Author Archives: Mark Whitcombe

End of Summer updates

Marvellous stretch of weather, eh?  After such a long lush wet growing season, we’re finally having a true Southern Ontario summer that’s straddling the astronomical boundary between Summer and Fall.

Highlights of my natural history this summer include the amazing diversity and beauty of fungi produced on one old poplar stump right in by backyard! On a twenty-year-old stump that’s only ever had Dryad’s Saddle, Polyporus squamosus, suddenly beginning in the middle of July and continuing to the present, I’ve had a succession of amazing finds, only one of which I’ve ever seen before! The surprises began with the brilliant yellow Creeping Dog-vomit Slime Mold, Fuligo septica — which is the one find I’ve actually had before in my yard. (It’s actually a slime mold, not even related to fungi, but I hope you’ll excuse my sloppy phylogeny …) Then came a large brownish brown-spored gilled fungus that I’ve not been able to identify, along with a small ephemeral pale brown gilled fungus, also unidentified.

Elegant Stinkhorn, Mutinus elegans, with Greenbottle Fly

One morning in late July I noticed something scarlet red appearing around the base of the stump. I was able to immediately recognize it as a Stinkhorn, and then more precisely identify it as Mutinus elegans, Elegant Stinkhorn, on the basis of the crimson tip and the brownish-green slime at the tip. At first, one Stinkhorn would come up, and within two days would collapse, only to be followed by another. Then, as many as six would erupt at once. Two months later, I’m still getting days with three or four fruiting at the same time. The fungus appears first in a white ‘egg’ at the surface of the ground, sometimes taking weeks to slowly break free of the white covering which forms a volva cup at the base of the stalk. In due time, the actual stalk and the crimson tip appear literally overnight — within 10 hours! The stalk is beautifully lacy and reticulate, clearly the result of a quick uptake of water to expand the cells that preform in the ‘egg’. The top of the stack appears with the stinky foetid browny-green slime that smells of a combination of rotting salmon and faeces! In the morning, various flies cover the slime, eating it off within several hours, exposing the brilliant crimson tip. The spores of this basidiomycete fungus are in the slime. Thus the flies spread the spores around as they clamber across other rotting wood. I’ve seen at least six species of flies, ranging from Greenbottles, and Bluebottles, and Cluster flies, to various smallish muscid flies like small House Flies, and even Fruit Flies on the slime. Yet another interesting fact is that Stinkhorns seem to be the first fungi described by Europeans in North America, by the British missionary John Bannister in 1679. (I wonder what he made of the striking phallic shape. Perhaps that’s where one of the alternate names of Devil’s Dipstick comes from …)

There have since been at least two other species of mushroom appeared on this stump, including another small unidentified brown-spored basidiomycete. The largest of the summer’s mushrooms has been the striking large cinnamon-coloured Laughing Cap mushroom, Gymnopilus spectabilis. It’s a beauty in its own right, but is definitely eclipsed by the Elegant Stinkhorn in photographic beauty. I’ve no idea where the ‘laughing’ comes from, other than that to most people, the mushroom is poisonous and perhaps hallucingenic, since some strains contain psylocybin. The Korean name translates to bronze clown mushroom.

It seems to me that all of these mushrooms must specialize in the late-stage decay of dead wood. The most difficult of the lignin components of wood are what remains after the 20 years of decay of this poplar stump. Combined with the extreme wetness of this summer, this particular stump has crumbled to the point where I can crush the remaining wood with my bare hands, sometimes squeezing water out of pieces of it.

Ichneumonid Megarhyssa wasp parasitic on horntail wasps in sugar maple tree

Perhaps the other most exciting observation of the summer is also associated with late stages of rotting wood. Just a week ago, I noticed an ichneumonid wasp laying eggs on a dying maple tree on our neighbour’s property along our fence line. These fascinating beauties are often portrayed in introductory entomology books, but I’ve never seen one alive. I’ve since seen at least five on this one tree! (I will show several videos at our upcoming Members’ Night on Tuesday October 25th.) Briefly, this wasp is almost 15 cm long, from the tip of its slender antennae, to the end of the almost 10 cm long ovipositor and sheath. The body alone of this wasp is 5 cm! Various Megarhyssa species live in our area, all of specializing as parasitoids of another wasp, the Horntail Pigeon Wasp, Tremex columba — which I have seen in years past on our property! The female pictured here took over 30 minutes to probe around with her ovipositor, repeatedly pushing it into the softened white-rotted wood inside the sugar maple to search out the Horntail larvae on which to lay her eggs. The Horntail wasp lays her eggs on dead wood and includes spores from a specific fungus which lives on dead wood. The developing Horntail larvae feed on the fungus. Along comes the ichneumon wasps and lays her eggs on the Horntail. The ichneumon larvae live externally on the parasitized larvae, eating them from the outside but leaving the most critical components of the Horntail alive until the the ichneumon is ready to pupate!

Here’s another sighting from our backyard this summer. Can you guess how these particular shapes were formed?

More Spring goodness!

Despite the early April snow, our native plants are showing courage and beginning to grow.  Yesterday, I visited the colony of Skunk Cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, Aracacae, that grows south-west of Orangeville right alongside a well-travelled road. (You can see the road gravel thrown off the roadside by the snow ploughs in one of the photos.)

Skunk Cabbage mottled red spathe surrounding the developing spadix inside (photo by Mark Whitcombe) .

Skunk Cabbage is a fascinating plant with several quite unusual adaptations to getting an early start in Spring. Its upper parts are capable of generating a significant amount of heat:  15+ Celsius degrees above ambient air temperature! This added heat seems to accomplish several functions simultaneously. It means that Skink Cabbage can literally melt its way through snow. It means that the warmth inside the flower helps keep the early pollinators basking in the extra heat, hanging around and maximizing the chance that they will transfer pollen to the benefit of the plant. It also means that the rising warm air spreads the pungent smell that comes from broken leaves and from the   spadix as it flowers. The rising warm air may also enable a small amount of wind pollination!

Skunk Cabbages are related to Jack-in-the-Pulpit, and share several general features. The cut or bruised vegetation releases a pungent smell. Plants have important underground storage organs, a corm for Jack-in-the-Pulpit, and a huge rhizome (an extended corm, I suppose — or perhaps the other way round:  a corm is a shortened underground stem or rhizome) for Skunk Cabbage. Supposedly, the rhizomes of the Skunk Cabbage can reach 30 cm in diameter! While Jack-in-the-Pulpit corms are poisonous, and Skunk Cabbage is not, both species were important Spring or Fall food sources for indigenous peoples, who learned how to prepare the edible portions by drying or baking before consumption.

The other major feature shared between the plants of the Aracaceae is that the flower is wrapped by a spadix or surrounding leaf-like structure, and has as its central core a spathe, a spike-like structure that holds either the male or the female parts.  In the first picture of the Skunk Cabbages, the lovely red-mottled spathe surrounds a thick paler yellowy-brown spadix down inside.

By the way, I knelt down in the marsh beside the road to smell these Skunk Cabbages — and they didn’t yet smell.  Not quite ready for action!

Skunk Cabbage mottled red spathe surrounding the developing yellowy spadix protected inside  (photo by Mark Whitcombe) .

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An update after our early Spring snowstorm!

I went out mid-day on Friday April 7th as the sun was beginning to warm up the air and melt the snow that had blown in on top of the sprouting Skunk Cabbages.  They seemed to be having no trouble with the weather — it had only gotten just below the freezing point, after all.  But they were certainly not melting any snow yet.  I suspect that’s because the air temperature is still too cool for any insects to be flying.  Somehow the plants seem to understand to get ready, but not to actually push forward on actual flower development.

Surviving under the snows of our our early April blizzard

 

Spring is here — finally!

March 2017 was colder in this area than February 2017, by a minor fraction of a degree.  More significantly, March was almost 5 Celsius degrees colder than the climatological normal for Southern Ontario.

But it looks like it’s finally here!

One of the harbingers of Spring for me is the opening of the Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) flowers. In my backyard on the edge of Orangeville, the female flowers opened yesterday on 2017 April 01, and then safely enough to remove any doubts about an April Fool’s joke, the male flowers on the adjacent tree began opening today!  Only just opening and beginning to shed pollen, but I’ll still count this as Spring!

I’ve also had a Fox Sparrow at my bird feeder. I count that as another harbinger of Spring.

Female Silver Maple flowers are finally open!

Male Silver Maple flowers from an adjacent tree are also gingerly opening up and beginning to shed pollen into the air.

Christmas Bird Count done!

Thanks to the more than 20 people who turned out to do our annual Christmas Bird Count on Friday December 30th!  Special thanks to Ron Jasiuk and Russ McGillivary for their organization and to Kevin and Carol for hosting the fine potluck dinner afterwards!

UCFNC Christmas Bird Count areas

Russ will compile the results from our six different teams and from the others who contributed Feeder Watch data. We’ve not got a preliminary guess as to how many species nor how many individual birds we say. What we can say is that because of our cold weeks earlier in December there was no open water other than in streams and creeks so that our large numbers of waterfowl from last year were all but absent this year. It’s not about bigger or better numbers — it’s about getting as detailed an inventory each year to build into larger patterns. Let’s see how this the numbers from this year turn out!

I had the great fortune to be out in Area 2, southeast of Caledon over to Caledon East with wonderful birders. Hart brought along Gordon, a friend of his from the Nature London Club and an experienced birder. I’m always in awe of folks with good ears — and Gordon certainly had them. The others would hear things that I couldn’t even with my top-quality hearing aids turned up fully.

Can you see the Red-tail Hawk sitting in the tree down the field — and can you spot the Rough-leg flying away up and to its right?

Highlights for me:  spotting a Belted Kingfisher (and hearing another) at the spot that Chris P had seen them at for many years down at the bottom of the Escarpment along a branch of the Credit River — and seeing a cold-looking Great Blue Heron at the same spot!; being shown a Rough-legged Hawk sharing a tree and sitting directly above a Red-tailed Hawk along the Grange Sideroad east of Highway 10; (the Rough-leg took off leaving the Red-tail sitting in the tree; look closely and you’ll spot the Red-tail in the tree near the middle of the photo, and possibly see the Rough-leg flying away just above and to the right in this mobile phone photo); learning that Gordon had worked with an amazing birder with whom I spent a marvellous summer way back in 1972 working on an ecological inventory of Prince Edward County; getting together with almost everyone afterwards and sharing sightings and stories; wandering up and down the side roads and concessions of Caledon, looking at the wonderful diversity of habitats — and yet realizing how remarkably young almost every top of forest actually was.

A pothole beside the road — with the Phragmites looking lovely in a sinister sort of manner …

 

(Posted by Mark Whitcombe)

A bedraggled House Finch huddled against my back deck door in a snowstorm (… seems to have survived well enough to eventually fly away — but will it actually survive …)

John Muir in our Headwaters area!

Our Southern Ontario area plays a special role in the development of what we now call the environmental movement.  Few of us know much about this pivotal role.

Starting in the Spring of 1864, the young Scotsman turned American, John Muir, spent several months botanizing through Southern Ontario. This was his first real exploratory trip beyond his adopted home farm in Wisconsin.

It was over in the Pottageville Swamp area (what was then part of the much larger Holland Marsh) that he had one of his most significant events of his lifetime, seeing a rare northern orchid, Calypso borealis. This epiphany started him on his way to dedicate the rest of his life to the preservation of the natural world.

“The rarest and most beautiful of the flowering plants I discovered on this first grand excursion was Calypso borealis (the Hider of the North). I had been fording streams more and more difficult to cross and wading bogs and swamps that seemed more and more extensive and more difficult to force one’s way through. Entering one of these great tamarac and arbor-vitae swamps one morning,holding a general though very crooked course by compass, struggling through tangled drooping branches and over and under broad heaps of fallen trees, I began to fear that I would not be able to reach dry ground before dark, and therefore would have to pass the night in the swamp and began, faint and hungry, to plan a nest of branches on one of the largest trees or windfalls like a monkey’s nest, or eagle’s, or Indian’s in the flooded forests of the Orinoco described by Humboldt.

“But when the sun was getting low and everything seemed most bewildering and discouraging, I found beautiful Calypso on the mossy bank of a stream, growing not in the ground but on a bed of yellow mosses in which its small white bulb had found a soft nest and from which its one leaf and one flower sprung. The flower was white and made the impression of the utmost simple purity like a snowflower. No other bloom was near it, for the bog a short distance below the surface was still frozen, and the water was ice cold. It seemed the most spiritual of all the flower people I had ever met. I sat down beside it and fairly cried for joy.

“It seems wonderful that so frail and lovely a plant has such power over human hearts. This Calypso meeting happened some forty-five years ago, and it was more memorable and impressive than any of my meetings with human beings excepting, perhaps, Emerson and one or two others.” (John Muir, re-published in The Life and Letters of John Muir,1924 (After his death))

Calypso orchid (photo by Robert Burcher)

Calypso orchid (photo by Robert Burcher)

Sometime during June of that year, he passed through our Headwaters area, walking westwards along the Hockley Valley from the Holland Marsh to the Luther Marsh. Later that year, he ended up outside of Meaford working in a rake-making factory. When the mill burnt down in the winter of 1866, Muir returned to the United States.

Muir ended up in California where he started the Sierra Club, still one of the leading environmental action organizations.  He is regarded as one of the fathers of the American National Parks system.

John Muir

John Muir

Robert Burcher is a member of the now-defunct Canadian Friends of John Muir.  Burcher is a photographer, a journalist, an author, and an experienced speaker. He is currently doing field work for his latest book on the experiences that John Muir had in Ontario.

Our Speakers for the coming year!

(Check the Speakers page for more details and for updates!)

Thanks to the work of your club executive, here is the quick listing of the speakers who will be presenting to us this coming year!

September 27, 2016:  John Muir in Ontario, including in our Headwaters area!:  Robert Burcher

October 25, 2016:  Orchids of Ontario:  our own member, Kevin Tipson!

November 29, 2016:  Astronomy 101:  Jason Tabroff, Dufferin Astronomy Club)

January 3,1 2017:  A Botanist Traces Spring Northwards along the Bruce Trail:  Mark Whitcombe, our President

February 28, 2017:  UCFNC Member’s Night

March 28, 2017:  Bees, Identification and Pollination:  Victoria Macphail

April 25, 2017:  Ontario Coyotes: Erica Newton is a scientist who works for the Ministry of Natural Resources, and has engaged in research about a variety of animal species, including wolves and coyotes. Erica will explain the differences between wolves and coyotes, and talk about the animals that we see in our area.  What is a coy-dog?  What is a coy-wolf?  How do we live with these animals in our communities?

senescent White Trillium (by Mark Whitcombe)

A senescent White Trillium (by Mark Whitcombe)

Credit Valley BioBlitz Registration is now open!

Guided Blitz Registration is now open!

Join us for the 2016 Ontario BioBlitz in the Credit River Watershed on June 11-12!

The Guided BioBlitz is an opportunity for less-experienced nature enthusiasts to learn a bit more about their favourite species through field surveying and identification techniques – important skills for understanding the world around us. Our 2015 flagship event in the Don Watershed was a big success. Thanks to the 700+ registered participants and volunteers – we couldn’t do it without you!

The Guided BioBlitz is open to all ages and all experience levels, but be aware that sessions can require a lot of walking. Please also note that there can be a 40 minute drive between Guided BioBlitz sites.

Visit http://www.ontariobioblitz.ca/guided-registration.html to register for sessions, look at the map of the Guided Blitz sites, and download a copy of the schedule.

Most sessions are limited to 30 people per group, and will fill up quickly – so make sure to register early! Participants will be contacted with more information about their particular session shortly after registration closes, on May 20th, 2016.

As always, if you have any questions, comments, or concerns, we would be happy to answer them – just send us an e-mail at  ontariobioblitz@gmail.com, or visitwww.ontariobioblitz.ca for more info.

Interesting sessions with the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust

Whether you’d like to participate in this spring’s Bio Blitz or learn more about the wildflowers or dragonflies, butterflies and moths in your backyard, you might be interested in these events organized by neighbours to the east — the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust. www.oakridgesmoraine.org 

Wildflowers of York Region – April 11th

Spring is almost here. What is sprouting in the forests and meadows around Aurora? Learn about native wildflowers, how to grow them, and where you can expect to see them.

Location:  Aurora Public Library, Magna Room Monday April 11th from 7pm  9pm.  Space is limited so please pre-register with the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust at 905-853-3171 ext 30 or at Landtrust@oakridgesmoraine.org

Dragonflies, Butterflies and Moths – Oh My! – May 16th

So many things are buzzing in the neighbourhood. Come and learn about some of the most beautiful things with wings in York Region.

Location:  Aurora Public Library, Magna Room Monday May 16th from 7pm  9pm.  Space is limited so please pre-register with the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust at 905-853-3171 ext 30 or at Landtrust@oakridgesmoraine.org

Rockin’ the roads of Headwaters: Touring the landscapes of Headwaters

Our next field trip will be a Geology and Geomorphology Field Trip on Saturday Feb 13th. If you are a member of the Upper Credit Field Naturalists Club, you should have received a more detailed notice. If you are not a member … well …

Our goal is to help us all learn how to see our local landscape in a way that’s more inter-connected and explicable than just seeing it as pretty and hilly.

We’re going to look first at the general area of the old Orangeville brickworks, and get some idea of how that mix of clay and marl was deposited some 12,000 years ago. That involves learning about the Alton moraine plug that was dropped by the last glacial advance in this area when a lobe of ice temporarily moved back northwest across what is now Lake Ontario during a brief period of regrowth of the otherwise retreating glaciers. Then we’ll wander across that moraine plug of hummocky hills north and west of Alton, training our eyes to the particular look of end moraines.

So far, this will be studying geomorphology, here focusing on the effects of glaciers in this area. Our next major stop will be down in the Belfountain area, when we take a brief hike across remarkable bouldery terrain to the Devil’s Pulpit overlook for a stunning look at how the glaciers roughly carved the solid escarpment. This valley will be our first look at a re-entrant valley, though later on in the trip we’ll traverse the much larger Hockley Valley which was also partly gouged out by the glacier.

From there, we’ll take a look at the Cheltenham Badlands. Although this is now closed off, we’ll be able to see it from the side of the road. Among other topics here, will be how this feature is actually the direct result of recent human activity and is not really a natural landscape. Which of course, raises questions about how it should be preserved.
Then we’ll continue ahead to look at the most dramatic impact of humans on our local landscape — the Caledon gravel pits. That economically essential sand and gravel deposit was left by the glaciers. Here, we’ll think about the various impacts of our human actions, and then think ahead to what this area could become — and how we might influence that process.
We’ll then head up Kennedy Road, turning east along Highway 9 to climb up the eastern side of the Orangeville Moraine. This feature forks around Orangeville and reasonably clearly shows where three lobes of the ice sheet met overtop of present-day Orangeville. We’ll then head up the Third Line, dropping down into the Hockley Valley, perhaps looking at another exposure of what is in our area the bottom of the Niagara Escarpment at the Red Mud Cliffs. From there, we’ll head further up the Third Line and switch over to the Fourth Line, tracing the dramatic spillway where huge amounts of water flowed off the melting ice lobes, and drained across Orangeville, and down through Hillsburgh into what is now the Grand River and into the present-day Lake Erie.
This brings us back to the beginning feature of our tour, because it was the interruption of this spillway that led to the marl beds southwest of Orangeville and the subsequent re-routing of the meltwaters down the present Credit River.

(Mark Whitcombe)

The Devil's Pulpit overlook of the re-entrant valley near Belfountain

The Devil’s Pulpit overlook of the re-entrant valley near Belfountain

The reason for FLAP (Fatal Light Awareness Program)

We installed new windows at home over the summer. Several times we’ve heard ‘thunks’ as birds hit the large shiny new window in our now-bright living room.

Then this …

The impact of a Mourning Dove on our new window …

The impact of a Mourning Dove on our new window …  (photo by Mark Whitcombe)

Look carefully at the photo. One wing extends right to the top and the other to the left edge; both legs show; individual feathers show; the breastbone clearly shows; individual feathers show …

The dove survived initially, weakly flying away after a few minutes. The next day at our feeder there was a dove with feathers missing from its head. But after that, there have only been two Mourning Doves in our yard, down from the three that we’ve had for the last while.

What is our living room with wonderful windows is not a living room for birds …

We’ve now put up stickers and hung window ornaments — with success so far.

Our next speaker from FLAP will be alerting us to ways that individually and as a society we can reduce the toll of birds hitting windows and buildings. FLAP (Fatal Light Awareness Program) estimates the number of migrating birds killed annually in collisions with buildings ranges from 100 million to 1 billion birds. Oh my …

(by Mark Whitcombe)