When to Look? | Carolinian Canada

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When to Look?

In order to increase your chances of finding a rare species, you need to understand a bit about their biology, behavior and annual life cycle.  There are certain times of year when species become more active, colourful, and easier to spot, for example when flowers first emerge on a plant, when male birds in full breeding plumage first appear and vocally announce their territory, or when newly emerged butterflies take wing.   For migratory species, or species that hibernate over the winter, there are only particular months of the year when they can be observed at all. Those who register to participate in the Inventory will have access to a Companion Resource to the Participant Kit that provides detailed information for all of Elgin’s Species at Risk, including important life cycle events and their timing, conspicuous behaviours, and comprehensive habitat descriptions, as well as links to additional resources for each species.  Here, we give a general seasonal overview of what to expect and when.

Early Spring

Before the snow has even fully melted, early bird migrants will begin to arrive and frog calls may be heard from shallow pools created by the spring thaw.

Western Chorus Frogs and Spring Peepers are amongst the first to appear in the spring, calling from woodland wetlands or temporary ponds in open country as early as the end of March, before the ice has completely disappeared. Salamanders, including the endangered Jefferson, also travel to temporary breeding ponds in the woods to lay their eggs. Early spring is when Spotted Turtles are most active in small, shallow bodies of water, such as bogs, marshes, fens, coastal wetlands and small ponds; later they will build their nests on land near the water in sites with lots of sun. Butler’s Gartersnakes usually emerge from hibernation in early-April and can be found in both urban and agricultural areas, in open grassy spaces near wetlands, usually well concealed amongst the dense grass and dead vegetation. Table 2 provides tips for finding some of Elgin’s rare amphibians and reptiles.

The first significant migrating birds start to trickle onto breeding grounds in April. Feeling lucky?  One of the first birds to arrive in the spring is the endangered Eastern Loggerhead Shrike, often found perched atop a shrub in open and sparse pastureland or hunting from hydro lines at the roadside, as early as late-March.  This species has not been recorded in Elgin County since 1952, but much suitable breeding habitat remains.  Among the first at-risk birds to arrive in mid-April are Chimney Swifts, most easily seen at dusk in large flocks around urban chimneys which they use for breeding. The male Eastern Meadowlark, yellow breast blazing, can be heard singing in the early morning from the tops of small trees or fence posts in pastures, old fields, and hayfields.   Also early to arrive are Barn Swallows, catching insects on the wing over open land and water.

False Rue-anemone is one of the first rare plants to flower in early spring.  A member of the buttercup family, look for the small delicate white flowers in mature forests close to watercourses in lowlands such as floodplains, valleys and ravine bottoms.   Preferring partial sun, the plants are often densely clustered in a small area.  Elgin County is one of the last locations in Canada where this species is known to occur.

Late Spring- Early Summer

This is really the most active time of year in the forests, fields and wetlands of Elgin County. The air is alive with birdsong and calling frogs. Surveys for birds are usually done during the breeding season, between late May and early July. There is usually a flurry of activity while pairs build their nests, and again when eggs first hatch. Clutches of young demand to be fed, keeping their parents busy hunting for food and making frequent trips back and forth. Many species are able to nest twice over the breeding season, and some species like Wood Thrush have been known to triple-clutch in southern Ontario.

In late May or early June, female Blanding’s Turtles excavate their nests in sunny locations with good drainage. This species will travel up to several kilometers overland from their pond or wetland searching for a nesting site, the largest movement of any Ontario turtle. Snapping Turtles also venture far overland in search of warm, sandy or gravelly embankments in which to deposit their eggs.

Badgers also see increased activity and movement over the summer months. While mostly nocturnal, they can be very active in the mornings. Badgers live in open habitats such as grasslands, agricultural fields and even golf courses, where daily activity is centered around their burrows. Juveniles usually disperse from their natal den site in June or July, moving long distances through a variety of terrains. This wide-ranging behavior makes them extremely vulnerable to collisions with vehicles on roads. Badgers are so rare and elusive that reports of sightings from the public are a critical component to recovery efforts; reports of burrows, roadkill, even mounted or stuffed badgers and childhood memories are being collected (see Appendix 3 for details). Badgers can be good to have around the farm, as they can help control rodent pests.

Late Summer and Fall

During this period, July to early September, wildflowers and butterflies of open country take the spotlight.   This is the time of year when many prairie plants, such as Dense Blazing Star, Compass Plant, and rare goldenrods and asters are in full bloom. 

It is possible to identify most tree and shrub species by their bark, leaves, and nuts or fruit, so they can often be surveyed until the winter snows fly.  Butternut, American Chestnut, Eastern Flowering Dogwood and Shumard Oak are just some of the species to watch for in Elgin.  In the woodlands, late summer and early fall is a good time to be on the lookout for the bright red berries of American Ginseng, a knee-high species that is seriously threatened by poaching in Ontario.  If you find a population, be sure to share its location only with the NHIC and people who you are sure will have the best interests of the plants in mind.

July is a great time to organize a butterfly count, where enthusiasts scour the county and document every species of butterfly they can find.  Elgin County is home to two of Ontario’s rarest dragonflies: Laura’s Clubtail and Riverine Clubtail – look for them in the summer cruising along clean, clear streams.   In these aquatic habitats, be on the lookout for shells of rare and endangered freshwater mussels – be sure to take photographs of any you see and submit them to NHIC for expert identification.  The streams of Elgin County are also home to fishes of conservation concern, which, if you have a keen eye, you may be able to spot from the shore or from your canoe.

Some of the birds that breed in Elgin may still be feeding their young in August when the first migrants start to arrive from the north.  Early fall migrants include flycatchers, warblers and many species of shorebirds.  Although the Natural Heritage Inventory is less focused on transient species than on those that breed in Elgin County, knowing the locations of important staging areas for migrants is valuable information to the conservation community.

By late September, nights are cool and the growing season has wound down.  It is an excellent time of year to see snakes, which often venture out on the roads to warm up on the solar-heated pavement, at their peril!  Snakes are also on the move to return to their overwintering sites, which may be some distance from where they have spent the summer.  Knowing where these road crossing locations are can help us make decisions on how to reduce snake mortality. 


Some significant non-migratory bird species, such as Northern Bobwhite, which has become extremely rare in Ontario, may be found in winter.  Short-eared Owls, which may be resident birds or migrants from the north, are an example of another species of conservation concern that sometimes winters in the open fields in Elgin County. 

Winter is also a good time to look for mammal tracks in the snow – if you’re really lucky maybe you’ll find the footprints of an American Badger!

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