Blue-spotted Salamander

Blue-spotted Salamander

Blue-spotted Salamander

After I left the Brant at Dick Bell Park I continued on to Shirley’s Bay. I spotted a pale bird gliding low over the field on the west side of Rifle Road and was thrilled to see a male Northern Harrier gracefully hunting for small mammals. I sometimes see these birds flying over the marshy spit on the bay; I think this was the first time I’d seen one flying over the nearby fields.

I parked at the boat launch, called to get permission to go out on the dyke, and then took the trail through the woods since the river was so high. Unlike the last time I had visited Shirley’s Bay, there were very few birds in the woods. I heard a couple of robins, saw a couple of chickadees, and had three Blue Jays fly over and that was it….there was nary a migrant to be seen.


Even the bay itself held few ducks, with only a few mallards, Green-winged Teal and American Black Ducks near the grassy spit. The water was quite high now, with no remaining mudflats to entice shorebirds to stop and rest.

Shirley's Bay

Looking toward the mouth of the creek. There usually isn’t any water here in the fall.

I walked out to the first island and encountered a couple of Yellow-rumped Warblers, Song Sparrows, and White-throated Sparrows along the dyke. A raft of scaup were floating on the bay well beyond the spit, and I found more black ducks and Green-winged Teal sheltering along the shore of the island. A single kingfisher perched in a tree while two Great Blue Herons hunted for fish, one along the spit and one on the island. Two Wood Ducks flew off as soon as I approached.

Shirley's Bay

Shirley’s Bay, with the spit almost completely submerged. Can you see the eagle’s nest in the tallest tree on the shore beyond?

The dyke can be difficult to navigate. Most birders only venture as far as the end of the spit to watch the shorebirds and the waterfowl in the bay; beyond that, the trail narrows, the vegetation (some of which reaches at least five feet high) closes in, and a fallen tree blocks the way about three-quarters of the way to the first island, forcing you to climb down to the rocky base of the dyke on the river side or to go over it at the edge of the dyke (which is almost vertical here) on the bay side in order to avoid the shrubs growing around the trunk. Poison Ivy is also abundant at Shirley’s Bay, though I’ve never had any problems with it as I usually wear long pants while birding – even in the summer.

Shirley's Bay Dyke

Shirley’s Bay Dyke

The trail peters out after the first island. Time, erosion, and the passage of many birders’ feet have worn the top of the trail away until it is no more than eight or ten inches wide in a few spots, with thick shrubbery growing out and over the narrow ridge that is left. The slope here is gentle enough on the river side to make your way down to the base of the dyke where it’s easier to walk. I chose to stick to the top and scan the bay, though I didn’t see any new ducks and needn’t have bothered making the trek. Still, the dyke is beautiful in the fall, even if the birds aren’t as abundant as I would have liked.

Shirley's Bay Dyke

The top of Shirley’s Bay Dyke: the river is on the right, the bay is on the left

On my way back to the car I stumbled across a Ruffed Grouse lurking in the vegetation about ten or twelve feet from the trail. I had stopped to look at a dragonfly (just another Autumn Meadowhawk) when he exploded out of the bush right next to me and flew off. Not long after I heard him drumming. I also encountered a single Ruby-crowned Kinglet in the woods. Gone were the Winter Wrens, the Hermit Thrushes, the warblers, the vireos and even the sparrows of the previous weekend.

I had better luck along the road. Two Common Ravens flew over, and I heard another Ruffed Grouse drumming on the other side of Shirley Boulevard. A few more White-throated Sparrows were foraging next to the road….this was the most numerous land species at Shirley’s Bay. Then I spotted a small bird flitting among the branches of a shrub right at the corner of Rifle Road and Shirley Boulevard. It was on the south side, so I was looking into the sun while trying to locate it in my binoculars. It had a grayish head and an incomplete eye-ring with a line going through the eye. It was also quite yellowish below…finally, an Orange-crowned Warbler! I spent several minutes trying to get a good look at it; then it fluttered off into the shrubs and I lost it.

I decided to walk back down Shirley Boulevard to see if I could find it (no luck there), and that’s when I saw something moving in the ditch. It looked long, thick, and black, like a millipede, but when I bent down for a closer look I discovered that it was a salamander, and that it was missing most of its tail!

Blue-spotted Salamander

Blue-spotted Salamander

This is the first salamander I’ve seen all year. I have never seen a salamander walking around in the middle of the day; normally I have to find them by turning over logs and debris. Blue-spotted salamanders are nocturnal and are especially active on warm, rainy nights. We did have some rain the night before, and although I don’t know what the temperature was, it was mild (just over 10°C) when I left in the morning, which may explain why it was out and about.

Blue-spotted Salamander

Blue-spotted Salamander

These salamanders are found in various woodland habitats, including moist deciduous, coniferous or mixed forests, as well as swamps. They typically dwell on the forest floor, often living underground in burrows where they feed on earthworms, spiders, slugs, centipedes and other invertebrates. They breed in permanent swamps, temporary ponds, marshes or even roadside ditches, and overwinter underground in the forest. This one kept trying to climb the embankment to get up to the road; he had already lost his tail (which fortunately will grow back), but I was afraid he would lose his life so I picked him up and carried him across the road.

Blue-spotted Salamander

Blue-spotted Salamander

Normally I wouldn’t pick up an amphibian, as they have very absorbent skin and the natural oils and salts present on human skin can harm them. Chemicals on the hand such as insect repellents, sunblock, and lotions can further cause damage, but this, at least, wasn’t a problem as I hadn’t used any that day. I was able to pick him up with a couple of leaves, but he didn’t like being held and started running up my wrist.

Blue-spotted Salamander

Blue-spotted Salamander

I placed him at the edge of the fence on the other side of the road and watched him for a few moments to see which way he would go. When I was certain that he wasn’t going to head back toward the road I walked away, hoping for the best.

Later, when I got home I reported my sighting to the Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas as I had recently read that there are few salamander reports in Eastern Ontario. The objective of the atlas project is to improve our knowledge of the distribution and status of Ontario’s reptiles and amphibians by collecting observation submissions from the public, carrying out field surveys, and amalgamating existing databases. The information that is collected is used to monitor changes in the ranges and populations of reptile and amphibian species, to determine whether a species is at risk, and to identify and manage important habitat for rare reptiles and amphibians. To encourage the public to get involved, Ontario Nature has developed a free iPhone and Android app that not only makes it easy to submit sightings from the field, but also identifies more than 50 of Ontario’s reptiles and amphibians and provides a description, colour photos, and a range map for each. I haven’t used the app yet to report any species, as I had got it mainly as a field guide, but I look forward to using it in the future!

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