Dragonflies on Lily pads

Slaty Skimmer

Slaty Skimmer

On Friday, June 26 I took the day off work to go dragon-hunting at Morris Island. First, however, I stopped in at the Deschenes Rapids parking lot at the end of Woodroffe Avenue to go searching for not one, but two rare birds. The Little Egret was back after having spent some time wandering along the Jock River near Manotick, the ponds along Eagleson Road, the pond near Palladium Drive in Kanata, and however many unknown places in between. The egret has finally found a spot to its liking along the Ottawa River, spending the past few days at the mouth of Pinecrest Creek on the east side of Mud Lake or along the shore of Andrew Haydon Park in the mornings before flying off to spend the day elsewhere. In the evenings, it has been seen flying in to roost on Conroy Island, presumably because it feels at home with the colony of Great Egrets, Black-crowned Night Herons and Ring-billed Gulls that nest there. This pattern has become somewhat predictable, so that many people who missed it elsewhere have been able to see it.

Then, on June 21st, another rare bird was seen at the mouth of Pinecrest Creek – an American Avocet! I had never seen this bird in Ottawa before and figured it was worth stopping in to see both rare birds before driving out to Morris Island.

I parked at the Deschenes Rapids lookout and carried my scope along the bike path toward Mud Lake. I could see a bright white bird in the vegetation at the mouth of the creek even at a distance. After about a five-minute walk I set up the scope and scanned the area. Sure enough, the white bird was the Little Egret, and the American Avocet was sleeping on the bank close by! My digiscoped photos of the avocet didn’t turn out too well, but my egret photos weren’t too bad. In this one you can see the yellow foot as it walks along the grassy bank.

Little Egret

Little Egret

Its small size is evident when seen compared to the mallards resting in the grass behind it. If the mallards stood up they would only be slightly smaller than the egret.

Little Egret

Little Egret

The American Avocet didn’t stay too long – only seven days before moving on (it was last seen on June 27th so I was glad I saw it when I did). The Little Egret spent another 17 days in the area before its last sighting on July 13th (Conroy Island at 6:30 pm, according to eBird), having spent six weeks in Ottawa. The majority of that time was spent out of public view; it is unknown exactly where it was spending its days, as the mystery location clearly wasn’t on any birder’s regular route.

After my successful views of both birds I drove west toward Morris Island. I was hoping that the Cobra Clubtails Chris Traynor reported were still there, but first I planned to stop in at the Mississippi River snye where I’ve had good luck on previous visits. A snye is a side channel that connects two rivers, in this case the Mississippi River and the Ottawa River. Here you can see the remains of the old bridge that used to cross the snye (click to enlarge):

Mississippi River Snye

Mississippi River Snye

The sluggish waters and plentiful emergent vegetation provide great habitat for a number of ode species, making it a fantastic place to see all sorts of damselflies, skimmers, clubtails and emeralds.

Mississippi River Snye

Mississippi River Snye (click to enlarge)

I walked down to the water where almost immediately a Dot-tailed Whiteface landed on me, deciding that my leg looked like a nice perch. I don’t have a formal list of odonate species that have landed on me, but the Dot-tailed Whiteface joins such company as the Harlequin Darner, Chalk-fronted Corporal, and Canada Darner. I wasn’t able to get photos of those ones, but at least the whiteface was cooperative!

Dot-tailed Whiteface

Dot-tailed Whiteface

At the water’s edge I found a few Slaty Skimmers perching in the vegetation hanging out over the water. They were not content to rest in one place for very long, however, as they kept rushing out to chase after other Slaty Skimmers encroaching on their territory.

Slaty Skimmer

Slaty Skimmer

I also saw a Prince Baskettail patrolling the length of the waterway, a Frosted Whiteface and an Elegant Spreadwing perching in the emergent vegetation in the water, and several odonates resting on the lily pads just out of reach of my net, including this Dot-tailed Whiteface.

Dot-tailed Whiteface

Dot-tailed Whiteface

The dragonflies that interested me, however, were the large Arigomphus clubtails sitting on the lily pads about ten feet from the shore. There were three of them altogether, moving around frequently when a Dot-tailed Whiteface landed on the same lily pad as the clubtail (perhaps to chase it away). Although I wanted to catch one, they were content to remain just out of reach.

Lilypad Clubtail

Lilypad Clubtail

Arigomphus clubtails are large dragonflies with pale turquoise eyes and rusty spots on the underside of the last few segments of the abdomen. A good look at the yellow pattern on the final segments and the shape of the claspers are needed to identify them; once I got home and was able to enlarge my photos I identified them as (no surprise) Lilypad Clubtails.

I don’t see this species often in Ottawa. There are only three places where I’ve found them: at the Mississippi River snye, Petrie Island (the clubtails which we thought were Unicorn Clubtails until we recently determined otherwise) and Mud Lake. Usually I only see one per visit. It was a treat to see three males in the same area, each basking on his own lily pad.

Lilypad Clubtail

Lilypad Clubtail

The Skimming Bluet is another damselfly that prefers perching on lily pads. It is one of the smallest bluets with a body length between 0.8 and 1.1 inches. The small size helps to differentiate it from the similar Stream Bluet, which also has a mostly black abdomen but is larger. Other field marks to look for are the small tear-shaped eyespots, the completely blue eighth and ninth segments, and a blue hourglass-shape on the sides near the base of the abdomen. I have never seen this last field mark; a good view from the side is required.

Skimming Bluet

Skimming Bluet

I noticed some jewelwings fluttering in the vegetation near the culvert and began walking along the rocks at the water’s edge to get a closer look. This was difficult as the untamed shrubs growing along the shore barely allowed me enough room to get by. A couple of Violet Dancers were sitting on the rocks; these are one of my favourite damselflies, possibly because they are my favourite colour.

Violet Dancer

Violet Dancer

I got close enough to see that both jewelwing species were present (Ebony and River), but not close enough to photograph them. At that point I decided I had seen enough, and began heading back to my car, passing a few Widow Skimmers and this cooperative Eastern Pondhawk along the way.

Eastern Pondhawk

Eastern Pondhawk

Morris Island turned out to be much less productive. I saw one large dragonfly flying along the path in the woods, though whether it was one of the cruisers Chris Traynor had seen here on his previous visit I couldn’t say. It was getting hot, and I noticed a few Lancet Clubtails in the obelisk position on the ground near the parking lot. Dragonflies will point their abdomen up toward the sun in an effort to reduce the surface area of their bodies on hot days; this reduces the amount of sunlight hitting their bodies.

The Lancet Clubtail was probably the most common clubtail that I saw; I found another Lilypad Clubtail in a small clearing off the trail, along with the usual Widow Skimmers and Slaty Skimmers. There were a few Lancet Clubtails along the causeway, and although I searched for Dragonhunters, Black-shouldered Spinylegs, and Cobra Clubtails, my search came up empty.

Lancet Clubtail

Lancet Clubtail

While scanning the rocky edges of the causeway for dragonflies, I came across this Northern Watersnake moving swiftly over the rocks. The Northern Watersnake, a subspecies of the Common Watersnake (Nerodia sipedon), is a common snake in this area – I usually see at least one on every visit to Morris Island. While adults can reach a length of between 60 and 110 centimetres (1.1 metres) some can grow even larger. This species has a rough appearance, rather than a smooth, slimy appearance, because its scales are keeled – that is, they have ridges down the center.

Northern Watersnake

I crossed the causeway but didn’t wander too far long the trail, stopping instead at a nice picnic area next to the water where I ate my morning snack. A baskettail of some sort was patrolling the water just off one of the openings, while a Chalk-fronted Corporal perched on a sunny log. I got a quick photo of the Lilypad Clubtail sitting in the vegetation before it flew off.

On my way back down the causeway I noticed a large, bright yellow clubtail flying around. I waited until it landed in some vegetation and cautiously approached it. I got some good looks from both the side and the top and identified it as a Midland Clubtail.

Midland Clubtail

Midland Clubtail

I didn’t see any Halloween Pennants flying, though I spotted a Common Baskettail flying over the water close to shore and lots of Widow Skimmers. This Slaty Skimmer had found an attractive perch:

Slaty Skimmer

Slaty Skimmer

As I was turning to leave I heard a Broad-winged Hawk calling somewhere in the woods to the west. I stopped to scan the sky to see if it was flying over, but saw nothing. That’s when I realized I could hear something else: the clucking of several chipmunks. Chipmunks give one of two different alarm calls when they perceive a nearby threat: the familiar, sweet, high-pitched “chip” when they spot a ground predator, such as a cat or a fox or a human moving too quickly toward it, and the loud, lower-pitched hollow “cluck” when they see an aerial predator – such as Broad-winged Hawk. At least three or four chipmunks were making this noise, which apparently carries quite far given that I could hear them from the causeway! As small mammals such as chipmunks are often food for Broad-winged Hawks, it is no wonder they were upset! A few moments later the Broad-winged Hawk flew out of the trees and began circling over the small bay before disappearing from view.

It was a fabulous way to end my outing. Even if I didn’t find the dragonflies that I really wanted, I really enjoyed my visit to the Mississippi River snye and the Morris Island Conservation Area. I must make it a point to visit there more often!

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