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…
Two years ago today, I published my first blog article on my site: norfolknaturalist.ca. So today, I’m going to celebrate two years of Norfolk Naturalist blogging, by looking back over the past year at what I’ve written on my blog, what I’ve read that is nature-related, and other events and recollections of the past year that are related to the Norfolk Naturalist blog. For last year’s birthday article, go here. So here we go!
Many exciting things occurred over the past year for the Norfolk Naturalist, including an event I attended in December 2020: my first ever zoological conference: Tetzoomcon! I didn’t finish writing up my thoughts on the event until Tetzoomcon 2021 was announced so although the event was in December 2020, the article was posted in August 2021.
Also in December 2020, I published the first article in my Sand Wasps series, the Introduction, and in January of 2021 I published Part 2: the Tribe Alyssontini. I haven’t continued the Sand Wasps series since… my initial impetus to write about Sand Wasps was reading the book The Sand Wasps by Howard Evans and Kevin O’Neill, which I mention in my Introduction article. Basically, it’s a series that I’ll continue when I feel inspired to write more about Sand Wasps.
In February I wrote an article titled Swimming Squirrels, which was all about a fascinating paper I read in the Canadian Field-Naturalist which described an observation of a Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) swimming and catching a fish, behaviour that is surprising to me.
Another unfinished, and barely begun series was started in March with my posting of Natural Curiosities, Part 1: Emu Feathers. I meant to go through various nature objects that I had obtained through the years and describe the organisms they came from or represented, but I only finished the one that’s published. Perhaps the next year of blogging will contain more parts to this series (I certainly have more natural curiosities to describe and write about).
A rather different article was posted in May, in which I examined what the distinction between life and non-life really is and the complexities of the question from a scientific point of view. This article mentions viruses and alludes to being the beginning of yet another series of posts… of which it is the only one so far…
The tail end of June saw the stepping up of my blog-writing. I fell into something of a routine with my writing and found ways to write that felt natural and productive. No longer was I struggling to produce an article per month and for the rest of the year I wrote several articles per month which was a real achievement for myself. First I wrote up my experiences visiting a trail in Long Point, in two parts (Part 1 and Part 2). Then I wrote an article about Wrens (Troglodytes).
After these articles, I proceeded to write and post about the various organisms I had seen and photographed at my parents’ house, and in my own backyard (Diptera, Hymenoptera, and Others) all observed during the month of June.
During July, I went camping at Port Burwell Provincial Park and made several interesting observations there which I wrote up into a post.
The next notable camping trip was to Algonquin Provincial Park, one of my favourite places in the world. While there, I took plenty of photos and saw many wonderful creatures. I wrote up my Algonquin observations into five parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.
After my long series of Algonquin observation posts, I changed it up a little with a Podcast review of one of my favourite podcasts: The Field Guides. My website was actually mentioned on the podcast in their following episode, which really made my… year, and they added a link to my site on their website which is incredible.
This year, I joined the Norfolk Field Naturalists, an organization of nature enthusiasts in Norfolk County and my first experience with them was a hike in Backus Woods, searching for fungi to photograph. We found plenty, I learned lots, and I wrote up my observations in a series of 3 posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.
In addition to hikes with other local naturalists, the group also arranges meetings every month with a presenter. This year, because of the global pandemic, the meetings were done over zoom. So far the presentations have been excellent and interesting, and I might write up more about them in a future article.
Coming up in December is a Members’ Night meeting in which members can submit up to 20 photos of their own for a slideshow. I’ve already submitted my photos and will be blogging about my selection of 20 photos from my personal collection in due time.
Just during November I received the latest issue of the Canadian Field-Naturalist, a science journal that I subscribe to. Within, I was delighted to find that one of the articles mentioned a species that I profiled for my first post on this website (besides my welcome post): the Eastern Band-winged Hover Fly (Ocyptamus fascipennis). I have added an update to this post to reflect this recent interesting note about this species (spoiler alert: it’s possibly migratory).
Nature-related books I’ve read over the past blogging year (from November 30, 2020 to November 30, 2021):
Here’s a quick gallery of the nature-related books that I’ve read over the past year with a short summary of my thoughts on the books. Some of these books have more substantial reviews in the works or already published on my site. The books are presented in no particular order except vaguely chronological of when I started reading them.
The Golden Throng, by Edwin Way Teale:
A book about bees, by Edwin Way Teale, a classic naturalist writer. The book doesn’t go into as much detail as I might prefer, but if you want a book that can ignite curiosity or admiration for bees for someone who isn’t already curious or fascinated then I would recommend this book.
Naked Trees, by John Terpstra:
Excellent poetry about trees, delving into their nature and their interactions with people.
Life through the Ages II, by Mark Witton:
Incredible book, filled with beautiful illustrations of past life and concise descriptions of bygone eras. This book was a wonderful treat in visuals and text. Highly recommended for fans of paleoart or extinct life or the diversity of life (which must include the vast array of extinct organisms).
Behavioral Ecology of the Eastern Red-Backed Salamander, by Robert G. Jaeger, Birgit Gollman, Carl D. Anthony, Caitlin R. Gabor and Nancy R. Kohn:
A fascinating book describing various experiments and research ideas on a single species: the Eastern Red-backed Salamander (Plethodon cinereus) in a specific place: Northeastern United States. I love finding a book like this which contains details about a species that can be found nowhere else.
Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, by E. O. Wilson:
I didn’t love this book. I found it was a bit incohesive and fragmented in tone and content despite being presented as if it was a single argument piece. I disliked some of the inconsistent messaging on science/religion/philosophy of science, but I really enjoyed the discussion of various ecosystems and fascinating organisms that live there. I think Wilson’s writing works best in this book when he’s explaining and refuting the anthropocentric worldview, and I think if it had been more tightly focused on this aspect it could be a more cohesive exploration of the topic.
In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick:
This is a history book that recounts the tragedy of the whaleship Essex, which was rammed and sunk by a Sperm Whale in 1820. Not particularly nature-focused, but it does contain some information about Sperm Whales and the whaling industry of the time. Fascinating shipwreck survivor tale.
Parasitism: The Ecology and Evolution of Interspecific Interactions, by Claude Combes:
Absolutely incredible book that covers such a broad range of topics that it’s hard to summarize. Describes the process of Parasitism from multiple levels sometimes going very heavily theoretical and sometimes describing particular in-depth case studies of model systems. I learned lots and had a ton of fun reading it.
Dinosaur Facts and Figures: The Theropods and Other Dinosauriformes, by Ruben Molina-Perez, Asier Larramendi, Andrey Atuchin and Sante Mazzei:
Beautifully illustrated dinosaur book with a focus on “records” some of which are bizarrely specific, and some of which are quite fascinating. I think this book is worth it for the illustrations, but there are also a lot of interesting facts as well. I particularly liked the geographical context section because I find that many general dinosaur books don’t give you a good idea of what dinosaurs lived where.
Naturalist, by E. O. Wilson:
Very fascinating look at the journey of a young man growing into a scientist. Interesting to see where different aspects of E. O. Wilson’s philosophy arose from and how they influenced his growth and avenues of research.
After Man: A Zoology of the Future, by Dougal Dixon:
A speculative look at what animals and ecosystems might evolve after another 50 million years. Thought-provoking and very fun way to explore evolutionary ‘rules’ and ideas.
Flies: The Natural History and Diversity of Diptera, by Stephen Marshall:
This book is absolutely incredible, full of amazing photographs and fascinating text. Read my full Review here.
Terns, by David Cabot and Ian Nisbet:
In-depth natural history of British and Irish Tern species, but also covers many other Terns from around the world. Excellent photos and detailed text. I am working on a longer review of this book and will post it here soon.
Days Without Time, by Edwin Way Teale:
The subtitle of this book is “Adventures of a Naturalist” and as such it’s a random collection of chapters, each presenting a different nature encounter of the author. I quite enjoyed this book. Some sections feel a little dated (the book was published in 1948) but the curiosity and sense of wonder that Edwin Way Teale has for nature is something that resonates strongly with me. The final two paragraphs feel like they should be in a banner across the top of my blog:
“The out-of-doors is – as it always has been – everybody’s art gallery, everybody’s concert hall, everybody’s library of poetry written in a universal language. The beauty of nature is every generation’s gift. It is free for the taking, around us always. And each man, according to his character, realizes its possibilities. To dwell with this beauty of the out-of-doors, as much as we can, is the better part of wisdom. Here we feel ourselves losing nervous tension, relaxing like a drought-dried plant in a summer shower. Here the hunger of our eyes for the green of trees and the color of flowers is satisfied. Here the longing of our ears for the sound of wind in the grasses and the lap of waves on sand is gratified. Here there is beauty to lift the heart and calm endurance to speak of courage. And here there is something more, something magical, something that fills a deep need of the human heart.”
Trees of Algonquin Provincial Park:
I read this “book” (it’s a pictorial guide to the trees of Algonquin Park, 40-something pages long) while camping in Algonquin Provincial Park. It brought a greater appreciation for the beautiful trees that surrounded me there.
Cougar: Ecology and Conservation, edited by Maurice Hornocker and Sharon Negri:
This edited volume contains basically all aspects of Cougar ecology and conservation that you could imagine. I particularly found it fascinating to read about Cougars in Central and South America as I’m used to picturing them in the Rocky Mountains of Western North America. As an edited volume, some topics are repetitive and some are not as interesting to myself as others. Overall though, an excellent scientific overview of cougar research published in 2008.
Oakwatch, by Jim Flegg:
Oakwatch describes the species that live in and around oak trees in Britain. Great exploration of the seasonal changes that occur and the trees that tie so many distinct species together. Something to read slowly through the year as the seasons change, which is how I read it.
Grassroot Jungles, by Edwin Way Teale:
A book about insects, with a very relaxed naturalists’ style. I personally prefer the similar book by the same author: Near Horizons: The Story of an Insect Garden for an overview of the insects he has observed in his own backyard. Even so, Grassroot Jungles has the same charm and joy at the everyday wonders that are the Insects all around us.
I hope that you enjoyed this look back at the past year at norfolknaturalist.ca! Last year’s blogversary article concluded with a goal that my second anniversary would contain more than 7 posts to summarize and I am happy to say that I have far exceeded that goal! Next year, I hope to stick to my main goal of producing interesting nature articles on various topics that grab my attention, at least once a month. I truly love sharing my fascination with the natural world and hopefully inspiring others to take a closer look and keep learning. If you enjoy my writing and photos and have the means and desire to support me, I now have a donation function set up on my Home page. I really appreciate any level of support, which includes most importantly sharing my website with others who might find it interesting or worth a read.
Here’s to many more years of norfolk naturalist blogging!
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: