Thursday, December 24, 2015

More Algonquin Orchids

The long overdue sequel to this post.

I posted this picture in my previous post about parasitic plants, but I'll include it here too. This is a Spotted Coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata), a common orchid of Algonquin forests.

The rattlesnake plantains (Goodyera) are a small group of orchids found in coniferous forests, with two common species in Algonquin.

This is Dwarf Rattlesnake Plantain (G. repens). I showed the leaves in my last post, but only later got photos of the flowers.

This aberrant Dwarf Rattlesnake Plantain is missing the pale cross-hatching that most individuals have on their leaves. 

Tesselated Rattlesnake Plantain (G. tesselata) is similar but larger.

I found this rattlesnake plantain in somewhat atypical habitat: a roadside in pure deciduous forest. I think it is a Tesselated but it may be a hybrid with Dwarf.

One of my favourite orchids of those I have encountered so far is Ragged Fringed Orchid (Platanthera lacera). Not particularly common in Algonquin, a population of this species has persisted in the same roadside ditch for decades.

The next two species were actually seen outside of Algonquin Park, but both can be found in similar habitat (sandy riverbanks) in the park. Small Purple-fringed Orchid (Platanthera psycodes) is a gorgeous and obvious flower.

Tubercled Orchid (Platanthera flava) is much harder to find and very unassuming!

Club-spur Orchid (Platanthera clavellata) is a common species of various boggy areas including roadside ditches. I found this plant without flowers and checked on it nearly every day waiting for all the flowers to open.

Rose Pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides) was somewhat more surprising to encounter in a ditch, although it is reasonably common in bogs.

Green Adder's Mouth (Malaxis unifolia) is a tiny and subtly beautiful orchid under 10 cm tall.

Platanthera orbiculata has been split into two species: P. orbiculata and P. macrophylla. Why the rules of binomial nomenclature insist that one of the species retains the name of the lumped species is beyond me, as it causes huge amounts of confusion. It is usually not a problem in groups like birds or dragonflies that have standardised common names (at least in North America), but for some reason botanists have never done so for plants. As a result, the three orchid books and one comprehensive flora I own call P. orbiculata sensu stricto (i.e. the narrow, split definition of this name) Large Round-leaved Orchid, Pad-leaved Orchis, Round-leaved Orchid, and Round Leaf Orchid, while P. macrophylla  is called Greater Round-leaved Orchid, Goldie's Pad-leaved Orchis, Large Round Leaved Orchid, Large Round-leaved Orchid, and, coming out of left field, Dinner Plate Orchid. Note that the same name is used for both species, and that one book manages to use two names for the same species! I better not buy any more books to avoid any further confusion.

Anyways, the species themselves are not easy to separate, and I have found many conflicting reports on how to distinguish them. Nevertheless, I believe that the first two photos refer to P. macrophylla  i.e. the larger one of the two, with the second two referring to P. orbiculata sensu stricto i.e. the smaller one of the two. I'm certainly not confident though!

Broad-leaved Helleborine is Ontario's only widespread non-native orchid, found in a variety of habitats, mostly ones with at least some disturbance.


Most orchid flowers undergo a rotation as they grow, ending up inverted 180 degrees. This photo gives some indication of what cues control this. This Helleborine had a very heavy spike of flowers, and ended up bending over under the weight. The flowers on top still ended up facing up, indicating that something like gravity or light controls the rotation, and it is not just rotating 180 degrees from the orientation of the stem.

The ladies' tresses (Spiranthes) are a large group of orchids found mostly in open areas, generally thriving shortly after clearing. Slender Ladies' Tresses (S. lacera) thrives in very dry barren areas in Algonquin Park.

Nodding Ladies' Tresses (S. cernua) is a very common species that prefers somewhat damper habitats, often being found in ditches.

And that's it! I have posted photos on this blog of every orchid I found in Ontario this year that I was able to identify. Hopefully more to come next year! I say every one I was able to identify, as there were several I wasn't. I'll leave off with this one from Northwestern Ontario. It is one of Platanthera aquilonis, dilatata or huronensis, but is probably not identifiable after the flowers are gone.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Here be Dragons

As always, I spent lots of time this summer looking for dragonflies and damselflies. Here are some of the highlights.

Eastern Red Damsel is a tiny species found in a variety of odd habitats. This was one of several around a small damp area in the middle of dense coniferous forest on the Bruce Peninsula.

As always, emeralds of the genus Somatochlora are a big highlight. These are a female and then a male Kennedy's Emerald. Like several other species in the genus, Kennedy's is found in still or slow moving shallow water in boggy sedge meadows.

Harlequin Darner is subtly marked but is very distinctive when you take a close look. I rarely encounter this species, so I immediately stopped my bike when I noticed a small darner flying past me in June. I eventually saw two or three Harlequin Darners at this spot after spending half an hour trying, and mostly failing, to catch one.

Extra-striped Snaketail was another new species for me. Despite seeing many flying out over the rapids and getting great binocular views, I was never able to catch one. Luckily Peter's skill with a net came through yet again and I was able to get close views of one.

My second new species for Algonquin this summer was a Somatochlora: Delicate Emerald. The males of this well-named species is easily recognised by their absurdly thin abdomen. 

I don't think there is an animal or plant with a better common name than the Stygian Shadowdragon. Although not much to look at, they have an incredible life history, only coming out in the evening as it starts to get really dark. This summer we were caught in a heavy rainstorm while catching shadowdragons, and the rugged dragonflies kept flying for several minutes!

Another amazing species, Wandering Gliders breed in small temporary pools like the one in the background here. They can travel very long distances, being found on six continents with some populations making regular migrations over open ocean and covering thousands of kilometres (see here).

On a quick trip south of the Canadian Shield we saw several Halloween Pennants (another great common name!). This is one of a number of species whose distribution ends very abruptly at the south edge of the Shield.

The ode highlight of the summer for me was another Somatochlora: Incurvate Emerald. I had some 15 individuals this summer, and others had more. This likely exceeds the total number of previous records from Algonquin. This species is found in shallow pools, and I suspect many die annually as the pools dry up. Summer of 2014 was very wet and I believe this is the reason for such a spike in numbers in 2015.

Incurvate was my third new species for the park this year, bringing my total over 100. At this point, there are very few species that I could possibly add!

Shown are a male and then a female. The yellow spots along the abdomen are only shown by a couple species, and can sometimes be seen in flight.

I got very excited after this whiteface landed on my bicycle, as the size and colouration do not match any of the expected Algonquin species. However, it turns out that some female Belted Whitefaces (normally yellow) can turn red with age, and thus look very like some major rarities. Oh well!

I rarely see female Mottled Darners, so this one was a treat. The habitat in the backround is very typical - a shallow sandy lake with pickerelweed and other emergent vegetation.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Late Sightings

For the most part, this November has been unseasonably warm, and as a result I've had a number of unseasonable sightings. Perhaps most notably, I've had two extremely late butterfly records. First up was this Common Ringlet in Mississauga on November 16. This seems to be the latest record ever for Ontario by over two weeks!

This Red Admiral on November 25 will almost certainly end up being my last butterfly of the year. A December butterfly would certainly be exceptional!

The warm temperatures have also had an effect on amphibians (Spring Peepers calling on November 26 at Rondeau) and reptiles (a freshly road-killed Garter Snake on November 28, also at Rondeau). No pictures!

I do have some pictures for the next section, although as you'll see I am not very good at getting clear shots of skulking songbirds! This is unfortunate, as when insect-eating songbirds linger into early winter, they are usually found skulking in dense brush. For example, this Blue-headed Vireo at Arkendo Park in Oakville.

The sewage treatment plant here offers a hospitable environment at this time of year when insect prey becomes scarce elsewhere, and there were several interesting birds here, including the above vireo as well as this Wilson's Warbler:

Most notable though was this Red-eyed Vireo, maybe the latest record ever in Ontario when it was last seen on November 16.

Gray Catbird is another bird that really shouldn't be around this late into the year.

For some reason, a Summer Tanager has decided that Rondeau will be a good place to winter. Unfortunately, I have a hard time believing it will make it.

For most of Southern Ontario, the only sparrows that can be expected in winter are American Tree Sparrow and Dark-eyed Junco, with a few other species being found in small numbers. In the far south of the province a much larger variety can be found. In the last few days at Rondeau I have also seen White-throated, Song, Swamp, Field, Chipping, Fox and Vesper Sparrows.

The photo below shows a Chipping and an American Tree Sparrow. Although these species are often confused, the small size and different pattern of Chipping is fairly obvious in direct comparison.

While Golden-crowned Kinglets are a common overwintering bird, Ruby-crowned Kinglets are much rarer, being more common when the winters are warm. Unfortunately, these tiny birds often get stuck on burdock "burs" at this time of year.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Portugal and Spain Part 3

The third and final post for this awesome trip!

Laguna de Fuente de Piedra is the largest natural lake in Iberia (6.5 x 2.5 km), but is incredibly shallow, rarely more than a metre deep. It dries up to a huge degree in the summer months, and indeed was too shallow when we visited for the huge flocks of ducks we were hoping for.

This site is home to the second largest Greater Flamingo colony in Europe (although numbers vary massively based on water levels). We did see large numbers here, but views were very distant, as all the viewpoints over the lake were disappointingly far from the water. Still, I did get a reasonable video showing the funny way these birds feed.

Luckily, we later visited a site where some 2000 flamingos could be seen much closer.

Quite a few White Storks were mixed in. Stork nests adorned hydro poles and buildings throughout our trip except in mountainous areas.

The highlight here was running into a British expat birder who ended up showing us around his local area for three hours - serious hospitality! The best bird here was our only Black-winged Kite of the trip. These little raptors are bizarrely short-tailed with tern-like flight.

One of the major highlights of the trip was seeing a number of Hoopoe (Hoopoes?). This unique bird has no close relatives, but is probably somewhat related to the hornbills.

As you can see, they can become somewhat tame!

Zitting Cisticolas strongly reminded me of Sedge wrens in appearance and behaviour, although they aren't nearly as secretive. They also have an awesome common name!

European Stonechat was probably the most frequently seen bird in any open habitat.

This odd succulent plant dominated the rocky coasts of Portugal.

We eventually found out that it is Hottentot Fig - a serious invasive species!

Dragonflies seen included a variety of small meadowhawk-like skimmers as well as various darners. The only species conclusively identified was this one that washed up dead in the surf at the end of our trip - a Blue Hawker (Aeshna cyanea).

On our final day we unexpectedly came across a sign pointing out these dinosaur footprints presrved in a cliff face. It's hard to tell from the picture but the prints are bigger than a dinner plate.

And that was it! For those interested in that kind of thing, we had 128 species of birds, of which 108 were lifers for me. Several of the subspecies were new too - Green-winged Teal, Great Egret, Whimbrel and possibly others. The full list is below, with lifers in bold:

Gadwall,  Eurasian Wigeon,  Mallard,  Northern Shoveler,  Northern Pintail,  Green-winged Teal,  Common Pochard,  Red-legged Partridge,  Little Grebe,  Great Crested Grebe,  Greater Flamingo,  Cory's Shearwater,  Balearic Shearwater,  White Stork,  Northern Gannet,  Great Cormorant,  European Shag,  Gray Heron,  Great Egret,  Little Egret,  Cattle Egret,  Glossy Ibis,  Eurasian Spoonbill,  Osprey,  Black-shouldered Kite,  Eurasian Griffon,  Booted Eagle,  Eurasian Marsh-Harrier,  Eurasian Sparrowhawk,  Red Kite,  Common Buzzard,  Western Swamphen,  Eurasian Moorhen,  Eurasian Coot,  Common Crane,  Eurasian Thick-knee,  Black-winged Stilt,  Pied Avocet,  Black-bellied Plover,  Northern Lapwing,  Kentish Plover,  Common Ringed Plover,  Common Sandpiper,  Green Sandpiper,  Common Greenshank,  Common Redshank,  Whimbrel,  Eurasian Curlew,  Black-tailed Godwit,  Ruddy Turnstone,  Red Knot,  Sanderling,  Dunlin,  Little Stint,  Common Snipe,  Great Skua,  Jaeger sp.,  Razorbill,  Black-headed Gull,  Mediterranean Gull,  Audouin's Gull,  Yellow-legged Gull,  Lesser Black-backed Gull,  Caspian Tern,  Sandwich Tern,  Rock Pigeon,  Common Wood-Pigeon,  Eurasian Collared-Dove,  Eurasian Hoopoe,  Common Kingfisher,  Eurasian Kestrel,  Peregrine Falcon,  Southern Gray Shrike,  Eurasian Jay,  Iberian Magpie,  Eurasian Magpie,  Red-billed Chough,  Eurasian Jackdaw,  Carrion Crow,  Common Raven,  Crested Lark,  Thekla Lark,  Eurasian Crag-Martin,  Coal Tit,  Crested Tit,  Eurasian Blue Tit,  Great Tit,  Long-tailed Tit,  Short-toed Treecreeper,  Eurasian Wren,  Goldcrest,  Firecrest,  Cetti's Warbler,  Common Chiffchaff,  Zitting Cisticola,  Eurasian Blackcap,  Sardinian Warbler,  Dartford Warbler,  Spotted Flycatcher,  European Robin,  Bluethroat,  European Pied Flycatcher,  Black Redstart,  Blue Rock-Thrush,  European Stonechat,  Black Wheatear,  Northern Wheatear,  Eurasian Blackbird,  Song Thrush,  Spotless Starling,  Alpine Accentor,  Dunnock,  Gray Wagtail,  White Wagtail,  Meadow Pipit,  Cirl Bunting,  Rock Bunting,  Corn Bunting,  Common Chaffinch,  Brambling,  European Greenfinch,  Eurasian Siskin,  European Goldfinch,  Eurasian Linnet,  European Serin,  House Sparrow,  Spanish Sparrow,  Common Waxbill,  Scaly-breasted Munia