An OFNC Outing: The Flora and Fauna of Sheila McKee Park

Eastern Red-backed Salamanders

Eastern Red-backed Salamanders

When I woke up on Sunday, I knew it was going to be a good day as soon as I looked out the back window and saw a Blue-headed Vireo and a Black-throated Green Warbler in a neighbour’s tree. Both species were new for my (seen from the) yard list, but that’s not what made me so happy; it is the fact that these birds appearing in my wide-open neighbourhood with no real tree canopy could only mean that migration had finally resumed! If I was seeing these kinds of birds in my own neighbourhood, who knew what birds could be found in more migrant-friendly habitat! That morning I planned to attend Jakob Mueller’s OFNC outing to Sheila McKee Park along the Ottawa River. I had never been there, but I was guessing that if it was anything like Shirley’s Bay, I might see all kinds of birds!

Jakob’s description of the outing on the OFNC website referred to Sheila McKee Park as a “little-known jewel of west Ottawa” that has “diverse wildlife, including abundant salamanders, snakes, and birds. Some unusual plant life is also present, and an interesting escarpment can be seen along the Ottawa River’s shore”. I knew Jakob from when he led the reptile and amphibian component of the outing at Opinicon Road last summer. Having seen very few frogs, snakes, turtles or salamanders so far this spring, I was looking forward to attending.

The weather was warm and we had a good crowd – almost 30 people showed up. Jakob pointed out the calls of a Gray Treefrog and group of chorus frogs from nearby; he mentioned that the chorus frogs are called Striped Chorus Frogs, and that ones in Ottawa form a distinct population that is considered threatened. He also mentioned he was pretty sure he could guarantee us an Eastern Red-backed Salamander, as there are lots of logs and rocks in the park to flip over. Sure enough, the first log he looked under had a tiny Eastern Red-backed Salamander hidden underneath:

Eastern Red-backed Salamander

Eastern Red-backed Salamander

These salamanders come in two different colour forms, similar to the way our Eastern Gray Squirrels come in two different varieties: the red-backed variety and the gray variety which is sometimes called the “lead-backed” salamander. He said that because the salamander’s skin is very absorbent, people should never pick up a salamander if they have put any kind of lotion or bug spray on their hands. He is very careful to hydrate the salamander when he returns it to the soil by pouring water around it, and to carefully replace the rock or log so that it doesn’t squish the salamander. He also mentioned that he never lifts a log that looks so rotted that it might fall apart on him – damaging these logs also damages the very habitats these tiny amphibians depend upon.

When I flipped over a few rocks on my own, I found a couple of both varieties, although I didn’t pick them up.

Eastern Red-backed Salamander

Eastern Red-backed Salamander

Another rock I turned over had two salamanders resting side by side:

Eastern Red-backed Salamanders

Eastern Red-backed Salamanders

Jakob called us all over to show us another pair he had found: another Eastern Red-backed Salamander…

Eastern Red-backed Salamander

Eastern Red-backed Salamander

…and a Blue-spotted Salamander! He says that he finds the Blue-spotted Salamanders and Red Efts (the terrestrial stage of the Eastern Newt) more common in Ottawa – except in this park, where the red-backs are very common.

Blue-spotted Salamander

Blue-spotted Salamander

We headed down to the river, passing a large clump of Sharp-lobed Hepatica. These early spring bloomers are considered one of the “Spring Ephemerals” that blooms briefly before the leaf canopy blocks out the light from the sun.

Sharp-lobed Hepatica

Sharp-lobed Hepatica

I have never been able to identify which species of Hepatica I was looking at, but fortunately someone on the outing was able to tell the Sharp-lobed Hepatica from the Round-lobed Hepatica by pointing out the leaves. The tips of the leaves on this plant are pointed, compared to the rounded leaves of a Round-lobed Hepatica which resemble a three-leaf clover or the club symbol in a deck of cards.

Sharp-lobed Hepatica

Sharp-lobed Hepatica Leaves

We descended a neat wooden staircase to the beach about 30 feet below.

Down to the river

Down to the river

Jakob pointed out some ferns growing on the escarpment while I proceeded down to the beach, a narrow, rocky strip of sand. I saw a distant loon out on the water and three Horned Grebes swimming along the shoreline. Jakob pointed out a dragonfly nymph swimming in the water; I didn’t get a good enough photo to tell which type of dragonfly it would become.

Along the river

Along the river

After looking around the shore we headed back up into the woods. There weren’t as many birds or butterflies as I would have liked, but I did see some Spring Azures, Mourning Cloaks, Eastern Commas, and this polygonia species. As the key to identifying members of the comma family (which includes the Question Mark, Gray Comma, Green Comma, and Eastern Comma in our area) is the shape of the silver comma on the underside of the wings, I made sure to photograph it while the wings were folded. That didn’t help as the comma mark doesn’t have the thickened ends of an Eastern Comma, the additional dot of a Question Mark, or the angular check-mark of a Gray Comma, which are the only possibilities I’m familiar with. I had to ask Peter Hall, and he confirmed that it is a Gray Comma, as the comma is in the shape of a backwards “L” with no thickened barbs at the end. He also mentioned that the Gray Comma is the only polygonia species which has fine striations on the underside of both wings. So even though the backwards “L” is curved rather than the meeting of two lines at a distinct angle, it is still a Gray Comma – my first of the year!

Polygonia sp.

Gray Comma

As for the birds, I counted 24 species in the time we spent there. “Pishing” brought in a Black-throated Green Warbler for the group to enjoy, and we also saw a couple of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, a Pileated Woodpecker, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and a pair of Belted Kingfishers flying downriver. We also heard the ringing song of a Purple Finch a couple of times during the outing. The best part came later on when I heard a Blue-headed Vireo singing in a coniferous area. I started “pishing” which brought out not only the vireo, but also a Black-throated Green Warbler, a Red-breasted Nuthatch, several Yellow-rumps, and a Hermit Thrush! It was neat to see so many birds pop out into the open.

I had a lot of fun on the outing, and enjoyed hearing Jakob talk about the salamanders that we saw (we found no snakes and only saw a couple of Leopard Frogs). Although it wasn’t as “birdy” as I would have liked, it’s a neat little park, and worth visiting again.

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5 thoughts on “An OFNC Outing: The Flora and Fauna of Sheila McKee Park

  1. I’m enjoying your posts. I tried to find the Sheila McKee Park but it doesn’t come up (except for a news report about a woman who was attacked there!). Could you give me some directions?

    Thanks,

    Wendy McPeake

    >

    • Hi Wendy,

      It used to be known as Riverfront Park which is why it doesn’t come up in many Google searches. It is on the Ottawa River near Pinhey Point. You can click the link for precise directions and a brief description of the habitat and a few rare birds that have been seen here over the years.

      Regards,
      Gillian

  2. Hi Gillian,

    Really enjoy your posts, and envy your energy to get out the way you do.

    I thought I’d drop over to Sheila McKee Park but after spending the afternoon trying to locate it on google maps and elsewhere, no luck. But I did discover the Bird observatory. New to me. I presume it is not private property and one can go there merely to observe.

    Steve

    • Hi Stephen,

      Sheila McKee park is just beyond the Bird Observatory and the YMCA youth camp. It used to be called Riverfront Park which could be why you couldn’t find it.

      I’m not sure if the Innis Point Bird Observatory is open to the public, so I’ve never gone there. I tried checking out their website and Facebook page but it didn’t say anything about public accessibility.

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