Lepidoptera Along the River

Coral Hairstreak

Coral Hairstreak

Even though we’ve reached the halfway point of the butterfly season, with many early species already gone for another year (including Henry’s Elfin and Juvenal Duskywing), mid-July is still a great time to see a wide diversity of butterflies and moths. I took Friday off work to do some birding and bug-hunting along the Ottawa River and was pleasantly surprised by the various species of lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) I found. Birds and dragonflies were also plentiful, but I took so many pictures that I will save them for another post!

I started the morning at Shirley’s Bay after dropping my fiance off at work. The trails east of the boat launch and the open fields near the Hilda Road feeders are a good spot to find different insects; I’ve seen Prince Baskettails, Halloween Pennants, Giant Swallowtails, and Banded Hairstreaks in this area, though my favourite six-legged discovery was actually a moth: the stunningly beautiful Scarlet-winged Lichen Moth (Hypoprepia miniata). It was probably too early in the season to see another one of these bright red moths, but I did find some other interesting and beautiful bugs.

At first I thought the fields were empty of any interesting insects. Then I spotted an Eastern Tailed Blue and a small, dark skipper. The two small white spots on the wings confused me until I learned that female Dun Skippers have these spots, while the males don’t. I usually see the males while out butterflying; their plain dark wings and golden heads are unmistakable.

Dun Skipper

Dun Skipper

I was fairly certain I was too late to see any Banded Hairstreaks; they are more common around the end of June and beginning of July. I was surprised, therefore, when a small dark butterfly zoomed past me and kept flying erratically over the meadow. I was able to keep it in sight as it flew in a large circle and eventually alighted on a green milkweed leaf. I started cautiously making my way toward it when another small, dark butterfly landed on some Queen Anne’s Lace (aka Wild Carrot) much closer. It was a hairstreak, and the row of reddish-orange spots on its wings identified it as a Coral Hairstreak – a species I wasn’t expecting.

Coral Hairstreak

Coral Hairstreak

The Coral Hairstreak is found in the southern half of Canada from Quebec City through to the prairie provinces, and is the the only tailless hairstreak in most of its Canadian range. It frequents open meadows and roadsides in which milkweeds and other flowers provide nectar for adults, and where host plants Wild Cherry and Plum are present.

I spent some time photographing the butterfly on top of the Queen Anne’s Lace before turning my attention to the one on the milkweed leaf. This was likely a male waiting for a female to wander by.

Coral Hairstreak

Coral Hairstreak

I didn’t see any other butterflies of interest at Shirley’s Bay, though I wasn’t there for more than an hour – rain was in the forecast for later on, and I wanted to visit Mud Lake before the sky clouded over. I was mainly interested in searching for odonates, and spent more time looking at them than the butterflies. Indeed, the only butterfly I noticed was a Cabbage White on the Ridge. However, an orange-coloured insect buzzing around the blue flowers of the Viper’s Bugloss caught my attention. I recognized it as a clearwing sphinx moth – a thick-bodied moth with transparent wings that acts more like a hummingbird than a moth.

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

There are two clearwing sphinx moths in our area, the Hummingbird Clearwing and the Snowberry Clearwing, and it can be hard to differentiate between the two as they seldom land when feeding. These moths buzz from blossom to blossom, hovering while they feed, their transparent wings beating so fast they become invisible.

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

I followed the moth from flower to flower, taking as many photos as I could. Even though I wasn’t able to freeze the wings, I was able to focus on the moth’s body, and identify it as a Snowberry Clearwing – the dark line through the eye running down the side of the thorax helps to distinguish this from the larger Hummingbird Clearwing Moth.

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

The moth fed only on the blue flowers of the Viper’s Bugloss, rarely staying still for more than a second or two as it hovered in front of the flowers, and it didn’t land once. I was pretty happy to see this lovely little moth, and to get some decent (non-blurry) photos.

My last stop of the day was Andrew Haydon Park. I spent a good hour and a half there watching the birds and bugs; although it’s not really a top butterfly or dragon-hunting destination, I was happy to find a diverse assortment of bugs there. My first good find was a Monarch butterfly flying north over the pond toward the parking lot. I hardly see these lovely butterflies anymore, and was hoping that it was headed for the Common Milkweed growing on the small island at the western-most part of the western pond. Unfortunately it kept going, so I wasn’t able to get any photos. It’s been a really long time since I’ve gotten any good photos of this species; I only see two or three a year, usually later in August or September when they are busy migrating rather than feeding on nectar.

My next good find was a Mourning Cloak along the river. There is a nice patch of Common Milkweed growing along the rocky shore above the western mudflats, and my attention was snared by a large brown butterfly flying from flower to flower. I was a bit surprised to identify it as a Mourning Cloak, as these butterflies do not often feed on flower nectar. They prefer tree sap or rotting fruit, and can often be found walking down the tree trunk to feed on the running sap. This photo shows the cryptic pattern on the underside of its wings; in the woods, it might be mistaken for a dead leaf.

Mourning Cloak

Mourning Cloak

This individual was clearly finding the nectar of the milkweed flowers to its liking as it fluttered from flower to flower. From above, the row of blue spots really pops against the vibrant reddish-brown colour of its wings. As the Mourning Cloak overwinters in the adult stage, it is one of the first butterflies to emerge in the early spring, flying in deciduous woodlots on warm, sunny days even if there is still snow on the ground. This one appeared bright and fresh, so it is likely the offspring of an adult that overwintered here.

Mourning Cloak

Mourning Cloak

A much smaller insect buzzing around the flowers caught my attention, and I was thrilled when I recognized another Snowberry Clearwing Moth sipping from the milkweed. Although I was hoping for a Hummingbird Clearwing Moth this time, I was nevertheless thrilled with another opportunity to photograph this small, pretty moth.

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

Both clearwing moths are members of the sphinx moth family, but while most other sphinx moths are nocturnal, both the Hummingbird Clearwing and Snowberry Clearwing moths fly during the day. They can be found in many different habitats, including open meadows, forest edges, and suburban gardens where they are usually seen feeding on the nectar of various types of flowers. Any butterfly or hummingbird garden should attract these small day-flying moths as well.

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

The last lepidopteran I noticed at Andrew Haydon Park was a female Black Swallowtail. This is a species I find difficult to photograph, as I rarely see them feeding on flowers, and when I do see them, they are usually just a blur as they fly by. On the few occasions I’ve seen them feeding or laying eggs, both their wings and bodies are in constant motion. This one was spending some time in the milkweed, so I tried following her around for a bit and finally got one decent photo:

Black Swallowtail

Black Swallowtail

Eventually she left the milkweed and flew down into the cattails on the mudflats, perching on a plant with her wings open. It was clouding over by then, and I was grateful for my 60x zoom in order to finally get some decent photos of this species. It was then I was able to identify her as a female; she has a broad blue stripe on her hindwings that the male lacks.

Black Swallowtail

Black Swallowtail

By the time I was finished photographing the Black Swallowtail the clouds had thickened to the point where rain appeared imminent. I headed home, happily surprised by all the amazing butterflies and moths I had seen. While the Coral Hairstreaks and Snowberry Clearwing Moths were my favourites, I was really happy to finally get some photos of the Black Swallowtail worth posting. I also found some great birds and dragonflies in my outing along the river, but those will have to wait for another post.

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