Wildlife Around the Garden

Eastern Tailed Blue

Back when the lockdown started in March and the provincial parks, national parks, and local conservation areas started closing, I thought I would be spending the summer in my own backyard. It’s a nice enough yard, but it’s quite small and doesn’t boast the number of fauna of the even the small urban parks nearby. If I had known when we bought our little townhouse in 2003 that one day in the not-too-distant future I would consider myself a naturalist, I would have looked for a house with green space behind it or at least a park next door to increase the number of species that visit my yard. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20.

When the local lockdown restrictions finally lifted in late May, I was able to enjoy my summer visiting new and well-loved places beyond the boundaries of my neighbourhood and seeing the amazing wildlife of the Ottawa region.  As such, I didn’t spend as much time at home as I thought I would.  This is in part due to the fact that I spent the summer working from home – perhaps if I had been going to the office downtown every day I wouldn’t have felt the desperate need for escape on the weekends, looking for a much-needed change of scenery.  I was able to watch the birds and squirrels from my office window, but didn’t spend much time getting up-close-and-personal with the bugs and other critters. Still, I was able to eat lunch outside on occasion, and spent some of the nicer weekend afternoons working on the garden. Even just walking out to the car sometimes I found a few things of interest!

Chipmunks have been visiting my yard ever since I put up my first bird feeder around 2004.  I am not sure how many generations have been coming up to my back door or sitting on the bird feeder, stuffing their cheeks with every seed or nut they could cram within, but it’s not often that I see them with their young.  Once I saw a pair a chipmunks out back and didn’t realize it was a mother with her offspring until I saw the young one briefly suckle.  Then, on May 31st, I looked out my back door and saw three of them scuffling together in my back  garden.

Eastern Chipmunks

The pictures didn’t turn out so well, so I shot some video instead. There were four of them all together, and I assume they were siblings leaving their burrow for perhaps the first time. I never saw them all in my yard again at the same time – the most I ever had at one time after that was three – and I never saw any of them tussling like this again, so it was a wonderful experience that I’m happy to have (partially) captured on video.

Squirrels, on the other hand, visit me daily. As the summer progressed I started noticing something rather funny – while running along the top of the fence they would often just stop and lie flat on the top, belly against the wood, as if they hadn’t a care in the world. I’d been meaning to get a photo of one doing this but never had the camera ready. Then, when I spotted an individual lying down on the ground in my backyard one afternoon, I rushed upstairs to grab my camera. Fortunately he was still there when I returned, and I watched as he grabbed a couple of peanuts from beneath the feeder, then ran beneath a patio chair, sprawled out, and began eating.

Eastern Grey Squirrel

A little later, I noticed him doing the same thing out in the open lawn. It seemed strange, and I wondered if he just finds this position more comfortable, or if there was something medically wrong. Looking back, I realize that sometime after I took these photos I stopped seeing them do this. Perhaps this was just a response to the suffocating heat this summer – it was 31°C when I took these photos on July 27th, and we were right in the middle of a heat wave. In fact, the daytime high never dropped below 26°C that month, making it the hottest July on record for the Ottawa region. A total of 18 days saw temperatures reaching above 30°C, including three days that broke heat records: July 9th with a high of 35.8°C; July 10th with a high of 36.9°C, and July 26th, with a high temperature of 35.5°C. It must have been hot with all that black fur, and perhaps by spreading his limbs out he was able to release some of that internal heat.

Eastern Grey Squirrel

Chipmunks and squirrels weren’t my only mammalian visitors over the summer. Late in April and in early May I saw a raccoon out back a couple of times, either walking along the fence or in my neighbour’s yard. One morning I watched one walk along the back fence, climb a large tree, then fight with a second raccoon already attempting to sleep on top of the squirrel drey in the same tree! (The tree was later chopped down in the summer, which is too bad as it was the largest one out back and attracted lots of birds).

I didn’t see any other racoons until June 9th, when I happened to wake up at 1:00 am and, hearing a noise out back, looked out the back window. There I saw one large racoon walking along the fence followed by two – no, three – no, four! – smaller ones. I knew right where they were going and rushed out to rescue my plastic birdfeeder before they could throw it onto the ground and break the tiny plastic pieces that hold it together (I usually lose at least one or two feeders a year this way). When I got back inside I threw some of my nut and sunflower seed mixture onto the patio for them to eat, and watched as the five of them enjoyed the feast.

I didn’t see any more raccoons until the morning of August 19th, when I found two in my backyard just as it was getting light. There was no apparent size difference, so perhaps they were siblings. I threw some peanuts out onto the patio and they left my bird feeder alone – I didn’t need to rescue it this time! My last raccoon sighting of the year occurred on September 24th and was my strangest one yet. A single raccoon climbed up onto my back deck, then attempted to get inside! When it failed it curled up in the corner just like a cat, turning onto its back with its belly exposed! I watched it doze for a while before eventually wandering off.

Raccoon (August 19, 2020)

Only July 6th I added a new moth species to my yard list when I found a bright white Virginia Tiger Moth resting on a leaf in my front yard. Even though I see the fuzzy yellow caterpillars more often than I do the adult moths, I have never seen a caterpillar in my yard, so I was surprised to see an adult here. The caterpillars feed on a variety of low-growing plants, and woody shrubs and trees, which explains why I see them in a number of different habitats – even my own suburban neighbourhood.

Virginia Tiger Moth

Virginia Tiger Moth

The next day I added a new lady beetle species to my yard list when I saw a tiny black lady beetle with orange spots crawling on the vegetation. iNaturalist calls it an Ursine Spurleg Lady Beetle (Brachiacantha ursina) although it hasn’t been verified by any experts yet. I’ve seen these tiny beetles before at Bruce Pit; according to BugGuide.net, they are often associated with milkweed.

Brachiacantha ursina

Brachiacantha ursina

I found a new life moth on July 25, 2020. In June and July, when heading out in the morning I often examine the area around the garage lights for moths that may have been attracted to the lights overnight. I normally see lots of plain-looking micromoths or small, colourful Tortricids, but every now and then something interesting turns up – such as a Blinded Sphinx moth or a Pearly Wood-nymph. That morning something large and dark caught my attention, and I was thrilled to see this colourful Galium Sphinx Moth, also known as the Bedstraw Hawkmoth. Its larvae feed on Bedstraw (Galium spp.), Willow-herb/Fireweed (Chamerion and Epilobium spp.), and other plants in the Onagraceae (Evening Primrose) family. It spent the day beneath the light and was gone the following morning.

Bedstraw Hawkmoth

Bedstraw Hawkmoth

Although I saw no other dragonflies in my yard after I found my first Beaverpond Baskettail doing a handstand on my deck on May 19th, I did get a few interesting butterflies! On June 8, 2020 I got a new species for my yard when I found a Silvery Blue investigating the columbine in my back garden. Then, on August 22nd, I saw a tiny Eastern Tailed Blue nectaring on some Yellow Wood Sorrel that grows in my yard. This weed looks like clover with tiny yellow flowers, however, unlike clover each plant is easily pulled out individually. True clover spreads by creeping over-ground runners, which means when you can’t just pull one out – you’ll find yourself following each runner to pull out more. Both Yellow Wood Sorrel and clover produce flowers that are beneficial to bees, butterflies and other pollinators, so I don’t mind a few growing in my lawn.

Eastern Tailed Blue

The last new butterfly I added to my yard list was much more of a surprise. I was getting ready to go out one morning on July 26th when I saw a small brown butterfly or moth approach my yard. I thought it was a moth at first; perhaps even a Gypsy Moth which have been abundant everywhere this year (I even found a few in my front yard earlier in the summer). When it landed on my lawn, I grabbed my binoculars to see what it was – then grabbed my camera when I realized it was a hairstreak! I got one blurry picture as my camera decided to focus on a blade of grass instead of the butterfly, and while I was trying to adjust the focus the butterfly flew off. Still, my photo was just good enough to identify it as a Striped Hairstreak – only the second one I’ve ever seen, and the last common hairstreak species I needed for my year list. I fell in love with this species when I saw a bright, fresh almost violet-looking individual at the South March Highlands last year.

Striped Hairstreak

Striped Hairstreak

I also added two new yard birds this fall – both warblers! A group of chickadees flew into my backyard on August 29th, landing on the feeder and in my viburnum shrub. One of them looked slightly different, and when I took a closer look I realized it was a Cape May Warbler! It spent some time picking the aphids off of the branches, darting behind the leaves for long periods of time.

Cape May Warbler

Cape May Warbler

It flew off and I thought that was that, but it eventually returned alone where it spent more time out in the open, doing its best to reduce the aphid population. I was able to get some better photos, but then a squirrel came along and it disappeared a second time.

Cape May Warbler

Cape May Warbler

The last new bird was an Orange-crowned Warbler in my front tree. I was busy working at home on September 10th, until movement in the tree outside my window caught my attention. I saw something vaguely yellow moving around and thought it might be a Yellow Warbler, which I’ve seen there a few times in the past. Then it popped out into the open and I was able to see the grayish head, lack of wingbars, and dark eyeline with faint white arcs above and below the eye. It’s not often that I see these warblers – I usually only see one every other year, so to see two in one season was incredible! This is the 73rd bird species I’ve seen in or from my yard, and one that I never would have expected.

It’s always thrilling to add new species to my yard, especially one as small and suburban as mine. As a result of these new additions, I’ve finally gotten around to updating my “In the Garden” page containing lists of all the birds, mammals, butterflies and odes I’ve observed around the yard. I can’t wait to see what will turn up next!

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