After what has been a long and slow spring, we are now starting to see the leaves burst out all over the Sanctuary. Along with that have come some of our favourite birds of summer including the Tree Swallows and the Wilson’s Snipe that makes a curious ‘winnowing’ sound you hear in the sky above the Sanctuary as the birds dive. The Canada Geese have been here for a good month already and they are now appearing with the brightly coloured chicks in tow.
The Sanctuary is really teeming with life this spring. Earlier on the Tree Swallows arrived in huge numbers – filling the sky as they swooped and soared above. Now we seem to have a plethora of Goldfinches that are a real delight with their ‘sa-wheat, sa-wheat” call. There have already been some Canada Geese and goslings seen crossing Sanctuary Road between water bodies – oh so cute! Make sure to bring your binoculars to get a better view of the variety of waterfowl out on the wetland too – a real favourite is the Ruddy Duck with its upright tail and distinctive blue bill.
The one bird you may notice hanging around feeder stations in winter is the Loggerhead Shrike. It is an incredibly beautiful, greyish-blue bird that if you look closely has a distinct hooked predator-like bill. This is for good reason as Loggerhead Shrikes are hunters, swooping down from their lookout perches to snag insects, rodents, snakes and sometimes small birds! They are also known as ‘butcher-birds’ as they will often impale their prey on thorns or barb-wire fences – likely to mark territory or attract mates. Make sure to watch for these unique and attractive visitors to the Sanctuary.
It has really been an odd winter with temperatures swinging between extreme cold to almost melting. You will often hear the Chickadee’s “Springs Coming” call even though we know spring is some time away. It is still a good time to visit the Sanctuary with common sightings being of course Black-capped Chickadees, but also Common Redpolls, Ravens, Cedar Waxwings and occasionally small flocks of Pine Grosbeaks. You may also notice that tree buds have started swelling and Pussy Willows have begun to appear.
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.