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Science & NatureWhat is That?What Is That… White-speckled Beast?

What Is That… White-speckled Beast?


Bruce chuckled as he was taking down our white Christmas lights at home.  Perhaps the falling snowflakes had prompted his thoughts to flash ahead to warmer weather and the white-speckled beasties he hoped to see at the cottage.  Our white Christmas lights are entirely for show, but with respect to our cottage beasties some are for show, some for camouflage.

Starting with some of the showy beasties, the first that comes to mind is the Monarch butterfly.  The white speckles and orange and black colouring on this, one of the largest butterflies in Ontario, indicate to would-be predators that this butterfly tastes bad and is poisonous.  The caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed and concentrate cardiac glycosides in their tissues from eating these leaves.  These heart poisons remain in the tissues of the adult monarchs and the birds seem to know it, affording monarch butterflies protection from predation by birds.  We saw numerous monarchs and their caterpillars this past summer including this butterfly in July 2017.

Another showy insect is the female ebony jewelwing damselfly.  The ebony jewelwing has a dark body and black wings, but the females also have a white, multi-celled pseudostigma (spot) near the tip of each wing.  These white specks on the black wings aid the males in their visual search for mates.  Following copulation the female returns to the male’s territory where she lays her eggs on submergent vegetation and is then guarded by the male.  We photographed this female in August 2017.

Three birds whose white speckles camouflage them immediately come to mind … the common loon, the ruffed grouse, and the yellow-bellied sapsucker.

The plumage on the back of Canada’s iconic common loon is black with white speckles.  The slim silhouette of these low-floating birds and their speckled colouration makes it difficult to see them on days when it is bright and there is a slight breeze causing reflections off the choppy surface lake waters.  Loons seem to know this and make their presence known flapping their wings and/or yodelling when curious or inattentive boaters get too close.  Unfortunately this strategy sometimes proves inadequate for loud, fast moving boats.   This adult was pictured in July.

The ruffed grouse is a brown-coloured bird with white and black speckles and a distinctive black band or “ruff” on the shoulder at the base of the neck; it also has a dark tail band.  These medium-sized game birds, weighing up to 580 grams, are mostly ground dwellers in deciduous forests.  Year-round residents at Three Mile Bay, they are usually solitary, feeding on seeds and tree buds.  We regularly hear males “drumming” their wings against their bodies in the spring to attract females.  Occasionally while out walking, we are startled by one when it bursts with an explosion of flapping wings from its roost in the dense underbrush.  The colouration of these birds provides them such excellent camouflage we hardly see them until they flush from their roosts, inducing near heart attacks in unsuspecting walkers.  Fortunately this bird landed in a nearby tree allowing us to get a picture.

Both the male and female yellow-bellied sapsucker have black backs and wings with white speckles.  They also have a broad white stripe across the upper coverts of their wings.  We most often find these medium-sized woodpeckers on birch and poplar trees where their plumage blends in well with the bark on the tree bark.  Sapsuckers quietly drill parallel rows of shallow holes in the tree bark to feed on sap and on various insects attracted to the sap.  We manage to spot these birds by listening for their irregular drumming sounds as they drill sap holes.  We look for the red head of the female or the red head and throat of the male.  This picture of a male was taken in July 2017.

The last beastie in this article is the whitetail deer fawn whose white spots help camouflage these youngsters during the first months of their lives.  The doe gives birth from late May to early June after a six to seven month gestation period.  While fawns can stand and suckle shortly after birth they spend most of their first month lying under the cover of dense vegetation while the doe is off foraging.  The white spots blend in amazingly well with the dappled shade of the dense vegetation.  The fawns gradually lose their white spots over the summer and their coats become solid brown when their winter coats grow in. This fawn was photographed in July.

It is interesting that nature can use the same type of colouration for different purposes, so some wildlife is more noticeable and others less so.

We relied on the following field guides for information provided in this article: D. Paulson’s Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East ; Peter W. Hall et al Butterflies of Ontario;  David Sibley’s The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America;  Murray Speirs’ Birds of Ontario; and, Tamara Elder’s Mammals of Ontario.


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