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Bruce Pit: Tiger Beetles and a Rare Dragonfly

Striped Hairstreak

Striped Hairstreak

Bruce Pit is under-valued as a great spot to see a variety of insects at the peak of summer. Though I’ve spent a lot of time looking for dragonflies there, it wasn’t until recently that I realized it could be good for other types of insects as well. In 2020 I found a species of tiger beetle there that I had never seen before, Punctured Tiger Beetle, and last year I observed it again, as well as another type of tiger beetle: the colourful Festive Tiger Beetle. Tiger beetles have long flight seasons, but are not active during the entire summer; they become inactive or aestivate (the summer equivalent of “hibernate”) during the hottest part of the year, so it is easier to find them towards the beginning and end of summer. I started visiting on June 17th this year, hoping to find some good odes, butterflies, and a few different tiger beetles for my life list.

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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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After the Equinox

Black-capped Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee

While it is true that fall migration proceeds at a much more leisurely pace than migration in the spring, each species moves according to its own internal calendar. In late August and early September you might find warblers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, flycatchers, vireos, orioles, Cedar Waxwings, and Scarlet Tanagers foraging together in a single patch of woods. A month later the same patch of forest might hold sparrows, kinglets, Winter Wrens, Rusty Blackbirds, nuthatches, Hermit Thrushes, and boreal finches, while waterfowl on rivers and ponds increase in numbers and diversity. I usually notice the switch around the fall equinox, when the sparrows start to outnumber the warblers and I realize that it’s been a while since I last saw a flock of Cedar Waxwings. Now is the time to look for American Pipits in open scrubby areas or along rocky shorelines, scoters and grebes along the river, hawks and Turkey Vultures soaring toward southern climes, and any lingering warblers in the hope it is something other than a Yellow-rumped.

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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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Ode-Hunting in Early July

Taiga Bluet

Taiga Bluet

By early July a variety of dragonflies and damselflies are on the wing, although some of the early species – such as the Beaverpond and Spiny Baskettails – have already finished flying for the year. This is usually the time of year when I start focusing on odes on afternoon outings in addition to enjoying them as distractions on morning birding outings. While some of the best ode-hunting can be found along the Ottawa River (including Mud Lake, Andrew Haydon Park, Petrie Island, and Morris Island) there are some great spots in my own backyard, including Bruce Pit, Stony Swamp, and the Eagleson storm water ponds (which will be the focus of a separate post of its own). Bruce Pit is a particularly great spot for odes, and some unusual ones have turned up there including Swift River Cruiser, Black Meadowhawk and Black Saddlebags. Eastern Red Damsels used to breed there prior to 2010, and I decided to spend the afternoon of July 4th wading around the edges of Bruce Pit to see if I could find any. Unfortunately, the area where we used to see them (and odes such as Amber-winged Spreadwing and Saffron-winged Meadowhawk) has become overgrown with cattails and phragmites over the year, so I wasn’t sure it was possible to walk along the shore where we used to go a decade ago (I can’t believe it has been so long …. apologies to those who have never visited my old LiveJournal site, back in the days when I used to host my images on Photobucket which no longer allows free hosting and has hidden many of my images).

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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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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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Robber Flies at Bruce Pit

Robber Fly (Promachus bastardii)

In 2014 and 2016 I found a small population of Acadian Hairstreaks at the base of the toboggan hill at Bruce Pit. It’s been a while since I’ve been there to look for them, or the Gray Treefrogs that I once found scattered on milkweed leaves on a hot August day in 2016, but with hairstreaks now flying I thought it would be a great time to go look for them – especially after finding my lifer Striped Hairstreak at South March Highlands earlier this morning (more on that to follow in a separate post). Hairstreaks are small butterflies with plain brown or gray wings that contain a multitude of colourful blue or coral spots when viewed up close. They always perch with their wings closed, often sit out in the open on leaves or branches between one and five feet above the ground, and are among my favourite local butterflies.

As soon as I arrived I headed to the bottom of the hill to look for the butterflies…and was disappointed to see very few wildflowers. When I had last visited this part of Bruce Pit in July 2016, the edge of the lawn was covered in a large swath of the pink, purple, and yellow flowers of Common Milkweed, Purple Cow Vetch, and Bird’s-foot Trefoil; now there were a few flowers scattered along the margins of the marsh, but it was a far cry from the rampant wildflower meadow I remembered from three years ago. Needless to say, I found no hairstreaks and no treefrogs.

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