Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Gardening reminder:

For all the gardeners out there, don't forget that the Garden Club will be holding its fall Perennial Plant Exchange at the Nature Centre on Saturday, 10 September 2005 this year. From 1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. you can take home one new plant for every two you bring in. For those who are interested in buying without exchanging, open sales go after 2:00 p.m.

If you are planning to bring plants in, remember to make sure they are well potted and labelled. Also, please inform the Garden Club members when you drop off your plants if your yard has problems such as dew worms.

I'll leave you with a look at a Grass Spider (Agelena naevia... or Agelenopsis, depending on the source you check) I saw in the Sanctuary the other day. Grass Spiders are funnel web weavers. They make trampoline-like webs that end with a funnel-shaped opening. The spider waits in the funnel's hole, and when it feels the vibration of an insect on the web it races up and grabs it. As the name implies, Grass Spiders are usually found in grassy fields but can also be seen in hedges and other vegetation occasionally.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Hmmm. Stinky?

Those of you who have been out for a walk to the deck on the West Lake lately have probably noticed a bit of an odd, sweatsock-like smell in the air. The culprit, believe it or not, is a ripening berry.

Low Bush-Cranberry (Viburnum edule), pictured here, and to a lesser extent its cousin High Bush-Cranberry (Viburnum opulus) (below) have a sneaky way of spreading their seeds. As the berries ripen they give off a scent resembling old meat. This attracts scavenging animals, which eat the smelly berries. Sounds weird so far, but it makes sense when you know that the seed inside each berry is tough enough to make it through an animal's digestive system without being destroyed. By the time the seed finally hits the ground it's likely been spread far from the parent plant, and as a bonus it's been planted in a bit of... fertilizer for good measure.

Bush-cranberries, whose berries are edible (if acidic) and make a pretty good preserve, can be identified by their three-lobed leaves (shallow lobes on Low Bush-Cranberry; deeper lobes on High Bush-Cranberry). Low Bush-Cranberry often grows in moist thickets and wetland margins. High Bush-Cranberry can be found bordering poplar stands and in river valleys.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Seen in the Sanctuary:

Wasps, flies, and a few other flower-dependent insects are busy in the Canada Goldenrod. Seems early to say this, but the late season flowers tell me that autumn is already creeping in on us.

Friday, August 26, 2005

A Note About Wasps

Yes, there does appear to be a greater number of wasps (yellow jackets) around this year than in past years. They are easily identifiable by their bright yellow and black striped abdomen. Here is a picture from the Royal Alberta Museum bug room.

Having received a sting on the lip this summer, I can assure you that it will hurt. For most people who don't have an immediate serious reaction, a rapid application of ice to the sting site should take down swelling and pain.

When children get stung - as my fifteen month old did last night - do not apply ice directly to fingertips or toes. Hold a cool, moist cloth on the sting site or put a toy in the bottom of a bowl of cool water and encourage the child to play with it. Ice on infant and toddler fingertips and toes can quickly lead to frostbite.

If you plan on being outside and want to limit your exposure to these insects, the best thing you can do is try to lure them away from you. My wasp lure is a mixture of stale beer, fruit punch and flat soda pop. Mix about a cup's worth and pour it into an empty 4 litre milk jug. Place the jug away from you. The wasps, attracted to the sweet mix, fly in and then due to the smooth walls and narrow top, cannot escape. Last weekend we counted 12 dead wasps in the jug in under two hours. I should point out that while they are annoying, yellow jackets do fill an ecological niche by scavenging dead insects and preying on other insects that people consider to be pests. Yes, even the nasty yellow jacket has a benefit to you. For this reason I'd strongly encourage you to use these lures on a limited basis and only when you are eating and drinking in problem areas.

Another interesting idea is to inflate a lunch-sized, paper bag and seal the top with string. Hang it near you. Supposedly it resembles a nest well enough that the yellow jackets leave it alone. I have not tried this and cannot attest to its effectiveness. If you want to try it out, drop us a line and let us know how it worked.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Bug facts

Those of you with questions about some of the common insects and spiders you find around your homes will probably find the Royal Alberta Museum's Bug FAQ pages an interesting read. They're full of great information, and it's Alberta-local.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

West Gaetz Lake, last Friday afternoon

Considering our lovely weather today, I thought it might be nice to remind everyone that we did have sunshine for one or two days last week...

The interesting thing to me about this picture is that if I'd been standing there a few centuries or so earlier, I'd have been standing in the middle of the Red Deer River.

The Gaetz Lakes are remnants of an old bend of the river that was abandoned when the river cut its present channel. Oxbow lakes, as these remnants are called, usually dry up over time, but the springs coming out of Michener Hill have kept the Gaetz Lakes going for a while longer than they might have otherwise.

Shallow oxbow lakes create perfect nesting habitat for large numbers of water birds, and the Gaetz Lakes are the reason why the Sanctuary become Alberta's first federal migratory waterfowl sanctuary back in 1924.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005


I found myself doing some casual grazing on the weekend. You see, we're heading into nut season in Central Alberta. Yes, we do have naturally occurring nut trees (or shrubs, rather) here, although they seem to be a bit of a surprise even to long-time residents of the area.

Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta) is a fairly common understory plant in the Aspen Parkland, but it's more common slightly north of us than it is here in Red Deer. It grows one to three metres tall and has elliptic, toothed leaves (click on the photo to make it bigger) that may remind you of an alder. Hazelnut leaves tend to be slightly larger than those of the alder, though (4 - 10 cm).

I'd guess that one of the reasons Beaked Hazelnut isn't better known is that the nuts aren't in plain sight.

The fruits grow in pairs (though often, as here, one of the pair doesn't fully develop) and hide in long, beaky-looking bracts that give the plant its common name. These bracts are covered in small, prickly hairs, and that can make collecting the nuts a bit of a challenge. You might want to wear gloves if you have sensitive skin.

Once you strip off the bract you find that the actual nut looks very much like the familiar Christmas hazelnut.

It's a fair bit smaller than its cousin, as you can see here, but every bit as edible. It's possible to roast wild hazelnuts, but I prefer to snack as I go. The thin shells are easily cracked, and the small kernel is pretty tasty.

You can tell by the still-green bracts in the pictures that the hazelnuts aren't quite fully ripe yet. The main problem with collecting wild hazelnuts is that it gets much harder to find them as they ripen. The covering bracts turn brown like dead leaves, and when the nuts fall off the bush they become almost invisible on the forest floor.

The other reason that ripe nuts are hard to find is that they're a favourite food of many birds and rodents. It can be hard to get much of a supply when you're trying to compete with the Blue Jays and the Red Squirrels.

As always, when looking for wild foods be sure the area you're collecting in hasn't been treated with pesticides or other chemicals. Never collect in protected areas, and never eat anything unless you're absolutely sure you've identified it correctly.

Happy grazing!

Monday, August 22, 2005

Seen in the Sanctuary:

I caught a good look at this dragonfly as it sunned itself on a wild rose bush on Friday. Since I don't know much about dragonflies beyond telling the difference between them and damselflies, any guess at its species would be a completely blind stab. Anyone with more accurate knowledge is welcome to identify it for me by using the comments link below this post.

I could have wished for the sake of the photo that it had been blue or brown rather than yellow (it blends in with the background a bit too well), but you take what you see in front of you at the time. Sometimes nature just doesn't see fit to cooperate!

Incidentally, did you know that dragonflies spend a large part of their life cycles in water? We find the nymphs or naiads quite often when we do pond studies in the spring.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

'Tis the season

For spider questions, that is. Many of the female spiders are becoming larger and more obvious as they prepare to lay eggs, and this leads to an increase in spider calls to the nature centre.

We usually get the most calls about this particular species. It's a Jewel Spider or Jewelled Araneus (Araneus gemmoides), and it's one of the biggest spiders in Alberta. The abdomen of a female can easily be as large as the tip of your thumb.

Jewel Spiders are most easily identified by their size and the two large bumps on the top of the abdomen. They're sometimes known as Cat Spiders, since some people see the image of a cat's face in the abdomen's patterns.

Jewel Spiders are in the orb weaver group, which means they build a classic flat web. The webs are often found in areas that get evening light, like a porch or window frame. Moths and other insects attracted to the light end up getting trapped in the orb web. A pretty neat hunting trick.

If you find a Jewel Spider on or near your home, the most important thing to remember is that they're actually quite harmless to humans. In fact, they're fairly shy and will do their best to retreat as long as they're given the opportunity. When you stop to think about it, spiders like this are doing us a service by keeping the local insect population in check.

For more information on this and other local spider species, look for Marianne and the Kerry Wood Nature Centre's display at the flower show at Parkland Nurseries on Saturday, 20 August 2005.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Oh. Deer!

So long as we're introducing ourselves, hello. My name is Todd. I'm the Programs Coordinator for the Waskasoo Park Interpretive Program. It's been an exciting summer around here with day camps, summer programs, a new Executive Director and some upcoming intiatives that have been keeping us quite busy.

Some days, nature decides to be spectacular:

No sooner do I finish mentioning to a lovely couple from England, that while there has been a female White-tailed deer with fawns in the Sanctuary but they've been pretty secretive than the husband says "Is that them?"

I look over my shoulder and out the window and the mother is not ten feet from our dogwood bushes.

It was a bright moment in an otherwise grey, drizzly day.

Welcome to the Nature Centre's staff blog

Hi and welcome to the blog, everyone. We hope to use this space to keep you up to date on current sightings in the Gaetz Lakes Sanctuary as well as upcoming programs at the Kerry Wood Nature Centre and Historic Fort Normandeau.

For those who might be unfamiliar with the format of a blog (short for weblog), you'll always find the most current entry at the top of the page. Earlier entries will stay on the main page for a short while, but if you're looking for something that seems to have gone missing try using the archives links to your right.

This blog will be developing bit by bit over the next couple of weeks. Check back often for updates or new features.

I'd expect that our contributors will each introduce themselves as they come online, but since I'm first we'll start with me. I'm the Senior Interpreter for the Waskasoo Park Interpretive Program. You'll usually find me working with school and youth groups, answering natural history questions, or leading public programs. For more on my background check out the staff profile link on the Waskasoo Park home page.

I'll leave you with a look at what is likely a leftover from the Painted Lady Butterfly invasion we had earlier in the year. This little guy probably won't make it through an Alberta winter, though. Click on the picture to make it larger.

See you around the blog!