backyard snakes

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.

How to pick up a crayfish and not get pinched

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.

Male Crayfish – note the enlarged, orange-tipped swimmerets curling forward (towards the left on picture) between back legs (absent on females)

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.

bald is beautiful

Warming in the morning sun, a Turkey Vulture prepares for a day aloft.

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.

A Turkey Vulture soars along the Niagara Escarpment

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!

It’s mid-morning on a beautiful June day, and a Turkey Vulture is ready to start its dead animal patrol.

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!)

Giant silkmoths!

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 Giant Silkmoths

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.

Cecropia cocoons on an icy tree

tiger beetles: tiny and fierce

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.

Six-spotted Tiger Beetles are beautiful, tiny and fierce, and great to have in your back yard.

the Wood Frog Eggs Hatched!

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.

Tiny Wood Frog tadpoles have just hatched and they are clinging to the egg mass jelly.

Backyard worms

Digging in the backyard garden or flowerbed, you can’t help but unearth a few worms in spring. A closer look reveals that their body is made of sections or segments. Earthworms are are in the phylum (group) Annelida, or segmented worms. Leeches are also in this group.

I grew up understanding that earthworms are great for soil, and they certainly are in gardens, lawns and flowerbeds. Their tunnels aerate the soil, and prevent compaction which allows water to penetrate to plant roots. Their castings (worm poop!) left on the surface are full of nutrients. Someone calculated that, in an acre (0.4 hectare), worms could eat and digest enough organic matter to bring 7200 kg of nutritious castings to the surface every year. So we can feel good about them in our yards and farm fields.

But here’s the twist: None of Ontario’s 19 species of earthworms are native! (two are from the United States and 17 are from Europe) After the last ice age wiped out any earthworms that were here, invertebrates like sow bugs and millipedes (and, of course, fungi) were the forest decomposers. Settlers brought most of our earthworms species over from Europe in ship ballast and among plant roots.

In a forest, these master diggers can do too good a job of decomposing fall’s soft and thick layer of tree leaves (called duff), which can leave large sections of soil bare and cause tree seedlings, wildflowers and ferns to decline.

But they are fascinating creatures. Just behind their prostonium (front segment), they have a mouth. Larger earthworms like Lumbricus terrestris (also called night crawlers or dew worms) come to the surface at night and drag piles of leaves back to their hole. It’s easy to see these tiny piles; carefully shift one and you will uncover the hole.

Then there’s the age-old question: Why do earthworms come to the surface when it rains? It’s not to avoid drowning, apparently – they can survive for long periods of time immersed in water since oxygen diffuses through their wet skin. The theory with the most evidence is that they do this to safely move more quickly to other areas, or find a mate or food.

And it’s pretty cool that gulls have been seen stamping the ground to imitate rain’s vibration, luring earthworms to the surface.

I’ve had fun observing my backyard worms, especially in the easy-to-make worm condo, which allows views underground (see Activities page for instructions). Watching them, it’s easy to agree that earthworms deserve their reputation as nature’s best soil engineers.

The first wildflowers of spring?

Around our home the biggest trees are Silver Maples. They are beautiful, with silvery-backed leaves that becomes so colourful in fall, and I’ve even tapped their sap for maple syrup. Their sap only has half the sugar content as sap from sugar maples, so I had to collect twice as much – but I’m not complaining, since it tasted so good after boiling, and boiling, and boiling, and boiling…..! For every litre of syrup, you have to collect about 80 litres of sap (for Sugar Maples, the ratio is 40:1).

But each spring I am amazed when their buds burst in very early spring, WAY before leaves come out. In fact, all through winter you can tell that the swoolen red buds are like sprinters on starting blocks, waiting for the starter’s gun of longer daylight and warmth. These buds become spectacular, delicate flowers, decorating the whole tree. As I admired one of our trees, I became aware of a surround-sound humming….. thousands of bees were at work somewhere! I checked all our other trees…. no flowers there, then I realized that the bees were at work on the silver maple, right above me!

I had always thought that maples were wind-pollinated, but it turns out that they have the best of both worlds: They are both wind- and insect-pollinated. In very early spring, Silver Maple maple flowers can be an important source of pollen and nectar for honeybees and other pollinators, with not much else available. Sugar Maples bloom somewhat later in spring, and are also visited by many pollinators. In fact, maples are high on the list of important honeybee trees, and producers out west sell a honey made primarily from Bigleaf Maple nectar.

Then, after yesterday’s windstorm, hundreds of older flowers were spread around our yard, our deck, and on our cars. In the wild, Silver Maples are usually in swampy areas, often growing right up out of shallow water in spring. But they are hardy, and have been planted all over cities, often in much drier conditions. It’s sometimes difficult to distinguish them from Red Maples, and these species sometimes hybridize.

These magnificent trees add colour to spring as well as fall, and if you’re a honeybee, or bumblebee, or another early pollinator, they add life-giving nectar and pollen well before most flowers bloom.

Fleeting beauty

It’s early spring in a forest in southern Ontario. Since most of our trees are deciduous, there’s a lot of light hitting the forest floor, and it’s still a month or more until maple, beech, cherry and a few other species spread their leafy umbrella and plunge the interior into deep shade. With the rising temperatures of spring, it’s an opportunity not to be missed.

Bulbs lying dormant through the winter begin to sprout, racing for the surface. Soon, the growing tips of Wild Leeks, Trout Lilies, Blue Cohosh, Trillium and many others peek out from among the orderly mess of last year’s leaves.

These are the spring ephemeral wildflowers, and they are in a hurry. Fully grown well before tree leaf-out, they soak up the sun and attract pollinators before the life-giving direct sunlight on the forest floor is lessened by their giant neighbours.

Wild Leeks

Wild Leeks (Alium tricoccum) are my favourites. Pick a tiny bit, rub it between finger and thumb, and you’ll know why they are sometimes called Wild Garlic. The story goes that, long ago, on the way to school kids would chew on a leek leaf or two so their breath would be enough to send them home (to their pleasure!). And – true story – Chicago most likely derived its name from the Miami-Illinois First Nations word for Wild Leek (“Shekaakwa”). If you’re from Chicago, you are from the “place of strong-smelling wild onions (wild leeks).”

Not the same, of course, as domestic garden leeks (they are closely related), Wild Leeks are delicacies and are usually called ramps when used for cooking. The leaves and bulbs are great in salads and soups, but of course should be sampled lightly rather than harvested. Over-harvesting in Quebec prompted a ban on large-scale picking in 1995, anyone caught with more than 50 in their possession faces a minimum $500 fine. One illegal picker was apprehended with 7,829 individual plants; he was fined $10,000. Quebec police report that sometimes the leeks are stuffed into (get this) a hockey bag. A black market in wild leeks smuggled into Ontario has ensued, as a single plant (bulb and leaves) may be sold for up to $1.00. Since Wild Leeks spread slowly, picking more than 5% of a patch is considered by many to be unsustainable.

Next time you encounter some of these delicious harbingers of spring , take just a bit, maybe fingernail-size, rub it, inhale its garlic/onion aroma, chew it, swallow it and enjoy the taste, unless, that is, you are on your way to school.

Signs of spring

I went for a walk around my yard today and saw so many incredible signs of this amazing season! Here are some of them.

The chipmunks in our back yard are great signs of spring. They are ground squirrels, and are true hibernators. They spent much of the winter in a sort of suspended animation, with their heart rate slowed to just a few beats per minute (from their normal 350 beats per minute!) and their body temperature drops to just a few degrees above freezing. Every few days they wake up, warm up, pee and poop, eat some of the food they collected last fall, and go back to sleep. But now spring’s warmth has aroused them and they are very active! I’m always amazed by how many seeds they can stuff into their cheeks – it’s like they’ve got a couple of shopping bags to take home the groceries!

An Eastern Chipmunk, cheeks stuffed with sunflower seeds.