To Catch a Wandering Glider

Gray Comma

Gray Comma

I had a fabulous outing in Stony Swamp on August 22nd. I started the morning off at Sarsaparilla Trail where I found a pair of Hooded Mergansers, two Pied-billed Grebes (an adult and juvenile), and five Wood Ducks on the pond. A small raptor was perched in one of the dead trees at the north end of the pond; it was so far off that I had to return to the car and get my scope to identify it. It was a Merlin – a species that I only find here late in the summer, individuals either migrating or undergoing post-breeding dispersal. At least six Blue Jays were also present, and kept chasing the Merlin from tree to tree. Three Northern Flickers were also flying around, and I don’t know if they were also giving the Merlin a hard time, or if the Merlin was trying to catch one of them. It was fascinating to watch the flickers, Blue Jays and Merlin all playing an animated game of musical chairs in the trees.

I was glad I had brought my scope, for as I was scanning the vegetation along the shoreline I discovered two heron species skulking at the edge of the pond: a tiny Green Heron poised on a log, and an American Bittern that was almost invisible in a gap in the reeds! It made me wonder what other birds were present, going about their lives while remaining hidden from view.

After that I went to the Beaver Trail, mostly to look for butterflies and dragonflies in the wildflower meadow, but also to check for migrants along the boardwalk at the back. A few Eastern Wood-Pewees were still singing, and three Wild Turkeys were lurking near the Wild Bird Care Center. However, the greatest surprise was when I startled a Barred Owl on the ground next to the trail! It flew up in front of me, landed in a tree, then silently flew deeper into the woods. This is the first time I’ve seen one at this trail, which makes three Stony Swamp trails where I’ve seen them – all but Jack Pine Trail, where they are most often reported!

At the first boardwalk I was happy to see a large raptor perching in a distant tree. The barring on the tail feathers (not visible here) identified it as a Broad-winged Hawk, and this ID was confirmed a few minutes later when it took to the air and called a couple of times. It began soaring in circles high overhead, and a few moments later a second Broad-winged Hawk drifted into view.

Broad-winged Hawk

Broad-winged Hawk

I found a great group of migrants and resident birds just before reaching the second boardwalk at the back of the trail. Three Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and a couple of White-breasted Nuthatches caught my attention, but as I scanned the trees overhead for movement I noticed two Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, two Red-eyed Vireos, a Black-and-white Warbler, a Bay-breasted Warbler, and a Chestnut-sided Warbler all in the same area, along with an unidentified flycatcher. Both the Bay-breasted Warbler and the Chestnut-sided Warbler were new for my list of birds seen at the Beaver Trail.

Then a flash of colour on the ground caught my attention. I bent down to take a closer look and discovered a most unusual beetle.

Roundneck Sexton Beetle (Nicrophorus orbicollis)

Roundneck Sexton Beetle (Nicrophorus orbicollis) (click to enlarge)

With the help of my friend Christine’s photo galleries I was able to identify it as a Roundneck Sexton Beetle, one of the species known as a burying beetle or a carrion beetle (a sexton is a church official who oversees burials in the church cemetery). These beetles locate the remains of recently deceased mammals or birds through chemoreceptors located on the distinctive orange-tipped antennae; they then use the corpse for both feeding and breeding purposes. When a male beetle finds a dead chipmunk, bird, mouse, or (in this case) frog, it emits pheromones to attract a mate. If a female responds to the pheromones’ siren call, the pair will proceed to bury the animal carcass by digging the soil out from beneath it and then covering it up. After mating, the female lays her eggs in the soil next to the carcass. Not only does the corpse provide food for the adults, which remain with the carcass until the eggs hatch and the larvae pupate, it provides food for their offspring, too. Competition for small animal carcasses is apparently fierce, so the adults preserve the carcass from competitors by secreting an antibiotic to delay decomposition. In addition, the parents protect the larvae from predators and feed them regurgitated pieces of the corpse. Providing care to the larvae after they hatch is unusual among beetle species; indeed, it is thought that the larvae would not live to reach their second instar without such parental care.

Roundneck Sexton Beetle (Nicrophorus orbicollis)

Roundneck Sexton Beetle (Nicrophorus orbicollis)

After leaving the beetle with its gruesome prize I headed over to the meadow. The large patch of wildflowers is always worth checking for insects in the summer, and I was not disappointed. I saw a White-faced Meadowhawk…

White-faced Meadowhawk

White-faced Meadowhawk

…and a dirty-faced meadowhawk. My net was back in the car, so I wasn’t able to catch it and identify it. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen these reddish-faced mystery meadowhawks here, but their appearance are so infrequent that it seems I never have my net when I spot one.

Meadowhawk sp.

Meadowhawk sp.

Not long after I photographed the meadowhawk I saw a small orange butterfly flutter by and land on the gravel path. From the colour and size I knew it was a Polygonia species, and when it closed its wings I was able to identify it as a Gray Comma from the silvery check-mark on the underside.

Gray Comma

Gray Comma

After posing nicely for me on the ground, the Gray Comma flew up onto the branch of a downed tree where it opened its wings. I see these butterflies far less often than I do the similar-looking Eastern Comma, so each one is a treat. This individual was nice and fresh.

Gray Comma

Gray Comma

A large dragonfly was buzzing over the flowers, and when it landed in the vegetation close to the ground I made a note of the location and tracked it down. As I suspected, it was a Common Green Darner, a rather common species but a beautiful one when seen up close. The colours always make me think of living stained glass.

Common Green Darner

Common Green Darner

Common Green Darners have a black and blue bulls-eye pattern on top of the face; this is always a neat field mark to watch for in the field.

Common Green Darner

Common Green Darner

I spent about half an hour in the meadow before heading back to the parking lot. I didn’t expect to see anything interesting on my way back to the car, but a Common Ringlet nectaring on some pink blossoms made for a lovely sight. Although these butterflies are common as well, I usually don’t see them on such a beautiful, photogenic perch. This butterfly is holartic, meaning it is found across the northern part of the globe, in particular northern Europe, Asia and across North America. A number of subspecies have been recognized, and the one found in eastern Canada – inornata – gives it another name, the Inornate Ringlet.

Common Ringlet

Common Ringlet (Coenonympha tullia inornata)

I reached my car and was just putting my gear away when I noticed a medium-sized dragonfly patrolling the gravel parking lot at about shoulder-height. The last time I had seen an interesting dragonfly cruising the same area it had turned out to be a Williamson’s Emerald; this one was orange, not black, and I knew it was one of the gliders. I rushed over to my car to grab my net, then promptly caught it and identified it as a Wandering Glider.

Wandering Glider

Wandering Glider (click to enlarge)

These dragonflies migrate from the south every summer, breed here, and then migrate south. They are most commonly seen in August and early September; repeat spots for this species include Andrew Haydon Park and Hurdman Park. This is the first time I’ve seen one in Stony Swamp.

Wandering Glider

Wandering Glider (click to enlarge)

Both gliders are more often seen in flight than they are perching. I’ve gotten lucky three times in seeing them land: my first-ever glider, the Spot-winged Glider, which dropped out of the sky to land in the vegetation in front of me while I was roaming the trails near the airport; and two Wandering Gliders which landed close by me at Hurdman Park in successive years. They are not common dragonflies, and I usually only see a few each summer, patrolling open areas where they are quick to evade capture. This is the first glider that I’ve caught, so I was really thrilled. I don’t see them that often, and when I do (such as when I’m at Hurdman) I don’t always have my net, which really limits my opportunities! Once I had finished examining and photographing the Wandering Glider I placed it in a shrub and photographed it there. To my surprised the dragonfly stayed put for a couple of minutes before flying off.

Wandering Glider

Wandering Glider (click to enlarge)

This Wandering Glider and the beetle were my best finds of the day. A close third was this Band-winged Meadowhawk hunting in the same area where I had posed the Wandering Glider. This was only my third sighting this summer; these dragonflies seem to have become scarce in recent years.

Band-winged Meadowhawk

Band-winged Meadowhawk

I really enjoyed my outing in Stony Swamp. The American Bittern and the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds were awesome to see, even if I didn’t get a photo; and the bugs at the Beaver Trail were fabulous. I’m not sure why the Beaver Trail has such a wonderful diversity of insects, but every time I go I seem to see something new and interesting.

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