Nature Trips

  • Whitby
    Birds,  Durham,  Nature Trips

    Quick Trip to Whitby

    Last Sunday, Sara and I decided to spend our spare afternoon stopping at a couple of places along the lakeshore in Whitby. The isolation due to Covid-19 has stolen most of the migratory bird season this year, but we took a look at what was around. Answer: A lot of Yellow Warblers. Yellow Warblers are easily seen, being plentiful from spring onwards, staying and breeding in Southern Ontario.

    We did also see a couple of Baltimore Orioles, and in a meadow, there were plenty of Red-winged Blackbirds for anyone that hasn’t already seen enough of them. There were also Song Sparrows, Robins and Chickadees.

    Baltimore Oriole

    Not much was happening in the nearby marshland, either. A man walked by dressed like a seasoned birder in his khaki shorts, lightweight utility vest and sun hat. We talked for a while and he spoke of good birding at Carden Alvar Provincial Park. Sara took note and we are hoping to visit. While we talked, a Raccoon took a snooze on the branch of a nearby tree.

    Sleeping Raccoon

    A deer also tried to skirt past us through the edge of the woods, but once spotted, decided to act naturally and preen.

    White-tailed Deer

    As we were about to leave, our new birding friend man let us know that he had seen a male American Redstart – not quite as plentiful as the Yellow Warbler, but the Redstart does also breed in The GTA. I didn’t get a great shot, he was high in the trees, and the camera focused on the leaves, but here he is:

    American Redstart

    We drove back west a little and stopped off near Cranberry Marsh where we saw Mute Swans with cygnets, lots of Double-crested Cormorants flying past, Wild Turkeys and a few more White-tailed Deer. Near the edge of the marsh I spotted a Common Gallinule. It is a common type of rail – mostly dark, but with a red face shield. Despite being fairly common, I hadn’t see one before, so I added it to my bird life-list! I am at 181 birds now and, despite Covid, this is my 2nd best year so far with 33 new birds. I started tracking in 2008. I’m doing well this year partly because I travelled to Delaware which is far enough south to have a few different species.

    The Common Gallinule was quite far away, but here is a small blurry photo of it!

    Common Gallinule

    Sara sat by the lake for a while – it was a little busy and people weren’t social distancing. I went on ahead to see if there were any shorebirds. I was able to get close to a pair of Killdeer for a pleasing photo.

    Killdeer

    Since it was a marsh, it is hardly surprising that there were plenty of Red-winged Blackbirds. I stopped to watch a female. The male is black all-over apart from the yellow and red “flashes” on his wings. The female is more of a light brown colour, with dark black streaks covering most of her body. This bird was hopping and trying to hover amongst the lilypads without falling in. When I looked through my telephoto lens, I saw that she was catching insects that were basking in the sun. Here you can see she has a small dragonfly in her beak.

    Red-winged Blackbird (F)

    And that’s it! In the following days I spent some time exploring some ravine parks over a few days with a couple of different friends, which I’ll write about soon.

  • algonquin park header
    Birds,  butterflies,  Hiking,  Nature Trips,  Nipissing

    Algonquin Park with Friends

    I drove up to Algonquin Provincial Park with the wife on Saturday. I had made plans to meet Malcolm. He and I had followed each other on Instagram for a while and had occasionally chatted. Malcolm spends much of the year living and working at the park and is really passionate about the place (check out his cleverly named Instagram profile page, Malgonquin Photography). If I was ever up his way, I should let him know. So I did!

    We talked about birds we might see, or like to see. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers had been plentiful, there had recently been a nesting Northern Flicker, and a Spruce Grouse has been incubating eggs on her nest for the last three weeks. It was also “National Black Bear Day”, so we hoped perhaps we might come across one. Plus, of course, a moose would be nice. I suppose you can tell I already saw one of those from the picture at the top of the page.

    Sara, Myself, Malcolm, and Malcolm’s other half Morwen met at The East Gate and visited some lesser-known locations. Highway 60 runs through the park and by pulling off at various trailheads you only get to take in a tiny fraction of the park. Algonquin can be more fully appreciated by kayak, but that would have to wait for another day. Today’s tactic was to pull over from place-to-place, just to see what the park would throw at us.

    Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

    Our first stop was to the location where a Northern Flicker had been seen nesting, but this was not fruitful. Nevermind, another pull-over a little further into the park and we practised our tactic of stopping just to see what we could see. After a few moments, I caught a flash of movement and a bird flew up onto a telephone pole. A Yellow-belied Sapsucker was disappointed that the pole was not offering much in the way of tree sap. This is a “lifer” for me, though they are ten-a-penny in Algonquin.

    We moved on towards Opeongo Lake and we were pleased to see a pair of Common Loons close by. I wasn’t able to capture a great shot, but we also saw a Hare (a Snowshoe Hare, I think?) hopping and running around a grassy area. There were also dozens of Canadian Tiger Swallowtail butterflies mud-dabbling. We probably saw hundreds of these through the park, particularly in the east.

    Common Loon
    Snowshoe Hare?
    Canadian Tiger Swallowtail

    We moved further West into the park and made our way through a wooded area where I photographed a number of plant species I hadn’t seen (or at least noticed) before, such as Starflower, Bunchberry, Swamp Laurel, and Fringed Polygala (Malcolm was adept at identifying these plants). Well camouflaged amongst the flora was a female Spruce Grouse who was incubating eggs. We wondered where the male was and pondered how involved he remained during the incubation and rearing of chicks, for Malcolm hadn’t seen him for some time. The Spruce Grouse was another “lifer” for me. I need to check and update my list, but I am at around 180 bird species.

    Spruce Grouse.

    We hiked the short Spruce Bog Boardwalk trail. Morwen has adopted the trail and has the thankless task of cleaning it of trash. Who drops their garbage on a hiking trail in a provincial park? Accidents happen, but to watch Morwen retrieve an empty Timbits box that had been tossed aside was just sad. I saw a Green Comma butterfly on the trail and we took photographs of a fearless Common Raven that allowed us to remain quite close. I also saw another new butterfly, a Silver Bordered Fritillary.

    Common Raven
    Silver Bordered Fritillary

    Further into the park, we stopped once again in a lay-by and walked a short distance from the road. I noticed that there were quite fresh moose prints in the mud. Sure enough, a short drive after returning to our vehicles, many people had stopped to watch and photograph a pair of moose – a female and her heavily molting yearling.

    Moose

    The day was flying by, but we made a couple more stops. This time we walked part of the Mizzy Lake trail and saw lots of Midland Painted Turtles, which are researched in this area. In a wooded stretch of trail, Malcolm spotted some kind of finch which I managed to photograph and identify as a Purple Finch. Not an uncommon bird, but one that had managed to allude me until now. This was a “lifer” for both Malcolm and I. I also saw another Green Comma butterfly and a Western Pine Elfin. These are very uncommon in Ontario (as the name suggests, they’re usually found in Western Canada). The Eastern Pine Elfin is usually found in Ontario, but Algonquin Park is home to a population of the Western species according to The ROM Butterfly Field-guide and the help of a specialist that helped me to identify it. Also seen was a Red-breasted Nuthatch, many Chalk-fronted Corporal skimmer dragonflies darting among us hunting the black fly that were bothering us, a friendly Hudsonian Whiteface dragonfly that landed on Sara’s head, a Northern Petrophora Moth, a couple of Yellow-rumped Warblers, an unknown flycatcher, and a solitary Common Loon.

    Purple Finch
    Western Pine Elfin
    Green Comma

    A couple of other stops. Malcolm showed us a tree that had numerous claw marks where a Black Bear had climbed up to make a bear nest. He also wanted to check out a hawk’s nest. Although there was no hawk present, I flushed an extremely well camouflaged American Woodcock by almost stepping on the poor thing. It waddled away alongside the slowly trickling water running from a culvert, cleverly eluding our increasingly desperate attempts to photograph it. The Woodcock was a “lifer” for Malcolm, which he was pleased about. I had come across one before in an unusual location – the drive-through of a McDonalds where it had probably collided with a wall while migrating. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in good shape. Sara and I turned it in to Toronto Wildlife Rescue and hoped for the best. It was great to see one in much better circumstances.

    American Woodcock

    Somehow eight hours had passed by. Algonquin had been kind to us today – apart from the black flies. One managed to get up my sleeve and make a mess of my wrist. But the park had shown us a few creatures and allowed me to do something I enjoy… snap photos of something I know nothing about and fall down a rabbit hole of research the next day!

    We bid farewell to Malcolm and Morwen and prepared for the drive back to Toronto. Until we return!

  • morningside park and birkdale ravine
    Birds,  Nature Trips,  Toronto

    Morningside Park and Birkdale Ravine

    I’ve been trying to make use of the extra hours of daylight as we move towards summer and have spent a couple of evenings at local parks. First up, on Monday, I had intended to hang around the feeder area at Morningside Park, but it appears to have been taken down. I’m not sure if this is Covid-19 related (people congregating or perhaps people breaking into the park when it was closed during the peak). I walked westwards through the park following the path of Highland Creek. The manicured areas of the park were busy, so I hastened onwards.

    Shortly before the metal bridge that crosses the creek, I saw a White-tailed Deer eating reeds that grew at the water’s edge.

    White-tailed Deer

    Several years ago I had seen a muskrat around here. A young guy was fervently gesticulating towards it, shouting “Beaver! beaver!”. I haven’t seen it since and didn’t see it today. I continued along the footpath and heard a bird call I wasn’t familiar with quite high in the tree line and began searching for movement, eventually spotting a Scarlet Tanager that had been performing its “chick burr” sound. I haven’t spotted too many of these, despite the vibrant colour, and this probably represents the best photograph I have captured of this bird.

    Scarlet Tanager

    I walked some distance further before turning back as the light faded. Without wanting to give away specific locations, at one point I saw a Red Fox timidly withdraw into cover. It happened a little quickly so unfortunately I only captured a couple of blurry shots.

    Red Fox

    I saw a few more deer, including one settling in for the night and lying in the grass. Other birds were Yellow Warblers, Cedar Waxwings, the usual suspects (Robin, Red-winged Blackbirds, Song Sparrows), a type of Swallow too far away to identify down to species and a Belted Kingfisher that I often see (or hear!) at this park. On this occasion, I spotted him on a branch with a large fish in its bill.

    Belted Kingfisher

    As I was leaving the park, some kind of insect (a beetle) jumped onto my car windshield. I took a few photos with the hope of identifying it later. With some help, I found out that it was a type of Flower-longhorn Beetle that doesn’t have a common name, but the taxonomic name is Gaurotes cyanipennis.

    Gaurotes cyanipennis

    Birkdale Ravine

    There is a short footpath just over 1km in length that runs from Ellesmere Road west of Brimley Rd along the west branch of Highland Creek before joining Thompson Memorial Park. I decided I’d visit on Tuesday and left a little later, taking the wife after she’d finished work. I wasn’t expecting much, it isn’t one of Toronto’s most impressive ravines.

    I mostly saw common birds on this quick outing, plus an Eastern Cottontail (rabbit) and an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail that would not co-operate by landing for a photograph. There was some type of Flycatcher of Pewee high, high up in the top of a tree… much too distant to get any kind of better ID. As I say, I wasn’t expecting too much, but near the end of the trail high up in a Willow tree I saw a slightly larger bird hopping about. It was tough to get a good look at it, but I was gradually discounting suspects… Mockingbird? Nope… There’s no way it is a Northern Shrike at this time of year…. is it, could it be…? I suspected it might be one of the two species of cuckoo. I checked a couple of electronic bird guides on my phone and confirmed it was a Black-billed Cuckoo. This is a new bird for me on the old life-list!

    Black-billed Cuckoo

    I need to go through my list, but I am at approximately 170 birds on my life-list. I’d like to join the “200 club” but to do so, you kinda have to get to know your shorebirds!

    On the way back we played around trying to identify a few trees (my wife had my little National Geographic tree pocket guide with her). I’m getting gradually better at this, but am still pretty much a beginner. Hence how we stood around a pine tree for a good 10 minutes before deciding it was simply a White Pine. There was a small caterpillar on the tree. A little too underdeveloped to be able to ID it except to say that it was likely some kind of Tiger Moth. All the ravines around here are full to bursting with Forget-me-Nots and Dame’s Rocket at the moment.

    Dame’s Rocket

  • east point park and edwards gardens
    Birds,  butterflies,  Nature Trips,  Toronto

    East Point Park & Edwards Gardens

    Over the course of the weekend, I took a couple of nearby trips to Toronto parks here in the east-end. I am looking forward to getting up to Algonquin to hang-out with an Instagram-friend of mine named Malcolm who works at the park. It wasn’t to be this weekend, as the weather north of Toronto was poor. Next weekend is pencilled in and I’m excited to see what the park might throw at me, especially in the hands of an expert. No pressure on Malcolm!

    On Saturday, Sara and I went to Edwards Gardens. It is still early for butterflies but it is always interesting to check out the flora that they have growing there. It doesn’t count towards my life-list since they are cultivated and not wild plants, but it is still enjoyable to see. There is a tree that grows near the edge of the parking lot called a Cucumber Tree. The first time I saw it, I noticed the strange pink fruit growing on it and it began my beginner interest in plants – as if birds and butterflies weren’t enough to be getting on with. We continued from Edwards Gardens along Wilket Creek Park, but it was quite busy and the cyclists in particular were not respectful of social distancing.

    Spanish Bluebells

    Some of the wildflowers growing near Wilket Creek were Carpet Bugle and Spanish Bluebells. They are similar to English Bluebells that are an icon of the shade dappled woodlands of my home country, but the Spanish variety is a little hardier and I imagine it does better in the Southern Ontario climate. I also saw bright stalks of Crimson Clover.

    In a marsh, we saw the obligatory Red-winged Blackbirds, including a couple of nests amongst the Cattails. In the shallow water were several frogs. Mostly Northern Leopards, but a couple of pretty large Green Frogs. We turned back not much further along the trail as rain began to threaten.

    Great Crested Flycatcher

    A little out of nowhere, just as we were reentering Edwards Gardens, I saw a bird I didn’t immediately recognise in the top of a tree. It turned out to be a new “lifer” for me, a Great Crested Flycatcher. As the name suggests, it has a slight mohawk. It is not too difficult to identify, compared to some other flycatchers: Yellow-bellied, Least, Alder, Willow, and Acadian are notoriously difficult and usually their song has to be heard to differentiate the species.

    Before leaving Edwards Gardens, a Northern Cardinal posted nicely amongst some blossom.

    Northern Cardinal
    East Point Park

    On Sunday we drove to East Point Park. Like most places I have visited since the initial Covid-19 isolation ended, it was much busier than usual. Again, most people were drawn to the lake front or The Martin Goodman Trail rather than the trails through the park itself. I didn’t see any particularly exotic birds. Lots of Barn Swallows were catching the midges that were out in-force. Plenty of American Goldfinches and Yellow Warblers could be heard.

    I was hoping to see some butterflies here, as there are some meadow areas and lots of woodland edges. Later in the year there are butterfly friendly plants including milkweed. I did get a couple of new butterflies for my “life list”, although it is not a very big list right now. I saw small blue butterflies which I assumed were Lucia Azures that I had already seen last week at Presqu’ile, but on closer inspection, they were Silvery Blues. The dorsal (top) of the Silvery Blue wings are much nicer, but I was only able to get the ventral (bottom) pattern.

    I also saw a moth that I suspect is a Clover Looper Moth and, most pleasing of all, was a great Black Swallowtail (pictured at the end). I may see if I can hit some more Toronto parks depending on my work week and then I should be off to Algonquin on the weekend. Stay tuned!

    Black Swallowtail
  • trip to presqu'ile provincial park
    Birds,  Nature Trips,  Northumberland

    Trip to Presqu’ile Provincial Park

    The wife and I took a trip to Prequ’ile Provincial Park last weekend. Parks had been open for a week or so following their Covid-19 related closures and I was thirsty to try to catch some of the late-May migrating warbler activity. I’d never been to this park before, but knew it was a good spot for migrating warblers, shorebirds, and butterflies.

    We arrived around 9am and were thankful that it was fairly quiet – we had been to Darlington Provincial Park the week before, a couple of days after Provincial Parks had opened, and it was rammed. On that occasion, practically everyone had descended upon the beach which left the trails lightly travelled.

    yellow warbler
    Yellow Warbler

    Anyway, back to Presqu’ile. We made our way to the eastern tip. Being beside the lake makes this point slightly cooler which means less leaf cover for birds to hide amongst. Yellow Warblers were plentiful and in full voice.

    There were a handful of Ontario’s only hummingbird, the Ruby-throated hummingbird. Baltimore Orioles sang from the tops of trees, and there were several Song sparrows. There were also several Eastern Kingbirds arguing amongst the shrubs.

    common yellowthroat
    Common Yellowthroat

    While I did not see any new birds in this area, I did get my first photo of a Common yellowthroat. I’d seen one a few years back in Algonquin Park but didn’t have my camera that day. So although I was only able to spot a couple of different warblers after several loops around this area… I was still quite pleased to get a shot of the Yellowthroat, even if it isn’t that great!

    Cedar Waxwing

    One interesting piece of behaviour that we observed was the courting behaviour amongst an ear-full of Waxwings (for an ear-full is the collective noun!). They were perched in a Cranberry Viburnum where a bird would pluck one of the red berries and pass it to their potential mate. The potential mate would pass it back, and on it would go, back-and-forth, until one would eventually be persuaded to swallow it.

    After a snack, we explored a couple of other areas of the park. We next stopped off at Calf Pasture Cove. Here we saw some waterfowl, but much of it was beyond the reach of my camera and binoculars. Within sight were some mute swans including several cygnets. There were a few Northern leopard frogs in the shallow water and several Double-crested cormorants flew west with nesting material in their bills.

    Orchard Oriole

    After a while a man shouted for my attention to let me know he’d seen a Scarlet tanager and an Orchard oriole. After some sleuthing, I think this man may have been Rodney from The Friends of Presqu’ile. Anyway, although it isn’t rare, I happen to have not seen an Orchard Oriole before (and I only have poor photos of the Tanager). The gentleman told me where to look and so I hung around a flowering Crab apple tree for a while until I caught a glimpse of the Orchard oriole, though not the Tanager. New bird, hurrah!

    Caddisfly larval cases

    We spent a little under an hour walking the Jobe’s Woods Trail, but the trees were tall and the leaf coverage was dense enough that spotting birds was difficult. Dryobates-type woodpeckers (ie Downy or Hairy) were heard along with Black-capped Chickadees and a distant Northern Flicker. Portions of this trail are on a boardwalk over a swamp and in the water I noticed weird-looking creatures moving around. Initially, I thought that these were some kind of bizarre-looking aquatic caterpillars. After failing to hook one out with a stick, I reluctantly scooped one out by hand. It was a strange stubby tube made of compressed wood and plant material. I found this strange because it had clearly been moving in the still water. I figured perhaps it was the chewed up remains of some tree debris that an insect was now living inside. Later research showed that I was not too far off the mark. Caddisfly larvae create tubes from chewed-up plant matter within which they receive protection. On this trail we also saw a couple of fungii. Dryad’s Saddle and Northern Red Belt.

    Whimbrel

    We would have liked to have walked The Marsh Trail, but this was closed for repairs. Therefore, our last stop was to Owen’s Point. This looks out to a couple of important islands for migrating shorebirds. There is no access to these islands except during winter when the birds are not present, but there is a lookout. Now, shorebirds are not my area of expertise. Fortunately, there was a gentleman there ahead of us who was willing to tell me about the birds that were present. Most of note were a couple of species that are unfortunately classed as “vulnerable” in Ontario. There were many Black-bellied Plover and perhaps three-or-four Whimbrels. They were far in the distance, so excuse the poor photo. Both of these are new “lifers” for me.

    Lucia Azure

    I’m pretty new to butterflies and had hoped to possibly see something new on this trip, though it is fairly early in the year. My wife had to take a call at one point. While she did so, a tiny butterfly flitted around. There are several small blue species of butterfly in Ontario that I’d seen but never manager to photograph or ID before. This time I did and have added a Lucia Azure to my list. Before finally leaving, we ate lunch at a picnic table. A Winter Wren played around on a nearby wooden building.

    Winter Wren