Dragon Blitz 2016 – Part I

Northern Cloudywing

Northern Cloudywing

When I decided to take today off it wasn’t my intention, in the beginning, to embark on an all-out “dragon blitz” and search for as many odonate species as possible (or at least as many as I could find until my stamina began to falter); the forecast for the weekend looked terrible, so I wanted to go out while the weather was nice to look for birds in the morning and odes as soon as it warmed up. However, that’s exactly what it became as I started finding some good dragonflies early in the morning and decided to keep visiting different trails where I knew I could find different species.

My morning began with a visit to Lime Kiln Trail, which isn’t a place I visit very often. However, a Mourning Warbler has been heard singing away there for a couple of days now, and I thought I would try to find it. My walk started out fairly quiet, but I saw a Veery on the ground and a Common Raven flying overhead right near the beginning of the trail, and heard a couple of Red-eyed Vireos and a Brown Creeper in the woods.

Once I reached the large burn site the activity picked up. I heard two Alder Flycatchers and saw two Eastern Kingbirds. I wasn’t expecting to find either House Wrens or Brown Thrashers so close to home, but the open burn area was home to many individuals: I counted at least six House Wrens and at least three Brown Thrashers all in full song – this made me wonder how many others were around that weren’t singing. Common Yellowthroats were singing in the marshes, and a Savannah Sparrow was singing in the alvar plain west of the burn site. I found a Black-and-white Warbler trundling along the branches of a tree and saw an adult Blue Jay feeding three newly fledged offspring hiding in a cedar. The bird life was incredible, though I did not hear the Mourning Warbler.

It started warming up after 9:00 and I began seeing a few butterflies. First a Dreamy Duskywing flew up off the ground as I took the side trail through the old burn site; it landed nearby, and I was able to take a few photos. I saw at least two more on my walk, one of which had a small chunk taken out of its hindwing.

Dreamy Duskywing

Dreamy Duskywing

Then I spotted another brown butterfly perching on the ground. This one wasn’t a duskywing, but a different type of skipper: a Northern Cloudywing. I don’t see very many of these butterflies each year (sometimes I only see one), and I don’t think I’ve ever seen any as fresh as this with the iridescent greenish-brown sheen on its wings. These butterflies inhabit open or scrubby boreal woodlands and forest edges; the males perch on or near the ground in forest clearings to wait for females. Larvae feed on various plants in the pea family including beggar’s ticks and clover, while adults usually nectar from blue, purple, pink, or white flowers including dogbane, selfheal, crown vetch, Japanese honeysuckle, thistles, common milkweed, Deptford pink, hoary vervain, and others.

Northern Cloudywing

Northern Cloudywing

I also saw a beautiful Silvery Blue perching out in the open.

Silvery Blue

Silvery Blue

By then a few Racket-tailed Emeralds were flying about, so after giving up on the Mourning Warbler I decided to stop in at Sarsaparilla Trail before trying to track down my next target, the Eastern Red Damsels along the Transcanada Trail near Highway 417. Brian Mortimer, who had discovered the colony of this rare and local species last year, had seen over a dozen of them on June 3rd and after failing to find them last year with Chris Lewis, I wanted to try again for this pretty little red damselfly. I think it was then that I decided to embark on my Dragon Blitz, as I knew three different whiteface species could be found along the boardwalk at Sarsaparilla. As soon as I got out of the car I spotted a few Chalk-fronted Corporals perching on a sign and a White Admiral flying around the parking lot. This was my first of the year, and it occurred to me that I see an awful lot of White Admirals hanging around parking lots and gravel trails.

White Admiral

White Admiral

There weren’t as many interesting birds here as there were at Lime Kiln, but I did pick up Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Baltimore Oriole, Marsh Wren, and several Tree Swallows. A pair of Red-winged Blackbirds hanging out in the reeds at the end of the boardwalk made for some pretty pictures.

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

I was surprised not to see either Frosted or Belted Whiteface hanging out in the cattails or along the boardwalk itself; only six days ago I’d had all three whiteface species here. I left the pond and continued my walk through the woods. There were some nice sunlit clearings where I found a few insects on the wing, and I was happy to see my first Taiga Bluets of the year.

Taiga Bluet

Taiga Bluet

This image shows the spectacular turquoise colouring of the eyes and the lower half of the thorax. This is one of the easier bluets to identify because of its unique turquoise-green colouration below. It also has a large black area on the distal half of its abdomen that the other black and blue bluets lack.

Taiga Bluet

Taiga Bluet

I thought there might be some more odonates flying in the sunny open meadow next to the outhouse, which is a great place in general to look for insects among the long grass and flowers throughout the warmer months. I wasn’t disappointed – I saw my first Widow Skimmer of the year here (a brown and yellow teneral) as well as a mostly mature Twelve-spotted Skimmer – it still has some yellow visible on the sides of the abdomen.

Twelve-spotted Skimmer

Twelve-spotted Skimmer

Several Racket-tailed Emeralds were patrolling the large clearing, and a few of them perched in the vegetation where I got some nice close-ups. This mature individual has bright green eyes:

Racket-tailed Emerald

Racket-tailed Emerald

I found a couple of Dot-tailed Whitefaces in the clearing as well. One was perching in the grass, but another was resting on a leaf. Here you can see both of the features of its name. While I confess that I don’t find such overly descriptive names particularly appealing (I prefer more imaginative names like Halloween Pennant, Ebony Boghaunter and Stygian Shadowdragon!), they do come in handy in trying to identify insects on Google! This was the first and only dragonfly I have been able to identify with a Google search.

Dot-tailed Whiteface

Dot-tailed Whiteface

I reached the parking lot and was heading to my car when a large dragonfly circling the area caught my attention. I hadn’t expected to find any dragonflies worth catching along the trail, so I had left my net in the car; as it appeared to be a darner I decided to grab the net and catch it. The dragonfly must have sensed my plans for at that point it decided to land on the side of my leg! Of course as soon as I turned to look at it, it flew off. It was likely a Harlequin Darner, a species with a well-documented habit of landing on people, and if so, it was the first one that I’d seen at this trail. I wasn’t able to see where it went, and, hoping it would come back, fetched my net from the car and then spent some time loitering in the parking lot.

While I was loitering, a couple of insects on one of the large rocks near the trail entrance caught my interest. The first was a Six-spotted Tiger Beetle, a beautiful metallic green ground-beetle with powerful jaws that enable it to feed on all sorts of other insects. These beetles are found in woodland clearings where they typically find a sunny vantage point on which they can watch for potential prey or predators. Unfortunately humans are viewed as the latter, which is the reason why they continually scurry or fly away from me when I try to approach them.

Six-spotted Tiger Beetle

Six-spotted Tiger Beetle

The other insect was a dragonfly, and I did a double-take when I realized it was a clubtail. I have never seen a clubtail here at Sarsaparilla Trail before, which made this sighting an exciting one. I could tell that it was one of clubtails in the Arigomphus genus by its pale claspers, turquoise eyes, and the wavy orange spots on the sides of segments 8 and 9. Only when I got close enough did I see that there was a small yellow spot on top of the 10th segment and that the small, forked claspers were completely wrong for Horned Clubtail, which is the Arigomphus species that I find most often. Instead this was a male Lilypad Clubtail!

I got a little too close to the dragonfly and caused him to flush; fortunately he landed on the leaves on the ground.

Lilypad Clubtail

Lilypad Clubtail

I netted him, examined him in the hand, and put him on a rock when I was done. To my surprise he stayed there.

Lilypad Clubtail

Lilypad Clubtail

Here you can see that the claspers are quite small and inconspicuous compared to the large, spiky-looking claspers of the Horned Clubtail.

Lilypad Clubtail (view of claspers)

Lilypad Clubtail (view of claspers)

I was truly thrilled with this discovery, as it was the first Lilypad Clubtail I’d seen at Sarsaparilla Trail. Given that this species prefers marshy ponds and slow streams with mucky bottoms and abundant aquatic vegetation, I’m surprised this species hasn’t been seen here more often.

By the time I was done photographing the clubtail it was clear that the darner wasn’t coming back. Pleased with the day’s sightings so far, I headed out to the Transcanada Trail where I hoped to have equally good luck in finding the Eastern Red Damsels.

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