Acrobatic Squirrel

Maple Tree

The eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) is an incredibly common sight in our neighbourhood (though often black or reddish rather than grey). My main interaction with them is usually chasing them away from my bird feeder, and trying to keep them out of my compost. So usually I hardly notice them when I’m out walking around. However, the other day I was walking past this Maple tree (Acer sp.) and I noticed a black individual with a reddish tail sitting near the base chewing on something. It was initially this individual colour difference that caught my eye, but then as I was looking the squirrel suddenly dropped its food and did a complete back flip! I was a little startled so stood there and watched it for a couple of minutes to see what this crazy squirrel would do. It continued to return to its’ food, chewing on it for a little while and then either doing another flip or running in a quick circle, sometimes part way up the tree. However it always returned to its’ food. Finally after about 5 minutes and 7-8 crazy flips and runs it dropped its food and headed up the tree. Going over to investigate what it had been it turned out that it had been chewing on a large piece of bark. I was really starting to question this squirrel’s sanity.

Carpenter ant

But then, on closer inspection of the bark chunk, I noticed the abdomens of several ants sticking out of a crack in the bark. It turned out that the Maple was host to a large colony of Black Carpenter ants (Camponotus pennsylvanicus). The squirrel had been breaking away bark to expose the nest further up the trunk  and then eating the ants and larvae in the broken away pieces on the ground.  The reason it would occasionally freak-out was from being bitten by adult ants protecting the nest!

Darkling Beetle

Now that I was looking at the tree trunk I noticed a few other interesting insects around. First off there was a darkling beetle (family Tenebrionidae: Neatus tenebrioides) making its way up the trunk. Beetles in this group are often fungus feeders, typically feeding under the bark on fungal hyphae in the rotten wood.

There was certainly lots of fungus available in the tree. There was one species of Polyporales that was fruiting on the base of the tree.

Root encrusting fungus

The fruit body was encrusting the roots of the tree all around the base of the tree. It was also attracting a swarm of dark-winged Fungus gnats (Sciaridae). These small flies spend the majority of there lives as larvae, feeding on various forms of fungi. These were probably feeding on the fungal hyphae of this polypore. This group of flies is also the same group of flies that frequently infest house plants, where they do essentially the same thing, feeding on the fungi associated with the roots of the plant. A good example of how nature can be near us even in our homes!

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Beautiful Green

There is nothing like the green of new leaves in spring. Every year it get’s me excited about the upcoming summer, as the surrounding landscape changes into a living and breathing environment after the long sleep of winter. And it is everywhere, you don’t have to go to a park to see it. Every small group of trees or small, undeveloped, lot in my neighborhood seems to burst with this overwhelming shade of green!

The first flush of leaves

Along with the leaves there are also some of the first understorey flowers showing up. In the foreground of this picture you can see several flowering plants. The white-flowered plant is Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata).

Garlic mustard

It is a very pretty plant, with the flowers showing the typical arrangement for the Mustard Family (Brassicaceae), with four petals and six anthers (four long, two short) arranged around a single stigma. You can even see the stigma in the lower flowers turning brown as they develop into the unique fruit-type of Mustards, a seed capsule known as a silique.

Garlic mustard leaf

Unfortunately Garlic Mustard is an invasive species native to Europe and Asia. Invasive species are one the largest contributors to biodiversity loss, as they often cause significant damage to the functioning of native ecosystems. So do your part to control Garlic Mustard’s spread by not transporting seeds, and by removing plants when you see them (especially from areas it has not been seen before). Another thing you can do to reduce its’ numbers is eat it.

Garlic mustard and male spider

There is also an international project going on studying differences between native and invasive populations of Garlic Mustard that needs the help of citizen scientists. Click here to find out more about how you can get involved in an international collaboration (it only requires ~2 hours of work)!

Another great part about early spring is that the weather can result in large amounts of morning dew. This makes every little leaf and flower even more spectacular as they sparkle in their temporary morning jewels. When I got up close to this Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca L.) growing in my neighbours lawn, I noticed it looked like someone had sewn beads to the points on each leaf. Very beautiful in the morning sun!

Wild Strawberry

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Spring flowers

Finally last Friday (May 20) the long-awaited spring arrived in force. The most notable sign was the sudden presence of bright colours in the neighbourhood, in the form of spring flowers. Many people’s houses were suddenly surrounded by beds of purples, yellow, pinks and whites.

Spring flower gardens

Though these flowers certainly provide a beautiful scene when viewed from afar, they provide a whole other level of enjoyment when looked at closely.


When you get up close and personal with the flowers, you can see the intricate arrangement of both the shape of the petals and the colours on them.

Both the 3-D arrangement of the petals (as in the Hedgenettle (Stachys sp.)below) and the arrangement of colours on the petals (as in the following Phlox and Primrose (Primula vulgaris)) are important for pollination. All of these factors act as signposts directing the pollinator to the nectar and pollen rewards, which in turn results in pollen being transferred to the flower for seed production.

Phlox flowers


Purple Rockcress

Unfortunately not many pollinators were out buzzing around. However, with a little patience watching this clump of Purple Rockcress (Aubrieta deltoides) I observed a small insect arrive at one of the flowers. It turned out to be a solitary bee from the family Halictidae (also known as sweat bees). It visited a few flowers, always landing near the centre and working its’ way around the anthers, before moving on to the next patch of flowers.

halictid bee pollinating Purple Rockcress

Red Currant

Not all spring flowers are as obvious or flamboyant in their advertising for pollinators, many are much more subtle and need to be searched for.

A good example of this is the red currant (Ribes rubrum). It has small pale green flowers in hanging spikes that are often hidden below the leaves.

The flowers are actually quite pretty, though some of them harbour a potential danger, when inspected more closely!

Red Currant and spiders

Spiders often use flowers as cover in order to stalk and prey upon pollinators that visit the flowers. So the free nectar buffet offered to a pollinator may suddenly become its’ last supper!

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The Beginning

In the hope of encouraging others to notice the intricate beauty of nature, I share the natural history observations I make while on my walk to work. This will include everything from stories about behaviours and interactions between organisms, to discussions of the amazing role that the inanimate plays in our appreciation of nature. Along the way there will also be musings about the importance of natural history (in the broadest sense) in our lives as individuals, communities, and as a species. All of this will be supplemented with pictures from my walk that relate to the topic in question.

Personally I hope that in writing this blog I will learn something more about the creatures, plants, and environment that surrounds me on a day-to-day basis, but that I so often ignore in the busy-ness of life. With any luck it will make me more aware of my natural surroundings, as well as encourage anyone reading it to do the same!

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