Where Dragonflies Grow on Trees

Common Raven (juvenile)

Common Raven (juvenile)

On Victoria Day I returned to Mud Lake to look for migrants and dragonflies. I arrived early – before 7:00am – in order to beat the crowds, but even at that time there were a few people wandering around. I started at the ridge and worked my way around the conservation area in a clockwise direction; I hoped that by exploring the quieter side trails I would come up with a decent list for the morning. Well, I did finish my outing with a good number of bird species – 43 total – but most of them were found along the northern and western sides, which is where I usually bird anyway, especially when I am short on time.

On the ridge I found the usual breeding birds: Warbling Vireos, Yellow Warblers, American Redstarts, Song Sparrows, and Red-winged Blackbirds. Yellow Warblers seemed particularly abundant; I observed at least 30 of them on my walk all the way around the lake.

I didn’t find any migrants in the area behind the ridge, but I did see a Tree Swallow at a nest along the river. I rarely see them nesting in natural cavities, and never so close, so this was a treat.

Tree Swallow at Nest

Tree Swallow at Nest

A couple of Spotted Sandpipers were scurrying along the shore, and at Britannia Point I was surprised to see a large gaggle of goslings following two adults toward the lawn. I counted 30 goslings in all, making me wonder if the two adults had gotten stuck with babysitting duty for 3 or 4 other sets of parents.

Canada Goose and goslings

Canada Goose and goslings

As I squeezed my way along the fence on the eastern side of the filtration plant I heard the distinctive call of a Common Raven coming from somewhere nearby. Ravens like to perch on the roof of the filtration plant, and sure enough, when I reached the southeastern corner of the property, I looked up and found two juveniles walking along the edge of the roof. They were noisier than the adults, and I was close enough to see the fleshy gape at the corner of their mouths.

Common Raven (juvenile)

Common Raven (juvenile)

One of the ravens hopped up onto a higher section of the roof, while the second one remained where it was, calling for its parents, looking around, and stretching its wings. The massive bill is particularly noticeable in this photo:

Common Raven (juvenile)

Common Raven (juvenile)

These were doubtless the same birds I’d seen last weekend in the pines near the observation dock, hanging out in different trees while their harried parent tried to find enough food to feed three squawking fledglings. Ravens have nested at Britannia for several years now, and the young are difficult to miss once they learn how to use their vocal cords!

Common Raven (juvenile)

Common Raven (juvenile)

Still, Ravens are very wary of humans, and difficult to photograph; I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see and photograph them out in the open instead of high up in the shade of a pine tree.

Common Raven (juvenile)

Common Raven (juvenile)

After leaving the ravens I checked the marshy area near the northeastern corner of the lake for dragonflies. Although I didn’t see any, three Black-crowned Night Herons were visible in the bay across the water, and I later saw two more flying over. This is the second-highest number of Night-herons that I’ve ever seen at Mud Lake; twice in 2014 I’d seen 7 there! I also saw a Green Heron fly up into a tree about 20 feet above the man-made storm water pond at the southeastern section of the conservation area. It was in this area that I found my first dragonfly of the day, a Spiny Baskettail perching on a stem in a sunny clearing.

I didn’t see many migrants in the southern section of the conservation area, although I did come across a group of five or six cardinals at the eastern edge of the scrubby meadow, as well as more Warbling Vireos, Yellow Warblers, a couple of Gray Catbirds, and a couple of Great Crested Flycatchers.

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

I checked the lake from a few different vantage points, hoping to see a Blanding’s Turtle or even a Snapping Turtle, but all I saw were Painted Turtles.

Painted Turtles

Painted Turtles

The bridge was still under construction, so I had to backtrack to find my way out of the conservation area to the bike path, and then bypass the bridge and find my way back in.

Bridge under construction

Bridge under construction

I checked the south shore of the lake for Green Herons perching on the logs and tree stumps that litter the water’s edge; I didn’t see any small herons, but a Great Egret fishing fairly close to the shore was a nice surprise.

Great Egret

Great Egret

The birds got more interesting as I worked my way around to the southwestern corner and the open sumac field on the western side. I heard a couple of Pine Warblers singing in the pines, and also found a couple of Blackpoll Warblers, two Black-throated Green Warblers, a Black-and-white Warbler, at least 7 Tennessee Warblers, a Magnolia Warbler, an Eastern Phoebe, and a pair of Gray Catbirds that appeared to be gathering nesting material.

I also found this Northern Azure in a small sunny area in the western field. It was the only butterfly that I saw.

Northern Spring Azure

Northern Spring Azure

I came around a corner to find an Eastern Cottontail on the trail, and I don’t know who was more surprised. It hopped all of two feet into the grass, where it froze; I froze too, and watched as it returned to the trail to eat as though it were completely unconcerned by my presence.

Eastern Cottontail

Eastern Cottontail

I noticed a few dragonflies flying about, but once I reached the open area near the Rowatt Street entrance I found a huge swarm of them. There were probably about 100 in the area, although most were perching in the vegetation near the edge of the meadow. The more I looked, the more dragonflies I noticed hanging from the branches of various shrubs at about eye level. I didn’t have my net with me, but I was able to view the appendages of the males, and all appeared to have the upward-curving claspers of Spiny Baskettails – I did not see any that had the downward-angled claspers of the Beaverpond Baskettail.

Spiny Baskettail

Spiny Baskettail – male (click to enlarge)

Many females were present, and I ended up with more photos of them than the males. The terminal appendages of the females are slightly longer in Spiny Baskettails than in Beaverpond Baskettails; this can be tricky to determine in the field without both species present, which is why I prefer to catch them and look at the shape of the genital plates on the underside of the abdomen when confirming an identification.

Spiny Baskettail

Spiny Baskettail – female

Although these dragonflies were not tenerals (they lacked the shiny saran-wrap wings found in freshly emerged odonates), they obviously hadn’t emerged too long ago as none of them had the blue eyes of older baskettails. Instead, their eyes were reddish-brown above and gray below, which is characteristic of young adult baskettails of all three species (Common, Beaverpond and Spiny).

Spiny Baskettail

Spiny Baskettail – female

Some of the shrubs were so laden with perching baskettails that it looked almost as though they were growing on the shrubs. I even saw a few baskettails fly in to land on a branch, and then land on another dragonfly because there was simply no room for one more dragonfly! Of course the ones being landed on didn’t appreciate the intrusion, and quickly flew off.

Spiny Baskettail

Spiny Baskettails (click to enlarge)

Here is another female Spiny Baskettail with some blossoms in the background:

Spiny Baskettail

Spiny Baskettail – female

I was surprised that I only found the one dragonfly species there; there were no American Emeralds or Beaverpond Baskettails, both of which I’ve seen here in the past. There weren’t even any damselflies around, though with the nice weather, they should be emerging shortly, too.

Once I had my fill of dragonflies (though it was admittedly tough to drag myself away), I returned to birding. In the open meadow of the western side I found a few Tennessee Warblers, two more Great Crested Flycatchers, and this female cowbird:

Brown-headed Cowbird

Brown-headed Cowbird

I returned to the ridge one last time before heading out, where I found my first Northern Water Snake of the year. They like rocky areas, as the sun-baked rocks give them a warm place to bask in the sun. This fellow was slithering beneath the shady vegetation next to the trail and didn’t seem to want to come out into the open.

Northern Water Snake

Northern Water Snake

I enjoyed my three hours at Mud Lake; it’s a great spot to spend Victoria Day, as the weather is usually warm enough in late May to ensure that a good variety of wildlife will be out and about. From snakes and turtles to mammals and insects, Mud Lake is wonderfully rich in biodiversity in the warmer months, so that even if the birding is dull (which was not the case here!) you can always find something interesting.

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2 thoughts on “Where Dragonflies Grow on Trees

    • Thanks Suzanne! It amazed me to see so many baskettails hanging on branches like that. I think I got a photo of seven of them, but they were more spread out and cropping it would have lessened the impact of the photo.

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