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Archive for February, 2010

Cross-stitch, Brockville Museum

This I have done to let you see
What care my parents took of me
When I am dead and in my grave
This piece of work my friends will have.

Hannah Hall worked this in the 19th year of her age
1826

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When I was looking out the window recently, a little bird climbing on the burr oak caught my eye. A Brown Creeper! Although not rare in this region, neither are Brown Creepers (Certhia americana) common birds and I was pleased to spot this individual. As their name suggests, these wee birds creep up the trunks of trees, typically starting at the bottom and working their way up the trunk before flying on to the next tree and starting at the base again.

Creepers prefer mature forest habitat with trees of large diameter, so are not at their most abundant in the agricultural lands of southern Ontario. The population hot spots are Algonquin Provincial Park and Quetico Provincial Park and forested regions to the north. Trees with strongly furrowed bark are preferred for foraging. They probe the crevices for insects and spiders and other tasty, nutritious morsels. The cryptic colouring of creepers helps them to blend right in with the tree bark. In fact, they use their camouflage pattern when pursued, landing on a tree trunk and flattening themselves against the tree, wings spread and motionless.

In breeding season, the female builds her hammock-like cup nest in a gap between the trunk and a flap of loose bark on a dead tree. The male feeds the incubating female. The young can creep up trees from the time they are mobile. Fledglings will roost together in a tight circle, heads to the center. In Ontario, the Brown Creeper population appears to have been stable in recent decades as recorded in the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario.

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Speckled Alder (aka Tag alder, gray alder or hoary alder) has a wide distribution across the northern hemisphere in Asia, Europe and North America. In the northeast of this continent, the common species is Alnus incana ssp. rugosa (Du Roi).. Alder grows as a tall shrub or a small tree, and prefers stream banks and wet areas with ample sunlight.

At this time of year, alders are made conspicuous by their catkins and cones, left over from summer. The male flowers are long, slim catkins, while the cone-like structures are female. But wait. What is that curly, leafy stuff around the cones?

You will have guessed from the title. Another gall! This is Alder Tongue Gall. Unlike goldenrod galls, which are caused by insects, Alder Tongue Gall is caused by a fungal pathogen (Taphrina alni) that results in a chemically induced distortion of female alder catkins.

The gall emerges from between the outer scales of the female catkin like a flat, elongated flag. Early in the season, the flag is green, but turns brown or black in the fall. The flag remains attached to the pseudocone throughout its existence.

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Pretty much anywhere you find goldenrod, you can see goldenrod ball galls. These round formations on the stem of the goldenrod plant are winter homes for the larvae of the Goldenrod Gall Fly (Eurosta solidaginis). By this time of the winter, many of the galls have holes excavated by chickadees or woodpeckers, who find the larvae a tasty winter treat. For more on ball galls, see How Galling!

While not quite as common as ball galls, at least around here, goldenrod bunch galls can often be found in patches of goldenrod as well. They are easily identified. They look like flowers with many woody petals set at the tip of the goldenrod stem. Bunch galls are caused by a midge, Rhopalomyla solidaginis, and are associated with a particular species of goldenrod, Solidago canadensis.

The midge lays its egg in a leaf bud. After the larva hatches, the stem stops growing longer, even though the goldenrod continues to produce leaves. This results in a tight, flower-like cluster of foliage at the top of the goldenrod’s main stalk. An assortment of insects, including spiders and other midge species, may make the bunch gall home.

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My Day to Shine!

I was honored to receive an invitation from the Nature Blog Network to feature Willow House Chronicles as their blog of the week. Please drop by the Nature Blog Network and share Willow House Chronicles’ moment in the sun! Here’s the LINK. You’ll find reviews of other interesting blogs too.

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Collapse by Jared Diamond. Viking Penguin, 2005.

I first read Collapse a few years ago and was impressed with Diamond’s examination of the collapse of societies. Diamond defines collapse as the drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time. His topic is broad. He considers past societies such as that of Easter Island, the Anasazi, Maya, and the Vikings in the new world. Each of these societies once enjoyed prosperity and wealth and left behind ruins that we still marvel at. It has been suspected that each of these mysterious ends were triggered at least in part by environmental problems, a sort of unintended ecological suicide. Diamond argues that past societies are united by the same economic and environmental challenges facing modern civilizations today and we ignore the lessons of history at our peril.

From past societies he moves into the present day for a look at Rwanda, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, China and Australia. It was his discussion of Haiti that caused me to pick the book up again recently, as Haiti has dominated news media following the recent earthquake disaster. While the earthquake was the cause of a terrible tragedy, grinding poverty has been central to Haiti’s story for centuries. Diamond provides a useful thumbnail sketch of Haiti’s history. He looks at factors that have contributed to its poverty and compares the situation in Haiti with that in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.

Diamond concludes that there are twelve serious environmental problems that challenge societies, past and present. Number one is the destruction of natural habitats, including deforestation. Deforestation was often the most important factor in the decline of all of the past societies described in his book. Today, we are destroying natural habitats at an accelerating rate, cutting down forests and replacing natural landscapes with human-manufactured ones: ciites, golf courses, roads, farmland and more.

Other factors Diamond discusses include the destruction of wild food sources through overharvesting (fishing); loss of diversity through species extinction; soil erosion and infertility; shortages of freshwater and more. He then goes on to look at the legitimacy, or lack thereof, of a set of obstructions routinely set out to block effective action: Technology will solve all our problems; If we run out of one resource, we’ll replace it with another, etc.

Diamond’s writing is clear and enjoyable to read. His arguments are well-constructed, thoroughly documented and convincing. Collapse is a thoughtful overview of environmental issues facing people today, well worth reading. One of my favorite lines in the book relates to Easter Islanders who cut down all the trees on their island, thus depriving themselves of firewood or any way to build boats in which to catch the fish they fed themselves with. Diamond writes:

What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it? Like modern loggers, did he shout “Jobs, not trees!”? Or: “Technology wil solve our problems, never fear, we’ll find a substitute for wood”? Or: We don’t have proof that there aren’t palms somewhere else on Easter, we need more research, your proposed ban on logging is premature and driven by fear-mongering”?

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Olympic Spirit

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After running some errands in Brockville on Friday, RailGuy and I visited the Mac Johnson Wildlife Area, located on the northern edge of the city, and enjoyed a short hike. The day was a bit overcast, but it was mild and there wasn’t much wind. The main feature of the wildlife area is a large lake and wetland, and several trails follow the shore of the lake and wind through mixed woodland.

We followed the Railway Trail, which is so named because about half its length follows the abandoned bed of a railway track. It was quiet in the woods, as is usual at this time of year. Apart from a troop of chickadees, we didn’t see any wildlife stirring. However, there were signs of summer activity.

Close to the trail, I noticed this nest, still in good shape for so late in the winter. The weather has taken a toll on many nests by February. From the trail, it looked like a woven ball, but by pulling the branch down a bit, the interior of a nest was revealed. It was probably constructed by a red-eyed vireo (Vireo olivaceus). Red-eyes are common woodland birds, but they are more often heard than seen as they usually sing from perches high up in the canopy of the forest. They are about 6 inches long, a bit bigger than chickadees, and rather plainly dressed in olive grey. They really do have red eyes. Their song always reminds me of a hyper robin.

The nest, constructed by the female, is typically deep-cupped and suspended in a horizontal fork of a slender tree branch. She uses grasses, paper, bark strips and rootlets. It may be bound to the supporting twigs and covered on the outside by spider webbing.

Another tree showed evidence of yellow-bellied sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus varius). Sapsuckers drill holes in trees in spring and drink the sap, usually early in the year when insects are still scarce. Their handiwork, or maybe billiwork is very distinctive. The small holes are drilled in orderly rows. These holes may have been a couple of seasons old. They were perhaps drilled in 2008.

This snag had been well-worked over by a piliated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). Piliateds are very large woodpeckers, about 18 inches in length. They are year-round residents, but it is more usual to find their excavations, sometimes very large, than to see the birds themselves.

The rail path leads down to the waterfront. Looking out over the lake, we spotted a paraskier near the far shore. He/she was moving along quickly…until a tumble.

Close to shore, there were a few muskrat lodges.

Farther along the trail, this pile of branches suggested a beaver had been at work at some time, but the lodge didn’t look occupied. In fact, the long stems and seed pods of Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) were springing from the branches.

On a section of the lake near the parking lot, ice had been cleared for an outdoor skating rink, and there was even a heated cabin for changing into skates available. Probably the ice is busy on weekends, but on a Friday afternoon, there were no skaters on hand. The park is a nice spot for dog-walking and is probably popular, being close to the city. We just met one dog and his walker, as we were returning to our car. Samson was delighted to meet RailGuy. Mac Johnson Wildlife Area offers Brockville residents a great spot to enjoy nature close to the city.

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Bandits in Blue

When I step outside in the morning to top up the bird feeders, the Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) are waiting for me, watching from the tops of the trees. They seem rather wary and suspicious, considering that they are anticipating my daily offering of redskin peanuts and a handful of peanuts in the shell.

As soon as I have retreated to the house and the coast is clear, the blue raiders swoop in to gather up the bounty. Although there is a loose flock of about 20 birds, they visit the feeder individually or a couple at a time and snatch up the peanuts.

Blue jays don’t usually grab just one seed or nut, but rather load up with all they can carry. Like other members of the corvid family (crows and relatives), they have a throat pouch that they fill up. This allows them to transport a number of seeds or nuts to a safe site to eat or hide away.

In the spring, blue jays will sometimes add the eggs and nestlings of other birds to their diet. They have been aided and abetted in this thuggery by we humans, as fragmented woodlands allow blue jays better access to the nests of woodland breeders.

Blue jays are able to make use of a variety of habitats and have adapted well to changes in the landscape wrought by humans. Their population in southern Ontario, where they are year round residents, has remained pretty stable in recent decades. They are well-known for their raucous cry of “Jay! Jay!”, but they are also adept at mimicking the cry of a hawk. Other vocalizations include a rusty-gate squeak and a melodic whistle.

Oddly enough, these birds who are so noisy much of the year grow silent and secretive during the breeding season. Unlike many songbirds, blue jays do not defend a territory by singing. Instead, they protect just a small area in the immediate vicinity of their nest. Once the young birds leave the nest, however, they acquire the raucous vocal habits of their parents and beg noisily.

Below, the blue jays were joined by a hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus) and they maintained a respectful distance.

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Monday was Family Day here in Ontario. The statutory holiday, celebrated on the third Monday of February, was added to the calendar a few years ago to give long-suffering Ontarians a little break from the mid-winter doldrums. By the middle of February, the snow/cold thing has gotten old, very old. First observed in 2008, Family Day has been embraced with enthusiasm. This year, Monday was a very pleasant winter day and gave families a great opportunity to get outside and enjoy the winter, at least for a day. It was reported on the radio that Ottawa’s Winterlude celebrations were well-attended. RailGuy and I celebrated with a visit to BirdGirl and a walk in the Hundred Acre Woods with our daughter and Raven, the Grandog.

We haven’t had a major snowstorm recently. It seems Washington has been taking the brunt of winter. The snow remaining in the woods had a bit of a crust on it and walking was easy. We enjoyed a very pleasant stroll, as did Raven, who you can see dashing ahead in the photo above. My eye was drawn to a number of beautiful, large yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) trees we passed. The forest features a mix of evergreen species and deciduous trees. The bark of the yellow birch trees makes them easy to identify.

The reason why yellow birch is also known as curly birch is obvious. Perhaps not quite as well-known as paper birch, with it’s conspicuous white bark, the yellow birch is a common tree of temperate, northern forests, although agriculture and forestry have taken a toll on the yellow birch population. It rarely grows in large stands. Rather, it is likely to be found keeping company with hemlocks and sugar maples. Beech, white ash and white pine are also common neighbours. The largest of the birch species, yellow birch can reach a diameter of 90 cm (36 inches) or more and may live as long as 300 years. It prefers moist, fertile soil and sometimes grows along the edge of swamps.

Yellow birch trees produce seeds that are enjoyed by finches and other wintering birds, with a bountiful crop occuring every three years or so. In spite of the large number of seeds it produces, yellow birch may have trouble getting started. Seeds need a clear spot of ground or a rotted log to thrive. Where it grows with maples, the mat of maple leaves, which don’t decompose readily, may prevent tiny seedlings from sinking their roots into the soil, and the youngsters perish.

Woodpeckers may seek out a birch with a decaying core to excavate a nest site. Yellow birch saplings are a favorite of deer and porcupines enjoy the aromatic bark of mature trees. Even people may enjoy the twigs of yellow birch, which, along with those of cherry birch (a southern species), are a source of oil of wintergreen (methyl salicylate). The twigs can be used to brew wintergreen tea. At one time, the wintergreen used in gum and toothpaste was extracted from birch trees. It is now produced synthetically.

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