The Marvelous in Nature

Bear encounter


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


Diurnal sphinx moths


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

The book tour recap, part 2

Mothing at the New River Birding and Nature Festival. Yours truly demonstrating her expertise by looking something up in her own guide, on the right. Two fellow bloggers among those on the left, Sara Stratton (blue shirt, centre) and Nina Harfmann (blue shirt, left). Photo by Jim McCormac.

When I left Wheeling I headed south to join the New River Birding and Nature Festival, already in progress near Fayetteville, WV. I’d heard about the NRBNF from other bloggers who’d attended in past years and seemed to have a really great time, and I’d been keen to attend myself. However, West Virginia was a fair ways for me to travel. When I got the confirmation on the book tour I thought this would be the perfect excuse to finally make it down there, and I contacted the organizers. Lucky me, they were interested in having me come and do some events!

Book exchange with fellow author (there were a few there!) Katie Fallon. Photo by Jim Rapp.

I arrived mid-afternoon on Wednesday and checked in to the cabin I was staying at with a few of the other festival guides: Katie Fallon (author of Cerulean Blues), Jim Rapp and Rachel Davis. They were there, relaxing in between the morning’s birding events and the evening’s dinner and entertainment; and they invited me in and made me feel immediately part of the group. They showed me to where dinner was being held (where I got to meet the wonderful Nina Harfmann, whose blog I discovered shortly after starting my own, and the inestimable Ohio naturalist Jim McCormac, who also keeps a blog that I highly encourage you to check out; go ahead, I’ll wait) and then later helped me with my event that evening. Honestly, half the reason I enjoyed the New River festival as much as I did was because of the people. Everyone was truly awesome.

The event that first evening went well, and the moths were extremely obliging. It was one of the better nights on the trip, with great weather and an excellent selection of species. Many people peeled out early (having been up at dawn to go birding, and planning to be up at dawn the next day to go birding), but a small group of enthusiastic people, including my cabinmates and Jim McCormac, stuck around and indulged in the mothiness. We were rewarded at the end of the evening with a caterpillar hunter, a giant beetle that, unsurprisingly, is a predator on caterpillars. Check out Jim’s excellent post on the creature.


The next morning I was up far too early, to co-lead a birding trip with Connie Toops and Bill Hilton, Jr. While I’d never met either I knew of both of them prior to the festival – Connie is co-author of a number of bird books; while Bill operates the Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History in South Carolina, as well as Operation Ruby-throat studying hummingbirds on their wintering grounds. We did a great trip through the forested hills of the region, seeing many Carolinian bird species we don’t get, or have in small numbers, here at home. I also got to see my first Zebra Swallowtails, a flashy butterfly species that doesn’t make it to Ontario. In the photo above, Connie (in the white shirt on right) is talking about coal mining in the region, pointing out a small mine in the side of the slope.


I did another talk that evening for a separate group participating in an Elderhostel program at a nearby state park. The following morning I returned to join the same group on another birding trip, along with Bill Hilton, Jr, again and nature columnist and radio show host Dr. Scott Shalaway. We got to take a jet boat out on the river, and while it was raining off and on most of the morning and therefore a little wet, it was also pretty amazing. The photo above is of the main bridge crossing the New River gorge. To give you a sense of scale, there’s an 18-wheeler tractor-trailer crossing the bridge in this photo (above the second strut from the right). Yeah. It was pretty spectacular. The whole New River region is, really.

Julie Zickefoose and celebrity Boston Terrier Chet Baker, and myself. Grinning from ear to ear at the opportunity to meet one of my idols.

Friday evening I didn’t do any mothing but instead enjoyed the post-dinner entertainment, a presentation by Julie Zickefoose. I have admired Julie pretty much since I discovered her blog in 2007; hers was one of the main inspirations for mine when I started it the following year. She’s the sort of passionate, dedicated person I would like to grow up to be, and I was super excited to have a chance to meet her. It was definitely one of the highlights of the trip for me – she’s every bit as friendly, generous and engaging as her blog makes her seem to be.

NRBNF4Enjoying lunch following a fun but very wet morning of birding the New River high country with Julie Zickefoose and Connie Toops. Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

Saturday morning was wet, wet, wet. I was on a trip with Connie Toops and Julie Zickefoose; it absolutely delighted me to be able to spend the morning in the company of these women I admire. So I could overlook the fact that it rained for pretty much the entire trip. We made a few stops for local specialties such as Golden-winged Warbler, and did end up getting a number of our target birds despite the damp weather. The birds I was most excited about weren’t actually the ones most other people were – I was keen to see the southern species, the ones we don’t get here in Ontario. I was happy that we did get a bunch of these, or at least heard them.

One of my favourite anecdotes from the tour was from this trip. We’d stopped someplace to check out some Golden-winged Warblers, and since the location was hilly and shrubby and it would be a while till we reached some washrooms, we thought it might be a good spot for a washroom break. While everyone else was checking out the warbler I carried on up the hill to see if it would be okay for the women to use. When I got up top it turned out there was a residence on the other side, some distance away but openly visible.
     I returned to the group and told my co-leaders, “I don’t think it’ll work for the women; there’s a house on the other side.”
     To which they gave me a funny look. “A what?”
     “A house.”
     The funny look remained. “A hearse?”
     They laughed when they understood (observing, “I know it’s West Virginia, but a hearse in the bush would be weird even for here.”).
     I found this greatly amusing, since I think it’s the first time my Canadian accent has ever caused a problem in communication. Honestly, I think I sound pretty much just like my American friends, but clearly there’s some difference , especially with the “ou” sounds. I got comments on my pronunciation both here and at other stops.

Myself with Geoff Heeter (of Opossum Creek Retreat, and a coordinator of the festival), Mary Ann Barnett and Rachel Davis. Photo by Jim Rapp.

Saturday night I did my last event of the New River festival, running my moth sheets at Opossum Creek Retreat while The Rain Crows played inside. It was a cool night, threatening rain, so we didn’t get too many moths to the lights. Still, though, it was a decent evening – just enough diversity to interest people. It was also the last evening of the festival, so there was a lot of socializing. I signed a lot of books, and chatted with a number of people whom I hadn’t had a chance to at any point earlier in the week. Met a lot of new folks, such as Dave Fitzsimmons, author of the fabulously-done children’s book Curious Critters (seriously; check that link out). I also got a couple of my own books signed, which I had brought anticipating that I’d meet the authors. This included Bill Thompson III, Julie Zickefoose’s husband, whom I admire nearly as much as his wife for all the stuff he’s involved in and how much he puts himself out there for other people. What a couple!

Many of the awesome people I met at the New River festival, most of us guides. Left to right – back row: Geoff Heeter, Paul whose surname I’ve forgotten, Ben Lizdas, Jim McCormac, Bill Thompson III, Jim Rapp, Heeter Jr whose first name I’ve forgotten, Liam Thompson; front row: myself, Julie Zickefoose (with Chet Baker), Wendy Eller, Rachel Davis; and Phoebe Thompson lounging out in front.

I was very sad to be leaving at the end of the week. I’d had such a good time there, met so many great people. Saw lots of interesting moths, including several lifers, species I’d never seen before. I’d definitely love to return, if I had the opportunity; unfortunately, West Virginia is no closer now than it was before, so we’ll have to see. Still, if you’ve got the chance to go yourself, I highly recommend it.

Onward I go, next to Canaan Valley NWR in northern West Virginia!

Baby bluebirds


One of the nicest things about living at this property, I think, has been the bluebirds that have reliably nested in the box in the meadow a hundred meters back from the house. It’s probably the same pair returning each year; the birds can live up to 7 or 8 years or more and tend to be fairly loyal to their territories. Last week Dan and I went out to check on how the local family was doing. Although by the time I go out with the dogs in the afternoon things have mostly quieted down, Dan’s been watching them during his morning walks and he had a feeling they’d be getting close to fledging, which they do at this latitude at about 19 days old.

Sure enough, when we opened up the box the little guys were probably only a few days away from leaving the nest, if that. Fortunately, they weren’t quite ready to go yet, and just hunkered down when I reached in to count them and pull them out for a photo. Their feet, one of the first parts of a baby bird to mature so they can use them to cling to branches if they have to leave the nest early in an emergency, gripped at the nest as I picked them up, and then at my hand while I held them.

The photo above is of a baby boy. You can tell the sexes of the babies apart by the colour of the wing and tail feathers – blue in males, grayish in females (below). We had two of each in the box. While we had the box open the parents sat in a nearby tree and waited. They were pretty patient with us for most of it, having come to recognize Dan as no threat from his morning walks and occasional checks.


For temperate migrants like these guys, who spend the winter not that far south of here, the breeding season starts early and many are already fledging young. Meanwhile, tropical migrants such as many of the warblers are only just starting to establish territories and build nests. We’ll be starting our MAPS visits this week and will get to see a lot more baby birds in the next little while. I do look forward to the fieldwork, for that and other reasons. It’s too bad it requires getting up so early!


The book tour recap, part 1

Seabrooke Leckie speaking in Dearborn, MI

(A [somewhat unflattering] candid photo of me giving the very first presentation of the tour, taken by Darrin O’Brien at the Dearborn, MI, event) 

So here’s the post series on the moth guide book tour, finally! I didn’t actually take very many photos while I was gone, and in retrospect I wish I’d taken more. At the time I was fully occupied with just running the events and enjoying myself, and not too worried about photos. I figured other people would probably take some, and travel photos end up just sitting around once you get home anyway. So a lot of the images I’m using will come from other folks (I’ll link where I can), and a few events won’t have any.

I had a fabulous time on this trip. I met a lot of awesome people, made a bunch of new friends, saw a pile of great moths, and overall had a really good time. Thanks to all of my hosts for inviting me out (and, often, feeding me and/or putting me up) and to all the people who attended for their enthusiasm.

Dearborn, MI: April 29
The tour got off to a great start with this first event at the Environmental Interpretive Center at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, co-hosted by the Rouge River Bird Observatory which operates out of the EIC. I got to meet longtime online-friends Julie Craves (of the RRBO) and her husband Darrin O’Brien, who took me to dinner and helped me with the evening, along with the EIC’s director, Richard Simek. The Dearborn crowd were my guinea pigs for the presentation I was doing on the tour, but everyone seemed gratifyingly interested. We were expecting cool temperatures and were pleasantly surprised when the afternoon turned out to be beautiful and sunny, and pleasantly warm. I’d been so worried that we’d have near-freezing temperatures and no moths in the evening, but I needn’t have fretted – we had a good selection of things come in, given the early date, and I think everyone had a good time. Julie wrote up a summary of the evening, complete with photos, on the Rouge River Bird Observatory’s blog.

(Signing books at the Dearborn event, with Julie Craves, at left, looking on. I’m afraid I unintentionally stole that pen at the end of the evening. Photo by Darrin O’Brien)

(Identifying a moth for a couple of the event attendees. I’m holding a bowl of ice cream in my other hand. They make their own maple syrup at the EIC and we were invited to try some, served over vanilla ice cream. It was delicious. Photo by Darrin O’Brien)

East Liberty, OH: April 30
I traveled about three to four hours each afternoon, from one event to the next. The second evening found me northwest of Columbus, OH, at the Big Darby Headwaters Nature Preserve. This is the only event that I truly regretted how it turned out: we got the sheets and everything all set up, and then just as dusk was falling a thunderstorm rolled in. It lasted for just about two hours, and by the time it had blown through, at 10:30, pretty much everyone had had to head home. We did set up a sheet inside the wide mouth of the big tractor garage that sheltered us, and got perhaps a dozen moths, but it wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for. Additionally, the pounding rain on the steel roof was too much for my quiet voice to compete with, so I wasn’t even able to do a presentation or anything, though I did sign books and try my best to answer questions one-on-one. The organizers were Steve Ross of The Nature Conservency-Ohio and his wife Jennifer Kleinrichert, as well as Janet Seeds and Chrissie Wilson, who were all incredibly nice and supportive. The photos of the event were sent to me from them later. I stayed the night with Donna Daniel at her amazing, beautiful farm; Donna was wonderful and gracious and made a delicious breakfast. No link for this event, but you should check out Steve and Jennifer’s farming/homestead blog. Also their Etsy shop; they thanked me for coming with a couple of bars of their handmade soap, which are beautifully made and smell wonderful.

Ohio1(The one moth sheet and event attendees at the East Liberty, OH, stop; they all look like they’re listening intently to someone, but as I didn’t do any speaking I’m not sure who. This photo and the next two supplied by my hosts)

(Two volunteer helpers, John Cannon and Chrissie Wilson, and me. I’m glad they look like they’re enjoying themselves.)

Ohio2(Jennifer Kleinrichert and a handful of the moths we got that stormy evening. I suppose I should be grateful that we got any at all, given the weather.)

(Donna Daniels and myself in front of her beautiful old farmhouse. I wish I could have done some mothing here, but rain overnight kept me from putting out my trap. The daytime wildlife was amazing, though. I got my first-ever good look at adult Red-headed Woodpeckers, and she had a Clay-colored Sparrow coming to her feeder. A huge Fox Squirrel, a species we don’t get in Ontario really, made an appearance. Birds and frogs and insects everywhere.)

Wheeling, WV: May 1
This event was the first of a couple that I did as part of the Master Naturalists education series, though it was also open to the public. This one was held at the Good Zoo at the Oglebay Resort in the beautiful foothills/mountains of northern West Virginia. Being a class as well as a book-signing event, I offered the attendees their choice of presentations: the one on moths in the environment that I’d prepared for the trip, or one I’d presented a year and a half ago on tips to get started in mothing. They chose the latter. I think they were perhaps expecting a primer on identifying moth families or something along those lines. Instead, I talked about the attraction of mothing, and gave them five “rules” for learning:

Rule 1: Start with the common species. Leave the uncommon stuff for next year.
Rule 2: Learn what’s flashy. This stuff’s easy to identify and also to remember.
Rule 3: Learn the rest in groups. Learn one family this year, another next.
Rule 4: Don’t be afraid to leave some stuff on the sheet unidentified.
Rule 5: Have fun. It’s so easy to let yourself get overwhelmed by how much there is to learn, but the whole point is to enjoy it. Scale back if you’re not.

Another thunderstorm (complete with tornado watch!) rolled in that evening, but we lucked out and got in an hour of mothing before it arrived. Because the weather was so warm and humid we got a really great selection of moths; perhaps a couple dozen species, including a couple sphinxes and a Rosy Maple Moth that were crowd-pleasers. I got my first lifer species at this stop: an Eyed Paectes*. No photos from this event, nor online summary; it was a bit of a whirlwind evening because we all had an eye to the sky, anticipating the rain. I didn’t even get a pic of the paectes, unfortunately. Thanks to my host Penny Miller for both inviting me to this event and putting me up at the Oglebay Resort, which was a beautiful place. Didn’t get a chance to visit the actual zoo, though.

*I was actually surprised by the proportion of moths I could identify, even at my farthest-south stops. Most of what we caught was also stuff I get back home, and a lot of the stuff that was new to me was stuff I was familiar with just from having worked on preparing the guide (eg: Eyed Paectes). There were some instances where I had to pull out a copy of the book to check things or look stuff up, but not too many compared to what I’d been expecting.

I think in the interest of length I’ll wrap up part 1 there, but I’ve lots more to share from the trip. Stay tuned!