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
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
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
August 2021 Observations Nature Observations

Parasitic Plants and other Non-Fungi (NFN Fungi Hike Part 3)

Last August, I went on a hike in Backus Woods with the Norfolk Field Naturalists to identify and photograph fungi. For the first two parts of the observations I made during the hike, see Part 1 and Part 2. My two previous posts covered all of the fungi (and several interesting non-fungi including wood frogs and fungus weevils) that I photographed and described some of their interesting biologies and ecologies. This final post is a roundup of the non-fungi observations I made during the hike.

You would be forgiven for thinking that this next observation also represented the fruiting body of a fungus. Instead, this drooping white organism is actually a plant without chlorophyll (and thus without the colour green and without the ability to capture light from the sun and turn it into sugar). Ghost Pipes (Monotropa uniflora) are parasitic plants, which feed indirectly on the roots of their host trees via underground fungi that attach to the roots in a mycorrhizal relationship (Runtz 2020). The flower heads droop, and give this strange flower its name of “pipe” but when they are pollinated (by bees usually) they will raise their flowers straight upward (Runtz 2020).

Some more traditional plants (you know, ones that are green and perform the magic of photosynthesis) were also spotted along the trails. I learned that the bright red clusters of berries were the ripened fruits of George-Michael-in-the-Banana-Stand (Arisaema triphyllum)*. Besides the red berry clusters, we also saw representatives with green berries that hadn’t ripened yet. Although they may look edible, these red berries contain high levels of oxalic acid and cause painful burning in people that eat them… although apparently white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and wood thrushes will eat them and be fine (Holland 2016).

*more traditionally, the common name is Jack-in-the-Pulpit and most people probably know it by this name, but I couldn’t resist using the new common name proposed by The Field Guides Podcast (for my review of the Field Guides Podcast go here)

Another red-berried plant was a new one for me: Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens). These red berries are edible, but apparently tasteless. The flowers are pollinated by bumblebees and as the name suggests the berries are consumed by ground-birds (such as grouse and turkeys), but also by skunks and white-footed mice (Hayden 2012). You would think that partridges would eat these berries… but we don’t have any partridges in North America, and this species only grows here… so here we have a very useless common name.

Partridgeberry growing and spreading through the leaf litter.

Two other wildflowers added colour and beauty to our hike: Spotted Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) and Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica). Spotted Jewelweed is pollinated mainly by hummingbirds and bees, while the Great Blue Lobelia is pollinated mostly by bumblebee (Eastman 1995). I unknowingly captured this interaction between Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and Spotted Jewelweed in the past, so I’ve included a picture here.

A few interesting arthropod encounters also enhanced the hike. An American Giant Millipede (of the Narceus americanus complex)* was found in curled defensive posture. 

*the complex refers to the fact that this “species” is actually made up of many species that may be extremely difficult to distinguish

American Giant Millipede in defensive spiral. I didn’t mean to disturb you!

On the way out of Backus Woods, I spotted some speedy insects scurrying across the sands and gravels of the path, those predatory jewels known as Tiger Beetles (Cicindelinae). The two species that I spotted and photographed were the Punctured Tiger Beetle (Cicindela punctulata) and the Big Sand Tiger Beetle (Cicindela formosa). 

I hope you enjoyed this tour through Backus Woods with a focus on Fungi. I know I learned a lot and am excited for future outings with the Norfolk Field Naturalists!

References:

Eastman, John. 1995. The Book of Swamp and Bog.

Hayden, W. John. 2012. “2012 Wildflower of the Year: Partridge Berry, Mitchella Repens.” Virginia Native Plant Society Brochure, 2012, 1-3.

Holland, Mary. 2016. Naturally Curious Day by Day.

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

For more Nature Observations in Norfolk County, see:

-Fascinating Fungi (NFN Fungi Hike, Part 2)

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

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

The Wonders of Wrens

Cuckoo Wasps and Carpenter Bees

Flies Falling to Fungi and Other Dipteran Observations

Fuzzy Flies and Song Sparrows

Leafhoppers, Lepidopterans and Longhorns

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

Categories
August 2021 Observations Nature Observations

Fantastic Fungi (NFN Fungi Hike, Part 2)

Back in August, I went for a hike with the Norfolk Field Naturalists to search for Fungi to photograph (see Part 1). Along the way, I encountered many organisms both fungal and not-so-fungal.

One non-fungus was photographed perched atop some fungi on a log. The creature was a Marbled Fungus Weevil (Euparius marmoreus), which feeds on polypore fungi (Marshall 2018).

Marbled Fungus Weevil, the only time I used my macro lens on this entire hike.

The next observation brings us back to the focus of the hike: Fungi. This strange spherical object covered in a lacework pattern is the fruiting body of an Earthball (Scleroderma). These fungi actually interconnect with tree roots to form mycorrhizal associations, benefitting the trees and the fungus (Stephenson 2010).

Earthball (Scleroderma), the fruiting body of a mycorrhizal fungus.

Another spherical object caught our eye while hiking through the woods: an Oak apple gall. This particular one was caused by Amphibolips cookii, a Gall Wasp feeding within the bud of a Red Oak (Quercus rubra). The bud developed into this spherical gall, while the larva fed within and then this “oak apple” detached and fell to the forest floor, and I guess the adult wasp has already left this gall behind? I don’t know, it was very difficult to find any information about this species or gall wasps (Cynipidae) in general despite them being fascinating insects (what I did find was a website that contains some information: gallformers.org, a site worth checking out if interested). I have a particular fondness for galls caused by insects… they’re plant growths that create particular species-specific patterns for the insects that inhabit them… what’s not to like?

Oak Apple Gall (caused by Amphibolips cookii).

Further down the trails, we encountered some classically shaped mushrooms unlike the more bizarre (in my opinion) Earthballs (Scleroderma). A member of the genus Oudemansiella and a member of the genus Russula.

Oudemansiella mushroom.

Russula fungi are ectomycorrhizal, meaning that their underground mycelia (the major part of the fungal body) connect with roots of trees and other plants to transfer and exchange nutrients (Stephenson 2010). 

Russula mushroom.

Some of the most common fungi that we spotted were associated (as many fungi are) with dead or dying wood. Fungi that feed on dead or decaying material are known as saprotrophs. Orange Mycena (Mycena leaiana) were spotted multiple times throughout our excursion and I have to say they might be my favourite fungi that we found simply for aesthetic reasons. The beautiful colour of their fruiting bodies really brighten up the dead logs and fallen trees in the forest. 

Another wood-feeding saprotroph we found often is known as the “Oyster Mushroom” (Pleurotus), apparently because of its fishy smell (which I couldn’t detect, perhaps it needs to be cooking?). These are very commonly collected for humans to eat.  As mentioned above, the Oyster Mushrooms feed on decaying and dead wood, but they also feed on microscopic creatures called nematodes. The details of the interaction are incredible. The Pleurotus fungi has special cells among its hyphae (the underground components of the fungal mycelium) which produce a toxin that paralyzes nematodes. After contact, the nematodes continue moving (usually much slowed, and erratically) for 30 seconds to several minutes before succumbing to the paralyzing toxin. The immobilized nematodes are then attractive to fungal growth from the Pleurotus mycelium, which produces hyphae that thread through the material (usually dead wood or soil) to reach the nematodes and enter their bodies. These fungal threads break the nematode down, consuming it while it is still alive but paralyzed. If you’re interested in more of these details, you can read the full paper where it’s described (Barron and Thorn 1987) here: https://cdnsciencepub.com/doi/10.1139/b87-103.

Pleurotus mushroom, unassuming destroyer of wood and nematodes.

There were a couple of other saprotrophic fungi found feeding on logs during the hike. Resinous Polypore (Ischnoderma resinosum) has a strange texture that was unexpected, though appearing like tougher shelf fungi it was actually quite soft and pliable. Our guide likened it to the feel of a donut and I can attest that this assessment is bizarrely valid.

Resinous Polypore, strangely soft and light.

Not all fungi grow on logs however, and there are several interesting groups that are very easy to miss. One colorful but tiny fungus is the Red Chanterelle (Cantharellus cinnabarinus) which grows singly or in clumps and is connected to the root systems of trees in yet another mycorrhizal relationship.

Red Chanterelle peeking out from the leaf litter.

Two representatives of a more bizarre ground-sprouting group would have been easily missed. This group is known as the “Earth-tongues” (Family Geoglossaceae). You can (perhaps unfortunately) see their resemblance to strange tiny tongues protruding from the soil. Our guide was quite excited to have spotted the dark Earth-tongues (identified via iNaturalist as Trichoglossum because of the tiny hairs) because they would be very easy to miss.

That brings us to the end of the fascinating fungi that I spotted on our hike! It is not the end however of the non-fungal sightings. A few more of those to review in the final part of this ‘series’.

References:

G. L. Barron and R. G. Thorn, 1987. Destruction of nematodes by species of PleurotusCanadian Journal of Botany65(4): 774-778. https://doi.org/10.1139/b87-103

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

Stephenson, Steven. 2010. The Kingdom Fungi.

For other Nature Observations in Norfolk County, see:

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

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

The Wonders of Wrens

Cuckoo Wasps and Carpenter Bees

Flies Falling to Fungi and Other Dipteran Observations

Fuzzy Flies and Song Sparrows

Leafhoppers, Lepidopterans and Longhorns

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