The Story behind the Shot: While hiking at Macgregor Provincial Park, my wife spotted a tiny frog crouched on a leaf. It was one of those opportunities that would have been so easy to miss, and made for a beautiful shot of a tiny creature.
The Story Behind the Species:
“There are some creatures which are the quintessence of the slang word “cute,” which, interpreted, means the perfection of Lilliputian proportions, permeated with undaunted spirit. The chickadee is one of these, and the spring peeper is another.” – Anna Botsford Comstock (from Handbook of Nature Study, originally published in 1911, revised edition 1939)
The quote above nicely captures the wonder I felt at finding such a quintessentially cute animal, a frog that is less than 4 cm long. Their name itself gives a good description of this tiny frog, because they are one of our earliest calling amphibians in the Spring (late March to early April)* and their call is a piercing “peep”! (Harding and Mifsud 2017). Below, I’ve added an audio file recorded by BudJillett on freesound.org, reposted here under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license. so you can hear what these tiny frogs sound like:
*the further north a population of Spring Peepers are, the later in the year they will begin breeding. As Spring Peepers are distributed across Eastern North America, there are fairly large variations in breeding times across their range, with southern populations (in northern Florida and Texas) breeding in Winter and Northern populations breeding later in Spring (Wells 2007).
The male Spring Peepers are the ones calling, to attract females to their location near or in a suitable breeding pond which could be a temporary pool caused by spring melt or a marsh or ditch (Harding and Mifsud 2017). The eggs (up to 1300 per female!) hatch in 4-15 days, into tiny tadpoles that feed on algae and other aquatic plant material (Harding and Mifsud 2017). These tadpoles will feed and grow enough to become tiny froglets over the course of 1.5 months to 3 months (Harding and Mifsud 2017). That may seem like a wide time range, and that’s because there are many factors that promote or delay tadpole growth and development, one of which is canopy cover. In breeding ponds that were closed-canopy (ie. low light and low plant productivity because of low access to light), Spring Peepers grew slower than in more open, high productivity pools (Wells 2007).
The tiny adults spread out from their breeding ponds and hunt through the undergrowth for various small arthropods, avoiding any creatures larger than themselves which could hunt them in turn. Each Spring Peeper must make it through not only a gauntlet of predators, but northern populations must survive freezing temperatures in the Winter. To do this, they produce their own internal “antifreeze” suubstances and have a very similar strategy to Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus), which I discussed in a previous blogpost.
Spring Peepers can live up to 5 years (Wells 2007) but it’s likely only the rare individual out of those 1300 eggs that makes it to their 2nd year of life.
These tiny heralds of Spring, peeping in the night are one of the many fascinating creatures that we seldom see, but I am glad I had the opportunity to see one and take its photo.
Comstock, Anna Botsford. 1911, 1939, 1967. Handbook of Nature Study. Comstock Publishing, a division of Cornell University Press.
Harding, James and Mifsud, David. 2017. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region. University of Michigan Press.
Wells, Kentwood D. 2007. The Ecology and Behavior of Amphibians. University of Chicago Press.
Last year, I observed 2 bat species while on a night hike with the Norfolk Field Naturalists (for more about this hike, go here). The 2 bat species I observed were Eastern Red Bats and Big Brown Bats. I’d like to explore their biology and natural history, specifically within Ontario. This first post will be focused on the Big Brown Bat and another will focus on the Eastern Red Bat. I will be pulling most of my information from The Natural History of Canadian Mammals (2012), by Donna Naughton, unless otherwise indicated.
Big Brown Bats (Eptesicus fuscus):
Meaning Behind the Name: Eptesicus is from Greek which means “I fly” and “house” because Big Brown Bats like to roost in houses, and the species name fuscus is Latin for “dusk” (Etymologia 2005).
Biology and Natural History:
At 13 cm long and with a wingspan of up to 39 cm, this is Ontario’s second largest bat (the largest being the Hoary Bat (Lasiurus cinereus), and is fairly common in southern Ontario. Their global range extends all the way south to South America, and at the northern end there are scattered reports from Alaska. With such a wide range, there are differences in their habits across it. For example, Big Brown Bats in Ontario hibernate through the winter in “caves, mines, and deep rock crevices, as well as heated buildings” (Naughton 2012), but in more southern regions with plentiful insect food throughout the winter, they are active year-round. The list above of hibernation sites are specific permanent locations bats will find to spend the winter. During the day, however, Big Brown Bats will use a variety of roost locations, including tree hollows and beneath bark*.
*A curious note describes a surprising discovery of a male Big Brown Bat that had been roosting beneath loose bark in a Michigan wetland. While the author of the note was interacting with a data logger in the wetland, “a strip of bark about 1 m in length fell from one of the trees and crashed into the water about 3 m away from me. Mixed in with the bark fragments and covered with duckweed (Lemna sp.) was a half-submerged bat that I eventually identified as an adult male big brown bat.” (Kurta 1994). I was glad to read that the bat was “torpid but unharmed” and after warming up “the bat flew away” (Kurta 1994).
Big Brown Bats are generalist insectivores, consuming basically any insects they can catch. Their diet of hard-bodied insects wears down their large teeth but apparently worn teeth don’t affect their feeding habits. They feed at night, if conditions are favourable (such as not rainy, and sufficiently warm night temperatures). On cooler nights, some bats will undergo torpor (a sort of mini-hibernation state) to save energy and forgo foraging. When they are out hunting, Big Brown Bats use echolocation to find insect prey. Although we think of echolocation calls as strictly for feeding, they inevitably function as signals, sometimes unintentionally. It has been demonstrated that Big Brown Bats are attracted to the echolocation calls of another species of bat (the Little Brown Bat, Myotis lucifugus) and the other species is attracted to Big Brown Bat calls as well (Barclay 1982). This is likely because echolocating bats represent an area with foraging opportunities or food sources.
Pups are born in June-July in Canada, and begin flying at 21 days or later. In Eastern North America, most Big Brown Bats give birth to twins, while single pups are most often born in Western regions. Although the pups’ wings are the same size as adults, their weight is much smaller, providing them with an advantage while learning to forage. After about a month, the young are able to hunt for themselves (ie. are no longer dependent on nursing from their mothers), but will stick with their mothers for their first few hunts. Some male Big Brown Bats have lived more than 20 years (the demand on females of pregnant foraging and nursing is high and reduces their maximum lifespan).
Big Brown Bats are fascinating, and I was happy to hear and observe them last year. Next up will be the Eastern Red Bat!
Barclay, R. M. R. 1982. “Interindividual use of echolocation calls: eavesdropping by bats.” Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 10: 271-275. cited in: Altringham, John and Fenton, M. Brock, 2003. “Sensory Ecology and Communication in the Chiroptera” in: Kunz, Thomas and Fenton, M. Brock (eds.). 2003. Bat Ecology. University of Chicago Press.
Last year, as part of the Norfolk Field Naturalists, I was able to present 20 of my photos and discuss them. That was what prompted my still-ongoing “Top 20 Nature photos 2013-2020” series (Links to Introduction, 1. The Pale-Painted Sand Wasp (Bembix pallidipicta, 2. Moose (Alces alces) Family , 3. Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis) , 4. Common Five-Lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) , 5. Robber Fly Hunting Queen Ant ). This year, I am able to present another 20 photos. I’ve decided this time to keep the range of selection and the range of discussion much more condensed and to form it around my blogging year and my blog’s namesake locality: Norfolk County, Ontario. By keeping the time constrained to a single year, representing each month at least once and the location constrained to a single county in Southern Ontario, I think it can give a sense of the turning of the seasons, something I’ve always been fascinated by. One further restriction is I tried to avoid photos/organisms that have already featured on my blog this year. Introduction complete, here come the photos of my blogging year in review:
Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) in Port Rowan, December 2021:
These beautiful birds are a sight to see in the winter, snow falling around their dancing forms. Their resonant trumpeting calls, and their acrobatics in the white fields are breathtaking.
Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) in Simcoe, January 2022:
I’m always pleased to find a species near to home, which I associate with farther away. I first encountered Hooded Mergansers in Algonquin Provincial Park, so I think of them as something from the wild north rather than my own county, but this past January, I took some photos of a female swimming through a park in downtown Simcoe.
Pine Siskin (Spinus pinus) in my backyard, February 2022:
While reading through nature books and articles, I have read often of Pine Siskins moving through my area during the Winter in some years, and I had always hoped to see them. This year was the first time I saw them, and while my photographs are not very high quality (taken through my back windowpane), I was very excited to see and document this species at my backyard bird-feeder.
Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana) in my backyard, March 2022:
Virginia Opossums are the only marsupials in Canada, part of a diverse group of mammals that are distinct from the placentals which make up the rest of the Canadian mammals. People often shorten the name to “possum” but this is technically incorrect for these animals. Pouched mammals in the New World (ie. North and South America) are known as ‘opossums’ while those in the Old World (Mostly Australasia for this group) are called ‘possums’.
American Winter Ant (Prenolepis imparis) in my backyard, March 2022:
These common ants are active early in the Spring and late in the Fall, which is how they acquired their association with Winter (Ellison et. al. 2012). Some workers of this species can store excess amounts of food in their abdomens and become living storage canisters, much like the more well-known honeypot ants (Myrmecocystus in North American deserts, or Camponotus inflatus and Melophorus bagoti in Australian deserts) (Ellison et. al, 2012).
Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) on my Parents’ Farm, April 2022:
The first members of this species were seen in Ontario in the 1860s. Prior to European colonization and agriculture (which opened up preferred habitat for them) these adaptable mammals were located further south in the United States and Mexico (Naughton 2012).
Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) in my backyard, May 2022:
Similar to my Hooded Merganser observation above, my first encounter with these amazing ground-foraging woodpeckers has coloured my appreciation for them as unique and surprising. I first saw Northern Flickers when driving through MacGregor Provincial Park in the early morning. Their speckled pattern was striking but even more distinctive was the way they move, like woodpeckers hopping up a tree trunk but horizontally on the ground surface rather than clinging to bark. Seeing a Northern Flicker in my own backyard was an exciting experience (it’s happened a few years now) and adds to my appreciation of the diversity all around me.
European Woolcarder Bee (Anthidium maniculatum) in my backyard, June 2022:
These solitary bees scrape the hairs off of leaves to line their nests (usually in a preexisting cavity in wood or plant stems). As the common name indicates, this particular bee species is introduced from Europe, and is the species you are likely to see in mid-summer (the native Anthidium species are active earlier in Spring) (Wilson and Carril 2016).
Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) in Long Point, June 2022:
Migratory Warblers are always a treat to see in the Spring and Summer, and this colourful bird singing its heart out is one of my favourites. This species is widespread across North America and northern South America. In the more southern regions of its range, it may breed in mangrove swamps, while in Canada it can be found breeding in windswept tundra.
Cuckoo Wasp (Chrysis) in my backyard, July 2022:
Just as Cuckoos lay their eggs within another bird’s nest in order to benefit from the original inhabitant’s parental provisioning, so does the Cuckoo wasp benefit from another insect’s parental provisioning. In the case of this Genus, Chrysis, the female wasp lays her eggs inside the nest of other solitary wasps where the cuckoo wasp larva either feeds on the growing host wasp larva or the host larva’s food supply, placed in the nest by the host wasp parent (O’Neill 2001). The adult cuckoo wasp is well-armoured and can roll into a ball like an armadillo to present this tough shell as a defense against its hosts (Marshall 2006).
Marsh Snipe Fly (Rhagio tringarius) in my backyard, July 2022:
The larvae of Rhagio snipe flies are predators of invertebrates that dwell within the soil, but the adult diet (if they do eat anything) is unknown (Marshall 2012). This species, R. tringarius is introduced from Europe and is possibly replacing the similar native species, R. hirtus (Marshall 2012).
Eastern Cicada-killer Wasp (Sphecius speciosus) on my Parents’ Farm, July 2022:
Cicada-killer wasps are an example of a species that I had encountered significantly in print before encountering in the wild. I had read of their enormous size and strength, so when I spotted giant robust wasps on a visit to my parents’ farm I had my guess that these were the fabled hunters. These are impressive insects, but despite their large size and the males’ territoriality (the males will occasionally dive-bomb humans), they are not actually dangerous to people and should be tolerated and admired, rather than feared. The female can remove up to 1000 times her weight of soil to create her multi-celled nest which she provisions with adult cicadas (all of which used to be included within the genus Tibicen but which have now been moved to several genera (see Hill et. al. 2015 for a recent taxonomic review of the Cicada genus Tibicen)). Each larva is given 1-4 cicadas to feed on, males are given only 1 and female larvae more because females are sometimes 2.5 times larger than males (Evans and O’Neill 2007). The reason for this size disparity is that females do the digging and carry the giant prey items. The cicada-killers cannot carry paralyzed cicadas in flight unless they first drag them to a height and drop, which they will do occasionally in order to transport their large prey (Evans and O’Neill 2007).
Differential Grasshopper (Melanoplus differentialis) in my Parents’ garden, August 2022:
This very large grasshopper can be up to 4.4 cm long and feeds on a variety of plants and crops (Marshall 2006).
Prionyx atratus in my Parents’ garden, August 2022:
Prionyx atratus is a solitary wasp which hunts late-instar* or adult grasshoppers, like the one photographed on the same day in the same garden above. The wasps sting the grasshoppers on the head or thorax, and then construct a burrow in soil for their single prey item. Once the nest is constructed they will place the paralyzed grasshopper inside with an egg attached and close off the nest. While working on the nest, the female hunter will sometimes cache the grasshopper prey nearby (O’Neill 2001). Researching this species led to a rather alarming observation noted in O’Neill 2001: “I have seen the cached grasshopper prey of Prionyx species devoured by other grasshoppers”. It seems that grasshoppers are not always only plant-pests but will consume each other if given the opportunity.
*instar refers to any larval stage between moults, so a late-instar means a larval stage that is close to being an adult.
Northern Leopard Frog (Lithobates in Long Point, September 2022:
One foggy morning in September, I was out taking photos in Long Point. The main thing I was looking for was birds, but every step I took along the wetland trail was punctuated by the sound and motion of leaping frogs. Taking a closer look at the path, I managed to crouch down and capture some closeups of this Northern Leopard Frog, helpfully sitting very still.
Common Drone Fly (Eristalis tenax) in my backyard, October 2022:
There comes a time in the year when insect populations begin to go into hiding or die off as Autumn and Winter creep upon the land. Every buzzing, whirring, crawling invertebrate at this time of year gains my attention all the more because I am conscious of the seasons’ turnings that will soon cover the flowers with snow and a hush will fall upon the local pollinators. So in October, I was quite excited to find a small gathering of pollinators right by my back step where an Aster was growing. This photo shows one such late-Fall insect: a Drone Fly.
Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme) on my Parents’ Farm, October 2022:
Yet another late-flying insect caught my eye in October, this time a butterfly: an Orange Sulphur. This species of butterfly may or may not overwinter in Ontario. The adult individuals that we see in the Spring are likely migrants from its southern range (which includes Central America and the United States) (Hall et. al. 2014). I’m guessing this means that this individual spotted in the Fall was possibly on its way South to warmer climes.
Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) in my backyard, November 2022:
As I prepared to choose at least one photo from every month of the past year, I realized that I didn’t have any photos taken in November. So I rushed outside in my backyard to take some photos of the backyard birds at our feeders. My favourite picture was this of a Dark-eyed Junco. Juncos are familiar and common backyard birds, though they prefer to feed from the ground, rather than directly from the hanging feeders. I feel like this is a perfect species to end with: very common and familiar, found in my own backyard, yet I still find it exciting to see and observe these amazing creatures. I’m looking forward to next year, and can’t wait to see what other species I will wonder at and learn about through 2023.
Ellison, Aaron, Gotelli, Nicholas, Farnsworth, Elizabeth, adn Alpert, Gary. 2012. A Field Guide to the Ants of New England. Yale University Press.
Evans, Howard and O’Neill, Kevin. 2007. The Sand Wasps: Natural History and Behavior. Harvard University Press.
Hall, Peter, Jones, Colin, Guidotti, Antonia, and Hubley, Brad. 2014. The ROM Field Guide to Butterflies of Ontario. Royal Ontario Museum.
In June I went to see Jurassic World: Dominion, the latest film in the Jurassic Saga. I wouldn’t say it’s a great film, but I did really enjoy it, especially with the theatre experience. I wrote a blogpost about my personal interactions with the Jurassic books/films/videogames and some paleontological things because they were on my mind a lot at the time. You will see that some of the books I read over the blogging year (overviewed below) were also inspired by my dinosaur obsession which comes and goes quite often.
Some of my most exciting observations this year were of birds that I encountered in Long Point. And some of the most exciting birds were members of the Heron Family (Ardeidae). Usually I see and take photos of Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias) which is great but it was amazing to encounter several other members of this charismatic group of birds this year. My close encounter with a Green Heron (Butorides virescens) was so striking that I wrote it up into a blogpost: A Green Heron Stalks the Shallows.
Two other blogposts feature some of my Long Point observations. One is sort of a tour through a variety of observations I made during March 2022: Bullfrogs and Buffleheads. Another is more like the Green Heron post mentioned above, as it focuses on a specific bird that caught my attention. In this case, it was the Green-winged Teal (Anas carolinensis): The Teal Tale Teale Told.
During August, we took a trip to one of my favourite places: Algonquin Provincial Park. While there, I made some nature observations and took some photos, sharing them in my blogpost here: Algonquin in August.
And that wraps up my writing this year. Below, we will take a tour through the books I read this past year (that are nature/science related) and discuss them briefly.
Nature’s Year: Changing Seasons in Central and Eastern Ontario, by Drew Monkman:
Although the book is not directly focused on my local area (Norfolk County falls outside of the books focal range), the close proximity of the areas documented mean that many of the natural phenomena described within are of relevance to the seasons around me as well. I really appreciated the layout of the book. Each month is divided into sections based on organism type: “Plants and Fungi”, “Reptiles and Amphibians”, “Mammals” and so on. Beneath each of these sub-headings, interesting happenings are described, some in point-form and others in detail (full page or two). It was great to witness the natural events mentioned in the book, to read along as each month progressed as I did in 2021. Reading the book through the year prepares your mind to see the natural events it describes. An advantage of the layout is that it also works well as a reference because you can flip to a certain month and type of organism to see what notable species or events are occurring.
Biodiversity in Dead Wood, edited by Jogeir N. Stokland, Juha Siitonen, and Bengt Gunnar Jonsson:
A new favourite book of mine, this volume opened up the mysterious biome of decaying wood and explored the diversity of life within, from bacteria to birds. The interactions of organisms with each other and their environment is the heart of ecology and it’s clear from my reading that species are interconnected in fascinating and complex ways.
Spider Communication: Mechanisms and Ecological Significance, edited by Peter N. Witt and Jerome S. Rovner:
The title of this book drew me to it as I am always fascinated by animal behaviour and Spiders seem to me unlikely subjects of a volume dedicated to communication. Reading the book offers a new perspective on spider interactions with each other through their silk and body movements and even acoustics! They also communicate with predators and prey,
Hedgehog (Collins New Naturalist), by Pat Morris:
I didn’t really know anything about Hedgehogs before reading this book. And there was no need, as this volume summarizes in entertaining fashion most anything anyone would want to know about British Hedgehogs.
The Encyclopedia of Animals: A Complete Visual Guide, edited by George Mckay:
I read through this book slowly, as it is not really meant to be read straight through. This book serves best as a flip-through book, showcasing the diversity of animals around the world. The illustrations are at times a bit strange (I believe many are stock illustrations) and don’t seem to match with the animal they depict, but others are quite beautiful and the diversity they portray is fun to look at. The text is very cursory as would be expected with a popular “flip-through” tome like this. My major gripe with this book is something I used to harp on about all the time growing up as an insect enthusiast: Invertebrates are barely represented. Mammals get the majority of pages devoted to them, and Birds are close behind. Mammals and Birds are fascinating, and far more diverse than one would assume if you have only watched nature documentaries (which focus on the same set of species rather than showcasing the variety that are actually out there). Even still, they are a fraction of the diversity of the animal kingdom, which is more appropriately ruled in species numbers by the Arthropods or Mollusks. Despite this (a very common problem in overview books) I really had fun slowly reading through this book, taking in a page or so of variety a day. I wouldn’t say it is the best or most comprehensive of animal encyclopedias, but it serves as a good introduction as long as one is well aware of the classic hairy or feathered vertebrate bias.
British Tits (Collins New Naturalist), by Christopher M. Perrins:
British Tits have always struck me as beautiful chickadees, which indeed they are. I was always jealous of Britain having the wonderful cheery birds I know from my backyard, but with more vibrant colour. Tits are fascinating birds, with life histories and behaviour to match their beautiful exteriors. This book was an excellent overview of the species of Parulidae that occur in the British Isles.
Dinopedia, by Darren Naish:
A compact and great little book filled with tidbits about the history of dinosaur research, some of the paleontologists who conducted said research or influenced the field of dinosaur study, and brief summaries on dinosaur groups. My personal tastes lie with this last group of entries, but each entry was interesting in its own way, supplying concise facts and summaries and highlighting areas of interest within the world of dinosaur research. I greatly enjoyed the illustrations by the author which really enhance the book.
Reef Life: A Guide to Tropical Marine Life, by Brandon Cole and Scott Michael:
A delightful photo-focused tour through the world of coral reefs and tropical sea life. The focus is on fishes, while smaller sections describe and display some representative invertebrates. Styled something like a field guide, but with plenty of ecological and biological information throughout, this book gives a taste of the diversity of coral reefs and the interconnected lives of the species that create and depend on them.
Bat Ecology, edited by Thomas H. Kunz and M. Brock Fenton:
Bats are fascinating, and I learned a lot about them from this book. Because of the book’s focus on Ecology, there was no real overview of Bats as a group which would have been nice for myself to have some sort of general idea before diving into specifics. Not a fault of the book, just something to note if you’re unfamiliar with bats from a scientific point of view. The chapters are each written by different authors and cover a wide range of topics, and as such there were excellent and enjoyable chapters (for myself the chapter on Roosting sites and the chapter on Pollination were particularly fascinating) and some chapters that were less so. Not a fault of the book, but my personal point of view and knowledge base left me struggling through the chapters on Sperm Competition and Patterns of Range Size. Those two chapters in particular felt like specific scientific studies rather than reviews of a subject area which the other chapters felt like. So, while mixed, the interest I have in Bats has certainly been increased and I have certainly learned a lot about some of the diverse ecologies that bats have around the world, while still wanting more.
This Day: New and Collected Sabbath Poems 1979-2012, by Wendell Berry:
In the preface, Wendell Berry remarks that the poems should be read outside in similar circumstances to when they were written. And I originally envisioned doing so. When I began to read them in very different circumstances, I found that instead of diminishing the power of the poetry by contrast, the poetry brought the beauty and wonder of nature into my less-than-ideal setting (usually indoors in winter or at work).
Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Protect the World’s Largest Owl, by Jonathan C. Slaght:
Although I will always want a book like this to have more focus on the animals themselves (in this case Blakiston’s Fish Owls) I thought this was a very interesting listen (I had the audiobook). Lots of adventures and misadventures in the Russian wilderness, as well as strange and intriguing people that the author encounters. And there was quite a bit about how the field research actually worked and the sorts of things I really was looking for: info and descriptions of the wildlife encounters including the focal species. Overall, a good read about an animal I didn’t know much about before and the efforts to research and protect it.
Dinosaurs Rediscovered: The Scientific Revolution in Paleontology, by Michael J. Benton:
I picked up this book from the library, inspired by my recent viewing of Jurassic World: Dominion, and found this book to be a mixed bag. I enjoyed some of the stories behind discoveries or changes in perspective on dinosaurs and their world… but I found other such stories to be irrelevant or out of place. In general, the flow of the book was a bit haphazard. The information within sated my appetite for dinosaurian (and some non-dinosaur) biology and ecology temporarily and I enjoyed the illustrations and figures.
Ant Ecology, edited by Lori Lach, Catherine L. Parr, and Kirsti L. Abbott:
Because this is an edited multiauthored volume, it becomes difficult to review the whole, as chapters are written with different topics and by different people. Overall, this was an interesting look at more recent ant research (20 years more recent than my other source for ant knowledge: The Ants by E. O. Wilson, written in 1990). There is a heavy conservation and practical (invasive ecology) focus to the book which may attract workers in these fields.
The Amber Forest: A Reconstruction of a Vanished World, by George Poinar Jr. and Roberta Poinar:
Fascinating gallery of ancient organisms preserved in amber of a particular age and location. Mostly insects and other arthropods which is fine by me, I enjoyed the overview of insect relationships and such that were covered alongside the representatives of the different groups found in amber. The format was a little strange and took some getting used to, I feel like there could have been a better way to present the images and the text but I don’t know, felt a little awkward flipping back and forth throughout reading. All in all, very interesting especially if you like insects and fossils.
A Naturalist At Large, by Bernd Heinrich:
A fun tour through various natural history topics. Bernd Heinrich is curious about the nature he observes and doesn’t take things for granted and by doing so, he discovers by bits and pieces, fascinating natural history stories. I especially liked the chapters focused on birds or insects, perhaps due to my own interests and knowledge but I think perhaps it is because those were Bernd Heinrich’s research focuses as well and his insight there was thus enhanced.
Biology and Conservation of Wild Canids, edited by D. W. Macdonald and C. Sillero-Zubiri:
A great review of Canid Conservation around the world. The case studies were interesting snapshots of species under investigation from Grey Wolves of Isle Royale, in Lake Superior, to the Blanford’s Fox in the deserts of the Middle East. While not comprehensive on the biology/ecology of canids (some species didn’t even get a case study chapter such as Bush Dogs), this was an excellent primer on the diversity of species and challenges in the canid research world.
Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, by Frans de Waal:
A book aimed at tearing down the division between human and “animal” cognition. Presents a wide array of anecdotes and experiments that demonstrate that human thinking is a matter of degree and not a separate category altogether from the millions of other species on this planet. I was a bit disappointed that the author focused mainly on chimpanzee research (his own specialty) but this served to really break down the idea that human thinking is a different sort from other species as chimpanzees display many of our ways of thinking that humans previously considered unique to our species. I would have loved to read more about cognition in diverse species and phyla, the one section on invertebrates was intriguing but all too short, but all in all the book presents its arguments well, and discusses the history of thinking about animal thinking in an interesting and thought-provoking way.
That concludes my writing and reading overview for the past blogging year! Stay tuned for more nature sightings, observations, photos and natural history!
Here’s another repost from my old tumblr blog norfolknaturalist.tumblr.com. I’ve added some newer photos of the species involved but otherwise unchanged. Much of this article was inspired by my reading of the book Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death, by Bernd Heinrich. I thought the subject and title were appropriate for Halloween season.
Just as we were about to turn into my parents’ driveway last weekend (in April 2018), we saw probably the most iconic bird in North America less than 100 metres away from us down the road. A Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) was dining on a Raccoon roadkill in clear sight.
Perhaps it’s surprising that a bird of such noble renown was seen stooping to consuming carrion, something that we often see as repulsive. The truth is that the line between ‘predator’ and ‘scavenger’ is often a very blurred one. Most animals that eat other animals are willing to eat one that has already died or been killed. To the predator, it contains the same nutrients that it would obtain from its own kill but with much less effort (valuable time and energy) on their part. This isn’t to say that eating pre-killed remains is without risk for a predator or a scavenger. Besides the conflicts with other hunters over the resource, there is an omnipresent and invisible threat to all dead flesh.
Bacteria: organisms that are so tiny they are dwarfed by individual cells of our bodies. Despite being so small, and unseen without a powerful microscope, bacteria operate everywhere in the natural world and one of the most profound activities they perform is nutrient recycling and breakdown. While they disassemble cells and consume dead flesh, bacteria proliferate. Bacteria are the reason that predators can’t eat an animal body that’s been dead for too long. They are the reason dead things go “rotten” and become unpalatable by almost any animals. They are the unseen “competitor” with the visible and charismatic predators.
After at least an hour of feeding, and the frequent interruptions of cars passing, the eagle flew off and left the dead Raccoon. That is when the Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) moved in, creatures much more commonly associated with scavenging. And for good reason. Turkey Vultures have the most powerful sense of smell of any bird, and can detect a dead animal from over a mile away. What’s more, they can eat flesh that other creatures would turn down as too far gone. Their digestive system is able to break down the toxins of the ever-present bacteria, making them capable of consuming rotten flesh, where others cannot.
It may be a grisly business, the consumption of the dead, but it is an essential (and amazing) part of ecosystems around the world.
My parents’ farm property in Norfolk County has been blessed by the construction of a very exciting nest. One day when I arrived at their house and opened my car door I was greeted by the distinctive “croak” of a Common Raven (Corvus corax). The sound startled me, placing me in the woodlands of Algonquin Park, but there was no mistaking that call, and the size of the bird making it. I could see the calling raven, perched atop an unused silo. As exciting as this brief sighting was, the true significance of this bird’s presence was not yet revealed.
Later that same week, my Mom asked about the large crows and mentioned that they were building a nest on top of the silo. She said they went back and forth with sticks in their beaks. Maybe this news wouldn’t be so exciting to some people but for myself the thought of a raven nest that I could regularly observe was exhilarating.
And observe it I have!
On a recent visit, I went back to check out the nest and take some pictures. After only a few moments of watching the silo, I heard the sounds of one of these amazing birds returning and saw it carrying a large stick in its beak. The raven dropped the stick onto the nest pile without even landing, continuing to soar through the sky on its powerful wings. Apparently, if a dropped stick doesn’t stay in the nest, the ravens won’t pick them up again off the ground (Stokes and Stokes 1989). The sticks are taken from tree branches, broken off by the ravens, not collected from the ground (Stokes and Stokes 1989). In addition to large sticks, the nest could contain dirt and grass clumps as well as an interior lining of gathered hair or bark (Stokes and Stokes 1989).
A few minutes later, a turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) came drifting towards the silo. The large bird seemed to be planning to perch atop the silo, something I have seen vultures do previously. Swooping onto the scene with deep throaty “croaks” the raven pair chased the vulture off into the distance, something that was reminiscent of the classic behaviour of corvids mobbing raptors or owls.
As I said at the beginning of this post, the call and sight of ravens makes me think of Algonquin Park, and that’s for good reason. Until now, it was the only location I had seen these birds. Ravens used to be common across all of Ontario but mainly due to habitat destruction and human persecution, they have been mostly absent from far southern Ontario for about a century (Cadman et. al. 1987). Ravens were even rare in Algonquin Park until the 1960s because of the poisoned baits left out for wolves (Tozer 2012). The most recent field guide I have (Bezener 2016) still has the raven range map cut off before reaching most of Southern Ontario.
I’ve tried unsuccessfully to find a good source for the current breeding range of ravens in Ontario, but I suppose I’ll have to wait for the next edition of the Breeding Bird Atlas, which is collecting data right now (2021-2025) for its creation. It’s an amazing project, and if you have the time to contribute go for it! Suffice to say, this nest of ravens is a fairly new thing in my area and is very exciting. I hope that they have a successful nesting season, and I have a feeling I will have more posts about this nest in the future! At the time these observations were made (March 29, 2022) the ravens have possibly already laid eggs in the nest, as Tozer (2012) gives a range for Alqonquin raven egg-laying as March 20 – April 19. Stay tuned!
Bezener, Andy. 2016. Birds of Ontario. 376 pp. Partners and Lone Pine Publishing.
Cadman, M. D., Eagles, P. F. J., and Helleiner, F. M. 1987. Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario. 617 pp. University of Waterloo Press.
Tozer, Ron. 2012. Birds of Algonquin Park. 474 pp. The Friends of Algonquin Park.
Stokes, Donald and Stokes, Lillian. 1989. A Guide to Bird Behavior. Volume III. 397 pp. Little, Brown, and Company.
For Previous articles that have some relevance to this one, see:
Subject: Common Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus).
Location: Pinery Provincial Park.
Date: May 2017.
For an Introduction to this series (my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020) go here.
The Story Behind the Shot: As I mentioned in the previous photo-story, I have only rarely sought out a target species when photographing or wandering in nature. Instead, I usually just stumble upon whatever I stumble upon and find out about it later. Not so at Pinery Provincial Park, one of the only locations I’ve visited where I can see a wild lizard. While camping in the park, I had always dreamed of spotting that elusive beast: the Common Five-Lined Skink, the only lizard species that lives in Ontario. It was actually on the way to the bathroom that I spotted this creature, poking out from behind a bulletin board with announcements attached to the outside of the facility. The creature dropped down out of sight when I walked past. I caught sight of the animal out of the corner of my eye and my brain only registered what I saw a few seconds later. Then I raced back to my campsite to retrieve my camera and raced back to hopefully capture some pictures of this almost mythical creature. Thankfully the Skink hadn’t moved away and I was able to take a few pictures, my heart pounding with excitement.
The Story Behind the Species: Before we get into the more general information about these Skinks, I’d like to take a moment to describe what I can of this individual lizard that I observed and photographed. Because of its size and coloration I can tell you that it was an adult male skink. Young five-lined skinks have a bright pattern of yellow stripes on black, with a strikingly blue tail. Some female skinks retain the blue tail into adulthood but males’ tails usually fade to grey, and they develop a reddish-orange head which is evident in the pictured individual.
It takes two or three years for five-lined skinks to reach maturity (Harding and Mifsud 2017), so this individual was likely at least two years old when I encountered it.
Although the five-lined skink is the only lizard species in Ontario, and within the province its distribution is limited to coastal dunes along the edges of the Great Lakes, populations of this species range across much of the eastern United States all the way south to Florida and Texas. Because of this wide range of latitude, some populations experience much colder conditions than others. The populations in Ontario and northern populations in the United States spend the winter inactive and dormant (around the Great Lakes from about October to late April) (Harding and Mifsud 2017). These dormant lizards hide themselves away in stumps or logs, rock or building crevices, or mammal burrows. It’s intriguing to think of a five-lined skink taking refuge from the Canadian winter inside the burrow of a chipmunk and it seems that this likely happens.
In the spring, the skinks emerge from dormancy and form loose territories which males will defend against other males in order to mate with receptive females. A month after mating, the female finds a hidden nest site (in the same sorts of places used for overwintering, see above) and lays up to 20 eggs (Harding and Mifsud 2017). After 1-2 months, the eggs hatch and the hatchlings leave the nest within 1-2 days.
As already mentioned the juveniles have bright blue tails and a pronounced striping pattern down their backs, adult males have bright reddish-orange heads especially during the breeding season (May-June in Ontario). You might expect that these lizards use visual cues for reproduction, and they likely do but they also have a powerful sense of smell which has been shown to be capable of distinguishing reproductive characteristics of other skink individuals (such as maturity and sex) and a related species has even been shown to be able to distinguish individuals by scent (Cooper 1996).
It seems that the bright blue tails are more of an antipredator adaptation than a visual signal to other skinks (though it no doubt functions as both). How does the tail help a skink escape predation? The colour draws the eye of visually-hunting predators, distracting from more vulnerable parts of the skink such as the head or torso. And I’m sure you’ve heard this one before: if seized by a predator, the tail can become detached and will even wriggle for several minutes on its own.
What sort of predators hunt five-lined skinks? Basically anything that can catch these swift little lizards: snakes, mammals, birds, and perhaps most surprisingly… Spiders. An excellently illustrated and fascinating book about lizards, Lizards: Windows to the Evolution of Diversity (Pianka and Vitt 2003), contains a photo of a juvenile five-lined skink caught by a spider (p. 66). Usually the invertebrates are on the menu for the skink which feeds on a wide variety of leaf-litter inhabitants. Large skinks will feed on small vertebrates as well such as frogs or baby mice.
Well, that’s that: the only lizard species in Ontario, and I was lucky enough to see and photograph it.
Next up is a two-for-one (two species in one photo) which features an insect that has caught another, both species are fascinating. Stay tuned…
Cooper, W. E. Jr. 1996. “Chemosensory recognition of familiar and unfamiliar conspecifics by the scincid lizard Eumeces laticeps.” Ethology 102: 1-11. cited in: Pianka, Eric, and Vitt, Laurie. 2003. Lizards: Windows to the Evolution of Diversity.
Harding, James H. and Mifsud, David A. 2017. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region: Revised Edition.
Pianka, Eric, and Vitt, Laurie. 2003. Lizards: Windows to the Evolution of Diversity.Pianka, Eric, and Vitt, Laurie. 2003. Lizards: Windows to the Evolution of Diversity.
For the previous articles in my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020 series, see:
Last August, I went on a hike in Backus Woods with the Norfolk Field Naturalists to identify and photograph fungi. For the first two parts of the observations I made during the hike, see Part 1 and Part 2. My two previous posts covered all of the fungi (and several interesting non-fungi including wood frogs and fungus weevils) that I photographed and described some of their interesting biologies and ecologies. This final post is a roundup of the non-fungi observations I made during the hike.
You would be forgiven for thinking that this next observation also represented the fruiting body of a fungus. Instead, this drooping white organism is actually a plant without chlorophyll (and thus without the colour green and without the ability to capture light from the sun and turn it into sugar). Ghost Pipes (Monotropa uniflora) are parasitic plants, which feed indirectly on the roots of their host trees via underground fungi that attach to the roots in a mycorrhizal relationship (Runtz 2020). The flower heads droop, and give this strange flower its name of “pipe” but when they are pollinated (by bees usually) they will raise their flowers straight upward (Runtz 2020).
Some more traditional plants (you know, ones that are green and perform the magic of photosynthesis) were also spotted along the trails. I learned that the bright red clusters of berries were the ripened fruits of George-Michael-in-the-Banana-Stand (Arisaema triphyllum)*. Besides the red berry clusters, we also saw representatives with green berries that hadn’t ripened yet. Although they may look edible, these red berries contain high levels of oxalic acid and cause painful burning in people that eat them… although apparently white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and wood thrushes will eat them and be fine (Holland 2016).
*more traditionally, the common name is Jack-in-the-Pulpit and most people probably know it by this name, but I couldn’t resist using the new common name proposed by The Field Guides Podcast (for my review of the Field Guides Podcast go here)
Another red-berried plant was a new one for me: Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens). These red berries are edible, but apparently tasteless. The flowers are pollinated by bumblebees and as the name suggests the berries are consumed by ground-birds (such as grouse and turkeys), but also by skunks and white-footed mice (Hayden 2012). You would think that partridges would eat these berries… but we don’t have any partridges in North America, and this species only grows here… so here we have a very useless common name.
Two other wildflowers added colour and beauty to our hike: Spotted Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) and Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica). Spotted Jewelweed is pollinated mainly by hummingbirds and bees, while the Great Blue Lobelia is pollinated mostly by bumblebee (Eastman 1995). I unknowingly captured this interaction between Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and Spotted Jewelweed in the past, so I’ve included a picture here.
A few interesting arthropod encounters also enhanced the hike. An American Giant Millipede (of the Narceus americanus complex)* was found in curled defensive posture.
*the complex refers to the fact that this “species” is actually made up of many species that may be extremely difficult to distinguish
On the way out of Backus Woods, I spotted some speedy insects scurrying across the sands and gravels of the path, those predatory jewels known as Tiger Beetles (Cicindelinae). The two species that I spotted and photographed were the Punctured Tiger Beetle (Cicindela punctulata) and the Big Sand Tiger Beetle (Cicindela formosa).
I hope you enjoyed this tour through Backus Woods with a focus on Fungi. I know I learned a lot and am excited for future outings with the Norfolk Field Naturalists!
Eastman, John. 1995. The Book of Swamp and Bog.
Hayden, W. John. 2012. “2012 Wildflower of the Year: Partridge Berry, Mitchella Repens.” Virginia Native Plant Society Brochure, 2012, 1-3.
Holland, Mary. 2016. Naturally Curious Day by Day.
Runtz, Michael. 2020. Wildflowers of Algonquin Provincial Park.
For more Nature Observations in Norfolk County, see:
Back in August, I went for a hike with the Norfolk Field Naturalists to search for Fungi to photograph (see Part 1). Along the way, I encountered many organisms both fungal and not-so-fungal.
One non-fungus was photographed perched atop some fungi on a log. The creature was a Marbled Fungus Weevil (Euparius marmoreus), which feeds on polypore fungi (Marshall 2018).
The next observation brings us back to the focus of the hike: Fungi. This strange spherical object covered in a lacework pattern is the fruiting body of an Earthball (Scleroderma). These fungi actually interconnect with tree roots to form mycorrhizal associations, benefitting the trees and the fungus (Stephenson 2010).
Another spherical object caught our eye while hiking through the woods: an Oak apple gall. This particular one was caused by Amphibolips cookii, a Gall Wasp feeding within the bud of a Red Oak (Quercus rubra). The bud developed into this spherical gall, while the larva fed within and then this “oak apple” detached and fell to the forest floor, and I guess the adult wasp has already left this gall behind? I don’t know, it was very difficult to find any information about this species or gall wasps (Cynipidae) in general despite them being fascinating insects (what I did find was a website that contains some information: gallformers.org, a site worth checking out if interested). I have a particular fondness for galls caused by insects… they’re plant growths that create particular species-specific patterns for the insects that inhabit them… what’s not to like?
Further down the trails, we encountered some classically shaped mushrooms unlike the more bizarre (in my opinion) Earthballs (Scleroderma). A member of the genus Oudemansiella and a member of the genus Russula.
Russula fungi are ectomycorrhizal, meaning that their underground mycelia (the major part of the fungal body) connect with roots of trees and other plants to transfer and exchange nutrients (Stephenson 2010).
Some of the most common fungi that we spotted were associated (as many fungi are) with dead or dying wood. Fungi that feed on dead or decaying material are known as saprotrophs. Orange Mycena (Mycena leaiana) were spotted multiple times throughout our excursion and I have to say they might be my favourite fungi that we found simply for aesthetic reasons. The beautiful colour of their fruiting bodies really brighten up the dead logs and fallen trees in the forest.
Another wood-feeding saprotroph we found often is known as the “Oyster Mushroom” (Pleurotus), apparently because of its fishy smell (which I couldn’t detect, perhaps it needs to be cooking?). These are very commonly collected for humans to eat. As mentioned above, the Oyster Mushrooms feed on decaying and dead wood, but they also feed on microscopic creatures called nematodes. The details of the interaction are incredible. The Pleurotus fungi has special cells among its hyphae (the underground components of the fungal mycelium) which produce a toxin that paralyzes nematodes. After contact, the nematodes continue moving (usually much slowed, and erratically) for 30 seconds to several minutes before succumbing to the paralyzing toxin. The immobilized nematodes are then attractive to fungal growth from the Pleurotus mycelium, which produces hyphae that thread through the material (usually dead wood or soil) to reach the nematodes and enter their bodies. These fungal threads break the nematode down, consuming it while it is still alive but paralyzed. If you’re interested in more of these details, you can read the full paper where it’s described (Barron and Thorn 1987) here: https://cdnsciencepub.com/doi/10.1139/b87-103.
There were a couple of other saprotrophic fungi found feeding on logs during the hike. Resinous Polypore (Ischnoderma resinosum) has a strange texture that was unexpected, though appearing like tougher shelf fungi it was actually quite soft and pliable. Our guide likened it to the feel of a donut and I can attest that this assessment is bizarrely valid.
Not all fungi grow on logs however, and there are several interesting groups that are very easy to miss. One colorful but tiny fungus is the Red Chanterelle (Cantharellus cinnabarinus) which grows singly or in clumps and is connected to the root systems of trees in yet another mycorrhizal relationship.
Two representatives of a more bizarre ground-sprouting group would have been easily missed. This group is known as the “Earth-tongues” (Family Geoglossaceae). You can (perhaps unfortunately) see their resemblance to strange tiny tongues protruding from the soil. Our guide was quite excited to have spotted the dark Earth-tongues (identified via iNaturalist as Trichoglossum because of the tiny hairs) because they would be very easy to miss.
That brings us to the end of the fascinating fungi that I spotted on our hike! It is not the end however of the non-fungal sightings. A few more of those to review in the final part of this ‘series’.
G. L. Barron and R. G. Thorn, 1987. Destruction of nematodes by species of Pleurotus. Canadian Journal of Botany. 65(4): 774-778. https://doi.org/10.1139/b87-103
Marshall, Stephen. 2018. Beetles: The Natural History and Diversity of Coleoptera.
Stephenson, Steven. 2010. The Kingdom Fungi.
For other Nature Observations in Norfolk County, see:
I’ve started listening to podcasts over the last few years, and I especially enjoy a podcast that has a good balance of entertainment and education. That description is perfect for one of my favourite podcasts: The Field Guides. This podcast first started in September 2015 and now has over 60 episodes released so if you’re just tuning in now you have plenty of excellent content to catch up on. The presenters’ goal is to bring a trail experience every month or so, though that doesn’t always happen which I think we can all understand. Life happens. Even so, they have released quite a few episodes and they’re usually about an hour long each. Some episodes are split into two parts, with each part being about an hour long. Each episode focuses on a nature topic (or the occasional nature location, such as their tour of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute). The topics range from Goldenrod Galls to Bird Banding. Sometimes they focus on a particular species, such as the Purple Pitcher Plant, and sometimes they focus on a broader natural phenomenon such as the relationship between Ants and Plants or Fall Colours.
I like that whatever their topic of choice is, Bill and Steve delve into it with real research from papers published in scientific journals or credible book sources. I appreciate the level of detail that is provided on each given topic as it’s not all surface-level same-old natural history facts. This is especially true in some of the two-part episodes as the extended time allows for even deeper exploration of a nature topic. With the use of scientific papers and research, there can be some discussions that are difficult to follow because of scientific jargon or complex topics, but for the most part they bring out the significance of the science and explain in a way that doesn’t leave one struggling to keep up.
Besides discussing a nature topic or species (which would be good enough in my opinion), Bill and Steve also hit the trail in various locations mostly in New York State. There is an episode about Spruce Grouse where they traveled to Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario which was especially exciting to me as IloveAlgonquinProvincialPark. This was the only location familiar to myself, but if you’re in New York state I’m sure you’ll recognize many of the trail locations they visit. Despite walking around through leaf litter and beside streams, the audio experience of the hiking enhances the listening experience rather than detracting from it. Rare is it that the sound of wind on the microphones or crunching footsteps overpowers the discussion or intrudes in any sort of negative way. Instead, the sounds of birdsong (some recognized by me, some unfamiliar) and the calls of amphibians add a lot to the ambience.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, for a podcast to be especially enjoyable for me, it needs an entertainment factor. In this case, The Field Guides Podcast delivers with sarcasm throughout (often by Steve, but Bill gives his fair share as well), and humorous anecdotes or comments. I think one of my favourite jokes was the two of them coming up with alternative common names for Jack-in-the-Pulpit because common names can be whatever you want them to be. Some of their excellent suggestions were “Ripley-in-the-Power-Loader” and “George-Michael-in-the-Banana-Stand”. I will mention here that their humour is enjoyable for an adult audience, as there are occasional jokes and comments that are inappropriate (or indecipherable) for younger audiences. They even have a two-part episode which has the Explicit tag called “Eat Sh*t and Live, Bill”, all about coprophagy (animals/plants eating poop). The episode was fascinating, but just in case any teachers wanted to play this podcast for younger students it does contain some adult humour.
In summary, The Field Guides is a must-listen if you’re interested in Nature and Science. I have spent many hours of enjoyment laughing at the jokes and sarcasm and learning a lot about the animals and plants and nature phenomena that are all around us. Give it a listen!
For Previous Norfolk Naturalist Media Reviews, see: