The First Butterflies

Eastern Comma

Eastern Comma

Last week saw the arrival of a whole slew of migrants; I added 13 new birds to my year list between Thursday and Sunday, NOT including the two swallow species seen at Billings Bridge on Friday. Even better, the temperature finally warmed up enough for the first butterflies and amphibians to emerge on Saturday!

I’d been seeing large flocks of geese flying over my house for a while now, and I wanted to check out the flooded fields along Eagleson before they dried up. I thought I’d have a good chance of finding large flocks (i.e. hundreds or more) of geese in the wet corn fields and, after finishing an early dinner on Thursday night, headed south along Eagleson Road. It wasn’t so much the Canada Geese that interested me as it was the possibility of finding other species – Snow Geese, Ross’s Geese, Cackling Geese, and the ever-elusive Greater White-fronted Geese – lurking among the huge numbers of Canadas that stage here before flying north.

The flooded fields along Rushmore and Akins Road had vanished, but I found large pools of standing water on Brownlee. Several hundred geese were also present, and though I wasn’t able to see any white ones – or any Greater White-fronted Geese – I did manage to pick out a Cackling Goose. I never would have seen it if it hadn’t been feeding in an open area all by itself; these small geese are virtually identical in plumage to their larger cousins, except for a few subtle differences.

Cackling Goose

Cackling Goose

Unfortunately the clouds had swallowed the sun by the time I set out, so even though I had an hour of daylight left, the light was already fading. I continued my way south toward Old Richmond Road where I found more wet fields and more Canada Geese. I thought I had found my first Snow Goose among them but the white blob turned out to be a heavy-duty plastic bag of some sort.

On a whim I continued toward the Richmond Lagoons. The Jock River had burst its banks and flooded the field on the east side of Eagleson. There I found my second new year bird, an Osprey hovering over the flooded field.

Osprey

Osprey

It was escorted by an irate crow over the Richmond Lagoons, where it continued to hover, looking for fish. I also saw my first muskrat of the year at the edge of the water close to the road.

The sun was shining when I got up on Saturday and headed west to Dunrobin. I didn’t see any Osprey on the nests at Constance Creek or along Berry Side Road, but I did find my first Eastern Phoebe and Eastern Meadowlarks on my way to the Bill Mason Centre. Other birds of interest included a couple of Wild Turkeys, a Killdeer, and a couple of Tree Swallows sitting on the wires.

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow

Song Sparrows, Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds were everywhere.

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

At the Bill Mason Centre I was surprised to see that the first gazebo had been torn down. Eastern Phoebes used to nest here, and indeed I saw one at the back of the marsh near the other gazebo. I saw my first Wilson’s Snipe of the year, a group of seven that flew constantly over the marsh together in a loose formation, with an eighth bird winnowing much higher in the sky. The marsh was still frozen, and I didn’t see or hear any rails. I did hear two Swamp Sparrows singing in the marsh, and my first Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in the woods. I heard two Purple Finches and saw one, a female; and a pair of Wood Ducks perching in a tree was a pleasant surprise. I didn’t observe any Snowshoe Hares or Ruffed Grouse, though I did see a porcupine sleeping in the shack on the northern loop.

A quick stop at Sarsaparilla revealed several birds at the pond, although only the edges were free of ice. Four Tree Swallows were hunting over the pond, while I saw my first kingfisher of the year perching in one of the snags in the northwestern corner. A male Green-winged Teal was sleeping at the edge of the ice, while three Ring-necked Ducks and two Hooded Mergansers were swimming in the water opposite the boardwalk. At the parking lot, I saw my first White-throated Sparrow of the spring, several juncos, and the same clump of Snowdrops I first spotted here last year:

Snowdrops

Snowdrops

My final stop of the day was the Rideau Trail just down the road. It had warmed up considerably – my car said it was 17°C, the warmest day of the year so far! – and I thought I might see my first butterflies or snakes. I came across a decent flock of kinglets, and thought they were all Golden-crowned Kinglets until I heard my first Ruby-crown of the year singing away. I also heard – but didn’t see – my first Northern Flicker of the year. I took the left-hand path at the fork, and went straight back into the woods. I had heard a colony of Western Chorus Frogs here the year before, and they didn’t disappoint me; I heard them again and went to check out the large vernal pool at the edge of the hydro corridor. Although I spent almost an hour in the vicinity, and although the sound was quite deafening, I could not see a single frog.

A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker started tapping nearby, while an Eastern Phoebe – the first I have seen at this trail – called incessantly while hunting for insects near the water.

As I started walking back to the trail, I saw my first Mourning Cloak land on the ground in front of me. A bright patch of orange colour next to it caught my attention, and I realized there was an Eastern Comma resting beside it – and that both were feeding on scat!

Eastern Comma and Mourning Cloak

Eastern Comma and Mourning Cloak

Mourning Cloaks and Eastern Commas are among the first butterflies to appear in the spring because they overwinter here as adults, tucked away beneath tree bark, inside crevices and brush piles, until the first warm, sunny days of spring. These two butterflies are able to survive by feeding on sap and animal scat, both of which contain essential nutrients. Because of the slow, cold start to spring, no butterflies have been reported in our region until April 10th, which is late for overwintering butterflies to emerge.

Mourning Cloak

Mourning Cloak

I accidentally startled the Eastern Comma while trying to get closer, but fortunately it didn’t fly too far.

Eastern Comma

Eastern Comma

Both the Mourning Cloak and Eastern Comma have cryptic, mottled brown undersides; when they close their wings, they blend in with their surroundings, looking more like a dead leaf than a tasty meal for an insectivore. You can see the silvery comma-shape on the underside of its wings that gives this group of butterflies its name in this photo:

Eastern Comma

Eastern Comma

After such a long, cold, miserable winter it was great to be outside on such a warm, sunny day. Although the beautiful weather didn’t last, I enjoyed seeing my first butterflies and hearing the first frogs of the season, as well as all the new bird arrivals. Hopefully it will warm up again soon and spring will decide to stay for a while!

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3 thoughts on “The First Butterflies

  1. Hi Gillian, I very much enjoy your photography. Could you tell me what camera/lenses you are using? I have seen one Mourning Cloak so far (Ottawa West), but didn’t get a picture. Nolie Schneider

    • Hi Nolie,

      Thanks for reading! I use a point-and-shoot, no special lenses involved. My current camera is a Sony Cybershot DSC-HX200V, which has a 30x zoom and is ideal for taking on long walks.

      I wish it would warm up so I can see some more butterflies, and maybe even some dragonflies!

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