Macaulay Mountain Conservation Area

Silver-spotted Skipper

On July 2nd I woke up early, and before anyone else got up, drove 20 minutes to the Macaulay Mountain Conservation Area just outside of Picton. This was the most interesting birding hotspot in our area of Prince Edward County, although only 96 species have been recorded there to date – the 178 hectare (440 acre) property features a large grassy area and a quiet pond near the parking area, as well as meandering trails through the thick forest leading up to the top of the escarpment. It was the forest I was interested in, as our area of Prince Edward County was largely open farm and pasture land, without any extensive forest on a par with Stony Swamp back in Ottawa. The Macaulay Mountain Conservation Area is also the location of Picton’s famous Birdhouse City, observable from the road, which contains over 100 bird apartments designed to resemble many of the county’s historic buildings.

The birdhouses were initially created by a woodworker named Doug Harnes, who was a former superintendent with Quinte Conservation. The oldest birdhouses date back to 1980, and today they are maintained by the Friends of Birdhouse City. I wandered around the city before venturing into the woods, although the only species I saw that might have potentially nested in the birdhouses was a House Wren. While the birdhouses were true marvels, most birds prefer single cavities to apartment-style houses, and I wondered how many species actually used them. As far as I know, only Purple Martins nest communally, although Tree Swallows will also use apartment-style boxes – as long as no other pairs nest in the same box.

Birdhouse City

Birdhouse City

The conservation area is named after William Macaulay (1794-1874), the son of a United Empire Loyalist and a clergyman who aspired to be bishop. He owned much of the land where Picton is located today, and is buried in the cemetery in the historic site which also comprises Macaulay House, refurbished to mid-1850s standards; the former Church of St. Mary Magdalene, now a museum; the Heritage Gardens; and the Carriage House. The historic site can be found by following Whattam’s Memorial Walkway through the conservation area to the parking lot at the end. In addition to this walkway, there are 20 km of trails through the woods which can be used for biking and are maintained by the Bloomfield Bicycle Club.

Macaulay Mountain picnic area

When I first arrived I saw a male and female Indigo Bunting in a small tree next to the road. When I got out of the car I was amazed by all the dragonflies I saw skimming through the air – mostly Prince and Common Baskettails – and decided to spend some time catching them later. A Turkey Vulture was soaring above the escarpment, and in the woods I finally found some forest-dwellers: Red-eyed Vireos, Eastern Wood-pewees, Ovenbirds, and even a Black-throated Green Warbler were all singing! Chipping Sparrows, Common Yellowthroats, a Gray Catbird, an Eastern Kingbird, and a Great Crested Flycatcher were also present. The best bird, however, was one that I wasn’t expecting to find: a Broad-winged hawk calling incessantly from the canopy! I tried to track it down, and as I got closer I realized it was being mobbed by the Blue Jays and robins who were squawking at it. I wasn’t able to glimpse this small forest buteo, but its call is one I’m familiar with from Stony Swamp in Ottawa where they breed. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t able to see it or get a photo of the bird, but even now (mid-October at the time of this writing) my eBird record hasn’t been accepted yet – it showed up as “rare” even though the fellow I got directions from said that they are here all the time, especially up on the escarpment.

The woods were dark and full of mosquitoes, so I didn’t spend too much time looking for insects there. Instead I returned to the grassy area around the parking lot and the trail around the pond to see what I could find. A fresh-looking Calico Pennant was my first good find:

Calico Pennant

I was surprised to see a clubtail perching on the ground, and when I tracked it down I identified it as a Dusky Clubtail.

Dusky Clubtail

I later saw another clubtail land in the tall vegetation that rings the pond. This one was larger, and has bright turquoise eyes – the shape of the claspers (just visible in the image below) identify this as a Horned Clubtail.

Horned Clubtail

My best butterfly was one that I rarely see in Ottawa, and have only seen on the Gatineau side: a Silver-spotted Skipper. The gold bands on the forewings and large white spot on the hindwings against a chocolate brown background make this one of the easiest skippers to identify in this region. It is larger than most grass skippers, and is often found alone rather than in groups. Although its range extends across most of the U.S., the Silver-spotted Skipper is limited to the southernmost parts of Canada where it is seldom seen in large numbers. Its habitat includes gardens, roadsides, fields and prairies, open woods, forest edges and along streams. I noticed this one as I emerged from the woods along a side trail into a sparse grassy area near the parking lot.

Silver-spotted Skipper

It darted out a couple of times to chase other insects away, but returned to the same leaf where it was basking in the sun. It opened its wings, showing me the orange-coloured upper-side; this is the first time I’ve seen the upper side of the wings.

Silver-spotted Skipper

The conservation area was a great place to spend some time, so when my family was looking for things to do the next day, I said it would be a pretty place to have a picnic. By the time everyone had finished eating and was ready to go it was past lunch time, so we just went for a walk instead. Because of my Dad’s health we didn’t climb the escarpment but walked around the pond instead. There wasn’t much bird activity, but the dragonflies were quite active; it surprised me how many individuals were present, as they haven’t been particularly abundant in Ottawa this season.

This male Eastern Pondhawk was hanging out at the edge of the water.

Eastern Pondhawk

I saw a couple of spreadwings in the vegetation emerging from the water, but it wasn’t until I downloaded my photos later at home that I was able to identify this one as an Amber Spreadwing. The wings appear to be tinted gold, and the lower claspers (visible in the image below) are quite short.

Amber Spreadwing

We were going to walk around the pond until the trail became significantly narrower and bordered with poison ivy. We backtracked to the main picnic area, and once again I found two species of clubtail on my walk: a male Dusky Clubtail and a male Horned Clubtail. Once again the Dusky Clubtail was resting on the ground away from the water while the Horned Clubtail was perching on a stick right near the water’s edge.

Dusky Clubtail

I find it interesting that these two species were both present here two days in row; it reminds me of how both species are also found at Roger’s Pond in Ottawa together in the early summer. Unlike many clubtail species which prefer the clean, fast-moving water of rivers and streams, these two clubtails inhabit the edges of marshy lakes or ponds, especially those with muddy bottoms. These dragonflies are most commonly encountered perching on the ground, or on dirt roads or trails.

Horned Clubtail

This is the pond where most of these dragonflies likely emerged. Although it’s not really big enough to host flocks of ducks or geese in migration, it’s perfect for odes and indeed seems to host a lot of species.

Pond at Macaulay Mountain

The sun was quite hot, so we stayed in the trees of Whattam’s Memorial Walkway where we eventually found ourselves at the Macaulay Heritage Park historic site. The trail ended at a small grassy lawn that rolled down to the shade-dappled parking lot, with the Victorian-era Macaulay House to our right. I saw something small slithering across the parking lot, and pointed out this snake to my dad. The red blotches were unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, so I checked my ORAA (Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas) app and identified it as an Eastern Milksnake – a lifer for both me and my dad!

Eastern Milksnake

My dad is a huge fan of snakes and lizards (when I was a kid we had terrariums full of both) so he didn’t hesitate to pick it up and let it slither up his arm. Here I’d been thinking that we might encounter a Smooth Green Snake in the conservation area, and instead we found something else just as awesome!

Adults can grow up to over a metre in length, although not all individuals attain this size. This one appeared to be a young snake based on its size, especially since its coloration is still quite bright – adults are usually duller. It is most often found in open habitats such as rocky outcrops, fields, pastures and meadows adjacent to natural forests. They may be more common in rural areas with barns, sheds, and houses where mice can be abundant. The milksnake hibernates underground below the frost line, in rotting logs or in the foundations of old buildings.

The Eastern Milksnake’s conservation status was designated as “Special Concern” by COSEWIC in May 2002, and this status was re-examined and confirmed in May 2014. While it is still relatively widespread in southern Ontario and southwestern Quebec, it is becoming extirpated from large urban centers and areas of intense agriculture in southwestern Ontario. This species’ late maturation and low reproductive potential – females reproduce when they reach three or four years of age, and often lay a clutch of eggs only every second year – means that populations are vulnerable to even slight increases in adult mortality. The main threats to this snake are habitat loss, persecution and collection for the pet trade. While milksnakes, like all snakes in eastern Ontario, are non-venomous and pose no harm to humans, people still feel the need to kill them out of fear or hatred or ignorance. This is less and less tolerable as more and more species tremble on the verge of extirpation and extinction. Not only are most snakes no threat to humans, they are beneficial to the ecosystem in that they feed on many rodents and insects considered pests. The pet trade has a similar effect on wild populations, as every bird or snake or turtle taken into captivity is one less breeding adult contributing to the local population.

Eastern Milksnake

This snake was definitely the highlight of our visit, though it was also fantastic to find a place with so many active dragonflies. The dense forest was a nice change of scenery from the flat, open fields and pastures of Prince Edward County, and hearing the singing Black-throated Green Warbler and the calls of the Broad-winged Hawk made me think I was back home in Stony Swamp. Although poison ivy is a concern, I would highly recommend a stop at the Macaulay Mountain Conservation Area in the warmer months – you never know what you just might find!

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