Osprey and Otter have a message for Ford

On most summer afternoons, if you gaze across Bowmanville Marsh long enough you’ll see an Osprey flying slow above the water, then suddenly dropping to the surface before rising up with a fish in its talons.

But the Osprey doesn’t nest in Bowmanville Marsh – it nests about a kilometer away in Westside Marsh. That’s where a pair of Ospreys fix up their nest each spring, and that’s where they feed one or two chicks through the summer until they can all fly away together. Quite often the fishing is better in one marsh than the other – and the Ospreys know where to go.

Otter knows this too. You might see a family of Otters in one marsh several days in a row, and then they trot over the small upland savannah to the other marsh.

Osprey and Otter know many things that our provincial government would rather not know. One of those is that the value of a specific parcel of wetland can’t be judged in isolation. Many wetland mammals, fish and birds – even the non-migratory ones – need a complex of wetlands to stay healthy.

To developers and politicians with dollar signs in their eyes, a small piece of wetland in an area with several more might seem environmentally insignificant. Otters and Ospreys and many other creatures know better. Filling in or paving over one piece of wetland can have disastrous effects for creatures that spend much of their time in other nearby wetlands.

A change in how wetlands are evaluated – so that the concept of a wetland complex is gone from the criteria – is just one of the many ecologically disastrous changes the Doug Ford government in Ontario is currently rushing through. These changes touch on most of the issues I’ve written about in this blog, from global ones like climate change to urban planning in a single city. This time I’ll focus on threats to the environment in my own small neighbourhood.

Beavers move between Bowmanville and Westside Marshes as water levels change, as food sources change in availability, and as their families grow. They have even engineered themselves a new area of wetland close to the marshes. Great Blue Herons move back and forth between the marshes and nearby creeks on a daily basis throughout the spring, summer and fall.

In our sprawl-loving Premier’s vision, neither wetlands nor farmland are nearly as valuable as the sprawling subdivisions of cookie-cutter homes that make his campaign donors rich. The Premier, who tried in 2021 to have a wetland in Pickering filled and paved for an Amazon warehouse, thinks it’s a great idea to take chunks of farmland and wetland out of protected status in the Greenbelt. One of those parcels – consisting of tilled farmland as well as forested wetland – is to be removed from the Greenbelt in my municipality of Clarington.

The Premier’s appetite for environmental destruction makes it clear that no element of natural heritage in the Greater Toronto area can be considered safe. That includes the Lake Ontario wetland complex that I spend so much time in.

This wetland area now has Provincially Significant Wetland status, but that could change in the near future. As Anne Bell of Ontario Nature explains,

“The government is proposing to completely overhaul the Ontario Wetland Evaluation System for identifying Provincially Significant Wetlands (PSWs), ensuring that very few wetlands would be deemed provincially significant in the future. Further, many if not most existing PSWs could lose that designation because of the changes, and if so, would no longer benefit from the high level of protection that PSW designation currently provides.” (Ontario Nature blog, November 10, 2022)

The Bowmanville Marsh/Westside Marsh complex is home, at some time in the year, to scores of species of birds. Some of these are already in extreme decline, and at least one is threatened.

Up to now, when evaluators were judging the significance of a particular wetland, the presence of a threatened or endangered species was a strong indicator. If the Ford government’s proposed changes go through, the weight given to threatened or endangered species will drop.

The Rusty Blackbird is a formerly numerous bird whose population has dropped somewhere between 85 – 99 percent; it stopped by the Bowmanville Marsh in September on its migration. The Least Bittern is already on the threatened species list in Ontario, but is sometimes seen in Bowmanville Marsh. If the Least Bittern or the Rusty Blackbird drop to endangered species status, will the provincial government care? And will there be any healthy wetlands remaining for these birds to find a home?

Osprey and Otter know that if you preserve a small piece of wetland, but it’s hemmed in by a busy new subdivision, that wetland is a poor home for most wildlife. Many creatures need the surrounding transitional ecozone areas for some part of their livelihood. The Heron species spend many hours a day stalking the shallows of marshes – but need tall trees nearby to nest in.

Green Heron (left) and juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron

And for some of our shyest birds, only the most secluded areas of marsh will do as nesting habitats. That includes the seldom-seen Least Bittern, as well as the several members of the Rail family who nest in the Bowmanville Marsh.

There are many hectares of cat-tail reeds in this Marsh, but the Virginia Rails, Soras and Common Gallinules only nest where the stand of reeds is sufficiently dense and extensive to disappear in, a safe distance from a road, and a safe distance from any walking path. That’s one reason I could live beside this marsh for several years before I spotted any of these birds, and before I ever figured out what was making some of the strange bird calls I often heard.

Juvenile Sora, and adult Virginia Rail with hatchling

There are people working in government agencies, of course, who have expertise in bird populations and habitats. One of the most dangerous changes now being pushed by our Premier is to take wildlife experts out of the loop, so their expertise won’t threaten the designs of big property developers.

No longer is the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) to be involved in decisions about Provincially Designated Wetland status. Furthermore, local Conservation Authorities (CAs), who also employ wetland biologists and watershed ecologists, are to be muzzled when it comes to judging the potential impacts of development proposals: 

“CAs would be prevented from entering into agreements with municipalities regarding the review of planning proposals or applications. CAs would in effect be prohibited from providing municipalities with the expert advice and information they need on environmental and natural heritage matters.” (Ontario Nature blog)

Individual municipalities, who don’t typically employ ecologists, and who will be struggling to cope with the many new expenses being forced on them by the Ford government, will be left to judge ecological impacts without outside help. In practice, that might mean they will accept whatever rosy environmental impact statements the developers put forth.

It may be an exaggeration to say that ecological ignorance will become mandatory. Let’s just say, in Doug Ford’s brave new world ecological ignorance will be strongly incentivized.

Marsh birds of Bowmanville/Westside Marsh Complex

These changes to rules governing wetlands and the Greenbelt are just a small part of the pro-sprawl, anti-environment blizzard unleashed by the Ford government in the past month. The changes have resulted in a chorus of protests from nearly every municipality, in nearly every MPP’s riding, and in media outlets large and small.

The protests need to get louder. Osprey and Otter have a message, but they need our help.


Make Your Voice Heard

Friday Dec 2, noon – 1 pm: Rally at MPP Todd McCarthy’s office, 23 King Street West in Bowmanville.

Write McCarthy at Todd.McCarthy@pc.ola.org, or phone him at 905-697-1501.

Saturday Dec 3, rally starting at 2:30 pm: in Toronto at Bay St & College St.

Send Premier Ford a message at: doug.fordco@pc.ola.org, 416-325-1941

Send Environment Minister David Piccini a message at: david.Piccini@pc.ola.org, 416-314-6790

Send Housing Minister Steve Clark a message at: Steve.Clark@pc.ola.org, 416-585-7000


All photos taken by Bart Hawkins Kreps in Bowmanville/Westside Marsh complex, Port Darlington.

three gulls before sunrise

PHOTO POST

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

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

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

Green-Winged Teal on mudflat

Green flash on mudflat

Green-Winged Teal feeds on mudflat

Slurping primordial soup

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

White-Throated Sparrow on mudflat

White-Throated Sparrow on mudflat

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

Inky Cap mushrooms

Inky Caps at marsh edge

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

Standing shell

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

Swimming shell

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

Green Metallic Sweat Bee on Rudbeckia

Green Metallic Sweat Bee on Rudbeckia

Hoverfly on Calendula

Hoverfly on Calendula

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

Mute Swan on marsh

Stretch, swan

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

Pectoral Sandpipers at Bowmanville Marsh

Pectoral Sandpipers

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

Pectoral Sandpipers in flight

Pointing this way

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

Ring-Billed Gulls at sunrise on Lake Ontario shoreline

Three gulls before sunrise

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

Sunrise at Port Darlington breakwater, Lake Ontario

Sunrise at Port Darlington breakwater, Lake Ontario

september’s shine

PHOTO POST

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

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

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

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

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

Chocolate Kiss

Ring of Pollen

Double Beauty

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

Brushwork

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

Spark

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

Waiting for Warmth

September’s Shine

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

Rusty Blackbird

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

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

Mudwalkers IV

The Yellowlegs are a reliable spring and fall visitor here.

You loom large in my life

Two Yellowlegs

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

Godwit & Yellowlegs

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

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

Beakwork

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

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

Godwit & Shoveler

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

Godwit, very clean

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

Mirror Gaze


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

night moves

PHOTO POST

The days grow shorter but marsh birds grow bolder.

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

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

Night Heron awaits the dark

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

Profile of a young Great Blue

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

Pipers dashing after supper

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

Gallinule looms large

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

Conspicuously hiding

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

Virginia Rail reflection

Profile of Virginia Rail

Virginia Rail – the edge of the shadow

• • •

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

In the meantime sand must fly.

attention to scale

PHOTO POST

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

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

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

But enough of arithmetic.

At the foot of a hummingbird

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

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

Dragonfly on Bergamot

Angel Dance (Hoverfly on Bergamot)

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

Totally tubular

Face-on

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

Clothes-line with Hummingbird

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

Long-Tailed Skimmer

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

Gathering of Swallows

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

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

Sitting Swallow

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

Blue Streak

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

Morning’s glow

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