Oct 082016
 

Walking through the woods and fields of the Kawarthas in early October when the landscape is ablaze with colour is a fall tradition for many local residents. Not only do you feel closer to friends and family, but there is an indelible “sense of place” and connection to the land. Over the last week or so, my wife and I have had the pleasure of discovering some of the new public trails established by the Kawartha Land Trust (KLT). If you are looking to add some exercise and nature-appreciation to your Thanksgiving weekend, I can’t think of any better destinations.

Formerly known as the Kawartha Heritage Conservancy, the KLT is a not-for-profit charitable organization committed to protecting the land we love. The Trust works with landowners and community members to identify and protect key ecological features of the Kawarthas. The KLT acquires a protective interest in land by receiving land donations or by managing properties, many of which have significant cultural value. The organization can also enter into long-term conservation agreements and provide professional advice about creative land conservation approaches.

The KLT trails now open to the public include three on the north shore of Stony Lake, one on Boyd Island near Bobcaygeon, and five on the McKim-Garsonnin property (Ballyduff Trails) near Pontypool. They are all easy-walking and well-marked with a trail map posted at the main junctions.

The Stony Lake and Boyd Island trails are located in the Land Between, which describes the “ecotone” or transition zone between the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence Lowlands to the south and the Canadian Shield to the north. The landscape is characterized by low exposed granite to the north side and limestone plain and outcroppings along the south side. It is home to many rare species and habitats.

Heart-leaved Asters along Blue Trail - Drew Monkman

Heart-leaved Asters along Blue Trail – Drew Monkman

It’s a happy coincidence that Thanksgiving weekend is usually synonymous with fall nature at its best. All of the KLT trails provide a smorgasbord of the sights, sounds and smells of the season. Red and sugar maples are now approaching peak colour with their vibrant oranges, reds and yellows. The wine-coloured leaves of white ash and the deep reds and maroons of Virginia creeper and staghorn sumac are already at their best. The leaves, however, are only part of the show. The white and mauve blossoms of asters such as the heart-leaved, New England and heath are abundant right now along trails and roadsides. Flocks of yellow-rumped warblers, white-throated sparrows and kinglets are moving through the area and, strangely enough, ruffed grouse can often be heard drumming. If you turn over rocks and logs, now is a good time to find salamanders such as the red-backed and blue-spotted. Of particular interest this year is the wide variety of fungi that have fruited. Fruiting refers to the appearance of the fleshy, spore-bearing body of the fungus, which is typically called a mushroom or toadstool. Thanks to the recent rains, dozens of species can be seen, especially in mixed forests with pine, hemlock beech, birch and poplar. Watch for turkey-tail, artist’s conk, various puffballs and a variety of amanitas, russulas and boletes. Fungi are also a lot of fun to photograph.

Russula mushroom on edge of Red Trail near the large marsh. Drew Monkman

Russula mushroom on edge of Red Trail near the large marsh. Drew Monkman

Stony Lake Trails

If you want to see rich plant, animal and geological diversity, my first recommendation would be the three interconnected KLT trails located south and west of Northey’s Bay Road on the north shore of Stony Lake. Ten kilometres of easy-walking trails wind through four distinct environments: mostly broadleaf forest on limestone bedrock; mixed forest on Canadian Shield granite; large groves of hemlock trees; and an extensive wetland. All of the trails provide great wildlife-watching possibilities, including deer and wild turkeys. The KLT, neighbouring landowners, donors and volunteers, have worked together to make these publicly accessible trails a reality.

Stony Lake Trails - Kawartha Land Trust

Stony Lake Trails – Kawartha Land Trust

If you decide to go, I would suggest leaving the car at Viamede Resort or at the KLT parking lot at #105 Reid’s Road. We parked at the latter location and started our walk by exploring the 2 km Ingleton-Wells trail (yellow) through property belonging to the KLT. Follow the path east along the edge of the open field in front of the parking lot to get to the trailhead. The Ingleton-Wells loop takes you through upland forest of hemlock, birch, maple and bitternut hickory, over granite bedrock. Watch for yellow birch growing on the top of old, disintegrating pine stumps. An old stone wall along the trail attests to the property’s agricultural past, as does an old apple orchard. In the spring, this is a great trail to see wildflowers such as hepatica and Dutchman’s breeches. The brown-coded sub-section of this trail takes you through a glacial outwash, which supports southern species like bitternut hickory and butternut. The latter is an endangered species in Ontario. Mature butternuts have distinctive bark with wide, flat-topped ridges.

After completing the Ingleton-Wells loop, you can return to the parking lot, have a snack, and then cross Reid’s Road to do the 3 km Viamede Trail (blue). The bedrock here is mostly limestone. The first 50 metres or so is particularly rich in mushrooms. Turn right at the T-junction and follow the blue markers for a kilometre or so to a fascinating section known as “The Chute”. An ancient glacial river eroded the limestone here forming a long, gully-like cut through the rock. Each side of the trail is bordered by 1-2 metre high limestone “wall” covered in moss and ferns. It is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. KLT has even erected a bench – one of many on the trails – where you can sit and contemplate the force of the ancient torrent that once flowed through here.

Limestone cut in "The Chute" section of Blue Trail - Drew Monkman

Limestone cut in “The Chute” section of Blue Trail – Drew Monkman

When you are walking this trail, be sure to follow the blue markers on the trees, since there are several other paths branching off to the side. You will also see metal baskets and various signs that have been erected for guests at the Viamede Resort who come to play “disc golf”.

The 3.5 km red trail provides a great taste of Canadian Shield habitat. It can be accessed from the Ingleton-Wells loop or by parking on the side of the road at #81 Fire Route 10. Like the Viamede trail, this trail winds through private property open to the public thanks to a special agreement with landowners. Just remember to “tread lightly”, stay on the path, and respect all signs.

From Fire Route 10, you have two options. If you head west, the trail meanders uphill through a granite outcropping, traverses a mostly birch forest – watch for a huge old maple “den” tree – and then crosses an old beaver dam bisecting a huge marsh. The dam is very rich botanically with species like sensitive fern and winterberry holly. On the west side of the marsh, there are beautiful hemlocks and mature maples.

Alternatively, you can head east from Fire Route 10, follow the trail halfway up a steep road and then take the branch to the left. You will enter a majestic grove of hemlocks. The exposed tree roots and granite bedrock are particularly interesting in this section. You will also come to a large pond where salamanders and frogs breed in the spring. Most of the red trail is shaded by a canopy of mature broad-leaved trees and scattered pines and other conifers. Although you can usually see deep into the woods, there is a wonderful feeling of seclusion. More open areas of the trail are dominated by red and white oaks with shrubs such as blueberry and arrow-wood viburnum growing underneath. The red trail also takes you over lichen-covered granite ridges and past imposing “erratics”. These boulders were transported by glaciers – often from hundreds of kilometres to the north -and deposited when the ice melted.

You can wrap up your day with dinner at Viamede Resort (call ahead of time at 705-654-3344) or at Uncle George’s Bakery & Dining (705-654-3661), located just north of Woodview.

Boyd Island

If you are looking to add a little paddling to your KLT trail explorations, consider a trip to Boyd (Big) Island, located on Pigeon Lake near Bobcaygeon. Most of the island was donated to Kawartha Land Trust in 2015. It is the largest undeveloped island in the Kawarthas and home to diverse forests, old meadows and rich flora and fauna. A 1.2 km trail has now been established. The trailhead is about halfway down the east side of the island. A boat launch at the end of Bear Creek Road in Trent Lakes Township gives you the shortest paddling route across.

Boyd Island Trail Map - Kawartha Land Trust

Boyd Island Trail Map – Kawartha Land Trust

Ballyduff Trails

Another option for a fall hike is the Ballyduff complex of trails, located at 851 Ballyduff Road near Pontypool. The five trails, which wind through 260 acres of the McKim-Garsonnin property, are protected through a conservation agreement with KLT. The property is on the Oak Ridges Moraine and contains many of the features of this glacially-formed terrain: rolling hills, sand deposits, an esker and a botanically-rich wetland. Of particular interest is a tallgrass prairie that the owners have established as part of their mission to restore the ecological integrity of the land. Please make arrangements before you come by contacting the owners at 705-277-3490 or by email at ralphmckim@i-zoom.net

 

For more information about the Kawartha Land Trust and to print off maps of all the above-mentioned trails, go to kawarthalandtrust.org. You can also contact the Trust at 705-743-5599.

Jun 092016
 

With our daughter home for a few days last week, we decided to take advantage of the great weather to do some hiking. Sophie has always had a special fondness for the Canadian Shield, so Petroglyph Provincial Park was the perfect destination. We also wanted to reacquaint ourselves with the special beauty of the area. Located on the north shore of Stony Lake, Petroglyphs Provincial Park is home to Canada’s largest known concentration of First Nation rock carvings. More than 900 figures, including turtles, snakes, birds and people, were carved into exposed marble, as far back as 1100 years ago.

Nanabush Trail

After purchasing our day pass at the visitor centre, we decided to walk the 5.5 kilometre Nanabush Trail, which starts near the main parking lot. The trail crosses a variety of habitats from wetlands and mixed forests to granite outcrops. The sunny weather, light breeze and near-total absence of biting insects made for especially pleasant walking. As we traversed the open, meadow-like area at the trailhead, we were entertained by large numbers of chalk-fronted skimmers, a black-and-white dragonfly, which often emerges in large numbers in late spring. Big yellow, white and black Canada tiger swallowtail butterflies flitted among the dogwoods, cherries, New Jersey tea and balsam ragwort. Along with species like Canada plum and woodland sunflower, these latter two plants make the Park an especially interesting destination for anyone interested in botany.

Passing through mixed forest of mostly pine, spruce, maple, and basswood, our attention was immediately drawn to the many wildflowers in bloom. Just like hardwood forests come alive with trilliums and trout lilies in May, coniferous and mixed forests offer up their own wildflower display in June. The stars of the show are the red blossoms of wild columbine; the pink, bird-like flowers of fringed polygala (gaywings); and the white flowers of species like Canada mayflower, starflower and wild sarsaparilla. Sarsaparilla is especially abundant on the Nanabush Trail. It has three compound leaves, each with five leaflets. Ball-like clusters of greenish-white flowers grow on leafless stems, which are sometimes hidden by the leaves. The roots of sarsaparilla were once used to make root beer.

Wild Columbine on Nanabush Trail (Drew Monkman)

Wild Columbine on Nanabush Trail (Drew Monkman)

Leaving the forest, the trail enters a large wetland with great views of the marsh from the boardwalk. Typical marsh birds like common yellowthroat warblers, alder flycatchers and red-winged blackbirds sang repeatedly, often competing with the banjo-like “boing” calls of green frogs. At one point, we were startled by the splash of a large beaver, only metres away. For anyone interested in wetland plants like speckled alder, nannyberry, sedges and a wide variety of ferns, the boardwalk provides wonderful close-up views.

Re-entering the woods on the west side of the marsh, I stopped to watch a mourning warbler that was pouring its heart out in song. At my feet, I noticed several large patches of bunchberry, which is a species of dogwood and a signature plant of the Canadian Shield. Some bunchberries have four leaves while others have six, even in the same patch. Strangely enough, only those plants with six leaves produce flowers, which form a greenish cluster in the centre of four white bracts.

As we walked further into the forest, a number of different warblers advertized their presence. The most common was the ovenbird. Its loud “teaCHER, teaCHER” rang out at regular intervals along the path. Another sound that caught our attention was the slow, irregular drumming of the yellow-bellied sapsucker. The pattern has a stuttering quality and often sounds like Morse code. The sapsucker is well known for the parallel rows of tiny shallow holes that it makes in tree bark. The birds lap up the sap that leaks from the holes, using the fibrous, brush-like projections on their tongue. At the same time, they will also grab small insects that may have been attracted to the sap wells. It is not uncommon to see hummingbirds and butterflies partaking of the sap, as well.

A little further down the trail, my wife motioned me to stop. A ruffed grouse was standing statue-like right in front of us, its head feathers erect. We could hear a faint, peeping sound coming from the surrounding vegetation, which meant that young were present. With careful searching, we were finally able to catch glimpses of the sand-coloured, ping-pong ball-sized chicks. The chicks can walk and feed themselves within 24 hours of hatching.

Minnow Lake

Before long, the trail opens onto a granite ridge with scattered white pines, red oaks and blueberries. Sun-warmed pine needles scented the air as we enjoyed the view of the small lake below. This is a great spot to stop for a picnic lunch. I kept an eye out for any five-lined skinks that might be sunning themselves on the rocks. The glossy black juveniles are especially beautiful with their bright blue tails and five cream-coloured stripes down the back. The skink is Ontario’s only native lizard and is common in the Park. I was told that they are often seen around the glass-walled building at the Petroglyph site itself.

Minnow Lake on the Nanabush Trail - Drew Monkman

Minnow Lake on the Nanabush Trail – Drew Monkman

At the end of the lake, the trail climbs steeply and enters a deeply shaded stand of eastern hemlock and white cedar. The two warblers most closely associated with hemlocks – the blackburnian and black-throated green – sang repeatedly from the crowns of the trees. As in many areas along the Nanabush Trail, barren strawberries proliferated on the forest floor. They are easy to identify with their yellow flowers and three roundish, toothed leaflets. We also took some time here to scan the dead trees and floating logs in the flooded valley further to the west.

Looping back along the south side of Minnow Lake, we stumbled upon one of my favourite plants – the pink lady’s slipper or moccasin flower. A member of the orchid family, the lower petal of the flower forms an inflated pink pouch with reddish veins. The pouch tells an amazing story of how far evolution will go to assure pollination. On the hunt for nectar and pollen, bumblebees pry their way into the large, slipper-like pouch through an incurved slit down the front. Once inside, however, the slit closes and traps the bee. But, it’s not all bad news. The upper part of the pouch is lined with sticky hairs coated in nectar, and there are translucent areas where light shines through. Attracted by the light and sugar reward, the bee climbs upwards to feed and then make its escape. However, a narrowing at the top of the pouch forces the bee to crawl under a flattened structure where it rubs up against the stigma – the sticky female part of the flower. Unbeknownst to the bee, some of the pollen on its body hairs will adhere to the stigma and pollinate the plant. But one last bit of trickery still remains. As the bee finally exits, it is forced to rub up against the anthers – the male part of the flower – and inadvertently pick up more pollen. When it flies off to another lady’s-slipper, the bee will follow the same path and unwittingly leave pollen behind once again.

Pink Lady's-slipper tells an amazing story of evolution - Drew Monkman

Pink Lady’s-slipper tells an amazing story of evolution – Drew Monkman

Arriving at the east end of the lake, we crossed another long boardwalk where more dragonflies and both bluet and jewelwing damselflies abounded. Painted turtles, too, were basking in the warm June sun. We then followed the path back to the trail entrance and headed back up to the Learning Place visitor centre. The Learning Place offers a number of excellent displays on First Nation culture such as ceremonies, the medicine wheel, medicinal plants and beliefs associated with the four cardinal directions. You can also watch the award winning film “The Teaching Rocks”. The Learning Centre prepares the visitor for a more meaningful visit of the nearby Petroglyph site itself. Local First Nation’s people call the site “Kinoomaagewaapkong” which translates to “the rocks that teach”. The Curve Lake First Nation acts as the steward community of the rock carvings, providing Ontario Parks with guidance in this culturally significant and ceremonial place.

I often meet people from Peterborough who have never been to Petroglyph Provincial Park. If you enjoy nature, hiking and First Nation history and culture, I strongly recommend a visit. Like most everywhere in the Kawarthas, however, there is poison ivy. Learn to identify the plant and don’t forget to wear shoes, socks and preferably long pants when walking the trails.

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!