Author Archives: Mark Whitcombe

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)

 

 

 

The Supermoon Eclipse — before the clouds eclipsed …

Four of us turned out at Island Lake to hope for clear skies — and we were in luck! Clouds covered the moonrise to the east, but the cloud-free western skies for sunset gave us hope. In the meantime, 5 cormorants flew to roost nearby in a remarkably flimsy dead tree, swaying in the light breezes. Muskrats dove in front of us, surfacing with winter vegetative clumps on which they munched while lying on the surface. At least three Killdeer called repetitively amongst themselves. Two Great Blue Herons foraged successfully in the shallows right beside us long into darkness.

image

 

The clouds stayed off low along the horizon to the east as the Moon rose above them. Shafts of high thin altocumulus rose westwards out of the bank of clouds. These shafts of cloud alternately covered and uncovered the eclipsing Moon, providing some gorgeous opportunities for photos. My trusty smartphone was pushed to its limits in this low light, but this next photo at least partly captures the atmosphere.

Streaks of clouds lit by the eclipsing Moon at Island Lake

Streaks of clouds lit by the eclipsing Moon at Island Lake (photo by Mark Whitcombe)

A surprising number of people were still out, even at 10 P.M. when the clouds finally eclipsed the slightly-over-half eclipsed Moon. So we saw the reddening as the cloud entered the umbral shadow of the Earth beginning at 9:11 P.M.  But we didn’t see the full eclipse. The clouds ultimately won …

The clouds won the eclipse show …

The clouds won the eclipse show …  (photo by Mark Whitcombe)

When I asked at the UCFNC meeting the next Tuesday, about 20 people put up their hands to say that they had seen at least some part of this impressive natural event, almost all directly from their homes. Nice!

(by Mark Whitcombe)