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Type: Woodland/Riparian Zone
Difficulty: Some Steep Sections
Across the clay road from the pillars, steps lead into a steep valley bordered by large hemlock, yellow birch, white pine and maples. In The Master’s eyes, “to stroll through on a forest path with motive ulterior to the purpose of passing through was to lurk in the woods. For a boy to proceed at any other pace than a run was to linger, loiter, dawdle, meander, creep and saunter.” But perhaps even Sir Andrew’s schoolmaster-father would forgive your lurking, lingering, loitering as you make your way down into the valley to visit this place of singing birds and babbling brook.
There are many signs of human activity on the way to the stream. The large Scots pine off to the left is not native to this province and was either planted or seeded in naturally from one already growing. The same is true of the apple tree a little closer to the stream. Apples are not native to the Island but they are a most welcome addition, providing delicious fruit for humans and much of the wildlife in the area. Perhaps this tree is a descendant of one Sir Andrew described as having fruit “so sour that it protected itself against the hardiest boy”.
At the stream, a dam provided power for a mill that sawed timber for building and for the shipyards in Orwell Point and Vernon Bridge. As gasoline powered mills became more common, water power was abandoned across the Island. This one stopped early in the century. Sir Andrew visited this area daily in the summer for a dip in the stream.
As you cross the first bridge, notice how trees along the stream form a canopy overhead, providing shade that keeps the water cool. Speckled trout and other stream dwellers benefit from the increased oxygen available in cooler water and from nutrients deposited in the stream from falling needles, leaves and rotting logs. Tiny animals called invertebrates feed on this organic matter and are themselves food for fish.
Here you may find the elusive mink, which feeds on fish, small mammals, amphibians and insects and in Sir Andrew’s time were trapped along the stream. It may be easier to see signs of an animal’s presence – look for prints in mud or snow, scat (feces) or gnawed twigs. Patience, quietness and luck are keys to seeing less-common animals in the wild.
At the base of the first set of steps, you’ll find a large eastern hemlock. Though uncommon in Island forests, it is in great abundance along the trail. You can still find older houses and barns built with hemlock boards up to .6m (2ft) wide. Both hemlock and the more common balsam fir have flat needles coming from only two sides of the twig. Hemlock needles, however, are about half the length of balsam fir needles. Specimens in this area are good examples of the large size this tree can reach. A forest is always a mixture of growth and decay. Trees die from old age, insect damage, disease or weather conditions and seedlings sprout up to take their place.
Just past the second bridge (which you cross on the way back), is a tree in decline. This yellow birch, with its golden, papery bark, is being attacked by a fungal disease. There is a birch canker polypore about 2m (6.5ft) up the tree. It looks like the base of a burnt limb and is just one of many natural processes that turn healthy, live trees into soil.
The presence of large trees and an abundance of snags (standing dead or dying trees) makes this an exciting place for bird watchers. Brown creepers, tiny warbler-like birds, feed on insect larvae on the bark of trees. If you are quiet and observant, you may see one work its way up the trunk in a spiral, searching for food. The boreal chickadee, much less common and more secretive than its black-capped relative, is also found here. Its call is similar to the “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” of the black-capped, but slower and more “wheezing”.
As you cross the third bridge and head along the other side of the stream, you will find many dead or partly dead trees. These ‘snag trees‘ are used by a wide variety of wildlife for nesting, feeding and roosting. Some tower overhead, others are not much more than a tall stump. Many birds in this area, such as creepers, chickadees, woodpeckers, nuthatches and owls, excavate cavities in decaying trees (or use older excavations) to nest in. Several species build nests in dead or broken-topped trees and hawks often use snag trees as perches. The loose bark of dead trees is an ideal roosting spot for little brown bats and spring peepers, those tiny frogs that are another early sign of spring. Raccoons, red squirrels, northern flying squirrels and deer mice also use cavities for nesting or denning.
After crossing the middle bridge, turn left and retrace your steps back to the clay road. Although the temptation is to keep your head craned up to the tall hemlocks and pines, looking for warblers almost out of sight, be sure to give some attention to the forest floor. Here you will find some of the most fascinating plants, perhaps not as brilliantly coloured as the wildflowers but beautiful in their own right. This valley is rich in mosses and ferns of all types. Club mosses are low evergreen plants that look like tiny trees. They thrive in shady, acidic conditions and are plentiful here. Once you become more familiar with these plants, you will notice the wide variety of fungi and lichens also growing on the forest floor. On our annual fall mushroom walks, it is not uncommon to find dozens of varieties of fungi, from edible chanterelles and boleti to colourful slime moulds.
When you arrive back on the clay road, you can return to the Home stead or turn right for a .4 km (.25 mi) walk to the pond. During the breeding season, the trees on either side often host nests of yellow-rumped and Magnolia warblers, as well as robins and cedar wax wings. The areas along the road were old fields that grew up mainly in white spruce. Through government programs, most of this woodland was clearcut, then replanted in a variety of plantations. When you come to a ramp, head down to the pond. This was a mill pond that is now undammed in the winter and spring to allow fish passage. The ramp is wheelchair accessible, as is one of the two viewing/fishing platforms over the water.