Sunday, 24 May 2020

Book Review - Spiders of the World - A Natural History - Princeton University Press

       Time to conquer your arachnophobia and delve  into the wonderful world of spiders. This is a taxon that has interested me for as long as I can remember, intrinsically, as a significant control of insect populations, and as an important source of food for many birds.
     Spiders are found on every continent except Antarctica, and vary incredibly in size, form, colour and lifestyle. Most are benign, but some pack a forceful dose of venom, and the threat posed by female Black Widow Spiders lurking in outhouses, is the stuff of folklore and legend! Much has also been made of the propensity of female spiders to eat their suitors once mating is consummated. Did you know that Australian tarantulas are capable of seizing and consuming Cane Toads?
     Do I have your attention?
     This book is a compendium of everything you could possibly wish to know about spiders, accompanied by a stunning array of high quality colour photographs. It starts with a thorough review of spider anatomy with diagrams and incredible images of details revealed only under a microscope. It is a breathtaking journey through a world hitherto unknown to virtually all of us.
     What then follows is exceptional coverage of over a hundred spider families, presented taxonomically. It is illuminating to contemplate that there are more than 48,000 species of spiders in 4,000 genera and 115 families! These accounts are highlighted by beautiful colour photographs, depicting a range of lifestyle and habitat. The pictorial coverage benefits greatly from the availability of digital cameras and I think it is safe to say that many of the photographs represent activities seldom, if ever, shown before.
     Each family account is accompanied by a range map, and brief notes pinpointing the genus, distribution, habitat, and a summary of characteristics. I find this an incredibly pleasing device, showing very conscientious editing, with a view to making the book as useful to the reader as possible.
     The book concludes with a comprehensive glossary and recommendations for further reading.
     From the first page to the last this book is a tour de force. I recommend it highly.

Spiders of the World - A Natural History
Norman I. Platnick
US$29.95 - 9780691188850 - 240 pages - 6.5 in. x 9.5 in.
Publication date: 09 June 2020     

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Birds, Buns and Butterflies

     We have not been far enough afield to merit a complete post (although that might change when Miriam downloads her pictures from yesterday, albeit from a local morning walk), so once again this segment will be a composite of a few days activity.

16 May 2020
Hillside Park, Waterloo, ON

     This local park, mere minutes from our home, has become a bit of a favourite in recent times, especially during the Coronavirus. Sometimes the bird life is plentiful, at others not, but it is always a pleasant walk regardless.
     On this day it was very active and migrant wood warblers were present in good numbers. Seeing them, enjoying them, revelling in them, is entirely different from taking a picture, however.
     Myrtle Warbler (Setophaga coronota) was the most common species but this is the only picture we could get.

     Myrtle Warbler was formerly combined with Audubon's Warbler (Setophaga auduboni) as a single species (and still is by some taxonomists) as Yellow-rumped Warbler and the picture shows the reason for this name. I have heard it referred to as Yump, or, (with great affection no doubt), Butter-butt. I suspect it would be a sage and diplomatic decision to never refer to your spouse or special other in such a way! Otherwise hot tongue and cold shoulder might be your daily diet for a while to come!
     Grey Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) is a wonderful bird to encounter. Its own song is varied and melodious but it is an accomplished mimic and many is the time I have searched for several species only to realize that a catbird is playing with me!

     The Mallards (Anas platyrynchos) we saw were all males, lazing away their time while the females go about the serious business of incubating their eggs.

     Miriam's close up of the head should cause you to take a critical look at this dandy next time you see one. Did you ever look so good?

     She also had the presence of mind to capture the speculum in glorious detail.

     The speculum is that bright patch of colour seen on the secondary feathers of waterfowl, with a distinct border surrounding the main colour. Interestingly this feature is different for each species, and careful examination enables one to identify the species by the speculum alone. I am sure you will all wish to embark on a study of this character in several species!
     Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) is one of our most common birds and can be heard almost constantly. It is a splendid component of our avifauna and very handsome too.

     Butterflies were not plentiful, except for Cabbage White (Pieris rapae) and this male obligingly lit on a beautiful golden Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale).

     A Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) was also very considerate and posed with wings outspread.

17 May 2020
In our house and in our yard

     Miriam and I both like to cook, but she is the only baker of the two of us and has been doing quite a bit of it during our Covid-19 confinement.
     One of the items she has made are buns for sandwiches for lunch. They are large, quite flat (something like baps in Britain), coated with red onion and cheddar cheese, and they take their place on the Elysian Fields of culinary out-of-worldliness. If Michelin were to have a category for home cooking, these petits pains would have the highest rating. (Take note, Rick, in Michigan, you have serious competition!)

     Miriam has declared that next time she makes them she also plans to add sliced olives, so the very best will get even better. 
     I wonder if the House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) on the backyard feeders were looking in and contemplating a change in diet?

     The American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) seemed utterly content with sunflower hearts. 

       Baltimore Orioles (Icterus galbula) were happy to gorge on oranges sliced and put out for them to enjoy.

17 May 2020
Lakeside Park, Kitchener, ON

     This location seems to have acquired a bit of a reputation as a warbler hot spot during migration; it has never been so for us, however. In fact, for birding in general, it has by and large been a dead zone.

     The highlight of the visit was that we ran into Jim and Francine, also similarly deprived of avian companionship at the park. We kept our social distance, but chatted for a while and got caught up a little. 
     Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) and their young were the undisputed stars in the park, and barely a person walked by them without an admiring glance. I think that "ooh" and "aah" were the two most used words that day!

     And there are more to come.

      This Mallard was determined not to be outdone and posed for all the world to see.

18 May 2020
Three Bridges Road, St. Jacobs, ON

     It was a bit of a dreary day, and at times there was quite a bit of rain, but I had a great suite of birds despite the conditions.
     Who can fail to ignore the weather when male and female Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) take the time to say hello?

     And a couple of noisy Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) did their share to enliven the day too.

     A little bird seed, judiciously distributed, is guaranteed to bring in a variety of species.
     This female Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) was chased out of the trees by a Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) where perhaps she had intentions of depositing her egg in the grackle's nest.

     A couple of White-breasted Nuthatches (Sitta carolinensis) navigated the trunk of a tree in their customary head first fashion.

     The little male Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) hopped onto the cable for the briefest of moments but my camera was primed and ready.

     The local Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) were dealing with the rain as best they could.

     And a Red-winged Blackbird seemed resigned to a good drenching too.

     So there you have it - a little glimpse into our lives during the Covid-19 pandemic. I suspect that we will all look back on this event and have stories to tell. The one consistent for us is that life has not radically changed, and the certain benefit of being captivated by nature is that it is always there to enjoy, pandemic be damned!

Monday, 18 May 2020

Bird Song

       Much has been written about bird song over the ages, and for many, including John Keats in his well known Ode to a Nightingale, the Nightingale has been accorded first place among the choristers of the avian world. It has been lauded by poets and writers as diverse as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Oscar Wilde and Alfred Lord Tennyson. And who can forget that memorable, and evocative song of World War II - A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square?
     Yet surely, the interpretation of song is subjective and personal. To my ears the song of the European Blackbird is more pleasing, with the added advantage that it can be heard during the day! Even the mood of the listener can bring a nuanced appreciation of song. 
     All of this brings me to the subject of my discussion today. It is a cool, dreary day here in southern Ontario, raining on and off, but I just heard a Northern Cardinal singing heartily, its clear, musical notes penetrating into the family room, an uplifting sound on a dismal morning.

     I am under no illusions that this is the most vaunted singer in the world. Its repertoire is quite limited, but always joyful, and when one first hears the outpouring of a hormonally charged male in spring, there is no sound quite like it for a Canadian anxious to bid farewell to winter. 
     It does not have the quality of 'immortal bird' as Keats described the Nightingale, but it does for me have an other-worldly character that does not readily submit to definition, but is real nonetheless. It brings joy, it envelops the listener, it is at once a portend of better days to come and a reunification with nature writ large.
     Nightingales are very agreeable in their place but a Northern Cardinal will do me just fine, thank you very much.     

Thursday, 14 May 2020

The Past Few Days

11 May 2020
Our Backyard

     One might be forgiven for going off the deep end when you see what we awoke to.

     Snow on 11 May is a cruel joke to say the least. This was not just a light dusting, mark you, it was a serious amount of snow. Cold, wet, white, unkind snow.  One does not expect to see the oranges set out for Baltimore Orioles (Icterus galbula) have a topping of white.
     American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) are with us all year, and seemed unfazed by the strange weather.

     There are some who might be inclined to say it looks pretty. Count me not among them! It is very pretty in January, delightful even; in May it is an abomination.

     Perhaps these House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) found a ready supply of food especially welcome this morning.

     The first Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus), a male, to visit our yard this spring, must have been equally dismayed at the unreasonableness of it all.

     At least breakfast was laid on for him.
     This was certainly not a morning for coffee on the deck for his human benefactors.

13 May 2020
Killbear Storm Water Management Area

     There are several storm water management ponds in the area, all now grandly named, and there are three that I check regularly. It is quite amazing how these miniscule artificial wetlands become magnets for birds and I have seen a wide range of species on and about them. I shudder to think about the quality of the water but dabbling ducks feed on a regular basis and on all three ponds Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) have raised young this year.
     It was not a bird, however, that attracted my attention this time; it was a flower. There were two tiny stands of Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris), a vivid gash of colour against the sombre bank. The one I could get to was a single plant, and the other across the pond seemed barely more.

     How wonderful to see nature reclaim these spaces. I am not sure how this plant is propagated, whether the seeds are wind borne, or carried in on the feathers or feet of a bird, or in the fur of a mammal, but however it is accomplished the result is exhilarating. I was elated to discover this floral gem. 

13 May 2020
Benjamin Park Trail, Waterloo, ON

     It was still cool for the time of year, but bright and sunny, and Miriam and I decided to go for a walk.
     Ruby-crowned Kinglets (Regulus calendula) were hopping around in their trademark frantic way, gleaning insects from branches and leaves.

     As you may see in the picture below many of the trees have still not leafed out and there is more than a vestige of winter in the landscape.

     I was keen to take pictures of the carpet of Trilliums (Trillium grandiflorum) for Marit, but the carpet is more like a series of throw rugs, and some of the flowers are still not open.

     The open blooms are gorgeous, however, and one of the signature pleasures of Ontario woodlands.

     May-apple (Podophylum peltatum) is thrusting through the soil all over the place.

     There were few birds, but we did see both Swainson's Thrush (Catharus ustulatus) and Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus). The Swainson's Thrush was deep in the undergrowth and impossible to photograph, but the Hermit Thrush was a little more visible.

      In the picture below you can see the diagnostic rufous tail which the bird raises every time it alights.

     A lone female Mallard seemed content to poke around in the creek, no doubt finding food aplenty.

14 May 2020
Our Backyard

     This morning was quite remarkable as there was a flurry of birds in constant motion, and it has continued unabated all day so far.
     The account you are about to read involves the scene before 08h:00.
     Apart from the birds a large Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) sat contentedly on the patio. Perhaps it had been in the backyard all night.

     It goes without saying that Grey Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) were in attendance too, devising new ways to drive me crazy no doubt!

     Three Baltimore Orioles (Icterus galbula), two males and a female, visited the oranges set out for them.

     Common Grackles (Quisculus quiscula) strutted and postured, ever handsome and confident, swaggering ostentatiously and putting rout to any squirrel that approached a little too close.

     A tiny Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) was content to watch the goings on below, descending once in a while to snatch a seed that had been knocked out of the feeders by others.

     Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) are always among the first birds to arrive, sometimes even just before daylight, and this morning was no exception.

     A pair of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks made sure that they got their share of seed before moving on.

     Two or three American Robins (Turdus migratorius) visit our yard every day, taking advantage of invertebrate prey as well as the ready supply of sunflower hearts knocked to the ground by messy goldfinches.

     Curiously, we have been receiving regular visits from three House Finches, two males and a female. They often arrive together and there seems to be no animosity between the two males. When they have fed they leave together too.

     Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) generally fly in directly, feed, and leave. Even the grackles don't mess with a Blue Jay!

     White-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) are still hanging in, fattening up on the way to their northern breeding grounds.

     White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) on the other hand breeds locally, and perhaps the birds in our backyard have already gone as far as they are  about to go.

     American Goldfinch is the undisputed champion of our backyard birds. It visits in large numbers, and it is rare to look outside and not see several of them at the feeders and dotted throughout the trees. They are enchanting little birds and we delight in seeing them ever day.

     When you really stop to think about it, being kept close to home due to Covid-19 is not really so bad after all.

Bird species seen before 08h:00 - Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, Black-capped Chickadee, American Robin, House Finch, American Goldfinch, Chipping Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Baltimore Oriole, Common Grackle, Northern Cardinal, Rose-breasted Grosbeak.