Thursday, 16 August 2012


I haven't really focused on getting any dragonfly and butterfly shots in the last while, but I think I'll have to make a concerted effort when I'm back for a while in September.  I did take the time to get a few shots tonight and looking at Blue Dashers (Pachydiplax longipennis) makes me want to spend more time snapping off photos of charismatic mega insects.  For the record, the specific epithet of Blue Dasher's scientific name does not mean what you might think it means!  Anyways, enjoy the shots of these posers!

I don't think I've ever met a person that isn't stunned by the eyes of a Blue Dasher - amazing colour!

One of the most vivid local dragonflies is Cardinal Meadowhawk (Sympetrum illotum)

Another shot of a Cardinal Meadowhawk in the low light of the early evening

I personally think the Puget Sound Gumweed (Grindelia stricta) stole the show from this Woodland Skipper (Ochlodes sylvanoides)

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Embrace Your Common Name Day at the marsh...

It's always nice when birds decide to live up to their name.  At Tod Creek Flats yesterday, the shorebirds were showing off according to the names we've given them.  I had amazing looks at a Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria) all by its lonesome.

Surely Solitary Sandpipers are the lone wolves of the waders

I had some taller shorebirds with yellow legs, with some looking larger than the others.  Oh isn't that quaint - Greater Yellowlegs (T. melanoleuca) right next to a Lesser Yellowlegs (T. flavipes) offering a great comparison.

This Greater Yellowlegs is looking tall!  Note the two-toned bill that is slightly upturned.

Lesser Yellowlegs are more petite and have a shorter bill that is pretty uniform and much straighter

Unfortunately these two weren't in the same plane (not airplane!), but it gives a nice sense of scale between the Lesser (front) and Greater (back) Yellowlegs

I did see one other shorebird species out there and let's just say I was glad it wasn't living up to its name: Killdeer.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

The Vireo of Brotherly Love

If Philadelphia is The City of Brotherly Love due to its etymology (philos meaning "loving" and adelphos meaning "brother, in Greek), then Philadelphia Vireo (Vireo philadelphicus) must be The Vireo of Brotherly Love.  Regardless of my rubbish train of throught, one was showing me love the other day while working north of Fort McMurray.  I arrived at a work plot and immediately a couple of Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) were unimpressed by my presence.  I decided to stir the pot a little and see if I could draw in any other curious passersby.  I started pishing - "pish" is an onomatopoeic term for a method of drawing in birds while looking and sounding ridiculous - and it eventually brought a few different birds in close.

A White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) flew in swiftly and darted away almost immediately when it realized the source of the commotion.  After, I was enjoying the inquisitive chickadees within a couple metres when I noticed a yellowish flash out of the corner of my eye.  When I got a proper look, I was pleased to see it was a Philadelphia Vireo! With a little more coaxing, the bird offered up some great views regardless of not having my binoculars at hand. I managed a few decent shots of the vireo that show some diagnostic features that separate it from the similar Warbling Vireo (V. gilvus).

The lemon yellow wash from the throat right down to the undertail coverts is a great tip-off that you've got a Philadelphia Vireo.  Warbling Vireos can show a slight yellowish wash, but it is typically limited to the flanks.

One of the classic Philly Vireo features is the slaty line through the lore (the area between the eye and the bill), which is nicely exhibited here.  Warbling Vireos can have a pale grey mark there, but they are usually described as having a "blank-faced" look due to the lack of lore markings.  Also note the slaty crown on this bird - this is darker than you would expect for a typical Warbling Vireo.

Finally, one field mark I learned last fall is the dark primary coverts (labeled in photo) shown by Philadelphia Vireos.  This mark is mentioned in the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America and was news to me.

After I had enjoyed the Philadelphia Vireo to the fullest extent possible and it got bored of checking me out, the final prize came out.  A female Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia) made her way down to eye level and was creeping down the stems of young trees.  It was shortly joined by a juvenile Black-and-white Warbler, which I managed to photograph.

When pishing works, it can be quite the draw!  This juvenile Black-and-white Warbler came in to check what all the fuss was about.

The brief flurry of activity that was initiated by pishing made for a nice distraction during the monotony of vegetation surveys.  Hopefully I'll be able to bring in another interesting passerine during my last two days up here.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Let's Get Quizzical

Update: The quiz is now over.  The mystery bird is a juvenile Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum).  The greyish head and pseudo-spectacles likely threw off most that chanced a guess.  I will add a different view of the bird that shows the chest of the bird, which gives it a stronger likeness to Palm Warbler as West Coasters know them.  The feature that helps the most (in my opinion) in pointing toward this being a Palm Warbler is the olive-brown back that strongly contrasts the dark yellow rump.  Thanks to all that participated!

The lightly streaked chest is a field mark that probably would have pointed a little too strongly to Palm Warbler to make this a good quiz bird shot.

I took a photo today and thought it would make a great quiz bird shot.  I think it would be sad to have only a few votes in a poll, so I'll just leave this one open as a quiz to anyone who cares to take a stab at it.  I think it's a little tricky, so I'm hoping some of you will not feel shy and take a guess either in private or in the comments section.  Heck, if you're feeling up to the challenge you can also try to guess the age too!

Here's the bird in question - the photo was taken on August 6, 2012:

Who am I?  We now know it's a Palm Warbler!

Put your thinking caps on, dust off your Golden Guide and flip to the fall warblers page, and share what you come up with for an identification.

Prairie Pursuits

As mentioned in my entry on the Bow Summit hike, the opportunity to spend a couple days around Calgary arose when an unexpected break in my work came up.  I got on the phone and arranged with my uncle to have Jamie and myself stay at his place.  Quite a slick arrangement on short notice and my uncle was a gracious host.

I have been itching to get back in to the badlands around Drumheller because I have many more interests since last visiting the area.  On the morning of July 25th, after a bit of a sleep-in, Jamie and I made our way northeast to Drumheller and had to run a couple errands before finding an area to explore.  We promised we would get back to Calgary by 6 p.m., so we were a little limited with just a little over four hours to wander around in a couple coulees.  We picked a random spot just north of town, pulled off to the side of the road, and just started wandering around.  We immediately found several plants that were new to Jamie, the most exciting of which was Suksdorf's Broomrape (Orobanche ludoviciana).  We also enjoyed seeing White Prairie-Clover (Petalostemon candidum), Purple Prairie-Clover (P. purpureum), Prairie Coneflower (Ratibida columnifera), Dotted Blazing Star (Liatris punctata), and Rhombic-leaved Sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus subrhomboideus).  For some reason I didn't bring my camera along for the first portion of the outing, so I didn't get photos of any of those plants at this stop.  We moved a little further down the road and when we hopped out, I made sure to get my camera.  I am glad I did because I came across my first ever Sagebrush Checkerspot (Chlosyne acastus) and it was being very cooperative!

The radiant orange tones make this Sagebrush Checkerspot stand out against a backdrop of dried mud and dead grasses

We continued exploring the roadside coulee, finding many pieces of petrified wood and the odd dinosaur bone fragment - it's amazing to think of the history of the location and each fossil you hold in your hand!  We didn't find any more interesting plants in this area, but we did find a couple of Pearl Crescents (Phyciodes tharos) in a patch of shrubs.

The torn hindwing of this Pearl Crescent gives the impression that it narrowly avoided being on the menu for a bird

A little search through the weedy roadside habitat before getting back in the car turned up a nice Clover Looper Moth (Caenurgina crassiuscula) and Jamie's lifer Striped Hairstreak (Satyrium liparops).

This Clover Looper Moth posed nicely on a thistle

Hairstreaks are one of my favourite groups of butterflies and this Striped Hairstreak gives you an idea why I enjoy them so much

On the way back to Calgary, we made one quick stop in a patch of vaguely natural prairie and managed to find more nice plants.  Purple Prairie-Clovers put in another appearance and a small rock outcrop had a nice patch of Low Whitlow-wort (Paronychia sessiliflora) that easily could have been missed.

Purple Prairie-Clover is definitely one of the more showy flowers in prairie grasslands

Low Whitlow-wort was the highlight, but we could have easily overlooked it due to its inconspicuous growth form

The next day we decided to try our luck around the town of Black Diamond in hopes of finding a combination of grasslands and parkland.  We found an intriguing grassy slope just west of town and accessed it via the Friendship Trail.  The slope had a great deal of promise and we soon found a couple gems, such as Clustered Broomrape (Orobanche fasciculata) and our lifer Dione Copper (Lycaena dione).  In British Columbia, Dione Coppers are known from only a couple locations around Cranbrook and I haven't had the opportunity to visit them in the right period.  They are an impressively large copper and it was a treat to finally see one!

Clustered Broomrape parasitizes the roots of members of the family Asteraceae, which means there were many options for them at this location

This Dione Copper is a female based on the extension of the reddy-orange markings onto the forewings.  She has landed on Shrubby Cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa floribunda), making for an excellent shot!

The Dione Copper unfortunately only put in a brief appearance before vanishing, but I followed it up with a nice Coral Hairstreak (Satyrium titus).  As I about to go in for photos, I was approached by someone that I assumed was a fellow hiker.  Apparently we had wandered off the Friendship Trail and ended up on the Unfriendly Homeowner Trail.  Who knew?  I said that we didn't see any signs and her response was "We can't put up signs everywhere."  Well, a couple beside a public trail might not be a bad idea!  When we got back down to the Friendship Trail proper, I found a Police Car Moth (Gnophaela vermiculata) that was cooperative and let me get a couple photos.  That was the end highlight of Black Diamond as the area, according to the homeowner, lacks any public parks until you get into Kananaskis Country recreational parks.

In the previous weeks, I had seen Police Car Moths flying by but this was my first opportunity to get a photo of one

With Black Diamond not panning out the way we expected, I was hoping we could get back to dry grasslands.  Jamie looked on his iPhone and saw some nice looking arid country around the town of Gleichen.  We drove for around an hour and a half to get into some fantastic habitat.  We were a little concerned about land ownership after the last place and from a sign indicating we were entering Siksika Nation land.  We pulled off on a side road and decided to stay close to the road.  A couple trucks with First Nations drove by and both times we met with a wave and a nod.  That was encouraging, so we roamed around the prairie and enjoyed many great sightings.  The first indication that we were in different habitat was the presence of Scarlet Globe-Mallow (Sphaeralcea coccinea) right at the roadside.

Scarlet Globe-Mallow has an amazing poppy red colour that makes it an instant favourite

I was happy to see more Dotted Blazing Stars and Prairie Coneflowers because I missed my opportunity to photograph them in Drumheller.

I'm not doing this Dotted Blazing Star any justice whatsoever!

Prairie Coneflowers are easily identified by their column of disk flowers

While enjoying the plants, Jamie called over "Do you hear that?  Sprague's Pipit!"  Sure enough, the ethereal, cascading song of a Sprague's Pipit (Anthus spragueii) rang out nicely over the prairie.  I searched the skies for a couple minutes to see if I could lay eyes on the displaying bird and eventually managed to see a dark spot against a white cloud.  The pipit was significantly higher than its ventriloquial song led you to believe.  I got the bird in my binoculars and it was still appeared tiny, but I was able to see it alter its flight before each burst of glorious song.  Apparently Sprague's Pipits have the longest aerial display of any bird species, lasting up to 3 hours!  I continued wandering the prairie in search of interesting plants and just as it seemed we had all the obvious plants covered, I noticed a tall, white-flowered evening-primrose, which turned out to be the appropriately named White Evening-Primrose (Oenothera nuttallii).

White Evening-Primrose was one of the highlight plants found on Siksika Nation prairie land

I had been looking for skippers in the prairies and specifically I was really hoping to see Uncas Skipper (Hesperia uncas).  As Jamie and I walked around the edge of a prairie pothole, a skipper flew up and darted around just over the grass.  We managed to track it until it landed and took a couple photos.  We could tell it wasn't the desired Uncas Skipper, but rather appeared to be Plains Skipper (Hesperia assiniboia).  This was a new butterfly for Jamie, but I saw a couple when I worked in Dawson Creek many years ago.  The individual I photographed had a very plain ventral surface to the hindwing and was quite different from my memories of them.

This was the best look at a Plains Skipper I've ever had

We finished our time at in the natural prairie by walking along the roadside and scanning patches of nectar plants for butterflies.  We had several interesting sightings in a short period by doing this, including a couple Pale Snaketails (Ophiogomphus severus), Callippe Fritillaries (Speyeria callippe), Aphrodite Fritillaries (S. aphrodite), a Little Arches moth (Drasteria petricola), and an Orange Mint Moth (Pyrausta orphisalis).

Pale Snaketails vary in the amount of dark markings they have on their thorax and this one has virtually no marks

Callippe Fritillaries are one of the more diagnostic frits around with the dusted appearance to their ventral hindwings

Aphrodite Fritillaries can show halos above the white spots on their hindwings, and this theoretically distinguishes them from other fritillaries that are similar in appearance

This beautiful Little Arches moth was found nectaring on Prairie Coneflowers - amazing combination!

This tiny, dazzling Orange Mint Moth was found on Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), which is in the mint family

We managed to pry ourselves away from the amazing prairie habitat and decided to try a couple other roads we passed earlier.  The first one was largely fruitless, but a family of Loggerhead Shrikes (Lanus ludovicianus) was very exciting to come across!  The next road we went down was also pretty similar to other places we had visited, but Jamie spotted an absolutely gob-smacking Viceroy (Limenitis archippus) nectaring on Alfalfa (Medicago sativa).  Additionally, we had a blue that we tried to turn into a Shasta Blue (Plebejus shasta), but had to concede it was just the more familiar Melissa Blue (P. melissa).  I also took the time to take a shot of Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis), which is a major component of shortgrass prairies in the Great Plains.

Viceroys evolved to have a pattern similar to Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) as form of M├╝llerian mimicry.  This form of mimicry involves two or more poisonous species whose warning signs to predators have evolved to resemble each other.  It was formerly thought that Viceroys were edible to predators and employed Batesian mimicry to avoid being eaten by looking like Monarchs.  This has since been disproved and replaced by the M├╝llerian mimicry theory.

This Melissa Blue posed briefly on Crested Wheatgrass (Agropyron cristatum)

Blue Grama is a distinctive grass that is used as a larval host for several prairie butterflies

That was the last stop of our tour of the prairies around Calgary.  Looking back over the photos and reflecting on all the species encountered during those two days, it was a great break from work.  It may have superficially resembled my work, but it was different.  I will definitely be looking for another opportunity next year to visit this area (and further southeast) next year.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Little Shop of Horrors

This tale unfortunately does not involve me walking through the wholesale flower district and discovering a strange and interesting plant after a total eclipse of the sun.  I'm sure most people have heard of a Venus Flytrap, but not everyone knows we have our own local carnivorous plants.  In fact, we have 11 species of carnivorous plant in British Columbia, which includes sundews, butterworts, bladderworts, and even a pitcher plant.

My reference specifically pertains to the genus Drosera, which are collectively known as the sundews.  Rather than try to describe a sundew, it's best to just see photos of the two common species in our province: Round-leaved Sundew (D. rotundifolia) and Great Sundew (D. anglica).

In case this needs to be clarified, the one with the round leaves is Round-leaved Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia)

And this would be a Great Sundew (Drosera anglica), which is confusing because all sundews are great

The stalked glands tipped with sticky secretions on sundew leaves serve to attract and trap insects and, once captured, enzymes are released to digest the prey.  The enzymes break down the insects into nutrients that can be absorbed by sessile glands on the sundew's leaf surface.  I have seen many sundews in the last few years, but I had never taken the time to look carefully through patches of them for large, captured prey items.  While transiting north to Valemount from Kamloops, I had a specific destination in mind to stop and look around.  Every time I drove by the location in previous summers, I thought "That looks interesting!"  A couple weeks ago I was finally able to walk around and determine firsthand whether the location was indeed interesting - for the record, it was quite special from a botanical perspective.  The area was dotted with both Round-leaved and Great Sundews and Bog Clubmoss (Lycopodiella inundata) popping up through an extensive mat of sphagnum moss.

While wandering around the boggy habitat with my head down, I noticed a moth had been captured by one one of the Great Sundews!  I was unaware how effective the adhesive glands of sundews could be in capturing insects.

It kind of seems like four sundews are arguing about who gets the meal - the moth, for the record, appears to be Rheumaptera undulata

Shortly after seeing the trapped moth, a damselfly was found trapped by the sticky secretions of two sundew leaves!

The damselfly appears to be an Emerald Spreadwing (Lestes dryas) and it has been "double-hooked" by a Great Sundew

Next on the menu for the sundews was another moth.  Jamie spotted the trapped moth and it appeared to still be struggling to extricate itself from the long, stalked glands.  One look at this moth and it was clear its fate was sealed and it would soon be served an enzymatic cocktail.

The fate of this moth appeared to be sealed by the sticky sundew secretions

Another damselfly was captured by sundew leaves that appeared to be reaching up like hands to drag it down.

Emerald Spreadwings should learn that crowd surfing on sundews could get you killed

I now know that sundews have the capacity to trap insects as large as damselflies and moths.  What is the limit of their effectiveness?  Can they take down dragonflies or butterflies?  I had to wonder what happened to a Canadian Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio canadensis) that was found dead in the bog.  Did a dragonfly or bird kill it or did it happen to land in with the sundews and get stuck?  You decide!

Who killed this Canadian Tiger Swallowtail?  I think it was Professor Plum in the observatory with the candlestick... or maybe it was indeed the sundews?

These sundews are nowhere near as sinister as the Audrey 2 in the 80s version of Little Shop of Horrors, but its the best our local carnivorous plants have to offer.  If you happen to find yourself wandering through a bog and notice sundews, take the time to inspect them and you'll be amazed at how effective they are for a passive predator.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Bow Summit

High water levels around the Kinbasket Reservoir ironically caused my work to dry up.  To make matters worse, the weather in Valemount was lousy and curtailed any opportunities to enjoy the local natural history.  A new game plan had to be hatched and the idea of heading to Calgary entered the equation.  I have several relatives in Calgary, including an uncle that I had been hoping to visit - I called him up and he was glad to have Jamie and myself stay at his place.  Our plan was to make one stop on the way south and this is an account of said stop.

On July 23rd, we packed up, checked out and headed to Jasper, then made our way south on the Icefields Parkway.  Whenever Jamie and I make the journey between Jasper and Banff for work, we always take the opportunity to get a hike in, and preferably we'll end up in the alpine.  I was starting to get antsy to get out and stretch my legs roughly two hours south of Jasper when we saw a sign for the Bow Summit - that "summit" word was tantalizing enough to lure us in.  Neither of us had hiked the trail before, so we were hopeful that we could find some interesting plants.  The weather was unsettled and a little chill in the air dashed any hopes for butterfly activity.  The trail, however, did not disappoint in the slightest - we scrambled up very high into the alpine and watched the valley unfold into the distance to the north and I had to pick up my dropped jaw when I saw the glacial outflow into Peyto Lake!  I won't really ramble on any further about this outing and I'll leave it to the photos to say the rest.

The brilliant blue colouration of Peyto Lake is caused by glacial flour, which consists of fine sediments formed from glacial abrasion

Braided glacial flows cutting through sediment flats before draining into Peyto Lake - definitely one of the most impressive views I have encountered in recent memory!

These waterfalls spilling out of the alpine are the source of the braided channels seen in the photo above

I clambered up as high up as I could to get near this impressive alpine ridge

This is the kind of view that makes you feel like you're on top of the world

Bronze-bells (Stenanthium occidentale)

Spotted Saxifrage (Saxifraga bronchialis)

Brook Saxifrage (Saxifraga rivularis)

Wedge-leaved Saxifrage (Saxifraga adscendens)

Pygmy Buttercup (Ranunculus pygmaeus)

White Mountain-Avens (Dryas octopetala)

Tufted Phlox (Phlox caespitosa)

Dwarf Hawksbeard (Crepis nana)

Stalked-pod Locoweed (Oxytropis podocarpa)

Dwarf Sawwort (Saussurea nuda)

Sitka Mistmaiden (Romanzoffia sitchensis) - it must be said that this is a personal favourite

Western Paintbrush (Castilleja occidentalis)

Alpine Paintbrush (Castilleja rhexiifolia)

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus lateralis)