Last year, in August, I had the privilege of going for my first ever night-time hike. The hike itself was extremely short and straightforward but the goal wasn’t distance or challenge. The goal was to see and hear some of the flying and screeching mammals that come out at night: Bats.
To see these creatures, you need to go out at twilight, which is what myself and members of the Norfolk Field Naturalists did in August 2022. The night sky was beautifully clear, and as stars began to appear so too did small flying creatures seeking insect prey with high-frequency calls. I think everyone knows that bats use echolocation to locate prey in the darkness, but something else everyone “knows” is that bats are blind… but this isn’t true at all. Bats can see about as well as we can, which is to say that they can’t see amazingly at night. To compensate for this, bats create extremely high-frequency calls that are beyond the range of human hearing, and interpret the reflections of these calls, discerning objects (ie. Flying insects) that break up the soundwaves they create before the soundwaves return to the bats’ extremely sensitive ears.
Despite what I said earlier about most of their echolocation calls being too high-frequency for human hearing, I was able to listen in on their hunting cries with the aid of technology, an amazing experience. I used a bat detector which works by bringing any frequency sound down 100 Hz so that high-frequency sounds are emitted within human hearing range. This meant a bit of fiddling with the dials to hit the right frequency that the bats were calling at.
Once I got the hang of it, I was able to listen in on bats hunting in the night. The input was directional, so I had to aim my detector at where I thought a bat was flying which became increasingly difficult as the sky darkened. This obscurity was rewarding when I would happen upon a bat that I could not see by just scanning the dark sky with the detector. There were a few side effects of detecting high-frequency sounds and transmitting them loudly to my headphones. One was that on a certain frequency I could hear very distinctly a loud jangling and clinking sound every time that a fellow Field Naturalist put their hand into their pocket and bumped their keys. Another was that if I tuned into another frequency, the already-audible calls of many katydids in the woods became deafeningly loud in my ears. Whenever I caught the bats’ channel of calling and honed in on a hunting bat, any drawbacks were instantly alleviated.
Which kinds of bats were we observing? According to the website batnames.org (an online taxonomic tool tracking bat diversity) there are 1456 bat species named worldwide (Simmons and Ciranello 2022). Within Mammals, the order Chiroptera is second only in species diversity to the incredibly diverse order Rodentia (with approximately 2635 named species (Mammal Diversity Database)). Within Canada, there are just 20 species of bats, all belonging to the Family Vespertillionidae (Naughton 2012). Within Ontario, there are only 8 species of bats*, so we really only have the tip of a very massive iceberg of bat diversity worldwide. Our hike was led by Liv Monck-Webb of Nature Conservancy Canada and she identified the bats we heard and saw as likely belonging to just 2 species: Big Brown Bats (Eptesicus fuscus) and Eastern Red Bats (Lasiurus borealis).
*Big Brown Bat (Eptesicus fuscus), Silver-haired Bat (Lasionycteris noctivagans), Eastern Red Bat (Lasiurus borealis), Hoary Bat (Lasiurus cinereus), Eastern Small-footed Myotis (Myotis leibii), Little Brown Myotis (Myotis lucifugus), Northern Myotis (Myotis septentrionalis), and Eastern Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus subflavus) are the regularly occurring 8 species of bats in Ontario. Apparently there has been a single specimen of the Evening Bat (Nycticeius humeralis) found in Ontario on Point Pelee in 1911 (Naughton 2012). Naughton (2012) goes on to say that this species could appear more frequently in Ontario in the future with warmer average temperatures.
I would like to talk about the two bat species we observed in more detail in future blogposts, so stay tuned for that!
Being able to listen in on bats hunting was an incredible experience, and unlocked one more piece of local ecology. If you have the opportunity to do the same, I would highly recommend it!
Simmons, N.B. and A.L. Cirranello. 2022B. Bat Species of the World: A taxonomic and geographic database. Accessed on 12/29/2022.
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.
Here’s another repost from my old tumblr blog norfolknaturalist.tumblr.com. I’ve added some newer photos of the species involved but otherwise unchanged. Much of this article was inspired by my reading of the book Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death, by Bernd Heinrich. I thought the subject and title were appropriate for Halloween season.
Just as we were about to turn into my parents’ driveway last weekend (in April 2018), we saw probably the most iconic bird in North America less than 100 metres away from us down the road. A Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) was dining on a Raccoon roadkill in clear sight.
Perhaps it’s surprising that a bird of such noble renown was seen stooping to consuming carrion, something that we often see as repulsive. The truth is that the line between ‘predator’ and ‘scavenger’ is often a very blurred one. Most animals that eat other animals are willing to eat one that has already died or been killed. To the predator, it contains the same nutrients that it would obtain from its own kill but with much less effort (valuable time and energy) on their part. This isn’t to say that eating pre-killed remains is without risk for a predator or a scavenger. Besides the conflicts with other hunters over the resource, there is an omnipresent and invisible threat to all dead flesh.
Bacteria: organisms that are so tiny they are dwarfed by individual cells of our bodies. Despite being so small, and unseen without a powerful microscope, bacteria operate everywhere in the natural world and one of the most profound activities they perform is nutrient recycling and breakdown. While they disassemble cells and consume dead flesh, bacteria proliferate. Bacteria are the reason that predators can’t eat an animal body that’s been dead for too long. They are the reason dead things go “rotten” and become unpalatable by almost any animals. They are the unseen “competitor” with the visible and charismatic predators.
After at least an hour of feeding, and the frequent interruptions of cars passing, the eagle flew off and left the dead Raccoon. That is when the Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) moved in, creatures much more commonly associated with scavenging. And for good reason. Turkey Vultures have the most powerful sense of smell of any bird, and can detect a dead animal from over a mile away. What’s more, they can eat flesh that other creatures would turn down as too far gone. Their digestive system is able to break down the toxins of the ever-present bacteria, making them capable of consuming rotten flesh, where others cannot.
It may be a grisly business, the consumption of the dead, but it is an essential (and amazing) part of ecosystems around the world.
Some ducks make very different sounds than the traditional Mallard quack. On a return trip to the Big Creek conservation trail in Long Point, March 2022, I was quite intrigued to hear squadrons of ducks uttering whistle-type calls as they scooted about on the water or took to the air. These were American Green-winged Teal (Anas carolinensis), the smallest species of dabbling duck in North America, approximately pigeon-sized (Baldassarre 2014).
Apparently, it is the males that whistle while the females produce quacks (Baldassarre 2014). Green-winged Teals breed across the boreal and deciduous forests of North America, preferring wooded wetlands. Their nests are very difficult to find, concealed among tall grasses or shrubs. These ducks migrate early in the Spring to the northern breeding grounds, and it’s likely that the Teals I saw in March were using Long Point marshes as a stopping ground on their way north.
Teals use their bills (and the fine toothlike combs at the edges called lamellae) to filter tiny food items from shallow water such as seeds and invertebrates. Unsurprisingly because of their overall small size, it seems that Green-winged Teals are particularly good at feeding on very small food items, as opposed to Mallards, which are more generalist feeders (Baldassarre 2014).
Two fun stories about the word ‘Teal’ to finish off with. One is that, according to wikipedia teal is a word that originally meant “small dabbling duck” or something like that and was applied to several species of ducks before it was applied to the blue-green colour*, because of the bright “teal” markings on the wings (and heads of the males).
*I can’t find this mentioned in my books about ducks or anywhere well-sourced. I believe it to be true and fascinating but wikipedia is the main source I can find this fact on, so take that how you will.
My other anecdote about Teals I would like to share is about one of my favourite nature writers, Edwin Way Teale (it’s also the reason this post has a Dr. Seussian title). In his book, North with the Spring (Teale 1951), he tells of a time when his naturalist ways came under suspicion by the law. He and his friend had been out one winter day, watching ducks at a pond. Across the pond was a building which used to be a military plant, and I guess the fear of foreign spies caused a local to report the pair of men staring in that direction with binoculars.
As Teale himself says: “The dialogue that ensued when the first officer reached us might well have been a skit on a vaudeville stage.
“What are you doing?”
“Looking at ducks.”
“What’s your name?”
By the light in his eye I could tell he had heard about teal ducks. The light said: A wise guy, eh?
I have friends who are named Crow, Crane, Raven and Rook. Fortunately, they were not along that day.” (Teale 1951, p. 288).
Baldassarre, Guy. 2014. Ducks, Geese and Swans of North America, 2 Vols. Johns Hopkins University Press.
Teale, Edwin Way. 1951. North with the Spring. Dodd, Mead, & Company.
For other posts about Long Point Observations, see:
I usually like to discuss my nature observations soon after I make them, but that’s not always possible. In light of this, I’d like to describe some photos I took way back in March of this year. The week was rainy except for one day and I was determined to get out there and take some photos of birds, so I took a drive to Long Point and visited two marshy trails and was successful.
One of my main sightings on this trek were various ducks and geese. Ducks other than Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) have the annoying habit of staying on the far side of whatever water body they are in, which means that I usually can’t take good pictures of them with my camera. On this excursion, I spied many of these groups of ducks keeping a wary distance and took many blurry photos of them. Most of these shy non-Mallards* were Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris). One pair of ducks actually allowed me to get much closer and take decent pictures of them. These were Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola). By their extravagant head design, it was a pair of males. Buffleheads are related to mergansers and similarly dive for their food, which is mostly aquatic insects and snails (Baldassarre 2014). They make their nests in tree cavities (mainly those fashioned by Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus)), and breed in the northern forests of North America wherever these woodpeckers are commonly nesting (Baldassarre 2014). The Buffleheads I spied floating across a Long Point marsh were either spending the winter here or moving back north to breeding habitats.
*for the record, I have nothing against Mallard Ducks and I usually end up taking pictures of them too (they are quite beautiful birds) but there is definitely a part of me that wants to see and encounter creatures that are new to me and Mallards are… well, they’re the most commonly encountered ducks in the world. I could use a very similar paragraph to explain my feelings toward Canada Geese (Branta canadensis).
Hanging out with the Buffleheads was another waterbird which I initially mistook for a female Bufflehead because of its close proximity to the males and lack of head adornment. A few minutes later the pair of males took off from the water and flew down the waterway in a flurry of black-and-white. Yet this other bird didn’t follow, instead making occasional dives beneath the water surface and popping back up again. When reviewing my photos it became clear that this bird wasn’t a Bufflehead, and it wasn’t even a Duck (member of the family Anatidae). My mystery bird was from an entirely different branch of the bird family tree, despite its superficially duck-like appearance. It was a Grebe (a member of the Family Podicepididae), specifically a Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus).
Grebes swim in the water by means of their feet which like ducks are expanded to have more surface area but unlike a duck’s ‘webbed’ feet, grebe feet are said to be ‘lobed’. I have never seen a grebe foot before, because their feet are usually under the water while these superb swimmers float or dive. But take a look at this photo of a Horned Grebe and you will see why I mention the feet as they are very impressive.
The Horned Grebe I saw at Long Point was in its much less dramatic winter plumage (cross-reference the beautifully patterned adult in Tomas Wuschke’s photo above with the drab gray/black bird in my photo). They only very rarely breed in Ontario, and even then only at the very northern edge of the province, preferring northern Canada and Alaska where they create nests on floating vegetation in wetlands (Hughes 2001).
Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) were ubiquitous on both trails, frequently startling me with sudden splashes before scooting along at the surface or under the water. I observed a couple of these large rodents munching and was curious what they were eating but I was unable to tell from my photos. It could have been anything from vegetation to arthropods to fish since Muskrats are extreme generalists.
Two shockingly large birds flew in from the lake across the marsh, majestic and powerful eagles. Because of their large wingspan, I initially thought the birds to be Herons, which move south to avoid frozen water but will return once the ice has melted. Once I took some pictures I saw that the heads were definitely the heads of raptors, and I later figured out that they were juvenile Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus).
While driving between the two trails I noticed a frog and did a double take. To notice a frog while driving says something about the frog’s size and indeed this was a representative of the largest frog species in North America: an American Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus). This frog’s tympanum (the circular depression below and behind the eye) is much larger than its eye and its throat is yellow which indicates that this is a male, and males are generally smaller than females in this species! Bullfrogs can reach 20.3 cm (8 inches) long and will “eat nearly any animal they can capture and swallow” (Harding and Mifsud 2017).
The most noticeable resident on the second trail were the Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus), tearing about on their long legs and piercing the air with their high-pitched repeating calls. I love these birds and their distinctive cries, and seeing this many together at one time was a treat.
Before leaving each trail, I was able to photograph some small sparrows that were foraging along the paths. Watching these birds picking at the ground and presumably finding something to eat made me wonder what they could possibly be finding. A glance at the ground surface revealed no insects to me, but the Killdeer too were digging into the mud and finding plenty to eat. Watching birds forage like this always makes me marvel at the amount of life that must be present to sustain them, life that I couldn’t even see! There must be hundreds of tiny invertebrates that each bird was finding to sustain themselves. What an incredible invisible foundation to these flocks.
Baldassarre, Guy. 2014. Ducks, Geese and Swans of North America, 2 Vols. (revised and updated edition). Johns Hopkins University Press.
Harding, James H. and Mifsud, David A. 2017. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region. University of Michigan Press.
Hughes, Janice M. 2001. The ROM Field Guide to Birds of Ontario. Royal Ontario Museum.
For related nature observations in Long Point, see: