Friday, 22 June 2018

Wood Turtles and other spring herps

Earlier this spring I was fortunate to finally come across my first wild Ontario Wood Turtles with a good friend. Wood Turtles are one of the most imperiled reptile species in Ontario and as a result any hints as to their whereabouts are closely guarded. For fear of giving out too much information, I can't provide any other details about this Endangered species. I will however post some photos.

We discovered two Wood Turtles in a few hours of searching. The first was this adult female, just a gorgeous individual!

Wood Turtle - Ontario

Wood Turtles are a long-lived species that may not reproduce for the first time until they are a dozen or more years of age. Egg predation can be quite high, especially in areas where Raccoons, Red Foxes, Striped Skunks, Coyotes, or Common Ravens are particularly abundant, and it is not uncommon for over 80% of nests to be completed predated (and in some areas, nearly 100% predation has been reported). Young turtles are also susceptible to a wide range of potential predators, and even adults are not safe since their plastron (bottom shell) is unhinged, making it impossible for turtles to completely protect themselves inside their shells. Because of these factors Wood Turtle populations hang in a delicate balance, fine-tuned through natural selection in conjunction with their environment over thousands of years. A slight change in the rate of egg predation, or the loss of a few mature turtles due to road mortality can be enough to send a local population downhill quickly, eventually leading to local extirpation.

Wood Turtle - Ontario

This was not my first time observing Wood Turtles. During the summer of 2011 I spent a weekend with a friend in Michigan. Undoubtedly, the highlight of the weekend for myself was kayaking down a beautiful river in the northwestern part of the Lower Peninsula, spotting two separate Wood Turtles basking on logs at the edge of the river. Both those encounters were brief however, as the turtles quietly slipped in the water shortly after being detected.
Wood Turtle - Ontario

Finally discovering Wood Turtles in Ontario was pretty gratifying for me for several reasons. As a reptile-obsessed kid and teenager, I spent many hours poring through my various field guides, longing for the day when I would finally cross paths with a Wood Turtle in Ontario, along with all the other fascinating species depicted in these guides. Nearly fifteen years later, I had finally encountered this species in the wild in my home province. The Wood Turtle was my 24th and final species of native reptile that I have now observed in Ontario. Of our 47 native herp species, just two salamander species lurk in the wilderness that I have not yet observed. Hopefully I will be able to complete my Ontario herp list later this year if I can luck into finding Northern Dusky Salamander and Allegheny Mountain Dusky Salamander, both of which are found locally here in Niagara. 

The second Wood Turtle on the day was this young individual, basking near the edge of the stream. Given the turtle's size, he was probably between 2 and 4 years in age, a life stage that I don't see very often in turtles.

Wood Turtle - Ontario

Wood Turtle - Ontario

Speaking of reptiles, I have seen a few other species here and there in my travels. June has been a very busy month for me as I have journeyed all over southern Ontario, ostensibly to complete breeding bird surveys and other wildlife inventories for my job, but with a heavy dose of birding, butterflying, botanizing and herping thrown in here and there. A week or so ago, I was traveling south from Parry Sound with a coworker after completing some surveys. We were not far from one of my favorite locations to find Eastern Massassaugas so a brief detour was in order.

Given that we only had an hour to search and it was an overcast day, I was not terribly surprised that we did not find a buzztail. We did see a few other herps here and there including two Eastern Milksnakes, two Five-lined Skinks and a Northern Ringneck Snake.

Eastern Milksnake - Muskoka District, Ontario

Eastern Milksnake - Muskoka District, Ontario

Eastern Milksnake - Muskoka District, Ontario

Five-lined Skink - Muskoka District, Ontario

Northern Ringneck Snake - Muskoka District, Ontario

As we were about to leave, the sun briefly broke through the clouds, causing a few butterflies to take to the wing. I was pleased to encounter my first Indian Skippers of the year.

Indian Skipper - Muskoka District, Ontario

Indian Skipper - Muskoka District, Ontario

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Better late than never - Point Pelee: April 27-30, 2018

In early April, Todd Hagedorn and I decided that we would head southwest during the last weekend of April. Originally we were thinking of heading over to Pelee Island. Primarily this was because I was hoping to do some serious herping - it had been almost 10 years since I had last seen a Blue Racer or Smallmouth Salamander in Ontario - but also because far fewer birders visit Pelee Island compared to Point Pelee National Park. Unfortunately just one ferry was in service for the last weekend of April, and it was fully booked, forcing Todd and I to figure out other plans. It really did not matter in the end since the cold temperatures that persisted for most of the weekend would have put an end to productive herping on Pelee Island anyways. Still eager to see some spring migrants, we booked a campsite at Wheatley and headed down to Point Pelee for the weekend.

Todd had to work all day on Friday and I had some work that tied me up for the morning. Before meeting Todd at our carpool spot in Woodstock I made a quick trip to the end of the Port Weller pier and back. Late April is prime migration time and you never know what could be at the end of the pier!

While landbird migrants were a bit thin during my early afternoon visit, a Snowy Owl was a nice surprise, roosting in some trees along the rocky pier. With the huge numbers of Snowy Owls that moved south over the winter I was seeing migrant Snowy Owls on pretty much half my visits to Port Weller in March and April.

Snowy Owl - Port Weller east pier, St. Catharines, Ontario

Snowy Owl - Port Weller east pier, St. Catharines, Ontario

I enjoyed watching my first of the year Pine Warbler - a bright male - and I also photographed one of the local Cooper's Hawks before it was time to hit the road.

Cooper's Hawk - Port Weller east pier, St. Catharines, Ontario

Todd and I made good time on the drive down, allowing us the opportunity to check in at the Ridgetown and Blenheim lagoons, as well as at Wheatley harbour. A large flock of Willets had been discovered there earlier in the day along with a single Marbled Godwit. It was late in the evening when we arrived but the Willets were still on the beach, 56 of them to be exact. The MAGO was nowhere to be seen, however.

Willets - Wheatley Harbour, Chatham-Kent, Ontario

We checked Hillman Marsh next, where despite the cold temperatures we discovered a pair of Blanding's Turtles mating in the shallows of the shorebird cell. Due to the cold temperatures they were quite slow, even for turtle standards!

We drove over to the campground at Wheatley to pay the ridiculously expensive camping fees (almost 50$ a night with taxes!), and used the last remaining minutes of twilight to setup our tents and settle in for the evening. A pair of dueting Great Horned Owls ushered us off to sleep.

The air cooled near to the freezing mark overnight, leaving a thin layer of frost on our tents. We checked Wheatley harbour first, where not a shorebird was in sight, then drove towards the park. A stop at the Mersea Road 21 fields was productive as a small flock of migrant songbirds was working the woodlot at the south end. Ruby-crowned Kinglets and White-throated Sparrows comprised the bulk of the birds, but we also saw Pine, Palm and Yellow-rumped Warbler and a Hermit Thrush.

Hermit Thrush - Point Pelee National Park, Ontario

Despite the cold temperatures migrants had evidently arrived; especially kinglets and Hermit Thrushes. We birded with Steve Pike for part of the day, and on our own for the rest. Heavy rain in recent days had flooded portions of the park and the sloughs were filled to the brim.

Slough in Tilden's Woods - Point Pelee National Park, Ontario

Birding the Woodland Nature Trail - Point Pelee National Park, Ontario

A group of birders were milling around near the Tip where there was apparently a Piping Plover that had been present. It must have flown off the tip seconds before Todd and I arrived. We received the classic "It was just here a minute ago!" responses, but the bird was gone. At least it was not a Snowy Plover or I would have actually been a little upset!

We saw our first Orange-crowned Warbler by the Tip Washrooms and our first Black-and-white Warbler, a sharp male, at the north end of the Visitor Centre's parking lot. Ah, spring!

Black-and-white Warbler - Point Pelee National Park, Ontario

Our pishing which had attracted the Black-and-white Warbler had also excited several Ruby-crowned Kinglets. This one paused just long enough for me to obtain a sharp photo, not always an easy feat with this species.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet - Point Pelee National Park, Ontario

As afternoon turned to evening Todd and I left the park to slowly make our way back to Wheatley. The sun had finally broken through the clouds by the time we had arrived at the Hillman Marsh shorebird cell. The birding was quite productive and in 75 minutes we had scored 54 species, compared to 57 in 10 hours of walking in the National Park earlier in the day.

Horned Grebe - Hillman Marsh Conservation Area, Essex County, Ontario

A large flock of plovers was crouched with all the Dunlins in the shorebird cell, of which 39 we identified as American Golden-Plover. Eventually an adult Peregrine Falcon cruised over, sending everything into a frenzy and causing the plovers to fly right over our heads.

American Golden-Plovers - Hillman Marsh Conservation Area, Essex County, Ontario

The bird of the day occurred a few minutes later as we were walking back to the cars, taking the scenic route near the little boardwalk north of the shorebird cell. Todd casually called out that a Common Gallinule was working the edge of the marsh. While this species presumably breeds at Hillman and Point Pelee it can be a difficult bird within the Point Pelee birding area. This was only my third ever within the circle, and first in seven years. 

Common Gallinule - Hillman Marsh Conservation Area, Essex County, Ontario

Sunday morning dawned cold with a brisk breeze but at least the sun was shining. A few new migrants had appeared as well, though the woods were still somewhat quiet. 

At the tip the same Orange-crowned Warbler was easily found, this time working the cedar along the central path south of the Tip Washrooms. 

Orange-crowned Warbler - Point Pelee National Park, Ontario

We birded the park until late morning, adding year birds here and there. A Red-headed Woodpecker flew over us near the Tip, while Blue-headed Vireo and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher were also added. 

Tree damage on the east side of the Tip - Point Pelee National Park, Ontairo

With a strong northwest wind blowing Todd and I ventured over to Zion Road near Wheatley for some hawkwatching. This location can be spectacular in the right conditions. Barb Charlton and Ken Burrell were already there when Todd and I arrived, keeping a close eye on the situation. In our two hours of hawk-watching we did not see anything too spectacular. A Broad-winged Hawk, Bald Eagle and five Northern Harriers were nice to see, a few flocks of Black-bellied Plovers went over, and our first Chimney Swift of the year rocketed by. 

Todd and I re-entered the park in mid-afternoon, though we did not discover anything too spectacular. We finished the day with another check of Hillman Marsh. Tons of swallows were flying over a part of the marsh so I tried my hand at swallow photography. Certainly not an easy task and I only had a couple keepers in almost 200 frames. Still lots of room for improvement, too.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow - Hillman Marsh Conservation Area, Essex County, Ontario

Monday was our final morning in the southwest of the province. We headed back into the park but seeing as I did not even bother making an eBird checklist, I am assuming we did not see much! We did have an enjoyable walk along the Marsh Boardwalk where we tried our hand at fish identification as there were quite a few species in the shallows near the boardwalk. I also quickly snapped this photogenic Killdeer at some point. 

Killdeer - Point Pelee National Park, Ontario

We made one more stop at Hillman Marsh Conservation Area where we picked up our first Least Sandpiper of the year among the shorebirds, as well as the two continuing Trumpeter Swans. Following that we stopped in at one of the fish wholesalers near Wheatley to pick up some fresh Yellow Perch, then hit the road to head back home and to reality. My first spring weekend at Point Pelee had come and gone. 

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Quick weekend jaunt to Algonquin

Last weekend, Dan Riley and I explored some parts of Algonquin Provincial Park. We both had early morning breeding bird surveys scheduled on Friday - Dan in Goderich, myself in North Bay - and we planned on meeting in Huntsville sometime in the early afternoon to begin our weekend. With both of us having work commitments on the following Monday it would be a quick and dirty trip, exploring several interesting areas of Algonquin Provincial Park.

One of our main targets for the weekend was to find a Northern Two-lined Salamander. While widespread throughout the southern Canadian Shield portions of Ontario, they are not always easy to find, and it was a species that Dan had never seen in the province. We checked out a location near Bat Lake on Friday afternoon and easily turned up a couple individuals in a small tributary that flowed into a larger creek.

Northern Two-lined Salamander - Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario

Northern Two-lined Salamander - Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario

Later in the day I noticed this moose not far off the road, munching on the cattail tubers. Swamp donkeys are always fun to come across, especially when they stick around for photos. 

Moose - Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario

A brief stop at a roadside wetland on the east side of Algonquin produced a dozen species of singing birds, along with many Gray Treefrogs and Mink Frogs. The chuckling of Mink Frogs is one of my favourite summer sounds in the boreal forest. 

Mink Frog - Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario

For the next two evenings, we fell asleep to the yodels of Common Loons and the repetitive but soothing calls of distant Eastern Whip-poor-wills at the Achray Campground in the eastern part of Algonquin. We absolutely loved our time here and highly recommend the Achray campground! It was peaceful and quiet, other than the incessant buzzing of mosquitoes in the evenings. Fortunately we came well prepared and put our bug jackets to good use. 

One of the reasons we decided to visit the east side of Algonquin was that the calendar said that it was early June in an even-numbered year. You may ask why would the year have any bearing on what we would see?  The answer of course is that certain species of butterflies take two years to complete their life cycle and as a result, adults only fly every other year. Macoun's Arctic is one such species, with different populations flying during either odd or even numbered years. Found discontinuously throughout the central Canadian boreal forest/taiga, one of the most accessible populations for southern Ontario butterfly watchers is the Jack Pine stands in the eastern part of Algonquin. In Algonquin, much like the rest of their Ontario range, Macoun's Arctic is an even-year flier. It was a species neither Dan nor I had ever seen before. Early June is prime time to find Macoun's Arctic and we hoped that if we walked the edges of suitable Jack Pine forest, their preferred habitat, we would turn some up. 

It took a bit of time but we were successful, scaring up two Macoun's Arctics on Saturday. Ontario's largest arctic, Macoun's looks somewhat like a fritillary or an overly large crescent in flight, due to the excessive orange on the top surface of the wings. Both individuals that we discovered were hard to approach closely, but we did have great views and managed some documentation-style photos where they had their wings closed, hiding the orange.

Macoun's Arctic - Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario

Macoun's Arctic - Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario

Macoun's Arctic - Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario

While wandering the Jack Pine forests the most frequently encountered butterfly was the Eastern Pine Elfin. Their flight season is starting to wind down, and many individuals were quite worn, but some were a little fresher looking.

Eastern Pine Elfin - Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario

I enjoyed watching them as we walked, as previously I had only observed Eastern Pine Elfin once, at Sandy Lake Road in Peterborough County a few weeks ago. Considering how common they appear to be in suitable habitat along the Canadian Shield, I really am surprised how I never encountered them before. Of course now that I have their "search image" burned in my brain I won't be missing so many of them in the future (I hope!).

Eastern Pine Elfin - Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario

Eastern Pine Elfin - Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario

This elfin was worn enough that identifying it was a little bit more difficult. It may be a Hoary Elfin, but I'm not sure.

Elfin sp. - Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario

This Gray Hairstreak was a nice surprise along the Barron Canyon Road. Previously the only Gray Hairstreaks I had seen in the province were migrants in Essex County (including over 60 in a day!), but I had never seen the resident population in eastern Ontario before.

Gray Hairstreak - Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario

Dragonflies and dragonflies were frequently seen and it made me wish I had brought a net along! This is a Twin-spotted Spiketail, while the next is a female Hudsonian Whiteface.

Twin-spotted Spiketail - Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario

Twin-spotted Spiketail - Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario

Hudsonian Whiteface - Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario

On the Sunday most of the day was eaten up by the long drive home, but we did make a few stops along the way. The first was a location where Kirtland's Warblers have bred in the past, though we were unable to turn any up this time. Given the amount of suitable habitat it is conceivable that they could be present elsewhere in the general vicinity. 

While searching for the Kirtland's Warblers we kept getting distracted by insects. Eastern Pine Elfins of course were easily found, while we also stopped to photograph a Silver-bordered Fritillary, Dreamy and Juvenal's Duskywings and a variety of dragonflies and moths. 

Baskettail species (Beaverpond?) - Renfrew County, Ontario

Cranberry Spanworm - Renfrew County, Ontario

Silver-bordered Fritillary - Renfrew County, Ontario

Eastern Pine Elfin - Renfrew County, Ontario

Dreamy Duskywing - Renfrew County, Ontario

American Bitterns are well known for their cryptic plumage and behaviour and are rarely seen out in the open. Dan and I simultaneously spotted a funny looking stump in a roadside wetland that we quickly realized was an American Bittern. By the time we had driven down the highway a ways, turned the car around and returned, it had retreated to the relative safety of the vegetation rimming the edges of the wetland. Seeing one like this was a much more familiar look!

American Bittern - Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario

American Bittern - Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario

For a few hours in the afternoon we walked the Arowhon Road rail bed. We were hoping to see a Western Pine Elfin since the species can usually be found here in the spring. Unfortunately we did not have much luck with many butterflies at all, and not one elfin was seen. However we did photograph some of the Oblique-lined Tiger Beetles, a Juvenal's Duskywing, Silvery Blue, and a Wood Frog. We also discovered a pair of Olive-sided Flycatchers and enjoyed watching the pair interacting.

Oblique-lined Tiger Beetle - Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario

Juvenal's Duskywing - Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario

Wood Frog - Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario

Olive-sided Flycatcher - Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario

It was great to get away for a weekend, in a beautiful part of our province. I can't wait to get back out there again.

Marsh Blue Violet - Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario