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