Gatineau Park is a special place for dragonflies – many species of the National Capital Region can be found there that aren’t found on the Ontario side of the Ottawa River, while others seem to be much more common there than in Ottawa. Chris Traynor has been exploring the park quite a bit these past couple of years, searching for dragonflies that breed in the quiet lakes, sluggish streams, and fast-flowing creeks of the Gatineau Hills. Not surprisingly, he has found a good number of species that have not been reported in Ottawa, such as Eastern Least Clubtail, Mustached Clubtail, Beaverpond and Harpoon Clubtails, and even a couple of snaketails. Many of these species prefer clear, swift-moving streams with rocky bottoms, which might be the reason for their absence in Ottawa; the Ontario side of the National Capital Region is relatively flat, with more marshes and slow-moving, mucky streams winding through suburbs and forest rather than down the foothills and escarpments which form the Canadian Shield. One of Chris’s best finds was a portion of Meech Creek where Zebra Clubtails and Fawn Darners are quite common, with the occasional Dragonhunter and Violet Dancer. I accompanied him twice to this magical spot, once during the August long weekend last year, and once again this year. As I never did get around to posting those photos last year (remember I mentioned I’d fallen behind?), I will incorporate both sets of photos in this post.
We arrived at the parking lot shortly after 2:00 in the afternoon on both occasions. In 2019 I accompanied Chris in his car; this year, I met him at the parking lot, but brought a relatively new dragon-hunter, Sophie, with me. Because of COVID restrictions, we both wore masks on the car ride up – we are not in each other’s “bubble” of ten people, and masks are now mandatory indoors. Both days were sunny and hot. Although there were several cars parked at the parking lot each time, we were the only ones to take the small side trail into the wilderness last year, while this year we ran into a pair of cyclists and a couple of dog-walkers on our way to the creek. Because of all the travel restrictions and high demand for cottages and campgrounds within the province due to COVID this year, people are staying close to home, which means a lot of the local trails and parks are busier than normal. However once we started wading up the creek we didn’t see another human until we returned back to the parking lot.
There wasn’t much activity along the trail in terms of either bugs or birds on either visit; last year, my first interesting find was this White Turtlehead in bloom. These flowers are said to attract butterflies and hummingbirds, and indeed it is the host plant for Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillars. This is the first time I’ve seen or photographed this flower in bloom.
Last year, we saw a few darners flying over the trail, but they stayed well out of range of our nets. Eventually one landed, and I was happy to see my first Black-tipped Darner of the year – this is a species I rarely see on the Ottawa side of the river. A second one flew by and landed in a tree right in front of us a little farther along as well.
We also saw an Eastern Pondhawk lurking in the vegetation on our walk last year.
This year, we saw a couple of Common Whitetails landing on the gravel path, and that was it.
Butterflies were few and far between, with only a Northern Spring Azure last year, and a White Admiral and a couple of Monarchs this year. What amazed me both times was all the Joe Pye Weed in bloom – there were fields of it. Even a few Common Milkweeds were still in blossom, while almost all the mature milkweeds on the Ottawa side of the river have turned brown and are starting to go to seed (only a few small plants look as though they might start to blossom soon, such as the ones seen at the Eagleson ponds earlier this week). It would have been nice to see some skippers or hairstreaks on all the Joe Pye Weed; I’m not sure if they are still flying in the Gatineau Hills, or if their season has already ended.
The water was cool but not cold, and very refreshing after hiking in the heat. I wore my hiking sandals which provided grip in the coarse sandy parts, though it was not fun when the small pebbles ended up between my foot and my sandal. The creek levels were lower this year than last year, perhaps due to the relatively light snow-pack last winter and the lack of rain this spring and summer. On both visits we saw crayfish lurking in the sandy bottom; I wasn’t able to get a photo last year, but this year one cooperated long enough for me to get a picture through the relatively clear water. It has been identified by one person on iNaturalist as a Northern Clearwater Crayfish.
We didn’t have a long trek, and thankfully there were no mosquitoes or deer flies to plague us. Last year a few horse flies started bothering us late in the afternoon, but on this visit there were none. The difference between the water level last year and the water level this year was striking.
There were more sandbars and the island where we parked our gear was much larger this year. A White Admiral flew in to sip the moisture from the wet sand, and we even saw some Twelve-spotted Tiger Beetles running along the finer sand. This is only the fourth tiger beetle species I’ve ever seen; Chris is the one who first noticed them, and identified it.
Ebony Jewelwings were prominent on both visits, their black wings fluttering constantly from the vegetation and exposed perches near the shoreline. Surprisingly none of the larger dragons went after them.
New this year was a Violet Dancer that perched on a branch right in front of us. Also known as the Variable Dancer, the subspecies found in our region (Argia fumipennis violacea) has clear wings and is one of our loveliest damselflies in my opinion. The other two subspecies, Black Dancer (A. f. atra) and Smoky-winged Dancer (A. f. fumipennis) have black and brown wings respectively and are found much further south. The Violet Dancer is the only purple odonate in eastern Ontario.
Fawn Darners were common on both visits. These dragonflies like a wide variety of streams, rivers and even lakeshores, especially those shaded by trees. Look for them flying just above the water’s surface right next to the shore, darting into every nook and cranny and undercut, and flying in and among the branches of fallen trees. I caught one in 2019 to confirm it was the Fawn Darner rather than the similar-looking (and much less common) Ocellated Darner; the warm brown tones of its body, as well as the tiny yellow spots along the length of its abdomen and dark spots at the base of its wings confirm its identity.
These dragonflies rarely land, spending most of their time patrolling their small section of stream. Neither Chris nor I managed to catch one this year, however, we did get to see a female spend some time laying her eggs by landing on a protruding branch and inserting her ovipositor directly into the wood. She landed just long enough for Sophie to get two photos, while I was still struggling to turn my camera on. By the time I managed to find her and was zooming in she had gone. We saw her ovipositing two other times, and she even landed on Chris and Sophie’s legs looking for a good spot to lay her eggs! At one point I noticed a male and female grappling together, ending up in the water before they flew off in a mating wheel toward a small shrub growing on the bank. We thought we might get a good look at them perching but neither Chris nor I could spot them in the foliage – perhaps instead of landing they continued flying somewhere else.
Chris found our first clubtail on each visit. Last year he caught a dragonhunter perching in the vegetation next to the shore. Fortunately this was not our only sighting of this handsome giant, as another individual found one of the perches Chris had set up very much to its liking and spent most of its time there keeping an eye on things. The Dragonhunter is one of the largest dragonflies in our region, although its head is proportionately small compared to the massive thorax. Dragonhunters can be recognized by the yellow markings down the length of the abdomen, as well as the downward curve in its abdomen. As their name implies, they eat other dragonflies, as well as other large flying insects.
We did see perhaps one or two others on our outing yesterday, although they were not as cooperative, only landing once in the vegetation long enough to get any photos. Unfortunately I was busy with my net trying to catch one of the Fawn Darners and couldn’t get to the camera in time to photograph it.
Yesterday Chris spotted a Zebra Clubtail as our first clubtail of the day; this time there were no cooperative Dragonhunters lurking in the vegetation where he could net one. The Zebra Clubtail was perching on a branch that extended out over the water at an angle rather than one of the vertical perches Chris had set up – perhaps it preferred being only a few inches above the water. Last year we spent about two hours in the creek and only had one brief sighting of a Zebra Clubtail flying rapidly up the river, which I missed. Finding one in perching in the same location was a good sign, and sure enough, it returned to the perch about 15 minutes later. It was stunning.
I got my lifer Zebra Clubtail at Algonquin Park in July 2011, but I never got any photos of it as it was busy patrolling the length of its territory along the Oxtongue River. It was a first for me to see this handsome dragonfly perching, and I noted the yellow rings down the length of its abdomen, its moss-green eyes, and the thick club that make this dragonfly unique. The Zebra Clubtail also has black markings on its yellow face reminiscent of a Mustached Clubtail and much shorter legs than the Dragonhunter. It was quite territorial, darting out after any of the Fawn Darners that ventured too close and making sure it had vanquished the intruders before it returned to its perch.
Last year Chris and I stayed mostly in the same area, although Chris did go wading upstream to check another location where the Zebra Clubtails might be hanging out. It was too deep for me to follow, so I stayed where I was – there weren’t any Zebra Clubtails around the bend anyway, so there was no need to follow. This year the water was much lower, and when Chris checked the area upstream he told us about three Dragonhunters that were hanging out on a couple of downed trees. Sophie and I followed him, and the water rose to mid-thigh before we made it to a flat section of shoreline composed of thick, black mud with the consistency of quicksand. My feet actually sank down to my ankles and I had a hard time navigating to the sandier area a little further along. It was in this area we saw a couple of Common Whitetails, a meadowhawk, and this lovely fluorescent Cardinal Flower.
We saw the Dragonhunter upstream, but it didn’t like to perch for very long. We also saw a huge fishing spider on one of the dead trees, a crescent butterfly gathering moisture from the damp, coarse sand, and another medium-sized dragonfly zipping around well above our heads over the water and along the treeline. Chris and I suspect it was an emerald of some sort, although we did see a blue mosaic darner flying by at head height a couple of times too.
When we returned to the original spot, the Zebra Clubtail had changed perches. Although they like perching close to the ground or water, these dragonflies may also hang vertically from the vegetation growing along the shoreline. At one point I saw it land on a stalk of grass, but it was perching horizontally as the blade bent under its weight.
When we left the creek all three of us were satisfied with the afternoon’s adventure: Sophie got a few lifers, and I got to see a dragonfly I hadn’t seen in 9 years. It’s also a beautiful spot in its own right, well off the beaten track and away from all the other hikers and cyclists enjoying the day. By the time we left it was after 5:00 and a few darners were flying over the Joe Pye Weed fields and along the path. Chris netted one; it turned out to a Black-tipped Darner, a species we had seen on our outing a year ago.
Gatineau Park is well worth a visit any time of year, but I much prefer the summer when these gorgeous flying jewels are on the wing, delighting us with their bright colours and amazing aerial acrobatics. I thoroughly enjoyed spending these afternoons wading along the creek, watching these special odes and other insects going about their lives as if we weren’t even there.