The book tour recap; nature break


I took a day off following the New River Birding and Nature Festival; I’d been on the road a week, traveling and meeting people and talking, and though I’d been enjoying myself, I really needed a day to recharge my batteries. I’m an introvert by nature, and since I work from home my normal social exposure is a trip in to town for groceries and a new library book; so many people wears me down after a while.

My next stop was in northeastern West Virginia and I decided to aim for nearby Elkins, WV, as my destination for the night. Since I was in no rush to get there, not having an event that evening, I took the advice of Opossum Creek Retreat owner/manager and NRBNF organizer Geoff Heeter to stop at the Cranberry Glades Botanical Area along my way.


This is the location of one of the festival’s all-day trips. It’s a specialty destination, a rare habitat for the region. Bogs are typically a more northern phenomenon, where the ideal conditions occur (poor drainage, usually through non-porous bedrock; cooler temperatures; moderate precipitation) to form the acidic wet environments. This collection of bogs in West Virginia represents some of the most southernmost in North America, and is West Virginia’s largest.

In fact, it was probably the largest bog that I’ve personally had a chance to visit. The whole botanical area covers 750 acres, but the bogs themselves collectively measure 115 acres; the largest is 59 acres. The ones I’ve been to before have all been just a couple to perhaps a couple dozen acres. Up near Ottawa, ON, is the Alfred Bog which covers about 10,000 acres, but I’ve never been to it.

There are two hiking trails through the botanical area; one is 6 miles (9.7 km) long, which was a little more than I had time or interest for, but the other was a 1/2 mile (800 m) boardwalk that passed along the edges of two of the bogs as well as through some wooded sections. Given how much I dawdle over things, I figured that’d be plenty long enough and still allow me to see a lot.


The name of the place highlights one of the most common species there. The cranberries were pretty much everywhere, but the plants are so small and inconspicuous that you really had to look closely to see them. They’re more obvious once the berries form and ripen. Cranberries are mostly associated with boggy, acidic environments, though some cultivars have been developed that can do just fine in normal soils.

There were also the other expected bog plants there, including the two carnivorous species, pitcher plant and sundew. I only spotted a few pitcher plants, not blooming yet, and while I looked for sundew I didn’t see any. It could have been too early yet for them to be very large; like most non-woody plants they die back and grow anew each year. I only noticed the sundews in our little poor fen at the back of our property perhaps a couple of weeks ago.


These plants were something of a highlight for me. Although by the time I visited they were well past their most identifiable stage, I was happy to see these Skunk Cabbage. It’s a species I’ve never yet encountered, as finding them in the spring when they’re just starting to peek through the snow requires a combination of luck and knowing where to look, and I’m not aware of any plants in our immediate vicinity. These don’t grow in the bog proper but rather at the bog’s edge, where there’s actual soil to grow in (rather than the peat covering that many bog specialists grow in/on). By this stage of their growth they’ve lost the distinctive odour that gives them their name (that’s used to draw insects in to their very early flowers).


This was another plant I discovered there that I’d long been wanting to see. It’s a Painted Trillium, and the pink chevrons of the species are beautiful and distinctive. These weren’t in the actual bog either but rather in the drier forest habitat surrounding it. However, it’s perhaps no surprise they were there – they prefer more acidic soils, and away from bogs/fens are typically associated with trees such as evergreens and Red Maple that acidify the soil beneath them with their dropped needles/leaves. It is in fact found in Ontario, but I’ve never seen it here (never been in the right environments at the right time of year, I guess).


There were lots of birds there, even by the time I arrived around lunchtime, so I can see why it was a popular destination for the NRBNF. There were many species I hadn’t seen since the previous summer. Blackburnian Warblers were extremely common, and I saw a few Canada Warblers as well. While the Blackburnians remained up higher in the evergreens the Canadas foraged at eye-level. This was the only wildlife photo I got (and a crappy one at that; while I have a long lens for my camera I’d naturally left it in the car, so this was taken through my binoculars), despite the abundance of birds; most were more readily heard than seen. Canada Warblers are a recent addition to the Canadian Species At Risk act, and are not surprisingly relatively uncommon. Nearly all of the individuals I’ve seen over the years have been through bird banding, when we’ve caught them in the net.

It wasn’t an especially long drive to Elkins from Fayetteville, but it was nice to stop and stretch the legs a bit and get out to do some nature-watching in an interesting place. Not to say that the New River area wasn’t interesting, but there was lots of it and I was there a few days. I’m sure you know what I mean.

Next up: Canaan Valley NWR, Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art, and the Ashland Nature Center.

During the break…


During the break…

…I’ve been hard at work on the moth proofs. I’m at 45 hours (and counting) spent bent over my drafting table, red pen in hand. Most of these hours have been spent in drawing in the arrows that I dearly hope all you good folks are going to make effective use of in identifying your unknown moths. Doing it forced me to really pause and think about what features I refer to when I recognize a species, how it is I know a species is what it is and not something similar. I’ve learned some interesting and, on occasion, surprising things about the identification of even the moths I’m already familiar with.

White Underwing

…I’ve been setting out my moth light most nights it’s warm and dry enough. Trying to lure in some interesting species so I can take their photos to include among the selection we’ll send to our book’s designer for use on the title pages. We sent them some already, but they turned out to mostly be the wrong orientation. A few nights ago I had some eight underwings come in, half of which were White Underwings like this guy.


…the leaves have been turning. In the past few years our autumn colour has peaked around Thanksgiving weekend, which here in Canada is the second weekend of October. Next weekend, this year.

fall trees

But it feels like our trees have already peaked. There were vibrant colours among our fields last week, which I’d appreciate when I took the dogs out for some exercise and so I could straighten my back for a brief period.

fall maple

I wonder if it’s because of how dry and sunny it’s been this year? There seem to be a whole lot more reds than there were the year before. The maples in our yard have turned fairly orange, but last year they seemed more yellow (though maybe it’s my imagination). Reds are controlled by light levels and temperatures (I explained the process in more detail in this post), with bright, cool days producing the most colour, so perhaps. The cool weather has definitely arrived, though we managed to hold off our first fireplace fire (the sole source of heating for our home) until October 1, which I thought was doing better than usual.

Milkweed snow

…the milkweed has peaked, too. We had a stretch of beautiful sunny days where all the pods seem to split and the fluffy seeds puffed out, waiting to catch the wind. I couldn’t resist kicking at the stalks as I passed, spreading the down in a snowy blanket across the grass.

Tiny Woolly Bear

…and the Woolly Bears have started trundling from the plants where they grew up to look for a spot to spend the winter. This has got to be the tiniest Woolly Bear I’ve ever encountered. I presume he’s very young, relative to most of the ones I find. I hope he finds someplace cozy

Sunday Snapshots – Showy Lady’s Slipper

Showy Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium reginae) at Purdon Conservation Area

This afternoon, as part of our Father’s Day weekend family get-together, my parents, youngest sister and I visited Purdon Conservation Area to see the display of Showy Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium reginae). I’ve seen other lady’s slipper orchids before in the wild, but had never encountered this species, sometimes felt to be the prettiest of the Cypripediums. While I’ll reserve judgement on this latter statement, they were very beautiful, and seeing so many in one relatively small area was incredible.

My mom wrote about Showy Lady’s Slippers when she visited Purdon two years ago – you can read more about the orchids at her blog.

Showy Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium reginae) at Purdon Conservation Area

Showy Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium reginae) at Purdon Conservation Area

Showy Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium reginae) at Purdon Conservation Area


Woolly Pipevine, Aristolochia tomentosa, flowers

I have a few dozen more photos from the biothon, but I want to interrupt briefly to share this photo. We have a vine growing up the side of our screen porch. It wasn’t blooming during July, when we moved in, and though I watched it for the rest of that year and all of the next, I never saw any flowers. I assumed it must be a non-flowering vine, or perhaps just grown too old to be very productive. I couldn’t tell what it was by the foliage, and while I apparently asked my mom her opinion I didn’t remember that I had and certainly didn’t remember her answer.

Then yesterday I was helping Dan with some yard stuff that required climbing under another individual of the same species of vine, this one behind our shed. And while I was crawling around down there I discovered – a flower! But not just any flower; these were the coolest flowers.

Residents of eastern North America south of the Great Lakes might recognize this as pipevine or Dutchman’s pipe, and more specifically Woolly Pipevine, Aristolochia tomentosa. In more southern regions it’s a native plant, but here in Ontario it occurs only as ours does, as an artificially-planted garden ornamental. Of course, the pipevines, members of the genus Aristolochia, take their name from the shape of the flowers. Each flower is about an inch or so long from top to bottom, curved into the shape of an old (Dutch?) pipe. The flowers are designed to be temporary fly traps: the flies, attracted to the flowers’ strong scent, climb inside; small hairs point backward toward the reproductive organ and prevent the fly from leaving until it’s reached the female bits – then the flower releases its pollen and the hairs wither, allowing the fly to leave to pollinate another flower.

This species is one of the host plants of the Pipevine Swallowtail. Like Monarchs do from their host plant, milkweed, Pipevine Swallowtail catterpillars ingest unpalatable chemicals from the pipevine leaves that in turn make them distasteful to predators. We don’t have Pipevine Swallowtails up here, though, and I’m not sure if anything else will brave the toxins in the leaves to use it.

Still, the flowers are pretty nifty. Which is a good thing, because the vine is overrunning that section of garden and until I discovered the blooms I was quite prepared to pull it out!

The Frontenac Biothon: Part 1

campsite 6 at Little Salmon Lake

So as I said in my last post, this weekend I was in Frontenac Provincial Park participating in the Frontenac Biothon. Dan started the biothon last year with the intention of it being an annual fundraiser for his bird research and monitoring project, Frontenac Bird Studies. Dan is the only employee of FBS; I’m it’s only regular volunteer (he’s had a couple other people come to help out on a few occasions, but he doesn’t have a full established core of volunteers). It’s a small project with a correspondingly small budget, which makes fundraisers like this useful and valuable. The amount that we’ll raise through the biothon may not be much for a larger organization, but it goes a long way here.

Forest at campsite 6

Frontenac Provincial Park covers a huge area, more than 5200 hectares (nearly 13,000 acres), and there is only one official road going into it, at the south. There is camping in the park, but it’s all backcountry, and some of the sites are a pretty good hike in (a few are accessible by boat, if you have one, but even some of those require a fair amount of paddling to reach). This provides for some fabulously beautiful scenery at the camp site and a whole lot of privacy – no camp site contains more than four reservable units. The Park has been extremely generous and supportive of FBS and Dan’s research efforts, including the biothon, and we were able to reserve an entire camp site for the weekend of our biothon. We selected camp site 6, which is set at the north end of Little Salmon Lake. Aside from the park ranger who dropped by shortly after I arrived to service the outhouse, and a few people back at the parking lot as we were leaving on Sunday, I didn’t see a single other person all weekend, only our group of biothoners. Just another reason Frontenac is such a glorious park.

There was Dan and I, of course, but we also had two friends of ours up from the Toronto area to help out. They’d joined us last year, too, and now that Dan and I live some distance away this is the only time of year we usually get to see them, so it was great to have them out. We were missing one additional teammate this year who stayed at home with a newborn. Unfortunately, she was our designated Plant Expert, but the rest of us were determined to do our best in her absence.

Raven paddling in the shallows

Dan and the two guys all headed out to another part of the park early Saturday morning while I hiked in to the campsite to get started there. I arrived at the site mid-morning after an hour and a half hike from the parking lot. The park ranger who stopped by said I was welcome to let the dogs off leash while at the campsite to swim, since there was no one else they might bother, as long as they didn’t run off and leave the campsite. Raven was delighted by this. She spent a good chunk of the day paddling in the shallows, chasing minnows, or maybe just the shadows of ripples, I couldn’t really tell. As long as there’s water to paddle in, you can take Raven anywhere and she’ll be happy.

Jack, watching

Jack, meanwhile, is not yet so enamoured with water. He went down and checked it out, decided it wasn’t all that interesting, and retired to a patch of poison ivy to watch. The camp site opened up into a weedy, open bank that sloped down to the water’s edge. Unsurprisingly, almost half of it was covered in poison ivy, a plant that likes sunny, exposed forest edges. It’s a good thing that neither Dan nor I react to poison ivy. I sure hope the same is true for our friends; they weren’t complaining of extensive rashes on Sunday morning, at least.

caddisflies mating

All four of us have the most expertise in birds, but I have a fair bit of experience with insects and plants and was nominated as the biothoner in charge of those groups. While the park checklist does include plants, it doesn’t have insects, so I kept track of everything I saw in a notebook that I carried around with me all weekend. I marked taxonomic headers at the top of each page – “Birds”, “Butterflies”, “Dragonflies”, “Other Insects”, “Mammals”, “Plants”, etc – and then slowly started walking along the path from the campsite, writing down the names of each species I encountered in the appropriate spot. That first hour is a bit overwhelming, where you have to pause every step or two to write down six new names. But once you get all the common stuff listed, it gets easier, and you can start watching for new species. Your eye slides over all the poison ivy and raspberry cane and past the bumblebees and corporals to pick out the less common things. I carried my camera with me and took photos of stuff I didn’t know and needed to look up in my field guides later in the evening, or of things I found interesting.

Such as these mating caddisflies, one of the first photos I took Saturday morning. I don’t really know much about caddisfly ID other than to say that there are a lot more species of them than you’d think there were. At my moth sheets in the evening I’m always surprised at the variety. Some are quite tiny, while others are rather large. This pair fall into that latter group. Each was more than an inch long in body (obviously nearly double that when you include the antennae). I always find observing behaviours interesting, so this mating pair caught my eye more than a single individual might have.

shield beetle

A common viney plant that I think was Hedge Bindweed was riddled with holes. The holes were all in the middles of the leaves, rather than cut from the edges, which usually points to adult leaf beetles rather than caterpillars, in my experience. Sure enough, after turning over half a dozen leaves I discovered this guy. I believe it’s a Mottled Tortoise Beetle, Deloyala guttata, which is a relatively common and widespread tortoise beetle. Tortoise beetles typically feed on members of the morning glory family, of which Hedge Bindweed is a part.

11-1014 - Antaeotricha leucillana - Pale Gray Bird-dropping Moth

In the shaded area around the camping pads I found this guy, the first moth of the biothon for me (if you don’t include all the pale flutterers disturbed from the ground but not positively ID’d while I hiked in). Perched in plain site on the upper side of a leaf, it was doing its best to mimic a bird dropping. It is, in fact, named the Pale Gray Bird-dropping Moth (Antaeotricha leucillana), which is appropriate. I’ve got these from time to time at my sheets, but it’s always interesting to encounter moths in their natural habitat. They seem different somehow, as if out of context, although really it’s the blacklight and sheet that are out of the moth’s natural context.

Calico Pennant

In the grasses along the sloping banks of the lake there were many dragonflies. Most of them were Chalk-fronted Corporals or Common Whitetails, but I paused to check each one I saw just in case. In doing so I turned up this individual, which I believe is an immature male Calico Pennant. I tend to forget about the pennants, I don’t know why. Every time I find one I’m excited all over again. A pennant! Wow! As it turned out, when I visited some meadow habitat on Sunday I found lots of pennants cruising over the grass there, but this first one got me excited.

Swamp Loosestrife

Also down along the shore were a number of these plants. They were growing in patches, at the base of the rocks that I imagine would be near the high-water mark. The water was well below that now, but I figured they were water species of some sort. The flowers seemed pretty distinctive and I thought it would be easy to find a match in my wildflower guide, but no luck. Polling my knowledgable Facebook friends later, upon our return, this turns out to be Tufted Loosestrife, Lysimachia thyrsiflora. I did think the leaves had a loosestrifey look to them, but the flowers were completely throwing me off.

clubtail attacking whiteface

Continuing along the shore a bit farther, I was stopped by a sudden rattling of insect wings. A pair of dragonflies fell from the air to the ground just in front of me. At first I thought it was two trying to mate, but peering closer it seemed to be two different species: what I took to be a clubtail and a whiteface. They wrestled on the ground for a few moments and once I decided that they weren’t a male and female of the same species I thought that it must be the larger one was trying to kill and eat the smaller one. I don’t know if he found the smaller one too much to handle, or if I was misinterpreting what was going on, but after some struggle the smaller one managed to get away and fly off. The only dragonfly that I know will attack other dragonflies nearly its own size is the Dragonhunter, but I don’t think that’s what this one is. I need to invest in a better odonate guide.

All that before lunchtime! I have quite a few photos that I’d really like to share, so I think I’ll wrap up there for today. This will probably need to be at least four installments to fit them all in – more tomorrow!

If you’re interested in supporting FBS through our biothon, we’d be extremely grateful for your donation! All donations over $10 are tax-creditable and will receive a receipt for this purpose. More info at the Frontenac Biothon page, or donate through Paypal below. Thank you!

Frontenac Biothon



Canoe Lake

!!!!! I prepared this last Friday (the 22nd), and thought I had posted it then. I just now noticed that WordPress didn’t publish it (or I forgot to hit the button?). Ordinarily I double-check to make sure it appears okay, too.

In the meantime, I’ve recently started a short-term job working as the bander-in-charge at Innis Point Bird Observatory – a post I also held last spring. I’m up at 3:45am (and getting earlier each week) so despite that I’m home by early afternoon I’m actually shorter on time. I’ll try to post regularly, as I can. Now, if only spring would hurry up and start happening instead of this dreary trickle we’ve been subjected to this year.

My image-editing program broke this week. If there’s one thing that inconveniences a photographer more than a broken camera, it’s broken editing software. I’m not quite sure what went wrong, but it required a full re-install, which meant digging out the installation files, uninstalling the previous copy, re-installing the program again, and then organizing all my internal settings again (I like my software to be just so). I’ve been putting it off because it’s a pain, but I finally got around to it this evening because I have some photos, taken today, that I’m looking forward to sharing.

I’ve been planning for a little while to make a trip back to the area where we used to live, near the lake house, to look for Infants, those early-spring day-flying moths. Although I could, in theory, find the species just about anywhere where the host species grows, they were just so abundant along the road near the lake house. But not only that; there was also that rare one that I found there, and I was keen to see if I could locate it again. I had intended to make a trip down last spring, but between one thing and another I never made it. I resolved I would definitely go this year.

Birches along Canoe Lake Road

And then this spring turned out to be cold. Cold and rainy, and slow, slow, slow in coming. We’re lagging about two weeks behind where we’ve been at this date the last couple of years. Our wildflowers are only just beginning to bloom. Insects have yet to emerge in any numbers. Migrant birds are running behind schedule. And we’ve only had a couple of those absolutely gorgeous days that one looks forward to at the start of spring. I’d been waiting to make my trip down to Frontenac, first for nature to get a move on, and then for a good day weather-wise to go. I was looking for something in the high teens Celcius (sixties Fahrenheit), sunny, and preferably not too windy. I waited… and waited, and waited.

Finally, today, I bit the bullet. It was a mild day, if not really warm, it was sunny, and the wind was light enough that in the shelter of the forest it wouldn’t be a problem. Given that on Sunday I’m beginning work running the bird banding (migration monitoring) program up in Ottawa, I was out of chances to get this trip in. So today it was.


Since I had a particular goal in mind I wanted to be prepared in case I should actually find my target species. I brought my camera, of course, but two lenses: the wide-angle for landscape shots and my macro for insects and flowers (I also had the telephoto, but after a bit of debate decided to leave it in the car). I brought my binoculars, for (hopefully) checking out any fluttery insects from a distance to decide if they needed to be snuck up upon. Also for looking at birds. I brought my bug net, just on the off chance that the moth wasn’t being cooperative and settling on the road for a photo; I could scoop it out of the air if it came down to it. I brought moth jars, and stuffed three of them in my back pocket to have close on hand. And I brought a cooler containing ice packs (which I left in the car), so that when I snagged the uncooperative moth and put it in a jar I could then put it in with the ice packs to cool down (hopefully) for a photo.

I walked about 5 km (3 mi) along the roads from where I parked my car, checking out the spots where the moths had been most frequently encountered a couple of springs ago. I saw quite a few other things, but lepidoptera were not in great abundance, and I didn’t find any of the moths at all. I’d gone with the expectation that I probably wouldn’t find the rare species, but I didn’t even see a single individual of the common one. Was I too late in the season? Was it too cool out? Too windy? Too much road traffic? (Being Good Friday, I had probably fifteen cars pass me in the two hours I was out there, which is pretty busy for that area, at least compared to what it was when we lived there.) Maybe it was simply that I jinxed myself by being over-prepared.

Round-lobed Hepatica

I was a little disappointed to not find any at all, but it was still a really nice outing. I spent two hours outdoors enjoying the sunshine and checking out flora and fauna. One of the first things I noticed was that the hepaticas were all out in full bloom. We don’t have hepatica up at our current house, but none of our other wildflowers are blooming yet, so this was a pretty nice surprise. Various shades of purples and pinks and whites, little patches of colour dotting the forest floor.


Also blooming was coltsfoot. Some patches of it can be quite large. It seems to like damp or poorly-drained areas (but not wet), and also favours disturbed habitats; I find it most often in the ditches along road edges where the ground gets a bit soggy. It’s an interesting plant in that the flowers come up before the leaves do.


I saw two individual blooms of bloodroot. The landlord has some planted in our garden, right near the foundation of the house, and they’ve been up and blooming for about a week now, but I haven’t seen any yet growing wild in our woods. These are one of my favourite wildflowers, so I was pleased to discover a couple.

Male Wood Duck

As I was heading back to the car, having turned up nothing, I paused to listen to a funny bird call. I didn’t immediately place it, but it was easy to spot the caller, perched up in a tree: a Wood Duck! I can never quite get used to seeing a duck perched in a tree, despite knowing that Wood Ducks come by their name honestly. Both the male and female were perched there, though I didn’t immediately see the female and she wasn’t visible in the photo I took. Presumably they were scouting for a nest cavity. Wood Ducks will nest up to 2 km (1.2 mi) from water if cavities are hard to find; these guys weren’t nearly that far, only a few hundred meters.

Morrison's Sallow

While I was standing still, watching the ducks, I noticed (and was noticed by) a moth. It flew back and forth and up and down the section of road a few times, but when it came close to me it seemed to be attracted to something. I thought at first it was maybe the white bug net, or my white hat, or perhaps the orange vest. It landed on me a few times (once even on my sunglasses!) but when I went to peer at it, or even when I flipped the on switch of my camera, it took off again. It seemed disinclined to settle on the road for some reason, but I stayed patient with it, hoping it might put down somewhere. Well, it did – on my camera lens! It started dabbing with its proboscis, obviously picking up the salts from my palm (I wasn’t sweating, so there couldn’t have been much). I was able to coax it off the lens and onto my palm, where it started walking about and then up my arm. It finally stopped at the edge of my shirt (which was pushed up to my elbow; not the most convenient for photos, macro lens notwithstanding).

Check out the little hairs on its proboscis; I presume these are used to trap nectar when it’s drinking.

Morrison's Sallow

After taking a few shots, I touched it gently to try to get it to move back to another position, but instead it let go of my arm, folded its wings and dropped to the ground. This is a defense mechanism used by many species when disturbed: a fast and inconspicuous way to escape from a potential predator.

Once it was on the ground I could finally get a good look at it to identify it: it’s a Morrison’s Sallow, a relatively common species at this time of year. But since the Infants were a no-show, I’d take what I could get. :)

Pseudexentera sp. or related

This was the only other moth I found. There were a couple of these, and I haven’t bothered identifying it to species, as moths in this group can be tricky. However, it looks like a Pseudexentera sp., or something closely related. Little micromoths often encountered out during the day.

Spring Azure

I saw only two butterflies; one was what looked to be a Compton’s Tortoiseshell, fluttering in the tree canopy, and the other was this little guy, a species of blue. I always have to double-check my blues when I get home to be sure, but it turned out I correctly guessed on the ID of this one: a Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon), one of the first blues to be seen. Or, it could be the very closely related Lucia Azure (C. lucia), which the Kaufman butterfly guide notes, “The ‘spring azure’ in the northeast may actually be C. lucia“, though beyond this no notes are offered for specificity or overlap in range.

So all in all, a good outing, even without the Infants. Perhaps next year!

Sunscreen for new leaves

Dutchman's Breeches plantlet

One of the nice things about having kept a blog for multiple years is that you can go back to the same time for previous years to see what was happening back then, or to find out when a particular sighting occurred. I was curious about the timing of the wildflowers for the last couple of years, given how delayed things have been this year due to the cold. Last year, the very first of the Dutchman’s Breeches were just starting to bloom on April 8. The year before that, 2009, I first noticed them on April 17; but nearly every plant was in full bloom by that time, so the first one had probably opened a week earlier – which would work out to roughly the same timing.

With those dates in mind, I visited the spot in our woods here where we have a large concentration of the plants, to see how they were coming along. I expected that everything was going to be slow, so I wasn’t surprised to see that the plants were still small, just beginning to unfurl their leaves, when I looked on April 8. A while yet before they’ll be blooming. Still, I was pleased to see them coming up; I’d been there a week earlier to look and had found nothing yet.

Dutchman's Breeches plantlet

It’s interesting that the early leaves are tinged in red, when the mature plant is fully green (albeit with reddish stems). Turns out this has an adaptive function. The red colour is due to the presence of anthocyanins, the same pigment found in red autumn leaves. The pigments serve as a sort of sunscreen for these young and sensitive leaves, protecting them from burning. Not surprisingly, perhaps, this trait is most often seen in plants that spend much or most of their life in the shade. For spring ephemerals like the Dutchman’s Breeches, the early spring sunlight, before the leaves have appeared on the trees to shade the forest floor, is relatively strong. As the leaves grow and mature, and become gradually hardier, the red pigments are slowly lost, allowing the leaves to acclimate to the light of the sun.

There have been a few scientific studies testing this hypothesis. As someone who went through school for science and, with much relief, abandoned academia, I often find the cumbersome technicality of scientific language such as this amusing: “[The presence of anthocyanins] may compensate for a low capacity in the xanthophyll cycle-dependent harmless dissipation of excess excitation energy.” Or, you know, the inability of the leaves to handle extra sunlight without burning. They haven’t worked up their tan yet.

Jack with Dutchman's Breeches plantlets

I’ll close with a couple of photos of the dogs. As regular readers of the blog will know, I like to pose Raven next to things for a scale reference. At two-and-a-half years old, she’s well-trained and obedient, quiet and patient (usually. Unless water or chipmunks are involved). Jack, however, is still just learning. Patience is not his strong suite. So I get in a bit of practice where I can. We’re getting there.

The plants are (were) still so small that you can barely even notice them in Raven’s photo, but Jack’s still small enough to make a better scale reference.

Raven with Dutchman's Breeches plantlets