Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Spring is trying to arrive...really!

We often get a bit anxious for spring to arrive once the end of March is in sight. But in reality, it can take its time. Of course we were spoiled by warm spring-like weather back in February, so the ever so slow arrival now that spring has officially arrived, at least according to the calendar, makes one impatient.

The presence of Snowy Owls is not an indicator of spring, and only a few days ago I came across 3 birds in more or less the same spots they have been all winter. They weren't in very good places for photos, and the distance, back-lighting and sunlight shimmer made getting any photo at all a challenge.

 The same conditions applied in my attempt to capture a shot of this Northern Harrier that had just pounced on a vole.

As is usual for this time of year, waterfowl are quite plentiful. There are many thousands of ducks scattered across Rondeau Bay, for example, even though it became mostly covered in ice again following the recent cold spell. But as the ice diminishes, the waterfowl become more abundant.
 Species such as Canvasback, Redhead and both scaup species seem to be the most common, but there are good numbers of Gadwall and American Wigeon as well.

Canvasback, with a few Lesser Scaup arriving

Greater Scaup
Northern Shovelers are getting to be more common. When they are feeding, they are quite distinctive as the swim around in a tight flock and appear headless, since their spoon-bills are under the water searching for food.

One of my favourite ducks, the Ring-necked Duck, is showing up in good numbers..... are Red-breasted Mergansers.

It has been a good year for Greater White-fronted Geese, once considered a rarity in this region. Small groups have been seen in various places, including both the Ridgetown and Blenheim Sewage Lagoons as well as the vicinity of both Rondeau and St. Clair NWA.

Not a species of waterfowl in the strict sense, is the Horned Grebe. Some of them are looking kind of scruffy at this time of year, as they are changing from their winter plumage to their breeding plumage.
 Others are much farther along. Numbers of them are building along the local waterways, with up to a dozen seen recently in the Erieau area.

American Robins have been around all winter it seems. On occasion I've had 12-15 right around our house, but they are fairly common and widespread throughout the area.

Killdeer are also building in numbers, and I expect that I will soon be seeing them laying eggs. Last year I came across a full clutch of 4 eggs in mid April.
Sparrows were noticeable by their absence most of the winter. However Song Sparrows have arrived in large numbers, with several hundred being reported by more than one observer at Rondeau in the last couple of days.
I have yet to see my first Tree Swallow or Eastern Phoebe of the season, but they arrived in southern Ontario in the few days. Purple Martins won't be far behind!

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Winter photography

The title might conjure up snowy landscapes and such, but this post will be about a different type of winter photography.

I am involved in a project which in part, involves getting photos of twigs of trees and large shrubs, focusing especially on buds, leaf scars and other characteristics that are helpful in their identification. I must admit before this I had never spent a lot of time using such minute characteristics to identify trees. Instead I would consider the type of habitat the tree was growing in and rely on its overall form, as well as the bark characteristics. So this project was a challenge, especially since it relied on a fairly precise form of macro photography. I've explained a little about my macro technique at the end of this post.

I'm not sure exactly how many I have photographed so far, but well over one hundred species. This has involved a lot of time looking through the camera, as well as countless hours processing the images afterwards. But it has been an eye-opener in some ways.

Lots of the buds and leaf scars are extremely small, and at first glance one doesn't look a whole lot different than another. But a closer look just highlights the tremendous diversity there is. This first one is Black Maple, an uncommon tree in Canada limited primarily to southern Ontario. It has fine gray hairs on the cluster of terminal buds.

This next one is Ohio Buckeye. For all intents and purposes it is an endangered species, although not officially so. It occurs naturally at only one location in all of Canada.
A somewhat similar species, at least in the same genus, is Horse Chestnut. It isn't native to Ontario, but is sometimes planted for ornamental purposes. Even though it is the same genus as the previous one, the bud and leaf scar are quite a bit different.
This next one does not have any legal status, although it is extremely rare in Ontario. It is known as Pawpaw, and at least from the historical data, is more common in Chatham-Kent than any other municipality in Ontario, which is a bit surprising given the overall lack of forest cover in C-K.

Next are a few of the hickories found in Ontario. First up is Bitternut Hickory, fairly common in southern Ontario deciduous woods. It is readily identifiable with its bright yellow buds.
 Next is Red or Pignut Hickory. It is quite rare in Canada, being found only in a small part of Essex County and several municipalities from about Long Point east to the GTA.
 Big Shellbark Hickory is scattered across an even smaller part of extreme southern Ontario than the previous species. A telltale feature is that this time of year, many of the leaf stems remain attached to the outer twigs.
 Much more common across southern Ontario and Quebec is Shagbark Hickory.
 These next few are shrubs. First is Flowering Dogwood, an endangered species in Canada. This first image of it shows the non-flowering buds.
 The flowering buds are quite large by comparison, and in late April or early May will open up into an impressive white 'flower', although what appears to be white flower petals are really sepals, another part of a flower, and the petals themselves are very tiny.
A common shrub especially in damp places is Red-osier Dogwood. In the winter its stems are quite bright red, as shown.
 An uncommon shrub is American Hazel, most often found in shrubby prairie, savanna and even drier rocky habitat. These are the male flowers that will open in the spring.
 Not a native species, but occurring in natural areas from time to time, is Winged Euonymus, which has prominent wings along its stem. Not all are as prominent as what shows in this next photo.
 A related, native Euonymus is Burning Bush, which has somewhat square branches.
Ash trees are on the decline in southern Ontario. For more on that topic, check out this previous blog post. This first image shows the terminal buds and twig characteristics of Black Ash, which occurs in quite wet habitat.

In comparison is Red Ash, with its densely hairy stem. It is, or at least was, one of the most common ash species in southern Ontario.
 A real rarity is Blue Ash, found in a few scattered locations in southern Ontario. It has declined due to the Emerald Ash Borer, and is getting harder and harder to find even where it formerly occurred. It is easily identified by its winged stems.

A cross-section of a Blue Ash stem
Another rare and declining tree is Butternut, legally endangered due to a canker that has killed many individuals.
 Closely related is the much more common Black Walnut.
 Next is English Walnut, not native but occasionally planted in landscape settings. The green twig is clearly distinctive.
The unofficial flagship tree species of the Carolinian Life Zone is the Tuliptree, with its distinctive buds.
 Hop Hornbeam, shown next, is identifiable as its partially developed male flowers are present throughout the winter.
Oaks are plentiful across the Ontario landscape. Their buds and twigs aren't always that distinctive, but in these next two examples I show White Oak, with its reddish, hairless twigs.....
 ....and Swamp White Oak, with its somewhat shaggy twig.

An extremely abundant shrub across southern Ontario, is Staghorn Sumac. Its twigs are densely hairy.

Another shrub is Wayfaring Viburnum, native to Europe but commonly planted  for ornamental purposes and as a food source for birds. The leaf buds are very different from almost every other species I have seen so far.
 Prickly Ash is not something one wants to go charging through at any time of year. The thorns are quite stout. The thorns in combination with the leaf scar bundles almost looks like a face, with arms outstretched.

And last, but not least, is this next one: Cherry Birch. It is native, legally endangered, and limited to one site in all of Canada, in the Niagara peninsula.

These are just a few of the many twigs and buds, etc that I have photographed over the last few months. It is a laborious task, but enjoyable, and I have been able to work with some really keen botantists and horticultural specialists in the process. Many of these photos were taken from specimens from the University of Guelph Arboretum, and I have lots more to do!

All of the above photos were taken with a full frame camera, a 100mm macro lens, and up to 68mm of extension tubes. Even at that, some of the photos were cropped. Almost all are at life size or more, although the photos as shown here are actually much greater than life size. The depth of field at this magnification is extremely shallow, in some cases only a couple of millimetres, so I have had to use flash, as well as a flash diffuser. I have also had the camera set-up on a tripod with a ball head, and a focusing rail which enables me to fine tune the focus to fractions of a millimetre.

So next time you are out hiking or birding during the leafless season, take a moment or two to explore and enjoy the interesting examples of nature's design all around you, including twigs. You might have to reverse your binoculars and use them as a magnifying lens to see some of the features.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Ice is nice

Now that it is unseasonably cold again, at least for a few days, this post may not seem so out of place.

Most people like ice, one way or another. Some like it in their drink of choice. Some like it to skate on. Or fish through. Or go ice-boating or snowmobiling on.

Some photographers find ice to be very photogenic.

Outdoor ice can be fickle if one's desire is to play a bit of pond hockey, especially in a 'winter' like we have just experienced.

Ice, just like its liquid state, is remarkable for a whole lot of reasons. One of the most remarkable aspects of water is that as it gets colder, it gets denser and heavier, and is heaviest at about 4C. I remembered this fact from my high school days, but was reminded in a very practical way one time a few years ago. One of my colleagues and I had chartered a fishing boat late in the season to get to one of the islands in the western basin of Lake Erie to do some field work. The captain wanted to know exactly how much travelling we needed to do, since because the water was much colder, and denser, than it was in the summer, it took more fuel to operate the boat and he didn't want to get stranded!

The colder the water, at least down to when it gets to 4C, the heavier it is, and the lower in the pond or lake it gets. Anyone who goes swimming knows that the water is always colder near the bottom, unless it has been quite wavy, mixing the water. When the water is calm, it settles into layers, with the warmest layer always at the top.

Once water gets to be a temperature lower than 4C, it gets lighter, returning to the surface and may eventually turn to ice. That is why ice cubes float in a glass, and a pond or a lake is covered with ice rather than freezing from the bottom up. If it froze from the bottom up, it could freeze solid, destroying all the life in the pond or lake. But with the ice on the top, sometimes covered by an insulating layer of snow, the ice and snow protect the water and life underneath from long term and perhaps bitter cold. Since the water at the bottom of the pond or lake is a bit warmer than at the surface, that is why ice fishermen sometimes see a Snapping Turtle crawling along on the bottom, or they catch a Mudpuppy (a type of salamander) nibbling away at the worm or minnow on their line. Both turtles and mudpuppies are cold-blooded, but apparently able to function in temperatures just a bit above freezing.

Just something to think about, next time you are enjoying the tinkling of ice cubes in your favourite beverage on a warm summer day!