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The Last Dragonfly and the Last Moth

Bruce Spanworm Moth

Bruce Spanworm Moth

By the time November arrives, all but the hardiest of insects have vanished, leaving only those few species that are adapted to the cold temperatures of mid-autumn in Canada. The last dragonfly on the wing here in Ottawa is the Autumn Meadowhawk, a small red or brownish dragonfly with very little black along the abdomen and yellow or brown legs. It is these two traits that make them easy to distinguish from other local meadowhawks – the other common species have distinct black markings on the abdomen and black legs. The most similar dragonfly in our area is the Saffron-winged Meadowhawk, which also lacks distinct black abdominal markings. However, the Saffron-winged Meadowhawk is larger, usually has a noticeable amber-coloured tint to the leading edge of its wings, and has black legs with brown stripes. In addition, most of the other meadowhawk species are gone by mid-October.

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The Odes of Late Summer

Green-striped Darner (male)

Green-striped Darner (male)

By mid-August most dragonfly species are on the wane. A few families are still quite abundant, particularly the darners and meadowhawks, while small numbers of other skimmers and a few clubtails often linger into September. Forktails, bluets, and some spreadwings are also still common in the appropriate habitats in August and September. This makes it worth going out to good dragonfly habitats such as large rivers, lakes and marshes to see a decent variety of species.

Large dragonflies this time of year are particularly interesting; while Common Green Darners are the most frequently encountered large dragonflies of late summer, you might come across a Black-shouldered Spinyleg basking on the rocks along the river, a Wandering Glider zipping over a meadow, a Twelve-spotted Skimmer flying above a pond, or a group of mosaic darners swarming through the air late in the afternoon. The mosaic darners are a particular favourite of mine; they are large brownish-black dragonflies with mottled spots of blue, green or yellow depending on the sex. While they spend most of their time flying through the air hunting for small insects, I often come across them perching vertically on thick stalks of vegetation below knee-height in open grassy areas early in the morning. We have several different species in Ottawa, and trying to find something other than the ubiquitous Canada and Lance-tipped Darners is a fun exercise.

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Fall Migrants

Black-bellied Plover

Black-bellied Plover

Although birders tend to refer to “spring” and “fall” migration, many birds begin heading south in mid- to late August, and a few (such as shorebirds which are unsuccessful in finding a mate) even begin migrating in July. In Ottawa, this southbound migration often overlaps with post-breeding dispersal, which means that even in July and August it is worth checking familiar places for birds that may be moving through. This year, southbound migration began for me on August 19th with a trip to the Rideau Trail off of Old Richmond Road. I usually start checking the boardwalk and hydro cut for migrants this time of year as the edge habitat and buckthorn bushes loaded with berries can be fantastic for warblers, flycatchers, thrushes and other migrants. Most of the birds I saw or heard were likely local residents, although the Black-and-white Warbler I heard singing here may have come from deep within the woods or elsewhere, and it was pretty neat to see an Ovenbird strolling along the boardwalk. A squeaky Rose-breasted Grosbeak and two Least Flycatchers calling made me think these birds were moving through, as this section of the trail is normally pretty quiet in the summer.

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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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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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Spiketails Flying in Stony Swamp

Canadian Tiger Swallowtail

Perhaps more than Mud Lake, the one place I enjoy visiting most during migration and the summer breeding season is Stony Swamp. Pre-Covid it was always less busy than Mud Lake, especially early in the morning; however, after the pandemic hit the trails have become really popular and the parking lots are getting full before 10:00 on the weekend. If my goal is to look for birds, I try to get there before 7:00 am; but if it’s insects I’m looking for it doesn’t matter so much, as insects are not as likely to be disturbed by people, and I arrive whenever it’s convenient for me. It’s still quieter during the week than on the weekend, so I arrived at the Beaver Trail at 8:15 hoping to find some good birds as well some interesting insects as the day warmed up.

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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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The Baskettails of Spring

Beaverpond Baskettail

In most years dragonfly season begins around the Victoria Day weekend (which always falls on the third Monday of May). I remember visiting Mud Lake on the long weekend in years past and seeing up to a hundred of freshly emerged dragonflies perching in the trees there. However, in the last few years it seems that dragonfly season has started later than normal – the long-lingering cooler spring weather has played a large part in this, as emergence depends chiefly on the temperature of the water the dragonfly nymphs are living in. By the second weekend of May I’d go out eagerly hoping to see the first dragonflies of the year, and by the end of May I’d still be looking for them. Even when I eventually found some, such as last year, numbers would be low, and it would take time for the season to get back on track. Numbers remained low in Ottawa all summer last year for some reason, though we think that the unprecedented spring flooding might have been the cause, either washing away the small nymphs or dumping unhealthy amounts of debris, sediment, and chemical-laden runoff in areas where they breed.

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Other Highlights from September

Monarch

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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Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

This morning I stopped by the Eagleson Ponds to see if any new migrants had arrived. Other than one unidentified flycatcher and one vireo – possibly a Philadelphia Vireo – it was quiet, with no warblers seen. The Green Heron had returned, and I heard a Gray Catbird again, but there were fewer shorebirds and migrants than there had been the day before. The day was mild, with a thick, damp overcast sky, so looking for insects was out. I decided to head over to the Beaver Trail, which can either be fantastic for migrants this time of year, or very quiet. After a disappointing visit to Mud Lake yesterday, I was hoping the woods and swamps would be more productive.

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