Friday, May 28, 2010

Black Bears at Heron Bay

Many thanks to Tyler Kydd for sharing this awesome photo of a family of Black Bears along Heron Bay Road (Hwy 627) taken last week.

[click image to enlarge]

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Scenes from the Black Bay Fen

Last weekend, we spent the better part of a day slogging along muddy logging roads and sodden fen near Nipigon. Our destination was the Everard Fen, a precious wetland on the Black Bay Peninsula, acquired by the Thunder Bay Field Naturalists in 2000. The fen is home to a population of Sharp-tailed Grouse and LeConte's Sparrow. While we didn't see either of these species, we did see and hear the resident Sandhill Cranes, Palm Warblers and courtship flights of Northern Harriers. Only minutes from where we parked our car, we watched a Great Gray Owl capture a small rodent at the edge of a clear-cut.

[click on images to enlarge]
Accessing the fen necessitates a walk of about four km along a very soft logging road before bushwhacking for another km through cedar swamp.

We crossed paths with a Striped Skunk who seemed to be in a hurry.

At last we found ourselves on the open fen, which appeared pretty dry.
The fen itself was quiet and we had the sense that we might have been a little early to find orchids in flower. Many of the expected heaths were in flower including Velvet Leaf Blueberry, Leatherleaf, Bog Laurel, Small Cranberry and Bog Rosemary.

Buckbean was also coming into flower.
It was a great day. We'd love to take a few weeks to explore the Black Bay Peninsula on foot and by kayak.

The invasion of the Common Green Darner

[all photos taken at Marathon on May 25 - click images to enlarge]

The Common Green Darner (Anax junius) is a conspicuous and abundant dragonfly throughout its North American range. Its life history parallels that of the Monarch Butterfly: adults migrate north each spring from wintering areas in Central America and the southern U.S. Upon arrival in the Great Lakes region they mate and lay eggs. The larvae mature over the coming months and emerge as adults before migrating south en masse in the early autumn. In southern Ontario, there is a resident life history variant with over-wintering larvae which emerge in late May. Mead (2003) speculated that a resident population may also occur in the upper Great Lakes states.

Despite its familiarity to many dragonfly enthusiasts, it is not well known from northwest Ontario. Until this spring, there were only four occurrences (the first in 1913) documented for the Thunder Bay District. On June 30, 2000, Mike Oldham observed more than 20 individuals on the wing over a marsh along the Arrow River near the Minnesota border. The other three sightings, the last in 2005, were of single individuals, presumed strays, near the Lake Superior coast.

So it came as a surprise to us when we encountered a male foraging along a road near Prairie Cove on April 10. A month later we photographed a female near the administration building at Pukaskwa. During the May 15-16 Dorion's Canyon County Bird Festival we saw several more over the marsh at Hurkett Cove (where someone observed one being captured by an American Kestrel) and a singleton at Ouimet Canyon Provincial Park, our furthest inland sighting so far. That same weekend Al Harris told us that he had seen scores of Common Green Darners between Thunder Bay and Nipigon this spring.

The plot thickened yesterday when I visited a beaver pond on the mill property beside Peninsula Harbour. The hot weather had triggered an emergence of several resident dragonfly species. Four-spotted Skimmer, American Emerald and Beaverpond Baskettail were mating and/or ovipositing along the pond edge. More numerous where the Common Green Darners. After tallying a dozen or so males flying over the pond, I flushed a mating pair from the grass and then saw several more pairs flying in tandem along the shore. One pair landed on a floating cattail stem where the female began ovipositing. Over the course of the next half hour, I observed nine more (guarded) females laying eggs on decaying, floating cattail stems! For those of us who really like dragonflies, this is great stuff.

I suspect that yesterday, Common Green Darners were mating and laying in wetlands across the north shore, and perhaps in adjacent regions where breeding hasn't previously been documented. All of this raises some intriguing questions. Is this phenomenon restricted to the Lake Superior coast? Just what triggered this apparent invasion?

One possibility is that northbound Common Green Darners reached their traditional breeding areas in northern Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan this spring only to find dessicated wetlands. Recent data from the U.S. Drought Monitor reveal abnormally dry to severe drought conditions in the region. With the associated reduction in available breeding habitat, perhaps tens of thousands of Common Green Darners continued to migrate north into (and perhaps beyond) our area. If this is the case, we might expect more sightings well north of Lake Superior as the north shore is similarly parched.

Have you seen Common Green Darners in your area this spring?

Of related interest

I noted in an earlier post that observing and documenting dragonflies and damselflies in Ontario became much easier with the publication of A Field Guide to The Dragonflies and Damselflies of Algonquin Park. This beautifully illustrated, very easy-to-use guide covers all of the species one might expect in our area. Also of interest to those of us in northwest Ontario are a couple of more recent items.
  • The most recent issue of ON Nature magazine featured a great article, The Tiny Hunter, which documents the growing interest in the odonate fauna of Ontario. The piece appropriately recognizes the pioneering scientific work of Edmund Morton Walker who made extensive collections of odonata in the Nipigon basin in the years following the First World War. It's a great read.
  • Rob Foster and others have compiled an annotated checklist of the dragonflies (63 species) and damselflies (19 species) of the Thunder Bay District. An accompanying map reveals the Thunder Bay District to be a largely unexplored frontier. Undoubtedly, the checklist will help encourage more interest in these fascinating creatures.


Dubois, R. 2005. Damselflies of the North Woods. Kollath-Stensaas Publishing, Duluth, MN. (available here).

Foster, R.F., Elder, D.R. and A.G. Harris. 2010. Checklist of the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Thunder Bay District, Ontario. Thunder Bay Field Naturalists (on-line).

Jones, C.D., Kingsley, A., Burke, P, and M. Holder. 2008. Field Guide to The Dragonflies and Damselflies of Algonquin Provincial Park and the Surrounding Area. The Friends of Algonquin Park.Whitney, Ontario (available here).

Lam, E. 2004. Damselflies of the Northeast. Biodiversity Books. Forest Hills, New York (available here).

Mead, K. 2003. Dragonflies of the North Woods. Kollath-Stensaas Publishing, Duluth, MN. (available here).

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Singing migrants

We've come to appreciate the video function of our point-and-shoot camera. Now and then, when we hear an unfamiliar song from an unseen bird, we can capture some audio to listen to again at home. We have amassed a pretty extensive collection of bird song CD's, which we've ripped to our hard drive. With only a few clicks of the mouse we can compare a strange song recorded on our camera with those in our archive.

This morning there was quite a bit of bird song beside Peninsula Harbour - Savannah, Song, Swamp, Lincoln's, White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows; Common Yellowthroat (first of year), Orange-crowned, Nashville, Black-throated Green, and Yellow-rumped Warblers.

Of these species, I've the least familiarity with the songs of the Lincoln's Sparrow and the Orange-crowned Warbler. Below are a few snippets of each. Sorry about the sound of heavy machinery in background of the LISP video.

Some birders say that the song of the Lincoln's Sparrow defies description. David Sibley characterizes it as:
A continuous jumble of husky, chirping trills with several pitch changes, jew-jew-jew-jew-je-eeeeeeeee-do-je-e-e-e-to, bubbling quality reminiscent of House wren.

Sibley describes the song of the Orange-crowned as:

...a fast trill of fairly flat notes; individual notes not very distinct, last few notes of a lower pitch tititititititututu; notes generally downslurred but so sharp this is hard to hear.

Do you think these verbal descriptions capture some of the memorable elements of these songs?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Boreal Chickadee in Marathon.

This is the finest shot of a Boreal Chickadee I've seen. It was taken earlier this month in Marathon by Alan Wormington during his annual spring birding swing across northwest Ontario. Thanks for sharing it Alan.

For those not well acquainted the species, it tends to be far less inquisitive and more active than its Black-capped cousin. It's a challenging subject to photograph.

The shot is so rich in tack-sharp detail, it's best viewed at a larger size.

(click to enlarge)
Boreal Chickadee by Alan Wormington.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Some great backyard birds

Spring migration is in high gear and although I haven't had many chances to get out, the backyard feeders here (and in Manitouwadge) are hopping. Most numerous today are Purple Finches (scores), Pine Siskins, White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows (dozens each) and more than a dozen other species, including a few excellent firsts for our yard (and for the year), Northern Parula, Baltimore Oriole, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Clay-colored Sparrow.
Northern Parula
Clay-colored Sparrow
Clay-colored Sparrow
For most of the morning, a Lincoln's Sparrow has been gleaning millet seeds from the deck, just outside my office window.
Linclon's Sparrow
Rose-breasted Grosbeak

The timing of these new arrivals couldn't be better. We heading of to Nipigon/Dorion, a few hours up the Trans-Canada, to participate in the Dorion's Canyon Country Birding Festival. We're expecting see old friends, others we've only met on-line, lots of good birds and plenty of Tilley hats.

Yesterday, when Martha returned from a 5 k run along the trails east of town with her friend Christine, her usual radiant glow was accompanied by twinkling eyes and a cat-that-ate-the-canary smile.

"Guess what weee saw?"

"I hate guessing; just tell me."


"A Harris's Sparrow?"

"No, guess again."

[edited to remove several minutes of tiresome couple-banter in which no correct guess was made]

It turns out Martha and Christine came upon a very animated and noisy mob of Boreal Chickadees, Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Red-breasted Nuthatches. Their attention was focused within a dense clump of balsam fir. Moments later, Martha's suspicions were confirmed when she found herself fixed in the gaze of a pair of bright yellow eyes belonging to a Saw-whet Owl - a great sighting in the breeding season.

Support responsible development on the north shore

Many residents of Marathon and Pic River have come together to express support for a very thorough environmental assessment of a proposed open pit copper mining operation near town. Folks in Marathon have had a particularly disheartening experience with the local pulp and paper mill. When the mill closed last year, workers had to line up behind other creditors to try to recover some of their severance and pension benefits. Even worse, the mill operations left a toxic legacy on the mill site and in the harbour. The multi-million dollar remediation costs have defaulted to taxpayers.

The group, Citizens for a Responsible Mine in Marathon, is petitioning the Canadian Enviromental Assessment Agency (CEAA) for a rigourous panel review of the mine project. It is hoped that the parties conducting the assessment are granted sufficient time and scope to assess environmental effects, a broader range of tailings management options, operational and closure plans and financial assurances, given the unpredictability of metal markets.
Bamoos Lake
Some residents, including yours truly, are troubled that one of only two tailings management alternatives advanced by the Marathon PGM Corporation would have toxic tailings dumped directly in Bamoos Lake, a very deep, healthy, 10,000 year old body of water that supports native stocks of Brook Trout and Lake Trout. Bamoos has been a very popular winter fishing locale for many generations of anglers from Marathon and the Ojibways of the Pic River First Nation. As a food source, Bamoos offers the nearest safe alternative to the Lake Trout of Peninsula Harbour, which carry dangerous burdens of mercury and PCBs.
Lake Trout angled from Bamoos, Feb, 2010. K. Drake photo.

Most mining companies don't dump their waste into healthy lakes and the practice is very controversial, as outlined in this CBC story. In the United States, lakes cannot be used as mine dumps.

I hope that Marathon PGM, the citizens group and the expert review panel can come up with a plan that results in a prosperous business and a clean environment in the near future, and in the centuries following the mine's projected 11 year lifespan.

Please consider joining Citizens for a Responsible Mine in Marathon - a Facebook group for people in favour of a thorough environmental assessment.

Other links:

Submit your comments/concerns about this project to the Canadian Environmental Assessment agency.

Project Track from the Government of Canada's Major Project Management Office (includes links to the proponent's Feb 2010 Project Description)

Project overview from the Marathon MGM Corporation.

Friday, May 7, 2010

From nearby Terrace Bay

Here are some terrific photos of some great birds from Valerie Gerlach in nearby Terrace Bay. The Red-headed Woodpecker appeared last Tuesday (May 4).
Red-headed Woodpecker - Photo by Valerie Gerlack
The following photo was taken on May 25, 2009
Yellow-headed Blackbird and Bobolink - Photo by Valerie Gerlach

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Yellow-headed Blackbirds on the north shore

Many thanks to James Barber for sharing this terrific shot of a male Yellow-headed Blackbird that was in the company Brewer’s Blackbirds at John St Rd & Townline, Thunder Bay on May 2nd and 3rd.
[click to enlarge]
Photo by James Barber
Another Yellow-headed Blackbird was photographed by Nolan Pelland here in Marathon one week ago. Reportedly it didn't stick around for long.

On May 24, 2009, a male Yellow-headed Blackbird was observed at Otter Cove, in Pukaskwa National Park. The bird adeptly captured water striders along the shore of Lake Superior, on a few metres from observers.
Photo by Martha.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Woodchuck beside the harbour

Our friend Bill and I came upon a Woodchuck at the mouth of its burrow in an alder thicket beside Peninsula Harbour.
We found a good mix of waterfowl in and near the harbour, most notably Canada Goose, Mallard, American Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, Blue-winged Teal, Green Winged Teal, Ring-necked Duck, Common Goldeneye, Bufflehead & Red-breasted Merganser.
Ducks on beaver pond
Warblers were scarce and scattered - Yellow-rumped remain the most numerous. We also saw a few Palm Warblers and a single Orange-crowned Warbler.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

More birds

Another day of fresh arrivals. In the grasslands along the road to Cummings Beach were dozens of Savannah and White-throated Sparrows along with some Swamp, Vesper, American Tree, Chipping &White-crowned Sparrows. In the trees near the Mill, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a Nashville Warbler and a Blue-headed Vireo gleaned midges.
Horned Lark near the town boat launch
A terrific sunset over Lake Superior