Monday, 4 February 2019

From Guatemala to Cuba

I spent the last two weeks of January touring around Guatemala with Dan Riley, looking for as many of the country's birds and herps as we could find. Most ecotourists who visit Guatemala do so on a tour, or they stick to some of the main tourist hotspots like Tikal and Antigua. Dan and I did things a little bit differently, renting a 4x4 pickup truck and driving around the country to get way off the beaten tourist track. Following our nine-day loop that took up north and west from Guatemala City, we took an internal flight from Guatemala City to Flores in the north of the country; the jumping off point for visiting Tikal. Our goal in the north was not just to see the incredibly impressive ruins (one of the largest Mayan ruin sites),  but to look for wildlife as well. Spending four days in the relatively stress-free area of Tikal was a nice way to finish the trip, following the very intense nine-day loop with the pickup truck. It was definitely one of the more adventurous trips that I have ever undertaken and I am excited to put together a series of posts about the trip when time allows. In the meantime, however, here are a few teaser photos. 

Tikal archeological site, Guatemala

We did quite well on the trip bird-wise, finishing with 356 species in 13 days. Of these, we managed to encounter almost all of our main target species, including Pink-headed Warbler, Azure-rumped Tanager, Belted Flycatcher, Horned Guan and Orange-breasted Falcon. We did have one miss that stung - not seeing Goldman's Warbler (currently still considered a subspecies of Yellow-rumped Warbler, limited to a few mountains in Guatemala) - but otherwise we couldn't have asked for a better trip, bird-wise! Considering that we did not use a guide for any part of the trip, we were very happy with what we found.

Pink-headed Warbler

Horned Guan

Ocellated Turkey

Northern Jacana

Herps were also in abundance despite the very dry conditions almost everywhere that we stayed. Temperatures were also well below average, likely a function of the "polar vortex" in North America, which suppressed reptile activity as well. That being said we still managed to turn up 21 snakes of 7 different species as well as a nice variety of other herps. When the night-hiking was slow, there were often an array of insects and arachnids to keep us occupied.

Blunthead Tree Snake

Morelet's Crocodile

Ptychohyla hypomykter

Small-spotted Cat-eyed Snake

Unidentified katydid

Mammals are also a big focus for Dan and I when we travel. While we didn't see anything crazy like a big cat, we did turn up a few interesting species here and there. My favorite mammal sighting of the trip was a Mexican Mouse Opossum, hanging out in some trail-side bamboo during one night hike at Los Torrales Natural Reserve. 

Mexican Mouse Opossum

Later today I will be flying out to Cuba where I will be leading a nature tour for Quest. I'm excited to be heading back!

Bare-legged Owl

Red-legged Thrush

Bee Hummingbird

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Search for Sedge Skippers (July, 2018)

In 2018 I made an effort to focus more on Lepidoptera, the butterflies and moths. Butterflies especially became a main interest throughout the summer and I always kept an eye out for different species while completing field work throughout southern Ontario. On a handful of occasions I went out of my way to search for particular species, especially species I had never seen or photographed before.

Spurred on after seeing some of Reuven Martin's recent sightings on iNaturalist, I decided to spend the morning of July 17 searching for sedge skippers at a few different locations found between Hamilton and Guelph.

I arrived at the Turner Tract, a component of the Halton Region Forest, just before 9:00 AM. The morning was warming up and quite a few butterflies were on the wing already as I pulled into the parking lot, including some of "the usuals" - Cabbage White, Northern Pearly-eye, Little Wood-Satyr, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail - Turner Tract, Halton Regional Forest

Little Wood-Satyr - Turner Tract, Halton Regional Forest

Northern Pearly-eye - Turner Tract, Halton Regional Forest


I had never properly explored the Turner Tract before, and I had certainly never devoted a full morning to searching for insects there. There were several species in particular that I was hoping to encounter. Of primary importance were some "sedge skippers"; that is, several skipper species that find habitat (and foodplants) within sedge meadows and other similar habitats, and which are rarely seen outside of these habitats. Mulberry Wing and Black Dash in particular I had never seen before, and both could be found in some of the wetlands at the Turner Tract. I was also hoping to find Appalachian Brown, a species I had seen before but never photographed. The sedge skippers in particular have a relatively short flight season and I wanted to observe them before it was too late in the summer.

As I walked along a forest path south through the Turner Tract I got on my first Eyed Brown, a similar species to the Appalachian Brown but one which is usually a bit more common, and found in more open wetland habitats.

Eyed Brown - Turner Tract, Halton Regional Forest

Butterflies were not the only insects vying for my attention; several different odonates also flew past, the warm morning sun powering them up.

Enallagma Bluet sp. - Turner Tract, Halton Regional Forest

Canada Darner - Turner Tract, Halton Regional Forest

Slender Spreadwing - Turner Tract, Halton Regional Forest


My plan of attack was to hike through several of the "sedgiest" looking wetlands at the Turner Tract in hopes of turning up my main quarry. But even before getting to the wetlands I kept getting distracted by insects. A few Banded Hairstreaks were a welcome sight; this species may be locally common at times, but it only flies for a brief period in the summer, making it a treat whenever I come across a few individuals.

Banded Hairstreak - Turner Tract, Halton Regional Forest

Banded Hairstreak - Turner Tract, Halton Regional Forest

Skippers adorned many of the trailside plants wherever there were sunny patches. The vast majority were Dun Skippers, but I also singled out a few Northern Broken-Dash.

Northern Broken-Dash - Turner Tract, Halton Regional Forest

Dun Skipper - Turner Tract, Halton Regional Forest

Along the forest trail I added more species to the day list - Red-spotted Admiral, Northern Crescent, Viceroy, Least Skipper and Monarch.

Red-spotted Admiral - Turner Tract, Halton Regional Forest

Northern Crescent - Turner Tract, Halton Regional Forest

I hadn't yet arrived at my first wetland to search and I was still deep in the forest when one of the Lethe species went past and eventually settled on a unit branch. An Appalachian Brown! Unfortunately it was quite skittish and this was about the best I could do for photos, but it was fun to finally have a chance to study one for the first time in several years. Compared to the Eyed Brown, the Appalachian Brown has less jagged postmedian lines on the underside of the forewings and hindwings, while the middle two eyespots on the forewing are usually a bit smaller than the outer spots. It prefers more wooded habitats than the Eyed Brown, though both species overlap in habitat near the borders of wetland and woodland.

Appalachian Brown - Turner Tract, Halton Regional Forest

I found a nice spot to enter the first sedge meadow and began searching. The morning was quite warm by this time, and sedge meadows seem to collect the heat and humidity, but fortunately the mosquitoes were not too bad at all. Many additional Eyed Browns appeared but sedge skippers were being trickier to find than I expected. The few skippers I did see all happened to be Dun Skippers.

Eyed Brown - Turner Tract, Halton Regional Forest

After an hour or so of searching, I finally ran into my first sedge skipper. It appeared to be a Mulberry Wing when I first saw it, but it perched with its wings spread open, making it impossible to see the underside of the wings to clinch the ID. I only managed a few photos before it took off and disappeared further into the wetland.

Possible Mulberry Wing - Turner Tract, Halton Regional Forest


Eventually I gave up my search, feeling a little disheartened as I made my way back to the forest trails to hike to the next wetland. Along the way, a few more interesting insects made appearances.

Hummingbird Clearwing - Turner Tract, Halton Regional Forest

Gray Comma - Turner Tract, Halton Regional Forest

Mourning Cloak - Turner Tract, Halton Regional Forest

Azure sp. (Celastrina) - Turner Tract, Halton Regional Forest

By now it was the early afternoon and the day was quite warm. Fortunately the butterflies were still fluttering-by, and the second wetland proved to be much more successful.

A few stunning Baltimore Checkerspots were acting territorial in this wetland, frequently duelling with each other in mid-air. It had been years since I had last seen a Baltimore Checkerspot. They rely primarily on Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) as their foodplant, and only occur in wet meadows where that species grows.

Baltimore Checkerspot - Turner Tract, Halton Regional Forest

Baltimore Checkerspot - Turner Tract, Halton Regional Forest

I walked a loop of the perimeter of the wetland, spotting a number of butterfly species along the way, while a Yellow-billed Cuckoo flew into a small tree and began vocalizing. I was focused on a large patch of Swamp Milkweed when a medium-sized skipper with a distinctive wing-pattern appeared. A Black Dash!

Black Dash - Turner Tract, Halton Regional Forest

I ended up finding several Black Dashes in the wetland and enjoyed photographing them. Black Dashes can be identified from underneath by their reddish brown base colour with a distinctively shaped lighter band on the hindwing.

Black Dash - Turner Tract, Halton Regional Forest

Black Dash - Turner Tract, Halton Regional Forest

A Mustard White was a welcome find at the edge of the marsh. Superficially similar to the abundant and introduced Cabbage White, the Mustard White has clean white wings with prominent veins, finding habitat in rich deciduous forest, which is one of the few habitats that Cabbage Whites are not usually abundant. I have not seen too many Mustard Whites and this was the first one that I managed to photograph in southern Ontario.

Mustard White - Turner Tract, Halton Regional Forest

Mustard White - Turner Tract, Halton Regional Forest

Happy with my success at the Turner Tract, I snapped a few more photos of a Baltimore Checkerspot and a Twelve-spotted Skimmer and then made my way back to the car, photographing an obliging Clymene Moth on the way. Even though I had not been able to confirm a Mulberry Wing, I lucked out with encounters with Black Dash, Appalachian Brown, Baltimore Checkerspots and a bonus Mustard White. It had been a great day!

Baltimore Checkerspot - Turner Tract, Halton Regional Forest

Twelve-spotted Skimmer - Turner Tract, Halton Regional Forest

Clymene Moth - Turner Tract, Halton Regional Forest

By now it was nearing 2:00 PM, meaning I still had time to check out one more spot. I targeted an area near Puslinch called the Fletcher Creek Ecological Preserve. I had never been there before but noticed on iNaturalist that there had been a number of recent records of sedge skippers from there.

Near the northwest corner of the reserve I parked on the side of Concession Road 7, as a number of Tufted Vetch, Spotted Joe-Pye Weed and Swamp Milkweed were flowering near the edge of a small watercourse. This proved to be "the spot" and I quickly spotted a Mulberry Wing nectaring on some Tufted Vetch!

Mulberry Wing - Fletcher Creek Ecological Preserve, Wellington County

Along with several Mulberry Wings there were good numbers of Broad-winged Skippers (another species of "sedge skipper") and a few Black Dashes thrown in for good measure. The Mulberry Wing has a very distinctive airplane-shaped mark on the underside of its hindwing.

Broad-winged Skipper (left) and Mulberry Wing (right) - Fletcher Creek Ecological Preserve, Wellington County

Black Dash - Fletcher Creek Ecological Preserve, Wellington County

Broad-winged Skipper - Fletcher Creek Ecological Preserve, Wellington County

Even a worn Baltimore Checkerspot was in attendance. There was a flurry of butterfly activity, though the strong breeze made photography a little challenging as the flowers they were nectaring on would not stop moving!

Baltimore Checkerspot - Fletcher Creek Ecological Preserve, Wellington County

Broad-winged Skipper - Fletcher Creek Ecological Preserve, Wellington County

Mulberry Wing - Fletcher Creek Ecological Preserve, Wellington County

Black Dash - Fletcher Creek Ecological Preserve, Wellington County

Broad-winged Skipper - Fletcher Creek Ecological Preserve, Wellington County

It was an awesome day of exploration with many fun finds. I can't wait to do some more sedge skippering this upcoming summer!