Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

One of the rarest plants in Canada

Walpole Island First Nation is a fabulous place, full of rare, threatened and endangered species of flora and fauna. Of course to host all of these rarities, there is an abundance of significant habitats as well. Walpole is renowned for its tallgrass prairie, and I have had the privilege of spending a lot of time exploring the wonderful natural areas there over the years, dating back to about the mid 1970s.

One plant I am always excited to see is one of Canada's rarest: the White Prairie Gentian (Gentiana alba). It is a striking yellowish/white flower with fine green markings along the fluted edges. It will partially open, so as to allow pollinators access. This species, at least on Walpole, is in some of the best quality tallgrass prairie/oak savanna habitats.
White Prairie Gentian
It occurs in three known places on Walpole, all of them which are somewhat out-of-the-way. It is interesting to note that even historically it was only known from two other locations in Canada: Northumberland County and Essex County. Those two sites are considered historic, not having been seen for several decades, in spite of searches at known historical locations.

A recent survey of the populations at Walpole totalled 50 plants, with about 40 of them having flowers. That is it...... the entire known Canadian population is just 50 plants, and some years there are even fewer recorded. It is legislated as an Endangered species both provincially and federally, not surprisingly. The localized spots where it occurs are reasonably well protected, although the original population, first found in 1984, is quite shaded and the single surviving plant has not been seen in flower for several years.

At one point during the survey, I only had my point-and-shoot camera, and I got a few shots including this next one. It was the freshest looking of all of the ones we encountered. Most others had at least a bit of brown showing on the petals.

What makes this species toehold in Canada even more precarious is the fact that it sometimes hybridizes with the much more common Bottle or Closed Gentian (Gentiana andrewsii). As its name indicates, it remains closed, and the only way for pollinators to pollinate it is to be a rather robust insect, such as a medium to large bee, having the capability to force its way through the side of the petal.
Bottle Gentian
Clearly the two species are quite different looking, at least in colour, and those hybrids make for some unusual colour combinations.
Gentiana alba X andrewsii

 Some hybrids are mostly closed, with others being at least partly open.
White Prairie Gentian typically flowers in late August, whereas Bottle Gentian typically flowers after mid-September. Of course there are sometimes early or late ones of either species, and if the flowering period overlaps where they both occur, hybrids are more likely.







Friday, 26 August 2016

Endangered orchid, Boogie Woogie Aphid, shorebirds and more

Late August is normally prime time for one of Canada's rarest orchids. The endangered Nodding Pogonia (Triphora trianthophora) only occurs in Canada at Rondeau Provincial Park. The numbers have fluctuated considerably, so annual monitoring is beneficial to understand how the population is doing. I have had a study plot in place since 1985, and have monitored the population there almost every year since.


Nodding Pogonia

It is a small, but very attractive little orchid. I posted a fairly extensive blog about it previously, so will not repeat myself here. If you want to know a bit more about this endangered species, check out this blog post. 

A couple of days ago I met with park staff to visit the study area to see what this year might have in store. I was concerned about the excessive dryness in June and July, as moisture to keep the delicate tuber type root healthy just below the diminishing leaf litter is critical for the species survival.

We parked along the road and headed into the forest, crossing ridges and sloughs to get to the study area. Once there, we checked out the places where this species had been known to flower in previous years. After awhile, it was very evident that it was not a good year for Nodding Pogonia. We saw a grand total of three plants, one of which had grown well but been affected by a blight of some kind. The other two plants had flowered briefly a few days earlier, and had one or two developing buds that, if conditions are favourable, may yet flower.

On the next ridge over, also occasionally good for this orchid, we saw another three plants, none of which had flowered yet but had developing buds. Some years have had over 1000 plants in this general study area. It looks like this year will be less than a dozen. The species is known to fluctuate from year to year, but with the diminishing leaf litter and very dry conditions, perhaps the delicate tubers will not survive dormancy to try another year....time will tell.


While searching for the orchid, my survey colleague called me over as she had noted something quite unusual....it was a branch of an American Beech tree covered with fuzzy white things.
When the branch was bumped, the little fuzzy white things would raise up their hind ends and wave a filament up in the air to make it look like it was dancing!

This is the Beech Blight Aphid, a.k.a. the Boogie Woogie Aphid due to its hilarious behaviour of a branch full of fuzzy white things waving back and forth in unison!

A closer look:






These aphids suck out a lot of sap from a beech tree. After sucking the sap, they excrete copious amounts of a honey dew type of liquid. Since the aphids are concentrated on branches and sometimes even leaves, the honey dew may drip down on a lower branch in considerable concentration. This resulting concentration of honey dew supports the mould Scorious spongiosa, which is especially evident after the leaves have fallen, and may last well into the next summer.
This process seldom does any real or long-term harm to the tree, although sometimes individual branches may die.

Another interesting observation on our orchid search was discovering a small caterpillar that initially looks like a bird dropping. Such mimicry is part of its defense. It also has large eyespots, presumably to appear more fearsome to a would-be predator.
This is the very young larva of a Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly. After it goes through a few growth spurts, it will be a bright green with large eyespots, before going into the pupal stage and eventually emerging as an adult butterfly. I wonder how many times I have passed by such imitation bird droppings without giving them a second glance?

I had heard from the McArthur's that Red-headed Woodpeckers were hanging out in the vicinity of their cottage. We had hoped earlier in the season that a pair of adults would nest in a partially dead cottonwood tree, but that didn't happen. They must have found a location more to their liking. Regardless, both adults and young were now showing up. Although they remained quite high in a dead cottonwood while I was there, I managed to get a few shots, which I had to crop considerably.
Adult Red-headed Woodpecker

Young of the year Red-headed Woodpecker

After leaving the park, I decided to check out the Blenheim Sewage Lagoons. I must admit that I was hoping for a Common Ringed Plover, so I wouldn't be tempted to travel to Toronto to see one (Note: I haven't gone to Toronto, and likely won't). Not surprisingly, I didn't see one here. In fact I didn't even see its look alike relative, the Semipalmated Plover, on this visit. But it was still worthwhile, with half a dozen or so species of shorebirds. Sometimes they are very skittish and getting photos is difficult. I find that if there are a lot of Killdeer, the other shorebirds are more skittish, responding to the startling cries of the Killdeer. When Killdeer are fewer, the other shorebirds are more tolerant of birders.

There were the usual species.

Least Sandpiper

Semipalmated Sandpiper
Lesser Yellowlegs
And there were some less common species including this next one which is my first of the year,
Baird's Sandpiper
Stilt Sandpipers are relatively uncommon in the spring, but more common in the fall as juveniles show up.
Stilt Sandpiper
Although it was windy, I walked along one of the more sheltered paths to see what butterflies were there. I got some very nice shots of the rare Common Checkered Skipper on an earlier visit, and I saw at least 11 individuals on this one. However I only had my camera gear that was the equivalent of a 22X binocular, which could only focus at about 3 metres, so I was pleased to get even one shot that turned out half decent. It blends in quite well on the top of this Wild Carrot.
















Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Sewage lagoons are good for more than birds.....

Today I went to the Blenheim Sewage Lagoons. I noted via Blake's blog that earlier in the week had been good for Common Checkered Skipper. Other commentors had indicated that it was present recently in higher numbers than usual in Essex County. I wanted to see if I could find a cooperative one or two for my camera.

This is a small, but gorgeous little butterfly. I had seen some several years ago near the Blenheim Landfill, and had a single but worn specimen at the sewage lagoons last year. It is a challenge to photograph, but worth trying for. So today butterflies, rather than birds, were my target at these lagoons.

And I was not disappointed. I actually had about 14 species of butterfly in my limited area of coverage.....a lot more than I had a few weeks ago during the official butterfly count.

The first winged invertebrates to greet me were the abundant Cabbage Whites, and Orange Sulphurs. The edges of the path were littered with damselflies......many hundreds of them. I didn't bother to photograph many, but I got this pair of Bluet types.


Grasshoppers were almost as abundant as the damselflies....all sizes of them.

But butterflies were the target, and before too long I found a couple of Common Checkered Skippers. The bluish-gray hairs combined with the dark gray and white checkered pattern is very striking.

The underside isn't quite as striking, but distinctive just the same. I came across at least 8 of these beauties.

A little farther down the path, I came across Bronze Coppers. There were at least 4-5 of them here and there.
Bronze Copper male

Bronze Copper female

Bronze Copper underside

A little later, I encountered some Common Sootywings. They didn't stay in one spot very long, and this photo is one from my yard a couple of days ago (first for my yard list). I saw at least 4 of them today.

I also got European Skipper, which I didn't get a photo of, and this next one, which I think is a Peck's. Not the most conclusive angle, unfortunately.

The obligatory Monarch, Viceroy, Black Swallowtail, 'Summer' Crescents and Red Admiral were all present.
Black Swallowtail

Viceroy




Oh and there were a few typical birds too, but I didn't come across anything out of the ordinary. The only thing 'noteworthy' was a huge influx of gulls, easily more than 1000 and mostly Ring-billed, that came swooping in from the south and were hovering at various altitudes.










Monday, 15 August 2016

Mid-August goodies

A few days ago I decided to check out some of my favourite local spots at this time of year. First on the list was the Dog Beach access at Rondeau, since it is a popular place for gulls, terns and even a few shorebirds right now. It is also a popular place for park users who want to take their dog to the beach....hence the name...so I thought a weekday might be less busy.

My target species for this spot was Little Gull. Somewhat surprisingly, they have not been as plentiful in the park checklist area this year, and as a result, I am still looking for my first one of the year! August is sometimes a good time, and there is often one or more scattered amongst the gulls that are building up on the lake's beaches and shorelines.

There were gulls, several hundred of them in fact. Most were Ring-billed with a few Herring. Very few Bonaparte's Gulls were there at the time I stopped by, although I have heard of other birders sometimes seeing several hundred in the area when they visited.


There were a few Caspian Terns.....
 ....as well as Common Terns....
....but no Little Gull.

Right beside the parking area for this beach access was a good stand of Cylindrical Blazing-star (Liatris cylindracea). It is an uncommon plant in Ontario, but in sandy prairie like settings, it can be abundant. A nice looking Spicebush Swallowtail was nectaring on a few flowers, but seldom stayed still long enough for a photo.

Another highlight at this time of year, is a little known orchid: Small Green Wood Orchid (Platanthera clavellata). It is widespread, but not abundant, and seems to favour wet edges of sloughs, especially a really old rotting log.


After leaving the park, a stop at the Blenheim Sewage Lagoons was in order, as the water levels are conducive for shorebirds.....just in time for their fall migration. The male Redhead is still around, and often hangs out with a few Ruddy Ducks.


Short-billed Dowitchers were represented by three individuals,

A couple of Semipalmated Plovers were mixed in.

A little more surprising was a dozen Black-bellied Plovers.
 

There was a ton of swallows, with the vast majority of them being Tree Swallows. They were on the power lines, swooping over the water or grass or just hanging out a-top the shrubby willow trees.


A little farther afield was a stop along the Thames River, south of Thamesville. It is a predictable spot for Ebony Jewelwing, American Rubyspot as well as the much rarer Smoky Rubyspot....three distinctive damselflies. There is some major maintenance just getting underway at this bridge, but I was able to access the river from the north side.

Ebony Jewelwing is a fairly widespread damselfly, and the male is easily one of the most recognizable, with its almost solid black wings and iridescent green body. It is also very active, and this one only landed once, and then it was right in front of me at a head-on angle. I got this one shot.


American Rubyspot is distinctive with its ruby red base to the wings, and the male having a ruby red thorax.

This next shot shows an obliging female (l) and male (r). The female still has the red base to the wings, but the thorax is not red.

There were no Smoky Rubyspots visible while I was there.

A bit northeast of Thamesville is a prairie patch along a railway. Fortunately it is right at a road intersection, so it is easily accessible. I use the term prairie loosely here, as the prairie vegetation is made up mostly of forbs...there are virtually no prairie grasses present, some of which should be there if it is really a prairie. Some of the prairie plant highlights known from this site include Yellow Ladies'-tresses (Spiranthes ochroleuca) and Prairie Cinquefoil (Potentilla arguta). Unfortunately neither have been seen in recent years, although they could still be present. The time of my visit was a little early for the former species, and a little late for the latter one. Other prairie type species which are present include Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), Prairie Thistle (Cirsium discolor)....
Prairie Thistle
....Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Meadowsweet (Spirea alba) and others. One of the most obvious ones during this visit was Missouri Ironweed (Vernonia missurica), a rare plant in Ontario, and it was attracting a whole bunch of butterflies.
Missouri Ironweed

I was surprised at the number of Giant Swallowtails. There were at least 8 but probably as many as a dozen.
Trio of Giants


A couple of Eastern Tiger Swallowtails were in the mix.

A single Viceroy was noted.

At least three Black Swallowtails were there.

There were also Monarchs, Silver-spotted Skippers, Northern Broken Dash and several 'Summer' Crescents.

It was a great way to end the outing!