Wednesday, October 28, 2015


Lepidoptera is the order of insects including moths and butterflies (which are really just a group of day-flying moths). I never really spent any time looking at moths this summer, and it was a terrible year for nearly all species of butterflies for some reason, but I still had a few highlights.

Harris's Checkerspot is a species I rarely see, perhaps due to its early flight season coinciding almost perfectly with the peak of blackflies and mosquitoes! This year, I spent a day biking around Algonquin in mid-June and had close views of a few individuals.

Luna Moth is a large and spectacular species. For comparison, the moth on upper left (some kind of prominent I think) would be one of the larger species present on most nights!

The status of Indian Skipper in Algonquin Park is unclear, but it seems to be regular in small numbers at the old airfield at Mew Lake Campground. This is the best picture I could get of this one before it flew away!

Indian Skipper was my second-rarest butterfly of the year in Algonquin Park. The rarest came less than an hour later, as I noticed this Red-spotted Purple feeding on some scat with many White Admirals. These are different subspecies of the same species, and do intergrade. Looking at the photos now, the amount of white on the underside of the forewing may indicate a hybrid ancestry. Still a very rare sight this far north! There are only about three records of Red-spotted Purple in Algonquin.

The story of Monarchs is a very familiar one, but there are still some interesting facts that I don't think are common knowledge. Although the caterpillars are reasonably good at dealing with the sticky and poisonous milkweed sap, they also do their best to avoid it. In this photo you can see that the caterpillar has cut holes in the veins halfway up the leaf, preventing sap from flowing to where it is feeding.

One of our most spectacular caterpillars is the Brown-hooded Owlet, often seen sitting in plain view at the top of Goldenrod.

American Lady is a common butterfly that, like Monarchs, do not winter in Ontario but must migrate from the south each year. The caterpillars are boldly coloured and decorated with scary-looking spines.

Friday, October 23, 2015


I had never really studied ferns until this summer, but they are actually a fascinating group. Also one that is surprisingly (to me) straightforward to identify. There are certainly still some tough identifications though. Hopefully I have everything in this post correct!

I've been using the Peterson guide to Ferns of Northeastern and Central North America. The guide published by the Owen Sound Field Naturalists is apparently also excellent although I've never used it. 

Speaking of the Bruce Peninsula, it is one of the best places to find ferns due to the limestone rock and many cliffs. One specialty is the Northern Holly Fern (Polystichum lonchitis):

Maidenhair Spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes) is another fern found on the Bruce. Like some other species, it is reasonably common along the Niagara Escarpment but hard to find elsewhere.

Moving up to Algonquin Park, the fern diversity is lower but still interesting. Oak Fern (Gymnocarpium drypoteris) is common in woods, including on shady rockfaces.

I showed the rare (for Ontario) Broad Beech Fern in my recent post about Rondeau. This is Narrow Beech Fern (Phegopteris connectilis), a common species in Algonquin.

The three species of Osmunda are large common ferns found in various wet habitats. This is Cinnamon Fern (O. cinnamomea), found in swamps and other very wet areas, generally with some shade.

The Wood Ferns (Dryopteris) are a large and complex group. While most are found in woods as you would expect, the distinctive  ladder-like Crested Wood Fern (D. cristata) is found in wet areas. The books say that is usually found in swamps, but most I've seen have been in sedgy marshes.

Many species of fern are found in crevices of cliffs and rockfaces. Most require basic rock, but a few do use the acidic and nutrient-poor rock of Algonquin Park, including Rusty Woodsia (Woodsia ilvensis).

The Moonworts, Grape Ferns and Adder's Tongue Ferns form a group quite distinct from the typical ferns. This is a Grape Fern (Botychrium), but I'm not sure which species. There were quite a few of these odd ferns growing in a very dry, sunny area. The sterile and photosynthetic frond is on the right, while the fertile frond is on the left, covered in sporangia which will release miniscule spores.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Way Home

We eventually got the car repaired and started the drive back to Southern Ontario. The town of Atikokan had one last present for us though, in the form of this juvenile American Golden-plover. This species, which can be hard to find in Southern Ontario, and usually only at distance, is often seen on lawns and parking lots in Northern Ontario due to the lack of habitat.

One great spot we stopped was the ghost town of Jackfish. A large clearing is the main attraction for birds here, but I was equally impressed by the gorgeous, rugged shore.

At times, the north shore of Lake Superior can be incredibly good birding, but we hit it on the wrong days, and were able to find very little despite working hard. We eventually decided to call it in and do a long haul south to spend some time on Manitoulin Island and the Bruce Peninsula.

At Providence Bay on Manitoulin Island the dunes are very interesting botanically. Much of the ground was covered in some variety of scouring rush (Equisetum sp.). These horsetails are named for their high silica content, allowing use as sandpaper or for scouring pots.

Nodding Ladies' Tresses (Spiranthes cernua) grows in the same habitat. This orchid is quite common in a variety of mostly wet habitats across Ontario.

Nearby, a gravelly spit had this very odd keyhole shape, with a small marshy area in the centre. Foraging here were a Rusty Blackird and a Lapland Longspur - an odd combination!

I noticed this Monarch caterpillar on some milkweed along the coast. It seemed perfectly healthy, and is only curled up here because I touched it. For the record, this was taken on October 4. Based on its size it will still not be a butterfly by today, and has presumably perished in the cold. Not sure why a Monarch would lay eggs so late.

Two days before our visit a Eurasian Dotterel, the first record for Eastern North America, was seen at Oliphant on the southern Bruce Peninsula. It was long gone by the time we were there, but large numbers of juveniles White-rumped Sandpipers were a nice consolation. Mike Burrell has written more about the unprecedented invasion of this species recently.

On the way back to Barrie, we made a quick stop at a gravel pit where a Hudsonian Godwit has been hanging out - a lifer for me. No pictures as it was very distant. A nice end to an awesome trip!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Sunset Country

Northwestern Ontario, also known as "Sunset Country" is where I've spent the last two and a half weeks travelling with Peter Mills. Ideally I would be on my way back along the north shore of Lake Superior right now (a spectacular birding destination at this time of year), but we are currently stuck in Atikokan, just west of Quetico Provincial Park, awaiting car repairs. There are worse places to be stuck though, where you would not see birds like this:

In the vast expanse of boreal forest, the open habitats in and around towns are an oasis for open country birds like sparrows, larks, pipits and longspurs. The number of sparrows around Atikokan right now is mind-boggling, and this far west Harris's Sparrows are reasonably common. This big and boldly marked sparrow is very rare in Southern Ontario as it migrates primarily west of Lake Superior. This bird below was resting on a train car parked at the railyard in town:

Horned Larks, Lapland Longspurs and American Pipits can be found on practically any open ground. Today we had a flock of longspurs like the one below on the front lawn of the Beer Store in town!

A big surprise has been two sightings of Sedge Wrens, normally a species that is very hard to see, and also one I thought migrated earlier in the fall.

Another surprise was this Northern Mockingbird in the town of Silver Islet near Thunder Bay. I think this is a pretty big rarity for the area.

The Mountain Ash crop along the north shore of Lake Superior is spectacular, and some Ring-billed Gulls at Sleeping Giant Provincial Park were actually resorting to landing in trees to take advantage of it.

I've been seeing Lincoln's Sparrow in larger numbers and in more open habitat than I'm used to in Southern Ontario.

I've spent lots of time looking at stuff other than birds of course! Snowshoe hares are common, and this one seems to be changing to its winter coat earlier than the others I've seen.

Once you get far enough north and west, Least Chipmunks join the typical Eastern Chipmunk. Least Chipmunks are smaller, with a longer tail, bolder stripes on the face, longer stripes on the back and a more rufous colour overall. These cute little guys have definitely been one of the highlights of the trip!

The odeing was much better than I expected, presumably due to the very warm fall, with the first frost being only a couple of nights ago.

A great species only barely making it South to the shore of Lake Superior is Sedge Darner. Amazingly, this species breeds in pools along the rocky shoreline, as seen below in Marathon!

Meadowhawks are the little red or yellow dragonflies that are everywhere in August and September. Further north however, the Black Meadowhawk is all black as a mature male. We have seen an amazing six species of meadowhawk on this trip, also including White-faced, Cherry-faced, Autumn, Saffron-winged and Band-winged.

Another northern darner is the unique Zigzag. The thoracic stripes, so vital in identifying members of this genus (Aeshna), are so thin as to be almost absent in this species.

Boreal Snaketail is another northern dragonfly, found along rivers and streams south to about Algonquin Park (where I have only seen them once).

There are four reptiles and amphibians found in Northwestern Ontario but not further south and east. Of them, we saw Central Newt and Western Painted Turtle (photo below), but have missed Boreal Chorus Frog and Red-sided Garter Snake.

Ouimet Canyon north of Thunder Bay is spectacular and a highly recommended stop along this route.

While there, I noticed Fragrant Cliff Fern (Dryopteris fragrans) frowing on the cliff face, readily recognised by the "skirt" of dead fronds.

A common understory shrub in Quetico Provincial Park is Canada Yew (Taxus canadensis). Although other yews may be trees, this, our only native species, is never more than a sprawling shrub.

Although they dominate forests further south, the only common maple here is Mountain Maple (Acer spicatum), which rarely grows more than three or four metres tall.

Hopefully I'll have more exciting stuff to post soon!