Watersnakes and Warbler-hunting

Philadelphia Vireo

I had hoped to find more migrants at Sarsaparilla Trail, but saw no warblers whatsoever. I did have two species of flycatcher – Great Crested Flycatcher and Eastern Wood-Pewee – a Red-breasted Nuthatch, and a Pied-billed Grebe, but nothing out of the ordinary.

However, my visit was redeemed by snakes – five Northern Watersnakes altogether! Two of them were curled up on the boardwalk, although I didn’t notice them until the first – and closest – slithered off of the boardwalk and into the water. I stopped where I was, took a look around, and noticed another one curled up at the very end of the boardwalk. Two more were resting on logs in the water, and the one I scared was swimming in the water toward a different log. A fifth was barely visible through my binoculars on a log near the beaver lodge.

Having lived with snakes, lizards and turtles in terrariums/aquariums when I was a child, finding one in the wild is an occasion for excitement, not loathing or terror. There are no lizards in the Ottawa region, unfortunately, but there are several species of snakes, the most common of which is the Eastern Garter Snake. Any time I see a different species is an opportunity to take photos, and I took several of these fellows.

Northern Watersnake

Northern Watersnakes are dark with faint alternating brown or reddish horizontal bands. Young snakes have more pronounced banding, but as the snake ages and becomes darker, these bands are often no longer visible, resulting in misidentifications. The scales of the Northern Watersnake are keeled; that is, they have a ridge down the centre, which gives the snake a rough, rather than a smooth or shiny, appearance.

Northern Watersnake

As its name suggests, the Northern Watersnake is most commonly found in and around fresh water habitats, including lakes, rivers and wetlands. While they swim well, these snakes can be seen along the shoreline, basking on rocks, logs, docks, or in other open habitats along the water’s edge – once I even found one basking on a gravel trail well away from the water at Roger’s Pond! Northern Watersnakes hibernate underground in dens, rock crevices, or mammal burrows like other snake species, though they are also known to hibernate in beaver and muskrat lodges.

Northern Watersnake

The Northern Watersnake’s diet chiefly consists of fish and amphibians, which they find by stalking the shoreline or hunting up to 3 metres below the water’s surface. The snake finds its food by investigating ripples in the water, and may be drawn to swimmers out of curiosity.

Northern Watersnake

Like all snakes in eastern Ontario, Northern Watersnakes are harmless, but will bite in self-defence if they are captured. My best advice to those who wish to avoid being bitten is generally the same for all potentially dangerous small animals in our area (including skunks, porcupines, and raccoons): don’t corner the animal, appear to be as un-threatening as possible, and make sure it sees it has an escape route. These ones were quite content to rest in their chosen places, and the one at the end of the boardwalk ignored me when I slowly approached it.

Northern Watersnake

Still looking for warblers and other migrants, I headed to Mud Lake, and as usual, it did not fail to disappoint. In 2.5 hours I tallied 38 species; I tried hard for those last two species, but was tired from my long walk and running out of energy. Highlights included one Ruby-throated Hummingbird seen briefly on the ridge, an Olive-sided Flycatcher also seen briefly on the ridge, four species of flycatcher (including an Empidonax flycatcher identified as a Least Flycatcher), about 20 Tree Swallows hawking for insects, a single Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and a pair of Baltimore Orioles.

Baltimore Oriole

Warblers were also present in good numbers: I saw two Yellow-rumped Warblers, a Yellow Warbler, two Black-and-white Warblers, one Northern Parula (heard only), and good numbers of both American Redstart and Cape May Warblers. My favourite moment was watching this Bay-breasted Warbler sitting among the wild grapes on the ridge. There was a faint reddish line down the side, easily seen in the field though not visible in these photos, that helped me to identify it.

Bay-breasted Warbler

Bay-breasted Warbler

Bay-breasted Warbler

Three species of vireos were also present: Warbling Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, and this drab Philadelphia Vireo. Usually the Philadelphia Vireos I see are bright yellow from chin to belly, but in this case, only the throat and upper breast were quite yellow, while the belly was white. In contrast, Warbling Vireos have white throats and some pale yellow on the belly. In addition, Philadelphia Vireos have a dark spot between the eye and the bill.

Philadelphia Vireo

Another great find was this Scarlet Tanager on the ridge.

Scarlet Tanager

There were a few neat dragonflies around, too. This Autumn Meadowhawk perching nicely caught my attention, so I took its photo. Although these dragonflies will soon be the last species still flying in a month or so, their pretty red colour makes them a favourite of mine to photograph.

Autumn Meadowhawk

I saw where a large brown and blue darner landed on the trunk of a shrub, and tracked it down before it could take off again. Three species are common at Mud Lake, and although I was hoping for a Shadow Darner, it turned out to be the more common Lance-tipped Darner.

Lance-tipped Darner

I finally got my chance to photograph a Shadow Darner a few nights later when my friend Jon emailed me to say he had seen a swarm of darners at Bruce Pit one evening. We met there after dinner, and although we did not find any large swarms, we found a few individuals, most of which eluded my net. This individual in the same meadow where the Summer Tanager was found last November kept flying low above the knee-high vegetation, and when I caught it, it turned out to be a Shadow Darner! These unique dragonflies tend to fly well past dusk, and are darker in colour than other darners due to the smaller spots along the abdomen.

Shadow Darner

It turned out to be a memorable week for wildlife-watching; I was happy to see so many different species, from the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher to the Philadelphia Vireo, from the Shadow Darner to the Northern Watersnakes. This late in the summer biodiversity is definitely waning, but at least there is such an abundance of wildlife, in terms of individuals rather than species, that there is always something interesting to see even as the birds head south and insect species start their annual decline.


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