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Identifying the Small Baskettails of Ottawa

Common Baskettail

Common Baskettail

On May 14th I wrote about a mass emergence of Spiny Baskettails at Mud Lake but didn’t explain much about how I identified them except to say my identification was based on the shape of the male claspers. Emerging dragonflies are pale and translucent, showing little to no colour of the mature adults they will become, but fortunately identification of the three small baskettail species in Ottawa does not depend the pattern of colours on its body (a fourth species, the Prince Baskettail, is much larger and has distinctive black spots at the base, tip and center of its wings). This post provides more detail about how to distinguish between the Common Baskettail, the Spiny Baskettail, and the Beaverpond Baskettail, three similar-looking species of the emerald family. While they are most likely to be found patrolling sunny woodland openings or grassy spaces next to water, they often perch on tree branches and plant stems at an angle, allowing good views or photographs.

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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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Dragonfly Emergence

Freshly emerged dragonfly

Freshly emerged dragonfly

My first real dragonfly outing of the year occurred on May 24, 2021, and as usual, took place at Roger’s Pond in Marlborough Forest. I invited a few friends to join me now that outdoor gatherings can include up to 5 people, and fellow OFNC members Derek and Gerald decided to join me. It was a warm, sunny day, and I hoped to find the usual common skimmers and clubtails, as well as a few uncommon species that I’d seen previously at Marlborough Forest such as the elusive Ebony Boghaunter and Harlequin Darner. I’ve already seen one boghaunter this season, but it’s been a few years since I’ve seen a Harlequin Darner, and the Cedar Grove Nature Trail has been a repeat site for this ode.

We met at 9:30 am, just early enough to get some birding in while waiting for the sun to rise higher in the sky. We had the usual Nashville Warblers, Black-throated Green Warblers, Great Crested Flycatchers, White-throated Sparrows, Veeries, and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers on the walk in. At the pond itself we had Eastern Kingbirds, a Pied-billed Grebe, Common Yellowthroats and four Ring-necked Ducks. Many dragonflies were already flying along the open trail through the cedar forest, including a few teneral whitefaces and emeralds.

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Mid-May Butterflies

Dreamy Duskywing

Dreamy Duskywing

The first butterflies that emerge in the spring – usually in late March or April – are the ones that hibernated as adults in deciduous woodlots: Mourning Cloaks, Eastern Commas and Compton Tortoiseshells are the first ones I see every year on those warm, sunny days when the temperature starts reaching 13°C. The next wave emerges when it warms up long enough for those that hibernated in the chrysalis stage to emerge as adults: the elfins and azures and whites and swallowtails are included in this group, although I usually see the first Northern Spring Azures and Henry’s Elfins first, in late April and early May, with the Canadian Tiger Swallowtail and Black Swallowtail following in mid-May. Next come the species that overwintered as mature caterpillars, such as the duskywings – the first skippers to appear each year – and the crescents. All of these are typically seen in May in our region, while butterflies that overwinter as younger caterpillars (the browns and fritillaries) and eggs (coppers and hairstreaks) don’t emerge until June and July. This means that while you will never see all of Ottawa’s butterflies on the wing at the same time, the diversity is ever-changing up until the end of July. Even after that the appearance of regular but unpredictable influxes of migrants keeps things exciting throughout August and September: large population booms of Red Admirals, Painted Ladies, American Ladies and Monarchs might mean a wildly successful breeding season here in Ottawa, while smaller numbers of Orange Sulphurs, Common Buckeyes and American Snouts often find their way here from their breeding range further south.

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Summer Bugs and Butterflies

Long Dash Skipper

The beginning of June is an exciting time as more and more insects start emerging from their winter dormancy. I had the second week of June off work, and with the COVID-19 pandemic putting an end to travel plans – we could not go to the Atlantic provinces without a mandatory 14-day isolation period upon arrival, and the Canada-U.S. border is still closed to non-essential travel – I planned to spend the week exploring trails near me and looking for birds and bugs close to home. My plan was to get out and see some new places, and hopefully find some new species, and the weather actually looked nice for the whole week – plenty of sun and no rain in the forecast.

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Last Days in Prince Edward County

Chipping Sparrow

On July 4th I woke up and went for my usual early morning walk up to Morrison Point Road. I saw a Great Crested Flycatcher carrying food along Loves Lane, followed by a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and two Hairy Woodpeckers in the same patch of woods; the Hairy Woodpecker was new for my Prince Edward County list. Along Morrison Point Road itself I observed the usual species, including two Indigo Buntings, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, a Yellow Warbler, a Red-bellied Woodpecker, a Gray Catbird, and a Field Sparrow….I was really hoping to catch a glimpse of the Red-bellied Woodpecker, but again it was not to be. Five Barn Swallows were hunting in the fields near the barn, while two Killdeer roamed the grounds near the pond behind it.

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The Beginning of Dragonfly Season

Dusky Clubtail

Usually by the time the Victoria Day long weekend arrives the first odes have emerged – in the past I’ve seen baskettails in large numbers at Mud Lake and whitefaces and emeralds in Stony Swamp. This year has been different. A persistent wind from the north has prevented the daytime temperatures from rising much above 20°C; nighttime temperatures are still in the single digits. As dragonfly emergence depends largely on water temperature, it isn’t surprising that I had only seen one dragonfly before the May long weekend, a Common Green Darner at Parliament Hill on May 6th. This is usually one of the first species I see, as they migrate north from the warm south where they emerge. Temperatures had risen from 10°C on May 3rd to 20°C on the 6th, although the morning had started out as a chilly 5°C – perhaps an influx of warm air brought this gorgeous dragonfly up from somewhere where the north wind and flooding weren’t wreaking havoc on the wildlife.

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The South March Highlands

Yellow Trout Lily

One of my favourite places to go birding in late May and early June is the South March Highlands in Kanata North. It is said that this forest has the highest ecological value and biodiversity of any area within the City of Ottawa, with more than 654 species found within its borders – some of which are considered to be species at risk, such as the Blanding’s Turtle, Least Bittern, and Butternut Tree. These Canadian Shield uplands are rich in wetlands and mature forest, with marshes, ponds, deciduous forest and coniferous forest all accessible via a network of trails. Despite its ecological significance, the City of Ottawa has allowed parts of the forest to be sold to developers and clear-cut for new homes and the infamous Terry Fox Drive extension. Still, the forest that remains is a beautiful spot for birding, though it is extremely popular with mountain bikers and caution should be taken not to block the trails while scanning the tree tops for warblers!

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Elfins and Emeralds

Eastern Pine Elfin

The Stony Swamp trail I spend the least time at, other than Lime Kiln, is Trailhead P11 on West Hunt Club. It’s a lovely trail, but it doesn’t have any marshes with boardwalks; the spring flooding requires knee-high rubber boots; and turning left back onto West Hunt Club into the Saturday mid-day traffic can be a nightmare. Still, it’s a great trail system through some prime mixed deciduous and coniferous forest, and I’ve been trying to visit more often to see what kinds of species make their homes here. It’s better for breeding Wood Thrushes than the other Stony Swamp trails, possibly because the forest is denser with fewer open areas, and I’ve had more Broad-winged Hawks here in the summer than anywhere else. I visited one morning in May while on vacation, hoping to find some new species to add to the hotspot list and perhaps to see some butterflies now that the weather has gotten warmer.
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Morris Island

Halloween Pennant

My last day off was Tuesday, and the forecast finally called for a decent amount of sun during the morning and afternoon. I invited a friend, Jon, to go dragon-hunting with me at Morris Island since he was eager to become re-acquainted with odonates after a long absence. There were a few particular species on his must-see list, including Cobra Clubtail, Cyrano Darner and Dragonhunter; I’d seen all of these at Morris Island before, though I wasn’t optimistic about our chances of seeing the Cyrano. Although it is considered to be a widespread species, inhabiting swamps, small lakes, and slow-moving rivers of the eastern half of the continent, adults are rarely seen. It is thought that once they emerge they immediately fly up into the tree tops where they spend most of their time. Adult males can sometimes be found patrolling their territory, and this appeared to be just such a case with the one that I caught in the parking lot of the Morris Island Conservation Area last year. That was on June 25th, however, I was worried that we might be too late to see them.

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