Birds and Orchids (part 2)
July 6th, 2017
After our stop to see the Ram's Head Ladyslippers, we went to Murphy's Point
Provincial Park in Perth. This is a beautiful park on the shore of Big Rideau
Lake with a rather Carolinian
it (including, sad to say, a rather Carolinian population of ticks, I pulled
one off me during our walk.) It produced our big surprise of the day. We were
birding the Silver Queen Mine Trail when Jon shouted that there was a White
Pelican in flight and to get our binoculars and cameras ready. I couldn't
believe my ears--I thought he must be mistaken--but then I got a clear view of
it. A White. Pelican. Little over an hour away from where I live.
My photos came out overexposed (the exposure having been set for a cute moth I
was photographing close to ground, more on him later!) and I was bummed. But
then, as if our jaws hadn't dropped enough, the pelican flew back into view
and right over our heads
. This time I was ready.
When we first arrived, the park staff asked us to let them know if we found
any rarities for the park. We found not merely a rarity, but a bird that is a
second-ever for all Lanark County, in recorded history. White Pelicans are a
western species whose breeding range touches only the extreme western tip of
Ontario. This would have been a very lost, late spring migrant! It is an
Ontario-first and a second-ever bird for me.
Other than that, my photo set from this trip might better be termed "insects
and orchids." I saw plenty of good birds, but most of them too far away for my
lens to capture at all well. (I envy those with steady-enough hands to shoot
A kind of adorable furry-headed moth I found on some low vegetation. I think
it's an Agreeable
. (That being, of course, a close relative of the Disagreeable
Tiger Moth and the Cantankerous Tiger Moth. Okay, maybe not.) A lifer insect
for me, to go with my lifer wildflower (Ram's Head Ladyslipper), lifer reptile
(Rat Snake), and pretty-darn-close-to-lifer bird!
A daddy longlegs, more properly called harvestman. Harvestmen are not spiders
and are harmless to humans. I've loved them since I was a child.
Our final stop of the day was Purdon Conservation Area, famous for its
thriving colony of a large, beautiful wild orchid, the Showy Ladyslipper. But
we arrived to find the orchids not yet in bloom. The many tall shoots promised
an incredible show once they are. I plan to go back on my own (and/or with
Michael) in late June, when they should be at peak. The carnivorous Pitcher
Plants were also not much to look at yet. But there were a few wildflowers
I've noticed quite a few tent caterpillars in Ottawa this spring, but that's
nothing compared to Lanark County. Sites we visited had an infestation of epic
proportions, with tents and caterpillars everywhere you looked. In the trees,
in the bushes, on the ground, on your backpack, on your head. The deposit box
for park fees at Murphy's Point had a mass of a few dozen crawling atop it. At
one spot on the trail, we heard a sound like gentle, pattering rain coming
from the woods. I learned what it was the next day on Wikipedia. It was the
sound of umpteen caterpillar fecal pellets falling from the treetops.
Tent caterpillars are shunned by most birds, spiny as they are, but the North
American cuckoos (Black-Billed Cuckoo and Yellow-Billed Cuckoo) eat them with
relish. Quoting from Life Histories of North American Birds
No caterpillars are safe from the Cuckoo. It does not matter how hairy or
spiny they are, or how well they may be protected by webs. Often the stomach
of the Cuckoo will be found lined with a felted mass of caterpillar hairs, and
sometimes its intestines are pierced by the spines of the noxious caterpillars
that it has swallowed. Wherever caterpillar outbreaks occur we hear the calls
of the Cuckoos. There they stay; there they bring their newly fledged young;
and the number of caterpillars they eat is incredible. [...] When, in time,
the inside of the bird's stomach becomes so felted with a mass of hairs and
spines that it obstructs digestion, the bird can shed the entire
stomach-lining, meanwhile growing a new one.
Yes, really. Cuckoos are so specialized to a diet of spiny caterpillars that
they have evolved the ability to shed and regrow their entire stomach lining.
So it was a surprise to not see a single one amidst this massive infestation!
Not even in what looked like ideal habitat. I'd certainly seen more cuckoos
this spring in Ottawa than ever before. Before I'd even noticed the
caterpillars, the tents, before it was on the public's radar that we were
having an infestation, the cuckoos had noticed. I saw a pair of them together
at Nortel wetland in May, a third at Shirley's Bay the day after that. These
are elusive birds; it is abnormal (wonderfully abnormal) to see so much of
them! But our Lanark outing came up empty, the only two of our target species
that we missed entirely. They were undoubtedly there, but remained unseen and
So I had to content myself with photographing the prey, not the predator.
Forest Tent Caterpillars
I actually found them pretty up close.
This declining species bucks the usual habitat preference for sandpipers (in a
word, wet) by favoring dry, open country with tall grass. Since unfarmed
grassland is increasingly rare in eastern North America, Upland Sandpipers are
also increasingly rare. At Franktown Road (one of just a few known spots for
the species in Ottawa) we found this one flying around and perching on a power
line, and heard, distantly, the strange, twittering "wolf whistle"
that they use as a mating call.
Seen on the drive to Murphy's Point. After the White Pelican, this was the
rarest bird of the day.