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.
I appreciate when people subscribe to my blog – it’s encouraging, but it also means I don’t have to rely on Social Media. Sites like Facebook are tricky – they will let me post my articles for you to see…. but they don’t always show up for everyone. If you subscribe you won’t miss my posts which I make about twice a week.
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.
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.
A deer also tried to skirt past us through the edge of the woods, but once spotted, decided to act naturally and preen.
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:
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!
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.
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.
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.