Anatomy of a sunset


When I was involved in bird research projects, I would usually be up and arriving at the research site in the pre-dawn twilight to set up our equipment. One of the best things about having to get up so early – okay, the only thing – is that you would get to enjoy the sunrise every day (on those days where the sky wasn’t clouded over, anyway). I have some beautiful sunrise photos from that period. Pinks seem to predominate, though I have a number of striking oranges and reds, as well.


I was mildly disappointed that our new house faced east, such that we wouldn’t see the sunsets across the water, because I did really enjoy watching the colours of the sky. I knew that I was unlikely to be up often enough, at least in the summer and fall, to catch the morning sunrise that we would be able to see from our deck, but I am always up for sunset. I used to admire some that we would see from the apartment in Toronto, but would never take a photo. It just wasn’t an ideal setting, with all the buildings and power lines and everything else in the way.


I guess I hadn’t expected to be out in the boat so often here, or out so late. But some of the best fishing can be had at dusk, so we’ve frequently gone out just after dinner and stayed out till after the sun has gone down, navigating our return by the silhouettes of the trees and the reflection of the water, and tracking our location by the illuminated houses of our neighbours.


I think the best sunrise and sunset photos are those taken across water. It has the dual advantage of a large open space to give you a better view of the sky, as well as the reflective properties of the water that replicate the colours below. Since I’ve been fishing for the smaller guys, using jigs instead of cast-out lures, I really prefer to fish during the daylight hours; early morning is my favourite, when the lake is still and quiet, though it unfortunately requires setting the alarm to be sure I’m up. It’s easier to go out in the evening, you’re up anyway. My favourite part of being out late, after I can’t see my lure in the water anymore, is watching the sun go down and the sky light up.


The reason that the sky isn’t just the usual blue during sunrise and set is because of the angle the sun’s rays are traveling through the atmosphere at. If you move six hours east (in the case of sunrise) or west (for sunset), the sky will be blue under the sun there. It’s the same sun, just the angle has changed. At all angles, the light waves are encountering particles in the atmosphere, and are breaking up into their different components and scattering. The ones that head down to the ground are in the blue spectrum, which is why the sky looks blue. The reds and oranges get scattered sideways. At the very acute angles that the sun’s rays are viewed when the sun is near the horizon, it’s these reds and oranges that reach our eyes.


Almost inevitably, sunsets are more dramatic and more brightly coloured than sunrises. Since the sun is entering and leaving the horizon at the same angles, it’s the amount of dust and other particulates (like pollution) that affect the colours. The more particles in the atmosphere intercepting light waves, the more light that gets broken up and scattered, the brighter the sunrise and sunset.


The reason sunrises tend to be paler, then, is because there’s less in the air. During the course of the day, activity by people puts dust, dirt and pollution into the air; it settles out, to some extent, at night. Also compounding this effect is that as the sun warms the earth it creates convection currents – winds – that stir things up into the atmosphere as well. Clouds and moisture can contribute to bright displays, which is likely the meaning behind “Red sky at morning, sailors take warning; red sky at night, sailor’s delight.” A red sky at night is just a reflection of the day’s dust, but a red sky in the morning is probably reflecting off the particles associated with a storm system.


Of course, the sky’s colours can also be affected by natural events such as volcanic eruptions, large wildfires, or dust storms, which throw immense amounts of dust and particulates into the atmosphere, too much to settle out quickly. Some events are so large in scale, such as the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, as to affect the atmosphere of the entire globe. Not surprisingly, though, and perhaps rather thankfully, these events are rare.


What we think of as a typical sunset doesn’t occur on planets other than our own. Differences in atmosphere composition and distance to the sun mean that the light refracts differently than it does in our own atmosphere. This is also why a blue sky is a novelty to our planet, and why the moon has no daytime sky at all (it lacks an atmosphere). High winds on Mars kick up sufficient dust high enough into the atmosphere to sometimes create a lingering red sunset that can last as long as two hours after the sun sinks below the horizon. However, without this dust in the air, the sunset there isn’t much to look at.


Another interesting sunset phenomenon is called the green flash. I’ve never seen it, and I’m unlikely to here. It happens just as the sun dips over the horizon, right at the cusp. The light waves break and scatter in just such a way, and the atmosphere is just dense enough at that angle, that for a brief period the sun’s rays glow green. They’re usually only seen on an unobstructed horizon, such as over a large lake or the ocean, or in the great plains. This is because the light needs to be traveling through the densest part of the atmosphere to create the effect, and this usually occurs close to the ground. Given all the forest surrounding us here I probably won’t be seeing one any time soon.


The problem with taking photos of things like sunsets is that you can amass a huge collection of them, since you’re tempted to photograph each and every one, because they’re all different. But then what do you do with them all? Well, I can share a few of my favourites from the last few weeks here, in any case.





The purple monster

Monarchs on Purple Loosestrife

It’s late August, and one of the most maligned flowers to be introduced to North America is blooming in wetlands and damp areas across the continent. The plant is Purple Loosestrife, Lythrum salicaria, and coinciding with the start of its blooming period I’ve been seeing posts on the colourful purple flowers popping up on many of the blogs I read. The general sentiment toward the plant is acknowledgment of its pretty purple blooms but antagonism towards its presence.

Purple Loosestrife, Lythrum salicaria

There have been big promotional campaigns toward its eradication. I remember as a kid my sisters and I joined my father pulling up some plants that had seeded themselves at the edges of our little swamp and the pond across the road (actually, what stands out most clearly about that afternoon was walking down my neighbour’s driveway to say hello to the woman, who was also pulling loosestrife, while swinging a just-pulled loosestrife plant, with a big clod of dirt at its base, by my side like a walking stick, and her alarmed reaction admonishing me as it would spread seeds). The website has the subheading, “A Beautiful Killer”. Talk about melodramatic! But it is the promoted notion of the plant.

Purple Loosestrife, Lythrum salicaria

But why loosestrife, over all the other widespread and incredibly invasive plants? The wildflowers in our roadsides and meadows are probably more than half introduced species (if my own observations are any indication), and yet no one’s crying for any of their metaphorical heads. Why has there been no campaigns to control Butter-and-eggs, or Viper’s Bugloss, for instance? There’s no shortage of invasive species; lists 694 exotic plant and 228 non-native insect species on their website as well as 43 other organisms. What makes loosestrife such a target? One reason might simply be its visibility, the bright purple flowers that really stand out in a wetland.

Interestingly, I’ve read a number of articles that have accused the anglers and hunters organizations as being the primary proponents of loosestrife eradication. Do a Google search for “purple loosestrife control” and the #2 site to come up is the page for OFAH (Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters) and #3 is, which, when you look closely, is hosted by Ducks Unlimited Canada. The latter is the #5 site returned by the search, and many of the others on the first page are government or conservation authority sites (I’ll refrain from painting all of these with the same brush, but will state that within the couple of authorities that I’ve had insider insight into, the majority of employees are themselves either hunters or anglers). Why would these organizations take such an interest in Purple Loosestrife? (Conversely, compare a search for Eurasian Watermilfoil, another terribly invasive aquatic species, and only one of the top ten – OFAH – is a hunting/fishing organization.) Only they know for sure, but the argument I’ve seen presented is that loosestrife creates denser habitat that’s harder for anglers and hunters to navigate through, and reduces their productivity on outings. (To be fair, that could all be a bunch of bunk presented by someone with anti-hunting sentiments; that’s the downside of the internet, it’s harder to tell fact from fiction.)

Purple Loosestrife, Lythrum salicaria

Of course, that’s not the story that’s given for controlling the spread of the species. Whether it was through anglers associations, governments, or other media lines, the general picture presented to the public is one of a ruthless invader, moving into and decimating wetlands (as illustrated by the subheader). We are told that if left unchecked it will completely take over wetlands at the expense of native species, forming near monocultures of a plant that’s non-native and therefore practically unusable by our native fauna. We’re lead to believe that if we don’t do something right away, that sprig of purple flowers you see at the edge of the cattail patch will, within a few years, have wiped the whole stand off the map.

Okay, maybe it’s my turn to lean towards the melodramatic, but it’s not that far from the truth. A lot of research has gone in to loosestrife control, and no fewer than four non-native loosestrife predators (two beetles and two weevils) have been approved for introduction across North America as a biocontrol method. OFAH states that these insects have been established at over 300 release sites across Ontario alone. They also state that these insects have no other known food items, and so their population will be limited by the availability of loosestrife, with the plant and insect eventually establishing a relatively stable relationship at low numbers. (This may be true. Of course, there’s also this saying – most famously stated by Dr. Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park – that nature will find a way.)

Purple Loosestrife, Lythrum salicaria

Of course, it all begs the question: Is all this hoopla really warranted? Is it really as bad as they say? In university, a chapter of one of my courses, Conservation Biology, examined the danger of accepting unproven hypotheses – that is, making assumptions without doing the background research. The example the professor presented for this section of the class? Purple Loosestrife. I don’t remember a lot of what I learned in university, but those lectures really stuck with me. Over the years and through several moves, however, my course notes got misplaced, so when I decided I wanted to do a post on Purple Loosestrife, I emailed my course prof and asked for some of the material pertaining to that segment of his course. He generously obliged with six papers he happened to have on hand on his computer.

American Lady on Purple Loosestrife

The papers are all dated within the last 10 years. They examine a number of common (and prior to that, unproven) assumptions regarding the plants, and actually carry out manipulative experiments (meaning that they manipulate the different variables involved in order to pinpoint the truth of the situation) or quantification studies (where they take samples from plots representing a range of loosestrife conditions, from absent to monoculture) to prove or disprove these assumptions.

The results show a number of things. The first and perhaps most important is that loosestrife, like so many introduced species, requires disturbed habitat to become established. Loosestrife seedlings would only take root and prosper in plots that were experimentally cleared of reed canary grass to simulate herbivore foraging disturbance; 53% of seeds sowed in such plots became established, while 0% became established in non-disturbed plots. A second study showed that in undisturbed habitats, loosestrife was unable to invade and establish itself, as seedlings can’t compete with established, mature native vegetation. However, once a disturbance creates a situation where the native vegetation is removed, allowing the seedlings a window of opportunity to get established, the mature loosestrife plants are able to prevent the young native plants from growing in again. This is where the problem really lies.

Purple Loosestrife, Lythrum salicaria

This information says to me that the wetlands where loosestrife is found are perhaps not the healthiest to begin with, if they are experiencing so much disturbance as to allow the invader to spread and turn into a monoculture. It could be a natural disturbance – say, severe harvesting of cattail roots by muskrats – but I rather suspect non-natural disturbances such as boats are also at least partially to blame. Perhaps it’s just coincidence, but in our shallow lake the corridors where the motorboats rip back and forth from one end of the lake to the other lack much vegetation on the lake bottom, while areas that don’t get much motorized traffic grow thick and weedy. But these are just my hypotheses, unproven by any sort of scientific research, of course!

Purple Loosestrife, Lythrum salicaria

As for the claim that loosestrife reduces local biodiversity, it simply isn’t true. One study showed that plant diversity in invaded habitats was actually higher than it was in stands without the loosestrife (and no, it’s not simply because the loosestrife is the additional species). They found that species richness also increased with increasing abundance of loosestrife. They pointed out that this raised the question as to whether loosestrife naturally preferred to invade more diverse stands, or if some factor of the loosestrife’s presence created that diversity; they don’t have an answer, but do point out that previous studies didn’t seem to show a preference for invading stands of either higher or lower diversity.

Twelve-spotted Skimmer on Purple Loosestrife

A second study of the same thing, but in a different location, showed no significant difference between plots with and without loosestrife, and no relationship between species diversity and loosestrife abundance. They did, however, observe that several species were significantly more likely to be found in plots containing purple loosestrife, but no species were significantly more likely to occur in plots without it (again, whether this is due to characteristics of the stand that make it appeal more to both loosestrife and the other species, or if it’s a direct result of the loosestrife’s presence, is the subject for future studies).

Another study looked at aquatic invertebrate diversity between plots with and without loosestrife, and found no significant differences, although they did note that the invertebrates in loosestrife stands tended to be a tad smaller than those found in plots without loosestrife. Whether this is due to dietary deficiencies, some characteristic of the habitat allowing larger bugs to get picked off leaving just small ones, or a local selective pressure toward overall smaller bug sizes, is for a future research project.

Purple Loosestrife, Lythrum salicaria

I’m pretty sure that, aside from our afternoon plucking plants that one year when I was young, the wetlands by my parents’ have had no control measures, no removal crews, no beetle releases. They also have no muskrats, no people, and no boats. And, they have very little Purple Loosestrife. Even fifteen years later there are still just the odd few plants here and there, mostly along the edge of the road; far from the monotypic stands broadly predicted among all the doom and gloom surrounding the species. Here at our new home, we have a couple plants that are blooming, standing singly at distances from each other, adding a bright splash of colour but hardly threatening the ecosystem.

Purple Loosestrife, Lythrum salicaria

I think the truth is somewhere in between. I suspect that there are instances, highly disturbed areas that suffer heavy herbivore and/or human activity, that will require human intervention to keep the opportunistic loosestrife from moving in to the compromised wetland. However, I don’t think, based on the research to date, the classifications the plant has received (“noxious weed”, “beautiful killer”, etc) are necessarily warranted. If we humans hadn’t muddled around with the wetlands in the first place, I strongly doubt that loosestrife would be as widespread and abundant as it is today; the low abundance of the plant in relatively untouched areas is evidence of this. Something to ponder next time you see these purple flowers growing at your local patch.

Flowers in my lawn

Yard full of wildflowers

We have a small lawn on one side of the house, an open area across half of the narrow plateau between the road and a steep hill or ridge that leads down to the water’s edge (the house is built on the other half). It’s deceptively large, perhaps covering 275 square meters (perhaps 3000 square feet) based on my pacing of it, but looking like it covers only about half that. I actually went out and re-paced it after doing the calculation and finding the result to be 3000 square feet, since my initial estimate when I first looked at it was 1200-1500. But, numbers don’t lie. Supposedly.

The landlord had mowed the lawn prior to showing the house back in mid-July, so the grass was short and tidy. However, when we moved in, we found that he’d taken the lawnmower with all his other possessions when he moved out. This hasn’t bothered us a whole lot; mowing the lawn has never been one of my favourite activities, and I’d rather leave most of it to grow up and provide nicer habitat for insects and other things than a short-trimmed lawn would. We’ll need to keep the trail down to the dock clear, but the rest can be left alone.

Since it’s been about a month and a half since the lawn was last cut, many plants that some would call “weeds” but I’d classify as “wildflowers” have sprung up and started blooming. I did a quick tour of the lawn cum wildflower meadow this afternoon. I tallied up 15 species that were in bloom in this small area – pretty amazing and a solid diversity of species for a little patch of lawn. These are what I found. My identification of some of these may be off, as I had to look a lot of them up in my field guide to get the specific species – feel free to correct me if I have it wrong!

Butter-and-eggs, Linaria vulgaris

Butter-and-eggs, Linaria vulgaris. Although it may not be the most common plant or wildflower in the lawn, it’s the one that had the most blooms. It’s an introduced species, of course, just like so many of our familiar wildflowers, and tends to favour disturbed habitats such as roadsides or managed fields – the lawn would fall into the latter category.

Cow Vetch, Vicia cracca, and Red Clover, Trifolium pratense

Also abundant is Red Clover, Trifolium pratense, shown here with Cow Vetch, Vicia cracca. Both of these are also Eurasian introductions that have established themselves well in eastern North America. In the case of Red Clover, it’s been extensively planted as a hay and pasture crop because it stores nitrogen in its roots which helps to improve soil fertility when used in rotation with other crops, and has escaped into suitable meadow habitats.

Low Hop Clover, Trifolium campestre

Low Hop Clover, Trifolium campestre, is abundant, though not many of the plants were actively blooming. Another flower that’s been introduced from Europe, it’s frequently found in lawns and gardens and other disturbed habitats.

Wild Basil, Clinopodium vulgare

There’s quite a bit of this stuff about, though like the Hop Clover much of it wasn’t in bloom (it looked like it was just finishing blooming). It had me a bit puzzled at first, and I was looking initially at the mints because the leaves had a noticeable scent when rubbed. After a bit of reading I finally decided it must be Wild Basil, Clinopodium vulgare, which is a member of the mint family, Lamiaceae, but not a mint specifically. Members of this family have the interesting characteristic of square stems. Unlike the previous species, this one is actually native to our area, but in the south has likely been introduced from Europe (why from Europe and not northern North America, I don’t know). Like the commercial basil, the leaves can be dried and used as seasoning, though they provide milder flavour than the commercial variety.

Daisy Fleabane, Erigeron annuus

I believe this one is Daisy Fleabane, Erigeron annuus. The fleabanes remind me of daisies or asters but with small flower heads with feathery-looking rays (the white petals). The group takes their name from the belief that drying the flower heads and placing them in the home could eliminate flea infestations.

Common St. John's Wort, Hypericum perforatum

This is a St. John’s Wort, I think Common St. John’s Wort, Hypericum perforatum. It’s another introduction from Europe that has spread across much of North America. It’s considered a noxious weed in many areasĀ  because if ingested it may cause photodermatitis, an increased sensitivity to sunlight much like the Giant Hogweed, not only in people who use it for other medicinal purposes but also in animals who graze on it. You’ll see “wort” in the names of many flowers, and it’s an old english word meaning, unsurprisingly, flower. The St. John’s Worts were so named because it was believed they bloomed on Saint John’s Eve, June 24.

Wavy-leaved Aster, Aster undulatus

I went back and forth on the ID of this one, before finally settling on Wavy-leaved Aster, Aster undulatus. It’s definitely an aster, but I find all the asters tricky to tell apart from one another. Like goldenrod, I think of asters as a fall flower, punctuating the end of the summer, set against the fiery colours of the changing leaves. If I ever have a wedding I’d like it to be in September, outdoors, set among a field of goldenrod and purple asters with red and yellow maple trees as a backdrop.

Sweet Goldenrod, Solidago odora

Speaking of goldenrod… There are many different species of goldenrod, even though we typically just lump them into a single category and label it goldenrod when we’re thinking of the plant. Really, though, there are some goldenrod that have lots of flower stems coming straight out from the main stalk, ones that have nicely arching flower stems with the flowers set along the top, others that have flowers so bunched together they look a little like loose yellow sumac clusters. Still, they can be tricky to separate. I think the arching flower stems on these ones make it Sweet Goldenrod, Solidago odora, but then again, my guide only lists Nova Scotia for its Canadian range, so who knows. I should point out that because goldenrods bloom at the same time as ragweed they’re often blamed for allergies, but actually goldenrod pollen is too heavy to cause allergy problems, since it doesn’t get carried on the wind.

Vipers Bugloss, Echium vulgare

There are a couple patches of this fuzzy-stemmed blue flower, Viper’s Bugloss, Echium vulgare. For those keeping track, this is the third wildflower I’ve mentioned that has vulgare or vulgaris as its species name. Although we tend to think of the word vulgar as meaning ugly, back when these plants were named it actually meant common, and Viper’s Bugloss is certainly that. The name Viper’s Bugloss (the latter word meaning “ox tongue”, which the plant’s leaves were thought to resemble) actually applies to the group, not just this one species, but it’s come to be associated with this species, at least around here. It also goes by the name Blueweed, but I’ve never heard it called that. It’s yet another European introduction, and shares the same habitat preferences as the first vulgaris I mentioned, Butter-and-eggs.

Yellow Wood Sorrel, Oxalis stricta

Yellow Wood Sorrel, Oxalis stricta. My guide states, “This plant is a cosmopolitan weed, perhaps originally native to North America.” In other words, it’s now so widespread that they don’t know where it started out from. It’s true it’s very common, you can find it just about anywhere, from roadsides, meadows, and your own garden, growing prolifically between your other plants.

Black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia hirta

This is a familiar flower to many, Black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia hirta. It’s the state flower of Maryland, and I tend to associate it with being the flower that makes up the blanket of flowers placed over the winner’s neck of the Preakness Stakes (which is run at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore). Like the Kentucky Derby has come to be known as “the run for the roses” for the blanket of roses placed across the winning horse, the Preakness is sometimes called “the run for the Black-eyed Susans” – somehow just not quite as catchy.

Queen Anne's Lace, Daucus carota

I cheated a bit on this one, these weren’t actually on our lawn, but directly across the road. Queen Anne’s Lace, Daucus carota. It’s funny, I think of this as a widespread flower typical of our roadsides and meadows, but it’s another introduction native to Europe. It’s the ancestor of the cultivated carrot that we eat for dinner, and in fact the Queen Anne’s Lace’s long central taproot can be eaten in much the same way.

Bladder Campion, Silene vulgaris

I’ve always loved the look of these. This is Bladder Campion, Silene vulgaris (another vulgaris!), so named for the distinctive bladder-like hollow balloons at the base of each flower. Another European native, the campions can be found abundantly along roadsides and in meadows throughout most of North America.

Carpet Bugleweed, Ajuga reptans

I couldn’t find this flower in my primary field guide, strangely, but believe it to be Carpet Bugleweed, Ajuga reptans. It often grows in dense mats that exclude even grass, my parents’ lawn has several patches of it. Many wildflowers have historical medical uses, long since forgotten and/or replaced by synthesized drugs; in the case of this one it was used to stem bleeding.


Finally, one last flower that I have no ID for. I’ve gone through both my field guides, and can’t see anything that seems to match quite right. It looks a little like a cinquefoil, but doesn’t have the notches in the petals that cinquefoil has. It also looks a bit like a buttercup, but none of the ones in my guide have gaps between the separate petals like this shows. So I dunno. I’m open to suggestions.

It’s quite a nice selection of flowers for a little patch of supposed lawn. I wonder what else is in there that just isn’t blooming right now.

Not-quite-a-thousand feet

Millipede, Narceus annularis

We’ve had some “trouble” with critters invading the house here; I put trouble in quotations because although they are more than just the odd bug here or there, they’re generally (except the mosquitoes) not going to eat much, and so I cheerfully tolerate them. They’ve mostly been invertebrates of one sort or another, although we have had a chipmunk come to visit a few times as I’ve left the front door standing open for extra light and air circulation and he’s snuck in while my back was turned (I’m sitting typing away at my computer and hear something playing with the knobs on the ends of the drawstrings for the blinds). When the front porch light is on in the evenings it can draw quite a collection of insects, not just moths, and opening the door to go in and out often draws them in with you.

The ones that I haven’t figured out where they come from, though, are the millipedes. I suppose they, like the chipmunk, could also make their way in through the open door while my back is turned, though they always turn up at weird times of the day, and in weird spots. I’ll be going to refill my drink from the kitchen, and there’ll be one trundling across the middle of the kitchen floor. Or in the entry hall (that we rarely use) or in various corners. They all seem to stay downstairs, though, I have yet to see one upstairs. The one in the photo above was properly outside, on the deck. Millipedes curl up like this, with their head tucked safely in the centre, for protection against the threat of predators. It’s a characteristic of the group, and yet, virtually all of these guys that I’ve picked up have refused to curl up, instead waving their head about to show their displeasure.

Millipede, Narceus annularis

I probably wouldn’t have noticed them at all or paid them much attention if it weren’t for their size. These millipedes are enormous. They’re members of the species Narceus annularis (closely related to and hard to tell apart from N. americanus, but Bev of Burning Silo, also a resident of eastern Ontario, indicates the former species is the one found here), which I’ve seen referred to on some websites as the American Giant Millipede. They’re not kidding with that label. The one in the photo above, while a larger individual, is not by any means the largest I’ve encountered here; the biggest ones can be as long as from the tip of my middle finger to the deep crease that crosses the middle of the palm of my moderately-sized woman’s hands. You would expect to find invertebrates of this size under the rocks of the tropical forests or in the tombs of the sort that Harrison Ford frequents from time to time, but it seems out of place in the middle of the temperate forests of eastern North America.

Millipede, Narceus annularis

In fact, this species is wide-ranging and relatively abundant. It’s found through much of the east, from Florida north into Ontario, and west as far as Texas. They generally inhabit moist deciduous forest floors, munching on decomposing leaf litter and other detritus, though Bev also suggests, based on her own observations, that they may also forage on wet mosses or dead animals. In any case, their mouthparts are designed for chewing on soft materials, and they are therefore incapable of biting.

It’s funny, but despite the wide range, it’s another one of those species, like the Common Loon, that I tend to think of as “northern”. My parents’ place, while a patchwork of trees and swamp and scrubby area itself, contains a little deciduous forest, and is surrounded by quite a bit more, including huge swaths that make up portions of the Bruce Trail (which incidentally happens to pass right by their front door – handy for enterprising young children who want to make a few bucks selling fresh apples to hikers). I can see no reason, based on the habitat descriptions I’ve read, why these millipedes wouldn’t be found at my parents’ place also, but they’re not. The only places I’ve encountered them have been at a friend’s cottage, and now here, both at more northern latitudes.

Millipede, Narceus annularis

They’re nocturnal foragers, and although I do encounter some during the day as they cross open spaces from one pile of leaves to another, I’ve seen the most, and certainly the largest, at night. As part of mothing activities I’ve spread a sweet mixture onto the trunks of a few trees to try to draw in nectar-feeding moths. So far all I’ve really succeeded in drawing in were a few earwigs – and dozens of millipedes. Even though it doesn’t seem much like their usual fare of decomposing organic materials, perhaps the smell of something fermenting (beer and a mushed-up banana are part of the mixture’s recipe) appeals to them.

Millipedes mating, Narceus annularis

They’re around all year, spending the winter buried under logs and bark, and coming out in the spring once it warms up. For most of the warm months they generally stick to the leaf litter, perhaps now and then crossing a trail or otherwise exposing themselves as they move from one place to another. However, they become increasingly easy to see during the months of August and September – that is, now, which is perhaps why I’ve seen so many since moving here. And this is why: these are the months where they start to get amorous and look toward increasing the population. As I went about checking the moth mixture for any actual moths, I discovered these two, tightly entwined in love’s embrace – or whatever passes for love to a millipede. I snapped a few shots but didn’t stop to ask.

Both male and female have internal structures called gonopores on their 3rd body segment (the first being the head) where the eggs and sperm are created.The legs on 7th segment of the male (the larger of the two here; you can see the gap in his legs created by the shortened 6th set of legs, on his 7th segment, actually clearer on the original photo) are modified into mating appendages called gonopods (gono, of course from the same root as gonads, and pods, meaning feet) that the male uses to guide the spermatophore to the appropriate location. To transfer the spermatophore to his 6th set of legs the male curls his head down to his body so he can reach. The female has normal legs on her 7th segment, since she’s not guiding sperm anywhere, at least not externally.

Females make an underground nest that they line with what’s effectively millipede poop, using the folds on their “tail” segment to smooth it into shape. They lay their eggs in this chamber, usually a few hundred. The eggs hatch and, depending on the species, the larvae may remain in the nest for up to the first three instars (growth stages as separated by skin-sheddings).

Millipede, Narceus annularis

This one seems to be a female, having just normal legs on its seventh segment.

Check out all those little legs. Every one of the millipede’s body segments have two pairs of legs, with the exception of the head and “tail” segments, and the first four behind the head, which have just a single pair of legs each. Despite their name, millipedes never have a thousand legs; even the species with the most numerous appendages top out at “just” 750. On average for this species is maybe somewhere around a couple hundred.

Millipede, Narceus annularis

I counted up the segments on this individual that I found; it has 49 segments with two pairs of legs each, and four segments with one pair of legs each, for a total of 102 pairs of legs, or 204 legs total. And I have trouble just coordinating my two sometimes! They move their legs in the same way an earthworm moves its body, with undulating waves of footsteps that you can sort of get an inkling of from the photo of the one on my palm.

Millipede, Narceus annularis

They have eyes that resemble the compound eyes of flies and other insects, but are really just simply flat-plated occelli arranged into a group. Different species have different numbers of occelli; I did a quick count and this one seems to have about 35. The eyes aren’t good for much more than sensing light and dark, and perhaps basic shadows, they can’t detect shape or detail like an insect’s compound eye. Millipedes also have short little antennae that they use for sensing their immediate surroundings, and, in some species, possibly detecting the pheromones of the opposite sex, as well.

You can’t really see it well in any of the photos I have here, although if you look closely at the ones mating you can sort of detect it, but along their sides millipedes have small little breathing holes called spiracles. They use these as nostrils of sorts, but some species will also exude a noxious substance containing hydrogen cyanide, which can burn and discolour the skin, an effective defense against most predators. Supposedly (I found out after the fact) Narceus sp. are among this group of species, but of all the ones I’ve handled, not one has secreted anything, noxious or not.

Millipede, Narceus annularis

Like all hard invertebrates, millipedes wear their skeleton on the outside – it has the appropriate name of exoskeleton. This is the main reason insects shed their skins as they grow, they don’t have the means for the skeleton to grow along with the body, so when things start getting tight inside, they ditch the old skeleton and form a new one. Millipedes add a few extra segments (and therefore extra legs) with each successive moult. I found this shed exoskeleton (or possibly the empty skeleton of a dead individual) when I rolled over a log in my hunt for millipedes to photograph.

Millipedes are an ancient group of organisms, with the oldest fossils dating back some 420 million years, almost twice as long ago as the earliest dinosaurs. There are an estimated 80,000 species of millipede in the world today, of which only 10,000 or so have been described by science. Of these, about 1,400 are found in North America north of Mexico. There are 14 species of Narceus, all found east of the Rocky Mountains, and most in the southeastern part of the continent. Up here in Ontario we seem to have just the one, N. annularis, with N. americanus found in other parts of the northeast. Still, with something this big, one is really all you need.

Get out and look!

Small Mocis

Back in the fall I spent many nights at Tommy Thompson Park in Toronto with a sheet and blacklight, looking for moths. I caught many, all, of course, new for me, since I was just getting into moths and wasn’t familiar with anything yet. But I also caught a few less common species, and some notable things. The above moth is a Small Mocis, Mocis latipes, a very rare vagrant up from the States into Ontario. I gather there’s just a handful of records for the species in the province. And I got two that season!

So why do I mention this now, in August?

Shy Cosmet by Wanderin' Weeta
Shy Cosmet, photo taken by Susannah at Wanderin’ Weeta

A couple days ago I got a note from Susannah over at Wanderin’ Weeta (With Waterfowl And Weeds) that she’s finally got some results from an experiment she’d begun back in the winter. She had read my post back in the winter about the cattail caterpillar, the lavae of a moth that makes cattail heads go all fluffy during the winter. She had also noticed fluffy cattail heads where she lives in the Lower Fraser Valley of BC, and decided to investigate. All online resources indicated that the Shy Cosmet, the moth whose larvae I found in my cattail heads, did not occur as far west as BC, so when she found caterpillars in her cattail heads, she contained them so she could see what they turned into. The answer? Shy Cosmets. The species was not listed on the recently-revised 2008 version of the checklist of lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) of BC, and folks at E-Fauna BC are checking in with the experts to see if there are any other known records for the species there. It’s quite possible that Susannah has the first documented record for the province!

Wasp sp. by Bootstrap Analysis
Undescribed wasp sp., photo taken by Julie at Bootstrap Analysis

Then today, Julie at Bootstrap Analysis made a post about some wasps she found in her yard. Back in the fall she started a personal project to document all the wasps, bees and flies that she found in her yard – not all that different from someone who keeps a list of the birds or the butterflies that visit their garden (and I’m sure Julie does that, too). Aside from discovering some wild-looking species using her yard, she also found a new state record that fall in the grass-carrying wasp Isodontia elegans. Also last fall she found the above wasp which, when she couldn’t identify it, she posted to for help. It turned out it was a relatively new species to science – it hadn’t even been described yet (all species have a formal “description” that is published wherein they’re given a scientific name and the details of the species that differentiate it from others are laid out, as well as other known characteristics and behaviour). The species was identified on by a professor at the University of Guelph (my alma mater!) as a new one he was collecting data on, and will be formally described by him in the near future.

International Rock-flipping Day

September 7 has been designated as International Rock-flipping Day. The event was inaugurated last year by Dave at Via Negativa, and went so well they’re doing it again. Dave and co-coordinator Bev of Burning Silo encourage everyone to go out on Sept 7 and flip a rock or two (or three or four if you’re having fun. Record and/or photograph what you find and send the results to Dave and Bev, whereupon they’ll gather everyone’s responses into a single spot and send it out to participants. You can post the results to your blog, put them up on your Flickr or other photo account, or, if you don’t have an online presence, simply send them off to Bev who’ll put them up on her site. Beyond just being a lot of fun, the project also has the potential to contribute to science by documenting species in places they haven’t been seen before, or behaviours that haven’t been observed, or other valuable information. More details at the official IRFD page.

So what’s the point of this whole post? That no matter what your expertise, no matter where you are, where you live, whether you have acres of land, a little backyard, or a balcony, you can still make valuable observations. It’s likely that all the big vertebrates have been recorded for your area, but there are thousands of invertebrates that are often overlooked because of their size and habits, plants that blend in to the rest of the foliage, and behaviours of animals large and small that are always interesting to observe and important to document. The one key ingredient to having success and finding things, though? You have to get out there and look! Isaac Newton was probably the only person to have science come to him…

The long and winding road

Winding road

That’s certainly what our road is – long and winding. It was our first introduction to the area as we drove up to view the house, and all of our visitors comment on it as well. The road seems to go on for much longer than you expect it to before you reach your destination, and it’s the twists and turns in it that really make it feel that way. If you were driving up from town along a straight road it would probably go by pretty quickly.

The combination of the gravel surface and the winding route slows traffic down, though, what little there is that traverses this road. The crunch of gravel under tires can also be heard for quite some distance before the car is actually upon you, so even though the shoulder is fairly minimal, it’s still a great road for walking down. Blackburnian and I had gone out a couple times for short walks down the road, but only a short distance.


For the most part, the hiking I’ve done along the road only passed by forest. Near our house the landscape is nearly entirely forested, with the exception of a few scrubby areas underneath the power line corridors, or around the scattered houses along the road. The forest seems fairly young, though, with few large, old trees growing in it. Further evidence of its history as agricultural land early last century are the split-rail fences that line the road, tucked into the edge of the forest. These fences are found throughout the area, and I really like them, I think they add a lot more character than newer wooden board fencing does.


Yesterday as a break from work I decided to walk down as far as a large open field that I pass regularly when driving in to town. With some stopping and birding and photography along the way it took me about half an hour, which was a nice easy hike.

Further south toward town you come down off the shield and the land levels out. There’s lots of agriculture and pasture down there, but once you’re up on the shield it’s mostly forest and lakes. There are a few areas where enough land has been cleared (or was already naturally cleared) to create a reasonably-sized pasture. These areas aren’t common, though, particularly in the area around our house. So I’d been eyeballing these meadows thinking what interesting things might be happening there that I’d like to check out.

Poison Ivy

Overlooked when just driving by but more obvious when walking, the fields had no trespassing signs posted that discouraged me from hopping the fence and wandering through the grass. Also rather discouraging were the blankets of poison ivy that lined the road edges. I know that I don’t react to poison ivy, but I also know that you’re not guaranteed of continued immunity forever, and I’d rather not push my luck.

American Goldfinch

So I couldn’t get really close to the American Goldfinches in the fields, but the long lens on the camera meant I could at least get a photo. There were a few pairs of goldfinches moving about among the thistle stands, feeding on the seeds that would be maturing about now. Goldfinches would for the most part be at the height of breeding right now, and this is why – they delay their nesting to coincide with the maturation of thistle heads, which provide fluffy down for nest lining and abundant food for the adults and young.

Common Yellowthroat

Where the fencing ran along the edge of the road there were a few tangles of shrubs and grapevines that provided good cover for birds. The goldfinches would pop in these occasionally, and I encountered a shy American Redstart who wouldn’t stay out long enough for me to get a photo. I also played hide and seek with this young Common Yellowthroat. He’d hop around inside the grapevine tangle and periodically poke his face out where I could see him. He seemed generally unconcerned by my presence, providing I didn’t get too close.

Common Yellowthroat

After some patient waiting, he flew up to the top of one of the fenceposts, where he posed long enough for me to run off a few shots of him. Being right next to the road, I was able to get some nice clear photos that the other birds I encountered weren’t obliging enough to provide for me.

Indigo Bunting

After spending some time watching the goldfinches in the field, I turned around to start heading back, and back to work. Just as I was nearing the corner of the field I happened across a large flock of birds. I couldn’t tell what most of them were, so I started pishing to draw them out. Well. That did not go over well with this guy. I assume there were little Indigo Bunting fledglings somewhere nearby and he was getting upset over my presence, and further aggravated by my pishing. He sat there and chipped and chipped at me for a bit, before retreating to a shrub a bit further back. You can actually see in this photo he’s eating a seed at the same time as telling me how upset he is with me.

Black-capped Chickadee

The chickadees, on the other hand, are more curious than upset. You can almost always get a flock of chickadees to come in to check you out when you pish at them, and they’ll come in remarkably close if you’re standing in vegetation – almost too close for me to focus on with my 300mm lens. Eventually, once they determine that it’s just some crazy kook making weird noises with her mouth, they move away and carry on with whatever they’d been doing at the time.

Chipping Sparrow

The Chipping Sparrows were also curious about what was going on. In fact, the only birds to really be alarmed were the buntings. There were lots of chippers about, they seemed to make up the bulk of the flock. It’s interesting that they’ve been the most abundant sparrow in our area, it surprises me a bit. I would have expected Song or White-throated to be more common in our predominantly forested area, as I think of chippers as shrub birds, but I guess early successional forests have a lot of undergrowth that would suit them well, too. We’re also in the primary hotspot for Eastern Towhees in the province, but have only heard one since we arrived; I expect we’ll see more when they start to migrate.

Black-and-white Warbler

In with the chickadees and chippers was this lone Black-and-white Warbler. She came in and checked me out initially, then, as the chickadees did, decided I was of no real concern. However, instead of moving away again, she sat on her branch and preened for a while. A bird’s feathers are its lifeline; they’re necessary for flight and for insulation (warmth in cool weather, cooling in warm weather), as well as social signals that indicate the bird’s status and health. Because they’re so important, birds will spend hours every day doing nothing but preening their feathers to make sure they’re in good working order.


August really is the slowest time of the year for birding, so I’m encouraged by the activity I saw there yesterday, of primarily post-breeding dispersals. Once migration starts I’ll be interested to see what else turns up along those hedgerows and in the fields. I’m also looking forward to seeing what breeders we have around when everyone returns to set up shop next spring.

Go fish


Go fish, a card game played mostly by kids, characterised by the action of drawing a card from the pool when your opponent didn’t have what you asked for. You would tell the other person, “go fish.” It wasn’t “draw a card” or “pick up a card” or even simply “nope, sorry.” Perhaps the statement reflected on the fact that, just as with fishing, when you put your hand into the pile you never knew what you were going to come out with.

It’s the thing that really appealed to me about bird banding, or about mothing – setting something up to catch things in your absence, and then returning to see what you’ve got. And you could get anything, within reason. You never knew what would be there on the next check: a common robin, a secretive thrush, a bejeweled warbler, a powerful sharp-shinned hawk. An aberrant plumage, a first of the season, a bird you’ve never seen before.

Strange black spots on the fins. Most Pumpkinseed I’ve seen have perhaps a couple, this one is peppered with them. Sunfish supposedly do sometimes hybridize, so perhaps this individual is a hybrid?

With fishing, the diversity is lower than with birds or moths, but the premise is the same. You put your lure into the water, pull it up when something bites, see what you get. In our lake here we have seven species that we’ve caught ourselves, plus one more that we caught in the neighbouring lake but is also supposed to inhabit ours. This morning a friend of mine who was visiting caught what could potentially be a ninth species for the lake. In neighbouring lakes we also know of three or four additional species that require deeper waters and so don’t venture into our shallow lake.

A dozen is a rather meager number compared to the 150+ species of birds we anticipate tallying over the year, and the potentially 1000 species of moths I might get if we remain here for a while. Still, when you compare it to the total of six mammals we’ve seen here so far, it’s not too bad. Part of the surprise is also the size and colouration, depending on the species. The Bluegill of yesterday’s post are a good example of that.

Largemouth Bass

Most serious anglers (and probably mostly men) target the big species, trying to land something bigger than their friends, competitors, or even simply than their previous best. The above species is a Largemouth Bass, and is considered one of these big target species. The related Smallmouth Bass is also often sought after. The latter we’ve only caught one of, from our neighbour lake, even though it’s supposedly here, too. Largemouth, on the other hand, are fairly common. We have little Largemouth fry hanging about our dock in the weeds, and you’ll often see small ones schooling with sunfish. The big guys, though, you rarely see until they’re on the end of your line. Interestingly, bass are also part of the sunfish family; you can’t see it in this photo, but they have the same sharp spines to their dorsal and anal fins.

Northern Pike

This is the other big fish in our lake that is often a target species for anglers. This is a Northern Pike, and is unique among the fish in our lake in that it has sharp, pointy teeth, so you have to be careful not to let it take a snap at you when you’re handling it. They’re also long and skinny, and powerful, so they can slip out of your grasp quickly if you’re not paying attention. Pike are generally lurkers, hanging out under a log or beside a rock, in the shadows, waiting for an unsuspecting little fish to swim by, where they dart out and snatch it up. You need a bigger lure to even interest these guys, and they’re usually so well hidden that you can’t spot them just looking for them. The other relatively common toothy fish around here is Walleye, so named for its pale irises. We don’t have any Walleye in our lake, but there are supposedly some in the one just the other side of the road.

Black Crappie

There are fisherpeople who target species other than the big ‘uns. Crappie are a favourite alternative; this one is a Black Crappie, but there are also White. They’re characterized by their snouty appearance and humped back (hard to see with a thumb on his jaw). They’re supposedly more active at dusk and dawn, and I’ve caught nearly all of mine at dusk in the centre of the lake. Because of these habits it’s another one of those species that you don’t know you’ve got it till you pull up the line. It seems that the pronunciation of the name is a matter of some debate. Blackburnian and I pronounce it to rhyme with “happy”, but many people (maybe those who feel kindly toward the unfortunately-named fish?) pronounce it to rhyme with “poppy”. The origin of the name is just as uncertain, but one website I found suggested it was a corruption of the French word “Creppe”, a thin French pancake, perhaps referring to the fish’s shape and edibility, and likely dating back a couple centuries. They’re also lumped in with the “panfish” group, but are a little larger in body, and have a much larger mouth that allows you to gently grasp their lower jaw. A colloquial name for the species is “papermouth”, and you can get an idea of why from this photo – it looks a little like a chinese lantern.

Rock Bass

Somewhat similar in appearance but with a brilliant ruby-red eye is the Rock Bass. These aren’t a very abundant fish on our lake, and we’ve caught less than half a dozen, I think. They’re about the same size as the crappie, but while the crappie I’ve caught have been in the middle of the lake, the Rock Bass have all been under or near “structure” – docks, fallen trees and logs. Despite that they tend to be in shallower water, where they’ll often associate with schools of sunfish, I haven’t seen them just by looking into the water the way I have with the sunfish species. It’s amazing how much a fish can blend in when you’re standing out of the water looking down at it. Really it’s remarkable that birds like kingfishers and Osprey have so much success fishing. They are also in the sunfish family and so are related to the Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass, but not as closely as the latter two are to each other.

Yellow Perch

And finally, the last species to be identified from our lake, Yellow Perch. This is a particularly little individual, I’ve actually caught some that were as much as eight or ten inches. However, the smaller mouths and long, narrow shape means the species is tricky to hold on to for a photo – as soon as they give a twitch of that powerful tail, they’re gone. This photo really shows off the yellow well, some fish are more grayish, but all have that bold tiger-striping. They have very distinctive red pelvic and anal fins, the ones that hang from the belly, which unfortunately don’t show very well here. These guys also have spines on their dorsal fin, but the spiny part is distinctly separate from the soft part. Perch are in the same order as sunfish so share some characteristics, but are a different family.

I’ll have to write more about some of these species in another post, particularly the sunfish species that I enjoy watching. This evening as I write this, Blackburnian has gone out in the boat with his rods for some quiet time. I wonder what he’s been catching? That’s the great thing about it, you never know.