Thursday, October 22, 2015

Frosty Fantasy

October 18th, 2015

Our first VERY hard frost (-7 C). Friends Owen and Janet arranged to show me an area they have explored, and which has been on my list for some time: The Carp Barrens portion of the Huntley Highlands.  Previously, this blog has featured travels through the South March Highlands, which are also part of the Carp Ridge, which stretches from the Ottawa River near Fitzroy Harbour to the north through to North Kanata to the south.

Before moving onwards to nature`s glories, there was a second reason for visiting Janet: Kombucha!

Introduced to me by friends Daniel and Martha in Guelph, Kombucha is a traditional Asian ``Bio-tea`` made by mixing a black (or green) tea with sugar and then adding a SCOBY (an acronym for Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast). The SCOBY may be seen at the top of my first home brew SCOBY below.  The yeast produce alcohol, and the bacteria further break the alcohol down into Acetic and other acids, and, to tickle the nose and palate, a moderate level of carbonation (bubbles!).

There are various claims of health benefits and warnings about toxicity from various research.  The most recent research on the PubMed site at the US National Institutes of Health is promising (though far from conclusive):

``Bio-tea showed a higher preventive effect against myocardial infarction when compared to tea, as was observed by the significant reduction in heart weight, and blood glucose and increase in plasma albumin levels. Bio-tea significantly decreased cholesterol, triglycerides, LDL and VLDL while simultaneously increasing the levels of HDL. Similarly a decrease in leakage of cardiac markers from the myocardium was also observed. ``

2015 Jul;52(7):4491-8. doi: 10.1007/s13197-014-1492-6. Epub 2014 Aug 2.

Myocardial potency of Bio-tea against Isoproterenol induced myocardial damage in rats.

In case you don`t know the term ``myocardial infarction``, it refers to one of the more common forms of heart attack.

We left Janet`s, and the Kombucha, and proceeded to Thomas Dolan Parkway.  We parked beside a known trail, and walked in. The weather was cold, with variable cloudiness. We could see some flurries in the distance from our high vantage point on the granite-gneiss ridge, which is an outlier of the Canadian Shield.  There are, nearby, marble, sandstone and limestone formations which do affect the soil and water chemistry in spots on the ridge. The overnight burst of cold air caused flash freezing of many plants and their flowers, painting leaves with frosty artistry.  The two photos below illustrate this on the Leatherleaf, Chamaedaphne calyculata a heath plant found in boggy (acidic) conditions. This was a very large grouping of the plant.

The mid-fall colours are always best, especially so in a mixed geological natural area like the ridge, with marshes, bogs, and ponds, and their water plants, close to a mix of trees and other forest plants.  Our maples supply a lot of the colour...but many other plants add to it....

Bristly Sarsapirilla, Aralia hispida,  for example, adds the crimson-purple colours (above).

Red maples, Acer rubrum, usually the male trees, add all this red to the landscape.  The leaves were showering down, as the frost and breeze cut the leaves from their branches.

This Paper Birch, Betula papyrifera above, had the longest strips of peeling bark! and the maples in the background, provided the right contrast for a most artistic bit of nature.

Near the end of the walk, I noticed this bird impatiently watching us, as it flitted down to the Junipers to eat the berries.  From afar I dismissed it as "just another Cedar Waxwing". I did stick with it, and as it got closer I noticed these much more exquisite statements of bird fashion, the different call, and the larger size of the Bohemian Waxwing, Bombycilla garrulus, the northern relative of the Cedar Waxwing, which sometimes visits, in winter,  our southern Canadian berry-bearing shrubs. This is a very early sighting. In fact, this bird (and I could hear one other calling nearby) turned out to be the first Bohemian Waxwing seen in eastern Ontario this fall. Get a load of those colours and features! What a splendid bird.

Thank you Janet and Owen.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Autumn Begins

Sunday September 27, 2015, 20:20

The sky is clear and bright over Arnprior as we await the eclipse of the harvest super moon tonight.  Some photos will be forthcoming. 

The goal of this post is to catch up a bit.  As I have previously written, I now post on the Queen's University Biological Station (referred to later as the biostation) blog at

Currently I am writing a very long and fascinating story of the research on Tree Swallows at the Biostation (43 years worth!).

The birds nest (in decreasing numbers it turns out) in the hundreds of nest boxes protected from rodents:
 Above photo by Art Goldsmith taken this summer at QUBS.  Photo of Tree Swallow pair at Queen's in a previous year by P.G. Bentz

While gathering materials for the Queen's University natural history blog, on the way to breakfast, I encountered this rare species, the Gray Ratsnake (Pantherophis spiloides), allegedly Canada's largest snake. It is a non-venomous constrictor which preys mainly on rodents. Wise people leave this gentle animal alone and they appreciate having the fortune to share a moment.

Gray Ratsnake

 Musk Turtles (male and female)
 Wood Turtle (above and below)
Speaking of rare reptiles in Ontario, I also was fortunate to find two of our rarest turtles, the Wood Turtle (Glyptemys insculpta)  and the Eastern Musk Turtle (Stemotheus odoratus) during my summer travels in Eastern Ontario with people who conduct research into these most vulnerable animals. During the quieter times of late autumn, I plan to write a special herptile (reptile and amphibian) edition featuring the species seen this summer and in the past. So many are now rare and endangered,  which obligates me to write about them without reference to their location.

I was fortunate to have spent a week in August sharing a cottage with friends, not far from the biostation. During this time, I went on several walks locally.

This Northern Leopard Frog, Rana pipiens,  was seen on the road as we walked from the cottage.  This is the  most commonly seen frog along roads and in fields not too far from water bodies, where they over winter and breed.

Further along, a stream crossed the road as it emerged from the forest.  One of the two species of broad-winged damselflies in our area could be seen from the bridge over the road, the Ebony Jewelwing, Calopteryx maculata. These stunning dragonfly relatives hang out over forested streams and rivers.  Seeing this one reminded me that I had seen the other species at Algonquin Park on June 22nd.The River Jewelwing, Calopteryx aequabilis, is an equal visual treat, as its wings look like the ends have been dipped in black ink.
Ebony Jewelwing
River Jewelwing
Dog-day Cicada, Tibicen canicularis, a true bug, is the only Cicada I have heard locally on those warm summer days in July and August. They buzzed their dog-day song as we walked.  There were flashes of colour as some of our larger butterflies zeroed-in on nectar-filled flowers and minerals on the road.

This fresh Question Mark, Polygonia interrogationalis,  had frosted wing edges.  Proving once again that our wildlife fails to read field guides, this one, flying in August, didn't have typical very dark hindwings. Don't Latin names make sense? This butterfly, with the Tortoiseshells and the Commas, all have edged scalloped wings, suggesting a polygon. On the underside, there is a clear question mark pattern, to more differentiate this species from its close cousin, the Comma.

Further along we noticed several of these very large butterflies which have moved into this area from the south. Many believe the changing climate has permitted the Giant Swallowtail, Papilio cresphontes, to winter. Its major local larval food is the only member of the citrus family in Eastern Ontario, the Northern Prickly-Ash (Zanthoxylum americanum).  Next time you see a Prickly Ash, check for the larvae (caterpillars) which look like bird droppings.  Also, scratch the prickly ash twig, and you will notice the citrus aroma.  The tiny fruit, if present, are very aromatic too.

The Biostation blog, Opinicon Natural History, contains a relatively recent "species account" of this butterfly:

Giant Swallowtail

I also visited the Morris Island Conservation Area during August where I photographed this  Hallowe'en Pennant, Celithemis eponina (above).

When I visited Algonquin Park  in June, there were thousands of White Admirals, Limenitis arthemis. This one is framed by a good example of Precambrian granite which defines the Algonquin plateau.

You will see posts soon about the field courses which I have documented on behalf of Queen's University.  On the "Bug' course, I found this most beautifully patterned spider, a Shamrock Spider, Araneus trifolium. This orb weaver is distinguished by the markings which are grouped in threes. Although this large, 20 mm,  female is grey, they do appear in a variety of colours with similar patterns.

The last month has been coloured by our  migrating song birds.  My birding partner, Jon Ruddy, captured a photo of this lovely Philadelphia Vireo, Vireo philadelphicus,  at the Britannia Conservation Area in Ottawa. During that day, we saw 62 species, a record for that location for me.

Later on Sunday September 27th, fellow naturalist, Jeff Skevington, and I paddled to the marshes at Constance Creek, where it meets the Ottawa River in Constance Bay, Ontario. I had informed Jeff that I had been looking for a particular bird for 4 years, the Nelson's Sparrow, and I had been playing "Whack-a-mole" with these birds.  Even in migration, they stick to sedge/rush marshes where they are invisible, except for the occasional pop-up (thus whack-a-mole) which usually lasts less than a few seconds.  Jeff and I walked through the marsh "pishing" (a sound which seems to attract the curiosity of birds), and we managed to see 7, one of which posed for me. The result is below.  We were also lucky to see a late Common Yellowthroat, Geothlypis trichas, perhaps an immature male, peeking out form the maples (above).
This Nelson's Sparrow was the first I have ever seen for more than 3 seconds.

No trip through a marsh is complete without a Water Lily, Nymphaea odorata (Westmeath Provincial Park)

In late August, I had the privilege to meet and interview Dr. Raleigh Robertson, the now-retired Director of the Queen's University Biological Station for over 30 years (during which the station grew to its current role as one of North America's premiere biological research centres. Dr. Robertson provided to me excellent information about the history of the Tree Swallow research at the Biostation (referenced above) which will soon be featured on the Biostation blog. Watch for it.  Below is a photo of the interior of the large central building at the Biostation which bears Dr. Robertson's name.

 Time for a rest! Look for more during the coming months.  I will be featuring  more detailed posts about my summer travels.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

New Blog by Art Goldsmith

September 27, 2015

For those of you who have followed my  Blog, note that I am now also publishing/posting on the Opinicon natural history Blog of Queen's University Biological Station in the Rideau Lakes north of Kingston , Ontario.  Several of these blogs are now online, and you can read them here:

Hopefully I will be able to add those blogs directly to this one in the near future. Until then, enjoy my posts at the Queen's University Biological Station Blog.

Naturally yours


Saturday, July 18, 2015

Carolina Beach Meanderings

This post summarizes some more finds, interesting thoughts, musings and such from various meanderings around the coastal Carolinas in March 2015.

 In early March, a cold front rolls east over the Atlantic after blowing through North America, helping to make 2015 one of our coldest and snowiest winters. Of course, the "our" in the sentence doesn't include coastal South Carolina, which escaped without any snow. Not so for North Carolina!
 A northern duck, the Bufflehead, enjoys the returning sun and mild temperatures. These cavity nesting ducks breed in our north. The males get together right after breeding to play cards and tell fish stories.
 A common and very welcome warbler which overwinters in South Carolina, and nests in the boreal forest: the Yellow-rumped Warbler, fondly nicknamed Butterbutt.
 The American Widgeon, a happy couple.
 Smile for the camera.  A Lesser Scaup, another northern breeding duck which seeks, wisely, warmer climes in winter.
I don't see these often amongst the shells that wash up on the beach.  This is the Echinoderm (Sea Urchins, Starfish etc) we call Sand Dollar, and this one is Mellita isometra.  They live just below the sand in shallow water in dense aggregations. note that they are brown or dark green when alive.
Aside from the Sand Dollar, on this particular day (March 10), I found a Speckled Swimming Crab (Arenaeus cribrarius) which had been caught by the retreating tide. With a carapace width up to 6 inches, this crab is found from Massachusetts to Uruguay. Usually in the same shallow waters with sand bottoms as the Sand Dollar, they are found in waters up to 200 feet deep.

The Forster's Terns start March with a black patch behind the eye. By mid March, the trend to a black cap has begun. And VOILA, at the end of March, the handsome tern is dressed to the nines (below).

And speaking of black patches, that reminded me that I found this other handsome fellow by the small stream which flows to the sea to the south of the beachfront condos.  These small predatory birds always stir delight....Loggerhead Shrike, pictured below.
We people of south central Canada anticipate the blooming of our Crab Apples in May, as their pink-red blooms fill our view in urban landscapes.  Crab Apples don't grow in South Carolina. The Bradford Pear (below), a native of China, has filled this "Crab Apple" envy in the south over the last 20 years.
On the same day I took the above photo, son Thomas and I took a long walk along the trails of Myrtle Beach State Park, which, as its name implies, occupies a long stretch of beach within the municipality. The Park effectively conserves some of the native southern Atlantic coastal plain ecological community, including this Red-bellied Watersnake (Nerodia erythrogaster), which posed nicely for this photo. These, like the Northern Watersnakes in the Ottawa area, are rather large, up to 4 feet in length. This one was in a Park pond, where it mostly feeds on amphibians, and occasionally, fish.
The diversity of trees in South Carolina is renowned by North American tree enthusiasts. Both northern and southern trees are found here.  I wanted to give you the feel of the trail which focuses on this diversity of trees, so I took photos of both the interpretive signs, and the trees.
First up is the Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), also known as Yellow Poplar.  This tree does range into southern Ontario.

Another tree found in small areas around lakes Ontario, Erie and Huron is the Pignut hickory (Carya glabra)

The White Oak, Quercus alba, although most common south of our region, is occasionally found in Ottawa! I saw and photographed one by the Ottawa river a few days ago.
Note to Park administrators.  The bench below does the job, and is pretty simple to make.

You won't find Loblolly Pine, Pinus taeda around here. It is a signature tree of the Atlantic Coastal Plain, and mostly the southern portion of the Plain...... is the Southern Red Oak, Quercus falcate. These two trees have an almost identical range, which includes the northern neck of the peninsula of Florida, but is absent in most of that state.
Where else will you find both Slash Pine and Eastern White Pine, Sassafras, Bald Cypress, Eastern Hemlock and the State Tree: Cabbage Palmetto?  This is why the forests of South Carolina are special. Diversity. Here are the commonly found trees:

One of the naturalists working in the State Park was very proud of these Atamasco Lilies, a native of South Carolina, below.

On March 20th, I went a tad north to Bird Island Reserve, and found some birds! And a few early beach plants.  The beach dunes are a very harsh environment, and most beach plants don't awaken fully until well into April.

I never tire of shore birds, and these Sanderlings never seem to get they rush into and out of the surf.  A great number of them were seen on this day, which had me thinking about migrating north. And there are many people, I know who believe Myrtle Beach is named for someone's Aunt Myrtle. The myth needs to be dispelled. Pictured below, and found in most parks along the beaches in the Carolinas is the Common Wax Myrtle, Myrica cerifera. The plant whence the local city's name has alternate thick leaves which emit a lovely fragrance when crushed. The leaves are modestly dentate and the plant is evergreen.

Above, Hepatus epheliticus (Calico Box Crab). This Bird island specimen exhibits more linear patches than the spotty patches shown in the speciment in the guide book, South Carolina Beachcomber's Guide. Many species in nature vary in colour, size, shape and marking.  Biologists go a little overboard, at times, attributing taxonomic status to these variations, while most are no more than individual variation.  The next photo is of a very common bird, a Savannah Sparrow, Passerculus sandwichensis, which varies regionally across our continent. The Maritime version used to be classified as a separate species, Ipswich Sparrow.  The lighter markings on this sparrow indicate Ipswich. The constantly changing classification, made possible through better ability to analyse DNA, moved Ipswich to Subspecies status. Taxonomy is important in Biology, as it provides a way to classify living organisms, enhancing ability of scientists worldwide to more easily recognize traits which give clues on origins and ecological roles of species. 

Some familiar birds spend their winter off the South Carolina coast. As March progressed, some of these birds left for the north, and other more southern migrants began to appear at Huntington Beach State Park. Above: How do the Americans take our lovely Common Loon, Gavia Immer, (above) and remove the black head, neck ring, and red eye? This denizen of our lakes, thank goodness, seems to immediately regain these traits on return to Canada.  There were dozens feeding off the coast, where they winter.

Meanwhile, a Ruddy Turnstone, Arenaria interpres,  (pictured below) ran along the beach with the Sanderlings. Like so many of our northern nesting shorebirds,  Turnstones migrate a long way, in this case both coasts of South America, right down to Argentina and Chile. Recall in an earlier version of this Blog, a photo of a few, still in full breeding plumage (the one pictured above, like the Loon, has winter plumage) at Shediac New Brunswick in August, 2014. They stay on their high Arctic breeding grounds for just enough time to raise their brood, and then it is off again, to grace almost every beach in the Americas.
Another shorebird, the Dunlin, Calidris alpine, is a much more energy economical bird. It breed, in North America, along the shores of northern Hudson's Bay and Alaska. It also breeds in the Eurasian north. Pictured below, this flock, and they usually travel in larger flocks, had landed at Huntington Beach State Park for a feed in late March.  You can distinguish them by their long drooping schnozola, which ornithologists call a "bill". Unless you make it to their breeding territories, you won't see them in their stunning rust/black/white breeding plumage.

Huntington Beach State Park has this innovative way of tracking bird sightings.  A "Bird Notes" mailbox with a notebook inside.  Amateur scientists, like your blogger, write in their notable sightings of the day. In this way, we can share!
Further up the beach, this Atlantic Ray, Dasyatis sabina had come to an inglorious end. Common from Chesapeake Bay south, this member of the shark/ray family is commonly caught by fishers.  It is also the reason one shuffles feet if walking in the surf sand. One never STEPS, since stepping on the tail of one of these can be extremely painful. Favoured as prey by the White, Tiger and Bull Sharks, this common fish ranges into coastal fresh water as well as salt/brackish waters (like the Bull Shark).
 Below:  Huntington Beach State Park is known as prime nesting habitat for two very rare species of Plovers. The first two photos are Piping Povers, Charadrius melodus,                          

and the two photos below feature the more southern Wilson's Plover, Charadrius wilsonia.  These were the first Wilson's Plovers I have seen.                          

Another migrant showed up at the end of March. I had been seeing lots of Forster's Terns 'til now.  I was fortunate to observe Royal Terns, Thalasseus maximus,  in lovely breeding plumage, resting amongst the small Bonaparte's Gulls which never did transition to their black heads before I left the Carolinas.
One of the first and last birds I saw, and they are not common here in March, were Fish Crows, Corvus ossifragus, the OTHER crow species.  These coastal birds look like our Common Crows, but they are smaller with very different calls and behaviour.

Meanwhile at Waccamaw NWR, Spring has advanced:

The Dogwood is blooming...spectacular! Along with the Redbud, below, the Atlantic Coastal and Appalachian Spring is oh so colourful.

Tulip trees were emerging, above. And a Carolina Anole, Anolis carolinensis, feasting on an ant colony, stopped to pose, below. This native lizard is the only American Anole which immediately changes colour to blend with its surroundings. When first observed, this small lizard was a bright green, much like the Tulip Tree leaves above.

Below, a small (up to 9 metres) tree at Waccamaw, and not easy to identify. It is another south Atlantic Coastal Plain specialty, and not very common (belied by the name): Common Sweetleaf, Symplocos tinctoria. Very noticeable rounded flower clusters and large, smooth, elongated,  and elliptical Magnolia type leaves identify this plant. The Symplocaceae  is a mainly tropical family of plants.  Finding this species here announces to botanists the beginning of more tropical species as one travels south towards the Tropic of Cancer.

How appropriate to end this edition in the Carolinas with South Carolina`s State Bird.  I  have heard these common birds so many times, yet I have failed, until end of March in Waccamaw NWR to photograph these shy birds. I captured photos of this Carolina Wren, Thryothorus ludovicianus,  singing in the warmth of the Spring afternoon.