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Emergence of Spring Butterflies and Mustard Whites

Eastern Pine Elfin

Eastern Pine Elfin

So far it’s been a strange spring. It took a long time to warm up to 0°C and then a while longer to warm up to double digits. Early April was cold and very windy; it didn’t get consistently above 10°C until April 21, but even then it was too gusty in the afternoons to go looking for butterflies. My first butterfly of the year was a Mourning Cloak seen on April 5th at the Rideau Trail on Old Richmond Road. It was a beautiful day of 13°C, and I figured I had a good chance of seeing my first butterflies of the year there….though it was a toss-up as to whether it would be a Mourning Cloak or an Eastern Comma, both of which hibernate as adults in woodlots. While I saw a few more Mourning Cloak in mid-April, butterfly season didn’t really start until the second last day of the month.

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Five Butterfly Families at Marlborough Forest

AcadianHairstreak

Acadian Hairstreak

I finally returned to Trail E6 in Marlborough Forest on Sunday, July 11th. My goal was to find some skippers, particularly the Two-spotted Skipper which I had found at both trails (E4 and E6) last year, and more emerald dragonflies. I didn’t arrive as early as I normally do, as I was more interested in finding bugs than birds this time. Even so, the birds seemed quieter as I started down the trail just before 8:00 am….although I heard a couple of Wood Thrushes and Winter Wrens and warblers, there seemed to be fewer of everything. It was a while before I even heard my first Red-eyed Vireo, Black-and-white Warbler, and Eastern Wood-pewee, and the silence was puzzling. It is sad to think that breeding season is coming to an end already.

The coyotes, too, were quiet, although the deer flies and mosquitoes that constantly buzzed around me were not. It was difficult to try and listen for birds with their annoying whine constantly droning in my ears. I thought I heard a distant Ovenbird, a distant Scarlet Tanager, and a faint Nashville Warbler, but they only called once and I was too distracted swatting the bloodthirsty bugs away to be sure.

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Mid-May Butterflies

Dreamy Duskywing

Dreamy Duskywing

The first butterflies that emerge in the spring – usually in late March or April – are the ones that hibernated as adults in deciduous woodlots: Mourning Cloaks, Eastern Commas and Compton Tortoiseshells are the first ones I see every year on those warm, sunny days when the temperature starts reaching 13°C. The next wave emerges when it warms up long enough for those that hibernated in the chrysalis stage to emerge as adults: the elfins and azures and whites and swallowtails are included in this group, although I usually see the first Northern Spring Azures and Henry’s Elfins first, in late April and early May, with the Canadian Tiger Swallowtail and Black Swallowtail following in mid-May. Next come the species that overwintered as mature caterpillars, such as the duskywings – the first skippers to appear each year – and the crescents. All of these are typically seen in May in our region, while butterflies that overwinter as younger caterpillars (the browns and fritillaries) and eggs (coppers and hairstreaks) don’t emerge until June and July. This means that while you will never see all of Ottawa’s butterflies on the wing at the same time, the diversity is ever-changing up until the end of July. Even after that the appearance of regular but unpredictable influxes of migrants keeps things exciting throughout August and September: large population booms of Red Admirals, Painted Ladies, American Ladies and Monarchs might mean a wildly successful breeding season here in Ottawa, while smaller numbers of Orange Sulphurs, Common Buckeyes and American Snouts often find their way here from their breeding range further south.

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An Early Spring

Eastern Chipmunk

Eastern Chipmunk

It’s been a while since we’ve had an early spring in Ottawa. In recent years it seems that the snow hasn’t melted until late April, it hasn’t really warmed up until May, and while the first couple of waves of migrants arrived on time, migration slowed down for a few weeks sometime in April when the north wind started blowing out of the Arctic again. Insect-eating birds were delayed, the butterflies and dragonflies emerged late, and then the Victoria Day long weekend hit and suddenly summer has arrived with temperatures in the mid to high twenties.

This year, however, it warmed up early and stayed warm. Our last subzero day was March 16th, and we regularly started reaching double-digit temperatures on the first day of spring, with nine days at 10°C or higher during the rest of the month. Our total snowfall in March was only 6.8 cm, below the normal range of 11 to 84 cm, and it was the windiest March since 1974. It was the 10th warmest March on record; our highest temperature reached 19.8°C, above the normal range of 8.3 to 19.2°C. I kept waiting with dread for one last cold spell or dump of snow, but so far April has been even nicer, with the first two days reaching only 3°C and the rest (to date) ranging from 10 to 24°C. As the snow disappeared quite quickly last month, plants are emerging from the ground early, buds on trees are starting to leaf out early, and butterflies are emerging early. It’s been great for my mental health to see so many signs of new life and renewal.

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Butterflies of Marlborough Forest (2020)

Mustard White

One of the reasons I enjoyed visiting the two new trails in Marlborough Forest so much this year was the wide variety in butterfly species. Even though I didn’t start visiting until mid-June and missed several early-flying butterflies I was still impressed with the different species I found, which included representatives from all five families: swallowtails, whites and sulphurs, gossamer-winged butterflies, brushfoots, and skippers. What was particularly amazing was the number of species that were either lifers for me (Common Roadside Skipper, Two-spotted Skipper) or species that I don’t see very often (Mustard White, Acadian Hairstreak, Aphrodite Fritillary, Baltimore Checkerspot, Crossline Skipper). I visited these two trails seven times between June 19th and August 8th; every visit featured a different suite of species. Skippers were most most varied between the middle of June and the beginning of July; by the end of that month I saw only a few Dun Skippers and a Crossline Skipper – a species I have only seen once before. While the trails were full of crescents and brown butterflies such as Eyed Browns and Little Wood Satyrs in June and at the beginning of July, by the middle of the month they had been replaced with Common Wood-nymphs and fritillaries. Here is a list of species that I saw on those visits.

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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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A Green Comma in Stony Swamp

Green Comma (Old Quarry Trail, June 2019)

Once again I’m behind in my blogging – it seems once spring arrives, I end up with too many photos and too many stories I want to tell, and not enough time to do any actual blogging! I’m so far behind on my blog that I haven’t even finished all my posts from 2019 – so much for getting caught up over the winter, then during the early weeks of the pandemic – and I’m even behind on sorting my photos from last year.

I could try to write less and post more photos, but I don’t want this to turn into the type of blog that says “I went here and I saw this, and this and this”. I like to research a bit about the species I’ve photographed, and find something interesting to say about them. My feeling about nature photography is that a picture is rarely worth a thousand words; it shows one species or one scene in just one moment in time. It rarely says anything about that creature’s life cycle, its distribution, how common it is, whether its population is booming or declining, its relationship to other species, and any other “fun facts” that make that creature worth getting to know. This is why I stay away from social media sites that focus on pure photography and look for the ones that get into identification or discussion.
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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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Clubtails at Sheila McKee Park

Cobra Clubtail

On July 22nd I received an email from Chris Lewis about a new dragonfly spot along the Ottawa River. I’d been to Shelia McKee Park out near Dunrobin just once, on an OFNC trip in 2015 to look for herps; it has a network of woodland trails and a steep staircase that leads down from the top of the cliff to the rocky beach at the bottom. Chris said she found evidence of a very recent dragonfly emergence of in the form of both exuviae and teneral dragonflies; she recognized exuviae of both clubtails and emeralds, though she was not able to identify them to species. She saw an unidentified darner and several teneral meadowhawks in the woods, and several Powdered Dancers and a pair of Stream Bluets in tandem near the water. However, it was her clubtail report that intrigued me: she mentioned one Lancet Clubtail, both mature and teneral Black-shouldered Spinylegs, several Midland Clubtails, and one Cobra Clubtail which had become the unfortunate meal of a Midland Clubtail. It is amazing that I’ve never considered going back to this park for odes before – the shoreline here is quite rocky, with little or no emergent vegetation, reminiscent of Britannia Point at Mud Lake or the causeway at Morris Island, both of which are great spots for clubtails. Curious to see these clubtails for myself, I headed out the following Sunday (July 28th) and brought my net in case there was anything worth catching.

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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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