Back to Gatineau Park: A Snaketail Adventure

Stream Cruiser

Stream Cruiser

While at the Dunlop Picnic area, Chris and I got a call from Chris Traynor saying that he was on his way up to Meech Lake. Chris Lewis and I were on our way there next, and it didn’t take him long to catch up with us as we were walking down the large hill to the lake, listening to the vireos and a Blackburnian Warbler singing. Our destination was the waterfall at the old Carbide Wilson ruins where we hoped to find the snaketails Chris T. had reported seeing earlier in the week. However, first we spent some time exploring the shore of the lake where we found Powdered Dancers, a Chalk-fronted Corporal, and a couple of clubtails on logs too far from shore to identify. It was too early for the Slaty Skimmers to be flying; these dark blue dragonflies are one of my personal favourites, but we saw more than enough other species to make up for their absence.

One of our best finds was a pair of Dragonhunters that had just emerged from their exuvia. It took a couple of strangers, upon seeing our nets and asking what they were for, to point out the “huge” dragonflies sitting on different logs. We found them with a bit of prompting, and I got a lousy photo of one (note that it is still clutching its exuvia):

Teneral Dragonhunter

Teneral Dragonhunter

We also found a Dusky Clubtail perching in the vegetation, and Chris T. found a Hudsonian Whiteface, a species I somehow missed.

Dusky Clubtail

Dusky Clubtail

We noticed an adult Prince Baskettail struggling in the water about 30 feet from the shore. This was heartbreaking for the three of us, and Chris T. even tried to walk out into the water with Chris Lewis’s net to see if he could rescue it. Unfortunately a steep, mucky drop-off and a constant breeze blowing the dragonfly away from us prevented us from being able to rescue it. Unless it finds a leaf or a branch to climb onto, the dragonfly will be unable to leave the water and either drown or become fish food – not a pleasant fate for the magnificent Prince, our largest local emerald species. Survival in the wild is tough, and reaching winged maturity is no guarantee of an easy life, even for the prince of dragonflies.

We left the lake and entered into the woods where we came across another amazing sight, this one much happier. What looked like a log left at the edge of the trail was actually a wasp incubator – we found about four large female Ichneumon wasps (later identified as Megarhyssa atrata) boring holes into the wood with their long (12.7 to 15.2 cm) ovispositors. Once we discovered these large wasps, the three of us spent several minutes watching them, fascinated by their behaviour.

Megarhyssa atrata

Megarhyssa atrata

These wasps, which can range up to 114 mm, are parasitic and depend on the Pigeon Horntail wasp to complete its life cycle. Pigeon Horntails lay their eggs in decayed logs, fallen trees, or stumps, and after a freshly emerged female Megarhyssa atrata mates with the much smaller male, she must find the Pigeon Horntail larvae in burrows in the wood on which to lay her eggs. Experts are unsure of how the females manage to locate the horntail larvae, but theorize that they are able to do so because of either an olfactory or chemoreception signal. Once the larvae are located, the female wasp inserts her ovipositor straight down into the wooden substrate so that it will eventually enter the host larva’s burrow at an exact right angle and just reach the surface of the host larva.

Megarhyssa atrata

Megarhyssa atrata

Once the female is ready to deposit her eggs into the burrow, she rotates segments 8 and 9 of her abdomen and unfolds her intersegmentary membranes so that they form a disc 2 cm in diameter. The purpose of this disc is to produce a lytic substance that disintegrates the wooden substrate, allowing her to more easily insert her ovipositor into the burrow. The female then deposits her eggs on the surface of the host larva, where they will hatch and feed on the horntail larvae to survive. Once the eggs are laid, she removes her ovipositor from the wood by rotating her abdominal segments, returning the stylus to its resting position. It takes over an hour to complete the cycle, and we only witnessed parts of it.

Megarhyssa atrata

Megarhyssa atrata

We were standing around the log taking photographs when I saw a small mammal dart out of the leaf litter and disappear beneath the log. Chris T. saw it too, and commented that its body appeared “peanut-shaped”. We waited to see if the mammal would emerge, and sure enough we saw it poking its head out from the beneath the other end of the log. We gave various exclamations of delight, and the mammal darted back beneath the log. We fell silent, and it poked its head out again, this time long enough to identify it as a shrew.

Shrew sp.

Shrew sp.

Shrews are interesting creatures. Although they may superficially resemble small members of the rodent family, shrews lack prominent incisors and have long, pointed snouts. Shrews do not hibernate, but are active year-round, day and night, with regular periods of rest. Because they have one of the highest metabolic rates of all mammals, they may consume three times their own weight in food daily; they must eat every couple of hours in order to survive. They depend chiefly on insects and other invertebrates for sustenance, but may also feed on small vertebrates, seeds, and fungi. There are seven species of shrew in Ontario and eight in Quebec. Most shrew species cannot be reliably identified in the field but need to be examined in the hand using a taxonomic key.

Eventually a group of hikers came along, and we continued on our way. We found several Stream Cruisers zipping up and down the path, enough that we considered renaming these dragons “Woodland Cruisers” for there was no stream in sight.

Stream Cruiser

Stream Cruiser

The path emerged onto the ruins overlooking the falls. Chris T. had had multiple clubtails and snaketails perching on the rocks on his previous visit, and was disappointed to see so many people basking on the rocks and climbing all over them. The trail ended at the lookout; there was no groomed path up the rocks, and both Chris L. and I were unable to follow Chris T. as he nimbly ascended the large boulders to look for snaketails. He may as well saved himself the effort; with so many people around, there were none to be found.

Carbide Wilson Ruins

Carbide Wilson Ruins

Chris L. and I looked for a way down to the rocks at the bottom of the falls, and found one although it appeared quite steep. A couple was bathing in one of the pools below the water, so we knew it could be done; however I wasn’t sure I wanted to follow. Then Chris L. spotted a yellowish dragonfly perching on a rock in the water right below the falls. I took a picture with my 60x zoom camera, and we were thrilled to identify it as a snaketail. We looked for Chris T. to see if he could get down to the base of the falls. The dragonfly was still there by the time he we found him, and he hopped down easily to take a closer look. He confirmed it was a snaketail, possibly a Riffle Snaketail, and so I eased my way down to the rocks and had Chris L. hand me my net once I reached the ground.

Maine Snaketail

Maine Snaketail

Snaketails are beautiful two-toned members of the clubtail family. While most species have a brilliant green thorax contrasting with yellow markings along the abdomen, the Rusty Snaketail – the only snaketail I’ve seen previously – has a green thorax and rusty-coloured abdomen. The snaketail was perching on a rock, and I took a couple of pictures from a distance before slowly approaching it.

I was worried that it would sense my intentions and fly off, but I was able to bring down the net without any problems. In fact, even once I had the dragonfly beneath my net it refused to move. Had I known it was so docile I could have taken a few macro photos from a couple of inches above it! I raised the netting with my hand, forming a tent, and eventually the dragonfly flew up inside. I then flipped the netting over the handle, trapping the dragonfly inside, and handed the net back up to Chris L. on the path. Chris T. and I scrambled up the rocks in time to see her examining the dragonfly in her hand. It was not a Riffle Snaketail, as it turns out, but a Maine Snaketail!

Maine Snaketail

Maine Snaketail

As of the last update to the Checklist of the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Ottawa-Gatineau (2008), there were only four Ophiogomphus (snaketail) species on it: Boreal Snaketail, Extra-striped Snaketail, Maine Snaketail, and Rusty Snaketail. These range from rare (the two latter species) to very rare (the first two species). Chris T.’s Riffle Snaketail was the first one identified in our region, which was why Chris L. and I were so keen to find one. However, the Maine Snaketail was a lifer for me as well, and I couldn’t be too disappointed with this beauty.

After examining it, Chris released its wings but it stayed put on her hand. This image shows the contrast between the green thorax and yellow abdominal stripes quite nicely:

Maine Snaketail

Maine Snaketail

We left the falls after the Maine Snaketail flew away, and headed up to the large beaver pond above the falls. This area is supposed to be good for Eastern Least Clubtails, though Chris T. and I never did find any on our visit here last year. Although it was quite hot by the time we got there, it was not as humid as it was on my last visit, and the ground surrounding the pond was dry. This made for a much more enjoyable outing as we walked through the vegetation, scaring up various insects along the way.

Beaver pond at the top of the falls

Beaver pond at the top of the falls

It was just about deep enough to swim in, and a few people were taking advantage of the nice day to do so. It was not as crowded as the falls, though, and we had a large section of the pond to ourselves.

Beaver pond at the top of the falls

Beaver pond at the top of the falls (click to enlarge)

I spotted a small, pale dragonfly flying low in the vegetation. When it landed I noticed that it was clubtail, and that it was a teneral – it had not yet attained the full, bright colouring of an adult. It was tiny – close to a meadowhawk in size – and had yellow rings around each abdominal segment. I called Chris L. and Chris T. over and they confirmed it was an Eastern Least Clubtail as I suspected – another lifer for me! It still wasn’t the mature adult I was hoping for, but it was good enough.

Eastern Least Clubtail

Eastern Least Clubtail

Both Chrises were wading in the water, and it looked so inviting that I took my shoes off and joined them. The water was cool and refreshing, and felt great against my bare skin. The bottom was mostly muddy with rocks strewn here and there, so it wasn’t too painful to walk on and to wade further out. We watched the dragonflies zipping by, and a mosaic darner caught our attention. It was a bit early for Canada and Lance-tipped Darners, so Chris L. set out to catch it. I was a bit surprised to see a Springtime Darner, as it wasn’t a species I was expecting. This species is identifiable by its early flight season (it can often be seen flying in early May) and the two straight, yellow stripes on its thorax, and is the first one I’d seen in a couple of years now. It is usually seen patrolling low along the edge of lakes and ponds, and that is exactly what this one was doing, until Chris caught it. When she released it it flew immediately toward the trees and disappeared into the tree tops.

Springtime Darner

Springtime Darner

Chris T. was busy studying the rocks emerging from the water and pointed out that there were all sorts of exuviae clinging to the sides. I found a couple to photograph, and they were small and generally unimpressive. When Chris said he found what looked like a Dragonhunter exuvia, however, I was interested. I took a few photos, then placed the exuvia next to another pair to show the size difference. I’m not sure what the smaller ones are – perhaps Dusky or Lancet Clubtails, given how many of these smaller clubtails were in the area.

Dragonfly Exuvia

Dragonfly Exuvia

We did not neglect, the birds, either. I heard a Veery and a Northern Waterthrush singing, and Chris L. pointed out a small merganser chick swimming on the far side of the pond all by its lonesome. I wasn’t sure which merganser species it was (both Common and Hooded Mergansers breed in our area) and later identified as a Common Merganser chick. Hopefully its parents weren’t too far away.

Common Merganser chick

Common Merganser chick

Then the tiny merganser chick did the cutest thing: it raised itself out of the water and furious flapped its wings. While this is something I see adult ducks do fairly often, the merganser baby has no real wing feathers yet, just two stubby limbs that it flailed about as though it were trying to keep its balance!

Common Merganser chick

Common Merganser chick

Eventually the chick meandered off, apparently unconcerned with us or the other people enjoying the water. I went back to dragonfly-watching, and ended up with one photo of a Lancet Clubtail that I was really happy with. You can tell it’s a Lancet Clubtail because the yellow markings on top of the abdomen run all the way down to the final segment.

Lancet Clubtail

Lancet Clubtail

By then it was past 2:30 and Chris L. and I decided it was time to leave (we’d been dragon-hunting since 8:00!). On our way out, we noticed a Horned Clubtail sitting in one of the bushes. It didn’t mind us taking some photographs from extremely close up, and at that point we discovered that one of its wings was torn. It was really neat to see so many different clubtail species in one location, though I particularly love the Arigomphids (e.g. Lilypad and Horned Clubtails) because their bright turquoise eyes and fiery orange markings at the tip of the abdomen are so colourful.

Horned Clubtail

Horned Clubtail

As we walked back through the woods I was surprised by how few butterflies we saw – it seemed to me that we should have seen more fritillaries, anglewings, and small brown woodland butterflies. This White Admiral was the only noteworthy butterfly we saw since we left the Sugarbush Trail.

White Admiral

White Admiral

Once again our Gatineau Park outing produced all six dragonfly families (darners, emeralds, clubtails, cruisers, spiketails and skimmers) and two of the three damselfly families (broad-winged damselflies and pond damselflies). The shrew, the tiny Common Merganser chick, and the ovipositing Ichneumon wasps were also fabulous, and made the outing particularly memorable. In fact, I can’t recall a more perfect day this past season, with two definite lifers and two additional confirmed species for my life list (all members of the clubtail family). It not only ranks as my most memorable dragon-hunting outing of the summer, but also one of my best dragon-hunting days all of time. A big thanks to Chris T. for discovering all these wonderful dragons and wonderful places in Gatineau Park and Chris L. for helping me to identify these beautiful predators, and to both of them for such a fantastic day!

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2 thoughts on “Back to Gatineau Park: A Snaketail Adventure

    • Thanks Caroline! I thought that they were perhaps too large for Eastern Least Clubtails, but perhaps not. I’m itching to go back there and find a brightly coloured mature adult!

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