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

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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: 

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

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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! 

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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: 

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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.

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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.

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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

Categories
Nature Observations Tumblr Repost

Cryptic Caterpillars

In the interests of my own personal goals to post at least once a month, I’m going to re-publish my very first post on my first iteration of the Norfolk naturalist blog, which was on tumblr. I’m planning to re-post all of my articles that I wrote on my tumblr on this site at some stage (possibly with some slight updates/alterations) since I would like them all in one place, and my own website seems like the best place to have that. So here is my first Norfolk Naturalist post, originally published on my tumblr back in 2018 (over 4 years ago!):

While walking the trail near my house, I spotted a twig in an unlikely spot. Instead of forming the final split of a growing or dead branch, the tiny twiglet (just larger than my fingernail) was jutting out into the air from the railing of the bridge. Something strange was going on. On closer inspection, it turned out not to be a twig at all. Rather, a caterpillar had chosen a poor and rather conspicuous spot to hide.

If this caterpillar had chosen a better location, it surely would have fooled me. Even where it was, it was extremely difficult to spot. The coloration and shape of its back was a perfectly mottled gray-brown, and its posture was that of a twig. It was thin-bodied and elongate, only about a millimeter around.

The caterpillar’s odd shape is provided by it having a large space between what are its true legs (the six legs just behind the head) and its ‘prolegs’ which are fleshy stubs coming off of its abdomen. This large space also causes these caterpillars to move in a unique fashion. They lift the front group of legs and extend it forward, reaching ahead and securing themselves there. Then they lift their rear group of legs and move them forward to reconnect with the front legs. Once together, the rear legs hold their place and the caterpillar once more reaches forward with its front legs. This “inching along” process provides this group of caterpillars with their name: the Inchworms (Family Geometridae).

A caterpillar’s main predators are birds which hunt visually. If the caterpillar appears to be something other than a morsel to a hungry bird, then it has succeeded and survived another moment. This type of behavior has a technical name: “crypsis” or “cryptic behavior”, which just sounds amazing. It strikes this cryptic pose when threatened, and so effectively disappears from a hunting bird’s search. I suppose it must have assumed this position when I walked near, thinking me to be hunting it for food. In reality, I was hunting only for a few pictures.

I hope you enjoyed that “repost” from the older version of norfolk naturalist blogging. I promise I’m still working on My Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020 series and I also have several other posts about more recent nature sightings in the works. Hopefully April will be a more productive writing month!

Categories
Nature Observations Top 20 Photos 2013-2020

4. Common Five-Lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus)

Subject: Common Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus).

Location: Pinery Provincial Park.

Date: May 2017.

For an Introduction to this series (my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020) go here.

The Story Behind the Shot: As I mentioned in the previous photo-story, I have only rarely sought out a target species when photographing or wandering in nature. Instead, I usually just stumble upon whatever I stumble upon and find out about it later. Not so at Pinery Provincial Park, one of the only locations I’ve visited where I can see a wild lizard. While camping in the park, I had always dreamed of spotting that elusive beast: the Common Five-Lined Skink, the only lizard species that lives in Ontario. It was actually on the way to the bathroom that I spotted this creature, poking out from behind a bulletin board with announcements attached to the outside of the facility. The creature dropped down out of sight when I walked past. I caught sight of the animal out of the corner of my eye and my brain only registered what I saw a few seconds later. Then I raced back to my campsite to retrieve my camera and raced back to hopefully capture some pictures of this almost mythical creature. Thankfully the Skink hadn’t moved away and I was able to take a few pictures, my heart pounding with excitement. 

The Story Behind the Species: Before we get into the more general information about these Skinks, I’d like to take a moment to describe what I can of this individual lizard that I observed and photographed. Because of its size and coloration I can tell you that it was an adult male skink. Young five-lined skinks have a bright pattern of yellow stripes on black, with a strikingly blue tail. Some female skinks retain the blue tail into adulthood but males’ tails usually fade to grey, and they develop a reddish-orange head which is evident in the pictured individual.

Here is another shot of the same individual skink. You can see the striped pattern slightly, and his orange-ish head coloration. No blue tail here, which along with the orange head marks this as an adult male. Also note that this picture (and the one above) is rotated, the tail here is touching the concrete foundation of the restroom.

It takes two or three years for five-lined skinks to reach maturity (Harding and Mifsud 2017), so this individual was likely at least two years old when I encountered it.

Although the five-lined skink is the only lizard species in Ontario, and within the province its distribution is limited to coastal dunes along the edges of the Great Lakes, populations of this species range across much of the eastern United States all the way south to Florida and Texas. Because of this wide range of latitude, some populations experience much colder conditions than others. The populations in Ontario and northern populations in the United States spend the winter inactive and dormant (around the Great Lakes from about October to late April) (Harding and Mifsud 2017). These dormant lizards hide themselves away in stumps or logs, rock or building crevices, or mammal burrows. It’s intriguing to think of a five-lined skink taking refuge from the Canadian winter inside the burrow of a chipmunk and it seems that this likely happens.

In the spring, the skinks emerge from dormancy and form loose territories which males will defend against other males in order to mate with receptive females. A month after mating, the female finds a hidden nest site (in the same sorts of places used for overwintering, see above) and lays up to 20 eggs (Harding and Mifsud 2017). After 1-2 months, the eggs hatch and the hatchlings leave the nest within 1-2 days.

As already mentioned the juveniles have bright blue tails and a pronounced striping pattern down their backs, adult males have bright reddish-orange heads especially during the breeding season (May-June in Ontario). You might expect that these lizards use visual cues for reproduction, and they likely do but they also have a powerful sense of smell which has been shown to be capable of distinguishing reproductive characteristics of other skink individuals (such as maturity and sex) and a related species has even been shown to be able to distinguish individuals by scent (Cooper 1996).

It seems that the bright blue tails are more of an antipredator adaptation than a visual signal to other skinks (though it no doubt functions as both). How does the tail help a skink escape predation? The colour draws the eye of visually-hunting predators, distracting from more vulnerable parts of the skink such as the head or torso. And I’m sure you’ve heard this one before: if seized by a predator, the tail can become detached and will even wriggle for several minutes on its own.

What sort of predators hunt five-lined skinks? Basically anything that can catch these swift little lizards: snakes, mammals, birds, and perhaps most surprisingly… Spiders. An excellently illustrated and fascinating book about lizards, Lizards: Windows to the Evolution of Diversity (Pianka and Vitt 2003), contains a photo of a juvenile five-lined skink caught by a spider (p. 66). Usually the invertebrates are on the menu for the skink which feeds on a wide variety of leaf-litter inhabitants. Large skinks will feed on small vertebrates as well such as frogs or baby mice.

Well, that’s that: the only lizard species in Ontario, and I was lucky enough to see and photograph it.

Next up is a two-for-one (two species in one photo) which features an insect that has caught another, both species are fascinating. Stay tuned…

References:

Cooper, W. E. Jr. 1996. “Chemosensory recognition of familiar and unfamiliar conspecifics by the scincid lizard Eumeces laticeps.” Ethology 102: 1-11. cited in: Pianka, Eric, and Vitt, Laurie. 2003. Lizards: Windows to the Evolution of Diversity.

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

Pianka, Eric, and Vitt, Laurie. 2003. Lizards: Windows to the Evolution of Diversity.Pianka, Eric, and Vitt, Laurie. 2003. Lizards: Windows to the Evolution of Diversity.

For the previous articles in my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020 series, see:

Introduction

-1. The Pale-Painted Sand Wasp (Bembix pallidipicta)

2. Moose (Alces alces) Family

3. Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis).

Categories
Top 20 Photos 2013-2020

3. Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis)

Subject: Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis).

Location: Algonquin Provincial Park.

Date: March 2017.

For an Introduction to this series (my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020) go here.

The Story Behind the Shot: I’ve only visited Algonquin Park in the Winter twice. On this occasion, in March 2017, I was actually searching for this particular bird (one of the rare times that I have a target species in mind, I’ll be recounting another one for my next photo). The Canada Jay had only recently been rebranded as such, the common name used to be the Gray Jay and some people still refer to it as such (after all, common names can sort of be whatever you want them to be). Part of the name-change or name-shift was to do with a campaign by the Canadian Geographic Society to name the Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis) as Canada’s National Bird. For more information about this story, see the Canadian Geographic article here: https://www.canadiangeographic.ca/article/meet-our-national-bird-gray-jay. Having read up on this story I wanted to encounter this emblem of our country and was able to catch a glimpse of it in the parking lot of the Spruce Bog trail in Algonquin Park.

The Story Behind the Species: The Canada Jay is a permanent resident of cold northern forests across North America (Cadman et. al. 1987). Algonquin Park is at the southern edge of their range in Ontario (Tozer 2012). Canada Jays are able to live and breed in their northern habitats because of their food-storing abilities. They are highly adaptable birds, feeding on a wide variety of food, obtained in a wide variety of ways. The Cornell All About Birds website sums it up like this: they will “snap up flying insects in the air, wade in shallow water to capture invertebrates and amphibians, kill small mammals, raid the nests of other birds” (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Canada_Jay/lifehistory). The food they gather in the summer is cached throughout their territories in preparation for the long winter. This food store allows them to start nesting as early as the end of February in Algonquin Park (Tozer 2012). They prefer to nest in spruce forests, and there is some evidence to suggest that the antibacterial properties of some conifers actually work to preserve the food the jays store in them (Tozer 2012).

Amazingly adaptable, clever and curious birds. I certainly support its status as unofficial National Bird of Canada.

References:

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

Tozer, Ron. 2012. Birds of Algonquin Park.

For the previous articles in my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020 series, see:

Introduction

-1. The Pale-Painted Sand Wasp (Bembix pallidipicta)

2. Moose (Alces alces) Family

For more observations in Algonquin Park, see my Algonquin Observations (August 2021) series:

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 Top 20 Photos 2013-2020

2. Moose (Alces alces) Family

Subject: Moose (Alces alces) Mother and Calves.

Location: Algonquin Provincial Park.

Date: July 2016.

For an Introduction to this series (my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020) go here.

The Story Behind the Shot: For several summers, I have stayed in Algonquin Provincial Park for a week, camping in Pog Lake Campground and exploring various trails and locations along the Highway 60 corridor, attempting to photograph interesting creatures that I encountered. One of the most quintessential Algonquin animals is the Moose, and I didn’t spot one on this trip until we were on our way out of the park, driving down the highway early in the morning. This family group of Moose (a mother and two calves) was an amazing treat to watch as they continued to browse some foliage and walk through the clearing adjacent to the road.

The Story Behind the Species: Moose are large mammals, the largest land mammal that one can encounter in Eastern North America. As such, they have been the subject of plenty of research and interest. For this post I want to focus on their reproductive cycle since the photo I captured features a mother and her two calves. Calves are born in May, after 7 months of growth within the mother. Pregnant Moose will often seek out islands in lakes as the location to give birth as it provides some protection from roaming bears or wolves (Strickland and Rutter 2018). You may be wondering how a mother moose can reach an island that a bear or wolf won’t frequent. Moose are actually quite excellent swimmers, they can feed on underwater plants, can swim to depths of 5.5 m and stay under for more than 30 seconds (Naughton 2012). The two young in my photo are likely twins since they appear to be the same size. Apparently, “twins are not uncommon under good conditions” (Naughton 2012). The young stay with their mother for a full year before they disperse (Strickland and Rutter 2018).

A fascinating animal and one I’m sure I will return to explore further on my blog in the future.

References:

Naughton, Donna. 2012. The Natural History of Canadian Mammals.

Strickland, Dan and Rutter, Russell. 2018. Mammals of Algonquin Provincial Park.

For the previous articles in my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020 series, see:

Introduction

-1. Pale-Painted Sand Wasp

For more observations in Algonquin Park, see my Algonquin Observations (August 2021) series:

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
Top 20 Photos 2013-2020

1. The Pale-Painted Sand Wasp (Bembix pallidipicta)

Subject: Pale-Painted Sand Wasp* (Bembix pallidipicta)

*this species doesn’t have a common name, so I created this common name by using the etymology of its scientific name “pallidipicta” which seems to mean “pale-painted”.

Location: Parents’ Farm, Norfolk County.

Date: July 2013.

For an Introduction to this series (my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020) go here.

The Story Behind the Shot: While growing up, my brother and I discussed several times the idea of a project: to list every single species that occurred on our family’s property. While this project never reached fruition, the idea of it has inspired me throughout my adventures with the creatures in my own backyard and elsewhere. One day several years ago I spent a day just wandering around on my parents’ farm taking photos of every interesting creature that caught my eye. I was amazed to find busy little wasps digging burrows in the sand at the edge of the field. Despite their frenzied activity I managed to capture one at the entrance of its burrow.

The Story Behind the Species: Bembix pallidipicta is one of those Sand Wasps (members of the subfamily Bembicinae) I’ve mentioned once or twice on my blog about a year ago now. The following information on this species is summarized from Evans and O’Neill (2007).

Not all Sand Wasps construct burrows in sand, but B. pallidipicta does, usually selecting large areas of loose sand to begin their burrowing. Nest site selection is fine-tuned in that they require a small amount of moisture in the sand to maintain a fine crust when they tunnel beneath it. The sites where the females emerge and the males mate are often suitable for the females to use for their nest construction, so unless the habitat is disturbed the same site can support a population of sand wasps for multiple generations. B. pallidipicta males gather around sites where adult females will soon emerge, and fly in short hops, which gives the appearance of “aggregations of very small toads” (Evans 1957).

Once their burrow is constructed with a chamber up to 56 cm beneath the surface (the depth is partly determined by the dryness of the sand), the females lay a single egg at one end of the chamber (termed the brood cell). This egg will hatch and the wasp larva will wait within its subterranean chamber for its mother to provide food. B. pallidipicta exhibits what is called “progressive provisioning” which means that the mother brings prey in multiple times to the larva while it is growing and feeding. I’ve always loved this aspect of sand wasps because it’s essentially the same setup as songbirds awaiting worms in their nests. For B. pallidipicta, the prey is all true flies (Order Diptera) of several Brachyceran families, including Flower Flies (Syrphidae), Horse Flies (Tabanidae) and House Flies (Muscidae). When bringing fresh prey to her larva, the mother will push the fragments of partially eaten prey off to the side, and block this debris off with sand. This likely helps prevent parasites or diseases from accumulating within the nest, or it’s possible that it’s a way for the mother wasp to judge how much more prey to provide. Because B. pallidipicta nests in large unrelated groups, females will occasionally steal prey from other females nearby to feed their own offspring. After about 4 days of feeding, the larva pupates and the mother moves on to construct a new nest.

Another view of the same individual Sand Wasp entering its burrow.

My top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020 are going to be presented in chronological order of when I took the photos, they aren’t arranged in any other sort of hierarchy. Come back next time for a photo of a much larger animal caring for its young…

For previous posts about Hymenoptera, see:

-Cuckoo Wasps and Carpenter Bees

The Sand Wasps, Part 1: Introduction

-The Sand Wasps, Part 2: The Tribe Alyssontini

The Social Biology of Wasps (Book Review)

Species Profile: Introduced Pine Sawfly

References:

Evans, Howard E. Studies on the Comparative Ethology of Digger Wasps of the Genus Bembix, cited in Evans, Howard E. and O’Neill, Kevin M. 2007. The Sand Wasps: Natural History and Behavior.

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

Categories
Top 20 Photos 2013-2020

My Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020

I think this photo (taken in MacGregor Provincial Park May 2018) of a Snapping Turtle lurking at the air-water interface is pretty neat. But it didn’t make it into my personal top 20 Nature Photo list.

As you may know if you’ve been reading some of my earlier posts this year, I joined the Norfolk Field Naturalists this past Summer. This has meant joining with local nature enthusiasts for hikes (see NFN Fungi Hike posts, part 1, part 2, and part 3) and listening in on monthly presentations beginning in September. The December NFN meeting is going to be a “Members’ Night” in which members of the group can present up to 20 pictures or a short video of trips or observations of their own. I was excited by the prospect of sharing my photos and observations (as indeed I’ve been doing with this blog site).

So… what photos to select for my portion of the slideshow? I decided to present the highlight photos of my own past observations to demonstrate a bit about myself and my experiences.

I realized that I needed to pick out 20 of my top observations/nature photos of all time. At first 20 seemed like a lot… but going through my personal archives of nature photos I soon came to understand that it would actually be quite difficult to decide on which photos to include as I have take quite a few over the past several years.*

*literally thousands of photos of hundreds of species

So, to help narrow my choices down I eliminated this past year, 2021. I did this for a couple of reasons: 

  1. I would like to go over my 2021 nature photos on my blog (and I already have showcased many here), and I wanted to do something different for this presentation, ie. I wanted to review other photos and observations than ones I was already planning to write about.
  2. I believe I have truly improved a lot in my nature photography and I personally think that 2021 contains some of my best photos. If this is true, then this past year of observations might get over-represented in a list of “best nature photos”.

2021 out of the way, I only had about 8 years of nature photos to trawl through for those greatest hits. To decide which photos to include in my list, I considered the following:

  1. First and foremost, they had to be good pictures, high-quality, focused, nice composition. I usually don’t think of my pictures in this way because I’m interested and excited by the organisms involved and not the quality of the photos per se. But for a slideshow I wanted to have only the most crisp clear photos.
  2. Unique or rare organisms or behaviour were preferred. I have taken many pictures of Honeybees (Apis mellifera) and American Red Squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) but unless they were doing something interesting or were exceptionally beautiful shots I wanted to compile a list of the more rare (to me) species that I’ve seen and photographed.
  3. Taxonomic Variety. I wanted the photos to reflect my own interests in nature which is pretty wide in scope, encompassing basically all that’s living with a particular emphasis (partly just because I can observe and photograph them more regularly and easily) on Insects and Birds. In other words, I didn’t want the 20 top photos to be a list made up of half Hymenoptera and half Lepidoptera, I wanted to have a good variety of organisms from across the tree of life.

As you can probably tell from the above, the list at the end of the day is quite… arbitrary. It’s my own decision what to include and what not to include, what’s particularly interesting and what organisms are different enough to showcase. I feel like this preamble is more for myself than for anyone else because I think everyone already assumes that a list such as this will be arbitrary but I felt while picking photos I needed to have some sort of guidelines to create a somewhat representative list. Anyway, boring stuff out of the way, next post will be the first of 20 of my top 20 Nature photos taken between 2013 and 2020!

Until then, I will leave you with a few of my photos that didn’t quite make it into my final list:

Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) on the Lynn Valley Trail, February 2018:

Bog Copper Butterfly (Tharsalea epixanthe), in Algonquin Provincial Park, July 2018:

Six-spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexpunctata) on the Lynn Valley Trail, May 2020: