Great Egret

Great Egret

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Middlesex moments

I've had the privilege of doing some fieldwork on some sizable private property in Middlesex County recently. It was a place where I had never spent any time before, but as a result of this field work, look forward to getting back next year.

There was a nice variety of habitats, including woodland, wetland and prairie. If you've been following my blog posts for very long, you will know that I have a particular fondness for tallgrass prairie, so coming across some of these patches was unexpected, and definitely a highlight.

What made this site interesting was the dominance of Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium).
Little Bluestem seedhead

And one of the highlights, was to find an Eastern Hog-nosed Snake! This species is one of the most fascinating of our native reptiles. They are very rare, considered a Species At Risk in Ontario and Canada. They are named for their flat, upturned snout which enables them to dig in the sand searching for toads, their primary food source. They can vary in colour....this one is quite dark above, but I have seen them a mottled orange and black, brownish and also a whitish-gray. What makes them especially fascinating is their behaviour. When startled or threatened, they will vibrate their tail to sound like a rattlesnake. Other non-rattlesnake snakes do this as well.

If they are handled, they will excrete a very foul smelling substance. But if this doesn't scare away the potential threat, it will hiss and puff up like a cobra, and even pretend to strike. Which is amusing, since they don't have any teeth at the front of their mouth. (They do have teeth towards the back of their mouth cavity, but they point backwards and are important at deflating toads which will puff up as they are being eaten, so puncturing the toad will enable it to be swallowed more easily.) And if this doesn't scare away the potential threat, they will go through various contortions, writhing and eventually turning upside down to play dead. It is really quite well done, as when they are upside down playing dead, their tongue will hang out, and there will even be a drop of saliva at the tip of the tongue.

Another good species to find at this site is this Great Plain's Ladies'-tresses (Spiranthes magnicamporum) which is ranked as S3.
Spiranthes magnicamporum

A more common prairie plant of late in the season is Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis crinita). It is certainly more common than the aforementioned Spiranthes, but not all that common and always a treat to find.

As mentioned, we also had the pleasure of surveying some woodland and wetland areas, including floodplain. Here one of my colleagues carefully manoeuvres his way across a small beaver dam.

Along the creek system, we came across a large Chinquapin Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii). It was approximately 80 cm in diameter. It isn't one of the more common oaks of southern Ontario, and is always nice to find. However it is typically found on more upland sites than this one was occupying. I had never seen one right at the edge of a creek system before! We also came across a large White Oak nearby, which measured almost exactly 36" diameter (~91.5 cm), a good sized tree indeed.

Chinquapin Oak

I hope to get back to this site next spring!

Elsewhere in Middlesex Co, I've stopped in at Skunk's Misery quite recently. Skunk's Misery is a large woodland complex in the southwestern part of the county. About half of it is privately owned, but fortunately for those of us who like to wander through natural areas, the other half is owned by either the Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authority or the county of Middlesex. The mosquitoes can be pretty abundant during the late spring and summer, but most of them have disappeared by now. I enjoy autumn walks through some of the trails.

This latter image shows a very large Tuliptree on the left. It measures 1.38 metres (54") in diameter! It is measured at a standard height known as diameter at breast height (dbh) which is 1.4 metres (4.6') from the ground level.

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