Archive for October, 2012


Tonka with spooky Hallowe’en neckerchief

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Horses are social animals. They want to be with their own kind. Loners are few and far between among equines. In a pinch, they’ll make do with the company of other animals if that’s the only choice. I sometimes pass this field where a flock of sheep are joined by a single horse. He has a proprietorial aire, often standing slightly apart from his sheep, as if he were a sheep-horse keeping watch over his flock.


In another area paddock, this pretty dappled draft horse has a llama for a companion.


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When this summer’s drought left the riverbed dry, it afforded the opportunity to look for freshwater mussels. Members of the Phylum Mollusca, mussels are related to snails, slugs, clams and oysters, and even octopuses. Mussels are sometimes called living filters. They play an important role in aquatic ecosystems by cleaning the water. They also provide food for assorted fish and wildlife such as raccoons.

There are 41 native species of mussels in Ontario. Of these, 28 species are in decline or threatened with extinction. Mussels are among the most endangered organisms in North America, threatened by many human activities from pollution to habitat destruction.

Perhaps the most severe threat to the native mussel population has been the introduction of the zebra mussel, an invasive species. Zebra mussels attach themselves to the shells of native mussels by the hundreds or even thousands, causing them to die from lack of oxygen or food. Native mussels have been nearly eliminated from much of the Great Lakes system and St. Lawrence river, as well as watersheds where zebra mussels have been introduced.


Eastern Floater (Pyganodon cataracta)

Freshwater mussels are the largest and longest-living freshwater invertebrates in North America. Their life spans can reach many decades. They occupy a wide variety of habitats, from small streams to lakes, but have their greatest diversity in large rivers, which supply a constant supply of oxygen and food and a variety of habitat types.

Mussels spend their lives buried in the substrate of their aquatic home. They feed by drawing water in through a siphon and passing it across gills to filter out small particles of algae and bacteria. The reproductive cycle of freshwater mussels is amazingly complex.

During spawning, males release sperm into the water and females living downstream take in the sperm through their siphons. Eggs are fertilized in a specialized portion of the female’s gills called marsupia. Embryos remain in the gills until they have reached a larval stage called glochidium.


Giant Floater (Pyganodon grandis)

When conditions are right, depending on temperature, photoperiod and time of year, the female mussel releases her glochidia into the water where they must quickly attach themselves to the gills or fins of an appropriate fish host. The glochidia then become encysted in the tissues of the host fish and get nourishment from its body fluids for a time ranging from a week to over 6 months.

They transform into juvenile mussels during this parasitic phase. Once metamorphosis is complete, the juvenile ruptures the cyst and falls to the river bottom, where it burrows into the mud and remains for the next few years. Most mussel species have only a few specific host species and the chances of a glochidiium surviving are low. Mussels produce millions of glochidia to improve the odds of some reaching adulthood.


Eastern Lampmussel (Lampsillis radiata)

I found evidence of 3 species in our local riverbed. Some of the Eastern Floater shells were quite large and sturdy, while the single Eastern Lampmussel I found was small and more fragile, a real beauty with striking green rays.

Mussels are an example of the astounding lives lived by so many creatures to which most of us are oblivious. Perhaps if Canadians had a greater awareness of the wonderful richness and diversity of life that surrounds us, and how little we know and understand it, they might be less apathetic regarding cuts to scientific research and the protection of waterways.


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Over the last week or so, I have been preoccupied with assorted small trials, including the extraction of a couple of wisdom teeth. While I have been distracted, the season has moved inexorably onward, with the leaves first changing colour and then falling to carpet the ground. One positive event has been the return of our small river. As the drought we suffered through this summer deepened, the stream began to dry up until, by mid-September, I was able to walk more than a kilometer up the dry stream bed.


I took the opportunity to see what lies hidden from the eye most of the time. The mud-bottomed river is perpetually cloudy, and one can’t enjoy watching the fish and other small waterlovers. During the drought, any fish were confined to small, increasingly oxygen-deprived puddles, where they were easy prey for raccoons. There were plenty of raccoon tracks along the river course.


Near our house, where there have been human inhabitants living near the river for more than a hundred years, the river bed was littered with broken glass and bottles. I took a couple of buckets and collected up a couple of large pails full of garbage, mostly glass but also a few shoe soles and sheets of plastic.


I soaked the glass in water for a few days so that I could clean up the glass a bit and put it out for recycling. When I was cleaning off the mud, I was surprised by a crayfish! He was perhaps hiding in one of the bottles. I put him in a pail and returned him to a puddle of water. He matched the colour of the muddy bottom perfectly.


The area north of here was hit harder than we were, and many farmers experienced a diminished harvest. With global warming bringing rising temperatures, it is likely we will experience hotter and drier summers more frequently.

Farming must be more dependent on reliable weather patterns than just about any other occupation. Unless you have been living in a hole at the bottom of the sea, you know that our current Conservative government has turned its back on Kyoto targets and is now failing to even meet their own downsized goals for emissions reduction. You might expect farmers to be circling their tractors on Parliament Hill, demanding action! But you would be wrong. At election time, rural areas are a sea of Conservative signboards. In effect, the farmers voted for drought. Very strange. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot with your unregistered long-gun.


It has been a comfort to see the river slowly return, first to a trickle and then to a small stream. I’m certain that all of those creatures who depend on its water for their very lives are unimaginably relieved. Here’s a Great Blue Heron that has returned to search for a meal once again. He watched me warily as I walked down the laneway, ready to make a quick escape.


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The Stone Angel

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Ligularia seedheads

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I’m a bit behind in posting these photos, which I took back in September. I was chatting with the blacksmith as he packed up his equipment when I glanced into the branches of the overhanging oak tree and noticed these round, light brown balls. They were about the size of golf balls, or a little smaller. I recognized them immediately as oak apple galls. I’ve looked for these before, but up till now, have found only oak bullet galls, which I wrote about here. Apple galls are larger in size, and house the larva of Amphibolips confluenta, a species of tiny gall wasp.


The best life cycle information I was able to find online tells this story: Adult wasps hatch from the galls in mid-summer. The males and females mate and then drop to the ground, where the females burrow into the soil and lay their eggs in the tree roots. Larvae hatch and live in the soil before pupating. Only wingless females hatch from the underground pupae. In spring, they crawl up the tree trunk and locate new leaves, where they inject an egg into the central vein. A tiny larva hatches inside the leaf bud, and as the leaf develops, the larva causes a chemical reaction inside the leaf that results in the formation of a gall around the larva.


The gall is thus made from a mutated leaf. Galls draw a disproportionate amount of nutrients from the tree and provide the larva with a rich supply of food, as well as a protective home. Each gall contains just one larva. When the larva is full-grown, it pupates within the gall and emerges as an adult wasp. These adult wasps have wings and can be either male or female. After drilling its way out of the gall by making a hole, each wasp finds a mate and starts the cycle again.

Wow, what a complex cycle. The galls do not injure the tree, and provide a perfect home for the larva. However, life is rarely simple. Galls are attacked by a host of predators and parasites who may occupy the gall at the expense of the original inhabitant.


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We have hiked out to the Rock Dunder lookout several times and promised ourselves to get back in the autumn to view the fall colours from this spectacular platform. A combination of bad weather and competing events postponed our return visit until this weekend. With the autumn leaves now rapidly giving way to the forces of rain and wind, we made a hike a priority and revisited the Rock Dunder trail last Friday.


It was interesting to visit the rocky woodland in a different season. The reindeer lichen (Cladina rangiferina), which was shrivelled and dried up in the summer, is now springing back to life in brilliant silver patches.


With less vegetation attracting attention, the trees themselves were more conspicuous. I hadn’t noticed this Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) on previous hikes.


The green fronds of Rock Polypody ferns (Polypodium virginianam) brighten rocky surfaces.


Patches of Pale Corydalis (Corydalis sempervirens), also known as Rock Harlequin, were growing amongst the lichens and mosses. This dainty looking plant is actually very tough. It produces pretty, tubular pink and yellow flowers held on long stems across the summer.


The effects of our hot, dry summer could be read in the number of dried out oak seedlings and brown juniper shrubs along the trail. Those junipers that survived the summer were now thriving after recent rains.


I noticed this patch of silk in a half-curled leaf on the trail. It’s probably a hiding place constructed by a spider.


Finally, we reached our destination, the Rock Dunder lookout, and were rewarded with a beautiful view. It was a cool day, so cool that we spotted a few snow flakes, and the open rock surface was windy, but we stopped long enough for a quick lunch and a hot cup of coffee. Here are a few photos taken from the lookout. Rock Dunder looks out over the northeast arm of Whitefish Lake, north of Gananoque, Ontario.






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late autumn afternoon

Late Autumn Afternoon

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When I was walking along the laneway, I noticed a streak of bright red in the grass and paused to investigate. The red turned out to be a congregation of Box Elder Bugs (Boisea trivittata) on an old branch. There were hundreds of nymphs in various stages of growth and a few adults tumbling over each other.

While many of us are inclined to call anything of a creepy-crawly nature a bug, strictly speaking, the term bug refers to a specific order of insects. While all bugs are insects, not all insects are bugs. Bugs belong to the order Hemiptera and are distinguished from other insects by their sucking, beaklike mouthparts and incomplete metamorphosis. Bug nymphs typically resemble adults although they don’t have wings and often have different colour patterns. Included in the order of bugs are cicadas and spittlebugs, aphids and mealybugs, stink bugs and squash bugs and water bugs.

If you look closely at this photograph, you will notice that the nymphs vary in size and details of their colour pattern, each variation representing a different stage or instar of growth.


Box Elder bugs could be called Manitoba Maple bugs around here. The trees that are known as Box Elder in the U.S. are actually Acer negundo. This species is unique among native maples in having compound leaves, and is known as the Manitoba Maple in Ontario.

Manitoba maples are plentiful here, and so are Box Elder bugs. These colourful bugs are often conspicous in the fall when they congregate in large numbers to hibernate and they sometimes manage to find their way indoors. I noticed a smaller number of Box Elder bugs on the side of the house, no doubt in search of comfortable winter lodgings.

For terrific images of Box Elder bugs laying eggs in spring, visit Seabrooke’s blog, The Marvelous in Nature, linked here.


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