Monday, 16 July 2018

Butterflies in Brechin

A few days ago I was in the Brechin area to complete the final round of bird surveys at one of my work sites. I rarely bring my camera with me in the field when I complete bird surveys just because it is often difficult to focus on the surveys as well as photography, but I did this time. The easy terrain (open, grassy areas) and abundance of butterflies on my previous site visit was all the motivation I needed to lug the camera around. I was hoping that despite the overcast conditions a few butterflies would be on the wing.

Grasshopper Sparrow - Brechin, Ramara Township, Simcoe County, Ontario

The site was pretty weedy with a high percentage of non-native species; the Viper's Bugloss and Knapweed, while non-native, is very attractive as a nectar source to butterflies, native and non-native species alike. 

Dun Skipper - Brechin, Ramara Township, Simcoe County, Ontario

Common Sulphur - Brechin, Ramara Township, Simcoe County, Ontario

European Skipper - Brechin, Ramara Township, Simcoe County, Ontario

Common Wood-Nymph - Brechin, Ramara Township, Simcoe County, Ontario

Great Spangled Fritillaries (male and female) - Brechin, Ramara Township, Simcoe County, Ontario

Great Spangled Fritillary - Brechin, Ramara Township, Simcoe County, Ontario

European Skipper - Brechin, Ramara Township, Simcoe County, Ontario

I was thrilled to finally have a chance to photograph Columbine Duskywing, a species that is quite similar to Wild Indigo Duskywing which is common in southwestern Ontario. Colombine Duskywing is generally more frequent north of Lake Ontario and along the southern shield, and is usually found near its footplant - Red Columbine.

Columbine Duskywing - Brechin, Ramara Township, Simcoe County, Ontario
 
Columbine Duskywing - Brechin, Ramara Township, Simcoe County, Ontario

A nice cattail wetland runs through the property. I was happy to hear Sedge Wrens singing away on my first visit, and they were still present during the second visit.

Sedge Wren - Brechin, Ramara Township, Simcoe County, Ontario

A good diversity of butterflies were located within the wetland including my first ever Aphrodite Fritillary, and the first Eyed Browns that I have had a chance to photograph.

Aphrodite Fritillary - Brechin, Ramara Township, Simcoe County, Ontario


Aphrodite Fritillary - Brechin, Ramara Township, Simcoe County, Ontario


Eyed Brown - Brechin, Ramara Township, Simcoe County, Ontario

Eastern Tailed-Blue - Brechin, Ramara Township, Simcoe County, Ontario


Peck's Skipper - Brechin, Ramara Township, Simcoe County, Ontario

Halloween Pennant

Eyed Brown - Brechin, Ramara Township, Simcoe County, Ontario

Monarch - Brechin, Ramara Township, Simcoe County, Ontario

Long Dash - Brechin, Ramara Township, Simcoe County, Ontario

Above is a worn Long Dash; below is a fresh one from my previous visit in late June.

Long Dash - Brechin, Ramara Township, Simcoe County, Ontario

Orange Mint Moth - Brechin, Ramara Township, Simcoe County, Ontario

Goldenrod Crab Spider - Brechin, Ramara Township, Simcoe County, Ontario

This Eastern Kingbird tolerated my approach, allowing me to snap a few photos that I was happy with.

Eastern Kingbird - Brechin, Ramara Township, Simcoe County, Ontario

Below are a few more photos of the various insects found throughout the property. All told I finished with around 22 species of butterflies for the day.

Gray Hairstreak - Brechin, Ramara Township, Simcoe County, Ontario


Bronze Copper - Brechin, Ramara Township, Simcoe County, Ontario


Eastern Tailed-Blue - Brechin, Ramara Township, Simcoe County, Ontario


Azure sp. - Brechin, Ramara Township, Simcoe County, Ontario

Dun Skipper - Brechin, Ramara Township, Simcoe County, Ontario

Cabbage White - Brechin, Ramara Township, Simcoe County, Ontario

Northern Broken-Dash - Brechin, Ramara Township, Simcoe County, Ontario

Monarch - Brechin, Ramara Township, Simcoe County, Ontario

Thursday, 12 July 2018

All the herps of Ontario, finally!

This summer, one of my goals was to finally complete my Ontario herp list.While birds have dominated my life over the past seven years or so, the pendulum is beginning to shift back and I am finding greater satisfaction in a wider range of taxa, while also returning more frequently to my first love - reptiles and amphibians. Between the years of 2007 and 2010 I found myself spending every spare moment in search of reptiles and amphibians and over that time period I managed to catch up with most of Ontario's species, while picking up a few others (Boreal Chorus Frog, Mudpuppy) in the time since. But three species remained, going into this summer - Wood Turtle, Allegheny Mountain Dusky Salamander, and Northern Dusky Salamander. As I detailed in a previous post, I finally encountered my first Ontario Wood Turtles early in June, leaving just the two Desmognathus salamanders.

The genus Desmognathus is quite diverse across eastern North America with around 23 species as currently described. These salamanders are often very closely tied to aquatic environments - most species are limited to streams and seeps in forested, hilly terrain. Two species are found in Ontario, but they are both relatively recent additions to the province's herpetofauna and both have exceedingly tiny ranges in Ontario as currently known.


The story goes something like this: Historic accounts from 1908 and the early 1940s mention dusky salamanders from somewhere along the Niagara River. In 1989, two populations of dusky salamanders were discovered on the Ontario side and initially both populations were assumed to be Northern Dusky Salamanders. In 2004, suspicion arose from Ministry of Natural Resources staff that one of the populations may be a different species - the Allegheny Mountain Dusky Salamander - and genetics confirmed it. Extensive surveys along the Niagara gorge discovered an additional population, which was also identified as Allegheny Mountain Dusky Salamander. Further surveys have been completed throughout the gorge, but no subsequent populations have been identified.

This summer I went on a few scouting trips at various locations along the Niagara River gorge in hopes of finding duskies, or at least, narrowing down my search area. By the beginning of July I felt that I had a pretty good idea of where both species were found so Dan Riley and I planned to meet up to give it a whirl. Like me, Dan had also seen every herp in Ontario other than the two duskies.

The terrain is exceedingly difficult in some of the areas we searched, but with determination in our minds and empty memory cards in our cameras we pressed on. It wasn't going to be an easy search. We took extreme care to avoid tumbling down the side of the gorge.


The herping gods were smiling down on us and I discovered our first dusky of the day, and the only Allegheny Mountain Dusky Salamander we would come across. Much hooting and hollering ensued!

Allegheny Mountain Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus ochrophaeus) - Niagara River gorge, Ontario

Allegheny Mountain Dusky Salamanders are daintier and less robust than Northern Dusky Salamanders, while also exhibiting a tail that is rounded in cross-section (versus the keeled tail of Northern Dusky Salamanders). Allegheny Mountain Dusky Salamanders often have a light stripe down their back, usually with dark chevrons that run parallel to each other down the stripe. Like most dusky salamanders, this species is quite variable - for instance, the individual we found did not show the chevrons down the back.

Allegheny Mountain Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus ochrophaeus) - Niagara River gorge, Ontario

We were ecstatic and could have kept searching, but the day was young and we still wanted to put in a solid search for Northern Dusky Salamanders. Additionally, the total amount of habitat occupied by the Allegheny Mountain Dusky Salamanders here is quite small, and we wanted to reduce any impacts caused by us. We methodically made our way back to where we parked, taking care to disrupt the habitat as little as possible.

I had not quite pinpointed the location that the Northern Dusky Salamanders can be found, just a general area, but we got to work. We noticed this young Northern Watersnake while exploring the Niagara River gorge - the first one I have ever seen here. It was in the deep forest near a small stream trickling down the escarpment, which is not where I would have expected to see one.

Northern Watersnake - Niagara River gorge, Ontario

I don't want to give too many details for fear of giving out the exact location, but again luck was on our side and Dan discovered a Northern Dusky Salamander after we had been searching for a good few hours. Again, much mayhem ensued along with quite a few high fives. We couldn't believe it that we had now both seen every herp in Ontario!

Northern Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus fuscus) - Niagara River gorge, Ontario

As is typical for the species, this Northern Dusky Salamanders is a heftier animal, compared to the Allegheny Mountain Dusky Salamander from earlier in this post. It is also much drabber in colouration and shows that distinctive keeled tail.

Northern Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus fuscus) - Niagara River gorge, Ontario

Once we were in the right habitat the salamanders were not hard to find and we quickly found four more. Astonishingly, three of these were females with nests of eggs!

Northern Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus fuscus) with eggs - Niagara River gorge, Ontario


It is not uncommon for Northern Dusky Salamander females to guard their eggs, much like many other species of lungless salamanders. We took care not to disturb these salamanders, quickly taking a few photos and then letting them be.

Northern Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus fuscus) with eggs - Niagara River gorge, Ontario

Northern Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus fuscus) with eggs - Niagara River gorge, Ontario


These eggs are relatively young but the developing larvae are visible in the photo below (this nest was the most advanced nest of the three).After several weeks the eggs will hatch into aquatic larvae which inhabit eddies and quieter sections of the stream. The aquatic larvae take anywhere from a few weeks to eight months to transfer into the adult form.

Northern Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus fuscus) eggs - Niagara River gorge, Ontario

Northern Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus fuscus) with eggs - Niagara River gorge, Ontario

Dan and I were thrilled with our successful day, and to finally finish off our herp lists in Ontario, as it was a long time coming. While there may be no more new species for us in the province I still have many goals with my herping endeavors. Below are a few of the things that I would like to still see in the province:

-Boreal Chorus Frogs: I have heard them several times and seen one in Northern Ontario but it is not a species I have seen well and is the only herp I have not photographed
-the southwestern Ontario population of Gray Ratsnake
-finding more Small-mouthed Salamanders on Pelee Island that appear to be "pure" individuals
-exploring some rivers in northern Ontario that I suspect have Wood Turtles
-finding a Massassauga in Niagara Region, where they are still hanging on
-observing those really cool Wood Frogs in the far northern reaches of the province that exhibit a light stripe down their back and more extensive patterning
-locating more populations of Pickerel Frogs

Sunday, 1 July 2018

A few hours at Luther

Last Wednesday I had some early morning breeding bird surveys planned for a site near Southampton, while later that evening I was scheduled to complete some frog call surveys near Pickering. Finishing up early at my Southampton site I decided to spend a few hours in the middle of the day exploring Luther Marsh, located west of Orangeville and split between Wellington and Dufferin counties. Unfortunately heavy cloud cover and frequent rain was scheduled across most of southern Ontario for the entire day but I wasn't about to let that dampen my spirits!

Water Smartweed - Luther Marsh

My main goal was to find Butler's Gartersnake, a species that is apparently reasonably common around Luther Marsh but which I had never encountered in previous visits there. This Endangered species is only found in a handful of locales in Ontario. Having spent two summers radio-tracking and studying the species down in Windsor, it is one that I have a particular fondness for. It had always been a goal of mine to see some of the Luther individuals.

Long story short I wasn't able to turn up any Butler's Gartersnakes during my few hours there, but I blame that mostly on the weather. Heavy overcast with threatening rain is not the best conditions to be finding snakes out and about. Now if I could find some cover objects like tin or particle board, the search would likely have been much more fruitful.

Here's a photo of one of our study animals from the Windsor population, circa 2011.

Butler's Gartersnake - Essex County, Ontario (July 20, 2011)

One of the first non-avian species I noticed upon my arrival at Luther Marsh was a female Midland Painted Turtle, looking for a suitable location to dig a hole and lay her eggs. She was scratching around in the hard-packed mud and gravel at the edge of the parking lot, but when I returned an hour later she had vacated the spot. Evidently the ground here was not ideal. 

Midland Painted Turtle - Luther Marsh

Despite the dreary day there were lots of things to look at. All the typical breeding birds were singing, an American Bittern boomed off in the distance, a smattering of frog called emanated from the wetlands, and a variety of insects could easily be found in the grasses. Quite a few damselflies were present. My ID skills aren't up to par to identify bluets with confidence so I will leave these ones unidentified for now. 

Bluet sp. - Luther Marsh

Bluet sp. - Luther Marsh

Bluet sp. - Luther Marsh

A little easier to identify were these Sedge Sprites, their iridescent bodies glowing in the muted light. 

Sedge Sprite - Luther Marsh

Sedge Sprite - Luther Marsh

Walking through the long grasses and forbs would instigate a number of damselflies and moths to flit ahead of my footsteps. This one is a Watermilfoil Leafcutter Moth, which feeds on a number of aquatic plants including various pondweeds and water lilies. 

Watermilfoil Leafcutter Moth - Luther Marsh

A few Melanoplus grasshoppers were in the low grasses. They are difficult to identify at this stage!

Melanoplus sp. - Luther Marsh

Northern Leopard Frogs would occasionally shoot out of the grass just ahead of where I was going to step, which can occasionally be a little startling! 

Northern Leopard Frog - Luther Marsh

One of the main draws that Luther Marsh has to me is its large population of Mink Frogs. This is one of the furthest south locales for the species. Luther Marsh provides the perfect setting for Mink Frogs as the wetlands can have the appearance of bogs and marshes from much further north. 

Most of the wetlands that make up the complex around Luther Marsh have Mink Frogs but there are a few spots where I have found them to be exceedingly abundant. I went to my go-to Mink Frog Photography Location and had some fun photographing this variable species.

Mink Frog - Luther Marsh

Mink Frog - Luther Marsh

Mink Frogs are probably my favourite frog in Ontario for reasons I can't exactly pin down. Maybe it is because they are restricted to large wetlands in the boreal forest (generally), so they always seemed so far away when I was a herp-obsessed youth living in southern Ontario. However as I have gotten older and spent more and more time in the boreal it is apparent that Mink Frogs are quite common in large wetlands. Their chuckling calls are frequently heard at this time of year at most of my study sites in central Ontario. 

Mink Frog - Luther Marsh

Mink Frogs superficially resemble both Green Frog and American Bullfrog, two common species in most of Ontario. There are a handful of ways to tell them apart, however. The most obvious is the erratic patterning of dark spots and blotches on a lighter background that extends from the back down onto the lower limbs. Green Frogs and American Bullfrogs usually show dark striping that wraps around the legs; they rarely show erratic splotches on their legs. Another key ID feature is the prominence of the two dorsolateral folds, each fold beginning near the top of the tympanum and running down the back. Green Frogs have thick, obvious dorsolateral folds, while American Bullfrogs lack them entirely. Mink Frogs have less prominent dorsolateral folds, appearing intermediate between the two species. While there are other field marks to identify Mink Frogs, the above two are easy to see and very reliable. 

Mink Frog - Luther Marsh

This individual looked much different not that long ago, as it has only recently made the transition from tadpole to frog. The remains of its tail are still visible.

Mink Frog - Luther Marsh

While the sun did not come out during my visit, at least the rain passed to the north and south and I stayed dry. Just as I was getting ready to leave the marsh the sun almost came out, prompting a few butterflies to take to the wing. 

Common Ringlet - Luther Marsh

Northern Crescent - Luther Marsh

Silvery Blue - Luther Marsh