Five Butterfly Families at Marlborough Forest


Acadian Hairstreak

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.

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New Dragonflies at Marlborough Forest

Kennedy's Emerald

Kennedy’s Emerald

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.

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Mid-May Butterflies

Dreamy Duskywing

Dreamy Duskywing

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.

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Amber and Saffron Wings

Saffron-winged Meadowhawk

It’s been a good season for hard-to-find dragonflies at the Eagleson Ponds. Ever since I discovered both Eastern Amberwings and Saffron-winged Meadowhawks here in 2017 I’ve been spending more time here later in the day looking for odes, rather than doing a quick search for birds first thing in the morning before heading elsewhere. The Covid-19 pandemic has made that even easier for me, as I am still working from home and can get out at lunch time for a quick check when the temperature has warmed up enough for many odes to be flying.

Mid-summer seems to be the best time for seeing a variety of odes at the ponds. While I have seen a few early-season species here, such as the Taiga Bluet and Spiny Baskettail, most odes that breed here don’t emerge until later in the summer. I’m not sure if the late start to spring had anything to do with it, but up until the end of June I found very few dragonflies here – skimmers are usually abundant throughout the season, but on June 30th I recorded a single Dot-tailed Whiteface and a single Twelve-spotted Skimmer along with a couple of Common Green Darners and Prince Baskettails that refused to land. Even the Eastern Forktails seemed down in numbers.

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Butterflies of Marlborough Forest (2020)

Mustard White

One of the reasons I enjoyed visiting the two new trails in Marlborough Forest so much this year was the wide variety in butterfly species. Even though I didn’t start visiting until mid-June and missed several early-flying butterflies I was still impressed with the different species I found, which included representatives from all five families: swallowtails, whites and sulphurs, gossamer-winged butterflies, brushfoots, and skippers. What was particularly amazing was the number of species that were either lifers for me (Common Roadside Skipper, Two-spotted Skipper) or species that I don’t see very often (Mustard White, Acadian Hairstreak, Aphrodite Fritillary, Baltimore Checkerspot, Crossline Skipper). I visited these two trails seven times between June 19th and August 8th; every visit featured a different suite of species. Skippers were most most varied between the middle of June and the beginning of July; by the end of that month I saw only a few Dun Skippers and a Crossline Skipper – a species I have only seen once before. While the trails were full of crescents and brown butterflies such as Eyed Browns and Little Wood Satyrs in June and at the beginning of July, by the middle of the month they had been replaced with Common Wood-nymphs and fritillaries. Here is a list of species that I saw on those visits.

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South March Butterflies

Little Glassywing

On July 5th I headed over to the South March Highlands to check the open milkweed field at the Klondike entrance for butterflies. It was a little earlier than my visit last year when I added the Striped Hairstreak to my life list on July 13th, but after having seen a Banded Hairstreak at the Rideau Trail yesterday, I figured the large milkweed patch might hold a few surprises.

I arrived at 10:00 am, and it was already heating up a tad uncomfortably – the daily high temperature hasn’t dipped below 30°C this month so far, and the forecast called for another 30°C high today. It’s great weather for looking for bugs, although they, too, retreat to the shade during the hottest part of the day when the temperature becomes unbearable.

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Spiketails Flying in Stony Swamp

Canadian Tiger Swallowtail

Perhaps more than Mud Lake, the one place I enjoy visiting most during migration and the summer breeding season is Stony Swamp. Pre-Covid it was always less busy than Mud Lake, especially early in the morning; however, after the pandemic hit the trails have become really popular and the parking lots are getting full before 10:00 on the weekend. If my goal is to look for birds, I try to get there before 7:00 am; but if it’s insects I’m looking for it doesn’t matter so much, as insects are not as likely to be disturbed by people, and I arrive whenever it’s convenient for me. It’s still quieter during the week than on the weekend, so I arrived at the Beaver Trail at 8:15 hoping to find some good birds as well some interesting insects as the day warmed up.

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Dragonflies and Butterflies at Mud Lake

Long Dash Skipper

Once migration winds down, many birders stop visiting Mud Lake while they look for breeding birds elsewhere. Although birds such as Wood Duck, American Redstart, Yellow Warbler and Common Ravens are abundant and easy to find at the city’s premier migration hotspot during the breeding season, many of Ottawa’s summer specialties – such as Grasshopper Sparrow, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Golden-winged Warbler, Mourning Warbler, and Sedge Wren – are found elsewhere, and so most birders switch their focus from looking for migrating transients to chasing these summer residents down just as soon as the last Blackpoll Warblers and Arctic Terns disappear in early June. This is about the same time my attention to dragonflies and butterflies intensifies – and Mud Lake is a great place to find a good variety of both these insects.

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Summer Bugs and Butterflies

Long Dash Skipper

The beginning of June is an exciting time as more and more insects start emerging from their winter dormancy. I had the second week of June off work, and with the COVID-19 pandemic putting an end to travel plans – we could not go to the Atlantic provinces without a mandatory 14-day isolation period upon arrival, and the Canada-U.S. border is still closed to non-essential travel – I planned to spend the week exploring trails near me and looking for birds and bugs close to home. My plan was to get out and see some new places, and hopefully find some new species, and the weather actually looked nice for the whole week – plenty of sun and no rain in the forecast.

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August Butterflies at the Ponds

Bronze Copper

It’s been a surprisingly good month for butterflies at the Eagleson storm water ponds. The highlight, of course, was the American Snout seen there on August 11th, but in addition to that particular rarity I’ve seen members from all five butterfly families – not a difficult achievement over the course of a month, but one that is almost impossible to do in a single outing. Swallowtails are large butterflies with long tails, and their wings are mainly yellow and black with iridescent spots of blue and orange. The whites and sulphurs in our area are medium-sized butterflies with either yellow or white wings, most of which perch with their wings closed. The gossamer-winged butterflies are very small butterflies that also perch with their wings closed, and come in many different colours. The brushfoots are large to medium-sized butterflies with only two functional pairs of legs; they count the most well-known butterfly species among their number, and many are migratory. Skippers are small butterflies mainly dressed in orange or brown, and many species hold their forewings and hindwings at two different angles, giving them a characteristic “fighter jet” appearance.

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