Saturday, 31 December 2011

Some strategy to start the year.

Being New Years eve, I am pretty excited for my big year to start next year. However, I am currently many miles away at Laura's place just outside of Halifax and I don't enter the province until January 6. There are several rare birds that are around the province and if nothing else changes between now and then, here is a strategy of attack:

The only super rare birds still in the province are the 6 Black Vultures at Niagara and the Black-throated Gray Warbler in Hamilton, refound recently by the Hamilton crew. So on January 7I'll probably go to Niagara for first light, hope the vultures fly from their roosting tree over the Niagara River, then go upriver where the Black-headed Gull (code 4) and Black-legged Kittiwake (code 3) are being seen. Hopefully they will also fly over the border! I'll definitely keep an eye out for the Mew Gull that was seen (only once) at Adam Beck and the Slaty-backed Gull which may still be present along the Upper Falls.

The famous Bayfront Park Black-throated Gray Warbler

I'll then spend the rest of the day at Bayfront Park in Hamilton looking for the Black-throated Gray. If I have time, I might make a quick detour for the King Eider at Port Weller before getting to Hamilton.

The following day I might go back to Hamilton or Niagara to pick up whatever I missed the day before. If I did really well on the 7th, I'll probably do a day trip to the Pelee area to grab the Great Gray Owl (code 3). If I can get Great Gray early in the year it could definitely save some considerably effort later on as it can be a notoriously difficult species to find. Barb almost missed this species in her Big Year, and probably would have if this bird didn't show up near Kingsville!

Once I've seen the big rarities that are in the province, I'll spend the next few days/week trying to get the rest of the semi rare birds that are in southern Ontario at the moment - Barrow's Goldeneye, Harlequin Duck, Purple Sandpiper, some owls, finches, etc.


Of course, if the Smew is re-found or something else rare shows up, these plans may be completely dropped.

Happy new years everyone, and good birding!

Thursday, 29 December 2011

2011 Year in Review

Now that I am spending the remainder of the year and first 6 days of the new year in Nova Scotia visiting my lovely girlfriend, I thought I would take the time to post a few photos to sum up the year.

January was fairly uneventful, but in early to mid February I traveled to southern California and Arizona on a whirlwind trip with 3 buddies - Matt Strimas-Mackey, Brett Fried, and David Bell. We basically flew to Los Angeles, rented a van and toured around the southwestern US nonstop, looking for birds and other wildlife along the way. These few photos sum up the experience...






As winter turned to spring it was time for the annual "salamander migration". I spent about 5 consecutive nights during the peak of amphibian season in my hipwaders at my favorite spot with good friends.




After exams finished in April I headed down to Windsor to do some environmental consulting for a highway project. Fortunately the location was close enough to Pelee that I managed to get down there 2-4 times a week during migration. I didn't "find" any mega rarities this spring but did find an Eared Grebe, Snowy Egret, Eurasian Wigeon, Kentucky Warbler, and a few other odds and ends. A highlight was seeing this Neotropic Cormorant, found by Brandon Holden on April 24.


As the summer went on I bought my first telephoto lens, a 300 mm f/4, and I started getting into butterflies around the same time. Working in tallgrass prairie all day every day was phenomenal and I managed to see about 60 species. The lens was a perfect length for butterfly photography.





Spending the summer tracking Butler's Gartersnakes and Eastern Foxsnakes was a lot of fun and we got to witness a lot of cool behaviour.


Summer and autumn is shorebird time in southern Ontario. I put in a lot of hours searching for them this year and ended up finding 31 species, including this American Avocet.


In early September I visited Nova Scotia for about a week. It was nice to get out and see some of the pelagic species that we don't get in Ontario...



This fall I was fairly busy with school but made it out quite a few times nonetheless. On a trip to the Bruce Peninsula in late September I was happy to find a Lark Sparrow and a neonate Eastern Massasauga among 9 species of snakes.



In October I went to the Great Smoky Mountains with my buddy Chris for 3 days of solid herping. Without a doubt the highlight were the 2 Hellbenders we saw!


This fall was fairly slow for rarities, but it really picked up in December! Among the highlights for me was Slaty-backed Gull, Franklin's Gulls (3 different birds), California Gull, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Wilson's Warbler, and Smew.

This gnatcatcher was one of 2 that were (are?) present along with several rare warblers at Bayshore Park in Hamilton.


I had some big misses in Ontario in 2011, even though I ended up with a year list of 287. Biggest misses include:
Least Bittern
Spruce Grouse
Upland Sandpiper
Long-eared and Short-eared Owls (!)
Whip-poor-will (!!!!)
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Summer Tanager
Pine Grosbeak


See you all next year!

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Hey look, its a Smew

Last night when checking my email on my phone, a message popped up from Glenn Coady. I could only read part of the message's title, which read: "Miracle on Brock Street: ". Knowing that when Glenn posts its usually a rare bird, I clicked on the message and was shocked to read that a Smew had been found by Jim Robinson at Whitby harbour!!! Since Smew was my most wanted Ontario bird, I tried to find out a way I could finagle my schedule to see it today.

After an appointment I couldn't cancel, I picked up Brett Fried and Erika Hentsch and we booked it down to the harbour. I had Christmas dinner at 3, and I didn't pick up Brett and Erika til 11:30, so it was going to be close! If anyone knows me I don't like to miss a meal let alone a Christmas feast.

Fortunately when we arrived a hoard of birders already had their scopes set up on this bird, potentially Ontario's 3rd accepted record of this Eurasian species of duck. When we first arrived, this is how far away the bird was. It's between the raft of ducks and the Mute Swans:

waterfowl at Whitby harbour (Smew is in there!)

A Snowy Owl was conspicuous on the breakwall as well.

Snowy Owl - Whitby harbour

Eventually, the 1st winter male Smew took off and flew right at us. It ended up landing in the water not far off from where we were all standing, so everyone ended up with great looks at this bird.

Smew - Whitby harbour

Most wanted Ontario bird: Check! Now we just need an adult male to show up...

Smew - Whitby harbour

Thanks to Jim Robinson  for finding the bird and to Glenn Coady and Jean Iron for providing regular updates throughout the day. Brett, Erika and I had to leave after about 10 minutes, we raced back home (except for moments of heavy traffic) and I ran in the door just as everyone was sitting down for Christmas dinner! Perfect.

Some more shots...




Check out Jean's photos. http://jeaniron.ca/2011/smew.htm
Brandon's: http://www.blog.peregrineprints.com/2011/12/smew-tacular.html
Kenny's: http://kenburrell.blogspot.com/2011/12/holy-shit-its-smew.html

If only this bird hangs around for a while! Not only would it be great to have more extended views to study the bird, but it would also be a good way to kick off the big year.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Common Yellowthroat - Wellington County

Found by Fred Urie on December 25. The entire time I was at the spot the bird wouldn't stop calling and flying around. Not a shy bird at all! Also in the same marsh were at least 1 Swamp Sparrow and 1 female Red-winged Blackbird. Beautiful day to be out.
 
The location is on the east side of Cambridge. The bird was in a cattail marsh on the east side of Townline Road just north of the intersection with Saginaw Parkway. This location is in the extreme southwest corner of Wellington County and in the northwest part of the Hamilton Study Area.

Excuse the quality of the shots. Despite the bird's boldness it was hard to get an unobstructed view of it.



Saturday, 24 December 2011

An 'owl'right day of birding in Guelph

Between yesterday and today I spent about 12 hours doing some serious birding in Guelph. The weather for both days was supposed to be excellent and I happened to luck out and see some really awesome birds, including one that is at the bottom of the post and who's identity inspired that "clever" title for this post. But first, yesterday.

I started out by skipping Puslinch and Mountsberg and only hitting up the quarries in the southern part of the county. Several cool birds seen here so far this winter - Harlequin Duck, Bonaparte's Gull, Iceland Gull, Common Loon, Red-throated Loon, Long-tailed Duck. However there is also a high turnover of waterfowl, and needless to say the Common Loon that Mike Cadman had found here a few days previous was no longer present.

Undeterred, I pressed on and ended up at the Heritage Ponds (intersection of the Hanlon and the 401). Getting out of my car I was surprised to see a flock of Snow Buntings wheeling around - my first for the Guelph area this season. I picked out two darker birds in flight, and by approaching the flock, managed to obtain reasonable views of a Lapland Longspur. The other dark bird was most likely a "lappie" as well. There was a nice selection of waterfowl present including 15 Greater Scaup (rare in Wellington County in winter) and 6 Redhead (also rare in Wellington in the winter).

Driving north, I stopped at a little marsh to see if I could turn up a Swamp Sparrow that was found on the Christmas Bird Count by Val Wyatt and co. No luck with that, but a Common Raven croaked as it flew overhead. They seem to be getting more and more common in the county all the time!

I spent much of the afternoon thoroughly checking out Guelph Lake. Along the southeast side of the "island", viewed from the bottom of the hill along Wellington Road 124, were 1 Ring-necked Duck, a group of 3 richardsonii Cackling Geese with some Canadas, and a swan which was most likely a Trumpeter. The distance was far so it was hard to be 100% certain, but it was a young bird and was retaining a lot of brown coloration. 1st year Mute and Tundra should both be mostly/completely white by now.

The previous day, a Greater White-fronted Goose was reported to the WELLbirds listserv by Rohan Van Twest at Guelph lake. While walking out to the island off of Conservation Road in search of Rohan's Greater White-fronted Goose I came across a nice flock of birds which contained mostly robins but also a few Northern Flickers and other things.

By 4:00 in the afternoon I still had no white-fronted goose despite looking at every single bird in the area at least 5 times! Geese had just started to leave the lake so I parked myself up on top of the dam and watched the flocks lift off.

waterfowl taking off - Guelph Lake
While scanning, I noticed a flock of about 15 birds coming in, and one on the far right looked to have a white "front" as the flock flew head-on towards me. I suddenly released that my camera was still in the car so figuring that I had enough time, I sprinted back (actually) and grabbed the camera from my front seat. Much to my dismay I realized not only that I was still very much out of shape, but that the flock had flown quicker than I had anticipated and was over the dam, flying away. I fired off a few shots, not knowing if I captured the goose or not. Fortunately by cropping the photo I can see the goose in the lower part of the frame!

Greater White-fronted Goose - Guelph Lake

When I got back to my car I noticed a flash of gray and white and saw a shrike dive into some nearby bushes in hot pursuit of a junco. It emerged, unsuccessfully I should add, and perched on a nearby wire. Northern Shrikes are the badasses of the songbird world. They readily catch birds or rodents that weight almost as much as them and impale the unfortunate prey on hawthorns and even barbed wire.

Northern Shrike - Guelph Lake

Today I ventured back out to the Guelph area. I didn't see a whole lot throughout the late morning and early afternoon but it was nice to be out in the sun, especially since there was very little wind. Around noon I checked my email and saw that a Barred Owl was seen at Guelph Lake, so off I went!

Upon arriving the bird was nowhere to be found. I walked around a little bit and turned up a few kinglets and chickadees, had a House Finch fly over me calling, and finally found my first Hairy Woodpecker for Wellington county this winter.

Hairy Woodpecker - Guelph Lake

Eventually I ran into several of Guelph's finest birders - Mike Cadman, Brian Wyatt, and Larry Staniforth, and we decided that we should split up to find the sucker. After about 20 minutes, I turned around to greet some dog walkers who were walking past and looked up, right at the beautiful Barred Owl that I must have walked right past! The boys came by and we were all happy to have great views of this amazing bird. Wow! Almost as cool as the Great Gray Owl that showed up in Essex County recently. A great early Christmas present for us Guelphites.

Barred Owl - Guelph Lake

Barred Owl - Guelph Lake

Friday, 23 December 2011

Winter bird list update #3

A few days ago, I posted to ONTbirds again about the Ontario winter bird list. Since then, I have received word of several new species to the list which I will mention first. These 3 species bring the winter list up to 203. I have also removed Willow Ptarmigan from the list since the last confirmed sighting of the Darlington bird was November 30. There were rumours of a sighting in December and someone is looking into this.

Gray Partridge: 3 birds seen on the Woodhouse CBC (December 18)
Townsend's Solitaire: 2 birds. One on the Manitoulin CBC (December 17) and one on the Aurora CBC (December 17)
Brewer's Blackbird: seen on the Port Burwell CBC (December 18)


And, the email I sent to the listserv:

 ==============================================================


In the past week an additional 12 species have been seen in Ontario and brought to my attention, bringing the 2011-2012 winter list up to an even 200. I am not sure what the all time high for one winter was, but last year's 201 will almost certainly be passed! How high will the winter list get? Undoubtedly the highlight from last week came from Bayfront Park in Hamilton where up to 5 species of warblers have been seen along with several Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and a Blue-headed Vireo. I will send the list to Blake Maybank and hopefully he will post the results on the website soon. A link to the webpage: http://www3.ns.sympatico.ca/maybank/other/onwinter.htm

The new species to the 2011-2012 Ontario winter list are as follows:
Blue-winged Teal
American Woodcock
Boreal Owl
White-eyed Vireo
House Wren
Yellow Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-throated Gray Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Wilson's Warbler
Palm Warbler
Baltimore Oriole

Out of the missing species to the winter list, the most likely to be added include:

Eurasian Wigeon
Gray Partridge
Gyrfalcon
Virginia Rail
Barn Owl
Townsend's Solitaire
Pine Warbler
Vesper Sparrow
Yellow-headed Blackbird
Brewer's Blackbird

If anyone has heard of sightings of the missing species, just shoot me an email.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Rules for my Big Year

With any game or sport, there has to be some groundrules so that everyone is on the same page. With my proposed big year, that is no different. These are some of the rules that I will follow next year. If anyone has any comments/suggestions, just let me know. If I think of any more rules that I have so far forgotten about, I will add them to this page.

- The period runs from January 1, 2012 to December 31, 2012. Obviously.

- Taxonomic changes that happen in the future will not affect my big year total. For instance, say I see both subspecies of Yellow-rumped Warbler next year (Audobon's and Myrtle). Since they are not recognized by the OBRC as distinct species, they only count as 1 species for my total. However, say 5 years down the road the OBRC decided that the evidence is sufficient to "split" Yellow-rumped Warbler into 2 species. I will not go back and modify my totals to accommodate this change. I think of splitting and lumping as random error - splits and lumps will continue to occur, but this variation is roughly equal.  

- Species that are OBRC rarities and with potentially questionable provenance will only be counted if the OBRC accepts the record. For instance, say that I chase a European Goldfinch in May, but the OBRC decides that the evidence isn't enough to determine that it is a wild bird (as opposed to an escaped bird), and subsequently does not accept the record. Even if I think it is a countable bird, I will not count it.However if, in the future, the OBRC goes back and accepts the record, based on new evidence or whatever, then I will modify my Big Year totals depending on the OBRC's decision. This is the only case where I will go back and modify my big year totals.

- I will only count species that I see or hear sufficiently to ID independently. Let's say I go chase a Thick-billed Murre in Kingston. Just as I arrive, I see a flash of black and white as the bird flies away out of sight, never to be seen again. Even though dozens of good, reputable birders are on site and inform me that that was indeed the Thick-billed Murre, I will not count it because I didn't see it well enough to be 100% sure.

- I will count birds that are heard only, but only if I am 100% sure (or as close to 100% as one can be). There will probably only be a couple species that I will "hear only" next year and I'll have to look at them on a case by case basis. If I hear a Whip-poor-will calling in central Ontario in June, I can be reasonably sure in my identification to count it. However, if I hear the song of a Kirtland's Warbler at Point Pelee in May, I will probably not count it on that alone. It could have been another birder playing a tape, it could have been another species sounding similar, etc. Hopefully I will see every species next year so I don't have to rely on heard only birds!

-The birds have to be wild. I won't count the Ring-necked Pheasants I see on Pelee Island, since the island is regularly stocked with this species for hunting every year. I will have to count Ring-necked Pheasants that I see elsewhere, where I can be reasonably sure that there are from a wild, established breeding population.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Great day along the bay

Today, Laura had plans to meet up with some friends in Hamilton for the day. I was more than willing to drive her down, spend the full day birding around the lakeshore, then picking her up and driving back home.

I met up with the one and only Barb Charlton this morning to look for rare Passerines at Bayfront Park in Hamilton. Barb was "stuck" on 320 species for the year in Ontario, and with no new rarities around for her to try for, we decided our best bet to find something interesting was to check out the Waterfront Trail. If you can recall a number of really rare December birds had shown up in recent weeks including Black-throated Green, Black-throated Gray, Wilson's, and Orange-crowned Warblers; a Blue-headed Vireo, and multiple Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers (check out Brandon's photos of some of the goodies here: http://www.blog.peregrineprints.com/2011/12/black-throated-gray-warb.html).

Barb and I didn't have much success though we briefly heard a gnatcatcher. A few Mockingbirds kept a close eye on us, however.

"Mocker" mocking us

She left to do some Christmas shopping and I would have been wise to follow her lead and get started on mine. Instead, I headed back down the waterfront trail, determined to find some of these birds. I made it all the way to Princess Point before turning back. There was not much to show for it except for this extremely RARE morph of a Double-crested Cormorant. The only field mark to distinguish it from a normal "cormie" is that it only has one wing. Very rare.

Double-crested Cormorant, one-winged variant

Eventually I saw some of the birds as the Black-throated Gray put in an encore performance. I ran into Ross Wood here, and he was pleased to add this bird to his Ontario list.

Black-throated Gray Warbler - Bayfront Park, Hamilton


Heading back to my car, I found not one, but two gnatcatchers! The second was crawling around near my feet, gleaning insects. This photo is about 90% full frame, and I was shooting with a 300 mm lens. Gives you an idea how close I was!

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher - Bayfront Park, Hamilton
Around this time, I had an interesting conversation:

Random passerby: "Hello."
Me: "Hello." (just being friendly, ya know)
R.P.: "Are you with a school group or anything? There's all these young guys walking around and taking pictures."
Me: "Nope, not with a school group. Just looking for birds!"
R.P: "You're a birdwatcher? I thought all birdwatchers were old and wore floppy hats!"
Me: "Actually the demographics are changing- you'd be surprised how many of us young guys and gals there are."

It's a conversation I have all the time! Lets break that stereotype (except for the Tilly hats -they're pretty awesome).

Just then, Tim King posted a nearby Snow Goose to the listserv, so I hustled over and watched it for a while. Nice bird!


And a CANG, cause no one gives them any love.


With a few hours to spare I headed over to Bronte Provincial Park for no particular reason. I walked around for a few hours, enjoying the crisp air and seeing a few birds (Pileated Woodpecker, White-crowned Sparrow, Northern Mockingbird, Eastern Bluebird,etc). Twas a great day in the field, but I think now I better get started on whittling down that Christmas list!

Eastern Bluebird - Bronte Creek Provincial Park

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Updates

Its been a while since I've posted, and I don't really have any updates. I finally wrote my last exam on Friday, spent the rest of Friday and yesterday cleaning my car/oil change/cleaning my house/running errands/making the house presentable for Laura's visit. Yesterday however, I got out for a bit of birding in the morning with budding birder Chris Law, before picking up Laura from the airport. I hadn't seen her since early September, so as you can imagine not too much of anything birding or blog related was done.

So yeah, yesterday's birding. Chris is a good buddy of mine, and he's one of the herp guys. He was the guy who went to the Smoky Mountains recently with me to chase salamanders! Remember this?


Chris has been turning into a well rounded naturalist lately and has been learning his birds, though he still won't admit he is a birder! We did a brief tour of the southern part of Wellington County with a few highlights. On December 17 in Wellington County one does not expect much of anything, let alone waterfowl so finding some Ring-necked Ducks among other things were nice. A Horned Grebe was a bit of a surprise at McNally Pit, but best of the day was an Evening Grosbeak flying around near Mountsburg, loosely associating with some Pine Siskins and goldfinches. Despite not seeing any raptors and, other than the finches, any passerines of interest we still had fun and it was nice to get out.

Unfortunately I can't do any CBC's this year due to various reasons but I will have most of Tuesday to do some birding as Laura is meeting up with some friends in Hamilton. Perhaps the Black-throated Gray will given an encore performance and I'll be ready with my camera this time!

I should be around until December 28th, at which point I head to Nova Scotia for about 9 days. Then, the big year is ON!!!!!! Current rarities that I am keeping an eye on that I will definitely chase within 2 days of being back (if they still hold) include:

Black-throated Gray Warbler
Slaty-backed Gull
Black Vultures - I haven't heard any recent reports though
Rufous Hummingbird


Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Winter bird list update after two weeks

Yesterday I sent out an email to ONTbirds about updates to the winter bird list - instead of retyping it, I just copied the email with a couple of small changes (see below). Since the email, which brought the 2011-2012 winter bird list up to 189 species, a few more have been brought to my attention. They are:

House Wren - December 6 (Fonthill)
Willow Ptarmigan!!!????!!???!?!?!?! - apparently the Darlington bird is still around. As far as I am aware there is not going to be a "second viewing" for this bird. They are hoping to confirm its presence on the CBC coming up.
Black-throated Green Warbler - December 14 (Hamilton)
Black-throated Gray Warbler - December 14 (Hamilton)
Black-throated Blue Warbler - December 10 (Huntsville)
Wilson's Warbler - December 15 (Hamilton)
American Woodcock - December 15 (Toronto)

That brings the winter list up to 195, and we are only 2 weeks in. 200 seems extremely likely now. Mild weather has amazingly continued, and for people like me doing a big year next year, hopefully it will continue for another few weeks so some of these rarities (namely Rufous Hummingbird and Black-throated Gray Warbler) will hold .How high will the list get this winter? Anyways, the aforementioned post:


================================================================


In the past week an additional 28 species have been seen in Ontario and brought to my attention, bringing the 2011-2012 winter list up to 189. 200 is certainly in sight. Some highlights in the past week include Pacific Loon at Prince Edward Point, Rufous Hummingbird in Eganville, Spotted Towhee in Longlac, Magnolia Warbler at Presqu'ille Provincial Park, and Clay-colored Sparrow near Kingston (1st winter record?). I have sent the list to Blake Maybank and he will post the results on the website soon. A link to the webpage: http://www3.ns.sympatico.ca/maybank/other/onwinter.htm

The new species to the 2011-2012 Ontario winter list are as follows:

Brant
Barrow's Goldeneye
Great Egret
Spotted Sandpiper
Greater Yellowlegs
Wilson's Snipe
Pacific Loon
Dunlin
Northern Hawk Owl
Great Gray Owl
Long-eared Owl
Northern Saw-whet Owl
Rufous Hummingbird
Red-headed Woodpecker
Eastern Phoebe
Black-billed Magpie
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Blue-grey Gnatcatcher
Varied Thrush
Orange-crowned Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Eastern Towhee
Spotted Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Clay-colored Sparrow
Red Crossbill
Hoary Redpoll

Of course there are several species which we are missing that are seen most winters. Some possible species are:
Gray Partridge
both Ptarmigans (anyone going up north soon?) now only Rock Ptarmigan, but how likely is it that someone is going to Hudson's Bay....
Gyrfalcon
Virginia Rail
Boreal Owl
House Wren
Townsend's Solitaire
Pine Warbler (check your suet feeders....)
Vesper Sparrow
Yellow-headed Blackbird
Brewer's Blackbird

If anyone has heard of sightings of the missing species, just shoot me an email.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Something a little different

Since I have 3 exams between now and Friday morning, I haven't really had time, nor will I have time for a few days, to post something exciting/about actual birding/the winter list/etc. So instead, I thought I would delve into something that I wrote last semester for my Nature Interpretation course. It was a creative writing assignment about some phenomenon of nature, so naturally I picked the spring migration of salamanders. Its a bit of a long read, so if you're short on time bow out now!


=====================================================================



            The day has finally arrived. After restlessly checking the weather forecast for weeks, it appears that tonight will be absolutely perfect. Despite looming end of the year projects and finals, I cannot pass up on an opportunity like this to see one of nature’s greatest spectacles.
                As I drive in my car through the countryside towards my destination, my mind begins to wander to the night that is in store. Eager with anticipation, I do my best to keep my car at a reasonable speed. With the daylight quickly surrendering to the dark gloom of the evening, my spirits continue to rise.
                It isn’t long before I arrive at my location – one of the last remnant areas of true Carolinian forest in this part of Ontario. Stepping out of my car, I can hear the clear, high song of a Black-capped Chickadee calling to a potential mate – “Choose meeeee!!!!” – as a second chickadee repeats the phrase, but outdoes the first with a higher song. Love is in the air!

vernal pond in Carolinian forest

                The darkness encroaches while the sweet smell of the rain-soaked ground beckons me. At a temperature of 8 degrees Celsius, the evening is bordering on mild. At last, old man winter is loosening his grasp. Once again, the two male chickadees call in awkward harmony, this time in the distance as I make my way down the muddy trail towards my destination. While the chickadees are music to my ears, this is not the reason that I am visiting the area.
                Tonight is the night that I hope to observe the march of the salamanders. Every spring for thousands of years, these denizens of the deep woods stir from their subterranean haunts when the warm rains of late March penetrate through the layers of ice and snow and touch their bodies. Spurred on by their biological clock and need to reproduce, the salamanders emerge from their burrows to make their way to their favourite ponds. There, they will reproduce by means of an obscure mating ritual before returning to the hills.
                While these ponds are filled with ice-cold water at the time, this is not to last. By mid-summer, all but the deepest vernal pools will dry up, leaving any potential progeny to bake in the hot sun. “The chill, edge-of-spring night with abundant rain, final snowmelt, saturated earth, and an overflowing vernal pool is measured against the inevitable day of blazing sun, great heat, and desiccating winds in July or August, when the last film of water in the deepest pool depression becomes transformed into windborne vapour.” (Carroll, 1999). The salamanders have to move NOW, even with layers of ice on many of the ponds, so they can reproduce and give their aquatic offspring a chance of surviving this furiously ticking clock.
                I arrive at the first pond and my spirits slowly begin to sink. Instead of the usual cacophony of Spring Peepers and Western Chorus Frogs, the only sound I hear is the steady pitter-patter of the warm rains on my ball cap. Perhaps I have arrived too early in the season, with all the amphibians still deep in their winter retreats? Peering into the murky depth of the wetland I can see no sign of amphibians so I moved on. Hopefully I will have more success at the next pool.  Spring is not only about migratory birds, a Painted Turtle basking on a sun-drenched log, or the first flowers poking through the ground – it is also about snow banks, late season blizzards, icy water, and sleet. As David Carroll (1999) mentions, spring is in good measure a time of waiting within a constant, incremental advance. With our tendency to think that the world revolves around us, we humans become rather impatient with its turnings. Of course, the earth simply spins and follows the same path, year in, year out, with the resulting life becoming so attuned to these cycles.
                My thoughts are abruptly halted when the beam of my flashlight catches something shiny in front of me on one of the hillsides. There it is – the first salamander of the spring season. Adorned in his clown suit with a big grin on his face, the chubby Spotted Salamander is steadily crawling across the path, his hormone-filled body only stopping once it reaches its destination. I may have seen hundreds of this beautiful species in the past, but after such a long absence I must get reacquainted. Carroll (1999) expresses this beautifully: “As in the past, the meeting of my expectant search image with reality is a striking revelation, undiminished by remembrance or repetition. To see these living things anew is to know them anew”. The salamander freezes instantly – not from the cold rain or quickly disappearing patch of crusty ice he is standing on, but from the sudden intrusion of a blinding light into his world. He does not move for 2 minutes, but finally the urge to reproduce is much too strong and he continues blundering down the hillside towards the vernal pond.

male Spotted Salamander on his way to a breeding pond

                As I walk, my mind begins to wander about the fragility of this ecosystem. From where I am standing, all my flashlight beam can catch is dense forest, small ponds, and a large expansive marsh. However, even in this relatively pristine place, I cannot help but notice the steady drone of cars driving by the near road. While at first glance this sensitive Carolinian forest is secure, it is a small size and is surrounded by farmland and encroaching development. It is a little disheartening to think that this is one of the largest strongholds of Carolinian forest in the county. Even with all the sensitive species abounding in this beautiful place, it will not take much for a developer to get permits to knock down the trees and drain the wetlands. The diversity and tranquility can be traded for the bustle of a neighbourhood with much too little effort. Even if the vernal ponds, ecosystems that are crucial to a wide variety of terrestrial and aquatic organisms, are protected with a relatively large buffer zone of 25 or 30 meters, this will not be enough to protect the salamanders. Spotted Salamanders, along with the closely related Blue-spotted and Jefferson’s Salamanders, are together in the family Ambystomatidae (mole salamanders). As their name suggests, much of their year is spent deep in subterranean crevices, rotted out tree roots, and other ancient passageways. Ideal vernal ponds are few and far between in forests such as these. Often, a single ephemeral wetland will be the sole breeding ground for all mole salamanders within a kilometre or more of the pond. Studied have shown that up to 50% of the salamander populations are usually found at least 100 meters from the vernal pond so this 25 meter buffer zone will only protect a tiny fraction of the entire population (Petranka, 2000). As Carroll (1999) points out, “leaving a narrow band of buffering vegetation around an encircled vernal pool has been likened to protecting a bird’s nest and the tree it is in, while eliminating the surrounding field and forest habitat required by those who fledge from the nest”.

                  I arrive at my favourite ephemeral pond for the 4th time this spring. The first visit was on a warm, rainy night in late January with the temperatures hovering around the 10 degree Celsius mark. While enticing, this early rain was not the alarm going off inside of the salamander’s internal alarm clock, so naturally I found nothing. The second night was similar, this time in early March. Again, it was too early and all I found was the bloated body of a Green Frog that had not survived the winter, or perhaps, mistakenly ventured out on the warm night in late January. Three nights ago I had visited the pond, pleased that much of the ice had receded after the 3 days of the 10 degree weather we had experienced. However, the rains did not arrive so the salamanders stayed put. But tonight, this is the night.
                My beam picks up an incredible sight in one corner of the vernal pond, where the sides slope up to at least a 30 degree angle and the water is not too shallow. The bodies of at least a hundred Spotted Salamanders, tightly woven and intertwined, are writhing together in a mesmerizing ball. It is almost dizzying to watch as the salamanders move with fluid and precision that, if I did not know any better, would have made me believe they were fully aquatic. Occasionally one salamander wriggles free, propels himself to the surface with arms tucked to his sides, gulps a quick breath of air, and rejoins the captivating mass of solid salamanders.
                These giant mating balls are some of the most fascinating biological phenomena I have ever laid eyes on. Starting out with 4 or 5 solitary males, they are soon joined by many others, with finally a few large females, stomachs swollen with eggs, joining the bunch. This mating ball is essentially some sort of foreplay though it is not understood exactly why it takes place (Petranka, 2000). Eventually, pairs break off to the side of the writhing orb – pairs intent on love-making. The male drops multiple spermatophores – tiny,   jelly capsules with a miniscule packet of sperm on top - and attempts to lure the female to straddle one and pick it up with her cloaca. Once she does, the salamanders separate with the female looking for a quiet place to deposit her eggs. After the closeness of the mating ball and subsequent courtship, the actual event of mating is surprisingly impersonal. 

female Spotted Salamander depositing eggs

                After what seems like hours pass while I observe this incredible phenomenon, I leave the wetland. The air has a certain chill to it and the rain has stopped. Ever since I had arrived at this wetland, I would occasionally catch a glimpse of a Spotted salamander slip into the edge of the black water to join in the activities. Now that the rain has paused and the air has become frigid, the hurried frenzy of the mating ball has started to dissipate. While watching the few remaining males, twisting together desperately in the wee hours of the morning in hopes of attracting one last female, I start to think of the blissful ignorance of these animals. Here they are, unchanged for thousands of years, performing the same ritual each and every spring. Yet just over the hill may loom the first bulldozer, ready to destroy this beautiful display of life for good. I only hope, however unrealistic that hope may be, that these salamanders are able to carry on this incredible behaviour for years to come.



“In wilderness is the preservation of the world”
 -Henry David Thoreau




References
Carroll, D. 1999. Swampwalker’s Journal: A Wetlands Year. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, NY. Chapter 1.
Nash, R. 2001. Wilderness and the American mind. Yale University Press, London. Chapter 5.
Petranka, J. W. 1998. Salamanders of the United States and Canada. Smithsonian Institution      Press, Washington, D.C., USA.