Saturday, June 29, 2013

Back to the land of Spruce, Moose and Bedrock

On Sunday I headed up to Algonquin Park for my third summer of working as a park naturalist. Algonquin Park is one of my favourite places; nothing really compares to stepping outside and breathing in the fresh air. I've heard 13 species of warbler singing on territory from my bedroom window and see Moose almost every day.

As usual, odes have been my main focus. Algonquin Park is one of the best spots in Ontario for dragonflies and damselflies with a diverse combination of northern and southern species, although the nutrient-poor bedrock limits some species of rich wetlands. On June 26 a day trip to another section of the park on my day off with Peter Mills and Lev Frid was very productive.

Delta-spotted Spiketail is one of our most impressive dragonflies.

Harpoon Clubtail is a rather rare species in Algonquin but we found a number at two different locations. Also featured is a bloody blackfly bite on my thumb!

Beaverpond Clubtail is essentially identical to the previous species but differs in the shape of its genitalia as well as habitat preference (beaver ponds instead of flowing streams)

Elegant Spreadwing is one of three spreadwings that emerge early in the summer. We also found the other two, Amber-winged and Emerald Spreadwing.

Dot-tailed Whiteface is often the most abundant dragonfly in far southern Ontario but barely makes it this far north. This is the first I've seen in Algonquin Park.

Hudsonian Whiteface is a very early species that is already almost done its flight season for 2013. We also saw many Crimson-ringed, Frosted and Belted Whitefaces to complete the set of 5 whitefaces found in Southern Ontario.

Elfin Skimmer females mimic a wasp with their tiny size and black-and-yellow stripes.

Other sightings included Mourning Warbler and my first ever Silvery Checkerspot.

A Viceroy, which is a Mullerian Mimic of Monarch butterflies was also present to remind us of the tenuous status of the latter species. Although they were probably the most common butterfly last summer, I have not seen a single one anywhere this year yet. My first Monarch of 2012 was at the end of April.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Frogs and Flowers at Rondeau

Better late than never, here are some non-bird highlights from May at Rondeau. I spent most of my time birding, but did take other opportunities as they came up.

After a dry week there was heavy rain on the evening of May 8, so I walked along the road for over an hour looking for amphibians. Many Spring Peepers, Gray Tree Frogs, Wood Frogs, Green Frogs and American Toads were crossing over.

Wood Frog

Every Spring Peeper I saw seemed extremely thin. This date was still at the height of the deafening chorus of peepers, and I suspect all the healthy individuals were too preoccupied with reproduction to do any travelling.

This Gray Tree Frog was well camouflaged despite the unnatural background.

This is one of the most boldly marked tree frogs I've seen.

The diversity and numbers of butterflies was very low, especially compared to the unbelievable numbers last year. This Eastern Comma was little consolation after missing the Kirtland's Warbler!

When a cold spell made the birding very slow I spent quite some time looking at wildflowers. I have little background in plants so I don't have much to offer besides identification, but the diversity and density of woodland flowers far surpassed anywhere else I've been in spring. 

This aberrant Red Trillium with 6 petals was seen by many as it grew next to Spicebush Trail.



Large-flowered Bellwort 

 Wild Strawberry

Wood Betony 

Starry False Solomon's Seal

Plenty of awesome species, but I wish I'd had more time to really explore the non-avian diversity at Rondeau. It gives me a good reason to go back!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Hot Day at the Alvar

On Sunday June 9th I headed north a couple of hours to meet some coworkers from Algonquin Park at Carden Alvar. Alvars are habitats where only a thin layer of soil is present above limestone and the harsh conditions create open habitat suitable for a variety of interesting species rare elsewhere.

Carden Alvar is famous for its birds. We found Loggerhead Shrike, Upland Sandpiper and Clay-colored Sparrow along with other species characteristic of this location like Grasshopper Sparrow, Northern Harrier, American Bittern, Wilson's Snipe, Brown Thrasher and Eastern Bluebird. Unfortunately due to the hot weather and our relatively late arrival (8:00 am) we missed a bunch of species (Prairie Warbler, Golden-winged Warbler and Sedge Wren would have been particularly nice) and didn't get good looks at most of those we did find.

This Eastern Bluebird was not intimidated by the Loggerhead Shrike depicted on the Windmill Ranch sign.

This fledgling Eastern Phoebe seemed confused about all the birder activity in the blind it was born in.

Bird activity plummeted as the day warmed up, so we spent more time looking at other stuff.

This pile of poop attracted at least three kinds of butterflies - Canadian Tiger Swallowtails, a White Admiral and the duskywing sp. flying above the middle swallowtail.

We came across several Blanding's Turtles basking in a beaver pond. This one was rather tame and gave me my best ever looks at this species.

My two favourite sightings were not photographable. While standing on a bridge a loud splash alerted us to a beaver diving into the water. Amazingly, it swam under the bridge before entering its lodge on the opposite side. The entire time it was clearly visible under the clear water. Normally you need to go to the zoo to get those kind of views!

About half an hour later, a reddish dragonfly with red patches at the base of each hindwing flew over us. It was either a Red or Carolina Saddlebags, either of which would be extremely rare here! Unfortunately we couldn't catch it before it disappeared. 

On the way back we stopped at a spot near Orillia to look for a couple relatively rare orchids and dragonflies. The main goal was Showy Lady's-slipper. Unfortunately we were too early in the season but we did find one almost in bloom.

Fortunately, Yellow Lady's-slipper was common.

None of the hoped-for Harlequin Darners showed up, but I was happy to pull this Stream Cruiser out of my net after swinging at what I expected to be one of the many Baskettails or Racket-tailed Emeralds.

A good day to be out although an earlier wake-up and better planning could have greatly improved it!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Bank Swallows using Artificial Nest Sites

I've been birding at Erindale Park in Mississauga for about 6 years and for most of that time Bank Swallow has been a very rare species. Last summer Bank Swallow suddenly became the most common swallow and it was clear that they were nesting somewhere nearby. I never had a chance to find the colony last summer, but I did go looking this week and was very surprised to find bank swallows nesting in tubes in concrete under a bridge, as I had thought this species exclusively digs its own nests in banks.

The colony is located under the bridge where Dundas St. crosses the Credit River. About 25 tubes go into the concrete wall (I assume for drainage) providing extremely secure nest locations. There are several adequate banks for Bank Swallows within 100 m of this bridge but as far as I've been able to tell they are unused.

At least one of the holes is occupied by Northern-rough-winged Swallows and another by House Sparrows, but the rest are available for Bank Swallows.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

I only saw Bank Swallow using 5 or 6 of the holes in the half hour I watched the colony, but given the number of Bank Swallows using Erindale Park I suspect at least 10 are occupied. 

I have not been able to find any reference to Bank Swallows using similar nest sites in North America. Although this species frequently uses artificial locations for nesting (e.g. gravel pits), the nest tunnels themselves are usually dug into the substrate. The only report I've found of Bank Swallows using premade tunnels is from Breeding birds of Ontario: nidiology and distribution by G. Peck and R. James as cited in Birds of North America Online. 3 out 713 nest records (from the Ontario Nest Record Scheme) were from "plastic tubes in banks". Unfortunately, I have no access to the original publication right now so I have no more details.

There are however a variety of reports of this species nesting in a wide variety of artificial burrows in Europe, where it is called Sand Martin.

Clearly this is not a common behaviour this side of the pond, but I'm not sure exactly how unique it is. I may have found something fairly significant, or this may be a regular occurrence that has not been adequately documented in any source I've been able to find. Regardless, I was happy to confirm nesting at this location. All five species of smaller swallow (excluding Purple Martin) currently nest here, which is great to see for this rapidly declining group of birds.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

No Summer Doldrums Here

Although you can still find the occasional Blackpoll Warbler or Alder Flycatcher well into June, migrant birds become quite hard to find after May 28 or so. Luckily, right around this time is when insect activity starts picking up.

Most of my efforts have been centred on odes (dragonflies and damselflies), but there are plenty of other cool things around.

This female Springtime Darner near Orillia was the first dragonfly I caught this year. Most of our darners don't emerge in numbers until the start of August, but this well-named species is often one of the first dragonflies flying. Thanks to Breanna Hall for holding on to it well my camera refused to cooperate (which is why it isn't against a natural background!)

The spreadwings are a group of damselflies that, like the darners, are more prominent later in the season. The lovely iridescent Emerald Spreadwing bucks the trend by emerging in June. This individual and everything else in this post were found at my patch, Erindale Park in Mississauga.

The most abundant June dragonfly at my patch is Twelve-spotted Skimmer. I've been flushing two or three recently emerged individuals with each step beside the pond. This species can be somewhat migratory and the single individual I saw on Pelee Island in May may have originated further south.

The odes have been fairly slow to emerge so far and I've only had 18 species, but this included my 100th species for Ontario - Skimming Bluet.

Silvery Blue is one of the common butterflies right now. The blurry plant in the background is Vetch, one of the common hosts for this species' caterpillars.

These Peck's Skippers were too preoccupied to care how close I got!

I came across this huge beetle, an Eyed Elater, beside some rotting logs. This is a species of click beetle and, although it is a bit blurry and there's a string in the way, I managed a video of this group's defense mechanism. It's hard to tell from the video, but the force generated is pretty incredible.

There is an enormous diversity of moths and as such nearly every species I come across is new to me. The small, boldy marked Common Spring Moth (creative name, eh?) is no exception.

I came across this gathering of American Toad tadpoles in a marshy backwater of the Credit River. I don't have a definite explanation but I'd guess that they were trying to avoid the silt washed into the river by recent rains.

It's the season where turtles are on the move to their nest sites and I noticed this big Snapping Turtle crossing the trail. 

Zoomed from a safe distance! 

I'll post soon about some unique bird nesting behaviour I found today - I'm still trying to figure out exactly how unique.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Birds of Rondeau

It's difficult to summarize 19 days of May birding, but I'm going to try! Overall, I found and saw lots of cool birds, but the numbers of migrants were low, worryingly so. Blackburnian Warbler, like the confiding bird above, was no exception. By tallying up my estimates or counts each day from eBird I come up with a tally of 85 Blackburnian Warblers, or less than 5 per day. Other species counts were also very low, such as  35 Great Crested Flycatcher, 22 Tennessee Warbler, 89 Chestnut-sided Warbler or 8 Cape May Warbler. There were only two days the entire time that it was not hard work to find any warblers. Still, the rarer species showed up with one or two great birds most days.

One afternoon I got back to the Visitor Centre after my guided hike to find that a Western Kingbird had been reported from just down the road! After spreading the news on Ontbirds, I headed over to find it. After the bird put us on a merry chase up and down the road I eventually got brief, poor looks at it, although many present were disappointed. Luckily this guy was soon found nearby:

Although not nearly as rare as the kingbird, this male Summer Tanager gave excellent looks to everyone present while I was there. Both the kingbird and tanager were lifers for me. Little did I know that I would soon find both species myself on Pelee Island!

The sounds of American Woodcock and Eastern Whip-poor-will were familiar most evenings. 

Whip-poor-wills are essentially impossible to see at night (although I did see one fly by one dusk), but somebody spotted a Whip-poor-will roosting near one of the trails one afternoon where it was enjoyed by dozens of visitors.

This Yellow-breasted Chat hung around a few days but, as usual, was extremely uncooperative, only being seen briefly every few hours. Luckily, as I was working in the park I was able to access the fenced area it was spending time in, both to direct a number of others towards getting glimpses of the bird and to get excellent looks, although I totally flubbed the photos.

 For four days in a row the weather was unseasonably cold, with frost on several nights. This meant that many of the insect-eating birds were having a very difficult time finding food and were forced to feed on the ground.

Tennessee Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

My favourite sighting of the cold snap was a male Cerulean Warbler, normally a treetop denizen, crawling mouse-like right beside a trail despite the constant admiring crowds.

Yes, that final shot shows both my foot and the Cerulean Warbler! It is always worrying when a bird is acting like this, but it was seen right up until the weather warmed in the middle of the fourth day (when it promptly disappeared), so it was hopefully no worse for wear.

My favourite of the 33 species of warblers I saw was this Worm-eating I twice got great looks at. The first occasion I was leading a hike for a small group of visitors and it flushed from the side of the trail into a bush perhaps 5 metres away, where it sat for a little bit before proceeding to forage directly in front of us!

One afternoon a flock of 3 Whimbrel and 1 Hudsonian Godwit was reported from the beach. When I headed over, I found a flock of 6 Whimbrel (1 out of frame in the shot below) and 1 Willet in the same location. I'm not really sure what the explanation is. It's one thing to misidentify a Willet as a Hudsonian Godwit, but something quite different to misidentify 6 Whimbrel as 3 Whimbrel! I think it is possible two separate flocks were involved.

Prothonotary Warbler is one of Rondeau's specialty breeding birds, so it was rather worrying that none were seen sticking around the same area for more than a few minutes all month. Finally though, on my last day there, two singing males were found at a rarely checked location.

There were plenty of other cool birds around I didn't get pictures of, most notably Yellow-throated and Kentucky Warbler. Although the paucity of migrants was a bit discouraging, I certainly had a good time! I'll leave you with another picture of the same Blackburnian Warbler at the top of this post.