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.

Tuesday Miscellany


Another week flies by – has it passed already? It seems all I can do to keep up some days. Here is the other half of last week’s miscellaneous collection, along with a few new additions from this past week.

Our swimming pool was closed up this weekend and drained today. The owners of the house had it going earlier this season, before Dan and I moved in. Neither Dan nor I are avid swimmers, though I do enjoy paddling in warm water. However, the weather was so cool and rainy this summer, the pool never warmed up, and it only got hot enough for me to even consider it on a couple of occasions. Rather than waste the energy in keeping it up, we advised our landlord that it might just be best to drain it.

It will be missed by the frogs, who had discovered this watery oasis in the middle of our pondless meadows. Our peak count was seven individuals. We tried removing them at one point, walking them back half a kilometer to the neighbour’s pond, but within a couple of days new ones had moved in to take their place. Surprisingly, they didn’t seem to suffer from the chlorinated water (very low levels, but still), and they probably loved the bonanza of insects that got caught in the pool and drowned. They would haul themselves up on the hose of the kreepy krawler. Raven had a blast running about the pool edge, peering in at them, she’d go to the pool gate and sit and whine for us to let her in. We mostly seemed to have Green Frogs inhabiting the pool, identified by their green upper lip and dark bands across their back legs.


August was our first “repeat” month in eastern Ontario, since we moved out of Toronto to the lake house for Aug 1 last year. It’s been interesting to see some of the same observations we had last year turning up again this year. One example is this giant crane fly. Almost three inches from foot to foot, it’s got to be the biggest crane fly species I’ve seen. We had a couple around the house last year, including this individual. It’s a Giant Eastern Crane Fly, Pedicia albivitta. They’re attracted to artificial light, and we’ve been seeing them regularly at our porch lights.


This repeat goes back to spring 2008. I found a similar cocoon stuck to my parents’ windowsill last winter, and later saw many at the research station. Since that initial observation, I’ve also seen them on the outside walls of the lake house, and now around here, including on plants in the meadow. They belong to a bagworm moth, probably Psyche casta, a species whose females fashion these stick cases like caddisflies and then never leave them. They mate with males and then lay their eggs all within the confines of their case. Once the female has mated, she secures the case to a surface with a sticky pad of silk, and then dies. The case in this photo probably no longer had a living adult in it, though I didn’t try taking it off to check.


I spotted this strikingly-patterned beetle on a plant at my parents’ new place while housesitting last weekend. It’s a leaf beetle, and I foolishly neglected to pay attention to what species of plant it was on. Since leaf beetles tend to be very closely associated with particular types of plants (such as the Three-lined Potato Beetles or Clavate Tortoise Beetles on my Chinese Lanterns in the spring), knowing the plant species would have helped with identification. Still, I suspect it to be a Ragweed Leaf Beetle, Zygogramma suturalis, which feeds, unsurprisingly, on ragweed, a pretty common plant around here.


I found this brightly-coloured clump of fungi on an old stump in one of our small stands of trees out in the middle of the meadows. From the photos in my mushroom guide I think it’s Mycena leaiana, a fairly common and widespread bright orange fungus that is usually found in clusters on stumps and logs. It’s considerably larger than other Mycena species I’ve encountered, and was particularly eye-catching, even through all the foliage.


I found this lovely flower in the woods at my parents’ place. Of course, after posting the white mystery flowers last week, I knew what these ones were: White Turtlehead, Chelone glabra. It’s a very common, widespread species that enjoys wet soils and is found blooming this time of year. It’s a host plant for Baltimore Checkerspots, which we’ve seen lots of in the wet woods at the back of our meadows where I found that first one.


I noticed under our birdfeeder the other day that some opportunistic seeds had sprouted. Two of them had got quite large. I think the one on the right is a sunflower; I did notice a few other younger sunflowers hidden in the long grass. The one on the left, of course, is corn. This one rather surprised me, I didn’t think that the corn packaged in birdseed mix was actually viable. But apparently so! I don’t expect that it will get large enough to actually produce ears before the frost this year, but I’m impressed by its tenacity nonetheless!

Tuesday Miscellany

Gray Treefrog

The month of July has been one thing after another, it seems, and I’m not just talking about nature observations. Between moving at the start of the month, internet downtime immediately following the move that stretched into a few weeks, unpacking and settling into the new home, housesitting for my parents a couple of times, and a trip back to Halton for a funeral, I’ve had lots of distractions that have kept my mind from blog. As a result, I have a pile of photos that I’ve taken but not posted that I thought I’d gather together and put into a miscellany post.

The first photo is from a couple of weeks ago. I’d taken Raven for a walk at the 100 acres that adjoin our main piece of property, to scout out the trails and get the lay of the land. As I was following the path through a field lined with milkweed, I spotted this little guy curled up in the leaf of one of the milkweed plants. It was a smaller Gray Treefrog than I usually see, and the facial markings were particularly well-defined. I wrote about treefrogs last spring when I found one calling from my parents’ water garden.

American Toad

Another amphibian, this one an American Toad. This guy turned up at one of our MAPS stations. I’d just taken off my rainpants (which I consider a vital piece of clothing in the early morning hours when everything is still covered in dew) and had sat back down on the rock when I was startled to discover a toad only a couple of inches from where I’d just flopped down. I’d missed squishing him by less than a hand’s breadth. You can read more on toads from a post I did last fall.

Eastern Milksnake

Another near miss, this Eastern Milksnake was sunning itself on a patch of moss when I very nearly stepped on it. It may even have been the same day. I haven’t seen too many milksnakes about; even though they’re common, they’re not frequently encountered, being less numerous I guess than the abundant garter snakes. I’ve done a post on milksnakes, too. It happens to be my number one top most visited post that I’ve written so far, no doubt because they are often kept as pets.

Elm Sawfly

I found this caterpillar in the grass at Rock Ridge a couple of visits ago. It stayed in the same spot for half the morning. It was a fairly chunky caterpillar, as these things go, and being brightly coloured I figured it would be easy to look up when I got home. I searched through all of my caterpillar references, and then did a Google image search for yellow caterpillars, and wasn’t able to find it. So I turned to my usual fallback, BugGuide.net. Within hours of posting the photo, it was identified for me as an Elm Sawfly – not a lepidoptera at all! Which would explain why it wasn’t in my caterpillar books. (It is actually in the Kaufman insect guide, but looks white there, not yellow, so I may not have noticed it). Sawflies are actually a type of stingless wasp that deposit their eggs in the twigs or leaves of plants. The “saw” in their name refers to the structure of the ovipositor, which resembles a saw.

Furcula caterpillar

This one really is a caterpillar. I believe that it’s a species of moth in the genus Furcula. However, when you look at caterpillar guides or online at BugGuide.net, all of the Furcula caterpillars are green with brownish saddle patches. None are completely brown. A Google image search turned up only one other brown Furcula caterpillar, which was taken by Bev of Burning Silo, who happened to have taken the photo just up the road (relatively speaking) from mine.


I found this nifty fly resting on a dried flower head among the patch of sunflowers when I was searching for insects. It didn’t move when I plucked the deadhead and twisted it around for a better photo. I wondered if it might be dead or possibly parasitized, but when I put the stem back down and it brushed against a leaf the fly took off. It’s a Tachinid fly, possibly in the genus Cylindromyia. Tachinid flies are nearly all internal parasitoids of caterpillars and other insects. Whereas parasites will feed off their host but let them live, parasitoids nearly always kill their host in the end. You can really see well the “halteres”, the vestiges of the second set of wings, which look like round knobs behind the main wings here.

bird pox

In banding you often have the opportunity to see some strange things you may not have noticed or been able to observe while the bird was perched up in a tree. This is one of those things. This bird’s foot has been infected with a type of bird pox that gets under the scales of the foot and causes mutated growth of the cells. This one is an especially “hairy” looking one, many just grow thick and lumpy. These growths are especially tender and prone to bleeding if they get caught up in netting or the like, and you can just imagine how uncomfortable they must be for the poor birds. I let this guy go as soon as I’d removed him from the net, without taking him back for processing. Occasionally the pox can spread up their leg, and if it does it can become a nasty situation, causing the normally loose bracelet-like band to squeeze and constrict the leg. Some birds will never suffer that, but better safe than sorry.

Tree Swallow nestling

The new home has many bluebird boxes scattered out in the meadows behind the house. When I was walking through the meadows near one of these last week I could hear constant chittering coming from one of the boxes. As I drew nearer, I could see faces frequently popping up to the hole to peek out at the world. Clearly these were fledglings that would be departing the nest either later that day or the next. They had lots to say, and weren’t too concerned about me. however, when Raven came near to the box, panting loudly and conspicuously, they all shut up and sat tight. Too late, little birdies, you’ve already given away your location!

Eastern Bluebird nestlings

And finally, this box belonged to some actual bluebirds. Dan discovered the nest, tipped off by a couple of upset adults when he walked by the general vicinity of one of the boxes. Very young, only a few days old at most, these babies are most likely a second brood for the bluebirds. Baby birds grow fast to begin with, but second broods are especially fast, and these babies were probably out of the nest by a week and a half old, two at the most. The boxes that are currently in place are old, weathered, and some are starting to rot. Also, they all require a screwdriver to open. Dan and I will probably replace a few over the winter/spring with new ones that can just be flipped open to check and clean. They’re all currently above head height, too – hard to see what’s inside without a stepstool! I got this photo by holding the camera above my head and hoping for the best.

Scheduled post: Frogs in the garden

Leopard Frog

Over the weekend I spotted a couple of frogs hanging out in my garden, enjoying the flowers. The first was this huge Leopard Frog, who seemed to take a liking to the Love-Lies-Bleeding. Consider that that’s a 6-inch diameter pot. Leopard Frogs are one of the more common frogs of ponds and wetlands through much of southern Ontario, so I’d seen many, but this was easily the largest one I’d encountered. I saw him in that pot on three occasions over as many days; he was there often enough to flatten out a depression in the soil surface where he sat.

Wood Frog

The other was this Wood Frog, who I disturbed when I went to sort through my moth trap one morning. I wrote about Wood Frogs last spring after an encounter with one who came to my moth sheet one night, and also posted about mating Wood Frogs I discovered this spring.