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.

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.

Blue Lakes


Monday was the last day of my contract with Innis Point Bird Observatory. The spring migration monitoring wrapped up with a reasonably good day, despite some wind that required a few nets remain closed. Although it was a slow season compared to some other stations in Ontario, I enjoyed it, and the low capture volume allowed me to provide plenty of training to my two “interns” and a few other volunteers. I handed in my gate keys at the end of the day, and all that’s left is for me to computerize the data and get it sent off to them.

Yesterday was therefore my first day “off”, but I hardly spent it sitting around. In fact, I didn’t even get to sleep in much past my usual 3am wake-up time. At 3:45 the alarm went off and Dan and I climbed out of bed to head out to the first of Frontenac Bird Studies’ three MAPS sites.


MAPS stands for Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship. Basically it’s the banding program that fills in where migration monitoring leaves off. While migration monitoring (and the non-banding surveys of the Breeding Bird Survey) are able to detect and document the overall trends of bird populations and individual species, they are unable to say why they’re trending that way. In fact, no generalized surveys can give us really specific information – in order to know whether it’s habitat loss or pollution or environmental contaminants or something else very specific targeted research must be undertaken for each species. But it’s a pretty big haystack and often a fairly small needle. MAPS banding can kick-start the process by being able to give an idea of which part of the haystack the needle is in. The program documents “birth” rates by monitoring proportions of the different age classes in the population, and “death” rates (where death might mean either actual death or simply the departure of the individual to other localities – either way, it’s a loss of that breeding individual to the local population) by banding year after year and seeing who returns the following summer. If we know that there are lots of chicks but adult survivorship appears to be very low for a particular population, we can then focus our efforts on finding out why the adults aren’t returning.


There are over 500 MAPS stations in North America, but fewer than 10% of those are in Canada. Only thirteen stations have been established in Ontario, four of them are defunct, and three of the remaining eight are Dan’s. Part of the problem is the availability of skilled personnel – the US has some 2000 federally-permitted banders, while Canada only has about 200 (the last time I heard the stats, anyway). Another part of it is that so much of our landscape is remote and, often, inaccessible. A single MAPS station only requires seven visits over the course of a summer season, so they’re usually run on a volunteer basis and tend to be located within an easy drive from the bander’s home. But I suppose an additional part of it is just that Canadian banders haven’t embraced it the way Americans have; there have been, for instance, nearly four dozen MAPS stations set up in Alaska over the years, and while it’s certainly a large state, it’s hardly any more populous than much of Canada.


Anyway, enough with the background info. This was supposed to be a post about our outing yesterday. Last year Dan had set up three stations in or near Frontenac Provincial Park, but one of the three had to be retired early due to some unfortunate logistical difficulties (a shame, as it was quite a nice spot). He wanted to replace it this year so he would again be running three stations, and after much scouting of crown land along the Frontenac Arch north of the park he located a spot out near Sharbot Lake, about a half hour’s drive west of us, and about 19 km (12 mi) north of the other stations, as the crow flies.


It’s nestled between two small lakes, possibly oversized ponds depending on your point of view, the larger of the two only about 14 acres of water surface. This site is similar in many respects to the other two, but even the short distance north gives it a slightly more northern feel, with a greater proportion of conifers and several bird species not found (or found in lower numbers) at the other site. One of these species is the Black-throated Blue Warbler, of which Dan and I estimated 5-7 territorial males singing within our netting area alone. My short name for the species is simply “Blue” (Black-throated Green Warblers are “Greens”), and because the most dominant landform feature was the dual lakes we decided to call it Blue Lakes (Black-throated Blue Warbler Lakes being a bit of a mouthful).

Dan has already posted a summary of the morning’s banding, so I won’t repeat that here; you can head over to his post to read about what we found, including our first-ever banding of a Yellow-throated Vireo, a Hermit Thrush (another of those northern-feel species), and of course a Blue. Instead, I thought I’d highlight some of the other interesting things I found about the site during the morning.


The lakes themselves are actually more green than blue, being covered with plentiful pond lilies. We didn’t notice any fish, though that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not there, just that they weren’t close to shore. There were, however, plenty of frogs. Most of them seemed to be Mink Frogs, a species I hadn’t ever encountered prior to moving to eastern Ontario. There were also a few Green Frogs and Leopard Frogs thrown in for good measure. I spotted a few turtles basking on exposed logs, at least one of which was a Blanding’s, a Species At Risk in Ontario.


In the larger of the two lakes there were a few tall standing snags that still retained many of their larger branches. In a couple of these Great Blue Herons had built nests, and in one of them, at least, there were a couple of youngsters, getting near to the age where they will leave the nest. I didn’t bring my long lens with me, so the photo was taken by holding my camera up to my binoculars. I used to do all of my long-distance photos this way, before getting a DSLR, but the image quality isn’t nearly as good. As it turns out, the method is a whole lot easier when you’re using a point-and-shoot. I went back with Dan’s super-zoom camera after borrowing it from him the next time our paths crossed, but by that time the chicks were hunkered down again.

Chestnut-sided Warbler nest

Speaking of nests, Dan was halfway through clearing out a net lane last week when he discovered this Chestnut-sided Warbler nest just a foot and a half from where he was cutting. She’s been studiously incubating over the last week, and was still present today; hopefully the habitat modifications haven’t put her off too much.

Whorled Loosestrife

These flowers are growing abundantly in a couple areas of our site. I was quite taken with them; the flowers are just small, only about a centimeter (<1/2″) in diameter, held aloft on dainty thread-thin stems, and a cheerful orange accented with red. As far as I can tell, they’re Whorled Loosestrife, Lysimachia quadrifolia, although every photo I’ve looked at for the species has shown yellow flowers, not orange ones. Whorled Loosestrife is one of our native species, and is unrelated to the invasive Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) even though they share the same common name.


This plant grows at both Blue Lakes and Maplewood Bog. It may also be at Rock Ridge, though I haven’t noticed it there myself (it is on the official park checklist, though). It took me a while to figure out what it was: Sweetfern, Comptonia peregrina, though it’s not actually a fern at all and the name just refers to the similar appearance of the leaves. It also refers to the fragrance of them. The leaves can be crushed and steeped in hot water to make tea; it was a traditional Native American remedy for diarrhea and dyssentry, but it also tastes very pleasant. The intriguing burr-like balls are actually the plant’s seeds, and within that spiky exterior is an edible and tasty “nutlet”. I’ll have to try it next time I’m there.

Dwarf Raspberry

Another plant starting to bear fruit already is the Dwarf Raspberry, sometimes known as Swamp Raspberry, Rubus pubescens. Despite its alternative name, it’s found in most northern forest conditions. Related to our domesticated raspberries, this one rarely grows more than half a meter (~18″) high. The berries are, as with all Rubus species, edible and sweet, but as each plant bears only a few fruit they make more of a treat than a snack.


At one spot along the shore an old fallen log had fetched up in the shallow mud leaving its top side exposed as it rotted. It’s been colonized by sedges and other plants, as well as one of my favourites, sundew – I believe these to be Round-leaved Sundew, Drosera rotundifolia. I wrote about some sundew at Rock Ridge last year, but I believe those were a different species, Spoon- or Spatulate-leaved Sundew, Drosera intermedia.


With the log so close to shore I was able to simply lean over to take a few photos, something I hadn’t been able to do at Rock Ridge. I even found a small patch of it growing at the shore edge there, where the water had become trapped and somewhat stagnant behind the grounded log.

Caenia dimidiata

And the last one, for today: this guy was hanging on one of the nets when I went to close up at the end of the morning. It’s a net-winged beetle, Caenia dimidiata but no common name. These guys are neat not only for their own appearance, but also because they are part of a mimicry complex that includes the Black-and-yellow Lichen Moth (below; taken at our last house). Presumably somebody in the complex tastes bad, and they all benefit from the learned avoidance behaviour of predators that the common aposematic colouration gives them.

8087 - Lycomorpha pholus - Black-and-yellow Lichen Moth

Tuesday Miscellany

milkweed pod

I missed Miscellany last week; I didn’t have very many photos, and the ones I had were part of series that I wanted to post more than one image from. With the passing of summer, nature is slowing down outside. There aren’t as many bugs about, the wildflowers are largely finished. Most of our summer birds have headed south, leaving just the winter feeder visitors behind. My walks through the woods are getting quieter, and I have to make more effort to notice interesting things; they aren’t as abundant or obvious as they were.

I love playing with milkweed seeds. I have a hard time passing by open pods when I’m out walking. I like the way the seeds all grow in such careful organization, smoothly layered upon each other like scales. I’ll often pull out puffs and cast them to the wind, just for the joy of it. Last week I pulled out a full, un-fluffed bunch of seeds from a recently-opened pod, such as the one shown here. I peeled off the seeds, slowly, enjoying the silkiness of the down. When I got to the end, I was left holding a fascinating structure. It was papery, with paper-thin divisions running along its length. the down of the seeds was tucked neatly into these creases, securing it until the wind became strong enough to tease it from the pod (or a person pulls them out and tosses them into the air). Presumably this is an adaptation to make sure that there is sufficient wind to carry the seed away from the mother plant when the seed falls off, and not just fall straight down.

If the structure has a formal name (undoubtedly it does), I don’t know what it is, as I wasn’t able to turn up the answer with a web search. I did, however, find out that they make excellent fire-starting material because they’re so papery. Of course, so do dried leaves, which also happen to be abundant at the same time of year…

milkweed bugs

I found this pair hanging out on a milkweed pod last week. The upper one I’ve already mentioned once this fall; it’s a Small Milkweed Bug, a species that feeds on the seeds of milkweed plants. The smaller one below is a nymph of the same species. In most true bugs (that is, the group of insects that have a piercing tube-like structure for mouthparts and wings that are solid for only half their lenth and membranous the rest, leading to the group’s name Hemiptera – hemi/half, pteron/winged) the nymphs resemble wingless adults in shape but are usually differently, and often more brightly, patterned than the adults. This is a later instar of the nymph; younger nymphs are nearly all red-orange.

Giant Water Bugs

Speaking of bugs, I have been inundated with Giant Water Bugs this evening. After a spell of cold, near- or below-freezing nights, we’ve had two in a row that have been fairly warm, up near or slightly above 10 C (50 F). Last night I didn’t realize it was so warm until well after midnight, but tonight I was prepared, and set out my moth trap for a try at late-season moths. I plugged it in just before dusk, and then forgot about it. After dinner, I put Raven on her tie-out when she asked to be let out, and went back into the house. A few minutes later she started barking in alarm. I stepped outside and could hear something rustling in the leaves at the front of the house – clearly what had gotten Raven worked up. I grabbed my shoes and went around to investigate, and it was immediately obvious what she was hearing. There were dozens of these guys, on the porch, in the garden, in the lawn, and yes, rustling around in the thick bed of leaves under the trees in front of the house. Where the heck are they all coming from? I did finally walk through the forest that borders our meadows on the west, where I’d also heard spring peepers calling a few weeks ago, but couldn’t see anything near the edge that was very wet, or even perhaps a springtime vernal pool. I’m hoping not too many of these things actually go into the trap.

Baby Northern Water Snake

Another sighting of puzzling origin is this guy. I’d stepped outside this afternoon to dump the compost while I could see what I was doing (I’d created a large pile last night when I prepared and froze a batch of carrots from our garden), and right beside the porch steps was this little snake. Only 6 or 7 inches (15-17 cm) long, it was in the rocky, mostly empty soil bed beside the walkway. I quickly put down the compost and hurried back inside for my camera. At the time I just assumed it was a young milk snake. I took a few photos, then picked him up and move him away from the house. Sitting down to blog this evening, I had another look at him. Eastern Milk Snakes usually have a pale Y-shaped mark at the back of their head and this one didn’t have that. I wasn’t sure if that was because it was a juvenile, or because it wasn’t a milk snake. Some poking around suggests the answer is the latter. I believe this is actually a young Northern Water Snake, Nerodia sipedon. Although adults tend to remain closely associated with water, juveniles seem to often stray across land, perhaps as they disperse looking for new water to colonize. The solid bands in the front half, turning into a checkered pattern in the back half of the body, seem to be characteristic of the species.

Hitched Arches caterpillar

I found this caterpillar clinging to the inside of the porch screen last week. I’m not quite sure how it got in, but it was a very chilly day, and it wasn’t up to going anywhere further. I took a few photos, and then put it outside where it could hopefully find a more appropriate place to hole up. I believe it’s the caterpillar of a Hitched Arches, Melanchra adjuncta, a species of moth. I’d encountered the adults at the lake house last August (2008), and then again in May (this year). I caught one again this summer, after moving to this house. The species is found across much of North America, and flies for much of the year, May through September. Presumably they overwinter as caterpillars or pupae, thus delaying their appearance in spring.

Old nest in grapevine

We’ve had a couple of hard frosts now, and even the frost-hardy plants have wilted away. The grapevines are nearly bare of leaves, exposing the clusters of dark blue Concord grapes, and the mass of woody stems twining and crawling and sprawling across the side of the shed. As I was standing looking at the vines, thinking I should collect up some of the remaining grapes and freeze them to make pie with this winter, I noticed a clump of twigs tucked into the back of the tangles. Looking closer, it turned out to be a nest. It was quite large, appropriate for something robin-sized. It had probably finished up and fledged its young before Dan and I moved in in July, assuming it was even from this year. Determining the identity of the builders of nests can be difficult, with the exception of a few distinctive species (such as robins, or swallows). I’m not sure what species this one belonged to, although if I had to hazard a guess I might say Brown Thrasher, which build chunky, twiggy nests, usually on the ground but also sometimes tucked into thick shrubs or vines.

Playing ball in the leaves

Nearly all of our leaves have fallen now, and they form a thick bed across the lawn under the trees. I was tempted to rake them up today, if only because it was such a nice warm afternoon and it would be a reason to be outside. I didn’t, however, instead tossing the ball with Raven and Dan. Here Dan’s commanding Raven to “Drop it!”, which she does, though generally only after a good bit of bounding about in circles playing keep-away. She tosses up sprays of leaves like she’s running through water. A few more weeks and we’ll be feeling less inclined to stand still and toss a ball around outside.

Giant otters at Cocha Salvador, Manu, Peru, by Sarah_and_Iain on Flickr

Day 5 on the Kolibri Expeditions’ Manu bloggers’ tour takes us to Cocha Blanco (roughly translated to “White Lake”), an old oxbow lake that is now home to waterlilies, sunken logs, fish – and a family of Giant Otters. The largest species of otter, and by extension the largest species of mustelid (weasel family), it lives up to its name with males reaching 5-6 feet (1.5-1.8 m) in length. In some areas, and historically, it was also known by the name of “River Wolf”, for its huge size and carnivorous habits. Like other otters, they’re highly social, living in family groups and vocalizing frequently. Unfortunately, it is now endangered, primarily to habitat loss, with nearly 80% of its original South American range now unsuitable. Because their occurrence tends to be so patchy, population estimates are hard to make, but are thought to be less than 5000 individuals. Suriname and the Guianas are the otter’s stronghold, with a scattering across the rest of northern South America. The promotion of responsible ecotourism can lead to habitat conservation efforts that will help this species and others. Back in January Julie Zickefoose did a great post (one of a few) about Giant Otters she saw in Guyana, which made me keen to experience these creatures.

I’m going to Peru with Kolibri Expeditions as part of their blogger promotional series. Want to come? I’d love to have you along! My departure leaves November 13, 2010 and returns the 21st, well before the US Thanksgiving. You can get more information about the trip, including itinerary and, of course, cost, at this page. Don’t forget that if you’re also a blogger you get $100 off. In addition to having a great time, meeting some great bloggers, and seeing some fabulous birds, you’ll also be supporting the local communities as they work toward developing a sustainable ecotourism industry for their area. It’s a win-win!