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Newsletter 39
Spring 2011

Take a Time-out for Nature

From the first greening of meadow grasses and the sprouting of furry pussy willows in spring, right on through to the ripening of berries and seeds in fall, Mother Nature takes care of all processes in the Thickson’s Woods Nature Reserve, making sure the saplings grow, the ferns unfold, the May apples ripen, the mushrooms push up after a rain. There’s little that humans have to do to take care of this precious wildlife oasis apart from picking up the paper cups and plastic bags that blow in on the wind.

Mother Nature takes care of us, too. Every day, in every season, the woods are waiting, there for whoever needs a quiet walk in nature to calm their nerves, lift their spirits, comfort their sorrows, or just provide a brief time-out for peace and beauty in the whirlwind of modern life.

If you love Thickson’s Woods, here are a few good ways to give back:

Take part in the annual Earth Day Cleanup, on Saturday April 30. In an ongoing effort to maintain this island of biodiversity, we’ll be once again digging up that persistent alien invader, garlic mustard.

Come an hour early and join Durham Region Field Naturalists on a bird walk, checking for migrants that arrived overnight.

Volunteers will be getting together again on Saturday June 25, to trim back the fragrant bedstraw choking out young spruce trees planted along the edge of the meadow. And to clip back some of the thistles overrunning the berms.

If you’re too busy to donate some time, live too far away to join us, or are too rickety or stiff to bend over, consider sending a donation toward the sustaining fund that will protect the Thickson’s Woods Nature Reserve into the future. Each contribution will receive a charitable tax receipt and a heartfelt thank-you on behalf of all the migrating birds and butterflies that find shelter in the reserve each spring and fall.

Baby Tree Rescue
Saturday June 25
Nine to noon

Bring work gloves; also a long-handled garden cultivator or hoe, pruning shears and a round-mouthed shovel. Wear thistle-proof pants.

Meet on Thickson Road.

Earth Day Garlic Mustard Blitz
Saturday April 30
Nine to noon

Garlic mustard is an alien invasive from Europe. Its strategy is to deposit chemicals that kill off fungi in the soil vital to breaking down nutrients into forms usable by trees. Birders who visit Point Pelee know how pervasive this pest is there. Long-time visitors report that many Carolinian trees on the Point are in serious decline.

Sugar maples in Thickson’s Woods are already dying, possibly due to airborne pollutants. We can’t afford to allow further stresses.

We’re making progress. This is the year for a major breakthrough, but we need your help. Garlic mustard has a two-year cycle. In early spring seeds sprout and the young plants grow until freeze-up. But leaves stay green over winter to get a head start over native wildflowers that are still dormant.

Almost before frost is out of the ground, growth resumes. White flowers open in May and by early summer seeds ripen and the plants die. Over the summer the tiny black seeds fall to the ground, ready to sprout early the next spring, most where they fell, but some carried by runoff, or on muddy feet of birds or mammals to some more distant spot.

Tiny seedlings in their first spring are easily removed, even just by brushing them from the soil with rough gardening gloves. But by fall the plants develop deep tap roots that have to be pried out with a trowel, small round-mouthed spade or cultivator. It’s best to dispose of these larger plants in a manner that prevents them from continuing to grow or spread seeds in other areas. If the plants are growing in a dense mass, each one will be small, producing at most a few dozen seeds. Single plants growing in ideal conditions can grow to a massive size and generate many hundreds of seeds.

Up to now in Thickson’s, we’ve been mainly playing catch-up, trying to remove plants that will produce seeds during the current season. This spring, while we still need to continue that task, we plan to eliminate as many of the tiny seedlings as possible at their most vulnerable stage.

If you can’t make it on April 30th, there’s always need to search and destroy those seedlings that sprout later. So call or send us an e-mail and we’ll show you what to do to help win this crucial battle.

Bring gardening gloves; a sturdy garden trowel, long-handled cultivator or hoe, and/or a small round-mouthed garden spade. Wear old pants for sitting on the ground.

Meet at the entrance to Thickson’s Woods. Park on the east side of Thickson Road and walk east along the Waterfront Trail.

Home Depot Helps Out

We want to thank all the Home Depot volunteers who designed, donated materials for, and constructed a wheelchair-accessible ramp into the meadow off the Waterfront Trail, a new signpost, as well as a sturdy gate to control vehicle access off Thickson Road. The two Whitby Home Depot stores chose Thickson's Woods as this year’s community service project, with Kevin Debonis, Dominic Guidotti, Dave Linton, Coleen Martin, Dan Ovens, Cindy Pooran, Dave Serviss and Tom Scholtz showing up to help on their day off.

And a very special thank-you to Ellen Waterson, from Home Depot Customer Service, who’s been giving up her Saturday off for many years to arrange and oversee the very popular nature project building program at our fall festival.

More Good Neighbours

Thanks to Johnson Controls for planting twenty baby white spruce on their naturalized berm across Thickson Road from the nature reserve, enhancing wildlife habitat in the neighbourhood. And thanks as well for their generous donation.

We’re also very grateful to Crestview Investment Corporation and the IBM Matching Grants Program for their financial support.

Treasurer’s Corner
by Brian Steele

You might wonder why there is a need for a Treasurer’s Corner, since we paid off the lot we purchased last year. What could we need money for now? While it is true that Thickson’s Woods board runs very lean, with no salaries or fees, and every expense scrutinized carefully, there are ongoing costs. These include insurance on the property that protects us against lawsuits, property taxes on the recent lot purchases, our internet site hosting, bank charges, postage for mailing of newsletters and printing costs, and membership fees, as we are associated with both the Ontario and Canadian Land Trust Alliances. Expenses for the Birds, Beavers & Butterflies festival are not included, as they are more than offset by the revenue generated.

Beyond the expenses noted above we are creating a sustaining fund.

What is a sustaining fund? You might recall that after the woods were paid off in 1989, we continued to accumulate money for a sustaining fund. When the meadow became available, we had the down payment because of the fund, without which we may not have been able to make a successful offer to purchase. That would, undoubtedly, have resulted in the construction of a warehouse, factory or trucking depot right beside the woods, which would have seriously degraded its value both to wildlife and to its many human visitors.

Similarly we were able to purchase the last two lots that were available because we had cash in the sustaining fund. We don’t know at this time when the need for money will next arise, but if we do not have something in hand, we could miss a lifetime opportunity that we would regret forever.

I was walking the Waterfront Trail with a friend and her dogs in the first week of April. As we passed the beaver dam we could hear American Woodcock giving their unique “peent” call in the meadow. Then as we passed the woods we could hear the deep hooting of the Great Horned Owl. How many other places do you know where you can get that close to nature in such an accessible location? Thickson’s Woods Nature Reserve is the jewel for birding in the GTA, and it is thanks to your support that it is still there and being enjoyed by so many people.

Recycling for Raptor Rehab

Ever wonder where all the stamps on Thickson's Woods Land Trust mail go? Few supporters would guess that they make their way far to the south, to help many raptors that migrate to Canada to breed.

Florence Jerome, a generous supporter of nature, years ago asked if we would save stamps off all our correspondence. So every single one gets torn off its envelope—with a good margin of paper around it—and tucked in an envelope for Florence, picked up by her when she's birding in the woods in spring, or hung on her doorknob around Christmastime.

Every winter she and her husband, Laurence, drive down to Florida to a small house built by her grandfather, near Sarasota. Surrounded by bountiful citrus trees planted by three generations of her family, they enjoy the birds and countryside, often going on nature outings with the Sarasota and Manatee Audubon Clubs to which they belong. And every year, at the first meeting they attend, Florence hands over the bagful of stamps she's collected from us and other friends.

The stamps are sorted and sold to collectors, with all proceeds supporting raptor rehabilitation. Canadian stamps are always welcome, Florence reports, and they're increasing in value, as fewer people communicate by cards and letters.

We want to thank Florence and Laurence for their longtime financial support for literally every fund-raising effort to date for Thickson's Woods, and for "going the extra kilometer" to provide their hands-on recycling service of stamps for nature.

Tale of a Trail
by Margaret Carney

“I started a new trail in the nature reserve,” Dennis told me at the supper table after a busy day in early March.

“Where?” I asked in surprise. “And can I help?” With great anticipation I followed him out to the meadow the next sunny morning, clippers in hand, to discover all he’d done, and help complete his timely vision.

With many hawthorns, ash, red cedars and nanny berries growing up in the west half of the meadow, creating sheltered hollows for migrating flycatchers and warblers, this spring seemed the perfect time to extend a footpath along the inside of the spruces edging the Waterfront Trail and on along the base of the berms, put in place to screen the meadow from truck and car traffic. After a few hours clipping red-osier dogwood shoots, the densest pioneering shrub in the regenerating meadow, we’d completed the link, joining up the new trail to the current system of paths around what short years ago was a cow pasture.

Since then we've walked the new trail several times, enjoying the vistas revealed, and many delights of nature, starting with a mockingbird singing from a buckthorn still laden with berries at the end of winter. We once flushed a woodcock, and another day stopped to admire the very first tree swallow back, preening its satiny, blue-green feathers atop a tall ash.

There are several good-sized anthills along the new trail, showing the architectural feats these colonial insects can accomplish in a wet, clay-based field.

The thickest stretch of brush is along the bottom of the northern berm, where piles of droppings prove that deer found a cozy shelter over winter. Shredded bark on saplings show where bucks thrashed their antlers to peel off the velvet.

Cucumber magnolia trees Richard Woolger carefully propagated, planted and protected are growing tall in the southwest corner of the meadow. But along the berms most have been snipped back by hungry deer that relish the taste of these native Carolinian specialties.

At one point the trail bends around one of the century-old apple trees in the orchard planted by early settlers, and we had to trim off a few low-reaching branches. We were amazed to find every twig had been peeled of bark the very next day, by hungry cottontails.

To reach the new trail, turn left inside the meadow entrance from the Waterfront Trail, after crossing the new Home Depot ramp, and follow the spruce hedge west. Just past the gate, jog right and then left around two rapidly growing white pines, to the trail entrance. On sunny May evenings hatching insects will draw migrating warblers down to eye level, out of the wind--one of the best views you'll ever get of these bejeweled little birds.


Recent donations have been made in memory of these special people:

Allan Blewett
Dave Calvert
Harold Farrant
Edgar James
Barry Robb

We join their families and friends in mourning their passing, and acknowledge their unique contribution to the rich web of life on planet earth.

On our website we recognize all past donations made in memory of friends and loved ones.

We pause to remember, with special thanks, Norma Gouveia, who for many years helped out at the fall festival.

Come to the Festival !!!

Put a special star on your calendar beside Saturday, September 17. That’s the date for this year’s Birds, Beavers and Butterflies Nature Festival. This is your chance to get up close and personal with unique animals presented by Muskoka Wildlife, marvel at some Creepy Critters, or just wander along one of the many nature trails in the reserve with one of our expert tour leaders.

Kids of all ages thrill at the chance to release a tagged monarch butterfly to continue its epic journey to the cool mountains of Mexico, or to study up close the fall plumage of a newly-banded Wilson’s warbler on its way to its winter home in the rainforests of South America.

And I’m still trying to figure out how magician Warren Toaze manages to fool everyone with his sleight of hand. Maybe this year?

We Get Letters

Just a quick note to say how much I enjoyed the latest newsletter--#38—especially "The Reserve in All Seasons" by Dennis Barry. It helps to remind us of the many wonders Thickson's holds for all, if we could only get there more often.

Good luck with the nature festival. Hope it's the best one yet! And many thanks to all who work so hard to make this such a special place.

Sincerely, Muriel Farrant


Thickson's Woods Makes National News

Dear Dennis and all our friends at Thickson Woods Land Trust,

On behalf of all of us at the American Friends of Canadian Land Trusts, please accept our sincere thanks and appreciation for the part you played in helping our organization to move forward in advancing "cross-border" land conservation in Canada.

We appreciate your support in securing the necessary tax amendments in Canada that remove the tax impediment to protecting American-owned land in Canada. We also greatly appreciate your wonderful support and assistance in hosting the joint announcement of this tax regulation amendment with Minister Flaherty, and the launch of the American Friends' cross-border conservation program.

How encouraging to hear Minister Flaherty speak so highly of the important work of land trusts in Canada! Perhaps he'll take an active interest in your wonderful nature preserve, right in his backyard. We hope you share our pride in this landmark achievement, and our enthusiasm in working together with land trusts and other conservation partners across the country in protecting Canada's unique natural legacy.

Sincerely, Tim Siefert, President and Bonnie Sutherland, Founding Board Member

Jim Fairchild Memorial Mayrathon, 2010

Last May we issued a challenge to all who visited Thickson’s Woods to participate in a Mayrathon in honour of Jim Fairchild, a long-time supporter and frequent visitor to the woods in all weather and at all seasons. We’ve placed a bench in Jim’s memory at the top of a knoll near the centre of the woods. The idea was to see how many bird species could be seen or heard during the month of May from the vicinity of that bench. Birders were invited to make pledges per species based on the total number reported. They were also encouraged to guess what the cumulative sum would be. The magic number, 118 species, a tribute not only to Jim Fairchild, but to the diversity of habitat that makes up Thickson’s Woods Nature Reserve.

And the winner is…. Glenn Coady with a guess of 118. Why he chose that number early in May we’re not sure. (He does live closest to Jim’s bench.) I wonder if he buys lottery tickets.
If you’re one of the folks who pledged, sorry we didn’t notify you earlier of the final tally. Our bad! And thanks to those who sent in their cheques ahead of time.

Undoubtedly, if Jim had been with us to help out with his keen hearing, sharp eyesight and expert knowledge of birds, the tally would have been much higher. I can picture him now striding along the path in his rubber boots, asking “Did you hear the evening grosbeak that flew over a few minutes ago?”

Updating our Bird Checklist

The checklist of birds of Thickson’s Woods was last printed in 2003. Carol Horner has taken on the task of bringing it up-to-date. The area covered by the checklist is approximately a one mile (1.6 kilometre) circle from the centre of the woods.

Following are some unusual species that might possibly show up here, but for which we have no record. If you see, or have seen in the past, any of these species within the Thickson’s Woods circle, please call or e-mail the details to us, so we can add them to the list.

Cinnamon Teal
Tufted Duck
Common Eider
Yellow-billed Loon
Eared Grebe
American White Pelican
Brown Pelican
Little Blue Heron
Tricolored Heron
Black Vulture
Mississippi Kite
Purple Gallinule
Piping Plover
Black-necked Stilt
Western Sandpiper
Stilt Sandpiper
Purple Sandpiper
Buff-breasted Sandpiper
Red-necked Phalarope
Laughing Gull
Black-headed Gull
Mew Gull
California Gull
Arctic Tern
Royal Tern
Black Skimmer
Eurasian Collared Dove
White-winged Dove
Northern Hawk Owl
Boreal Owl
Rufous Hummingbird
Acadian Flycatcher
Ash-throated Flycatcher
Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher
Western Kingbird
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
Fork-tailed Flycatcher
Fish Crow
Mountain Bluebird
Bohemian Waxwing
Kirtland’s Warbler
Swainson’s Warbler
Western Tanager
Green-tailed Towhee
Spotted Towhee
Harris’s Sparrow
Golden-crowned Sparrow
Blue Grosbeak
Bullock’s Oriole

Secrets of the Reserve
by Dennis Barry

Thickson’s Woods Nature Reserve has a myriad of secrets, many still to be unveiled. Some are revealed only to those who visit at unorthodox times of day, or specific seasons. To discover others, one must look more closely for tiny details, turn your binoculars around as a magnifier to study the intricate pattern of things taken for granted as ordinary. Or take time to stare high into the sky, or down at nature’s carpet beneath your feet.

Amazing revelations can be experienced by sitting or standing quietly for an hour, watching and listening.

Sometime in April, beaked hazel blooms. A few scattered clumps of this small shrub can be found along trails in the northeast corner of the woods. Look closely. Its tiny sparse blossoms glow a bright magenta in shafts of sunlight not yet blocked by unfurling leaves high overhead. Come back in late summer to see if chipmunks have left any of the “beaked” fruit that gives it its name.

Relax on the platform in the meadow at dusk on a warm evening in spring. When it’s hard to hear over the raucous scolding of the many robins getting ready to go to roost, you’ll know the show is about to begin. First you’ll hear a nasal “bzzzzt” from a nearby red-osier dogwood patch. Soon that sound will halt, and a softer musical twitter will begin overhead, now here, now there. A male woodcock is proclaiming his musical prowess to a female nestled over her clutch of four buffy spotted eggs hidden on the meadow floor somewhere below. If you’re lucky you may spot him hurtling across the sunset, before plummeting to earth to resume the less musical portion of his song. As you depart, you may catch the evening chorus of the coyote family leaving the sheltered hummock in the nearby marsh where they spent their day.

Secrets to be discovered on the waters of Lake Ontario are often fleeting. A male garganey that Margaret Carney spotted off Thickson’s Point one May morning created great excitement, but had moved on before birders from far parts of the province arrived to admire it. Encouraged by Glenn Coady’s persistence in lake watching, Margaret and I sat on the bluff one fall day to see if strong south winds would blow an exotic bird close enough to be identified. We were peering through our scopes at distant wavering shapes often hidden in mist, trying to pick out a jaeger among the swirling mass of gulls, when one of us glanced up to see a gorgeous pair of adult parasitic jaegers fly past practically at our feet. One warm August evening we were canoeing along the shore when an avocet flew by.

Margaret was off attending the birth of her grand-nephew one cold New Year’s Day when the phone rang. It was Phil Holder, alerting me to an ivory gull heading east along the Pickering shoreline. I rushed out to look, but after some time nothing appeared. I just got back inside when the phone rang again. Phil said the gull had left Whitby Harbour, heading toward Thickson’s. Again I rushed out and waited. Finally, cold, hungry and disappointed, I came in to have some lunch. As I sat eating soup at the dining room table a few minutes later, the ivory gull flew east past our flagpole.

Weather determines what surprises lie in store along the shore. When freeze-up happens on northern lakes, huge numbers of waterfowl appear overnight in the bay off Thickson’s Woods: five hundred common loons on a Thanksgiving weekend; twenty thousand red-breasted mergansers a few weeks later; wave after wave of greater scaup on a windy December day. If May turns cold, with winds out of the north, swallows hawk for insects over the bay. Look for a large swallow with a square tail and a cinnamon-buff rump patch. Once fairly common in southern Ontario, cliff swallow numbers have declined dramatically. A lone bird
fitting the same description, seen in November, is more likely to be a cave swallow, a stray from far to the south.

A walk along the beach at the south edge of the reserve can be a journey into history. The variety of pebbles underfoot is testament to the energy of waves that have shaped them over millennia, and to the awesome power of glaciers that carried them here from hundreds of miles to the north during the last ice age. You’ll find granite, quartz, limestone and shale, in many colours, shapes and sizes, with glittering facets and sometimes hidden fossils. And don’t ignore the sand beneath your feet. Closer examination with a powerful hand lens, or, better yet, under a binocular microscope, reveals that you are actually walking on a carpet of jewels. Two of the large boulders placed at the foot of the bluff to reduce erosion contain small embedded garnets.

Many evergreens hide secrets. Whether low spruce or cedars, or stately white pines towering to the sky above all other trees in the woods, owls find them ideal places to sleep away the day. “Have you seen the owls?” is probably the most often asked question by people I meet while walking in the woods. They’re referring to the great horned owls hidden away in one of the tall pines. For much of the year, the easiest way to discover which is the roosting tree of the day, is to wait for passing crows to spot an owl and commence a loud agitated cawing. Their intense dislike may be partially due to the fact that great horned owls don’t build their own nests, but find last year’s crows’ nest suits them perfectly to lay their two buffy-white eggs. In mid-winter, searching the ground for regurgitated bundles of bone and fur, or watching for splotches of “whitewash” on trunks or branches, may be the only clues to an owl’s hiding place.

Peer into a dense tangle of spruce, or red or white cedar branches, to discover a hidden saw-whet or long-eared owl.

Many birds that nest in the reserve arrive only after insect numbers have built to levels able to sustain the added physiological strain of courtship, nest building, egg production and nestling rearing. By then, leaves have unfurled to hide their creations. By November, it’s amazing how many yellow warbler nests there are, each nestled at head height in the crotch of a red-osier dogwood in the meadow. Constructed of tough fibrous plant material, they survive until the following spring. Tucked deeper into larger shrubs, the poorly made cardinal nests soon succumb to wind and weather. Good luck spotting the nest of an eastern wood-pewee atop a horizontal branch high in a red oak in the woods. Camouflaged with an outer covering of lichens, it’s practically invisible. A blue-gray gnatcatcher nest is equally well concealed, but they build before leaves open, so you may find the nest by watching an adult carrying building material.

Life near and under the ground is often overlooked. While digging to remove the sturdy tap roots of invasive garlic mustard, I often encounter a caterpillar hunter. This large ground beetle, perhaps three centimetres long, rivals the glossy metallic purples and blues of a male common grackle in spring garb. Mostly by night, it searches for moth larva and earthworms.

Sit still and watch for a while. Soon you’ll see an eight-legged creature: maybe a furry wolf spider scurrying by, or perhaps an orb spider dining on prey it’s captured in an invisible web. In spring the web will be filled with midges, mosquito look-alikes that breed in the soil, but rise by the millions in dusty columns above trees in the woods. Watching red-breasted nuthatches and kinglets eating the trapped insects, I wondered why they would bother with dead “bugs” that must surely be dried and shriveled. To my surprise, looking at them under a microscope revealed a wriggling mass of bodies, still very much alive, the spider’s larder perfectly preserved for future banquet.