The signs of fall are starting to show up with the leaves on some trees, shrubs and plants starting to change colour. You may also hear or see groups of ducks and geese starting to congregate on the water or fly overhead. Something different this summer are large numbers of Pine Siskins flying about the area looking for thistle and other plant seeds which they love. They are an ‘eruptive’ species that move about in larger groups from time to time seeking areas with abundant food supplies. These small brown stripy birds have a lot of yellow on their tail and flight feathers. Their call is like a husky sounding American Goldfinch.
While it may be unlikely that you actually see four-footed wildlife on your walk at the Sanctuary, that doesn’t mean you can’t study them anyway. The trick is to look for signs of wildlife versus the wildlife itself, e.g. watch for tracks in the soil, piles of scat, signs of browse, flattened beds in the grass or actual homes and also listen for the calls wildlife makes. All of these things can be part of your wildlife watching experience as you look for signs of moose, deer, porcupines, coyotes, muskrats, rabbits, squirrels and other furry friends. Do you know what a squirrel ‘nest’ or ‘drey’ looks like? Clue: it looks like a mass of twigs, leaves, grass or moss in the crook of a tree. See if you can find one as you walk the trails of the Sanctuary.
It’s the first of May and while spring has been slow to come this year, the wet weather has added some much needed water to the wetlands in the Sanctuary. On the open water you can see Northern Shovelers and Pintails, American Widgeons, Ruddy Ducks, Buffleheads, Mallards and of course Coots galore! The bright yellow American Goldfinches have returned as have the Tree Swallows. Best of all, as the weather warms up the frogs have started their chorus – its mainly the Wood Frog (sounds like a quaking duck) that we’ve heard so far, but the Boreal Chorus Frog(sounds like a finger on a comb) can’t be that far behind.
So the one bird you have perhaps never seen, but have certainly heard at the Sanctuary in summer is the Wilson’s Snipe. Especially in the evening, you’ve likely heard a quavering hooting sound coming from overhead, yet try as you might you just can’t see anything. This sound is caused by the swooping display flight of the Wilson’s Snipe. As it dives high in the air, it produces a quavering hoot (kind of like the song of a Boreal Owl) as its outer tail feathers vibrate during the dive. If you have your binoculars handy and have some patience you may be able to spy this in action, but it can be tricky to catch. Snipes can also be flushed out of the reeds or grasses along the wetland and will disappear in a rapid, twisting flight. In fact this is where the term “sniper” comes from, as hunters would had to be incredibly fast and accurate to actually shot a snipe.
Spring has sprung for sure with pussy willows appearing along with the flowers on Trembling Aspen trees. You can also smell the scent of Balsam Poplar buds in the air – a wonderful woodsy smell that really speaks to spring. While the wetlands are just starting to thaw out, the geese are already here in droves fighting over the best spots to nest – which can lead to some pretty noisy confrontations! Soon other spring birds and waterfowl will be here – all very exciting!
It has been a real roller coaster of temperatures this winter – going from really cold to well above zero. The one thing visitors may notice is that Chickadees are starting to use their “Spring’s Coming” call and on some days it seems they may be right. One unusual bird to watch for that has been seen in the area is a Loggerhead Shrike. This attractive bird has a faintly barred, medium gray head and back, with a broad black mask over its eyes and up to its beak. It also has a hooked bill that hints at the fact that this bird will eat insect, rodents, snakes and small birds, often impaling its prey on thorns or barbed wire to mark territory and attract mates.
The one bird you will see almost every day at the Sanctuary is the Black-capped Chickadee. Ever wonder how such a tiny bird survives the cold winter? At birdnote.org they explain that:
“For winter survival, chickadees have three things going for them: they’re insulated, they’re active, and they have a good memory.
Thanks to a half-inch coat of insulating feathers, chickadees maintain their body temperature at 100° Fahrenheit during daylight hours, even when the air is at zero degrees. At night, their temperature drops 18 degrees, which reserves their store of fat.
Also, chickadees gather food at a terrific rate. In autumn, they stash their winter sustenance all around their territory. Their good memories enable them to find this food when the days are short and cold. It’s not surprising that the part of the brain associated with spatial memory is larger in chickadees than in many other birds.”
The cold of winter definitely returned in December, however that came with very little snow. Visitors have still been coming out to enjoy the Sanctuary trails and experience the sights and sounds of winter. Everyone’s favorites – the Redpolls have been seen in the area and a Great Horned Owl was seen perched on the top of a poplar tree just beside the parking lot late one evening. Moose tracks also continue to appear – it is incredible how large their footprints really are!
Ever wonder how frogs overwinter in this area? You may have heard that they burrow into the mud at the bottom of lakes our ponds, but did you know that most turn themselves into “Frogsicles” instead? Yes, that’s correct, the common frogs in this area like Wood frogs simply bury themselves under leaves or other forest debris and pretty much freeze up. As quoted from the Earth Rangers web site:
“As the temperature drops, everything the Wood frog does stops. We mean EVERYTHING! It stops moving, breathing, its blood stops flowing and even its heart stops beating! During winter, 35-45% of the Wood frog’s body may freeze and become ice-like. It can pull this trick off by storing glucose in its liver. The glucose gets released into the frog’s blood while it’s ‘playing dead’, preventing its entire body from freezing. The glucose acts as antifreeze to keep this little guy alive while staying completely still. Once things warm up in the spring, the frog comes back to life (so to speak) and returns to its regular activities.”
After our snows of October, the weather has improved dramatically with many visiting the Sanctuary to enjoy the above normal temperatures. The reflections on the water in the Sanctuary have been a photographer’s dream, capturing the clouds and sky like a mirror. While not a lot of animal or bird activity has been observed, visitors are enjoying feeding the ever-present local chickadees by hand. Keep your eyes and ears open for Pileated Woodpeckers who have been seen and heard in the area – they look like “Woody Woodpecker” and have a distinct rattling call.