The South March Highlands

Yellow Trout Lily

One of my favourite places to go birding in late May and early June is the South March Highlands in Kanata North. It is said that this forest has the highest ecological value and biodiversity of any area within the City of Ottawa, with more than 654 species found within its borders – some of which are considered to be species at risk, such as the Blanding’s Turtle, Least Bittern, and Butternut Tree. These Canadian Shield uplands are rich in wetlands and mature forest, with marshes, ponds, deciduous forest and coniferous forest all accessible via a network of trails. Despite its ecological significance, the City of Ottawa has allowed parts of the forest to be sold to developers and clear-cut for new homes and the infamous Terry Fox Drive extension. Still, the forest that remains is a beautiful spot for birding, though it is extremely popular with mountain bikers and caution should be taken not to block the trails while scanning the tree tops for warblers!

It is usually quieter during the week, particularly if you get there early; however, it was 10:30 am by the time I arrived as I had stopped to check out the Eagleson Storm Water ponds first. The later hour meant it was warm enough for dragonflies to be flying, and I found two species in the open area near the Klondike Road entrance: Beaverpond Baskettail and American Emerald. I got a much nicer photo of the baskettail even though it doesn’t show the cerci clearly enough for identification:

Beaverpond Baskettail

The South March Highlands is a beautiful spot for spring wildflowers. Columbine is one of my favourites; these flowers are native to woodland and rocky slopes in eastern North America, growing in light shade to partial sun. Because of their tolerance for shade I grow them in my own garden.


Trilliums and violets, too, were in bloom. The Great White Trillium is known as Ontario’s official provincial wildflower, though there are five species of trillium present in our province. The others are Red Trillium, Painted Trillium, Drooping Trillium, and Nodding Trillium. I always look for Red Trilliums in the spring, though I seldom find them; their deep red colour is gorgeous. I’ve only seen a Painted Trillium once, in Larose Forest a long time ago, and I’ve never seen the others. All of these five species are found in the understory of rich, deciduous or mixed, forests. The Drooping Trillium is considered to be a species at risk as a result of habitat loss and degradation. Picking trilliums is discouraged as it may cause them to die – because they have such a short period above-ground, they need as much sunlight as possible to create and store the necessary nutrients for the plant to survive for the rest of the year and through the winter. They are protected in provincial parks and on property owned by conservation authorities.

Great White Trillium

Because the day was warm and sunny, a few butterflies were visible in the open spaces. I saw Northern Spring Azures, an Eastern Pine Elfin, a Black Swallowtail, and this Juvenal’s Duskywing, a member of the skipper family. These are usually the first skippers I see in the spring before the typical orange-coloured grass skippers emerge in June.

Juvenal’s Duskywing

Eastern Pine Elfin

There wasn’t much activity at the bridge, though it seems like it would be a beautiful spot for dragonflies later in the season. This photo shows the typical South March Highlands landscape with the rocks rising from the water – it reminds me of Algonquin Park a lot of ways. This bridge is called Confederation Bridge according to the sign there – definitely not on the same level as the Confederation Bridge that connects P.E.I. to mainland Canada!

Confederation Bridge

The deeper you go into the trail system, the more large ponds and small lakes there are. This time of year there aren’t many ducks or waterfowl around; I heard a Pied-billed Grebe calling from one of the marshy areas, and saw only a couple of mallards and Canada Geese. The only other “water” birds I observed in the South March Highlands were a Virginia Rail (heard in the large marsh at the beginning of the trail) and an Osprey hunting for fish, and that’s not even a real water bird! In the fall, however, I’ve seen Wood Ducks and Hooded Mergansers, so it wouldn’t surprise me if other waterfowl stop here on their migration journeys.

Lake within the South March Highlands

Snakes were out and about on the warm day, and I was happy to see a Northern Water Snake slithering through the vegetation on the other side of the lake.

Northern Water Snake

The birding, of course, was fabulous. I ended up with 46 species in four hours, with a total of 8 kilometres walked (four in and four out). I heard a Ruffed Grouse drumming and saw an Osprey fly over. Thrushes were well-represented, with one Swainson’s Thrush (seen – I never hear these guys in migration), one Veery, three Wood Thrushes, and several robins. I had ten species of warbler altogether, including the usual Common Yellowthroats in the marshes, three Pine Warblers in the woods, two Ovenbirds, one Black-and-white Warbler, one Magnolia Warbler (heard only), one Blackburnian Warbler, five Yellow Warblers, three Chestnut-sided Warblers, two Black-throated Blue Warblers (including one female seen and a second bird heard), one Yellow-rumped Warbler, and six Black-throated Green Warblers. Four Scarlet Tanagers and one Baltimore Oriole added colour, while Great Crested Flycatchers called from the forest edges.

The number of Purple Finches surprised me – it’s not uncommon to hear one or two in most conservation areas on the outskirts of the city. However, on my hike I heard two, then found a group of four foraging together. They are often difficult to photograph as they like to sing from the tops of the conifers, but the group I saw was flitting around the trees just above my head.

Purple Finch

The number of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks was also surprising – eleven altogether! I found three single birds, as well as two pairs and a group of four foraging on the trail. These birds have delightful songs reminiscent of a robin’s, though the notes are soft and mellow, strung together in a fluid ribbon of sound, and often interspersed with a high-pitched squeak.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Even though it was quite late by the time I left, the trail system is large enough that even on a nice day on the weekend the trail wasn’t too busy. This is quite a different experience from Mud Lake or the trails in Stony Swamp, where the parking lots are often full by 10:00 or 11:00, with group after group passing you (or you trying to pass a group of six or more people stopping to feed the chickadees). In the South March Highlands, there is enough room for people to disperse without tripping over one another, which is one of my favourite reasons for visiting. Although I don’t get here often, I always enjoy the time spent here, as well as all the delightful creatures that live here or stop by on their journeys somewhere else.

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