And how incredibly welcome the New Year was, arriving shortly after power was at last restored. For me it was a 7-day blackout, and I know for others it was longer still. Being in a cold house in midwinter just makes me admire all the more the small birds and animals that brave the outdoors year-round. The chickadees at the feeder, puffed up in the cold, have to find food and shelter every day, and throughout such inhospitable weather. Don’t forget to help them out!
Our trees have taken a tremendous beating, their tops lopped off as it by a drunken giant wielding a very dull machete! It will be interesting to see how the new growth appears and it there is any benefit to this strange kind of pruning. In town, many trees were split in half. If you have lost a Weeping Willow or Norway Maple, now is a good time to consider replacing those non-natives with a native species. Native trees are adapted to local weather and they also provide food and homes for our native wildlife.
We have a great line-up of talks and several outdoor walks of interest coming up, so I hope to see everyone at these events.
Our party of two had a great outing to this urban park. It is closer than Leslie Street Spit, with a lot less walking and some really good wetland and lakeshore habitats. Our first bird of interest was a Gray Catbird near a small pond. On the pond shore we also saw a young Black-crowned Night Heron and some Shoveler and Gadwall. Up ahead a Hooded Merganser caught our eye. On the lake were many ducks and grebes, and we had excellent views of a nice male Harlequin Duck! On our way back we saw many signs of Beaver (we had already seen a Muskrat swimming) and then we saw a Northern Mockingbird that has been residing in the area for some time, according to local birders. I hope we can return with more club members in future.
On my way home from our last meeting, with coyotes in mind, I was on the lookout for mammals and eyeshine in my car headlights. In the ten-minute drive, I spotted six domestic cats in fields and along the roadsides. These were the only mammals I saw that night.
So, what impact do our cats have on wildlife if they are allowed to roam free? A recent study in the USA (based on a systematic review and quantitative mortality estimates) found that free-ranging domestic cats kill 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds and 6.9 to 20.7 billion mammals annually (Loss et al., 2013). This means that free-ranging cats are the single greatest source of human-caused mortality for wild birds and mammals. The authors found that feral (including barn) cats caused more damage than owned pets, but many dearly-loved felines spend time in the great outdoors happily hunting. Native species make up the majority of birds and mammals killed by cats, only a few non- native birds are impacted. Free-ranging cats on islands have caused or contributed to 33 recent extinctions, as recorded by the IUCN.
Of course, the cats that do not impact wild populations of songbirds and small mammals are the ones that are kept indoors! Indoor cats are safe from predators such as coyotes and owls. They are less likely to get fleas or other parasites, and they can live a long and happy life without decimating our fragile fauna. Or, take them out on a leash! The photo below by club member Jeff Normandeau shows how content cats can be on a leash.
Cats are funny, smart, loveable, affectionate, and they are cold-blooded killers. They are not native to North America. Unlike most carnivores, they hunt by day or by night. If roving gangs of children were killing thousands of songbirds, would we not hold their parents accountable? Why then do we not hold pet owners accountable for the actions of their pets?
Please, keep your cats indoors and get them spayed. They will live longer and so will your neighborhood birds and small mammals.
Where there are abundant sources of food, as is the case well illustrated above, there will be predators. I was amazed when I walked in the woods at night, searching for elusive winter moths, to see spiders on the snow surface at intervals of just a few feet. This was on a mild night (relatively speaking) and their sub-nivean burrows may have been flooded with snow melt.
I discovered that these animals are active all winter, mostly below the snow but also on the surface, and their major food is the snow flea. These spiders seem to have big “boxing gloves” that I thought might help them dig, but they are actually the male’s enlarged palpal tips used for copulation.
Late in winter almost every year if one is out and about in the woods, we will encounter an interesting group of tiny organisms on the surface of the snow. These are Snow Fleas (Hypogastrura nivicola). Snow Fleas, a species of Springtail, are very small insect-like creatures that are totally unrelated to true fleas that prey on dogs, cats, humans and other mammals. In fact they are no longer even considered to be insects. At one time, the group called Collembola were considered to be a primitive type of insect. Now, due to recent studies, they, along with two other groups, the Protura and the Diplura (two-pronged bristletails), have each been moved to their own Class equal in status to the insects. Collectively, these four groups make up the Subclass Hexapoda or ‘six-legged’ arthropods.
There are many species of Collembola. They are quite small, about one millimetre in length and most live in the soil where they are seldom encountered, at least knowingly by humans. They can be extremely numerous with populations reaching 250,000,00 per acre. They mostly feed on organic detritus, breaking down leaf litter and the like and aiding in the recycling of nutrients for plants.
The Snow Fleas represent the one Collembolan species that we do see fairly often. They appear in large numbers, and because their dark colour contrasts with the white snow surface, we take note. They tend to aggregate in small depressions such as old footprints in the snow. The depressions likely offer a microhabitat that is just a little warmer, is protected from the wind, and the snow is likely to be saturated with liquid water. In any case, the Snow Fleas appear in large numbers and look much like dust particles. If one looks closely, you can see them jumping about on the surface of the snow.
These photos were taken on April 30, 2013 at a small vernal pool along the Guelph Hiking Trail south of Acton. The masses of Springtails floating on the water looked a lot like globs of oil. It is uncertain if these animals were at the end of their days or if they had trouble breaking free from the surface tension of the water. Some of them were certainly still alive and were jumping about. Nevertheless, the photographs give some idea of the abundance of the creatures.
Although they have legs to help them move about, Springtails are also equipped with an unusual abdominal appendage called the furcula. This structure is what gives the group its name. It folds beneath the body with the loose end tucked into a receptacle also under the body. The furcula is held under tension and when needed, the tension reaches a level that the end slips out of the receptacle. The furcula snaps against the substrate and this throws the Springtail into the air to escape.
Snow Fleas are able to live quite comfortably in the snow and survive low temperatures owing to a special glycine-rich protein that acts as a form of antifreeze. In addition to the important role in recycling nutrients noted above, Springtails have been reported to provide a valuable ecological service by moving spores of mycorrhizal fungi and destroying spores of plant pathogens. Certain species have been blamed for damaging alfalfa crops. They have also been put to use as indicators of soil contamination owing to their sensitivity to certain chemicals in the soil.
by W.D. McIlveen
Halton/North Peel Naturalist Club
Personally I prefer their old name, Oldsquaw, but sadly it has been replaced by a more prosaic one. Nonetheless, this bird has always been a favorite of mine, a winter visitor elegantly attired at all times, and as with all the winter ducks, apparently unfazed by cold water and icy winds.
Don Scallen and I had stopped off at the Travelodge Hotel in Burlington to see what the lakeshore had to offer and we enjoyed watching a large group of Long-tailed Ducks diving for food. They swam away from the rocky wall on our approach, but not for long. They returned close to shore to dive under large chunks of rubble and rocks, staying underwater for several minutes at a time. We thought they were probably gleaning mollusks, and in fact this is their main source of food in winter. In summer these ducks also eat aquatic insects, other aquatic invertebrates, and some plant material. They usually feed within 30 feet of the water surface, as they were today, but these ducks can dive more than 200 feet deep at times. Like most ducks they propel themselves with their feet when diving, but they also may swim with their wings partly open. They fly low, with stiff wing-beats, sometimes tilting from side to side. During migration and when flying over land they fly very high in large flocks.
These ducks establish pair bonds in winter or during migration. They nest near water, using a great deal of down that the female supplements as she lays her eggs. Females first breed at two years of age, laying 6 to 11 eggs and incubating for 24- 29 days. The young swim and dive soon after hatching, but are tended by the female who may dislodge food items for them. They start to fly about a month later.
by Fiona Reid President, Halton/North Peel Naturalist Club
A small group of club members joined me for an outing to La Salle Park back in November. We were fortunate to have very good weather – so often it is extremely cold on the lakeshore! We saw all the more common ducks and swans, and were happy to watch a large group of Ruddy Ducks and with them were some White-winged Scoters, a nice bird to see up close.
I spotted two Yellow-rumped Warblers, quite late to be around foraging for insects in the willows. After we all had a look at the warblers we went over to see the Trumpeter Swans up close on the beach. We almost missed a juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron perched above our heads!
La Salle always seems to have something good to offer and this day was no exception.
by Fiona Reid
President, Halton/North Peel Naturalist Club
Every day I try to get in a walk to a natural habitat in my area. Sometimes it is just a stroll in my own backyard forest, but often I head over to Halton Regional Forest, or the St Helena Road
area. The big draws of these two sites for me are the ponds, and the ponds would not be there were it not for the industrious activities of our local beavers.
About four years ago, I was very disappointed to find one of my favorite beaver ponds off Sixth Line was empty. The grass was starting to fill in. I worried about the frogs, the dragonflies, and all the other animals that rely on that body of water. The two water snakes that shelter in the rocks and come out to sunbathe were nowhere to be seen. A passerby told me that Conservation Halton had removed the beavers and their dams in order to get more water into Hilton Falls, as the waterfall had dried up. They had placed very solid metal grilles projecting out in front of the flowing water so the beavers could not dam the stream at this narrow point where it passed under the track.
Returning to the same area a few months later, I was happy to see that a pond had reformed. It took me a while to figure out what had happened, but when I crawled under the bridge, I saw what the beavers had done. Our industrious engineers had gone around the back of the culvert and stuffed it full of branches, positioning each branch parallel to the water flow, not perpendicular, as is their custom. The effect was the same, the water flow had almost ceased and the pond had refilled!
Pretty soon, the beavers added to their habitat restoration work by constructing a second dam upstream from the culvert, and order was restored. The branches in the culvert were swept away by storms, but the beaver pond lives on, the water snakes bask, the frogs croak and all is good!
by Fiona Reid
President, Halton/North Peel Naturalist Club
We had a great outing that spring day. We started at my house in Speyside where we heard a Scarlet Tanager but did not see him, then saw a resident Indigo Bunting. We went to Town Line Road, seeing a Mallard on the pond, which is now very overgrown. Farther down we encountered a very large patch of Yellow Lady’s Slipper, a plant I have not seen in this area before. We also saw Rose-breasted Grosbeak.
We went over to the corner of Sixth Line and 15 Side Road where we had a wonderful time watching nesting Bluebirds, and we located 2 Porcupines and a Raccoon sleeping in three separate trees, and watched a Meadow Vole dash across the road. We also saw Eastern Kingbird, Indigo Bunting, Alder/Willow Flycatcher, Song Sparrow, Northern Flicker and Blue Jay.
We then went to Third Line south of 15 where we had fun watching a field full of Bobolinks, plus a few Eastern Meadowlarks, Red-winged Blackbirds, a Savannah Sparrow, and Barn Swallows. At the Scotch Block Reservoir we saw a lone Painted Turtle, many Northern Orioles, Northern Yellowthroat, Yellow Warbler, Cedar Waxwing, American Redstart and Warbling Vireo. The only water birds were Canada Geese, but a Great Blue Heron did fly overhead, as did a Red-tailed Hawk.
Thanks to Valerie Dobson, Jim and Joan Hughes, and their sharp-eyed guest Christine Rumble for coming along!
by Fiona Reid President, Halton/North Peel Naturalist Club
serving Brampton, Georgetown, Milton, Acton & surrounding areas
Meetings are held at the St. Alban's Anglican Church hall,
537 Main Street, Glen Williams (Georgetown), Ont.
Meetings are the 2nd Tuesday of each month from Sept to June at 7:30PM,
unless otherwise noted.