Blue Lakes

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Monday was the last day of my contract with Innis Point Bird Observatory. The spring migration monitoring wrapped up with a reasonably good day, despite some wind that required a few nets remain closed. Although it was a slow season compared to some other stations in Ontario, I enjoyed it, and the low capture volume allowed me to provide plenty of training to my two “interns” and a few other volunteers. I handed in my gate keys at the end of the day, and all that’s left is for me to computerize the data and get it sent off to them.

Yesterday was therefore my first day “off”, but I hardly spent it sitting around. In fact, I didn’t even get to sleep in much past my usual 3am wake-up time. At 3:45 the alarm went off and Dan and I climbed out of bed to head out to the first of Frontenac Bird Studies’ three MAPS sites.

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MAPS stands for Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship. Basically it’s the banding program that fills in where migration monitoring leaves off. While migration monitoring (and the non-banding surveys of the Breeding Bird Survey) are able to detect and document the overall trends of bird populations and individual species, they are unable to say why they’re trending that way. In fact, no generalized surveys can give us really specific information – in order to know whether it’s habitat loss or pollution or environmental contaminants or something else very specific targeted research must be undertaken for each species. But it’s a pretty big haystack and often a fairly small needle. MAPS banding can kick-start the process by being able to give an idea of which part of the haystack the needle is in. The program documents “birth” rates by monitoring proportions of the different age classes in the population, and “death” rates (where death might mean either actual death or simply the departure of the individual to other localities – either way, it’s a loss of that breeding individual to the local population) by banding year after year and seeing who returns the following summer. If we know that there are lots of chicks but adult survivorship appears to be very low for a particular population, we can then focus our efforts on finding out why the adults aren’t returning.

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There are over 500 MAPS stations in North America, but fewer than 10% of those are in Canada. Only thirteen stations have been established in Ontario, four of them are defunct, and three of the remaining eight are Dan’s. Part of the problem is the availability of skilled personnel – the US has some 2000 federally-permitted banders, while Canada only has about 200 (the last time I heard the stats, anyway). Another part of it is that so much of our landscape is remote and, often, inaccessible. A single MAPS station only requires seven visits over the course of a summer season, so they’re usually run on a volunteer basis and tend to be located within an easy drive from the bander’s home. But I suppose an additional part of it is just that Canadian banders haven’t embraced it the way Americans have; there have been, for instance, nearly four dozen MAPS stations set up in Alaska over the years, and while it’s certainly a large state, it’s hardly any more populous than much of Canada.

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Anyway, enough with the background info. This was supposed to be a post about our outing yesterday. Last year Dan had set up three stations in or near Frontenac Provincial Park, but one of the three had to be retired early due to some unfortunate logistical difficulties (a shame, as it was quite a nice spot). He wanted to replace it this year so he would again be running three stations, and after much scouting of crown land along the Frontenac Arch north of the park he located a spot out near Sharbot Lake, about a half hour’s drive west of us, and about 19 km (12 mi) north of the other stations, as the crow flies.

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It’s nestled between two small lakes, possibly oversized ponds depending on your point of view, the larger of the two only about 14 acres of water surface. This site is similar in many respects to the other two, but even the short distance north gives it a slightly more northern feel, with a greater proportion of conifers and several bird species not found (or found in lower numbers) at the other site. One of these species is the Black-throated Blue Warbler, of which Dan and I estimated 5-7 territorial males singing within our netting area alone. My short name for the species is simply “Blue” (Black-throated Green Warblers are “Greens”), and because the most dominant landform feature was the dual lakes we decided to call it Blue Lakes (Black-throated Blue Warbler Lakes being a bit of a mouthful).

Dan has already posted a summary of the morning’s banding, so I won’t repeat that here; you can head over to his post to read about what we found, including our first-ever banding of a Yellow-throated Vireo, a Hermit Thrush (another of those northern-feel species), and of course a Blue. Instead, I thought I’d highlight some of the other interesting things I found about the site during the morning.

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The lakes themselves are actually more green than blue, being covered with plentiful pond lilies. We didn’t notice any fish, though that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not there, just that they weren’t close to shore. There were, however, plenty of frogs. Most of them seemed to be Mink Frogs, a species I hadn’t ever encountered prior to moving to eastern Ontario. There were also a few Green Frogs and Leopard Frogs thrown in for good measure. I spotted a few turtles basking on exposed logs, at least one of which was a Blanding’s, a Species At Risk in Ontario.

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In the larger of the two lakes there were a few tall standing snags that still retained many of their larger branches. In a couple of these Great Blue Herons had built nests, and in one of them, at least, there were a couple of youngsters, getting near to the age where they will leave the nest. I didn’t bring my long lens with me, so the photo was taken by holding my camera up to my binoculars. I used to do all of my long-distance photos this way, before getting a DSLR, but the image quality isn’t nearly as good. As it turns out, the method is a whole lot easier when you’re using a point-and-shoot. I went back with Dan’s super-zoom camera after borrowing it from him the next time our paths crossed, but by that time the chicks were hunkered down again.

Chestnut-sided Warbler nest

Speaking of nests, Dan was halfway through clearing out a net lane last week when he discovered this Chestnut-sided Warbler nest just a foot and a half from where he was cutting. She’s been studiously incubating over the last week, and was still present today; hopefully the habitat modifications haven’t put her off too much.

Whorled Loosestrife

These flowers are growing abundantly in a couple areas of our site. I was quite taken with them; the flowers are just small, only about a centimeter (<1/2″) in diameter, held aloft on dainty thread-thin stems, and a cheerful orange accented with red. As far as I can tell, they’re Whorled Loosestrife, Lysimachia quadrifolia, although every photo I’ve looked at for the species has shown yellow flowers, not orange ones. Whorled Loosestrife is one of our native species, and is unrelated to the invasive Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) even though they share the same common name.

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This plant grows at both Blue Lakes and Maplewood Bog. It may also be at Rock Ridge, though I haven’t noticed it there myself (it is on the official park checklist, though). It took me a while to figure out what it was: Sweetfern, Comptonia peregrina, though it’s not actually a fern at all and the name just refers to the similar appearance of the leaves. It also refers to the fragrance of them. The leaves can be crushed and steeped in hot water to make tea; it was a traditional Native American remedy for diarrhea and dyssentry, but it also tastes very pleasant. The intriguing burr-like balls are actually the plant’s seeds, and within that spiky exterior is an edible and tasty “nutlet”. I’ll have to try it next time I’m there.

Dwarf Raspberry

Another plant starting to bear fruit already is the Dwarf Raspberry, sometimes known as Swamp Raspberry, Rubus pubescens. Despite its alternative name, it’s found in most northern forest conditions. Related to our domesticated raspberries, this one rarely grows more than half a meter (~18″) high. The berries are, as with all Rubus species, edible and sweet, but as each plant bears only a few fruit they make more of a treat than a snack.

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At one spot along the shore an old fallen log had fetched up in the shallow mud leaving its top side exposed as it rotted. It’s been colonized by sedges and other plants, as well as one of my favourites, sundew – I believe these to be Round-leaved Sundew, Drosera rotundifolia. I wrote about some sundew at Rock Ridge last year, but I believe those were a different species, Spoon- or Spatulate-leaved Sundew, Drosera intermedia.

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With the log so close to shore I was able to simply lean over to take a few photos, something I hadn’t been able to do at Rock Ridge. I even found a small patch of it growing at the shore edge there, where the water had become trapped and somewhat stagnant behind the grounded log.

Caenia dimidiata

And the last one, for today: this guy was hanging on one of the nets when I went to close up at the end of the morning. It’s a net-winged beetle, Caenia dimidiata but no common name. These guys are neat not only for their own appearance, but also because they are part of a mimicry complex that includes the Black-and-yellow Lichen Moth (below; taken at our last house). Presumably somebody in the complex tastes bad, and they all benefit from the learned avoidance behaviour of predators that the common aposematic colouration gives them.

8087 - Lycomorpha pholus - Black-and-yellow Lichen Moth

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Good birds, great view

Dawn on Big Clear Lake

We made our third and final MAPS visit on Saturday to Rock Ridge. The site is the only one of the three situated in the provincial park (the other two are on government-owned crown land), and is the only one of the three that we can’t walk in to. Well, we could, but it would take us about an hour to reach. As it is, it still takes us about half an hour, which involves a longish portage and a moderate paddle in the canoe. We’ve done this half a dozen times, but prior to Saturday all of the visits had been in the afternoon. Somehow, at 4am, it seemed like a whole lot more work than it had on previous visits, so we’re looking at ways to shorten that time and effort.

Rock Ridge

Rock Ridge gets its name from its two most obvious features. The first is a long, steep ridge that runs along the edge of one of the lakes. This is one of my favourite features of the site, as the view is amazing, one of the best that I’ve encountered around our home and the park. Our “banding station”, the spot where we leave all our tools and bring the birds back to for data collection prior to release, sits overlooking this ridge and the lake below.

Rock Ridge

And the second is the prominent rock barrens habitat that is abundant throughout the site. It is probably the site with the most Canadian Shield flavour, with rocky granite outcroppings and large stands of pine. Scattered through the area are patches of deciduous forest and successional edge habitats, which makes for an incredible diversity of birds. Scarlet Tanagers and Red-eyed Vireos sing a few dozen meters from Eastern Towhees and Field Sparrows, which in turn are singing alongside White-throated Sparrows and Pine Warblers.

Old burnt cedar stump

The landscape owes part of its existence to fires that ripped through a number of areas of the park, long before it ever was a park. The scorching blaze seared off the vegetation, and left the soil exposed and without a strong root network to secure it. The soil is so thin in much of our region, sitting above the granite bedrock of the Frontenac Arch, that without the plants there a lot of it eroded away with wind and rain. The rock barrens are one piece of evidence of these historic fires, but another is in the form of these “driftwood” pieces. They’re scattered about the site, looking for all the world like they should have been washed up on a beach somewhere, but in actuality they’re the old, weathered remains of the trees killed some 80 years ago. Nearly all of the surviving driftwoods are the characteristic twisting shapes of cedar trunks, one of the most weather-resistant woods. If you look closely, you can see charred sections on most pieces.

Rock Ridge

Another feature of the site that I like is a second, smaller lake that borders the north edge. It’s got sheer-cliff walls that drop down to a striking blue water surface covered in lilypads. The nature of the cliff walls reminds me of quarries I’ve seen. At the turn of the century, and for the first few decades following, mining was a common occupation in this region. However, mining operations were relatively small scale back then, and it’s unlikely that any of them would have been big enough to dig a mining pit of this magnitude. The landscape is naturally quite rugged around here, so it’s not outside reason that these are natural, glacier-carved walls.

White-throated Sparrow

These guys, White-throated Sparrows, are among the most abundant of the species at the site. Despite this, we only caught three over the course of our morning. White-throats have tan and white morphs (the colour of the stripes on the head), previously thought to represent female and male birds, respectively, but it’s since been shown that both sexes “come in” both colours. Other studies suggest that the majority of pairings involve one member of each colour morph, which may also have led to the belief that the two colours represented different sexes. Further research has shown that white-morph birds are more vocal than tan-morph birds, and that white-morph females are even known to sing, albeit not very much. Tan-morph males sing about as much as white-morph females. Tan males are pacifists, more inclined to help with raising the nestlings, while white males are more aggressive in defending their turf and do little to help out around the nest.

Cedar Waxwing Cedar Waxwing

A species we catch that is sexually dimorphic, albeit subtley so, is the Cedar Waxwing. For the most part females resemble males with their silky mocha bodies and black masks. However, in general females have shorter yellow bands on their tails, and fewer red waxy tips on their wing feathers. The key identifier, though, is the amount of black under the chin. In males (below) the black tends to extend right back along the throat as far as the corner of the mouth, while in females (above) the black is just a small patch by the beak, with a grayish wash on the rest of the chin. Waxwings are such sexy birds.

Chipping Sparrow

There are many species we get that aren’t dimorphic, however, such as this Chipping Sparrow. Fortunately, in many of the songbirds it’s possible to sex these guys based on other criteria. Female songbirds, when they’re breeding, drop the feathers from their belly and develop a vascularized, cushy surface, called a brood patch, that is used in incubating eggs. Males rarely develop brood patches, but can be told apart instead by a large swelling of their cloaca (the single orifice by which all waste is eliminated, a feature shared by reptiles), which is used in mating similar to the mammalian penis in terms of making the transfer of sperm to the female more reliable. It can be quite large, relative to the size of the bird, and maybe instead of saying “hung like a horse” we should be saying “hung like a breeding songbird”. Of course, both of these features are obscured by feathers when the bird is in the tree, so in order to determine the sex of the individual (if it’s not singing), it really is necessary to catch it.

Hairy Woodpecker

Woodpeckers aren’t members of the songbird Order, also sometimes called passerines (Passeriformes), but are instead classified, with a few others, in their own (Piciformes), closely related on the taxonomic family tree. They, and other types of small landbirds like doves, cuckoos, hummingbirds, etc, are sometimes referred to as “near-passerines” for this close relation. Both male and female woodpeckers develop brood patches, so it’s fortunate that they’re all sexually dimorphic with the presence or absence of red patches. Check out the size of the beak on this male Hairy Woodpecker, as long from base to tip as the head is deep. Downy Woodpeckers have beaks that are only half as long as the head. Also note the fluffy tan-coloured bristles at the base of the bill. These are similar in function to the hairs in your nostrils, in that they help keep flying sawdust out of the bird’s nose as it’s hammering away on trees.

Pileated Woodpecker

Speaking of hammering away on trees, this male Pileated Woodpecker was doing a good job of it on this tree. I encountered him a couple of times, in between two of our nets. It would be really neat if we caught him, and had a chance to see him up close, but we’d have to be very lucky not only in his trajectory but also hope that he doesn’t bounce out before we check the net. The nets are designed to optimally hold birds about the size of a warbler or sparrow. Robins and Blue Jays are bordering on too large, and anything bigger than that is hit-or-miss; they simply “fall” out of the pockets and go on their merry way. I was a bit surprised to see him there, since it didn’t seem like ideal Pileated habitat compared to the other two sites, nice mature forests with lots of snags where I hadn’t seen any.

Dan has posted a bit more about the visit at his work blog, Frontenac Birds, including more and different bird photos, and a bit more about the site itself.

Gobs in the bogs

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We have three stations set up for MAPS. Our first visit to the first one was on Wednesday; we made our first visit to the second on Friday, and were out to the third station today. Although they all share some features, be it bird species or landscape, they are all pretty unique from one another. Hemlock Lake is set along the edge of a small lake. The west shore is full of deadfall trees, and, as the site’s name suggests, hemlock is predominant there. Rock Ridge, our third site, is also set on a lake, but while Hemlock Lake is mostly forest, Rock Ridge is mostly pine and rock barrens. Both of these sites are very picturesque, with many postcard photo ops around the site.

If the other two are about the landscape, then Maplewood Bog, our second site, is about the birds. Well, really, all three sites are about the birds, but with Maplewood that’s the feature that makes it stand out from the others. This is in part because there really isn’t the same sort of postcard landscape at the site. Both of the other sites have great vistas looking out over their respective lakes. Maplewood, however, is set into the forest. As per its name, the site’s most prominent feature is a largeish bog set in the middle of the mostly maple and oak forest (we tried out the name Oakwood Bog, but it just didn’t roll off the tongue as well).

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Though there is the one large bog in the centre, Maplewood has numerous smaller bogs, vernal pools, swamps, and wet spots. This is somewhat deliberate (the inclusion of these within the station boundaries, not their existence – we can’t take credit for that), as such habitat offers the low, shrubby growth that is crucial for successful mistnetting. In order for a mistnet to catch birds, the birds must be traveling at the level of the net. For them to be moving at net level, there must be suitable low vegetation structure. In a typical mature forest, most of the vegetation is found in the tree canopies. At human level there is mostly just tree trunks, or sometimes sparse young saplings waiting for a big adult to fall and open up a patch of sunlight. These little wet bits are often the best habitat for catching birds in, as it brings the birds down to net level. Unfortunately, they can be a bit wet to walk in. Dan did his best to select the driest bits for the net lanes.

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N for Nice? It really is a nice site. What it lacks in vistas it makes up for in easy walking and great bird diversity. This is the only one of our three sites with nesting Cerulean Warblers and Yellow-throated Vireos. Scarlet Tanagers are also common, but we didn’t catch any of these species on our first visit to the site. In the summer they typically favour the tree canopies, rarely coming down low except, perhaps, to drink and bathe. Our best chances for catching them will be later in the summer, once the young birds fledge. Adults will often lead their families to edge habitat and low scrubby areas. I’m not exactly sure what it is that draws them there, but it’s probably to do with food – greater food abundance or foraging opportunities in the increased structural diversity of the scrubby habitat. Late in the summer and into the fall these habitats start hopping with birds as the young-of-the-year disperse out of their natal territories. Gobs in the bogs. Even at this point in the season, of the first days at each of our three sites Maplewood was the busiest, with 26 captures. When we arrived at the site, at 5 am, the woods were just alive with birdsong.

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A forest specialty that we did catch was the Wood Thrush above. They are a declining species and so are a target species for our projects. Wood Thrushes are notoriously hard to photograph, or at least to get a good photo of. They have a habit of dropping their head down to their chest, giving them a hump-backed look. This one happens to be a second-year bird – that is, in its second calendar year (meaning last year, 2008, was when it was hatched, its first calendar year). One of the tell-tale features that you can look for in thrushes of all species are these pale streaks up the shafts of some of their wing or head feathers. The feathers of baby thrushes all have these pale streaks, and while the bird will replace most of them in the fall before it migrates, they often hold on to some of them through the spring and summer (but it’s one of those absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence sort of things – if you notice them it’s definitive of age, but if you don’t then the age is ambiguous and needs to be determined by other criteria). In this photo a few of the feathers on the bird’s forehead still bear those pale streaks.

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Red-eyed Vireos are one of the most common species of deciduous forests and are present at all of our sites in good numbers. They are well-named birds, as the eyes of the adults really are a vibrant ruby-red when highlighted by the sun (in the shade they’re still a rich matte red). The eyes of young-of-the-year are a mouse-brown, so it’s easy to tell the young from the adults in the fall, at least if you can get a good look at their eyes. Their irises gradually change colour over the course of the winter. This individual looks like it has a speckled throat, but all those little gray dots are actually feather mites. I have no idea how these mites get on the bird in the first place, but once present they settle in on the feathers and feed on the barbs. In most birds you notice them on the wing feathers, so I was surprised to see them on the throat of this guy. I guess it was one of the few places he couldn’t preen them from.

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We’re starting to get into deer fly season, and as the sun crests the treetops they all come out of wherever they spent the night, and start their endless circling of your head. After a long few hours of this at Hemlock Lake a couple days before, I bought some of those deer fly sticky traps for use on future outings. I tried them out at Maplewood on Friday. They proved remarkably effective, distracting the flies from my neck and trapping them on the tape where they could do no harm. This was my collection at the end of the morning.

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The deer flies were just as irritating to the birds as to me while I was trying to photograph them. This Common Yellowthroat took matters into his own beak when one landed on his back. He held on to it and left with it when I let him go.

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The same thing was repeated by this Veery as I was taking photos of it. This gave me an idea for the fate of the flies stuck to the back of my cap, and as birds were released I offered them a deer fly for their troubles. Most of them snapped it up right away and departed with it.

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This Field Sparrow has a mosquito in his mouth. We caught him before the deer flies were out, but there were still plenty of mosquitoes in the early morning cool. He actually snapped it out of the air where it hovered near his face as I took a few photos. Even the sparrows, chickadees and finches, which we think of traditionally as seed-eaters due to their presence at our feeders in the winter, are insectivores in the summer. Insects offer substantially more nutrition and protein than seed does, which is important with all the energy the birds expend in raising a family (or two) over the summer months. Birds that stick around for our winters have evolved to be able to switch their diet to seeds for the cold months, when insects are hard to find, and those that are unable to make the dietary change fly south to where insects are around all year.

If you’re interested in reading more about the site and the birds found there, check out Dan’s post on our Maplewood Bog visit, over at the Frontenac Birds blog.

Fieldwork that’s for the birds

Hemlock Lake MAPS site

This morning Dan and I woke up at the unearthly hour of 4 am. Our purpose was not to inflict some sort of sadistic mental stamina test upon ourselves (though sometimes it feels that way), but rather to trek out into the woods and hike around in circles for seven hours. Okay, so maybe it is some sort of sadistic mental stamina test. But really, it does have a greater purpose.

Today was our very first day of MAPS (a bird research program called Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship – more background info on MAPS here). To say I was a bit excited is something of an understatement. I’ve really missed doing fieldwork. For some five years after graduating university I spent nearly eight months a year outside doing fieldwork. Early morning wakeup calls notwithstanding, I loved it. Unfortunately, it was really hard to make a decent living, and what living one was able to make usually required a fair bit of travel. Winters were always a struggle as I tried to make ends meet in between field seasons. I finally decided I wanted to settle down and stay in one spot for a while, and stop having to constantly line up the next job. So I switched careers, to try to pursue some sort of creative source of income (artwork, writing, etc). We’ve settled down into a home, but I still seem to be constantly looking for my next paycheque. Ah well. One step at a time.

This is the first fieldwork I’ve been involved in in about a year, since we moved here. What makes it even better is that it’s our project. Well, Dan’s, but I feel some sort of ownership of it by proxy. The 4 am wake up was a little painful, particularly for someone whose natural sleep cycle says that 9:30 am is just about right for getting up, but I was willing to be a bit bleary-eyed in order to go out and spend the day in such a beautiful spot. And I did do it for five years, after all, so it’s not all that new.

The above photo was taken at 5:20 am this morning, as we made our first rounds of the site. It’s surprisingly bright for so early in the morning – sunrise is 5:30 – but the air is still cool such that a veil of mist rises up from the warmer water’s surface. I love the colours of pre-dawn, the soft pastels of blue and rose, that gently ease you into the start of the day.

Hemlock Lake MAPS site

By 9:30 the sun is starting to climb into the sky, and the light, and colours, are brighter and stronger. It’s interesting to watch how the light changes over the course of a single day. Eventually, when I get organized enough, I’d like to try taking a photo once and hour of a particular scene, showing how the light shifts throughout the day.

This lake is Hemlock Lake, or at least that’s the name we’ve given it. It’s a little too small to have an official name on a map. It’s part of crown land, meaning that it’s owned by the government. No one lives here, except the birds and wildlife. Very few people visit. There are no trails. There’s an ATV track that runs along a portion of the northern side of the parcel, but it doesn’t approach the lake. It’s lovely, and serene. You could be anywhere, miles from human habitation. This is something I love about the landscape around here, it’s so quiet, and away from the roads, relatively undisturbed. Eventually, when Dan and I are finally able to buy a home, I would love to have something in a setting like this.

Hemlock Lake MAPS site

About half of the station runs along the western edge of this lake, and the other half tracks back through the mature forest. It’s a good mix of habitats, some open edge, some deep forest, with a correspondingly good mix of birds. There are Ovenbirds, Black-and-white Warblers and Scarlet Tanagers singing within earshot of Chestnut-sided Warblers, Eastern Towhees and Common Yellowthroats. One of the most interesting birds that we heard today was a Pied-billed Grebe, calling regularly from out on the lake. There isn’t very much true wetland habitat along the lake edges; it seems to be a scarce commodity in this region, with the forest around so many lakes butting right up to the shoreline, so I was delighted to hear him.

Hemlock Lake MAPS site

The mistnets themselves are buried within denser vegetation, at least when we can find it. This is a pretty good example of one of our net lanes. Mistnets are one of the easiest and safest ways to catch birds, but they don’t work very well when set up in the open. They need to be set against a backdrop of foliage that camouflages the net threads. The birds fly from one tree to another on the other side, but hit the net before they reach it. “Hit” is a rather forceful word. Even when they fly at speed, the net is a bit like a giant cushion, like the big air mattresses that firefighters try to encourage you to jump out of burning buildings to land on. They slow the momentum of the bird without actually causing any impact shock, and then the bird, stopped, slips into a pocket formed by the netting, where, unable to get its wings under itself to take off again, it sits until you come around to remove it. Aside from the indignity of hanging upside-down with their bums in the air, the birds are none the worse for wear for the experience.

Hemlock Lake MAPS site

A self-portrait of the banding end of things. Once the birds are removed from the nets, they’re placed in cloth bags and brought back to a central location where they’re banded, measured, and released. The whole process is quick and before they know it the birds are getting back to the business of being birds. Here I have a Brown Creeper in hand, with the data book on my lap, and Hemlock Lake in the background. Because we need to pack everything in and out, the banding setup is a little spartan, consisting of a tackle box with our equipment, the data binder, and a branch to hang the cloth bags from. The bander sits on the ground, or a log. But with a backdrop like this, I’m not complaining.

Brown Creeper fledgling (with pesky deer fly)

I took a few quick photos of the Brown Creeper before releasing him. He was actually put back in a bag and trekked back to the net he was caught in, since he’s a young fledgling possibly still dependent on parents, who will still be hanging around the net location looking for their missing baby. You can see the noticeable fleshy yellow “gape” at the corner of his mouth, a characteristic of baby birds, and the downy-ish feathers along his throat and belly. Catching the young birds is an important component of the MAPS program – the P for Productivity in the project’s acronym, measuring birth rates.

Note the deer fly resting on the creeper’s back. These things were relentless. As the sun began to climb higher, around 10 am, the deer flies came out. What started out as a relatively pleasant, quiet hike quickly turns into a test of patience as you’re swarmed by hoards of deer flies, buzzing about your head, landing on your neck and shoulders, biting their sharp, painful bites. It’s hard to concentrate. It’s also hard to get a good photograph, as the flies seem bent on landing on your subject (fortunately not biting, however). On my next trip in to town, I think I’ll be looking for deer fly repellent/control.

Hemlock Lake MAPS site

There are quite a number of small creeks running out of Hemlock Lake, some of which have been dammed by beavers up near where they leave the lake, forming still pools. You can see the old beaver dam at the lower left of this one. I’m not sure that the dams are still maintained; if there continues to be a beaver here (and it may be that the site is no longer inhabited), then he seems less concerned about keeping things plugged. The pools are very pretty, however. Along the edge of this one you can see one of the many hemlocks that the name of the lake refers to.

Hemlock Lake MAPS site

There are some other small wetlands, too, which are natural pools. This one is deep within the forest. The trees in the centre are dead, allowing sunlight to penetrate down to its surface. It always seems strange to me to find a pool in the forest covered with tiny pond lily leaves and duckweed, something I tend to associate with open-water ponds and lakes. This one drains out in a small creek, lined with jewelweed, and runs into another tiny pool. In the latter there’s a toppled trunk that has exposed a large root mass, in which a Northern Waterthrush built a nest.

Hemlock Lake MAPS site

Columbine next to beaver pool next to forest. There’s so much lovely scenery in these sites that it’s sometimes hard to focus on the task at hand. I took more habitat shots today than I did bird photos. We ended up catching a total of 16 birds, which was a decent start to the season – I don’t think we had a single check where we came back empty-handed, which goes a long way in keeping your enthusiasm up. Things will pick up in a couple of weeks as more young birds fledge and their parents start bringing them to the forest edges. For more details on the site, the project, and today’s results (including more photos of birds we caught), pop over to Dan’s account of the day at the Frontenac Birds blog.

Scouting the park interior

Frontenac Provincial Park

Yesterday afternoon Dan and I left Raven at home and headed over to the park to do some hiking. That morning he’d had a meeting with the park superintendent about the research he intends to do there. His research permits have now been approved, so he has the green light to go ahead with his work inside the park boundaries. With the application for permits for research on the nearby crown land also approved, all that remains left to do is line up funding. He’s already received a portion, his outstanding applications look promising, and he’s received great support from the local community and feels any remaining balance can be made up through fundraising efforts. Things are looking good. You can follow along with the latest observations, survey results, and various administrative updates at the Frontenac Bird Studies blog.

Frontenac Provincial Park

Following his meeting, Dan came home and started scrutinizing a map of the park, looking for possible areas to place his study site. There are several tiers to the project, but the one I have the most involvement in, and the one that requires a set location, is MAPS – Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship. It is a banding program that allows you to determine the population statistics of the birds of a region. It’s more than just censusing your local patch – because birds wander after the young fledge, in post-breeding and post-fledging dispersal, the data collected from MAPS provides information for as much as 12,000 hectares of the surrounding landscape. The data tell you things like how many males and females are in the population, how many are first-time parents or experienced birds, and general recruitment numbers (birth rates), as well as survivorship (death rates) through birds recaptured in following years, since birds usually return to the same general area year after year. These are important figures because they can help to pinpoint causes of population declines (or booms, should the birds be so lucky). Monitoring programs such as the Breeding Bird Survey can simply tell you the whos and whats. It’s the MAPS program that helps to tell you the whys.

Frontenac Provincial Park

The banding, of course, requires that you have a set location where you can set up mistnets with which to catch the birds. For nets to be most effective you really need to place them in mid-story vegetation, either scrubby bushes or second-growth, or dense evergreen or forest understory. This sort of habitat not only encourages birds to move around lower (at net height) as they’re foraging, but also conceals the net from view. A net sitting out in the open is easily seen by birds, and they usually avoid it.

It’s difficult to assess habitat from aerial photographs, though; although you can sometimes get a sense of general landscape features, usually it requires an actual site visit to determine the actual habitat structure. In the case of the park, there isn’t even high-res satellite photos, so all we really have to go by is the park maps. We’d like to site the MAPS station sufficiently far from public trails to not have to worry about anybody blundering in to a net, or coming across a captured bird and trying to help (usually their good intentions just make the situation worse, because they’re unfamiliar with how to safely use a net, and while banding is generally a safe practice, often injuries can result from untrained hands). So to avoid any risk of that, we were looking for interior sites that would still be relatively easy to access and hike through.

Frontenac Provincial Park

We spent considerably longer out hiking than I’d planned, but we got to hike through a section of the park I hadn’t visited before. We were looking for an area of scrubby, semi-open habitat, where the size of trees was limited by a thin layer of soil, the result of two waves of fires early last century that burned through following the clearcutting of the land, leaving the empty landscape prone to erosion. We didn’t find what we were looking for – I think we’d have to go a bit further east for that – but we did hike through some younger and more rocky forest than what’s around our house. The habitat in that area is still more open than the mature forest surrounding our lake, with a lot of granite outcrops and grassy oak savannahs. Quite a number of small vernal pools and little wetlands scattered across the area, too.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a strong mid-story component to the habitat, at least through that region, and we had trouble identifying any areas that would be suitable for banding activities. Which was a bit of a shame, because we were intrigued by the birdlife possibilities in that habitat, very different from what we’ve seen elsewhere in the region. We’ll have to keep looking. Still, it was a really enjoyable afternoon, and an interesting change of scenery from our usual destinations.