Yellow-shafted Flying Mite Habitat

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Yesterday was that most unusual of spring days: sunny, more or less normal temperatures, little wind, and on a weekend. With little incentive other than to prep the garden and enjoy the landscape, we did little to add to our invertebrate faunal list. Being two-thirds the way through May, though, we also were able to appreciate the migrating mite habitats. We welcomed back the usual suspects, loons, red-necked grebes, red-winged blackbirds, yellow warblers, northern orioles, northern flickers, and the like. But we also picked up some new records: Blackpoll Warblers (migrants), a Tennessee Warbler (possible summer resident), and Swainson’s Thrush (probable summer resident – we think we heard the song one evening last summer). Today is cloudy and gloomy, and another cold front with rain is on its way, but yesterday was nice.

Biodiversity Update: It’s the little things that count

Smaller than a match-head, but big on biodiversity

In December 2010, our ‘biotic inventory’ of the Moose Pasture stood at 631 species: 531 arthropods, 16 other invertebrates, and 85 vertebrates. Just over a year later, the vertebrate numbers haven’t changed much – we are up to 88 species thanks to a few new bird records. But the invertebrates have increased by almost 50% to a grand total of 799. Of these, the vast majority are arthropods (780 species), mostly insects (474 species) and mites (246 species). So, we are taking a moment to celebrate our insects and mites. Although the relationship between the two often looks uncomfortable, they are the framework of biodiversity.

Phoretic mite clinging to mouthparts of Pegomya fly

There’s Moose In Them Thar Pastures

Alces alces and Other Ungulates

The purchase of a large piece of land, like the birth of a baby, demands a celebratory naming ritual. There is also a pragmatic side to naming property – if you own more than one place, you can’t intelligibly refer to both of them as ‘home’.  One of our neighbours has two acreages that he and his wife have named Snagwood and Truffle Farm (he’s a mycologist).  Taking his taxonomic lead, the first monikers we pondered for our own new real estate were mite oriented (“Arrenurus Acres”, “Hydrozetes Haven”, etc.), but these names seemed laboured and artificial.  Even we had a hard time saying them without feeling foolish.  One day, Dave was indulging his passion for noir by reading a 1965  Lawrence Block novel reprinted by Hard Case Crime books.  In “The Girl With the Long Green Heart“, a grifter named Johnny Hayden specialized in selling worthless real estate to wealthy Americans.  One of his potential patsies was leery of buying land sight unseen, as he had previously made a foolish purchase of a large acreage in northern Alberta based on a fabricated rumour of uranium.   And now he was stuck with “that tract of moose pasture up in Canada”.

Cover of Block's novel. Painting by Robert McGinnis. Plasticine moose by me.

Perfect!  And so Moose Pasture was christened.  I had thought the term to have been an invention of Block’s, but it was – and still is – commonly used to refer to muskeg proffered as mineral speculation (see http://www.kitco.com/ind/Dillon/aug042008.html, where you can also learn about “Big Boy Naked Shorting”).  According to the Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English,  the phrase was coined in the early 1960′s in reference to worthless or unproven mineral claims in western Canada, and later was extended to any sort of land swindle.   Although we don’t currently feel swindled, at the time of purchase there were times when we wondered whether we had done something financially stupid.

Moose Pasture was named so in the absence of either of us having seen moose there.  It seemed very likely that they inhabited the quarter section given that we had seen a few moose in the beaver ponds at nearby Snagwood.  In the winter of 2006-07 we found evidence of moose in the form of tracks and piles of pellets in the snow.  In the spring of 2007 we saw a cow and calf on the other side of the main ‘lake’, and in summer of that year observed a young male swimming across it.  Our photographic documentation was slim, though, until I purchased a motion and heat activated trail camera in 2009.

Trail-camera photo of a bull moose, 8 Sept 2009. Yes, I doctored the red-eye.

Based on these photos and other observations, we estimate that half a dozen moose regularly use the same areas of Moose Pasture that we do.  Although we have seen several females, almost all the trail-camera photos are of males – perhaps female moose are more wary of the smell of humans lingering on the apparatus?

Close encounter between young male moose and trail camera, 20 June 2010

According to Art Rodgers’ informative and beautifully illustrated book “Moose“, those that frequent our property belong to the Northwestern subspecies, Alces alces andersoni.  This is neither the largest nor the smallest of the North American subspecies, but is the most widespread, ranging from northern Michigan to the eastern Yukon.  For some reason, I had never considered Alberta to be a moose-friendly province, and thought of Ontario and Quebec to harbour the greatest numbers.  To my surprise, Rodgers lists Alberta’s count of approximately 118,000 moose  in 1997 as outnumbering that in Quebec and equaling Ontario’s population.   The huge tome on moose ecology and management edited by Franzmann & Schwartz (2nd edition) has less up-to-date statistics, but they support Rodgers’ numbers.  British Columbia wins the Canadian stakes with a count of 175,000, about the same as in Alaska.

Hypothesis: cow moose, most recent calf, and previous year's calf. Not a trail-camera photo for a change (18 April 2010).

Other than Alces alces, the only species of ungulate currently on Moose Pasture is Odocoileus virginianus, the white-tailed deer.  They have occasionally been captured by the trail camera.  White-tails have the broadest distribution of any cervid in the world, and the most named subspecies.  The ones at Moose Pasture belong to the widespread and large-bodied subspecies dacotensis.

Male white-tailed deer caught by the trail camera (11 July 2009).

Although Elk Island National Park, just next door to Moose Pasture, purportedly has mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus hemionus) (http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/ab/elkisland/activ/activ1/d.aspx), we haven’t seen any on our property.  Perhaps it is too brushy and boggy for this species.  Wapiti (Cervus elaphus canadensis) and plains and wood bison (Bison bison bison and B. b. athabascae) also live in Elk Island N.P., where they were stocked in the early 1900′s.  Although wapiti and plains bison probably occupied Moose Pasture before European arrival, they were hunted out of the region about a 100 years ago.   The high fence around Elk Island N.P. keeps these large non-saltatory ungulates inside.

There are no wapiti at Moose Pasture, especially not this one, because it's from Jasper.

This bull bison seems irritated. Good thing I was on the other side of the Elk Island N.P. fence.

Other wild ungulates in Alberta are unlikely to have occupied Moose Pasture even before the Europeans, as caribou and bighorn sheep have more montane and/or northerly ranges.  But one additional ungulate species that probably roamed Moose Pasture recently is Bos taurus, the domestic cow.  The previous owner of our quarter section, and three other contiguous ones, was a farmer.  Rumour has it that the last time he had cattle on is property was 40 years ago.   Since then the nearest cows have been on farms a few km to the north, where they are kept company by the brood parasitic brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater).  The cowbirds make it on to our land where I have seen their hulking offspring in the nests of tiny yellow warblers.  As much as one might dislike these parasites, they are native to the region, and even if there weren’t nearby cattle, the herds of bison in Elk Island N.P. would provide them with the bovine company they enjoy.

Cows, calves, and cowbirds a few km north of Moose Pasture.

To close this post, I’ll bring together the themes of mites, ungulates and parasites.  The abundant moose at Moose Pasture harbour even more abundant Dermacentor albipictus, the winter tick.  This ixodid can reach huge densities on their hosts, causing such irritation that the moose may rub off their guard hairs during the winter, and be left with nothing but their pale undercoat. Bill Samuel’s book “White as as Ghost…”  details the interesting and disquieting relationship between these big deer and their parasites.  This September as I was sitting in a lawn chair on the one cleared spot on Moose Pasture, I noticed a tickly sensation on my arm.  And my legs.  And inside my shirt. Appropriately named, because it was caused by a couple dozen larval Dermacentor albipictus.  None bit, probably because I don’t taste like a moose, but it was not my favourite acarine encounter at Moose Pasture.  The larvae ended up in ethanol, on slides, or run for COI in a colleague’s lab.  So there, ticks.  Don’t mess with acarologists.

Scanning electron micrograph of male Dermacentor albipictus. I do not like them.

References (excepting web references – see in text):

Block, L. 1965. The Girl With the Long Green Heart. Reprinted 2005 by HardCaseCrime.com

Franzmann, A.W. and C.C. Schwartz (editors). 2007. Ecology and Management of the North American Moose. 2nd edition.  University Press of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado.

Rodgers, A. 2001. Moose. Voyageur Press, Inc., Stillwater, Minnesota.

Samuel, B. 2004. White as a Ghost: Winter Ticks & Moose. Federation of Alberta Naturalists, Edmonton, Alberta.

Introduction to the Fauna of the Moose Pasture

Buffleheads resting on Dancing Elephant Lake

Although this is not the most active blog on the internet, behind the scenes things have been moving along at a reasonable pace. Our goal is to document the flora and fauna of our 160 acres, more or less, of more or less natural habitat in the Beaver Hills area of Alberta. We are now ready to post on our preliminary findings and first up is the fauna.

Beaver lodge and view south on Dancing Elephant Lake

This morning according to the always questionable and often unreliable Wikipedia ‘fauna’ means “all of the animal life of any particular region or time”. Time is especially important here: we mean at the end of 2010. Not 10,000 years ago when there was no fauna, just a kilometer or two of ice. Not 9,000 years ago when stagnant hunks of ice left by retreating glaciers were slowly giving birth to small lakes surrounded by mounds of rocks and gravel. Not in the middle of the last century when there were meadows and cattle – the cattle are long gone and the meadows gone for an undetermined number of decades thanks to the beavers. No, we are talking about a quarter section of kettles filled with marsh, ponds, and lakes; lake shores with a variety of grasses, herbs, and shrubs as far up as the beaver forage; and beyond the reach of the beavers, knobs covered with aspen forest with a few white birch and white spruce here and there.

Vertebrate animals of the Moose Pasture

I suppose since we have started talking about vertebrates, and most people tend to think of wildlife only in vertebrate terms, we might as well start there. As you can see from the table above, most Moose Pasture vertebrates are birds and since many people think of all invertebrates as ‘bugs’ we will consider all those afflicted with a backbone as ‘biridibrates’. We include ourselves within the 16 species of mammalian birdibrates – although we are just transients – but most of the rest live their lives at the Moose Pasture, or at least wander through on a regular basis (including about 5 moose).

Rana sylvatica - the wood frog, one of 3 known MP amphibians

We will undoubtedly discover more birdibrates as time goes on, e.g. skunk, mink, and meadow vole have yet to be seen. Some birdibrates, however, may never be seen. For example, although about 28% of the Moose Pasture is covered with water, we have yet to find any fish. There is a slight chance that the Brook Stickleback (Culaea inconstans) is present, we have had loons raise young on the lake, but we have been unable to trap any. But we may have one of Alberta’s 6 species of snakes: the Red-sided Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis). We saw one about a kilometer away, so it probably at least passes through.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a summer resident, leaving nest in aspen

Well, enough for the birdibrates for the moment. Birds and mammals are fine as far as they go, but they are far more boring than the other 87% of the fauna we have documented – the invertebrates. These are many and varied and take up most of our time and energy trying to document: with the exception of dragonflies and damselflies, butterflies, and lady beetles there are no useful field guides. That means hard yakka with tedious scientific publications or the far more entertaining (but less accurate) BugGuide.

Trigonarthris beetle & mite - we know more of MP mites than beetles

From the following tables you can see that although we are spreading out net wide, we have preferences. Arachnids are high on the list, but we are badly malingering on the spiders. Insects are getting less than their fare share too – and within the insects only the Odonata and Hymenoptera have been getting more than short shrift. However, it is a start, and future posts will deal with each of the groups – what we have found and what we have not. Then there is the flora too – a summary of which will be in the next posting.

Linopodes - one of at least 185 species of Moose Pasture mites

Arachnids - mites, spiders, opilionids & pseudoscorpions

A red velvet mite - one of the larger Acari

531 species of arthropods - of perhaps 6,000 or more

Clubiona riparia - one of the few MP spiders identified

Clubiona riparia with eggs in her nest of folded grass

There are many other invertebrates besides arthropods

Not our favourite invert, and no longer Nephelopsis, but still a leech

The Mania that Started It All

In 2005 I was consumed by the need to own land – land that wasn’t being developed at the rapid rate that will soon leave few natural areas anywhere near my home city of Edmonton.  My husband kindly entertained this madness by accomanying me on many fruitless trips north, west and south of Edmonton in search of this elusive property.  In the spring of 2006 we had given up – what land we could afford was too small and too close to subdivisions to satisfy my craving for a biologically diverse haven far from concrete and metastatic monster homes.  Then, astonishingly, in the spring of 2006 one of my colleagues told me that an an entire quarter-section (160 acres) of completely undeveloped land was coming up for sale at a price we might be able to afford.  After several months of bargaining and anxiously dashing between lawyers and real-estate agents, we took possession of the property in the early fall of 2006.  This blog tells the story of our subsequent and ongoing exploration of the plants, animals, fungi and even the prokaryotes that inhabit the big square of land that we call Moose Pasture.