Monthly Archives: April 2010

Out to lunch

Porcupine

There are, of course, lots of birds around at Innis Point. That’s the whole reason we’re there, after all: to monitor the birds. What I wasn’t expecting there to be lots of was porcupines. Spring is their season, the time of year when they’re most likely to be encountered, although I’m not exactly sure why this is the case, since they’re active year round. Even still, prior to this year I’d only ever seen the odd one here or there, and most of them tended to be in the form of roadkill, sadly. I spotted one in our own woods while out with Raven last week (fortunately, she hadn’t seen it yet and I steered her the other way before she had a chance to; Dan came across one with her a couple days later and wasn’t so lucky with the timing, though he was still able to call her away before she actually made contact with it), but have just seen the one. Out at Innis we’ve seen them every day. One day there were as many as four of them spotted around the site. One of them was especially laid-back, allowing me to approach within a couple dozen feet while it calmly continued foraging. I guess it has a lot of confidence in its protection.

Porcupine

They’ve mostly been up in the big, gnarly oak trees. They clamber along the thick, sturdy limbs, reaching out to the little twigs to snip the tender green buds off. Their hands seem to be remarkably dexterous, reminding me a lot of the fingered feet of raccoons.

Porcupine

They reach out with their broad paws to snag the twigs and bend them back to where they can easily reach the buds. Check out the long, thick claws. They and the rough pads would be useful in gripping the tree as the animal clambers about. Also for hauling that huge bulk straight up the trunk. On my way back from the washroom one morning I heard a rustling in the underbrush and spotted a porc approaching in my direction. It hadn’t seen me, so I stopped and watched it for a few minutes. It wandered to a small line of young trees, approaching the base of each and giving each a good sniff as it decided whether it was worth climbing. It passed by two trees in favour of the third, which was of a different species. I found it fascinating that it could apparently tell the difference just by smelling the trunk.

Porcupine

Porcupines are rodents, and one of the obvious features that they share with members of the group is the evergrowing, sharp orange teeth; they’re not dissimilar from beaver teeth. Since part of their diet, especially in winter, consists of the inner bark of tree trunks (which requires chewing through the outer bark to get at), these teeth come in especially handy.

Porcupine

When the twigs were too long for simply bending the branch to bring the buds within reach, the porcupine put its teeth to good use. It would bend the twig down…

Porcupine

…and then chew through the twig to remove it from the tree. Then it would manipulate it with its hands and snip off the buds before finally dropping the denuded twig.

I’ve written a bit about porcupines before, discussing their ecology a bit more in-depth. You can find previous posts here, here and here.

Advertisements

Painted Turtle

Painted Turtle

As I was returning home yesterday, on a beautiful, warm, sunny afternoon, I turned onto our road to spot a turtle shuffling off the edge into the grasses. Though it wasn’t necessary for me to hop out to move him, I hopped out anyway, with my camera. The warm sun had kicked his metabolism into high gear, and he had no intentions of just pulling into his shell and waiting for me to finish playing with him. He dug his claws in and motored away from me. Even when I picked him up and moved him back to the open road to try for a photo, he was too quick to get anything but his backside as he turned away from me and ran off again. When I picked him up to hold him for the camera, he looked boldly right at me. I’m calling it a him, but I admit that none of the photos I took clearly show the characteristics that would separate a him from a her: presence or absence of a notch in the back of the shell, and the position of the cloaca underneath the tail. A notched shell and the cloaca partway down the tail would make this a him. It’s still a tad early for females to be out looking for nest sites, but if this was a male then he might be on the hunt for females to mate with; I’m not sure what the “gestation” time is for a turtle. Raven found a Painted Turtle at the lake house last year, and I wrote more about it, including other notes on behaviour and physical characteristics, in this post.

On banding birds

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yesterday I started a new job, running the spring migration monitoring program for Innis Point Bird Observatory on the Ottawa River. It’s a short-term contract, running until June (the length of the spring migration, unsurprisingly), but during that period I’ll be out there six days a week. Even after just two days, I’m quickly realizing that my available time is going to be considerably more limited than it was before, and I’m going to have trouble keeping up with everything, at least as I do it now. So, at least for the time being, I’ll be scaling back my blog posts a bit; instead of doing the occasional “Tay Meadows Tidbit”, they’ll all be tidbits, and I’ll do away with the title (which would just get repetitive). Now let’s just hope I can keep my rambly fingers in check!

Common Grackle

Common Grackle

The focus of the migration monitoring program is to monitor birds, of course. It’s a bird banding program, where birds are captured using standardized methodology that allows for comparison of results over many years. Data is collected for each bird caught, including age and sex, weight and fat levels. The former two measurements tell us something about the demographics of the population, which can be useful in detecting and assessing population trends. For instance, if a particular species starts showing a lower-than-normal proportion of young birds in the captured sample, it’s a suggestion that they’re having trouble reproducing successfully, perhaps due to poor breeding seasons because of weather conditions, or because of environmental problems that are causing increased chick mortality. The latter two measurements (weight and fat) are used in assessing the health of the birds arriving at the station. Low weights and fat levels are generally an indication of a bird that’s just arrived from a long flight, but if it doesn’t bulk up quickly in preparation of its next leg (which is detectable through recaptures of the birds again before they leave the site to carry on) then it could be the bird is in poor health, or it’s having trouble finding food. Over and above all that, though, is simply a documentation of the numbers of each species banded. If you start to notice long term trends – for instance, you band fewer of a species now than you did ten years ago – it’s probably cause for concern. The migration monitoring is especially useful for bird species that nest in the boreal, north of what’s sampled by the Breeding Bird Survey, since it’s often the only reliable means of monitoring their populations.

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow

Of course, each bird also gets fitted with a band that will identify where and when it was banded if it should ever be encountered again. Historically banding was used as a way to track migration routes and patterns, but fewer than one of every 1000 birds banded is ever seen again away from the site where it was banded. That’s pretty slim returns; you have to band a heck of a lot of birds to get even a small sample size. Still, hundreds of banders banding over several decades have built up a pretty good database of re-encounters, and these days we’ve got a decent idea of where birds go. The focus of banding has shifted to population monitoring, as explained above. The bands are still useful for this, though. A substantially higher percentage of birds are recaptured again between their first banding and when they leave the site to finish their migration. By recording their weight and fat levels again next time they’re encountered (for which you need a band in order to be able to identify individuals again) it’s possible to track how the birds are faring and how well the site fulfills its role as a stopover location.

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

Sunday Snapshots – Promises kept

Red Trillium

Red Trillium

Bloodroot

Bloodroot

Dutchman's Breeches

Dutchman's Breeches

Hepatica

Hepatica

Spring Beauties

Spring Beauties

Bloodroot and Spring Beauties

Bloodroot and Spring Beauties

Tay Meadows Tidbit – Blister beetle

blister beetle

A week or two ago, Dan discovered a large, shiny blue beetle crawling through the grass on our lawn and called me out to see it. Even before investigating I had a fair idea of what it was: a blister beetle, of the genus Meloe. This isn’t the first one I’ve seen, and it isn’t even the first one Dan’s found for me – last fall he brought me a male one. The one above is a female; you can tell the difference by the antennae, since the males have a U-shaped kink in theirs, which they use for grasping the female during mating, and those of the female are straight. Females also have larger abdomens. Blister beetles are so named for the liquid they exude from their joints when startled or threatened, which contains a chemical called cantharidin. There are some third-party beetle species which will collect the cantharidin from blister beetles and use it as a sperm additive (putting it into the sperm packet they transfer to the female); when she lays her eggs, the eggs are coated in this protective chemical. Humans use the chemical too, but for less honest purposes – it’s used in making the aphrodisiac/date-rape drug “Spanish Fly”. I wrote more about blister beetles when I found my first one; you can read a bit more here.

Perks and perils of pooches

Raven

I have found having a dog to be a mixed blessing, when it comes to nature observation. On the one hand, if it weren’t for the dog, I can be fairly sure that I wouldn’t be outside as often, or at least not hiking away from the house. It’s not that I’m lazy or don’t want to go out, but simply that I tend to get caught up in things, and before I know it the afternoon has passed and it’s dinnertime and then it’s dark, and then it’s another day. At least, with the concern of ensuring that Raven gets at least a little exercise each day, I pay more attention to the clock and making sure I get out. Dan takes her some days, but not always. Perhaps it also makes it feel less like I’m skipping chores to go play in the sun: walking the dog is a necessary to-do item.

But then, on the other hand, having a dog along for hikes isn’t the most conducive way to appreciate nature. Birds are flushed well before you get close enough to spot them yourself; mammals are chased; those interesting plants that you wanted to investigate are romped through; as you’re peering into the creek to check out some movement you’d observed you get splashed with muddy water. She’s just being a dog, of course, and I really can’t fault her for having fun. I vaguely recall days when I used to have fun with wild abandon like that, some twenty-odd years ago. But occasionally, usually when thwarted from making some interesting nature observation, I feel like throwing my hands up in frustration and crying, “Raven – you’re such a dog!”

river

I had one of those moments yesterday. I’d taken her for her usual outing. Dan had already exercised her a bit earlier, throwing the ball with her out on the driveway (the only way we’ve found to effectively and completely drain her energy), but it’s not much for mental stimulation so I was just going to take her to the back of the property and back, a change of scenery. As I approached the rear forest, I thought perhaps I’d carry on and do a loop through the 100-acre woods; walking purposefully I could do the loop in about 45 minutes, which was about all I really wanted to spend on break from working, and she likes the forest better than the fields (so do I). But then, when I reached the railbed trail, I changed my mind again. Instead of turning right towards the woods, I turned left. I had no destination in mind, simply to follow it a ways. It goes much farther than I would be capable of going in a single outing.

I paused at this little creek that flows under a small bridge in the trail. It was lower than I had expected, the result of the reduced spring runoff and small amount of rain we’ve had so far this spring. Probably in most years it would be flood over the banks a little ways, into the long brown grass on either side. Below the bridge was a deeper spot, a little pool, and I watched for a bit a few fish, chub and minnows and the like, as they gently swam against the current, holding their position relative to the creek bottom. I stood there a while, contemplatively, enjoying the sunshine; Raven busied herself with sniffing things along the trail edges. We don’t, for the most part, put her on a leash in the winter since there’s not much in the way of wildlife for her to disturb, but it’s reaching the time where we’ll have to dig it out again. So she was wandering back and forth, smelling all the interesting smells.

River Otter

I spotted this guy as a shape coming down the river at first. I thought it was perhaps a beaver or a muskrat, but as it drew closer I realized it was neither. Instead, the shape resolved itself into a River Otter. About the moment where I realized with a start that it was an otter, only my second-ever sighting of the species, Raven also noticed it. This was also Raven’s second-ever sighting of an otter; I’m not sure if she recalled the entertaining first encounter, or if it was simply an interesting creature that vaguely resembled other four-legged creatures she knew, but either way she was keen to go down and say hello.

I’m quite sure she had only friendly overtures on her mind, as her response to seeing the animal wasn’t the same as how she responds to seeing a chipmunk or squirrel or even rabbit. But I was likewise sure the otter wouldn’t see it that way. I didn’t want to disturb the otter, but Raven wasn’t on a leash. I called to her to come; it gave her pause, but she wasn’t completely dissuaded, and she stood hesitantly at the edge of the slope leading down to the water, one food in the air, tail wagging slightly. I had to call her three times, each time successively louder and firmer, before she finally, reluctantly, turned away from the curious creature and came to sit by me.

River Otter

Unfortunately, she wasn’t the only one to have finally heard me. The otter turned and made for the bank, crawling out of the water and through last year’s dried reeds. He (or she) scampered across the floodplain to the woods a short distance away, moving in long, lanky bounds. It was a little strange to see a single, solitary otter, as I tend to think of them as moving at least in pairs, if not family groups. It was also strange to see an otter bounding into the forest, which seemed about as weird a combination of animal and habitat as anything out here. They do actually use a variety of wet habitats, from larger lakes to ponds to deep swamps to flowing watercourses, but I’m pretty sure upland forest isn’t on the list.

River Otter

Just the fact that there was an otter in our little creek thrilled me no end, since they’re disappeared from the rural area outside of Toronto where I grew up. They’re nearly gone from Ontario south of the Canadian Shield as land development, for both residential and agricultural purposes, has changed the landscapes and, usually, the watersheds beyond what they can use. Aside from habitat, they need a healthy stream that supports a good population of fish and/or crayfish and other tasty morsels for food. The fish population seemed to be doing quite well in our creek, judging by the dozen or so individuals I saw through the glare on the water. I do hope that it’s a permanent resident here and I might happen to see it again on walks.

River Otter

I was disappointed as I watched it bound away; I had been hoping if I stayed still and quiet it might not realize I was there, and carry on down the creek below me, perhaps even diving for fish in the small pool below the bridge. I chastised myself for not having Raven on a leash, by which I could’ve simply pulled her to me. I was frustrated that she hadn’t come on the first, quieter command, when the otter was farther away and may have been less likely to hear. She did come, in the end, though, so I couldn’t be too upset with her. She can be such a dog, but her excuse is that she is a dog.

Raven

And anyway, who could stay angry at a face like that.
(Photo by Dan.)

Digging in the garden

garden

Inspired by the bounty of fresh produce picked up through our CSA last year, as well as the convenience of a few different veggies such as lettuce or peas being grown in our landlady’s veggie garden (she said we could help ourselves; she wouldn’t be collecting it all), I’m planting the garden again this year with a variety of items. I started many of the seeds early, indoors, and have just recently been getting coordinated enough to transfer the hardy stuff outdoors, as well as plant the cold-tolerant items. First things first: I had to get a fence up around the perimeter of the 350 sq ft space – not so much to keep the deer or rabbits out (we had no trouble with either last summer) as the dog (who doesn’t stop her mad gallop where the trail ends, and is happy to dig, too, if you are). It took a while to find the time to get this done, as it required a full afternoon. Finally, the fences went up last week, using odds and ends we found around the sheds. With the perimeter established, I could move on to the actual ground prep.

Mining bee

The delay in getting started allowed some other critters to take up residence first. As soon as the ground had thawed out and was warm enough to dig in, I started seeing bees buzzing about the sandy plot, low to the ground. I knew what they were, from having encountered something similar last spring: they’re mining bees, family Andrenidae, probably genus Andrena. Although there are many different species of mining bee, which will fly at different times of the year, most of this genus are active in the spring.

Mining bee burrow

Probably most or all of the bees in the garden plot are females, busy working on nest sites. The bees are solitary, meaning each female builds her own nest without help of others, and provisions it herself. The fact that there were literally dozens of them in this small area is simply because they need exposed soil in order to start digging their nest. This doesn’t have to be a large expanse; I saw a few bees digging in tiny thumb-sized bits of dirt out in our lawn, too. But the garden, having very little vegetation, was really an ideal location. The female bees pick out a spot and start digging tiny tunnels into the soil. These are usually branching, and each branch ends in a small chamber where the female lays an egg.

Mining bee

She’ll then provision the egg (or, more accurately, the larva, once it hatches) with pollen and nectar that she’s collected up from spring wildflowers. You can see all the pollen clinging to the hairs on the legs of this bee as she heads back to the burrow she’s dug. She may need to make many trips to fully provision her burrows. Once a cell has both egg and pollen she’ll close it off, and the larva is left to develop on its own over the summer.

Mining bee

At one point, as I was sitting and waiting for somebody to land and stay still long enough for me to take a photo or two, one bee swooped down and landed on the one I was stalking. I only got one quick, blurry photo, unfortunately, so it wasn’t completely clear what was going on here. A male arriving to mate with a female? One female expressing displeasure at the presence of another? Disputing a land claim, perhaps?

Mining bee

Unfortunately, I needed to rake out the ground to prepare it for planting. Weeds had grown up since the end of the last growing season, and the earth needed to be loosened a bit after the packing from the winter snow. I was terribly reluctant to dig up all these burrows the poor bees put so much work into, but really didn’t have any option about it. They’re very docile bees, however, and I found I could wander about the garden setting up the fence and, later, starting to work the ground without them getting too worked up about it.

Solitary bees and wasps find their burrows using landmarks such as twigs or tufts of grass, and if these are removed or moved they become completely disoriented. A lot of the buzzing about I observed (before working the soil) was the bees arriving and looking for their landmarks to orient themselves to their burrow. I felt very badly for raking over all their hard work, and it was sad to see them come back and zig-zag back and forth over the area where their burrow used to be, looking for the landmarks that I’d since removed. I think, however, at least some of them started new burrows since I found fresh holes in the raked soil the following day. Next year I’ll have to go out and get the garden prepared earlier in the season so they can start their digging after I’m already done.