Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Of Snow, Education and Owls

Wednesday, February 26, 2014 Sunny, -11C, Windchill -25C

Dear Readers:

I made it back to the Great White North.

The car sojourn from South Carolina to Kanata, Ontario went well, though it was exceedingly dull.

Noted:  I was just ahead (February 11) of another winter storm that paralysed the deep USA south.  The I-95 in North Carolina was receiving a brine mix to ward off icing, as the snow began to fall.  The hills of northwestern Virginia and southern Pennsylvania were covered in deep snow, and the temperature in southern PA, where I spent the night, was down to single digits, Fahrenheit. 

With the Great Lakes 90% frozen, and the weather pattern unchanging, an early Spring seems unlikely.

Some quick daytrips, one on snowshoes on my nature club's lovely trail (The Macnamara Trail in Arnprior, ON) and another just to the west of my home, in the farming community of West Carleton, yielded few birds, and wildlife. Needless to say, botanicals are hard to come by up here in February.

Birds, with the exception of raptors, are few and far between.  Waterfowl have mostly gone further south and to the coast to find open water. That explains the Red-necked Grebes seen off Huntingdon Beach, SC during my visit there.

Yesterday, February 25th, in the afternoon, I went with Jon Ruddy to the North Gower-Stittsville area. This region is dominated by large dairy farms with huge flat fields reminiscent, this time of the year, of the Tundra.  Sure enough, the massive irruption of Snowy Owls into this area was evident. We saw 5 in less than 2 hours. This is a lifetime high for me.

The Snowy Owls haven't been seen in such large numbers in over 50 years.  Researchers have linked their summer 2013 breeding success to a very large population of Lemmings on the Canadian Tundra.  When they are in our region for the winter, their diet broadens from these rodents to many different species of rodents and birds, including ducks and even Great Blue Herons. Snowys are our largest owls by weight.  Whiter owls are older. Most of the owls being seen are darker, as they are juveniles.  Adult females have more darker barring than males. Males, just like humans, get whiter with age.  Therefore, this one may be a middle-aged male, as he still has some light barring on his chest.

Also seen were many American Crows, a large flock of Mallards feeding on corn (which may attract a passing Gyrfalcon in the near future!), one Ruffed Grouse feeding on tree buds, many Red-tailed Hawks, including one with a lot of white on its chest and light colouring overall, and two other winter visitors, a Lapland Longspur with Horned Larks.

Horned Larks

Lapland Longspur

The cold weather keeps we central Canadians indoors more than in warmer seasons. For some of us, this results in much (sometimes too much!) time to think about things. 

As a former classroom educator, and a nature educator, the trend towards urbanization and consumerism has desensitized our society from our natural world.

When I started out in education back in the 70's, I had notions of being an "outdoor education" specialist. This idea quickly went by the wayside, as the entrenched classroom education system became larger and more institutionalized during that period.  Our youth has endured the consequences ever since. The classroom model selects for a very narrow set of qualities, giving youth with those qualities a large advantage during crucial development years.

As in nature, I think diversity is a better model, and I now see the wisdom in efforts to achieve this by conservatives back in the 1970's (charter schools, innovative parent determined funding etc.).  These are inadequate, in my estimation, but, at minimum, if one ignores the ideological biases our politics engenders, they are creative. The outdoor educator can work with new media and create very rich learning experiences for all ages in multiple environments. This could achieve a greater diversity of offerings to multiple learning styles, as every child does learn differently.

I would be most interested in having feedback on this cultural trend towards desensitization.  Horrors...I read today on Facebook some sociologists have LABELED this phenomenon.  Shudders.

More soon.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Isn't this Ducky (OR Nothin' Could be FInah than to be in Carolinah)

Sunday, February 9, 2014  Huntingdon Beach State Park South Carolina. Sunny, Breezy, high 50's

This Park, near Myrtle Beach, is a must for the ecologist or ornithologist.  It is located on US 17, just south of Murrell's Inlet.  For $5, you have access to fine trails, lovely beach, and the finest example of a Spartina Salt Marsh I have seen.  My first ecology course at McGill University used a textbook written by Georgia Professor E P Odum, whose research on Spartina salt marshes proved them to be the most biologically productive ecosystems on our continent.  Therefore, visiting such  a fine example does close the circle for me.  Along with Spartina, local volunteers have worked to re-introduce the natural kidneys of the Salt Marsh: Oysters.

Spartina Salt Marsh (Myrtle Beach in background)

Happy Oysters gathered on Pylon

I had a serendipitous moment.  As I searched for birds at the causeway which crosses the marsh, another birder was looking at the birds.  He turned out to be Jack Peachey,  previously a leader of the Carolina Bird Club, and author of the Huntingdon Beach State Park Bird Checklist.  This was Jack's first time out after recovery from an illness, and we shared my scope to see some of the local birds.  The sun did wash out some ducks at the far end of the marsh, and I promised Jack I would check then out and report:
Jack, it was a great delight and honour to meet you.. We saw these Black-bellied plovers together (one starting to get spring colours).  The ducks were mostly Green-Winged Teal, and there were also Coots, some Blue Winged Teal and a Mute Swan.

While with Jack, a Forster's Tern landed after a successful bout of fishing:

I then went to the last beach before returning to the frozen north.  After observing a pair of Red-necked Grebes, some Herring, Laughing and Ring-billed Gulls, and these Sanderlings,

I took a series of beach photos, ones that are designed to give the feeling of an Atlantic Beach, and its possibilities, sounds, sights, smells:

I then finished my day with a ducky time, after going to the education center, and finding Carolina Chickadees, Cardinals, and this Tufted TItmouse at the feeder, and, the ubiquitous Yellow-rumped Warbler at the bath:

Duck-phasmagoria (pick out the (Jon) Ruddy Duck:

Ruddy Duck

Four Species (which one is the Redhead?)
Thanks again, Jack.  We hope to see you adding to the checklist soon!

What a Deal=$5 for a carload of nature....

February 6-7, 2014  Last Two Days in Florida this time around: cool, windy, showery, high in mid 60's

I decided, given the cool windy conditions, to look in the hammocks for song birds, first on February 6, at Merritt island National Wildlife Refuge's Palm and Oak Hammocks.    Both trails cover habitats different from the wetlands through most of the Refuge. I was hoping to find a few unique birds within the hammocks: warblers, wrens, thrushes etc.

It was a very invigorating walk in a pleasant environment...but , alas, just one new bird heard: Carolina Wren (SPRING SONG!).

Then I thought back to the day before.....the Peacock and Black Point Roads had yielded some excellent views, species and scenes.

The spectacular views can be seen every day of the year, and they constantly change-like an ongoing fireworks display.

OR: You can pay $50 a person to get beyond this sign:

So you can get a close up view of this high rise windowless apartment building for rockets:

Thank goodness Merritt Island NWR and Canaveral National Seashore's 200,000 acres provide more interesting aesthetic delights at a fraction of the price:

Seaside Gentian, Eustima Exaltatum

A few birds stopped by and agreed,,,,they found me, and my car more interesting than the rocket place:

I ended my stay in Florida with a visit, in the afternoon of February 7th, to Brevard County's Enchanted Forest Park, where an excellent county environmental education program is conducted. This lovely property in Titusville is complementary o Merritt Island, as it includes ridge and hammock habitats not found in Merritt Island,  Therefore, it wasn't surprising to see/hear quite a variety of birds/trees and vegetation , including Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher, Eastern Phobe, Barred Owl, Pileated Woodpecker Carolina Wren, Cedar Waxwings, Tufted Titmouse, some of which were not found a Merritt Island.

I left Florida next day, making my way to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Lands that are Wet (and some of the occupants)

 Thursday, February 6th, Cloudy, drops of rain, windy, 65F

A great day to visit some of the hammock trails in the refuge.  And some new birds seen, for this trip: Bald Eagle, Anhinga, Herring Gull.

Then back to the wetlands.  And that is our theme.  Back in the 1960's, I learned some ecology. Much of what I learned came from a professor in Georgia, named E.P. Odum, who, with his brother, Howard, studied the biological productivity of salt marshes, especially Spartina marshes, which are amongst the most productive ecosystems on Earth.  Other wetlands  (like those created by our friendly mangroves) and freshwater cattail marshes are also highly productive, both in terms of biological productivity,  but also in their core ecosystem functions, they are the "kidneys" of our water systems, and, to some extent the lungs and heart.

The destruction of these wetlands back in those days, was occurring at an alarming rate.  Places like the Everglades and Merritt Island, and much more attentiveness in general in the US, and to some extent in Canada, has slowed, and in some cases, has even reversed the loss of these vital ecosystems.  In many other places on other continents, this is not the case, and the consequences may be catastrophic.

So for me, visiting these special places has a "life journey" component. It is with great awe I am witnessing these places, and some of the residents that thrive here.   I will focus today on the wading and shore birds.  Many of these breed in northern Canada or the Prairies, and spend the cold  months on the south coasts.

Freshwater Marsh-Savanna Preserve State Park, Florida
Saltwater Marsh-Merritt Island NWR-note the White Pelican from the Prairies. The mass of birds around the Pelican are waterfowl, including Lesser Scaup, Coots, American Widgeon and Blue-Winged Teal, which share this habitat with many marine animals, like Mullet and Blue Crab.

Lesser Scaup

White Pelicans feeding.   We used to watch these magnificent birds on their nesting sites on the Red River in Manitoba when we lived there in the 1980's.  A few days ago, I counted 120 of them flying over Merritt Island on thermals.

Osprey, keeping watch over his kingdom.

Palm Warbler, having just bathed, peers out of the cattails of one of Merritt Island's freshwater marshes.

White Pelican
Many more birds are seen on lagoon mudflats and in the marshes.  They seek safety in numbers, with many unrelated species resting together.
Little Blue Hunting for lunch

Dozing Roseate Spoonbill

A Wilson's Snipe takes a break too.

A Ring-Billed Gull shares a mudflat with a Royal Tern

We didn't see these two in the same habitat back in St. Lucie County, but here they feed on the same mudflat.  The Sanderling (top) is a small sandpiper....and the bird in the foreground is the smallest sandpiper (Least)

Close-up of Least Sandpiper

One of the more difficult shore birds to identify is the Yellowlegs, as there are two species, Lesser and Greater..

...but here the feed side by side, often in synchronicity. This makes identification much easier!

This tiny Bonaparte's Gull is the same size as its Forster's Tern neighbour.

And then there were two Bonaparte's Gulls

and also Black Skimmers......seeing these skim the water is something to behold.

Not yet in breeding plumage, this is the magnificent Prairies resident, American Avocet.The diversity in these wetland environments is truly astonishing.  I recall in the literature for Biscayne National Park south of Miami that Biscayne National Park has more species of fish, alone, than all the vertebrate species in Colorado.  

A Taste of Birds

Merritt Island NWR  February 2-6  Very warm week, mid 80's, humid, passing showers, the kind where the sun keeps shining through the pouring rain:

Some scenes from the Biolob, BlackPoint and Peacock drives.  I will be trekking through the hammocks today (February 6) as it is cooler, predicted high of 70.  I will be on the lookout for some Florida songbirds today.  Theresa's rooster (Coronet Motel)  started this morning before sunrise! Do roosters count for a "list"?

Four turtles and 3 species.  Peninsula and Red-Bellied Cooters and a Florida Soft-shelled enjoying some basking.

A Bluegill.  Gar are also common in the fresh water pools, as are Large-mouthed bass.  Ok, the title is birds, so expect the unexpected.  It keeps readers slightly off-balance.

Cuban Anoles are by far the most common lizard in Florida.  They are exotic and quite invasive.  This one believes he is a Tyrannosaur.

Whaaaaa...? Who DID that?

Clarisse.....I tell you, it can work....ok, so we have different feathers....all right you are an Egret, I am this weird looking Spoonbill...but , come ON Clarisse, give me a break.


What? Who called us SILLY?

Belly Study with Synchronized Dabbling

Cutest Little Gull....there are about 50 of them in the Merritt Island NWR and Canaveral National Seashore right now: Bonaparte's Gull.

Reflections of the local Bridge foursome-Northern Pintails

Synchronized Preening.  Synchronicity appears to be a wading and waterfowl trait.  Northern Shovelers.
This Snowy Egret stood on a water control culvert each day.  He had figured out this is where all the food has to come to swim to the next pool!
A Florida Scrub Jay stares into the setting sun

Even Killdeer appear, acting more like the plovers they are rather than an upland baseball field nesting bird.

This Reddish Egret's colours are enhanced by the setting sun.