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)

bloomin’ weeds

PHOTO POST

Full disclosure: not all the plants pictured here are wildflowers strictly speaking. Some have been introduced to the area, have escaped from gardens, and now roam the countryside, feral.

The Wood Anemone at the top of the post grows across North America, including local meadows and at the edges of some marshes.

A beautiful Flowering Cherry, on the other hand, may well have been brought in by a long-gone nearby nursery.

Flowering Cherry

Another flowering shrub, which I believe is a Nannyberry (a type of viburnum), also grows near the former nursery.

Nannyberry

The Barberry is much closer to home, having taken a post in our yard. Though most people grow it for its foliage its flowers are spectacular too – though at just a few millimeters in diameter you need to get really close to appreciate them.

Barberry in Flower

The beautiful Speedwell is just a wee bit bigger. If you google it you may learn as I did that this flower thrives in some lawns, giving fits to those determined to eliminate botanical diversity from their expanses of grass.

Speed Thee Well

And let us not forget the noble Dandelion, here looking resplendent after a morning dew.

Tall Dandelion Syndrome

On our marshes, a very different bloom often happens – an algal bloom. According to NOAA, the vast majority of algal blooms do not produce toxins. This patch of vivid green appeared at one end of Bowmanville Marsh and disappeared just as quickly a few days later. It may or may not be a reflection of ecosystem health, but it did not appear to concern the muskrats.

Muskrat Quest

Very few other aquatic blooms have appeared so far this summer, but these grasses and water catch the evening light as beautifully as any flower.

Spectrum

In wet woodlands beside the marsh, the Starry False Solomon’s Seal is widespread. (It should hire a spin doctor – surely it deserves a name of its own rather than being named by what it is not.)

What’s Solomon Got To Do With It?

At sunset in a meadow, you can savour the delicate colours of the Wood Anemone, which will soon be submerged in waist-high vegetation.

Wood Anemone Two


Photo at top of page: Wood Anemone One (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)

 

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)

colours of summer past

PHOTO POST

Vivid colours are not so easy to come by this time of year, but when you look close to the ground the garden still shows some hues as bright as a summer flower.

Striped Composition (click images for full-size views)

The play of sun and cloud on water seldom disappoints and seldom holds one shape for long.

Curtain Rises

Though the colours in the marsh fade fast a few of the shrubs are as loud as a flight of geese.

Fast Company

Frequent rains keep the beaver pond full and keep beavers busy plugging leaks.

Making Progress

Out in the pond it is strangely quiet with the birds of summer now gone south.

 

Alphabetical Order I

 

Alphabetical Order II

The forested bank of a creek preserves some of summer’s stories just for a moment.

Bed of Leaves

The life stories of these trees move more slowly.

Start at the End

I’m All Ears

November roared in with a gale that threatened every warm memory of summer. But as dawn rose on November 1 the winds softened and our beautiful neighbourhood was mostly unscathed.

First Sun of November

 


Photo at top of post: Points of Presence (click here for full-size view)

 

sincerely, july

PHOTO POST

As June gave way to July there was a whole lotta catchin’ up goin’ on along the north shore of Lake Ontario. Finally, summer at its finest – the weather hot, but not too hot; gentle breezes, but no storms; lots of moisture, but a break from big rains every-other-day. And creatures of all sorts have hurried to get back on pace after the long, wet, chilly spring.

 

Occupy a niche

Selecting nest sites, laying eggs, a whole lot of sitting, and if all goes well, feeding a hungry brood – everywhere you look there are busy birds.

The Song Sparrow, above, can be seen and heard in the woods and around backyard feeders. The Yellow Warbler, for all its colour, is usually harder to spot and even more difficult to photograph, given its habit of flitting rapidly about in deciduous bushes and trees. So when a Yellow Warbler male settled on a bare branch over Bowmanville Creek it made for an unexpected photo opportunity.

Hiding in plain sight

Fortunately a pair of Yellow Warblers also made a nest in a nearby shrub and soon four hatchlings were sharing that tiny bowl.

Placing an order, 1

You could almost see them grow every hour. Only 48 hours elapsed between the photo above and the photo below – and in another 36 hours, the four youngsters each glided out of the nest to the ground, took their first steps, flapped their wings, and quickly flew to safety while both parents hovered nearby.

Placing an order, 2

In the marshes some birds have had to start over after their first nests and eggs were lost to record-high waters. So some goslings and cygnets are far more advanced then others.

Sunset paddle

Big stands of reeds have floated around, driven by the wind, and areas that would typically be mud flats are fully submerged. But this Spotted Sandpiper has found a small outpost in Westside Marsh.

Spotted Sandpiper

Insect populations certainly seemed to be lower through the cold spring but now it’s not hard to spot a new variety every day.

Blade Runner

With a profusion of flowers everywhere, pollinators can get busy – and the Vipers Bugloss flower attracts lots of different bees.

Bumblebeeblur

 

Honeybee’s turn

A few Yellow Salsify plants have bloomed in our lawn. I’ve been hoping they’d spread enough so that I could harvest a few of their tasty roots one of these years – but alas, the rabbits seem very fond of the flowers too. Only one has matured enough to produce a beautifully patterned seed head, below.

Semisalsifysunset

Fishing, it would appear, has been good for those who know where to go. In one evening on Westside Marsh recently, the resident Osprey pair was joined by a Green Heron, a Black-Crowned Night Heron, at least two Great Blue Herons, and a pair of Belted Kingfishers.

West marsh lookout

This Great Blue Heron waited up in a tree, then suddenly pirouetted and flapped away toward the sunset.

Time’s up

The Kingfishers darted back and forth across the marsh but stopped occasionally to rest on a perch beneath an Osprey platform.

Sharing a perch

Though Kingfishers almost always fly away, with their typical cackle, just before I can get into photo range, finally this female Kingfisher touched down at the edge of the marsh and waited while I drifted close enough to get a good angle and a good shot. It only took a few short years of trying, and every one of those hours in a kayak was time well spent.

Evening rays

 

Photo at top: Wetlands Broadcast System, in Westside Marsh (click here for full-size image)

 

the eyes have it

PHOTO POST

To see, or to be seen? That is the question.

The birds and plants in the woods and waters of Port Darlington show us some of the ways in which the invention of the eye has shaped life history.

Many birds (for example the Yellow Warbler, above, and the Scarlet Tanager, below) are famously flashy. It seems unlikely that the beautiful appearances of these birds would have evolved if they never saw each other, but only sensed their world through hearing, smell, taste and touch.

Scarlet Tanager (click images for larger view)

Yet the urge to be hidden is just as influential as the urge to be seen – leading to a fabulous array of camouflage schemes. Sometimes one bird manages both tricks.

The Cedar Waxwing has a striking crest, and seen from one side its red wing tips and yellow tail tip really jump out. Yet with its predominantly subdued earth tones it can blend into shadowy forests very well.

Cedar Waxwing

Many creatures can’t see but still leverage the power of vision for their own benefit. Look at some of our woodland flowers, whose stunningly vibrant colours call out to pollinators.

Wild Violet

 

Trout Lilies

In this regard one of our most common woodland flowers is a marvellous mystery. The Mayapple spreads mostly by runners. Its pollination strategies have a poor rate of success, partly because its flower produces no nectar. And its striking white flower grows underneath large leaves, facing downward.

 

Mayapple in June

The chilly spring has delayed the bloom of Mayapples into early June this year. To savour this beauty, stand in a patch of Mayapples, bend down until your nose touches your toes, then rotate your head 180° so you can look upward into the beautiful flower just about 30 centimeters above the ground. And while relaxing into this pose, remember to breathe, so you can drink in the rich aroma of this flower.

But back to the creatures of the sky and water – one of the recent visitors to our shoreline was a Ruddy Turnstone, named for its colour and its habit of turning pebbles over to spot the insects on which it feeds.

Ruddy Turnstone

The Turnstone nests in the high arctic and didn’t stick around here long. But a summer resident bird uses similar colours in an entirely different pattern. And like the Turnstone, Woodpeckers use their eyes both for long-distance navigation and for close-up work in dining on tiny bugs.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

This Red-Bellied Woodpecker appears to have found a good home high above a flooded woodland along Bowmanville Creek.

Room with a View

Waterfowl have been foraging in the same woods, including this Blue-Winged Teal spotted just before sunset.

Twilight in Flooded Forest

A resident Beaver also swims back and forth through these woods, perhaps enjoying the fact that large branches can now be floated home rather than dragged through the bush.

Sunset Shift

Beavers are said to have poor eyesight, and if you’re quiet you can get very close before they spot you and dash back to the water or do their slap and dive. But they do their best work at night and underwater, and their eyes cope with these challenges very well.

To see, or to be seen? The Grackle is famous for its flashy iridescence but its appearance is striking in another way too. As it patrols the rich ground under a bird feeder, its eyes not only see but are seen. With those intimidatingly stark black-and-white eyes shouting “I see you!” the Grackle warns all rivals.

Eye On You

Just another in the myriad ways that vision has shaped life.

And without eyes, we would neither raise our eyebrows nor sit in wide-eyed wonder.

I Wonder …

Photo at top: Yellow Warbler in Thicket (click here for larger view)