The beginning of June arrived with plenty of warmth and sunshine, and I couldn’t wait to go back to Marlborough Forest at the peak of butterfly and dragonfly season to look for new species living there. Last year when I started going to Marlborough Forest in mid-June, I kept seeing large, dark dragonflies – almost certainly emeralds of some sort – zipping down the shadowy trail before the sun had fully risen above the trees. I never had my net on me when I saw them on my early-morning birding walks, so I was unable to catch one to verify their identity. This time I was prepared for these dawn-flying dragons, and brought my net with me. I had already added one dragonfly to my life list, the Ocellated Emerald at Trail E4 last year; was it possible that there were other species of interest here?
My first summer visit to Trail E4 occurred on June 6th. Although it started cool, it quickly warmed up. The usual birds were singing along the trail, including all the Red-eyed Vireos, Eastern Wood-pewees, Eastern Kingbirds, Veeries, and the Tree Swallows that were missing from my mid-May visit. I heard seven warblers (Ovenbirds, Northern Waterthrushes, Black-and-whites, Nashvilles, Common Yellowthroats, Black-throated Greens, and a single Magnolia Warbler), two Chipping Sparrows, a Field Sparrow, and a Blue-headed Vireo singing in its usual spot in the large open area devastated by motor bikes and ATVs.
It was just starting to warm up when I reached the large marsh where I had seen the Snapping Turtle in the dirt a year ago. The usual Swamp Sparrows were singing and Wilson’s Snipes winnowing, and I even heard a Virginia Rail calling somewhere within the vegetation. I decided to walk across the torn-up muddy field to the edge of the marsh to look for breeding birds and dragonflies. I saw a Wilson’s Snipe on the ground and noticed a Tree Swallow entering a tree cavity. Interestingly, an American Kestrel was hanging out among a group of tall, thin dead trees, though it was being harassed by some Red-winged Blackbirds and an Eastern Kingbird which promptly escorted it out of the area. A Wilson’s Snipe was perching in another tree, calling, then took to the air as I was taking a few photos. It circled a few times, then started flying fast toward the ground. It was approaching me much closer than I expected, and then to my surprise it landed about 30 feet away and started calling!
I also heard two Marsh Wrens singing, a new species for me along this trail, and heard an American Bittern calling somewhere in my distance. A second bittern flew out of the reeds much closer to me but headed off into the distance. I could have spent more time in the marsh but had places to go and dragons to see so I reluctantly left and ventured further along the trail.
A Viceroy fluttering along the trail was nice to see, as was a Hobomok Skipper resting in the vegetation. I scared up a small clubtail that was likely a Dusky Clubtail, and saw several Common Ringlets in the gravel of the T-intersection. The male Eastern Towhee that sang so persistently at this intersection last year was absent, and greatly missed.
Four-spotted Skimmers, Chalk-fronted Corporals, Common Whitetails, Little Wood Satyrs, Silvery Blues and Northern Crescents were all present, but I didn’t see anything particularly unusual. I turned around, and headed back toward the large clearing scarred by dirt bike tracks, and saw this large dragonfly basking on a leaf in the sun. The small club and the large yellow shield between the eyes identify it as a Horned Clubtail, the first one I have seen at this trail!
I spent a bit of time scanning the flowers in the clearing, hoping to see all the Tawny-eded Skippers and Long Dash Skippers that were present last year. I eventually found one of each, though it seems we have not yet reached the peak of skipper season. A Red-shouldered Hawk circling over the clearing was my best find; the pale, translucent bars on top of the wings gleamed in the sun as the bird banked, looking like the bars of a Common Nighthawk. This is another species I haven’t seen here before.
My next stop was the small pool of water much closer to the entrance. This is where I sometimes hear Winter Wrens and/or Northern Waterthrushes singing in the woods beyond the pool, and I was not disappointed to hear a Northern Waterthrush. I spent some time scanning the vegetation for emeralds, particularly the Ocellated Emerald I saw last year on June 21, 2020. A few Ebony Jewelwings were present, and I saw a single Eastern Pondhawk – they don’t seem to be as abundant here as they are in places in like Petrie Island.
There were no emeralds, but something with black and yellow stripes cruising from the forest over the pool of water and up over the path caught my attention. I wasn’t sure whether it was a clubtail or a spiketail of some sort, and after waiting for several minutes it returned. I tried to catch it with the net as it flew up over the bank a second time; it zipped down the trail over a large puddle of water and disappeared. A short time later it returned, and this time when it flew to the left I saw it land among the dead branches of a tree, I was able to identify it: it was a Twin-spotted Spiketail! I have seen this species in Marlborough Forest once before, at the stream that runs into Roger’s Pond where I had to catch it to identify it. Just as I was approaching for a better photo it flew up and into the woods.
I followed, and found myself at the edge of the stream a short walk into the woods. There was a lot of vegetation bordering the water, which itself was about two feet below the bank, but it wasn’t very wide and so I watched and waited for it to return. I saw another Ebony Jewelwing and a Chalk-fronted Corporal, but best of all I saw two Twin-spotted Spiketails patrolling the stream! I waited until I was sure I could catch one, and swung my net. I was surprised when it turned out to be empty, but then saw the spiketail struggling in the water – I must have slammed it into the water instead. Fortunately I was able to fish it out with the net, and took some photos:
After photographing it in my hand, I placed it in a shrub to dry off in the sun. A short while later it flew off, launching itself up into the tree canopy with no real harm done.
I returned to the trail, and while waiting for the spiketail to return in between patrols I noticed a few other odes in the vegetation. A Taiga Bluet was a nice find, as was a female Aurora Damsel perching on a leaf. I think this is the first time I have ever photographed a female; it was yellow. Males are blue like bluets, but instead of having a pair of black shoulder stripes on top of the thorax it has a single black central spot with wavy edges. Females have the same mark. I also saw three or four males close by, all on the same side of the trail.
A white butterfly was fluttering in the vegetation, but I never did get a good enough look at it to identify it – both Cabbage White and Mustard White have been seen along this trail, and I was hoping to see my first Mustard White of the year.
A few interesting flowers were in bloom. The first was a type of sweet pea seen growing just off the trail.
The second was this spiderwort (Tradescantia sp.) growing in the E4 parking lot. Although its name doesn’t suggest a flower of notable beauty, I loved the pink triangular-shaped flowers. The name likely comes from the way the sap flowing from the damaged or cut stems dries into web-like threads.
I returned to Marlborough Forest the following Saturday with the hope of seeing some more dragonflies. This time I started my morning at trail E6, which is where I had noticed those large emeralds patrolling the trail early in the day. At 7:30 am – while the woods were still in shadow, well before any butterflies or other odes had started flying – I spotted a large, dark emerald patrolling the shady path. I waited for her to get close enough to approach me, then managed to net it. It was a female, and I didn’t recognize her.
She had a whitish-coloured ring at the top of the abdomen, and a metallic green thorax with one indistinct yellowish spot. Her ovipositor showed a scoop-like subgenital plate pointing backward – not the blade-like plate of a Williamson’s Emerald which points down sharply at at 90° angle. When viewed from the top, she had two pairs of yellowish spots on top of the second and third segments of the abdomen:
I thought the field marks shown in the photos would be enough to identify her, and sure enough after checking my field guides at home I was able to identify her as a Kennedy’s Emerald – a new species for me! They live in open marshes, bogs or fens with sedges and mosses, often with small streams flowing through. Males can be seen patrolling over water a couple of feet above the surface, or briefly hanging up in nearby shrubs to rest in the shade. Males and females may feed in swarms in the morning or at dusk.
I was thrilled with my catch, even though I wasn’t sure what it was at the time. This discovery confirmed my suspicion that Marlborough Forest is a great spot to find unique dragonfly species! Although I attempted to catch one other large dragonfly later, it escaped my net before I could completely catch it within; that was the only other potentially interesting ode I saw that day. Still, there were lots of other ode species to see once it warmed up, including Frosted Whitefaces, Four-spotted Skimmers, my first Canada Darner of the year (already?!), a few Sedge Sprites, and this lovely female Emerald Spreadwing. This is the second year I’ve seen this species in Marlborough Forest, which makes me happy as I haven’t seen one anywhere else in quite a while.
The usual birds were present, and I got a “high-count” alert for the six Black-throated Green Warblers I heard along the trail. Marlborough Forest is full of breeding warblers, and this time I recorded singing Ovenbirds, Black-and-white Warblers, Nashville Warblers, Yellow Warblers, and Common Yellowthroats. This trail is not as good as the E4 trail with its Northern Waterthrushes and Magnolia Warblers, nor does it have Yellow-throated and Blue-headed Vireos, but it does have Sedge Wren. I listened at the marsh for a long time but did not confirm its song. I thought I heard the introductory notes a few times, but they were distant and the other sounds drowned them out.
The best bird of the day was a Black-billed Cuckoo foraging silently in front of me. I got a few lousy photos, but I was happy to see one fairly close after hearing so many this spring. I have formed the theory that a singing cuckoo can never be tracked down and seen, while a seen cuckoo never sings…it just moves silently and steadily through the vegetation while it goes about its cuckoo business.
The butterflies, on the other hand, were amazing, and I’m beginning to suspect that this is the better trail for variety. The best spot seems to be a small clearing on the left-hand side just before entering the open marsh area. I saw a bright yellow Canadian Tiger Swallowtail fluttering around, so I walked into the clearing to get a few photos.
Two Northern Cloudywings and an Arctic Skipper was also flying from flower to flower. These are one of my favourite skippers, although this individual had become a bit tattered.
Then I saw an intriguing orange skipper with distinct whitish-yellow spots against the orange background of the underside of its wings. I was sure it was something I’d never seen before; I was hoping it might be something rare like a Common Branded Skipper, but the pattern wasn’t right for that species.
Fortunately it wasn’t terribly skittish, flying from flower to flower, so I was able to follow it and get several photos. This one shows it with its wings partially open:
I posted it on iNaturalist to see what would come up. iNaturalist’s AI suggested Long Dash Skipper for both the upper and underside views, but the underside pattern did not resemble any Long Dash Skippers I’d ever seen…that species has a curved band of long, equal-sized yellow spots reminiscent of a stack of books leaning precariously to one side. Fortunately a couple of experienced local butterfliers weighed in. One suggested Indian Skipper without providing any comments; however, a second person stated that while the side views are a better match for Indian Skipper (though the spots were unusually small for that species), the upper side is a much better match for female Long Dash. He asked if I was certain it was the same individual, and I confirmed it was. His conclusion is that it is either an aberrant Indian Skipper, or an aberrant Long Dash.
I did see both Long Dash and Indian Skipper on my walk, as well as European and Hobomok Skippers. I was particularly hoping to see Indian Skipper as I’d only seen this species once before, and don’t have any photos of it.
Other butterflies seen included Silvery Blue, Dreamy Duskywing, Northern Crescent and Little Wood Satyr. I saw an Eastern Forktail and a White Admiral on the way out, and this made me curious about what might be flying at Trail E4 just down the road. I decided to stop in there briefly, intending just to walk up to the stream that passes beneath the roadway where I had seen the Twin-spotted Spiketail. Almost as soon as I arrived I spotted a Dusky Clubtail resting on the ground. When I walked up for a photo, it actually landed on my shoe! I’ve had darners and Common Whitetails and meadowhawks land on me before, but this is the first clubtail to do so!
There was plenty of activity at the stream. Ebony Jewelwings were perching on branches hanging above the pool of water below the culvert, and I spotted a Fragile Forktail flying close to the water as well. I headed deeper into the bush to get close to the water’s edge and found a few more Fragile Forktails and a Horned Clubtail. I think I counted five or six Fragile Forktails all within the area of the stream, which is a record for me – usually I only find single individuals when I go out. There was only one Twin-spotted Spiketail cruising up and down the stream this time, and I didn’t attempt to catch it.
I returned to the main trail and spent some time looking at the butterflies in the area. I saw a Hobomok Skipper feeding on Purple Cow Vetch, and a Common Roadside Skipper resting right in the middle of the trail. A Canadian Tiger Swallowtail spent some time fluttering around the edges of a mud puddle before landing and sipping the moisture from the damp ground. An Arctic Skipper also flew in, and began feeding on the cow vetch as well.
I checked the vegetation along the trail to see if I could find any Aurora Damsels. While I’d seen four or five on my visit last Sunday, I found only one this time, a male.
It was a fantastic week in Marlborough Forest, and I was delighted with my new finds: first, the Twin-spotted Spiketail at the stream at Trail E4, and then the lifer Kennedy’s Emerald at Trail E6. The Aurora Damsels and Fragile Forktails were also good to see, as were the Ebony Jewelwings. And the butterflies were amazing, with all five families represented (even though I never did get a good look at the white butterfly fluttering in the marsh by the stream on Sunday while I was waiting for the Twin-spotted Spiketail to fly by). This is definitely my favourite time of year, and if I had my way I would take the entire month off work and spend it at the different trails in Marlborough Forest, trying to see what other species are hiding within its depths!
I’m not very good at getting up early in the morning anymore but these Marlborough emeralds are intriguing. Feel free to remind me and plan something as I’m terrible at getting out there on my own in the early hours. I admit to not really thinking of odes being so active at that time in the morning. Makes me wonder…