Goose-watching in Kanata

Ross’s Goose

November is goose season here in Ottawa. While flocks of local Canada Geese start gathering together in late September, geese from much further north begin arriving throughout October, once the lakes and rivers on their breeding grounds in the territories and along Hudson’s Bay freeze over, until their numbers peak in November. Ottawa is an important staging area for many different waterfowl species, as the Ottawa River and numerous small lakes and ponds in the area often remain open well into December; the geese rest on these bodies of water during the night, then go feed in the numerous agricultural fields just outside the city during the day. This is the time to look for Snow Geese and the diminutive Cackling Geese among them; if you are lucky you will find a Greater White-fronted Goose hiding within the flock – or something much rarer.

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In Memory of Jango (2002-2020)

Jango, 2014

I really didn’t want to write another memorial this year. It has only been eight months since we had to put our beloved Phaedra to sleep, and even though we knew Jango was declining as well, he seemed to be doing as well as an 18-year-old cat with stage 3 kidney disease and an abdominal tumour could be. He was diagnosed with the kidney disease on his annual visit in November 2018 – then, in stage 2, he showed no other signs other than drinking more water than usual, though he’s always been a cat who loved his water. On his annual visit last year, not only had the disease progressed to stage 3, the vet also noticed a firm, abnormal mass in his abdomen. This was about the time Phaedra started going blind after her stroke in August. My greatest fear was that I would lose my pets at the same time, but when Phaedra passed at the end of February Jango still seemed to be doing well. If it weren’t for the fact that he had kidney disease and cancer I think he probably would have lived until his twenties!

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Unseasonal Warmth

Monarch

I never thought I would see three butterfly species on a single day this late in October. But when the forecast called for a sunny high of 24°C on Friday before dropping back down to a week of temperatures hovering in the single digits, I took an extended lunch to explore one of my new favourite places: Steeple Hill Park in the small village of Fallowfield. As soon as I pulled up to the soccer field behind the church I saw a Turkey Vulture gliding south, followed by a Red-tailed Hawk heading in the same direction. I didn’t see many other bird species this late in the day (it was after 1:00 by the time I arrived), even though I started in my usual spot in the weedy field behind the graveyard. There were no sparrows in the field today, and it wasn’t until I reached the furthest corner that I saw my first butterfly: a worn Clouded Sulphur fluttering close to the ground. The day was quite breezy, and the sulphur kept landing low among the vegetation where I couldn’t get a decent photo. Then, as I was following it around trying to get an unobstructed photo, I found a second butterfly, this one much smaller: an Eastern Tailed Blue.

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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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The end of June

Eastern Cottontail

Eastern Cottontail

On Sunday June 28th I started my day at Sarsaparilla Trail. One of the birds I still needed for my year list was Least Bittern, and I’d been lucky to hear it in the marsh here last year. In fact, I got a great view of it as it flew from the southern shore toward me and landed in the reeds close to the boardwalk before it started calling. I didn’t expect to actually see one again – they are quite elusive and prefer to hunt within the reeds rather than stalk fish out in the open the way Green Herons and Black-crowned Night Herons do – but I knew if I arrived early enough I might have a chance to hear its mournful call. I’d checked a few times earlier this season to no avail, and with June almost over there wasn’t much time left in the breeding season to track down those birds best found by their songs, as many birds stop singing by late July.

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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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Exploring Marlborough Forest

Baltimore Checkerspot

Marlborough Forest has been long known to me as a special place to find some of the more unusual species of the Ottawa area – various trips to the Cedar Grove Nature Trail over the past ten years have turned up Mink Frogs, Eastern Newts and Red Efts, Blue-spotted Salamanders, Bronze Coppers, Silvery Checkerspots, Harvesters, Calico Pennants, Brush-tipped Emeralds, Lake Darners, Twin-Spotted Spiketails, Ebony Jewelwings, and Aurora Damsels. The one “specialty” of Marlborough Forest that I had not yet found, and search for every time I go, is the Smooth Green Snake – it has managed to elude me every single visit.

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Spiketails Flying in Stony Swamp

Canadian Tiger Swallowtail

Perhaps more than Mud Lake, the one place I enjoy visiting most during migration and the summer breeding season is Stony Swamp. Pre-Covid it was always less busy than Mud Lake, especially early in the morning; however, after the pandemic hit the trails have become really popular and the parking lots are getting full before 10:00 on the weekend. If my goal is to look for birds, I try to get there before 7:00 am; but if it’s insects I’m looking for it doesn’t matter so much, as insects are not as likely to be disturbed by people, and I arrive whenever it’s convenient for me. It’s still quieter during the week than on the weekend, so I arrived at the Beaver Trail at 8:15 hoping to find some good birds as well some interesting insects as the day warmed up.

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Dragonflies and Butterflies at Mud Lake

Long Dash Skipper

Once migration winds down, many birders stop visiting Mud Lake while they look for breeding birds elsewhere. Although birds such as Wood Duck, American Redstart, Yellow Warbler and Common Ravens are abundant and easy to find at the city’s premier migration hotspot during the breeding season, many of Ottawa’s summer specialties – such as Grasshopper Sparrow, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Golden-winged Warbler, Mourning Warbler, and Sedge Wren – are found elsewhere, and so most birders switch their focus from looking for migrating transients to chasing these summer residents down just as soon as the last Blackpoll Warblers and Arctic Terns disappear in early June. This is about the same time my attention to dragonflies and butterflies intensifies – and Mud Lake is a great place to find a good variety of both these insects.

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Ichneumon wasp identification

Black Giant Ichneumonid Wasp (Megarhyssa atrata)

One of the wonderful things about this time of year is that when I go out somewhere hoping to see one thing, I often end up find myself captivated by something completely different. On June 16th I went to the South March Highlands hoping to find some new butterflies and dragonflies to add to the iNaturalist project I created a while back. This is such a large conservation area, containing a number of different habitats, that it seemed peculiar to me that I have not seen a corresponding variety in these two orders of insects…instead, I’ve seen only the most common species. I had a long walk (over 5 km in total) and saw some good birds, and even added a new dragonfly to the project (more on that later!), but it wasn’t until I was almost done that I came across something that absolutely fascinated me: an old stump covered in wasps.

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