Sunday, 29 July 2012

Lac du Bois Grasslands Protected Area

I recently had a chance to visit the Lac du Bois Grasslands Protected Area on a travel day from Revelstoke to Valemount.  The grasslands are tucked away just northwest of Kamloops on the west side of the North Thompson River, as seen below:

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I always draw in a deep breath of awe when I'm in a novel landscape.  The panoramic grasslands made for an amazing vista and I made sure to snap off a few shots to illustrate the beauty of the arid expanse.

Sagebrush and rolling hills as far as the eye can see in the protected area

The grasslands are dotted with alkaline ponds and small lakes that create stunning contrast to the bone dry habitat

The vast expanse of grasslands were a little too parched for my liking, which made it difficult to find interesting plants and animals.  The more you wandered, however, the more you would find.  I eventually tracked down several of the excessively showy Sagebrush Mariposa Lilies (Calochortus macrocarpus), which are always a showstopper!

This Sagebrush Mariposa Lily adds a brilliant splash of colour against an otherwise drab setting

Searching for interesting plants yielded many interesting sightings, none of which were rare plants.  I managed to find several species of butterflies, including Long Dash Skipper (Polites mystic), Grey Hairstreak (Strymon melinus), Western White (Pontia occidentalis) , Clouded Sulphur (Colias philodice), Common Woodnymph (Cercyonis pegala), Small Woodnymph (Cercyonis oetus), Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele), and Melissa Blue (Plebejus melissa).  I unfortunately missed the one Oregon Swallowtail (Papilio machaon oregonius) that Jamie Fenneman spotted in my absence.  I did, however, manage to photograph four of the species listed above for your viewing pleasure.

Common Woodnymphs can be separated from other woodnymphs by their overall brown colouration and eyespots that are of equal size

Small Woodnymphs are noticeably smaller in size and the lower eyespot is marginally smaller than the upper one

This Western White was nectaring on Alfalfa (Medicago sativa), which is a great nectar source.  In fact, if you look at the Small Woodnymph above you will see it was utilizing it as well.

The aquamarine pools cradled in each of the red spots on the hindwings of Melissa Blue are truly spectacular and I always take the time to lean in for a close look at this feature

Butterflies were not the only insects of interest found in the grasslands.  I have been trying to create a library of robber flies over the past couple of years and it is a rather slow going process.  I now believe this is due to the lack of time spent in the dry interior!  It seemed that every dozen steps I took, I would put up a robber fly.  I photographed several of the encountered robber flies and sent them to Rob Cannings for identification, as they one of his specialties.  Below is a sample of the robber flies encountered and their proposed identifications.

Efferia benedicti (male) eating a small wasp

The pointed ovipositor of this female Efferia benedicti can be seen at the end of the abdomen.  Females in this genus use their ovipositor to lay eggs in the ground or in the grass flower spikes.

Stenopogon inquinatus (male) was an impressively large robber fly that I initially thought was a damselfly!

This female Stenopogon inquinatus posed nicely on some sagebrush

Must be make-up sex... this pair of Stenopogon inquinatus can't even look each other in the eyes!

Efferia staminea (male) posing on pussytoes

Apparently a trickier one to identify, this may be a female Efferia staminea

I documented one last sighting from the edge of one of the alkaline ponds.  While watching dozens of bluets hovering over the shore, I flushed up a noctuid moth.  I followed it until it landed on Red Glasswort (Salicornia rubra) where I was able to snap off a nice shot of it.  I thought the clear photo would make this moth a cinch to identify, but it proved to be extremely difficult.  I think I have finally figured it out thanks to the amazing new Pacific Northwest Moth website (  I found a specimen shot of Euxoa tristicula that closely resembles the individual I photographed, and the detailed species account reveals that this species matches in terms of ecology as well.

I'm using to seeing American Glasswort (Salicornia pacifica) on the coast, but it was neat to see the Red Glasswort growing around the alkaline ponds.  The fact that the moth, Euxoa tristicula, used it as a perch was just a bonus!

The Lac du Bois Grasslands Protected Area, despite being fairly dried up, yielded many interesting sightings and I envision it being even more spectacular a month earlier.  If you're passing through Kamloops and looking for a large sagebrush grassland to wander through, this is the place to go!

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Finding Nemophora

Moths are not always thought of as the most charismatic group.  As you may know by now, I think they are quite fascinating.  I don't like to play favourites but I have a special place in my heart for the family Adelidae: the fairy longhorn moths.  They are definitely as whimsical as their names makes them out to be.  The first fairy longhorn moth I ever encountered was at Oak Haven Park in Brentwood Bay.  I noticed a tiny, black moth with three white stripes, a fuzzy red head, and extremely long, gaudy antennae.  At the time I thought most moths were virtually impossible to identify, but I gave it the old college try by perusing the internet.  I managed to determine it was a Three-striped Longhorn Moth (Adela trigrapha).

This angle shows off all the key features of Adela trigrapha, but does not do the antennae justice

A couple years ago, I rekindled my interest in fairy longhorn moths by encountering two more species.  Walking along the railroad tracks near Goldstream Provincial Park, I noticed some tiny moths similar to the Three-striped Longhorn, but they had only two white bands and a series of tiny dots near the tips of their wings.  I went home and determined they were Ocean Spray Longhorn Moths (Adela septentrionella).  The next species was found while bird atlassing along a logging road above Burton Creek south of Nakusp.  At the side of the logging road, I noticed some small moths associating with Holboell's Rockcress (Arabis holboelli).  They had that signature cuter-than-a-button look and fairly long antennae that made me think they were fairy longhorn moths.  I was now significantly more adept at identifying moths and with some research and close scrutiny, I came up with Cauchas simpliciella as the best match.

What's not to love?  Cauchas simpliciella might just be the cutest moth I've ever seen!

I connected with another fairy longhorn moth a couple weeks ago while working in Conklin in northern Alberta.  The species was instantly recognizable as a fairy longhorn due to the long antennae, but this one had a pattern that put the three other species I'd encountered to shame.  I pored over the Alberta checklist of Lepidoptera and was easily able to narrow down the identification as only four species fall under the family Adelidae.  I checked what Nemophora bellela looked like at the Moth Photographers Group and found it was a dead ringer for the individual I had photographed.

The first Nemophora bellela I found was sitting up on Labrador Tea (Ledum groenlandicum)

You have to pay close attention if you're going to spot any of the fairy longhorns, but the reward is worth it.  These small, intricate little moths with antennae longer than their wings are always a delight.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

First Record of Elusive Clubtail for Alberta

I just started a very exclusive club where all the members have seen Elusive Clubtail in Alberta.  How many memberships have been given out?  Just one... self high-five!

Before heading up to Fort McMurray earlier in the spring, I perused through Dennis Paulson's excellent "Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West" field guide to see if there was any potential to encounter odonates I had never seen before.  I learned that I could potentially see Plains Forktail (Ischnura damula), Prairie Bluet (Coenagrion angulatum), Boreal Snaketail (Ophiogomphus colubrinus), and maybe Forcipate Emerald (Somatochlora forcipata) or Beaverpond Baskettail (Epitheca canis). The distribution map of Elusive Clubtail (Stylurus notatus), however, was extremely intriguing. A slim band running across southern Manitoba appeared to be furthest west portion of its contiguous range, which runs off the map to the east (I need the eastern counterpart guide to see the full extent of its range). After that, three anomalous records with a great deal of distance between them made up the remainder, with a single record above Alberta in the Northwest Territories being the westernmost. I did a mental connect-the-dots and dared to dream.

I never actually expected to find Elusive Clubtails despite letting my mind run wild with the possibility.  The species name alludes to its life history: after larvae in slow-moving rivers climb up onto rocks, the adults emerge from their larval casings (or exuviae), and then fly up into the forest canopy where they spend the majority of their adult life.  Consequently, you have to get lucky and find them emerging or breeding.

This photo illustrates the emergence of an adult from its larval exoskeleton ("exuvia")

I was fortunate enough to have a low intensity day at work, which just required me to run some errands around Fort McMurray on June 30th. I took advantage of this by heading down to a section of the Clearwater River that I visited last year. The weather was quite warm, as it had been for the previous couple of days. When I reached the end of the short trail, I scrambled down some boulders to get to the river's edge and flushed up a very freshly emerged dragonfly. I looked at it with my binoculars and recognized it as a member of the family Gomphidae, and specifically thought it looked like a clubtail. I had seen my first Boreal Snaketails a couple days earlier and had no idea what a freshly emerged snaketail would look like - was this one? I snapped a couple record shots and pondered the perching posture it had taken when it landed. The dragonfly was hanging from a leaf and made me think it was not a snaketail. Rather, it appeared to belong to the genus Stylurus, also known as the "hanging clubtails".

This is a shot of the first individual encountered, which shows why
 members of the genus Stylurus are called "hanging clubtails"

I proceeded to find several more individuals (approximately ten in total) and their similarity to Olive Clubtail (Stylurus olivaceus) - the only other Stylurus I have seen - was remarkable. I photographed a few more individuals, including a couple males that appeared to have slightly more mature colouration, and when I left I was quite confident it was going to be an exciting find.

This male Elusive Clubtail was the most striking individual I encountered.
You can see its wings still haven't fully inflated.

I followed up my sighting by contacting a couple respected odonatologists and they confirmed my suspicion - these were the first documented Elusive Clubtails in Alberta! I still can't believe all the luck that led to the sighting - the weather, the location, and the timing were just perfect! Not only is this the first time I've had a provincial first record, but this species is probably the least understood dragonfly I've ever encountered.  Hopefully this record can be used to build a further understanding of their range from western Manitoba over to the Northwest Territories.