Friday, August 18, 2017

Summer in the Boreal Forest

I have spent most of the summer in the vastness of Northern Ontario's boreal forest. The entire area is covered in just a few species of trees in incredible quantities - Black and White Spruce, Jack Pine, Trembling Aspen, White Birch and not much else. The diversity of plants and animals is relatively low compared to Southern Ontario, but that still means that there hundreds of plants and thousands of insects to sort through, most of them different from those further south.

For example, the two common Tiger Beetles in June seemed to be these two species below which I have rarely (maybe never) seen before. Common Claybank Tiger Beetle (Cicindela limbalis) has a beautiful purple and green colouration.



Boreal Long-lipped Tiger Beetle (C. longilabris) is duller but makes up for it in presence. It is impossible to miss these big black beetles on open gravel roads.



Also out in June are the Elfins. This group of tiny hairstreak butterflies is typical of northern areas. I have mostly missed seeing these species previously as they are only out for a short time early in the season before most butterflies are active. This Henry's Elfin extended the known range of the species by about 200 km to the northwest. The caterpillar feeds on blueberries, an abundant plant throughout the boreal.



Hoary Elfin caterpillars feed on Bearberry and Trailing Arbutus, two common plants closely related to blueberries.



To shake it up a bit, Eastern Pine Elfins feed on Jack Pine and White Pine as caterpillars. It and two of its close relatives are our only butterflies that have adapted to feed on conifers instead of the flowering plants all the other species use. The chemistry and defenses of the two groups of plants are quite different, and it's interesting to think about how suddenly this host plant shift must have evolved.



Cottongrass (Eriophorum) is a distincitve genus of sedges found mostly in bogs and fens. The fibres have been used as insulation, but are not useful for clothing. This is E. angustifolium.



Jutta Arctic uses cottongrass as a caterpillar foodplant. The taxonomy of this species is not fully worked out, and the name may eventually shift to Balder's Arctic.



The tiny Common Roadside-skipper is far from common. It took a lot of effort to get close enough to this flighty butterfly for a photo.



Probably my find of the summer is this Quebec Emerald. This species of boreal fens is known mostly from Quebec but has also been found in the Maritimes, New England, Ontario, and Minnesota as well as a population in British Columbia. There are only about five known locations in Ontario, all virtually inaccesible.



I see Spruce Grouse almost every day, espcially in young Jack Pine forests where they seem positively abundant. This female was not happy with how close I was to her chicks.



Delicate Emerald is certainly delicate-looking. Although they are found south into Central Ontario, its only in the boreal that they become common and widespread.



There are only a few resident birds of the boreal forest that aren't also found further south, and American Three-toed Woodpecker is one of them. I was lucky enough to find an active nest of the species with both parents actively feeding the young. Three-toed Woodpeckers are especially characteristic of recently burned areas, but my five to six sightings this summer were all in mature forest.





This Boreal Chickadee nest was barely 50 metres away from the woodpecker nest. Like Black-capped Chickadees, Boreals usually excavate their own nest cavity in a rotten tree - quite impressive for a bird without the bill and build of woodpecker.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Squirrely Times

Squirrels are fun as they are one of the few mammals in Ontario as most species are active in the day and easy to watch. Here's a few squirrels from the last couple of months.

This black phase Eastern Gray Squirrel really wanted to use this log to cross the pond, but the pair of Wood Ducks were having none of it! It tried for about ten minutes before eventually giving up.



This Red Squirrel seems to missing all of its red pigments, leaving a very interesting frosty looking animal. This is the second such Red Squirrel I've seen in Mississauga. Red Squirrels seem to pretty sparsely and discontinuously distributed in the city (mostly restricted to parks and older suburbs with lots of planted conifers) and I wonder if genetic isolation is bringing out and maintaining anomalies like this.



Eastern Chipmunks are familiar and common across most of the settled areas of Ontario, but further north they are joined and eventually replaced by the more boldy-marked Least Chipmunk. This species seems to prefer more open and rocky habitats than Eastern Chipmunk. I took these photos in Marathon, Ontario on the north shore of Lake Superior.



Thursday, May 18, 2017

Ontario Mammal Listing!

Mammal-watching is for the most part pretty different from birding. Most mammals are secretive and nocturnal, and many are very difficult to identify in the field. Still, if you spend enough time outside you'll see a lot of different species, and I enjoy keeping track of what I've seen and seeking out new ones. Below is what my general feelings are on how difficult various species are in Ontario. Let me know your thoughts on mammal listing and if you have anything you would change on this list!

These classifications are based on seeing animals live and unrestrained. Bats are mostly identifiable with a bat detector, and trapping allows views of various small mammals, but I'm discounting those methods below. I've also arbitrarily excluded feral cats and pigs as well as humans from this list. Species I've seen are marked with an asterisk.

Moose

Easy - These species should be essentially guaranteed if you spend a reasonable amount of time in the large areas where they're common
  • Least Chipmunk*
  • Eastern Grey Squirrel*
  • Eastern Chipmunk*
  • Red Squirrel*
  • Groundhog*
  • Beaver*
  • Meadow Vole*
  • Muskrat*
  • White-footed Mouse/Deer Mouse* (Inseparable in any realistic field setting? There are differences that are visible from some distance, but from what I've read they may not be entirely reliable. Only Deer Mouse is found north of about North Bay. Getting White-footed Mouse seems like a real challenge.)
  • Porcupine*
  • Snowshoe Hare*
  • Eastern Cottontail*
  • Short-tailed Shrew*
  • Eastern Coyote*
  • Red Fox*
  • Mink*
  • Striped Skunk*
  • Raccoon*
  • Black Bear*
  • Moose*
  • White-tailed Deer*  

Least Chipmunk

Moderate - These are some species that are a little bit harder to see (some are very strictly nocturnal) or more restricted in range
  • Virginia Opposum* (common but highly nocturnal)
  • Northern Flying Squirrel
  • Southern Flying Squirrel* (Flying squirrels are very difficult to identify in the broad area of range overlap, which to my knowledge is approximately Hamilton to North Bay)
  • Franklin's Ground Squirrel (Rainy River, I'm not sure how common it is there)
  • Fox Squirrel* (Pelee Island)
  • Woodland Jumping Mouse*
  • Meadow Jumping Mouse*
  • Southern Red-backed Vole*
  • House Mouse*
  • Norway Rat* 
  • European Hare* (declining, probably most common in extreme Southwestern Ontario now)
  • Eastern Red Bat*
  • Silver-haired Bat
  • Hoary Bat* 
  • Big Brown Bat* (These four bats are a little more distinctive than the four species listed below, and the first three are seen relatively frequently as migrants)
  • Eastern (Algonquin) Wolf* (mostly Algonquin Park)
  • Grey Wolf
  • Grey Fox (mostly Pelee Island)
  • Arctic Fox (not sure how common these are in their very difficult to access range, might belong in the Easy category)
  • Canada Lynx
  • River Otter*
  • American Marten* (common and easily seen in Algonquin, but my understanding is that they're a lot less common in most other areas with much human settlement)
  • Fisher* 
  • Short-tailed Weasel (Ermine)*
  • Long-tailed Weasel*
  • Elk (introduced populations mostly in Bancroft area)
  • Woodland Caribou (easy on the Slate Islands, otherwise difficult)
 
Hard - These species are either really uncommon or just very hard to see
  • White-tailed Jackrabbit (Rainy River, and very rare there?)
  • Water Shrew
  • Eastern Mole (Point Pelee)
  • Hairy-tailed Mole*
  • Star-nosed Mole
  • Eastern Small-footed Myotis
  • Little Brown Myotis*
  • Northern Myotis
  • Tricolored Bat (these four bats are in major decline due to white-nose syndrome, and regardless are not possible to identify without a bat detector or by finding them roosting. Formerly a lot more common and easily seen, but likely to be almost completely eliminated from Ontario in the near future.)
  • Bobcat 
  • American Badger 

Hard - Most of these species should be reasonably common and not too hard to see, but identifying them in any real field setting may be essentially impossible
  • Rock Vole
  • Woodland Vole
  • Heather Vole
  • Northern Bog Lemming
  • Southern Bog Lemming (perhaps a bit easier than the rest on this list)
  • Arctic Shrew
  • Masked Shrew
  • Smoky Shrew
  • Pygmy Shrew (These four Sorex shrews are common sightings as a whole, and I've seen likely over 50 individuals, but separating the species them is generally not possible as far as I know).

Sorex sp.

Good luck, you'll need it.
  • Wolverine
  • Cougar
  • Least Shrew
  • Least Weasel (maybe this is actually possible in some areas?)
 
Marine Mammals - Some of these are definitely easy if you can actually get to James/Hudson Bay where they're found, but that's the hard part. Fun fact: there are good historical accounts of Harbour Seals in eastern Lake Ontario/the Upper St. Lawrence River!
  • Harbour Seal
  • Ringed Seal
  • Bearded Seal
  • Walrus
  • Polar Bear
  • Beluga
  • Narwhal


And that's it except for a few species that have been recorded but are likely not present with any regularity (Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel, Black Rat, Arctic Hare, Vesper Bat, Minke Whale). I've seen about 42/80 species.


Snowshoe Hare

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Texas: Still in the South

Here's a random selection of photos that didn't make it into the last post. All are still from the Rio Grande Valley.

Greater Roadrunners weren't common, but I think we still saw them most days. The shape gives away that this a species of cuckoo, but its behaviour is very different from our skulky caterpillar-eating cuckoos in Ontario. Roadrunners eat various large insects, lizards and snakes. 



Clay-colored Thrush is basically a washed-out American Robin. Both are in the genus Turdus, a very succesful group. Most parts of the world have at least one species of Turdus that is one of the most common species of bird. Many parts of Europe and Asia have five or more species overlapping in slightly different niches. For example, Western Europe has Common Blackbird, Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush, Fieldfare, Redwing and Ring Ouzel. Meanwhile in North America, American Robin can be found in every habitat from the deep south to the low arctic, and a couple of other species barely squeak in over the Mexican border.



The chachalacas, guans and currasows comprise a unique Neotropical group of gallinaceous birds. They are generally somewhat more arboreal than most of their relatives. The most northerly species, Plain Chachalaca, is quite common in southern Texas.



A variety of hummingbirds can be found wintering around feeders in southern Texas. The most common is Buff-bellied. 

  


We saw two other species of hummingbirds: this Ruby-throated and a Broad-billed.



I've seen Yellow-crowned Night-heron in Ontario, but that was a young bird, so it was nice to get good looks at a large group of roosting adults. We had around twenty in view at this spot, along with Black-crowned Night-herons, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets and a Green Heron. Although I generally think of herons as fish-eaters, Yellow-crowned Night-herons eat mostly crabs and crayfish.




Common Pauraques were exceedingly abundant everywhere we stayed in the evening, and it was not uncommon to be able to hear four or more simultaneously. We also had several pointed out to us - the camouflage is incredible. Later in the trip we would also hear several Common Poorwill for our second species of nightjar.




Sprague's Pipit is an uncommon and secretive bird of the prairies. We visited a known site for them, but had to spend a lot of time to finally get decent looks at one. We probably worked harder for this bird than any other species on the trip. Well, at least for a bird that we did end up seeing! We wasted a lot of time looking unsuccesfully for Rose-throated Becard, Smith's, Chestnut-collared and McCown's Longspur and Mountain Plover.




 Lark Sparrows can be surprisingly inconspicuous even when foraging on open lawns.



 I think this is a Texas Spotted Whiptail (Cnemidophorus gularis).



One of many species that only barely make it into the United States in this part of Texas is Red-billed Pigeon. We saw this group of six two days in a row, but never got exceptionally good view. Red-billed Pigeon can be a hard bird to track down, but both days we pulled up to see this flock sitting in plain view. The smaller bird with them is a White-winged Dove.



Golden-fronted Woodpeckers replaced Red-bellieds as soon as we got much south of Houston. They didn't really seem to differ in any significant way except minor differences in plumage and voice.



One of the most common shrubs in drier areas is Mesquite (Prosopis). These plants are invasive in many parts of the world including in Texas where it is native. The flowers sure smelled nice though!



A species we only saw a few times was Common Ground-dove. This tiny species actually came into pishing on one occasion, something which I've never had any pigeon or dove do before!



 Northern Cardinals were everywhere, but in dry habitats they were joined by Pyrrhuloxias.



 One of my biggest highlights of the trip was seeing Collared Peccaries (known as Javelinas locally). Although somewhat pig-like, peccaries differ in fundamental ways and have been evolving separately for some forty million years!


Thursday, March 23, 2017

Texas: Heading South

As you move into the extreme south of Texas, you come into range of a large suite of species that, north of the border, are only found in this small area (some species may also range into southern Arizona). As an example, the Aplomado Falcon, only present as a small reintroduction.

I thought this shot with wind turbines in the background was cool. I've never really understood how anyone could consider these striking structures an "eyesore".


Harris's Hawk was a common sight throughout the area. This species is unique among raptors in living and hunting in small groups, and it was pretty rare to see a lone individual.



Numbers of shorebirds were much lower once we left the coast, but there were still some to see, such as this Long-billed Curlew in an arid grassland.



We saw lots of lizards. This big one is a Texas Spiny Lizard.



In the same genus (Sceloporus) is Rose-bellied Lizard. We saw three members of this genus in all.



Red-eared Slider is the common turtle sold in pet shops, and is widely released in Ontario, but it was nice to see them in their original historic range. We also saw Rio Grande Cooters on the banks of their namesake river.



We spent lots of time right along the Rio Grande. Here we were scanning the Mexican shore for kingfishers, two species of which barely range north into this part of Texas.



One of these species is the tiny Green Kingfisher, about a quarter of the weight of a Belted.



Mistletoe (Phoradendron sp.) is a common sight in much of Texas. This parasitic plant obtains water and nutrients from its host tree, while still photosynthesizing for itself.



Yuccas were very common in many areas, but we only saw a few in flower like this. I'm not sure if we were out of season or if there's another explanation.




Here's a couple of habitat shots. This is a gorgeous semitropical thorn forest, home to abundant Green Jay, Black-crested Titmouse, Great Kiskadee, and many other species.




And on the other end of the spectrum, a typical arid desert/shrubland type habitat (not sure exactly how this should be classified). Typical birds here include Verdin, Bewick's Wren, Curve-billed Thrasher, Pyrrhuloxia, and, like seemingly every other random point in Texas, abundant Northern Mockingbirds.




This old agricultural field is being restored to something like the habitat above.



Three species of oriole can be expected in the area in winter. Hooded is only present in very small numbers, and we only saw this single bird.




Audubon's Oriole is a little more common, but we still only saw this one, and only after deliberately going to see it.



Altamira Orioles are quite common on the other hand, especially around bird feeders.



This Great Kiskadee was photobombed by an Altamira.



 Oddly enough for a flycatcher, Great Kiskadees will eat fish, rodents and frogs, and as we found out peanut butter at bird feeders.



Staying on the flycatcher theme, two species of nearly identical kingbird winter in this area. I expected Couch's and Tropical Kingbird to be very common, but we only saw a few of each. These are Tropical, although I only know that because they were calling.




No identification issues with the brilliant Vermilion Flycatcher! We saw lots of adult males like this, but only a single female (which are much duller). I assume they must winter further south.



Male Cinnamon Teal are brick red all over and easily identified. Females are almost identical to female Blue-winged Teal, but there are differences in head pattern and bill shape, and I had a lot of fun trying to separate them. These are Cinnamon Teal.


More to come!