A New Trail in Stony Swamp

Blackjacket (Vespula consobrina)

Blackjacket (Vespula consobrina)

On July 26th I decided to try a new trail in Stony Swamp instead of visiting my usual haunts. There is a parking lot on West Hunt Club (P11) just east of Moodie Drive; the trails there cross the hydro cut that runs past the Beaver Trail and Rideau Trail parking lots, and connect with the Jack Pine Trail system deep in the woods. I have visited the trails once or twice in the past, including last December when the OFNC conducted an impromptu woodpecker count and found a male Black-Backed Woodpecker there (which our group never saw). Because there is no water there I usually go elsewhere to look for dragonflies; however, the hydro cut near the Rideau Trail is a great spot for butterflies, and I thought I might find some interesting bugs at Trail 26.

I had another reason for visiting as well: to add to the list of birds recorded at this location in eBird. At some point last December someone made it into an eBird hotspot, which is a public location anyone can use to record their sightings. When a person records their sightings at a hotspot instead of a personal location, it creates a public list of species that anyone can view or add to. In July only five checklists had been entered for this hotspot, with a total of 15 species observed. This is not surprising since few birders visit this trail, probably for the same reasons I have never paid it much attention: the habitat is similar to that of Jack Pine Trail, but lacks the ponds and marshes of Jack Pine Trail. I believed I would never see anything at this trail that I couldn’t see at Jack Pine, Sarsaparilla, or the Beaver Trail. I was wrong.

As the last checklist was from early May, there were virtually no summer birds listed in eBird, and I figured I could build a decent list in a couple of hours while I searched for butterflies and odes. I wasn’t expecting to get my first warbler as soon as I got out of the car, but when I heard a couple of birds chirping in the trees I went to investigate. They sounded like a couple of young Chipping Sparrows, but when I located one among the shadows of the tree branches I found a Black-and-white Warbler instead. A second bird was foraging in the same tree, and three more flew in while I was watching. This was the first time I had seen such a large group of these birds – they were likely a family group.

Black-and-white Warbler (2007)

Black-and-white Warbler (2007)

I took the right-hand trail, which consists of a narrow, stony path through some dense woods. I wasn’t expecting to hear much in this section, let alone actually see anything, so I was surprised when I heard two different Wood Thrushes singing fairly close together. These birds like large, unfragmented patches of mature mixed and deciduous forest; they are becoming more difficult to find in Stony Swamp, so it was good to know they are still around since I seldom hear them at the other trails.

Once I reached the hydro cut and the open clearings beyond it I started hearing and seeing more birds, including a Northern Flicker, a Great Crested Flycatcher, a pair of Alder Flycatchers calling in the distance, several Cedar Waxwings and Common Yellowthroats, and two Gray Catbirds. A couple of birds surprised me, including a male American Redstart (which I seldom see in Stony Swamp, and usually only in migration), a Brown Thrasher which landed on the trail with a pair of Northern Cardinals, and at least five White-throated Sparrows. While I’ve seen Brown Thrashers at Jack Pine Trail and White-throated Sparrows breed in the large open area there, I’ve never seen them outside the alvar during the summer. The clearing where I found them was large, but definitely not large enough to be called a meadow in its own right.

White-throated Sparrow (2008)

White-throated Sparrow (2008)

Further along the trail I heard a Scarlet Tanager calling, and saw an Eastern Phoebe fly-catching in a large open intersection deep within the trail system. From there I could have turned left to continue the loop back to West Hunt Club, turned right to end up on Moodie Drive, or gone straight to end up near the parking lot at Jack Pine Trail. I chose none of these options, but instead turned around to go back the way I came. It was a 1.5 kilometre walk back to the parking lot, and I thought it would be shorter than continuing the loop.

Trail 26 - Stony Swamp

Intersection at Trail 26 (click to enlarge)

Trail 26 - Stony Swamp

Intersection at Trail 26 (click to enlarge)

On my way back I stopped to investigate the large patch of Wild Parsnip growing near the intersection. A good number of bees and wasps were buzzing around the tiny yellow flowers and I was curious as to what they were. The first one I photographed was black and yellow, and while I wasn’t sure what it was at the time, I believe it is an Eastern Yellowjacket. These unwelcome wasps can be identified by the diagnostic anchor-shaped black marking on top of the first abdominal segment; I didn’t get a photo of the dorsal side of this individual and thus can’t be certain of my ID. Yellowjackets also have a continuous yellow band on the cheek that does not completely encircle the eye and smoke-coloured wings. One of the most abundant yellowjacket species in North America east of the Great Plains, the Eastern Yellowjacket builds nests in meadows or in forest edges, usually in the ground, inside fallen logs, or in old tree stumps. In deciduous forests, the nest entrances may be situated under tree roots or adjacent to logs on the ground. However, they are extremely adaptable and also may build their nests in the walls of buildings.

Yellow Jacket (Vespula sp.)

Yellow Jacket (Vespula sp.)

There were also several black and white wasps present, and at first I thought these were Bald-faced Hornets. A later review of my photos made me think they are Blackjackets instead, a species I’ve never noticed before. Bald-faced Hornets usually have thick white bands only on the segments (urotergites) at the end of the abdomen, and do not have a white band on the second abdominal segment. In contrast, Blackjackets have white bands on most of the abdominal segments including one thin white band around the second abdominal segment that is almost complete. I’ve also read that the eye colour in these species is different – Bald-faced Hornets have chocolate brown coloured eyes, while Blackjackets have eyes that are pitch black.

Blackjacket (Vespula consobrina)

Blackjacket (Vespula consobrina)

Although most people probably wouldn’t have gotten as close to these wasps as I did, they were not at all interested in me while I took their photos. Indeed, I was more worried about brushing up against the Wild Parsnip than I was in getting stung.

Blackjacket (Vespula consobrina)

Blackjacket (Vespula consobrina)

Adult Blackjackets feed on flower nectar and other sweet substances as well as live prey. Their diet consists mostly of small spiders, spittle bugs, house flies, sawfly larvae, caterpillars and small grasshoppers. The adults take their prey back to the nest to feed the Blackjacket larvae. The ones that I saw were all feeding on the nectar of the Wild Parsnip flowers; I saw none with any prey.

Blackjacket (Vespula consobrina)

Blackjacket (Vespula consobrina)

While scanning the flowers for other interesting bugs I came across an attractive red beetle I had never seen before. From the shape of it I guessed it was a Soldier Beetle of some kind; googling red soldier beetles brought up one called the Common Red Soldier Beetle (Rhagonycha fulva), which is what I am guessing this to be. Bugguide.net describes the Common Red Soldier Beetle has having orange elytra (the hardened outer wings) which terminate in black tips; long black antennae except for the basal segment; an abdomen which extends slightly beyond the elytra; orangish-red femora (the part of the legs closest to the body) and blackish tarsi (the part of the legs furthest from the body).

Common Red Soldier Beetle (Rhagonycha fulva)

Common Red Soldier Beetle (Rhagonycha fulva)

Common Red Soldier Beetles prefer fields, meadows, and hedgerows where adults spend their time on the flowers of herbaceous plants waiting for small insects to land on the flowers to feed. The larvae are also predators, feeding on snails, slugs, and ground-dwelling insects. These Soldier Beetles complete only one life cycle per year; they overwinter in the larval stage, and emerge as adults in June and July.

Common Red Soldier Beetle (Rhagonycha fulva)

Common Red Soldier Beetle (Rhagonycha fulva)

After I had had my fill of photographing the insects, I headed back toward the parking lot. I saw a buteo fly across the hydro cut on my way back but didn’t get a good look at it. When I reached the parking lot I thought I would take a peek down the left-hand trail. As I did, a bird with a long, narrow tail flapped across the clearing behind the outhouse and landed in a tree. Something about its shape made me think Mourning Dove, but when I glanced through the binoculars I was pretty sure the bird was something else. It was in a tangle of branches against a dark gray sky, but the look that I got made think it was a cuckoo. I took a step closer and it flew off again, but when I heard it make a knocking or clacking sound I was able to locate it in another cluster of branches. This time I got a good enough look at its face to confirm it was a Black-billed Cuckoo – a bird I rarely see! They are very secretive, and are more often heard than seen. I didn’t expect to find one in Stony Swamp of all places, but it made for a terrific ending for my outing.

And while I didn’t see any noteworthy butterflies or dragonflies, I did find two new insects and come up with a list of 28 bird species – adding 22 new summer species to the eBird hotspot checklist and one new bird to my Stony Swamp patch list! This is what makes birding so rewarding – discovering new places off the beaten track and realizing there are birds there just as good as any found at the major birding hotspots, such as Shirley’s Bay or Mud Lake. I can’t wait to visit Trail 26 again during migration and see what else I can turn up!

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