Categories
Blogversary

Happy 3rd Birthday, Norfolk Naturalist!

3 Years of Blogging at norfolknaturalist.ca have passed and it’s time to look back at the past year of my naturalist adventures and reading/writing. Let’s go!

Look closely and you’ll see one of my most amazing bird sightings this year, a stealthy American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) in Long Point, May 2022.

Starting off this past year of blogging was my introduction to a series of posts highlighting my Top 20 Nature Photos 2013-2020. I explain in that post why I chose that date range and how I chose the photos. When posting the first one, I ended up writing more than I expected about the species, in this case the Pale-painted Sand wasp (Bembix pallidipicta). I wrote several more entries in this series through the following months: (Moose (Alces alces) family, Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis), Common Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus), and in September I published entry 5: Robber Fly (Neoitamus orphne) hunting Queen Ant (Formica novaeboracensis). I was originally planning to post them all in a row for my first 20 posts of this past blogging year… but oh well. I promise I am still working on the other 15 posts and I think the wait will be worth it for the species to get their proper spotlight.

A close encounter with the Heron I usually see, the Great Blue (Ardea herodias).

In March of this year, I reposted my original blogpost (Cryptic Caterpillars) from my tumblr blog (anorfolknaturalist.tumblr.com) because I hadn’t finished any other blogposts for the month and I also want to repost all of my original tumblr blogposts on this website, with occasional minor edits and updating. I reposted another tumblr post in May (MacGregor Point Observations (May 2018)) And in October, I reposted yet another, this time with a Halloween theme: Eaters of the Dead.

In April I was amazed and delighted to find that Ravens were nesting on my parents’ property (specifically on their silo), so I wrote a post about my observations and their significance.

Great Egret (Ardea alba), in Long Point, September 2022.

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!




Categories
Nature Observations Tumblr Repost

Eaters of the Dead

Bald Eagle photographed in Pinery Provincial Park, September 2021.

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.

Turkey Vulture photographed in Long Point, October 2021.

Categories
Species Profile Top 20 Photos 2013-2020

5. Robber Fly Hunting Queen Ant

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 will use 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.

References:

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.

For Previous posts in this series, see:

  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)
Categories
Species Profile

The Teal Tale Teale Told

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).

To hear what these small ducks sound like, here is a link to an audio recording of Green-winged Teals whistling: https://macaulaylibrary.org/asset/86925491.

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.

A pair of Green-winged Teals on ice at Long Point.

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.

The colour on their wings and heads really is quite beautiful.

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?”

“Teale.”

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).

In case you forgot that Green-winged Teals are small… here are some swimming near a Canada Goose for comparison.

References:

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:

Bullfrogs and Buffleheads

A Visit to Big Creek, Part 1

A Visit to Big Creek, Part 2

Categories
Nature Observations

Bullfrogs and Buffleheads

I usually like to discuss my nature observations soon after I make them, but that’s not always possible. In light of this, I’d like to describe some photos I took way back in March of this year. The week was rainy except for one day and I was determined to get out there and take some photos of birds, so I took a drive to Long Point and visited two marshy trails and was successful.

One of my main sightings on this trek were various ducks and geese. Ducks other than Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) have the annoying habit of staying on the far side of whatever water body they are in, which means that I usually can’t take good pictures of them with my camera. On this excursion, I spied many of these groups of ducks keeping a wary distance and took many blurry photos of them. Most of these shy non-Mallards* were Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris). One pair of ducks actually allowed me to get much closer and take decent pictures of them. These were Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola). By their extravagant head design, it was a pair of males. Buffleheads are related to mergansers and similarly dive for their food, which is mostly aquatic insects and snails (Baldassarre 2014). They make their nests in tree cavities (mainly those fashioned by Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus)), and breed in the northern forests of North America wherever these woodpeckers are commonly nesting (Baldassarre 2014). The Buffleheads I spied floating across a Long Point marsh were either spending the winter here or moving back north to breeding habitats.

*for the record, I have nothing against Mallard Ducks and I usually end up taking pictures of them too (they are quite beautiful birds) but there is definitely a part of me that wants to see and encounter creatures that are new to me and Mallards are… well, they’re the most commonly encountered ducks in the world. I could use a very similar paragraph to explain my feelings toward Canada Geese (Branta canadensis).

Hanging out with the Buffleheads was another waterbird which I initially mistook for a female Bufflehead because of its close proximity to the males and lack of head adornment. A few minutes later the pair of males took off from the water and flew down the waterway in a flurry of black-and-white. Yet this other bird didn’t follow, instead making occasional dives beneath the water surface and popping back up again. When reviewing my photos it became clear that this bird wasn’t a Bufflehead, and it wasn’t even a Duck (member of the family Anatidae). My mystery bird was from an entirely different branch of the bird family tree, despite its superficially duck-like appearance. It was a Grebe (a member of the Family Podicepididae), specifically a Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus).

Grebes swim in the water by means of their feet which like ducks are expanded to have more surface area but unlike a duck’s ‘webbed’ feet, grebe feet are said to be ‘lobed’. I have never seen a grebe foot before, because their feet are usually under the water while these superb swimmers float or dive. But take a look at this photo of a Horned Grebe and you will see why I mention the feet as they are very impressive.

Horned Grebe, with visible impressive feet, photo by Tomas Wuschke, used with permission.

The Horned Grebe I saw at Long Point was in its much less dramatic winter plumage (cross-reference the beautifully patterned adult in Tomas Wuschke’s photo above with the drab gray/black bird in my photo). They only very rarely breed in Ontario, and even then only at the very northern edge of the province, preferring northern Canada and Alaska where they create nests on floating vegetation in wetlands (Hughes 2001).

Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) were ubiquitous on both trails, frequently startling me with sudden splashes before scooting along at the surface or under the water. I observed a couple of these large rodents munching and was curious what they were eating but I was unable to tell from my photos. It could have been anything from vegetation to arthropods to fish since Muskrats are extreme generalists.

Two shockingly large birds flew in from the lake across the marsh, majestic and powerful eagles. Because of their large wingspan, I initially thought the birds to be Herons, which move south to avoid frozen water but will return once the ice has melted. Once I took some pictures I saw that the heads were definitely the heads of raptors, and I later figured out that they were juvenile Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). 

While driving between the two trails I noticed a frog and did a double take. To notice a frog while driving says something about the frog’s size and indeed this was a representative of the largest frog species in North America: an American Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus). This frog’s tympanum (the circular depression below and behind the eye) is much larger than its eye and its throat is yellow which indicates that this is a male, and males are generally smaller than females in this species! Bullfrogs can reach 20.3 cm (8 inches) long and will “eat nearly any animal they can capture and swallow” (Harding and Mifsud 2017).

The most noticeable resident on the second trail were the Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus), tearing about on their long legs and piercing the air with their high-pitched repeating calls. I love these birds and their distinctive cries, and seeing this many together at one time was a treat.

Before leaving each trail, I was able to photograph some small sparrows that were foraging along the paths. Watching these birds picking at the ground and presumably finding something to eat made me wonder what they could possibly be finding. A glance at the ground surface revealed no insects to me, but the Killdeer too were digging into the mud and finding plenty to eat. Watching birds forage like this always makes me marvel at the amount of life that must be present to sustain them, life that I couldn’t even see! There must be hundreds of tiny invertebrates that each bird was finding to sustain themselves. What an incredible invisible foundation to these flocks. 

American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea) photographed at the end of the second trail in Long Point.

References:

Baldassarre, Guy. 2014. Ducks, Geese and Swans of North America, 2 Vols. (revised and updated edition). Johns Hopkins University Press.

Harding, James H. and Mifsud, David A. 2017. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region. University of Michigan Press.

Hughes, Janice M. 2001. The ROM Field Guide to Birds of Ontario. Royal Ontario Museum.

For related nature observations in Long Point, see:

A Green Heron Stalks the Shallows

A Visit to Big Creek, Part 1

-A Visit to Big Creek, Part 2

Categories
Nature Observations

Algonquin in August

At the beginning of August, I was at Algonquin for a week, and although I didn’t take as many pictures as on previous trips I still managed to spot some fascinating creatures and I’d like to describe my observations here.

Early on a rainy morning I was on a drive down Opeongo road, searching for wildlife beneath the grey skies. Only at the end of the road, which terminates at the store at the edge of Lake Opeongo did I manage to find any photo subjects. Off in the distance was the most iconic bird of northern lakes, the beautiful and sleek Common Loon (Gavia immer). I was surprised that the distant bird drifted closer and closer across the smooth water until I was able to get some very close shots of it dipping its head in and out of the lake. Perhaps it was as curious as I was or perhaps there were some fish that it sought near the dock. Either way, I was able to get a close look at this wonderful bird.

Along the dock, there was another familiar bird, one that has almost the opposite reputation to the Loon. While the Loon is a symbol of wildness and its strange call echoing across lakes evokes mystery
and beauty, Gulls are often symbols of trash-mongering, scavenging, and filth. Loons are revered and Gulls are vilified. If you’ve read any of my blog you may have gathered that I greatly dislike the vilification of animals. Not only does it cause unjustified persecution of animals it also hides their true nature as fascinating creatures in a complex world. Gulls are a great example of this. I saw two species of gulls while at the edge of Lake Opeongo: three Herring gulls (Larus argentatus) perched atop the store roof, and one ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) stood majestically on the dock, before taking to the air and soaring across the water.

Ring-Billed Gull (Larus delawarensis) at the edge of Lake Opeongo.

The ring-billed gull used to be a rare sight in Algonquin park, but has become more common since the 1970s partly because of the general population growth of this species from a low in the early 1900s due to human persecution and egg-collecting (Tozer 2012). Herring gulls on the other hand, are the only gulls to nest in Algonquin Park and have been a common sight by lakeshores for many years. Some of their nests are in large colonies on rocky islands in lakes such as on Lake Opeongo, but often they nest individually or in small groups. Herring gulls have even been recorded nesting in abandoned bird nests made by large birds in trees (such as Herons, Bald Eagles or Osprey (Tozer 2012)), though this is uncommon.

Herring gulls perched atop the Opeongo store roof.

During our stay at Algonquin I also went on the Spruce Bog Boardwalk trail in the evening to take some photos. My most startling encounter was with a Spruce Grouse (Falcipennis canadensis) bursting from beside the path
in a flurry of wings and landing in a tree far away. Unfortunately the shocking appearance and subsequent departure was so quick that I was unable to take a photo of the bird. On this same trail, I found a crab spider waiting on a leaf for insects to capture with its long extended legs, and a tricoloured bumblebee (Bombus ternarius) humming from flower to flower.

On my final day in Algonquin I saw something in the Pog Lake Campground that caught my eye: a water strider with a striking white abdomen. I couldn’t get very close to it because it was skimming the surface of a river so I had to lean out with the macro lens to try to get a photo. This is all to explain why my photos are not super great, but they do reveal a surprise. My water strider’s white abdomen was in fact another water strider’s underside. What I thought to be a single insect was a mating pair of water striders (Metrobates hesperius).

Water Striders mating on the surface of a river, one upside down beneath the other.

They moved in so coordinated a fashion that it was a fair mistake to believe they were a single insect. Water striders are fascinating insects, which use the water surface the way an orbweaving spider uses its web. They are able to detect vibrations in the surface and hone in on them to locate prey which they dispatch and consume with their piercing mouthparts. Water striders use these vibrations to communicate with each other as well, for purposes such as mate finding.

Despite not taking as many photos as usual, I still managed to find fascinating creatures to observe which I have found to be the case whether in Algonquin Provincial Park or my own backyard.

References:

Tozer, Ron. 2012. Birds of Algonquin Park. The Friends of Algonquin Park.

For Previous Posts about Algonquin Observations, see:

Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis)

Moose (Alces alces) Family

-Algonquin Observations (2021):

Part 1: Pog Lake Campground

Part 2: Opeongo Road

Part 3: Peck Lake Trail

Part 4: Spruce Bog Speedrun and the Logging Museum Trail

Part 5: Spruce Bog: The Reckoning

Categories
Nature Observations Species Profile

A Green Heron Stalks the Shallows

Over the past few years I have come to appreciate how beautiful and wonderful birds are. Along with that appreciation has been the realization that there are diverse birds within a short walk or drive of my home. I have encountered new species of birds almost every time I go out to my new favourite birding destination: Long Point. Globally renowned for being a biodiversity hotspot, and a corridor for migrating birds crossing the Great Lakes, Long Point is full of a variety of freshwater habitats and a corresponding diversity of bird species. 

My most recent exciting encounter was with a species I had never before seen up close. Before this past year “Heron” meant the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) the only species of heron I saw regularly, certainly the most conspicuous heron species across North America. But as I was wandering down a trail amid mudflats and shallow coastal marsh, I was treated to an incredible sighting: the small agile form of a Green Heron (Butorides virescens). Stalking swiftly through the shallow water, the Green Heron snapped at the water surface with fair frequency and was always on the move while it foraged. I wasn’t sure exactly what it was eating, but it certainly wasn’t fish unless it was catching tiny individuals. My guess is that it was feeding on aquatic invertebrates such as dragonfly larvae, or other water-dwelling insects. I couldn’t believe my luck to see this beautiful little hunter foraging within a few metres of me. 

Green herons breed across the eastern United States and Southeastern Canada (including Southern Ontario). The birds start arriving in Ontario at the end of April and are gone by the end of October (Davis and Kushlan 2020). Green herons spend the winter in Mexico, Central America and Northern South America. Throughout their range they utilize essentially any fresh or salt-water habitat from inland marshes to coastal mangrove forests (Davis and Kushlan 2020). With such a diversity of habitats, they feed on a wide range of prey depending on where they are hunting including fish, frogs (and tadpoles), lizards and snakes, rodents, crayfish and crabs, aquatic and flying insects, spiders, snails, earthworms and leeches (Davis and Kushlan 2020). Besides these aquatic organisms, they even feed on such surprising prey as nestling birds (Wiley 2001). Clearly Green Herons are opportunistic foragers using a variety of feeding methods to capture such diverse prey. One of the most fascinating foraging behaviours is bait-fishing. Several birds are known to do this*, but Green Herons are the heron most frequently observed using this strategy to catch prey. In one of the first reported instances of bait-fishing in the Green Heron (Lovell 1958) the bird used bread thrown by people to attract fish to the surface and even chased American Coots (Fulica americana) away from its bait.   

*Many herons have been reported to use bait such as the Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) and the Great Egret (Ardea alba), but other birds are also reported bait-fishers, such as the Pied Kingfisher (Ceryle rudis) and the Black Kite (Milvus migrans). Check out this article for more fascinating details: Davis and Zickefoose 1998 (Bait-fishing by Birds: A Fascinating Example of Tool Use | Searchable Ornithological Research Archive (unm.edu))

This photo of the Green Heron shows it off in a more “typical” Heron pose, demonstrating how long its neck is.

The individual that I watched wading through the shallows was not using any bait-fishing techniques, but rather seemed to be doing the more commonly observed stalk-and-stab technique of herons the world over. After roaming across the patch of water directly across from me, it took to the air and flew a short distance to begin combing a new area of wetland for food. What a beautiful, amazing bird.

References:

Davis Jr., W. E. and J. A. Kushlan (2020). Green Heron (Butorides virescens), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.grnher.01

Wiley, James. 2001. Green Heron (Butorides virescens) predation at Village Weaver (Ploceus cucullatus) nests. Journal of Society of Caribbean Ornithology Vol 14 No. 3 pp 130-133. (https://jco.birdscaribbean.org/index.php/jco/article/view/571/475)

Lovell, Harvey B. 1958. Baiting of Fish by a Green Heron. The Wilson Bulletin Vol. 70, No. 3 (Sep., 1958), pp. 280-281 

Davis, William E. and Zickefoose, Julie., 1998. Bait-Fishing by Birds: A Fascinating Example of Tool Use. Bird Observer Vol. 26 No. 3, pp 139-143.

For previous posts focused on birds or Long Point, see:

Return of the Ravens

Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis)

The Wonders of Wrens

A Visit to Big Creek, Part 1 and Part 2

Pinery Birds, Winter 2019

Categories
Uncategorized

I Love Jurassic Park

Perhaps timely, as I await the release of Jurassic World: Dominion, I thought it might be fun to explore my relationship with the franchise as a whole and maybe you’ll have fun reading about it. SPOILERS ahead for all Jurassic Park films and novels released to this date.

The first film holds up amazingly well special-effects wise because it contains mostly animatronic dinosaurs which was always incredible to me. The soundtrack is great, the dinosaurs are powerful and terrifying, the editing and filming is awesome. I always dreamed of having an animatronic (preferably the T. rex of course) outside my house as a child. I also had vivid nightmares of T. rex creeping outside my window as a child… maybe I watched these movies a little too young? In any case, the imagery of the movie is burned into my brain, and the scene of the T. rex attack on the tour vehicles is one of my favourite scenes in any movie ever. The Lost World is filled with animatronics and mostly convincing CGI as well and in that respect it holds true to the Spielberg vision of the original and “feels” like the first film in that way. I really like it, lots of animatronic tyrannosaurs roaring and stomping around, the infamous long grass scene, all of it is great fun and exciting and I have watched it and enjoyed it many times.

When I first saw Jurassic Park III I was really bothered by it. During the first quarter of the movie, the new dinosaur antagonist is introduced, Spinosaurus, and the creature defeats and kills an adult T. rex. This was very bothersome for me since T. rex was (and is) my favourite dinosaur, and as such felt like it should always be shown as superior. Looking back at it now, I’m not as bothered by the Spinosaurus (it’s probably the best part of the movie) but there are some major holes in the plot and general bad movie making that went into JP3, but it’s still a fun movie to watch because there are dinosaurs (and some scaly Pteranodon types) interacting with people and each other. 

The Jurassic World movies are less paleontologically inclined, but still fun for the same reasons as JPIII. Jurassic World was my first Jurassic film that I watched in a theatre and the experience was super fun and exciting. It rekindled my excitement and passion for dinosaurs. Leading up to the sequel’s release (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), a tie-in videogame was highly anticipated by myself: Jurassic World Evolution. While the game had its problems (especially right at release), it delivered on fantastic looking dinosaurs and atmosphere which meant that I could immerse myself in the Jurassic Park world and immerse myself, I did. While playing the videogame I read and very much enjoyed Jurassic West by John Foster. Jurassic West is an excellent introduction to the world of technical paleontology books, describing the Morrison Formation dinosaurs* and their environment. There are a few subjects like paleontology that I had always been interested in from a popular aspect, but had never delved into the more dense scientific books of that field. Jurassic West opened wide the doors to learning more and more intensely about paleontology to the point where now I have a decent paleontology book collection (something I plan to write about more in future). 

*these are some of the most famous household name dinosaurs such as Stegosaurus, Brachiosaurus, Brontosaurus, Apatosaurus, Diplodocus, and Allosaurus, as well as many others.

An excellent introduction to semi technical paleontology. Well-written and great at explaining concepts like stratigraphy and deep time in an intuitive manner.



Despite the problems with the sequel films (I think they have less… integrity? Consistency? Majesty?) they sparked and renewed my interest in dinosaurs and fossils and they’re still very fun to watch! I look forward to the next installment coming out in the next few days…

Now I’d like to take a look at another aspect of Jurassic Park that I have enjoyed for a long time… the novels…

My paperback copy of Jurassic Park, pocket sized for easy transport.

After watching the movies (JP and TLW) countless times I was trawling through my local library and found the novel Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. I only then realized there was a book that the movie was based on. I borrowed the book immediately and dove in. As I was in elementary school (somewhere between 9 and 11 years old by my calculations), I was disturbed by the adult language and graphic descriptions of violence, certainly far more terrifying than anything I had seen on-screen. A standout example is the scene that details Dennis Nedry’s grisly demise at the jaws and claws and spit of the Dilophosaurus. He is literally blinded and holding his own intestines as the dinosaur slowly eats him. I distinctly recall reading sections of the novel while sleeping over at my grandparents’ house and being nervous that they would wonder what it was I was reading. The Dilophosaurus attack sequence was the point at which I quit reading Jurassic Park several times before finally reading all the way through. By then, the book had become a part of my Jurassic Park experience and I would re-read the novel (and its sequel, though not as often) many times. It has become something of a comfort book for me, which may be rather strange but what can you do!

The first novel (especially the first ¼) is written in a journalistic report style and there is considerable mystery and intrigue building up to the reveal of what John Hammond is doing on Isla Nublar. Despite myself already knowing exactly what InGen was doing and how they were doing it, I found this mystery aspect very appealing and still think that the first chunk of the book is an excellent slow build of tension. The buildup establishes an air of authenticity giving the novel a feel of something that might have happened but was not reported on in the wider media. This pseudo-historical style is taken to an extreme in Michael Crichton’s introduction which blends fact and fiction in a way that plants you right in the middle of the “InGen Incident”. 

The novels grew with me. The discussions of scientific ideas such as Chaos Theory, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and genetics went way over my head the first half a dozen times I read the books, but after going to university for Biology, I found that I appreciated the level of detail and “correctness” that is contained in these discussions. Michael Crichton did his research, and it shows.

There are so many details that I love about the books that are lost in the films. They keep Compsognathus packs in the park to clean up the sauropod and other mega-herbivore dung. The T. rex swims after Grant and the kids, a very plausible behaviour nicely on display in the recent BBC documentary Prehistoric Planet (Highly recommended viewing!).

One of my most prized possessions is this beautiful hardback copy of Jurassic Park and The Lost World novels in one volume. The pages are silver edged and there is a red tassel bookmark.

Another standout scene is the Tyrannosaur escape sequence. I’m unsure if it’s because the scene in the film is so iconic and informed my reading of the novel, but that scene in the book always gives me the same sort of chills and goosebumps as the scene in the movie does*. 

*there was one time that I was up late rereading Jurassic Park for the umpteenth time when a thunderstorm slowly rumbled and approached and reached a crescendo just as I read the T. rex escape scene. A wonderful, immersive experience. 

There are major differences in the book’s portrayal of characters versus the movies: Dr. Grant has a beard in the books and is not romantically involved with Ellie Sattler who is a much younger grad student. The lawyer, Donald Gennaro, is an action hero (there is a scene where he fires a rocket launcher at rampaging velociraptors) instead of being eaten on the toilet. The children are reversed in age, so that Lex is the younger kid in the books, and the hacker skills are the older Tim’s as well as all of the likable qualities. Lex takes on all the whining and whingeing in the books and Tim has all of the dinosaur fascination and computer knowledge. Dr. Ian Malcolm is a stand-in for Michael Crichton himself in a lot of ways in the novel, cautioning against the progress of technology for technology’s sake and generally describing research that Crichton obviously found compelling. He generally maintains this author-stand-in role for the movie, but with more “ums and uhs” and very unique line delivery (thanks, Jeff Goldblum… seriously thank you). John Hammond is another major departure from the novel. In the film, he’s a likable grandfatherly figure with dreams and drive. He’s played by David Attenborough’s brother, Richard Attenborough, and apparently modeled some of his mannerisms off his natural history obsessed brother. In the novel he is a rich eccentric who is only interested in money and profits. As a villain in the novel, he meets an untimely end which is rather brutal when you imagine the movie-version character. He gets turned around in the park, falls into a ditch and is nibbled to death by “compys” (Compsognathus), the little green dinosaurs that swarm Dieter in The Lost World film.

My paperback copy of The Lost World. I bought this at the same time as my paperback Jurassic Park. A purchase that saved me countless trips to the library.

The Lost World novel is Crichton’s only sequel, and he runs into some problems. The main issue with a sequel to the Jurassic Park novel was the journalistic news-report style of the original. The closed nature of the first book kept the InGen Incident under wraps and the epilogue mentions offhand that Ian Malcolm died of his injuries in a hospital. As mentioned previously, Ian Malcolm is Crichton himself in the novel so to fulfill this role in the sequel he had to return from the dead. Just as he was killed “off-screen” so to speak in the epilogue of JP he is resurrected in the introduction to TLW. 

Another character that returns in the sequel is Lewis Dodgson, who in the novels is the ‘main villain’. He’s the guy who hired Dennis Nedry to steal the embryos for his company BioSyn, a genetic engineering rival to InGen. He actually interacts with the dinosaurs himself in TLW, as he travels to the island with a small crew. His colleague, Baselton, has a great death scene. It rectifies in the books one of the silliest ideas proposed in both book and movie: that T. rex can only see movement. This bothered me as a kid because I wanted T. rex to be the biggest baddest dinosaur ever (see my reaction to the Spinosaurus deathmatch). Later on, I objected to this portrayal because it just doesn’t make any sense for an active predator to only see moving objects as prey. In The Lost World book we have Baselton get captured by the T. rex because he was “misinformed”. Dodgson is also later fed to the tyrannosaur babies in their nest.

There are some other fascinating bits of dinosaur lore in The Lost World. There’s an encounter with chameleon-Carnotaurs that can colour-match their backgrounds so effectively that they are almost invisible to the main characters (hmm, sounds like a certain hybrid dino in the Jurassic World movie…). The sauropods are described as keeping their necks horizontal, which was vogue at the time (and something I was already keen on after Walking with Dinosaurs) but has since been overturned (https://tetzoo.com/blog/2019/1/18/the-life-appearance-of-sauropod-dinosaurs). The explanation given in the book for why they might have long necks was for counterbalancing their long tails, used in defense. A bit of a stretch if you ask me (see what I did there?), but animals that are still living today often surprise us with their bizarre anatomies. 

The scientific discussions and monologues by Malcolm in the sequel are focused on animal behaviour, evolution and extinction, subjects that are closer to my areas of interest than genetics and complex systems focused on in the first book. Some of these discussions are fascinating and great writing in my opinion and others are a little bit off (see my comment above about the sauropod neck-tail balance theory). TLW is more of an adventure novel than JP, but there are still a lot of dense scientific concepts discussed and presented alongside the usual fun interactions with living Mesozoic dinosaurs. 

Both books are excellent if you like dinosaurs and/or science, if you like a good thriller, or if you like the movies and want more detail/discussion. 

Hopefully you enjoyed my personal thoughts/experiences with the Jurassic Park franchise books and movies. 

For previous paleontology themed blogposts, see:

TetZoomCon 2020

The Palaeoartist’s Handbook, by Mark Witton (Book Review)

Pterosaurs, by Mark Witton (Book Review)

Categories
Nature Observations Tumblr Repost

MacGregor Point Observations (May 2018)

Once again, I’m going to repost one of my tumblr blog posts, this time from May of 2018.

On May 18-21, 2018, we took a trip to MacGregor Point Provincial Park. Today’s post is going to be a highlight of the animal observations/encounters that we had that weekend.

We awoke early the first morning of our stay and looked at the grey skies that promised rain. Hoping to spot some wildlife beneath the somber dawn sky, we set off on the Tower Trail. Our early start was rewarded with the sight of a strange animal resting in a tree.

image

It was a mammal with spines, and the second largest rodent in North America (only beaten by the Beaver): a North American Porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum). After consuming some buds and plants that it foraged in the night it found a perch to rest in for the day, one that seemed awfully thin for the size of the animal.

Further down the trail, we moved through various ponds until the horizon opened into spreading wetlands filled with reeds and bordered by grasses and trees. Here, the red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) were in abundance, uttering their O-ka-leeeee calls from their various perches. We saw males with their velvet black plumage offset by epaulets of red-and-yellow, and we also occasionally spotted the much more camouflaged females. On our last morning camping, we saw one of the females and believed it to be a different species of marsh-bird, but later came to the realization that it was a female red-winged blackbird.

image
image

Male (top) and Female (bottom) Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus).

Mixed with the sounds of the blackbirds, were the trumpeting calls of the Canada Geese (Branta canadensis), always the loudest birds present. As we were leaving the wetlands, we heard a strange call and a bird departing the marsh. We were able to snap a quick picture of it and now believe it’s a Great Egret (Ardea alba).

image

Our fleeting glimpse of a Great Egret (Ardea alba).

Throughout our stay, our campsite was host to several small, flitting birds that would rarely sit still. Every time the eyes caught one in full view the birds would then dart off again, a streak of orange flickering through the branches of the tree like an avian fire. We were barely able to take some pictures of these quick warblers foraging among the branches. They were American Redstarts (Setophaga ruticilla), who had returned from their wintering grounds in Central America and northern South America. Like the Red-wings, the male and female birds look very different- the male sporting a dark coat with orange dashes on the wings and chest, and the female a gray-white with yellow patches on the sides.

image
image

Male (top) and Female (bottom) American Redstarts (Setophaga ruticilla). The pictures unfortunately do not capture their boundless energy.

Beneath clear skies the next day, we set off on the Tower Trail once more, hearing and seeing the blackbirds again. On our way through the wetlands trail, we spotted another creature enjoying the warmth and sun: a Northern Watersnake (Nerodia sipedon).

image

Northern Watersnake (Nerodia sipedon) basking in the sun.

While visiting the trail near the Visitor’s Centre, we were in the right place to see a creature that resembles a mythical beast: a swimming Snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina). Snapping turtles are beautiful creatures and the one we saw moved very stealthily. Despite the clear waters, and the size of the reptile, it was difficult to keep track of its scaly skin among the water-plants as it slowly and gracefully swam through.

image

Also moving through the waters of the marsh were large tadpoles, with heads the size of a toonie or larger. Some were beginning to display the stubs of legs, but continued to swim in wriggling pollywog fashion, so unlike the athletic strokes of their adult frog legs.

image

Once back at our site, I had an itch to use my macro lens to capture some of the tiny creatures that abounded there. Turning over a piece of bark on the gravel of our site, no larger than my palm revealed a portion of a miniature society. Tiny orange-brown ants scurried frantically about. They were Temnothorax ants, which are also known as “acorn ants” because some species of Temnothorax house their entire colony within an acorn.

image
image
image

Temnothorax ants, tiny workers under a piece of bark.

I turned my gaze on equally tiny, but even more numerous inhabitants of our site. Everywhere one looked in the sun, dark specks that slowly moved or hopped about on the gravel, could be seen. To see them in their full was a delight to me. The specks were Springtails, and these were a quite different kind to the ones I had seen before in the snow and on the trail by our house. These Springtails were like tiny rabbits when one could view them up-close. They were Globular springtails (Order Symphypleona) and I’m fairly sure the species was the Garden Springtail (Bourletiella hortensis) or something closely related: 

image
image

For size context, see the following picture of a Woodlouse (Armadillium vulgare). In the bottom left corner, there is one of the little Springtails:

image

In my quest to focus the macro lens on these miniature creatures I inadvertently took a picture of something even smaller than an adult Springtail: a baby Springtail! 

image

As if to demonstrate fully the diversity of these tiny almost-insects, an entirely different species of Springtail was also rushing through the gravel: a member of the genus Orchesella, one of the Elongate Springtails: 

image

Right at the edge of our site, my friend Marshall sighted a beautiful snake with orange underbelly and stripes along its dark body. We thought it must be a rare species but it turned out to be a variant of the diverse Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophus sirtalis), which did nothing to diminish its beauty or wonder.

image
image

A beautiful Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis).

On our last day we went to the Visitor Center trail to feed the Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) from our hands, along with the occasional red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis). Despite some of the rain and cloudy weather, we observed a variety of wild organisms at MacGregor Point and marveled at their diversity and beauty.

image
Categories
Nature Observations

Return of the Ravens

Ravens are awesome, beautiful birds.

My parents’ farm property in Norfolk County has been blessed by the construction of a very exciting nest. One day when I arrived at their house and opened my car door I was greeted by the distinctive “croak” of a Common Raven (Corvus corax). The sound startled me, placing me in the woodlands of Algonquin Park, but there was no mistaking that call, and the size of the bird making it. I could see the calling raven, perched atop an unused silo. As exciting as this brief sighting was, the true significance of this bird’s presence was not yet revealed.

Later that same week, my Mom asked about the large crows and mentioned that they were building a nest on top of the silo. She said they went back and forth with sticks in their beaks. Maybe this news wouldn’t be so exciting to some people but for myself the thought of a raven nest that I could regularly observe was exhilarating.

And observe it I have!

On a recent visit, I went back to check out the nest and take some pictures. After only a few moments of watching the silo, I heard the sounds of one of these amazing birds returning and saw it carrying a  large stick in its beak. The raven dropped the stick onto the nest pile without even landing, continuing to soar through the sky on its powerful wings. Apparently, if a dropped stick doesn’t stay in the nest, the ravens won’t pick them up again off the ground (Stokes and Stokes 1989). The sticks are taken from tree branches, broken off by the ravens, not collected from the ground (Stokes and Stokes 1989). In addition to large sticks, the nest could contain dirt and grass clumps as well as an interior lining of gathered hair or bark (Stokes and Stokes 1989).

The raven didn’t even land, just dropped the stick from the air onto its nest.

A few minutes later, a turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) came drifting towards the silo. The large bird seemed to be planning to perch atop the silo, something I have seen vultures do previously. Swooping onto the scene with deep throaty “croaks” the raven pair chased the vulture off into the distance, something that was reminiscent of the classic behaviour of corvids mobbing raptors or owls.

One of the ravens pursuing a turkey vulture.

As I said at the beginning of this post, the call and sight of ravens makes me think of Algonquin Park, and that’s for good reason. Until now, it was the only location I had seen these birds. Ravens used to be common across all of Ontario but mainly due to habitat destruction and human persecution, they have been mostly absent from far southern Ontario for about a century (Cadman et. al. 1987). Ravens were even rare in Algonquin Park until the 1960s because of the poisoned baits left out for wolves (Tozer 2012). The most recent field guide I have (Bezener 2016) still has the raven range map cut off before reaching most of Southern Ontario.

I’ve tried unsuccessfully to find a good source for the current breeding range of ravens in Ontario, but I suppose I’ll have to wait for the next edition of the Breeding Bird Atlas, which is collecting data right now (2021-2025) for its creation. It’s an amazing project, and if you have the time to contribute go for it! Suffice to say, this nest of ravens is a fairly new thing in my area and is very exciting. I hope that they have a successful nesting season, and I have a feeling I will have more posts about this nest in the future! At the time these observations were made (March 29, 2022) the ravens have possibly already laid eggs in the nest, as Tozer (2012) gives a range for Alqonquin raven egg-laying as March 20 – April 19. Stay tuned!

Raven and turkey vulture, showing nicely the relative wingspans of these two large birds.

References:

Bezener, Andy. 2016. Birds of Ontario. 376 pp. Partners and Lone Pine Publishing.

Cadman, M. D., Eagles, P. F. J., and Helleiner, F. M. 1987. Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario. 617 pp. University of Waterloo Press.

Tozer, Ron. 2012. Birds of Algonquin Park. 474 pp. The Friends of Algonquin Park.

Stokes, Donald and Stokes, Lillian. 1989. A Guide to Bird Behavior. Volume III. 397 pp. Little, Brown, and Company.

For Previous articles that have some relevance to this one, see:

Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis)

Algonquin Observations, Part 3 – Peck Lake Trail

Fuzzy Flies and Song Sparrows