Gatineau Park: Specialty Dragon-hunting

Zebra Clubtail

Gatineau Park is a special place for dragonflies – many species of the National Capital Region can be found there that aren’t found on the Ontario side of the Ottawa River, while others seem to be much more common there than in Ottawa. Chris Traynor has been exploring the park quite a bit these past couple of years, searching for dragonflies that breed in the quiet lakes, sluggish streams, and fast-flowing creeks of the Gatineau Hills. Not surprisingly, he has found a good number of species that have not been reported in Ottawa, such as Eastern Least Clubtail, Mustached Clubtail, Beaverpond and Harpoon Clubtails, and even a couple of snaketails. Many of these species prefer clear, swift-moving streams with rocky bottoms, which might be the reason for their absence in Ottawa; the Ontario side of the National Capital Region is relatively flat, with more marshes and slow-moving, mucky streams winding through suburbs and forest rather than down the foothills and escarpments which form the Canadian Shield. One of Chris’s best finds was a portion of Meech Creek where Zebra Clubtails and Fawn Darners are quite common, with the occasional Dragonhunter and Violet Dancer. I accompanied him twice to this magical spot, once during the August long weekend last year, and once again this year. As I never did get around to posting those photos last year (remember I mentioned I’d fallen behind?), I will incorporate both sets of photos in this post.

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A Green Comma in Stony Swamp

Green Comma (Old Quarry Trail, June 2019)

Once again I’m behind in my blogging – it seems once spring arrives, I end up with too many photos and too many stories I want to tell, and not enough time to do any actual blogging! I’m so far behind on my blog that I haven’t even finished all my posts from 2019 – so much for getting caught up over the winter, then during the early weeks of the pandemic – and I’m even behind on sorting my photos from last year.

I could try to write less and post more photos, but I don’t want this to turn into the type of blog that says “I went here and I saw this, and this and this”. I like to research a bit about the species I’ve photographed, and find something interesting to say about them. My feeling about nature photography is that a picture is rarely worth a thousand words; it shows one species or one scene in just one moment in time. It rarely says anything about that creature’s life cycle, its distribution, how common it is, whether its population is booming or declining, its relationship to other species, and any other “fun facts” that make that creature worth getting to know. This is why I stay away from social media sites that focus on pure photography and look for the ones that get into identification or discussion.
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Summer Bugs and Butterflies

Long Dash Skipper

The beginning of June is an exciting time as more and more insects start emerging from their winter dormancy. I had the second week of June off work, and with the COVID-19 pandemic putting an end to travel plans – we could not go to the Atlantic provinces without a mandatory 14-day isolation period upon arrival, and the Canada-U.S. border is still closed to non-essential travel – I planned to spend the week exploring trails near me and looking for birds and bugs close to home. My plan was to get out and see some new places, and hopefully find some new species, and the weather actually looked nice for the whole week – plenty of sun and no rain in the forecast.

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Counting Birds

Upland Sandpiper

Sometime in early 2020 I decided to put in the effort this year to see or hear 200 bird species in Ottawa this year, something I’ve failed to do since 2015 when I observed 210 species while working full-time. I also managed to observe 202 species in 2013 and 205 species in 2011. After 2015 my annual totals dropped to 182, 196, 166 and 177. This was probably about the time that I decided not to chase birds as much as I used to, as it’s not the most enjoyable aspect of birding for me. I prefer exploring new areas or old favourites, just to see what species breed or spend the summer there, or migrate through in the spring and fall. This meant I haven’t gone to see the Sandhill Cranes at Milton Road in the fall since 2015, the Snow Geese in the east end since 2015, or the grassland sparrow species (Vesper, Clay-colored and Grasshopper) at the airport since 2017. Sometimes I get lucky and find those species closer to home; individual Snow Geese are usually seen annually in the west end during spring and fall migration, while Clay-colored Sparrows were found at the Goulbourn sparrow field in 2017 before development ruined that area as a birding spot. Continue reading

Life in a Pond: Underwater Predators

Eastern Newt

On Saturday June 6th I spent some time at the Beaver Trail, mostly looking for birds and dragonflies. There weren’t as many odes flying as I had hoped, but I did catch both Spiny and Beaverpond Baskettails, and found a Belted Whiteface at the boardwalk. Taiga Bluets have emerged, and a Fragile Forktail at the boardwalk was my first of the year. I only found 23 species of birds, with both warblers and flycatchers well-represented; species included Eastern Wood-Pewee, Alder Flycatcher, Eastern Phoebe, Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, Black-and-white Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler (seen), and Black-throated Green Warbler. The only other species worth noting are Purple Finch and Virginia Rail.

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The Baskettails of Spring

Beaverpond Baskettail

In most years dragonfly season begins around the Victoria Day weekend (which always falls on the third Monday of May). I remember visiting Mud Lake on the long weekend in years past and seeing up to a hundred of freshly emerged dragonflies perching in the trees there. However, in the last few years it seems that dragonfly season has started later than normal – the long-lingering cooler spring weather has played a large part in this, as emergence depends chiefly on the temperature of the water the dragonfly nymphs are living in. By the second weekend of May I’d go out eagerly hoping to see the first dragonflies of the year, and by the end of May I’d still be looking for them. Even when I eventually found some, such as last year, numbers would be low, and it would take time for the season to get back on track. Numbers remained low in Ottawa all summer last year for some reason, though we think that the unprecedented spring flooding might have been the cause, either washing away the small nymphs or dumping unhealthy amounts of debris, sediment, and chemical-laden runoff in areas where they breed.

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Adventure in Dunrobin

Snowshoe Hare

On June 5th I headed out to Dunrobin to spend some time looking for odes and birds. My first stop was the Crazy Horse Trail on March Road at the end of Huntmar Road. This is a relatively new pedestrian-only trail for hikers, skiers, and snowshoers that was developed by the Friends of the Carp Hills under an agreement with the City of Ottawa. It is named for an old tavern that used to stand adjacent to the trailhead but has long since been demolished. The goal of the trail is to provide recreational access to the the Carp Hills on City-owned property while keeping impact on the environment to a minimum. The trail is narrow, and as there is no intention to groom or widen the trail, people are asked to respect the natural areas by staying on the trail, keeping dogs under control at all times (which means using a leash if necessary), leaving no waste, and respecting property boundaries. There are some rough, volunteer-built boardwalks in places too wet to cross which adds to its charm. In fact, all trail maintenance and improvement depends on volunteers, rather than the City, which makes it doubly important to respect the work they have done in creating this trail.
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Spring at the Richmond Lagoons

Sora

The Richmond Sewage Lagoons (formally known as the Richmond Conservation Area) is one of the few places in Ottawa that did not close its parking lots during the COVID-19 pandemic, and as such, it is one of the few birding spots I visited regularly during the months of April and May. The habitat is unique: there are three cells left from the former sewage lagoons, each containing its own mini-ecosystem. The first cell as one approaches from the parking lot on Eagleson (the southernmost cell), has deep water and extensive cattails, making it great for Pied-billed Grebes, rails, bitterns, Swamp Sparrows and waterfowl, mainly geese and dabbling ducks. The middle cell has deeper water and very little cattails, making it a better spot to see diving ducks. The third cell used to be almost entirely choked with cattails interspersed with small patches of open water, making it the best spot to watch and listen for rails. This spring when I arrived on my first visit I was dismayed to see that not only had the cattails been chopped down, but so had some of the tall trees bordering the cell. The cell looked like a soup of water and what was left of the churned up marsh bottom and vegetation, although a deep puddle ringed with a few cattails remained.
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Snippets from Migration

Common Yellowthroat

Migration has been strange this year. Because of the lengthy cold spell at the beginning of May it seemed as if migration had stalled; for so long I felt as though I were waiting for it to begin, then things happened so quickly that now I wonder whether it has passed me by. The White-crowned Sparrows that usually show up in my backyard every year between May 3rd and 5th didn’t arrive until the 14th; the Common Terns that arrive at the Eagleson Ponds between May 10th and May 14th didn’t arrive until May 19th. Neither species stayed long, either. The terns were only there for one day before moving on, instead of spending two or three days. It is harder to know if the White-crowned Sparrow I saw over the course of a few days was the same one or a different one, as many have been singing in our area in the middle of the month.

The warblers came, and the warblers went. I’ve had several Black-throated Blue Warblers this year, and many repeat sightings of local breeding species – but of the ones that only pass through, I’ve sometimes only been lucky to get one: one Cape May Warbler, one Blackburnian Warbler, one Tennessee Warbler, one Bay-breasted Warbler. Again, is this a reflection of my spending time mainly in Kanata south, rather than heading for the migrant traps along the river? There have been excellent reports from the usual spots (Mud Lake, Andrew Haydon Park), but even as the city parks reopened on May 6th and the NCC parking lots reopened on May 22nd as a result of declining Covid-19 cases in the city, I’ve been reluctant to go to the normal spring hotspots to avoid the crowds that tend to gather there, both birding and non-birding alike. This has less to do with any fear of the coronavirus than my preference for quiet birding experiences, away from the loud chatter and narrow, crowded trails that both increase exponentially as the spring wears on and weather warms up.

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Early Spring Wildflowers

Canada Violet

Spring not brings the birds and butterflies back to the Great White North, it also brings wildflowers, the earliest of which are known as spring ephemerals. These perennial woodland wildflowers grow early each spring, quickly blooming and producing seed before the deciduous trees leaf out and prevent the sunlight from reaching the forest floor. Once these wildlflowers have gone to seed, the leaves and stems above ground often wither and die off, leaving only the underground structures (including the roots, rhizomes, and bulbs) alive during the remainder of the year. This strategy allows many different plants to thrive in deciduous forests by taking advantage of the early spring sunlight prior to the development of the tree canopy.
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