Setting the momentum for Wildlife Conservation

Co-existence or encroachment? As rapid urbanization advances, Sweri, one of the few remaining
staging areas of Lesser and Greater Flamingoes in Mumbai faces a serious threat.
The International Year of Biodiversity (IYB) has nearly come to an end. Like every year, many ambitious, successful projects were implemented this year – from community based conservation of backyards and watersheds, to national projects pertaining conservation of forest corridors, to international programs such as the Tiger Summit and the expeditions to discover new species of plants and animals. Other recent findings such as the discovery of microbial communities deep beneath the sea floor and bacteria that can substitute phosphorous with arsenic, made sure the IYB had a successful ending. But the end of this fruitful year is in fact a kick-start to the conservation efforts whose results will be seen in years down yonder.

Although many conservation projects were undertaken this year, it didn’t really turn out quite well. On 26th January 2010, Boa Sr, the only survivor of Bo tribe from the Great Andamanese Islands passed away. A tribe is now extinct – a culture lost forever. The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill led to vast ecological and economic loss, creating a great environmental uproar. The Haiti earthquake and Chile earthquake shook everyone, as did the flooding in Pakistan. 2010 was also recorded as the hottest year in decades, perhaps the reason for Russian and Israeli wildfires. On the other side, the world’s first international summit, held in November for any wild animal – the Tiger Summit 2010, was a bit of a relief in tiger conservation efforts. The WWF said “this summit could be a historic turning point for tigers”. If the largest conservation organization has expressed its contentment in such a summit, I am more than just optimistic for the survival of this mighty beast. Indeed the summit is just a beginning; how much the project can deliver will only be seen in the coming years. Interestingly, as this year kick-started the drive for wildlife conservation and hopefully the associated sustainable development, scientists from Japan, in May 2010, suggested a Biodiversity Decade for the years 2011 to 2019 – called the International Biodiversity Decade, to the UN. I am greatly pleased by this proposal, and hope that the world leaders and the UN adopt this idea.
The yet-untouched forests of Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai
The world has been through a grim economic recession only comparable to the Great Depression, and we are still recovering. With the idea for an International Biodiversity Decade, I envision a different path towards economic – and yet sustainable – development. The CBD implemented many projects under IYB, with the main priority of public awareness about the fast vanishing biodiversity. The projects gave everyone an opportunity to learn, earn and share knowledge. If a year can deliver education and employment via various sectors, imagine how many more opportunities will be created in a decade dedicated to biodiversity.

There exists a strong opinion towards employment opportunities in the fields related to the environment. The misconception that biodiversity only revolves around wildlife and environment, is not exactly true; it also encompasses social and economical aspects, and these three factors, called the Triple Bottom Line, are very crucial for any advanced civilization. Now if a decade is dedicated to protecting biodiversity, many more projects will be proposed in the coming years, many funds will become available, as well as many more people will work for the same. Socially and economically, everyone directly or indirectly linked with the environment will benefit – but not at the cost of the environment. It may sound too farfetched, but a sustainable world via eco-friendly living, harvesting nonconventional energy, water conservation and so on, can, in the long run, be healthy for the environment and profitable to every nation. This, of course, is the scenario that considers high public awareness and sensitivity to environmental concerns.
Urbanization competing with aforestation
We all know that the calamities that befell this year were all socially and environmentally devastating. They were also, more importantly, a big siren – an alarm call that we as humans are also susceptible to natural calamities. That, we have medicines or can easily avert a disaster is a very ignorant point of view. And even though we are highly intelligent and resilient, we are still at the mercy of nature. Whether climate change is brought upon by man or not, just as we claim the right over the natural resources, it is also our responsibility to protect these resources. It may take many more disasters for man to realize this, but we must act now, for it may become too late to protect ourselves from natural disasters in the future, perhaps brought upon my man himself.
Future of every wetland ecosystem? Uran, a vast network of wetlands lies covered in landfill, thanks to the SEZ - many birds
lost prime breeding and hunting habitats, and many fishermen lost their primary means of earning.
Today, there are environment-related problems in every community, and through direct public engagement they can be solved. I cannot think of a better person as an example than Majora Carter, an activist who fought for environmental justice for her community. Unfortunately, there have been incidences where corporate powers have exploited environment’s vulnerability – such was the case of Uran, a rich, ecologically significant wetland habitat now ravaged by bulldozers and trucks to make way for industries. We do not realize the cost we may pay in the future, for many see opportunity in economy alone, and many still argue that this is in best interest of the locals. If only environment was given the needed attention, Uran would be a thriving eco-tourism hotspot – contributing significantly to the economy of the region. The ongoing scuffle over encroachment in few remaining wildlife habitats of Mumbai and other cities is also a major concern, which can be tackled at a public as well as governmental level, through steps such as public awareness, nature appreciation, and community participation in environmental issues. We can easily take up the responsibility to protect our surroundings with only a little change in our lifestyle. And when is a better time to start than on the eve of a new year and a new decade?
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Also read: International Biodiversity Year

La Coccinelle

A 3D animation that looks into the daily life of bugs in a humorous, human perspective. It is a fine work of art by Thomas Szabo. Do check out his gallery!

Decoys, Shotguns and Conservation

A male Bluebill
I wandered far into the woods, into the lakes and over the snow, and waited patiently for an approaching deer, or a turkey, or, if I am on the lake, a duck, in anticipation of shooting one. But I found myself sitting on a bus on the way to the railway station. I was wondering what exactly I was going to do in the following 24 hours. It took me 6 hours to reach London, where it would have taken about 2. Nonetheless, I was too excited about the following day to be bothered by hours of waiting for buses and trains. I met a friend and we headed Turkey Point.

We started much before sunrise on the next day, as I piled layers of clothes to be able to withstand freezing cold and blistering winds blowing off Lake Erie. We joined two more friends, and then headed towards Long Point. Our trucks were full of decoys, anchors, guns and shells and two joyous canines. We loaded the stuff onto the boat and cruised towards the bay. It was foggy, damp and cold, and as our boat picked up speed I realized I was in for something more adventurous than I expected. It was my first hunting trip ever, as I joined professional hunters to observe and understand the ethics of real legal hunting.

When we hear the word hunting, the first thought that comes to our mind is killing, but in fact there is a big difference in the two terms. Hunting is what men did – and still do – in order to feed, as do wolves, tigers and lions. Killing is what men did – and still do – in order to claim territories, mates and others’ lives. It is as simple as that, but when one crosses the line of hunting mercilessly and illegally – as poachers do, that is when the art of hunting is tainted. In reality, poaching is far from hunting, it is nothing but slaughter for greed. And yet we always consider the words hunters and poachers as synonyms. It could probably be because of the media, but in order to understand the real meaning of hunting, one must understand that humans are a part of the ecosystem – we were (and still are) hunters, like wolves and tigers; as well as we were (and still are) hunted, like deer and antelopes . What separates us from the four legged hunters is our use of tools. From the first sphere carved out of a stone many centuries ago to the first gun used to hunt, we developed weapons from simple tools to obtain food. It is the weapons that have enabled us to become what we are today – efficient hunters. The other uses of weapons are already famous, so I’ll just focus on legal hunting and how it relates to wildlife conservation.
A Bluebill checking the decoys, and the hunter in the layout boat
Once we reached near the mouth of the bay, we set up the layout boat after carefully considering the position, the direction of the wind, as well as our proximity to other hunters. A layout boat is a small, flat boat that lays low on the surface of the water. It comes in variety of sizes, with room for two hunters, as well as for retriever dogs. The one we used housed single person. The boat was anchored in a strategic location near a cut on the nearby landmass, where the ducks might take cover or fly over. Direction of wind plays an important role in how the layout boat should be anchored, since you don’t want to be facing with the direction of the wind, but face the oncoming wind, so that you can see the approaching birds. Once the layout boat is in position, we need to attract the attention of the birds using decoys. These duck decoys are placed strategically around the boat. They are clamped onto a line with weights at both ends. We used Bufflehead, Canvasback, Redhead and Scaup decoys. There is a reason why the decoys were placed in a straight line. Some diver duck flocks prefer to land on the water in one straight line, and the decoys mimic this formation – inviting the ducks to join in. Some ducks, such as Buffleheads, randomly land on water – hence we placed decoys to mimic this behaviour. They are deployed in front of the layout boat so that the hunter is able to watch the ducks coming in. Using decoys is a very efficient technique to hunt ducks and geese. One might also wave the hat, or use a flag to mimic a landing duck – so as to attract attention of the ducks flying over. One may even mimic duck calls. Duck Calling is an art in itself, where a hunter has to train to hit the right notes. It is like singing, but in the language only ducks understand. There are even contests, and only one who is as good as the real duck/geese/turkey wins!

By now I realized that hunting is not like shooting clay pigeons in the air. There are many factors to be considered depending on what you’re out hunting. I’ll be more than happy if I ever have the opportunity to study how to hunt deer and geese. All these tricks have been tried and tested over time, discovered by other hunters and passed along to their kids and friends. This is how the legacy of hunting, just like any form of art, has come to be. Yet hunting is different than other forms of art, for it plays with life and death. As every art has its own history, hunting has a long one as well, although it is darker than any.

The primary source of food for man many centuries ago was wild meat and plants. Men hunt beasts the size of mammoths while women primarily foraged for vegetables. The first animal recorded to be extinct because of excessive hunting was the Dodo. Later, as agriculture and animal husbandry became common practice, hunting was transformed into a sport. The then-hunters were only sharp in shooting, since very few ever bothered to study the population dynamics of the game animals. In the following decades, this led to a great fall in populations of many animals, such as tigers and leopards, while many were hunted to extinction. This sport was more for the thrill-to-kill, than to be one with nature. Even today, the many animals on the brink of extinction are majorly because of indiscriminate hunting. This is one reason why people today nod in repulsion when a duck is harvested by a hunter, for it gave hunting a bad name.

While illegal hunting still takes place around the world, there are many rules and regulations set in order to curb this menace. These strict laws regulate when, where, what and how a person can hunt. The Ministry of Natural Resources mentions,
“Legal hunting does not endanger wildlife populations. In fact, it can play an important role in maintaining an abundant population within the carrying capacity of its habitat. Those species that are hunted are managed sustainably. The management is based on sound science and long-term monitoring.”    
Legal hunting also restricts a hunter to hunt only a few birds a day, depending on the species of the birds, for example, a hunter is only allowed to harvest two Buffleheads a day. Thanks to these laws, man can now be a part of the nature and be a real predator, and not just an aberrant hunter. The importance of hunting, as specified by MNR, is for wildlife management. The money from the fees paid to obtain the hunting license goes to monitoring and protection of wildlife. Today, hunting is an activity that is enjoyed equally by men and women. Hunting is not just a sexist sport anymore. It is a recreational sport – a sport to bond with people, to be a hunter and most of all to be one with nature.
Oscar retrieves a Bufflehead
Dawn cleared the fog, but clouds prevailed throughout the day. The wind, although not ideal, was blowing from west, which just might push the ducks inside the bay where the ambush was laid. One hunter went on the layout boat and we sailed a little farther from the trap. Very soon we heard a gunshot. “He’s down”, we heard on the radio. I barely saw the bird going down, but the dogs were the first to see it. Eager to fetch, Oscar jumped into the water after his master signaled him to. I saw this duck for the first time, a Bufflehead. And it was dead. I am not yet familiar to seeing the first-ever species I come across so lifeless, but there it was. I held my camera for a while, wondering if I should photograph a dead bird I saw for the first time. I do support sustainable hunting, but I was reluctant to photograph it. The dead duck was sniffed by the dogs, and kept beside the master. Lance and Oscar are Labrador retrievers. They are bred to fetch. They are also considered to be most lovable, social dogs. The training to become retrievers begins early in life, where the dog has to learn to obey his master, then to fetch objects and bring them to the master instead of carrying it away, then to fetch decoys, to sniff the birds, and then to fetch an actual bird. A Labrador retriever is a quick learner, hence favorite amongst most hunters.
A harvested male Bufflehead
We were four hunters on the boat, the three licensed to, and used to shoot with guns, and me with my camera. This was probably the commonest thing we had on that boat – we all were dedicated shooters. But as I came to understand, hunting is not about point-and-shoot which is what I did with my camera. As I discussed earlier, there are many factors crucial to hunting. While one has to consider the weather, most important factor is the time of the year. As lions know when and where the wildebeest will stop-over during migration, or as the wolves know when the elk migrate; a hunter has to learn when the birds arrive, and if they arrive, is the season right to hunt? This is because many birds stop-over at Long Point during their winter migration and spring migration, and some stay back to breed. The season of migration is generally considered hunting season, while it is not legal and ethical – to shoot the birds during breeding season. Therefore, to be a hunter is to be aware of everything that revolves around hunting – this also involves the lifecycle of the game animals.
Oscar - eager to fetch
About six hours later we shot three birds, two Buffleheads and a Ruddy duck. The number sounds too low for the time of the year. I started considering if we chose the wrong place, or was the weather too bad? Or sheer bad luck? I got a simple explanation, “that’s why it’s hunting and not killing.” What draws the line between hunting and killing are the intentions of the gunman. The hunters could have easily shot every passing bird, and bring down a hundred gulls and mergansers. This is not the intention of a real hunter.
Long Point
Long Point is a rich habitat for staging migrants; hence it is not surprising to see hunters flocking in as well. A major landmass of Long Point is restricted for the sole purpose of hunting. It may sound cruel, but it is because of this measure that it has become a haven for the birds. Long Point is a sand-spit with large shallow wetlands – an ideal habitat for waterfowls to feed and breed in. It is great example of sustainable-conservation. To understand why sustainability and conservation are combined one must consider that the waterfowls would, as any animal from bacteria to humans, over-exploit the resources in the absence of predators. This could lead to population explosion, which is not healthy for any given habitat. As predators, humans can sustain a healthy population of waterfowls; just as tigers maintain the populations of the deer or as Ladybird beetles that maintain the populations of aphids.

This brings me to question a common notion used by many biologists – “natural predators”. If humans are not natural predators, what are we? Definitely not supernatural. Whether it is the world of insect predators or mammal predators, we all are natural at predating. I was once told of an interesting story, where the pest populations of White-tailed Deer were controlled by natural predators – humans. The deer were introduced to Long Point many years ago. Since there were no natural predators such as wolves to prey on them, they grew beyond Long Point’s carrying capacity, which lead to destruction of many virgin Carolinian forests. What we forgot is that we are a part of nature as well. Reintroduction of wolves to curb deer population is another solution that is debatable. Today, licensed hunters maintain the populations of deer at Long Point, making sure that there are not too many, nor too less. Similarly for waterfowls, man is the primary predator of this wetland, as the tiger is of Ranthambore.

Since I hail from the land of the tiger, I wondered why isn’t hunting a sport in India as it is in North America, Europe and Africa. The basic reason that I think of is land availability. India is a big country, but even bigger is the biodiversity of this country. I think the competition within predator-prey of India’s wildlife is far fierce and competitive than North America (primarily Canada). India also has many endangered animals, which rely on other animals of least concern for food – this makes conservation of the least-concern animals vital for the survival of the endangered ones. Hence hunting is strictly illegal in India, although many tribes are exempted from this law since hunting is their primary source of meat. It is in this class of tribes that unfortunately gives rise to poachers, because poaching is an easy source of income – and they are very skilled to hunt in the Indian forests.
LPW logo on the cap
While I did not leave my body on the boat and wander into Indian wilderness, I enjoyed every bit of what I learnt within a few hours. Long Point Waterfowl, that gave me the opportunity (and a degree!) to work and learn about Canadian wilderness, continues to educate me. It is one of the major bodies working for conservation of Long Point – a fascinating land where man is still a natural, real and legal predator.
The string that held decoys became tangled in the propeller
At the end of the day, we harvested four birds – with the addition of a female Bluebill. I’m glad we did not get stunk (a hunter says he got stunk when he fails to harvest a game animal). We rescued the lost decoys; untangled strings caught up in the propeller, and hauled the boat to the dock. “Look at that!” pointed a friend to the sky – and we saw what every hunter despise – a flock of Redheads and Canvasbacks in thousands heading toward the bay. We all sighed. The lesson to be learnt was clear. Even if it’s a perfect day to hunt, more than half of the chance that you will hunt is upon your luck.
Long Point Bay
I was back on the train the same day. I was exhausted, yet excited for the day turned out to be very educational. Wildlife conservation is not possible without immersing ourselves into this web of life. A hunter knows how to be a part of this web, but many people who have distanced themselves from nature fail to understand this concept. I see a hunter as a conservationist and a naturalist – as long as he is bound by the laws of sustainable hunting.

Sunday Special!

Starting today, the 7th of November 2010, I will be posting interesting things that goes on around the world with respect to environment, wildlife and sometimes human-life.

Here's a witty, satirical song parody of "I'm A Believer" titled "I'm A Denier" by M4GW (Minnesotans for Global Warming). Also visit their website! It is about the deniers of climate change (around the world), but I think it applies to those who are ignorant enough to care less as well.

Conservation: Every Drop Counts

With melting icecaps, rising sea level, flashfloods and severe droughts making news in the media every other day, the Blog Community has come up with an interesting idea “that unites the world’s bloggers in posting about the same issue on the same day with the aim of sparking a global discussion and driving collective action” called the Blog Action Day.

In order to minimize our impact on water, let’s view water as a large resource, and then break it down into small stages in the way water has helped humanity expand; based on its availability (for all living things), productivity (for agriculture and irrigation) and further human development (urbanization). The earth’s surface is covered in 70.9% water, with oceans holding 97% of surface water, 2.4% in solar ice caps and 0.6% in lakes, rivers and ponds. To some terrestrial organisms, including us, we only have this 0.6% of water available as a direct, cheap resource. Now when you look at the percentage, it really doesn’t make any sense to consider the available water as a “large resource” over the larger resource it is a part of.

Let’s have a look at how water helped us prosper. Many centuries ago, humans and other living things shared land as well as water with one another (availability). Over decades, we explored the benefits of freshwater and started growing crops – consuming the water as well as the fertile lands (productivity). This gave rise to development; hence it is not surprising to see that the early civilizations were mostly built around a water source. As we continued to exploit water, some civilizations flourished over this abundant resource, many perished, while some parts of the world were left behind in droughts. This has happened in the past due to natural changes in geology or atmosphere, but today, it is realized that it is also due to human intervention with the natural water-cycle, such as building of dams and deforestation. The rains have increased where it rained more than enough and the rains have disappeared forever where it rained scarcely. A recent study suggests that “large swaths of Earth are in fact drying up”.

Today, this linearity cannot be viewed as a sustainable way of living anymore. This causes drastic disturbances in some parts of the world, such as drying of Aral Sea in Kazakhstan and Eucumbene Lake in Australia and unfortunately, it’s not only the water that flows back into the seas or aquifers, but tones of insecticides, pesticides and other chemicals with it.

To solve these problems, there are many organizations trying hard to mend this straight line of unsustainable use of water and join both the ends. And thankfully, we don’t need to be an expert to help achieve it. All we need to do is be aware, and view the environment as a resource we share with other living creatures – from your children and their future, to the worms in your backward and the whales in the oceans. I’d like to discuss a few basic things (also discussed in another article) that we as citizens of this world can follow (I welcome additional input):

·         Ban bottled water: It’s strongly recommended to stop using bottled water, for reasons such as plastic pollution, unnecessary treatment of water as well as due to the presence harmful chemicals in the plastic. Instead, buy water bottles which can be refilled n number of times. In Canada, there is a public awareness program to encourage usage of tap water, since Canada is known to have potable drinking water supply straight from the tap. If you are extra cautious, use a tap filter, or simply boil the water.
·         Buy organic products: Even the food you eat has a significant impact on water. Food grown under minimal or no use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is considered organic and it has less impact on the environment than intensive agriculture. If many people start buying organic products, we indirectly encourage farmers to opt for organic agriculture, thus we lower the chances of pesticides and fertilizers entering our water systems. Watch Food Inc. if you ever get a chance.
·         Harvest water: It is a great way to conserve water in all parts of the world, but many don’t realize it yet. For example, Mumbai receives a lot of rain, but I’m surprised to find that only a fraction of this is actually conserved through water harvesting, and most of it enters drainage systems, or the lakes. The best case is my home back in Mumbai, where they have now put up a roof over the terrace; instead, I think they should have put some water harvesting structures, which would definitely solve problems of water shortage in odd seasons! In Canada, especially the suburbs can have their own water harvesting structures that will make it way easier to manage water, thus relying less on the water from the lakes.
·         Permeable surfaces: Such surfaces help water that falls on the land to percolate underground. It usually happens naturally, but in urban landscapes, where most of the ground is paved, using permeable pavements is of a great help. Again, I’d like to talk about Mumbai that is always flooded during monsoon months. With more and more permeable surfaces on sidewalks, or low-traffic roads, it will be of immense help to get the water into the ground, which ultimately flows back into the lakes. Unfortunately, it is considered an expensive project, but we should not overlook the damages these floods do to business and properties, which can be easily avoided with permeable pavements.
·         Use sustainable forestry products: Simply speaking, in sustainable forestry, trees are allowed to grow freely for years, and then harvested for manufacturing products, thus the land can be used several times. It is far more efficient than deforestation of ‘real’ forests. It causes less soil erosion and helps retain water. Although there may be many ill effects of sustainable forestry, it is environmentally significant over a period of 10 or 20 years, and is an efficient way to retain water underground.
·         Reuse and Reduce: Reuse products that might end up in a landfill, such as many plastic products or better still, reduce the products that end up in landfills, which are nasty to the environment as well as expensive on the pockets. Best example of a badly managed landfill is the dumping ground at Gorai, India (watch a video of this dumping site, courtesy YouTube). Such landfills cause tons of chemicals leaching into water sources, causing harm to the environment and human health. In this context, we often blame the municipality that they don’t clean up properly, but in reality we are more careless and ignorant than they are. It’s we who must reduce our wastes, and then blame others who don’t clean up.
·         Plant trees: Trees are not only excellent for trapping CO2, but they are efficient at avoiding soil erosion as well as retaining water. If everyone plants just one tree a year, there will be a million more trees growing up every year! (And if the sapling dies, plant another the same year.)
·         Cut daily water usage:  Monitoring your daily usage to every liter of water used can be difficult, but if you avoid using bathtubs and instead aim to shower in about 10 minutes, you will save a lot of water over the long run. You can also stop using dishwashers, and instead wash and dry your own dishes. Just put on some music and do the job, it’s pretty relaxing! Watch GOOD and Fogelson-Lubliner’s video on how to cut daily usage of water (Worth watching!).
·         Donate to the needy countries if you can, through organizations such as Water.org or simply focus on cutting down your own usage of water. I find it easy and I’m happy to do at least something for the environment. It’s surprisingly easy how you can conserve water by doing such simple things, and you don’t need to change your lifestyle either – just a little bit, maybe!

When you do all these things, there are many good things happening back in the environment. Things mentioned above can save liters of water every day, as well as reduce polluted water from reaching back in natural systems. This, over a period of time, will help water bodies sustain for a long time – which is good for us as well as every other living organism. Also visit Change.org’s Five Facts about Water You Might Not Know. This is how we can help in joining the ends of the linear pathway in which we exploited water for so many years.

There are many other “industrial” solutions to our water problem (besides waste water treatment), such as desalination, by which we remove salts from saline water and use the freshwater for consumption. In a recent report on TreeHugger.com, funding desalination projects is on a steep rise. Although desalination is an expensive process on a large scale, it is also not environmentally friendly, but it is always fair to explore alternate sources of water. We as citizens must focus on how to reduce our use, and if possible, help the drought stricken areas in whichever way we can. It can be achieved by sensitizing people on these issues, supporting local communities who may be affected by proposed dams and participate in cleaning of nearby aquatic ecosystems (visit Pearl Jam! for more options!).

Water has become a highly precious resource. There are some places where a barrel of water costs more than a barrel of oil (Lloyd Axworthy, Foreign Minister of Canada). We need to tackle this problem as one planet, and not as individual nations. It has been predicted that the next world war would be over water, but we can definitely avoid it if act now. We don’t need soldiers; we need water conservationists like you. J

Chasing Tiger Beetles

Cicindela sexguttata, photographed in early spring at Medway Creek, 2010
Patience is virtue, but if there is an insect that knows how to tests your patience, it has to be a Tiger Beetle. Belonging to the order Coleoptera, family Carabidae , subfamily Cicindelinae (all Tiger Beetles belong to Carabidae, but not all Carabidae beetles are commonly called Tiger Beetles; they were previously considered to be under a distinct family Cicindelidae), these beetles are commonly referred to as Tiger Beetles for a very good reason. We all know that tigers are carnivores, earning the rightful throne of being on top of the food pyramid in their prime habitats. Their hunting tactics involve ambushing, stalking, chasing and surprising the prey, making them efficient – if not supreme – predators of the Indian subcontinent. Likewise, Tiger Beetles are known to use all these tactics while hunting for food. Only difference between the mammalian tiger and an insect tiger is their apparent size, but if we were to blow a Tiger Beetle to the proportion of a tiger, the Tiger Beetle would be a far supreme predator to rule the planet. The reason behind their success is because they are one of the fastest insects, capable of running as well as flying at great speeds (20 to 30 mph!). But worry not, a tiger beetle will never run you down, it will, in fact, make you chase after it, if you are curious about these marvelous beetles flaunting an extravagant armor of Chitin. This post is about my field observations of the Tiger Beetles of southern Ontario, as I stalked and chased for hours to photograph them over the summer.

I tried to document as many tiger beetles as I could besides other insects (such as butterflies that I discussed in the previous post), herptiles, birds and mammals. And out of these, most challenging were obviously the Tiger Beetles. You know the reason why, but I had quite an idea of how to get close enough for a photograph through countless tries. I am talking about photographing Tiger Beetles using a Point-and-shoot (PNS) camera with no high-end super-macro lenses. Using a PNS strips the photographer of the privileges of shooting the subject from a distance, which is practically possible but the result is photographically insufficient. In order to obtain that near-perfect shot for any PNS, the photographer has to be as close as possible, but not too close to scare the subject.
C. sexguttata was observed feeding on ants at Medway Creek, Spring 2010
In order to achieve this, one must first know where to find the Tiger Beetles. These beetles inhabit a range of habitats from woodlands, forest clearings, river and lakeshores, mangroves and salt marshes, deciduous forests of Ontario to sand dunes near the Great Lakes. And if you see one beetle, there are bound to be more around. It’s often by accident that you may come across a tiger beetle, since they sit still until we approach close enough, and disappear quickly – but often land close by. Therefore if you ever see one fly and disappear, walk around and you will probably find it in close proximity. On the other hand, if you know which tiger beetle you are looking for, you will have an idea about the habitat it is found in as well, making it easier to find the place they prefer living in, although you may have to do a little research about the distribution of the certain beetle.

The biggest deal after you know where to find one is when to find one. The best season to find tiger beetles in Canada is spring, summer and late summer (March to October). Only a few Tiger beetle adults emerge during early spring, the best example is Cicindela sexguttata. As summer proceeds, many more show up and the diversity peaks with the passing season. By the end of August and early September, the diversity dwindles again – it’s time for the adults to hibernate (while some die) and for the grubs to wait for next season.
C. sexguttata, seen basking on a log during noon at Turkey Point, Summer 2010
Tiger beetles, like all other insects need to raise their body temperature in order to perform bodily functions (since they are ecothermic), and to do that they prefer basking in clearings such as on exposed logs, rocks or on the ground. This is usually observed during early morning hours till noon. Most beetles become very active by afternoon, engaging in activities such as hunting for prey or searching for mates. By late evening, their metabolism seems to slow down, making them sluggish and weak. By twilight hours, they prefer roosting in plants. I observed Cicindela lepida burrowing in the sand during evening at Long Point, but I did not come across any available literature on such behaviour. Through my experience, I find early morning hours and early evening hours until twilight to be the best period to photograph these beetles, but it is not so difficult to photograph them in their active period of time – all you require is patience and persistence.
C. formosa feeding on an unidentified beetle. It only consumed the soft parts and left behind the exoskeleton.
Photographed at Long Point, 2010
Once you know when and where to find a Tiger Beetle, photographing it becomes half easy. Like photographing any animal, one has to be cautious, watch their movement, step on the right ground in order to keep the subject from spooking and slowly move closer. Tiger Beetles almost always prefer to sit on clear grounds; hence it’s often easy to maneuver around in order to get perfect light on the subject. However, I find it easy to shoot Tiger Beetles on cloudy days, because on sunny days, the light is harsh, and the Tiger Beetles reflect a lot of the light, hence the images are usually high in contrast. On cloudy days, the clouds act as natural light diffusers, helping in capturing the beetles in their true colours. Use of flash is also very helpful to light up the subject in cloudy conditions. I prefer to use a homemade flash diffuser in order to keep the tiger beetle from being overexposed by a strong flash.

There are approximately 2,600 species (Pearson and Volger, 2006) (2,100 or 2,300 according to Wikipedia and Pearson, 2001 respectively) of Tiger Beetles known to science. About 930 species of Carabidae (or Ground Beetles) are found in Canada (CBIF), and 109 species of Tiger Beetles in North America (Pearson and Volger, 2006). In Ontario, about 14 species (University of Guelph, 2000) of Tiger Beetles occur. Their numbers are usually concentrated around the Great Lakes, especially along the sandy shores and sand dunes, rocky shores and the alvars. A few species are found farther from the lakes as well, especially around rivers and streams.

...yet another photograph of C. sexguttata, showing the typical six spots (that may or may not be present) giving it
the common name Six Spotted tiger beetle. The common name is not to be confused with
Six Spotted ground beetle, Anthia sexguttata found in India, which is also wrongly called a Six Spotted tiger beetle
 The first Tiger Beetle I photographed in Canada was at Medway Creek in April 2010. It was Cicindela sexguttata, one of the early Tiger Beetles to greet the warming season. Since then, I recorded about eight species of Tiger Beetles in Long Point area and Manitoulin Island. The habitats explored were Carolinian forests, sandy shores of Lake Erie, the alvars and rocky shores of Manitoulin Island.

Cicindela sexguttata: Commonest tiger beetle. Seen at Medway Creek, Long Point, Turkey Point and Port Rowan.
the very last picture of C. sexguttata.
Cicindela formosa: Largest tiger beetle of Canada. Seen at Long Point and Turkey Point
C. formosa
Cicindela scutellaris: Seen at Long Point and Turkey Point
C. scutellaris
Cicindela punctulata: Seen at Long Point and Turkey Point
C. punctulata
Cicindela lepida: Seen at Long Point and Turkey Point
C. lepida
Cicindela repanda: Seen at Manitoulin Island
C. repanda
Cicindela longilabris: Seen at Manitoulin Island
Probably C. longilabris, with some confusion with C. punculata, but due to the some morphological characters and since C. longilabris is seen at Manitoulin Island, I am inclined towards it.
Cicindela purpurea: Seen at Manitoulin Island
C. purpurea, one of my favorite tiger beetles of Ontario!
These beetles play a pivotal role in the ecosystem by providing valuable ecosystem services. Their contribution towards keeping other insect population under check is apparent by their appetite. Although I have never seen a Tiger Beetle feed on mosquitoes, they will, given the opportunity, feast on them. They also predate on other beetles that are pests on plants, or are invasive in nature. They also seem to have an appetite for ants – as they are often seen standing near an ant nest and leaping on a passerby. The grubs are a nemesis for ants as well, as they wait in a burrow, protected by an armored head for any passing insect. Tiger Beetles are also considered for studying the health of a habitat, thus greater the diversity of Tiger Beetles, healthier the habitat. Pearson and Volger (2001) also noted, “the use of tiger beetles as model organisms has made possible or greatly enhanced many areas of research, including molecular phylogeny, the function of acute hearing, spatial modeling and physiology of vision.”
C. formosa showing the fearsome mandibles that are a nightmare to many pests!
Conserving these beetles is very important for the above mentioned reasons, but they face threats like every other species. There are several species of tiger beetles that are endangered throughout the world, mainly due to deforestation, habitat loss, urban and industrial development, as well as, interestingly, sport activities such as dirt bikes. This destructive hobby is of interest to many in North America. This has caused the Carolinian life zone, which is rich in sand, and hence supposedly ideal for this sport, to be prone to bikes that not only cause air and sound pollution but damage the ground as well. Extensive use of lands for this sport, as seen at Long Point, has lead to a great impact on wildlife, such as the Species-at-Risk Eastern Hog-nosed snakes. Tiger Beetles as well are disturbed by such activities and more so due to the fact that these dirt bikers have a special desire to bike on protected wildlife areas, rampaging thoughtlessly on the delicate ecosystem that is already struggling to survive.

Thank you for reading!

The Butterfly Hunt: 2010

The air now carries the remains of summer’s warmth and the early coolness of fall. It is pleasant, but the place I live in is devoid of natural woods and shrubs. Whatever grows are horticulture plants or weeds on wastelands providing ecological services to the scarce but valuable biodiversity predominated by bumble bees, bottle flies and cabbage whites. Soon the landscape will transform into myriad of colors, from violet to red, but this time it’s the leaves. Thence the diversity will drop, hitting the lowest in January as winter grips onto southwestern Ontario. By March, green shoots will sprout from bare branches. Sign of life. As days roll by, the very first butterfly will make its appearance in the open, basking in the early spring sun. It will be a tattered Mourning Cloak – one of the butterflies that overwinter for months only to greet the season of spring – and will continue its lifecycle by laying eggs for summer.
A Pearl Crescent decides to sip minerals off my finger
It has been six months since I saw the first Mourning Cloak in the month of March this year, marking the beginning of my quest to photograph as many species of North American butterflies – specifically of southern Ontario – as possible. I managed to observe 31 species of butterflies at Long Point, Turkey Point, Port Rowan and Manitoulin Island. I missed many species, which I will never get to see this year. This is what is so exciting about the biodiversity in summer. You get one chance. And you either see the butterfly disappear high in the canopy, or are fortunate to study it more closely.
A friendly Silvery Blue
There are about 750 species of butterflies recorded in Canada. To date, only one subspecies of the Large Marble, found only on southern Vancouver Island is believed to be extinct. It’s interesting to note that there were very few people in the past who studied butterflies carefully – and these were dedicated naturalists and lepidopterists. Fortunately, in the recent years, there is more awareness about the diversity of these delicate insects, with more and more researchers as well as amateur naturalists set to explore the subtle differences in their lifecycles, the response to climate change, distribution as well as species diversity. The Government of Canada has a web-page dedicated to Butterfly Conservation, and they ask an intriguing question – Why would anyone care if a butterfly species or even subspecies disappeared? It is because butterflies are as important to the ecosystem as bees. They are also the indicators of the health of a habitat, which is based not only on the presence of flowering plants for the adults to sip from, but on the presence of the host-plants for caterpillars to munch on. In Ontario, two species – Frosted Elfin and Karner Blue have been placed on the Ontario Endangered Species list, but they are probably already extirpated in the province.
Carolinian forests, as seen in Norfolk County where this photograph was taken, is an ideal habitat with rich undergrowth as well as dense canopy for butterflies
All of the species I photographed are common in the habitats they are found in. The habitats I explored was dominated by Carolinian woodlands – found in the eastern United States, and limited in Canada to extreme southern Ontario – altering into boreal forests as one travels toward Manitoulin Island. The Carolinian woods are semi-deciduous, rich habitats for flora and fauna. It is also the most exploited resource for agriculture and industries in Canada. It is characterized by tree species such as Ash trees, Black Oaks and maples. As one travels towards Manitoulin, the habitat gives way to conifer species. Although there is a significant change in the habitat of Long Point and Manitoulin Island, the butterfly diversity remains somewhat constant. Of the 31 species recorded, 14 species belong to family Nymphalidae, 7 species to Lycaenidae, 7 species to Hesperiidae, 2 species to Pieridae and 1 species to Papilionidae.
Graph showing number of species observed from five families
As it is clear from the graph, the diversity observed was higher for Nymphalidae (the largest family of butterflies), followed by Lycaenidae (second largest family), then by Hesperiidae, Pieridae and lastly Papilionidae. This trend is generally observed in the number of species occurring worldwide as well – with Nymphalidae having most number of species and Papilionidae having the least. The trend seen in the above graph could also probably be because of time and the place these butterflies were observed in. This is explained in the graph shown below.

Graph showing number of species of butterflies observed from May to September. Please note, May-June observations were made at Port Rowan, Turkey Point and Long Point; July-August observations were made on Manitoulin Island; September observations were made at Port Rowan and Turkey Point.
The above graph shows number of species of five families observed over a period of five months. It shows highest diversity in the month of June. May shows a rather lower diversity probably because of the coolness of late spring as well as low diversity of plants (it is also the month when most plants start to sprout). June shows a peak, which also showed a high temperature range compared to May. This not only helped adult butterflies to flutter around and feed on flowers but also helped the caterpillars because of the presence of larval host plants – as specifically observed for Monarch larval host plant Asclepias sp. The month of July shows lower diversity than August, this probably involves an error in my observations, since that is the month when I moved from Long Point to Manitoulin Island. August is the month that showed most diversity, probably because it is also an ideal month (and the warmest) for adults as well as larva to relish on the plants. Noticeably, the month of July also had less number of plants in flowering season as compared to August – this could have affected the observations since it is easier to see butterflies visiting flowers. The month of September has been relatively cooler than last year, which might explain why such a less number of species. There is also a bias in the data because these observations were made only in the first two weeks. What’s interesting however is the increase in the sightings of butterflies belonging to Pieridae. I sighted two species that were abundant –next only to the omnipresent Monarchs seen at Turkey Point during August and September.

I wish I also conducted a population count for these butterflies to see how the overall density rises and fall with the season, and to see if it rises or drops for ever species, depending on their time of emergence as well as on environmental factors. Let’s have a look at these butterflies one by one. Starting with the largest family Nymphalidae, I will descend to Papilionidae. All these families have distinct characteristics which are easy to observe on-field. I will recommend visiting Government of Canada’s CBIF website for more information on every species.

Nymphalidae: Marked by the presence of only four legs, this is because the first pair of legs is reduced to “brush” like structures – hence the butterflies of this family are commonly called Brush-footed butterflies.

1. Monarch, Danaus plexippus
An adult Monarch sips nectar from Goldenrod at Manitoulin Island
 
Monarch caterpillar feeding on Butterfly Milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa at Turkey Point
 
A Monarch Caterpillar feeding on Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca at Manitoulin Island
Monarchs are renowned for their great migration spanning over 3,000 kilometers. This migration begins with the sign of fall, as they move downwards on the map as temperatures drop. Point Peele National Park is well known to watch this butterfly congregate in huge numbers, from where they fly over Lake Erie and through America, as far as Texas. During early spring, they start flying northwards towards Canada. This migration, besides being associated with the temperature, is also related to the growth of the larval host plants.

2. Viceroy, Limenitis archippus
Viceroy is also famous for its mimicry of the Monarch. This mimicry is called Mullerian mimicry, where two or more harmful species share similar display patterns to deter predators. Like Monarchs however, Viceroy does not migrate. They are known to overwinter in larval stage.

3. Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta

Red Admiral is a common butterfly of urban as well as woodlands. It is one of the last butterflies to be seen during fall.

 4. White Admiral, Limenitis arthemis arthemis
There are two subspecies of White Admiral, L a. arthemis, as seen here and L a astyanax. While both subspecies are seen in Ontario, I found L a. arthemis to be more common at Manitoulin Island than at Long Point.

5. Common Buckeye, Junonia coenia
According to CBIF, the migrating butterflies show up first in Southern Ontario in June and if colonies are established by egg-carrying females, they can last through several generations to early September. This explains why I saw a number of Common Buckeyes at Turkey Point in the first week of September.

6. American Lady, Vanessa virginiensis
This butterfly was more common at Manitoulin Island, seen basking on the south shore and occasionally feeding on Joe Pye weed.

7. Compton Tortoiseshell, Nymphalis vaualbum
According to CBIF, this butterfly is probably the longest-lived Canadian butterflies in the adult stage. The single brood appears in July/August, hibernates as an adult and can survive through until the following June. The only specimen I observed was mud-puddling on the alvars on the south shore of Manitoulin Island in July. This butterfly is also called False Comma, since it also bears the mark that looks sort-of like a ‘coma’, much similar to a species of butterfly called Coma.

8. Question Mark, Polygonia interrogationis
Question Mark butterfly showing the typical "question mark" on the under side of hind-wing
Upper side of Question Mark butterfly
The mark on the underside of the wing is a curve and a dot, resembling a Question mark – hence the name. It is known to be the largest of the Polygonia sp. found in Canada. They prefer wooded areas and forest clearings – often seen basking on the ground but when disturbed, they will fly high on the canopy and bask. They will however certainly come down to the ground to bask.
9. Atlantis Fritillary, Speyeria atlantis
Atlantis Fritillary showing upper side
Atlantis Fritillary laying eggs on an unidentified herb
It is only found north to Hudson Bay and absent in the extreme southwest, hence it is not surprising to find many of these at Manitoulin Island and none near Long Point. It was most common during the first two weeks of August than July, where adults were seen feeding on goldenrods on the alvars and one female was seen laying eggs.

10. Mourning Cloak, Nymphalis antiopa

This butterfly is one of those to overwinter for months, and fly again by mid-March in southern Ontario. It is fairly common during spring and late summer.

11. Pearl Crescent, Phyciodes tharos
Pearl Crescent butterfly photographed at Turkey Point
A pair of Pearl Crescent butterflies seen at Manitoulin Island
Pearl Crescent was one of the commonest butterflies seen throughout summer. It was commonly seen along grassy patches near Long Point and around rocky shores dominated by shrubs on Manitoulin Island.

12. Little Wood Satyr, Megisto cymela

It is a common butterfly seen basking in forest clearings on low shrubs or are seen fluttering about the dense woodlands of southern Ontario. Many of these were seen in late May and June. I did not come across any Little Wood Satyrs at Manitoulin, which was occupied more commonly by Common Wood Nymph.

13. Common Wood Nymph, Cercyonis pegala nephele

This subspecies is characterized by darker color compared to other subspecies. It was observed in good numbers at Manitoulin Island, frequently seen basking on shrubs as well as tall trees. Although named ‘wood nymph’ it was not seen in woodlands, but rather along forest edge.

14. Common Ringlet, Coenonympha tullia inornata

It is a butterfly commonly seen flying low on the ground near grassy habitats at Long Point. The subspecies C t. inornata is known to occur in most of eastern Canada. According to CBIF, it has been expanding southward for some years into southern Ontario. Based on this, I found this butterfly to be very common in and around Long Point.

Lycaenidae: Commonly referred as ‘Blues’ because the predominant color on the upper wings of these butterflies is blue. These are usually small butterflies, famous for their association with ants. The larvae possess glands that secret sugary substance that attracts ants, thus they bribe ants to protect them from potential predators. Some of the larval stages of the Blues are also known to prey on little insects such as mealy bugs and aphids.

1. Summer Azure, Celastrina neglecta

Only one specimen was observed in the first week of September. This is not surprising since according to CBIF, second- and third-generation are not rare in southern Ontario, considering the fact that the butterfly I saw belonged to this generations. It is a common butterfly in suburban as well as forested areas – preferring weedy fields.

2. Silvery Blue, Glaucopsyche lygdamus

A small lycaenid, there is only one subspecies couperi identified in Canada according to CBIF. It is known to occur all over Canada, except from southwestern Ontario where its southern limit is Ancaster. This is interesting, since I recorded it at Turkey Point, which is far south of Ancaster.

Comment from an expert from CBIF: This species has switched its main larval host plant to Cow Vetch (Viccia cracca) - an introduced legume, and this is allowing it to spread its range farther south into southwestern Ontario and also into the Northeastern United States.

It is interesting to observe good (or bad) effect on the biodiversity because of an introduced species.

3. Eastern tailed Blue, Everes comyntas

This butterfly was seen during early May and early September at Turkey Point. It was however more common during September. According to CBIF, it has two or three generations between May and October.

4. Coral Hairstreak, Satyrium titus

It is the only tailless Hairstreak in Canada. Only one specimen was seen in July at Manitoulin Island.

5. Bronzed Copper, Lycaena hallus
Bronze Copper showing under wings

Bronze Copper showing upper wings
It is a large Copper seen commonly during mid-June to mid-September. Only one specimen was observed at Port Rowan in June.

6. American Copper, Lycaena phlaeas
American Copper showing under wings
American Copper nectaring on an Asteraceae inflorescence, showing the upper wings
This butterfly is smaller than Bronze Copper. It was fairly common throughout Turkey Point in September.

7. Dorcas Copper, Lycaena dorcas
Dorcas Copper showing under wings
Dorcas Copper showing upper wings
There is a little confusion with the identification of this butterfly. It was commonly seen during the month of August on Manitoulin Island, seen basking and feeding on goldenrods along alvars.

Hesperiidae: These butterflies are supposedly a link between moths and butterflies – because of their superficial resemblance to moths. This however is debatable, since these butterflies, commonly referred to as ‘Skippers’ are similar to other butterfly families than moths. They are usually small, drab-looking butterflies known for their fast and rapid flight.

1. European Skipper, Thymelicus lineola

It was introduced in early 1900s probably via imported seeds of Timothy Grass. Only a few butterflies were seen around Long Point, but they surpassed the populations of any other butterfly on Manitoulin Island during July. They however ceased to exist in August, with not a single specimen seen around. This outburst of population is mostly because this is the only North American skipper whose eggs hibernate.

2. Least Skipper, Ancyloxypha numitor

It is a small skipper seen commonly in grassy areas in and around Long Point during June.

3. Hobomok Skipper, Poanes hobomok

This skipper was commonly seen in forest openings and edges at Long Point. It was more common in the month of June than May.

4. Leonard’s Skipper, Hesperia leonardus

There are two subspecies, leonardus occurs in the east and pawnee in eastern prairies. I am not sure which subspecies I recorded, but I’d go with leonardus, since it occurs in southern Ontario. Only one specimen was observed feeding on Goldenrods on the shores of Manitoulin Island.

5. Little Glassywing, Pompeius verna


I’m still unsure of the identification of this butterfly, which could either be P verna or Dun Skipper Euphyes vestris, since both share similar distribution in southern Ontario. It was seen around mid-week of July.

6. Juevnal’s Dusky Wing, Erynnis juvenalis
Juvenal's Duskywing, male
Juvenal's Duskywing, female
It was seen commonly during May to June at Long Point and the surrounding area. Many specimens observed preferred basking on sandy clearings and roads rather than on plants.

7. Silver-spotted Skipper, Epargyreus clarus (no photograph)
This is the largest resident Skipper in Canada (CBIF, 2010). Only two specimens were observed, one in early July and one in early September. I missed the opportunity to photograph this butterfly on both occasions! They were observed basking on the ground, but took to flight as soon as they sensed movement.

Pieridae: The butterflies of this family are commonly referred to as ‘Whites and Yellows’ or ‘Sulphurs’ because the predominant color in this family is white or yellow.

1. Cabbage White, Pieris rapae

Cabbage Whites are ubiquitous in Ontario, especially in disturbed habitats dominated by invasive weeds. It was introduced into North America in Quebec in 1860s (CBIF, 2010). According to CBIF, they become more common as summer progresses, this explains why I saw more number of this species in late August and early September.

2. Clouded Sulphur, Colias philodice

This was another common butterfly seen during August-end and early September. Many specimens were seen feeding on Butterfly Milkweed, and taking shelter in the grass.

Papilionidae: The butterflies of this family are commonly referred to as “Swallowtails” because most of these butterflies display a swallow-tail like extension of the hind-wing. They are usually large, brightly colored butterflies.

1. Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Papilio glaucus

Many specimens – males and females, were seen during the months of May and early June in and around Long Point. These large swallowtails are seen flying high in the canopy, often visiting the ground to feed on flowers.

For many, butterflies are a mere delight. But what is their stand in this diverse world around – is it to please us with their elegant flight and brilliant colors? Of course not, and we know it. First thing that comes to mind when we think of butterflies is plants. Adult butterflies need nectar to fuel their flight, and by visiting flowers they not only refuel, but carry out nature’s own way of regeneration – by pollination and caterpillars require to feed in order to grow. It is therefore not hard to imagine that a butterfly’s life revolves around plants – from the time the egg is laid to the time the adult has to feed on nectar and lay the eggs again. This brings me to think about butterfly conservation. Conservation of butterflies is as complex as conserving tigers, only difference is that not many butterflies are as endangered as the tiger. To protect a tiger, we have to start from the grass roots. We need to conserve its habitat – formed by communities of plants and trees. Likewise for butterflies, we have to conserve these plant communities. Butterflies, like tigers, also face the danger of poaching, with many being hunt in tropical rainforests to be sold worldwide as precious ornamental items. This illegal trade can easily be brought to a stop if only the consumers began to appreciate the real beauty of butterflies in their natural habitat.
Monarchs feeding on Butterfly Milkweed
We can also help butterflies sustain the populations in cities by encouraging communities to transform their lawns into butterfly gardens. All you need to do is plant native flora – and the butterflies will make sure to visit you. The Butterfly Website lists native flora that will help you create your own butterfly garden. This recreational effort is also a step towards conservation – and let it be known, there are no small steps. Every step you take is a big effort.
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Please feel free to add the butterflies you observed anywhere in Ontario to this list in comments or make corrections if any of the identifications are wrong.