Leopard Frog

Northern Leopard Frog, Rana pipiens

It’s mid-October and most of our summer wildlife has disappeared for the winter: birds south, insects dead or tucked away, herpetiles and cold-sensitive mammals holed up. We still get the occasional warm day, though; Thanksgiving weekend, for instance, was beautiful with highs in the mid-20s C (mid-70s F). Some hibernators, snakes in particular, will take advantage of these lovely afternoons to soak up a last few rays.

It was on one such day that I came across this Northern Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens). I nearly stepped on him, in fact. He was in a hollow of moss, back in our little bog-fen. I must admit, I was rather surprised to see him so late; aside from one or two lonely Spring Peepers peeping in the nearby swamps, it’s been weeks since I saw a frog. I’d sort of forgotten about them, assumed they were all snugged away for the winter. It was a nice day, but it still wasn’t exceptionally warm, particularly in the shaded dampness of the bog-fen. The frog, being an exotherm, wasn’t feeling his most chipper self as a result. He flinched a bit as I reached down, but didn’t make any effort to leap away. When I gently picked him up he sat calmly, his throat puffing as he breathed, hunched close to my hand.

Northern Leopard Frog, Rana pipiens

According to this site, Northern Leopard Frogs will start to head for hibernation sites at the bottom of ponds or lake edges once air temperatures fall below 2°C (36°F)… though it doesn’t specify daytime or nighttime temps, or whether those temps need to be sustained. Definitely we’ve already had quite a number of nights that have gotten that low, at the end of September. Our daytime highs have for the most part remained in the double-digits Celsius, though.

That website happens to be one for the Canadian Species At Risk registry; I was a little surprised to see that the Northern Leopard Frog had a page there. The species is certainly no less abundant than any of our other frogs, either here or where I grew up, in the Toronto area. It turned out the SAR registry listing was for the western boreal and prairie populations, which have suffered noticeable and serious declines since the 1970s. Although the reasons for the decline are not clear and probably include several different contributing factors, one of the key players is thought to be the acid rain of the 70s, 80s and 90s, the effects of which were especially pronounced in boreal regions where the granite bedrock was unable to neutralize the acidity of the rain (compared to the limestone bedrock south of the Canadian Shield, which is basic and therefore could to some extent). In the prairies, it’s more likely that habitat loss has been the largest factor in their decline.


Mudpuppy Night at Oxford Mills, ON

This weekend I joined my mom to attend the Seedy Saturday event up in Ottawa. Although I have quite a few seeds left over from last spring, I had a few I was hoping to get, and I like the opportunity to buy heritage, organic varieties rather than the commercial ones available in stores. I also took some of my own seeds that I’d saved for the swap table, where you can trade seeds like baseball cards. The event was busy and I didn’t do too badly there. There’re so many interesting vendors and products that I could have spent quite a lot of money if I had money to burn on such things.

But despite the success of our trip there, that wasn’t the most interesting part of the weekend. Not even the second most interesting, as it turned out.

The number one most interesting thing happened Friday night, the day before the seed swap. Mom had asked if I’d be interested in joining her at “Mudpuppy Night in Oxford Mills” (the name a play on Hockey Night in Canada). After some initial indecision resulting from poor weather forecasts and ambiguous results of the organizers when they scouted the site the day before, we decided to go.

Mudpuppy Night at Oxford Mills, ON

And I’m so glad we did! These evenings are very informal affairs, organized and executed by Fred Scheuler and, I gather, regularly helped by his daughter Jennifer, both of whom were in attendance this weekend. Also present was fisheries biologist Naomi Langlois-Anderson and her children, though I gather she’s not a regular attendee. Every Friday night from Thanksgiving to spring thaw Fred and Jennifer visit Kemptville Creek at the foot of the dam in Oxford Mills to count the mudpuppies present there. In this photo Fred and Naomi use a dipnet to try to catch one.

These foot-long, entirely-aquatic salamanders are active year-round, feeding on just about anything that might be called food, including small vertebrates. In the winter it seems that river populations will move to shallow, slower-moving water where it’s easier for them to catch prey. The site in Oxford Mills turns out to have the best known winter population of mudpuppies in eastern Ontario. The reason is unclear, but may be a combination of the creek being particularly rich with the species and the placement of the dam preventing the creatures from moving any farther upstream. The creek habitat at the foot of the dam happens to be ideal anyway: shallow and rocky, and sufficiently wide that during the winter the water flow isn’t too fast.

Mudpuppy Night at Oxford Mills, ON

Fred used a dipnet to catch the mudpuppies, but Naomi, wearing hipwaders, sauntered right in, pushed her sleeves to her elbows, and grabbed them from the water with her bare hands. I didn’t really appreciate this until they had caught a couple and allowed the visitors to try holding them. To prevent our dry hands from stripping the amphibians of their slimy coating we had to wet our hands in the bucket’s water first. The water had simply been taken out of the creek when they got the first mudpuppy. I dipped my hands in and ohmygoshisthatwatereverCOLD! Though I had no way to measure it, it couldn’t have been much above freezing. The shores were both lined with ice shelves, as were the gates of the dam where the water passed through.

Mudpuppy at Oxford Mills, ON

And here were these coldblooded creatures slithering about in the shallow depth of the bucket as if it were sun-warmed summer water. It was rather astounding. Presumably they’re able to do it because of a suite of cold-hardy enzymes and proteins (which typically work best within a range of temperatures, and start to denature outside of this range; risk of hypothermia aside, our own proteins would most definitely not be able to function properly at these temperatures). Look at Naomi’s hands in this photo! Red with heavy blood flow, trying to keep their temperature up after repeated dippings in the ice water.

Mudpuppies at Oxford Mills, ON

Our species of mudpuppies (Necturus maculosus) are generally brownish with spots. The shade of brown varies with the clarity of the water they inhabit, and the pattern of spots is unique to each individual. In theory, a graduate student with a good deal of patience could learn to identify individuals by their spot patterns, which would be useful in determining site fidelity and activity levels during the winter, among other things. The fourth mudpuppy they brought to the bucket was noticeably darker and with smaller spots than the other three. I don’t know whether their colour reflects their summer home or their winter home. It’s possible if the former that she (I don’t actually know the sex, though females are usually smaller than males; I don’t think colour is sex-linked) originated from a different part of the creek than the first three.

Her gills were also darker and smaller than those of the other three. This reflects the oxygen saturation of the water she lives in. When living in water with low oxygen content their gills grow large and are flush with blood to carry as much of it back into the body as possible. In oxygen-rich waters the gills don’t need to be as big. Since all four of these individuals came out of the same stretch of creek, I would be inclined to believe the gills are also a reflection of their summer homes, but perhaps her spot in the creek just happened to be easier to draw oxygen from.

Another hypothesis to explain her colour and gill size is that she’s a younger individual while the other three are adults. Mudpuppies can live up to 11 years or more, and don’t actually reach sexual maturity until age six. I didn’t see any information to suggest this, however, so it would just be a guess on my part. I think it’s more probable it reflects her origins rather than her age.

Mudpuppy at Oxford Mills, ON

They caught three more after we left for a total of seven for the evening. On really good nights, however, they often record several dozen. Their highest count ever was somewhere close to 180 individuals. The variation in the numbers from one visit to the next suggests that the animals do still move around a bit, perhaps partly due to periodic rains or melts that temporarily increase the creek’s volume. Once the spring thaws arrive the water becomes too high and fast for the amphibians and they effectively disappear from the site until the fall.

Fred has been doing this since 1998. He’s not associated with any formal organization; this is just something he’s been doing on his own and which has grown into something slightly larger. After more than a decade, Fred’s got a really good set of data on the mudpuppy population in the creek. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only such data in existence for mudpuppies in eastern Ontario, and the best information we have on population changes over that period. This is why keeping track of your own local flora and fauna can be such a good thing! Especially if you record data from the same location over many years. It may turn out to be unique and invaluable.

If you’re interested in reading more about the Oxford Mills mudpuppy nights, check out their website. Also swing by my mom’s blog to see her post about the same evening; she goes into more depth about their life history than I did here.

House of Herps #10: The Frog Prince

Princess and the Frog
"Princess and the Frog", by ihave3kids on Flickr


Come sit beside me, I’ll tell you a tale
Of loving and longing and terrible betrayal;
A story quite sad, but wonderful, too.
Here, have a seat; come and listen, won’t you?

Our story begins with a maiden so fair,
With sparkling eyes, and long flowing hair.
Her heart glowed as pure as the light of a star,
And men came to court her from near and afar.

She saw many suitors, but none she desired,
And as the years passed she grew ever tired.
Was there really no man for whom she could fall?
She couldn’t believe there was no one at all.

The thought made her sad, so one sunny day
She paused at a well that she passed on her way.
She extracted a coin and she tossed it inside.
“I just want true love, nothing more!” so she cried.

Of course, nothing happened, it was just a well –
What did she expect, a genie, a spell?
She turned to the road from the well with a sigh
And carefully wiped a small tear from her eye.

Three months had gone by and she’d all but forgot
Her wishing-well plea and the help that she’d sought.
But when she came home one warm summer night
There waiting for her was a frog, on the light.

It clung to the chime in a warm rosy glow
And turned its small head to say brightly, “Hello!
I’m quite glad you’re home, I’ve been waiting awhile.
May I come in?” and it gave her a smile.

Well, what would you do, were you in her shoes?
You’d be qutie surprised, and likely confused.
She stared at the frog, her mouth hanging wide
But gathered herself and gestured inside.

It followed her in and took one of the seats
While she busied herself getting tea and some treats
She sat down beside it and cautiously said,
“How may I help? Need you food or a bed?”

“I have need of neither, for I am a frog;
I’ll have crickets for lunch, and I’ll sleep in a log.
What I must ask is a great deal more:
I have a small house and can’t open the door.”

She scratched her fair head. “I’m not sure I see…
Is the door stuck? Or lost you the key?”
“The door opens fine,” it said, batting a hand.
“The problem is that I’m no longer a man.

An old evil witch whom I passed on the road
I offered no smile, so she made me a toad.”
“But you’re a frog,” the girl pointed out.
“Frog didn’t rhyme. Besides, there’s no doubt

Either amphibian would be too short.
So now to get in I will need your support.”
“It would give you trouble, I have to agree.
But might I ask why it is you chose me?”

“Are you surprised that I came to you?
In all the land no one’s heart is as true.
And also I hope if the spell is undone,
How lucky would I be if you were the one?”

“The one to do what?” she asked with a frown.
“To open the door,” he said, and hopped down.
“Now will you, or won’t you, help a poor man
Who’s in a small bind and could use a good hand?”

Whether man or a frog – not sure which you are –
I can’t refuse help if the place is not far.”
“I’m incredibly grateful,” said the frog with a grin.
“Shall we go now? I’m keen to begin.”

And so they stepped out to head to his home.
She took nothing with her save toothbrush and comb.
(He’d promised the journey would not take too long,
But better to be safe should something go wrong.)

She thought that he’d lead her along into town,
But rather than uphill they turned and went down.
He moved along quickly – though small for a frog;
Just to keep up she broke into a jog.

It didn’t take long till she ran out of breath.
“I need to pause here, or you’ll run me to death.
I won’t be long, I just need a short sit.
Go on ahead, I’ll catch up in a bit.”

“Quite fine by me,” he said with a wink.
“I’ll stop at that pond up ahead for a drink.”
As the frog hopped away she lay back in the grass
And stared up at the sky to watch the clouds pass.

Ten minutes later she was startled awake
By the sudden appearance on her lap of a snake.
A small narrow green thing with little black eyes;
From its expression it shared her surprise.

“My goodnesss! I’m sssorry, don’t mean to intrude,”
The snake said, “I ssslipped as I grabbed at sssome food.
I fell from the tree, but I’ll be on my way.”
She waved after him. “Hope you have a nice day!”

She hadn’t been meaning to fall in a doze,
And with thoughts of the frog, so now quickly she rose.
She hurried to catch up the frog at the pond,
Hoping he hadn’t gave up and gone on.

She reached the pond edge but no one was there.
“Mr Frog?” she called out to the warm summer air.
“He is down here with me,” said a low rumbly voice.
“I didn’t expect I’d be offered a choice.”

“What choice would that be?” she nervously said –
A deep voice like that surely meant he was dead.
She peered in the water and gulped back a scream,
For there was a ‘gator, its eyes all a-gleam.

“Why, what’s up for lunch. Such options there are!
Should it be frog legs? Or maiden tar-tar?”
The beast licked its lips and gave a broad smile.
“I think I’ll have maiden, it has been a while…”

“My vote’s for neither,” she said, grabbing a stick.
“For one thing, I’m sure I would make you be sick.
I’m on the rag, it’d ruin the flavour.
And as for the frog legs, they’ve gone out of favour.”

“I don’t believe you.” It gave her the eye.
“You smell clean to me, it’s clearly a lie.”
Then it leapt from the water and snapped at her arm.
She jabbed with her stick and fell back in alarm.

The ‘gator’s bite missed and she chose not to linger
In case it decided to try for a finger.
She dashed down the road, her head in a fog
Of guilt-stricken grief for the fate of the frog.

When finally her tears dried enough she could see,
She paused a the base of a giant oak tree.
Nothing there looked like the places she knew.
It seemed she was lost; she knew not what to do.

As she stood there with her hands intertwined,
She heard a soft sound of the rustling kind.
It came from the leaves underneath a small shrub,
And as she stood watching there out popped a grub.

Well, out popped a lizard, the grub in its jaws,
But one so enormous it gave her a pause.
When it saw her staring the lizard did say,
“Kint top a tock, ut ahg uh gud ay.”

“But wait!” she called out. “Which way to the town?”
“Mrmph it phway!” it it said, without slowing down.
She looked where it pointed – nothing but bush –
But gave a small shrug and walked in with a push.

The forest was dark and without much around.
She went quite a way without hearing a sound.
But then from some rocks she heard a dry rattle,
A sound that tells instincts, “you’d better scadaddle!”

She froze in her tracks and tried not to move.
“Well, what have we here?” said a voice, low and smooth.
“A lovely losst maiden, it sssure looksss to me,
How lucky I’m hungry; my dinner you’ll be.”

The serpent then slithered out into her view:
A monstrous snake – she guessed seven-foot-two.
A size that could easily swallow her whole,
And go for a week feeling comfortably full.

Before she could move, the rattlesnake struck,
But grabbed just her dress by some stroke of luck.
She didn’t allow it the time to retry,
Or even a chance to wish her goodbye.

Blindly she ran, off into the trees,
Crashing through stumps and bruising her knees.
Finally she reached a small sandy glade.
She stopped for a rest, at the edge in the shade.

Hands on her knees, she stared at the dirt,
And spotted some tracks that made her alert:
A long narrow trail, and there, just beyond,
A snakeskin! Still fresh, the snake not long gone.

Surprise turned to dread as she heard a soft sound,
And she quietly grabbed a thick stick from the ground.
It’d followed her here! Well, she’d let it see
A dinner for snake she wasn’t to be.

She didn’t look twice when it stuck its head out.
She crashed the stick down in a great forceful clout.
The snake gave a cry of alarm and surprise –
She could nearly see all the stars in its eyes.

“The heck was that for? I coulda been dead!
Thank goodness your stick was just wood and not lead!”
“I’m dreadfully sorry!” she truthfully said.
“Afraid I mistook you for another instead.

Please do forgive me, I’ll be on my way.
You wouldn’t believe, it’s not been my day.”
She trudged along, weary, longing for home
(And wishing she wasn’t so scared when alone).

She wasn’t too certain she’d gone the right way;
It felt like she’d walked in large circles all day.
Just when she felt about ready to crack,
She popped out of the trees onto a dirt track.

Delighted, she pondered which way she should go,
With nothing to guide her, and no way to know.
But then she caught sight of some blue in the green:
The small little pond where the ‘gator had been?

Slowly (in case the great beast was still there)
She crept to the pond and peered round with care.
She quickly could see it was not the same one:
The other’d had branches concealing the sun.

Here, silver birds called and screamed from the sky,
While many small turtles sunbathed waterside.
They seemed unconcerned by the things in the air,
Soaking the sun up without any care.

As she stood wondering what to do now –
Maybe try asking directions to town –
A large painted turtle paused by her side
And watching the others it casually sighed.

“It seems that each summer flies faster than last.
I’ve seen twenty-six and as each one has passed,
I’ve looked forward to taking my long winter sleep,
Holding my breath, and buried down deep.

Now, I’m an old turtle but many new born
Face many perils and might not make it till morn’.
For instance, some turtlets that hatched just today
Can’t make it to water, a log in their way.

Perhaps you could help? They’re not too far back –
Just near that tree at the side of the track.”
“I’ll do what I can,” she said looking ’round,
“But before you go, could you point me to town?”

She found the small hatchlings just where she’d been told,
And fashioned her dress skirt in to a thick fold.
She placed them inside, lifting one at a time,
Then walked through the mud to the low waterline.

As she set the last free and sat watching it go,
She heard a small voice call out to her: “So!
Finally made it, I see! Is your normal style
Keeping frog princes waiting awhile?”

She turned and looked down, and there the frog sat,
Smiling bemusedly (and seeming intact).
“You didn’t get eaten!” she exclaimed in delight.
“Oh, that darn ‘gator – you gave me a fright!”

So pleased was she feeling she stretched her arms out,
Collected him up and kissed his small snout.
There was a bright flash that blinded her eyes,
And she let go of the frog with a start of surprise.

Then standing before her was a tall handsome man
Who smiled and reached down to offer a hand.
“You wouldn’t believe just how awkward it’s been
To be a large man stuffed in a frog skin!

I’m eternally grateful! How can I repay?
If it’s in my means, then whatever you say.”
She took his hand shyly and rose from the ground.
Feeling quite speechless, she brushed dirt from her gown.

It’s not every day that a frog, understand,
Suddenly up and turns into a man.
It took her a moment to come to her senses
(Attractive young men just disarm her defenses).

He’d offered her anything within his means,
And his eyes were quite honest, whatever he’d been.
She considered the risks of (stranger or not)
Inviting him home (he was pretty hot).

“I guess you don’t need me to help with your home…
So maybe for starters, lead me to my own?
And if you had time, if you’ve nowhere to be…
You’re perfectly welcome to stay for a tea…”

Of course you must know how the story then ends:
Happy together, a great tale for friends.
Still to this day she firmly ascribes
Her happiness to a wish made well-side.

(And okay, there was no betrayal, really,
But loving and longing – I got two out of three.)


Cast of characters, in order of appearance:

Frog on a Doorbell by Cascade View Photography
7/23/10–86°F–73%H–TFI by Science & Soul
What’s a Golf Ball Worth? by Living Alongside Wildlife
Eastern Fence Lizard: The Next Generation by Anybody Seen My Focus?
7-foot Diamondback Rattlers in Poulan, Georgia? by Living Alongside Wildlife
Snaky Days by Birder’s Lounge
Mambas on the Loose in Minnesota by Living Alongside Wildlife
Saturday, September 4, 2010 by Philly Herping
John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge by Kind of Curious
Turtlets by The Marvelous in Nature

The October edition of House of Herps is currently looking for a host! Contact Amber and Jason (hosting [at] houseofherps [dot] com) if you’re interested in hosting next month. If you can’t host but would still like to participate, send your submissions to submissions [at] houseofherps [dot] com

Sunday Snapshot – Spring Peeper

Spring Peeper

Earlier last week, on a warmish night, I stepped outside to check the porch light for moths and bring raven in from her tie-out and nearly stepped on this little guy, who was sitting still as a leaf on the wooden porch decking. I was a little surprised to see him. I keep emphasizing that there is no substantial body of water anywhere near the house (Raven’s drinking bowl doesn’t count) and I’m always surprised to see aquatic or semi-aquatic creatures turn up there. Since the frogs started calling this spring I’ve determined that there’s a vernal forest pool in the neighbour’s forest, almost due west (or at least, at straight right-angles from the house; not sure how west lines up). That’s the closest pool of water with any frog potential, and it’s still probably 90 meters (295 ft) at a minimum, which is a long way for a little frog not much bigger than the last joint of my thumb to hop. Maybe the other frogs were picking on him for the imperfect cross pattern on his back. Or maybe it was a she and she was just feeling overwhelmed by the testosterone and needed to escape for a breather. In any case, it only stuck around long enough for me to take one photo before jumping off the porch and disappearing into the darkness of the garden.

The best of 2009

Black-capped Chickadees

Yesterday was my two-year “blogoversary”. (I actually thought today was, which is why I didn’t post yesterday; it was only in going back to review last year’s post that I realized my error.) I first put metaphorical pen to paper here at The Marvelous in Nature on January 12, 2008. It’s hard to believe two years have flown by already. Not including this one, I have written 449 posts here to date; 222 of those were since my one-year blogoversary post. That works out to about one every 1.6 days. This was probably boosted considerably by my habit of writing more frequently – sometimes up to five times a week – during the summer. I can’t sustain that sort of pace during the winter, when it’s more like one post every 2.3 days.

I thought in celebration of reaching the two-year mark I’d select my favourite posts from 2009 and re-share them here for those who might have missed them the first time, or would just like to enjoy them again. I did this last year, as well; for me, it’s fun to have a chance to review the past year and remember all of my interesting and exciting observations. Two-hundred twenty-two posts is a lot of writing; it was hard to select just twelve as my favourites, but I finally narrowed it down. So without further ado: the best of 2009!

Canadian picnic table

JanuaryI and the Bird #92 – The Picnic Party
I looked through all of my January posts from last year, and I had some interesting observations, but I finally settled on this one. I had a lot of fun when writing the poem, and I still have fun when I go back to read it. I’m hosting I and the Bird #117 next Thursday, nearly one year to the day from the picnic party edition.

Hoary Redpoll

FebruaryThe old man redpoll
We had a couple of Hoary Redpolls visit our feeders in February, and I discussed a bit about them, as well as identification tips to tell them from Commons.

Pileated Woodpecker

MarchA place to call home
While out wandering the woods with Raven I came across a female Pileated Woodpecker working on excavating her nest. She was very unconcerned with us, and kept working away even as I ran off dozens of photos from just below.

Wood Frogs

AprilWood frog love
While visiting some crown land north of the previous house I found a couple of female Wood Frogs being mauled by amorous suitors.

Canadian Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis

MayFlowers of the heart
Columbine are among my favourite wildflowers, and they were fairly common in the rocky habitat around the lake house. I hope we have some around here, too! We arrived too late last summer for them to still be in bloom. My sister got me one for my birthday last year, so I can enjoy them close to the house.


JuneIt’s a bug-eat-bug world
I collected up a number of photos of invertebrates I had encountered with prey (mostly spiders), and shared them together.

Spoon-leaved Sundew, Drosera spatulata

JulyThe plant that eats meat
Sundew are one of my favourite native plants, but are so rarely encountered because of their specialized habitat requirements that make them very local in distribution. I got a chance to check some out with the canoe on one visit to Rock Ridge this summer.


AugustL’otter fun
One morning, while I was sitting at the banding site at the Rock Ridge MAPS station, a family of otters swam by, through the water lilies and along the small lake below.


SeptemberBlack and blue and wet all over
When our landlord came to shut down the pool for the summer, he found a Blue-spotted Salamander in the filter intake, and brought it to share with me.

Netted Stinkhorn, Dictyophora duplicata

OctoberEau de la viande pourrie
My coolest mycological find of the year was this Netted Stinkhorn, one of a small handful I found over in the 100-acre woods.


NovemberWinterizing the brain
November’s a tough month for nature blogger – you’re suffering the post-summer letdown from the biological high you were riding for the last seven months, and in your slightly stupefied state of wildlife withdrawal it’s hard to come up with good content. As an exercise to help overcome the naturalist’s-block, I examine the small square of lichen-covered rock above.

Northern Cardinal

DecemberAll dressed in red
The cardinal that I first wrote about in this post still continues to grace us with his presence at the feeders. It’s good to see him doing so well!

Tuesday Miscellany

Wooly Bears and Hickory Tussock Moths

The same day that I found the fairy ring, I also came across a caterpillar highway. At first, I only noticed one Wooly Bear crossing the path, and as I stooped to look at it, another caught my eye. I picked them both up and put them on my hand for a photo. Then when I leaned down to put them back on the ground, I found a third. Well, a photo of three in the hand is better than a photo of two in the hand, so I picked it up, too, and took another photo. Then I spotted a fourth caterpillar. And then a fifth. I wandered back and forth along about three meters/yards of trail and turned up these ten caterpillars all on or right beside the path. The brown-and-black ones are Wooly Bears, of course (my mom just did a great post about them). They were most likely wandering in search of a cozy place to hole up for the winter.

The white one is a Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillar. I think the little yellowish-black one is a younger Hickory Tussock (many caterpillars change colour/pattern with each successive moult). The tussock moths are a group whose caterpillars all share the characterisitc of having these great tufts of “fur” poking out around their head and tail ends. If the hairs prick the skin they can cause discomfort and rashes, particularly in people with sensitive skin. This is also true of Wooly Bears and all other fuzzy caterpillars. Presumably the fuzz would act as a defense mechanism since if a predator eats one and ends up with an itchy/sore palate and tongue as a result, they’re unlikely to eat another. This may be why they curl into balls when disturbed, protecting their hairless belly (all of the individuals on my hand started out balled up, but as they realized I wasn’t going to eat them, they started wandering and didn’t re-curl even when I picked them up to adjust their position). Another reason for all the hair is that these caterpillars hibernate as caterpillars, not in cocoons, and the fuzz may act as insulation. It is also often used in the cocoon when they’re building it.

Oh, and see those little green balls in the middle of all the critters? Caterpillar poop!

American Toad

On Saturday, as I was gathering up my gear to head over to the 100-acre woods, Dan called me over to the window well at the side of the house. Perched on the windowsill, looking not too happy about her confinement, was this giant toad. Between the muskrat and now the toad, I’m starting to think perhaps we should put some window screening over the wells. Or at the very least a board or stick so the animals can crawl out again. I scooped the toad out and placed her on our walk for photos, with a penny for scale. This was a particularly colourful individual, with pale yellow underparts and a beautiful reddish tinge to the brown sides. It was also a lot blotchier than the one I profiled last year. There seems to be considerable variation in the colour and patterning of American Toads, and I’ve been thrown off on occasion when the individual just looks so unusual to me that I think it must be a different species. The only other species that might occur in Ontario to be confused with it, though, is Fowler’s Toad, and the latter always has three warts in the large black spots on its back, while Americans only have one or two.

Owl pellet and carrion beetle

Dan had been on a roll. The day before, he found this owl pellet, which he carefully saved for me. It was underneath one of the big maple trees in our yard. Most likely it was the product of a Great Horned Owl that had stopped by one evening. So far, the Great Horn’ds are the only species of owl that I’ve heard around the new place. They’re generalists as far as breeding habitat goes, able to happily make a living in even smaller wooded areas. You’ll even sometimes find them nesting in urban woodlots or naturalized parks. At the lake house we had virtually no Great Horn’ds around, but did have several Barred Owls in the vicinity, which prefer larger tracts of mature forest. It was neat to think of the owl having been in our yard, and spent long enough in the tree to produce this. If it hadn’t left the pellet, we would never have known it had been there.

Dan had saved the pellet thinking I might be interested in dissecting it and looking at the bones inside. Probably ordinarily I would have, but I happened to be distracted by this beetle. I found the beetle not far from the pellet, but placed it on the pellet myself. I know, I know, that’s cheating. Oh well. Makes a good shot, doesn’t it? The beetle actually stayed there where I’d put it, so I don’t know if it was interested in the regurgitated material, or was simply waiting for me to leave. The beetle is a carrion beetle, perhaps Nicrophorus orbicollis, one of many species that can detect rotting carcasses from long distances, up to 1.5 miles (4 km) away. Perhaps even more remarkable, the beetles can detect the dead animals often within an hour of death. And probably even more amazing, these beetles exhibit parental care, the parents staying with the eggs, and then the young once they’ve hatched, and feeding them regurgitated food.


Speaking of bones, I encountered these buried in the grass at the back of the property last week. They’re obviously quite old and weathered, and have been there a long time. It’s most likely that they’re deer bones, perhaps a kill made by coyotes many winters ago, but not being an expert in bone identification I couldn’t say for sure. I found one or two more a short distance away. Given that there’s only a few bones and not a whole skeleton, I wonder if the animal had removed a leg or section of the prey and brought it here to consume in peace.

Witches brooms

A number of weeks ago I posted about a strange growth I found sitting on the trunk of a toppled hemlock in the 100-acre woods. At the time I thought it was an epiphyte, like a bromeliad, only some temperate woody species. I was corrected by a couple of my fabulous readers who pointed out that it was actually a deformity of the tree caused by a fungal infection, and was usually called a witch’s broom. While out this weekend I came across another one sporting these growths. However, these ones looked more like deformities than a separate plant perched atop a fallen trunk. I might have been able to figure out what they were if I’d seen these ones first.


All the milkweed pods are starting to split open and release their seeds to the wind. The meadows are dotted with fluffy white puffs, both attached to the plant still and ones that have already drifted off.

milkweed seeds

I haven’t decided what message I should send off to Santa yet, though.

Lowland Tapir by Jyrki Hokkanen on Picasa

In addition to the macaw clay lick, one of the stops on the Manu tour is near a mammalian clay lick, also called a colpa, that is often frequented by tapirs. These colpas are understandably less busy than those of the avian sort, but are often the best chance one has of seeing tapirs and many other mammals in their natural habitat, since mammals, even the large ones, can be incredibly secretive. Many tour companies and lodges will take their visitors to a hide at dusk, and the tapirs visit in the early hours of the night. Like the parrots, the mammals are looking for minerals and salts to help with their digestion and boost blood electrolytes.

I’m going to Peru with Kolibri Expeditions as part of their blogger promotional series. Want to come? I’d love to have you along! My departure leaves November 13, 2010 and returns the 21st, well before the US Thanksgiving. You can get more information about the trip, including itinerary and, of course, cost, at this page. Don’t forget that if you’re also a blogger you get $100 off. In addition to having a great time, meeting some great bloggers, and seeing some fabulous birds, you’ll also be supporting the local communities as they work toward developing a sustainable ecotourism industry for their area. It’s a win-win!

Black and blue and wet all over


On the weekend our landlady and her son were here to shut down the swimming pool for the year. Neither Dan nor I had used the pool since moving in, although had it been an average summer with lots of glorious sunshine to warm the water and hot, sticky temperatures to inspire me to dive in, I probably would have been in there most days. As it was, we’d enjoyed the frogs that had moved in but didn’t try out the water ourselves – too cool for the weather. It takes a lot of energy and effort to maintain a pool, and since we weren’t using it, we suggested to our landlady that it might be best just to shut it down for the year.

When they went to clean out the pool filter they found this little guy floating around in the intake area. The son brought it into the house for me, suspecting (correctly) that I might be interested. It’s a Blue-spotted Salamander, Ambystoma laterale. This one was just little, maybe 3 inches (8 cm) long, but even the largest ones only grow to 5.75 inches (14 cm).


It was probably a youngster from this year. Salamanders start out aquatic – their eggs are laid in vernal pools and they spend the first couple of months of their life in the water. By late summer they’ve completely metamorphosed into their adult state. As adults they are terrestrial, living either in and around damp deciduous forests and swamps, or sometimes found in fields or coniferous woodlands (I think it’s unlikely they would spend their whole life in these habitats, though; probably they are just passing through or staying temporarily). They generally hide under rocks or logs, or sometimes just in the leaf litter. In the spring especially, when the forest floor is damp and salamanders are on the move to the vernal ponds for breeding, but also in the fall when young salamanders are dispersing, I have visions of unintentionally stepping on a salamander that’s hiding under a leaf in the litter.


Salamanders, like all amphibians, have very thin, sensitive skin. Having been in the chlorinated pool (however mild the concentration) I was a bit concerned for his health, although the frogs seemed to do okay there. Blue-spotted Salamanders use lungs for respiration, but there are some species that breathe through their skin. All salamanders need to keep their skin moist, and secrete a mucous layer that helps trap moisture, but also acts as a barrier to salt loss when they’re in the water (otherwise their bodies salts would disperse through their skin, by osmosis, into the relatively salt-less freshwater).


We have one small pond on the property, tucked a couple of fields back, hidden in a patch of trees. It’s less than a foot deep at this time of year, though I don’t doubt it will be considerably fuller in the springtime. I decided to take the salamander back there, both so that it was away from the pool (and the dog), but also so it was nearish to water should it want it, even though as adults they don’t actually spend much if any time in water in the non-breeding season. Presumably if it stayed in the area it would have a head start on migrating to the pond in the spring.


When we reached the water I slipped my hand under the surface, and after a moment the little salamander swam off. Even though they spend so little time in the water, they’re adept swimmers, using a side-to-side undulating motion much like a fish or shark. Its long partially-flattened tail probably helps play a role in this movement. Males will also have longer, more flattened tails than females (which leads me to wonder if this is a female). Presumably the males need more control in the water when they’re trying to win over and mate with a female in the spring.


The salamander, once in the water, didn’t go far. Clearly it thought the water every bit as cold as I did. After a moment it seemed to be curling up into a fetal position, so I lifted it out again. I was surprised at the temperature, since it is late-summer after all.

You can really see just how spotted it is, and where it gets its name. There is also a similarly-patterned species, the Jefferson’s Salamander, that doesn’t occur here but is found through much of the Blue-spotted’s range. The Jefferson’s is dark with blue speckles rather than blue spots. Where the two overlap they hybridize regularly, producing a non-species labelled “Ambystoma platineum“. These hybrids are triploid – that is, they have three sets of genes instead of the normal two – and are all females. They reproduce gynogenetically – they will mate with males, but the male’s sperm only acts as a trigger to the egg to start dividing; it contributes no genetic material itself. As a result, the hybrid’s offspring are partial clones of their mother – they are diploid, with two sets of chromosomes that are identical to two of the three of their mother’s.


I set the salamander back out on the leaf litter, since clearly it had no interest in being in the water. I left it there, hopefully to go off and find itself a good place to hole up for the winter. It will need to burrow down into the sandy soil some 18 inches (45 cm) or so to get below the frost line. It will reemerge in the spring, triggered by the first spring rains, often marching across snow to reach its still mostly-frozen breeding ponds. I haven’t ever witnessed this spectacle, but I’m going to try to see it next spring. Maybe, among the individuals in the meltwater at the pond’s edge, this guy will be there.