Absolutely Gorges!

Alexis pointing to the “Tower”, Mono Cliffs P.P.

A walk through Mono Cliffs and Hockley Valley is a walk through time. What a beautiful place to reflect on this weekend’s theme of landscape tracking. In his book Nature Observation and Tracking, Tom Brown Jr. says,

“To an experienced tracker, every disturbance and irregularity on the landscape is a track.  Every mark is the signature of an animal, plant, mineral, or some atmospheric, geologic or mechanical force. A glacial valley is as much a track as the footprint of a fox” 

Tom Brown Jr.

One of the conversations that came up this weekend is the tracker’s ability to look for patterns and read the signs of nature. I think that trackers also see the anomalies – the subtle change or variation of patterns that cause us to look further. Through that investigation, we deepen our relationship with the natural world, find meaning, mystery and a comforting sense of belonging in our rich uniqueness.

What captivated our attention this weekend? Here are a few sweet tracks, sign and live sightings to marvel at…

Praying Mantis, where do your ancestors come from?

Pretty Praying Mantis Photo by Leigh

A wildflower-rich meadow sparked curiosity only a few metres from the vehicles. We knelt down to inspect a deer bed. As I looked for deer hairs, a bright green praying mantis crawled up my shin.  We scooped it up and enjoyed her company in the warm sunshine. Upon further research, I learned that there are three species of praying mantids in Canada. One species is native, the ground mantid (Litaneutriaminor) and lives in southern British Columbia. The other two species, the European mantis (Mantis religiosa) and the Chinese mantid (Tenodera aridifolia) are introduced. Our visitor that morning was a European mantis with an identifying black-ringed white spot on the inside of her front legs. Male and female mantids in Ontario can be green or brown or a mix of both.

Oh gentle horse with orange fruit…

Deer browsed Orange-Fruited Horse Gentian

While wandering in a rich, deciduous forest we encountered this beautiful plant! A deer had browsed the top of an Orange-fruited Horse Gentian (Triosteum aurantiacum). Further research describes this plant as “rare or uncommon”. One source suggests that it can be used as external medicine for sore feet. I encourage you to read an excellent blog entry about Orange-Fruited Horse Gentian by fellow tracker and radio broadcaster extraordinaire, byron:

Communal Dust Baths for Turkeys

At the base of a tree stump, there were several wild turkey dust baths. Dust bathing helps distribute oil from the preening gland, keeping feathers conditioned, shiny and healthy. It may also help reduce parasites. Alexis gave an awesome wild turkey performance at the dust baths, as described by Mark Elbroch in Bird Tracks and Sign page 271-272.

Coyote Urine Art

Butterfly artwork by Wiley Coyote

Along the top edge of Mono Cliffs, we followed deer, coyote and wild turkey trails. Animal beds and scrapes overlooked scenic views under a shelter of maple, beech and cedar trees.  Marcus pointed out this possible coyote urine mark at the base of a cedar tree. I smile as I picture a butterfly silhouette in the dried-out moss (perhaps affected by acidic coyote urine).  

Carrot Seed Moth. Tastes like Carrot? Ask Hugh…

Green or brown, wolf it down…

The meadow beckoned more discoveries. Hugh’s passion for eating bugs led us to the Queen Anne’s Lace plant and a chance to see the Carrot Seed Moth caterpillar (Sitochroa palealis). Though the caterpillar was not green or brown, Hugh did wolf it down. We are waiting for a report on his sampling of this species. I have noticed this caterpillar weaving itself into a silky “sleeping bag” inside the ageing flower head. I often find lots of caterpillar frass mixed with wild carrot seeds in the winter months but no sign of the caterpillar. I wonder when it transforms into a cocoon and where does the cocoon go? Does anyone other than Hugh eat them? When do they transform into an adult moth?

A few more stars…

Ribbed Pine Borer (or is it a “ripped” pine borer? HeHe) Photo by Kathleen

A Long Horned Beetle (Ribbed Pine Borer) and Bark Beetle galleries captured our attention on both days. Theses insects left trails, tracks, stories and pyramids of pine dust to explore. A bright orange midge larva (Schizomyia impatientis) in a Jewelweed gall was also interesting to see as were woolly aphids on a sumac tree. So many discoveries!


Oak Apple Galls at Lake of Bays

Have you ever gone to a party and you recognized someone who walks in, and you know their name, but not really know anything about them? I’ve been in these situations before, where I see someone interesting and I get curious as to who they are, who they know at the party and what their story is. In these situations, I tend to go about my business but I am also aware of their interactions if they are close by, I note who they might be talking to, what songs they like and what makes them laugh. If they seem like a jerk, I tend to steer clear, but if they seem cool I might go introduce myself. This sort of observation, consideration of relationships and how a form of life makes their way in the world is similar to how I approach the non-human world as well. When I see something interesting or new to me, I get curious. I try and pay attention to where the phenomena took place, and who is affected by it. Who does this life consume? Who in turn consumes them? What conditions are best suited for something to grow? Are they harming something or is there a mutualistic relationship happening? My observations in the field can only go so far, so I then turn to research. This is the story of that research.

Oak Apple Gall found at Lake of Bays, 2022.08.13
Oak Apple Gall found at Backus Woods, 2021.08.25

Someone in our tracking crew had found a small, pale brown, hollow papery orb with spots on the surface with a couple of holes in it. I recognized it as an Oak Apple Gall, which my partner and I had found last year at Backus Woods.
It wasn’t a green one, but it must be the same thing, right?

Last year, I may have looked up a bit on the Oak Apple Gall, but I no longer remember much. It’s like meeting someone again, but not remembering much of the details of your previous conversation. I had to ask some questions again, and here is some of what I have learned.

Oak Apple Galls are, like other galls, abnormal growths or swelling induced by the interaction of an aggravating life form with the plant. Those life forms could be an insect, a mite, a fungi, bacterium, nematode, or even a virus. The plant releases growth hormones and chemicals to quickly form thick tissue growth around the animal, fungi, or bacteria which is interacting with the plant. While galls can sometimes be harmful for the plant host, they aren’t always. Some are benign, some may even be beneficial.

There are a couple of Oak Apple Galls caused by a few different species across many genera. The particular gall we found was large, empty, green with purply spots, around 3 cm (1¼ in) in diameter and was made by Amphibolips quercusinanis, which is another species of wasp found in the Gall Wasps, or Cynipidae family. This particular gall is called the Empty Oak Apple Gall (I love when life forms get simple names that describe them well), and they grow along the midrib or middle vein on the underside of Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea) and Red Oak (Quercus rubra) leaves, and in the case of the forest we were in, it was full of Red Oaks. The leaves are often deformed or aborted.

The adult Amphibolips quercusianis lays an egg on the leaf bud in the Spring. Then, as the leaves unfold, the egg hatches and larva burrows their way into the midrib of the leaf, and there, through either chemical interaction, or the irritant of the egg or the burrowing larva, the leaf reacts by isolating the larva within the gall.

There are also Oak Apple Galls with a soft juicy tissue filling the inside except for a small cell in the middle where the developing larva hang out. These are called Spongy Oak Apple Galls, and are created by the wasp Amphibolips confluenta. I have yet to encounter this kind of gall.

The Cynipidae family of wasps is all about the galls. There are about 1,000 species worldwide and they all make a gall specific to their species. Not only that, but some Cynipidae family members have alternating generations of only female offspring which make a specific kind of gall, and then a generation of both male and female offspring, which make a different kind of gall! Some members of the Gall Wasp family don’t even make their own galls, but instead find another gall made by another Gall Wasp and move in, feeding on the gall tissues. These Gall Wasps are awesome.

A couple of pages from “Fifty Common Plant Galls of the Chicago Area” by Carl F. Gronemann (Field Museum of Natural History, 1930).

In Doug Tallamy’s book “The Nature of Oaks”, he asks the question as to why the Oaks would allow, over millennia of co-evolution and natural selection, the Gall Wasps to continue to infest the trees, while the Oak does all the work for the larvae, making shelter and food? Why isn’t the Oak looking out for itself? Turns out Doug has a theory:

Cynipids are herbivores that feed within plant tissues. Let’s imagine for a moment that galls did not form around cynipid eggs and larvae. In that case, the larvae would not concentrate all their feeding in one location as they do within a gall; instead, they would tunnel through leaves or stems over a much wider area, very likely damaging oak vascular tissues as they went. With no physical constraints on their feeding, selection might have favored large individuals, larger than what can be achieved within galls, which would have, in turn, led to even more tissue damage to oaks from cynipids. Rather than thinking of galls as one-sided adaptations that favor only cynipids, we might more accurately view them as an evolutionary compromise that confines cynipid herbivory to one tiny site, minimizing damage from cynipid herbivores, and constraining the size of these oak parasites, while galls simultaneously allow cynipids to complete their development within the relative safety of a gall.

Image from Cynipid galls of the eastern United States by LH Weld (1959)

In a video online, Tom Wessels, a terrestrial ecologist who I am a very big fanboy of, describes how coevolved species tend to start to work together if given a long enough time span. Energy efficiency seems to win out in the natural world and he relates this idea to the Oak Apple Gall as well. He was wondering, like Doug Tallamy above, why the Oak creates these large galls on the leaves when the formation of the gall is using up so much energy? It would seem counter intuitive if we remember that nature does not appreciate the wasting of energy. Tom suggests in the video that the plant tissue which makes up the gall is still photosynthesizing while also protecting the larva living safely within. This energy production is equal to or more so than the amount of energy that is embedded within the gall. He then suggests that if the energy production is greater than what the intact Oak leaf would have produced without the gall, then the gall, with increased energy production capacities could actually benefit to the tree. So it seems that two biologists are seeing these galls as potential boons for the trees as opposed to simply parasitic relationships which have been suggested in the past.

So now that we know a little bit more about the Amphibolips quercusianis Gall Wasps, the gall structure and the energy output/input, why does the gall we found look different from the ones in the pictures on the internet? All the Empty Oak Apple Galls on the internet show a thin walled green orb with purplish spots on the outside, with long filamentous strings supporting a small chamber in the middle where the larva live. When Tamara cracked ours open, the one we found was mostly hollow.


Why does the gall we found look different? Why papery and brown? Why no filamentous strings? No larval chamber? And what’s with the brown stuff? My research is teaching me that as the larva matures, they depart from the gall and then the gall changes colour from green to the caramel brown, and the gall becomes dry and brittle. What I am curious about is that the gall we found didn’t have the radiating filamentous strings, yet there are photos online of mature brown galls with the strings still intact (1)(2). I have also read (but without sources) that the Gall Wasp larvae do not defecate while growing in the gall, yet the gall we found appears to have frass (insect poop) within it.
Adding these clues together, no filament + presence of poop, I get to wondering if another insect may have preyed upon the wasp larva within the gall? I read in one paper, that they observed two Earwigs in the genus Forficula (our common Earwig in Ontario is Forficula auricularia) emerging from the galls of Amphibolips quercusinanis a few days after they collected the gall. They suggested that since the Earwigs are nocturnal, they may have only been using the large, mostly-hollow A. quercusinanis galls to chill during the day. Did they poop in the empty gall? Did someone else? Regardless of whomever left the frass inside the Empty Oak Apple Gall there are records of other species inhabiting the galls alongside Amphibolips quercusinanis, so now I just need to find out any recorded predators of the A. quercusinanis and see if a predator is why the gall was truly emptied or if someone else came along after the A. quercusinanis matured and departed, and just spent the night and left behind some scat when they left? So many questions, but sometimes you’ve got to stop writing before they all are answered.

I have written this before but I appreciate that when I take the time to focus in on a subject more and more questions develop and emerge, and my research could go on and on and on. I understand more why different scientists get so specialized in their fields. The desire to know and to develop a depth in the relationship is very real. It’s not like there isn’t a desire for mystery and that unknowns are bad because that’s not what I want to imply. Rather, it is similar to when you’ve got a crush on someone and you spend a lot of time thinking about them, wondering about the possibilities and falling into deep curiosities. There is a lot of time in a relationship spent asking questions and getting to know each other, and I guess this is where I am in my getting to know you phase with the Oak Apple Galls.

To learn more :
Insects : Their Natural History and Diversity by Stephen A. Marshall (Firefly Books, 2006).
Tracks and Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates by Charley Eiseman and Noah Charney (Stackpole Books, 2010).
The Nature of Oaks by Douglas W. Tallamy (Timber Press, 2021)
Interview with Doug Tallamy about the book “The Nature of Oaks”
Cynipid galls of the eastern United States by LH Weld (1959)
Cynipid Gall Wasps article from Current Biology 28, R1365–R1381, December 17, 2018
The Population Biology of Oak Gall Wasps
Tom Wessels video on “The Ecology of Coevolved Species”
Interview with Tom Wessels about his work
Apples Don’t Fall Far From The Oak Tree by Joe Boggs, Ohio State University Extension
The arthropod associates of 155 North American cynipid oak galls


Lobelias of the Krug Forest

I have always loved wetlands, be they swamps, bogs, marshes or the shoreline of a favorite river or lake. The Lobelia family are some of my favourite flowers to encounter in wetland habitats. During the July Wild Plants apprenticeship weekend we were fortunate to meet two beautiful Lobelias on our trip to the Krug Forest.

In a low, moist, open area on the sunny edge of the forest, we found an abundance of cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) growing in a lush tangle of grasses alongside water hemlock (Cicuta maculata).

Cardinal flower immediately stands out for its shocking red colour– so red that my camera lens can’t seem to capture its depth and vibrancy. Cardinal flower is notable as a food source for the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. This scarlet red colour is not common in nature, yet, according to the Audubon Society, hummingbirds’ eyes are especially sensitive to colours in the red to yellow range. 

While being sources of food for both Hummingbirds and Swallowtails, the Cardinal Flowers are not abundant enough to provide any significant food for birds or mammals according to John Eastman, author of The Book of Swamp and Bog. So intertwined are L. cardinalis and the Ruby-throated friends that John Eastman writes, “Cardinal flower abundance not only depends upon hummingbirds but also reflects, to some extent, their own abundance.”

L. cardinalis’s long tubular flower exhibits an exciting characteristic called protandry, in which the flower seems to “change sex” from male to female. First, the flower displays pollen-bearing “male” stamens. When the pollen is dispersed, the stamens decline, and pistils (the “female” part) extend, ready to receive pollen from another flower still in the staminate stage. This sex-sequential behaviour stands in contrast to most other flowers, whose staminate and/or pistillate parts remain static over the course of the plant’s life.

We saw Kalm’s lobelia (Lobelia kalmii) growing along the moist, sunny edges of a swampy wetland. The delicate stalks of this tiny plant would be easy to miss if it were not for its blue-violet flowers. Kalm’s lobelia prefers calcium-rich soils like fens. 

Despite looking this plant up in my wild plant books, and browsing reputable wildflower websites, I wasn’t able to find many answers to my questions about Kalm’s Lobelia: what insects pollinate this plant? Do any herbivores browse on it? It seems that science doesn’t have much to say about this diminutive wildflower. 

All members of the genus Lobelia contain the alkaloids lobeline and lobelamine in various quantities. Lobelia inflata in particular is used in western herbalism for smoking cessation, among other applications, and the usefulness of this plant is attributed to these alkaloids. But take caution: as we often see in herbalism, the most potent medicines can be harmful in large doses. If you were to consume a bowlful of Lobelias, their alkaloids could cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and convulsion. Plants are powerful!

I’m grateful for the opportunity to meet these two Lobelias again!


Lake of Bays Tracking

It was a Friday evening after the August full moon – the Sturgeon Super Moon. This moon is named after giant fish that were traditionally caught in the Great Lakes at this time of year. A wolf howled twice in the night. Its low, longing call was deep and compelling. I woke and then dreamt of wolves circling my tent.

Wolf Howl Season

August is wolf howl season. Why? According to Algonquin naturalist Michael Runtz, the air is cool, calm and the sound carries well. Wolf packs have “rendezvous sites” where pups play and rest while the adults go on hunting forays. The adults and pups use howls to communicate over long distances. Howls also vocalize territory boundaries and communicate location and affection for other pack members. On Saturday morning, we adventured up the nearby forested hillside, tracking our way through hemlocks, hobble bush and pines.

Bark Sloughing

Black-backed woodpecker “bark sloughing”
Beak marks from a black-backed woodpecker

We observed “bark sloughing” sign from a black-backed woodpecker on the hemlock trees. Woodpeckers search for wood-boring beetle larvae by removing the bark from trees. To do this, the woodpecker repeatedly slips its pointed beak under loose bark and pries it off the tree. The exposed insects are then slurped up by the woodpecker’s long, barb-tipped tongue.

Sprinkles on a Marsh Cupcake

Vole scat on a marsh mound

Our route took us to a wetland with two deer beds in the soft sphagnum moss. We followed a bear trail and found an ant mound in a decaying stump. Vole scat decorated the top of the mound, like sprinkles on a duffy cupcake.

Marsh St. John’s Wort and a spittle bug!

I met a new wetland wonder – Marsh St. John’s Wort!

My curiosity was sparked and lo and behold – it had a spittle bug on its stem! I thought that the spittle bugs had turned into frog hoppers back in June but what a sweet surprise to find an August one. Yay!

Back in the forest, we embarked on a tricky challenge next – debris tracking in leaf litter with a myriad of deer tracks. We became lost in a maze of indentations. Fortunately, Alexis and magic tracking sticks helped us out. A woodland jumping mouse brought smiles while my group was pleasantly distracted by wild turkey feeding sign on Jack in the Pulpit bulbs. 

Red-backed vole cache

Red-backed vole (?) cache of Orange Mycena mushrooms and a caterpillar too?

While wandering back along a ridge, we discovered a cache of orange mycena mushrooms inside a log. The mushrooms had tiny incisor marks on them. I had just recently returned from a canoe trip in Algonquin Park where I had observed a red-backed vole near a cache of mushrooms. The sign was so similar that I wondered if it was the red-backed vole again. After doing some reading, I learned that these forest dwelling voles are omnivores rather than herbivores (like the meadow vole) and will eat a diet of seeds, berries, leaves, shoots, roots, lichens, fungi and insects. During my research, I learned that the orange mycena mushroom has antibiotic properties.

Pretty mystery plant

Kathleen drew my attention to a gorgeous flower with a star-shaped seed arrangement. Maybe a wild lettuce? After carefully tracking our way down the ridge, we were greeted by a raccoon in a tree, seemingly welcoming us back to cozy cottage time and a swim at the beach😊. Thank you, Michelle, for hosting us!


Medicinal Plants – A sensory Saturday in July

On July 30, our 2022 cohort of plant students met at the farm in Grey Count. We each took some time to greet each other and share a little gratitude, a centering practice that helps create a bit of shared understanding before we work together. Then off for a sit with a plant on the land. Last month, we had each taken turns planting a seedling – Purple Coneflower or St Johns Wort or Sage to name a few. This practice of sitting with the plants is a foreshadow of some of the more reflective practices that come up in the Spirit of Plants weekend.

After some individual time sitting and observing, we got back together as a group and heard some introductory remarks about plant medicine. It was exciting to think that many of herbal traditions have a plant energetics component and also work with each individual person and their unique constitution. The depth of treatment that is possible is reliant upon folks learning about the individual plants, the individual person and the specifics of the condition that needs treating – so cool and complex!

What better way to move forward than to learn using our individual senses? That’s what we did next – most of the day was split in two workshops – one about the Tasting Wheel and one looking at individual constitutions and energetics in plant tinctures.

Using the outdoor classroom, and remaining curious while smelling and tasting and feeling the reaction of plants in our bodies, we spent hours with herbal teas, some fresh plants from the garden and some alcohol based tinctures – the key here is moderation! Like a sampling of many fine cheeses or wines, we just tried a little bit and then got some great group discussions on how each person liked/disliked, felt a cooling or warming effect, a drying or moistening sensation and we each got a chance to use our own “Laboratory of Self”.

After the second afternoon rotation, we still had time to make a herbal formulation. Using some guidelines around creating a blend that has a key herb, supporting herbs, balancing herbs and catalysts, we were all ready to harvest plants in small groups and make a fresh digestive tincture – woo hoo!

Some of the beautiful plants featured in our formula included Motherwort, Yarrow, Bergamot (Monarda), Catnip and Anise Hyssop, which we then chopped (garbled!) and covered with alcohol and we’ll let those steep for a month before straining.

In the final parts of our evening, for those who stayed, we had a delicious shared potluck dinner, followed by some sweet plant cocktail and mocktail making. With everything from cedar infused whiskey, to strawberry sumac shrub to simple Thyme sodas – the evening was a great success! We even got a lucky visit from some farm kittens who showed up and delighted us all.


A mystery while tracking in Lake of Bays, 2022.08.13

Saturday Aug 13, Conditions at Dwight, Ontario : high of 25*C; low of 7*C; wind coming generally from the North, max wind 7km/h; mix of sun and cloud.

This was the second time I had been into these woods, situated nearly in the middle of Lake of Bays in Central Ontario. The first time I was here, some of us trailed White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) feeding sign until we found the Deer. That was back in February, when these hills and valleys were deep in snow. Now we thanked the shade for keeping the hot sun off our shoulders while we looked for signs in the debris.

Debris tracking can really be challenging for me. I get frustrated easily while looking for bent grasses, broken dead leaves, unseen impressions in the mud and soil below the leaf litter. As described in conversation between some other trackers and I, it’s as if we are seeing tracks where there are none, and not seeing tracks where there are, and not being able to tell the difference. There are broken twigs, rocks, Southern red-backed vole (Myodes gapperi) tunnels, hollow bits where roots held up the soil, questionable digs, and tracks from animals who went by days before. The skill set of identifying a fresh trail with certainty in the jumbled quilt of the Summer forest floor is definitely an art and science with which I have little purchase… but I will continue to work at it. With time, patience, good conditions to suit a beginner, I will get better at this skill. I have a couple small debris tracking victories and keeping those in mind will help me stay motivated.

A skill set that I do feel a growing confidence about is bone identification and while making our way up the hill in the leaf little there was a small mandible laying fairly exposed with the lingual surface (the side which would be closest to the tongue in the living animal) facing the canopy.

*Quick note here: Lingual/Buccal are anatomical terms of location often used in reference to the teeth and not the mandible. Through researching for this blog post, I have found other sites and books which use lingual/buccal to describe the orientation of the jawbone as well as the teeth. I find this useful and will use this nomenclature here.

Lingual aspect of the left mandible showing 2nd and 3rd premolars (counting anterior towards the posterior) . The second premolar is on the right, and the 3rd premolar is beside it to the left. The front of the animal’s head would be on the right side, with the left side towards the back of their head.
Superior aspect of the left mandible showing 2nd and 3rd premolars (counting anterior towards the posterior) . Here you can see the unerupted 1st molar left of the 3rd premolar, which is left of the 2nd premolar. The front of the animals head would be towards the bottom right of the image.

When I quickly looked at the mandible I thought White-tailed Deer, but then I challenged my own thoughts because of the size. The mandible, measured from the furthest points, was 7.6 cm (3 in) long, which is more so the size of a Raccoon (Procyon lotor) mandible. I also have a bit of a rule, when it comes to finding skulls, uncertain tracks or scat: “it’s a Raccoon, until it’s not.” Following this logic I had to test it based on my observations of the mandible we found.

Raccoons and Deer have differently shaped teeth to facilitate different diets; Deer have incisors at the very front of their long narrow mandibles, and then some premolars and molars with high cusps which slowly wear away due to browsing woody branches and twigs in winter and grazing green forbs in the warmer months. Raccoons have thinner pointier teeth in the front of their mouths for cutting, large canines for tearing, and high cusped cheek-teeth to facilitate crushing. Their flatter molars are well suited for grinding up fruit and plant matter at the posterior end of the mandible. From the look of this mandible there were no signs of canines at the anterior end of the mandible, and the bone itself seemed too narrow to be able to support the work that the canines do in crushing and tearing. I had to assume White-tailed Deer, but it was so small that I still wasn’t sure. I had to look at the number of teeth and what kind of shape the teeth were in.

The mandible we found had two teeth still on it, the second and third premolars. The first premolar, which is missing, would be located closest to where the incisors would be, and must have fallen out before we came along. There was another tooth located within the mandible, but it had not yet erupted. By the looks of it, only three teeth had erupted, the three premolars, with the first molar still nestled within the socket. Let’s work our way backwards to try and age this Deer.

A mature White-tailed Deer has 32 teeth. A dental formula is a way of quickly explaining which teeth the animals has, and how many. When writing out the dental formula, i stands for incisors, c are canines, p are premolars, m are molars. The first number in a set is always the teeth in the cranium (top of the mouth), followed by teeth in the mandible (teeth in the jaw). Also, the number given is for only one side of the animals mouth. That means that you must double the number to get the total amount. The dental formula for a mature White-tailed Deer is as follows : i 0/3 c 0/1 p 3/3 m 3/3 = 32. This was certainly not a mature White-tailed Deer.

By the time a Deer is 1½ years old there should be not only an additional two molars, but also the 3rd premolar (circled in red in the fourth image), with its three parts should be replaced by a new 3rd premolar with only two parts. The fact that there are three parts to this 3rd premolar tells me that this Deer is younger than 1½ years old. As for the two molars which should be there, the second molar, or fifth tooth to erupt, should be present by six months after the fawn is born. This is not present. This means the fawn is younger than six months. The first molar, the tooth which is nested in the socket (visible in the image looking down on the tops of the teeth from above) should have erupted by the time the fawn was born. That would mean there should be four teeth when the fawn is born.
So, if four teeth should be present when a fawn was born, and there are only signs that three teeth have erupted on the mandible, could this mean that this mandible is from a Deer that had not been born yet? This was a thought after Alexis told a story of a time he was tracking Wolves (Canis sp.) and they had come across a kill site where, from their interpretations of the tracks and sign, a pregnant Moose (Alces alces) cow had been killed and the calf was torn from her womb and consumed a few meters away. It’s an interesting idea, but I have no way to confirm that this was a calf that had not come to term, but instead I can only look at the tooth replacement as a gauge on how old the Deer was. I will have continue to do more research to get more precise answer, but I can say with relative certainty that this is the mandible from a Deer which not yet come to term up to the age of 4 months.

To learn more:
White-tailed Deer Jawbone Aging: Part 1 — Tooth Replacement
A Key for Aging White-tailed Deer Using the Tooth Replacement and Wear Technique
Human and Non-human Bone Identification by Diane L. France (CRC Press, 2009)
The Deer of North America by Leonard Lee Rue (The Lyons Press, 1997)
Animal Skulls by Mark Elbroch (Stackpole Books, 2006)


Carrion Beetles : Elytra in the Pellet

While out with the Earth Tracks Wildlife Tracking Apprenticeship crew, Saturday was spent focusing on Pressure Releases in the sandpit. You can read about this from a previous year here. It is always pretty awesome, studying the links between small peaks, ridges, crests and caves in the sand and how they reflect the sometimes forgettable movements of someone who just walked through the sandbox a moment before. But as much as I love working in the sandbox, I still do get a lot more excitement just being out on the land looking at the signs that those who we share this space with leave behind. Just as the small look over the shoulder is revealed through a deeper impression on the left side of a foot, the small puzzles we discover on the landscape, once studied and deciphered can reveal profound relationships between multiple varied and diverse cohabitating species.

Only an hour into our meander through Allen Park Conservation Area we came across some small fawn trail which we were backtracking up a steep hill. When we got to the top a couple of us were looking intently at the ground trying to stay on the fawn trail. I remember staring at the grass really hard, as though I could stare hard enough the grass itself would burn away and only the sandy trail would remain. I saw grasses, pine needles, White Campion (Silene latifolia), owl pellets, Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) sprouts, …. wait a second. I went back to the owl pellets. There were many of them, all fairly flattened, and kind of strewn about, as if they had been rained on many times and perhaps walked on by many hikers unaware they were underfoot. Luckily the pillowy duff of pine needles, with sand below, along with the mixed grey hairs of the pellet were cushion enough to cradle many of the bones so that they did not break under compaction.

I sat down immediately and took off my pack. I began first pulling out the bones, which included a couple of hips, skulls from a Short-tailed Shrew (Blarina brevicauda) and a Star-nosed Mole (Condylura cristata), some fine small greasy hairs likely from both. I wish I had taken more time with the larger Star-nosed Mole skull as I haven’t really inspected one thoroughly before, but I got distracted by a different discovery amidst the pellets; elytra. Elytra, or elytron in the singular, are the hard wing covers of a Beetle. If you can imagine a Ladybug, their red and black speckled “shell” which splits apart to reveal the wings are the elytra. Insects generally have two sets of two wings, but for Beetles, the anterior wings, the ones closest to the head, are hardened and serve to protect the hind wings which are concealed beneath. The two elytron I found within the smushed pellets had a familiar pattern to an insect I am coming to know.
I am generally pretty interested in insects and invertebrates of all sorts, but recently I have been severely focused on a specific subfamily of Coleoptera, or Beetle family, and that is the Nicrophorini. I am interested in this subfamily because of their habit of hanging out on dead stuff. If you know me, you know I love dead stuff. I love skulls and kill sites and food (which is really just dead stuff consumed), and so it tracks that I would also come to love these Carrion Beetles, as they are commonly known. Members of the Necrophorinae subfamily are also known as Burying Beetles as they have a habit of burying the carcass’ they encounter. Another common name for this crew are the Sexton Beetles – a sexton is a person hired by a church to take care of the buildings and structures of the church along with the commonly neighbouring graveyard.

Basics of the Necrophorinae subfamily (and only member tribe Nicrophorini) :

They are comparatively large Beetles, which is likely why I take so much notice. They have 10 segmented clubbed antennae, and have dark coloured elytra with red-orange markings on them (which remind me of both the Batman symbol and Charlie Brown’s sweater).

In southeastern Ontario, there are seven species of Burying Beetle (subfamily: Nicrophorinae, genus: Nicrophorus). These species include

Nicrophorus orbicollis : primarily been found in forest habitats; however, they have also been captured in open fields, forest edges, and wetlands.

N. sayi : found in forest habitats, especially in coniferous forest, but they have also been captured in open fields at lower abundances.

N. tomentosus : found to be abundant in all habitat types. That previous article mentioned above is about this species.

N. pustulatus : enigmatic species, captured only very rarely in forest habitats and occasionally open fields. Maybe specialists in forest canopies?

N. hebes (previously N. vespilloides) : found almost exclusively in wetland habitats such as Sphagnum bogs and cattail marshes, occasionally occurring in other wetland-bordering habitats.

N. marginatus : only occurring in large open fields and meadows

N. defodiens : found only in forest habitats, with some evidence indicating that they may prefer dry coniferous forest.

Now that I know that there are multiple species, I will be, and have been since learning, on the lookout for more individuals in hopes of identifying them. Here is some of what I am learning about the subfamily as a whole.

The name Nicrophorinae may be derived from the word “necrophagous”, which means translates to something like Death Eaters, or Eaters of the Dead, which is pretty metal.

Nicrophorinae species exhibit care by both parents, which is seemingly rare for insects. Nicrophorinae bury the carcass to conceal and protect it from larger vertebrate scavengers who may take the carcass. Invertebrate competitors may attempt to occupy or lay eggs on the carcass, all the more reason to cover it up. All burying beetle species require these small vertebrate carcasses for reproduction, which they often use as a food source and nest for developing larvae and will not remain on a carcass overly infested with flies or larvae from flies (though they can dispatch a couple of maggots here and there).

What do they do with a carcass they come across? It’s pretty cool. Two Nicrophorinae Beetles will hang out on a rotting carcass, then mate atop the dead animal, and then crawl under the carcass to begin the excavation of dirt from below as part of the burying process. Once entirely or partly buried, they will remove fur or feathers from carcass and cover the carrion with excretion of a preservative fluid (eww and cool). This preservative fluid helps defend against microbes by slowing down decomposition. They then lay eggs close to the carcass which is utilized by the larva during development.

The two parent Beetles feed early stage larva predigested materials from the carcass. The larva communicate the need for food by touching their legs to the mouth of the mother. Mothers who may be overwhelmed or bothered will actively not feed, or eat their own young who beg too much for food, culling the brood to achieve numbers which can be sustained. No need for birth control when you can just eat your babies. Beetles are metal.

Silphidae Beetles (the family which the subfamily Nicrophorinae is a part of) can produce sound by rubbing the tips of their wing covers against their abdomens. These sounds are called “stridulations”. Three types of stridulations have been recorded; defensive stridulations to ward of predators, mating ritual stridulations to woe their mates while hanging out atop the slowly rotting corpse/dinner/nest for their young, and also parental stridulations to call their young to feed.

It also seems like it is pretty common for small mites to hitch a ride on the Beetles backs. They ride along with the Beetles and then predate fly eggs and larvae. This relationship could be typified as a symbiotic relationship but sometimes the mites may also feed on young instars of the Beetles and if the Beetles are overwhelmed with too mites it may inhibit the Beetles abilities to fly.

This is a really basic intro to this subfamily. I think as I encounter more dead things and thereby more Nicrophorinae Beetles, I’ll get more chances to observe them and to pay closer attention.

To learn more :
Habitat use of co-occurring burying beetles (genus Nicrophorus) in southeastern Ontario, Canada
The Carrion Beetles of Nebraska by Brett C. Racliffe
Introduction to UK Carrion Beetles


A Million Little Things and One Big One

“Not only is an animal an instrument played by the landscape, but the landscape is an instrument played by the animal. Thus the spheres of animal, plant, and land come together to form a whole.” (Tom Brown Jr.)

On Sunday, July 17th the tracking group went to Allen Park. It was a hot, humid day. The sandy slopes and trails provided clear tracks and sign. The cool forest provided shade and compelling discoveries.

I will go into some detail for three of the discoveries, even though the day was filled with a million little things and one big one.

Scat Dissection

Meadow Vole Incisor

Upon closer inspection of a predated turtle nest, Rachelle and Stephanie noticed a fox scat at the entrance of the dig site. They decided to investigate the scat further and discovered a large tooth. We wondered how a sharp tooth like that could pass through a digestive tract without injuring the fox.  The compact casing of fur around the bones likely provides protection and helps clean the digestive tract on its way through, like a J-cloth. The tooth was yellow, indicating a member of the rodent family. It is one of the incisors. The width of the incisor was 0.90mm – 1.1mm. This measurement overlaps with the measurement for a meadow vole (0.86 – 1.36mm) in Mark Elbroch’s Animal Skulls guide, page 95. After looking at pics of meadow vole teeth, I am leaning towards it being a top left incisor. The tooth has a nice curve to it at the tip that reminds me of a polar bear claw, used to grip seals on ice or in this case, maybe gripping slippery seeds or bark?

Fawn Tracks

Fawn Trail

Another compelling find was a trail of crisp fawn tracks, accompanied by at least one doe. After reading “Behaviour of North American Mammals” by Mark Elbroch and Kurt Rinehart, I learned that at 3-4 weeks old, the fawns are too active to sit still and hide from predators while the mother forages. At this stage, the doe and her fawn are reintegrated with family groups.

Hammer-head Shark Invertebrate

Soon, we ventured into a beautiful forest of maple, basswood and hickory. There were spring peepers, red efts and old flying squirrel nests to explore. Underneath one particular log, there was a white, alien-looking, hammerhead shark-like invertebrate. It wriggled around and we had no idea what it was. Later on, we found a similar-looking invertebrate that was black, under a carcass and guessed that the creature was a larva from a species of carrion beetle.

Mystery Larva

Forest Minotaur?

Along the ridge of the forest, Alexis noticed a pile of sand at the bottom of a steep forest slope. Byron went to investigate and did not return. We called down, “Byron! Is there anything interesting down there?” to which he replied, “Yes! Lots of bones!”. We ambled down the steep slope, noticing a myriad of bird and mammal carcasses strewn about. Were we in the labyrinth of a forest minotaur? We soon became enchanted by the largest coyote den that I have ever seen! It looked like it had been used by many generations of coyotes. In front of the den, there was a sandy throw mound that must have been several metres high. The den was facing southeast, shielded from the cold, northwest winds by the forest slope behind it. There was evidence of little digs in the sand. I imagined bright-eyed coyote pups barking and playing on that sandy mound, waiting for their parents to return from hunting forays. The spring sunlight would have warmed their downy coats after cool nights.  During the summer, coyote families move to “rendezvous sites” or above ground dens and some may disperse in the autumn and early winter.

What a fantastic day! Looking forward to our next tracking adventure 😊

Coyote Den


Clearly not a baby blackberry

Sunday, May 15, 2022

It was a hot day at Lockier’s Pit in Orangeville. The sky was blue with wispy cirrus clouds high overhead. The grey treefrogs sang a summery serenade. The clay-coloured sparrows sounded like insects buzzing and the bank swallows darted swiftly like sky whales in a sea of warm air. Lockier’s Pit is an abandoned gravel pit filled with sandy trails, dirt jumps and off-road vehicle tracks. The tracking apprenticeship group was seeking tracks from other wild beings…

Coyote tracks, solidified in dry mud presented an opportunity to learn more about gaits and in particular a side trot. This is a fast gait, used when the Coyote is in “travel mode”. It is often used in between areas of cover. The rear end of the coyote is angled outwards. This helps prevent the rear legs from hitting the front legs as the coyote trots at a higher speed.

Alexis shared some tips for identifying the difference between red fox, coyote and domestic dog tracks. Tamara wondered whether fox tracks are smellier that the other canines because they are furrier and maybe hold the scent of the animal more.

We also looked at crow tracks and talked about how toes 2 and 3 are close together whereas toes 3 and 4 are close together for Red-Winged Blackbirds and Grackles. Alexis wondered whether the Brown-Headed Cowbird also has toes 3 and 4 close together. Photos of cowbird feet seem to say “Yes!”.

A mysterious jaw bone was discovered on the top of the sandy slopes. Diana shared that the jaw smelled like tallow and wondered if the animal had been predated somewhat recently. The teeth were very well worn and a debate ensued about whether it was from a deer or from livestock like a goat or a sheep.

Deer or Sheep or Goat or Archaeomeryx

The biggest mystery was a pile of purple eggs – what could they be? Diana said that they smelled fishy. They were not found near water. Hmm…possibly tobiko (flying fish roe) from someone’s lunch? Clearly not baby blackberries 😊

Clearly not baby blackberries

A few more questions to add to our mysteries from the day:

Did mason bees or miner bees make the holes on the sandy slopes?

Which animals eat snails?

What is the name of this beetle? (see photo)

Mystery Beetle

Who lives in a goldenrod ball gall – a wasp or a gall fly? Visit this site to see incredible works of art by Guelph artist Emily Damstra to find out more:

Looking forward to the next tracking weekend on June 4th and 5th!


A Short Note On Sapsucker Ecologies

About 10 minutes North of Orangeville, along the fence line of Bruce Trail at Dunby rd, there are a couple of American Mountain Ash (Sorbus americana) trees. These trees are related to the other Sorbus species from around the world, but this one is native to the area. Shorter trees, compound leaves, bright red fruit all help to identify these trees in the warmer months. But in the Winter and early Spring when the leaves and fruit have fallen, the bark becomes a great focal point for local ecologies.
The rows of small holes of various age and sizes freckle the bark like oversized lenticels. It kind of looks like a canker or fungal infection, but it’s not. It is actually the work of a meticulous and skilled member of the Picidae (Woodpecker) family; the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius – from here out referred to by their banding code of YBSA), a bird which I have not seen that often, but I have come across their sign quite a bit.

YBSA, with a total length of 21.5 cm (8½ in) and a wing span of 40.6 cm (16 in), and weighing in at 50 g (1.8 0z) is the second smallest woodpecker native to our area. The only native woodpecker who is smaller would be the Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens), and as with most woodpeckers that I am aware of, the YBSA catches flying insects while on the wing, an activity sometimes called “hawking” as well as gleans insects from the bark of trees.

This is where it gets kind of interesting through. Sapsuckers, including the 3 western species: the Red-breasted (S. ruber), Red-naped (S. nuchalis) Williamson’s (S. thyroideus) and the eastern Yellow-bellies, have a skill-set which I don’t think is shared among other woodpeckers. They tap various trees by drilling little pits with their bills which slowly fill with sap (the pits are collectively called sap wells).

There also seems to be a pattern to the order in which the YBSAs drill the wells. They start their work in the pre-dawn hours with horizontal lines (primary bands) of these small pits, drilling in an exploratory fashion. These primary bands are shallow and produce sap quickly, and will likely be visited multiple times a day in the Spring when the sap is really flowing. These primary bands are found most commonly and across a wide array of woody perennial species as it is an exploratory activity, when the YBSA is looking for good food sources. If the YBSA finds a seam of good sap they begin tapping vertically above the primary bands, with holes above holes above holes, eventually dotting the trunk as seen in the images.

As they excavate these wells they also consume the cambium and phloem layers exposed by the drilling. Then, while waiting for the pits to fill they may fly off and explore a new tree and continue tapping holes looking for good flow. When they return to their original wells to lap up the sap with their long brush-like tongues, often those first sap wells have also been visited by insects which may still be there for the Sapsuckers to consume along with their sweet sap.

John Eastman in his book Birds of Forest, Yard and Thicket (Stackpole Books, 1997) lists some of the insects YBSA feed on

“carpenter ants, crane flies, may flies, beetles, moths (including destructive spruce budworms and forest tent caterpillars), yellow jackets and hornets…

…[s]ome twenty-two families of insects feed at sap wells wood gnats, Aulacigaster flies, flesh flies, muscid flies, blow flies, and pomace or fruit flies. Such butterflies as mourning cloaks and Compton tortoise shells, nocturnal moths, ants, bumblebees, and wasps all come to sap wells.”

Not only do insects visit the wells but so do some 35 other birds species. Some are there to feed on the sap, some are there to feed on the insects who are feeding on the sap. One bird which comes to the wells is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) in search of that sweet nutritious flow which can fill the gap until the nectar filled flowers bloom in abundance. This isn’t always a reliable site of sustenance for the Ruby-throat though. I watched a dogfight between the two species in Algonquin Park at the Wildlife Research Station in August of 2020 up high in the canopy of which trees I cannot recall. It seemed like that YBSA wasn’t into sharing the wells that day. Some mammals are also known to visit the occasional sap well of a YBSA, such as Red Squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), Porcupines (Erethizon dorsatum), and Bats (Vespertilionidae family).

Sap wells on Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) in Algonquin Park.

It’s not just about the sap wells the YBSA woodpecker has dietary preferences which change as the seasons do. In breeding season, it’s mostly the insects, during the Autumn they also include berries and fruits such as Cherry (Prunus spp.), Dogwood (Cornus spp.), Virginia-creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis), Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), and many more.

Throughout the year except for breeding season, the sap wells are the dominant food source for the YBSAs. I have read of many species of trees and shrubs which the YBSA likes to feed on and this list is pretty extensive. In the book The Birders Handbook by Ehrlich, Dobkin and Wheye (Simon and Shuster, 1988) the authors write “Sap taken from 246 native trees”. A few I have found in my research or observations are Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera), Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum), Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.), Large-toothed Aspen (Populus grandidentata), American Mountain Ash. I have also seen sap wells on Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga candensis) and Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris) which just sounds gross and overly sticky to me. How does the YBSA clean their bill?

As I have been learning about YBSAs I keep developing new questions. Some of which are included below:

  • What draws them to the sap? Sugars or nutrients or flavour or something else entirely?
  • I read that they feed insects to their young. How do the young get a taste for sap? Do they feed the young sap soaked insects?
  • Why isn’t this sap feeding habit more widespread across more woodpecker species?
  • How will tree migrations caused by climate change effect the YBSA populations? Might they be more resilient as they feed on such a broad diet of woody perenials?

As always, I am reminded that there is so much more to know. And really, I just want to see a YBSA drilling these holes, but I’ll have to wake up early for that. Early bird gets the sap afterall.

To learn more :
The Birders Handbook by Ehrlich, Dobkin and Wheye (Simon and Shuster, 1988)
Birds of Forest, Yard and Thicket by John Eastman (Stackpole Books, 1997)
Methods and annual sequence of foraging by the sapsucker by James Tate Jr.

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