Clubtails at Sheila McKee Park

Cobra Clubtail

On July 22nd I received an email from Chris Lewis about a new dragonfly spot along the Ottawa River. I’d been to Shelia McKee Park out near Dunrobin just once, on an OFNC trip in 2015 to look for herps; it has a network of woodland trails and a steep staircase that leads down from the top of the cliff to the rocky beach at the bottom. Chris said she found evidence of a very recent dragonfly emergence of in the form of both exuviae and teneral dragonflies; she recognized exuviae of both clubtails and emeralds, though she was not able to identify them to species. She saw an unidentified darner and several teneral meadowhawks in the woods, and several Powdered Dancers and a pair of Stream Bluets in tandem near the water. However, it was her clubtail report that intrigued me: she mentioned one Lancet Clubtail, both mature and teneral Black-shouldered Spinylegs, several Midland Clubtails, and one Cobra Clubtail which had become the unfortunate meal of a Midland Clubtail. It is amazing that I’ve never considered going back to this park for odes before – the shoreline here is quite rocky, with little or no emergent vegetation, reminiscent of Britannia Point at Mud Lake or the causeway at Morris Island, both of which are great spots for clubtails. Curious to see these clubtails for myself, I headed out the following Sunday (July 28th) and brought my net in case there was anything worth catching.

I saw quite a few young meadowhawks in the woods, most of them bright yellow. I also saw one or two large yellow and black dragonflies which I presumed were clubtails – I tried to photograph one, but it flew off when another dragonfly (a Twelve-spotted Skimmer, I think) flew in and landed too close to it. I patrolled the vegetation along the forest edge for a while but wasn’t able to relocate it. I did, however, hear two Black-throated Green Warblers singing and see this pretty white caterpillar dangling from the trees. When it fell to the ground I was able to get a few photographs and identify it as a Hickory Tussock Moth, a bristly caterpillar which will turn into a plain-looking, white-spotted orange moth.

Hickory Tussock Moth

When I reached the river I saw plenty of Powdered Dancers perching on the rocks. It took me a few minutes before I saw my first clubtail – it flew up off the ground and landed ahead of me. I slowly made my way toward it, taking pictures as I went; the narrow Z-shaped stripes on top of the thorax and lack of a yellow triangle on the eighth segment of the abdomen confirmed this was a Cobra Clubtail!

Cobra Clubtail

Unfortunately it was quite wary, and flew off before I could get too close. I continued my way up the beach and found a couple of Stream Bluets in the vegetation as well; then I saw another clubtail fly by and land on the ground. This one turned out to be a Black-shouldered Spinyleg, and it only allowed me to get one distant photo before flying off.

There were clubtails here, but they were by no means numerous – these dragonflies like to perch horizontally on the ground or on the leaves of low-growing shrubs, and I had to carefully scan the ground and the large rocks along the base of the escarpment in order to spot them. I had no luck finding any using this method, and realized that the best way to find them was to flush them and watch to see where they landed. Of course the next dragonfly that I flushed didn’t land, but headed out over the water instead and disappeared.

I was luckier with the fourth dragonfly – I didn’t find it, it found me when it flew in and landed right at my feet. I could see right away that it was another Cobra Clubtail, and crouched down for some photos.

Cobra Clubtail eating Powdered Dancer

It was only when I tried to get a photo of the clubtail’s face that I realized it was eating a damselfly – a Powdered Dancer by the look of it. This explained the dragonfly’s lack of wariness and the way it completely ignored me. Dragonflies often become so engrossed in their meal when eating that they allow humans to approach them much more closely than they would otherwise – this is one of the best ways to get some extremely close macro shots.

Cobra Clubtail eating Powdered Dancer

It became clear that the Cobra Clubtail wasn’t leaving any time soon, so after taking my fill of photos I walked over to the escarpment to see if I could find any dragonflies resting on the leaves of the plants growing out of the cliff wall. There were none, but I found a couple of exuviae clinging to some ferns instead.


Dragonflies begin their lives as nymphs living underwater, and when they are ready to transform into flying jewels of the skies, they crawl out of the water and then up onto a rock or a tree trunk or a sturdy plant stem growing nearby. The young dragonfly bursts out of its exoskeleton by making a hole in its back, emerging head first, followed by its thorax and abdomen, leaving the larval shell – or exuvia – behind. Immediately after it emerges its abdomen begins to lengthen and its wings expand as the haemolymph of its circulatory system begins to flow through its veins. Dragonflies are very soft and vulnerable to predators in this stage, and as soon as they are able to fly they will often fly into the tree tops or other vegetation for protection while their bodies continue to harden and develop colour. The shell is left behind as a testament to its underwater origins.

I don’t know enough about exuviae to identify them, but there appears to be a damselfly exuvia in the lower left-hand corner of this photo as well!


I reached the end of the little beach, then turned around to walk back the way I had come. I found a couple of Powdered Dancers in a mating wheel.

Powdered Dancers

I also scared another Black-shouldered Spinyleg into a cedar tree. If you look closely at this photo you can see it is eating a Powdered Dancer. The shininess of the Powdered Dancer’s wings indicate it is a teneral, the name for freshly-emerged odonates before they reach maturity.

Black-shouldered Spinyleg

While I was watching the Black-shouldered Spinyleg a small orange insect flew in and landed on my sleeve. It reminded me of an End Band Net-winged Beetle (Calopteron terminale) I had seen once before, except the wings lacked the net-like ridges seen on the beetle’s wings. When I got home and looked it up I realized it was a moth – specifically the Black-and-yellow Lichen Moth – and that it’s no coincidence that these two species look alike. Both are toxic to predators that may try to eat them, such as birds or spiders, and advise their toxicity by displaying brightly-coloured wings. These two species are an example of Mullerian mimickry, which occurs when two or more noxious animals develop similar appearances as a shared protective device.

Black-and-yellow Lichen Moth

The moth walked down my wrist and onto my fingertips, possibly attracted by the salts in my sweat (it was a hot, sunny 30°C and there was little shade on the beach). I gently placed it in a cedar tree and took a few more photos before moving on. Adult Black-and-yellow Lichen Moths are diurnal and feed on flowers, though there were none on the beach; their name comes from the lichens that the caterpillars eat. This was a lifer for me, and probably my most unexpected find of the day!

Black-and-yellow Lichen Moth

A male Stream Bluet was posing nicely on a green leaf, so I took a few photos. This is one of the easier bluets to identify as the abdomen is mostly black, the eyes have a thin blue bar across the top, and there is a black triangle on top of the eighth abdominal segment (in males).

Stream Bluet

The next clubtail I saw was a fresh, colourless teneral that I noticed when it flew up into the cedars. The thorax stripes would help narrow down the species, but I couldn’t get a good photo of them from beneath the tree. It’s identifiable as a clubtail, however, because the eyes are separated and do not touch.

Teneral Clubtail

I was heading back to the stairs when I saw another clubtail, this one a Black-shouldered Spinyleg, land on a rock close by. This member of the clubtail family has a slender abdomen and a smaller club than the Cobra Clubtail. Yellow dashes extend all the way down the top of the abdomen, becoming small triangles in the final two segments. The most distinctive field marks in this species, however, are the markings on top of the thorax (an ornate capital “I” sandwiched between two ovals) and the extremely long hindlegs. The leg segment closest to the body (the femur) is marked by alternating long and short spines.

Black-shouldered Spinyleg

I left the park happy with all the Cobra Clubtails and Black-shouldered Spinylegs I had seen, though I was disappointed that I didn’t find a Midland Clubtail to complete the trio of “big river dragons”. There is another parking lot for the park a little further east on Sixth Line Road, and I thought I’d try the river access there to see if there were any clubtails. Unfortunately the sign is misleading – the road leads down to the Kanata Sailing Club and the Ottawa River Canoe Club, and there appeared to be no public access to the water or even a city park accessible from that parking lot. I did see a Question Mark butterfly along the road, which is interesting as it turned out to be the only one I would see all season.

Question Mark

I returned to Sheila McKee Park the following weekend, and this time I was racing the oncoming dark clouds as I arrived at 11:30 am. It wasn’t supposed to rain until later in the afternoon, but the ominous sky to the west told me that my time at the park would be short. I didn’t spend any time looking for odes in the woods, but hurried down to the beach as soon as I arrived. Once again the Cobra Clubtails stole the show, with several individuals present. I love the emerald green eyes of these dragons; most clubtails have blue or turquoise eyes.

Cobra Clubtail

A smaller, duller clubtail resting on the rocks caught my attention, this one a Lancet Clubtail – one of our more common species. This dragonfly has grayish-blue eyes and dull yellow and brown bodies with yellow markings along the top of the abdomen that extend all the way to the final segments.

Lancet Clubtail

I found more exuviae along the beach, including this larval shell clinging to a vine-like twig on the ground.


The sun came out briefly just before the clouds opened up and a light misty rain began to fall. I photographed one last Cobra Clubtail in the sun before deciding to head back to the car.

Cobra Clubtail

Something slithering toward the water caught my attention, and I was surprised to see this garter snake out in the open – normally I find them in places with more soil and rotting logs and larger rocks to provide shelter.

Garter Snake

The rain began to fall in earnest then, and I left after spending barely an hour there. This place definitely warrants a return trip in the future, perhaps earlier in the season to look for Midland Clubtails, Swift River Cruisers and maybe even Stream Cruisers. I’m glad Chris Lewis discovered this spot as it appears to be the closest, most accessible spot for Cobra Clubtails in the west end – assuming Andrew Haydon Park doesn’t become a hotspot for them in the meantime!

2 thoughts on “Clubtails at Sheila McKee Park

  1. I wasn’t there until later in the year but I did have Midland and Spinylegs. Certainly any rocky habitat along the river should have these big river clubtails but this spot seems rather exceptional. You certainly had good luck with finding nice adults too. I’ll have to mark my calendar for a visit or two next year. And did you notice that amazing flagstone at the bottom of the stairs with the ancient fossilized leaf?

    • No, I didn’t see the fossilized leaf – I’ll have to look for it next time!

      I really enjoyed my visits this past summer. I didn’t start going until the last weekend of July, so I think a June visit could be productive, especially for cruisers. I can’t see any reason why they wouldn’t be there.

      I can’t believe I’m looking forward to next season already – it’s going to be a long winter.

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