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 recently joined a local group of nature enthusiasts known as the Norfolk Field Naturalists. My very first outing with the Norfolk Field Naturalists was a hike through the Backus Woods Conservation Area with a local Fungi expert Leanne Lemaich. The hike was rewarding for the opportunity to meet up with others who share my passion for learning about the nature around us, and I learned a lot about the various fungi in the area. I used my camera extensively, capturing fungi and non-fungi (some new ones for me!) as you’ll see below. All in all, it was a great experience despite feeling as though I singlehandedly sponsored the next generation of mosquitoes with most of my blood supply…
Let’s begin with a brief primer on Fungi, because that’s how our hike began as well. Despite being classified so often with plants, fungi are actually more closely related to animals, but in any case they are neither. Unlike plants, fungi can’t produce their own energy, ie. they don’t contain chlorophyll, the pigment that makes leaves green and captures energy from the sun to create sugars/carbons (the incredible process known as photosynthesis). Instead, fungi feed on other organisms just like all animals do. Many fungi feed on dead organisms (termed saprophytic, or saprotrophic), but there are also many that feed on or within living organisms and still others form symbiotic relationships (which can grade into parasitism… the difference between symbiosis and parasitism is actually very grey-shaded). Although most of a fungus is composed of tiny threads that grow and proliferate out of sight, there are extraordinary structures that appear for reproductive purposes and these are collectively called “mushrooms”. I like to think of mushrooms as the equivalent of flowers, because they’re the visible part that facilitates reproduction just like the flowers in plants (via insects/other organisms/wind/rain/other weather processes in both instances). Now that we have a (very) basic idea of what fungi are, we can move onto some of the particular ones I observed and photographed on this hike, as well as many non-fungi spotted along the way!
Our first fungal find was a Bolete (Family Boletaceae), and the first incredible fact that I learned was that this mushroom couldn’t be identified without a… taste test. We hear so often about the dangers of foraging for mushrooms, because there are poisonous lookalikes to edible species and such, that I was very intrigued to learn that some mushrooms are identified by taste. Of course, I will reiterate the warning you will hear literally everywhere mushroom foraging is mentioned (and for good reason): DON’T EAT MUSHROOMS IF YOU’RE UNSURE OF THEIR ID.
Next up was a familiar species even to me, a comparative novice when it comes to fungal identification: Turkey-tail (Trametes versicolor). This common species feeds on dead wood, and contains enzymes able to break down cellulose and lignin at the same time (Stephenson 2010). These are the two main components of plant cell walls, and are notoriously difficult for animals to digest.
Several times during the hike, we came upon Coral fungi, which unsurprisingly resemble underwater corals in their branching structures. Our guide identified some of these as possible Ramaria species, but she also pointed out a false coral (Sebacina schweinitzii).
This next unassuming organism isn’t a fungus, but rather a strange living thing called a slime mould, specifically the Dog-vomit Slime Mould (Fuligo septica). The Dog-vomit Slime Mould is part of a group known as the plasmodial slime moulds, the Myxomycetes. Myxomycetes have a complicated and confusing life cycle. They have two feeding stages: the first consists of single cells which move and feed within their environment like amoebae (Stephenson 2010). These single cells reproduce and form a plasmodium, which is still a mass of what might be termed a single cell because it doesn’t have any cell walls, but it contains many nuclei (Stephenson 2010). In both of these stages, myxomycetes usually feed on bacteria or fungi that they encounter. I believe the Dog-vomit slime mould that I encountered was in this plasmodium stage, possibly preparing for its ‘final form’ which would be the production of fruiting bodies which would disperse tiny spores to start the process all over again (Stephenson 2010). Bizarre organisms… aliens of the forest floor.
We encountered one other species of slime mould during the hike which was much more aesthetically pleasing than the one named after dog-vomit… the Red Raspberry Slime Mould (Tubifera ferruginosa).
While stepping through the undergrowth to approach some fungi, I disturbed some hopping amphibians at my feet. At first glance, we thought they were regular toads (ie. Eastern American Toads: Anaxyrus americanus) and some of them were, but one stood out as something distinctively different. This frog was one that I had never seen before, though I had heard its strange “quacking” calls during hikes in the past: a Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus). Part of the reason I haven’t seen them is their superb camouflage, which consists of not only a generalized leaf-litter brown pattern. Wood Frogs also exhibit background matching: changing their skin to match their surroundings. While in breeding ponds in the Spring they are darker (and thus match the water more closely), and assume a lighter coloration when among the generally lighter leaf litter of their environment for the rest of the year (Wells 2007).
One of the facts that always comes to the fore of my mind when I think of Wood Frogs is not their strange call, or their camouflage, but the fact that they can tolerate being frozen. Wood Frogs, at the onset of winter, have physiological mechanisms that promote ice formation between their cells, and prevent ice formation within their cells. What this response amounts to is well described by Bernd Heinrich in Winter World: “the frog is frozen solid except for the insides of its cells. Its heart stops. No more blood flows. It no longer breathes. By most definitions, it is dead.” (Heinrich 2003, p 174). The incredible part of the story is that the Wood Frog is not dead, but rather will await the arrival of spring beneath the leaf litter and revive during warmer temperatures. They can in fact revive from frozen to active within a single day (Harding and Mifsud 2017). As Heinrich says, Wood Frogs are “biological marvels that challenge the limits of our beliefs of what seems possible.” (Heinrich 2003 p 175).
As I mentioned above, Wood Frogs weren’t the only anurans (frogs and toads) spotted during our hike. On several occasions, we observed American Toads (Anaxyrus americanus) on the forest floor. I don’t have anything particularly interesting to say about toads right now, besides that they are amazing to look at if you take the time. Below are pictures of a particularly large toad (about the size of my fist) and a smaller toad, which was captured from an unusual angle. The angle really makes me reassess toads in general but maybe that’s just me.
For no particular reason, I’m going to pause here for Part 1! Keep an eye out for future parts, because during this hike I spotted many more fungi, and some more non-fungi as well.
Harding, James and Mifsud, David. 2017. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region, Revised Edition.
Heinrich, Bernd. 2003. Winter World.
Stephenson, Steven. 2010. The Kingdom Fungi.
Wells, Kentwood. The Ecology and Behavior of Amphibians.
For similar 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:
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…
The Spruce Bog Boardwalk is a trail that runs through (and also, over) the fascinating ecosystem of a northern bog. Bog “soil” is composed of decaying plant matter known as peat, and this substrate is extremely acidic, allowing only certain types of plants to grow within these wetlands. The ones that do are hardy species and the most conspicuous is the only species of tree to thrive here: the Black Spruce (Picea mariana). Black Spruce are scraggly trees, but they are trees which live in such a difficult environment that they are truly impressive.
Certain portions of the Spruce Bog trail feature beautiful wildflowers and insects, but on this occasion I rushed through the trail for personal reasons*, only stopping to snap a picture near the very end of the trail. The bird I photographed is related to the Eastern Kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus) that I saw perched near the Opeongo Lake Road, it was an Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe).
*essentially it had to do with a small tired person accompanying me
Eastern Phoebes are part of the Tyrannidae Family of birds and if you’re thinking that sounds like a Family of Dinosaurs then I’d like to mention briefly that you would be 100% correct. Tyrannidae is a Family of Dinosaurs, because ALL Birds are Dinosaurs that have survived the mass extinction of other branches of the Dinosaur family tree (including the branch called Tyrannosauridae, ie Tyrannosaurus and kin, which is the one you were probably thinking of). Tyrannidae (the Tyrant Flycatchers) is not especially close to the Tyrannosauridae (the Tyrant Dinosaurs) of course, but they are both included within Dinosauria.
Anyway, another extant (as opposed to extinct) Dinosaur species that I observed was on the Logging Museum Trail, floating swiftly between Water lilies: the Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus). The photographed individual (a female, I believe) isn’t raising its headfeathers into a crest, which is where it’s name of “hooded” merganser comes from. These ducks nest in tree cavities (so not just Wood Ducks do this… huh…) using old Woodpecker nest cavities most of the time (Tozer 2012).
Two wildflower species caught my eye on the same trail that day. One was a relative of the Steeplebush (Spiraea tomentosa) (see Peck Lake observations), being part of the same Genus Spiraea. White Meadowsweet (Spiraea alba) is more popular with Butterflies than the Steeplebush, as it produces more nectar than the former (Runtz 2020).
The other wildflower was Virgin’s-Bower (Clematis virginiana) and it was being attended to by Blackjacket Wasps (Vespula consobrina).
Let the Blackjacket Wasps serve as a teaser for the final chapter of my Algonquin observations: Spruce Bog: the Reckoning, in which I return to the Spruce Bog trail and take a very long time to walk it, Macro Lens equipped! Move over Birds and Flowers (well, there will be some flowers)! It’s finally time for the Insects to take their usual place in the spotlight of my camera!
Morning in Algonquin Park is a wonderful thing. Monday August 2 was cool and the air was filled with heavy mist that blurred the edges of the tall Red Pines of the Pog Lake Campground as I set out for an early morning hike in the hopes of some interesting sightings.
I had decided to head to the Peck Lake Trail, because as the name implies, it circles a Lake and I thought it might afford some nice views in the morning mist, and some rare creatures to photograph. The first Bird I photographed on the trail was one I had never seen before (or at least never captured with my camera): the Blue-headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius).
As I came upon an opening in the woods I was rewarded with an excellent view of the misty lake in the morning, with its signature Algonquin Park inhabitant: the Common Loon (Gavia immer). No matter how many times I hear that undulating call or see this distinctive bird dive beneath a lake to reappear surprisingly far away, I will be amazed. In Ancient Life of the Great Lakes Basin it’s mentioned that Loons are an ancient group of birds with fossils being found in the Cretaceous Period, contemporary with non-avian Dinosaurs. “One gets goose bumps imagining the characteristic tremulo calls and haunting wails of the loon song echoing over the lakes and swamps of the Cretaceous over 60 million years ago.” (Holman, 1995). We will likely never know if these ancient members of the Loon lineage (Gaviiformes) had similar calls, but the image is certainly a beautiful one.
While admiring the majesty of the Loon on the lake, I was distracted by a series of strange noises from above me in a tree. The noises were certainly a bird, but I had no idea what sort until the bird took off and flew away with heavy wingbeats. The bird in question was a Common Raven (Corvus corax) and they’re renowned for being diverse vocalists. One of the vocalizations they don’t make is a “caw”ing sound, unlike their relatives and the species often confused with them: the Common Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos). The power and size of a Raven impress me every time I see them, enhanced always by my readings of Bernd Heinrich who has devoted much time and energy into exploring these magnificent birds’ ecology and behaviour (see Mind of the Raven, Ravens in Winter, and most Bernd Heinrich books mention Ravens at one point or another).
As I continued down the trail, I was once again startled by the movements of a rather large Bird except that this time the Bird was on the ground, directly in front of me on the trail rather than flying away across the treeline. I am quite disappointed by how my pictures of this bird turned out, and I’ll blame the bird’s constant movement and the poor lighting conditions of a shaded woodland in the early hours of the morning for their poor quality. The Bird was a Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus), one of two Grouse species found in Algonquin Park.
Back to the trees, I spotted another Bird, one I had already photographed during my trip here, though this particular individual looked rather different. It was a Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata), though the pattern is quite obscured on this individual. I believe it’s either a Juvenile or a Female since it doesn’t carry the distinctive colours and patterns of the mature males (see my photos of a Male in the first part of my Algonquin Observations series).
Along the edges of the lake, there were some beautiful flowers growing so I decided to take some pictures of them as well. The plants were Steeplebush (Spiraea tomentosa) which prefer to grow in wet areas. Their flowers are attractive to Beetles and Bees, and not as attractive to Butterflies because they contain little nectar, but have masses of heavy pollen (Runtz, 2020). On this chilly morning, neither Insect group was out and about.
A part of the trail crosses a marshy area via boardwalk. I crept across this boardwalk, listening closely for the movements of animals, hoping to hear the movement of an elusive mammal or bird. Instead, by listening so carefully I was startled several times by creatures to either side of the boardwalk, making their swift escapes known with a loud squeak. The creatures were Frogs, likely all of them part of the American Water Frog genus Lithobates (which includes the Green Frog (L. clamitans), the American Bullfrog (L. catesbeianus), and the Mink Frog (L. septentrionalis), as well as many others, but these three are the most common that I’ve encountered in Algonquin). The only one that sat still enough for a picture was the one below, which I believe is a Green Frog because you can just maybe make out a ridge of skin (called the dorsolateral fold) which runs from its eye down part of its back (Harding and Mifsud, 2017). This feature distinguishes it from the similar-looking Bullfrog.
The final observations on the trail were several Spider webs caught beautifully in the early morning light. I recently read a passage in the book Spider Communication which gave me a new appreciation for Spider Webs. “Many spiders have compensated for the absence of a suitable substrate over which a vibratory signal can be conducted…by extending the perceptual range of the legs with a silken structure…Suddenly the radiating shape of the web takes on a new meaning for the observer: the web extends the perceptual range of the sense of vibration from about 15 mm to more than 500 mm” (Witt, 1982). Not only do they act as prey-catching snares, but they are sensory extensions of the Spider, extending their senses beyond the limitations of their small bodies. Fascinating, beautiful constructions.
Yet MORE Algonquin Observations to come! More Birds, More Wildflowers, and eventually the Invertebrates will have their usual spotlight!
Harding, James H. and Mifsud, David A. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region: Revised Edition. 2017.
Holman, J. Alan. Ancient Life of the Great Lakes Basin. 1995.
Runtz, Michael. Wildflowers of Algonquin Provincial Park. 2020.
Witt, Peter N. 1982. In Witt, Peter N. and Rovner, Jerome S. (eds) Spider Communication: Mechanisms and Ecological Significance. 1982.
During our stay at Algonquin Park, I made a few trips down Opeongo Lake Road watching for wildlife. It’s a good place to see some of the rare creatures of Algonquin Park, as it forces you to go slow and there are wetlands and woodlands on either side of the road, ending in a lake. My sightings along this road were good even if I didn’t see any of the target species: Moose (Alces alces).
One of the most common species sighted on the trip were Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias). It seemed as though these tall predatory birds were stalking every waterway, and I guess they might have been. Herons’ sinuous and powerful necks and the way they creep around slowly so as not to disturb their prey never ceases to catch my attention.
Another common bird spotted in the water was the American Black Duck (Anas rubripes). Two years ago, I had a few of these Ducks visiting my campsite, searching for handouts and I assumed then that they were female or juvenile male Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos). When I posted my pictures from October 2019 on iNaturalist, the ducks were instead identified as American Black Ducks. They really do look like female Mallards superficially, the main difference being that female Mallards are “paler and sandier” and the bill is orange/black in the Mallard, whereas the American Black Duck has a greenish bill (Bull and Farrand, 1994). Because of changes in land practices and overhunting in the past, as well as hybridization with Mallards, the American Black Duck is rarer than it used to be. Within Algonquin Park however, the American Black Duck is one of the most common Ducks (Tozer, 2012).
The other Duck (member of the Family Anatidae) spotted occasionally was the Wood Duck (Aix sponsa). Wood Ducks are remarkable (to me, at least) for nesting within tree-holes, something that seems strange for a Duck to be doing. I photographed a female Wood Duck leading a group of young across the marsh. Interestingly, the adult has something in its bill, I believe it’s the flower of a lily (Nymphaea).
One of the only Mammals* spotted on my trip was the animal responsible for creating some of the wetlands I observed: the Canadian Beaver (Castor canadensis). These giant Rodents (second in size among Rodents only to the Capybara of South America) engineer their surroundings, turning rivers into ponds where they create lodges. Beavers do not eat fish, unlike their smaller lookalikes, the Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus).
*(the only other Mammals were the ubiquitous Red Squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) and Chipmunks (Tamias striatus))
Perched high in the trees or on wires was a Bird which I always confuse with Swallows (Hirundinidae): the Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus). This bird also has one of the best Scientific names ever, which is apparently because of its aggressiveness in defending its nest or territory, but also the “Kingbird” is because it has a crown of yellow (or sometimes red) feathers that is only displayed when its head feathers are parted in aggressive displays, which I have never seen (Cornell Lab of Ornithology website). This aggression in defending its nest extends to such formidable foes as crows, ravens, and hawks (Tozer, 2012)!
The rarest sighting on the Opeongo Lake Road tours was a group of foraging Snipes, specifically Wilson’s Snipe (Gallinago delicata). I didn’t get amazing pictures, because they were far away and they were really difficult to keep track of. I love the way these birds move, so I also attempted to take a video of them, which isn’t great but it demonstrates the way they start and stop, dipping their long beaks into the marsh to probe for invertebrates.
More to come from my Algonquin Observations series!
Bull, John and Farrand, John Jr. National Audubon Society Field Guide to Birds of North America: Eastern Region. 1994.
Tozer, Ron. Birds of Algonquin Park. 2012.
For Other Nature Observations in Algonquin Park, see:
I love Algonquin Provincial Park. There is a special place in my heart for the vistas of trees, lakes and rock that extend to the horizon. Whenever I stay in the park, I encounter new creatures and make new observations, or if I encounter familiar organisms, I often appreciate them in a new light.
The first observation of my most recent trip (over the July/August Long Weekend) was a familiar bird creating a familiar knocking sound as it chipped away at the outer bark of a pine tree. The bird was a Hairy Woodpecker (Dryobates villosus), and its hammering into the edge of a tree is common in Norfolk County as well as Algonquin Park.
The other species of Woodpecker I encountered on this trip was not so familiar, and certainly not a species I could encounter in the more southern parts of Ontario. The Black-backed Woodpecker (Picoides arcticus) has a range across the Boreal Forests of North America, and Algonquin Provincial Park is at the southern edge of its range. They are a species tied to the disturbance of fire, as they mainly feed on insects (such as bark beetles and wood-boring beetles) which increase in population in fire-killed stands of trees (Backhouse, 2005). I observed the female and male of this species (likely a mated pair) foraging on the trees surrounding our campsite, and I also observed the male digging into what must have been a stump (the stump was obscured by vegetation, but I could see the yellow spot on the male’s head as he knocked away from ground level). As just mentioned, the male and female can be distinguished based on the presence or absence of a yellow patch on the head (the male has the yellow patch, the female does not). Not only did I see this species foraging but within the campground at Pog Lake there was actually a nest! Like most Woodpeckers (maybe all, but I’ve learned not to make rash generalizations), the Black-backed Woodpecker creates a new nest each year, carving a hole into a tree to house its young. I could hear the young inside the nest cavity, producing almost continuous begging calls for food. I saw the male drop by to drop off food he had collected, and I also got some pictures of the male on nest-guarding duty, sticking his head out of the nest entrance which was not too much higher than eye level.
The Hairy Woodpecker I first spotted was not the only familiar bird encountered within Algonquin Park. Robins (Turdus migratorius) are a common sight throughout the campground, and the screams of Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) frequently break the solemnity of the sky-stretching Pines. Another vocal bird which is quite common in suburban backyards is the Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula). Grackles patrolled through the campground, searching for any scraps of food left out by unwary campers. They may not be everyone’s favourite bird sighting, but I think their metallic blue heads are quite beautiful, and their overall appearance and movements are striking.
Two birds very much associated with Algonquin Park in my mind (even though I’ve also seen both on the Lynn Valley Trail in Norfolk County) are common ascenders and descenders of trees. The Brown Creeper (Certhia americana) often swirls around a tree trunk as it descends and then begins to work its way up in leaps and bounds, plucking insects and spiders from their secluded hiding places. I wonder if the rapid spiralling descent is some sort of signal to other members of its species (I’ve seen Brown Creepers foraging in pairs, or more than two) or if it’s a way to locate potential prey for their way up.
The Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) doesn’t move up and down a tree in the same stereotyped way as the Brown Creeper, and it certainly stands out more from the bark with its attractive white-and-black face, blue back and red breast feathers. Nuthatches are renowned for their ability to walk head-first down a tree rather than up like most other bark-foraging birds (including Woodpeckers, Chickadees and Brown Creepers).
Possibly the most beautiful bird observation in the Pog Lake campground was this Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata). These birds are often migratory through more Southern Ontario, arriving in the coniferous forests of Algonquin in mid-to-late April to breed (Tozer, 2012). According to the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario (Cadman et. al. 1987), they will breed in coniferous or mixed forests across Ontario (though they are more abundant in the more Boreal regions).
Usually Insects are my focus, and part of the reason for that is their abundance, diversity, and accessibility. Because of the rainy and cool weather for most of my visit, there were not as many Arthropods out and about (at least not as noticeable). A few notables made themselves known however. One striking spider was resting on the side of my car.
A Northern Pearly-eye Butterfly (Lethe anthedon) was resting on someone else’s car and I had to snap a picture.
A very impressive Insect sighting in the Pog Lake Campground came on our last day in Algonquin. I found a massive Northeastern Pine Sawyer Beetle (Monochamus notatus). The Sawyer was very cooperatively still on the cool damp morning, allowing me to get some really great closeups. It was also silent, despite being moved to a more convenient location for photos. That may seem like a strange observation to make, but apparently Longhorn Beetles (Family Cerambycidae, of which Monochamus notatus is a part) make a “squeak”, not with their mouth but with parts of their thorax rubbing together (Marshall, 2006).
A few points of interest for this particular Sawyer Beetle. As the image above demonstrates, its antennae were almost as long as the rest of the body which marks it as a female. The males are the ones with the really long antennae, often twice the length of the rest of the body. Here’s a male of the same species to show you what I mean. (photo from wikipedia):
It may be hard to see in my photo above, but these Beetles (including the female I observed) often have invertebrate hitchhikers. From a different angle it’s a bit clearer that my Beetle had a cluster of red Mites on her thorax.
These Mites are presumably hitching a ride to dead/dying trees which the Beetle will be seeking (Monochamus beetle larvae feed inside of dead/dying trees). I’m not sure what the Mites will do once there, as Mites are incredibly diverse and have numerous ecologies and life histories and I don’t know what kind of Mites these are. The other interesting thing to note in my closeup picture above is the eye of the Beetle. Notice how it curves around in a crescent shape around the base of the antennae. Just thought that was sort of a strange arrangement for eyes/antennae. One more closeup shot of this Beetle because it was so cooperative:
As I mentioned above, Insects are often what I notice and focus on. During our trip, I couldn’t help but take note of the wonderful beauty and diversity of some of the plant life in Algonquin Park as well. I suffer from “plant blindness” and I have been trying to rid myself of the condition as much as possible (see my book review of Flora of MiddleEarth for more on this subject). So I will end this post with a plant observation (and there will be more to come as I continue to write up my Algonquin observations). Throughout the Pog Lake Campground, there were some beautiful bright red berries amid ground-level green leaves. I found out that these plants are Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis).
Bunchberry has white flowers which spread pollen via the wind and insects in order to reach other flowers and reproduce (ie. form fertile berries). Amazingly, Bunchberry flowers are equipped with a mechanism to launch their pollen on an insect that triggers them, unfolding their petals at incredible speed to fling pollen onto the insect and up into the air (for possible wind-dispersal of pollen). This truly impressive feat is accomplished in 0.5 milliseconds. To put this into perspective, the Mantis Shrimp has the fastest movement of all Animals, and its record-holding strike lasts 2.7 milliseconds… five times as long as the Bunchberry flower petals take to open (Runtz, 2020). If that doesn’t make you want to pay more attention to plants, I don’t know what will.
Stay tuned… more to come from my trip to Algonquin, including more Birds, more Plants, and more Insects!
Backhouse, Frances. Woodpeckers of North America. 2005.
Cadman, Michael D., Eagles, Paul F. J. and Helleiner, Frederick M., Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario. 1987.
Marshall, Stephen. Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity. 2006.
Runtz, Michael. Wildflowers of Algonquin Provincial Park. 2020.
Tozer, Ron. Birds of Algonquin Park. 2012.
For Other Nature Observations in Algonquin Park, see:
I recently spent a weekend camping at Port Burwell Provincial Park and took several photos of interesting creatures I encountered there (as I usually do on camping trips). One of the first creatures I encountered was a beautiful Flower Fly which hovered right in front of my face for a few minutes and even landed on my glasses, as well as several times on my hands. My Flower Fly Friend was an Oblique Streaktail (Allograpta obliqua).
Flower Flies (Family Syrphidae) are wonderfully diverse and easily observed Insects, as they spend time hovering and landing on Flowers for the nectar they contain. In feeding on nectar, these Flies contribute greatly to Pollination, much like their similarly coloured models, the Bees and Wasps. I observed several other Flower Flies during my Port Burwell visit:
Most people don’t consider Flies beautiful, but that’s because they’re thinking of the House Fly variety, and not the colorful Flower Flies. Another beautiful fly I observed was this Ornate Snipe Fly:
The Snipe Flies (Rhagionidae) are predators as larvae in the soil where they hunt invertebrates, but as adults don’t seem to feed at all (Marshall, 2012).
Like my Flower Fly Friend, another Insect was quite content to wander over my hands. I’m not sure the exact ID of this Bug (a True Bug, that is a member of the Order Hemiptera) but I’m pretty sure it’s a larval Plant Bug (Family Miridae).
The little Plant Bug was probably the smallest Insect I took pictures of that weekend. The Largest is much easier to determine, and was clearly this Waved Sphinx (Ceratomia undulosa) which was on the outside wall of the restroom, blending in fairly well with the bricks.
Another Moth I observed couldn’t be more different from the bulky and camouflaged Waved Sphinx. This bizarre Grape Plume Moth (Geina periscelidactylus) doesn’t even look like a Moth at all because of its oddly shaped wings.
The forewing is the brown and white portion with a large notch carved into it from the outside. The hindwing has been transformed into three “plume” structures which resemble black-and-white wire brushes.
One other Moth drew my attention, but this one didn’t have any wings, because it was still in its Caterpillar stage: the Tussock Moth Orgyia leucostigma. These caterpillars have some of the most extraordinary decorations in our area. It’s possible the row of white tufts along their back resemble Parasitoid wasp cocoons in order to avoid subsequent parasitism, but I have no idea where to start explaining the bright orange head or black spiky tufts around its face.
It’s well known that caterpillars turn into Moths and Butterflies, but many people are surprised to find that “baby” Ladybugs look quite different from the roly-poly adults. During the weekend, I spied the intermediate stage, the pupa, of a Ladybug stuck to the top of a leaf. Within, a Ladybug larva was being rearranged into the far more familiar form of its orange shielded adult beetle.
There were a number of smaller orange Butterflies flitting about our campsite which were difficult to photograph. This is the best picture I could manage of the upperside wings:
One of this same species (the Northern Crescent, Phycioides cocyta) was resting inside the Dining Tent, allowing me a good photo of the underside of its wings:
The interior of the Dining tent provided many other Insect observations that weekend. I observed this same phenomenon in my own backyard in May of this year. For whatever reason, many Insects enter the tent and then possibly get trapped inside because they have difficulty relocating the entrance (and are drawn to the light visible through the roof of the tent). In any case, it often presents myself with picture opportunities of insects I might not otherwise observe.
Most of the Dining Tent insects were Flies (and these are the ones I got good pictures of):
The majority of my observations were of Insects, and this reflects their abundance and diversity well, but I did have a chance to see a few Birds moving through the campsite. Most commonly spotted was a Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) that seemed to have a particular liking for the berries that grew at the edge of the site. Flitting through the trees occasionally were American Redstarts (Setophaga ruticilla), fabulous black-orange-and white Warblers. Prior to this trip, I thought of the Redstart as a migrant, passing through Southern Ontario in the Spring and Fall. Since seeing it in Port Burwell in July, I have learned that the species breeds across most of Ontario during the summer (Cadman et. al. 1987).
Cadman, Michael D., Eagles, Paul F. J. and Helleiner, Frederick M., Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario. 1987.
Marshall, Stephen. Flies: The Natural History and Diversity of Diptera. 2012.
For other posts about Nature Observations similar to these, see: