I finally returned to Trail E6 in Marlborough Forest on Sunday, July 11th. My goal was to find some skippers, particularly the Two-spotted Skipper which I had found at both trails (E4 and E6) last year, and more emerald dragonflies. I didn’t arrive as early as I normally do, as I was more interested in finding bugs than birds this time. Even so, the birds seemed quieter as I started down the trail just before 8:00 am….although I heard a couple of Wood Thrushes and Winter Wrens and warblers, there seemed to be fewer of everything. It was a while before I even heard my first Red-eyed Vireo, Black-and-white Warbler, and Eastern Wood-pewee, and the silence was puzzling. It is sad to think that breeding season is coming to an end already.
The coyotes, too, were quiet, although the deer flies and mosquitoes that constantly buzzed around me were not. It was difficult to try and listen for birds with their annoying whine constantly droning in my ears. I thought I heard a distant Ovenbird, a distant Scarlet Tanager, and a faint Nashville Warbler, but they only called once and I was too distracted swatting the bloodthirsty bugs away to be sure.
Although the day started off mostly cloudy, the sun soon came out. I saw a few Common Wood Nymphs and a Virginia Ctenucha moth flying around in the same clearing where I’d seen so many butterfly species on previous visits, and was thrilled when I saw a spreadwing damselfly flying close to the ground. I approached it for a picture, then realized a small butterfly was perched on a leaf above where it had landed. I did a double take when I realized it was a hairstreak, and was thrilled when I recognized it as a Striped Hairstreak….probably my favourite hairstreak of them all.
The Striped Hairstreak superficially resembles the Banded and Hickory Hairstreaks, however, the bands are much wider, and the blue spot on the hindwing (aka “lunule”) is capped with orange. Fresh individuals often show a violet sheen. This species lives in deciduous and mixed forests, especially those with swamps and open areas adjacent to them. Their caterpillars feed on flowers, seeds and leaves of plants in the rose family, including cherries and plums, as well as hawthorns and blueberries. I saw one fly through the neighbourhood and land on my front lawn last year, so they may turn up anywhere! This species does not usually appear in large colonies, and most people tend to only see one in a given area. This may explain why I’ve never seen this species until 2019!
From there it was a short walk into the large, open sedge marsh. I thought I heard the introductory “ticks” of a Sedge Wren song once or twice, but couldn’t be sure as a flycatcher was calling close by, and a couple of sparrows (Field, Song and Swamp) were singing much closer. Although I was hoping to find some large emerald dragonflies flying, I saw not a single one. Indeed, the only dragonflies I’d seen so far were meadowhawks.
I did find something cool in the open area, however; several Dogbane Leaf Beetles were feeding on small Spreading Dogbane plants! Their bright, metallic colours make them my favourite beetle species – their heads are usually blue or green, while the elytra shimmer with shades of green and bronze and red.
I checked the vegetation along the trail but found no skippers, no swallowtails, and no brushfooted butterflies. A couple of Common Yellowthroats grew agitated as I passed by, and a Great Blue Heron circled over the marsh before landing on the trail up ahead of me, but there were no signs of any interesting dragonflies perching or butterflies nectaring on the flowers growing next to the trail. I was happy to hear a Scarlet Tanager’s buzzy song somewhere close by and a distant Hermit Thrush singing somewhere southwest of the large marsh in the same area where I’d heard one last year, but I could not pick up the Sedge Wrens, and there were no Black-billed Cuckoos this time. It was still early for insects, however, so I continued on my way.
It continued to warm up, and different species started to emerge. A few brown butterflies fluttered in the vegetation along the path, mostly Little Wood Satyrs as far as I could tell, and several fritillaries hurried by without stopping. I started hearing more Ovenbirds and Black-throated Green Warblers and Red-eyed Vireos, and even a Pine Warbler singing in the near distance. I stopped to try to locate one of the warblers, then realized a Common Wood Nymph was resting on a rock just off the trail.
Then I did see a fritillary land, and managed to get close enough for some photos. The tiny black spot in the long cell of the trailing edge of the forewing close to the body suggested Aphrodite Fritillary, and when it raised its wings and revealed the underside, the lack of a wide cream-coloured band also suggested the same. I got as close as I dared but it didn’t stay very long; still, I was pleased to finally photograph one of these swift-flying butterflies.
Another butterfly hurrying by caught my attention, this one smaller and a paler orange in colour compared to the fritillary. When it landed I realized it was a sulphur, and an orange-coloured sulphur in our region usually means only one species: Orange Sulphur. These butterflies are not common as they typically migrate from further south; last year I found a couple at Hurdman Park in early September, when it is more likely to show up. When perched with their wings closed, they resemble the much more abundant and widespread Clouded Sulphur. I saw where it landed, and slowly approached it to take some photos. You can just see a faint blush of orange on the forewing beneath the black circle, right where it meets the hindwing. In Clouded Sulphurs this area is usually a more muted, whiter shade of yellow than the hindwing.
However, upon uploading my photo to iNaturalist I was disappointed to learn that there is an orange form of Clouded Sulphur as well….and that this is what it is likely to be. The Clouded Sulphur is now known to have orange on the forewing, and the other traits visible here (including the more rounded forewing tip and indistinct submarginal spots) make it more likely to be this species. Both male and female Clouded Sulphur can show this orange patch, though it is rare (5-7% of individuals having this variation); and as Orange Sulphurs in this part of Ontario are so rare it is far more likely to be a rare orange form Clouded Sulphur.
From there I proceeded to the large grassy open area where the trail starts curves away to the north again. This area has been good for both butterflies and dragonflies in the past, and I was not disappointed on this visit. I immediately noticed both white and yellow butterflies flying in the field, but first spent some time walking along the trail to check the vegetation along the treeline. A Monarch and a Great-spangled Fritillary started tangling together, and I got pictures of both when they landed:
I heard a Blue-headed Vireo singing in the trees as I walked back through the open field. There were no milkweeds in bloom, but there were small patches of clover, Cow Vetch and Viper’s Bugloss as well as several little white flowers I couldn’t identify. I saw two white butterflies and managed to track them down; they weren’t Mustard Whites, as I was hoping, but white form sulphurs. Female Orange and Clouded Sulphurs come in two different forms, the normal yellow (or orange) colour, and a white form. These two white form species are nearly indistinguishable, so although the butterflies are much more likely to be Clouded Sulphurs, given that I had already seen an Orange Sulphur in the vicinity I couldn’t confidently identify them as such.
It was getting hot, and so I turned around and headed back toward the marsh. I had already walked three kilometers and hoped to see some more butterflies and dragonflies on my way back now that the sun was higher in the sky. I was still disappointed I hadn’t seen any emeralds flying, not even a Racket-tailed Emerald, nor any darners. A female Eastern Pondhawk resting in the vegetation was nice to see, as was this unfrosted Frosted Whiteface.
Fritillaries were zipping along the trail in the bright sunshine, too fast to identify. A smaller orange butterfly landed on the trail in front of me, and by the time I got my camera focused on it it had closed its wings. It was an anglewing of some sort, and the noticeably jagged outer edges of its wings made me wonder if it was the near-mythical Green Comma. I snapped one photo from a distance, intending to take more as I slowly walked closer, but it shot off into the cedar forest and was gone before I could even take my first step. Sure enough, when I got home and reviewed the image, the jagged edges and the thickened, smile-shaped silver comma helped confirm this butterfly as a Green Comma. When I enlarged the image I could also see the green spots along the outer margin of the hindwing that give this species its name. I was thrilled with the sighting – it’s not often I get to see an Orange Sulphur and a Green Comma on the same day, let alone other species such as the Striped Hairstreak and white form sulphur!
Just as I was starting to lament again about the lack of emeralds flying up and down the trail (and I sure could have used the Racket-tailed Emeralds to eat the swarm of deer flies pestering me), I saw one zipping toward me. I wasn’t sure what it was, but when I caught it I identified it as a male Brush-tipped Emerald. These are quite common in Marlborough Forest. One of the smaller emeralds, they can be identified by the mismatched yellow spots on the size of the thorax (one is round; the other is long and oval-shaped), the incomplete yellow bands along the abdomen, and the hairy claspers of the male.
On the way back to the marsh I saw a Peck’s Skipper on the trail itself – my first identified skipper of the day, and the fourth butterfly family of the day. A Dun Skipper in an open area just off the trail was the only other skipper species I found.
A total of five butterfly families can be found in Ontario: the swallowtails, the whites and sulphurs, the gossamer-winged butterflies, the brushfooted butterflies, and the skippers. The brushfoots include the most well-known and most commonly seen butterflies, as they fly from the first days of spring until late in the fall. They include the commas, crescents, Mourning Cloaks, Monarchs, fritillaries, admirals, ladies, tortoiseshells, and browns. In Ottawa the most common whites and sulphurs include the Mustard White and the abundant Cabbage White and Clouded Sulphur, with Orange Sulphur being an annual migrant. The swallowtails are large, show-stopping, tailed yellow and black butterflies that include the Canadian and Midsummer Tiger Swallowtails, the Giant Swallowtail, and the Black Swallowtail. The gossamer-winged butterflies come in a variety of colours, but all are small and perch with their wings close (with a couple of exceptions). They include the blues, the hairstreaks, the coppers, and the early-flying elfins. The skippers are the small orange and brown butterflies that hold out their wings like a jet plane when they land. Most prefer open fields or fields adjacent to marshes or wet areas.
It’s not often that I see all five families on one outing: most skippers usually only fly in June and July, so outside of those months they can be difficult to find; within those two months, it’s the gossamer-winged butterflies and swallowtails that are the most difficult to find together in the same spot. Still, Marlborough Forest is a great place to see all five families, and I had seen quite a few Midsummer Tiger Swallowtails here in July 2020. I thought I might have a better chance of seeing one when I got back to the marsh where a large number of flowers grow next to the trail, and sure enough I found one busy fluttering among the dogbane flowers, along with a very tattered fritillary.
There were no skippers this time, but as I was backing up to take another photo of the swallowtail, a small grayish butterfly at waist height caught my attention. It was a beautifully fresh Acadian Hairstreak! This was my second hairstreak of the day, and my fourth gossasmer-winged butterfly – I had also seen a worn Northern Spring Azure and a relatively fresh Eastern Tailed Blue as well.
I also noticed a dogbane plant crawling with blister beetles. In the sun they appear a delicate bluish-gray colour, and I thought they looked quite pretty against the white Yarrow blossoms:
Best of all, I finally heard a Sedge Wren singing in the marsh! It was finally quiet enough that I could hear the dry introductory ticks followed by the trill. These birds are nomadic, and don’t always return to the same breeding territory year after year which makes them tough to find. They prefer tall, dense sedges and grasses in wet meadows, hayfields, and marshes, particularly those without cattails. The sedge marsh at Nortel is a repeat spot for this species; I got my lifer there in 2014, and one was heard singing there again this year.
A female Emerald Spreadwing flying close to the ground was my second spreadwing species of the day, although I never did identify or get a photo of the one seen flying near the Striped Hairstreak. She appeared more bronze than green from certain angles, and let me get close enough to photograph with the macro setting. Interestingly, this is the second Emerald Spreadwing I’ve seen along this trail this year.
On my walk back to the car I started noticing a number of Mourning Cloaks flying along the trail, including one that harassed me repeatedly by circling my head and swooping at me. These butterflies must have been the freshly-emerged second generation of the season, offspring of the individuals that overwintered here and emerged from hibernation in late March or April. I counted a dozen before I got back to my car; I don’t think I have ever seen so many one one outing before.
I also had a fresh Compton Tortoiseshell along the trail. However, by that time my camera battery had died and all I had was my cell phone to photograph it. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed the hike despite the lack of dragonflies – the Brush-tipped Emerald and Emerald Spreadwing helped make up for their lack, and the Sedge Wren was a fantastic bonus. Still, it was the butterflies that were the highlight of the day. I tallied a possible 20 species altogether, with representatives from all five families:
- Midsummer Tiger Swallowtail
- Clouded Sulphur
- Acadian Hairstreak
- Striped Hairstreak
- Northern Spring Azure
- Eastern Tailed Blue
- Great Spangled Fritillary
- Aphrodite Fritillary
- Compton Tortoiseshell
- Mourning Cloak
- Green Comma
- Northern Crescent
- Northern Pearly-eye
- Little Wood Satyr
- Common Wood Nymph
- Peck’s Skipper
- Dun Skipper
- Possible White Admiral and Eyed Brown (did not get photos and was distracted by other butterflies)
The Striped Hairstreak, Acadian Hairstreak, Green Comma, and orange form Clouded Sulphur were the highlights of the day, although it was great to see the Aphrodite Fritillary, Compton Tortoiseshell and Midsummer Tiger Swallowtail as well. It was another fantastic outing at Marlborough Forest; I am so glad I discovered this place last year!