Eastern Towhee On The Dunes Trail At Sandbanks
After spending the morning exploring the mega dunes that border West Lake in Sandbanks Provincial Park, Bob and I decided to walk the official Dunes Trail in the park. The reward for our extra effort was being serenaded by a beautiful Eastern Towhee.
We sat off from the same location as earlier only heading straight ahead this time.
The Dunes Trail not only loops through a unique and fragile dune habitat, but it also travels along the edge of several pannes. Pannes were something we had never heard of before, so Bob and I were keen to learn more about them.
Despite a scorching sun overhead, Bob and I undertook the 2.5 kilometre trail. Boardwalks built to facilitate walking over the dunes were becoming congested with fine sand, but passage over them was easier than slipping and sliding in the silky white mounds.
One of the largest dunes in Prince Edward County once stood in this area. The removal of sand by a cement factory in the 1900s destroyed the dune before public opposition caused the cancellation of the lease. Subsequently, the area was protected under the Ontario Provincial Park system. The resulting depression in the soil led to the formation of a panne.
One of the earliest descriptions of the West Lake dunes is that it was an area of “grassy swales with pockets of forest”.
The vegetation that once anchored these sand dunes had been consumed by grazing cattle or cut for logs so the dunes were overtaking roads, crops and buildings further inland. To slow the movement of the dunes, the area was planted with 3 million trees starting in 1921.
As Bob and I scouted around the dunes, we kept hearing faint birdsong. We couldn’t see a bird, but this Silver-spotted Skipper caught our eye where it rested on some vegetation.
Gaining some elevation on the dunes gave us a look back towards West Lake.
Turning in the opposite direction, Bob and I had our first view of one of the natural pannes located in the sand bar.
Filled with water in the spring from snow melt and spring rains, the panne becomes a diverse wetland with breeding frogs, birds, insects and other wildlife.
Quite often a panne will dry up over the summer, but recent rains had replenished this one. Availing themselves of the shallow water were several Yellowlegs, either Greater or Lesser. They were probing the bottom with their long bills in hopes of turning up a frog or a small crustacean.
The trail conducted us behind the fringe of trees that encircles the panne. The trees benefit from a more stable water supply on the slightly raised hummocks.
Bob and I were really starting to notice the effects of the unrelenting sun. Our energy was sagging causing us to doubt our decision to add this trail to the distance we’d already walked that morning, 5.7 kilometres.
Suddenly, an Eastern Towhee broke into song nearby, and Bob and I perked up. That had been the birdsong heard earlier, we concluded.
Male Eastern Towhees are such strikingly marked sparrows. Bob and I were lucky to see him.
There certainly were ample thickets scattered around the sand dunes where the Towhee could forage for food.
But this Eastern Towhee had other things on his mind. Flying from one perch to another, the Towhee seemed intrigued by us or perhaps he was simply surveying his territory.
Although it seemed late in the season to be courting a female, he boisterously sang from every snag and branch whereupon he perched.
The dunes are a difficult place for plants and animals to survive given the hot, dry conditions. The shifting of the nutrient-poor sand does not facilitate growth so plants must adapt, and most animals would only come to eat or drink at a panne. So while the largest dune in the area was reduced by the cement factory to a depression in the sand bar so many years ago, the resulting panne is a benefit to flora and fauna alike.
Frame To Frame – Bob and Jean