My parents’ farm property in Norfolk County has been blessed by the construction of a very exciting nest. One day when I arrived at their house and opened my car door I was greeted by the distinctive “croak” of a Common Raven (Corvus corax). The sound startled me, placing me in the woodlands of Algonquin Park, but there was no mistaking that call, and the size of the bird making it. I could see the calling raven, perched atop an unused silo. As exciting as this brief sighting was, the true significance of this bird’s presence was not yet revealed.
Later that same week, my Mom asked about the large crows and mentioned that they were building a nest on top of the silo. She said they went back and forth with sticks in their beaks. Maybe this news wouldn’t be so exciting to some people but for myself the thought of a raven nest that I could regularly observe was exhilarating.
And observe it I have!
On a recent visit, I went back to check out the nest and take some pictures. After only a few moments of watching the silo, I heard the sounds of one of these amazing birds returning and saw it carrying a large stick in its beak. The raven dropped the stick onto the nest pile without even landing, continuing to soar through the sky on its powerful wings. Apparently, if a dropped stick doesn’t stay in the nest, the ravens won’t pick them up again off the ground (Stokes and Stokes 1989). The sticks are taken from tree branches, broken off by the ravens, not collected from the ground (Stokes and Stokes 1989). In addition to large sticks, the nest could contain dirt and grass clumps as well as an interior lining of gathered hair or bark (Stokes and Stokes 1989).
A few minutes later, a turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) came drifting towards the silo. The large bird seemed to be planning to perch atop the silo, something I have seen vultures do previously. Swooping onto the scene with deep throaty “croaks” the raven pair chased the vulture off into the distance, something that was reminiscent of the classic behaviour of corvids mobbing raptors or owls.
As I said at the beginning of this post, the call and sight of ravens makes me think of Algonquin Park, and that’s for good reason. Until now, it was the only location I had seen these birds. Ravens used to be common across all of Ontario but mainly due to habitat destruction and human persecution, they have been mostly absent from far southern Ontario for about a century (Cadman et. al. 1987). Ravens were even rare in Algonquin Park until the 1960s because of the poisoned baits left out for wolves (Tozer 2012). The most recent field guide I have (Bezener 2016) still has the raven range map cut off before reaching most of Southern Ontario.
I’ve tried unsuccessfully to find a good source for the current breeding range of ravens in Ontario, but I suppose I’ll have to wait for the next edition of the Breeding Bird Atlas, which is collecting data right now (2021-2025) for its creation. It’s an amazing project, and if you have the time to contribute go for it! Suffice to say, this nest of ravens is a fairly new thing in my area and is very exciting. I hope that they have a successful nesting season, and I have a feeling I will have more posts about this nest in the future! At the time these observations were made (March 29, 2022) the ravens have possibly already laid eggs in the nest, as Tozer (2012) gives a range for Alqonquin raven egg-laying as March 20 – April 19. Stay tuned!
Bezener, Andy. 2016. Birds of Ontario. 376 pp. Partners and Lone Pine Publishing.
Cadman, M. D., Eagles, P. F. J., and Helleiner, F. M. 1987. Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario. 617 pp. University of Waterloo Press.
Tozer, Ron. 2012. Birds of Algonquin Park. 474 pp. The Friends of Algonquin Park.
Stokes, Donald and Stokes, Lillian. 1989. A Guide to Bird Behavior. Volume III. 397 pp. Little, Brown, and Company.
For Previous articles that have some relevance to this one, see:
In the interests of my own personal goals to post at least once a month, I’m going to re-publish my very first post on my first iteration of the Norfolk naturalist blog, which was on tumblr. I’m planning to re-post all of my articles that I wrote on my tumblr on this site at some stage (possibly with some slight updates/alterations) since I would like them all in one place, and my own website seems like the best place to have that. So here is my first Norfolk Naturalist post, originally published on my tumblr back in 2018 (over 4 years ago!):
While walking the trail near my house, I spotted a twig in an unlikely spot. Instead of forming the final split of a growing or dead branch, the tiny twiglet (just larger than my fingernail) was jutting out into the air from the railing of the bridge. Something strange was going on. On closer inspection, it turned out not to be a twig at all. Rather, a caterpillar had chosen a poor and rather conspicuous spot to hide.
If this caterpillar had chosen a better location, it surely would have fooled me. Even where it was, it was extremely difficult to spot. The coloration and shape of its back was a perfectly mottled gray-brown, and its posture was that of a twig. It was thin-bodied and elongate, only about a millimeter around.
The caterpillar’s odd shape is provided by it having a large space between what are its true legs (the six legs just behind the head) and its ‘prolegs’ which are fleshy stubs coming off of its abdomen. This large space also causes these caterpillars to move in a unique fashion. They lift the front group of legs and extend it forward, reaching ahead and securing themselves there. Then they lift their rear group of legs and move them forward to reconnect with the front legs. Once together, the rear legs hold their place and the caterpillar once more reaches forward with its front legs. This “inching along” process provides this group of caterpillars with their name: the Inchworms (Family Geometridae).
A caterpillar’s main predators are birds which hunt visually. If the caterpillar appears to be something other than a morsel to a hungry bird, then it has succeeded and survived another moment. This type of behavior has a technical name: “crypsis” or “cryptic behavior”, which just sounds amazing. It strikes this cryptic pose when threatened, and so effectively disappears from a hunting bird’s search. I suppose it must have assumed this position when I walked near, thinking me to be hunting it for food. In reality, I was hunting only for a few pictures.
I hope you enjoyed that “repost” from the older version of norfolk naturalist blogging. I promise I’m still working on My Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020 series and I also have several other posts about more recent nature sightings in the works. Hopefully April will be a more productive writing month!
Subject: Common Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus).
Location: Pinery Provincial Park.
Date: May 2017.
For an Introduction to this series (my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020) go here.
The Story Behind the Shot: As I mentioned in the previous photo-story, I have only rarely sought out a target species when photographing or wandering in nature. Instead, I usually just stumble upon whatever I stumble upon and find out about it later. Not so at Pinery Provincial Park, one of the only locations I’ve visited where I can see a wild lizard. While camping in the park, I had always dreamed of spotting that elusive beast: the Common Five-Lined Skink, the only lizard species that lives in Ontario. It was actually on the way to the bathroom that I spotted this creature, poking out from behind a bulletin board with announcements attached to the outside of the facility. The creature dropped down out of sight when I walked past. I caught sight of the animal out of the corner of my eye and my brain only registered what I saw a few seconds later. Then I raced back to my campsite to retrieve my camera and raced back to hopefully capture some pictures of this almost mythical creature. Thankfully the Skink hadn’t moved away and I was able to take a few pictures, my heart pounding with excitement.
The Story Behind the Species: Before we get into the more general information about these Skinks, I’d like to take a moment to describe what I can of this individual lizard that I observed and photographed. Because of its size and coloration I can tell you that it was an adult male skink. Young five-lined skinks have a bright pattern of yellow stripes on black, with a strikingly blue tail. Some female skinks retain the blue tail into adulthood but males’ tails usually fade to grey, and they develop a reddish-orange head which is evident in the pictured individual.
It takes two or three years for five-lined skinks to reach maturity (Harding and Mifsud 2017), so this individual was likely at least two years old when I encountered it.
Although the five-lined skink is the only lizard species in Ontario, and within the province its distribution is limited to coastal dunes along the edges of the Great Lakes, populations of this species range across much of the eastern United States all the way south to Florida and Texas. Because of this wide range of latitude, some populations experience much colder conditions than others. The populations in Ontario and northern populations in the United States spend the winter inactive and dormant (around the Great Lakes from about October to late April) (Harding and Mifsud 2017). These dormant lizards hide themselves away in stumps or logs, rock or building crevices, or mammal burrows. It’s intriguing to think of a five-lined skink taking refuge from the Canadian winter inside the burrow of a chipmunk and it seems that this likely happens.
In the spring, the skinks emerge from dormancy and form loose territories which males will defend against other males in order to mate with receptive females. A month after mating, the female finds a hidden nest site (in the same sorts of places used for overwintering, see above) and lays up to 20 eggs (Harding and Mifsud 2017). After 1-2 months, the eggs hatch and the hatchlings leave the nest within 1-2 days.
As already mentioned the juveniles have bright blue tails and a pronounced striping pattern down their backs, adult males have bright reddish-orange heads especially during the breeding season (May-June in Ontario). You might expect that these lizards use visual cues for reproduction, and they likely do but they also have a powerful sense of smell which has been shown to be capable of distinguishing reproductive characteristics of other skink individuals (such as maturity and sex) and a related species has even been shown to be able to distinguish individuals by scent (Cooper 1996).
It seems that the bright blue tails are more of an antipredator adaptation than a visual signal to other skinks (though it no doubt functions as both). How does the tail help a skink escape predation? The colour draws the eye of visually-hunting predators, distracting from more vulnerable parts of the skink such as the head or torso. And I’m sure you’ve heard this one before: if seized by a predator, the tail can become detached and will even wriggle for several minutes on its own.
What sort of predators hunt five-lined skinks? Basically anything that can catch these swift little lizards: snakes, mammals, birds, and perhaps most surprisingly… Spiders. An excellently illustrated and fascinating book about lizards, Lizards: Windows to the Evolution of Diversity (Pianka and Vitt 2003), contains a photo of a juvenile five-lined skink caught by a spider (p. 66). Usually the invertebrates are on the menu for the skink which feeds on a wide variety of leaf-litter inhabitants. Large skinks will feed on small vertebrates as well such as frogs or baby mice.
Well, that’s that: the only lizard species in Ontario, and I was lucky enough to see and photograph it.
Next up is a two-for-one (two species in one photo) which features an insect that has caught another, both species are fascinating. Stay tuned…
Cooper, W. E. Jr. 1996. “Chemosensory recognition of familiar and unfamiliar conspecifics by the scincid lizard Eumeces laticeps.” Ethology 102: 1-11. cited in: Pianka, Eric, and Vitt, Laurie. 2003. Lizards: Windows to the Evolution of Diversity.
Harding, James H. and Mifsud, David A. 2017. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region: Revised Edition.
Pianka, Eric, and Vitt, Laurie. 2003. Lizards: Windows to the Evolution of Diversity.Pianka, Eric, and Vitt, Laurie. 2003. Lizards: Windows to the Evolution of Diversity.
For the previous articles in my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020 series, see:
For an Introduction to this series (my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020) go here.
The Story Behind the Shot: I’ve only visited Algonquin Park in the Winter twice. On this occasion, in March 2017, I was actually searching for this particular bird (one of the rare times that I have a target species in mind, I’ll be recounting another one for my next photo). The Canada Jay had only recently been rebranded as such, the common name used to be the Gray Jay and some people still refer to it as such (after all, common names can sort of be whatever you want them to be). Part of the name-change or name-shift was to do with a campaign by the Canadian Geographic Society to name the Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis) as Canada’s National Bird. For more information about this story, see the Canadian Geographic article here: https://www.canadiangeographic.ca/article/meet-our-national-bird-gray-jay. Having read up on this story I wanted to encounter this emblem of our country and was able to catch a glimpse of it in the parking lot of the Spruce Bog trail in Algonquin Park.
The Story Behind the Species: The Canada Jay is a permanent resident of cold northern forests across North America (Cadman et. al. 1987). Algonquin Park is at the southern edge of their range in Ontario (Tozer 2012). Canada Jays are able to live and breed in their northern habitats because of their food-storing abilities. They are highly adaptable birds, feeding on a wide variety of food, obtained in a wide variety of ways. The Cornell All About Birds website sums it up like this: they will “snap up flying insects in the air, wade in shallow water to capture invertebrates and amphibians, kill small mammals, raid the nests of other birds” (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Canada_Jay/lifehistory). The food they gather in the summer is cached throughout their territories in preparation for the long winter. This food store allows them to start nesting as early as the end of February in Algonquin Park (Tozer 2012). They prefer to nest in spruce forests, and there is some evidence to suggest that the antibacterial properties of some conifers actually work to preserve the food the jays store in them (Tozer 2012).
Amazingly adaptable, clever and curious birds. I certainly support its status as unofficial National Bird of Canada.
Cadman, M. D., Eagles, P. F. J., and Helleiner, F. M. 1987. Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario.
Tozer, Ron. 2012. Birds of Algonquin Park.
For the previous articles in my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020 series, see:
For an Introduction to this series (my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020) go here.
The Story Behind the Shot: For several summers, I have stayed in Algonquin Provincial Park for a week, camping in Pog Lake Campground and exploring various trails and locations along the Highway 60 corridor, attempting to photograph interesting creatures that I encountered. One of the most quintessential Algonquin animals is the Moose, and I didn’t spot one on this trip until we were on our way out of the park, driving down the highway early in the morning. This family group of Moose (a mother and two calves) was an amazing treat to watch as they continued to browse some foliage and walk through the clearing adjacent to the road.
The Story Behind the Species: Moose are large mammals, the largest land mammal that one can encounter in Eastern North America. As such, they have been the subject of plenty of research and interest. For this post I want to focus on their reproductive cycle since the photo I captured features a mother and her two calves. Calves are born in May, after 7 months of growth within the mother. Pregnant Moose will often seek out islands in lakes as the location to give birth as it provides some protection from roaming bears or wolves (Strickland and Rutter 2018). You may be wondering how a mother moose can reach an island that a bear or wolf won’t frequent. Moose are actually quite excellent swimmers, they can feed on underwater plants, can swim to depths of 5.5 m and stay under for more than 30 seconds (Naughton 2012). The two young in my photo are likely twins since they appear to be the same size. Apparently, “twins are not uncommon under good conditions” (Naughton 2012). The young stay with their mother for a full year before they disperse (Strickland and Rutter 2018).
A fascinating animal and one I’m sure I will return to explore further on my blog in the future.
Naughton, Donna. 2012. The Natural History of Canadian Mammals.
Strickland, Dan and Rutter, Russell. 2018. Mammals of Algonquin Provincial Park.
For the previous articles in my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020 series, see:
*this species doesn’t have a common name, so I created this common name by using the etymology of its scientific name “pallidipicta” which seems to mean “pale-painted”.
Location: Parents’ Farm, Norfolk County.
Date: July 2013.
For an Introduction to this series (my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020) go here.
The Story Behind the Shot: While growing up, my brother and I discussed several times the idea of a project: to list every single species that occurred on our family’s property. While this project never reached fruition, the idea of it has inspired me throughout my adventures with the creatures in my own backyard and elsewhere. One day several years ago I spent a day just wandering around on my parents’ farm taking photos of every interesting creature that caught my eye. I was amazed to find busy little wasps digging burrows in the sand at the edge of the field. Despite their frenzied activity I managed to capture one at the entrance of its burrow.
The Story Behind the Species: Bembix pallidipicta is one of those Sand Wasps (members of the subfamily Bembicinae) I’ve mentioned once or twice on my blog about a year ago now. The following information on this species is summarized from Evans and O’Neill (2007).
Not all Sand Wasps construct burrows in sand, but B. pallidipicta does, usually selecting large areas of loose sand to begin their burrowing. Nest site selection is fine-tuned in that they require a small amount of moisture in the sand to maintain a fine crust when they tunnel beneath it. The sites where the females emerge and the males mate are often suitable for the females to use for their nest construction, so unless the habitat is disturbed the same site can support a population of sand wasps for multiple generations. B. pallidipicta males gather around sites where adult females will soon emerge, and fly in short hops, which gives the appearance of “aggregations of very small toads” (Evans 1957).
Once their burrow is constructed with a chamber up to 56 cm beneath the surface (the depth is partly determined by the dryness of the sand), the females lay a single egg at one end of the chamber (termed the brood cell). This egg will hatch and the wasp larva will wait within its subterranean chamber for its mother to provide food. B. pallidipicta exhibits what is called “progressive provisioning” which means that the mother brings prey in multiple times to the larva while it is growing and feeding. I’ve always loved this aspect of sand wasps because it’s essentially the same setup as songbirds awaiting worms in their nests. For B. pallidipicta, the prey is all true flies (Order Diptera) of several Brachyceran families, including Flower Flies (Syrphidae), Horse Flies (Tabanidae) and House Flies (Muscidae). When bringing fresh prey to her larva, the mother will push the fragments of partially eaten prey off to the side, and block this debris off with sand. This likely helps prevent parasites or diseases from accumulating within the nest, or it’s possible that it’s a way for the mother wasp to judge how much more prey to provide. Because B. pallidipicta nests in large unrelated groups, females will occasionally steal prey from other females nearby to feed their own offspring. After about 4 days of feeding, the larva pupates and the mother moves on to construct a new nest.
My top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020 are going to be presented in chronological order of when I took the photos, they aren’t arranged in any other sort of hierarchy. Come back next time for a photo of a much larger animal caring for its young…
As you may know if you’ve been reading some of my earlier posts this year, I joined the Norfolk Field Naturalists this past Summer. This has meant joining with local nature enthusiasts for hikes (see NFN Fungi Hike posts, part 1, part 2, and part 3) and listening in on monthly presentations beginning in September. The December NFN meeting is going to be a “Members’ Night” in which members of the group can present up to 20 pictures or a short video of trips or observations of their own. I was excited by the prospect of sharing my photos and observations (as indeed I’ve been doing with this blog site).
So… what photos to select for my portion of the slideshow? I decided to present the highlight photos of my own past observations to demonstrate a bit about myself and my experiences.
I realized that I needed to pick out 20 of my top observations/nature photos of all time. At first 20 seemed like a lot… but going through my personal archives of nature photos I soon came to understand that it would actually be quite difficult to decide on which photos to include as I have take quite a few over the past several years.*
*literally thousands of photos of hundreds of species
So, to help narrow my choices down I eliminated this past year, 2021. I did this for a couple of reasons:
I would like to go over my 2021 nature photos on my blog (and I already have showcased many here), and I wanted to do something different for this presentation, ie. I wanted to review other photos and observations than ones I was already planning to write about.
I believe I have truly improved a lot in my nature photography and I personally think that 2021 contains some of my best photos. If this is true, then this past year of observations might get over-represented in a list of “best nature photos”.
2021 out of the way, I only had about 8 years of nature photos to trawl through for those greatest hits. To decide which photos to include in my list, I considered the following:
First and foremost, they had to be good pictures, high-quality, focused, nice composition. I usually don’t think of my pictures in this way because I’m interested and excited by the organisms involved and not the quality of the photos per se. But for a slideshow I wanted to have only the most crisp clear photos.
Unique or rare organisms or behaviour were preferred. I have taken many pictures of Honeybees (Apis mellifera) and American Red Squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) but unless they were doing something interesting or were exceptionally beautiful shots I wanted to compile a list of the more rare (to me) species that I’ve seen and photographed.
Taxonomic Variety. I wanted the photos to reflect my own interests in nature which is pretty wide in scope, encompassing basically all that’s living with a particular emphasis (partly just because I can observe and photograph them more regularly and easily) on Insects and Birds. In other words, I didn’t want the 20 top photos to be a list made up of half Hymenoptera and half Lepidoptera, I wanted to have a good variety of organisms from across the tree of life.
As you can probably tell from the above, the list at the end of the day is quite… arbitrary. It’s my own decision what to include and what not to include, what’s particularly interesting and what organisms are different enough to showcase. I feel like this preamble is more for myself than for anyone else because I think everyone already assumes that a list such as this will be arbitrary but I felt while picking photos I needed to have some sort of guidelines to create a somewhat representative list. Anyway, boring stuff out of the way, next post will be the first of 20 of my top 20 Nature photos taken between 2013 and 2020!
Until then, I will leave you with a few of my photos that didn’t quite make it into my final list:
Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) on the Lynn Valley Trail, February 2018:
Bog Copper Butterfly (Tharsalea epixanthe), in Algonquin Provincial Park, July 2018:
Six-spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexpunctata) on the Lynn Valley Trail, May 2020:
Two years ago today, I published my first blog article on my site: norfolknaturalist.ca. So today, I’m going to celebrate two years of Norfolk Naturalist blogging, by looking back over the past year at what I’ve written on my blog, what I’ve read that is nature-related, and other events and recollections of the past year that are related to the Norfolk Naturalist blog. For last year’s birthday article, go here. So here we go!
Many exciting things occurred over the past year for the Norfolk Naturalist, including an event I attended in December 2020: my first ever zoological conference: Tetzoomcon! I didn’t finish writing up my thoughts on the event until Tetzoomcon 2021 was announced so although the event was in December 2020, the article was posted in August 2021.
Also in December 2020, I published the first article in my Sand Wasps series, the Introduction, and in January of 2021 I published Part 2: the Tribe Alyssontini. I haven’t continued the Sand Wasps series since… my initial impetus to write about Sand Wasps was reading the book The Sand Wasps by Howard Evans and Kevin O’Neill, which I mention in my Introduction article. Basically, it’s a series that I’ll continue when I feel inspired to write more about Sand Wasps.
In February I wrote an article titled Swimming Squirrels, which was all about a fascinating paper I read in the Canadian Field-Naturalist which described an observation of a Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) swimming and catching a fish, behaviour that is surprising to me.
Another unfinished, and barely begun series was started in March with my posting of Natural Curiosities, Part 1: Emu Feathers. I meant to go through various nature objects that I had obtained through the years and describe the organisms they came from or represented, but I only finished the one that’s published. Perhaps the next year of blogging will contain more parts to this series (I certainly have more natural curiosities to describe and write about).
A rather different article was posted in May, in which I examined what the distinction between life and non-life really is and the complexities of the question from a scientific point of view. This article mentions viruses and alludes to being the beginning of yet another series of posts… of which it is the only one so far…
The tail end of June saw the stepping up of my blog-writing. I fell into something of a routine with my writing and found ways to write that felt natural and productive. No longer was I struggling to produce an article per month and for the rest of the year I wrote several articles per month which was a real achievement for myself. First I wrote up my experiences visiting a trail in Long Point, in two parts (Part 1 and Part 2). Then I wrote an article about Wrens (Troglodytes).
After these articles, I proceeded to write and post about the various organisms I had seen and photographed at my parents’ house, and in my own backyard (Diptera, Hymenoptera, and Others) all observed during the month of June.
During July, I went camping at Port Burwell Provincial Park and made several interesting observations there which I wrote up into a post.
The next notable camping trip was to Algonquin Provincial Park, one of my favourite places in the world. While there, I took plenty of photos and saw many wonderful creatures. I wrote up my Algonquin observations into five parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.
After my long series of Algonquin observation posts, I changed it up a little with a Podcast review of one of my favourite podcasts: The Field Guides. My website was actually mentioned on the podcast in their following episode, which really made my… year, and they added a link to my site on their website which is incredible.
This year, I joined the Norfolk Field Naturalists, an organization of nature enthusiasts in Norfolk County and my first experience with them was a hike in Backus Woods, searching for fungi to photograph. We found plenty, I learned lots, and I wrote up my observations in a series of 3 posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.
In addition to hikes with other local naturalists, the group also arranges meetings every month with a presenter. This year, because of the global pandemic, the meetings were done over zoom. So far the presentations have been excellent and interesting, and I might write up more about them in a future article.
Coming up in December is a Members’ Night meeting in which members can submit up to 20 photos of their own for a slideshow. I’ve already submitted my photos and will be blogging about my selection of 20 photos from my personal collection in due time.
Just during November I received the latest issue of the Canadian Field-Naturalist, a science journal that I subscribe to. Within, I was delighted to find that one of the articles mentioned a species that I profiled for my first post on this website (besides my welcome post): the Eastern Band-winged Hover Fly (Ocyptamus fascipennis). I have added an update to this post to reflect this recent interesting note about this species (spoiler alert: it’s possibly migratory).
Nature-related books I’ve read over the past blogging year (from November 30, 2020 to November 30, 2021):
Here’s a quick gallery of the nature-related books that I’ve read over the past year with a short summary of my thoughts on the books. Some of these books have more substantial reviews in the works or already published on my site. The books are presented in no particular order except vaguely chronological of when I started reading them.
The Golden Throng, by Edwin Way Teale:
A book about bees, by Edwin Way Teale, a classic naturalist writer. The book doesn’t go into as much detail as I might prefer, but if you want a book that can ignite curiosity or admiration for bees for someone who isn’t already curious or fascinated then I would recommend this book.
Naked Trees, by John Terpstra:
Excellent poetry about trees, delving into their nature and their interactions with people.
Life through the Ages II, by Mark Witton:
Incredible book, filled with beautiful illustrations of past life and concise descriptions of bygone eras. This book was a wonderful treat in visuals and text. Highly recommended for fans of paleoart or extinct life or the diversity of life (which must include the vast array of extinct organisms).
Behavioral Ecology of the Eastern Red-Backed Salamander, by Robert G. Jaeger, Birgit Gollman, Carl D. Anthony, Caitlin R. Gabor and Nancy R. Kohn:
A fascinating book describing various experiments and research ideas on a single species: the Eastern Red-backed Salamander (Plethodon cinereus) in a specific place: Northeastern United States. I love finding a book like this which contains details about a species that can be found nowhere else.
Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, by E. O. Wilson:
I didn’t love this book. I found it was a bit incohesive and fragmented in tone and content despite being presented as if it was a single argument piece. I disliked some of the inconsistent messaging on science/religion/philosophy of science, but I really enjoyed the discussion of various ecosystems and fascinating organisms that live there. I think Wilson’s writing works best in this book when he’s explaining and refuting the anthropocentric worldview, and I think if it had been more tightly focused on this aspect it could be a more cohesive exploration of the topic.
In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick:
This is a history book that recounts the tragedy of the whaleship Essex, which was rammed and sunk by a Sperm Whale in 1820. Not particularly nature-focused, but it does contain some information about Sperm Whales and the whaling industry of the time. Fascinating shipwreck survivor tale.
Parasitism: The Ecology and Evolution of Interspecific Interactions, by Claude Combes:
Absolutely incredible book that covers such a broad range of topics that it’s hard to summarize. Describes the process of Parasitism from multiple levels sometimes going very heavily theoretical and sometimes describing particular in-depth case studies of model systems. I learned lots and had a ton of fun reading it.
Dinosaur Facts and Figures: The Theropods and Other Dinosauriformes, by Ruben Molina-Perez, Asier Larramendi, Andrey Atuchin and Sante Mazzei:
Beautifully illustrated dinosaur book with a focus on “records” some of which are bizarrely specific, and some of which are quite fascinating. I think this book is worth it for the illustrations, but there are also a lot of interesting facts as well. I particularly liked the geographical context section because I find that many general dinosaur books don’t give you a good idea of what dinosaurs lived where.
Naturalist, by E. O. Wilson:
Very fascinating look at the journey of a young man growing into a scientist. Interesting to see where different aspects of E. O. Wilson’s philosophy arose from and how they influenced his growth and avenues of research.
After Man: A Zoology of the Future, by Dougal Dixon:
A speculative look at what animals and ecosystems might evolve after another 50 million years. Thought-provoking and very fun way to explore evolutionary ‘rules’ and ideas.
Flies: The Natural History and Diversity of Diptera, by Stephen Marshall:
This book is absolutely incredible, full of amazing photographs and fascinating text. Read my full Review here.
Terns, by David Cabot and Ian Nisbet:
In-depth natural history of British and Irish Tern species, but also covers many other Terns from around the world. Excellent photos and detailed text. I am working on a longer review of this book and will post it here soon.
Days Without Time, by Edwin Way Teale:
The subtitle of this book is “Adventures of a Naturalist” and as such it’s a random collection of chapters, each presenting a different nature encounter of the author. I quite enjoyed this book. Some sections feel a little dated (the book was published in 1948) but the curiosity and sense of wonder that Edwin Way Teale has for nature is something that resonates strongly with me. The final two paragraphs feel like they should be in a banner across the top of my blog:
“The out-of-doors is – as it always has been – everybody’s art gallery, everybody’s concert hall, everybody’s library of poetry written in a universal language. The beauty of nature is every generation’s gift. It is free for the taking, around us always. And each man, according to his character, realizes its possibilities. To dwell with this beauty of the out-of-doors, as much as we can, is the better part of wisdom. Here we feel ourselves losing nervous tension, relaxing like a drought-dried plant in a summer shower. Here the hunger of our eyes for the green of trees and the color of flowers is satisfied. Here the longing of our ears for the sound of wind in the grasses and the lap of waves on sand is gratified. Here there is beauty to lift the heart and calm endurance to speak of courage. And here there is something more, something magical, something that fills a deep need of the human heart.”
Trees of Algonquin Provincial Park:
I read this “book” (it’s a pictorial guide to the trees of Algonquin Park, 40-something pages long) while camping in Algonquin Provincial Park. It brought a greater appreciation for the beautiful trees that surrounded me there.
Cougar: Ecology and Conservation, edited by Maurice Hornocker and Sharon Negri:
This edited volume contains basically all aspects of Cougar ecology and conservation that you could imagine. I particularly found it fascinating to read about Cougars in Central and South America as I’m used to picturing them in the Rocky Mountains of Western North America. As an edited volume, some topics are repetitive and some are not as interesting to myself as others. Overall though, an excellent scientific overview of cougar research published in 2008.
Oakwatch, by Jim Flegg:
Oakwatch describes the species that live in and around oak trees in Britain. Great exploration of the seasonal changes that occur and the trees that tie so many distinct species together. Something to read slowly through the year as the seasons change, which is how I read it.
Grassroot Jungles, by Edwin Way Teale:
A book about insects, with a very relaxed naturalists’ style. I personally prefer the similar book by the same author: Near Horizons: The Story of an Insect Garden for an overview of the insects he has observed in his own backyard. Even so, Grassroot Jungles has the same charm and joy at the everyday wonders that are the Insects all around us.
I hope that you enjoyed this look back at the past year at norfolknaturalist.ca! Last year’s blogversary article concluded with a goal that my second anniversary would contain more than 7 posts to summarize and I am happy to say that I have far exceeded that goal! Next year, I hope to stick to my main goal of producing interesting nature articles on various topics that grab my attention, at least once a month. I truly love sharing my fascination with the natural world and hopefully inspiring others to take a closer look and keep learning. If you enjoy my writing and photos and have the means and desire to support me, I now have a donation function set up on my Home page. I really appreciate any level of support, which includes most importantly sharing my website with others who might find it interesting or worth a read.
Here’s to many more years of norfolk naturalist blogging!
People are always going on about how Beetles are so diverse, biologists are always explaining to theologians that God must really love Beetles*, and whenever anyone asks “What’s the most diverse group of organisms?” Beetles are always top of the list. UNTIL NOW.
*in case you don’t know the anecdote this is referring to, the earliest source (according to quoteinvestigator.com) runs thus: “There is a story, possibly apocryphal, of the distinguished British biologist, J. B. S. Haldane, who found himself in the company of a group of theologians. On being asked what one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of his creation, Haldane is said to have answered, “An inordinate fondness for beetles.”” (Hutchinson 1959).
Stephen Marshall proposes in his magnificent volume on the diversity of flies that there are historical reasons why beetles are held up as so diverse when the truth is that they might just be more closely studied than other insect groups… other groups like the order Diptera (true Flies), for instance. And if you read through this 600 page volume loaded with superb photographs and covering every single family of flies in some detail you will come away with the powerful impression that Stephen Marshall is on to something. Flies, a group often neglected because they don’t always photograph well, many look very similar to each other, and a lot of them have distasteful feeding habits, are showcased as the hyper-diverse evolutionary marvel that they are.
The book’s first part: “Life Histories, Habits and Habitats of Flies” runs through a sampler of what flies do as larvae and adults. This includes the life cycles of Diptera in general, but elaborates on more specific groups where appropriate. Other sections in this part describe flies interacting with plants, fungi, invertebrates and vertebrates. This entire section comprises about 90 pages and goes into considerable detail on specific guilds* such as the worldwide coastal communities of “wrack flies”, flies that have larvae that feed within decomposing piles of seaweed washed upon shores. Along with the various interactions between flies and invertebrates, this section also includes a discussion of the many human diseases caused or carried by flies such as mosquitoes (Family Culicidae) or house flies (Musca spp.).
*A guild is a group of animals that are united by a common feeding strategy or resource use, but not necessarily united in relatedness. For example, flies from different branches of the Dipteran family tree are considered part of the leaf-mining guild if their larvae produce mines in leaves.
The second part of the book is titled “Diversity” and reading through this catalog of fly families and subfamilies truly does drive home just how incredibly diverse the Order Diptera is. Each chapter covers a large portion of the fly family tree and opens with a diagram of the proposed relationships between the fly groups within. This opening section of each chapter moves from family to family, and describes the basic characteristics of each group detailing subfamilies where possible as well. Within these descriptions are not just lists of characters used to distinguish one family from another but also the basic biology of each group when known. A couple of key things to note here: even when dividing up the flies into smaller and smaller groups it can be hard to generalize because you are still dealing with huge swaths of species in some instances and in others you are simply dealing with species doing very different things despite their close-relatedness. Marshall does a good job of explaining this and I’ll provide an example here from the section on Tipulidae (the Crane Flies, of which there are more than 15 000 described species): “Although most larvae with known biologies are saprophagous and eat microbe-rich organic matter (normally, decaying plant material) in wet environments, some crane flies are predaceous, fungivorous or phytophagous… Some groups have become specialists in extreme environments such as caves, marine intertidal zones and deserts, but most occur in humid forests and wetlands. Most Tipulidae are unknown as larvae.” (Marshall 2012 p. 110).
The above quote demonstrates the way in which Marshall overviews the lifestyles of the fly groups providing tantalizing glimpses of their diverse life histories, but it also provides an example of something that is rife within the 600 page volume: the overwhelming amount of flies or fly habits that are unknown. To demonstrate, here are some quotes from throughout the book (Marshall 2012):
“Valeseguya rieki is known only from a single male specimen” (p 136)
“Larvae and larval habitats of the Lygistorrhinidae remain unknown” (p 141)
“Nothing is known of the biology of these obscure little flies [Ohakunea]” (p 141)
“adults of Oreoleptis (and thus the family Oreoleptidae) have yet to be collected in the field” (p 198)
“The 500 or so species of Acroceridae occur in every part of the world, but most are known from only a few specimens” (p 205)
“Essentially nothing is known about the biology of either Apystomyia or Hilarimorpha” (p 235).
“Even though signal flies [Platystomatidae] are usually conspicuous and attractive flies, many species remain undescribed.” (p 332).
“Larvae are unknown for most species in the family [Lonchaeidae] and little is known about behavior” (p 335).
“The biology of most Pallopteridae species remains unknown” (p 339).
“The truth, however, is that we know almost nothing about the life histories of these bizarre flies [Ctenostylidae]” (p 340)
“Nothing is known about the biology of this group [Nothybidae]” (p 348)
“Despite a worldwide distribution, with about 140 known species spread over every zoogeographic region, not much is known about asteiid biology.” (p 363)
“Nothing is known of the biology of the Neotropical dwarf fly genera [Periscelididae]” (p 365)
The quote list above is not comprehensive, but rather a sampling to show some of the many groups of flies that are mysterious despite their ubiquity in some cases. I don’t want the quotes above to be taken as evidence that the book contains little in the way of information on the flies of the world, seeing as so little is known overall. On the contrary, this volume is chock-full of biological details found nowhere else except the specialized literature and I found myself blown away by many intriguing and fascinating descriptions of fly families and subfamilies. Below are a few of the more interesting groups I had never encountered before reading through this book.
Frog midges (Corethrellidae) are attracted to singing frogs where the females feed on the frog’s blood. Some Phorid flies lay their eggs inside ants, where their larvae consume the ant’s head from the inside. After feeding within, the larvae decapitate the ants and pupate within the armored shelter before emerging as adult flies. These flies are known as ant-decapitating flies, and there are more than 300 species of them in the genus Apocephalus. Vermileonidae is a family of flies known as “wormlions” which are essentially the antlions of the diptera, their larvae constructing cone-shaped pits to trap wandering insects for prey. The Fergusoninidae is a family of flies that “develop only in galls induced by a specialized and codependent group of nematodes” (Marshall 2012, p 366).
Probably my personal favourite are the smoke flies. The smoke flies, platypezid Microsania spp., are attracted to fires (even campfires) but are rarely seen elsewhere. The smoke fly swarms are often followed by the predatory empidid dance fly Hormopeza which “seems to be a specialized predator of smoke flies. Like Microsania, the smoke dance flies are rarely seen except when they appear in plumes of smoke.” (p 298). I feel like the smoke flies, a group of species that can be attracted to something as common as a campfire, and yet are known from basically nowhere else (and thus poorly understood biologically) perfectly encapsulate the mystery and wonder of flies that I have gained from reading this book.
All of this fascinating information is found within the comprehensive and authoritative text, and after going through family by family in this fashion, each chapter in the “Diversity” section has a “photographic guide” portion which covers representatives of most subfamilies with further notes on natural history and significance of genera pictured. The scope of the pictures is mind-boggling and further bring home the diversity of flies, as well as their surprising beauty.
The final, shortest section covers collecting, preserving and identifying flies, and contains notes for those interested in starting insect collections of their own (as in, pinned specimens) as well as keys for identifying the major fly groups.
I can honestly say that if this book were published with only the text portions I would buy it because the text is just that valuable in overviewing the enormous diversity of the fly families. And I can also say that if this book were published with only the pictures and captions, I would also buy it for the incredible amount of biodiversity on display, captured in wonderful images of flies from around the world.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. If you are an insect enthusiast, if you are at all interested in the diversity of life and if you enjoy gasping at revelations about the tiny wonders that flit around the world you have to read this book.
Last August, I went on a hike in Backus Woods with the Norfolk Field Naturalists to identify and photograph fungi. For the first two parts of the observations I made during the hike, see Part 1 and Part 2. My two previous posts covered all of the fungi (and several interesting non-fungi including wood frogs and fungus weevils) that I photographed and described some of their interesting biologies and ecologies. This final post is a roundup of the non-fungi observations I made during the hike.
You would be forgiven for thinking that this next observation also represented the fruiting body of a fungus. Instead, this drooping white organism is actually a plant without chlorophyll (and thus without the colour green and without the ability to capture light from the sun and turn it into sugar). Ghost Pipes (Monotropa uniflora) are parasitic plants, which feed indirectly on the roots of their host trees via underground fungi that attach to the roots in a mycorrhizal relationship (Runtz 2020). The flower heads droop, and give this strange flower its name of “pipe” but when they are pollinated (by bees usually) they will raise their flowers straight upward (Runtz 2020).
Some more traditional plants (you know, ones that are green and perform the magic of photosynthesis) were also spotted along the trails. I learned that the bright red clusters of berries were the ripened fruits of George-Michael-in-the-Banana-Stand (Arisaema triphyllum)*. Besides the red berry clusters, we also saw representatives with green berries that hadn’t ripened yet. Although they may look edible, these red berries contain high levels of oxalic acid and cause painful burning in people that eat them… although apparently white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and wood thrushes will eat them and be fine (Holland 2016).
*more traditionally, the common name is Jack-in-the-Pulpit and most people probably know it by this name, but I couldn’t resist using the new common name proposed by The Field Guides Podcast (for my review of the Field Guides Podcast go here)
Another red-berried plant was a new one for me: Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens). These red berries are edible, but apparently tasteless. The flowers are pollinated by bumblebees and as the name suggests the berries are consumed by ground-birds (such as grouse and turkeys), but also by skunks and white-footed mice (Hayden 2012). You would think that partridges would eat these berries… but we don’t have any partridges in North America, and this species only grows here… so here we have a very useless common name.
Two other wildflowers added colour and beauty to our hike: Spotted Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) and Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica). Spotted Jewelweed is pollinated mainly by hummingbirds and bees, while the Great Blue Lobelia is pollinated mostly by bumblebee (Eastman 1995). I unknowingly captured this interaction between Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and Spotted Jewelweed in the past, so I’ve included a picture here.
A few interesting arthropod encounters also enhanced the hike. An American Giant Millipede (of the Narceus americanus complex)* was found in curled defensive posture.
*the complex refers to the fact that this “species” is actually made up of many species that may be extremely difficult to distinguish
On the way out of Backus Woods, I spotted some speedy insects scurrying across the sands and gravels of the path, those predatory jewels known as Tiger Beetles (Cicindelinae). The two species that I spotted and photographed were the Punctured Tiger Beetle (Cicindela punctulata) and the Big Sand Tiger Beetle (Cicindela formosa).
I hope you enjoyed this tour through Backus Woods with a focus on Fungi. I know I learned a lot and am excited for future outings with the Norfolk Field Naturalists!
Eastman, John. 1995. The Book of Swamp and Bog.
Hayden, W. John. 2012. “2012 Wildflower of the Year: Partridge Berry, Mitchella Repens.” Virginia Native Plant Society Brochure, 2012, 1-3.
Holland, Mary. 2016. Naturally Curious Day by Day.
Runtz, Michael. 2020. Wildflowers of Algonquin Provincial Park.
For more Nature Observations in Norfolk County, see: