Moth-hunting

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.

Moth-hunter

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.

Coltsfoot

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.

Bloodroot

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!

Advertisement

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

Wild Clematis

Wild Clematis, Clematis virginiana

Along the rail trail and roadsides I frequently see these clouds of fluffy seedheads suspended in the branches of trees and shrubs like milkweed down blown there by the wind. Closer approach reveals the soft puffs are attached to a vine that’s clambered its way up the undergrowth for a clearer view. The vine is Virgin’s Bower aka Wild Clematis, Clematis virginiana, and is from the same genus as the showy plants that climb the trellis in the backyard garden. Unlike the cultivated varieties, however, Wild Clematis is at its best in winter, after the leaves drop and reveal the delicate seedheads. Surprisingly, even though the white, fragrant flowers are neither few nor small, the vine often gets overlooked in the symphony of colour that is summer. I can’t consciously remember ever noticing one in bloom. (Neither could my mom, who blogged about them last year.)

Wild Clematis, Clematis virginiana

It’s perhaps even more beautiful in winter, when it has the stage more or less to itself. The seedheads are designed to be functional, not attractive, but they do both well. The long, feather-like plumes can catch the wind and be carried some distance from the parent vine.

They lack tendrils and so grow like beans, rather than peas, weaving through and around their supports. Though they’re typically fond of moist or damp soils near areas with water, they’re pretty tolerant of a wide range of conditions, and will happily grow in a garden. They make a great addition to a native wildlife garden, providing food and cover for birds and other critters. The flowers are popular with native pollinators. Goldfinches may even use the downy seedheads in their nests in areas where they nest into the fall (goldfinches are a late-nesting species, only just getting started when most other birds already have fledglings out of the nest).

Many places sell Wild Clematis seeds or plants, but it’s probably just as easy to go out and collect your own seeds if you know where some grows in your area (if not, send me an SASE and I’ll mail you some!). The vines are perennial and can eventually reach 10 to 20 feet tall in good conditions. They’re apparently easy to grow from seed, though one site notes that they’re slow to germinate. I’ve collected a few and think I’ll try sprouting them myself this year.

wild clematis 2
wild clematis 2 by withrow, on Flickr; CC-licensed

 

Avens seed heads

New snowshoes!

My great aunt gave me a bit of money for Christmas this year, as she does every year. It took me all of about two milliseconds for me to decide what to do with it.

I bought new snowshoes!

Last winter I’d been using the landlord’s traditional wood-and-catgut snowshoes, which she’d left behind for our use. From the time I discovered them in January through the end of the winter, I was out on them nearly every time I went hiking. By the end of the season, what waterproofing there had been on the laces (had there been any to begin with) seemed gone and the catgut would be soft by the time I returned. The leather bindings snapped on one mid-winter, and I had to switch them out for a pair of nylon bindings that were on the other, larger snowshoes (which Dan rarely used). These had a tendency to slip so my foot would end up on the shoe crooked, and I’d have to tie the straps to my bootlaces to make it stay straight.

New snowshoes!

Knowing they were going to need some winterizing to prepare for this season, combined with how much use I got out of the snowshoes last winter, though, it was pretty easy to talk myself into getting a pair of new aluminum-framed snowshoes as a Christmas gift to myself (courtesy of my great aunt, who will be receiving photos in the mail soon). I picked them up on my way home from my parents’ place earlier this week, and took them for their first spin yesterday.

They’re wooooonderful. So light I could barely feel them, so narrow I barely had to think about them, but with good flotation to keep me above the snow (not that we have a lot yet, but I made a point of stepping in the drifts…). The bindings held my foot securely and it didn’t slip sideways once. And, bonus, the company is Canadian, and their manufacturing facilities are next door in Qu├ębec.

(I should, incidentally, add that my parents gave me a gift certificate to Mark’s Work Wearhouse, which also took me two milliseconds to decide what to do with – I bought new boots! Mine from last year had rather large holes in them, and I’d so far this winter been wearing my summer hikers, which have been fine since we’ve had little snow but weren’t going to hold up once things got deeper. Now my feet are both warm and snow-free. Both necessary for enjoyable hiking in Canadian winters.)

Avens sp. seedheads

So as I was hiking around the edges of the property in areas I haven’t been to since the grass was green, I came across these interesting remains of a plant. Small, round seed heads on long stalks, under which was a huge scattering of seeds. Curious, I thought. As I bent closer, I noticed that the seed heads were covered in small burr-like hooks. But they weren’t burrdocks, which are round and which come off as the whole spherical head, not as individual seeds like this was doing. Not to mention they’re very stocky plants, and this one was relatively delicate in comparison. I took a bunch of photos, as I always do when I come across a mystery, and came home to look it up.

Avens sp. seedheads

A Google search for “flower Ontario meadow seed hook” produced an immediate hit on Andy’s northern wildflower page. (Andy’s pages, incidentally, have been a really useful reference for me when looking up wildflowers in the past, because s/he covers a really good range of species, organized by habitat type, and much of the flora overlaps with what we have here. Proven again now with this search.)

From Andy’s page, I identified the seed heads as belonging to a species of avens (Geum sp.). For Yellow Avens, Andy notes: “each flower head turns into a nearly spherical brown to dark brown bur about 2 cm in diameter; the seed in the bur has a sharply hooked tip which clings to fur, clothes and skin; burs present into winter”. That definitely sounds like my plant!

Yellow Avens by Ontario Wanderer on Flickr; CC licenced

I Googled “Yellow Avens” to see what information there was on them. One website I found noted that the native Yellow Avens looked very similar to the introduced Wood Avens, Geum urbanum. The ways that the author gave for telling the two species apart didn’t include seed heads, unfortunately, and I’m not sure there’s enough left on the plant of the leaves to be able to tell from those.

The unremarkable five-petaled yellow flower would blend in with the other five-petaled yellow flowers in our fields, such as the common cinquefoils. I thought at first of a few flowers that had grown in our lawn last summer that I hadn’t been able to ID, but helpful reader Rosemary identified that one for me as just a different type of cinquefoil. So, I’ll have to keep an eye open for these next summer, now that I know where they’re growing. Perhaps I’ll be able to determine if it’s the native or non-native species of avens.