The calendar holds no sway when it comes to spring in Alberta’s boreal forest—the March equinox often finds us still knee-deep in snow.
But late April, ah that’s a different matter.
The sun is higher, the days are warmer and deep in the treed shadows meltwater pools in the hollows.
Unlike the butterflies that are in short supply this summer twin flowers have appeared in great abandon, gracing the floor of our woods with delicate pink clusters among the rush of green. Like pixie caps. Or tiny bells.
In the shade of spruce and aspen, their tiny evergreen leaves wind through the cool dampness among the bunchberry, rotting logs and clumps of moss trailing colour in their wake.
Twin flower Linnaea borealis
Our woods are old. Many of the spruce have celebrated more than 150 summers. Poplar don’t live nearly that long and many now are showing their age, like this balsam poplar sprouting a hefty load of fungi.
Unlike the hard, woody bracket fungi that also grow on tree trunks, these gilled mushrooms are soft and fleshy. By the time these spore-producing parts appear, the inside of the tree is well-rotted — the mushroom “roots” (mycelia) have spread through the trunk, digesting the wood.
While the mushroom is feeding on the tree, insects begin feeding on the mushroom. Other insects feed on them. Cycles within cycles.
A wonderment of life in the woods.
Oyster mushroom (?) Pleurotus ostreatus
Our resident great gray owl showed up about suppertime the other day. To our surprise, instead of perching in a nearby tree or on the garden fence rail, he chose the ladder just outside our front window.
Great grays put to rest the idea that owls only appear at night. These owls are often seen during the day, especially morning and late afternoon. This one also seems to enjoy the sun. His regular roosts were in shade, the ladder in full sun. At times he seemed to be sunbathing, occasionally closing his eyes and drifting off to wherever owls go when they doze.
The facial disc — the largest of any raptor — funnels sound to the ears. Covered by feathers, the ears are asymmetrical — the left one is lower than the right. This unusual placement, together with the large facial disc, provides excellent directional hearing.
Great grays eat mainly mice and voles, though one particularly wet and soggy spring a young one sat in our garden eating worms.
They have excellent hearing. One source says: “Great gray owls can locate the sound of a moving mouse under snow 18 inches deep at a distance of 50 yards or more … .”
Owls have feathered feet which protects them during the long cold winters.
Each of the owl’s four toes is tipped with a long talon or claw. The outer front toe is able to swivel from front to back. When flying and sometimes when perching three toes point forward and one back. This owl sat with just two facing front.
Back on his regular perch in a nearby poplar, the great gray blends in well. The species name, nebulosa, means misty or foggy, probably referring to the feathers that help camouflage it.
Great gray owl Strix nebulosa
Deep in the woods this week I found a delightful sight — a single Calypso orchid in a bed of moss. This is only the second time I’ve found this little flower on our place and each time it has filled me with joy.
I saw my first-ever Calypso decades ago in Yoho National Park. Until then I assumed that all orchids were hot-house beauties, unable to withstand the rigours of outdoor life. They couldn’t possibly survive a Rocky Mountain winter. But survive they do.
Luckily, as one park staff person said at the time, they bloomed before most tourists arrived otherwise they would suffer at the hands of flower pickers. These little orchids are delicate — picking the flower is often enough to pull up the bulb-like corm and then the plant will most likely die. It doesn’t transplant well either as it depends on special fungi in the soil.
Calypso, named for the sea nymph in Homer’s Odyssey, is also known as Venus’s slipper and fairy slipper.
So far I’ve found 3 orchid species in the woods — last year it was pale coralroot and spotted coralroot. This year, Calypso.
Orchids in the woods? Wonderful!
Calypso Calypso bulbosa