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Archive for March, 2012

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I had to run some errands yesterday, and as I drove past a stubbly corn field, I noticed 5 deer foraging. They were unusually close to the road, and I wanted to get a photograph of them. They raised their heads as I slowed the car, watching warily. I knew I would only get one shot off and I powered down the window and turned my camera on to be ready. As soon as I brought the car to a halt they were off! The photograph at the top was my first and best shot, the white flags of three deer flashing as they bounded away.

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They retreated to the forest edge and waited for my next move. When the car failed to move on, they decided discretion was the better part of valour, and disappeared, single file, into the woods.

They have good cause to be so nervous. There are many, many hunters around here, all with a positive mania for guns and shooting. However, it’s not hunting season, so they are safe for a while, and my camera is the only thing I do any shooting with. Their food supply may be running low after the long winter. I’m sure they are looking forward to the fresh browse of spring.

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After several beautiful, mild, snow-melting days, I decided it was time to start my tomato seeds. I’m not a big seed starter. I can usually satisfy my modest need for vegetable seedlings at local nurseries. Except for tomatoes. For the last several years, I’ve experimented with heirloom varieties and have really enjoyed the results. Two years ago, I tried a package of mixed seeds and was encouraged by their success. Here’s a report here. Last year I tried a few different varieties and was especially impressed with Persimmon and Jaune Flamme.

So this is my third year for starting tomato seedlings. In previous years, I’ve just used sunlight, but this year I broke down and bought a grow light to extend the day for the little greenlings. I know, just an ordinary fluorescent fixture affixed in an appropriate location will do the job, but I liked the convenience of this compact stand. This afternoon, I planted 4 seeds of each of 8 varieties. Okay, little seeds, get growing!

Here are the varieties I planted: Black Krim, Black Pineapple, Brandywine Red, Chocolate Stripe, Emerald Evergreen, Purple Prudence, Sub-Arctic Plenty and White Queen.

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March Sunset

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Northern Cardinal

This beautiful cardinal can be heard every morning now, singing out his song from a treetop perch. He’s been here all winter, but he has just started giving full voice to his chorus of “Birdie, Birdie, Birdie! Whit, whit, whit!” in the last week or so. What female could resist him?

It’s hard to believe that it was only last weekend that I spotted the first Red-winged Blackbird. Now they are everywhere, chucking and oak-a-leeing in the branches and foraging beneath the bird feeders. Over the course of the week, other migrants have joined them. There are quite a number of Common Grackles joining their numbers. Look at the beautiful iridescent colours on this fellow, helping himself to a seed at the feeder.

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Common Grackle

As I was walking past a pine tree, I noticed a Brown-headed Cowbird keeping a cautious eye on me. There have been a few American Robins around for a few weeks, but now they are back in plentiful numbers. And this morning, I spotted a pair of Hooded Mergansers on the river. They skillfully avoided my attempts to capture them with my camera, taking off for a site farther upstream.

The birds are early, ready to put The Winter That Wasn’t behind them and move on to spring. This winter was the 3rd warmest on record here. Three of the warmest winters ever have been recorded in the last six years. What was additionally notable about this winter was the lack of precipitation. It was also the second driest winter on record.

How are these shifts in winter weather patterns affecting migrating birds?

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Brown-headed Cowbird

A special report titled The Winter that Wasn’t: Bird Migration aired on CBC’s morning show The Current on March 7th. Biologist Allen Hurlbert from the University of North Carolina, B.C. biologist Dick Cannings and eBird editor Mike Burrell from Bancroft all addressed this question.

They note that the timing of migration is vitally important to the success of the upcoming breeding season. If a bird arrives back too early, he may encounter the bad weather and lack of food he flew south to avoid. If he arrives back too late, he may fail to find a good breeding territory and prospective mate.

One of the most important elements about timing is hitting the height of the insect season just right. Birds need a big supply of bugs to feed their demanding young. Without them, chicks may starve. If a warm spell disrupts normal insect patterns, causing bug populations to peak earlier, parent birds may not be able to adequately supply their young with food if they have started nesting according to their normal schedule.

We often have a poor appreciation of just how interconnected the natural world is. Failure or changes to one sector can have a ripple effect right through an ecosystem. Some bird species, such as Red-eyed Vireos seem to be adapting to changing weather patterns. Other species, such as Barn Swallows have been devastated. While Barn Swallows were once common birds, their numbers have plummeted by 75% over the last few decades.

You can learn more by listening to the full broadcast linked here.

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American Robin

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On Tuesday, my daughter Seabrooke dropped by, and we went for a walk in the Forty Acre Forest. It was a cold day, but not unpleasant and we had an enjoyable hike. I like to stop by several of the big evergreens and take at look at what I might find around their trunks. I always hope for owl pellets, but so far no luck. However, there was evidence that other wildlife had stopped by this tall spruce tree.

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Small round pellets are a sign that a rabbit sheltered here.

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And here is the scat of a raccoon. Notice the clipped evergreen stem?

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Evergreen clippings are a sign that a porcupine has been feeding on the tender branch tips of the tree. Elongated pellets, often C shaped, are also evidence of a porcupine.

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This trail was made by a porcupine coming and going to the spruce tree. Seabrooke suggested we follow the trail, as porcupines have rather restricted territories and regular routes they follow between their den and their favorite feeding trees.

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Sure enough, we didn’t have to go very far before we came upon the porcupine’s den, dug into a sandy bank. Porcupines use tree cavities for dens, but when there is a shortage of suitable cavities, they will use a den in the ground.

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Here’s a closer shot of the entrance, with the tunnel disappearing into the bank at an angle.

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As we were returning home, we crossed another porcupine path and followed it too. It led to another den, this one also located in a bank. Traces of frost could be seen on the vegetation around the entrance, where the breath of the porcupine had condensed. Frozen porcupine snores!

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Prescott is an Ontario town on the St. Lawrence, across the river from Ogdensburg, New York. Prescott was founded by Edward Jessup, a Loyalist who, in 1787, was rewarded for his service to King George with a 1,200-acre land grant. Jessup had a portion of this grant surveyed as a town site in the year of 1810. He named the new settlement Prescott in honour of General Robert Prescott who was appointed governor-in-chief of British North America in 1794. The town occupied a strategic military site and Fort Wellington was built on Prescott’s eastern edge in 1812 to defend the St. Lawrence River and the town.

One of the early settlers in the new town was Alpheus Jones, who arrived from Augusta in 1813. From 1816 to 1828, Jones was postmaster at Fort Wellington. As Prescott grew, Jones also served the town as postmaster and acted as Collector of Customs from 1823 until his death in 1863.

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There are many attractive stone houses in Prescott and the surrounding region, but one of the most beautiful is that built by Alpheus Jones. It is situated on a large lot in the centre of the old town. The large, Georgian style house was constructed between 1827 and 1832 by masons that Jones brought over from England. Limestone from the Kingston area was used for the front facade. It’s said that when first cut, the stone had a bluish tint, so the new house was first known as The Blue House, and later as Holmstead.

The grand house was heated by 8 fireplaces until the 1930s, when a hot water heating system was installed. In 1937, it was sold to the Earle brothers, who divided the interior into two living areas and started a lumber business in the rear coach house. After 180 years of service, the house remains an elegant testament to the skill of its builders. Its pleasing Georgian symmetry still satisfies the eye.

Oddly enough, there is another historic Alpheus Jones House in Raleigh, North Carolina. It is a Greek Revival-style plantation house, which was built in 1847. For more on Georgian homes, see my March 31, 2011 post, Georgian Delights.

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Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben. Alfred A Knopf Canada 2010.

My 84-year-old aunt doesn’t believe in climate change. Here’s the thing, though. Climate change is a lot like gravity. It doesn’t matter one whit whether you believe in gravity. When you jump up in the air, you’ll still land on the ground. It’s the same with climate change. You can not believe all you like, but you will still be affected.

Bill McKibben is a long-time believer. The End of Nature, now marking its 20th anniversary, was one of the first popular books to warn of world warming. While the lack-lustre, criminally negligent politicians currently running the show here in Canada continue to play the denial game, McKibben observes that it is already too late to head off serious trouble. Climate change is already well underway, and if we would avoid the very worst the need to act is ever more urgent.

For the full review, link here to Willow Books.

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Teddy

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When I went out the door this morning, on my way to the barn to feed the horses, my ears picked up a joyous sound. The call of Red-winged Blackbirds! There was a flock of a dozen or so birds swaying on branches high up in a maple tree. They took off before I could grab my camera, but later in the morning I was able to get a picture of the fellow above, an official record of the first Red-wing of spring. According to the calendar, spring doesn’t arrive until the 20th, but for all of us who watch for the first Red-wing, the march to summer has officially begun.

Today it is mild, 3 degrees C (about 37 F) and snow is rapidly melting. It would be very pleasant were it not for the wild wind that is howling. It’s hard to capture wind in a still photograph, but the shot of this little White Pine will give you an idea of the force of the wind. That poor little tree! It’s had a tough winter. On at least three occasions, it has been so burdened by the weight of ice and wet snow, its crown has bowed down and touched the ground. I hope that over the summer it will be able to straighten up and grow stronger, ready to face next winter with a little more fortitude.

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Owl Butterfly (Caligo memnon)

Giant Owl butterfly (Caligo memnon)

This snowy weather is a good time to revisit the Montreal Botanical Garden displays that we saw on February 21st. The most popular winter feature is probably the display of live butterflies. There are actually two separate areas, one for Creatures of Darkness and another for Creatures of Light.

We visited the Creatures of Darkness greenhouse first. The greenhouse isn’t really dark, but the light is somewhat muted. There are five species listed for this display in the flyer that accompanies the exhibition, but we just saw one, the Giant Owl butterfly (Caligo memnon), pictured above. There were quite a few of them though, and they were easy to spot.

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Giant Owl Butterfly with wings open.

The photo above shows an Owl Butterfly resting in a dim corner with its wings spread. The genus Caligo includes about 20 species. It’s obvious that the common name, Owl butterflies, refers to the owl-eye pattern on the underwings. it’s quite convincing, with even a streak of white mimicking the glint of an eye. Caligo is derived from the latin for darkness. Owl butterflies prefer to fly at dusk, when there are fewer of their avian predators about. Caligos are found in Mexico and south through Central America to South America.

Below is a view of the second and larger butterfly exhibit room, which houses the Creatures of Light.

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Creatures of Light greenhouse

What a wonderful experience! There are butterflies everywhere, big, colourful tropical beauties, floating, nectering, resting. The most eye-catching are the blue butterflies, Blue Morphos.

Common Morpho (Morpho helenor limpida)

Common Morpho (Morpho helenor limpida)

So far as I was able to conclude from research via Google, the Blue Morphos include assorted subspecies of Morpho helenor. The Blue Morphos are residents of the neotropical rainforests. Limpida is at home in Costa Rica, while peleides hails from Columbia.

Emperor Morpho (Morpho helenor peleides)

Emperor Morpho (Morpho helenor peleides)

When the Blue Morphos close their wings, they look like an entirely different butterfly, as their underwings are a richly patterned brown. The blue upper wings actually have brownish-grey scales, but their special structure reflects light in a manner that makes them appear blue.

Blue Morph (Morpho helenor)

Blue Morph (Morpho helenor)

We also saw a few ‘butterfly balls’, a mass of Blue Morphs congregating together. I found references online that say Blue Morphs engage in a mobbing activity meant to discourage predators, so perhaps that’s what is happening in these butterfly balls.

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Blue Morpho "Butterfly Ball"

Most Morphos are blue, but there are a few other colours represented in the genus as well. Here is a White Morpho.

White Morpho (Morpho polyphemus)

White Morpho (Morpho polyphemus)

Here’s a neotropical resident you might recognise from your own backyard! It’s a Monarch, famous for its incredible migration from the rainforests north to Canada each spring as it follows the blooming of milkweed plants.

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus)

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus)

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Butterfly hatchery

New butterflies arrive as a chrysalis and hatch in the greenhouse.  You can watch butterflies emerging within the glass nursery.  The Montreal Botanical Garden website has this to say about the sourcing of butterflies:

The butterflies in Butterflies Go Free come from butterfly farms in 10 different countries. Butterfly farms are a way to protect butterflies and their habitats by creating fair-trade, sustainable businesses that get local communities involved. By encouraging butterfly farms through the years, the Montréal Insectarium has preserved more than 50 hectares of rainforest in Costa Rica, the equivalent of 100 soccer fields.

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Fruit Plate

The butterflies feed on fruit juices and you can watch an array of butterflies feeding at the plates set out around the greenhouse.

Emerald Swallowtail  (Papilio palinurus)

Emerald Swallowtail (Papilio palinurus)

The genus Papilio is also well represented in the greenhouse. Emerald Swallowtails are native to southeastern Asia, including Indonesia and the Phillipines. The green of the Emerald Swallowtail, above, is similar to the blue of the Blue Morphos in that it is not produced by pigments. Rather, it is created by the microstructure of the wing scales. They refract the light and give rise to blue and yellow visible reflections, which give the perception of green.

Great Mormon Swallowtail (Papilio memnon) male

Great Mormon Swallowtail (Papilio memnon) male

The colours of the Great Mormon Swallowtail are more subtle. Papilio memnon is a wide-spread butterfly, found from India through southern China and Japan and south. It has four male and many female forms, the females being highly polymorphic. Some forms mimic unpalatable butterflies and as many as 26 female forms have been recorded.

Great Mormon (Papilio memnon) female

Great Mormon (Papilio memnon) female

The Paper Kite is also native to the Philipines and Malaysia region of southeast Asia.

Paper Kite (Idea leuconoe)

Paper Kite (Idea leuconoe)

In the dim recesses of vegetation, I noticed this pair of Scarlet Swallowtails mating.

butterflypair Scarlet Swallowtail (Papilio rumanzovia)

Scarlet Swallowtail (Papilio rumanzovia)

Finally, here is a photograph of a group of Great Mormon Swallowtails forming their own butterfly cascade. The Butterflies Go Free exhibit runs at the Montreal Botanical Gardens until April 29th. It’s highly recommended as a beautiful and informative place to visit.

butterflywaterfall (Papilio memnon)

Great Mormon Swallowtails (Papilio memnon)

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