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Mark & Roberta Buchanan

Roberta and Mark Buchanan are nature enthusiasts who are always eager to share their outdoor experiences with others. Roberta is a retired educator with a passion for birding, and Mark is a retired engineer who enjoys photography.

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It has been an amazing couple of weeks with the return of Red-winged Blackbirds, Killdeer, Turkey Vultures, Common Grackles, Eastern Bluebirds, Eastern Meadowlarks, and Sandhill Cranes.  We have been lucky enough to see all of these returnees and it makes us think of spring!

We saw our first Killdeers, Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, and Turkey Vultures in mid-February.  On February 26 we were lucky enough to see three male Eastern Bluebirds looking to scout out the best habitat.

On March 1 we saw a pair of Eastern Meadowlarks – in full breeding colours – and they stayed around for three days!  Their beautiful flute-like songs certainly made it seem like spring had arrived even though they were singing in the snow!

Also migrating through are the Tundra Swans and the Sandhill Cranes on their way to their summer breeding grounds.

Enjoy the sights and sounds of the returning birds – spring is just around the corner!

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On a warm sunny winter day, if you venture outside, you may notice what looks like pepper sprinkled on the snow. Look more closely and you will notice that the pepper is moving! Indeed it’s jumping great distances for its size. Its common name is very apt as they can catapult themselves up to 100 times their own body length using an abdominal appendage called a furcular. This structure is what gives the group its name – Springtails. The furcular folds beneath the body and is held under tension until needed, once tension is reached the end slips out of a receptacle and snaps against the snow which throws the Springtail into the air.

Click here for a brief video of a magnified Springtail

Springtails play an important role in natural decomposition, feeding on decaying organic matter in the soil and thereby recycling nutrients for plants. They are able to withstand the bitter temperatures of winter thanks to a “glycine-rich antifreeze protein,” which binds to ice crystals as they start to form, preventing the crystals from growing larger.

Springtails belong to the subphylum called Hexopoda – six-legged arthropods. They are commonly called Snow Fleas but they are not related to fleas in any way!  There are many species of Hexapoda in Canada and all are quite small, about one millimeter in length. They live in the soil where they are seldom encountered, however they can be extremely numerous with populations reaching 250,000,000 per acre.

So if you are out walking in the winter look in depressions in the snow where Springtails like to congregate.  A foot print or other depression offers a microhabitat that is just a little warmer, is protected from the wind, and the snow is saturated with liquid water.  And say thank you to these important little environmentalist for their help in recycling plant nutrients!

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We enjoy canoeing on the Sydenham River in the spring and summer, but probably our favourite season for paddling this river is autumn.  This year the month of October had warmer than normal weather and we took advantage of a forecasted picture perfect day with no wind and sunny skies for our last paddle of the season.  Heading upstream (north) from near Wilkesport, the north branch of the Sydenham River begins where Black Creek and Bear Creek merge.  Either of these tributaries is interesting so we paddled both.  Trees on the riverbank were showing their fall colours and leaves floated on the river going neither north nor south as there is very little current this time of year.  Temperatures were comfortable and the bright sun sparkled on the water’s surface.

 

Coming around the first bend in Bear Creek, we spotted a group of Wood Ducks in the water under an overhanging tree.  They didn’t notice us and we were able to glide closer and see what we believe were first fall males along with adult males and females.  It was a great juxtaposition between the young and mature males: the juveniles are colorful, but their feathers look scruffier.  The adult male however is a gentleman of distinction; beautiful colors and smooth overall.   Before we got any closer than 60 meters the group took off and headed upstream.  We saw them again from a distance, but then they were wary of us and we never got close again.

Wood Duck (Aix sponsa)

 

Wood Duck adult male

Great Blue Herons were abundant on both creeks; we observed at least five individuals, all immatures.  These birds typically enjoy having long sections of the river to themselves and in some cases they clearly didn’t appreciate the proximity of other Herons, vocally scolding the heron who encroached into their range.  We were lucky enough to watch a Great Blue Heron catch a fish; close enough (40 meters) for decent photos but far enough not to disturb the bird.  The herons stand motionless, and then lunge into the water with startling speed to snatch an unsuspecting fish.

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)

 

The Herons also put on quite a show in flight, with their plumage reflecting the bright blue sky and fall colored leaves in the background.  It’s amazing to see the way individual flight feathers are used when the bird is landing.

Great Blue Herons have specialized feathers on their chest that continually grow and fray. The herons comb this “powder down” with a fringed claw on their middle toes, using the down like a washcloth to remove fish slime and other oils from their feathers as they preen. Applying the powder to their underparts protects their feathers against the slime and oils of swamps.

 

Great Blue Herons are excellent fishers.  They exhibit great patience, standing very still in shallow water or on the shore, waiting for a fish or frog to stray too near.  Sometimes the Herons stand on one leg, which doesn’t appear to affect their ability to remain motionless.

For the most part, despite the near silence of a canoe, it’s hard to approach ducks much closer than 75 meters and the Mallards we saw were no exception.  At the first glimpse of the boat they would burst into the air in a flurry of water drops and wingbeats.

Along the riverbanks we observed numerous small birds, Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Robins, a few different species of Sparrows, American Goldfinch, Belted Kingfisher, Northern Flicker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Red-tailed Hawks, Turkey Vultures, Eastern Phoebe, Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays.

 

After five hours of paddling up and downstream, we were back to where we put in, a Red-tailed Hawk soared overhead in a cloudless sky making his trademark shriek.  Another awesome fall canoe trip was over.  We highly recommend canoeing the Sydenham; it’s truly a hidden gem of Lambton County.  For more information on this river and how to locate the boat launch site, please refer to our post from last year: http://lambtonwildlife.com/blog/natural-areas/paddle-the-sydenham-river/

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Fall is a spectacular time to paddle!  We were fortunate to have a picture perfect day to canoe through the Sydenham River Nature Reserve.

The water levels were very low (see below) which meant getting out of our canoe often but both the weather and the water were very warm.  In the spring the water level is high and there are rapids and a swift current to contend with so this would not be the time of year for novice canoeist to paddle through the Reserve.

Picturesque scenery was the word of the day and we enjoyed an interesting array of flora and fauna as we paddled.

The Sydenham River Nature Reserve is home to an incredible 34 species of mussel, 11 of which are listed as at-risk; making it the freshwater mussel capital of Canada!  Freshwater mussels are the longest-lived invertebrates. They are living water filters moving as much as eight gallons of water per day in through their siphon and over their gills to get oxygen and food.  This makes mussels exceptionally vulnerable to water pollution so the importance of keeping the Sydenham River and its ecosystem protected is of paramount importance.

Mussels move by extending their foot out of their shell and into the river bottom, then they retract the foot and pull themselves along.  In the photo below you can see the furrow that this mussel has made as it moved to a new location.

One of the highlights of the paddle was visiting the huge Sycamore tree that is in the reserve.  Ontario’s largest recorded Sycamore tree, near Alvinston, measures 263 cm at breast height.

The biodiversity found in the Sydenham River is impressive and we were thrilled to see so many butterflies, dragonflies, damselflies (including the American Rubyspot pictured below), waterfowl (a pair of American Widgeons are pictured below), and many other birds (the Bald Eagle pictured below flew past us several times and landed along the river to watch our progress).

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Ontario Nature organized a wonderful day to thank both Lambton Wildlife and the Sydenham Field Naturalists for their generous donations that helped make the purchase of 193 acres along the Sydenham River possible.  On September 17th members of both clubs were invited to visit the site and enjoy a hike to the largest Sycamore tree in south-western Ontario, tour the south side of the property to look at the great variety of flora and fauna (led by Larry Cornelis, a member of both Nature Groups and driving force behind the acquisition of the property), and to hear from experts about the many species of fresh-water mussels that are found in the Sydenham River.

This property is now known as the Sydenham River Nature Reserve and is an incredibly important land acquisition that will forever protect the many endangered species that are found in and around the Sydenham River.

Justin Nicol, co-president of Lambton Wildlife and a member of the Sydenham Field Naturalists thanked Ontario Nature at the end of the day for the opportunity to hike the property and for providing a wonderful lunch in a beautiful setting.

Below is an excerpt from the Ontario Nature Website:

Thanks to you, the Sydenham River Nature Reserve is a reality. Ontario Nature has purchased a spectacular 193-acre property – forever protecting one of Ontario’s most biodiverse waterways. Located in the Carolinian Life Zone, this new reserve brings Ontario Nature’s province-wide nature reserve system to 25 properties and more than 7,000 acres.

The new reserve saves a ribbon of extraordinary diversity of plants and animals in a region that is under intense pressure from development driven by hosting 25 percent of the Canadian population.

The reserve represents some of the provinces best remaining examples of imperiled and vulnerable habitats. An almost two-kilometer stretch of the Sydenham River winds through the middle of the property. Representing Ontario Nature’s first riverine reserve, the property is teaming with life:

  • 23 species at risk including birds, plants, reptiles, fish and, of course, freshwater mussels;
  • 34 species of mussel, 11 of which are listed as at-risk provincially or nationally making the property the freshwater mussel capital of Canada;
  • Two-thirds of Canada’s non-marine reptiles including the at-risk eastern spiny softshell turtle; and
  • Half of Ontario’s bird species breed in or pass through the area during migration.

In 2014, two member groups – Lambton Wildlife and the Sydenham Field Naturalists – alerted Ontario Nature about a special property on the mussel-rich Sydenham River that was up for sale. After some initial discussions and exploring the property, in February 2016 Ontario Nature signed an agreement to purchase, pending raising $860,000.

The new Sydenham Nature Reserve was announced on December 19, 2016 after those funds were successfully raised. Many individuals, foundations and organizations gave generously in support of this effort. Lambton Wildlife and the Sydenham Field Naturalists were instrumental in the fundraising, and now share the responsibility to steward the property with Ontario Nature.

This riverside property is a largely-wooded biodiversity oasis in a landscape dominated by cash crops such as corn and soybeans. It forms part of the Carolinian Canada Sydenham River Signature Site, so designated because it was identified as a critical natural area. There are major challenges conservation organizations face in sustaining the ecological connections and biodiversity along the river corridor.

The reserve is open to visitors and Ontario Nature is already planning to create new trails so that the public can explore this extraordinary landscape without damaging sensitive flora and fauna. The best way to explore the property is by canoe. If you have any questions, please contact Ontario Nature at info@ontarionature.org or 416-444-8419.

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Point Pelee National Park is a spectacular park to visit in any season, especially known for its spring and fall migration and its incredible biodiversity.  Seven Lambton Wildlife members were fortunate enough to camp there from September 6th to the 9th.

Where to begin …. The best place to begin is to say a big THANK YOU to Paul Carter who did an outstanding job organizing the camping trip. His expertise, along with the expertise of Larry Cornelis, was truly appreciated by everyone.  Each time we have the opportunity to hike with Paul and Larry we learn so much!

You will notice that in the photo Paul and Larry are sitting in red Adirondack chairs.  The Red Chair Experience began three years ago in Gros Morne National Park, and it is a way of connecting Canadians with nature in our country’s most unique and treasured places.

During our stay we were lucky to see many of the species of flora and fauna that Point Pelee has to offer.

Butterflies

We saw numerous monarch butterflies, which was encouraging because we all know that these butterflies are struggling as a species (keep planting those milkweed!).

We were treated to many other butterfly species including Common Buckeye, Giant Swallowtail (caterpillar photos below), Red-spotted Purple, Painted Lady, and Crescent.

Five-Lined Skinks

A highlight of the trip was seeing numerous five-lined skinks!  These beautiful animals are Ontario’s only lizard species.  They have scaly skin like all lizards and are fast, agile and prefer warm, dry habitats.

Dragonflies and Damselflies

There are a great number of species of dragonflies and damselflies in Point Pelee National Park.  Two notable ones that Paul pointed out were the Carolina Saddlebags and the Lance-tipped Darner – both lifers for us!  Some of the more common ones included orange bluets (?), twelve-spotted skimmer, and Common Green Darner.

Snakes

We were surprised to see a Melanistic Garter Snake just outside the canoe rental shop at the Boardwalk trail.  The melanistic color morph is a relatively common color morph that occurs naturally in the wild.   Another great find was a Northern Water Snake – if you look closely at the photos you will see that it had recently enjoyed a meal.

Birds

We were treated to a number of wonderful bird sightings that included both migratory and resident bird species.  It is hard to beat seeing fledgling birds.  The first photo is of a fledgling cedar waxwing that one of the campers spotted at the Cemetery entrance.  Other birds included immature and adult Bald Eagles, Osprey, Magnolia Warbler, Black and White Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, and Wild Turkey.

There is so much to enjoy at Point Pelee National Park – we hope that seeing some of the beauty of the park will inspire you to visit it soon!

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Larry Cornelis giving introductory talk

If you plant it, they will come…

LWI members were privileged to be invited to visit the Enbridge Solar Farm, in Sarnia, on June 21st to observe how the restored tall grass prairie habitat has attracted rare bird species.  Resident expert Larry Cornelis led this 3-hour outing.  28 members, including Larry, participated. The group included novice through to very experienced birders.  Weather was ideal: clear, sunny but not too hot.

Savannah Sparrow

The Enbridge Solar farm is the largest in Canada and has a total of 257 hectares covered with 1,300,000 solar panels, enough to power 12,000 homes on a sunny day.  Due to electrical grid limitations there will be no more panels installed on this site.  The remaining 188 hectares of the Enbridge property have been designated for conversion to tall grass prairie and these areas were the subject of our visit.  The very secure property is normally inaccessible to visitors so this was a unique opportunity to see these large grassland areas close-up.

Grasshopper Sparrow

Grasshopper Sparrow

The highlights of the outing were multiple sightings of Grasshopper and Clay-colored Sparrows. Both rare species were observed in the tallgrass prairie rehabilitated areas and these birds are evidence that restoring habitat does have the positive outcomes expected.  Other bird species observed were: Killdeer, Brown-headed Cow Bird, Willow Flycatcher, Song Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Savannah Sparrow, Tree Sparrow, American Goldfinch, Eastern Kingbird, Turkey Vulture, Cedar Waxwing, Meadowlark, American Crow, Yellow Warbler, Field Sparrow, Hairy Woodpecker, Great Blue Heron, Grasshopper Sparrow (3), Clay-coloured Sparrow (7), Mourning Dove, Common Yellowthroat, Starling, Common Grackle, Northern Flicker, Catbird, Indigo Bunting, Red-tailed Hawk, Robin, Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

Clay-coloured Sparrow

Clay-coloured Sparrow on cup plant

Kudos to Larry for organizing and leading this activity, it really was an awesome day!  A special thank you to Enbridge for allowing us to visit the property and for planting this habitat.  Indeed it is encouraging for all naturalists to see the relatively short term effects of planting tall grass prairie.  Imagine what might be possible when other land areas are restored in this manner.

Goldfinch enjoying the natural habitat

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There are some wonderful nature trails near Port Franks that are worth a visit.  The trails wind through the large Lambton Heritage Forest and there are a couple of ways of accessing them.  The first trail we explored starts out from Outer Drive.  There is a 911 address sign for the trail, number 7101, and the trail access is located on the north side of the road just before the road curves sharply to the right.  At the time of year that we walked this trail (early June), there were plenty of mosquitoes, so apply repellent generously before heading out. Consider using one  which also helps to protect against ticks.  The trail is easy to moderate, with a few slopes, and forms a loop that’s perhaps 1.5 kilometers long.  Most of the wildlife we sighted was on the first half of the loop, the section to the left.  There is a nice bench to sit and relax on at the midpoint.  The trail also connects to another trail that we didn’t fully explore. (more…)

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As the date of the 2107 Pelee Island camping trip approached, all the poor weather forecasts suddenly changed to show pleasant conditions for the entire duration of the trip!  A wonderful group of 20 LWI campers began arriving on Thursday for a great weekend of birding.  Lake Erie was smooth for the 1.5 hour long ferry ride aboard the SS Jiiman from Leamington.

SS Jimaan

Ferry Loading

Many of the campers had been to the island in previous years and some were visiting the island for the first time.

As a group, we moved around the island to observe the migrating birds, with an occasional detour to the bakery for vital nourishment (see earlier post photo).  High water and waves kept us away from Lighthouse Point (on the northeast corner of the island) for the first two days, but by Saturday the winds had shifted and we made it to the point to see some interesting birds.  Some of the best birding of the weekend came on the beach at Fish Point early on Friday evening, with numerous warblers hungrily eating up insects that were being warmed by the sun right along the edge of the beach.   A great looking Lake Erie sunset on the same beach capped off a perfect day.

Cape May Warbler

Common Yellowthroat

Indigo Bunting

Migrating shorebirds were also located in some farm fields where large pools of water had accumulated.  The group was thrilled to get quite close to a large flock of Black-bellied Plovers, with Ruddy Turnstones and Dunlins mixed in.

Black-bellied Plovers

Baby Brown Snake

Lighthouse Point

Palm Warbler

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Such were the abundance of birds on the island that we even observed warblers from the comfort of the campsite, including Yellow-rumped, Black & white and Northern Parulas.  Other notable birds observed included Summer Tanager, Night Hawk, Red-throated Loon, Indigo Bunting, Red-headed Woodpecker, and we even heard a “Whip-poor-will”!

Black & White Warbler

Spotted Sandpiper

Red-headed Woodpecker

The time seemed to go by quickly with each day’s activities beginning at 7:00 AM, and when it was time to pack up and catch the next departing ferry it seemed like the excursion had been too short.  Well, there is always next year!