Monthly Archives: June 2010



I did brave the woods – briefly – on Sunday afternoon, the only nice, sunny day we’ve had here during my stay. The mosquitoes were not deterred by the sunshine and especially not in the woods, and though I’d taken my camera I barely slowed down during the whole walk, which took me the approximately 1.1 km (0.7 mi) to the back of the property and back. I made one single stop, battling mosquitoes for the roughly 23 seconds I paused, to take a few photos of these flowers. On the way out I’d only noticed one, which happened to be growing right in the middle of the trail, and then a couple more nearby. On the way back, now that I was looking for them, I saw quite a few more near the trail edges. One of the reasons they’d particularly grabbed my attention was because there’d been one growing at our Blue Lakes MAPS site at our last visit, which I’d intended to get a photo of but forgotten whenever I passed by.


I didn’t recognize the flower as one I’d encountered before, and had to look it up. My mom has quite a nice field guide called Forest Plants of Central Ontario, and a quick flip through the book turned up the flower. It’s Pyrola elliptica, which is most commonly known as Shinleaf, or less often Waxflower Shinleaf or White Wintergreen. As the last name suggests, it’s a type of wintergreen, in the family Pyrolaceae (the wintergreen family). The book lists five species of Pyrola in central Ontario, all of which look fairly similar. Shinleaf can be told apart from the others by its leaves, which are about the same length, or longer than, their stalks, and which taper into the stalk rather than having a clear point where the stalk joins the leaf.

Interestingly, it’s completely unrelated to what we typically associate with the name “Wintergreen”, Gaultheria procumbens, as the latter is actually part of the heath/blueberry family, Ericaeae. It’s this latter plant that we associate with the scent/flavour of wintergreen.


Pyrola elliptica is found throughout the deciduous and mixed forests of the northern hemisphere, on both Eurasia and North America. It’s a common species, occurring south through the Appalachians in the east as far as North Carolina, and down the Rockies in the west to New Mexico. It favours moist woods, and certainly much of my parents’ forest is damp or swampy.

Its name comes from its historic medical use as a topical salve and pain-reliever; crushed leaves were applied to bruises or injuries, and the aspirin-like compounds in the leaves would ease pain. Such pastes were called “shin plasters”, hence the name. It and other members of the Pyrolaceae have evergreen leaves, remaining green even under the winter snows, which provides the group’s common name of wintergreens.



Meadow wildflowers

This was actually supposed to be yesterday’s Sunday Snapshots, but I’ve been without internet for the last couple of days. I’m housesitting for my parents while they’re away touring the Gaspé Peninsula of Quebec. The internet was acting up on me when I arrived, and then it quit altogether. I finally left the modem and router unplugged for the night. This morning they seem to be functional again. The up-side to being without a connection for a while is that one tends to find one’s productivity greatly increases without the distraction… I made some good progress with the moth guide, and that’s a good thing.

Dan actually called yesterday to make sure I was alright as he hadn’t heard from me, and I hadn’t posted to the blog – which seemed a funny point to notice, but then, I do try to keep it regularly updated. Providing the connection here continues to cooperate (knock on wood) I should be back to normal.

Meadow wildflowers

The photos today are from the meadows that make up about a quarter of my parents’ 65-acre property. It might be the loveliest summer wildflower display I’ve seen. Certainly our own fields at Tay Meadows are only intermittently scattered with flowers; most fields I see are mostly grass. I attribute the profusion of flowers here to the fact that the area was grazed over by horses for a while, before my parents bought the place. The horses would have eaten the grasses but largely ignored the wildflower vegetation, which allowed the flowers to get a strong foothold in the soil – one of the reasons that artificial wildflower gardens often fail is that the grass, which is a stronger competitor, moves in before the wildflowers can become fully established. Whatever the reason it’s there, it makes for quite a lovely scene.

Meadow wildflowers

I didn’t actually pause to identify all the species of flower present in the meadow while I was out there – we’ve had so much rain here this spring that the swamps and vernal pools that are normally nearly dry by July are still quite full of water, and have been breeding mosquitoes like mad. I didn’t put any bug spray on as I quite dislike the stuff and only use it if I anticipate having to pause in one spot for long periods (for instance, when we’re out doing MAPS I have to apply it, though I’m careful to cleanse my hands afterward).

From the photo, though, I can spot the following species: Black-eyed Susan, Ox-eyed Daisy, Cow Vetch, Red Clover, Alsike Clover, Yellow Hop Clover, Philadelphia Fleabane, and St-John’s Wort. And although I don’t think any made it into the photos, there’s also Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Swamp Vervain, and Common Yarrow, that I noticed out there.

Meadow wildflowers


Recent earthquakes as of 2pm EST on June 23. -- Image from USGS Earthquake Hazards Program,

This afternoon I had popped into the shower to rinse off the sweat and grass after mowing the lawn (a concession – it’s easier to pick up dog poops if the grass is short; also, we were getting a lot of ticks this spring and felt the yard should be a tick-free zone) when there was a strange noise and a vibration under my feet. It sounded like it was coming from the water pipes, and my first thought was that the water pump in the basement, which is probably as old as the house (30 years) was finally giving up the ghost. In order to prevent anything disastrous as I assessed the situation, just in case it was about to blow, I turned off the water. But the floor was still vibrating – in fact, it sounded and felt a little like Raven was vigorously itching on the floorboards just outside the washroom. I stepped out of the tub to judge better if it was the dog or actually was the water pump about to have a catastrophic meltdown, and the door began rattling in its latch. And that’s when I thought, this reminds me an awful lot of the quarry blasting we would occasionally feel at the house where I grew up, where the quarry was just 5 km (3 mi) away – except there is no quarry nearby here, and it’s lasting much too long anyway.

Could it be an earthquake?

I stood on the mat, slowly dripping water onto the bathroom floor, my hair lathered up and piled on top of my head, feeling completely indecisive about what to do. While I suspect that those quarry-like tremors I’ve felt in years past might occasionally actually have been earth shakes, I’ve never been in an earthquake before that caused the floor to vibrate and the door to rattle in its frame. This was strange and disconcerting, and, if I’m completely honest, a little bit scary.

It only lasted about ten seconds, and once it was evident that the house wasn’t going to fall apart, nor the water pump in the basement blow up, I climbed back into the shower to finish washing the shampoo out of my hair.

Recent earthquakes as of 10pm EST on June 23. -- Image from USGS Earthquake Hazards Program,

As soon as I was out, however, I popped on to the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program’s realtime earthquake monitoring page, where they display records of all seismic activity over the last seven days. Earthquakes in the last hour are shown in red. There was a giant red square smack over eastern Ontario.

The page, if you click on that red square, gives more details on the event. When they first assessed it they called it a magnitude 5.5 quake, with an epicentre about 61 km (38 mi) north of Ottawa and 19 km (12 mi) deep; this was later revised to a magnitude 5 centred 56 km (35 mi) NNE of Ottawa and 16 km (10 mi) down.

The Richter scale always gets me. It only goes up to 7 or rarely 8, so it seems like 5 should be quite a substantial tremor. However, the scale is logarithmic – that is, each number is to the power of ten times greater than the previous. So a 2 isn’t twice as strong as a 1, it’s ten times as strong. A 3 isn’t three times as strong as a 1, it’s 100 times. And so on. To put it in perspective: the quake that hit Haiti was roughly a 7 on the Richter scale; the one that got Chile shortly after was an 8.8. Our quake was a hundred times weaker than the Haiti quake, and nearly 10,000 times weaker than the Chilean one. Strength here, by the way, is measure in amplitude – side to side movement – and not energy released which follows a slightly different logarithmic principle that I don’t really understand.

A magnitude 5 earthquake is labeled “moderate”. Generally, damage is restricted to poorly-constructed buildings within about 40 km (25 mi) of the epicentre; well-constructed buildings and those farther away should suffer little if any damage. My sister was working in Ottawa at the time of the quake, and reported that it was sufficient only to knock a few glasses off the office shelves and that was all. Out here in Perth there was the door shaking and the floor vibrating, but nothing was displaced. Dan, who was out doing bird surveys in the rock barrens of Frontenac Provincial Park and therefore on very firm ground, didn’t even feel it.

So it was pretty minor, as earthquakes as a whole go. It also wasn’t uncommon, on a worldwide scale. Wikipedia suggests that around the world there are about 800 magnitude 5 earthquakes every year. If that seems like a lot, consider an estimated 6,200 magnitude 4 quakes, 49,000 magnitude 3, 1000 per day magnitude 2, and a crazy 8000 per day magnitude 1. Unsurprisingly, magnitudes 1 and 2 are rarely felt, unless you happen to be directly over the epicentre, and even then if you’re on solid ground you might not notice. Magnitude 3 feels a little like the quarry blasts – might rattle the windows a bit, but could easily pass unnoticed.

Citizens reporting detection of earthquake as of 2:15 pm EST. -- Image from USGS Earthquake Hazards Program,

And yet, a detectable earthquake in northeastern North America is so unusual that within minutes Facebook, Twitter and the local news feeds were all abuzz about it. I commented to one friend that an earthquake here is our equivalent of snow in Florida – we’ve a tendency to the melodramatic because these things just don’t happen here. Tornadoes do the same thing to us, although recently they’ve been becoming a bit more common with a few occurring every year, mostly down in the southwestern part of the province.

The USGS site has a spot where you can report whether you felt the quake and how strong it seemed where you were. Within half an hour, nearly 1700 people had logged on to the site and posted their report. The farthest at that time came from Toronto, a little over 400 km (250 mi) southwest of the earthquake’s epicentre. (For some reason, in Canada the reports are indicated by city, with the circle representing the population size of the city and not the strength of the quake there or the number of people reporting; in the US, presence of a reporting citizen is simply indicated by flood-filling the county.)

Image from USGS Earthquake Hazards Program,

Citizens reporting detection of earthquake as of 10 pm EST. -- Image from USGS Earthquake Hazards Program,

As of this writing (eight hours post-quake), more than 54,000 people have weighed in. The farthest reports now come from beyond the edges of the map. A news article from the Huffington Post, posted to Facebook by a fellow blogger, suggests that the earthquake was detected as far away as Wisconsin and Kentucky.

Earthquakes recorded around Lake Ontario and southern Quebec within the last 20 years. -- Image from USGS Earthquake Hazards Program,

The earthquake occurred within an area known as the Western Quebec Seismic Zone. We typically think of earthquakes as happening where two of the earth’s giant tectonic plates meet and grind together – most well-known to North Americans is probably the meeting of the North American and Pacific plates along the western coast, especially California (who also have a much smaller plate, the Juan de Fuca, tossed into the mix). Since here in Ontario we’re about as far away from a plate edge as you can get in North America, we tend to think of earthquakes as something that happens somewhere else.

However, there are still faults in this area, and many remain “active”. They date back millions of years to when there was a huge mountain chain, as rugged and tall as the Rockies, that ran through what is now southern Quebec and into the United States. In modern times the faults themselves are largely buried and reduced to small cracks, most of them deep and small enough as to be difficult to detect, such that few have official names. They tend to run northwest-southeast, along the same line the prehistoric mountains once stood. Small seismic events, large enough to be noticed but not large enough to do any damage, occur three or four times a year in this seismic zone. Earthquakes of the magnitude recorded today are much rarer, maybe only once a decade or less. There have been only two “large” quakes in this region since Europeans started keeping data: one in 1732 and the other in 1935, both just slightly over magnitude 6. I suspect that quakes here are mostly the result of shifting and settling within the earth’s crust that causes old faults to “pop”, rather than an active building and release of pressure as happens where two plates meet. They occur so far underground that very rarely do they ever rift the surface.

Average number of magnitude 5 earthquakes per year within the region - note that gray is marginally more than zero. -- Image from USGS Earthquake Hazards Program,

Sunday Snapshots – Another emergence

Viceroy chrysalis

When Dan and I were out in the field checking our nestboxes I happened across this chrysalis firmly attached to a horsetail stem. It was such an intriguing shape and colour, I snipped it off to bring it back and try to find out who it belonged to, too. I didn’t have long to wait with this one – four days later the owner emerged. I had checked the jar when we got home around lunchtime, and just a couple of hours later, as I was working outside, Dan came out holding the jar to say it was out. The owner, it turned out, was a beautiful Viceroy butterfly. I released it on the first daylily bloom of the year, where it paused for a bit to warm in the sun and pump its wings before taking off.

Viceroy, just emerged from chrysalis

releasing the Viceroy

Viceroy on daylily

empty Viceroy chrysalis

The Moth and Me #12

The latest edition of The Moth and Me, #12, is up over at The Skeptical Moth. Chris has done a great job compiling the varied posts, in the process reflecting on his own “mothing journey”. You should, at the very least, head over to check out this month’s TMaM – but while you’re there, spend some time browsing some of Chris’s other excellent content, too!

TMaM heads to Today in NJ Birding History for edition #13 – and despite convention, I consider 13 to be a lucky number, so make sure you remember to participate in what will surely be an outstanding edition! Send your submission to Jennifer (ammodramus88 AT or to myself (canadianowlet AT by July 13.

We’re looking for hosts for August and beyond! It’s easy and fun, and only takes an hour or two (or several, if you’re the type to go crazy with it…). If you’re interested in hosting, send me an email indicating what month you’d like to sign up for.

An Inordinate Fondness #5

Golden Tortoise Beetle

As spring begins to give way to summer, we’re starting to enter the peak months for insects. The hot, dry weather is their kind of climate, and numbers boom. Every plant has one or two or three on it, it seems. Your back starts to get sore from stooping to look at them all. But what diversity! Nearly 90,000 species of insect occur in North America north of Mexico, and of those some 24,000 are beetles. That means that 4 out of every 15 insects (one in every 3.75, but I assume that, like me, you look at your bugs in wholes) you stoop to check out is going to be a beetle.

Well, probably the proportions don’t work out quite so neatly as that as some species are much more abundant than others, but you get the idea. There are a lot of beetles. There is a well-known quote attributed to JBS Haldane (though its authenticity is sometimes disputed) wherein he reflects that his studies of nature’s diversity have shown him that God “has an inordinate fondness for beetles”; it is, of course, from this quote that this blog carnival appropriately takes its name. God, or natural selection, may have given us the diversity present today, but we are the ones who get to enjoy it. AIF #5 shares with us ten different species of eight different families, and all different shapes and colours.

Margarethe of Arizona Beetles, Bugs, Birds and More starts us off with a small but lovely weevil, Coniatus splendidulus. The beetles were recently observed by a coworker in stands of tamarisk, an invasive plant that is slowly spreading through parts of the US including Arizona. While C. splendidulus, which feeds exclusively on tamarisk, had been considered for biological control measures, none to date have been officially released. The weevils observed by Margarethe’s coworker seem to have made it there under their own steam.

Arati of Trees, Plants and More shares another world-traveler, the lady beetle Coccinella transversalis, the Transverse Lady Beetle. Arati blogs from India, but the beetle is actually native to Australia. She observes that her lady beetle has markings that differ from the usual stereotype of black spots on red. However, only a small number of lady beetle species actually sport such markings; most either have more black like this one, black in different patterns than spots, or are different colours entirely.

Hugh of Rock Paper Lizard searches for a typical lady beetle, a favourite of the kids’, among yellow Santolina blooms. What we think of as the typical ladybug is a non-native species here in North America, too. The Asian Multicolored Lady Beetle, Harmonia axyridis, was introduced to North America on multiple occasions by the US Department of Agriculture as a biological control for aphids in orchards. The first release was in 1916, and the last in 1982, but it was an accidental introduction in 1988 to which we can attribute most of the lady beetles we encounter today.

Dave at Things Biological brings us Oedemera nobilis, a flower beetle of western Europe. He photographed this one in Provence, France, where it is native. It actually belongs to the family Oedemeridae, which are given the common name false blister beetles. In North America, the Kaufman Insect Guide suggests the group is most common along shorelines, though I don’t know if that’s true for this species in Europe; Dave seems to have found this species to be abundant on Spanish Broom (an evergreen shrub) throughout France, in any case. The KIG warns that members of the group will release strong skin irritants when crushed, not unlike actual blister beetles, so probably best just to look, don’t touch.

John of A DC Birding Blog spent some time watching several individuals of Strangalia luteicornis as they clambered about the flowers of a winterberry bush. These guys are in the subfamily Lepturinae and are properly called flower longhorns, according to the Kaufman Insect Guide (my “bible” for all things six-legged, if you haven’t already guessed). The larvae are borers of trees; this species focuses on hardwoods. The adults, unsurprisingly, feed on pollen from flowers in deciduous woodlands.

Rob Mitchell, blogging at Alex Wild’s Myrmecos, brings us another longhorned beetle. This one is Neoclytus tenuiscriptus, native to southwestern North America. The KIG indicates there are 26 species in this genus, and suggests that they are wasp mimics. Rob’s interpretation is that they do a better job imitating grasshoppers, with their short antennae and long hind legs. Other, related species are found across the continent. All are wood borers, and some species can sometimes be found emerging from firewood.

Over at Willow House Chronicles, Barefootheart recently discovered a population of Rose Chafers, Macrodactylus subspinosus, which were released from the soil as she was taking up sod to expand her garden. Most likely they were just about to emerge as adults from the soil, where they spent their larval stage, when she helped make it a little easier for them. Despite their common name, the beetles aren’t just interested in roses but will feed on the leaves and flowers of many different species of plants. In very large numbers they can become a pest, severely defoliating plants and potentially even killing them as a result, but fortunately numbers rarely get so high.

Cindy at Dipper Ranch reflects on some beetles that emerge in late spring with the first rainfalls of the season. Appropriately, they are called rain beetles, and are members of the family Pleocomidae; others in the group come out in late fall or winter, but rainfall or snowmelt is always the trigger. They are all contained within one genus, Pleocoma, of which there are about 30 species in North America. The group is restricted to the west coast of the US. Amazingly, the larvae of this group may take as long as 8-13 years, feeding on roots in the soil, before they reach adulthood. When they finally become adults, the beetles have vestigal mouthparts and cannot feed; they die shortly after mating and laying the eggs for the new generation.

Not nearly so interesting in habit, but certainly eye-catching in colour, yesterday I posted about some Milkweed Leaf Beetles, Labidomera clivicollis that I encountered a couple of weeks ago. These guys are variable in colour and pattern through their range east of the Rockies. As their name suggests, both the larvae and the adults feed on the leaves of milkweed plants; predominantly Swamp Milkweed, but also Common.

So now, if all that diversity has gotten you enthused and you want to go out to look for some beetles yourself, swing over to Beetles in the Bush where An Inordinate Fondness founder Ted will teach you everything you need to know about dressing for success in beetle-collecting. He outlines everything you should take with you into the field, from what to hold in your hands, to what to wear on your head, and how to carry all your bits and bobs, in order to produce the best results. And if you read Ted’s blog, you’ll see that the results speak for themselves. (The obvious key is item #5. Make sure you get one, too.)

An Inordinate Fondness goes next to Insect Art. You can submit your posts directly or use the handy blog carnival submission form. Either way, make sure you get your posts in by July 15!

Milkweed Leaf Beetle

Milkweed Leaf Beetle, Labidomera clivicollis

A couple of weeks ago as I was walking down to my veggie garden I spied something bright amongst the grass at the side of the path. Stooping to have a look, it turned out to be a rather large beetle. I hadn’t brought my camera, having been going to the garden for another purpose, so I hurried back to the house to grab it, hoping the beetle would stay put. When I returned, sure enough it had taken off from where I’d left it, but a bit of searching and patience revealed it a short distance away.

I wouldn’t ordinarily be so determined in trying to relocate something, but this was an eye-catching beetle: large, at nearly half an inch (10mm), with bright orange-spotted black elytra and a shiny green-blue thorax. I was convinced it had to be something unusual – wouldn’t I have noticed one before, otherwise?

Milkweed Leaf Beetle, Labidomera clivicollis

Well, it turns out to be fairly common and widespread. It’s a Milkweed Leaf Beetle, Labidomera clivicollis. The species ranges throughout North America east of the Rockies and varies considerably in pattern across that area, with some being quite pale or having very reduced markings. The paler individuals all seem to occur west of the Mississippi. As its common name suggests, the beetles feed on the foliage and flowers of milkweed, primarily Swamp Milkweed but also Common. Apparently prior to feeding on a new leaf, both adults and larvae will clip the side veins as a drain, reducing the sticky latex left at their feeding site.

Milkweed Leaf Beetle, Labidomera clivicollis

Tomorrow I’m hosting An Inordinate Fondness #5, the blog carnival about all things coleopteran. If you have a post about beetles I encourage you to submit it! Try to get it to me by tomorrow (Friday) afternoon; the carnival will go up in the evening, but I’ll still try to squeeze last-minute submissions in. Submit your posts here, or email them to me at canadianowlet [at] gmail [dot] com.