The Beginning of Dragonfly Season

Four-spotted Skimmer

Four-spotted Skimmer

When I returned to Ottawa on May 15th I was happy to hear that dragonfly season had begun – fellow OFNC member Chris Traynor had already reported seeing a Hudsonian Whiteface, American Emerald, and a baskettail species (likely a Beaverpond Baskettail) the day before I returned. Last year I didn’t have my first real dragonfly outing until May 31st (chiefly because I was away in Florida the weekend before that), but even so this seemed early.

Eager to see some dragonflies, I checked a few trails in Stony Swamp early on Saturday morning, but found none – though it was warm, the sky was too overcast. I did, however, observe a couple of new birds for my year list, including an Eastern Wood-Pewee, Alder Flycatcher and Clay-colored Sparrow at Jack Pine Trail and a Black-throated Blue Warbler at the Beaver Trail. I was also pleased to hear two Brown Thrashers at Jack Pine Trail, a species I have never observed there before, and a total of nine warbler species including Ovenbird, Black-and-white Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Pine Warbler and Black-throated Green Warbler. In addition to these, a singing Black-throated Blue Warbler and a Yellow-rumped Warbler were at the Beaver Trail.

I decided to stop in at the hydro cut next to the Rideau Trail parking lot on my way home. I didn’t see any migrants or breeding birds worth noting, but I did scare up two Four-spotted Skimmers lurking in the grass.

Four-spotted Skimmer

Four-spotted Skimmer

I wasn’t expecting to see any of these early-flying dragons for at least a week, so it occurred to me it might be a good idea to go dragon-hunting the next day, when it was supposed to be sunnier. I talked to Chris T. and Lorraine, friends from the OFNC Birds Committee who have also expressed an interest in dragonflies, and we decided to check out Roger’s Pond in Marlborough to look for odes. Chris in particular was keen on going as he had never been there and was looking for something a little quieter than Mud Lake.

We found a few odes flying at the first clearing. Chalk-fronted Corporals were present, as usual, but it was Chris who found the first emerald resting on the ground. My first thought was American Emerald, one of the earliest flying emeralds which is black with a whitish ring near the top of the abdomen.

Ebony Boghaunter

Ebony Boghaunter

When I caught it, however, I noticed it seemed small for an American Emerald. I released it and watched as it landed on a nearby tree. It wasn’t until I got home and looked at the photos that I noticed that it had three small whitish rings, not just one. Those, compared with the small size, got me thinking. I had assumed American Emerald because it is a relatively common species in the early spring and I’ve seen it in a number of different trails and habitats. When I saw the photos, however, it made me think of the Ebony Boghaunters at Mer Bleue. While they breed in bogs, they can show up anywhere – including in my own backyard. I checked with Chris Lewis, and she confirmed it was, in fact, a boghaunter. I felt happy since I knew this was a species that Chris T. had wanted to see, though I was kicking myself for not realizing what it was at the time.

Ebony Boghaunter

Ebony Boghaunter

Not long after that, we found a REAL American Emerald, a larger, slimmer, more elegant-looking species. Although both the Ebony Boghaunter and the American Emerald belong to the emerald family, both individuals we found had brown eyes, indicating they had only emerged in the past day or two. Their eyes turn from brown to green as they mature.

American Emerald

American Emerald

We also noticed a few baskettails patrolling the air above the gravel trail in the open cedar grove for which the trail is named. I spotted one perching on a stem, and identified it as a Beaverpond Baskettail without even catching it. The distinctly angled claspers are visible in this photo:

Beaverpond Baskettail

Beaverpond Baskettail

I showed Chris and Lorraine the clearing with the old crib mattress where I’d found so many salamanders in the past. It didn’t disappoint; we found three Eastern Red-backed Salamanders underneath it, all of them gray.

Eastern Red-backed Salamander

Eastern Red-backed Salamander

A few butterflies were flying as well; we saw a couple of Cabbage Whites, a few Spring Azures, and several crescents. This Meadow Fritillary was a bit of a surprise; I didn’t realize they flew so early in the season.

Meadow Fritillary

Meadow Fritillary

A couple of fresh Juvenal’s Duskywings posed for us as well.

Juvenal's Duskywing

Juvenal’s Duskywing

We reached the pond where we were greeted by the sound of a Pied-billed Grebe calling. I was surprised to see a few Ring-necked Ducks out on the water; I had thought they were all long gone. Best of all, there were dragonflies! While I thought we might see a few different species, I wasn’t expecting to see hundreds of individuals. They must have emerged in the last 24 hours as there were many teneral dragonflies near the pond, mostly whitefaces judging by the shiny wings and yellow and black abdomens – there were no mature whitefaces whatsoever, and I was unable to tell them apart without asking for help from the Northeast Odonata Facebook page.

Frosted Whiteface

Frosted Whiteface

More were still emerging. Here you can see the exuvia still attached to the strand of vegetation with the freshly emerged dragonfly (possibly another whiteface?) clinging to it. Dragonflies are translucent and relatively colourless when they first emerge. After breaking free from their larval skin, dragonfly blood (called haemolymph) starts pumping through the abdomen and the veins of the wings, which are held against the body at first. The abdomen begins to straighten, while the wings gradually expand.

Emerging Dragonfly with Exuvia

Emerging Dragonfly with Exuvia

The dragonfly must wait for its wings to dry out, which then become transparent and assume the normal outstretched resting position. At this point the dragonfly’s body begins to harden and darken, losing its translucence and taking on the familiar pattern and colour of mature adults. This process takes a few hours, although it may take longer to attain the rich, deep colours of an adult dragonfly. Eventually the muscles of the abdomen start to vibrate as the newly formed dragonfly warms up for its first flight, when it will leave its exposed perch over the water to find a more sheltered spot to complete the transformation.

Emerging Dragonfly with Exuvia

Emerging Dragonfly with Exuvia

We spent a lot of time at the pond as there was just so much to see. Chris found a few Mink Frogs to photograph, as well as a couple of Northern Water Snakes which moved too quickly in the water for me to get a decent photo. Another was curled up in the reeds above the water, apparently dozing in the sun.

Mink Frog

Mink Frog

We walked to the creek and back, but didn’t see any jewelwings or spiketails hanging out near the rushing water. There were plenty of baskettails, Chalk-fronted Corporals, young whitefaces, and Four-spotted Skimmers along the way, as well as a few bluets – the only ones I identified were Taiga Bluets, and what was either a Northern/Vernal Bluet. Both species have identical-looking claspers, and both species fly in May (Vernal emerges in early May, Northern in mid-May), but when I checked with Chris Lewis, she thought Vernal Bluet was more likely given the habitat. This is the only damselfly on the Ottawa list that I don’t have on my life list, mostly because it is so difficult to separate from Northern.

We found some Gaywings (aka Fringed Polygala) growing in a sunny spot in the woods. They prefer sandy or clay pine stands and conifer swamps. Although it looks like an orchid, it is a member of the milkwort family.

Gaywings (Fringed Polygala)

Gaywings (Fringed Polygala)

As we were walking back toward the parking lot, Chris pointed out a small clubtail on the ground. I was hoping for a Horned Clubtail, but the yellow stripes on the thorax pointed to one of the three Gomphus species. It had no yellow markings on the last two segments, making it a Dusky Clubtail, a common species at Roger’s Pond.

Dusky Clubtail

Dusky Clubtail

On our way out we also saw a Common Green Darner which landed briefly on some vegetation and a Harlequin Darner which landed on me! Chris and Lorraine told me a large dragonfly had just landed on my leg, and I suspected what it was before I even got a good look at it. Harlequin Darners really like perching on people for some reason; almost all of my encounters with them resulted from them seeing them on someone’s back or leg! I only caught a glimpse of it before it flew off, but Chris got a photo.

Just outside of the large clearing we found another Dusky Clubtail on the gravel trail. It was quite cooperative and I was able to get some great close-ups of it.

Dusky Clubtail

Dusky Clubtail

Dusky Clubtail (top view)

Dusky Clubtail (top view)

We also spotted a pair of baskettails in a mating wheel.

Mating Baskettails

Mating Baskettails

All three of us enjoyed the outing, and were happy to see so many dragonflies emerging. Roger’s Pond has a great variety of wildlife that make any summer visit worthwhile – from the breeding warblers singing along the trail to the wonderful Mink Frogs, as well as the numerous butterflies, dragonflies, snakes and salamanders that call this section of the Marlborough Forest home. I’ll definitely be returning in June to seek out more of its unique species!

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