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04 April 2010 @ 10:49 pm
A visit to the Bill Mason Center  

Saturday was supposed to be just as hot as Friday, with a predicted temperature of about 27°C. Perfect weather to go looking for more frogs and butterflies, I thought, and the perfect opportunity to visit the Bill Mason Center where I was hoping to find both. I was also hoping to see salamanders, Wilson's Snipes, and Eastern Phoebes there, all of which breed in the area. But first, while I was waiting for it to warm up, I decided to visit the Beaver Trail.

I left at 8:00 while it was only about 12°C. Spurred by memories of the Fox Sparrows and Winter Wren at Jack Pine Trail on Friday, I had wanted to visit another Stony Swamp trail that morning. As I had seen both species at the Beaver Trail before, it was the logical place to go.


Wood Frog


Dark-eyed Juncos greeted me at the trail entrance, feeding on the seeds left on the ground there. I heard several singing from the brush as well; these handsome little birds seem to be everywhere right now, including my own neighbourhood where I've seen them in my yard and hear them singing their musical trills from the shrubs from time to time.

I also heard a phoebe singing from somewhere near the Wild Bird Care Center but wasn't able to find it. While tracking down the phoebe, however, I came across a Brown Creeper at the base of a tree. It wasn't creeping up the trunk as I usually see them; in fact, this was the first time I had seen one doing something other than walking up a tree! It had a moth or other soft-bodied insect in its beak and seemed to be deciding what to do with it.



Brown Creeper


After the creeper eventually decided to walk up the tree with its morsel, I left the area and continued to the first boardwalk, where I heard a Swamp Sparrow trilling from somewhere in the middle of the marsh and saw a Song Sparrow in the shrubs by the water and two pairs of mallards swimming near the beaver lodge.

My luck was better at the second boardwalk. From the observation platform I spotted my first Painted Turtle of the year basking on a log in the middle of the swamp. I noticed a bird near the reeds behind the turtle, and was happy to identify my first Pied-billed Grebe of the year! He called twice while I was there, a distinctive "fool's laugh of the first order" as it is described in my More Birding by Ear CD.

A Tree Swallow flew over and perched on one of the dead trees standing in the swamp, and in the large, fallen tree next to the observation platform I heard the chip notes of a Song Sparrow. He eventually came out and perched on one of the branches, and started singing away.





Song Sparrow


On my way out, I saw a Mourning Cloak fly out of the leaf litter on the ground, more juncos, and several Golden-crowned Kinglets. I also heard a high-pitched zreeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! rising upward in pitch from somewhere in the trees. At first I thought it was a Pine Siskin, until I looked up and saw a male Wood Duck perched on a branch about twenty feet up! It never fails to amuse me to see these colourful, pretty ducks standing in a tree.

After that, I drove out to Dunrobin, stopping at March Valley Road on the way there to check out the ponds. I was hoping for some dabbling ducks, but instead found four Hooded Mergansers (two males, two females) in the pond next to Klondike Road. I didn't see much on the rest of the drive, and when I reached the Bill Mason Center the parking lot was empty.

The marsh was alive with birdsong, with grackles squealing and Red-winged Blackbirds calling "conk-a-reeeeee!". Robins and Song Sparrows were also singing away; however, it is too early for the Common Yellowthroats, and there were no Swamp Sparrows singing here yet. Overhead, a Wilson's Snipe was flying in circles, his wings creating the familiar, eerie winnowing sound. There are now two beaver lodges right next to the boardwalk; in fact, the mud used by the beavers to create one of the lodges was spilling right onto the boardwalk. The mud is also a good source of nutrients for butterflies, and at the base of the second lodge I found a Mourning Cloak feeding.



Mourning Cloak


I could already hear the frogs calling, and headed to the back of the loop where the boardwalk crosses several small swampy areas. A Northern Flicker (my first of the year) was calling from a snag in the middle of the marsh, and flew to the woods at the back as I tried to get closer for a picture. He apparently had no intention of having his picture taken, and flew away again when I started walking toward him. As I passed the gazebo, I heard an Eastern Phoebe singing and the rustle of a snake in the dry leaves. When I looked, however, I counted not one, but at least three garter snakes tangled together in a mating ball!



Mating Garter Snakes


There were other snakes in the area too, sliding over the ground close to the boardwalk, but no species other than the garter snakes.

I checked the pond by the gazebo carefully, and although I saw several small splashes which were presumably frogs diving into the water, I didn't see a single one. I waited for several minutes for them to re-surface before giving up and continuing on to the next boardwalk. This time I tried to approach the pond as quietly as I could. I had more luck this time, and saw this fellow floating in the water right below the boardwalk:



Wood Frog


Then he, too, slipped under the water's surface, ending our photo session. A few more frogs remained out in the open, sitting on twigs and emergent vegetation, but they were much farther back so I didn't bother to take any pictures. At the far end of the boardwalk I found another cooperative Wood Frog, this one sitting beneath the cover of several tangled branches of a shrub.



Wood Frog


Wood Frogs are small to medium-sized frogs, ranging from 2 to 6 cm in length. They can be recognized by their distinctive black “mask”, a broad dark band passing through the eye from snout to shoulder, bordered below by a white lip line.

Wood Frogs are largely terrestrial, but usually inhabit areas close to water. They inhabit marshes, riparian areas, wet meadows, moist brush, and open grassy areas adjacent to wetlands. In the spring, they emerge early from hibernation, moving to breeding sites as snow and ice begin to melt. These breeding sites include seasonal pools, shallow ponds, marshy lake edges, flooded meadows, and quiet streams. The males congregate in such wet habitats and will call day and night as long as the temperature remains above freezing. Their distinctive, throaty calls have often been compared to a duck's quack.

The most interesting thing that I discovered about these tiny amphibians, however, is that they are the only North American amphibian which occurs north of the Arctic Circle!

Finding these Wood Frogs was a thrill, so I spent some time looking for salamanders next. I turned over several likely-looking logs and rotting pieces of wood (only those which were small enough for me to handle) and finally managed to find one tiny salamander hiding in the rotting wood. The Eastern Red-backed Salamander is one of Ontario's most common salamanders, and is only about 5-10 cm long. This species has three colour phases: the "red-back" phase which is gray with a broad red stripe down the back and tail; the "lead-back" phase which has an entirely gray back; and very rare phase in which the salamander is entirely red.



Eastern Red-backed Salamander (Plethodon cinereus)


In an open pond further along the trail I found a couple of Green Frogs and Bullfrogs sitting near the water's edge. Some of them dove beneath the surface when I walked up to them, while a few others remained where they were, including this large fellow.



Bullfrog


I heard the distinctive tapping of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a burst of energetic hammering followed by a slower series of taps which stumble hesitantly along until they come to a stop. It took me a while to actually see him, and when I did find him at the top of a tall dead tree, he flew off, followed by a second sapsucker. A third was working on another tree, oblivious to the antics of the first two.

After watching the sapsuckers, I returned to the gazebo where the phoebe was still calling. When I first saw him he was perched on the gazebo, and then he flew out onto a tree branch right near the path. He wasn't too skittish as I edged closer for a photo.



Eastern Phoebe


I decided to walk the back of the loop one more time to see if any more Wood Frogs would pose for my camera. There were none at the first pond, although I did see a snake swimming in the water toward me. I was hoping it was a Northern Water Snake, and was surprised to see that it was Garter Snake instead! I didn't know that these common snakes could swim as well, although they are apparently excellent swimmers and supplement their terrestrial diet with salamanders, fish, and frogs.



Swimming Garter Snake


While I was watching the snake, a small orange butterfly flew over my head. I followed it to the next boardwalk, where it landed on one of the wooden boards. When I tried to get close to it for a photo, however, it flew back the same way it came. This time it landed on a damp area near the boardwalk, and so I cautiously approached it. I managed to get two photos from a distance before it flew off again.



Eastern Comma


Giving up on the Eastern Comma, I continued my search for Wood Frogs. I started seeing more of them in the pools beside the path, and wondered if they were usually this easy to find. These small frogs were unusually cooperative in one spot in particular. There were two or three fairly close to the bank, and more out in the middle of the pond. There was a large log extending into the water, so I balanced on that while trying to photograph the frogs. This is one of my favourite photos:



Wood Frog


While standing on the log, I noticed a frog on top of a second frog. I left my vantage point for one closer to the ground for a better look. At first I thought I was looking at a pair of Wood Frogs mating....then I realized the bottom frog was an entirely different species! I'm not sure how common it is to see two different types of frogs together like this, but it was interesting to see the Green Frog beneath the Wood Frog (probably not by choice, either!) and compare the differences in the two species.



Wood Frog and Green Frog


I left the woods after that, quite happy with the success of my visit. I never dreamed I would see so many Wood Frogs, having only ever seen two before, or a swimming Garter Snake, and I didn't think I would find a cooperative phoebe, three sapsuckers, a Northern Flicker, a Wilson's Snipe AND a salamander all on the same visit! The only thing that would have made the visit perfect would be to see a rail as well, and I did hear a Sora calling from the other side of the marsh while I was crossing the boardwalk in the Cattail loop. However, it sounded just like the call on a birding CD which I've heard birders playing here and at Jack Pine before, and I was not surprised to see another car in the parking lot when I left. This is one of the reasons why I don't count birds for my life list or my year list until I actually see them. Still, it won't be long until the rails return and add their voices to the chorus of the marsh.



 
 
 
Soul Diasporasoul_diaspora on April 7th, 2010 02:51 am (UTC)
Love the picture of the phoebe...the contrast, the shapes of the bare branches, and spring buds in the distance. The swimming garter snake is neat, too!