By the time November arrives, all but the hardiest of insects have vanished, leaving only those few species that are adapted to the cold temperatures of mid-autumn in Canada. The last dragonfly on the wing here in Ottawa is the Autumn Meadowhawk, a small red or brownish dragonfly with very little black along the abdomen and yellow or brown legs. It is these two traits that make them easy to distinguish from other local meadowhawks – the other common species have distinct black markings on the abdomen and black legs. The most similar dragonfly in our area is the Saffron-winged Meadowhawk, which also lacks distinct black abdominal markings. However, the Saffron-winged Meadowhawk is larger, usually has a noticeable amber-coloured tint to the leading edge of its wings, and has black legs with brown stripes. In addition, most of the other meadowhawk species are gone by mid-October.
While the Autumn Meadowhawk starts flying as early as late July, it becomes much more common after September – this could be either because more individuals are emerging at that time, or because there are fewer dragonfly species still flying and so naturalists notice them more. It is hardy enough to survive a few light frosts, particularly if the days are still sunny and the day-time temperature is still mild. However, once night-time temperatures remain below 0°C and the day-time temperatures struggle to get much above 0°C – or if bad weather sets in – the Autumn Meadowhawk’s season is over. The latest date for this dragonfly in Ottawa is November 18, which is pretty good for one of the coldest capital cities in the world!
When I went to Bruce Pit on October 29th we had only recently had our first frost of the season – the average date for the first fall frost is October 8th, but this year it didn’t occur until October 22nd. It was cool in the morning, but as it warmed up I startled a few Autumn Meadowhawks perching on the ground. They like to rest on dark leaves on the ground to absorb the heat of the sun more quickly, as this one was doing.
The meadowhawk was probably my best sighting of the day. I didn’t see as many bird migrants as I had hoped, although I did get my first American Tree Sparrows of the fall.
My last Autumn Meadowhawk of the season was found at Sarsaparilla Trail on November 8th. This was a rare afternoon walk for me, and the daytime temperatures were still warm enough (14°C) to hope for a few odes to be flying despite the recent string of sub-zero temperatures overnight. I was happy when I scared one up from the grass on my way into the woods, and there were at least three perching on the boardwalk railings when I visited the pond.
Day-time temperatures remained warm right up until November 12th, but I wasn’t able to get out again; these were my last odes of the year, and it was great to see them while they were still active. They appeared to be in good shape, which made me wonder just how long ago they emerged – individual dragonflies that manage to evade predators, storms, prolonged cold spells, and accidental drownings typically live only for a month or two, and over time their wings become tattered and torn. It’s fascinating to think that they likely emerged in October, although depressing at the same time – this gives us only six months in our local dragonfly season, which means six whole months until May when the next ode season begins.
I went to Mud Lake on November 14th, and it had gotten chillier – the temperature only rose to 5°C, and the day was mostly cloudy with some sunny breaks. I didn’t expect to see any dragonflies, and I didn’t. Still, there were a few good birds around, including an American Coot at the north end of the lake, a single American Wigeon by the dock, a Hermit Thrush in the tangles along the western fence, and a Turkey Vulture soaring south (it came up as rare on eBird). My best bird encounters were of the close kind – the first was a Brown Creeper that popped up on a tree trunk right at eye level only two arms’ lengths away. It poked its head around the tree and looked at me for a moment before continuing on its way up. I don’t think I’ve ever been so close to one before!
The second encounter was with the group of Wild Turkeys in the woods near the observation dock. It looks as though they may have successfully bred in the area, as the single bird reported there up until May became seven birds in June! The seven birds were still there on my walk on November 14th, with two foraging in the middle of the trail and the rest congregating off to the side and attracting a crowd of people.
A little further ahead I found a couple of small whitish moths fluttering through the woods. I had seen Bruce Spanworm moths dancing through the autumn woods here years before, though I had to wait until one landed on a leaf on the ground in order to photograph it and confirm its identity.
I was surprised to see some more two days later at the Beaver Trail. The day was even cooler, only 3°C with almost completely overcast skies. I was decked out in my winter gear, including gloves, when I spotted five moths fluttering in the same area near the trail! Again I had to wait until one landed in order to photograph it.
If you look closely, you will notice there are not one, but two insects in this photo, one crawling on top of the other. I didn’t see this, but a few moments later I noticed that the original moth was perching upside-down with its wings closed, and approached to take a macro photo up close. Only then did I realize that it was mating with the other insect!
Wait – breeding season in November?! When I got home I had to look these insects up, as I didn’t know much about them other than they are usually the last moth on the wing in our area, showing up well into November. It has adapted to the colder temperatures in order to avoid the voracious insect-eating birds that have long since departed for Central or South America and the early-season odonates that stalk sunny clearings in woods. The female has no wings, and is flightless; this is another adaptation to ensure the survival of the species, as she carries a large mass of eggs that renders her body too heavy to fly. When she emerges from the larval stage as an adult, she climbs up high on a branch or twig and emits pheromones to signal nearby males that she is ready to mate. This is why male moths are often seen fluttering close together along wooded trails – they are looking for the source of the pheromones. This one was not so lucky, but landed with its wings open giving a much better view of the pattern on its wings.
It might not be the prettiest moth in the woods, but since this will be the last species I will see until spring I was quite happy to see it and get to know it a little bit better.