E-Blast: A Field Day in Elgin | Carolinian Canada

E-Blast: A Field Day in Elgin

Sunday, June 8, 2014 - 8:00pm
Robert Ward with his American Chestnut tree at Wardcrest Farm
Robert Ward with his American Chestnut tree at Wardcrest Farm.
© Jarmo Jalava

On Monday, June 9, I woke up at 3:45 A.M., fifteen minutes before my alarm, had breakfast, and set off from our home in Stratford for a day of fieldwork as part of the Elgin Natural Heritage Inventory. Each of the properties I would visit had been volunteered for survey by landowners keen to expand their knowledge of the flora and fauna with which they share their lands. On this gorgeous early summer day I would have the privilege to explore places I would normally never get a chance to visit and, best of all, to meet some great people whose enthusiasm, love and care for the lands of Elgin County is second to none.

I arrived at Grant and Mary-Anne Harvey’s property south of Tillsonburg shortly after 6:00 A.M. to find them already up and waiting for me. I was immediately impressed by the prairie restoration efforts the couple has undertaken in partnership with the Elgin Stewardship Council and Long Point Region Conservation Authority, and by how conscientiously they are stewarding their ravine forests. The Harveys have even made the buildings on their property attractive to vulnerable wildlife, such as the Barn Swallows that nest under their eaves and the Chimney Swifts that roost in the barn’s chimney. Grant and Mary-Anne showed me their endangered American Chestnut and Eastern Flowering Dogwood trees, both survivors of the blights that have caused serious declines throughout southern Ontario. Eastern Bluebirds, Scarlet Tanagers, Yellow-throated Vireos and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks added a kaleidoscope of colour and song to the Harveys’ forests and fields. 

Not all the news was quite so uplifting, however. The American Badger seen in previous years appears to have abandoned its den in the ravine, and the Little Brown Myotis bats that used to populate the Harveys’ barn have not returned – no doubt victims of the disease, White Nose Fungus, which in a few short years has almost wiped out this once abundant species from Ontario. But all in all, seeing the Harveys’ exemplary land stewardship firsthand was a great start to the day.

Next I would visit Barnum’s Gully on the Lake Erie shoreline west of Port Bruce, a virtually undisturbed woodlot. On the way I drove past a few smaller properties that have also been volunteered for survey, and I was able to assess what types of survey would be appropriate for these sites.

At Barnum’s Gully I was immediately treated to the fluting notes of a Wood Thrush, recently listed as Special Concern, calling from the verdant swamp forest perched atop the coastal bluffs. As I entered the wet woods I marveled at the sea of Skunk Cabbage, sedges and myriad ferns that formed the understory. I took comfort in the fact that the mosquitoes that swarmed around my head were food for the Eastern Wood-Pewee, one of our most common forest birds but listed as Special Concern federally because of ongoing population declines. I thought I heard an Acadian Flycatcher call a couple of times. The habitat is perfect for this endangered species, but I wasn’t 100% certain of the identification and did not locate the bird, so this is one species others may wish to look for on subsequent visits. Kudos for preserving this exemplary site!

My last stop for the day would be near Union at Wardcrest Farm, organic since 1972, where I was met by the inimitable Robert Ward, whose enthusiasm for nature and wildlife was comparable to that of the Harveys. Robert and I were able to spot a whole range of grassland bird species in his hayfields and pastures. Nearly all grassland birds are in decline in eastern North America due no doubt to rapidly changing agricultural practices. Farmers like the Wards, who raise organic grass-fed beef, are providing critical habitat for such species. Robert also showed me his healthy-looking American Chestnut tree, as well as an interesting looking active mammal den, which we have reported to the Ontario Badger Hotline. He kept me entertained with stories and good humour, and again I was impressed not only with his stewardship savvy, but also the degree to which he has invited visitors to share in his land’s bounty – from hawk banders to Christmas Bird Counters and members of local naturalist clubs. More power to you, Robert!

Over the course of the day, I tallied close to twenty federally or provincially significant species observations, and was thrilled to have gotten to know Elgin County more intimately. I was impressed with the extent of forest cover, and the diverse mix of land uses that still supports thriving wildlife populations. The friendly, enthusiastic land stewards I met have me all the more inspired about the potential for Elgin to be an exemplary ecological landscape right in the heart of Carolinian Canada’s “Big Picture”. The more information we gather through efforts such as the Elgin Natural Heritage Inventory, the better equipped we will be to support informed planning for the future of the Elgin Greenway and southern Ontario as a whole.

Jarmo Jalava, Director of Ecosystem Recovery
Carolinian Canada Coalition

Learn more about our Elgin Natural Heritage Inventory here.

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