Monday, April 2, 2018


Red-winged Blackbirds start singing on territory in late February

Robin Williams once said that Spring is nature's way of saying "Let's party!"

He was so right.  As the earth tilts toward the sun, the soil softens, the worms start turning, tree sap runs freely, birds are suddenly singing, and spring showers create a frenzy of fresh green growth.  There's an almost palpable gathering of energy as many species of animals and plants prepare for another season of renewal and reproduction.

American Robin in Pussy Willow

Real spring is much more complex than the date of the spring equinox.  For many, spring arrives with their first robin sighting.  For others, when hyacinths and crocus bloom in their gardens.  For those who spend time in nature and have come to understand the patterns of nature, spring may mean the first singing Red-winged Blackbirds and the calls of courting Red-necked Grebes in February, or perhaps when Snowdrops and Skunk Cabbage push up through a crust of melting snow (typically March).  With changing, more extreme weather patterns, these signposts can vary widely.  Many species are having to alter their migration patterns, and some have adapted to our milder winters, failing to migrate at all.  Boreal species are shifting north with the warming temperatures, while more southern birds are expanding their range north as well.

Red-necked Grebes usually return to traditional nest sites in late February

American Robins and Red-winged Blackbirds now winter over in numbers, surviving on dried berries and fruit; Mallards and Canada Geese are among those species who no longer migrate, in increasing numbers.  But the change of seasons is discernible even in the behaviour of these birds--male robins and blackbirds arrive before the females in order to secure territory, and the waterbirds engage in noisy courtship rituals.

Displaying Red-winged Blackbird

Hawks and owls are already incubating eggs or young, and chickadees and woodpeckers are hollowing out nest holes in trees long before the first green leaves appear.

Black-capped Chickadee excavating nest, April

As February wears on, the lake ice retreats and the large rafts of lingering sea ducks begin to move north.  Huge flocks of blackbirds (mostly red-wings, grackles, cowbirds) flood back in and disperse, cacophonous calls accompanying them.
Female Brown Cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests of sometimes much
smaller songbirds, forcing the host to become a foster parent to the huge nestlings

Common Grackle

Mixed blackbird flock in a cornfield in southwestern Ontario, 28 March

A couple of weeks ago, I heard the reedy whistles of a Golden-crowned Kinglet, my first of the year. Merely an early straggler on that date, but for me it was another hopeful sign of good times to come.

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Song Sparrows is an other early-arriving spring migrant, often heard singing when ice is still on the lake and bays.  Their bright, insistent song seems almost defiant in the face of the cold days and nights they still have to endure by arriving so early.

Song Sparrow amid spring buds

Beaver-nibbled dogwoods seem to glow in very early spring

Northward migration starts to ramp up as March progresses into April.  Killdeer (well-named for their strident "Kill-deer!  Kill-deer!" calls) can be heard as pairs return to their breeding territories in open, gravelly areas in the park.  A shorebird that prefers to be away from shores, Killdeer make a barely-discernible scrape in the gravel and lay 4-6 cleverly camouflaged eggs.  Wander too close to a Killdeer parent, and you're likely to be treated to the classic "broken-wing" display, to lead would-be predators away from eggs or young.


One of the first wildflowers of spring in the park is the unusual Coltsfoot.  Introduced from Europe, it's seen on sunny slopes on warm late-winter days, looking like a drift of early dandelions.  The bright yellow flowers bloom and fade before the leaves appear (which reminded people as being hoof-shaped or colt's foot-shaped).  Even the seed heads resemble small dandelions.


Other creatures are stirring as well.  Snakes are cold-blooded, so they need to absorb heat energy in order to move around and forage. They can occasionally be spotted sunning themselves on trails and flat rocks on early spring days, as soon as they emerge from their communal dens (hibernaculums) after hibernating all winter.  The two common species in the park, Eastern Gartersnake and Dekay's Brownsnake, are both harmless and in fact are essential to the ecological balance in the park.  Unfortunately, snakes sunning on the trails sometimes get run over by bicycles and park vehicles. Petite (growing to just 50 cm) Dekay's are sand-coloured and difficult to spot.

Dekay's Brownsnake on trail

Eastern Gartersnake peeking above the leaf litter in April

Most people, even those with no particular interest in butterflies and moths, can put a name to the conspicuous caterpillar of the Isabella Tiger Moth.  Woolly Bear caterpillars overwinter and are sometimes seen moving about on warm days early in the season.  They're even the subject of folklore, in which the width of the orange band can apparently be used as a predictor of the severity of the upcoming winter: the wider the orange band, the milder the winter will be.  In fact, the condition of the growing caterpillar (adding more orange segments with each stage or instar) is more likely to represent the bounty of the season past.

Woolly Bear caterpillar, larval stage of the Isabella Tiger Moth

In mid-April, there's an inrush of hardier songbirds returning from the south.
Brown Creepers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, and Golden-crowned Kinglets seem to appear overnight in mixed flocks, especially in the evergreens of the "Bowl".  Sometimes the trees seem to be full of kinglets and creepers and their soft calls.

Brown Creeper
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (male)

 I've seen multiple Hermit Thrushes on the same day, sometimes poking for worms and insects in the same grassy area.  White-throated Sparrows scratch around under the trees and in the leaf litter; the sunshine sometimes prompting them to perch at the tops of trees and sing their haunting, echoey "Oh, sweet Canada, Canada, Canada!", more often heard in May once they reach their northern forests.

Hermit Thrush

White-Throated Sparrow

As the air warms up, insects start flying, especially midges, harmless mosquito-like insects that hatch in huge numbers from the lakes in spring.  A readily available insect diet allows a few more migrants to filter in through mid- to late April:  Blue-Gray GnatcatchersRuby-crowned KingletsEastern PhoebesSavannah Sparrows, and even Tree Swallows.  

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

By now, fresh new life is bursting out all over.  Fresh, bright, lime-green shoots and buds begin to unfurl.  Many trees and shrubs come into flower before the leaves sprout, attracting early pollinators. 

Willow catkins

Pussy willow

Tree "flowers"

Out on the lake, groups of migrating Red-necked Grebes, Horned Grebes, Common Loons, and Tundra Swans pass by.  The large rafts of wintering sea ducks like Long-tailed Ducks have mostly moved on by now, many moving up the St. Lawrence River to get to northern breeding grounds.  

Savannah Sparrow and midges

Migrating Red-necked Grebes

Common Loon, almost in full alternate (breeding) plumage

Horned Grebe coming into alternate plumage

Long-tailed Ducks (like this drake seen 20 April 2016) look very different in spring and summer 

The arrival of the "pioneers" of wood warblers, Yellow-rumped and Pine Warblers, trigger anticipation by many birders and photographers of a flood of colourful spring migrants yet to come. 
The very first Yellow-rumped Warblers were being reported as I wrote 
this on April 1st.  They migrate earlier in spring and later in fall than other warblers

The only warbler that regularly eats seeds, early-returning Pine Warblers can thrive until the insects start flying

Tree Swallows discussing nest box ownership in mid-April

Tree Swallows feed exclusively on flying insects and feed from dusk to dawn 

Truth is, spring is going to be different for everyone, as it should be.  One day there's still a skim of ice on the pond, it's snowing and there's a bitter northwest wind, and the next the sun is warm on your face and everything seems suddenly green again.  Get out there and see how many signs of spring you can find!

Mink sunning itself on a mild late March day.  They can be seen year-round in the park, especially in the rocky piers

The harbour from the south


Anonymous said...

I have seen many signs of spring in the Park. Thanks for the great article and hope there will be many more to come

Jennifer Bazar said...

So many signs of spring approaching - love the photos too! Thanks for sharing Nancy