Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Pocosin Pitcher Grand Slam

I had the pleasure of having a few days off last week, so I took that time to go down to one of my favourite haunts in the States - North Carolina's Outer Banks. Brian Patteson and Kate Sutherland, two good friends of mine, live in Cape Hatteras and run a pelagic birding company ( and I was going to go offshore with them to get my seabird fix. I brought Kyle Holloway along for the ride.

There was another spot in North Carolina, however, that I desperately wanted to visit, and one I didn't get to the last time I was in Hatteras in June. This was in southern North Carolina bordering South Carolina. For plant enthusiasts, it was a legendary locale whose pocosins hide all sorts of weird and wonderful flora, including one species that is only found there and nowhere else.


The Green Swamp.

Now, beyond orchids, I'm not much of a plant fanatic, with things with wings and feathers grabbing my attention way before things with chlorophyll, but plants that eat things are pretty awesome and worth seeking. Also, being August, the pocosin's birds have all silenced and finding them can be a challenge. The Green Swamp's huge Longleaf Pine savannahs shelter some of the northerly Red-cockaded Woodpecker colonies and Bachman's Sparrows.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker

A Red-cockaded on a Longleaf Pine at Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge, just a couple hours south of Green Swamp in South Carolina. They are much more common and easier there.

Neither bird is easy to find and by the time we got to the Swamp it was late morning and there wasn't any activity. We'd already seen these anyway and because of our limited time here, we wanted to check out what else the pocosins had to offer. It was quickly discovered that Red-headed Woodpecker was exceptionally common and we encountered over a dozen birds, with multiple active nests in the deadwood. These are more aggressive and displace Red-cockadeds, even eating their eggs, so perhaps that is why we didn't see any of them. Flocks of Carolina Chickadee, Brown-headed Nuthatch and Tufted Titmouse roved along the edges of the pocosins, joined by numerous Pine Warblers and a Golden-winged Warbler.

Now however, our gazes were directed downward. We were looking for the iconic plant of Green Swamp, one found nowhere else in the world, and one needed a sharp eye to find one of these amongst the grasses. It didn't take long for us to find what we were looking for.


Venus Flytrap

It may come to you as a surprise that these tropical looking carnivores are only found here in the flatwoods of North and Northeastern South Carolina. There are some established elsewhere, but those are introduced and the only native plants grow here and nowhere else. The ones you get at your local grocery store flower shop that only last a few weeks are all captive-bred plants (they're easy enough to propagate) but you really need to see them in the wild to truly appreciate them. These are healthy, large clumps with beautiful colors ranging from bright green to a stunning crimson.


Feed me, Seymour!

Giddy with excitement, we continued our quest, for the swamp wasn't only home to the flytrap but a variety of other carnivorous plants. Most of us are familiar with our pitchers in northern spruce bogs in Ontario -

Purple Pitcher

Northern Purple Pitcher Sarracenia purpurea var. purpurea

Spruce Bogs, basically floating mats of slowly-decomposing plant material, are like waterlogged deserts. There is very little nutrient present for plants to utilize and most plants there are very slow-growing and evergreen as a result. Purple Pitchers have overcome this by being able to extract Nitrogen and Phosphorus from insect bodies using partner bacteria, and thus obtaining most of their nutrients not from the peat, but from insect bodies. Pretty neat.

Pocosins are similar to bogs in the fact that they are very nutrient poor. They sit on groundwater and occur in poorly-drained soils in the Atlantic Coastal Plain. They too have their own species of sphagnum moss and resemble a bog somewhat, but instead of Black Spruce, they are dominated by pines, Longleaf Pine in the case of the Green Swamp, and look very different from bogs. It is in these environments, carnivorous plants reach their peak in species diversity and the Green Swamp holds 18 species, including four pitchers, all of which I was eager to find.



Yellow Trumpet Pitcher Sarracenia flava



Southern Purple Pitcher Sarracenia purpurea var. venosa

The above two species were very common, with the huge trumpets protruding from the grasses all over the pocosin. The trumpet pitchers digest their food in a different way than the purples do - instead of utilizing partner bacteria, they create their own "digestive" enzymes to extract nutrient from their prey. They don't need water in their pitchers and many species actually are shaped to prevent rainwater from entering.

The other two species were both quite rare and relatively difficult to find. After about a half-hour of searching , I yelled to Kyle that I found the third - a short, clumpy pitcher that one could easily miss.

Sweet Pitcher Sarracenia rubra ssp. rubra

 The last species was even more rare and honestly I didn't think we'd be able to find it. It's big and showy, and that makes it a species that is sought-after by plant poachers. These are poor excuses for human beings who have no interest in propagating these already imperiled plants, but instead dig them up to sell them on the black market for sometimes a huge profit. As a result, specific locales of the rarest pitchers are kept strongly defended and secret. The Green Swamp is a huge area and even with me telling you that we saw the plants in the swamp, it doesn't mean that if you were a plant collector that you'd be able to go out there and get them.


I heard Kyle yell and started running maniacally towards his voice, aggravating the monstrous chigger population in the swamp - Hell knows what he could've found, a Copperhead or something, and then I saw them.

Standing alone in a small clearing in the pocosin like a gathering of little cloaked figures.


Hooded Pitcher Sarracenia minor

These guys had somehow managed to get past the poachers and their little colony was the only one to be seen in here. We bounced around taking pictures, taking care not to tread on the surrounding Sweet Pitchers and Flytraps. 

Besides being rare, this plant also has an incredible adaptation (besides eating insects) -


If one looks at the back of the pitcher, one notices these little translucent spots along the top. Because the pitcher's hood covers the entry hole, an insect will enter the plant by pushing it aside, seeking the false nectar the plant is producing. Once inside, the insect will try to get out by going towards a source of light - the back of the plant. Unfortunately for the bug, it will hit the plant and fall down into the pit of death. Nature, you scary!!

With that, we left the Green Swamp. We both agreed to visit again, for it is a huge area and has a whole bunch of neat things in it, and is a rapidly disappearing habitat that will last who knows how long.

Of course, I couldn't leave the swamp without taking some of it with me - not a Hooded Pitcher or a Venus Flytrap, but hundreds of chiggers. At first I dismissed the sporadic itching as Poison Ivy, which was common in the swamp, but about an hour later I found them all, which resulted in a frenetic attempt to get them off involving rubbing alcohol and tweezers, but that largely failed. I decided I was going to take it like a man and just let them feed until they dropped off, like ticks, and that'd be that. It worked, but the bites, I discovered, itched like the fleas of a thousand camels. Kyle got away with about a dozen. I had thousands. They started at my feet and evenly covered the rest of my body dispersing somewhere around my chin. I've been parasitized by botflies, ticks, mites, vampire bats, nematodes, and hell knows what else, but these are the worst. After using a half bottle of industrial Cortizone cream, I discovered that didn't work either.

It was going to be a bloody itchy pelagic.


Orange Fringed-Orchid Platanthera ciliaris, another beautiful and rare plant of the Swamp.

Friday, August 10, 2012


Frequently, when the birding gets slow during the Summer months, birders turn to other creatures to observe (and list, and photograph). Usually this only lasts during the period when most birds are breeding, most notably July, and by the time that month finishes the birding once again gets good enough for most birders to return to their bins and scopes.

Here in Algonquin, the good birding is as follows - May, August-September and the Winter months if there's a finch irruption. For most of the time that I'm here, unless I for one reason or another have a craving to see fledgling Myrtle Warblers, I have to focus on something else.

About a week ago I was at Pub on the Docks in Huntsville one night with a friend. We were having some drinks and enjoying life when my buddy went off to the loo and the waitress (who was quite attractive, mind you) asked me where we're coming from. I replied as follows -

"Russia. And my friend is from Brighton"

This wasn't untrue but the fact that I was really living in Algonquin, 45 minutes away, and had no accent to speak of whatsoever probably made me look like a huge tool. I dug myself even deeper after explaining that I go around looking for birds for a living and she told me that she was going to Halifax in the fall, to which I replied -

"Ahhhh. Out WEST!"

To be fair, if I was indeed coming from Russia, Halifax would be "out west". It was probably my worst showing ever, recalling a Sage-grouse I once saw in Colorado who was displaying about eight metres from where the action was. Nonetheless, I still gave her my business card which, because I'd run out of my own, I had fashioned by finding a card from a colleague in my wallet, scratching out his name, and writing in my own, including my number. 

I wasn't surprised when she never did give me a call, but I'd seen her since and she doesn't appear to think I'm a huge creep (but then again, she could be good at acting), but judging by the fact that my geography went out the door after four beers, I could've given her the wrong number (or she called a bird tour operator instead)

So I figured I needed another way to occupy my time (plus Huntsville is 45 minutes away, and gas is expensive) 

I dabble in everything, and there are a few things that I am quite keen on besides birds. Many birders choose butterflies as their "go-to" alternate interest. I like butterflies, but looking for butterflies usually involves walking around open areas in sweltering heat, and I don't like doing that unless it involves a beach and some beer. I'm also very selective with the butterflies I choose to pursue. I'll go out of my way to look at big, sexy ones like the swallowtails -

Eastern Tiger and Zebra Swallowtails

Tigers and Zebras - It's a Swallowtail Safari! 

or weird-shaped ones with bright patterns like Heliconians in the tropics -

Zebra Longwings

Zebra Heliconians hangin' out in Mexico

But Skippers all look the same (don't try to tell me otherwise) and as I've already made the effort of going into a hot, open area to look for butterflies, and am probably complaining that I don't have a beer, their identification might not be on my top list of priorities (but inevitably I will do it anyway, because really, I do kinda like them) This is strange, because gulls are somewhat like the avian counterparts of skippers, and they're amongst my favourite birds to study....but they're birds.

My go-to alternate life forms are the odonates, however. Dragonflies and damselflies are cool looking, predatory insects that are challenging to catch, interesting to observe and exhibit a wide variety of cool behaviors. Their varied habitats have taken me all across the province to search for them, and allowed me to see some cool places as a result.

But really, the reason I like them is that chicks dig 'em. Who wouldn't?? Look at this thing -

The King of Darners

Female Swamp Darner

You cannot help to be impressed, even if you're not a naturalist, by this bloody cigar-sized killing machine soaring around, casting shadows and eating swallowtails as it patrols the edges of swamp forests in the South. Yeah, you're impressed.

The thing about odes that I'm not a big fan of, is the fact that they, unlike most butterflies, can fly very quickly, and also backwards. This of course means you need to run around swinging a net at moving objects, sometimes for several minutes on end, before you can study them up close. You often have water nearby that you can retreat in later, but it's still not the most pleasant thought. I like enjoying nature during the summer sitting in a lawn chair with a beer in hand. You can do this with dragonflies I suppose, but it's lame. 

No, the ideal alternate hobby for me has been one that I have known of for many years but only really got into this Spring, thanks to a new book by David Beadle and Seabrooke Leckie.


Moths are amongst our most beautiful insects, but unfortunately are nocturnal and thus are a bit difficult for us to study. Nocturnal birds are hard enough as it is, and a trek for those usually involves tripping, falling, bloodshed, lights, paramedics, calls retreating back into the darkness, venomous snakes, quicksand etc... 

Studying Moths 101

1. Obtain a fluorescent ultraviolet-emitting light. Those blacklights that are sold in party stores work, and there's usually a beer store nearby.

2. Obtain a white sheet. It could be a bedsheet or an old tablecloth.

3. Place the two so that the light is positioned to shine onto the sheet, creating something that resembles a glowing altar used for sacrificing humans. You can use an outdoor extension cord or one of those small generators that you find in hardware stores to help you achieve this task.

4. Advise your neighbours that you are not creating a glowing altar to be used for sacrificing humans. You don't want to be looking at a Comstock's Sallow at your light and suddenly have the cops show up, because their own lights may take away moths from yours, defeating the purpose.

5. Wait until darkness falls, turn on the light, sit back and watch the moths appear. Sip your beer and talk to others about how rigorous and demanding fieldwork is. If you're especially lazy, you can go to sleep and see what has appeared in the morning. 

It really is quite easy to study these amazing insects, and I'm sure you will be surprised with what you find. We tend to think of moths as relatively drab compared to their cousins, but this is certainly not true for many species.

Comstock's SallowDSC_0133

Top to bottom: Comstock's Sallow, Rosy Maple Moth, Luna, Promethea

This set of beauties was procured from just one night, right here in Algonquin Park in June. Not only are moths equally as beautiful as butterflies, they are also much more diverse, compromising the vast majority of the order Lepidoptera.

The point I'm trying to make is that insects, whether damselflies, dragonflies, butterflies, moths, or burying beetles (watch out for the next post on these awesome beasties) make great subjects for study. Birds are awesome, and everyone knows that, but all the other animals out there - ones who don't sing, aren't warm-blooded, don't have hundreds of blogs dedicated to them or books by uptight authors about how to "properly" observe them, need love too. I love birds, but don't be surprised when you see me running around in a river with a net after clubtails, or sitting in a Muskoka chair beside my beloved moth light every now and then. 

Just make sure to see if I'm awake before saying hi.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The New Spruce Blog - More Birds, More Lev, More Glory

Hey Folks,

For one reason or another, the old Spruce Blog website unexpectedly suffered a meltdown and I could not resuscitate it. It was a rather odd meltdown, especially because it didn't let me get in to fiddle around with it and denied me entry entirely. I have a conspiracy theory of how and why this all went down, involving a complex plotline, but I won't share it since I don't know if any mental health institutions read this thing.

So I sat down today and took about five hours to spawn this new blog (mostly create the crane header), which has several benefits - it's free, and following it is now that much easier, as well as posting.

I'm still up in Algonquin Park, where the birds have started moving around and flocking up, but there haven't been much major avian events. We had an adult and a fledgling Barred Owl visit our house the other night -


but otherwise, not too much going on. It is, however, a great time of year to look for odonates (dragonflies and damselflies) and I dedicated a few days last week for that purpose, with Kyle Holloway. We visited the major rivers in the deep South of Ontario - the Thames, Sydenham and Grand Rivers, in hopes of finding some of the specialties that dwell in those watersheds. We were not disappointed.

Our first stop was on the Sydenham, a river famous for having many odes that are not found much elsewhere in Ontario. Immediately, we saw one of our targets cruising along the banks - the lovely Royal River Cruiser.


As we were looking at the cruiser, another dragon flew by and landed not too far from us, and I recognized it immediately and started pointing and yelling, and ran at it in vain attempts of capture. The whole process was Youtube worthy. Eventually I snuck up close enough to one to get a decent photo of one of the most spectacular dragonflies in our province.


It was a stunning adult male Flag-tailed Spinyleg - a Sydenham specialty and one of the dragonflies I had most wanted to encounter here. A few minutes later I managed to capture one and we had the chance to study it in the hand.


An impressive beast, with a characteristic massive tip to the abdomen leading to the English name of this animal.

The cruiser and the spinyleg were both relatively easy targets. Both were rare, but both are large and showy odes that are easy to see and capture when they're around. Our next target was neither.

We arrived at a small, muddy tributary of the Sydenham - an overgrown little stream that intersected with a road and allowed us to follow it. It was painful work, but if we found our target here it would certainly be worth the cuts and scrapes. Suddenly, I saw it. Like a ghost, a large, black dragonfly with shining green eyes slowly flew past Kyle and I and further down the river.

And so the wait began. After 45 minutes of standing knee-deep in water, with only fleeting sightings of our target, we decided to give up and head back. Then, as if to taunt us, two appeared, and PERCHED! Certainly we would have them now.

I crept up to my target and swung, but hit a tree instead and watched painfully as the thing took off and away, never to be seen again. Kyle was more fortunate.


A Mocha Emerald. As a rule, Emeralds of the genus Somatochlora and tediously hard to see, and even harder to catch. They tend to be uncommon even in the core of their range, and their tendency to fly high and in the shade adds to the challenge. We were pretty happy with this one, a species restricted to the far South of our province. A big thanks to Peter Burke for providing us with the locales where we found all these beasties - it would have been very difficult otherwise!!

On our way back home, we stopped by the Thames and were treated to a wide variety of beautiful damselflies.


American Rubyspot


Blue-ringed Dancer


Blue-tipped Dancer


Blue-fronted Dancer