The Morris Island Conservation Area

My Dad’s last day in Ottawa was Friday. Although we squeezed in a visit to Parliament Hill, we weren’t able to get out to any of the trails I wanted to show him, such as the Cedar Grove Nature Trail or the Bill Mason Center. On Saturday morning I was alone, and decided to visit a new place on the the Ottawa River, the Morris Island Conservation Area. This conservation area had been recommended to me by Chris Lewis, who had told me that it was quite similar to Petrie Island and had a good variety of odonates. Located near the community of Fitzroy Harbour, this 47-hectare site features forested woodlands and wetlands where recreational activities such as hiking, picnicking, canoeing, fishing and natural interpretation are popular. I was particularly interested in the nature trails, hoping to find some new dragonflies and perhaps some interesting birds and butterflies.

A variety of ecosystems within Morris Island provide a home for both water species and interior forest species. The wildlife in the area includes many common species such as chipmunks, raccoons, beavers, white tailed-deer, porcupines, frogs, garter snakes, and water snakes. Less common species include smooth green snakes, the threatened Blanding’s turtle, and the red-shouldered hawk, a national and provincial species of special concern. When I saw the sign at the entrance to the conservation area, I was impressed. A true work of art, it is clear that Mississippi Valley Conservation – the entity responsible for the conservation area – not only values this natural area, but takes pride in it.

Morris Island Conservation Area

I was there for the dragonflies, though, in particular the beautiful Halloween Pennant, a species I’d never seen before. A common species in southern Ontario, the Morris Island Conservation Area is the only place in the Ottawa area where it is found regularly. I followed the trail into the woods, stopping to look out onto the river at each opening for odonates. The shore was quite rocky, and I found several Powdered Dancers and one large clubtail which flew off before I could get a good look at it.

Looking West

In the wooded interior, Morris Island reminds me of Algonquin Park, with its huge exposed slabs of bedrock, roots twisting across the trails, and tall trees. Occasionally the trail passed through a small clearing, such as this one:

Along the trail

I spied another large clubtail in one of these clearings. It caught my attention when it flew up from the ground and landed in the vegetation growing next to the path. I took two photos, though it wasn’t unti I got home that I realized it was a Black-shouldered Spinyleg, and the first live one that I’ve seen!

This is species is one of the clubtails, as evidenced by the “club” at the tip of its abdomen. It is differentiated from the other large clubtails by its wide black shoulder bands, the unusually long spines on the back legs, and large amount of yellow on the top of its abdomen. The Dragonhunter (which is what I thought it was when I first saw it) also has black and yellow stripes on its thorax, but much thinner yellow dashes on top of its abdomen.

The Black-shouldered Spinyleg is common throughout eastern United States and southeastern Canada, where it haunts medium to large streams, rivers, windswept lakes and ponds with rocky shores. Although the spinyleg seemed content to perch on the ground and later, in among the vegetation, it was very wary and flew away before I got too close.

Black-shouldered Spinyleg

After it disappeared into the brush, I continued on my way around the trail. It followed the shoreline, though most of the time the water was screened by trees and shrubs. There were several openings for fishermen, however, and at one of these I found a family of merlins flying back and forth between a couple of tall conifers, crying loudly as they went. Other than the merlins, the birds that I saw and heard were the same as I would find at Stony Swamp or Mud Lake: Red-eyed Vireos, chickadees, Cedar Waxwings, kingfishers, Song Sparrows, Blue Jays, etc.

Then the trail left the river and followed the edge of a wide bay back toward the parking lot. There were a couple of places where I could see the bay on one side of the trail and marsh on the other, with boardwalks crossing over the water. I heard rustling below one of the boardwalks, and looked down expecting to find a muskrat moving through the grass. Instead I saw a Snapping Turtle ambling toward the bay!

A quiet inlet

On the boardwalk itself I saw another clubtail perching, so I decided to slowly edge over to it and capture it with my net. This one was not as wary as the one in the woods, and I caught it with no trouble at all and took a few pictures. You can see the widely spaced eyes which is characteristic of the clubtail family.

Black-shouldered Spinyleg

This spinyleg is more green than yellow. As the clubtails age, they change from yellow to green to dark olive. You can see the spines of his hind legs for which this species is named.

Black-shouldered Spinyleg

It is always thrilling to get good photos of a lifer, especially as there are so many birds (American Pelican), butterflies (Bog Copper) and dragonflies (Zebra Clubtail) that I’ve seen only once or twice and have either no photos or very poor ones. Photos of a dragonfly in the hand are even better as they show many details which are useful in confirmation identification. When I let this spinyleg go, however, he landed back on the boardwalk where I took a few photos of him “in the wild”.

On the boardwalk

As I neared the parking lot I saw lots of chipmunks scampering about, and noticed this tiny Green Frog sitting next to the path. It was so small I thought it might be a tree frog, but the ridges along its back quickly dispelled that notion.

Green Frog

After checking the map near the entrance, I realized I didn’t even cover half of the conservation area. Still, I was intrigued with the areas I did see. It seems to be a good spot for Black-shouldered Spinylegs, Widow Skimmers, and Powdered Dancers; the only other dragonfly I identified was a Slaty Skimmer in the large bay near where I caught the spinyleg. Although I didn’t see any butterflies on the trails, I did notice a Dun Skipper in the weeds edging the parking lot. I would love to come back later in the season when the Halloween Pennants are flying and explore some of the areas I didn’t get to this time.

I drove home via the back roads, and saw a Northern Harrier patrolling a field and an Eastern Cottontail Rabbit running across the road. Then, in a grassy area near Huntmar Road, I spotted what looked like three large Wild Turkeys close to the road. It wasn’t until I was driving past them that I realized they were Turkey Vultures instead! I pulled over to the side of the road, and took this one picture through the crack of the door before they all flew away.

Turkey Vulture

I also managed to photograph one of them in flight before they all flew to the fence line at the back of the property. It’s not often that I see Turkey Vultures on the ground like this; and not often that I see them so close to the road!

Turkey Vulture

It was a great ending to a great summer day, and one I’ll not soon forget.

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