A St. Patty’s Day Secret

Today, in honour of March 17th, I’m going to share a little secret with you.

The adorable little plant that you’ve been sporting today on silly bouncy headbands, “Kiss me, I’m Irish” t-shirts, and light-up necklaces with attached shot-glasses, is actually called Wood Sorrel. (Well, it actually depends how it is drawn. If the leaves are heart-shaped, it is Wood Sorrel, If not, then Clover.)

And, to make this more confusing, 4-leaf clovers are not actually considered shamrocks at all. An Irish shamrock, by definition, has to have 3 leaves! (It has something to do with the Christian trinity that I don’t really know much about, but that’s where the “3” comes in.)


That (above) is Wood Sorrel! (genus Oxalis )

Yup, the typical shamrock you see on most St. Patty’s day paraphernalia, with heart-shaped leaves, is generally called Wood Sorrel.

On the other hand, here’s clover of the genus Trifolium. This is a 4-leaf clover that my son found. As you can see, it does not have heart shaped leaves.  4-leaf clovers have nothing to do with St. Patrick’s Day!


Here is a picture which contains both. See the difference? Left side Clover (Trifolium), Right side Wood Sorrel (Oxalis)!


Thanks to our friends at the Algonquin Wildlife Research Station, we learned about this little woodland treat on our trip last fall. It’s quite tasty! It has a hint of tart green apple. Don’t eat too much of it though. The oxalic acid that gives it that tangy flavour can cause a little problem with calcium absorption when consumed in very large quantities. Apparently it makes a great salad garnish though.

Rest assured, there are no poisonous lookalikes. People (like me apparently) often mistake it for clover, but clover is not poisonous.

So, while 3-leaf clovers (Trifolium), and 3-leaf Sorrels (Oxalis) can both be called Shamrocks, a 4-leaf clover has nothing to do with St. Patty’s Day!


(This is all wrong)

Happy March 17th! Now you can go out to the bar and impress/irritate everyone wearing shamrocks with this new piece of trivia.







The Mystery of the Needle-Dropping Conifer

It’s amazing how many new things you discover when you start paying attention.

In my nearby conservation area, I found a magnificent tree. It was quite striking, and I was absolutely baffled. It was spring, but it looked fluffy, with new soft needles in tiny little tufts. Was it a confier? Was it deciduous? At the same time, it drooped to the ground, almost like a weeping willow. In all my years visiting forests and in all my biology training, I had somehow never taken note of this particular species. Doesn’t it look like it belongs in a haunted forest?



After very little research, I discovered it was a Tamarack, or Eastern Larch tree.

Tamarack or Eastern Larch:

Larix laricina

This is actually a native member of the pine family, but it loses its needles in the fall! In 20160904_110111fact, they turn bright yellow before falling off, adding to our spectacular Ontario autumn displays. From the pictures I’ve been looking at, it seems they don’t all “weep” like this one. But, for this particular tree, the bare branches in winter look quite spooky.

I have seen it numerous times since then. Funny how that happens!

Nice to make your acquaintance, my new tree friend!











How much wood COULD a woodchuck chuck?

This particular creature has been very much on my mind lately.

First, the peas disappeared. We thought it was rabbits. The neighbourhood has a decent supply. Then, the carrot tops went, and were followed by the morning glories. Yesterday, our first two, almost ripe, beautiful, baseball sized tomatoes vanished.

We thought to blame the tomatoes on my three year old. He is, after all, frequently guilty of stealing cherry tomatoes. I think, however, he would have a difficult time eating two full sized tomatoes without me noticing. I have also seen chipmunks snacking on the cherry tomatoes….but had a hard time picturing them rolling the big ones across the lawn without a trace.

No, THIS is our guilty party. He or she has moved in under our deck, and is using our vegetable garden as a buffet. Every couple of days we catch a glimpse of our vegetable thief lumbering around the yard.

woodchuck groundhog

This is a Groundhog (Marmota monax), also known as a Woodchuck, or by some as a Whistle Pig.

They range from 4-8 pounds, dig elaborate burrows and hibernate through the winter by reducing their temperature close to freezing. They eat…. yes, vegetables.

According to folklore and superstition, groundhogs can be used to forecast the arrival of spring. There are numerous groundhogs employed with such a yearly task, but according to one article, Canadian groundhogs used for this purpose are only accurate about 37% of the time. (Methinks this is now more of a tourist gimmick and fun tradition than anything else).

Despite the fact that groundhogs are my son’s 14th favourite animal, and the fact that it’s entertaining to watch him (her?) waddle around, we aren’t overly happy about losing all the fruits and veggies. We haven’t figured out how to drive it away yet, but any suggestions are welcome! It seems that in Ontario it is illegal to relocate animals further than 1km from home (and many websites suggest this is unethical due to the possibility of youngsters in the burrow). So, we may try deterrents.

Oh, and the answer is:

About as much wood as a woodchuck could chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood. 🙂





Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me ….

I was standing in my lawn the other day, doing some weeding, when I felt something slimy hit my foot. This little guy had actually climbed on top of my foot. I picked him up, and he thrashed around like mad. He was not pleased about something.

This is (I think) a Common Earthworm (Family: Lumbricidae). It appears there is a wide variety of species, and I’m not even sure of the genus. If you happen to be a worm expert…please comment! Is this a night crawler – Lumbricus terrestris? Or a common redworm –  Lumbricus rubellus?

cropped worm

Most earthworms are indigenous to Europe, but were brought to North America in the 1600s with European settlers. 18/20 earthworm species in Canada are non-native.

Most gardeners love having earthworms in their garden, as they aerate the soil as they burrow and create passageways for water and air. Their feces provide important nutrients. However, this feature that makes them helpful in gardens actually makes it easier for invasive plant species to take hold in forests, as they eat away at a protective top layer of soil that is necessary for many native forest species.

Worm sex (because I know you want to know):

Worms are hermaphroditic, having both male and female reproductive organs. I remember picking one up as a child, and finding another attached. Both were encircled by a mucous excretion called a slime tube… sexy, right? Once sperm is deposited, they detach and each worm (carrying sperm from the other) makes a second mucous ring, and slides that along until sperm meets egg. Then the whole thing comes off and makes a pouch, which is left in the soil to hatch later. Worm sex. Now you know.

As I also learned, they have cells which are sensitive to light, which is why they thrash around in the sun, and how this one landed on my foot.






The Sneaky Snake Slithered Sideways Silently

Walking through our local conservation area with my husband and kids, I saw something dart across my path. Knowing it would make a great addition to “Featured Species,” not to mention a fun find for the kids, I had my husband follow with his camera.

Can you see it?


How about now?




Oh alright. Here.


Turns out, snakes are difficult to photograph.

Isn’t he adorable though, with his little head poking up to look at us?

This FEATURED SPECIES is most likely a common garter snake: Thamnophis sirtalis

Love them or hate them, snakes are a fascinating species. These little guys only live around 2 years in the wild, but longer in captivity. They range from around 50 cm to a metre and eat worms, mice, salamanders, frogs and fish (their impressive speed would be helpful with this diet). They are the most widespread snake in North America, and have an enormous range. Garter snakes can have 70-80 live young in one litter. There’s a fact that would make Indiana Jones cringe.

Garter snakes are not really known for biting, but if handled excessively, it is possible. However, their bites apparently don’t cause much harm. They’re more likely to excrete a foul smelling musk as a defense mechanism. Interestingly, the lined design on their backs helps them avoid detection, as it gives the illusion they aren’t moving!

Fear of snakes is deeply rooted in our evolutionary past (a logical adaptation in many parts of the world). So, if you’re one of the people that gets a bit of a shiver when you see one dart across the path, you can blame it on that! But, if you’re from around here, you can rest easy! We only have one venomous snake in Ontario, which is actually on the “Threatened Species” list: the Massasauga Rattlesnake. That species is very timid and will only strike if it feels threatened. Most people who have been bitten were trying to pick one up.






Why does my tree have acne?

A couple of years ago, we planted an Autumn Blaze Maple tree in our front yard, and the tree has been doing beautifully. We are dreading the day that our street loses our ash canopy, and planting as much as we can to soften the blow.

I took a close look at our young tree the other day, and to my horror, noticed it was suffering from a severe case of acne.


Hmm. What could be causing this? After eliminating other causes such as poor hygiene and diet, I checked the internet.


A new SPECIES OF THE WEEK: Eriophyid Mites (Though I’m not sure which: maple bladdergall mite: Vasates quadripedes, maple spindle gall mite: V. Aceriscrumen, or erineum gall mites: Eriophyes spp).

The red bumps are called galls and are formed as mites nibble at the maple leaves. Leaf tissue grows around and eventually encases the mites. Mating occurs within the galls, and then egg deposition. Young mites hatch and remain inside until maturity. They break out and start their own galls.

But thank goodness… I also found that they cause no permanent damage to the tree! Crisis averted.They don’t even recommend treating them except for aesthetic purposes. Whew!




Welcome Friends!

I have decided to move my “Species of the Week” feature of my blog on IMG_7708https://unlockingthegate.wordpress.com/ to a new site. It didn’t really fit with the rest of the posts, and I felt it might attract a different audience.

So, over the next little while, I am going to be re-posting my previous blogs over here so they can all be found in one place. Once that’s done, I will start adding new ones!

Thanks for joining me, and I hope you enjoy the site!

Hello world!

Welcome to Featured Species!

A while back, I decided it was about time that I started learning how to identify some of my closest neighbours, both flora and fauna. I’m going to regularly feature plants and animals that I find (mostly locally in Southern Ontario), present some interesting facts about them, and provide some basic ways to identify them. I had previously done this on my other site, but decided to move this feature over here.

A few warnings: IMG_20130727_163142

1. I am not an expert. Please tell me if I’m wrong. I frequently am. I’m honestly just learning about these things. I will provide better sources for information at the end of each post. If you’re doing a research paper, please go somewhere else.

2. Most of the photos will be taken with a camera phone. ’nuff said.

3. I will provide a little story about each of these species and how I found it. My interest is in getting people (and I include myself here) comfortable with nature, and cold, hard facts just don’t do that for me.

If those few warnings haven’t turned you away yet, then welcome! I hope you will stick around. Please engage with me. I love comments! Tell me about your experiences with these species. Send me your links? Let’s talk!

Roses are red. Violets are blue. Here is a flower that I never knew!  

It’s funny, and a little sad, how many things you miss if you’re not paying attention.

Until now, I was never really aware of these lovely little purple-blue flowers carpeting the forest floor in spring. As I was walking with my son through our neighbourhood greenbelt, I was struck by an absolutely beautiful fragrance. Looking around, I noticed that the only flowers around were these:


Common Blue Violets: Viola sororia (There are few versions of violets, but I think this is what these are. Please correct me if you know better.)

Got down on my hands and knees and…. yup, that was it. This is one of those rare times I wish we had smell-o-vision, or scratch and sniff screens, so I could share it with you. All I have is camera-phone photography to share. So, if you see these somewhere, get down low and inhale deeply. Worth it!

How did I not know about violets before? Well, that’s why I’m writing the species of the week.

They can be found in forests, fields and open areas, but like the shade. They have five rounded violet petals (in a group of 2 and a group of 3).

They’re popular in woodland gardens, so I’m thinking about adding some to my naturalized area. (They are known to invade lawns, but I’m not sure that would break my heart). They are native (thank goodness … it always makes me feel better when I come across a native species).

I see that they’re edible, but bland. Wouldn’t they make a pretty addition to a salad though?




Backyard Bullies

Today’s species of the week will focus on one of the more aggressive of my backyard visitors. Between these guys and the squirrels, it is amazing any other birds visit at all.

Today, I introduce to you…

The Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula)


From a distance, Grackles look like large blackbirds, but get a bit closer, and you can see a range of iridescent colours, typically in shades of blue and purple (usually on their heads). On a sunny day, they are quite striking. Sorry for the embarrassingly terrible phone photos.

Go to this page instead for amazing photography and some truly hilarious images: http://billhubick.com/photos/birds/common_grackle.php

Grackles dominate at birdfeeders, and often travel in flocks. In my yard, it is not uncommon to see a flock of them swarm the feeder, sending smaller birds fleeing for safety. They are common in suburban areas and city parks, as well as agricultural fields, open woodlands, and meadows. They may migrate a short distance south in winter, depending on location.

Here’s a fun fact:

The Grackle was Jim Henson’s favourite bird. I’m reading Jim Henson’s biography, and when I came across this particular nugget, I decided to choose this for a feature species. http://www.amazon.com/Jim-Henson-Brian-Jay-Jones/dp/0345526112

Here are a few (somewhat more educational) facts:

Their sounds have often been compared to rusty gates. Click here to see why: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Grackle/sounds

Grackles are the #1 threat to corn crops. Farmers use a variety of tactics, from scarecrows, to bad tasting chemicals to deter them.

This one is really cool: Grackles engage in something called “anting” where they expose themselves to the formic acid of ants or other substances (like citrus) in order to rid itself of certain parasites, fungi or bacteria. They have been known to rub their wings actively on anthills or invite ants to climb aboard.

Grackles are noisy and aggressive, and many people don’t like them at their feeders. If you belong to this crowd, there are types of feeders designed to discourage birds such as these. Look for feeders without large trays, with smaller perches and smaller openings.

But, I think they’re pretty.