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20 May 2010 @ 07:41 pm
A Birding Vacation Part VI: Luther Marsh  

After returning to Cambridge my mother and I had only two full days of birding left before I had to return to Ottawa on Saturday. On Thursday we were able to get in only two hours of birding before it started to rain, but we managed to see four species of swallow (Tree, Barn, Cliff and Bank Swallows) winging their way up and down the Grand River and a Pied-billed Grebe at Bannister Lake before the weather worsened and the rain forced us back indoors.

Friday, however, turned out to be much sunnier, but the wind had returned. After lunch we drove over to Luther Marsh, about 20 km west of Orangeville. The Luther Marsh Wildlife Management Area was created to restore and maintain different habitats for flora and fauna. Its goals are to protect provincially significant wetlands and to optimize habitat diversity for wildlife. This habitat, which encompasses over 5,600 hectares, consists of an open marsh reservoir surrounded by lowland swamps, bogs, plantations, natural forests, fields and croplands. As many as 242 bird species have been recorded at Luther Marsh, and it is home to 35 species of mammals, 10 species of amphibians and 11 species of reptiles. Unusual species include the northern flying squirrel, Butler's garter snake and spotted turtle.

Trumpeter Swan

When we arrived we decided to stick to the forest trail. The wind was fierce along the open shore, creating whitecaps on the lake and making my own eyes water. Still, we took a quick look at the lake from the parking lot, where we saw many swallows (perhaps hundreds!) hawking for insects above the water, a muskrat along the bank, and a nesting platform across the bay. There was a loon sitting on the nest; I hadn't realized loons would nest on platforms where there is no vegetative cover to conceal their nest. This photo was taken through my scope....I still haven't gotten the hang of digiscoping.

Common Loon

It was actually pleasant in the woods, not too hot in the sun, and not so windy. There weren't many birds around, so I devoted most of my attention to the insects along the side of the trail where wildflowers were blooming profusely. There were lots of butterflies, among them one American Lady and several Red Admirals.

Red Admiral

There were plenty of small Spring Azures flying along the road as well, although they don't look very blue when they sit with their wings folded. While this butterfly obliged me by landing on the road right at my feet, I really wanted a photo of one nectaring on the forget-me-nots blossoming next to the trail. Eventually one landed on the tiny blue flowers just long enough for me to take a few pictures.

Spring Azures

The forget-me-nots were breathtaking. Often used in ornamental gardens, this non-native flower is considered a weed in most places and has been deemed invasive in a few of the northeastern states. In southern Ontario, it does not pose a serious threat to natural areas unless it is competing directly with native plants.

Forget-me-nots (Myosotis sp.)

Despite its "weed" status here in Ontario, insects were quite attracted to the forget-me-nots, including this small, beautiful moth. A denizen of meadows and grassy areas next to woodlands, this species is common in Eurasia, and can be found in North America across the northern United States and in every province and territory in Canada.

White-Banded Toothed Carpet Moth

While walking along the trail we heard a couple of Pine Warblers singing up in the trees and saw a couple of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. We also came across a few Canada Geese with some goslings on the trail, but they always kept a turn ahead of us until they disappeared into a wet, grassy area leading to the water. Then we noticed two large white birds sleeping next to the path a small distance ahead. At first I thought they might be Snow Geese, but the closer we got, the larger they appeared. When I realized they were swans, I was quite thrilled, never having encountered wild swans so close before.

Trumpeter Swans

Slowly we walked closer and closer to them, expecting them to take flight at any moment. They knew we were there - occasionally one or the other would raise its head to look at us, then tuck its bill back into its feathers and resume its nap.

Trumpeter Swans

They showed no inclination to leave, and suddenly I wasn't worried about disturbing them and causing them to fly away, but whether or not we could safely pass them to continue along the trail. There was water on both sides of the trail now, and even walking at the farthest edge we were still within ten or twelve feet of these large, magnificent birds. I knew, too, that swans have a reputation of being vicious, but I wasn't sure whether it was the smaller Mute Swan that is the subject of this reputation or if all swan species were considered dangerous in close proximity. I decided to take the chance and walk by them, carefully not to move too fast or make any sudden movements, and keeping my eyes down so as not to appear either threatening or challenging. Actually, I was busy looking at the digital screen on my camera, clicking away as I edged past them!

Trumpeter Swan Preening

The Trumpeter Swan is not only the largest swan in the world, it is the largest waterfowl species in North America. Its feathers are entirely white, which helps to distinguish it from other white species of waterfowl, such as Snow Geese which have black wing tips. However, the feathers of the head and the upper part of the neck often become stained orange as a result of feeding in areas rich in iron salts. It has a black bill and can be distinguished from the similar black-billed Tundra Swan by the lack of a small yellow patch in front of the eye and the shape of the bill.

The Trumpeter Swan once ranged from coast to coast across North America. However, in the 1800s and early 1900s, over-hunting resulted in a dramatic population decline and the threat of extinction. In 1933, only 77 breeding Trumpeter Swans in Canada and 50 breeding swans in the United States were recorded. Fortunately, after an intensive international conservation effort, the population wild Trumpeter Swans has increased to the point where this species is no longer considered in danger of extinction.

One of the main reasons for this species' success is the reintroduction of Trumpeter Swans to the North American interior. While the two western populations (the Pacific Coast Population and the Rocky Mountain Population) developed primarily from flocks in the wild which had survived the population decline, the Interior Population was created by transplanting wild birds from established flocks into promising habitat, as well as by breeding swans in captivity and releasing the young to the wild. A wonderful, heart-warming story about the reintroduction of the Trumpeter Swan to Ontario in the 1980s can be found on the Toronto Star's website.


To our surprise, the swans allowed us to pass without any fuss or comment, perhaps because they were more interested in dozing beneath the warmth of the sun than in confrontation. My mother and I continued on our way, seeing more butterflies (mostly Red Admirals) fluttering along the road and our first dragonflies of the walk - a large Common Green Darner which zoomed by without stopping, and a few immature Dot-tailed Whitefaces which, fortunately, did land in the vegetation.

Dot-tailed Whiteface

The trail ended at a boat launch on the lake, with a side trail heading back the way we came. We followed this path and found ourselves on the other side of the marsh from where we had seen the swans. We heard a Common Yellowthroat in a shrub near the path and saw a few Blue-winged Teals in the water, but there were no herons, rails, moorhens, shorebirds or bitterns, all of which we were hoping to see. There was a sort of viewing platform off to one side, although it was very small and not of much use.

We turned around and went back the way we came, encountering a new species of dragonfly, a Four-spotted Skimmer. This dragonfly is named for the black spots at the middle and end of the leading edge of its forewings.

Four-spotted Skimmer

We also encountered the family of Canada Geese, and a small group of songbirds flitting about in the tree tops. The songbirds appeared to be mostly Yellow-rumped Warblers and chickadees, but we heard a Red-eyed Vireo singing as well as a couple of Pine Warblers. The swans were still in the same spot, still dozing in the sun. This time, however, they became a bit agitated when we tried to walk by them again, bobbing their heads as we approached. We stopped, waited for them to put their heads back down, and were able to pass them once again without incident.

Dozing Swan

Although we both found the conservation area very beautiful, we had been really hoping to see some marsh birds. It was only because of the wind that we decided not to walk along the water, instead keeping to the woods. Hopefully we'll return one day when the weather is better and find some of the birds Luther Marsh is famous for.

We ended our visit with a drive through some of the back roads before heading home to Cambridge. A few Turkey Vultures sailed by overhead, and we found our first Savannah Sparrow of the trip singing from a fence. I stopped the car so we could both get a good look at it, and then heard the wonderfully chaotic song of a Bobolink nearby. I located him singing from the top of a small shrub a few metres from the Savannah Sparrow, and pointed it out to my mother; this was a life bird for her. We also saw an Eastern Phoebe perching on a branch above a small creek a short while later, the last species to be added to our trip list. However, it was the swans that left a lasting impression on us; so beautiful, so elegant and so remarkably tolerant of our presence, it was easy to see why these majestic birds have become so revered and the subject of so much lore.