Saturday, March 26, 2016

Beak Grass on the Ausable River

This past week I made a brief stop to the Ausable River near Arkona.  I was hoping to find more Harbinger-of-spring on some floodplain areas I had scoped out.  As time was limited to about 45 minutes I was only able to walk a short section of the river but any time spent on the Ausable can turn up some interesting finds.

ATV ruts are good for something...Wood Frog breeding.  Just kidding, ATV ruts are good for nothing.  I found this egg mass along with about 10 others in a rut on the trail.  Wood Frogs are early breeding amphibians (for this part of North America) along with Spring Peepers, Western Chorus Frogs and a number of salamander species.
Some sections of the slopes are near monocultures of Chinquapin Oak (Quercus mulenbergii).  The crown branching of this species take on a 'wavy' form - the older the tree the more pronounced. Some of the older trees have developed impressive canopies with lateral branching that runs parallel to the ground.

Aside from a couple of Sandhill Cranes that flew over, it was pretty quiet for wildlife down in the valley.  A few Muskrat tracks in the mud here and there.

The one rarity that I visit from time to time is a fairly healthy population of Beak Grass (Diarrhena obovata).  I was first introduced to this species at this location by Tony Reznicek in 2012.  Tony said something that day to the tune of "If you wanted to find the next mega rare plant, I'd look here in the Ausable River valley".  It was found on the Ausable in 1988 by Dorothy Tiedje and is also known from a spot or two on the Thames and Sydenham.  You'd think that as a floodplain plant this species could be fair game anywhere downstream between Arkona and the Pinery.    Beak Grass is very rare in Ontario, listed as S1 (usually 5 or fewer occurrences in the province).  I would estimate that I saw about 0.75ha of it growing in patches  on the banks of the river; it's doing well where it is actually found!

A shot of the "obovate beaks", which kind of stick out from the culm (stem) at sharp angles like an Elm bud does.  I'm looking forward to revisiting this spot again this year!

Sunday, March 20, 2016


Happy first day of spring!  After lunch today I found myself looking for a destination to go for a walk and thought it would be timely to search for Harbinger-of-spring (Erigenia bulbosa).  As luck would have it, the plants were in bloom, early enough in fact that I didn't spot a single unfurled leaf, just the odd flower poking up from among the oak and maple leaves.

This member of the carrot family is one of the earliest blooming native wildflowers and can be found along riverbanks, floodplains in rich moist forests.  It is listed provincially as "S3" or vulnerable.  When I was in Kentucky last April it seemed that in the right habitat you couldn't walk 10m without spotting it, here in Ontario it's certainly a treat to find.

Although it was the only thing blooming, it's by no means easy to find!  The flowers in the photo below are down and to the right of the quarter.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Gyr Up

Today was a mixed bag.  I was on the road to Windsor by 5:00am (to my morning person delight) for work and upon arrival heard my first Tree Swallows and heard/saw my first Belted Kingfishers of the year.  An adult Bald Eagle flew north up the Detroit River and I found a pair of chubby Deer Mice beneath an old sheet of plywood, all before 9:00, so much action!

Walking along a hydro corridor I noticed a few tufts of a grass with red-golden leaves.  It's one that can be mistaken for Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) at a distance, and the two can grow side-by-side in prairie habitats.  I have found that Broomsedge takes on a more 'sparse' look with only 20-25 or so blades whereas a mature Little Blue is more clump forming with hundreds of ascending blades.  Also, Broomsedge seeds are ensheathed, you can kind of see it in the first photo.  Little Blue are not ensheathed, thus the 'snowy' look come fall.  While it shares the look of Little Bluestem, it is of the same genus as another staple prairie grass, Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii).

The grass in the photo below is Virginia Broom-sedge (Andropogon virginicus).  The Oldham 1993 list for Essex County notes it to be vulnerable, and actually it's rare throughout it's range in Ontario (apparently with the exception of Huron County).

I scrounged up a few Little Bluestem seeds from the yard to show the two side-by-side, Little Blue on the left, Broom-sedge on the right.

If admiring dead prairie grass wasn't exciting enough, my co-worker and I took the long way home and stopped by Brick Yard Line where the continuing Gyrfalcon has been hanging out for some time.  We watched it for 15 minutes, the 40-50km/h winds making it a bit of a challenge to keep my scope steady.  The bird mostly just sat contently looking around, then made a short low flight over to a carcass of some sort which it proceeded to chew at.

Given our trajectory home it seemed logical to try and re-locate the Eurasian Wigeon which had been reported from southwest of Northville, east of Outer Drive (haha).  After scanning about 200 or so ducks for 10 minutes we weren't so lucky.  Although a few Pintail, Wood Duck, American Wigeon and Northern Shoveler made the stop well worthwhile.

 Moving inland to fields of pooled water on Willsie Line we got an up close look at this pair of Sandhill Cranes; a nice end to the day.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Got Salamanders?

Through work I'm involved in a study looking at salamander movement and dispersal.  The last few days have been hectic; today for example we caught/released 273 individual mole salamanders.

Dusk until dawn with my head buried in a paint can or hunched over a clipboard scribbling down data, I love it.

A single trap I checked on today contained a mix of 17 Spotted and Jefferson Salamanders and 15 Wood Frogs, it's nuts.  In the photo above you can also see an Eastern Newt.  In mentioning to a co-worker that we keep an 'incidentals' species list and maybe say you saw a Red Fox, you would note that.  10 minutes later, a Red Fox trots through the forest 50m from us.  It's so refreshing to know that habitats like this (and the creatures that inhabit them) are thriving!  

Monday, March 14, 2016

Setting My Sights on Prairie

On Sunday I was in the Dundas area for work and decided to check out the Ancaster Rifle Range Quarry prairie (a mouthful, I know).  The site is owned and managed by the Hamilton Conservation Authority and was burned in April of 2015.

Despite being mid-March, I was able to do a bit of botanizing.  Round-headed Bush-clover (Lespedeza capitata) appears to be doing very well here, although at this time of year the dark lumpy wands do tend to stick out.  I was looking into some Breeding Bird Atlas background information for a project nearby in Hamilton today and saw Northern Bobwhite came up.  Although likely an escapee, I have heard that Bush-clover and other legumes have been/are traditionally a large part of their diet, particularly through the winter when other food sources are more difficult to come by.

The quarrying, and perhaps to some degree the elements, have exposed some interesting aggregate formations.

I put my hand on this rock, let the brain dig deep back to my Geomorphology of Southern Ontario class in university, and said "clastic".  I knew their was a reason I took that course!  Actually, looking back at the field and lab components of that course and how it changed my understanding of landforms (and vegetation communities) I really did get alot out of it.  I appreciated my time spent in 'a professor who will remain unnamed''s classes, that is until a few years later while tending to a demonstration prairie garden I designed and installed outside of the Faculty of Environment, each plant grown from locally collected seed, the composition tasteful yet somewhat natural...he walked out of the faculty door one day on his way home, looked at me working diligently to remove dead stems, and said "Bunch of weeds". Sheesh.  You bet I ramped up plug planting the following year!  If you ever visit the University of Waterloo check it out!

The cordate and slightly toothed leaves of Sky Blue Aster (Symphyotrichum oolentangiense)

Still a bit early for Early Goldenrod (Solidago juncea).  I couldn't find any signs of growth at the ground level but this goldenrod species is an early bloomer among the composite world.  The 'elm-shaped' inflorescence is a good ID feature to help distinguish it.

The bare stony areas are largely dominated by hawkweeds and fleabanes but a few other interesting species like Poverty Oat Grass (Danthonia spicata) could be found.

A nice view from a high point looks across the swaths of Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) with smaller amounts of Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and Canada Wild Rye (Elymus canadensis) also present here and there.  Beer can free and a couple bucks in my pocket!

Another highlight on the day was a leucistic Red-tailed Hawk I spotted off of nearby Powerline Road.  Pretty tough to miss a white hawk flying in front of a spruce hedgerow 20m in front of you!

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Visiting Old Friends in Dundas

Another year of salamander monitoring has begun and with the balmy weather I was excited to get out of the office for the afternoon.  The ice on the vernal pools is beginning to dissipate and coupled with the warm and rainy weather the male Jefferson Salamanders are on the move (confirmed this morning with 3 individuals) and looking to make their way to the ponds.

My only salamander sighting this evening was this Eastern Red-backed Salamander who I spotted peering into a pitfall trap saying "Not today!".  This species is a terrestrial salamander that can be found under rocks and logs in forests.  While I have seen them in and around vernal pools, they do not utilize these seasonal aquatic features for reproduction like many of Ontario's other 12 salamander species. 

I recently read an article about Red-back's 'homing' capabilities; the experiment in the article found that when moved 30m from a home range, 90% of individuals quickly returned via a near-straight path.  At 90m the return rate dropped to about 25%.  The adults and juveniles communicate through phermones which likely play into this ability.  The article: Kleeberger, S.R. and Werner, J.K. (1982). ''Home range and homing behavior of Plethodon cinereus in northern Michigan.'' Copeia, 1982(2), 409-415.

While I was checking out some dead stems from last summer's find of a patch of Broad Beech Fern this Wood Frog was another first on the year.  This one was dopey as they come, maybe still somewhere between a freeze and a thaw which the species is known to tolerate through 'nucleating proteins' in their cells.