Sunshine in a bed of leaves


The first wildflower I see every spring is the above, Coltsfoot, Tussilago farfara. Even before the Bloodroot starts unfurling, or the trilliums open up, there’s the bright yellow flower heads of the Coltsfoot, pushing up between the brown leaves of last autumn. Like many of our wildflowers, Coltsfoot isn’t native to North America. It’s funny, all the wildflowers that I think of when I think of a summer meadow, things like Queen Anne’s Lace, or Butter-and-eggs, Viper’s Bugloss, or Chicory – they’re all introduced from Eurasia. Which makes you wonder what inhabited the meadows in the summer before they got here. Coltsfoot was introduced to Canada in the 1920s, and is now found in most provinces.

The flowers superficially resemble dandelions, and can be mistaken for them. Like dandelions, they belong to the aster family. Asters can be identified by having a group of central flowers that form a “capitulum”. In a plant like the coneflower, the capitulum can be tall and pronounced. In the daisy, it’s flat, or slightly domed. The flowers can by tiny, looking to the naked eye like a stippled but solid surface, or they can be pronounced, giving the coneflower its spikey appearance, but in any case they’re always present. The “petals” surrounding the capitulum are actually bracts, modified leaves that are frequently brightly coloured to present the appearance of a large flower head, widening the surface area that attracts pollinators. If you remove all the little tiny bracts from the coltsfoot, there’s not a lot of flower left to attract insects.


Coltsfoot is usually found growing in large patches. This is because the plant grows and spreads from rhizomes, a “root” network (actually a type of horizontal stem) that has the ability to send up new shoots at a distance from the parent plant. All of the flowers in the above photo likely belong to the same plant.

It has the ability to grow in poor-quality soils, such as roadsides and waste places, and probably explains why it does so well out at TTPBRS relative to other flowers, as the primary soil substrate there is sand. It can often be found growing in gravel pits, and frequently rhizomes that are carried away with a load of gravel will start up a new plant where the stone is deposited, aiding in the species’ dispersion. Tilling can have the same effect in agricultural fields.

The plant does also produce seeds, although seed production is a less important form of reproduction. The seed heads of the plant resemble those of a spent dandelion, white and fluffy. However, Coltsfoot will begin to go to seed before dandelion is really beginning to bloom.


Coltsfoot puts up flowers first thing, even before it grows any foliage. Food, in the form of starches, is stored in the rhizomes over the summer, allowing the flowers to form in the following spring before the plant begins photosynthesizing. A potato is an example of a starchy storage system used by the plant for future growth (in the potato’s case the tuber is from a stolon, not a rhizome, but same basic purpose). Usually the plant’s leaves only begin to appear after the flower has matured and set seed.

The name “Coltsfoot” is taken from the shape of the mature leaves, which resemble the cross-section of the hoof of a colt (young male horse, though they have the same foot-shape as a female horse or an adult horse; indeed, among other names for the plant are Foal’s Foot and Horse’s Foot).


Historically, Coltsfoot has been used for medicinal purposes as a cough suppressant. The plant would be dried and crushed, and then smoked to relieve asthma and various coughs. The genus name, “Tussilago”, even means “cough suppressant”, and another common name it has is “Coughwart”. Crushed flowers were also supposed to cure skin conditions.

Being one of the earliest flowers in the spring, it’s especially important to early-flying insects. In Europe it’s the larval foodplant for a few moth species, but I didn’t see any records of it being commonly used by North American species. However, honeybees (incidentally also a Eurasian species) are a common visitor.

At TTPBRS, the flowers bloom at the side of one of the primary trails, in an area of young cottonwoods. As I’m doing the rounds in the morning, early in the season, I look for the flowers. They close up at night, so take a few hours in the morning to become obvious again – a person walking through just after dawn might miss them, while someone coming by at noon would find a wide scattering of bright flowers. Its status as an introduced species notwithstanding, I’m always happy to see them blooming, the first colour to come to the post-winter landscape.

A sweet treat

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yesterday I had the opportunity to spend the morning at the TTPBRS research station. It was a lovely day, and as I’d spent the weekend indoors tackling other (interesting, but not outdoor) projects on my computer, it was nice to get outside for a while. It was a busier morning than I gather they’d had over the weekend, and the final tally of birds banded was a little over 50. The species included many Song Sparrows (while I was in the bander’s seat, anyway, it seemed like every other bird I banded was a Song Sparrow), juncos, and Golden-crowned Kinglets, with a few other odds and ends such as Eastern Phoebe, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and American Tree Sparrow thrown in for variety.

Also among them were two Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, including the striking male pictured above (in sapsuckers, males have a red throat, while in females it’s white). It is possible to age most birds based on a number of criteria in their wing and tail feathers, but for most songbird species you can only really determine whether during the previous breeding season (so, last summer) they were an adult or a young bird. Woodpeckers are an exception to that, you can usually determine back one year further. In the case of the above male, he was an after-third-year – meaning that 2008 is at least his fourth (“after-third”) calendar year, if not more (birds are generally aged according to calendar year to make it easier to keep track of). You can’t determine his age with more precision than that, but it still means we know he was hatched either in or prior to 2005. So he’s a good old boy.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker at well

Later in the morning I spotted another bright male who flew across my path and perched on the trunk of a birch tree. I couldn’t see his legs, so I don’t know if it was the same one as we’d banded earlier. As I watched him, he systematically checked out a set of sap wells that presumably he had drilled earlier. Although I couldn’t see it from my distance, I presume he lapped up what sap had oozed from the holes since last time he visited. He was only there less than a minute, but he checked out all four holes.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker at well

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker at well

Look at him stretch that neck to reach the last one without moving!

Once he left, I went up and checked out the tree he’d been at.

Fresh sapsucker wells

He’d drilled five holes, which were all running slightly, although the sap trails on the bark weren’t substantial. I’m not sure why sapsuckers drill their holes in such a neat line like that, but I would assume that it has something to do with ease of checking them (like in the above photos; he didn’t have to move to reach them all). Probably the sapsuckers won’t tell us if we ask them, so we’re left to make our best guess.

Fresh sapsucker well near old

He landed on another tree not much further from the first which, when I went to check it, had a single hole drilled into the trunk. Right next to it, however, was one that was half-started. What I find particularly interesting is how a woodpecker is very methodical in its drilling – it’s not like driving a nail where you keep pounding the same spot. Instead, and as you can see here, they actually chisel out a section of the bark which they can then chip off, exposing the softer wood underneath (which is easier to hammer through). I guess after he’d done one on this tree he was either disturbed, or decided that the sap from this one tasted funny.

Underneath the fresh work you can see a couple of old, scarred-over wells from years past.

Old sapsucker wells

Here’s another tree that was visited in years past. There’s probably a number of different years represented there, judging by the relative scarring of some holes to others. Sapsucker holes are often square or rectangular, rather than round, which you can see well on this tree. Nearly all of the trees with sapsucker wells (old and new) down there are birch. The trees around the station are probably 90% birch and cottonwood, but the cottonwood doesn’t seem to appeal to them at all. My guess would be that there’s enough of a difference in the thickness of the bark between birch and cottonwood, and there’s enough birch in the area, that they can afford to be picky about the trees they choose.

Scarring from old sapsucker wells

An old section of sapsucker wells, now so scarred over it’s forming a cracked swelling in the trunk. The wells don’t do serious damage to the tree, aside from this sort of thing. It’s not all that different from tapping maple trees for their syrup. The main concern would probably be the potential for the tree to be infected by a fungus through the open wound, and even that is rare.

Aside from the obvious benefit to the sapsucker, the sap wells are often visited by other creatures as well, including many nectar-feeding insects and hummingbirds. For these guys the sap provides a sugar-rich source of food in the early spring, before many flowers have started blooming, and can often be invaluable for their survival through that period. I have yet to see a hummingbird visiting a sap well in the spring – by the time they reach us here, in early May, there’s already a fair bit blooming.

Earth Hour in Toronto

City of Light

Earth Hour took place yesterday around the globe, locally at 8pm. By early afternoon yesterday, the first photos and stories were coming in from New Zealand and other countries on the far side of the world from here. Ours, of course, took place at 8pm our time, and I nearly forgot about it even after all the lead-up earlier in the day. We shut down our lights and then I headed down to a spot on the lakeshore to check out the cityscape.

The above photo was taken last fall, showing a city of light and colour, brightly illuminated. The spotlights are coming from the Air Canada Centre, home to the Toronto Maple Leafs and Raptors. All of the downtown office buildings are lit up, despite that it’s nearly 10 at night and one would presume even the overtime workers would have headed home. At one point I think I heard that building owners and/or the businesses renting space left the lights on as a security measure or something like that, but there’s got to be a better solution.

Toronto during Earth Hour

This is the skyline last night, taken at about 8:50pm. When I was down there I recall being underwhelmed by the difference at the time. There was still considerable glow from the city illuminating the sky, though it did seem reduced. I could still see the beaver I’d disturbed from the shore swimming across the water a few metres out, in clear silhouette. I really got the best sense of the difference when I came home and opened the two files side by side on my monitor. I know that streetlights remained on during the hour, as did businesses that were still open at 8pm, for security and safety reasons. There were a few planes and a helicopter circling over the city while I was there, presumably news stations getting shots of the event from the air.

On the other hand, the camera settings have a huge influence on how you perceive the scene. The below photo was taken only five minutes earlier, also during Earth Hour. Yet it looks like the city’s as bright as ever. The above photo was taken at F/8.0 for 20 seconds, the below photo was at F/4.0 for 30 seconds. The slightly wider aperture and longer shutter makes a huge difference in the image. I’d say my perception of the scene, by eye, was probably between the two, but closer to the first photo.

Toronto during Earth Hour, wide aperture

The Toronto Star reports that energy consumption during that hour was down nearly 9% from comparable late-March Saturday nights. It was only down 5% from levels just prior to the start of Earth Hour, but that was likely because a number of businesses and buildings, such as the CN Tower and some of the office towers, had already turned their lights off earlier in the afternoon. Across the province as a whole (bearing in mind that many cities and rural areas didn’t actively participate the way Toronto did), energy draw was down 5.2% from normal.

The Earth Hour’s launch point, Christchurch, New Zealand, had a 13% lower consumption during the hour. In Sydney, Australia, it was down 10%. I did get the impression that a lot of people didn’t participate, though, through numerous valid reasons but also some half-hearted excuses.

The Toronto Star states, “Ireland’s more than 7,000 pubs elected not to take part – in part because of the risk that Saturday night revellers could end up smashing glasses, falling down stairs, or setting themselves on fire with candles.

Likewise, much of Europe – including France, Germany, Spain and European Union institutions – planned nothing to mark Earth Hour.

That didn’t dismay organizers, who said there’s a powerful message in the fact that the usual powerhouse countries aren’t leading the way, and that even in wealthy places like Canada it’s very much a grassroots phenomenon.”

The Toronto Star had a great slide show of scenes from the different participating cities around the world. Many are very subtle before-and-afters, but I liked a number of them, including one of Sydney Harbour, from across the water. It doesn’t seem to let you grab the address for the individual images or I’d post a linked one here.

Total eclipse of the moon

Lunar Eclipse

Wednesday night a spectacular and beautiful total lunar eclipse took place, visible to most of the North American continent. It was, unsurprisingly, a very popular topic on blogs throughout the blogosphere yesterday, with lots of people posting photos of the event. Well, I might as well add my voice to the fray, and my photos, too, even though they’re pretty similar to just about everyone else’s.

I’m pretty sure this is the first lunar eclipse I can remember watching. I may have seen one or two before, perhaps when growing up, and have simply forgotten. In any case, I’d been thinking I should go out to watch it, but, ironically, it had slipped my mind that it was Wednesday night, caught up in a drawing I was working on. I was only reminded of it when my mom came and told me it was happening. So I missed out on the first part of the eclipse, and caught it midway through.

Lunar Eclipse

It was a pretty cool show. When I first stepped out it was glowing a reddish orange, with just the bottom “corner” outside the shadow. The last time I looked at it the eclipse was nearly done. It’s a shame it was so cold out, it really discouraged spending a lot of time watching if you didn’t have a good view through a window. It took me a while to get my camera setup right for long-exposure shots of a bright object. The tricky bit was figuring out how to get the mirror to lock up (the setting was buried in a second tier of the menu). I had the camera mounted on a tripod, and I’d recently bought a remote shutter release (the geek in me was excited about that purchase), but even just the slight shake as the mirror flipped up to take the photo was enough to create a blur in the image. Once I figured that out I was good to go.

I saw a lot of photos on the web, but very little explanation of what was going on as this show progressed, so I did a bit of poking around and found this informative site, which I’ll summarize. NASA also has a good page about the recent eclipse.

Lunar Eclipse

A lunar eclipse is caused by the moon (which has no light of its own, so simply reflects the light of the sun) passing through the earth’s shadow. The earth has two shadows, one from the sun’s direct rays, and then “thinner” shadows where the sun’s rays hit it at an angle (since the sun casts light from all points of its disc in all directions, the “lower” edge of the sun will cast light in the direction of the “upper” edge of the earth). The main shadow, from the direct rays, is called the “umbra”, and the “thinner” halo shadow surrounding it is called the “penumbra”. The penumbral eclipse is very difficult to discern with the naked eye, so all the photos and etc that you see online pretty much deal with the umbral eclipse.

The moon shows up reddish during an eclipse because the small portion of light that gets to it around the sides of the earth is bent and refracted and filtered through earth’s atmosphere, which results in only the red wavelengths hitting the moon. It’s this refraction that allows the moon to be visible during an eclipse; if earth had no atmosphere the moon would be black.

Lunar Eclipse

An eclipse can only occur during a full moon. It can also only occur when the moon passes directly behind the earth. Because of the way the moon orbits the earth, it’s usually offset enough that it passes above or below the earth’s umbral shadow when its orbit takes it behind the planet. This is why eclipses are so infrequent. Total eclipses, where the whole of the moon passes through the umbral shadow, are very rare, and partial eclipses, where just a portion is in shadow, are only slightly more common. Partial eclipses outnumber total eclipses 7 to 6 (not a big margin, is it?).

But infrequent is definitely a relative term. We don’t get a lunar eclipse every full moon, but it’s estimated that between 2000BC and 3000AD (a very long time-span, I’ll admit, at 5000 years and certainly outside of most people’s frame of reference), 7,718 eclipses (both partial and total) will take place. That’s about three every two years (1.5 a year). It’s possible to have up to three take place in a year. The last time that happened was in 1982.

The next total eclipse won’t happen until December of 2010. However, there will be a partial eclipse this August. Unfortunately, the Americas won’t be able to see it because it will take place while the moon is below our horizon. The next one the Americas will get to view will in fact be the 2010 total eclipse (western America will get to see a partial one earlier that year, as well). We’ll be treated to two total eclipses in both 2014 and 2015. Other parts of the world will see some that we won’t in the time in between.

Lunar Eclipse

Visible near the moon during this eclipse were two bright points of light. The one on the left, to the east, is Saturn, while the one to the upper right, to the west, is the bright star Regulus. I could see with my eye, but not capture with the camera, that the moon was sitting in the constellation Leo during the eclipse. The little blue crescent in the images I think is some sort of reflection or refraction from the glass of my lens. I kind of liked the effect it created, so left it in.

Stars in earth's rotation

While I was out there messing around with long exposures and night sky shots, I tried playing with a long exposure of the stars. The length of exposure on this shot was 240 seconds, or 4 minutes. It was taken with my long lens on the camera, at about 200mm (I think). The long streaks of the stars were actually created by the earth’s rotation, you can see a bit of a branch that’s stationary. I was surprised that they would be so pronounced with such a (relatively) short exposure!

Make it a green Superbowl

It’s Superbowl Sunday! Perhaps the single biggest annual sporting event in the United States (I don’t include Canada because I suspect here the Stanley Cup is slightly more popular; hockey is followed regularly throughout the year, whereas the NFL, being strictly American, is only really followed in any detail in the playoffs, and even then, only really paid attention to in the final game. And probably a lot of people watch it for the commercials. That said, the Superbowl is a big event here, too). I will be curled up in front of the tv this afternoon with a bowl of snack food to enjoy the game. No party for me; I’m more comfortable by myself or just with a friend.

However, there are lots of people who’ll be going to parties, to pubs, or to other events. An estimated 93 million people tuned into last year’s Superbowl broadcast, the most-watched tv event of the year (estimates are reaching up to 135 million for this year’s). A further 70,000+ people will travel to the stadium to attend the game in Glendale, Arizona. Not to mention all the NFL personnel (players, coaches, referees, and all the behind-the-scenes folks who help make it happen).

Think about this for a moment. When you consider the fuel necessary to transport teams and fans, the electricity necessary to power the facility, as well as the tv sets of people at home, the amount of waste produced from refreshments both at the game and away, the event starts to have a rather large environmental impact. A whopping 3,000 vehicles will be involved in transporting just the NFL folks and equipment alone.

Last year the NFL announced that Superbowl XLI (41) would be “carbon neutral”. The concept of carbon neutral stems from the idea that one can balance the carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels (eg. gas in cars, coal or other sources in power plants) by doing something that reduces emissions, such as by planting trees or purchasing power from renewable energy sources. This has been popularized with the idea of “carbon offsetting” – for instance, you still want to take that plane trip to the Carribean for your vacation, so you make up for the carbon emissions that will create through offsetting – usually paying money to a company that will take the necessary steps (such as planting the trees) for you.

Although the NFL did run a very green Superbowl last year, they received some flak for labelling the event “carbon neutral” when in fact the offsetting only accommodated for the actual venue, and not the carbon cost of fan travel, etc. Because of the difficulty in not only factoring in and offsetting this increased cost, but also just simply calculating it, the NFL this year has shied away from applying the term “carbon neutral” to the event.

That said, they have taken many steps to make it green and offset 100% of the direct carbon impact. For example, some 42 acres of wildfire-burned forest will be replanted in nearby locations in Arizona. This will more than offset the carbon cost of the 3,000 vehicle fleet as the trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they live and grow. The venue will draw its energy for that week from Mexican wind turbines and Californian geothermal energy sources, both green, renewable sources of electricity. The stadium has recycling containers available for fans to recycle their cans and papers, rather than throw them into garbage bins that would be dumped in a landfill (and with 70,000+ fans, that makes a big difference). I have to admit that, with recycling so widespread here in my home area, it baffles me that there are places where it’s still a novelty. But there you go.

If you’re hosting a superbowl event and want to try to offset some of the costs associated with it (such as additional electricity usage or carbon fuel costs of transportation), here’s some ideas:

  • Recycle! If you don’t already have a recycling program in place in your home, start one. If you’re part of an apartment complex that doesn’t have it, petition them to get it. Not only do you keep waste out of landfills by doing this, it also means trees don’t need to be cut down for new paper, or ore mined for pop cans, etc. Recycling a single aluminum can saves enough energy to run a tv for 3 hours.
  • Cut down on your car usage. Do you really need to drive, or is it close enough to walk or bike to? This is, admittedly, easier to do when the weather is nice or you won’t be carrying much. If you don’t want to or can’t walk, think about taking public transportation.
  • Plant a tree in your backyard, or buy one for your balcony. Or, join in a local tree-planting program. One tree will offset about 64 litres (about 17 gallons) of fuel burned per month.
  • Investigate green energy options from your hydro provider. Many providers have special programs where you can purchase your electricity “from” the portion of electricity that they get from renewable energy sources (in reality there’s no way to make sure the actual electrons flowing into your home were from the wind turbines or whatever, but the energy source will create enough energy for a set number of people, which then gets added to the total amount available in the grid. You’re essentially saying “make me one of the 100 people that the wind turbines provide for.”). If they have 150 people asking for green energy, but only enough current energy sources for 100, they’ll invest more in renewable energy sources.

Read up on other things you can do to help at reliable sites such as the Suzuki Foundation or the official Arizona Superbowl site.

And don’t forget to enjoy the game!

All photos borrowed from Wikimedia Commons.