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.


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



Thimbleweed, Anemone virginiana

For the most part, we (or at least I) most often take notice of wildflowers while they’re blooming. The colourful blossoms are at their showiest, catching our attention. When I try to bring to mind exceptions, one that stands out is Common Milkweed, as the drifting seeds from the dried, split pods are difficult to miss, especially when illuminated by the low autumn sun. Common Mullein might be another, the stiff, woody stalks lasting long into the winter and often the following spring, eventually one of the few bits of meadow life still poking out above the deep beds of snow.

To that category I’ll have to add Thimbleweed, Anemone virginiana. These plants bloom during the summer months, June through August. We have, it turns out, quite a few of them scattered randomly through our fields, and a number of them grow not too far from the trail that cuts through the grass. And yet, during the summer I don’t recall even once making a note of the plants. It’s only been since the flowers have died and the seed heads developed that they drew my eye.

Thimbleweed, Anemone virginiana

The deeply sharp-lobed leaves at the base of the plant, and the evidence of similar (though now dead) leaves partway up the stems, told me this was an anemone, and a bit of poking around reveals it to be Thimbleweed (sometimes clarified as Tall Thimbleweed to distinguish it from the similar Long-fruited Thimbleweed). The name, of course, comes from the seedheads which do look an awful lot like thimbles, and are about the right size as well. When flowering they have typical anemone blossoms, five-petaled and white, pretty but unassuming, which is perhaps how I missed them all summer.

Anemones are generally woodland plants, but some, including Thimbleweed, can be found growing out in the open, though usually within sight of the woods. It seems to have a preference for dry habitats, but is adaptable and will also grow in moist soil. As the fall progresses, those thimble-like seedheads will open up, releasing puffs of cottony seeds, not dissimilar to those of milkweed and dispersed by the same means.

Interestingly, the plant isn’t often eaten by mammalian herbivores because the leaves contain a compound that can blister the inner membranes of the mouth and stomach. Perhaps the same chemicals that cause this made it useful to Native Americans as a medicinal plant, used as an expectorant (thins mucus so it can be more easily coughed up), an emetic (triggers vomiting), and an astringent (shrinks body tissues to reduce swelling or irritation). Smoke from burning the seed pods was also used like smelling salts, to revive the unconscious.


Slender Ladies'-tresses, Spiranthes lacera

We were at our Maplewood Bog MAPS station today. This is our second year running it, so we’ve already got one season under our belts. Although the exact dates that we’re visiting this year differ from last, the protocol for operations states that we must make seven visits approximately evenly spaced between last week of May and first week of August, so we do still get to see the site across the season. So it was with a bit of surprise that I noticed on this visit some wildflowers that I hadn’t seen there before, either this year or last. The discovery of new-to-me species wouldn’t be too noteworthy in and of itself, except for the fact that these were right beside the path. I mean right beside, like I could have stepped on them right beside. How had I missed them? Could they possibly have been present last summer and I’d just overlooked them?

Slender Ladies'-tresses, Spiranthes lacera

Perhaps part of the reason I might not have noticed is that they’re pretty small. Each flower is tiny, just a few millimeters wide. The stem itself is a little taller, but few were more than a foot/30 cm.

I thought I recognized that spiraling pattern of the flowers, either from browsing field guides or from some online research I’d done at some point. I had a suspicion that the plant was an orchid, but it was only confirmed when I returned with my camera and was able to get a photo of the flowers I could zoom in on (being close to the ground as they were and not wanting to cut any, it was tricky to see closely otherwise). They have that full lower lip and the two thin side petals that I tend to associate with orchids.

Slender Ladies'-tresses, Spiranthes lacera

The exact identity remained a mystery until I got home; I couldn’t even remember the common name of the group of orchids it belonged to. However, the answer was easily found: these are Slender Ladies’-tresses, Spiranthes lacera. This is one of the more common of the five species of Spiranthes that have been recorded in Lanark county (where our home is; Maplewood Bog is actually in Frontenac county, but they’re close enough that much of the flora is shared, and I only have a detailed checklist for Lanark). The Frontenac Provincial Park species checklist only lists four ladies’-tresses. They are much smaller than I thought ladies’-tresses were, and if they didn’t have that spiraling pattern I might not have clued in.

Slender Ladies’-tresses are the easiest to identify because, as their name implies, they have a very slender flower stem compared to the others. The “ladies’ tresses” part supposedly comes from the fact that the flower formations resemble the braids of long-haired women (particularly in some other species where there are double-spirals, instead of the single spiral as seen here). The Lanark checklist specifies that the species is found in dry, rocky meadows, and the spot at Maplewood sure fits the bill. The flower in July and August, and the leaves, present in the spring as a basal rosette, wither before the flowers open. Apparently they have a sweet scent, but I didn’t try sniffing them.

It is interesting to note that in that first photo, at the top, two of the stems spiral clockwise while the third spirals counterclockwise. I gather that this is a genetic difference akin to the right- or left-handedness of people. The flowers themselves grow with the thick lower lip at the top, and perform a 180-degree twist prior to opening so that the lip will be presented at the bottom of the flower (this is a characteristic true of most orchids; if you own potted indoor orchids, try watching the flower buds as they open).



I did brave the woods – briefly – on Sunday afternoon, the only nice, sunny day we’ve had here during my stay. The mosquitoes were not deterred by the sunshine and especially not in the woods, and though I’d taken my camera I barely slowed down during the whole walk, which took me the approximately 1.1 km (0.7 mi) to the back of the property and back. I made one single stop, battling mosquitoes for the roughly 23 seconds I paused, to take a few photos of these flowers. On the way out I’d only noticed one, which happened to be growing right in the middle of the trail, and then a couple more nearby. On the way back, now that I was looking for them, I saw quite a few more near the trail edges. One of the reasons they’d particularly grabbed my attention was because there’d been one growing at our Blue Lakes MAPS site at our last visit, which I’d intended to get a photo of but forgotten whenever I passed by.


I didn’t recognize the flower as one I’d encountered before, and had to look it up. My mom has quite a nice field guide called Forest Plants of Central Ontario, and a quick flip through the book turned up the flower. It’s Pyrola elliptica, which is most commonly known as Shinleaf, or less often Waxflower Shinleaf or White Wintergreen. As the last name suggests, it’s a type of wintergreen, in the family Pyrolaceae (the wintergreen family). The book lists five species of Pyrola in central Ontario, all of which look fairly similar. Shinleaf can be told apart from the others by its leaves, which are about the same length, or longer than, their stalks, and which taper into the stalk rather than having a clear point where the stalk joins the leaf.

Interestingly, it’s completely unrelated to what we typically associate with the name “Wintergreen”, Gaultheria procumbens, as the latter is actually part of the heath/blueberry family, Ericaeae. It’s this latter plant that we associate with the scent/flavour of wintergreen.


Pyrola elliptica is found throughout the deciduous and mixed forests of the northern hemisphere, on both Eurasia and North America. It’s a common species, occurring south through the Appalachians in the east as far as North Carolina, and down the Rockies in the west to New Mexico. It favours moist woods, and certainly much of my parents’ forest is damp or swampy.

Its name comes from its historic medical use as a topical salve and pain-reliever; crushed leaves were applied to bruises or injuries, and the aspirin-like compounds in the leaves would ease pain. Such pastes were called “shin plasters”, hence the name. It and other members of the Pyrolaceae have evergreen leaves, remaining green even under the winter snows, which provides the group’s common name of wintergreens.