Fungi fundamentals: the truth about mushrooms

Fungi have great names – turkey tail, pigskin poison, honey mushroom – and come in all shapes and sizes

Fungi fundamentals: the truth about mushroomsMy local nature club recently hosted a mushroom walk. No, that’s not where you take your pet mushroom for a walk. We visited some trails in central Ontario looking for different types of mushrooms, poisonous and edible. We weren’t foraging so we left the woods as we found them, although many others go to local…

Want to enjoy wildlife? Here’s how to do it safely

Don’t be afraid to enjoy nature – just do it on their terms and with their survival in mind

Want to enjoy wildlife? Here’s how to do it safelyWith COVID-19 an overriding part of our lives, many folks have begun to see and appreciate nature like never before. Whenever we encounter nature, and while our actions may seem harmless, they might be dangerous to wildlife. Wildlife can be negatively impacted by what we do and how we do it. Having studied wildlife most…

Climate questions that make me pause

I bought some hardware items the other day. The plastic wrapping outweighed the things I was buying

Climate questions that make me pauseA few columns ago I started a dialogue about climate issues and how we could, and should, react to them. I become more confused than enlightened as I strive to learn more about the issue and the proposed solutions. I have a few questions that trouble me: If we should reduce our dependence on fossil…

Is there a good side to forest fires?

Fires are a form of selective harvest

Is there a good side to forest fires?The media is abuzz with the devastating wildfires in western and central Canada and across parts of Europe. Tens of thousands of hectares and countless lives and families have been impacted. As you read on, please don’t think for a moment that I’m uncaring for those affected. But is there an upside to these fires…

When it gets cold, where do all the bugs go?

Insects reduce their functions so only essential processes work: respiration and waste elimination

When it gets cold, where do all the bugs go?I know it’s still summer but soon it will get colder and things will be radically different. Sometimes I wonder where all the bugs go in the winter. Seems a bit silly but they’re out there somewhere all winter – at least most of them. But where are they? Insects and their allies (e.g. spiders,…

My close and unforgettable encounters with wolves

The wolf came within 25 metres and stared at me as if looking through me, then trotted back into the bush, satisfied that I was neither tasty nor a threat

My close and unforgettable encounters with wolvesThe eastern grey wolf is a mysterious animal that evokes different emotions in us. How you react comes down to how much time you’ve spent with them or, more importantly, how much time you’ve taken to learn something about them. I’ve always revered them, having had several close encounters over the years. Each has left…

The nasty ways insects inflict damage on humans

Only the female mosquito seeks a blood meal. She needs to penetrate the skin of warm-blooded mammals to get her meals

The nasty ways insects inflict damage on humansAs a naturalist, I wonder about things – sometimes obvious things, sometimes odd things but always interesting things. Today’s thought surrounds interactions with insects, their kin and other critters that on occasion negatively interact with us. People often claim to have been bitten by an insect. “That mosquito just bit me!” But did it? Or…

Gypsy moths have invaded North America. What can we do?

Insects are already in serious decline throughout the world, so killing insects for the sake of killing them seems ill-advised

Gypsy moths have invaded North America. What can we do?This seems to be a good year for gypsy moths and a bad one for people who love trees. Have you never seen a gypsy moth? This might be the best time to find them. Look for a light to dark brown, medium-sized moth flying in a seemingly erratic way. These are the males. They’re…

Is your cat outside killing wildlife right now?

Cats have contributed to the extinction of 33 species worldwide

Is your cat outside killing wildlife right now?What a lovely sight! Look at Patches as she heads out for her morning jaunt in the fields near her home. How cute is she as she tiptoes through the dew-drenched grass, trying her best to keep her paws dry? Millions of cats do exactly this every day, and the outcome is always devastating for…

Your pet may not be safe in the great outdoors

As we encroach on wild places, wild animals will see our pets as a food source

Your pet may not be safe in the great outdoorsOur pets are such an important part of our lives – loyal and forgiving – but there’s danger out there, even in your garden! Lots of things are trying to eat, infect or nibble on pets. It’s not possible to list everything that might hurt your pet in this column, but here are a few…

The elegant and essential cones of coniferous trees

Many birds explore the nooks and crannies of these seed-bearing pods as they try to pry the seeds loose or find minute insects

The elegant and essential cones of coniferous treesAs we welcome spring, we see the remnants of pine and spruce cones previously covered by snow. Few of us think about how important these cones are to the floral and faunal communities – as food and to ensure the next generation of trees is born. Many species of coniferous trees produce cones – pines,…

How we can keep birds from crashing into windows and dying

Bird Safe Buildings Across Canada and other organizations are working hard to encourage building owners to take bird-saving measures

How we can keep birds from crashing into windows and dyingEver since European settlers occupied North America, our influences on avian populations have varied between positive and devastatingly negative. I would love to just write about the good stuff, but an important issue needs to be discussed: windows and how they can be deadly to birds. A new grassroots organization has been founded by a…

Why birds sing before winter weather breaks

Many species court and breed in the dead of winter

Why birds sing before winter weather breaksWe may sometimes feel as if we’re still locked in the dead of winter, but to birds, mammals, insects and even plants, things are changing. Faithful readers will recall how I recently explained that my trees were getting ‘fat,’ as the buds enlarge in anticipation of spring. But they’re not alone in their rush towards…

Differentiating truth from myth about snowflakes

Marvel at these seemingly simple structures that rely on all the forces of nature for their beauty

Differentiating truth from myth about snowflakesAs I grow older, I like the cold less and less. I still love winter, but I wish it was warmer – wait, isn’t that summer? My favourite part of winter is when it snows – I never cease to marvel at the tiny flakes drifting down to earth, covering everything in a white blanket.…

Are owls wise, all-seeing and good luck – or harbingers of calamity?

One superstition about owls had it that making a potion from the ash of owl eggs improved vision

Are owls wise, all-seeing and good luck – or harbingers of calamity?Folklore abounds with superstition related to owls. I thought it might be fun to share some superstitions I’ve gleaned about owls, since this is the best time of year to see them. These nocturnal creatures often appear in horror films since tufts of feathers on the top of some owls’ heads give them the appearance…

Strange weather, stranger words to describe it

In the odds and sods category, hunch weather is windy and drizzly, so much so that one has to hunch over just to walk

Strange weather, stranger words to describe itYou’ll recall I talked last column about some unusual words to describe weather phenomena. I thought I could share some more I’ve discovered. Storm chasers will know that derechos are winds that strike in straight lines and often accompany thunderstorms. The damage they cause is from a downdraft where the winds rush toward the ground,…

Strange weather and the words we use to describe it

Some arise from folklore, some carry historical inferences and others are the result of superstition

Strange weather and the words we use to describe itThe media has created some of its own climate words and sometimes uses superlatives somewhat carelessly – worst storm ever, highest rainfall ever, greatest flood ever. And what the heck is a polar vortex? A Washington Post readers’ poll coined the word snowmageddon but it has no meaning in meteorological terms. Yet it’s used by…

Do reptiles and amphibians actually hibernate during winter?

No. Instead, they go through brumation and remain mostly conscious and are sometimes even active

Do reptiles and amphibians actually hibernate during winter?Man, it’s cold out there! I wonder where the snakes and turtles are? They can’t migrate so they must be here somewhere. Reptiles such as turtles, lizards and snakes, like so many other animals, have to survive our cold, long winters. Generally, they go underwater or underground and hibernate … or do they? They do…

Bird bullies are just protecting their resources

Sometimes we see smaller birds apparently bullying larger birds of prey. Here is why

Bird bullies are just protecting their resourcesWhen birds bully others of their own or other species, there are no malevolent feelings involved as is often the case with humans. Bullying is defined as “using superior strength or influence to intimidate, typically by force.” In essence, this is exactly what happens in nature on a very regular basis. Protection or retention of…

Get those bird feeders up and enjoy the show

Here are some tips so the birds – and those who enjoy watching birds – get the most out of your feeders

Get those bird feeders up and enjoy the showThe last few days have been really exciting bird-wise as hawks, ducks, geese, loons and many small passerines (e.g. kinglets, sparrows and finches) are on the move. Winter is here whether we like it or not and those hardy northern birds have decided it’s time to migrate. North winds and cool nights have caused an…

Why Christmas bird counts matter

Why Christmas bird counts matterIn the latter part of the 19th century, sportsmen would gather to take part in annual winter bird hunts called “side hunts.” Everything they saw was shot, regardless of whether it was edible or rare. This was a popular pastime and undoubtedly contributed to significant avian declines during the period. Frank Chapman, author of Handbook…

Interpreting daytime skies

Sky watching isn’t as simple as looking at fluffy clouds

Interpreting daytime skiesWatching the night sky has always fascinated people but daytime skies can be just as interesting. In July, I travelled to Nunavut as a ship naturalist on an expedition to northern Canada. I had the rare opportunity to explore parts of Baffin Island and Ungava Bay that few get to see. While I saw wonderful…

How trees produce spectacular autumn colours

The intensity of the colours is related to weather conditions before and during the time the chlorophyll in the leaves is declining

How trees produce spectacular autumn coloursWe’re fortunate to live in a place and a climate where our four seasons are distinct. Enough natural foliage persists for us to see and admire broad palettes of colour in September, October and even early November. Although foreshadowing the onset of winter, hues of orange, red, yellow and brown intermingle with shades of green.…

Iqaluit and beyond, through snow and ice

Everyone was on high alert, and while the crew sailed and fretted, we watched the parading wildlife

Iqaluit and beyond, through snow and iceI left you last time off the coast of Baffin Island, where we shared the shore with polar bears and followed the tracks of early explorers. Let’s see what happened next on my 20-day journey northward. Nunavut was separated from the Northwest Territories in 1999, as a result of the enactment of the Nunavut Act…

The polar bears were the showstoppers

The polar bears were the showstoppersI left you in Hebron, Newfoundland and Labrador, where an eye-opening tale from the past brought home that the stability of home and property we enjoy hasn’t always been a reality for northern people. From Hebron, we travelled ever northward to a place I’ve never been before – Torngat Mountains National Park. This vast expanse…

Sailing ever northward in search of wildlife, culture and history

Venturing to rarely-visited sites along the Newfoundland and Labrador coast on the way north

Sailing ever northward in search of wildlife, culture and historyI get to travel to some great places as an expedition guide. A few months ago (pre-COVID-19), I travelled to parts of Canada I had never seen before and filled in gaps on my lifelong adventures in Canada’s remotest reaches. I thought I’d share some insights about Canada’s northern regions as we celebrate Canada’s 150-plus…

Survival of the fittest, from a very young age

Some orphaned babies are unlikely to survive if very young but others can fend for themselves at an early age

Survival of the fittest, from a very young ageI was working on a breeding bird survey recently and encountered a scene that was both moving and shocking. Huddled in the short grass on the shoulder of the road was a baby raccoon, only days old, snuggled up beside its mother. At first I thought the scene was a Disney moment – one of…

Crickets, grasshoppers, songs and heatwaves

Grasshoppers existed long before dinosaurs. And crickets are eaten, reviled and revered around the world

Crickets, grasshoppers, songs and heatwavesFolklore widely claims that you can tell the temperature simply by listening to how fast crickets ‘sing.’ Is that really true? Read on and I’ll share the truth by the end of this column. But first, let’s learn something about these little guys and their buddies. Crickets are related to grasshoppers and resemble them a…

Jewelweed is a jewel of a weed

Herbalists have long espoused the benefits of jewelweed, primarily as a remedy for the treatment of poison ivy and poison oak rashes

Jewelweed is a jewel of a weedIn many areas of the country grows a little plant that has remarkable medicinal qualities: jewelweed. In my last column, I wrote about my encounter with poison ivy and the discomfort my carelessness caused me. Now I want to share more of the story. Natural medicines are well-known and much studied, here and abroad. Jewelweed…