Though the butterfly season is not yet entirely over, it’s certainly not too early to declare 2012 one of the best years ever for observing butterflies in Ontario. Though most of the excitement was to be found in southwestern Ontario, we here in eastern Ontario were not without some great butterflying of our own.
At QUBS, like in much of the province’s south, the excitement came in the form of several waves of “invading” migratory species starting with red admirals (Vanessa atalanta), American ladies (V. virginiensis), painted ladies (V. cardui), question marks (Polygonia interrogationis) and common buckeyes (Junonia coenia) at record early dates and in unprecedented numbers during the March heat wave. Though red admirals, American ladies and question marks occur good numbers during most years, painted ladies and common buckeyes are rather rare species at QUBS. During this initial invasion we also had two grey hairstreaks (Strymon melinus) in a remote part of the Pangman Tract. Grey hairstreaks are yet another rare species at the station having been recorded on only a few occasions.
A second wave of migrants arrived a few weeks later. This second invasion had most of the above mentioned species plus mourning cloaks (Nymphalis antiopa), little yellows (Eurema lisa; rare at QUBS) and unusually high numbers of early season clouded (Colias philodice) and orange (C. eurytheme) sulphurs. In just the last few weeks even more invaders have arrived. Recently fiery skippers (Hylephila phyleus), at least one sachem (Atalopedes campestris) and two white-M hairstreaks (Parrhasius m-album) have reached the Kingston Region but none have yet been found at QUBS. In other parts of southern Ontario funereal duskywings (Erynnis funeralis), cloudless sulphurs (Phoebis sennae), dainty sulphurs (Nathalis iole), American snouts (Libytheana carinent) and variegated fritillaries (Euptoieta claudi) have all been recorded in greater abundance than usual.
In addition to migrants this has been a notable year for breeding giant swallowtails (Papilio cresphontes). Giant swallowtails have are now a common component of our butterfly fauna, but this is a fairly new species QUBS. The expansion of giant swallowtails out of southwestern Ontario and into our area started in 2008 when there were a few recorded along Opinicon Road; in 2009 there were about a dozen observations throughout QUBS lands; in 2010 they had become a little more common and more regularly encountered. By the spring of 2011 giant swallowtails were all of a sudden very common, especially on the Pangman and Hughson Tracts where we also found our first caterpillars. This spring, they were more abundant than ever; it was not unusual to count up to 20 adults on a single outing. By mid-summer the number of adults had decreased so that only a few were being daily, but caterpillars were abundant and widespread on northern prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) along field edges in sunny patches of forest. The large caterpillars which look like big droppings, smell like citrus and display a range of intriguing anti-predator behaviours when disturbed have caught the attention of many non-biologists too. I’ve had over a dozen inquiries about the “huge strange worms” from local residents and cottagers.
Another species of formerly southern butterfly may be found breeding at QUBS in the coming years. Wild indigo duskywings (Erynnis baptisiae) have recently arrived along the Lake Ontario shoreline near Bath and in Prince Edward County. We haven’t found any for certain yet at QUBS but several patches of one of this species’ larval food plants, crown-vetch (Securigera varia), are found on the roadsides near the station and could potentially support a small population of this drab little skipper. Identification of this species is rather complicated because it is virtually identical to columbine duskywing (E. lucilius), a very common species at QUBS. These two species are not reliably told apart in the field except when you can see what plant the females are ovipositing on (baptisiae on crown-vetch, lucilius on red columbine [Aquilegia canadensis]) With some careful observations and a little luck we may yet add wild indigo duskywing to our station list which presently stands at 79 species.
Eastern Ontario has its fair share of interesting and charismatic spiders. There are the argiopes (Argiope spp.), whose webs are decorated with an ultraviolet-reflective stabilimentum, presumably to attract insect prey; there are the enormous and parentally-minded pisaurids (Dolomedes and Pisaurina spp.) which carry their eggs with them in a bundle of silk to keep them safe from predators and parasitoids; there are also the beautifully marked jumping spiders (Salticidae) whose leaps propel them many times their own body length, and for safety sake always tether themselves with a string of silk. But among the most exciting spiders in our region is the highly venous and exceeding beautiful northern widow (Latrodectus variolus). I’ve found not one, but two northern widows at Queen’s University Biological Station this year; perhaps the first year this species has ever been documented there.
The northern widow is a close relative of the better known and often maligned black widow (L. mactans). Black widows are typically confined to the southern United States and their distribution does not normally include Canada. Occasionally black widows (and other charismatic subtropical invertebrates) arrive in Canada on shipments of produce from the southern states but probably do not survive long outside of buildings. Northern widows however are native, though they seem to be fairly rare throughout most of Eastern Ontario. In southwestern Ontario they are a little more common, with several large localized populations. Throughout much of their range though they are patchily distributed and not often encountered. Many people are not even aware of their existence in the province.
The first of the two females at QUBS was found below a black light at Ironwood Cottage on QUBS Point. She had constructed a nest and egg sac under a cinder block. She preyed on a mixture of insects attracted to the black light including June beetles (Phyllophaga spp.) and medium-sized moths. The second female was underneath a flat rock on a rock barren at the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre. The only prey item found in this female’s web were parts of a Pennsylvania woodroach (Parcoblatta pennsylvanica). This female also had an egg sac.
According to most sources northern widows can produce painful and potentially dangerous bites, but apparently no fatalities have been reported from the bite of this species, at least in Ontario. Widows in general are retiring spiders that typically only bite humans during accidental interactions. Their neurotoxic venom can cause pain and breathing difficulties and in the case of the black widow, can be fatal to young children or the infirmed. Northern widow bites should be taken seriously and a physician should be seen if you are unlucky enough to be bitten by one.
Next summer year I’ll be on the lookout for more northern widows across the rock barrens and inside the various abandoned buildings at QUBS. It’s impossible to say if we’ve always had a small and cryptic population of this species that’s just gone unnoticed, or if northern widows have only recently arrived here. The presence of eggs sacs clearly shows that whatever the history of widows at QUBS was, there is currently a reproductive population.
Although the 2010 dragonfly flight season has not yet begun, we already have two new rare species to add to the station checklist. Digging around in some old documents I turned up one record of a swamp darner (Epiaeschna heros) on July 15, 1975 along Queen’s University Road and one record of a stygian shadowdragon (Neurocordulia yamaskanensis) at Hart Lake on Aug 17, 2004 (Catling et al. 2005). These are to my knowledge the first records of these rare species at QUBS. Both of species were listed as hypothetical (i.e. not yet recorded at QUBS but expected to be found) on the new dragonfly checklist (Smith et al. 2009). The new statuses that will appear in an updated version of the checklist will be Rare for swamp darner and Rare and Local for stygian shadowdragon.
The swamp darner record is an old one and no observer names are given. Catling et al (2005) report that there was a specimen in the QUBS collection, but that specimen appears to have been lost. Queen’s University Road, where the specimen was collected, has proven to be a good location for finding rare dragonflies. Two harlequin darners (Gomphaeschna furcillata) were discovered there in 2009 (MAC) and a Cyrano darner (Nasiaeschna pentacantha) was captured some years ago (Floyd Connor, pers. comm.).
Stygian shadowdragon is a crepuscular species that always seems to be under reported wherever it is found. That being said it appears to be genuinely rare at QUBS. The single record for stygian shadowdragon at QUBS was a single exuvium found by Paul Catling and Brenda Kostiuk. They discovered a single exuvium near a creek that flows into Hart Lake. Apparently this exuvium is now a voucher specimen in the Canadian National Collection (Catling et al. 2005).
Not only are both of these species rare at QUBS, but they are regionally rare too. Kurt Hennige of the Kingston Field Naturalists says that swamp darners are seldom reported in the Kingston region. There have been four records near Outlet (Charleston Lake area). As for stygian shadowdragon, David Bree (Ontario Parks) caught two in June 2008 at Elbow Lake. Apparently this was the first record of this species for the area (Hennige, pers. comm.). The record in Cartling et al (2005) precedes it by four years.
It is exciting to add such uncommon species to the QUBS list. Perhaps more interesting records will turn up as we find the time to sort through old documentation. An updated dragonfly checklist for QUBS will be posted on the website later this spring. – Posted by Mark Andrew Conboy