Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Recent Happenings

     Summer is generally a bit of a slow time for birding as breeding activity is taking place for most species and the landscape is not permeated by song, but there is lots to keep a keen naturalist interested.
    For the fifth year in a row we have a Chipping Sparrow Spizella passerina feeding a young Brown-headed Cowbird Molothrus ater in our yard. This small sparrow is a frequent target of our most common obligate brood parasite. In previous years I have been able to photograph the Chipping Sparrow feeding the cowbird but I was only successful in getting separate images when I saw them the other day.

Fledgling Brown-headed Cowbird

Chipping Sparrow

     There has been a veritable explosion of Soldier Beetles (Cantharidae) recently and reproduction seems to be the only thing on their minds. I will not even attempt to identify this insect as to species, since there are over four hundred different ones and an expert entomologist is needed to resolve specific identification.

     They seemed to favour Queen Anne''s Lace Daucus carota as a host plant. 

     Not exclusively, however. They are shown below on Common Fleabane Erigeron philadelphicus.

     And on Canada Thistle Cirsium arvense.

     Perhaps a change of venue is good for an amorous insect!

     I came across a couple of patches of this flower, certainly in the Rudbeckia family, and I believe it to be Thin-leaved Coneflower Rudbeckia triloba, a beautiful plant indeed.

     In the same family is the familiar prairie flower, Black (or Brown)-eyed Susan Rubeckia hirta.

     My inadequate entomological skills were again put to the test when this wasp showed up in clusters at our hummingbird feeder. I believe it to be Blackjacket Wasp Vespula consobrina, a beautifully-marked species.

     A puddling Clouded Sulphur Colias philodice gave me no problem.

     Nor did the ubiquitous Cabbage White Pieris rapae.

     Staghorn Sumac Rhus typhina has a full crop of its distinctive red fruit, winter food for a wide variety of organisms, and one of my favourite trees (shrubs?).

     Who knows what my next post will bring?

Friday, 15 July 2016

Here we go again!

14 July 2016
Barn Swallows at SpruceHaven

     As was to be expected our colony of Barn Swallows Hirundo rustica is starting to produce second clutches, the young from the first nest now having been left to fend for themselves.
     Yesterday, nest No. 67 had a bird sitting on it, and following the night's substantial rainfall, others were outside gathering mud and grass to refurbish existing nests or construct new ones.

     We have had little rain this summer and I am sure that the 25 mm or so that we just received was a major stimulus in initiating renesting behaviour.
     Our colony had around twenty active nests for the first round of nesting and we will be watching to see if all those nests are reoccupied and whether any additional nests are built. We will also be checking to see whether any of the old nests that were not used on the first go around are occupied for a second brood. It is a shame that we have no way of knowing whether the same pair will reoccupy the nest they used for their first brood.

     Insects were present in substantial numbers yesterday, of various types, and I am sure that the abundant food supply will also spur on the birds to nest again. Barn Swallows are eclectic in their choice of food and are known to take large flies of the family Muscidae, hoverflies, horseflies and robberflies, smaller acalypterate flies and nematoceran flies. Aphids and other plant bugs form a significant component of the diet, with beetles, parasitic Hymenoptera, bees, moths, mayflies, dragonflies, grasshoppers, lacewings and caddisflies also. Barn Swallows do not hesitate to brush past foliage to pick off caterpillars and skim across the surface of the water to snare insects in flight. The pond at SpruceHaven, right next to the barn where the swallows are breeding, is seldom without several birds feeding at the surface.

     All the conditions are right for a successful second batch of young swallows and our entire team is looking forward to continuing to monitor this important colony.

Reference used: Swallows and Martins (1989), Angela Turner and Chris Rose, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, MA, USA     

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

An Encounter with Bees

8 July 2016

     Stephen (Steve) Trink has installed beehives at SpruceHaven and when he invited me to suit up and observe the art of beekeeping I jumped at the chance.

     It was something I had never done before and I welcomed the opportunity to learn about the production of the delicious honey we all enjoy so much.                                                                                                            Emma Trink, Steve's daughter whom you met in a previous post about the Barn Swallow colony, was anxious to help her dad and donned her own protective suit.

          Here are the three musketeers of the beehives, ready to begin work.

     I was entrusted with the smoker; smoke is used to pacify the bees a little, permitting the inspection of the hives to proceed without danger.

     We commenced our inspection by examining this frame, fully drawn out with wax by the bees and filled with newly-collected nectar.

     Steve was a model instructor as he explained in complete detail the various components of the hive and the condition represented on each frame we examined. The one below is moderately populated with bees from a hive box which is currently home to about 30,000 bees. Frames such as this one are ready to fill with nectar and pollen which will be the food source for developing bees after they have hatched.

     This entrance feeder contains honey from another hive to provide a much needed boost for this newly established hive. It takes about 453 grams of honey consumed by bees to produce 28 grams of wax. Wax is the most valuable product of the bees in this sense and is used to produce hexagonal cells wherein they store pollen, nectar, honey and the developing brood.

     I was so engrossed in the whole operation and in following Steve's discourse, I forgot to keep pumping the bellows on the smoker and I let the fire go out. It was quickly reignited with a few wood chips from around the hive and I became a more conscientious pumper after that!

     While dad was getting the smoker primed Emma decided to ham it up for the camera.

     The brood box below is ready for another box to be added on top; this will provide more room for the growing hive to expand.

     This frame has 90% of its wax foundation drawn out by the bees. We were looking for the queen but unfortunately it started to rain and we were unsuccessful in locating her.

     You will see the glistening nectar in the upper right corner of this frame. Once the water has evaporated the bees will cap the cells with wax.

     We can see capped brood cells in this frame. Nurse bees attend to the brood chamber and their duties include temperature regulation and feeding larvae. Also visible is the capped honey in the upper right corner. Newly hatched bees clean out their cells before starting other duties in the hive. The timeline of their activities corresponds with their development; for example, as a bee develops the ability to produce wax it participates in building wax comb.

     Having learned my lesson with the smoker I made sure that I did not let it go out again and applied smoke to calm the bees whenever it was necessary.

       Emma was right there to remind me if I didn't pump quite vigorously or frequently enough.
       In this image we see the frame from the bottom edge. Many bees can be seen busily building out right to the very bottom; larger (drone) males can be seen at the bottom right-centre of the frame. 

       The queen alone lays all the eggs in the hive. She mates with several drones on her virgin flight and lays thousands of eggs each day. In fact, she lays more than her own body weight in eggs every day of her life, two to three years on average. Towards the end of her life her egg output diminishes and this does not go unnoticed by the other bees. They take steps to replace her in a process known as supersedure. 
       The rain was becoming more intense and we had no choice but to close the boxes for the night.

        The view looking toward St. Agatha told the story.

      It was a fascinating experience and I wish again to thank Steve for facilitating it, and to Miriam who fearlessly handled the camera in close proximity to the bees without any protective equipment and without hesitation. 
      Emma was her normal ebullient, charming self and certainly contributed to the success of the whole evening.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

American Mink (Vison d'Amérique) in Toronto

4 July 2016

     There is an impending postal strike in Canada and Miriam had a sale on her ETSY site for a woman in Toronto, who said the item was for her ninety-three year old mother's birthday, and she was concerned that it would not reach her by mail. Give the circumstances we decided that we would hand-deliver it and make use of our time in the city to check out the waterfront.
     The most entertaining part of our day was to observe, at close range, a family of American Mink Mustela vison at Colonel Samuel Smith Park.

Adult female

     We were both surprised and delighted to see these creatures for they are primarily nocturnal, with their main activity taking place around dawn and dusk. This was the middle of the day in bright sunshine.
     As far as we could tell there were three kits, although it is hard to be sure, as they darted in and out of rocky cover and took to the water, disappearing from view and emerging beyond our vision.
     The pelage of the young animals is considerably lighter in colour than the adults.

     Although playful as kits, adult mink are bold, ferocious and efficient predators. These youngsters were already displaying their hunting prowess in the water, where they are excellent swimmers.

     At this stage of their lives they are catching mainly freshwater crabs and fish, but as they age they will turn their attention to small mammals, voles, mice, and muskrats, even cottontail rabbits.

     These Double-crested Cormorants Phalacrocorax auritus were in no danger from the mink.

     We came home via Oakville so that we could check the nests of the Red-necked Grebes Podiceps grisegena. The last time we had seen them was in March when nest-building had not yet begun.
     Both tires placed strategically for the use of the birds had active nests and the adults were busy incubating their eggs.

     As may be seen in the pictures below it is unfortunate that the birds do not hesitate to add plastic waste to their nests, such material seemingly being as acceptable as vegetation. It is even more unfortunate that we continue to pollute the world with this stuff.

     The deck at the side of our house was getting a little rickety (after all it was about twenty years old) so we replaced it last week, and we are well pleased with the results. 

     It was good to sit outside and have a glass of wine together before dinner. Gee, I might even do the same thing again tonight!