Birds springing up in area
BOB BOWLES/SPECIAL TO THE PACKET & TIMES Spotted and Jefferson Salamanders mating in ice cover vernal pools in Simcoe County in early April this year.
One of the most interesting times of year for nature observations is early spring. Birds start to return from the south every year in March, with horned larks, red-shouldered hawks, red-winged blackbirds, common grackles, turkey vultures, killdeer, eastern bluebirds and American robins. The flooded fields in March have large flocks of ducks, geese and swans on spring migration and flocks of sandhill cranes. Some years, they may be delayed a few weeks, but most years, like this year, their return is in March.
April is an exciting month for nature observations and migrants returning from the south. The spring events seem to be right on schedule this year, with song sparrows and double-crested cormorants the last day of March or first day of April. There were reports of up to four species of butterflies the first day of April, along with coltsfoot in bloom. Spring frogs like chorus frogs, wood frogs, leopard frogs and spring peepers were doing their mating calls by April 2.
More bird species arrived back from the south during the first week of April, like pied-billed grebe, eastern phoebe, American kestrel, song sparrow, eastern meadowlark, golden-crowned kinglet, northern harrier, Wilson's snipe and yellow-bellied sapsucker. The first pair of osprey was reported at a nest site April 7, and by April 12, all of the local nesting pairs had arrived. Skunk cabbage was up and in bloom but barely open April 7, and winter wrens were calling in the swamps.
Another wave of birds arrived by April 8, with the first yellow-rumped warbler, tree swallow, eastern towhee, northern flicker and vesper sparrow. Spring peepers and wood frogs couldn't wait for spring to come by April 10 and were calling during midday. Sharp-lobed hepatics were in bloom April 10 as well, more osprey pairs arrived and, on April 11, the first common green darner dragonfly, swamp sparrow, fox sparrow and savannah sparrow arrived.
The first of the broad-winged hawks arrived in Simcoe County April 13, as well as marsh marigolds in bloom. April 16 had white-throated sparrows and leatherwood in bloom in Scout Valley. I usually judge the spring migration by trying to record 100 species of birds for the year before my birthday, April 17. This year, I reached the goal well before the deadline.
The ice that had covered Lake Simcoe since Feb. 5 left both Kempenfelt Bay and the rest of Lake Simcoe April 4. Cook's Bay opened up Feb. 27 but was frozen over again by March 3. Lake Couchiching, which had been covered with ice since Dec. 10, opened up April 12. Lake Simcoe was ice covered this winter for about two months, while Lake Couchiching was ice covered for about four months.
Sometimes the birds returning from the south to their nest sites in spring are met with a big surprise. The great blue herons returned this year starting March 27 and most were back and nesting by April 5. But a few lost their nests to great horned owls that mated earlier and decided to nest in one of the heron nests in early March, well before the birds had returned. However, one of the most interesting observations for me was the Canada goose, which decided to nest again this year in the osprey nest along Balsam Road at Atherley. Last year, she nested early, before the ospreys' return, and decided to claim the nest near the top of a hydro pole more than 30 feet off the ground. I guess she didn't know that her kind usually nests on the ground, near water, usually with nests hidden from predators in long grasses along the shore or on islands. She was able to raise her goslings last year from this lofty site and the young somehow managed to fall to the ground without being hurt. Adult Canada geese do not fly well when they are in their moult in late summer and goslings do not get their flight feathers until very late in summer. I checked the nest site under the pole last summer, after the birds had left, and found no dead or injured birds. I assume the long grasses along the road under the nest site managed to break the fall of the goslings as they dropped from the nest. It seems she is going to try this trick again, raising her young away from water and high above ground. Even in the bird world, there appear to be some non-conformists.
I also noticed the osprey seem to continue to add more plastic to their nests, mixing it with the natural materials like limbs, branches and twigs. There are many boats being stored outside now wrapped in plastic, which, by spring, is sometimes ripped or torn and breaks off and blows away. These blue pieces are picked up by the osprey and added to their nests, showing how humans are certainly changing the landscape around them.
Ready for the clean-up
Speaking of human-made objects discarded in the environment, it is the time of year we have to start to think about the annual clean-up of the environment. I have been organizing spring clean-up events in Orillia for more than 18 years. This year, I'm working as part of the City of Orillia environmental advisory committee in organizing the event. The pitch-in event will be held Saturday, which is Earth Day. We ask the public to join us at Veterans' Park by the Orillia legion in the morning to check in and take a small portion of the city to help clean up discarded objects like bottles and coffee cups so the city looks clean and will soon be green as the spring grass starts to grow. It is always nice to at least start off the summer with a clean, green environment. Coffee, water and snacks will be available for volunteers, as well as pizza for lunch.
The most amazing activity this month was the monitoring of the mole salamanders mating in vernal pools. Spotted, Jefferson and blue-spotted salamanders mate in early spring, even when there is still snow and ice, and their mating dance in vernal pools is something to witness. Male spermatophores in the vernal pool water April 7 and female egg masses in the pools April 15 tell me I missed the mating dance again this year.
Bob Bowles is a local naturalist. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.