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: