I was interested in visiting a few nature spots in the Huron County area, so we ended up booking accommodation in Goderich to hit a few places that would otherwise be too far for a day-trip.
The Neowise comet has been visible in the Northwest night sky for much of July, and with Goderich positioned on the east coast of Lake Huron, I had the opportunity to try to photograph it away from the light-polluted skies of Toronto. On the evening of Friday 24th July, we drove to the beach. I hadn’t tried astrophotography before, but I did manage to get some images of the comet and it is something I’d like to attempt in the future to perhaps get a nice shot of The Milky Way. In the image below, the comet is towards the bottom-left, the only object with a tail. I have drawn in part of “The Big Dipper” constellation for reference.
Hullet Provincial Wildlife Area
The following morning we got an early start and an early Tim Hortons coffee and drove to Hullet Provincial Wildlife Area, which promised 2200 Hectares of mixed habitat, including some open water – always a little more promising during the heat of summer.
The drive out was lovely. Dew had formed during the night, but the heat was already beginning to rise – the ideal ingredients to create magical wisps of mist that played over the farm fields.
We heard plenty of birds here, but the tree canopy is high and the leaf cover is dense making them hard to spot. One bird that seems to be particularly plentiful this year is the Indigo Bunting. I have probably seen more this year than several previous years all combined. Today, we may have seen half-a-dozen of them (the females are a bit harder to spot).
Something else that is very plentiful this year: Gypsy Moths. They have a bad rap. They are an invasive species brought to North America from Europe and the larvae (caterpillars) are destructive through their vast appetites, consuming the leaves of many species of many trees. This year has been a bumper year of Gypsy Moths which can now be seen in their adult (moth) form. The females (in the photo below) do not fly and remain near where they emerged from their pupa. The males flit around rapidly, not often landing, making them harder to photograph. As adults (moths), they only live for about one week.
The mosquitoes and the sun were both out in force, so we only walked “The Blue Trail” which is listed as the most promising for birding. Before leaving, we drove to a different access point (there are several) that was nearer to a marsh. A short walk from the parking, we saw many Canada Geese, a few Killdear, many Mallards, a pair of Hooded Merganser, and several Lesser Yellowlegs. The Lesser Yellowlegs is a new addition to my life-list. I suspect I may have seen them earlier this year on a visit to Delaware, but this time I was able to confirm with certainty. I have now seen 188 species of bird. Of those, 40 were seen this year. Not a bad year!
We returned to Goderich and took a little look around the town, whose motto is “the prettiest town in Canada”. The Maitland River runs through the town, exiting into Lake Huron. We walked some of the Goderich to Auburn Rail trail which crosses the river via the Menesetung Bridge, offering views over the river valley.
In anticipation of the evening sun setting over the lake, we paid a visit to Goderich Lighthouse. I planned to photograph the sun setting over Lake Huron while getting the lighthouse in the foreground. Sara humoured me for a couple of hours while I set up my angles and aligned tripods and God knows what else! I think the wait was worth it to get the shot below.
Bannockburn Conservation Area
We also visited Bannockburn and walked a nice wooded trail with lots of boardwalk. The trail is a loop and there are around a dozen educational signs describing the landscape. We heard lots of Common Yellowthroats, another bird I am seeing a lot of this year. There were also a few insects around. This Striped Hairstreak is a new butterfly for me. We watched it perched on the boardwalk rubbing its wings, which released pheromones to attrack a mate.
The below Appalachian Brown is also a new sighting for me.
Finally, the funky looking moth below is called a Confused Haploa Moth.
Point Farms Provincial Park
The following day we visited this provincial park (and picked up an annual pass, as we have several more provincial parks planned). We did a quick trail that is quite good for birding and saw a number of wading birds near a lagoon (including some more Lesser Yellowlegs). I have heard so many Common Yellowthroats this year that I have become quite accustomed to their song. I heard one that was probably nesting in a shrub near a parking area and tried to “pish” the bird into view. He peeked out looking slightly confused and I took the opportunity to snap my best photo of this species so far.
I also heard the song of an Eastern Towhee and shortly spotted it high in a bare tree.
We spent a couple of hours at the beach on the shore of Lake Huron, taking some time to have a relaxing swim in a lake that’s a little more appealing than Lake Ontario (which had six times higher than acceptable levels of e-coli on this weekend). I guess I spent a little too long drying off in the sun afterwards, as my chest is a nice shade of lobster-red. I can be a little blasé about the sun. I work as a mailman and my skin is generally much darker during the summer… but I’m constantly seeking out the shade and do occasionally apply sunscreen. On this occasion, I did neither.
West Perth Wetlands
Final stop, partly on the way home. West Perth Wetlands are known on EBird (a bird spotting website) under the slightly less appealing name of Mitchell Sewage Lagoons. In any case, it consists of three bodies of water that used to be used for sewage but have since been repurposed as a wetland habitat.
We saw more Lesser Yellowlegs, Killdeer, Canada Geese, Mallards and Wood Ducks. There were some flowers attractive to pollinators, and so we saw a handful of Monarch butterflies and a Question Mark butterfly. Question Mark and Comma butterflies look similar and are named for a small mark on their underside (not shown) that looks like the respective punctuation marks for which they are named. They can also be discerned from the top by slight differences in the black spots.
We ran into another couple who were taking part in a local Monarch Butterfly count. Due to Covid-19, nature research has been impacted with field researchers being less able to get to sites. We talked about how the Monarch population is much smaller this year, after a slightly more promising year in 2019.
The Question Mark butterfly pictured above is perched on a thistle, and there were many more of these plants growing around the wetland. They also attract American Goldfinches who will eat the seeds.
An unusual sighting was (what appears to be) a mallard in the middle of the wetland a little far away to get a good look at. Unlike the mallards it paddled alongside, it is predominantly white in colour. There is some dark pigment in the bill and it has a dark eye-line like a mallard. The reddish colour on the chest is probably just a result of diet (swans also get a brown-reddish colour in their front as a result of an iron-rich diet). Otherwise, there is just some colour in a few feathers in the tail and wing. I’m not sure what the situation is with this duck. If anyone reading has any thoughts, feel free to leave a comment. My thoughts are that it is possibly leucistic, which is a condition similar to albinism. Alternatively, it may contain some genes from a domestically bred duck such as a Welsh Harlequin, which is bred to be mostly white.
That concludes the weekend trip. I’m taking a brief break from blogging for the rest of this week, since this post is a little longer and took more work. We have a trip booked to Rondeau, which has been good to us with birds in the past. I will write about that trip next week.
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Sara and I recently purchased a parking pass for Lynde Shores (and other Central Lakes Conservation Authority areas). It means I will likely make a number of posts about trips there, which in turn means that I have already run out of ideas for pithy blog titles pertaining to visits here!
We had a sad experience the last time we came here, which I hadn’t written about until now. We’ve been keenly looking out for newly born White-tailed Deer fawns, and have seen at least three individuals over the previous weeks. One evening, we saw a shaky individual just off the trail, still with spotted fur. We were concerned about the shaking, but an adult was a few hundred feet away, and we thought perhaps the youngster was simply scared of us – so we left it alone. However, returning the next day, the fawn was collapsed and shaking. We made some calls to animal rescue organisations, though many won’t deal with deer. An hour-or-so later, it was suggested we try to bring the deer to a sanctuary where they could try to treat it. I picked the poor thing up and began carrying it towards my car, while Sara attempted to calm it by placing a towel over it. Unfortunately, the poor thing died as we reached my car. I then placed it carefully in the undergrowth near where we found it and I covered it under the brush. The circle of life, I guess.
Things have changed a little in the last few weeks of visiting Lynde Shores. The water level in the marsh appears to have receded, which is giving the water-life less hiding space. In turn, the number of Great-blue Herons has exploded. Sara and I counted a whopping 31 herons and a Great Egret one evening. This is leading to conflict with the Caspian Terns who will occasionally dive-bomb the significantly larger herons, who will then exclaim with an angry croaking-bark sound. Many birds are also going through a moult where they will gradually lose and replace their feathers. In some species, this can make them harder to identify. It can also leave some birds looking a little scruffy, like the Black-capped Chickadee below.
In the last few weeks, a lot of Virginia Ctenucha moths have been flying around the meadows with the occasional Monarch feeding from the milkweed plants. Monarch numbers should begin to increase around August/September.
A few times we have seen little rodents run across the path, only to disappear well before I can train my camera on them. On this occasion, someone had earlier dropped some bird seed. It caught the attention of a Meadow Vole so that I was able to photograph it. Good prey for various owl species – though I haven’t managed to see any owls here since 2018.
As usual, there were Song Sparrows everywhere. So many that it pretty much became an effort to bother raising binoculars or cameras to confirm the sighting. I did take a closer look (and filmed some video) of a sparrow preening on a branch. I’m glad I did because this individual was actually a Savannah Sparrow. The two species look similar. The yellow “eyebrow” is the most obvious field marking in the Savannah Sparrow that is missing in the Song Sparrow.
There are a great many Common European Ambersnails to be found in the grassland meadow and even on the footpaths in the early mornings when there is dew. As the name suggests, these snails are introduced to Canada. I’m not sure if they are harmful to the vegetation, but I have read that they commonly carry parasites which can be passed onto the birds that eat them. These parasites lay eggs in the birds gut. The eggs are passed with faeces and grow into snails and the cycle continues. What a life!
On our way out of Lynde Shores, Sara had a fun interaction with a Downy Woodpecker that was curious to see what treats we had. She flew onto Sara’s hand a couple of times and took peanuts.
Sara has one more weekend of work commitments, so we will be staying relatively local. Later, over the August 1st long weekend, we are looking at a visit to Rondeau.
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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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