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

Local Species

Lanark County Birds

During the year of 2014, from January 1st to December 31st, Iain Wilkes recorded 203 species within the boundaries of Lanark County as part of his Lanark Big Year project.

The following checklist has been provided by Iain. This is a list of 283 possible species within Lanark county as well as the ones that were recorded within 2014 including locations where most of the species were seen.

Lanark County Birds Checklist

Careful consideration was put into the species to include in this list. Note that some birds such as Barn Owls, which may be a once-in-a-lifetime sighting for the area, were not included. The list includes birds which one may reasonably expect to see in the area at this time.

The speaker shows her mussels at natural history talk, a report of the April 2013 MVFN lecture report by Jim Bendell

At a recent natural history lecture in Almonte, the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) welcomed ‘malacologist’ Jacqueline Madill, Senior Research Assistant, Zoology, Research and Collections, Canadian Museum of Nature as guest speaker for the MVFN 2012-13 ‘Nature Beneath our Feet’ lectures. Madill’s subject was the important but little-understood or appreciated, ‘Native Fresh-water Mussels of the Ottawa Valley’ and she brought many several favourite specimens to the talk. About one-third of the worlds’ mussel species live in North America, with 55 species in Canada, of which 41 are found in Ontario. Madill reminded us first thing that we should not pick up mussels from the river bottom; each species inhabits only a specific water zone and they have limited locomotion. Not only that but freshwater mussels are considered one of the most endangered group of species in North America, with 67% at risk!

Mussels and Clams belong to the family Mollusca (derived from Latin: soft), a very large group of soft-bodied animals that also includes the Chitons, Tooth Shells, Snails and Slugs, Oysters, and the Nautili, Squids and Octopuses! Look them up and be amazed! In abundance and diversity, they are second only to the Arthropods (which includes Insects), and were among the first creatures on earth. Mussels and clams range in size from barely visible to approximately 20 cm in length. Both are bivalves living in a box of two shells. Think of the Blue Mussels or clam chowder you last ate at the fish restaurant, said Madill. Two limey (mainly calcium carbonate) shells enclose their ‘bivalve’ body in a box that may be opened or closed for passage of water, and protection. This structure reflects the life of a sedentary animal (or couch potato), no head or limbs but a muscular foot that provides anchorage and infrequent locomotion. About the body is a mantle that produces the shell and aids in growth and reproduction. Within the body there are various organs that work as in our own. Most important are the gut and gills that act in feeding, as part of a giant filter.

Madill and others assess Mussel biodiversity and numbers in local lakes and rivers as part of their work. Hinge structure and other features are used for identification and often identification can be made just by the feel of the shell underwater. Mussel species may vary in numbers from zero, to a few, to such an amazing density one cannot walk without treading on a shell. Here they earn the names ‘Heelsplitter’ and ‘Ouch’! Other more ‘happy as a Clam’ individuals are Rainbow, Warty Back and Maple Leaf. Eastern Elliptis is a very common species locally, and others such as a Cylindrical Papershell found in Quebec, had not been seen since the 1830’s.

Why mess with mussels? Well, we must agree that water is fundamental to life. Here in the Ottawa Valley we are well supplied with five major rivers and many smaller streams, and so should have abundant clean water and excellent aquatic life. But if we are to sustain and improve our standard of living we must care for our waters. And the study and care for Mussels and Clams are part of that concern because these little-known animals give many ecological benefits. Perhaps the most significant is their filtering; an individual may ingest and clean 3 liters of water per hour, removing toxic chemicals, excess nutrients, harmful bacteria and viruses, and importantly light blocking matter. They also provide benefit by mixing sediments as they slowly move. They provide food for fish, muskrats, shorebirds and others. Also since some mussels are quite long lived, many living decades, they carry within their tissues a useful record of biological and chemical changes in the environment. As they age annual rings form in the shell as in a tree. According to Madill, some Eastern Pondshells can live 200 years!

But why are Mussels so endangered? At one time, commercial harvest and disruption from log drives reduced their numbers, but these are not ongoing. Now the sermon; sadly, and to our peril, the current plight of bivalves reflects the damage we have done and are doing to water and its inhabitants. Mussels need clean, clear running water relatively high in oxygen and water bodies connected to maintain stable levels and flow, provide nutrients, and permit dispersal of the young. In turn, the density and persistence of these creatures are good indicators of healthy waters. Main disrupters are dams and locks that restrict flow and cause extreme fluctuation in temperature and levels of water. According to Madill, it can take 50-100 years for an area of mussels to be reestablished once it has been disrupted. Mussels are also particularly sensitive to pollutants of many kinds which include fertilizers from lawns and cropland. Many large water bodies and waterways have been made uninhabitable by channeling, loss of near shore habitat, and choking with litter and debris. Another significant threat has been the invasive Zebra Mussel, perhaps the most damaging to our native bivalves, as well as to human infrastructure such as intake pipes. It appeared in the Great Lakes in 1988 on ships from Middle Europe. Of incredible reproductive capacity, one female can produce 30,000 to 1,000,000 larvae annually. Madill noted that Mussels of the Rideau River have suffered a ‘double whammy’ from Zebra Mussels and the rapid and alternating water levels due to the canal locks. In 10 years Zebra Mussels have spread throughout the Great lakes smothering large beds of native bivalves.

Another issue raised by Madill’s was the intriguing connection between the decline of particular Mussel species and the decline of biodiversity in local fish. The explanation is as follows. Mussels and clams live partially buried in sediment with little traveling about, which potentially restricts their distribution. The problem is solved by some Mussel species which produce specialized larvae, called glochidia (from the Greek: pointed or hooked), that are shed in clouds, manage to attach to the gills of a particular species of host fish, and so are transported. They then drop off in new habitat suitable to both fish and Mussel. For example, the female Pocket-Book Mussel extends its mantle, the tip of which is shaped, marked and moves like a small fish. This attracts a desired larger fish for a lift. When the fish ‘takes the bait’ the Mussel ejects a puff of glochidia that attach to the gills, thus obtaining a convenient taxi for its young! Other species mimic a worm to attract a ‘ride’. Check out Youtube.com for videos of some of these creative mussel displays, says Madill.

What can we do to improve the health of our waters and native fresh-water Molluscs? How can we make a Mussel as “happy as Clam?” If you would like further information, please contact our speaker, she welcomes inquiries and can be contacted at the Canadian Nature Museum Research Building in Gatineau or via email An excellent reference guide to local Mussels is by J. Metcalfe-Smith, A. MacKenzie, I. Carmichael and D. McGoldrick, Photo Field Guide to the Freshwater Mussels of Ontario, 2005, published by the St. Thomas Field Naturalist Club. Other useful references for general information on the zoology and ecology of Mussels and Clams include on-line information on Mussels of Eastern Ontario at pinicola.ca and books by Clarke, A. H. 1981, The Fresh Water Molluscs of Canada. National Museum of Natural Sciences, National Museum of Canada, and T.I. Storer and R. L. Usinger, 1957, General Zoology, McGraw-Hill, Toronto.

 

2013 madill lecture (844x1024)

 

Jacqueline Madill (left) spoke about the important but little-understood or appreciated, ‘Native Freshwater Mussels of the Ottawa Valley’ and brought many of her favourite Mollusca specimens to the talk, such as the Eastern Elliptio, a very common freshwater Mussel. Photo Pauline Donaldson

 

‘Ground beetles’, a spectacular insect group, featured at MVFN natural history talk

Report of October 2012 MVFN Lecture

by Joel Byrne

About 350,000 species of beetles occupy this planet. They are found in nearly every terrestrial habitat and many watery ones, pole to pole. There are more named species of beetles than there are named species of any other group. When I saw the title of Dr. Henri Goulet’s presentation to the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists: My Favourite Insect Group – Ground Beetles (Carabidae), I thought of a quote attributed to J.B.S. Haldane, a distinguished British biologist, who, when asked what he had learned about the ‘creator’ from looking at nature, replied that the creator “. . . has an inordinate fondness for beetles,” referring to the enormous abundance of beetle species. Henri Goulet, MVFN’s second speaker, in the lecture series Nature Beneath Our Feet, is a research scientist emeritus with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and he also has a fondness for beetles—ground beetles. Why, out of 160 families of beetles would he choose to study ground beetles? The answer was found in his talk, as he shared some of his fond memories in a lifetime of adventures tracking down his favourite group of animals.

Henri (he is a friend) opened his talk by posing some basic questions: what is a beetle, what is a ground beetle? A series of photos outstanding for their clarity, detail, and colour followed, displaying anatomical features of beetles that distinguish them from other insect Orders. One could clearly see that the beetles have no tail-like structure and that their wing covers do not overlap. It is these wing covers or elytra which give rise to the name of the Order of insects to which beetles belong, i.e. Coleoptera, meaning ‘sheath wings’ in Greek. In this Order is a suborder, Adephaga, meaning ‘voracious.’ And in this voracious group is the ground beetle family, Carabidae, our speaker’s favourite.

Carabid beetles number some 1700 species strong in North America; 250 species around Ottawa. The carabids have long antennae, large jaws, and long legs. Some are very fast, among the fastest animals in the world, for their size. Combine their murderous mandibles with their long speedy legs and you have a formidable predator. Even their larvae are usually big-jawed, active insect predators. All this is bad for their prey, often invertebrates, and good for us since a lot of invertebrates we consider farm and garden pests, aphids, slugs and caterpillars, are consumed. If any invertebrate wishes to avoid being devoured by a ground beetle in Canada, they should retire to a cave, since this is one of the few habitats ground beetles don’t inhabit, we learned.

Then came the big question, posed by Henri—Why do I find ground beetles fascinating? Henri’s fascination and fondness for ground beetles goes back to his childhood days in winters when he dug down in snow, then into and under the leaves where he found many of his pals stiff with cold, and warmed them up. But what got Henri interested initially in studying ground beetles was seeing species with dark metallic reflections.

There are many other reasons ground beetles became so fascinating to Henri. Unlike butterflies and dragonflies which quickly fly away, adult ground beetles are easy to pick up under debris or under the soil surface. The adults are quite easily seen, ranging in size from 1.5 mm to 30 mm, most being 5-10 mm in size. Adults live at least one season and of course, can be found even under snow. Adults come in a great variety of shapes. Many shiny black ground beetles have a ‘typical’ shape, athletic, but some are anything but typical. The ‘snail eater’ is a case in point having ‘strikingly elongated mouth parts’ the better to lunch on the inside of a snail’s shell. There are round sand beetles that look like pills. Bombardier beetles are much wider aft than most, perhaps to house a sort of two-chambered gun at the end of their abdomen where they mix hot chemical ‘bullets’ and ‘fire’ them with an audible pop at anything that threatens them. Many in the Adephaga suborder are ‘accomplished stinkers’, thus avoiding predation.

Henri then showed us phenomenal photos of what, I believe, fascinated us all the most— their great variety of colours. The wing-cover slides alone, entitled Elytral Sculpture, were worth the price of admission. “Our perception is very much affected by what we are.” We are humans and most of us are more interested in butterflies than a lot of black beetles because as humans we are attracted to colours. So when the first slide of elytral sculpture popped onto the screen there was a collective sigh. Mind-bogglingly beautiful metallic greens, bronzes, purples and blue blacks, more emerald greens. Also turquoise wing covers trimmed with copper called ‘the best’ in Canada, Carabus vietinghoffi, from the land of small willows. It was as if a sculptor and a jewelry designer had collaborated in crafting them.

Carabus vietinghoffi (1024x768)

 

As if an expert sculptor and jeweler had collaborated to craft it! A Carabus vietinghoffi, from the ‘land of small willows,’ with its turquoise wing covers trimmed with copper. This is the ground beetle Henri considered ‘the best’ in Canada. Photo Henri Goulet.

 

There followed a series of photos of completely-assembled, i.e. entire specimens of ground beetles, starting with solely black species, then switching to beetles ranging from pale to dark single-coloured, to two-coloured species, and then three-coloured species. Then came the ones with dark metallic reflections, the ones that initially interested Henri, then ones with bright metallic reflections (my favourites), and then species with two and three hues of metallic reflections, and finally species with metallic hue and pigment colours. At which point Henri said, “So I hope I’ve exposed you to a lot of colours.” We were mesmerized, colour-saturated!

 

Elaphrus clairvillei (1024x901)

 

This ground beetle, Elaphrus clairvillei, inhabits only marshy meadows and swampy places. Dr. Goulet is an excellent photographer and here, as in many photographs, he has captured the stunning beauty of the beetle. Photo courtesy Henri Goulet.

The balance of the talk was devoted to many other special features of ground beetles which could have been a talk in itself. Most ground beetles hide in the day. Look for them under logs and rocks, and in stumps. Ground beetles are found on all land habitats except in water (one species stays under rocks submerged by tides). Most species are potentially excellent bio-indicators because their habitat requirement varies from quite narrow to extremely narrow. For example Elaphrus clairvillei inhabits marshy meadows and swampy places, but will not live in bogs as they are too acidic. Some adult ground beetles are very long-lived, 2-7 years. Most ground beetles are finicky about where they live but not fussy about what they eat. A good example, ‘caterpillar hunters’ (Calasoma sycophanta), are forest ground beetles which emerge in the spring, look around for their prey and venture out and stay out if their prey is present, otherwise they return to the ground. Among ground beetles there are predators, scavengers, and herbivores (many are ‘weed-seed’ eaters), and even parasites (the very colourful leaf beetle parasites for example)—a very wide range of modes of life indeed.

Ground Beetle talk (1024x768)

 

A huge fan of the ‘ground’ beetles, Dr. Henri Goulet (centre), fields questions after his talk at the Almonte United Church, while others examine some of the many species specimens provided by the speaker for display. Photo Pauline Donaldson

The talk wound down with a lively question and answer period, while in the background the slide show continued. There was an initial burst of oohs! and ahs! as very colourful beetles seemed to dash across the screen: fabulous close-ups of live tiger beetles on the hunt. What a spectacular way to end the show!

A word about Henri Goulet’s photographs— superb! His photos, taken with meticulous care, will long be remembered by those who set aside a few hours of a fall evening to learn and be entertained by the learning. What I came away with was the impression of incredible beauty in the colours and design of the host of ground beetles, each species with its own variation on the general plan.

I enjoyed the lecture so much I saw it twice!

Resources: reference books on ground beetles are Common Ground Beetles (1987) by Trevor G. Forsyth and An Illustrated Identification Guide to Adults and Larvae of Northeastern North America Ground Beetles (2010) by Yves Bousquet.

 

 

 

 

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

 

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FULL-SIZED  CALENDAR WITH DETAILS

MVFN natural history talks:  7:30 pm on third Thursdays of Jan, Feb, March, April,  Sept, Oct, and Nov at Almonte United Church, 106 Elgin St. Almonte ON. All welcome! Non-members $5. 

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