Connecting Lake Simcoe's Community

David Hawke is a naturalist who is well known for his outdoor writing and photography. David has worked for several agencies and organizations around Lake Simcoe. In his weekly blog, he shares his observations and insights related to our local natural environment.

Chasing cows - not a favourite sport

2018 06 17 cattle small

 

By David Hawke — It's been a while since I wrote an article about cattle.

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Wildflower blossoms decorate our Lake Simcoe area

Moccassin Flower reduced

By David J. Hawke — Our local woodlots, meadows and wetlands have already been decorated with a wide variety of wildflower blossoms, and it's only going to get better.

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Why our turtles are at risk

20140623 Hawke turtlesBy David Hawke - Over the past few years you may have (should have) noticed new roadside signs being installed that indicate the area is used by turtles to cross the road from one side to the other.

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How to see the 'wee feathered beasties'

2018 05 20 binocs By David Hawke – Taking the time to observe nature is an eons old pastime.

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Birdwatching - a look at the wild side

2018 05 11 hawke osprey        

By David Hawke -- "Spring has sprung, the grass has riz, I wonder where the boidies iz?"  While the origin of this little jingle is arguably from Ogden Nash, it has been recited in our family for years. And sure enough as spring arrived, albeit in a stormy and haphazard way, so have the birds.

          The act of birdwatching can be passive or intense, superfluous or in-depth. One may simply check off names (mentally or on paper) or one may opt to study bird behaviour in some detail. This column is about three observations of bird behaviours: the aggressive, the adaptive, and the normal.

          Beside our home is a shallow creek, along whose banks grow grand and ancient black maples. These great trees are beginning to die from old age and, high above the once strong limbs and trunks, are now riddled with decay and sprouting fungus shelves. Within one such sizeable branch is an excavated hole, perhaps about half the size of my fist. A week ago, you could see chips of wood being tossed out from this hole and catch an occasional glimpse of the hairy woodpecker busy inside.

          A couple of days ago, I heard a frantic commotion going on and upon investigation, found several birds down in the creek. As I approached, starlings, woodpeckers, sparrows and doves took flight in several directions. Left laying in the mud was a female hairy woodpecker, totally soaked, bloody and muddy. She had the energy left to hop up a nearby sapling and haul herself above my reach, but it was obvious that she was done for.

          I wondered how she had gotten herself into such a mess and was given the answer the next day. Again, a terrible fuss was heard, this time high above, near the nest hole. As I watched, the male hairy would poke his head out, and a starling, which was perched beside the entrance hole, would grab the woodpecker's head and try to pull it out! Such was the aggressive competition for nesting sites. Such was the fate of the female woodpecker the day before.

          The next bird observation took place along the busy paved road that connects us with the rest of the world. As I came home one evening I noted a large hawk-like bird rising from the field with prey in its talons. To cross the road, it had to fly through the telephone and hydro lines that parallel the pavement. With deft flipping and flapping, the bird managed to do so and continued on its flight across the next field.

         

          While that was interesting enough, the shock to me was that the bird was an osprey and the prey was a sizeable fish. But this was farm land. Just as I went zooming by, I noticed that a medium-sized pond had been built within the rolling three-acre lawn of a neighbour. And within this artificial pond had been placed fish.

          Imagine the osprey's line of thought as it flew by: “Hmm. A pond, in a field, with fish. Cool, I can live with that.” And it is. The question remains, can the landowner who created the pond and stocked the fish now live with the osprey who has adapted its area of hunting?  

          The third observation was made just outside the growing mini-metropolis I call my home town. What were once large and undulating farm fields are now filled with box-like houses, box-like stores and straight rows of paved roads. But along the borders of this “progress” can still be found grassy strips and shrubby lots, land too small or too awkward to access to be considered “valuable land.”

          Within such a grassy slope a red-tailed hawk spied a garter snake and dove down to capture it. (No doubt the nearby mice were thankful that something else had caught the eye of the hawk that day.) For the past several decades prior to the arrival of “progress” this small field had been home to a wide array of creatures, from insects to wildflowers, from sparrows to groundhogs. And today a hawk did what comes naturally, it caught its daily food from within the web of life that continues to exist here.

When the hawk rose from the grasses, prey not quite firmly in hand, it landed to readjust its grip. Its perch was large, brightly coloured, square sign which read "Commercial Land For Sale". Like a customer grabbing a deal in the closing-out sale of a long-established store, the hawk had paid a final visit to this remnant of land.

          Birdwatching… more than a passive hobby... a revealing peek into the world of our wild neighbourhoods.

© 2018 David J. Hawke

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

While there's still a chill to the morning air, many wildflowers are doing their best to carpet the forest floor: red and white trilliums, fawn lily, spring beauty, blue cohosh, wild ginger, and squirrel corn to name a few. I hope that any mid-May frost will not be enough to knock them back.

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The early bird gets the worm - and the radio backpack

By David Hawke - "T20180423 Bluebirdshe early bird gets the worm." True, especially in June, but what if the early bird has arrived in an April snowstorm? Our recent spate of weather really put to the test the notion that "only fools rush in".

The spring migration of birds has been occurring in these parts of the country for a few thousand years, ever since the first shrubs and wildflowers returned after that bothersome glacier melted away. Where there was food and shelter the birds would find it. Our records of this annual migration go back in time only about 200 years, so it's hard to accurately extrapolate the earlier 11,800 spring arrival dates. What the data lacks in quantity we make up for with intensity, as the current methodologies for tracking bird flight is truly awesome.

Representatives of several species have been captured, banded, and outfitted with a wee backpack. Inside that backpack is a battery, an antenna, and a radio code. Built along the entire Atlantic migration route, from Florida to Ontario, are many receiving towers that will pick up the presence of these birds as they pass by. As tiny blips show up on massive computers, the movement of these birds can be monitored fairly closely. Arrival times at certain destinations can be forecasted within hours.

This tracking of the birds allows us to better understand migration routes and perhaps a bit of the "why" and "how" these avian critters survive disruptive weather patterns. Do they sense impending doom and hunker down in Pennsylvania? Do they push onwards through the night to ride a warm thermal? Do they time their travel to meet emerging insects? Does the ice-out date of a certain lake trigger advancement?

All that aside, you and I know full well that it's not really spring until the first robin arrives and can be seen bob-bob-bobbing along in the yard. May not be the most scientific of ways to mark a new season, but seems to work for us anyways.

When that three-day snow-ice-slush storm hit in mid-April, several birds had already arrived, including robins, woodcock, killdeer, bluebirds, red-winged blackbirds, and Canada geese. These were the 'early birds', arguably the foolish ones that had rushed forward to lead the vernal migration. Oopsy... guess who got caught in the cold and snow?

Because each of these species has had several thousand springtimes to figure out this migration challenge, many have come up with survival strategies. Some retreat, some hunker down, and a few die thus eliminating the 'I'm going to get there first' trait of those adventuresome individuals.

The advance-retreat-advance method is noted with the waterfowl, the ducks, geese and swans that seek open water. Scouts are sent forward to determine which lakes are ice free... if they don't come back the next sortie is dispatched... if they don't come back it's time to move out and advance the flight!

The duck species that nest in the more northern parts of Ontario have an additional worry... can they get there soon enough to build a nest, lay eggs, raise young, and get out again before the next fall freeze-up? To ensure they don't get caught short with a late spring, they pair up, mate and begin egg development while en route. That way, as soon as they arrive, a nest can be thrown together and eggs laid immediately.

Robins and bluebirds are cousins within the thrush family, and share similar foods in their diet. Worms, bugs and other juicy things are preferred, but squishy fruit will do in a pinch. This is when all those fruit-bearing shrubs that you planted around your house come into play. Crabapples, highbush cranberries, nanneyberries and other soft fruits will be sought out by these birds.

Bluebirds will also do a group hug to stay warm on a chilly early spring night... there are many reports of a cluster of bluebirds found huddled inside a nesting box turned bird hostel.

Seed-eaters, such as fox sparrows and white-throated sparrows, will enjoy the late winter seeds at your feeder, jostling for position with the resident chickadees and blue jays. If they can find any natural seeds, so much the better.

The bird I'm most impressed with for spring hardiness is the woodcock. These long-beaked birds thrive on earthworms, yet when they first arrive at our farm such delicacies are below the snow and trapped by ground frost. I was fortunate to watch one the other day as it foraged between ice chunks and melting sections of our stream. It bobbed and wobbled (as woodcock do) and suddenly thrust its beak into the crusty mud. Success! A muddy and barely moving worm was extracted and gobbled down. After a few minutes the bird bob-wobbled again, and procured yet another worm. Amazing.

As weather watchers and birdwatchers combine their interests the results will hopefully reveal a few more secrets of the natural world that surrounds us. And what might the benefits be? Well, curiosity sated if nothing else. And maybe the changing behaviours of these early birds, these foolish birds, will carry a message to help us adapt to an ever-changing climate. After all, they've been working on it much longer than we have.


© 2018 David J. Hawke

David Hawke may be contacted at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

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Turkey Vulture - the roadside cleaner

 

2018 04 28 turkeyvultureBy David Hawke — The word 'catharsis' means to clean or purify, a word brought forward from the ancient Greek language.

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The crime? Raiding the bird feeder. The culprit? Caught! In photos

20180422 BWRaccoon

By David Hawke — The crime scene, if I may call it that, first appeared rather quiet and orderly.

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Have we learned anything about importing species?

2018 04 15 starling rev

By David Hawke - This week's blog started out to be about European starlings, those somewhat despicable birds that insist on nesting in your mailbox, over the porch entrance, or wherever a deficiency in the exterior of your house occurs. However, as oft occurs when one does research on a subject, distractions happen. This is such a story.

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Trees need moisture, and lots of it

2018 04 08 hawke trees

 

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Weasels go by many names

2018 04 02 skunk rev

 

By David Hawke - Weasels are known by many names, such as politician, ex-partner, sly competitor, unscrupulous land developer... oops, I seem to have gotten off-track.

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Screech owl - one of nature's wonders

2018 03 24 screech

By David Hawke -- I peered out the window, taking a long-overdue break from staring at a computer screen, and saw a lovely scene of natural wonderment. A pair of chickadees scavenged through the hop vines, obviously seeking whatever morsel they missed yesterday, while a red-breasted nuthatch kept them close company. I could feel my eyes relax as I followed their antics.

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Turkeys and Deer!

2018 03 03 Gill deer reduced

By David Hawke - There may still be snow in the valleys, but a couple of wildlife species are well into springtime behaviour mode. The past two weeks have produced daily observations of turkeys and deer, turkeys and deer, and more turkeys and deer.

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Are we really so different?

2018 03 0410 red Grey Squirrel

By David Hawke – I sometimes wonder what makes us so special, or at least what makes us think we are so special. Wildlife and the environment are often placed, figuratively, as 'over there', and we are 'over here', all by ourselves. Us against them, they provide for us, we dominate them -- not a whole lot of harmony going on.

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Make Time For Tea

2018 02 25 sumac

By David Hawke -- Tea time! For many people that break from the daily routine to have a cup o' tea is a cherished moment: quiet time, warm drink, think for a moment, rest the weary legs and feet… it's obvious why this tradition is so valued.

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Winter Wildlife Olympics

2018 02 18 Deer

By David J. Hawke -- Good morning sports fans and welcome to Day 76 of the Wildlife Winter Olympic Games.

I'm Buck Boaring, your host for the day, and joining us to report from the field is Chip Underfoot. Yes, indeed, these 90-day Games are indeed proving to be as exciting as ever, with each event providing both crushing defeats and ultimate survivals. Let's go to Chip who's covering the early morning events at Bird Feeder Stadium. Chip, are you there?

          Hey Buck, Chip here, covering the early morning events at the Bird Feeder Stadium! Since dawn's early light there has been a quiet frenzy of activity as competitors ready themselves for the day's challenges! First up is the Seed Dash and Stash, and Team Chickadee have come on strong with their characteristic 'flit and grab' technique! Wow, these guys have been training every day and it's really starting to show as they manoeuvre for position around the feeder: dash in, grab a seed and flit out of the way just in time for a team mate to next make their move! This event is just underway with no clear winner yet, so back to you in the studio, Buck!

          Thanks Chip. Buck Boaring here with you providing coverage of Day 76 of the Wildlife Winter Olympic Games. We have an update on the overnight Cross Country Run event, with reports that Team Coyote and Team Red Fox have both pushed themselves to near exhaustion in their efforts to capture a reward. This is a tight one folks, as these competitors know they need to capture rewards along the way to sustain themselves to the end of this event. You may recall that last year's Games were fast and furious due to minimal snow coverage, but wow, this year has been a true test of their endurance and skills. Chip, are you there? What's happening over at Cedar Grove Coliseum?

          Yo, Buck! Chip Underfoot here, reporting live from the Cedar Grove Coliseum! It's been a morning of organized chaos here but a few winners are being made! What started as a fairly quiet day has suddenly turned wild! Team Snowshoe Hare entered the field with their usual quiet confidence when suddenly... BAM!... Team Horned Owl came out of nowhere and dominated the field! Team Hare are now playing with one member down and are hoping that Team Owl sticks to their strategy of taking just one player at a time! But you never know when some rookie owl will try for a second player in the same day, so tension remains high here at Cedar Grove Coliseum!

          Thanks for that Chip. Buck Boaring here with you, providing coverage of Day 76 of the Wildlife Winter Olympic Games. Perhaps I should mention that the beautiful Cedar Grove Coliseum was hand planted just 40 years ago to provide the venue for what we're witnessing today. I'm sure you'll agree that it has been an amazing job of habitat transformation. Let's go back to the field to join Chip Underfoot as he visits the Fence Jump venue. Chip, over to you.

          Uh, whew, hi, Chip Underfoot here as I approach the Fence Jump event at the other end of the Wildlife Winter Olympic Park! Yes, there it is! Okay, whew, let's see how this event is going! Team Deer have been tagged the favourites going into this, but Team Moose have been giving a strong showing of late! As I look along the fenceline I can see where several Deer have attempted the Fence Jump, yet only a few have actually had success! I can see contenders milling about in the thicket as if preparing for the next round!

          And Yes! One of the larger members of Team Deer is going to challenge the fence jump! He's posed, he's going to his inner place, looking across the fence! He's focusing on that magic point just on the other side of the road! He makes his approach! There's that last second pause! And yes! He clears the fence with just a brush of his hind hoof against the barbed wire!! He's floundering a bit in the roadside snowbank but it looks like he's going to make it! Whoa! Did you see that car dodge? What a player! Through that second snowbank, the final fence is within his reach! Up! Over! YES! Score one for Team Deer with that amazing final push!

          Okay Chip, thanks for that. Coming up, right here in the studio with myself, Buck Boaring, your host of the 76th Day of this year's Wildlife Winter Olympics, will be a member of Team Mouse to explain the difference between the 3-yard dash and the 15-yard dash. As you know, this is a very competitive event and some years Team Mouse comes out ahead, and other years there's the heartbeak of defeat. With all this snow this year, both Team Coyote and Team Owl have admitted that they are bit behind in their overall scoring, but are hoping that the recent thaw and freeze will create better track conditions.

          Coming up after the break, we will be providing extensive coverage of the Aerial Balance with Team Squirrel poised to be on the top of the podium, and later on the mass start of the Weed Seed Search, led again with last year's winners, Team Snow Bunting! For Chip Underfoot and all of us here at Day 76 of the Winter Wildlife Olympics, this is Buck Boaring wishing you well and reminding you to keep your guard up!

Photo: This image was taken during Team Deer's spring training camp. The Fence Jump demands tight focus and amazing agility. Disastrous results have been experienced. Photo by David Hawke

© 2018

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A Chippy Springtime

2018 02 11 chipmunkREVBy David J. Hawke  – As some of you may be aware, the fourteenth of February is a special day, a day that often marks the start of a fresh new season.

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Photoperiod... Yes!

2018 02 03 fleas

 

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Trailside Treasures

2018 01 28 antlers.reduced

By David J. Hawke — "Hi. I think there is a dead deer beside the snowshoe trail. I saw part of its head sticking out of the snow." The rest of the voice mail message gave a fairly accurate location which propelled me out the door and sent me hastily on my way. Any opportunity to learn about the wildlife of the area, whether it be dead or alive, is a good opportunity.

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Not So Wily Coyotes

2018 01 23 Coyote

By David J. Hawke — Out in our neck of the woods, which is quite woody indeed, coyotes are often heard but seldom seen. The corridor of interconnected forests and quiet farm fields that stretches across this part of the township, provides a world of protection for these wild canines. So it was with delighted surprise that I actually observed two such animals within a day of each other. Both sightings were from the comfort of my car as I drove along well-travelled roads.

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