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27 May 2010 @ 09:24 pm
The Lepidoptera of Jack Pine Trail  

Tuesday was my last day of vacation. I couldn't believe how quickly the time had gone; as always, there was too much to do in too little time. I spent my last day off at one of my favourite places in the west end, Jack Pine Trail. The variety of habitats and wildlife means that there is always something interesting to see, and the trail is long enough with three loops of different sizes to allow a variety of routes to be taken. No two experiences at Jack Pine Trail are alike, and my last day of vacation was no exception. This outing was particularly memorable because of the number of butterfly and moth species that I saw and photographed...more species than I can recall seeing in any single recent outing to date!

The order Lepidoptera, which means "scaled wings", encompasses both butterflies and moths. The adults of these insects have four membranous wings covered in scales of different colours, and it is these scales which create the beautiful and colourful wing patterns that catch our eye as they flutter by. This is true for both butterflies and moths, even though the wings of many moths are drab, dull or marked with cryptic patterns which enable them to blend in with their surroundings.


The chief way to tell if a particular individual is a moth or a butterfly is to study the shape of the antennae. Characteristics such as the way an insect holds its wings at rest, or whether it is seen flying during the day or at night, are unreliable. Butterfly antennae are always thickened at the end, giving them a clubbed appearance. They are never feathery or fernlike. Moths, on the other hand, may have one of two types of antennae: thin and threadlike, without a clubbed tip, or fernlike.

In a large, sunny clearing just off the main trail I encountered two species of butterfly flying about. There were four individuals altogether: two Harvesters and two Juvenal's Duskywings. The duskywings are members of the skipper family, and have slightly different antennae than other butterflies. Thickened at the end, they form a slight hook rather than a club (as seen in the below photo).

Juvenal's Duskywing

The two species seemed to have come to an uneasy agreement to share the clearing; while the duskywings preferred to perch on branches jutting up from a fallen tree in the middle of the clearing, the Harvesters seemed to prefer the shade-dappled branches of the trees close to the path. It took me a couple of tries before I could get close enough for a macro photo of this striking butterfly.


Many interesting birds were around. I saw a beautiful male Purple Finch investigating a homemade feeder, and over a dozen shorebirds at the middle boardwalk. Water levels were terribly low, providing good habitat for the Least Sandpipers, Solitary Sandpipers, and Killdeer probing the muck for food. With a little patience I was able to get some nice photos of the tiny Least Sandpipers when eventually they drew nearer to the boardwalk.

Least Sandpiper

A Wilson's Snipe - the first one I'd seen at Jack Pine Trail - flying in circles above the marsh was also a nice addition to my month list.

Only a few ducks were swimming in the water by the next boardwalk; water levels were higher here, but still low enough to host some of the larger shorebirds, had there been any present. I'd seen Solitary Sandpipers and both yellowlegs in this location before, and was disappointed by their absence. Without any reason to linger, I followed the trail back into the woods, where I startled a tiny moth resting on the ground in the middle of the path. I watched it flutter over to the base of a large tree, where I was able to photograph it against the bark. Even with its beautiful rusty colours it still managed to blend in with the surrounding tree bark.

Red Twin-spot Moth (Xanthorhoe ferrugata)

A species of open woods, edges and clearings, the Red Twin-spot Moth can be recognized by the rusty-coloured basal area of the forewings, a broad charcoal median band, and the double blackish spot in the subterminal area. The pattern of bands on its wings is characteristic of many of the Larentiinae moths and is said to resemble the border patterns of some oriental carpets. This resemblance has given this group of moths the informal name of "carpet moths". This particular species flies from mid-May through July; adults readily come to lights at night.

While photographing the Red Twin-spot Moth, a second, slightly larger moth flew by me. This one I recognized, for it is quite distinctive - even in flight - with its dark, oval-shaped wings slashed with a white band. The aptly (if unimaginatively) named White-striped Black Moth is a common moth in damp, deciduous woodlands where its host plant, jewelweed (aka Touch-me-not) grows profusely. Because it flies during the day, it may be mistaken for a butterfly. This species has two broods per year, with the adults flying from early May to the end of June, and from the beginning of July into the second half of August. Jewelweed is abundant at both the Jack Pine and Beaver Trails; that morning I counted at least nine individual White-striped Black Moths at various points along the trail.

White-striped Black Moth

After leaving the moths, I checked the back pond to see if any shorebirds were hidden away from the main trail; again, the low water level created the perfect shorebird habitat, but no shorebirds were present - not even a single Killdeer or Spotted Sandpiper, both of which are common breeders in the Ottawa area.

The path that leads from the pond to the back loop of the main trail is little more than a deer track, and I hoped to find some interesting insects while brushing the low-hanging branches from my face. There is a small open area about halfway to the main trail, and here I found a large orange butterfly flitting from shrub to shrub. It only landed twice, and I was quick enough to get a photo of him the second time. As best I can tell, this is an Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma), though he appears to be a bit faded. A photo or a good view of the underside of the wings would have aided identification greatly, however, I didn't get either.

Eastern Comma

The comma flew off one way, I went the other, and rejoined the main trail. When I came to the long trail through the marsh, I came across two butterflies nectaring on some flowers growing right beside the trail, each interesting in its own way. The American Lady was only the second one I had seen since arriving back in Ottawa. Although many American Ladies migrated north this spring, this migration occurred on a much smaller scale than the movement of Red Admirals about a month ago. This individual is missing part of one of its forewings, doubtless from some unpleasant encounter on its long journey north.

American Lady

The second butterfly was a duskywing, one of those butterflies that appears plain and brown from a distance but displays a remarkable though subtle range of colours and patterns up close. I checked its wings through my binoculars from a distance, and was intrigued when I realized the forewings lacked the translucent white spots of the Juvenal's Duskywing I had seen earlier in my walk (see above). The only other duskywing species in Ontario which lacks these white spots is the Sleepy Duskywing. However, the Sleepy Duskywing is only found in very specific locales in Southern Ontario, so it is extremely unlikely to be found in the Ottawa area.

Dreamy Duskywing

The Dreamy Duskywing can be found in forest edges and clearings, and prefers damp areas where willows are common. While it frequently visits flowers, it is more often seen on the ground in sandy or muddy areas. It has only one generation per season, flying from mid-May to late June in the south, and well into July farther north.

My outing wouldn't have been complete without finding a cooperative dragonfly to photograph; this Beaverpond Baskettail posed for me most obligingly.

Beaverpond Baskettail

On my way back to the parking lot I was surprised to hear a Wood Thrush singing from the depths of the woods. It is a bird I seldom hear in Stony Swamp, particularly in mid-afternoon. Its flute-like voice brought a smile to my face, for it is always a thrill to hear any thrush singing in the quiet solitude of the woods.

It was the butterflies and moths, however, that made the outing worthwhile; I always enjoy finding new moth species and photographing different butterflies. Spring (and summer) just wouldn't be the same without these "flying flowers" fluttering about.