Identifying the Small Baskettails of Ottawa

Common Baskettail

Common Baskettail

On May 14th I wrote about a mass emergence of Spiny Baskettails at Mud Lake but didn’t explain much about how I identified them except to say my identification was based on the shape of the male claspers. Emerging dragonflies are pale and translucent, showing little to no colour of the mature adults they will become, but fortunately identification of the three small baskettail species in Ottawa does not depend the pattern of colours on its body (a fourth species, the Prince Baskettail, is much larger and has distinctive black spots at the base, tip and center of its wings). This post provides more detail about how to distinguish between the Common Baskettail, the Spiny Baskettail, and the Beaverpond Baskettail, three similar-looking species of the emerald family. While they are most likely to be found patrolling sunny woodland openings or grassy spaces next to water, they often perch on tree branches and plant stems at an angle, allowing good views or photographs.

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Emergence of Spring Butterflies and Mustard Whites

Eastern Pine Elfin

Eastern Pine Elfin

So far it’s been a strange spring. It took a long time to warm up to 0°C and then a while longer to warm up to double digits. Early April was cold and very windy; it didn’t get consistently above 10°C until April 21, but even then it was too gusty in the afternoons to go looking for butterflies. My first butterfly of the year was a Mourning Cloak seen on April 5th at the Rideau Trail on Old Richmond Road. It was a beautiful day of 13°C, and I figured I had a good chance of seeing my first butterflies of the year there….though it was a toss-up as to whether it would be a Mourning Cloak or an Eastern Comma, both of which hibernate as adults in woodlots. While I saw a few more Mourning Cloak in mid-April, butterfly season didn’t really start until the second last day of the month.

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Mass Emergence: Spiny Baskettails

Spiny Baskettail emergence

By May 14th Ottawa had seen a string of six days with temperatures above 20°C, with the last three above 30°C. The warmth signaled the beginning of ode season, with my first dragonflies of the season – both Common Green Darners – seen at the Richmond Conservation Area (May 10) and Sarsaparilla Trail (May 11, 2022). Common Green Darners are migrants, however, arriving on the warm winds flowing from further south. The true ode season begins once it is warm enough for local dragonflies and damselflies to emerge from the rivers and wetlands in which their life cycle began. All odonates lay their eggs in water, and it takes time – from a few months to a few years – for the larvae to go through the individual stages of molting until they are large enough to begin the transformation from nymph to adult. When the nymph is ready, it crawls out of the water onto rocks, emergent vegetation, or nearby tree trunks or plant stems, and then bursts out of the larval shell through a hole in its back, using gravity to pull itself free. I have seen various dragonflies in the middle of this process a few times; I had never witnessed the full transformation as it takes a few hours for the dragonfly to become ready for its first flight. However, when I arrived at Mud Lake on a sunny day in mid-May hoping to find some warblers, it was a mass emergence of at least 50 individual dragonflies that engaged my attention, and I was able to observe many individuals at different points of the process.

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Coyote vs. Goose

Coyote (2018)

Coyote (2018)

On March 6, 2022 I blogged about seeing a coyote in my own subdivision. As mentioned in that post, I only see coyotes a few times each year, so I didn’t expect to see another one for a while… especially since I am not getting out as much as I used to. However, now that the weather is warmer and my health is (slowly) improving, I have been getting out for short walks when the weather is good. I missed so much of last fall’s migration that I’ve been eager to get out this spring; although I’ve been sticking close to home, I’ve got a great variety of birding habitats in my 5MR (5-mile-radius centered on home, a birding concept that gained popularity during the 2020 pandemic lockdowns), with a lifetime list of 217 species.

I’ve seen 145 species at Sarsaparilla Trail alone, a short circular trail in Stony Swamp that has occasionally yielded such uncommon species such as Golden-winged Warbler, Ross’s Goose, and Golden Eagle. When I stopped there on April 12th I was hoping to find a few common birds for my year list, and it did not disappoint.

Canada Goose on nest (2012)

Canada Goose on nest (2012)

My first new year bird was a pair of Golden-crowned Kinglets. I heard at least two calling in the conifers next to the parking lot and saw one of them flitting around 20 feet up. My second was a Fox Sparrow feeding on the trail with some juncos, immediately standing out due to its larger size and rusty red colouring. It didn’t stay in view very long, and flew off when I tried to get close enough for a photo. I heard a singing Purple Finch and Brown Creeper on my way to the boardwalk, and once I reached the pond and started scanning the area I found a couple of Ring-necked Ducks (year bird #3) diving in the deep southern part of the pond and the newly-arrived resident Tree Swallows (year bird #4) flying around.

I still had my binoculars raised when I heard the resident Canada Geese honking vigorously about something. I figured it was just a typical goose dispute…until I scanned the beaver lodge where they usually nest and saw a coyote standing on top! I was so startled it took me a moment to react and turn my camera on. By that time the coyote had seen me as well, and started making its way off the beaver lodge. I hastily tried to focus my camera on the animal to shoot a few pictures while it was still out in the open.

The geese nest on top of the lodge every year, and my immediate thought was that the coyote was attempting to raid the nest. Both adults were in the water, protesting loudly enough to disturb the other waterfowl nearby, although the coyote seemed unaffected. In fact, it seemed more disturbed by my presence on the boardwalk, even though I was too far away to be a threat. It looked right at me while it crossed the small channel of water, then used the fallen trees to get to the shore. I managed to get a few photos, but the distance was just a bit too far and there was enough of a heat shimmer to prevent my photos from being as sharp as I would have liked. It wasn’t until I got home and reviewed my photos and realized that the coyote had been successful, carrying a large goose egg in its jaws to the shore. I decided to post them anyway, as this behaviour is not something people see every day (thanks to my photographer friend Stephen J. Stephen for sharpening a few of these images)! Click on any photo below to enlarge and cycle through them:

While I felt bad for the geese, I didn’t begrudge the coyote its meal, especially when I saw how thin it was…its legs looked like twigs that can barely support its body. It stood at the edge of the water with its back to me for a long time, presumably eating the egg, then disappeared into the reeds. The geese returned to the top of the beaver lodge to tend to the rest of the eggs. This is the second time I’ve seen a coyote at the edge of the pond; however, my previous observation occurred back in 2013!

Interestingly, even though I didn’t see the nest or the geese incubating its eggs, the photo of the coyote with egg in its mouth counts as breeding evidence for the Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas (NE = “nest with eggs”), which is now in its second year of data collection. Eggs cannot, however, be counted as birds for eBird. Geese typically lay between 2 and 8 eggs in a clutch, and incubate them for about a month. The first young are usually seen in our area around Mother’s Day. Hopefully the coyote won’t eat them all and we’ll see some fluffy yellow goslings swimming on the water with their parents later this spring!

The Ducks are Back in Town

Bufflehead (male)

Bufflehead (male)

By the second half of March our region has seen enough warm days for the local ponds to start opening up again, especially those with water running through them. The Eagleson storm water ponds are the first ponds to show open water in the spring, usually in the middle of March after a few days of temperatures above zero. Other local ponds, such as Bruce Pit, the Moodie Drive quarry, Sarsaparilla Trail, and the Richmond Conservation Area, tend to take longer to open up, likely because they do not have a stream of water flowing through them. I usually can tell when the water of the Eagleson ponds open up by the sudden appearance of chains of Canada Geese flying over my house, but this year I saw my first geese of the year while driving by the ponds on March 14th and saw seven of them flying around, looking for a place to land. When I visited the ponds two days later, there was a bit of open water in the central pond and about 100 Canada Geese and 150 mallards were present.

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Predators Close to Home

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

Those in my friend and birding circles know I have been dealing with serious health issues since last fall…serious enough to have to take a medical leave of absence from work, and leave me feeling unwell enough to get outside birding for much of that time. The timing could not have been worse as the Omicron variant hit our region in late December and peaked in late January, its insane transmission rate leaving me feeling vulnerable every time I had to leave the house. I stayed home except to go to a medical appointments, despite many offers from friends to go birding, as I couldn’t risk catching COVID while my health was still fragile. However, things are improving on both fronts: the Omicron wave is receding, and I had surgery five weeks ago, and am slowly regaining my strength and mobility. If ever there was a time to be out of commission, this is it: winter is my least favourite season, with its bitterly cold days, icy trails, and lack of flowers and insects. Winter is more a time for chasing than exploring, and while we’ve had a couple of great rarities turn up, I was in no condition to go after them myself.

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2021 Year in Review: Mammals

Canadian Beaver

Canadian Beaver

It’s been a great year for mammals. Actually, no, check that: it’s been an AMAZING year for mammals, considering I’ve been able to get great photographs of so many species – including those that are not only hard to find, but rarely stay out in the open long enough to snap a picture. It’s been a while since I’ve done a “Year in Review” post, but since I ended up with so many great mammal photos this year I thought I would dedicate one to this subject.

Ottawa is home to a great many mammal species, and we are fortunate that this city has a large variety of green spaces in which they live. Still, they can be difficult to find, as many are nocturnal or crepuscular (active around dusk and dawn), and those that are active during the day may vanish as trails get busy with people. The best times for seeing mammals, I find, are very early in the morning or late in the afternoon in less busy areas. In any case, being in the right place at the right time is often a matter of luck, and I seem to have had more than my share of that this year!

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The White Winter Weasel

Weasel sp.

On November 30th I spent some time at the Eagleson Ponds looking for migrants. I haven’t been able to get out as much as I would have liked these past few weeks, and with the days getting colder (some days have not even reached as high as 0°C recently) I have felt even less inclined to go out – my tolerance for cold has plummeted these past few winters, leaving me with no desire to get out first thing in the morning when it is well below zero. When it warmed up to -1°C after four subzero days in a row, I decided to take advantage of the nice weather to head out to the ponds in the afternoon just to see what was around. It was a cloudy day with no wind, perfect for scanning the flocks of geese still around.

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The Last Dragonfly and the Last Moth

Bruce Spanworm Moth

Bruce Spanworm Moth

By the time November arrives, all but the hardiest of insects have vanished, leaving only those few species that are adapted to the cold temperatures of mid-autumn in Canada. The last dragonfly on the wing here in Ottawa is the Autumn Meadowhawk, a small red or brownish dragonfly with very little black along the abdomen and yellow or brown legs. It is these two traits that make them easy to distinguish from other local meadowhawks – the other common species have distinct black markings on the abdomen and black legs. The most similar dragonfly in our area is the Saffron-winged Meadowhawk, which also lacks distinct black abdominal markings. However, the Saffron-winged Meadowhawk is larger, usually has a noticeable amber-coloured tint to the leading edge of its wings, and has black legs with brown stripes. In addition, most of the other meadowhawk species are gone by mid-October.

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A Lifer on on October Global Big Day 2021

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Lesser Black-backed Gull

On October 9, 2021 eBird celebrated its fourth annual October Global Big Day. I participated in this event last year and ended up with 50 species; I probably could have done better if I had planned for it properly instead of deciding halfway through the morning that I wanted to do a personal big day. This time I planned for it, but health issues limited my time outside in the field to the morning only.

I had a much better idea of where I wanted to go this time, and unlike the Global Big Day last May, which was limited due to COVID-19 lockdown restrictions then in place, planned to leave my 5-mile radius. After a great outing at Bruce Pit on Monday in which I tallied 40 species, the loop around the pond was sure to help me reach my goal of beating the 50 species I tallied last year. I also planned to hit a couple of trails in Stony Swamp (a short walk along the Rideau Trail at the P6 parking lot and Sarsaparilla Trail), the Ottawa River for diving birds, the Eagleson ponds for shorebirds, and the Moodie Quarry/Trail Road landfill for gulls and more waterfowl.

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