Monday Miscellany

Rock Ridge

I never did get around to posting any photos from our most recent visit to Rock Ridge, with the exception of the unboring beetles. That’s not for lack of any, however. I’ll probably recycle some of last visit’s photos into the post on our next visit (tentatively scheduled for Thursday, weather permitting). However, I’ll also post a couple here. This first one is a posed self-portrait (about the only sort of photo I get of myself, since I’m usually the one holding the camera) looking out over the main lake at Rock Ridge about an hour after sunrise. I’m not aware of a name for the lake, and in fact many of the lakes in the park are nameless, or at least lack any sort of official designation. The same was true of Hemlock Lake over at the first MAPS site (we gave the lake that name). Given that this site is Rock Ridge, perhaps I should start calling it Rock Lake? We’ll have to ponder that on the next visit…

Dawn on Big Clear Lake

This photo was taken on Big Clear Lake, one of the larger “perimeter lakes” that border the edge of the park. True to its name, the lake is both big and clear. On sunny days it’s easy to see the bottom even ten feet down. The clear waters imply it’s an oligotrophic lake – “oligo” meaning few, and “trophic” referring to the food chain. There’s not a lot of nutrients in this lake, possibly as a result of a granite bottom, and so there isn’t a lot of algae growing in the water column. Lack of algae means lack of plankton, lack of plankton means lack of aquatic insects, and all the way up. That’s not to say that there’s no life in the lake, just that compared to lakes with lots of nutrients this one is relatively depauperate.

Beaver jawbone

I came across this beaver jawbone at the site, nestled in a bed of pine needles. The yellow teeth are characteristic of rodents, and their relative length and the overall size of the bone identifies it as a beaver. Beavers have sharp, strong teeth that grow through their entire lives. They need to be constantly chewing on trees and branches in order to keep them worn down. If they stopped chewing, the teeth would eventually grow into the roof of their mouth and make it impossible for the animal to eat. It’s possible that this bone was the kill of one of the wolf/coyote packs in the park, or it may simply have been a beaver that died of natural causes.

Olympia Marble caterpillars

These Olympia Marble caterpillars were found crawling about the tip of a stem of woodland phlox that had gone to seed. The long, thin projection in the foreground, and the one that the little caterpillar is on, are both seed pods. I’m not sure if they were actually eating the seed pods or stem, or if they were there looking for a place to pupate; probably the latter, as the hostplant for the species is given as rockcress, not phlox. I mentioned the adults in another post a few weeks ago, found in similar habitat.

Pumpkinseed

As we were leaving the site we noticed a couple of fish in the short, shallow creek that joins Big Clear Lake with “Rock Lake”. They were close enough, and the water clear enough, to get a passable photo. This one is a Pumpkinseed, identifiable both by the red crescent at the back of the black “ear flap”, and the red and blue striping on the cheek. They look considerably different when out of the water, however, the blue fins don’t really show up and the fish’s body looks green, not brownish red. They’re a common species that I’ve encountered in all of the lakes of the area, or at least those that I’ve looked in.

Fishfly, Nigronia sp.

And a few steps further up the path (okay, so this post ended up being mostly about unposted photos from Rock Ridge), this fishfly flew in front of me and landed on the underside of this branch, where he obligingly stayed put so I could photograph him. I’ve talked about fishflies before, but the ones I’d seen were in the other fishfly genus, Chauliodes. This one is in the genus Nigronia, which have white patches on their wings, and is probably N. serricornis.

Moving crew

We’re starting to pack up the house in preparation for our move, now only a week away. Merlin and Oliver try to help, though I’m not sure they really lend much to the operation. There’s just something about an empty box that a cat can’t resist. We’ll have lots of packing to do, more than the last time we moved – at the time, back in Toronto, half my stuff was already boxed and in storage, which made it a bit quicker. We’re renting a truck and hopefully will be able to do it all in one day, if we’re prepared ahead of time.

#40!

And finally, this is a screenshot taken of the front page of the Nature Blog Network toplist. For the first time since I signed up, I’ve made the front page! I’m listed right behind one of my favourite blogs, too. I post this not to gloat, but because I’m proud to see something do so well that I’ve put so much time and effort and devotion into over the last year and a half. Of course, ultimately it’s my readers, all of you folks, that I really have to thank. Without you, I would still just be blogging away to myself. I know that I often fall behind on comments in trying to keep juggling all the balls of my life, but know that I read them all and I really appreciate hearing from everyone! And I do hope to eventually reply to them all (if I get organized, maybe I’ll even start keeping on top of it…).

Roly-poly fish beds

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A couple of days ago, Dan took Raven down to our dock to throw the stick into the water a few times for her. Since becoming a bonafide water dog, she takes to the water like a fish and it’s easy to give her a good exercise while simply standing on the dock tossing sticks. While we have some small misgivings about her splashing around in the shallows there, it seems better than having her running around loose in the woods. We’re simply not capable of giving her sufficient exercise through walks on a leash, she’s just got too much energy to burn.

We do, however, make an effort to keep her to the north side of our bay. Last summer, when we moved in, we noticed some bare circular patches in the gravelly shallows along the south edge of the bay. We knew right away that these were spawning beds, though without the fish on them we couldn’t say for which species.

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With the weather, and therefore the water, beginning to warm up, it’s about the right time for most species to start spawning. A couple of weeks ago we noticed some activity in the shallows around our dock, a bit of splashing and some dorsal fins poking up from the water’s surface. This occurred for two or three days, and then the water was quiet again. We never did determine which species was involved there, though they were smaller fish than the pike I’d seen earlier in the spring.

We’d been keeping a casual eye on the spawning beds off our shoreline, and knew they would return eventually, so it didn’t come as too much of a surprise when Dan called up to me that afternoon, “The fish are bedding!” I was quick to grab my camera and head down to try for some photos, unable to quell a little bit of excitement about the event, having never observed it before. There’s also something neat about it happening in your own backyard.

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I ran off a few dozen photos, trying for at least one or two that might show the fish clearly enough to be able to identify the species. Unfortunately, it was a somewhat breezy day, and the ripples on the water’s surface distorted the fish’s shape, making it difficult to tell (at least in the photo) that the object was even a fish, much less of what sort. Complicating matters was that the water’s surface reflected the clouds in the sky, causing sufficient glare to wash out the objects below the surface. I did my best, but didn’t come out with much.

I returned this afternoon, hoping that the slightly calmer wind conditions might allow me to get a better photo. Unfortunately, the water’s surface was still as washed out as the first time I tried. There were some areas near the shore that reflected the dark canopies of the overhanging trees, and in these spots one could clearly see down to the bottom – but naturally, there were no fish beds there. Where the beds were left me, standing on the shore, at too oblique and angle to avoid the glare. The fish are very skittish, dashing off the bed at the first sign of shadow, so I wouldn’t even be able to take the canoe over. Ah well. You get the idea.

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I was only able to definitively determine the species of one of these fish, and it was just by chance, as I was reviewing the photos. Notice that in this one you can see that his eye is bright red (I’ve saturated the colours here to accentuate it). In our waters, there’s only one species of fish with a bright red eye: Rock Bass, Ambloplites rupestris. Below is a photo of a Rock Bass taken last summer, where you can better see the eye and scale pattern than when it’s in the water. It’s amazing how camouflaged fish are in the water, considering what they look like when you pull them out.

Rock Bass

For most fish, when they start to spawn depends on the water temperature, and so the exact timing may vary from lake to lake, depending on the depth of the water and various local conditions. Pike are the earliest here, spawning when the temperature of the shallows reaches 10 oC (50 oF), usually not long after ice-out. Rock Bass need slightly warmer temperatures, at around 15 oC (60 oF). The sunfishes, Pumpkinseed and Bluegill, need the water to be at least 21 oC (70 oF).

The division in temperature requirements means that probably, for the most part, the species are temporally separated from one another in when they spawn, and you’re not likely to find sunfish spawning with Rock Bass, for instance. I’m not sure if they’ll use the same beds once the other fish clear out, or if everybody makes their own, but clearly they clean up and reuse beds from previous years since all of the ones along our shore are occupied this spring.

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Depending on the species, a single female fish can lay thousands of eggs. Female Rock Bass lay an average of 5,000 eggs, with high counts reaching 11,000 per individual. Bluegills, however, may lay as many as 38,000 eggs per female. Since sometimes two females may lay in the same bed, there can be up to 60,000 eggs in a single bed. Bluegills, unlike other fish, have the potential to overpopulate a lake as a result, and when things start to get a bit crowded growth rates slow down. I don’t think the other species have the same problem. In the case of all species, the majority of those eggs are going to be eaten before they ever reach maturity.

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The beds are guarded by the male fish, once the female has laid her eggs and left. He protects it from predators, never straying far, and also aerates the eggs by fanning water of them with his fins. The eggs hatch in two to five days, partly depending on water temperatures and the particular species in question, during which time the male eats only what happens to enter the area around his spawning bed. This is why catching fish on spawning beds is so easy. Although fishing spawning Largemouth Bass and other large sport fish is illegal, sunfish are open all year. Fortunately, they don’t appeal to very many people. I suppose the easiest way to confirm the identity of the species, if I really wanted to know, however, would simply be to pull out my fishing rod.

I suppose I’ll have to keep an eye on the beds, watch for when these guys leave and disperse, and see if I notice anyone else come in to take their place.

Today at Kingsford – Warm weather catch-up

Garter snake

On the same lovely warm day a week ago that I spotted the various butterflies and day-flying moths, I also encountered a number of spring vertebrates. The first was this garter snake. It was just lying in the road, not moving, soaking up the same beautiful sunshine that I was. It seemed somewhat chubby, and I wondered if it might be a pregnant female. It seems rather unlikely, though, since snakes would only just be starting to mate now, and garter snakes gestate for 2-3 months before giving birth to live young (which are independent from birth). On the other hand, females can store viable sperm for multiple years, so would some perhaps make use of that to get a head start on gestation before emerging from the hibernaculum in the spring?

Turtle

Out on Eel Lake I spotted a turtle basking on a log. The water was open, but the ice wasn’t long gone, so I was a bit surprised to see the turtle out and active (if you can call sunbathing active) already. I couldn’t tell what species of turtle it was, and even after coming home and blowing up the photos I still couldn’t discern enough detail to give it an ID (I only had my 100mm lens on the camera, having decided to leave the 300mm at home, and couldn’t get close enough with the shorter lens). However, I did notice when I blew the photo up that there wasn’t just one turtle in the photo, but actually four. Click here for a larger version of the next photo.

Four turtles

There are five species of turtle in Frontenac Provincial Park and area: Blanding’s, Map, Painted, and Snapping Turtles, as well as Stinkpots. Blanding’s have yellow bellies and throats, which seem bright enough to be noticeable even at a distance, so I don’t think they’re those. Snappers are much more craggy. The ones in the photo don’t seem to have a dorsal ridge that Map turtles can show. Stinkpots have a very stumpy appearance with domed shells and thick necks. So I think that leaves Painted. But if I’m honest, I really don’t know for certain.

Fish (Northern Pike?)

And finally, not far from the log with the first turtle, I watched a fish splashing around in the shallows. I think there may actually have been two, but I couldn’t really tell for sure, since there was a fair bit of glare on the water from where I was standing. At one point one of them swam close enough that the fish’s shape could be seen in the shadowy patches, and I think it was a Northern Pike, a relatively common fish in our lakes. In the early spring pike will move into the weedy shallows around lake edges in order to spawn, and I have a feeling that’s what was going on in all the splashing in the shallows here. Wish I’d had my canoe and could’ve floated closer for a better look.

Fish (Northern Pike?)

The return trip

Smooth patches

I left off yesterday just as we were rounding the corner into McNally Bay. With the sun now behind us, you could see some reflective spots on the ice surface. It turned out, when we got closer, that these were the most gloriously smooth patches of ice on the whole lake. Evidently the water had pooled in these spots, and with no underlying snow to texture the ice surface it had flattened out like glass.

Where the sun hits

Toward the north end of the bay I noticed this pattern in the snow. The north side of the bay, which the sun shone on most of the day, was snow-free, while the west side, which remained shaded, still had a layer of snow on the ground. It was evident in other spots, too, where little ridges provided protection from the sun, but nowhere was it as pronounced as in this particular spot.

Backcountry campsite

At the north end, the furthest you can skate before you have to turn around and head back again, there is a backcountry camping site for the provincial park. Empty now, of course, I don’t think the park gets many winter campers although in theory the sites are open year-round. The sites are marked by bright orange signs, to guide people in who are arriving to it by a water route. I’m not quite sure where they would be launching into the water, though, unless it was by Kingsford Dam, since the whole west side of the lake, the side the road runs along, is private land.

Taking a break

Dan and Raven take a break. By the time we reached the top of McNally we were starting to feel a tad fatigued, our long visit with the neighbours notwithstanding. Plus it was just nice to sit down in the sun for a few moments and soak it in.

Leaf-warmed ice

I stopped to snap photos of a few things out on the ice. One of the things that caught my attention were the many leaves scattered about the surface. Nearly all of them were oaks, more than likely marcescent leaves loosened by the winter winds and come to settle on the lake. Where they came to rest they absorbed the energy from the warm sun and re-radiated it to the ice around them. Virtually all of the leaves sat in little melted hollows such as this.

Icefishing holes

McNally Bay is a favoured spot on the lake for icefishing. I suspect this is partially due to the depth of the water here compared to elsewhere; Kingsford isn’t a deep lake anywhere, but the deepest spots on it are in McNally. There were at least three different areas where icefishers had set up shop for a bit. In a couple spots they’d brought firewood (or, as we noticed, harvested it from downed logs at the edge of the park – better than cutting live trees I guess, though they shouldn’t be removing anything) and made themselves small campfires for warmth. They poke small twigs into the ice beside the hole, partially, perhaps, to mark the hole in case it snows, but it’s also used to tie the fishing line to. There were perhaps seven or eight holes in this particular patch, and with the surrounding mounds of snow they looked like little winter gopher colonies.

Largemouth Bass

We encountered a guy out icefishing at another spot distant from the ones above. He’d just set up and hadn’t caught anything yet. Today when we were out we happened to run into his brother at the same location. I’m not sure how long they’d been there, but they had a good fire going and a pot of chili simmering on the camp stove. He was friendly and offered us a beer, or a Pepsi, or a bowl of chili, all of which we politely declined since we didn’t want to be gone long. He had already caught a couple of fish, however, which were hauled out on the ice; a Largemouth Bass and a Northern Pike. They were planning on eating them for dinner that night, so I guess the fish were left to suffocate and/or freeze to death. Not having ever had the desire to kill a fish, I’m really not sure what the most humane way of doing so would be.

Northern Pike

I took advantage of them being there to snap a couple of photos, though. I had seen a couple pikes before, in the summer, when Dan had got them on his bass lure, but because they’re toothy he hadn’t ever really pulled them out of the water, so this was the first good look I’d got of one. I was amazed at the amount of colour in it, especially its fins. Look at that orange! This was just a small individual, only about 14 inches (36 cm) long.

Pileated work on downed tree

On our way back down the east shore we passed that downed pine that I mentioned at the end of January. I took advantage of the second visit to have a look at the broken end of the fallen portion. A closer inspection revealed two square-shaped holes in the outer bark of the tree, one just above and 90 degrees from the other. The work of a Pileated Woodpecker. I’m not sure if it had been going after carpenter ants that had invaded the tree’s heart, but the placement of these two holes so closely together was undoubtedly what had weakened the trunk and caused it to snap in the windstorm.

Chasing the ball

As we turned for home we were facing into the sun as it began to sink into the sky. It made navigating the bumps and ridges on the ice more difficult as the glare washed out most detail. I was skating a little bit behind Dan, who was still managing to engage Raven in a game of chase the ball (she always has more energy than we do), and happened to snap this shot just at the moment they crossed over the reflected sunlight. It’s probably my favourite shot of the outing. Notice Raven is beating him to the ball. Even with her barefoot on the ice and us in skates, she’s still faster than we are.

Headed for home

Approaching home and Raven recognized where we are. She took off across the ice in the direction of the house, clearly anticipating a drink of fresh water and a nap on the comfy couch.

They’re calling for snow the next couple of days, so depending on how much we get that might be it for the lake-sized skating rink. I’m hoping it only amounts to a few centimeters; as long as it doesn’t get a crusty top to it, it’s still possible to stake through a small layer of snow. And I really do enjoy getting out on the skates, with the whole lake as our playground.

Something fishy

Bluegill

Here’s something new for the blog – fish! I think I may have mentioned fish in passing in one or two previous posts, but never as a topic of discussion. For the most part this was because I was never where there were fish to observe. The only fish I really encountered in Toronto, aside from the schools of little minnows that one sees skirting the shore in the sandy shallows (there’s a good bit of alliteration for you!), were giant, overgrown carp that were hard at work digging up the bottom of a little bay we surveyed in the summer. I’ve spotted the odd salmon moving up-river to spawn, mostly when I was in BC a few years ago. But that’s pretty much it. My parents’ waterbodies don’t have fish because they’re shallow and vernal, and fish can’t survive the drying up in the summer, or the freezing in the winter.

When we made our first visit to view the house, we went down to the dock to look around. Peering in the water we spotted these guys, above, whole bunches of them, several of which might have been 6 or more inches long. These were easily the biggest “real” fish (carp don’t count) I’d seen in quite a long time. I have to go back to my childhood, canoeing in the little man-made lake in town, to recall good looks at largeish fish like this. Although he likely won’t admit it, I suspect that finding these fish loafing near the dock was one of the things that really sold Blackburnian on the house (the other being the view as we stepped out of the car).

In his younger days, Blackburnian was really into fishing. He owns at least three rods and reels of different types, and has two tackle boxes full of lures, as well as his own 14-foot punt boat and trolling motor. For various reasons he stopped when he got in to university and hadn’t touched the gear in nearly ten years. As soon as we had signed the lease for this house, one of the first things we did was return to his parents’ place and collect up all his fishing stuff. His dad brought up the boat not long after we moved in, and he’s been out nearly every day in it.

Initially I tagged along to enjoy the water and the scenery, but it didn’t take long for him to persuade me to let him show me how to fish. I will admit that I was a little intrigued; I’d never been fishing before, and it was a whole genre of creatures that I knew virtually nothing about. The thing about fish is because they live in a completely different environment from humans you either have to go to them through snorkeling or scuba diving, or bring them to you. I’m not able to do the former, so if I was to learn about fish, that left the latter.

Me with Bluegill

This is me with my first fish caught. I’m laughing because it’s such a teensy-weensy little fish. This is the same species we saw off the dock on that first visit, in the first photo. It’s a Bluegill, Lepomis macrochirus, and it’s quite abundant in the lake; based on our fishing observations, I’d rank it third-most common, although it’s hard to say, really. One website (for Wisconsin, but good enough) I found indicated that young Bluegill will only read an inch or two in their first year, but will continue to grow steadily as they age. The largest fish are also the oldest. This one, at four to five inches long, is likely three years old.

Large Bluegill

This is the same species. The colouration is completely different from the little guys, and it completely threw both Blackburnian and me off for a bit. As it turns out, older adults don’t show the vertical striping as prominently, and they develop much stronger colours. The adult males, especially, become quite vibrant, with bright red breasts. This guy indicates how the species gets its name. When all I was seeing was the little guys I wondered why they were called Bluegills and not Bluefins, since the fins were much more distinctly blue in the little ones, especially when you see them in the water. In this mature fish, however, the blue gill covers and chin are pretty obvious. The main feature that seems to stay constant across all ages is the unadorned black “ear flap” on the gill covers. I estimate this guy to be between 9 and 10 inches long. The same website said he’s likely about 10 or so years old. Bluegill rarely live much over 10 years, so this guy was a real senior.

Pumpkinseed

This is probably my favourite of all the fish in our lake, and also happens to be the most abundant. This is a Pumpkinseed, Lepomis gibbosus, I presume named for its shape rather than its colouration. The Pumpkinseed and the Bluegill are both members of the Sunfish family, Centrarchidae, as well several others in Ontario’s lakes. The family is native to North America, primarily the east, but they have been widely introduced in the west and on other continents because of their appeal to anglers (and also their appeal on the dinner plate – indeed, many of these small fish are grouped together by anglers and colloquially labeled “panfish”). Many sunfish have bright colours such as these two, but some are more drably patterned. Sunfish are identifiable by the spines on the front half of the dorsal (back) and anal (rear belly) fins. You can see the spines folded back under my thumb in this photo. They’re sharp, so care must be taken when grasping the fish.

Care also has to be taken, when holding the fish in a body grip like this, to make sure your hands are wet while handling the fish and that you try to avoid touching more of the fish than you have to. Fish are covered in a slimy mucous layer which acts as a physical immune system, a barrier that helps keep out infection and foreign bodies. Dry hands, or touching a fish to any other dry surface, will remove this mucous layer. This body grip is only really practical on smaller fish, though, and in many cases is really the only option for holding them. Medium-sized fish can be held vertically for a short time without injury by their very strong lower jaw, composed almost entirely of sturdy cartilage. For fish that are too big to fit in a palm, this is usually the safest way to handle the fish without risk of injuring it. Large fish, the ones that you see on fishing shows being hoisted up as trophy catches, are usually held horizontally with one hand on the jaw and the other (wetted) hand supporting the belly, since the fish is designed to be suspended in water, and the weight of such a large fish that is out of water or not otherwise supported has the potential to injure organs. A few fish have big, sharp teeth, and these are generally gently grasped behind the head and gills, around what might be considered the fish’s “neck”.

Removing a lure from a pike
Carefully removing the lure from a toothy-mouthed pike

I’ll admit that I had some reservations initially about fishing, I didn’t really like the idea of using a hook to catch something. After doing a lot of research, though, I’ve allayed most of those concerns. First and foremost, research indicates that upwards of 97% of fish captured using an artificial lure survive without any ill effects (live bait is often swallowed into the stomach, which is much more dangerous to the fish to try to remove). To give the fish the best chance of surviving it’s necessary to reduce the amount of stress placed on it – much like bird banding, in that respect. Trying not to play the fish on the line too long, and not holding out of the water for long periods (or at all, if possible), will minimize its fatigue and general stress. Handling it properly and being careful not to remove the mucous membrane is also important. If practicing catch-and-release, using a barbless hook will minimize both the amount of time the fish is in hand as you’re removing the hook, and also the damage caused by it. A properly hooked fish (and careful removal of said hook) doesn’t bleed.

Not surprisingly, the effects of hooking a fish has been the subject of a lot of research. It’s hard to deny that a fish, like all vertebrates, feels some pain. Studies suggest that fish do have some nerve endings in their mouth but are more desensitized than ours, because they’ll often eat prey items that are prickly or otherwise not happy about being eaten, and delayed resumption of feeding is more likely due to psychological reservations than fear of pain (“Fool me once…”). On the other hand, fish in frequently-fished locations are often recaught, suggesting the effect doesn’t last long. Fish tagging has provided good information about recaptures, longevity, etc. One of the biggest benefits to angling is from a conservation standpoint – groups dedicated to recreational fishing and hunting are among the biggest promoters of conservation, actively involved in conservation or restoration projects.

I’d like to look into fish tags, a little like bird bands, and see what regulations and such exist in applying them. It would be interesting to learn more about the fish that use our bay and lake, and perhaps even get to know some individuals. Considering how drab a fish looks when standing over the water, viewing it from the top, they really are very striking creatures.

More fish tomorrow!