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A late summer visit to Marlborough Forest

Philadelphia Vireo

Philadelphia Vireo

Marlborough Forest has become one of my favourite spots to visit because of its bounty of butterflies, breeding birds, and dragonflies. The best month for visiting is June, when birds are are still singing and insect diversity is at its peak. The first few weeks of July are also a fine time to visit, as different butterflies are present than were initially flying in early June. By mid-August, however, it is harder to detect birds as most have stopped singing, and insect diversity is on the wane. Still, I thought I would visit the E4 trail on the third Saturday of August, a place I hadn’t been to since Canada Day. I was curious to see what birds might still be present, and whether it might be a good spot to see different darners and meadowhawks.

I arrived a little later than I usually do at the height of nesting season – 9:00 am instead of 7:00 am – to give it time to warm up. The biting bugs were not as bad as they are in the middle of summer, but I was annoyed to still find myself slapping mosquitoes away. The woods were very quiet compared to June; the Red-eyed Vireos and one Eastern Wood-pewee were still singing (both sing late into the season, sometimes into September), but the Ovenbirds, Scarlet Tanagers, Veeries, Nashville Warblers, Black-throated Green Warblers, White-throated Sparrows, and Swamp Sparrows were silent.

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Five Butterfly Families at Marlborough Forest

AcadianHairstreak

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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More Marlborough Butterflies

Eastern Tailed Blue

Eastern Tailed Blue

Every time I leave Marlborough Forest I can’t wait to go back. My last visit occurred on June 12th, and as insects were my primary target, I was disappointed that the cloudy, rainy weekend weather toward the end of June meant I wasn’t able to return until July 1st. Once I saw the gorgeous, sunny forecast for Canada Day I knew immediately I needed to return to Trail E4 in the hope of finding some skippers and maybe some unique emeralds. Last year I had seen some large unidentified emeralds patrolling the trails well before the early morning shadows had vanished from the narrow trail, so I made sure I left early enough to find any that might be out and about despite the coolness of the hour.

The birds were in full song when I arrived, and I was happy to hear the chorus of Winter Wren, Eastern-Wood Pewee, Wood Thrush, Scarlet Tanager, Veery, Red-eyed Vireo and a single Blue-headed Vireo intermingling with the usual Marlborough warblers: Black-and-White, Nashville, Black-throated Green, Pine, Common Yellowthroat, Northern Waterthrush, and of course plenty of Ovenbirds. I also heard a cuckoo calling, and in the far distance, the bugling of a Sandhill Crane! I heard its prehistoric call twice from somewhere north of the T-intersection beyond the ponds. This is the second time I’ve heard this species here – the first was back in March when at least two were calling to the west of the pond.

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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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Dragonfly Emergence

Freshly emerged dragonfly

Freshly emerged dragonfly

My first real dragonfly outing of the year occurred on May 24, 2021, and as usual, took place at Roger’s Pond in Marlborough Forest. I invited a few friends to join me now that outdoor gatherings can include up to 5 people, and fellow OFNC members Derek and Gerald decided to join me. It was a warm, sunny day, and I hoped to find the usual common skimmers and clubtails, as well as a few uncommon species that I’d seen previously at Marlborough Forest such as the elusive Ebony Boghaunter and Harlequin Darner. I’ve already seen one boghaunter this season, but it’s been a few years since I’ve seen a Harlequin Darner, and the Cedar Grove Nature Trail has been a repeat site for this ode.

We met at 9:30 am, just early enough to get some birding in while waiting for the sun to rise higher in the sky. We had the usual Nashville Warblers, Black-throated Green Warblers, Great Crested Flycatchers, White-throated Sparrows, Veeries, and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers on the walk in. At the pond itself we had Eastern Kingbirds, a Pied-billed Grebe, Common Yellowthroats and four Ring-necked Ducks. Many dragonflies were already flying along the open trail through the cedar forest, including a few teneral whitefaces and emeralds.

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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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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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A Lifer Skipper

Two-spotted Skipper

Two-spotted Skipper

Grass skippers are small orange or brown butterflies that perch with their wings fully closed or partially open in a characteristic fighter jet position. To non-butterfly enthusiasts they tend to look a lot alike, and can be difficult to identify even with good photos. When I started visiting Marlborough Forest I did not realize it would contain so many amazing butterfly species, let alone skippers. These small butterflies have a rapid, fluttering, ‘skipping’ flight style that is difficult to follow, though luckily they often perch on the vegetation, and can be found sipping nectar from flowers or moisture from mud puddles. On my July 1, 2020 visit I found seven different species, though it took me a while to identify them all once I got home!

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Marlborough Wildlife

Great-spangled Fritillary

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!

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Exploring Marlborough Forest

Baltimore Checkerspot

Marlborough Forest has been long known to me as a special place to find some of the more unusual species of the Ottawa area – various trips to the Cedar Grove Nature Trail over the past ten years have turned up Mink Frogs, Eastern Newts and Red Efts, Blue-spotted Salamanders, Bronze Coppers, Silvery Checkerspots, Harvesters, Calico Pennants, Brush-tipped Emeralds, Lake Darners, Twin-Spotted Spiketails, Ebony Jewelwings, and Aurora Damsels. The one “specialty” of Marlborough Forest that I had not yet found, and search for every time I go, is the Smooth Green Snake – it has managed to elude me every single visit.

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