Unsurprisingly, there weren’t many butterflies on the wing during my visit. I saw four species and photographed three (I didn’t bother to photograph any of the Cabbage Whites that I saw). I was most surprised by the Milbert’s Tortoiseshell I saw on someone’s lawn on my first day there. This species seems to be declining in Ottawa, as I haven’t seen any years or heard of any reports where it is still common. This is one of the first butterflies to appear in the spring in Alberta, along with the Mourning Cloak; there are two generations that may be found all across the province. This individual will likely hibernate if it survives to the first cold days of early winter.
I saw several sulphurs on my visit, though the only one I photographed and confirmed was the Clouded Sulphur. This is the most common sulphur in Alberta, although three other species have a range large enough to include the city of Edmonton – the Pink-edged Sulphur, Queen Alexandra’s Sulphur, and Giant Sulphur are found across the entire province of Alberta with the exception of the southeast corner. The Pink-edged Sulphur prefers pine woods, Queen Alexandra’s Sulphur prefers prairie habitats, and Giant Sulphur prefers wet meadows near willows. The urban habitat, as well as the line of small black spots on the hindwing, rules out these three similar-looking butterflies.
I also saw one Painted Lady on my visit, at Lois Hole Centennial Provincial Park. This species is a migrant in Alberta as well, as it is unable to survive the harsh Alberta winters.
I saw a muskrat several times swimming in Lake Crystallina, and a couple of American Red Squirrels on various walks. However, my favourite city mammal must be the White-tailed Jackrabbit, which is actually a hare rather than a rabbit. The only time I saw any jackrabbits on this visit was the evening we all went for a walk to the park – we saw three of them altogether, including one right on my sister’s street!
The last one was seen in a waste area next to the park, and I spent some time tracking it down for a photo. Its pale brown eyes and black-tipped ears are distinctive. It has an amusing way of bounding into the air with all four feet leaving the ground together as it hops, which it did when I got too close. According to one news story I found, urban White-tailed Jackrabbits have increased in number from 500 in 1992 to 2,500 in 2016. One researcher believes the increase has resulted from there being more places to hide, more places to disperse, and a greater variety of food plants.
I was also surprised by the number of odonates still flying, as it hasn’t been a great year for them in Ottawa. I use the online Field Checklist of Dragonflies and Damselflies of Alberta, Montana, and Wyoming by Jim Johnson when I travel to Alberta to determine which species are present there; this checklist states there are 48 dragonfly species and 21 damselfly species present in the province, although a 2019 blog post by the Edmonton & Area Land Trust says there are estimated to be 49 dragonfly and 23 damselfly species. I haven’t yet found a field guide specifically for the Alberta odonata, or a website that shows flight seasons and specific ranges of each Alberta species, which would be very helpful in learning some of these western odes – if I go back anytime soon, it may be time to purchase Dennis Paulson’s Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West.
I only saw one spreadwing, the Spotted Spreadwing. There are only four spreadwing species in Alberta, and they are all found in Ontario so I didn’t need to worry about learning any new western species (the other species are Emerald Spreadwing, Northern Spreadwing, and Lyre-tipped Spreadwing). There were multiple individuals present in multiple places, so it seems to be a common species.
The only other damselfly I saw was a bluet of some sort, but the bluets are more varied with ten species present, and I wasn’t able to get a photo.
There were quite a few darners flying, and although I saw one flying over Lake Crystallina, I had the most luck with them at the John E. Poole wetland and along the gravel path that runs adjacent to the urban forest. The only darner I managed to photograph in the city was the Variable Darner, which seems to be one of the most common and widespread species in this area. I saw this one land on the ground, approached it for a few photos, and was surprised when it landed on my foot!
It flew off when I tried to take a few photos of it, and this time I got a better photo of it resting on the ground. This is the only mosaic darner species I’ve seen which consistently perches horizontally on the ground rather than hanging vertically from the vegetation or on a tree trunk. The Variable Darners of Alberta have thin, straight thoracic stripes rather than the two spots of eastern individuals.
This was the only heteromorphic female that I saw, in the same location although on a different day. Females may have either blue markings like the males (andromorphic) or green markings (heteromorphic); at first the thick body shape made me think I had found a different species altogether. However the thin thoracic stripes are visible through the wings.
I was chasing this male down on my last day in Edmonton, and it flew over someone’s fence and landed on a wooden board. You can see the two thin dashes on the top of the thorax here – these stripes are less developed than those in other mosaic darners, or may even be absent.
If the darners were the most majestic dragonflies of my visit, the meadowhawks were the most abundant. I saw three different species, though there are six altogether in Edmonton. Three species are also found in the east: White-faced Meadowhawk, Cherry-faced Meadowhawk, and Saffron-winged Meadowhawk, while three are purely western species: Variegated Meadowhawk and Black Meadowhawk, both of which I’ve seen on previous visits, as well as Red-veined Meadowhawk which is supposedly found throughout the province. I was eager to see the Red-veined Meadowhawk, which has an amber wash of colour on the wings much like a Saffron-winged Meadowhawk and red veins in mature males. However, it also has black legs, and white stripes across the thorax (which fade to pink in mature males), as well as black dashes on the sides of the abdomen (unlike the triangles of the Cherry-faced and White-faced Meadowhawks).
The first meadowhawk I saw was a young Saffron-winged Meadowhawk which landed on someone’s front porch as I was walking to the urban forest. I later found another on the gravel path:
While I was hoping this one might be a male Red-veined Meadowhawk, the brownish legs indicate it’s a Saffron-winged Meadowhawk.
With Ruby Meadowhawk strictly an eastern species, it is easier to sort out the White-faced/Cherry-faced/Ruby Meadowhawk complex that is so perplexing to us easterners. While young and female individuals with yellowish faces are still difficult to distinguish in Alberta, the males are quite easy. This Cherry-faced male was seen along Lake Crystallina.
Black Meadowhawks were everywhere. This made me happy as it is not one that shows up in Ottawa very often, although range maps indicate it is found here. Its name is a bit of misnomer as only mature males are black – young males and females are yellow and black. In fact, only a small percentage of Black Meadowhawks that I saw were entirely black, and I could have mistaken the first one that I saw for a whiteface had I not known that these early-flying skimmers were done for the season.
The Black Meadowhawks were most common along the gravel path at the urban forest and in the area I’d visited at Poplar Lake. There are supposed to be two viewing platforms situated along the western edge of Poplar Lake; while the one I found had a metal viewing scope on the path, it was blocked by the shrubs growing behind the fence and didn’t have enough magnification to identify anything out in the middle of the large pond. When I saw the large number of meadowhawks flying about I spend my time there photographing them instead.
Females have yellow faces, while males have black faces that develop a metallic sheen over time. Both have black legs. Freshly emerged Black Meadowhawks start out with abdomens that are mostly yellow with black stripes along the sides; as the dragonfly ages, each segment gradually darkens until a row of yellow dorsolateral spots are left. The abdomens of the males continue to darken, with the spot on S8 the last to turn black.
This was the yellowest Black Meadowhawk I saw, making me wonder if it was a different species at first. It appears to be a young female.
This female shows her characteristic yellow face and black stripe along the thorax enclosing several yellow spots.
I tried to find an entirely black male to photograph, but most still had spots along their abdomen that had darkened to brown. I only recall seeing the one on my first day that was so dark it could have been mistaken for a whiteface, and it flew off before I could get a photo.
Although the Black Meadowhawk was the only truly western species that I saw, I was glad there were so many dragonflies and damselflies around as I wasn’t sure how much I’d see in the city. They made the trip worthwhile, together with the jackrabbits – it was amazing how many of both species were around once I learned when and where to look!