Mar 232017
 

As we turn the corner into spring, let’s pause a moment to reflect back on the winter that’s been. For many people, the temperate weather was a blessing, with only moderate snowfall and temperatures well above average. Yes, the abnormally mild winter did make life easier for most of us. At the same time, however, any remaining climate skeptics need to accept the weather – both locally and continent-wide – for what it really was: yet more proof of climate change and climate chaos.

Record-warm temperatures and extreme weather events were the pattern across North America. While California received a deluge of biblical proportions and Arctic winter sea ice dwindled to record lows, a “record-setting record” was being established across the entire U.S. and much of Canada. No fewer than 1,151 record highs were set in the U.S. in February, compared to only two record lows. This translates into a  575-to-1 ratio of highs to lows, which is believed to be a record for the most lopsided monthly ratio in U.S. history. An increasing ratio of this kind is a hallmark of climate change. If the planet wasn’t warming, that ratio should remain constant at about 1-to-1. With each passing decade, record highs are outpacing record lows at an ever-increasing rate.

Since August 2015, only one month in the Kawarthas has been cooler than average. This past January and February were both nearly 5 C above normal. Not surprisingly, many migrants returned two to three weeks earlier than usual. The last days of February saw the arrival of turkey vultures, common grackles, red-winged blackbirds and killdeer – species we usually don’t see until the third week of March. As for robins, well, they had never left. Record numbers chose to overwinter in the Kawarthas this year, thanks mostly to the huge crop of wild grape.

Red-winged Blackbird – Karl Egressy

Early bird arrivals were only part of the “spring in February” story. Maple syrup producers in central Ontario were collecting and boiling sap two to three weeks earlier than usual; the buds scales of trembling aspens,  pussy willows, lilacs and silver maple opened; and snowdrops and crocuses began to poke above the snow in many gardens. However, despite all the climate chaos we’ve been seeing, an EKOS poll found that Canadians are less concerned about climate change than they were a decade ago. I suspect that one reason for this sad state of affairs is that weather reports almost never mention climate change and always frame mild temperatures in a positive context. Other than the odd interview with meteorologist David Phillips of Environment Canada, when do you hear weathercasters alerting viewers to the connection between extreme weather and the rising concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere? This is a shameful failure of weathercasters to fulfill their duty to the public. Imagine if doctors behaved this way with their patients!

With the caveat that climate change is disrupting the timing of events in nature, I would still like to remind readers of the mileposts of spring’s progression. Regardless of what the weather throws at us, the order of the events, which are listed chronologically, should remain the same.

Late March

·         It’s time to start indoor sowing of annuals for your pollinator garden. Some great species include Mexican sunflower (Tithonia), common sunflower (Helianthus annuus) and catnips (Nepeta).

·         For anyone paying attention, the increase in bird song is hard to miss. If you don’t already know the voices of common songsters like the American robin and the song sparrow, this is a great time to start learning them. Go to allaboutbirds.org, enter the name of the species, and click on the Sound tab.

·         With a bit of work, you should be able to find a dozen or more species of migrating waterfowl. Some hotspots include Little Lake, the Otonabee River, the Lakefield sewage lagoon on County Road 33 and Clear Lake at Young’s Point. Watch for ring-necked ducks, buffleheads, lesser scaup, common goldeneye, and both common and hooded mergansers.

Common Goldeneye male – Karl Egressy

April

·          April is a busy time for feeders. American tree sparrows, dark-eyed juncos and, later in the month, white-throated sparrows move north through the Kawarthas in large numbers. They can all be attracted by spreading millet or finch mix on the ground.

·         The yellow, dandelion-like flowers we see growing in roadside ditches in early April are a non-native species known as coltsfoot.

·         Peterborough Pollinators is hoping to see 150 pollinator gardens registered in Peterborough and area to help celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday. You can register an existing pollinator-friendly garden or commemorate the occasion by starting a new one. Go to PeterboroughPollinators.com/Register.

·         The Peterborough Garden Show runs from April 7 to 9 at the Evinrude Centre. Don’t miss Cathy Dueck’s talk entitled “Pollinators: What Every Gardener Should Know” at 10:30 a.m. on April 9.

·         Now is the time to put out nesting structures for stem-dwelling bee species. Commercially-made nests are available or you can make your own out of Phragmites stems. Seeds.ca/pollination is a great resource as is the 2017 Peterborough Pollinators Calendar, which is available at the Avant Garden Shop on Sherbrooke St. or by contacting Peterborough Pollinators.

·         Close to 30 species of birds are nesting this month. Among these are Canada geese, mallards, bald eagles, mourning doves and American robins.

·         For many rural residents, the return of the yellow-bellied sapsucker is hard to miss. This migratory woodpecker loves to hammer on resonant objects such as stovepipes to advertise ownership of territory and to attract a mate.

·         If the weather is mild, local wetlands come alive in early April with the clamorous calls of countless frogs. The first voice usually heard is that of the chorus frog. Within a few days, wood frogs, spring peepers, and leopard frogs add their voices to the symphony. To learn amphibian calls, go to naturewatch.ca. In the menu at the top of the page, click on FrogWatch, then “How-to Guide”, followed by “Identifying Frogs”.

·         Hepaticas are usually the first woodland wildflowers to bloom in the spring. The flowers can be pink, white or bluish in colour. The Stoney Lake Trails are a great place to see this species and many others. Park at 105 Reid’s Road.

·         The courtship flight of the American woodcock provides nightly entertainment in damp, open field habitats such as fields at the Trent Wildlife Sanctuary.

American Woodcock – Karl Egressy

May

·         A variety of interesting butterflies is already on the wing as May begins. These include the Compton tortoiseshell, the eastern comma and the mourning cloak. Try walking the new, 1.5 kilometre interpretive trail in Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park, which was established by Ontario Parks with the help of the Buckhorn Trails Association. The trailhead is at the parking lot/boat landing off County Road 36, just north of Buckhorn. It provides an excellent example of The Land Between ecoregion.

·         The yellow-gold flowers of marsh marigolds brighten wet habitats in early May. Later, white trilliums blanket woodlots throughout the Kawarthas. A closer look will reveal numerous other wildflowers, too, like yellow trout Lily. Ties Mountain Road north of Nogies Creek provides a great wildflower display.

·         The first ruby-throated hummingbirds usually return on about May 5, so be sure to have your feeders ready to greet them. Keep your sunflower feeders well-stocked, too, since rose-breasted grosbeaks and indigo buntings may just pay you a visit.

·         The long, fluid trills of the American toad can be heard day and night. They are one of the most characteristic sounds of early May. Later in the month, gray treefrogs serenade us with their slow, bird-like musical trills.

·         Watch for native solitary bees in your garden and yard. Some common species include sweat, mason, carpenter and orchard bees. The Peterborough Pollinators calendar will help you identify these tiny pollinators.

Peterborough Pollinator’s 2017 calendar is a great garden resource – Ben Wolfe

·         If you’re looking for pollinator plants for your garden, don’t miss the Peterborough Horticultural Society Plant Sale on May 13 at Westdale United Church (9 a.m. to noon) and the GreenUp Ecology Park sale on May 21 (noon to 4 p.m.)

·         Mid-May is the peak of songbird migration with the greatest numbers of warblers, vireos, thrushes, orioles, flycatchers and other neo-tropical migrants passing through. Mild, damp mornings usually provide the best viewing conditions. Beavermead and Ecology Park can often be quite productive.

·         Wild columbine blooms in late May on rocky hillsides and along roads and trails. The flowers, a beautiful blend of red and yellow, hang in bell-like fashion and are often visited by hummingbirds. The Nanabush Trail at Petroglyphs Provincial Park is worth checking out for late spring wildflowers, including pink lady’s slipper orchids.

·         The showy, yellow and black Canadian tiger swallowtail butterfly appears by month’s end and adds an exotic touch to our gardens.

June

·         In downtown Peterborough and Lakefield, Chimney swifts are putting on quite a show. Pairs can be seen in courtship flight as they raise their wings and glide in a V position.

Chimney Swift (Wikimedia)

·         Painted and snapping turtles are often seen along roadsides and rail-trails laying their eggs. Please slow down in turtle-crossing zones and, if it is safe, help the reptile across the road.

·         The first monarch butterflies are usually seen in June. Make sure you have some milkweed in your garden on which they can lay their eggs.

·         The summer solstice occurs on June 21 at 12:24 AM. The sun will rise and set farther north than on any other day of the year. Celebrate this profound celestial event with your family.

Dec 082016
 

Looking back at the fall of 2016, the warming trend that is affecting the entire planet was certainly noticeable in the Kawarthas. While the average temperature for October was only 1 C above normal (compared to the mean temperature for 1971 – 2000), both September and November were nearly 2 C warmer. In fact, 15 of the past 16 months in the Kawarthas have seen above-average temperatures. We need to remember that the Paris Agreement is based on limiting warming to 2 C, since the laws of physics clearly demonstrate that any warming above this threshold will almost certainly result in massive negative impacts to civilization as we know it. However, on a day-to-day basis, we experience this warming in only subtle ways and often welcome the milder temperatures. It is therefore difficult to fully comprehend and ‘feel’ the enormity of what’s occurring and harder still to support forceful action – like sufficiently aggressive carbon taxes – to mitigate the warming. The human brain has simply not evolved to react effectively to slow-motion phenomena like a changing climate.

Although it’s hard to know what kind of weather the coming months has in store for us, the nature events listed below are typical of an average winter in the Kawarthas.

Bald eagle eating a dead carp near Lock 25 on the Otonabee River.

Bald eagle eating a dead carp near Lock 25 on the Otonabee River.

DECEMBER

·         December 21 marks the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year and the first official day of winter. The sun rises at its southernmost point on the eastern horizon, and sets at its southernmost point in the west. Sunrise is not until 7:46 a.m. while sunset is already upon us by 4:37 p.m. This translates into a mere 8 hours and 51 minutes of daylight. The winter solstice was celebrated by ancient cultures throughout the northern hemisphere and, in the opinion of some, was a precursor to faith. Try to imagine how an early human would experience the solstice and the weeks leading up to it. In late fall, the hours of daylight are only half of what they are in June, and the Sun is rising and setting further south each day. At a time pre-dating modern science, it would have seemed that the Sun was on the brink of vanishing completely and utter darkness and oblivion would follow. However, the decrease in daylight suddenly stops! Instead of rising and setting further and further south, the Sun abruptly halts its southward march and appears to “stand still ” – the meaning of the word solstice – before proceeding to rise and set further north and to climb higher in the sky. If anything was worthy of celebration, this certainly was.

·         Cassiopeia looms like a towering letter “M” in the north sky in the evening. The Inuit imagined the shape of this constellation as stairs sculpted in the snow.

·         Overwintering ducks, along with deer carcasses, are an important source of food for bald eagles that spend the winter in the Kawarthas. Watch for them along the Otonabee River and in the vicinity of Jack, Katchewanooka, Buckhorn, and Stony Lakes. Eagles are sometimes seen sitting on the ice beside open water, perched in nearby trees, or soaring overhead.

·         Robins should be quite plentiful this winter. The fruits that constitute the robin’s winter diet – mountain-ash, buckthorn, and especially wild grape – are abundant.

·         At most city feeders, the number and variety of birds have decreased since the heady days of October. White-throated and white-crowned sparrows, along with most of our blue jays, are now on their wintering grounds in the southern U.S. Although a few scattered flocks of pine grosbeaks have shown up in recent weeks, there is no indication yet of a major incursion of finches such as redpolls or pine siskins.

·         Take a drive along River Road north to Lakefield to look for ducks such as goldeneyes and mergansers. Little Lake in Peterborough is also worth checking. A red-throated loon has been there since late November.

·         With Christmas wreaths and planters everywhere, December is a great month to learn to identify our native conifers. Here are three simple memory aids that link the sound of letters in the trees’ name to its characteristics : pine needles are long like ‘pins’; spruce needles ‘spiral’ around the twig and are ‘spiky’; while fir needles are ‘flat’ and very ‘flexible’.

·         Christmas Bird Counts take place across North America this month. The Peterborough count will be held on December 18, while the Petroglyphs count is slated for December 27. A special Christmas Bird Count for kids will take place at Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park on December 17. It will be a morning of birding, campfires and hot chocolate! To register, please email shannon.mcgaffey@ontario.ca

·         Scattered twigs on the ground below conifers are a sure sign of red squirrel activity. The squirrels are after the buds and cones on the twigs.

JANUARY

·         Watch for ruffed grouse perched high in trees at dawn and dusk. The birds often appear in silhouette as they feed on buds such as those of trembling aspen.

·         Winter is a good time to make plans for additions to your gardens. If you’re interested in attracting more bees and butterflies, you may wish to pick up a copy of the 2017 Peterborough Pollinators Calendar – A 12-Month Guide to Pollinator Gardens and Backyard Nature. The calendars are available at Avant-Garden Shop, Hunter Street Books, Peterborough GreenUp, Chapters and Happenstance in Lakefield.

·         The Peterborough Field Naturalist’s 76th Annual General Meeting takes place on January 20. Leora Burman will speak on ‘The Land Between’. Contact Jim Young at 705-760-9397 for tickets. You will also find more information at peterboroughnature.org

·         Coyotes are quite vocal during their January to March mating season.

·         On January 25, Marcy Adzich will speak at the Peterborough Horticultural Society on “Edible Urban Ecology: Food Forests and Beekeeping in our Urban Community” For more information, visit peterboroughhort.com

·         If you’re walking in the woods, you’ll notice that some of the trees have retained many of their leaves. These are usually beech, oak, or ironwood.

American beech in winter. Note lingering leaves. Photo by Drew Monkman

American beech in winter. Note lingering leaves. Photo by Drew Monkman

·         Barred owls sometimes show up in rural backyards and prey on feeder birds or mice and voles that attracted at night by fallen seeds.

Barred Owl on cottontail - Jeff Keller - 01 24 14

Barred Owl on eastern cottontail in backyard near Lakefield – Jeff Keller – 01 24 14

FEBRUARY

·         Groundhog Day, February 2, marks the mid-point of winter. In case you were wondering, no animal or plant behaviour can portend upcoming weather beyond a few hours.

·         On February 8, Basil Conlin will speak to the Peterborough Field Naturalists on mothing in Peterborough. To date, he has found an amazing 560 species. More information at peterboroughnature.org

·         Although tentative at first, bird song returns in February as pair bonds are established or renewed. Black-capped chickadees, northern cardinals, and white-breasted nuthatches are usually the first species to start singing this month.

·         Gray squirrels mate in January or February and can often be seen streaming by in treetop chases as a group of males chases a half-terrorized female.

·         The Great Backyard Bird Count takes place February 17-20. This citizen science event engages bird watchers of all levels of expertise to create a real-time snapshot of the whereabouts and relative abundance of birds in mid-winter. Anyone can participate. Go to birdcount.org for details.

·         Watch for river otters in winter around areas of flowing water. Their trough-like, snow-slide trails are often seen on embankments or even flat ground.

River otter eating a fish at Gannon's Narrows, Buckhorn Lake (by Kinsley Hubbs)

River otter eating a fish at Gannon’s Narrows, Buckhorn Lake (by Kinsley Hubbs)

·         Late February is courtship time for ravens. Males engage in aerial nuptial displays, diving and twisting like corkscrews over Canadian Shield country.

·         On mild, sunny, late winter days, check the snow along the edge of woodland trails for snow fleas. What looks like spilled pepper may begin to jump around right before your eyes!

·         Testosterone-charged male skunks roll out of their dens any time from mid-February to early March and go on nocturnal prowls looking for females. The smell of a skunk on a damp, late winter night is a time-honoured sign of “pre-spring.”

·         By month’s end, spring has sprung for overwintering monarchs in the mountains of Mexico. As lengthening days trigger the final development of the butterflies’ reproductive system, male monarchs begin zealously courting females. In December, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada recommended that the monarch be listed by the federal government as Endangered.

EARLY MARCH

·          Duck numbers increase as buffleheads and hooded mergansers start arriving.

·         Chipmunks make their first appearance above ground since late fall. They did remain somewhat active all winter, however, making repeated trips to their underground storehouses for food.

·         On March 8, Peter Mills will speak to the Peterborough Field Naturalists on the larval life of frogs, toads and salamanders. He is the author of “Metamorphosis”. More info at peterboroughnature.org

·         The furry catkins of pussy willows and aspens poke through bud scales and become a time-honoured sign of spring’s imminent arrival.

·         The first songbirds, too, usually return by mid-month. In the city, the most notable new arrivals are robins and grackles. In rural areas, watch for red-winged blackbirds perched high in wetland trees.

 

 

Sep 152016
 

Looking back at the summer of 2016, two words come immediately come to mind: drought and heat. August was a whopping 3.7 C warmer than the 1971-2000 average, while as of this week, September is about 3 C above normal temperatures. As for precipitation, July only saw one-third of normal rainfall. Precipitation was heavier in August but still only about half of what our region usually receives.

Drought - August 2016 - Drew-Monkman

Drought – August 2016 – Drew-Monkman

The combination of drought and intense heat was hard on our flora and fauna. Entire fields turned a ubiquitous brown, which meant that butterflies struggled to find nectar and healthy plants to lay eggs on. Monarchs may have been especially hard hit as only a handful of sightings were reported over most of the summer. Numbers have increased somewhat in recent weeks, however. On September 5, for example, I had three monarchs visiting my garden together. According to Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch, the continent-wide data to this point suggest that this year will be a repeat of 2014 with a significant decline in both migration and overwintering numbers.

The drought has also resulted in a number of trees changing colour and/or shedding leaves much earlier than usual. Oaks growing in the thin soils northern Peterborough County have suffered with many trees turning a sickly shade of brown. Most should be able to recover, however, as long as precipitation levels return to normal this fall and over the coming winter and spring.

The drought has also been hard on birds and other animals as fewer young have been able to survive. A lack of nuts and berries, for example, is proving difficult for bears, which may result in more conflicts with humans as they search for food. Lower water levels and increased water temperatures have been hard on fish, too, especially cold-water species like brook trout. As water levels dropped in wetlands, frogs were more vulnerable to predators such as herons and raccoons, while some turtles were forced to roam widely afield in search of appropriate habitat. It’s likely that many did not survive the journey.

In other news this summer, a new species of butterfly was recorded for Peterborough County. On June 21, Jerry Ball and Ken Morrison found a female pipevine swallowtail on Sandy Lake Road, off Highway 46 north of Havelock. This species is usually restricted to the Carolinian zone of southwestern Ontario. With climate change, more and more butterflies are extending their range northward. The giant swallowtail is a well-known example.

The common loons that nested on the Otonabee River, just north of Lock 25, appear to have been successful in raising their two young. On August 19, Dave Milsom observed and photographed the two juvenile loons with an adult. The young loons were constantly flapping their wings in preparation for their first flight.

There was also encouraging news regarding chimney swifts, a species at risk in Ontario. In a citizen science monitoring program known as Swift Watch, Dan Williams observed 123 swifts entering a chimney behind Wildrock on Charlotte Street. On June 6, Ariel Lenske saw 83 birds fly into the same roost, where they spend the night.

Finally, Loggerhead Marsh, located on Ireland Drive in west-end Peterborough, has just been classified as a provincially significant wetland. This designation normally means that no structures can be built within a 120 m buffer zone bordering the wetland. This is welcome news for such a rich and easily accessible nature-viewing destination.

As the autumn equinox quickly approaches, here is a list of events in nature that are typical of fall in the Kawarthas. If the mild weather continues, however, some events may occur later than usual. Not surprisingly, this has become the norm as climate change tightens its grip.

Late September

  • Fall songbird migration is in full swing. Migrants such as warblers are often in mixed flocks with chickadees and can be coaxed in for close-up views by using “pishing”. To see and hear this birding technique in action, go to http://bit.ly/2cpznE8
  • Broad-winged hawks migrate south over the Kawarthas in mid-September, especially on sunny days with cumulous clouds and northwest winds. Watch for high-altitude “kettles”, which is a group of hawks soaring and circling in the sky. For your best chance of seeing this phenomenon, consider a trip to Cranberry Marsh, located on Halls Road at the Lynde Shores Conservation Area in Whitby. Expert hawk watchers are on hand each day. Thousands of broad-wings pass over this area in mid-month every year.
  • Peterborough Field Naturalists hold their Sunday Morning Nature Walks this month and next. Meet at the Riverview Park and Zoo parking lot at 8 am and bring binoculars. For more information, go to peterboroughnature.org
  • As the goldenrods begin to fade, asters take centre stage. The white flowers of heath and calico asters, along with the purple and mauve blossoms of New England and heart-leaved asters provide much of the show. Visit ontariowildflowers.com for tips on identifying these beautiful but under appreciated plants.

    A Monarch butterfly drinks nectar from a New England Aster - Tim Dyson

    A Monarch butterfly drinks nectar from a New England Aster – Tim Dyson

  • Listen for the constant calling of blue jays and the metronome-like “chuck-chuck…” call of chipmunks. The call is often given in response to danger such as the presence of a hawk. Chipmunk numbers are high this year, partly because of a strong acorn crop last fall, which allowed most of these small squirrels to overwinter successfully and have large litters.

October

  • Fall colours in the Kawarthas usually peak early in the month. However, because of the hot, dry weather this summer, leaf colour is expected to be more muted than usual. County Roads 620 and 504 around Chandos Lake east of Apsley makes for a great colour drive.
  • Sparrow migration takes centre stage, making October one of the busiest times of the year for backyard feeders. Scatter millet or finch mix on the ground to attract dark-eyed juncos and both white-throated and white-crowned sparrows.
  • On October 12, Mike McMurtry, a recently retired ecologist from the Natural Heritage Information Centre, will be speaking to the Peterborough Field Naturalists on “Learning the Plants of the Kawarthas”. The talk will provide tips for identification and conclude with a quiz. The presentation begins at 7:30 pm at the Camp Kawartha Environment Centre on Pioneer Road. Everyone is welcome.
  • Fall is a great time to find salamanders. The red-backed, which is almost worm-like in appearance, is usually the most common. Look carefully under flat rocks, old boards, and logs in damp wooded areas and around cottages.

    Red-backed Salamander - Drew Monkman

    Red-backed Salamander – Drew Monkman

  • A tide of yellow spreads across the landscape in mid- through late October. The colour is supplied courtesy of trembling and bigtooth aspens, balsam poplar, silver maple, white birch, and, at month’s end, tamarack.
  • As ducks move southward, consider a visit to the Lakefield sewage lagoons, which are located on County Road 33, just south of Lakefield. Just be careful to avoid blocking the gate when you park. Goldeneye, buffleheads, scaup and mergansers are often present in large numbers. If you have a spotting scope, be sure to take it along.

    Common Goldeneye male - Karl Egressy

    Common Goldeneye male – Karl Egressy

  • If you find a Halloween bat in your house, it is probably a big brown. This species often overwinters in buildings. Little browns, on the other hand, choose caves and abandoned mines as winter quarters. Their population is in a free-fall because of White Nose Syndrome. Big browns are less susceptible to the disease.
  • The first northern finches usually start turning up in late October. To learn which species to expect this fall and winter, Google “winter finch forecast 2016-2017”. The forecast, compiled by Ron Pittaway, is usually available online by early October.

November

  • Oaks, tamaracks and silver maples are about the only native deciduous trees that still retain foliage in early November. The brownish-orange to burgundy leaves of red oaks stand out with particular prominence. At a glance, you can see just how common oaks are in many areas of the Kawarthas.

    Oak leaves - Evolution has made them deeply lobed and leathery. (Drew Monkman)

    Oak leaves – Evolution has made them deeply lobed and leathery. (Drew Monkman)

  • We return to Standard Time on November 5th and turn our clocks back one hour. Sunrise on the 5th is at 7:56 am and sunset at 5:57 pm for a total of only 10 hours of daylight. Compare this to the 15 1/2 hours we enjoyed back in June!
  • The red berries of wetland species like winterberry holly and high-bush cranberry provide some much needed November colour.
  • Most of our loons and robins head south this month. However, small numbers of robins regularly overwinter in the Kawarthas. Their numbers should be particularly high this year, thanks to a plentiful wild grape crop. Grapes are a staple food for winter robins.

    Riverbank (Wild) Grape - Drew Monkman

    Riverbank (Wild) Grape – Drew Monkman

  • Ball-like swellings known as galls are easy to see on the stems of goldenrods. If you open the gall with a knife, you will find the small, white larva of the goldenrod gall fly inside. In the spring, it will emerge as an adult fly.
  • Damp, decomposing leaves on the forest floor scent the November air.
  • With the onset of cold temperatures, wood frogs, gray treefrogs, chorus frogs, and spring peepers take shelter in the leaf litter of the forest floor and literally become small blocks of amphibian ice. Glycerol, acting as an antifreeze, inhibits freezing within the frogs’ cells.

I would like to thank Martin and Kathy Parker, Tim Dyson, Cathy Dueck and Jacob Rodenburg for having done such an admirable job filling in for me this summer. We are fortunate in the Kawarthas to have so many people with extensive knowledge of the natural world.

 

Mar 172016
 

For most anyone who enjoys the unfolding of a new season, spring stands head and shoulders above any other time of year. The greening of the landscape and explosion of animal life never fails to amaze. Spring is a season that regales all of the senses. Our ears reawaken to the chorus of bird and amphibian love song; our eyes delight in the return of leaves and flowers; our noses are tickled by the smell of lilac and balsam poplar; our taste buds are charmed by the first asparagus and strawberries; and our skin is enlivened by the first warm rains.

As spring advances, the Earth’s axis tilts increasingly toward the Sun. This results in a huge increase in the amount of heating of the northern hemisphere. The more direct solar radiation greatly accelerates photosynthesis and causes new plant growth to “spring forth” – hence the name of the new season. The green bounty fuels the entire food chain from caterpillars to songbirds.

Although the vernal equinox is not until Sunday, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking that spring has been with us now for weeks. Peterborough has been abnormally warm this winter. December’s average temperature was a staggering 8 C above normal, while January and February were both about 2 C higher than usual. March has already produced double-digit warmth on many days. Globally, the last three months were the most abnormally warm on record for any month. February’s global temperature departure of 1.35 degrees Celsius above the 1951-1980 average topped the previous records just set in January and December.

As a reminder of what to watch for in nature, I’m offering some mileposts of the spring months. If the unseasonable warmth continues, however, many of these events are likely to occur earlier than usual. Regardless of what the weather throws at us, the order of the events, which are listed chronologically, should remain the same.

Scarlet tanagers arrive back in the Kawarthas in mid-May (photo by Karl Egressy)

Scarlet tanagers arrive back in the Kawarthas in mid-May (photo by Karl Egressy)

 

Late March

  • The buds of shrubs and trees like lilac, red-berried elder, red maple, and silver maple swell noticeably this month.
  • Temperate zone migrants that overwintered in the U.S. are returning. In the city, the most notable new arrivals are robins and grackles. In rural areas, watch for red-winged blackbirds perched high in wetland trees. Listen, too, for the long, clear whistle of the eastern meadowlark and, in some areas, the rattling, bugle-like call of the sandhill crane. Wherever you are, keep an eye skyward for turkey vultures soaring northward.
  • For anyone paying attention, the increase in bird song is hard to miss. If you don’t already know the voices of common songsters like the American robin and the song sparrow, this is a great time to start learning them. Go to allaboutbirds.org, enter the name of the species, and click on the Sound tab.
  • Migrating waterfowl numbers are peaking early this year. With a bit of work, you should be able to find a dozen or more species. For mostly diving ducks, some hotspots include Little Lake, the Otonabee River, Lake Katchewanooka, Gannon Narrows, and Clear Lake at Young’s Point. Ring-necked ducks, buffleheads, lesser scaup, common goldeneye, and both common and hooded mergansers dominate. Puddle ducks such as northern pintails, American black ducks, green-winged teal and American wigeon often congregate in flooded fields such as the meltwater pond that forms each year at Mather’s Corners, located at the junction of County Road 2 and Drummond Line.
  • The spring equinox occurs on March 20 as the sun shines directly on the equator. Both the moon and sun rise due east and set due west, and day and night are nearly equal in duration.

April

  • April is a busy time for feeders. American tree sparrows and dark-eyed juncos move north through the Kawarthas in large numbers, sometimes accompanied by the beautiful, thrush-like fox sparrow. All of these species will occasionally break into song.
  • The yellow, dandelion-like flowers we see growing in roadside ditches in early April are a non-native species known as coltsfoot.
  • Close to 30 species of birds will be nesting this month. Among these are the Canada goose, mallard, bald eagle, red-tailed hawk, killdeer, American crow, blue jay, mourning dove, American robin, European starling, common grackle, northern cardinal, house finch, and house sparrow.
  • For many rural residents, the return of the yellow-bellied sapsucker is hard to miss. This migratory woodpecker loves to hammer on resonant objects such as stovepipes to advertise ownership of territory and to attract a mate.
  • If the weather is mild, local wetlands come alive in early April with the clamorous calls of countless frogs. The first voice usually heard is that of the chorus frog, which sounds like someone running their thumb over the teeth of a comb. Within a few days, wood frogs, spring peepers, and leopard frogs add their voices to the symphony. To learn amphibian calls, go to naturewatch.ca. In the menu at the top of the page, click on “identifying frogs”.

    Spring Peeper (John Urquhart)

    Spring Peeper (John Urquhart)

  • If you want to see and photograph beautiful spotted and blue-spotted salamanders, wait for a mild, rainy night when the first frogs are calling. Drive slowly along back roads that pass through low woodlands with nearby swamps or flooded ditches. Keep a close eye on the pavement or gravel for salamanders. Stop and walk with flashlights when you start seeing them.
  • When water temperatures reach 7 C, walleye begin to spawn. Along with white suckers, they can sometimes be seen spawning at night at Lock 19 in Peterborough.
  • Hepaticas are usually the first woodland wildflowers to bloom in the spring. The flowers can be pink, white or bluish in colour. Bloodroot will join the wildflower parade soon after.

    Hepatica - Drew Monkman

    Hepatica – Drew Monkman

  • White-throated sparrows are passing through by late April. They are easily attracted to feeders, as long as you scatter millet or finch mix on the ground. Listen for their high-pitched, whistled “Oh sweet Canada” song.
  • Elm trees are in flower and look like they are covered with myriad brown raindrops. The small, wind-pollinated flowers are clustered in tassels.
  • The courtship flight of the American woodcock provides nightly entertainment in damp, open field habitats such as fields at the Trent Wildlife Sanctuary.
  • By month’s end, the first migrants from the tropics arrive. Listen for the boisterous song of the northern waterthrush in shrubby swamps it’s one of the easiest warbler songs to learn.

 

May

 

  • A variety of interesting butterflies are already on the wing as May begins. These include the Compton tortoiseshell, the eastern comma and the mourning cloak. Try Charlie Allen Road off County Road 507, north of Flynn’s Turn.
  • The yellow-gold flowers of marsh marigolds, also called cowslips, brighten wet habitats throughout the Kawarthas.
  • The first ruby-throated hummingbirds usually return to the Kawarthas on about May 5, so be sure to have your feeders ready to greet them. To prepare nectar, mix 1 part sugar with four parts water and boil for one minute. Extra sugar water can be stored in the fridge.
  • The long, fluid trills of the American toad can be heard day and night. They are one of the most characteristic sounds of early May.
  • Drooping in tassel-like clusters, countless thousands of tiny yellow flowers decorate sugar maples. The female flowers will produce plump, paired keys.
  • The damp morning air is rich with the sweet, pungent fragrance of balsam poplar resin. The scent originates from the sticky sap that oozes from the buds as they open.
  • Mid-May is the peak of songbird migration with the greatest numbers of warblers, vireos, thrushes, orioles, flycatchers and other neo-tropical migrants passing through. Mild, damp mornings usually provide the best viewing conditions. In Peterborough, try Beavermead Park.
  • Rose-breasted grosbeaks often show up at sunflower feeders this month. Stunning indigo buntings may also make a guest appearance.
  • Sounding remarkably like birds, gray treefrogs serenade us with their slow, musical trills.
  • The blossoms of white trilliums blanket woodlots throughout the Kawarthas. A closer look will reveal numerous other wildflowers, too, like yellow trout lily. Ties Mountain Road north of Nogies Creek provides a great wildflower display.
  • The last frost in the Kawarthas usually occurs about May 18.
  • Wild columbine is now in bloom on rocky hillsides and along roads and trails. The flowers, a beautiful blend of red and yellow, hang in a bell-like fashion and are often visited by hummingbirds.
  • A blizzard of elm and silver maple seeds spin to the ground.
  • The showy, yellow and black Canadian tiger swallowtail butterfly appears by month’s end and adds an exotic touch to our gardens.

 

June

  • The roadside flower parade that began with coltsfoot and dandelions continues with mustards, buttercups and, by mid-month, ox-eye daisies and dame’s rocket.
  • In downtown Peterborough and Lakefield, chimney swifts are putting on quite a show. Pairs can be seen in courtship flight as they raise their wings and glide in a V position.

    Chimney Swift (Wikimedia)

    Chimney Swift (Wikimedia)

  • Birdsong is at its most diverse. If you have a cottage or live in the country, get up about 45 minutes before sunrise, grab a coffee and go outside to enjoy the dawn chorus – the fervent birdsong that takes place each morning before and just after the sun comes up. How many different songs and calls can you hear?
  • Smallmouth, largemouth and rock bass, along with pumpkinseeds and bluegills, are spawning and can be seen guarding their shallow-water nests.
  • Painted and snapping turtles are often seen along roadsides and rail-trails laying their eggs. Please slow down in turtle-crossing zones and, if it is safe, help the reptile across the road.
  • The male cones of white and red pines release their pollen. Decks, picnic tables and shorelines look like they’ve been powdered with a yellow dust.
  • The first monarch butterflies are usually seen in June. Make sure you have some milkweed in your garden on which they can lay their eggs.
  • More than 20 species of orchids bloom this month. Among them is the spectacular showy lady’s slipper.
  • The summer solstice occurs on June 20. The sun will rise and set farther north than on any other day of the year. Celebrate this profound celestial event with your family.

 

Oct 012015
 

Sitting down at the computer this week to write my column was a real pleasure, especially after an absence of 10 months. I used my time away to work on a nature activity guide entitled “The Big Book of Nature Activities: A Year-round Guide to Outdoor Learning”, which should be out next spring. My co-author on the book is Jacob Rodenburg, Executive Director of Camp Kawartha. I would like to thank Martin and Kathy Parker, Rick Stankiewicz, Tim Dyson, Paul Elliott, Jim Schaefer and Lisa Nisbet for having done such an admirable job filling in for me. We are extremely fortunate in the Kawarthas to have so many knowledgeable and committed people when it comes to interpreting the wonder and importance of the natural world.

As I have often done over the years, I have decided this week to present some mileposts of fall’s progression. These are a reminder of what events we can anticipate in the flora and fauna of the Kawarthas over the coming weeks. If the mild weather we are currently experience continues, however, some events may be delayed. We shouldn’t be surprised. Departures from the norm are what we’ve come to expect in a time of climate change.

Early October

·         On an average year, fall colours in the Kawarthas reach their height at or about Thanksgiving. As of September 24, the Fall Colour Progression Report (posted on www.ontariotravel.net) was reporting about a 20% colour change for the trees in our area. County Roads 620 and 504 around Chandos Lake east of Apsley make for a great colour drive.

·         Sparrow migration takes centre stage this month, making October one of the busiest times of the year for backyard feeders. Scatter millet or finch mix on the ground to attract Dark-eyed Juncos and both White-throated and White-crowned Sparrows.

White-crowned Sparrow - Wikimedia

White-crowned Sparrow – Wikimedia

·         As the goldenrods quickly fade away, asters dominate (and conclude!) the year’s wildflower show. The generally white flowers of Heath and Calico asters, along with the purple or mauve blossoms of New England and Heart-leaved asters seem to be everywhere. Go to ontariowildflowers.com for excellent tips on identifying asters.

·         Watch and listen for mixed flocks of Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned kinglets, Brown Creepers, Dark-eyed Juncos, White-throated Sparrows, and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Our local rail-trails are a great place to see these birds. Listen for contact calls and use pishing.

·         October is a great time to find salamanders. The Red-backed, which is almost worm-like in appearance, is usually the most common. Both Spotted and Blue-spotted are also present, however. Look carefully under flat rocks, old boards, and logs in damp wooded areas and around cottages.

Mid-October

·         Flocks of “Giant” Canada geese (the subspecies that nests in the Kawarthas), RIng-billed Gulls, Red-winged Blackbirds, American Crows, and American Robins are widespread.

·         Small numbers of Golden Eagles pass through the Kawarthas from mid-October to early November and are always an exciting find.

·         Mid- through late October is a time of yellows. The colour is supplied courtesy of Trembling and Bigtooth aspens, Balsam Poplar, Silver Maple, White Birch, and, at month’s end, Tamarack.

Late October

·         Southbound diving ducks stop and linger on our larger lakes such as Pigeon and Rice. The best place to see them, however, is the Lakefield sewage lagoon on County Road 33, just south of Lakefield. Goldeneye, Buffleheads, scaup and mergansers are the most common species seen.

·         Red Squirrels spend a lot of time in the fall nipping off cone-bearing twigs on evergreens. These “nip twigs” are scattered all over the ground. The cones are removed and stored as winter food.

·         If you find a Halloween bat in your house, it is probably a Big Brown. This species often overwinters in buildings. Little Browns, on the other hand, choose caves and abandoned mines as winter quarters. Their population is in a free-fall because of White Nose Syndrome. Big Browns are less susceptible to the disease.

·         The first northern finches usually start turning up about now. According to Ron Pittaway’s annual Winter Finch Forecast, we may see Common Redpolls and Pine Grosbeaks moving south into our area this fall and winter. Some grosbeaks have already turned up in Ennismore, where they were seen feeding on mountain-ash berries.

Pine Grosbeak - Wikimedia

Pine Grosbeak – Wikimedia

Early November

·         Oaks, tamaracks and Silver Maples are about the only native deciduous trees that still usually retain some their foliage in early November. The brownish-orange to burgundy-coloured leaves of Red Oaks stand out with particular prominence. At a glance, you can see just how common oaks are in many areas of the Kawarthas.

·         We return to Standard Time on November 1 and turn our clocks back one hour. Sunrise on November 1 is at 6:50 AM and sunset at 5:03 PM for a total of only 10 hours and 13 minutes of daylight. This is one-third less daylight than the 15 1/2 hours we enjoyed back in June!

·         The red berries of wetland species like Winterberry Holly and High-bush Cranberry provide some much needed November colour.

·         Red-tailed Hawks, mainly from the boreal forest of northern Canada, migrate south into the United States. On a good day, hundreds can be seen flying along the north shore of Lake Ontario at places like Lynde Shores Conservation Area in Whitby. Many Red-tails in the Kawarthas are resident birds, however, and don’t migrate.

Mid-November

·         Most of our loons and robins head south. However, small numbers of robins regularly overwinter in the Kawarthas. There may be fewer this year, because the Wild Grape crop – grapes are a staple food for winter robins – is poor due to late frosts last spring.

·         Ball-like swellings known as galls are easy to see on the stems of goldenrods. If you open the gall with a knife, you will find the small, white larva of the Goldenrod Gall Fly inside. In the spring, it will emerge as an adult fly.

Late November

·         Some years (2014/2015, for example), there is an influx of Barred Owls into the Kawarthas about now. This may be linked to a decrease in mice and vole numbers in northern Ontario. Snowy Owls may turn up as well, as they have the past two winters.

·         Damp, decomposing leaves on the forest floor scent the November air. The smell of manure is often present, too, as farmers spread manure on their fields in the fall.

·         With the onset of cold temperatures, Wood Frogs, Gray Treefrogs, Chorus Frogs, and Spring Peepers take shelter in the leaf litter of the forest floor and literally become small blocks of amphibian ice – what I like to call frogsicles! Surprisingly, the ice does not harm the animals because it forms in the body cavities outside of the cells. Glycerol, acting as an antifreeze, inhibits freezing within the frogs’ cells.

Gray Treefrog - Wkimedia

Gray Treefrog – Wkimedia

 

 

 

 

Nov 062014
 

We don’t often think of November as a particularly interesting month. For many, it’s simply the grey, damp interval between the dazzling leaves of October and the swirl of lights and decorations of December. For me, however, late fall has always been a favourite time of year. I love the change of pace and the sense of nature slowing down. Most migratory birds have departed and insect activity has been reduced to a few hardy moths and dragonflies. Gone are the dramatic day-to-day changes in leaf colour that enlivened the landscape just a few short weeks ago. With the veil of foliage now lifted, what stands out are nature’s fundamentals – sky, water, soil, rock and tree

Common Raven - Wikimedia

Common Raven – Wikimedia

With these November thoughts in mind, I took advantage of last Sunday’s beautiful weather to go for a long walk. And what better place to explore the outdoors than the Shield country of Big Gull Lake, where my wife and I were spending the weekend. It’s such a pleasure at this time of year to walk freely, unencumbered by summer’s heat and insects or winter’s snow and ice. The cool, invigorating air infuses your every step with new-found energy. But rather than focus on exercise or species’ identification, I decided to concentrate on walking mindfully and being fully aware of the simple pleasures of sight, sound and smell.

Sound
Other than the rhythm of my own footsteps on the dirt road, I was surrounded by what seemed like total silence. There was no rattle or buzz of insects and no singing birds. Man-made sounds, too, were absent. No chain saws, no ATVs, and no outboard motors. But I soon realized that this November day did indeed have a voice; its voice was the wind. And it wasn’t one wind but many: the roar of high-altitude gusts that sent clouds scurrying across the sky, the murmur of softer breezes in the pine boughs overhead and especially the constant crackle and rustle of air rushing through the dry leaves. About the only other sounds that came my way were the croaking of a distant raven, the explosion of wings of a startled Ruffed Grouse and the loud scolding of a disgruntled Red Squirrel.

Oaks are among the last trees to lose their leaves in fall - Drew Monkman

Oaks are among the last trees to lose their leaves in fall – Drew Monkman

As much as I love the soundscape of the natural world, I also take pleasure in the absence of sound. The stillness of late fall somehow makes us more aware of the ancient rhythms of the land as nature settles down for winter. How rare it is anymore to ever enjoy real quiet, removed from the cacophony of man-made noise to which we’ve become so fully habituated. As Sigurd Olson, an American writer and conservationist once said: “In the end we turn to nature in a frenzied chaotic world to find silence, oneness, wholeness, and spiritual release.”

Sight
On such a spectacular sunny day, I couldn’t help but notice the special quality of the light. November light is different. It is not the harsh, mid-day glare of summer that blazes down upon us from straight above. November light comes to us aslant, casting long shadows in its course. A quick glance at the sun explains why. Even at noon, the late-fall sun is little more than half way between the horizon and the sky’s zenith.

 Cottage road in November. Note the long shadows, even at noon - D. Monkman


Cottage road in November. Note the long shadows, even at noon – D. Monkman

Even though I’ve walked this road countless times, late fall always surprises me with new vistas and natural features I’ve never noticed before. With most of the leaves now fallen, the outline of distant hills and valleys seemed somehow different. Even the roadside woods appeared bigger and invited exploration. Where only recently there was a curtain of greenery, I could now make out granite ridges, scattered erratics (huge stones left behind by the glaciers), newly fallen trees and even some woodland ponds that I’d never seen before. But more than anything, the forest interior was mostly a play of dark tree trunks, long shadows and fallen leaves. What really caught my attention, however, was how the angled November sunshine magnified the oak leaves’ natural glaze and made them sparkle like diamonds. Even the individual leaves on the road’s surface blazed like tiny flares.
Scattered about the forest floor, I also noticed numerous oases of greenery. Some were patches of green moss on a rock or log, but there were also clumps of evergreen ferns like Wood Fern and Rock Polypody, club-mosses such as Ground-pine and Ground-cedar, and evergreen wildflowers like Hepatica and Wintergreen. It was almost as if these plants were saying: “We don’t want anything to do with this change of season!”

True to its name, Wintergreen stays green all winter - Drew Monkman

True to its name, Wintergreen stays green all winter – Drew Monkman

I was also reminded of just how common oaks are in the Kaladar area. Since most of the oaks still retained some of their leaves, they stood out clearly against the other deciduous trees, most of which were bare. Conifers, too, were more conspicuous than usual. Looking towards the horizon, I could see numerous White Pines towering above the other trees and clearly displaying their iconic wing-like branches. Along the edges of wetlands, spire-shaped Balsam Firs, columnar White Spruce and smoky-gold Tamaracks were all easy to spot.
The roadside, too, provided items of interest, including a few remnants of fall colour. A small display of pinks, reds and burgundies came courtesy of the remaining leaves on the Maple-leaved Viburnums, Common Blackberries and the seedlings of Red Oak. I also noticed a handful of asters still clinging to their mauve petals. Much more common, though, was the huge variety of seeds such as those of the milkweed spilling from half-open pods and the fluffy grey seed heads of the goldenrods. The promise of spring wasn’t hard to find, either. The numerous young maples and cherries growing along the edge of the road were covered with fully-formed buds, just waiting for April rains and warmth to swell and open.

Smell

In much the same way as November is not a time of sounds, nor is it a time of smells. The cool temperatures of this particular morning had even neutralized the lovely fragrance of the fallen leaves. As I returned to the cottage, however, the faint smell of wood smoke immediately caught my attention and had me looking forward to the warmth of the fire and a cup of coffee.
When we arrived back in Peterborough in late afternoon, it was already getting dark. With the return to Standard time, dusk comes early at this time of year. But short days, too, are something I love. In my mind’s eye, I see the northern hemisphere tilted sharply away from the sun. I imagine the sun’s rays striking our part of the world diagonally, scattering themselves over a much larger area than in summer and creating far less warming. Short, cool and reduced to nature’s fundamentals, these November days are no less than a palpable reminder of the change of season – and seasonal change is what makes living in the Kawarthas so wonderful.

The smell of a woodstove

The smell of a woodstove

Sep 112014
 

“From dewy lanes at morning
The grapes’ sweet odors rise;
At noon the roads all flutter
With yellow butterflies
By all these lovely tokens
September days are here,
With summer’s best of weather,
And autumn’s best of cheer”
– Helen Hunt Jackson

This week, I would like to propose some activities for people of all ages to more fully enjoy the wonderful month of September. They are part of an up-coming book on seasons-based nature activities that I am writing with Jacob Rodenburg, Executive Director of Camp Kawartha.

Watch day-to-day colour change in the same tree like this White Ash  (Drew Monkman)

Watch day-to-day colour change in the same tree like this White Ash (Drew Monkman)

A September walk
We’ve known for a long time how beneficial walking is to our physical health. Now, we are becoming increasingly aware of huge benefits to our mental health, as well. Daily walking enhances concentration, creativity, mood and general psychological well-being. Here are some ideas to add a dose of nature to your daily walk.
1. Watch how a specific tree changes colour over the course of this month and next.
2. Collect leaves of different shapes and colours and try to identify them when you get home.
3. Take note of the health of the trees. Do you see dead crowns, diseased leaves, “tar spot” fungus on maple leaves, fall webworm “nests” on the branches, etc.?
4. Pay attention to the amount of fruit – seeds, berries, acorns, keys, and the like – on trees and shrubs. It varies considerably from one year to the next.
5. Listen to the steady background of the insect chorus. How many different voices can you hear?
6. Take note of the absence of bird song. Listen, however, for the calls of Blue Jays and crows.
7. Pay attention to smells such as sun-heated vegetation and fallen pine needles.
8. Keep an eye out for squirrels digging holes in the lawn to store food items.
9. Watch for flocks of birds. By September, even robins are usually in flocks.
10. On hot, muggy days, watch for swarms of mating ants milling about on the sidewalk and flying overhead.

A typical orb spider web  (Chen-Pan Liao)

A typical orb spider web (Chen-Pan Liao)

“Pish” in birds
If you’d like to see birds close up, try this activity. When you hear chickadees calling, stop and make loud “pishing” noises for a minute or two. Pishing consists of making the sound “shhhh” but adding a “p” in front. You will be amazed as chickadees and nuthatches often approach to within one or two metres of you. Don’t stop then, however, because migrating vireos and warblers are probably also present but are usually just a little slower to approach. Although some of the warblers are sporting their dull fall plumage, others look surprisingly like they did in the spring and are therefore easy to identify. Look for distinctive markings such as eye rings, splashes of colour and stripes. Don’t expect to identify everything. You can see and hear pishing in action by going to YouTube and searching “pshing!”

Curious Red-eyed Vireo responding to pishing (Drew Monkman)

Curious Red-eyed Vireo responding to pishing (Drew Monkman)

It’s feeder time
If you want a close-up look at some of the migrant sparrows passing through in early fall, September is the time to set up your feeders. Be sure to also scatter some niger seed or finch mix in small piles on the grass under your feeder and around the edge of shrubs and conifers. These will attract Dark-eyed Juncos, along with both White-throated and White-crowned sparrows. You can also scatter sunflower seeds about if you don’t mind losing some to the squirrels! Many of the sparrows will be juveniles making their first migration south. Use your field guide to learn the differences between adult and juvenile birds.

Salamander sleuthing
Hunting for salamanders is great fun. They are most commonly found in low-lying wooded areas or around country homes and cottages. Look under fallen logs, old boards, and flat rocks and even in old piles of firewood. Carefully lift up the rock or piece of wood and peak underneath. The most common species are the Spotted, Blue-spotted and Red-backed. If you find a salamander, observe the counter shading (darker on top and lighter underneath). Notice, too, how stream-lined they are – slim and flat – for fitting into tight nooks and crannies. Red-backed salamanders can resemble earthworms, so be sure to look carefully. After you’ve examined them and maybe taken a picture or two, carefully put the rock, board or log back just the way you found it. Please be careful not to crush the animal.

Red-backed Salamander -Drew Monkman

Red-backed Salamander -Drew Monkman

Close-up with insects
Take time this month to see how many different insects and other invertebrates you can find in a patch of goldenrod. Don’t worry if you can’t identify them all; just focus on the diversity. Pay special attention to the bees. You should be able to see the large, yellow pollen baskets on their hind legs. Watch, too, for insects that haven’t moved for a long time, because they may still be in the clutches of a well-camouflaged predator like an ambush bug or a crab spider. To be comfortable, you might also want to bring a lawn chair. Don’t forget your camera, either, because you should be able to get some great pictures, especially by taking advantage of the macro settings. If you are worried about allergies, remember that ragweed pollen is the allergen to be concerned about. Goldenrod pollen is not spread through the air, being far too heavy. Rather, it is spread by insects. Don’t worry about getting stung, either. You can get right into an insect’s face with your camera with almost no danger of being bitten. BugGuide.net is an excellent on-line resource. You can even post pictures for identification purposes.

Tri-colored Bumble Bee on goldenrod - Drew  Monkman

Tri-colored Bumble Bee on goldenrod – Drew Monkman

Catch a spider web
Locate an easy-to-access web. Apply a spray adhesive to a piece of black construction paper or cardstock. With the black paper behind the web, slowly bring the paper towards you until it touches the web. Then, with the web on the paper, carefully cut the guy-lines holding the web in place. On the back of the paper, you can make a note of the date, location, type of web and the species of spider that made it.

A rainbow hike
This activity will help you to see and appreciate the multitude of leaf colours produced by different trees, shrubs and other plants in autumn. Try to obtain some paint chip samples (e.g., yellows, reds, oranges, greens, browns, rusts, etc.) from a hardware store. Provide each member of the group with an assortment of different coloured chips. As you are walking, try to find a leaf that matches as many of the chips as possible. You may wish to collect the leaf, photograph it or simply show it to the other members of the group.

Measure your shadow
On a sunny day close to the fall equinox, go outside at noon with a measuring tape or metre stick. Stand up straight on a flat surface (e.g., lawn, asphalt) with your back to the sun. Have a friend measure the length of your shadow. Record the length in your nature journal. Don’t forget to do it again at the winter solstice, spring equinox and summer solstice. You’ll be amazed at how much your shadow length changes!

Celebrate!
Organize an “Equinox Experience.” Since night (black) and day (white) are of equal duration, black and white can be the theme of a party. Just use your imagination. You might, for example, want to serve sandwiches with one slice of pumpernickel and one slice of white bread, make a cake that is half-chocolate and half-vanilla, dress half in white and half in black and maybe even decorate with black and white balloons. For a table centrepiece, use dark objects (e.g., bark) and bright objects (e.g., goldenrod blossoms) along with black and white candles. Have a countdown in the last minute leading up to the Equinox. This year, it is at 10:29 PM on September 22.

 

Sep 042014
 

Although fall’s official start is still almost three weeks away, a sense of the new season is already upon us. The blanket of goldenrod in fields and roadsides, the heavy morning mists and the hints of colour change in the leaves all tell us that summer is quickly waning.
As a reminder of what we can anticipate over the coming months, I have provided a list of the mileposts of fall’s progression. Right now, the long-term forecast is for cooler-than-normal conditions to kick off the fall season. Warmer weather, however, seems likely in early October, before temperatures drop in November.

SEPTEMBER
• Fall songbird migration is at its peak. Watch for warblers and vireos in trees and shrubs along forest edges and even in well-treed city backyards. Strangely enough, the key to their presence is often the sound of chickadees, which often join up with migrants during the day. A minute or two of pishing will quickly bring the chickadees out into the open with the warblers and vireos not far behind.

White Ash at peak colour - Drew Monkman

White Ash at peak colour – Drew Monkman

• The Harvest Moon, the full moon closest to the fall equinox, occurs September 8. For several evenings in a row, the moon rises at almost the same time and seems to linger on the horizon as it follows a shallow angle up into the sky. This year’s Harvest Moon qualifies as a “super moon” because of its closeness to Earth.
• Large mating swarms of ants are a common September phenomenon, especially on warm, humid afternoons. Some are females – the potential future queens – but the majority is males. Ants bear wings only during the mating season.
• The spiraling flight of pairs of white or sulphur butterflies is a commonly seen behaviour. A male and female butterfly will circle around each other, all the while ascending high into the sky. Then, without warning, the male will give up the chase and drop to the ground, almost like a dead weight. It is believed that the female initiates these aerial climbs to rid herself of unwanted suitors.
• The fall equinox takes place on September 22, marking the beginning of autumn. At the equinox, both the moon and sun rise due east and set due west. Day and night are of almost equal duration.
• Virginia Creeper turns a fiery red or deep burgundy. Poison Ivy offers up lovely oranges, while dogwoods and blackberry bushes provide beautiful burgundies.
• Two species of white-flowered vines are very much in evidence this month, especially along woodland edges where they sprawl over fences, shrubs and trees. They are Wild Cucumber, which develop into roundish, cucumber-like seed pods covered in soft bristles, and Virgin’s Bower, identified by its distinctive, fluffy seed heads of gray, silky plumes.
• Brown and black Woolly Bear caterpillars are a common sight on roads, sidewalks and trails. People used to believe (falsely) that the longer the middle brown band was, the shorter and milder the coming winter would be.

Woolly Bear - Wikimedia

Woolly Bear – Wikimedia

• Most years, White Ash, Pin Cherry and Staghorn Sumac reach their colour peak in late September. Some ash trees turn a stunning purple-bronze that literally glows in the September sun.
• By late September or the first week of October, the maples of the Canadian Shield and Algonquin Park are usually close to their colour peak. For an up-to-date fall colour report, go to www.ontariotravel.net

OCTOBER
• On an average year, fall colours in the Kawarthas reach their height at, or just before, Thanksgiving (October 13). For a great colour drive, go east from Apsley along County Road 504 through Lasswade and Glen Alda. Turn west at Glen Alda on County Road 604 to return to Highway 28.

Sugar Maples - Cy Monkman

Sugar Maples – Cy Monkman

• Sparrow migration takes centre stage this month making early October one of the busiest times of the year for backyard feeders. By scattering black oil sunflower seed or finch mix on the ground, you should be able to attract White-throated and White-crowned sparrows, along with Dark-eyed Juncos.
• As the goldenrods quickly fade away, asters dominate- and conclude -the wildflower parade for another year. The generally white flowers of heath and calico asters, along with the purple or mauve blossoms of New England and Purple-stemmed asters, seem to be everywhere. Go to ontariowildflowers.com for excellent tips on identifying asters.
• October is a great time to find salamanders. Red-backed Salamanders, which are almost worm-like in appearance, are usually the most common. However, you may also find both the Spotted and Blue-spotted Salamanders. Look carefully under flat rocks, old boards, and logs in damp wooded areas and around cottages.
• The signature constellation of fall is Pegasus and its asterism, the Great Square. Adjacent to the square is the Andromeda galaxy, our closest galactic neighbour. It appears through binoculars like a faint oval of fuzzy light – light that left the galaxy two million years ago! For detailed steps to finding this galaxy, go to Google and enter: wikihow Andromeda.
• Mid- through late October is very much a time of yellows. Most of the colour is being supplied courtesy of Trembling Aspen, Bigtooth Aspen, Balsam Poplar, Silver Maple, White Birch, and, at month’s end, Tamarack.

Red-backed Salamander - Drew Monkman

Red-backed Salamander – Drew Monkman

NOVEMBER
• Oaks, tamaracks and Silver Maples are about the only native deciduous trees that may retain their foliage in early November. Red Oaks stand out with particular prominence with their brownish-orange to sometimes burgundy-coloured leaves. At a glance, you are able to see just how common oaks are in many areas.
• We return to Standard Time on November 2 and turn our clocks back one hour. Sunrise on November 3 is at 6:53 AM and sunset at 5:00 PM for a total of only 10 hours and 7 minutes of daylight. This is one-third less daylight than the 15 and a half hours we enjoyed back in June!
• More collisions involving deer take place in late October and November than at any other time of year. When driving at dusk or after dark, watch for dark shadows along the side of the road and the bright green reflection of the deer’s eyes in your headlights. Slow down immediately. Deer are unpredictable when confronted with an automobile.
• The red berries of wetland species like Winterberry Holly and High-bush Cranberry provide some much needed November colour.
• Damp, decomposing leaves on the forest floor scent the November air. The smell of manure is often present, too, as farmers spread manure on their fields in the fall.
• With the onset of cold temperatures, Wood Frogs, Gray Treefrogs and Spring Peepers burrow down into the leaf litter of the forest floor and literally become small blocks of amphibian ice – in other words, a frogsicles! Surprisingly, the ice does not harm the animal because it forms in the body cavities outside of the cells. Glycerol, acting as an antifreeze, inhibits freezing within the frog’s cells.
• A trip to the Lakefield sewage lagoons is well worth the effort at this time of year. The lagoons are located on the south side of County Road 33, just south of the village off River Road. You should be able to get good looks at migrant ducks such as Common Goldeneye, Bufflehead, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, and Hooded Merganser.
• Red-tailed Hawks, mainly from the boreal forest of northern Canada, migrate south into the United States. On a good day, hundreds can be seen flying along the north shore of Lake Ontario. Many central Ontario Red-tails are resident birds, however, and don’t migrate.
• Ball-like swellings known as galls are easy to see on the stems of goldenrod plants. If you open the gall with a knife, you will find the small, white larva of the Goldenrod Gall Fly inside. In the spring, it will emerge as an adult fly.
• The Pleiades (Seven Sisters) star cluster adorns the eastern sky, while Orion looms over the southeast. They both add interest to an evening’s walk in late November.

 

May 012014
 
Serviceberry (Drew Monkman)

Serviceberry (Drew Monkman)

Although the flamboyant reds, yellows and oranges of fall always receive the most attention, there is an equally beautiful showing of colour in May. From the radiant white blossoms of serviceberries and trilliums to the fresh, lime‑green leaves of sugar maples, May paints the landscape with a gentle warmth all its own. And, unlike many phenomena in nature, the transformation of the landscape from grays and browns to greens, whites, yellows, purples and pinks, is easily observed by all.

The order in which the various species of plants bloom and come into leaf is the same each year. Although variations in weather conditions may accelerate or slow down the process, the general sequence does not change. The first herbaceous plant to flower in spring in the Kawarthas is Coltsfoot, a yellow‑blossomed, dandelion-like denizen of roadsides. Usually by mid‑April – but only just starting this year -, the first true woodland flowers appear, beginning with Hepatica and followed shortly after by Bloodroot, Blue Cohosh, Trailing Arbutus and Marsh Marigold. As we move into early May, dozens of other species join the blossom parade including Common Dandelion, Spring Beauty, Trout Lily, Large-flowered Bellwort and various species of serviceberry (Juneberry). By the middle of the month, we can expect to find Common Lilac, White Trillium, Red Trillium and Pin Cherry all in bloom. And, by late May, Mayapple, Jack‑in‑the‑Pulpit, Wild Columbine, Choke Cherry, Red‑osier Dogwood, the various hawthorns and the first orchids will be flowering.

All of our trees produce flowers, too, even though they often go unnoticed and unappreciated. Red and Silver maples, which have been in flower for several weeks now, have been joined in recent days by White Birch and American Elm. Take a moment to look closely at the flowers on low-hanging branches and you will see dainty floral parts tinged with pastel reds, yellows, browns and greens. In the next couple of weeks, Sugar Maple will be flowering, as well. This is a spectacle not to missed. These trees literally glow in a garb of pale yellow as tens of thousands of tassel-like flowers hang from the twigs. Within a week or so, the male flowers fall to the ground, leaving a yellow confetti on sidewalks and roads. Norway Maples, which bloom at about the same time, look like giant, lime-green pompoms. Their leaves and flowers emerge simultaneously. Soon after the maples, the oaks, too, will be in flower. The caterpillar-like male flowers (catkins) are as long as the emerging leaves. Mid-May also sees the appearance of flowers cones on pines, spruces and larches. The purple-pink female cones of the American Larch (Tamarack) are especially beautiful.

The leaf‑out of trees and shrubs follows a predictable sequence, too. Red‑berried Elder is the first species to come into leaf, usually in late April. Early May brings us the leaves of Manitoba Maple, Norway Maple, Trembling Aspen, Common Lilac, willows and both Pin and Choke Cherry. Sugar Maple, Bigtooth aspen and Tamarack leaf out in mid‑May, while Red Maple, American Basswood, oaks, elms and ashes wait until later in the month to produce their leaves. As the trees leaf out, take time to appreciate all of the different shades of green that grace the landscape. Among my favourites are the shiny, light greens of aspens and the gentle, pastel tones of new Tamarack needles.

Coltsfoot - Drew Monkman

Coltsfoot – Drew Monkman

In addition to the spectrum of greens, white is another signature colour of May. Early in the month, serviceberries stand out like white beacons against the slowly greening landscape. These small trees grow in clumps and are common along roadsides and field edges. We tend to notice them only in the spring, however, when their beautiful masses of white, five‑petal flowers burst forth. Belonging to the genus Amelanchier, they also go by the name of Juneberry, because their fruits ripen in June. Later in the month, Pin Cherries and Choke Cherries add their own splashes of white. They tend to grow in the same habitat as serviceberries. Cherry leaves are unique in that they are tinged with bronze‑orange when they emerge. Hawthorns, a species of old fields, and Red‑osier Dogwoods, a shrub of wetland edges, complete the white blossom parade. Many of our wildflowers also have white blossoms. The White Trillium is certainly the best known. Standing nearly a foot tall and flaunting flowers three or four inches across, trilliums form a carpet of white over the forest floor, that is hard not to notice. This species is well‑named with its three leaves, three petals and three sepals.

Yellow is another common colour this month. And, any discussion of yellow leads directly to the Common Dandelion. Introduced from Europe, dandelions provide copious amounts of pollen and nectar to insect visitors. Insects see the flowers as shining points of ultraviolet light set against a green background, which they perceive as grey. Dandelions are largely responsible for the first honey of the season, thanks to their attractiveness to honey bees.

Yellow flowers also turn up in wet habitats in early spring, thanks mostly to Marsh Marigolds, also known as cowslips. In the unblocked sunlight, they grow up to 18 inches tall and have huge, heart‑shaped leaves. The flowers usually have five petals. The swampy woods along University Road, just south of Nassau Mills Road, is a great place to see them.

It is believed that white and yellow are particularly efficient colours at reflecting sunlight from a plant’s petals onto the central reproductive parts of the flower. This helps to accelerate the development of pollen and seed in the cool spring weather. The heat that accumulates in this manner may actually raise the temperature inside a trillium or marigold several degrees above the surrounding air. Insect pollinators probably find the slightly warmer temperatures of the flowers very much to their liking, as well.

For many of us, May is also synonymous with the purple blossoms of lilacs. Lilac bloom times and leaf emergence have long been monitored in both Canada and the United States, since they are examples of natural events whose timing can be influenced by climate change. On average, lilac leaves now emerge in the northern hemisphere about five days earlier than they did 50 years ago.

In order to see the whole flower show, you will need to be out looking at least once a week. Woodland plants in particular have a very short blooming period. Their life cycle is attuned to the rhythms of the forest canopy. Once the leaves have fully emerged, most flowers quickly disappear. The light available on the forest floor for photosynthesis quickly falls to 1% of the level at the top of the canopy. In the deep shade of the inner forest, plants struggle to produce enough food even for their own needs, let alone having food left over for the purpose of flowering and seed maturation. Species like trilliums are therefore engaged in a veritable race against the clock to bloom, attract pollinators and build food reserves through photosynthesis before the canopy closes.

Young female flower cones of Tamarack - Drew Monkman

Young female flower cones of Tamarack – Drew Monkman

Two of the better places to see woodland plants include Mark S. Burnham Provincial Park on Highway 7, just east of Peterborough, and the Emily Tract forest, located in the City of Kawartha Lakes on Victoria County Road 14, west of County Road 10.

 

Apr 172014
 
Yellow Warbler (Karl Egressy)

Yellow Warbler (Karl Egressy)

 

After the brutal winter we’ve been through, most of us are awaiting the arrival of the true spring with bated breath. I think it’s fair to say that we’ve already bought and paid for the coming warmth and greening of the landscape with the cold and snow we’ve endured since November. As a reminder of what we can anticipate, I’ve provided a list of the mileposts of spring’s progression and when the events usually occur. However, should the abnormally cool weather continue, many of these happenings will no doubt be delayed. This will be especially true for flowering dates and the leaf-out of trees. You will notice that for some of the events, there is a YouTube link which will take you directly to a short video where you can see and hear the species in question.

 

Late April

  • On average, most local lakes are ice‑free by April 20. As to when ice-out will happen this year, however, all bets are off.
  • White‑throated Sparrows are passing through and easily attracted to feeders if you put seed on the ground. Listen, too, for the wavering whistle of their “Oh-sweet-Canada-Canada-Canada” song. YouTube link
  • The courtship flight (YouTube) of the American Woodcock provides nightly entertainment in damp field habitats with scattered trees.
  • The muffled drumming of the Ruffed Grouse (YouTube) is one of the most characteristic sounds of April. The birds drum to advertise territorial claims and to attract a female.
  • Bloodroot joins the wildflower parade about now. Eight large white petals make it stand out, as do the large, deeply cut leaves.
  • Watch for early butterflies such as the Mourning Cloak and the dainty, powder-blue Spring Azure.
  • Don’t miss the April frog song coming from your local wetland. A quartet consisting of Wood Frogs, Spring Peepers, Chorus Frogs and Northern Leopard Frogs provide the voices.
  • The first tropical migrants are arriving back from Central and South America. Among those to be expected right now is the shrubby swamp-loving and very vocal Northern Waterthrush (YouTube).
  • Northward-bound loons fly over Peterborough on late April mornings. Even in flight, they often give their yodeling call (YouTube).

 

Early May

  • Serviceberries (Juneberries) stand out on roadsides like white beacons against the slowly greening landscape. These small trees have masses of white, five-petal flowers.
  • The damp morning air is rich with the sweet, pungent fragrance of Balsam Poplar resin. The scent originates from the sticky sap that oozes from the buds as they open.
  • Calling both day and night in long, fluid trills, the American Toad (YouTube) provides one of the most characteristic sounds of early May.
  • The Chimney Swift (YouTube), a species at risk, should be back by now in downtown Peterborough. Watch for a bird with a flickering, almost bat-like flight and making a sharp, chippering call.
  • Make sure your nectar feeders are out and ready, because Ruby-throated Hummingbirds return in early May.
  • Butterflies aren’t the only insects that sometimes migrate. Watch, too, for Common Green Darners, our largest dragonfly.
  • It is common this month to see one or two Common Grackles chasing a nest-robbing American Crow, often over a considerable distance.

Mid-May

  • With the exception of ashes and oaks, most trees should have leafed out by now.
  • May 10-20 is the peak of songbird migration with the greatest numbers of migrating warblers, vireos, thrushes, orioles and flycatchers passing through.
  • Magnificent Rose-breasted Grosbeaks sometimes show up at sunflower feeders, so keep your feeders stocked up until month’s end.
  • Windows take a huge toll on migrating birds in the spring and fall. You may wish to try putting “Window Alert” decals on the outside of the pane. The Avant-Garden Shop on Sherbrooke Street sells these.
  • Midland Painted Turtles and, some areas, yellow-throated Blanding’s Turtles are a common sight on logs and hummocks in local wetlands.
  • The song of the Indigo Bunting (YouTube) once again rings out from telephone wires and treetops on the margins of shrubby fields.
  • Woodlots are blanketed by a profusion of spring ephemeral wildflowers such as White Trillium and Trout Lily.
  • Wetlands, roadside ditches, and even backyard swimming pool covers are often teeming with tadpoles at some point this month.

 

Late May

  • A large variety of mammals gives birth this month. These include beavers, flying squirrels, otters, porcupines, groundhogs, skunks, deer and moose.
  • High in the NE, Ursa Major appears “upside down”, with Polaris and Ursa Minor below it.
  • On warm breezy days, watch for strands of gossamer – fine filaments of spider silk – caught up in tree branches and bushes. Closer examination will often reveal a tiny spider attached to the silk. The filaments can carry a baby spider kilometres away to where it can establish its own territory.
  • Bass and sunfish begin to spawn and are a common sight near docks.
  • Watch for ridges and mounds of soil on lawns. Moles push soil up to the surface as they tunnel through the dirt in search of earthworms.
  • A lot of the birdsong you hear in cottage country at this time of year belongs to the American Redstart (YouTube) and Yellow Warbler (YouTube)

Early June

  • The mysterious yellow dust that covers cars, decks and even shorelines is wind-spread pollen from the male flowers of spruce and pine trees.
  • Male hummingbirds can be seen doing their pendulum courtship flight, almost as if suspended from a string. They fly in wide arcs above and to both sides of the female.
  • The first monarch butterflies of the year – the “grandchildren” of the monarchs that flew south last fall – are usually seen sometime during the first half of June. Numbers, however, are at record lows.
  • Watch for turtles laying their eggs in the sandy margins of roadsides and rail-trails. Remember to slow down when driving through turtle-crossing zones and, if safe, help the reptile across the road.
  • Giant silk moths take wing in June. They include the Cecropia, Polyphemus, Promethea, Luna, and the small, but spectacular, Io moth. The males have large, feather-like antennae, which are sensitive to airborne sex attractants called pheromones.
  • June is the time of the Canadian Tiger Swallowtail. It resembles both a tiger in its yellow and black colouration and a Barn Swallow’s tail in the shape of the wing extensions.
  • Female Balsam Poplars, Trembling Aspens and various willows are now releasing their airborne seeds. The “fluff” collects on lawns and looks like a June snowstorm has hit.

 

Mid-June

  • Drooping clusters of aromatic, white blossoms hang from nearly every twig of Black Locust trees for a week or so this month.
  • Starring in the roadside flower parade right now are Ox-eye Daisy, Dame’s-rocket, Goat’s-beard, Bladder Campion and Yellow Hawkweed.
  • June is the time of peak nesting activity for many bird species but especially for migrants from the tropics. Keep your cat indoors.
  • Serviceberries, also known as Juneberries, are the first shrubs to boast ripe fruit. Robins love them.
  • The melodious, bird-like trills of the Gray Treefrog (YouTube) provide the music of June nights.
  • The Green Frog’s banjo-like “poink” (YouTube) is a widespread sound in wetlands both day and night.
  • At the summer solstice on June 21, the sun rises and sets farther north than any other day of the year. It is nearly directly overhead at noon and casts the year’s shortest shadows.

 

Jan 232014
 

“If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant.”
–  Anne Bradstreet   

            Despite the bone-chilling cold of this winter’s Polar Vortex, life carries on all around us. It might just take a little more effort to seek it out. To the curious and attentive observer, however, there is wonder in the countless strategies that evolution has bestowed upon plants and animals to survive this, the most unforgiving of seasons.  

The events listed below are typical of late January through February in the Kawarthas. However, many of these happenings occur over the entire winter.  

Late January

female Common Goldeneyes on the Otonabee this winter -  Jeff Keller

female Common Goldeneyes on the Otonabee this winter – Jeff Keller

— In late January, this sun rises at about 7:30 am, which is already 15 minutes earlier than a month ago. The real daylight gain, however, is in the afternoon. Sunset is not until 5:30 pm, a full 45 minutes later than at New Year’s. This gift of light makes a winter outing all the more enjoyable.

— Watch for small numbers of Common Goldeneyes and Common Mergansers on the Otonabee River and on open sections of both Little Lake (behind the Holiday Inn) and Lake Katchewanooka (Young’s Point).   

– Venus puts on a beautiful show in the pre-dawn eastern sky all winter.

— Large numbers of American Robins are overwintering in the Kawarthas this year, thanks mostly to abundant wild food such as Wild Grape. As long as they have enough to eat, the cold is not a problem.

— If you’re driving through open farm country, keep an eye open for huge, swirling flocks of Snow Buntings. It is not uncommon to see hundreds of these mostly white birds in a single flock. The area between Peterborough and Keene can be especially productive. Enter bit.ly/KyGYNM in your browser to see a short video of this bird.   

– Coyotes are quite vocal during their January to March mating season and can often be heard on the outskirts of Peterborough. The young are born 60-63 days later, usually in a ground den.

Opposite buds (H=honeysuckle, A=ash, M=maple, LI=lilac, V=viburnum, E=elderberry, Dogwood)

Opposite buds (H=honeysuckle, A=ash, M=maple, LI=lilac, V=viburnum, E=elderberry, D=dogwood) The letters form the mnemonic “HAM LIVED”.  The twig on the far right is an example of an alternate-budding species – probably basswood

– The numbers of some winter birds fluctuate widely from year to year. These species are referred to as winter “irruptives,” and the years in which they are particularly common are called “flight years.” Last winter was an excellent flight year for Bohemian Waxwings and Common Redpolls. The only winter irruptive present this year is the Snowy Owl. The owl in the field north of Line 3, just west of Chemong Road was still present as of January 20.

Because their characteristics are different for each species, quick and accurate tree identification can be made on the basis of the twigs and buds alone. A few species have buds that are arranged opposite each other (e.g., ash, maple) on the twigs, but the majority of trees have buds that are staggered alternately. Making a winter twig collection can be a fun activity.

— In January, Black Bears give birth to cubs no larger than chipmunks. Generally, two cubs are born, although there are sometimes as many as four or five. The amount of food available in the fall is critical in determining the number of young in the litter. Food was abundant this past fall.

 

February

The evening of February 1st presents a great opportunity for seeing Mercury, often called the most elusive planet. Mercury will appear directly below tonight’s thin waxing crescent moon.

– Groundhog Day, February 2, marks the mid-point of winter. However, our groundhogs won’t see their shadow – or light of day, for that matter – until mid-March at the earliest. Groundhogs are still comfortably curled up in a ball inside their winter burrow in a state of deep hibernation. Compared to summer, their heartbeat has dropped from 100 beats per minute to only 15, and their body temperature has plummeted from 35 C to only 6 C!

Black-capped Chickadee (Karl Egressy)

Black-capped Chickadee (Karl Egressy)

– Although rather tentative at first, bird song returns to the Kawarthas by mid-February as pair bonds are established or renewed. Black-capped Chickadees and Northern Cardinals are among the first songsters off the mark. It is somehow fitting that you will often hear their love songs for the first time at around Valentine’s Day. The chickadee’s three-note whistle is even remembered best as a Valentine’s-appropriate “Hi Sweetie.”   

– Gray Squirrels mate in mid-winter and can often be seen streaming by in treetop chases as a group of males chases a frantic female. Some amazing acrobatics are usually part of the show. 

– Being very social animals, flying squirrels sometimes join up in single-sex groups for warmth during the winter. They will often choose a tree cavity.

– After the moon, Jupiter is the brightest object in the night sky this month. Look east at nightfall on February 11 and you will see this huge planet shining like a beacon above the Moon. To the left of Jupiter, look for the stars Castor and Pollux in the Gemini constellation.  The winter moon rides higher in the sky than at any other season and passes nearly overhead at midnight.  

– One millimetre-long snow fleas can often be seen on the snow along the edge of woodland paths or cross-country ski trails on mild February days.  What at first glance may seem like a sprinkling of pepper is  actually a bunch of tiny invertebrates looking for microscopic morsels of food. Snow fleas, also known as springtails, have two appendages held in place by hooks. When the hooks are released, a springing action results which sends the insect catapulting through the air. If a snow flea was as big as a human, it could jump as high as a 20-storey apartment building.

Snow fleas in a deer track - Sheba Marx

Snow fleas in a deer track – Sheba Marx

– The Virginia Opossum, a marsupial that is native to the southeastern U.S., is extending its range northward into the Kawarthas as our winters become milder. These mostly nocturnal animals are sometimes attracted to bird feeders where they will eat spilled seed. Two were seen recently at a house on Johnston Drive near the Peterborough Airport. 

– The 17th Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) takes place February 14– 17. All you need to do is count birds for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count and enter your sightings on-line. A wonderful example of “citizen science”, the GBBC engages tens of thousands of bird watchers of all levels of expertise in order to create a real-time snapshot of the whereabouts and relative abundance of bird populations in mid-winter. Please try to take part, even if your backyard feeder is not that active. Information on what birds are absent is vitally important. Go to www.birdcount.org for details. 

– On February 25, the planet Venus and the beautiful waning crescent Moon grace the pre-dawn sky. Look to the southeast. 

–  As March approaches, winter is definitely on the ebb. The sun is rising and setting further and further north and tracing a higher arc through the sky which makes for longer days. Daylight is with us until almost 6:30.

– Can’t wait for the greenery and blossoms of spring?  Try cutting some 8-12 inch twigs (e.g., forsythia, willow, dogwood, cherry, apple) for forcing indoors. Just put them in a vase of water and set them in a sunny window. Within a few days, you should see flowers and/or leaves emerging.   

 

Nov 142013
 
Great Horned Owl at Fleming Campus in Peterborough in December, 2008. (Drew Monkman photo)

Great Horned Owl at Fleming Campus in Peterborough in December, 2008. (Drew Monkman photo)

A late fall Kawartha’s nature almanac

                In late fall in the Kawarthas, a pre-winter stillness settles upon the land. The calls of migrating sparrows and kinglets cease, most robins bid us farewell and the last crickets surrender to the cold. Damp, often cloudy weather, leafless trees and faded grasses and flowers create a world of greys and browns, punctuated only by the dark green of conifers. At first glance, a walk on a late fall day seems uneventful, with seemingly little of interest to catch our attention. However, the relative scarcity of plants and animals allows us to focus on the commonplace – leafless trees reduced to their elemental form and distant vistas revealed now that the green veil of foliage has been lifted. With colder weather, nature’s kaleidoscope of smells is also reduced to a minimum. Apart from the scent of decaying leaves or the smoke of a wood stove, there is little to stir our sense of smell. Yet the cold also brings renewed appreciation for the warmth and comfort of our homes. There is also a growing anticipation – among those of us who enjoy winter at least – for the new season just around the corner. The events listed below are typical of late fall in the Kawarthas.

Mid- to late November

  • With the onset of cold temperatures, Wood Frogs, Gray Treefrogs and Spring Peepers burrow down into the leaf litter of the forest floor and literally become small blocks of amphibian ice – in other words, frogsicles! Surprisingly, the ice does not harm the animal because it forms in the body cavities outside of the cells. Glycerol, acting as an antifreeze, inhibits freezing within the cells.
  • The red berries of wetland shrubs like Winterberry Holly and High-bush Cranberry provide some much needed November colour. Both species have abundant fruit this year.
  • Throughout the late fall and winter, Gray Squirrels – most of which are black in Peterborough – are often seen high up in Manitoba and Norway maples, feeding on the keys. Right now, they can also be seen scavenging fallen Sugar Maple keys off the ground.
  • More collisions involving deer take place in November than in any other month. When driving at dusk or after dark, watch for dark shadows along the side of the road and the bright green reflection of the deer’s eyes in your headlights. Slow down immediately.
  • Monarch butterflies are now arriving on their wintering grounds in tiny patches of Oyamel Fir forest, high up in the mountains west of Mexico City. The overwintering population this year is expected to be at a record low.
  • If you are walking in the woods, pay special attention to the small plants of the forest floor that usually escape our attention the rest of the year. Evergreen ferns, club-mosses, and mosses stand out prominently against the brown leaf litter.
  • A trip to the Lakefield sewage lagoons is well worth the effort at this time of year. The lagoons are located on the south side of County Road 33, just south of the village off of River Road. Among the duck species there now are Common Goldeneye, Bufflehead, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, Greater Scaup and Redhead. A Peregrine Falcon is also making a regular appearance.
  • In our woodlands, the only trees that still have some leaves clinging to the branches are Red Oaks and young American Beech and Ironwoods.
  • Coyotes are often heard in late fall. The Coyotes of central Ontario are closely related to the Eastern Wolf (Canis lycaon). Consequently, the two species sometimes hybridize.
  • Ball-like swellings known as galls are easy to see on the stems of goldenrod plants. If you open the gall with a knife, you will find the small, white larva of the Goldenrod Gall Fly inside. In the spring it will emerge as an adult fly.
  • The Pleiades (Seven Sisters) star cluster adorns the eastern sky, while Orion looms over the southeast.
  • Feeder activity may be rather slow this fall and winter since very few northern finches (e.g., Pine Siskin, Common Redpoll) are expected. Abundant natural food in northern Canada is keeping them at home. However, Dark-eyed Juncos, Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays, Downy Woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpeckers and both White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatches should help fill the void.

December

  • Before too much snow falls, this is good time to walk around the edge of wetlands and streams to photograph interesting ice formations. Leaves, sticks, and bubbles frozen in the ice can also be intriguing.
  • Robins should be common this month and throughout the coming winter. The wild fruits that constitute the robin’s winter diet – Wild Grape, European Mountain-ash, European Buckthorn, etc. – have produced an abundant fruit crop this year. Likewise, there should be large numbers of Blue Jays, thanks largely to the plentiful acorns and beech nuts.
  • Venus is dazzling this fall. On December 5, the planet will appear close to the waxing crescent moon in the southwestern sky after sunset.
  • Between mid-December and early January, Christmas Bird Counts take place across North and Central America. The annual Petroglyphs count will be Thursday, January 2. Birders will be out from dawn until dusk, identifying and counting all of the birds they see.  If you wish to participate, contact Colin Jones at 705-652-5004. The date of the Peterborough count has not yet been released.
  • “Nip twigs” on the ground below conifers are another sure sign of Red Squirrel activity. If you walk quietly through the woods, you will sometimes even hear the sounds of the squirrels tearing cones apart with their teeth.
  • Over the past 30 years, Trumpeter Swans have been reintroduced to Ontario. The species now nests in the Kawarthas. A few individuals also choose to overwinter here on bodies of open water. Many of these swans have a yellow wing tag bearing a number.
  • December 21 marks the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year and the first official day of winter. The sun rises at its southernmost point on the eastern horizon, and sets at its southernmost point in the west. Sunrise is not until 7:46 a.m., while sunset is upon us by 4:37 p.m. This translates into only eight hours and 51 minutes of daylight. Compare this to 15 ½ hours in June – a difference of 6 ¾ hours!
  • In the southeastern night sky, look for the Winter Six:  Orion, Taurus, Auriga, Canis Major and Canis Minor. The winter constellations shine brightly and are easy to pick out.
  • The migratory birds that breed in the Kawarthas are now on their wintering grounds. For example, the Baltimore Orioles that were coming to your nectar feeder this summer are now happily dining on the nectar of flower blossoms somewhere in southern Mexico or Central America.
  • The full moon this month occurs on December 17.  The December moon traces a higher arc through the sky than at any other time of year.
  • December is the peak calling period for both the Eastern Screech-Owl and the Great Horned Owl. The best nights to hear them are usually those with falling barometric pressure and a full or gibbous moon. Listen to their calls at allaboutbirds.org.
  • Look for the waning crescent moon and Saturn before dawn on December 28.

 

 

Oct 032013
 

A time of radiant leaves

But in October what a feast to the eye our woods and groves present! The whole body of the air seems enriched by their calm, slow radiance. They are giving back the light they have been absorbing from the sun all summer.
~John Burroughs, “The Falling Leaves,” Under the Maples

It’s hard to know where to begin when describing all that’s wonderful about October. Blazing colour, of course, comes to mind first. There is a beautiful Native American legend that talks of hunters in the north sky who killed the Great Bear – represented by the constellation bearing the same name – in autumn, and its blood dripped down over forests coloring the maples red. Later, as they cooked the meat, fat dripped from the heavens turning the leaves of the aspens and birch yellow. Quite clearly, the fall colours have never ceased to amaze human beings and to make us wonder why they appear. Together with the cooler air and the dreamy quality of fall sunlight, so different from the light of summer, there’s something about fall colours that lifts the spirits and provides a new-found energy.

But October offers much more than just the wonderful colours. Blue skies, dreamy light, cool but comfortable temperature, busy birdfeeders, the scent of the fallen leaves, crisp nights, family get-togethers at Thanksgiving, and children’s wonder at the magic of Halloween are but a sampling.

Hopefully, by observing some of the plants, animals and other events in nature listed in this October almanac, your enjoyment of the month will be all the greater.

Leaf colour east of Apsley - October 1, 2012

Leaf colour east of Apsley – October 1, 2012

Early October

  •  According to David Phillips of Environment Canada, we should see extra bright colours this fall, thanks to a relatively wet summer that was not too hot. On an average year, fall colours in the Kawarthas reach their height by the second week of October. More northern areas such as Algonquin Park are at peak colour right now. Go to ontariotravel.net for the latest “Fall Colour Report.” For a great colour drive in the Peterborough area, go east from Apsley along County Road 504 to Lasswade and on to County Road 620. Turn west to Glen Alda and back to Highway 28.
  • Sparrow migration takes centre stage this month making early October one of the busiest times of the year for backyard feeders. By spreading black oil sunflower seed or niger seed on the ground, you should be able to attract White-throated and White-crowned sparrows along with Dark-eyed Juncos.
  • As the goldenrods quickly fade away, asters dominate (and conclude!) the wildflower show this month. The generally white flowers of Heath and Calico asters, along with the purple or mauve blossoms of New England and Purple-stemmed asters are. Go to ontariowildflowers.com for excellent tips on identifying asters. Click on “Season” and then “Fall.”
  • The signature constellation of fall is Pegasus and its asterism, the Great Square. Adjacent to the square is the Andromeda constellation and the Andromeda galaxy. Our closest galactic neighbour, it appears through binoculars like a faint oval of fuzzy light – light that left the galaxy two million years ago! Go to Wikihow.com and type “Andromeda” in the search box for detailed steps on finding this galaxy.
  • If you’re an early riser and would like a preview of the winter constellations, you can now see Orion looming above the southern horizon.
  • On balmy October days, Ruffed Grouse can sometimes be heard drumming. It is thought that these birds are mostly young males attempting to establish their own territories. Early fall is also the grouse’s “crazy season.” Young birds disperse from their parent’s territory and often end up colliding with all manner of objects.
  • If you are in the forest on a warm, damp fall day, listen for the weak, intermittent calls of Spring Peepers. Most often, only one or two lonely individuals are heard.

Mid-October

  • Watch and listen for mixed flocks of Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned kinglets, Brown creepers, Dark-eyed juncos, White-throated sparrows, and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Our local rail-trails are a great place to see these birds.
  • Flocks of giant Canada geese (the subspecies that nests in the Kawarthas), Ring-billed gulls, Red-winged Blackbirds, American Crows, and American Robins are widespread.
  • Using its antlers, the buck White-tailed Deer makes scrapes in the leaf litter on the forest floor in preparation for the upcoming rut. It then urinates on its hind legs in such a way that the urine runs over special “hock” glands and carries the scent down to the scrape. Female deer visit these scrapes.
  • Mid- through late October is very much a time of yellows. Most of the colour is supplied courtesy of Trembling Aspen, Bigtooth Aspen, Balsam Poplar, Silver Maple, White Birch and, at month’s end, Tamarack.
  • On warm days in mid-fall, watch for strands of spider silk floating through the air or caught up in branches. A baby spider is attached to each strand. This special period of the year is sometimes called “gossamer days.”
  • The evening of October 18 is the Hunter’s Moon, namely the first full moon after the Harvest Moon. In the fall, the moon rises only about 30 minutes later from one night to the next – instead of the yearly average of about 50 minutes. This means that when the moon is full, or nearly full, there is no long period of darkness between sunset and moonrise. This allowed Native American hunters to hunt by autumn moonlight.

Late October

  • You can get a real sense right now of just how many of our city trees and shrubs are non-native and, therefore, still stubbornly green. Species such as Norway maple, Lilac, Weeping Willow, and European Buckthorn are still genetically tied to the day-length patterns of their native Eurasian bioregions.
  • Given the excellent cone, seed and berry crops on nearly all tree and shrub species across Ontario this year, we should not expect to see much in the way of winter finches moving south and showing up in our yards and at our feeders. Birds such as Common Redpolls, Pine Siskins, Pine Grosbeaks and Bohemian Waxwings are likely to remain in the north because of the abundant food available. However, we will likely see high Blue Jay numbers all fall and winter since the huge crop of acorns, beechnuts and hazelnuts means most jays will find all the food they require and therefore not need to migrate south.
  • Migrating diving ducks stop over on our larger lakes such as Pigeon and Rice. Goldeneye, scaup and mergansers are most common.
  • The “fall turn-over” begins to re-oxygenate lakes this month. As the surface waters cool, they begin to mix with the uniformly-cold lower layers. This brings oxygen to the depths and nutrients to the shallows.
  • Red Squirrels in the fall spend a lot of time nipping off cone-bearing twigs on evergreens such as pines, spruces, hemlocks, and even cedar. These “nip twigs” are scattered all over the ground. The cones are removed and stored as winter food.

If you find a Halloween bat in your house, it is probably a Big Brown, a species that often overwinters in buildings. Little Browns, on the other hand, choose caves and abandoned mines as winter quarters. Their population is plummeting, however, as a result of White Nose Syndrome. The Little Brown Bat, formerly our most abundant bat species, is now listed as endangered under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act. In other words, it is facing imminent extinction or total disappearance from the province.