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05 May 2010 @ 09:37 pm
The First Dragonflies of Spring  
On the first Sunday in May Deb and I went birding together for the first time in a couple of weeks. The weatherman was calling for rain late in the morning and we weren't too sure how far we would get, but there were lots of birds around and we were eager to find them. We stopped in at Mud Lake first, hoping to see the Screech Owl (it would be a lifer for Deb) but if he was in his regular tree he was keeping well out of sight.

While in the same area, however, we saw a juvenile Cooper's Hawk being pursued by about four crows. The poor hawk wasn't able to land anywhere for more than a minute or two before the crows chased him off. This wasn't one of the hawks that nest here, for both of them now display adult plumage; this is either an unrelated hawk, or perhaps one of last year's nestlings.

A walk through the woods toward the ridge produced our first Northern Flicker of the month. Then, as we crossed Cassels Street we heard them...the lovely songs of several Yellow Warblers! Although they will be almost as common as chickadees later in the spring and summer, it was a pleasure to hear them for the first time this year. We also heard Warbling Vireos singing away. On the ridge we saw both species easily, as well as a couple of Yellow-rumped Warblers and several Cedar Waxwings. None of them wanted to pose for a picture.

We walked around the filtration plant, and found this cooperative Song Sparrow perching on a rock near the river:

Song Sparrow

We also saw a Short-tailed Weasel running along the bank, carrying a small rodent in its mouth. He was brown instead of white, and scurried over the logs and fallen tree branches too fast for us to keep up, let alone get a picture.

The clouds didn't seem to be getting any darker, so we decided to drive over to the Bill Mason Center, checking some of our favourite spots along the way. By the time we reached Huntmar Drive the sun was actually shining through large gaps in the clouds, and the day was getting warm. We checked the bridge for Northern Rough-winged Swallows and found one perching in a tree. We also saw a muskrat swimming in the river and a few butterflies flitting around in the small wood beyond the guard rail. One appeared to be an Eastern Comma but floated away before I could take a picture. I followed two others and was startled when I realized they were both Red Admirals, a migratory species which varies in numbers from year to year. When I first started butterflying, they were so common that I became used to their presence and thought them to be as common as sulphurs. Last year, however, I only saw one, and other members of the OFNC butterfly group reported seeing very few as well. Finding two together seemed very unusual.

Red Admiral

While I tried to get a picture of the admirals, at least two more flew by. Then Deb pointed out a dragonfly zipping along above the same area. I waited until it landed, then cautiously drew close enough to take a photo. It was an American Emerald, an early-flying species and one I had only seen once before.

American Emerald

A few more Red Admirals flew by while I was photographing the dragonfly, but I wasn't able to get close to any others. Deb and I walked down Huntmar looking for herons but found none. We did see several Turkey Vultures soaring over the road and an Eastern Phoebe near the bridge.

From there we drove over to Thomas Dolan Road, stopping to look for bluebirds and rails along the way. We didn't see either, but I saw my first Brown Thrasher of the year singing in a dead tree and a Wild Turkey standing on the shoulder right beside the road! I even slowed down so Deb could get a nice look at him, and he didn't even move!

On one of our stops I saw this small brown butterfly flying along the ditch. Fortunately he stopped several times, allowing me to get a nice macro of him.

Juvenal's Duskywing

At the Bill Mason Center we could hear the Red-winged Blackbirds, Yellow Warblers and Swamp Sparrows as soon as we got out of the car. The Wilson's Snipes were strangely absent.

The most interesting activity was the back part of the loop, where the trail enters the woods and passes over several small swamps. At the first swamp near the gazebo we saw about ten dragonflies patrolling the area. I recognized a few as emeralds, with their glittering bronze wings, but others appeared to have yellow dashes along the abdomen. One finally landed and I identified it as a Beaverpond Baskettail, a different emerald species. When they mature their eyes become brilliant green.

Beaverpond Baskettail

Deb pointed out a couple of Purple Trilliums in the woods. Most were bent with their blossoms facing the ground, but this one was standing upright.

Purple Trillium

There were no Wood Frogs visible in the water that we could see, and we spent several minutes scanning the swamp looking for any signs of life other than the Water Striders skimming along the surface. While we were standing on one boardwalk, this brilliant green Tiger Beetle flew by me and practically landed at my feet.

Six-spotted Tiger Beetle

In one of the ponds we came across this bullfrog resting in a sunny spot at the edge of the water. We were immediately struck by how large he was, and I slowly edged up to place a loonie beside him in the dirt for size comparison. (Yes, that's a loonie, not a penny!)


The bullfrog is Ontario’s largest frog, reaching up to 15 cm, and is one of the last amphibians to emerge in spring. While most are green, yellowish-green or brown, a very few may appear blue as a result of the absence of yellow pigment. Bullfrogs feed on birds, other frogs, fish, insects, and even their own tadpoles. By early September, however, the bullfrog season has ended and most have gone into hibernation in muddy pond bottoms.

I took a few photos of the bullfrog, then slowly retrieved my loonie. The frog didn't even flinch, and we left him dreaming at the edge of the water. As we made our way back to the marsh we came across several newly emerged damselflies. These are very pale, colourless imitations of the adults they will become and have very shiny wings. Because they have not developed any real colouration, I couldn't say whether they were bluets (most likely), forktails, or other pond damsels. If I had brought my insect net and had a hand lens, it would have made an interesting exercise to try and identify them by structure alone.

Before leaving the cool shelter of the woods we came across a small patch of White Trilliums growing beside the path. This one in particular caught my eye because of the way its petals were nicely framed by the large green leaves.

White Trillium

A few more dragonflies swooped by as we re-entered the marsh. It was hotter than expected; the rain predicted by the weatherman never materialized, and I began to regret leaving my net at home. Although we were both tired and worn out after our long outing - it was after 1:00! - we made one final stop at Dick Bell Park to watch the Purple Martins soaring overhead. I also saw one more Red Admiral flutter by the marina, and was glad that the rain held off long enough to see these interesting butterflies and see my first dragonflies of spring.