Category Archives: Lake Erie Lowlands

New Neighbours

And how often do you suppose this happened in Toronto?

fawn near Dundas Valley Conservation Area

Just hanging out on the path near the local park along with mom and a few aunts. They might be skittish, but they’re not at all afraid of humans.


As you can see.

Beautiful, aren’t they?

However, I am once again disappointed in my fellow humans, many of whom were running or cycling through in groups and somehow failed to notice the large herbivores on the paths directly in front of them. Talk about your invisible gorillas. If you just open your eyes and pay attention, there is always something worth seeing.

Monarch Caterpillar

A Monarch

Taken this past weekend at a friend’s cottage, walking in the woods, where a bunch of largeish monarch caterpillars are fattening themselves up on milkweed in preparation for metamorphosis. Look at the size of that thing!

Also, they’re soft, if you’ve never tried petting one. Velvety.

Given that it’s august and the monarch migration to Mexico begins in late August each year, this caterpillar will fly south thousands of miles after its metamorphosis is complete. No one knows how the migratory route is transferred from one generation to the next.

Milkweed plants are poisonous, and monarch caterpillars become poisonous from eating them–an advantage they retain after transforming into butterflies. This explains why monarch caterpillars have such bold colouring compared to the larvae of other species, which tend to be camoflauged. And while most adult monarchs will live for four or five weeks, those who reach maturity in the migration period can live for eight or nine months and won’t reach sexual maturity or breed until after the wintering period in Mexico.

This Hinterland Who’s Who page has some great basic information about monarchs. Evolution has done some amazing things with life on this planet, eh? There is no other insect species in the world thought to have this multi-generational migration pattern.

Regardless, kids love caterpillars. If you find a large stand of milkweed plants right about now, you stand a good chance of finding some, or maybe even a chrysalis or two. Or head to Point Pelee National Park in September to see the peak migration first-hand.

Summer Vacation

Niagara River, whirlpool

By which you might deduce, and correctly, that I was recently in Niagara Falls. It’s not quite the sort of nature shot I usually go for, being large and imposing and Charismatic, not to mention Touristified, but it’s not the river’s fault, is it? What I love about it is the colour of the river, not really done justice here: a deep, glossy, dark teal. Damn the sun for washing it all out again.

And on a much smaller, more local scale, another shot of Webster’s Falls, taken on another day:

Webster's Falls, July 2010, sunset

This while I work up a post on public consultation under Ontario Regulation 359/09, under the Ontario Environmental Protection Act. Which is distinctly going to be one of the steeper parts of the learning curve.

Not dead.

Just moving. Now the move is over, and Bell has decided to let me have telephone and internet service, and I finally got to get outside for something involving non-human nature.

Webster's Falls, Spencer Gorge Conservation Area

It was pretty awesome. Next time I go it’ll be dusk, so I can take some photos that aren’t automatically overexposed. All that sunlight-on-water washed out just about everything.

Childhood should involve catching frogs

In this case, green frogs and cricket frogs, with a net.

I took this at the pond where the Newtonbrook Creek trail meets up with the main East Don Parkland path. Juvenile frogs stick their wee heads out of the water like slightly oversized bubbles by the dozens. In one shot taken Saturday afternoon, I counted twenty frogs. Twenty!

Course now I can’t find them all again. See how many you count.

look at them all!

These are green frogs, identified by the double ridge down their backs, the pale green to dark greenish-brown colouring with spots, bands on the legs, bright green mouth, and mating call that sounds like someone badly plucking an out-of-tune banjo. Males have eardrums bigger than their eyes, like this one:

In which you can also see my reflection.

If you want to see green frogs galore, go right now to that pond and stare. At first all you will see is murky water with bubbles and algae and plants floating on top. Keep staring, and soon you will see that some of those little bubbles and plants have a pair of small golden eyes.

The big ones can’t be missed.

We also saw this lovely brownsnake, which might not a word you personally would apply to the brownsnake, but it was small and slithered in exactly the way a snake should. Brownsnakes, apparently, live in large numbers in suburban and even urban habitats, but are reclusive and quite small (this one was about 20″ long) so they are very rarely seen. This one certainly did not appreciate being photographed; several times it lunged at the camera lens, baring its teeth. Poor thing.

I am hip-deep in wind farm studies and the last of the packing, or I would offer you some more science to go with the photography. Consider this (another) IOU.

four-spotted skimmer

Seen at the pond near Newtonbrook Creek where it meets up with the East Don River, last weekend, posing nicely for the camera. It would swoop away, put on an aerial show over the water, then swoop back and patiently bask on a twig while I took photos–in some cases, from less than an inch away. I am easily pleased, so I thought this was pretty exciting.

Apparently, this perching behaviour means it was likely a male.

What I loved about it, besides its unnatural cooperation, was the jewel-like colour and sheen of the amber mid-section and the delicate traceries on the irredescent wings, and if you’re thinking that’s a lot of high-fallutin’ language for a bug, well, I don’t care. It’s beautiful.

The four-spotted skimmer is the state insect of Alaska. I didn’t know that states had insects, but there you go.

It’s a common dragonfly in Ontario, and lives near ponds and slow-moving streams. Since they don’t tolerate polluted water well, dragonflies are a good indicator of a healthy wetland. They’re carnivorous and eat other insects, particularly mosquitoes.

This page from the Ottawa Field Naturalists’ Club and the Fletcher Wildlife Garden has too much cool information about dragonflies for words, such as:

  • dragonflies enjoy 360-degree vision
  • they have survived nearly unchanged for over 300,000,000 years–before dinosaurs evolved.
  • they can fly forwards and backwards and mate in mid-air by forming heart-shaped flying wheels.

Apparently dragonflies have not been a cool topic of science research for the past few decades because Google Scholar had almost nothing to tell me about them. Poo, I say. Clearly I will have to get myself a field guide or a research book or two to answer questions such as, how did their development evolve? That long slog in the pond eating everything that comes by, only to wander out on dry land and split in half to emerge as a flying insect. Where did that come from?

Not that it matters, I suppose, considering how beautiful they are, and given that they seem likely to last another 300,000,000 million years, outliving by far whatever disasters we may throw at the planet in our own short tenure.

Green Neighbours: Beech trees

Beech Bark

I have often done plants and wildlife but not, I think, trees. Today a tree, a very important tree ecologically for the Greater Toronto Bioregion, and one of my favourites, but as I am impossible at picking favourites in anything that’s not saying much.

Beech trees.

They are, first of all, easy to identify in their mature stages due to their lovely, smooth grey bark, upon which you will often find the engraved initials of teenaged couples that surely lasted for much less time than the engraving will. According to this lovely website, those engravings will first grow and eventually be swallowed by the growth of the tree, at last long outliving the person who carved them.

They are, second of all, an obviously integral component of the sugar maple-beech climax ecosystem that once covered southern Ontario, and is still the most common forest type in the area. They keep each other in check. Did you know that? Beech seedlings don’t grow well under beech trees, but do grow under maples; maple seedlings don’t grow well under maple trees, but do grow under beech. According to this University of Toronto page, this is a 500-year cycle maintained by extraordinarily long-lived trees. Beech trees won’t even produce seeds until they are 40 (and here a girl gets in trouble if she hasn’t had a baby by 35). Hence the lovely, perfect balance of a sugar maple-beech climax forest ecosystem. And hence why, when I run or walk or bike in the East Don Parkland, I am always finding so many beech and sugar maple trees (and manitoba maples too, but that another day).

And thirdly, they have magnificent widely-spreading branches, gorgeous glossy slender red-brown buds that split and fan out their folded leaves like paper fortunes. They are beautiful trees. Definitely hug-worthy.

They like shade and well-drained soil, often near water; their dense roots and dark shade make an imposing barrier to any grasses, plants or other trees trying to gain a foothold beneath it. Thank goodness our trilliums and trout lilies like shade too.

“Beech” and “book” apparently have the same root word because smooth grey beech bark was once commonly used for writing on. I have only internet sources to verify this but it seems to be a common misconception if it is one; so, yet another reason to love the beech tree. It gave us books!

That seems much too utilitarian a note to end this on, so I’ll leave you with the beech nuts–their seeds, edible to a wide variety of wildlife and humans. For harvesting and preparation instructions, read Beechnuts, A Delightful Woodland Snack.


The trilliums have been out and are mostly gone, petals fading pink. If you want to see them this year, don’t wait. I know it’s cold and wet but by next weekend there might be nothing to see.

I feel like I say this every year–probably because I do say this every year–but: it is not illegal to pick trilliums in Ontario. It is a spectacularly bad idea since it takes a plant seven years to flower and their habitat in South Ontario is not what it once was, but it’s not illegal. Transplanting trilliums will almost certainly kill them. (I still get regular google searches on how to bring a wild trillium home: DON’T). Most nurseries selling trilliums have taken them from wild habitats because of how long it takes to grow them from seed, and most of them will not survive the transplant to your garden. Trilliums like space, lots of leafy cover on the ground, and the early springtime shade of deciduous trees. If you don’t have that it’s unlikely they will grow for you.

If you do, then bring the seeds home and plant them and in a couple of years you should see the first leaves poking above the ground. Trilliums are not a plant for the impatient. They emerge in spring soonest from between the exposed roots of large, well-established deciduous trees on sun-facing slopes. If you’ve got one, plant them there.

They are gorgeous, though, aren’t they?

The tadpoles are also out, a bit earlier and a good bit larger than the ones Frances and I saw last year. A post on that coming when the tadpoles leave the pond on four legs.  Plus the apple blossoms, dogwood, maples, elm, beech–looks like spring is going to keep me busy.

Look Small: Buds to Leaves

Have you ever noticed the way buds open, almost erupting as if in force of a slow-motion explosion?

They don’t just open. They spill. Like milk spreading across a kitchen floor, or water boiling over a pot. Like a snake shedding a too-small skin.

Most of the leaves around here are open, but a few trees remain brown and bare. Watch the buds. See if you don’t see what I mean.

These ones–I believe they are beech–I particularly love, unfolding from their buds like paper fans, their edges furry and corrugated. Look at how elegantly they were packed in and how glad they must now be to stretch, and feel the sun.

new beech leaf

Bloodroot II

I can’t help it. I love bloodroot. Hence this sequel to last year’s more scientific bloodroot post. This year, just prettiness.

I love the way they grow wrapped up in a blanket of their own leaves, as if protected from April’s chill. I love how the flower eventually peaks out the top as if stretching out of bed on a cold morning. I love that bloodroot, when it finally opens, has petals as lopsided as a child’s drawing.

I love bloodroot.

If trilliums are belles and trout lilies are woodland nymphs, then bloodroot are children.