The first butterflies that emerge in the spring – usually in late March or April – are the ones that hibernated as adults in deciduous woodlots: Mourning Cloaks, Eastern Commas and Compton Tortoiseshells are the first ones I see every year on those warm, sunny days when the temperature starts reaching 13°C. The next wave emerges when it warms up long enough for those that hibernated in the chrysalis stage to emerge as adults: the elfins and azures and whites and swallowtails are included in this group, although I usually see the first Northern Spring Azures and Henry’s Elfins first, in late April and early May, with the Canadian Tiger Swallowtail and Black Swallowtail following in mid-May. Next come the species that overwintered as mature caterpillars, such as the duskywings – the first skippers to appear each year – and the crescents. All of these are typically seen in May in our region, while butterflies that overwinter as younger caterpillars (the browns and fritillaries) and eggs (coppers and hairstreaks) don’t emerge until June and July. This means that while you will never see all of Ottawa’s butterflies on the wing at the same time, the diversity is ever-changing up until the end of July. Even after that the appearance of regular but unpredictable influxes of migrants keeps things exciting throughout August and September: large population booms of Red Admirals, Painted Ladies, American Ladies and Monarchs might mean a wildly successful breeding season here in Ottawa, while smaller numbers of Orange Sulphurs, Common Buckeyes and American Snouts often find their way here from their breeding range further south.
Mid-may is usually when things start getting interesting, and this year was no exception. After seeing the Henry’s Elfins in Stony Swamp so early this year I wondered if they might disappear early as well. I was surprised that I hadn’t seen any Eastern Pine Elfins flying with them, so on May 13th (a vacation day) I headed out to Jack Pine Trail where I had found them in good numbers before. Instead of taking the main loop toward the bird feeder, I took the left-hand path to where it intersected with the West Hunt Club Trail. The open section at the back is bordered with pines, and as caterpillars feed on both Jack Pine and Eastern White Pine needles, it is a great spot to find adult butterflies. I observed only one, and it was pretty worn.
I also found a few Northern Spring Azures and Henry’s Elfins, one Mourning Cloak, and one white butterfly which would not stop – while I used to see Mustard White fairly frequently in the woods in Stony Swamp, I haven’t seen one here in a long time, and wouldn’t be surprised if it were a Cabbage White instead. The most interesting bird sighting in this area was a pair of House Wrens potentially checking out a nest site – the male was singing and fluttering in front of the female, who seemed to be peering into a tree cavity. They flew deeper into the brush, so I don’t know if the male wren succeeded in convincing the female that he would make a good mate.
I returned along the northern segment of Jack Pine Trail, where I saw one more butterfly species: an Eastern Comma that dropped out of the sky and landed on the ground in front of me. With two elfin species, one azure, two brushfoots, and one unidentified white this was my best butterfly outing of the year so far.
The next day I was craving some Marlborough butterflies, so I headed to the E4 (Flood Road) parking lot. I got there at 7:30 to also look for birds, and it was a great outing – I had great views of an American Bittern flying over the marsh, heard two Winter Wrens and a Hermit Thrush, saw two White-crowned Sparrows foraging on the ground, and had 11 warbler species – including three migrants and eight likely residents. The migrants were Northern Parula (three that were heard only), a gorgeous male Blackburnian Warbler I tracked down because the song was somewhat odd, and two singing Black-throated Blue Warblers, including a male that was seen. Residents included eleven Ovenbirds, three Northern Waterthrushes, eight Black-and-white Warblers, nine Nashville Warblers, four Common Yellowthroats, one Pine Warbler, one Yellow-rumped Warbler, and five Black-throated Green Warblers.
As it began warming up, the butterflies began to appear. Of course there were lots of Northern Spring Azures.
I was excited to see a Black Swallowtail nectaring on the dandelions at the side of the trail; I’d seen my first at Old Quarry Trail four days earlier but it flew by without stopping. Black Swallowtails don’t perch for me very often, so when this one sat still for a while I was able to get closer and grab a photo.
I started seeing a few small, dark butterflies fluttering just above the edge of a puddle in the middle of the trail. One was a Henry’s Elfin, and when I saw the second one I was surprised to discover that it was a duskywing. I had never seen one this small – it was about the same size as the Henry’s Elfin close by. It was confirmed on iNaturalist as a Columbine Duskywing, which is probably my first confirmed observation for this species since it looks identical to the Wild Indigo Duskywing! What’s interesting is that usually my first duskywing species of the year is the Juvenal’s Duskywing, a much more easily identifiable skipper and a larger one.
A Mourning Cloak was also nice to see. I was hoping to find a few commas or tortoiseshells, but had no luck with either.
A few small bluish-white moths flying about caught my attention. They were white on the underside, and looked like miniature Northern Spring Azures when they landed with their wings closed. Fortunately a few landed on the damp ground, and I tried to take a few photos, though my camera couldn’t do them justice. I recognized them as a species I’d seen before once a long time ago – the Bluish Spring Moth (Lomographa semiclarata), one of the day-flying moths. The pattern is quite distinct, so it is unlikely to be confused with anything else.
A few dragonflies were flying about as well, and I spotted a few baskettails and immature whitefaces. It wasn’t until my walk was nearly done that I was able to photograph one perching and identify it as a male Beaverpond Baskettail, my first of the year.
I had such a great time in Marlborough Forest that I returned there again today, this time trying a new trail that started on Kettles Road near the Black-billed Cuckoo site from last year. I headed south, and almost immediately found myself in an area with four species flying: Mourning Cloak, Northern Spring Azure, Henry’s Elfin, and Gray Comma. The Henry’s Elfin was cooperative and landed in a low-growing shrub with some red blossoms still in bud:
I saw several more resting on the trail, especially in the open cedar woods. I also saw several Northern Spring Azures and a few more Mourning Cloaks, but no whites, and no Eastern Pine Elfins. Then, about two kilometers into my walk I came across a large puddle in the middle of the trail. One Mourning Cloak and one Gray Comma were resting in the damp spots at the edges of the water, along with at least one Henry’s Elfin. I spent some time trying to get close enough to the Gray Comma to photograph it, as it is one of several identical-looking species. It is most likely to be confused with the Eastern Comma (see photo above!), but the number of black spots on the upper side of the hindwing can be used to tell them apart – Eastern has three spots, while Gray has only two.
A good look at the underside, too, is helpful. The Gray Comma is a cold grayish-brown colour, and heavily striated with a small silver checkmark-shaped spot. The Eastern Comma is variable on the underside, appearing mottled or uniformly brown, but the silver spot is more curved, and thickens at the ends, reminding me of a lopsided smile.
A third species, the Green Comma, has thicker, blotchier-looking black spots on the upperside, and the edges of the wings are much more jagged in shape. The silver mark on the underside is similar to that of the Eastern Comma. I very rarely come across these in Ottawa, however.
The trail turned the corner and I came to an even larger puddle taking up the entire width of the trail. At that point I decided to turn around. I saw a small, dark butterfly fluttering above the dandelions growing next to the trail and when it landed I saw it was a duskywing. This one was a Dreamy Duskywing, which has no tiny white spots in its wings. I was a bit surprised to see this species before Juvenal’s Duskywing too, though they fly around the same time.
I found more duskywings at the puddle with the Gray Comma and Mourning Cloak – both of which were still present. All of them turned out to be Dreamy Duskywings. I was hoping for another Columbine as I wanted a better photo, but none of the ones I photographed showed the distinct white spots on the forewing.
By then a few dragonflies were on the wing, but the baskettails kept flying by without landing. Eventually a small, dark dragonfly landed on the ground in front of me, and at first I thought it was a whiteface – until I realized the proportions were wrong, and that the abdomen was too long and narrow for a skimmer. When I took a closer look I saw that it had narrow white rings around the first few segments of its abdomen, making it an Ebony Boghaunter – a species I see regularly in Marlborough Forest, though usually once per season. The eyes are brown, not green, and the wings are shiny which means it is a teneral that has only just emerged.
After some discussion with another dragon-hunter in my area we realized that almost all of our photos are of tenerals, rather than mature adults. The only photo of an adult Ebony Boghaunter with green eyes I have is from Mer Bleue back in 2014. It is described as “secretive” in the Algonquin field guide; perhaps this tendency to hide itself away develops once it matures?
So far it’s been a great start to the butterfly season, with more species than I expected to see for mid-May and several old friends being seen again for the first time in a year…or even more, in the case of the Columbine Duskywing and Bluish Spring Moth. It’s great to see the different dragonflies flying again, too – this is the beginning of my favourite time of year, and with birds still migrating and our green spaces full of song and colour, one of the most joyous!