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Nature Observations Tumblr Repost

MacGregor Point Observations (May 2018)

Once again, I’m going to repost one of my tumblr blog posts, this time from May of 2018.

On May 18-21, 2018, we took a trip to MacGregor Point Provincial Park. Today’s post is going to be a highlight of the animal observations/encounters that we had that weekend.

We awoke early the first morning of our stay and looked at the grey skies that promised rain. Hoping to spot some wildlife beneath the somber dawn sky, we set off on the Tower Trail. Our early start was rewarded with the sight of a strange animal resting in a tree.

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It was a mammal with spines, and the second largest rodent in North America (only beaten by the Beaver): a North American Porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum). After consuming some buds and plants that it foraged in the night it found a perch to rest in for the day, one that seemed awfully thin for the size of the animal.

Further down the trail, we moved through various ponds until the horizon opened into spreading wetlands filled with reeds and bordered by grasses and trees. Here, the red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) were in abundance, uttering their O-ka-leeeee calls from their various perches. We saw males with their velvet black plumage offset by epaulets of red-and-yellow, and we also occasionally spotted the much more camouflaged females. On our last morning camping, we saw one of the females and believed it to be a different species of marsh-bird, but later came to the realization that it was a female red-winged blackbird.

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Male (top) and Female (bottom) Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus).

Mixed with the sounds of the blackbirds, were the trumpeting calls of the Canada Geese (Branta canadensis), always the loudest birds present. As we were leaving the wetlands, we heard a strange call and a bird departing the marsh. We were able to snap a quick picture of it and now believe it’s a Great Egret (Ardea alba).

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Our fleeting glimpse of a Great Egret (Ardea alba).

Throughout our stay, our campsite was host to several small, flitting birds that would rarely sit still. Every time the eyes caught one in full view the birds would then dart off again, a streak of orange flickering through the branches of the tree like an avian fire. We were barely able to take some pictures of these quick warblers foraging among the branches. They were American Redstarts (Setophaga ruticilla), who had returned from their wintering grounds in Central America and northern South America. Like the Red-wings, the male and female birds look very different- the male sporting a dark coat with orange dashes on the wings and chest, and the female a gray-white with yellow patches on the sides.

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Male (top) and Female (bottom) American Redstarts (Setophaga ruticilla). The pictures unfortunately do not capture their boundless energy.

Beneath clear skies the next day, we set off on the Tower Trail once more, hearing and seeing the blackbirds again. On our way through the wetlands trail, we spotted another creature enjoying the warmth and sun: a Northern Watersnake (Nerodia sipedon).

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Northern Watersnake (Nerodia sipedon) basking in the sun.

While visiting the trail near the Visitor’s Centre, we were in the right place to see a creature that resembles a mythical beast: a swimming Snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina). Snapping turtles are beautiful creatures and the one we saw moved very stealthily. Despite the clear waters, and the size of the reptile, it was difficult to keep track of its scaly skin among the water-plants as it slowly and gracefully swam through.

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Also moving through the waters of the marsh were large tadpoles, with heads the size of a toonie or larger. Some were beginning to display the stubs of legs, but continued to swim in wriggling pollywog fashion, so unlike the athletic strokes of their adult frog legs.

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Once back at our site, I had an itch to use my macro lens to capture some of the tiny creatures that abounded there. Turning over a piece of bark on the gravel of our site, no larger than my palm revealed a portion of a miniature society. Tiny orange-brown ants scurried frantically about. They were Temnothorax ants, which are also known as “acorn ants” because some species of Temnothorax house their entire colony within an acorn.

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Temnothorax ants, tiny workers under a piece of bark.

I turned my gaze on equally tiny, but even more numerous inhabitants of our site. Everywhere one looked in the sun, dark specks that slowly moved or hopped about on the gravel, could be seen. To see them in their full was a delight to me. The specks were Springtails, and these were a quite different kind to the ones I had seen before in the snow and on the trail by our house. These Springtails were like tiny rabbits when one could view them up-close. They were Globular springtails (Order Symphypleona) and I’m fairly sure the species was the Garden Springtail (Bourletiella hortensis) or something closely related: 

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For size context, see the following picture of a Woodlouse (Armadillium vulgare). In the bottom left corner, there is one of the little Springtails:

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In my quest to focus the macro lens on these miniature creatures I inadvertently took a picture of something even smaller than an adult Springtail: a baby Springtail! 

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As if to demonstrate fully the diversity of these tiny almost-insects, an entirely different species of Springtail was also rushing through the gravel: a member of the genus Orchesella, one of the Elongate Springtails: 

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Right at the edge of our site, my friend Marshall sighted a beautiful snake with orange underbelly and stripes along its dark body. We thought it must be a rare species but it turned out to be a variant of the diverse Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophus sirtalis), which did nothing to diminish its beauty or wonder.

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A beautiful Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis).

On our last day we went to the Visitor Center trail to feed the Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) from our hands, along with the occasional red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis). Despite some of the rain and cloudy weather, we observed a variety of wild organisms at MacGregor Point and marveled at their diversity and beauty.

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Categories
Nature Observations Top 20 Photos 2013-2020

4. Common Five-Lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus)

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.

Here is another shot of the same individual skink. You can see the striped pattern slightly, and his orange-ish head coloration. No blue tail here, which along with the orange head marks this as an adult male. Also note that this picture (and the one above) is rotated, the tail here is touching the concrete foundation of the restroom.

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…

References:

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:

Introduction

-1. The Pale-Painted Sand Wasp (Bembix pallidipicta)

2. Moose (Alces alces) Family

3. Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis).