Bugs of Gatineau Park Part I – The Dragonflies

Common Whitetail

Common Whitetail

On the first Saturday in June I made plans to meet Chris Traynor at the parking lot of the Sugarbush Trail in Gatineau Park to look for dragonflies. He has re-named this trail the “Clubtail Trail” due to the large number of clubtails that breed there, and I was eager to find some new species for my life list. Unfortunately our last visit there wasn’t terribly productive due to the overcast skies; the weather on Saturday was much nicer, sunny and warm even in the morning.

As we weren’t planning to meet until 9:00 am, I stopped by Sarsaparilla Trail first to check out the birds there. This turned out to be a fantastic idea as I heard a Least Bittern calling somewhere in the reeds to the north of the boardwalk and a Virginia Rail grunting somewhere on the south side. Other species included Brown Creeper, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, a couple of Tree Swallows, a Marsh Wren singing in the reeds at the end of the boardwalk (the same one from last year?), a couple of Yellow Warblers, a White-throated Sparrow, and two Purple Finches.

There weren’t too many ducks on the pond – just a few Wood Ducks and Mallards – but I did find some dragonflies early in the day. Chalk-fronted Corporals and Racket-tailed Emeralds were flying in the open areas near the parking lot and the outhouse, while in the marsh itself I found a few different dragonflies perching in the reeds, including a Dot-tailed Whiteface, Frosted Whiteface, and a Belted Whiteface. It is always nice to see these three species together and note their differences.

Frosted Whiteface

Frosted Whiteface

Frosted Whitefaces and Belted Whitefaces can be difficult to separate in the teneral stage. Fortunately these were both mature bugs, lacking the row of yellow spots down the abdomen. Both species show some pruinosity around the first couple segments of the abdomen, but the Frosted Whiteface has no red in between the wings and a “frosted” tip on the outside edges of its stigmas. In contrast, the Belted Whiteface has black stigmas, and a black and red thorax with the red especially noticeable in between the wings. Small red patches are usually noticeable against the white pruinosity of the first couple segments of the abdomen.

Belted Whiteface

Belted Whiteface

While I was watching the whitefaces, a Four-spotted Skimmer landed repeatedly on a cattail in front of me, begging to have its picture taken.

Four-spotted Skimmer

Four-spotted Skimmer

After leaving the boardwalk I returned to my car, and was happy to see a large Canadian Tiger Swallowtail fluttering around the parking lot. These butterflies are one of my favourite June-flying species, being large and conspicuous with their bold black and yellow colours. If you look carefully, you’ll notice that it is missing a large portion of its left hindwing. Although this butterfly looks quite fresh, obviously some sort of predator got to it in its first few days of flight.

Canadian Tiger Swallowtail

Canadian Tiger Swallowtail

After that I left, intending to take the Champlain Bridge across the river, and then the Gatineau Parkway all the way up to Chemin Lac Meech and from there to the Old Chelsea Visitor Center. We planned our trip for a Saturday morning since the parkway is closed to cars on Sunday mornings; it is difficult to get to the northern (and more interesting) sections of the parks when the main road through the park is closed. I was quite dismayed when I got to Kingsmere and discovered that the parkway was closed from there up to Lac Meech even on Saturday. I called Chris to tell him I was running late, and turned on my iPhone’s GPS to figure out how to get to the Visitor Center. This necessitated a long drive south down the Parkway to exit the park and then a convoluted set of detours to drive back north in order to avoid the Gatineau Parkway. I was not happy by the time I reached the Old Chelsea Visitor Center, fuming about road closures on both days of the weekend and the park’s preference of cyclists over naturalists.

However, finding this male clubtail almost as soon as I got out of the car helped to lighten my mood:

Clubtail sp.

Clubtail sp.

I had just spotted Chris and was trying to get all my gear organized, and probably should have caught the dragonfly to identify it, but I figured we would see lots of others during our walk. This is either a Beaverpond or a Harpoon Clubtail, two species which look almost identical. They have little to no club, and are brighter than the Dusky/Lancet Clubtails that are also quite common this time of year. While these two species are best told apart by the shape of their hamules and claspers, there are other clues that can help support these identifications. The first is the markings on the sides of the abdomen – male Beaverpond Clubtails have two yellow spots on each of the middle segments, while male Harpoon Clubtails have only one. Another feature according to the NJ Odes site is the shape of the stripes on top of the thorax. According to that page, the Harpoon Clubtail has two broad Z-shaped thoracic stripes, while the Beaverpond Clubtail has two broad-based triangular stripes – that is, the stripe lacks the horizontal line to complete the “Z”. Paulson’s book – “Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East” – also refers to this feature, noting that the Harpoon has a little “hook” at the end of the stripe. One final feature noticeable from a dorsal view is the lack of a yellow spot on the eighth segment. Beaverpond Clubtails sometimes have a small yellow spot at the base of S8 whereas Harpoon Clubtails never do. This dragonfly does not have a yellow spot, which unfortunately is not helpful in distinguishing this species.

I should have caught it or tried to get a photo of it from the side; however, the lack of the little “hook” on the stripes on top of the thorax leads me to believe that this a Beaverpond Clubtail. I don’t know how reliable that feature alone is in separating the two species, so I am leaving this dragon as an unidentified clubtail species for now.

After meeting up with Chris we proceeded to the area beneath the bridge over Chelsea Creek. A few dragonflies were flying over the water, and we saw a couple of clubtails perching on rocks well out of our reach. We also saw a large brown dragonfly zipping along the shoreline about an inch or two above the water – it was hugging the shoreline, and proved too quick for me to catch. At the time Chris thought it was a cruiser, but it lacked the yellow “tail-light” of a Swift River Cruiser, and I was unable to see any white spots along the abdomen that would identify it as a Stream Cruiser. I thought this was simply because it was too quick for me to get a good view, but Chris mentioned many months later that he suspected these brown dragons were darners instead – both Fawn and Ocellated Darners like to fly next to the vegetation at the edge of small streams, darting in and out of every nook and cranny and under branches, and this was a behaviour I had seen for myself during the Deep River BioBlitz. This would explain why I didn’t see the pale spots of a Stream Cruiser, and I regret not being able catch one of these “spectral” dragonflies (though I certainly spent enough time at the edge of the water waiting for one to fly by within reach!)

We did find a Dusky Clubtail perching on the ground in the area; these dragons are duller than the Beaverpond/Harpoon Clubtails and lack the two horizontal yellow stripes on the final segments. They are also one of our most common early summer clubtails in Ottawa – at least, on the Ontario side of the river.

Dusky Clubtail

Dusky Clubtail

We crossed the new metal bridge and proceeded to the rocky section of the stream where the most interesting dragonflies of the day were found. I caught this Harpoon Clubtail and identified it in the hand.

Harpoon Clubtail

Harpoon Clubtail

Several dragonflies were perching on vegetation close to the stream. We kept hoping to find other clubtail species, but found mostly Harpoon Clubtails. A couple of Racket-tailed Emeralds were worth photographing, as this was the first time I’d really noticed the difference between males and females. Females have a thicker abdomen, which makes the racket-shaped club seem less prominent.

Racket-tailed Emerald

Racket-tailed Emerald

In contrast, the male’s narrow wasp-like abdomen makes the racket-shaped club look much wider. Note the bluish-green eyes in this fellow; he is has been flying longer than the brown-eyed female above. Her eyes will turn green as she matures.

Racket-tailed Emerald

Racket-tailed Emerald

Skimmers such as Four-spotted Skimmers, Common Whitetails and Chalk-fronted Corporals were common in this area as well. We didn’t see any whitefaces, which I thought was odd.

Chalk-fronted Corporal

Chalk-fronted Corporal

Although Common Whitetails are not the most colourful dragonflies, this fresh female looked quite lovely perching on some sun-bleached branches.

Common Whitetail

Common Whitetail

We checked the area above the dam but found nothing new. This area is much more open; below the dam the trees crowd over the small rocky stream, providing a nice shady habitat for the spiketails patrolling the area.

Creek above the beaver dam

Creek above the beaver dam

Chris checked the rocks in the stream for emerging clubtails. He found one that he thought was an Eastern Least Clubtail, and the striped appearance of the abdomen and the pale claspers certainly fit the pattern and colouration of that species. I was hoping to find a mature one, and we kept scouring the vegetation without any luck.

Emerging Clubtail

Emerging Clubtail

We found another Harpoon-type Clubtail resting on a fern leaf. The stripe on the top of the thorax lacks the little hook that Harpoon Clubtails have.

Clubtail sp.

Clubtail sp.

The triangular shape looks more noticeable from this angle:

Clubtail sp.

Clubtail sp.

A baskettail flying close to the water caught my attention. When it landed, I managed to get one photo – I wasn’t able to approach it from a better angle as the ground dropped off sharply into the water. The downward-pointing appendages identify it as a Beaverpond Baskettail, one of the few I saw in the early part of the season.

Beaverpond Baskettail

Beaverpond Baskettail

After we finished checking the vegetation for dragonflies I spent some time standing on the rocks in the stream trying to catch the spiketails that were busy patrolling the creek. There were at least three, and they were following a fairly predictable path up and down the stream so I found a narrow spot where I could attempt to catch one. It took me a few tries, but eventually I netted one. It turned out to be a Twin-spotted Spiketail. I’m not great at holding them by the legs in order to photograph the dorsal (top) side of the abdomen – they often get loose and fly off – so this view is the only one that I have. Unlike most other dragonflies, the dorsal view is best for distinguishing the three spiketail species; the shape of the yellow markings down the length of the abdomen is diagnostic.

Twin-spotted Spiketail

Twin-spotted Spiketail

Although I was having a terrific time with all the dragonflies along the creek, we left the water and continued following the trail through a large open area. We spotted another clubtail on the ground, obelisking; I was able to catch it and identify it as a female Dusky Clubtail.

Dusky Clubtail

Dusky Clubtail

Chris also spotted a Stream Cruiser fly by and perch on some vegetation next to the trail. I don’t often see these dragons perching on the Ontario side of the river, so it was great to see this one so soon after finding one at Shirley’s Bay last weekend.

Stream Cruiser

Stream Cruiser

After that we left the Sugarbush Trail and headed for the Dunlop Picnic area. Chris said he had seen two different spiketails there previously – Twin-spotted and Delta-spotted – and I was looking forward to seeing a Delta-spotted Spiketail. We spent a long time watching the creek, but the spiketails were flying so low over the water I was hesitant to catch them.

Chris and I followed the stream to the road and crossed over to check the sandbar on the other side. We found another clubtail perching on the ground there, this one definitely a Harpoon Clubtail as it has both the little hook on the thoracic stripe and a row of single dots along the side of the abdomen.

Harpoon Clubtail

Harpoon Clubtail (click to enlarge)

After we crossed the road back to the other side, Chris saw what he thought was a Harlequin Darner perching on the ground. I wasn’t able to get on the dragonfly before it flew off; that would have been a nice addition to the day’s list, as our only darner so far had been a Common Green Darner flying above the creek at Sugarbush Trail (which was in fact my first Common Green Darner of the year).

We resumed our search for spiketails, and at last I managed to catch a few. They all turned out to be Twin-spotted Spiketails.

Twin-spotted Spiketail

Twin-spotted Spiketail

Even though we only found one species of spiketail during our outing, I was happy as it meant we had found representatives of all five dragonfly families present in the Ottawa-Gatineau region. This is an accomplishment that is difficult to achieve on the Ontario side, as the spiketails are the least common of the five families due to their restricted habitat; they breed along small to medium-sized streams, particularly those that run through shaded woodlands. In the Ontario sites where I’ve found spiketails, such as Jack Pine Trail and Roger’s Pond, it is the cruiser family that is difficult to find; these large dragons prefer larger lakes and rivers. Gatineau Park, however, has a number of different water bodies relatively close together, including large rivers, large lakes, small creeks and small ponds, which means it isn’t too difficult to find all five families in one outing.

Altogether we saw the following dragonfly species:

Common Green Darner
Racket-tailed Emerald
Beaverpond Baskettail
Eastern Least Clubtail
Dusky Clubtail
Harpoon Clubtail
Stream Cruiser
Twin-spotted Spiketail
Four-spotted Skimmer
Chalk-fronted Corporal
Common Whitetail

We also saw several other interesting bugs on our visit – including some of my favourite damselflies – but as this post turned out to be longer than expected, those photos will be posted separately.

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