Elfins and Emeralds

Eastern Pine Elfin

The Stony Swamp trail I spend the least time at, other than Lime Kiln, is Trailhead P11 on West Hunt Club. It’s a lovely trail, but it doesn’t have any marshes with boardwalks; the spring flooding requires knee-high rubber boots; and turning left back onto West Hunt Club into the Saturday mid-day traffic can be a nightmare. Still, it’s a great trail system through some prime mixed deciduous and coniferous forest, and I’ve been trying to visit more often to see what kinds of species make their homes here. It’s better for breeding Wood Thrushes than the other Stony Swamp trails, possibly because the forest is denser with fewer open areas, and I’ve had more Broad-winged Hawks here in the summer than anywhere else. I visited one morning in May while on vacation, hoping to find some new species to add to the hotspot list and perhaps to see some butterflies now that the weather has gotten warmer.

The birding turned out to be pretty good, despite the lack of variety in habitats. A Wild Turkey in full courtship display attempted to block my path, but ultimately decided to mosey off into the bush.

Wild Turkey

There was a good variety of sparrows and warblers; I suspect White-throated Sparrows breed here during the summer, and heard at least seven of them, mostly at the back of the tail where it connects to the Jack Pine Trail loop. A single Field Sparrow was singing in the hydro cut, and the usual Swamp Sparrows were at the marsh. Breeding warblers included Black-and-White Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Pine Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, and 12 different Ovenbirds. One was actually singing on a branch about 10-12 feet up on a branch before it noticed me and darted away.

Ovenbird

Migrants included Northern Parula, Yellow Warbler (at least, I don’t hear them regularly in the summer here), Blackburnian Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, a Canada Warbler that I heard and then managed to track down, and seven Nashville Warblers. A few of the Nashville Warblers appeared to be singing on territory, and after watching a pair chasing each other at the back of the trail I wondered if they might indeed attempt to breed here. Of the warblers, only the Blackburnian allowed me to take its picture as it was foraging fairly low in a shrub.

Blackburnian Warbler

Deeper in the trail system I noticed movement at the edge of the path. A bird hopped out into the open; I was expecting a robin but it turned out to be a Wood Thrush! There were two of them, and I heard a third singing elsewhere.

Wood Thrush

The best part of the trail for wildlife turned out to be the wide-open corridor at the back that leads to the Jack Pine loop. Here I observed a gorgeous male Scarlet Tanager singing at the top of a tree in the open near the intersection, an Eastern Kingbird flycatching, and heard both Winter Wren and Veery. Also of note were two Great Crested Flycatchers, a Broad-winged Hawk calling from somewhere overhead, two Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a large flock of Cedar Waxwings, and four Red-eyed Vireos back on territory.

The sunny corridor at the back of the trail was also a terrific spot for insects. I was hoping to see a few butterflies, and was happy when I found my second Northern Spring Azure of the season.

Northern Spring Azure

Something darker fluttering close to the ground caught my attention, and I realized it was an elfin – another member of the Lycaenidae family, or gossamer-winged butterflies. I figured it was a Henry’s Elfin, a fairly common species which I’ve found at three different trails in Stony Swamp, but on closer inspection I realized it was an Eastern Pine Elfin, a species I rarely see.

Eastern Pine Elfin

As its name suggests, it is found in areas with pine trees, as red and white pines are its chief larval food plant. Adults of this species are more likely to nectar on flowers than any other elfin species, and are known to feed on Bearberry and Low bush Blueberry flowers. Look for these orange-patterned butterflies in open areas near pine forests, such as dirt roads and hydro cuts with scrubby plants.

Eastern Pine Elfin

Then something larger zipped by my head, and when I looked up I saw a dragonfly flying off! I followed it for a while, then saw another hunting the vegetation at the edge of the trail. When it landed I was thrilled to see a female baskettail – my first dragonfly of the season! Although female baskettails aren’t as easy to identify as the males, the short cerci (abdominal appendages) indicate that this is a Beaverpond Baskettail, usually my first non-migrating dragonfly species of the year.

Beaverpond Baskettail

I saw a few more dragonflies flying along the path up ahead, and started walking toward them. Along the way I flushed another small elfin butterfly, this one a Henry’s Elfin. I’ve seen this butterfly at many of the Stony Swamp trails, including Jack Pine Trail, Beaver Trail, and Sarsaparilla Trail, though they seem to be most reliable at the Beaver Trail.

Henry’s Elfin

There were at least two of them in the area, both looking beautifully fresh.

Henry’s Elfin

When I caught up to the dragonflies I realized two different emerald species flying – more baskettails, as well as a couple of American Emeralds. The eyes of both these species develop into various shades of green as the individuals mature; American Emeralds have lovely vivid green eyes, while all four baskettail species have eyes that are more of a turquoise green. The brown eyes of these individuals indicate that they have only recently emerged.

American Emerald

Most emeralds spent more time flying than perching, and often need to be caught with a net in order to identify them. However, I find that early in the season, when they have just emerged, it’s easier to find them perching, particularly the baskettails which spend more time on the wing.

American Emerald

I also saw a couple of small whiteface dragonflies, also freshly emerged as they still had a lot of yellow on their abdomens. Dot-tailed Whitefaces are the most common whiteface species in Stony Swamp, though I’ve seen Belted and Frosted Whitefaces at Sarsaparilla Trail. I was reluctant to leave the sunny open trail and the dragonflies, but it was exciting to know that dragonfly season had officially begun!

On my way out I had one last Eastern Pine Elfin, and this one let me get the closest, resulting in my favourite photo of this species!

Eastern Pine Elfin

Elfins and emeralds are among the earliest butterflies and dragonflies to emerge in the spring, and it was wonderful to see quite a few on the trail. With so many beautiful insects now taking wing, there’s even more reason to go outside and see what’s around!

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