For an Introduction to this series (my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020) go here.
The Story Behind the Shot: I’ve only visited Algonquin Park in the Winter twice. On this occasion, in March 2017, I was actually searching for this particular bird (one of the rare times that I have a target species in mind, I’ll be recounting another one for my next photo). The Canada Jay had only recently been rebranded as such, the common name used to be the Gray Jay and some people still refer to it as such (after all, common names can sort of be whatever you want them to be). Part of the name-change or name-shift was to do with a campaign by the Canadian Geographic Society to name the Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis) as Canada’s National Bird. For more information about this story, see the Canadian Geographic article here: https://www.canadiangeographic.ca/article/meet-our-national-bird-gray-jay. Having read up on this story I wanted to encounter this emblem of our country and was able to catch a glimpse of it in the parking lot of the Spruce Bog trail in Algonquin Park.
The Story Behind the Species: The Canada Jay is a permanent resident of cold northern forests across North America (Cadman et. al. 1987). Algonquin Park is at the southern edge of their range in Ontario (Tozer 2012). Canada Jays are able to live and breed in their northern habitats because of their food-storing abilities. They are highly adaptable birds, feeding on a wide variety of food, obtained in a wide variety of ways. The Cornell All About Birds website sums it up like this: they will “snap up flying insects in the air, wade in shallow water to capture invertebrates and amphibians, kill small mammals, raid the nests of other birds” (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Canada_Jay/lifehistory). The food they gather in the summer is cached throughout their territories in preparation for the long winter. This food store allows them to start nesting as early as the end of February in Algonquin Park (Tozer 2012). They prefer to nest in spruce forests, and there is some evidence to suggest that the antibacterial properties of some conifers actually work to preserve the food the jays store in them (Tozer 2012).
Amazingly adaptable, clever and curious birds. I certainly support its status as unofficial National Bird of Canada.
Cadman, M. D., Eagles, P. F. J., and Helleiner, F. M. 1987. Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario.
Tozer, Ron. 2012. Birds of Algonquin Park.
For the previous articles in my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020 series, see:
For an Introduction to this series (my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020) go here.
The Story Behind the Shot: For several summers, I have stayed in Algonquin Provincial Park for a week, camping in Pog Lake Campground and exploring various trails and locations along the Highway 60 corridor, attempting to photograph interesting creatures that I encountered. One of the most quintessential Algonquin animals is the Moose, and I didn’t spot one on this trip until we were on our way out of the park, driving down the highway early in the morning. This family group of Moose (a mother and two calves) was an amazing treat to watch as they continued to browse some foliage and walk through the clearing adjacent to the road.
The Story Behind the Species: Moose are large mammals, the largest land mammal that one can encounter in Eastern North America. As such, they have been the subject of plenty of research and interest. For this post I want to focus on their reproductive cycle since the photo I captured features a mother and her two calves. Calves are born in May, after 7 months of growth within the mother. Pregnant Moose will often seek out islands in lakes as the location to give birth as it provides some protection from roaming bears or wolves (Strickland and Rutter 2018). You may be wondering how a mother moose can reach an island that a bear or wolf won’t frequent. Moose are actually quite excellent swimmers, they can feed on underwater plants, can swim to depths of 5.5 m and stay under for more than 30 seconds (Naughton 2012). The two young in my photo are likely twins since they appear to be the same size. Apparently, “twins are not uncommon under good conditions” (Naughton 2012). The young stay with their mother for a full year before they disperse (Strickland and Rutter 2018).
A fascinating animal and one I’m sure I will return to explore further on my blog in the future.
Naughton, Donna. 2012. The Natural History of Canadian Mammals.
Strickland, Dan and Rutter, Russell. 2018. Mammals of Algonquin Provincial Park.
For the previous articles in my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020 series, see:
As you may know if you’ve been reading some of my earlier posts this year, I joined the Norfolk Field Naturalists this past Summer. This has meant joining with local nature enthusiasts for hikes (see NFN Fungi Hike posts, part 1, part 2, and part 3) and listening in on monthly presentations beginning in September. The December NFN meeting is going to be a “Members’ Night” in which members of the group can present up to 20 pictures or a short video of trips or observations of their own. I was excited by the prospect of sharing my photos and observations (as indeed I’ve been doing with this blog site).
So… what photos to select for my portion of the slideshow? I decided to present the highlight photos of my own past observations to demonstrate a bit about myself and my experiences.
I realized that I needed to pick out 20 of my top observations/nature photos of all time. At first 20 seemed like a lot… but going through my personal archives of nature photos I soon came to understand that it would actually be quite difficult to decide on which photos to include as I have take quite a few over the past several years.*
*literally thousands of photos of hundreds of species
So, to help narrow my choices down I eliminated this past year, 2021. I did this for a couple of reasons:
I would like to go over my 2021 nature photos on my blog (and I already have showcased many here), and I wanted to do something different for this presentation, ie. I wanted to review other photos and observations than ones I was already planning to write about.
I believe I have truly improved a lot in my nature photography and I personally think that 2021 contains some of my best photos. If this is true, then this past year of observations might get over-represented in a list of “best nature photos”.
2021 out of the way, I only had about 8 years of nature photos to trawl through for those greatest hits. To decide which photos to include in my list, I considered the following:
First and foremost, they had to be good pictures, high-quality, focused, nice composition. I usually don’t think of my pictures in this way because I’m interested and excited by the organisms involved and not the quality of the photos per se. But for a slideshow I wanted to have only the most crisp clear photos.
Unique or rare organisms or behaviour were preferred. I have taken many pictures of Honeybees (Apis mellifera) and American Red Squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) but unless they were doing something interesting or were exceptionally beautiful shots I wanted to compile a list of the more rare (to me) species that I’ve seen and photographed.
Taxonomic Variety. I wanted the photos to reflect my own interests in nature which is pretty wide in scope, encompassing basically all that’s living with a particular emphasis (partly just because I can observe and photograph them more regularly and easily) on Insects and Birds. In other words, I didn’t want the 20 top photos to be a list made up of half Hymenoptera and half Lepidoptera, I wanted to have a good variety of organisms from across the tree of life.
As you can probably tell from the above, the list at the end of the day is quite… arbitrary. It’s my own decision what to include and what not to include, what’s particularly interesting and what organisms are different enough to showcase. I feel like this preamble is more for myself than for anyone else because I think everyone already assumes that a list such as this will be arbitrary but I felt while picking photos I needed to have some sort of guidelines to create a somewhat representative list. Anyway, boring stuff out of the way, next post will be the first of 20 of my top 20 Nature photos taken between 2013 and 2020!
Until then, I will leave you with a few of my photos that didn’t quite make it into my final list:
Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) on the Lynn Valley Trail, February 2018:
Bog Copper Butterfly (Tharsalea epixanthe), in Algonquin Provincial Park, July 2018:
Six-spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexpunctata) on the Lynn Valley Trail, May 2020:
The temperature was up, the sun was out, and with it the invertebrates were active and visible. I arrived at the Spruce Bog Boardwalk Trail with my macro lens equipped, and I used it quite extensively.
At the beginning and near the end of the trail, I took pictures of Hooded-Owlets (Cuculia), which are not baby owls with their faces obscured, but instead the name for a genus of moths (these moths have some crazy names. One of the species I observed is similar to a moth that goes by the common name “Asteroid Moth”… I have no idea why…). The first was a brightly striped caterpillar of the Brown Hooded-owlet (Cuculia convexipennis).
Near the end of the trail I found another Hooded-Owlet, and I’m not so sure on the identification for this one, but it was much less colourful than the first.
Landing briefly on a flower was a Tachinid Fly in the Genus Phasia. Tachinids are fascinating Flies and incredibly diverse. This is what Stephen Marshall has to say about them in his incredible book about Flies: “The Tachinidae is in many ways the ultimate fly family. With almost 10 000 named species and thousands more awaiting description, this ubiquitous group… exhibits an unparalleled variety of sizes, shapes and colors. The range of life history strategies is equally amazing, at least within the constraint that every known species in the group is a parasitoid that develops inside another insect… or related arthropod.” (from Marshall 2012, p 386). Phasia tachinids are parasitoids of True Bugs in the families Pentatomidae and Pyrrhocoridae (Marshall 2012).
Another flower was visited by a wasp of the Ectemnius genus. These wasps are part of a group of wasps called the “Square-headed wasps” (Subfamiily Crabroninae) and I think you can see that characterization borne out here. I certainly noticed its huge head right away while taking the pictures. Members of the genus Ectemnius hunt mostly adult Flies (Diptera) which they store in their nests for their larvae to feed on. Some species of Ectemnius wasps nest in soil, while others nest in rotten wood (O’Neill 2001).
Visiting flowers for nectar is a common activity for many groups of flying insects. This fact has been exploited by predators, and I spotted one of these on a flower nearby: a Jagged Ambush Bug (Phymata) lying in wait with raptorial (that is, grasping) front legs at the ready to nab unwary pollinators.
I spotted some mating grasshoppers on a leaf, which were otherwise engaged and allowed me to take some decent photos. If you know something about Orthopterans (members of the Order Orthoptera, which includes Katydids, Grasshoppers, and Crickets) you might know that unlike butterflies and moths (Order Lepidoptera) and many other insect groups which have very distinct larval forms, young stages of grasshoppers appear the same as adults except for the absence of wings. This photo might be confusing then… since these grasshoppers are clearly mating (a strictly adult activity) and they clearly don’t have wings (a characteristic of larvae). The problem is solved when you find out that the species is called the Wingless Mountain Grasshopper (Booneacris glacialis). Although possessing wings as adults is a characteristic of all major insect groups, there are members of all groups which have later (as in evolutionarily later) lost the wings.
Within the sparse woods of the Black Spruce Trees, I found a caterpillar of the Datana genus. These caterpillars stick together in their younger stages, and separate when they are in their final larval stage before adulthood (Marshall 2006).
Growing out of the side of the railing on this part of the boardwalk trail was the beautiful branching form of a Beard Lichen (Usnea). Lichens are truly the Corals of the terrestrial realm: they have similar appearances and colours (some are green, brown, orange etc), but they also consist of a partnership* between two very different forms of life. Corals consist of an animal and algae living together and Lichens consist of fungi and algae.
*this is of course a very simple way of describing the relationship between a lichen fungus and a lichen alga. In fact, there can be many variations on the degree of partnership, with many relationships resembling parasitism rather than traditional ‘symbiosis’.
Once past the railing I came upon the wildflower meadow, which housed an appropriate medley of visiting Insects. Hymenoptera were present in abundance. A Yellow-Banded Bumble Bee (Bombus terricola) busily moved from flower to flower, thrumming through the air. Bumblebees amaze me, and they almost seem like they shouldn’t be able to fly with their stout fuzzy bodies but they fly quite well enough for their purposes.
A brief appearance by a member of the Sand Wasps (Bembicidae) was an exciting find (have to continue the Sand Wasp series some time, I’ve only done the Introduction and one tribe!). The Sand Wasp I observed in Algonquin is possibly a member of the genus Gorytes. Species in this genus fill their nests with True Bugs, mostly Hoppers (members of the families Cercopidae, Cidadellidae, and Membracidae) (Evans and O’Neill 2007).
The Spider Wasp Episyron was a very distinct Hymenopteran. Although it sort of has a squat appearance somewhat reminiscent of Spiders, the name “Spider Wasp” comes from the fact that these wasps (members of the Family Pompilidae) hunt Spiders which they feed to their young. Species in the genus Episyron hunt specifically Orb-weaver Spiders (Araneidae) (O’Neill 2001).
Flower Flies (Syrphidae) were of course frequently seen visiting the flowers. Frustratingly, a new one to me was elusive enough that I didn’t manage to get a very good picture of it. This was the largest Flower Fly I’ve ever seen (though not large in most terms, probably about honeybee size) a member of the Genus Sphaerophoria.
Not as common, and certainly not as associated with flowers were a couple of Beetle species I observed visiting the flowers. One was a click beetle (Elateridae), possibly of the genus Dalopius. Apparently click beetles aren’t usually desirable flower visitors as they are often feeding on the flowers and pollen themselves (as opposed to the nectar), and don’t contribute to pollination very often (Willmer 2011). Dalopius feeds on other Insects, so perhaps it’s hunting among the flowers for prey, and/or snacking on pollen in the meantime (Marshall 2006).
By contrast, the other flower-visiting beetle that I observed was part of the Family Cerambycidae (the longhorn beetles), which is a group that includes important and frequent pollinators (Willmer 2011). The Red-shouldered Pine Borer (Stictoleptura canadensis) is part of the aptly named subfamily Lepturinae (the flower longhorns) within Cerambycidae.
One wildflower that caught my attention as I was continuing down the trail was a small purple flower with strangely square-shaped petals. The flower was a Common Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris). As you can guess from the common name, this flower was used in the past to cure many different illnesses, particularly of the mouth and throat because of the flower’s resemblance to a yawning mouth (Wernert 1982)… because that’s how things were supposed to work…
Leaving behind the multitude of flowers and insects of the wildflower meadow area, I was arrested by the sight of a peculiar tiny insect: a Barklouse (Order Psocoptera). As Marshall writes in his excellent overview of Insects “One doesn’t hear much about barklice.” (Marshall 2006). Indeed, though this individual is beautifully patterned and distinctive (I believe it’s Metylophorus novaescotiae) I can find little information about this creature. If my identification is correct, I can say that this species lives on shrub and tree branches (Mockford 1993), and presumably feeds on lichen there. Most members of the Order Psocoptera produce silk out of their mouths (specifically, labial glands), and some use this to cover their eggs, while others use the silk to construct shelters for themselves or others (!). There’s a tropical group called the Archipsocidae which can create silken shelters that “enshroud entire trees”, and in which there is some form of sociality (Costa 2006). I would love to learn more about these amazing insects.
The final observation of my hike forced me to switch back to my telephoto lens. I actually thought for a second I was seeing a bird zooming back and forth above the path because of the size of the animal, but it was in fact an insect, and more specifically a Variable Darner Dragonfly (Aeshna interrupta). These Dragonflies are among the more acid-tolerant of Ontario Odonates so it makes sense that this individual could have developed as a larva within the acidic waters of the Spruce Bog (Pollard and Berrill, 1992). This amazing dragonfly (possibly about 15 cm long) was my last observation on the Spruce Bog trail and an excellent contrast to the diminutive (less than a cm long) barklouse, demonstrating once again the incredible diversity of the Insects.
Costa, James. 2006. The Other Insect Societies.
Evans, Howard and O’Neill, Kevin. 2007. The Sand Wasps: Natural History and Behavior.
Marshall, Stephen. 2012. Flies: The Natural History and Diversity of Diptera.
Marshall, Stephen. 2006. Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity.
O’Neill, Kevin. 2001. Solitary Wasps: Behavior and Natural History.
Pollard, J. B., and Berrill, M. 1992. The distribution of dragonfly nymphs across a pH gradient in south-central Ontario lakes. Canadian Journal of Zoologyhttps://doi.org/10.1139/z92-125
Wernert, Susan. 1982. Reader’s Digest North American Wildlife.
Willmer, Pat. 2011. Pollination and Floral Ecology.
And with that, I have finally completed my five-part journey through my 2021 Algonquin Observations series. What’s next for the Norfolk Naturalist? More nature observations, this time in Norfolk County itself (a fungi-spotting hike in Backus Woods with the Norfolk Field Naturalists), and a Podcast Review. Also, I attended Tetzoomcon 2021 this past weekend and it was awesome! A detailed post about the event will follow hopefully soon…