Dragon-hunting and Turtle-watching

Snapping Turtle

Snapping Turtle

On the second Sunday in June Chris Lewis invited me to go dragon-hunting with her and Mike Tate at Mud Lake. I didn’t have the car and had to rely on the bus; OC Transpo’s Sunday schedules can be horrendous, but I managed to get there without any trouble (though I had to leave the dragonfly net at home). Chris, however, let me borrow one of hers.

We spent most of our time searching for odonates along the northeast shore of the lake. Clouds of Hagen’s Bluets were resting in the vegetation; they flew up into the air as we walked by, some the almost colourless shade of purple of a teneral, others the deep blue and black of a mature adult.

We also found lots of Widow Skimmers and Dot-tailed Whitefaces, and almost all of them were the black and yellow of freshly emerged individuals. Although we saw a couple of mature Dot-tailed Whitefaces, none of the Widow Skimmers we found had developed the gray abdomen indicative of a mature male. A lot of them, too, had shiny Saran-wrap wings indicating they had just emerged recently.

We hadn’t walked very far along the south side of the filtration plant when we spotted two large Snapping Turtles in the flower beds, both of them in the process of or having just finished laying eggs. This grand old lady was covered in dirt and debris; clearly she had been mucking about in the soil for a while.

Snapping Turtle

Snapping Turtle

Snapping Turtles can lay as many as 80 eggs, though the average clutch size for northern turtles is 34. The eggs take 9 to 18 weeks to hatch depending on the weather, which also determines the sex of the hatchlings. An incubation temperature of exactly 28°C is necessary to maintain a 50:50 sex ratio.

Despite being able to lay a large number of eggs, Snapping Turtles do not have a high reproductive success rate. Weather can cause complete nest failures if the summer is short and cool with high amounts of precipitation. Eggs laid in shaded areas also have a tendency to fail to hatch. Predators, too, take their toll, and it is estimated that an average of 11% to 94 % of nests are destroyed by skunks, raccoons, mink, foxes, and other mammals each year. Finally, even if the weather is optimal and the nest is unbothered by predators, only about 20% to 45% of the hatchlings – or approximately 15 turtles – may successfully emerge.

Snapping Turtle

Snapping Turtle

Fortunately, even the complete loss of eggs in one season has relatively little impact on population stability. This is because adult Snapping Turtles are naturally long-lived and enjoy high survival rates. However, increased threats to adults such as road mortality – particularly of females migrating to and from nesting sites – and illegal trapping can greatly affect this species’ survival. In order to maintain population stability, adults have to live and reproduce for a long time, and enough juveniles have to survive until maturity to eventually replace the adults. If too many adults die and too few eggs produce viable young each year, the population can face a sharp decline.

Because of this, the Snapping Turtle is currently listed as Special Concern under the Ontario Endangered Species Act, 2007 and Special Concern under the federal Species at Risk Act. The Snapping Turtle has also been designated as a Specially Protected Reptile under the Ontario Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act. Be careful when driving through the country this time of year, especially through wetlands; if you see something in the road, slow down in case it is a turtle – they can’t move fast enough to get out of the way. Better yet, pull over and gently pick it up (if it is any species other than a Snapper) or herd it across the road in the direction it is traveling.

Snapping Turtle

Snapping Turtle

After watching the turtles for a while, Mike, Chris and I proceeded to an opening onto the lake where we found a female Twelve-spotted Skimmer resting on a leaf. The females resemble Common Whitetail females but can be distinguished by the solid yellow lines down the sides of the abdomen.

Twelve-spotted Skimmer

Twelve-spotted Skimmer

Two clubtails were patrolling a short stretch of shoreline; sometimes they would chase each other or disappear above the sumac trees before returning to the vegetation. This one was photographed from on top of a ledge overlooking the lake while looking straight down at the water; the large forked claspers that identify it as a Horned Clubtail are visible in this image.

Horned Clubtail

Horned Clubtail

The Horned Clubtail was not our only good find. While trying to capture an elusive baskettail patrolling the sky about two to four feet above our heads, I noticed a rather dark dragonfly land on Chris’s back. I told her to stop moving, then contemplated how best to capture it without whacking her too hard with my net. I managed to just scrape the net across her back and was quite pleased to find that I had captured the dragonfly without hurting her.

It wasn’t a clubtail, as I had first first surmised from the brown and yellow pattern, but rather a Harlequin Darner! This uncommon dragonfly is now being seen more frequently in Ottawa; or perhaps it has always been this common but has only recently begun to make itself known by landing on dragon-hunters! This was only the second one I have seen, and the second one I discovered when it landed on someone (the first time that “someone” was me)!

Harlequin Darner

Harlequin Darner

Chris later told me that this was a new species for the Britannia Conservation Area – species #70, to be exact! In this photo you can see the mottled green thorax characteristic of this species:

Harlequin Darner

Harlequin Darner

After that I couldn’t let the baskettail flitting above our heads escape without identifying it – unlike clubtails and Harlequin Darners, baskettails rarely perch and instead catch all of their prey on the wing. Chris and I took turns swinging at it, and I finally managed to capture it! At first I thought it was a Beaverpond Baskettail, but when Chris examined the claspers she said it was a Spiny Baskettail….a lifer for me!

Spiny Baskettail

There are three baskettail species in Ottawa: the Common Baskettail, the Beaverpond Baskettail, the Spiny Baskettail, and the Prince Baskettail. Members of the Family Corduliidae (the Emeralds), baskettails get their names from the mass of eggs, often resembling a basket, that the female produces and then carries at the tip of her abdomen until she finds a suitable spot to deposit it. Spiny and Beaverpond Baskettails are almost identical in appearance and can only be identified by capturing them. They also strongly resemble Common Baskettails in appearance, although the Common Baskettail has a large dark patch at the base of the hind wings that the other two species lack. The Prince Baskettail is larger than the other three, with a long, slender abdomen and markings at the base, the tips, and often the center of the wings.

Spiny Baskettail

Spiny Baskettail

The upper clasper of the male Spiny Baskettail, which curves upward, has a short, sharp projection pointing downward known as a ventral tooth. The Beaverpond Baskettail has a small dorsal tooth in addition to a triangular-shaped ventral tooth, and the upper clasper points downward. I didn’t realize that the Spiny Baskettail could be found at Mud Lake, which makes me wonder how many Beaverpond Baskettails I’ve misidentified.

Spiny Baskettail

Spiny Baskettail

We released the Spiny Baskettail and then spent some time searching a cluster of Dame’s Rocket for a spreadwing Mike had seen a few days earlier. It was still there, and Mike and I took a couple of photos before Chris tried to catch it; however, the damselfly manged to elude her net twice. Still, the photos I took confirmed that it was an Elegant Spreadwing, which was also new for the Britannia Conservation Area. Chris called this #69 for the BCA as it had been found prior to the Harlequin Darner.

Elegant Spreadwing

Elegant Spreadwing

While trying to relocate the Elegant Spreadwing, I spotted a freshly emerged clubtail sitting low in the vegetation. My first thought was that it was not a Horned Clubtail as the claspers were quite different, but then I realized it might have been a female Horned Clubtail. However, Chris noticed that she lacked a yellow spot on the 8th abdominal segment and the enlarged occiput (the yellow shield between the eyes) of a female Horned Clubtail, which makes her another Lilypad Clubtail.

Lilypad Clubtail

Lilypad Clubtail

We left Mud Lake after that and headed over to the Shirley’s Bay cottage area to look for a Giant Swallowtail recently reported near Hilda Road. Although we spotted a large yellow swallowtail patrolling Lois Street, our consensus was that it was a Canadian Tiger Swallowtail. We also saw a couple of Northern Crescents and one skipper (likely a Hobomok Skipper), but the most abundant butterfly was the Little Wood Satyr.

Odonates included Eastern Forktail, a couple of Racket-tailed Emeralds, a couple of Common Baskettails, one Prince Baskettail, one Chalk-fronted Corporal and a couple of Widow Skimmers. Chris managed to net a Common Baskettail patrolling the road, which was my first confirmed sighting of this species. Notice the large dark patch at the base of the hindwings, reminiscent of a Black Saddlebags.

Common Baskettail

Common Baskettail

The upper claspers lack a distinct tooth and extend straight out rather than curving upward or downward.

Common Baskettail

Common Baskettail

It was fun to spend some time dragon-hunting with Chris and Mike after a slow start to the season. After not seeing any baskettails all spring I ended up with three in one outing, including two lifers; and I was still thrilled with the way I managed to capture the Harlequin Darner. All in all, a great day to be outdoors!

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4 thoughts on “Dragon-hunting and Turtle-watching

  1. On my last trip to Constance Creek at Thomas Dolan, I saw shallow burrows in the dirt all up and down the sides of the road, with dozens of broken eggshells lying around them. Snapping Turtle nests, I guess? I can only hope they actually hatched, and weren’t dug up by some predator!

    • Hi Suzanne,

      Unfortunately, they were probably dug up by a predator. Snappers are just laying their eggs now and it takes at least 9 weeks for them to hatch. I wish we could put cage over top of the nest sites the way they do in Algonquin Park to keep predators out and give them a chance. 😦

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