Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Raising Butterflies and Other Odds and Ends

        When I mentioned raising butterflies indoors in my last post several of you left comments expressing an interest  in knowing more about the process. I do not have pictures of the entire sequence, but I can explain what you need to know without them, and I think the narrative will be sufficient. After this post if you still have questions feel free to get in touch with me.
     The first thing to determine of course is the species you wish to raise and to ensure that you have their preferred plant either in your garden or close at hand.
     We have usually raised three species (and I must add that Miriam pretty much does this without a whole lot of help from me), Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes), Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) and Monarch (Danaus plexippus).
     The swallowtails are known to seek out Rue (Ruta graveolens) to lay their eggs, so we have it growing in our backyard. At the appropriate time just keep an eye on the plant and you will not fail to notice the females depositing eggs. For Monarchs, a species of milkweed (Asclepias spp.) is necessary and we have Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), both containing a poisonous, bitter-tasting chemical which remains in the tissue of the adult butterflies and gives Monarchs immunity from predators. Dill (Anethum graveolens) is also accepted by swallowtails but milkweeds are essential for Monarchs.
     Bring stems of the plant indoors with lots of leaves for the caterpillars to munch on when they hatch, keeping them green and fresh by standing them in water, and then watch the process unfold. When the caterpillars first emerge from the eggs you will be astounded at how tiny they are, yet you will be even more amazed at their rate of growth and the sheer volume of frass that accumulates at the bottom of the cage. You can't believe how much poop one little caterpillar can produce! We line the bottom of the cage with newspaper and change it regularly, and provide new food constantly.
     If you are fortunate and are able to catch the moment when the caterpillar forms a chrysalis, or the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis, you will be moved by the experience in a way that little else in life has moved you. It all takes place very quickly, however, so you have to keep checking!
     When the butterfly emerges from the cocoon it hangs for a while inflating its wings and letting them dry; after which it is good to go on its journey as an adult butterfly.

Black Swallowtail

Giant Swallowtail

     We are finished with swallowtails for this year but have several Monarch caterpillars at various stages of development in the house now, so we have much pleasure and excitement to look forward to.

Other Odds and Ends

     After four months of not getting together our Tuesday Rambles with David resumed, and we were careful to practice socially-distanced birding.

     From left to right above - John Pries, Carol Gorenc, Jim Huffman, Judy Wyatt, David Gascoigne, Franc Gorenc, Mary Voisin.

     Eastern Kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus) appear to have had a very successful breeding season and we have seen several newly-fledged families of these delightful flycatchers.

     The local creeks, swamps and wetlands harbour good populations of Midland Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta marginata) which can often be seen sunning themselves on a convenient log.

         The young Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) at RiverSong have now left the nest and this lone adult was perhaps more than a tad relieved to be free of parental duties.

     We have had a decent amount of rain of late, much needed and very welcomed by various species that gather in low spots in fields flooded by rainfall. This Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) was taking full advantage of the conditions.

     Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius) is quite common around the shoreline of lakes, ponds, rivers and streams, but it was unusual to find one just taking a rest.

     We continue to get out every day and we are almost giddy with the full flush of nature at this time of the year. Life like this really is the way life was intended to be.

Sunday, 2 August 2020

Butterflies, Bunnies and Birds

     We, (well, Miriam really) have had another successful year raising Black Swallowtails (Papilio polyxenes) and Giant Swallowtails (Papilio cresphontes) indoors and it has been fascinating, as always, to watch the development of these wonders of nature from tiny egg to resplendent butterfly. There are some things that never get old and this is one of them.

     When you look at the exuvia above it is hard to believe that this huge Giant Swallowtail (83 - 133 mm) emerged from it.

     It has been a very successful breeding season for Eastern Cottontails (Sylvilagus floridanus) but they have not ravaged Miriam's garden too drastically and have even permitted the coneflowers (Asteraceae compositae) out front to prosper, so I think that her antagonism towards them has moderated significantly.

     The breeding season has ended for the Green Herons (Butorides virescens) at SpruceHaven but the adults find rich feeding on the pond.

     This time of year is notable for the number of recently fledged birds beginning the difficult task of making their own way in life, no longer able to count on parents to provide food, shelter and protection. This young Grey Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) seems to have made a good start.

     A family of recently fledged Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) were still flocking together; perhaps it's a good thing to have your siblings watch out for you.

     On our nightly walks at Hillside Park we have been seeing Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) with great regularity, and have been keeping an eye on several likely breeding locations.

     The snag on the left above attracted our attention several times, and often we saw flickers in the area.  Finally we noticed movement and you can see a young bird poking up from the hole.
     We watched a male perch atop the snag.....

     .....and it was not long before we witnessed nestlings being fed.

     From what we could observe from our position on the ground far below the nest, it was apparent that these young woodpeckers were close to fledging.

     What a pleasure to watch all this activity!

     A couple of nights later the nest was silent, but just before leaving to make our way home, we saw the entire family perched together on another dead tree - father, mother and three healthy children.
     All is well with the world!


Wednesday, 29 July 2020

The Dreaded, Unwelcome Gypsy Moth - It's Here to Stay

     A few days ago we were sitting on the deck at our friends Alan and Anne Morgan's house, gazing at, and admiring Anne's garden which is a phenomenon to behold, sipping wine and talking of all things under the sun.
     At some point our attention was rivetted on a female Gypsy Moth (Lymantria dispar) on an oak tree (Quercus sp) and the conversation quickly changed to this invasive insect, which is present in seemingly apocalyptic numbers this year. I know that memory is selective, but I cannot recall seeing Gypsy Moths in such profusion.
     Having been introduced to North America in 1869 in Boston, it has become a serious pest and is capable of deforesting vast areas of native woodland. Stephen Marshall recounts an incident where he was seated under a tree at a picnic table and was driven away by the pitter-patter of frass (bug poop) falling from the caterpillars on the branches above onto the table and into his coffee!

     Let me try to give you a little more insight into this entirely unwelcome guest.

Hosts: Gypsy Moth caterpillars are especially fond of oak and aspen, but will opportunistically feed on other species as diverse as Hemlock, White Pine and Poison Ivy. The picture below shows females, egg masses, larvae and pupa on a Norway Maple.

Damage: The larvae chew the leaves of their host plants during the spring, and the noise of an army of these creatures can become quite loud. Gypsy Moth is an outbreak species, sometimes persisting for two or three years, during which time trees can be seriously weakened and vulnerable to other pests such as the Two-lined Chestnut Borer (Agrilus bilineatus).

Distribution: Currently found over much of Eastern and Central Canada, the Northern U.S. as far west as Minnesota, and south to the The Carolinas. Isolated infestations have occurred in other regions when eggs have been transferred on plant materials.

Appearance: Larvae are generally mottled grey and have pairs of coloured tubercules. The hairs on the body can be irritating to human skin. Male moths are dark brown with wavy darker markings across the wings. Females are flightless despite having wings that are white with wavy stripes.

Unmated female
Life History and Habits: The eggs overwinter in a mass covered with hairs from the body of the female. Exposure to cold is a requirement for egg development. Eggs usually hatch in April and the young larvae move to the tips of branches where they may be dispersed by the wind (ballooning). Males go through five larval instars, females six, over the course of about six weeks. Feeding occurs at night with the larvae moving to branches and trunks during the day to rest and moult. During serious outbreaks daytime feeding also occurs. 

Caterpillars with chrysalids
     The larvae may settle on plants for pupation but will also wander and settle on rocks, other vegetation, upright surface of buildings or other convenient locations. Adults emerge about two weeks later. The male is a strong flyer but as noted above the female is flightless. 
     After mating, females lay a single egg mass, typically containing 250 eggs. 


     The Gypsy Moth is a notoriously variable species and the Siberian Moth (Dendrolimus sibiricus) differs from the European Gypsy Moths in some sinister ways. The females are able to fly and they have a taste for conifers which are the lifeblood of the western forest industry. Not surprisingly the appearance of of the Siberian Moth in British Columbia has caused great consternation and aggressive actions to control or eradicate it.

Photo creditAll of the photographs were taken by Alan Morgan, to whom I owe much gratitude for his permission to use them on my blog.


Cranshaw, Whitney and David Shetlar, Garden Insects of North America Second Edition, Princeton University Press ((2018)

Marshall, Stephen A., Insects - Their Natural History and Diversity, Firefly Books (2006)

Milne, Lorus and Margery, National Audubon Guide to Insects and Spiders, Chanticleer Press Inc. (1980)

Stanek, V. J., The Pictorial Encyclopedia of Insects, The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited (1969)    

Tuesday, 28 July 2020

A Retrospective in Nature

     A week or so ago, I was contacted by Verda Cook, a first cousin of Miriam's to advise that she had some natural history pamphlets and magazines dating back to the nineteen-thirties and forties, inquiring whether I would like to have them.

Verda Cook
     An historical perspective into any subject is always illuminating, and when Verda listed exactly what she had, I knew I wanted them!

     When I picked the material up, I had an engaging chat with Verda and her husband, Stanley, (socially-distanced of course outside their apartment building) and they told me a good deal about the interest they had in nature as children, and how they received encouragement and stimulation at home and in school. It is an indication of the value Verda placed on the items she gave me, that over the course of several moves, she had never disposed of them. 

Nature Magazine 1936

     Four copies of this fine journal survived in very good condition, and were passed over to me.

     Eighty-four years on from their date of publication they are as relevant today as they were then.
     The quality of the articles written for the magazine, which covers a range of taxa and topics, is of the highest order, contributed by the leading authorities of the day, including luminaries such as Rosalie Barrow Edge, who would go on to acquire the land that is today's Hawk Mountain Sanctuary along the Kittatinny Ridge in Pennsylvania.
     It is no more than a couple of months ago that I was discussing the practice of snow roosting by birds with a friend, and an article in the September 1936 magazine tackles the same topic.

     Conservation is an important issue today, an urgent issue in fact, and it was no less vital in 1936. 

     It is depressing to realize that attitudes regarding wildlife, their preservation, their need for space and pristine habitat, have not advanced greatly since those days. We are still culling wolves in British Columbia, allegedly to preserve an endangered subspecies of caribou, but the decisions around such unreasonable carnage are mainly political and are not based on science. 
     Double-crested Cormorants were subjected to merciless, unreasonable and senseless persecution then, and the cruel slaughter of these birds continues to this day.

     Science never mattered a whole lot to a politician seeking a vote, and catering to the lowest common denominator has always been the easy way out. The advocacy of sports fishers and cottage owners trumps science every time. The demands of international forestry giants rode slipshod over the vital habitat requirements of spawning salmon, and we now have neither old growth forests nor salmon, to say nothing of habitat for Spotted Owls and vital nesting trees for Marbled Murrelets. The patrimony of old growth forests which belonged to us all has been lost forever.  And the fisherman who has over-fished his own resource finds the cormorant an easy scapegoat.
     "Shy and wary, these birds have been little known, despite their large size, and it has been unfortunate that they have been forced to suffer because of man's tendency to form hasty opinions. For man has known that the cormorants live almost entirely on fish and he has seen fit to assume, without a particle of evidence, that food fish and game fish form their livelihood."
     Find a fellow today, armed with a rifle, shooting cormorants without restriction, and with government sanction, and those same words ring true in 2020.

Junior Audubon Leaflets (1930s)

     A case could be made that the American artist, illustrator and naturalist, Roger Tory Peterson, had a greater influence on bird watching as a pastime, and subsequently on science and conservation, than any other figure of the 20th Century.
     As part of his prolific output, Peterson, created the Junior Audubon Society pamphlets which were decorated with his marginalia, in the 1930s, and were made available to Junior Audubon clubs formed in schools. Twenty-three of these leaflets would go on to form the basis for his second book, The Junior Book of Birds.
     While aimed at children and written in a lively style that appealed to a young reader, there was nothing childlike about the content, which enabled the reader to get to know the bird, and usually contained an ecological message.
     Permit me to introduce you to just two of these gems.
     Leaflet No. 39a covers the House Wren.

     For whatever reason, the principal artwork was not done by Peterson, but images by the leading bird illustrators of the day were included. Many pictures were the output of Bruce Horsefall and this depiction of a House Wren is a stunning example of his work. 

     Examine for yourself the exquisite detail.

     It is a measure of the serious nature of these leaflets aimed at children (the biologists and conservationists of the future) that acclaimed artists such as Horsefall contributed their paintings, and were willing - anxious perhaps - to have them used in the education of budding naturalists.
     I find it a heartwarming aspect of each issue of the Junior Audubon series that an outline picture of the principal image was included for the children to colour, having the artist's work to serve as a reference.
     Verda, to her credit, retained the pictures she coloured, and her House Wren is depicted below.

     At the end of each account little challenges are provided for the young reader. Here are the tasks assigned in the House Wren account

Build a Bird House
Make a bird house like the one on the other side of this page. Put it up five or ten feet from the ground. It should be put out in March or April.

How Now?
The wren in the margin drawing is trying hard to get a long stick into the hole. It is not having much luck. How can it get it in?

In a Bird Book
Look up the other kinds of wrens. How would you tell them apart?

     Let us now turn our attention to Leaflet No. 107a dealing with The Yellow-throat (Common Yellowthroat today).

          As always the text is artfully crafted to be easily understood by a child, but conveys all the information to be found in a book aimed at adults. 
     Consider the following:

"We find Yellow-throats in wet places, mostly. By a brook or the edge of a swamp. The bird scolds and fusses when we come near. If we make a squeaking noise it becomes very excited. It sits in the top of a bush where we can see its black face well. Only the male, the father bird, wears the mask. The female is much like him otherwise. Both have yellow throats."


     As is the full colour portrait of male and female in typical habitat by Allan Brooks, another prominent artist of the day.

     I know that by now you are waiting anxiously to see Verda's rendition, so here it is.

      The challenges at the end of the species account are as follows.

Make a Bird Calendar
Make a list of birds this spring. Write down where you see each bird. Also the date.
Make a bird calendar for the classroom. When a new bird is seen, put it down with the name of the person who saw it.

With Crayons
Colour the little drawings on this leaflet with crayons. All the leaflets can be coloured. Save them in your bird notebook.

     With little effort I can cast myself back in time and imagine with what great anticipation I would have awaited the next leaflet. I know what would have been my favourite class in school! 
     Verda recounted how much she enjoyed her nature studies, and has vivid and pleasant recollections of visiting woodlots with her class to see spring ephemerals emerging on the woodland floor, all the while keeping an ear cocked for migrant birdsong.
     The influence has lasted all her life and she and Stanley still look forward to annual visits to Long Point to see the arrival of the Tundra Swans and Sandhill Cranes.
     It is a shame that education of this type is no longer provided in schools.

Canadian Nature 

     Previously unknown to me, I am mightily impressed with the scope and quality of this wonderful journal, covering every aspect of nature from the night skies to birds, mammals, crustaceans, molluscs, flowers, trees and everything else. The issues given to me by Verda were all produced in the 1940s.

     The contributors to these magazines represent a veritable pantheon of Canadian naturalists and artists - trailblazers in many ways - a sort of aristocracy if you wish.
     T. M. Shortt, by general consensus one of the finest nature illustrators Canada ever produced, spent his entire career at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, at the same time as the legendary James L. Baillie, Jr was curator of ornithology there.

     The joint contribution of these two giants is immeasurable.
     In addition to his mastery of art, always conveying his subjects in such lifelike fashion one expected them to leap (or fly) from the page, Terry Shortt was possessed of a formidable knowledge of his subjects too.

     Allan Brooks spent all of his formative years in Ontario, becoming a renowned bird illustrator on the international stage.

     John A. Crosby, by general consensus, had a consummate skill matched by few in his depictions of birds.

     Crosby would go on to illustrate the highly acclaimed The Birds of Canada by W. Earl Godfrey, the dean of Canadian ornithology, a work I refer to several times a week to this day, and a keystone publication in the distinguished history of Canadian ornithology.
     Birds always featured prominently in each edition of Canadian Nature, but never to the exclusion of other taxa.

          An account of Spotted Sandpiper was written by Roger Tory Peterson, proving that this modest Canadian publication had no difficulty attracting the contribution of renowned authorities, Canadian or otherwise.  Eric Hosking was another international luminary to write for Canadian Nature.

     Canadian birds were, of course, featured extensively throughout the issues.

     As has been pointed out, Junior Audubon Clubs played a vital role in the development of an interest in the natural world, and I found the coverage of some of the clubs heart-warming.
     The children pictured here are proudly displaying the nest boxes they have made and holding a banner depicting Canadian birds.

     Verda Cook is not in these pictures, but any one of those girls could have been her. The pride she had in her membership, the sense of accomplishment she derived from her participation, and the commitment to nature that has survived to this day, are the legacy of these clubs.
     I am indebted to Verda for introducing me to aspects of nature education in Ontario of which I knew little, and I offer her my profound thanks. Rest assured that this material will be treasured and referred to often. Thank goodness they did not end up in the shredder!


Anglin, Lise, Birder Extraordinaire, The Life and Legacy of James L. Baillie, Toronto Ornithological Club and Long Point Bird Observatory (1992)

Broun, Maurice, Hawks Aloft, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association (1949)

Godfrey, W. Earl, The Birds of Canada, National Museum of Canada (1966)

McNicholl, Martin K & John L. Cranmer-Byng, Ornithology in Ontario, Hawk Owl Publishing (1994)

Rosenthal, Elizabeth J., Birdwatcher - The Life of Roger Tory Peterson, The Globe Pequot Pres (2008)

Taverner, P. A., Birds of Canada, Revised Edition, The National Museum of Canada (1953)

Wires, Linda R., The Double-crested Cormorant, Yale University Press (2014)