Incredible Insects

The following day I visited Jack Pine Trail. I decided to go later in the day in the hopes of seeing some different species; however, there were few birds to be seen, with only common species such as Blue Jays, chickadees, robins and Cedar Waxwings along the trails. Fortunately, there were plenty of butterflies, dragonflies, and other unusual insects around to make up for the lack of birds. Common whitetails, Twelve-spotted Skimmers and White-faced Meadowhawks were the most abundant dragonflies, while Eastern Forktails were the only damselflies I identified. In the butterfly department, Cabbage Whites, Northern Crescents, a single Viceroy, and two skipper species – Least and Dun Skippers – were present throughout the conservation area. I also found two Eastern Tailed Blues in different areas, a species I had not encountered here before.

I found my first butterfly in a wooded area near one of the wetlands…a small, dark skipper with white spots on its wings. Aptly named the Dun Skipper, this species prefers moist woodland edges such as those found at Jack Pine Trail. Only the females have such extensive spotting on the wings; however, the female Dun Skipper is very similar to two other skippers, the female Northern Broken-Dash and the female Little Glassywing, and the three species are often referred to as the “three witches”. The Northern Broken-Dash Skipper has orange spots, instead of white, and the Little Glassywing is very, very rare in our area whereas the Dun Skipper is quite common.

Dun Skipper

I made my way across the boardwalks and through the alvar without encountering anything interesting other than one of the two Eastern Tailed Blues. Instead, it was the back of the trail that was the most productive. Here I encountered a family of four Sharp-shinned Hawks soaring over the marsh. They were calling as they flew, making for an enchanting sight.

Further along the trail I came to a wet area where the fuzzy pink flowers of Joe Pye Weed were abundant. White Snakeroot was also in bloom, and both were attracting plenty of insects. I saw two battered fritillaries (probably Great Spangled Fritillaries) nectaring on the Joe Pye Weed when they weren’t busy chasing each other away. This metallic green Sweat Bee looked striking against the white flowers of the White Snakeroot.

Sweat Bee

A large, fuzzy insect was also feeding on the snakeroot and at first I wasn’t sure whether it was a bee or a hover fly. Later research revealed it to be both, and neither…it was a bee fly! Bee flies belong to Order Diptera (the true flies) and are named for their superficial resemblance to bees. They have either a short proboscis with a broad tip, or a long one used to take nectar. They also hover and dart, much like the hover flies. The hunch-backed shape is characteristic of this species, as is its habit of nectaring on flowers, although it is said to prefer daisies and black-eyed susans.

Bee Fly (Lepidophora lutea)

I had never seen anything like this fellow before, and I was quite taken with him. Unfortunately he flew off before I was finished studying him, but I did get some great photos of him before he left.

Bee Fly

I was quickly distracted by another large insect. It was quite long, and when it flew past me, I thought it was a dragonfly. Then I saw it land on the trunk of a tree and realized it was something entirely different….not a dragonfly, but a wasp! It had long legs, a long abdomen and a long ovipositor (but no stinger). I had seen pictures of this species before, and had no trouble identifying it as a Giant Ichneumon Wasp. It was very impressive, and very colourful. I was hoping to observe her laying eggs, but either she didn’t like the location or she didn’t like me watching her and flew off to another tree.

Giant Ichneumon Wasp

“Large” seemed to be the theme of the day, for I came across this huge grasshopper on a Purple Loosestrife plant. Unfortunately there is no way to judge size or scale in this image, but take my word for it, this fellow was extremely large for a grasshopper!

Grasshopper sp.

The two fritillaries weren’t the only ones enjoying the Joe Pye Weed’s bounty. A small moth was also flitting from flower to flower, and I was delighted when I identified it as a Hummingbird Clearwing moth. This was the first time I had seen this species, and I was eager to get a good photo of it. However, it never landed once the entire time I watched it, and it was easy to see why it’s named after the hummingbird….it, too, hovers in front of the flowers while it feeds and has the same quick, darting movements. After a while, one of the fritillaries came along and chased it out of its territory.

Hummingbird Moth

Another Lepidopteran came along to sample the flowers, a beautifully fresh White Admiral, and when it landed on the Joe Pye Weed almost right in front of me I was thrilled. Normally I see these butterflies sunning themselves on leaves or on gravel roads, slowly opening and closing their wings. They are rarely seen on flowers, but feed instead on rotting fruit and animal dung. This was the first time I’ve ever seen a White Admiral on a flower, especially one as beautiful as the Joe Pye Weed.

White Admiral

The sky was clouding over, and the sun was sinking behind the trees so reluctantly I left this lovely area. I didn’t see much on my way back to the parking lot until I had almost reached the OFNC feeder area. On a leaf fairly close to the ground I noticed these two striking orange and black caterpillars, with prominent black and white tufts at either end. Research led me to identify them as Milkweed Tussock Moth caterpillars, a relatively common species in fields and woodland edges where milkweed is present. While the adult appears rather unremarkable with plain, beige wings, its body is the same black and orange colour as the caterpillar.

Milkweed Tussock Moth caterpillars

When I set out on my walk, I hadn’t expected to find so many fascinating insects. With the exception of the Sharp-shinned Hawk family, the insects were clearly the stars of the day, proving that there is as much beauty in six-legged creatures as there is in birds and four-legged creatures.

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