Another weekend, another early morning adventure as we set off for somewhere not-too-far from civilisation (my wife has a couple more weekends of needing to be reached by phone for work purposes). This small conservation area features meadows filled with milkweed and other plants attractive to pollinators, a large marsh, and a small woodland.
From the parking, we followed Westside Marsh Trail through the meadow and heard many Yellow Warblers, Song Sparrows, and American Goldfinch. The trail follows Westside Creek and enters woodland as the trail approaches the water. We saw a Belted Kingfisher on an overhanging branch. In the woods, Red Baneberry was fruiting. Into summer, the berries are bright red but begin green in colour. This is a very poisonous plant and a handful of berries could lead to death (though their foul taste makes consuming them unlikely).
I noticed a Geocache while checking out the Baneberry. Geocaching, where you search for hidden little containers usually housing a logbook and sometimes other items, is something I have done in the past, but I prefer to spend my time exploring nature these days! The cache contained the usual log book, a dice, a couple of kids playing cards and a small card explaining what geocaching is (I’m assuming my readers already know).
A short branch off the trail leads to a nice lookout over Westside Marsh. We probably spent about half-an-hour watching the activity out on the water. A family of Mute Swans with seven cygnets swam along the shore. A few Ring-billed Gulls flew by. Just in front of us, a Swamp Sparrow would call out. He was quite territorial and chased away other birds, including an American Robin that was probably 5-times larger.
Last week, Sara and I had tried to find some Osprey. Perhaps we should have come here! A pair were active on the marsh, using a platform to scour the area. They stayed for some time before flying back up the creek one after the other. One of them carried prey in its talons.
Now, I wish I could tell you I got some great photos of what happened next, but it was just way too far in the distance. I saw something black poke out of the water and move with some purpose in a straight line. After our success at seeing a beaver a week or so back, this was my first thought. It disappeared under the water and I only got a vague sense of whatever it was. My wife patiently trained binoculars in the area I described and her patience paid off. A North American River Otter surfaced and we were able to watch it frolicking around and playing with a crayfish it had caught – at one point it even began trying to antagonise the Ospreys.
We left the lookout and the trail took us through some more meadow. Milkweed plays host to a few common insect species, and they were abundant today. Common Red Soldier Beetle was the most frequently spotted. With its long antennae, a Common Milkweed Beetle gorged on a leaf and I couldn’t help but take a macro photo.
We saw a few Monarch Butterflies flitting around on the flowers of the Milkweed, but their populations will peak in around another month from now. We also saw a Red Admiral.
Just before leaving the area, we briefly stopped at the beach at Port Darlington and looked out over Lake Ontario. A large ship, CSL Tadoussac, was docked beside the nearby quarry. Constructed in Collingwood, Ontario, she was launched in 1969 and measures 730ft in length and she is most often used to carry coal and iron ore.
As we left, a female Brown-headed Cowbird hopped around in the grass looking for grubs. Traditionally, these birds would follow herds of Bison who would kick up food from the soil as they travelled. Because the birds were forever following the herd, they were unable to nest and raise their own young. They are a brood parasite species – they will lay their eggs into the nests of other birds who will unknowingly raise the offspring. Although humans have vastly depleted the population of Bison, this bird of course continues the same behaviour.
Sure enough Sara had to take a work related call, so I pulled over to the side of the road. While she finished up and before we reached the highway, I watched a pair of Eastern Kingbirds foraging for berries. An American Robin fledgeling tried but failed to scare them away.
Keeping it local for another week due to work commitments, but a trip to Rondeau Provincial Park is on the cards not too long after that?
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Please excuse my post-isolation haircut in the above picture. That’s a whole other blog entry for a different type of website.
On Sunday, July 5th Sara and I visited a few different spots around Burlington Bay on the western edge of Lake Ontario. We planned to visit some trails around the Royal Botanical Gardens, but since they didn’t open the gates until 10 am (and we are early starters), we began our day at Princess Point at around 6:45 am.
As soon as we stepped out of the car, the birdsong was quite plentiful and separating the various songs and calls was giving me sensory overload! The trail entered a meadow that was teeming with Yellow Warblers, Tree Swallows, and both Baltimore and Orchard Orioles. The Orioles appeared to be having a bumper year here – we saw several juveniles that were yet to fully grow their field markings. I’m not sure which species of Oriole this is and nobody else I’ve asked is too sure, either. Send your answers on a postcard (if you’ll excuse the British idiom).
After a loop around the meadow, the trail entered woodland where many birds were heard, but not too many seen due to the high canopy. There were many Warbling and Red-Eyed Vireos, Song Sparrows, Red-winged Blackbirds, Cedar Waxwings, Northern Cardinals and Common Grackles. One of the most exciting birds that we heard but were unable to see was a Chestnut-sided Warbler. A Pine Warbler was also heard. We looked out over the bay where there were gaps in the foliage and we saw around half-a-dozen Caspian Terns, lots of Ring-billed Gulls, and lots of Double-crested Cormorants – the latter two species being very common around Lake Ontario. Throughout the hike, we seemed to be followed by a Northern Flicker that we heard making its “laughing” call several times.
Royal Botanical Gardens
The trail continued around the whole bay, including to the Botanical Gardens we were aiming for originally. However, because it was getting close to opening time over there, we decided to drive over – in case it became busy. We parked at a large Arboretum with a wide variety of trees that were all labelled with their Common Name, Taxonomic Name, and the name traditionally used by Indigenous peoples. There were educational signs throughout the trails that gave examples of some of the plants that were growing there, and how they were traditionally used by the Anishinaabe people.
Once again, it was beginning to get frightfully hot. There were a ton of Eastern Chipmunks around that would suddenly squeak and tear across the trail ahead of us, but not much else – except out on the water. There were Mute Swans and an awful lot of Ring-billed Gulls and Double-crested Cormorants that seem to have claimed the small “Hickory Island” for use as a colony. Their scat is acidic and damages trees, so it can be problematic when they gather in large numbers, as you can see from the bare branches in the photo.
Maybe it was the heat, but we saw areas along the trail that should have been attractive to wildlife but seemed to be missing examples of indicator species (animals such as some amphibians that indicate a healthy environment). We did come across one swampy area where we saw Northern Leopard Frogs and a couple of smaller/young Midland Painted Turtles.
In the same area, I snapped a photograph of some kind of dragonfly that was basking on a log. I know next to nothing about dragonflies but decided to take the photograph because it looked a little different from others I had seen, and I thought I could look into it sometime in the future. It turns out that it is a Unicorn Clubtail whose conservation status is “imperilled” in Canada and in several US states. For reference, the next stage is “critically imperilled” followed by “possibly extinct”. I was recently invited to join a citizen science project for rare sightings where I submit things like this to the Natural Heritage Information Centre department of Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. They use the data to argue for the conservation of important habitats.
We reached as far as a boardwalk on The Marsh Walk Trail. There is a lookout point where we sat for a while and watched for activity in the water. A Marsh Wren would call out, occasionally flitting out to have a look around before returning to the safety of the Cattails. A raft of Mallard Ducklings preened while sat on a floating piece of wood. A Belted Kingfisher flew by. We looked for some of the species we are keen to see: Sora, Virginia Rail, Least or American Bitterns. No luck there, but we were fortunate enough that an adult Bald Eagle flew over the marsh a couple of times.
Not too long after this fly-by, a younger Bald Eagle flew overhead, this time a little closer. Bald Eagles take around five years to grow their distinctive white tail and head feathers.
Although it had been quite a good day, I had hoped that we might get to see an Osprey up close – and if I was super lucky, maybe get to watch one hunt. However we didn’t see one, so we decided to check out a stretch of The Grand River in-and-around the Cambridge area.
Incidentally, Sara and I both loved the look of Cambridge and have previously spent some time in nearby Dundas and loved it there, too. We are growing quite tired of the city, the crowding, the concrete, so many people on edge. Seeing some of the scenes at places like The Beaches, Bellwoods, and The Bluffs this summer makes you question how sustainable an ever-growing population with limited outdoor recreation can really be. It has really been put into focus during the pandemic where everyone has been vying for outdoor space without restaurants and shopping malls to splurge their time and money.
Anyway, back to nature. We walked along The Grand River and saw Mallards, a flotilla of Ring-billed Gulls, and amongst them, two Herring Gulls (new bird for Sara). The Herring Gull is slightly larger, has pink instead of yellow legs, and the adult has a red mark on the bill instead of a black one.
It was early afternoon and the heat was almost unbearable. We saw an adult Osprey in a nest built on top of a man-made nesting platform. The temperature was causing heatwaves that have made the following photograph blurry but I’ve included it because you can see a fledgeling Osprey on the right of the platform.
Unable to stand the heat, and realising that conditions meant the Osprey would be less active, we drove up-river a short distance to sit in the shade in a picnic area. I got a call from my Mum in The UK while we were looking around and I inadvertently hung-up on her to take a photo when an Osprey flew over us!
No National Geographic shot of it plucking a fish from the river, but at least we got to see one.
We did visit a couple of other places, but not much productive to report. We swung into Dundas Conservation Area. It looks like a nice place, but there were too many irresponsible dog owners allowing their dogs off-leash in a conservation area. And did I mention the heat?
We had planned to make a full-day of things and maybe get some sunset photos in the evening. The sun is currently setting in a north-west-west direction, so to get shots over Lake Ontario, it would mean travelling to somewhere between Port Dalhousie and Niagara along the southern shore. The less said about this waste of gasoline, the better! We tried a couple of places and, reminiscent of the hot-spots I mentioned in Toronto earlier, they were absolutely crawling with people. With the current pandemic situation, it was genuinely scary to see. Instead, we headed home, dreaming of the fall season, when the outdoors is generally quieter.
Not wanting to end on this slightly sour note, while we were in the picnic area back in Cambridge, we saw a couple of House Finches. They’re seen very commonly even at bird feeders, but I hadn’t seen one in the wild for quite a few months. The male has red colouring, the female is brown.
Poor weather is scheduled and my wife is fulfilling the last couple of weekends of some on-call commitments before she gains some extra freedom. We will be heading somewhere that fulfils the Goldilocks criteria of being not-too-far-away (for phone service), but far enough to be quiet! Perhaps the Bowmanville area. We also recently purchased a parking pass for Lynde Shores so will likely be visiting there a lot more often.
Crack on 🙂
Just a really quick post about an evening spent in the Durham area on an evening last week. I’m afraid you’ll have the excuse me for the vagueness of the location due to a sensitive sighting.
Sara and I set out without much expectation on yet another stiflingly hot summer evening, just to get some fresh air as much as anything – but it turned out to be a pretty good evening, nature-wise.
In a meadow, a couple of House Wrens sang back and forth. They’re a fairly small bird, but they manage to sing quite a loud distinct song.
The usual suspects were also in attendance: Black-capped Chickadees, Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, and plenty of mosquitoes. This year seems to be a bumper year for American Redstarts, as I have seen many of them in various locations. I’d like to get a good photo of the male (who has bold black and orange colours). On this occasion, only a female would co-operate, peeking out from behind the leaves of a Willow tree. She is mostly grey with a yellow patch on her flank and in her tail.
We began looking out over a marshy body of water when Sara thought she had seen a Muskrat. For anyone unfamiliar with North American fauna, this is a medium-to-large sized rodent that lives in marshes and streams that can chew down trees. It not only sounds like a beaver, but it also looks like a beaver. A muskrat is smaller than a beaver, but the scale is hard to judge from a distance. A muskrat has a smaller and more pointed nose, and it has a long tail rather than the familiar paddle-like tail of a beaver. Muskrats are easily confused for beavers when seen poking out of the water – I have seen people on Instagram posting a photo of a muskrat, only to exclaim that they have seen a beaver. One time, I was walking through a park with my camera, and some guy started yelling for me to take a photo of a beaver in the creek. It was a muskrat. I took a photo to keep him happy and have been saving up the opportunity to be passive-aggressive about it until today, dear reader.
Sara and I tend to assume, when we see a reddish-brown semi-aquatic mammal, that we are almost certainly looking at a muskrat. Beavers are just not very common as far south as The GTA. But suddenly, this creature we were watching from a great distance, lifted its tail. It was paddle-shaped.
We were really delighted to watch this guy for a while. He swam around the perimeter of the marsh, occasionally taking mouthfuls of reeds. He was in no rush and seemed to be just enjoying an evening swim. We lost sight of him behind Lilypads and Cattails a few times until he finally disappeared from sight altogether. It was the first time either of us had definitively seen a beaver in the wild, despite our best attempts for several years.
We didn’t really know what to do with ourselves afterwards – nothing was going to top this! I joked that it was a shame he didn’t just come up to the edge of the marsh so I could get a closer photo. Not likely. A few moments earlier a guy was raging into his phone about his current living arrangements. Someone else walked by generously blasting their music from a loudspeaker so that they could be certain that we could share in their enjoyment. Now that bicycles are the pandemics hottest must-have item, several cyclists blurred past us trilling their bells unnecessarily. We looked for birds again. Actually, another female Redstart appeared for a less shy photo.
We were about to leave, but on a complete whim, Sara walked back a little to the edge of the marsh…. and, unbelievably, the beaver was right there. He could fully see us right next to him, but seemed quite calm about it and hung out with us for a few minutes.
As if to prove a point, a Muskrat suddenly appeared from the bank and stood right next to the beaver. My telephoto lens magnifies enough, and these guys were so close to us, that I couldn’t actually fit them both into a photo at the same time – but here is one of the muskrat.
Beavers and Muskrats live in the same habitats and will co-operate… sometimes to the extent that a Muskrat might live inside an active Beaver’s lodge – something we suspect might be the case with these Bros.
A morning spent around Cootes Paradise Sanctuary, Hamilton and a couple of other nearby and not-so-nearby places.
Just do it!
On Canada Day I paid an early morning visit to Luther Marsh. My wife and I wanted to go somewhere with recently reported good bird activity that would also not be crazy busy on a national holiday. This place is far enough from the city (about 90 minutes drive), and we also set off early – arriving at just before 7:30 am.
We were hoping we might see some activity on the massive marsh (Sara is still looking for a Black-crowned Night Heron!), but it seemed pretty quiet. There is an observation tower near the parking lot, but the trodden-down vegetation that makes for a trail that leads to the tower was flooded – and we don’t typically bring wading boots on our trips!
There is a single trail leading from the parking, encircling the lake. As soon as we began walking, we were hearing all kinds of bird song. Identifying by birdsong is something I am focusing on lately. I would say I can accurately identify about 20 species of bird from hearing them, and I can take a stab at around another 10-or-so. One bird I have heard a lot lately without actually seeing it, as anyone who reads my posts consistently will know, is the Red-Eyed Vireo. Finally, a Vireo decided to show themselves today!
Before we disappeared into further woodland, we saw a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak and a couple of House Wrens. As you’d expect at a marsh, there were many Red-winged Blackbirds as well as Common Grackles. A male American Redstart flew up onto a telephone line.
Luther Marsh was quite active in butterfly and moth activity. There were hundreds of Crescent butterflies of multiple types and a healthy number of White Admirals, Tiger Swallowtails and Red-spotted Admirals.
The Red-spotted Admiral is a new butterfly for me. One more butterfly photo. A Northern Pearly-Eye was relaxing in a conifer and the “eye” pattern caught my attention – this is also a new species for me. I also saw a type of Crocus Geometer Moth that had interestingly shaped wings, but I couldn’t get a clear shot of it to post here, or to help me ID it more precisely.
We saw females from a couple of species of bird that are good examples of strong sexual dimorphism (where the male and female look different). In this case, compared to the males, the females are very drab looking. A female Rose-breasted Grosbeak watched from a branch. She is mostly brown but has a white chest, white eye-line, and white eye-circle, as shown below. The male, who I’ve shown in previous posts, sports a higher contrast white and black colouring with a bright-red almost-heart-shaped marking on his chest.
A nondescript looking female Indigo Bunting also chipped at us. Compared to the dazzlingly bright-blue of the male, she could be easily overlooked.
This visual difference between the male and females of several species is because, generally speaking, female birds get to be selective over who they mate with. In these cases of brightly coloured or attractively patterned males, the message that is being sent to the female is “Look how flipping bright I am, and I still haven’t been eaten by a predator! Damn, I must have great genes!” and “My genes are so awesome, I wasted an awful lot of time growing this ridiculous tail-feather display while still getting on with my life”. Sometimes the show might not be visual. Some birds will mimic the songs of other birds (or just general sounds that they hear, such as car alarms). Beyond the song itself, they are also saying “I have survived long enough and spent years learning this whole array of different bird songs. My genes are great and your offspring can be survivors just like me – if you mate with me. Preferably many, many times.”
Anyway, where was I? Ah yes…. The trail exited a coniferous woodland and entered a swamp where we heard dozens of White-throated Sparrows (their song is often written as “Oh Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada”, which seemed appropriate with today being Canada Day). American Goldfinch, Song Sparrow, and Yellow Warbler were also quite plentiful. We also heard lots of Common Yellow-throat warblers which I’m super keen on, but they were barely showing themselves. I successfully managed to “Pish” one into view, but not for long enough to get a photo. I also saw some Swamp Sparrows. After around 5km, the trail suddenly became impassable because the swamp had overflown. We were just wearing running shoes – still no wading boots. No biggie, we turned back. We felt like the best of the birding was nearer the beginning of the trail, anyway.
On the return leg, we began seeing very fresh signs of a coyote. We had already seen the regurgitated fur from, probably, a rabbit. Now we were seeing extremely fresh scat and the footprints of a canid. A wolf is unlikely this far south, which only really leaves coyote. The footprint below has two claws in front, with two further behind, which makes it the print of a canid. The claws are long which makes a domestic dog unlikely. I will save you the trouble of looking at photos of the scat – this particular coyote had a very upset stomach.
The insects on this trail were an absolute nightmare and if we were to go back, I think we would have to go the full hardcore Ontario-countryside outfits with insect netting, including hats with netting. We had insect repellent and applied it liberally four times each. We didn’t suffer too many bites, but were constantly swarmed and flown into by mosquitoes and deer flies (whose bites, when they did come, were painful).
Once we had gotten back to the start of the trail, we had another look at the marsh as this is where the best view was available. We saw a couple of birds on the water. In the far distance, a pair of Trumpeter Swans. Closer but still too far to get good photographs – a couple of Pied-billed Grebes. These Grebes are “lifers” for me. I’ve included a photo below as proof, but it isn’t very clear due to heat/distance! It’s been a good year. I have now seen 187 species of (non-captive) bird in my lifetime, 39 of them have been this year.
We left Luther Marsh and looked at the idea of visiting somewhere else, but one of the places we passed was absolutely overflowing with people and there were signs up saying that the beach area was already over-capacity. This is one of the things that Sara and I dislike about large parts of The GTA – especially in the summer, and especially on holidays. We ended up running some errands instead, and will look forward to an early morning trip on the weekend.
We anticipate a trip to the Hamilton/Burlington area. There is talk of Osprey activity, but we will also be happy with any birding activity we find! We are filling up a calendar with future trips – both day trips and longer.
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Mid-morning on Sunday 28th June, after a trip to Lynde Shores, Sara and I still had a few hours to spare. We decided to head north to Heber Down Conservation Area near where Highway 7, Highway 407, and Highway 412 intermingle in Whitby, Ontario.
It was getting hot and humid, so we arrived with low expectations for wildlife. The walk itself was quite nice and the area features five trails, plus a loop around a meadow near the parking lot. We completed this ten-minute meadow loop first, though partly out of confusion about where to begin. We saw a handful of butterflies amongst the plants and flowers. Of the plants that were flowering, we mostly saw Tufted Vetch and Clovers. As more plants turn to flower, I’d expect to see more insects. We saw an Eastern Comma butterfly and a Little Wood Satyr, as well as some skimmers (dragonflies), including this fairly common Twelve-spotted Skimmer.
In the meadow were Song Sparrows and, I’m fairly sure, Savannah Sparrows (their song is very similar). We decided to follow the 2.5 km Devil’s Den Trail, which is a central loop through the area with all other trails connecting to it. On such a hot day, we felt that 2.5 km would be enough. The trail begins through scrub and is quite exposed and then the ground becomes sandy and pine trees are more prevalent. Apparently, the locals decorate these trees at Christmas – a woman informed us as she passed, for no particular reason.
During the walk we heard a few birds, but they were mostly hiding. Among the more common birds, I heard a couple of House Wrens and an Indigo Bunting. I heard something else that sounded vaguely like someone winning on a pinball game, but I have no idea what it was! (EDIT: Listening to a few calls later at home, it turns out I had heard a Veery which I have actually never seen before… maybe I should have stuck around!)
About three-quarters of the way through the trail, we reached the oval shaped Devil’s Den Pond and I immediately recognised some bird song that I couldn’t quire remember…. a squeaky wheel sound… repeated four times…why do I know this!? Oh man! It’s one of my favourite birds… certainly my favourite warbler. I’ve only ever seen a handful, usually passing through during spring – but they must have been nesting nearby on this occasion. They are quick-moving, clinging to trees and branches, acting in a manner similar to nuthatches. I was able to get some good shots of this bird that I love so much because it was intrigued by the sound of my camera shutter clicking away. I was so happy to see this fellow.
The trail followed the pond around, apparently with a couple of different ways of continuing. We opted to climb a steep stone-strewn path, which might not have been the best option, and then we followed a ridge back to the start of the trail where we ate lunch before returning home. On one of the quieter roads nearby, I caught sight of a hawk on a log in the distance and took a photo. I’m not 100% sure of the species because it appears to be a juvenile of maybe a year old – but I believe it is a Red-tailed Hawk.
A trip to Luther Marsh to see what birding is on offer, a trip to the Burlington/Hamilton area to maybe spot some raptors and who knows what else?
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The weather prediction for Saturday June 27th was a little uncertain with thunderstorms and showers expected with various degrees of certainty, so Sara and I decided we would visit somewhere not too far away and eventually settled on Colonel Samuel Smith Park in the Etobicoke area in the west of Toronto. We have been here before, usually in the busier spring migration period, but thought we would give it a try during this relatively barren summer period.
As we skewered our way through Toronto on the 401, we headed straight into poor weather. Fortunately, the worst of the rain cleared as we began walking from the car, but the park was still shrouded in fog from the evaporating rain. It gave a slightly eerie, isolated feeling as we looked out over the water.
Sara is keen to see a Black-Crowned Night Heron, so we headed to a viewing platform at a marsh, but we had no luck beyond a few mallards and blackbirds. The park forms the shape of a bay for Lake Ontario, and looking out through the fog we saw lots of Red-Necked Grebes swimming, diving, and making their amusing calls to one another.
Throughout the park we saw many swallows including Bank Swallows and Tree Swallows, the latter with their white bellies and iridescent blue backs, making use of the man-made nesting boxes. We watched a juvenile delicately balancing on the top of a cat-tail while simultaneously being fed by its almost-hovering parent.
We also saw Yellow Warblers, Robins, Song Sparrows and Starlings. We heard both Warbling and Red-Eyed Vireos, but they are so hard to spot with so much tree cover. Double-crested Cormorants by the tens of dozens flew over the lake as you would expect (there is a huge colony of them near the Toronto Islands).
Later we returned to the marsh viewing platform and saw a Belted Kingfisher in a tree searching for fish. Across the bank was another birding couple taking a look and, shortly, we bumped into them and had a short chat as we circled the water. Like me, they were originally from The UK. They were originally from Warwickshire and I am from just up the road in Worcestershire. We spoke of the scarcity of birds this year and shared the location of a few wanted species. We talked about how some Common Loons had been spotted east of Toronto, much further south than usual, and how repeated reports of sightings seemed to suggest that they were heading west along the shore, “instead of North” they laughed. We parted ways and continued along one of the gravel pathways when I heard a sound behind us. Turning, I saw a Striped Skunk sprint across into the safety of long grass.
The sun started to push through the clouds and the mist began to lift which increased some of the song activity from birds, particularly the American Goldfinch and Yellow Warblers. We also noticed a couple of Midland Painted Turtles sun lounging on a log.
The park began to get a little busier and real-life was knocking on the door (groceries to be done!), so we made our way back to the car after our short jaunt.
A trip to Lynde Shores with a workmate and I’ll be heading further afield for somewhere on Canada Day. If anyone has any great suggestions that have good nature and, crucially, won’t be overrun with people, I am all ears! And if anyone who knows me personally that lives within the Southern Ontario region that is reading this and would be down for an outing, don’t be shy.
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On Sunday June 28th, I made plans to hit Lynde Shores Conservation Area with my workmate, Natasha. She had been to Lynde Shores before and I was blabbering on about some of the things I had recently seen there while we were chatting about the place. She had said something like “I wish I could go there with someone who knows about stuff”, so I offered to meet her there. I hoped that she wouldn’t regret it!
My wife and I met Natasha and her daughter Meredith at 7am and, after hesitating over exactly how many layers we would need to wear for an early morning hike that was quickly turning humid, we made our way onto the trails. It had rained during the night and dew had formed on plants and leaves, enticing the birds out of hiding. There were many American Goldfinch and Black-capped Chickadees throughout the walk. Early on, a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher chased a couple of other birds, paused on a branch, then disappeared again. While not a great photo, I got my first ever shot of this little fella. They’re so small and tough to capture. They remind me of the cartoon birds from Angry Birds because of that expressive black “eyebrow”.
We talked about some of the birds we were seeing and the different calls and songs they made and the cartoon robot sounds made by a distant Bobolink. We also saw White-tailed Deer frozen and staring at us to ensure we didn’t make a move on them, despite their safe distance. Meredith enjoyed her first time hand-feeding a couple of Black-capped Chickadees and enjoyed when we came across an Eastern Cottontail eating unmown grasses and plants at the edge of the path. Natasha was unswayed by her pleas to take the bunny home.
We walked to a lookout on the west side of Cranberry Marsh and saw a number of Great Blue Herons, some mallards, the usual supply of Red-winged Blackbirds and we heard Marsh Wrens. I decided to balance on some rocks at the edge of the marsh, despite my advancing years, keen as I was to get eyes on a Virginia Rail or the Marsh Wren. A bird flushed as I advanced, which could have been the wren, but I didn’t get a good luck. Perched in a similar area was a Flycatcher of some kind (several similar species that are near-identical in appearance).
We turned back north and continued towards The Chickadee Trail spotting more American Goldfinch, Song Sparrows and Northern Cardinal with the occasional American Red Squirrel making an appearance. The call of the Northern Cardinal, often partly written to sound like it is saying “Breaker Breaker”, is the song that Natasha was most familiar with. It is two sweeping notes sung in quick succession made possible by the unique nature of the bird’s “voicebox” (syrinx), which is fed by two separate bronchial tubes from either lung as compared to a human where the voicebox is positioned higher up in the trachea and can produce one sound at a time.
Entering the woods, a number of birds, as well as Eastern Chipmunks and Eastern Grey Squirrels, were interested to know what food we might have for them. Meredith got a kick out of hand feeding the chipmunks and later some mallards. I threw a couple of peanuts for Blue Jays to catch mid-air.
After finishing the trail, Natasha and Meredith decided to grab a much-deserved breakfast at Tim Hortons. Sara and I decided to pay a visit to the other side of Cranberry Marsh. It was a busy day for photographers with perhaps a dozen people with long telephoto lenses. Many people were primed and waiting with a Great Blue Heron in their viewfinders. Naturally, I joined them.
Out on the lake, we heard the call of the slightly confused Common Loons (I have noted their presence here in previous posts – normally you wouldn’t find them this far south). This time they were a little closer to land and I was just about able to get a discernible photo of one of them.
Continuing on the marsh were some of the birds I had previously written about. Mute Swans with cygnets, lots of Canada Geese and their young, some juvenile Wood Ducks and a Mallard was out paddling with her ducklings.
I still haven’t been able to get eyes on a Virginia Rail, which has been spotted at the marsh. We overheard other photographers pretty much begging a Swan to flush the Rail so that they could photograph it! However, I was able to finally get a look at (and a pleasing photo of) a Marsh Wren. We heard one sing and a fellow birder and photographer nearby told us he was coming out from time-to-time if we waited here.
This wren is a “lifer” for me. It is bird number 186 in my list of birds that I have seen in my life and it is the 38th new bird that I’ve added to that list this year.
It was still only around 9:30 am, so Sara and I decided to visit somewhere else. I will write about our visit to Heber Down Conservation Area later this week and leave you with a photo of one of the juvenile Wood Ducks!
I will write about a trip to Heber Down soon. An early morning beat-the-crowds trip somewhere on Canada Day (Weds July 1st) is in the works. Additionally a trip to Burlington/Hamilton to check-out some bird of prey action and plenty more trips are in the pipeline.
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I’ve been out and about most evenings for the past few weeks and haven’t always kept up with posting about it – so thought I would do a catch-up on some various sightings and trips.
I’ve been fortunate enough to watch a Red-tailed Hawk catch a squirrel on a couple of separate occasions in the last two weeks. If you are of a squeamish disposition, you might wish to squint past the photos and continue on to the next section!
I’ve complained before about the scarcity of birding action during the summer months in Toronto, and while visiting Rosetta McClain Gardens one evening, this was the case again. However, just as my wife and I were about to leave, we spied a Red-tailed Hawk in a nearby tree and decided to stay and watch. It was obvious that the hawk was keeping a close eye on the various squirrels. The squirrels are relatively tame and perhaps a little unassuming in this park, often receiving handouts from humans.
A Red-tailed Hawk can be identified by the rufous colour of its tail and by the way the speckled feathers on the breast centre into a belt across the middle, the affectionately named “belly belt”.
Shortly after this shot, the hawk flew out of sight. We followed in the direction it flew, but moments later it came straight back again carrying a squirrel in its talons. It was shortly followed by a group of four-or-five girls in their late teens screaming and dumb-struck by witnessing the carnage. “We were just feeding that squirrel!”, they cried.
I’ve made a couple of trips to this marsh just inland from Lake Ontario. At the very least you can get to see a few ducks and swans, including some newborns. There are Virginia Rails here, too. You can hear them calling from all over the place, but they tend to stick amongst the reeds and I haven’t seen any recently.
There has been a Common Gallinule on the marsh for a while, which is attracting some attention with birders and photographers. It was far away, so here is a small blurry photo of the moorhen/coot type bird.
There were Wood Duck ducklings in attendance, several Mute Swans and their cygnets, a plethora of Canada Geese and their goslings, and while we investigated, we saw small mammal prints in the mud that Sara thought were those of a Red Fox. At another point in the marsh, we watched a Great Blue Heron fly through, persued and harassed by territorial Red-winged Blackbirds.
We hung around until dusk, where the sun began setting across the marsh, casting an orange hue over the water.
Rouge National Urban Park
I did a loop along The Orchard Trail, back down The Vista Trail twice in the last little while – once with my wife Sara, and once with my friend Gabriel and enjoyed a few nice sightings of butterflies, moths, and birds. I enjoyed seeing a small number of White Admiral butterflies around the wooded areas.
The stretch of The Vista Trail running between the visitor centre and the look-out tower is usually good for birding and I was able to see Yellow Warblers, Song Sparrows, lots of Tree Swallows, and a couple of other treats. I heard a call that I suspected was a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. After some looking around, a male bird peaked out of a tree.
Over the years of visiting this park, I have occasionally been greeted by a pair of Eastern Bluebirds and I was pleased to see them both times I visited recently.
The male Bluebird has the bolder colours on the left, with the female following him. Other non-bird species seen on these two visits include a lot of butterflies: A Crescent, a type of Comma whose wings were a little too worn to identify, Hobomok Skipper, Silver-Spotted Skipper, Red Admiral, Dreamy Duskywing, and a Little Wood Satyr butterfly. Turtles breed and are researched at Rouge and I saw Midland Painted Turtles and a Red-eared Slider and her young. This is an invasive species, usually the result of a released pet, that can out-compete native species.
Thompson Memorial Park
One last trip to write about was a quick walk through Thompson Memorial Park with Sara one evening, a manicured park with a small wood that connects to “The Great Trail” (a cross-Canada trail) and features a ravine. We saw a couple of Eastern Wood Pewees and a whole lot of Ebony Jewelwings – a type of damselfly commonly seen in summer alongside rivers and creeks. We also saw a Northern Flicker in a distant tree and a Baltimore Oriole. My favourite sighting was a Nessus Sphinx moth, a slightly odd-looking thing that resembles a bee from behind, with two yellow stripes across its abdomen. They’re on the small side and fast-moving, but here is what I got.
I’m looking at a morning out to Colonel Samuel Smith Park in the West end of Toronto, I plan on returning to Lynde Shores and Cranberry Marsh again with a friend from work who said “I wish I could go there with someone that knows what they are talking about” (hopefully she doesn’t regret saying that!) and I’m looking into where to go on Canada Day away from the city if anyone has any suggestions?
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Trip to Carden Alvar
For a couple of weeks, my wife and I had been itching to get to Carden Alvar, located in the Kawartha Lakes region of Ontario. It is a unique environment of thin soil, sparse grasses, and unique plant life which attracts birds that are less commonly seen in The GTA, some of which are threatened species. I was particularly keen to see an Eastern Meadowlark. When I first got into birding about 10-years-ago, I saw one of these birds in a hydrofield and I was struck by how different its song is. I hadn’t seen one since.
As the sun began to peek out above the horizon, we grabbed a quick coffee and hit the highway at just before 6am ready for the hour-and-a-half drive. You are always more likely to see animal activity early in the morning.
Initially we arrived at a small gravel parking area at an area named “Cameron Ranch” where a trail allowed you to walk through the alvar. It was a mind-meltingly hot and humid day, but we spent an hour or so walking the trail. I have seen the odd Brown Thrasher before, but never so many in one place. It seemed like there was another one squeaking and squawking every few hundred feet. Like The Northern Mockingbird and Grey Catbird, the Brown Thrasher is a mimic bird that attempts to copy the songs of other birds. It is larger than its cousins, has a brown speckled chest and bright yellow eyes.
There were a lot of distinctive looking flowers and plants that I had never seen before.
During the first stretch of the trail, we saw three different types of sparrow. The first, the Song Sparrow, I am very familiar with and it is plentiful in Toronto. It has a speckled breast with a circular spot in the centre and a very familiar song (hence the name!). I heard the song of a second species, which turned out to be a Savannah Sparrow. It has a speckled chest like the Song Sparrow, but is missing the spot and there is a yellow line above the eye. This is a new bird for me and is “Lifer” number 183.
The third sparrow species I saw wasn’t a very cooperative photo model, insisting upon perching with the sun directly behind – but my “Lifer” number 184 is the Grasshopper Sparrow which looks similar to the above but also has yellow underparts and a larger beak. Identification was helped by the fact that it buzzed excitedly with a grasshopper in its beak. We also saw, far in the distance standing high in a bare tree, an Upland Sandpiper. Too distant to photograph, but this is “Lifer” number 185 for me.
We pushed through a wet, muddy area to avoid mosquitoes before coming to a turn in the trail. There was a bit of a ruckus among some quarrelling birds – a Blue Jay, as they often do, was causing some upset. A Brown Thrasher yelled from the top of a tree. A Red-Eyed Vireo flitted around and something else was calling and hiding in a shrub. Sara was able to get good eyes on it and she correctly identified it as an Eastern Towhee. I tried “Pishing” it (making bird sounds to draw it out) and managed to snap a photo of its head peeking out.
We continued a little further, but the activity seemed to die down and it was swelteringly hot. Several Great Blue Herons flew overhead and I saw a couple of butterflies – a European Skipper (known as an Essex Skipper in The UK – it is introduced into Ontario) and a pretty Bronze Copper.
Running low on water, we turned back and followed the trail back to the car. Several times on the way back (and it would continue throughout the trip), I kept hearing the song of Eastern Meadowlarks. They nest in the long grasses and so I couldn’t actually see one – until we were about halfway back to the car. There was one in the distance. Because it was distant, the rising heat in the air means it doesn’t really matter how good your camera lens is – the heatwaves makes the image blurry, but hey, I saw one! We briefly saw another later in the day, closer to us, but too brief to photograph. It quickly sang and flew away. Sara aptly commented that when the bird sings, its beak opens so wide it looks like its head will split open.
We were unfamiliar with Carden Alvar and figured that there must be more to the area than this one trail. Much frantic Googling later, we made our way to a gravel/mud road which cuts North/South through the alvar and has several areas to stop and park. We heard many more Eastern Meadowlarks, saw a male/female pair of Eastern Bluebirds, and saw dozens of Tree Swallows that were making use of the man-made nesting boxes. Some contained chicks and the adult Swallows would frequently visit with the insects they had caught.
We decided to drive the length of the road, circle back to the beginning, and then drive it again but stopping off. It took a long time to drive the full-length of the road and a 4-by-4 vehicle would be better equipped. My hatchback struggled over the large potholes and, in places, deep puddles of muddy water. It was worth it, though. After about 20 minutes, I saw a large black shape at the side of the road. “F***! BEAR!”, I swore, before it quickly ran off. Since I was driving, the best shot I got was of its backside. It was the first time I’d seen one.
Quite some time later, after circling the alvar and returning back to the beginning of the road, my car covered in mud and dust, we started over. This time we stopped off a couple of times, but didn’t see much. It was the middle of the day, the sun high, it was humid, most animals would be having a siesta. We decided to walk one of the trails without much hope. There were lots of White Admiral butterflies around and a few moths. Sara was a little ahead of me on the trail and we were contemplating turning back. Suddenly Sara shouted “Moose!”. And there it was. Just a few hundred feet away stood eating grasses in a marsh rivulet. Suddenly the crazy beast charged at us, splashing water all over itself.
It took several quick steps in our direction before pausing and staring at us. It was so close I didn’t even have to zoom. Perhaps Sara had surprised it. Perhaps it had a calf nearby. Fortunately for us, she thought better of attacking us. She turned and ran a short distance away. She looked over at us a couple of times, then ran into the scrub.
We sat in a hide for a while (in the shade, with a lovely breeze), listening to more Eastern Meadowlarks, but I was unable to get any photos while they hid in the grass. We decided to leave for the day. We stopped off at a couple of other places, explored the lakeshore east of Toronto a little (Lake Ontario), but nothing as exciting as a rampant moose to write about!
A few local trips that I need to write up! A possible return trip to Lynde Shores with a workmate. Who knows what else? (not me!)
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Over the weekend, my wife Sara and I visited a few spots east of the city. Starting at Lynde Shores, we continued east stopping off at a couple of spots along The Waterfront Trail before finally visiting McLaughlin Bay Wildlife Reserve in Oshawa.
We had an early start, arriving shortly after 7am. Early bird gets the worm! We were rewarded with a few sightings of deer. They were too far away to get photographs, but by looking carefully, we could see there were some recently born fawns lay in the grass being fed and cared for by their doe mothers. The males, with their antlers, are less plentiful and more elusive – but a couple were spotted in the distance.
A couple of Eastern Cottontails (rabbits) were fooling around, play fighting, perhaps practising their evasive skills. One would stand on the path, while a second would charge directly towards them. Cottontail number one would then spring into the air, selling a dummy to the second.
While walking this trail, we crossed paths with Joseph who visits the area quite often and posts his nature photos to Instagram. We have followed each other for a year or so and I recognised him from his profile photo. We walked and talked about some of our recent sightings and had some camera chat. You can see some of his photos on his Instagram.
One of the birds the three of us spoke about was the Bobolink. A handful had made an appearance here and it is a threatened species in Ontario. It is on the decline and may become endangered if steps are not taken. The bird enjoys long grasses, but meadows are being destroyed throughout the country for buildings and cultivation. While they can and do nest in cultivated fields, their nests are destroyed when the farmers inevitably collect the crop. Destroying the nests is illegal – but the law is ignored and rarely used.
We paid a visit to the other side of Cranberry Marsh as there had been reports of Common Loon spotted here. As we approached, we heard their distinct call. It took a while to spot them. There were three, but pretty far out on Lake Ontario, far from my camera’s reach. Otherwise, Lynde was fairly quiet. We’re pretty much into summer which is not the best time of year for birds in Southern Ontario. We saw a few commons like American Goldfinch, Robins, Blackbirds and so on. An Osprey made a couple of passes overhead, but we continued our way east after a couple of hours here.
Waterfront Trail: Whitby
We had a quick look into Thickson Woods and saw a female American Redstart and an empidonax flycatcher (empidonax is the latin name for a genus of several flycatchers that are notoriously difficult to identify – usually they can only be discerned by their songs/calls). I think it was a Willow Flycatcher, but I’m not at a point where I can reliably identify these birds even with the sound.
Along the Waterfront Trail we saw lots of Yellow Warblers with good looks at a male who was eating grubs and insects off the plants.
It was a little quiet here and a little hot and out in the open. Before we continued further east, we also spotted a handful of Baltimore Orioles, a male/female pair of Brown-headed Cowbirds, a Red-tailed Hawk overhead and I saw this White-banded Toothed Carpet moth, which is pretty common throughout Canada, though usually it flies at night.
McLaughlin Bay Wildlife Reserve
For our last stop, we parked behind the large General Motors building and walked into the reserve. We walked a combination of trails, stopping off at a couple of marshes and the bay itself, as well as reaching Lake Ontario and its pebble-beach.
I’ve never had a great deal of luck nature spotting here. On a previous visit I did see deer prints and also some fairly clear footprints in the snow showing two or more coyotes hunting rabbits – with at least partial success judging by droplets of blood. Today we saw lots of swans in the bay, watched Double-crested Comorants in vast numbers flying low over the lake and we stood and watched a couple of Caspian Terns hunting fish. This is another species of concern in Ontario due to habitat destruction.
Caspian Terns are able to completely submerge as they dive into the water to catch fish, before taking to the air again.
Although we didn’t see a huge amount, this reserve is completely free to visit (GM sponsor and pay for much of the work), while across the bay is Darlington Provincial Park which requires an entry fee…
My work week is a little busier, but I will aim to hit a couple of Toronto parks. Weather permitting, a trip to Carden Alvar Provincial Park is on the cards for the weekend. I’d love to see if we can find some Meadowlarks!
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