Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

Sunday, 25 September 2016

More action in the prairie patches

Note: my apologies to viewers and commentors on this blog shortly after it was posted. I was making a minor edit, and all of a sudden the entire post disappeared! I think I have it more or less as originally posted.

Dwayne: thanks for your comment. I have been privileged to see lots of neat leps these last few days. And I, too, was slow to get going on ebird, and just recently attempted ebutterfly. Hope to see you on it in 2017.

Blake: thanks for your comment. I wonder what other lep goodies are out there?

 And now, back to the post.......


I've been checking out a few prairie type patches in Lambton County and also in Chatham-Kent. Butterflies won't be very plentiful for much longer as the weather cools off, so with the sunny and warm days of late, it is worthwhile to get out and see what is lingering this late in the season.

 Bickford Oak Woods Conservation Reserve, in west central Lambton, is a hot spot. There are two areas, each of about 5 ha, that about a decade ago were converted from soybeans to a tallgrass prairie type of vegetation. It isn't exactly pristine by any means, but the dominance of prairie vegetation is encouraging, and according to the leps....they would seem to agree!

During some survey work there in 2014 and 2015, I came across a total of 32 species of butterfly. I've seen almost 20 butterfly species in the last 3 visits, all in September, including 5 species not recorded there in the past. Some of these new species were not unexpected, such as the Black and Spicebush Swallowtails. Common Buckeye wasn't a total surprise, and since it has been a good year for Common Checkered Skipper in southern Ontario this year, it was good to add that one. A mating pair of them was a bonus. The Variegated Fritillary is generally uncommon in southwestern Ontario, so it was nice to get this one on the list as well.

Black Swallowtail

Common Buckeye

Common Checkered Skipper

Spicebush Swallowtail

Variegated Fritillary

There were lots of the more typical species as well.

A few other spots were examined, including a recently planted prairie along the St. Clair Parkway at the Terra/CF Industries property. It had been mowed a few weeks ago to keep down the weedy species, so it wasn't all that exciting, but I was pleased to find a Wild Indigo Duskywing among a few other more common ones.

A private property along Tulloch Line that I had access to was worthwhile, as it had a mix of wildlife shrubs and about 4 ha of planted prairie. A couple of white-tail fawns were there to greet us.

Pearl Crescents were fairly common.

Silver-spotted Skippers were plentiful.

Monarchs are migrating, and often seen nectaring on the various sunflower species that are prevalent in a prairie.

Sometimes there are several on a single plant!
Three's company??

 Eastern-tailed Blues were fairly abundant.

Mating Eastern-tailed Blues

A brief stop at Peer's Wetland just east of Wallaceburg did not have many butterflies in the prairie patch while we were there. But we did see a Common Checkered Skipper.....they are everywhere this year, it seems.

No doubt the most abundant butterfly at any of the sites I've been to are Cabbage Whites. And by the looks of it, more will be on the way.

Not quite as abundant but still one of the more common butterflies is the Clouded Sulphur.....

.....neck in neck with the Orange Sulphur.

 Viceroys are not common at all....only one or two here and there.

Of course there are many other invertebrates using these heavily vegetated patches. Grasshoppers are extremely abundant. Less common are things like this rather large Chinese Mantid. I am always fascinated by the way this species can turn its head to peer at you, and with its protruding green and black eyes on a triangular shaped face, it reminds me of E.T. of movie fame.

Black-and-yellow Garden spiders are abundant, and they often have captured a grasshopper in their web. If you aren't paying attention, it is easy to run into them.
Argiope sp

With all of the goldenrod and asters currently in flower, pollinators are abundant. Honey bees in particular fill the air with buzzing.

A couple of days ago I was at the wetland/prairie complex at the north end of the Mitchell's Bay North Shore Nature trail. Among some of the more common butterflies, I was pleased to find Fiery Skipper and my first of the year, Little Yellow.
Fiery Skipper

Little Yellow

Some late season Black Swallowtail caterpillars are still around. I've seen several in garden patches that have dill or fennel. This one was in a nearby garden plot, and one was still developing in our garden earlier today. It may overwinter in its pupal stage and emerge as an adult in the spring.

I've been entering some of my findings on ebutterfly, which is very similar to ebird. One thing that I find surprising is how few Ontario butterfly records there are submitted to that database, especially since it seems many birders are also keen to watch for butterflies. Any thoughts on why this is so?

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Prairie patch action, #1

Prairies are great places to explore, for all kinds of reasons. Unfortunately there aren't many left! So sometimes small patches of vegetation that appear somewhat like prairie have to do instead.

I've been to a few of those lately. One place is a narrow strip along an active railway line just east of Thamesville. A few posts ago I highlighted some of my findings. As I was in the area recently, I decided to check it out again. Not surprisingly, the Ironweed that was dominant and highly attractive to butterflies at my previous visit, was just about finished. But as often happens in the natural world, another species takes its place. This time it was Prairie Thistle (Cirsium discolor).

Prairie Thistle is quite uncommon in Ontario, being ranked as S2. It is a much paler purple than the abundant, and not native, Bull Thistle (Cirsium arvense).
Prairie Thistle
And the butterflies loved it! This first image is of a very tattered Giant Swallowtail visiting an equally tattered Ironweed. I was impress by how easily this worn individual could still fly. I am sure that it must have been much more taxing given the lack of lift these wings could provide.
This is another Giant Swallowtail, not quite as tattered as the previous one. During my previous visit I had as many as eight Giants, but there were only about three this time.
 There were at least a couple of Great Spangled Fritillaries around.
Great Spangled Fritillary
And several was hard to keep track of their numbers as they moved around constantly.

This next image shows not a butterfly, but a day-flying moth known as a Hummingbird Clearwing. In flight it very much resembled a hummer.

Other winged invertebrates included a few damselflies, such as this Eastern Forktail.

But butterflies were the main attraction, and there were the usual common species, such as Viceroy, Black Swallowtail, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail and this Peck's Skipper on the much darker Bull Thistle.

I also visited a friend's family farm north of Thamesville, where several hectares have been planted into various mixes of prairie grasses and forbs. There was much the same mix of butterflies, but I lucked out and got a couple of rarer ones, such as the not-so-common Common Buckeye....
Common Buckeye
.....and the even less common Common Checkered Skipper. It has been an excellent year for this species. I have seen more this year than in all my previous years of looking for butterflies!
Common Checkered Skipper
Where there are wide grassy roadsides in rural areas, there are often a few least until the predators get wind of them!

Even more recently I have explored some prairie patches and restoration areas in Lambton. I will be highlighting them in a future post.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Passenger Pigeon, Japanese Barberry and.....Lyme Disease

September is the month when we mark the anniversary of an avian tragedy: it was on September 1, 1914, when the last remaining Passenger Pigeon died. A species that went from an estimated 3 billion to zero in the space of a human's lifetime. Not that the population was always so was a species whose population was believed to fluctuate dramatically, as described in this article in Scientific American.

Passenger Pigeons (PAPI) fed on the seed produced by various trees in the eastern and mid-western forests, specifically acorns from various oaks, nuts from the American Beech as well as chestnuts from the American Chestnut. American Chestnut was once one of the most common trees in eastern North American forests, but a serious blight that arrived in the early part of last century devastated the forest of that species. It is a legally endangered species due to its extremely limited occurrence in Canada.

Open oak forests were particularly attractive to PAPI, since not only did the acorns provide a valuable source of food, but the large and sturdy spreading branches were safe places to roost and/or build their nests.

In this first photo is a mix of acorns of the Red Oak and beech nuts of the American Beech.

 This next image is a close-up of an opened chestnut bur, showing the seeds in side the husk.

American Chestnut leaves

White Oak

These tree species are known to produce large quantities of seed for one or two years, and then very small quantities of seed for the next few years. Years of high seed production are known as 'mast' years. If several tree species produce mast in successive years, it might result in very high production of young PAPI causing the population to get to the estimated 3 billion. But that wouldn't last, and the productivity would then decline. This process is certainly beneficial for the trees. If the seed production maintained a consistent level over the years, those wildlife species that fed on them would maximize their production, and most seed would likely be consumed. By having most years of seed production at lower levels, the wildlife species would remain at a relatively lower level, so that when seed production increased briefly, more of it would survive to germinate and produce an age class of trees for the future.

Regardless, when the population of PAPI was reduced to zero, it resulted in a lot of seed not being consumed. And this was a boon for other species of wildlife that fed on those seeds that would normally be competing with the PAPI, such as White-tailed Deer, squirrels, mice, Wild Turkey, etc.

The numbers of those remaining species of wildlife would likely have increased substantially, now that there weren't a billion or more PAPI to compete with.

Japanese Barberry
Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii) was introduced to North America in the late 1800s as an ornamental shrub. It leafs out early and has many flowers. It also has sharp spines along its stems.

It is a prolific seed producer, and birds love the bright red berries. But when the birds travel and defecate elsewhere, the seeds are spread far and wide. The sharp spines ensure that browsing by deer is minimal, so there are virtually no controls on the spread of this species. As a result, Japanese Barberry is one of the more insidious invasive species in our eastern forests. It is especially distinctive in the fall when their leaves turn a deep red.

The density at which Japanese Barberry can grow unchecked in a forest is great for mice! Their normal predators, such as owls, hawks and foxes will not penetrate the dense, prickly stand of barberry, so it is a safe haven. Numbers of mice where barberry is plentiful are known to be higher than areas where barberry is low to non-existent.

And that brings us to the unfortunate result of the loss of PAPI and the invasion of barberry. You see, mice are critical hosts to ticks, both the American Dog Tick (a.k.a. Wood Tick) and the Black-legged Tick (a.k.a Deer Tick). It is the latter species that is the prime vector of the spirochete which causes Lyme Disease. I have written several blog posts on Lyme Disease, specifically related to my several experiences with it. The most informative one can be read here.
Deer Tick
Ticks thrive where there are high populations of their deer and mice hosts. The blood meal, which is critical for the development of both nymph and adult ticks, is readily available from each of those mammal species when the host populations are high.  Also, where there is a dense stand of barberry, the relative humidity remains higher, which is also beneficial for the ticks.

It takes ticks two years to reach the adult stage when they will produce young. It is interesting to note that two years following a year of mast production of the acorns and seeds mentioned at the outset of this post, there is a greater abundance of ticks.

In simplistic terms, now that the billion or so PAPI are long gone, a high production of acorns and beech nuts attracts greater numbers of deer and mice. Mice are predominant hosts to the nymphal stage of the ticks, and deer are hosts to the adult stage of the ticks. So two years after the mast year, are more ticks, and the greater the chance of encountering a tick capable of transmitting Lyme Disease!

On a related note, I have read where in rural areas, free-range chickens, guinea fowl etc, are great at controlling ticks in their immediate area. It is possible that Wild Turkeys have a similar effect, as they feed on numerous small vertebrates and invertebrates alike. Wild Turkeys were extirpated from southwestern Ontario many decades ago, but beginning in 1984 were successfully re-introduced in several areas of the province. A decade or so after their initial re-introduction, saw Wild Turkeys move in to Rondeau Provincial Park, and they seem to be doing well. Perhaps they will help control ticks in areas of the park that they spend much of their time in.

 There are many sources of information on parts of what I have written. Some of the more useful references I found and used include:
The last one was particularly interesting, and is a pdf of an article that appeared in Birding magazine several years ago, entitled "Passenger Pigeons, Lyme Disease and Us: the unintended consequences of the death of a species" by David E. Blockstein. I couldn't find the article in the Birding archives, but managed to locate it via this online source.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Photographing from a 'wildlife blind'

Photographing wildlife is fun, but can be quite challenging. It helps to use a blind, of course, but you have to know where the wildlife is likely to be, understand the 'target species' behaviour and then set up a blind and let them acclimatize to it so they can carry on their normal activities. It can take a lot of time, with limited success.

Another option, which I have had the pleasure to have available, is to visit the summer trailer of some friends of mine, Bill and Judy, on the waterfront of Mitchell's Bay. They have a lovely covered deck, just a few metres from the water's edge. These first two images were taken with a wide angle lens, from the deck. The water's edge is literally about 3 metres from the deck, which is raised just high enough to look over the marshy vegetation and see into some of the open areas.
The view looks north, so the sun is mostly behind us, making photography better for longer periods of the day. That is Walpole Island First Nation in the background. This next photo is looking the same direction, but shifted slightly to the right. Note the large log in the centre right, and the smaller log beyond it. These logs arrived during higher water levels, and definitely attract wildlife.

Because these trailers are here all the time, and the human activity is minimal, the wildlife have gotten used to the setting. So this is effectively a permanent wildlife blind, and because the semi-open wetland is attractive to wildlife, it provides numerous photo ops. A huge bonus of this location is that there is no Phragmites! It used to be present but several years ago there was an effort to get rid of it, and fortunately it was quite successful.

In the first photo above, there is a Great Egret in the stand of Pickerelweed at the centre left. Being taken with a 17mm wide angle lens, it doesn't appear very large. But a decent telephoto makes all the difference.

Great Egrets fly by helps that there is a good egret nesting colony on Walpole, and they venture a bit looking for food.
 The log is a popular place for egrets..... well as Great Blue Herons, Spotted Sandpipers.....
Spotted Sandpiper
 ....and Mallards, among others.
Mallards are wild here...not the semi-domesticated types. Nonetheless, some are quite willing to come in close to feed in the aquatic vegetation right at the edge of the water.

The farther log is smaller, but also is used.
Green Herons fly by with regularity, and occasionally drop in.

Great Blue Herons are frequently seen, flying by or hunting in the emergent marshy vegetation.

Caspian Terns are frequent as well, especially late in the summer.

Osprey show up on occasion.

The semi-open marsh is perfect for nesting birds. At least one family of Pied-billed Grebes is in the area.
Adult Pied-billed Grebe
Full-grown youngster

One of the highlights in the last few weeks has been the ongoing activities of a family of Common Gallinules. This is at least the second year in a row where they have nested close by. This year they were in the patch of cattail in the lower right of the first image above. The nest is no more than 15-18 metres from the deck we photograph from. Unfortunately it is not visible from the deck, but one often heard the coos and clucks of the adults, and the adults would occasionally be out in the open.
This was likely a second nesting of the season, since the young probably hatched somewhere between August 7-11. (Normally the first nesting begins in early June.) The first few days after hatching the young stay in the nest, but after about a week, they venture out with the parents. This next image was taken on Aug 18, where the young had been out briefly with the adults, but this adult was poking around at the edge of the cattails when all of a sudden it let out a startled cackle. Note the slightly churned up water at the extreme centre left of the image. Something swirled around....possibly a Snapping Turtle....causing a lot of cackling and wing-flapping as the gallinule escaped the danger.
The adults and young did come out again, venturing through the sludge mat. There were four chicks....fluffy balls of dark, fluffy down and their trade mark partially bald red head.
Here, one of the adults feeds a tiny tidbit of something to one of its chicks.

But there are risks to such vulnerable members of wildlife. A day or so later there were only three chicks. We don't know what got one of the could have been a turtle, or it could have been a Northern Water Snake, one or more of which was known to hang out in the general area.
This snake is a large one, and it appears to be a female based on its size and relative girth. Water snakes give birth to live young, and for several weeks prior, spend as much time as possible basking. This lets the sun's warmth increase the snake's physiology to ensure the young develop in time to be born so they can adjust to life on their own before the time comes for hibernation. It is interesting to note that shortly before we realized one gallinule chick was missing, we heard some agitated clucks from the vicinity of the nest.

At any rate, the gallinule family was down to three chicks, but they carried on in the area as before, travelling along the edges of the marsh, and sometimes crossing open areas to access the large stand of Pickerelweed.
On occasion they would be in the cattail area almost right below our 'blind'. This next one is less than two metres from the edge. A chick is just out of the photo.
At last visit, the number of gallinule chicks was down to two. As mentioned earlier, this wetland area and in fact much of the Lake St. Clair shoreline is a favourite travel corridor for all sorts of avian wildlife. This includes Northern Harriers, which are seen regularly.

On one occasion, Bill reported seeing a harrier drop down into the stand of Pickerelweed where the gallinule family had been, only to see it emerge with a dark ball of fluff clutched in its talons.

While one feels a sense of loss after watching these gallinule chicks grow in their new world only to disappear one by one, at the same time many folks anxiously look forward to the raptor migration, which is now underway. We would be chagrined if the numbers and diversity of raptors dwindled, but in order for that not to happen, raptors need to feed on a lot of young wildlife! Such is the balance of nature....

This shoreline of Mitchell's Bay is great for sunsets, too. The North Shore Nature trail is just a short distance from the 'wildlife blind', and a great spot to view wildlife and sunsets as well.
Sun dog