Searching for Skippers at South March Highlands

Little Glassywing

Little Glassywing

Last year I discovered that the South March Highlands was a great spot to see some of the more uncommon sedge skippers in our region; I have been waiting all summer for July to arrive as I couldn’t wait to return this year! Last year I got my lifer Little Glassywing on July 5th and my lifer Mulberry Wing on July 12th, so I had high hopes for this visit on July 2nd. Though a few days earlier than my visits last year, members of the Ottawa butterfly group had already started reporting sedge skippers elsewhere, and so I was eager to check this under-reported area for the ones I had seen last year. The milkweed patch also hosts hairstreaks, fritillaries, monarchs, sulphurs and many other insect species – I thought for sure I would find something interesting on my visit!

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South March Skippers

Dion Skipper

I enjoyed myself so much the previous weekend at the South March Highlands that I returned to the milkweed patch today to see if I could find more Little Glassywing skippers to photograph. When I arrived just after 10:30 am it was warm but the sun was playing hide-and-seek among the clouds. I saw several Dun Skippers perching low among the vegetation, and every time I saw a dark brown female with white spots on her wings I stopped to see if it was a Little Glassywing instead. None of them were, and I continued my search. Then I found a pair of Dun Skippers, male and female, resting fairly close together and took a photograph to capture them in the same frame. A few shots later, my battery died. I decided to head home and charge the battery, and wait a while to see if the sun would come out. A few hours later it did, and I returned at 4:30.

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South March Butterflies

Little Glassywing

On July 5th I headed over to the South March Highlands to check the open milkweed field at the Klondike entrance for butterflies. It was a little earlier than my visit last year when I added the Striped Hairstreak to my life list on July 13th, but after having seen a Banded Hairstreak at the Rideau Trail yesterday, I figured the large milkweed patch might hold a few surprises.

I arrived at 10:00 am, and it was already heating up a tad uncomfortably – the daily high temperature hasn’t dipped below 30°C this month so far, and the forecast called for another 30°C high today. It’s great weather for looking for bugs, although they, too, retreat to the shade during the hottest part of the day when the temperature becomes unbearable.

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Ichneumon wasp identification

Black Giant Ichneumonid Wasp (Megarhyssa atrata)

One of the wonderful things about this time of year is that when I go out somewhere hoping to see one thing, I often end up find myself captivated by something completely different. On June 16th I went to the South March Highlands hoping to find some new butterflies and dragonflies to add to the iNaturalist project I created a while back. This is such a large conservation area, containing a number of different habitats, that it seemed peculiar to me that I have not seen a corresponding variety in these two orders of insects…instead, I’ve seen only the most common species. I had a long walk (over 5 km in total) and saw some good birds, and even added a new dragonfly to the project (more on that later!), but it wasn’t until I was almost done that I came across something that absolutely fascinated me: an old stump covered in wasps.

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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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Early Spring Wildflowers

Canada Violet

Spring not brings the birds and butterflies back to the Great White North, it also brings wildflowers, the earliest of which are known as spring ephemerals. These perennial woodland wildflowers grow early each spring, quickly blooming and producing seed before the deciduous trees leaf out and prevent the sunlight from reaching the forest floor. Once these wildlflowers have gone to seed, the leaves and stems above ground often wither and die off, leaving only the underground structures (including the roots, rhizomes, and bulbs) alive during the remainder of the year. This strategy allows many different plants to thrive in deciduous forests by taking advantage of the early spring sunlight prior to the development of the tree canopy.
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Butterflies of Early Spring

Spring Azures

Butterflies emerge in late winter or early spring as soon as the first warm, sunny days arrive and the temperatures reach about 13-15°C. This could happen as early as mid-March here in Ottawa, although the butterflies usually don’t stay out for very long – the nights are still cold in late March and early April, and they may not become fully active until the weather warms up to a consistent 15°C in late April. The first butterflies that emerge are those that spent the winter in their adult form, hibernating in mixed or deciduous woodlands beneath the bark of trees, in brush piles, or in other nooks and crannies where they are protected from the wind and biting cold Arctic air. Only a few species hibernate as adults; others overwinter as caterpillars, eggs, or pupae contained within their protective chrysalises. Still others are unable to tolerate Canadian winters in any form, and migrate south to warmer regions – the Monarch is the most familiar of these.

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The South March Highlands Project

Striped Hairstreak

After my visit to the South March Highlands on June 16, 2019, as I started logging all my photos into iNaturalist I thought how great it would be if there was a citizen scientist project that documented all the flora and fauna of the South March Highlands. This is an area that has already lost precious wetlands and old-growth habitat to developers, and still continues to be threatened today. As a few limited studies have already identified a number of species at risk within the South March Highlands, I was surprised to see that no one had created a project on iNaturalist – one of the easiest ways to document the flora and fauna living within a defined area.

iNaturalist is to plants and wildlife what eBird is to birds – a collective database that anyone can contribute to. And while the observations entered into iNaturalist depend heavily on photos submitted, the beauty of setting up a project is that it will automatically collect all the observations from the geographical area defined by the creator, subject to the parameters of the project – there are general species projects for geographical areas (such as Mud Lake and Gatineau Park), projects for specific types of wildlife (such as the Lady Beetles of Ontario or the CWF’s Help the Turtles project), and specialty projects dedicated to certain types of behavior (such as my personal favourite, Odonates Eating). It doesn’t take long to create a project – the most time-consuming part for me is defining the boundaries on the map. So during the next few days I spent some time tinkering with the iNaturalist website, and thus the South March Highlands Species Project was born.
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Fascinating Flower Flies

White-spotted Pond Fly

While I was visiting the South March Highlands Conservation Forest last weekend I kept an eye out for other insects as well as butterflies and dragonflies. Flower flies (or hover flies) are one of my favourite types of insects. Some are tiny and hard to see, some are large and conspicuous, some are drab and some are brightly coloured. They are often striped with yellow and black, resembling bees and wasps, and many people fear them thinking that they, too, sting or bite. Flower flies rely on such mimicry to protect them from predators that would otherwise eat them, but are perfectly harmless to humans. They are often found around flowers in open areas such as parks, gardens, meadows, and sunny woodland clearings where they visit the flowers for nectar. Like hummingbirds, they often hover in place, their wings beating so fast they become invisible. They can dart forward and backward, making them fascinating to watch.
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The Sunny South March Highlands

Red Columbine

It rained almost all day on Saturday, June 15th, so my hopes of going out and finding butterflies and dragonflies were ruined. At least Sunday promised to be gorgeous, and although the ground was soaking wet when I got up, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I drove out to the South March Highlands, one of my favourite conservation areas in Ottawa, hoping to find some skippers and swallowtails, and hoping to find the Yellow-throated Vireo that has been dominating my eBird alerts these days – I still haven’t seen this bird in Ottawa.
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