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 🙂
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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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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