Thursday, 15 April 2021

More Local Observations

      As the lockdown continues, with its ever-confusing array of regulations, some of which seem totally contradictory, all of our walks and observations are very local. It perhaps reinforces the point that there is much of interest without going far afield. It seems also to make crystal clear that we have elected a cadre of idiots, destructive idiots at that, to run the province. I read an interesting op ed recently that discussed the fact that to practice medicine you have to be well trained, to be an engineer you have to be qualified and certified, to earn your living as an architect you must understand how to construct a building that will stand, but to be a politician you need no prior training at all. You only require the ability to convince the electorate that you are less of an odious choice than your opponent, and then devote all your attention to staying in office, whatever it takes. Our premier dropped out of a community college after only two months and has no higher qualifications of ANY kind, yet we reward him with our vote, feeling he is ready to run the affairs of a province larger in area than many countries, and with natural riches to be exploited, environments to be  destroyed, greenbelts to chop up, regulations to be diluted or abolished. Ah, what a wise electorate we are! And this is who we expect to successfully manage a pandemic. Hah!


09 April - Our backyard, Waterloo, ON

     Towards the end of winter we were visited by a few Pine Siskins (Spinus pinus), but recently as many as twenty have been feeding in the backyard. 

     I assume that these are birds from farther south stopping off on their way north to breed in the boreal forest.

09 April 2012 - The Mill Race Trail, St. Jacobs, ON

     This trail, mere minutes away from our home, has long been a favourite.
     We have walked it so often that perhaps this Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) recognizes us!

     This beautiful yellow flower is found in the genus Sternbergia and I believe that it is Sternbergia vernalis. It is quite similar to croci. 

     I don't recall having seen this plant on the Mill Race Trail before, so I suspect that it has origins in a domestic variety. The range of invasive, introduced and native species seems to blur more each year, and it is clear that we will never be able to return to the pristine landscape viewed by the first European settlers in the area.
     Turtles turn their thoughts to procreation at this time of year, and we saw three Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina), probably females, ready to exit the water and find a suitable substrate in which to lay their eggs.

     Snapping Turtles are quite ill-tempered and if you wish to help one across a busy road, be very careful how you handle it.

     In the water, however, where they are at home, they pose little threat to bathers, preferring to feed on the decomposing flesh of organisms that have died and sunk to the bottom.

     People who buy summer cottages on a northern lake, without knowing anything about the ecosystem, sometimes mount frenzied hunts to rid the water of Snapping Turtles, in the process overturning the ecological balance and degrading the quality of the lake which they have selected for their weekend pleasure. It is a foolish pursuit founded in ignorance.
     If one bird can be counted on to cheerily accompany us on our walk it is Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus).

     When I took out my pencil to make a few notes a chickadee immediately landed on it, and so started a game of "Perch on the Pencil" enjoyed by several individuals. And by the human holding the pencil I might add!

     Being ever cognizant of my passion for birds' feet, Miriam took a nice picture of this bird's anisodactyl configuration.

      So many tree species have been attacked by a fungus or insect invader, that I sometimes wonder  what our forests will look like fifty years from now as more and more species succumb.
     Ash (Fraxinus spp) have been decimated by the Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis) and one of the attempts to control it is preemptive removal of its host trees.

     It is heartbreaking to witness so many apparently healthy trees being sacrificed, but it is a necessary action in the ongoing struggle to protect our forests.
     We spotted a female Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) busily working up and down a trunk.

     It appeared to locate and capture a choice item of food.

     Rather than gobble it down immediately, the woodpecker proceeded upwards, perhaps wishing to dine with a view!

     We stopped in the village of St. Jacobs to enjoy a coffee, where it is only available to take away of course, and the process to get it seemed more difficult than one might have possibly imagined before COVID influenced every action we take.
     Many creative ways have been devised to urge people to maintain their distance from each other, and in a Mennonite area, where horses and buggies are commonplace, I thought this was charming and effective.

09 April 2021 - Benjamin Park Trail, Waterloo, ON

     Having walked the Mill Race Trail in the morning, we opted for the Benjamin Park Trail behind our house for our afternoon walk.
     An American Robin (Turdus migratorius) was drying off after a vigorous dip in the creek.

     And a handsome male Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) was letting all the females in the vicinity know that he was their best choice.

     And you will not be surprised that we could not resist a quick look at "our" Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio).

10 April 2021, SpruceHaven, St. Agatha, ON

     Sprucehaven is abuzz with activity, and breeding, and preparations for breeding are taking place everywhere.
     Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) have returned from the south and are checking out nest boxes.

     When a pair are seen together at a nest box there is a very good chance they intend to occupy it.

     Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) have also concluded domestic arrangement and one nest box has a full clutch of five eggs.

     Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) are no less determined to perpetuate the species.

     The highwater mark of this visit was our first Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) of the spring, a robust singing male.

     Even at a distance the pinkish bill of this species can be seen.

     In some individuals the colour is very pronounced and in older field guides has been described as "bubblegum pink".

     I find this species exceptionally appealing and there is always a level of contentment at seeing the first bird of the spring.

     Its song is very pleasant and has been likened to a bouncing ball.


     We were actually back in the car ready to leave when we spotted this bird, so it was a very satisfying way to end our visit.
     Until the next time, happy enjoyment of nature!

Monday, 12 April 2021

A Couple of Weeks' Highlights

     If there is one constant in the lives of most of us right now, it is that COVID influences most of what we do. 
     We have not been able to walk and explore to the extent that we normally would, so I am featuring below some highlights encountered here and there.

27 March 2021

     A drive through the countryside revealed signs of spring at every turn, including male Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus), hormonally supercharged, waiting for females to return to southern Ontario.

     Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator) is not an uncommon bird here, but it is almost exclusively found on large bodies of water such as Lake Ontario, and is unexpected inland.

     It gave us a great deal of satisfaction, therefore, to happen upon two pairs swimming together on the Conestogo River in Hawkesville.

     The male's crest resembles what I suspect many people's tresses will look like as hairdressers are not permitted to open for at least another month!
     Two females looked a little better turned out, albeit clad in a more subdued fashion.

     Common Merganser (Mergus merganser) unlike its red-breasted cousin, is to be expected on local waterways at this time of the year. The first bird we spotted was a female.

     It's a safe bet that the sighting would not involve a lone bird; others were doubtless underwater chasing fish. In mere moments a couple of males surfaced to join the female.

     And more appeared, swimming away like a flotilla of miniature craft.

     A Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata), watching from the sidelines, seemed far less interested in this little squadron of ducks than we were.

     American Kestrel (Falco sparverius), formerly common, has become quite rare in recent years, and Miriam and I have been happy to see a pair regularly not far from our home.
     The male and female have been seen together throughout the year, but of late have started to show signs of pair-bonding prior to mating and initiating nesting.
     They are very wary birds and getting a picture is difficult, a good picture almost impossible. I am happy to present the male in any event!

     If I may be permitted a moment of personal reflection, the first time I ever took Miriam for a drive through the country in search of birds of prey, the first three birds we saw were male kestrels, each with a vole. It speaks to the abundance of both the birds and the biomass of prey that year. I doubt whether we will ever repeat such good fortune, but it remains a very fond memory for us, and was in good measure responsible for igniting Miriam's passion for birds.

03 April 2021

     A pair of Hairy Woodpeckers (Dryobates villosus) visited our backyard and we were able to capture an image of the male on one of the feeders.

04 April 2021

     Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) return early to southern Ontario.

     At times it seems as though an ardent male is singing from high in the branches of every convenient tree, its joyful trill permeating the warm zephyrs of spring.

     I have no idea what triggered it, but for the last several weeks I have been studying birds' feet and the different configurations of the toes, and other functional adaptations to lifestyle. Miriam takes a closeup of a bird's foot whenever she gets a chance. Here is the classic anisodactyl orientation of a songbird's foot - digits 2, 3 and 4 pointing forward and digit 1 (the hallux) pointing backwards.

     When a songbird sleeps a special muscle "locks" into place and prevents the bird from falling off its perch. 
     Now that you are as hooked as I am on feet perhaps I will soon regale you with leg scutellation patterns. I know that you are waiting with bated breath!

06 April 2021

     Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) have returned to southern Ontario, and are already occupying territories and in some case are nesting. At least one nest box that I monitor now contains eggs.

     The above pair was photographed at a Mennonite meeting house on Three Bridges Road, St. Jacobs, where they have occupied nest boxes for years.
     The bluebirds caused us no surprise, but a single gravestone certainly did.

     Mennonites are plain folk, as you know and their graves markers are modest and uniform. Never is one bigger, more grand, more ostentations, more reflective of wealth, in a "better" part of the cemetery, than another.
     Neither Miriam nor I have ever seen ornamentation of this type at a tombstone in a Mennonite graveyard. Personally, I hope it is the last time.

07 April 2021

     A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) very kindly decided to make our backyard a port of call this spring.

     I suspect that they do so most years, but they generally don't stay more than a few minutes, so unless you are glancing out at the right moment, they pass through unnoticed.

     We spotted them on the trail behind our house later in the day, and have seen them most days since.

08 April 2021

     Fortunately, as mentioned above, we have a trail (Benjamin Park Trail) behind our house, and it has been especially appreciated during the months when the scourge of COVID has dictated the ebb and flow of our lives.
     This male Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) was initially seen busily excavating a nest hole, but I was walking alone that day and didn't have a camera with me.

     It has made substantial progress on the excavation and upon first contact was half way into the hole with wood chips flying. Now, however, it seems to have abandoned this location and has not been seen again completing the work.
     Spring migrant birds are the biggest attraction for us on our walks, but the sheer splendour of spring ephemerals bursting through the soil, are cause for great celebration too.
     I don't know whether I could pick a favourite, but Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), with its leaves curled around the flower when emerging, would be high on my list.

     And it is an early bloomer too. I look for it eagerly each spring.
     American Robins (Turdus migratorius) seem to be everywhere and their cheery song resonates through forest, woodland and backyard alike.

     Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) are no doubt already seeking suitable hosts for their eggs, although their principal victims have yet to arrive. 

     Mourning Cloaks (Nymphalis antiopa) flit through the air with consummate grace, even posing for a picture once in a while.

     The event which has brought us the most joy along the trail has been the discovery of an Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio) roosting in a small Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus).

     To see an owl at any time is a source of high excitement, but this sighting on the Benjamin Park Trail has special significance. For a couple of years I knew where to find a pair of owls, made up of a red morph and a grey morph bird, and I am quite sure I had pinpointed the tree where they bred.
     In one of the purges against infected trees that  happens so frequently that one wonders what will be left untouched, their tree was felled, and I had not been able to relocate them.

     We have high hopes that this is a male resting during the daylight hours, with a partner taking care of young close by. Perhaps we will be able to verify that.
     The feet of the screech owl are zygodactyl, enabling them to snooze in peace without fear of falling from their perch.

     The doleful call of Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) echoes constantly. Ironically, some people think it is an owl.

     This species will breed over a good part of the year and males seem to be in a permanent frenzy, trying to coax often uncooperative females into the trysts that will ensure the survival of the species. Ah, those males; they have just one thing on their mind!

09 April 2021

     Lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis) is another flower that emerges early and populates forests and woodland glades.

     How beautiful it is, with its blotchy leaves and glowing inflorescence.

     Willows (Genus Salix) are among the first trees to add colour to the bare landscape of early spring.

     There has been a bit of a craze recently with people depositing painted rocks bearing inspirational messages. The practice seems to be expanding to signs such as this one, attached to a sapling.

     I think I am quite capable of getting my fuzzy, warm feeling without help. And I would prefer the beauty of the tree without a sign stapled to it. Sooner or later the placard is going to deteriorate and fall to the ground to join the other litter left by careless walkers, who think nothing of tossing everything from their masks to their paper cups and plastic lids on the ground, their drink cans and their bags of dog poop, and whatever else would impose such a burden on them to take home and dispose of properly.
    A pox on those who post these signs, however well-intentioned they may be.
     Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) is one of the first plants to flower in spring and their little yellow buttons are a cheerful punctuation mark among the brown leaves of last fall.

     Equally yellow are handsome American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis), transformed from their olive drab of  winter. This male has almost completed the transition.

     We could not resist a quick look at "our" screech owl, making sure than no one else was anywhere close to inquire about our upward glances.

     Daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) may be found all over, and it is always a bit of a puzzle to me how they find their way to new locations.

     Recently I saw them referred to as Hoop-petticoat, which seemed like a perfectly charming name, but it appears that this nomenclature refers to a domesticated variety.
     Siberian Squill (Scilla siberica) seems to increase in density each year, and while beautiful, is somewhat invasive in areas where conditions are right for it to thrive.

      It was interesting to see several instances where the emerging plant pushes through dead leaves as it thrusts upward towards the light.

     Finally, let me leave you with a lovely animal, and a plea.

     This cat was seen wandering at will. It is obviously someone's cherished pet. It is sleek, handsome and patently well-cared for.

     But please, and I say again, please, do not permit it to roam. It is a fearsome predator of native wildlife and can decimate populations of small rodents, ground nesting birds, young fledglings fresh out of the nest, and even salamanders and other amphibians. Furthermore, you are exposing it to risk to its own safety. Coyotes and foxes abound and a cat would be perfect prey for them. Pets are killed by urban canids every year, and feline fur and bone fragments have been found in the pellets of Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus). I am sure that most pet owners would be mortified to know that the death of their pet had been caused by their own neglect.
     A cat should be a house cat, safe from traffic, protected from predators, and there are myriad structures available now for cats to leave the home without endangering themselves or other creatures.
And they will not antagonize your neighbours by defecating in, and digging up their flowerbeds. And a good neighbour is worth a whole lot!