As I was walking a trail at Georgian Bay Islands National park, I was startled by a buzzing right beside me. It was a Massasauga Rattlesnake! I’m sure it was more startled than I was. They are venomous, but only two people have died from their bites in Ontario, and neither of them were treated in a hospital.
This species is very shy, and bites are rare, but hospitals in the area where they live (around Georgian Bay, which is part of Lake Huron) stock antivenin (an antiserum containing antibodies against venom, in this case rattlesnake venom). I have been told by experts that the best first aid is the key to your car (in other words, just go to a local hospital.) Massasauga venom is strong but they don’t deliver much of it, and there is enough time to get to a hospital for treatment.
One theory about why rattlesnakes “rattle” as a warning is that they lived among large herds of animals, like bison, and had to avoid being stepped on – therefor the warning rattle!
Massasauga rattlesnakes eat mostly small mammals, like mice, so they are valuable rodent control. They are listed as “threatened” in Ontario’s Endangered Species Act, due to habitat loss and persecution. People have learned not to kill them, and protecting habitats where they live and supporting conservation groups like Ontario Nature are ways to help this amazing species of snake.
It can’t rival the splendour of autumn, but for a brief window in spring we see a rebirth of fall leaf colours. Last fall, green chlorophyll faded to reveal the brilliant orange, yellow and red of other pigments. In spring, especially with some tree species, after leaves burst from buds there’s a short time before the green of chlorophyll takes over again, and other pigments temporarily take centre stage.
Spotted like the cat they are named after, Leopard frogs emerge from their muddy bed below ice and water to join nature’s amphibian spring chorus. The mating call of the males is beautiful (at least to female leopard frogs), a mix of snoring, rattling, and grunting, and it adds to the magic of spring in a wetland. After mating, these frogs disperse to grassy areas, and are called meadow frogs in parts of the United States.
When spring gives winter a bit of a shake, when puddles are frozen during cold nights, but melt during warm days, it’s maple syrup season! Tapping pierces the outer and inner bark of the maple tree, and sap in the (you guessed it) sapwood drips out into buckets. The freezing and thawing of sap in maple trees creates pressure (up to half that of a car tire) and pushes the sap, drop by drop, out of the tree. It tastes just a bit sweet – about two to three percent sugar.
Sugar Maples are renowned for their sweet sap. Other maples, like Black, Norway, Silver, Red and Manitoba can also be tapped. Black Walnut syrup tastes like very similar to maple syrup, some say with a hint of a nutty flavour. Birch trees can also be tapped, starting about when maple syrup season ends in early spring.
For some kitchen fun, you can turn maple syrup into maple sugar! Pour some syrup into a pot, then bring to a gentle boil. At 125 degrees C, it’s time to take it off the heat, stir it like crazy for several minutes, the pour it out onto a candy mold or a flat pan. The sugar is warm and delicious! Long ago, indigenous people and settlers (when they learned the trick) made mostly maple sugar, since it was much more portable and easier to store than maple syrup. It was their only source of sugar!
In most of Canada, our common back yard snake is the Garter snake. Often mistakenly called Garden snakes, these beautiful reptiles can be found in gardens, on lawns, in fields and forests, and almost every other habitat. They are harmless to humans, but definitely not harmless to their favourite food, which includes worms, frogs and toads. In turn, they might fall prey to hawks, raccoon or skunks, so they are an important link in food chains.
Cool Garter Snake facts:
They are so named because they resemble garter belts (which were used to hold up socks and stockings before elastic material was used instead).
Like all snakes, they smell with their tongues.
They (and some other Canadian snakes) are born live. Eggs are held within the mother’s body until they hatch. This is termed (big word of the day!) ovoviviparous reproduction.
In almost every stream and river, and some ponds, we have “miniature lobsters”. Much smaller, but packing muscular pincher claws that they use to catch their prey and defend themselves, crayfish patrol our water systems. During the day, most are usually found under rocks (a few, like Digger crayfish, are in underground and underwater tunnels), but at night they creep out and look for food. Like nature’s janitors, they clean up by eating anything decaying (like dead fish, dead leaves and algae), and will also eat whatever small animals they can catch. In turn, they are tasty snacks for raccoons, mink, herons, fish like bass and catfish, and many other predators. In other words, they are important links in aquatic food chains.
Take a look for crayfish under rocks in a local stream or river (kids should always be with an adult near rivers, of course). All you need is a net or even a kitchen sieve, and a container to put them in. And you can tell male from female easily – just check out the video. Males have enlarged swimmerets under their tail that extend forward under their back legs (for depositing sperm). Try picking them up, and see if you can tell the difference! Don’t forget to put the rocks back where you find them, and release the crayfish (and other critters you may discover) soon.
The ones in the videos are probably Common crayfish. Unfortunately in some areas of Ontario Rusty crayfish have been released. These larger crustaceans have reddish patches on either side of their cephalothorax, and black-tipped claws. They can out-compete and sometimes replace our native species. It’s important to never release crayfish (or other animals) far from where they were found or purchased for bait or pets.
Turkey Vultures are AMAZING to watch. Their flight seems effortless; they hardly every flap their wings and use updrafts from cliff areas and sun-heated ground to patrol the skies. They’re on the lookout for dead animals, so they are a valuable part of nature’s cleanup crew. If you see what looks like a black hawk soaring it’s probably a turkey vulture. To stabilize themselves, they fly with their wings angled up just a bit in a shallow V (jet aircraft also have this). Feathers splay out at wingtips to reduce drag during flight. And they rock back and forth as they fly, reacting to air turbulence. With their fairly light bodies and large wings, they have the lightest wing-loading (ratio of body weight to wing surface) of all of our raptors (birds of prey), which helps them stay in the air without using much energy.
So why are they bald? Well, with just a beak to gorge on dead and often rotten flesh, it would be a tough job to keep head feathers clean. When seen from a distance, they almost seem “headless” when compared to hawks and eagles whose feathers make their heads seem quite large. Unlike many birds, they have an excellent sense of smell – quite an advantage when searching out tasty (and smelly) rotting dead animals!
Over the past decades, Turkey Vulture numbers have increased greatly in our area. Rattlesnake Point Conservation Area (run by Conservation Halton) is a great place to see them, and you can often look down on Turkey Vultures as they soar along the cliff. They are especially numerous all along the Niagara Escarpment, but they are seen everywhere in southern Ontario from early spring to late fall.
Watch for: their rocking flight, splayed-out feathers at the tips of their wings, dihedral wing position (shallow V), small-looking head (no feathers!)
In southern Ontario, June is the month for Giant Silkmoths to emerge! Since late last summer, all through the winter and most of the spring, they are in the pupa stage of development, wrapped in silken cocoons. Finally, in late spring, the adult moths push their way out of the cocoon, climb up a bit and pump fluids into their wings. They are beautiful and very big – the Cecropia is the largest moth north of Mexico! Polyphemus, Luna and Promethea are other Giant Silkmoths in our area (southern Ontario).
At night, a newly-emerged female emits a pheromone that attracts males from up to a kilometre away! Males have wide, feathery antennae to detect the female’s pheromones, while females have much narrower antennae. After mating, the female lays up to a few hundred eggs on tree leaves that the caterpillars will feed on.
The newly-hatched caterpillars are insatiable eaters and grow quickly; if a human baby grew as fast it would weigh as much as an elephant after only a couple of months!
Finally, in late summer, the caterpillar spins a cocoon to protect it through the cold winter months, and it changes into a pupa.
Raising these amazing moths has been a hobby of mine for many years. I give cocoons to school classes so they can observe the amazing life cycle of these moths. If you live within an hour or so of Guelph, Ontario, contact me to get a cocoon if you would like to observe this.
Finding these moths can be a challenge! They only live for a week or two as adults, and they fly at night. People often mistake them for bats. The caterpillars are camouflaged and are often high in trees. I have sometimes found Cecropia cocoons on tree branches in winter.
In late spring and summer, look for Tiger beetles as you walk through nature. The Six-spotted Tiger Beetle is like a shining, iridescent jewel – beautiful to us but deadly to small insects and other invertebrates. They are great for gardens since they attack and eat many insect pests! Their large, compound eyes give them great vision, and their huge jaws are perfect for grabbing and munching their prey.
After a rather cold three weeks, the Wood Frog eggs have finally hatched! The tiny tadpoles look overstuffed, since they have some leftover yolk in their bodies which means they don’t need to eat for the first few days after hatching.
Being a tadpole is the second stage in their metamorphosis (a word that means that means a change or transformation). As a tadpole, Wood Frogs will eat mostly algae and rotting plants, and breathe oxygen with gills. Amazingly, when they metamorphose into adult frogs in summer, they switch from gills to lungs and become carnivores, eating mostly insects and other invertebrates.