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Weekend Expedition 73: Mississauga woodlands with Gil

Yesterday I went out to the woodlands near University of Toronto Mississauga with Gil for a springtime walk. We were hoping to see some post-breeding Ambystoma salamanders, and whatever else caught our eye…After a long cold and largely photo-free winter, this outing proved to be rather awesome…

The first big spider we saw was this pretty amaurobiid.

Their velvety abdomens are quite lovely in soft light.

On one of the treetrunks we examined, we saw this gorgeous little male jumper.

What a stunning little spider! What could he be? He looks reminiscent of Habronattus

Turns out this is Naphrys pulex, indeed a Habronattus relative, and such a handsome fellow!

Gil found this anyphaenid (ghost spider) and as soon as I saw it, I knew Catherine would be very excited. We don’t have a ton of these in BC, but it seems Ontario has a few more.

What an elegant looking ghost spider!

We did find some Ambystoma, starting with this awesome Jefferson’s salamander

And a spotted salamander was a real treat to see in the wild!

Look at the pretty spots! So cool to see in a burrowing salamander.

I did find a lovely ant in the genus Aphaenogaster…This somewhat large red one should be easy to ID to species, but my book is at the ROM currently…

And the absolutely, most fabulous find of the day (in my opinion) was this absolutely stunning hibernating queen European Hornet…

We do not get these in BC, so I was hugely impressed by the large size and vivid colours of this monster of a queen!

I am sure this is one of the most lovely social wasps I have laid eyes on in North America….

The day was rounded out nicely with the find of a pair of Platycryptus undatus, larger eastern versions of the Platycryptus californicus we are used to from BC

Really impressive jumpers these P. undatus are, with gorgeous fuzzy faces!

Coelioxys cluster

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Last night, Catherine and I were out again all night, performing what was ultimately a futile spider experiment on Cordova Spit (TIXEN in the SENĆOŦEN language). The one thing that did go right was that the dawn had some decent light, so I set out early to try to get some photos of sleeping hymenopterans.

I did not end up shooting very many, as I found this absolutely lovely cluster of Coelioxys which were just begging to be shot. These parasitic megachilids are wonderful subjects, and seem to sleep in small aggregations, sometimes with Ammophila wasps.  Their preferred perches are the dried seedheads of the Puget Sound Gumweed (Grindelia integrifolia), a fragrant seaside plant that is a good place to find halictids in the daytime.

Anyway, here are some of the pictures I took this morning!

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Shot with the 100 mm macro, this shot shows the mixed cloud of dawn, and the dew collected on the bees

The same bees shot with the A720IS, in the wideangle macro style.

The same bees shot with the A720IS, in the wideangle macro style. This gives the bees more of a bugeyed look!

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A lone Ammophila shot with the 100 mm. These wasps are so elegant!

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A similar view of the Ammophila with the A720IS. With this wide a shot you can really see the extent of the sky

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I turned around with the A720 to show the vegetation of the spit to the north

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As usual, when I find a great subject, I try to frame some up in portrait orientation, just in case I get the call for a National Geographic cover!

 

Figuring out the A720….

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I am continuing to tinker with the Canon A720IS for wide angle macro, as it seems this will be the only machine I have for the purpose for he forseeable future….I now have a method of holding the camera and the slave flash, but would like to do some more tinkering before I lay it all out. Today I was up at Mt. Tolmie again, where I waited in vain for a glorious dawn…But I did see a spectacular moonset!

Click the image below for a larger version.

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The subjects of my macro experiments were snakeflies and some Nomada cuckoo bees. These relatively inactive subjects proved ideal for my tinkering, and I managed a good many angles for each. If you have any thoughts on these compositions, please let me know….I was constrained a bit by ambient light, as it was near dawn, but in the future I want to let the landscape show through more.

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Snakefly on dead camas. I kept the sky dark here, which is kind of a fashion cliche from a few years back, but I like the brooding atmosphere

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This is kind of full ventral, but the light is not “believable”…

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This is kind of cool, as the insect is descending…I do say that I “chose” these compositions, but with the shutter lag of the ancient compact, I get what I get!

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This shot of a Nomada is pretty straightforward. I kept the sky and tree dark to keep the brooding atmosphere.

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Here I have tried to get some background vegetation other than trees, but the grass actually resembles a tree!

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This is a peeekaboo shot of the cute face of the bee.

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The one shot I got that worked out of the cloud-obscured sun with the bee. I really like this one, even with the spittlebug below

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Another view of the Nomada while sleeping.

OK, now for some comparisons, here are some shots of the same subjects with the 100 mm macro on the DSLR

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Not as much interest in this background.

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What I like about the 100 is how I can maneuver everything precisely o get a clean composition…That being said, maybe it is a bit stale.

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This shows the stiffness of the sleeping bee’s posture

And in other news, check out this beautiful bee fly I found!

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The tip of the abdomen is orange at certain angles

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A cool fly from any point of view

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And a bit wider to show more of the perch

 

 

 

Experimentation with sleeping bees and wasps

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This morning Catherine and I tried something different with our spider observations: instead of going out at night, we would get to the beach before dawn, to catch the tail end of spider activity. Turns out, as soon as any light is in the sky, the widows are out of sight, presumably to avoid dawn-foraging birds. So that meant I had a bit of time for some photography!

I really wanted to try out the small Canon A720IS I had used on the alligator lizards in the context of capturing wide angle closeups of sleeping bees at dawn. I did manage some shots of Ammophila wasps and Coelioxys bees, but I am not entirely sure I am pleased with them. Perhaps the strength of the camera lies in wide angle macro in better lighting conditions. Anyway, it made for some neat images, which I share below.

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Ammophila, all lit up by a surprisingly well-behaved slave flash, the beach habitat stretched out behind.

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An in-your-face view of Coelioxys, with a bit of colour in the sky.

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Coelioxys with a bit more of the trees toward the beach showing.

Now we move onto dawn shots of the same subjects shot with the DSLR and 100 mm macro. We also found some cuckoo wasps!

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Sleeping cuckoo wasp! I wish I had brought my diopter for better magnification!

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Another chrysidid on some dead grass.

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This little cuckoo is waking up.

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It stirred around for a few moments, then went dormant again.

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Chrysidid after a brief rain shower.

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Head-on view of Coelioxys. Note the clamped mandibles.

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Coelioxys with a bit of lens flare from the sun.

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Coelioxys after the rain shower.

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A tower of Ammophila

A couple of Sunday outings

IMG_1197As I mentioned in my last post. Catherine and I are working late nights observing black widow behaviour, so I do not really get the opportunity to go out at dawn as much as I normally like to. We have begun to take Friday and Saturday nights off, however, so assuming I can get my sleep schedule quickly reorganized, dawn shoots are possible!

This morning, I went out to Mt. Tolmie, in the hopes of seeing a spectacular dawn. Unfortunately, the light and colour were a bit subdued, but I did manage to get some snakefly photos with some colour in the sky.

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Imagine this, but with a blazing orange sky, and some direct sun peeking through the wings….Someday!

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I also found a fat male snakefly!

Snakeflies were about all that was on offer at Mt. Tolmie, so after breakfast I headed down to Dallas Road, on the shore near Beacon Hill Park. I knew of an Anthophora bomboides colony, and hoped to get some pics of them waking up.

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Anthophora bomboides makes these little turreted nest holes in the eroded banks above the sea.

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On a steeper slope, the nest shave no turrets, presumably because incoming rain and debris are not a problem. I found a few bees poking their heads out, but none sunning or getting ready to fly until…

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Right in front of me, a male grabbed and attempted to copulate with this female. I didn’t get the male in the shot, but here is the female looking stunned on the ground.

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The female is recovering from her whirlwind romance.

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You can see where hey get the specific name “bomboides“, as they look very similar to local bumblebees.

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Picking my way along the shore, I came upon my first sleeping Coelioxys of the season!

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These sleeping bees make fine subjects, as it takes them a long time to warm up.

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Above the cliffs, in the Garry Oak meadow, I found this bristly tachinid fly.

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I also found one of my favourite elaterids, Selatosomus edwardsi.

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These beautiful click beetles are large and robust.

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In a snowberry bush I found this beautiful and delicately coloured Araniella displicata.

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And to cap off a very productive morning, I ran into one of my favourite running crab spiders of all time, Tibellus oblongus!

 

A very spidrous summer planned

IMG_7051So this is where I find myself: I am currently employed as a field assistant to my partner Catherine Scott, as she spends the spring and summer of 2016 doing thesis research on Vancouver Island. Over the winter and early spring, I had several interviews for postdoc positions, but ultimately did not get any offers. I am still in the market, as this field gig is not paying much, but this is where my employment situation stands.

Dang, that’s a long trip!

The fieldwork may not pay much, but it sure has been exciting. The first stage of the work involved a ridiculously long roadtrip from Toronto to Texas, and out to LA, up the coast and across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Victoria. Our objective in this was threefold: 1) we had to collect some  beautiful “Texas widows”, a variety of  western black widow (Latrodectus hesperus) for later lab research, and 2) we had to attend a wedding in Los Angeles and 3) we needed to get our vehicle to BC for the fieldwork.

Of course, this roadtrip was a great opportunity to get some cool shots of the natural world along the way. In the following shots, you will get a taste of what we encountered.

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Catherine taking notes on spiders we collected.

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Joseph Lapp, an arachnologist in Austin graciously took us out for some spidering and lunch near the UT Austin field station. We met up with many great people along the way, including Bekka Brodie and Viorel Popescu in Athens OH (former labmates), Alex Wild in Austin, Terry McGlynn in Pasadena, Christy Pitto in southern Oregon, and Thomas Shahan and Kathleen Neeley in northern Oregon, who spent the day with us shooting photos and wandering the canyons. I apologize for not taking more people pictures!

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Catherine collects a Texas widow in the boonies of southern Texas.

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Here is what the Texas widows look like: the adult females retain the juvenile colour pattern, with flamboyant reds and yellows on the dorsal surface of the abdomen. The extent of this red varies, but this is pretty typical.

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Southern Texas is awesome for birds. We saw a great many Crested Caracaras, which was a big highlight of the trip. I last saw these birds in Guyana.

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We got to see 3 species of recluse spider. This one is the Big Bend recluse, found about 100 km east of the Pecos River valley.

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Another highlight was finding Scytodes spitting spiders. We saw both Scytodes thoracica as well as this unknown (to us) species from southern Texas.

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In the Seminole Canyon, we found the only Aphonopelma tarantula we saw on the trip.

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It was extremely frustrating to have to burn through Arizona and New Mexico to get to the wedding, as there is absolutely stunning mountains and countryside to explore. Here we are passing by a wonderful region…

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After the wedding in LA, we got some opportunity to change the oil, hang out with Terry McGlynn and see some hawks at Palos Verdes.

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In Laguna Seca, near Monterey CA

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The beautiful Diaea livens, a green crab spider found on oaks in California.

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In Monterey, we met up with the invasive Badumna longinqua, a desid spider that makes messy cribellate capture webs very close to the ocean.

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While searching for Badumna near the docks in Monterey, we came upon this sea lion chilling out. They are really quite tame in the harbours!

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The $500 spidermobile passes north through the Golden Gate

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Out for the day with Christy Pitto, at the headwaters of the Rogue River in southern Oregon, we found this beautiful Tibellus, and I found a new angle to shoot it from.

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Our coolest spider find was with Christy Pitto, a gorgeous Mecicobothriid from near her cabin.

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Catherine spidering with awesome macrophotographer Thomas Shahan in Salem, OR

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Catherine giving an impromptu spider lecture to Thomas Shahan and Kathleen Neeley. The $500 spidermobile is in the background.

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We embark on the MV Coho from Port Angeles to Victoria

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Catherine in the field at Island View Beach. We are working on the lands of the Tsawout First Nation, who have a large reserve near Sidney on the Saanich Peninsula.

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initial mapping points for female western black widows we will monitor and observe over the next several months.

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This is what we will be watching this summer: a male black widow courting on the web of a female at Island View Beach

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We will shift to a largely nocturnal schedule to match the widows. Here Catherine observes courtship on the beach.

 

 

 

Cheapskate Tuesday 29: Alligator Lizards with the A720 IS

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For this image, I wanted to show the Garry Oak habitat that I found this beautiful Northern Alligator Lizard in, as well as the gorgeous detail of its long body.

One of the greatest trends in wildlife and macro photography is so-called “wide angle macro”, or getting close to a subject with a wide lens in order to show both detail of the subject, and some of the surroundings for context. In addition, the exaggerated field of view places the subject right in your face in a way that standard macrophotography struggles with.

To achieve this with a DSLR, there are a number of lenses that can be used, including some very exotic optics such as the Venus 15 mm Macro (see Thomas Shahan’s video here for a good intro).

Well, here at Cheapskate Tuesday, we can’t afford that kinda thing (yet), so we have to make do. One way to acheive this type of look is both cheap and abundant: old compact cameras! I happen to have a fine Canon A720 IS that I bought some years back for 35 bucks at a pawnshop in Victoria. It focuses extremely close, and from my days shooting the S2IS and S5IS, I knew it could be hacked with CHDK in order to get RAW file capture for improved dynamic range and white balance editing.

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The A720 in all its glory. Truly a fine 8 MP compact!

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This CHDK menu shows some of the great tweaks that are available (in addition to RAW capture). The overrides of both ISO and aperture are very useful, and really work!

Well, working with a compact still has some disadvantages in terms of the maximal quality of the images captured, as well as the limited resolution available…The compact is versatile though, and is very light. One very cool feature of this model is that it has a global shutter and a very high flash sync speed, so flash-illuminated shots can still retain great detail in a bright sky.

The most important thing is that it focuses VERY close even at the widest zoom setting, allowing for the shots of the lizard you will see. There is a set of crazy tricks I used when shooting this image that I won’t detail here, but will cover in a future Cheapskate Tuesday post…Suffice it to say, if you desire the ability to make images like this on the cheap, and don’t mind a bit of tinkering, pick up a similar camera today, if you can find one at a good price….

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This shot shows great detail of the lizard’s head, as well as the rock outcrop and blooming camas in the background.

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Another shot of the lizard posed on a piece of broken wood. Again, note the detail visible both in the lizard as well as the background.

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Head on view!

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Probably one of my favorite shots from this session, just the face and feet are shown in detail, while both the Garry Oak and camas are visible in the background. So cool!

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BTW, this camera can also be used for shots like this one, showing Catherine seeming to be dwarfed by a dock spider…

 

 

Hawks at Palos Verdes

IMG_4662Catherine and I are out in California right now, in the midst of a cross-continental journey we are calling #SpiderTrip2016. This trip has taken us down the east-central part of the country to Austin and further south, where we collected some very colourful black widows  for Catherine’s research.

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Catherine examines a guard rail in southern Texas, where we found black widows in abundance.

 

Right now we are in L.A., where we have been for several days to attend a wedding in Redondo Beach. As the wedding was Sunday night, on Monday morning we went out to find a park to have a picnic and see what we could see. We ended up on the cliffs of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, a region of L.A. that neither of us have visited. This peninsula has some soaring cliffs and beautiful views of the ocean, as well as a great interpretive centre at Point Vicente focused on natural history.

 

As we were eating lunch, the screams of a rapidly diving Peregrine Falcon alerted us to check out the cliffside. While I tried in vain to get a shot of a diving falcon, we clued in to the fact that the falcon was harassing a pair of Red-tailed Hawks nesting on the cliff ledge below.

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This was the best I could manage of these amazingly quick falcons…I did see several dives against the flying hawks, which they countered by rolling and presenting their talons to the approaching falcon. This is not just idle harassment on the part of the falcon either, as they are known to kill hawks during these high-speed attacks. 

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A Red-tailed Hawk, presumably incubating eggs on the cliffside of Point Vicente.

These hawks are well known to the local birders and photographers, and it isn’t hard to see why. Their activities are well in view from the top of the cliffs, and they come very close to the walking path as they provision their nest and ride the updrafts from the ocean winds striking the cliff face.

Anyway, here is a selection of photos I managed to get during a couple hours of watching this incredible specatacle:

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This was the incredible first flyby I managed to shoot of the female Red-tailed Hawk looking right at me as she flew by.

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The contrast of the red tail and the blue sea behind is really quite striking

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Some local birders told me this individual with the broken tail feathers is the male, and it makes sense, as the incubating hawk had an intact tail.

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We saw one of the hawks grab some vegetation from the crown of this palm several times. They would also retrieve sticks from a shrubby slope beneath the cliff.

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The female heads back to the nest with a stick.

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I didn’t know it at the time, but I suspect this dramatic dive was the beginning of a successful rabbit hunt on the shrubby slope. I did not see the kill get made, as it occurred below the cliff.

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One of the pair is engaged in tearing the fur off of the rabbit that they killed. 

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The views of these hawks just cannot be beat, and with falcons, seals, pelicans and more thrown into the mix, you could do a lot worse than to spend some time at Point Vicente! If you are in the L.A. area, I highly recommend it!

 

Gray-fronted Dove

 

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This post is gonna be short; Catherine and I a prepping for a very long roadtrip to Texas, LA, and eventually to BC to start Catherine’s field season. This is just a video of a Grey-fronted Dove (Leptotila rufaxilla) feeding nestlings at the Nouragues Station in French Guiana.

This nest was right beside the showers in camp, and to get this footage, I set up my camera and started recording, leaving it there until the card filled or the battery ran out. This was a labour intensive process, as the majority of clips recorded were just the bird sitting there and the chicks sleeping.

I think that this clip of feeding made it all worthwhile though, as it gives a rare view of how the chicks “plug in” to the adult to receive their meal of “crop milk

Weekend Expedition 70: Mississauga/Credit River

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On Sunday, Catherine and I went out to Mississauga, where we met up with Gil Wizen, one of my favourite macrophotographers to go out for a early spring hike around the woods above the Credit River. It was such a treat to be out with a fellow invertebrate zoologist, not having to explain why exactly we should flip over a given log, or pull up a piece of loose bark…How very rarely do we get to go out in the woods with another person with the same agenda!

The forest was snowy, but warming, and we are anticipating a major thaw through the week….Very soon, the famed Ontario salamander fauna will be on the move to vernal pools for breeding. This weekend we did not find any salamanders, but we did find a great variety of cool arthropods, thanks in no small part to diligent searching by Gil.

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The wooded bluffs above the Credit River, near the Mississauga campus of U of T was where we wandered. The geology of this place looks pretty fascinating, with some thin layers of sandstone very near the surface, often pushed upward by tree roots.

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Catherine and Gil on the way to the forest.

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The mixed forest seemed to have abundant birdlife, and it would be good to come by earlier or later in the day to see if we could find some owls…

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Many of the birds were doing what we were doing, probing under bark and looking in crevices for invertebrates.

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One of our very first finds was also one of the coolest: A Dolomedes tenebrosus, looking fat and happy under some loose bark. This is a species in the fishing spider/nursery web spider family (Pisauridae), and it is usually found near water. They are undoubtedly major beneficiaries of abundant aquatic insect hatches in certain seasons.

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Here is the same spider resting on a block of the sandstone cap that we found thrust up near the tree roots. The large eyes of these pisaurids are evident, and hint at relationships with wolf spiders, also in the Lycosoidea clade.

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We found a much smaller Dolomedes tenebrosus nearby under some leaves. Interestingly, both of these spiders seemed not strongly affected by the cold, and were able to move about even though it was hovering near zero.

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Gil examines a rotted and fallen trunk. I asked him whether he had done this sort of think since childhood, and it seems that like me he has always flipped logs and rocks looking for invertebrates. A born naturalist!

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A caterpillar of Idia lubricalis (a hermiine erebid), also found under leaves. Thanks to Gil for the ID!

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Like the previous week in Crother’s Woods, we also found a number of crab spiders and running crab spiders. Here is a running crab, likely a Philodromus species.

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A small (Handsome Fungus, family Endomychidae) beetle found in fungus-rotted wood. This one has a very pleasingly-shaped pronotum and daintily-clubbed antennae.

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Gil also uncovered some tiny psuedoscorpions, which was a treat to see.

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Many thanks to Gil, for leading us to a very productive patch of woods. We look forward to getting out again soon!