Monday 25 June 2018


Late spring and summer is a vibrant time of year and full of life. While April and May are mostly all about the birds for me, by the time June rolls around, bird migration is over and all the resident species have settled in to begin nesting. I often divert my focus to feature insects more prominently during the summer.

I have been trying to fill in some of the gaps on my Ontario butterfly list this summer and have been pretty successful in that regard, having brought my list up to an even 100. For some reason I had never encountered an elfin of any kind before, likely because the peak flight time for many of the species (May and early June) is when I am busy looking for birds at Point Pelee, or beginning breeding bird surveys for work. With some fieldwork scheduled in Havelock, I zipped up to Sandy Lake Road on May 24 and was able to devote about 90 minutes to looking for butterflies before I had to leave to take care of a bunch of work stuff. In those 90 minutes I discovered four species of elfins, all of which were new for me.

Hoary Elfin - Sandy Lake Road, Peterborough County, ON 

Brown Elfin - Sandy Lake Road, Peterborough County, ON 

Henry's Elfin - Sandy Lake Road, Peterborough County, ON

Brown Elfin - Sandy Lake Road, Peterborough County, ON

Eastern Pine Elfin - Sandy Lake Road, Peterborough County, ON

I found a few bird nests while searching for butterflies, including Hermit Thrush, White-throated Sparrow and Black-capped Chickadee. One of the adult chickadees kept a close eye on me.

Black-capped Chickadee - Sandy Lake Road, Peterborough County, ON

Apart from the elfins there were a few other buttefly species that I noted, including Canadian Tiger Swallowtail, Pink-edged Sulphur, Northern Crescent and Lucia Azure.

Lucia Azure - Sandy Lake Road, Peterborough County, ON

Quite a few dragonflies were taking advantage of the hot, sunny day. I was not focused on them this time but did snap a few photos. This one is a female whiteface, I believe Hudsonian Whiteface.

Hudsonian Whiteface - Sandy Lake Road, Peterborough County, ON

A few weeks ago I surveyed a quarry in North Bay for work. In between bird surveys and turtle surveys, I took my camera around and photographed a few things. The biggest highlight of the morning was encountering a crisp Chryxus Arctic, a species I had never seen before.

Chryxus Arctic - North Bay, ON

It was interesting to note how the butterfly would angle its wings up so that the sun was hitting it directly. If this was a trick to render itself less visible than normal it certainly worked, as the butterfly was very difficult to see when it was in this position as it hardly cast a visible shadow.

Chryxus Arctic - North Bay, ON

Chryxus Arctic - North Bay, ON

Arctic Skippers were flying as well, and this one obliged my request for photographs. They are one of my favorite skippers with that awesome patterning on the underside of the hindwing.

Arctic Skipper - North Bay, ON

Several Silvery Blues were flying, including this individual who was cooperative for photos.

Silvery Blue - North Bay, ON

This particular site in North Bay is good for tiger beetles and I have tallied several species here so far: Purple, Bronzed, and Oblique-lined.

Purple Tiger Beetle - North Bay, ON

Bronzed Tiger Beetle - North Bay, ON

Bronzed Tiger Beetle - North Bay, ON

Hudsonian Whiteface - North Bay, ON

Another one of my work sites is Scanlon Creek Conservation Area near Bradford. After completing my bird survey on June 7 I grabbed my camera and went for a nice walk at the conservation area. Several Arctic Skippers were the highlight, along with some photo ops of some common species.

Silvery Blue - Scanlon Creek Conservation Area, Simcoe County, ON

Hobomok Skipper - Scanlon Creek Conservation Area, Simcoe County, ON

Juvenal's Duskywing - Scanlon Creek Conservation Area, Simcoe County, ON

Little Wood-Satyr - Scanlon Creek Conservation Area, Simcoe County, ON

Arctic Skipper - Scanlon Creek Conservation Area, Simcoe County, ON 

Arctic Skipper - Scanlon Creek Conservation Area, Simcoe County, ON

Arctic Skipper - Scanlon Creek Conservation Area, Simcoe County, ON

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.