The Story behind the Shot: While hiking at Macgregor Provincial Park, my wife spotted a tiny frog crouched on a leaf. It was one of those opportunities that would have been so easy to miss, and made for a beautiful shot of a tiny creature.
The Story Behind the Species:
“There are some creatures which are the quintessence of the slang word “cute,” which, interpreted, means the perfection of Lilliputian proportions, permeated with undaunted spirit. The chickadee is one of these, and the spring peeper is another.” – Anna Botsford Comstock (from Handbook of Nature Study, originally published in 1911, revised edition 1939)
The quote above nicely captures the wonder I felt at finding such a quintessentially cute animal, a frog that is less than 4 cm long. Their name itself gives a good description of this tiny frog, because they are one of our earliest calling amphibians in the Spring (late March to early April)* and their call is a piercing “peep”! (Harding and Mifsud 2017). Below, I’ve added an audio file recorded by BudJillett on freesound.org, reposted here under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license. so you can hear what these tiny frogs sound like:
*the further north a population of Spring Peepers are, the later in the year they will begin breeding. As Spring Peepers are distributed across Eastern North America, there are fairly large variations in breeding times across their range, with southern populations (in northern Florida and Texas) breeding in Winter and Northern populations breeding later in Spring (Wells 2007).
The male Spring Peepers are the ones calling, to attract females to their location near or in a suitable breeding pond which could be a temporary pool caused by spring melt or a marsh or ditch (Harding and Mifsud 2017). The eggs (up to 1300 per female!) hatch in 4-15 days, into tiny tadpoles that feed on algae and other aquatic plant material (Harding and Mifsud 2017). These tadpoles will feed and grow enough to become tiny froglets over the course of 1.5 months to 3 months (Harding and Mifsud 2017). That may seem like a wide time range, and that’s because there are many factors that promote or delay tadpole growth and development, one of which is canopy cover. In breeding ponds that were closed-canopy (ie. low light and low plant productivity because of low access to light), Spring Peepers grew slower than in more open, high productivity pools (Wells 2007).
The tiny adults spread out from their breeding ponds and hunt through the undergrowth for various small arthropods, avoiding any creatures larger than themselves which could hunt them in turn. Each Spring Peeper must make it through not only a gauntlet of predators, but northern populations must survive freezing temperatures in the Winter. To do this, they produce their own internal “antifreeze” suubstances and have a very similar strategy to Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus), which I discussed in a previous blogpost.
Spring Peepers can live up to 5 years (Wells 2007) but it’s likely only the rare individual out of those 1300 eggs that makes it to their 2nd year of life.
These tiny heralds of Spring, peeping in the night are one of the many fascinating creatures that we seldom see, but I am glad I had the opportunity to see one and take its photo.
Comstock, Anna Botsford. 1911, 1939, 1967. Handbook of Nature Study. Comstock Publishing, a division of Cornell University Press.
Harding, James and Mifsud, David. 2017. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region. University of Michigan Press.
Wells, Kentwood D. 2007. The Ecology and Behavior of Amphibians. University of Chicago Press.
There we were, a dozen or so people standing in a field, waiting, watching, and listening. The sky began to darken, the pinks and oranges of sunset had mostly disappeared, melting into a deep purple. The chorus of trilling toads (Anaxyrus americanus) and the Eastern Towhee (Pipilio erythropthalmus) calling out its name in the woods only increased the tension on our strained ears. Suddenly, we heard the first sharp peent from the distance. We moved as a group to try to line ourselves up with the repeated metallic sound. The almost electronic or perhaps frog-like sound was produced by a very strange-looking bird, a bird that was our focus tonight. Once we thought we knew where the bird was calling from, we resumed our watchful stance, binoculars and camera lenses trained on the brush and the purplish sky above it. Then suddenly our guide, Audrey Heagy, announced that the bird was rising through the air because she could hear its wings whistling upward. Looking around I couldn’t see any living thing against the dusk sky. It felt for the first few times like a sort of magic trick. And indeed, misdirection is the bird’s intent. Eventually I got used to watching the sky for tiny dark shapes and my ears became attuned to the pitch of the birds’ wings on their ascents and descents above the darkening fields. Even so, there were times when we would hear the peent of a grounded bird so sharply and clearly that we knew exactly where it was patrolling on the ground despite not being able to see it. We would focus all of our senses on this presumed location and then be fooled by the mysterious bird’s magic tricks.
There are many natural phenomena that I have read about before encountering personally. This was one such event: the skydance of the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor) male.
There are a few ways the Woodcock gets away with such an obvious display and yet remains safe from predators. When first launching and on final landing approach, the Woodcock moves not vertically but horizontally for a few meters, without making a sound. This silent horizontal movement really works to confuse observers as evidenced by the group of naturalists whipping their heads around every time a Woodcock would begin ascending not directly above where it was on the ground, but several meters away. The sound of their whistling wings seems to fill the air, making it extremely difficult to pinpoint where in the sky the sound is coming from.
Besides a blurry shape overhead (once winging directly over our group), we didn’t get a visual on these mysterious dancing birds. I had observed one of these stealthy creatures on a previous occasion in the woods of Pinery Provincial Park and every time I looked away I had to re-locate the foraging Woodcock. Their camouflage helps them escape predators and is extremely effective.
I would like to end where I began my encounters with the American Woodcock: in the pages of a book. Here is a passage from one of my favourite natural history authors, Edwin Way Teale, who described the Woodcock’s behaviour so elegantly and inspired me to seek it out myself.
From A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm, by Edwin Way Teale:
“Its performance begins with the brown chunky long-billed bird walking about in the open field, turning this way and that, uttering again and again a buzzing nasal ‘peent!’… The call seems now far away, now close at hand, according to the direction the bird is pointing. Then there is a moment of silence. It is followed by the winnowing sound of its wings and we see its dark little form speeding in a wide climbing curve against the light of the sky… Higher and higher in great sweeping circles it mounts above the pasture. We follow with our eyes its retreating form, often losing it in the sky. At the height of its ascent the song begins. The sweet frail twittering sound at times seems to come from all directions, the notes to shower down around us. And while the song goes on it is joined by a quavering musical strain produced by three stiff narrow feathers at each wingtip. They vibrate int he wind as the bird plunges, veering wildly, falling through the sky like a gust-blown leaf. The end comes abruptly – an almost vertical descent to the darkened meadow. Then the “peenting” calls begin once more.”
I remember the first time that I saw a Tern in Southern Ontario, and believed that I was seeing an especially rare sighting. In my head at the time (this was almost ten years ago) Terns were oceanic birds that migrated huge distances across the waves, and were either in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, or amid stormy Southern seas. This idea of Tern distribution and migration was based on the only Tern species that I knew: the Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea) and even then only loosely. The Tern I observed flying and diving for fish in Waterford, Ontario was most likely not an Arctic Tern, but rather a Common Tern (Sterna hirundo). Since that perspective-changing observation, I have been looking forward to learning more about these beautiful birds. Thanks to this excellent book by David Cabot and Ian Nisbet, I now have a much greater grasp on Tern biology, ecology, and life history.
Terns is part of a long-running natural history series produced in the UK called The New Naturalist Library. These books are beautiful to look at, both outside and inside and I love having some of this series displayed on my bookshelf. The subtitle of the series is “A Survey of British Natural History” and I will admit to being originally concerned that the content of the books would be not very relevant to a naturalist on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. For this book in particular, that fear was unfounded. While the focus is undoubtedly British and sometimes very explicitly so, the coverage of this book is extremely valuable to understanding Terns across the world.
The book begins with a chapter titled “Terns of the World”, which gives a brief overview of what the authors consider the “true terns” which includes 39 species, and excludes the noddies (genera Anous and Gygis). This brings me to my first complaint in what I consider an excellent book: the use of scientific names (or lack of use). This first chapter is the only chapter to regularly use scientific names when mentioning related terns (ie. genera) or species. Some might find that scientific names break the flow of a book, and I’m sure that’s why it’s written without them later on (for the most part) but I find it incredibly helpful to have the scientific names referenced more often than once at the beginning of a book. I like to remember scientific names of species, it makes finding information about the species a lot easier, and it can even tell you things right in the name itself: members of a Genus are more closely related to each other than members of a different Genus. To use some Tern species as examples: the Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea) is more closely related to the Common (Sterna hirundo) and Roseate (Sterna dougallii) Terns (note the same Genus for all three species) than all three are to the Sandwich Tern (Thalasseus sandvicensis) (different Genus). I think the lack of scientific names in most chapters seems out of place given that the text is fairly in-depth and scientific. Even if they didn’t want the flow thrown off for most of the text, I would have liked it if they included the scientific names for the species that were the focused subject of later chapters (see below) even just in the chapter titles for easy reference. In any case, this first chapter does a great job of introducing the terns as a group, offering overviews of the various genera and setting the stage for the following chapters.
The next three chapters continue the theme of giving information on Terns as a whole, and not just the species that are common in Britain and Ireland. They are titled “Food and Foraging”, “Breeding Biology”, and “Migration”. All were full of fascinating information and surprises. “Food and Foraging” described the various ways that Terns find and capture prey (all Terns are predators of mostly aquatic prey except for the Gull-billed Tern (Gelochelidon nilotica) which feeds on mostly terrestrial prey). The chapter conveyed well the foraging strategies of Terns from their perspective, demonstrating how difficult it is for birds to find and catch fish out of water that is often deep. Something I never really considered before is how Terns depend on fish being closer to the surface than fish normally swim. There are various factors that bring fish within the top portion of the water, and thus within reach of Terns (and other aerial predators). One is currents forcing fish to move over shallower sections of a lake or ocean such as sandbars or reefs. But the authors state: “The most widespread factor making prey fish come towards the surface, however, is predatory fish chasing them from below.” Because of this, many Terns follow predatory fish in order to reap the rewards from their attacks on prey fish. This sort of dependence is the sort of behaviour and ecology that I find so fascinating: Terns and Tuna, two utterly different organisms in shape and lifestyle are connected through their use of common prey species. In this sort of way, all species are interconnected and it’s this sort of thing that ecology strives to document and understand. Through the use of photographs, illustrations, and excellent description Tern food acquisition is explored (including the always interesting kleptoparsitism, or food piracy).
The following chapter, “Breeding Biology” describes the generalizations and variations on the ways Terns reproduce. Terns use impressive courtship displays both in the air and on the ground to attract and retain mates. I found the description of courtship-feeding (in which the male brings prey to the female) to be especially interesting, summarized nicely by the authors: “Thus, the function of courtship-feeding evolves gradually from advertising the male’s proficiency, through attracting a mate, establishing and cementing a relationship, to provisioning the female and providing the nutrition required for making the eggs.” Once the pair is established, both partners incubate the eggs, feed the chicks and guard them, though males are more likely to provision more often both the female and the chicks (probably because of the continuing courtship-feeding described above).
The final chapter in the broader overview section of the book is all about Migration. My vision of Arctic Terns being exotic oceanic birds crossing the globe is actually not entirely inaccurate. Some populations of Arctic Terns spend the northern summer breeding in the Arctic, and spend the northern winter in the Antarctic, literally crossing from the top of the world to the bottom. It’s mentioned that because of this incredible world-spanning migration: “These birds would experience more daylight in the course of a year than any other animal.” (p 91). Despite these amazing journeys that inspire appropriate awe and interest, we know very little about how Arctic Terns actually migrate, or even their migration routes in detail. This is true of other Terns as well, though the picture is slowly resolving as we gain better technology for tracking bird movements. This chapter explains the current state of tern migration knowledge well and mentions where we are still lacking information.
The chapter following the overview chapters detailed above brings the focus more directly onto Britain and Ireland, as it’s titled “History of Terns in Britain and Ireland”. The chapter delivers on its title, including excellent historical illustrations. Not only does the chapter describe the population changes of the different species of Terns in Britain and Ireland over time, but it mentions some of the reasons (when known) for such changes, as well as various human interactions with these species. Mentioned several times through this chapter is the egg collecting and the methods of scientific collecting in the past (shooting dozens of birds per colony with guns instead of cameras), which obviously had negative effects on tern populations.
The main portion of the book (almost half, if you don’t include the Appendices and References) is made up of five chapters each of which is devoted to a single species of Tern, the five species of Terns that breed in Britain and Ireland. These are: Little Tern (Sternula albifrons), Sandwich Tern (Thalasseus sandvicensis), Common Tern (Sterna hirundo), Roseate Tern (Sterna dougallii), and Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea).
These species-focused chapters are thorough and engaging, presenting a detailed account of breeding biology, habitat use, and behaviour. There are specific details included about the populations within the region of focus (the British Isles) such as historical population trends and distribution. Despite this regional focus, the descriptions of tern behaviour and biology is applicable across these species’ range. The Least Tern (Sternula antillarum) is closely related to the Little Tern, and has been spotted in Ontario. Common Terns are widely distributed, also occurring in Ontario. Arctic Terns sometimes occur in Ontario as well. So 2 of 5 species occur both in the British Isles and my own region, and another is very closely related and similar to a local species.
Following the species-chapters is a chapter on Conservation, full of case studies and the description of various effects on tern populations in the British Isles, as well as the efforts to alleviate the negative effects.
The final chapter was probably my least favourite, only because I don’t live in Britain or Ireland. Chapter 12: “Vagrants, Passage Migrants, and Occasional Breeders” is aimed very specifically at the British Isles Birder, describing the rare tern sightings within the region.
To round off the book, there are a few Appendices which were good supplementary material on Tern Research and Population monitoring.
Overall, Terns is an excellent book about the biology and behaviour of Terns with a distinct focus on the species that breed in the British Isles. But don’t let your locality deter you from checking out this book if you are interested in diving deep into the world of these fascinating seabirds.
Last year, I observed 2 bat species while on a night hike with the Norfolk Field Naturalists (for more about this hike, go here). The 2 bat species I observed were Eastern Red Bats and Big Brown Bats. I’d like to explore their biology and natural history, specifically within Ontario. This first post will be focused on the Big Brown Bat and another will focus on the Eastern Red Bat. I will be pulling most of my information from The Natural History of Canadian Mammals (2012), by Donna Naughton, unless otherwise indicated.
Big Brown Bats (Eptesicus fuscus):
Meaning Behind the Name: Eptesicus is from Greek which means “I fly” and “house” because Big Brown Bats like to roost in houses, and the species name fuscus is Latin for “dusk” (Etymologia 2005).
Biology and Natural History:
At 13 cm long and with a wingspan of up to 39 cm, this is Ontario’s second largest bat (the largest being the Hoary Bat (Lasiurus cinereus), and is fairly common in southern Ontario. Their global range extends all the way south to South America, and at the northern end there are scattered reports from Alaska. With such a wide range, there are differences in their habits across it. For example, Big Brown Bats in Ontario hibernate through the winter in “caves, mines, and deep rock crevices, as well as heated buildings” (Naughton 2012), but in more southern regions with plentiful insect food throughout the winter, they are active year-round. The list above of hibernation sites are specific permanent locations bats will find to spend the winter. During the day, however, Big Brown Bats will use a variety of roost locations, including tree hollows and beneath bark*.
*A curious note describes a surprising discovery of a male Big Brown Bat that had been roosting beneath loose bark in a Michigan wetland. While the author of the note was interacting with a data logger in the wetland, “a strip of bark about 1 m in length fell from one of the trees and crashed into the water about 3 m away from me. Mixed in with the bark fragments and covered with duckweed (Lemna sp.) was a half-submerged bat that I eventually identified as an adult male big brown bat.” (Kurta 1994). I was glad to read that the bat was “torpid but unharmed” and after warming up “the bat flew away” (Kurta 1994).
Big Brown Bats are generalist insectivores, consuming basically any insects they can catch. Their diet of hard-bodied insects wears down their large teeth but apparently worn teeth don’t affect their feeding habits. They feed at night, if conditions are favourable (such as not rainy, and sufficiently warm night temperatures). On cooler nights, some bats will undergo torpor (a sort of mini-hibernation state) to save energy and forgo foraging. When they are out hunting, Big Brown Bats use echolocation to find insect prey. Although we think of echolocation calls as strictly for feeding, they inevitably function as signals, sometimes unintentionally. It has been demonstrated that Big Brown Bats are attracted to the echolocation calls of another species of bat (the Little Brown Bat, Myotis lucifugus) and the other species is attracted to Big Brown Bat calls as well (Barclay 1982). This is likely because echolocating bats represent an area with foraging opportunities or food sources.
Pups are born in June-July in Canada, and begin flying at 21 days or later. In Eastern North America, most Big Brown Bats give birth to twins, while single pups are most often born in Western regions. Although the pups’ wings are the same size as adults, their weight is much smaller, providing them with an advantage while learning to forage. After about a month, the young are able to hunt for themselves (ie. are no longer dependent on nursing from their mothers), but will stick with their mothers for their first few hunts. Some male Big Brown Bats have lived more than 20 years (the demand on females of pregnant foraging and nursing is high and reduces their maximum lifespan).
Big Brown Bats are fascinating, and I was happy to hear and observe them last year. Next up will be the Eastern Red Bat!
Barclay, R. M. R. 1982. “Interindividual use of echolocation calls: eavesdropping by bats.” Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 10: 271-275. cited in: Altringham, John and Fenton, M. Brock, 2003. “Sensory Ecology and Communication in the Chiroptera” in: Kunz, Thomas and Fenton, M. Brock (eds.). 2003. Bat Ecology. University of Chicago Press.
Last year, in August, I had the privilege of going for my first ever night-time hike. The hike itself was extremely short and straightforward but the goal wasn’t distance or challenge. The goal was to see and hear some of the flying and screeching mammals that come out at night: Bats.
To see these creatures, you need to go out at twilight, which is what myself and members of the Norfolk Field Naturalists did in August 2022. The night sky was beautifully clear, and as stars began to appear so too did small flying creatures seeking insect prey with high-frequency calls. I think everyone knows that bats use echolocation to locate prey in the darkness, but something else everyone “knows” is that bats are blind… but this isn’t true at all. Bats can see about as well as we can, which is to say that they can’t see amazingly at night. To compensate for this, bats create extremely high-frequency calls that are beyond the range of human hearing, and interpret the reflections of these calls, discerning objects (ie. Flying insects) that break up the soundwaves they create before the soundwaves return to the bats’ extremely sensitive ears.
Despite what I said earlier about most of their echolocation calls being too high-frequency for human hearing, I was able to listen in on their hunting cries with the aid of technology, an amazing experience. I used a bat detector which works by bringing any frequency sound down 100 Hz so that high-frequency sounds are emitted within human hearing range. This meant a bit of fiddling with the dials to hit the right frequency that the bats were calling at.
Once I got the hang of it, I was able to listen in on bats hunting in the night. The input was directional, so I had to aim my detector at where I thought a bat was flying which became increasingly difficult as the sky darkened. This obscurity was rewarding when I would happen upon a bat that I could not see by just scanning the dark sky with the detector. There were a few side effects of detecting high-frequency sounds and transmitting them loudly to my headphones. One was that on a certain frequency I could hear very distinctly a loud jangling and clinking sound every time that a fellow Field Naturalist put their hand into their pocket and bumped their keys. Another was that if I tuned into another frequency, the already-audible calls of many katydids in the woods became deafeningly loud in my ears. Whenever I caught the bats’ channel of calling and honed in on a hunting bat, any drawbacks were instantly alleviated.
Which kinds of bats were we observing? According to the website batnames.org (an online taxonomic tool tracking bat diversity) there are 1456 bat species named worldwide (Simmons and Ciranello 2022). Within Mammals, the order Chiroptera is second only in species diversity to the incredibly diverse order Rodentia (with approximately 2635 named species (Mammal Diversity Database)). Within Canada, there are just 20 species of bats, all belonging to the Family Vespertillionidae (Naughton 2012). Within Ontario, there are only 8 species of bats*, so we really only have the tip of a very massive iceberg of bat diversity worldwide. Our hike was led by Liv Monck-Webb of Nature Conservancy Canada and she identified the bats we heard and saw as likely belonging to just 2 species: Big Brown Bats (Eptesicus fuscus) and Eastern Red Bats (Lasiurus borealis).
*Big Brown Bat (Eptesicus fuscus), Silver-haired Bat (Lasionycteris noctivagans), Eastern Red Bat (Lasiurus borealis), Hoary Bat (Lasiurus cinereus), Eastern Small-footed Myotis (Myotis leibii), Little Brown Myotis (Myotis lucifugus), Northern Myotis (Myotis septentrionalis), and Eastern Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus subflavus) are the regularly occurring 8 species of bats in Ontario. Apparently there has been a single specimen of the Evening Bat (Nycticeius humeralis) found in Ontario on Point Pelee in 1911 (Naughton 2012). Naughton (2012) goes on to say that this species could appear more frequently in Ontario in the future with warmer average temperatures.
I would like to talk about the two bat species we observed in more detail in future blogposts, so stay tuned for that!
Being able to listen in on bats hunting was an incredible experience, and unlocked one more piece of local ecology. If you have the opportunity to do the same, I would highly recommend it!
Simmons, N.B. and A.L. Cirranello. 2022B. Bat Species of the World: A taxonomic and geographic database. Accessed on 12/29/2022.
Last year, as part of the Norfolk Field Naturalists, I was able to present 20 of my photos and discuss them. That was what prompted my still-ongoing “Top 20 Nature photos 2013-2020” series (Links to Introduction, 1. The Pale-Painted Sand Wasp (Bembix pallidipicta, 2. Moose (Alces alces) Family , 3. Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis) , 4. Common Five-Lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) , 5. Robber Fly Hunting Queen Ant ). This year, I am able to present another 20 photos. I’ve decided this time to keep the range of selection and the range of discussion much more condensed and to form it around my blogging year and my blog’s namesake locality: Norfolk County, Ontario. By keeping the time constrained to a single year, representing each month at least once and the location constrained to a single county in Southern Ontario, I think it can give a sense of the turning of the seasons, something I’ve always been fascinated by. One further restriction is I tried to avoid photos/organisms that have already featured on my blog this year. Introduction complete, here come the photos of my blogging year in review:
Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) in Port Rowan, December 2021:
These beautiful birds are a sight to see in the winter, snow falling around their dancing forms. Their resonant trumpeting calls, and their acrobatics in the white fields are breathtaking.
Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) in Simcoe, January 2022:
I’m always pleased to find a species near to home, which I associate with farther away. I first encountered Hooded Mergansers in Algonquin Provincial Park, so I think of them as something from the wild north rather than my own county, but this past January, I took some photos of a female swimming through a park in downtown Simcoe.
Pine Siskin (Spinus pinus) in my backyard, February 2022:
While reading through nature books and articles, I have read often of Pine Siskins moving through my area during the Winter in some years, and I had always hoped to see them. This year was the first time I saw them, and while my photographs are not very high quality (taken through my back windowpane), I was very excited to see and document this species at my backyard bird-feeder.
Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana) in my backyard, March 2022:
Virginia Opossums are the only marsupials in Canada, part of a diverse group of mammals that are distinct from the placentals which make up the rest of the Canadian mammals. People often shorten the name to “possum” but this is technically incorrect for these animals. Pouched mammals in the New World (ie. North and South America) are known as ‘opossums’ while those in the Old World (Mostly Australasia for this group) are called ‘possums’.
American Winter Ant (Prenolepis imparis) in my backyard, March 2022:
These common ants are active early in the Spring and late in the Fall, which is how they acquired their association with Winter (Ellison et. al. 2012). Some workers of this species can store excess amounts of food in their abdomens and become living storage canisters, much like the more well-known honeypot ants (Myrmecocystus in North American deserts, or Camponotus inflatus and Melophorus bagoti in Australian deserts) (Ellison et. al, 2012).
Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) on my Parents’ Farm, April 2022:
The first members of this species were seen in Ontario in the 1860s. Prior to European colonization and agriculture (which opened up preferred habitat for them) these adaptable mammals were located further south in the United States and Mexico (Naughton 2012).
Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) in my backyard, May 2022:
Similar to my Hooded Merganser observation above, my first encounter with these amazing ground-foraging woodpeckers has coloured my appreciation for them as unique and surprising. I first saw Northern Flickers when driving through MacGregor Provincial Park in the early morning. Their speckled pattern was striking but even more distinctive was the way they move, like woodpeckers hopping up a tree trunk but horizontally on the ground surface rather than clinging to bark. Seeing a Northern Flicker in my own backyard was an exciting experience (it’s happened a few years now) and adds to my appreciation of the diversity all around me.
European Woolcarder Bee (Anthidium maniculatum) in my backyard, June 2022:
These solitary bees scrape the hairs off of leaves to line their nests (usually in a preexisting cavity in wood or plant stems). As the common name indicates, this particular bee species is introduced from Europe, and is the species you are likely to see in mid-summer (the native Anthidium species are active earlier in Spring) (Wilson and Carril 2016).
Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) in Long Point, June 2022:
Migratory Warblers are always a treat to see in the Spring and Summer, and this colourful bird singing its heart out is one of my favourites. This species is widespread across North America and northern South America. In the more southern regions of its range, it may breed in mangrove swamps, while in Canada it can be found breeding in windswept tundra.
Cuckoo Wasp (Chrysis) in my backyard, July 2022:
Just as Cuckoos lay their eggs within another bird’s nest in order to benefit from the original inhabitant’s parental provisioning, so does the Cuckoo wasp benefit from another insect’s parental provisioning. In the case of this Genus, Chrysis, the female wasp lays her eggs inside the nest of other solitary wasps where the cuckoo wasp larva either feeds on the growing host wasp larva or the host larva’s food supply, placed in the nest by the host wasp parent (O’Neill 2001). The adult cuckoo wasp is well-armoured and can roll into a ball like an armadillo to present this tough shell as a defense against its hosts (Marshall 2006).
Marsh Snipe Fly (Rhagio tringarius) in my backyard, July 2022:
The larvae of Rhagio snipe flies are predators of invertebrates that dwell within the soil, but the adult diet (if they do eat anything) is unknown (Marshall 2012). This species, R. tringarius is introduced from Europe and is possibly replacing the similar native species, R. hirtus (Marshall 2012).
Eastern Cicada-killer Wasp (Sphecius speciosus) on my Parents’ Farm, July 2022:
Cicada-killer wasps are an example of a species that I had encountered significantly in print before encountering in the wild. I had read of their enormous size and strength, so when I spotted giant robust wasps on a visit to my parents’ farm I had my guess that these were the fabled hunters. These are impressive insects, but despite their large size and the males’ territoriality (the males will occasionally dive-bomb humans), they are not actually dangerous to people and should be tolerated and admired, rather than feared. The female can remove up to 1000 times her weight of soil to create her multi-celled nest which she provisions with adult cicadas (all of which used to be included within the genus Tibicen but which have now been moved to several genera (see Hill et. al. 2015 for a recent taxonomic review of the Cicada genus Tibicen)). Each larva is given 1-4 cicadas to feed on, males are given only 1 and female larvae more because females are sometimes 2.5 times larger than males (Evans and O’Neill 2007). The reason for this size disparity is that females do the digging and carry the giant prey items. The cicada-killers cannot carry paralyzed cicadas in flight unless they first drag them to a height and drop, which they will do occasionally in order to transport their large prey (Evans and O’Neill 2007).
Differential Grasshopper (Melanoplus differentialis) in my Parents’ garden, August 2022:
This very large grasshopper can be up to 4.4 cm long and feeds on a variety of plants and crops (Marshall 2006).
Prionyx atratus in my Parents’ garden, August 2022:
Prionyx atratus is a solitary wasp which hunts late-instar* or adult grasshoppers, like the one photographed on the same day in the same garden above. The wasps sting the grasshoppers on the head or thorax, and then construct a burrow in soil for their single prey item. Once the nest is constructed they will place the paralyzed grasshopper inside with an egg attached and close off the nest. While working on the nest, the female hunter will sometimes cache the grasshopper prey nearby (O’Neill 2001). Researching this species led to a rather alarming observation noted in O’Neill 2001: “I have seen the cached grasshopper prey of Prionyx species devoured by other grasshoppers”. It seems that grasshoppers are not always only plant-pests but will consume each other if given the opportunity.
*instar refers to any larval stage between moults, so a late-instar means a larval stage that is close to being an adult.
Northern Leopard Frog (Lithobates in Long Point, September 2022:
One foggy morning in September, I was out taking photos in Long Point. The main thing I was looking for was birds, but every step I took along the wetland trail was punctuated by the sound and motion of leaping frogs. Taking a closer look at the path, I managed to crouch down and capture some closeups of this Northern Leopard Frog, helpfully sitting very still.
Common Drone Fly (Eristalis tenax) in my backyard, October 2022:
There comes a time in the year when insect populations begin to go into hiding or die off as Autumn and Winter creep upon the land. Every buzzing, whirring, crawling invertebrate at this time of year gains my attention all the more because I am conscious of the seasons’ turnings that will soon cover the flowers with snow and a hush will fall upon the local pollinators. So in October, I was quite excited to find a small gathering of pollinators right by my back step where an Aster was growing. This photo shows one such late-Fall insect: a Drone Fly.
Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme) on my Parents’ Farm, October 2022:
Yet another late-flying insect caught my eye in October, this time a butterfly: an Orange Sulphur. This species of butterfly may or may not overwinter in Ontario. The adult individuals that we see in the Spring are likely migrants from its southern range (which includes Central America and the United States) (Hall et. al. 2014). I’m guessing this means that this individual spotted in the Fall was possibly on its way South to warmer climes.
Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) in my backyard, November 2022:
As I prepared to choose at least one photo from every month of the past year, I realized that I didn’t have any photos taken in November. So I rushed outside in my backyard to take some photos of the backyard birds at our feeders. My favourite picture was this of a Dark-eyed Junco. Juncos are familiar and common backyard birds, though they prefer to feed from the ground, rather than directly from the hanging feeders. I feel like this is a perfect species to end with: very common and familiar, found in my own backyard, yet I still find it exciting to see and observe these amazing creatures. I’m looking forward to next year, and can’t wait to see what other species I will wonder at and learn about through 2023.
Ellison, Aaron, Gotelli, Nicholas, Farnsworth, Elizabeth, adn Alpert, Gary. 2012. A Field Guide to the Ants of New England. Yale University Press.
Evans, Howard and O’Neill, Kevin. 2007. The Sand Wasps: Natural History and Behavior. Harvard University Press.
Hall, Peter, Jones, Colin, Guidotti, Antonia, and Hubley, Brad. 2014. The ROM Field Guide to Butterflies of Ontario. Royal Ontario Museum.
In June I went to see Jurassic World: Dominion, the latest film in the Jurassic Saga. I wouldn’t say it’s a great film, but I did really enjoy it, especially with the theatre experience. I wrote a blogpost about my personal interactions with the Jurassic books/films/videogames and some paleontological things because they were on my mind a lot at the time. You will see that some of the books I read over the blogging year (overviewed below) were also inspired by my dinosaur obsession which comes and goes quite often.
Some of my most exciting observations this year were of birds that I encountered in Long Point. And some of the most exciting birds were members of the Heron Family (Ardeidae). Usually I see and take photos of Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias) which is great but it was amazing to encounter several other members of this charismatic group of birds this year. My close encounter with a Green Heron (Butorides virescens) was so striking that I wrote it up into a blogpost: A Green Heron Stalks the Shallows.
Two other blogposts feature some of my Long Point observations. One is sort of a tour through a variety of observations I made during March 2022: Bullfrogs and Buffleheads. Another is more like the Green Heron post mentioned above, as it focuses on a specific bird that caught my attention. In this case, it was the Green-winged Teal (Anas carolinensis): The Teal Tale Teale Told.
During August, we took a trip to one of my favourite places: Algonquin Provincial Park. While there, I made some nature observations and took some photos, sharing them in my blogpost here: Algonquin in August.
And that wraps up my writing this year. Below, we will take a tour through the books I read this past year (that are nature/science related) and discuss them briefly.
Nature’s Year: Changing Seasons in Central and Eastern Ontario, by Drew Monkman:
Although the book is not directly focused on my local area (Norfolk County falls outside of the books focal range), the close proximity of the areas documented mean that many of the natural phenomena described within are of relevance to the seasons around me as well. I really appreciated the layout of the book. Each month is divided into sections based on organism type: “Plants and Fungi”, “Reptiles and Amphibians”, “Mammals” and so on. Beneath each of these sub-headings, interesting happenings are described, some in point-form and others in detail (full page or two). It was great to witness the natural events mentioned in the book, to read along as each month progressed as I did in 2021. Reading the book through the year prepares your mind to see the natural events it describes. An advantage of the layout is that it also works well as a reference because you can flip to a certain month and type of organism to see what notable species or events are occurring.
Biodiversity in Dead Wood, edited by Jogeir N. Stokland, Juha Siitonen, and Bengt Gunnar Jonsson:
A new favourite book of mine, this volume opened up the mysterious biome of decaying wood and explored the diversity of life within, from bacteria to birds. The interactions of organisms with each other and their environment is the heart of ecology and it’s clear from my reading that species are interconnected in fascinating and complex ways.
Spider Communication: Mechanisms and Ecological Significance, edited by Peter N. Witt and Jerome S. Rovner:
The title of this book drew me to it as I am always fascinated by animal behaviour and Spiders seem to me unlikely subjects of a volume dedicated to communication. Reading the book offers a new perspective on spider interactions with each other through their silk and body movements and even acoustics! They also communicate with predators and prey,
Hedgehog (Collins New Naturalist), by Pat Morris:
I didn’t really know anything about Hedgehogs before reading this book. And there was no need, as this volume summarizes in entertaining fashion most anything anyone would want to know about British Hedgehogs.
The Encyclopedia of Animals: A Complete Visual Guide, edited by George Mckay:
I read through this book slowly, as it is not really meant to be read straight through. This book serves best as a flip-through book, showcasing the diversity of animals around the world. The illustrations are at times a bit strange (I believe many are stock illustrations) and don’t seem to match with the animal they depict, but others are quite beautiful and the diversity they portray is fun to look at. The text is very cursory as would be expected with a popular “flip-through” tome like this. My major gripe with this book is something I used to harp on about all the time growing up as an insect enthusiast: Invertebrates are barely represented. Mammals get the majority of pages devoted to them, and Birds are close behind. Mammals and Birds are fascinating, and far more diverse than one would assume if you have only watched nature documentaries (which focus on the same set of species rather than showcasing the variety that are actually out there). Even still, they are a fraction of the diversity of the animal kingdom, which is more appropriately ruled in species numbers by the Arthropods or Mollusks. Despite this (a very common problem in overview books) I really had fun slowly reading through this book, taking in a page or so of variety a day. I wouldn’t say it is the best or most comprehensive of animal encyclopedias, but it serves as a good introduction as long as one is well aware of the classic hairy or feathered vertebrate bias.
British Tits (Collins New Naturalist), by Christopher M. Perrins:
British Tits have always struck me as beautiful chickadees, which indeed they are. I was always jealous of Britain having the wonderful cheery birds I know from my backyard, but with more vibrant colour. Tits are fascinating birds, with life histories and behaviour to match their beautiful exteriors. This book was an excellent overview of the species of Parulidae that occur in the British Isles.
Dinopedia, by Darren Naish:
A compact and great little book filled with tidbits about the history of dinosaur research, some of the paleontologists who conducted said research or influenced the field of dinosaur study, and brief summaries on dinosaur groups. My personal tastes lie with this last group of entries, but each entry was interesting in its own way, supplying concise facts and summaries and highlighting areas of interest within the world of dinosaur research. I greatly enjoyed the illustrations by the author which really enhance the book.
Reef Life: A Guide to Tropical Marine Life, by Brandon Cole and Scott Michael:
A delightful photo-focused tour through the world of coral reefs and tropical sea life. The focus is on fishes, while smaller sections describe and display some representative invertebrates. Styled something like a field guide, but with plenty of ecological and biological information throughout, this book gives a taste of the diversity of coral reefs and the interconnected lives of the species that create and depend on them.
Bat Ecology, edited by Thomas H. Kunz and M. Brock Fenton:
Bats are fascinating, and I learned a lot about them from this book. Because of the book’s focus on Ecology, there was no real overview of Bats as a group which would have been nice for myself to have some sort of general idea before diving into specifics. Not a fault of the book, just something to note if you’re unfamiliar with bats from a scientific point of view. The chapters are each written by different authors and cover a wide range of topics, and as such there were excellent and enjoyable chapters (for myself the chapter on Roosting sites and the chapter on Pollination were particularly fascinating) and some chapters that were less so. Not a fault of the book, but my personal point of view and knowledge base left me struggling through the chapters on Sperm Competition and Patterns of Range Size. Those two chapters in particular felt like specific scientific studies rather than reviews of a subject area which the other chapters felt like. So, while mixed, the interest I have in Bats has certainly been increased and I have certainly learned a lot about some of the diverse ecologies that bats have around the world, while still wanting more.
This Day: New and Collected Sabbath Poems 1979-2012, by Wendell Berry:
In the preface, Wendell Berry remarks that the poems should be read outside in similar circumstances to when they were written. And I originally envisioned doing so. When I began to read them in very different circumstances, I found that instead of diminishing the power of the poetry by contrast, the poetry brought the beauty and wonder of nature into my less-than-ideal setting (usually indoors in winter or at work).
Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Protect the World’s Largest Owl, by Jonathan C. Slaght:
Although I will always want a book like this to have more focus on the animals themselves (in this case Blakiston’s Fish Owls) I thought this was a very interesting listen (I had the audiobook). Lots of adventures and misadventures in the Russian wilderness, as well as strange and intriguing people that the author encounters. And there was quite a bit about how the field research actually worked and the sorts of things I really was looking for: info and descriptions of the wildlife encounters including the focal species. Overall, a good read about an animal I didn’t know much about before and the efforts to research and protect it.
Dinosaurs Rediscovered: The Scientific Revolution in Paleontology, by Michael J. Benton:
I picked up this book from the library, inspired by my recent viewing of Jurassic World: Dominion, and found this book to be a mixed bag. I enjoyed some of the stories behind discoveries or changes in perspective on dinosaurs and their world… but I found other such stories to be irrelevant or out of place. In general, the flow of the book was a bit haphazard. The information within sated my appetite for dinosaurian (and some non-dinosaur) biology and ecology temporarily and I enjoyed the illustrations and figures.
Ant Ecology, edited by Lori Lach, Catherine L. Parr, and Kirsti L. Abbott:
Because this is an edited multiauthored volume, it becomes difficult to review the whole, as chapters are written with different topics and by different people. Overall, this was an interesting look at more recent ant research (20 years more recent than my other source for ant knowledge: The Ants by E. O. Wilson, written in 1990). There is a heavy conservation and practical (invasive ecology) focus to the book which may attract workers in these fields.
The Amber Forest: A Reconstruction of a Vanished World, by George Poinar Jr. and Roberta Poinar:
Fascinating gallery of ancient organisms preserved in amber of a particular age and location. Mostly insects and other arthropods which is fine by me, I enjoyed the overview of insect relationships and such that were covered alongside the representatives of the different groups found in amber. The format was a little strange and took some getting used to, I feel like there could have been a better way to present the images and the text but I don’t know, felt a little awkward flipping back and forth throughout reading. All in all, very interesting especially if you like insects and fossils.
A Naturalist At Large, by Bernd Heinrich:
A fun tour through various natural history topics. Bernd Heinrich is curious about the nature he observes and doesn’t take things for granted and by doing so, he discovers by bits and pieces, fascinating natural history stories. I especially liked the chapters focused on birds or insects, perhaps due to my own interests and knowledge but I think perhaps it is because those were Bernd Heinrich’s research focuses as well and his insight there was thus enhanced.
Biology and Conservation of Wild Canids, edited by D. W. Macdonald and C. Sillero-Zubiri:
A great review of Canid Conservation around the world. The case studies were interesting snapshots of species under investigation from Grey Wolves of Isle Royale, in Lake Superior, to the Blanford’s Fox in the deserts of the Middle East. While not comprehensive on the biology/ecology of canids (some species didn’t even get a case study chapter such as Bush Dogs), this was an excellent primer on the diversity of species and challenges in the canid research world.
Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, by Frans de Waal:
A book aimed at tearing down the division between human and “animal” cognition. Presents a wide array of anecdotes and experiments that demonstrate that human thinking is a matter of degree and not a separate category altogether from the millions of other species on this planet. I was a bit disappointed that the author focused mainly on chimpanzee research (his own specialty) but this served to really break down the idea that human thinking is a different sort from other species as chimpanzees display many of our ways of thinking that humans previously considered unique to our species. I would have loved to read more about cognition in diverse species and phyla, the one section on invertebrates was intriguing but all too short, but all in all the book presents its arguments well, and discusses the history of thinking about animal thinking in an interesting and thought-provoking way.
That concludes my writing and reading overview for the past blogging year! Stay tuned for more nature sightings, observations, photos and natural history!
Here’s another repost from my old tumblr blog norfolknaturalist.tumblr.com. I’ve added some newer photos of the species involved but otherwise unchanged. Much of this article was inspired by my reading of the book Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death, by Bernd Heinrich. I thought the subject and title were appropriate for Halloween season.
Just as we were about to turn into my parents’ driveway last weekend (in April 2018), we saw probably the most iconic bird in North America less than 100 metres away from us down the road. A Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) was dining on a Raccoon roadkill in clear sight.
Perhaps it’s surprising that a bird of such noble renown was seen stooping to consuming carrion, something that we often see as repulsive. The truth is that the line between ‘predator’ and ‘scavenger’ is often a very blurred one. Most animals that eat other animals are willing to eat one that has already died or been killed. To the predator, it contains the same nutrients that it would obtain from its own kill but with much less effort (valuable time and energy) on their part. This isn’t to say that eating pre-killed remains is without risk for a predator or a scavenger. Besides the conflicts with other hunters over the resource, there is an omnipresent and invisible threat to all dead flesh.
Bacteria: organisms that are so tiny they are dwarfed by individual cells of our bodies. Despite being so small, and unseen without a powerful microscope, bacteria operate everywhere in the natural world and one of the most profound activities they perform is nutrient recycling and breakdown. While they disassemble cells and consume dead flesh, bacteria proliferate. Bacteria are the reason that predators can’t eat an animal body that’s been dead for too long. They are the reason dead things go “rotten” and become unpalatable by almost any animals. They are the unseen “competitor” with the visible and charismatic predators.
After at least an hour of feeding, and the frequent interruptions of cars passing, the eagle flew off and left the dead Raccoon. That is when the Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) moved in, creatures much more commonly associated with scavenging. And for good reason. Turkey Vultures have the most powerful sense of smell of any bird, and can detect a dead animal from over a mile away. What’s more, they can eat flesh that other creatures would turn down as too far gone. Their digestive system is able to break down the toxins of the ever-present bacteria, making them capable of consuming rotten flesh, where others cannot.
It may be a grisly business, the consumption of the dead, but it is an essential (and amazing) part of ecosystems around the world.
Subject: Underworld Robber Fly (Neoitamus orphne) and New York Carpenter Ant Queen (Camponotus novaeboracensis).
Location: Algonquin Provincial Park.
Date: July 2017.
For an Introduction to this series (my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020) go here.
The Story Behind the Shot: Every ant colony, each civilization in the soil, has to begin with a single type of individual: an ant queen*. Queens are special individuals, easily separated from the workers by their wings (at this preliminary stage) and their relatively large size. While camping in Algonquin during the summer of 2017, my campsite was in the path of dozens of queen carpenter ants. I watched as several different individuals wandered through the pine needles and discarded their wings. I had also been separately observing a large robber fly that had taken up residence on my camping table, using the surface to survey for potential prey. At some point the robber fly descended upon one of these ant queens and I was lucky enough to spot the unfortunate queen and its fortunate hunter.
*nature never lets me get away with generalizations… I would have liked to say, for the drama, that every colony begins with a single individual, but that isn’t true at all. There are many species of ants that create new colonies with multiple queens as a rule, and many times groups of workers accompany the queen (or queens). One of the most famous of these species is the Southern Fire Ant Solenopsis invicta, but dependent colony founding (that is, colonies that begin with a queen dependent on workers as opposed to independent colony founding) is widespread in ants. As in all things in the natural world, the picture becomes increasingly complicated, the more we know (Peeters and Molet 2010).
The Story Behind the Species:
Part 1: New York Carpenter Ant (Camponotus novaeboracensis):
The ant queens that I saw that day had emerged from a colony in what is termed a mating swarm. Multiple colonies in the area, triggered by the weather conditions must have swarmed at the same time, winged ants filling the air and meeting to mate. The males of these ants die soon after mating, but the queens will live for several years if they can establish a colony. The vast majority of ant queens will also die during this mating flight. Holldobler and Wilson (1990) describe this well: “It follows that the brief interval between leaving the home nest and settling into a newly constructed nest is a period of intense natural selection among queens, a dangerous odyssey that must be precisely timed and executed to succeed.” After mating, the ant queens descend to the earth and never leave it for the air again, removing their wings and absorbing the flight muscles within to provide the nutrients for their first batch of eggs. Camponotus novaeboracensis prefers nesting in dead standing trees or fallen logs or stumps, but they are occasionally found nesting under rocks or cow dung (Ellison et. al. 2012). Contrary to what you may think, carpenter ants (the genus Camponotus) don’t consume wood for food, instead carving into decayed wood in order to create a nesting site. One of their major sources of food is actually honeydew from Homoptera (true bugs such as leafhoppers, treehoppers and aphids), but they also collect sap and hunt insects and will scavenge on dead vertebrates as well (Hansen and Klotz 2005).
Foraging as an ant worker is dangerous, there are many other creatures foraging that would hunt down ant workers, and that’s ok for the colony because each worker is just one small part of a larger whole. Camponotus novaeboracensis colonies can contain almost 9000 workers (Hansen and Klotz 2005), but usually only a single egg-laying queen*. So workers can be lost, and the colony continues, but the queen is important so the colony can begin. If she is lost before she can find a nesting site, as in my observation here, there can be no colony of thousands.
*Akre et. al. 1994 report that C. novaeboracensis colonies rarely have more than one queen, but it does happen.
Part 2: Underworld Robber Fly (Neoitamus orphne):
Robber flies are incredible hunters, swooping out from perches on branches or twigs (or in this case, camping tables) to pounce upon insects and stab them with their powerful piercing mouths. There are over 7000 species of Robber Fly (members of the family Asilidae) worldwide (Marshall 2012). Neoitamus orphne has a specific name, orphne, which refers to a spirit of Greek mythology that lived with Hades in the Underworld, and is sometimes referred to by the name “Styx”. I love the idea of this fly being named after a spirit of the Underworld, as this robber fly must send many souls of insects to Hades on a frequent basis. The individual pictured is a female, which willuse that long tubular abdomen to lay eggs inside flower heads or leaf sheaths. The larvae then hatch and drop to the ground, where they will hunt down soil-dwelling invertebrates presumably (Marshall 2012). I say “presumably” because I don’t think anyone knows for certain what this species of robber fly eats as larvae but robber fly larvae are predators and this genus has larvae that live on or in the ground so it makes sense.
My photo captures a battle between two mother insects, one which has the potential to generate a social colony of 9000 worker ants, another which lives a solitary life snatching prey out of the air.
Akre, R. D., L. D. Hansen, and E. A. Myhre. 1994. Colony size and polygyny in carpenter ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) J. Kans. Entomol. Soc. 67: 1-9, cited in: Hansen, Laurel and Klotz, John. 2005. Carpenter Ants of the United States and Canada. Cornell University Press.
Ellison, Aaron, Gotell, Nicholas, Farnsworth, Elizabeth, and Alpert, Gary. A Field Guide to the Ants of New England. 2012. Yale University Press.
Hansen, Laurel and Klotz, John. 2005. Carpenter Ants of the United States and Canada. Cornell University Press.
Holldobler, Bert and Wilson, E. O. 1990. The Ants. Harvard University Press.
Marshall, Stephen. 2012. Flies: the Natural History and Diversity of Diptera. Firefly Books.
Peeters, Christian, and Molet, Mathieu. 2010. “Colonial Reproduction and Life Histories” in: Lach, Lori, Parr, Catherine L., and Abbott, Kirsti L.(eds.) 2010. Ant Ecology. Oxford University Press.
I hope you enjoyed my foray into the lives of these fascinating insects. My next post in the ongoing series of My Top Nature Photos is going to be about a sneaky little amphibian.
Some ducks make very different sounds than the traditional Mallard quack. On a return trip to the Big Creek conservation trail in Long Point, March 2022, I was quite intrigued to hear squadrons of ducks uttering whistle-type calls as they scooted about on the water or took to the air. These were American Green-winged Teal (Anas carolinensis), the smallest species of dabbling duck in North America, approximately pigeon-sized (Baldassarre 2014).
Apparently, it is the males that whistle while the females produce quacks (Baldassarre 2014). Green-winged Teals breed across the boreal and deciduous forests of North America, preferring wooded wetlands. Their nests are very difficult to find, concealed among tall grasses or shrubs. These ducks migrate early in the Spring to the northern breeding grounds, and it’s likely that the Teals I saw in March were using Long Point marshes as a stopping ground on their way north.
Teals use their bills (and the fine toothlike combs at the edges called lamellae) to filter tiny food items from shallow water such as seeds and invertebrates. Unsurprisingly because of their overall small size, it seems that Green-winged Teals are particularly good at feeding on very small food items, as opposed to Mallards, which are more generalist feeders (Baldassarre 2014).
Two fun stories about the word ‘Teal’ to finish off with. One is that, according to wikipedia teal is a word that originally meant “small dabbling duck” or something like that and was applied to several species of ducks before it was applied to the blue-green colour*, because of the bright “teal” markings on the wings (and heads of the males).
*I can’t find this mentioned in my books about ducks or anywhere well-sourced. I believe it to be true and fascinating but wikipedia is the main source I can find this fact on, so take that how you will.
My other anecdote about Teals I would like to share is about one of my favourite nature writers, Edwin Way Teale (it’s also the reason this post has a Dr. Seussian title). In his book, North with the Spring (Teale 1951), he tells of a time when his naturalist ways came under suspicion by the law. He and his friend had been out one winter day, watching ducks at a pond. Across the pond was a building which used to be a military plant, and I guess the fear of foreign spies caused a local to report the pair of men staring in that direction with binoculars.
As Teale himself says: “The dialogue that ensued when the first officer reached us might well have been a skit on a vaudeville stage.
“What are you doing?”
“Looking at ducks.”
“What’s your name?”
By the light in his eye I could tell he had heard about teal ducks. The light said: A wise guy, eh?
I have friends who are named Crow, Crane, Raven and Rook. Fortunately, they were not along that day.” (Teale 1951, p. 288).
Baldassarre, Guy. 2014. Ducks, Geese and Swans of North America, 2 Vols. Johns Hopkins University Press.
Teale, Edwin Way. 1951. North with the Spring. Dodd, Mead, & Company.
For other posts about Long Point Observations, see: