Archive for April, 2009


Back in March, while there was still snow on the ground, I noticed a nest high up in the hoophouse on a bit of old machinery. It had been deserted last summer before the four eggs had hatched. I removed the nest to photograph it and didn’t replace it. Today, I walked into the hoophouse, looking for a shovel and glanced up. The nest was back! A pair of robins (Turdus migratorius) have replaced the nest in exactly the same spot. I hope they are successful in fledging a family from the new nest.


Meanwhile, out in the old barn, a half a dozen old nests on the roof rafters are evidence of Barn Swallows past. This week, Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) returned and when I entered the barn a few days ago, I was greeted by their disapproving chatter. Like robins, Barn Swallows use mud in the construction of their nest, but plaster the cup-like structure to a wall or beam in a sheltered location. The above view, looking up at one of the nests on the roof rafters, reveals the occupants forded tail! Swallow flight is swift and acrobatic, and they were difficult to capture with the camera as they flitted in and out of the barn, but here is one resting on a beam near the barn entrance.


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This little Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) was attracted to Birdgirl’s mothing sheet on the warm weekend. It shows the distinctive X marking on its back that makes Peepers easy to identify. You can also see the slightly enlarged sticky toe pads that allow these treefrogs to climb trees and shrubs. They are terrestrial except during breeding season, when they use both temporary and permanent ponds, especially in wooded areas, for mating. After the breeding season, they move to woodlands, shrubby areas and old fields. Peepers survive the winter, when they hide under logs, bark or litter, by producing a glucose “antifreeze” that causes ice to form in extracellular spaces instead of in body cells. Their diet includes small bugs such as spiders, mites, ants beetles and caterpillars.

Spring Peepers are a common species throughout the Great Lakes region. Adults migrate to breeding ponds about the same time as Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica). The call of the male Peeper is the loud peeping for which they are named. This year at Willow House, the first calls of both Spring Peepers and Wood Frogs were heard on April 3rd.


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This weekend, Birdgirl and I made a trip back to the old homestead in the Toronto area. Friday night was mild, and Birdgirl set up her mothing sheets. While out checking the sheets, it was apparent that the warm weather was prompting the toads in the area to move to breeding ponds. On Saturday, it was warm and sunny and the trills of male toads calling from the vernal pool announced that the breeding season for the Eastern American Toad (Bufo americanus americanus) was moving into high gear. Birdgirl and I waded through the mud to check out the pond and were able to see numerous toads intent on attracting a mate. Males generally arrive at the breeding site before females, and we only saw one female. She was the object of a lot of male attention! The photo above shows the competition amongst her suitors. The males are noticeably smaller than the female. The tan-coloured male held on tenaciously and eventually came away the winner.


Toads prefer to breed in shallow, temporary pools. During amplexus the male grasps the female’s body from above and can fertilize the female’s eggs externally as they are laid. Toad eggs are laid in two gelatinous strings and a female may lay from 2000 to over 20,000 eggs. The small blackish tadpoles hatch in 2 to 14 days, depending on water temperature. They will eat algae and planktonic organisms and soft vegetation as they grow. Tadpoles transform into tiny toadlets in 6 to 10 weeks. Only a few will survive the two to three years it takes to reach sexual maturity.

The male toad’s song is easy to recognize, a high-pitched extended trill that may last over 30 seconds. Pictured below is a trilling male. You can listen to the call at the Adopt-A-Pond site. Next weekend, May 2nd and 3rd, is the 10th Annual Spring Toad Festival at the Toronto Zoo in the America‚Äôs Wetlands. Also, April 28th, 2009 is the 1st Annual ‘Save The Frogs Day


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The Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen. McClelland & Stewart, 2006.
A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein. Harper & Row, 1981.

I thought before April ends I should include some poetry in recognition of National Poetry Month. So here are two: something old, something new, something happy, something blue. The new, or newish and bluish, is Leonard Cohen’s latest book of poetry. I have to confess that I know Cohen mostly from his songs. He has recently been enjoying a bit of a revival, with covers of Hallelujah by Rufus Wainwright and Jeff Buckley both popular. I always liked Suzanne and Dance Me to the End of Love, myself. Before reading the book, I read Kathleen Molloy’s review. She read the book in one sitting, with a glass of port. This seemed like a good idea. Lacking port, I went for a very nice locally-produced strawberry wine by Countryman’s Estate Winery. Certainly, the book, like its title, is sad and melancolic. The longing is for a younger life and a time of women loved. Nightingale encapsulates this idea quite sweetly. It begins:

I built my house beside the wood
So I could hear you singing
And it was sweet and it was good
And love was all beginning.

and finishes

Fare thee well my nightingale
I lived but to be near you
Though you are singing somewhere still
I can no longer hear you.

Well. It is a book for those who have lost the first blush of youth… and then some. In contrast, Silverstein’s book is for the young and young at heart. If you haven’t read any Shel Sivlerstein, you should. A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends both need reading. These poems are fun to share with a youngster. Or just enjoy them yourself. The title poem, A Light in the Attic, goes like this:

There’s a light on in the attic,
Though the house is dark and shuttered,
I can see a flickerin’ flutter,
And I know what it’s about.
There’s a light on in the attic,
I can see it from the outside,
And I know you’re on the inside…lookin’ out.

April 21st was National Al Purdy Day. For more on Purdy, see the March 2nd entry.


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Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

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On Earth Day, April 22nd, a pesticide ban came into effect in Ontario. The province banned the sale or use of about 250 pesticides and ingredients, including 2,4-D and malathion, for cosmetic use. The action comes more than 40 years after Rachel Carson’s landmark Silent Spring was published. The book helped to bring about the ban of DDT in 1972 and marked the beginning of the modern environmental movement. It also sparked one of the first corporate disinformation campaigns as the chemical industry sought to discredit Carson. The chemical industry is still at it. Dow AgroSciences is suing the government over a pesticide ban in Quebec. I picked up Silent Spring in the late 1970s and read the first 50 pages. I was so horrified, I never finished the book, and never used pesticides on my garden again.

Gardening organically isn’t complicated. I don’t even bother with organic cures. I don’t buy plants that are finicky and difficult to grow, unless looking for a challenge. If a plant fails to thrive in one location, I try it somewhere else. If it still struggles, I remove it and replace it with something sturdier. Garden centres are filled with interesting plants. There is always something new to try. I also use a ‘wait and see’ approach. Sometimes perennials that are attacked by insects one year will survive a skeleton stage and regrow the next year as lush plants, while the insects have moved on.

The pursuit of a perfect lawn baffles me. It’s nice to have a patch of ground for the kids to play on, but otherwise, why bother with grass? Ecologically speaking, lawns have little to offer the natural world. A planting of native flowers can both add to curb appeal and offer pollinators an important food source. If you want to do something different with your front lawn, check out Liz Primeau’s book, Front Yard Gardens: Growing More Than Grass. It is more of an idea book than a “how to” with lots of colourful pictures. Get inspired. Dig in. Make a difference.



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We don’t have a dog, here at Willow House. This is partly out of consideration for the sensibilities of the cat population. They would not be amused. However, we do have a grandog who drops by from time to time. Raven belongs to Birdgirl, and readers of The Marvelous in Nature will recognize her from her regular appearances on that blog.


When Raven comes in the door, thoroughly excited to be someplace new, meeting new people, the cats disappear. They rush to their cat door leading to the basement and are scarcely seen or heard from for the duration until Raven departs and the house returns to the quiet, peaceful haven they are accustomed to. With the cats out of the picture, Raven can take advantage of the unused cat bed. Even though it is a bit small for her, Raven loves to curl up in the cat bed when the need for a nap overcomes her.


One of the pleasures Raven enjoys when she visits is being allowed to go outside on her own. At her home, the road is close at hand and letting her outside unsupervised would hold risks for her. However, Willow House is set well away from the road, with a wide open area where Raven can romp within view of the house. She can get lots of exercise without the need for a human to always walk her. When she comes back inside and is winding down, she likes to sprawl on a blanket on the chesterfield. It’s always fun to have the grandog visit.


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On the most recent fine afternoon, three fishermen enjoyed the afternoon sun sitting on the bridge over South Branch Creek with their fishing poles. They had a bucket between them and kindly allowed me to photograph their catch. The fish are Brown Bullheads (Ameiurus nebulosus), a kind of catfish. These ones were about 8 to 10 inches long. The fishermen assured me they are good eating, lightly floured and fried in butter. I was content to take their word for it.

The brown bullhead is native to the freshwaters of eastern and central North America. It is a warm-water species, usually found on or near the bottom of ponds, shallow lakes or slow-moving larger streams with aquatic vegetation and a muddy or sandy bottom. In the spring, the fish begin staging, coming together preparatory for spawning. The adults move from larger waterways upstream towards headwater areas. They spawn in late spring, May or June. The parents clear a shallow nest in the bottom sand or vegetation, usually near a protecting stump or rock. The water may be as shallow as 6 inches or several feet deep. After spawning, the eggs are cared for by one or both parents, who fan and manipulate the eggs with their whisker-like barbels. After 6 to 9 days, the young hatch and lie in the nest for about 7 days. The juveniles are then guarded by their parents for a couple of weeks until they disperse. The adults return downstream to deeper waters.

Bullheads are omnivores, eating a variety of insects, crustaceans and plant items. They use their barbels to locate food and feed mostly at night. Brown bullheads are very tolerant of low-oxygen conditions and turbid water, and are also more pollution resistant than most other fish, sometimes surviving in polluted streams where they are the only fish species present.

The brown bullhead pool.

The brown bullhead pool.

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When walking through the woods and along wet areas in the back field, I disturbed a few Northern Leopard frogs (Rana pipiens), who leaped away at my approach. One lingered long enough to have his photograph taken. A few Leopard voices were just beginning to join the chorus of Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer). The Wood frogs (Rana sylvatica), singing loudly just a week ago, were now quieter.

Leopard frogs usually overwinter in permanent waters, sitting on the bottom, tucked under the edge of logs or concealed beneath a layer of bottom silt. They move to shallower water for breeding in April or early May. The male’s advertisement call is described as snore-like, or like wet hands rubbing a balloon, followed by a series of chuckles. Amplexus, in which the male grasps the female’s body from above with his forelegs, allows him to fertilize the eggs externally as they are laid. Amplexus usually occurs in the evening. (Check out the great photos of breeding Wood frogs at The Marvelous in Nature.) An amplexed pair will often move to an area where other pairs have already deposited eggs to leave their own eggs. A female lays between 300 and 6,000 eggs in large masses. The eggs are usually attached to submerged debris, twigs or stems. Leopard eggs are black above and white below. Eggs hatch in one to three weeks, depending on water temperature and the tadpoles are ready to transform in two to three months. The little froglets reach mature size in one to three years and may live up to nine years, although few survive this long. In summer, Leopard frogs disperse away from water into meadows or other grassy places, where they absorb moisture from dew or damp soil through their skin.

The Adopt-a-Pond site had a great feature that offers information about frogs and allows you to listen to the songs of various frog species. Hop on over and check it out! (Sorry.) You can also learn about Frog Watch and the Ontario Turtle Tally.

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What’s the difference between a computer and a piece of fruit? The letter A. The apple was named for it’s first promoter, John McIntosh. The computer, in homage to this well-loved fruit, is also a Mac, but with an A, Macintosh. The McIntosh, no A, was developed just a few kilometers down the road from here, in the hamlet now known as Dundela.


The first McIntosh apple tree, the tree to which all McIntosh apples you see in your supermarket today can trace their lineage, was found by John McIntosh, a United Empire Loyalist of Scottish descent, when he was clearing brush on his property.


His achievement, and that of his son Allan, in finding and promoting the apple is well-marked in little Dundela today, with multiple plaques and a large mural on the side of the community hall.


The original tree lived and produced abundant fruit until 1908. When Maida Parlow French was improving her orchard, the McIntosh was much preferred over the other variety of apple represented in her orchard, the Wealthy. Wealthy apples were developed in Minnesota for growing in areas with cold climate, and by French’s record, seem to have been easier to grow, but brought less money at market. The Botanical Society of America has a great poster that shows the development of a McIntosh apple from a bud in the spring to the ready-to-eat fruit. Check out their site.


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