Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Good Year

"People who daily expect to encounter fabulous realities run smack into them again and again. They keep their minds open for their eyes." ~ Ken Macrorie

For the student of nature, amateur and professional alike, by definition every year is a good year. There’s always something different to see and new to learn. From a more personal and local perspective 2013 has been exceptional in terms of encounters with species that are rare, vagrants, or (according to current literature) outside of their known ranges.

Four of the sightings – the Varied Thrush, the Juniper Hairstreak, the Painted Skimmer, and the Mantidfly (Dicromantispa sayi) – were brought to my attention by observant friends who share my interests in nature, science, and the conservation and protection of the flora and fauna around us. The notable highlights of the past twelve months are ...

Varied Thrush – normally a western species, an occasional vagrant in Ontario.
Juniper Hairstreak – considered to be rare, but there are a few hanging out in a copse of Eastern Red Cedars 1½ kilometers west of Tweed.
Slender Bluet – a small colony is breeding in Stoco Lake, well north of its normal range.
Painted Skimmer – photographed by a friend, about 1½ kilometers west of Tweed. This striking dragonfly seems to be extending its range northward.
Dainty Sulphur – a rare vagrant in Ontario, and a "lifer" for me. Big surprises sometimes come in small packages.
Dicromantispa sayi – a friend found this small Mantidfly along Lost Channel Road south of Tweed and its identity has been confirmed at BugGuide.Net. It's wandering far from home, because according this 2006 study published by the Entomological Society of Canada, The Mantispidae of Canada, Dicromantispa sayi is only known from extreme southwestern Ontario.

As always, every year my sightings of UFOs – Unidentified Fungal Objects – grows longer. This bright yellow slime mold plasmodium was found growing under a piece of bark. Physarum polycephalum, perhaps?

Also on the underside of some bark on the forest floor, some translucent jelly-like fungi. Kind of look like Gummy Bears, don't they? I don't know if they taste like Gummy Bears. Curiosity is a commendable character trait but some experiments, for example taste testing unknown fungi, are a really bad idea ...

A missed opportunity to study the association between an interesting pair of fungi? While taking these photos I thought the three clavate fungi were a grouping of Common Earth Tongue. But having had a closer look at the images, the stalks are distinctly paler than the heads, and the overall shapes of the growths are atypical for Common Earth Tongue.

It’s more likely the stalked growths are Adder’s Tongue (Cordyceps ophioglossoides), which is parasitic on the underground fungus called Elaphomyces granulatus – note the growth near the bottom of the photo – but it’s too late now to go back for a second look ...

The next four images depict a common woodland mushroom that grows in large clusters on dead tree trunks and the forest floor, probably on buried dead wood. The cortina or web-like veil covering the gills on younger specimens, as well as the clearly defined ring zones left by the partial veils, indicate a species of Cortrinarius.

A group of more mature mushrooms, the caps are about 75 mm to 100 mm in diameter. Sad to say, but even after having studied dozens of these mushrooms in all stages of their growth, I am none the wiser and their identity remains a mystery to me ...

This large group of mushrooms was encountered growing in a grassy area, but there was a stump nearby so it’s possible the fungi are actually fruiting on buried dead wood. Again, the webbed veils on the undersides of the caps strongly suggest Cortinarius. The purplish flesh and stems should help identify this ‘shroom, but I didn’t make any spore prints ...

Mushroom identification seems to be my nemesis. The color and satiny sheen of these common mushrooms should help narrow down the species, as should the substrate they are anchored in. Although the 'shrooms appear to be fruiting on a lawn, the photos were taken alongside the trans-Canada Trail and the growth medium, hidden just beneath the grassy surface, is coarse sand and gravel.

My list of unknown, unexplained and unidentified species is by no means confined to fungi. For example, what’s this large orange female spider? In the absence of any clear markings and without images of the epigyne and scape, it’s impossible to narrow the ID any further than the genus level – Araneus.

What insect produced these Mottled Oak Galls scattered all over the woodland floor? The fat white grub ensconced within tells us the culprit producing the galls is an insect, not a mite or a fungus, but that still leaves hundreds of possibilities ...

A picturesque patch of moss found near a woodland stream. Despite its distinctive characteristics my knowledge of Bryophytes is limited (actually, it would be more correct to say my expertise in this area of botany is pretty much non-existent) and I haven’t been able to identify it as yet.

A flowering plant growing near the same stream, too bad the flowers are withered, they might have helped narrow the ID ....

Most (but not all) of the spiny-toothed leaves are deeply lobed. At the time I mistakenly deemed this to be sufficient data to identify the wildflower and I didn't bother taking detailed pictures of any other parts of the plant. Months have passed and it's too late to correct my error in judgement, and given the paucity of information in the two images the best I can come up with is Rattlesnakeroot – Prenanthes spp.

Another mystery plant found in a moist wooded area.

About a day after posting this the "mystery plant" is no longer a mystery! As I'm sitting in front of the computer at the library studying my photos a voice says: "That's Aralia racemosa, it's somewhat uncommon in Hastings County." The voice of insight and illumination spake not from within the deepest recesses of my mind, but rather from behind my right shoulder. It belonged to a friend from south of town who I only run into on occasion, and he also informed me – I had no idea all the time I have known him – that he was a botanist.

A quick Internet search verified that my acquaintance was right on the money and the plant is indeed Spikenard (Aralia racemosa). I also checked the library's copy of The ROM Field Guide to Wildflowers of Ontario and sure enough, Spikenard was right there on Page #141 and I had been overlooking it all along.

Small flowering plants about 20 cm tall, they look like they belong to the Mint family, countless numbers were growing along a marsh near Sulphide.

In addition to catching up on the "unidentified" files, there are already things on my to-do list of field activities for next year:

– What species are these Spiketail naiads? I’m going to capture a couple of larvae before they are expected to emerge in early June and raise them.
– How widely distributed is our local population of Slender Bluets?
– How extensive is the range and population of the Common Five-lined Skink in my corner of the world? The southern shield population of Ontario's only lizard is of special concern.
Chimney Swifts are considered to be threatened in Ontario. These small crepuscular "flying cigars" can be seen cruising overhead – in groups composed of as many as eight individuals – on summer evenings in Tweed. But where are they nesting?

I also plan to carry on with my study of ferns and their non-flowering relatives. And on my wish list for species to encounter and photograph next year ... American Rubyspot, Tawny Emperor, Early Hairstreak, Olympia Marble, Chryxus Arctic ... one can always hope ...