Weekend Expedition 53: celebrating being done!


A beautiful longhorn! Stictoleptura canadensis on Tansy at Iona Beach.

This weekend, to celebrate being done with my PhD defence, I made sure to get out on both Saturday and Sunday morning. I went somewhere close by, as it has been very hot and clear here in Vancouver and the shooting gets pretty bad pretty quickly. Thus,I went to Iona and McDonald Beaches in Richmond.


One of the biggest chalcidoids: Leucospis affinis (Leucosppidae). Check out those rear legs!


A green lacewing, missing its antennae.


A nice megachilid with a cool moustache.


This sphecid is covered in dew and looking cool in the morning.


A tachinid picking up the rays of the rising sun.


A tetragnathid eating prey. It looks like this one might have a mantispid larva attached to its abdomen, something I have never seen before in Vancouver.


Things are not going well for this tetragnathid either!


A pretty Ammophila against the sky.


Skippers are out in abundance, although I have not seen them ovipositing yet.


This and the next photo show the dramatic effect of the background light using the Monster Macro Rig.


The background is at a sweet spot to blur at f13.


And of course, with any morning walk on the beach, I found some Coelioxys!


A cluster of Ammophila against the sky.


A tiger moth carcass being stripped by Tetramorium ants (Pavement Ants). I have been seeing more and more of these!


Defending my PhD thesis


Thursday morning last week was a pretty special day; it was the day I defended my PhD thesis. For those of you who don’t know, a thesis defence is a formal examination, wherein the candidate (me) gives a public seminar on their thesis, and then is questioned by an examining committee, generally composed of their supervisory committee, plus an internal and external examiner, and all headed by a chairperson selected by the department.


Here is the room I defended in. We figure it had 45-50 people in total.


Catherine made some great caracara cookies to go with the coffee and water (which is required at defences!).

My examining committee was headed by Dr. Margo Moore, who did a great job keeping the event rolling and the atmosphere relaxed. Dr. David Lank was my internal examiner, a great guy I have always gone to with questions on bird research (we do not have a lot of institutional experience to draw on in a chemical ecology lab). My external examiner was Dr. Keith Bildstein, a researcher at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, with decades of experience in raptor research and in particular experience studying Striated Caracaras in the Falkland Islands and Patagonia.  My advisory committee consisted of Dr. Sean O’Donnell, who was absent for the defence, but there in spirit (he is doing fieldwork in Costa Rica), Dr. Ron Ydenberg, an expert in bird foraging behaviour, and of course my supervisor Dr. Gerhard Gries.

I gave my 40 minute presentation, outlining my research on Red-throated Caracaras, focusing on several aspects of their biology:


It is not clear that Red-throated caracaras build nests, as our observations in 2008 and 2009 showed that they nest in cleared areas of large epiphytic bromeliads. They seem to have only a single chick per nesting, and have some of the most extreme cooperative breeding in the bird world, with up to 6 or 7 adults providing care to a single chick.


They are specialist predators on social wasps, and probably are responsible for a lot of brood mortality in these animals. They prey on a wide range of genera, mainly swarm-founders and almost invariably aerial nesters.


They are extremely social, vocal and territorial, with a repertoire of calls and displays, and even use physical conflict in territorial disputes.


Contrary to previous hypotheses, we found no evidence of a chemical wasp repellent, but discovered that the caracaras exploit the absconding response of their swarm-founding prey to avoid harm when attacking wasp nests.


The work in my thesis was not done single-handedly. I had great help from field assistants, granting agencies and the CNRS is Guyane. Here is Onour Moeri, my assistant in 2008 and 2011 with a Red-throated Caracara we had radio-tracked.


This is Tanya Jones, a biology graduate who is now a triathlon coach, who came to French Guiana with me in 2009 and 2010.


Catherine Scott, also known as @cataranea, came in 2012 for help with the army ant portion of the thesis (soon to be published!).



Patrick Chatelet, of CNRS Guyane was our good friend and host for much of our fieldwork. He has been at the Nouragues station for longer than most of the monkeys.

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Philippe Gaucher of CNRS Guyane, is a great guy to have on your side when doing raptor or frog research in the rainforest. Here he is climbing the 2008 nest tree for the first-ever glimpse into a Red-throated Caracara’s nest.


My mom attended the defence, and it was great having her there. She has encouraged me through all the years of this process!


A bird in the hand: at the end of the seminar, I was questioned for about 1.5 h. Most of the questioning was more in the form of a discussion and I found I had quite a bit to say to everything thrown at me. In the end, the decision of the committee was to accept the thesis with minor revisions. When that is complete, I will have fulfilled all the requirements for the PhD program, and the school will award my degree.

After the defence, we had lunch with teh committee, and then went to Trout Lake for a bit of a celebration. Here are some shots from the defence and the after-party. I know I have missed some important faces (Gerhard and Regine and Keith Bildstein!), but I hope you will forgive me, as I was just feeling relief!

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Back to the beach!


Catherine and I had to make a quick run back to Iona Beach last night to retrieve a fallen Raynox DCR-250 and to search out some Micropezid flies for Morgan Jackson. It was a quick trip, but we succeeded on both counts! Of course, I also took the opportunity to do some shooting as well. Here is what we got.


A Tibellus (Philodromidae) feasts on a damslefly.


A damselfly feasts on a chironomid midge.

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Catchup on images from the past week.

OK, I am in full lockdown/practice mode for my upcoming PhD defence, so here is a collection of images without much commentary, taken at Iona Beach over the past couple weeks.


Colletes males in a sleeping aggregation.


Ochlerotatus dorsalis, taking my blood.

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A Phidippus, looking great as always.


Bembix digging a nest.


Some kind of dwarf spider. I like how the legs reflect on the shiny body.


Colletes showing me his tongue.


A cuckoo wasp Catherine found sleeping in dead wood.


The folded legs of a sleeping Coelioxys.




My favourite bee, Coelioxys.


A long-legged fly eating a mite.


Coelioxys rufitarsus showing its reddish tarsi.


A Stilt-legged fly (Micropezidae).


Crazy heads these guys have!


Aggregation of sleeping Coelioxys.


Tetragnatha caudata at sunset.

Life and death at Burnaby Lake


Yesterday, on the way home from the University, I decided to spend a bit of time at Burnaby Lake. A light warm rain was falling, and the lakeside was a quiet place to wander around and contemplate the life all around. The evening had a somber feel, and the photographic subject matter at hand echoed this.


What  does it all mean? This towhee looked worried in the rain.


New life: goslings were resting by their parents by the lakeside.


On its own: a brown headed cowbird, fledged from its hosts nest was picking damselflies off the dockside.


Lost: these three ducklings were searching for their mother.


Master of contemplation: a Western Painted Turtle surveys the scene.

End of a short life: a gull shakes a baby Wood Duck before swallowing it alive.



For the next generation: a female Aedes cinereus drinks my blood to provide protein for egg maturation.


The essential transfer: mating gall midges on a flower.


Top up: Aedes cinereus again, really going hard at my ankes.


After swatting some Aedes cinereus, I share the bounty with a Lasius worker.


Nearly dead: A Meadow Jumping Mouse (Zapus hudsonius) by the side of the trail. I have no idea what was wrong with this beautiful, normally speedy rodent.