Monday, July 31, 2006

Come to the Circus!

It's time once again to celebrate invertebrates at the Circus of the Spineless, the blog carnival for invertebrate blogging. The 11th Edition is up at Words and Pictures, hosted by Ringmaster Roger, and it's a beauty. From molluscs to spiders, ants to butterflies, to the creatures of the Cambrian Explosion, and more, even my own mystery bee--lots to read, lots to see. Check it out!

And watch for next month's edition at Sunbeams From Cucumbers. For more information about the carnival click here.

Question Mark!

After I posted about the Question Mark and Comma butterflies, with orange and dark spots on my mind, I found this specimen, collected, I think, by one of the porch spiders living on the patio.

Spiders are not the best collectors for purposes of identification. But these punctuation butterflies do have this very weird field mark, the punctuation mark.

Question Mark

After I pulled the spider-bundle apart, and teased open the wings, there it was, clear as day, a question mark. This is, then, a specimen of Polygonia interrogationis, the Question Mark butterfly. (See Bev of Burning Silo's photo of an Eastern Comma, showing the comma, here.)

I'm sure that this is not the butterfly I'd photographed earlier. Its hindwing, top side, was not nearly as dark, and its colours not so rich. And the webbing it was wrapped in was pretty grubby, as if it had been hanging around for a while. So all that this find establishes is that there are Question Mark butterflies around here.

Saturday's live punctuation butterfly--turned headside up

But John of A DC Birding Blog left a comment on the earlier post to say that the markings on that living butterfly indicated Question Mark, not Eastern Comma. I quote:
According to Kaufman's butterfly guide, Question Marks have a black dash near the tip of the forewing on the top side, but Commas lack this dash. Both Commas and Question Marks have a series of three black dots together in the middle of the forewing. The Question Mark's black dash is just to the outside of this trio. Your butterfly has it, so I would say Question Mark.

Now I must go out and look for an Eastern Comma...

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Question Mark or Comma?

Not a question that comes up a lot--usually it's pretty clear when a question mark is required, even if I slip up on the blog sometimes. Found a butterfly this morning clinging onto an iron lamp in the garden. Grabbed the best picture I could (sometimes a subject just won't stay still), but didn't get the picture I need as it turns out. I have a couple of baby guides to butterflies and moths. One didn't have this butterfly at all. The other (Peterson First Guides: Butterflies and Moths) led me to identify it as a Question Mark (Polygonia interrogationis), so called because of a mark on the underside of its hindwing.

With my success in identifying the Milbert's tortoiseshell, and now this, I felt like I was on a roll. Then Googling around on the internet I discovered that there are two very similar butterflies, Question Mark and Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma). The best distinguishing feature between them is that little mark on the underside of the hind wing. (See here for Bev of Burning Silo's excellent photo showing the underside of an Eastern Comma's wing.) Oh sure, the Question Mark is bigger, and the markings on the top side of the wings are subtly different. But I only know this butterfly was an impressive size not whether it falls to one side or the other of the given ranges: 45-68 mm for the Question Mark, 37-56 for the Eastern Comma. The other distinguishing feature is "the long, violet-edged hindwing tails" of the Question Mark. That sounds more helpful, but my butterfly seems to have a bit more tail than the Comma at Butterflies of Canada, and less than the Question Mark there. Their Comma is missing the pale edging of the Question Mark, and mine has it--but the text warns that this may be seen in a Comma.

Also according to the species page for the Question Mark at Butterflies of Canada: "The summer generation (form "umbrosa") is darker; the hindwing upperside is almost black, and the underside is more heavily marked than in the overwintering generation." Which is certainly true of this specimen. And of course, it's also true of the Comma.

So this is definitely a summer generation Polygonia, possible comma, possible interrogationis. I think it's probably Polygonia comma....

Just like learning to identify birds, once you start to look at the butterflies, there's so much to see. And there's so much to learn--I learn something more every time I grapple with an identification. I'll know this butterfly (i.e., these butterflies) if I see it again, and know I've got to get a look at the underside of the hind wings!

Friday, July 28, 2006

Flower Danger

A few days ago I read a very interesting post at Burning Silo about little critters called Ambush Bugs, or phymata (meet the phymata, and see also more on the phymata). Bev has some fantastic photos of these things--they look like dinosaurs, but so tiny. They hide in flowers and ambush prey many times their size. In the post and comments Bev suggests checking yarrow, Queen Anne's Lace, and some other flowers for them, and that the easy way is to scan for larger insects in odd postures. So I went out to look.

What's that wasp doing?

A big beautiful Queen Anne's Lace has volunteered itself in a garden bed just in front of the house. Very hot day yesterday (and probably again today), humid and smoggy, so I was pleased to find something interesting so close. Walked over to take a look.

That's no phymata.

A flower crab spider (probably the goldenrod, Misumena vatia) had a good hold of the much larger wasp. I wrote about these spiders in Rugosa Drama, a story about their activities on the big Rosa rugosa alba in front of the house. There are only a few blossoms on the rose now, but apparently no end to the opportunities in the garden for ambitious ambush predators.

Submitted to Friday Ark #97

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Urban Wildlife: Celebrity Edition

Michael, my friend and source of news about the wildlife of the big city, Toronto, sent me a picture today of a famous Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), known as Charlie or Oscar. According to the National Post (story here), this bird has been coming back to Toronto for several years, and consorting with, that is, taking handouts from, people recreating at Harbourfront. There was a gentleman sitting on the ledge next to the bird at the time the picture was taken, feeding it bits of meat or fish from a sandwich.

Photograph courtesy of Michael Solomon

When I lived in Toronto I saw Night-Herons regularly, but they're a rare sight for me now. I was very pleased to see a pair when I was staying down in Prince Edward County in May, both perched in trees and flying overhead. It never occurred to me to offer them hotdogs.

As John of A DC Birding Blog says, in his species account, Birds of the Mid-Atlantic #12: Black-crowned Night-heron, they are particular about habitat. While not a common bird in Ontario, the Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas (preliminary data) records this bird as a breeder in several locations in southern Ontario, most in proximity to one of the Great Lakes, as shown on this map.

Submitted to The Friday Ark. Head on over and see who else is on board this week.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Bumblebee (Or mimic?) on Scat

Whose scat? Not large, canid-like, deposited on top of a large rock. I noticed it from a distance (good eye for scat), and expected to see raccoon scat, because of the prominent placement. But lots of critters like to advertise. I think it is probably fox scat, but could be coyote. You can see small animal bone and hairs in it.

The bumblebee is medium size, not as big as the big fat ones that roll in the rugosa blossoms, or as small as the little ones that came to the honeysuckle when it was in bloom. Unfortunately the picture doesn't show the squared-off looking back end. The mouth parts, or whatever they are, are quite fearsome looking. A quick search didn't turn up any scat-eating bumblebees, and I didn't know how else to look, so I don't know what kind of Bombidae this might be.

Bev at Burning Silo has a post about bumblebees here, where she talks about the great variety in the family (and has marvellous pictures of a couple of examples). She doesn't mention this behaviour, but does direct the bee-curious to an identification page, here. So I went to take a look. There's a lot to learn about collecting the field marks of bumblebees.

The mouth parts, or proboscis, or whatever, kept bothering me. It's not unusual that I'm surprised by what I see in a macro photo, but really, do bees look like that? I Googled "bumblebee mimcs." Came up with a bunch of insects, nothing as bumblebee-like as this one. It's a bumblebee.....isn't it?

Added later: The more I look at this photo, the more I doubt that this is a bee (hence title change). More research but still no for updates, or if you know what has a face like this critter, please leave a comment.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Milbert's Tortoiseshell

This morning a very pretty butterfly spent some time on the screen door, giving me a very good look. My only complaint was that it refused to pose in the full sun (got just the one shot of it partly in the light).

Note the white at the tips of the antennae

Turns out it is a not uncommon butterfly, known as Milbert's tortoiseshell (often written "Tortoise Shell"), Nymphalis milberti. It occurs all across Canada, south of the tundra, and feeding mostly on sap, rotting fruit and dung. Its larvae feed on stinging nettles--which doesn't sound too nice, but according to this page (scroll down, scroll way down, to "Vanessa species Caterpillar") at What's that Bug many caterpillars in the genus Vanessa go for nettles. It seems that nettle-eating is common among the larvae of the family, Nymphalidae, to which both Vanessa and Nymphalis belong. And, of course, some humans eat them too.

Wing detail

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Into a New Year of I and the Bird

I and the Bird #28 is up at Bogbumper in the UK. A great selection of posts graciously hosted. Check it out.

I and the Bird is a carnival of bird and birder blogs. For more information go to I and the Bird central. And look for the next I and the Bird on Thursday, August 3, at Alis Volat Propiis.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Interesting Times

Lately I am more and more convinced that we are in for some very interesting times. This morning I got an e-mail from my local blueberry grower that the patch is going to be open for picking this weekend. Last year I was picking blueberries in August (last year was a great year for this particular patch). The gardeners say everything is about two weeks early. Global warming? Maybe....signs of anomalous times are everywhere.

What I've noticed here is that what the gardeners say is not quite right--many things are two weeks early, then some things are not. There was an article in Scientific American online a while ago about schedule changes, and how these will affect plants, insects, birds, and then all the rest of us: With Warming Climate, Only the Earlier Bird Catches the Worm. Starting from the more recent, Bird Extinction Estimates May Be Too Low at and following the links around to the various related articles, one comes to Not Just a Nice Idea, Preserving Biodiversity Is a Necessity:
According to a study published in today’s issue of Nature, preserving the earth’s biodiversity is not just a nice idea—it is necessary to ensure ideal functioning of the planet’s ecosystems.
Global warming is a threat to biodiversity, because it, like any rapid change, is and will continue to press some species to extinction, while also being at least a temporary boon to others. "Ideal functioning," or ecosystem efficiency will be restored if relatively stable weather patterns are re-established. The danger is not to life on earth, but to extant species, of which human beings are one. It would be really interesting to see that rebalanced world, but, of course, unlikely that we will.

Charlie of Charlie's Bird Blog and his partner Jo have embarked on a new project: Hummingbird:
Welcome to Hummingbird - a blog that wants to say that there has to be a better way of doing things than throwing away hundreds of bars of soap a day...
In the spirit of "Think globally, act locally," (although since they deal with the airline industry, local is pretty global!) they start with soap, move on to utensils (linking the site of the manufacturers of spudware, biodegradable knives, forks and spoons made of potato starch), compostables resulting from airline catering, and on investigating the possibilities of decreasing or balancing greenhouse gas emissions from air travel, and reducing its "footprint." I'll be watching their progress with interest.

I don't know if we're still at a point where we can turn back from the brink, but I'm convinced that if we are, there are choices we can make as individuals, including the choice to no longer tolerate waste, pointless extravagance, landfilling materials that can be diverted, etc., that will go a long way to fostering the change in political will necessary to making that turn.

For an interesting discussion of points of no return and climate, see Runaway tipping points of no return at RealClimate: Climate Science from Climate Scientists.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Moving Day for Two Porch Spiders

Not everybody is as fond of the porch spiders as I am--and even I have never watched them as closely as I have this year. So when a couple of them started causing trouble (spattering the seat of a chair on the porch with droppings), I moved them to the maple tree by the house.

I transported them separately, but put them close together on the tree because this couple of spiders is a couple. During the past week or so a number of male spiders have turned up on the porch, and most of them have paired up with one of the original residents. Where the male goldenrod spiders are tiny compared to the females (see Rugosa Drama), these guys are big--as big as the females, or bigger, with longer legs.

I take these newcomers to be male because of their palps.
In male spiders the palps have a swollen bulb like attatchment which is used to place sperm in the female's genital opening. (Nick's Spiders)
I think they are the same species because of their behaviour, and because of the "relevant" similarity of their appearance.

That's him on the left

I haven't observed any of these spiders mating, but I can't see most of them very well, and there is now quite a number of shed exoskeletons caught in the webbing where the spiders rest during the day, making it difficult to sort out the individuals sometimes. Spiders shed their exoskeletons whole leaving behind something that looks just like a sucked dry spider.

So what happened to the two I moved to the tree? I moved the female first. She was completely still during transport, and then was difficult to dislodge from the little net (of the sort used in aquariums) I was using. I finally got her settled on a branch where she stayed, huddled down, stock still. I went back for the male, got him out of the net easily and onto the branch beside her. He ran around like a mad thing, even ran right over her, stringing silk along the branches as he went. Finally he settled down a few feet away. I checked back a few times. He stayed put, she'd moved each time and then vanished. Next morning he was gone too.

Submitted to Friday Ark

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Ten by Ten

Even a bird's song, which we can reduce to no musical rule, seems to have more freedom in it, and thus to be richer for taste, than the human voice singing in accordance with all the rules that the art of music prescribes; for we grow tired much sooner of frequent and lengthy repetitions of the latter. Yet here most likely our sympathy with the mirth of a dear little creature is confused with the beauty of its song, for if exactly imitated by man (as has been sometimes done with the notes of the nightingale) it would strike our ear as wholly destitute of taste.
John at A DC Birding Blog offered a list of his ten favourite bird songs and put out a general call for others to weigh in. Then he tagged me with a meme started by Patrick at The Hawk Owl's Nest, calling for a list of my ten most wanted birds.

Like my list of the ten most beautiful birds, the actual list will be a pretty ephemeral object, the product of birds that are on my mind for one reason or another. But the process is interesting--it gives me an opportunity, an occasion, to introspect, to figure out why these birds are the ones I'm thinking about. I also wondered if I could come up with a single list of ten birds that come under both the heading of favourite songs and most wanted. I couldn't, but there is considerable overlap (indicated by S for singers, and W for wanted).

The list(s) are of birds that do, or might, occur in my region. The songs are all songs I've heard. The order is random.

(1S) White-throated Sparrow
This is a bird I've seen, whose song has a magical, haunting quality (unusual for a sparrow). I heard this bird one evening a couple of weeks ago while I was spending time with a Blanding's turtle on the road through the Stoco Fen. I don't get to hear it very often, and it was an exquisite pleasure to hear it in that setting.

(2S) Veery
The thrushes are all wonderful singers--occasionally I find a particularly interesting singer of the American Robin persuasion--listen long enough to a robin and you'll hear a multitude of notes and phrases identified with other members of the family. The Veery is a bird I get to hear all the time, but it makes the list because of the one that joined the White-throated Sparrow singing that evening in the Fen.

(3S) Wood Thrush
I first heard this bird a few years ago while bicycling past a wood lot just up the road. I was astonished by the beauty and complexity of the sound. I don't hear it as often as the Veery, it's a great treat when I do.

I've never seen a wood thrush. Could it be a candidate for "most wanted"? Strangely, no. I don't know why--maybe because I'm content with the thrushes I do see: Hermit Thrush, Bluebird, American Robin, Veery? But there is a thrush I'd very much like to see, because I find it difficult to believe in it. It is not a regular in my region, but occasional sightings are reported (admittedly, not usually very nearby): (1W) Varied Thrush

(4S, 2W) Great Horned Owl
Now this is an excellent candidate for both lists. The call of the Great Horned is the quintessential owl call, the sound that punctuates cold, crisp, still February nights. I have heard it often--one night in 2005 I heard three in the yard calling back and forth. But I've never seen a living Great Horned Owl in the wild that I knew. (I've seen things that were probably GHOW, but not well enough to identify.)

(5S, 3W) Cerulean Warbler
Another member of both lists, I've heard Ceruleans now a number of times. On three or four occasions in the summer of 2004 I heard one singing in the woods in Vanderwater Conservation Area. My record of this, as a bird on territory, is still under review by the Ontario Birding Atlas. I identified this singer from recordings of Ceruleans, and in consultation with more experienced birders, without ever laying eyes on it. Having heard the bird again in Prince Edward County this past May, I'm even more confident of the Vanderwater identification. But I'd really like to see this bird one day, especially to see a singing Cerulean, and while I'm dreaming, a Cerulean in Vanderwater, carrying food.

(6S, 4W) Ovenbird
So loud, so insistent, so energetic, the song of this little wood warbler, one I hear often, really livens up the woodland scene. Wakes me up just to remember it. And in the case of this woodland singer, as opposed to the wood thrush, this is a bird I really want to see. It's as cute as all get out, and it's so remarkable that such a small bird can produce that enormous sound. I'd like to see it, and I'd like to see it singing.

(7S, 5W) Sora
Strange, eerie song, I've heard a Sora just once, never seen one. I would very much like to hear it again, and see it. In fact, like John, the rails in general are missing from the set of birds I've seen. Habitat makes these difficult birds to see anyway, and I haven't spent enough time in the right places yet to see them. So, in honour of that, I'll add the (6W) Virginia Rail to the list of wanted birds.

Not in the parameters of either meme, this reminds me of another kind of desire. I wish that I could return to a scene I beheld in Saskatchewan in June of 1992, on the mud flats around a mineral lake near Watrous. Shore birds, numerous and various, and probably other birds as well. I see birds so much better now than I did then, I'd love to see that scene again. There has apparently been a huge amount of development of the area as a resort since my visit, so that setting may be gone now. (An aside to this aside, for great photos of Godwits and a report on birding Akimiski in James Bay, click here.)

(8S) Baltimore Oriole
Beautiful, clear-noted song--I hear this bird regularly and there are a number of breeding pairs in the hamlet and the surrounding area. It's background noise a lot of the time, but every now and then, usually on a quiet, still morning, I am struck anew by the beauty of this bird's song.

(9S) Golden-winged/Brewster's Warbler
I like to hear this song because I like to know that this bird is back in the area beyond the edge of the far field. I've heard it again this year, and got to see the singer, once again a Brewster's, descendant I believe of the Golden-winged warbler of a few years ago, that sang for most of the season, and then hooked up with a female blue-winged warbler.

(10S) Fox Sparrow
A song that astonished me this past spring--beatiful clear warbling notes, I couldn't believe that the singer was a sparrow.

So if I've numbered these correctly, that's ten singers. But what about the majestic sounds of the American Bittern, and what, no vireos on the list? Red-breasted Grosbeak? And what about Purple Finch or Northern Cardinal, the first singers of spring, or red-winged blackbird, the first returning singer of spring? The list is too short....but to continue with the list of most wanted....

(7W) Swallow-tailed Kite
Fantastic looking bird, it's reported every now and then in the region. I'd love to see one.

(8W) White-winged Crossbill
I choose the white-winged because it is the crossbill most likely to be seen here: a rare winter visitor. But any crossbill would do, really, because even more than the varied thrush, this is a fantastical bird to me, one I will have to see to believe. A crossed bill??!! How could such a thing exist?

(9W) Tufted Titmouse
Closer every year, surely I'll get to see this one sometime soon.

(10W) Sandhill Crane
I probably saw one this spring in Prince Edward County, I was persuaded I had, but not well enough, not nearly well enough....

So there it is, two lists of ten, in sixteen species. And then there are all the birds in action I'd like to see that I've never seen. I want to see a singing Magnolia Warbler; a Black-billed Cuckoo carrying food; an American Bittern singing; a Common Loon with chicks on its back; an American Woodcock dancing; Great Horned Owl young walking along branches; and so much more.

I and the Bird #27: The Anniversary Edition

Mike of 10,000 Birds, and founder of I and the Bird is the host of the 27th and first anniversary edition. In honour of the anniversary Mike called for posts from past contributors answering one or all of the questions: Why do you blog? Why do you bird? Why do you blog about birding? The result: an interesting and thoughtful collection reflecting the diversity and similarity among bird bloggers, preceded by Mike's reflections on blogging and the creation of I and the Bird. Check it out.

I and the Bird is the first carnival I participated in (I and the Bird #2 at Charlie's Bird Blog), the one I contribute to most frequently, follow most faithfully, and the only one I've hosted (I and the Bird #10). And it has made my experience as a nature blogger and appreciator of nature blogs so much richer than it could have been otherwise. Thank you, Mike. Happy Anniversary!! And may there be many more.

Year two starts with I and the Bird #28, to be hosted by Bogbumper on July 20 (submissions due by July 18). And if you've been a contributor, but never a host, consider giving it a try: You'll like it! Go to I and the Bird for more information.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

A Beautiful Morning in Thomasburg

It is a beautiful morning in Thomasburg this morning. Not raining, not too hot, not windy. This is the best morning we've had in many days, a perfect morning for a walk. Early in July the birds are still singing, but now many of them are nesting, and many are caring for fledglings and preparing to nest a second (or in the case of some robins a third) time. Through the fields the predominant birds were the sparrows, mainly Chipping Sparrows, and others I couldn't get a fix on. The Field Sparrows were singing too, and an Indigo Bunting sang a soft song from among the leaves low in a tree, unlike his usual blasting from the top of a dead tree. I know where there is a nesting goldfinch in the first field, but I didn't go over. I found that nest the other day by accident. Interesting, it is still a little early for the goldfinches to be sitting on eggs, but then almost everything is early this year.

Further along, as I entered the far field at the north end (the swamp and cedar bush is at the south end, in mosquito season I leave it until last), I picked up a Vesper Sparrow escort. I couldn't tell where the nest was the--poor bird was carrying food, but wouldn't go to its young while I was near. It wasn't until I was past the old apple tree that it could relax and go about its business.

One of the truly great spots for birds

Once the sparrow escort had gone I stopped for a while. I could hear a warbling song, thought probably a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and soon I could see it. The sun behind me shone on the bird, the colour was fantastic. After a few moments an Eastern Towhee started up. This song as been driving me nuts for years. It's clear, it varies very little, has two parts to it; it's a very easily distinguished song, and yet it has refused to stick in my head. I think I've finally got it, and the bird this morning very kindly sang from high in a dead tree, giving me an excellent view. And then the grosbeak joined it. Fantastic sight!

All the while I could hear warbler song from in the shrubbery. I picked out a Black-and-white Warbler, and I think I heard a Yellow Warbler as well. And something else: chestnut-sided? Yes! The singing Chestnut-sided Warbler emerged and spent some time singing from perches on which he was nicely visible, before he continued south on his rounds (that's him in the pictures). A female Rose-breasted Grosbeak came out to take a look at me. A cardinal sang from somewhere back and beyond. A brown thrasher landed briefly in the old apple tree and gave me the evil eye. A catbird called. Chickadees came and went.

Why do I birdwatch? I stood there, in one spot, watching one scruffy bit of edge habitat for about half an hour, totally absorbed in the moment. Everything else falls away, it's just me, and the birds, and the beautiful morning.

Stopped to visit with the Common Yellowthroat on the way home

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Festival of the Trees #1

The inaugural edition of the blog carnival Festival of the Trees is up at Via Negativa. It's a fascinating and eclectic collection of posts, as befits the subject, trees in all their aspects, beautifully presented by host Dave. If you've ever loved a tree, or just pondered one, this is the carnival for you.

To learn more about the carnival, stop by the home page. The next edition, August 1, will be hosted by Pablo at Roundrock Journal.