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Science & NatureWhat is That?What Is That …Along the Marsh Edge?

What Is That …Along the Marsh Edge?

Waddells

We have talked, in previous articles, about the importance of marshes to the environmental health of White Lake as well as looked at some of the birds, insects, and animals that make marshes their home.  In this article we look at some of the birds that can be seen along the margins of these productive marshes during the summer.

We have observed three members of the family of wading birds at our cottage.  The most elusive of these is the American bittern.  It is so elusive that this summer was the first time we have spotted and photographed one in the 17 years we have owned our cottage.  One of our field guides describes these birds as “uncommon” and noted they “hide among grasses and reeds, where its cryptic plumage blends in so well with the vegetation.”  These solitary birds are especially hard to spot when they stand motionless with their neck extended and their bill pointed upward, as shown in this photo.  It was a lucky peripheral glimpse of movement while kayaking, followed by a few minutes of carefully studying the nearby reeds, that resulted in this rare photo.  This adult was about 60 centimeters in length and probably weighed close to 700 grams   American bitterns feed, as do all wading birds, using their dagger-like bills to capture prey in quick strikes including fish, aquatic insects, amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals along the marsh edge.

The most frequently seen, and heard, member of the wading birds around our cottage is the great blue heron.  These solitary hunters forage in many habitat types, including the border between open water and marshes.   They stalk fish, reptiles, crustaceans, amphibians, aquatic insects, and small birds.  When disturbed while hunting, the great blue will slowly and gracefully fly away while making a deep, hoarse croaking sound.  The largest of wading birds at our cottage, adults can grow to one meter in length and weigh as much as 2,400 grams.

Another, but infrequently seen wading bird is the green heron. They have relatively short legs when compared with the other two wading birds. Green herons are stalky birds, only growing to a height of 40 centimeters and a weight of up to 210 grams.  These solitary hunters can be found crouched in the shadows along the edges of marshes waiting for fish, aquatic insects, and small amphibians to swim by.  This individual displayed its crest just before lunging for a fish.

Moving on to non-wading birds found along marsh, we often see mallards, the most common member of the dabbling duck family around our cottage.   Members of the dabbling duck family feed in shallow waters “dabbling” “with their bills to capture prey on or near the surface and up ending their back end to reach slightly deeper prey.  Mallards feed on aquatic plants, insects, and seeds.  Adults can grow to 50 centimeters in length and weigh up to 1,100 grams.  These females were pictured resting and preening their feathers on a log next to the marsh.

The last marsh-edge bird is the solitary sandpiper.  This shorebird is uncommon around our cottage.  It can be found along the edges of marshes and shorelines where few other shore birds occur.  It hunts by picking and probing with its thin bill in sediments and very shallow water for small aquatic prey including insects, crustaceans, and worms.  Adults grow to 17 centimeters in height and weigh about 50 grams.

The interface between the aquatic and marsh environments is a unique and challenging niche in any lake.  The presence of a diversity of birds indicates both environments are healthy, supporting numerous species of birds along their margins.  It is helpful to use a quiet watercraft, such as a kayak or canoe, to get a glimpse of some of the more elusive or less conspicuous wildlife found there.  The reward is well worth the paddling effort and patient wait.

We relied on two field guides for preparing this article: Jeffrey C. Domm’s Lorimer Field Guide to 225 Ontario Birds; and, David Allen Sibley’s The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America.

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