The South March Highlands Project

Striped Hairstreak

After my visit to the South March Highlands on June 16, 2019, as I started logging all my photos into iNaturalist I thought how great it would be if there was a citizen scientist project that documented all the flora and fauna of the South March Highlands. This is an area that has already lost precious wetlands and old-growth habitat to developers, and still continues to be threatened today. As a few limited studies have already identified a number of species at risk within the South March Highlands, I was surprised to see that no one had created a project on iNaturalist – one of the easiest ways to document the flora and fauna living within a defined area.

iNaturalist is to plants and wildlife what eBird is to birds – a collective database that anyone can contribute to. And while the observations entered into iNaturalist depend heavily on photos submitted, the beauty of setting up a project is that it will automatically collect all the observations from the geographical area defined by the creator, subject to the parameters of the project – there are general species projects for geographical areas (such as Mud Lake and Gatineau Park), projects for specific types of wildlife (such as the Lady Beetles of Ontario or the CWF’s Help the Turtles project), and specialty projects dedicated to certain types of behavior (such as my personal favourite, Odonates Eating). It doesn’t take long to create a project – the most time-consuming part for me is defining the boundaries on the map. So during the next few days I spent some time tinkering with the iNaturalist website, and thus the South March Highlands Species Project was born.

Blue Flag

People don’t need to officially join a project to contribute to it – any observation whose geographical coordinates are within the boundaries of this project will be included automatically. As soon as the project went live I noticed that a number of historical observations had already been collected, mostly trees and fungi. I was certain that there had to be some interesting or unusual butterfly and dragonfly species found within the conservation area, but there were very few records – mostly mine. I wasn’t too concerned about bird species, as there are already two eBird hotspots with numerous checklists submitted: one called the South March Highlands Conservation Forest, and the other (older) hotspot inexplicably named the West March Highlands. So what’s project administrator to do – except return to the scene and look for more species?

My next visit was on June 23rd, another gorgeous, sunny day with plenty of flowers in bloom but few bugs to be seen. I found Blue Flag irises growing in a couple of locations, as well as this Yellow Salsify flower. This is a non-native plant that has been classified as a noxious plant under the Ontario Weeds Act. Also known as Goat’s Beard, it occurs mostly in pastures and along roadsides.

Yellow Salsify

Meadow Hawkweed (with yellow flowers) and Orange Hawkweed were blooming, as were Viper’s Bugloss and Oxeye Daisy.

Orange Hawkweed

Despite the large number of wetlands within in the conservation area, I only saw a few ode species, and those weren’t present in any great numbers. I identified Sedge Sprites and Taiga Bluets, as well as the usual Chalk-fronted Corporals and Dot-tailed Whitefaces. I was happy to find Frosted and Belted Whitefaces as well to add them to the project.

Belted Whiteface

Butterflies were also scarce, but I did manage to photograph two species – Hobomok Skipper and this Little Wood Satyr.

Little Wood Satyr

Despite walking almost 3.5 kilometers into the conservation area – the farthest I’ve ever gone before – there didn’t seem to be as many insects around as I was hoping for. The end of June is usually the peak of insect diversity, but it seemed as though insects, odes particularly, were still emerging late due to the long, cold spring. The birds were plentiful, though, and I had some good sightings: a Merlin flying over, and a Yellow-throated Vireo heard at the deepest part of the trail, singing the same slow, buzzy “three-A, three-A” song I had heard earlier along Huntmar Road.

My next visit was on July 13th, and I stopped by the Klondike Road entrance first. Birds included a flyover Black-crowned Night Heron and a Ruby-throated Hummingbird. There was a nice assortment of insects too – the Common Milkweed was blooming, which is usually an insect magnet in the month of July. I was surprised to find some plants with white flowers as well as the usual pink flowers.

Common Milkweed

By far the best sighting in this part of the conservation area, and indeed my whole visit, was a lifer butterfly right at the entrance – a Striped Hairstreak! As soon as I saw it I realized it was a new species for me – although it had the white bands of a Banded or Hickory Hairstreak, it also had a beautiful violet sheen I had never seen before. The wide, white‑bordered “stripes” do not form neat bands as in other hairstreaks, and the large blue spot has an orange cap – a field mark not seen in the more common Banded Hairstreak. Striped Hairstreaks are not usually considered abundant; indeed, most sightings are of single individuals. They are founds along forest edges and woodland openings, feeding on the nectar of milkweeds, dogbane, Meadowsweet, mountain‑mints, New Jersey Tea, and sumacs.

Striped Hairstreak

Once I had had my fill of photographing this lovely butterfly, I drove to the southern entrance and walked about 2 kilometres into the conservation area. The birds in this section were more interesting – I heard a Spotted Sandpiper calling from the large swamp near the entrance, a surprise Blackburnian Warbler singing at the intersection of the “Fastout” and “M Line” trails, a Blue-headed Vireo calling in the same area, and a Winter Wren and a Black-throated Green Warbler both singing in the same areas where I had heard them on my last visit.

I had better luck with the insects, particularly butterflies; I saw what looked like an Eyed Brown, a European Skipper, and two comma species – one I could identify as an Eastern Comma, and this one which remains unidentified on iNaturalist. One local photographer noted that this individual has the “extra” spot on the forewing which usually indicates a Question Mark, though the mark is faint. However, Eastern Commas sometimes exhibit this mark, although the wear on this individual is unusual for a dark “summer” form Eastern Comma at this date. So it is possibly a Question Mark; it flew off before I could get a look at or a photo of the underside.

Comma sp.

Northern Pearly-eyes were also flying, though I only saw a couple.

Northern Pearly-eye

I was also happy to see a swallowtail on my way out – it was fluttering in the vegetation next to where I’d parked my car, then landed on the gravel shoulder to try to obtain nutrients from the damp ground. I initially reported it as a Canadian Tiger Swallowtail, as the yellow band between the edge of the forewing and the thicker black band on the underside forms a continuous line, rather than a line of spots as seen in the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. However, a few people on iNaturalist argued that this individual is a mixture of these two species, the result of a hybridization event that happened a long time ago and believed to be separate taxonomic entity. This individual, as well as other Tiger Swallowtails flying at this time (indeed, I saw two other yellow swallowtails on that visit – another one in the conservation area, and a third flying across Terry Fox as I drove home) is part of a lineage that is reproductively isolated from the two parent species – Canadian Tiger Swallowtails fly much earlier, and would not be fresh at this time, while Eastern Tiger Swallowtails start flying in late July in our region. As such, any fresh Tiger Swallowtails seen flying in July throughout much of Ontario are likely members of this as-yet-undescribed taxon.

Canadian x Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

This tiny moth called a Double-banded Grass Veneer was also a highlight – I found it in an open grassy area.

Double-banded Grass Veneer

A few odes were flying, too, including a Canada Darner, a few Racket-tailed Emeralds, some Frosted Whitefaces, a Belted Whiteface, a Four-spotted Skimmer and some Common Whitetails. I also photographed a Taiga Bluet, which seems late – normally this is one of the first bluets I see at the end of May! Again I was surprised by the limited number of species, and how few individuals were flying.

My last visit of the summer occurred on July 27th. I was thrilled to add Dun Skipper, American Toad, Eastern Pondhawk, and Lance-tipped Darner to the iNaturalist project but found the other insects much more interesting. The first creature that caught my eye was a black and orange striped caterpillar crawling along the stem of a Purple Loosestrife plant. The colourful caterpillar among the purple flowers was stunning, although I had a hard time photographing it due to the swarms of mosquitoes trying to bite any exposed skin whenever I stopped for very long. When I got home I identified it as the caterpillar of a Pearly Wood Nymph moth, a species I had seen on my own house once!

Pearly Wood Nymph

I don’t know who was startled more when this deer poked his head out of the grass as I passed by on the trail, him or me! This was the first deer I’d seen at the South March Highlands, and I was happy to add him to the project list.

White-tailed Deer

As it started getting warmer the insects started flying, and I saw a few that looked like flower flies but turned out to be something else – bee flies. Bee flies belong to Family Bombyliidae, one of the largest families of the order Diptera (the true flies), with over 5,000 species worldwide. These fuzzy, two-winged flies are known for their mimicry of bees and wasps. Adults feed on the nectar and pollen of flowers, while their larvae are parasites – adults lay their eggs in tunnels in the ground where solitary bees have already deposited their own eggs, and the bee fly larvae feed not only on the food stores left for the young bees, but also on the bee larvae themselves.

The first bee fly I saw looked like a flower fly. The main difference between these two types of flies is that while flower flies land on (and crawl all over) flower blossoms, bee flies typically feed while hovering in the air or while using only their front legs to stabilize their bodies – they have a long proboscis which enables them to reach the centers of the flower blossoms without landing. Their common names seem backward to me, as flower flies are also known as hover flies. In addition, bee flies prefer dry, often sandy or rocky areas, and are much less likely to be found on flowers in urban parks or suburban gardens.

Banded Bee Fly (Villa sp.)

Banded Bee Fly (Villa sp.)

The second bee fly I found looked more like a deer fly. Fortunately, it feeds solely on nectar and not human blood! This North American species is truly transcontinental, found from the Maritimes to Alaska, on Caribbean islands such as Puerto Rico and as far south as Honduras in Central America.

Spotted Bee Fly

A Red-belted Bumblebee was a nice find, as was some sort of beige-coloured Stink Bug. When I reached the entrance where I had seen the Striped Hairstreak two weeks earlier I was delighted to find several Banded Longhorn Beetles on the Queen Anne’s Lace (aka Wild Carrot), either feeding on pollen or mating. I find these harmless beetles to be quite pretty; I usually don’t see them in large numbers, so seeing so many was a nice treat.

Banded Longhorn Beetle

The South March Highlands Conservation Forest is an amazing area full of interesting flora and fauna. It will be fun to keep track of the various species that inhabit this area, and see other people’s observations being added to the project. Perhaps such a project will be useful in the future if the issue of development comes up again, or if someone is looking for information on whether certain types of plants or wildlife have been recorded within the conservation forest. I enjoyed setting it up, and now that it’s done, I have an excuse to go back and look for more observations to contribute!

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