The Sunny South March Highlands

Red Columbine

It rained almost all day on Saturday, June 15th, so my hopes of going out and finding butterflies and dragonflies were ruined. At least Sunday promised to be gorgeous, and although the ground was soaking wet when I got up, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I drove out to the South March Highlands, one of my favourite conservation areas in Ottawa, hoping to find some skippers and swallowtails, and hoping to find the Yellow-throated Vireo that has been dominating my eBird alerts these days – I still haven’t seen this bird in Ottawa.

It was just starting to warm up when I arrived. The vegetation was soaked, and there were plenty of puddles on the trail. I spotted this Virginian Tiger Moth resting on a leaf right beside the trail; it was still there when I left five hours later.

Virginian Tiger Moth

I couldn’t help but get wet walking through the grass to check out the large marsh at the Klondike entrance. I was hoping to hear the Least Bittern discovered there, but heard only Red-winged Blackbirds, Swamp Sparrows, and a Marsh Wren. A Green Heron flew over, however, making the stop worthwhile- this was a new bird for my year list.

After that I cut across the forest to get to the southern trail that runs adjacent to Terry Fox Drive, finding this Pink Lady’s Slipper orchid along the way:

Pink Lady’s Slipper

Now that access to the large open lake has been revoked, the southeastern trail has become my favourite – there are enough openings and clearings along the rocky ridge tops to be productive for bug-hunting. Butterflies, dragonflies and other insects love sunny clearings in the woods, and as it warmed up, more and more species emerged. I was disappointed that the baskettails and American Emeralds had all disappeared; with the disappointingly slow start to the season I had hoped a few would still be flying. Chalk-fronted Corporals had emerged in good numbers, however, and were most easily seen perching on leaves or logs at the edges of the clearings. This one was found on the Dame’s Rocket growing near the Klondike entrance.

Chalk-fronted Corporal

Whitefaces had also emerged in good numbers, and there were several fresh individuals present with yellow streaks down the abdomen. The first one I photographed was a female with a large yellow spot on the sixth segment indicative of a Dot-tailed Whiteface; a mature male Frosted Whiteface confirmed that at least two species were flying.

Dot-tailed Whiteface

In the female Dot-tailed Whiteface, the last yellow dot is wider than the ones above it, while the female Frosted Whiteface has a series of yellow dashes all the same width, terminating in the sixth segment.

Frosted Whiteface

Only mature males have the white pruinosity on the abdomen that gives this species its name.

Frosted Whiteface (mature male)

The sunny clearings were full of wildflowers in bloom, lending colour to the gorgeous spring morning. These pink flowers were the most abundant; I believe they are called Herb Robert, a type of geranium native to Ontario….it used to be called Saint Robert’s Herb, named for a monk who lived in France in 1000 AD and healed people with parts of this plant.

Herb Robert

Pale Corydalis (Capnoides sempervirens) was also blooming. This flowers are so small that they are easily overlooked, but quite beautiful when seen up close. They are native to Ontario and are closely related to Dutchman’s Breeches and Bleeding Hearts. They are at home growing in the dry, shallow soil of the Canadian Shield, preferring sunny areas. This species may also be called Rock Harlequin; it is monotypic, meaning that there are no other species within the same genus.

Pale Corydalis

Orange Hawkweed, also known as Fox-and-cubs and Devil’s Paintbrush is not native to Ontario, but is very common in meadows, along roadsides, and in other waste spaces.

Orange Hawkweed

Yellow Hawkweed (or Meadow Hawkweed) is quite similar to Orange Hawkweed and the two are often found growing in the same area.

Yellow Hawkweed

Representing the blue flowers was a single patch of Forget-me-nots I found growing along the trail in one clearing.


Where there are flowers there are usually pollinators, and I spent some time searching the open areas looking for butterflies, hover flies (or flower flies), bees and other insects. I found a few Hobomok Skippers, one of the first of the orange grass skippers to emerge in June.

Hobomok Skipper

I also saw a few duskywings flying, one of which stopped to nectar on the Orange Hawkweed. It lacked the two white spots in the middle of the forewing that make the Juvenal’s Duskywing distinctive, so it is either a Wild Indigo Duskywing or a Columbine Duskywing, and so far one person has identified it as a Wild Indigo Duskywing on iNaturalist. Usually the best indication as to species is which larval foodplants grow nearby; Columbine Duskywing caterpillars feed on columbine, which I see regularly in the South March Highlands, while Wild Indigo Duskywings feed mainly on Crown Vetch. I haven’t seen any at the South March Highlands, however, their abundant pink flowers usually show up later in the summer.

Wild Indigo Duskywing

More skimmers were flying in the clearings, including a single Common Whitetail and a single Four-spotted Skimmer.

Four-spotted Skimmer

Common Whitetail

I saw my first Racket-tailed Emerald of the year. These have only a small overlap in season with the American Emerald, so I likely won’t see the latter for another year.

Racket-tailed Emerald

In one opening I visited a bird flew in and immediately started chipping at me. It was carrying a dragonfly in its beak, so it likely had a nest close by. I couldn’t identify the dragonfly (maybe a Darner or an emerald based on the large, rounded second segment visible at the top of the abdomen – I would have loved to have gotten a closer look!) – but the bird was a Veery, a shy member of the thrush family that I rarely see up close. A second one was singing nearby, an ethereal song spiralling upward to the heavens that reminds one of just why the thrushes are considered some of our loveliest songbirds.

Veery with dragonfly


There were plenty of Eastern Wood-pewees and Red-eyed Vireos singing, but I only heard one Black-throated Green Warbler and two Black-and-white Warblers singing. I didn’t go as deep into the trail system as I would have liked, but one the way back I found a side trail leading to an opening onto Terry Fox Drive where I heard an American Redstart and what might have been a Chestnut-sided Warbler. A few more Duskywings flying close to the ground caught my attention.

Duskywing Sp.

A Common Green Darner was flying around as well, and actually landed where I could photograph it.

Common Green Darner

I accidentally found a robin sitting on a nest – she was on a low spruce branch overhanging the edge of a clearing, and I startled her off the nest when I walked right below her to check out a dragonfly. It wasn’t anything interesting – just another Chalk-fronted Corporal – but I did see an interesting large dragon a little later when I stepped off the path to let a mountain bike pass by. It was perching horizontally on a leaf with bluish coloured eyes and was probably a clubtail of some sort. Unfortunately it flew off before I could get a good look at it.

I was getting closer to Klondike Road when I heard the crackling branches of something large nearby. I turned around but saw nothing. When I heard it again I looked up and saw a pair of Turkey Vultures in a tree above the trail! It’s not often that I see them perching, especially on such a beautiful day.

Turkey Vultures

Before I left I checked the marsh again, and there were more insects flying in the open area south of the Klondike entrance. This fresh Silvery Blue Butterfly looked stunning, and I found a Virginia Ctenucha caterpillar in the vegetation near the marsh itself.

Silvery Blue

Virginia Ctenucha caterpillar

Common Ringlets are usually found in grassy areas, and this one was no exception.

Common Ringlet

It was a fabulous visit filled with colour and song. Although I spent over five hours there and walked over 7 km altogether, I covered only a small portion of the conservation area and didn’t get as deep into the trail system as I would have liked. There are other ponds and marshes within its boundaries that I would love to explore some day; who knows what insects and birds might be found away from the busier trails!

2 thoughts on “The Sunny South March Highlands

  1. Funny but I’ve never been here since they put in trails and made it a conservation area. I hung up about 10 nest boxes for saw-whet owls years and years ago. I remember some really nice little ponds and lakes too though it was bush-wacking back then. I must visit here sometime.

    • You definitely should, but go early in the morning when there are fewer people are around (though I have to say, I appreciate how the cyclists almost always thank me when I move aside for them). I keep hoping to find some really cool butterflies and dragonflies, and last weekend I finally did, but that’s a story for another post!

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