Friday, June 30, 2006

Timing: A tale of two trees

Timing is crucial for survival in northern climates. If you can't stand a little frost after you break dormancy, then you've got to have some way of judging when the danger is past. Gardeners wait until after the 15th of May here before we put out any tender annuals--perennials are on their own.

The northern catalpa is a popular ornamental in my area, far from its home in the Carolinian forest. It grows well, blooms spectacularly, produces a lovely long seed pod, and has big, beautiful leaves. Its only drawback is that it's not in the least frost-tolerant. At the first real frost in the fall those spectacular big leaves turn black and limp--pretty sad looking.
Northern catalpa ( Catalpa speciosa ) is a member of the Bignoniaceae family. It is native to the Carolinian forest west of the Mississippi and south of the Great Lakes. It is a strangely tropical looking tree. The leaves are large and cordate (heart-shaped), and alternately arranged. ... The flower is tubular and asymmetric, and it is white with thin yellow and purple longitudinal stripes. The spectacular trumpet-vine like flower blooms spangle the tree after the leaves have unfurled.

Past its prime

The article quoted maintains that the leaves of this tree stay green or turn yellow in fall, and stay on the tree until very late--but this must be in its southern home.

There are three catalpas, all the same age (about fourteen years old), in the yard. One has had a very hard life--its top has been broken twice, and while it has struggled back each time, it hasn't grown much. The one closest to the house is large, seven or eight metres, and quite magnificent. The third is a little further from the house, and possibly in a drier spot than the big one. It's about half the size, though its flowers are almost twice the size of the flowers on the larger tree, something I just noticed today.

The catalpas are in bloom this week all over the area. In the yard the smaller one is past its prime, and buds are just opening on the big one.

Just coming into bloom

This is key to the success of this tree so far north. It waits until all danger of frost is past (at least almost all) before it leafs out, and then flowers. The interesting question is: how does it manage to wait?

There is another tree in the yard that does not wait: the shagbark hickory. There are two, around the same age as the catalpas, they are about 50 centimetres high (currently lost in the tall grass). Reputed to be hardy to this zone (5, more or less--see What's a Zone?), this tree is also not at all frost-tolerant, and yet it insists on leafing out first every spring. It freezes, leafs out again (occasionally freezes again), and then, resources spent, it basically rests for the rest of the growing season. The linked article warns nut farmers, "Grown from seed, it can take 10 or more years for hickory trees to start to bear." In this case, perhaps thirty or forty years.

I had a theory that the shagbark hickories behave in this foolhardy way because they were born in Zone 6, and spent their first year there, and can't understand the ways of Zone 5. I thought that this had to do with an internal clock of some kind. Back in May I was down in Prince Edward County for a couple of weeks, in the very place from which the hickories came as seedlings. The yard there is home to a huge specimen of this tree, and the woods below the house is about half hickory, half maple. And I noticed something very interesting: the shagbark hickories leafed out later than anything else, not earlier as they do here. Now it could be that the specimens here are defective in some way, though odd that they'd be defective in the exact same way (but not impossible, of course). But I speculate that this has to do with the different style of climate in Thomasburg compared to Prince Edward County. Prince Edward is practically an island in Lake Ontario, while Thomasburg is 25-30 kilometres north of its shores. It's colder in the winter here than it is there, the last frost is later in the spring, but the temperature variations in the spring are much greater here, hotter in the daytime, colder at night. And I think it could be those hot daytimes that fool the hickories, while the northern catalpa waits for another kind of sign before it accepts that spring is really here.

If you like spiders and flies,

Moths, butterflies, beetles, dragonflies, crustaceans, molluscs, gastropods, cephalapods, and I could go on, then Circus of the Spineless is the blog carnival for you. David of Science and Sensibility is the host of the 10th edition of Circus of the Spineless, and he's done a masterful and orderly job of presenting the best of invertebrate writing from around the blogosphere and around the world. Check it out!

Circus of the Spineless #11 will be hosted by Words & Pictures at the end of July. For details visit the carnival's home page here.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Not another spider!

No, not a spider (Order: Araneae), and yet another arachnid. This is a harvestman or daddy long-legs. These creatures have eight legs like spiders do, but their bodies are not divided into thorax and abdomen as spiders' are. Taxonomy, down as far as the suborder:
Phylum: Arthropoda (Arthropods)
Subphylum: Chelicerata
Class: Arachnida (Arachnids)
Order: Opiliones (Harvestmen)
Suborder: Palpatores
Beyond this I don't know. I did find two on (here and here) that look like mine, but neither is identified to the species level, and only the second one linked is identified to the suborder level. The common species seems to be Phalangium opilio, but it doesn't look much like this one. At the bottom of this page at What's that bug? is a photo of a gang of harvestmen that are exactly what I think of when I think of the daddy long-legs of the woodpile and other similar locations. Very small, spherical body perched atop those long legs. The one I found today has a more oval body, and more elegant legs. The body is five millimetres long.

This image is turned on its side. The harvestman was sideways, flat on the doorframe when I first saw it.

I annoyed it a little and it left the doorframe and started off across the vinyl siding.

Not the sharpest photo, but the image below gives a better idea of the pattern on this critter's back.

These guys are nocturnal, and after I left this one alone for a while it found itself a hiding place where the siding meets the doorframe to hole up for the rest of the day. I hope that tonight it will go out and hunt down some rose chafers!

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Rugosa Drama

There's always something happening in the rose bush.

The Rosa rugosa alba has it all this week--beetles, bees, ants, spiders, and more stuff I can't even see. What is most striking are the very beautiful goldenrod spiders Misumena vatia, a kind of crab spider.

Holding on is a male spider--not in position for mating, is my guess. The female is not a large spider; the male is tiny. I could only really see the dark legs a thorax without assistance. I don't know if they're done mating, or if he's just guarding her. The picture at the top of the post is of this same female, taken later in the day, after the male had left, or whatever. Maybe being so small gives him a better chance of avoiding being eaten by her. Below a closer view of the male.

The most aggravating activity is that of the rose chafers (on the left in the first picture), constantly nibbling on the blossoms, sometimes before they have even opened, and constantly mating, guaranteeing more chafers. (Excellent chafer picture here)

A second spider is guarding eggs right now--the eggs are protected wrapped in a silken cocoon with a leaf wrapped around that. According to this website, the spider won't eat while she guards the eggs, and will die after they hatch. But this girl was eating a rose chafer when I first came upon her. I tried to interest her in another later in the day, but she didn't bite. In the picture below, the whitish surface the spider is sitting on is her egg cocoon.

Mother and snack.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Porch Spiders: Ventral

After a streak of good luck identifying various flora and fauna I seem to have finally come to a tough case--I would never have guessed it would be the porch spiders--so common, at least on the porch.

Arachnologist David P. Shorthouse was kind enough to stop by and offer a suggestion, Larinioides cornutus (see comments for The Porch Spiders). I think this spider is too small to be the porch spider, and shows other differences, but the latter may be individual variations. Today I am posting a ventral view of one of these spiders--not the same individual, but the one that offered to pose. The spider appears paler more as a result of differences in the light than differences between the individuals. I gather what I really need is a close look at the reproductive organs--but this is beyond my capabilities. So I'm hoping that the pattern on the ventral surface of the abdomen will be helpful in either eliminating or supporting the suggested identification.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The World Cup of Birding

It's I and the Bird #26! It's up at The Hawk Owl's Nest. International, thematic teams from around the world and around the blogosphere. For me I and the Bird is my biweekly opportunity to catch up on birder and bird blogging--there is so much more of it than there was a year ago. This edition is another winner, check it out.

And speaking of a year ago, the next I and the Bird is the first anniversary edition and will be hosted by the father of the carnival, Mike of 10,000 Birds on July 6 (submission deadline July 4). He plans a special edition to mark the occasion--go to this page to find out more.

Once again I don't have a post in the current carnival--incredibly it seems that it has been a month since I last posted about birds! It's not because there are no birds in Thomasburg--the breeding birds are settling in nicely, and I've been plagued by various i.d. mysteries. There's the strange tale of my inability to etch the very distinctive song of the eastern towhee on my brain, and the tale of the vireos in the yard, always in the treetops, never letting me get a good look. Those stories just haven't jelled into words for me. Vagaries of the muses....

Turtle blogging

Had to run an errand in the early evening yesterday that took me down the road through the Stoco Fen, that place of the skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus), of which I've written before. It is also the place of the pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea) (rare this far south, but then so is this kind of habitat), and of the pink (Cypripedium acaule) and yellow (Cypripedium calceolus) lady's slipper orchids. On the way to my destination I saw a turtle in the road. Stopped, and was very pleased to see that it was a Blanding's turtle (Emydoidea blandingi), a species at risk, and one I've never had a good look at before.

I got out of the car to talk to the turtle, to find out if it might prefer one side of the road or the other, but it was quite lively and not willing to have anything to do with me. It made for the north side, and once it was well off the road I went on my way.

About half an hour later I was homeward bound, and back through the fen, and there it was again, smack in the middle of the road, facing west. I stopped again, got out, tried once more to engage it in conversation, asking kind of stupid questions, "What are you doing back on the road?" and like that. I was secretly hoping that it would balk there on the road giving me an excuse to pick it up, but again, it took off, giving me some annoyed glances over its shoulder as it went, and made for the south side of the road, on which there is considerably more open water. Because I was on my way home this time, and not in any great rush, I hung around for a while to see whether it would stay off the road. I stayed on the other side of the road so as not to be a pain in the shell, and tracked its movements through the grasses, skunk cabbage, and much else that grows on that roadside. I was there for twenty minutes or so--what a fantastic place that little stretch of road is. I found the pink lady's slippers--pleased that there were still some in bloom, I was afraid I might have missed them this year. Didn't see any yellow, but I'll be going back tomorrow with a camera, and may find some then. There were no bugs, for some reason. Breezy? Too dry? In spite of the fen the mosquitoes aren't usually bad there, but the deer flies are fierce in the afternoons. Not a lot of birds sang, but I did get to hear the haunting notes of the white-throated sparrow, the lovely veery, as well as the robins, chickadees, black and white warblers, other warblers, and a mystery call of some swamp bird. Not a car went by while I was there, and while I could hear some power equipment off in the distance, the peace of the place overwhelmed it.

The turtle didn't re-emerge to take its place in the middle of the road, and I couldn't see it moving around anymore, so I tore myself away and drove home.

But speaking of turtles, my fellow eastern Ontarian Ross and his granddaughter Brianna have embarked on a project to incubate rescued turtle eggs, from a snapper, a map turtle and a stinkpot. The stinkpot (Sternotherus odoratus) is, like the Blanding's, a threatened species. The egg in that case was rescued from a road-killed mom. They will be reporting their progress on their new blog turtle rescue and hatching, and would welcome any advice people might have about incubating turtle eggs.

In a related blog note. I have been using the free version of blogrolling for my links list--and will continue to do so at least for a while. It's so easy, but the list is getting long and unwieldy. I've pulled out the eastern Ontario nature blogs now and given them their own, manual list, and will be doing the same with others, regionally or by subject as time permits. So if you are an eastern Ontario nature blogger on my blogroll who I've neglected to pull out for the new list, or one I've never listed before, please let me know. And think about joining Ontario Blogs--that list needs more nature blogs to ground the political blogs.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Porch Spiders

Every summer there are several of these quite lovely spiders living just under the roof of the porch. The current residents are about half grown--they will be quite large by fall, bodies about 2 or 3 centimetres long, I think.

A very familiar spider, but could I find out what species this is? I started at the Canadian Arachnologist website, went to the Nearctic Spider database, and started looking around. There are a lot of spiders. I looked around at some and decided that this spider is probably in the genus Araneus, so I used the nice tool on the website for building a list of species for a particular region, which produced eleven species in the genus.

Unfortunately not all have images and descriptions. The closest I could find to my porch spider was the marbled orbweaver, a smaller spider, but with a similar look, which gave me some confidence in the genus guess.

This spider spins an orb web, is not active early in the day (when the sun shines on the porch), and spins a case for her eggs, which she attaches to the corner where the roof of the porch meets the wall. If you have an idea of what species this spider is, please let me know.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

I call it "curly vetch"

In an addendum to my last post I reported my discovery that I'm apparently in a very small group of people that refers to a vetch as "curly vetch." Troutgrrrl of Science and Sarcasm stepped up and left a comment suggesting that it may be a plant she knows as "hairy vetch," (Vicia villosa--according to a Google search) a legume planted as a cover crop, and asked for pictures. Will the pictures reveal the identity of this plant?

This vetch is curly--it insinuates itself in between the grasses when it has to, supporting itself by curling tendrils around whatever it can. The pictures are of plants in the tall grass in the yard. It is just coming into bloom now.

The flower is actually a little more purple than it photographs

Leaves of vetch

Stalk of vetch


So, what do you think?

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Fleabane and more....

I was inspired by this post at Woodsong, with a picture of a lovely moth (Spotted Thyris moth-- Thyris maculata) on fleabane to go out and do an inventory of the current wildflowers in the field.

The dominant colour is yellow right now--the hawkweed is everywhere, and seems to be even more yellow than it has been in other years. We've got two kinds, Mouse-ear hawkweed (Hieracium pilosella) and another yellow hawkweed, as well as a very occasional orange hawkweed. All are European species.

I think this is King Devil Hawkweed.

Goat's beard are flowering and quickly going to seed here and there. The curly vetch is just a hint of purple here and there--we'll see how it does as it comes into full flower in the next little while.

Goat's beard

I searched for and did find some fleabane, a native species, but just a few small stands of it. Curiously, 3 in dry to very dry spots, and one in very wet conditions. The fleabane in the pictures is daisy fleabane (Erigeron annuus), while I think Woodsong's is common fleabane (E. philadelphicus). Added: On further investigation, it turns out that while common fleabane is a native (and possibly threatened) species, daisy fleabane is not.

Fly on fleabane

Maybe that's why I didn't find the moth. I did find a couple of fancy critters, one bug, one fly, as the pictures show.

Bug on fleabane

Daisys, which are making a great show in fields nearby, are just putting in an appearance in these fields. And there is a great show of a kind of yellow clover, I think, very similar plant in form to the big white clover that often does very well here. Also blooming is the rather subtle, also non-native, bladder campion (Silene cucubalus).

Bladder campion

In the swamp, along with the small collection of fleabane, there is some kind of rose (or at least a member of the very large rose family), thornless, blossoms are pink and single. I've looked for what it might be without any luck--got to go out and study its leaf arrangement etc. and try again. Or at least try again to get a useful photo. Meantime, here's another yellow flower that's in bloom right now:

Tall buttercup (Ranunculus acris L.)
Another yellow European

Added later: A Note on Common names
After I finished writing this post I got to thinking about vetch--the crown vetch that has nearly finished swallowing our yard, and what I've been calling curly vetch, mentioned in the post, that occurs both in the yard and in the fields. And last year dominated in its time in the fields. I wondered if either were native, so searched them out on the web. Crown vetch (Coronilla varia) it turns out, as I suspected, is not a native species, is promoted as a ground cover, and damned as an invasive.

"Curly vetch" on the other hand is a name used by a very small handful in cyberspace--a Goggle search turns up a mere seven results, the first two of those are links to my post about the profusion of the stuff last year. A handful is stranger than if it had just been me, a handful spread out over the continent is weirder than if it just been folks in the Ottawa Valley (of which none turned up), the ancestral home of my mother's family, since it was my mother who taught me to call this plant "curly vetch." So I don't know for sure what this little vetch is--it's certainly curly (tendrils twist around other plants). I think it's probably cow vetch (Vicia cracca), an introduced species, but am not sure. If you know a plant as "curly vetch" and what plant it is, please leave a comment.

Submitted to the Friday Ark

Monday, June 12, 2006

Two Caterpillars

I came across this caterpillar on some kind of native plum infected with black knot that is ubiquitous in the yard. (Another Black knot link) We prune the infected branches and sometimes cut the little trees down altogether, but both the infection and the tree itself hold onto life tenaciously! To get rid of the trees we'd have to dig them out by the roots (not easy!). To get rid of the black knot? Maybe put a dome over the yard and sterilize everything underneath it. Black knot is a fungal infection that emits spores much as apple-cedar rust does, in the damp days of spring, that travel through the air looking for suitable hosts. These trees are its favourite, but it turns up on other fruit trees as well.

This critter seems to be eating black knot.

The caterpillar is about 5 cm long, slim and slightly hairy--distinctive enough that I figured I could find out what it was. (Still amazed that any of these creatures can be identified, but I've been on a roll lately.) Turns out, to my great surprise, this is an Eastern Tent Caterpillar (Malacosoma americanum). Out of its tent, and out of the squirmy mass of small caterpillars that I know so well, this is quite a handsome beast. There was talk of a bad year for these caterpillars (that can devastate fruit trees) this year, but in this area they were quite modest. A tent here and there, no trees stripped. The tents are all empty now, but I didn't know that the caterpillars travelled on, growing and eating on their own before cocooning. From what I can glean from various sources, we know this creature by its caterpillar name, it turns into a tent caterpillar moth, one of the Lasiocampids.

Eastern Tent Caterpillar--grows up surprisingly pretty.

The day after I took these pictures I went back to look for the caterpillar, and it was still on the black knot--lending weight to my earlier impression that it was eating it. There was evidence on the bit of knot of nibbling, but not very compelling--the surface is rough and broken looking anyway. Strange....but not particularly a benefit to the tree--once the black knot turns black it's done its work, so eating it won't reduce the infection.

Last weekend I noticed another tenter in the yard--more casual, draping webbing over and around the ends of branches, exclusively infesting Wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus), of which there are three, about 50 metres apart. This is a native species of euonymus that produces a very pretty fruit in the fall, pink capsules around scarlet seeds. Turns out that it's not a native caterpillar.

The euonymus caterpillar is a European that feeds on the European euonymus, came with that species, and has recently branched out to native euonymus in North America, much like the case of the European sawfly. So clever, so adaptable. The mature form is an ermine moth, called the European spindle ermine moth, after another, closely related species of tree, the spindle tree, it likes to eat. The moth is medium-sized, and white with black spots on its wings.

Euonymus Caterpillar (Yponomeuta cagnagella)

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Rob's Idaho Perspective: I and the Bird's of Idaho

Straight to you from Idaho, from Rob's Idaho, from Rob's Idaho Perspective, it's the I and the Birds of Idaho, 25th edition of I and the Bird, the carnival of the best of recent bird and birder blogging.

Learn about Idaho, then check out the great collection of posts from furthest, Ben Cruachan Blog in Australia, to nearest, Rob's own Idaho contribution. And while you're there check out some of Rob's other posts--me, I'm partial to his owlets.

Watch for I and the Bird #26, at The Hawk Owl's Nest, June 22 (submissions due by Tuesday, June 20).

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Festival of the Trees

Roundrock Journal and Via Negativa have joined forces to launch a new blog carnival, devoted to celebrations (lamentations, dissertations, photos, poems, drawings...) of trees: Festival of the Trees. The first edition will be hosted at Via Negativa on July 1 (deadline for submissions, to bontasaurus (at) yahoo (dot) com, June 30).

The old apple tree, a landmark in the far field, and Thomasburg Walks' inaugural post, January 18, 2005.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Floats like a Hummingbird

Last summer I despaired of ever seeing a clearwing moth--then finally, in September, a couple turned up. I'd never tried to identify one of these guys before--and after much struggle, involving travels down some wrong roads, and help from readers (some of which I resisted at first) I finally identified them as Hemaris thysbe, hummingbird clearwings. (See Welcome Clearwing! and Hemaris thysbe)

Hemaris thysbe on buddleia, September 2005

Yesterday afternoon, June 1, with September months away, I saw what I thought was a clearwing moth feeding among the bumblebees on the honeysuckle just outside the front door. I though this might be a snowberry, Hemaris diffinis, but then I started checking around. According to What's that Bug?, this is a sphinx moth, as the clearwings are, but they identify this one as a Nessus sphinx (Amphion floridensis).

Hovering over the honeysuckle in June

It seems that the clear, yellow bands on the abdomen are what trigger the identification. But I'm confused--this is definitely a moth that hovers when it feeds (thus the blurry photos), which I thought was the sign of a hummingbird moth, a clearwing. This moth was smaller than the thysbe, and differently marked, but similar in morphology.

Clear wings? Or an illusion created by the blur?

Cindy of Woodsong has a picture of a moth that she identifies as Nessus sphinx here that looks like my moth. So, does the Nessus float like a hummingbird?

Submitted to this week's Friday Ark. Go on over and see who all's on board.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Urban Rabbits: Part 2

Another rabbit story? Yes, can't be helped. My friend Michael, of Toronto, read the latest instalment in the caramel bunny series and was compelled to respond with a wild rabbit story from the downtown core, and he sent pictures!

I first wrote about a rabbit in this downtown Toronto yard last December (Sightings), illustrated with a photo courtesy of Michael. Just seems wrong to me that eastern cottontails would travel through that densely populated part of town to end up near the corner of College and Dovercourt, many, many blocks from green space of any size at all (although Michael's street, like many of the others, is blessed with deep backyards), and even live there.

My shock deepens to discover that a rabbit is now raising a family under and around his front porch. Though, of course, where there are rabbits, there are baby rabbits: it's the nature of that beast. You may be able to tell from this photo of the adult that she is pretty raggedy underneath. This is most likely because she has recently plucked fur from her belly to line a nest, and to give the babies better access to her nipples.

Good baby rabbits stay still.

Images courtesy of Michael Solomon