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.
In June I went to see Jurassic World: Dominion, the latest film in the Jurassic Saga. I wouldn’t say it’s a great film, but I did really enjoy it, especially with the theatre experience. I wrote a blogpost about my personal interactions with the Jurassic books/films/videogames and some paleontological things because they were on my mind a lot at the time. You will see that some of the books I read over the blogging year (overviewed below) were also inspired by my dinosaur obsession which comes and goes quite often.
Some of my most exciting observations this year were of birds that I encountered in Long Point. And some of the most exciting birds were members of the Heron Family (Ardeidae). Usually I see and take photos of Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias) which is great but it was amazing to encounter several other members of this charismatic group of birds this year. My close encounter with a Green Heron (Butorides virescens) was so striking that I wrote it up into a blogpost: A Green Heron Stalks the Shallows.
Two other blogposts feature some of my Long Point observations. One is sort of a tour through a variety of observations I made during March 2022: Bullfrogs and Buffleheads. Another is more like the Green Heron post mentioned above, as it focuses on a specific bird that caught my attention. In this case, it was the Green-winged Teal (Anas carolinensis): The Teal Tale Teale Told.
During August, we took a trip to one of my favourite places: Algonquin Provincial Park. While there, I made some nature observations and took some photos, sharing them in my blogpost here: Algonquin in August.
And that wraps up my writing this year. Below, we will take a tour through the books I read this past year (that are nature/science related) and discuss them briefly.
Nature’s Year: Changing Seasons in Central and Eastern Ontario, by Drew Monkman:
Although the book is not directly focused on my local area (Norfolk County falls outside of the books focal range), the close proximity of the areas documented mean that many of the natural phenomena described within are of relevance to the seasons around me as well. I really appreciated the layout of the book. Each month is divided into sections based on organism type: “Plants and Fungi”, “Reptiles and Amphibians”, “Mammals” and so on. Beneath each of these sub-headings, interesting happenings are described, some in point-form and others in detail (full page or two). It was great to witness the natural events mentioned in the book, to read along as each month progressed as I did in 2021. Reading the book through the year prepares your mind to see the natural events it describes. An advantage of the layout is that it also works well as a reference because you can flip to a certain month and type of organism to see what notable species or events are occurring.
Biodiversity in Dead Wood, edited by Jogeir N. Stokland, Juha Siitonen, and Bengt Gunnar Jonsson:
A new favourite book of mine, this volume opened up the mysterious biome of decaying wood and explored the diversity of life within, from bacteria to birds. The interactions of organisms with each other and their environment is the heart of ecology and it’s clear from my reading that species are interconnected in fascinating and complex ways.
Spider Communication: Mechanisms and Ecological Significance, edited by Peter N. Witt and Jerome S. Rovner:
The title of this book drew me to it as I am always fascinated by animal behaviour and Spiders seem to me unlikely subjects of a volume dedicated to communication. Reading the book offers a new perspective on spider interactions with each other through their silk and body movements and even acoustics! They also communicate with predators and prey,
Hedgehog (Collins New Naturalist), by Pat Morris:
I didn’t really know anything about Hedgehogs before reading this book. And there was no need, as this volume summarizes in entertaining fashion most anything anyone would want to know about British Hedgehogs.
The Encyclopedia of Animals: A Complete Visual Guide, edited by George Mckay:
I read through this book slowly, as it is not really meant to be read straight through. This book serves best as a flip-through book, showcasing the diversity of animals around the world. The illustrations are at times a bit strange (I believe many are stock illustrations) and don’t seem to match with the animal they depict, but others are quite beautiful and the diversity they portray is fun to look at. The text is very cursory as would be expected with a popular “flip-through” tome like this. My major gripe with this book is something I used to harp on about all the time growing up as an insect enthusiast: Invertebrates are barely represented. Mammals get the majority of pages devoted to them, and Birds are close behind. Mammals and Birds are fascinating, and far more diverse than one would assume if you have only watched nature documentaries (which focus on the same set of species rather than showcasing the variety that are actually out there). Even still, they are a fraction of the diversity of the animal kingdom, which is more appropriately ruled in species numbers by the Arthropods or Mollusks. Despite this (a very common problem in overview books) I really had fun slowly reading through this book, taking in a page or so of variety a day. I wouldn’t say it is the best or most comprehensive of animal encyclopedias, but it serves as a good introduction as long as one is well aware of the classic hairy or feathered vertebrate bias.
British Tits (Collins New Naturalist), by Christopher M. Perrins:
British Tits have always struck me as beautiful chickadees, which indeed they are. I was always jealous of Britain having the wonderful cheery birds I know from my backyard, but with more vibrant colour. Tits are fascinating birds, with life histories and behaviour to match their beautiful exteriors. This book was an excellent overview of the species of Parulidae that occur in the British Isles.
Dinopedia, by Darren Naish:
A compact and great little book filled with tidbits about the history of dinosaur research, some of the paleontologists who conducted said research or influenced the field of dinosaur study, and brief summaries on dinosaur groups. My personal tastes lie with this last group of entries, but each entry was interesting in its own way, supplying concise facts and summaries and highlighting areas of interest within the world of dinosaur research. I greatly enjoyed the illustrations by the author which really enhance the book.
Reef Life: A Guide to Tropical Marine Life, by Brandon Cole and Scott Michael:
A delightful photo-focused tour through the world of coral reefs and tropical sea life. The focus is on fishes, while smaller sections describe and display some representative invertebrates. Styled something like a field guide, but with plenty of ecological and biological information throughout, this book gives a taste of the diversity of coral reefs and the interconnected lives of the species that create and depend on them.
Bat Ecology, edited by Thomas H. Kunz and M. Brock Fenton:
Bats are fascinating, and I learned a lot about them from this book. Because of the book’s focus on Ecology, there was no real overview of Bats as a group which would have been nice for myself to have some sort of general idea before diving into specifics. Not a fault of the book, just something to note if you’re unfamiliar with bats from a scientific point of view. The chapters are each written by different authors and cover a wide range of topics, and as such there were excellent and enjoyable chapters (for myself the chapter on Roosting sites and the chapter on Pollination were particularly fascinating) and some chapters that were less so. Not a fault of the book, but my personal point of view and knowledge base left me struggling through the chapters on Sperm Competition and Patterns of Range Size. Those two chapters in particular felt like specific scientific studies rather than reviews of a subject area which the other chapters felt like. So, while mixed, the interest I have in Bats has certainly been increased and I have certainly learned a lot about some of the diverse ecologies that bats have around the world, while still wanting more.
This Day: New and Collected Sabbath Poems 1979-2012, by Wendell Berry:
In the preface, Wendell Berry remarks that the poems should be read outside in similar circumstances to when they were written. And I originally envisioned doing so. When I began to read them in very different circumstances, I found that instead of diminishing the power of the poetry by contrast, the poetry brought the beauty and wonder of nature into my less-than-ideal setting (usually indoors in winter or at work).
Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Protect the World’s Largest Owl, by Jonathan C. Slaght:
Although I will always want a book like this to have more focus on the animals themselves (in this case Blakiston’s Fish Owls) I thought this was a very interesting listen (I had the audiobook). Lots of adventures and misadventures in the Russian wilderness, as well as strange and intriguing people that the author encounters. And there was quite a bit about how the field research actually worked and the sorts of things I really was looking for: info and descriptions of the wildlife encounters including the focal species. Overall, a good read about an animal I didn’t know much about before and the efforts to research and protect it.
Dinosaurs Rediscovered: The Scientific Revolution in Paleontology, by Michael J. Benton:
I picked up this book from the library, inspired by my recent viewing of Jurassic World: Dominion, and found this book to be a mixed bag. I enjoyed some of the stories behind discoveries or changes in perspective on dinosaurs and their world… but I found other such stories to be irrelevant or out of place. In general, the flow of the book was a bit haphazard. The information within sated my appetite for dinosaurian (and some non-dinosaur) biology and ecology temporarily and I enjoyed the illustrations and figures.
Ant Ecology, edited by Lori Lach, Catherine L. Parr, and Kirsti L. Abbott:
Because this is an edited multiauthored volume, it becomes difficult to review the whole, as chapters are written with different topics and by different people. Overall, this was an interesting look at more recent ant research (20 years more recent than my other source for ant knowledge: The Ants by E. O. Wilson, written in 1990). There is a heavy conservation and practical (invasive ecology) focus to the book which may attract workers in these fields.
The Amber Forest: A Reconstruction of a Vanished World, by George Poinar Jr. and Roberta Poinar:
Fascinating gallery of ancient organisms preserved in amber of a particular age and location. Mostly insects and other arthropods which is fine by me, I enjoyed the overview of insect relationships and such that were covered alongside the representatives of the different groups found in amber. The format was a little strange and took some getting used to, I feel like there could have been a better way to present the images and the text but I don’t know, felt a little awkward flipping back and forth throughout reading. All in all, very interesting especially if you like insects and fossils.
A Naturalist At Large, by Bernd Heinrich:
A fun tour through various natural history topics. Bernd Heinrich is curious about the nature he observes and doesn’t take things for granted and by doing so, he discovers by bits and pieces, fascinating natural history stories. I especially liked the chapters focused on birds or insects, perhaps due to my own interests and knowledge but I think perhaps it is because those were Bernd Heinrich’s research focuses as well and his insight there was thus enhanced.
Biology and Conservation of Wild Canids, edited by D. W. Macdonald and C. Sillero-Zubiri:
A great review of Canid Conservation around the world. The case studies were interesting snapshots of species under investigation from Grey Wolves of Isle Royale, in Lake Superior, to the Blanford’s Fox in the deserts of the Middle East. While not comprehensive on the biology/ecology of canids (some species didn’t even get a case study chapter such as Bush Dogs), this was an excellent primer on the diversity of species and challenges in the canid research world.
Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, by Frans de Waal:
A book aimed at tearing down the division between human and “animal” cognition. Presents a wide array of anecdotes and experiments that demonstrate that human thinking is a matter of degree and not a separate category altogether from the millions of other species on this planet. I was a bit disappointed that the author focused mainly on chimpanzee research (his own specialty) but this served to really break down the idea that human thinking is a different sort from other species as chimpanzees display many of our ways of thinking that humans previously considered unique to our species. I would have loved to read more about cognition in diverse species and phyla, the one section on invertebrates was intriguing but all too short, but all in all the book presents its arguments well, and discusses the history of thinking about animal thinking in an interesting and thought-provoking way.
That concludes my writing and reading overview for the past blogging year! Stay tuned for more nature sightings, observations, photos and natural history!
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.
Subject: Underworld Robber Fly (Neoitamus orphne) and New York Carpenter Ant Queen (Camponotus novaeboracensis).
Location: Algonquin Provincial Park.
Date: July 2017.
For an Introduction to this series (my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020) go here.
The Story Behind the Shot: Every ant colony, each civilization in the soil, has to begin with a single type of individual: an ant queen*. Queens are special individuals, easily separated from the workers by their wings (at this preliminary stage) and their relatively large size. While camping in Algonquin during the summer of 2017, my campsite was in the path of dozens of queen carpenter ants. I watched as several different individuals wandered through the pine needles and discarded their wings. I had also been separately observing a large robber fly that had taken up residence on my camping table, using the surface to survey for potential prey. At some point the robber fly descended upon one of these ant queens and I was lucky enough to spot the unfortunate queen and its fortunate hunter.
*nature never lets me get away with generalizations… I would have liked to say, for the drama, that every colony begins with a single individual, but that isn’t true at all. There are many species of ants that create new colonies with multiple queens as a rule, and many times groups of workers accompany the queen (or queens). One of the most famous of these species is the Southern Fire Ant Solenopsis invicta, but dependent colony founding (that is, colonies that begin with a queen dependent on workers as opposed to independent colony founding) is widespread in ants. As in all things in the natural world, the picture becomes increasingly complicated, the more we know (Peeters and Molet 2010).
The Story Behind the Species:
Part 1: New York Carpenter Ant (Camponotus novaeboracensis):
The ant queens that I saw that day had emerged from a colony in what is termed a mating swarm. Multiple colonies in the area, triggered by the weather conditions must have swarmed at the same time, winged ants filling the air and meeting to mate. The males of these ants die soon after mating, but the queens will live for several years if they can establish a colony. The vast majority of ant queens will also die during this mating flight. Holldobler and Wilson (1990) describe this well: “It follows that the brief interval between leaving the home nest and settling into a newly constructed nest is a period of intense natural selection among queens, a dangerous odyssey that must be precisely timed and executed to succeed.” After mating, the ant queens descend to the earth and never leave it for the air again, removing their wings and absorbing the flight muscles within to provide the nutrients for their first batch of eggs. Camponotus novaeboracensis prefers nesting in dead standing trees or fallen logs or stumps, but they are occasionally found nesting under rocks or cow dung (Ellison et. al. 2012). Contrary to what you may think, carpenter ants (the genus Camponotus) don’t consume wood for food, instead carving into decayed wood in order to create a nesting site. One of their major sources of food is actually honeydew from Homoptera (true bugs such as leafhoppers, treehoppers and aphids), but they also collect sap and hunt insects and will scavenge on dead vertebrates as well (Hansen and Klotz 2005).
Foraging as an ant worker is dangerous, there are many other creatures foraging that would hunt down ant workers, and that’s ok for the colony because each worker is just one small part of a larger whole. Camponotus novaeboracensis colonies can contain almost 9000 workers (Hansen and Klotz 2005), but usually only a single egg-laying queen*. So workers can be lost, and the colony continues, but the queen is important so the colony can begin. If she is lost before she can find a nesting site, as in my observation here, there can be no colony of thousands.
*Akre et. al. 1994 report that C. novaeboracensis colonies rarely have more than one queen, but it does happen.
Part 2: Underworld Robber Fly (Neoitamus orphne):
Robber flies are incredible hunters, swooping out from perches on branches or twigs (or in this case, camping tables) to pounce upon insects and stab them with their powerful piercing mouths. There are over 7000 species of Robber Fly (members of the family Asilidae) worldwide (Marshall 2012). Neoitamus orphne has a specific name, orphne, which refers to a spirit of Greek mythology that lived with Hades in the Underworld, and is sometimes referred to by the name “Styx”. I love the idea of this fly being named after a spirit of the Underworld, as this robber fly must send many souls of insects to Hades on a frequent basis. The individual pictured is a female, which willuse that long tubular abdomen to lay eggs inside flower heads or leaf sheaths. The larvae then hatch and drop to the ground, where they will hunt down soil-dwelling invertebrates presumably (Marshall 2012). I say “presumably” because I don’t think anyone knows for certain what this species of robber fly eats as larvae but robber fly larvae are predators and this genus has larvae that live on or in the ground so it makes sense.
My photo captures a battle between two mother insects, one which has the potential to generate a social colony of 9000 worker ants, another which lives a solitary life snatching prey out of the air.
Akre, R. D., L. D. Hansen, and E. A. Myhre. 1994. Colony size and polygyny in carpenter ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) J. Kans. Entomol. Soc. 67: 1-9, cited in: Hansen, Laurel and Klotz, John. 2005. Carpenter Ants of the United States and Canada. Cornell University Press.
Ellison, Aaron, Gotell, Nicholas, Farnsworth, Elizabeth, and Alpert, Gary. A Field Guide to the Ants of New England. 2012. Yale University Press.
Hansen, Laurel and Klotz, John. 2005. Carpenter Ants of the United States and Canada. Cornell University Press.
Holldobler, Bert and Wilson, E. O. 1990. The Ants. Harvard University Press.
Marshall, Stephen. 2012. Flies: the Natural History and Diversity of Diptera. Firefly Books.
Peeters, Christian, and Molet, Mathieu. 2010. “Colonial Reproduction and Life Histories” in: Lach, Lori, Parr, Catherine L., and Abbott, Kirsti L.(eds.) 2010. Ant Ecology. Oxford University Press.
I hope you enjoyed my foray into the lives of these fascinating insects. My next post in the ongoing series of My Top Nature Photos is going to be about a sneaky little amphibian.
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:
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
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: