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Science & NatureWhat is That?What is that ... Commoner?

What is that … Commoner?


Some of the animals we see at the cottage include the word ‘common’ in their non-scientific names.  Often we see these animals repeatedly or daily during cottage season and so, the name fits.

Take for example the common eastern bumblebee.  This is the one we learned as children to call simply a bumblebee.  But there are many species of bumblebee, a couple of which we also see occasionally at the cottage, for example, the tri-colored bumblebee and the northern amber bumblebee.  From a great distance (say two meters) our old eyes see them all as bumblebees, but once we open a photograph on our large, desktop computer screen, it is fairly easy to see the differences.  The beautiful common eastern bumblebee can be identified by the lack of yellow on the abdomen.  Only the one abdominal segment closest to the thorax is yellow, as well as the thorax itself; the rest of the abdomen is black.  This distinguishes the common eastern bumble bee from its  ‘cousins’, and shows well in the following photo. There is something about the fat, furry shape that makes us smile.

Another animal we often see at the cottage and which sports the name ‘common’ is the common whitetail dragonfly.  It is one of our favourites, perhaps because we see them throughout the summer starting as early as early June.  We know the dragonfly in the first photo below is a common whitetail female because of the six black blotches on the wings together with the white(ish) angled markings that run along the sides of her abdomen.  The second dragonfly photograph is of a mature male common whitetail showing the single dark blotch on each wing and the white abdomen from which the species takes its name.

One of our favourite birds at White Lake is the common yellowthroat warbler which we have seen as early as mid-May, throughout the summer, and into August.  This warbler appears to like skulking about the low bushes near or in the wet, marshy sections of the lake where they also build their nests.  The male common yellowthroat is famous, and easy to identify, for its distinctive, black, lone ranger-style mask.  The female we find much more difficult to identify as it comes in pale shades of yellow and brown perfect for staying hidden on the nest.

Some ‘common’ animals we love to see at the lake but observe infrequently.  For example, during spring migration from the southern States to northern Ontario, several species of waterfowl touch down on Three Mile Bay for only a brief respite.  One of these is the common goldeneye, a diving duck, named for its brilliant yellow iris.  It is a common summer resident further north, but not around our cottage.

We have also found that if an animal has been assigned the word ‘common’ in its non-scientific name it usually has ‘cousins’ of the same family.  For example, the common grackle, which is indeed common around the cottage, is only one of at least three species of grackle in North America.  The common grackle breeds throughout much of Ontario and other provinces, but winters elsewhere, southwestern Ontario and south to the Gulf of Mexico.  Grackles can be absolute pigs and ruffians at the feeders, but we love the iridescent blues and purples of their heads and shoulders which show so well in the sunshine.

We have some sympathy for the insights and sentiments expressed by Ogden Nash in his humorous verse about the grackle.

The grackle’s voice is less than mellow,
His heart is black, his eye is yellow,
He bullies more attractive birds
With hoodlum deeds and vulgar words,
And should a human interfere,
Attacks that human in the rear.
I cannot help but deem the grackle
An ornithological debacle.”

After all is said and done, the naming of animals as ‘common’ does not mean boring.  It is used as a shorthand for identifying species that consistently abound.

We have several wildlife guides.  For this article, we referred to Chris Earley’s Waterfowl of Eastern North America, as well as Colin Jones’ et al Field Guide to The Dragonflies and Damselflies of Algonquin Provincial Park.




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