The “Wild Ode West” Dragon-hunting Adventure

Widow Skimmer

Widow Skimmer

Chris Lewis and I had such a great time dragon-hunting in Gatineau last weekend that on June 25th we decided to hit several spots west of Ottawa to search for several local and unique species. On our list of locations were the Quyon Ferry Dock near Fitzroy to look for big river species, Morris Island for clubtails and skimmers, and Pakenham, Blakeney and Almonte for Rapids Clubtail. Before heading out to the Quyon Ferry Dock we stopped in at the fields near Constance Bay to look for Upland Sandpipers. We got lucky and found four. Not only did we see a couple of them flying over the fields, giving their distinctive call, we found one standing right on the shoulder of the road! Unfortunately we caused it to flush before I could get a photo of this bird; I still have yet to photograph this speices. Indeed, this was the closest I’ve ever come to one of an Upland Sandpiper, which are difficult to find as they breed and feed in dry grasslands rather than muddy shorelines.

We found one other really good bird on Ferry Road on the way to the dock – a Black-billed Cuckoo that swooped in front of the car as we were still driving. There were quite a few interesting birds in the vicinity of the ferry dock, mostly heard singing in the background while we looked at dragonflies. These included a Ruby-throated Hummingbird seen perching in a dead tree, a Baltimore Oriole, an Eastern Phoebe, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a Spotted Sandpiper, and a couple of different warblers including Black-and-White, American Redstart, and Common Yellowthroat.

Quyon Ferry Dock

Quyon Ferry Dock

The first ode that we saw was a Swift River Cruiser patrolling the ferry dock area. Unfortunately, it didn’t come close enough to catch. Chris wanted to check the small patch of shoreline to the right of the dock first, so we made our way down the rocks to look for dragons. Almost right away I saw this bright black and yellow dragonfly land on a leaf; it was a clubtail with a huge club, and when I pointed it out to Chris she identified it as a Cobra Clubtail – a lifer for me!

Cobra Clubtail

Cobra Clubtail

The Cobra Clubtail is very similar in appearance to the more “common” Midland Clubtail, though neither species is abundant here – in our region the Midland Clubtail is considered to be “scarce and local”, while the Cobra Clubtail is “rare and local”. The main features differentiating these species are the black cross-stripes on the face of the Cobra Clubtail, the yellow dorsal spot on segment 8 of the Midland Clubtail, and the wider yellow dorsal stripes on the thorax of the Midland Clubtail. In the photo below you can see that the 8th segment of the abdomen (the widest segment of the club) is entirely black, and the narrow yellow dorsal thoracic stripe.

Cobra Clubtail

Cobra Clubtail

As it was a lifer, I caught it for a better look. It was a beautiful bug, fresh and yellow with eyes that hadn’t yet turned green. Here you can see a bit of the black cross-stripes on its face:

Cobra Clubtail

Cobra Clubtail

Cobra Clubtails are found mostly in large rivers with alternating stretches of sand or silt and gravel. Although adults are rarely seen, even in places where exuviae are numerous, when present they can be found perching on the ground or in vegetation such as trees and bushes. In Ontario, they are only known from the Ottawa River, though there are some historical records from Lake Erie.

After examining the tiny bit of shoreline to the right of the ferry dock, we crossed the road to the other side. There was a much longer section of river to explore here, with lots of small shrubs to examine for perching odes. We saw a Twelve-spotted Skimmer and a small, blue-eyed “clubless” clubtail that was either a Lancet or a Dusky Clubtail perching on the ground. Swift River Cruisers flew past us over the river every now and then, but didn’t linger long enough for a good look.

"Big River Dragon" habitat

“Big River Dragon” habitat

I found another clubtail perching in the shrubs along the shore, and this one didn’t look like the Cobra Clubtail I’d just handled. I don’t know what it was that caught my attention, but a closer look revealed it to be a Midland Clubtail – another big river species! Like the Cobra Clubtail, the Midland Clubtail can be found perching either on the bare ground or in vegetation near fast-flowing rivers; but unlike the Cobra Clubtail, it may also be found along the shores of lakes with lots of wave action.

Midland Clubtail

Midland Clubtail

The Midland Clubtail has thicker dorsal thoracic stripes than the Cobra Clubtail, and a small yellow triangle on segment 8 of its abdomen (noted by the red arrows in the photo below).

Midland Clubtail

Midland Clubtail

We also found a couple of teneral clubtails, including a freshly emerged, translucent, yellowish Black-shouldered Spinyleg and this Lancet Clubtail which Chris caught in order to ascertain its identity.

Lancet Clubtail

Lancet Clubtail

Altogether we spent about an hour and twenty minutes along the shore by the ferry dock, and were quite happy with all the clubtails we had found. All we were missing was the elusive Elusive Clubtail, another species that is seldom seen as an adult except at just the right time in just the right place. We continued our Wild Ode West outing at Morris Island, where we skipped the small sluggish Mississippi snye in favour of proceeding straight to the causeway. We heard a Yellow-rumped Warbler singing at the parking lot, not a common sound in the summer in Ottawa, though Chris said she had often heard one in the area. She needed to use the facilities, and while I waited in the parking lot I noticed a large darner flying about the sunny parking area. Mosaic Darners are still uncommon enough this time of year to be noteworthy, so I set about catching it. I was delighted to realize that the dragon I pulled out of my net was one that I had not seen before, but the large, prominent frons – a structure on its face that resembles a nose in profile – and thick green marking on the side of its thorax immediately identified it as a Cyrano Darner!

Cyrano Darner

Cyrano Darner

The Cyrano Darner is another scarce and local dragonfly in our area where large numbers of exuviae give a better idea of their abundance than the adults actually seen. Although they breed chiefly in slow streams and small to medium-sized lakes, adults typically forage in or close to forested areas. When Chris emerged, I proudly showed her my catch and she was thrilled. This is not a dragonfly she sees very frequently, and the only place I’ve heard her mention seeing them is in the Morris Island/Mississippi snye area. I handed it to her, but the Cyrano Darner was determined to escape and flew off into the sun.

The Cyrano Darner was the best odonate find at Morris Island. Many of the usual species were flying or perching along the causeway, including Common Green Darner, Common Baskettail, several Lancet Clubtails, Slaty Skimmers, Widow Skimmers, Twelve-spotted Skimmers and Common Whitetails. A few of these were perching on the pretty blue flowers of the Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare) growing along the edges of the causeway, including this female Dusky Clubtail, identified by the entirely dark black 9th segment of the abdomen (the similar-looking Lancet Clubtail has yellow markings down the entire length of the abdomen).

Dusky Clubtail

Dusky Clubtail

A relatively young male Widow Skimmer was also perching on the flowers; he has not yet developed the whitish pruinosity on the abdomen that a mature male would display. He is resting on Bladder Campion (Silene vulgaris), which is not as attractive a perch as the blue flowers of the Viper’s Bugloss.

Widow Skimmer

Widow Skimmer

There was some bird and reptile activity along the causeway, too. We saw an Eastern Phoebe flycatching along the causeway and heard, then saw, a Red-shouldered Hawk calling as it circled the sky overhead. A couple of Map Turtles were basking in the sun too far out even for my camera to get a decent shot, while a Northern Water Snake swimming next to the causeway provided some excellent photo opportunities.

Northern Watersnake

Northern Watersnake

I would have loved to have explored the conservation area, and looked for other ode species perching in the vegetation in the sunny openings of the woods, but we already had a full schedule, and hurried on to our next destination, the small parking area at the bridge over the small channel of the Mississippi known as the Mississippi snye.

For such a small area it is remarkably rich in odes. However, the first “bug” I saw at the water’s edge was not a dragonfly or damselfly, but a rather large fishing spider resting on a lilypad. The Six-spotted Fishing Spider (Dolomedes triton) is a common large spider found around water. It can be identified by its dark brown cephalothorax which has a yellowish-white stripe running along the perimeter of each side and its brown or tan abdomen with white sides and pairs of white spots down the center. The eponymous six black spots are located on the sternum on the underside of cephalothorax, and can usually only be seen in the hand.

Six-spotted Fishing Spider

Six-spotted Fishing Spider

A truly aquatic species, this spider can walk on the water of quiet lakes, ponds and streams. It actively hunts prey rather than spinning a web to catch flying insects; however, the Six-spotted Fishing Spider will build a large, complex “nursery web” among foliage on land in which it deposits its egg sac and protects the spiderlings once they emerge. Because of this it has also received the name “Nursery Web Spider”.

Many other odes were perching on the lilypads, including a small Skimming Bluet…

Skimming Bluet

Skimming Bluet

a male Eastern Pondhawk….

Eastern Pondhawk

Eastern Pondhawk

and a Lilypad Clubtail which, as usual, kept its back to me.

Lilypad Clubtail

Lilypad Clubtail

A pretty male Slaty Skimmer was perching in the reeds close to shore, letting me get some nice photos of it as it rested there in between sallies.

Slaty Skimmer

Slaty Skimmer

A spreadwing damselfly was not so accommodating, and had to be caught in order to photograph and identify it. It was an Elegant Spreadwing, my first spreadwing species of the year.

Elegant Spreadwing

Elegant Spreadwing

Other odes seen here were Violet Dancer, Chalk-fronted Corporal, Dot-tailed Whiteface, Belted Whiteface, and Racket-tailed Emerald, making it a great place to stop and spend a few minutes checking the shoreline.

From there we proceeded to the stone bridge at Pakenham to look for the elusive Rapids Clubtail. Although many of the rocks were exposed this year (unlike last year) we weren’t able to find this endangered dragonfly. We did, however, see the usual River Jewelwings along the shore, including a trio of males that kept chasing each other out over the water, and the usual Rainbow Bluets in the tall grass. Swift River Cruisers were patrolling the river below the rapids, and we found one Lancet Clubtail perching on the rocks that almost had us thinking it was a Rapids Clubtail.

Our next stop was the Blakeney Rapids Park further along the Mississippi River. As soon as we got out of the car we saw two young Hairy Woodpeckers following one of their parents around in a woodpile, looking for bugs. At the rapids we found several small clubtails perching on rocks in the water, but most of them appeared to be Lancet Clubtails – Chris didn’t see any that looked good for Rapids Clubtail. The usual Ebony Jewelwings and River Jewelwings were fluttering about the calmer water where a smaller stream enters the main current, and as the water was low and the habitat looked promising, we decided to explore the smaller stream by walking along the rocks. There was one funny moment when, grabbing a small tree trunk to keep my balance, a Hairy Woodpecker landed on my hand! It quickly flew off when it realized the hand was attached to a startled human, and Chris thought perhaps my thumb or fingers appeared to be grubs on the tree bark! We also saw a robin walking along the rocks with a beak full of food for its young.

Unfortunately, the stream didn’t yield much other than a lot of velvety-black Ebony Jewelwings, so we rejoined the path and walked down to the bottom of the raipds. A beautiful powder-blue female Powdered Dancer perching on a leaf caught my attention; they are much more photogenic perching on a lush green leaf than the rocky ground that is their usual perching habitat.

Powdered Dancer

Powdered Dancer

We ventured all the way down to the rocks at the bottom of the rapids where we saw both Swift River Cruisers and Prince Baskettails patrolling above the water, and what was likely a Black-shouldered Spinyleg perching on a distant rock. The views were pretty amazing; I don’t think I’d ever ventured this far along the trail at Blakeney Rapids Park, and the rapids were very photogenic.

Blakeney Rapids

Blakeney Rapids

Blakeney Rapids

Blakeney Rapids

I even took some video of the water rushing over the rocks to capture the feel of the park.

A Bullfrog was sitting in the water while a few River Jewelwings perched on the rocks overlooking the water.

River Jewelwing

River Jewelwing

We stopped in at Almonte on our way back home, which is where the Rapids Clubtail had most recently been seen, but we were out of luck there as well. Still, it was a fabulous day with two lifers for me (the Cobra Clubtail and the Cyrano Darner) and a great number of other ode species. Our day’s list is as follows:

  1. River Jewelwing – Calopteryx aequabilis
  2. Ebony Jewelwing – C. maculata
  3. Elegant Spreadwing – Lestes inaequalis
  4. Violet Dancer – Argia fumipennis
  5. Powdered Dancer – A. moesta
  6. Rainbow Bluet – Enallagma antennatum
  7. Stream Bluet – E. exsulans
  8. Skimming Bluet – E. geminatum
  9. Eastern Forktail – Ischnura verticalis
  10. Common Green Darner – Anax junius
  11. CYRANO DARNER – Nasiaeschna Pentacantha
  12. Lilypad Clubtail – Arigomphus furcifer
  13. Black-shouldered Spinyleg – Dromogomphus spinosus
  14. Lancet Clubtail – Gomphus exilis
  15. Dusky Clubtail – G. spicatus
  16. Midland Clubtail – G. fraternus
  17. COBRA CLUBTAIL – G. vastus
  18. Dragonhunter – Hagenius brevistylus
  19. Stream Cruiser – Didymops transversa
  20. Swift River Cruiser – Macromia illinoiensis
  21. Racket-tailed Emerald – Dorocordulia libera
  22. Common Baskettail – Epitheca cynosura
  23. Prince Baskettail – E. princeps
  24. Eastern Pondhawk – Erythemis simplicicollis
  25. Dot-tailed Whiteface – Leucorrhinia intacta
  26. Belted Whiteface – L. proxima
  27. Chalk-fronted Corporal – Ladona julia
  28. Slaty Skimmer – Libellula incesta
  29. Widow Skimmer – L. luctuosa
  30. Twelve-spotted Skimmer – L. pulchella
  31. Four-spotted Skimmer – L. quadrimaculata
  32. Common Whitetail – Plathemis lydia

The “Wild Ode West” dragon-hunting adventure was a smashing success, and I can’t thank Chris Lewis enough for suggesting it, and for such a wonderful day!

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