Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Mother Nature springs into action

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An American white pelican flies over the Red River.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES Enlarge Image

An American white pelican flies over the Red River. Photo Store

Three gawky double-crested cormorants were flying fast and furious in a display of aerial acrobatics high over the Kildonan Settlers Bridge on a warm and slightly cloudy recent Saturday afternoon.

My friends Peter and Teo and I watched in admiration as those prehistoric-looking (as described by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology), dull-black fishing birds, relatives of frigatebirds and boobies, zoomed around like Second World War Spitfires and then disappeared down the river.

"They're like ninjas of the sky," Peter said afterwards.

Commented Teo: "I love cormorants. They're one of my favourite birds -- majestic and graceful as they fly by."

Spring is a time of return and renewal. There's much to see in Mother Nature now, especially migrating avians of all sorts.

"Right now, you'll be getting the songbird migration, especially warblers," says Mike Quigley, an education co-ordinator with the City of Winnipeg naturalist services branch, who adds that crows are partly responsible for why we have merlins (Falco columbarius) in the city because the merlins will often use abandoned crows' nests found in spruce trees.

He observes that by the end of May, there will be at least 20 species of warblers, including yellow-rumped warblers (most of which will move further north to nest in Manitoba's boreal forest region), in Winnipeg during their migration.

Over the past few days, while walking in Kildonan Park and along the wood chip path in McBeth Forest, Peter and I have spotted flocks of American white pelicans soaring overhead in typical V formation along the river, an elegant great egret coasting just above treetop level by the pavilion in Kildonan Park, a stealthy Cooper's hawk flying low and swift over the forest floor, merlins, mallards, wood ducks, Canada geese, Ruddy ducks, common goldeneyes, robins and much more -- including other raptors such as magnificent bald eagles soaring ever upwards on the thermals over the Red River.

There are other critters, too, that deserve our attention.

Now that the snow is finally gone and decent weather is here, you won't be able to walk by a pond without hearing the sounds of boreal chorus frogs and wood frogs, notes independent biologist Doug Collicutt, the founder of NatureNorth.com -- Manitoba's online nature magazine "dedicated to celebrating the biodiversity" of Manitoba.

"They are the two main species of frogs that you'd hear calling within city limits," he says.

Collicutt also mentions the larger leopard frogs, which are green or light brown with black spots and a white belly, will also start calling in May. "People don't see them," he says.

"They hear them. The sounds of each species are very distinct. You have to learn to distinguish the calls, like you do with bird calls."

Then there are the red-sided and plains garter snakes, respectively, that are starting to poke their heads out now. They're usually found along waterways and wetlands, wherever significant food sources, such as frogs and toads, can be found.

"Certainly, the painted turtles and snapping turtles will be arousing now that the rivers and ponds are thawing out," he says.

But it's still too early in the season for them to be basking along the shore.

"We don't know if there's much in the way of salamanders in the city, but tiger salamanders and blue-spotted salamanders are found just east of Winnipeg," Collicutt says.

A few colonies of the yellowish tan, short-tailed, heavily built Richardson's ground squirrels are found within Winnipeg city limits, as are the smaller thirteen-lined ground squirrel, which is easily identified by its bold pattern of solid and dotted, light tan stripes on a dark brown back and quite long and bushy tail.

"It (thirteen-lined ground squirrel) might be mistaken for one of the chipmunks (Tamias sp.), which have a smaller number of solid dark and pale stripes," writes naturalist Peter Taylor in Nature Manitoba News.

And, as many people know, white-tailed deer, beaver, muskrats, foxes, cotton-tail rabbits, raccoons, red and grey squirrels and other wild mammals inhabit our parks and forested areas.

Various types of insects are emerging at this time of year too.

These include species of butterflies that overwinter as adults, such as mourning cloaks, commas and tortoiseshells -- all members of the sub-family, Nymphalinae, says information from the Living Prairie Museum, a 12-hectare tall grass prairie preserve on Ness Avenue.

They may be seen flying on warm, sunny days in late autumn or early spring.

"They are some of the most long-lived butterflies," observes Collicutt, mentioning that mourning cloaks can live as adults for 10 months or even a bit longer.

It's all part of our natural heritage, whatever the season.

Martin Zeilig is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 4, 2013 J11

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