Sunday, April 30, 2006

My First Warbler

It should have, by all accounts, been a pine warbler or a yellow-rumped (expected return dates April 29 and April 23 respectively--and there have been numerous Ontario reports of both already this season), but this morning I heard my first warbler of the season, a black and white warbler. It was singing in the trees across the street--not suitable nesting habitat for this bird, so maybe just passing through, or maybe he'll find a woodsier spot nearby. (USGS has a pretty good example of a singing black and white here.)

Wildspaces gives May 4 as the return date for this warbler in southern Ontario, so this one is not really terribly early. And it's certainly welcome. I have a special fondness for this bird because it was the first warbler I was able to confirm as a breeder in my Breeding Atlas square. I was walking in the cedar bush in the spring of my first atlassing year when I was startled by a terrible hissing and weaving little black and white bird on the ground coming at me: code DD (defensive display). (Here's a link to the data from 2001, the first year--all of it is mine, I think, except for the confirmed loggerhead shrike. That was reported by a loggerhead shrike recovery guy who happened to be working in my square that year.)

I've been charged by warblers since--mostly golden-winged and Brewster's flying at my head (watch out for these ones--somehow they know when you're precariously balanced on a rock). But I have never again seen as fearsome a display as the one put on by the black and white warbler that day.

Largely thanks to participating in the Breeding Atlas project I've learned an awful lot about birds since 2001. Working on the Atlas focussed my efforts to learn the birds in my area, their habits and songs, in order to collect the breeding evidence specified in the protocol. It gave me structure. The only downside is that it created in me a tendency to ignore birds that were already confirmed breeders. So when I came across a black-and-white warbler in the years following I just briefly acknowledged it and then looked past for birds I "needed." Last year was a little different, I spent more time looking to up the evidence codes for birds I already had--to raise birds from possible or probable to confirmed breeders. As a result I learned quite a bit more about the habits of a number of birds--the common yellowthroat comes to mind. And this year, Atlassing done, I'm free to put what I've learned to work to learn more about the birds that I am fond of--with a little luck I'll get a chance finally to really study the fiesty little black-and-white warbler.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

I and the Bird: The Homebird Edition

I and the Bird 22 is up, a beautiful and thoughtful presentation of the best of recent bird and birder blogging, at Home Bird Notes. Check it out.

The next edition of I & the Bird will appear on May 11, hosted by BirdDC. Submission due by May 9--go to I and the Bird Central for more information.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Bunny Gone Wild

A few weeks ago I stepped outside early in the morning to see a giant caramel-coloured bunny underneath the bird feeders. I thought I was seeing things. It galumphed away.

Next morning I saw a cottontail under the feeders, as I had so many mornings through the winter. So all was right with the world--whatever that monster bunny was, it had turned back into a cottontail.

Then yesterday evening I was walking down towards the cedar bush, when I heard some kind of cafuffle, and saw branches of a small pine being shoved. A deer brushing past? A bear feeding back there? As I got closer a cottontail rabbit took off and raced into the bush, then stopped. Maybe there was a nest by the pine....then the caramel giant came into view, following the cottontail.

In among the raspberry canes.

Some kind of altercation? Or, could it be extra-specific love? The caramel bunny was 3 or 4 times the size of the cottontail, either possiblity was somewhat disturbing.

Domestic rabbits go walkabout around here now and then, but they usually hang around yards, and then not for long before they disappear. I guess that's what this critter is--but such an odd-looking sight in the bush, and clearly a survivor to have lasted even this long.

Altogether a rather odd-looking rabbit.

I interrupted whatever was going on pretty thoroughly. The cottontail took off, and the caramel bunny started back the other way again, ambling slowly, aware of me, but not terribly alarmed, snacking, moving on, snacking again.

Ambling, snacking, ignoring me, casual like

Walking along the ATV trail, before the bunny event, I saw an enormous coyote scat composed entirely of hair, suggesting an animal working the fields that would happily take on a giant galumphing caramel bunny.

Big scat, big coyote?

Thursday, April 20, 2006

That bug is a western conifer seed bug

Yes, I have the answer. Thanks to those who commented on my post What's that Bug? for their guidance, and especially to the experts at the website What's that Bug? (WTB) for their prompt reply to my query.

Western Conifer Seed Bug

Interestingly, the western conifer seed bug (Leptoglossus occidentalis), is, according to this site (which refers to the bug as the pine seed bug), often misidentified as an assassin bug or a stink bug. Especially interesting because one of the links that homebird found and kindly left in the comments was to a page that shows a picture of the seed bug, and indentifies it as stink bug. Further investigation of this site reveals that there is also a page dedicated to the western conifer seed bug, with a different picture of what sure looks like the same bug. (I've sent them an e-mail about this.)

The University of Guelph Pest Diagnostic site has a page about this bug as well, one that goes into more detail about what a western bug is doing in eastern Ontario, and about the bug's structure:
Leptoglossus occidentalis is a member of the family Coreidae, the leaf-footed bugs. As such, it has the characteristic swellings of the hind tibia.
This feature of the legs is clear in all the photos, mine, and those on the linked sites. The feature is absent from the collection of stink bugs at the other page homebird found for me.

Still, I'm amazed when an individual bug species is identified at all--there are so many, and the appearance of different members of the same family can differ so radically, in both their adult and earlier forms. I can't wait to see what turns up in the house next!!

Submitted to Friday Ark #83. Go see who's on board this week.

Spring flowers--the saga continues

Sure, daffodils are well started, and northern forsythia are making a great show in gardens in Thomasburg today.

A number of species of tree are in bloom now.

Manitoba maple flowers

But there are also a couple of firsts. Most exciting is that the apricot that was planted several years ago, and has grown to a magnificent height, is blooming this year for the first time!

Apricot bud!!

And the fritillaria that I was worried had come up too soon looks well on its way to blooming before we see frost again. (It's possible that there will be no more frost--but unlikely. We are assured that there will be none in the next several days.)I planted this bulb in the fall of 2004, no blooms last year, and I forget what the flower is supposed to look like. Barring some terrible unforseen event--I should know very soon!

Fritillaria ready to burst!

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

What's that bug?

Discovered peeking out from under the closed lid of the toilet:

Pretty pattern on the back.

I decided I could wait to use the facilities until after I'd snapped a pic and moved the critter outside. I don't know what it is, and don't know how to begin to find out. It climbed onto my hand fairly willingly for a ride to the great outdoors--where it sat on the doormat until I came out again and moved it to the garden.

I have a feeling it might be some species of assassin bug--but that might be entirely wrong. I'll ask the folks at What's that bug?, if I can't find it on their site, and report.

House Wrens

The nesting boxes finally got taken down and cleaned out for this year's occupants on the weekend. In one that had been used by house wrens (Troglodytes aedon) last I pulled out the nest and found this:

At the beginning of the season (just a few weeks off now) male house wrens find suitable territory and start filling potential nesting cavities (including bluebird houses) with twigs. Between this and singing their hearts out they attract females who inspect the sites, and if he's lucky, picks one, cleans it up (removing some or all of the twigs if necessary) and builds a nest. Here's a picture of the nesting box in use last summer (from the post: And Changed Again).

The house in situ July 2005--note the twigs sticking out.

If he's luckier still two of his potential nest sites will be chosen by two different females. I don't know if this has happened in the yard--there are usually three nests around, two in boxes and one in the scrub at back property line--and two nestings in at least of these locations, so there's too much wren action going on all season for me to figure out how many males are involved.

The nest is deep in the cavity at the back, fronted by a wall of sticks that blocks the opening, leaving just enough space for a wren to slip through. When you open up the box you see is a mass of twigs. Pull it out, and there's a fairly conventional little nest of pine needles, grasses, feathers, bits of shattered plastic tarp (the blue bits in the photo), and other fine nesting materials, behind it.

Normal clutch size is five to eight eggs. This nest may have been abandoned before the wren had finished laying eggs. I broke one open and found no sign of embryo development, just a dried scum, so it was likely abandoned soon after these eggs were laid. Why? I don't know. I remember noticing activity at this house start up and stop rather suddenly towards the end of the season last year. Something wrong with the house or location maybe? The tree lost its leaves early, in preparation for dying or because it had died (an elm--due to Dutch elm disease they live a short life but a merry one--young elms spring up everywhere). Or perhaps the female wren came to grief.

Not a flattering photo of my hand, but it gives an idea of the size of the eggs.

Birds by Bent has an excellent chapter about the house wren. Cornell claims to have an audio file of its song here, but I couldn't access it for some reason. Project Wildspace has a recording of the song here.

I'm looking forward to the return of the house wrens to the yard, but by the end of the summer I'll be a little tired of their scolding. For a bird that seems perfectly content to nest among us humans, it never seems happy to actually see us!

Friday, April 14, 2006

Cup O' Birds

I and the Bird #21 is up at Cup O' Books. Not only is this an excellent collection of bird and birding posts, thoughtfully presented, but it is framed by a great collection of books, directly and tangentially related to the birding posts. Check it out.

For more information about the carnival go to the home of I and the Bird. Next I & The Bird to appear on April 27 at Home Bird Notes. Send submissions to homebird AT homebirdnotes DOT com by April 25.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

A Wall Spider

Over at Burning Silo I read a very interesting post, spider eyes, yesterday about identifying spider families byt the number and arrangement of the eyes. From it, and with author Bev's help, I learned that the tiny spider whose photograph appeared here back in November is a jumping spider. Today, another spider came by to visit me at my computer.

To give some idea of the size, the loop at the bottom of the spider is part of a decorative border on a piece of paper tacked to the wall, and is an eighth of an inch long. With my naked eyes I couldn't see the markings that show up in the photo--the spider looked black, and even more horizontal than it does here. In life the spider also had much more presence than the background--this photograph, unfortunately, is more democratic.

I can't make out the eyes--and didn't see them when the actual spider was here--but the general shape reminds me a little of the flower crab spider in the Burning Silo post--so maybe it's a member of that family.

There are three types of spiders I see in the house now and then: this one, the jumping spider, and the big wolf spider. Then there is a very wispy spider, called, I believe, the house spider, that is a ubiquitous and constant resident. That one has so far proved very difficult to photograph.

Too many spiders? Some might say so, I guess.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Who's Eating the Skunk Cabbage in the Stoco Fen?

I went back to the Fen yesterday morning to see how the skunk cabbage are progressing. Many more are up, and more have opened, but very little progress in the leafing out. Perhaps because the week was cool (continues today, overnight temps well below freezing, daytime highs in the single digits (above 0C).

What was most interesting though was the devastation to some of the plants.
When I first noticed a clump of broken up spathes (outer covering, protecting the flowers) I thought that someone must have stepped on them. A closer look, a little thought, I saw that not only had some of the spathes been broken, but the pieces had, in some cases, been tossed aside. A vandal with a stick? Strange recreation--strange place for it.

Then I noticed that the flowers and spadix of some plants had been eaten--in one case, down to the stalk. No nibbles on the spathes that I could see, they were without exception broken or torn.

Who would do this? A little research revealed not too much. Bears will eat these plants, it is said, but most often it is reported that they dig them up and eat the roots. Deer too will eat them--but this was not the work of deer. Didn't look like the style of a bear either, even if bears also eat the spadix and flowers. I would expect much less delicate damage from either bears or deer. I would also expect a track or two from either, even in these not good tracking conditions.

On who else might eat these plants, only some vague references to birds and furry critters.

I suspect that it must have been either raccoons or skunks. Something, at any rate, with paws that could get hold of the edges of the spathe and give it a rip. The smell of the plant, kind of skunky I thought, has also been compared to the smell of rotting meat, evolved to attract flies. But skunks and racoons might well be attracted by this smell as well. Canids (coyotes, foxes) too, but again, the method of harvest look wrong, as did the nibbles on the spadix.

A mystery. A guess. Please leave a comment if you know anything about this, or have a guess of your own about the perpetrators.

Friday, April 07, 2006


Ever since my visit to the Stoco Fen last week I've been thinking about water. I was surprised at how low the water was there, as I remarked in the post Skunk Cabbage in the Stoco Fen, and I later realized that this feeling was mainly due to the fact that the Moira River is so high. Why? I was imagining all kinds of complex explanations, and thinking about who I should contact for information, when a neighbour pointed out that while we had very little snow this winter areas north of us had more than usual. So melting snow has raised the level in the Moira while not affecting the Fen. Out in the cedar bush this morning I noted that the swamp was drier than usual for this time of year as well.

While the stream still runs through, normally the rest of this area would be underwater at this time of year.

A good wet spring would probably restore near normal conditions, it is just the first week of April after all. But sometimes spring rains don't come--could be a tough season ahead.

It felt strange to be able to walk across here as if it were the dead of winter or the height of summer. Normally in the spring the stream covers this whole expanse.

Nevertheless, the marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) are up. Flowers soon.

Spam Waves

I liked the idea of having an email link on the blog. So convenient for readers who want to drop me a line.

From the moment I put it up the spam started to roll in. First it was paypal phishes with a little ebay mixed in. This went on for weeks. I sent some of these to paypal so they could track down and perhaps shut down some of the thieves working under their name--but there were too many to report them all. Then the paypal ads stopped coming and were replaced by phony Chase bank messages--more and more every day, until this week. Now it's porn ads--and I find it just too depressing and too tedious to see those ugly and badly spelled subject lines every day. So the link has been replaced by text, and maybe that will dry up the flood. If not, then I guess it's change the email address.

But I'm curious. Why the different waves? Is it the same senders trying out different stuff until they hit on something I'll click on? Or is it more mindless, just a regular rotation of spam campaigns?


Thanks to a suggestion from John of A DC Birding Blog (see comments) the email link is back, now hidden from "spiders" I hope.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The First Week of April

A quick look at the weather journal reveals that there has been snow, accumulations of snow, snow on the ground, sometime in the first week of April every year from 2000 (when this particular record begins) to the present. This morning, 7 centimetres of clean white wet snow!

Pretty really

The scilla will survive it.

By the end of the day it was all gone.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Night Visitor

The evidence.

Perhaps this evening visitor of the week before returned.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Skunk Cabbage in the Stoco Fen

Bill Newman (who has kindly allowed me to use his photographs here and here) got a message to me a few days ago, letting me know that the skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) in the Stoco Fen are blooming. Saturday was rainy, but Sunday dawned sunny and only a little cool. So late Sunday morning I went up to take a look. Last spring water ran over the road from the fen in many spots. It's much drier this year--because it spent so much of the winter wet instead of frozen? Too little snow? I don't know, but it was odd to see it so dry.

The colours vary from this rich, dark red to a rather pale yellow, with varying degrees of streakiness in between.

The access to the fen is a road that cuts across one corner, through bog, woods, and cedar bush. I drive through it now and then, but in other years I've only spent time there later in the season, to see the lady's slipper orchids (pink (Cypripedium acaule) and yellow (Cypripedium calceolus)) and the pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea) that grow along the edge of the road.

This was the only one I saw with leaves starting. Later the giant leaves of these plant will cover the sand and gravel washed off the road that covers this area.

The skunk cabbage gets its name from its skunky odour. I could smell it from the few flowers that were open--the leaves, when they come, will exude it too if bruised.

The little knobby things inside are the flowers.

The outer shell is called the spathe, round ball inside the spadix, on which the flowers are found. Apparently the smell is attractive--the first bee I've seen this spring was buzzing in and out of the spathe pictured above. I use the term "bee" loosely. It was too fat to make me think "wasp," was not a honey or bumble bee, and after seeing some of Bev's pictures of fantastic mimics of Hymenoptera at Burning Silo I'm unwilling to say for sure that it wasn't a fly.

Fleshy, solid and sometimes shiny.
It might be hard to guess what this was without the context.

The Stoco Fen is a wonderful place, not just for the orchids and the skunk cabbage, but also for birds and mammals (and deer flies in summer). Sunday was pretty quiet, but I was treated to a lovely common raven conversation. This year I'll try to get back for more spring visits, and monitor developments: floral, faunal, and hydrologic.

A number of other bloggers have taken note of the arrival of the skunk cabbage: Five Wells, Endment, Ontario Wanderer, and Woodland Spring. Woodland Spring has a number of other skunk cabbage posts besides the one I've linked, and other spring flowers as well.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

What was that?!!?

I stepped outside this morning, and there among the singers, twitterers and cheepers around the yard, I heard a clear warbling song from the treetops at the back. Orchard oriole? No, too early, not very likely at any time, and anyway, I don't know.....I tried to get the bird in sight but no luck.

A little while later I was back outside, and there it was again. This time I had binoculars at the ready, and finally located the singer. Rufous tail......I moved until I could see a profile. A sparrow!!? It didn't sound like any sparrow I knew--the notes were clear and sweet, round tones, a melodic repeated phrase. But for looks, this was a fox sparrow.

I mentioned hoping to see a fox sparrow in an earlier post this season. I often see one during the migration periods, scratching in the leaf litter at the edge of the far field. Fox sparrows nest far north of here--in Ontario the closest spot is the southern tip of James Bay. I never thought I'd hear one singing here. But according to Theodore Clarke Smith (writing in 1903) it is not uncommon for them to sing a little in the fall. So why not the spring?

I was also surprised to see one in the yard. This is a bird of the woods, and that's usually where I see it--scratching in the underbrush, at the edge of the far field.

After I'd watched the bird sing for a moment or two another, of similar size and shape, joined it in the treetop, and they flew off together, in the direction of the cedar bush and the woods beyond. Could this have been a pair? I don't know that the other bird was a fox sparrow, but what an interesting, unexpected way to start the day.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

How the Garden Grows

At the end of March more of the spring bulbs on the south side of the house are blooming every day.

More crocuses!


I think the seedlings around this scilla are baby scilla. If so, and all goes well, there should be quite a mass of these flowers next year.


There are two fritillaria in the bed. Last year they formed buds but neither bloomed, I think because the buds are not frost tolerant, and formed well before the last night of frost (usually sometime in May). This year I'll try to protect them in a timely fashion, but in the fall I'll probably move them to a bed that stays frozen longer than this one does.