Dragon-hunting in the Carp Hills

Great-spangled Fritillary

Great-spangled Fritillary

On June 20, 2021 I accompanied fellow OFNC members Derek and Erik to the Carp Barrens Trail off of Thomas Dolan Parkway to assist them in a survey of breeding birds and other wildlife. Because of the sensitivity of the ecosystem and number of at-risk species which breed here, this trail is closed to the public during the summer. In order for us to access the site, Derek had acquired a permit to allow us to look for unique breeding birds such as Black-billed Cuckoo, Eastern Towhee, Common Nighthawks and Whippoorwills. Derek and Erik started around dawn to listen for both nightjars, but heard none. I joined them at 6:00 am while they were still walking along Thomas Dolan Parkway, and together we entered the trail system.

The trail follows a rocky outcrop around a long slough. Many birds were already singing, and we heard the typical open field and woodland edge species: Field Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Veery, Scarlet Tanager, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and many warblers, the best of which (in my humble opinion) included two Pine Warblers, two Yellow-rumped and two Nashville Warblers.

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Henry’s Elfins

Henry's Elfin

Henry’s Elfin

After the early start to spring, migration stalled with the arrival of a long-lasting weather system that funneled the dreaded north winds back down into the Ottawa Valley again. The past week has been filled with gray, overcast days, a bit of rain, a bit of snow, and several days of gusty winds. I’ve added a few new birds to my year list, but they are mostly species that have been present for a while now that I never got around to seeing earlier: Gadwall, Barn Swallow, and Yellow-rumped Warbler at the Richmond Sewage Lagoons, Red-necked Grebe at Shirley’s Bay, American Bittern and White-crowned Sparrow in Stony Swamp, Eastern Meadowlark and Osprey on Rifle Road, and the return of the neighbourhood Chipping Sparrows back on April 15th. The birds that returned early this spring and tripped the eBird filters a few weeks ago are all birds that overwinter close by in the southern US; while they took advantage of the warm southern winds to return to their breeding grounds early, birds that winter in Central and South America are still thousands of kilometers away and will return on their normal schedule.

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Gatineau Park: Specialty Dragon-hunting

Zebra Clubtail

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.

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Marlborough Wildlife

Great-spangled Fritillary

After my vacation ended and I returned to work, memories of Marlborough Forest continued to distract me. This was by far the best new place I had discovered during the pandemic and I couldn’t wait to return. Even with another hot weekend in store and deer flies and mosquitoes at their peak I dreamed of going back and finding interesting new birds and wildlife in this amazingly diverse place. I returned on Sunday, June 28th after a successful morning birding in Stony Swamp – I got Least Bittern for the year when I saw one fly across the pond at Sarsaparilla Trail, heard a Virginia Rail, and heard a vireo singing just off the parking lot which initially sounded like a Yellow-throated Vireo, but turned out to be a Blue-headed Vireo when I used a Yellow-throated Vireo call to call it in. I normally only see these vireos as migrants at this trail; I’ve never heard one singing here in the summer before, so this was a good bird to find at the trail in late June!

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Adventure in Dunrobin

Snowshoe Hare

On June 5th I headed out to Dunrobin to spend some time looking for odes and birds. My first stop was the Crazy Horse Trail on March Road at the end of Huntmar Road. This is a relatively new pedestrian-only trail for hikers, skiers, and snowshoers that was developed by the Friends of the Carp Hills under an agreement with the City of Ottawa. It is named for an old tavern that used to stand adjacent to the trailhead but has long since been demolished. The goal of the trail is to provide recreational access to the the Carp Hills on City-owned property while keeping impact on the environment to a minimum. The trail is narrow, and as there is no intention to groom or widen the trail, people are asked to respect the natural areas by staying on the trail, keeping dogs under control at all times (which means using a leash if necessary), leaving no waste, and respecting property boundaries. There are some rough, volunteer-built boardwalks in places too wet to cross which adds to its charm. In fact, all trail maintenance and improvement depends on volunteers, rather than the City, which makes it doubly important to respect the work they have done in creating this trail.
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Early Spring Wildflowers

Canada Violet

Spring not brings the birds and butterflies back to the Great White North, it also brings wildflowers, the earliest of which are known as spring ephemerals. These perennial woodland wildflowers grow early each spring, quickly blooming and producing seed before the deciduous trees leaf out and prevent the sunlight from reaching the forest floor. Once these wildlflowers have gone to seed, the leaves and stems above ground often wither and die off, leaving only the underground structures (including the roots, rhizomes, and bulbs) alive during the remainder of the year. This strategy allows many different plants to thrive in deciduous forests by taking advantage of the early spring sunlight prior to the development of the tree canopy.
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Spring Arrives in midst of the Pandemic

Mourning Cloak

It’s been another slow spring; although the snow was quick to melt this year without any flooding, it took until the last week of April before temperatures reached a daily high of more than 10°C, and not once did Ottawa reach 20°C – in fact our highest temperature last month was 16.8°C (normally the highest temperature falls in between 20.7°C and 28.5°C). This is only the eighth time since records began in 1870 that April temperatures stayed below 17°C. Migrants have been slow to trickle in, however, this may be a reflection of the greatly reduced number of trails and habitats I visit rather than the actual number of birds passing through, as eBird sightings have been steady despite the cooler temperatures and persistent north winds. Despite the weather and the smaller area in which I’ve been birding, I’ve had some good mammal sightings in the past few weeks, and have seen my first butterflies of the season.

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Planning the Garden in the time of COVID-19

I’ve been thinking about my garden for a few weeks now – ever since the shutdown of essential services I’ve wondered if I would be able to get to the nursery in the spring to buy flowers. Usually each year I try to add a few more perennials and fill in the gaps – as well as my containers – with annuals for immediate colour. I came to the conclusion that it would be best to buy some seeds and start them indoors, which would not only give me something to do while stuck at home, but would also make the yard more enjoyable in the summer if the nurseries should be closed and this lockdown should last so long.

Today I was delighted to find some seeds at the Independent Grocery Store at Hazeldean Mall while trying to pick up some groceries (which was horrible – I couldn’t get a cart or basket, and was only able to buy what I could carry) and selected a few that I thought would add some colour. Normally I try to buy flowers that will attract hummingbirds and butterflies, but beggars can’t be choosers, and it is getting a little late to order online or wait until my next essential grocery run to see what another store may have. Still, I managed to get some flowers that should benefit the wildlife in my backyard.

Bachelor’s Buttons – I’d had luck growing these in the past, though I’d purchased them so that the birds could feed on the seeds long before I became interested in butterflies and other pollinators. It turns out that their flowers are attractive to pollinators, too!

Cosmos – this is another flower I’d tried in the past, again to provide seed for birds in the fall. If I recall correctly, I did find goldfinches feeding on them and the Bachelor’s Buttons! Apparently their open flowers provide easy access to nectar and pollen for pollinators as well.

Nasturtium – I might have tried this in the garden before, but if so I don’t remember how it performed or whether it attracted any beneficial insects. I chose this mainly for the bright orange flowers, as all my other choices were blue, pink and purple, however, it does appear that they will attract long-tongued bumblebees, butterflies, hummingbirds…and aphids. Well, maybe now the aphids will leave my viburnum alone.

Sweet Pea – this is a new flower for the garden and one that can climb. It sounds as though it is beneficial to pollinators, but does not seem to be on anyone’s top ten list.

Wild Flax – the only perennial on my list, I chose it for its pretty blue flowers with yellow centers. It too sounds as though it is beneficial to pollinators, though not as strongly recommended as other flowers.

Flower Time for seedlings to emerge Earliest Date
Bachelor’s Buttons 12-21 days April 23, 2020
Cosmos 7-10 days April 18, 2020
Nasturtium 10-14 days April 21, 2020
Sweet Pea 10-14 days April 21, 2020
Wild Flax 10-21 days April 21, 2020

I’ve had mixed results growing plants from seeds in the past, with slightly more successes than failures. Hopefully these seeds will be successful and provide plenty of flowers for the flower flies, bees, beetles and butterflies to enjoy this summer – stay tuned for updates!

The South March Highlands Project

Striped Hairstreak

After my visit to the South March Highlands on June 16, 2019, as I started logging all my photos into iNaturalist I thought how great it would be if there was a citizen scientist project that documented all the flora and fauna of the South March Highlands. This is an area that has already lost precious wetlands and old-growth habitat to developers, and still continues to be threatened today. As a few limited studies have already identified a number of species at risk within the South March Highlands, I was surprised to see that no one had created a project on iNaturalist – one of the easiest ways to document the flora and fauna living within a defined area.

iNaturalist is to plants and wildlife what eBird is to birds – a collective database that anyone can contribute to. And while the observations entered into iNaturalist depend heavily on photos submitted, the beauty of setting up a project is that it will automatically collect all the observations from the geographical area defined by the creator, subject to the parameters of the project – there are general species projects for geographical areas (such as Mud Lake and Gatineau Park), projects for specific types of wildlife (such as the Lady Beetles of Ontario or the CWF’s Help the Turtles project), and specialty projects dedicated to certain types of behavior (such as my personal favourite, Odonates Eating). It doesn’t take long to create a project – the most time-consuming part for me is defining the boundaries on the map. So during the next few days I spent some time tinkering with the iNaturalist website, and thus the South March Highlands Species Project was born.
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Backyard Encounters

As anyone who has followed this blog for a while knows (or who has picked me up to go birding!) I live in a townhouse in the sterile suburban wastelands of Kanata on the southwestern edge of Ottawa. My backyard is the size of a postage stamp, and my front yard is half the size of that as the driveway takes up the rest. We used to have two mature trees on the front lawn we share with our neighbours, until the one closest to the road came down suddenly in a windstorm. Thankfully no people were injured or property was damaged, but this was the same tree I’d seen a Pine Warbler in during the spring of 2017 and I was looking forward to seeing what else might turn up during migration. The tree closest to the house is right outside my computer room, and in recent years the Eastern Gray Squirrels have built leafy dreys right outside my window. Sometimes the squirrel sits on the branch outside its nest of leaves and twigs and stares at me while I’m working; I usually wave to it, but it just stares back at me. I always wondered if they realized that I’m the one who fills the feeders out back and tosses peanuts to them when they visit.
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