Thursday, September 21, 2023

Book Review - Sea Mammals: The Past and Present Lives of Our Oceans' Cornerstone Species - Princeton University Press


     The name Annalisa Berta is synonymous with expertise in, and deep knowledge of, sea mammals and their role in our oceans, their origins and their future.
     So, one opens up this book with high expectations and one is not disappointed. It is a beautifully illustrated volume focussing on individual species within a framework of themes, viz, Evolution, Discovery, Biology, Behaviour, and Ecology and Conservation. Information is delivered succinctly, accurately and engagingly.
     Sea mammals, in many instances are keystone species (I had not heard the term "cornerstone" species before, but it seems to mean the same thing), and what they do and how humans react to them impacts entire ecosystems. Everyone is familiar with Robert Paine's groundbreaking experience with Pisaster ochraceus Sea Stars, which led to a full examination of the way in which the elimination of one species has the potential to change the entire dynamic of an ecosystem. Sea mammals, in their role as top predator, and sometimes important prey, fall squarely in this category.
     The history of humans and whales, humans and dolphins, humans and manatees spins a tale of total disregard for the integrity of ecosystems and slaughter has taken place on a massive scale, without heed for the morrow or an acknowledgement of the consequences. Enlightened science originating with scholars like Berta is bringing change but universal acceptance and a firm commitment to action is still absent in many parts of the world. Ironically the future for some species that have been hunted mercilessly to near extinction is now tied to ecotourism, with popular whale-watching tours casting a rosy hue on the future of Grey Whales, Humpbacks and others.
     We have a long way to go, however. The extinction of the Yangtze River Dolphin "was caused by extreme human impacts to the Yangtze River in recent decades, including pollution, harmful fishing gear, overfishing, and habitat destruction." This is a damning litany of the issues facing all marine organisms today. The Yangtze River Dolphin is believed to be the first dolphin species driven to extinction due to human impacts. It will not be the last.
     It seems impossible to go more than a day or two without news of the desperate plight of the Polar Bear; as a charismatic animal it has become a poster child for environmentalism, yet the trajectory of its future seems ever more dire.
     In this book Annalisa Berta projects facts, informed science and connects cetaceans and other sea mammals to the entire oceanic ecosystem in which they exist, yet she wears her heart on her sleeve too. Is it possible to envisage a world without these magnificent ancient creatures, mammals just like us who suckle their young? Do we really lack the will to save them, and in the process save ourselves? Only time will tell, but the future does not look good for many species. 

   There is more to these animals than flesh and blood, than oil in a lamp, domestic pet food or the satisfaction of some perverse dietary preference. They can be, and should be, the inspiration for a new environmental ethic and a desire to share our world with them, and the myriad other wonderful lifeforms that inhabit the briny oceans. We owe our children and grandchildren no less.
     Thank you Dr. Berta for making us think about sea mammals, and all the creatures of the oceans. Perhaps we can try to love them as much as you. In that rests their salvation.

Sea Mammals: The Past and Present Lives of Our Oceans' Cornerstone Species - Princeton University Press
Annalisa Berta
Hardcover - US$29.95 - ISBN: 9780691236643
224 pages - 6.5 x 9 inches (16.25 x 22.5 cm)
150 + colour illustrations
Publication date: 26 September, 2023

Monday, September 18, 2023

Benjamin Park, Waterloo, and the Health Valley Trail, St. Jacobs

What is all intercourse with nature if by the analytic method we merely occupy ourselves with individual material parts, and do not feel the breath of the spirit, which prescribes every part its direction, and orders, or sanctions, every deviation, by means of an inherent law?

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

17 August, 2023
Benjamin Park, Waterloo, ON
     This park is right behind our house, so is always convenient for a walk if we are pressed for time or don't wish to drive.

     A very handsome Eastern Yellowjacket (Vespula maculifrons) seemed to beg for a portrait.

     Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) is an exquisite little flower.

     A Common Aerial Yellowjacket (Dolichovespula arenaria) was foraging on goldenrod (genus Solidago), a magnet for so many species.

     The family Dolichopodidae, (Long-legged Flies) contains a huge number of species in many genera. It is very difficult to narrow identification down to species, but the following attractive individual is in the genus Condostylus.

     The path meandered onwards.

     A Bumble Bee (genus Bombus) was busily foraging.

     A Western Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) was no less occupied.

     A Brown-lipped Snail (Cepaea nemoralis) went about its business undisturbed by us.

     Small White (Pieris rapae), formerly known as Cabbage White,  is one of our most common butterflies.

     The nymph of the Green Stink Bug (Chinavia hilaris)is a very attractive little creature.

     Perennial Sow Thistle (Sonchus arvensis) is proliflic; considered noxious and invasive by some, but the flower is undeniably beautiful.

     Its windborne seeds, often referred to as fluff, are widely dispersed facilitating the spread of the plant.

     The curiously named Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana) is a delight to the eye.

     A female Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) appears to have been the victim of a massive infestation of feather mites and its head was totally denuded.

     Hopefully it will recover without permanent harm.

19 August, 2023
Health Valley Trail, St. Jacobs, ON

     The Health Valley Trail runs from Waterloo to St. Jacobs, and we approach it from both ends, going half way before retracing our footsteps. This time we started in St. Jacobs.

     It was not long before we saw our first Two-banded Petrophila (Petrophila bifascialis), common, but exceedingly handsome.

     A European Greenbottle Fly (Lucilia sericata) is exceptionally colourful when viewed in good light.

     Spreading Dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium) is a pleasing addition to any late summer walk.

     The Grand River is never far from view; always lovely.

     If there is one creature that can cause Miriam to hiss, spit and curse it is Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) - but only when it ravages her garden. On the trail it is an appealing addition to our walk.

     Common Aerial Yellowjacket (Dolichovespula arenaria) is best left undisturbed to go about its business.

     An Eastern Calligrapher (Toxomerus germinatus) was perched quite whimsically at the end of a leaf.

     It's always a pleasure to find a new species and then doing the research to establish its identity. So it was with the Drury's Long-horned Bee (Mellisodes druriellus).

     I am fortunate to have a great library at my disposal and I use all the references in combination to clinch the ID (and sometimes even then it's not possible). I check the internet too but always as a backup and not as the primary source. The information there is not always accurate and pictures are quite often misidentified.
     Powdered Dancer (Argia moesta) is like an old friend you never tire of seeing.

     Eastern Yellowjacket (Vespula maculifrons) is quite common here, yet it is designated in The Social Wasps of North America (2022), Chris Alice Kratzer's fabulous book that has become my 'bible' for social wasps, as "critically understudied." 

     Seems like an excellent opportunity for a thesis for some budding young entomologist.
     Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) were adept at flycatching, and there was no lack of aerial insects for them to hone their skill.

     Rock Doves (Columbia livia) favour human structures and this individual was perched on the underside of a railway bridge.

     A Box Elder (Acer negundo) was loaded with seeds.

     I don't expect you to be able to identify the bird below as a Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) but the picture gives you an idea how difficult it sometimes is to get a good look at a small songbird when the foliage is dense.

     A Cape May Warbler (Setophaga tigrina), in the same tree, was a little more cooperative.

     I always look forward to the emergence of New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), and it appears that a Ligated Furrow Bee (Halictus ligatus) was equally enamoured.

     Common Ringlet (Coenonympha california) is one more species that takes full advantage of goldenrod (Solidago spp.).

     A Red-legged Grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum) is really quite splendid and it posed nicely for a picture.

     Northern Leopard Frog (Lithobates pipiens), on the other hand, does its best to remain concealed.

     Eastern Forktail (Ischnura verticalis) was numerous and this one even stopped briefly in camera range.

     A couple of American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) seemed happy atop a tree.....

     ..... overlooking the Grand River.

     This is a fine example of Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor), I think you'll agree.

     We often see apple trees (genus Malus) and I am never quite sure whether they are wild or a domestic strain that somehow was seeded along a trail, perhaps by an action as innocent as throwing away an apple core.

     We were mere steps from the car when a cheery American Robin (Turdus migratorius) popped up, as though to bid us goodbye, with a firm invitation to return.

     If ever you're in the neighbourhood you might want to accompany us on one of our walks. I think you'd enjoy it and I know the robin would be happy to see you.

Friday, September 15, 2023

Book Review - Octopuses & Their Relatives: A Natural History of Cephalopods - Princeton University Press


     I suspect that for many, their only association with cephalopods, until recently, was the calamari on their plate. That seems to have changed in recent years and there is an emerging fascination with octopuses and squid. This transformation seems to have occurred with Sy Montgomery's book The Soul of an Octopus, published in 2015. Popular media interest and You Tube videos have followed. 
     In fact, there is much to garner attention about these ancient creatures, and Donna Staaf has written a very fine book about these intelligent and interesting inhabitants of the oceans of the world. They vary in size from tiny organisms that can squeeze into a discarded snail shell, to giant squid 13 metres long. Gigantism has always fascinated humans, and awed and terrified us too, so it is not surprising that many lurid tales have been written about predatory octopuses victimizing innocent humans and dragging ships to a watery doom.
     The truth is that cephalopods are beautiful creatures, capable of instant camouflage in many species, and occupying different zones of the ocean, preying on some fellow inhabitants and providing food for others. Albatrosses, for example, are almost totally dependent on squid for their survival. Many cetaceans cover huge distances to feed on squid.
     The book covers every habitat where cephalopods may be found - Beaches, Tidepools, Sandflats and Mudflats; Seagrass Beds, Kelp Forests and Rocky Reefs; Coral Reefs; Open Ocean; Midwater; Deep Sea; Antarctica and the Arctic. As you might expect, over such a diversity of habitats there are myriad anatomical and behavioural adaptations, all of which are covered in exquisite detail in the book.
     The science is explained in an easily comprehensible form, and if you have never had even a passing acquaintance with biology or physics, you will have no difficulty absorbing it all, and getting caught up with the exquisiteness of creatures you had perhaps not thought about before.
     Detailed species accounts provide essential information, a range map and a glorious full colour picture. In fact the entire book, page after page, is populated with stunning photographs, some so incredible you wonder how they were ever taken.
     It distresses me that with every account of the natural world today one cannot ignore the sinister and increasingly unconscionable outcomes humans are having on the planet. Predatory fishing practices, both legal and illegal, decimate species, with disgraceful "by catch" of organisms other than those that are the targets of long lines, and trawl nets that could envelop cities. The ocean floor is dragged beyond recognition and the unique and irreplaceable biosphere for benthic organisms is destroyed. Nets and other gear (ghost gear) discarded by trawlers consign numerous species, including mammals as large as whales to a slow, lingering death. Plastic pollution continues to rain down on the oceans with no end in sight. Currently there are plans afoot to mine the oceans and drill for oil. Staaf does not shy away from these issues and what, when all is said and done, is the complete lack of willingness to tackle the problems. If you think for a moment of the catastrophic consequences of poaching on land, just imagine the virtual impossibility of controlling or eliminating it on the high seas. And we haven't even touched on the warming of the oceans....

      This is a really excellent book. Please take the time to read it and get to know some of Planet Earth's most absorbing creatures. You'll be glad you did.

Niggly bits -

Page 20 - "First defiuite ceph fossil" - I assume this should read "First definite cephalopod fossil."

Page 13 - Staaf says, "I'm contractually obligated to take a stand on plurals.......squid and cuttlefish tend to be their own plurals." On page 28 she then talks of glass squids and on page 154 of Oegopsid squids. Squid is used everywhere else in the book.

Page 59 - "This works excellently on smooth glasl" should obviously say "smooth glass.

The Lives of Octopuses and Their Relatives: A Natural History of the Cephalopods - Princeton University Press
Danna Staaf
Hardcover - US$35.00 - ISBN: 9780691244303
288 pages - 7.5 x 9.5 inches (18.75 x 23.75 cm)
150+ colour illustrations
Publishing date: 19 September, 2023   

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Focaccia Bread and the Mill Race

     Miriam made focaccia bread! David is happy!

      To claim that it is wonderful is to understate the very meaning of ecstasy! When it is fresh out of the oven the bread by itself is a tasty treat, but a sandwich takes it to even greater heights.
     We usually have a combination of the following ingredients - ham, cheese, tomatoes, sweet onion and lettuce, in various combinations and sometimes all together. If our taste buds are on high alert we even caramelize the onion. Just spread a little mayonnaise, or lightly drizzle olive oil, pile on your ingredients and you are set for a gourmet's delight.
     If I have prosciutto, capocollo or mortadella to replace the plain ham it gets even better. 
     Viva la focaccia! Grazie Italia per questo regalo.

16 August, 2023
The Mill Race Trail, St. Jacobs, ON

     Just as we were parking, a handsome Carolina Grasshopper (Dissoteira carolina) landed on our car, and showed no inclination to move on.

     The following hoverfly is known by the attractive name of Sedgesitter, found in the large genus Platycheirus, many species resembling wasps and bees.

     Someone had strewn a little birdseed on a bench and a male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) was quick to take advantage of it.

     Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) delighted us with their cheery ways.

     European Paper Wasps (Polistes dominula) were not hard to find.

     We agreed to bid each other a cordial hello and have no further engagement than that!
     This is a species of Bot Fly in the super family Oestroidea, so difficult to narrow down to species level.

     Fish, other than familiar species caught by anglers, and even those seen in the fish market, are a bit of a mystery to me. These are True Minnows (family Leuciscidae) and there were lots of them, mostly swimming close to or at the surface of the water.

     A Canadian Potter Wasp (Symmorphus canadensis)
was a special delight for us. It is very handsome as you may see.

     The following flower is located in the genus Anemonastrum, which means "somewhat like anemone", and I think you can see why.

     This a European Paper Wasp viewed from a different angle.

     An Eastern Forktail (Ischnura verticalis) has become like an old friend, patrolling up and down its territory; procreation is uppermost on its mind.

     Many species of Amber Snail (family Succineidae) are very similar in appearance, so I am erring on the side of caution and not naming this one as to species.

     A Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans) seems very visible in the picture below; and it is - until you take your eyes off it, that is, and then you lose it as it blends into its surroundings.

     Calyptrate Flies (Zoosubsection Calyptratae) are numerous and resist identification to all but those who specialize in them - and often, even for them, specific ID is difficult without laboratory examination.

     You have to agree that it looks pretty on the flower though!
     A Two-banded Petrophila (Petrophila bifascialis) looked a little ragged.

     This is a very interesting species, inasmuch as the female crawls down the side of a rock in a fast moving stream, sometime two or three metres down, to lay her eggs, which ultimately become aquatic caterpillars!
     The caterpillar of the Brown-hooded Owlet (Cucullia convexipennis) is surely as gorgeous a larva as you will ever see.

     Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striata) is very common along the Mill Race Trail. It is both brash and very approachable and generally delights everyone who sees it.

     The colourful Blow Fly seen below is found in the family Calliphoridae.

     Giant Mayflies (genus Hexagenia) are found in the wonderfully named order Ephemeroptera - ephemeros (lasting only a day) and ptera (wings).

     I am reminded of the old joke about a man presenting himself at the gates of heaven to hear St. Peter say, "Congratulations, Mr. Smith, you have been reincarnated as a mayfly. Have a nice day!"
     Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma) does not have a long life either, but much longer than a mayfly.

     Summer Azure (Celastrina neglecta) personifies the carefree days of summer, flitting around and hardly ever landing. Patience is sometimes rewarded, however.

     Stream Bluets (Enallagma exsulans) were preoccupied with producing the next generation - sometimes with admirable success.

     We glimpsed a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) on the opposite bank of the Conestogo River, peering at it through the dense foliage of mid-summer extravagance, and I think that Miriam got an excellent shot.

     She makes focaccia bread and get pictures like this. Is it any wonder I am a happy guy? 

Land Acknowledgement

We acknowledge that the land on which we are situated are the lands traditionally used by the Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabe, and Neutral People. We also acknowledge the enduring presence and deep traditional knowledge, laws, and philosophies of the Indigenous Peoples with whom we share this land today. We are all treaty people with a responsibility to honour all our relations.