Damselflies in New Places

Violet Dancer

Violet Dancer

Damselflies are small odonates related to dragonflies, but belong to Order Zygoptera instead of Order Anisoptera. Unlike dragonflies, damselflies have very slender abdomens, and the forewing and hindwing are similar size and shape. Two of the three families found in eastern North America – the broad-winged damsels and pond damsels – hold their wings above the body, parallel to the abdomen, while perching. The third family – the spreadwings – do not perch horizontally with their wings parallel to the body, but typically “hang” from a perch, with the wings slightly spread at an angle. Adult damselflies are not strong fliers, and generally do not travel far from water. They are most often found in vegetation or on the ground near ponds, streams, and other bodies of water. Because of their small size they can be difficult to see, but the dark wings of the jewelwings and brightly coloured abdomens of some of the pond damsels help aid in observation.

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Terry Carisse Park in the Summer

Delaware Skipper

Delaware Skipper

Most naturalists who have heard of Terry Carisse Park along the Jock River associate it with birds – particularly the Hooded Warbler that spent a few days there in May 2014. As a rare bird for Ottawa, this discovery put this small riparian park on the map for many Ottawa birders. Other people may associate it with the Osprey nest there, although the Osprey haven’t nested there for a few years now. I myself have returned regularly to this park in the spring and fall to look for the Rusty Blackbirds that often stop over here during migration – in May 2021 I found at least 50 of these declining birds feeding on the lawn and perched in the trees that line the river bank. Because of the thick shoreline vegetation, the wooded swamp to the north, and the open grassy areas dotted with conifers it is a good place to look for birds during migration. I had never been here during the summer breeding season, and it occurred to me this summer that it might be a good spot to look for odonates. I started my summer ode survey on July 2, 2022, continuing through early August, and found more species than I expected – including some species I’ve only seen at Petrie Island or Morris Island Conservation Area!

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Bruce Pit: Tiger Beetles and a Rare Dragonfly

Striped Hairstreak

Striped Hairstreak

Bruce Pit is under-valued as a great spot to see a variety of insects at the peak of summer. Though I’ve spent a lot of time looking for dragonflies there, it wasn’t until recently that I realized it could be good for other types of insects as well. In 2020 I found a species of tiger beetle there that I had never seen before, Punctured Tiger Beetle, and last year I observed it again, as well as another type of tiger beetle: the colourful Festive Tiger Beetle. Tiger beetles have long flight seasons, but are not active during the entire summer; they become inactive or aestivate (the summer equivalent of “hibernate”) during the hottest part of the year, so it is easier to find them towards the beginning and end of summer. I started visiting on June 17th this year, hoping to find some good odes, butterflies, and a few different tiger beetles for my life list.

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Marlborough Forest: Summer 2022

Eastern Comma

Eastern Comma

I did not get out to Marlborough Forest as often as I would have liked this past summer; ongoing medical issues early in the season left me feeling too tired and too sore for the long five-hour outings I enjoyed so much last year. On June 2nd I visited the E6 trail with Rick Collins to look for the Sedge Wrens breeding there. We heard one without too much difficulty, though we weren’t able to spot it. Our other highlight was a female Ruffed Grouse on the trail trying to lure us away from its chicks (none seen) by giving distress calls. It was a gray, drizzly day so I didn’t see any insects worth photographing. Indeed, I didn’t take my camera out of my bag at all.

The weather was much better on June 19th, so Chris Traynor and I went to trail E4 to look for Twin-spotted Spiketails and some different emerald species for his life list. I was also eager to how him the pool below the culvert as this was where I’d seen my one and only Ocellated Emerald hanging out in 2020. It was a bit windy, but the sun was shining and the weather was warm, and the breeze made the usual biting insects less of a distraction.

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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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