A Visit to Murphy’s Point Provincial Park

Barred Owl

I took the second week of May off work to do some birding. I wasn’t able to able to get to southern Ontario for my usual Point Pelee/Rondeau Park trip due to family reasons, and as I didn’t want to drive too far I thought I would spend three nights in Westport and visit the nearby parks and conservation areas. Both Murphy’s Point and Frontenac Provincial Parks are about a 40-minute drive from Westport, and the Foley Mountain Conservation Area is just outside of town. I thought this would be a great way to enjoy spring migration in a few different counties, see some southern specialties that don’t quite make it to Ottawa, and get a much-needed change of scenery without having to spend too much time in a car or on a train.

Unfortunately the weather forecast looked awful for the week, with rain forecast for all three days and temperatures only reaching about 15°C. The worst day was supposed to be Tuesday with a 60% chance of rain, while Wednesday and Thursday showed only a 30% chance of rain. The sun was shining when I left Monday afternoon, but I hadn’t gotten very far before the clouds moved in, and the rain started just after I left Perth. Even Monday was a write-off in terms of weather, although I did spend an hour at Foley Mountain walking the trails with my umbrella to get a sense of what it was like.

The next morning I was out the door around 6:00 am in order to get a head start to Murphy’s Point. Fortunately the Country Kitchen restaurant in Westport opened at 6:00 so I was able to get a good meal before I set out (there was no restaurant or room service at the motel). The day was overcast but the drive was smooth, and I had no trouble finding my way to Murphy’s Point. I drove to the self-serve registration booth inside the park, got a permit, then turned around and headed out to the Silver Queen Mica Mine Trail. This is one of the best trails in the park, and Doran and I had visited it in 2014 on a July camping trip. It is supposed to be a hotspot for Eastern Towhee, Golden-winged Warbler, and Indigo Bunting; I was disappointed in 2014 not to get the Golden-winged Warbler and hoped to find this one time.

A light misty rain was falling as I got out of the car, so I grabbed my umbrella in case the mist turned into a downpour. The park was quiet – so far I’d only seen a single car while getting my permit, and there were no other hikers on the trail. I’m not sure whether that was because it was a weekday, because of the weather, or just because it was too early in the season for most people. The rain wasn’t strong enough to open the umbrella, and in time it stopped. Right away I heard one Eastern Towhee singing near the trail entrance, and heard two more as I progressed down the trail. One flew down to the wet grass looking for food – presumably seeds or small insects.

Eastern Towhee

I heard a Golden-winged Warbler singing close to the trail but despite my attempts I wasn’t able to locate it in the emerging foliage. A couple of Black-and-white Warblers, a Brown Thrasher, and a Chestnut-sided Warbler were also very vocal.

I came across a flock of sparrows and only managed to identify a White-crowned Sparrow and a couple of White-throated Sparrows before they flew deeper into the tangles. I tallied a total of five Song Sparrows, but was surprised to find no other species – the open brushy field on the right-hand side of the trail is great habitat for both Chipping and Field Sparrows.

Woods dominate the left-hand side of the trail, and I wasn’t surprised to hear a Wood Thrush singing from deep within or a Ruffed Grouse drumming in the distance. Red-eyed Vireos were singing, as was a single Ovenbird, and near the back of the trail I heard two Pine Warblers, a Hermit Thrush, and a Black-throated Green Warbler. A little further along I came across a Cape May Warbler and an American Redstart foraging fairly low for warblers – just above head height – and I heard two more Golden-winged Warblers. I still really wanted to see one, but they were somewhere in the field and I didn’t want to wander off the trail due to potential ticks. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks also were singing from prominent perches as they foraged, though they never stayed out in the open for very long.

Eastern Towhees were very common, and by the time I had added seven or eight birds I tripped the eBird filter. I counted ten altogether, and don’t believe I double counted any – each bird was very visible and vocal, and the were all equally spaced out along the loop. I only saw single birds except a male and female near the beaver pond.

Eastern Towhee

Due to the poor lighting I didn’t take many photos, but the trail is gorgeous and the old structures provided some nice texture on an otherwise dreary day.

Along the Silver Queen Mine Trail

Along the Silver Queen Mine Trail

Miner’s Bunkhouse at the Silver Queen Mine Trail

After leaving the mine area the trail skirts around the beaver pond and heads through the woods. I saw a pair of Tree Swallows flying over the water and heard a warbler I didn’t recognize – if I hadn’t seen it for myself I never would have guessed it was a Chestnut-sided Warbler singing. A Great Crested Flycatcher was flycatching in the trees surrounding what looked like a pond that had been drained, and a couple of Red-eyed Vireos sang from the tree tops.

The entire trail only took an hour and a half, so I crossed the road and followed the trail past the Lally Homestead to the water. I heard another Ruffed Grouse drumming, and, in the small woodlot, a Yellow-throated Vireo. I saw a pair of Wood Thrush flying together, landing on the same branch before flying off to another, and heard another Golden-winged Warbler that I couldn’t locate. At the rocky ledge overlooking the water I heard a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, saw a Gray Catbird, and saw four male Wood Ducks in the marshy area adjacent to the river. I also saw four huge Turkey Vultures feeding on the carcass of a mammal on the river bank across from where I was standing, but they flew off as soon as I stepped out into the open and I couldn’t grab a shot of them.

That trail only took me 40 minutes, and I was there for the day, so I decided to do the Silver Queen Mine Trail again. There were a couple of reasons for this: first, it’s the best trail in the park for seeing Golden-winged Warblers and I really wanted to see one instead of just hearing one. Second, I wanted to double-check my Eastern Towhee count. And third, the rain had stopped and the clouds seemed to be breaking up a bit.

Again, the towhees were quite vocal and quite visible for a species that likes to skulk on the ground beneath the shrubbery. Right at the beginning of the trail I saw two males and a female chasing each other, and again the others were all equally spaced out on the loop. I only counted nine this time, missing the female I had seen near the beaver pond on my first walk.

Most of the same birds were present in the same places, but this time I stopped when I heard the Ovenbird singing in a tree right beside the trail and got this photo:

Ovenbird

This time I had a flock of migrants in the woods near the bunkhouse and saw a pair of Eastern Phoebes in the same area. Pishing brought the migrants into view, and I saw a Blue-headed Vireo, a Warbling Vireo, and a female American Redstart. There was at least one other small songbird present in the group but I wasn’t able to get a good look at it.

One of the phoebes kept flying ahead of me as I entered the woods, and I managed to get this photo:

Eastern Phoebe

Also new on my second trip were a total of three Hooded Mergansers on the two ponds, a loon calling in the distance, and a Scarlet Tanager heard singing near the entrance. I didn’t see the Cape May Warbler again, but I finally managed to spot a Golden-winged Warbler out in the open! This alone made the second visit worth it. Altogether I counted 34 species on the first trip, and 39 species on the second, spending about the same amount of time (90 minutes) there each time. Unfortunately, the sun came out briefly on my second walk, and the black flies that emerged were vicious. I had never been swarmed so thoroughly before, and had to spray up immediately just to tolerate their buzzing. Fortunately the sun disappeared not long after, and the black flies disappeared back into the bush or grass or wherever they’d been hiding, and I was left to enjoy the rest of my walk in peace!

When I was finished the loop I returned to the park and slowly drove through the woods toward the park headquarters with my windows down to hear the birds singing in the canopy. I was fortunate to hear a Blackburnian Warbler singing right alongside the road as I neared the parking area and quickly parked the car, then walked down the road to see if I could spot it. Not only did I find it, I also found a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a group of Chipping Sparrows, an Eastern Phoebe, and an Osprey flying over!

I visited the park store then headed out to my final trail for the day: the Sylvan Trail. I had never done this trail before, and was looking forward to it as it features a mature hardwood forest and “rollercoaster topography”. My car was the only car in the parking lot when I arrived, and when I set off down the trail I scared up a Barred Owl on the ground even before I got to the side trail that leads to the beach. The owl must have been feeding or hunting something; of course I had no idea it was there until it flew up in front of me and landed in a tree right beside the trail. I’ve never seen a Barred Owl that wasn’t skittish, so I took a few pictures and slowly started edging past it.

Barred Owl

To my surprise the owl hardly even noticed me – it didn’t seem afraid or inclined to move! I wondered if I had interrupted its meal and it was waiting for me to leave so it could return to feeding. It watched me for a moment as I passed by, preened for a bit, then turned its head around like it didn’t care! I have never seen a Barred Owl that let me get so close, and it was quite a thrill.

Barred Owl

The woods were quite wet, and swampy in places, and the birding was slow. I heard both Red-bellied Woodpecker and Red-shouldered Hawk, two species I would have loved to have seen. Warblers were sparse, with only Yellow-rumped Warbler, Ovenbird, Black-throated Green Warbler, Pine Warbler and Black-and-white Warbler observed. I also saw a thrush walking around on the ground across a vernal pond, and got a good enough look at its rusty red tail to identify it as a Hermit Thrush. Unfortunately the puddles got too deep and too difficult to navigate, so I only managed to complete about 1.7 km of the 2.5 km trail before having to turn back.

Along Sylvan Trail

It looked like great salamander habitat, so I decided to turn over a couple of logs. I lifted only three logs, and found a pair of Eastern Red-backed Salamanders under one, nothing under the second, and another pair of Eastern Red-backed Salamanders under the third. None of them had a red stripe. I was really hoping for something new, such as Spotted Salamander, but found no more liftable logs close to the path.

Eastern Red-backed Salamander

I was surprised to see the Barred Owl still sitting in the exact same tree when I returned to the parking lot. Once again it let me walk softly by without flying off, making me wonder if it was used to people. That turned out to be my most amazing encounter at Murphy’s Point, although of course the Golden-winged Warblers and abundance of Eastern Towhees also made the visit a success! Altogether I found 62 species at Murphy’s Point, adding a good number to my Lanark County list. It’s a great place to visit during the warmer months of the year, and I would love to return in the early summer when the butterflies and odonates are flying and the birds are busy raising their young!

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