The bold and the beautiful

Raven and I enjoying the spring weather

We’ve had a string of beautiful weather the last few days. Mild temperatures, jacket optional, no toque required. Sunday was by far the nicest, though. A repeat photo of Saturday’s, only better. Note the shoved-up sleeves, bare head. I could probably even have ditched the vest and been fine. Although the thermometer suggested it was warmer today, Sunday afternoon the sun was shining and there was a lovely warm breeze blowing – you know, the sort that caresses your skin, rather than nipping at it. It really felt like a small gift from April, a promise of things to come.

greenbottle fly

The temptation was enough to get the boldest of the insects out of bed for a look-see. Although I still didn’t see many out in the fields or woods, there were quite a number climbing up the west side of the house in the afternoon. Most numerous by far were the flies. As far as I could tell, there were two types – the greenbottle above, and a gray one that might have been the same species I photographed in March last year, though I didn’t get a photo of the latter to be able to confirm.

Polistes paper wasp

I saw a couple of Polistes paper wasps, probably P. fuscatus, the Northern Paper Wasp. I wrote a bit about the life cycle of paper wasps in one of my early posts here, a little over two years ago now. The colony spends the whole summer growing in size in order to eventually produce a crop of new queen wasps in the fall. These young queens mate and then overwinter, while the old queen and all the workers die at the end of the fall. Come spring, the wasps you see emerging are these mated queens, looking to start new colonies. They’ll find a good spot (old nests are never reused) and start building a new nest, laying eggs and provisioning the developing young themselves until enough workers have grown up to be able to take over the duties.

spider

Spiders have been everywhere. They’re so far the only invertebrate I’ve seen active out in the meadows. I’ve seen a few species, and I don’t know what any of them are. I don’t think they’re the same ones I saw on the snow in the winter, but I could be wrong about that. They skitter over the grasses and dead vegetation, and they were dashing about on the foundation of the house. Just little small guys, less than half a centimetre (1/4″) long.

I also saw a Boxelder Bug on the foundation, but it disappeared around a corner and I couldn’t relocate it. I’ve encountered these guys before, on a maple tree at my parents’ old house. At the time I noted that they supposedly would invade homes to find overwintering sites the same way that ladybugs do, but I’d never seen them indoors. Still haven’t, but at least the one this weekend was actually on the house.

9881 - Homoglaea hircina - Goat Sallow

Both Saturday and Sunday I was tempted into putting out my mercury vapour lamp to see if there were any moths out and about, woken up by the spring-like character of the day. (When Dan asked what I’d been doing outside and I told him, he said “You really like moths, don’t you? I mean, you don’t just like them, you really like them.” Yes, yes I do.) Saturday wasn’t quite warm enough, and I didn’t get anything. I brought the bulb inside after a couple hours. Sunday, however, I had three – three! – moths come to the house. And not just little micro guys, either. These were all macromoths, big species at least as large as your thumbnail. (Hey, in the world of moths, that counts as large).

The one above was the very first one to arrive. It’s one of the beautiful chunky sallows I was hoping for. In fact, this one was a new species for me. It’s a Goat Sallow, Homoglaea hircina, a species of the northern woods – the Carolinian, Great Lakes-St Lawrence, and Boreal forests (I haven’t mapped this one yet, but I’m getting really good at interpreting written range descriptions…) – where its caterpillars feed on aspen and poplars. It’s a super-early flyer, the overwintering adults out and about in March and April, as soon as the snow starts melting back from the ground. So not a surprise to see it, and perhaps funny that I hadn’t encountered it before.

9915 - Lithophane grotei - Grote's Pinion

And the second moth here is a Grote’s Pinion. This one’s found through most of the northeast, and feeds on a variety of tree species. They’re usually encountered among the last of the moths in the fall, and again with the first of the moths in the spring. Like the Goat Sallow, they overwinter as adults and are quick to take advantage of warm weather.

The third moth I saw fluttering in the eaves of the front porch overhang, but wasn’t able to relocate it when I came back with my long-handled butterfly net to try to reach it.

Judging from the weather forecast, that looks like it might be it for moths for at least the next week or so. A tantalizing hint of things to come!

Advertisements

Spring on the air

Enjoying the sunshine

As forecasted, it was a lovely mild day today. The sun was shining brightly in a clear sky, and there was hardly a breath of wind. You could almost smell the scent of promised spring on the air. This same weekend last year we had a mild spell, as well. It wasn’t quite as warm as last year’s, but it was still a beautiful day to be outside. I walked with Raven to the back of the property, through the open fields where I could luxuriate in the warmth of the sun.

I stopped and checked out the open patches under the trees and around rocks, where the snow was already melted and the ground exposed, looking to see if there were any insects out and about today. I found none, although I did see quite a few spiders, little tiny black ones that skittered over the folded blades of grass, gone from sight practically even before being seen. It’s still a bit early for insects, really. My first good day of insects was March 17 last year.

At the back of the property it gets a bit Shield-y, with juniper shrubs and small bare rock domes. One of these spots, alongside a clump of cedar, has a great flat-sided rock that’s perfect for leaning up against and enjoying the sun. I spent some time there before heading back to the house. I probably didn’t even need the toque today, except you know if you leave it behind then the wind will pick up and your ears will be feeling nipped by the time you get back inside.

Last year, that night we had a moth come in to our outdoor light, the first one of the year. This evening I put my moth light out at dusk, just on the off chance that the warm afternoon sun had stirred anyone out of their winter slumber. I might not have bothered had we not had the handful turn up at the porch lights earlier in the week, since it was slightly cooler today than last year. I turned it off again after an hour or two with no moths.

——————-

Speaking of moths. The fabulous (if I do say so myself) blog carnival The Moth and Me starts up again this month after a winter hiatus to allow the moths a chance to rest. The host for March will be Jason of Xenogere. Pick your favourite moth (or moth caterpillar) themed post from the last few months (or earlier, if you don’t have anything recent – which may be the case for many of us more northern folk), and send it to Jason (Jason -at- xenogere -dot- com) before March 13 (just one more parentheses just ’cause).

Monday Miscellany

Country road in spring

It’s amazing just how fast the trees leaf out once they start. Just two weeks ago I was noting the late afternoon sun glowing through the sprinkling of leaves on the saplings across the road from the house. Now, I can barely make out the neighbour’s house, which was so apparent in winter. By June, I won’t be able to see it at all. All manner of plant life has greened up or is hard at work at it. Some shrubs are completely leafed out, while the tall ash trees are only just starting. Like the creeks that start tumbling over their rocky beds at spring melt, once spring arrived, time seems to have picked up speed and is rushing by.

Blue Jay

We’ve had a fair bit of rain over the course of the last week. It seems to have gotten all the wet out of its system now, however, and we’re forecasted to have mostly clear skies the rest of the week (whether it remains that way remains to be seen). Although all that rain was undoubtedly part of the reason behind the green explosion, the animals were less than happy about it. This Blue Jay, for instance, was looking a bit bedraggled as it visited the feeders one afternoon.

Mink Frog

The rain has made the ground near our dock rather soggy. As Dan was flipping his boat over one day last week to try to locate a leak that had gotten worse over the winter, he disturbed this guy from the pool of water around the boat. I spent a lot of time debating the identity of this guy. The bright green upper lip and speckled underbelly should make it easy to ID, I figured. I think that it’s a Mink Frog, Rana septentrionalis, but it could also be a Green Frog, Rana clamitans. I couldn’t figure out a definitive ID characteristic that would rule one out based on the photos I have. A Mink Frog would be a “lifer” for me, a species that I’d never encountered previously. In Ontario they tend to be found further north than the GTA where I grew up, but we’d be at the southern edge of their range, here. They’ve been recorded over in the Park. I’m leaning toward Mink because of the small eardrums, dorsal ridges that terminate halfway down the back, and lack of strong barring on the back legs, but I get the impression these are all somewhat variable features.

Water bug, Belostoma sp.

Before Dan flipped over his boat, he bailed out some of the water. And sitting in the water was this guy. I believe it’s a water bug in the genus Belostoma. It was rather large, about an inch long, and quite active within the container Dan had scooped it into. This group of water bugs are among those where the female lays her eggs on the male’s back in the spring. He “broods” the eggs, keeping them clean of fungus, protecting them from predators, and making sure they’re well oxygenated (by doing “push-ups” at the surface of the water). I’m not sure if the lack of eggs on this one means it’s a female, or just a male that hasn’t been laid on yet. I did notice, however, in examining the photos on my computer, that it’s sporting a bunch of red mites.

Bolitotherus cornutus

I found this strange beetle clinging to a piece of driftwood beside my moth trap one morning. I wasn’t sure if it was alive, as it fell off the wood when I touched it, and sat with its legs curled under it. I set it on a shelf in a vial for a couple of hours as I sorted through my trap and photographed the moths I’d caught. When I returned to it, it was sitting in a different spot in the vial, and its legs appeared to be out. As soon as I picked up the vial again, however, it fell over and its legs curled underneath it again.

I pulled out my trusty Kaufman Guide to Insects (I love that book, have I mentioned that?), and there it was at the bottom of page 193: Bolitotherus cornutus. Looking it up on BugGuide.net reveals its common name to be Forked Fungus Beetle, or sometimes Horned Darkling Beetle. The two horns are projections from its thorax, and are used in “battle” with other males to win females (I’m not sure the purpose of the orange “hairs”). They are associated with bracket fungi of hardwoods such as maple and beech. The Kaufman guide makes a note that they are adept at “playing dead”, so I guess that’s what my beetle was doing whenever I disturbed it. Was pretty convincing!

Unidentified bracket fungus

While out with Raven today I encountered this bracket fungus projecting from the side of a stump. Just recently I had read over at Huckleberry Days about Dryad’s Saddle, Polyporus squamosus, a stalked bracket fungus that appears about now, so I thought, “Aha! A Dryad’s Saddle!”. I took a documenting photo and returned home. I pulled out my mushroom guide just to confirm and look up a couple of life history details about the species, and now I’m not convinced that it’s Dryad’s Saddle after all. All the photos I can find on the web for the species show it being concave where it attaches to the stalk, rather than convex like my fungus. I searched through the guide a couple of times and poked about the ‘net, but couldn’t come up with an identity.

Bee fly

Very close to the same spot, I stood and watched this bee fly hovering at several Spring Beauties at the side of the road. It was much oranger than previous individuals I’ve seen, and I wondered if it was just a dark Bombylius major, the species I’ve seen before, or a different species. I gather the half-light/half-dark wing markings are fairly distinctive, and seem to only be shared by B. major and B. mexicanus. It’s hard to make out the specific pattern of dark, but I’m leaning toward B. major.

Crab spider?

I have no idea what this spider is. Not being insects, they’re not usually treated in much depth in the usual insect guides, although Stephen Marshall’s Insects doesn’t do too badly. It looks like it might be a type of crab spider, but I’m not sure. I’d knocked it off the branch of a tree onto a white sheet when I was out looking for beetles (as per a post by Ted of Beetles in the Bush that suggested if you go around thwacking some branches in the spring, it’s possible to discover some beetles you might not normally encounter). I’ve only gone out the once and thwacked half a dozen branches before I was disrupted by the arrival of a real estate agent who was coming to take photos of the house, and then it rained much of last week. Now that the weather is nice again I plan to give it another try.

Birdwatching

A few animals from a little closer to home… with the nicer spring weather the cats have been allowed to go outside in their harnesses to sit in the long grass, enjoy the sunshine, and watch the birds. They’re tied to the deck with short 10-foot leads, so they’re not really a threat to anything except perhaps the odd bug. Both for the safety of wildlife and the cats themselves, I never let my cats roam about outdoors, so this is about as outdoor-cat as these guys will get. They enjoy it, though. Despite the chipmunk who thumbs its nose at them by foraging on fallen seeds under the birdfeeder five feet away.

Fish eats cat, fish spits up cat

Fish eats cat. Fish spits up cat.

Water dog

Since late winter, when the snow was just starting to melt, Raven has been taking an increased interest in water. At the first start of ice breakup, she’d paddle her feet in the shallows of the lake, but it’s taken her a while of gradually working up to letting her feet leave the security of the ground. Even when she started doing that, she’d only push forward half a body length, and then quickly turn around to paddle back. After once or twice of that, she wouldn’t go after sticks that were further out anymore, she’d just look at you and whine. We’d taken her out in the boat a couple times and “thrown” her overboard, and she’d paddle back to shore just fine, but was reluctant to go in of her own accord.

Then, a couple days ago, it was like she had an epiphany. We’d thrown a couple of sticks for her just out of reach from where her feet could touch bottom, and she’d pushed off to grab them, but turn quickly back around. She showed a bit of willingness to go a bit further, and so we got her to do two body lengths, and then three. Then Dan suggested throwing the stick way out and seeing if she’d go for it. So I tossed it four or five meters out, and she struck right out to retrieve it.

Water dog

Within the course of five minutes, she was suddenly paddling all over the place like a bonafide water dog. Not only that, but once she realized she wasn’t going to drown if her feet left the bottom, she discovered that hey – I actually like this! Now when we take her down to throw sticks for her, she’ll jump right in the water and start paddling out before you’ve even tossed the stick out. Quite a change from the puppy who was reluctant to even get her feet wet last fall!

Four days early

Graphocephala coccinea, Red-banded Leafhopper

Another beautifully mild day today, with our thermometer peaking at 17 oC (63 oF) in the sun mid-afternoon (actual temperature was somewhat lower, but not by a great deal). We’ve had a string of such nice days now. It looks like after tomorrow a cold front will move in and drop temperatures down for a few days, but by this time next week we’ll be back up again. I’ve been starved for balmy, sunny weather, I’ve been soaking it in these last few days.

So has the wildlife. I’m up to 12 species of moths recorded so far this season already. This seems to me like an extraordinary number for March 17, and I’m not sure how much of that number has to do with the string of warm days (perhaps we didn’t run into that last year?), versus me actually setting up and looking for them (I didn’t try this early last year because I didn’t want to waste my time if nothing was flying, since it was more of an effort when we were in the apartment, but this year since we’re in a house I can put the light out anyway and it’s not a big deal if nothing comes), versus simply being in a great place for moths (and everything else; I love my home).

Last night I got two moths which I took photos of this morning, after holding them chilled in the fridge overnight. Rather than just setting them up on the deck railing or on a sheet of paper or something, I hunted down a dead leaf that was still in good shape as a photo base. Most were starting to fall apart, or if they were still intact, they were curled up. Finally I found one that was whole, and mostly flat. When I picked it up and turned it over, I noticed a small white speck on the underside. It turned out to be a leafhopper. I think it’s a Red-banded Leafhopper, Graphocephala coccinea, also sometimes known as a Candy-striped Leafhopper. It’s very pale, and I suspect this may be because it had just recently emerged, and its exoskeleton was still soft (the colours in insects’ exoskeletons often strengthen as the shell hardens).

spring fly

Also something I noticed today that I hadn’t over the weekend was a profusion of flies. They were ubiquitous in open areas where leaf detritus had piled up in the fall, such as the edge of our driveway and lawn, or the clearings along the forest edge. I’m not positive on its ID. I think it might be a Stable Fly, Stomoxys calcitrans, which is a common and cosmopolitan species. I was able to rule out House Fly by the veination on the wings, but that was about as far as I got. Flies are a group I’m content to leave to someone else’s expertise.

Edit: Kirk suggests in the comments that this is a Flesh Fly, family Sarcophagidae. So not even close to Stable Fly. I told you fly ID is better left to the experts.

Winter Firefly, Ellychnia corrusca

I was intrigued by the discovery of the leafhopper, and the presence of all the flies, and thought perhaps during my walk with Raven today I’d take my camera and see what other spring insects I might be able to turn up. I wasn’t expecting much – after all, it’s only March 17 and there’s still snow on the ground in many places. But I might be lucky and find one or two.

I was surprised to discover a total of 13 individuals of 7 species today. Leafhopper and flies were #1 and 2, but species #3 was the above – fire-less fireflies known as the Winter Firefly, Ellychnia corrusca. The genus Ellychnia are all diurnal, and as such lack the light-emitting organs of most other fireflies (not much point, they wouldn’t be seen). They are also most commonly found on tree trunks, and indeed these two (plus one other) were climbing up the ridged bark of a big White Pine. The Winter Firefly, presumably taking its common name from its cool-weather tolerance and early spring appearance, also happens to be the largest firefly of the northeast by almost twice as much – the large one in this photo was probably about 18mm, perhaps 5/8″.

Twice-stabbed Ladybeetle, Chilocorus stigma

A couple trees away, sitting on the side of a hop-hornbeam, was this critter – a ladybeetle, but not the generic orange-with-black-and-white-“head” Asian Ladybeetle that we’re so used to seeing around the house and garden. This one is actually native, and discovering native ladybeetles is such a rare occurrence for me I could count the total number I’ve seen on two hands. Surprisingly, there are actually more than 480 species in North America, so I don’t know how much of my not having seen many is simply because they’re secretive compared to the Asian invaders, or because the Asian beetles are outcompeting them. This particular one, seeming the reverse in pattern from the usual black-spots-on-red, is called the Twice-stabbed Ladybeetle, Chilocorus stigma. You can see why the species was named such, but it’s a slightly morbid name, particularly when you consider the Lady in ladybeetle was actually a reference to the Virgin Mary.

There has been a general decline in ladybeetles on the continent, and in recognition of this the Lost Ladybug Project was started in an effort to build a database of ladybeetle sightings to try to help with monitoring these species (since it’s really hard for a couple of Cornell scientists to cover the entire continent). If you have any ladybeetle observations be sure to send them in!

Menecles insertus

I just happened to spot this guy sitting still in amongst the leaf litter while I was photographing a fly, not a foot away. It is a true bug with the scientific name Menecles insertus, and was easy enough to pick out in the Kaufman Insect guide by its all-brown colouring and pale stripe down its back. It seems to be a fairly common insect of the east, feeding on a range of deciduous trees. My guess would be that its brown colouring is an adaptation to a late fall and early spring adult stage, since the predominant colour in the landscape at those times of year is the brown of dead leaves. There wasn’t much info available in either resource I checked, though, and I’m simply hypothesizing that it overwinters as an adult since that would make such an early spring appearance easier.

wolf spider?

I found two of these spiders, in two different spots. I think they’re a type of wolf spider, but I don’t have a definitive ID on them yet, either. They were scuttling through the leaf litter, and, aside from the flies, were the main source of eye-catching movement that I encountered. All of the rest of the insects required examining the ground more closely.

metallic beetle

I also don’t know what this beetle is. It was just a wee little thing, less than half a cm (less than 1/4″) long, but a bright iridescent bronze. I had happened to kneel down to inspect a large rock with mica deposits in it, and as I was checking out the mica, a little beetle comes wandering up over the top of the rock in front of me, like he wanted to make sure he was counted.

Edit: In the comments, Ted makes this suggestion: “The beetle is a leaf beetle (Chrysomelidae) in the genus Graphops (subfamily Eumolpinae). It could be G. curtipennis, a common eastern North American representative, although there are a number of species in the genus that are difficult to sight ID.”

One other species I saw but didn’t post here was a diurnal moth, a small little tan guy, whose identity also remains unknown to me. It’s amazing how much time one can spend trying to identify things if one really wants to.

grasshopper nymph

Finally, species #13, was these grasshopper nymphs (above and below). I found the green one first, and was quite surprised to discover a grasshopper. I didn’t notice until I got home that it was a nymph and not an adult. Part of the presence of grasshoppers so early is explained by this. It turns out they’re both Northern Green-striped Grasshoppers, Chortophaga viridifasciata. The species has two colour morphs, with both sexes occurring in both colours, but with females predominantly green and males mostly brown. Eggs are laid and hatch in the summer and over the course of the fall the baby ‘hoppers go through a few moults. The winter arrives while they’re still nymphs, though they may be anywhere from half-grown to nearly adults. They overwinter as nymphs and emerge early in the spring to finish growing. They’re usually the first species of grasshopper to be encountered as adults in the spring because they’ve got such a huge head start on development over other species that overwinter as eggs.

Total counts to date this season: 12 species of moth, 12 species of other insect. At March 17th! And spring (the official first day) not even here yet, it’s still four days away. I just can’t get over that. It looks like we’ll have to endure a few chilly days as a cold front moves through later this week and into the weekend, but we’ll be back up to these temperatures again next week. I wonder if I should wait till the 21st to declare spring finally arrived?

grasshopper nymph

Spring in the air

spring

Yesterday was a gorgeous day. So warm that when I took Raven for her walk, I didn’t need my toque – note the bare ears in the photo! And bare hands – no mittens! And unzipped jacket. It was lovely. The day had started out overcast, but by the afternoon the sky had cleared and the sun shone brightly. There was a light breeze, but rather than nipping at your exposed skin like winter breezes usually do, this one caressed your face with soft, warm breaths of air. Oh, it was gorgeous. The sort of day where you just want to close your eyes and soak it in. I took Raven up the road to the abandoned property, where there were a couple of very old wooden chairs tucked at the edge of a clearing in the woods, where I could sit and do just that. The photo just can’t capture how beautiful the day was.

Today was lovely, too. Not quite as warm, so those delicious pockets of warm air weren’t present, but still mild and sunny, with the lingering scent of spring. Dan and I went up the road a little ways to hike around a parcel of crown land that Dan wanted to scout as a potential location for a new MAPS study site (MAPS – which stands for Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship – is a banding program that helps give clues about the “why” to complement the “whether” species are declining that other studies, such as the Breeding Bird Survey, detect; through the use of banding the program helps to determine birth and death rates, as well as other important information on territories and dispersal). We hiked about two kilometers, returning to the Jeep with our feet soaked by the soft, melting snow that still covered much of the woods. But what a splendid afternoon.

spring2

The sun and mild temperatures have melted the snow off my small little “garden”, the bit of earth that I cleared and planted with bulbs last October. I planted six types of bulbs: crocus, mini iris, scilla, allium, Nectaroscordum, and fritillaria. The latter three are all late spring bloomers, although the fritillaria might start blooming in late April. The other three, however, are all early spring bloomers. I did plant the bulbs in a particular arrangement last fall, but I can’t remember what went where now. There are shoots poking through the soft dirt already, encouraged by the warm sun and mild weather, but I don’t know who they belong to. I’m looking forward to their blooms!

9936 - Eupsilia morrisoni - Morrison's Sallow

And finally, the first moth of the season! I was standing outside last night, waiting for Raven to pee. Raven, however, was feeling a little freaked out by the barks of a dog a kilometer or so down the road echoing up the lake. When she gets like that, she won’t pee, despite much coaxing (she does know the command, and under ordinary circumstances will go right out and pee quickly and we can go inside again). So while I stood there waiting for her to gather her courage or whatever she was looking for, a moth flew in and started fluttering around our yard light! I quickly dashed inside to grab my insect net, and snagged it from up on the wall of the house. I suddenly didn’t feel so annoyed with Raven for taking her sweet time.

The moth was a Morrison’s Sallow, Eupsilia morrisoni. They are relatively common and widespread, and among the earliest to emerge in the spring, having spent the winter tucked into some crevice or nook as an adult moth. They will occasionally make appearances during the winter on exceptionally warm days/evenings. Although our temperature made it up to 12 C (54 F) during the day, by the time I was putting everyone to bed at midnight it had dropped to 2 C (36 F) again, and while I thought perhaps the warm sun might have roused somebody from their winter slumber, I had expected any moths to show up would be in the first hour or two after dusk, while it was still somewhat warm. I was quite surprised to see a moth out and about so late, after the temperature had dropped so much. I tucked it in the fridge overnight (it’s actually warmer in the fridge than it was outside, ironically) and took photos and released it this morning, setting it in the sun where it could warm up and then go off to find its own nook to crawl into again.

Hope springs eternal

creek4

Happy New Year to everyone! I hope folks are taking it easy and not too tired or hung-over from last night’s fun, if you participated. Any New Year’s resolutions among my readers? Mine is to try to be more organized and on top of things this year. Tied into that is a desire to break this terrible habit of procrastination that I have. Also a few other habit-related goals. Breaking habits are some of the worst sorts of resolutions because they can be so hard to follow through on and then continue with, but hope springs eternal, and at this time of year, the springs are probably at their highest.

I’ve only been to one or two New Year’s parties over the years, preferring instead to spend it quietly with loved ones at home, and so last night found Dan and I curled up on the couch, watching some programs on TV and generally having a relaxing evening. Today my parents came by for a holidays visit, which was also nice. It has been a couple months since they were last up, they haven’t been by since they bought their new home (the primary reason they were up this way so frequently before was because of the house search, and the length of the drive from their old home). We all went out together to take Raven for her daily walk (she was a bundle of excited energy over the arrival of visitors), and I took them down the road to my favourite property. I didn’t take any photos today, these are from a visit a few weeks back, when the snow cover wasn’t quite as deep.

creek3

Speaking of springs, I discovered this one on the property, just another reason I’m so taken with the place. I had followed the little creek back along its length upstream to find its source, since I knew the water didn’t cross the driveway anywhere, Sure enough, the stream seemed to emanate from the tangled roots of two large birch trees. I couldn’t see the water’s source itself, the hollows under the arching roots too dark to discern anything. The flow was strong enough that the source had to be more than just a seep in the rock bed.

Rock Ice

There are three primary types of springs. The first, the one that most people have probably seen at some point, is a seep. Seeps are responsible for forming these sorts of icicle formations on the sides of rock walls or cliffs. They can be found occurring naturally, but just as often are the result of human activity, frequently the excavation of rock hummocks or ridges to allow the passage of roadways. More often than not when I pass a rock cliff along the highway during the winter it has at least a few icicle formations flowing from it. Seeps are the result of water flowing between rock layers, or through the gaps in porous rock, under the surface of the ground. When the water comes to a spot where the rock has been sheared away or otherwise exposed the water flows down along the rock face or pools on the ground, often creating a small creek.

The second results when the landscape is composed of rock, such as limestone, that is very susceptible to erosion, and over (a very long) time a network of holes and tunnels develop through the ground. Water flowing from one source may encounter a sinkhole, a spot where erosion has formed a tunnel through the ground, and the stream seems to disappear. The tunnel ends further along in the landscape, where the stream pops back to the surface and continues on. Such landscapes are called Karst landscapes, or Karst formations.

The third is the sort I suspect to be the case here, given that most of the rock in the area is granite, and is where water is actually forced by pressure upwards through a hole in the ground. If the pressure is constant, the water on the surface can’t flow back down through the hole, and ends up pooling around it. Some water will inevitably trickle back down through the soil, but if the pool basin is mostly rock, or if the rate of water being pushed out of the hole is greater than what can seep through the soil, the water will eventually overflow the basin’s edges and start off downhill, forming a small creek or stream.

creek2

What sort of pressure can cause groundwater to be forced upwards to the surface? There are two possible causes. The first is if the well goes down to an aquifer that is completely contained within bedrock walls. The pressure from the surrounding rock pressing in on the water will push it up through the hole, even though it’s against gravity. The other cause is a function of topography. In an area where the geology includes a layer of porous rock bookended above and below by dense, impermeable rock like granite or clay, a pool of water may collect in the porous layer if the ground level rises to each side. Water that trickled through the soil in the higher areas will flow through the porous layer and result in an aquifer in the depression in the middle. If it fills up enough such that the water level at the sides, where the porous rock layer curves upward, is higher than the ground surface in the middle, then there will be enough pressure from the surrounding water to push the stuff in the depression up through a hole or well that forms in the surface. This sort of spring is called an artesian spring (and the aquifer an artesian aquifer), named after the former province of Artois, France, where the first such wells were originally used.

Confused? Try imagining taking a colander and duct-taping up all but one hole at the bottom. Push it into a sink full of water, just so that the edges are still slightly above the surface, but the bottom of the bowl is well below the surface level. Water will quickly begin rushing up through the hole in the bottom of the colander because of the pressure being exerted from the water in the rest of the sink, even though it’s moving in a direction opposite to gravity. The duct-tape is probably not completely sealed, though, and I bet you see trickles coming out from the edges. These are like seeps, where the groundwater meets a hole in a vertical rock surface.

creek5

Springs can be classified by order of magnitude. The biggest springs, with the label 1st Magnitude, are ones that produce in excess of 100 cubic feet per second (2800 cubic litres per second) at their source. They decrease, as the system suggests, approximately by orders of magnitude (2nd is 10 to 100 ft3/s, for instance, and 3rd is 1 to 10 ft3/s), down to the 9th Magnitude, which is less than 1 pint/minute (8 mL/s). Without having an actual tool to measure the flow of water in the little creek, I would estimate it to be a 5th magnitude spring – one that produces water at a rate of about 10 to 100 gallons per minute (0.63 to 6.3 L/s). It moved along at a reasonable rate for its size, certainly at least a litre per second, probably more.

creek1

The water wound its way through the forest, the narrow stream bed bordered by hemlocks, Yellow Birch and other trees that enjoy moist soil, and emptied out into a small wetland that bordered the edge of the lake. I’ve found a few springs in our area, but this one is my favourite, both because of the mystery behind the origin of the water, hidden as it is beneath the roots of the birches, and because of the surroundings the little creek passes through and ends at.

A harbinger of spring

Edit: This post was recently included in the 70th edition of I and the Bird, a blog carnival focusing on, you guessed it, birds. You can check out the full edition at Earth, Wind & Water.

First starling of spring

The northeast got another dump of snow last night. Although it was only just lightly starting in the evening before I went to bed, by the time I got up there was a good eight inches on the ground, and it was still snowing with some conviction.

Snowfall

It finally began to taper off mid-morning. I happened to be at my parents’ for a few days of renovation work, so I didn’t have to go anywhere in it, but when my dad got home he said the driving was pretty slick on the way in to work. I helped my mom put the horses out in the fields; she normally takes them herself two at a time, but the younger two are very lively and with the slippery conditions she wasn’t keen about having a prancing horse at the end of each arm.

The feeders were very active this morning. Virtually every bird in the surrounding woods had come out to fuel up at the convenient food source while it was snowing. Surprisingly, I didn’t see the big flocks of redpolls that usually turn up in this weather; they seem to have traded off with American Tree Sparrows, which were unusually abundant.

First starling of spring

Mom and I were looking out the window at the activity when she commented, “what’s that dark thing in the tree, just a knot? Or is it a starling?” Sure enough, it was a starling. This is a very notable sighting for us (worth writing in my newly-started Nature Calendar!). Because my parents are out in the country, their starlings don’t stick around over the winter. They depart in the fall with the rest of the migrants, and then come back again early in the spring to nest in the eaves of the house and garage. There’re usually at least three pairs nesting here every summer.

First starling of spring

They’re the true harbinger of spring here. They arrive earlier than any other migrant, even the Red-winged Blackbirds, which are early arrivals. Unfortunately I don’t have a solid record of arrival dates over recent years. Shoulda been keeping a calendar… I’d be interested to know where they all go in the winter, whether they just skip down to the nearby town, or if they migrate some distance away.

Starling sneaking up on doves

I love starlings, they’re one of my favourite birds. This is due in part to my years in university, living in town, where during the winter they, and the House Sparrows, were the only signs of life for months. Their chattery song is very lively and upbeat, even when there’s a foot of snow on the ground. They’ve got lots of character, and I personally think their glossy irridescence is beautiful.

They aren’t so universally welcomed, however. Note these Mourning Doves are keeping an eye on this individual as she clambers around the tree foraging for edible bits. Starlings have a well-earned reputation as being bullies of the bird world. Although this one was alone, they usually move around in flocks in the winter, shooing other birds away from feeders when they move in to hoard all the food. They are definitely hogs when it comes to the good stuff, and has driven many a backyard bird feeder to “snob feeding” (to coin a Julie Zickefoose term). We don’t mind them here, however, since they’re so few in number.

Too close for comfort

The starling gets a little too close for comfort and the dove decides to move to a different perch. Starlings are also known for kicking more passive birds from nesting boxes. One of their main victims is the Purple Martin, but they’ll also kick out bluebirds, tree swallows, woodpeckers (including the hefty Northern Flicker), and just about any other bird that happens to have chosen a box the starling desires.

Starling and Blue Jay

Only the birds of similar size will challenge the starlings, as this Blue Jay prepares to do here. Blue Jays themselves are charismatic, bold and pushy, both with other birds…

Starling and Blue Jays

…and between themselves. The starling waits her turn.

I’m pretty sure this one’s a female. Starlings are neat because, although males and females have essentially the same plumage, during the winter and subsequent breeding season the “cere”, the soft fleshy part at the base of their bill, changes colour. Appropriately, the males turn blueish, and the females turn pinkish. Males also have nice, long, glossy throat feathers that they puff out and show off when singing. Incidentally, the white speckles you see on winter birds wear off over the winter so that the black, irridescent “summer plumage” is really just the same feathers they had all winter, minus the white tips.

Starling and cardinal

A female cardinal gives the suet a once-over. Cardinals rarely visit the suet, instead preferring the fat-rich sunflower seeds. A starling’s beak isn’t as well-designed to cracking open the hard shells of seeds, and their summer diet is primarily insects and berries. In the winter, the suet is their favourite. It’s not such a problem here, with just a few birds, but if you live in town and have a whole flock of them descend on your feeder, their powerful beaks can hack it apart and gobble it up amazingly quickly.

Their scientific name is Sturnus vulgaris. Back when the species was named, “vulgar” meant “common”, rather than ugly or unpleasant as it is often used now, so the scientific name basically meant “Common Starling”. I’m sure there are a lot of North American bird watchers who would also identify with the word’s other meaning, however.

Sunny day

Late morning the sun came out, and it was a beautifully bright day. Unfortunately, I didn’t find much time to enjoy it, working as I was.

I’m using my mom’s computer to post this evening. Most of my photos were a little underexposed because of the overcast, snowy conditions this morning, so I had to brighten them up a tad on the computer. Unfortunately, I do most of my photo editing in a different program at home, and I can’t seem to make Photoshop accomplish the same things, even though I appear to be using the same or similar command. So, because I was shooting through a window, some of these may seem a little cloudy, or the snow overexposed now; I just couldn’t seem to fix it, for some reason!