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Local Butterfly Colonies

Peck’s Skipper

July is here, so today I went out in the afternoon in search of two local hairstreak colonies. Most hairstreaks overwinter as eggs in our area, and as such, don’t metamorphose into butterflies until mid-summer. They often tend to be quite localized, and while some species are quite common and widespread, such as the Banded Hairstreak, many others are found in small, local colonies where their preferred larval foodplants are found. Over the past few years I have found colonies of three different species in my 5-mile radius (Banded, Acadian and Coral), and while the Coral Hairstreaks seem to have disappeared, I now check on the other two colonies every July.

I started with a visit to Bruce Pit to look for the Acadian Hairstreaks that I have seen regularly in the wildflowers at the base of the toboggan hill since 2014. I got my hopes up when I spotted a small, grayish gossamer-winged butterfly perched out in the open at a distance, but it turned out to be a worn Eastern Tailed Blue.

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June Atlassing Highlights

Blue-winged Teal (male)

Blue-winged Teal (male)

June is my favourite month of the year. This is the month when most insects begin to emerge, their bright wings bringing life and colour to forests, meadows, ponds and backyard gardens. Birds are in full song, and the air is fragrant with all the flowers in bloom. While butterflies and dragonflies become my main focus this time of year, this month I had a second agenda: to continue to look for evidence of breeding for the third Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas. Since I am still working from home as a result of the pandemic, I devoted my morning weekday walks to looking for birds and my longer weekend excursions to looking for all types of wildlife, particularly dragonflies. I thought birding would become boring once migration ended and the resident birds settled down into the more predictable routine of nesting season, but to my surprise I was wrong.

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Bruce Pit Specialties

Gray Treefrog

Although Bruce Pit is chiefly known as a popular dog park, the walking trails around the pond (which are not part of the off-leash area) are great for finding all kinds of interesting flora and fauna. I usually make a couple of trips to the pond each summer, looking for specific butterflies, frogs and odonates which are difficult to find elsewhere. Although it’s been a few years since I’ve seen some of the more unique insects – including American Copper, Eastern Red Damsel, Amber-winged Spreadwing and Saffron-winged Meadowhawk – other frog and insect populations are still doing well.

My first visit of the summer occurred on July 5th in the hope of finding an Acadian Hairstreak at the base of the toboggan hill – the only place I’ve ever seen one in the west end. I hadn’t seen any here since 2014 and 2016 and doubted they were still around, especially after I saw how few wildflowers were left to grow near the marshy area in my failed attempt to see them last year. I failed again on this visit, too, but proceeded to check a few other spots where the milkweed was blooming as these flowers are known to be insect magnets.

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The Gorgeous Dogbane Leaf Beetle

Dogbane Leaf Beetle

I’ve spent some time birding around home recently, visiting places in Stony Swamp and Shirley’s Bay looking for breeding birds and butterflies. Hairstreaks have been on my mind, and after lunch on July 4th I headed up to Shirley’s Bay where I have seen both Banded (June 2012) and Coral (July 2016) Hairstreaks along Hilda Road in years past. I also thought I might find some baskettails patrolling the open trails, as I’ve seen both Common and Prince Baskettails there as well. Finally, Giant Swallowtails breed on the Prickly Ash plants in the area, and I was hoping to add Ottawa’s largest butterfly to my year list with a visit. Unfortunately it was much quieter than expected, with no baskettails zipping along above my head and no hairstreaks or swallowtails of any kind despite the gorgeous 30°C temperature. The only butterfly I noticed was a very worn skipper in the clutches of Goldenrod Crab Spider hiding in the Purple Cow Vetch.

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The end of June

Eastern Cottontail

Eastern Cottontail

On Sunday June 28th I started my day at Sarsaparilla Trail. One of the birds I still needed for my year list was Least Bittern, and I’d been lucky to hear it in the marsh here last year. In fact, I got a great view of it as it flew from the southern shore toward me and landed in the reeds close to the boardwalk before it started calling. I didn’t expect to actually see one again – they are quite elusive and prefer to hunt within the reeds rather than stalk fish out in the open the way Green Herons and Black-crowned Night Herons do – but I knew if I arrived early enough I might have a chance to hear its mournful call. I’d checked a few times earlier this season to no avail, and with June almost over there wasn’t much time left in the breeding season to track down those birds best found by their songs, as many birds stop singing by late July.

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Life in a Pond: Underwater Predators

Eastern Newt

On Saturday June 6th I spent some time at the Beaver Trail, mostly looking for birds and dragonflies. There weren’t as many odes flying as I had hoped, but I did catch both Spiny and Beaverpond Baskettails, and found a Belted Whiteface at the boardwalk. Taiga Bluets have emerged, and a Fragile Forktail at the boardwalk was my first of the year. I only found 23 species of birds, with both warblers and flycatchers well-represented; species included Eastern Wood-Pewee, Alder Flycatcher, Eastern Phoebe, Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, Black-and-white Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler (seen), and Black-throated Green Warbler. The only other species worth noting are Purple Finch and Virginia Rail.

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September at the Ponds

Clouded Sulphur

September is a fantastic time to visit the Eagleson Ponds. The asters and goldenrods are in full bloom, there are usually plenty of butterflies and dragonflies still flying, the resident gulls, shorebirds and waterfowl are sometimes joined by migrants from further north, and migrant songbirds can often be found foraging in the groves of trees. Some years are fantastic for migrants with all sorts of birds stopping by (I’ll never forget the September of 2016 when a Lesser Black-backed Gull spent a day here and a large flock of American Pipits found the rocky shoreline to their liking), while others are lackluster. This September has proven to be the latter, much to my disappointment; however the sunny days mean that lots of insects are still flying, and I can usually find something to catch my interest even if the warblers and other songbirds all seem to be elsewhere.

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Looking for Wood-Warblers

Canada Warbler

We are now nearly two weeks into September and I have not found as many warblers or songbird migrants as I had hoped. In a previous blog entry I wrote about how edge habitats can be productive for migrants, especially those with a good diversity of plants which provide cover and food sources for not just the birds of the two dominant habitats, but others as well. I’ve been spending most of my weekend mornings at the Eagleson Ponds, followed by trips to other places with good edge habitat – last weekend it was the Old Quarry Trail, Beaver Trail, and Sarsaparilla Trail; this weekend it was the Richmond Sewage Lagoons, Rideau Trail, and Sarsaparilla Trail. Each time I’ve been disappointed, wondering where all the migrants were. I suppose I could just go to Mud Lake and rack up a list of 30+ species there, but it is often packed with birders and photographers this time of year, and I prefer quieter places.

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The Eagleson Ponds: Adding to the species list

Heath Bee Fly

In September 2016, I started a project on iNaturalist to document the non-avian species I’ve found at the Eagleson Road ponds just after the reconstruction that took place in 2015 and 2016 was completed. I was chiefly interested in the mammals and odonates (I use eBird, of course, for birds), largely in part because I wondered if the beaver would be back after its lodge was destroyed and if there were any Rainbow Bluets or Fragile Forktails left. Then, seeing the extensive wildflower plantings after the reconstruction, I began to wonder what species of butterflies might feed here. Since then I’ve started documenting all kinds of insects, turtles, plants and mammals that I can identify on my own, and even some that I can’t…one of the functions of iNaturalist is to connect experts and knowledgeable nature enthusiasts with those who aren’t as experienced in order to assist with identifications. I have hesitated to use the site for this purpose, because identifications are done entirely by volunteers, and (a) there is no guarantee that your species will be identified, particularly for lesser known or more difficult genera (for example, I have some photos of Red-blue Checkered Beetles from July 2016 that have yet to be confirmed); and (b) there is no guarantee that the observation will be identified correctly. Generally the more people who add their identification to an observation, the better; the main identification is decided by a two-thirds majority, and once it has received two or more confirmatory identifications it is considered “research grade” and can be used by scientists for their own projects.

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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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