It was a good day for birds. I heard a pair of Virginia Rails calling in the marsh, and Ovenbirds, Purple Finches, Eastern Wood-pewees, Red-eyed Vireos, and a Great Crested Flycatcher were all singing. A pair of Pileated Woodpeckers were working in the same area, one on an upright tree trunk and one on a fallen log, and I heard two Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers calling to each other a little further along.
At the back of the trail I checked the stream, which was overflowing its banks and running over the trail. I didn’t have my boots and couldn’t cross to the other side, so I spent some time checking the banks and looking up and down the swift-moving water. I didn’t see anything that looked like a spiketail and, disappointed, turned to leave. Only a couple metres away I reached a sunny opening, and movement on my left caught my attention. A Twelve-spotted Skimmer had just returned to its perch at the top of a tangle of bare branches, and when I stopped to check it out I noticed a second large dragon perching in the same dead shrub. It was black and yellow, and I felt a thrill of excitement when I realized it was the very spiketail I had come to see!
I couldn’t believe that finding the spiketail turned out to be so easy, and that it was an Arrowhead Spiketail of all things – the rarest of the three species found in Ottawa! It seemed my luck was changing for the better, at least where odonates were concerned! Unlike the skimmer the Arrowhead Spiketail was content to stay put, and feeling quite pleased I decided to move on.
From there I headed toward the large cattail marsh, passing over the stream again. This area at the back is usually good for butterflies such as fritillaries and White Admirals, and when I saw a White Admiral land nearby I stopped to take its picture. I’d also had a hummingbird moth and a Giant Ichneumon Wasp in the same area a few years ago, though both of these were seen later in the season.
When I got to the straight line that cuts through the cattail marsh I started noticing several dark dragonflies patrolling the area along the path. Some flew high, about eight or ten feet above the trail, while others flew by me at knee-height. They were all quite dark, and when I saw the bright green eyes I realized they were all emeralds. I hadn’t seen anything like this before at Jack Pine Trail and set about trying to catch one. It took a few tries, but on my third attempt I heard the sound of a dragonfly buzzing inside my net. I pulled it out and discovered a male Brush-tipped Emerald!
The large head and thorax, the yellow spots on the side, and the really hairy claspers were still familiar to me from my trip to Marlborough Forest. I was pleased with the find, but not altogether surprised; I had photographed a female perching in a tree in the alvar a few years ago. Still, I was happy to discover what appeared to be a good-sized colony of them and wondered how I had missed them before – had I not come at the right time of year? Or had they not been present in such visible numbers? As I was pondering these questions, I placed the emerald on a branch and photographed it. It remained there a good 15 minutes.
I caught a second male Brush-tipped Emerald. However, I noticed that these were small dragonflies, while some zooming past me on the trail were much larger. I turned my attention to these guys and finally managed to net one that was different. It had a more slender appearance, not as robust as the Brush-tipped Emerald, and although it also had hairy claspers, it was much longer, about the length of one of my fingers. When I got home and examined the photos I wasn’t sure whether it was a Williamson’s Emerald or a Ski-tipped Emerald. Both are large dragonflies; both have upper claspers that curl upward like a ski or an elf’s shoe. Fortunately my photos were clear enough for more knowledgeable ode enthusiasts to identify it as a Williamson’s Emerald.
I hadn’t seen one of these dragonflies since an early-September trip to the Bill Mason Center with Chris Lewis five years ago and was amazed to find them flying around Stony Swamp. According to my field guide, this species can be found in marshes, fens, streams and lakes but seems to prefer small, quiet forest streams and lakes with clear water. It has a flight period from late June to late August, with some individuals occasionally flying into September. My field guide also says that they are one of the most frequently encountered Somatochlora species in the region and that although it is widespread, it is still uncommon across most of Ontario. Again I wondered, had this species been here all along?
I also saw some Prince Baskettails soaring high above the trail, beyond the reach of my net. As I had spent enough time in the marsh I continued on to the alvar, encountering a singing Black-and-white Warbler, two Field Sparrows, and at least five White-throated Sparrows along the way. I spotted a baskettail flying low along the path at the edge the woods and managed to catch it. This one turned out to be a female Common Baskettail, identifiable by the large dark area at the base of each hindwing. This was my fifth emerald species of the day! (I had also seen some Racket-tailed Emeralds but didn’t photograph any.)
Another shot of the Common Baskettail after I placed her on a branch:
I proceeded along the trail that cuts through the middle of the alvar and spotted a Four-spotted Skimmer, a Common Whitetail, and a few more large, dark emeralds on patrol. When I caught one it turned out to be another male Williamson’s Emerald.
This time I made it a point to photograph the ski-shaped claspers.
I placed him on a branch but only managed this one photo before he flew off:
I ended up catching one more Williamson’s Emerald and one more Brush-tipped Emerald before continuing on my way. I headed toward the woods, and saw a flash of red in one of the shrubs at the edge. I raised my binoculars, expecting to see a male Northern Cardinal, and was surprised when I saw a male Scarlet Tanager instead!
Although not unusual in Stony Swamp, I hear these birds far more often than I see them. They prefer spending their time gleaning insects in the forest canopy and don’t often perch low; this fellow flew up into the trees when he caught me watching him. When I entered the woods I heard two more Scarlet Tanagers calling to each other, each call sounding like a nasal “chick-burr”. I managed to find a female perched on an open branch about six feet above the ground. These birds were the avian highlight of my visit.
A little further along, at the boardwalk, I spotted a male Common Yellowthroat singing from an exposed branch. These little masked warblers can also be difficult to see as they spend most of their time skulking among the thickets and tangled vegetation at the edges of marshes and wetlands. Their bright, lilting song “witch-ity, witchity, witch-ity” is a familiar sound in wetlands during the summer.
I also saw a couple of spreadwing damseflies in the vegetation next to the boardwalk. Both looked to be female Emerald Spreadwings, probably the species I see most often at Jack Pine Trail.
It was still fairly early by the time I finished the loop at Jack Pine Trail, so I decided to stop in at the Rideau Trail next to see what butterflies I could find along the hydro cut. I wasn’t sure if the Harris’s Checkerspot would still be flying (I had seen one previously on June 10, 2012) but the Coral Hairstreaks should be present – I had seen one on the last day of June 2012 and caught a brief glimpse of one last year, though I didn’t get a photo and couldn’t recall the date. Unfortunately I didn’t see either species, though a couple of Long-Dash Skippers were still present. I also heard a couple of Veeries and a Pine Warbler singing, two species which I often hear in the hydro cut during the summer, and a Swamp Sparrow near the wet spot beyond the second tower, a bird that I don’t usually hear here.
I decided to try the boardwalk next to see if I could find any Banded Hairstreaks. Two summers ago I’d had a couple in the woods near the entrance to the trail; I wasn’t entirely surprised when I spotted one sitting on a leaf in the same spot! Then two more hairstreaks flew in, engaged in a “battle royale” with each other. The one on the leaf took off and joined them, and the three of them flew in tight circles around the opening together for a while.
Suddenly I heard something new: the whistled two-note call of a Broad-winged Hawk! It was coming from the hydro cut and I regretted leaving the area so quickly. I was debating going back to the open area when I heard another sound: the whiny call of a Red-shouldered Hawk! For a few moments I listened as both hawks called back and forth. Then I spotted one flying over the trail, and decided to try to follow it. I made my way to the alvar all the while listening to the Broad-winged Hawk. I whistled its call, and it seemed to answer me! I didn’t think anything else would happen, but then the hawk flew in and landed in a dead tree. It called, I whistled back, and then it flew off as if realizing I was just a human and not another hawk.
The Red-shouldered Hawk, in the meantime, had stopped calling altogether.
I decided it was time to go and came across this fresh Eastern Comma sitting on the boardwalk. Not surprisingly, the Banded Hairstreaks were still in the same area where I had left them.
Altogether it was a wonderful day, and what was even better is that all of these interesting birds and bugs were only a five-minute drive away from home. It made me realize that I don’t have to wander too far from home to see such a fantastic variety of wildlife.