News and new developments

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I’m waking this blog up (temporarily) to share some exciting news:

David Beadle and I will be doing a new Peterson moth guide, for southeastern North America! Many of the details are still being worked out, but it will be very similar to the northeast guide in format. It will contain about 1600 of the most common or flashy species from the region, and will cover the range shown in the map above – from North Carolina to Florida, west to Oklahoma and central Texas. Release date is TBD, but I suspect will likely be about summer 2016.

We’ll be working on the materials over the course of the next year and a half, including some travel and soliciting high-quality photos to obtain images of species we don’t currently have them for. I’m really looking forward to getting out to visit some of these areas this summer and perhaps next.

And in other developments:

I haven’t talked about it much, but in my spare time I’ve been writing novels. Over the last couple of years I’ve been working at getting better at the craft and writing a really strong story, and last week I finally signed with a literary agent! Rachael Dugas of Talcott Notch Literary read and loved my latest novel and offered to represent me and my work. To place your book with large publishing houses you need to go through an agent, and finding a literary agent is more like winning a place with one of the coaches on The Voice (they have to really fall in love with your work for them to offer representation) than it is hiring a realtor – so this was really exciting! Next up, she’ll be working to try to sell it to a publisher for me. I’ve been posting more about my writing journey at my writing blog.

Also, Dan and I are moving again! As last time, our landlord has decided to sell the house. We haven’t yet found a new place in the area that will work for us, but hopefully soon; in the meantime, we’ve been busy preparing to move, packing things, and that’s kept us pretty occupied the last little while, too.

A final note about the blog:

I’ve been quite busy working on various projects over the last year, and the novels have taken up a lot of my extra time. I ended up having to let something go, and that something was the blog – at 2-3 hours per post, even just a couple posts a week eats up a lot of time. Plus I’d already blogged about a lot of the common and easy stuff where we lived. I may yet come back to it – especially if I were to get a smartphone that I could take photos with and post easily – but I don’t have immediate plans.

I do, however, intend to post periodic updates on the status of the new guide. If you’re interested in hearing the latest you could check in from time to time, subscribe to the blog through an RSS feed reader, or by email (click the “Follow” button at the top, if you’re logged in to WordPress).

Big Brown Bat

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I’ve been doing that thing again where I get distracted by other projects and forget to post here. Sorry about that. It’s been a busy month and promises to be a busy month to come.

Here’s something from a few weeks ago. One morning Dan discovered this guy (or gal?) on the screened-in porch. I believe it’s a Little Brown Bat Big Brown Bat (thank you to PFG to Mammals author Fiona Reid for correcting my ID!), one of the most common around here; we’ve got a colony of these (whichever species they are) that occasionally take up residence in the cracks of the beams above our front (open-air) porch. They’ll stay for a few days then move to a different roost for a while. We always know when they’re there because the porch beneath becomes littered with bat droppings.

Dan propped open the door hoping the bat would let itself out while he took care of some chores inside, but when he returned a while later it had settled down on some trim up near the ceiling and fallen asleep. I’ve heard that you’re not supposed to move bats during the day, and since it wasn’t at risk of bothering anyone there we decided to leave it till evening. It stayed put, barely moving, till dusk.

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As the sun started to set it began to shift. It crawled over the edge of the trim and hung there, tucked into the corner, still looking very sleepy. I decided that was my cue to shift him outside; we’d let the cats come out while the bat was asleep (they’d remained completely oblivious) but once it showed signs of waking up I didn’t want to take any chances.

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I donned gloves and got a kitchen towel to collect it up in. Unfortunately, in my concern about injuring it my grip wasn’t firm enough and it slipped out. Still dozy, it basically glided to the floor where it sprawled with its wings out. What a neat opportunity to see the intricate structure of the wings and tail. And look at those tiny toes on the back feet! They and the thumb, at the “wrist” of both wings, are long and thin and designed for clinging to stuff since the bat doesn’t really have the option of using its hands. Still, it’s more than birds have.

Those wing bones are incredibly thin and delicate. Birds, of course, have evolved to have hollow bones that helps to reduce the amount of weight they need to get airborne. Bats don’t have hollow bones so they just have to be smaller in the heavy bits. It also helps, however, that the long finger bones allow bats to make shapes with their wings that other flying creatures (birds and insects) can’t – they use this for producing novel mechanisms for increasing lift, to compensate for their greater weight.

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Bats are amazing creatures, really. Besides just the flying, they’ve got the really cool ability to echolocate, something shared only with some cetaceans, a couple species of birds, and a type of shrew. (Only certain types of bats echolocate, however – microchiropteran bats, the nocturnal insectivores; flying foxes, the fruit bats, don’t.)

Those big ears are important for catching the sound as it bounces back. It’s a complex skill involving the measurement of time between making the sound and hearing the echo, the time between hearing the echo in one ear versus the other, and the intensity of the sound for one ear versus the other. This is mostly done instinctively, below the level of consciousness. We do some of this ourselves already, in being able to identify from which direction a sound has come from. The only difference is that the bats are listening for echoes of sounds they produced themselves.

Remarkably, it’s possible for some blind or visually challenged people to develop a form of echolocation to help them navigate their world. Their visual cortex is repurposed for processing sounds instead of sights. The YouTube video above (also here) is an amazing example.

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The bat climbed up onto my glove easily once it was on the floor, and I took it and tacked it up to the side of the house (a convenient advantage of wooden logs). It still seemed sleepy and not ready to head out yet, so I left it; when I checked back half an hour later, it had gone.

National Moth Week

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This week is National Moth Week, seven days of mothing across the continent (and around the world!) in celebration of these diverse creatures. From now through Monday the 29th, turn on your porch light, put out a blacklight and sheet, mix up some sugar bait, or just search your yard to see what moths you can detect. Or, if you’d rather, join in one of the public mothing events scheduled for your area.

Reigster your event and report what you find after it’s done. Don’t worry if you can’t identify many species! Moth’ers of all skill levels are encouraged to join in and have fun seeing and learning something new. All registered participants are eligible to win a signed book – many authors, including myself, have donated books to the event that will be given away by random draw at the end of the week. You can check in at the NMW official blog to see what’s going on in other areas during moth week.

I had been hoping to run a public event myself, but it didn’t work out timing-wise – it’s been a busy period for me recently. Still, I’ll be turning on my lights a few times and recording what I see. Last night I was at my parents’ house and put out my light for a few hours to kick of NMW. We’d just had a rainstorm roll through late in the afternoon so abundance was lower, but there was still good diversity. The indisputable highlight for me was this Chestnut Schizura (Schizura badia), a lifer for me and a species neither Dave nor I had photos of when we prepared the field guide so we had to solicit one from someone else. It’s nice to add it to my digital collection!

Common Buckeye

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A couple of days ago Dan brought me a surprise: he’d caught a Common Buckeye out in our fields. Buckeyes don’t normally occur here. They’re a southern species that only occasionally strays far enough north to be recorded in eastern Ontario, and nearly all the records are from the southern edge of the province. My mom spotted one last year at her place just fifteen minutes north of the St. Lawrence. It was the first one she’d ever seen. The one Dan brought me was the first one I’d ever encountered, too (perhaps surprisingly, given the time I’ve spent working and traveling in the US). But interestingly, this was actually the second one Dan’s found here on our property this summer (I was away when he found the first one).

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The foodplants for this species, such as snapdragons and toadflax, do actually occur in our area. However, like Red Admirals, the adults of this species are not cold-hardy and can’t survive the winters of the northern half of the continent. Instead, the butterflies seen in these areas are migrants that move north from the warmer southern regions. It was a really big spring for Red Admirals this year, possibly because the mild winter we had allowed more to survive than ordinarily do, and perhaps survive farther north than they normally can. I would guess this same weather probably benefitted the buckeyes, too.

It’s been a great summer for butterflies all ’round. In late May and June we were seeing a lot of Giant Swallowtails; they were more common even than our regular Tigers. I posted about Giants before, when we got one last summer. They also don’t normally occur here but will occasionally irrupt north. I’m not sure if they’re also affected by winter temperatures, or if the numbers we had this year were the result of some other factor.

The book tour recap; nature break

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I took a day off following the New River Birding and Nature Festival; I’d been on the road a week, traveling and meeting people and talking, and though I’d been enjoying myself, I really needed a day to recharge my batteries. I’m an introvert by nature, and since I work from home my normal social exposure is a trip in to town for groceries and a new library book; so many people wears me down after a while.

My next stop was in northeastern West Virginia and I decided to aim for nearby Elkins, WV, as my destination for the night. Since I was in no rush to get there, not having an event that evening, I took the advice of Opossum Creek Retreat owner/manager and NRBNF organizer Geoff Heeter to stop at the Cranberry Glades Botanical Area along my way.

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This is the location of one of the festival’s all-day trips. It’s a specialty destination, a rare habitat for the region. Bogs are typically a more northern phenomenon, where the ideal conditions occur (poor drainage, usually through non-porous bedrock; cooler temperatures; moderate precipitation) to form the acidic wet environments. This collection of bogs in West Virginia represents some of the most southernmost in North America, and is West Virginia’s largest.

In fact, it was probably the largest bog that I’ve personally had a chance to visit. The whole botanical area covers 750 acres, but the bogs themselves collectively measure 115 acres; the largest is 59 acres. The ones I’ve been to before have all been just a couple to perhaps a couple dozen acres. Up near Ottawa, ON, is the Alfred Bog which covers about 10,000 acres, but I’ve never been to it.

There are two hiking trails through the botanical area; one is 6 miles (9.7 km) long, which was a little more than I had time or interest for, but the other was a 1/2 mile (800 m) boardwalk that passed along the edges of two of the bogs as well as through some wooded sections. Given how much I dawdle over things, I figured that’d be plenty long enough and still allow me to see a lot.

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The name of the place highlights one of the most common species there. The cranberries were pretty much everywhere, but the plants are so small and inconspicuous that you really had to look closely to see them. They’re more obvious once the berries form and ripen. Cranberries are mostly associated with boggy, acidic environments, though some cultivars have been developed that can do just fine in normal soils.

There were also the other expected bog plants there, including the two carnivorous species, pitcher plant and sundew. I only spotted a few pitcher plants, not blooming yet, and while I looked for sundew I didn’t see any. It could have been too early yet for them to be very large; like most non-woody plants they die back and grow anew each year. I only noticed the sundews in our little poor fen at the back of our property perhaps a couple of weeks ago.

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These plants were something of a highlight for me. Although by the time I visited they were well past their most identifiable stage, I was happy to see these Skunk Cabbage. It’s a species I’ve never yet encountered, as finding them in the spring when they’re just starting to peek through the snow requires a combination of luck and knowing where to look, and I’m not aware of any plants in our immediate vicinity. These don’t grow in the bog proper but rather at the bog’s edge, where there’s actual soil to grow in (rather than the peat covering that many bog specialists grow in/on). By this stage of their growth they’ve lost the distinctive odour that gives them their name (that’s used to draw insects in to their very early flowers).

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This was another plant I discovered there that I’d long been wanting to see. It’s a Painted Trillium, and the pink chevrons of the species are beautiful and distinctive. These weren’t in the actual bog either but rather in the drier forest habitat surrounding it. However, it’s perhaps no surprise they were there – they prefer more acidic soils, and away from bogs/fens are typically associated with trees such as evergreens and Red Maple that acidify the soil beneath them with their dropped needles/leaves. It is in fact found in Ontario, but I’ve never seen it here (never been in the right environments at the right time of year, I guess).

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There were lots of birds there, even by the time I arrived around lunchtime, so I can see why it was a popular destination for the NRBNF. There were many species I hadn’t seen since the previous summer. Blackburnian Warblers were extremely common, and I saw a few Canada Warblers as well. While the Blackburnians remained up higher in the evergreens the Canadas foraged at eye-level. This was the only wildlife photo I got (and a crappy one at that; while I have a long lens for my camera I’d naturally left it in the car, so this was taken through my binoculars), despite the abundance of birds; most were more readily heard than seen. Canada Warblers are a recent addition to the Canadian Species At Risk act, and are not surprisingly relatively uncommon. Nearly all of the individuals I’ve seen over the years have been through bird banding, when we’ve caught them in the net.

It wasn’t an especially long drive to Elkins from Fayetteville, but it was nice to stop and stretch the legs a bit and get out to do some nature-watching in an interesting place. Not to say that the New River area wasn’t interesting, but there was lots of it and I was there a few days. I’m sure you know what I mean.

Next up: Canaan Valley NWR, Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art, and the Ashland Nature Center.

Bear encounter

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Yesterday afternoon while heading out with the dogs to see if I could relocate a Common Buckeye butterfly that Dan had seen in our back fields (they don’t typically occur up here, so this was a really rare sighting), we startled some wildlife in the tiny patch of trees that the trail passes, no more than a couple dozen feet across and a few dozen feet long but dense enough at the edges to make it hard to see into. The dogs were, of course, intensely interested and my focus was on preventing their pursuit of the thing; so it didn’t immediately register that the sound of departure was not the bounding ba-dump, ba-dump of alarmed deer but something more shuffling. Then when I seemed to hear something climbing a tree I thought it must be a porcupine, which I also did not want the dogs taking off after. But when I got Jack secured and Raven to heel and peered through the foliage, what was looking back at me was not a porcupine. Or a deer.

I was too surprised to move, at first. But the bear seemed more cautious than aggressive, and after a moment I relaxed, a little; enough to pull out my camera and try for a few shots. She was tucked in behind a wall of vegetation through which I had just a small window to see her, but I got a couple of photos that were recognizably of a bear and was content with that. Carrying Jack, and with a firm verbal leash on Raven, I turned and carried on down the trail so she could leave.

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I made my way slowly to the field where Dan had seen the butterfly and dawdled around there for a bit (didn’t find it). Then I started to mosey back, pausing a couple of times to take photos of things. By the time we returned to the woods patch the bear had had lots of time to clear out, but I still picked Jack up and approached slowly, just in case. Cautiously I peered through the trees to the spot she’d been, but the patch was empty and silent.

Relieved, I set Jack down. She’d made some marks on the trunk that I wanted to check out, so I started picking my way through the trees toward where she’d been. Halfway there, when I was about twenty-five feet from the target tree, there was a soft grunting growl and the bear sat up on her haunches beside it.

Panic! Panic! Call the dogs back! Jack, come! Raven, heel! Now! Thankfully, both dogs came quickly, and I turned my shoulder to her to show her I was not trying to threaten her (even while keeping her in my sight, just in case!) and started to casually leave the forest patch. She didn’t say another word as she sat back and watched me, alert and uncertain but staying her ground. I paused near the edge of the trees, since she wasn’t moving, and took a couple more (quick!) photos without the obstruction of leafy vegetation, then left.

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A couple of times while I was nearby she tried to climb the tree she was beside. This is about as high as she made it before slipping back down to the ground each time. When I’d first glimpsed her, through the small window in the vegetation, I’d thought I’d seen a second little head beside her. I’d definitely heard more than one animal in there, startled by our approach. And given the fact that fifteen minutes later she was still sitting beside the same tree, and inclined to climb it, even, I’m guessing she had at least one cub somewhere up that trunk. (I didn’t think to check, at the time; my focus was more on containing the dogs.)

It wouldn’t surprise me if that were the case. Last fall I found evidence that was very suggestive of a mother bear with a cub. Female bears mate every other year, and take two years to raise each cub. If the second animal of last year’s discovery was in fact a bear cub, it’s possible it was a second-year cub that was weaned before the winter, and this is the same mother bear with a new baby. Female bears tend to have home ranges of 1600 to 6400 acres (2.5 to 10 square miles; which is about 6.5 to 26 square kilometers); certainly not small, but not so large that the same animal wouldn’t pass through an area semi-regularly, especially if she had favourite haunts.

It was exciting to finally get a chance to glimpse our local bear, since in the three years we’ve been here we’ve seen lots of evidence of their presence but no actual bears. I kind of wish it had been at more of a distance… but hey. Luckily, she was calm. It makes me happy to know she’s out there, somewhere, and passing through from time to time.

Diurnal sphinx moths

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Our lilacs have been done blooming for a while now, but in the days following my return home from the book tour they saw a lot of activity from pollinators: bees and butterflies, flies and moths. Including these three, which happened to all show up at the bush by the house during the same afternoon; an extremely rare treat.

The above is a Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe), sometimes referred to as a “hummingbird hawkmoth”. It’s the most common diurnal sphinx moth around here, and nearly all of my sightings of sphingids at my garden flowers are this species. They’re reasonably abundant, with near-daily sightings once our phlox and bee-balm/bergamot start blooming. The name, of course, comes from their resemblance to mini hummingbirds, with which they share the same behaviour of hovering in front of flowers while feeding and darting quickly from one bloom to the next.

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This one is the closely-related Snowberry Clearwing (H. diffinis). I’d never seen this species before, so I was pretty excited when Dan found the individual and called me over. He’d actually seen them once, earlier this spring, down in Frontenac Provincial Park near where we used to live at the lake house. I think they’re probably relatively widespread around here but simply not very abundant. They’re actually found across more of the continent than Hummingbird is.

While the Hummingbird has a fair bit of red to it and a solid green back, the Snowberry lacks much red and shows two pale stripes running down each side of its back, giving it a yellower look. There’s a third species, too, Slender Clearwing (H. gracilis), which is similar to Hummingbird but has a white border along the red and a red stripe going up the side to the eye; it’s the most uncommon of the three (I’ve never seen it) and restricted to the northeast. All of the members of genus Hemaris are called clearwings because of (duh) their clear wings, though they also share this common name with a group of wasp-mimic moths that also nearly all have clear wings.

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And the final species to show up at our lilacs was a Nessus Sphinx (Amphion floridensis). I had actually seen this once before, but not very well and not for very long, and hadn’t really gotten a good photo. So I was quite pleased about this one, too. Unlike the other two, this one belongs to a different genus and has solid-coloured wings. The distinctive identifying feature is the pair of yellow rings around the abdomen (though these can sometimes be single; this might be a regional variation, I’m not certain).

The three species fly most of the year, from mid-spring till the end of summer, so even though our lilacs are done blooming now there will still be the opportunity to encounter them again. Definitely the Hummingbirds will be back once the phlox starts to flower.

(All photos taken by Dan, whose camera was the one on hand and who knows how to work it a lot better than I do. Sadly, I’ve gotten so used to the manual-ness of my DSLR I can’t figure out a point-and-shoot anymore…)