Searching for Clubtails

In mid-June Chris Lewis received correspondence and photos from two members of the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists regarding their recent sightings of Rapids Clubtails along the Mississippi River. A couple of these clubtails were observed along the shore at Blakeney on June 15, 2015, while one or two others were spotted at the bottom of the power station discharge channel next to Metcalfe Park in Almonte. Chris was interested in trying to track these small dragonflies down, and so on June 20th she, Mike Tate and I headed out to Almonte.

The Rapids Clubtail flies between mid-June and mid-July and is considered rare and local because of its preference for fast-moving waters along various water courses. It was first discovered in the Ottawa area by Paul Catling in mid-June 2001 when he found them at the five-arch bridge in Pakenham and at the rapids near Blakeney. In 2009, it became the first Ontario dragonfly to be added to the endangered species list; the larvae are extremely sensitive to river degradation resulting from the building of dams and increasing pollution levels. While it previously inhabited four rivers in southern Ontario, the Rapids Clubtail is now found only along the Humber and Mississippi rivers.

Rapids Clubtail habitat in Almonte

Rapids Clubtail habitat in Almonte (click to enlarge)

Although I’ve gone searching for these dragonflies at both Pakenham and Blakeney on multiple occasions with Chris and Bob Bracken, we never did find any. The location at Metcalfe Park was new to us, and Chris thought it was worth checking. This species would be a lifer for me.

We headed out to Metcalfe Park early in the morning, but the morning was cool and there were very few odes flying. Although we scanned the area near the boat launch and the discharge channel, we were unable to find any clubtails. The rapids at Blakeney proved similarly fruitless, although I was happy to see the Ebony Jewelwings flitting in the vegetation. We were disappointed to find the path that runs along the river had been blocked by a gate; as a result, we were only able to search to a small area near the parking area.

We ended our search at the five-arch bridge in Pakenham. The river was very high, restricting our search only a small section of the riverbank; we were unable to walk out onto the rocks where the clubtails like to perch. I spotted both Rainbow Bluets and Stream Bluets in the vegetation, as well as one large dragonfly which zipped by over the water too fast to identify. A River Jewelwing in the vegetation proved much more accommodating.

River Jewelwing

River Jewelwing

From there we headed out to Jack Pine Trail to look for emeralds and Arrowhead Spiketails. Once again I was disappointed to see very few emeralds flying in the marsh at the back; certainly not the dozens I had seen at the same time last year. We did see one Common Baskettail and one Prince Baskettail, along with the usual Four-spotted Skimmers and Common Whitetails. A couple of Eastern Commas were hanging out along the back of the trail as well, acting very territorial as we crossed the boardwalk. This is my first sighting of this species since the early spring.

Fortunately, an Arrowhead Spiketail along the creek at the back made the stop worthwhile. It was not perching in the clearing this time; instead Mike and Chris noticed it patrolling the length of the stream. We were very happy when it landed on some vegetation almost right in front of us. Although not a clubtail, the spiketails are in some ways a better find as they are very local species and difficult to find, unless you happen to be in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. This is what my field guide “Dragonflies through Binoculars” says, and except for repeat sightings of Arrowhead Spiketails at Jack Pine Trail, I find this to be quite true.

Arrowhead Spiketail

Arrowhead Spiketail

On our way back to the parking lot Chris netted an emerald perching in a tree. I expected it to be a Racket-tailed Emerald, but instead it turned out to be a Brush-tipped Emerald. At least I know they are back this year!

Our last stop was a spot along the Greenbelt Pathway West just south of the 417. Brian Mortimer had discovered a few Eastern Red Damsels in this area and we were interested in tracking them down since we haven’t seen any at the Bruce Pit in a couple of years now. Although we found a nice wet spot at the bottom of the large slope near the fence line, the only damselfly we saw was a single Eastern Forktail. Still, it will be worth checking this area again.

The weather the following day was not conducive to ode-hunting. I went for my morning walk at Sarsaparilla Trail in the overcast conditions, making it home just as it started raining. I tallied 26 species, including a fly-over Green Heron, at least eight Tree Swallows hunting over the pond, one Yellow Warbler, a singing Yellow-rumped Warbler (not very common in Ottawa in the summer, though they do like coniferous areas), a singing White-throated Sparrow, two Scarlet Tanagers, and two singing Marsh Wrens. One of the Marsh Wrens had set up his territory in the large patch of cattails right at the end of the boardwalk, gathering nesting material in between giving brief bursts of song from an exposed perch. The Marsh Wren repeatedly flew back and forth between clumps of cattails, bringing cattail fluff and other bits of vegetation back to a spot low within the reeds beyond the end of the boardwalk.

Marsh Wren

Marsh Wren

My search for clubtails was not going very well this year – it was almost the end of June and so far I’d only seen two species, the surprise Lancet Clubtail at Hurdman and the usual Dusky Clubtails at Roger’s Pond. In the meantime, my friend Chris Traynor was having all sorts of luck in Gatineau Park, a place I usually don’t go because of the Sunday bike day road closures, and at Morris Island, finding species I’d never even dreamed of seeing, like Mustached Clubtail and Cobra Clubtail. Chris also mentioned seeing Midland Clubtails flying now; this was a species I’d found right behind Parliament Hill downtown, and as it’s an easy walk there from work, I took some time this week to look for them perching on the rocks along the shore of the Ottawa River. On Monday I spotted a large dragonfly sitting on some rocks, but it flew off before I could get any photos. That was the only dragonfly I saw, which made the walk uneventful – until I discovered some Northern Rough-winged Swallows swooping over the canal on my way back to work.

I returned on Wednesday, and saw the swallows again – they looked like they might have been nesting in one of the holes along the canal wall. I also saw the dragonflies again. This time there were three, all Midland Clubtails. Unfortunately they liked to sit on the rocks just above the water, which made for a steep and treacherous descent of about three or four feet to get to their level. These were the best photos I could manage from a couple of feet above them:

Midland Clubtail

Midland Clubtail

Midland Clubtail

Midland Clubtail

I was happy that at least one of my clubtail quests had finally resulted in success; sometimes it pays to look just a little closer to home!


2 thoughts on “Searching for Clubtails

  1. It’s hard to believe that ode season is already starting to wind down. I was at Morris Island on Sunday and it was such a contrast to my earlier visit this year. I have had a very good season for clubtails and hopefully that will continue next year. Maybe we will actually find a Unicorn Clubtail.

    • I know – I can’t believe how fast the summer is flying by. However, now is the time to look for Wandering and Spot-winged Gliders, particularly in open fields and along the mudflats on the Ottawa River.

      I still haven’t written about our trip to Gatineau Park; next year I’m simply going to have to get up there earlier in the season to see all your fabulous clubtails.

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