Friday, August 12, 2022

Odds and Ends

 At home

02 July, 2022

     A Sharp-lined Yellow (Sicya macularia) decided to pay us a visit, and we were happy to welcome it to the backyard.

04 July, 2022

     No less welcome was a Large Yellow Underwing (Noctua pronuba) in the porch when we opened the front door. 

     It appears headless in the picture, but I can assure you it was not!

09 July, 2022

     The patch of Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) we planted a few years ago, has bloomed in profusion each year and presents a very striking image at the side of our driveway. 

     A Monarch (Danaus plexippus) was seen nectaring on it, flitting from flower to flower.

     Many is the time I have seen a dozen or more Western Honey Bees (Apis mellifera) exploiting its sweetness.

12 August, 2022

     Miriam was working in the garden under the bay window at the front of the house and noticed this Northern Dog-day Cicada (Neotibicen canicularis), an impressive insect to say the least.

18 June, 2022
Hillside Park, Waterloo, ON

     We joined Jonah and Kayla to meet little Shai, the newest member of their family, but sleeping in the stroller was more to his liking than chatting about birds!

     There were many Ebony Jewelwings (Calopteryx maculata) going about the business of their short lives.

     The following fly has me totally baffled. It is perhaps a type of Snipe Fly, but I am far from sure of that.

     It is undeniably attractive.

08 July, 2022
SpruceHaven, St. Agatha

     Kayla had long expressed an interest in a visit to SpruceHaven, which was made even more interesting by the accompaniment of Jonah's parents, Jack and Yaffa, who were visiting from Ottawa, a delightful couple if ever I met one.
     Who can fail to be enchanted by baby Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica)?

     An American Cliff Swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) (see below) was busy at its nest.

     Shai finally agreed to put it an appearance, photo-bombed by Grandpa Jack in the right hand corner.

23 July, 2022
RIM Park, Waterloo, ON

     There was great excitement in the local birding community when a Black-bellied Whistling Duck (Dendrocygna autumnalis), far outside its normal range, decided to pay us a visit.
     I saw Mallards (Anas platyrynchos).....

     ..... and a preening Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus).....

     ..... and Canada Geese (Branta canadensis).....

     ..... and finally the star of the show!

     It had no idea what a celebrity it had become.

31 July, 2022
SpruceHaven, St. Agatha, ON

     The barn at SpruceHaven contains around seventy-five Barn Swallow nests in an active colony that has been present there for decades. The farm has been in the Westfall family for almost fifty years with continuous occupancy since their arrival. In fact, it was the idyllic scene of swallows dipping over the pond and feeding above it that sufficiently enchanted Dave's parents to buy the property.
      Thirty to thirty-five nests are in use each year, or at least have been during the six years we have monitored them.
     In July 2020, a pair of American Cliff Swallows built a nest in the barn and successfully raised young. It seemed quite remarkable to me at the time, never having experienced a mixed colony of Barn Swallows and Cliff Swallows.  What is even more noteworthy now, is that we have five Cliff Swallow nests, some of which are Barn Swallow structures usurped and modified by the Cliff Swallows.

     The fourth picture from the top is the first Cliff Swallow nest built in the barn, a structure entirely typical of the species. The others, originally Barn Swallow nests, have been modified in odd ways, yet some were used successfully this year.
     A Cliff Swallow colony inside a barn is highly unusual and my experience with this species has always been of colonies under bridges, culverts and on buildings. I have never found nests in a building and there is scant reference to it in the literature. Angela Turner comments that occasionally Cliff Swallows will nest inside buildings, but there is no indication they do so in the presence of other species. I should add that I never observed any inter-specific conflict, nor intra-specific conflict for that matter, although Cliff Swallows are notoriously aggressive in large colonies of their own species.
     A Green Heron (Butorides virens) approached very close while we were concealed by the hide at the edge of the pond.

     We have a very poor picture of a Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis).

     This species is quite rare in this area, in fact nowhere common. It is extremely wary and difficult to approach, hence its common name "dasher". The one thing in our favour was that it tends to return to the same perch and by the exercise of dogged patience Miriam was able to obtain this image, overcoming the combined obstacles of it not being particularly close and shooting into the sun.
     There are more odds and ends, but I'll save those for another time.

Tuesday, August 09, 2022

Hummingbirds and Swifts

     As a result of my recent review of Sara Gibson's excellent book, Swifts and Us, and some subsequent correspondence I had with the author, I was asked by Hilary Melton-Butcher, that peripatetic seeker of knowledge, to explain the taxonomic affinity between hummingbirds and swifts. Like Hilary, perhaps many of you will find this fact of common ancestry a little surprising, but it is nonetheless, an established truth - subject to some some discussion about whether certain anatomical features reflect ancestry or convergent evolution! We may set that conjecture aside here.
     I don't think I can explain this without getting at least a little technical, so forgive me if I am causing your eyes to roll back in your head. It would easily be possible to make this post extremely lengthy, but I am going to try to cut to the essentials, while giving Hilary (and the rest of you) the explanation she is looking for.
     Both hummingbirds and swifts, along with treeswifts, are placed in the order Apodiformes, which means "without feet" and reflects the most significant similarity between the two. Feet have not been eliminated, of course, but they are barely functional in either species. Swifts, in fact, spend virtually all their lives on the wing, eating, sleeping and even mating in the air, using their feet which have sharp claws only to cling to the vertical surfaces on which they construct their nests. Hummingbird feet enable them to grip a branch but beyond that they are pretty much useless.

Cuban Emerald (Riccordia ricordii), Cienága de Zapata, Cuba

      The order Apodiformes contains the following families:
Treeswifts - Hemiprocnidae
Swifts - Apodidae
Hummingbirds - Trochilidae

     Shared characters are:
- modified cervical musculature
- the skeleton of flight apparatus
- wing muscle innervation, or feather tracts
- small to tiny birds with 10 primary feathers
- 6 - 11 significantly shorter secondaries
- all species are nidicolous (altricial)
- all species are gymnopaedic (naked, helpless young) 

     That, in a nutshell gives you the reasons for their grouping in one order.

Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna), Somenos Marsh, Duncan, BC, Canada

      There are 359 species of hummingbird in the world and I have seen 137 of them.

Sword-billed Hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera), Cabañas San Isidro, Ecuador

Crowned Woodnymph (Thalurania colombica), Cerro Azul, Panama

     Treeswifts are a small family comprising only four members and I have seen two species in Cambodia. We have no pictures of our own to share so this image is taken from the internet.

Crested Treeswift (Hemiprocne comata)

     Of the 113 species of swift in the world I have seen thirty, yet have never been able to get a photograph, nor has Miriam, and of the two of us, she would be more likely than I am to succeed.
     So, once again, I resort to the internet.

Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica)

     In addition, Franc Gorenc kindly sent me a couple of his pictures.

Antillean Palm Swift (Tachornis phoenicobia), Varadero, Cuba

Alpine Swift (Tachymarptis melba) chasing insect, Pag Island, Croatia

     I hope this gives you the information you are seeking, Hilary, and with luck it will enlighten others too.

Friday, August 05, 2022

Book Review - The Mind of a Bee - Princeton University Press


     When one views the historical record, it is astonishing to note how animals were viewed as little more than automata, to be exploited by humans (who were created in God's image, of course) to do with as they wished. Lacking any sense of pain, joy, regret or other emotions considered the exclusive preserve of Homo sapiens, even vivisection was fair game if it pleased humans. Animals were deemed to operate only by "instinct" with no ability to rationalize or modify behaviour. Thank goodness these notions have been dispelled and Lars Chittka contributes in a major way to revealing that the intelligence of bees rivals human intelligence in so many ways, and in certain areas surpasses it.
     A whole series of exquisite experiments aided by advances in technology, delivers insight into the way bees see (in a spectrum beyond human capability) and how that faculty aids them to select flowers that promise nectar.  Additional experiments reveal how bees navigate to and from food sources with unerring accuracy and find their way back to the hive, where the waggle dance announces to others the location and distance of the stash. The waggle dance is deconstructed to reveal how it serves to identify the precise location of the area where foraging will repay the effort.

     A flower is not merely a flower - only the precise kind of flower will do and we learn how a bee identifies the species it is seeking. This minimizes the time spent foraging and confers maximum efficiency to the bee's activity.

     Charles Darwin examined bees that were benefitting from observing congeners and learning from them, and postulated that we should not be surprised that insects might be able to acquire knowledge in the same way as mammals. In a series of elegant experiments Chittka's graduate students offer proof of this phenomenon. Incredibly, bees could be taught to use tools, an ability that not so long ago dumbfounded animal behaviourists when it was proven that chimpanzees and Caledonian Crows could do so. Ideas of what makes a human "human" fall quickly.
     It comes as no surprise to pet owners that animals have distinctive personalities and display traits that differ little from human emotions. It may come as a shock to many, however, that bees too have "personalities."
     Bees experience physical pain if injured in similar fashion to other higher animals and this will not be a revelation to anyone who has seen a worm writhing on a fish hook. Furthermore, bees are susceptible to trauma associated with an encounter with a predator, and they manifest other facets of consciousness. 
     Bees are resilient creatures, but there is a limit.
When change happens too quickly, not only bees, but other organisms do not have time to adapt.

     Chittka states it very well, "Imagine humanity was faced with the challenge of losing over 90 percent of our living space over a few generations. Yes, some of us might survive, but not necessarily because of superior intelligence - more likely because of guns and money."
     If we really care about bees, and by extension the welfare of the planet, we can all do our part. Convert your home garden to native plants, eliminate lawns, permit wildflowers to flourish, eschew pesticides, herbicides and other lethal chemicals, give up or seriously reduce your consumption of red meat, provide habitat for wild creatures, stop using plastic, don't litter,  and make conscious decisions with the welfare of your grandchildren in mind, even those you don't yet have!
     This is an amazing book. I give it my highest recommendation. I find fault in only one trivial aspect - the typeface is too small. But even my aging eyes learned to cope - and I am sure yours will too!

The Mind of a Bee - Princeton University Press
Lars Chittka
Hardcover - US$29.95 - ISBN 9780691180472
272 pages - 6.125 x 9.25 inches (15.31 x 23.125 cm)
57 colour illustrations
Publication date: 26 July, 2022

Monday, August 01, 2022

Book Review - Birds and Us - Princeton University Press

"The fact is that no species has ever had such wholesale control over everything on earth, living or dead,  as we now have. That lays upon us, whether we like it or not, an awesome responsibility. In our hands now lies not only our own future, but that of all other living creatures with whom we share the earth."
Sir David Attenborough

      Tim Birkhead begins the preface to this book by recounting how as a child of six he was tasked by his teacher with painting a picture of a Common Loon, and how proud he was at being selected for this special assignment. It is quite clear that Birkhead has lost not one scintilla of that kind of wonder and enthusiasm for birds - every assignment is still special - and that is surely one of the hallmarks of all that Birkhead has ever written. Let me freely confess that I am an unabashed admirer of this fine ornithologist, who is an equally accomplished writer. Meticulous attention to detail and a flair for language are hallmarks of Birkhead's works. A work such as this does not need flights of rhapsodic prose, but no one captures the essence of the moment quite as well as Birkhead.

"Inaccurate descriptions and illustrations of previously unknown birds and other exotic wildlife wormed their way insidiously into the literature and perched there, radiating misinformation."

     It is a cause for great satisfaction to be so enamoured of an author that upon opening the book at the first page one is assured of being drawn in, captivated, educated and entertained. Birkhead has not disappointed me yet.
     This book is about birds, yes, but it is equally an expansive look at human history and the relationship of people to birds over historical time, embracing spirituality, the need for food, empathy, religious intolerance, class warfare and science. 

     Along the way we keep company with many of the giants of ornithology - old friends like Androvandi, Ray, Willughby, Gessner, Gould, Tinbergen and Lorenz and so many others, to remind us of the difficult path that ornithology was forced to tread on the way to becoming an accepted, scientific discipline. That path was made more rocky than it might have been by scoundrels like Meinertzhagen.
     The book is replete with black-and-white illustrations throughout, many with historical significance; others done by contemporary artists, and all wonderful.

     The drawing by David Quinn on page 304, of a male Great Auk accompanying its chick to sea moves me to tears when I contemplate the myriad evil and brutal ways by which we erased this bird from the earth and the sea, generally by clubbing it to death. It is a strange twist of logic that human hunters attributed stupidity to a bird that showed no fear, having never had reason to, and willingly set about the slaughter of these gentle, confiding creatures. Birds and Us, indeed.
     The section containing sixty-three coloured illustrations is superb, each one conveying the association between birds and humans in different historical contexts. Despite his shortcomings and sometimes less than agreeable conduct, I have been an admirer of John Gould, or perhaps more correctly of his contribution to ornithology, and the picture of him close to death surrounded by his family and bird skins, is an evocative image, unduly sentimental and unrealistic though it may be.
     The Epilogue is poignantly composed, and reflects Birkhead's commitment to scientific rigour on the one hand, while recognizing the absolute necessity of communicating with the layman on the other. Indeed, if citizen science is to continue to contribute towards academic ornithology, this need is greater than it has ever been.
     Sadly, the state of our planet is in serious jeopardy, with less than universal commitment to do what is needed to reverse the damage inflicted by human arrogance and greed. As Birkhead points out the future is still influenced by "sordidly avaricious short-termists." 
     Bird populations continue to decline, the oceans are awash in plastic, forests are being chopped down impairing the lungs of the planet and releasing more carbon into the atmosphere, the soil is poisoned and wildfires and floods are becoming annual events. 
     The subtitle of this book is A 12,000-Year History from Cave Art to Conservation. Will it will be possible to write about another 12,000 years? Not if we don't change our ways, and there seems little possibility of that. 
     So enjoy this book and reflect on our past relationship with birds; there may not be much of a future.

Birds and US: A 12,000-Year History from Cave Art to Conservation
Tim Birkhead
Hardcover - US$35.00 - ISBN 9780691239927
496 pages - 6.125 x 9.25 inches (15.31 x 23.125 cm)
63 colour and 70 black-and-white illustrations - 2 maps
Publication date: 09 August, 2022


Saturday, July 30, 2022

Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)

      For several years we have raised butterflies indoors, generally of three species, Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes), Giant Swallowtail (P. cresphontes) and Monarch (Danaus plexippus).
     We have done this for several reasons, first among them to educate ourselves and have the experience of watching this amazing metamorphosis from tiny egg to giant butterfly, with all its intermediate stages. A second, equally important reason (arguably even more important) has been to expose children to this wonder of nature and increase their knowledge of the other beautiful and interesting creatures with whom they share their lives. Thirdly, knowing that very few caterpillars survive to become a butterfly (some estimates are as low as one percent), it didn't seem unreasonable to give a few of them a helping hand, despite going against a fundamental commitment not to interfere with the process of nature. When we see caterpillars being paralyzed by wasps to be stashed as food for their larvae we find it hard not to rescue at least a couple of them. We are not unfeeling automatons and if we are guilty of a momentary anthropomorphic reaction we can live with the stain on our record!

16 July, 2002

     A total of six caterpillars were feeding on Common Rue (Ruta graveolens) from our garden, permitting us to watch their transition from one instar to the next.
     Miriam is remarkably conscientious about taking photographs, with the result that we have a far better record than we would have if it were left to me.
     Pupation has already occurred for this individual and you can see very clearly how the chrysalis is anchored by the silk "harness" produced by the caterpillar.

     Camouflage is an important consideration since the risk of predation is still present, and when attached to a green substrate the chrysalis is cryptically coloured.
     A second caterpillar had assumed the "lazy J" position and was just beginning to exude the silk necessary for it to complete the transition to a chrysalis.

     I am sure you will agree that these caterpillars are very handsome creatures.

     A couple of chrysalises were attached to a twig we had put into the cage, and you will note that they are accordingly camouflaged brown.

     The picture below is a very pleasing closeup enabling you to see the way the caterpillars navigate the stalks, gripping the stem with their feet to gain access to the leaves on which they feed.

     Radical chemical changes are occurring within the chrysalis; who could even guess that a butterfly with a wingspan up to 8.4 cm will emerge within mere days?

     But it will!

24 July, 2022

     It is astounding how quickly the butterflies wiggle free of the chrysalis (a process called eclosion, driven by hormones). You can check and find nothing is happening, only to look twenty minutes later to find a butterfly hanging there, drying out and inflating its wings.

     The now empty chrysalis is at the left of the butterfly.
     It does not take long for the butterfly to start to flex its wings and take exploratory walks around the cage.

     Many species of butterfly are sexually dimorphic and we know that this individual is a female by the frosty blue wash on the hindwings and the reduced amount of yellow on the forewings.

     One down and five to go. What a privilege it is to observe this wonder of nature. It's a thrill every time.   

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.