Stalking Spring

Medway Creek on 21st March, 2010
No more salty shoes. No more blowing snow. No more frozen earth. The days are longer and nights shorter. The air is warm and humid. The winds of change have arrived. And with these winds come all the residents of this land. I spent quite some time in the woods during March and April, photographing and studying as much as I could. I came across some astounding life I had always wanted to see, but this is just the fraction of it. I was able to photograph most that I saw through my eyes, but capturing the subtle scent of spring is impossible.

Forest floor covered in new leaves
The monochrome browns are disappearing as tender greens dot the trees. Some plants are already blooming, much ahead in the race of regeneration this summer. Medway Creek, just another tiny paradise lost amidst urbanization is showing off its phenomenal display in the undergrowth as well as treetops. From moths and butterflies, flies and beetles, from birds and mammals and from fishes to snakes, every organism has become active.
It is like metamorphosis, where after four long months of pupation, life ecloses. This transformation is not only true for the lepidopterans that are now out and waiting for the flowers to bloom, but for beetles and gnats too. As plants start to bloom, there is a sudden boon in insect diversity as well. In case of butterflies, the very first one to be seen is the Mourning Cloak butterfly. It is well known for hibernating throughout winter, and is the first to be seen basking in sun or flying high in the canopy.

Unidentified Midge
If you look closer at the tiny fauna, the commonest to be seen are the midges. These very many flies that have emerged from their gall-homes are pretty common to be missed. These mosquito look-alikes are pretty abundant in wild as well as urban areas. It is not uncommon to see a few dead in homes. Since the adults have a short lifespan, their only purpose is to mate and carry on the progeny, hence it is not surprising to see mating adults so early in spring.

A Midge resting on a tree bark
Midges and Gnats are true flies. It is a name commonly used for several fly families in the suborder Nematocera. There are Gall Midges and Net Winged Midges, etc. that are not so annoying as Black flies, eye gnat, sandflies and their relatives – mosquitoes and midges. I am not sure which gnats these are, but they could probably be Gall midge. The larvae of Gall midges feed on plant matter and cause a variety of galls, such as the Goldenrod galls I talked about on the previous spring post. The midges, although some are a menace, are also pollinators and hence valuable to the ecosystem. As days go by, it is not surprising to see flies everywhere – houseflies and bottleflies are the most common to be seen on a nature walk.

Warming temperatures wake every little and large organism; one of the little fellows I met on a forest path was a millipede. It hurried down a boulder standing amidst an ocean of decaying leaves – something that shelters these organisms such as millipedes, other insects and spiders. It also provides the warmth for micro-fauna to flourish, and most important of all, nourishment for these forests. This millipede was probably basking in the afternoon sun when I found it on the boulder. Identifying it is beyond my capability, but it’s worth mentioning that the largest millipede of North America, Narceus americanus is seen here in southeastern Canada.

Prenolepis sp. of Ants seen mating from the other side of the window
Ants are back in action. One of my favorite subjects to watch, I found this pair on the outside of the window on a sunny morning. Worst thing is, the window was sealed hence I couldn’t get a better shot! The Prenolepis sp. (impairs?), commonly called Small Honey Ant or False Honey Ant and also Winter Ant, are the very first ones to see just as temperatures begin to rise again. I wrote on the first ant I saw late in winter, which probably is a Prenolepis queen. The Queens and Drones of these ants born in fall season and quickly undergo hibernation for winter. As soon as winter passes, they start to emerge – by late February and March.

Formica sp. inspecting a crushed ant!
I also came across many Formica sp. (fusca?) of ants. These ants were seen on an open grassy patch, with a few boulders around. After photographing them, which was a difficult job since the sun was too harsh, the rock was too bright and the ant was dark, hence exposing them well proved pretty tough. I photographed them in the afternoon and returned in the evening when the sunlight was soft enough. Only after watching the pictures on the monitor did I realize why the ants were scurrying on that specific rock. I saw a crushed worker, and the other fellow worker ants were inspecting it. Interesting, since we might think ants don’t give a damn who dies. Actually, they do, but there is a difference. The ants were around in greater numbers, some of them around the dead ant. This is probably because of the release of chemical signals from the dead ant to alert her nest mates. From the behavior of the ants, they seemed alert and hasty, often stopping abruptly, raising their upper body and opening their little big jaws. I have no idea who killed their mate, but I’m sure they were very, very angry.
Another nest mate inspecting the crushed ant.

Formica sp.

Unidentified Ant
Another ant species was seen further upstream. There were some workers scavenging and scouting on the forest path. I am still awaiting their identification since I have no clue what these ants are.

Miner Bee - Andrena sp.
When I was photographing the Formica sp. of ants, I saw this Miner Bee – Andrena sp. They are small bees that burrow in the ground – often creating multiple tunnels, hence the name. This little bee sat on a dead leaf and cleaned itself. It’s good to see this important pollinator around as more and more flowers bloom.

Syrphid fly - Helophilus sp. (?)
Syrphid flies are very common all around the creek. These bee-mimics prefer to sit closer to the ground. This one is a Helophilus sp. I observed them chasing other Syrphid flies, often taking a break to bask in the sun and groom.

Cicindela sexguttata basking on a rock
The Three-spotted Tiger Beetle, Cicindela sexguttata, is the most common Tiger beetle seen here. These are my most favorite of all beetles. Several fellows were seen on the forest path. They are easily identified by their iridescent blue/green exoskeleton, and peculiar three (sometimes two or none) spots on the elytra. They prefer open patches, as such; they will prefer a forest path clear of leaves over a forest floor. This helps them run around chasing their prey. Now they are beetles, but as good as a tiger. These beetles are called-so because of their ambush hunting tactics. They will sit, hide, stalk and run behind a prey. In fact they are more efficient than tigers because they can fly. The one I photographed was walking around the forest path looking for prey and took breaks to bask on the rocks.

Ctenucha virginica
On some nature walks, I could not photograph any birds. Firstly, the time was not always right – I used to go out in afternoon, when the sun is high in the sky. Secondly, afternoon is not really a good time to find birds, it’s either during dawn or dusk that the chances of seeing more birds is better. Lastly, I was beginning to get tired of changing the teleconverter for every macro photograph. So as I was changing the teleconverter, I happened upon this moth caterpillar that was feeding on grass. This is a larva of Ctenucha virginica, a moth belonging to Arctiidae. It is an endemic to eastern North America.

A Water-skate, taken on 2nd April 2010
Water skate were one of the first few insects I saw as soon as spring thaw came to an end and stagnant pools were formed. It is a true bug, in the family Gerridae and “walks” on the water with the help of surface-tension. They are predatory, and prefer still waters.

Wolf Spider
I was not surprised to see Wolf Spiders (Lycosidae) so common all around the creek. These were one of the most abundant invertebrates seen. They are very quick, wary and pretty small, hence photographing them is a challenge but fun.

Red Velvet Mite - commonly seen in leaf litter
My lucky finding was a Red Velvet Mite. These belong to Trombidiidae family in Class Arachnida. They are seen in soil litter. They are active predators as adults but early instars are often parasites on other insects, arachnids and reptiles.
I already wrote about the Eastern Garter Snakes earlier in the month. I am yet to produce the tiny documentary I mentioned that I will be posting later in May.

Canada Goose in black-and-white
There is not too much to discuss about Canada goose, except the fact that they are pretty habituated to humans, although they are completely wild. This makes them an excellent subject to practice photography and composition. There are several pairs across Medway Creek; all of them give a decent opportunity to photograph as landscapes change. Since they have a strong contrasting coloration, they are all the more better subjects to learn exposure and different compositions such as the black-and-white photograph I took several weeks ago. Besides Canada goose, Mallard Ducks are fairly common, too but are very wary and either swim faster or fly away on approach.

Mourning Dove
A lonely Mourning Dove was seen on one windy evening. These birds are extremely wary here in the woods, but I was surprised to see two visit my balcony one day. They either sit high in the treetops, or come down on the forest floor to peck on seeds and insects. Seeing them is always certain, a group of few always occupy a sycamore tree across the creek. They are not uncommon in urban and suburban areas either, and are rather more tolerant to human presence than here. It is interesting to see such behavior in the birds that are considered “domestic”, simply because they are so common in urbanized areas, yet living a “wild and wary” life in the woods. I wonder how this behavior affects the traits in the offspring of the two populations in different environments, and can urbanization lead to evolution/ devolution in such birds?

Northern Cardinal - male
It’s literally raining Northern Cardinals here. I used to see one or two males around during winter, but now I have stopped counting them. They are the most abundant birds next to Black-capped Chickadees. I saw the first female who sat too close to me, but obscured by dense thickets. Although plentiful, photographing them in the open is very difficult since they are very shy, and will often hide in thickets at slight disturbance.

Red bellied Woodpecker
A pair of Red bellied woodpeckers came and settled on a bare tree. The male chased the female (?) or another male (?) and perched high on the tree, calling on top of its voice. This was the first time ever I saw this woodpecker. They usually habit deciduous forests, hence seeing them is not uncommon, but I have only seen them once over two months.

Blue Jay
A Blue Jay pair is currently nesting here. The months of March, April and June is the breeding season, and this pair is busy in one part of the creek, which could be their territory. They are often seen together, feeding and flying silently in the branches. Seeing them in an open area is pretty tough, since they are very wary and prefer thickly wooded parts of the forest. Now these birds are considered intelligent and brave. They are known to chase away birds of prey, as well as give alarm calls that alerts other birds, a great example of altruism, where an unrelated species helps (unknowingly, mostly) another (un)related species of approaching danger. This is a pretty interesting behavior, considering there are many birds of prey around such as Red-tailed Hawk and Cooper’s hawk that are known to feed on Blue Jay and other birds.

Brown headed Cowbirds, female on the left and male on the right
Brown headed cowbirds were seen perched high on a tree close to where the Blue Jays were seen. There was a small noisy flock of males and females, perched high on a bare tree. According to, “[Females] forgo building nests and instead put all their energy into producing eggs, sometimes more than three dozen a summer…they lay in the nests of other birds, abandoning their young to foster parents, usually at the expense of at least some of the host’s own chicks.” I also came across one Common Grackle on a casual walk.

Yellow-shafted Flicker, male
On one of the trail, and often thence, I also came across a Yellow shafted flicker, later I saw another one, and I believe there’s a pair. It was also one of the birds on my wishlist. Wikipedia quotes Audubon guide, “…only woodpeckers that frequently feed on the ground…although they eat fruits, berries, seeds and nuts, their primary food is insects. Ants alone can make up 45% of their diet. They have a behavior called anting, during which they use the acid from the ants to assist in preening, as it is useful in keeping them free of parasites.” I came across this bird on a windy evening. A spring storm was on its way, but I was glad to have seen this bird just before it started to rain. Being in a forest amidst an approaching storm is an amazing experience, when a part of the sky is bright and blue, and a dark cloud hangs on the other half. The trees start to dance and sing in a choir, summoning rain and sending all the creatures of the woods in hiding.

Woodchuck, or commonly known as Groundhog
And just then, I happened to see a Woodchuck go up the steps across the creek, as soon as it saw me. It then, however, decided to come back and feed onto something, but it was hidden from the trees and I couldn’t manage a decent photograph. Woodchucks, or Ground Hogs, are known as the harbingers of spring. As Wikipedia quotes, “According to folklore, if it is cloudy when a groundhog emerges from its burrow on this day, it will leave the burrow, signifying that winter will soon end. If on the other hand, it is sunny, the groundhog will supposedly retreat into its burrow and winter will continue for six more weeks.” I wasn’t lucky to observe this interesting behavior, but I did happen to see another fellow on the campus. I came across an old journal article, where the author enlists the mammals of Wellington and Waterloo counties of Ontario. According to the author, Woodchuck is common throughout the region and numerous enough in some localities to be a menace to agriculture. He says, “Some litters of young are probably born as early as late March or early April.” I wish I came across the juveniles, but seeing two of them in a week was a good sighting. I also saw a Muskrat along the creek, munching on something. Another rodent was an unidentified Vole that vanished into the leaf litter in a split second.

Eastern Gray Squirrel - watching from a tree crevice
I do not have to mention Eastern Gray Squirrels, but the melanistic forms are now much lighter than they were before winter. This is perhaps because they are shedding the dark fur, since it is not needed in spring and coming summer. This is also one explanation why I saw more melanistic ones than the gray colored ones.

Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis
Bloodroot was the first flower-of-the-season I saw. It was still budding when I took this photograph, and since then I have been observing them. It was photographed three weeks ago; today all the flowers are shed and the seeds are already ripening. This short lifespan is what makes spring so special. It is commonly called Bloodroot since the root has a red pigment that comes out when the root is crushed.
A fully bloomed Bloodroot.

Clotsfoot, Tussilage farfara
Clotsfoot is a perennial herbaceous plant, medicinally used as a cough suppressant. However, the discovery of pyrrolizidine alkaloids in the plant has resulted in liver health concerns, according to Wikipedia. The flowers also appear early in spring and vanish pretty quickly, and the leaves arise later in the season.

Be a Photonaturalist

Don’t be a photographer, be a photonaturalist
- Steve Berardi
A black-and-white photograph of Bloodroot - Sanguinaria canadensis,
one of the few herbs to flower early in Spring.
Early flowers attract insects that help continue the yearly
cycle of life-and-death through all four seasons
I came across a website called PhotoNaturalist, and I could quickly connect with it. The title is apt for something I and many of us like doing, as a hobby or profession. It is an excellent website for beginners in nature photography, having articles on how-to-shoot in the field. When you get a camera, it is difficult not to photograph landscapes, waterscapes, flowers and nature in general. Within no time, the hobby can transform into a passion – not merely towards clicking, but observing. This is basically what nature photography is. It is careful observation of nature through a lens.
Common Indian Toad - Duttaphrynus melanostictus, a male calling for a female during Monsoon.
Once a common toad, it is almost extinct from urban areas.
Now only seen in good numbers in protected forests, several males were busy calling for their mates
A photonaturalist is someone who uses camera as a means to learn. Whether it is a 3x optic digital camera, a 20x zoom camera, or a DSLR with 800mm lens, it’s never too late to get involved in this passion. The evolution of camera from film to digital has been of tremendous help in increasing our interest in nature. Add access to internet, and we get a plethora of knowledge easily available than some research articles. No wonder this genre of photography is still growing, attracting many more – young and old, engaging voluntarily into nature and wildlife that will help spread the message of conservation even more strongly. If you are a beginner, there are many questions that need to be answered first. Cameras and equipments aside, first things a photonaturalist would explore is his or her backyard. This backyard extends to the nearest woodland from wherever you live. It often starts with nature photography, where more emphasis is on photographing, than nature watching. A photonaturalist balances both, for instance if you are out in the field photographing a wildflower, one will make sure that minimum or no damage is done to the surrounding as trampling other flowers is very likely in some situations. Likewise, knowing the subject – or identifying it later – is also very important since this is one way to learn about the subjects, whether you are an amateur naturalist or an expert.
Forest Calotes - Calotes rouxii, a male displays his breeding colors as he sits on a boulder with a raised head
to defend his territory from other males
I might say nature photography is different than being a photonaturalist, which, logically speaking, mean the same thing. I am neither distinguishing the two nor criticizing one from the other, since if you are a photonaturalist, you are a nature photographer, but as I already mentioned, nature photography is often weighed on photography, whereas a photonaturalist would be careful with the subject in question. This brings the ethics of wildlife photography to my mind. Curiosity is one of our biggest traits, but it may land you in trouble if you, out of curiosity, approach a wild subject too close, such as bird nests, for instance. It is best to be as far as possible from such vulnerable subjects, since the parent birds might consider you a threat and abandon the nest forever. Wildlife photography ethics however, can sometimes be debatable, such as baiting owls with domesticated mice, just to get an out-of-the-world photograph. Some consider it unfair and interfering in natural food cycle, some might consider it humane since it’s just “feeding” an owl, often ignoring the fact that it is wild and can survive with its natural skills. It is also of concern to invade wildlife protected areas, merely to see a family of tiger cubs. I accept the fact that it is often overwhelming to see this threatened animal’s family, but simply parking ten vehicles around a tiger is not a healthy habit. It reminds me of the quote ‘curiosity killed the cat. Literally’. Although this has never happened, we cannot deny the fact that stress can kill an animal within no time, or push it to the limits that it never visits a waterhole and dies of dehydration.
An early instar of a Plain Tiger - Danaus chrysippus butterfly ingeniously feeds on the toxic milkweed Calotropis gigantea.
It carefully bites the middle of the leaf, so that the toxic milky sap flows out.
Once most of the sap is out, the caterpillar can easily feed on the less-toxic parts.
As it matures, they become more and more tolerant to the toxins, thereby consuming it easily.
That being said, if you merely enjoy photographing nature, you will find wonders in your backyard itself. It’s fascinating to see documentaries of rare animals or behaviors shot in a backyard or a nearby wildlife park, taken by nature photographers who share the information with the world – be it a new bird in your backyard, an invasive insect or a rare species of ant. It is the best means of getting closer to nature and respecting it. This little step can have a significant impact on how we do our part in conservation – by starting from our own backyard. There are many resources on how to garden your backyard with native plants, how to create a butterfly garden or attract birds. If many of us engage in such a hobby, it will be a lot easier to save vanishing species such as House Sparrows in India and Gold Finches in Canada, ultimately leading a way to conserve top-of-the-food-chain animals like tigers and elephants by increased awareness. Be a photonaturalist. Respect the environment with as much care as you would your camera.
“You don’t take a photograph, you make it”, quotes Jonathan Klein. A TED talk worth watching.

Among the Garter Snakes

Eastern Garter Snake, Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis
I remember shuffling through pages of Childcraft as a kid, when I was more interested in pictures than the text. My father had bought a set of these books that further nurtured my interest in science and nature. After years, I forgot about these introductory books, although I obscurely remember the pictures and drawings in them. This amazing children’s encyclopedia was my gateway to beautiful photographs, drawings and the vast knowledge. It was in those days that I started observing around, looking for bugs, building bird nests and wishing dinosaurs were still alive. It was then, more than ten years ago when I first saw pictures of snakes – hundreds of them living together. It was when I saw a documentary on these many, many snakes living together called Garter Snakes, that I became interested in them.
Looking through the thickets
After a few fruitless walks at Medway Creek, I was furious about my camera’s failure to focus. It took several clicks to focus on one object; hence photographing birds was beyond my capabilities. Just as I walked carefully through the thickets, something stirred in the undergrowth. I was so happy to see a snake hurry through the grass! I carefully followed it, making sure I did not panic it out of excitement. It, henceforth referred to as he, froze for a moment, raised his head and looked at me intensely. This was the first time I photographed a snake in Canada.
Garter Snakes raise their head and sit motionless if they sense danger
Now Garter Snakes were high in my wish-list of Canadian wildlife. I had seen one back in September, but I did not have a camera with me then. This time was the best to observe them and I had been wondering if they are out of hibernation yet. As is the law of nature to always expect to see the least expected, I saw my first garter snake unexpectedly. I adjusted myself to take more pictures, just when another scurried away from where I sat. That did panic me, since I am not very good at handling or facing snakes. I wasn’t surprised to see two snakes together though, which is in fact pretty rare to see in India unless it’s a mating pair or two rival males. This fellow decided to dash into dense undergrowth with a flicking tongue, and left me wondering if I will ever get a decent picture of this snake again. I called off my birding walk temporarily, and decided to look for more snakes. Two garters was a good sign that there will be many more around.
Spring is the best time to observe these snakes as they emerge in vast numbers
Garter Snakes are known to hibernate in vast numbers during winter months. Their hibernacula, place where they rest are underground and well hidden from winter’s wrath. Come March and they will be seen fairly commonly all around. Garter Snakes are the commonest snakes seen in North America, and are one of the two snakes that can live farther up north.
Once assured of no threat, they are friendly and let you come close without having to catch them!
The Eastern Garter Snake which I saw were all males. March is the season of reproduction, when the males are the first to arise from hibernation. The males then wait around the hibernacula for the females, and courtship begins as soon as possible. A male will mate with several females, but it is not as easy as it seems. When the males come out, one of them mimics the pheromones produced by the females that attract males. Thus, the other males follow him and he takes them farther from where females are hibernating. After leading the trail, he switches to his male pheromones, and traces back the way to the hibernacula. Now he has better chances of reproduction than the others that he fooled! This interesting behavior is observed during months of March-April.
Eastern Garter Snakes are medium sized, measuring 48 - 70 cm
Eastern Garter Snakes show many color morphs, a character seen in all Garter Snakes. However, Garter Snakes are easy to identify by the typical three longitudinal stripes along the back. Identifying them up to species level can sometimes be difficult. This is because of the difference in scaling patterns in a single species.
A few movements made this fellow flick his tongue!
As I sat and photographed this male, I saw many more surrounding me. None of the ones that were very near felt threatened and some even crawled over my leg. Garter Snakes are not aggressive, but they are wary and can be easily disturbed. They will either freeze or dash for cover. To be amongst tens of them, and them accepting me as a part of the habitat was a cherry on the cake.

Garter Snakes, because of their friendly nature, are considered good pets. Many are caught directly from the wild and kept in terrariums. These snakes feed on spiders, frogs, lizards and little rodents, thus with such easily available food and low maintenance, they are ideal in the market and sold for around $20.
An Eastern Garter Snake sensing the surrounding
After spending several hours photographing these snakes, I returned to the same location on the next day to video document them. I will be writing a new post on that one sometime later during the month. It is called “Toby: An Eastern Garter Snake”. I followed Toby for two hours, observing his moves.

(22 May 2011) Update! The documentary is complete. Watch and read about Toby Garter: A Short Video Documentary!