A Day of Firsts

Spotted Sandpiper

I didn’t intend to spend three hours at the Eagleson Storm Water Ponds on Saturday morning. However, it was one of those days where the longer I stayed, the more I saw, and the more I saw, the longer I wanted to stay! The birds were quite active, with two woodpecker species (Downy Woodpecker and Northern Flicker), eight Canada Geese (one group of seven and a singleton by itself), a family of Yellow Warblers, a Turkey Vulture flying over, 16 Barn Swallows perching on the roof of one of the buildings on the west side, two Belted Kingfishers, and several young Common Grackles following their parents around, begging for food. All four heron species were present, including one Great Blue Heron, one Green Heron, one Great Egret, and one juvenile Black-crowned Night-heron and two adults.

After walking across the bridge my attention was caught by some medium-sized reddish-orange flies buzzing slowly among the vegetation. When they landed I recognized them as syrphid flies, which were later identified for me by fellow OFNC member Jeff Skevington as Drone Flies. This species originated in Eurasia but can now be found everywhere except the Antarctic. It is called the Drone Fly because of its resemblance to male worker bees (called drones).

Drone Fly (Eristalis tenax)

Like other hover flies, they are found in gardens and fields where they visit flowers for nectar. The larvae are aquatic and inhabit small ponds and stagnant ditches where they feed on rotting organic material. This is the first time I’d ever seen these hover flies; given their habitat preference, the ponds seem to be a good place for them to establish a new population.

Drone Fly (Eristalis tenax)

I found two other syrphids on my walk around the ponds, both large hover flies that are quite common in the late summer. The first one is a Transverse Flower Fly, a species that can be identified by its bright yellow scutellum (the plate-like structure between the abdomen and the thorax when viewed from above) and the bicoloured thorax that is gray at the front and black at the rear. I see these hover flies quite often and am happy to finally know how to identify them!

Transverse Flower Fly (Eristalis transversa)

The other is the Narrow-headed Sun Fly, a name that I found on iNaturalist after Jeff identified it by its Latin name. The vertical stripes on the thorax make this one of the more distinctive species in our area.

Narrow-headed Sun Fly (Helophilus fasciatus)

A much smaller insect was also nectaring on the flowers. The Bee Fly looks like a flying piece of lint and has a long proboscis that might make people think it drinks blood like mosquitoes. There are several species in Ottawa, all of which resemble wasps or bees, and none of which are harmful to humans.

Bee Fly

I checked the long grass of the peninsula where the Crown Vetch blooms profusely in the hope of seeing some Wild Indigo Duskywings. I didn’t see any butterflies, but a couple of damselflies caught my attention. As usual, there were a few tiny Eastern Forktails resting in the vegetation.

Eastern Forktail

I was surprised when I saw a spreadwing fly out and land on a blade of grass; I’ve never seen any spreadwings here before, and I was eager to add a new species to the list of odes present at the ponds. Unfortunately it was a female, which are much more difficult to identify than the males. When I posted the observation on iNaturalist, a seasoned dragonfly observer noted that while the robust build and pale area behind the eyes suggest a female Lyre-tipped Spreadwing, the length of the abdominal segments don’t support this ID. The ninth segment should be slightly more than half the length of the seventh, but in this case it looks shorter than half. Lyre-tipped Spreadwings are quite common at Bruce Pit not too far away (as the crow flies, anyway); I checked the area later in the hopes of finding a male to cinch the ID, but found none that day or on any subsequent visits. Hopefully the female laid some eggs while she was there and we’ll solve the mystery next season!

Female Spreadwing

I walked north toward Emerald Meadows Drive and added a new bird species to the list when I noticed a male and female Rose-breasted Grosbeak in a shrub next to the path. They didn’t linger long enough for any photos, and when they flew I thought a third one flew off with them, though I didn’t get a good enough look at it to confirm its identity.

I checked the pond on the north side of Emerald Meadows, passing this groundhog along the way. They are a common summer sight in this location, though most of the time they run to their burrows when someone approaches them.


There wasn’t much of interest in the northern pond, though a female Red-winged Blackbird perching on a wooden post was posing too nicely to ignore.

Red-winged Blackbird (female)

While I was photographing her, a male came along and chased her off her perch, taking it for himself!

Red-winged Blackbird (male)

It was warming up, so I headed back south to the main body of the pond to look for the hover flies again. A few were still around, but my attention was immediately caught by a butterfly nectaring on the thistle flowers in the same area. It was a Red Admiral, a species that migrates north in large numbers some years, although 2017 was not one of them. This wasn’t a new species for the ponds, as I had seen one earlier in the spring, but as I haven’t seen any others in Ottawa it made me wonder.

Red Admiral

Red Admiral

A Song Sparrow was sitting out in the open, singing away, and I couldn’t resist taking a photo. Although it’s a common species found in many open habitats, their song is one I look forward to at the end of March every year, and I miss it once it’s gone.

Song Sparrow

I headed over to the open space on the west side of the pond that was filled with new wildflower plantings last year. The plants have been allowed to naturalize, so it’s become a delightful mess of flowers of all sorts of colours. I was interested in seeing if any more butterflies were present, and found one white – almost certainly a Cabbage White – and a sulfur, as well as one lady that flew off when I tried to get close enough to photograph it.

I almost dismissed the small orange skipper until I realized that, as it was now the end of July, I haven’t seen any fresh Least or European Skippers in a while, and this small butterfly was very fresh. I decided that the upper wing appeared too angular to be the “rounded wing” of a Least Skipper, and that the antennae seemed too long for a European Skipper, and asked Ross Layberry if it could be a Delaware Skipper, a species I’d never seen before.

Ross confirmed my suspicions, and said that whenever he sees a Delaware Skipper, he thinks of a European Skipper on steroids. It is a little bigger than the European Skipper, and flies a little later, so that one tends to see bright and fresh individuals at in mid-summer when the European Skippers are worn or no longer on the wing. He also said that the Delaware Skipper has just about no markings on the underside, just that golden-brown colour where the veins on the hindwing are often visible. There is a wide black border on the upper side of both wings, with a narrow black stigma on the males and a large black mark in the same spot on the females – he said that if the upper side had been visible, it would have been immediately recognizable as something different.

Delaware Skipper

It’s not every day I get a new life butterfly in Ottawa any more, and seeing this species at the ponds – the place I least expected it – was incredible. It’s amazing what we see when we take the time to look!

An Osprey flew in while I was walking around the ponds, and I spent some time watching it fly over the water looking for fish. Every now and then it would halt and hover in place, its great wings flapping as it scanned the ponds below. I didn’t see it dive, but it was persistent as it kept flying around different spots.


While I was watching the Osprey I became aware of two things: the first, a Spotted Sandpiper was working its way around the rocks toward me, and second, the headless body of a female mallard was bobbing in the water a few feet from shore. Seeing the dead mallard startled me as I wasn’t certain it had been there when I stopped to watch the Osprey. Then I saw a large, wavering shadow slide smoothly below the surface and an idea of what had probably happened began to form: a Snapping Turtle must have killed the Mallard, and may have been eating it below the surface when it lost its grip and caused the carcass to float to the surface.

Snapping Turtle with prey

This was turning out to be a day of firsts, for I had never seen a Snapping Turtle here before either – only a pair of Painted Turtles! I watched to see if it would return to the carcass and resume feeding, but it swam slowly around and poked its head up through a mat of vegetation before disappearing.

Snapping Turtle

Nearby, the Great Blue Heron I’d spotted earlier was having more success catching its breakfast.

Great Blue Heron with fish

The Osprey wasn’t as lucky; I saw it plunge into the water out of the corner of my eye and managed to get my camera up in time to catch this shot of it bobbing comically in the water. Then I had a horrible thought that it might not be able to hoist itself out and I would have to rescue it – and my dragonfly net was at home! Fortunately, it had enough strength in those massive wings to haul itself out and fly away, its talons noticeably empty.


The Spotted Sandpiper was still probing the rocks along the shoreline and passed right in front of me. I finished off my morning with a few shots.

Spotted Sandpiper

I couldn’t believe that my “short” walk turned into an outing just over three hours long….but as so often happens, the more time I spend looking for interesting birds and bugs, the more I tend to see! It was an incredible day of firsts, not just for me with my two “life bugs”, but also for the ponds with the first Snapping Turtle, spreadwing, and Rose-breasted Grosbreaks there. I haven’t had such a fun outing there since migration ended; I will definitely be spending more time to see what else I can find!

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