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The Last Dragons and Syrphids of Summer

Transverse-banded Drone Fly (Eristalis transversa)

Transverse-banded Drone Fly (Eristalis transversa)

The end of September is a good time to see a variety of hover flies (also known as flower flies, syrphid flies, or syrphids). It is also the end of dragonfly season. Most odonates are already done for the season – only a handful of species will continue flying into October, with the last species, Autumn Meadowhawk, flying into November if the weather cooperates.

As the last week of September was still quite warm, I was able to find and photograph a few different species of both insects – even in my own backyard! I finally added Autumn Meadowhawk to my official yard list on September 19th. I’ve seen a few meadowhawks in my yard over the years, but have only identified White-faced Meadowhawk and Band-winged Meadowhawk so far. I found it on the asters at the back of the yard, although it flew up onto the fence when I tried to get closer for a photo. Given how abundant and widespread it is, the Autumn Meadowhawk was the most likely species to be added to my yard list. Now that it has shown up in my yard, I’m not sure what the next likeliest species is – Common Green Darner? Twelve-spotted Skimmer?

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Backyard Wildlife

I’ve had some interesting visitors to my yard so far this summer. I haven’t added any new birds or mammals, though I did see one new species of hover fly and one new lady beetle! The usual squirrels (many!) and chipmunks (up to three) visit me daily, looking to steal the peanuts out of my bird feeder. Two of the black squirrels are recognizable; one has only half its tail, while the other has a broken paw. The one with the broken paw has been visiting me over a year now, although she doesn’t come very often any more. I have also seen up to three rabbits in the neighbourhood, two large adults and one smaller one that I presume is a juvenile. I’ve seen the two adults in my backyard on a couple of occasions, usually early in the morning or at dusk when they come to feed on the weeds (this makes me wish they lived there full-time!). One morning while I was heading out to go birding I saw one of the rabbits sitting on my front lawn. Instead of eating weeds I was dismayed when he started nibbling on my Coral Bells.

Eastern Cottontail

Eastern Cottontail

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Backyard Hover Flies

Sweat Bee

Sweat Bee

One flower that does really well in my garden in the late summer is the aster. I purchased a plant from a local nursery a few years ago, and although I don’t remember which type it is, every year it comes back and produces a bounty of small, purple flowers. It has spread over the years, turning my back garden into an untidy mess of green and purple each September; and this year I even noticed a few plants growing in my lawn!

Asters provide a wonderful source of pollen and nectar in the early autumn when few plants are flowering. In fact, the nectar provided by late-blooming flowers helps to ensure that bee colonies are strong enough to endure the winter. Other insects that benefit from the asters are beetles, butterflies, moths, wasps, hover flies, and sweat bees, such as the one shown to the right. I usually spend some time checking out the various visitors on the flowers each autumn, but for some reason this year I never made the time. Then one day just after the September equinox I happened to notice a large number of insects buzzing around the flowers when I came home from work. I went out with my camera to have a look and was surprised by the bugs that I found!

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A New Bird at Hurdman

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird

On Monday I went to Hurdman hoping to find some flocks of warblers after seeing so many at Mud Lake on the weekend. I found two flocks of migrants, but didn’t get a good enough look at the birds in the first group before they flew deep into the vegetation. One might have been a Philadelphia Vireo; one might have been a ratty-looking Carolina Wren. I really wanted to get a good look at the wren, as I had never seen a Carolina Wren at Hurdman before and I never did get a good look at the one at Britannia this year. Unfortunately the wren (if that’s what it was) flew across that bike path and into the shrubs so quickly that all I got was the impression of a cinnamon-coloured throat, brown upper-parts, and a hint of a messy white supercilium.

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Red Admirals: The Next Generation

Red Admiral caterpillar

I visited Hurdman Park a couple of times during the first week of June. Butterflies and dragonflies have been my main focus; while there are still a few Question Marks around, I’ve noticed that it’s been a while since I’ve seen a Red Admiral. Similarly, I have noticed a decrease in Little Wood Satyrs, while a few Silvery Blues are still flying. Common Ringlets are numerous, and skippers are becoming more abundant.

I found a couple of Stream Bluets and a single Ebony Jewelwing this week, and I was happy to see a single Springtime Darner. There haven’t been all that many around this year, which surprised me as I ran into quite a few last year.

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Spring Ephemerals in Bloom

Trout Lily

After leaving Deb on Sunday I decided to stop by Monaghan Forest to see if any Trilliums were in bloom yet. This is a good spot for spring ephemerals; last year I had found the forest floor covered in Trilliums, Forget-me-nots, violets, and even some Toothwort during a visit in mid-May. I was a few weeks early this year, and found the Trilliums just beginning to open. Only a few were in full flower, but there were plenty of Coltsfoot and Trout Lilies in bloom, two species that had already finished blossoming by the time of my mid-May visit last year. I was also hoping to find some Bloodroot, a native flower I had found here once before, but wasn’t able to spot any.

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A Butterfly Invasion

Red Admiral

Sometimes nature puts on a show so spectacular that even those who are only vaguely aware that there is a wonderful, wild world beyond the technology-obsessed, glass and concrete cityscape take notice. This happened last week when millions of migratory butterflies journeyed north from their wintering grounds in the United States and invaded Eastern Canada, descending on city parks, green spaces and backyards to the astonishment of many. I received notice of this mass migration on Monday, April 16th from fellow OFNC member and University of Ottawa biologist Maxim Larrivée, who sent an email out to me and several other butterfly enthusiasts advising that thousands of migrating Red Admirals, American Ladies and Question Marks had been reported that day as far north as Brampton, Ontario. Maxim is a postdoctoral fellow leading the Canadian Butterfly and Global Change research at the Canadian Facility for Ecoinformatics Research and has been working hard with U of O biologist Jeremy Kerr to develop an online database similar to eBird for citizen scientists to report their sightings. This database, appropriately named eButterfly, has only been live for a few weeks now.

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Searching for Sparrows

The following day I returned to the airport, hoping to see the Clay-coloured and Grasshopper Sparrows I had missed on my previous visits. It was a beautiful summer morning and, after an unfruitful stop at Tom Roberts Avenue, I headed over to the Bowesville Road entrance where I found a pair of Tree Swallows flitting gracefully above the road, hunting for insects.

A couple of Song Sparrows and a Savannah Sparrow were singing in the field near the dirt bike track. I did not hear any Grasshopper Sparrows, even though I’ve usually found them here whenever I’ve visited during the last couple of years. I followed a trail through the grassy field to the north, listening for the distinctive “tick, tick, zeeeeeeee” of the Grasshopper Sparrow and the low-pitched “buzzzz, buzzzzz” of the Clay-coloured Sparrow.

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Insect-hunting at Hurdman

When the birds are quiet – as they are this time of year, keeping their heads down and trying to keep their offspring alive long enough to learn how to fly – the insects are at their most abundant. Because adult insects generally have a short lifespan, the window of opportunity to see many species is relatively small. June is a great time to see a wide variety of butterflies and dragonflies and to look for the more colourful, interesting, or strange-looking bugs. Although Hurdman hasn’t been a great place for butterflies this year, it is a spot where I can easily lose a whole lunch hour in just a small area, investigating clumps of flowers for insect life. These are some of the insects I’ve seen on my outings in mid-June.

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New Arrivals at Hurdman

It is difficult for me to be cooped up indoors during the month of May, so I’ve been spending as many lunch hours at Hurdman as possible this month so as not to miss out on spring migration. It was gray and gloomy on Friday, May 6th, when I saw a couple of Warbling Vireos, Yellow Warblers and Gray Catbirds for the first time at Hurdman this season. All of these birds breed here, so I’ll be seeing a lot of them over the summer! At least one Eastern Kingbird had also arrived, and there were still a large number of Yellow-rumped Warblers moving through.

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