Sunday, July 31, 2011

Northern Leopard Frog: Grasslands National Park

Grasslands National Park, Val Marie, Saskatchewan, Canada: I probably surprised this Northern Leopard Frog as much as he surprised me. I was walking through grass on the shoulder of Grassland National Park’s Ecotour Road, trying to frame a shot of a Burrowing Owls sign, when something leaped out at my feet.

This is rattlesnake country. Yes, this frog is only a few inches long, but any movement by any unseen creature is alarming.

Northern Leopard Frog
Northern Leopard Frog camouflaged in grass,
as well as water weeds. Grasslands National Park. © SB
Close-up, this Northern Leopard Frog was beautiful — green, black and golden tan, its damp skin gleaming.

There was at least one other frog in these mown roadside grasses — when G got out of the car to see what I was taking pictures of, one hopped away from him, too. More cautious, that second frog hopped back under the grass and stayed hidden.

In the West Block of Grasslands National Park, Northern Leopard Frogs are most likely to be seen in sloughs, puddles, marshes and the brackish water along the edges of the Frenchman River. We were in the valley, very near a bend in the river and close to a muddy ditch, when this one appeared.

Later,  we saw several more in the muddy wetlands between the old 76 Ranch corral and the Frenchman River.

Northern Leopard Frog
Brilliant green frog, half-submerged in brackish water with reeds,
at the old 76 Ranch in Grasslands National Park © SB 
If these frogs look familiar, that’s because they may, in fact, be the archetypal Canadian frog:
Ask someone to illustrate a frog, and they’ll almost certainly draw a Northern Leopard Frog. The combination of green body and black spots seems to be engrained in most people’s minds when they visualize a frog, which seems pretty fair because the Leopard Frog, next to the Wood Frog, is the most widespread, easily encountered species in Canada. (from Reptiles and Amphibians of Canada: Fisher, Joynt, Brooks, Lone Pine Press.) 
However, Northern Leopard Frog numbers began to decline in Western Canada during the mid to late 70s , and in the Prairies, they are now considered a species “of special concern” (Reptiles and Amphibians).

In Grasslands, the numbers of Northern Leopard Frogs (and frog sightings) vary significantly from year to year.

Here’s some advice for visitors who want to see them:  
The best way to find them is to walk slowly along the edge of the water with your eyes on the ground. The frogs will be aware of you long before you are of them, and at first all you will see is the long, sudden leaps (of up to one metre), and the splashes, accompanied by squawks of alarm. Practice will allow you to make them out, little crouched shapes in the grass, or half-submerged beneath the bending waterside reeds. (from Guide to Herptiles of Grasslands National Park: Larry Powell.)  
Or, you could just stumble over them, like I did.


Plains Bison in Grasslands National Park

Grasslands National Park, Canada: We drove along a series of connecting grid roads and dirt tracks around the outside of Grasslands park, and in a far northeast corner of the West Block, discovered two bison bulls just inside the park fence.

One hid his head behind a clump of sweet clover, and let sunlight soak his black fur into invisibility.

The other posed for us.

Bison in Grasslands National Park, Canada - photo by Shelley Banks
Bison in the grasses of Grasslands National Park © SB 

Wagon Wheel and a Texas Gate -- Saskatchewan Ranch Land

Val Marie, Saskatchewan, Canada: This is ranch land, where a drive through the countryside means rattling across Texas gates designed to keep cattle from moving on down the road.

Many have old wagon wheels propped on either side of these gates — a reminder of this history of this part of North America.

One gate we drove over used old rails from a train track to form the metal grid, while yellow-rimmed wagon wheels rested on each side.

Wagon wheel at Texas gate - photo by Shelley Banks
Wagon wheels on a gravel road   © SB


Saturday, July 30, 2011

Mule Deer at Grasslands National Park

Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan, Canada: It was a day for mule deer sightings. By sunset, we’d seen six — bedded down in a field, crossing a meadow, bounding over the road.

Mule deer are the most common species of deer in and around the park, recognizable by their small black-tipped tails — and, for mature males, their wide antler spread.  (And, to me, their mulish ears, but I may be making that up…)

We were lucky to see a male in deep evening dusk on the shoulder of the Park’s Ecotour entry road. I got out of the car and knelt in the stones, hoping to get a clear shot of his antlers above the fence, against the sky. But then he took off, all four legs lifting at once as he bounced across the gravel.

Male mule deer in Grasslands - photo by Shelley Banks
Male mule deer bounding across
Grassland National Park's Ecotour access road   
© SB
Earlier in the day, we surprised a mule deer bedded down in a field.  We later stumbled across a similar grass bed in a nearby pasture where we’d gone to look for tepee rings and other old circles of stones.

Female mule deer - photo by Shelley Banks
Mule deer watching from roadside pasture.  © SB 

Female mule deer - photo by Shelley Banks
Mule deer leaves grass bed for grasses.  © SB 

deer bed - photo by Shelley Banks
Close-up of grass bed in nearby pasture. © SB

Friday, July 29, 2011

Caution: Bison bison bison at Grasslands

Grasslands National Park, Val Marie, Saskatchewan:  “Bison are unpredictable.  View with caution.”

Signs, pamphlets, park websites and even notices tacked to picnic tables all say the same: Be very careful around bison (or, in their full scientific name: Bison bison bison). If they start to snort, paw, toss their heads or raise their tails, leave the area. Always stay at least the distance of a football field away. Wish you were even further if they start to charge or run at you. Be especially cautious in late July, the rutting season.

Bison sign - 70 Mile Butte Trail - photo by Shelley Banks
Bison warning at the start of the trail up to 70 Mile Butte. © SB 

But what can you do except snap a picture (from your car) when a bison stands in the meadow beside the road?

Bison in the morning, Grasslands - 2 - photo by Shelley Banks
The dominant beast in Grasslands National Park © SB 
He totally ignored us. I guess when you weigh almost a tonne, have excellent hearing and a keen sense of smell – and can accelerate to speeds of 48 to 56 km/hour to cover great distances in a short period of time, you know those safety tips are for the other party. You can pretty much do whatever you want, so if you decide to turn a blind eye to drivers, that’s your right, too.

Bison safety tips - photo by Shelley Banks
Safety tips on bison from Parks Canada


Black-Tailed Prairie Dog Picture of the Day: Grasslands

Grasslands National Park, Canada: Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs are amazingly agile creatures. I love watching them stand up and balance on their tails to see what’s going on. This little guy was playing on the road, then ran back to the closest burrow when our car approached. There he stopped, turned and stood up to watch us for a minute before skittering out of sight. 

Blacik-tailed Prairie Dog - July standing
Black-Tailed Prairie Dog, Grasslands National Park.  c SB 

What are these? Black-tailed Prairie Dogs  

Location: Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan  
Photo dates: Late June and late July, 2011. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Bison at Grasslands National Park

Bison at Dusk, Grasslands - photo by Shelley Banks
Bison bison bison in Grasslands National Park   © SB 
Grasslands National Park, Canada: At dusk, four Plains Bison blocked our road through the West Block of Grasslands Park. We waited. They ate. We waited some more, until finally, they ambled across, cow birds in their wake.

These massive animals are know as “Bison bison bison” in species-classification speak — which has to be the best formal animal name ever.

About 70 bison were reintroduced to the Park in 2005 from Elk Island National Park in Alberta, where a group from this region had ended up after sales and trades of their ancestors near the time when most Plains Bison were exterminated by European hunters eager for their solid leather pelts for industrial belts, for their rough skin and hair for blankets, and — most of all — for the mad joy of slaughter. By 2010, Parks Canada says the herd had grown to 190 head.

two bison at dusk - photo by Shelley Banks
Two Plains Bison at dusk, Grasslands National Park.
(The one at left is in the video, below, crossing the road.) © SB 
The bison’s bulk impressed me — their shoulders and heads are truly massive. But I was surprised by their legs — I expected them to be longer, to make these creatures proportionately taller overall, like cows, perhaps. (I am no naturalist…) But instead, their deep chests and heavy body outweigh their legs… Pure compressed power, and the Parks’ staff tell us, they are very fast, and can be aggressive.
“Plains Bison were the dominant grazers on the Great Plains in pre-contact times. They are large animals, weighing up to 900 kg. Their massive heads and shoulder humps and dark shaggy coats are distinctive and well known… They have evolved to efficiently use the prairie grasses they graze on.” from Guide to Mammals of Grasslands National Park, by Tim Schowalter.
The video below was taken through the car windshield and side window as the largest bison lurched across the road where the two smaller bison were feeding. A swirl of birds follows, behind and beneath him; they had been feeding on bugs (?) on this bison’s skin.


Red and yellow roadside dragonflies

Somewhere west of Cadillac, Saskatchewan: Red and yellow dragonflies grub in the gravel and small roadside stones, their wing almost translucent. The yellow dragonfly’s body is almost invisible – its shadow more easy to see. 

Roadside red dragonfly - photo by Shelley Banks

roadside yellow - photo by Shelley Banks


Black-tailed Prairie Dogs at Grasslands: Late July

Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan, Canada: The Black-tailed Prairie Dog colonies are even more active than they were in early summer. Young prairie dogs play on the mounds and run across the grass and roads.

The purple milk vetch has finished blooming, and their meadows now extend green and brown to the edges of the hill and coulees.

Prairie Dog late July Grasslands
Black-Tailed Prairie Dog at Grasslands © SB 
This prairie dog below looks familiar to me... I think I caught him last month, too. (Or maybe all black-tailed prairie dogs look the same...) 

Black-tailed Prairie dog late July
Black-tailed prairie dog warily watching me... © SB 

What are these? 
Black-tailed Prairie Dogs  
Location: Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan  
Photo dates: Late June and late July, 2011. 

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Hunting Meadowhawk Dragonflies

Meadowhawk dragonfly - photo by Shelley Banks
Close-up of Meadowhawk on G's garden stake  © SB 
Several varieties of dragonflies are flitting through our summer grasses and flowers. I've been trying to identify the two (or three?) species in my backyard and my friend Anne's garden.

One of our most common dragonflies is about two inches long and orange-brown — although I've also seen a brilliant red one at Anne's place. (Different species? Or is one colour male, and the other female?) This dragonfly's wings don't fan straight out at the sides, like the Big Blue Darner in the post below, but instead, sweep down and forward towards its head.

Based on the size, markings and wings, these look like Meadowhawk dragonflies — perhaps the Cherry-faced Meadowhawk, whose females are, in fact, orange-brown, while males are bright red? (If they are so abundant in Montana —  the most widespread in the state — why not Saskatchewan, too?)

As the name implies, Meadowhawks are often found hunting in grassy areas. Like our backyards, it would seem.

More photos follow, so that readers can play entomology detective, too.

First, the only reasonable shot I have of the red one. Not crisply sharp, but it gives some indication of how strong the colour is.

Meadowhawk dragonfly - photo by Shelley Banks
Red Meadowhawk in Anne's garden. © SB 
The next two pictures, and the one at the top, are of the orange-brown Meadowhawks hunting — or, what these really look like, too me — sipping nectar or dead-bug juice from plants and stakes. (The stakes surround G's vegetable/herb garden; yellow tape laced around each creates a barrier intended to keep Ginger/dog out.)

Meadowhawk dragonfly - photo by Shelley Banks
Meadowhawk in Anne's garden  © SB

Meadowhawk dragonfly - photo by Shelley Banks
Wings and wing shadow of Meadowhawk Dragonfly © SB  
What I love about the picture above is that the shadow from the dragonfly's wings is more clearly visible than the gossamer wings themselves!


Friday, July 22, 2011

The Devil's Big Blue Darning Needles

Regina, SK: An awakening of Big Blue Darner dragonflies has made Saskatchewan's mosquito invasion this summer far more bearable. Not only do these dragonflies eat huge quantities of bugs, but they are also graceful and entertaining to watch.

Identification of this species comes from a CBC Radio interview about dragonflies a few days ago with author/aquatic entomologist David Halstead (Dragonflies and Damselflies in the Hand), who said that the big dragonflies we are seeing now are, yes, Big Blue Darners.

And most of the dragonflies I've been seeing (in addition to smaller Meadowhawks) are certainly big. Individuals of this species look at least three or four inches long, with a wingspan even longer. Swarms, as well as single dragonflies, are easily visible dozens of metres away. And while these dragonflies look black from a distance, blue bands and spots emerge around the abdomen and upper body when they are close-up and glinting in the sun.

However, there are many kinds of darners, so after "Big Blue" — which sounds like a generic description if I've ever heard one — I'm stumped. (I've tried comparing images — mine with web photos — and the closest I've come is a Canada Darner; the body marking, at least, are almost identical.)

Dragonfly on stucco - photo by Shelley Banks
One of the big guys -- they look about  four inches
long to me! (Taken on Anne's stucco wall) © SB
Regardless of identification — although I'd like to think I'm right — darners are fascinating because of their folkloric associations. As this online guide from West Virginia University explains:
Darners, a dominant family today, and considerably advanced in color and habit over more primitive families, are large swift flying dragonflies often seen in late summer and fall.
They are the devil's darning needles reported by many a folktale as responsible for sewing shut the mouth, ears, and eyes of disobedient children. (From: Dragonflies: Introduction to Dragonflies and Damselflies) 
I also find dragonflies interesting because unlike mosquitoes, they are not instant summer creatures.

In a Saskatoon StarPhoenix story last week, "Rise in dragonfly numbers helps battle mosquitoes", retired University of Saskatchewan biologist Cedric Gillot explains that it takes two or three seasons for the wet habitat  — and the dragonflies themselves — to develop.

So the more rain we have, the more wetlands that are developed. And the more wetlands and ponds, the greater number of mosquitoes — and the better chance we have of a surge in the dragonfly population to devour them.

The balance of nature, with a little help from the Devil's darning needles.


Thursday, July 21, 2011

Yellow Birds — Warblers and Western Kingbirds

Birds this week: Yellow Warblers in Moose Jaw and Western Kingbirds in Regina.

The male warblers in Moose Jaw's Crescent Park were a vibrant yellow, almost sparkling in the sun, which reflected gold off their beaks, as well. The female was a duller, slightly greenish shade, and stayed deeper in the branches.

Yellow warbler in tree - photo by Shelley Banks
I was startled by how bright they were! © SB
There were at least three Yellow Warblers in the flock — more, I think, but they flew so fast it was difficult to keep track of them. They're tiny, too (about four inches), which didn't help.

Seen from below, the adult Western Kingbird in Regina's Les Sherman Park was a soft, clear, lemon-sherbet yellow. These birds are fairly large (about eight inches, or robin-size). The one I saw was agitated, calling kip kip kip, perhaps to signal that I should stop standing near its nest, where at least one hatchling was waiting to be fed. (The nest was safe from me; I can't climb trees.)

Western Kingbird - photo by Shelley Banks
This guy was _very_ hard to catch by camera!  © SB  

Crammed into a notch, the nest was clearly visible from the edge of path. Once I knew it was there, at least. (Which I wouldn't have, if the adult hadn't started that kip kip kip call as soon as I walked by.)

The Western Kingbird nest in the notch  © SB 

I hadn't realized what good camouflage such striking yellows would be. Looking up into the leaves, it was difficult to see where either the warblers or the kingbird had landed, as they blended so well into the colours of new leaves in sunshine.  

Yellow Warbler - photo by Shelley Banks
Female (or immature?) warbler, imitating leaves.   © SB 

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Buffalo mosquito — Culiseta inornata

Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada: Some mosquitoes are aggressive — like our current early/mid-summer Aedes vexans. Others are shy — so reluctant to bite (at least, to bite me!) that they seem gently confused.

I've sat on my back patio and watched a big brown mosquito land on my black capris and bright T-shirts, and totally ignore my exposed flesh. Left alone, it wants to feed on my dark clothes, not my pale skin. Even a whisper of a gesture, and it flies away.

And no, I don't really believe each landing is made by the same mosquito. But each one acts the same — and each is very different from Ae. vexans, which dive bombs and latches on and will not let go.

But what is this brown mosquito?

In my last post on mosquitoes, I mentioned a study on the Saskatchewan kind. Shortly after I posted, I found a Regina news story quoting Phil Curry, the entomologist who wrote that study, and so I decided to contact Phil to learn more. I mentioned the vexatious vexans, and then said:
SB: I've also seen several much shyer, larger, brown mosquitoes in the yard -- I haven't yet managed to photograph them, but they're certainly a different kind.  
Phil Curry: The big brown mosquito you are seeing is Culiseta inornata, another common prairie mosquito.
It also loves to bite mammals and evolved biting the buffalo that roamed the prairie (some people call it the buffalo mosquito).
When there are no buffalo (bison) around it switches to other large mammals - cows, horses, people, etc. It is also our most cold-hardy mosquito and can fly at lower temperatures than most other species.

I've found other names for Culiseta inornata, too. Winter mosquito. Snow mosquito. Large winter mosquito. Winter marsh mosquito. (I do not understand the conjunction of  "winter" and "mosquito". Clearly, these names come from people who do not understand that winter means cold, as in 40 degrees below. (Fahrenheit or Celsius — they merge in mutual misery by that point.)

The photo below may, or may not, be of a Buffalo mosquito. Whatever its name, it was very shy, had a blunt abdomen, and preferred dark colours, even if they were blood-free. (Although I've never seen a deep pink buffalo, either...)

Buffalo Mosquito - photo by Shelley Banks
Buffalo mosquito?       c SB 

In any case, for those who think I imagine my way through life and invent stories as I go, I would like to confirm that I was right in my identification of the Aedes vexans that bit G in my previous mosquito post

How do I know? I asked Phil Curry, and unlike me, he is an entomologist.
Phil Curry:  Good going. That is indeed Aedes vexans. You can tell from a number of identification clues, but the most common ones are the pointed abdomen (all Aedes genus female  mosquitoes have those compared to the blunt abdomens of the Culex, Culiseta, and Anopheles mosquitoes).
The other tell-tale signs are the narrow white rings on their legs and of course the basal white "B" shaped scales on their tergites — or "narrow rings of white scales down their backs".  

What a beauty —  looking a little scarier than my brown mosquito, though!

Aedes vexans mosquito - photo by Shelley Banks
Aedes vexans: Pointy belly like a ruby, glowing blood    c SB 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Fledgling House Sparrow Cowers in Apple Tree

When we sat on the patio yesterday, G told me that there had been no sounds from the house sparrow bird house all day. In the midst of a heat wave, with a fish pond below, that could mean several things:
  1. The hatchlings have died of heat stroke.
  2. The hatchlings have dived into the pond to get cool, aka drowning.  
  3. The hatchlings have fledged. Grown their flight feathers. Flown away. 
Within a few minutes, the ruckus from the apple tree made us hope that #3 was the answer. Two adults swooped noisily in and out of the tree, and another bird flew out. And then, above their raucous cheeps! we heard a softer peep. 

One young house sparrow clung to a cleft in the tree's upper branches, which rocked in the evening wind. As I watched the bird and listened to it cry, I had an old Shirelles soundtrack in my mind: 

Mamma said there'd be days like this, days like this, Mamma said.   

And then — we don't actually know when — the fledgling lifted into the air, and was gone. The nesters have flown. 

Fledgling House Sparrow - photo by Shelley Banks
Fledgling house sparrow in apple tree © SB 

Monday, July 18, 2011

Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan: Mallard ducklings attracted children and photographers on the Serpentine in downtown Crescent Park this weekend.

(Children were better — they brought food.)

Female Mallard Duck with ducklings - photo by Shelley Banks
Female mallard with two of her nine ducklings   © SB 

Moulting male Mallard Duck - photo by Shelley Banks
Moulting mallard male    © SB 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

House Sparrows Nesting in Backyard Birdhouse

Birdhouse hidden by vines - photo by Shelley Banks
Birdhouse nestled
in high vines © SB
A pair of house sparrows has taken over one of our birdhouses. (Or all? I've only staked out this one.)

I first realized they had moved in when I heard their hatchlings' incessant, non-musical, meal-time cheeps.

It would have been lovely to have native songbirds — or any songbirds at all. But I'm not about to climb up and dispose of the sparrows — and they are entertaining.

They are also distracting. When I sit outside in the evenings, it's like being in the middle of a busy airport runway.

Swoosh! Incoming on the right. Swish! Landing on the left. Cheep-cheep-cheep-cheep!!!

Female House Sparrow beside birdhouse - photo by Shelley Banks
Female house sparrow, with grubs in her mouth © SB


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Long Line of Horses North of Val Marie, SK

Long line of horses, north of Val Marie, Saskatchewan - photo by Shelley Banks
Waiting for riders? Or curious about cars? 

North of Val Marie, SK:  We pass two farms with large herds of horses. On the first, dozens of horses cluster around a single tree. On the second, more than 25 stand quietly along the fence, as if entertained by passing vehicles on Highway 4.

They shuffle positions and wait. For riders? Release? Or the coming storm?


Saturday, July 9, 2011

Mosquito vexations — Aedes vexans in Regina

Aedes vexans mosquitos, feeding - photo by Shelley Banks
Aedes vexans feasting on tasty human flesh. Regina, SK © SB 
Regina, Saskatchewan: After a long wet spring, mosquitoes lurk in the shade, rise from damp grass, swarm dusk patios. Annoying, unpleasant pests. And that's not just a description — that's this species' name: Aedes vexans.

I can't read Latin (only English, Spanish, French). But the dictionary confirms 'vexans' is the present participle of 'vexare', aka troubling. And Aedes, as far as I can figure, is fake Latin or old Greek for 'pleasant... not!"*

I'm also no entomologist, but the Saskatoon Star Phoenix says that vicious Aedes vexans are what's vexing us right now. And a 2004 report from Saskatchewan Health for the Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Centre confirms that Ae. vexans is Saskatchewan's "most common mosquito pest for humans."

Mosquito - photo by Shelley Banks
Bloated bug, to full to fly.  © SB  
The good news? These are inland floodwater mosquitoes, not Culex tarsalis, which surface later in summer and are more likely to carry West Nile. (Apparently, you can tell Cs by their blunt, rounded abdomens, while Ae. vexans have pointy rear ends.)

The bad news? This year, there are more Ae. vexans than ever; as the local radio reports: "Mosquito numbers in Regina exceed 10-year average." The even worse news? This insect is known as "a fierce and painful biter."

Aedes vexans are "most easily recognized by the sideways 'B' shaped markings on each abdominal tergite," says

I've never heard of 'tergites' before, but our backyard/front porch/alley pests certainly feature narrow rings of white scales down their backs. And they are ever-present, And vicious.

Earlier this week, I set up my observation post (aka lounge chair, beer and camera) on the patio, prepared to serve as bait to catch a few pixels of mosquitoes. Several stealth-struck Gord, but none landed on me. As Robert Anderson explains in "Manitoba: a colour guidebook":
Some people have all the luck and are more attractive to mosquitoes than others. In fact, a good way to minimize your contribution to the next mosquito generation is to go for a walk with one of these lucky individuals and let him provide the smorgasbord.
And so, many thanks to my very attractive companion for luring the Aedes vexans pictured here to land on his skin, and feast on his blood.

well-fed Aedes vexans mosquito - photo by Shelley Banks
You can tell this Ae is female because she`s well fed on blood
— and has that long proboscis. © SB


Seems strange to me, but I am told that some people find my fascination with mosquitoes to be weird — even weirder that I actually learn and remember some of their names. But naming is important. The more precise our language, the richer and more distinct our worlds.

And mosquitoes are not all alike. As the Canadian Geographic travel club blog says, Know Thine Enemy:
All mosquitoes are not created equal. Some species are extremely aggressive and  annoying, others less so. Aedes vexans, for example, is a small, in-your-face mosquito that comes out a week after a heavy rainfall, day or night. Other species, such as Culex tarsalis, are less aggressive. Sneaky but easily disturbed when biting, C. tarsalis will attack your ankles and the backs of your arms when you're not looking. Other species bite only later in the evening and at night, and you don't notice you've been bitten — until you wake up scratching.

The first mosquito I learned to name was Aedes aegypti, the yellow-fever mosquito, a species once-eradicated in the Cayman Islands that surfaced again with a vengeance the year I left for university. The local Mosquito Research and Control Unit launched an all-out attack, surveying houses and fogging the streets.

That wasn`t my first experiences with spraying against mosquitoes. One consistent memory I have of evenings in Grand Cayman, where I lived as a teenager, is of fogging machines (mounted on Mini Mokes often driven by volunteers, for those looking for full visuals), rolling through the streets of Georgetown at dusk and beyond, filling the air with the gray smelly haze of malathion diluted in diesel oil

And by morning, as the Cayman Islands government webpage says of these MRCU assaults: "Windrows of dead mosquitoes were reported in the streets."

well-fed Aedes vexans mosquito - photo by Shelley Banks
Here's looking at you, kid. 
(All close-ups are of the Ae. vexans at right in top skin shot.) © SB 

And yes, I know: 

* Neo-Latin (1818) < Greek aēdḗs distasteful, unpleasant, equivalent to a- a-6 + -ēdēs, combining form of hēdýs sweet, akin to hēdonḗ pleasure.


Monday, July 4, 2011

The Intelligence and Memory of Birds

In the news this week: Pigeons can recognize individual people — and they aren't fooled by changes of clothing, which leads researchers to suggest they must be able to pick out and remember facial features.

Robin - photo by Shelley Banks
I see you, I know you, and I will remember you....  © SB
Personally, I'm not at all surprised that birds have this skill.

For several years in Montreal, I was targeted by a robin,who was unhappy about my nest-averting tricks.

She remembered my harassment, and spring after spring after spring, she attacked me. And only me.

Not only that, but as far as I could figure out, she trained others to dive-bomb me (and only me), as well. Although perhaps it only felt like I was outnumbered...

I've also heard that crows are bright enough to recognize people. (And in his Ted talk on crows, Joshua Klein confirms crows can, and will, recognize their researchers — or tormentors — and make them miserable.)

Back to the pigeons... From the Society for Experimental Biology Annual Conference in Glasgow, as reported in Saturday's Chicago Sun Times story, "Pigeons know us by our faces":
In a park in Paris, two scientists, of similar build and skin color, wore different colored lab coats. One researcher simply ignored the pigeons, allowing them to feed. The other researcher was hostile and chased them away. The experiment was repeated several times, with the researchers switching coats. The birds continued to avoid the researcher who had been initially hostile.
And to be clear, these were wild, untrained pigeons —  or as untrained as park pigeons, long used to humans, are likely to be.

Today's Daily Mail story, "Pigeons never forget a face", quotes the researcher, Dr Dalila Bovet of the University of Paris, who explains:
"It is very likely that the pigeons recognised the researchers by their faces... Interestingly, the pigeons, without training, spontaneously used the most relevant characteristics of the individuals — probably facial traits — instead of the lab coats that covered 90 per cent of the body."
So if pigeons and crows can tell us apart and know who's safe and who's not, why not robins? Why not all birds?

They may be brighter than we've given them credit for... And  in at least this area of perception, they may be far brighter than we are.


Friday, July 1, 2011

Grasslands in Motion — Car and Wind

Grasslands National Park, Val Marie, Saskatchewan: Photographs create the illusion that time can be stopped and motion stilled. Even videos portray the myth that it's possible to seize a slice of Earth and freeze it.

Below, two short clips: The first, to remind me of grass in the wind, how it flows like an inland sea, how it waves, rolls, leaps and runs across the prairies. The second, to remind me that the land itself is never still.

Yes, the video below is taken through the window of a moving car, but outside the wind is moving, moving the grass and flowers, and the Earth itself is moving. Motion is life, moving, all.


Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs: Grasslands Park

Black-tailed prairie dog, with purple milk vetch. © SB 

Grasslands National Park: Above the rush of wind, high chirping across grass. The Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs warn of intruders to the tune of anxious birds or creaking rail fences. Like gophers*, they stand on hind legs for a better view, but prairie dogs are taller, plumper than Richardson's Ground Squirrels — perhaps three times the size.  

Prairie dog colony © SB 

From a distance, the prairie dog colony may look destructive — especially in a province which has often offered bounties for their smaller cousin's tails. But here, Parks information says, they are a key part of the grasslands ecosystem.

Up close with purple milk vetch © SB 

And they are cute! Chirping, running, playing, peering at intruders while standing on hind legs. And in early summer, what a picture in milk vetches.

The Ecotour drive through the West Block of the park goes through two large prairie dog colonies. The first is near the north gate, the second, near the south gate, near the signs for the burrowing owls. (The sign, I saw, but not the owls.)

Another park sign, this one about prairie dogs and other park creatures 

Car wheels on a gravel road, the wind and the cheeping of prairie dogs form the soundscape of the video below, taken while driving through Grasslands:

* Yes, we call Richardson's Ground Squirrels "gophers". Perhaps the early settlers in Saskatchewan were confused, or missed their gophers back in England, so gave that name to the tiny skipping prairie creatures, with their flickering tails.  

What are these? Black-tailed Prairie Dogs  
Location: Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan  
Photo dates: Late June and late July, 2011. 

Song of the Western Meadowlark: Grasslands

Grasslands: The Western Meadowlark perched high on top of a power pole at the edge of the park, and sang its downward trill above the buffeting winds. I couldn't see the meadowlark until it swooped down and away across the waving grasses.


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