Saturday, August 13, 2016

Dorcas Copper!

I'm lucky enough to be working in some very cool habitat northwest of Toronto right now. I've had lots of interesting sightings, including probably my nature highlight of the summer so far.

Dorcas Copper is a small butterfly whose caterpillars feed exclusively on Shrubby Cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa). They are widespread in Northern Ontario, ranging south to the southern Bruce Pensinsula. There are also a few locations much further south in Ontario, with records in the Cambridge Area, as well as historic ones from the Pinery Area and from northwest of Toronto.

That last record is no longer historic! We have come across a number of individuals in some very nice habitat with abundant Shrubby Cinquefoil over the last couple of weeks. It's always good to find out that rare species are still hanging on.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Carden Alvar

On the way home from Algonquin Park, I decided to stop by the Carden Alvar for much of the day. This area near Lake Simcoe has a fantastic variety of flora and fauna on the thin soil over limestone bedrock. In recent years various organizations have bought up a lot of land here, culminating in the new Carden Alvar Provincial Park. It's great to know that such a great area is being properly protected.

On past visits to Carden, I've spend most of my time walking or driving along various quiet roads. This time I ended up hiking three trails, all of which are believe are quite new.

The trail at Cameron Ranch passes through a few different habitats, but mostly in some beautiful open grassland and shrubland areas. I was a bit late in the season and in the day for much bird activity, although I did see a few interesting things including Grasshopper and Vesper Sparrow. More exciting was the variety of plants found here.

I am used to seeing Shrubby Cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa) in fens, so was a little surprised to see many of them in a dry open field. I suspect the limestone here provides similar alkaline conditions to those in fens.

Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) was abundant in all open areas.

White Camas (Anticlea elegans) was a new one for me. Like Shrubby Cinquefoil, this species is apparently characteristic of calcareous areas.

I wasn't able to cover this entire trail, as a Black Bear was settled in feed on berries in the middle of it! I got a bit closer then I should have before noticing it, so wasn't going to stick around for photos. I did see a bear at Algonquin Park though, so I'll add a photo of it:

Despite the bear, I would highly recommend this trail at Cameron Ranch! Grassland habitat is quite rare nowadays in Ontario, and even rarer are the places where trails pass through it.

Next, I headed down Wylie Rd., where most of the birding activity happens locally. Here I saw Loggerhead Shrike and Sedge Wren, and walked the trail at the aptly named Sedge Wren Marsh. This trail wasn't super exciting, mostly passing through rather disturbed forest, but it is certainly nice to get off the road for a while.

I did come across this interesting white variety of Red Baneberry (Actaea rubra). This species can normally be distinguinshed from White Baneberry (A. pachypoda) by the colour of the berries, but just to confuse you sometimes these two species can have the wrong colour. You can tell this is A. rubra as the berries have only small dots at the end and thin stalks. In case you think this looks tasty, you should know that both species are extremely poisonous.

My final stop was at North Bear Alvar. I knew about this spot only due to a reference that it was open to the public despite having no trails, and as a result was pretty surprised to find a long and well-marked trail here, complete with some of the best interpretive signs I've ever seen.

This spot is quite different from other parts of Carden Alvar I've been to, with much less grassy habitat, but with lots of low shrubs and conifers instead. I'm guessing the difference is that this area is not grazed by cattle.

Cooper's Milkvetch (Astragalus neglectus) (I think that's what this is) was already going to seed. This is a fairly uncommon species in Ontario.


I noticed this Punctured Tiger Beetle (Cicindela punctulata) running on the trail.

A nice highlight for me was a new butterfly - Columbine Duskywing (I actually saw some earlier this weekend at Torrance Barrens, but got nicer pictures at Carden). This species is very similar to the familiar Wild Indigo Duskywing. Luckily, they are often separable by range and habitat. Wild Indigo Duskywing, despite the name, feeds mostly on Crown Vetch (Securigera varia) in weedy fields, roadsides and similar habitats. There was no Crown Vetch at this location, and plenty of Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis). Columbine Duskywing is somewhat smaller than Wild Indigo, and I was surprised to find the difference was actually quite noticeable. Either that, or I'm just fooling myself!

The abundant lakes in this area attract numerous Osprey, and after about the fifth nest I decided I had to stop and take a picture of the babies. As you can see, they are just about fully grown, and have surely left the nest by the time I'm writing this post two weeks later.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Algonquin Park Again

The second part of my weekend in Central Ontario was spent in Algonquin Park. After spending the last five summers here, it was certainly nice to be back and see some of my favourite people and places.

One of those favourite places is the unassuming Pewee Lake, at the parking lot for the Highland Backpacking Trail. The water level in this shallow lake fluctuates, resulting in a pretty interesting mix of plants along the shore. Water Lobelia (Lobelia dortmanna) is common.

Several species of Bladderworts are present, including the tiny but beautiful Reversed Bladderwort (Utricularia resupinata). The whole flower is under 1 cm long.

Like U. resupinata, the sedge Carex michauxiana is characteristic of areas with fluctuating water levels.

Carex cryptolepis is one of the more common species here.

Moving on from Pewee Lake, we encountered a few Green Commas. I see lots of commas, but getting identifiable looks at them can be a challenge, so these somewhat cooperative individuals were nice to see.

I couldn't help checking on a population of Club-spur Orchid (Platanthera clavellata); they were as nice as ever!

This hairy-looking sedge is Carex houghtoniana, which was growing abundantly on the side of a sandy trail.

For those of you less interested in sedges and other tiny plants, here's an interesting beaver observation. Beavers spread an oily substance from their cloaca over their bodies to aid in waterproofing. I've seen a lot of beavers but never before this rather hilarious behaviour. (There's no sound in this video.)

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Torrance Barrens

I spent the weekend exploring a few different areas in Central Ontario. On Saturday I was at the Torrance Barrens near Gravenhurst with Lev Frid and Amanda Guercio.

Something a bit strange I've noticed is that a lot of the most interesting places for a naturalist are really marginal habitats where plants and animals are severely limited by harsh conditions. Nowhere is this more exemplified than on Canadian Shield barrens, where hot dry rocky upland areas with little to no soil transition into nutrient-poor bogs and fens in lower areas. Despite the inhospitable environment, there are a lot of cool things to see!

Virginia Chain Fern (Woodwardia virginica) is an interesting species that is abundant in the bogs here. I haven't seen this species in very many other places. The fronds grow vertically and singly in large patches.

Although they have a much wider distribution, for me the Common Loon is the bird emblem of the Canadian Shield.

I was very pleased to see my first White Fringed Orchids (Platanthera blephariglottis).

Although I only saw my first ever Coral Hairstreak this summer, they were pretty common at this location. Like many butterflies, this species is attracted to animal scat, where they often allow very close approach. It seems they are reluctant to leave such a delicacy!

Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) is a widespread flower, but one that I find very hard to photograph as it waves wildly in even the slightest breeze.

At one point I flushed this Common Nighthawk off of her two eggs. She started making some very odd noises, and pretending to be in distress to lead us away, which we quickly did to leave her in peace.

Grey Hairstreak was a lifer butterfly for me. Its presence here is perhaps not surprising given the abundance of Sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina), but I have previously spent lots of time in areas with lots of Sweetfern without ever seeing this lovely little butterfly. Unlike other hairstreaks, this species often opens it wings when resting.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A Hybrid Birch

While exploring an interesting bog in Dufferin County recently with Todd Hagedorn, we came across a small tree that was totally unfamiliar. However, after a while I realised that it was a hybrid between two very different species of birch: Bog Birch (Betula pumila) and Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera). Paper Birch is the familiar tree with peeling white bark, and was present in very low numbers at this location. Bog Birch is a small shrub that was abundant at this location, with no individuals more than about a metre tall and most much smaller.

This rare hybrid, also known as Sandberg's Birch, is very intermediate in most respects between its parent species.

This individual is about five metres tall, with several thick trunks.


The bark is darker than on Paper Birch, and is not peeling (The damage you can see at the left in the picture above appeared to be done by a squirrel or some other rodent).

Paper Birch has sharply pointed leaves with large teeth, while Bog Birch leaves are very rounded with small teeth. The leaves on this hybrid are pretty much right in the middle.

Bog Birch can also hybridise with Yellow Birch, but that can be eliminated by among other things the lack of a wintergreen scent to the twigs and that the apparent absence of Yellow Birch nearby.

Always fun to see something completely unexpected, and I certainly wouldn't expect that these two species with such different growth forms could produce viable hybrids!

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Man there are a lot of Carex

I've been making a concerted effort this summer to learn my true sedges i.e. the genus Carex. Carex is by far our largest genus of plants locally, with 169 species listed for Southern Ontario.  For perspective, that is about the same as the number of butterfly species recorded in the province. Still, it wasn't until I actually started identifying them that I realised how amazing the diversity really is in this group.

The genus can (simplistically) be separated from other members of the sedge family, and from other grass-like plants, by a few characters:
  • Growing in wet and/or shady areas, rarely in dry open habitats
  • A more or less triangular stem
  • Separate male and female flowers, in adjacent clumps or completely separated
  • Seeds enclosed in a case (the perigynium), each with a single accompanying scale
And now for a random selection of species I've photographed recently! I'm only using Latin names here. Although there are common names for most species, they are very inconsistent between sources and don't seem to see much use.

This is one of the most attractive species I've encountered: C. buxbaumii. This species and the next four were all growing in wet areas between dunes at Rondeau Provincial Park.

C. aurea is easy to identify once it develops this nice golden colour to its peryginia.

C. pellita has very hairy peryginia, although that may not be clearly visible in this photo. A hand lens is an absolute necessity when identifying sedges!

C. crawei is mostly restricted to shores of the Great Lakes in our area.

C. viridula has distinctive dense little spikes. The thin white spikes at the top are the remains of the male flowers.

Moving away from Rondeau (although this species is likely found there too), C. flava is closely related to C. viridula, but with long beaks on the peryginia. 

Most sedges have pretty thin leaves, but a few forest species have much wider ones. This is C. plantaginea with its creased leaves and red-banded stems.


C. albursina has smoother leaves as well as wide bracts covering the spikes of peryginia.

Some species have big inflated peryginia, like C. lupulina seen here.

C. utriculata is more subtly inflated.


C. atherodes can be confused with the more common C. lacustris, but among other things can be distinguished by very hairy leaf sheaths (where the leaf meets the stem).


C. vulpinoidea is easily recognised by the thin bracts projecting from the inflorescence, and seems to be most common along trails through wet areas.

And to finish off, a couple of bog species. This pretty one is C. magellanica.

And finally, C. oligosperma, a true bog specialist.

If you've made it this far, congratulations! Believe it or not, the photos above represent only about 8% of the local sedge diversity. Certainly a group that will take many years to master!