Life Among the Milkweeds

Green Immigrant Leaf Weevil

When most people think of milkweeds and the insects that are associated with them, they think of the iconic Monarch butterfly, which subsists solely on these plants in its larval stage. Others may recall the beautiful Red Milkweed Beetle, the black and orange Small and Large Milkweed Bugs, or the fuzzy Tussock Milkweed Moth caterpillars that sometimes gather together in groups of a dozen or more. However, milkweeds are an abundant source of nectar and pollen for many types of insects, and these in turn attract predators searching for easy prey. If you spend some time examining these plants at the height of their flowering season, an amazing secret world opens up, as all kinds of colourful creatures can be found on their flowers and leaves. Here are a few of the colourful and intriguing creatures I photographed in early to mid-July while looking for the more common butterflies and dragonflies.

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Breeding Swallows

Barn Swallow (juvenile)

Six species of swallows breed in the Ottawa area, and most are easy to find. Tree Swallows like open fields and agricultural areas, particularly where there are lots of natural tree cavities or nest boxes. Barn Swallows also like open fields and farms, but need water in order to build cup-shaped nests of mud on the walls of man-made structures, such as the undersides of bridges and in the rafters of barns or other open structures. Purple Martins nest almost exclusively in man-made houses that can be single gourd-shaped boxes or large multi-cavity apartments; it is difficult to find colonies away from human settlements these days, at least in the east. Northern Rough-winged Swallows nests in burrows or cavities in various substrates, particularly near water, and often use circular drainage holes in the cement walls along bridges and canals. Bank Swallows also nest in burrows and cavities, but are much more particular about using vertical cliffs or banks along streams, lakes, or man-made quarries where they nest in colonies of 10 to 2,000 pairs. Finally, Cliff Swallows – personally the most difficult swallow species for me to find in Ottawa outside of a few known colonies – nest on buildings, bridges, and other man-made structures close to fields or pastures for foraging, and a source of mud for nest building.

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Monarch vs. Viceroy

Monarch

On the last Sunday in June I drove over to the airport to continue my quest for year birds. I had six target species, and figured I would be doing well if I managed to see only three of them: Eastern Bluebird, Indigo Bunting, Grasshopper Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Black-billed Cuckoo, and Mourning Warbler. The Eastern Bluebird and Indigo Bunting were probably the easiest targets, while the cuckoo and the Mourning Warbler were the most difficult – I had only heard these species around the trails once before, and would be happy if I heard them again. I usually hear or see Grasshopper Sparrows on every visit, while Vesper Sparrows are hit-and-miss. The day was warm and sunny, so I was looking forward to seeing some butterflies and dragonflies, too.

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Year Bugs and Year Birds in June

Eight-spotted Forester Moth

June is one of my favourite months. Normally the weather is hot and sunny by the time the solstice rolls around, the birds are all in full song, and butterflies and dragonflies are emerging in woodlands, fields and wetlands. However, the weather this month has not been great. The rain from May continued on and off this month, keeping water levels of the rivers and ponds higher than normal, and likely delaying the emergence of many insects. The weekends have been nice, at least; I’ve been able to get out early in the day in order to look for new birds for my year list and any butterflies and dragonflies that may have emerged. While my enthusiasm has certainly declined since our amazing trip to Costa Rica, I’ve found myself regaining interest in visiting trails and conservation areas close to home, hoping to find some species I haven’t seen since the previous summer.

The day after my trip to the Bill Mason Center, I made plans with Chris Lewis and Chris Traynor to head out to the Cedar Grove Nature Trail in Marlborough Forest to look for odes around Roger’s Pond. I would be co-leading an OFNC outing there the following weekend with Jakob Mueller, a reptiles and amphibians guy, and wanted to get an idea of the dragonflies and damselflies that were flying. As we weren’t meeting at the parking lot there until 8:30, I headed out to Sarsaparilla Trail first, then the Rideau Trail for a quick look around.

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Dragonflies and an Elfin at the Bill Mason Center

Eastern Pine Elfin

When I got back from Costa Rica I didn’t much feel like doing any birding back here in Ottawa. I’d been spoiled by all the colourful, tropical birds and exotic species that I’d seen – Costa Rica was a dream come true for me, and it was hard to return to reality. As soon as I got back I started thinking about a return trip there, wanting to spend more time in the rainforest so I could see birds such as Cotingas, Jacamars and Bellbirds. And oh, the hummingbirds and tanagers there!

It was difficult to get excited about birding in Ottawa, and the weather didn’t help. It was cold and rainy when we left and still cold (only 16°C) when I returned. The thought of going dragon-hunting stirred my interest somewhat, and when the weather warmed up the weekend after we got back, I decided it was time to take my net out of hibernation.
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Costa Rica: A Summary

Keel-billed Toucan

Our trip to Costa Rica was the first time either of us had been outside of North America. It is now the fourth country I’ve visited, and almost everything I saw was new to me – from the tiny Leafcutter Ants travelling up and down the trees and trails in long trains to the gigantic Jabiru, the largest bird in Costa Rica. Although hot and humid, the weather was cooperative almost the entire week we were there, except for a few late afternoon rain showers during our first three days. Although it wasn’t entirely a birding trip, the beach resort we stayed at was great for wildlife, and I saw a lot of great birds, mammals and insects even when we spent a relaxing day on the resort. Here is a summary of what I saw:
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Last Day in Costa Rica: Butterflies of the Resort

Hecale Longwing

At last, Saturday arrived. Our last morning in Costa Rica, and our last morning at the beautiful Occidental Grand Papagayo resort. The final hours of our wonderful trip to the tropics were trickling through the hourglass, and I was sad to see it coming to an end. I got up, started packing up as much of my stuff as I could without disturbing Doran, then went out for a quick walk to the red-flowering trees – my favourite bird-watching spot on the resort. I still hadn’t given up on seeing those Squirrel Cuckoos again.

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