I finally returned to Trail E6 in Marlborough Forest on Sunday, July 11th. My goal was to find some skippers, particularly the Two-spotted Skipper which I had found at both trails (E4 and E6) last year, and more emerald dragonflies. I didn’t arrive as early as I normally do, as I was more interested in finding bugs than birds this time. Even so, the birds seemed quieter as I started down the trail just before 8:00 am….although I heard a couple of Wood Thrushes and Winter Wrens and warblers, there seemed to be fewer of everything. It was a while before I even heard my first Red-eyed Vireo, Black-and-white Warbler, and Eastern Wood-pewee, and the silence was puzzling. It is sad to think that breeding season is coming to an end already.
The coyotes, too, were quiet, although the deer flies and mosquitoes that constantly buzzed around me were not. It was difficult to try and listen for birds with their annoying whine constantly droning in my ears. I thought I heard a distant Ovenbird, a distant Scarlet Tanager, and a faint Nashville Warbler, but they only called once and I was too distracted swatting the bloodthirsty bugs away to be sure.
July is here, so today I went out in the afternoon in search of two local hairstreak colonies. Most hairstreaks overwinter as eggs in our area, and as such, don’t metamorphose into butterflies until mid-summer. They often tend to be quite localized, and while some species are quite common and widespread, such as the Banded Hairstreak, many others are found in small, local colonies where their preferred larval foodplants are found. Over the past few years I have found colonies of three different species in my 5-mile radius (Banded, Acadian and Coral), and while the Coral Hairstreaks seem to have disappeared, I now check on the other two colonies every July.
I started with a visit to Bruce Pit to look for the Acadian Hairstreaks that I have seen regularly in the wildflowers at the base of the toboggan hill since 2014. I got my hopes up when I spotted a small, grayish gossamer-winged butterfly perched out in the open at a distance, but it turned out to be a worn Eastern Tailed Blue.
On Saturday, July 3rd I accompanied the McNamara Field Naturalists on their first in-person outing since the latest Stay-at-Home Order ended on June 2nd. Ontario entered Stage 2 of its reopening plan on July 2nd, which raised the number of people who could attend outdoor social gatherings and organized public events to 25 people (as well as allowing haircuts and personal care services again). Although I am not a member of the McNamara Field Naturalists Club, which calls Arnprior home but whose explorations include a large swath of the Ottawa Valley, one of my friends happens to be in charge of putting field trips together, and asked if I wanted to help lead a dragonfly walk. I said yes, and suggested Morris Island as it’s a great place to find all sorts of odes, including several flashy skimmers and clubtails that can be found perching in the vegetation and along the trails. I was thrilled when my mentor Chris Lewis joined us, as it would be easier to find some more of the unique species with a couple of knowledgeable people looking.
The fisher (Pekania pennanti) is the holy grail of mammals for many naturalists in eastern Ontario. Just as the Gyrfalcon is the most sought after species for local birders, or the Smooth Green Snake is the most sought after snake species for local herpers, the fisher is one of those near-mythical species that few naturalists claim to have actually seen, and seems to exist more in rumour than in fact. Although there seems to be a good number of them present in our region – particularly in Stony Swamp with its many trails giving access to the deeper parts of the forest – they are very elusive, preferring to hide themselves deep in the bush where trails don’t exist and few humans are curious enough to venture. Every now and then you hear of one showing up on a trail cam, or of someone finding a road-killed specimen, or – very rarely – of someone catching a brief glimpse of one before it disappears. A live encounter where the observer actually gets a prolonged look at one – or even photos! – might be even more rare than the impossible-to-find Gyrfalcon.
The beginning of June arrived with plenty of warmth and sunshine, and I couldn’t wait to go back to Marlborough Forest at the peak of butterfly and dragonfly season to look for new species living there. Last year when I started going to Marlborough Forest in mid-June, I kept seeing large, dark dragonflies – almost certainly emeralds of some sort – zipping down the shadowy trail before the sun had fully risen above the trees. I never had my net on me when I saw them on my early-morning birding walks, so I was unable to catch one to verify their identity. This time I was prepared for these dawn-flying dragons, and brought my net with me. I had already added one dragonfly to my life list, the Ocellated Emerald at Trail E4 last year; was it possible that there were other species of interest here?
My first summer visit to Trail E4 occurred on June 6th. Although it started cool, it quickly warmed up. The usual birds were singing along the trail, including all the Red-eyed Vireos, Eastern Wood-pewees, Eastern Kingbirds, Veeries, and the Tree Swallows that were missing from my mid-May visit. I heard seven warblers (Ovenbirds, Northern Waterthrushes, Black-and-whites, Nashvilles, Common Yellowthroats, Black-throated Greens, and a single Magnolia Warbler), two Chipping Sparrows, a Field Sparrow, and a Blue-headed Vireo singing in its usual spot in the large open area devastated by motor bikes and ATVs.
This morning I went for a walk at Monaghan Forest, hoping to find the Northern Waterthrushes I’ve heard singing there in years past. Although this species was reported in our square in the previous atlas, it was only as a “possible” breeding species as it was observed in its breeding season in suitable nesting habitat – no additional nesting evidence was determined. I was also hoping to see the Bank Swallows I’d seen last year at the quarry, as I was still missing this species for my year list. In addition to these two species, I was hoping to find a number of other interesting species – from Black-throated Green and Black-and-White Warblers to Scarlet Tanagers and Wood Thrushes. If was I was lucky I might even see some falcons and hawks soaring above the quarry – it is suspected that Peregrine Falcon nests there, and it would be terrific if we could confirm evidence of breeding in our square.
This year marks the start of a five-year breeding bird survey for the third Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas, which is a collaboration between Birds Canada, the Canadian Wildlife Service, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, the Ontario Field Ornithologists, and Ontario Nature. Approximately 300 bird species breed in our province, and the goal of the atlas is to map the distribution and relative abundance of these species by looking for evidence of breeding for as many species as possible. By conducting surveys every 20 years researchers are able to determine which species are expanding their range, which ones are shrinking, which species are increasing in abundance, and which ones are declining. Although data collection began on January 1, 2021, breeding bird surveys don’t really kick into high gear until mid-May once almost all of our breeding birds are back from their wintering grounds in central and South America to Ontario. As I was not a birder when data was being collected for the second atlas (2001-2006), this was my first chance to participate as a volunteer atlasser, and I jumped at the opportunity. Over the last few years, and especially during the lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve gotten to know the birds within my own area quite well, and after looking at a list of the species found in my area during the second atlas, I knew I could contribute some new data on species that were missing. For instance, Red-shouldered Hawk wasn’t found in the last atlas in my area, although I found a pair occupying a nest in Stony Swamp back in 2016. Barn Swallow was recorded only as being in suitable habitat in the last atlas, while they used to nest under the bridge at the Eagleson ponds before the city put wire mesh underneath it. And Killdeer was last reported as showing agitated behaviour, while I’ve seen a fuzzy newly-fledged bird at the Eagleson ponds once.
The first butterflies that emerge in the spring – usually in late March or April – are the ones that hibernated as adults in deciduous woodlots: Mourning Cloaks, Eastern Commas and Compton Tortoiseshells are the first ones I see every year on those warm, sunny days when the temperature starts reaching 13°C. The next wave emerges when it warms up long enough for those that hibernated in the chrysalis stage to emerge as adults: the elfins and azures and whites and swallowtails are included in this group, although I usually see the first Northern Spring Azures and Henry’s Elfins first, in late April and early May, with the Canadian Tiger Swallowtail and Black Swallowtail following in mid-May. Next come the species that overwintered as mature caterpillars, such as the duskywings – the first skippers to appear each year – and the crescents. All of these are typically seen in May in our region, while butterflies that overwinter as younger caterpillars (the browns and fritillaries) and eggs (coppers and hairstreaks) don’t emerge until June and July. This means that while you will never see all of Ottawa’s butterflies on the wing at the same time, the diversity is ever-changing up until the end of July. Even after that the appearance of regular but unpredictable influxes of migrants keeps things exciting throughout August and September: large population booms of Red Admirals, Painted Ladies, American Ladies and Monarchs might mean a wildly successful breeding season here in Ottawa, while smaller numbers of Orange Sulphurs, Common Buckeyes and American Snouts often find their way here from their breeding range further south.
After participating in eBird’s October Global Big Day on October 17, 2020, I was looking forward to participating in the May edition on May 8, 2021. Spring warblers and songbirds would be the focus, with many birds sporting their gorgeous breeding finery. Another key difference from October is that many birds would be singing, drumming, or otherwise vocalizing to attract a mate, making it easier to locate them by sound – especially with the tree canopy filling in so quickly this year. Last November I set up my 5-mile (8-kilometre) radius patch centered on my house, and with the Ontario lockdown still in effect I planned to bird within this area only. It includes the Eagleson storm water ponds and Stony Swamp, the agricultural fields along Rushmore Road, Bruce Pit, the Nortel marsh, and the Greenbelt trails south of Rifle Road, but excludes the Ottawa River, Richmond Sewage Lagoons, and choice sections of the large Moodie Drive Quarry and Trail Road Landfill. After scouting several of these areas this past week, I made a list of places I hoped would provide the most species and felt optimistic about tallying a large number of species.
After the early start to spring, migration stalled with the arrival of a long-lasting weather system that funneled the dreaded north winds back down into the Ottawa Valley again. The past week has been filled with gray, overcast days, a bit of rain, a bit of snow, and several days of gusty winds. I’ve added a few new birds to my year list, but they are mostly species that have been present for a while now that I never got around to seeing earlier: Gadwall, Barn Swallow, and Yellow-rumped Warbler at the Richmond Sewage Lagoons, Red-necked Grebe at Shirley’s Bay, American Bittern and White-crowned Sparrow in Stony Swamp, Eastern Meadowlark and Osprey on Rifle Road, and the return of the neighbourhood Chipping Sparrows back on April 15th. The birds that returned early this spring and tripped the eBird filters a few weeks ago are all birds that overwinter close by in the southern US; while they took advantage of the warm southern winds to return to their breeding grounds early, birds that winter in Central and South America are still thousands of kilometers away and will return on their normal schedule.