Thursday, July 28, 2011

Ontario: Ducks on Ice

We begin 2011 with a celebration of the commonplace. Eileen and I took a cold day in January to drive down to J.C. Saddington Park, on the shores of Lake Ontario near our home in Mississauga, so that I could try out my latest iPhone app. This was Geotagger, which allows you, with a bit of prestidigitation, to map the locations of your photographs.

It actually worked (unfortunately, Blogger does not seem to have the ability to display geotagging results for each photo,so you'll have to take my word on that), and in the meantime we passed a pleasant, if chilly, hour or so photographing ducks. 

The Lake Ontario waterfront in and near Toronto us a great place to find diving ducks in winter, but, numerous as they are, they don't always come in close to shore.

For close-range photography of ducks standing about on the frozen shore ice, we had to make do with Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), the most commonplace if the puddleducks.

Mallards, as everyday as they are, are still beautiful things, and the males are among the most colourful of all ducks.

The white breast on this male is a sign that this bird is probably a genetic mixture between wild Mallards and their barnyard descendants.

This is, more or less, an American Black Duck (Anas rubripes).  I say "more or less" because the Black Duck hybridizes with Mallards, and in our corner of Ontario finding a purebred Black Duck can be tricky (if not impossible).  The white tail feathers of this bird are probably an expression of Mallard, rather than Black Duck, genes.

From puddleducks to swans: There were two species of swan at the park, both there as the result of human activity - but for very different reasons. The bird at the top is a Mute Swan (Cygnus olor), the common ornamental species of Europe, introduced to North America in the 19th century.  The other bird is a Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator), a North American species once reduced by overhunting to the brink of extinction.  The birds along the Lake Ontario waterfront are the progeny of a successful reintroduction programme.

This difference means that Mute Swans, lovely as they are, come into the undesirable alien category - though some argue that they may once have been native themselves, on the basis of subfossil bones and a 1595 engraving that suggests that at least some birds were here before Europeans arrived.  Whether any of the Mute Swans currently in North America are descendants of native birds (as opposed to European birds brought in in the late 1800s) is anyone's guess.

Trumpeter Swans are another matter.  When I was a boy this was a species spoken of in the same breath as the Whooping Crane and the California Condor.  In 1935 (some years before I was a boy, I hasten to add) only 69 birds were known to exist.  Well, conservation sometimes works (as does discovery; some 2000 breeding birds turned up in Alaska in the 1960s): a survey in 2005 counted 34,803 trumpeters across North America, an increase of over 11,000 since even the previous census in 2000.

Trumpeters in the Greater Toronto area often carry yellow wing tags, used for Ontario-bred birds as part of a system of marking and tracking swans in both the US (where collars are used instead of tags) and Canada.

I wasn't the only photographer braving the cold -- proof that even the commonest birds (and the right equipment) can draw people (or, at least, fanatics) out -- at least on a sunny day!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Florida: On the Boardwalk

Last year I posted an entry here celebrating to wildlife to be found on two artificially-constructed wetlands in Delray, Florida: Wakodahatchee Wetlands and the Green Cay Nature Center. My final entry for, or at least relating to, 2010 finds Eileen and I back again for a November visit, and presents another gallery of the birds and other creatures we saw at these two sites.

Proof that you can have megafaunal animals in an artificial landscape: the American alligator (Alligator mississipiensis).

The Florida softshell (Apalone ferox) is one of the two common turtles at Wakodahatchee - the other is the Florida Red-bellied turtle  (or cooter) (Pseudemys nelsoni).

This photo of a male Common Green Darner (Anax junius) isn't the sharpest possible, but it is the first time I have photographed a member of the family Aeshnidae (which says more about my status as a newcomer to dragonflies than anything else). Note the vertical posture, apparently typical of darners.

This is a dragonfly I have photographed before, a male Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis).

The Black-bellied Whistling Ducks (Dendrocygna autumnalis) seem to have taken over at  Wakodahatchee since my last visit. Once a species I glimpsed only in the distance or flying over (if at all), now they were busy shepherding lovely little troops of striped ducklings through the bulrushes.

 This is a young juvenile Black-bellied Whistling Duck, duller than the adult it will become but still graceful.

Large numbers of teal winter in south Florida. At Wakodahatchee the Blue-winged Teal (Anas discors) is by far the commoner species. This is, however, a Green-winged Teal (Anas carolinensis).

I find it a bit tricky to tell non-flying winter-plumage Blue-wings from the less-numerous Green-winged Teals (like these), which probably says more about my birding skills than about their similarities. 

Adults, of course, are another matter.  This is a green-wing.

This is a young Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) in the plumage it first acquires after moulting out of its streaky juvenile feathering. Next year it will exchange this for the crisp black, white and grey of an adult.

A stolid little Green Heron (Butorides virescens) waits for something interesting to swim by.

A Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) pauses on the boardwalk...

While a Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea) fishes in the reeds.  This is a good example of the illogicality of English bird names.  It is (now) in the same genus as the Snowy Egret, but it is not white as an adult so we call it a heron instead.

A Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) catches some rays.

Roseate Spoonbills (Ajaia ajaja) are uncommon in freshwater wetlands like Green Cay, so I was very glad to see this one even if the light didn't show its colours off to best advantage.

Wakodahatchee is a great place to see the usually-shy Sora (Porzana carolina).  I have often seen severa of these little crakes on a single walk, feeding out in the open.

An American Coot (Fulica americana) and a winter-plumage Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) float side by side.

The gem of the wetland, for most people, is the lovely American Purple Gallinule (Porphyrula martinica).  The upper bird is a juvenile.

A Wilson's Snipe (Gallinago delicata) works its way through the bulrushes.

The handsomely-marked Florida race of the Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus extimus) is the common Buteo in the southern part of the state. 

This Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) spent the day perching quietly in a thicket at Green Cay, close to a bird feeder set out for unsuspecting songbirds (who apparently weren't as unsuspecting as all that, because they gave the feeder a wide berth).

An Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) watches for insects from a favourite perch.

To finish off (and to end my entries on our 2010 travels), here is a plant: the rather startling American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana, Verbenaceae). Its berries can apparently be made into jelly - of a colour I cannot imagine!

Scotland: Over the Bridge to Skye

I have been maintaining this blog, so far, in strict (if tardy) chronological order, but this is a bit of a backtrack. Last September, about a month before our trip to Jamaica,  Eileen and I took advantage of a request I received to give a presentation at Oxford (no, not to the University!) to spend a lovely twelve days exploring Scotland.  I wasn't going to include it here, as it was more history- and scenery-related than a nature trip, but Eileen has asked me to at least say something about it.  She was right, of course - I really should share at least one of our stops (September 13-15), on the beautiful (and very natural!) Isle of Skye.

In times past, of course, visitors had to emulate Bonnie Prince Charlie and travel over the sea to Skye.  No longer.  Today one travels above it, over a modern span of concrete - handy, if unromantic.

Skye, though, is certainly a romantic spot. Here, through the mist and rain, is a distant view of the famous pinnacle known as the Old Man of Storr.  The landscape in the northern part of the island consists of Tertiary lava flows overlying Jurassic sedimentary rock, modified by erosion and landslips to produce the wild and rugged country tourists (like us) love.

Most of Skye (except for the more sheltered south) is treeless, bog-laden (but magnificent) moorland.

On a short visit like ours it is difficult so see much of the island's wildlife, though there is plenty of it.  Sheep, though, are easy to come by.  This rather stolid individual is, I believe a Scottish blackface, apparently the commonest sheep breed in the UK.

We all know about the heather on the hill, but on Skye heather adds a touch of autumn colour to the coast as well.  From a clifftop bed of heather surviving the stiff sea winds, this is Bell Heather (Erica cinerea).

Growing with it was the plant simply known as "Heather", Calluna vulgaris.

Dinosaurs might not be the first things that come to mind when you think of Skye, but in fact it is Scotland's premier locality for Middle Jurassic dinosaur fossils.  To see them, we stopped by the Staffin Museum at Ellishadder, housed in a picturesque old school building.

Like so much else in Scotland, Staffin's dinosaurs are a source of national pride.  Notice the St. Andrew's Cross on this (undoubtedly independence-minded) individual.

Staffin's dinosaur remains are pretty fragmentary; here is a bit of sauropod limb bone.  A full skeletal mount would knock the roof off the museum.

We didn't see them (they aren't always exposed to view), but apparently the rocks below the museum carry an extensive set of tracks left, back in the Jurassic, by unknown (and presumably ornithischian) dinosaurs.  This footprint (apparently a cast?) has been taken up to the museum itself.

It is the seacoast of Skye, of course, that gives it some of it's most magnificent vistas - particularly where the land ends in a great sea-cliff.

From the crumbling ruins of an island manor, I could look down to the sea where Grey Seals rolled tin the surf, or out to a nearby islet where Northern Gannets (Morus bassanus) circled before plunging into the sea for a fish.

Where the coastline was less dramatic I could explore the beach wrack. In Victorian times seaweed-collecting was a highly-respectable pastime, as testified to by WS Gilbert, who testified to the mildness of his Reverend Hopley Porter by noting that he "In old maid's albums, too / Sticks seaweed - yes, and names it!"

I suppose I am doing the same by sticking these photographs in my blog, and pointing out to my attentive readers that they illustrate, as far as I can tell (with the help of a useful site from the Natural History Museum in Tring), Bladder Wrack (Fucus vesiculosus, the flat-bladed alga studded with bean-shaped bladders) and, I think, Channeled Wrack (Pelvetia canaliculata).

One of the features of Skye is the so-called Coral Beach - a name that seemed particularly incongruous to Eileen and I as we made our way along the trail towards it, fighting gusts of icy wind, nearly horizontal rain and even stinging ice pellets.  Anyway, the pinkish grains on the beach are not really the remains of corals but of red calcareous algae.

Ah, the weather. They say that on Skye, you can experience all four seasons in ten minutes.  It's true.

For our final departure from Skye we decided not to use the bridge, but to take the ferry from the southern end of the island over to Mallaig. On the crossing we could look out over the sea to the Isle of Rum to the south, a major nesting ground (earlier in the season, of course) for the Manx Shearwater (Puffinus puffinus).  Numbers of the birds themselves flew across our bow as we made our way back to the mainland - giving me what I thought was going to be my closest looks for the day.

I was, however, wrong. On the way south of town we came across the unlikely sight of two Scotsmen unloading shoeboxes of shearwaters from the boot of their car, carrying the birds to the coast across the road and tossing them out to sea.

They were on a rescue mission. Young shearwaters hatched on the Isle of Rum can become disoriented by town lights, and come crashing into rooftops and gardens at night, where, without some assistance, they are unlikely to find their way back to the safety of the ocean.

Martin Carty and his friend Steve invited us back to Martin's house to see a most unusual find for the area: a Leach's Storm Petrel (Oceanodroma leucorhoa) awaiting measurement, weighing and release.

Martin and Steve work very hard (and for free) to help the shearwaters of Mallaig.  According to their website they rescued 255 shearwaters in 2009, and I doubt that the job has gotten any easier since.  Good for them (and, if they read this, thanks!).