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!

Tuesday 8 January 2019

Early winter birding in Niagara and beyond

Over the last few weeks I have gone searching for birds on a few occasions. While most excursions have been without a camera, I have snapped a few photos here and there!

Back in early December Richard Poort found a Slaty-backed Gull at Mohawk Lake in Brantford. The bird hung around and was being seen by birders at the lake as well as at the nearby landfill. A few days later a second Slaty-backed Gull made an appearance; some lucky birders even managed to take photos of the two birds near each other. Never one to turn down an opportunity to study a Slaty-backed, I made plans to visit the area with Dan Riley on December 15.

At that time the landfill was letting birders in to look at the gulls, so we signed in at the scale house and proceeded to find the massive gull flock near the active dumping location. We ran into Nathan Miller and enjoyed scoping out the gulls with him. In short order, we had studied a variety of species: Herring, Ring-billed, Great Black-backed, Lesser Black-backed (at least 2), and multiple Glaucous Gulls and Iceland Gulls, including a Thayer's Gull. One of the two Slaty-backed Gulls was present and easy to pick out, partly due to its super broad white tertial crescent (the white feathers between the dark grey mantle, and the black and white wingtips when at rest).

Slaty-backed Gull - Brantford landfill

Slaty-backed Gull is a resident of coastal areas in northeastern Asia. They regularly appear in western Alaska and in recent decades have occasionally been noted elsewhere in North America. Ontario sees its fair share of the species; perhaps due to the numerous, excellent gull-watching locales, but also likely due to the number of keen larophiles (gull-lovers!) that regularly bird in Ontario. Prior to 2018, Ontario had 16 accepted records of Slaty-backed Gull.

Slaty-backed Gull is roughly the same size as Herring Gull but can be easily told from apart from that species by its much darker mantle (back and wing feathers). The mantle shade is similar to Lesser Black-backed Gull and a touch lighter than Great Black-backed Gull. A combination of features is used to distinguish a Slaty-backed Gull from those species as well as from certain hybrid combinations that can look surprisingly similar. Some of the key features of a "good" adult-plumaged Slaty-backed include:

-broad white tertial crescent
-leg colour between flesh-colored and bright pink
-extensive streaking on head and neck, with a concentration of streaks around the eye
-white tips to the outer primary feathers (subterminal spots), which can usually be seen in flight. Note that this feature isn't as obvious as it seems and I have observed several times a birder mistakenly point out the "string of pearls" on a bird they mis-identified as a Slaty-backed

Slaty-backed Gull - Brantford landfill

Following our time at the landfill, Dan and I went our separate ways. Before driving home I dropped in at Sedgewick Forest in Oakville. As is an annual event now, there are usually several warblers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets that attempt to overwinter by the open water of the nearby sewage treatment plant. Over the last few years I have observed ten warbler species at Sedgewick during the month of December. This year, a Hooded Warbler was present, along with two Orange-crowned Warblers, a Nashville Warbler and a Yellow-rumped Warbler. Back in November there had been Pine Warbler, Palm Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Northern Parula and Cape May Warbler there as well, but they were long gone.

Within a few minutes of arrival at Sedgewick, I came across a little party of birds. The Hooded was chipping regularly and flashing its white outer tail feathers, and the other warblers all appeared within a minute or so.

Hooded Warbler - Sedgewick Park, Oakville, Halton Region

One of the Orange-crowned Warblers was much more cooperative than the other, though it was moving constantly and hard to photograph well.

Orange-crowned Warbler - Sedgewick Park, Oakville, Halton Region

Golden-crowned Kinglet - Sedgewick Park, Oakville, Halton Region

Nashville Warbler - Sedgewick Park, Oakville, Halton Region

Speaking of rare winter warblers, back on December 30 Laura and I were at my parent's house in south Cambridge when she called me over to the kitchen window since a warbler had landed there. I was shocked to see it was an Ovenbird walking around on the window ledge, and looking back at us with curiosity. Eventually it flew to the cedar hedge in the backyard and I saw it again (briefly), about an hour later. Presumably it had been surviving on the suet feeder. It will be interesting to see if starts making regular appearances at my parent's bird feeders. Ovenbirds are rare in the winter in Ontario; prior to this year, four out of the past eleven winters had an Ovenbird record in Ontario. This was the first winter Ovenbird that I had ever seen.

On December 27 I completed a section of the Niagara Falls Christmas Bird Count. John Black had retired from his area, which includes the shoreline of Lake Ontario from the Welland Canal east to Niagara-on-the-Lake. I was more than happy to take over this area since it is one of the better areas in the count circle and also included my favourite Niagara birding location - the Port Weller east pier. Joining me for the 2018 iteration of the Christmas Bird Count was Todd Hagedorn, Roy Sorgenfrei and Phil Downey.

Our day started at Port Weller east where we enjoyed a long walk out to the end of the pier and back, totalling around 42 species. We had quite a few highlights out on the pier, including at least 15 Red-throated Loons, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, some unexpected ducks (Ring-necked, Redhead, Hooded Merganser), and a Ring-necked Pheasant. I was completely surprised to see the pheasant, a male, as it stood in some grasses at the north end of the small pond. Lucky Todd had his camera ready and managed a few record photos which he added to our eBird checklist. Phil and Roy had each encountered a pheasant out on the pier before, but it was my first in about 90 visits.

Back at our cars, we drove around beside the Welland Canal and found a Merlin. I had my camera with me this time and took a few photos of this unusual species in Niagara during the winter.

Merlin - Port Weller, Niagara Region

Merlin - Port Weller, Niagara Region

We then began working our way east, periodically scanning Lake Ontario from some of the sideroads that terminate near the shoreline. We slowly added new species to the day list, including Bald Eagle, Cooper's Hawk, Surf Scoter and House Finch. Near the end of Irvine Road we came across our "best" birds of the day - a pair of Harlequin Ducks actively feeding near a flock of Greater Scaup. These are likely the same birds that were discovered by Judy Robins back on December 8.

We finished up at Four Mile Pond where we added the final species to our day list, finishing with 58 species. Highlights here included a flock of Common Redpolls, a vocalizing Winter Wren, a Northern Mockingbird and a Great Blue Heron. We were all very happy with our total of 58 species - it had been a great day!

On January 4th, I was very surprised to see a text from Jean Farnan that came accompanied with a photo of a dark-phase Gyrfalcon. Jean and Blayne Farnan had discovered the bird in a field north of Port Colborne and were pretty convinced that it was in fact a Gyrfalcon. Of course I immediately hopped in my car and made a bee-line for the area!

Fully expecting the gyr to have vanished by the time I arrived, I was very happy to see a number of local birders on the scene with the bird squarely in the scope. Over the next two hours several others came and went, but the gyr was quite content to sit in the field near a flock of Tundra Swans. It was very distant, making identifiable photos almost impossible. It eventually flew much closer to the road, giving us all face-melting views of this rare Arctic visitor (though it was still a little far for good photos).

Gyrfalcon - Port Colborne, Niagara Region

Almost all of my previous experience with Gyrfalcon has been along the shores of James Bay where I have observed around nine individuals in eight weeks of observation. It was definitely a little weird to be watching one close to home in Niagara Region but no less satisfying! Gyrfalcons are the world's largest falcon species, preying mostly on ptarmigan in their Arctic habitats, though they will also take waterfowl, hares, and other similar sized bird or mammal prey. Interestingly, the Gyrfalcon's range almost perfectly mirrors that of Rock Ptarmigan, one of their main prey items.

Gyrfalcon - Port Colborne, Niagara Region

At around 4:45 PM the Gyrfalcon took off and flew over the tree-line to the south, and subsequent searches for the bird came up empty. I felt pretty fortunate to be living close enough to Port Colborne to have a chance to observe the Gyrfalcon.

On January 5 I went for a day of "twitching", hoping to see several of the unusual species that are wintering in southern Ontario. My day was very successful and included searching for a Townsend's Solitaire in Kitchener, the unusual wintering warblers at Sedgewick Park, the Eurasian Collared-Doves in Hamilton, and a Barrow's Goldeneye in Stoney Creek. The Barrow's Goldeneye was a very pleasant surprise as it had been found by Rob Dobos only half an hour before I was planning on driving past that area! While photo opportunities were not in great supply that day, I did take a few mediocre shots of the Townsend's Solitaire in Kitchener, teed up on top of a spruce.

Townsend's Solitaire - Kitchener, Waterloo Region

The female's Barrow's Goldeneye was even trickier as it was diving constantly, the light wasn't great, and it was too distant to photograph with my main camera. These phone-scoped photos, while terrible, do show some of the distinctive features of this species. Compared to a Common Goldeneye, a female Barrow's Goldeneye has a much steeper forehead, a shorter bill (that is often all or mostly yellow), a darker brown head, and a more gradually sloping nape. Barrow's Goldneyes used to be much more common in the west end of Lake Ontario but in the last decade or so they have been practically non-existent. The only other one I had seen on Lake Ontario was a young male at the Leslie Street spit in Toronto a few years ago.

female Barrow's Goldeneye - Stoney Creek, Hamilton