The Spruce Bog Boardwalk is a trail that runs through (and also, over) the fascinating ecosystem of a northern bog. Bog “soil” is composed of decaying plant matter known as peat, and this substrate is extremely acidic, allowing only certain types of plants to grow within these wetlands. The ones that do are hardy species and the most conspicuous is the only species of tree to thrive here: the Black Spruce (Picea mariana). Black Spruce are scraggly trees, but they are trees which live in such a difficult environment that they are truly impressive.
Certain portions of the Spruce Bog trail feature beautiful wildflowers and insects, but on this occasion I rushed through the trail for personal reasons*, only stopping to snap a picture near the very end of the trail. The bird I photographed is related to the Eastern Kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus) that I saw perched near the Opeongo Lake Road, it was an Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe).
*essentially it had to do with a small tired person accompanying me
Eastern Phoebes are part of the Tyrannidae Family of birds and if you’re thinking that sounds like a Family of Dinosaurs then I’d like to mention briefly that you would be 100% correct. Tyrannidae is a Family of Dinosaurs, because ALL Birds are Dinosaurs that have survived the mass extinction of other branches of the Dinosaur family tree (including the branch called Tyrannosauridae, ie Tyrannosaurus and kin, which is the one you were probably thinking of). Tyrannidae (the Tyrant Flycatchers) is not especially close to the Tyrannosauridae (the Tyrant Dinosaurs) of course, but they are both included within Dinosauria.
Anyway, another extant (as opposed to extinct) Dinosaur species that I observed was on the Logging Museum Trail, floating swiftly between Water lilies: the Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus). The photographed individual (a female, I believe) isn’t raising its headfeathers into a crest, which is where it’s name of “hooded” merganser comes from. These ducks nest in tree cavities (so not just Wood Ducks do this… huh…) using old Woodpecker nest cavities most of the time (Tozer 2012).
Two wildflower species caught my eye on the same trail that day. One was a relative of the Steeplebush (Spiraea tomentosa) (see Peck Lake observations), being part of the same Genus Spiraea. White Meadowsweet (Spiraea alba) is more popular with Butterflies than the Steeplebush, as it produces more nectar than the former (Runtz 2020).
The other wildflower was Virgin’s-Bower (Clematis virginiana) and it was being attended to by Blackjacket Wasps (Vespula consobrina).
Let the Blackjacket Wasps serve as a teaser for the final chapter of my Algonquin observations: Spruce Bog: the Reckoning, in which I return to the Spruce Bog trail and take a very long time to walk it, Macro Lens equipped! Move over Birds and Flowers (well, there will be some flowers)! It’s finally time for the Insects to take their usual place in the spotlight of my camera!
Morning in Algonquin Park is a wonderful thing. Monday August 2 was cool and the air was filled with heavy mist that blurred the edges of the tall Red Pines of the Pog Lake Campground as I set out for an early morning hike in the hopes of some interesting sightings.
I had decided to head to the Peck Lake Trail, because as the name implies, it circles a Lake and I thought it might afford some nice views in the morning mist, and some rare creatures to photograph. The first Bird I photographed on the trail was one I had never seen before (or at least never captured with my camera): the Blue-headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius).
As I came upon an opening in the woods I was rewarded with an excellent view of the misty lake in the morning, with its signature Algonquin Park inhabitant: the Common Loon (Gavia immer). No matter how many times I hear that undulating call or see this distinctive bird dive beneath a lake to reappear surprisingly far away, I will be amazed. In Ancient Life of the Great Lakes Basin it’s mentioned that Loons are an ancient group of birds with fossils being found in the Cretaceous Period, contemporary with non-avian Dinosaurs. “One gets goose bumps imagining the characteristic tremulo calls and haunting wails of the loon song echoing over the lakes and swamps of the Cretaceous over 60 million years ago.” (Holman, 1995). We will likely never know if these ancient members of the Loon lineage (Gaviiformes) had similar calls, but the image is certainly a beautiful one.
While admiring the majesty of the Loon on the lake, I was distracted by a series of strange noises from above me in a tree. The noises were certainly a bird, but I had no idea what sort until the bird took off and flew away with heavy wingbeats. The bird in question was a Common Raven (Corvus corax) and they’re renowned for being diverse vocalists. One of the vocalizations they don’t make is a “caw”ing sound, unlike their relatives and the species often confused with them: the Common Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos). The power and size of a Raven impress me every time I see them, enhanced always by my readings of Bernd Heinrich who has devoted much time and energy into exploring these magnificent birds’ ecology and behaviour (see Mind of the Raven, Ravens in Winter, and most Bernd Heinrich books mention Ravens at one point or another).
As I continued down the trail, I was once again startled by the movements of a rather large Bird except that this time the Bird was on the ground, directly in front of me on the trail rather than flying away across the treeline. I am quite disappointed by how my pictures of this bird turned out, and I’ll blame the bird’s constant movement and the poor lighting conditions of a shaded woodland in the early hours of the morning for their poor quality. The Bird was a Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus), one of two Grouse species found in Algonquin Park.
Back to the trees, I spotted another Bird, one I had already photographed during my trip here, though this particular individual looked rather different. It was a Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata), though the pattern is quite obscured on this individual. I believe it’s either a Juvenile or a Female since it doesn’t carry the distinctive colours and patterns of the mature males (see my photos of a Male in the first part of my Algonquin Observations series).
Along the edges of the lake, there were some beautiful flowers growing so I decided to take some pictures of them as well. The plants were Steeplebush (Spiraea tomentosa) which prefer to grow in wet areas. Their flowers are attractive to Beetles and Bees, and not as attractive to Butterflies because they contain little nectar, but have masses of heavy pollen (Runtz, 2020). On this chilly morning, neither Insect group was out and about.
A part of the trail crosses a marshy area via boardwalk. I crept across this boardwalk, listening closely for the movements of animals, hoping to hear the movement of an elusive mammal or bird. Instead, by listening so carefully I was startled several times by creatures to either side of the boardwalk, making their swift escapes known with a loud squeak. The creatures were Frogs, likely all of them part of the American Water Frog genus Lithobates (which includes the Green Frog (L. clamitans), the American Bullfrog (L. catesbeianus), and the Mink Frog (L. septentrionalis), as well as many others, but these three are the most common that I’ve encountered in Algonquin). The only one that sat still enough for a picture was the one below, which I believe is a Green Frog because you can just maybe make out a ridge of skin (called the dorsolateral fold) which runs from its eye down part of its back (Harding and Mifsud, 2017). This feature distinguishes it from the similar-looking Bullfrog.
The final observations on the trail were several Spider webs caught beautifully in the early morning light. I recently read a passage in the book Spider Communication which gave me a new appreciation for Spider Webs. “Many spiders have compensated for the absence of a suitable substrate over which a vibratory signal can be conducted…by extending the perceptual range of the legs with a silken structure…Suddenly the radiating shape of the web takes on a new meaning for the observer: the web extends the perceptual range of the sense of vibration from about 15 mm to more than 500 mm” (Witt, 1982). Not only do they act as prey-catching snares, but they are sensory extensions of the Spider, extending their senses beyond the limitations of their small bodies. Fascinating, beautiful constructions.
Yet MORE Algonquin Observations to come! More Birds, More Wildflowers, and eventually the Invertebrates will have their usual spotlight!
Harding, James H. and Mifsud, David A. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region: Revised Edition. 2017.
Holman, J. Alan. Ancient Life of the Great Lakes Basin. 1995.
Runtz, Michael. Wildflowers of Algonquin Provincial Park. 2020.
Witt, Peter N. 1982. In Witt, Peter N. and Rovner, Jerome S. (eds) Spider Communication: Mechanisms and Ecological Significance. 1982.
During our stay at Algonquin Park, I made a few trips down Opeongo Lake Road watching for wildlife. It’s a good place to see some of the rare creatures of Algonquin Park, as it forces you to go slow and there are wetlands and woodlands on either side of the road, ending in a lake. My sightings along this road were good even if I didn’t see any of the target species: Moose (Alces alces).
One of the most common species sighted on the trip were Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias). It seemed as though these tall predatory birds were stalking every waterway, and I guess they might have been. Herons’ sinuous and powerful necks and the way they creep around slowly so as not to disturb their prey never ceases to catch my attention.
Another common bird spotted in the water was the American Black Duck (Anas rubripes). Two years ago, I had a few of these Ducks visiting my campsite, searching for handouts and I assumed then that they were female or juvenile male Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos). When I posted my pictures from October 2019 on iNaturalist, the ducks were instead identified as American Black Ducks. They really do look like female Mallards superficially, the main difference being that female Mallards are “paler and sandier” and the bill is orange/black in the Mallard, whereas the American Black Duck has a greenish bill (Bull and Farrand, 1994). Because of changes in land practices and overhunting in the past, as well as hybridization with Mallards, the American Black Duck is rarer than it used to be. Within Algonquin Park however, the American Black Duck is one of the most common Ducks (Tozer, 2012).
The other Duck (member of the Family Anatidae) spotted occasionally was the Wood Duck (Aix sponsa). Wood Ducks are remarkable (to me, at least) for nesting within tree-holes, something that seems strange for a Duck to be doing. I photographed a female Wood Duck leading a group of young across the marsh. Interestingly, the adult has something in its bill, I believe it’s the flower of a lily (Nymphaea).
One of the only Mammals* spotted on my trip was the animal responsible for creating some of the wetlands I observed: the Canadian Beaver (Castor canadensis). These giant Rodents (second in size among Rodents only to the Capybara of South America) engineer their surroundings, turning rivers into ponds where they create lodges. Beavers do not eat fish, unlike their smaller lookalikes, the Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus).
*(the only other Mammals were the ubiquitous Red Squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) and Chipmunks (Tamias striatus))
Perched high in the trees or on wires was a Bird which I always confuse with Swallows (Hirundinidae): the Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus). This bird also has one of the best Scientific names ever, which is apparently because of its aggressiveness in defending its nest or territory, but also the “Kingbird” is because it has a crown of yellow (or sometimes red) feathers that is only displayed when its head feathers are parted in aggressive displays, which I have never seen (Cornell Lab of Ornithology website). This aggression in defending its nest extends to such formidable foes as crows, ravens, and hawks (Tozer, 2012)!
The rarest sighting on the Opeongo Lake Road tours was a group of foraging Snipes, specifically Wilson’s Snipe (Gallinago delicata). I didn’t get amazing pictures, because they were far away and they were really difficult to keep track of. I love the way these birds move, so I also attempted to take a video of them, which isn’t great but it demonstrates the way they start and stop, dipping their long beaks into the marsh to probe for invertebrates.
More to come from my Algonquin Observations series!
Bull, John and Farrand, John Jr. National Audubon Society Field Guide to Birds of North America: Eastern Region. 1994.
Tozer, Ron. Birds of Algonquin Park. 2012.
For Other Nature Observations in Algonquin Park, see:
I love Algonquin Provincial Park. There is a special place in my heart for the vistas of trees, lakes and rock that extend to the horizon. Whenever I stay in the park, I encounter new creatures and make new observations, or if I encounter familiar organisms, I often appreciate them in a new light.
The first observation of my most recent trip (over the July/August Long Weekend) was a familiar bird creating a familiar knocking sound as it chipped away at the outer bark of a pine tree. The bird was a Hairy Woodpecker (Dryobates villosus), and its hammering into the edge of a tree is common in Norfolk County as well as Algonquin Park.
The other species of Woodpecker I encountered on this trip was not so familiar, and certainly not a species I could encounter in the more southern parts of Ontario. The Black-backed Woodpecker (Picoides arcticus) has a range across the Boreal Forests of North America, and Algonquin Provincial Park is at the southern edge of its range. They are a species tied to the disturbance of fire, as they mainly feed on insects (such as bark beetles and wood-boring beetles) which increase in population in fire-killed stands of trees (Backhouse, 2005). I observed the female and male of this species (likely a mated pair) foraging on the trees surrounding our campsite, and I also observed the male digging into what must have been a stump (the stump was obscured by vegetation, but I could see the yellow spot on the male’s head as he knocked away from ground level). As just mentioned, the male and female can be distinguished based on the presence or absence of a yellow patch on the head (the male has the yellow patch, the female does not). Not only did I see this species foraging but within the campground at Pog Lake there was actually a nest! Like most Woodpeckers (maybe all, but I’ve learned not to make rash generalizations), the Black-backed Woodpecker creates a new nest each year, carving a hole into a tree to house its young. I could hear the young inside the nest cavity, producing almost continuous begging calls for food. I saw the male drop by to drop off food he had collected, and I also got some pictures of the male on nest-guarding duty, sticking his head out of the nest entrance which was not too much higher than eye level.
The Hairy Woodpecker I first spotted was not the only familiar bird encountered within Algonquin Park. Robins (Turdus migratorius) are a common sight throughout the campground, and the screams of Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) frequently break the solemnity of the sky-stretching Pines. Another vocal bird which is quite common in suburban backyards is the Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula). Grackles patrolled through the campground, searching for any scraps of food left out by unwary campers. They may not be everyone’s favourite bird sighting, but I think their metallic blue heads are quite beautiful, and their overall appearance and movements are striking.
Two birds very much associated with Algonquin Park in my mind (even though I’ve also seen both on the Lynn Valley Trail in Norfolk County) are common ascenders and descenders of trees. The Brown Creeper (Certhia americana) often swirls around a tree trunk as it descends and then begins to work its way up in leaps and bounds, plucking insects and spiders from their secluded hiding places. I wonder if the rapid spiralling descent is some sort of signal to other members of its species (I’ve seen Brown Creepers foraging in pairs, or more than two) or if it’s a way to locate potential prey for their way up.
The Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) doesn’t move up and down a tree in the same stereotyped way as the Brown Creeper, and it certainly stands out more from the bark with its attractive white-and-black face, blue back and red breast feathers. Nuthatches are renowned for their ability to walk head-first down a tree rather than up like most other bark-foraging birds (including Woodpeckers, Chickadees and Brown Creepers).
Possibly the most beautiful bird observation in the Pog Lake campground was this Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata). These birds are often migratory through more Southern Ontario, arriving in the coniferous forests of Algonquin in mid-to-late April to breed (Tozer, 2012). According to the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario (Cadman et. al. 1987), they will breed in coniferous or mixed forests across Ontario (though they are more abundant in the more Boreal regions).
Usually Insects are my focus, and part of the reason for that is their abundance, diversity, and accessibility. Because of the rainy and cool weather for most of my visit, there were not as many Arthropods out and about (at least not as noticeable). A few notables made themselves known however. One striking spider was resting on the side of my car.
A Northern Pearly-eye Butterfly (Lethe anthedon) was resting on someone else’s car and I had to snap a picture.
A very impressive Insect sighting in the Pog Lake Campground came on our last day in Algonquin. I found a massive Northeastern Pine Sawyer Beetle (Monochamus notatus). The Sawyer was very cooperatively still on the cool damp morning, allowing me to get some really great closeups. It was also silent, despite being moved to a more convenient location for photos. That may seem like a strange observation to make, but apparently Longhorn Beetles (Family Cerambycidae, of which Monochamus notatus is a part) make a “squeak”, not with their mouth but with parts of their thorax rubbing together (Marshall, 2006).
A few points of interest for this particular Sawyer Beetle. As the image above demonstrates, its antennae were almost as long as the rest of the body which marks it as a female. The males are the ones with the really long antennae, often twice the length of the rest of the body. Here’s a male of the same species to show you what I mean. (photo from wikipedia):
It may be hard to see in my photo above, but these Beetles (including the female I observed) often have invertebrate hitchhikers. From a different angle it’s a bit clearer that my Beetle had a cluster of red Mites on her thorax.
These Mites are presumably hitching a ride to dead/dying trees which the Beetle will be seeking (Monochamus beetle larvae feed inside of dead/dying trees). I’m not sure what the Mites will do once there, as Mites are incredibly diverse and have numerous ecologies and life histories and I don’t know what kind of Mites these are. The other interesting thing to note in my closeup picture above is the eye of the Beetle. Notice how it curves around in a crescent shape around the base of the antennae. Just thought that was sort of a strange arrangement for eyes/antennae. One more closeup shot of this Beetle because it was so cooperative:
As I mentioned above, Insects are often what I notice and focus on. During our trip, I couldn’t help but take note of the wonderful beauty and diversity of some of the plant life in Algonquin Park as well. I suffer from “plant blindness” and I have been trying to rid myself of the condition as much as possible (see my book review of Flora of MiddleEarth for more on this subject). So I will end this post with a plant observation (and there will be more to come as I continue to write up my Algonquin observations). Throughout the Pog Lake Campground, there were some beautiful bright red berries amid ground-level green leaves. I found out that these plants are Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis).
Bunchberry has white flowers which spread pollen via the wind and insects in order to reach other flowers and reproduce (ie. form fertile berries). Amazingly, Bunchberry flowers are equipped with a mechanism to launch their pollen on an insect that triggers them, unfolding their petals at incredible speed to fling pollen onto the insect and up into the air (for possible wind-dispersal of pollen). This truly impressive feat is accomplished in 0.5 milliseconds. To put this into perspective, the Mantis Shrimp has the fastest movement of all Animals, and its record-holding strike lasts 2.7 milliseconds… five times as long as the Bunchberry flower petals take to open (Runtz, 2020). If that doesn’t make you want to pay more attention to plants, I don’t know what will.
Stay tuned… more to come from my trip to Algonquin, including more Birds, more Plants, and more Insects!
Backhouse, Frances. Woodpeckers of North America. 2005.
Cadman, Michael D., Eagles, Paul F. J. and Helleiner, Frederick M., Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario. 1987.
Marshall, Stephen. Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity. 2006.
Runtz, Michael. Wildflowers of Algonquin Provincial Park. 2020.
Tozer, Ron. Birds of Algonquin Park. 2012.
For Other Nature Observations in Algonquin Park, see:
I’ve been a fan of the Tetzooniverse for the past few years and have been reading through the incredible amount of amazing science writing that Darren Naish has posted on the various versions of Tetzoo (link to the current version, here). There was one aspect of the Tetzooniverse that I could never join in on: a conference in the UK of like-minded people. I live in Ontario and the trip would simply be too expensive. Enter 2020, a year where people aren’t allowed to travel at all, and I have finally obtained that elusive entrance into my first ever Tetzoocon, called for obvious reasons this year: Tetzoomcon! (the event took place in December 2020, so yes it has taken me 8 months to write up the blogpost about it…)
The virtual meeting of zoology enthusiasts from across the globe (I believe there were almost 400 participants online) ran smoothly and was overseen by Darren Naish, John Conway (Paleoartist and co-host of the Tetzoo Podcast, see his art and other information here), and Sharon Hill (science writer and researcher from Pennsylvania, see her website here). After the introduction and explanation of how the Zoom platform would be used to host the zoological conference, we moved onto a series of talks produced by a varied list of presenters on a varied list of topics.
The first presenter was Rebecca Wragg Sykes (website here), with her talk titled “Re-imagining Neanderthals: From Archaeology to Palaeoart”. I’m not particularly interested in Hominids because of their close similarity to Humans; I find the creatures more different from Humans to be generally more fascinating. The talk was quite interesting though, in that Rebecca investigated the changing perspectives on Neanderthals through history and in particular through the medium of artistic depictions. She demonstrated the racism that occurred when artists of the past portrayed Neanderthals as exaggerated racial stereotypes of specific races that were deemed “primitive”. After examining the fossil evidence of such a physical appearance, the portrayals were shown to be following a racial agenda rather than depicting Neanderthals as they would have appeared. (For a parallel perspective on the issue of racism in Paleoart, and an excellent overview of the topic, see this blogpost by Mark Witton).
Next up was Natalia Jagielska (website here) with her presentation: “The Rise & Demise of Non-Pterodactyloid Pterosaurs”. Natalia’s enthusiasm and humorous slides (featuring her own wonderful illustrations which you really should check out) made this an incredibly engaging talk. She essentially went over the history of Pterosaur research (briefly) and dove into the history of Pterosaur groups through the Mesozoic.
RJ Palmer (website here) presented a talk called “Paleoart as Creature Design” which was filled with interesting visuals, including some of his own paleoart and graphics. His entire presentation was done in PhotoShop, which was pretty interesting. He moved from art-piece to art-piece as he described some of his methods of artistry. One of his projects I have encountered is the game Saurian. Saurian is a fascinating video game project, which seeks to reconstruct the Hell Creek Formation as a virtual landscape. The Hell Creek Formation is a famous geological formation that includes a variety of creatures, including the most famous dinosaur of all: Tyrannosaurus rex. As a player, you tour the landscape as one of several species of playable dinosaurs. The game seeks to be as close to reality as possible, with paleontological data being incorporated into the game’s design.
After these first three presentations, there was an hour-long break which included breakout sessions for those who wished to participate. These breakout sessions were neat. The way it worked was that you were placed in a randomized chatroom with up to 9 other people. In my first chatroom it was me and one other person at first, and then later on Sharon Hill (who was one of the coordinators for the event) joined in for part of the time. It was a great opportunity to meet some of the other people who wanted to spend their Saturday in front of their computers to tune in to a Zoological conference. My username was “norfolknaturalist” and because Tetzoo is UK-based it was confused for Norfolk in the UK, which was fine. I explained that I actually lived in Ontario and we chatted about the sorts of creatures we encounter in our respective areas. The person other than Sharon Hill was from the UK and Sharon hailed from Pennsylvania. So between us, we covered a substantial distance around the globe.
The second chatroom (the hour-long break was split in two randomized-participant chat sessions) was filled with aspiring paleoartists. It was neat to hear them talk about the various projects they were working on or species they were interested in (Spinosaurus came up a lot because of the papers which had come out recently shedding more and more light on the possible appearance of this mysterious carnivorous dinosaur). I didn’t have much to contribute (and there were more people in this one) but like I said it was interesting to tune in.
The next presentation after the breakout chat sessions was done by Anjali Goswami and was titled: “Digitising vertebrates: or how a mammalogist stopped being impressed by birds and learned to love salamanders.” Anjali’s presentation was very intense and data-driven. She basically explained how she and her team at The Goswami Lab had compiled digital models of many different vertebrate skulls, and how they compared across the tree of life. There were many intriguing graphs and charts depicting the various comparisons and datasets. I will admit I didn’t understand all of this presentation, but it was intriguing nonetheless and it was interesting to hear how the studies of skull shape led Anjali to appreciate the diversity of Salamanders (Caudata) (again, I didn’t understand this presentation perfectly, so I may be getting this wrong, but it seems that Salamanders change their skull shapes more readily than birds over evolutionary time).
The final presentation of the day was David Lindo’s “Missing: Without Action” which was about recently extinct (or not quite extinct) birds. David Lindo is known as The Urban Birder, as he is a writer and presenter with a focus on getting people to take note of the birds in cities. David’s presentation was emotional, because he told stories of bird species which have gone extinct because of human influence, and he conveyed well the tragedy of such events, the true sense of loss when an entire species disappears and will never return. He injected some hope into the discussion, by recounting stories of bird species that were thought extinct and were rediscovered through sporadic sightings. With this idea, he hinted at the possibility that not all “extinct” species are necessarily gone forever. There could be holdouts at the range edges, or in places that people have missed.
Big Cats in Britain
The Big Cats in Britain event was different in form to the other presentations. Most of the presentations were given in the form of single-person lectures with slideshows or variations (see my discussion of Rob’s Photoshop setup). The Big Cats in Britain event was set up as a conversation between several presenters with some pictures thrown up on the screen for discussion as well. I will admit to being not particularly interested in this subject, mostly because I don’t live in the UK. I thought that Darren’s introduction was nice, giving a broad overview of the subject and explaining how the Big Cat Sighting Phenomenon isn’t limited to the UK, and is an interesting subject worthy of exploration, whatever your views on the veracity of the claims are. Darren has taken this tack for Cryptozoology time and again, and reading through his various articles on the subject on the Tetrapod Zoology Blog certainly changed some of my own views on cryptids. Basically, the argument is that whether a cryptid is “real” or not, scientists can still learn a lot about the scientific method, observation bias, and human psychology from anecdotal (or other) evidence of cryptids. Furthermore, Darren has demonstrated in the past how “mainstream” zoologists have engaged in what might be termed Cryptozoology by seeking animals at the root of anecdotal stories or hearsay, which have turned out to be species new to science.
The Big Cats in Britain presentation proper just wasn’t that interesting to me however, but that’s one person’s opinion.
When first purchasing a ticket for TetzoomCon I was hesitant to join the Paleoart Workshop, mostly because… I’m not a Paleoartist, nor an artist of any kind. I was assured by Darren Naish on Twitter that the Paleoart workshop would be great for anyone interested in Paleoart and not just Paleoartists, so I went ahead and added that to my Tetzoomcon ticket. Boy am I glad I did.
Basically the way the Paleoart workshop worked was that the attendees were split off into small groups (I think all were less than 10 people) and grouped with a Paleoartist. The list of artists that were leading the groups was a highlight reel of amazingly talented people, many of whom I recognized because of owning the two books Dinosaur Art I and II. (not a comprehensive list, but some names that I recognized before the event: Bob Nicholls, Mark Witton, Steve White, Gabriel Ugueto, and Luis V. Rey).
I was assigned to a group led by Luis Rey which turned out to be a perfect fit for me. Many of the sessions involved the artists working through the creation of an artpiece with the attendees creating alongside them. Luis Rey instead asked each person in turn why they were interested in Paleoart and went through relevant slides of a presentation and discussed the areas of interest of each of us. That was really neat. Luis Rey is a highly influential Paleoartist. His reconstructions are extreme, dynamic and colourful, to the point of being almost comic-book style. I believe this is because his style is reacting against the dumpy, dull reconstructions that had prevailed for so long in dinosaur art. He wanted to show that dinosaurs were vibrant and exciting creatures full of personality. My answer to his question: “Why are you interested in Paleoart?” was “I’m interested in seeing creatures and ecosystems that I can no longer see”. This is my draw to Paleoart, I’m not particularly drawn to the artistic side of reconstructions but rather the naturalistic portrayal of scenes from another time, creatures that used to live and walk on the Earth. I love being able to see visions of animals that no longer exist, animals I can’t observe with my own eyes, but that can be reconstructed from the latest science.
After the Paleoart Workshop, there was an afterparty where people could move around through various chatrooms to talk with people who had attended the event, including the presenters and Paleoartists. I was in a chatroom with Darren Naish himself, who was talking about some of the Paleoart pieces he had with him in his office. One of them was the painting of Attenborosaurus by Mark Witton. I awkwardly held up the mug I was drinking from because it features the very same painting. The art is done by Mark Witton (who is likely my favourite Paleoartist for his realistic portrayal of past natural history), and the species depicted is named after Sir David Attenborough… what’s not to love?
All in all, the event was great and I was so glad that I was able to attend despite being an ocean away from the UK. The next Tetzoomcon event is coming up soon, on September 3, 2021, and I’m hoping to tune in then too. Hopefully if I do, I will write up my thoughts and overview of the event faster than I did for the 2020 event…
For previous Tetzoo-related posts, see these two book reviews of books by Mark Witton:
I recently spent a weekend camping at Port Burwell Provincial Park and took several photos of interesting creatures I encountered there (as I usually do on camping trips). One of the first creatures I encountered was a beautiful Flower Fly which hovered right in front of my face for a few minutes and even landed on my glasses, as well as several times on my hands. My Flower Fly Friend was an Oblique Streaktail (Allograpta obliqua).
Flower Flies (Family Syrphidae) are wonderfully diverse and easily observed Insects, as they spend time hovering and landing on Flowers for the nectar they contain. In feeding on nectar, these Flies contribute greatly to Pollination, much like their similarly coloured models, the Bees and Wasps. I observed several other Flower Flies during my Port Burwell visit:
Most people don’t consider Flies beautiful, but that’s because they’re thinking of the House Fly variety, and not the colorful Flower Flies. Another beautiful fly I observed was this Ornate Snipe Fly:
The Snipe Flies (Rhagionidae) are predators as larvae in the soil where they hunt invertebrates, but as adults don’t seem to feed at all (Marshall, 2012).
Like my Flower Fly Friend, another Insect was quite content to wander over my hands. I’m not sure the exact ID of this Bug (a True Bug, that is a member of the Order Hemiptera) but I’m pretty sure it’s a larval Plant Bug (Family Miridae).
The little Plant Bug was probably the smallest Insect I took pictures of that weekend. The Largest is much easier to determine, and was clearly this Waved Sphinx (Ceratomia undulosa) which was on the outside wall of the restroom, blending in fairly well with the bricks.
Another Moth I observed couldn’t be more different from the bulky and camouflaged Waved Sphinx. This bizarre Grape Plume Moth (Geina periscelidactylus) doesn’t even look like a Moth at all because of its oddly shaped wings.
The forewing is the brown and white portion with a large notch carved into it from the outside. The hindwing has been transformed into three “plume” structures which resemble black-and-white wire brushes.
One other Moth drew my attention, but this one didn’t have any wings, because it was still in its Caterpillar stage: the Tussock Moth Orgyia leucostigma. These caterpillars have some of the most extraordinary decorations in our area. It’s possible the row of white tufts along their back resemble Parasitoid wasp cocoons in order to avoid subsequent parasitism, but I have no idea where to start explaining the bright orange head or black spiky tufts around its face.
It’s well known that caterpillars turn into Moths and Butterflies, but many people are surprised to find that “baby” Ladybugs look quite different from the roly-poly adults. During the weekend, I spied the intermediate stage, the pupa, of a Ladybug stuck to the top of a leaf. Within, a Ladybug larva was being rearranged into the far more familiar form of its orange shielded adult beetle.
There were a number of smaller orange Butterflies flitting about our campsite which were difficult to photograph. This is the best picture I could manage of the upperside wings:
One of this same species (the Northern Crescent, Phycioides cocyta) was resting inside the Dining Tent, allowing me a good photo of the underside of its wings:
The interior of the Dining tent provided many other Insect observations that weekend. I observed this same phenomenon in my own backyard in May of this year. For whatever reason, many Insects enter the tent and then possibly get trapped inside because they have difficulty relocating the entrance (and are drawn to the light visible through the roof of the tent). In any case, it often presents myself with picture opportunities of insects I might not otherwise observe.
Most of the Dining Tent insects were Flies (and these are the ones I got good pictures of):
The majority of my observations were of Insects, and this reflects their abundance and diversity well, but I did have a chance to see a few Birds moving through the campsite. Most commonly spotted was a Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) that seemed to have a particular liking for the berries that grew at the edge of the site. Flitting through the trees occasionally were American Redstarts (Setophaga ruticilla), fabulous black-orange-and white Warblers. Prior to this trip, I thought of the Redstart as a migrant, passing through Southern Ontario in the Spring and Fall. Since seeing it in Port Burwell in July, I have learned that the species breeds across most of Ontario during the summer (Cadman et. al. 1987).
Cadman, Michael D., Eagles, Paul F. J. and Helleiner, Frederick M., Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario. 1987.
Marshall, Stephen. Flies: The Natural History and Diversity of Diptera. 2012.
For other posts about Nature Observations similar to these, see:
Common visitors to my backyard (and probably any backyard with any sort of plant life) are leafhoppers (Cercopidae) and I’ve become familiar over the years with a few of my regular visiting genera. This past month I managed to get a really clear picture of Draeculacephala, with its distinctively pointed head.
And this Latalus leafhopper kept flicking its wings around, similar to the Sepsid Flies I’ve seen flashing wings in the sun. Not sure if it was display behaviour of some kind or if it was trying to rid itself of some nuisance. The wing-flicking was very rapid, I’ve never seen a Leafhopper doing this before.
Similar to the Leafhoppers are the aptly named Froghoppers (Cercopoidea). I’m pretty sure this is one of them or at least a related family, based on its very toad-like appearance.
Other common Insect visitors to my backyard are Lepidoptera (Butterflies and Moths). Skipper Butterflies (Family Hesperiidae) are some of the most common Butterflies around in my experience. They’re skittish and difficult to get close to because they’re seemingly always on the move, but I’ve had some good luck with a few in the past. Last month I was able to catch this Peck’s Skipper (Polites peckius) in a moment of rest with my Macro lens.
A much stranger Lepidopteran visitor was this bizarre Moth. Its wings look like a rolled up carpet, and its antennae look like tassels of said carpet. I’ve seen this same individual or at least a similar one in several different places around my yard, but always in this head down, wings up position. These Moths are classified as Crambidae (a Family) or Crambinae (a Subfamily) depending on the scheme being followed. There are thousands of species of Snout Moths (which is what these Moths are called), and I’m not sure where to begin on identifying my backyard variety.
We have a patch of Milkweed growing in our backyard, and I check it on a regular basis for signs of Monarch Butterfly activity. (there should be adults flying up North here during June and beginning to lay eggs). I still haven’t spotted any eggs or caterpillars on the Milkweed plants (when I wrote these observations in June, wait for the July Observations…), but several other creatures have been evident among them. One morning, at the top of each Milkweed plant there were young earwigs. I guess they were just resting there?
One creature that I have nowhere to begin with is this strange object… I feel like I’ve seen it before and found an ID for it, but I can’t recall what the ID was. I believe it’s some sort of insect (maybe a pupa?), but I don’t know:
Wandering about on the Milkweed leaves were what I like to call “Reverse Lady Beetles” because the typical Ladybug in my head is one that’s orange/red with black spots, where these Beetles were the opposite. I didn’t get great pictures of them yet (they’re smaller than the more common introduced Asian Lady Beetles (Harmonia axyridis)), but you can see what I mean.
I’m pretty sure these Lady Beetles are in the Genus Brachyacantha. At least one of the species in the Genus feeds on Hemiptera (mealybugs/aphids) in ant nests during its larval stage (presumably species that the ants are protecting for their honeydew secretions!) (Marshall, 2018).
A long-jawed Orbweaver (Tetragnatha) took up residence among the Milkweed as well, with a web that spanned between the leaves.
One final visitor of note was this Banded Longhorn Beetle (Typocerus velutinis). These Beetles develop as larvae inside decaying trees or logs, emerging as the beautiful Beetle seen here hanging beneath a leaf.
Marshall, Stephen 2018. Beetles: The Natural History and Diversity of Coleoptera.
Probably the most commonly observed insect group in my backyard (at least observed with my camera) is the Order Hymenoptera (the Bees, Wasps, Ants, and Sawflies). Partly this is because they are one of my favourite groups, and partly it’s because they make good subjects for photography, what with the bees and wasps having a tendency to land and sit still (momentarily) on colourful flowers. These are some of the pollinator visits I’ve captured this month:
This next backyard visitor looks like another Hymenopteran, but is actually a convincing Bumblebee Mimic, a Robber Fly Laphria thoracica pretending to be a Bumblebee. This mating pair zipped through the garden up into a tree, so I had to use the telephoto lens rather than attempting a macro shot.
Not all Hymenoptera were zipping through the garden from flower to flower. Some were setting up their homes there. One such home was the thriving Pavement Ant (Tetramorium immigrans) colony under a large rock in the middle of our flowerbed. Whenever the rock is lifted, the exposed larvae are whisked away by frantic workers. The flurry of activity is like a living explosion of insects when the colony is uncovered.
The other fascinating Hymenopteran homebuilding was the infiltration of leftover dried stems by Small Carpenter Bees (Ceratina). I watched one digging into the middle of the stems and was able to get some decent pictures of the process. Unlike the Ants, these Bees don’t work together in a colony, each female constructs her own nest and provisions it with pollen. Despite this lack of cooperation, there is parental care within the Genus. Ceratina females guard their developing young by waiting at the nest entrance and will even open up sealed nest chambers to check on them (Wilson and Carril, 2016). Looks like I’m going to have to take a second look at those stems…
Wilson, Joseph S. and Carril, Olivia. The Bees In Your Backyard. 2016.
In my backyard, I usually see a lot of Flies of various species, many of which I find difficult to identify. Flies don’t have the obvious characters or colours that other Insect groups have such as Butterflies and Beetles. There are two broad divisions of the Order Diptera (that is, the True Flies) which can be fairly easily distinguished. Nematocera roughly translates as “long-horned”, referring to their relatively long antennae and includes the Midges, Mosquitoes, Fungus Gnats and many others. Brachycera means “short-horned” and includes the House Flies, Carrion Flies, Fruit Flies, and dozens of other massive groups. As I mentioned in my post about observations at my Parents’ house, I’m reading through Flies by Stephen Marshall and it’s only reinforcing the bewildering diversity of Flies and Insects in general.
Incidentally, a Fly that I can’t identify landed on the book Flies as I was reading it in my house. There is a Family of Flies called the Ironic Flies (Family Ironomyiidae), but unfortunately this definitely isn’t one of them. That would have just been too perfect. My best guess for this Fly is a Fungus Gnat or a related Family (Sciaroidea).
All that being said, there are some Flies that I can now identify on sight such as this Common Picture-Winged Fly (Delphinia picta):
Others easy to identify (to Genus) are the Condylostylus flies which hunt small prey and display on leaves worldwide.
Another group of Flies that I’ve become familiar with have one of the most unsettling Family names ever: the Flesh Flies (Sarcophagidae). The three black stripes on the thorax distinguish them from similar-looking Flies (Marshall, 2012). To make them even more unappealing than their name, many of these Flies lay eggs that hatch immediately after they leave the female, or they simply lay larvae that have already hatched. There are about 3000 species in the Family Sarcophagidae, and the ones I see in my backyard are likely in the Genus Sarcophaga. Within the Genus Sarcophaga there are 800 species, so they are very difficult to generalize about, with some of their larvae feeding on or within other insects, consuming dead vertebrates, or specialist parasitoids of spider or grasshopper eggs (Marshall, 2012).
Another Fly observed within my own house is likely a member of the aptly named Window Fly Family (Scenopinidae), as I photographed it on the interior of my back door window. Although this Family of about 350 species is associated with various habits and habitats, they are named for the handful of species that are predators of human-habitat insects such as Carpet Beetles (Dermestidae), which is likely what my Window Fly was.
The most eye-opening Fly observation of the month has more to do with the fate of the Flies, rather than the Flies themselves. I found two Flies in my garden in a bizarre position, one at the very end of May and one on the 1st of June. I’m unable to identify either species of Fly beyond the fact that they’re both Brachycerans. Each fly was positioned at the end of a leaf, clutching it with its legs and they were covered with what looked like white dewdrops bursting out of their bodies on tiny filaments. The filaments emerging from the fly bodies (the Flies were also quite dead or at least incredibly still and unresponsive) must have belonged to a type of Fungi.
Many readers may be familiar with the incredible footage in BBC’s Planet Earth of the Cordyceps fungus infecting ant workers and forcing them to climb into the tree canopy in order to release the fungal spores upon death. What might surprise you is that similar insect-infecting fungi are found not only in tropical rainforests but around the globe, even in my own backyard in Simcoe, Ontario. In fact, Cordyceps itself occurs in parts of North America (into the Southern United States), where it infects insects and causes similar scenarios to the one depicted in Planet Earth (Eiseman and Charney, 2010). There is an entire order of fungi, Entomophtorales, in which most species infect insects and other arthropods. If you’re interested in similar observations, there’s a Bugguide page devoted to this sort of thing. I have no idea which species infected these Flies in my backyard, but it’s fascinating to know that these sorts of complex interactions are occurring right where I live.
Sometimes my reading and my outside explorations overlap wonderfully. This year I’ve been reading through Flies: The Natural History and Diversity of Diptera by Stephen Marshall, and it is an incredible book, one I will have to review on here at some point. One particular group of Flies that I came across while reading grabbed my attention: the Thereviidae. They’re known as Stiletto Flies, but what really struck me was the fuzzy white appearance of the adult pictured in the book. I thought to myself, I have never seen such a creature and would love to see one. Well, about a month after reading about that group of flies, I came across one very similar. I’m not sure that it’s the same genus, but it certainly seems to match the general look of the Acrosathe featured in the book.
I attempted to take pictures of the Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) that are at my parents’ place. I never see Bluebirds in Simcoe, so it seems they prefer more open farmland habitat. I was proud of myself, upon seeing the shape/size of the bill and the face that I thought they looked Robin-like. And it turns out that they are part of the Thrush family which includes the American Robin (Turdus migratorius). The Bluebirds kept their distance, so this is the best picture I managed.
Another bird caught my attention in my parents’ garden by its beautiful song. I should have guessed its identity right then and there, since it turned out to be a Song Sparrow, but I’m very cautious in IDing small sparrows or sparrow-like birds in the field. Recently I’ve come to appreciate the diversity of these types of birds.
The most exciting Arthropod find at my parents’ house, besides the fuzzy Acrosathe, was this Giant Mayfly (Hexagenia).
When I arrived to take pictures of this individual it was somewhat entangled in a spider web, from which I freed it. The Spider owner of the web that caught a Giant Mayfly was suitably large and intimidating herself.
Two other notable observations should be mentioned, and both are Butterflies. In the sandy areas of my parents’ farm I encountered several Common Sootywings (Pholisora catullus) fluttering about.
And in the garden I managed to photograph a beautiful Northern Crescent (Phycioides cocyta) drinking nectar from flowers.
For other Nature Observations like this post, see: