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24 November 2009 @ 07:21 pm
Mammals at Andrew Haydon  

Although the weather has cooled a bit, the temperatures are still above average for this time of year. Deb and I went to Andrew Haydon Park on Sunday, and though it warmed up to 8°C, the sun stayed hidden behind a thick layer of clouds all day. We stopped at the Ottawa Beach lookout first, where a fellow birder, Nick, pointed out a Cackling Goose swimming with a group of Canadas. We watched it for a while, until a large group of birds - including the Cackling Goose - decided to fly off together.

We then drove over to Andrew Haydon Park, parking in the lot by the eastern pond. There were hardly any birds swimming on the water; only a few mallards and Canada Geese seemed to be present. Then Deb pointed out a small brown object on the grassy bank of the island and asked if it was a muskrat. A look through the binoculars confirmed it: it was indeed a muskrat.

Short-tailed Weasel

We crossed the bridge to get a better look at it. Although it seemed unaware of us, it didn't stick around for very long; the muskrat scrambled down the bank and flowed into the water before I could get any photos. We watched it swim toward the bridge, climb down the rocks beneath it, emerge from underneath, then climb the bank on the other side. I slowly walked toward it, as again it seemed wholly unaware of me. I stopped within six feet of it and started taking pictures.

Muskrat feeding

It is not often that I come across these small mammals out of the water, so it was delightful to watch it feed on the grass. A rodent of marshes, ponds and streams, it is not closely related to the beaver despite the similarity in appearance. The muskrat is, instead, a highly specialized aquatic vole which has much in common with the beaver because of the similar environment in which they live. Muskrats can remain below the water's surface for 15 minutes and can swim the length of a football field before resurfacing!

Muskrat in the grass

Since it was proving to be so cooperative, I decided to take some video of it as it munched on the grass. You can hear a White-breasted Nuthatch and a chickadee in the background, as well as the continuous sound of the Canada Geese.

Muskrat Munching on the Grass

After finishing shooting the muskrat, Deb and I walked up to the river. There were fewer birds on the water compared to our previous visits, and fewer species of birds, too. Many Canada Geese swam in the water close to shore, and further out were a number of Common Goldeneyes. We saw several gulls - including many Great Black-backed Gulls - and one White-winged Scoter. The scaup, Buffleheads and Red-breasted Mergansers all appeared to have departed.

While Deb was peering through the scope, a flash of white among the rocks to the east snared my attention. When the white streak paused, I was startled to see a snow-white weasel standing on a rock about twenty feet away! I told Deb to look to the right. The weasel disappeared into the numerous cracks and crevices of the boulders, then popped up about five feet closer. When it saw that we were watching it, it disappeared only to emerge in a different spot...one that was closer to us. We got our cameras ready, but the weasel moved very fast. No sooner did I focus on him before he darted away again. By that time he had emerged in a spot right in front of us. While he disappeared into the rocks again, Deb and I slowly moved about five feet to the left. When the weasel came out again, he was right in front of us again. This time he paused long enough for me to focus my camera on him before I clicked the shutter.

Peering over the rocks

The weasel was entirely white except for the black tail tip. The transition from his brown summer coat to his white winter coat occurs in response to the decreasing daylight in the late fall, not the colder temperatures. He was much cuter than I expected, and nothing like the shifty-eyed, pointy-toothed, long-nosed caricature from the cartoons.

Short-tailed Weasel

There are three species of weasel in Ontario: the short-tailed weasel, the long-tailed weasel, and the least weasel. All three are small, long-bodied, carnivorous mammals of the family Mustelidae; the long-tailed weasel is the largest, and the least weasel is the smallest. In fact, the least weasel is the smallest species in the order Carnivora. Other closely-related mammals in the Genus Mustela include the mink and the black-footed ferret.

The Short-tailed Weasel is the most abundant weasel species. When dressed in its summer coat it is known as a "stoat". However, when it is wearing its winter whites it is known as an "ermine". These terms do not apply just to this particular species, but all three species of weasel.

Deb and I followed its progress toward the western section of the park before giving up and going back to where we had left the scope. We were thrilled to see it so close, and I was even more thrilled when I saw the quality of the pictures I had taken. Difficult to find, difficult to photograph, it was luck more than anything that resulted in these amazing shots.

Short-tailed Weasel

We retrieved the scope and made our way to the western pond. There we found three male Green-winged Teals, a female Red-breasted Merganser, and a large raft of Lesser Scaup. I took a couple of pictures of the scaup as they approached; the one on the left is a female and the one on the right is a moulting male.

Lesser Scaup

We didn't stay to photograph the rest of the ducks. Instead, we decided to drive over to March Valley Road. There we saw a Northern Shrike perched atop a deciduous tree and four female Hooded Mergansers in one of the ponds. We then decided to check the backroads near Richmond. We found two Red-tailed Hawks, one Rough-legged Hawk, and a single Snow Bunting flying over the Moodie Drive quarry ponds. In the quarry itself we found nothing unusual and a large number of Hooded Mergansers. I didn't take any more photos, though photographing the weasel definitely made up for the photographic shortage during the rest of the day.

We decided to call it day after that, agreeing that the shrike had been the best bird of the day, while the weasel was the best find. Photographing it was definitely one of the best moments of 2009, and I doubt anything will surpass that moment - or those photos! - in the last month of the year. Still, you never know what's out there...you just have to go outside and look!

Xray Is As Xray Doesxraytheenforcer on November 29th, 2009 02:16 am (UTC)
how the hell have I missed so many entries?! ARGH!!!

I love the weasel. :)
Gillian: Butterflygillianm on November 29th, 2009 03:01 am (UTC)
Lately I've been taking at least a week to write these entries. So, when I start them on Monday, I mark them as private. Then when I finish them on Saturday, I mark them as public...though they are still dated from Monday. The Amherst Island one, however, took me almost two weeks to write up.

And yes, I love the weasel too!
Xray Is As Xray Doesxraytheenforcer on November 29th, 2009 02:16 am (UTC)
also, what kind of camera body/lens combo do you use?
Gillian: Snapdragongillianm on November 29th, 2009 03:07 am (UTC)
I have a Sony Cybershot point-and-shoot...the DSC-H7. It has a 15x optical zoom and wonderful macro capabilities. It's no longer on the market, and I'm thinking of upgrading to the DSC-HX1 which has a 20x zoom and shoots video in HD. It's a little pricey right now, so I'm waiting for it to come down in price.

If you're interested in seeing what the Sony can do, check out my online galleries at http://www.pbase.com/jewelwing . I love the quality of the photos compared to the Canon 20x zoom, which I purchased and returned two weeks ago.