After my vacation ended and I returned to work, memories of Marlborough Forest continued to distract me. This was by far the best new place I had discovered during the pandemic and I couldn’t wait to return. Even with another hot weekend in store and deer flies and mosquitoes at their peak I dreamed of going back and finding interesting new birds and wildlife in this amazingly diverse place. I returned on Sunday, June 28th after a successful morning birding in Stony Swamp – I got Least Bittern for the year when I saw one fly across the pond at Sarsaparilla Trail, heard a Virginia Rail, and heard a vireo singing just off the parking lot which initially sounded like a Yellow-throated Vireo, but turned out to be a Blue-headed Vireo when I used a Yellow-throated Vireo call to call it in. I normally only see these vireos as migrants at this trail; I’ve never heard one singing here in the summer before, so this was a good bird to find at the trail in late June!
I arrived at the E4 parking lot entrance to Marlborough Forest just after 10:30 am, in time for the sun to have climbed high enough in the sky to warm things up for the butterflies and dragonflies. In the woods I heard a single Winter Wren as well as the usual Eastern Wood-pewees, Red-eyed Vireos, Ovenbirds, Black-and-white Warblers and Black-throated Green Warblers. I was thrilled when I heard a Scarlet Tanager singing right above the trail and managed not only to spot the singer, but photograph him as well! I normally only hear them singing somewhere in the dense canopy high above me, or see them from such a far distance it’s not worth photographing them.
I heard an Eastern Towhee calling across from the large marsh before I saw a male singing at the intersection at the back of the trail, and heard the baby Yellow-bellied Sapsucker still begging in its tree cavity. A group of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks was nice to see, while several Wilson’s Snipe were winnowing over the marsh. The Ebony Jewelwings were still in residence near the first small pond about six feet below the surface of the trail. This is where I’d had the Ocellated Emerald on June 21st, and although I searched for them I did not see any.
Several Veeries were singing, and I even spotted one in the branch of a dead tree near the sapsucker nest. This is the first time I’ve seen one singing in an open clearing; they breed in dense, moist woodlands with thick understory vegetation near water, and usually sing from the forest cover as well. I’ve been attempting to take more audio recordings this year to add them to my eBird lists, and as this one was right above me I used my phone to capture the video which I later converted to audio for my list. I also heard a Magnolia Warbler, a Pine Warbler, several Common Yellowthroats, and three Nashville Warblers along the trail.
Milkweed was blooming, so of course I stopped to check out the flowers for interesting butterflies and insects. I was thrilled when I found a Brown Mantidfly, a fascinating nerve-winged insect of the order Neuroptera. Despite its common name, it is related to neither the true flies nor the praying mantises. Also known as a Wasp Mantidfly, this insect’s body and wings mimic those of a wasp, while the thickened forelegs are held upright at a sharp angle much like a praying mantis. Since the adults feed on both flower nectar and on small flies and insects that visit flowers, the best place to look for them is on flowers such as Common Milkweed, which are insect magnets.
Unlike the adults, the larvae are parasitic carnivores, specialized in feeding on spider larvae. The larvae search for female wolf and other ground-hunting spiders, and then attach themselves to the spider. When the spider mates and begins creating an egg case for the young spiderlings, the Brown Mantidfly larvae makes its way inside, then feeds on the tiny spiderlings inside the egg case. This adult mantidfly spent some time crawling over the blossoms before emerging onto a leaf where it began preening itself, washing its back legs before using its forelegs to clean its head.
I turned right at the intersection and intended to follow it to the next large marsh, but got distracted by several butterflies in the middle of the trail feeding on what looked like a desiccated piece of animal dung. When I arrived three Great-spangled Fritillaries, two Northern Crescents, and one Gray Comma were all on the road, but the comma flew into the grass when I approached them for a photo.
I’ve never seen so many fritillaries all together, though I have seen several Clouded Suphurs gathered on the wet sand at both Shirleys Bay and the Burnt Lands. Mud puddles are a great spot to find different species sipping moisture, and fresh animal scat often attracts butterflies as well – these both contain salts and minerals that butterflies cannot acquire from flower nectar, such as sodium and nitrogen. The piece of dung they were feeding on was not particularly fresh or damp, as I found out when I moved it to the side of the road in case any four-wheelers came roaring along, so it’s difficult to see whether they were in fact sipping any fluid with their long proboscises.
Single Field and White-throated Sparrows were singing along the road at the back of the trail, and as I walked east I noticed the sky was getting darker and darker in the west. I stopped to photograph a Mustard White and a Common Roadside Skipper, but once the clouds swallowed up the sun I decided to turn back and head out. The forecast had called for the possibility of rain showers, and I had no particular interest in getting caught in a downpour. I hurried back to the main intersection, but it started raining before I even got to the marsh. I found a thicket of cedars to shelter in as the rain came pouring down, and was amused to see that the Magnolia Warbler was hopping from branch to branch in the same group of trees. It came down to about shoulder height, and at one point was only a few feet away from me! Eventually it moved on, and when the rain stopped, I did too.
I spent some time in the large open sandy area chewed up by dirt bikes photographing skippers (more on that in a later post!) then started working my way back to the car. As I reached the same section of woods where I’d heard the Scarlet Tanager earlier, I realized I could hear a Blue-headed Vireo singing. I stopped to listen to it for a while to make sure it wasn’t a Yellow-throated Vireo – and realized a second Blue-headed Vireo was singing further away on the other side of the trail! I stopped to record some video to include in my eBird list:
You can also hear an Ovenbird and Black-throated Green Warbler singing and a Veery calling in the background….as well as several mosquitoes buzzing around my iPhone. It was during this session I realized that it is best to put the phone on the ground and walk away from it so as not to have the annoying little bloodsuckers buzzing close to the phone!
I stopped by the small water hole again on my way out to look for emeralds and found this Aurora Damsel instead. It was my first and only one of 2020, as I never did see them at any of the other Marlborough Forest trails that year…including at Roger’s Pond, where I usually get them. The central black spot on the thorax with the wavy edges helps to distinguish this from the bluets or forktails, which also are black and blue.
I also had a Belted Whiteface close by, as well as all three common brown butterflies: Little Wood Satyr, Pearly Wood-nymph, and Eyed Brown. Back in the parking lot I saw one emerald flying around the clearing; I tried to catch it, but it eluded my net. I checked the vegetation for any other species of interest, and found a Flower Scarab Beetle crawling on an Oxeye Daisy blossom while a Goldenrod Crab Spider patiently waited within the petals. Even though the beetle crawled right over the spider, the spider remained motionless; perhaps it was waiting for smaller, and less active prey!
I returned to Marlborough Forest on July 1st, Canada Day, this time parking at the E6 parking area further west (there is no real parking lot here; parking is in front of the gate or along the road). It was another good outing with an Eastern Towhee calling near the entrance, a Northern Waterthrush heard again not too far from the parking lot area, and a Yellow-rumped Warbler seen and heard much deeper in the trail system. I saw a Northern Spring Azure just beyond the parking area, as well as a Snowshoe Hare in its summer pelage, though its feet and undersides still appeared white.
It was hot, although it was initially overcast, and I saw the usual Eyed Browns and Little Wood Satyrs flying in the woods. Eventually the sun came out and I started seeing Great-spangled Fritillaries flying around. A few butterflies and insects were sipping on the nectar of the Spreading Dogbane in the open marsh area, including a few skippers, a firefly of some sort and a White Admiral. A little further along I came across some fresh scat in a small clearing in the woods, and it was still quite wet. Given the large size of the scat and the hairs found within it I’m guessing it came from a coyote. Best of all, a large Midsummer Tiger Swallowtail was sipping moisture from the scat, while an Eastern Comma waited for its chance close by!
Then the swallowtail started walking along the feces while probing with its proboscis, giving the Eastern Comma a chance to feed.
There were more butterflies further down the trail, including this White Admiral basking in the sun.
Crescents were everywhere, and although I usually ignore them (it is very difficult to separate the Pearl from Northern Crescent), I spent a lot of time photographing them hoping to turn up a Silvery Checkerspot, the females of which can look a lot like female crescents. Silvery Checkerspots are found at Roger’s Pond just down the road, so I was hoping to spot one here. I found one particularly intriguing crescent on some dogbane flowers that I thought might be a candidate for a Pearl Crescent, but it was identified as a Northern Crescent on iNaturalist. This is why I usually leave them as “crescent species” most times!
With so much Spreading Dogbane in bloom I took some time to check the plants for insects, particularly the large patch growing in the huge dirt-bike clearing at trail E4 further east. I was particularly interested in a colourful metallic beetle known as the Dogbane Leaf Beetle. I was first introduced to this beetle at a bioblitz in Deep River in 2013, and was hoping to see one ever since. However, it wasn’t until recently that I learned what Spreading Dogbane actually looked like, and since this beetle feeds almost entirely on dogbanes (genus Apocynum), this is where I needed to look in order to find one. Spreading Dogbane is a knee-high shrubby plant that has oval green leaves growing on red stems and clusters of pinkish-white bell-shaped flowers. Lots of insects are attracted to the flowers, including butterflies, beetles, bees and other bugs, and after some searching I finally found a single Dogbane Leaf Beetle! I wasn’t able to capture its iridescent beauty as well as I’d hoped – they sometimes show metallic hues of gold and blue along with the red and green. Still, it was good to know they were around, and although I kept searching I only turned up the one.
I turned to leave, and as I was headed back to the car I was delighted when a Baltimore Checkerspot landed in the vegetation in front of me. I don’t see these beautiful butterflies very often, but this was the second one today and the third one at Marlborough Forest since June 21st. It was great to see that these butterflies are relatively common here; I usually only see one per year, if that, so having repeat sightings here means there is a decent-sized breeding colony in the area.
One of my favourite sightings in Marlborough Forest this week turned out to be a plant, rather than a bird or a bug. Both Pink Lady’s Slipper and Large Yellow Lady’s Slipper are relatively common in the Ottawa area – common enough that I stumble across a few flowers of each every year. These are the only two wild orchids I’ve seen in the area, although many more species grow in Ontario. I’ve never seen the Showy Lady’s Slipper before, but to my surprise I found one growing in the woods beyond the trail. I was watching a butterfly flit through the leaves when a bright white flower tinged with pink and yellow caught my attention. It took me a moment to realize what it was, and I was thrilled when I identified it as a Showy Lady’s Slipper.
Lady’s Slipper orchids can be identified by the pouch-like lower petal called a “lip” which contains an opening large enough for bees to enter and gather pollen. These petals come in a variety of colours, with the Showy Lady’s Slipper coming in two colour forms: the pink and white form shown above, and a pure white form found in only three locations in the province, none of which is in eastern Ontario. The Showy Lady’s Slipper inhabits swampy or boggy woods and the openings of cedar swamps. They should not be picked, as their shallow, sensitive root systems are easily damaged, and picking not only almost always kills the plant (they do not transplant well), it prevents them from reproducing. As it takes most orchids at least a decade to reach flowering size and thus be able to reproduce, the loss of a single plant affects the population for many years.
It’s been a great week at Marlborough Forest; in addition to the above species I also saw a number of fascinating skippers, but I will have to leave them for another post!
Wonderful hike. Somedays life is too good.