Spring Butterflies at Nortel

Hooded Merganser (male)

Hooded Merganser (male)

Sunday was another gorgeous day so after lunch I went out to look for butterflies. I started off my walk at the Rideau Trail, but after seeing very little I decided to head over to the former Nortel campus instead. The woods here are a traditional spot to find overwintering butterflies on the first warm days of spring, and I’ve had luck finding Mourning Cloaks and Eastern Commas here in the past. I also wanted to check on a few spots where I’d heard Western Chorus Frogs calling in previous years.

The woods were quiet when I arrived – there weren’t many birds around, though a few chickadees flew up to me looking for handouts. It didn’t take long to find a couple of Mourning Cloaks circling each other as they flew up into the trees. As I was still watching them, a third landed on a tree in front of me.

Then a fourth Mourning Cloak came along and chased this one off; at one point I saw all four circling each other in a tight group!

Mourning Cloak (Click to Enlarge)

Mourning Cloak (Click to Enlarge)

Further along the path I came across another Mourning Cloak resting on the ground and startled it into flight. I tried to follow it in case it landed close by, and was surprised to see another butterfly rush out and give chase to the Mourning Cloak. It was smaller with a lot of orange on the top, and when it landed I wasn’t surprised to identify it as an Eastern Comma.

Eastern Comma (Click to Enlarge)

Eastern Comma (Click to Enlarge)

The Eastern Comma is considered an “anglewing”, the informal name for a group of butterflies which all have conspicuous angular notches on the outer edges of their forewings. When these butterflies close their wings, the cryptic colouration of the underside gives them the appearance of a dead leaf, providing excellent camouflage in the early days of spring when the forest floor is covered with the previous year’s leaf litter. Can you spot the Eastern Comma in the photo below (click to enlarge):

Can you spot the well-camouflaged Eastern Comma resting in the leaf litter?

There is a butterfly in there, I promise!

When it first landed I didn’t know quite where it was, either, so I zoomed way out when taking this photo. This makes a good photo quiz and that’s about it!

The commas are named for the silvery mark on the underside of their wings. The Eastern Comma has a comma-shaped mark with thickened ends that make it look like a smile. Question Marks are larger and have a small silvery dot next to the comma, and Gray Commas have a thin angular mark that looks like a check-mark. As these butterflies come in two forms and can be variable, the shape of the comma is the best way to identify them – always get a photo of both sides of the wings!

Eastern Comma

Eastern Comma

I found a couple of ponds where I heard Western Chorus Frogs (and a couple of Spring Peepers) calling but wasn’t able to spot any, as usual. I saw my first Garter Snake of the year, and also scared up a huge Turkey Vulture on the ground. I’m not sure what it was doing there and didn’t look to see if it was snacking on a carcass.

I didn’t see any groundhogs on the lawns; I was hoping to take some pictures of them as it’s been a while since I’ve posted any groundhog photos. When I saw a couple of male Hooded Mergansers in one of the ponds on my way out, however, I had to stop and take some photos. I find it difficult to get decent shots of these diving ducks as they are quite skittish and prefer to be as far away from humans as possible. As the pond was quite small, however, my 30x zoom was able to capture some great photos of the two males and two females.

Hooded Mergansers

Hooded Mergansers (Click to Enlarge)

Hooded Mergansers are cavity-nesters that breed throughout Ontario, primarily on the Canadian Shield. Although they breed in Ottawa (I have seen a family of young Hooded Mergansers on Mud Lake in the past), their secretive behaviour and preference for secluded waterways makes them difficult to find in the breeding season. Hooded Mergansers regularly use nest boxes.

Hooded Mergansers (Click to Enlarge)

Hooded Mergansers (Click to Enlarge)

As with other waterfowl species, males remain with the females only for a few weeks, abandoning them at the onset of incubation. At that point the female is entirely responsible for rearing her young, usually remaining well-hidden until they reach adult-size.

Hooded Merganser (Female)

Hooded Merganser (Female)

Nortel is a great spot to visit in the spring when the butterflies and other animals are just starting to emerge. I usually don’t visit the area that often; it would be fun to go back once the dragonflies start to fly!

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