

It’s better over here

Frogs are thawing in the spring sun’s warmth. These were spotted just a hop down the coast, at McLaughlin Bay on the east edge of Oshawa.

Leopard Frog I

Leopard Frog II

Frogs can be difficult to identify, but from my googling I’d say we have a Leopard Frog, above, and a Wood Frog, below.

Wood Frog

The water in much of Westside Marsh, as in Bowmanville Marsh, is only 15–20 centimeters deep. But Westside Marsh is a better swimming hole this spring for the large dabblers, including swans.

Trumpeter Trio

A trio of Trumpeter Swans, above, stopped by at least briefly. Meanwhile the locally more common Mute Swans were all over this marsh, and one pair, below, apparently ran aground.

Plumbing the Depths

On the muddy banks of marsh and creek, one bright flower is already marking the season. The tiny Coltsfoot blossom sparkles just a few centimeters above the cold mud.

Coltsfoot flower

And when the winds are still and the sun shines through the shallows, bright-coloured shoots light up the silty bottom. There’s life in all that mud.

Underwater Garden


Photo at top: clockwise from top, Northern Shovelers, Grackle, Killdeer, Mourning Dove (click here for full-screen version)

 

spring forward

PHOTO POST

We all have fond memories of that most welcome season, when instead of going out to play on ice, we sneak out and slop around in mud for the first time.

But how many of us have had the thrill of sliding into the muck wearing a pristine white suit?

Clean White Suit

A pair of Mute Swans were the first to try out this puddle in the Bowmanville Marsh, on an afternoon when most of the marsh was still covered in ice.

First Flowers

Just a few days later, Snowdrops were poking through mud and leaves without sullying their white coats in the slightest.

Whiskers on Blue

With their jet-black attire, what fun would it be for a squirrel to play in the mud? So they stick to the high road, except when it’s time to drop down to ground level to check a food cache.

Still Life with Circles

It’s not a bad idea to study the forest from a mouse-eye view, because visual treats abound on this lively backdrop of mosses.

Shelter and Shadow

Along the waterfront, a remnant of shore ice had one more opportunity to soak up sunrise before joining the waves.

The Shape of the Shore at This Moment

Shape of Shore II – Echo

Shape of Shore III – Lifeform in Sand

Shape of Shore IV – Drop of Blue

Some of our less common spring visitors are fishing the mouth of the creek. From left, female and male Hooded Merganser, female and male Greater Scaup.

Mergansers, meet the Scaups

The Long-Tailed Ducks are feeding too – but also keeping their wings in shape for their long flight to the arctic coast.

Water off a duck’s back

In a small hole in the breakwater, icicles catch the afternoon sun once more – but the colours of algae and water-soaked wood are coming into season.

A Window on Water


Photo at top of page: detail from Leading Edge (full-screen image here)

 

black and white in colour

PHOTO POST

You may know that at this time of year lots of black and white ducks – Buffleheads, Greater and Lesser Scaup, Common Goldeneye, Long-Tailed Ducks – show up on Lake Ontario. You may have heard that they dive for their food, eat a variety of mollusks, crustaceans, fish eggs, aquatic insects, sometimes even aquatic plants.

All very interesting, you say, but what everybody really wants to know about these black and white ducks is, “What colour are they?” I present here the results of my research on this complex issue.

Depending on the sun and wind, I found, a few of our study subjects may often be spotted keeping company with the multitudes of Canada Geese on one side or the other of the harbour breakwater. So off we go ….

Moments before sunrise (click images for full-screen view)

As daylight brightens I approach the edge of the shore ice, hoping to spot some waterfowl.

Temporary Fixture I

Temporary Fixture II

A male Long-Tailed Duck is showing the earliest signs of the intricate brown patterns that it will wear when it reaches its summer nesting area on the arctic coast.

Compound Arc

A female Long-Tailed Duck appears in the harbour channel, sporting a subtle palette of grays and browns.

Quiet Ripples

A female Lesser Scaup* dressed in rich browns disappears and surfaces among the still slumbering geese.

Among the Geese

In full sun a male Greater Scaup shows us why he’s nicknamed “Bluebill”.

Bluebill on blue

He turns his head and gives us a flash of iridescent green.

Bluebill with green

Not to be outdone, a Common Goldeneye gives us the same green, and then throws in a free bonus colour.

Green Goldeneye

Can you do purple?

Conclusion: Preliminary findings indicate that black and white ducks are blue, brown, gray, orange, yellow, purple and green. Further research is recommended.


Photo at top of page: Just focus on the duck (click here for full-screen view)

Greater and Lesser Scaup are known to be difficult to distinguish so I can’t guarantee which Scaups are pictured here. Even allaboutbirds.org authorizes this fudge: “It’s okay to record Greater/Lesser Scaup on your eBird checklist if you are unsure of the ID.”

wintering at sea

PHOTO POST

In our house, if a lake is big enough so that we can’t see across to the far shore, then we’re allowed to call it “the sea”.

Many ducks, we’re pleased to report, agree with our interpretation. In winter we have as company several species of ducks who ordinarily shun frozen lakes and typically hang out along the New England coast. The open waters of Lake Ontario, they seem to believe, are as good as the sea.

In recent months groups of Goldeneye, Scaup, and Long-Tailed Ducks have been visible off the coast in Scarborough, Pickering, Whitby and here in Port Darlington – though they don’t typically get within good camera range.

Blue Rainbow

On a recent excursion to Cranberry Marsh, at lake’s edge south of  Whitby, the diving ducks kept their usual distance but a pair of Trumpeter Swans swam right up to the shore.

Young Trumpeter

These beautiful birds had been hunted nearly to extinction but are now making a steady recovery, thanks in no small part to determined work by Ontario conservationists over the past four decades.

The Trumpeters’ resurgence is apparently not welcomed by the Mute Swans who have taken over much of the habitat for large swans.

Trumpeter, chased by Mute

Mute Swans will also chase each other or will chase Canada Geese – but there was no obvious reason why all these geese suddenly decided they had to take to the air.

All Together Now

At home in Port Darlington, the north winds have been cold enough to shape some shore ice.

Lively Ice

Where waves bounce against ice, feeding conditions seem especially attractive to true diving ducks.

Bluebill

Though most of their number stay well off-shore, one or two Greater Scaup (above) and Common Goldeneye (below, with Mallard) have plied the narrow harbour channel recently.

Goldeneye

By the heat of the morning sun, as steam rises off waves, fishing near the breakwater is well-nigh irresistible.

Hot Sun

Making Strides

Drops of Ice

Swells break against the shore ice, the water churns and foams – and now and then a Long-Tailed Duck or two ventures close to play in the surf.

Home on the Waves

That’s winter at its finest, down by the seashore.


Photo at top of page: Scratching the Surface (click here for full-screen view)