The book tour recap; nature break

cranberryglades

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.

bog2

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.

bog1

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.

skunkcabbage

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).

PaintedTrillium

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).

CAWA

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.

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

.

Alder tongue gall

Alder cones and catkins

If I go east on the rail trail I’ll eventually pass through a wetland, through which a tributary of the Tay River meanders. On either side of the rail trail, where the banks are high enough to allow growth of trees who like to dip their toes without getting their whole feet wet, are Speckled Alders (and cedars, but it’s the alders that caught my interest last time I was out that way).

Alders are interesting trees in that they produce both male and female flowers on the same tree, and quite often the same branch. The female flowers develop into cone-like structures that house the seeds. In the winter the cones open and dry out, not unlike conifer cones. The alder shrubs are easily identifiable even from a distance by the clusters of dark cones intermixed with long, thin catkins (the male flower bits), garnishing the bare branches like ornaments.

Apparently the catkins are edible and high in protein, but taste bitter (so not for snacling, but useful for next time you find yourself lost in the woods and starving). Another useful bit of survival knowledge: tea brewed from alder bark is useful for treating skin irritations, not to mention lymphatic disorders and tuberculosis (important to know for woodland emergencies). Also useful should you need to barter something is the knowledge that Fender Stratocasters and other electric guitars are made from alder wood. Which supposedly has a nice, bright sound.

Alder cones with Alder Tongue Gall, Taphrina alni

Anyway, enough with the trivia. I’d been planning just to do a post on alders in general when I noticed that a number of the cones had long curly things coming out of them. Suspecting galls, I took a photo. The tongues are, in fact, galls – the result of a fungal infection by the fungus Taphrina alni or one of the others in the genus. The fungus triggers the production of the long tongues, the purpose of which is to increase the surface area from which the fungus will release its spores. For all intents and purposes, though, the fungus is harmless; there’s no measurable cost to the tree besides some lost seed production.

Incidentally, I remembered my mom doing a post on alder cones last winter and returned to her blog to look it up; turned out she’d been blogging about the galls, too, rather than the shrub. They’re just that curious, I guess. Her post can be found here.

Evergreen grass rosettes

Hairy Panic Grass, Dichanthelium acuminatum

While out walking Raven this afternoon, I noticed a few clumps of grass in our rearmost field where the tall stems had collapsed sideways to reveal a small, dense basal rosette of leaves – still green. They looked much more like early spring shoots than late fall die-back, which I found curious. Were they simply holding on to life for as long as the lack of snow would permit them to? Or would they really remain green all winter long?

There were two means to answer the question: the easy, but longer, way would be to stuff a stick in the ground at one of them and return mid-winter to check. The harder way would be to come home and try to identify the species of grass to find out what its overwintering habits are.

Identifying grass is a little like identifying sparrows or warblers – once you know what to look for and what the differences are, everything can be figured out relatively easily, but when you first start learning it’s all a giant hodge-podge of lookalikes. Right now I just look at a grass and say: grass. And leave it at that.

I started with a handy website called Ontario Grasses, which has helped me before, but I didn’t see anything there that looked like my species. Not all of Ontario’s grass species are yet up on the website (it’s a hobby project done by the guy in his spare time, I gather), so thinking it probably hadn’t been posted yet, I then turned to my checklist of the plants of Lanark County and started Googling each species with a “common” distribution.

When I got to Dichanthelium acuminatum, this Flickr photo turned up in the results, and I leapt out of my chair and danced about the room crying, “That’s it! That’s it!”

Hairy Panic Grass, Dichanthelium acuminatum

Okay, so no dancing was involved, but I did have that Aha! moment at seeing the image. I’m still not 100% that it’s Dichanthelium acuminatum, but I am positive that it’s at least a Dichanthelium sp. And D. acuminatum is a pretty good bet.

Dichanthelium acuminatum is more commonly known as Hairy Panic Grass, or sometimes Tapered Rosette Grass or Woolly Panic Grass. It’s a common and widespread native species, found pretty much throughout southern Canada and the US. After noticing it at the back field, I watched for it on my return walk, but didn’t see it anywhere else. Our three fields have different, distinct grass communities, I think perhaps partly due to differing grazing pressure from the sheep the previous owners kept, though possibly also the result of underlying soil substrate. It’s been interesting to note how species are distributed between the three areas. The part of the field where I found it is, I think, has slightly richer soil and better moisture than the more open, drier fields.

It might have been easier to identify in the fall, when it still had its seedheads, but the little tufts of leaves along the stem are a helpful identifier. There are a number of different panic grass species, but the clumpiness of the stem tufts seems fairly unique. Also, the leaves are hairy, so logically it should be Hairy Panic Grass. Though I’ve found that such observations are not necessarily a guarantee of correct connections. What was left of the seedhead did, at least, help to narrow down the possibilities.

Hairy Panic Grass, Dichanthelium acuminatum

But back to the basal rosette, which was what had first caught my interest. Now that I knew what the species was, the next thing to look up was its wintering habit. Sure enough, it turns out that Dichanthelium (and the closely related Panicum, from which panic grasses take their common name) species maintain an evergreen rosette of short leaves – what I observed is actually many separate plants all clustered tightly together, which is, I gather, how they grow. The evergreen leaves would give them a leg up on some of their other meadow competition through the ability to photosynthesize late into the season, and to start again first thing following snow melt in the spring.

A couple of websites noted that because they remain green, they provide a source of forage for certain herbivores during the winter months (primarily when the snow isn’t too deep, I suppose). One source said White-tailed Deer and Wild Turkey were the main foragers, though noting that it’s felt to be a poor forage for the deer.

So, I was pleased with that discovery, and that I found an answer without too much pain. I’ll be keeping a watch on our fields now to see if I can find it anywhere else.

Buckthorn berries and Bohemians

Common Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) berries

While out walking the other day I came across a single, lonely buckthorn shrub-tree along one of our fencelines. It stood out from the other woody vegetation because it was the only one in the row that bore any berries. We have so few berry-bearing bushes on our property, I went up for a closer look and some photos.

Buckthorn isn’t native to North America; it’s originally from western Eurasia, and was introduced to North America early in the 1800s. Given the right conditions (which includes disturbed land), buckthorn can be very invasive. It leafs out earlier than many of our native plants, giving it a longer growing season, and plants are very hard to kill – like willows, they’ll resprout from roots and stumps. One site I’ve read also suggests that the shallow, spreading root system outcompetes those of other understory plants. I’ve been to a few places where the shrub has spread and established itself over a wide area. Not a lot of fun when you have to walk through it! The name does actually refer to little hawthorn-like thorns that grow at the ends of the stems.

Common Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) berries

When freshly ripe, those berries look like they ought to be tasty, but they’re actually poisonous. A handful of berries will give you abdominal pain and diarrhea; a bowlful can cause serious problems. The amount of poisonous chemical contained within the berries decreases once they’re ripe – probably a strategy the plant evolved to keep animals from eating the berries before they were ready to be dispersed.

This can cause some problems for wildlife in areas where the plant has been introduced. In its native range, berry-eating birds know not to eat the berries before they’re ripe, but birds not familiar with the plant don’t have that knowledge. They may eat the berries while they’re still toxic, and suffer the consequences.** (Edit: Reader Julie of the Rouge River Bird Observatory in Michigan comments that the author may have jumped to conclusions with the article I linked to at the **. Julie’s own research on avian use of non-native fruits has shown no such toxicity of buckthorn berries to birds. Julie knows a thing or two about a thing or two, so I’m inclined to believe her.) However, if the berries make it past ripening and into the fall, they’re an excellent source of winter nutrition for our birds. Clumps of buckthorn are great places to check out when you’re birding in the winter, because more often than not there will be waxwings or robins or bluebirds or other berry-eaters flitting about the shrubs.

Bohemian Waxwings

Many species will feed on buckthorn, but of particular interest to me are Bohemian Waxwings. The winter specialty of Bohemians is mountain-ash, also called rowan (Sorbus americana), which bears bright orange berries. In years that mountain-ash crops in the north are poor, Bohemians will move farther south looking for food. Once they reach southern Ontario the mountain-ash crops might have improved, but their diet can also be supplemented with the berries of the widespread buckthorn (by the time they make it down here, of course, the berries are well past ripe and entering shriveled).

I saw a flock of Bohemians, 40 of them, while I was out this afternoon. I spotted them before I heard them; they were being unusually quiet for waxwings. I had neither my binoculars nor my long lens, but the way they were all clustered at the top of a couple of trees is, from my small amount of experience, typical of the species, as was their completely unconcerned attitude as Raven and I approached to stand a short distance away. A few birds were calling, which confirmed the ID even if I couldn’t see them well. I stood and watched for several minutes before they all began to call and then abruptly departed.

One buckthorn bush isn’t enough to keep them occupied for the winter, nor is our neighbour’s single crabapple tree. Still, I hope they might linger, that I might meet them again.

Bohemian Waxwings

**As per this article. Some websites are very anti-buckthorn, others are pro-buckthorn, at least in terms of its benefit to wildlife.