Connecting people with nature in Ontario's Mississippi Valley
Mississippi River at Pakenham

2011-2012: Trends in Fauna & Flora

May 2012

“World of Woodpeckers” presented by Dan Schneider, Senior Interpreter, Grand River Conservation Authority

Woodpeckers superbly adapted insect hunters and wood home builders: a lecture report by Eugene Fytche

The Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) 2011-12 natural history lecture series continued recently in Almonte. Members of the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) and the public enjoyed a rare insight into the “World of Woodpeckers” during a presentation at MVFN’s Annual Spring Gathering Banquet and AGM. The guest speaker was Dan Schneider, Senior Interpreter of the Grand River Conservation Authority. Although describing himself as a generalist, Schneider revealed a profound knowledge of woodpeckers, and kept his audience fascinated by his description of the variety of species of the woodpecker family (Picidae) and their remarkable adaptations. “Woodpeckers are best at exploiting the surface of trees. If you are an insect, you cannot hide from them!” said Schneider.

A map of the global distribution of the over 300 species of woodpeckers showed that there are species on all continents with the exception of Australia including New Zealand. By some quirk of nature, although they are found in Africa, there are none on the Island of Madagascar. The family is divided into four main groups: the piculets, found mainly in the tropical regions, the wrynecks found mainly in Africa (with the peculiar characteristic that they, like owls, can turn their head through nearly 180 degrees), and the sapsuckers in North America, along with woodpeckers as we know them. Nine species of woodpecker are found in Ontario. Most have a peculiar ‘zygodactyl’ arrangement of toes (with sharp, curved claws), two forward and two back (on each foot) so that they can grip the trunk of a tree while bracing themselves with specialized stiff tail feathers. Although Mr. Schneider digressed to tell us some interesting traits of the other groups, he sensed that his listeners were most interested in his insights into the North American birds, and produced many superb slides of both the better known species and species unfamiliar to the audience.

He explained that, of the largest woodpeckers ever found in North American, the Imperial Woodpecker and the Ivory Billed Woodpecker are now extinct (although there are extremely rare US sightings of the Ivory Billed). So a familiar local bird, the Pileated Woodpecker, now has the distinction of being the largest of our woodpeckers, and sightings and its distinctive loud repetitive calls are frequently enjoyed here.

The Pileated (or crested) Woodpecker might also be called the Condominium Developer of the Woods. It creates prodigious holes in both live and dead trees, and is a cavity nester, needing a cavity two feet deep (which can take up to a month to excavate), usually in dead tree stumps, to lay its eggs and raise its young. Its cavities throughout the forest become home to a wide range of plants and animals. The Wood Duck and the Flying Squirrels are frequent tenants. As food for humans, Audubon reported, that the Pileated Woodpecker tasted “bad”! First Nations people in America hunted the birds for food and used the crest feathers for decoration.

The most common local species of woodpeckers, the Downy Woodpecker and the Hairy Woodpecker, are hard to tell apart when seen separately; when together there is no problem since the Hairy Woodpecker is twice the size of the Downy which is about the size of a Chickadee. One thing to remember is that the smaller Downy has a small nail-sized bill. Other characteristics by which we can distinguish them: the Downy has black bars on its tail, and the male has a red spot on the back of its head. The Hairy has a much bigger beak, white outer tail feathers and the male has a red spot on his head. Both range from the Gulf of Mexico to Northern Canada. They feed on insects that they can hear in the tree trunks, but are partial to suet and sunflower seeds from feeders.

The impact of the straight bills of woodpeckers striking sound wood is of the order of 1200 g’s, and the birds’ well-being is dependent on hitting the wood straight on. Otherwise the physical defense against the impact, given by the peculiar arrangement of cushioning muscles, would not be effective. The brain in particular is well cushioned by muscles against the shocks. The ‘tool’ used by woodpeckers for extracting the ants, worms and insects that they hear in the trees is an extremely long tongue stored back over the skull and anchored behind the nostril. This amazing arrangement is unique to woodpeckers.

Northern Flickers on the other hand do not have straight bills, and tend to feed on ants on the ground. There are several morphs, all having long sticky tongues used to trap the ants. One flicker was found with over 5000 ants in its stomach. Schneider said they are so specialized that they really are filling the ecological niche of an anteater. They also catch insects in the air, eat fruit, and will visit feeders.

Another type of woodpecker, the Sapsucker, drills parallel lines of holes in trees to drink sap, but also catches insects in the air or on the ground. They are also cavity nesters. The drilling of trees, especially sugar maple, causes wells of sap in spring and provides a sugary food essential to hummingbirds and other animals when none else is available. Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers found in Ontario are an important bird. Schneider considers them a ‘double keystone species.’ A keystone species is one whose existence makes it possible for other species to inhabit an area. The Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker can be considered a double keystone species because not only does it make cavities in trees creating habitat for other species, but the sap wells it makes provide essential food for hummingbirds and others.

Schneider described other species of woodpecker, including the ones with three toes instead of four, and obviously would have broadened our knowledge much further if time permitted. However, he had run out of time. He did mention that, interestingly, one of the three-toed woodpeckers, i.e. the Black-Backed Woodpecker is usually very unafraid of people. It favors burnt out areas of the forest. The American Three-Toed Woodpecker is the other three-toed woodpecker in Ontario. The well-named Red-Headed Woodpecker is rarer in the past 20 years during which a 60% decline has been noted. The last of the nine Ontario species mentioned, the poorly named Red-Bellied Woodpecker, Schneider noted, seems to be moving north, presumably as the climate warms.

Our speaker subsequently responded to a number of questions, among them “Why do woodpeckers peck on steel roofs.” The answer: to make more noise, marking territory and attracting a mate. Schneider was given a rousing round of applause by the audience.

Photo 2 Woodpecker lecture (1024x768)

Following a short Annual General Meeting and fabulous buffet dinner prepared by Almonte Civitan Club volunteers, the audience sits back to enjoy Dan Schneider’s World of Woodpeckers presentation. Photo Pauline Donaldson

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Earlier in the evening, Al Potvin had been presented with an MVFN Champion for Nature Award for his role in the production of a large number of bluebird boxes for MVFN’s habitat creation program. Speaker Dan Schneider referred to this during his woodpecker presentation, stating that Al, in making the boxes, occupied the ecological niche of a woodpecker! Photo Pauline Donaldson

 

April 2012

“A Bird in Hand” presented by Lesley-Anne Howes, Canadian Wildlife Service

Looking into the unknown lives of birds using banding data: a lecture report by Cliff Bennett

The Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) 2011-12 natural history lecture series continued recently in Almonte. Guest speaker presenter for the seventh lecture “A Bird in Hand”, was Lesley Howes, biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service in Ottawa.

Howes delivered an informed presentation to the public and MVFN members on the more than one hundred years of bird banding across North and South America. Bird banding research seems to have begun with the demise of the mourning dove, a game bird which was at one time in danger of being eliminated, like the passenger pigeon. Scientists and conservationists needed to know the patterns and life-style of the bird so they could try to protect it. The North American Bird Banding Protocol was established in 1923 following the 1916 signing of the Protection of Migratory Birds Act by Canada and the USA. These Acts demanded research into the numbers and species of birds travelling over national borders. Today, more than ever, we need to know where birds go, what they do and what conservation strategies can be used, in order to ensure they will be healthy into the future. Then and now most of the birds banded in Canada can be tracked at one time or another to the USA or further away.

Did you know that a red knot, a small shorebird the size of a robin, which breeds in the High Arctic, showed up in the Strait of Magellan at the tip of South America? How do we know that individual came so far? It was found with a band on its leg which showed it had been banded in the North-West Territories.

Bird banding is one of the most useful strategies used to track bird species. In fact it’s one of the major activities leading to a better understanding not only of migration routes and distances, but behaviour, population dynamics, and habitat requirements of our migrating avian friends. Also as one MVFN member noted, perhaps even of physiology. Recently banding data showed that the Greenland wheatear, a type of flycatcher, breeds in the Canadian Arctic and flies across the Atlantic to winter in Russia! How can a bird that weighs only 20-25 grams fly the Atlantic non-stop? Perhaps there are yet to be discovered new aspects of muscle action?

Always active in field work all over the world, Lesley Howes has been involved in banding many of the more than 70,000,000 banded birds on record from all over the Americas since 1923. 300,000 of these birds were banded in Canada. Howes asked the audience which bird species they thought was the most often banded. No one guessed the correct answer, the mallard duck. Howes went on to explain that, of all birds banded in Canada, 30% of those found with bands are found elsewhere in Canada, 68% are found in the USA and the rest are found internationally. More and more, with climate change, birds are moving globally. Canadian birds found in Europe and European birds found in Canada have a danger of carrying diseases to these areas. Knowing where a banded bird has been will allow authorities to act promptly to protect others in the species.

There are many bird banding stations throughout Canada and the world. Volunteers are always needed and are welcome. To be involved in bird banding, however, you need a permit. This requires you have a project in mind and qualified people to conduct it. Most bird banding stations are at permanent locations. Typically, birds are caught in flight in gentle, fine mist nets and animals are examined in hand followed by release after banding. The bird is weighed, measured, sexed and aged and all data is recorded. A small sample of blood which may be taken also yields vital data. The process takes about fifteen minutes before release.

Photo 3b MVFN bird banding  Photo 3a MVFN bird banding

Bird ‘bands’ may be simple metal tags, large wing patches, neck bands (used for geese), or other styles. They may be sophisticated and include a GPS to give instant information about location. Right: an identification band being attached to the leg of a Yellow Warbler. Left: a Scarlet Tanager is examined during banding. Photos Lesley Howes

Data is gathered when a bird is banded, and if and when banded birds are re-captured or found months or years later, more data can be gathered. Bands can range from a simple metal tag or coloured leg band, to a large patagial or wing marker, to a neck band i.e. such as may be used to band geese. Or a band may be as sophisticated as those with a GPS to give instant information as to the precise location at any given time of an animal.

The nearest banding station in our area is at the Innis Point Bird Observatory just west of Ottawa and they have facilities for long-term volunteers. If you find a banded bird or when a banded bird is found elsewhere in the world, the band numbers should be recorded by the finder and reported to the Canadian Wildlife Service at www.reportbirds.go.can.ca or to the US Audubon Society. These organizations can then combine information obtained when the individual was banded, with any new information obtained when the banded bird is re-caught or found, or when only a band is found.

Photo 1 MVFN bird banding

Lesley-Anne Howes (left) is thanked by MVFN President Joyce Clinton.

Photo 2 MVFN bird banding (1280x794)

After the bird banding talk there was time to examine dozens of specimens, bird bands and banding tools displayed by our guest speaker. Photos Pauline Donaldson

Back to the red knot, as a long distance traveller, it often has companions of other Arctic species including the Arctic tern, Eskimo curlew, ruddy turnstone and the white-rumped sandpiper. Howes concluded her lecture with slides of some other long-distance wanderers and answered questions from the audience. After enthusiastic applause from the over fifty members and guests present, Howes was thanked Joyce Clinton for showing us how ‘a bird in hand with a band’ is worth a wealth of data for bird conservation. After the lecture, there was time to view the dozens of banded bird specimens and the various bird bands and banding tools Howes had prepared for display.

 

March 2012

“The Great River Project” presented by Meredith Brown, Ottawa Riverkeeper

Downstream of the Mississippi River, the Ottawa Riverkeeper Meredith Brown keeps watch: a lecture report by Michael Macpherson

It was at a Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists lecture several years ago (2007) that scientist Paul Hamilton of the Canadian Museum of Nature came to Almonte to talk about ‘Water Quality’ as part of our lecture series focusing on the Mississippi River Watershed. At that time Hamilton told us that the health of the Mississippi River, flowing through our towns on its way from Mazinaw Lake near Bon Echo to the Ottawa River, was similar to the health of rivers in relatively remote parts of Northern Europe. In other words, he considered the Mississippi River to be quite pristine. He also said, though, that it would take work to keep it that way.

The relatively good environmental health of the Mississippi River watershed was and still is good news for downstream areas such as the grand Ottawa River. Earlier, this year, as part of the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) 2011-12 lecture series, Ottawa’s Riverkeeper, Meredith Brown came to Almonte to present the lecture titled The Great River Project a lecture about the Ottawa River. Meredith Brown is an expert who brings to the task of ‘riverkeeping’, knowledge of river’s biology and mechanics as engineer and biologist; she is also an avid paddler and communicator.

The Ottawa Riverkeeper organization is part of an international Waterkeeper Alliance founded in 1999 in the U.S.A, which has roots even earlier in a group formed to protect the Hudson River in New York state. The Waterkeeper Alliance now includes representative organizations on six continents, including 10 in Canada (e.g. the Fraser Riverkeeper in B.C. and the Peticodiac Riverkeeper in Nova Scotia etc.). “Naturally, we [here in Lanark County] have a connection to the vision and ambitions of the Ottawa Riverkeeper—the Mississippi River tributary contributes 3% of the Ottawa River’s watershed and 2% of its flow. As stewards of the Mississippi watershed, we have a role to play in maintaining the natural greatness of the Ottawa River” says MVFN’s Program Chair Cathy Keddy, the driving force behind MVFN’s lecture series since 2007.

Focusing upon and drawing attention to the ecological health and future of the Ottawa River are the main tasks of the Ottawa Riverkeeper. Who [else] is paying attention to the health of the Ottawa River? , Brown asked at her MVFN lecture. A large river, 1271 km long, for a good part of its length the Ottawa forms the boundary between Ontario and Quebec, before emptying into the St. Lawrence at Montreal. Over two million people obtain drinking water from the Ottawa, and it sustains a huge hinterland ecosystem, over 146,000 square km. The Ottawa River has been nominated by Parks Canada as a Canadian Heritage River, and was one of ten rivers studied and profiled by the World Wildlife Fund for environmental flows and in the report, “Canada’s Rivers at Risk: Environmental Flows and Canada’s Freshwater Future”.

Brown stated that on balance, the water quality of the River is better than anticipated. She attributed this, somewhat surprisingly and in the simplest terms, to the fact that the Ottawa River is comparatively little used by the humans who live near it.

The height of pollution of the river was in the 1950’s, and it came mainly from pulp mill effluent and sewage. Nowadays, higher than average winter flows and lower than average summer flows are indicators of change on the River. So too, are changes to the endocrine systems of fish in the river, and the decline of some species formerly common across the watershed, such as the American Eel. According to Brown, the major threats to the Ottawa include the impact on environmental flows, of over 50 major power dams, and urban and commercial human developments inimical to the health of the river.

For many years such scientific and technical data as were collected on the River were not shared or jointly analyzed by the jurisdictions accountable for the health of the river and the people and communities living along its length. The Ottawa Riverkeeper has started doing this and encourages others to broaden and strengthen efforts in this area. To this end, Brown showed photographs of five trips in canoes and kayaks made by the Riverkeeper and friends on the Ottawa to collect information and raise awareness.

While the provinces of Ontario and Quebec and the Federal Government, and their agencies are responsible for various aspects of protecting the River, from the Riverkeepers point of view there is too little leadership and cooperation in evidence. The primary areas of cooperation are found in the management of hydroelectric power resources to produce electricity and prevent floods. Power producers bid on the provision of power from hour to hour, so the river dances to the tune of the demand for power, which may not always be beneficial to the ecosystems of the River. Dam operators, for example, not in compliance with steps intended to protect the American Eel, a listed endangered species in Ontario, are now looking for exemptions to regulations. Brown suggested that it may be important to try to engage private companies and dam operators in more environmentally sensitive flows and uses of waters in the watershed.

Positive developments pointed to during the presentation included the Ottawa River Summit Day, which was an opportunity to share stories and solutions, identify what is falling between the cracks, and building a network of Riverwatchers along the River. A Riverkeeper Association has recently been started in Mississippi Mills for the Mississippi River, a tributary.

Meredith stated that a big part of her task as Riverkeeper is finding solutions to issues and problems identified, by building awareness, understanding, and genuine commitments to action.

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Above top: Mississippi River shoreline wet meadows and swamps below Carleton Place (photo Cathy Keddy)

Above bottom: An extensive marsh along the shoreline of the Ottawa River near Ottawa (photo B. Shipley).

 

 

One of the ongoing problems cited was that the Federal Fisheries Act is not being enforced. Brown brought to our timely attention, perhaps like Cassandra warning the Trojans, that proposed changes to the Fisheries Act included in the omnibus budget bill being presented to Parliament will water down the Act, limit or exclude public input and comment, and give the Minister of the Environment much greater authority to make decisions on the environment. We should all be alarmed about this, Brown said, as it amounted to taking protection of environmental habitat out of the Act. The old Act protected fish habitat and all of the other plants and animals within these habitats, including fish, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. With the changes proposed, only fish populations deemed to be of “economic, cultural or ecological value” would be protected. As we now know, these changes have now been passed by Parliament.

Further information on the Ottawa Riverkeeper organization and Riverkeeper issues and events may be found at ottawariverkeeper.ca.

 

January 2012

“Salamanders: Unseen, Unheard, but NOT Unimportant” presented by Fred Schueler/Mike Oldham, Bishops Mills Natural History Centre

Salamanders are keystone inhabitants of local streams and forests: A lecture report by Fred Schueler

The Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) 2011-12 natural history lecture series in Almonte continued recently with the 4th talk: Salamanders: Unseen, Unheard, but NOT Unimportant. Originally to have been given by Mike Oldham (MNR), stormy weather on lecture night forced Mike to turn back to Peterborough, and so Dr. Fred Schueler, scientist and local naturalist graciously stepped in and presented an excellent lecture. Dr. Schueler’s lecture report which follows provides an overview of salamanders, and a focus on local salamander species. The full report by Dr. Schueler is posted at mvfn.ca.

Salamanders retain the long-tailed, four-limbed shape of primitive land-dwelling vertebrates, overlaid by a wide range of specialized adaptations. They diverged from the tailless frogs some time before the earliest known salamander fossils, from the Middle Jurassic, 164 million years ago. There are now about 550 species of salamanders in the world. Among provinces, Ontario has the greatest number of species, probably because it is closest to the southern Appalachian region, which is the world centre of salamander diversity. Our salamanders range from 35 mm to almost half a metre in length, and show remarkable variation in life histories and habits. Some spend their entire lives in the water, others live on the land but breed aquatically, and some have an entirely terrestrial existence. Salamanders may breathe via gills, lungs, and skin, or can be lungless and breathe only through their skin. Moisture is thus a very important factor regulating their distribution, and they tend to be active on the surface mostly on rainy nights, when potential observers tend to seek shelter.

Salamanders are elusive, and in addition to being rarely seen at the best of times, and on the formerly ploughed and trampled lands of eastern Ontario, they’re often much rarer than they were before settlement, though because of their effectiveness as predators they are often regarded as ‘keystone predators’ in intact forest ecosystems of eastern North America.

Thirteen species of salamanders are known from Ontario, including six that are legally listed as ‘at risk’ either federally or provincially. Eastern Ontario is not a particularly diverse area for salamanders, but the seven the species found here have a variety of different life histories and are among our most poorly known vertebrates.

The Mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus) is Ontario’s largest salamander, reaching a foot or more in total length. These salamanders are permanently aquatic and have feathery gills behind the head, and other features of larval morphology that other species lose when they mature. Mudpuppies occur in larger rivers and lakes throughout southern Ontario, as far north as Thunder Bay and the upper Ottawa River, though their distribution is poorly known due to their permanently aquatic habits. They’re known from the Rideau, Mississippi, and Madawaska rivers, on the basis of only a few records. The one place they can be easily seen in eastern Ontario is during the winter at Mudpuppy Night in Oxford Mills – http://pinicola.ca/mudpup1.htm – where many Mudpuppies from an abundant population are out in the open during their winter activity period.

The salamanders with the least surprising life history are the Ambystoma ‘Mole Salamanders’, so called because they spend much of their lives underground – like frogs these live on land and come to ponds to lay eggs in the spring, which hatch into larvae which, like tadpoles, transform to leave the water to live on land until they come back to breed in ponds as adults.

Photo 1 blue-spotted salamander

The Blue-spotted salamander (Ambystoma laterale) is the most frequently encountered species in our area, often wandering into basements or garages, or turned up under wood. Photo Amelia Argue

The Blue-spotted Salamander (A. laterale) is the most frequently encountered species in our area, often wandering into basements or garages, or turned up under wood that has been resting on the ground. Adults are about 13 cm in total length; they are black or dark brown with variable amounts of bluish spots or flecks. This species is closely related to the Jefferson Salamander, which does not occur in eastern Ontario, and the two species hybridized historically to produce unisexual polyploids which contain multiple sets of chromosomes from both the Jefferson and Blue-spotted Salamanders and are almost indistinguishable from the parental species except through genetic testing. These polyploid populations are almost entirely female and usually must mate with a male of one of the parental species to reproduce, though usually rejecting the chromosomes from his sperm.

At one time the polyploids occurring in eastern Ontario were called a separate species, Tremblay’s Salamander, larger and less spotted than ordinary Blue-spots, with two sets of Blue-spotted genes and one of Jefferson genes; but since it doesn’t reproduce sexually it is no longer considered a separate species. Our other Ambystoma is the Yellow-spotted Salamander (A. maculatum). This large, blackish Salamander has two rows of large yellow spots on its head and along its back and tail. It can grow to over 20 cm in length. It’s fairly common on the Shield, including Lanark County, but is restricted to mature woods on sandy dunes in the limestone country of easternmost Ontario. The large, slow-hatching, jelly-swathed egg masses are conspicuous in woodland breeding ponds in the early spring.

Photo 2 red eft

The red colour of the terrestrial stage of the red-spotted newt serves as a warning to predators that it is poisonous. Efts such as this one photographed during MVFN’s 2010 bioblitz near Almonte, are the only salamanders you’ll see wandering around in daylight.Photo by Karen Thompson

The Eastern or Red-spotted Newt (Notopthalamus viridescens) has a life-cycle that differs from any other Ontario salamander – the larvae transform into a terrestrial stage known as the ‘red eft’ and spend 2-4 years on land in the woods. They then return to the water to become mature aquatic adults. Adults have expanded tail fins, and are dark above, often a greenish-brown colour, with prominent black-ringed red spots on their sides; efts are orange-red, with the same red spots, but narrow tails. The red colour serves as a warning to predators that the eft is poisonous, and efts are the only Salamanders you’ll see wandering around in daylight. In eastern Ontario the distribution of Newts is very scattered, and they may be declining.

The final and largest family of Salamanders is the lungless Plethodontidae. We have two specialized uncommon species, and one that is widespread and relatively abundant. The species with the most specialized habitat is the Four-toed Salamander (Hemidactylium scutatum). In May the females leave their woodland habitat and form cavities in moss, typically Sphagnum, overhanging water, where they lay their eggs. When the larvae hatch they wriggle down through the moss into the water where they live until they transform. Although the Four-toed Salamander has only four toes on its hind feet while similar Salamanders have five, the tiny toes are not a particularly useful identification character – better are the constriction at the base of the tail and the underside which is bright white with bold black spots, quite unlike the greyish underside of the Red-backed Salamander, with which it could be confused. Undoubtedly the species is more common in eastern Ontario than very few old records indicate – you have to go to bogs or other moss-banked ponds or ditches during the breeding season to have the best chance of finding them.

Another small, slender Plethodontid Salamander is the Two-lined Salamander, Eurycea bislineata, almost always found in or very near running water or gravelly seepages. This species is generally gold-coloured with two dark longitudinal stripes down its back. Eggs are laid beneath flat rocks in streams and the larvae live in the stream until they metamorphose. The best way to find them is to flip over rocks just at the edge of a stream or lake. Two-lined Salamanders are not found in southwestern Ontario, but are locally common in a band from Georgian Bay, across Algonquin Park to Quebec, and south to the St. Lawrence River, though they are found east of the Shield in Ontario only in a very few sites where water flows into streams through seepages of clean gravel. Lanark County is part of this range where the species is fairly common; there used to be a population below the dams in Almonte, but the new hydro station has been built over the site where they occurred.

The Eastern Redback Salamander, Plethodon cinereus, is usually regarded as the most abundant vertebrate in the forests of northeastern North America. These Salamanders act as keystone predators to regulate the invertebrates of the forest floor community, and through them the character of leaf litter decomposition, soil, and nutrient cycling in the forest. Red-backed Salamanders are an exception to the rule that our amphibians lay their eggs in water, since they lay their eggs in moist spots inside or beneath rotten logs and the entire larval stage of the salamander occurs inside the egg, as they are attended by the mother. The Small Eastern

 

Photo 3a redback morphPhoto 3b leadback morph

Colour morphs of Plethodon cinereus: Left, a redack morph (Photo Joe Crowley) and right, a leadback morph (Photo Bev Wigney), both on Earthworm castings.

Plethodon Salamanders, like several other common vertebrates in our forests (Ruffed Grouse, Screech Owls, and Redbelly Snakes), have distinct reddish and greyish colour forms. Rufous and ashy are plausible colours for cryptic forest creatures, as the colours of freshly dead and decayed leaves . . . In Plethodon these morphs are ‘leadback’ – unpatterned and charcoal gray, and ‘redback’ with a reddish dorsal stripe. In New England leadbacks are more frequent in warmer localities, and it has been found that the morphs forage at different temperature . . . Across most of southern Ontario populations are mixed, with leadbacks rarely frequent, but in eastern Ontario south of Ottawa and east of the Frontenac Axis there are no redbacks. You can collaborate with Dr. Schueler’s efforts to find out how abundance or colour morph ratios are changing by helping re-sample places where Plethodon have been collected in the past (http://pinicola.ca/thirty/pcin_2012.htm).

 

[One group of animals has been particularly detrimental to salamanders, i.e. Earthworms.] Pleistocene ice sheets wiped out any native Earthworms that had lived in Canada, leaving North American species . . . only where glaciation was incomplete, on Vancouver Island and the Richardson Mountains of the Yukon. [However, European earthworms were later introduced and where these invaded old growth forests all but the most recently fallen leaves have been pulled underground and consumed, leaving minimal leaf litter.] The missing leaf litter was home to complex communities of everything from snails to nematodes to springtails to centipedes to beetles to salamanders, and to the extent that their habitat is gone, the fauna must be gone from the forests with minimal leaf litter. The invasion of wooded areas by non-native earthworms can also lead to the decline in some native plants, such as rare woodland orchids that depend on a rich humus layer, as well as facilitating the invasion of wooded areas by non-native plants.

For further information or to contribute data, contact Fred Schueler, Bishops Mills Natural History Centre, RR#2 Bishops Mills, Ontario, K0G 1T0; 613-258-3107;

The most important thing those interested in contributing to salamander research and conservation can do is to archive sightings of salamanders and other species. This is perhaps even more important for common species not yet listed as ‘at risk’ because such species are not adequately monitored. Canadian agencies such as the Natural Heritage Information Centre [nhic.mnr.gov.on.ca] are only concerned with species at risk and rare habitat. Salamanders have what Schueler referred to as a ‘boom and bust’ economy. While many years in some habitats may offer great conditions for salamanders, often the habitat can’t support any population at all and so suitable areas with a source of dispersing individuals are also vital for species survival. When you are out and discover these creatures, record where and when and what you see and share the information with the Ontario Herpetofaunal (Amphibian & Reptile) Summary Atlas (OHS) at http://www.ontarionature.org/protect/species/herpetofaunal_atlas.php

 

 

 

 

MVFN Spring Banquet Celebrates the ‘World of Woodpeckers’

By Cathy Keddy, MVFN Program Chair

NOTE: Tickets for ‘World of Woodpeckers’ at MVFN’s Spring Gathering 2012 banquet evening must be purchased in advance by Friday, May 11. Tickets are $30 and will be available at the following locations:

Almonte: Gilligallou Bird (Heritage Court, Mill St.) 
Carleton Place: Read’s Book Shop (Lansdowne Ave.)
Lanark: Lanark Living Realty (George St.)
Pakenham: Don’s Meat Market (Main St.)
Perth: The Office (Wilson St. E.)

Tickets may also be reserved through MVFN’s Brenda Boyd (613) 256-2706,  and  picked up and paid for at the door. We ask that all those reserving tickets please commit to picking them up as MVFN must pay banquet costs for all reserved tickets!

 Above: This painting by John James Audubon, 1785-1851) shows a family
 of pileated woodpeckers. These are the largest woodpeckers in the forests of Lanark County.

The Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) will hold their third annual Spring Gathering banquet May 17. The evening will feature a keynote presentation—World of Woodpeckers—by Dan Schneider, biologist, writer and senior interpreter with the Grand River Conservation Authority.

The world of woodpeckers is indeed large. But, as Woody Woodpecker would say, “ah-ha-ha—ha—ha!” MVFN’s Spring Gathering presentation will be limited to avian creatures with bills for tree drilling and drumming, and long sticky tongues for extracting food, but will not cover the British rugby team, or Woodpeckers from Space!

There are over 200 species in the woodpecker family, the Picidae. Spread around the globe, they include four main groups: piculets, wrynecks, sapsuckers, and true woodpeckers. Interestingly, though, none is found in Australia, New Zealand, or Madagascar. Why? Woodpeckers are uniquely specialized for their wood hammering habits. They hammer on trees at a rate of 15 to 20 times per second—a rate of fire nearly twice as fast as a sub-machine gun. Not only that, their brains are subjected to deceleration impact forces of up to 1500 g (g = force of gravity) with each blow. Consider that a football player would receive concussion injuries from a force only 1/100 as strong, survivable car crashes rarely exceed 100 g, and airplane black boxes are designed to survive only about 1,000 g! The design of woodpecker’s heads is inspiring the development of new shock-absorbing systems for electronics and humans.

There are many things about woodpeckers that bear further investigation beyond why they don’t end up with extreme headaches from hitting their heads against trees or blindness from the flying wood chips. For example, since woodpeckers’ bills are not very long, how do they fit their much longer tongues inside them? And what about their their zygodactyl feet?

MVFN invites you to Spring Gathering 2012 to expand your appreciation for this novel ornithological assembly beyond downy, hairy and pileated and to celebrate spring with a delicious banquet at a gathering with others who care about nature. Dan will share his love for these magnificent avian creatures and tell us more about their distinctive features, ecology, and conservation. He will give us a global tour, a continental perspectve, and tell us about species that live around us.

MVFN’s Spring Gathering 2012 will take place Thursday May 17, 2012 at Almonte Civitan Community Hall, 500 Almonte St. (just west of Highway 29), Almonte. The reception will begin at 6:00 pm, and at 6:45 the banquet followed by the presentation will take place. Tickets ($30), which must be purchased in advance by Friday, May 11, will be available in Almonte at Gilligallou Bird (Heritage Court, Mill St.), in Carleton Place at Read’s Book Shop (Lansdowne Ave.), in Lanark at Lanark Living Realty (George St.), in Pakenham at Don’s Meat Market (Main St.) and in Perth at The Office (Wilson St. E.). Please contact MVFN’s Brenda Boyd at (613) 256- 2706 for further information.

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MVFN's natural history talks take place on 3rd Thursdays, Jan-April and Sept-November, at  Almonte United Church, 106 Elgin St., Almonte, ON. All welcome!

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