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)

 

plastic swamp

The billions of pieces of plastic floating in ocean gyres begin their watery journeys in ditches and creeks in almost every location inhabited by people. Many are tossed into tributaries in the centre of continents, far upstream from any ocean, including the small watershed where I live.
Also published at Resilience.org

The neighbouring coastal marshes where I spend many hours have much in common but there’s an important difference: they belong to separate “garbagesheds”.

There should be no need for such an ugly word, but as water moves through watersheds in our disposable civilization, that water gathers a lot of garbage and deposits it, at least temporarily, in catch points such as marshes.

Westside Marsh is part of the tiny (5.4 km2) Westside Creek watershed, which includes only a small amount of residential or commercial development – and thus this garbageshed1 collects relatively little garbage.

Bowmanville Marsh, by contrast, belongs to a watershed with thirty times as much area, including nearly all of the “developed” areas of the town of Bowmanville, Ontario, Canada. Throughout this marsh, wherever water can sometimes flow and vegetation can filter that flow, there is garbage.

The plastic garbage may or may not be the worst of it, but since it tends to stay on the surface it is the most visible.

In the Bowmanville/Soper Creek garbageshed which drains through this marsh, the ditches and brooks carry plastic bottles toward Lake Ontario, and log jams on the creeks often catch hundreds of pieces. Flimsy and ubiquitous mass-market water bottles make up by far the biggest share.

Hydration (click image for larger view)

It only takes one good downpour to jostle some of the bottles out of this trap. Some pieces move quickly downstream and into Lake Ontario, while other pieces float a short distance into flooded woods or into the reeds where they stay for weeks, months or years.

Hydration with Straw

As a nature lover I usually go into the marsh to marvel at all the life and beauty that remains here, and that beauty is the usual focus of my photography. At the same time, it’s hard not to be aware, and often to be sickened and appalled, by the presence of plastic waste in every nook and cranny of the marsh.

Hydration with 150 Calories

There once was a time when people didn’t need to have a drink in their hand, their pack or their purse at all times, every day, everywhere they go. Obsessive fear of dehydration generally guided only those making long journeys across inhospitable drylands.

There once was a day when people could routinely spare the time to sit down and drink hot beverages from open cups which afforded them the aroma of fresh coffee.

But advertising factories relentlessly manufactured new needs, and materials wizards cooked up mountains of packaging that was cheap enough to throw away after one use.

Hydration with Sugar and Milk

 

Hydration with Less

 

Hydration with Intoxicant

Were it not for this seemingly never-ending stream of garbage, there would be no need for “adopt-a-roadway” clean-up campaigns by civically-minded citizens – and in the long run, we’d be much better off taxing single-use plastics out of existence rather than trying to pick them out of grasslands, forests, marshes, creeks, lakes and oceans.

But in the meantime, it is far easier to pick up trash bottles from easily accessible roadside ditches than it is to wade into creeks, pick through logjams, or push canoes through stands of reeds trying to grab plastic detritus piece by piece.

Every bit of trash picked up from a ditch is one less piece making its way downstream.

Hydration with Additives

But when high water lifts long-trapped bottles out of the marsh and into Lake Ontario, our plastic avatars move into a far wider garbageshed – perhaps, one day, joining a great garbage gyre in the ocean.2

Hydration at Sea


Photo at top of page: Hydration with Shine (larger view here)

 


1When this word popped into mind I suspected that others must have thought of it too. But my internet search turned up just one similar usage of “garbageshed”, by theologian and ethicist Malinda Elizabeth Berry.

2According to Wikipedia, the North Atlantic garbage patch “is estimated to be hundreds of kilometers across in size, with a density of over 200,000 pieces of debris per square kilometer.” Researchers from The Ocean Cleanup project claimed that the Great Pacific garbage patch “covers 1.6 million square kilometers. … An estimated 80,000 metric tons of plastic inhabit the patch, totaling 1.8 trillion pieces.”

flight paths

PHOTO POST

Amateur photographers who try, as I do, to capture birds in flight soon learn that the smaller birds tend to be more difficult to catch than the big birds.

You need to get that much closer to a small bird, and with some exceptions they tend to be skittish. Their takeoffs are amazingly quick and their wings beat very fast, which means you need a very fast shutter speed, which in turn means only very strong light will do.

So it’s a great idea to start with the Great Blue Heron.

Launch Pad (click images for larger views)

These beautiful birds hang around from April until November, giving you lots of time to learn their habits. When they fly, they often settle down again not far away, giving you another chance for a photo if you missed the first try, if the lighting is wrong or the background is too cluttered.

Scout

Our medium-size feathered residents are more challenging. Many duck species, for example, have famously fast take-offs. Though you may see them often, it’s easy to get a collection of pictures showing colourful blurs, or just some tail feathers exiting the photo frame.

Gulls, on the other hand, can glide along in the face of a fierce wind with only the occasional wing movement. When a Ring-Billed Gull swoops along close to shore, just above the waves, it’s possible to get some easy photos. For the photos below, the Gull’s fishing habits helped. Over and over it made a slow pass against the wind, then swooped high and caught a ride downwind a hundred meters, then came past me slowly again.

Reading Right to Left

With birds that are just migrating through, serendipity plays a larger role. Six Short-Billed Dowitchers visited Bowmanville Marsh a few nights ago, likely on their way to nesting grounds near James Bay or in sub-arctic Quebec. We’re on their flight path, but opportunities to photograph them may be rare as they only drop by briefly, unannounced.

Stopover

Serendipity also played a starring role in the following photo. While I was training my camera on a window-mounted feeder intent on getting some snaps of hummingbirds, a Baltimore Oriole set down for just a few seconds on a wicker chair just below the feeder. A quick framing and re-focus gave me a chance for just one shot – but it worked, with a clay planter and indoor greenery on the other side of the window adding complementary colours.

Oriole with Wicker Chair

Fortunately three hummingbirds soon arrived as well, and it was clear this feeder was disputed territory.

Hummingbirds, Face to Face

The determined hummingbirds thrust and pounced as fiercely as some of their distant dinosaur ancestors, and none of them got much to eat for the next hour.

Archilocus Rex

At last a single hummingbird settled in for a long drink at another feeder. “Watch this”, he seemed to say, “Flying isn’t my only trick!” – and with slight movements of his neck a patch of beautifully-patterned feathers flashed from black to ruby-red and back again.

Light Tricks

Photo at top: Time Flies Like an Arrow (Osprey, Great Blue Heron, Red-Winged Blackbird) – click here for larger view

edge effects

PHOTO POST

Storm surges, snow squalls, frozen rain, creeks on the rise, ice jams, gale force winds, soft waves of slush – February’s weather has been, shall we say, entertaining. Here’s a small selection of pictures from the past week.

 

Quicksilver (click images for larger view)

What colour is ice, you might ask? After a fierce storm on Lake Ontario much of the ice is deep dark brown, as breaking waves have scoured up sand and pebbles, piling the mix into new peninsulas along the shoreline. The next day’s winds then carve out new fjords, bridges and islands.

Cathedral Ceiling

After frozen rain coats a log on the marsh, the sun carves equally complex patterns in the shimmer.

Waterlog

Where the geese have been, we can always find our feather-of-the-day.

Acrostic

Cold temperatures, bright sun, gentle waves spilling over beach pebbles – a recipe for beautiful edge effects.

Topography I

 

Topography II

Let’s have one more shot of cold water on the rocks:

On the rocks


Top photo: The light gets in (click here for larger view)

rivers of light

PHOTO POST

Just when winter temperatures drop the farthest, the sun shines its brightest and snow floats across open space like liquid light.

But the current cold snap, like many before it, was preceded by a squall. The geese settled on the marsh to wait out the wind.

West Wind (click images for larger views)

 

West Wind Two

When the storm was over there were lines on the surface of the marsh …

Aftermath

… and lines on the shore.

Aftermath Two

With the air temperature hovering around –20°C, waterfowl sought the warmth of liquid water …

3 + 1

though liquidity was fickle.

Sail to the Sun

In Port Darlington harbour the flow of water and ice became a stream of steam and light.

Winter Harbour 

Top photo: Rivers of Light (click here for larger version)

 

before and after flowers

PHOTO POST

With most summer flowers now fallen away or drying, it is up to butterflies and damselflies, grasses and fruits, to provide flashes of colour. While monarchs are drawn to the late-blooming Silphium, their caterpillars chew through Milkweed leaves.

Perspectives in pink (click images for larger views)

A wide variety of dragonflies and damselflies drift across from the marsh to our gardens – and clearly, for them this is a busy time of year.

Freefloat

 

Stars Came Out

 

Orange arrangement

Some of this season’s lilies are strikingly colourful even as they dry in the sun, and a few are still attracting pollinators.

Firedust

 

Listening Post

But sometimes you want to escape the heat. This rabbit relaxes on the beach in a cool morning breeze, having earned a break after a long night of pillaging gardens throughout the neighbourhood.

Coming-of-Age Story

On Westside Marsh, a trio of Mute Swan cygnets now look almost grown up, though their grey bills and mottled grey feathers still set them apart from their parents.

Under the Canopy

The flowers that are just now coming into bloom tend to be very tall. At two metres or more, the Himalayan Balsam is a good bit taller than its native cousin the orange-blossomed Jewelweed, which blooms a bit earlier. (The crushed stems of both species yield a clear juice that sooths the burn from Poison Ivy.)

Himalayan Balsam’s hollow but sturdy stalks are beautiful in their own right, though they are usually hidden deep in the understory. A tenacious competitor, it can quickly take over an area and produce a thick stand that leaves no room for other plants. Those who have had the experience of struggling to control a well-established stand realize this plant’s magnificence comes at great expense.

Jewelweed One

Its pink flowers are succeeded by an equally elaborate exploding seed pod that can distribute hundreds of seeds several metres in every direction. If you see a few of these flowers you might want to enjoy their beauty now – and then pull up the plants before they can seed next summer’s forest.

Jewelweed Sundown

 

Top photo: Monarchs’ Realm

 

heat of summer

PHOTO POST

As the most intense heat wave in years takes hold of the lakeshore, the growth of some plants accelerates, others parch and wither, and many marsh-dwellers seek mid-day shade or the cool of twilight hours.

With a still bountiful supply of moisture, green plants in the marsh are tall and lush, though the air is steamy with transpiration.

Featured Creature (click images for larger views)

Water levels are dropping, exposing little isthmuses and giving grasses a chance to spring up out of the mud. This killdeer is feeding by sunset in Westside Marsh.

Stepping to the Sunset

Garden plants are remaining lush only if they are watered every day or two – but these Evening Primrose blossoms did grab onto a generous morning dew.

Primrose by Morning

 

Blooming Bergamot

Bergamot, above, and Viper’s Bugloss, below, answer the mid-day sun with particularly intense bursts of colour.

By a Thread

 

Ring Bill

Ring-billed Gulls, above, and Osprey, below, keep watch over waters of marsh and lake, and swoop down frequently to grab small fish.

Balance One

 

Balance Two

 

At Roost

The chilly waters of Lake Ontario can usually be counted on to keep the air a bit cooler – though on a calm night the cooling effect seems not to make it even 50 meters inland. Perhaps that is why two Great Blue Herons forsook their fishing grounds in the marsh one night and joined the gulls out on the Port Darlington breakwater.

 

Heron at Light House Rock


 

Top photo: Red Goose (click here for larger view)

Colour in the eye of the beholder

Photo Post

The marshes are a sea of green, wild and garden flowers are coming into bloom, and one 24-hour period this week saw a burst of nesting activity by the Snapping Turtles.

Notwithstanding all the vivid hues, the tranquility of many midsummer days comes across beautifully in photos of minimal colour.

Waterbug (click images for larger view)

 

Spin

In our garden the Asiatic Lilly (above) and Sea Holly (below) were just about to bloom.

Sea Holly

The lawn is dotted with Daisy Fleabane (below).

Pink & Yellow

Even in the compost bin, an occasional “flower” sprouts from the dark decomposition.

Compost Flower

 

Beach Path

On the dunes and on the marsh, elegant forms rise from the sand and water surfaces.

Making Waves

 

Sunset Stride

As the sun dips below the horizon, a family of swans climbs out on a mud flat, while a turtle digs a lakeside nest to deposit her eggs.

Excavator

 
Top photo: Close Look (click here for larger view)

 

Acoustic conditions, conservation planning, and the St. Marys mine

St Marys mine – Article Index

How much external noise can you add to a wetland environment before the wildlife inhabitants really start to suffer?

Relatively little scientific research appears to have been conducted on this subject. Yet an understanding of cumulative noise pollution is essential to properly assessing the long-term impact of the proposed St. Marys Cement under-the-lake mine south of Bowmanville.

A recently published research paper found biochemical markers of increased stress levels, as well as reduced hatching success, among birds chronically exposed to industrial noise. We’ll get to that paper below, but first, here’s a refresher on the setting for the mine proposal.

The St. Marys mine proposal (official Project Description here) describes a mine-entrance tunnel near the bottom of the existing limestone quarry on the Lake Ontario shoreline. The tunnel will lead to under-the-lake caverns, which will be excavated over a 100-year period.

The project site is adjacent to two Provincially Significant Wetlands, Westside Marsh and Bowmanville Marsh. These wetlands are among the remnants of what was once a very extensive array of coastal wetlands all around Lake Ontario. The remaining coastal wetlands are still of key importance to resident and migratory bird populations and to many freshwater fish species who depend on the wetlands at some stage of their life-cycles.

If the project is approved as proposed, 4 million tonnes of limestone will be blasted and hauled out from these caverns each year. The operation will require ventilation fans moving fresh air into the mine and exhaust air back out, to enable work to be conducted throughout a network of chambers that will eventually extend approximately 14 square kilometers under the lake.

Mining trucks will carry the limestone out of the mine and into the quarry, where it will be crushed into aggregate suitable for construction use. Then approximately 500 truckloads per day (based on seven days/week haulage) will leave the St. Marys site carrying aggregate to the primary market on the east side of the Greater Toronto Area.

The environmental viability of the project must be assessed by looking at the cumulative effects. The blasting, drilling, ventilation fans, trucks and crushers will add noise to an environment that is already anything but quiet.

At present both Westside Marsh and Bowmanville Marsh are subject to significant anthropogenic noise levels on a 24-hour basis. The operations of St. Marys are just one component of that noise.

Noise from St. Marys existing operations comes from blasting and hauling limestone immediately to the west of Westside Marsh, trucking of cement products, and major excavation and berm-building directly north of Westside Marsh.

Another constant noise source is Highway 401, just to the north. At present the traffic noise consists of a constant loud hum, punctuated by accelerating trucks, motorcycles, and sirens. The St. Marys mine would add to that traffic noise, as 500 or more additional trucks come and go every day. (The route in and out of the St. Marys property, and on and off the 401, are shown in yellow on the above map.)

One of the busiest rail lines in Canada passes directly north of the quarry, about 500 meters north of Westside Marsh, and through the north end of Bowmanville Marsh.

Above, an eastbound CN freight train skirts the St. Marys quarry and cement plant. Below, a CN freight train on the bridge over Soper Creek at the north end of Bowmanville Marsh.

 

Noise and stress in bird populations

A recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (US) notes that noise pollution “alters habitats, degrades natural acoustic conditions, and partially or fully excludes species that are sensitive to noise exposure from affected areas.”1

Among the species that remain in noise-affected environments, the effects on survival and fitness are complex. One way to study this is to correlate measured noise levels with measured levels of baseline circulating stress hormones (glucocorticoids) in birds. The paper notes,

To date, no studies have simultaneously examined relationships among noise, GCs [glucocorticoids], and fitness in animals that settle and breed in natural areas exposed to chronic anthropogenic noise.

The paper looked at three species of cavity-nesting birds with different noise tolerances, in a New Mexico wildland which is now interrupted by an array of natural gas compressors. The evidence “strongly suggests that chronic anthropogenic noise induces stress and hypocorticism in birds.” Furthermore, with one of the studied species, the western bluebird, increased noise was correlated with a lower rate of hatching success.

There are a number of explanations for the stress response.

At lower exposure levels, anthropogenic noise is more likely to elicit stress responses indirectly by increasing the difficulty of coping with external challenges (e.g., territory defense) or by creating anxiety through reduced detectability and predictability of threats (e.g., acoustic masking of predator alarm sounds), or both.

Given the capacity for chronic noise to consistently mask biologically relevant cues, animals living in areas with high levels of noise may fail to receive information about their local habitats, leading to a continual state of perceived unpredictability and reduced security.

Citing a range of other studies, the authors further explain how chronic noise pollution disrupts the normal sensory perceptions of wildlife.

The distance over which birdsong and other sounds are effectively transmitted, their ‘active space’, is significantly reduced by increases in ambient background noise. Anthropogenic noise, acting as an acoustic blanket, can reduce or inhibit detection of hetero- and conspecific vocalizations that birds and other animals use to gain information about predation threats. For example, the presence of birdsong and chatter is thought to signal the absence of nearby predators.

How does noise pollution affect the wildlife in Westside and Bowmanville Marshes? Are there species which would otherwise make these wetlands home, if it weren’t for chronic noise levels? With increasing noise levels, will some of the existing species be driven out, or will the populations be weakened due to lower reproduction rates? These are complex questions – but they must be answered before the impacts of additional noise, due to a major mining/extraction project, can be properly assessed.

In spite of huge environmental challenges these wetlands remain home to a wide variety of species. Within this small area there are cattail marshes, open water, wetland forest, upland forest, and even a small fen. Among the many species that live here are various waterfowl, fish, wading birds, osprey, kingfisher, beaver, muskrat, and predators including otter, weasel, marten, raccoon, coyote and fox. These wetlands are also vital staging areas for the many migratory birds which fly over Lake Ontario in the spring and fall.

Raccoon on the bank of Westside Creek at the north end of a beaver pond; ospreys which nest each year on platforms in Westside Marsh; juvenile Black-Crown Night Heron photographed in Bowmanville Marsh.

These wetlands are officially designated as “Provincially Significant Marshes”. The review process for the St. Marys under-the-lake mine must make us ask, how much significance does the province actually afford to this environment?

The authors of the paper on noise pollution and avian stress levels note,

In this era of unprecedented, large-scale human-driven environmental change, preservation or recovery of natural acoustic conditions should be a key aspect of conservation planning and is a critical step toward successful conservation of protected species.

Given the importance of natural acoustic conditions to conservation planning, should the province of Ontario give the OK to increased noise pollution from St. Marys Cement?

 


1“Chronic anthropogenic noise disrupts glucocorticoid signaling and has multiple effects on fitness in an avian community”, Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, 14 November 2017