Great Egret

Great Egret

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

A post for Diego

A couple of weeks ago, I was hiking along the Tuliptree Trail at Rondeau when I came across a young lad and his family on one of the boardwalks. They were staring intently into the forest just a short distance away. I stopped and asked what they had seen, and found out that the boy had heard something rustling in the leaves. Given the habitat, I suggested it could be a mouse type critter, or it could be a skink. They knew what a skink was and it was something they had hoped to see.

We chatted for awhile, and I found out the boy's name was Diego. His father, mother and younger sister were all out enjoying the peacefulness of the park later in the afternoon, when most other park visitors had left. My kind of folks!

I gave them some ideas of where to have a good chance of seeing one or more skinks and promised to post a few photos of ones I had seen. So as promised, Diego, here is the blog post.

The Five-lined Skink (FLSK), also known as Blue-tailed Skink, is a reptile, and Ontario's only lizard. It occupies a variety of habitats, but here in the southwest it is most often found in the sand dune habitat adjacent to open wooded areas. It also can be found where tree trunks have fallen in an open area of the forest, such as over a slough. That is where I have had some of my most memorable experiences with FLSKs. More on that a bit later.

Most of the time, an adult FLSK will look something like this:

A young one will have the blue tail, such as these next two:

I came across a family of FLSKs inhabiting a couple of large fallen logs in the vicinity of a wide slough south of Spicebush Trail. On several occasions, I would approach quietly and stand behind an upturned tree root with my camera, lens and tripod and watch them for extended periods of time.

In May and June, the adult males have a bright orange throat:

In this next image, you can see the male with the orange throat, while a female which doesn't have the orange throat, peers out a hole in this decomposing American Beech tree.

FLSK can climb trees quite readily. Usually they are found on the ground, or a low tree trunk, but once in awhile you can see them fairly high up in a tree. This next image shows one that was at least 10 metres up a Silver Maple tree trunk. It may not be really easy to see here, since it is aligned with the bark lines of the tree. It climbed quite a bit higher, eventually getting out of sight near the top of this tree, which was likely 25-30 metres tall.

All of the images in this post were taken with a 400 mm telephoto lens, as I didn't want to intrude in their activities, but keep a safe distance from them so they could carry on normally. But on one occasion, I was pleasantly surprised by how well they accepted me. From time to time they would disappear from sight as they explored the tree trunk and followed it somewhere. Imagine my surprise when I noticed some movement out of the corner of my eye and very close to me. It was one of the blue-tailed youngsters climbing around the tree root I was 'hiding' behind. It was at eye level, and I could have easily reached out and touched it. I never moved a bit, other than my eyes following its movements as it was hunting for an insect to feed on. I watched its sides panting away breathing as it climbed. Then it eventually captured an insect, chowed down on it, and carried on its way.

I was elated, of course, and wished I had my camera and macro lens all set up to capture the event. Full frame shots of a FLSK with a macro lens would have been wonderful. But of course the movement might have startled it, scared it away and I would have missed most of this. To my further surprise, the show was not over with. While I was reliving those few moments of intimate action, I saw one of the adults climb within arm's reach and doing exactly the same thing! I watched it in awe that such a normally timid creature would accept my presence as nothing to be afraid of, and carried on with its normal daily activities. Those images will be forever etched in my memory bank, but not on digital film.

Even though I watched this family on several occasions over two years, I never tried to name them. Well, with one exception.

FLSK have an interesting escape mechanism. As with any small creature, they can become food for a larger creature, and some of them will end up exactly as that. However if the predator tries to capture a skink by grabbing on to its tail, it will be in for a surprise.....the tail will become detached,  and all the predator is left with is a twitching tail! But not to worry.....over time the tail will regenerate, but it will take awhile. One of the skinks I had been watching turned up missing a tail. I named him 'Stumpy'. Not terribly original, I confess, but it fit. These next two images were taken on July 3, and you can see that the orange throat is not as bright as it was earlier in the season.

As mentioned, FLSK can climb trees quite easily, so when Stumpy climbed a few metres up on a nearby tree trunk, it made for a good photo op. A closer look will show that the tail is starting to regenerate.

I mentioned earlier that FLSK like open habitat. That is because they, like all reptiles and amphibians, are cold-blooded and rely on basking in the sun for warmth and for stimulating their internal physiological processes so they can carry out their daily and seasonal activities. Open habitats sheltered from the wind are perfect for them. Note this next photo.
This one is basking on the railing along a boardwalk. But notice the front legs. They are not laying down against the surface it is lying on as the back ones are, but are raised up against its body and pointing backwards. When watching skinks, this seems to be a regular basking position. Presumably this is a more comfortable position for the skink, as its belly lies flat against the warm wood.

I should mention that FLSK in southern Ontario are protected under Ontario's Endangered Species Act because the species has declined to the point where it is considered endangered. Therefore if anyone sees a FLSK, enjoy it from a distance but do not attempt to capture it.

So Diego, it was great to meet you and your family a little while ago, and I hope you get to see a Five-lined Skink in real life, one of the fascinating creatures of our area!


  1. It sure is amazing what you can see once you 'hunker down' and wait for wildlife to go about their business!

    1. Absolutely correct, Patrick. It is often far more interesting to sit quietly and let the wildlife come to you.