At first glance it’s hard to believe this tiny creature is a dragonfly. Its body is barely three-quarters of an inch long, the kind of size that makes you wonder if your sense of proportion has suddenly been thrown for a loop.
It is an Elfin Skimmer, and it’s the smallest dragonfly in North America. And it lives right here in Muskoka, one of thousands of little-regarded creatures that call our forests, fields, lakes, and rivers home.
Chances are you’ve never seen an Elfin Skimmer. Their size makes them hard to spot, of course, but they also favour habitats that few of us visit, like sedge meadows and certain kinds of bogs. Aaron Rusak has seen them, but that’s because he spends time exploring just these kinds of places. And because he knows what to look for.
Aaron is a naturalist by vocation and by avocation – the president of the Muskoka Field Naturalists, he also works for the Georgian Bay Land Trust, surveying properties to see what species are to be found there. “I get to go to spots where nobody has walked in 50 years,” he says.
Most people, he says, have absolutely no idea of the diversity of species found in Muskoka. “There are over 100 species of butterfly here,” he says. “Over 30 species of orchid.”
Some of them are living in areas that people just don’t tend to go. This past winter Aaron spent four weekends snowshoeing a conservation reserve outside Bracebridge. “The only way to get there is to walk in on the road allowance,” he says. “The whole conservation reserve is a giant wetland. It’s not an easy walk in summer, but it’s good snowshoeing in winter.”
He went there in search of a rare Black-Backed Woodpecker, a species that was seen nesting there years ago. “Are they still breeding there? We have no idea,” he says.
But you don’t need to be as committed – or obsessive – as Aaron to see species that are rare, or just new to you. A simple walk down a trail can be all it takes. The Torrance Barrens, a large conservation reserve near Bala, is home to all manner of creatures that are rare enough to be classified as At Risk. And not all are tucked away at the back of the property. “I’ve seen Species At Risk just five metres off the trail,” Aaron says.
Or just take a closer look on your own property. Aaron’s “backyard list” details roughly 300 different species of birds he’s spotted in his own yard.
You don’t even need to leave your chair or car. There are days in the fall when you can spot a dozen different kinds of hawks flying right overhead as they migrate southward. Drive down the right road in summer and you might spot a sea of white Lady Tresses orchids, or maybe the shocking hot pink of Tuberous Grass-pink orchids. Sit on your deck and you may see a bizarre creature that looks a bit like a hummingbird-sized bee flitting from flower to flower – it’s one of the five species of hummingbird moth found in Muskoka.
Some of these creatures are incredibly vulnerable. In some cases, the mere act of going to remote areas to look for them risks damaging their habitat or disrupting their life cycle. “It’s a paradox, for sure,” says Aaron. “We want people to be able to experience these unique places, but not do it willy-nilly.”
Guided hikes are a superb way to see Muskoka through fresh eyes and in a safe way. Groups like the Muskoka Field Naturalists and the Muskoka Conservancy offer regular hikes as well as webinars and in-person meetings where newbies are welcome to listen, ask questions, and learn.
When you spot something, Aaron says, share it. iNaturalist is a massive database of sightings, used by everyone from school children to professional scientists. The iNaturalist app, and the related Seek app, are also fantastic tools for identifying what you’re seeing.
“There’s so much we don’t know about species in Muskoka,” says Aaron. “If everyone is paying a little bit of attention, we can learn so much.”
ARTICLE BY ANDREW WAGNER-CHAZALON