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Identifying Green-striped and Lake Darners

Lake Darner

Lake Darner

Darner (genus Aeshna) season typically begins in July in the Ottawa-Gatineau region. The two most common mosaic darners, Lance-tipped and Canada, emerge early in the month, along with the slightly less common Shadow Darner. These three species are the most widespread members of this group, and if you see a mosaic darner flying along a forest trail or in an open clearing in the greenbelt it is most likely to be one of these. Lake Darner, Variable Darner, and Black-tipped Darner are considered “uncommon” in the Ottawa-Gatineau region, with the first being a localized species and the latter two species considered to be widespread. I suspect they may be easier to find on the Quebec side of the region, as there are more lakes and suitable bodies of water in Gatineau Park, and Black-tipped Darner has been relatively easy to find there. Finally, the Mottled Darner and Green-striped Darner are both considered “very rare”, with only a handful of records of each. I’ve been lucky to see a few Green-striped Darners in Stony Swamp in recent years, with one individual at Bruce Pit in September 2019 and two individuals at the Beaver Trail in September 2021. I’ve never seen a Mottled Darner, and hope to catch up with this species one day.

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Northern Map Turtle Observations in 2022

Northern Map Turtle

Northern Map Turtle

It’s been a good year for seeing Northern Map Turtles. They live in large, slow-moving rivers and lakes with a soft, mucky bottom and plenty of logs or rocks for basking, and while they are abundant in places like Petrie Island (before the floods, anyway) and the causeway at the Morris Island Conservation Area, I have rarely ever seen any close to home. This year, however, I found these turtles in three different places in Ottawa’s west end, fairly close to shore where they often find places to bask in the sun.

The Northern Map Turtle is considered to be a species at risk, as it is listed as Special Concern under both the Ontario Endangered Species Act, 2007 and the Federal Species at Risk Act, as well as being designated as a Specially Protected Reptile under the Ontario Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act. However, given the current political climate of favouring development over the protection of at-risk wildlife and the ecosystems in which they live, it is uncertain how long these laws and protections will remain in existence. Threats to the Northern Map Turtle include water pollution (due to its effect on molluscs, a primary food source), habitat loss and degradation, shoreline development, road mortality, fish hooks, and boat propellers. I’m not sure as to why I’m now seeing them along the shore of the Ottawa River within the city, or if that’s a good thing or bad thing – are they moving closer to shore because they have lost habitat elsewhere? Or are numbers doing so well that turtles are seeking new places to live? Fortunately, these turtles do not seem to hold much interest for poachers, as they are rarely used for food or the illegal pet trade.

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Mass Emergence: Spiny Baskettails

Spiny Baskettail emergence

By May 14th Ottawa had seen a string of six days with temperatures above 20°C, with the last three above 30°C. The warmth signaled the beginning of ode season, with my first dragonflies of the season – both Common Green Darners – seen at the Richmond Conservation Area (May 10) and Sarsaparilla Trail (May 11, 2022). Common Green Darners are migrants, however, arriving on the warm winds flowing from further south. The true ode season begins once it is warm enough for local dragonflies and damselflies to emerge from the rivers and wetlands in which their life cycle began. All odonates lay their eggs in water, and it takes time – from a few months to a few years – for the larvae to go through the individual stages of molting until they are large enough to begin the transformation from nymph to adult. When the nymph is ready, it crawls out of the water onto rocks, emergent vegetation, or nearby tree trunks or plant stems, and then bursts out of the larval shell through a hole in its back, using gravity to pull itself free. I have seen various dragonflies in the middle of this process a few times; I had never witnessed the full transformation as it takes a few hours for the dragonfly to become ready for its first flight. However, when I arrived at Mud Lake on a sunny day in mid-May hoping to find some warblers, it was a mass emergence of at least 50 individual dragonflies that engaged my attention, and I was able to observe many individuals at different points of the process.

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The Ducks are Back in Town

Bufflehead (male)

Bufflehead (male)

By the second half of March our region has seen enough warm days for the local ponds to start opening up again, especially those with water running through them. The Eagleson storm water ponds are the first ponds to show open water in the spring, usually in the middle of March after a few days of temperatures above zero. Other local ponds, such as Bruce Pit, the Moodie Drive quarry, Sarsaparilla Trail, and the Richmond Conservation Area, tend to take longer to open up, likely because they do not have a stream of water flowing through them. I usually can tell when the water of the Eagleson ponds open up by the sudden appearance of chains of Canada Geese flying over my house, but this year I saw my first geese of the year while driving by the ponds on March 14th and saw seven of them flying around, looking for a place to land. When I visited the ponds two days later, there was a bit of open water in the central pond and about 100 Canada Geese and 150 mallards were present.

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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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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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Ode-hunting along the River

Shadow Darner

Shadow Darner

Mud Lake and Andrew Haydon Park are usually excellent places to find different species of dragons and damsels throughout the summer months. In both 2015 and 2019 I had a good number of species at Andrew Haydon Park in late July, and an OFNC dragonfly outing at Mud Lake on July 21, 2013 also netted some fantastic species. I was hoping for some similar luck on an ode-hunting trip on July 24th, but this time I found fewer species and fewer individuals overall. I am not sure why there seem to be so few dragonflies around good pond habitat these past two years (such as the Eagleson ponds), but the trend is concerning.

My first stop was the shoreline at Mud Lake where I hoped to find some large river clubtails perching on the rocks in the channel behind the filtration plant. When I arrived I was happy to find two dragonflies perching on the rocks right away, and managed only to photograph one before a couple of people came along and scared them both – while I’m certain one of them was a clubtail, the one I photographed turned out o be an Eastern Pondhawk. The clubtail did not return, although I saw a couple flying out over the water several times on my visit.

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Orange and Yellow Sulphurs

Orange Sulphur

Orange Sulphur

Back in March, when my law firm’s downtown office shut down and I began working from home as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, I had expected some semblance of normal life to return by the fall. I had guessed that by September the office would be open again, and that once again I would lose two hours of my day to the daily commute. I was wrong, however, and Covid-19 cases are climbing once again in an indisputable second wave. My law firm is still not fully open yet; however, I’m back at work downtown providing administrative support for a lengthy civil trial. The trial is taking place over Zoom, with the judge, court staff, court reporter, both sets of counsel, both sets of experts, and all parties to the lawsuit participating via videoconference. Once again I’m a slave to the city’s public transportation schedule, and while I’m really happy that both the bus and LRT are virtually empty, I’m not thrilled to lose those precious two hours and almost all of my weekday birding time as a result. I am really hoping that when life does return to normal one day, full-time attendance in the office won’t be mandatory and that I will still be able to enjoy at least a couple days a week working from home and getting out for birding walks in the morning and butterfly walks at lunch.

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Dragonflies and Butterflies at Mud Lake

Long Dash Skipper

Once migration winds down, many birders stop visiting Mud Lake while they look for breeding birds elsewhere. Although birds such as Wood Duck, American Redstart, Yellow Warbler and Common Ravens are abundant and easy to find at the city’s premier migration hotspot during the breeding season, many of Ottawa’s summer specialties – such as Grasshopper Sparrow, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Golden-winged Warbler, Mourning Warbler, and Sedge Wren – are found elsewhere, and so most birders switch their focus from looking for migrating transients to chasing these summer residents down just as soon as the last Blackpoll Warblers and Arctic Terns disappear in early June. This is about the same time my attention to dragonflies and butterflies intensifies – and Mud Lake is a great place to find a good variety of both these insects.

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Unusual Overwintering Birds

Although it’s been a quiet winter for Boreal finches, Black-backed Woodpeckers, American Three-toed Woodpeckers, and other vagrant or irruptive birds here in Ottawa, we’ve still had a few interesting species overwintering here. A Red-shouldered Hawk was discovered at the Trail Road Landfill on January 25, 2020 and has remained in the area ever since – while most fly south in the fall, this species has been known to stay the winter here on occasion. In fact, my lifer Red-shouldered Hawk was an overwintering bird hanging around near Huntmar and Old Carp Roads in the winter of 2007-08. Their winter diet depends on mostly small mammals, although they may occasionally eat smaller birds such as sparrows, starlings, and doves. This would make the landfill an excellent place for a Red-shouldered Hawk to spend the winter; there are enough mice and small mammals to keep several Red-tailed Hawks well-fed, as well as a huge flock of starlings that spend the colder months here feeding on the remains of the sumac berries and landfill refuse. This winter several sparrows have been seen along the tree-line to the east of the dump, including the usual American Tree Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, and two overwintering Song Sparrows.

I tried for the Red-shouldered Hawk twice after my return from Las Vegas, both on February 15th: I had no luck in the morning, so I returned later in the afternoon and spotted a car parked along the edge of the road. When I pulled over I scanned the area and noticed it perching on a post inside in the dump. This was the best view of a perching Red-shouldered Hawk I’ve had yet; it would be the best photo I’ve ever taken of one, except for the fence in the way – the snow banks were too deep for me to get close enough to put my camera against an opening in the chain link fence.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Although I’ve tried a few times to see it since, I never did find it again. They breed in the Ottawa area, returning in late March from their winter territories, although they are difficult to find. Stony Swamp is a repeat site for these small hawks; I’ve found an occupied nest once, and have seen birds flying over the pond at Sarsparilla Trail multiple times.

Carolina Wrens, on the other hand, are at the extreme northern limit of their range here in Ottawa. This species has been attempting to move further and further north, but often succumb to the harsh Canadian winters without making any real progress. Mud Lake is a repeat spot for this species, and indeed it is where I saw my life bird back in October 2011. One has been overwintering at Mud Lake again this winter; it was seen in the woods until late November 2019, went unreported for a month, and then was re-found on January 1, 2020. I was one of the people who saw it on New Year’s Day; the loud chattering sound caught my attention and I was eventually able to see this tiny dynamo perching out in the open. It has been present up until now, surviving a winter that has seen a lot of snow but very few really cold days (the dreaded Polar Vortex was noticeably absent this winter and was not missed). On February 23rd I caught up with it again in the same general area of the woods on the west side, which is where I’ve had all my Carolina Wrens now that I think about it. Once again I heard it before I saw it, and when it popped up on a tree stump to announce its general annoyance with the world I snapped a quick picture.

Carolina Wren

Just as quickly it flew across the trail and landed next to a huge fallen tree where it weaved in and out of its shadow before disappearing beneath a cluster of branches near the crown.

Birds like these have helped keep the winter boredom at bay. While they may not be able to compete with the birds seen at a tropical destination in the south, they are often difficult to see in the Ottawa area any time of year, and it’s great to get them for my year list now – and to get such great views!