Weekend Expedition 62: Springtime in the park


After a hiatus of a few weeks, I finally managed to get out this weekend for some shooting! I went with my friend Florian to Stanley Park on a gorgeous sunny Saturday, to search out the creatures of the early springtime.


First of all some springtime flowers, which are blooming all over Vancouver.


The geese are getting frisky, cleaning up for the mating season. The males are getting all aggro as well, and we watched one fly right into a tree in a miscalculated attack on another perched nearby. He managed to fly away from that collision, luckily.


I noticed this eagle a little too late after seeing gulls flushing off the water. It was hunting birds, and I only managed to shoot one pass before it gave up.


Here it is in a steep bank searching for a target.


A bit of a halfhearted dive after some gulls, and then the eagle flew away.


There were lots of scaups on the lagoon, and the lighting conditions were quite nice even at midmorning.


It is too bad this bufflehead did not pass closer, as the lighting was just right for his beautiful iridescent head!


This seemed like a great pose for a fat coot. Reflection, colour, feet… It’s all there!


The sentry point for aggressive male geese…Seems like they do this every spring. The heron watches the silliness.


I liked the backlight on these leaves.


The bumblebee queens were out in force at a patch of heather…I think there were 3 species at least, but I was wrestling with some ill-charged flash batteries, and did not get many shots!


From a distance with the 300 I managed to shoot some bumblers on crocus.


An early syrphid! Later on we saw a Leptoglossus occidentalis as well, but I had to head home for some more writing.


A Douglas’ Squirrel by teh water.


And the prototypical springtime bird for most of Canada (though we have them year-round) the American Robin!

More camera trapping on the balcony


This past weekend was another work weekend, and in addition, I had a nasty cold. This precluded me from getting out for photography, but Catherine and I did expand our balcony bird buffet!

First off, we decided to see who would come for peanuts:

Second, a different position on the hummingbird feeder results in much better light! This female seems pretty pleased.

And a male to show off his nice gorget.

Here is a homemade suet ball that Catherine made, with all kinds of nuts and grains. The chickadees seemed pretty happy with it.

I also bought a bird feeder at the dollar store, which is not a bad little unit! Very low volume, but seems sturdy enough!

You can see in the photo above, and also in the reflection on the window the video setup. I am just using a light stand to hold the camera, weighed down by a jug of ethanol in a bag.


Anna’s hummingbirds at home

IMG_7857I have been rather busy these past few weeks working on top secret government stuff, so I have had not had much opportunity to get out and shoot. I was not such a big deal this week, as we have had miserable rainy weather for most of it. But yesterday turned out to be beautiful, so it was killing me a little to stay in and work. Luckily, interesting things have been happening at the hummingbird feeder, so I took a bit of time to set up some video. Since it it right on the balcony, I did not have to go far!

First of all, some HD video of various hummingbirds feeding.

Next, some less beautiful footage showing a female feeding. Any guesses what she might have been doing just previous to this?

Anyway, the hummingbirds were a nice treat on a working Sunday. I will try to get some more material on them when I get the chance!


Over the West


After my recent trip to Houston, I was treated to a clear day of flying back across the great American West. To survey these wide open spaces, flying at 35,000 feet gives a good overview.  I hope you enjoy the pictures!


It was raining in Houston when we left, so I snagged this wallpaper-like shot of the sky and the drops on the window.



Much of the saturation drops out over distance, so it is a bit of a trick to adjust colours and shadows. I had some frustration trying to replicate what I saw, so eventually I just decided to fiddle until I had a pleasing image. I guess that is the same thing astrophotographers do!


A big deep mine, probably in Arizona.


On the runway in Phoenix.


At this distance it is difficult to appreciate the size of landforms, but the road gives some scale.


Some crazy bluffs!


One of the bird-frying solar installations in Nevada.


Not sure if this one is operational or not.


An air-to-air shot of another passenger plane.


Mt. Hood.



South Seattle


Banking in for a SeaTac approach.










To Houston and back!


It is a wonderful thing to give a talk to an enthusiastic audience, especially when comes with a chance to travel and meet new people. I was very lucky to have had this opportunity last week when I went to Houston Texas to give a talk on Red-throated Caracaras to the Houston Audubon Society.

Mary-Anne Weber, along with Juanita Perkins arranged for me to travel to Houston to give this talk, and were my most gracious hosts during my trip. I did not have to stay in a hotel, but instead stayed with my friend Cullen Geiselman, a bat researcher who I met at the Nouragues Station.

I am very grateful to have had this wonderful opportunity, and I thank all of the people who came out to hear me talk.



The Houston Audubon is located at the Edith L. Moore wildlife sanctuary, and has about 17 acres of woodland protected.



One of the first things I looked for at the Sanctuary was ants, and I was lucky enough to find this Leptogenys elongata colony.


These are members of the subfamily Ponerinae, and are much different in form from the myrmicines and formicines I am used to.


As their name suggests, they are gracile (slender and long limbed) and likely either run fast or climb trees. On this day, they weren’t going anywhere quickly because it was cold and rainy.


On Friday, after my talk, I went out with Mary-Anne Weber and Joe Smith for a birding outing. Here is something we don’t often see in Canada!


This osprey allowed a close approach using the time-tested technique of pretending we didn’t see it!


A couple of local dogs who thought they owned the place!


Several osprey were fishing in the stormwater retention ponds.


A white pelican flies by some construction. This is likely to be another Canadian visitor to Houston.


White pelicans engaged in feeding. They are not spectacular divers like Brown Pelicans, but they sure are majestic. .


This is a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk, which Mary-Anne ID’ed correctly. I was thrown off by the white splotches on the back, which we do not often get on the West Coast.


From the front it looks much like our Cooper’s Hawks.


Everything is bigger in Texas, including the Great Blue Herons! Well, all over the east they are bigger than our West Coast form.


The closest approach of a White Pelican.


Back at the Sanctuary, I found some more ants, this time a very very tiny myrmicine. Any ideas about what this is?


The workers were dimorphic, with this large headed form being present.


I even managed to find a jumping spider, despite the cold wet weather.


And finally, a mystery ground spider, which we will be in a better position to ID after this summer, when Catherine and I will attend a workshop in spider taxonomy in Arizona.


After I left Houston, I took the opportunity to do some aerial photography of the western landscapes we flew over. Here the mountains and deserts look like an alien landscape with the desaturation of distance.

Throwing down some hard light

Sometimes the light of a cloudy day is beautiful for photography, making features soft and creamy, eliminating harsh shadows, and enhancing colours. But this is a bright cloudy day we are talking about, not a gloomy, dark and depressing day like we tend to get around Vancouver this time of year. On a day like that, the photographer can only do one thing: eat Cheetos and veg out.

But wait! There is something you can do to get nice defined images of wildlife despite the terrible conditions and your way-too-old, way-too-noisy Canon sensor. Of course! Supplemental light!

I tested out throwing some hard light from trigger-controlled flashguns on a few species at Stanley Park this Saturday, and I am pretty pleased with the results!


This gull gains just a subtle definition from a speedlight placed behind and to the right.


A crow positioned about where the gull was. This time, because the bird is black, the effect is even more subtle, but that rim light on the head and showing up the feathers on the back is all flash.


The light to the back is much more obvious here, and the background branches are also lit. Bokeh is not great.


Again, some nice definition that would not have been present without a flash.



This Song Sparrow benefits from supplemental light, although it is a tad too direct for my taste.


A single shot with the 100 to show how the light was falling. I had the rimlight behind, and a bit of a fill directly in front of the crow (to my right).


Even hard light need not be oppressive. This towhee is still subtle, and I probably gained 3 stops of ISO here, making the image cleaner.


This squirrel gains definition from a single speedlight to the right, and a bit of fill from directly in front. .


This hooded merganser pops a bit more and is crisper overall thanks to speedlights.


Chickadee mid leap. Single speedlight to the right.


Chestnut-backed Chickadee. Again, I am gaining stops and definition.

Overall, I like this method of shooting, but would prefer natural light. For a gloomy day, when all I would get otherwise is a noisy mess, this is a good thing to try. With an actual lighting assistant, I am sure it could be even more fun.




A photographic species record

5073254804_71691f2caa_bPhotography brings me a great deal of pleasure, and I indulge in it whenever I can. A few years ago, I was with my dad, driving north from Victoria to my brother’s wedding. Along the way is Goldstream Park, a  real gem where the Golstream River empties into Saanich Inlet. We had some time to kill, so we went out for a short stroll with our cameras. It was a beautiful fall day, although the early morning forest was still dark. After photographing some salamanders in the forest, I decided to check out the highway bridge over Niagara Creek for overwintering mosquitoes.


A western red-backed salamander we found under a log.



Many overintering arthropods can be found in man-made structures. Here are three harvestmen and three Triphosa haesitata under the abutment of the Niagara Creek trestle. I have also found bats, camel crickets and five species of mosquito under similar structures.


During my undergrad, I did an Honours thesis on overwintering mosquitoes, and one of my field sites was just upstream, at the railroad trestle above the creek. Here I found several species of mosquito, including Anopheles punctipennis, Culex tarsalis, Culex territans and Culiseta incidens. So when I checked out the highway bridge, I took a few shots of of the mosquitoes. Most of these were the large and very common Culiseta incidens, but I saw a smaller and browner one that I knew was a Culex. Not having many good shots of Culex tarsalis, I strained to reach the camera over my head to shoot the insect. Like many overwintering mosquitoes, this one was still able to fly, so I only got the one shot. Upon reviewing it however, I saw that it was not Culex tarsalis, as I expected, but rather Culex restuans! This species looks much like the common house mosquito, but is distinguished by the two light scale patches on the scutum. I had never encountered this species during my thesis research, as it had not been reported for BC. In talking with Dr. Peter Belton, he urged me to write up the sighting for the Journal of the Entomological Society of BC as a new species record for the province.

Several years passed, where I was busy with tropical field research, and I had put the Culex record on the back burner. When Dr. Belton presented me with a draft of the report, I knew I had to do my part. I added some detail to the manuscript and sent it off. Click here to see the paper!

Not bad for a quick snapshot. Here are some other pictures I took that day:


On top of the bridge I found this jumper with a droplet for a hat.



Heather (my new sister in law) and my brother.



Pablo !



My dad, with some palinka we smuggled in.





Are ants really the primary predator of wasps in Neotropical forests?



“Ants, particularly army ants, exert such strong predation pressure that they are considered to be the main driving force in the evolution of Neotropical social wasps, to the point of influencing their nest architecture.” -Corbara et al. 2009

It is not too surprising that many tropical ecologists consider ants to be such superior predators. Come across an army ant swarm, and you are likely to witness many hundreds of acts of predation playing out before your eyes on the jungle floor. An army ant swarm is like a blitzkreig, and it would seem that nothing can stand in its path. Even social wasps, normally so aggressive in nest defence, will abandon their nest immediately rather than risk the entire colony in a vain attempt to repel the tens of thousands of army ant raiders.

But is it really accurate to infer from these types of observations that the risk of predation by ants on nests of social wasps surpasses that of all other predators? This never really sat right with me, particularly considering how an army ant predation event on social wasps is a random, and probably relatively rare event. Army ants cannot see, and they do not target wasp nests in particular. Even those species which prefer preying on social insects are much more likely to be raiding other species of ants rather than wasps.

How would army ants stack up against a true specialist wasp predator, such as the Red-throated Caracara? Luckily, I had some data to work with to answer these questions.  I have written this up in a paper in Insectes Sociaux, which unfortunately is not open access, but you can email me for a copy!

A Polybia nest brought via an overhead branch.

From our nest camera study in 2008 and 2009, we had footage which showed adult provisioning of single caracara chicks (McCann et al. 2010).  In order to calculate the number of wasp nests per day consumed by the chicks, we lumped all events of provisioning with nest fragments of the same genus being brought within 30 min of each other.

Each of these events was then termed a “unique nest delivery”. By summing the unique nest deliveries daily for the two sampling periods, we found that a single caracara chick eats between 7.8 and 12.4 nests per day. If we assume that the adults are eating just as many wasp nests, a group of 6 adults would consume 46-74 nests per day (not counting the chick). On a per-hectare basis, caracaras could possibly be consuming 0.117-0.186 nests/ha/day.


Wasp-eating machine! Is the Red-throated Caracara a major source of colony failure in Neotropical social wasps?


To compare this rate of predation with that of army ants, we needed an estimate of army ant density. Unfortunately, only one method for assessing Eciton density has been developed, for Eciton burchellii.

This method was developed by Nigel Franks, and relies on the predictable behaviour of swarms of this species (Franks 1982). These ants raid in a roughly linear column from their bivouac site, extending the raid 7 m per hour. The landscape at any given time is thus like a plane with many lines of ants of similar length scattered about it at random. The probability of encountering a swarm is thus proportional to the density of colonies in the area, and by repeated walks of suitable length, an estimate of the total density can be made. Mathematically-inclined readers may realize this is an extension of the problem of Buffon’s Needle*, and relies on similar calculations Incidentally, Buffon also published the first species description of the Red-throated Caracara. You can read about that here.

Catherine Scott and I went to the Nouragues station in 2012 to perform an estimate of the Eciton burchellii density in order to calculate the potential impact of army ant predation on social wasps.

trails etc

Here are the three trails we surveyed. We walked each trail 5 times, for a total of 72 km. Each encounter with an Eciton swarm is marked with an X. We encountered Eciton burchellii only 5 times, translating to a density of only 0.021 swarms/ha.

Our estimate for Eciton burchellii density was a moderate 0.021 swarms/ha, pretty well comparable to other lowland rainforest sites. But how many wasp nests could each swarm take? Well, there is no easy answer for this, but there was only one study that documented rates of army ant predation on social wasps. Ruth Chadab published an estimate of 1-3 nests per day taken by Eciton hamatum, a related species with a greater predilection for social insect nest plundering (Chadab, 1979). Because we had no estimate for daily wasp nest predation for E. burchellii, we used Ruth Chadab’s estimate of 3 nests per day as a rough approximation. This translates into 0.06 nests/ha/day, or 24 nests per day in a 400 ha caracara territory.


We conclude that Red-throated Caracaras, as specialist wasp predators, are comparable to army ants in their predatory impact on social wasps. Taken together with other species, such as monkeys, antshrikes (McCann et al. 2014) and woodpeckers (Sazima 2014), social wasps are at considerable risk from vertebrates.

So what about vertebrate predators and the adaptations of social wasps against them? If we look carefully at social wasp behaviour, it is easy to see how much vertebrate predation has influenced both behaviour and nest architecture. For one, massed stinging attacks are ineffective against ants, and are definitely a feature that protects wasp colonies from vertebrate attack. Audible warnings, such as those produce by Synoeca, would not be effective against ants, nor would visual camouflage (ants hunt by scent, and army ants cannot see anyway).


Visual crypsis of Leipomeles dorsata nest.The envelope of this nest is fitted carefully to the underside of the leaf, and made to resemble it in colour.   Photo by Alex Popovkin, used under a Creative Commons 2.0 licence.

Likewise, armouring of a nest, such as is seen in some Epipona and Chartergus wasps (Richards 1978), would have limited effect on ants, as they can enter and take prey through any opening a wasp can. Analogous armouring consisting of a mud envelope is evident in this Polybia singularis nest. In 5 seasons I worked at the Nouragues camp, this nest never fell prey to the caracaras.  What is  notable about the nests of most wasps with armoured envelopes is that they are often located high up in trees, easily visible on distal branches. The wasps may gain some protection from ants by nesting so high, which they can afford because they are (by virtue of the strength of their nest) already relatively safe from vertebrate attack.


Nest of Polybia singularis, with an envelope of hardened mud. Such nests can weigh up to 5 kg! This nest was never taken by caracaras in all the years I studied at the Nouragues station.


As more and more naturalists describe and publish their observations of Neotropical biology, we are continually discovering new things. I hope that this study, gained in a few short months of research adds to the understanding of the role of vertebrates as predators of social wasps, especially the important role of the Red-throated Caracara. In a future post I will take up the issue of the diversity of wasps taken by caracaras, and what some of the numbers might mean for tropical wasp biologists.

Please do go and read the paper, and if you do not have access to it email me for a copy!


CHADAB, R. 1979. Army ant predation on social wasps. PhD Thesis. University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT.

CORBARA, B., CARPENTER, J. M., CÉRÉGHINO, R., LEPONCE, M., GIBERNAU, M., and DEJEAN, A. 2009. Diversity and nest site selection of social wasps along Guianese forest edges: assessing the influence of arboreal ants. C. R. Biol. 332:470–479.

FRANKS, N. R. 1982. A new method for censusing animal populations: The number of Eciton burchelli army ant colonies on Barro Colorado Island, Panama. Oecologia 52:266–268.

MCCANN, S., MOERI, O., JONES, T., and GRIES, G. 2014. Black-throated Antshrike preys on nests of social paper wasps in central French Guiana. Rev. Bras. Ornithol. 22:300–302.

MCCANN, S., MOERI, O., JONES, T., O’DONNELL, S., and GRIES, G. 2010. Nesting and Nest-Provisioning of the Red-throated Caracara (Ibycter americanus) in Central French Guiana. J. Raptor Res. 44:236–240.

RICHARDS, O. W. 1978. The social wasps of the Americas excluding the Vespinae, p. vii, 580 p., 4 p. of plates : ill. (some col.) ; 2. British Museum (Natural History), London.

SAZIMA, I. 2014. Tap patiently, hit safely: a preying tactic of the White Woodpecker on social wasp nests. Rev. Bras. Ornitol. 22:292–296.





Scenes from a foggy day


We have been basking in warm, moist air here on the West Coast, while the rest of the country is freezing in Arctic outflows. This “Pineapple Express” has brought a lot of rain over the past week, but that is now letting up. Yesterday was calm and foggy, and a bit eerie in its warmth. I was in Victoria, so I went walkabout to see what I could see.


Monday night the fog rolled in, smelling of the sea.




On Mt. Tolmie Tuesday morning, the air was still and moist, and collembollans could be found up on the vegetation.


Rock Flipping Day is every day for me, and has been since i was a kid. I found this beautiful spider that looks very much like a Pimoa.


Oddly, I also found 3 colonies of Aphaenogaster occidentalis, under rocks where 2 weeks ago none were evident. The warmth must have penetrated the soil, and the colonies moved themselves and their brood upwards.


These are some of my favourite myrmicines, and appear to be quite common in Garry Oak meadow habitats.


Jackson was along for this outing, and spent some time chewing rocks…You should see his teeth after 9 years of this awful habit!


I even managed to find a beautiful Phidippus!


On the ferry coming back to Vancouver, the waters were calm.


As it was high tide, the seals were hauled up on the rocky shores of Galiano Island.


Here, the ferry comes up on a log with cormorants and gulls.


Which scatter, somewhat comically.


A large volcano, Mt. Baker, which I visited several months back.


Winter lighting in this part of the world means sunset-like conditions at 2:30!


Which make for beautiful backgrounds.

New Year’s Day Birds


Catherine and I got the new year off to a good start with an early-morning trip to Boundary Bay, in the hopes of seeing some owls. We did not manage to see any except for a solitary Short-eared Owl from a distance, but we made up for it with some other great birds!


We weren’t the only ones out there, several other bird-spotters had already arrived.



Harriers were the most common raptors we saw flying over the beach and grasslands.


We saw a couple of dives for voles, but no captures.


I like the light tones of the frosty ground in this one.


In between feeding, this female flicker was investigating this hole. Perhaps she nested in it previously, or is planning to!



This gorgeous pup was having a great outing!


A House Finch male was a bright splash of colour on the dead branches.


An odd posture as the finch changes positions.



This female was a bit more shy.


A harrier doing a close flyby.


There were a bunch of Kildeers on the icy fields, but seemed to disappear when they stood still.


Our final cool bird was the European Starling, which was posing nicely for us on a sunny branch.