Archive for April, 2010

As I came within view of our pond on the last warm afternoon, I was excited to see a row of Painted Turtles sunning themselves on a log! Painted turtles (Chrysemys picta marginata) are the most common of Ontario‚Äôs eight hard-shelled turtle species, six of which are designated as at risk. It is not unusual to see a painted turtle basking on a log. However, last summer I didn’t see a single turtle in the pond. Not one. And now, here were five, lined up in a row, looking perfectly at home!

The turtles weren’t nearly as happy to see me as I was to see them. As soon as I cleared the treeline and came into view, three of the turtles quickly slipped into the water and disappeared.

As I approached the edge of the pond, a fourth turtle concluded that discretion was the better part of valour, and followed its companions into the pond.

As I moved up to the edge of the water, one brave turtle watched me warily from the log, about 15 feet out from shore until finally it, too, decided it would be best to take cover. I felt a bit sorry for having disturbed them, but after I had walked a bit farther around the pond and was heading back to the house, I looked back. One of the turtles had already returned to the basking log and resettled itself in the sun.

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At this time of year, forest margins and hedgerows are punctuated with airy sprays of white blossoms: serviceberry! This early-blooming member of the rose family is known by several different regional names. Another is Shadbush, which reflects the fact that the small white flowers open at the same time of year as the spawning runs of shad fish occur in eastern coastal rivers. I found a couple of explainations for the name serviceberry. One is that the flowers open early in the spring, when burial services for early pioneers who had died in the winter were conducted, once the ground thawed. I liked this better than the more prosaic explanation that serviceberry is a corruption of the word “sarvisberry”, a referance to the berries’ resemblance to the fruits of the sarvis tree (European mountain ash).

There are 20 or so species in the genus Amelanchier, which grows as a shrub or small tree. The species hybridize readily, so it can be difficult to identify the species of an particular plant with assurance, but in this area, the Downy Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) is common. It produces rather unpalatable red-purple fruit later in the summer which, while not a favorite of people, are enjoyed by a number of birds, including cedar waxwings, orioles, veeries and catbirds. The fruit of other species, such as the Western Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), which produces Saskatoon berries, are reputed to be very tasty.

The pretty white flowers, with long, narrow petals, are bisexual and insect pollinated. Serviceberry bushes are quite slow-growing and long-lived. They are tolerant of a range of conditions, from dry to moist, and can tolerate the shade of the forest understory. Their spring blooms make them a good source of nectar for early-emerging insects.

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While working in the garden a few days ago, I heard a commotion, an agitated chittering coming from the pond. I walked down to see what was causing the uproar. It turned out to be a Belted Kingfisher (Ceryle alcyon). He was seated on one of the Tree Swallow boxes, and the regular tenants were very put out by this.

They didn’t need to worry about the Kingfisher usurping their nesting box, however. Kingfishers don’t nest in boxes or trees. They nest in burrows in banks! You generally think of rabbits or other small animals as burrowers, not birds, but Kingfishers build their nest site in vertical banks near water. They prefer soil that is sandy, without too many plant roots. Both the male and female Kingfisher work on digging the burrow, taking turns digging and removing the detritus. The tunnel is usually three to six feet long, but occasionally may reach 15 feet in length. The nest chamber holds a grass or leaf saucer.

As their name suggests, Kingfishers eat fish, although they will also take aquatic invertebrates, amphibians and other available food items. I expect it was the schools of little fishes that inhabit the shallower waters of the pond that attracted the Kingfisher. Kingfishers catch fish by making shallow dives into the water. There are no suitable banks for burrowing around the pond, but there are a few spots along the river that might be appropriate. In the last few days I have spotted the Kingfisher flying overhead regularly, sometimes accompanied by a second bird, presumably his mate. Kingfishers will fly as far as 8 kilometers between feeding and nesting sites if necessary. Kingfishers have a loud, distinctive rattled call, which they may give in flight, so you generally know when they are in the area.

The young are fed by regurgitation. When the nestlings fledge, the parents teach them to fish. With the young perched nearby, the adults drop dead meals into the water for their offspring to retrieve. This schooling process takes about 10 days. After that, the kids are on their own.

As recorded in the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario, Kingfisher numbers have been declining. It is thought that possible causes for the drop in numbers include anthropogenic changes in water quality, turbidity and depth, which impair Kingfisher fishing success; the removal of trees along waterways; erosion of shorelines and siltation due to livestock use of habitat, and human disturbance of suitable shoreline areas. Kingfishers are most common in regions rich in wetlands and lakes and, as you would expect, are more rarely found in areas with intensive farming. I hope this pair are able to find enough habitat to their liking and will stick around. It’s great to see them each day.

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The Gaiety of Gables: Ontario’s Architectural Folk Art by Anthony Adamson & John Willard. McClelland and Stewart Ltd, 1974.

When we were driving through the town of Vankleek Hill a few months ago, I picked up their tourist pamphlet and learned that the town bills itself as “The Gingerbread Capital of Ontario”. The pamphlet suggests a short tour of some of VanKleek Hill’s gingerbread highlights. After the visit, I looked for more information about gingerbread in Ontario architecture, and acquired a copy of The Gaiety of Gables. It contains an essay by Anthony Adamson, an architect and town planner of note, and photographs of houses by John Willard.

The boards that dress the eaves of houses are properly termed barge boards or verge boards. They originated in medieval England, where they were used to cover and protect the ends of rafter supports, which medieval builders projected out through the walls to support an eaves overhang. Although the practice of projecting the rafter supports was discontinued, barge boards carried on as a decorative element. Barge boards came to Ontario with the Gothic Revival style and were popular from about 1840 to 1870, with some examples continuing on to the turn of the century.

Over the decades that they were popular, barge boards became a medium of artistic expression for individual craftsmen. Some designs were simple, while others were incredibly elaborate.

Unique design elements became a signature by which the work of individual carpenters can be identified.

The decorative trim that began at the eaves began to drip down to the verandah, and it is this broader usage that gave rise to the term “gingerbread”. Adamson notes that the verandah itself is an embellishment more commonly found in “the colonies” than in Great Britain. The structure derives it name from the East Indian word “verandah”.

As the century progressed, barge boards were more often left undecorated, while the first floor of the house received more decorative attention. This was perhaps a nod to the practical, as that decorative trim so high on the house would be difficult to paint and maintain. On later houses, the peak of the gable was often filled in with a solid panel.

Adamson notes that gingerbread was never as popular in other locales as it was in Ontario. This might have been partly due to the ready availability of white pine lumber, which lent itself to use by craftsmen. In the United States, versions of Classical Revival were generally preferred over the Gothic Revival homes to the north. Many examples of gingerbread work can be found across Ontario, putting Vankleek Hill’s claim to being the gingerbread capital in doubt, but wherever it is found, it continues to offer the eye a pleasing example of the craftmanship of earlier years.

We value charm, and yet rarely include charm in modern buildings. Here are a couple of attempts that I came across to include gingerbread trim on new homes. It doesn’t have the same “made-by-hand” appeal as the real thing. All of the houses in the area carry exactly the same, no doubt factory-made, trim. Still, it’s an interesting attempt to recall the exuberance of an earlier day. The examples shown here were photographed in Prescott, Vankleek Hill, Ottawa and Oakville, Ontario.

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Sunday Snapshot: Dock


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One of the earliest wildflowers to bloom, even before the ubiquitous dandelion, is Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara). Its cheery yellow face brightens patches of barren ground along roadsides before most other plants have even though about blooming. This tough little plant is a native of Europe. It’s ability to thrive in rough, inhospitable areas has allowed this member of the aster family to find a niche for itself in its adopted land. Birdgirl did a nice post about Coltsfoot over at The Marvelous in Nature, so I’ll leave you to check out Sunshine in a Bed of Leaves if you’d like to learn more about it.

Another spring bloomer that reminds me of Coltsfoot is (are?) Field Pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta). Pussytoes are also a member of the aster family, although unlike Coltsfoot, they are native to North America. Pussytoes are more subtle than Coltsfoot, and feature small, woolly white flowers that do indeed bear a resemblance to feline toes. Pussytoes favor dry, sandy ground in open fields, and like Coltsfoot, may sometimes be found growing in clumps along the roadside.

Pussytoes, and closely-related species such as Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea), are unusual in producing male and female flowers separately on different plants. They usually grow in unisexual clonal patches that arise from stolens, creeping horizontal stems. Like Pearly Everlasting, Pussytoes are a caterpillar food for the American Lady butterfly (Vanessa virginiensis).

John Eastman, in The Book of Field and Roadside, notes that in English-speaking countries there is a certain “botany of cute”, which is particularly noteworthy in the vernacular names of wildflowers. Further, there is a subcategory of foot-cute, and Coltsfoot and Pussytoes have in common membership in this group!

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By Joel Petts

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Happy 40th Earth Day!

In recognition of the day, here are 10 ways to be green. Ten was an arbitrary number. There are many more ways to practise low-impact living. Join in! The planet needs your help.

1. Drink Shade-grown Coffee! There’s no easier way to help save rainforest. See Shade the Coffee, Shelter the Birds for more information.

2. Garden Organically. Whether you grow your own food or prefer flowers, or just plain grass, avoid using pesticides in your yard. Sprays that kill insects and weeds become part of your backyard environment and are bad for other wildlife as well (not to mention you!). If possible, plant a variety of native species to provide food and shelter for birds and bugs.

3. Make Every Cat an Indoor Cat. When it comes to birds, cats are killers. Birds face enough challenges without having domestic pets to contend with. Read more at Natural Born Killers.

4. Choose Seafood Wisely. The days when the bounty of the ocean was limitless are gone. Many fish species are threatened by overfishing. See The End of the Line for more information.

5. Buy Locally-grown Produce. Buying local produce supports local farmers, helps to maintain greenspace, and provides local jobs. Imported foods are transported thousands of miles, contributing to carbon emissions and pollution. Fruits and vegetables from other countries may have been sprayed with pesticides banned in North America or harvested by an exploited workforce. Choose organic food when possible. For more information, see Organic Food is For the Birds.

6. Avoid Bottled Water. All those bottles waste resources and add to landfills. Although recyclable, most water bottles are thrown in the garbage. Bottled water is no safer than tap water in the Toronto area. Sometimes it is tap water. Visit The Polaris Institute for more information about water issues.

7. Eat Less Meat. It takes about 2500 gallons of water and 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. Over 60% of U.S. grain is fed to livestock. Meat is an inefficient source of protein. “Factory farming” practices that crowd many animals into a small space promote the use of hormones and antibiotics that make their way into the food chain. A vegetarian or near-vegetarian diet is associated with a reduced risk of chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and hypertension.

8. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Take your own reusable shopping bags or bins with you when you go grocery shopping. The first defense against garbage and waste is not to accept unnecessary articles in the first place. Reduce your use of single-use items such as lighters, razors and other disposable items. Choose reusable items and look for recyclable materials. Recycle your newspapers and other items accepted by community recycling programs.

9. Buy Certified Forest Products. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is an international non-profit organization that supports the environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial, and economically viable management of the world’s forests. Forests are certified against a strict set of environmental and social standards. Producers and manufacturers along the supply chain are certified to ensure that the final product bearing the FSC logo actually originated from a certified forest. For more information, see www.fsccanada.org.

10. Get involved. Become informed about environmental issues. There are many great organizations, from large ones like the World Wildlife Fund to grassroots local causes in your own community. Donate funds to your favorites. Volunteer. Change won’t happen without you.

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I was out doing a bit of weeding in the garden the other day. The weeds had a bit of a start on me because I have been waiting for the hostas, which are slow to stand up and be counted, to let their presence be known. That’s my excuse, anyway. My mind was wandering as I tidied up around the hosta tips and a patch of daylilies, and my unattended hand reached out and grabbed a handful of errant greenery, intending to tug it out by the roots. YOW! Now I remember why I usually put on gardening gloves. Stinging nettle!

According to my guide book, brushing against stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) produces an immediate stinging pain and sometimes red welts, searing burns that seldom last long but can be intense for a few moments. When you actually grab hold of a handful of it, the nasty tingling and ‘pins and needles’ can last for a couple of days, speaking from personal experience. The ‘stingers’ are glandular hairs (trichomes), which cover the stem and leaf surfaces. The hairs have a bulb-like tip that breaks off when touched, exposing sharp little needles that inject chemical irritants from their basal sacs.

The ‘stingers’ mainly protect the plant from herbivores, but the plants are appreciated by a number of insects. In particular, the Question Mark (Polygonia interrogationis),the Eastern Comma (P. comma) and Milbert’s tortoiseshell (Nymphalis milberti) butterflies may feed on stinging nettle as caterpillars. Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) butterflies are said to rely quite exclusively on nettles. The caterpillars fold over a leaf and line it with silk. They use the leaf as a resting place and later pupate there.

Stinging nettle prefers open, sunny areas and is often found in the vicinity of gardens and dwellings. In North America, there is both a native subspecies (Urtica dioica gracilis) and an introduced European subspecies (U. d. dioica). Worldwide, there are 25 Urtica species. In Europe, nettle fibres were used for centuries to weave linen fabric. In World War I, Germany raised nettle to produce “nettle cloth”, for use in tents and other durable fabric products. Cooking removes the sting from the plant, and young shoots and tender top leaves can be eaten as greens. The leaves are rich in vitamins A and C and iron, and can be used to make a nutritious tea. This Nettles for Vitality post offers this information:

The leaves and stems of stinging nettles are rich in iron, potassium, manganese, calcium, iodine, beta-carotene, vitamin C, and the B-complex vitamins, and have long been used in northern climes to improve vitality. The Gaelic saint Columba favored nettle broth during his sojourn on Iona. Four centuries later and half a world away, the great Tibetan yogi Milarepa acquired a greenish complexion from years of subsisting entirely on nettle soup while meditating in a cave.

Some butterfly garden manuals recommend growing stinging nettle. In spite of its value, both as caterpillar food and a source of vitality, which really, I could use lots of, I’d sooner not have stinging nettles growing in my garden!

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