Categories
Species Profile Top 20 Photos 2013-2020

5. Robber Fly Hunting Queen Ant

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 will use 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.

References:

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.

For Previous posts in this series, see:

  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)
Categories
Species Profile

The Teal Tale Teale Told

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).

To hear what these small ducks sound like, here is a link to an audio recording of Green-winged Teals whistling: https://macaulaylibrary.org/asset/86925491.

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.

A pair of Green-winged Teals on ice at Long Point.

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.

The colour on their wings and heads really is quite beautiful.

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?”

“Teale.”

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).

In case you forgot that Green-winged Teals are small… here are some swimming near a Canada Goose for comparison.

References:

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:

Bullfrogs and Buffleheads

A Visit to Big Creek, Part 1

A Visit to Big Creek, Part 2

Categories
Nature Observations

Bullfrogs and Buffleheads

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.

Horned Grebe, with visible impressive feet, photo by Tomas Wuschke, used with permission.

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. 

American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea) photographed at the end of the second trail in Long Point.

References:

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:

A Green Heron Stalks the Shallows

A Visit to Big Creek, Part 1

-A Visit to Big Creek, Part 2

Categories
Nature Observations

Algonquin in August

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.

Ring-Billed Gull (Larus delawarensis) at the edge of Lake Opeongo.

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.

Herring gulls perched atop the Opeongo store roof.

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).

Water Striders mating on the surface of a river, one upside down beneath the other.

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.

References:

Tozer, Ron. 2012. Birds of Algonquin Park. The Friends of Algonquin Park.

For Previous Posts about Algonquin Observations, see:

Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis)

Moose (Alces alces) Family

-Algonquin Observations (2021):

Part 1: Pog Lake Campground

Part 2: Opeongo Road

Part 3: Peck Lake Trail

Part 4: Spruce Bog Speedrun and the Logging Museum Trail

Part 5: Spruce Bog: The Reckoning

Categories
Nature Observations Species Profile

A Green Heron Stalks the Shallows

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.   

*Many herons have been reported to use bait such as the Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) and the Great Egret (Ardea alba), but other birds are also reported bait-fishers, such as the Pied Kingfisher (Ceryle rudis) and the Black Kite (Milvus migrans). Check out this article for more fascinating details: Davis and Zickefoose 1998 (Bait-fishing by Birds: A Fascinating Example of Tool Use | Searchable Ornithological Research Archive (unm.edu))

This photo of the Green Heron shows it off in a more “typical” Heron pose, demonstrating how long its neck is.

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.

References:

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

Wiley, James. 2001. Green Heron (Butorides virescens) predation at Village Weaver (Ploceus cucullatus) nests. Journal of Society of Caribbean Ornithology Vol 14 No. 3 pp 130-133. (https://jco.birdscaribbean.org/index.php/jco/article/view/571/475)

Lovell, Harvey B. 1958. Baiting of Fish by a Green Heron. The Wilson Bulletin Vol. 70, No. 3 (Sep., 1958), pp. 280-281 

Davis, William E. and Zickefoose, Julie., 1998. Bait-Fishing by Birds: A Fascinating Example of Tool Use. Bird Observer Vol. 26 No. 3, pp 139-143.

For previous posts focused on birds or Long Point, see:

Return of the Ravens

Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis)

The Wonders of Wrens

A Visit to Big Creek, Part 1 and Part 2

Pinery Birds, Winter 2019

Categories
Nature Observations

Return of the Ravens

Ravens are awesome, beautiful birds.

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).

The raven didn’t even land, just dropped the stick from the air onto its nest.

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.

One of the ravens pursuing a turkey vulture.

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!

Raven and turkey vulture, showing nicely the relative wingspans of these two large birds.

References:

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:

Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis)

Algonquin Observations, Part 3 – Peck Lake Trail

Fuzzy Flies and Song Sparrows

Categories
Nature Observations Tumblr Repost

Cryptic Caterpillars

In the interests of my own personal goals to post at least once a month, I’m going to re-publish my very first post on my first iteration of the Norfolk naturalist blog, which was on tumblr. I’m planning to re-post all of my articles that I wrote on my tumblr on this site at some stage (possibly with some slight updates/alterations) since I would like them all in one place, and my own website seems like the best place to have that. So here is my first Norfolk Naturalist post, originally published on my tumblr back in 2018 (over 4 years ago!):

While walking the trail near my house, I spotted a twig in an unlikely spot. Instead of forming the final split of a growing or dead branch, the tiny twiglet (just larger than my fingernail) was jutting out into the air from the railing of the bridge. Something strange was going on. On closer inspection, it turned out not to be a twig at all. Rather, a caterpillar had chosen a poor and rather conspicuous spot to hide.

If this caterpillar had chosen a better location, it surely would have fooled me. Even where it was, it was extremely difficult to spot. The coloration and shape of its back was a perfectly mottled gray-brown, and its posture was that of a twig. It was thin-bodied and elongate, only about a millimeter around.

The caterpillar’s odd shape is provided by it having a large space between what are its true legs (the six legs just behind the head) and its ‘prolegs’ which are fleshy stubs coming off of its abdomen. This large space also causes these caterpillars to move in a unique fashion. They lift the front group of legs and extend it forward, reaching ahead and securing themselves there. Then they lift their rear group of legs and move them forward to reconnect with the front legs. Once together, the rear legs hold their place and the caterpillar once more reaches forward with its front legs. This “inching along” process provides this group of caterpillars with their name: the Inchworms (Family Geometridae).

A caterpillar’s main predators are birds which hunt visually. If the caterpillar appears to be something other than a morsel to a hungry bird, then it has succeeded and survived another moment. This type of behavior has a technical name: “crypsis” or “cryptic behavior”, which just sounds amazing. It strikes this cryptic pose when threatened, and so effectively disappears from a hunting bird’s search. I suppose it must have assumed this position when I walked near, thinking me to be hunting it for food. In reality, I was hunting only for a few pictures.

I hope you enjoyed that “repost” from the older version of norfolk naturalist blogging. I promise I’m still working on My Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020 series and I also have several other posts about more recent nature sightings in the works. Hopefully April will be a more productive writing month!

Categories
Top 20 Photos 2013-2020

3. Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis)

Subject: Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis).

Location: Algonquin Provincial Park.

Date: March 2017.

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.

References:

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:

Introduction

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

2. Moose (Alces alces) Family

For more observations in Algonquin Park, see my Algonquin Observations (August 2021) series:

Part 1: Pog Lake Campground

Part 2: Opeongo Road

Part 3: Peck Lake Trail

Part 4: Spruce Bog Speedrun and the Logging Museum Trail

Part 5: Spruce Bog: The Reckoning

Categories
Nature Observations Top 20 Photos 2013-2020

2. Moose (Alces alces) Family

Subject: Moose (Alces alces) Mother and Calves.

Location: Algonquin Provincial Park.

Date: July 2016.

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.

References:

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:

Introduction

-1. Pale-Painted Sand Wasp

For more observations in Algonquin Park, see my Algonquin Observations (August 2021) series:

Part 1: Pog Lake Campground

Part 2: Opeongo Road

Part 3: Peck Lake Trail

Part 4: Spruce Bog Speedrun and the Logging Museum Trail

Part 5: Spruce Bog: The Reckoning

Categories
Top 20 Photos 2013-2020

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

Subject: Pale-Painted Sand Wasp* (Bembix pallidipicta)

*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.

Another view of the same individual Sand Wasp entering its burrow.

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…

For previous posts about Hymenoptera, see:

-Cuckoo Wasps and Carpenter Bees

The Sand Wasps, Part 1: Introduction

-The Sand Wasps, Part 2: The Tribe Alyssontini

The Social Biology of Wasps (Book Review)

Species Profile: Introduced Pine Sawfly

References:

Evans, Howard E. Studies on the Comparative Ethology of Digger Wasps of the Genus Bembix, cited in Evans, Howard E. and O’Neill, Kevin M. 2007. The Sand Wasps: Natural History and Behavior.

Evans, Howard E. and O’Neill, Kevin M. 2007. The Sand Wasps: Natural History and Behavior.