This was definitely the Year of the Dickcissel in Ontario, an irruption year for a grasslands species that is one of the rarest breeding birds in Ontario. Many of the birds that have been spotted in the last month or so are attempting to breed, an encouraging sign.
Dickcissels (Spiza americana) are songbirds that resemble brightly-coloured sparrows, but that heavy-duty beak gives it away as a member of the cardinal and grosbeak family. They earned their common name mnemonically from the male’s buzzy, emphatic song.
They range through the prairies and grasslands of the central U.S. from Texas to Michigan and Ohio. Here in Ontario, Dickcissels are considered pioneers, occasionally colonizing the edges of their range, usually during drought years, and usually in the extreme southwestern portions of the province. This year, there have been sightings much further north and east of their range. Because of sharp-eyed birders and observers, they have now been spotted from the Kawartha Lakes region to Bruce County and all the way to Rainy River District.
On July 7th, after spending the day birding and butterfly-ing in Carden Alvar Provincial Park, we decided to return through the hamlet of Fowler’s Corners near Lindsay in hopes of finding a pair of Dickcissels. In my 30+ years of birding, I’ll admit that seeing your target bird, especially a rare one, immediately upon stepping out of the vehicle is always a thrill–and indeed, the first thing we saw was the female Dickcissel perched at the top of a small tree at the edge of a sunken, grassy field, right beside the road, before flying into the tall grass. I eventually spotted her carrying nesting material to her under-construction nest hidden deep within the tall grasses.
Shortly afterwards, the male flew to the top branches, threw his head back, and serenaded her (or declared his ownership of the territory, or both). We were able to observe and photograph both at almost eye level before moving on. Considering that I think my only previous image was from a sighting many, many moons ago–on deteriorating slide film–this was a privilege.
This was originally written as a guest post for The Pigeon’s Passage, the Lakeshore Interpretive Centre’s blog. As part of my current exhibit, Through A Lens, Brightly, I was asked to share a reflection on my approach to birding and to photography. I’m very grateful to the staff of the centre for hosting the exhibit and publishing this article.
Through A Lens, Brightly is on display on the third floor of Humber’s Student Welcome and Resource Centre until April 29, 2017.
I have been keenly interested in the natural world around us since childhood. My early years were spent exploring the wild spaces just beyond my grandparents’, and later my parents’, backyards in north Etobicoke, near the Humber River, right at the edge of encroaching suburban development. There was so much to discover: birds, bugs, and beasts of all kinds; frogs and toads and snakes, oh my! My parents, bless them, disguised their revulsion well when I came home to show off my latest discovery, an Eastern Gartersnake, so that I never feared wild things.
The first bird that made a significant impression on me was a beautiful male Indigo Bunting that had unfortunately struck our window. I wondered at this tiny, incredibly jewel-toned creature…a wonder that has never dimmed in the years since.
As a young woman, I joined the Federation of Ontario Naturalists (now ON Nature), a non-profit dedicated to the protection of wild species and spaces through conservation and education, which opened up the boundaries of my world by leaps and bounds. Through them, I immediately gained valuable mentors and lifelong friends and connections and travelled to wild spaces such as Rainy River/Lake of the Woods, horse-trekking through the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Algonquin Provincial Park, and adult summer nature camps on the Bruce Peninsula. A memorable trip in 1985 to Point Pelee National Park and Pelee Island triggered a new-formed obsession: bird listing, or “twitching” (an effort to see and record as many different species as possible in a region; I’ve seen 349 out of a recorded 494 species in Ontario). Along with each new species grew the desire to document every new thing I was seeing on film, to learn more, see more. I joined more organizations, including the Ontario Field Ornithologists (OFO), the Toronto Ornithological Club (TOC) and, through the wonderful people I’ve met in the park, the Friends of Sam Smith (FOSS).
Together, my friends and family and I chased rarities throughout the province (and sometimes outside it—we once drove down into upstate New York to see a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, successfully, and back home in one afternoon). Meanwhile, with the help of knowledgeable mentors, my familiarity with field marks, songs and calls, migration patterns, feeding and behaviour grew, providing a deep insight into my photographic subjects (no longer just birds, but also butterflies, dragonflies, wildflowers and more), and helping to inform what I wished to convey through my images. I can see that vision still developing and becoming clearer as I compare my early efforts with newer images; it morphs and changes.
I began exploring Col. Sam Smith Park in 2008, visiting through all seasons and capturing the subtle changes that occur as each season progresses. From pussy willows in spring to the last fallen leaf in autumn, I became familiar with the different mini-habitats throughout the park, which itself began largely as lakefill and which has naturalized beautifully into the biodiverse sanctuary it is today. Spring and fall migrant birds are drawn every year to the inviting green space projecting out from the lakeshore, a place to rest and feed before continuing their journey north to breeding areas.
A special feature of the park is the annual Whimbrel migration, peaking around May 24. Whimbrels are large, curve-billed shorebirds which appear every year, swirling around above the shoreline, filling the air with their whistling calls.
Many birds also stay to breed in the park, including Red-necked Grebes, a diving bird that is at the eastern edge of its range here, and is now breeding in increasing numbers through caring people who provide anchored floating wooden nesting platforms each spring. Tree Swallows, an insect-eating species that is losing ground due to loss of suitable habitat, are provided with clean nest boxes in the meadow.
Just these two species alone have provided me many hours of serene observation and documentation of their life cycles: migration, courtship, nesting, raising young—all of these are available at close quarters. I’ve spent many lovely, meandering hours in the park, knowing that I’ll come across more treasures–a meadow full of dew-diademed Monarch Butterflies gathering for southward migration on a foggy morn, a Yellow Warbler feeding its newly-fledged youngster overhead; a Mink catching a fish right in front of me, a Snowy Owl gazing at me as she flies by.
I’ve learned to use natural cover to conceal myself whenever possible—trees, shrubs, slopes—to prevent disturbing the birds and other wildlife that I photograph. If there is no cover, I get down and flat as possible, and wait for natural behaviour to reappear. I once crawled through a crust of cormorant poop and fish bits to photograph some Black-bellied Plovers on a treeless island. I have never found the need to use special camouflage clothing—I just dress mostly in earth tones and try not to make fast movements.
It is here, in this wilderness in the city, that I learned a secret to observing and photographing wildlife—the ability to be still and quiet. It took a long time for me to understand the benefits of patience. At first, I was eager to get a little closer, just a little…and was almost always rewarded by an empty branch instead of a bird, or the back end of a turtle as it disappeared into the water. As for learning to be quiet, well, ask my friends—it’s not a quality I’m known for. But learn I did, and the resulting images showed it.
Friends sometimes ask me, “How did you see and photograph all this stuff in a city park? How do you find it?” I tell them all you have to do is slow down, put your smartphone on flight mode, breathe in deeply, and look around. I mean really look—at the sky, the water, the earth, the plants around you. Listen carefully–do you hear birds calling? Reach out–feel the furrowed bark of a tree. When you open yourself to even the smallest things, nature will open itself up to you.
I hope I will continue to draw inspiration from and create images of the wild spaces of this park for a long time to come.
“A photograph shouldn’t be just a picture, it should be a philosophy” –Amit Kalantri