Rollers, nibblers, and spit

by Sandy Garland

This Red Osier Dogwood is probably over 15 years old.

This Red Osier Dogwood is probably over 15 years old.

I remember when this Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus stolonifera) shrub was just a tiny thing at the edge of the path. It sent out roots – one of them sticking out so that we’d trip over it every now and then. We almost dug it out, but eventually it got so big we just walked around it and the roots were no longer a problem. Now it’s more than 3 metres across and teeming with life.

Red Osier Dogwoods are great if you like wildlife. The flat flower clusters attract butterflies and other pollinators, and in late summer and fall, birds come to eat the berries. According to our Planting the urban landscape: Selected trees and shrubs for birds, “Ninety species of birds have been recorded using C. stolonifera as a food source.” Some are Eastern Kingbird, Red-eyed and Warbling Vireos, Hermit and Wood Thrushes, American Robin, Gray Catbird, Cedar Waxwing, Northern Cardinal, and Evening and Pine Grosbeaks.

Banasa stink bug (Banasa dimidiate) - These attractive green stinkbugs are very common and seem to be especially so on Red-osier Dogwoods.  (photo and caption by Christine Hanrahan)

Banasa stink bug (Banasa dimidiate) – These attractive green stinkbugs are very common and seem to be especially so on Red-osier Dogwoods. (photo and caption by Christine Hanrahan)

Illinois Wildflowers says, “The nectar and pollen of the flowers attract many kinds of insects, including long-tongued bees, short-tongued bees, wasps, flies, and butterflies…. Other insects feed on the leaves, suck plant juices, or bore through the wood. These species include the caterpillars of many moths, long-horned beetles (Cerambycidae), leaf beetles (Chrysomelidae), aphids (Aphididae), plant bugs (Miridae), and others.

“Because of their higher than average fat content, the white drupes of Red-Osier Dogwood are an important food source of wood ducks, songbirds, and upland gamebirds. The White-Footed Mouse and other small rodents also eat the drupes. The White-Tailed Deer and Cottontail Rabbit browse on the leaves and woody stems; beavers also use the stems as a food source and as construction material for their dams and lodges. To a minor extent, the fallen leaves are eaten by some turtles, including Chelydra serpentina (Snapping Turtle).”

White web under a leaf.

White web under a leaf.

As I looked closely at our large dogwood, I could see many rolled leaves, where an insect had wrapped itself for protection. Under one leaf, a delicate white web held a more dense cocoon of some kind in its centre (left).

Schizura concinna on Red-osier Dogwood (photo by Christine Hanrahan)

Schizura concinna on Red-osier Dogwood (photo by Christine Hanrahan)

This colourful caterpillar (right), the larva of a Notodontid moth, feeds on dogwood. And the Calligrapher Beetle further below makes a meal of the leaves.

Although I didn’t see any spittlebugs, the shrub was covered with white globs of foam, betraying their presence.

Dogwood spittlebug (Clastoptera proteus) - In early summer, dogwood shrubs, mostly Red-osier Dogwoods, are festooned with little white foamy globs. This is the "spittle" of the Dogwood Spittlebug nymph. Eventually the adults (inset) appear and can be seen quite commonly on the shrubs.

Dogwood spittlebug (Clastoptera proteus) – In early summer, dogwood shrubs, mostly Red-osier Dogwoods, are festooned with little white foamy globs. This is the “spittle” of the Dogwood Spittlebug nymph. Eventually the adults (inset) appear and can be seen quite commonly on the shrubs.

Dogwood calligrapher (Calligrapha philadelphica) on Red-osier Dogwood (photo by Christine Hanrahan)

Dogwood calligrapher (Calligrapha philadelphica) on Red-osier Dogwood (photo by Christine Hanrahan)

At the FWG, Song Sparrows have nested in our dogwoods and we’ve seen Gray Catbirds carrying the white berries to their nestlings.

In fall, the leaves fall off dogwoods early, leaving bright red branches. The field to the north of our Old Woodlot looks like it’s on fire on sunny days when the red dogwood stems glow against golden aspen leaves.

Even in winter, the red of the osiers brightens dull days.

Photographed in the Old Woodlot, the remains of the seedheads were coated in ice, as were the red stems. (photo by Christine Hanrahan)

Photographed in the Old Woodlot in January, the remains of the seedheads are coated in ice, as are the red stems (photo by Christine Hanrahan).

Getting started in birding

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Sharp-shinned Hawk

by Christine Hanrahan

So you want to be a birdwatcher, but you just don’t know where to begin? And the thought of trying to distinguish a nighthawk from a nuthatch reduces you to despair? Don’t worry, help is at hand! The following information will provide you with everything (well, almost everything) you need to launch you safely into the beguiling world of birding.

Start with the “four Ss” of bird identification. With these basics, together with the rest of this information, you’ll soon find yourself rhyming off the names of at least the most common species. So, grab your field guide and binoculars and begin. Good luck and good birding!

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Shape or silhouette
When you spot a bird, you automatically process several things about it. One of the most important is its shape. Is the bird’s general outline rounded or elongated? Is the tail long or short? Is the head relatively large or small? If it’s flying, are its wings round and short, long and pointed, or some other combination?

Train yourself to look at the silhouette of flying and perching birds and compare them with birds you are familiar with. Most people can point out a heron, a duck, or a gull, even if they don’t know the species name. These three groups of birds each have a distinctive shape, as do hawks and owls.

Some of the perching birds may present more problems at first, but with experience you’ll find yourself distinguishing between the silhouette of a robin and a sparrow, for example, or between a nuthatch and a chickadee.

As you become more familiar with birds and birdwatching, you’ll be able to identify different species within a group just by their shape. A Cooper’s Hawk, for instance, which looks a lot like a Sharp-shinned Hawk, can be distinguished by the shape of its tail (the tip is rounded compared with the square shape of the Sharp-shinned’s tail).

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

Size
Size is also important in identification. Again, compare the unknown bird with one you are familiar with. Is the bird smaller than a robin? Bigger than a crow? You might also try to relate it to something nearby, like a leaf or flower.

Site (or habitat)
Because birds generally inhabit characteristic sites or habitats, the area in which you find a bird can help you identify it. For example, you wouldn’t expect to see a Virginia Rail in a deciduous woodlot nor a Hermit Thrush in a meadow.

Take time to learn a little about the habitat requirements and preferences of various birds. Even a general overview will help a lot when it comes to identification. For instance, if you have decided that the size and shape of a bird indicate a sparrow, next consider where it is. If the bird is in a meadow, it could be a Savannah Sparrow. But if it is in a moist or swampy area, it is probably a Swamp Sparrow.

Sound (or song, calls, chip notes)
Birds make a variety of sounds. In addition to singing, they utter short, sharp notes or “chips.” When alarmed, they produce a very different call. Songs are easier to learn than chip or call notes, which can take a long time to master. Familiarizing yourself with the songs of at least the common species will make identification that much easier. In fact, if you become very good at recognizing bird songs, you will be able to identify some birds before you see them! And because many birds are heard rather than seen, this is a definite plus.

Male common yellowthroat

Male common yellowthroat

Identifying bird songs can, at first, seem akin to magic. But with practice you can learn a surprising number of common ones in a relatively short time. Recordings of bird songs on cassette tape, CD, or even video can be found at one of the local specialty bird stores (see list below).

Some birders use words to help them “fix” songs in their mind. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Eastern Region, and the Peterson Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies both describe many bird songs in easily understood terms. Of course, many birds “say” their own name, so their names are a guide to their song or call note. Here is a partial, very selective list of some familiar bird songs and calls and the words associated with them:

• Killdeer — kill-deer
• Black-billed Cuckoo — cucucu cucucu
• Barred Owl — who cooks for you? who cook for you-all?
• Whip-poor-will — whip’ poor-will
• Olive-sided Flycatcher — quick, three beers!
• Eastern Wood Pewee — pee-a-wee, pee-ur
• Alder Flycatcher — fee-be-o
• Least Flycatcher — che-bec
• Eastern Phoebe — phoe-be
• Great Crested Flycatcher — wheeep!
• Black-capped Chickadee — fee-bee, chicka-dee-dee-dee
• Veery — vee-ur, vee-ur, veer veer
• Wood Thrush — ee-o-lay
• Red-eyed Vireo — here I am, where are you?
• Yellow Warbler — sweet-sweet-sweet-shredded wheat
• Chestnut-sided Warbler — please-please-pleased-to-meet ‘cha
• Black-throated Blue Warbler — beer-beer-beer-bee
• Black-throated Green Warbler — zoo-zee-zoo-zoo-zee or zee-zee-zee-zee-zoo-zee
• Ovenbird — teach’er, teach’ er, teach’er
• Common Yellowthroat — witchity-witchity-witchity-witch
• White-throated Sparrow — old Tom Peabody Peabody Peabody
• Red-winged Blackbird — ok-a-ree

A few other birds make distinctive sounds that are harder to “translate.” For example, the Gray Catbird and especially the Brown Thrasher are mimics.

Gray Catbird — Call sounds like a cat mewing. Song is somewhat like a Brown Thrasher, but phrases not in pairs and not as musical.

Brown Thrasher — Song a long, very musical set of phrases, each phrase usually sung in a pair.

Colour
You might think that the colour of a bird is the most important identifying factor, but keep the four Ss of birding in mind. For example, the red colour of a partly obscured bird could mean either a Cardinal or a Scarlet Tanager. The shape can help you distinguish between them, for each has a distinct silhouette.

Field marks
Field marks are distinctive “trademarks,” like wing bars, striped crowns, barred tails, and so on, that make identification easier. Many field marks are visible only when a bird flies — the white rump of the Northern Flicker or Northern Harrier for example. Others, such as wing bars, are easier to see when the bird is sitting.

One of the best ways to familiarize yourself with the field marks of different species is by reading through your bird guide as often as you can and applying what you learn in the field.

Eastern Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe

Behaviour
Bird behaviour is often a key element in solving identification problems. For example, if you have determined that the bird you are watching is a small flycatcher but aren’t sure whether it is an Eastern Wood Pewee or a Phoebe, tail-bobbing behaviour is a clear indication that it’s a Phoebe.

Observing the behaviour of birds is fascinating and far more satisfying than merely identifying species. Donald and Lillian Stokes have produced three volumes called A Guide to Bird Behaviour that reveal intriguing facts about even the most common species. Studying behaviour will ensure that you will never grow bored with birdwatching.

Rating the field guides
Field Guide to the Birds of North America (2nd edition), National Geographic Society — This is undoubtedly the best field guide around for North American Birds. The superior illustrations show both adult and immature plumage, as well as regional variations for many species. Includes range maps.

A Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies by Roger Tory Peterson — The first and, for many birders, still the best field guide. The illustrations are very good. Best of all, this guide covers only birds found east of the Rockies, so you won’t have to bother wading through a lot of species that just don’t occur here (except perhaps as accidentals). This makes identification a bit easier. Includes range maps.

A Guide to Field Identification — Birds of North America by Robbins, Bruun, Zim and Singer (also known as the Golden Guide) — Like the National Geographic guide, this one covers all the birds of North America. Depicts some immature plumages, and is both simpler and less intimidating than the National Geographic guide. A useful book if you’re just getting started in birding and want all North American birds, but don’t want to be bothered with too many details.

Where to go birding in Ottawa
There are many places in our region to go birdwatching, and most birders have their own favourite sites. A good way to discover local birding hot spots is to join the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club (OFNC) and participate in their many field trips. As an added bonus, a skilled leader will help you increase your birding skills along the way.

See also: Where to go birding around Ottawa

American Robin

American Robin

Habitat guide to birding
A habitat can be defined as a place where a bird finds the combination of water, food, cover, and space that it needs to survive. Different species require different habitats, and although some birds are generalists, able to use several habitats, most are linked to specific types. Knowing a species’ habitat can help you identify it. The following lists show the habitat preferences of some common birds in the Ottawa region, but it is by no means exhaustive. Some birds are listed several times, reflecting their use of different habitats.

Coniferous forest
Brown Creeper
Winter Wren
Hermit Thrush
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Purple Finch

Eastern hardwoods (deciduous woods)
Red-tailed Hawk
Broad-winged Hawk
Ruffed Grouse
Great Horned Owl
Pileated Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Great Crested Flycatcher
Eastern Wood Pewee
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Wood Thrush
Veery
Red-eyed Vireo
Ovenbird
American Redstart
Scarlet Tanager
Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Fields, meadows, farmland
Red-tailed Hawk
Northern Harrier
American Kestrel
Killdeer
Upland Sandpiper
Rock Dove
Mourning Dove
Common Nighthawk
Chimney Swift
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
Purple Martin
American Crow
American Robin
Cedar Waxwing
Loggerhead Shrike
Yellow Warbler
Bobolink
Eastern Meadowlark
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Song Sparrow

Brushy borders of fields and woodlands (edge habitat)

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole

American Kestrel
Mourning Dove
Black-billed Cuckoo
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Norther Flicker
Eastern Kingbird
Black-capped Chickadee
House Wren
Gray Catbird
Brown Thrasher
Eastern Bluebird
Yellow Warbler
Baltimore Oriole
Northern Cardinal
Indigo Bunting
American Goldfinch
Rufous-sided Towhee
Field Sparrow

Wetlands (marshes, swamps, fens), wet or moist woods
Pied-billed Grebe

Green Heron

Green Heron

Great Blue Heron
Green Heron
American Bittern
Mallard
American Black Duck
Blue-winged Teal
Wood Duck
Osprey
Virginia Rail
Sora Rail
Common Moorhen
Common Snipe
Spotted Sandpiper
Black Tern
Tree Swallow
Marsh Wren
Northern Waterthrush
Common Yellowthroat
Red-winged Blackbird
Swamp Sparrow

Ponds, streams, rivers, riparian (streamside) zones

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow

Common Loon
Pied-billed Grebe
Great Blue Heron
Green Heron
Canada Goose
Mallard
American Black Duck
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Blue-winged Teal
Wood Duck
Hooded Merganser
Common Merganser
Osprey
Semi-palmated Sandpiper
Herring Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Common Tern
Belted Kingfisher
Eastern Phoebe
Tree Swallow
Bank Swallow
Purple Martin
Yellow Warbler

Human habitation (farms, town, parks, houses, gardens)

Chipping Sparrow

Chipping Sparrow

Rock Dove
Common Nighthawk
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Tree Swallow
Purple Martin
Blue Jay
Black-capped Chickadee
House Wren
American Robin
European Starling
Chipping Sparrow
House Finch
Evening Grosbeak
House Sparrow

Many birds may stop over in backyards, parks and other urban settings during migration, so expect to see a wider variety than listed here. Over time, some birders have counted more than 100 species in their city backyards.

Be sure to check out our photo gallery of birds we’ve seen at the FWG.

Early November, 2013, at the garden

by Christine Hanrahan

The FWG’s November blog is up and running now (http://www.pbase.com/fwg/fwg_blog_november_2013). It was kick-started by some excellent photos from Robert Berry. I’ve added a few more, and there’ll be more to come as the month progresses.

Incipient winter is felt in the decreasing numbers of birds and the almost entire lack of insects at the garden now. However, one hardy clouded sulphur was still fluttering around on the edge of the Old Field, and several flies were clustered high up on the sunny walls of the interpretive centre. A small brown moth flew up from the grass near the butterfly meadow and vanished before I could get a good look. Diane says it could be either bruce’s spanworm (Operophtera bruceata) or the autumn moth (Epirrita autumnata). There will still be a few insects and spiders, but hard to find.

As for birds, a big flock each of robins and starlings made for a cacophonous din. Smaller numbers of house finches, chickadees, cardinals, cedar waxwings, downy woodpeckers, blue jays, and white-breasted nuthatches were also found. Overhead, ring-billed gulls and flocks of canada geese. We should start to see tree sparrows and other late autumn visitors soon. I’ve found the tree sparrows elsewhere around Ottawa, and I’ve heard reports of snow buntings in the area. They sometimes appear on the farm, and in the big (recently cut) crop field by the red barn.

Black-capped chickadee nest cavity in birch tree

Black-capped chickadee nest cavity in birch tree

While walking past the Ash Woods, I saw that one of the birch snags (standing dead tree), containing an old cavity nest site, had fallen and smashed into several pieces. A few years ago in winter, a downy woodpecker began to work on this birch snag looking for food. In the spring of the following year, a pair of black-capped chickadees spent a considerable time excavating the cavity as a nest site. They worked endlessly on it, ferrying mouthful after mouthful of excavated material away from the site. But after much work, they abandoned the site. When I picked up the bit with the hole (cavity) in it, it fell apart in my hands, revealing the interior where the chickadees had worked. Pretty impressive work for two small birds!

Red squirrels are very noticeable now, and chipmunks are particularly busy stocking their underground larders before hibernating for the winter (well, they are not true hibernators, but that’s another story).

***I’ve created a new gallery to show the work of participants in Barry Cottam’s photography workshop held in early autumn at the FWG. The photos are gorgeous! I really encourage you to take a look. The three best shots of each photographer’s work, selected by themselves, is posted here: http://www.pbase.com/fwg/photo_workshop_2013

Mid-September at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden

by Christine Hanrahan

Where DOES the time go? Here it is, past the mid-way point in September, on the downslide to October. That autumn feeling is really seeping in with the colour changes in the leaves, the business of birds fuelling up for journeys south, and bees nectaring like mad on the dwindling supply of flowers.

Having been away for a week, I stopped in at the garden to see what was what this week. Many of the goldenrods are fluffy with seeds now, but the various asters are in bloom still. Those goldenrods still in flower were very busy with locust borers (long-horned beetles), bumble bees, honey bees, sweat bees, etc. However, it is apparent that insect numbers are dwindling and for those of us who are addicted to looking for them, we will soon be in the midst of withdrawal, waiting until spring for the first few to appear again. Except for those few critters that can sometimes be seen in winter, such as winter fireflies, winter craneflies, and a few more hardy insects.

Twenty-spotted lady beetle

Twenty-spotted lady beetle

A new insect for our list is the twenty-spotted lady beetle, very tiny at around 1.5 to 3 mm. It is unusual in being a fungus and mildew feeder. In my own garden, I have found a large number of these lady beetles in all stages, larva, pupa, and adult, on mildewed leaves of sunflowers. At first glance they look like very tiny versions of the fourteen-spotted lady beetle. They are common, but so tiny and with a habit of hiding under leaves, that they can be tough to find. I bet they’ve been at the FWG for years but we’ve just not noticed them before.

Dogwood calligraphic beetles are still present, as they have been all summer. These belong to the Chrysomelid family, a group that contains some of the most beautifully coloured and intricately patterned beetles. As their name suggests, they are closely affiliated with dogwoods, in particular red-osier dogwoods. There are many species within the Ottawa region, but at the FWG we’ve found only two.

While on the topic of dogwoods, they are a good shrub for attracting many insects, not necessarily in the destructive sense. Many creatures seem to like hiding amongst the flowers, and now the fruit, or on or under the leaves. If you look carefully, you can sometimes find tiny clusters of stinkbug eggs, probably those of the Banasa stinkbug which is so commonly found amidst the fruit. Nannyberries too are good shrubs to explore for insects, and alders are even better!

I watched a large mixed group of chipping sparrows and american goldfinches having a grand time eating the seeds of coneflowers in the butterfly meadow. Elsewhere they were picking off thistle seeds and the seeds of lamb’s-quarters. Speaking of food… does it seem to you that there are fewer walnuts on the black walnut trees this year? Which can mean a tougher time for the squirrels who depend on them.

A red-tailed hawk is once again at the garden. Every autumn for years we’ve seen this species appear and hang around the general vicinity of the garden all winter long. The farm fields provide good hunting, and the trees, shelter. White-breasted nuthatches, chickadees, robins, catbirds, an eastern phoebe, mallards, and crows were some of the other birds encountered in my short visit.

The September blog is here: http://www.pbase.com/fwg/fwg_blog_sept_2013, and contains four pages of photos thus far, including some lovely shots by Diane and Sandy. Please check it out.

Mid-August at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden

by Christine Hanrahan

Mid-afternoon at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden, August 14th. A sunny and pleasant afternoon to be looking for things to photograph for the PBase Blog. My first sighting was of the Sphex ichneumoneus, the great golden digger as it is sometimes called, nectaring on swamp milkweed. Its counterpart, the great black digger, S. pensylvanicus, is often more numerous, but both are large and impressive.

Other insects found include numerous Acutalis treehoppers, one of our smallest treehoppers, tiny little green and black insects, usually found on the stems of plants such as goldenrod. The large (for a planthopper), Acanalonia bivittata, with its distinctive shape, is easily recognized. It is bright green, with reddish eyes and a dark stripe down its back. It also comes in a vivid pink form, something I’m still hoping to see. The large swathe of Monarda fistulosa, our beautiful lilac-coloured native species, in the butterfly meadow, is alive with bees and other nectaring insects, including a hummingbird moth and a very tattered silver-spotted skipper. The big Bicyrtes sand wasp, smaller mud daubing wasps, sweat bees, leaf-cutter bees, ragweed beetles, goldenrod leaf beetles, the predatory larvae of green lacewings sometimes called aphid lions because of their propensity for feasting on aphids, pennsylvania leatherwings (soldier beetles), tiny ragweed fruit flies, and a host of other insects can be found on the abundant flowering plants around the site.

In addition to the skipper, lots of cabbage whites, a few white admirals, and several newly emerged ringlets, the second generation in our area, were also seen.

Birds are vocal and active, with broods of young following the adults, calling and begging for food. House wrens are especially vocal these days, as are catbirds and song sparrows. Robins, baltimore orioles, chipping sparrows, chickadees, cardinals, cedar waxwings, and many other birds are very noticeable right now. While our tree swallows have long gone, barn swallows can still be found swooping over the garden. Shrubs such as elderberry and tartarian honeysuckle are providing much food for birds. Diane and I watched a cedar waxwing guzzling down the fruit of the honeysuckle as if he couldn’t get enough!

It is fascinating to see how the vegetation changes from year to year. New plants appear in odd spots, others vanish. All the annuals found last year in the old field’s rototilled section, have gone, but in their place scores of the biennial evening primrose (native plant), some big scotch (or bull) thistles, much beloved by insects, especially bees, and a variety of other species. The native wild cucumber plant is sending its sprays of creamy white flowers up in various spots including in the old field area.

There are lots of photos on the August 2013 Blog here:
http://www.pbase.com/fwg/fwg_blog_aug_2013

Be sure to visit so you can also see the great photos submitted by Diane and France, who photographed a gorgeous giant swallowtail at the garden on August 15.

June 4, 2013 at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden

by Christine Hanrahan

Tuesday afternoon at the garden, June 4th, and a lovely day to be wandering through the FWG.

Mating pair of silvery blue butterflies

Mating pair of silvery blue butterflies

Silvery blue butterflies were fluttering around in many locations, including this mating pair near the new woods. Common ringlets were indeed common that day but hard to photograph as they land low down in the vegetation much of the time. One posed briefly, however. Cabbage whites and a couple of hobomok skippers completed the butterflies I saw.

Still on insects, bumble bees were busy around the lupines, as were a few honey bees. I think the red squirrel, resident in one of the big roosting boxes, depleted the honey bee population over the winter. They made the mistake of deciding to make a hive in the box, and this spring when Barry and I checked it, the honeycomb was largely eaten and the bees were absent, likely also eaten by the red squirrel (these mammals will eat just about anything).

Mason bees are using the AAFC bee boxes, and a number of other bee species (Halictids, Andrenids, etc.) were actively feeding. Spittle bugs are mostly noted by the presence of their “spittle” on plants. These are actually protective coverings for the nymphs, keeping them moist, as well as hiding them from predators. There can be anywhere from one to four or more little nymphs inside these damp cases. Eventually the cases harden (they are a mix of fluid and a waxy secretion from the nymphs) and the nymphs have to create new ones.

Dame’s rocket is abundant. Yes it is not native, yes it can be invasive, but for the moment, the beauty of the flowers when seen en masse is stunning. This member of the mustard family is a common garden plant in Europe and is well liked here by pollinators. Claudia notes that she recalls it being planted in the BYG long ago to attract butterflies, but it was then weeded out, probably because it produces so many seeds. She thinks that may be where the plants we now see all over the garden, originally came from.

Various flies, including syrphids (hover flies), tachinids, root maggot flies, and so on, were found throughout. Not only are many syrphids excellent and important pollinators, but their larvae are formidable predators of aphids. A bit later in the season, carefully check out colonies of aphids and look for the flat larvae of syrphids working their way through them.

Green lacewing

Green lacewing

Also found, a couple of green lacewings. These beautiful insects in the order Neuroptera (Nerve-winged insects) are almost ethereal in appearance, with their golden eyes and see-through lacy wings, which of course, give rise to the common name. But their larvae are fierce predators of aphids, sawfly larvae and other insects. I have seen a single green lacewing larva work its way quickly through a colony of rose sawfly larvae, which are twice or three times its size!

All the usual birds are busy breeding now: yellow warblers, chickadees, cardinals, robins, house finches, etc. The phoebe is doing well, and I was happy to find a house wren nest. A lone cedar waxwing was near the birch grove, while a turkey vulture circled the garden overhead. The kestrels are still in their usual spot, so all is right with the world.

Isabelle (far left) and Renate (far right) showing members of the Ottawa Horticultural Society around the Backyard Garden

Isabelle (left) showing members of the Ottawa Horticultural Society around the Backyard Garden

On Tuesday evening, members of the Ottawa Horticultural Society came to the garden for a walk. There were two tours, ably led by Sandy (the first one) and Renate (the second one). Backyard Garden (BYG) habitat manager, Isabelle, gave Renate’s group a good intro to the BYG. Isabelle and I then hung around the BYG, keeping the centre open, and directing any stragglers onward to the tour.

Just as I was about to send this email, I rec’d one from Diane with some excellent photos which I will post to the blog very soon. There is a great shot of the pretty California calligrapha beetle and a golden image of the lovely syrphid Spaerophoria, a small, elongate fly, which is not at all easy to photograph. I’ve tried in other areas of Ottawa recently, but none of my photos comes close to the one you’ll see from Diane. There is also a very neat photo of a little scentless plant bug, new for our list of insects.

See more photos on the June Blog

Birds and insects in the rain at FWG

by Christine Hanrahan

Dodging the rain showers and gusty winds, I spent several hours walking around the garden looking for birds, plants, insects… Naturally, the latter were scarce and had to be looked for under leaves, huddled against stems and branches, seeking shelter from the rainy weather. I did see a pretty common spring moth in the Backyard Garden (BYG), but it flew off before I could photograph it. If you are interested in seeing this black and white beauty, there is a photo from a few years ago here.

Also in the BYG, one of the impressively large green blister beetles with vivid orange legs. Elsewhere, a few flies, including a syrphus sp., some bumblebees, and a few of the tiny Publilia treehoppers with their attendant ants. In another week, these insects should be more numerous.

One of the benefits of sometimes letting a week go by between visits is that you can be properly astonished by the sheer rate of plant growth, something that is less startling when you visit the site daily. Thus, last week I saw the small comfrey plants sitting a few inches above the ground, and today they were fully grown with flower clusters opening. It was quite a transformation of the land, both along comfrey alley (near the pond) and of course, elsewhere. Where oaks were putting forth tiny soft leaves last week, now they are big and bold, ditto for the black maple leaves, and indeed for most of the others. Bloodroot is long gone, save for the leaves, and the trilliums are on their way out. Mayapples are in flower (look under the leaves for their large white blooms).

In the BYG, there are yellow lady’s-slippers, drifts of blue forget-me-nots, the tiny native dwarf iris just starting to flower, and the two similar Geums, prairie smoke and water avens, both in flower with a few going to seed.

Gray treefrogs are calling from various spots around the garden.

New bird arrivals since my last visit include gray catbirds, least flycatcher in the ravine, great-crested flycatcher in the new woods, common yellowthroat (a warbler), a ruby-throated hummingbird vigorously chasing a tree swallow (!), and a lone male canada warbler foraging for insects on an apple tree. I got a great look at this beauty with its black “necklace.” Canada warbler is considered a species at risk, federally and provincially, having undergone a long-term decline. Very sad.

Other birds noted include barn swallows, tree swallows, chickadees, nest-building cardinals and red-winged blackbirds, grackles, robins, a couple of ravens who flew over to Carleton U, where they must be nesting, crows, mourning doves, goldfinches, phoebes still on nest (good), yellow warblers, starlings, baltimore orioles singing from every corner of the garden, and a roof full of rock pigeons (red barn). No sign of either kestrels or green herons today. A mockingbird was seen by others in recent days, but not by me, alas. These birds turn up at FWG and the adjacent Arboretum every few years.

On a more sombre note, the small rototilled area in the old field is thickly carpeted with garlic mustard seedlings. Seedlings of other plants are there too, but the mustard dominates. Also making an unwelcome reappearance is lamium. This common garden plant spreads rapidly and is very hard to get rid of once established. It has been at that location for about 12 to 14 years, another legacy of the temporary leaf dump, which also gave us celandine, though the latter is not a problem here. The lamium, I confess to having in my own garden, because its silver and green foliage lights up shady sites, and it grows where a lot of other things do not. It also has very pretty yellow flowers in spring. However, let it escape into a natural site and it can become a nuisance. Indeed, I expect there are gardeners who wish they’d never let it into their gardens!

Lots more photos on the May Blog

Mid-May 2013 at the FWG

by Christine Hanrahan

It was a blustery, coolish day at the garden, but as always, there was much to see.

Starting with birds, the kestrels were flying around the barn, a green heron flew to the pond, red-winged blackbirds, tree swallows, chickadees, yellow warblers, song sparrows, one lone white-crowned sparrow, both hairy and downy woodpeckers were all found. Robins were bathing in the Backyard Garden pond (they love the dripping water between the top and bottom ponds); goldfinches, cardinals, a lone raven, and crows were also around. South of the ash woods, a couple of barn swallows were swooping low across the field.

New arrivals since my last visit are baltimore orioles, whose song and calls could be heard across the garden and the Arboretum, and warbling vireos. The phoebe continues with nesting duties, but I didn’t see or hear the red-breasted nuthatches and hope that their second nesting attempt is successful.

The garden is awash with blossoms at the moment, from the creamy perfection of hawthorn, wild plum and choke cherry, to the pink and white of apple blossoms and the soft hues of lilacs. Too bad these are all so ephemeral because it is quite the sight to see.

nomada bee

nomada bee

Naturally, these blossoms attract insects, particularly bees and flies. Also attractive to insects are the dandelions, that much-hated plant (although not by me and I’m sure not by anyone who appreciates the little creatures that so widely use it as a nectar source). A tiny Nomada bee was so still on a dandelion that I finally got a few photos (at left). Normally, these bees fly fast, non-stop just above the surface of the land, seeking the nests of Andrenid bees on which they are parasitic. They are often called cuckoo bees for this reason.

Also on dandelions were Andrenids, a few hover flies and the vividly coloured little native lady beetle, Coleomagilla maculata. Despite their small size and prettiness, these beetles are fierce predators. I’ve seen them tearing open spider sacs to get at the spiderlings, and I’ve also seen them walking behind the Galerucella beetles (used for biocontrol of purple loosestrife), eating their freshly laid eggs! And of course, they eat a variety of other critters. Their larvae are predatory on aphids, as so many lady beetle larvae are.

The cold weather of recent days brought frost one night and the tender tops of the dog-strangling vine were all damaged, at least those in the open were. But, sadly, this does nothing to stop their rapid growth.

More photos on the FWG PBase galleries, in the May blog

FWG on May 1, 2013

by Christine Hanrahan

It was our first real scorcher of a day at 25 degrees C (anything above 15 C is a heat wave to me). I was expecting to see butterflies, even perhaps a few spring azures, as I’ve seen them elsewhere recently, but no butterflies showed themselves to me. However, bees were abundant! Bumble bees, nomada bees, various andrenid bees, sweat bees, scores of all of them. They were nectaring on magnolias, scilla, daffodils, and the few willow catkins still with pollen.

Many of the birds that were present in good numbers last week have left to carry on their migration. Still present are a few white-throated sparrows and juncos. I also saw many song sparrows, goldfinches, chickadees, red-winged blackbirds, a male kestrel with a meadow vole, a sharp-shinned hawk flying above our interpretive centre, many tree swallows, one pursuing the kestrel! White-breasted nuthatches, but the red-breasted nuthatches seem to have given up on nesting in the snag. Not a bad idea, as it was a terrible location.

However, exciting news: a pair of eastern phoebes are building a nest above one of the security lights on the side of the building. I watched for some time as they went back and forth with tiny bits of moss and other plant matter, carefully placing each bit on top of the light, fussily moving the pieces around until just so. Such laborious and lengthy work – quite impressive. Whether they actually nest remains to be seen, but so far, so good. Last week, they were exploring the nest site the robins used in 2012, on the front of the building. Fortunately for them, they thought better of it. If they do nest, it will be the first nesting record for phoebe at the garden.

Speaking of nesting, red squirrels have been using some of the bird nest boxes for years. Typically, they take over ones that birds no longer use, usually because trees have grown up around them making them difficult for swallows to access, but perfect for squirrels. We have many bird boxes up and I reason that, if we leave the old ones hidden by trees for the squirrels, they’ll leave the other ones alone. So far this has worked well, and everyone is happy.

Bloodroot - These beauties are among the first to appear in spring. They are now in full bloom in many locations throughout the woods, spread over the years by ants that carry off the seeds.

Bloodroot – These beauties are among the first to appear in spring. They are now in full bloom in many locations throughout the woods, spread over the years by ants that carry off the seeds.

In the woods, bloodroot is in full bloom. Each year new clumps grow up, thanks to ants who help transport the seeds. Red trilliums are about to burst open at any moment. Other flowers can’t be far behind. I mentioned magnolias – the two magnolias in the garden are in bloom and beautiful to see.

Photos were added to the April blog over the last week, including some beautiful bird photos by Diane. I added a shot of a red squirrel feeding on a mouse. Not particularly pleasant to see, and I admit I felt a bit queasy taking the photos. I posted the least offensive one! Of course, reds are omnivores, and while vegetable matter makes up a good proportion of their diet, they will eat birds and other small mammals that they catch. They are also scavengers, eating dead critters when times are tough.

April blog

More photos on the new May blog

April 8, 2013 at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden

by Christine Hanrahan

I am happy to tell you that the FWG’s April photo blog is now up and running. I was at last able to drive to the garden (hooray!) and, after an absence of 10 weeks, it felt good to be back.

As I got out of the car, the first thing I heard was the wonderful sound of multiple song sparrows singing. There were at least 6 in the BYG and another 14 or 15 around the rest of the garden.

After spending a few minutes in the BYG, I walked over to the pond and new woods, and immediately saw a pair of american kestrels near the barn. It has been a long time since a pair regularly nested in the bird box there. In fact, the new bird box (now several years old) has never had kestrels nesting in it. So, who knows? We’ll keep our fingers crossed. The female flew off to the barn, while the male circled around and came back to the same tree. But after about 5 minutes, they both flew off over the Arboretum.

Another happy sign was the sound and sight of a tree swallow soaring over the pond, which is still half frozen, while snow is still deeper than we’d like around the edges. However, the promised rain and milder temperatures should get rid of it soon. Other birds included a flock of common redpolls singing away in the ash woods, juncos trilling, robins and cardinals singing away, and of course all the usual suspects, such as chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, american goldfinches, and so on. A lone common raven was calling from across the canal, and just after I left the garden, a cooper’s hawk landed on a post along Prince of Wales Drive.

Chipmunks are common around the BYG especially, and I heard a groundhog giving its squeaky call. Lots of things to see, but we can expect to see lots more over the next few weeks. If we are lucky, we will get breeding wood frogs in the pond (the ones that sound like ducks quacking), the first ones we hear at FWG. (Chorus frogs, almost always the first frogs of spring, are being heard now in other parts of the region, as are spring peepers, but, alas, not at our pond.) Last year there were very few wood frogs, but in previous years, we’ve heard them over the period of a week, though never in great numbers.

Willow catkins are fresh and fuzzy and will soon be laden with pollen, attracting a variety of early emerging insects, particularly bees such as Andrenids, Colletes, and Nomadas. Speaking of insects, I noticed Muscid flies all over the garden.

The blog has many more photos:
www.pbase.com/fwg/fwg_blog_april_2013