Great Egret

Great Egret

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Sunrise and a submarine?

Wednesday was another day at Rondeau, starting off checking salamander traps. As in last week, the traps were empty. We were scratching our heads as to why this might be, since they should be out in abundance now. Our discussions included many more questions than answers, but such is the fun, and challenge, of biology. Due to the intensive winter, did the frost drive them much farther below the surface and they haven't noted the warming trend to trigger their emergence? Did the higher water levels of the sloughs and the deeper frost limit their area of hibernation, perhaps killing some of them? A couple of years ago, the winter and wetland conditions were quite the opposite, and did that cause a considerable drop in the population so that they are just not very abundant at the moment? Is there much more habitat than the current population can use? A very general assessment of the available habitat for salamanders at Rondeau comes up with an astonishing 70 linear kilometers of slough habitat! Or maybe even though the ice is now gone, they just haven't wakened up from their hibernation and they will be out next week.....time will tell.

But the Wood Frogs were definitely out! Throughout the park, one could hear them chortling and chuckling from the water. They were busy driving off competing individuals, while trying to attract a mate with their calls. I didn't hear any other frog species today.

We saw an Eastern Garter Snake and, unfortunately, a dead Ribbon Snake. The latter species looks very similar to the former, with subtle but distinctive differences. They are most often found in wet forest settings. This dead one didn't have any obvious trauma showing, but it was clearly dead. Ribbon Snakes have been recently declared a Species At Risk with a "Special Concern" ranking, so the loss of any individuals or their habitat is not to be taken lightly.

White-tailed Deer are frequently seen, made easier due to the lack of leafy vegetation. They are looking quite scruffy now, as their winter coats are starting to shed. Coupled with the hunger factor that many deer suffered through this harsh winter, some seem to look extra scruffy at the moment. Once they lose their heavy gray-brown winter coat and reveal their reddish brown summer coat, it will be easier to see if their ribs are more noticeable, indicating how much they suffered.

 The wet woods are great spots to look for Rusty Blackbirds. I noted at least a dozen foraging at the edges of the sloughs of Spicebush Trail. This species typically nests in the bogs and wet woods of the boreal forests. Their numbers, like so many birds, have also declined in recent years. It is not yet a Species At Risk, but is being watched closely to determine whether it warrants that designation.

 Eastern Phoebes were widely scattered throughout the park, and this time one was more cooperative than any I've attempted to photograph yet this year.

Turkey Vultures are increasing in abundance in the park area and elsewhere. As of yesterday, almost 6000 had been recorded at the Beamer Conservation Area Hawkwatch near Grimsby. They are easy to photograph and good practice for more challenging species, so I 'shoot' them regularly.

After leaving Rondeau, I made a brief stop at Shrewsbury. With all the ice gone, the ducks are widely scattered, but there are thousands, probably tens of thousands, scattered across the open water. A scope is necessary to see many in detail. But I did check the tree just to the northeast of Shrewsbury where a small number of Great Blue Herons have nested over the past decade or more. Sure enough at least 5 Great Blues were at the nest tree. It didn't appear that any serious nesting was underway. They are likely making repairs to the previous year's nest, but it won't be long until they are well underway with this year's activities. I like getting out close by with the kayak to photograph them, and expect to do that this year. In the meantime, here are photos of previous year's efforts.

The photo above shows part of the heronry after a late winter snow storm on March 28, 2008. Fortunately it was short-lived and didn't seem to result in any serious impacts on the herons. The photo below was taken in May, 2013.....I hope to do more at this site in another few weeks.

Arriving at Erieau it was clear that with the ice gone, again the ducks were well away from the harbour and pier area. A few of the usual species were in flight. However there were other things to photograph. A handful of gulls were passing back and forth between the lake and the bay. Here an immature Great Black-backed Gull sails by. It used to be quite a rarity in Ontario, but small numbers have been present in southern Ontario almost all year round in recent decades.

A distant 'periscope' popped into view.....were there submarines on Lake Erie???? No, it wasn't a periscope at all.

It was a Double-crested Cormorant, busily diving in its typical style of 'fishing'. A close look at the head of the image below, shows little feather tufts on the upper sides of the head. There is a tuft on both sides, which is where it gets its 'double-crested' name from.

It is hard to believe that not that long ago cormorants were such a rarity on the Great Lakes that they were being considered as an endangered species! I came across a 1970 issue of Ontario Fish and Wildlife Review, which was a publication of what was then the Department of Lands & Forests, the precursor to the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. This was just before Ontario's first Endangered Species Act came into being....that happened in 1971 so it was likely underway at the time this issue was produced. In that issue featuring articles on the endangered species of the day, was speculation of what species might be on the list next. Cormorants were one of the two species mentioned! (Common Loon was the other.) In the late 1970s and early 1980s I helped out with some cormorant banding efforts on Big Chicken Island, in the western basin of Lake Erie. There, on the stony cobble surface, were nesting cormorants, and little did we know that within a couple of decades their population would explode to the point of being a major nuisance in general. Where they nested in large colonies, they were known to kill trees with the acidity of their excrement. This species has recently taken up nesting on one of the small sandy islands at the southeastern corner of Rondeau Bay, within the provincial park boundary.

In some areas, cormorants are persecuted due to their abundance and the fact that they eat a lot of fish. Hence they are sometimes skittish around people. The individual below was busily fishing and when it realized how close it was to me, took off just as I was pressing the shutter. It isn't super sharp, being taken at only 1/1250 of a second, but I include it because of the closeness of the bird and the capture of the water droplets suspended in the air from the bird's thrashing around in its attempts to escape.

Today, Thursday, was my first attempt in 2014 to photograph a pre-sunrise. I find that when there is ice to contend with, not only is it a lot colder for me, but it is less least that is the excuse I use so as not to go out in bitterly cold weather. Now that the ice is gone from my favourite vantage points, and the weather sounded promising, I decided to go for it this morning. But when you do a sunrise, you have to take your chances since you have to get up a lot earlier and in the dark you can't see how things are developing. I like to get to my preferred spot at least 30 minutes before official sunrise, since sometimes the best light occurs then, hence my term 'pre-sunrise photography'. By the time the sun is actually showing, the results often are less spectacular depending on the clouds.

I'm not normally a really early morning person, so getting up a bit after 5 a.m. isn't easy. Sometimes the results are spectacular, sometimes only average. But regardless, the pre-dawn hours are often enjoyable in one way or another. I don't like crowds, and there is seldom anyone else around!

Erieau has some excellent vantage points, especially if you want water, which I typically gravitate towards. It was an average sunrise, in my experience. But I often notice when I am here at around sunrise, the exodus of blackbirds and cowbirds from the marsh is impressive. Typically thousands of them will head into the south end of the Rondeau marsh at sunset, and disperse at sunrise often no more than tree-top height as they head out into fields to forage.

And so another day begins....

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