Saturday, 31 August 2013

Autumn Meadowhawk

When it gets late into the summer, I enjoy patrolling the edge of the pond outside my place to stay sharp on meadowhawks.  In the Victoria area, we certainly have Sympetrum diversity on our side with nine of the ten species found in province occurring locally.  Around the pond outside my place, I have noted seven species of meadowhawk.  The crown jewel of my pond's meadowhawk list is Cherry-faced Meadowhawk, which had not been recorded on Vancouver Island before I found one on the grass, caught it by hand, and took some close-up photos that confirmed its identity.  That may be the most notable meadowhawk I have found here, but I personally enjoy seeing Autumn Meadowhawks the most of the seven.  The common name for it used to be Yellow-legged Meadowhawk, which is an equally fitting name.  Autumn Meadowhawk is named as such because it is the meadowhawk with the latest flight period.  By late September, only a few species of meadowhawk are still flying and Autumn Meadowhawk is known to be on the wing as late as mid-November.  The old common name, Yellow-legged Meadowhawk, is nice because it refers to a visual feature: as adults they have yellow-brown legs.  Other small meadowhawks found here have black legs, so it is quite noticeable when you spot a vibrant red dragonfly with dingy legs.

Today, I grabbed my camera and did a few laps around the pond hoping to find a cooperative Autumn Meadowhawk.  It took a while to wade through all the Striped Meadowhawks and find something different, but eventually I noticed one that was just a touch smaller and had a brighter, poppy red abdomen.  My next step was to check out the thorax to ensure it didn't have the telltale stripes of a Striped Meadowhawk.  Everything was looking promising as the individual in question had a solid bronzy-red thorax.  Then, to seal the deal, the diagnostic yellow-brown leg check, which also passed my inspection.  To put the icing on the cake, the Autumn Meadowhawk was posing nicely on a rush.  I crouched down and snapped off several shots before it zipped off as a darner darted low over it.

Poppy red abdomen... check!  Solid bronzy-red thorax... check!  Yellow-brown legs... check!  Perfect Autumn Meadowhawk!

Although it will appear quite obvious from close-up photos, I nabbed a few shots of a Striped Meadowhawk for comparison.

The stripes on the side and front of the thorax are a dead giveaway you've got a Striped Meadowhawk!

Dragonfly diversity is still quite high, so get out to your local pond and see what you can find.  Perhaps you'll be able to put your Autumn Meadowhawk skills to the test?

Monday, 26 August 2013

Summer Shorebirds

My output lately has been abysmal and I don't even have a great excuse.  I have been working a fair bit up in Fort McMurray and I can't exactly be toting my personal camera around during my work, so that is a bit of a limiting factor.  I have, however, been doing small outings while I'm back in town and haven't been writing anything about those trips.

To get back in the swing of things, I'll share some shots from the shorebird migration that is the main focus of birding at the moment.  You never know what you might find, but unfortunately I have just been spying the expected species.  That doesn't mean I haven't enjoyed keeping my identification skills sharpened with tricky IDs like dowitchers and Semipalmated Sandpipers.  Be sure to get out and enjoy shorebirds while they're around - the best weeks of shorebirding are just starting up.

Back in mid-July, I stopped in at Albert's Head Lagoon with Jeremy K. and we were surprised to find a decent number of peeps despite the bustling beach activity and lack of shorebirds at Witty's Lagoon.  We hopped out with our bins and were pleased to see two Semipalmated Sandpipers in the mix of Least and Westerns.  They stood out due to the usual characteristics - plainer grey overall and shorter bill that is straighter with a slightly bulbous tip.

Adult Semipalmated Sandpiper (front and center) compared to an adult Western Sandpiper (rightmost)

Adult Semipalmated Sandpiper showing off its features nicely - note the lack of rufous tones in the cap, ear coverts, and scaps

Least Sandpipers are a touch smaller than Westerns and Semipalms, show a more down-curved beak, have yellow legs, and are browner overall.

In late July, I popped in to Saanichton Spit to see if any shorebirds were in the small lagoon or along the shoreline.  It was completely dead.  I was about to leave when I noticed a yellowlegs had dropped in to the small brackish pond that is now largely concealed by a wall of blackberries by the small bridge.  I found a small trail through the blackberries and walked out to the pond and was pleased to see two Greater Yellowlegs, three Long-billed Dowitchers, and twenty peeps.

The two Greater Yellowlegs are alert while the three Long-billed Dowitchers were quite intent on carrying out their normal activities
Three Long-billed Dowitchers demonstrating a new event in the Olympics this year: synchronized probing

Another shot of the Long-billed Dowitchers.  The lighting doesn't really do their colour justice, but their underparts were uniformly tawny-orange.  This is not a diagnostic feature, but is more indicative of Long-billed.

Here's one last shot of the Long-billed Dowitchers with one showing off the namesake long bill

I also took a zip out to Whiffin Spit at the end of July with Jeremy K. and the hightlight there was a lone Sanderling transitioning out of breeding plumage.  Because we're so used to seeing Sanderlings in the winter, seeing them in breeding and transitional plumages always causes a momentary lapse.  This one was quite cooperative and allowed a few photos before I left it to wander along the rocky shoreline.

The washed out tan, streaky head and dark mantle feathers are the holdouts from the breeding plumage on this adult Sanderling, while the silver feathers filling in on the back are the start of the more familiar non-breeding plumage.

I also had three Black Oystercatchers on the inside of the spit.  They may be common but they are probably one of the most charismatic resident species in our region.  I enjoyed watching this one call as if to say it wasn't a fan of my presence.

Am I the only one that gets a little weirded out by their skin-coloured legs?

A quick pop in to Albert Head Lagoon, also at the end of the July, resulted in a sighting of my first southbound Short-billed Dowitcher of the year.  After seeing several Long-billed Dowitchers in the previous two weeks, this one stood out due to its paler underparts and I feel the bill even looks short on this one.

In addition to being less bright overall, this Short-billed Dowitcher shows off another nice feature.  Apparently, adult Short-billeds retain more spotting and barring on the belly and chest later into the summer.  If you compare back to the three Long-billeds, you will see they all have less markings on their underparts.

That's all I have to offer at this time.  I know it was rather lackluster, but it's all I have!  Well, that's not true.  I will add a couple other photos that I picked out from the last while.  First, I have a photo of a juvenile Rufous Hummingbird that was visiting thistles in the Jordan River area.

One day I'll be good enough to have the wings showing rather than just a blur!

My final offering is a rather accommodating adult Mew Gull from Saanichton Spit.  They look sharp when they return, even if they do show signs of molting.

This adult Mew Gull is easily recognizable by its diminutive stature and combination of pure yellow legs and bill

Hopefully I'll get my act together and increase my output when I get back.  If not, bear with me as I go through this minimal motivation patch.  Now stop reading and get out and enjoy those shorebirds!

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Summer Pond Blues

Don't worry... I haven't slipped into a depression over the reduced bird activity.  In fact, the bird activity is ramping back up nicely with shorebirds passing through and passerines starting to shuffle around.  Instead, I am referring to a pair of nice blue dragonflies that can be found flying together through June and July: Blue Dashers (Pachydiplax longipennis) and Western Pondhawks (Erythemis collocata).  In British Columbia, the distribution of these two species is quite restricted and they are both provincially blue-listed.  Their ranges are virtually identical, occurring primarily west of the Coast Mountains to approximately 50°0'N, but also sneaking north of the border into the southern interior to the north end of Osoyoos Lake.

To the untrained eye, the males of these two species probably look very similar.  With a few pointers, I am confident you will be able to sort them out.  The females, on the other hand, are very different and you should never get them mixed up.  I will focus on the males here because they are both powdery blue denizens of ponds and marshes on southern Vancouver Island.  Luckily for me, I just have to step outside my door and both are flying around the small manmade pond here.

On July 13, I lazed a good portion of the day away as I had just returned from the buggiest, muggiest work trip I have been on in ages.  I kept telling myself to get out and enjoy the day but I was just so content relaxing.  Finally, I picked myself up and got all my gear together.  I walked out the door and started to load up the vehicle to take off and then got distracted by all the dragonflies around the pond.  I was thrilled to see a Blue Dasher right next to a Western Pondhawk, which was really the motivation behind this entry.  Not only was I able to study the visual characteristics of these two species, I was able to note differences in their behaviour.

This turquoise-eyed beauty is a male Blue Dasher

While this deeper blue-eyed dragonfly is a Western Pondhawk

There should be a few features that stand out to differentiate these two if you did a quick compare and contrast.  They are both mid-sized dragonflies that have powder blue pruinosity, but that just gives them a superficial similarity that is enough to throw a skilled observer off if they only get a quick fly-by view.  Let's break down the walls of identification systematically.  Starting with the head, I already mentioned the slight difference in eye colour: radiant turquoise for male Blue Dashers and a somewhat swirling deep blue for male Western Pondhawks.  Before I delve any further, I will take this opportunity to give a quick anatomy lesson for the head of a dragonfly.  Every group of organisms seemingly has new terminology for different parts and it would be cruel to throw out a few of these words without context!

Dragonfly head anatomy, using a Western Pondhawk to illustrate the features

As you can see, the vertex of the male Western Pondhawk is green, as is the frons, clypeus, and labrum.  On a Blue Dasher, the vertex is black and the frons, clypeus, and labrum are all white.  I think of the frons, clypeus, and labrum together as the "face" and I find assessing the colour of the face tp be the easiest way to distinguish these two.  Below is a head on view of a Blue Dasher for comparison.

See... it's not so daunting if you just stare them in the face!

Dragonflies don't always offer up the greatest looks, so I have a few other features to look for if you happen to find one that is facing away.  If you can get a look at the wings, Blue Dashers have amber staining at the base of the wings, while wings of Western Pondhawks lack staining.  Next, the thorax of a Blue Dashers is patterned yellow-and-black before the pruinescent blush achieved with maturity obscures it. This striped pattern can usually be discerned through the granular blue coating.  Western Pondhawks, in contrast, are lime green before the pruinescent pigmentation effectively covers that colouration.  Look back to the first photo of a Western Pondhawk to see an example of a Western Pondhawk that has not fully coated its thorax and has some green peeking through.  Finally, the last two segments of a male Blue Dasher's abdomen are usually darker than the rest of the abdomen, whereas a Western Pondhawk has a rather uniform powder blue abdomen.  Just like the thorax pattern, this feature seemingly fades as individuals mature and more pruinosity coats the abdomen.  I have a couple shots that hopefully illustrate the three features mentioned.

The amber-stained wing bases, patterning on the thorax seen through the forewing, and dark-tipped abdomen of a Blue Dasher are illustrated by this shot

This shot provides a better angle to see the thorax patterning that is not fully obscured by pruinosity

As you can see, the wings of Western Pondhawks lack staining

Now I'll touch on a couple features that are harder to use.  First, the size of these two differs ever-so-slightly.  You need a bit of experience with them to get a sense that the average Western Pondhawk is several millimetres bigger than the average Blue Dasher.  According to Cannings' "Introducing the Dragonflies of British Columbia and the Yukon", male Western Pondhawks are 42 mm and male Blue Dashers are 38 mm.  I imagine you're thinking it's crazy to think you can tell notice a few millimetres difference, but it is surprisingly easy.  It is, after all, 10% of the dragonfly's length!  The last observation I made that seems to help distinguish these two is their choice of perches.  Blue Dashers seem to prefer picking elevated perches at the pond's edge.  The perches are typically vegetation, such as cattails, rushes, or leafy emergent plants.  Western Pondhawks almost land on the ground or on flat surfaces.  For instance, I pretty much exclusively saw Western Pondhawks resting on large rocks, wooden boards, algae mats, and trimmed grass.

Western Pondhawk on a piece of plywood near the pond edge

Two Blue Dashers agree they prefer leafy emergent aquatic plants!

Now that we've broken down the walls, hurry up and get out there to test your skills before their flight season is over!  I would recommend heading to Swan Lake, the Beaver Lake retriever ponds, Viaduct Flats, or Rithet's Bog if you're looking for suggestions.  I have also had success with Western Pondhawks around small reservoirs in agricultural areas.  Feel free to write back with tales of success and also let me know if there is another local species comparison you would like me to write about.