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July 2021 Observations Nature Observations

Port Burwell Observations

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).

Oblique Streaktail Flower Fly which landed repeatedly on my fingers and even on my glasses.

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:

Common Flower Fly (Syrphus ribesii).
Mating Pair of Margined Calligrapher Flower Flies (Toxomerus marginatus).

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:

Ornate Snipe Fly (Chrysopilus ornatus). Who says Flies aren’t beautiful?

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).

Plant Bug nymph (Family Miridae) on my fingertips.

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.

Waved Sphinx Moth blending into a wall.

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. 

Grape Plume Moth (Geina periscelidactylus).

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.

Tussock Moth Caterpillar (Orgyia leucostigma).

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.

Asian Ladybird Pupa (Harmonia axyridis).

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):

Rhagio Snipe Fly.
Horse Fly, I believe of the genus Hybomitra.
Crane Fly (Family Tipulidae).

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).

American Redstart.

References:

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:

Leafhoppers, Lepidopterans and Longhorns

Fuzzy Flies and Song Sparrows

Cuckoo Wasps and Carpenter Bees

Flies Falling to Fungi and Other Dipteran Observations

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

Categories
June 2021 Observations Nature Observations

Leafhoppers, Lepidopterans and Longhorns

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.

Draeculacephala Leafhopper.

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.

Latalus Leafhopper.

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.

Froghopper/Spittlebug of some sort.

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.

Peck’s Skipper momentarily at rest in my backyard.

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.

Snout Moth in my backyard.

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? 

Earwig (I believe the European Earwig (Forficula auricularia)) exposed in its place among the top leaves of Milkweed.

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:

Mysterious seed-like object on a Milkweed leaf.

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.

“Reverse” Lady Beetle under the leaf of a Milkweed.

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.

Long-Jawed Orbweaver Spider on its web.

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.

Banded Longhorn Beetle hanging beneath a leaf.

References:

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

For other June 2021 Observations, see:

Cuckoo Wasps and Carpenter Bees

Flies Falling to Fungi and Other Dipteran Observations

Fuzzy Flies and Song Sparrows

The Wonders of Wrens

A Visit to Big Creek, Part 1

A Visit to Big Creek, Part 2

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

Categories
June 2021 Observations Nature Observations

Cuckoo Wasps and Carpenter Bees

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: 

Unidentified Bee visiting my garden flowers.
Bee in the Genus Andrena.
I’m not sure what kind of Bee this is, but it’s coated in Pollen!
This is a Chrysis cuckoo wasp, which gets its young into other Hymenopterans’ nests, much like the Cuckoo Bird does in other bird nests.

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.

Mating Pair of Bumblebee Mimic Robber Flies.

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.

Pavement Ant colony in my backyard garden, larvae and workers exposed under a rock.

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…

References:

Wilson, Joseph S. and Carril, Olivia. The Bees In Your Backyard. 2016.

For other June 2021 Observations, see:

Flies Falling to Fungi and Other Dipteran Observations

Fuzzy Flies and Song Sparrows

The Wonders of Wrens

A Visit to Big Creek, Part 1

A Visit to Big Creek, Part 2

And for other posts focused on Hymenopterans, see:

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\

For more nature observations, photos and natural history facts, follow me on instagram at norfolknaturalist.

Categories
June 2021 Observations Nature Observations

Flies Falling to Fungi and Other Dipteran Observations

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).

A Mystery Fly that landed on Flies: The Natural History and Diversity of Diptera by Stephen Marshall while I was reading it.

All that being said, there are some Flies that I can now identify on sight such as this Common Picture-Winged Fly (Delphinia picta):

A Common Picture-Winged Fly in my backyard.

Others easy to identify (to Genus) are the Condylostylus flies which hunt small prey and display on leaves worldwide. 

Bright Metallic Green Condylostylus are easily recognizable Flies 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).

Flesh Fly, possibly of the Genus Sarcophaga.

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.

Window Fly (Scenopinidae), likely one of the human-associated species in the Genus Scenopinus.

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.

First Fly I found infected by a fungus at the end of May. All of the whitish flecks across the fly’s abdomen and thorax are 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.

Another Fungal-infected Fly I found at the start of June. I’m not positive, but the long threads surrounding it could be fungal in nature as well.

For previous June 2021 Observations, see:

Fuzzy Flies and Song Sparrows

The Wonders of Wrens

And for another post focused on a species of Diptera, see:

Species Profile: Eastern Band-winged Hover Fly

References:

Eiseman, Charley and Charney, Noah. Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates: A Guide to North American Species. 2010.

Marshall, Stephen. Flies: The Natural History and Diversity of Diptera. 2012.

Categories
June 2021 Observations Nature Observations

Fuzzy Flies and Song Sparrows

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.

A Thereviid Fly, possibly Genus Acrosathe.

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.

Eastern Bluebird. Note the longish blunt bill reminiscent of their relatives, the Robins.

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. 

Song Sparrow perched in my parents’ garden.

The most exciting Arthropod find at my parents’ house, besides the fuzzy Acrosathe, was this Giant Mayfly (Hexagenia).

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. 

Long-Jawed Orbweaver (Tetragnathidae) that had caught the Giant Mayfly pictured above.

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. 

Common Sootywing

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:

The Wonders of Wrens

-A Visit to Big Creek, Part 1 and 2

Nature Observations: Pinery, Winter 2019

And for more nature observations, photos and natural history facts, check out my instagram at norfolknaturalist.

Categories
June 2021 Observations Nature Observations

The Wonders of Wrens

Twice on the Lynn Valley trail this past month, I managed to get some pictures of Wrens singing. These tiny birds burst with song much larger than themselves and it’s always a treat to see or hear them. 

When I saw and photographed the two Wrens, I assumed them to be the same species, and even possibly the same individual bird. I had found them in the same general location on the trail, separated by about a week and in location maybe only 100 metres away from each other. After submitting the pictures to iNaturalist (a website I use extensively for my observations and identifications), they were identified as two separate species in the same Genus. The Genus was Troglodytes, an evocative title for such small birds, one that stems from their habit of nesting or foraging in hidden holes, which I suppose are like caves. My first Wren spotting was a Winter Wren (Troglodytes hiemalis).

Winter Wren

The Winter Wren constructs its nest of twigs and moss and often hides it in one of the most incredible places: the tangled roots of fallen trees (Bull and Farrand Jr., 1994). When I encounter fallen trees, I have often been struck by the vertical clifflike nature of the mass of dirt still held fast by thick tree roots. On these miniature cliff faces, the Winter Wren hides its nest, and hides it so well that they are notoriously difficult to find. Bernd Heinrich, in his excellent book Winter World, describes the nest as “a snug little cavity with walls camouflaged with a lattice of moss and conifer twiglets” (p 61). Amazingly, only the Male Wren constructs the nest (at least in the two Wren species I’m writing about here) and he will often create more than one as part of his territory, from which the female can choose her favourite. When the female chooses one of these nests, she will add the lining of fur or feathers and the male will know that his territory has been accepted (Stokes 1979). This strategy of nest building (though not the nest location) applies to the other species I spotted on the Lynn Valley Trail: the House Wren (Troglodytes aedon).

The most conspicuous feature of Wrens (the Family Troglodytidae) in my experience is their stiff little tails and the way they flick them around often perpendicularly to their backs. According to A Guide to Bird Behavior, the tail is raised more and more to the vertical with increasing excitement or disturbance. This seems to indicate that I’ve rarely observed calm Wrens. House Wrens don’t nest among the upturned roots of fallen trees like the Winter Wrens, but instead in a natural or manmade cavity. The House Wren’s acceptance of human-made structures for nesting is the origin of their name. Besides nesting in nest boxes constructed by people for birds, House Wrens will apparently also nest in mailboxes, flowerpots, and jacket pockets that are hanging outside (Bull and Farrand Jr. 1994). I can think of few more appealing things to find in my jacket pocket than the nest of a tiny bird.

References:

Stokes, Donald W. A Guide to Bird Behavior. 1979.

Bull, John and Farrand Jr., John. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds: Eastern Region, 1994.

Heinrich, Bernd. Winter World, 2003.

For more Bird Observations, see:

-Nature Observations: Pinery, Winter 2019

-Feeding Opportunities

-Eaters of the Dead

And for more photos and natural history check out my instagram: norfolknaturalist!

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June 2021 Observations Nature Observations

A Visit to Big Creek, Part 2

This is the second loop of my journey through the Big Creek Conservation Area Trail. For part 1, go here.

Having returned to the parking lot, I saw some amazing aerial masters. Similar to the Kingfisher and the Black Terns, I saw Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) maintaining a single position in the air, this time in groups. They were incredible to watch, and thankfully one landed for a moment so I was able to get a clear photo of it.

Barn Swallow, kindly sitting still for once for a picture.

It was only recently that I realized there were so many different species of Swallows in our area. Later in this same hike I took (very blurry) pictures of two other species: Tree (Tachycineta bicolor) and Northern Rough-winged (Stelgidopteryx serripennis) Swallows.

I saw more Mute Swans, this time sleeping with their elongate necks tucked around themselves. In the picture below, you can really see how bizarre that long neck looks when it’s not extended.

Mute Swans, sleeping and preparing to sleep.

A small brown shape on the path ahead revealed itself as an Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus). Wikipedia says of this animal: “The cottontail prefers an area where it can hide quickly but be out in the open.” This seems to describe my sighting perfectly as the rabbit was fully exposed on the path, but disappeared into the plants at the edges as soon as I neared, and I was unable to spot it again.

Eastern Cottontail Rabbit frozen by my presence, until it disappeared into the vegetation.

One of the only Insect observations I made were some mating Deer Flies (Genus Chrysops). Although they cause pain when they bite and can be determined adversaries, when you get a good look at them you realize they are also quite beautiful. Look at those wonderfully strange eyes and patterned wings.

Mating pair of Deer Flies.

I had to pass through the Redwing assault again, and once through I saw the rarest observation of my hike. A black dome was crossing the trail at a decent rate for what I quickly realized was a turtle. In my excitement I couldn’t get the zoom lens to focus on the turtle for some reason. As I was trying to get a picture, I rushed forward, hoping to get a good picture of the turtle before it disappeared into the undergrowth that it was making for. While doing this, I startled something to my left. A Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) took to the skies, disturbed from its ambush site by the turtle-seeking human. I quickly snapped a couple of pictures of the Heron before moving forward, hoping to still find the Turtle.

After this mutual startling, I made it to the location of the Turtle, which had reached the shelter of the vegetation. I was still able to see the turtle (it was, after all, not moving incredibly fast) and took a few pictures of its shell. From this, I was able to determine that it was a Blanding’s Turtle (Emydoidea blandingii). I have only ever encountered Snapping Turtles and Painted Turtles before, so this was a very exciting sighting for me, even if I didn’t get a good photo.

My clearest shot of the Blanding’s Turtle as it barreled through the undergrowth.

Just a few dozens of meters further I came upon a young deer browsing in the middle of the trail. It still retained the spots of a fawn, and was smaller than an adult but certainly not a helpless baby. The deer seemed pretty unaware of me until I was quite close so I got some good pictures as it looked at me and after it saw me it wandered off into the marsh.

I could hear Marsh Wrens all around making their buzzing calls, but they are extremely difficult to spot and even more difficult to capture with the camera. This was one of my closest attempts, it’s almost as though the Wren is mooning me with its upright tail sticking out into the line of my camera instead of its chirruping face:

Most times in the summer, I have the Macro lens fixed to my camera because of the abundance of insect life, but on this trail I kept the telephoto equipped for all of the bird sightings I had. Near the end of my walk, I came upon a Dragonfly perched on the ground of the path and I was able to capture it adequately with the telephoto. It was A Blue Dasher Dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis), which occurs throughout most of the United States but only in the very Southern portions of Canada.

Blue Dasher Dragonfly resting in the path.

Ahead of me, meandering along the trail, was a pair of young Canada Geese (Branta canadensis). They were interesting to me, because they weren’t the Goslings following their parents and they weren’t Adult size either. The one appears to be much more “gosling-like’ than the other, which has started to acquire the characteristic facial markings of adult Canada Geese.

Young Canada Geese.

My final farewell to the trail this day was seeing a Heron stalking in the shallows, wreathed in fog. This Heron of the Mists was a perfect sendoff to my journey through the Long Point wetlands.

For previous posts about nature observations of this kind, see:

A Visit to Big Creek, Part 1

Pinery, Winter 2019

MacGregor Point Observations (May 2018

-Algonquin Observations (July 2018), Day One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six

And if you’re interested in seeing more of my photos and learning some facts about the creatures I’ve observed, follow me on Instagram @norfolknaturalist.

Categories
June 2021 Observations Nature Observations

A Visit to Big Creek, Part 1

This year I’ve discovered a new trail in Long Point. It’s called “Birding Trail 8” according to Google Maps, but the signs at the location say it’s part of the Big Creek Conservation Area. In any case, it’s right along the Causeway road that runs down Long Point into Lake Erie, and the trail goes through some of the conservation area’s wetlands. My most recent hike along this trail was this past weekend and I encountered some interesting creatures along the way.

Being a wetland, the air was filled with the calls of Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus), the males sporting their signature red/yellow epaulets and the females in their mottled brown stripes. Female Red-winged Blackbirds continue to catch my attention because they are often doing all kinds of different things and they don’t have the distinctive look of the Males. I’ve taken many a picture of Female Red-wings thinking they’re a different species only to review my photos and find that I’ve taken yet more pictures of Female Red-winged Blackbirds rather than new and unique species. Not that I mind much, as I find basically any species interesting. The only picture I took of a Red-wing on this hike was a Female that had what looks like nesting material in her beak.

Female Red-winged Blackbird with what looks like nesting material in her beak, or perhaps a mangled insect.

One thing you may have heard about Red-winged Blackbirds is their divebombing behaviour when you approach too closely to their nest. Well, there must have been a nest right on the edge of the trail because for the first stretch of this path I was running with my head down while I felt wings flapping at the back of my head. It was an exhilarating and frankly terrifying experience. If only I could have told the aggressive bird that I had no interest in raiding its nest. Thankfully I wasn’t physically harmed, just seriously intimidated by a bird not much bigger than my hand. 

Having run through the Red-wing gauntlet, I got some decent photos of Mute Swans (Cygnus olor). There are 3 species of Swans that occur in Southern Ontario, but only one (the introduced Mute Swan) has an orange bill, so it’s pretty easy to identify at close range. If you’re wondering, the other two are Tundra and Trumpeter. Although called the Mute Swan (apparently because it’s less vocal than other Swans) this one was making creepy grunting noises, not sure why.

Mute Swan

Another bird caught my eye, hovering in midair above the water. I say hovering, because that’s what it appears to do, but the bird must have been doing some incredible movements to stay in one place as it pinpointed its prey below. The bird was a Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon), the only species of Kingfisher that occurs in Canada. My pictures aren’t the greatest as it was decently far away, but you can still make out its incredibly long beak.

Belted Kingfisher “hovering” in place.

A much less noticeable bird than the Red-winged Blackbirds or the Kingfisher was the small Common Yellowthroats (Geothlypis trichas). I saw one Male on this loop of the trail, clinging to some reeds, and in my second round I encountered a Female in the same general area.

Male Common Yellowthroat
Female Common Yellowthroat

At the far end of the trail, the left side opens up onto a wider stretch of Lake Erie, and it’s here that I watched the amazing aerodynamics of the Black Terns (Chlidonias niger). I observed the Terns foraging for a long while; I find them beautiful birds, masters of the air. One or two would come out of the inner wetland and dip their beaks into the water surface, sometimes coming out with a small fish or tadpole. Prey acquired, they would return, cross the trail, and dip down into an area obscured by reeds and vegetation. I believe these Terns were foraging for their young or partners back in the nests that were hidden within the marsh. The Terns included in the Genus Chlidonias are known as the Marsh Terns for this reason, these Terns rely on wetlands for their breeding territories, often constructing their nesting colonies on floating bits of vegetation.

While watching the Terns, often through the lens of my camera, I was startled by the sight and sound of a large brown object leaping out of the marsh to my right, maybe 10 meters away. The creature responsible was a White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus), and it loped ahead of me down the trail after its abrupt emergence from the reeds. 

White-tailed Deer running down the trail. It had emerged with a splash from the marsh to the right.

One Tern hovered in the air above the trail and made its soft call. I’m not exactly sure why, but it gave me some excellent views of this beautiful animal.

As I was walking along this stretch of the trail I could hear the unforgettable call of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) and I could see that there was a pair at the corner of the trail coming up. These birds are fascinating creatures, and their sounds are similar to the Wolf in conjuring the wild in my mind, a call from another world. 

Sandhill Cranes calling.

The constant calls of Marsh Wrens and Red-winged Blackbirds were my companions as I walked through a heavily reeded area. On my right, I could see the Terns hovering above the wetlands and descending among the reeds to where I suspect their nests were. Also to my right were the occasional sightings of Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus), skimming through the water on important business.

Muskrats are a common sight in the wetlands of Long Point.

As I neared the parking lot, I was deciding whether to make another loop of the trail in the hopes of seeing more interesting creatures. If you read the title, you’ll know what my decision was, and be sure to return for Part 2 coming soon! As a teaser I will say that I saw more than just Birds and Mammals (even some Invertebrates) on my second round through the marsh!

For previous posts about nature observations of this kind, see:

Pinery, Winter 2019

MacGregor Point Observations (May 2018

-Algonquin Observations (July 2018), Day One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six

And if you’re interested in seeing more of my photos and learning some facts about the creatures I’ve observed, follow me on Instagram @norfolknaturalist.

Categories
Uncategorized

Life: What is it?

I’m going to do something a little bit different with this post. I’ve done a few “Species Profiles” in the past (the Introduced Pine Sawfly and the Eastern Band-Winged Hoverfly), and in those I’ve offered a brief overview of the groups those species belong to before focusing in on the species itself. In future, I’d like to zoom in on a species from a distance. Since all living things, from bacteria to Blue Whales, are part of one huge family tree (species have formed out of species) then all of life is related to a greater or lesser extent. So to start my scope as far out as I can, I’m going to begin with the broadest category of all: Life itself.

What are Living Things? You might be surprised to find that it’s actually quite complicated and difficult to draw lines around living and nonliving things. We can intuitively classify large animals (and by this I mean animals that can be seen without aid of a microscope) as living things. They eat, move and reproduce under their own power. Plants and Fungi are similarly easy to class as alive (though some life stages of Plants and Fungi lie on the border, such as seeds or spores). Although Plants and Fungi don’t behave in easily visible ways in our timescale, they still perform the same functions as Animals: reproducing, metabolizing and growing.

So maybe there isn’t a simple definition for life, but Living Things are still easily distinguishable because of a general sense. It’s just common sense that an Elephant is alive and a rock is not. If we bring the scale downward from the living organisms we can see with our own eyes into the rabbithole of microscopy we find that things are (as always) far more complicated. The simplest and perhaps most relevant example to bring confusion to our general sense of what is alive and what is not is… a virus.

I remember the first time I recognized the difference between a bacterial and a viral infection. The major difference from a patient’s point of view is that Bacteria can be treated (ie. killed) by anti-biotics. Anti-biotics literally means “anti-life”. Because Bacteria are alive they can be targeted by anti-biotic medicine. A viral infection is immune to anti-biotics. Viruses are not killed by “anti-life”. This is because they are supposedly not living. This is where the defining border of Life and not Life gets very very fuzzy.

Viruses come in many shapes and sizes and they affect animals and plants in a myriad of ways, but the reason they do any of that is because they exhibit behaviours which enable them to adapt and react to their surroundings in order to reproduce more of their kind. The description I just offered seems to suggest that Viruses are alive. It really depends on where you draw your lines. My Biology textbook from University states that “the characteristics of life that a virus possesses are based on its ability to infect living cells” (Russell et. al. 2010). So, no living cell, no life. A virus contains some portion of DNA or RNA (the information-coding substance that tells cells what proteins to make and how to make them), and sometimes a protein capsule or container. Again, from my Biology textbook: “They essentially highjack the machinery and metabolism of a living cell in order to reproduce. For this reason, most scientists do not consider a virus alive” (Russell et. al. 2010).

For an alternative view of viruses, here is a quote from a book dedicated to Viruses: “they [Viruses] are highly evolved biological entities with an organismal biology that is complex and interwoven with the biology of their hosting species”(Hurst 2000). In this book, Viral Ecology, the editor also recommends placing viruses within a fourth biological Domain of Life (the other three Domains are Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya). He proposes that this Domain be called Akamara which means roughly “without chamber”, describing the fact that organisms within this Domain are non-cellular.

I’m not sure where I sit on the issue of whether viruses should be considered Living or non-Living. The more I learn about them, the more complicated the questions and answers are. I think that intuitively I wouldn’t want to define Life by its components such as possessing a cell, but I also see the value in having strict definitions for labels even labels as amorphous as Life. The point I wanted to make with this diversion into Viruses is that Life is actually hard to define or describe and place within limits, even if on a larger scale it’s intuitively simple.

I don’t think I’ll really be delving into Viral Biology on my blog anyway as I personally prefer learning about organisms I can more easily observe, but it is a fascinating aspect and background for my interests in living things in general.

Next up… Animals, Plants, Fungi. They have to be easy to divide and define right?

References:

Hurst, Christon J. ed. Viral Ecology, 2000.

Russell et. al. Biology: Exploring the Diversity of Life, First Canadian Edition, 2010.

Categories
book review

The Palaeoartist’s Handbook, by Mark Witton

I’ll start by saying that I’m no artist. And I have no intention of trying to become one in any form, let alone a Paleoartist (specializing in artistic reconstructions of living things known from fossils). That being said, I can heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in fossil animals, ancient ecosystems, or even just beautiful illustrations of both. The truly impressive quality of this book is that I can even recommend it to someone interested in living animals, as there’s much within that describes how living animals look and function and how that’s applied to the past.

The subtitle of this book is “Recreating prehistoric animals in art”, and the book essentially delves into the process of how one can look at fossils and interpret them into a fully realized organism. The first two chapters define Paleoart (= the subtitle of the book, see above), and go through a brief history of the genre. The history was quite interesting, demonstrating how interpretations of fossil organisms, and the methods used to examine and reconstruct them have changed through the years.

Chapter 3 is titled “Researching, Resource Gathering and Planning a Paleoartwork”. At first glance, this chapter seems to be aimed directly at one who is actually going to create Paleoart, and as I said earlier that’s not me! As with this entire book, however, the focus is on the research itself, and the animals themselves and the principles of imagining and portraying extinct life. So this chapter was actually quite interesting for myself, as someone looking for information on how we believe extinct animals looked. Additionally, there’s a table at the end which lists “Paleoart Memes” which was quite fun to read through. From Marine Reptiles being portrayed as almost fully exposed on the surface of the ocean to the constant violence and roaring of prehistoric creatures, this table is a compilation of ideas that are often repeated in Paleoart but are unlikely to be accurate portrayals of the animals involved. Of course prehistoric animals would have occasionally vocalised, and of course ocean-going animals occasionally spend time at the surface, but the constant repetition of these scenarios is what creates a false impression of the prehistoric world. Animals today don’t habitually yell at each other, especially not while pursuing prey. It’s counterproductive for a Lion to keep roaring while it’s chasing down a gazelle, just as it’s unlikely that Tyrannosaurs unleashed a scream every time they burst from cover after some hapless hadrosaur.

The next 5 chapters (comprising about half the book) are titled “Reconstruction Principles” with various subheadings. This section delves into the nitty-gritty of how we know what we know about extinct animals, and how to find out more. I appreciated the fact that these chapters, while dealing with reconstructing extinct animals, continually offered living examples of the principles being examined so that the ideas presented were always backed by living examples. We can’t KNOW what Tyrannosaurus rex exactly looked like and how it moved without a direct observation of the living animal (which isn’t going to happen without some real sci-fi intervention). We can KNOW what living animal bones tell us about their life appearance and behaviour, and so we can work backward from there. One of the big debates out there about dinosaur life appearance is the visibility of their impressively long and intimidating teeth. For so long dinosaurs’ teeth were prominently on display and exposed to the air and viewer. If we look at living animals, however, we can see that even enormous teeth, such as those of monitor lizards (various Varanus species), are usually concealed within lips most of the time. As with many of these ideas, they are speculative, but looking at the extent of features within living species of animals that we can actually observe help us to familiarize ourselves with the diversity of structures and behaviours and enable us to make better speculation about what extinct animals looked like. This is essentially the theme of this book, and it’s a case that is made wonderfully throughout with countless demonstrations of research on living animals’ correlates between bones and life appearance (as well as trackways, traces and even cave art).

Chapter 9 brings the principles we’ve explored through the middle half of the book to their logical conclusions: “The Life Appearance of Some Fossil Animal Groups”. Using the evidence we have from living species (some of which are related/descended from the fossil species in question), and fossils, Witton describes what many groups of extinct animals may have looked like in life. Absolutely fascinating stuff, this was a wonderful tour through an ancient and unreachable world. The groups covered are all Tetrapods (those ‘four-limbed’ vertebrates from Amphibians to Birds), which is understandable given that adding Invertebrates to the list would substantially extend the book. Some Invertebrates are briefly mentioned in the next chapter along with Plants and surrounding environment: “Recreating Ancient Landscapes”.

The final three chapters are the most artist-focused in the book, detailing how a Paleoartist can depict extinct animals and environments in evocative ways while still remaining true to the science involved. As I’ve said a few times now, I’m no artist, but even these chapters proved interesting reading with analyses of some of Witton’s personal reconstructions and how they may be accurate or inaccurate based on the evidence available.

Finally, I’d like to mention that the book is (probably unsurprisingly) chock-full of wondrous illustrations created by not only Mark Witton himself but a handful of other amazingly talented paleoartists. In addition to this wealth of beautiful paleoart (which in my opinion is worth buying the book for in and of itself), there are countless diagrams and charts that add so much to the presentation of the material. All in all, The Palaeoartist’s Handbook is a fascinating read, full of information about extinct and living animals and ecosystems and detailing how we know what we know about the past. We may not be able to visit past ecosystems in person, but with a book like this, we can begin to truly imagine what they may have been like.

For Other Norfolk Naturalist Book Reviews, see:

The Social Biology of Wasps, ed. by Kenneth Ross and Robert Matthews

Pterosaurs, by Mark Witton

Flora of Middle-Earth, by Walter Judd and Graham Judd