A BioBlitz in Quebec

Wood Frog

Wood Frog

In late July I got an invitation from the OFNC’s Conservation Committee to attend a small BioBlitz on the Quebec side of the river on August 28th. A BioBlitz is an intense survey that takes place within a short amount of time that attempts to record all the living species within a designated area. I’ve attended a few BioBlitzes before and generally enjoy them; it gives me the chance to see new places that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to access, and spend time with individuals with other areas of expertise during the survey. I am not a big fan of some of the newer types of BioBlitz which invites the public to come along and asks the experts to lead small groups during the survey – it seems to me that the purpose of these BioBlitzes is more to engage the public and introduce them to the types of flora and fauna that are present in familiar or well-known areas rather than to survey new areas for a particular purpose. I turned down the one opportunity I was given to attend one of these types, so perhaps I’m wrong about this.

The Quebec BioBlitz was organized by the Nature Conservancy of Canada in order to assess two properties near Clarendon (about an hour and half northwest of Ottawa) that it was considering acquiring. They assembled a small team to determine the biological significance of the sites, and in particular whether any endangered or at-risk species were present. I caught a ride with Dave Seburn, an OFNC member with an interest in reptiles and amphibians. When we arrived I recognized Jeff Skevington, another OFNC member with an expertise in insects – he’s helped me to identify more than a few hover flies I’ve photographed, and plans to publish a field guide on these fascinating insects one day.

Of course, I had been invited for my knowledge of odes, although the weather wasn’t particularly great for dragon-hunting. The morning was cloudy and the forecast suggested a few showers around lunch time. Fortunately we avoided the showers, but it was humid and overcast, and not many insects appeared to be present at first.

We started in a large open field with waist-high weeds where I saw a few Autumn and White-faced Meadowhawks. Someone found a butterfly they thought was a hairstreak, and David called me over to identify it; it turned out to be an Eastern Tailed Blue, a member of the same family as the hairstreaks. My best find here was a huge orbweaver web with a cicada caught in it – when I took a closer look, I realized that the spider was feeding on the cicada! This spider is the Banded Argiope, named for the faint black bands across its abdomen. I had never seen an orb weaver with such a large prey item before.

Banded Argiope with Cicada

Banded Argiope with Cicada

A little further along I found another orb weaver in its web, this one the Black-and-yellow Argiope, aka the Black-and-yellow Garden Spider.

Black-and-yellow Argiope

Black-and-yellow Argiope

We headed into the woods from there, where we came to a large wet area in a clearing with lots of fresh green sedges growing around the water. This was my favourite spot on the property, as I found two different spreadwing species here – Slender and Sweetflag. I thought there might be some Northern Spreadwings lurking with the Sweetflags, as they look almost identical, but didn’t catch any. A couple of darners were patrolling the area above the water, and I spent some time hanging out on the bank hoping they would come within reach. Before they did, David called out that he had found a salamander under a log! I hurried over to take a look and was happy to see my first Eastern Newt of the year. This is the terrestrial juvenile, called the Red Eft.

Eastern Newt (red eft form)

Eastern Newt (red eft form)

I missed this species at Roger’s Pond both times I was there, so I was pleased to see one here.

Eastern Newt (red eft form)

Eastern Newt (red eft form)

After photographing the eft I returned to the bank above the water and watched the darners. One landed on the trunk of a tree nearby, and I identified it as a Canada Darner.

Canada Darner

Canada Darner

The other darner finally flew within reach of my net, and when I caught it I identified it as a Lance-tipped Darner, my first of the year. Jeff was interested in it, so I handed it over to him to look at, pointing out the shape of the first thoracic stripe (more than a ripple than a notch).

Lance-tipped Darner

Lance-tipped Darner

A flock of birds suddenly appeared in the clearing, and those of us who were birders took the time to watch and study the flock. I identified a couple of Red-eyed Vireos, a Philadelphia Vireo, several chickadees, a Red-breasted Nuthatch, a Chestnut-sided Warbler, a Yellow-rumped Warbler, two Black-throated Green Warblers, and best of all, a Canada Warbler! Jeff and his son Alexander called out a few other species which I wasn’t able to get on, and we watched them flitting around from tree to tree with delight until they had all passed on. The Canada Warbler was designated as “threatened” in April 2008 by COSEWIC, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, and is a species of “special concern” in Ontario. This means that it is not currently endangered, but may become endangered due to a combination of biological characteristics and identified threats. In this case, the threats to this warbler include the reduction in forests with a well-developed shrub-layer in their breeding range and deforestation in their wintering grounds in South America. This turned out to be the only species-at-risk that we saw during the BioBlitz.

In the meantime, David found a Blue-spotted Salamander beneath another log, so I headed over there to take a quick look. Even though these are one of our most common salamander species, I think they are quite lovely. I am still hoping to see my first Spotted Salamander (the one with the yellow spots), but they are less common and less likely to be found under logs and rocks.

Blue-spotted Salamander

Blue-spotted Salamander

I began noticing several meadowhawks with black legs and red faces in the area and caught a couple in order to identify them. I was unable to ID the male I caught; the hamules looked like none of the hamules of the three confusing Sympetrum species in my book. The hamules are the structures that form the secondary genitalia beneath the second segment of the abdomen – this is where the female attaches in order to receive the sperm that fertilizes her eggs while the two are in wheel formation. Each species’ genitalia are slightly different in shape, so two different species cannot form a mating wheel and create hybrid species. The hamules of the Ruby Meadowhawk and Cherry-faced Meadowhawk are so similar that not only could I not identify the male I had caught, but hybridization does in fact occur (one the reasons they are considered to be one species by some).

Probable Cherry-faced Meadowhawk

Probable Cherry-faced Meadowhawk (male)

Fortunately it was much easier to identify the female I had caught; her genitalia had the outwardly-turned lobes of a Cherry-faced Meadowhawk. I didn’t get a picture of her posing on the vegetation, but I did take a picture of the male – notice his bright red face and dark black legs. Autumn Meadowhawks also have red faces, but their legs are yellow or brown.

Probable Cherry-faced Meadowhawk

Probable Cherry-faced Meadowhawk (male)

Eventually we left the pond and continued our way through the woods. Jeff noticed a couple of tiny Spring Peepers hopping out of the way as we walked along; as I rarely see these frogs I took some time to watch and photograph them.

Spring Peeper

Spring Peeper

One of our smallest frogs, the largest Spring Peeper on record measured only 3.7 cm. It is the only frog in Ontario with a dark X on its back, and is tan or light brown in colour. Spring Peepers are know for the high-pitched peep repeated over and over in the spring, sometimes before even all the snow has melted. They are mostly active at dusk and at night, when they congregate in shallow, temporary woodland ponds, ditches, and marshes to find mates. The chorus of calling frogs on an early spring evening is so loud it can be deafening up close and can be heard over a kilometre away. After the breeding season, the peepers migrate to forested and shrubby upland habitats where they find food and shelter in the leaf litter. Because they are so small it takes a keen eye to spot one, and if it hadn’t been for their movement hopping away I might never have seen them.

Spring Peeper

Spring Peeper

After we finished surveying the area, we drove down the road and met at a small parking area where we ate our lunch. A pair of Eastern Wood-pewees kept us company as they called from nearby perches. I spotted this tiny crab spider hanging out on a stalk of vegetation, waiting for an insect to land within reach. It appears to be a male, based on size; all I can tell is that it is not a Goldenrod Crab Spider, which has two brownish forelegs and two yellowish hindlegs.

Crab Spider

Crab Spider

After lunch we headed over to a larger pond to see what we could find there. There was no clear, well-trodden trail for us to follow, so we had to bush-whack our way through the woods. Fortunately the shrubs weren’t too dense to navigate, but it was more work than I am used to while birding. Along the way we spotted this small Wood Frog as it hopped to safety. Its colours give it the perfect camouflage for hiding in the leaf litter:

Camouflaged Wood Frog

Camouflaged Wood Frog

It hopped out into the open, giving us a better look. The Wood Frog is the only frog in our region with a black mask:

Wood Frog

Wood Frog

We didn’t find much at the pond. A few darners were patrolling the edge of the water, but I wasn’t able to catch any. Even though the pond rivaled Mud Lake in size, we didn’t see any water birds at all – it seemed there should have been a heron waiting motionlessly at the edge of the water or a kingfisher flying across the pond. The only item of interest that we found was a pile of feathers. I thought that they might belong to a Blue Jay, but Jeff said that they were the wing feathers of a mallard – the blue patch is from the wing patch, or speculum.

Mallard Feathers

Mallard Feathers

After exploring the pond we called it a day. It was really hot and humid by then, and the sun had finally come out, making it even warmer. Even though we were only there for a few hours, I enjoyed seeing the property and all the frogs and dragonflies. It’s not too often that I get to go birding/dragon-hunting in Quebec, and I was grateful for the opportunity. I’m not sure if the Nature Conservancy of Canada will buy the property, but if it does, I imagine it would be fantastic for birds in the early breeding season and in migration, and for dragonflies and other creatures in the summer.

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One thought on “A BioBlitz in Quebec

  1. I attended a big Bioblitz in Peel surveying the Credit River watershed. They ran it like 2 independent events: the actual biologist/specialist teams did their usual surveying, intensely and exhaustively, and camped together, and had a major field station set up with resources, equipment and room to meet and discuss findings. They were allowed off-trail, to bring in boats into restricted waterways, could use electric-shock fish capture techniques, sonar for the bats, mist nets, etc.

    The general public parts were run separately but during the same 24 h period. Volunteers, sometimes the specialists, but other times just really good naturalists familiar with the area, led informative “show and tell” hikes themed for various types of species, for e.g. one for aquatic insects; one for birds; etc. The purpose of those guided tours was education, entertainment and public relations. On the other hand, sometimes these guided tours did find additional species for the count, particularly since some very well informed local “citizen scientists” had signed up for them and could point out the location of less obvious plants, nests and dens, invertebrates etc.

    I think you might enjoy these larger Bioblitzes by choosing which type of activity best suits what you want from the Blitz. The sharing, caring and camaraderie of the guided groups was quite amazing. The number of young children who participated, particularly in key tours such as reptiles and amphibians and insects, was also encouraging. You could see some of these young attendees were likely heading towards future education in natural history/environmental/conservation studies.

    Just thought I’d share what one major Blitz was like.

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