Morris Island

Halloween Pennant

My last day off was Tuesday, and the forecast finally called for a decent amount of sun during the morning and afternoon. I invited a friend, Jon, to go dragon-hunting with me at Morris Island since he was eager to become re-acquainted with odonates after a long absence. There were a few particular species on his must-see list, including Cobra Clubtail, Cyrano Darner and Dragonhunter; I’d seen all of these at Morris Island before, though I wasn’t optimistic about our chances of seeing the Cyrano. Although it is considered to be a widespread species, inhabiting swamps, small lakes, and slow-moving rivers of the eastern half of the continent, adults are rarely seen. It is thought that once they emerge they immediately fly up into the tree tops where they spend most of their time. Adult males can sometimes be found patrolling their territory, and this appeared to be just such a case with the one that I caught in the parking lot of the Morris Island Conservation Area last year. That was on June 25th, however, I was worried that we might be too late to see them.

We took a round-about way to get there, driving through the countryside rather than taking the highway. We were rewarded by the sight of an American Kestrel on a wire right next to the road and a trio of Eastern Bluebirds on another road. I was still hoping to see my Ottawa Black-billed Cuckoos or Indigo Buntings but found neither.

We stopped at the Mississippi Snye on Logger’s Way first. The usual Common Pondhawks and Widow Skimmers were perching on the ground and in the vegetation in the small parking area, and right away I saw a Prince Baskettail flying overhead. I missed with my first attempt to catch it but caught it on my second. This one has the lovely green eyes of a mature adult.

Prince Baskettail

Closer to the water we found some Slaty Skimmers and Twelve-spotted Skimmers zipping around the shoreline as well as another Prince Baskettail flying out over the water. I didn’t see any clubtails – no Lilypad Clubtails on lilypads, no Dragonhunters hanging out on branches jutting out above the water, and no Lancet/Dusky Clubtails perching on the ground. I didn’t see any bluets either – usually there are some tiny Skimming Bluets on the lilypads, but then I realized there were no lilypads close to the shore.

I was happy to point out a Violet Dancer perching on one of the rocks along the shore. It seems there is always one here whenever I visit, and this one was a gorgeous male with a blue-tipped purple and black body. It is our only purple-hued odonate in Eastern Ontario, and I suspect the beauty of its colours would attract a lot more interest in odes if were the size of a darner or spiketail.

Violet Dancer

The Violet Dancer (Argia fumipennis violacea) is actually one of three sub-species of the Variable Dancer. The Violet Dancer is the northern-most subspecies and has clear wings, while the Smoky-winged Dancer (A. f. fumipennis) occurs in the southeast and has brownish wings. The Black Dancer (A. f. atra) is found in Florida and has a mostly black abdomen and entirely black wings. I think I prefer our northern version best!

Common Pondhawks are another gorgeous dragonfly. They are our only dragonflies that have green eyes and a white-tipped abdomen. While females are green, mature males are powder blue, and immature males start out green but turn blue as they age. I had just mentioned to Jon that these half-green, half-blue males were one of my favourite dragonflies, and he pointed one out resting on a small piece of wood next to the water!

Common Pondhawk

We walked up to the road and checked both slopes leading down to the water but didn’t see any Dragonhunters perching there, either. We got back into the car and continued on our way to Morris Island, passing a spotted fawn and a doe along the road. The fawn vanished into the woods when we passed, but the doe continued to graze right next to the shoulder. She was still there when we returned a few hours later.

As soon as we parked in the parking lot I got out to look for interesting odes flying around. I didn’t see any darners on patrol, but a butterfly fluttering close to the ground caught my attention. It was a Compton Tortoiseshell, a butterfly I rarely see; however this is the second one I’ve seen this year. It wouldn’t let me get close enough to get an overhead picture of its full body.

Compton Tortoiseshell

The Yellow-rumped Warbler was singing in its usual spot near the water, and Jon pointed out a small clubtail that disappeared once I got close to it. We headed out onto the causeway from there. Our best find wasn’t a clubtail, but a Prince Baskettail perching on the trunk of a small cedar right on the causeway! Although these large dragonflies rarely land, this is the third one I’ve seen perching this year alone. It appeared to be a female, as it has a mass of eggs underneath the tip of her abdomen. It’s not often that I see baskettails with the mass of eggs that gives them their name, and I was curious as to why she wasn’t depositing the eggs into the water.

Prince Baskettail

Dusky and Lance-tipped Clubtails are quite common along the dyke; these small, dull clubtails do not have much of a club and aren’t very colourful. We saw a couple before finding one of the more exciting clubtails, a Midland Clubtail perching on the ground. No sooner did we spot it than it flew up onto the bridge where a father and son were fishing, and caught a smaller Dot-tailed Whiteface! The father and son seemed interested as I crouched down for a few photos, and told them about the different types of dragonflies that are found at Morris Island.

Midland Clubtail with Dot-tailed Whiteface

You can just see the abdomen of the smaller dragonfly, including the eponymous yellow dot, peaking out between the body and the wings on the right-hand side of the Midland Clubtail. Midland Clubtails are medium-sized dragonflies, and fresh ones are quite dark with bright yellow spots down the length of the abdomen, including a small triangle at the base of the 8th segment. Their eyes are turquoise-blue, and the middle of the Z-shaped stripes on top of the thorax are quite thick.

Midland Clubtail with Dot-tailed Whiteface

I usually don’t go beyond the end of the causeway, but I’ve had some luck with other clubtails and spreadwings here on a previous visit, so we walked all the way to the river. Along the way we found a couple of warblers, including a few more Yellow-rumped Warblers and a Northern Waterthrush! The waterthrush was walking on the ground next to the water, then flew up into the trees when we walked by. It was Jon who first got his binoculars on it and and identified it as a juvenile! I have never seen a juvenile waterthrush before, so seeing one in the Ottawa area was a treat.

Northern Waterthrush (juvenile)

Northern Waterthrush (juvenile)

We continued on our way, though the mosquitoes became annoying as we walked deeper into the woods. We picked up the pace until we entered a small, sunny clearing where I noticed another clubtail perching on the ground. This one was large, with a dull green and black body. I was hoping it was one of our target species – Black-shouldered Spinyleg – and quickly caught it. Sure enough, it was indeed a Black-shouldered Spinyleg, notable for its moss-green eyes and long spines on its hindlegs.

Black-shouldered Spinyleg

We also found a Snapping Turtle on our walk, unexpectedly resting right in the middle of the path. Morris Island is better known for the number of Map Turtles that can be seen resting on the stumps in the water on either side of the causeway, though I have seen Snapping Turtles there before. Although it looked docile enough, it lashed its tail whenever someone passed by.

Snapping Turtle

At the very end of the trail we came to a nice pool of water. Lots of skimmers were present, including a few Slaty Skimmers and this young Widow Skimmer, probably the most abundant dragonfly of the day.

Widow Skimmer

A quick check of the open river here didn’t net us anything other than a few Double-crested Cormorants, but a pair of Black-and-white Warblers scurrying about the tree trunks next to the trail were fun to watch. Other birds heard on our walk included Black-throated Green Warbler, two Scarlet Tanagers (including a female that was seen), Pine Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, more Yellow-rumped Warblers, a baby crow begging for food, and a singing Winter Wren. We turned around and started making our way back as it was getting late in the afternoon, though we had time to stop and check out this beautiful Black-shouldered Spinyleg resting on a fern. It was younger than the one we had seen earlier, as it was bright yellow, and its eyes hadn’t turned green yet.

Black-shouldered Spinyleg

Black-shouldered Spinyleg

When we reached the causeway again we found an Eastern Phoebe flying from perch to perch along the rocks, and heard the familiar calls of a couple of Eastern Kingbirds. When we finally spotted them we noticed that one kept flying down to the water as though gleaning insects from the surface. A Red-shouldered Hawk called a couple of times, and then flew by overhead.

It was Jon who noticed the black and yellow dragonfly in the water next to the causeway. Despite beginning their lives as completely aquatic insects, adults cannot swim or breathe in the water once they transform into winged dragonflies. I made my way carefully down the slope and used my net to scoop it out of the water. I was astonished to identify it as a Cobra Clubtail, but unfortunately it was no longer alive. Although similar in appearance to the Midland Clubtail, the middle segment of the Z-shaped markings on top of the thorax are thin, and there is no yellow triangle on top of the 8th segment of the abdomen. It was Jon’s most-wanted dragonfly for the day, so we were both sad to find this individual dead – I suspect it hadn’t been in the water long, and that it had probably been knocked into the water by a predator or another dragonfly while engaged in battle. Jon decided to take it home with him, although in the end he didn’t keep it.

Cobra Clubtail

We saw a few Halloween Pennants on the dyke as well, including a few that took enough time out of their aerial battles with each other to perch for us.

Halloween Pennant

Jon also pointed out a huge dock spider (probably Dolomedes tenebrosus), lurking at the edge of the water. We also saw a water snake, making for an outing particularly abundant in predators (Snapping Turtles, Red-shouldered Hawks, and of course odonates are also all predators).

Fishing Spider

It was a fabulous day, and I was thrilled to be able to introduce Jon to a couple of my favourite spots for looking for odes and other wildlife. We ended up with a great list of both birds and bugs, making it one of my favourite outings so far this summer!


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