Length: 1.5 km
Difficulty: Short Climb then Easy Hiking
From the pond, head up the hill toward your right to the Wood land Trail. There is a map at the first station and a series of photographic displays along the walk. Since it travels through different types of forest habitats, the trail is rich in woodland wildlife. Just after the first sign, a wet area on your left is home to many ferns and mosses.
Soon you’ll come to a sign with photos of wildflowers that you can find on the Macphail Homestead. A mixture of habitats, from forests to fields, allows that wide variety of species. Twinflower (aptly named for its two pale bell-shaped flowers), is common in this area, as are stemless lady’s slipper, wood sorrel, gold thread and bluebead lily. Some plants growing along the trail are not what they seem to be. Tiny red “flowers” growing in clumps on stumps are most likely the fruiting bodies of British soldier lichens. Other lichens common to this area are old man’s beard (which you can see hanging from spruce trees) and lung lichen (the lung-shaped plants growing on the side of maple trees). Lichens are partnerships between a fungus and living algal cells, with the algae providing the nutrition. They can occupy harsh, barren areas and are often a first step in building or rebuilding soil.
As you enter an area that has more yellow birch and red maple, look for the sign showing different deciduous tree leaves. There are a wide variety of native trees with leaves, and we are trying to maintain and improve that diversity within Macphail Woods. Each species has a variety of associated values – protecting and rebuilding soil, providing food or nesting sites for specific types of wildlife or producing high quality wood for lumber or furniture making.
When restoring forests, we try to fit the right tree to the right location. Just to the left of this area, we have set up two Biodiversity Monitoring Plots in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institute and Environment Canada. With the help of students from Holland College’s Urban and Rural Planning Program and the EJLB Foundation of Montreal, we have surveyed two 1- hectare (2.5-acre) plots. One plot is strictly for monitoring, while the other has been planted with a mixture of native trees and shrubs appropriate to the site. Trees in each plot have been numbered, measured (height and diameter) and plotted into a computer mapping program. These sites will be regularly remeasured and assessed and the results added to those of over 300 similar monitoring projects worldwide.
Amphibians are important, yet often over looked, members of forest ecosystems. The total biomass, or weight, of the tiny red backed salamander may equal or exceed that of birds and mammals in hardwood forests. Since amphibians occur at various positions in the food web, habitat disturbances have far-reaching effects on the entire forest ecosystem. Clearcuts and conifer plantations result in decreased leaf litter and removal of coarse woody debris. In addition, exposure to full sunlight and the resulting decrease in ground level humidity can be detrimental to these important vertebrates. Ecological forest management practices, such as selective harvesting and small patch cuts maintain the forest canopy and preserve ground level moisture. This means that the needs of the amphibians, as well as the needs of wood harvesters, are met. Resource Management students from Holland College have been instrumental in providing amphibian census data at the Macphail Wood’s Project since 1992. In spring, listen for the long trills of toads calling from the pond, or the constant “peep, peep, peep” of the spring peeper, our smallest frog. During the warmer months you can find toads, wood frogs and three types of salamanders (spotted, blue-spotted and redbacked) salamanders foraging in the leaf litter.
After the trail takes a sharp turn, a fork leads off to the right. That’s your return route, so continue straight ahead. Soon you’ll come to a sign on your left which describes the values of dead trees. When a tree starts to die, insects, invertebrates, fungi and bacteria combine to break the wood down into nutrients that become available to future generations of trees. Seedlings often start their life on a fallen log – the dead wood providing nutrients and moisture to its replacement. This is especially common with hemlock and yellow birch. The area you are now walking through is a small clearcut done in 1980 and allowed to grow up on its own. Notice the diversity of plants – white, gray and yellow birch, pin and choke cherry, balsam fir, red maple, white spruce, mountain ash, red-berried elder, willows and many more. This stand is protecting and building soil and providing wildlife habitat. Someday it will also produce valuable fuelwood, lumber and other forest products. Straight ahead is the Kinross Road but follow the trail as it leads off to the right.
In winter, signs of animals abound in the woods, from tracks to animal homes. The trail is quite level and protected by tree cover, making it is excellent for skiing or snowshoeing. This area is also well-used by ruffed grouse and snowshoe hare and you can see their signs all around. Black-capped and boreal chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches, downy and hairy woodpeckers and barred owls are year-round residents. Common redpolls, American tree sparrows and pine siskins, which can be found here in the summer, often visit in much larger numbers during the winter, depending on availability of tree seed. Some birds are easier to see in the winter, since there are no leaves on the trees. Northern goshawks frequent these woods and their large bodies stand out against the deciduous trees. Smaller birds such as kinglets and chickadees are also more visible during winter and the summer nests of robins and vireos stand out against the naked branches.
As you walk past the area that had been clearcut, you’ll start seeing larger trees. A large hemlock on the right is one of the biggest on the property and is home to a hive of honeybees. The tree’s centre is rotting, though it is so massive that the bees success fully overwinter. Soon you’ll come to the sign showing different types of birds’ nests – everything from cavities in trees to clumps of lichens.
The old man’s beard lichen is important to these woods since it forms the hanging nests used by the northern parula warbler. The female makes her way into a large clump of the lichen and creates a perfect, well-disguised nest for herself. Parula warblers and many other species of birds will often bring in small pieces of the lichen to line the bottom of the nest before laying eggs.
The next sign on your right displays the nine conifers native to this province. With a little work, they are quite easy to distinguish, both from needles and from tree form. Across from the sign is one of our finest examples of white pine, distinguished by its soft, long needles that are in groups of five. All other species of pine on Prince Edward Island have groups of two needles. Eastern white pine was once much more common across the Island, growing up to six feet in diameter and towering above other trees in the forest. Most were cut for shipbuilding during the 1800’s, being especially valued for masts. White pine is still prized by carpenters and furniture makers. The wood is easy to work and often used in window-making and for interior trim.
Continuing along the trail, you will come to a display of native shrubs. There are far more species than could be placed on a sign and they all play roles in our Island landscape. Serviceberry, also called Indian pear and Saskatoon, is one of the most important food sources for wildlife early in the year, while the many varieties of hawthorn offer smaller birds excellent protection from predators. Both the red-berried and common elders produce consistently heavy crops of fruit and snowshoe hare browse willows heavily. These are all important species, yet two little-known shrubs have been the focus our attention. Witch hazel and hobblebush are two of our most attractive native shrubs. Unfortunately, we have found few seed sources for these plants. We are now growing both species in our nursery and have been transplanting some into Macphail Woods and other areas. This way, if the few existing seed sources are destroyed, we will still be able to continue working to rebuild populations of these important species.
Once past the sign, you have completed the loop. Turn left and retrace your path to the pond. The platforms in this area are excellent places to rest or look for great blue herons, osprey, king-fishers, olive-sided flycatchers, black ducks, juncos and gold finches. Head back along the clay road to the pillars and follow the lane towards the Macphail Home.