Categories
Nature Observations

Freezing Frogs and Fascinating Fungi (NFN Fungi Hike, Part 1)

I recently joined a local group of nature enthusiasts known as the Norfolk Field Naturalists. My very first outing with the Norfolk Field Naturalists was a hike through the Backus Woods Conservation Area with a local Fungi expert Leanne Lemaich. The hike was rewarding for the opportunity to meet up with others who share my passion for learning about the nature around us, and I learned a lot about the various fungi in the area. I used my camera extensively, capturing fungi and non-fungi (some new ones for me!) as you’ll see below. All in all, it was a great experience despite feeling as though I singlehandedly sponsored the next generation of mosquitoes with most of my blood supply…

Let’s begin with a brief primer on Fungi, because that’s how our hike began as well. Despite being classified so often with plants, fungi are actually more closely related to animals, but in any case they are neither. Unlike plants, fungi can’t produce their own energy, ie. they don’t contain chlorophyll, the pigment that makes leaves green and captures energy from the sun to create sugars/carbons (the incredible process known as photosynthesis). Instead, fungi feed on other organisms just like all animals do. Many fungi feed on dead organisms (termed saprophytic, or saprotrophic), but there are also many that feed on or within living organisms and still others form symbiotic relationships (which can grade into parasitism… the difference between symbiosis and parasitism is actually very grey-shaded). Although most of a fungus is composed of tiny threads that grow and proliferate out of sight, there are extraordinary structures that appear for reproductive purposes and these are collectively called “mushrooms”. I like to think of mushrooms as the equivalent of flowers, because they’re the visible part that facilitates reproduction just like the flowers in plants (via insects/other organisms/wind/rain/other weather processes in both instances). Now that we have a (very) basic idea of what fungi are, we can move onto some of the particular ones I observed and photographed on this hike, as well as many non-fungi spotted along the way!

Our first fungal find was a Bolete (Family Boletaceae), and the first incredible fact that I learned was that this mushroom couldn’t be identified without a… taste test. We hear so often about the dangers of foraging for mushrooms, because there are poisonous lookalikes to edible species and such, that I was very intrigued to learn that some mushrooms are identified by taste. Of course, I will reiterate the warning you will hear literally everywhere mushroom foraging is mentioned (and for good reason): DON’T EAT MUSHROOMS IF YOU’RE UNSURE OF THEIR ID.

Unidentified Bolete emerging from the leaf litter.

Next up was a familiar species even to me, a comparative novice when it comes to fungal identification: Turkey-tail (Trametes versicolor). This common species feeds on dead wood, and contains enzymes able to break down cellulose and lignin at the same time (Stephenson 2010). These are the two main components of plant cell walls, and are notoriously difficult for animals to digest.

Turkey-tail fungus growing out of the side of a log.

Several times during the hike, we came upon Coral fungi, which unsurprisingly resemble underwater corals in their branching structures. Our guide identified some of these as possible Ramaria species, but she also pointed out a false coral (Sebacina schweinitzii).

This next unassuming organism isn’t a fungus, but rather a strange living thing called a slime mould, specifically the Dog-vomit Slime Mould (Fuligo septica). The Dog-vomit Slime Mould is part of a group known as the plasmodial slime moulds, the Myxomycetes. Myxomycetes have a complicated and confusing life cycle. They have two feeding stages: the first consists of single cells which move and feed within their environment like amoebae (Stephenson 2010). These single cells reproduce and form a plasmodium, which is still a mass of what might be termed a single cell because it doesn’t have any cell walls, but it contains many nuclei (Stephenson 2010). In both of these stages, myxomycetes usually feed on bacteria or fungi that they encounter. I believe the Dog-vomit slime mould that I encountered was in this plasmodium stage, possibly preparing for its ‘final form’ which would be the production of fruiting bodies which would disperse tiny spores to start the process all over again (Stephenson 2010). Bizarre organisms… aliens of the forest floor.

Dog-vomit Slime Mould.

We encountered one other species of slime mould during the hike which was much more aesthetically pleasing than the one named after dog-vomit… the Red Raspberry Slime Mould (Tubifera ferruginosa).

Red Raspberry Slime Mould. For scale, note the blurry Harvestman (Opilione) to the right of the Slime Mould fruiting bodies.

While stepping through the undergrowth to approach some fungi, I disturbed some hopping amphibians at my feet. At first glance, we thought they were regular toads (ie. Eastern American Toads: Anaxyrus americanus) and some of them were, but one stood out as something distinctively different. This frog was one that I had never seen before, though I had heard its strange “quacking” calls during hikes in the past: a Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus). Part of the reason I haven’t seen them is their superb camouflage, which consists of not only a generalized leaf-litter brown pattern. Wood Frogs also exhibit background matching: changing their skin to match their surroundings. While in breeding ponds in the Spring they are darker (and thus match the water more closely), and assume a lighter coloration when among the generally lighter leaf litter of their environment for the rest of the year (Wells 2007).

Wood Frog among the leaf litter. Pretty well camouflaged, I must say.

One of the facts that always comes to the fore of my mind when I think of Wood Frogs is not their strange call, or their camouflage, but the fact that they can tolerate being frozen. Wood Frogs, at the onset of winter, have physiological mechanisms that promote ice formation between their cells, and prevent ice formation within their cells. What this response amounts to is well described by Bernd Heinrich in Winter World: “the frog is frozen solid except for the insides of its cells. Its heart stops. No more blood flows. It no longer breathes. By most definitions, it is dead.” (Heinrich 2003, p 174). The incredible part of the story is that the Wood Frog is not dead, but rather will await the arrival of spring beneath the leaf litter and revive during warmer temperatures. They can in fact revive from frozen to active within a single day (Harding and Mifsud 2017). As Heinrich says, Wood Frogs are “biological marvels that challenge the limits of our beliefs of what seems possible.” (Heinrich 2003 p 175).

Another Wood Frog spotted during the hike.

As I mentioned above, Wood Frogs weren’t the only anurans (frogs and toads) spotted during our hike. On several occasions, we observed American Toads (Anaxyrus americanus) on the forest floor. I don’t have anything particularly interesting to say about toads right now, besides that they are amazing to look at if you take the time. Below are pictures of a particularly large toad (about the size of my fist) and a smaller toad, which was captured from an unusual angle. The angle really makes me reassess toads in general but maybe that’s just me.

For no particular reason, I’m going to pause here for Part 1! Keep an eye out for future parts, because during this hike I spotted many more fungi, and some more non-fungi as well.

References:

Harding, James and Mifsud, David. 2017. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region, Revised Edition.

Heinrich, Bernd. 2003. Winter World.

Stephenson, Steven. 2010. The Kingdom Fungi.

Wells, Kentwood. The Ecology and Behavior of Amphibians.

For similar Nature Observations in Norfolk County see:

-A Visit to Big Creek, Part 1 and Part 2

The Wonders of Wrens

Cuckoo Wasps and Carpenter Bees

Flies Falling to Fungi and Other Dipteran Observations

Fuzzy Flies and Song Sparrows

Leafhoppers, Lepidopterans and Longhorns

And for more nature observations, photos and natural history facts, follow me on instagram at norfolknaturalist

Categories
Podcast Review

The Field Guides

I’ve started listening to podcasts over the last few years, and I especially enjoy a podcast that has a good balance of entertainment and education. That description is perfect for one of my favourite podcasts: The Field Guides. This podcast first started in September 2015 and now has over 60 episodes released so if you’re just tuning in now you have plenty of excellent content to catch up on. The presenters’ goal is to bring a trail experience every month or so, though that doesn’t always happen which I think we can all understand. Life happens. Even so, they have released quite a few episodes and they’re usually about an hour long each. Some episodes are split into two parts, with each part being about an hour long. Each episode focuses on a nature topic (or the occasional nature location, such as their tour of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute). The topics range from Goldenrod Galls to Bird Banding. Sometimes they focus on a particular species, such as the Purple Pitcher Plant, and sometimes they focus on a broader natural phenomenon such as the relationship between Ants and Plants or Fall Colours.

Here’s a Goldenrod Gall (spherical swelling on the stem), which I photographed in Macgregor Provincial Park, Ontario. The various galls that form on Goldenrod (Solidago) are the topic of the first episode of The Field Guides.

I like that whatever their topic of choice is, Bill and Steve delve into it with real research from papers published in scientific journals or credible book sources. I appreciate the level of detail that is provided on each given topic as it’s not all surface-level same-old natural history facts. This is especially true in some of the two-part episodes as the extended time allows for even deeper exploration of a nature topic. With the use of scientific papers and research, there can be some discussions that are difficult to follow because of scientific jargon or complex topics, but for the most part they bring out the significance of the science and explain in a way that doesn’t leave one struggling to keep up.

Besides discussing a nature topic or species (which would be good enough in my opinion), Bill and Steve also hit the trail in various locations mostly in New York State. There is an episode about Spruce Grouse where they traveled to Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario which was especially exciting to me as I love Algonquin Provincial Park. This was the only location familiar to myself, but if you’re in New York state I’m sure you’ll recognize many of the trail locations they visit. Despite walking around through leaf litter and beside streams, the audio experience of the hiking enhances the listening experience rather than detracting from it. Rare is it that the sound of wind on the microphones or crunching footsteps overpowers the discussion or intrudes in any sort of negative way. Instead, the sounds of birdsong (some recognized by me, some unfamiliar) and the calls of amphibians add a lot to the ambience.

I have never photographed a Spruce Grouse, but here’s a relative I photographed in Algonquin Park: a Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus).

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, for a podcast to be especially enjoyable for me, it needs an entertainment factor. In this case, The Field Guides Podcast delivers with sarcasm throughout (often by Steve, but Bill gives his fair share as well), and humorous anecdotes or comments. I think one of my favourite jokes was the two of them coming up with alternative common names for Jack-in-the-Pulpit because common names can be whatever you want them to be. Some of their excellent suggestions were “Ripley-in-the-Power-Loader” and “George-Michael-in-the-Banana-Stand”. I will mention here that their humour is enjoyable for an adult audience, as there are occasional jokes and comments that are inappropriate (or indecipherable) for younger audiences. They even have a two-part episode which has the Explicit tag called “Eat Sh*t and Live, Bill”, all about coprophagy (animals/plants eating poop). The episode was fascinating, but just in case any teachers wanted to play this podcast for younger students it does contain some adult humour.

In summary, The Field Guides is a must-listen if you’re interested in Nature and Science. I have spent many hours of enjoyment laughing at the jokes and sarcasm and learning a lot about the animals and plants and nature phenomena that are all around us. Give it a listen!

For Previous Norfolk Naturalist Media Reviews, see:

The Paleoartist’s Handbook, by Mark Witton

The Social Biology of Wasps, ed. by Kenneth Ross and Robert Matthews

Pterosaurs, by Mark Witton

Flora of Middle-Earth, by Walter Judd and Graham Judd

And if you’re interested in seeing more of my photos and learning some facts about the organisms I’ve observed, follow me on Instagram at norfolknaturalist.

Categories
Nature Observations August 2021 Observations

Algonquin Observations, Part 5 – Spruce Bog: The Reckoning

The temperature was up, the sun was out, and with it the invertebrates were active and visible. I arrived at the Spruce Bog Boardwalk Trail with my macro lens equipped, and I used it quite extensively.

At the beginning and near the end of the trail, I took pictures of Hooded-Owlets (Cuculia), which are not baby owls with their faces obscured, but instead the name for a genus of moths (these moths have some crazy names. One of the species I observed is similar to a moth that goes by the common name “Asteroid Moth”… I have no idea why…). The first was a brightly striped caterpillar of the Brown Hooded-owlet (Cuculia convexipennis).

Brown Hooded-Owlet Caterpillar.

Near the end of the trail I found another Hooded-Owlet, and I’m not so sure on the identification for this one, but it was much less colourful than the first.

Unidentified Hooded-Owlet (Cucullia sp.).

Landing briefly on a flower was a Tachinid Fly in the Genus Phasia. Tachinids are fascinating Flies and incredibly diverse. This is what Stephen Marshall has to say about them in his incredible book about Flies: “The Tachinidae is in many ways the ultimate fly family. With almost 10 000 named species and thousands more awaiting description, this ubiquitous group… exhibits an unparalleled variety of sizes, shapes and colors. The range of life history strategies is equally amazing, at least within the constraint that every known species in the group is a parasitoid that develops inside another insect… or related arthropod.” (from Marshall 2012, p 386). Phasia tachinids are parasitoids of True Bugs in the families Pentatomidae and Pyrrhocoridae (Marshall 2012).

Phasia Tachinid Fly perching on a flower, possibly P. auralans?

Another flower was visited by a wasp of the Ectemnius genus. These wasps are part of a group of wasps called the “Square-headed wasps” (Subfamiily Crabroninae) and I think you can see that characterization borne out here. I certainly noticed its huge head right away while taking the pictures. Members of the genus Ectemnius hunt mostly adult Flies (Diptera) which they store in their nests for their larvae to feed on. Some species of Ectemnius wasps nest in soil, while others nest in rotten wood (O’Neill 2001).

Ectemnius wasp, visiting a flower.

Visiting flowers for nectar is a common activity for many groups of flying insects. This fact has been exploited by predators, and I spotted one of these on a flower nearby: a Jagged Ambush Bug (Phymata) lying in wait with raptorial (that is, grasping) front legs at the ready to nab unwary pollinators.

Ambush Bug lying in Ambush. Look at that incredible profile.

I spotted some mating grasshoppers on a leaf, which were otherwise engaged and allowed me to take some decent photos. If you know something about Orthopterans (members of the Order Orthoptera, which includes Katydids, Grasshoppers, and Crickets) you might know that unlike butterflies and moths (Order Lepidoptera) and many other insect groups which have very distinct larval forms, young stages of grasshoppers appear the same as adults except for the absence of wings. This photo might be confusing then… since these grasshoppers are clearly mating (a strictly adult activity) and they clearly don’t have wings (a characteristic of larvae). The problem is solved when you find out that the species is called the Wingless Mountain Grasshopper (Booneacris glacialis). Although possessing wings as adults is a characteristic of all major insect groups, there are members of all groups which have later (as in evolutionarily later) lost the wings. 

Mating Wingless Mountain Grasshoppers.

Within the sparse woods of the Black Spruce Trees, I found a caterpillar of the Datana genus. These caterpillars stick together in their younger stages, and separate when they are in their final larval stage before adulthood (Marshall 2006).

Datana Caterpillar, likely in its final larval stage because it was alone.

Growing out of the side of the railing on this part of the boardwalk trail was the beautiful branching form of a Beard Lichen (Usnea). Lichens are truly the Corals of the terrestrial realm: they have similar appearances and colours (some are green, brown, orange etc), but they also consist of a partnership* between two very different forms of life. Corals consist of an animal and algae living together and Lichens consist of fungi and algae. 

*this is of course a very simple way of describing the relationship between a lichen fungus and a lichen alga. In fact, there can be many variations on the degree of partnership, with many relationships resembling parasitism rather than traditional ‘symbiosis’.

Usnea Beard Lichen growing out of a bridge railing. If this picture had enough blue tint, you might believe it was a photo of a coral attached to a shipwreck.

Once past the railing I came upon the wildflower meadow, which housed an appropriate medley of visiting Insects. Hymenoptera were present in abundance. A Yellow-Banded Bumble Bee (Bombus terricola) busily moved from flower to flower, thrumming through the air. Bumblebees amaze me, and they almost seem like they shouldn’t be able to fly with their stout fuzzy bodies but they fly quite well enough for their purposes.

Yellow-Banded Bumblebee.

A brief appearance by a member of the Sand Wasps (Bembicidae) was an exciting find (have to continue the Sand Wasp series some time, I’ve only done the Introduction and one tribe!). The Sand Wasp I observed in Algonquin is possibly a member of the genus Gorytes. Species in this genus fill their nests with True Bugs, mostly Hoppers (members of the families Cercopidae, Cidadellidae, and Membracidae) (Evans and O’Neill 2007).

Sand Wasp, possibly a Gorytes.

The Spider Wasp Episyron was a very distinct Hymenopteran. Although it sort of has a squat appearance somewhat reminiscent of Spiders, the name “Spider Wasp” comes from the fact that these wasps (members of the Family Pompilidae) hunt Spiders which they feed to their young. Species in the genus Episyron hunt specifically Orb-weaver Spiders (Araneidae) (O’Neill 2001).

Episyron Spider Wasp.

Flower Flies (Syrphidae) were of course frequently seen visiting the flowers. Frustratingly, a new one to me was elusive enough that I didn’t manage to get a very good picture of it. This was the largest Flower Fly I’ve ever seen (though not large in most terms, probably about honeybee size) a member of the Genus Sphaerophoria.

Sphaerophoria Flower Fly.

Not as common, and certainly not as associated with flowers were a couple of Beetle species I observed visiting the flowers. One was a click beetle (Elateridae), possibly of the genus Dalopius. Apparently click beetles aren’t usually desirable flower visitors as they are often feeding on the flowers and pollen themselves (as opposed to the nectar), and don’t contribute to pollination very often (Willmer 2011). Dalopius feeds on other Insects, so perhaps it’s hunting among the flowers for prey, and/or snacking on pollen in the meantime (Marshall 2006).

Click Beetle (Dalopius sp.?) among the flowers, possibly eating pollen, possibly hunting prey.

By contrast, the other flower-visiting beetle that I observed was part of the Family Cerambycidae (the longhorn beetles), which is a group that includes important and frequent pollinators (Willmer 2011). The Red-shouldered Pine Borer (Stictoleptura canadensis) is part of the aptly named subfamily Lepturinae (the flower longhorns) within Cerambycidae.

Red-shouldered Pine Borer, a Flower Longhorn Beetle.

One wildflower that caught my attention as I was continuing down the trail was a small purple flower with strangely square-shaped petals. The flower was a Common Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris). As you can guess from the common name, this flower was used in the past to cure many different illnesses, particularly of the mouth and throat because of the flower’s resemblance to a yawning mouth (Wernert 1982)… because that’s how things were supposed to work…

Leaving behind the multitude of flowers and insects of the wildflower meadow area, I was arrested by the sight of a peculiar tiny insect: a Barklouse (Order Psocoptera). As Marshall writes in his excellent overview of Insects “One doesn’t hear much about barklice.” (Marshall 2006). Indeed, though this individual is beautifully patterned and distinctive (I believe it’s Metylophorus novaescotiae) I can find little information about this creature. If my identification is correct, I can say that this species lives on shrub and tree branches (Mockford 1993), and presumably feeds on lichen there. Most members of the Order Psocoptera produce silk out of their mouths (specifically, labial glands), and some use this to cover their eggs, while others use the silk to construct shelters for themselves or others (!). There’s a tropical group called the Archipsocidae which can create silken shelters that “enshroud entire trees”, and in which there is some form of sociality (Costa 2006). I would love to learn more about these amazing insects.

Barklouse (possibly Metylophorus novaescotiae).

The final observation of my hike forced me to switch back to my telephoto lens. I actually thought for a second I was seeing a bird zooming back and forth above the path because of the size of the animal, but it was in fact an insect, and more specifically a Variable Darner Dragonfly (Aeshna interrupta). These Dragonflies are among the more acid-tolerant of Ontario Odonates so it makes sense that this individual could have developed as a larva within the acidic waters of the Spruce Bog (Pollard and Berrill, 1992). This amazing dragonfly (possibly about 15 cm long) was my last observation on the Spruce Bog trail and an excellent contrast to the diminutive (less than a cm long) barklouse, demonstrating once again the incredible diversity of the Insects.

Variable Darner Dragonfly at rest, after foraging across the trail.

References:

Costa, James. 2006. The Other Insect Societies.

Evans, Howard and O’Neill, Kevin. 2007. The Sand Wasps: Natural History and Behavior.

Marshall, Stephen. 2012. Flies: The Natural History and Diversity of Diptera.

Marshall, Stephen. 2006. Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity.

O’Neill, Kevin. 2001. Solitary Wasps: Behavior and Natural History.

Pollard, J. B., and Berrill, M. 1992. The distribution of dragonfly nymphs across a pH gradient in south-central Ontario lakes. Canadian Journal of Zoology https://doi.org/10.1139/z92-125

Wernert, Susan. 1982. Reader’s Digest North American Wildlife.

Willmer, Pat. 2011. Pollination and Floral Ecology.

And with that, I have finally completed my five-part journey through my 2021 Algonquin Observations series. What’s next for the Norfolk Naturalist? More nature observations, this time in Norfolk County itself (a fungi-spotting hike in Backus Woods with the Norfolk Field Naturalists), and a Podcast Review. Also, I attended Tetzoomcon 2021 this past weekend and it was awesome! A detailed post about the event will follow hopefully soon…

For previous Algonquin Observations (2021), see:

Part 1: Pog Lake Campground

Part 2: Opeongo Road

Part 3: Peck Lake Trail

Part 4: Spruce Bog Speedrun and the Logging Museum Trail

For Other Nature Observations in Algonquin Park, see:

-Algonquin Observations (July 2018), Day One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six

And if you’re interested in seeing more of my photos and learning some facts about the organisms I’ve observed, follow me on Instagram at norfolknaturalist.

Categories
August 2021 Observations Nature Observations

Algonquin Observations, Part 4 – Spruce Bog Speedrun and the Logging Museum Trail

The Spruce Bog Boardwalk is a trail that runs through (and also, over) the fascinating ecosystem of a northern bog. Bog “soil” is composed of decaying plant matter known as peat, and this substrate is extremely acidic, allowing only certain types of plants to grow within these wetlands. The ones that do are hardy species and the most conspicuous is the only species of tree to thrive here: the Black Spruce (Picea mariana). Black Spruce are scraggly trees, but they are trees which live in such a difficult environment that they are truly impressive.

Certain portions of the Spruce Bog trail feature beautiful wildflowers and insects, but on this occasion I rushed through the trail for personal reasons*, only stopping to snap a picture near the very end of the trail. The bird I photographed is related to the Eastern Kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus) that I saw perched near the Opeongo Lake Road, it was an Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe). 

*essentially it had to do with a small tired person accompanying me

Small Tyrannid perched in a tree, searching for prey.

Eastern Phoebes are part of the Tyrannidae Family of birds and if you’re thinking that sounds like a Family of Dinosaurs then I’d like to mention briefly that you would be 100% correct. Tyrannidae is a Family of Dinosaurs, because ALL Birds are Dinosaurs that have survived the mass extinction of other branches of the Dinosaur family tree (including the branch called Tyrannosauridae, ie Tyrannosaurus and kin, which is the one you were probably thinking of). Tyrannidae (the Tyrant Flycatchers) is not especially close to the Tyrannosauridae (the Tyrant Dinosaurs) of course, but they are both included within Dinosauria. 

Anyway, another extant (as opposed to extinct) Dinosaur species that I observed was on the Logging Museum Trail, floating swiftly between Water lilies: the Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus). The photographed individual (a female, I believe) isn’t raising its headfeathers into a crest, which is where it’s name of “hooded” merganser comes from. These ducks nest in tree cavities (so not just Wood Ducks do this… huh…) using old Woodpecker nest cavities most of the time (Tozer 2012).

Hooded Merganser sans hood.

Two wildflower species caught my eye on the same trail that day. One was a relative of the Steeplebush (Spiraea tomentosa) (see Peck Lake observations), being part of the same Genus Spiraea. White Meadowsweet (Spiraea alba) is more popular with Butterflies than the Steeplebush, as it produces more nectar than the former (Runtz 2020).

White Meadowsweet against a backdrop of green.

The other wildflower was Virgin’s-Bower (Clematis virginiana) and it was being attended to by Blackjacket Wasps (Vespula consobrina).

Virgin’s-Bower with Blackjacket Wasps landing among the flowers.

Let the Blackjacket Wasps serve as a teaser for the final chapter of my Algonquin observations: Spruce Bog: the Reckoning, in which I return to the Spruce Bog trail and take a very long time to walk it, Macro Lens equipped! Move over Birds and Flowers (well, there will be some flowers)! It’s finally time for the Insects to take their usual place in the spotlight of my camera!

References:

Tozer, Ron. 2012. Birds of Algonquin Park.

For previous Algonquin Observations (2021), see:

Part 1: Pog Lake Campground

Part 2: Opeongo Road

Part 3: Peck Lake Trail

For Other Nature Observations in Algonquin Park, see:

-Algonquin Observations (July 2018), Day One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six

And if you’re interested in seeing more of my photos and learning some facts about the organisms I’ve observed, follow me on Instagram at norfolknaturalist.

Categories
August 2021 Observations Nature Observations

Algonquin Observations, Part 3 – Peck Lake Trail

Morning in Algonquin Park is a wonderful thing. Monday August 2 was cool and the air was filled with heavy mist that blurred the edges of the tall Red Pines of the Pog Lake Campground as I set out for an early morning hike in the hopes of some interesting sightings. 

I had decided to head to the Peck Lake Trail, because as the name implies, it circles a Lake and I thought it might afford some nice views in the morning mist, and some rare creatures to photograph. The first Bird I photographed on the trail was one I had never seen before (or at least never captured with my camera): the Blue-headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius).

Blue-headed Vireo investigating the first walker on the trail (me).

As I came upon an opening in the woods I was rewarded with an excellent view of the misty lake in the morning, with its signature Algonquin Park inhabitant: the Common Loon (Gavia immer). No matter how many times I hear that undulating call or see this distinctive bird dive beneath a lake to reappear surprisingly far away, I will be amazed. In Ancient Life of the Great Lakes Basin it’s mentioned that Loons are an ancient group of birds with fossils being found in the Cretaceous Period, contemporary with non-avian Dinosaurs. “One gets goose bumps imagining the characteristic tremulo calls and haunting wails of the loon song echoing over the lakes and swamps of the Cretaceous over 60 million years ago.” (Holman, 1995). We will likely never know if these ancient members of the Loon lineage (Gaviiformes) had similar calls, but the image is certainly a beautiful one.

It’s misty enough to imagine that this is an image from the Cretaceous Period.

While admiring the majesty of the Loon on the lake, I was distracted by a series of strange noises from above me in a tree. The noises were certainly a bird, but I had no idea what sort until the bird took off and flew away with heavy wingbeats. The bird in question was a Common Raven (Corvus corax) and they’re renowned for being diverse vocalists. One of the vocalizations they don’t make is a “caw”ing sound, unlike their relatives and the species often confused with them: the Common Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos). The power and size of a Raven impress me every time I see them, enhanced always by my readings of Bernd Heinrich who has devoted much time and energy into exploring these magnificent birds’ ecology and behaviour (see Mind of the Raven, Ravens in Winter, and most Bernd Heinrich books mention Ravens at one point or another).

Common Raven captured mid-flight.

As I continued down the trail, I was once again startled by the movements of a rather large Bird except that this time the Bird was on the ground, directly in front of me on the trail rather than flying away across the treeline. I am quite disappointed by how my pictures of this bird turned out, and I’ll blame the bird’s constant movement and the poor lighting conditions of a shaded woodland in the early hours of the morning for their poor quality. The Bird was a Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus), one of two Grouse species found in Algonquin Park.

Back to the trees, I spotted another Bird, one I had already photographed during my trip here, though this particular individual looked rather different. It was a Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata), though the pattern is quite obscured on this individual. I believe it’s either a Juvenile or a Female since it doesn’t carry the distinctive colours and patterns of the mature males (see my photos of a Male in the first part of my Algonquin Observations series).

Yellow-rumped Warbler.

Along the edges of the lake, there were some beautiful flowers growing so I decided to take some pictures of them as well. The plants were Steeplebush (Spiraea tomentosa) which prefer to grow in wet areas. Their flowers are attractive to Beetles and Bees, and not as attractive to Butterflies because they contain little nectar, but have masses of heavy pollen (Runtz, 2020). On this chilly morning, neither Insect group was out and about.

Steeplebush beside Peck Lake.

A part of the trail crosses a marshy area via boardwalk. I crept across this boardwalk, listening closely for the movements of animals, hoping to hear the movement of an elusive mammal or bird. Instead, by listening so carefully I was startled several times by creatures to either side of the boardwalk, making their swift escapes known with a loud squeak. The creatures were Frogs, likely all of them part of the American Water Frog genus Lithobates (which includes the Green Frog (L. clamitans), the American Bullfrog (L. catesbeianus), and the Mink Frog (L. septentrionalis), as well as many others, but these three are the most common that I’ve encountered in Algonquin). The only one that sat still enough for a picture was the one below, which I believe is a Green Frog because you can just maybe make out a ridge of skin (called the dorsolateral fold) which runs from its eye down part of its back (Harding and Mifsud, 2017). This feature distinguishes it from the similar-looking Bullfrog.

The final observations on the trail were several Spider webs caught beautifully in the early morning light. I recently read a passage in the book Spider Communication which gave me a new appreciation for Spider Webs. “Many spiders have compensated for the absence of a suitable substrate over which a vibratory signal can be conducted…by extending the perceptual range of the legs with a silken structure…Suddenly the radiating shape of the web takes on a new meaning for the observer: the web extends the perceptual range of the sense of vibration from about 15 mm to more than 500 mm” (Witt, 1982). Not only do they act as prey-catching snares, but they are sensory extensions of the Spider, extending their senses beyond the limitations of their small bodies. Fascinating, beautiful constructions.

Yet MORE Algonquin Observations to come! More Birds, More Wildflowers, and eventually the Invertebrates will have their usual spotlight!

References:

Harding, James H. and Mifsud, David A. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region: Revised Edition. 2017.

Holman, J. Alan. Ancient Life of the Great Lakes Basin. 1995.

Runtz, Michael. Wildflowers of Algonquin Provincial Park. 2020.

Witt, Peter N. 1982. In Witt, Peter N. and Rovner, Jerome S. (eds) Spider Communication: Mechanisms and Ecological Significance. 1982.

For previous Algonquin Observations (2021), see:

Part 1: Pog Lake Campground

Part 2: Opeongo Road

For Other Nature Observations in Algonquin Park, see:

-Algonquin Observations (July 2018), Day One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six

And if you’re interested in seeing more of my photos and learning some facts about the organisms I’ve observed, follow me on Instagram at norfolknaturalist.

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August 2021 Observations July 2021 Observations Nature Observations

Algonquin Observations, Part 2 – Opeongo Road

During our stay at Algonquin Park, I made a few trips down Opeongo Lake Road watching for wildlife. It’s a good place to see some of the rare creatures of Algonquin Park, as it forces you to go slow and there are wetlands and woodlands on either side of the road, ending in a lake. My sightings along this road were good even if I didn’t see any of the target species: Moose (Alces alces). 

One of the most common species sighted on the trip were Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias). It seemed as though these tall predatory birds were stalking every waterway, and I guess they might have been. Herons’ sinuous and powerful necks and the way they creep around slowly so as not to disturb their prey never ceases to catch my attention. 

Great Blue Heron, stalking among the reeds (or rushes or sedges or something, I’m not a Botanist ok?).

Another common bird spotted in the water was the American Black Duck (Anas rubripes). Two years ago, I had a few of these Ducks visiting my campsite, searching for handouts and I assumed then that they were female or juvenile male Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos). When I posted my pictures from October 2019 on iNaturalist, the ducks were instead identified as American Black Ducks. They really do look like female Mallards superficially, the main difference being that female Mallards are “paler and sandier” and the bill is orange/black in the Mallard, whereas the American Black Duck has a greenish bill (Bull and Farrand, 1994). Because of changes in land practices and overhunting in the past, as well as hybridization with Mallards, the American Black Duck is rarer than it used to be. Within Algonquin Park however, the American Black Duck is one of the most common Ducks (Tozer, 2012).

American Black Duck

The other Duck (member of the Family Anatidae) spotted occasionally was the Wood Duck (Aix sponsa). Wood Ducks are remarkable (to me, at least) for nesting within tree-holes, something that seems strange for a Duck to be doing. I photographed a female Wood Duck leading a group of young across the marsh. Interestingly, the adult has something in its bill, I believe it’s the flower of a lily (Nymphaea).

Wood Duck female with a plant part in her mouth (lily flower?), and some young ahead of her.

One of the only Mammals* spotted on my trip was the animal responsible for creating some of the wetlands I observed: the Canadian Beaver (Castor canadensis). These giant Rodents (second in size among Rodents only to the Capybara of South America) engineer their surroundings, turning rivers into ponds where they create lodges. Beavers do not eat fish, unlike their smaller lookalikes, the Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus).

*(the only other Mammals were the ubiquitous Red Squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) and Chipmunks (Tamias striatus))

Beaver swimming through its marshland habitat.

Perched high in the trees or on wires was a Bird which I always confuse with Swallows (Hirundinidae): the Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus). This bird also has one of the best Scientific names ever, which is apparently because of its aggressiveness in defending its nest or territory, but also the “Kingbird” is because it has a crown of yellow (or sometimes red) feathers that is only displayed when its head feathers are parted in aggressive displays, which I have never seen (Cornell Lab of Ornithology website). This aggression in defending its nest extends to such formidable foes as crows, ravens, and hawks (Tozer, 2012)! 

Eastern Kingbird perched in a tree.

The rarest sighting on the Opeongo Lake Road tours was a group of foraging Snipes, specifically Wilson’s Snipe (Gallinago delicata). I didn’t get amazing pictures, because they were far away and they were really difficult to keep track of. I love the way these birds move, so I also attempted to take a video of them, which isn’t great but it demonstrates the way they start and stop, dipping their long beaks into the marsh to probe for invertebrates.

Wilson’s Snipe(s?) moving through the marshes. At left, one is plunging its sensitive bill into the mud, at right one is stepping off a log with its large foot.

More to come from my Algonquin Observations series!

References:

Bull, John and Farrand, John Jr. National Audubon Society Field Guide to Birds of North America: Eastern Region. 1994.

Tozer, Ron. Birds of Algonquin Park. 2012.

For Other Nature Observations in Algonquin Park, see:

Algonquin Observations, Part 1 – Pog Lake Campground

-Algonquin Observations (July 2018), Day One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six

And if you’re interested in seeing more of my photos and learning some facts about the organisms I’ve observed, follow me on Instagram at norfolknaturalist.

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August 2021 Observations July 2021 Observations Nature Observations

Algonquin Observations, Part 1 – Pog Lake Campground

I love Algonquin Provincial Park. There is a special place in my heart for the vistas of trees, lakes and rock that extend to the horizon. Whenever I stay in the park, I encounter new creatures and make new observations, or if I encounter familiar organisms, I often appreciate them in a new light.

The first observation of my most recent trip (over the July/August Long Weekend) was a familiar bird creating a familiar knocking sound as it chipped away at the outer bark of a pine tree. The bird was a Hairy Woodpecker (Dryobates villosus), and its hammering into the edge of a tree is common in Norfolk County as well as Algonquin Park.

Hairy Woodpecker foraging on a Pine tree.

The other species of Woodpecker I encountered on this trip was not so familiar, and certainly not a species I could encounter in the more southern parts of Ontario. The Black-backed Woodpecker (Picoides arcticus) has a range across the Boreal Forests of North America, and Algonquin Provincial Park is at the southern edge of its range. They are a species tied to the disturbance of fire, as they mainly feed on insects (such as bark beetles and wood-boring beetles) which increase in population in fire-killed stands of trees (Backhouse, 2005). I observed the female and male of this species (likely a mated pair) foraging on the trees surrounding our campsite, and I also observed the male digging into what must have been a stump (the stump was obscured by vegetation, but I could see the yellow spot on the male’s head as he knocked away from ground level). As just mentioned, the male and female can be distinguished based on the presence or absence of a yellow patch on the head (the male has the yellow patch, the female does not). Not only did I see this species foraging but within the campground at Pog Lake there was actually a nest! Like most Woodpeckers (maybe all, but I’ve learned not to make rash generalizations), the Black-backed Woodpecker creates a new nest each year, carving a hole into a tree to house its young. I could hear the young inside the nest cavity, producing almost continuous begging calls for food. I saw the male drop by to drop off food he had collected, and I also got some pictures of the male on nest-guarding duty, sticking his head out of the nest entrance which was not too much higher than eye level. 

Black-backed Woodpecker Male, guarding his nest.

The Hairy Woodpecker I first spotted was not the only familiar bird encountered within Algonquin Park. Robins (Turdus migratorius) are a common sight throughout the campground, and the screams of Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) frequently break the solemnity of the sky-stretching Pines. Another vocal bird which is quite common in suburban backyards is the Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula). Grackles patrolled through the campground, searching for any scraps of food left out by unwary campers. They may not be everyone’s favourite bird sighting, but I think their metallic blue heads are quite beautiful, and their overall appearance and movements are striking. 

Two birds very much associated with Algonquin Park in my mind (even though I’ve also seen both on the Lynn Valley Trail in Norfolk County) are common ascenders and descenders of trees. The Brown Creeper (Certhia americana) often swirls around a tree trunk as it descends and then begins to work its way up in leaps and bounds, plucking insects and spiders from their secluded hiding places. I wonder if the rapid spiralling descent is some sort of signal to other members of its species (I’ve seen Brown Creepers foraging in pairs, or more than two) or if it’s a way to locate potential prey for their way up.

Brown Creeper… creeping (more like leaping)… up a tree.

The Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) doesn’t move up and down a tree in the same stereotyped way as the Brown Creeper, and it certainly stands out more from the bark with its attractive white-and-black face, blue back and red breast feathers. Nuthatches are renowned for their ability to walk head-first down a tree rather than up like most other bark-foraging birds (including Woodpeckers, Chickadees and Brown Creepers). 

Red-breasted Nuthatch demonstrating its maneuverability at the end of a broken branch.

Possibly the most beautiful bird observation in the Pog Lake campground was this Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata). These birds are often migratory through more Southern Ontario, arriving in the coniferous forests of Algonquin in mid-to-late April to breed (Tozer, 2012). According to the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario (Cadman et. al. 1987), they will breed in coniferous or mixed forests across Ontario (though they are more abundant in the more Boreal regions).

Usually Insects are my focus, and part of the reason for that is their abundance, diversity, and accessibility. Because of the rainy and cool weather for most of my visit, there were not as many Arthropods out and about (at least not as noticeable). A few notables made themselves known however. One striking spider was resting on the side of my car.

Spider, on the side door of my car. Not sure of the species, but I believe it’s an Orbweaver (Family Araneidae).

A Northern Pearly-eye Butterfly (Lethe anthedon) was resting on someone else’s car and I had to snap a picture.

Northern Pearly-eye Butterfly spotted on someone else’s car (the car was parked, obviously).

A very impressive Insect sighting in the Pog Lake Campground came on our last day in Algonquin. I found a massive Northeastern Pine Sawyer Beetle (Monochamus notatus). The Sawyer was very cooperatively still on the cool damp morning, allowing me to get some really great closeups. It was also silent, despite being moved to a more convenient location for photos. That may seem like a strange observation to make, but apparently Longhorn Beetles (Family Cerambycidae, of which Monochamus notatus is a part) make a “squeak”, not with their mouth but with parts of their thorax rubbing together (Marshall, 2006).

Northeastern Pine Sawyer Beetle. I hope you can see why members of this Beetle Family (Cerambycidae) are called Longhorn Beetles.

A few points of interest for this particular Sawyer Beetle. As the image above demonstrates, its antennae were almost as long as the rest of the body which marks it as a female. The males are the ones with the really long antennae, often twice the length of the rest of the body. Here’s a male of the same species to show you what I mean. (photo from wikipedia):

Male Monochamus notatus By D. Gordon E. Robertson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11369161

It may be hard to see in my photo above, but these Beetles (including the female I observed) often have invertebrate hitchhikers. From a different angle it’s a bit clearer that my Beetle had a cluster of red Mites on her thorax.

Closeup of the M. notatus I found in Algonquin Park.

These Mites are presumably hitching a ride to dead/dying trees which the Beetle will be seeking (Monochamus beetle larvae feed inside of dead/dying trees). I’m not sure what the Mites will do once there, as Mites are incredibly diverse and have numerous ecologies and life histories and I don’t know what kind of Mites these are. The other interesting thing to note in my closeup picture above is the eye of the Beetle. Notice how it curves around in a crescent shape around the base of the antennae. Just thought that was sort of a strange arrangement for eyes/antennae. One more closeup shot of this Beetle because it was so cooperative:

Closeup portrait of M. notatus.

As I mentioned above, Insects are often what I notice and focus on. During our trip, I couldn’t help but take note of the wonderful beauty and diversity of some of the plant life in Algonquin Park as well. I suffer from “plant blindness” and I have been trying to rid myself of the condition as much as possible (see my book review of Flora of MiddleEarth for more on this subject). So I will end this post with a plant observation (and there will be more to come as I continue to write up my Algonquin observations). Throughout the Pog Lake Campground, there were some beautiful bright red berries amid ground-level green leaves. I found out that these plants are Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis).

Bunchberry Berries (and leaves).

Bunchberry has white flowers which spread pollen via the wind and insects in order to reach other flowers and reproduce (ie. form fertile berries). Amazingly, Bunchberry flowers are equipped with a mechanism to launch their pollen on an insect that triggers them, unfolding their petals at incredible speed to fling pollen onto the insect and up into the air (for possible wind-dispersal of pollen). This truly impressive feat is accomplished in 0.5 milliseconds. To put this into perspective, the Mantis Shrimp has the fastest movement of all Animals, and its record-holding strike lasts 2.7 milliseconds… five times as long as the Bunchberry flower petals take to open (Runtz, 2020). If that doesn’t make you want to pay more attention to plants, I don’t know what will.

Stay tuned… more to come from my trip to Algonquin, including more Birds, more Plants, and more Insects!

References:

Backhouse, Frances. Woodpeckers of North America. 2005.

Cadman, Michael D., Eagles, Paul F. J. and Helleiner, Frederick M., Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario. 1987.

Marshall, Stephen. Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity. 2006.

Runtz, Michael. Wildflowers of Algonquin Provincial Park. 2020.

Tozer, Ron. Birds of Algonquin Park. 2012.

For Other Nature Observations in Algonquin Park, see:

-Algonquin Observations (July 2018), Day One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six

And if you’re interested in seeing more of my photos and learning some facts about the organisms I’ve observed, follow me on Instagram at norfolknaturalist.

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Uncategorized

TetZoomCon 2020

I’ve been a fan of the Tetzooniverse for the past few years and have been reading through the incredible amount of amazing science writing that Darren Naish has posted on the various versions of Tetzoo (link to the current version, here). There was one aspect of the Tetzooniverse that I could never join in on: a conference in the UK of like-minded people. I live in Ontario and the trip would simply be too expensive. Enter 2020, a year where people aren’t allowed to travel at all, and I have finally obtained that elusive entrance into my first ever Tetzoocon, called for obvious reasons this year: Tetzoomcon! (the event took place in December 2020, so yes it has taken me 8 months to write up the blogpost about it…)

The virtual meeting of zoology enthusiasts from across the globe (I believe there were almost 400 participants online) ran smoothly and was overseen by Darren Naish, John Conway (Paleoartist and co-host of the Tetzoo Podcast, see his art and other information here), and Sharon Hill (science writer and researcher from Pennsylvania, see her website here). After the introduction and explanation of how the Zoom platform would be used to host the zoological conference, we moved onto a series of talks produced by a varied list of presenters on a varied list of topics.

My Copy of Tetrapod Zoology Book One, a compilation of articles from Tetzoo’s first year of blogging.

The Presentations

The first presenter was Rebecca Wragg Sykes (website here), with her talk titled “Re-imagining Neanderthals: From Archaeology to Palaeoart”. I’m not particularly interested in Hominids because of their close similarity to Humans; I find the creatures more different from Humans to be generally more fascinating. The talk was quite interesting though, in that Rebecca investigated the changing perspectives on Neanderthals through history and in particular through the medium of artistic depictions. She demonstrated the racism that occurred when artists of the past portrayed Neanderthals as exaggerated racial stereotypes of specific races that were deemed “primitive”. After examining the fossil evidence of such a physical appearance, the portrayals were shown to be following a racial agenda rather than depicting Neanderthals as they would have appeared. (For a parallel perspective on the issue of racism in Paleoart, and an excellent overview of the topic, see this blogpost by Mark Witton).

Rebecca Wragg Sykes’ recent book: Kindred.

Next up was Natalia Jagielska (website here) with her presentation: “The Rise & Demise of Non-Pterodactyloid Pterosaurs”. Natalia’s enthusiasm and humorous slides (featuring her own wonderful illustrations which you really should check out) made this an incredibly engaging talk. She essentially went over the history of Pterosaur research (briefly) and dove into the history of Pterosaur groups through the Mesozoic.

RJ Palmer (website here) presented a talk called “Paleoart as Creature Design” which was filled with interesting visuals, including some of his own paleoart and graphics. His entire presentation was done in PhotoShop, which was pretty interesting. He moved from art-piece to art-piece as he described some of his methods of artistry. One of his projects I have encountered is the game Saurian. Saurian is a fascinating video game project, which seeks to reconstruct the Hell Creek Formation as a virtual landscape. The Hell Creek Formation is a famous geological formation that includes a variety of creatures, including the most famous dinosaur of all: Tyrannosaurus rex. As a player, you tour the landscape as one of several species of playable dinosaurs. The game seeks to be as close to reality as possible, with paleontological data being incorporated into the game’s design.

There is a book for the game coming out (in October) detailing the Hell Creek formation, filled with concept art and paleoart (which are kind of the same thing in this instance?)… I want it…

After these first three presentations, there was an hour-long break which included breakout sessions for those who wished to participate. These breakout sessions were neat. The way it worked was that you were placed in a randomized chatroom with up to 9 other people. In my first chatroom it was me and one other person at first, and then later on Sharon Hill (who was one of the coordinators for the event) joined in for part of the time. It was a great opportunity to meet some of the other people who wanted to spend their Saturday in front of their computers to tune in to a Zoological conference. My username was “norfolknaturalist” and because Tetzoo is UK-based it was confused for Norfolk in the UK, which was fine. I explained that I actually lived in Ontario and we chatted about the sorts of creatures we encounter in our respective areas. The person other than Sharon Hill was from the UK and Sharon hailed from Pennsylvania. So between us, we covered a substantial distance around the globe. 

The second chatroom (the hour-long break was split in two randomized-participant chat sessions) was filled with aspiring paleoartists. It was neat to hear them talk about the various projects they were working on or species they were interested in (Spinosaurus came up a lot because of the papers which had come out recently shedding more and more light on the possible appearance of this mysterious carnivorous dinosaur). I didn’t have much to contribute (and there were more people in this one) but like I said it was interesting to tune in.

The next presentation after the breakout chat sessions was done by Anjali Goswami and was titled: “Digitising vertebrates: or how a mammalogist stopped being impressed by birds and learned to love salamanders.” Anjali’s presentation was very intense and data-driven. She basically explained how she and her team at The Goswami Lab had compiled digital models of many different vertebrate skulls, and how they compared across the tree of life. There were many intriguing graphs and charts depicting the various comparisons and datasets. I will admit I didn’t understand all of this presentation, but it was intriguing nonetheless and it was interesting to hear how the studies of skull shape led Anjali to appreciate the diversity of Salamanders (Caudata) (again, I didn’t understand this presentation perfectly, so I may be getting this wrong, but it seems that Salamanders change their skull shapes more readily than birds over evolutionary time).

The final presentation of the day was David Lindo’s “Missing: Without Action” which was about recently extinct (or not quite extinct) birds. David Lindo is known as The Urban Birder, as he is a writer and presenter with a focus on getting people to take note of the birds in cities. David’s presentation was emotional, because he told stories of bird species which have gone extinct because of human influence, and he conveyed well the tragedy of such events, the true sense of loss when an entire species disappears and will never return. He injected some hope into the discussion, by recounting stories of bird species that were thought extinct and were rediscovered through sporadic sightings. With this idea, he hinted at the possibility that not all “extinct” species are necessarily gone forever. There could be holdouts at the range edges, or in places that people have missed.

Big Cats in Britain

The Big Cats in Britain event was different in form to the other presentations. Most of the presentations were given in the form of single-person lectures with slideshows or variations (see my discussion of Rob’s Photoshop setup). The Big Cats in Britain event was set up as a conversation between several presenters with some pictures thrown up on the screen for discussion as well. I will admit to being not particularly interested in this subject, mostly because I don’t live in the UK. I thought that Darren’s introduction was nice, giving a broad overview of the subject and explaining how the Big Cat Sighting Phenomenon isn’t limited to the UK, and is an interesting subject worthy of exploration, whatever your views on the veracity of the claims are. Darren has taken this tack for Cryptozoology time and again, and reading through his various articles on the subject on the Tetrapod Zoology Blog certainly changed some of my own views on cryptids. Basically, the argument is that whether a cryptid is “real” or not, scientists can still learn a lot about the scientific method, observation bias, and human psychology from anecdotal (or other) evidence of cryptids. Furthermore, Darren has demonstrated in the past how “mainstream” zoologists have engaged in what might be termed Cryptozoology by seeking animals at the root of anecdotal stories or hearsay, which have turned out to be species new to science.

The Big Cats in Britain presentation proper just wasn’t that interesting to me however, but that’s one person’s opinion.

Paleoart Workshop

When first purchasing a ticket for TetzoomCon I was hesitant to join the Paleoart Workshop, mostly because… I’m not a Paleoartist, nor an artist of any kind. I was assured by Darren Naish on Twitter that the Paleoart workshop would be great for anyone interested in Paleoart and not just Paleoartists, so I went ahead and added that to my Tetzoomcon ticket. Boy am I glad I did. 

Basically the way the Paleoart workshop worked was that the attendees were split off into small groups (I think all were less than 10 people) and grouped with a Paleoartist. The list of artists that were leading the groups was a highlight reel of amazingly talented people, many of whom I recognized because of owning the two books Dinosaur Art I and II. (not a comprehensive list, but some names that I recognized before the event: Bob Nicholls, Mark Witton, Steve White, Gabriel Ugueto, and Luis V. Rey).

I was assigned to a group led by Luis Rey which turned out to be a perfect fit for me. Many of the sessions involved the artists working through the creation of an artpiece with the attendees creating alongside them. Luis Rey instead asked each person in turn why they were interested in Paleoart and went through relevant slides of a presentation and discussed the areas of interest of each of us. That was really neat. Luis Rey is a highly influential Paleoartist. His reconstructions are extreme, dynamic and colourful, to the point of being almost comic-book style. I believe this is because his style is reacting against the dumpy, dull reconstructions that had prevailed for so long in dinosaur art. He wanted to show that dinosaurs were vibrant and exciting creatures full of personality. My answer to his question: “Why are you interested in Paleoart?” was “I’m interested in seeing creatures and ecosystems that I can no longer see”. This is my draw to Paleoart, I’m not particularly drawn to the artistic side of reconstructions but rather the naturalistic portrayal of scenes from another time, creatures that used to live and walk on the Earth. I love being able to see visions of animals that no longer exist, animals I can’t observe with my own eyes, but that can be reconstructed from the latest science.

After the Paleoart Workshop, there was an afterparty where people could move around through various chatrooms to talk with people who had attended the event, including the presenters and Paleoartists. I was in a chatroom with Darren Naish himself, who was talking about some of the Paleoart pieces he had with him in his office. One of them was the painting of Attenborosaurus by Mark Witton. I awkwardly held up the mug I was drinking from because it features the very same painting. The art is done by Mark Witton (who is likely my favourite Paleoartist for his realistic portrayal of past natural history), and the species depicted is named after Sir David Attenborough… what’s not to love?

All in all, the event was great and I was so glad that I was able to attend despite being an ocean away from the UK. The next Tetzoomcon event is coming up soon, on September 3, 2021, and I’m hoping to tune in then too. Hopefully if I do, I will write up my thoughts and overview of the event faster than I did for the 2020 event…

For previous Tetzoo-related posts, see these two book reviews of books by Mark Witton:

Book Review: The Paleoartist’s Handbook, by Mark Witton

Book Review: Pterosaurs, by Mark Witton

And see these two posts focused on Tetrapods:

Natural Curiosities, Part 1: Emu Feathers

Swimming Squirrels

And for Nature Observations, Photos and Natural History facts, follow me on Instagram at norfolknaturalist.

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July 2021 Observations Nature Observations

Port Burwell Observations

I recently spent a weekend camping at Port Burwell Provincial Park and took several photos of interesting creatures I encountered there (as I usually do on camping trips). One of the first creatures I encountered was a beautiful Flower Fly which hovered right in front of my face for a few minutes and even landed on my glasses, as well as several times on my hands. My Flower Fly Friend was an Oblique Streaktail (Allograpta obliqua).

Oblique Streaktail Flower Fly which landed repeatedly on my fingers and even on my glasses.

Flower Flies (Family Syrphidae) are wonderfully diverse and easily observed Insects, as they spend time hovering and landing on Flowers for the nectar they contain. In feeding on nectar, these Flies contribute greatly to Pollination, much like their similarly coloured models, the Bees and Wasps. I observed several other Flower Flies during my Port Burwell visit:

Common Flower Fly (Syrphus ribesii).
Mating Pair of Margined Calligrapher Flower Flies (Toxomerus marginatus).

Most people don’t consider Flies beautiful, but that’s because they’re thinking of the House Fly variety, and not the colorful Flower Flies. Another beautiful fly I observed was this Ornate Snipe Fly:

Ornate Snipe Fly (Chrysopilus ornatus). Who says Flies aren’t beautiful?

The Snipe Flies (Rhagionidae) are predators as larvae in the soil where they hunt invertebrates, but as adults don’t seem to feed at all (Marshall, 2012).

Like my Flower Fly Friend, another Insect was quite content to wander over my hands. I’m not sure the exact ID of this Bug (a True Bug, that is a member of the Order Hemiptera) but I’m pretty sure it’s a larval Plant Bug (Family Miridae).

Plant Bug nymph (Family Miridae) on my fingertips.

The little Plant Bug was probably the smallest Insect I took pictures of that weekend. The Largest is much easier to determine, and was clearly this Waved Sphinx (Ceratomia undulosa) which was on the outside wall of the restroom, blending in fairly well with the bricks.

Waved Sphinx Moth blending into a wall.

Another Moth I observed couldn’t be more different from the bulky and camouflaged Waved Sphinx. This bizarre Grape Plume Moth (Geina periscelidactylus) doesn’t even look like a Moth at all because of its oddly shaped wings. 

Grape Plume Moth (Geina periscelidactylus).

The forewing is the brown and white portion with a large notch carved into it from the outside. The hindwing has been transformed into three “plume” structures which resemble black-and-white wire brushes.

One other Moth drew my attention, but this one didn’t have any wings, because it was still in its Caterpillar stage: the Tussock Moth Orgyia leucostigma. These caterpillars have some of the most extraordinary decorations in our area. It’s possible the row of white tufts along their back resemble Parasitoid wasp cocoons in order to avoid subsequent parasitism, but I have no idea where to start explaining the bright orange head or black spiky tufts around its face.

Tussock Moth Caterpillar (Orgyia leucostigma).

It’s well known that caterpillars turn into Moths and Butterflies, but many people are surprised to find that “baby” Ladybugs look quite different from the roly-poly adults. During the weekend, I spied the intermediate stage, the pupa, of a Ladybug stuck to the top of a leaf. Within, a Ladybug larva was being rearranged into the far more familiar form of its orange shielded adult beetle.

Asian Ladybird Pupa (Harmonia axyridis).

There were a number of smaller orange Butterflies flitting about our campsite which were difficult to photograph. This is the best picture I could manage of the upperside wings:

One of this same species (the Northern Crescent, Phycioides cocyta) was resting inside the Dining Tent, allowing me a good photo of the underside of its wings:

The interior of the Dining tent provided many other Insect observations that weekend. I observed this same phenomenon in my own backyard in May of this year. For whatever reason, many Insects enter the tent and then possibly get trapped inside because they have difficulty relocating the entrance (and are drawn to the light visible through the roof of the tent). In any case, it often presents myself with picture opportunities of insects I might not otherwise observe.

Most of the Dining Tent insects were Flies (and these are the ones I got good pictures of):

Rhagio Snipe Fly.
Horse Fly, I believe of the genus Hybomitra.
Crane Fly (Family Tipulidae).

The majority of my observations were of Insects, and this reflects their abundance and diversity well, but I did have a chance to see a few Birds moving through the campsite. Most commonly spotted was a Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) that seemed to have a particular liking for the berries that grew at the edge of the site. Flitting through the trees occasionally were American Redstarts (Setophaga ruticilla), fabulous black-orange-and white Warblers. Prior to this trip, I thought of the Redstart as a migrant, passing through Southern Ontario in the Spring and Fall. Since seeing it in Port Burwell in July, I have learned that the species breeds across most of Ontario during the summer (Cadman et. al. 1987).

American Redstart.

References:

Cadman, Michael D., Eagles, Paul F. J. and Helleiner, Frederick M., Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario. 1987.

Marshall, Stephen. Flies: The Natural History and Diversity of Diptera. 2012.

For other posts about Nature Observations similar to these, see:

Leafhoppers, Lepidopterans and Longhorns

Fuzzy Flies and Song Sparrows

Cuckoo Wasps and Carpenter Bees

Flies Falling to Fungi and Other Dipteran Observations

And for more nature observations, photos and natural history facts, follow me on instagram at norfolknaturalist.

Categories
June 2021 Observations Nature Observations

Leafhoppers, Lepidopterans and Longhorns

Common visitors to my backyard (and probably any backyard with any sort of plant life) are leafhoppers (Cercopidae) and I’ve become familiar over the years with a few of my regular visiting genera. This past month I managed to get a really clear picture of Draeculacephala, with its distinctively pointed head.

Draeculacephala Leafhopper.

And this Latalus leafhopper kept flicking its wings around, similar to the Sepsid Flies I’ve seen flashing wings in the sun. Not sure if it was display behaviour of some kind or if it was trying to rid itself of some nuisance. The wing-flicking was very rapid, I’ve never seen a Leafhopper doing this before.

Latalus Leafhopper.

Similar to the Leafhoppers are the aptly named Froghoppers (Cercopoidea). I’m pretty sure this is one of them or at least a related family, based on its very toad-like appearance.

Froghopper/Spittlebug of some sort.

Other common Insect visitors to my backyard are Lepidoptera (Butterflies and Moths). Skipper Butterflies (Family Hesperiidae) are some of the most common Butterflies around in my experience. They’re skittish and difficult to get close to because they’re seemingly always on the move, but I’ve had some good luck with a few in the past. Last month I was able to catch this Peck’s Skipper (Polites peckius) in a moment of rest with my Macro lens.

Peck’s Skipper momentarily at rest in my backyard.

A much stranger Lepidopteran visitor was this bizarre Moth. Its wings look like a rolled up carpet, and its antennae look like tassels of said carpet. I’ve seen this same individual or at least a similar one in several different places around my yard, but always in this head down, wings up position. These Moths are classified as Crambidae (a Family) or Crambinae (a Subfamily) depending on the scheme being followed. There are thousands of species of Snout Moths (which is what these Moths are called), and I’m not sure where to begin on identifying my backyard variety.

Snout Moth in my backyard.

We have a patch of Milkweed growing in our backyard, and I check it on a regular basis for signs of Monarch Butterfly activity. (there should be adults flying up North here during June and beginning to lay eggs). I still haven’t spotted any eggs or caterpillars on the Milkweed plants (when I wrote these observations in June, wait for the July Observations…), but several other creatures have been evident among them. One morning, at the top of each Milkweed plant there were young earwigs. I guess they were just resting there? 

Earwig (I believe the European Earwig (Forficula auricularia)) exposed in its place among the top leaves of Milkweed.

One creature that I have nowhere to begin with is this strange object… I feel like I’ve seen it before and found an ID for it, but I can’t recall what the ID was. I believe it’s some sort of insect (maybe a pupa?), but I don’t know:

Mysterious seed-like object on a Milkweed leaf.

Wandering about on the Milkweed leaves were what I like to call “Reverse Lady Beetles” because the typical Ladybug in my head is one that’s orange/red with black spots, where these Beetles were the opposite. I didn’t get great pictures of them yet (they’re smaller than the more common introduced Asian Lady Beetles (Harmonia axyridis)), but you can see what I mean.

“Reverse” Lady Beetle under the leaf of a Milkweed.

I’m pretty sure these Lady Beetles are in the Genus Brachyacantha. At least one of the species in the Genus feeds on Hemiptera (mealybugs/aphids) in ant nests during its larval stage (presumably species that the ants are protecting for their honeydew secretions!) (Marshall, 2018).

A long-jawed Orbweaver (Tetragnatha) took up residence among the Milkweed as well, with a web that spanned between the leaves.

Long-Jawed Orbweaver Spider on its web.

One final visitor of note was this Banded Longhorn Beetle (Typocerus velutinis). These Beetles develop as larvae inside decaying trees or logs, emerging as the beautiful Beetle seen here hanging beneath a leaf.

Banded Longhorn Beetle hanging beneath a leaf.

References:

Marshall, Stephen 2018. Beetles: The Natural History and Diversity of Coleoptera.

For other June 2021 Observations, see:

Cuckoo Wasps and Carpenter Bees

Flies Falling to Fungi and Other Dipteran Observations

Fuzzy Flies and Song Sparrows

The Wonders of Wrens

A Visit to Big Creek, Part 1

A Visit to Big Creek, Part 2

For more nature observations, photos and natural history facts, follow me on instagram at norfolknaturalist