Thursday, June 30, 2016

Snapping Turtle

Our Largest Turtle

The Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) is our largest turtle, with the exception of sea turtles.   They range from 12 to 18 inches long (30 - 45 cm) and weigh up to 30 pounds (66 kg).

Snapping Turtle (

The Snapping Turtle is easy to distinguish from our other native New Brunswick turtles by its size and morphology.  It is larger.  The Painted Turtle is often around 8 to 10 inches (12-25 cm) and the wood turtle is about the same size (although much rarer at this point).  The Snapping Turtle has a longer tail with a saw-toothed upper ridge and a much smaller plastron (bottom plate).  The plastron, in fact, looks incomplete.  It does not cover the entire ventral surface of the turtle like it does in the Painted and Wood Turtles.  

Snapping Turtles live in permanent fresh water ponds, lakes and rivers.  They feed on fish, invertebrates, amphibians, pond vegetation and sometimes young waterfowl.  Their range covers southern Canada east of the Rocky Mountains and southeastward through the United States to Florida.  

Snapping Turtles Laying Eggs [E Mills Photo]
Snapping Turtles usually travel long distances to find suitable sand in which to lay their eggs.  Shown above is a sand dune along Grand Lake where Snapping Turtles come annually to lay eggs.  Eggs are usually laid in late spring or early summer.  The female digs a deep hole into which she slides her body.  After 25 to 80 eggs are laid, she covers them carefully before returning to the water.  The incubation period ranges from 9 to 18 weeks.  In colder temperatures the hatchlings spend the winter in the nest.  

Snapping Turtle Eggs [Internet Photo]
The female Snapping Turtle has an unusual ability to store sperm from a mating for several seasons, using it as necessary.  This is a useful adaptive feature if the population is low and males are hard to find.  The shells on turtle eggs are leathery, not hard like bird egg shells.  This makes them withstand the pressure of the sand covering them.  

Snapping Turtle Laying Eggs [E Mills Photo]

Snapping Turtles are famous for their bites.  If you didn't know that, pay careful attention!  They can bite your finger off!  They can also whip their head around and bite you much faster than you think.  Their necks are much longer and more flexible than in other turtles.  Picking one up by the sides of the carapace (shell) is definitely not advised.  They can bite you there.  NEVER, pick one up by the tail.  That can injure the tail and spinal cord.  The proper way to pick one up is to cover it with a tarp or blanket.  Lay the blanket flat and when the turtle crawls on it, wrap it around the turtle and then move it off the road or out of harms way.  Another common mistake is to entice the turtle to bite a stick and then drag the turtle across the road.  This is harmful to the turtle, scraping and abrading the skin on the legs and underside.  If all else fails, it is possible to pick one up safely by the carapace by placing the hands around the carapace at the level of the hind legs.  Good luck!

 Snapping Turtles are very cold-tolerant.  Some individuals remain active under the ice all winter.  Most hibernate in the mud at the bottom of ponds.  They can go for up to 6 months without breathing air.  They have a special system for respiration called extra-pulmonary respiration.  They stick their heads above the mud at the pond bottom periodically and absorb oxygen from the water through the membranes lining their mouths and throats.  If this is not enough, they breathe anaerobically by using stored fats and sugars.  

As you can tell, these are amazing creatures.  They have adapted over eons to survive in harsh and varied environments.  We are lucky to be able to observe them in our province.  Watch out for them on the highways as they make their way to sandy areas to lay eggs or are returning to  favourite pond.  

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Warbler Watching

Warblers, A Birder's Treasure

Black-and-white Warbler
North American birders are lucky to have the wood warblers to study and enjoy.  The Americas are the only place in the world with such a colourful profusion of warblers.  We have so many that some of us take them for granted.  We must appreciate (and protect) the colourful little birds that flit through our trees in the spring, summer and fall.  They come to our country to breed where we have good habitat and lots of insects to feed upon.

Yellow-Rumped Warbler
Most of our warblers belong to the family, Parulidae.  Most of our common warblers are of the genus, Dendroica.  We also have members of the genera, Vermivora, Parula, Mniotilta, Setophaga,  Seiurus, Oporornis, Geothlypis, Wilsonia, etc.  Many species are neotropical migrants (they move between North and South America).  For many that forces them to fly over the Gulf of Mexico, an often difficult task.

American Redstart
Most warblers are small songbirds.  Their colourful plumage in the spring is legendary.  Most have beautiful songs which fill up our spring and summer landscapes.  In the fall many warblers lose their colourful plumage and revert to dull yellows, grays, and greens, making them difficult to identify.  All species are insectivorous but some feed on fruit and nectar in the winter.  The few that overwinter here, often by accident, will feed on suet and dried fruit at feeders.  Most build a cup-shaped nest on the ground or low in bushes.

Northern Parula
Our warblers have experienced significant population declines in recent years.  It is believed the main reason is because of loss or fragmentation of habitat on both breeding and wintering grounds and during migration.  The heavy use of insecticides and nicotinoids on the wintering grounds is also causing declines.  Migration also causes high mortalities; the trans-Gulf flight, having to pass over large population areas, loss of good habitat along the route, etc.

Blackburnian Warbler

Common Yellowthroat
Warblers are often hard to see among the tree leaves.  Some often prefer to perch high in large deciduous trees, making it even harder to see them.  As a result many birders make a concerted effort to learn their songs.  Each species has a unique song and when learned one can identify the birds just by listening.  That takes skill but is very satisfying when learned.

Cape May Warbler

Yellow-throated Warbler
The next time you step out into your garden or woodlot, take along binoculars and take a look at the warblers which are sharing your space.  You won't be disappointed!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Showy Orchis

Very Rare Orchid  (Galearis spectabilis)

Showy Orchis
A botanist friend and I found a rare orchid this week in Carleton County.  This is a difficult species to find and we were delighted to see it.

The Showy Orchis (Galearis spectabilis) is listed as S2, very rare.  It grows in limestone-rich soils
so is found on bottomlands and rich, deciduous woods.  Even in those specific habitats, it is rare.  It blooms in late May and early June.  Its range is from Minnesota and Nebraska east to New Brunswick and south to Arkansas and Georgia.  We found it in a shady, damp site.

The Showy Orchis is a small plant, 10 to 30 cm (4 to 12 in) high.  As seen above, our plant was around 15 cm tall.  The flower is delicate, about 2.5 cm (1 in.) long and has a magenta or pink hood with a white lip and spurs.  Anatomically the hood represents the sepals and lateral petals.  The flower has a faint pleasant perfume.  The leaves are a shiny, medium green and about 10-20 cm (4-8 in) long.

We noticed that the leaves are actually quite unique and located just 2 plants by looking first for the leaves.  They were growing among special ferns, Maidenhair, Goldie and Silvery Glade Ferns.

According to Hal Hinds (Flora of New Brunswick, p.641) this plant was first collected in New Brunswick by Rev. Mr. McKiel at Keswick in 1881.  Unfortunately it has never been relocated in Keswick.

Showy Orchis
The photo above shows a close-up of the delicate flower.  Notice the hood showing the stamens and pistil inside.  I think it looks strikingly like a woman with her hands thrown up in celebration.

Showy Orchis [E. Mills Photo]
Above is a close-up of another bloom.  According to Hal Hinds, the bloom looks like a 'helmeted conquistador sporting a beard'. What do you think?

This rare, unique orchid is one of our natural treasures.  I like to think the beautiful bloom with its gentle fragrance is a celebrating woman of the rich forest.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Indigo Bunting

Bird Magic Comes in Blue

Indigo Bunting
This time of year some of our birds are spectacular, 'eye candy' in today's vernacular.  I recently had the good fortune to see three male Indigo Buntings.  I was attracted to them by their song.  They sound a bit like a goldfinch.  The song is roughly in 3 parts and some people translate it to, 'fire fire, where where, here here'.

Indigo Bunting
The male Indigo Bunting shown above is easy to identify, entirely bright blue.   The medium blue colour is intense, so  much so that if the light is not right, the bird looks black.  The blue colour on the back is a more cerulean blue and it sometimes looks iridescent.  The beak is large (it is a seed eater) and gray coloured.

This species is dimorphic (genders look different).  The female is a dull medium brown colour with faint wing bars and when in breeding plumage, she has faint streaking on the underparts.  See the female below.

Female Indigo Bunting [The Sibley Guide to Birds, p.547]
The Indigo Bunting is about sparrow-sized, 14 cm (5.5") long.  It normally feeds on the ground or in trees or shrubs on seeds, insects, forbs, buds and berries.  It prefers forest edges, grasslands with scattered trees, bushes and shrubs or scrub vegetation.  It builds its nest in bushes or thick vegetation within a few feet of the ground.  Its nest is a compact woven cup of leaves and grass in which it lays 3 or 4 white to light blue eggs, sometimes with brown or purple spots.

Indigo Bunting
Indigo Buntings are not regular feeder birds but they can be enticed to come in and feed with safflower, apple slices, suet, millet, crushed peanuts and fruit.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Olive-sided Flycatcher

Rare Flycatcher Welcomed Back

The Olive-sided Flycatcher was once fairly common in New Brunswick.  It is now listed as an uncommon summer resident and migrant.  It prefers coniferous and mixed woods especially along the edges of streams and bogs. 

Olive-sided Flycatcher [Kathleen Spicer Photo]
The Olive-sided Flycatcher is a medium-sized flycatcher, about 19 cm (7.5") long.  It is just a little bit larger than a phoebe.  Although it could be mistaken for a phoebe, it is darker in colour and sports a distinguished-looking vest of dark gray.  The Olive-sided perches on the tops of trees and snags from which it vocalizes its unique, "Quick three beers".   The phoebe, on the other hand, perches lower to the ground and often is seen flipping its tail.  The olive-sided sometimes shows white patches on the sides of the rump but often these are covered by the wings.  In the photo above, taken at Apple River, NS,  you can see the dark gray vest and a hint of the white rump patch.

Olive-sided Flycatcher
The photo above shows the Olive-sided Flycatcher I recently saw on Grand Manan.  It was singing from the top of a balsam fir in a rather remote forested area.  It was probably a migrant and will likely breed in northern New Brunswick.  Its song attracted us to it.  

The Olive-sided Flycatcher breeds in the boreal forest throughout most of southern Canada.  It winters mainly in the Andes in western South America.  A few winter in southern Mexico.  
Olive-sided Flycatcher

The two photos above show the brownish-gray back and the rather short tail.  

Population numbers of this species are described as 'near threatened'.  Because of habitat loss primarily on its wintering grounds, there have been very noticeable declines in numbers of this species since the early 1960s.  Because of their scarcity, a birder in New Brunswick is always excited to see and hear one!