Exploring Marlborough Forest

Baltimore Checkerspot

Marlborough Forest has been long known to me as a special place to find some of the more unusual species of the Ottawa area – various trips to the Cedar Grove Nature Trail over the past ten years have turned up Mink Frogs, Eastern Newts and Red Efts, Blue-spotted Salamanders, Bronze Coppers, Silvery Checkerspots, Harvesters, Calico Pennants, Brush-tipped Emeralds, Lake Darners, Twin-Spotted Spiketails, Ebony Jewelwings, and Aurora Damsels. The one “specialty” of Marlborough Forest that I had not yet found, and search for every time I go, is the Smooth Green Snake – it has managed to elude me every single visit.

Still, Marlborough Forest is a big place with many trails, and this year I decided it was time to visit a few new ones. I checked the eBirding hotspots and Google maps, and decided that the trail most likely to produce the widest variety of creatures would be the one heading north from the Flood Road parking lot (no. E4). It leads to a large marsh or pond about a kilometer or so away from the parking lot, and so I hoped it would be good for both dragonflies and butterflies. There was a second trail just west of that, the one at parking lot E6, and it seemed less interesting as it consisted of more forest than marsh. On my first visit on June 19th I ended up driving past the E4 parking lot (it was on the south side of the road and I thought I was looking for one on the north side) so I ended up at E6 which wasn’t even a parking lot but had a narrow spot in front of a gate. It led north, so I parked in front of the gate anyway and headed out to see what might be around.

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Arctic Skipper

I should have known when my first butterfly turned out to be an Arctic Skipper, one of my favourite skippers, that the rest of Marlborough Forest would be just as marvelous as the Cedar Grove Nature Trail. I found it a few metres from the parking area in an open area before the trail was swallowed by the forest. This species is unlike other skippers in that it basks with its wings open. It is often found near streams and wet meadows near wooded areas.

Soon after entering the woods I heard a Winter Wren and a Northern Waterthrush singing away – I don’t often hear waterthrushes singing on territory so it was a treat to hear one here. The usual Ovenbirds and Black-and-white Warblers sang alongside Black-throated Green Warblers, one Wood Thrush, and one Hermit Thrush. A second Hermit Thrush was seen next to the trail later on. One Scarlet Tanager, a couple of Veeries, a Brown Creeper and a few Eastern Wood-pewees were also in evidence.

Eventually the trail left the woods and entered a large open area. I knew the habitat was going to change when I heard a Field Sparrow singing before I even reached the clearing. To my surprise I also heard what sounded like a Magnolia Warbler singing, although I wasn’t able to find it when I tried to track it down. There was also a large wet area just beyond that; I could hear Swamp Sparrows and Common Yellowthroats but couldn’t see any water, just a damp field of sedges. Still, I knew from Google maps that a well-vegetated marsh existed just beyond the trail here, and a Wilson’s Snipe winnowing overhead seemed to prove it. There was no open water visible, nor any great dragonfly habitat as far as I could see, and I was disappointed that the only odes I saw were common ones.

These pretty pink flowers along the edge of the trail caught my attention, however, and I was happy when I looked it up and found out that it was Spreading Dogbane. One of my favourite beetles – the iridescent Dogbane Beetle – feeds almost exclusively on dogbanes, and I was thrilled to think that I might finally see one after a long wait of seven years. Once I found out what it was, I knew a return trip was in my immediate future.

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Spreading Dogbane

If the dragonflies were disappointing, the butterflies were not. I saw a Great-spangled Fritillary flying along the sunny, open road, several Little Wood-satyrs, and a Mourning Cloak. There were plenty of crescents, and I photographed as many as I could hoping to find a Silvery Checkerspot or a Pearl Crescent among the numerous Northern Crescents (spoiler alert – I did not find any, though one female crescent has not yet been identified on iNaturalist).

Eventually I came to another wide open spot about as long as a football stadium that contained a big grassy field that looked like it might have been someone’s lawn once upon a time. A few skippers were flying here, including a Long Dash Skipper and a Tawny-edged Skipper. I also found a couple of Northern Cloudywings, a brown skipper that has hints of iridescent green in its wings when freshly emerged:

Northern Cloudywing

Northern Cloudywing

The open areas were just as good for birds, too: I heard a Pine Warbler singing in a tall pine that stood alone further back from the trail; a couple of Nashville Warblers; a Yellow Warbler; and best of all, a family of Ruffed Grouse! When I saw the flock of smaller birds walking along the edge of the trail just ahead of me I thought they were robins. It wasn’t until they started flying off into the trees that I realized they were not. The mother didn’t fly but hurried into the trees, and it wasn’t until I heard her soft clucking sounds only about a metre inside the forest that I realized what it was. Then, as I got closer to where all the young grouse had scattered, they flew out of the trees back into the woods toward their mother. This was the first time I had seen young grouse and I wished I had gotten a better look.

A small dark skipper resting in the middle of the trail intrigued me. It was completely brown so I figured it was a Dun Skipper, which is fairly common here later in the summer, but when I uploaded my photo to iNaturalist it didn’t even come up as an option. It suggested Common Roadside Skipper as well as a bunch of other skippers I’ve never seen before, but it wasn’t until someone commented that the wing shape matched Common Roadside Skipper and that it was too early for Dun Skipper in any case that I realized I had gotten my lifer!

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Common Roadside Skipper

This lifer butterfly gave me the impetus to return to Marlborough Forest two days later. This time, however, I went to the E4 parking lot at Flood Road, parked, and crossed Roger’s Stevens to look for the marsh. Like the trail at E6, it started off with a walk through the woods where I heard Ovenbirds, Northern Waterthrushes, Black-and-white Warblers, Black-throated Green Warblers (one was even walking along the trail like a robin), a Winter Wren, Red-eyed Vireos, Eastern Wood-pewees, etc. Not too far from the road I came to a spot where a small marsh opened to the west, with water draining through a culvert into a small pool on the east side of the road. The pool was surrounded by shrubs and was a good six feet below the surface of the trail with no way to get down to the water; I was intrigued as I found an Ebony Jewelwing perching on a leaf overlooking the water.

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Ebony Jewelwing

A little further along the trail opened up into a huge clearing. As I entered the clearing I was thrilled to hear a Blue-headed Vireo singing – this is a bird I see mainly during migration, as it is an uncommon breeder in the Ottawa area. I have heard them at Roger’s Pond and South March Highlands during the summer in the past, and it was great to hear one on territory here, too. Then, as I walked a little further along I realized I heard a different vireo singing – the slower song of a Yellow-throated Vireo was coming from the grove of trees on my right! I tried to track the bird down but it kept moving further away. I would have loved to have seen it as the only other Yellow-throated Vireo I’d had this year was also heard only and not seen.

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Trail along E4

The clearing was a great spot for butterflies. There was a large patch of dogbane to the left, and wildflowers blooming sporadically along the edge of the trail all the way along the edge. I found several skippers in the patch of dogbane, though I was only two species seemed to be present: Tawny-edged and Long Dash Skippers. A few Northern Crescents were present, as were Little Wood-Satyrs.

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Long Dash Skipper

Before I left the clearing I heard another uncommon breeder singing: a Magnolia Warbler. I had thought I’d heard one at the E4 trail two days ago, but wasn’t able to get close enough to be sure. This one was singing in a tree right beside the trail, and I was even able to view the bird long enough to confirm its identity! Further along I heard Nashville Warblers, a Pine Warbler, and several Veeries. I found a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker nest when I heard the continuous begging calls of the young inside a tree cavity and watched to see which adult woodpecker species arrived with food.

After another stretch of wooded trail, I found the large marsh shown on Google maps. It looked like a large field with a dense stand of cattails further back, but I heard Swamp Sparrows singing and saw a few Tree Swallows swooping through the air so I knew water was present. I also heard a few Wilson’s Snipe keening in the vegetation while others winnowed overhead.

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Open Marsh along Trail E4

I also found a Silvery Blue butterfly resting on the ground, and a couple of skimmers landing on perches close by – mostly Common Whitetails and Chalk-fronted Corporals. Then I saw a large shape on the dirt further out and saw this large snapper basking in the sun:

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Snapping Turtle

I wasn’t able to get to the water at all, so I continued on my way. Fortunately there was a large open pond further ahead, with the road cutting right through it. I found Least and European Skippers in the reeds along the edge of the road and a Dreamy Duskywing perching on a leaf. A Black Swallowtail landed briefly on the dogbane flowers before flying off – these are one of the most difficult butterflies to photograph as they never land for very long!

Best of all, there were more snipe here, and one was walking around the marsh in the open.

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Wilson’s Snipe

It looked like a great place to see ducks, but other than a mallard and a Wood Duck flying over I didn’t see any on the water itself.

I heard more Swamp Sparrows singing in the vegetation surrounding the water, but further along the trail I heard a couple of White-throated Sparrows. Not much further along the trail it reached a T-junction with an east-west trail, labelled Klondike Road West on Google maps. There was a large, grassy field on the north side of Klondike, which explained the Field Sparrow I heard singing from somewhere deep within its depths. I was pleasantly surprised to hear an Eastern Towhee singing much closer, and tracked it down to a tree right above the trail:

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Eastern Towhee

I didn’t explore much further beyond the T-junction, and turned back at that point. Just as I was nearing the marsh I found this fellow on the side of the road, and moved it closer to the water as a number of dirt-bikers and ATVs were using the trail. You can’t see the yellow throat in this photo, but it is a Blanding’s Turtle – an uncommon and threatened species in Ontario. I was glad to see it here, as despite the number of trails running through Marlborough Forest, there are a large number of wetlands in the vast 9,300 hectares which are not threatened by human encroachment, cars, or habitat fragmentation.

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Blanding’s Turtle

Walking back along the hot, dusty road – it was another bright, sunny day with the temperature creeping up into the low 30s – I paused when I startled a small, dark butterfly off the ground. Fortunately I saw where it landed, and was thrilled when I identified it as a Common Roadside Skipper – the first one I’ve identified on my own in the field. Unlike the more common Dun Skipper, the Common Roadside Skipper has alternating spots of brown and pale beige along the outer fringes of both wings and a few, small white spots at the top of the forewing which form a small triangle.

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Common Roadside Skipper

The Common Roadside Skipper is found throughout Ontario except for a large portion of the extreme northwestern corner where its preferred habitat includes woodland roads and dry, sandy clearings. It is most easily seen resting on dirt roads, but due to its small size it is often overlooked. It is not typically seen visiting flowers.

The small dark skipper flew out after a second one where they spent some time on a leaf. I thought I might get to witness them mating, but they eventually landed on the road together in close proximity.

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Common Roadside Skippers

The Common Roadside Skipper wasn’t my only lifer in Marlborough Forest that week. On my first visit I’d noticed a couple of dark emerald dragonflies zipping around the road; I hadn’t brought my net, and it seemed to me that they were too large for the small Racket-tailed Emeralds flying around. On my second visit I did bring my net, but I didn’t see any emeralds that looked intriguing enough to catch…until I reached the small pool of water near the beginning of the trail. I first spotted it flying over the water before it landed on the stem of a plant on the other side of the pool. As noted above, the small pool was a good six feet below the level of the trail and there was no way to get down to it due to the steep drop-off and thick vegetation. I could see the dark, spindle-shaped abdomen and that was about it until it flew off and landed on a branch closer to me.

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Ocellated Emerald

This time I was able to get some photos, and I got a much better look at the thorax when it landed again at a slightly different angle. The shape reminded me of the Brush-tipped Emeralds I’d seen at Roger’s Pond, but the yellow thoracic spots on the thorax did not….Brush-tipped Emeralds have a small, round yellow spot adjacent to an elongated oval-shaped dash, while this dragonfly had two round yellow spots. In addition, the Brush-tipped Emerald also has thin yellow markings along the middle segments of its abdomen, while this dragonfly did not. I would have loved to have caught it to examine the claspers, but it was beyond the reach of my net. Still, the photos I took enabled me to identify it on iNaturalist as an Ocellated Emerald, a species I’ve never seen before!

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Ocellated Emerald

According the Algonquin field guide, this species prefers shallow forest streams with riffles, without aquatic vegetation. Males patrol along the stream, often hovering over the water, while both males and females may be found foraging along forest edges. They prefer shady locations. This to me sounds a lot like the “Arrowhead stream” at Jack Pine Trail, so perhaps its worth checking there too! In the meantime, who knows what other dragonflies might be found in Marlborough Forest?

I thought that the emerald might be the end of my wonderful discoveries in Marlborough Forest that week, but I ended up with one last happy surprise – a Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly! I usually only see one or two of these each year, and didn’t see any last year so I was happy to find a new place for them. I’d had one Baltimore Checkerspot in Marlborough before, in mid-July at the Cedar Grove Nature Trail several years ago. It was great to see one in mid-June at Trail E4! I think they are quite striking in their Halloween colours.

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Baltimore Checkerspot

I was thoroughly enchanted by the trails in Marlborough Forest and would have liked to have explored further, but the heavy heat had taken its toll on me, as had the continuous swarm of deer flies and mosquitoes that refused to give me a moment’s peace. I also wasn’t a fan of the noisy ATVs that came buzzing along the trails, but fortunately they only became an issue later in the morning as the trails got busier. It was also nice to have people around as I knew bears roamed the forest, and I wasn’t too keen on meeting up with one with no other humans around.

Despite that, I thoroughly enjoyed the change of scenery, and the interesting habitats and wildlife I found there ensured another visit or two in the future!

2 thoughts on “Exploring Marlborough Forest

  1. I’ve often seen emeralds in my dragonfly creek and I’m starting to wonder if they may be Occelated. Shady forest streams with riffles is it to a t in spots. I’ll have to pay attention. These new (to me) trails sound interesting though I’m a little put off by the deer flies. Still…

    • Yes, I know you were looking to add more emeralds to your dragonfly list, so you’ll have to keep an eye out! As for Marlborough, I had a great summer photographing the bugs in there, but every time I went either the deer flies or mosquitoes were awful. Hopefully next year will be better. If not, I’ll have to get a special hat!

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