Jul 132018
 

Get up close and personal to nature while reducing your carbon footprint

 “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best.” Ernest Hemingway

Riding a bicycle can be a wonderful way to engage with nature and the changing seasons. The feeling of setting off on two wheels is like an adventure, as each outing offers something different. You can enjoy areas that are inaccessible to a car and move along much more quietly. The result is that you see and hear so much more. Even a slow bike ride – the kind I’m referring to – also allows you to wind down, get some exercise and reduce your carbon footprint.

There are even some advantages over walking. You can cover much greater distances and pass quickly through areas of little interest. At the same time, travelling by bicycle is slow and gentle enough to take in all the same sights, sounds and smells as you would on foot. When something of interest grabs your attention, you can simply stop.

Nature-viewing from a bicycle has many advantages – Drew Monkman

Birding    

Birding and biking are made for each other. Just this week a friend told me he heard and/or saw 24 species during a 90-minute ride on the Trans Canada Trail from Jackson Park to Ackison Road and back. Highlights included an osprey near Ackison and two northern harriers at Lily Lake. He also saw numerous birds carrying food to feed young. Birding from a bike is far less confined than from a car. There’s no window frames or roof to block your view and no annoying engine, fan or beeping sounds. Unlike getting out of a car, there’s also no need to quietly close the door. When a bird darts across the road or trail, you can quickly and safely stop, put your feet down and lift your binoculars to your eyes. Just remember to pedal slowly enough to observe the habitat you’re passing through, avoid potholes or other obstacles and pay attention to other trail users. Pedalling slowly also eliminates wind noise.

For people who are new to birding – children, for example – travelling by bike is also more fun, since much of birding involves walking, standing and waiting – over and over again.

Equipment

A hybrid is probably the best bicycle choice, although any bike that is suitable for riding on gravel will do. Remember to dress warmly, especially in the spring and fall. Always wear a helmet and consider bringing a pump and maybe even a spare inner tube. Be sure you have a kickstand and lock, too, since you’ll often want to stop, get off the bike and maybe wander down a pathway. Don’t forget water and maybe a snack.

A pair of binoculars is a must – the lighter the better. Remember to keep them around your neck. A binocular harness can be useful, too, because it will stop your binos from swinging about. Don’t forget your smartphone. It can be used as a camera, sound recorder, notebook and for consulting field guide apps like the Sibley eGuide to Birds.

Engaging the senses

Enjoying nature from a bike is a great way to engage all of your senses. A good rule of thumb is to stop briefly each time you enter a new habitat type such as a wetland, woodlot or stream crossing. What new species can you see and hear? Here are some other pointers to keep in mind.

  1. Vision: Look skyward, to the sides and far ahead. Don’t forget to check the road or trail surface for caterpillars, butterflies, dragonflies, frogs, snakes or maybe even a baby turtle. Check out spots where birds tend to perch such as wires, telephone poles, fence poles and branches of dead trees. In the early morning or evening, scan meadows for deer and maybe even a fox or coyote. Watch the sky, too, for soaring birds like vultures and raptors. Learn to identify the different cloud types and signs of a change in the weather.

Midland Painted Turtle hatchling -WikiMedia

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Smell: Notice how the smells change as you pass through different habitat types. Each month, too, has its signature smells. May smells of lilac and balsam poplar; in late June and early July the fragrance of common milkweed and freshly-cut hay often fills the air; late summer can smell of rank vegetation, while the spicy perfume of fallen leaves is a time-honoured scent of fall.
  2. Touch: Pay attention to how the air temperature changes as you pass from a warm, sunny area to a shaded section of the road or trail. Feel the warmth or coolness of the wind in your face.
  3. Hearing: Listen for frogs and birds in spring and early summer. The insect chorus begins to take over in mid-July and lasts through early fall. Listen to how each habitat type offers up different voices. Cupping your ears will greatly increase your ability to hear distant sounds.

Seasonal highlights

For each season with the exception of winter, I have provided a very brief list of some common species, nature happenings and sounds to watch and listen for from your bike. How many can you see or hear?

Summer: Red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures, cedar waxwings, grackles, great blue herons, American goldfinches, eastern kingbirds, gray squirrels, chipmunks, groundhogs, painted turtles basking on logs, egg fragments from raided turtle nests, garter snakes, leopard frogs, bumble bees, dragonflies, damselflies, monarchs, sulphur butterflies, Carolina locusts flying up from the ground, fireflies at nightfall, ox-eye daisy, black-eyed Susan, Queen Anne’s lace, tall white clover, common milkweed, Canada goldenrod and poison ivy. Common sounds:  Red-eyed vireo, cedar waxwing, American goldfinch, song sparrow, house wren, green frog, dog-day Cicada, crickets

The song of the Red-eyed Vireo is one of the most common sounds of summer on bike trails. (Drew Monkman)

House Wrens are inveterate singers – Carl Welbourn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fall:  Blue jay, large flocks of blackbirds, migrating turkey vultures, Canada geese, ring-billed gulls, deer in fields, beavers active in wetlands, squirrel nests in trees, baby snapping turtles, woolly bear caterpillars crossing roads, red and yellow meadowhawk dragonflies,  colour change in leaves from  early September (e.g., Virginia Creeper, sumac) to early Nov. (tamaracks, oaks), abundant purple New England aster and various white asters, puffball and shaggy mane mushrooms. Common sounds: Blue jay, American crow, Canada geese, crickets

Spring: American robins, red-winged blackbirds, mallards, tree swallows, song sparrows, yellow warblers, groundhogs, muskrats, baby painted turtles, turtles laying eggs, spawning fish, mourning cloak butterflies, midges, green darner dragonflies, tent caterpillars, bumble bees, pussy willows, coltsfoot, trilliums, trout lily, fiddleheads, blooming trees and shrubs, emergence of leaves. Common sounds: Spring peeper, chorus frog, ruffed grouse, American robin, red-winged blackbird, song sparrow, northern flicker, woodpeckers drumming

A few itineraries

The following roads and trails offer different habitat types and a wide variety of species. The roads are relatively free of traffic. To learn about other quiet routes in the Peterborough area, go to biketoptbo.ca/longer-rides/city-cycling-routes/ Created by Cary Weitzman, this site is a treasure-trove of information. Printed maps are available as well at City Hall and local bike shops.

  1. Hubble Road (east of Stony Lake off Cty Rd 44) Rare birds.
  2. Sandy Lake Road (30 minutes north of Havelock on Cty Rd 46) Rare birds and butterflies.
  3. County Road 24: Start at Cty Rd 18 and follow north to Cty Rd 20, north to 10th Line and east to Cty Rd 25. Return the same way. Great wetland and field habitat.
  4. Fifth Line west from Bridgenorth Trail parking lot to Pinehill Road. Follow Pinehill to Steinkrauss Drive and continue north through residential streets of Bridgenorth to East Communication Road. Follow to Miller Creek Conservation Area on 7th Line. Return to 5th Line by way of Bridgenorth Trail. Great views and varied habitat.
  5. Roads in provincial parks such as Petroglyphs, Presqu’ile and Carden Alvar.
  6. Trans-Canada Trail (gravel) from Jackson Park, through Lily Lake Wetland and on to the trestle bridge past Orange Corners Road. Wetland species, diverse shrubs and flowers
  7. Trans-Canada Trail (gravel) from Lang to Hastings. High butterfly diversity, deer
  8. Rotary Greenway Trail (paved and gravel) from Peterborough at Parkhill East, past Meadowvale Park, past Trent University, north to County Road 33 and east to Lakefield Sewage Lagoons. Back track and continue up to Lakefield and west to D’eyncourt Street to Lakefield Marsh. Warblers, sparrows along trail; ducks at lagoons, along river and at Lakefield Marsh
  9. Little Lake Loop (roads and trail) Little Lake Cemetery north to Millennium Park and across pedestrian bridge to Beavermead Park and Ecology Park. Ducks in spring on Little Lake; songbirds and feeders at Ecology Park
  10. Parkway Corridor (paved) from Jackson Park to Cumberland Street. Retention pond with ducks. Birds in dense vines at Cumberland end.


Rotary Greenway Trail where it traverses the Promise Rock Nature Area -Drew Monkman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fun activities

  1. Do a family scavenger hunt by using the species and sounds above to make a checklist.
  2. Go on a sounds ride – how many different natural sounds can you hear?
  3. Count an individual species – how many monarch butterflies, turkey vultures or other species can you spot?
  4. Choose your own “Magic Spot”. Find a quiet, nature-rich location along the road or trail where you can get off the bike, sit quietly for five or 10 minutes and relax. Note seasonal changes.
  5. If you love birding, do a “Big Day” to see how many bird species you find over the course of a day. Former Peterborough resident, Jody Allair, a staff member at Bird Studies Canada, did his Great Canadian Birdathon by bike this spring and found 132 species. He and his team biked 32 kilometres in the Long Point area on Lake Erie.

I’d like to thank Chris Risley and Marilyn Freeman in the preparation of this article.

Jun 022016
 

When we debarked from the shuttle that takes birders out to the tip of Point Pelee National Park, it was clear that something was up. Hundreds of people lined the trail along the west beach, fully engrossed by the activity around them. Birds were everywhere – on the ground, flitting about in trees and shrubs, and even perched out in the open. I had never seen so many smiling faces in my life. Decades ago, birders would say that there are days at Pelee when the birds are “dripping from the trees”. Now, for the first time ever, we were witnessing one of these days ourselves.

In addition to large numbers of white-crowned and white-throated sparrows, most of the migrants were warblers, a group highly coveted by birders in the spring. The variety of species and sheer number of individuals was overwhelming. Just in our section of the trail, there were dozens each of Cape May, black-throated green, northern parula, American redstart, chestnut-sided, palm and blackburnian – just to name the most abundant. It was a veritable feast for the eyes. The majority were males, adorned in the stunning yellows, oranges and reds of spring plumage. Many of the birds moved through in waves, sometimes making their way northward up the tip but then changing direction and heading back out towards the lake. At times, it was hard to know where to look, especially since people were continually yelling out rare species. I could simply focus my binoculars on a given branch only metres away and the birds would move through my field of vision. They paid no attention to the awe-struck crowd, but were strictly focused on gorging themselves on the midges that swarmed in and around the vegetation. When we turned our attention skyward, other species streamed by overhead. The oohs and awes were loudest when a red-headed woodpecker, followed by six eastern bluebirds, flew by.

All I could hear were superlatives: “The best morning in decades!” ….”This is amazing!” …”C’est incroyable!” Everywhere, there was a constant  clicking of cameras. I can only imagine some of the stellar images that must have been captured. Despite the excitement, there was no pushing or shoving, even as people rushed by to catch a glimpse of a rarity like a Cerulean or Canada warbler. As birders always do, people helped each other locate and identify the birds. After three hours of uninterrupted action and suddenly aware of our aching necks and shoulders, we finally headed back to the visitor centre, thrilled with having tallied no less than 20 warbler species, not to mention numerous flycatchers, kinglets, gnatcatchers and others.

Prothonotary Warbler - Greg Piasetzki

Prothonotary Warbler – Greg Piasetzki

Over coffee and muffins provided by the Friends of Point Pelee, people shared theories as to why this amazing “fallout” of birds had occurred. Up until that morning, birding had been quite slow. So, what had changed? It seems that winds from the south had materialized the evening before, allowing a huge backlog of birds on the Ohio side of Lake Erie to finally head northward. Sometime in the early morning hours, however, the winds had changed to the northeast and, not able to fly against the strong headwind, the thousands of migrants descended en masse on the first land available – the tip of Point Pelee.

Over the four days at Pelee and one day at Rondeau Provincial Park, we tallied no less than 140 species, ranging from the warblers described above to large numbers of avian gems like scarlet tanagers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, black-bellied plovers, and both Baltimore and orchard orioles. We were also treated to a great horned owl nest containing three very inquisitive owlets. Close-up views of more than 100 short-billed dowitchers were a real treat, as well.

Short-billed Dowitchers - Blenheim Sewage Lagoon - May 12, 2016 Drew Monkman

Short-billed Dowitchers – Blenheim Sewage Lagoon near Rondeau Provincial Park – May 12, 2016 Drew Monkman

Bearing witness each year to the wonder of spring migration provides a tangible sense of the change of season and a profound feeling of reverence. How can you not be amazed at tiny songbirds that have used solar and magnetic orienteering to fly from the rainforests of Central and South America all the way to Canada? It is no less than an affirmation of life itself and the wonder of evolution.

 Baxter Creek

You don’t have to travel all the way to southwestern Ontario to enjoy the birds of spring. The Kawarthas offers numerous locations to enjoy rich birdlife. Upon my return, a friend and I spent an especially pleasant morning walking the Baxter Creek Trail, which is part of the Millbrook Valley Trails system, located on the edge of Millbrook. The first birds we saw were arctic-bound lesser yellowlegs and pectoral sandpipers that were feeding in the shallows of the millpond. As we watched, we could hear the shrill whistles of an Osprey soaring overhead and the clattering rattle of a belted kingfisher.

Osprey - June 18-19, 2016 - Lower Buckhorn Lake - Robin Blake

Osprey – June 18-19, 2016 – Lower Buckhorn Lake – Robin Blake

Black-throated green warblers, winter wrens and a wood thrush were singing in the deeply shaded cedar forest at the trailhead. Together with the rays of sunlight streaming through gaps in the canopy, the songs created a cathedral-like ambience. An exquisite patch of red trilliums in full bloom enhanced the feeling of connection with the natural world. The trail then winds through rich wetland where the voices of yellow warblers and common yellowthroats competed with beautiful marsh marigolds for our attention. We also had great views of a male rose-breasted grosbeak pouring out its robin-like phrases from the top of a giant black willow. Some birders remember the song as “a robin that has taken voice lessons.” As crazy as it sounds, memory aids like this really work. Other birds of note heard or seen along the trail that morning included great crested flycatcher, black-and-white warbler and eastern kingbird. Spring azure butterflies were also quite common. Shaded pools along the creek make a great place to sit and simply soak in the tranquility of the area. After the walk, we stopped for a great lunch at the Pastry Peddler on King Street in the village.

Algonquin Park

Savoring the rich diversity of May nature is not complete without a trip to Algonquin Park. I fell in love with the park on my very first visit in September of 1964 when my father took me on three-day canoe trip. I still remember the stunning leaves at peak colour and the schools of brook trout in the Crow River. Doug Sadler, a well-known local naturalist, writer and mentor to many young birders in the Peterborough area, also came along and helped me to identify my first-ever gray jay – a huge thrill for a twelve year-old.

So, when our friends Mike and Sonja Barker invited Michelle and I up to their campsite at the Lake of Two Rivers Campground last week, we jumped at the opportunity. Their site overlooked a wetland that was alive with bird and beaver activity. Algonquin’s signature sound – the high clear whistle of the white-throated sparrow (“Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada”) – was everywhere. The highlight of the visit, however, was riding the Old Railway Bike Trail from Lake of Two Rivers to Cache Lake. The trail follows the abandoned bed of the historic Ottawa, Arnprior, and Parry Sound Railway and winds through a variety of different habitats such as open field, coniferous forest and wetland. Only metres down the trail, the strangely gentle tapping of a woodpecker caught my attention. Sure enough, a beautiful male black-backed woodpecker was flaking bark off a red pine, only a couple of metres above our heads. The all-black back and alluring yellow crown make it quite different from any other woodpecker.

White-throated Sparrow - Karl Egressy

White-throated Sparrow – Karl Egressy

Riding along the trail through thick stands of fragrant balsam fir, we stopped to take pictures of a remnant block of ice, hidden away in a rocky crag. Our attention was also drawn to numerous patches of trailing arbutus, which was still in bloom and smelled wonderful. At least 10 species of warblers were singing along the trail including the Tennessee, a bird of the boreal forest that reaches the southern edge of its breeding range in Algonquin Park. Another highlight was an olive-sided flycatcher that Mike heard calling (“quick, three beers!”) from a huge marsh we passed through. The trail crosses the scenic Madawaska River in several locations where we stopped to admire the many shades of green on the distant hills. Because Algonquin Park is so much higher in elevation than the Kawarthas, most of the trees were just coming into leaf. Some, like bigtooth aspen were still leafless. The trail is flat along its entire length and has numerous interpretive signs. There are even washrooms at the Cache Lake end.

The next day, we walked the Beaver Pond Trail, which is an easy two kilometre loop offering excellent views of two beaver ponds and a classic beaver dam. The free guidebook at the trailhead provides an introduction to Algonquin’s fascinating beaver pond ecology. Before leaving the Park, we also stopped by the Visitor Centre, which has one of the best nature bookstores in all of Canada. There are also interactive exhibits on the Park’s human and natural history.

View from lookout on Beaver Pond Trail - Drew Monkman

View from lookout on Beaver Pond Trail – Drew Monkman

I feel so fortunate this year to have been able to get out and enjoy so much of what May has to offer. Although it’s hard to talk of a favourite month, for anyone who takes pleasure in watching the seasons unfold, May has no equal. And, by the way, June is pretty good too!