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

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.