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23 April 2010 @ 11:24 pm
An Afternoon at Old Quarry Trail  
The great weather continued from the weekend into the work week, and I took the afternoon off on Wednesday to enjoy it. Since I don't have the car during the week, I was limited in my options as to which conservation area to visit. Fortunately, both Mud Lake and the Old Quarry Trail are right on major bus routes, and I chose to visit the Old Quarry Trail in Stony Swamp as I suspected the larger area and different habitats would result in a greater variety of wildlife species. I was still looking for some new butterfly species, and hoped to see some interesting birds and mammals as well. I was happy to see that there were no cars in the parking lot, which hopefully meant the kind of solitary, quiet, and peaceful outing that I enjoy most....and which are hard to come by on the weekend.

A few chickadees were calling in the evergreens near the parking lot as I decided to take the northern-most trail into the conservation area. This trail passes through an open, scrubby area before entering the woods, and the scene looked so inviting that I stopped to take a photo.

On the Trail

As soon as I entered the woods I heard a couple of Dark-eyed Juncos calling. Although these pretty gray and white songbirds have left my neighbourhood, no doubt fatted up for the rest of their journey north, there are still good numbers in the conservation areas. They are very shy, however, and disappear into the brush as soon as they hear someone (especially someone with a camera!) coming.

A short distance down the trail, the woods open up into a large sunny clearing. It was here that Deb and I watched people feeding seeds, fruits and veggies to about five or six deer last winter. It looks much prettier in the spring, however, especially as I saw a pair of small blue butterflies floating along the path. This early in the season, they could only be Spring Azures, though none landed long enough for me to take any photos.

I did see a pretty bronze-coloured bee on one of the shrubs along the path, and stopped to take its picture. I think that these metallic insects, such as this fellow and the brilliant green sweat bees which live in my garden, are quite striking in appearance, for they seem more like flying jewels than living creatures.

Bee sp.

A little further along trail, I saw a few more Spring Azures bouncing along the path. While I was chasing them trying to get a photo, I noticed a great deal of insect activity near a large swampy area next to the path. Several hover flies and other unidentifiable insects were buzzing about the area, frequently landing on branches extending out over the water. Every so often they flew up to find another branch or to chase another insect away. I tried to take photos of those perching on branches closest to the swamp's edge and only managed a picture of this fellow:

Hover Fly

Although I had seen a few Brown Creepers in this area the last time that I visited, none were present today. I left the water and continued walking through the woods, where more Spring Azures were flying along. This time I managed to get a few photos of them when they landed.

Spring Azure

Spring Azures are one of the first butterflies to appear in spring which do not hibernate over winter in the adult stage. They are common in deciduous woodlands, swamps, meadows, forest clearings, and along woodland edges where flowering shrubs are common. Their appearance in spring coincides with the blossoming of the early-flowering trees, shrubs and flowers, which are the preferred foods of Spring Azure larvae.

In flight, their bright blue upper wings light up the leafless April woodland as they fly in search of mates, or food. However, like most Gossamer-winged butterflies, these butterflies rarely land with the wings open and can be difficult to spot once they come to rest on the forest floor. The undersides of their wings are pale grayish-blue in colour with a variety of spots, making it easy for them to disappear into their surroundings.

Adult Spring Azures fly from early April to mid-May in southern Ontario and from late April to mid-June in the rest of its Canadian range, generally flying later in the far north and in cooler maritime areas than elsewhere. Here in Ottawa, they are similar in appearance to the Summer Azure, but as the flight seasons of the two species do not overlap, they can be identified simply by the date they are seen.

I spent almost half an hour following and photographing these butterflies, until I became aware of a doe watching me from the brush. I took out my bag of seed and started scattering it onto the ground. The deer was interested, but came up to me rather than the seed on the ground! She tried to nose her way into the bag, so I started feeding her by hand. No doubt this was the same bold female I'd been hand-feeding since I started visiting this trail in February. Two more deer came up to the path to feed on the food on the ground, which my friend was happy to ignore as long as I kept feeding her. Of course, I ran out of seed quickly and had to say to good-bye.

I made my way to the boardwalk, where I heard the "kiddick, kiddick" call of a male Virginia Rail and the long musical trill of a Swamp Sparrow. Another hover fly was perching on the boardwalk rail, though he wouldn't stay put long enough for a macro photo. Then I noticed this spider sitting motionlessly on a reed in the water.

Six-spotted Fishing Spider

The more I looked, the more I realized that he wasn't standing on the reed at all, and that seven of his eight legs were actually resting on the water's surface! One of the fishing spiders (also known as dock spiders), this species is almost always found in an aquatic environment and is often seen hunting on the water's surface in ponds and slow-moving streams. These large spiders, which can reach up to 3 cm in length, eat insect larvae, tadpoles and small fish. Once they locate a potential victim, they will dive beneath the water to capture the prey. The Six-spotted Fishing Spider can dive as deep as 18 cm below the surface, and stay underwater up to 45 minutes, depending on the air trapped in the hairs on its body for oxygen. They may also be seen dabbling their front legs on the surface of water in order to lure fish closer.

Although spiders aren't my favourite arthropods (the taxon which encompasses all the insects, arachnids, centipedes, etc.), they can be quite interesting and sometimes even startlingly beautiful. The fact that a spider which can dive underwater even exists makes me appreciate all the more how complex nature is, and how fascinating some of the species found so close to home truly are.

After crossing the boardwalk, I came to a path I had never taken before and decided to follow it. The trail traversed through a small wooded section before opening up into a large grassy/scrubby meadow; along the trail I saw more Spring Azures and a Compton Tortoiseshell which had been sitting in the middle of the path until I came along and startled it. It flew up onto a tree branch, too high for me to get any photos.

I also came to a large shallow pond which I had hitherto been unaware of. A few frogs splashed into the water at the water's edge as I approached, but other than that there was no sign of life in or on the water. Still, it is an intriguing spot, one I will have to check out later in the summer for dragonflies.

The Hidden Pond

As I approached the meadow, I found several bee flies, metallic green sweat bees, and another hover fly buzzing about. I also saw a white butterfly fly by in the distance, but couldn't tell if it was a Cabbage White or a Mustard White, another new species already being reported in the Stony Swamp area.

Another Hover Fly

I explored some of the side trails for half an hour, seeing a very worn Eastern Comma, a dead porcupine (this one in a different location from the one I found last winter), more Spring Azures, bee flies, hover flies and sweat bees. I didn't see too many birds, other than a Blue Jay and the usual chickadees, but I did hear a Winter Wren, a couple of Purple Finches, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a singing Brown Creeper, and even an Eastern Phoebe. Seeing any of them was an entirely different matter; I didn't!

In another grassy area I scared this moth out of its hiding place in the grass. I followed him after watching where he landed, and was even able to get some macro photos. Although this is the first moth I have identified in the new year and a new species for me, it did not make up for not seeing any of the birds I had just heard during my walk.

Forage Looper

By that time the shadows were lengthening, it was growing late in the afternoon, and my lower back was beginning to ache. I sat down on a rock to rest for a bit, and noticed this interesting fungus a few feet away. The texture resembled velvet, though I didn't attempt to confirm this.

Unknown Fungus

Finally, my pleasant afternoon out in the sun came to an end. It was time to leave, especially as the woods were starting to grow dark. On my way out, however, in a sunny opening I saw a few insects buzzing around in a sunny, grassy area. Several bee flies were among them, and I spent some time trying to photograph them. None of the ones that landed on the ground let me close enough for a macro photo, but then this one landed at the top of a small stem and let me take several macro shots. This was the best one...it's hard to get close and not block out the sunlight! I like this one in particular because it shows the gold "fuzz" of its body and pretty wings resembling stained glass.

Bee Fly close-up

After I finished photographing the bee fly, I left the trail the same way I came in. This time, however, I came across a rabbit in the scrubby area, though it darted quickly out of side as someone came along on a bike.

The Old Quarry Trail is an amazing place, with lots of side trails and deer paths leading to interesting places and interesting wildlife. I can't wait to see what other species I can find there as the season progresses.