A Cuckoo at Frontenac Provincial Park

Black-billed Cuckoo

On May 15th I again woke up early, got my breakfast at the Country Kitchen restaurant in Westport, and hit the road before 7:00 am. It was a bright sunny day, and although I knew the forecast was calling for showers in the afternoon, I hoped to have enough time to explore Frontenac Park while the sun was shining and find some interesting birds and butterflies. Southern species such as Yellow-throated Vireo and Cerulean Warbler were on my wish list, as was a butterfly called the West Virginia White. Peter Hall had seen a couple in the park only a week earlier, and I had received directions as to where I would find them. The morning was cool, but I hoped it would warm up enough for a few to be flying before the rain moved in!

Almost right away I saw a lovely Red-tailed Hawk perching on a telephone pole just outside of Westport. The drive was lovely, weaving through several small lakes with fewer agricultural areas than I had seen on my drive to Murphy’s Point the day before. Just before entering the park I found a lovely spot next to North Otter Lake with a boat launch providing access to the water. I pulled over, got out of the car, and immediately heard a variety of birds calling: Northern Waterthrush, Common Yellowthroat, Warbling Vireo, American Redstart, and even a Common Loon!

I drove to the park headquarters, which was, open, paid for a permit and asked the guy at the desk which were the best spots to go birdwatching. He recommended the Doe Lake Trail and Arab Lake Gorge Trail, both starting at the main office, as a beginner’s guide to the park; he also recommended the Bufflehead Trail deeper within the park. The Doe Lake Trail is 3 km in length, featuring lakeshores and beaver ponds and is considered “moderate”, while the Arab Lake Gorge Trail is half that distance, features an extensive boardwalk, and is considered “easy”. I figured I would start off on the Doe Lake Trail then try the Gorge Trail once it warmed up in order to look for the West Virginia Whites.

Boardwalk at Arab Lake Gorge Trail

Once again I had the whole trail to myself. It starts off with a boardwalk crossing the creek that flows into South Otter Lake then following the shoreline of the lake. I saw two beavers swimming around the mouth of the creek as well as a female Hooded Merganser.

Crossing the creek

Hooded Merganser

Two White-tailed Deer near the start of the trail surprised me.

White-tailed deer

I also saw several Eastern Chipmunks but very few squirrels.

Eastern Chipmunk

Several Yellow-rumped Warblers singing caught my attention, as did the scratchy songs of a couple of Scarlet Tanagers. There were at least three of them right at the beginning of the trail, and I was listening to them for a while. I saw three males, all high up in the trees, although there may have been a few more.

I stopped along the water’s edge to check out an island in the middle of the lake. There was an Osprey’s nest at the top of one tree, with an Osprey sitting in it. At the base of the island I noticed a bright white spot resting against the shore; it turned out to be a Common Loon on a nest, and I was amazed that a loon and an osprey would be nesting in such close proximity! The two nests barely show up in this photo:

Two nests

There was also a Winter Wren singing somewhere on the far shore, though I had no hope of spotting it. I headed deeper into the woods, leaving South Otter Lake behind. I found a nice sunny side trail that led to a large clearing where I saw six Brown-headed Cowbirds flying around together, an American Redstart, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and several Chipping Sparrows. Back in the woods, however, the birds were few and far between. I heard a Blue-headed Vireo and a couple of Ovenbirds, and as the trail passed by Doe Lake and entered an area dominated by pines, several Pine Warblers. I found another flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers including a couple foraging close to the ground. I also heard a Nashville Warbler singing somewhere along the shore of Doe Lake, and spotted a muskrat swimming in the water.

The clouds moved in shortly after that. I heard Common Yellowthroats along the edge of the water and Black-and-white Warblers in the woods. I also heard another Winter Wren close to a small boardwalk that passes over the western end of Doe Lake. Some blue hepatica growing along the slope there caught my attention, as I only see pink or white Hepatica in Ottawa:

Hepatica sp.

Although it seemed that the birds consisted mostly of breeding species, a couple of migrating White-crowned Sparrows were still present. I also saw two Gray Catbirds in the same area.

White-crowned Sparrow

Squirrels were difficult to come by, and this red squirrel washing its face was too cute not to photograph.

American Red Squirrel

Altogether I found the Doe Lake Trail fantastic in terms of habitat, but sparse in terms of migrants. While I found lots of breeding species, only the two flocks of Yellow-rumped Warblers and the single Blue-headed Vireo were notable. This is likely because, similar to Murphy’s Point PP, Frontenac PP is not a migrant trap and the birds disperse throughout the park where they find suitable habitat. A peninsula like Point Pelee NP or Rondeau PP helps concentrate birds after they have crossed Lake Erie, and Mud Lake is the only large green space visible to migrants passing over the city’s west end before crossing the Ottawa river. However, parks that are not situated on such peninsulas or in the middle of a sterile concrete desert are better suited for finding local specialties rather than mixed flocks of warblers, and it was for this reason I had come hoping to see both.

I tried my luck at the Arab Lake Gorge Trail next. It was short, and the first part meanders along a boardwalk at the bottom of the gorge. It was here that Peter had found the West Virginia White butterflies, but now that the clouds had moved in, I wasn’t sure whether I could expect to find any. I heard a Northern Waterthrush and an American Redstart singing near the start of the trail, but there no other birds at the bottom of the gorge. I was happy to find some Red Trilliums in bloom; these are one of my favourite spring ephemerals.

Red Trillium

As expected, there were no butterflies flying. The boardwalk ends less than a kilometer later, and then the trail crosses over the marshy creek to climb the wall of the gorge. In the woods on the other side I saw a porcupine in a tree and heard a Black-and-White Warbler singing. I also heard two Brown Creepers singing and managed to spot them both. Other species observed include Red-eyed Vireo, Ovenbird, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Blue Jay, Purple Finch, and two woodpecker species.

This small hover fly was the only notable insect on my walk:

Narrow-headed Marsh Fly

The sun was coming out as I left the park office parking lot, so I drove up the narrow road to the next parking lot. There was only room for one car on the road, and I was nervous that I would meet a vehicle coming the other way, but once again I appeared to be the only visitor around. I did see a park vehicle on the road behind me, but I pulled off into the parking lot before it caught up with me.

Unlike Algonquin Park, which has a trailhead at a parking lot every couple of kilometeres along Highway 60, Frontenac Park has only three parking lots on the main road, with a network of trails branching off each. To get to the Bufflehead Trail (an 8 kilometer loop) I needed to follow the Arkon Lake trail from the road first, and that itself was a couple of kilometers! I knew I wouldn’t have time to hike all of it, but I figured I would see how far I would get before I got tired or the rain clouds appeared too ominous to continue. I ate my sandwich in the car, then got out and headed for the Arkon Lake trail entrance. A bird sitting still in the tree right where the parking lot meets the road caught my attention, and when I put my binoculars on it I was stunned to see a Black-billed Cuckoo!

Black-billed Cuckoo

This has always been a nemesis bird of my mine. They aren’t common in Ottawa, and I usually hear them without seeing them. They like brushy open areas, such as the Dunrobin area or the Ottawa airport, and to date I’ve only ever gotten one (bad) photo of one when I found a cuckoo at the Stony Swamp Trail on West Hunt Club. I was thrilled beyond words when it just sat there, allowing me to take as many photos as I liked! This was one of the species I was hoping to see on my trip, as they are more common in the Frontenac Arch than in Ottawa. At least one wish came true!

I crossed the road and headed toward the trail entrance, scanning the vegetation and swampy areas for interesting insects and flowers. I didn’t see any. I easily found the trail entrance, and I hadn’t even gone ten metres when I heard the distinctive buzzy song of a Yellow-throated Vireo! It sounded very close, and when I started pishing it flew into a tree right above me!

The trail passed by one beaver pond, then entered the woods where it descended a steep valley and climbed up the other side. At the top of the valley a small waterfall trickled down into the valley, and I saw a pair of Wood Thrush flying around together near the water. There were more hills and valleys, and I came to another beaver pond where I saw a Great Blue Heron. I climbed the next hill, and found myself in a relatively open area with fewer trees where I heard a couple of warblers, including American Redstart, Nashville Warbler, and Black-and-white Warbler. I also heard a buzzy two-part song I couldn’t immediately identify. I suspected it might be a Cerulean Warbler, and when I played the song quietly on my iPhone, it was a match! I tracked the bird down to the edge of the trees at the top of the slope but couldn’t see it, so I tried pishing. The bird was very reactive (as was the Nashville Warbler) and landed in a tree right above my head! Unfortunately it wouldn’t stay still long enough for a photo, and the overcast sky made for a horrible background anyway, so I didn’t try to take any pictures. This was the first time I had ever seen a Cerulean Warbler, and I was stunned by the beauty of its soft blue and white stripes. It was not like any of the warblers I’d ever seen, so the hike was definitely worth it!

I decided to turn around at that point as I had already hiked 2 kilometers and I didn’t want to go too much further in case the rain started. On my way back I heard a second Cerulean Warbler, and when I pished it again flew in toward me! Unfortunately it kept high up within the canopy so I only caught a glimpse of it.

I reached the first deep, wooded valley and found two white butterflies flying. I wasn’t able to get a great look at them as they kept landing on the ground several feet from the trail, so I took a few distant photos. This one shows the light, fuzzy lines of a West Virginia White butterfly – the Mustard White looks similar in appearance, except the lines are much darker and heavier with a greenish tinge. This was a lifer for me!

West Virginia White

I also saw a Great Crested Flycatcher and heard a pair of Ovenbirds. I also saw about 20 grackles foraging on one of the slopes; they all flew up off the ground as I approached and headed toward the lake close by. A couple of male Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were also singing nearby, and I saw one of them on the ground:

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

By the time I got back to the car it was after 2:00 and clouds were still moving in. I headed back to Westport, extremely happy with the way the day had turned out. I got one lifer butterfly, took my first good photo of a Black-billed Cuckoo, and saw my first Cerulean Warbler. It was also great seeing the Yellow-throated Vireo, instead of just hearing it. Altogether I ended up with 53 species for Frontenac County, bringing my lifetime total up to 63. I would love to return to Frontenac Park, perhaps later in the summer when there are more butterflies and dragonflies flying. Although I was a bit disappointed there weren’t many short trails accessible from the various parking areas, the park was very beautiful, and well worth a return trip!

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