Eastern Towhees

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

On the first day of August I headed over to Jack Pine Trail. It’s been almost a month since I last visited this trail, and while I didn’t expect to see many dragonflies, I hoped the birding at least would be good. Fortunately, it was excellent – even in the middle of breeding season I tallied 24 species in about three hours. As soon as I got out of the car I heard a pair of Broad-winged Hawks calling from the woods across Moodie Drive. I wasn’t able to see them, but I recognized their clear, distinct two-note whistle. After seeing a pair at Trail 26 only two days ago, it made me wonder how many pairs were breeding in Stony Swamp. Could these be the same birds, or at least part of the same family? Or was there more than one breeding pair in this area?

In the woods I heard the usual Eastern Wood-pewees and Red-eyed Vireos singing away. I was a bit sad that all the warblers had stopped singing – I didn’t hear any Black-throated Green Warblers, Black-and-white Warblers, Ovenbirds, or even any Common Yellowthroats. I didn’t see any, either, making me wonder if they were still present, but quietly raising their young, or if post-breeding dispersal had caused them to move elsewhere.

Other birds were still around, however, including a Scarlet Tanager (heard only), a couple of Great Crested Flycatchers, an Alder Flycatcher, three Gray Catbirds, Swamp Sparrows, and both White- and Red-breasted Nuthatches. The alvar was quite active; I could hear a White-throated Sparrow singing as well as a couple of Field Sparrows, and as I started tracking down the Field Sparrows I heard the distinct “drink-your-teeeea!” song of an Eastern Towhee! I had forgotten that a pair had been seen here earlier in the summer, and even if I had remembered, I wouldn’t have expected to hear the male still singing this late in the summer. A second bird called in response, and I managed to track them down. The male was easy spot, perched in a prominent spot near the top of a dead tree.

Eastern Towhee

Eastern Towhee

The Eastern Towhee is a member of the Emberizidae family, though it neither looks nor sounds like a sparrow. However, its behaviour is very sparrow-like as it spends a lot of time foraging on the ground in the undergrowth. Towhees are difficult to see, but the rustling sounds as they forage in the leaf litter and the bright “chewink!” call will alert you to their presence.

Eastern Towhees inhabit forest edges, overgrown fields, thickets, and scrubby backyards with dense shrub cover and plenty of leaf litter. Unlike other sparrows which nest in close proximity to each other, Eastern Towhees are solitary creatures, and defend their territory aggressively from other towhees. Males may use a number of different threat displays to chase off other males, including lifting, spreading, or drooping their wings, fanning their tails, and flicking their tails. They are not very common in Ottawa, which is at the northern-most part of their range, so it was exciting to find a pair somewhere other than the Thomas Dolan Parkway, their traditional breeding grounds. Unfortunately Eastern Towhees have declined by about 49% between 1966 and 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey; one of the main reasons is habitat loss, as the shrubby fields they prefer have been either converted into subdivisions or grown into forest. In addition, Eastern Towhees are common victims of the parasitic Brown-headed Cowbird. Cowbirds have been known to lay eggs in more than half of all towhee nests in some areas, usually evicting a towhee egg to prevent the parents from detecting the addition. Unlike some other species, Eastern Towhees are unable to recognize the cowbird’s eggs as imposters, and end up raising the cowbird as their own.

Eastern Towhee

Eastern Towhee

I spent some time following the male Eastern Towhee as he flitted from one tree to another, finding the highest perches to sing from; although I could hear the female calling in response, she spent most of her time quite close to the ground in the middle of the dense shrubs. I only managed to catch a glimpse of her as she flew from the cover of one shrub to another.

I came across a couple of other birds in the same area, including this juvenile White-throated Sparrow. I don’t believe this bird has been out of the nest for very long as it still shows a hint of the fleshy gape at the corner of its mouth.

White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

It must have been my day for juvenile birds as I came across a young Yellow-bellied Sapsucker nearby. Although it bears little resemblance to the adult sapsuckers, the vertical white stripe on its wing is diagnostic in all plumages – no other woodpecker species in our area shows this field mark.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

After leaving the alvar I proceeded to the back of the trail. The only dragonflies I saw along the way were a few Common Whitetails and Autumn Meadowhawks. A single Mustard White, a Common Wood-nymph, and two well-worn Northern Pearly-eyes were the only butterfly species that I noticed.

Because of the drought I was concerned about the stream at the back where the Arrowhead Spiketails breed. I was deeply dismayed to find that it had completely dried up. I started walking down it, curious to see where it went, but didn’t venture too far before I turned around and headed back. As always, when creeks and ponds dry up due to the lack of rain, I wonder what becomes of the wildlife that depend on them for part of their life cycle – where do the frogs go, and what happens to the dragonfly larvae that spend more than half of their lifetime as aquatic creatures? What will happen to the Arrowhead Spiketail population that breeds here?

Arrowhead Creek

Arrowhead Creek

I continued along the unofficial fourth loop and spent some time in the wildflower meadows there watching the dragonflies. At first all I saw were meadowhawks, but then a larger one flew up from a leaf and landed on the ground. I got my binoculars on it and was only able to see the face peeking up above the vegetation, but it was enough to see the widely separated eyes of a clubtail! I have only seen one other clubtail on this trail before, an unidentified species which landed on a leaf close to the ground briefly before flying off. This species, too, flew off, and landed on a leaf about knee-high. I had time to net it, but decided to photograph it instead as it was very fresh and yellow. I had trouble finding it in the viewfinder, however, and when a small fly flew by, the clubtail chased off after it. Despite about half an hour of searching I was unable to relocate it, and couldn’t positively identify it. I am still kicking myself for not taking the opportunity to catch it; clubtails are so rare in Stony Swamp that it would have been nice to put this one on the list!

I finished my walk around the loop without seeing anything as interesting as the Eastern Towhees or the clubtail. Still in the mood for insect-hunting, I drove over to the Beaver Trail next to spend some time in the wildflower meadow there. As soon as I arrived I saw a Northern Cardinal and a White-throated Sparrow feeding in the grass just beyond the parking lot (see photo above).

In the wildflower meadow, I followed a white butterfly around for a while, thinking I would have a chance to get a better picture of a Mustard White; I was surprised and a bit disconcerted to identify it as a Cabbage White instead! Cabbage Whites are the non-native species that often inhabit city parks, backyards, and disturbed waste spaces; I have never seen one in Stony Swamp before and hoped I never would.

Some native species were out enjoying the nectar of the Wild Marjoram, including this tattered Common Wood-nymph.

Common Wood Nymph

Common Wood-Nymph

A few Dun Skippers were present, too, although it’s getting late in the season for skippers.

Dun Skipper

Dun Skipper

I headed over to the observation platform overlooking the beaver pond and startled two Wood Ducks in the marsh there. The Joe Pye Weed was blooming, and as this plant can be a magnet for butterflies, I spent some time in the area hoping to see one. I wasn’t really expecting any to suddenly show up, but to my surprise a Giant Swallowtail entered the area and began nectaring on the Joe Pye Weed right in front of me! Giant Swallowtails often flutter their wings when feeding, and this large fellow was no exception.

Giant Swallowtail

Giant Swallowtail

This was the first Giant Swallowtail I’d seen in Stony Swamp, and it was a great way to end the day. That’s one thing I love about these trails – even though they are all part of the Stony Swamp Conservation Area, some are better for birds than others, while others are better for butterflies and dragonflies. And even when I know what species to expect at any given trail, new species arrive all the time, such as the Eastern Towhees, the Giant Swallowtail, and even the unidentified clubtail all seen on the same outing.

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