Sunday, July 31, 2005


The weather has been perfect for birding the last couple of days--light breeze and cool mornings. And although this is a quieter time than the spring, it is also a time when there are both birds nesting, birds courting, birds molting, and birds back on the move.

Friday morning I saw and/or heard these birds as I stood in the yard: savannah sparrow, chipping sparrow, cardinal, wrens, chickadees, crow, blue jay, phoebe, chimney swift, cedar waxwings, goldfinches, flicker, rose-breasted grosbeak, and an unidentified singer. Out in the fields there was a goldfinch calling incessantly, a contact call I suspect, but one I didn't know. Five great blue herons flew overhead together, another followed a few minutes later--family group? A pair of towhees calling a singing. A field sparrow carrying food. And the female common yellowthroat was keeping watch at the willows by the cedar bush.

This morning was even more business than travel. Because it was so cool, and because the swamp is all mud, no water now, I was able to get right into the cedar bush for the first time in a long time.

This is a view across one of the swampy clearings in the bush.

And I finally caught the common yellowthroats carrying food. The first, by the willows on the outside of the bush, because I came along and caught her at it. The second, in a swampy clearing in the bush, because he didn't see me.

Joe Pye weed over my head.

I was hidden by the Joe Pye weed. This plant did pretty well last year for the first time since I've been walking here, but this year it is dominating the clearings in the cedar bush, and standing about 2 metres high, compared to just over a metre last year. Other years Virgin's bower clematis has dominated in here.

At the beginning of the breeding bird season this year when I looked over my data for the previous 4 years I was surprised to see that no one, not me, not the more expert birders who worked in my square last year, had been able to confirm the common yellowthroat as a breeder. To confirm a bird, you need to see it entering or leaving a nesting site or carrying food or a fecal sac, or you need to see new fledglings, a nest with eggs, or hear or see a nest with nestlings. The common yellowthroat was down as a "probable" breeder, on the basis that it had been observed to be on territory, i.e., had been heard singing in the same place over a period of time (two occasions a week apart is enough). The bird is so common here I was determined to upgrade its status. In a recent post I wonder why this bird is so successful compared to other warblers with similar habitat and food requirements. After spending the last little while concentrating on getting the breeding evidence I need I am beginning to develop some speculations about this.

The day that I saw the Brewster's and blue-winged warblers carrying food, and heard their young, the common yellowthroats were there too, but they spent the whole time that I was there watching me, chucking, etc. I knew that there was a nest or young in the area from their behaviour, but I didn't know where. I did know where the Brewster's young were, and had I had a taste for young warblers I could have swooped in and found them by following the parents and the noise of young being fed. Today, when I spied the male common yellowthroat from my hiding place in the Joe Pye weeds, I wondered why he wasn't "chucking." Then after a while, and after he'd captured a nice fat caterpillar and was carrying it away, suddenly he started to call. He'd seen me. Hypervigilance has its price. In a busy environment, and this is certainly that, I can count 7 nest predators just off the top of my head, the young of the hypervigilant get fed less often than those of the more casual parent. As I watched the day the Brewster's and friend were in the willows, I must have seen them carrying at least five caterpillars each to the brood, while the common yellowthroats got nothing. Feed them faster, they grow faster, and are less vulnerable sooner. On the other hand more vigilance, lose fewer nestings, more chance that the young that are raised make it to adulthood.

According to the Wildspaces life history pages on the common yellowthroat and the golden-winged warbler there are two interesting differences between these two that may be affecting their relative success. First, the common yellowthroat nest twice, while the golden-winged only nests once, though the clutch sizes are almost the same. And second, golden-winged nests are parasitized by brown-headed cowbirds at twice the rate of common yellowthroat nests. (Here's a link to the Wildspaces page on the blue-winged warbler--parasitism rate is somewhere in between.) Both birds are small, both nest low or on the ground. What accounts for the difference? Perhaps it is just that much more difficult to find a common yellowthroat nest.

I tried to find a control for the comparison, in case the parasitism rate is affected by the number of nestings. I wondered if this was important because I've noticed that the brown-headed cowbirds seem to finish up their breeding business by mid July. That is, the males stop singing and chasing females by then, and they seem to take off somewhere, perhaps to join the flocks of starlings and grackles that are forming around this time. But I couldn't find anything obvious quickly. American redstarts only nest once, have the same number of offspring per nesting as common yellowthroats, nest deeper in the woods and higher up, and have a similar parasitism rate to them (20% compared to 19%). The redstart also approaches the common yellowthroat as a vigilant parent. I don't have a reference for a rate of nestings lost to other causes (predation, insect infestation, weather, etc.) for any of these birds--but I'd be very surprised if the nest-hiding vigilance of the common yellowthroat did not keep its rate of nest predation down compared to other species.

Budding Joe Pye--This place will be spectacular when the blooms are at their peak.

When I'd had enough of this good father, I let him get back to feeding his young and made my way out of the cedar bush, flushing a grouse as I went.

Jewel weed--just past its prime.

A catbird was also relieved that I finally took myself off. As made my way to the western edge of the bush I heard a great crashing in another of the swampy clearings--the clearings are so choked with vegetation now that I couldn't see anything. Sounded like a deer's step--I haven't seen any bear sign this year, not since the cub's cries I heard from the edge of the far field earlier in the season. But the raspberries are ripening...

On the far side of the far field the agitation continued. An eastern towhee seemed not glad to see me, as was the case with the female American redstart and the female cardinal. I didn't see the Brewster's or the blue-winged warbler, nor any sign of the chestnut-sided warbler that sang so loudly and so often earlier in the season.

Heading back to the first field I noticed a kingbird on the old dead tree between the first and second fields. A second kingbird flew in, but I didn't see where it landed.

Keeping watch.

I suspect that they're nesting in this fencerow somewhere. After the two failures in the old apple tree in the far field (the second one almost certainly had eggs in it, as I observed a bird sitting on it for long periods on a couple of occasions before the nest disappeared), I'm glad that I can't see this nest--maybe the crows, or whoever took the other two, won't be able to see it either.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Night Flyers

Many an evening I've sat out on the porch and watched some really big flyers in the light of the street light up the road (yes, there are street lights in the hamlet, and even a short length of sidewalk). Today I believe I met one of the offspring of the really big ones.

This critter was clinging to the door frame of my neighbour Nancy's house. She brought it in, identified it as a cecropia caterpillar (Hyalophora cecropia) and gave me a call.

In the picture above you can see the mouth of the caterpillar and strands of silk. Cocoon spinning was just begun when the caterpillar was spotted--the door frame was not a good spot--so after I got a good look and took a few photos, Nancy released the critter onto a window frame. Same substrate, quieter location, in the hopes that it will settle there or somewhere even more suitable. What's That Bug recommends this site for an overview of the cecropia moth life cycle, and, I might add, a good photo of the adult moth.

This photo, Nancy releasing the caterpillar, shows just how big this baby is!

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

I Know Why the Common Yellowthroat Sings

The other day in the willow scrub where I was observing the Brewster's warbler and his friend the blue-winged, there was also a pair of common yellowthroats. The Brewster's et al. were foraging and carrying food, the common yellowthroats were chucking. I never saw them pick up anything. I went back the next day to see if the Brewster's and friend were still there (they were not--it must have been fledglings not a nest that I was hearing being fed that first day), and met up once again with the c. yellowthroats. Once again the birds were chucking, and while the female centred herself around the willow clump, the male would follow me for 30 or more metres in all directions, never letting me out of his sight, and never shutting up.

Then, as we travelled south, he had to pause in his scolding of me to chase another male common yellowthroat. A few moments later, as we moved back towards the centre (where there must be a nest or a clutch of fledglings), the other bird began to sing.

This morning I ran into a common yellowthroat on the far side of the far field (a female), and shortly afterward heard a male singing there. Meantime, as I headed back towards the area held by the first pair, I was met by the male, again, some distance from the presumed nesting site, and was thoroughly "chucked" out, the female only joining in as I approached the willows.

I used to think that male birds sang until mated, then got to down to the business of nesting, feeding young, etc. with their partners (at least I thought this about the species where the male is an active partner in raising the family). And that does seem to be true of many--my Brewster's has not sung for some time now, for example. The black and white warblers have just started to sing again in the last few days after a long silence, the chestnut-sided also stopped singing quite a while ago, and the list goes on. On the other hand, the robins and wrens never shut up.

The common yellowthroat really is a common bird. Its not as often seen as the house wren or the robin. It rarely nests in people's yards, though the one from the marshy wood across the street occasionally drops by the front yard. But it does seem that there is a pair of common yellowthroats occupying every suitable half hectare available--and the singing is required to keep the neighbours from encroaching, just as in the case of the robins and house wrens. The robins and wrens live here so openly it is obvious that their nesting territories were cheek by jowl--and those boundaries must be maintained, just, as it turns out, as in the case of the common yellowthroat.

The question then is why is this bird so common, when other warblers with apparently pretty similar lifestyles in terms of habitat and food requirements are in trouble.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Urban Wildlife

This little critter (well, little like a house cat) spent the day clinging to the top of the fence in my brother's backyard in Toronto back in June.

Playing possum (Photo: Jeremy Martin)

So far as I know we don't have the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) in this part of Ontario yet, but it is now well established in Toronto, and all points to the southwest.

From a 2002 article in Now Magazine on-line:
Opossums One of the clearest indications that global warming has taken hold in southern Ontario is the rapid increase in the opossum population, particularly in the western part of the GTA.
My brother had never seen one alive in the city before (though he had seen road-killed specimens). After this visit he discovered in conversation with friends and neighbours that sightings and visitations of this strange looking creature (North America's only marsupial) are becoming commonplace in the urban scene.

Didelphis virginiana southern distribution
The Virginia Opossum is a southern species with a range that has recently expanded into the Mixedwood Plains Ecozone of Canada. The clearing of forests and maintenance of agricultural land in southwestern Ontario has benefited this species. Before the widespread destruction of the forests of this ecozone the Virginia Opossum did not occur in eastern Canada.

There are a couple of things I find very interesting about this. First, I have a general interest in the phenomenon of the southern species moving north, as I have alluded to in a couple of posts about bird species turning up around here. Opossums sometimes turn up in very out-of-the-way places, and it is suspected (or sometimes even established) that they accomplish this by stowing away on trucks coming north. The greater the number of trucks, the greater the number of opossums. But now it is understood that there is a more natural movement explaining the gradual build-up of the opossum population across southwestern Ontario, and now into the GTA.

But the other thing is the nature of urban wildlife. As a former city girl (born and bred in Toronto) turned rural nature watcher I often reflect on the differences between the experience of wildlife in the two habitats. This is best illustrated, I think, by experiences with raccoons. Toronto has a huge raccoon population--there is nothing unusual about seeing one there, in fact, there is nothing unusual about seeing one in your kitchen, eating your cat's food out of the bowl, and only leaving slowly and reluctantly after much shouting and stamping of feet on the part of the householder. When I lived in Toronto I often saw them, had to chase them out of attics, had them burst out from under my feet as I walked out the back door, etc. Now that I live in Thomasburg I see them rarely (although I know there are lots here too), and it's almost always a treat, not just another nuisance of life.

There is a wonderful book, Wild Nights by Anne Matthews, about the wildlife in New York City. Cities, the living is tough, but the food is plentiful!!

Saturday, July 23, 2005

In the Yard

According to Bev Wigney's spider gallery of beautiful photographs this lovely specimen found in the garden today is an Agriope Argiope aurantia. (See also What's That Bug.) Note the seam-like structure (called a stabilimentum according to What's That Bug) running down the middle of the web.

The red squirrel is an occasional, usually cross visitor to the Norway maple beside the house.

Brewster's Update

Yesterday I was going to write quite a different story than the one I have today--but I never got around to it. Yesterday I saw the Brewster's in the old apple tree on the far side of the far field, and it seemed to be with another warbler, but damn these slow birder eyes, I only got a glimpse of the other bird and couldn't take in enough of its field marks (it was a warbler in the yellow-greeny group, I think) to make any claims that it might have been with the Brewster's--i.e., partner, young, whatever.

Where the bird was.

Out again early this morning, near the cedar bush where I have been on the lookout for the common yellowthroat that I am pretty sure is nesting near the willow shrubs on the east side of the cedars, there was a warbler "chuck" cacophony. The mosquitoes weren't too bad (cool morning, the first in ages!) so I was able to take up a position and spend some time watching the warblers flit in and out of the foliage. The common yellowthroat was there, and gradually I saw three others as well, including a Brewster's! Same one as the one I've been hearing and seeing on the other side of the far field? The distance between the closest singing perch from earlier in the season and this point is probably not much more than 100 metres, but the habitat changes three (or four) times, making it seem like another world. Because the Brewster's is rare, assume that this was the same bird. Because the Brewster's may well be the offspring of the golden-wing that spent last season here, assume that there are three others for whom this is also home. I may need to find a partner to work the Walk from the other direction for a few mornings to see if we can see Brewster's warblers in two different places at the same time.......

Anyway, the great thing this morning, whoever this bird was, was that it was carrying food, and entering a nest site with noisy nestlings. And one of the other warblers at the scene was a blue-winged, also carrying food, also going into the noisy nest. In one fell swoop, this observation, if accepted, confirms both the Brewster's and the blue-winged warbler as breeders in my breeding atlas square (18UQ11)!! In fact this is the first record of a blue-winged for the square.

The Brewster's warbler is the common form that a hybrid produced by a mating of golden-winged and blue-winged takes. In a way it is more a phenomenon than a bird--and a rather worrying one. The fact of the hybridization and other changes affecting the golden-winged warbler is thought to be putting the species at risk. Cornell Ornithology is running a study right now to monitor golden-winged populations. From their site:

The Golden-winged Warbler is declining precipitously in the northeastern U.S. (7.6% per year in USFWS Region 5), while increasing in the northern and northwestern portions of its range where farmland abandonment and clear cutting is common. The decline may be due, in part, to a loss of shrubland habitat. In addition, this decline correlates with the range expansion of the Blue-winged Warbler into the range of the Golden-winged Warbler. The northward expansion and resultant zone of overlap has led not only to increased competition, but also to widespread interbreeding between the Golden-winged and Blue-winged warblers. Because of this wide-spread hybridization, populations of pure Golden-winged Warblers may soon disappear after the arrival of the Blue-wings.

I was very excited when I first found the Brewster's warbler back in May, and a little apprehensive because I knew this meant I would have to fill out a rare bird report for the breeding atlas. I did the report right away, then as the weeks passed and I saw the bird with great regularity I knew that there had been no mistake about it. And I was hoping that I would get to see it with a mate. I was curious as to what species it would end up with--blue-winged or golden-winged, or another Brewster's. But I am also concerned that the presence of this bird in the field where there was a golden-winged last year is an ominous sign. I just got to know the golden-winged last year, and am fond of it in part because it has a song that I was able to learn fairly easily (certainly much easier than sorting out chestnut-sided from redstarts from magnolia warblers). Now, with the Brewster's mating with a blue-winged, the golden-winged has been edged out here.

In his very interesting book, Out of Eden, Alan Burdick writes about the ambivalence with which some scientists investigating invasive species view their subjects. On the one hand many invaders are very destructive of the ecosystems they invade (the book opens with the brown tree snake, the havoc it has wreaked in Guam and the work being done to prevent it from getting a "foothold" in Hawaii), on the other hand the invasion itself is quite interesting, and there is something attractive about the resourcefulness and tenacity of the winners of the Darwinian struggle.

The blue-winged warbler is not an exotic like the species Burdick discusses, but it is a species whose range is probably expanding because of changes we have made to the habitat in North America over the last hundred years.

The history of life on earth has always been a history of both incremental and sudden, drastic change. Right now we are seeing the ranges of many bird species shifting because of changes in barriers to movement, changes in habitat, changes in weather. A great number of species are shifting north, such as the orchard oriole I recorded in the square. Others are losing habitat because of the reduction in the amount of land used for agriculture over the last hundred years, just as many lost habitat when the forests were cleared in the previous century. The history of the golden-winged warbler, probably largely unknown, would be very interesting to see correlated with logging and the clearing of land for agriculture. The kind of shrubby habitat it prefers, that exists at the edge of the cedar bush and the far field, is there because the forests were cut, the land was farmed and now it is reverting to forest again, both because of the effort of human beings (some years ago a lot of the land in this area that is no longer being farmed was planted with evergreens--this practice is falling out of favour now because it destroys the habitat of the grassland birds) and the natural succession of plant growth--as trees get going, they eventually shade out the shrubbery. Any change of this kind, from grassland to shrub to forest, benefits some species to the detriment of others. Burdick layers his accounts of invasive species in various parts of the world and various habitats with more philosophical musings about what is natural, what our role in ecological change is, and how we perceive the difference.

Personally, in this case, I regret the possibility that the golden-winged warbler, my new friend, is fading away into the blue-winged warbler population, but simultaneously welcome the opportunity to witness the event.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

A Busy Morning in the Yard

The weather has turned--still hot, but the humidity is much decreased. The yard was one busy place this morning. A family of great crested flycatchers is hanging around. Adults calling, fledglings begging, everyone flying from tree to shrub to tree.

The honeysuckles are full of robins, adults and young, and we have some eccentric singers among them. Our local naturalist, Terry Sprague, has written about the problem of dialect differences among birds, i.e., the problem it poses for birders, but he is comfortable distinguishing birds by "tone of voice." I am only really familiar with a few birds' tones, but I am finding at this point on the learning curve I hear much more and am confident of less. So I am out in the yard frequently through the day to see if that really is a robin I hear. What I don't know is if all the funny songs I am hearing are being sung by adults. Maybe the young try out their songs in their first summer?

There is a family of rose-breasted grosbeaks in the mix, and while I usually know this bird's song, it (and a host of others I am just learning) have enough similarity to the robin that again I must check, check, check. The begging call of the grosbeaks is also quite similar to that of the great crested flycatchers--different tone, similar pitch and duration--at least that's how it seems to me.

Even the wrens are creating an epistemological problem for me today. Perhaps because there are wrens in both birdhouses, which I haven't experienced before, either one of them is singing its song almost upside down, or there's a mystery bird out there too--always a live possibility. Right now, through the window, I can hear the mew of a flicker, I think, but it may also be a yellow-bellied sapsucker. Both hang around here--and sometimes by this time of year I'm in birdsong overload, and really need to check everything I hear.

With all this action in the yard, not even mentioning the sparrows, goldfinches, catbirds, common yellowthroats and chickadees (and whoever else I'm leaving out), and the first pleasant morning we've had in long time, I was anxious to get out on the walk.

To my surprise there was very little going on in the fields. I saw one kingbird, some unidentified sparrows, a mourning dove, and of course heard the ubiquitous wrens. Also singing, a field sparrow, and just as I was heading back the common yellowthroat in the cedar bush started up. Maybe if I'd lingered I'd have heard and seen more--I really want to see that Brewster's warbler carrying food (which would confirm it as a breeder for the Breeding Atlas). But I kinda rushed through because of the one species that was very active and very numerous today. From the time I hit the scrape, all through the far field and most of the way back home I was being buzzed by 10 or 15 deer flies. This is more than I've ever seen before at one time here. I wasn't bitten--perhaps like blackflies these were species-specific biters but omnivorous buzzers--but they made it very difficult for me to relax and stand in one spot for any length of time. The mosquitoes, on the other hand, were much less numerous than they have been recently, even in the cedar bush.

The fields turning white

As striking as the number of deer flies in the fields was the change of colour. Where purple dominated just a little while ago (clovers, bugloss, and above all curly vetch) now white has taken over. The sweet clover, a tall clover with clusters of small white flowers and the Queen Anne's lace are just coming in to their own.

Queen Anne's lace

Saturday, July 16, 2005

The Scrape

In spite of the heat and humidity (less smog though) I have finally managed to get out into the fields a couple of times over the last 48 hours. Fledgling activity is high. I saw a family of brown thrashers wandering up the lane at the north end of the scrape. I listened for many minutes to a plaintive cry until I was finally able to identify it as that of a fledgling rose-breasted grosbeak. The oriole family at the near edge of the field was out and feeding and the wrens were scolding everywhere. I've never seen so many wrens here before!

Here is one of the many wrens who scolded me just for being alive this morning.

The other notable observation I made was that the scrapers are back scraping the scrape again this year. Every year they take some topsoil out, and pile up more to sift and remove the next year. All they've done so far is move a pile or two and start a couple of new ones.

The scrapers' scraper, sitting in the fields just north of the original scrape.

The topsoil harvest makes this part of the walk more interesting in a number of ways. The two most obvious are the opportunity it creates for the observation of colonizing plant species, i.e, answering the question (differently every year) of which plants will turn up first to cover the newly bared (and rather impoverished) landscape, and the surface it leaves for tracks.

Deer track

We had rain two days ago--fierce downpour, but not enough to make a real difference. The fields were as dry as dust this morning, but there must have been enough dampness when this deer came through to make this nice clear track.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Where the snakes are.....

Some years are snake years--some years are not. This summer has all the makings of a snake year, hot, still, hazy (we're back in the smog again), but I haven't seen many snakes. The season started with great promise. On May 28 I was sitting on the front porch, glanced across the street and saw a suspicious long thin object sprawled out on the road. I quickly ducked in the house for my shoes, and when I stepped out again I could see that the object had moved--my first instinct had been right, a snake and alive. I started walking over, hoping I would get to it before a car came by.

It was a milk snake, Lampropeltis triangulum, about a metre long but very slim. As I approached it reared up, coiled back and started to vibrate its tail. I managed to chase it off the road in spite of its recurrently diplayed willingness to stand and fight.

In the literature milk snakes are sometimes described as docile, sometimes as feisty, and I have seen both. A couple of years ago I saw my neighbour across the street chasing something on her stoup with a hoe. After a moment or two I realized to my horror that she was chasing a snake. Calling out that I would help I rushed over. That too was a milk snake, but very calm, especially considering the circumstances. It was uninjured (my neighbour told me that she didn't want to hurt the snake, but she couldn't bear for it to be so close to the house), and allowed me to pick it up with no difficulty at all. I carried it back across the street and let it loose in the tall grass at the edge of the yard.

Milk snakes are a species of concern. It is not thought that they are endangered, but because of the habits described above there is believed to be a lot of pressure on their population. The habit of coiling back as if to strike and vibrating the tail puts people in mind of the rattlesnake, as it is intended to do, of course. But people react to the thought of a rattlesnake by killing. The habit of lying on the road leads to death by automobile. So, like so many other species, the primary threat to the milk snake is us.

Because of its status as a species of concern, the Natural Heritage Information Centre (Ontario) collects reports of sightings of this species at their Web site.

Identifying a milk snake is not as easy as I once thought. We see them here every year, some years more than others, and for a while I was convinced that some of the snakes I saw were the much rarer fox snake. The fox snake is provincially rare, and non-existent in eastern Ontario, yet I was not the only one to believe that we had them here in Thomasburg.

The fox snake also vibrates its tail when threatened (and is found in an area where there actually are some rattlesnakes, southwestern Ontario), and is to my eyes quite similar in its markings to the milk snake. Here's a link to a site that has images and descriptions of all the lizards and snakes in Ontario. If you look at the images on the site given you'll see two snakes that look quite different. The milk snake there has much greater contrast between the marks and background on its back, and looks more red than beige. I've seen snakes around here that look like that one, and more, that are very red, with very sharp contrast, and a very clear black-and-white checkered pattern on their bellies (fox snakes also have this belly feature, but with a yellow rather than white background to the markings). These snakes also tend to be very small. It turns out though that as they grow milk snakes tend to become much more brown or beige, and lose that sharp contrast between foreground and background markings. Older milk snakes also tend to be quite large and heavy, generally much heavier than the snake I chased off the road this spring.

So, two years ago I spent some months and many e-mails to various experts trying to establish that there were fox snakes here--sure that the big heavy beige and brown snakes I'd seen had to be these. Finally I found another way to distinguish the species. The fox snake has a divided anal plate, the milk snake does not (there are other species with divided anal plates that might have been part of this story, but as it turned out they were moot). The anal plate is just what is sounds like, a plate on the underside of the snake at the anus.

The controversy ended with the death by car of a snake here in the hamlet. It was one of the mystery snakes, and the accident left the anal plate intact. If you get a good look at the underside of a snake this is a very easy field mark to recognize. The snake had a single anal plate, hence milk snake.

But now there's the black rat snake--a new controversy in the making. The black rat snake is found in eastern Ontario, but only in a few places, primarily Frontenac Provincial Park (east of Thomasburg, due north of Kingston). It is a big snake, and, of course, black. Neighbours in the hamlet report that they have seen this snake, and this year I almost believe (ever hopeful of a sighting of the rare) that I almost saw one a few weks ago. Standing in the driveway, saying goodbye to guests, my arms full of a tomato plant I was carrying down to the car for them I saw just a bit of a very large, very dark snake in the grass. It slithered away before I could get organized to go over for a better look. I've been keeping my eyes peeled ever since.....

Friday, July 08, 2005

Year of the Vetch

This year perennial gardeners in this part of Ontario lost all kinds of plants to a particularly nasty winter: little snow cover, a significant February thaw, and a spring that ran both hot and cold. But a season that's bad for some things is best for others. Few roses made it through, the bloom on the lilacs was pitiful, but the honeysuckles were delightful.

In the fields, due to conditions, amount and timing of rain and frosts among others, and the normal succession of plants (from ragweed to hardwood forest), the dominant wild flowers (or flowers run wild) also change every year. This year is the year of the curly vetch.

Curly vetch close-up

Every year there is some curly vetch in the yard (where the mower doesn't run) and in the fields, but this year, and right now just at its peak, everything else is dominated by it.

Curly vetch covering the far field.

The close-up of the vetch was taken today, a rather gloomy day, which is why the colour is so different (well that and because I'm still learning to control the new camera). I swear it's the same flower.

Also in bloom now are the viper's bugloss, various clovers, fleabane, bladder campion, some mustards, and a number of other wildflowers.

Viper's bugloss

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Speak of the Devil...

Monday I wrote about the house wrens in the yard, and the bluebirds that scouted early in the spring and went on their way because the accomadations weren't ready. Well, yesterday morning a pair of bluebirds turned up to scout for the second nesting! I don't think there's much chance that they could take a house from the wrens at this point, but it was nice to see them.

Meantime the wrens continue to sing, and now one of them has started to renovate the house on the stump.

Wren renovation

Male house wrens entice females by finding suitable nesting cavities and filling them with twigs. When a female accepts the spot, she rebuilds the nest to her liking, but the final product is a pretty stick-filled affair. In the picture you can see that a twig is sticking out of the house today where there was none on Monday. Males will also take on two females (two nests) if they can, but it's pretty clear that there are at least two males in the yard right now.

I also got out on the walk yesterday, in spite of the smog, heat, humidity, mosquitoes and deer flies, but I couldn't linger as long as I like to, so didn't see a whole lot. The chestnut-sided warbler is singing, along with the American redstart, the common yellow throat, and the multitude of sparrows. I did see a king bird, but there was no activity at the nest in the old apple tree. I'll have to keep an eye on it, but I am concerned that the nest may have failed, as many nests located where they can easily be seen seem to.

Walking back I was struck by the growth in the area I call "the scrape," because topsoil is taken off regularly, and earth is piled for the taking the next year. There is usually a scruff of weeds across the scraped earth by this time of the year, but this year the growth seems very lush.

Last year this was a bare, scraped patch of earth and a mound of piled up topsoil--just look at it now!

Monday, July 04, 2005

And Changed Again

After a two-day reprieve we're are back into the heat, humidity and smog again in all of southern Ontario. They say the smog will lift tomorrow by mid-day, but I can feel a breeze from the south through my window as I write, and until that changes the smog will keep pouring in.

So between the weather conditions and the mosquitoes I know are out there, I'm taking the day off from the walk. But there's lots going on here in the yard today. And the house wrens are dominating the scene. House wrens, as the name suggests, like to nest in bird houses when they can get them (i.e., they are cavity nesters, and the houses we put up for bluebirds are a favourite of theirs). In the first round of nesting house wrens occupied the nest box on the elm tree by the road, and a family of chickadees took the house on the stump. Normally we have tree swallows and bluebirds in the boxes, but this year we got them up too late. The swallows and bluebirds scout nesting locations a few weeks (at least) before they're ready to nest, and when they scouted the yard there was nothing that suited them.

You can see twigs poking out of the box--the classic sign of the house wren.

The wrens come a little later, and the chickadees are here all the time and ready to move in. We've had chickadees use a bird house here before, but they are so quiet when they nest (and so noisy the rest of the time) that we scarcely noticed. The house on the stump though is pretty central.

House on the stump.

The chickadees fledged a couple of weeks ago, made a great ruckus all around the yard, and then were off. The wrens fledged this past week from the box on the elm--and from another nest or two whose location I don't know. But there are many wrens in the yard right now--yelling at anything they don't like the look of, and in the last few days there have been two males singing lustily. It looks as if there will be wrens on their second nests in both boxes.

Other fledglings in the yard today: robins and purple finches. The young crows are still yelling their heads off across the street, but they're also moving around more--almost ready to fly with the big guys.

The catbird has started up singing again--it has a song like the thrasher, but each phrase is only used once in the sequence. (I realized that an earlier posting about the song of the thrasher was not entirely clear--what I meant to say is that the thrasher can be distinguished from the catbird because it sings each phrase of its song twice, not once.)

And the poppies are starting to bloom.

Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy, was made illegal in Canada just a few years ago. Strangely enough, this occurred in the context of some legislation to liberalize the laws with respect to marijuana. Somniferum is a self-seeding annual in many gardens in Canada, including this one. But our climate is unsuitable for the production of quality opium.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

A Change of Weather

The heat wave finally broke last night--temperature dropped to below 14C. This morning the sun is shining, the breeze is blowing and the walking is easy.

I've seen two monarch butterflies in the past few days, first of the season. Last year the number we saw here was way down, and according to my sources, all of eastern Ontario was the same. The milkweed is plentiful and just coming into bloom. Here's hoping that we see a few more butterflies this year.

I got out on my walk at about 7:30 this morning. Things were pretty quiet--mainly sparrows singing, and the wood thrush, no warblers. The brown thrasher spent some time follwing me, but I didn't see the fledglings this time. I did however see the Brewster's warbler lurking in the shrubbery, and taking careful note of me. I have yet to see a bird that might be a suitable mate for it--i.e., a female of either of the parent species or a female hybrid (the latter of which I'm not sure I'd recognize). But the lurking does make me suspect that he's nt just singing, but nesting too.

The pair of kingbirds on the other hand are definitely nesting in the old apple tree. The nest is still there, and one bird is firmly sitting on it--so still eggs, not nestlings. The other bird is hanging around--guarding vociferously against crows, but just watching me closely, without comment.

In the centre of the upper half of the image you can see the nest, and on the right hand side the white band on the end of the kingbird's tail.