Exploring my little piece of the planet

Posts tagged “nature

Chipping Sparrow

Spizella passerina

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The little Chipping Sparrow is just another common LBJ (Little Brown Job) that we hear all the time and often see flitting around the ground and shrubs but can’t distinguish from all the other LBJs doing more or less the same thing. Although passerine just means “little sparrow” and spizella simply identifies it with a few other little sparrows, it is distinctive once you take a closer look. It’s named for the sharp chip it sends out to let its mate know where it is (its call). Its song can also be described as a series of super-fast chips but a rattle, or single-noted trill is more precise.

Those in the know claim that males who have staked territories near one another impressively develop their one repeated note into individual songs. The Chipping Sparrow’s song sounds a lot like that of a Dark-eyed Junco, but the sparrow’s note is repeated more quickly and is less metallic-sounding. A third sound this bird makes is an extended seep, warning of a nearby hawk or other predator.

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The Chipping Sparrow shouldn’t really even qualify as an LBJ since once it turns around, or you can see it from below, its smooth, pale grey breast, along with the dramatic black eye-line accented by a white eyebrow are giveaways. Its orangey-pink legs and feet are also characteristic. Migration takes this bird from far north of here in the Canadian sub-arctic all the way south as far as Nicaragua in the winter, where its bright rufus cap fades a bit and as if taking a tan, its breast and belly become a little darker. Fairly solitary during the breeding season, afterwards these birds form loose groups intriguingly known as a tournament.

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Males are quite territorial and will guard their lifetime mate as she builds her flimsy nest and incubates the eggs. Although light can be seen through the loose weave, she indulges her future nestlings with a soft lining of hair or fur. Chipping Sparrows were once known as “Hair Birds” for this reason. Although quite adaptable when it comes to the location for her nest, she prefers conifers (wild or ornamental) and usually builds among thick foliage at the ends of branches not more than 10′ from the ground. Like many other birds, the female develops a fluid-filled bare patch on her abdomen during breeding season that helps to keep her eggs warm during incubation.

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Seeds and small insects form most of the Chipping Sparrows diet. It will readily visit backyard feeders where it pays for its dinner by picking off some of the mosquitoes and flies.

In 1929, Edward Forbush called the Chipping Sparrow “the little brown-capped pensioner of the dooryard and lawn, that comes about farmhouse doors to glean crumbs shaken from the tablecloth by thrifty housewives.” Source

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Sources:

All About Birds
What Bird
iBird (iPhone app)
My nature books


Northern Shoveler

Also known as Spoonbill
Anas clypeata

Northern Shoveler

A Male Northern Shoveler in morning light

The first pictures this year of the Northern Shovelers on the marsh near my work were taken on May 21. Two pair, or at least 2 males and 2 females floated, paddled and mostly put their heads down like a snow-plow’s bucket and skimmed the water beneath the surface for nourishment.

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Two pair of Northern Shovelers and a pair of Green-Winged Teal on the marsh, late May

As dabblers, Northern Shovelers feed on any little animal or vegetative matter they find in shallow water and prefer marshes like the small wetland I visit most days. Their enormous, spoon-like bill and comb-like projections on the tongue give them the advantage of being able to strain small invertebrates from the mud at the pond’s bottom. The scientific species name clypeata means ‘furnished with a shield’ referring to this duck’s unique bill.

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A pair of Northern Shovelers dabbling in the marsh in early June

At first it wasn’t obvious that these ducks are monogamous. The four of them seemed quite content to dabble together, but within days it was clear that my little marsh might not be large enough for them all as at least one male would spring from the water towards the other whenever he came too close to his mate. Rising in a rush like a spring, he cut a low, direct path to the intruder, briefly scolding him, “took, took, took”, in his restrained but obviously effective way. Then circling to return and skim the water, with one strong wing stroke he would come to a skidding stop close to his mate. It was comical to see how quickly he would return to feeding as it was all in a day’s work.

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Returning from a short flight to warn away another male, a Northern Shoveler skids to a stop with his powerful wings.

Other ducks and even the resident muskrat don’t give him a moment’s pause. I often saw the Shovelers sleeping or preening on a raised mound of muskrat-mud with the much smaller green-winged teal, or sometimes a blue-winged teal close at hand.

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Unconcerned, a male Northern Shoveler preens himself while a much smaller male Green-Winged Teal swims near his mate.

Floating, sitting or standing – bright orange legs and feet displayed – the female seemed to be always either feeding or sleeping. The male, in contrast, appears to spend the majority of his time preening himself. Perhaps that’s how he entertains himself while keeping watch.

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While his mate sleeps with her head tucked up in her wing, a male Northern Shoveler preens himself.

Almost as large as the Mallard, with a wing span of nearly a metre and a similarly coloured, iridescent green head and neck, the fairly common Northern Shoveler is often at first confused with this ubiquitous duck.

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The morning light shows the iridescent green head and chestnut-coloured sides of the Northern Shoveler, reminiscent of the Mallard. However identification can be clarified by the massive bill, yellow eyes and white chest.

A closer look will end the confusion. As the marsh vegetation grows, it becomes more and more difficult to see the residents but the male Northern Shoveler often stands out with its yellow eyes, bright white breast and belly, and rufous chestnut sides, a fleeting sparkle in the reeds.

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A ‘channel’ through the marsh reveals the eye-shaped identifying pattern of the male Northern Shoveler.

The female in contrast, as most female ducks do, blends in well with the vegetation and its reflection in the water with the dappled-looking chevron pattern of her back and wing feathers. I look for her huge yellow-orange rimmed bill shining in the sunlight. The Northern Shoveler’s profile is the give-away.

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A cloudy sky deadens reflections that normally help camouflage the unique silhouette of the Northern Shoveler as she rests on a clump of mud and grass.

Now I believe they are nesting. The marsh is quiet. The female should be sitting on eggs in a nest hidden in the thickest vegetation, purportedly away from the water. It’s getting more and more difficult to discern whether there are still two pair in residence. If there are, they are staying well clear of each other as I only occasionally see a lone male to reassure me that they’re still around.

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An aggressive defender of his mate and territory while breeding, the male Northern Shoveler often abandons the family during incubation.

I’m very curious to find their nest since the little wetland is bordered by a thin strip of conifer forest rising right into town. Northern Shovelers are said to nest 75-200 feet from water. If that’s the case, although I am a poor judge of distance, I’d say they’re into the well-worn forest very close to industrial on one side (including an oil well) and residential lots on the other.

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Northern Shovelers are monogamous, often returning to the same breeding and nesting areas between their long migrations as far as the west coast of Mexico.

For more information on the Northern Shoveler:

What Bird
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology (Scroll a bit for sounds)
Boreal Songbird Initiative
Birds of Alberta (With interesting feather chart)

For some great pictures of the Northern Shoveler:

Rob McKay Photography
Flickr


Twinflower

or Linnaea, Deer Vine, Ground Vine, Twin Sisters
Linnaea borealis

Delicate and diminutive, this distinctive member of the honeysuckle family grows with the moss among lingonberry and bunchberry. It spreads along the forest floor on lacy vines, sending up clonal shoots at intervals.The Dena’ina name for this sweetly fragrant plant is “k’ela tl’lia” or “mouse’s rope”,  a fitting description of the meandering vines depicted well on this page.

This charming plant is circumpolar, but is distinguished by continent. It is interesting and perhaps a warning for other varieties that the subspecies borealis growing in Scotland is threatened by its increasing inability to reproduce due to the fragmentation of its ecosystem. (Read more here.) It is listed as threatened, endangered or extirpated through much of the United States. (link)

Twinflower was the favourite plant of Carlolus Linnaeus, who established the two-name (binomial) system of classification for plants. It was his teacher who officially named the genus, (whose only species member is the twinflower), after Linnaeus and when the latter scientist adopted it as his personal emblem, he said of it, “Linnaea was named by the celebrated Gronovius and is a plant of Lapland, lowly, insignificant, disregarded, flowering but for a brief time—from Linnaeus, who resembles it” (Wikipedia)

Blooming in the early to mid-summer, the elegant twinflower was used by First Nations people for a calming and healing tea. It likes partly shaded areas where the moss is moist and the shed evergreen needles acidify the humus somewhat.

He saw beneath dim aisles, in odorous beds,
The slight Linnaea hang its twin-born heads,
And blessed the monument of the man of flowers,
Which breathes his sweet fame through the northern bowers.

from Woodnotes I, by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Other resources:

Plants of the Western Boreal Forest & Aspen Parkland by Derek Johnson et al. Lone Pine, Alberta 1995
Wildflowers of Alberta by R.G.H. Cormack. Hurtig, Alberta 1977
Common Plants of the Western Rangelands: Volume 3 – Forbs
by Kathy Tannas. Olds College, Alberta 2004
Wildflowers of the Canadian Rockies
by George & Hälle Flygare. Hurtig, Alberta 1986

Alberta Plant Watch
Native Plant Database


Yellow Marsh Marigold

or Marsh Marigold, Kingcup
Caltha palustris

While so many of our spring flowers are miniscule, the Marsh Marigold is a delight to discover in an open area by a sluggish stream. The plant itself is brilliant and showy with its large waxy leaves. Many a bowl of reassuring freshness has adorned spring tables through freezing nights and late snows.

It’s so scrumptious looking that you might be tempted to take a bite…but don’t! This entire plant is poisonous. It is toxic to the heart and can cause inflammation of the digestive organs. Handling the leaves can cause the skin to blister. The poison is volatile however and dried or cooked it is rendered harmless.

The spring blossoms of the marsh marigold have long been appreciated for their early colour.  Like earthbound sunshine, patches of brilliant yellow set among shining green rise from brown and crumpled grasses in boggy roadside ditches and fens in early to mid June, as if beckoning returning waterfowl to potential, if not ideal nesting sites.

A polymorphic species, it occurs throughout the northern hemisphere in varied forms and goes by many names, most of which celebrate its welcome as a beautiful harbinger of spring. ‘Marigold’, used now over much of the modern english-speaking world, originated with Anglo-saxon celebrants of Easter, who gave the name to honour the Christian St. Mary.

By the end of July the waxy blossoms have done their work and the stellate seed clusters adorn the softened, but still handsome mound of leaves.

Depending on the source, the genus name ‘Caltha’ may refer to the colour or to the cup shape of the opening blossoms. Its species name, ‘palustris’, meaning ‘of the marsh’, clearly describes its habitat.

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Other Resources:

Plants of the Western Boreal Forest & Aspen Parkland by Derek Johnson et al. Lone Pine, Alberta 1995
Wildflowers of Alberta by R.G.H. Cormack. Hurtig, Alberta 1977
Common Plants of the Western Rangelands: Volume 3 – Forbs
by Kathy Tannas. Olds College, Alberta 2004

Caltha palustris on Wikipedia
Flora of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago


One-Flowered Wintergreen

or Single Delight, Woodnymph, Shy Maiden, St. Olaf’s Candlestick, Waxflower
Moneses uniflora
(previously called Pyrola uniflora)

Until I began to research this sweet jewel, I did not know that one of its common names is ‘woodnymph’. How fitting, as like tiny waxen lanterns under the evergreens, the one-flowered wintergreen shine with soft luminescence. It is not difficult to imagine them dancing capriciously through the deep mosses when not observed by lesser mortals.

Another of its common names speaks to its habit of keeping its head bowed until mature. The shy maiden hides its beautiful face, providing shelter for visiting bees whose wings collect and deposit pollen in a process known as buzz-pollination.

After fertilization, the scapose (leafless) stem straightens, the petals fall off and the crowned fruit begins to form.

Like many native species, the one-flowered wintergreen depends on particular fungus occurring in the moist, humus-rich forest floor just as the pine and spruce provide required shade. Although it is globally abundant throughout boreal habitats, collection and forest harvest have caused its decline in some regions. It is reputed to be edible, high in Vitamin C and effective in the treatment of some skin problems. In recent years it was discovered to contain a new antibiotic.

Although the one-flowered wintergreen was originally grouped with others in the wintergreen family, it was distinguished in 1843 by Thomas Nutall to Moneses, a monotypic species. “Asa Gray gave it its present name in 1848.  “Moneses” is a combination of the Greek “monos” (“one”) and “hesis” (“delight”).” (1) “Uniflora” refers to its lone blossom.

And delightful it is. Recline on the mossy bed. Lay your head next to this shy maiden to gaze into the surprisingly compelling face of intricate beauty. Then close your eyes and inhale the delicate perfume. You too may become enchanted.

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Other Resources:

Plants of the Western Boreal Forest & Aspen Parkland by Derek Johnson et al. Lone Pine, Alberta 1995
Wildflowers of Alberta by R.G.H. Cormack. Hurtig, Alberta 1977
Common Plants of the Western Rangelands: Volume 3 – Forbs
by Kathy Tannas. Olds College, Alberta 2004

CYSIP (Central Yukon Species Inventory Project)
U.S. Forest Service
The Plant Network
Colorado Native Plant Society


Cow Parsnip

or Common Hogweed
Heracleum lanatum (
also H. maximum, H. sphondylium)


According to Botanary, this genus of the carrot family was named for Hercules, who was supposed to have used it first for medicine.

This odoriferous species is indeed a plant of muscle:  important and commanding as probably the largest perennial in our forest.

It grows in rich moist soil in broad and small forest clearings, rising up to almost two metres by July.

Its huge, 30 cm. compound hairy (lanatus) leaves and equally large flower heads provide landing plantforms and important sustinence for a wide range of insects and birds.

In contradiction to its name and in spite its nutritious foliage, Cow Parsnip is often shunned by cattle and can apparently have a souring effect on their milk when they do eat it. Bears have apparently been known to browse on the flower heads in the spring and in the fall the winged, sunflower-like seeds are popular with birds. After the frost, deer, elk, bears and marmots will eat the stems and leaves.

Roots, young leaf stalks and marrow from the hollow stem were used as food, for rituals, as a yellow dye and medicinally by the North American First Nations and early Europeans although care was  taken as sensitive skin can be affected a phototoxin contained in the roots and outer skin.

If you are going to handle Cow Parsnip for any reason it is important that you do not confuse it with other plants of the carrot family that are quite poisonous. Gavan P.L. Watson from Ontario has a good description of the differences here.

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Other Resources:

Plants of the Western Boreal Forest & Aspen Parkland by Derek Johnson et al. Lone Pine, Alberta 1995
Wildflowers of Alberta by R.G.H. Cormack. Hurtig, Alberta 1977
Common Plants of the Western Rangelands: Volume 3 – Forbs
by Kathy Tannas. Olds College, Alberta 2004
All News in One
Montana Plant Life
Wild Food Girl


Strawberryleaf Raspberry

Rubus pedatus
~ also called Strawberry Bramble, 5-Leaved Bramble and Creeping Raspberry

I’m the kind of person that can have an engaging conversation with you and not be able to tell somebody later what you were wearing, so it was especially exciting for me when I noticed this little plant in a small deep-moss  clearing. It’s not so much that I’d never seen it before, it’s that I’d never really seen it!

Perhaps I had never seen it in bloom and may have mistaken its foliage for that of one of its cousins, the Dwarf Raspberry. In bloom I might have assumed that it was another relative, the Wild Strawberry. It’s very tiny.

A closer look reveals that this flower is quite different from a strawberry’s. The petals are more elongated and the centre was different. It had three very distinct superior ovaries with styles that turn pink along with the base of the petals and sepals as the flower matures.

The sepals are drooping at first, as you can see in the top picture and then in more mature blooms raised level below the petals. As the petals fall off it seems they continue to rise to enclose the fruit.

Single leaf and flower stalk emerge separately from the moss, about 5-7 centimetres high.

The leaves were different as well. At first I thought it had five leaflets on its palmately divided leaf, but the side leaflets are just so deeply cleft that there are actually only three.

Apparently the number of ovaries can vary as the fruit can have from 1-6 drupelets.

I had a really hard time identifying this plant. I couldn’t find it in any of my books, or through Internet searching so I posted it to a couple of groups on Flickr that help with this kind of thing. The following day I was very grateful to receive a positive ID from Tiggrx. I later found it in Wildflowers of Alberta by R.G.H. Cormack (Hurtig 1977) as a note within the description for the Dewberry.

There are literally hundreds of plants in the Rubus genus, which it is believed has survived for some 36,000 years and exists on all continents except Antarctica. This little treasure is just another little sibling in the family and I don’t know how long I’ve been rudely ignoring it. It is a beauty. It fully deserves the risk of getting a little damp as you lay down in the soft deep moss to spend some time getting to know it better.

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Resources:

Turner Photographics
E-Flora BC
USDA Plants Database

Many thanks to Tiggrx for identifying this plant for me.


Canada Lynx

Lynx canadensis

An attempt to cross the highway with its prey was thwarted as we pulled over to take in the rare sight.

“The lynx is named after the luminescence of its eyes which have expanding irises and reflectors that enable them to hunt effectively at night when they are most active.” So says the authors of this site, which also claims, The lynx is used to symbolize the sense of sight or vision and were credited with the particular ability to be able to see through material things as though these objects were translucent”

An Internet search on the word ‘lynx’ returns nearly 42 million hits. The animal appears to be (justly) idolized. It is everywhere a popular choice for commercial and website names. Lynx appears in Greek myths and even early astronomers admired this predator.

The name Lynx never stood for the animal itself. Hevelius, who invented the constellation, said anyone who wanted to study the stars here should have eyes like a lynx.  (Source)

In all the many myths and lore around the lynx, its exceptional vision appears to be its most revered characteristic. One who has the good fortune to have the solitary lynx ‘walk beside’ as their spiritual totem will “…have an uncanny ability to recognize the fears, secrets, agenda and feelings of guilt or remorse that are all but invisible to most other souls.” (Source) As a silent watcher and listener, Lynx will this keep knowledge close and not share it, unless specifically asked.

It is by watching with its keen night vision and by listening with its oversized ears, that the lynx finds and stalks its primary prey, the Snowshoe Hare. Silently padding on its huge, thickly furred feet or waiting in hiding, the lynx will suddenly spring: its long, powerful hind legs carrying its metre-long, 30-pound body a distance of over 6 metres with one bound.

A pronounced facial ruff, very long ear tufts and stubby tail tipped with black identify this as a lynx

Lynx may be hunted by wolves, cougars and coyotes, which also compete with it for food. The lynx, though, has a distinct advantage over its predator enemies in its huge, furred and splayed feet, which ‘float’ over deep snow, taking it into hare habitat much more quickly and efficiently.

Click here for an amazing image of a Canada Lynx in the Yukon by Keith Williams.

Lynx will hunt squirrels and other rodents, birds, especially grouse and even occasionally a young or injured ungulate, but snowshoe hares make up 75% of its diet. Indeed, there is a direct correlation between the 10-year cycle of abundance and decline in hare populations, and numbers and range of lynx.

“The lynx looks as if it is all legs and feet, the feline equivalent of those jacked-up muscle trucks whose huge tires make the vehicle body look puny. Big tires on a four-wheel-drive truck spread the vehicle’s weight over a large area, enabling it to travel over swampy terrain and muskeg where normal vehicles would bog down.” (from Predators: Wild Dogs & Cats by Kevin van Tighem)

Where the hare goes, so will the lynx. Anything that affects the loss of hare habitat (Please see my article on the Snowshoe Hare) will directly influence lynx success as well. Depending almost solely on the population densities of hare, the territorial lynx requires an individual range of 15 – 47 square kilometres (source). It is thought that female lynx may require old-growth forest to shelter and hide her young.

Trapping can also be a threat. In the early days of Canada’s fur trade, the lynx or le pichu (from the Cree peshewa), was nearly wiped out. Numbers hit serious lows again in the mid 1900’s when pelt prices reached $1000. Even though restrictions and quotas have since been implemented to ensure the species’ survival, lynx have been extirpated from the southern-most reaches of their range in the United States. In the region where I live in Alberta, where lynx are caught by leg-hold or kill traps, 6-9 animals (worth about $116 each) can be ‘harvested’ by each registered trapper. Alberta’s Sustainable Resource Development department bases the quotas on estimates taken every five years.

It is March and the lynx will be mating. Judging by the number of tracks I have been seeing, it seems to be a good year and possibly a peak year for hares, so a predictably good year for kitten survival once the average of four are born after a two month gestation. About a decade ago I had the pleasure of watching three lynx kittens playing under a shrub by the side of the road. I will likely have only this memory to help me imagine the progeny of this season’s illusive lynx, just as my likelihood of taking better pictures of this magical creature are slim.

I think this is a lynx track, found in highly populated hare territory
Lynx scat – again, unconfirmed, but about the right size and full of white fur

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Resources:



Snowshoe Hare

Lepus americanus

Usually nocturnal, this Snowshoe Hare seems to have ‘come out’ early to investigate a mysterious scrape by the side of a seldom used gravel road.

Perhaps fittingly as a symbol of dawn, I have not had the pleasure of seeing this nocturnal survivalist in the wintertime apart from the occasional ghostly-white flash of a home-going Snowshoe Hare crossing my path just before the sun has properly risen. For some reason it seems to be active more during the day in the summer, although seeing one is still a rare treat.  In winter though, it is hard to miss evidence of this critter’s busy night-life.

Snowshoe hares travel on well-defined paths, winter and summer.

Its distinctive forked tracks run all over the forest at the edge of town where I take my walks at lunch time. Concentrating in a few specific areas of dense willows and alders with connecting trails between each patch, the night-time activities of this huge-footed grazer are exposed on the surface of the snow.

Statistics collected since the early days of the Hudson’s Bay Company fur trade in Canada, show that the population density of Snowshoe Hares rise and fall on a ten-year cycle. “The boreal forest is one of the great ecosystems of the earth, and the 10-year snowshoe hare cycle is one of the most striking features of this ecosystem.” (Krebs) In fact, the hare may be considered a keystone species, accounting for many creation myths around the world that feature this inobtrusive animal. In my little patch of the woods there appears to be a thriving population this year. Frequent snowfalls have shown regular and considerable nightly activity.

In summer the Snowshoe Hare will eat quantities (nearly the eqivalent of their own weight) of grasses, forbs and shrubs. Masterfully adapted to areas with deep winter snow, hares survive on the young twigs, bark and buds of deciduous and coniferous shrubs and trees during this long season. Like most herbivores, hares will not turn down a boost of protein from carrion when available, even to cannabalizing the frozen carcasses of their own kind.

Tracks give away a cozy hide-away (known as a ‘form’) under a fallen tree.

Triggered by the change in length of day and without consideration for the presence or absence of snow, the coat of the Snowshoe Hare begins to turn white in the middle of October. Some years there is no significant snowfall until mid-December so, loosing its usual camoflage, the hare is then extra vulnerable.

The Snowshoe Hare is hunted by nearly all predators but only the Canada Lynx equals the hare’s ability to float across the snow with large, splayed, snowshoe feet. (Please see my article on the Canada Lynx for an explanation of the deep connection between these two species.) The Snowshoe Hare is a very fast and cunning runner, and a strong jumper. Exceptional hearing helps it avoid attack.

Locally, nobody calls them ‘hares’ and most think of them as rabbits. Superficially, they do appear similar but hares actually belong to a separate genus: ‘Lepus’, which also includes jackrabbits.  There are many differences. Snowshoe Hares tend to be larger, with larger ears and feet. They are solitary rather than communal. Snowshoe hares do not excavate dens as rabbits do. They take cover under the upturned roots of fallen trees, the burrows of other animals and hollow logs.

Snowshoe hares require dense scrub for protection from weather and enemies like owls. They need young pine and spruce, with its rich inner bark for substance through the winter. Although they manage in muskeg thick with swamp spruce, new woods that grow after forest fires have historically been their prime habitat.

Logging removes mature forests and replaces them with younger stands too. Unlike fire, however, logging rarely creates [hare, thus] lynx habitat. Forest companies scarify the soils of many clearcuts, which encourages grass to grow more than shrubs. They also spray herbicides to hold back willow, poplar and other shrubs Even when young stands of trees become well-established on logged areas, many forest companies return to thin them. ‘Just as it starts to get good,’  says lynx biologist Dr John Weaver, ‘we go back in and thin it out and reduce its value to hares.’” (from – Predators: Wild Dogs & Cats by Kevin van Tighem)

This month, Snowshoe Hares will be in the breeding mood. The phrase “Mad as a March hare” was apparently in use before Lewis Carroll gave it longevity in Alice in Wonderland. I suppose there could be somewhat of a frenzy as the fully polygamous does come into heat this month and will not be ‘ready’ again until a day after their litters are born. Newborn Showshoe Hares are called leverets and mature within 5 months of birth. The female, which is a little larger than the buck, may have up to four litters of 3-5 precocial leverets, the first born in April or May after about a 5-week gestation period.

Epilogue ~

I finished the final draft of this article this morning and decided to go for a walk before I gave it a final read and published it. I wanted to get some photos of the incredibly thick hoar frost that the past five days of ice fog has laid on everything. I found some good, fresh Snowshoe Hare tracks and photographed them…

These are a little overcontrasted to show how the large back feet land in front of the little front feet, which land one in front of the other. Click to enlarge.

…and then this happened!

They do say he’s a trickster!

Just how far can a hare jump? Read this great old Native folktale, The Cunning Hare.

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Resources:


Red & White Baneberry

Actaea rubra

“The generic name Actaea is derived from the Greek aktiai, meaning elder, to which the leaves bear resemblance; rubra alluding to the red berries…” (source)

Most of the sources I’ve found say that the berries can also be white, although Ontario Wildflowers lists the white baneberry as a separate species (A. pachypoda).  There are some good photos on that site as well, although their description of the berries of the red baneberry as ‘china white’ is a little confusing.

All parts of this member of the buttercup family are poisonous although several sources claim that native people did use it medicinally. “The name Baneberry refers to the plant’s toxicity, being derived from the Anglo-Saxon word for ‘murderous’ – bana.” (source)

It is apparently quite unpalatable, and there have been no reported deaths from it in North America. The European species has been linked to the deaths of children. (source) Some birds and small animals are able to digest it.


Ruffed Grouse

Bonasa umbellus

Spring comes late in my part of the world, but I know it’s almost here when I hear the first exciting drum roll of the courting Ruffed Grouse. Usually, though, I at first mistake it for an all terrain vehicle or motorcycle that’s complaining of the cold as someone tries to start it up. It turns over a few times and then catches, runs roughly for a few seconds and abruptly stalls out. Then in a few minutes it does it again. “Bup…bup…bup…bup, bup, bupupupup, rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.”

Last April two males chose drumming logs above the ravine less than 200 metres apart and this guy was not giving up his claim easily. I left him to it.

Sometime in early April the male ruffed grouse chooses a territory with a nice, old, preferably hollow log to use as his bandstand. There he will stand, with ruff fluffed out and tail fanned, and he will drum on and off for hours and days until the girl of his dreams decides that he’s the best drummer around.

This is one of the logs chosen by a ruffed grouse last spring. I wasn’t lucky enough to catch him on it with my camera, but you can tell it’s been ‘chosen’ as it’s covered in droppings.

“Grouse scat is brown in color with a whitish end 1 inch in length to 1/4 inch in diameter. Droppings may also be found in the form of a small pile when feeding on succulent plants. Their diet consists of nuts, berries, green leaves and fruit.” (source)

The Ruffed Grouse is at home in a mixed wood forest. The grouse pictured here live in the mixed wood ravine of an otherwise coniferous forest and nest in the aging willows. Ruffed grouse are distinguishable from the Spruce Grouse, which is more adapted to the boreal forest proper, by the distinctive crest on the top of the head. There are other markings, among them the black-banded tail, but I’ve found that the crest is the easiest way to tell the difference.

“I’m a broken branch.”

I’m used to being confused by seasonal plumage, but grouse are also masters at camouflage and talented shape-shifters. They can disappear in a heart beat. A flurry of flapping wings will be all you see if you startle them, but if they see you coming they will run behind a tree. In either case you’re not likely to find them again. They hide easily right under your nose, shaping themselves as a broken tree limb or a pile of leaves.

“I’m a pile of leaves”

Red Squirrel

Tamiasciurus hudsonicus

It’s very unusual to go for a walk in the coniferous and mixed forests without your presence being heralded by a noisy red squirrel, warning you to keep away from their food cache and young and alerting every other creature within hearing that there is an intruder in their midst.

Heavily Cropped 🙂

They are so busy and move about so quickly, that it can be difficult to capture them in a photograph without a long and fast lens, which I don’t currently own, so usually get pictures like the above and like this:

He wanted to go down, but kept going up and down, and up and down, so I went away and left him to his business.

So I was delighted to meet this lovely critter by the Freeman River campground off Highway 32. It’s obvious he was used to being fed by well-meaning campers, but I hope that he was sensible enough to spend most of his time on his main job, which is stocking his larder for the winter.

Campground Squirrel

Although red squirrels are omnivorous – they will eat insects, birds and other small mammals when the opportunity arises, their main food supply consists of seeds extracted from conifer cones. Their scale-carpeted middens on the forest floor are evidence of a nearby cache and a favourite feeding perch.

Squirrel midden and probably the entrance to the larder

Moose

Alces alces ssp andersoni

According to Wikipedia there are 6 subspecies of Moose – four in North America – and the one that I see quite commonly, (but haven’t yet managed to get a really good photo of), is the Western subspecies or spp. andersoni. Its common name comes from the Algonquin ‘Moz’, meaning ‘twig eater’, (source), an appropriate handle given the moose’s diet mainly consists of the young wood of deciduous trees.

 
The ears of this cow moose are both directed toward the photographer as she keenly surveys me with one eye while assessing her escape route with the other. This image also shows the distinct light patch around the vulva of the female as well as the lighter hair on the legs that is common in both sexes.

Moose are fascinating creatures. They have exceptional hearing and sense of smell although their eyesight is apparently rather poor. They have very large and oddly shaped heads and the bull’s spatulate antlers are like no other. All for a purpose though. They even walk funny – lifting their legs vertically, but that serves them well when navigating through metre-deep snow, significantly reducing drag and giving them a good advantage over one of their few adversaries: the wolf. (Source)

 
Possibly a yearling judging by her very light coat, this young cow moose paces back and forth excitedly when she finds herself trapped behind a fence.

The moose is the largest living deer in the world and after bison, are the second largest land-mammal in North America. According to moose biologist, Kristine Rines, the largest bull on record was an Alaskan Bull that weighed in at 1,697 lbs. or about 637 kgs., but it my understanding the average weight would be just over half of that.

Post-processing couldn’t save this snap of a large bull moose, hurriedly taken from my car at dusk. If you use your imagination a little, you can just make out the distinctive palmate antlers and under-throat bell.

The poor old moose has been a popular target for lampooning. When I was a kid, Saturday morning cartoons weren’t complete without Bullwinkle.

 

Lingonberry

Vaccinium vitas-idaea also called Bog-Cranberry and Lowbush Cranberry

Tiny and delightful treasures on the forest floor

Lingonberries, especially when not in bloom, can easily be confused with the Common Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), historically known as Kinnikinnik. Around here, the lingonberries are a denser plant, while the bearberry seems to grow more openly, but I am never sure of my identification until the flowers bloom. A magnifying glass helps, as the lingonberry has bristle-like glands on the lower side of the leaf.

Lingonberry flowers stand out in the sunshine against a shaded forest ravine

Once in bloom, the flowers are, although similar, are distinguishable on close inspection. The bell of the bearberry’s flowers is ‘tucked-in’ or more urn-shaped.

Lingonberries growing among bunchberries in a little forest glade

Vaccinium have been used traditionally in North America for the cranberry sauces commonly served with turkey dinners at Christmas and Thanksgiving, although this northern species is only lately being tried as a commercial plant.

In early June the dark pink buds of Lingonberry are conspicuous above the forest floor mosses

Northern native people, however, have always known of and used lingonberries as food. In fact it was one of the most important berries for them and used almost exclusively in pemmican. The plant was also used medicinally, for jewelry, as a dye for porcupine quills and a tobacco-stretcher. (Source)

Lingonberry leaves are evergreen, helping to melt the snow above them in spring

In this Mi’kmaw legend, the cranberry (presumably lingonberry or a close relative) warded off bad magic. And who knows what cranberry sauce had to do with strawberries.


Low Bush-Cranberry

Also called Squashberry & Mooseberry (Viburnum edule). Confusingly they are also referred to in some parts as High Bush-Cranberry, which in my area is the common name for Viburnum Opulus

How about some more confusion: is this the Christmas fruit? No. Bush-Cranberries are not related to the cranberries associated with turkey dinners. Viburnum is a member of the Honeysuckle family while the berries grown for cranberry sauce (Vaccinium) are much more low-growing and have leathery leaves as do most plants in the Heath family.

However, bush-cranberries are edible although a little tart when fresh for most palates. They do make excellent jams and jellies though and are very healthy, being very high in Vitamin C. All parts of the plant have been used historically by the native people in North America  for centuries for not only food, but medicinally. (Source)

They were so prolific here on the Freeman River – mid August – I’ll have to go back next spring and take some pictures of the little white flower bunches that turn into these rich, juicy berries. I was surprised that they did not seem to have yet been significantly browsed by the forest critters.


Police Car Moth

Gnophaelia vermiculata

This moth’s genus is fairly easy to remember if you can remember its common name, which shouldn’t be hard as it looks so much like an old-time police car with its bold black and white colouring and brilliant orange ‘lights’ at the top of its thorax. If I’m not mistaken (and the pronunciation of latin names seems to vary), ‘Gnophaela‘ looks to sound like ‘No Fail Ya’ and that puts me in mind of the Canadian Mounties who ‘Always Get their Man’. 🙂  ‘Vermiculata‘ means ‘worm-like’ – I would think that would apply to most caterpillars.

I think I have finally figured out why the wild Lungwort in my gardens look so sad after the blooms have finished in August. It is the favourite food of the Police Car Moth's larva.

It can be hard though, to remember that this is a moth, not a butterfly. As this Everyday Mysteries site tells us, “One of the easiest ways to tell the difference between a butterfly and a moth is to look at the antennae. A butterfly’s antennae are club-shaped with a long shaft and a bulb at the end. A moth’s antennae are feathery or saw-edged.”

Everything is busy reproducing in my gardens in July. These two have found a wonderfully scented nest of 'Mrs. Simpson's Pinks' carnations.

You can’t really see it here, but this insect has quite a thick body. Butterflies tend to be much more svelte. Otherwise, this moth breaks a lot of rules. For one,  it is diurnal – it flies during the day unlike the majority of moths – but also it’s really beautiful! Not dull coloured as so many moths are.

It looks like the male has seen better days, but his mate seems to be keeping him company as he catches his breath.

If you look closely, (no it’s not rude – it’s nature!), you can see that the antennae are quite feather-like and have no bulb at the end.  You can tell a male moth from a female by the width of its antennae: the male is the one with the larger ‘feathers’ (antennae).

As Weaslehead.org reports, Police Car Moths are “Notoriously poor flyers… tend to stick close to the ground and are easily observed and photographed. They are also relatively harmless and do little if any damage to the plants they feed on.” So there you go. That’s why I managed to get such clear shots of them this summer. 🙂

I think this is the larva of the Police Car Moth

It was fascinating to watch this delicate critter gracefully and methodically building its cocoon. Unfortunately it was very bad timing to repair the eaves trough and it didn’t survive. Here is a much better photo I found of the Police Car Moth caterpillar.


Dwarf Raspberry

Dwarf or Stemless Raspberry / Dwarf Nagoonberry ( Rubus acaulis)

 

Though small, you’re not likely to miss this little treasure in the woods. The flower is brilliant pink and stands proudly above the shiny, textured leaves.

The delicious berries, however are a little more difficult to find, possibly because critters found them before you but also because they’re quite tiny – about 1cm. Indeed, they’re so good that I usually forget to take a picture before I eat them. 🙂


Prickly Rose

Prickly rose, Rosa acicularis is the provincial flower of Alberta. Confusingly, it is often confused with the more or less abundant (depending on the source) common wild or wood rose (R. woodsii), which has fewer thorns.

Most of the plant is edible and the hips are extremely high in Vitamin C as well as several other vitamins, however moderation is advised as over indulgance can cause diarrhea. The hairy seeds within the hip can irritate the digestive track and cause discomfort on elimination.

Various parts of this beautiful, and beautifully scented shrub was used by native people for food, drinks, medicines, jewelry, toys, and to smoke.

A rose hip just beginning to hint at the brilliant red it soon will be.

The popular rose scent is expensive for a reason: according to my favourite plant resource, sited here, “It takes 60,000 roses to produce 28 ml of pure essential oil”. That’s a lot of flowers!

This species is nearly circumpolar. According to Monstropedia a dead person could be prevented from turning into a vampire by “placing a thorny branch of wild rose in the grave”.