Marsh Wren

Marsh Wren

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Visiting Western Chatham-Kent

I had had it in mind for awhile to pay a visit to a couple of places that don't get much attention. And I thought that provincial parks would be extra busy on this sunny, hot, holiday weekend. So off I headed to a piece of crown land near Dealtown that was acquired a couple of decades ago, and was turned from farmland into a tallgrass prairie nursery. It has been burned in the past, but not for several years, so it is getting quite shrubby. Given the natural expansion of these prairie plants, it has become more of a prairie patch than a nursery consisting of rows upon rows of various prairie species.

My intent was to see if some good grassland birds were making use of this site. A few years ago I had two Henslow's Sparrows there, and on more than one occasion, Dickcissels have nested. Since Dickcissels seem to have made a spot near Wheatley their home in the last couple of years, I thought maybe one or more would also be here.

I ventured onto the property with only one lens: my 500mm lens with 1.4X extender, making it an equivalent of 700mm. I saw numerous butterflies and dragonflies, but they were hard to shoot with this lens combination, so I decided to concentrate on my feathered avian quarry. But there were various skippers, Northern Crescents, Little Wood Satyrs, Viceroy and others which I didn't pursue. And a diversity of dragonflies as well, especially lots of Saddlebags. Maybe next time I will leave the big telephoto at the car and take something more amenable to photographing lepidoptera and odonates.

Given that much of the site is getting shrubbier as the years go by, the bird species have adjusted as well. Alas, I didn't catch up to a Dickcissel or Henslow's Sparrow. But there were lots of Field Sparrows, Song Sparrows, an occasional Savannah Sparrow, Yellow Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, Gray Catbirds, Brown Thrashers, a couple of Eastern Meadowlarks, Northern Cardinals, American Robins, American Goldfinches, a few Cedar Waxwings and of course numerous Red-winged Blackbirds.

Northern Cardinal

American Goldfinch

Cedar Waxwing

Gray Catbird

Eastern Meadowlark
Yellow Warbler
I also scared up three deer, including a fawn probably no more than a month old, but which was able to scoot away so fast that there was no possible way for a photo. One of the does was a bit more cooperative, and at least stood tall enough to be able to see it through the grassy vegetation.

Tallgrass prairie plants are very attractive, at least a lot of them are. Some of them are extremely rare as well. It may come as a surprise to some that Ontario is indeed a prairie province, although it wasn't as major a vegetation type here as it was on those other prairie provinces. However the botanical diversity of the prairies in Ontario exceed those of the traditional prairie provinces. Some of the more colourful species in flower today included:
Purple Milkweed

Foxglove Beard-tongue

Butterfly Milkweed

Ohio Spiderwort

Another species that occurs on prairies but also in old wet fields is Ragged-fringed Orchid. Yes we have wild orchids in Ontario...more than 60 species in fact, and some of them are extremely colourful. I will be doing a post or two in the future about some of the orchids of Ontario.

Ragged-fringed Orchid

After leaving this prairie site, with good intentions to come back soon, I headed for the Tilbury area, and specifically the sewage lagoons. Sewage lagoons are not everyone's idea of a good place to spend time, but the wildlife like it and therefore so do biologists and naturalists. This one is technically in Essex County, but it is operated by the municipality of C-K for the Town of Tilbury. And it even has a welcome sign, so how could I not go!

Although birders are welcome, the water levels are such that there isn't a great diversity of birds at the moment. On some occasions it has been very good for shorebirds as well as waterfowl and wading birds. Today the shorebirds were completely absent, except for a single Spotted Sandpiper and a couple of Killdeer. Waterfowl were limited to Canada Geese, Mallards and Wood Ducks. As common as Double-crested Cormorants are becoming, there were even 3-4 of them in the area. A few wading birds were around, including several Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets and Black-crowned Night-Herons. I also saw an adult Common Moorhen, but as is their usual behaviour, it was quite shy and would not let me get its photo.

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Great Egret

For some reason the egret thought it was hidden behind these old stalks of Phragmites, as it would not come out into the open. Hmmmm...I wonder what else goes on in an egret's mind......

 OK,  Red-winged Blackbirds aren't very exciting in general, but they are attractive in their own way and I just had to take this photo when the opportunity came by.

Since I was now a bit northwest of Tilbury, before striking out for home in Chatham I thought I would check out Lighthouse Cove, at the mouth of the Thames River just across the county line into Essex. As expected on a sunny holiday weekend, it was busy and so were the nearby waters of Lake St. Clair. Boats were everywhere, constantly coming and going. I suspect the serious fishermen were well beyond view from shore.

The boat launch area was fairly crowded. However an enterprising photographer no doubt employed by an advertising agency found enough space to park his brand new shiny red Cadillac next to the water, pull out three Nikon cameras with lenses, and get his young female model with long black hair and bright red lipstick and in a striking black dress to lean up against the car to showcase its allure.

I almost took a photo of this, but instead thought it was time to leave.

Friday, 27 June 2014

An early start to a long weekend...

....literally. I arose at 4:30 a.m. to get to Erieau well before sunrise to catch the best light which I find is a half hour before the official sunrise time. I had done the same thing yesterday, although in spite of the weather radar indicating that there were minimal clouds, the entire sky was cloud covered, with only a hint of lighter cloud right at the horizon. So I sat in the car overlooking the Erieau harbour, and sipped my drive-through coffee on the one hand wishing I had stayed in bed, but at the same time enjoying the peacefulness at such an early hour.

But today was considerably better.....the sun actually put in an appearance! My favourite times are when there is some high cirrus clouds to reflect the rosy sun about 30 minutes before it peeks above the horizon, but today it was almost totally clear, with just an orangey hue. If you look closely, you can see that the lighthouse is 'on'.

10 second exposure 20 minutes before sunrise

However when the high clouds aren't present, then some shots immediately as the sun is appearing can be quite attractive.

0.8 second exposure

There didn't appear to be any birds of special note in the Erieau area, so I headed to Rondeau, hoping for some good light on a Red-headed Woodpecker's nest. At such an early hour, however, it was shaded by the nearby cottonwood trees. I did manage to get a photo of one of the adults out taking a short break from foraging for insects.

I wouldn't have minded if the woodpecker could have made a dent in the mosquito population.....they were quite feisty, so I spent a bit of time along the east beach enjoying the light breeze and the golden sunlight at the early hour.

The pioneer grasses are hardy.....they have to survive the extreme elements from intense cold and dessication in winter to intense heat in summer, not to mention the abrasive action of wind-blown sand. But eventually some pioneer trees appear, especially these Eastern Cottonwoods.

Later I went to the Tulip Tree Trail, just because I wasn't far away and there wasn't anyone else around. I was hoping to detect nesting activity of the local pair of Prothonotary Warblers. I took a few shots of the mossy upturned tree root. The mosquitoes, in spite of all the water around the trail, were not nearly as bothersome here.

While shooting this scene, I heard something slogging through the water a short distance farther along the trail. I checked it out, and watched three deer busily munching on aquatic plants. The closest one was no more than 10 metres away, and by moving slowly, they didn't seem to be bothered with my presence at all.

An event I had to be at in Chatham required me to leave Rondeau before 9 a.m......some days I don't even get to the park until 9, so it seemed odd to be leaving by then.

And now the long weekend is here, although for us retired folks, it isn't any different than any other weekend except some of my favourite places are more crowded :-)......enjoy it, everyone, and Happy Birthday Canada!

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

The summer begins

The season is merrily rolling along. By the date, summer has been underway for a few days now, although one cannot tell all that much by the weather. I try and choose my days to visit Rondeau this time of year on weekdays, as the crowds are less. On Monday I started out walking the South Point Trail, and immediately had this Gray Catbird greet me. I'm sure he wasn't singing just for my sake, but to let his presence be known to any competing catbirds within hearing range.

The vegetation is dense and lush, almost impenetrable in places. Peeking through the greenery were things like Wood Lily, which served as a place of refuge for its tiny companion at the base of the flower. Midges are abundant, and although they look like giant mosquitoes and even hum like them, fortunately they do not bite. The regular mosquitoes are bad enough!

This Hedge Bindweed below is also appearing here and there. It doesn't have its own upright stems, but weakly twines around adjacent vegetation for support.

Silver-spotted Skippers were around, not as abundantly as many of the other butterfly species mentioned in my previous post, however. These are large butterflies, at least for the skipper group, and are easily identified by a large white patch on the underside. It isn't quite so distinctive when viewed from the top side, as shown in the second photo below.

Butterfly wings are fragile, as this one shows. Generally butterflies don't live long after becoming adults. The adults of many species only live 2-4 weeks, although there are exceptions. Some adults actually over winter! But during this season, the wear and tear on their bodies as they flit through the vegetation, or the likelihood of them being eaten by a predator or ending up on the grille of a vehicle all contribute to an early demise.

I noted the usual Painted Skimmers and Common Whitetails dragonflies, and had a brief look at what appeared to be a spreadwing type of damselfly, but I never got a photo. Some darners were patrolling the more open sections of the trail, but never landed within my sight.

At the lake, several fishing tugs out of Erieau were busily hauling in their catch. Their diesel engines could be heard easily even if they were out 2-3 kilometres. By contrast was this sailboat, using wind power and gliding gently and silently through the slight chop.

There were quite a few gulls loafing along the Southeast Beach, conservatively at least 400. Most were the usual mix of Ring-billed, Herring and Bonaparte's Gulls of various ages, but there were also a few immature Greater Black-backed Gulls and a single immature Little Gull.

Along the Lighthouse Trail offshoot of the South Point Trail, where I had been photographing the Wood Lilies, this male Rose-breasted Grosbeak was giving alarm calls, indicating an active nest or fledged young nearby. I didn't see any other birds of that species, and I have been down this trail several times recently so I don't think there is a nest close by. It was likely recently fledged young that he was concerned about.

The grosbeak was fairly high up in the tree, and usually backlit against a bright sky, so it was definitely a challenge getting a photo of any kind.

I stopped briefly by the Visitor Centre area, where I photographed the Common Hop-tree. In spite of its name, it is not common, at least in Ontario. It does occur abundantly on Pelee Island. On the mainland, at places like Rondeau and Point Pelee, it is not common at all, and there are very few other places in the entire country where it occurs. It is officially a Threatened species in Ontario and Canada and therefore protected by Endangered Species legislation both provincially and nationally.

Its fruit will be wafer-like upon maturity. The three leaflets are characteristic, much like Poison Ivy, but if you note on the hop-tree the central leaflet does not have a longer petiole/stem like Poison Ivy does.

Near the VC parking lot were several Barn Swallows busily gathering mud and fine bits of vegetation with which to build their mud nests. Each year there are usually several nests under the eaves of the Visitor Centre.

It may come as a surprise that Barn Swallows, which used to be extremely common, are undergoing a decline and are a recently designated Species At Risk as well. They are legally ranked as a Threatened species, as are an increasing number of insect eating birds.

I hadn't been around the Spicebush Trail in the last few days so decided to check it out. The heavily overcast sky and calm wind made it conducive for some forest photography. I stopped along Bennett Ave and captured this view of a slough. This particular one has had a Prothonotary Warbler singing in it over the past few weeks. I didn't hear it this day, but hopefully it found a mate and has benefited from the higher water levels this spring. Even so, the water appears to have dropped at least a foot in the last few weeks. Once the trees and other vegetation get growing rampantly, they suck up a lot of the water in the sloughs in spite of the recent rains. It may not be too many weeks before they are mostly dry!

Spicebush Trail always has something of interest. On this day, it was a profusion of ferns. I will be photographing them in earnest one of these times, but this day I only took time to capture the delicate Maidenhair Fern.

There was no one else along the trail, at least of the human realm. I did have many other fauna wanting to visit me, however, but I declined their persistent quest to sample my blood. In fact I confess that I actually killed a few of was either them or me! This bench looked inviting, but I decided using it would only give those pesky blood-sucking mosquitoes more opportunity to take advantage of me.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Spring is over for another year

Today is officially the beginning of summer! And now the days begin to get shorter.....

Over the last precious few days of spring, I have enjoyed a few forays around various parts of Rondeau. The summer visitors have not yet arrived in great numbers, so the trails are relatively quiet. So quiet, at times, that other forms of wildlife are found using them. Many birds have been busily nesting, and I have had some success photographing a few of them, but that will be the subject of another post.
Six-spotted Tiger Beetle

A walk around Tuliptree Trail on Thursday turned up both male and female Prothonotary Warbler at the usual spot. They delighted us with close views, but were constantly on the move searching for caterpillars. Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Scarlet Tanager and Wood Thrush were all calling or put in a brief appearance as well.

Along the South Point Trail, there were lots of butterflies flitting about in the sun. Lots of Spring Azures (difficult to separate from Summer Azures for the most part, but according to the reference books, it is still more likely to be the flight period for Springs rather than Summers, and given the lateness of this spring, I will defer to calling them Spring Azures) plus various other species.

Spring Azure

Hobomok Skipper

Little Wood Satyr

Northern Crescent
The extra dark line on the right wing of the Northern Crescent is a shadow from a grass stem just above the butterfly.

The highlight lep for me was to discover a Pipevine Swallowtail, along the Lighthouse Trail offshoot of the South Point Trail. This species is considered fairly rare in Ontario. It was busily feeding on puccoon, but never actually lit on the plant. Instead it semi-hovered as it sipped nectar, so getting a good shot was next to impossible. I did manage the following record shots which show the single row of orange spots on the underwing, in a slightly iridescent blue patch, and the lack of much colour on the upper wing other than very dark bluish black. The butterfly being backlit didn't help my photographic efforts.

Another highlight was getting some decent shots of a Painted Skimmer, a species which is not common in southern Ontario, but seems to be seen regularly in various places this year.

As I continued out along this trail to the lake, several Killdeer and Spotted Sandpipers voiced their dismay at my presence. No doubt they had a nest or young nearby, but I didn't go looking.


Some other hikers who ventured out along the lake beyond the washout reported they saw several large Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtles just off shore. June is the prime month for turtles to come ashore to lay eggs, and the softshells of the Rondeau area favour the sandy beaches for their egg-laying.

Back along the South Point Trail, I noted an immature male Common Whitetail.

Common Whitetail

A very large American Toad was along the trail. It never moved while I was in the area, and even the occasional cyclist didn't seem to bother it much.

The lush growth of this Carolinian Forest Zone was evident throughout the forest. Vines in particular are taking advantage of some of the extra light available due to the death of ash trees from the effects of the Emerald Ash Borer. Virginia Creeper and Poison Ivy are particularly adept at climbing and making use of the supporting structure of such dead trees. Although such vine growth can sometimes shade out and even kill some living trees that are not shade tolerant, the good news is that such lush growth of these vines results in a profusion of berries which will provide nourishment for warblers and other songbirds as they return on their southward migration later this season. Some warblers such as Yellow-rumped Warblers may linger well into the winter if enough berries are available.

Virginia Creeper