A trip to Morris Island with the McNamara Field Naturalists

Slaty Skimmer

Slaty Skimmer

On Saturday, July 3rd I accompanied the McNamara Field Naturalists on their first in-person outing since the latest Stay-at-Home Order ended on June 2nd. Ontario entered Stage 2 of its reopening plan on July 2nd, which raised the number of people who could attend outdoor social gatherings and organized public events to 25 people (as well as allowing haircuts and personal care services again). Although I am not a member of the McNamara Field Naturalists Club, which calls Arnprior home but whose explorations include a large swath of the Ottawa Valley, one of my friends happens to be in charge of putting field trips together, and asked if I wanted to help lead a dragonfly walk. I said yes, and suggested Morris Island as it’s a great place to find all sorts of odes, including several flashy skimmers and clubtails that can be found perching in the vegetation and along the trails. I was thrilled when my mentor Chris Lewis joined us, as it would be easier to find some more of the unique species with a couple of knowledgeable people looking.

Although we started at 10:00, the weather was a little on the cool side, and there were more clouds than I would have liked. Dragonflies require sun and warmth for their muscles to function, and while we humans enjoyed the weather conditions, it took until lunch time for the clouds to depart and more dragonflies to start flying. Still, we saw a few on our walk along the causeway, including the usual Chalk-fronted Corporals, Slaty Skimmers, Widow Skimmers, and a couple of Eastern Pondhawks.

Widow Skimmer

Widow Skimmer

I was surprised to see that there were no Halloween Pennants visible along the causeway, one of the main species I was hoping to find. While we saw both Prince and Common Baskettails patrolling the water just beyond the reach of my net, we weren’t able to find any small clubtails resting on the gravel trail. There are usually lots of Lancet Clubtails around, and sometimes a Black-shouldered Spinyleg or a Dragonhunter or a Midland Clubtail. Then Chris found a clubtail resting on the rocks halfway down to the water, although its club was hidden from where we stood. The club is one of the most important parts of the body for identifying these dragonflies to species, as the size and shape of it, the markings on top, and the shape of the claspers are all useful in narrowing down identification. I grabbed only two photos before it flew off, and was able to narrow it down to one of the pond clubtails – genus Arigomphus – by the turquoise eyes, the large yellow spots behind the eyes, and the markings down the length of the abdomen. Two species can be found in Ottawa: Horned and Lilypad Clubtail. This one appears to be a Lilypad based on the normal-sized occiput without a notch (the yellow band connecting the two eyes).

Lilypad Clubtail

Lilypad Clubtail

As usual, there were plenty of water snakes and map turtles around. The snakes were curled up beneath the cedar trees, while the map turtles were basking on various rocks and logs in the bay. Morris Island seems to be the best place in Ottawa to find both species together.

Northern Water Snake

Northern Water Snake

Northern Map Turtles

Northern Map Turtles

On the other side of the bridge we found a few Dot-tailed Whitefaces resting in the vegetation and on lilypads in the water.

Dot-tailed Whiteface

Dot-tailed Whiteface

Once we reached the woods on the other side of the causeway my goal was to check the various lookouts onto the water for different species. In the past I’d seen clubtails such as Horned Clubtail and Black-shouldered Spinyleg resting in the shrubs along the trail, as well as baskettails patrolling the smaller bays and damselflies in the emergent vegetation growing next to the shore. It was still cloudy when we got to the first lookout, and although we didn’t find any clubtails, we did see a spreadwing of some sort in the sedges well beyond the reach of my net.

The group was moving pretty slowly so I stuck to the main trail rather than taking the scenic Chats Falls trail which has several more lookouts onto the bay. We passed by several marshes, but most were below the level of the trail with no access to the water. Once we neared the end of the trail, however, we started seeing more damselflies in the vegetation, including three Marsh Bluets (caught and identified with the hand lens), Powdered Dancers, a couple of female spreadwings which neither Chris nor I even attempted to identify, and a pair of Aurora Damsels in tandem! This was the first time I had seen this species here so I was pretty happy.

Aurora Damsels

Aurora Damsels

The trail comes to an abrupt end at a marsh on either side of the trail connected by a deep channel cutting across the trail. The trail continues beyond the channel, but is fenced off so I presume this is not part of the Morris Island Conservation Area. The sun had come out by then, and there was lots of activity to absorb: a Common Green Darner was patrolling the shoreline on one side of the marsh; several skimmers were perching in the vegetation and flying through the air; and I startled a clubtail right next to the trail onto a distant lilypad. It was, as best as we could tell, another Lilypad Clubtail. Most of the large skimmers flying about appeared to be Slaty Skimmers, Twelve-spotted Skimmers and Widow Skimmers, while Frosted Skimmers were quite common closer to the water.

Frosted Whiteface

Frosted Whiteface

The Slaty Skimmers perching in the sunlight looked quite beautiful. I love their deep blue colours and black faces.

Slaty Skimmer

Slaty Skimmer

A dark shape with milky-white wings attached to a reed in the water caught my attention. It was a dragonfly emerging from its larval shell, and based on the white face and brown and green eyes it appears to be a White-faced Meadowhawk. The wings look opaque at first, then become transparent once they fill with hemolymph and dry out. At this stage the meadowhawk has not completely shed its exoskeleton; its abdomen is still stuck inside, and it is using gravity to help make an opening in the exoskeleton large enough to pull itself free. Once it has completely shed the outer skin, the dragonfly needs to wait until its wings have dried and its body has hardened before it can go about the business of feeding and creating more dragonflies. It is extremely vulnerable to predators at this stage, and it is not unusual to see piles of discarded wings on the ground in areas of mass emergence where larger dragonflies, frogs, mink, and other predators pick them off while their bodies are still maturing.

Emerging Meadowhawk

Emerging Meadowhawk

We didn’t spend as long as I would have liked at the marsh; the diversity was fantastic, and there were plenty of dragonflies to watch now that the sun had come out. We turned around and headed back, taking our time on the causeway as I wanted to find some more clubtails and Halloween Pennants. We did not get lucky with the clubtails, but a couple of Halloween Pennants perching close to the ground delighted the group.

Halloween Pennant

Halloween Pennant

A Blue Dasher was a new ode for the day; I found a male perching on a twig overlooking the water. It is similar in colour to the male Eastern Pondhawk but has a black-tipped abdomen and bronze-tinted wings.

Blue Dasher

Blue Dasher

I saw movement in the water, and was thrilled to see a small Northern Map Turtle swimming close to the causeway. Normally these turtles like to rest on logs and rocks as far away as possible from the humans on the trail.

The Northern Map Turtles is a species of special concern – it is not considered endangered or threatened now, but may be in the future if certain threats continue to affect their numbers. These threats include water pollution affecting food supply (primarily molluscs, which often undergo mass population die-offs resulting from pollution), habitat loss and degradation due to shoreline development, and injury and death resulting from collisions with cars or boat propellers. This species is named for the markings on its shell, which are said to resemble the contour lines on a map. Its upper shell is green with a series of fine yellow lines; a distinct ridge (keel) runs down the center. The head, legs, and tail also show an intricate pattern of bright yellow lines, and the yellow spots behind the eyes are distinctive. Females are much larger than males; the shell can grow up to 27 cm long, almost twice the length of the males.

Northern Map Turtle

Northern Map Turtle

By that time the outing ended, and we all headed back to the parking lot to go our separate ways. On my way to the car I spotted a small clubtail fly up from the ground and land a short distance away. I caught it; it was a Lancet Clubtail, one of the small clubtails I was hoping to find.

Lancet Clubtail

Lancet Clubtail

From there Chris and I drove over to the Mississippi Snye to see what might be flying at the water’s edge. The water was much higher than usual this visit; there was no mudbank to walk along, and all the rocks were submerged so we didn’t see any Violet Dancers. There were no black-winged jewelwings fluttering about near the bridge, either; on a previous visit we’d observed both species in the same area. A few bluets were resting on the lilypads further out in the water, including this Skimming Bluet. It is a black-type bluet, meaning that most of its abdomen is black, with very little blue. The thin rings and its small size help differentiate this bluet from the similar-looking Stream Bluet.

Skimming Bluet

Skimming Bluet

There are usually one or two spreadwings perching in the vegetation near the shore, and I was surprised to see one close enough to capture with my net. I thought it was a male at first, and so I caught it with my net; I was not as happy when I discovered it was a female, as they are much harder to identify. The lemon-yellow markings on the thorax, however, looked unusual, and when I mentioned them to Chris she asked to see the wings. The wings were tinted a golden-bronze colour, which was enough to identify it as an Amber-winged Spreadwing, which was new for Chris in the Morris Island area. Over the years she and Bob Bracken have tallied a total of 75 (now 76) species in the area, out of 78 reported by other dragon-hunters over the years. This includes a rare and amazing aggregation of emeralds found by Colin Jones & Peter Burke on the afternoon of May 25, 2001, presumably roosting together before dispersing. Species in the aggregation included American Emerald, Racket-tailed Emerald, Common Baskettail, Spiny Baskettail, Kennedy’s Emerald, Forcipate Emerald, and Uhler’s Sundragon! (Observation reported in Ontario Odonata volume 3).

Amber-winged Spreadwing

Amber-winged Spreadwing

For me it was simply enough to see an Amber-winged Spreadwing, as the last one I had seen was in Prince Edward County in 2019; I don’t even remember the last time I saw one in Ottawa. I let it go, and watched as it flew toward the water and perched in the emergent vegetation.

Amber-winged Spreadwing

Amber-winged Spreadwing

The best dragonfly there was a Lilypad Clubtail resting on – what else? – a lilypad close enough to photograph. This is a repeat site for this large dragonfly, and I was happy to get a good photo showing the light turquoise eyes and orange spots beneath the end of the abdomen.

Lilypad Clubtail

Lilypad Clubtail

It was a great outing to a spot I hadn’t visited since before the pandemic, and I was happy to share my knowledge with the McNamara Field Naturalists. There’s always such a great variety of odes there that it is definitely in my top ten favourite spots to go dragon-hunting in the Ottawa region.

Advertisement

One thought on “A trip to Morris Island with the McNamara Field Naturalists

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s