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!
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:
Sawflies are a group of insects that many people haven’t even heard of. Part of the reason is because, in appearance and behaviour, they are like a hybrid between two major groups: their larval stages look like caterpillars (larvae of Butterflies and Moths ie. Lepidoptera), and their adult stages look like bees or wasps (Order Hymenoptera). Despite appearances and lifestyle, it is the latter category that they actually fall under: Hymenoptera which also includes the Bees, Wasps, and Ants. The major features that set sawflies apart from their relatives is that they eat plants, and they don’t have the constricted “wasp waist”. You might find this a little confusing, as Bees certainly don’t have an obviously thin waist, but they actually do have a constriction between their thorax and abdomen, it’s just more difficult to see than in many wasp species.
Like many insect Orders, the name Hymenoptera refers to a distinct aspect of the members’ wings (‘ptera’ is derived from the Greek for wing). Hymenoptera doesn’t have an easy translation though, like say Diptera for the True Flies (di = two, ptera = wings). The beginning part of the word is either from the word “hymen” which means membranous, or from the word “hymeno” which refers to the Greek God of Marriage. Hymenopteran wings are membranous, but they also have tiny hooks that link their fore- and hind-wings, meaning that they could be said to be “married” wings as well (Grissell, 2010). Whatever the case, the group is one that includes thousands of species of wasps, bees, ants, and of course, sawflies.
The common name “sawfly” is describing the way the female sawfly lays her eggs. Instead of a stinger or stinger-like ovipositor (egg-layer) at the end of her abdomen (like most of the other Hymenopterans), the female sawfly has a saw-like ovipositor, a cutting tool that she uses to open up plant tissue, and then inserts her eggs within.
This is what the Introduced Pine Sawfly (Diprion similis) does to pine needles. D. similis prefers White Pine (Pinus strobus) as its host plant (in North America), but will lay eggs and successfully grow to maturity on several other pine species. The female lays about 10 tiny eggs inside a pine needle (Cranshaw, 2004). After inserting the eggs, the female seals them in with a secretion that hardens for protection (Wagner and Raffa, 1993). The larvae that hatch from the eggs begin to feed on the pine needles. For the first part of their life, they will remain together but begin to disperse as they grow older. These larvae prefer to feed on needles that are at least 1 year old, probably because the younger needles are full of more toxins (Wagner and Raffa, 1993). As they consume needles, they grow, from 2.5 mm long upon first hatching to almost 3 cm before the larva is said to be “mature”. They don’t grow continuously, but rather have to molt and enter a new size class each time they’ve gained enough nutrients. For female larvae, they have six growth stages between molts and the males have five (CABI, 2020).
During this time, you would be forgiven for thinking they were caterpillars, because they look very similar. The way to tell caterpillars from sawflies is to count the number of legs. Their first set of legs will be six, and jointed for both groups, but they will also have a number of legs behind these called “prolegs”. If the larva you’re looking at has more than 5 pairs of prolegs, it’s a sawfly. Another giveaway is the distinct single eyes of sawfly larvae, as opposed to tiny ocelli (miniature eyes in clusters) in caterpillars.
Once they’ve reached their final larval stage, they spin a cocoon around themselves with silk, and transform within. Diprion similis larvae prefer to form their cocoons in the pine trees where they feed, rather than on the ground like many other sawflies.
In Europe and most of North America there are two generations per year, which means that what happens next depends on what time of the year it is. If the larvae have grown enough and created their cocoons in the summer, they will develop within in about 2 weeks into adults, but if they have reached this point near the end of fall, they will enter diapause (essentially insect hibernation) for several weeks before emerging in the spring (CABI, 2020). When they emerge, the adult sawflies are entirely different creatures, just as butterflies and moths are very distinct from their caterpillar young. The adults have wings, and with these they search for mates.
Males are attracted to females by pheromones (a chemical signal between members of the same species), as one would guess by the male’s elaborate antennae. The males can be attracted to a female across 61 m of open field, which is a great distance for an insect only a matter of centimeters long (Wagner and Raffa, 1993). Once mated, the female lays eggs in pine needles, and we are back at the beginning of their life history.
One note about mating: it isn’t necessary for the female to mate to be able to lay eggs. She shares with the other Hymenoptera a bizarre (to us) chromosome setup known as haplodiploidy. Females have one set of chromosomes (the mother’s) and males have two (mother and father). What this means in practice is that a female sawfly can lay an egg that will develop into a fully functional male offspring without ever going through the trouble of mating. This has implications for the spread of such organisms, as not all members of the population need to pair up to contribute to the next generation.
Which brings me to my final discussion of this species: they are commonly referred to as the Introduced Pine Sawfly because they were accidentally introduced into North America from Europe, likely in plant nursery stock imported in 1914. They have become well established in North America since then. Thankfully, they only very rarely reach a high enough population density to be considered an “outbreak” invasive species, and though they feed on tree leaves (needles), many predators and parasitoids feed on them (Wagner and Raffa, 1993).
The last time we were camping at Algonquin Provincial Park, I encountered quite a few of their larvae likely because they were in the fairly mobile phase before finding a spot to spin a cocoon (it was the end of September, the beginning of October). They may be an introduced species, and they may feed on White Pines, defoliating some of the branches, but as with any organism, they have a story all their own, and I think it’s worth telling.
Wagner, Michael R. and Raffa, Kenneth F. Sawfly Life History Adaptations to Woody Plants, 1993.
Cranshaw, Whitney. Garden Insects of North America. 2004.
Marshall, Stephen. Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity. 2006.