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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Dragonflies at Mud Lake

White Admiral

By the end of June it seemed that summer had finally arrived and the weather had returned to normal: the temperature had reached a consistent near 30°C, the state of emergency caused by the unprecedented spring flood had ended on June 12th, water levels were returning to normal, and the sun had finally come out! I was hoping that this meant that the dragonflies were also emerging on schedule again, and decided to head to Mud Lake on the last Saturday of June. Mud Lake is a fantastic place to see dragonflies in mid-summer, as all the dragonfly families except for Cordulegastridae – the spiketails – can be found there. Among the damselfly families both the spreadwings and pond damsels are well-represented; the broad-winged damselflies, mainly Ebony Jewelwings, are seen there from time to time. I had high hopes for my visit.
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The Beginning of Dragonfly Season

Dusky Clubtail

Usually by the time the Victoria Day long weekend arrives the first odes have emerged – in the past I’ve seen baskettails in large numbers at Mud Lake and whitefaces and emeralds in Stony Swamp. This year has been different. A persistent wind from the north has prevented the daytime temperatures from rising much above 20°C; nighttime temperatures are still in the single digits. As dragonfly emergence depends largely on water temperature, it isn’t surprising that I had only seen one dragonfly before the May long weekend, a Common Green Darner at Parliament Hill on May 6th. This is usually one of the first species I see, as they migrate north from the warm south where they emerge. Temperatures had risen from 10°C on May 3rd to 20°C on the 6th, although the morning had started out as a chilly 5°C – perhaps an influx of warm air brought this gorgeous dragonfly up from somewhere where the north wind and flooding weren’t wreaking havoc on the wildlife.

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A Cuckoo at Frontenac Provincial Park

Black-billed Cuckoo

On May 15th I again woke up early, got my breakfast at the Country Kitchen restaurant in Westport, and hit the road before 7:00 am. It was a bright sunny day, and although I knew the forecast was calling for showers in the afternoon, I hoped to have enough time to explore Frontenac Park while the sun was shining and find some interesting birds and butterflies. Southern species such as Yellow-throated Vireo and Cerulean Warbler were on my wish list, as was a butterfly called the West Virginia White. Peter Hall had seen a couple in the park only a week earlier, and I had received directions as to where I would find them. The morning was cool, but I hoped it would warm up enough for a few to be flying before the rain moved in!
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Sweltering August Heat

Blue Dasher

The August long weekend is here, and it’s been brutally hot and humid. Temperatures have reached as high as 32°C with a humidex of 41. It didn’t feel quite so hot yesterday, but today was awful. The sun was relentless, and there was no cooling breeze to provide relief. Being in the shade helped, but even so, I didn’t feel like staying out for very long.

We haven’t had much rain in the last month, so the water levels of the Ottawa River have dropped and mudflats are developing in Shirley’s Bay and Ottawa Beach. I wanted to look for shorebirds, but Shirley’s Bay didn’t sound too appealing – a long mosquito-infested walk through the woods to get to the dyke, which is almost completely open to the baking sun – all the while carrying a scope that sometimes feels like it weighs as much as I do. So yesterday I drove over to Andrew Haydon Park instead.

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Post Breeding Dispersal

Eastern Kingbird

On the first day of the long weekend I decided to look for odonates at Mud Lake. Specifically, I wanted to find some spreadwings, Fragile Forktails, darners, big river clubtails, or Swift River Cruisers, as I hadn’t seen any of these yet this season. I ended up seeing a couple of Slender Spreadwings, a few skimmer species, one big river clubtail perching on a rock in the river (likely a Black-shouldered Spinyleg), and little else in the way of odes. Unfortunately my best dragonfly of the day turned out to the first one of the day, a skimmer that flew in from the lake, landed, and hung from a leaf about two feet above my head. I could only see the underside and I registered only two things: that it had large coloured patches on the hindwings, and that it appeared red. My first thought was that it was a Calico Pennant, but the spots didn’t look quite right, and the dragonfly seemed larger than a Calico Pennant. I moved around the shrub to get a view of it from the top, but the dragonfly flew off before I could get a photo or even a better look. Only later did I wonder if it was a saddlebags of some sort, or perhaps even a Widow Skimmer whose colours I’d misjudged. I’m not sure what it was, but I really regretted not getting a photo or better look.

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The South March Highlands

Yellow Trout Lily

One of my favourite places to go birding in late May and early June is the South March Highlands in Kanata North. It is said that this forest has the highest ecological value and biodiversity of any area within the City of Ottawa, with more than 654 species found within its borders – some of which are considered to be species at risk, such as the Blanding’s Turtle, Least Bittern, and Butternut Tree. These Canadian Shield uplands are rich in wetlands and mature forest, with marshes, ponds, deciduous forest and coniferous forest all accessible via a network of trails. Despite its ecological significance, the City of Ottawa has allowed parts of the forest to be sold to developers and clear-cut for new homes and the infamous Terry Fox Drive extension. Still, the forest that remains is a beautiful spot for birding, though it is extremely popular with mountain bikers and caution should be taken not to block the trails while scanning the tree tops for warblers!

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