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.