There are fascinating activities going on in nature everywhere around us. Even right now, there is a small colony of Carpenter ants somewhere in your backyard working hard to find food during winter, but summer undoubtedly peaks in such activities, as the temperature rises and plants bloom and there is an abundance of everything for a short period of time. The struggle for survival, the game that constantly haunts every living organism on this planet, is even more competitive and ferocious, as prey try hard to protect their offspring, and predators try as much harder to provide food for their offspring.
|An Osprey hovers over the north shore of Lake Huron on an overcast morning|
During the summer of 2010, as I walked through tick and mosquito ridden forests of southern Ontario, I closely observed the life of some animals engaged in their daily activities. This is just a humble attempt at sharing a fascinating world I was fortunate to study. These animals are very common around us that have been studied and documented by many researchers, but there is something special about observing the behaviours in nature with your own eyes, than merely reading about them in books.
1. Birds are always a treat to watch, and it’s not surprising to see the number of naturalists as well as artists inspired by their behaviour. Whether it is a Rock Pigeon or an American Robin feeding in the backyard, there’s something about their dedication to finding food and alertness to any approaching danger, which is interesting to observe. During my stay at Manitoulin Island, I happened to glance out of the window at a Robin hopping around the backyard with something bright in its beak. I could not get a good look as it was pretty far, but I was lucky to have photographed it.
|American Robin carrying a raspberry and an earthworm|
Interestingly, the Robin was carrying a Raspberry and an earthworm in its beak. Now it is not surprising, as most birds do feed on worms as well as berries, but what’s surprising is that this Robin was seen carrying both at the same time. I’m not sure if the Robin was carrying the berry while it found the Earthworm, or if the Robin really enjoys eating earthworm-and-berries together, just as how we eat vegetables with chicken. Perhaps it was carrying it to feed the chicks, but considering that it was photographed on 14th August, most of the chicks must be fully grown by July-end and early August to be able to feed on their own.
2. Butterflies are always associated with flowers, but not many know that besides flowers, butterflies absolutely love visiting mud, rotting fruits and feces. They also prefer visiting dead animals, just to obtain extra minerals and salts, amongst other essential nutrients.
|Little Wood Satyr getting some nutrients from a dead wasp|
One day at Long Point, I was stalking this Little Wood Satyr. It suddenly stopped by a dead wasp, and lapped up some of the nutrients. This is common, as many butterflies will get nutrients from animal matter. But this wasp was trapped in a spider’s web, which makes it more interesting to observe how butterflies obtain nutrients indirectly from spiders. What we usually consider is spiders feeding on butterflies as they get ambushed or tangled in webs, thus providing nutrients for the spider; but here we have an odd case where a spider helped a butterfly get its share of nutrients!
3. While exploring a woodpile, I came across many Formica ants defending young ferns. These ants were the most common at Long Point, covering almost every niche, from rooftops to the sandy shores of Lake Erie. They probably also made the Tiger Beetles to flee, and kept snakes at bay in some habitats.
|A tiny spider preying on a much larger ant|
In this place riddled with firewood, I saw a Formica ant trapped in a spider’s web. Interestingly, the spider was so small, that it could barely hold onto the ant, which, the spider had somehow managed to trap in its web and inject a dose of venom. In India, I have seen a really small Orb-weaver take on a Dragonfly ten times its size. This shows how spiders, irrespective of their size, are crucial predators of other predators – as they keep their population under check, while ants and Odonates as well, in turn, keep spider populations under check by hunting them.
4. During my stay at Long Point, I used to walk around a lot, looking in every crevice and in thickets to find something unusual. Everyday, I found something I had never seen before. On all explorations, arachnids were almost omnipresent, with Harvestmen hiding beneath leaves, and Wolf spiders stalking in leaf litter.
|Harvestman feeding on pollen|
One day as I was exploring the undergrowth, I found a Harvestman strolling carefully under leaves – hiding from birds and other predators. What it did next was something unusual for an arachnid. The Harvestman appeared to be feeding on pollen. Harvestmen are opportunists, hunting small insects such as aphids and mites as well as scavenging on dead animal matter. Some feed on vegetable matter as well. This Harvestman apparently, was feeding on pollen. Although it is not as surprising, this is the first time I saw a Harvestman feeding on any plant material. I wonder, though, in what circumstances do Harvestmen feed on vegetable matter, perhaps to supplement their carnivorous diet with fibre? The Harvestman may have found tiny mites in the stamens, and was feeding on them, or it was attracted to the pollen simply because they are highly nutritious.
5. Manitoulin Island is the most interesting place that I have visited in Canada. It is home to a variety of birds, which can be observed as you travel along the road. In fact, most of our bird-of-prey sightings were possible while travelling, although walking on foot was rather easy to sight smaller birds, especially warblers.
On one such road trip, and a few since then, we saw a Broad-winged Hawk in a specific area – probably its territory. This hawk was sitting on a power cable just beside the road. It is in fact common for birds to perch on power cables, be it pigeons or starlings and especially some birds-of-prey, such as hawks and kestrels.
What was unusual about this hawk is that, sadly, it appeared to have a string caught in its beak. On closer inspection, I figured it to be a fishing line. The string did not seem to tangle in its beak or on the foot, and appeared to be coming out directly from its mouth. It’s probably that the hawk consumed a fish that had a fishing line still hooked onto it. I hope there was no hook attached to the string, as it may be of a serious concern to the hawk. Albeit the inconvenience of a fishing line caught in the beak, the hawk appeared healthy and we saw him couple of times in the same area.
This incidence weighs on the ill-effects of fishing, mostly on part of careless fly fishing hobbyists. Many fishing lines, just like the nylon threads used to fly kites, cause damage to wildlife that we cannot fathom, partly because the broken fishing line gets lost under the water, or in some fish’s mouth, and ultimately forgotten, until the fish is consumed by a bird, which could lead to its death.
6. There was another interesting phenomena going on at Manitoulin in early July that was observed all over the island. This time, it was the butterfly problem. I was very glad to see many butterflies, more specifically Hesperiids all over the place, as these are my favourite family of butterflies. I was enjoying taking pictures of them, but something seemed amiss, because when there is too much of one thing in nature, something is very wrong.
|European Skippers on Cirsium arvense|
After coming home and doing a little research on European Skippers over the internet, I came across CBIF, one of the best government-run website for biodiversity that I have ever come across. It says, “In many places in the east, [European Skipper] is unbelievably abundant, outnumbering all other species combined. Even after almost a century it seems that native parasites have not yet developed a taste for this species.” One of the attributes of this species, that none other Hesperiid in Canada has, is the capacity of the eggs to overwinter, that were accidentally introduced in London, Ontario around 1910 in seeds of Timothy Grass.
This outburst is of a major concern to native butterflies, especially to other skippers that prefer to lay eggs on similar host plants. Interestingly, the populations of European Skippers fell to almost nil within two weeks. It will be worth studying their impact on other skippers next summer. Although I could not get data for previous years, I came across references to such an outburst at Manitoulin in 2009. If there is a long-term explosion of European Skippers at Manitoulin, it will also be interesting to look at their impact on native flora and other associated fauna, and if they have helped shape the vegetation on the island.
7. As I explored a patch of Ash trees in September, I came across interesting, inconspicuous insects in the thickets – a pair of Stick Insects. This was the first time I saw stick insects in Canada. This mating pair of Stick Insect, which probably is a Northern Walking Stick, Diapheromera femorata, is common in North America. Although I have seen Stick Insects in India, this sighting was special because most Indian species reproduce parthenogenetically, hence finding male Stick Insects is very rare.
|A mating pair of Northern Walking Sticks|
The Northern Walking Sticks, also known as Common Walking Sticks, are fairly common in southern Ontario, but thanks to their extreme camouflage, they are somewhat hard to find. The adults mostly live a solitary life, munching on oak, hazelnut and Wild Black Cherry leaves. Mating generally takes place late in summer, and the female drops eggs, which look very similar to seeds, to the ground. Sometimes these eggs are mistaken by ants for seeds which take them to their nest. The eggs hibernate throughout winter and hatch in early spring. The nymphs, who look like miniature stick insects are green in colour – a perfect combination of stick-like appearance and colour to blend in the early spring foliage.
8. If there were award ceremonies in the natural world, insects would take most of these awards for their exceptional abilities. There are beetles that can pull 1,141 times their own weight, or lift weight about 850 times their own weight, such as the Rhinoceros beetle. Then there are ants that can conquer or scare away any animal, some of which are capable of killing almost every visible organism that they can overpower in their path, like the Army ants. While I wasn’t fortunate to see the marching Army ants, nor heavyweight lifting beetles, I saw a combination of both – marching as well as lifting weights up a vertical wall, at Long Point.
|Formica sp. of ant carrying dry plant material up a wall|
The uphill march was that of Formica ants, commonly called Thatching ants. These ants were seen carrying dried plant material up the walls and under the roof of an abandoned cabin – with some of them carrying long, heavy objects such as leaves. Their way of carrying thing up a vertical surface was very interesting. To minimize the burden, the ants walked backwards up the wall, holding onto the object with their strong mandibles. If a human were to try this technique on a horizontal ground, he’d almost certainly fall over by the proportional weight and size of the object!
|Another Formica sp. of ant carrying a dried leaf up a wall|
This remarkable feat was undertaken by over a hundred ants, walking backwards straight up, and coming down to carry more stuff. I can only imagine how many runs a single ant must have taken to build a nest safe under the roof. On the other hand, the same ants formed a huge colony under a nearby fallen tree. There were so many, that you could hear them walking around the leaf litter if you stood a few feet from the nest. They were perhaps shifting their site, or were spreading to another territory.
9. As some animals build homes to rest in, one of the insects is rather smart to use a ready-made “bed of roses” as a place to rest. On one evening walk through the Carolinian woods, I came across this interesting behaviour of bees, resting inside flowers of red raspberries.
The light was already fading, and the towering woods brought darkness to the undergrowth rather quickly. I saw a few bees resting on top of flower buds, and many, interestingly, appeared to undergo daily torpor inside the flowers! Everywhere I looked, there were Big-headed Bees, probably of Megachile genus, resting peacefully inside Raspberry flowers. A pretty safe place to sleep in during nights, I must say. One quick search on the internet about this behaviour yielded positive. Some bees, mostly male Bumble bees and their kin that are usually solitary do indeed rest in flower heads, while the females return to the nest.
|A Big-headed Bee resting inside the flower|
As we all know, bees show many complex behaviours, whether solitary or social. In fact there are different ways in which bees rest as well, as some, like the one above prefer cosy beds of pollen and fragrant petals, while some bite onto a stick to rest, and others, mostly the social bees rest in their nests.
10. All the nesting animals turn competitive and protective during the breeding season. I happened to have experienced the fury of a concerned pair of Northern Goshawks in the month of May. Just as we walked on a dirt-bike road, we were attacked by these huge birds swooping over our heads. Although we expected this behaviour from the nesting Goshawks, it was pretty frightening at first. The male and the female took turns to swoop down over us, about a meter or two above our heads, and then rise up and circle around making shrill calls, as if warning us to back out. Although they never really touched our heads, I couldn’t help but stoop down whenever they made an “attack”, as its very intimidating to see a huge bird-of-prey with powerful talons swooping down over you.
|A male Northern Goshawk giving warning calls|
This pair of Goshawks was intimidated by our presence in the area, but we weren’t in the area to piss them off. I can only imagine the horror other birds must have felt near the nesting site! Northern Goshawks are a Species-at-risk (SAR) in Canada that breed in spring, and lay eggs by April – May. They mostly prefer mature forests; hence seeing them nest near Long Point was a great relief, but I wonder how the traffic of dirt-bikes and ATVs affect these SAR birds, as this sport is quite a menace near Turkey Point, especially near protected conservation sites where many species-at-risk animals reside and breed.
11. It is always interesting to observe a natural history event in action. Picture an evening in the African plains, with Wildebeest feeding on grass, and a Cheetah, who has just had a successful hunt, retiring for the day. As the night approaches, the lions prepare to hunt. You can imagine the tension in the lives of the Wildebeest. Even in the insect world, there are carnivores stalking herbivores all the time.
|Aphids, Ladybird Beetle larva and an Aphid Wasp|
There was an individual Ladybird beetle larva feeding on aphids on a grass stem. Later, that larva, probably with a full stomach, crawled to the bottom of the grass. Just as it was going past a few aphids, I could feel the tension being relieved in their tiny minds. But as the larva moved, another predator came and landed on a grass blade. This was also the nemesis of aphids – the Aphid Wasp. The wasp belongs to Family Crabronidae, Sub-family Pemphredoninae, and probably the genus Psenini. It specializes in hunting aphids, and carries them to the nest so as to lay eggs. The wasp larvae thus get a fresh supply of paralysed food – just another day in the life of insect predators and prey, like their larger counterparts.
It may seem unfair, that two efficient eradicators of aphids are stalking them at the same time. But if you look at the life cycle of aphids, which reproduce surprisingly quickly, do deserve such predators to keep their population under check.
12. With the struggle for survival taking place in the animal kingdom, there are some subtle, harmless interactions going on within different species. One of such very interesting behaviour was observed at Long Point.
|An Eastern Garter Snake (head) rests on top of an Eastern Fox Snake (body)|
There is an established residence of Eastern Fox Snakes (an SAR) where I worked this summer, so I was able observe them every day for a few months. On most days, there were three individuals basking in the sun, and on some days, there were Eastern Garter Snakes basking on top of the large Fox Snakes! I found this behaviour odd, but since Eastern Fox Snakes do not prey on other snakes, it was not surprising to find the two species basking together in peace. Furthermore, these two snakes are also known to hibernate together, hence they must have gotten to know each other much better. On a serious note though, both species are not known to be aggressive, which might explain how they can bask together, much similar to they way they hibernating together.
It was a long walk observing these animals from the tiniest insect to a large mammal that lasted for several months. It is difficult, but not impossible, to cover an entire day in the life of an animal, as it might take us years to cover every aspect of their lives, but just a glance at their daily activities can teach us a lot. Although their genes prompt them to do most of the work, we must not discredit their efficiency, dedication and selfless service to the ecosystem, that has ultimately helped us humans evolve – both ecologically and technologically – on the natural resources.