Monarch vs. Viceroy

Monarch

On the last Sunday in June I drove over to the airport to continue my quest for year birds. I had six target species, and figured I would be doing well if I managed to see only three of them: Eastern Bluebird, Indigo Bunting, Grasshopper Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Black-billed Cuckoo, and Mourning Warbler. The Eastern Bluebird and Indigo Bunting were probably the easiest targets, while the cuckoo and the Mourning Warbler were the most difficult – I had only heard these species around the trails once before, and would be happy if I heard them again. I usually hear or see Grasshopper Sparrows on every visit, while Vesper Sparrows are hit-and-miss. The day was warm and sunny, so I was looking forward to seeing some butterflies and dragonflies, too.

I left early so that I wouldn’t have to deal with any traffic that would make the birds difficult to hear. By 6:05 a.m. I had turned off Limebank Road and was parking along the shoulder of Tom Roberts Avenue, a dead-end road with a gate leading onto the airport grounds. I have seen Grasshopper Sparrows on the grounds through the chain-link fence here before, and once even managed to photograph one with a caterpillar of some sort in its beak as it perched briefly on the fence. I was happy to hear one of them singing in the tall grass beyond the fence as soon as I got out of the car, though I wasn’t able to see it. After a short time scanning the area I heard a second bird singing further away, and managed to spot it atop of small shrub. It was an easy addition to my year list, though I wasn’t able to get any photos.

From there I drove over to the end of High Road where I found my second target right away: a male Eastern Bluebird! It was perching in a tree next to the road; by the time I got my camera ready, he flew into a nest box, then flew right back out again. A female flew out after him; I sat in the car and waited almost ten minutes for the bluebirds to come back, but they didn’t.

I wasn’t happy when I got to the end of High Street and realized that the trail system there was now blocked off, too. Several years ago, a couple of large “No Trespassing” signs were put up at the trail system entrance where it started at a small parking area along Bowesville Road, though the entrance from High Street remained open. Although I’d seen some great birds from the Bowesville entrance (Clay-colored, Field, Grasshopper and Vesper Sparrows; and a pair of Sharp-shinned Hawks in a small woodlot), I’ve had other great birds from High Street. It was close to High Street where I’d heard both the cuckoo and Mourning Warbler, and the fields adjacent to the entrance are great for seeing Eastern Meadowlarks and Bobolinks. I decided to get out of the car and walk along the road for a bit, and heard one Eastern Meadowlark and at least three Bobolinks singing in the adjacent pasture right away. I also saw an American Kestrel fly over and heard a Black-and-white Warbler singing from a group of trees. A couple of House Wrens, a couple of Common Yellowthroats, a Brown Thrasher, and a Baltimore Oriole were also seen or heard in the vicinity. I didn’t hear any Grasshopper or Clay-colored Sparrows, but I heard a White-throated Sparrow, a Song Sparrow and a couple of Savannah Sparrows, one of which I was able to track down.

Savannah Sparrow

A bit disappointed that I couldn’t follow the trails deep into the open scrub where the Clay-colored Sparrows are often heard, I decided to park along Earl Armstrong and see if the new Osgoode Link Pathway could provide me access to the better birding spots in the vicinity. This abandoned rail corridor was turned into a multi-use trail a few years ago, and runs 21 km from the Leitrim park-and-ride to the town of Osgoode. I have never used it, but was curious after seeing a few birding reports from the area. A quick look at Google maps shows the trail running straight as a ruler through large wooded areas and farm fields, though a thin screen of trees separates the trail from the fields. Almost right away I saw a Northern Harrier flying over the field at the entrance, and it looked to be carrying something in its talons. I walked almost two kilometers heading north, and tallied 44 species in just under two hours. Highlights include a Willow Flycatcher, two Great Crested Flycatchers, an Eastern Kingbird, a group of Tree Swallows feeding their young, six House Wrens (including one carrying nesting material), three Brown Thrashers, four Ovenbirds, a Black-and-white Warbler, seven Common Yellowthroats, an American Redstart, a Chestnut-sided Warbler, two Yellow Warblers, two Clay-colored Sparrows, three Field Sparrows, two White-throated Sparrows, and four Savannah Sparrows. I had no luck with any other target species, so when I saw a dirt path crossing the Pathway I decided to take a quick look even though I’d seen “No Trespassing” signs at every such crossing. It seemed strange that I hadn’t so much as heard an Indigo Bunting, and was hoping to find one in the open fields where I’d often seen the beautiful bright blue males singing from the tops of the trees. Again I had no luck, though I was delighted to see a male Monarch butterfly fly by and land on some milkweed!

Monarch

These butterflies have become scarce in Ottawa during the past four or five years. The population is counted annually at its wintering grounds near Mexico City, and a large decline has steadily taken place from 2006 to 2014. WWF Mexico estimates that 145,000 million monarchs spent the winter at their traditional overwintering spots in 2016-2017, covering roughly 2.9 hectares of forest. This estimate shows a population decrease of about 27% compared to the previous winter, but overall the population is still higher than the all-time low populations in 2012, 2013 and 2014. In fact, monarch numbers increased by 600% over the previous two years, which is good news for this iconic butterfly.

Monarch numbers seem good this year, too, as I’ve seen many reports of them from the area. I usually don’t see them until later in the summer, when the younger generation starts migrating south in August and September, so seeing one in June is a really good sign. This one is a male based on the thinner black webbing within the wings as well as the two black spots on the hindwings just visible near the lower edge of the upper wings. As the milkweed was not in bloom yet, and thus has no flowers to provide a food source for mature monarchs, it may have been perching there waiting for a female to approach.

Monarch

As I was getting close to my car, I noticed a couple of sparrows on the gravel path ahead of me. I didn’t think too much of it until I took a look through the binoculars and noticed that one of them had a thin white eye-ring and a dark cheek patch bordered by a pale supercilium and malar stripe. The chest had a few streaks, and the outer tail feathers were white – it was a Vesper Sparrow! Unfortunately a Savannah Sparrow on the road took a run at it, chasing it off before I could get a decent shot. Still, it was another bird to add to the year list, and one I haven’t seen in a few years now! I headed home, quite pleased that I managed to get three of my six target birds.

As I was passing through Stony Swamp I decided to stop in at the Rideau Trail for a quick look. The hydro corridor is often a good place to see butterflies and dragonflies, and almost right away I spotted a bright orange Viceroy fluttering along. It stopped and landed in a small shrub, giving me ample time to study and photograph this monarch mimic.

Viceroy

The Viceroy is almost an exact replica of the larger, more majestic Monarch except for a couple of key features: it is smaller, and it has a horizontal black bar extending across the middle of the two hindwings and into the lower (trailing) edge of the forewings. You will also note that each forewing has three white dots extending down in single file from the leading edge, whereas the Monarch has a scattering of white and pale orange dots in this area.

The flight style is different, too: Viceroys often fly rapidly with much fluttering of the wings, while the Monarch is more likely to glide between wing-flaps, giving it a slower, more graceful flight style.

Finally, the Viceroy is able to survive our cold northern winters in its larval stage, while the Monarch has to leave Canada every fall and overwinter in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve near Mexico City. It was neat to see both species on the same day, and to get photos of them in almost exactly the same position!

There were plenty of flowers blooming in the hydro cut, and this Orange Hawkweed in particular caught my attention.

Orange Hawkweed

On my way back to the parking lot I stopped to check and see if the Ruby-throated Hummingbird I had seen last time was around, and sure enough he was perching in the same tree, suggesting he is watching over his territory and likely has a nest nearby.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Some other good birds found include a pair of Chestnut-sided Warblers in the alvar, a Scarlet Tanager, a Purple Finch, three White-throated Sparrows, an Ovenbird, and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. I kept an eye out for the Red-shouldered Hawks, even though I have searched the trails a few times these past few months with no success; I don’t know what made me turn my head when I did, but I was startled to see a hawk-like shape perching in a tree several feet away. A quick look through the binoculars confirmed it was a Red-shouldered Hawk, and I quickly took a few photos despite the many branches in the way. Later, I saw one soaring over the alvar, though I’m not sure whether it was the same individual or not. One more new bird for my year list!

Red-shouldered Hawk

The Blue Flag Iris growing next to the boardwalk also caught my attention; I have to photograph it every year, as it’s one of my favourite flowers. I didn’t notice the Flower scarab beetle (Trichiotinus affinis) crawling over it until later, when I reviewed my photos.

Blue Flag

June is my favourite month for searching for breeding birds and bugs, and I was happy to see so much today – from the tiny hummingbird to the large Red-shouldered Hawk. I was also happy to find four new year birds for my Ottawa list, bringing the total up to 166. As we are now heading right into the middle of breeding season, the birds are not as vocal and are becoming more difficult to find. Once they no longer need to attract a mate or defend a territory, many will stop singing, and luck will play a much larger role in locating them. The next couple of weeks will be critical for finding birds like cuckoos and Indigo Buntings; hopefully the weather will stay nice, and I will be able to get outside on the weekends and look for them!

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