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07 June 2010 @ 08:54 pm
A Cloudy Day at Shirley's Bay  

When I got up on the last Sunday of May, I was disappointed by the thick cloud cover that stretched from horizon to horizon. Still, the weatherman said that the clouds would clear and the sun would come out later in the morning, so I headed out anyway with the hope of seeing the sun (and some insects) sometime later.

Well, the weatherman was wrong....again. As civilizations have formally attempted to predict the weather using scientific principles since at least the nineteenth century, you'd think that forecasting would become more and more accurate as computers and technology advance. Yet it seems that the weather forecast is wrong about 40% of the time, and right about only 30% of the time, making me wonder what's going on the rest of the time and why I even bother to check the weather before heading out in the morning!

In any event, the sky remained cloudy all morning, and even sprinkled rain on me while I was out on the dyke at Shirley's Bay. Despite the unfavourable conditions I managed to see a lot of birds and insects, as well as a few unexpected surprises!

Common Loons

I started the day at the boat launch at Shirley's Bay, where I found an Eastern Phoebe on a sign post by the edge of the parking lot and heard an American Redstart singing from the depths of the trees behind the outhouse. As there was little to see from the parking area, I called the Range Control Office, got permission to go out onto the dyke, and set off down the road toward the entrance to the DND property. I took the trail that runs along the inside of the fence, then cuts through the woods to the main road leading to the dyke. The connecting trail is quite grassy, and several moths flew up from beneath my feet as I walked along. I saw several small moths which had dark wings with white spots on them. These fellows liked to fly into the vegetation and then disappear beneath a leaf where I couldn't see them clearly. Although I never did get a good look at them, the white spots were visible even in flight when their wings became a blur. This was the best photograph that I got. Unfortunately, it does not show enough detail to be able to confirm the species, although Diane Lepage thinks that is likely Desmia funeralis.

Possible Desmia funeralis

Seeing so many moths made me pay attention to the other insects lurking in the knee-high vegetation that bordered the path. I saw a Hobomok Skipper sitting on a leaf, waiting for the sun to come out; on another plant close by, I saw a Northern Crescent slowly opening and closing its wings. I waited for it to pause with its wings open, but it never did; instead it folded them up and sat like that for several minutes (in fact, it was still in the same place when I left a couple hours later). So I decided to take a macro shot showing the pattern of the underside of his wings, something I have not been able to do so far.

Northern Crescent

The crescent's identity was confirmed for me by Ross Layberry. Northern and Pearl Crescents are notoriously difficult to distinguish in the field; they are not only strikingly similar in appearance, they are also quite variable. These two butterflies used to be considered to be a single species, and they may one day be considered so again. I find them extremely frustrating and have just about given up on learning to distinguish them. Ross told me, however, that Northern Crescents have orange-tipped antennae while Pearl Crescents have black-tipped antennae. This is helpful when looking at photographs, but not always easy to see in the field.

Another insect that I found in the vegetation was this beautiful caterpiller which Christine H. identified for me as a Haploa confusa caterpiller. I was happy when I learned its identity, for this is a moth that I have actually seen and photographed. The adult moth is very striking, although not as colourful as the larva.

Haploa confusa caterpiller

There weren't very many birds visible in the woods, although I heard the beautiful songs of both a Wood Thrush and a Veery singing from the canopy. I did see plenty of birds when I reached the dyke, most of which were feeding in the shallow, protected marshy area on the west side: Blue-winged and Green-winged Teals, a single female Gadwall, a single American Wigeon, a couple of pairs of Wood Ducks, lots of mallards, cormorants and Canada Geese, a few Common Terns diving into the water, and a couple of Spotted Sandpipers foraging along the shore which I didn't see until I startled them into their typical stiff-winged flight.

What amazed me, however, were the number of insects along the dyke. Mayflies and Eastern Forktails were everywhere - the damselflies perching on or flying just above the vegetation, while swarms of mayflies were flying about five or six feet above the ground...high enough, at any rate, to fly into my face while walking along the path! I decided to spend some time photographing the forktails, since all the birds were too far away to bother.

Eastern Forktail (male)

Eastern Forktail (female)

Among all the Eastern Forktails I discovered a single Fragile Forktail. Doubtless there were others; there were simply too many forktails to look at them all.

Fragile Forktail

I was hoping to see some shorebirds in the second lagoon, as the water levels were very low, but only a few Wood Ducks were present. I heard a Blackpoll Warbler singing in the trees on the island, but as visitors are forbidden by the DND to leave the dyke I wasn't able to spot him. A Warbling Vireo was more cooperative, flying out to an open branch of a large shrub on the dyke.

A few raindrops started coming down, not heavy enough to do more than cause some minor annoyance. Still, it was time to head back. While looking on the east side of the dyke, where the water is much deeper, I was surprised to see a group of "ducks" swimming along. This surprised me, for I'd been checking this side all along and had seen nothing. I couldn't believe it when I realized they weren't ducks at all, but loons!

Common Loons

I was thrilled when I realized that they were swimming toward the dyke, until I noticed a pair of kayakers rowing toward them. This made for a great photo opportunity, although the overcast conditions did not do justice to their beauty.

Common Loons

This sighting made my whole day, and even made me forget my irritation with the weatherman. I've only seen a loon this close before once, at Deb's cottage a couple of summers ago, so this was a special treat. Eventually the kayakers let them alone, and the loons began swimming back toward the middle of the river.

Walking back to the shore, I discovered a few more interesting insects along the dyke. The first was a firefly, which is not a fly at all but rather a beetle. Its colours were quite striking.


The second was a tiny, jewel-coloured Klamath Weed Beetle. Although it doesn't look the part, this small insect is a success story in using biological agents to control and even eradicate noxious, invasive species. It feeds on Klamath weed, more commonly known as St. John's Wort, a European plant which has infested rangelands throughout the temperate regions of the world. This weed is considered a pest because it is toxic to cattle and sheep and displaces forage plants. In 1943 it was estimated that 400,000 acres of California rangeland were infested with Klamath weed.

Klamath Weed Beetle

This beetle was brought to the U.S. from Australia in 1944, and after much study, released in California in February, 1946. Both the larvae and the beetle feed specifically on St. John's Wort, causing extensive damage to the plant and eventually killing it. The introduction program was so successful that by 1957, the weed had been reduced by 99% in Northern California. This species was introduced in Canada in 1951, and today it can be found as far south as Ohio, Maryland, and West Virginia. Since then other insect species have been introduced to control other invasive weeds, such as Purple Loosestrife, although these attempts have not had the same spectacular success.

Although I didn't see any dragonflies flying, I did find a couple perching quietly, waiting for the sun to come out. One was a beautifully fresh Dot-tailed Whiteface sitting on the rocks along the base of the dyke.

Dot-tailed Whiteface

After leaving the dyke, while walking through the woods, I also came across a Widow Skimmer hanging under a leaf quite close to the ground. I'm not sure how I ever saw him. The interesting part is, when I turned around I saw another dragonfly hanging from the vegetation on the other side of the path! He was large, and I was sure I hadn't seen this species before. From the pattern on his abdomen, I guessed he was a baskettail, and with that pattern on his wings there was only one species he could be - the Prince Baskettail. This was a dragonfly I'd been wanting to see for a while, but as it seldom perches, and as it hunts for prey high off the ground (often as high as the treetops) it's not surprising that I hadn't encountered it before.

Prince Baskettail

I reached the fence after that, and followed it along back to the road. However, instead of taking the road back to the boat launch, I decided to follow the other side of the fence to the shore instead. I startled a few dragonflies resting on the ground; a few were Common Whitetails, but I suspect one was another Prince Baskettail. I also found a few more little black and white-spotted moths which, as usual, darted under a leaf as soon as I laid eyes on them. This one, however, hid beneath a blade of grass. I am pretty sure he thinks that I can't see him.

Possible Desmia funeralis

I saw a few more birds on this trail, too, including a Veery and an Osprey. I didn't realized the Osprey was sitting in a tree right above the trail near the water until he began calling. When he flew off, I could see that he had some sort of prey clutched in his talons.

Walking in a grassy area along the shore I saw a few more crescents. I also found some Blue Flag irises in bloom, strikingly blue in the gloomy weather. There is actually a small spider underneath the petals on the right-hand side; can you see him?

Blue Flag iris

Given the overcast conditions, I really hadn't expected to see much; so I was quite pleased with the day's finds. Another new dragonfly, an Osprey, a Veery, and the beautiful, graceful loons made it a fabulous outing, and were definitely the highlights of the day!