Wednesday, January 28, 2015


A couple of weeks ago I posted  pictures of Smooth False Foxglove (Aureolaria flava) from Waterloo Region.  I mentioned that there are 2 other Aureolaria species known from Ontario, Annual False Foxglove (A. pedicularia) and Downy False Foxglove (A. virginica).  Below are photos of each which were taken during an FBO trip to Norfolk County led by Don Sutherland and Wasyl Bakowsky a few years back.

Annual False Foxglove, when mature, takes on sort of a bushy form as opposed to the upright form of the other two species.  This species is also known as Fern-leaved Foxglove or in some areas Northern Oak-leach (due to it's parasitism on oak roots).  The leaves are finely divided (kind of resembling a wood fern) and the stems are covered in glandular hairs.

 Downy False Foxglove is quite rare in Ontario (S1), like the other species it prefers dry, sandy oak woodland or savannah.  Somewhat similar to Smooth False Foxglove in appearance, this species has downy stems as opposed to smooth-glabrous stems.

One of the biggest factors contributing to the decline of Aureolaria populations is the suppression of fire on the landscape and the resulting succession of woody species which occurs.  To learn more about fire ecology check out the Tallgrass Ontario prescribed burn webpage.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Saskatchewan Pt. III: Prairie Flora

The prairie flora of Southern Saskatchewan, what can I say?  Like a kid in a candy shop...a kid that was regularly making reference to the Pot of Gold chocolate map in the form of Wildflowers Across the Prairies by Vance, Jowsey and McLean.  I knew that making that purchase at a used book sale years back would pay off!  The technical reference on hand was Budd's Flora of the Canadian Prairies, an authoritative guide to the flora of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.  I get a kick out of the photo of Archibald Budd in the introduction and the line:

"A prize of 250 pounds for winning a limerick contest made it possible for Mr. Budd to emigrate to Canada in 1910 as a land seeker".

You can't make this stuff up!  Also, on the topic of great botanist photos, I gotta get a copy of this.

If you click the Budd's Flora link, there's a download option to the left, yeah it's a 62.3MB file, but it's also $150 on Amazon.  Anyways, these are the two resources I would recommend.

Here's a selection of photos I took, enjoy!  

Hoary Sagebrush (Artemisia cana ssp. cana) and Prairie Cone-flower (Ratibida columnifera).

Laxmann's Milk-vetch (Astragalus laxmannii var. robustior)

Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis) alongside an unidentified Yarrow (Achillea millefolium).  Saskatchewan Conservation Data Centre recognizes 4 varieties of A. millefolium.

White Prairie-clover (Dalea candida var. candida).

 Purple Prairie-clover (Dalea purpurea var. purpurea).

 Tufted Fleabane (Erigeron caespitosus).

 Yellow Umbrella-plant (Eriogonum flavum var. flavum).  The second photo shows the variation in bloom colour.

 Great-flowered Gaillardia (Gaillardia aristata).

 Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum).  Listed in the SCDC list as 'Old Man's Whiskers'.

Wild Licorice (Glycyrrhiza lepidota).

Here's Derek out standing in his field.  This reminds me of a great story from the trip.  Derek and I found ourselves 3 to 4km from a road at one point checking out a small lake I believe it was.  The clouds on the horizon had made a quick turn from grey overcast to 'get the *#^@ out of here' dark.  Feeling like our one-in-a-million odds of being hit by lightning might be a little closer to one-in-a-hundred, we walked among a bunch of grazing cattle to our rental Mitsubishi Outlander (yeah, you get looks driving one of those in rural Saskatchewan). 


We get moving, albeit slowly to avoid the cattle which probably wanted to get out of that field too, only to hear a loud gushing PSSSSHHHHHHH!!!  Flat tire.  The front wheel is smack dab on a half-buried rusty farming implement.  Gauging the skies we figure we can get the spare on in time.  Backing off the rusty metal spike...PSSSSSSHHHHHH!!! Not the sound you want to hear.  Two flat tires, middle of nowhere, surrounded by cattle peering in the window, skies looking kind of like that urban skyline scene in Ghostbusters when things really get bad. 

So, we swap the front tire out for the spare to maintain the ability to steer, Derek drives slowly, and I walk alongside the vehicle minding the rocks (and cow patties) to ensure that our rim (which now has a shitty, blown out tire flopping around it) at least doesn't run up on a rock.  Leaving our bovine friends behind we make it to the gravel road. 

We call a farmer we had spoke with the day before in hopes that we can get a ride to the Co-op in Wood Mountain where we were staying (population 20, well 22 I guess).  It turns out, the most-well known fellow in town had passed away a few days prior and in that town of about a hundred people, pretty much everyone was at the funeral including the farmer.  He was however able to send a local guy out and told us to sit tight.  We waited 20 minutes, found out that a new tire would have to be shipped down from Swift Current, 200km away, and watched as the raindrops fell steady on the windshied.  We sat in our beat up Outlander until an old F-150 came up over the hill.  It was our guy and he told us to hop in, he'd take us back into town.  He was a friendly guy, was really interested in what we were doing and assured us that the Co-op could get a tire for us by that night and we'd be back in action the next morning.  That is if we made it. 

It was somewhere between the guy talking about smoking locoweed as a kid (a toxic prairie legume which occurs throughout the area), me noticing the cast on his right arm, him driving 130km/hr on soft, narrow, hilly, curving gravel roads, or the fact that he would look back to Derek in the back seat for 5 seconds at a time to maintain eye contact in conversation all the while maintaining his pace down the road....that my right hand clenched the door just a little bit. 

Back into town in what should have taken a much longer amount of time, I could let go of the planning that I had done to ready myself for impact.  Standing in the parking lot of the Co-op we thanked the guy as he sped away.  We looked at each other wide-eyed, got our tire order settled and headed to Sherri's Whiskey Bar for a burger and a Pilsner, a deep breath, and to let our heart rates slow just a bit.

Silvery Lupine (Lupinus argenteus).

 Starvation Cactus (Opuntia polyacantha var. polyacantha).

 Another Starvation Cactus alongside Hoary Golden-aster (Heterotheca villosa var. minor).

 Silvery Scurf Pea (Pediomelum argophyllum).

 Prairie Cone-flower again.

 Scarlet Mallow (Sphaeralcea coccinea ssp. coccinea).

Somewhere near Wood Mountain, SK.  Kind of a doubly goofy name given the near non-existent woody species and the topography eh?

Off to Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park.

Nodding Onion (Allium cernuum var. cernuum) S1S2.

 Cut-leaved Anemone (Anemone multifida var. multifida)

 Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia), lot's of Harebell.

 Clematis (Clematis occidentalis var. grosseserrata) S2.

 Boreal Sweet-vetch (Hedysarum boreale).

 View from the Cypress Hills.

 Mount Albert Goldenrod (Solidago simplex var. simplex).  If you're interested in goldenrods, check out John Semple's website.

Shining-leaved Meadow-sweet (Spiraea betulifolia var. lucida) S2S3.

 Lance-leaf Stonecrop (Sedum lanceolatum ssp. lanceolatum) S3?.

I gotta make a return trip!  Don't take rides from strangers!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Saskatchewan Pt. II: Rodents

For part two I thought I'd post a few photos of mammals I saw during the trip.  The curious little guy in the first photo is a Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel (Ictidomys tridecemlineatus) - 'tridecemlineatus' meaning thirteen-lined in latin.  This one was in Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, but you couldn't drive a couple of kilometers without seeing ground squirrels on the roads (there are 4 species in Saskatchewan).  It's funny to watch them pop up onto their back legs to get a better view down the road of what's coming, only to play chicken with vehicles and scurry into the ditch (most of the time).  Much like the snakes in the last post have an affinity for roads, so too do the ground squirrels.

At Grasslands we checked out one of the Black-tailed Prairie Dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) colonies.  It's estimated that the park is home to about 25 colonies comprising 17,000 to 23,000 prairie dogs.  This species has been persecuted since European settlement and now has a much reduced range (Grasslands is the only place in Canada where they are found).  It is crucial to a range of other species within the grassland ecosystem including Burrowing Owls, American Badger, Swift Fox, Ferruginous Hawk, Short-horned Lizard, Prairie Rattlesnake, the list goes on.  No doubt a keystone species if there ever was one.  

Well isn't that cute?

Somewhat related, The Nature of Things ran an episode on the reintroduction of Black-footed Ferret (Mustela nigripes) to Grasslands N.P. a few years back, very interesting stuff, check it out.

Other memorable wildlife from the trip included Sprague's Pipit (Anthus spragueii), South Saskatchewan is prime breeding range for this grassland species and it was a real treat to hear a new song.  This species apparently has the longest known flight display of any bird.  The link above mentions that during a display, males will stay airborne for up to 30 minutes and one was once observed to have stayed in the air for 3 hours!

What I took from the trip as my favourite experience was driving down a gravel road south of Maple Creek (Hudderite colonies are essentially the only thing around), when an American Badger (Taxidea taxus) sauntered across the road about 50m in front of our vehicle. Then another, then a couple more, 5 in total!  Then a Coyote (Canis latrans) in pursuit.  American Badger is listed as S3S4 in Saskatchewan and Special Concern by COSEWIC (Endangered in Ontario).  It was unexpected to say the least and still a vivid image in my mind. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Saskatchewan Pt. I: Snakes on a Plain

I spent some time in Southern Saskatchewan back in July 2010 and thought I'd share some photos from the trip.  It was the first time I'd been to the province and I loved it.  Flying into Regina, our route took us to Swift Current before getting into alot of backroads meandering throughout the far southwest corner of the province.

Alot of the rangeland in this part of the province exists as mixed grassland.  The photo below shows a 'coulee', these features tended to show very high plant and animal diversity having avoided the plough.

We saw a couple of Bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer sayi), otherwise known as Gopher Snake.  Unfortunately these guys love basking on the road.


At the far western boundary of Saskatchewan there is a hilly area of cypress upland which sticks out topographically (and botanically) from the surrounding landscape.  We made a day-long visit to Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park which straddles the Saskatchewan-Alberta border.

The creviced rock faces which exist throughout the park provide great snake hibernacula; I managed to get this shot of what I think is a Red-sided Gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis).  Check out the range of sub-species throughout Canada.  The Saskatchewan Conservation Data Centre recognizes 5 distinct species or sub-species in the province.

My target species and highlight of the trip was Prairie Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis viridis).  We had hoped to see Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) but came up empty-handed.  Prairie Rattlesnake is listed as S3 in Saskatchewan and is at the northern extent of it's range which stretches all the way to the north of Mexico.  Standing beside a stout Wolfwillow (Elaeagnus commutata) shrub in Grasslands N.P. I head a rattle moments before this individual emerged from the shadow of the shrub.

If you ever find yourself in southern Saskatchewan, a visit to Cypress Hills P.P. and Grasslands N.P. is a must!  More Saskatchewan content to come!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Skinks at Massasauga P.P.

In fall 2012 Alyssa and I did a canoe trip through The Massasauga Provincial Park.  I like fall camping, the mosquitoes and black flies were almost non-existent, and the temperature is comfortable.  While our snake observations for the trip were limited to Eastern Gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis), we did spot this Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) basking on the rocks as we had lunch.

I swapped my sandwich for the camera and went on a mission to get a shot, these little guys are quick!  The Carolinian population (Pinery, Point Pelee and Rondeau among a few other isolated locations) is listed provincially as Endangered; the Southern Shield population (Georgian Bay east toward Brockville) is Special Concern provincially.

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) was in full bloom and fairly common on some of the lakeshores.

Doesn't get much better than kicking back on a warm rock and listening to the loons.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Prairie on the Brain

I've got prairie on the brain.  It's -25C outside but I'm working on finalizing an order for plugs to be contract grown for a prairie-savanna site that our group, the Waterloo Stewardship Council, has been working on for a few years.  The site is adjacent to remnant rail line prairie, part of the Branchton Prairie.  We've done all sorts of work on the site, cutting/coating of  successional and invasive trees and shrubs, a slow creeping prescribed burn in the savanna, bringing in an industrial grubber to mulch a field filling in with Manitoba Maple (Acer negundo), seed collection, and our sights are set on converting the old agricultural field to tallgrass prairie.  I wrote an article about the Branchton Prairie remnants for the Tallgrass Ontario Bluestem Banner publication, check it out.

This first picture is kind of interesting in that it shows how 'adventive' prairie has established on a strip of rail ballast which cuts right through a large expanse of cattail marsh.  The abandoned rail line is a great spot for turtle nesting.  It's also interesting that beaver keep the poplars, willows and dogwoods at bay along the rail line, it can get tough walking through a bunch of knee-high spikes.

Showy Tick-trefoil (Desmodium canadense) does very well on the rail line.  One pass through this and your clothes are covered in hundreds of the seeds.

Early Goldenrod (Solidago juncea) and Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) are also fairly common at the site.

It's neat to have a xeric rail line right next to a deep organic wetland, along the edges you get wetland species like this Marsh Skullcap (Scutellaria galericulata).  Scutellaria comes from the latin scutella meaning little dish, while galericulata means hood (this species is also referred to as Hooded Skullcap).

Another wetland species, Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).  I've found this to grow quite well in fresh loam soils in my garden but naturally you'd tend to find it in wetter conditions.

One of a few Woodland Sunflower (Helianthus divaricatus).  Sometimes I find this species to grow sparsely here and there, other times it can create huge clonal populations.  It can get a little tricky to differentiate H. divaricatus from Pale-leaved Sunflower (Helianthus strumosus).  Michigan Flora notes that divaricatus normally has glabrous stems versus hairy or scabrous stems.  Also, where the lowest lateral vein on the leaf joins the the base (divaricatus) or slightly above the base (strumosus).  There's plenty of literature on hybridity in sunflowers, it can get confusing.

I'm going H. divaricatus on this one based on the smooth stem, even though clearly the lowest lateral vein is above the base of the leaf. 

The drooping inflorescence of Kalm's Brome (Bromus kalmii).  The easiest way to distinguish it from Fringed Brome (Bromus ciliatus)is to check the number of nerves on the first and second glumes (the parts which cover each seed).  Have I lost the birders yet?

This next plant, well I don't know what it's called.  I was going to call it Sicklepod (Arabis canadensis), but the scientific name didn't show up in Michigan Flora.  So I checked VASCAN, ok ok so we've got a name change on our hands, Borodinia canadensis, doesn't flow as nicely but I can dig it.  Well as it turns out Michigan Flora has it listed as Boechera canadensis as a result of some recent DNA testing. 

Best for last, a nice population of Smooth False Foxglove (Aureolaria flava).  This species is listed in Ontario as S2? (20 or fewer occurrences in the province).  This species is hemi-parasitic on oak roots.  There are two other Aureolaria species known from Ontario (and Waterloo Region), Annual False Foxglove (A. pedicularia) and Downy False Foxglove (A. virginica).  All 3 species are on the table for COSEWIC fall 2015 evaluation.

Leaves of a non-flowering plant.