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.

 

november, by grace

PHOTO POST

So we’ve made it this far … and what’s not to love about this November in this place?

When dawn comes cold, the frost shines so brightly that winter feels near. But by afternoon, in a sunny spot out of the wind, summer feels close too.

With most of the south-migrating birds long gone, those who remain – whether for a few more weeks or for the whole winter – are even more precious to watch.

Drama Swans

And warm afternoons, just before sunset, are a great hour for bird-watching.

Neon Cormorant

The Catch

To The Nines

The Speed of Setting Sun

Merganser, She Appears

In the right time and place, it matters little if no birds appear; the play of light with sky and water is enough.

Clearly, perpendicular

The light of sunrise is different – cold, you might say, perhaps even harsh.

Blue Spirits of Dawn

But minute by minute the frost turns to soft dew and the colours get warm.

Just Chill

Under Tension, 1

Under Tension, 2

Deep in the forest the day is brief – until a momentary breakthrough of sun, just before it dips behind a hill, illuminates the understory.

Fall Forest Flash


At top of page: Three November Lights

the otters and the others

PHOTO POST

This post is mostly about “the others” – meaning those other herons who aren’t so well known as the Great Blue Herons. But some other others also have a way of popping into the photo opp when you least expect them.

And even the Great Blues, which you see almost every time you gaze across the marsh, can still surprise with new poses.

Meerkat Impressions, First Prize (click images for full-screen views)

This bird gave me a double-take, because I didn’t recall ever seeing a Great Blue stand so perfectly erect. Just a moment later the same bird looked a lot stouter.

Space Needle

What I really love about this time of year, though, is that the small herons make themselves visible too. The Green Heron and the Black-Crowned Night Heron both stay hidden most of the time in early summer, but now that their young ones have left the nest both adults and juveniles are out and about, particularly as the sun sets.

Whether you see much green in its feathers or not, the Green Heron is, in my considered opinion, one of the snappiest dressers in the neighbourhood.

Focus Right

But both the Green Heron, at left below, and the juvenile Night Heron, at right below, have beautiful and striking patterns that nevertheless can serve as great camouflage in many marsh settings.

Different Strokes

Young Night Heron at Dusk

Other than the distinctive red eye, the juvenile Night Heron looks only slightly like its dowdy parent, below. The elder sports a nifty long white plume, but otherwise keeps the design simple.

Night Heron, Plumage

The small herons keep their eyes open for small fish and frogs – and grab insects when they are close at hand. (Or close at foot; an insect landed on a Green Heron’s foot, below, and was snapped up in a flash.)

Very Light Supper

Whether in full light of day, the glow of sunset, or by the light of a full moon, there are few birds more striking than the Green Heron.

Listening Post

That being said, while you’re out looking for herons you never know who else might light up the evening. On one recent evening, a Wood Duck turned on the wattage before slipping back into the shadows.

Wood Duck Glow

And just as darkness falls, a couple times a year if you’re lucky, the Otters might suddenly join the party, splashing and diving and swimming circles around each other.

Surfacing

While you watch them they periodically perform an “up periscope” routine to get a closer look at you. And then after a few breathy barks, they suddenly disappear among the lily pads and the waters are still.

Pop Goes the Otter

the fullness of summer

PHOTO POST

The afternoon sun is hot, but the evening air cools. Gardens and marshes are lush and green, but golds and reds peek through. Fruits ripen, seeds swell. The fullness of summer is now.

Wood Duck in a Rippled Mirror

A young Spotted Sandpiper (the spots will come later) hunts in the shadow of lily pads.

Sandpiper seeks Shadow

The full-grown pads easily support the weight of these diminutive birds.

Sandpiper seeks Light

The lily pads may also hide supper – a frog, perhaps? – for a Great Blue Heron.

Blue on Green

Closer to home a Blue Jay relaxes in the early-morning sun.

Blue Jay with Tall Grass

The hundreds of Red Soldier Beetles that gathered on a Hydrangea Paniculata were not ready to relax.

Busy Beetles

Mushrooms pop up every day and many, like these on a wood chip path, won’t stand up to the mid-day sun.

Sprouting through the wood chips

The Tomatillos in the garden, on the other hand, love the August sunshine as long as they get enough water.

Tomatillo Forest

The Sour Cherry crop is now put away – and our resident Chipmunks were glad to help in the harvest.

Ground Squirrel out on a Limb

Cherry Chipmunk

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.

 

water colours

PHOTO POST

April showers bring May flowers – and while it hasn’t been a wet spring we’ve had our share of dewey mornings, stormy skies, and a few rainbows. On schedule, all kinds of colours are popping out in garden, meadow, forest and marsh.

Some of the colours, to be sure, are left over from previous years, as with this bit of fern in the ivy.

The Fern & Ivy (click images for full-screen view)

Even on a sandy slope Stonecrop Sedum always manages to look lush in springtime, and a blade of grass provides a nice accent.

The Stripe & Speckle

Euphorbia in their many guises are also scattered among the sedums.

The Thirsty Midge

A late-afternoon shower, followed by a ray of sunshine, calls attention to a blooming Bleeding Heart.

The Heart of Pinkness

McLaughlin Bay Wildlife Reserve gives many species a place to thrive in its lowland forests, savannas, swamps and shorelines.

Among the many trees and shrubs in bloom right now are several varieties of what I think are flowering currants:

The Twig & Blossom

Frogs wait patiently for insects to wander just in front of their mouths.

The Frog & Fly

The water is so still that the frog’s breathing motion produces a pattern of ripples.

Froggie Makes Waves

The wet woodlands are beginning to go green.

The Squirrel & Wood

On a massive fallen tree trunk, fungi have been hard at work for years.

The Primeval Log

Back at home that evening a chittering chorus accompanies the sunset. The Swallows have discovered the clouds of midges over lakeshore and marsh. While they feed, we watch their flutters and swoops until light fades to darkness.

The Swallow & Sunset


You may have noticed that the titles of the photos above could also be used as names for new pubs. Feel free! I have not trademarked the names, and I will not send squadrons of lawyers after you if you choose one of these names for a new pub in my neighbourhood. Just saying.

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)