Monday 29 July 2013

An Essex County rattlesnake

A quick post tonight...

Back on July 21 of this year, I was fortunate to have a friend take me to one of the last remaining locations for Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnakes in Essex County, Ontario. It is quite possible that less than 30 of these gorgeous animals exist in the wild. Fortunately, a small team of researchers is keeping close tabs on some of the animals with a mark recapture study, but it still seems likely that this population is doomed. It really is quite a shame.

Eastern Massasauga - July 21, 2013

Unlike the Massasaugas further north in Ontario, these prairie ones look quite different. The Georgian Bay and Bruce Peninsula animals have noticeably larger heads, while these prairie 'saugas (of which I have seen 3) have tiny heads compared to their fat bodies. I'm curious what the selection pressure would be to influence this kind of natural related, perhaps? Are these prairie 'saugas taking down snakes?

Here are a few photos of Georgian Bay and Bruce Peninsula 'saugas for comparison.

Sunday 28 July 2013

Point Pelee - July 20, 2013

After my deerfly-ridden adventure at the Couture Dyke, I headed into the park for the rest of the afternoon. It was a hot and sunny day and bird song was almost non-existent. Compared to the rush of spring migration in April, May, and early June; with 100+ migrant species in the park on the best days; the summer months at Pelee are relatively slow. Thirty-seven species of warblers pass through Point Pelee annually, yet in the summer, the only regular species are Yellow Warbler, American Restart, and Common Yellowthroat.
Some species are more common here in the southern reaches of Ontario than elsewhere in the province - things like Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Orchard Oriole,  andYellow-billed Cuckoo. In some years, Yellow-breasted Chat and Prothonotary Warbler nest here as well. As I slowly drove down the park road towards the tip, I heard an Eastern Towhee singing. I had no idea they bred here.

On this visit, the first stirrings of fall migration were already underway. Yellow Warblers were stacking up in the south end of the park - they are one of the early migrant warblers. Orioles were also present in large numbers, and it won't be long until the last Orchard Oriole vacates the province.

Arriving at the Visitor's Centre, I walked down the west beach footpath where I turned my attention to butterflies. To say last summer was fantastic for butterflies would surely be an understatement. I recall one weekend where I was able to see Fiery Skipper (50+), White-M Hairstreak (3), Gray Hairstreak (including 57 in one day), Sachem (5), Horace's Duskywing, American Snout, Common Checkered-skipper (50+), Common Buckeye (abundant),  Dainty Sulfur (10+), and others in a good day or two of butterflying. However, this year's relatively late spring and wet summer had stunted the flight of these migrants and apart from a single Common Buckeye, I did not notice any of the above. Instead, I focused on the resident butterflies. I was very happy to have a little photo-shoot with a Hackberry Emperor, though it was made a little difficult since it kept landing on me.

At one point, I was chasing a butterfly when a grouse-like bird flushed from the path! It was a baby Wild Turkey, the first I have seen I believe. Kinda ugly....

The day was growing uncomfortably hot inside the park. With the birdsong almost nonexistent and butterflies quite scarce, I made my way out of the park. One stop I made was Towle harbour, where a conglomeration of terns and gulls were present. I carefully scanned the 16+ Black, 50+ Forster's, and 1 Common Tern for anything unusual but came up empty. The adult Great Black-backed Gull with a broken wing was still hanging on.

From here I headed to Windsor to spend the night. The next post will cover the butterflying we did in Ojibway Prairie.

Tuesday 23 July 2013

Hillman Marsh - July 20, 2013

One of my first stops once I was in the Pelee area was to check out the Couture Dyke at Hillman Marsh. This is a favorite trail of mine since it is rarely checked and has potential for rare birds. It is also a good spot for some butterflies that are uncommon or absent at Point Pelee National Park, such as Bronze Copper.

It took a bit of effort, but eventually I was able to find a few Bronze Coppers flying low to the ground and stopping occasionally. One of my favorite butterflies for sure!

A young snapping turtle was crossing the path as quickly as its little legs could carry it. It is an age class that I don't often see. With many turtle populations, only occasional individuals will survive to adulthood. Once they are a few years old however, a large percentage of them survive each year and its not uncommon for a turtle to live for decades, or even 100 years or more. Turtle populations often include many adult turtles, a good number of turtles under 1 year old, and few individuals that are in between.

I placed it in some shallow water and it calmly sat there while I took a few photos. Eventually it turned around and continued on its way.

Least Skipper, the smallest Ontario skipper, was flying in good numbers. I was finally able to get my first good photos of this species. They are easy to identify as they are tiny, have broad wings, and fly weakly through the vegetation. Their wings have a thick brown edge posteriorly, a distinct characteristic.

An Osprey kept watch over the marsh...

This butterfly is probably best identified as crescent sp. Both Northern and Pearl Crescents occur and females aren't safely identified in the field.

As I reached the southeast corner of the dyke, madly swatting deerflies (I was up over 100 killed at this point) I noticed a skipper that I had never seen before on a clump of common milkweed - a Broad-winged! They are supposedly pretty common in a lot of marshy areas containing phragmites and/or Carex sedges, but I have just never been in the right habitat at the right time of year, I guess.

Just yesterday actually, while doing some botany surveys near Hamilton, I came across 50+ Broad-winged Skippers on the site. They loved the open areas that contained swamp milkweed. Here is another photo of the Couture Dyke skipper.

Not surprisingly, Eastern Pondhawks were one of the more common dragons.

Nom nom nom...

Sunday 21 July 2013

Weekend at Pelee/Windsor

This weekend I spent at Point Pelee and various other locations in Essex County. The main goal of the weekend was the Saturday night party in Windsor hosted by Steve Marks, a good friend of mine who I worked with in Windsor for two summers doing radio telemetry with Butler's Gartersnakes and Eastern Foxsnakes. Several other good friends from the Windsor area were there too (Steve Pike, Sarah and Tom Preney, Russ + Lisa Jones, Chris Law, Pauline Catling, Jeremy Bensette, Kory Renaud, etc) and it was definitely a good time. The rest of the weekend was spent looking for herps and insects, mostly.

It was a fantastic weekend, with many highlights. I looked at a lot of butterflies and finally added a few "nemesis" species to my life list. They were:

Broad-winged Skipper
Duke's Skipper
American Copper
Edward's Hairstreak
Coral Hairstreak
Acadian Hairstreak

I also saw one of the few remaining Essex County Eastern Massasaugas. Due to concerns related to poaching (the population is extremely threatened with perhaps only a few dozen animals remaining), I can't give any details other than "Essex County", so please don't ask. But I might post a photo...

I'll post lots of photos in the upcoming days (took about 1000 on the trip). In the meantime, here is a photo of a teenager Common Snapping Turtle that I found at the Couture Dyke near Point Pelee on the Saturday.
This is a photo that I have envisioned for quite some time (though I've often thought of capturing an aquatic snake in this way). Fortunately, the Snapping Turtle was content sitting in the pool of warm water while I crawled on my belly to get the shot. I used my 300 f/4 lens with a 1.4x teleconverter, essentially giving me 420 mm of focal length with a minimum focusing distance of about 5 feet. It was pretty much the perfect combo for this particular photo.

Thursday 18 July 2013

Just a couple of leps...

Leps = shoreform for Lepidoptera, the order containing butterflies and moths.

The last few weeks have been a little slow for me from a birding standpoint. From mid-May to early July I was working out in the field nearly every day, predominately completing breeding bird surveys throughout the province. Unfortunately though, the birds don't breed year round and so all of that fun work is over for another year. Lately I have been cooped up in the office writing reports and the like. This is a big change from the previous few summers, which I spent almost entirely outside!

But as much as I would love to spend every single day of the year outside looking at things, a bit of a break from birding is kind of nice. I find that every year, I really start to get sick of birding around the end of June/early July. The spring migration starts with a trickle in late January, climaxing in May with a flood of neotropical migrants. All very exciting stuff! After that it is the breeding bird season, where it is easy to get 100 species of birds in a day without moving too much effort. Everything is singing! But all that birding tends to burn me out in the summer. Birds are busy rearing babies and hard to find this time of year. Rarities are practically non-existent. The only migrants this time of year are a few southbound passerines like Least Flycatcher, Tennessee Warbler, and Swainson's Thrush (boring) as well as the first few shorebirds (Least Sandpiper, yellowlegs, etc). The days are hot. The mosquitoes are still out in full force. It usually isn't til mid September or so that I really get excited to go birding again. But until then, things like dragonflies and butterflies are interesting to look at!

The other day I was completing my last breeding bird survey of the season in Toronto. The sun had just come out after an overcast morning, and in about 20 minutes I quickly identified about 15 species of butterflies.

Cabbage Whites are one of the most familiar butterflies to most Ontario residents. They are common EVERYWHERE it seems.

Skippers seemed to be theme of the day. I recall seeing Dun, Hobomok, European, Tawny-edged, N. Broken-dash, Silver-spotted, and a few more.

I believe this may be a fresh Dun Skipper. Both Dun and Northern Broken-dash were flying around in decent numbers and they can be very tough to tell apart.

Another skipper that I probably identified in the field, but now looking at one photo I am having a tough time with.

Ebony Jewelwings are an abundant damselfly that I was quite familiar with long before I began to be interested in insects. It is just one of those species that seems to be common, especially it seems in sunlit patches of woodlands and near waterways. I came across a somewhat predictable individual that kept returning to the same few perches and eventually I was able to get the photos I wanted, despite the harsh light. Both of these are pretty much straight out of the camera.

Monday 15 July 2013


I photographed the odd dragonfly here and there in northern Ontario as well. My dragonfly knowledge is close to zero, but I've been putting in about an hour per month of practice, so I should be an expert on Ontario dragonflies in about 200 years.

Feel free to correct me where I made ID mistakes! I still do not have a net or a really good dragonfly guide (I just have Dragonflies Through Binoculars), so that is my excuse.

The closest I can come up for this is a female Frosted Whiteface. Correction: It may be a Hudsonian Whiteface.

An easy one! Common Whitetail.

Horned Clubtail? Or Beaverpond Clubtail? Correction:

The first clubtail is a Horned Clubtail, and the next two are probably both Beaverpond Clubtails.

This huge dragonfly was chasing away other insects from the mouth of the creek he was patrolling. This is a Delta-spotted Spiketail.

And for a change of pace, an American Toad that was sitting on this log in the middle of the path. Luckily I looked down just in time! This was taken with my work phone.

Sunday 14 July 2013

Insects in the north

July can be a slow time for birds. With the exception of a few shorebirds and some warblers/flycatchers, almost no migration is happening. Most species have stopped vocalizing as they are busy rearing their young. After the rush of spring migration followed by a few months of fieldwork I am usually pretty sick of birds by July! Fortunately, mid summer is the best time for insects, so that is what I have been turning my attention to lately. This post will cover some of the butterflies that I photographed up north in late June.

On some of the sites we were surveying, Silvery Checkerspots outnumbered the (usually abundant) Northern Crescent.

Silvery Checkerspot - Timmins, ON

Near our Timmins site I finally photographed a Dreamy Duskywing.

Dreamy Duskywing - Timmins, ON

Hobomok Skippers are unique in that they have a fairly rare dark form, called the "pocahontas" form. Near Sudbury I found a big patch of Hobos that contained this "pocahontas" individual.

"pocahontas" form Hobomok Skipper - Sudbury, ON

"pocahontas" form Hobomok Skipper - Sudbury, ON

This is what a "normal" Hobomok Skipper looks like.

Hobomok Skipper - Sudbury, ON

I finally saw my first ever Harris's Checkerspot on the Sudbury site as well. This species can be difficult to tell apart from a Silvery Checkerspot, though they usually are darker and the submarginal spots on the hindwing often touches the black border. They are much easier to ID when you can see the underside of the wings.

Harris's Checkerspot - Sudbury, ON

European Skippers, while abundant over much of their range, are often quite photogenic. I lucked out with this individual and managed a couple of photos which I am pleased with. First, here is one nectaring on some Orange Hawkweed. Both the nectarer and nectaree are native to Europe, though both have been introduced in North America and are widespread..

European Skipper - Sudbury, ON

I'm really happy with the following photo. When photographing it, I noticed the darker patch in the vegetation behind it. I lined up the butterfly so that it was centered in the dark patch, surrounded by the lighter green grass.

European Skipper - Sudbury, ON

Friday 12 July 2013

Cute baby turtle photos.

Who doesn't like baby turtles? They are pretty damn cute, and I would wager that if you don't agree with me, you probably have no soul or something.

Way back on June 26th I was photographing dragonflies along the edge of a wetland near Mattawa. This bad-ass black and yellow dragonfly caught my eye (it ended up being a Dragonhunter), and as I was watching it chase after other dragonflies and trying to photograph it, the glint of a turtle shell made me look twice at the pile of sticks and debris along the edge of the stream connecting two larger wetlands.

It was a yearling Painted Turtle.

Midland Painted Turtle - Mattawa, ON (June 26, 2013)

Midland Painted Turtle - Mattawa, ON (June 26, 2013)

Turtles have very low recruitment rates mainly due to high nest predation. Dozens of eggs are laid each season by gravid females, yet some turtles will go their entire lives without producing any offspring. It's always a nice sign to see a baby turtle, even if it is a Painted Turtle, the only non Species at Risk turtle in Ontario.

Midland Painted Turtle - Mattawa, ON (June 26, 2013)

Monday 8 July 2013

Southern Ontario shenanigans for Canada Day (part 4: Turtles)

On the last day of the long weekend I met up with Pauline Catling to help her with some turtle wrangling. She is working for the summer on both an Eastern Foxsnake telemetry project, as well as a nesting turtle project. The location where she is working from has nearly 100% nest predation (mostly raccoons and skunks), so they are collecting eggs from nesting turtles and artificially incubating them. Unfortunately the day was cool and rainy - not ideal conditions for most of the species. However, the rain kept the tourists off the beach which was a plus!

While we were walking, I kept an eye on the various flocks of gulls. One flock contained this Lesser Black-backed Gull which is either a 2nd cycle or 3rd cycle.

Lesser Black-backed Gull - July 1, 2013

Lesser Black-backed Gull - July 1, 2013

Turtles were nowhere to be seen but luckily a few snakes were oot and aboot. I stumbled upon a 750 gram Eastern Foxsnake out cruising around (it was pushing 5 feet in length). I must admit it was pretty exciting seeing it stretched out in the dunes. This was the best photo I could manage as he didn't want to sit still for long.

Eastern Foxsnake - July 1, 2013

The first few autumn migrants, 2 Lesser Yellowlegs and a Least Sandpiper, were along the water's edge. Now that fall migrants are showing up and the days are getting shorter, it is only a matter of time until the snow is flying!

Lesser Yellowlegs - July 1, 2013

Around mid afternoon we finally came across a turtle on the beach to lay her eggs. She was a massive Common Map Turtle, and she had a scar from what appears to be a boat propeler. It looks to be a fairly recent injury, though it was healing. She ended up being the only turtle of the day.

Common Map Turtle - July 1, 2013

Map turtles in general show strong sexual dimorphism, with the females being significantly larger than the males. In Common Map Turtles, adult females top out at 11 inches in carapace length, while males top out at around 6 inches.  Females have large powerful jaws; perfect for crushing molluscs and crayfish. Males on the other hand usually consume aquatic insects and smaller crustaceans.

Common Map Turtle - July 1, 2013

It was a pretty successful weekend overall with a lot of great sightings and slightly better weather than what I was expecting. I certainly miss living in southwestern Ontario where I was just "around the corner" from all of these great places.