Butterflies of Early Spring

Spring Azures

Butterflies emerge in late winter or early spring as soon as the first warm, sunny days arrive and the temperatures reach about 13-15°C. This could happen as early as mid-March here in Ottawa, although the butterflies usually don’t stay out for very long – the nights are still cold in late March and early April, and they may not become fully active until the weather warms up to a consistent 15°C in late April. The first butterflies that emerge are those that spent the winter in their adult form, hibernating in mixed or deciduous woodlands beneath the bark of trees, in brush piles, or in other nooks and crannies where they are protected from the wind and biting cold Arctic air. Only a few species hibernate as adults; others overwinter as caterpillars, eggs, or pupae contained within their protective chrysalises. Still others are unable to tolerate Canadian winters in any form, and migrate south to warmer regions – the Monarch is the most familiar of these.

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Other Highlights from September


When I’m not busy looking for birds and bugs at the Eagleson Ponds, I’ll be at one of the many other trails and conservation areas in west end. Stony Swamp attracts its fair share of migrants, and is home to numerous fascinating reptiles, amphibians, and insects, so I spend a lot of time there in the warmer months. Jack Pine Trail and the Beaver Trail are my favourite trails as the loops are small enough that they can be completed quickly, with a variety of habitats to attract different wildlife; however, Sarsaparilla Trail can also be amazing, although the boardwalk is still closed for repairs. I really mean to spend more time at Old Quarry Trail and Lime Kiln Trail, but as these are a bit further away, with larger trail systems, I often opt for the convenience of one of the other trails instead – especially if I have plans to go elsewhere after, such as Mud Lake or Andrew Haydon park.

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August Butterflies at the Ponds

Bronze Copper

It’s been a surprisingly good month for butterflies at the Eagleson storm water ponds. The highlight, of course, was the American Snout seen there on August 11th, but in addition to that particular rarity I’ve seen members from all five butterfly families – not a difficult achievement over the course of a month, but one that is almost impossible to do in a single outing. Swallowtails are large butterflies with long tails, and their wings are mainly yellow and black with iridescent spots of blue and orange. The whites and sulphurs in our area are medium-sized butterflies with either yellow or white wings, most of which perch with their wings closed. The gossamer-winged butterflies are very small butterflies that also perch with their wings closed, and come in many different colours. The brushfoots are large to medium-sized butterflies with only two functional pairs of legs; they count the most well-known butterfly species among their number, and many are migratory. Skippers are small butterflies mainly dressed in orange or brown, and many species hold their forewings and hindwings at two different angles, giving them a characteristic “fighter jet” appearance.

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The Sunny South March Highlands

Red Columbine

It rained almost all day on Saturday, June 15th, so my hopes of going out and finding butterflies and dragonflies were ruined. At least Sunday promised to be gorgeous, and although the ground was soaking wet when I got up, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I drove out to the South March Highlands, one of my favourite conservation areas in Ottawa, hoping to find some skippers and swallowtails, and hoping to find the Yellow-throated Vireo that has been dominating my eBird alerts these days – I still haven’t seen this bird in Ottawa.
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A lifer butterfly

Broad-winged Skipper

In addition to a lifer bird at Presqu’ile, I also got a lifer butterfly! Presqu’ile Provincial Park is a fabulous place for insects during the summer, and because it is a peninsula, it is well-known for the large numbers of Monarch butterflies that concentrate here in the fall looking for a good north wind to carry them across the lake. Also, because it is 250 km southwest of Ottawa, there are insect species which regularly occur there that only occur in small number or as vagrants in Ottawa.

As soon as we got out of our cars at the beach parking lot I spotted one of my target species, an Orange Sulphur, flying by. I wasn’t able to chase it – it flew off quickly on the strong winds coming from the lake – and I figured I would have a chance to find and photograph one later in the day. As it turns out, that was the only one I saw during our trip that had a definite orange colour in flight.

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Elfins and Emeralds

Eastern Pine Elfin

The Stony Swamp trail I spend the least time at, other than Lime Kiln, is Trailhead P11 on West Hunt Club. It’s a lovely trail, but it doesn’t have any marshes with boardwalks; the spring flooding requires knee-high rubber boots; and turning left back onto West Hunt Club into the Saturday mid-day traffic can be a nightmare. Still, it’s a great trail system through some prime mixed deciduous and coniferous forest, and I’ve been trying to visit more often to see what kinds of species make their homes here. It’s better for breeding Wood Thrushes than the other Stony Swamp trails, possibly because the forest is denser with fewer open areas, and I’ve had more Broad-winged Hawks here in the summer than anywhere else. I visited one morning in May while on vacation, hoping to find some new species to add to the hotspot list and perhaps to see some butterflies now that the weather has gotten warmer.
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Early Warblers

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Warblers are probably the most eagerly-awaited returning migrants for birders all over northeastern North America. As a group, the combination of song and colour is unmatched by any other type of songbird in our region, and many North American birders consider them the jewels of our region. Warblers are insect eaters, and as such, pass through Ottawa late in the spring migration season, with the hardiest species arriving in mid- to late April. The Pine Warbler is usually the earliest of these, closely followed by the Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers. About a week later the first Black-and-white Warblers, Nashville Warblers and Black-throated Green Warblers arrive. The Blackpoll Warbler is usually the last warbler to appear, stopping here only temporarily before continuing on to its breeding grounds in the black spruce and tamarack forests further north. This amazing species holds the record for the longest nonstop over-water flight by a songbird, taking up to three days in the fall to reach its wintering grounds in the southern Caribbean and northern South America.

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The Henderson Preserve – Lifer #500!

Black Phoebe

Once I’d had my fill of the gorgeous red Cinnamon Teals, Doran and I continued our walk around the ponds. The Cinnamon Teal was bird no. 497 on my life list, and I was getting excited about the possibility of finding three more before we left. We continued making our way around the ponds, and it wasn’t long before I heard some activity in the thin screen of vegetation between the trail and the water. Quite a few songbirds were foraging in the shrubs, including a couple of Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Verdin, and White-crowned Sparrows. Then I heard a familiar buzzy call – it sounded like a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, familiar from my spring visits to Point Pelee, although I knew from checking eBird that this species was only a summer resident. However, the Black-tailed Gnatcatcher spends the winter in Las Vegas, and I spent some time tracking down a couple of these tiny, frantic little birds. I got good enough looks to identify them as gnatcatchers, though I was disappointed they looked just like our Blue-gray Gnatcatchers: males have a distinctive black cap, but only in spring. Still, I was happy to add it to my life list as bird no. 498!

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Painted Ladies

Painted Lady

The equinox has passed and summer is showing no signs of leaving despite the changing colours of the leaves. Once again the temperatures reached the high 20s, and a heat warning went into effect yesterday, as forecasters say that the continuing sunshine would result in daytime temperatures reaching the low 30s, with humidex values approaching 40C. When I went out yesterday morning I had two targets in mind: the Parasitic Jaeger seen off Andrew Haydon Beach for the past two days, and the influx of Painted Lady butterflies that has reached eastern Ontario. I left early, as I knew the day would warm up quickly, stopping at the Eagleson storm water ponds first to see if anything new had arrived.

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April Sun, April Showers

Winter Wren

Weather in April can be described in only one way: changeable. It can turn from spring to summer to winter in the matter of hours, making it difficult to know how to dress any given day – you may need a hat and gloves in the morning, then be wearing shorts in the afternoon. Even the weather toward the end of the month can be variable. Last Thursday (April 27th) Ottawa’s temperature reached a sunny, humid high of 26°C; yesterday (April 30th) the rain clouds moved in and temperatures barely reached 5°C.

Migrants have been returning in large numbers despite the inconstant weather. On Friday I woke up to see two White-crowned Sparrows on my backyard, and they were there again Sunday morning. This was a year bird for me, and the earliest date I’ve recorded them in my yard; normally they arrive during the first week of May, with my previous early date being May 4th.

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