Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Hunt for the Juniper Hairstreak

Callophrys gryneus gryneus, the eastern subspecies of the Juniper Hairstreak, is considered to be rare, but if you search in the proper habitat and on the right host plant – Eastern Red Cedar – during its flight season from late May until June, you just might be lucky enough to stumble across this elusive little butterfly.

The insect below was photographed perching on Eastern Red Cedar, one of several in a stand at a high and dry field about 1.5 km west of Tweed. I scoured the same location in vain last year and had pretty much given up hope on ever seeing a Juniper Hairstreak, but when a friend produced a photo of one he encountered a couple of days ago near this area the hunt was on again.

It seems that last June I was looking far too low; the butterflies prefer to perch on twigs and branches that are about eight to ten feet above the ground. A helpful technique that works very well is a suggestion in the Peterson's Field Guide to Eastern Butterflies – try gently tapping the junipers with a long stick to startle the Juniper Hairstreaks into flight. We observed at least three, possibly four, individual insects, and on a couple of occasions saw males engaged territorial disputes. The image below is the only one I could get but it's good enough for now, and next on my agenda ... a photo of a mating pair ...

Hudsonian Whiteface (Leucorrhinia hudsonica)

Two or three pairs of eyes are better than one, and it's fortunate that I had a friend along on this particular nature photography hike, else I would have completely overlooked this small odonate. When he said there was a red dragonfly sitting along the trail I was somewhat skeptical ... in a couple more months the meadowhawks will be flying, but a red dragonfly this early in the year?

Nonetheless, the Hudsonian Whiteface does indeed have an overall red aspect, and the dorsal streaks extending to S7 on the abdomen are key identifying features – the only other species of Leucorrhinia in our area similarly marked (but not in red) is the immature male Dot-tailed Whiteface. In seven years of nature study and photography this is my first and only encounter with this small dragonfly.

At a length of about 30 mm the Hudsonian Whiteface is about the same size as our other local Leucorrhinia species (there are three others – the Dot-tailed Whiteface, the Frosted Whiteface and the Belted Whiteface).

A lateral view of the dragonfly: the sides of the thorax are marbled black and red. The hamules indicate that this is a male, and the shape is correct for Leucorrhinia hudsonica.

A dorsal and oblique view of the terminal appendages – I was somewhat remiss because I should have also taken ventral shots of the epiproct, because its profile is important in separating the different whiteface species.

However, enough of the trailing edge of the epiproct is visible in this oblique view that we can safely say it belongs to a Hudsonian Whiteface.

Slender Fragile Fern

It's one of nature's ironies that sometimes the seemingly delicate and fragile living things inhabit the most challenging, inhospitable environments. Yet the Slender Fragile Fern (Cystopteris tenuis), also known as Mackay's Brittle Fern, clings to shaded areas on rock faces where one would think it difficult for a plant to survive, let alone flourish.

The dorsal surface ...

... and the underside of a frond.

Closeup views of the sori (spore producing structures).

Friday, May 10, 2013

Ontario's One and Only Lizard

These are images that I never dreamed I would capture, for two reasons. One is that the Common Five-lined Skink is wary and moves like greased lightning. Sneaking up close to this small lizard with a Canon PowerShot A530 is virtually impossible, imagine trying to approach within one foot of a bird! The few photos below are the result of over twenty hours of patiently waiting in the hot sun, hoping the skink would become accustomed to my prescence and come out to bask.

The other reason I never thought I would acquire photographs of the Common Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) is that I had no idea they were living within walking distance of home. I have seen them on the rocks along the Skootamatta River shoreline near Storring's Bridge, and they are reputed to inhabit the Sheffield Conservation Area ... where I have hiked for hours and seen not a one. This lizard's abode borders the trans-Canada Trail about one kilometer east of town; here's the view from the trail, looking to the south.

One of the rock outcroppings where the skinks were observed; I believe there are at least three distinct lizards in the area. This is prime Common Five-lined Skink real estate, plenty of fissures, crevices and overhangs creating perfect places for basking, nesting, hibernating and hiding from predators. It's also a great place for a careless person to fall or break a leg.

The bluish tail indicates that this individual is a juvenile. The first Common Five-lined Skink observed in this area (spotted by a friend, about thirty feet to the south of where the pictures were taken) was less boldly striped and its tail was more gray than blue; I think it was a mature female.

The little reptile – about 12 or 13 cm in length – seldom emerged fully into the sunlight, leaving at least his (or her?) tail in the shade. I don't know if this was for the purpose of maintaining an optimal body temperature, or because it felt more comfortable knowing it could make a hasty retreat if necessary.

When my friend sighted the first Common Five-lined Skink she saw only its head poking out from among dead leaves in a crevice and mistook it for a Garter Snake, so – a quick primer on the differences between snakes and lizards.

Legs can sometimes be a distinguishing characteristic, definitely in this case as the Common Five-lined Skink is our sole lizard species. But in general this isn't a reliable way to tell snakes and lizards apart since there are many species of legless lizards. Another difference is that lizards have external ear openings, whereas in snakes they are lacking. As a substitute for hearing snakes rely on sensing vibrations transmitted through the ground. And finally, lizards have moveable eyelids and snakes do not – while he was sunning himself this little guy would blink now and again.

The external ears and moveable eyelids weren't visible from a distance, making it easy to mistake the Common Five-lined Skink for a snake. However, the legs were quite obvious when it came out of hiding and trundled across the rock right in front of us. And my camera? It was sitting ten feet away – of course. All in all, though I didn't get a picture of the first encounter I'm happy that she espied the lizard and pointed it out to me, because I was looking the other way at that moment and would never have noticed it. And would still be unaware that Ontario's one and only lizard is hanging out practically in my back yard ...

An Abbott's Sphinx, a Grapevine Epimenis and a Luna Moth

You know it's going to be a good day when there's a cool moth you've never seen before hanging out on the wall outside your door. Like many moths the profile and cryptic coloration of the Abbott's Sphinx (Sphecodina abbottii) make it resemble a piece of bark.

A closer look reveals that the drab brown tones are mixed with subtly beautiful patterns and colors.

Not the sharpest of images, but one is seldom lucky enough to capture an Abbott's Sphinx (or any other insect, for that matter) in flight using a small point-and-shoot camera.

Easily mistaken for a butterfly, the Grapevine Epimenis (Psychomorpha epimenis) is one of our day flying moth species. Given its diurnal habits and bold colors this little moth certainly isn't trying to conceal its presence. Are the colors possibly aposematic? Here are a few more photos of a Grapevine Epimenis encountered last summer ... A Flutter of Butterflies .

Yes, this is a moth. Over 30 cm in length, the cocoon was mixed in the litter near the base of a tree, the dead leaves incorporated into its thin papery weave making it virtually invisible in the debris. The pupa inside is quite active and can be felt moving about within the cocoon if it's handled. Based on the foregoing criteria – size, overwintering amidst the forest floor trash, and active pupa – I'm guessing and hoping that this is a Luna Moth and with a little luck will be able to witness and photograph the emergence of the adult.

Springtime 'Shrooms

As a rule late summer and autumn are the optimal seasons to go hunting for fungi, but some species produce their fruitbodies in spring and summer. Discovered by a friend along the edge of a swamp bordering Lost Channel Road in early May, this distinctive fungus also has a rather unusual name – Devil's Urn. One has to wonder about the history or derivation of certain fungus names ... Toadstool, Dead Man's Fingers, Witches' Butter ... at least the binomial or Latin name of this Ascomycete (the group that also includes cup fungi, saddles, morels, et al), Urnula craterium, is scrutable.

Although it's obviously a Coprinoid or Inky Cap, as of now I cannot assign a specific name to this mushroom growing from the soil near the base of my Gaillardias. (Edit ... possibly Coprinopsis lagopus a.k.a. Hare's Foot Inkcap?)

Looking like something from out of this world, an immature Dryad's Saddle (Polyporus squamosus) sprouts from a dead tree stump near the walking bridge in Tweed. Eye-catching groups of this large – up to 30 cm in diameter – fungus can be found on both dead wood and living trees throughout the summer and into autumn.

Even more strange and weird and otherwordly in appearance are the spore producing tentacle-like growths of Cedar-Apple Rust (Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae). This fungus has a complex life cycle, alternating between Apple and Eastern Red Cedar as host plants.

Another late spring fungus often encountered along the trans-Canada Trail (several specimens were found a few kilometers east of Sulphide) is Morchella elata, a.k.a. the Black Morel. The conical cap and relatively deep pits distinctly outlined in black distinguish this fungus from other species of Morchella.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

"March winds and April showers ..."

This year the late winter and early spring temperatures were closer to the seasonal norms, and as a result many of the first wildflowers are blooming three weeks behind compared to the spring of 2012 with its early arrival of mild weather. However, the warm spell of the past week or so did indeed bring forth May's flowers and everything seems to be bursting into bloom all at once.

As always, I'm constantly stumbling across flowers that I've passed by in previous years. In fact, much to my chagrin, it seems that for the past six years I've been walking past – and probably stepping on – hundreds of specimens of Wild Ginger (Asarum caudatum) without noticing. And all of these plants were growing along the trans-Canada Trail not half a kilometer from my home ...

The distinctive purplish flowers are easy to overlook as they arise close to the ground near the base of the plant. This is not the same herb as used to produce culinary ginger but the crushed rhizomes definitely do smell the same.

Dutchman's Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) are by no means uncommon, yet they are another spring ephemeral that have somehow escaped my notice until now. These specimens were encountered growing along Rapids Road.

By the time I found this patch of Round-lobed Hepatica (Anemone americana) leaves early last May it was way too late to grab a photo of the blossoms, as the plant produces flowers before it puts forth leaves.

As luck would have it I forgot where I took the above picture but a friend found a group of Round-lobed Hepatica growing along the trans-Canada Trail. A week later I encountered another small patch on my while out and about exploring on my own.

One of last year's leaves that has survived the winter in fairly good shape.

These beautiful little wildflowers come in shades of pale to dark blue or mauve, and occasionally white.

Until recently I only knew of Sessile-leaved Bellwort (Uvularia sessilifolia) from three plants found growing along the Skootamatta River at the Price Conservation Area. This patch – numbering probably about a thousand – is along the path leading to what is known locally as "the Point".

Hairy Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum pubescens) ... the sheen on the underside of the leaves in the second image is caused by fine hairs, the best means of distinguishing this plant from Smooth Solomon's Seal.

Commonly encountered along shady areas of the trans-Canada trail, Hairy Solomon's Seal seems to adapt adapt and thrive equally well in sunlit settings.

A few days ago I had the privilege of attending my first Monday Evening Guided Hike hosted by Terry Sprague. In addition to the fresh air and exercise it was good to be able to draw on the expertise of a group of knowledgeable nature lovers. Just as well for me, as ... based on the superficial similarity of the leaves ... I mistook these patches of Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum giganteum) for a species of Meadowrue, an error one of the other hikers corrected.

The last time I chanced upon this wildflower was in late August two years ago. I did identify this specimen correctly on the basis of its remarkably spherical bright blue berries, but Monday was the first time I have seen the plant's springtime incarnation while in full bloom.

The location of the hike was Hepatica Hill near Hunt Road south of Tweed. There was an abundance of woodland wildflowers, and in addition to Sharp-lobed Hepaticas there was a extravagance of White and Red Trilliums, some Large-flowered Bellwort and Dutchman's Breeches ... and Canada Violets (Viola canadensis), a species new to me.

The distinguishing features of this flower are its yellow throat and the pale purple backside of the blossom – note the bud behind the open flower. I did take photos of the backs of flowers in full bloom but they were all out of focus ... evening light in a forest setting makes a bad combination for taking pictures with a point-and-shoot camera.

The flowers of Wild Leek (Allium tricoccum) appear after the leaves have died off in early summer. This ubiquitous plant was easy to identify ... with several people walking in the woods it was impossible to avoid stepping on the leaves, and the air was filled with the onion or garlic like odour so typical of the Allium family.