Author Archives: Mark Whitcombe

Christmas Bird Count done!

Thanks to the more than 20 people who turned out to do our annual Christmas Bird Count on Friday December 30th!  Special thanks to Ron Jasiuk and Russ McGillivary for their organization and to Kevin and Carol for hosting the fine potluck dinner afterwards!

UCFNC Christmas Bird Count areas

Russ will compile the results from our six different teams and from the others who contributed Feeder Watch data. We’ve not got a preliminary guess as to how many species nor how many individual birds we say. What we can say is that because of our cold weeks earlier in December there was no open water other than in streams and creeks so that our large numbers of waterfowl from last year were all but absent this year. It’s not about bigger or better numbers — it’s about getting as detailed an inventory each year to build into larger patterns. Let’s see how this the numbers from this year turn out!

I had the great fortune to be out in Area 2, southeast of Caledon over to Caledon East with wonderful birders. Hart brought along Gordon, a friend of his from the Nature London Club and an experienced birder. I’m always in awe of folks with good ears — and Gordon certainly had them. The others would hear things that I couldn’t even with my top-quality hearing aids turned up fully.

Can you see the Red-tail Hawk sitting in the tree down the field — and can you spot the Rough-leg flying away up and to its right?

Highlights for me:  spotting a Belted Kingfisher (and hearing another) at the spot that Chris P had seen them at for many years down at the bottom of the Escarpment along a branch of the Credit River — and seeing a cold-looking Great Blue Heron at the same spot!; being shown a Rough-legged Hawk sharing a tree and sitting directly above a Red-tailed Hawk along the Grange Sideroad east of Highway 10; (the Rough-leg took off leaving the Red-tail sitting in the tree; look closely and you’ll spot the Red-tail in the tree near the middle of the photo, and possibly see the Rough-leg flying away just above and to the right in this mobile phone photo); learning that Gordon had worked with an amazing birder with whom I spent a marvellous summer way back in 1972 working on an ecological inventory of Prince Edward County; getting together with almost everyone afterwards and sharing sightings and stories; wandering up and down the side roads and concessions of Caledon, looking at the wonderful diversity of habitats — and yet realizing how remarkably young almost every top of forest actually was.

A pothole beside the road — with the Phragmites looking lovely in a sinister sort of manner …

 

(Posted by Mark Whitcombe)

A bedraggled House Finch huddled against my back deck door in a snowstorm (… seems to have survived well enough to eventually fly away — but will it actually survive …)

John Muir in our Headwaters area!

Our Southern Ontario area plays a special role in the development of what we now call the environmental movement.  Few of us know much about this pivotal role.

Starting in the Spring of 1864, the young Scotsman turned American, John Muir, spent several months botanizing through Southern Ontario. This was his first real exploratory trip beyond his adopted home farm in Wisconsin.

It was over in the Pottageville Swamp area (what was then part of the much larger Holland Marsh) that he had one of his most significant events of his lifetime, seeing a rare northern orchid, Calypso borealis. This epiphany started him on his way to dedicate the rest of his life to the preservation of the natural world.

“The rarest and most beautiful of the flowering plants I discovered on this first grand excursion was Calypso borealis (the Hider of the North). I had been fording streams more and more difficult to cross and wading bogs and swamps that seemed more and more extensive and more difficult to force one’s way through. Entering one of these great tamarac and arbor-vitae swamps one morning,holding a general though very crooked course by compass, struggling through tangled drooping branches and over and under broad heaps of fallen trees, I began to fear that I would not be able to reach dry ground before dark, and therefore would have to pass the night in the swamp and began, faint and hungry, to plan a nest of branches on one of the largest trees or windfalls like a monkey’s nest, or eagle’s, or Indian’s in the flooded forests of the Orinoco described by Humboldt.

“But when the sun was getting low and everything seemed most bewildering and discouraging, I found beautiful Calypso on the mossy bank of a stream, growing not in the ground but on a bed of yellow mosses in which its small white bulb had found a soft nest and from which its one leaf and one flower sprung. The flower was white and made the impression of the utmost simple purity like a snowflower. No other bloom was near it, for the bog a short distance below the surface was still frozen, and the water was ice cold. It seemed the most spiritual of all the flower people I had ever met. I sat down beside it and fairly cried for joy.

“It seems wonderful that so frail and lovely a plant has such power over human hearts. This Calypso meeting happened some forty-five years ago, and it was more memorable and impressive than any of my meetings with human beings excepting, perhaps, Emerson and one or two others.” (John Muir, re-published in The Life and Letters of John Muir,1924 (After his death))

Calypso orchid (photo by Robert Burcher)

Calypso orchid (photo by Robert Burcher)

Sometime during June of that year, he passed through our Headwaters area, walking westwards along the Hockley Valley from the Holland Marsh to the Luther Marsh. Later that year, he ended up outside of Meaford working in a rake-making factory. When the mill burnt down in the winter of 1866, Muir returned to the United States.

Muir ended up in California where he started the Sierra Club, still one of the leading environmental action organizations.  He is regarded as one of the fathers of the American National Parks system.

John Muir

John Muir

Robert Burcher is a member of the now-defunct Canadian Friends of John Muir.  Burcher is a photographer, a journalist, an author, and an experienced speaker. He is currently doing field work for his latest book on the experiences that John Muir had in Ontario.

Our Speakers for the coming year!

(Check the Speakers page for more details and for updates!)

Thanks to the work of your club executive, here is the quick listing of the speakers who will be presenting to us this coming year!

September 27, 2016:  John Muir in Ontario, including in our Headwaters area!:  Robert Burcher

October 25, 2016:  Orchids of Ontario:  our own member, Kevin Tipson!

November 29, 2016:  Astronomy 101:  Jason Tabroff, Dufferin Astronomy Club)

January 3,1 2017:  A Botanist Traces Spring Northwards along the Bruce Trail:  Mark Whitcombe, our President

February 28, 2017:  UCFNC Member’s Night

March 28, 2017:  Bees, Identification and Pollination:  Victoria Macphail

April 25, 2017:  Ontario Coyotes:  Ashley McLaren

senescent White Trillium (by Mark Whitcombe)

A senescent White Trillium (by Mark Whitcombe)

Credit Valley BioBlitz Registration is now open!

Guided Blitz Registration is now open!

Join us for the 2016 Ontario BioBlitz in the Credit River Watershed on June 11-12!

The Guided BioBlitz is an opportunity for less-experienced nature enthusiasts to learn a bit more about their favourite species through field surveying and identification techniques – important skills for understanding the world around us. Our 2015 flagship event in the Don Watershed was a big success. Thanks to the 700+ registered participants and volunteers – we couldn’t do it without you!

The Guided BioBlitz is open to all ages and all experience levels, but be aware that sessions can require a lot of walking. Please also note that there can be a 40 minute drive between Guided BioBlitz sites.

Visit http://www.ontariobioblitz.ca/guided-registration.html to register for sessions, look at the map of the Guided Blitz sites, and download a copy of the schedule.

Most sessions are limited to 30 people per group, and will fill up quickly – so make sure to register early! Participants will be contacted with more information about their particular session shortly after registration closes, on May 20th, 2016.

As always, if you have any questions, comments, or concerns, we would be happy to answer them – just send us an e-mail at  ontariobioblitz@gmail.com, or visitwww.ontariobioblitz.ca for more info.

Interesting sessions with the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust

Whether you’d like to participate in this spring’s Bio Blitz or learn more about the wildflowers or dragonflies, butterflies and moths in your backyard, you might be interested in these events organized by neighbours to the east — the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust. www.oakridgesmoraine.org 

Wildflowers of York Region – April 11th

Spring is almost here. What is sprouting in the forests and meadows around Aurora? Learn about native wildflowers, how to grow them, and where you can expect to see them.

Location:  Aurora Public Library, Magna Room Monday April 11th from 7pm  9pm.  Space is limited so please pre-register with the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust at 905-853-3171 ext 30 or at Landtrust@oakridgesmoraine.org

Dragonflies, Butterflies and Moths – Oh My! – May 16th

So many things are buzzing in the neighbourhood. Come and learn about some of the most beautiful things with wings in York Region.

Location:  Aurora Public Library, Magna Room Monday May 16th from 7pm  9pm.  Space is limited so please pre-register with the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust at 905-853-3171 ext 30 or at Landtrust@oakridgesmoraine.org

Rockin’ the roads of Headwaters: Touring the landscapes of Headwaters

Our next field trip will be a Geology and Geomorphology Field Trip on Saturday Feb 13th. If you are a member of the Upper Credit Field Naturalists Club, you should have received a more detailed notice. If you are not a member … well …

Our goal is to help us all learn how to see our local landscape in a way that’s more inter-connected and explicable than just seeing it as pretty and hilly.

We’re going to look first at the general area of the old Orangeville brickworks, and get some idea of how that mix of clay and marl was deposited some 12,000 years ago. That involves learning about the Alton moraine plug that was dropped by the last glacial advance in this area when a lobe of ice temporarily moved back northwest across what is now Lake Ontario during a brief period of regrowth of the otherwise retreating glaciers. Then we’ll wander across that moraine plug of hummocky hills north and west of Alton, training our eyes to the particular look of end moraines.

So far, this will be studying geomorphology, here focusing on the effects of glaciers in this area. Our next major stop will be down in the Belfountain area, when we take a brief hike across remarkable bouldery terrain to the Devil’s Pulpit overlook for a stunning look at how the glaciers roughly carved the solid escarpment. This valley will be our first look at a re-entrant valley, though later on in the trip we’ll traverse the much larger Hockley Valley which was also partly gouged out by the glacier.

From there, we’ll take a look at the Cheltenham Badlands. Although this is now closed off, we’ll be able to see it from the side of the road. Among other topics here, will be how this feature is actually the direct result of recent human activity and is not really a natural landscape. Which of course, raises questions about how it should be preserved.
Then we’ll continue ahead to look at the most dramatic impact of humans on our local landscape — the Caledon gravel pits. That economically essential sand and gravel deposit was left by the glaciers. Here, we’ll think about the various impacts of our human actions, and then think ahead to what this area could become — and how we might influence that process.
We’ll then head up Kennedy Road, turning east along Highway 9 to climb up the eastern side of the Orangeville Moraine. This feature forks around Orangeville and reasonably clearly shows where three lobes of the ice sheet met overtop of present-day Orangeville. We’ll then head up the Third Line, dropping down into the Hockley Valley, perhaps looking at another exposure of what is in our area the bottom of the Niagara Escarpment at the Red Mud Cliffs. From there, we’ll head further up the Third Line and switch over to the Fourth Line, tracing the dramatic spillway where huge amounts of water flowed off the melting ice lobes, and drained across Orangeville, and down through Hillsburgh into what is now the Grand River and into the present-day Lake Erie.
This brings us back to the beginning feature of our tour, because it was the interruption of this spillway that led to the marl beds southwest of Orangeville and the subsequent re-routing of the meltwaters down the present Credit River.

(Mark Whitcombe)

The Devil's Pulpit overlook of the re-entrant valley near Belfountain

The Devil’s Pulpit overlook of the re-entrant valley near Belfountain

The reason for FLAP (Fatal Light Awareness Program)

We installed new windows at home over the summer. Several times we’ve heard ‘thunks’ as birds hit the large shiny new window in our now-bright living room.

Then this …

The impact of a Mourning Dove on our new window …

The impact of a Mourning Dove on our new window …  (photo by Mark Whitcombe)

Look carefully at the photo. One wing extends right to the top and the other to the left edge; both legs show; individual feathers show; the breastbone clearly shows; individual feathers show …

The dove survived initially, weakly flying away after a few minutes. The next day at our feeder there was a dove with feathers missing from its head. But after that, there have only been two Mourning Doves in our yard, down from the three that we’ve had for the last while.

What is our living room with wonderful windows is not a living room for birds …

We’ve now put up stickers and hung window ornaments — with success so far.

Our next speaker from FLAP will be alerting us to ways that individually and as a society we can reduce the toll of birds hitting windows and buildings. FLAP (Fatal Light Awareness Program) estimates the number of migrating birds killed annually in collisions with buildings ranges from 100 million to 1 billion birds. Oh my …

(by Mark Whitcombe)

 

 

 

The Supermoon Eclipse — before the clouds eclipsed …

Four of us turned out at Island Lake to hope for clear skies — and we were in luck! Clouds covered the moonrise to the east, but the cloud-free western skies for sunset gave us hope. In the meantime, 5 cormorants flew to roost nearby in a remarkably flimsy dead tree, swaying in the light breezes. Muskrats dove in front of us, surfacing with winter vegetative clumps on which they munched while lying on the surface. At least three Killdeer called repetitively amongst themselves. Two Great Blue Herons foraged successfully in the shallows right beside us long into darkness.

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The clouds stayed off low along the horizon to the east as the Moon rose above them. Shafts of high thin altocumulus rose westwards out of the bank of clouds. These shafts of cloud alternately covered and uncovered the eclipsing Moon, providing some gorgeous opportunities for photos. My trusty smartphone was pushed to its limits in this low light, but this next photo at least partly captures the atmosphere.

Streaks of clouds lit by the eclipsing Moon at Island Lake

Streaks of clouds lit by the eclipsing Moon at Island Lake (photo by Mark Whitcombe)

A surprising number of people were still out, even at 10 P.M. when the clouds finally eclipsed the slightly-over-half eclipsed Moon. So we saw the reddening as the cloud entered the umbral shadow of the Earth beginning at 9:11 P.M.  But we didn’t see the full eclipse. The clouds ultimately won …

The clouds won the eclipse show …

The clouds won the eclipse show …  (photo by Mark Whitcombe)

When I asked at the UCFNC meeting the next Tuesday, about 20 people put up their hands to say that they had seen at least some part of this impressive natural event, almost all directly from their homes. Nice!

(by Mark Whitcombe)

 

 

 

 

Supermoon Eclipse this Sunday September 27th!

There is a special eclipse of the Moon Sunday evening, and despite the forecast of some cloud during the early evening hours, and the possibility of rain overnight, I’m going to head out to see it! Perhaps it will be cloudy, perhaps there may even be some showers, but I’m hopeful that there’s going to be either light enough cloud to see something worthwhile, or that there may actually be a break in the clouds during the critical hours just after dark as some weather models show.

You are invited to join me. I’m going to park at Home Hardware and walk across Highway #10 at the lights. Once across the road, I go through the ‘gates’ and turn left along the new path that heads northwards parallel to the highway. I’m going to go close to the end of the first long bridge, which is about half a kilometre of easy flat walking.

Sunset is at 7:09 pm local time, and the full moon will rise at 7:01 pm and we’ll be looking at it across the lake — which should be quite lovely. As you can see from the attached graphic, at 9:07 pm, the Moon will begin to be eclipsed by the umbra of the Earth (the darkest part of the Earth’s shadow. This will likely be the first time that noticeable changes to the Moon will occur. Perigee, the closest approach of the Moon to the Earth, is at 9:46 pm. The Moon is full, i.e., in direct opposition to the Sun, at 10:50 pm, and totality will begin ending at 11:23 pm, with all visible changes likely gone by 12:27 am on Monday morning.

SupermoonEclipse

Fred Espinak’s excellent graphic of the Supermoon Eclipse

I’m aiming to be out at the lake by about 7:00 pm, warmly enough dressed and with a lawn chair, binoculars, camera, tripod, and several flashlights. I’ll stay until conditions are too poor to see anything — or until the eclipse is over … You are welcome to come any time, and to leave any time. You will be responsible for getting yourself to where I’ll be viewing the eclipse. I’ll not be waiting anywhere other than at my chosen viewing position. The peak time will be from 9 pm to midnight. Perhaps you might poke your head out the door several times as the evening progresses, and make your decisions to whether to wander out and join me!

A Naturalist in the Maritimes

It’s a large world; it’s a small world; it’s a diverse world; it’s a connected world.

We’re a third of our way through our tour of the eastern provinces, presently staying in Nova Scotia with friends from university and before.
Turns out that “D” was the statistics advisor to Troy Macmillan, whom you might remember as our lichen speaker and field trip guide from several years back. It’s a small interwoven world!

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We’re staying with “D&L” at their cottage on a lake in the interior of Nova Scotia. We could be on any Algonquin area lake, with rich brown humus-y water, Common Loons, Lake Trout, Ospreys and Poison Ivy. But something is subtly and significantly different. Red Maples predominate, not Sugar Maples which are rare. There’s Grey Birch as well as the more familiar Silver and Yellow species. The American Beechs almost all have fungal infection that makes their mature bark look more like a maple than the elephant’s leg we admire. There’s copious shaggy wisps of Usnea lichen on the trees. It’s a diverse world. (And we’ve not really been on the sea coast yet!)

Cantharellus minor (?), small red chanterelle

Cantharellus minor (?), small red chanterelle

I’m struck by the rich palette of paints used on the wooden house sidings. (“L” has a fondness for Maud Lewis!) Nothing to do with natural history, you say! However … perhaps there’s a relationship between damp maritime climates, available housing materials and skills, and a human desire for colour … It’s a connected world.

Passing through the well-treed city of Fredricton — gorgeous American Elms! — we stopped to see the chimney where an estimated 200 Chimney Swifts rooster earlier this year.

 

Fredricton Chimney Swift roost — 200+this year!

Fredricton Chimney Swift roost — 200+this year!

The slow-moving line of heavy storms we pierced as we left Orangeville hammered us in Arnprior that night, blasted us in Québec City a couple of days later, and then blinded us as we drove at night down the Saint John River valley in New Brunswick. That same line of heavy weather passed back and forth above us for more than a week! It’s a small inter-connected world.

Thunderstorm over the upper Saint John River Valley

Thunderstorm over the upper Saint John River Valley

A Bald Eagle, an adult with a magnificent white tail, just glided over me as I write this. It’s a magnificent world. And seeing all of this through a naturalist’s ‘eye’ is wondrous!

Watching Saturn & waiting for Tiangong, the Chinese space station

Watching Saturn & waiting for Tiangong, the Chinese space station