Saturday, 7 October 2017

The Asters of Prince Edward Point, Ontario

Asters are one of two genera of plant families to bloom in Autumn in temperate North America, they also happen to be one of the harder families to distinguish due to the diversity and similarities shared between the species.

The two books used, and a selection of Aster species.
With a range of different habitats found at the point there's a number of aster species which could be present. Although I'm in no way an expert and I've been slowly keying out (with many wrong answers) some of the species out using 'The Common Asters Species of Southern Ontario' which was lent to me by Sheila, 'Newcomb's Wildflower Guide'. and the brilliant guide by Walter Muma on

One of the most obvious Aster species present at the point is the New England Aster Symphyotrichum novae-angliae. This is mainly due to its intense purple flowers which allow it to be easily identified in the field as no other common aster would look similar.

Symphyotrichum novae-angliae (New England Aster)

As mentioned this species is very obvious and easy to identify due to its large purple flowers. It is often one of the few plants any of the visitors can identify, which may be in part due to its common use as a garden plant. Its leaves, when crushed have a distinct spicy smell which can also be used as an identification feature.

At the point it is often found in the more open areas in full sun, helping to make it even more obvious than many other species.
Symphyotrichum novae-angliae flowers

Leaves of Symphyotrichum urophyllum
Symphyotrichum urophyllum (Arrow-Leaved Aster)

A common aster of woodland edges, I found the specimen photographed at the edge of the lake, under a thicket of prickly ash but it can be seen all over the point, often within the woodland

The leaves of this species are relatively distinctive with alternatively, shallowly toothed leaves and winged petioles.

It's flowers are on upright panicle shaped heads with stiff stems. Its flowers are usually white although they can be pale pink or bluish. the flowers change from having yellow centres to purple centres like most Asters.

Flower head of Symphyotrichum urophyllum

Distinctive dead leaves of
ymphyotrichum lanceolatum.
Symphyotrichum lanceolatum (Panicled Aster)

A very common species which is often found in moist open or lightly forested areas. At the point it could commonly be found close to the swamp or the lake in areas which were more likely to inundated with a little more water.

By the time it is in flower many of its lower leaves have dried and fallen off whilst smaller dead leaves higher up the stem tend to be rather curly. Its flowers are often spread out along the branches in a rather open manner.

Flower of Symphyotrichum lanceolatum 

Symphyotrichum lateriflorum (Calico Aster)

Symphyotrichum lateriflorum growth form

A common, and very easily identifiable aster due to its unusual form. Also known as the starved aster due to this form once you know what it looks like its an easy one to pick out. With its long horizontal spreading branches with its sparse flowers its not the nicest aster to look at.

This species was most often found within the woodland and along the paths and on the edges of the fields where it gets the dappled light it prefers.

Flower head of Symphyotrichum lateriflorum

Symphyotrichum cordifolium leave
Symphyotrichum cordifolium (Heart-Leaved Aster)

Another fairly common species, which was again often found within the woodland at the edge or paths or the woodland edge. It's pale blue flowers are arranged in a dense rounded panicle.

Its jaggedly toothed, heart shaped leaves also help aid identification and are present on the plant throughout the flowering season.

Flowerhead of Symphyotrichum cordifolium 

Symphyotrichum ericoides (Heath Aster)

Probably the commonest aster on the point, this species can be found across the large areas of abandoned fields and drier areas. It gets its name from its small crowded leaves which are similar to Heather Calluna leaves.

The white flowers are small and often overlap each other on the flowering stems which gives this species the alternative name of Many Flowered Aster. Unlike other species its mainly reproduces by runners and roots.

A stand of Symphyotrichum ericoides flowers

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

The Dog Days of Summer, Prince Edward Point Bird Observatory, Ontario

Its been a pretty exciting time at the observatory, between August and the 22nd of September we've been experiencing the dog days of summer. Its definitely turning into a Indian Summer with temperatures hovering around +25°C and with more sunshine than you'd expect at this time of year.

Although the weather hasn't always been settled. On the 7th September a huge front of thunderstorms moved up through Lake Ontario creating the perfect conditions for the formation of waterspouts. I hardly expected to see one let alone the which formed at the front of the storm offshore.

Waterspout over False Duck Island

Dog-Day Cicada, Tibicen canicularis
To me the dog days are characterised by warm lazy days, the constant hum of cicada's and crickets and the disappearance the local swallows, heading south to a warmer climes. The cicada, although obvious to the ear took quite a while  of searching.With one eventually turning up as by-catch in one of the mist nets. The species present at this time of year is the aptly named Dog-Day Cicada Tibicen canicularis, which as suggest is far more often seen than heard.

New England Aster, Symphyotrichum novae-angliae

Late summer is also when the once dry Alvaar comes to life. A sea of yellows and white with the blooming of several species of Aster and goldenrod. One of the most distinctive species is the showy purple flowers of New England Aster Symphyotrichum novae-angliae, A common and unmistakable species, unlike many of the other members of the family which I will detail in a later blog post.

Eastern Milk Snake, Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum
It's still a good time of year to see plenty of reptiles and amphibians. Northern Leopard Frogs Lithobates pipiens are everywhere, making it difficult to avoid stepping on them. Garter Snakes and Northern water snakes often quickly slither off the path but it was the Eastern Milk Snake Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum I was hoping to find. It is an uncommon species in the county, where it is often associated with old barns and meadows. I was lucky enough to find two individuals which were close to the observatory in early August but haven't found any individuals since.

There was still one species of Amphibian which I was also hoping to find. The Blue-Spotted Salamander Ambystoma laterale, a common woodland species which had managed to elude me in the spring. Luckily for me when a group of volunteers came to build a new fence at the observatory, they uncovered one under a piece of cedar rail and brought it to me. Quite an impressive looking animal and the first salamander I've managed to see in any country!

Blue-Spotted Salamander, Ambystoma laterale
Its been a relatively busy month for birds as well. Large numbers of Bobolinks caught in August and early September and arriving with one of these flocks was a less familiar species. A Dickcissel Spiza americana, a species your much more likely to encounter on the prairies. It was caught right towards the end of the bobolink period on the 5th September.

 HY Male Dickcissel, Spiza americana

Other notable species caught included a HY Northern Rough-Winged Swallow Stelgidopteryx serripennis on the 13th August, a AHY American Woodcock Scolopax minor on the 18th, a HY Broad-Winged Hawk Buteo platypterus on the 19th and several Cape-May Warblers Setophaga tigrina between the 22nd and the 29th of August.

Broad-Winged Hawk, Buteo platypterus

Connecticut Warbler, Oporornis agilis
A Connecticut Warbler Oporornis agilis was the first of six caught on the 11th of September. As well as a HY Semipalmated Sandpiper Calidris pusilla, which was caught in the afternoon on the lake shore.

A Clay-Colored Sparrow Spizella pallida was caught on the 14th alongside a Chipping Sparrow Spizella passerina allowing us to see a nice contrast between the two species.

Semipalmated Sandpiper Calidris pusilla

Monarch, Danaus plexippus
It wasn't just birds which are on the move, the final brood of Monarchs Danaus plexippus has hatched out and some are on their way south. Similarly the huge numbers of Green Darners have been somewhat astonishing, with tens of thousands present some evenings and mornings.

Giant Swallowtail, Papilio cresphontes
Plenty of other species of butterfly and dragonflies have also been seen at the point, one of the most impressive species is the Giant Swallowtail Papilio cresphontes, the largest butterfly in Canada. It can regularly be seen laying its eggs on Northern Prickly-Ash Zanthoxylum americanum, where its bird dropping like caterpillars are common or feeding on thistles.

Down close to the lake, plenty of small damselflies are seen flitting from cattail to cattail. Occasionally the much more colourful Twelve-Spotted Skimmer Libellula pulchella wizzes past on its constant search for food. Although a common North American species, its surprisingly colourful, mainly due to its spotted wings which are an uncommon feature on species found in the UK.

Twelve-Spotted Skimmer, Libellula pulchella
All in all its been a good start to the season, with the weather looking warm for a while yet hopefully it won't be long until the colder wind starts to blow and we'll be inundated with migrants and saw-whet owls.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Blackpill SSSI, Swansea

Having spent the weekend in Breacon Beacons with friends from France and sadly not being able to follow them onto Mid Wales it was nice to bump into a small patch of vegetated dunes on the edge of Swansea Bay at Blackpill.
Sea Holly Eryngium maritimum dominated dunes at Blackpill beach
Sea Holly, Eryngium maritimum

Although designated as a SSSI due to its importance for hosting internationally important numbers of wading birds they were all way to far away to photograph due to the tide being out, so I stuck around the vegetated dunes to see which species I could find, unsurprisingly there was nothing of too much note but it was nice to see the Sea Holly Eryngium maritimum in flower.

The sea wall was largely covered in Sea Sandwort Honckenya peploides, a common coastal plant and plenty of Rock Samphire Crithmum maritimum. Once a highly prized foraged herb but now sadly out of fashion, probably due to its intense salty, parsley taste but I quite like it.

Sea Sandwort,Honckenya peploides
Where the Marram Grass Ammophila arenaria was most abundant, Sea Spurge Euphorbia paralias was often dotted around and close to the edge of the dunes the delicate pink flowers of Sea Rocket Cakile maritima was abundant.

Sea Rocket, Cakile maritima growing amoung the Marram, Ammophila arenaria
Canadian Fleabane, Conyza canadensis

The sea wall which runs along the entirety of the bay sadly cuts short the majority of the dune habitats which would normally be present and forms an unnatural climax vegetation. This was comprised of a number of non-native species including Canadian Fleabane, Conyza canadensis and Fennel Foeniculum vulgare, another herb I regularly seek out to forage due to its lovely aniseed taste. 

One native species could be seen among all the invaders the small Autumn Hawkbit Scorzoneroides autumnalis.

Autumn Hawkbit, Scorzoneroides autumnalis

Down below the high tide mark were a few islands of vegetation, these were comprised of an endemic species which only originated in the 1870's in Southern Britain. 
Common Cordgrass Spartina anglica is an allotetraploid species derived from the hybrid Spartina × townsendii which came about due to the introduction of Smooth Cordgrass Spartina alterniflora, most likely in bilge water which then hybridised with the native Small Cordgrass Spartina maritima. 

Although at first it was seen as a key species for fighting coastal erosion it then went on to stabilise tidal mudflats, a key problem for wading birds however the species has since had a natural die back of unknown cause has reversed the spread.

An Island of Common Cordgrass, Spartina anglica

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Skomer, Pembrokeshire

For a few years now, Bethan has been nagging me to take her to Skomer to see the Atlantic Puffins Fratercula arctica but when ever we've attempted to go either the weather hasn't played ball when we've tried or I've been tied up with work during the peak puffin season.

Middleholm and Skomer from Martin's Haven

Puffin Raft off Skomer
So with a couple of days off we went, before hand we stayed with a lovely couple (who we found on Airbnb) in . An early start at Martin's Haven and a long wait in the queue but we manage to make the first boat of the day and the weather was perfect.

It didn't take us long to spot the first puffin, as soon as we were near Middleholm we started to see birds busy bringing fish in to their chicks. By the time we'd reached Skomer rafts of hundreds of Puffins could be seen offshore, all waiting to come in. After bumping into two friends after landing, we wandered to the far side of the island past the old farm. The previous time I'd been to Skomer was early in the season when the Bluebells Hyacinthoides non-scripta were at their peak, this time it was the Sea Mayweed Tripleurospermum maritimum which was at it's peak. It was everywhere and provided a wonderful backdrop to any photographs being taken.
Sea Mayweed, Tripleurospermum maritimum covered slopes

Sea Mayweed, Tripleurospermum maritimum

Young Rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus feeding in the Sea Mayweed 
After wandering around the North of the island and seeing the usual Seabirds we made our way towards the Wick. By far the best place to see breeding seabirds on the cliff ledges and the puffins which nest in the deep soil close to the path.

Rabbits Oryctolagus cuniculus also burrow here and had obviously had been breeding judging by the number of young about. Some happily feeding next to visiting tourists, although it was the puffins they had come to see.

Puffin, Fratercula arctica coming into land on The Wick

Puffling looking out of its burrow
Puffins are always top of peoples lists, admittedly their striking colours and character makes them a joy to watch but I think people would think the same if they sat down and watched any species for an extended period of time. Skomer has around 10,000 pairs of puffins making this the largest population in the southern Britain. The Puffins around the Wick don't have much fear of people and are quite happy to wander across the path in front of people. Many with fish for their chicks, Some of which were taking their first tentative look at of life outside the burrow.

Atlantic Puffin, Fratercula arctica

Although the puffins are what Skomer is known for its the birds that many visitors don't see which the island is more important for. With 310,000 pairs on Skomer and 40,000 more on its sister island Skokholm, around half the worlds population of Manx Shearwater, Puffinus puffinus can be found breeding here. Although this time I didn't see any. Whilst walking back to the quay, deep within a burrow we could hear the distinctive eerie call of a shearwater, a lovely end to a lovely day.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Petroglyphs Provincial Park, Woodville, Ontario

With the migration season over it was time for a bit of rest and relaxation, I was lucky enough to be staying with Mike and Kathy in the County but they decided to take me out for the day to the wonderful Petroglyphs Provincial Park.

A beaver pond close to Minnow Lake

Wild Sarsaparilla, Aralia nudicauli
Petroglyphs Provincial Park  was designated a historical class provincial park in 1981 due to the large assemble of first nations petrogylphs present on the site. The rock carvings were rediscovered in 1954 by a prospector and contain about 1200 carvings, representing humans like figures, animals and a dominant figure whose head may represent the sun. The carvings were made using Gneiss hammers around 900 to 1100AD by either Algonkian or Iroquian speaking people. Today first nations people
call the petrogylphs, Kinomagewapkong which means "the rocks that teach" or "the Teaching Rocks".

The forest which surrounds the petrogylphs is rich in Red Pine Pinus resinosa and Wild Sarsaparilla Aralia nudicaulis. Creating a rich acidic soil, although plenty of other species could be found growing on the smooth granite rocks which surrounded Minnow Lake and form Islands between stands of pines.

The plants were similar to many of the species I'd come into contact with in Scandinavia allowing me identifying many of them relatively quickly although some species such as White Trillum Trillium grandiflorum are North American specialists.

White Triulliums, Trillium grandiflorum

One of the more attractive species to be found was the Winged Polygala or Gaywings Polygala paucifolia, which can be found over much of Eastern North America. With its delicate Winged purple flowers it was a lovely little plant to see spread across the forest floor.

Winged Polygala, Polygala paucifolia
Out on the more open areas where the granite broke through the substrata drifts of Pale Corydalis Capnoides sempervirens could be found. It is also known as the Rock Harlequin due to it habit of growing almost out of the smallest of cracks in the rock.

Pale Corydalis, Capnoides sempervirens

Canada May-Lily Maianthemum canadense

Three other species of plant were common on the edges of the gloomy moist pine forest, Starflower Lysimachia borealis named after its distinctive shaped flowers and Canadian Bunchberry, Cornus canadensis which was often found growing on old moss covered stumps and logs, later its edible red berries would later be an important food source for migrating birds. Canada May-Lily Maianthemum canadense is another sub-boreal specialist species and could be found growing in abundance.

Starflower, Lysimachia borealis

Canadian Bunchberry, Cornus canadensis
It wasn't just plants which could be found in the sunny glades, Dragonflies of all sizes were busy hunting the plentiful mosquitoes which provided a constant hum in the background. The first species I came across was the Twin-spotted Spiketail Cordulegaster maculata a large and impressive species which perched for a long while on a dead stick. A more plentiful species was the Common Baskettail Epitheca cynosura,which were busy catching small insects in almost every clearing we encountered. 

Twin-spotted Spiketail, Cordulegaster maculata

Common Baskettail, Epitheca cynosura
All in all it was a lovely wander through the sub-boreal forest and a chance for me to see some interesting flora and fauna.
Minnow Lake