"We need the tonic of the wilderness, to wade sometimes in the marsh where the bittern and the meadow hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest..."
-Henry David Thoreau
Wetland habitats, with all of the plants and animals that they host, are essential to the health of our planet, and yet they are being "drained and developed" at an alarming rate. During the summer of 2021, it was wonderful to find some pristine marsh habitat, filled with native vegetation (and minus invasive Phragmites), and all of the wildlife that is sustained by such a place. What a pleasure it has been to witness "Marsh Creatures" thriving and raising young in a rich, diverse wetland! Suitable nesting sites, plenty of plants and aquatic creatures to eat, and undisturbed areas in which to swim and forage and fly... a veritable paradise if you happen to be a "Marsh Bird".
A friend and I spent many early mornings on the edges of some of these wonderful wetland habitats, and were rewarded with spectacular sightings of avian friends that usually remain well-hidden. Their feet and legs covered in mud and Duckweed, the birds foraged and hunted without fear. And many of them had babies, which they very graciously allowed us to see and photograph!
Common Gallinule with Chick
Here are a few of the amazing birds that we observed in July, 2021:
Often heard but rarely seen in marshy areas, the Least Bittern is a small Heron that spends its summers in Ontario. This stunning male (with his dark green/black cap and back) stood motionless as it waited for small fish and frogs, and seemed unconcerned by the presence of a few quiet humans a short distance away.
The Bittern would creep slowly toward the water, and stand, motionless, until a fish or frog stirred below the Duckweed. Then, with lightning speed, he would grab the unsuspecting creature ... and enjoy his snack.
In the distance, it was especially exciting to see a pair of young Least Bitterns clinging to the reeds (pretending to be Cattails?).
It wasn't until I was home and checked my photos that I saw a third Least Bittern chick hidden away between the other two.
Their fluffy heads, and their feathers in shades of chestnut/brown/white, provide excellent camouflage among the Cattails.
Least Bitterns often straddle 2 stems or clumps of leaves, clinging with their long toes,
and can sit very still for long periods of time, making it difficult to spot them. (These little ones were quite far back in the marsh, and the photos are cropped.)
The adult Virginia Rail has beautiful markings, red eyes, and hardly any tail!
This bird (very uncharacteristically, I think) wandered up to where we were standing, paused briefly, then flew across the road to another pond. I had to back up to get a quick photo or two.
Virginia Rails often walk with their "non-tails" tipped up.
Young Virginia Rails, with their more subtle colouring and brown eyes, were poking around in the Duckweed, finding all sorts of insects and invertebrates in the water and mud.
Juvenile Virginia Rails can easily camouflage themselves in the marsh environment.
We did briefly see a smaller Virginia Rail chick with an adult; it was black and fuzzy, and partially hidden back in the reeds. This sighting means that there were at least 2 families of Virginia Rails in this wetland in 2021.
Common Gallinule chicks are some of the most interesting Marsh Babies of all! They have a bald red spot on top of their heads, bluish eyebrows, white whiskers, and a red-and-yellow bill. Of course, they also have the huge feet of their fellow wetland-dwellers, enabling them to climb the reeds (albeit rather clumsily!), run over water plants, and swim. Gallinules have been called "Moorhens" in the past (and I have also heard them referred to as "Swamp Chickens"!). They are actually a type of Rail, although they look very different from the Virginia Rails. So cute, though, aren't they??
The first time we visited the Gallinules, their little ones were still being fed by Mom. The females are extremely attentive parents, and keep close track of their young while foraging and feeding.
There was a family of 6, a family of 3, and possibly a family of 1 (although the families often fed together).
In order to reach the side of the pond where lunch was served, the 6-chick family of Gallinules had to cross a small expanse of open water. Mom would fly over first,
then call to her young.
It took a few minutes for everyone to work up the courage to run/swim across, and Mom sometimes had to fly back and do some encouraging, but eventually, all of the chicks would head across the big, scary lake with their funny little wings flapping away.
This photo is a bit blurry, but check out the enthusiasm of the first guy!
And away we go!
Love the little wings that almost look like hands with no arms!
In the evening, this family would move back across the water to their "night spot" again.
About a week later when we visited, the chicks were much more independent. It was still an ordeal for Mama Gallinule to ensure that all 6 babies made the trek over the water twice a day.
Good thing there is a rock in the middle where tired babies can take a bit of a break!
It's well worth the effort when you get to the other side and find that the buffet is open! Gallinules eat almost anything: seeds, plant parts, insects, water creatures, etc. Of course, it is always best if Mom will feed you...
but at this stage, Mom was just showing the chicks something edible, then backing away and encouraging independent feeding.
As soon as Mom would move out of sight, the chicks were able to feed themselves quite well. Gallinules often hold their heads sideways to eat, with their bills along the top of the water.
A quiet moment in the soft morning light in the pond...
It was wonderful to see at least 10 young Gallinule chicks this summer, feeding well and looking very healthy.
Green Herons are generally skittish, and hard to photograph. This one was the exception to the rule; it flew in every time we visited, and proceeded to hunt and rest in plain view. I love the colours on an adult Green Heron, and the detailing on the feathers.
Small fish, crayfish, tadpoles and frogs make up a large part of the Green Heron's diet. After standing perfectly still for long periods of time, the Heron moves quickly to spear its meal.
Sometimes the Green Heron shows off its crest...
Juvenile Green Herons are streaked brown, but this youngster has the beginnings of some beautiful green feathers on its side and back.
We can see the remnants of "baby fuzz" on the top of its head...
A young Great Blue Heron showed no fear of us, as it flew in and hunted for fish and frogs in the pond.
And once again, there is the "head fuzz"....
I am always impressed by the feet of Marsh Birds: huge and chicken-like, they enable the Herons and Rails to walk in mud and shallow water, cling to reeds and rocks, and even, in some cases, to swim. On these Green Heron feet, we can see a very small amount of webbing which helps the bird to balance, and to stand/run without sinking in the mud.
The feet of young birds are "full-size", but these Gallinule Chicks' legs will change from black to yellow-green as they become adults.
Finally, here a few photos of Marsh Birds giving us "the look"! As stated before, they did not seem to be bothered by our presence, but they are certainly able to ... glare.
I don't think the Least Bittern looks quite as scary as his friends.
Gallinules don't glare. They almost seem to smile, especially when they are with their babies. Lots to smile about in this habitat, I suppose!
Soon all of these wonderful Wetland Birds will leave us, and head to warmer places for the Winter. They will fly as far as the Southern States and Central America to find food and shelter, and then make the long flights back in early Spring.
Hmmm -- perhaps some of the birds are thinking about heading all the way to Antarctica -- this Green Heron seems to be practicing its Penguin moves!
What a privilege for humans to share in a short season with these marvellous creatures!
"Magic birds were dancing in the mystic marsh. The grass swayed with them, and the shallow waters, and the earth fluttered under them. The earth was dancing with the cranes [and Herons and Rails!], and the low sun, and the wind and sky."
-Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings