Changing Seasons in the Park: Summer to Fall

 

Goldfinch
American Goldfinch with thistle seed, late August.

Although Spring’s explosion of greenery after a long winter, the return of songbirds, and the promise of new life makes it my favourite season, the transition into Autumn runs a very close second.  From August through November, growth cycles may be winding down, leaves are falling, and many birds desert us for the warmer south, but there is still much to see and experience at Colonel Samuel Smith Park.  I’ve captured some of my favourite images during this season, and would like you to join me on a visual journey, with images gathered from my visits to the park over the years.

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Early autumn meadow

This truly is a season of change…suddenly, large swaths of meadow turn bright yellows with goldenrod and counterpointed by the mauves of the asters.  The greens of summer are accented with the bright tones of butterflies and the reds of staghorn sumac.  There is no subtlety to the colours of autumn, making it hard to be sad about summer’s departure. These wildflowers, plants, and shrubs are among those inextricably connected with two important migrations that take place at this time:  Those of birds and Monarch butterflies. This time we’ll talk about the many birds that use the different habitats at Colonel Samuel Smith Park as a stopover to feed and rest, as well as some of the park’s resident species.

BIRDS

There is a “winding down” feeling, what with the frantic business of constructing nests, incubating eggs, and feeding young finally ending.  Birds who breed in the park, like the Red-necked Grebes, are usually feeding large chicks and have abandoned their nesting platforms in the harbour–which are then immediately taken over by cormorants as roosting rafts.  I have come across grebes with downy chicks in September; these little ones have to grow quickly before it’s time to leave in late fall.

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Red-necked Grebe in winter (basic) plumage, November
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Left, a Red-necked Grebe family in September; right, a still-stripey juvenile is reluctant to leave the abandoned nest

 

Grebe chick

 

Many species of birds that breed as far north as the Arctic circle follow the same routes south each late summer and autumn, following food sources and weather patterns.  The pure insectivores (swallows, swifts) are among the first to leave, followed by thrushes, warblers, vireos, flycatchers, hummingbirds, sparrows, creepers, and kinglets.  Some species that usually eat insects adapt to consuming berries or seeds; they need as much nutritious food as possible to survive their long journey.

Palm Warbler
Palm Warbler

Many young birds are still trying to grow quickly enough to be able to escape the cold winter weather; young goldfinches and cardinals are often heard into October, still begging for food from their parents. Juvenile raptors (hawks, falcons) and fish-eating waterbirds (herons, egrets, cormorants) are still learning to hone their hunting skills.

Many warblers and vireos moult into drab winter plumage, making field identification difficult, and immature birds can add even more confusion.

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Bay-breasted Warbler, September.

Fall migration for many songbirds lasts longer but is more “stretched-out” than it is in spring, beginning in August but lasting to late October.  Yet on favourable days with SE tailwinds, the trees and shrubs can seem to be swarming with different species, similar to spring.  Late-departing Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned kinglets dart around, making their distinctive three-note, reedy calls.

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Golden-crowned Kinglet
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Winter Wren

Migrating sparrows of different species will mix together and the underbrush can seem alive with them.  On warm fall days, male White-throated Sparrows will occasionally sing their spring song; chickadees, cardinals and robins do the same.

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White-throated Sparrow in Bittersweet
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Swamp Sparrow
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Immature White-crowned Sparrow

American Goldfinches nest late in the park and surrounding areas, ensuring that there will be an abundance of thistle and milkweed seeds for both nesting material and to feed their young.  Rather than migrating far south, goldfinches move southward where the average January temperature is no less than -17C.

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Immature American Goldfinch feeding on Spotted Knapweed.

Every fall, in early October, American Pipits stop by along the rocky outcroppings in the park to pick around for insects and seeds.  They’re returning from the high tundra, where they breed in summer.

American Pipit
American Pipit

Even though the park doesn’t have the best shorebird habitat, some migrants still stop in along the beaches to rest and feed in the fall.

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This Greater Yellowlegs was catching small fish in the pond in early November.
Sanderling
A single Sanderling on the beach in September.

Double-crested Cormorants begin leaving, and diving and dabbling ducks begin to move through.  Diving ducks can form huge staging flocks just offshore, and take advantage of the good feeding in the harbour and the pond.

Cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant in the mist
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American Coot with maple leaf
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Northern Shoveler drake
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Northern Shoveler, duck (female)

 

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A drake Hooded Merganser catches a hefty fish. November.
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Great Blue Heron
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A female Belted Kingfisher watches the pond for her next meal.
Black crowned Night Heron
This usually shy Adult Black-crowned Night Heron was patiently waiting for a fish just off the observation platform.

Sometimes, the internal navigational wiring is faulty, and some birds wander far from their usual home ranges; sometimes, high winds from hurricanes in the southeast will blow rare and unusual species off course and into our back yard.  Col. Samuel Smith Park is no stranger to visits from rare birds; birders and photographers will often travel far to see them and add them to their life lists.

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This Cattle Egret, native to southern US states, Central and South America, turned up in fall last year and remaining for weeks, happily eating grasshoppers and fishing.
Yellow crowned Night Heron
This immature Yellow-crowned Night Heron, a rare visitor from the south-central U.S., attracted lots of birders in late August and September 2014.

Not a rarity but rarely seen due to their secretive habits, usually hidden behind tall wetland reeds, Least Bitterns have been recorded in late summer/fall for several years now.

Least Bittern
A juvenile Least Bittern, October 2014.
Least Bittern
This is an adult Least Bittern that was seen in the same area one year later.

Nesting near or in the park and always watching with sharp eyes are the avian apex predators such as Peregrine Falcons and Cooper’s Hawks, looking for careless birds.  Occasionally, migrating Ospreys stop by for a quick seafood meal.

Peregrine Falcon
This Peregrine Falcon was enjoying a bath in early November during a break from hunting. This is “Lucky”, who rules the roost at the Islington and Bloor nest site.
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This Osprey made a successful catch in the yacht harbour.
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Adult Cooper’s Hawk, November.
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Green Heron fishing on a foggy morning.

Join me next time for an article on the great Monarch butterfly migration in Col. Sam Smith Park and more.

http://www.friendsofsamsmithpark.ca

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dickcissel Irruption in Ontario

This was definitely the Year of the Dickcissel in Ontario, an irruption year for a grasslands species that is one of the rarest breeding birds in Ontario. Many of the birds that have been spotted in the last month or so are attempting to breed, an encouraging sign.

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Dickcissel (male)

Dickcissels (Spiza americana) are songbirds that resemble brightly-coloured sparrows, but that heavy-duty beak gives it away as a member of the cardinal and grosbeak family. They earned their common name mnemonically from the male’s buzzy, emphatic song.

They range through the prairies and grasslands of the central U.S. from Texas to Michigan and Ohio.  Here in Ontario, Dickcissels are considered pioneers, occasionally colonizing the edges of their range, usually during drought years, and usually in the extreme southwestern portions of the province.  This year, there have been sightings much further north and east of their range.  Because of sharp-eyed birders and observers, they have now been spotted from the Kawartha Lakes region to Bruce County and all the way to Rainy River District.

On July 7th, after spending the day birding and butterfly-ing in Carden Alvar Provincial Park, we decided to return through the hamlet of Fowler’s Corners near Lindsay in hopes of finding a pair of Dickcissels.  In my 30+ years of birding, I’ll admit that seeing your target bird, especially a rare one, immediately upon stepping out of the vehicle is always a thrill–and indeed, the first thing we saw was the female Dickcissel perched at the top of a small tree at the edge of a sunken, grassy field, right beside the road, before flying into the tall grass.  I eventually spotted her carrying nesting material to her under-construction nest hidden deep within the tall grasses.

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Dickcissel (female)

Shortly afterwards, the male flew to the top branches, threw his head back, and serenaded her (or declared his ownership of the territory, or both).  We were able to observe and photograph both at almost eye level before moving on.  Considering that I think my only previous image was from a sighting many, many moons ago–on deteriorating slide film–this was a privilege.

 

 

 

Species Profile: Northern Map Turtle

During a visit to my favourite local patch (Col. Samuel Smith Park in the west end of Toronto) yesterday, I came across a small Northern Map Turtle (Graptemys geographica) sunning itself on a sunken log not far from the platform overlooking the pond.  I have seen adult Map Turtles in the park before, usually on the far side of the pond and usually quite skittish, so this was a great opportunity to observe and photograph this one.  As a young individual, no more than 9-10 cm in length, it was still brightly marked.
Northern Map Turtle
Northern Map Turtle
This turtle is named for the markings on its shell, which look like contour lines on a topographical map.  The head and legs have a pattern of bright yellow lines, with a yellow spot behind the eyes, and the carapace (upper shell) has an obvious raised “keel” or ridge along the centre. Other similar species found in the park include the native Midland Painted Turtle and, unfortunately, the non-native Red-eared Slider which is the most commonly released “pet store” turtle species in Ontario.  They act like the neighbourhood bullies to our native species, often released by owners once they begin growing to 33 cm in length with a lifespan up to 30 years.
Midland Painted Turtle
Midland Painted Turtle
Their habitat includes large lakes and rivers with slow-moving water and a soft bottom, and they require high-quality water that supports the females’ favoured prey, molluscs (females can grow much larger than males, up to 27 cm compared with 13 cm for the males).
Female Map Turtles may take more than 10 years to reach maturity, nest from June through July, and lay a single clutch of up to 17 eggs.  The incubation temperatures of the eggs determines the gender of the hatchlings.
Map Turtles are known for their communal basking, and many individuals can be found piled up together.  They have very strong jaws; the females eat snails, clams and crayfish; males and juveniles eat insects and crayfish.  Some individuals of this species can live more than 20 years.
Red-eared Slider
Red-eared Slider (non-native)
Water pollution poses a serious threat as it can cause massive die-offs of molluscs, the primary food item of female Map Turtles.  Habitat loss and degradation due to shoreline development are additional threats.
The Northern Map Turtle is listed as a species of Special Concern under the Ontario Endangered Species Act 2007 and the Species at Risk Act.  It is also considered a Specially Protected Reptile under the Ontario Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act.
Because this species is not very common in our area, and because our reptiles and amphibians are experiencing global declines of 20 and 40 percent respectively, I’ve always considered it somewhat special.  One way to help is to consider becoming a volunteer citizen scientist and submit your sightings, and not just the rare ones.  One way you can do this by downloading the Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas App on your smartphone–it’s also a digital pocket guide for all of Ontario’s reptiles and amphibians.
Find more information at ontarionature.org; source material courtesy Ontario Nature; photos by Nancy Barrett.
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Northern Map Turtle

Direct from the Artist

This was originally written as a guest post for The Pigeon’s Passage, the Lakeshore Interpretive Centre’s blog.   As part of my current exhibit, Through A Lens, Brightly, I was asked to share a reflection on my approach to birding and to photography.  I’m very grateful to the staff of the centre for hosting the exhibit and publishing this article.  

Through A Lens, Brightly is on display on the third floor of Humber’s Student Welcome and Resource Centre until April 29, 2017.

I have been keenly interested in the natural world around us since childhood.  My early years were spent exploring the wild spaces just beyond my grandparents’, and later my parents’, backyards in north Etobicoke, near the Humber River, right at the edge of encroaching suburban development.  There was so much to discover:  birds, bugs, and beasts of all kinds; frogs and toads and snakes, oh my!  My parents, bless them, disguised their revulsion well when I came home to show off my latest discovery, an Eastern Gartersnake, so that I never feared wild things.

1--Indigo Bunting
Indigo Bunting (photo: Nancy Barrett)

The first bird that made a significant impression on me was a beautiful male Indigo Bunting that had unfortunately struck our window.  I wondered at this tiny, incredibly jewel-toned creature…a wonder that has never dimmed in the years since.

As a young woman, I joined the Federation of Ontario Naturalists (now ON Nature), a non-profit dedicated to the protection of wild species and spaces through conservation and education, which opened up the boundaries of my world by leaps and bounds.  Through them, I immediately gained valuable mentors and lifelong friends and connections and travelled to wild spaces such as Rainy River/Lake of the Woods, horse-trekking through the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Algonquin Provincial Park, and adult summer nature camps on the Bruce Peninsula.  A memorable trip in 1985 to Point Pelee National Park and Pelee Island triggered a new-formed obsession:  bird listing, or “twitching” (an effort to see and record as many different species as possible in a region; I’ve seen 349 out of a recorded 494 species in Ontario).  Along with each new species grew the desire to document every new thing I was seeing on film, to learn more, see more.  I joined more organizations, including the Ontario Field Ornithologists (OFO), the Toronto Ornithological Club (TOC) and, through the wonderful people I’ve met in the park, the Friends of Sam Smith (FOSS).

2--Scarlet Tanager
Scarlet Tanager (photo: Nancy Barrett)

Together, my friends and family and I chased rarities throughout the province (and sometimes outside it—we once drove down into upstate New York to see a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, successfully, and back home in one afternoon).  Meanwhile, with the help of knowledgeable mentors, my familiarity with field marks, songs and calls, migration patterns, feeding and behaviour grew, providing a deep insight into my photographic subjects (no longer just birds, but also butterflies, dragonflies, wildflowers and more), and helping to inform what I wished to convey through my images.  I can see that vision still developing and becoming clearer as I compare my early efforts with newer images; it morphs and changes.

3--Virginia Creeper Berries
Virginia Creeper Berries (photo: Nancy Barrett)

I began exploring Col. Sam Smith Park in 2008, visiting through all seasons and capturing the subtle changes that occur as each season progresses.  From pussy willows in spring to the last fallen leaf in autumn, I became familiar with the different mini-habitats throughout the park, which itself began largely as lakefill and which has naturalized beautifully into the biodiverse sanctuary it is today.  Spring and fall migrant birds are drawn every year to the inviting green space projecting out from the lakeshore, a place to rest and feed before continuing their journey north to breeding areas.

4--Whimbrels
Whimbrels (photo: Nancy Barrett)

A special feature of the park is the annual Whimbrel migration, peaking around May 24. Whimbrels are large, curve-billed shorebirds which appear every year, swirling around above the shoreline, filling the air with their whistling calls.

5--Red-necked Grebes
Red-neck Grebes (photo: Nancy Barrett)

Many birds also stay to breed in the park, including Red-necked Grebes, a diving bird that is at the eastern edge of its range here, and is now breeding in increasing numbers through caring people who provide anchored floating wooden nesting platforms each spring.  Tree Swallows, an insect-eating species that is losing ground due to loss of suitable habitat, are provided with clean nest boxes in the meadow.

6--Tree Swallow
Tree Swallow (photo: Nancy Barrett)

Just these two species alone have provided me many hours of serene observation and documentation of their life cycles: migration, courtship, nesting, raising young—all of these are available at close quarters.  I’ve spent many lovely, meandering hours in the park, knowing that I’ll come across more treasures–a meadow full of dew-diademed Monarch Butterflies gathering for southward migration on a foggy morn, a Yellow Warbler feeding its newly-fledged youngster overhead; a Mink catching a fish right in front of me, a Snowy Owl gazing at me as she flies by.

7--Snail and Berry
Snail and berry (Photo: Nancy Barrett)
There’s a common element to the encounters listed above—that the creatures felt comfortable enough to behave naturally, without fear or discomfort, in my presence.  There should never be harassment or behaviour by people or their pets that prevents wild animals from feeding, looking after young around nest sites or dens, or the use of birding apps to call birds repeatedly, especially in breeding season. The employment of ethics in wildlife and nature photography is something I advocate as often and as strongly as possible, and in any case ultimately results in one-of-a-kind images.
8--Tree Swallow Fight
Tree Swallow fight (photo: Nancy Barrett)

I’ve learned to use natural cover to conceal myself whenever possible—trees, shrubs, slopes—to prevent disturbing the birds and other wildlife that I photograph.  If there is no cover, I get down and flat as possible, and wait for natural behaviour to reappear.  I once crawled through a crust of cormorant poop and fish bits to photograph some Black-bellied Plovers on a treeless island.  I have never found the need to use special camouflage clothing—I just dress mostly in earth tones and try not to make fast movements.

It is here, in this wilderness in the city, that I learned a secret to observing and photographing wildlife—the ability to be still and quiet.  It took a long time for me to understand the benefits of patience.  At first, I was eager to get a little closer, just a little…and was almost always rewarded by an empty branch instead of a bird, or the back end of a turtle as it disappeared into the water.  As for learning to be quiet, well, ask my friends—it’s not a quality I’m known for.  But learn I did, and the resulting images showed it.

9--Painted Lady
Painted Lady (photo: Nancy Barrett)

Friends sometimes ask me, “How did you see and photograph all this stuff in a city park?  How do you find it?”  I tell them all you have to do is slow down, put your smartphone on flight mode, breathe in deeply, and look around.  I mean really look—at the sky, the water, the earth, the plants around you.  Listen carefully–do you hear birds calling?  Reach out–feel the furrowed bark of a tree.  When you open yourself to even the smallest things, nature will open itself up to you.

I hope I will continue to draw inspiration from and create images of the wild spaces of this park for a long time to come.

“A photograph shouldn’t be just a picture, it should be a philosophy” –Amit Kalantri