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, 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.
At the beginning of August, I was at Algonquin for a week, and although I didn’t take as many pictures as on previous trips I still managed to spot some fascinating creatures and I’d like to describe my observations here.
Early on a rainy morning I was on a drive down Opeongo road, searching for wildlife beneath the grey skies. Only at the end of the road, which terminates at the store at the edge of Lake Opeongo did I manage to find any photo subjects. Off in the distance was the most iconic bird of northern lakes, the beautiful and sleek Common Loon (Gavia immer). I was surprised that the distant bird drifted closer and closer across the smooth water until I was able to get some very close shots of it dipping its head in and out of the lake. Perhaps it was as curious as I was or perhaps there were some fish that it sought near the dock. Either way, I was able to get a close look at this wonderful bird.
Along the dock, there was another familiar bird, one that has almost the opposite reputation to the Loon. While the Loon is a symbol of wildness and its strange call echoing across lakes evokes mystery and beauty, Gulls are often symbols of trash-mongering, scavenging, and filth. Loons are revered and Gulls are vilified. If you’ve read any of my blog you may have gathered that I greatly dislike the vilification of animals. Not only does it cause unjustified persecution of animals it also hides their true nature as fascinating creatures in a complex world. Gulls are a great example of this. I saw two species of gulls while at the edge of Lake Opeongo: three Herring gulls (Larus argentatus) perched atop the store roof, and one ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) stood majestically on the dock, before taking to the air and soaring across the water.
The ring-billed gull used to be a rare sight in Algonquin park, but has become more common since the 1970s partly because of the general population growth of this species from a low in the early 1900s due to human persecution and egg-collecting (Tozer 2012). Herring gulls on the other hand, are the only gulls to nest in Algonquin Park and have been a common sight by lakeshores for many years. Some of their nests are in large colonies on rocky islands in lakes such as on Lake Opeongo, but often they nest individually or in small groups. Herring gulls have even been recorded nesting in abandoned bird nests made by large birds in trees (such as Herons, Bald Eagles or Osprey (Tozer 2012)), though this is uncommon.
During our stay at Algonquin I also went on the Spruce Bog Boardwalk trail in the evening to take some photos. My most startling encounter was with a Spruce Grouse (Falcipennis canadensis) bursting from beside the path in a flurry of wings and landing in a tree far away. Unfortunately the shocking appearance and subsequent departure was so quick that I was unable to take a photo of the bird. On this same trail, I found a crab spider waiting on a leaf for insects to capture with its long extended legs, and a tricoloured bumblebee (Bombus ternarius) humming from flower to flower.
On my final day in Algonquin I saw something in the Pog Lake Campground that caught my eye: a water strider with a striking white abdomen. I couldn’t get very close to it because it was skimming the surface of a river so I had to lean out with the macro lens to try to get a photo. This is all to explain why my photos are not super great, but they do reveal a surprise. My water strider’s white abdomen was in fact another water strider’s underside. What I thought to be a single insect was a mating pair of water striders (Metrobates hesperius).
They moved in so coordinated a fashion that it was a fair mistake to believe they were a single insect. Water striders are fascinating insects, which use the water surface the way an orbweaving spider uses its web. They are able to detect vibrations in the surface and hone in on them to locate prey which they dispatch and consume with their piercing mouthparts. Water striders use these vibrations to communicate with each other as well, for purposes such as mate finding.
Despite not taking as many photos as usual, I still managed to find fascinating creatures to observe which I have found to be the case whether in Algonquin Provincial Park or my own backyard.
Tozer, Ron. 2012. Birds of Algonquin Park. The Friends of Algonquin Park.
For Previous Posts about Algonquin Observations, see:
Over the past few years I have come to appreciate how beautiful and wonderful birds are. Along with that appreciation has been the realization that there are diverse birds within a short walk or drive of my home. I have encountered new species of birds almost every time I go out to my new favourite birding destination: Long Point. Globally renowned for being a biodiversity hotspot, and a corridor for migrating birds crossing the Great Lakes, Long Point is full of a variety of freshwater habitats and a corresponding diversity of bird species.
My most recent exciting encounter was with a species I had never before seen up close. Before this past year “Heron” meant the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) the only species of heron I saw regularly, certainly the most conspicuous heron species across North America. But as I was wandering down a trail amid mudflats and shallow coastal marsh, I was treated to an incredible sighting: the small agile form of a Green Heron (Butorides virescens). Stalking swiftly through the shallow water, the Green Heron snapped at the water surface with fair frequency and was always on the move while it foraged. I wasn’t sure exactly what it was eating, but it certainly wasn’t fish unless it was catching tiny individuals. My guess is that it was feeding on aquatic invertebrates such as dragonfly larvae, or other water-dwelling insects. I couldn’t believe my luck to see this beautiful little hunter foraging within a few metres of me.
Green herons breed across the eastern United States and Southeastern Canada (including Southern Ontario). The birds start arriving in Ontario at the end of April and are gone by the end of October (Davis and Kushlan 2020). Green herons spend the winter in Mexico, Central America and Northern South America. Throughout their range they utilize essentially any fresh or salt-water habitat from inland marshes to coastal mangrove forests (Davis and Kushlan 2020). With such a diversity of habitats, they feed on a wide range of prey depending on where they are hunting including fish, frogs (and tadpoles), lizards and snakes, rodents, crayfish and crabs, aquatic and flying insects, spiders, snails, earthworms and leeches (Davis and Kushlan 2020). Besides these aquatic organisms, they even feed on such surprising prey as nestling birds (Wiley 2001). Clearly Green Herons are opportunistic foragers using a variety of feeding methods to capture such diverse prey. One of the most fascinating foraging behaviours is bait-fishing. Several birds are known to do this*, but Green Herons are the heron most frequently observed using this strategy to catch prey. In one of the first reported instances of bait-fishing in the Green Heron (Lovell 1958) the bird used bread thrown by people to attract fish to the surface and even chased American Coots (Fulica americana) away from its bait.
The individual that I watched wading through the shallows was not using any bait-fishing techniques, but rather seemed to be doing the more commonly observed stalk-and-stab technique of herons the world over. After roaming across the patch of water directly across from me, it took to the air and flew a short distance to begin combing a new area of wetland for food. What a beautiful, amazing bird.
Davis Jr., W. E. and J. A. Kushlan (2020). Green Heron (Butorides virescens), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.grnher.01
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.
It was a mammal with spines, and the second largest rodent in North America (only beaten by the Beaver): a North American Porcupine (Erethizondorsatum). 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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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:
For size context, see the following picture of a Woodlouse (Armadillium vulgare). In the bottom left corner, there is one of the little Springtails:
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!
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:
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.
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.
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:
For an Introduction to this series (my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020) go here.
The Story Behind the Shot: I’ve only visited Algonquin Park in the Winter twice. On this occasion, in March 2017, I was actually searching for this particular bird (one of the rare times that I have a target species in mind, I’ll be recounting another one for my next photo). The Canada Jay had only recently been rebranded as such, the common name used to be the Gray Jay and some people still refer to it as such (after all, common names can sort of be whatever you want them to be). Part of the name-change or name-shift was to do with a campaign by the Canadian Geographic Society to name the Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis) as Canada’s National Bird. For more information about this story, see the Canadian Geographic article here: https://www.canadiangeographic.ca/article/meet-our-national-bird-gray-jay. Having read up on this story I wanted to encounter this emblem of our country and was able to catch a glimpse of it in the parking lot of the Spruce Bog trail in Algonquin Park.
The Story Behind the Species: The Canada Jay is a permanent resident of cold northern forests across North America (Cadman et. al. 1987). Algonquin Park is at the southern edge of their range in Ontario (Tozer 2012). Canada Jays are able to live and breed in their northern habitats because of their food-storing abilities. They are highly adaptable birds, feeding on a wide variety of food, obtained in a wide variety of ways. The Cornell All About Birds website sums it up like this: they will “snap up flying insects in the air, wade in shallow water to capture invertebrates and amphibians, kill small mammals, raid the nests of other birds” (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Canada_Jay/lifehistory). The food they gather in the summer is cached throughout their territories in preparation for the long winter. This food store allows them to start nesting as early as the end of February in Algonquin Park (Tozer 2012). They prefer to nest in spruce forests, and there is some evidence to suggest that the antibacterial properties of some conifers actually work to preserve the food the jays store in them (Tozer 2012).
Amazingly adaptable, clever and curious birds. I certainly support its status as unofficial National Bird of Canada.
Cadman, M. D., Eagles, P. F. J., and Helleiner, F. M. 1987. Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario.
Tozer, Ron. 2012. Birds of Algonquin Park.
For the previous articles in my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020 series, see:
For an Introduction to this series (my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020) go here.
The Story Behind the Shot: For several summers, I have stayed in Algonquin Provincial Park for a week, camping in Pog Lake Campground and exploring various trails and locations along the Highway 60 corridor, attempting to photograph interesting creatures that I encountered. One of the most quintessential Algonquin animals is the Moose, and I didn’t spot one on this trip until we were on our way out of the park, driving down the highway early in the morning. This family group of Moose (a mother and two calves) was an amazing treat to watch as they continued to browse some foliage and walk through the clearing adjacent to the road.
The Story Behind the Species: Moose are large mammals, the largest land mammal that one can encounter in Eastern North America. As such, they have been the subject of plenty of research and interest. For this post I want to focus on their reproductive cycle since the photo I captured features a mother and her two calves. Calves are born in May, after 7 months of growth within the mother. Pregnant Moose will often seek out islands in lakes as the location to give birth as it provides some protection from roaming bears or wolves (Strickland and Rutter 2018). You may be wondering how a mother moose can reach an island that a bear or wolf won’t frequent. Moose are actually quite excellent swimmers, they can feed on underwater plants, can swim to depths of 5.5 m and stay under for more than 30 seconds (Naughton 2012). The two young in my photo are likely twins since they appear to be the same size. Apparently, “twins are not uncommon under good conditions” (Naughton 2012). The young stay with their mother for a full year before they disperse (Strickland and Rutter 2018).
A fascinating animal and one I’m sure I will return to explore further on my blog in the future.
Naughton, Donna. 2012. The Natural History of Canadian Mammals.
Strickland, Dan and Rutter, Russell. 2018. Mammals of Algonquin Provincial Park.
For the previous articles in my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020 series, see:
*this species doesn’t have a common name, so I created this common name by using the etymology of its scientific name “pallidipicta” which seems to mean “pale-painted”.
Location: Parents’ Farm, Norfolk County.
Date: July 2013.
For an Introduction to this series (my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020) go here.
The Story Behind the Shot: While growing up, my brother and I discussed several times the idea of a project: to list every single species that occurred on our family’s property. While this project never reached fruition, the idea of it has inspired me throughout my adventures with the creatures in my own backyard and elsewhere. One day several years ago I spent a day just wandering around on my parents’ farm taking photos of every interesting creature that caught my eye. I was amazed to find busy little wasps digging burrows in the sand at the edge of the field. Despite their frenzied activity I managed to capture one at the entrance of its burrow.
The Story Behind the Species: Bembix pallidipicta is one of those Sand Wasps (members of the subfamily Bembicinae) I’ve mentioned once or twice on my blog about a year ago now. The following information on this species is summarized from Evans and O’Neill (2007).
Not all Sand Wasps construct burrows in sand, but B. pallidipicta does, usually selecting large areas of loose sand to begin their burrowing. Nest site selection is fine-tuned in that they require a small amount of moisture in the sand to maintain a fine crust when they tunnel beneath it. The sites where the females emerge and the males mate are often suitable for the females to use for their nest construction, so unless the habitat is disturbed the same site can support a population of sand wasps for multiple generations. B. pallidipicta males gather around sites where adult females will soon emerge, and fly in short hops, which gives the appearance of “aggregations of very small toads” (Evans 1957).
Once their burrow is constructed with a chamber up to 56 cm beneath the surface (the depth is partly determined by the dryness of the sand), the females lay a single egg at one end of the chamber (termed the brood cell). This egg will hatch and the wasp larva will wait within its subterranean chamber for its mother to provide food. B. pallidipicta exhibits what is called “progressive provisioning” which means that the mother brings prey in multiple times to the larva while it is growing and feeding. I’ve always loved this aspect of sand wasps because it’s essentially the same setup as songbirds awaiting worms in their nests. For B. pallidipicta, the prey is all true flies (Order Diptera) of several Brachyceran families, including Flower Flies (Syrphidae), Horse Flies (Tabanidae) and House Flies (Muscidae). When bringing fresh prey to her larva, the mother will push the fragments of partially eaten prey off to the side, and block this debris off with sand. This likely helps prevent parasites or diseases from accumulating within the nest, or it’s possible that it’s a way for the mother wasp to judge how much more prey to provide. Because B. pallidipicta nests in large unrelated groups, females will occasionally steal prey from other females nearby to feed their own offspring. After about 4 days of feeding, the larva pupates and the mother moves on to construct a new nest.
My top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020 are going to be presented in chronological order of when I took the photos, they aren’t arranged in any other sort of hierarchy. Come back next time for a photo of a much larger animal caring for its young…