Where to go birding around Ottawa

by Sandy Garland

GoldeneyeSome years ago, the OFNC Birds Committee produced a great guide to local birding areas. We recently updated it to include Google maps, coordinates for those using a GPS system, and wonderful photos from Gillian Mastromatteo.

Whether you are confined to the city or love to adventure out for day trips as far as Morrisburg, Chaffey’s Locks, Masham, or Casselman, the guide will tell you what birds can be seen – often all year round.

As a good example, Gillian recently checked out the Rideau River at Billings Bridge (see her blog Along the Rideau River) and found a Cooper’s Hawk as well as the usual mergansers, gulls, and dabbling ducks. Further downriver at Hurdman’s Bridge, she found a Barrow’s Goldeneye, Herring and Black-backed gulls, and a muskrat. There are a number of trees along the river at this location, providing shelter for chickadees, woodpeckers, cardinals, and waxwings.

Another easy location is Strathcona Park, also along the Rideau. A large parking lot makes access easy. You can even see the river from your car if the snow is too deep to venture further.

I hope these suggestions and examples will interest you in getting out into the fresh air and enjoying nature – always relaxing and often surprising.


Wildlife Tracks and Signs

by Christine Hanrahan

Identifying tracks is a good way to discover who is living in a particular woodland, field, or along a water body. Tracks in mud, sand, and snow also tell stories. You can see where animals, and sometimes birds, have interacted, perhaps to the misfortune of one of them. If you follow them, you may be able to detect what they were doing, where they were looking for food, whether they were meandering along investigating here or there, or whether they had a purpose – no dawdling and sidetracking permitted. Fresh snow is excellent for finding tracks, and winter reveals the presence of all sorts of birds and animals we might rarely see because they are secretive and/or nocturnal.

Be aware, however, that tracks in deep snow can look different than those left in light snow, mud, or sand. Deep snow can make tracks appear larger than they really are – although when it’s very deep it can make them look smaller! Other clues can be found in placement of front and rear feet and gait (hopping, running, loping, walking, bounding, trotting, etc) – far too much detail to go into here, but covered well, and often extensively, in the sources listed below.

To figure out what you are seeing, you will need to take along a ruler or measuring tape, a notebook to record your observations, and a camera to take photos not only of the tracks, but of the surrounding area, for habitat is, of course, a very good indicator of what animals to expect and helps narrow down what may have made the puzzling tracks. Many tracks will be baffling, defying identification. Similar species make similar tracks. Photographing tracks that you have seen an animal make, helps immensely for future identification.

In addition to tracks, there are other indications of an animal’s presence in an area.

  • Scat is a good clue, although it may be perplexing at times to decide who made those little, and not so little, piles.
  • Often animals will show their presence through their eating habits. Moose strip the bark from young red maples, porcupines chew bark on trees, mostly high up, but sometimes at ground level, snowshoe hare and cottontail rabbits chew branches closer to the ground, beaver have a very distinctive way of felling trees, etc.
  • Some mammals make readily identifiable nests, such as grey squirrels’ leafy dreys and red squirrels’ big grassy “balls” in trees. Others make temporary snow tunnels, or holes in iced-over water bodies. Others use cavities, hollow logs, or rock piles as dens, permanent or not.
  • Some animals create regular runs. Otter make very distinctive slides in the snow.
  • Beds or lays can often reveal the presence of an animal in an area.

There are signs all around us of animal usage, if we know what to look for.

Tracking is a complex art, not nearly as simplistic as I have made it seem. It takes time to build the skills necessary to learn how to distinguish the tracks and signs of one animal from another and to interpret what they may have been doing. It is endlessly absorbing and can lead to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the wildlife around us. One need only go to a nearby local woodlot or field, to begin this study.

One note of caution: ensure that the needs of the animals come first. Don’t disturb den or nest sites or chase an animal. Slow-moving creatures, like porcupines, are especially vulnerable on the ground and can be easily stressed by humans approaching too closely to get photos of them or their tracks.

There are many books on the subject of tracking and identifying animal signs. Some of the best include:

  • Elbroch, Mark. 2003. Mammal Tracks and Sign: A Guide to North American Species. Stackpole Books.
  • Rezendes, Paul. 1999. Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Signs. Collins.
  • Stokes, Donald and Lillian. 1986. Guide to Animal Tracking and Behavior. Little, Brown and Company.

More news on FWG’s wonderful volunteers!

There are several things most visitors don’t understand about the Fletcher Wildlife Garden, and new volunteers admit to being no exception.

1) That the FWG is not just the BYG, but an almost 7 ha area with trails and multiple habitat types.

2) That FWG is not an extension of the Arboretum – we lease the land from Ag Canada on behalf of the OFNC.

3) FWG is a project of the OFNC; though we tend to operate slightly separately, we go through them for major decisions and we are under the same charity registration number.

4) That there are many more things to do as a volunteer than ‘traditional’ gardening. We have differing levels of fitness activity (try swinging a scythe around for an hour through the DSV!) as well as work in different habitats. There is also construction work, wall building and various handy projects to do.

On that last point, volunteer Al was recognised as the Friends of the Farm Volunteer of the Month. The FoF are the volunteers who labour faithfully in the Arboretum. Al is one of our resident uber handy people, and was responsible for building the brochure box in front of the Interpretation Centre – no mean feat given it involved hand-waving about theoretical dimensions from those commissioning this well-used feature!

Al in the Arboretum. Photo (c) P McColl

Al and Erma are known for getting things done quickly, without fuss and with great diligence. They show up early before most people on Fridays, Tim Horton’s coffee in hand. They also share their photographs on our PBase photoblog, and stories of plant or butterfly spottings during their many hikes through national parks. Erma also makes delicious sweets bars!

Hats off to our great volunteers – we’re glad other people appreciate them as well!

A Wild Banquet for Birds and Mammals

A well stocked wild banquet for wildlife can be found in woods and meadows, roadsides and shorelines, gardens and parklands, in fact, wherever plants grow. Of course, there is more to the diet of many birds and animals than plant-based foods, but that is what we’ll be looking at here, as the variety is fascinating and, in winter, many birds seek out seeds and fruit from the plants below.

Apart from the obvious such as acorns and walnuts, fruit trees and wild grapes, there are many unremarkable looking little plants that most of us never pay much heed to, that also feed birds. And there are nutrients to be found in plant sources that come from neither seed or fruit. Below is a list of the plants I’ve observed birds and small mammals (squirrels, chipmunks, cottontail rabbits, meadow voles and mice) feeding on. This is by no means complete. Sometimes I forget to write down what I have observed, and sometimes I forget who has been feeding on what. There are many plants that, I am certain, feed birds and animals, but I’ve not yet seen feeding activity on them. This list should be considered very preliminary and is based only on my own observations, not those of others. It is also restricted to the Fletcher Wildlife Garden, including the Backyard Garden. Expanding beyond the boundaries of the garden would introduce other food sources to the list. Why not start your own list and observe who eats what this winter?

Plants also harbour insects and spiders, either eggs, larvae or adults, and birds with a taste for invertebrates are frequently found gleaning treats from leaves, twigs, stems, branches, flowers, of grasses, shrubs and trees. But that is a topic for another day.

Also for another day, is the use of so many of these plants, by insects, including of course, butterflies.

Plants are listed alphabetically by common name. An asterisk next to the name indicates the plant is not a native. Many (not all) of these non-indigenous plants have been around for well over a hundred years, or two, thus it is no surprise that wildlife has adapted to feed on them.

*Amur corktree (Phellodenron amurense) fruit
*Amur maple (Acer ginnala) seeds
Bee balm (Monarda) nectar
Birch (Betula) seeds
*Black walnut (Juglans nigra) nuts
Bottle gentian (Gentiana andrewsii) nectar
*Brome grass (Bromus inermis) seeds
*Buckthorn, both species (Rhanmnus cathartica, R. frangula) fruit
*Bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare) seeds
Canada elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) fruit
Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) seeds
*Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense) seeds
Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) nectar
*Chickory (Cichorium intybus) seeds
Choke cherry (Prunus virginiana) fruit
*Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) flowers
*Common burdock (Arctium minus) seeds
*Common plantain (Plantago major) seeds
*Cosmos daisies (Cosmos) seeds
*Crabapples (Malus) fruit
*Curly dock (Rumex crispus) seeds
*Dandelion (Taraxacum officinalis) seeds
Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) seeds
*Garden phlox (Phlox) nectar
*Goldflame honeysuckle (Lonicera) nectar
*Green amaranth (Amaranthus retroflexus) seeds
Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) nectar
*Lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album) seeds
Large-toothed aspen (Populus grandidentata) buds, seeds
*Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) seeds
*Mallow (Malva moschata) seeds
*Manitoba maple (Acer negundo) seeds, tree sap, bark, buds
*Mountain ash (Sorbaria) fruit
*Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) seeds
New england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-anglia) seeds
*Norway spruce (Picea abies) seeds
*Orache (Atriplex prostrata) seeds
*Peppergrass (Lepidum) seeds
Pin cherry (Prunus pensylvanica) fruit
*Prickly lettuce (Lactuca scariola) seeds
*Prostrate knotweed (Polygonum aviculare) seeds
Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) seeds
Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) fruit
Red juniper (Red cedar) (Juniperus virginiana) fruit
Red oak (Quercus rubra ) acorns
Red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea) fruit
*Scotch pine (Pinus sylvestris) seeds
Serviceberry (Amelanchie) fruit
*Sow thistle (Sonchus arvensis) seeds
Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) seeds, tree sap, bark, buds
*Sunflowers (Helianthus species) seeds
Staghorn sumac (Rhus hirta) seeds, bark
Tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima) seeds
*Tartarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica) fruit
*Timothy (Phleum pratense) seeds
Trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides) buds, seeds
Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) nectar
Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus vitacea) fruit
White ash (Fraxinus americana) seeds
White cedar (Thuja occidentalis) seeds
White spruce (Picea glauca) seeds, buds
*White sweet clover (Melilotus alba) seeds
Wild grape (Vitis riparia) fruit
Wild lettuce/Canada lettuce (Lactuca canadensis) seeds
Wild raspberry (Rubus strigosus) fruit
Wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) fruit

FWG has amazing volunteers (but, of course, we already knew that!)

FWG volunteers are amazing people who are dedicated to creating wildlife habitat and beauty not because they feel like they ought to , but as they genuinely enjoy mucking about!

Isabelle always says how much she loves the BYG!

Isabelle always says how much she loves the BYG!

At this year’s volunteer potluck, Isabelle was recognised with our Annual Volunteer Award. Isabelle is the Habitat Manager for the Backyard Garden. This season was especially difficult as many regular Friday volunteers could not attend and the drought caused even the hardiest plants to consider taking a rain check until next growing season. Barry joked that whenever he walked through the BYG with Misti, he would regularly come across Isabelle toiling away busily in the heat, trying to keep one of our best-loved habitats picture perfect for visitors. The chipmunks were so accustomed to her presence that they would run up to her feet and keep her company at lunch!

Diane and her medal!

Diane and her medal!

Another volunteer recognised this year was Diane, who received the Queen’s Jubilee Medal for her work in establishing the Monarch Waystation Project and developing the Butterfly Meadow strategy. Anyone who has done a stint in the BM knows that the fight against DSV is hard-core and ongoing – not for the faint of heart! Diane, with her volunteers, has created one of the most picturesque natural habitats at FWG, which is also extremely popular with grateful pollinators who think their little wild oasis is the bee’s knees! (Sorry, just had to get that in there!) The Jubilee Medal was created to recognise Canadians who have given back to their community.

Sincere congratulations and biggest thanks from all of us for the contributions you both make to FWG – the garden wouldn’t be the same without them and you!

Discovering Plant Galls Formed by Insects

by Christine Hanrahan

Gall: “An abnormal growth of plant tissue produced by a stimulus external to the plant itself.”  – S.W. Frost in Insect Life

Galls are common formations on plants, usually caused by insects (but sometimes by a fungus or some other non-insect life form). Galls can form on roots, stems and twigs, leaves, flowerheads and buds. They can be smooth, rough, hairy, spongy, hard, soft, spiked. They can be round, oval, spindle-shaped, and even look like flowers. They may not look like any of these. They may, instead, look like a black spot, a leaf blister, or may be mistaken for clusters of insect eggs. Their colour often changes. Goldenrod galls are green when the plant is living, but when the plant dies back, the galls take on the brown hue of the stem, although before they do so, they may also appear burgundy or bronzed. Some galls are vividly red, others may be two-toned, or patterned, but most are, not surprisingly, green or brown. Some appear singly, others in clusters. And one plant may have several different types of galls, made by insects of different families. Some galls are strikingly noticeable, while others are found only by dint of looking. Just to confuse things, not all swellings on plants are galls, as some are caused by leaf miners and stem borers.

If you want to identify the gall-makers, you need to know your plants, because many of the insects are very host-specific. And not only that, but most insects will only form galls on certain parts of the plants. Thus, you may find a plant with galls on the leaves and on the stem or twigs, but different species will be responsible! Furthermore, the location is an important aid to sorting out who might have made the gall. So take your notebook and make notes when you want to identify possible gall-makers. Some plants seem to attract a variety of gall-making insects. Chief among these are willows (Salix), oaks (Quercus), and goldenrod (Solidago).

Gall-making insects may be flies (e.g., midges, other Cecidomyiids, and fruit flies), bugs (e.g., aphids, Phylloxera), sawflies, wasps (mostly Cynipidae), moths (mostly Tortricidae), nematodes, and even beetles. Members of the Arachnidae also get into the act, with gall mites (Eriophyidae) responsible for many galls. However, the gall midges in the family Cecidomyiidae, sub-family Cecidomyiinae, and Cynipid wasps, are probably the most common gall-makers. The photos below show some of the different types of galls, made by various insects.

One way to determine who has made a gall is to bring the galls home and rear them, which means putting them in an enclosed container (a jar with a mesh cover, for example) and see what emerges. However, be warned, that many parasites attack gall larvae and so what comes out may not be the original gall inhabitant. This just makes it all the more fascinating. Because most gall-making insects are tiny and rarely seen, rearing them may be your only chance to see them. In nature, the galls are far more obvious than the insects.

Why do galls form, and for what purpose? The short answer is that galls are protective coverings for the egg and later the larva, inside. They also provide food for the developing larva. Larvae either spend the winter in their galls or, in a number of cases, emerge, drop to the ground and pupate in the soil.

Galls are formed when still-growing plant tissue is invaded by an insect (or fungus). The plant grows around the foreign object to form the shapes we know as galls.

When galls are very noticeable, as with the grape leaf galls that distort the leaves, it is thought that the plants themselves are diseased or damaged, but they are not. In most cases, galls do no major damage to the plants.

They do, however, in some cases, provide food for other wildlife. The goldenrod galls are best known in this regard, for many of us have observed woodpeckers or chickadees pecking away at the galls to extract the juicy larva inside. Squirrels are also fans of goldenrod galls. If you look at a stand of goldenrod and examine the abundant galls, you’ll see that many have been preyed on. Sometimes it can be difficult to find an unopened goldenrod gall.

And finally, galls are not just fascinating formations there to intrigue us. Over the centuries they have been used by humans as medicine, food, and for the production of dyes and inks.

Summer is when galls are most abundant and diverse. Because so many galls are formed on leaves, once winter comes, they disappear. However, winter is the best time to look for the bigger galls on twigs and stems. Just check out shrub willows, goldenrods, ash trees and oak trees and see what you find.

This is just a brief introduction to galls, which I have been fascinated with for years. I hope you will also find them interesting and begin your own study of them.

For dozens more photos of a variety of galls, you might want to check out my Insect Galls photo gallery: http://www.pbase.com/laroseforest/galls