On Sunday June 28th I started my day at Sarsaparilla Trail. One of the birds I still needed for my year list was Least Bittern, and I’d been lucky to hear it in the marsh here last year. In fact, I got a great view of it as it flew from the southern shore toward me and landed in the reeds close to the boardwalk before it started calling. I didn’t expect to actually see one again – they are quite elusive and prefer to hunt within the reeds rather than stalk fish out in the open the way Green Herons and Black-crowned Night Herons do – but I knew if I arrived early enough I might have a chance to hear its mournful call. I’d checked a few times earlier this season to no avail, and with June almost over there wasn’t much time left in the breeding season to track down those birds best found by their songs, as many birds stop singing by late July.
When I arrived the first thing I noticed were two Snowshoe Hares on the lawn near the forest entrance. They’ve become a regular sight here the past few times I’ve visited, and I was glad to find them both looking well. Snowshoe Hare populations tend to fluctuate, with numbers rising and falling over a ten-year cycle, so some years they may be difficult to find while others they seem to be quite common. They must be at or near the peak of their cycle, as I’ve had good luck finding them recently; I’ve also had them at Jack Pine Trail and Bill Mason Center this year.
I heard a few warblers along my way to the marsh, including Ovenbird, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Yellow Warbler and Common Yellowthroat. At the boardwalk I heard a Marsh Wren and a Virginia Rail, and saw at least five Tree Swallows swooping through the air. On the pond I saw a Hooded Merganser, two Wood Ducks, four Canada Geese (including one gosling) and several mallards (including a family with four ducklings). I heard an Eastern Wood-pewee, Great Crested Flycatcher, and Eastern Kingbird in the pond vicinity and a Scarlet Tanager in a tree right behind me.
As I was taking in the sounds and sights of the wildlife on the pond, I saw a duck-sized golden-yellowish bird fly out of the reeds and flap its way across the pond. I got my binoculars on it, and was thrilled to identify it as a Least Bittern! It looked almost oriole-yellow in flight with dark outer wings and trailing yellow feet. I saw where it landed at the north end, but it disappeared completely. It didn’t call either; if I hadn’t been paying attention I might have missed it!
There was something else present on the water, too, and at first I thought I was seeing a cormorant just as it was diving below the pond’s surface. It took a few moment to catch on that there were a pair of Northern River Otters swimming at the north end! They rarely stayed above the water’s surface for long, but their movements were very sinuous as the swam around the beaver lodge and along the far shore, one following the other. This was the first time in a while that I’d seen river otters, and the first time I had seen them at this particular pond making me wonder where they’d come from, and where they were going.
I had one last good bird as I was making my way through the woods toward the parking lot – a vireo was singing which sounded just like a Yellow-throated Vireo, an very uncommon bird within the city limits. I followed its voice all the way to the parking lot, taking several short videos which I converted to audio files for my eBird checklist. Once I reached the parking lot I located it somewhere in the foliage of the tree-tops, and decided to play the scolding call of a Yellow-throated Vireo call to entice it into view. To my surprise, it wasn’t a Yellow-throated Vireo but rather a Blue-headed Vireo! To me the song of the Blue-headed Vireo is a lot more variable, with unpredictable stops and starts and sections where it speeds up. Some parts are composed of three sections, similar to a Red-eyed Vireo’s repetitive “Where are you? Here I am.” with a more wiry tone, which sometimes leads to confusion with that species. In contrast, the song of the Yellow-throated Vireo has a more predictable pattern composed chiefly of slow, two-part calls (“three-ay, three-ay”). This bird sounded more like a Yellow-throated Vireo than a Blue-headed Vireo, but now that I’ve begun adding audio recordings to my checklists I will have to track down a singing Yellow-throated Vireo for comparison!
From there I checked the hydro cut at the Rideau Trail just down Old Richmond Road. I didn’t find any unusual birds, though I was surprised to see this Eastern Cottontail in the vegetation right next to the parking lot!
The habitat of Stony Swamp is much more suitable for Snowshoe Hares than cottontail rabbits, so I was surprised to see this fellow here. The rabbits prefer more open habitat than the dense forests favoured by the hares, including both agricultural and suburban areas, fields, pastures, open woods, and forest edges which have adequate food and cover in the form of shrubs and thickets.
The cottontail was having a good wash, so I watched him and waited until he was done before climbing over the gate and heading into the hydro cut.
I wasn’t happy to see a sign at the entrance that said “Notice of Tree and Shrub Removal” placed there by Hydro One. It indicated that trees and shrubs would be removed from under the power lines and the tower bases cleared of vegetation to help prevent power outages, allow safe access for hydro crews, and ensure public safety in the corridor. They had already cleared a large swath of corridor between Old Richmond Road to Moodie the previous year, and from Moodie toward Highway 416; I was not surprised to see that Hydro One planned to clear-cut this section too, although it made me quite sad as the shrubs along the forest edge here can be fantastic for migrants during the fall, particularly warblers. I just hoped they would not begin the work until after the summer breeding season, as a good number of native species nest here.
I was looking for odes and butterflies, but these pretty flowers caught my attention. iNaturalist identified it as Foxglove Beardtongue, Penstemon digitalis; I’ve heard of Foxglove and I’ve grown Beardtongue in my garden, but I’ve never of their names combined.
While checking the flowers for butterflies, a large, colourful caterpillar crawling along the stem of small plant caught my attention. Given that moth species vastly outnumber the butterflies in our area, I figured it would be impossible to identify; I was pleasantly surprised when iNaturalist identified it as a Mourning Cloak caterpillar, one of the most recognizable butterflies in our region.
The following day was a workday, but I managed to get out to Steeple Hill Park for a quick walk at lunch time. The usual breeding birds were present (Yellow Warbler, American Redstart, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Field Sparrow, Brown Thrasher, and Eastern Kingbird) in various parts of the park. I saw a Cabbage White butterfly feeding on some Purple Cow Vetch, as well as a Northern Cloudywing feeding on the flowers of a Viper’s Bugloss. Even though it is common for these skippers to nectar on flowers, I rarely see them doing so – I most often find them resting on the ground instead.
I found a couple of moths within the forested trails of the park. The first was a large, yellow False Crocus Geometer Moth; the second was a striking black and white moth whose colours blurred together as it flew through the air. In flight it reminded me of the White-striped Black Moth, but when it landed I could see that it was much more ornate and much larger than that more familiar moth. This one of two extremely similar moths in the genus Rheumaptera; while Spear-marked Black Moth is more common, White-banded Black Moth can’t be ruled out. According to Bugguide.net, the variation in pattern among individuals of these two species is much greater than the variation between the two species.
I thought it was quite pretty, and spent some time following it around as I tried to get some decent photos. When it landed on a tiny flower I was able to get some pictures of the underside:
The following day I spent my lunch hour at the Eagleson ponds, hoping to find some new bugs to add my project on iNaturalist. I found a young, yellow-coloured meadowhawk (even though I’m not ready yet for meadowhawks!), a Dark Firefly (Pyropyga nigricans), several Common Red Soldier beetles, and this skipper. Skippers are not common at the ponds, except for the tiny Least Skippers which breed here and have multiple broods each season. Other than that, I have seen a Delaware Skipper here once (on July 29, 2017), and a pair of Tawny-edged Skippers once (on June 19, 2020). This appears to be a worn female Long Dash Skipper, which is quite common in the open alvars and forest openings of Stony Swamp close by.
I also saw this small spider in a web built within the funnel of a few curled leaves. It looked like an orbweaver, but as it was not sitting within a large, circular web I didn’t think it was one until someone identified it on iNaturalist as an Arabesque Orbweaver. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this species, way back in September 2009 when I found one at the Rideau Trail along with two other orbweaver species and one at the Richmond Lagoons the same month (this was back when orbweavers were relatively abundant in old fields and other areas of tall, undisturbed grass).
The new skipper and orbweaver made my visit to the storm water ponds a success, as it is always a thrill to add new species to the iNaturalist project – especially when they aren’t species I’m expecting to find.
These images bring the month of June to a close, which makes me sad as this month generally has the most insect diversity. By the end of June, some species are already done for the year (such as the Henry’s Elfin, the Eastern Pine Elfin, the Ebony Boghaunter, and the American Emerald) and it will be another year before I see them again. Thankfully the first half of July is just as exciting, as the fritillaries, the hairstreaks, the meadowhawks and the darners begin to emerge, even as the month continues to see more and more species winding down.
How lovely to have a trip back to summer as I sit here looking out at the snow.
Thanks Arlene! I have a nice backlog of butterfly photos from the summer that I need to post, so hopefully they will add some colour and cheer to the long dark winter days ahead!