A Natural View: A Spring Awakening Everywhere

Terry Sprague

A group of northern pintails leaves the Kaiser Crossroad flooded cornfields. (Photo by Jeff Haffner)
[This article ran in the April/May 2014 issue of The SCOOP.]

Expressions like “old fashioned winter” and “winters of my youth” became obsolete terms this past season after enduring the hardest winter in memory. In Prince Edward County, almost daily snow squalls off Lake Ontario kept snowblowers and shovels busy, and frigid temperatures created ice like never before on Lake Ontario. Birds that chose to challenge the rigours of winter, instead of migrating, began to regret their decision. Many waterfowl species tumbled onto driveways, parking lots, town streets and open fields, overcome by starvation and exhaustion. Near Brighton, one popular watering hole for waterfowl became littered with the bodies of over twenty dead swans that had succumbed to the horrific conditions.

We learned new terms like “polar vortex” and “frost quakes”, the latter frightening residents from their homes in the middle of the night to see what had hit their house. It was a winter that will not soon be forgotten. I cannot remember when I have been on snowshoes in any one winter as much. As I write this on March 9, deep snow and thick ice still prevail. The temperature two mornings ago was minus 26 degrees Celsius. We need to assume that winter will continue, however, until it decides that it is finished. By the time this is being read, we hope that the snow and much of the ice will have disappeared, and more spring-like conditions will have arrived.

There is a remote crossroads, known as Kaiser, just a 40-minute drive from where I live, that we always visit in March and April and into May. It is a sure sign that winter is on the wane and spring is in the offing as we pull to the roadside and set up our spotting scopes. The cornfields along this crossroad, not far from Prinyer’s Cove almost directly across from the Lennox Generating Plant near Bath, become flooded every spring and today attract avid birders from across eastern Ontario to witness the proliferation of waterfowl that come to feed. Up to twenty species can be found here, some of them in alarming numbers. One spring, there were over 800 Northern Pintails feeding in these flooded cornfields, an exceptionally high population for a species that we seldom see in such numbers anywhere in the province. Three years ago, one birder was surprised to see 600 snow geese feeding in the corn stubble on some of the higher ground. The Kaiser Crossroad cornfields are an amazing spot. 

As the water dissipates later in April, the mudflats then begin to attract shorebirds. It takes a while to spot them amongst the corn stubble, but a good spotting scope will usually produce many species as they make their way to the sub-Arctic tundra to nest. The Kaiser Crossroad cornfield is just a refuelling station for them. Among them will be the odd rarity such as the Wilson’s phalarope we found one May, and the year before that it was a ruff, an Old-World species that is considered only casual in Ontario.

With the ice succumbing to warmer days, there are other signs of a spring awakening too as the season advances. The first chorus frog sometimes can be heard singing as early as mid-March. One memorable spring in mid-March, there were five species of frogs calling away in collective happiness at Frontenac Provincial Park, likely a record for that early in the season. This is good news for volunteers with the Marsh Monitoring Program, a venture that I have had the pleasure of coordinating in the Bay of Quinte area since 2002.

One by one, as the air and water temperature increases, more frog species join the chorus. However, the chorus and wood frogs are explosive breeders, exploiting the flooded ditches and vernal pools created by snowmelt and spring rains. Once their season draws to a close and the water warms up even more, then it is time for the spring peepers, leopard frogs and American toads to start calling. Bullfrogs and green frogs prefer their surroundings to be near room temperature, and they won’t start calling until much later, usually by mid-June.

There are some twenty-four frog and toad species in Canada; however, in eastern Ontario, we have only ten species. Pickerel frogs are seldom encountered and seem to prefer colder streams and lakeshores. The mink frog is restricted to more northern areas and I find their staccato calls almost synonymous with Algonquin Park. However, they are moving south from their normal range and I have heard them calling as far south as Madoc and at Frontenac Park, but the chances of them moving much farther south are slim as these anurans prefer the cooler northern waters.

Spring is coming, however late it may be this year. But, come it will, as it always does. Then, it will be the warblers in May and winter will be but a bad memory and will soon fade as wildflowers display a riot of colour, birds arrive in their customary spring waves, and butterflies begin to flutter around our nectar feeders. Turkey vultures once again will be circling on the thermals and tundra swans passing through from their wintering grounds at Chesapeake Bay to their northern nesting grounds. Insects and, of course, mosquitoes.

Hikers who are out enjoying the better weather in April and May should consider inserting something else in their pockets along with the water bottle and snacks – their tick puller! It seems a bit early to be worried about ticks and we generally don’t see any sign of them until mid-April, but all it takes are a few nice warm, sunshiny days to activate them.
Ticks, turkey vultures, tundra swans, and toads. It’s all happening right now, so get out there and experience the offerings of spring. And try to forget the winter that was.

For more information on birding and nature and guided hikes, check out the NatureStuff website at www.naturestuff.net. Terry Sprague lives in Prince Edward County and is self-employed as a professional interpretive naturalist.