Although many birders consider the breeding season to be rather slow, I enjoy going out in June and July as many of our breeding birds are still singing, and there is always a chance of finding an active nest or some newly fledged birds being fed or taking their first flights under the watchful eyes of their parents. These months are also good for seeing butterflies and dragonflies, so even if I don’t find any baby birds, there is always something interesting to catch my attention!
I was still on vacation on Friday, July 25th and went to Mud Lake with the hope of seeing some interesting odonates. I came up with a good list, including Northern Spreadwing, Marsh Bluet, Hagen’s Bluet, Powdered Dancer, Eastern Forktail, Common Green Darner, Eastern Pondhawk, Dot-tailed Whiteface, White-faced Meadowhawk, Autumn Meadowhawk, Twelve-spotted Skimmer, Widow Skimmer, and Common Whitetail. I did not see any clubtails.
I caught the spreadwing in the weedy area just south of the filtration plant along the shore. It was a male, and had the typical claspers of a Northern Spreadwing: the two “teeth” on the upper clasper appear equal-sized and evenly spaced. They are much further apart in the Sweetflag Spreadwing, and the distal tooth appears small.
There were some good birds around; I counted seven Spotted Sandpipers along the rocky shore of the channel behind the ridge, two Great Blue Herons, two Hooded Mergansers on the lake, a Red-breasted Nuthatch (a species which can be hard to find at Mud Lake), a Chipping Sparrow, three Yellow Warblers, a Great-crested Flycatcher, and a Gray Catbird. At the “dragonfly nursery” area along Britannia Point I found this exuvia clinging to a tree trunk. It would have been great to see the owner of this larval skin, but there were no big dragons perching on the rocks in the channel or skimming over the water along the point.
From there I followed the eastern path around the lake. I checked the small pond near the transitway for Green Herons and dragonflies but found this Monarch butterfly checking out the milkweed instead. I can’t recall if this was my first Monarch of the year; it is certainly the first one I’ve photographed this summer!
At the back of the trail I heard a young bird begging from somewhere close by. I couldn’t figure out what it was or where the sound was coming from, until I looked up and saw the nest in a shrub almost directly above the path. I also saw a male American Redstart singing in the same area, and waited to see if the redstart would approach the nest. He didn’t, but a female American Redstart did! She fed the nestling, then rushed off to find more food.
Although the male American Redstart picks out multiple nest sites during the early stages of courtship, the female chooses the final nest site after testing each one out. The nest is usually well camouflaged by foliage, as seen in the photo above. It takes the female between three and seven days to build the nest, creating a tightly woven cup of small fibers, such as birch bark strips, grasses, milkweed seed hairs, animal hairs, feathers, rootlets, leaves, lichens, twigs, mosses, pine needles, and wasp nest paper. The final structure is about 2-3 inches across and 2-3 inches in height on the outside, with an inner cup about 2 inches across and 1.5 inches deep.
The female then lays between one and five eggs, which she incubates for about 10–13 days. Once the eggs have hatched, both the male and the female bring food for the nestlings. However, once the offspring fledge (which takes between 7 and 13 days after they are born), the parents split up the chicks between them and feed only those under its care.
Two days later I visited the Richmond Lagoons. An Alder Flycatcher was singing, a Green Heron was sitting in a tree overlooking the middle lagoon cell, and two female Wood Ducks were swimming in the same cell with six young ducklings. I saw this Black Swallowtail feeding on the milkweed and managed to snap a couple of photos before it flew off:
The usual Common Yellowthroats and Swamp Sparrows were present toward the back of the lagoons. When I checked the field behind them, I spotted several Cedar Waxwings, a Warbling Vireo, and a Yellow Warbler; later, a lone Turkey Vulture flew over. I surprised when I returned to the parking lot and found a lot of bird activity in the shrubs surrounding the gravel lot – much more than there had been when I arrived. The edge habitat here can produce some interesting birds in the warmer months, from Purple Finches to Least Flycatchers, Baltimore Orioles to Yellow Warblers. Today I found a young Brown-headed Cowbird being fed by its foster mother, an American Redstart.
Cowbirds do not raise their own young but rather lay their eggs in other species’ nests, a practice known as brood parasitism. The species whose nest has been parasitized raises the cowbird as its own, often at the expense of its own offspring. Common hosts include the Red-eyed Vireo, Yellow Warbler, Song Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, and Red-winged Blackbird.
Here the newly fledged cowbird waits for the American Redstart to return:
Another juvenile bird I saw lurking in the thickets was a Common Yellowthroat. It still has a bit of a pale gape visible just in front of the eye. It didn’t stay out in the open for very long.
Two birds that surprised me were a pair of Gray Catbirds. I am not used to seeing two catbirds together; even seeing the adult feeding its offspring last month at the Moodie Drive marsh was very unusual for me! I am not sure what these two adults were up to, but it was nice to be able to photograph them together before they, too, disappeared into the leafy foliage.
The circle of life is something I witness every time I go out birding or dragon-hunting. However, as a nature and wildlife enthusiast, it seems that I am more likely to witness to the end of an individual’s journey, rather than the beginning. As a result, I always feel privileged when I come across a recently born bird still in the nest, a fledgling just getting its first taste of life outside the nest, or even a dragonfly just emerging. For this reason, summer is one of my favourite seasons to go looking for wildlife.