Nature's crown jewel

Immerse yourself in this stunning grassland prairie

T he diverse landscape of Ontario’s Rice Lake Plains is widely admired by all who visit here – most notably, author Catharine Parr Traill.

In addition to her well-known The Backwoods of Canada, Catharine Parr Traill published two others and numerous articles while living there from 1846 to 1858. In these books and in later publications, such as Studies in Plant Life in Canada (1884), she was inspired by the Rice Lake Plains’ plant, shrubs and grasses.

The Nature Conservancy of Canada’s (NCC’s) Hazel Bird Nature Reserve is a part of the Rice Lake Plains’ tall grass habitats. Its rolling, sandy hills are covered in meadows and globally rare habitats, such as black oak woodland, black oak savannah and restored tall grass prairie.

“It’s a living textbook about the challenges and rewards of habitat restoration,” says Mark Stabb, NCC’s program director for central Ontario east. “You get to walk through many areas of native vegetation that were once covered in non-native species.”

A natural legacy

On the property, visitors will see where NCC’s conservation staff have restored stands of six-foot-tall big bluestem grass, groves of naturally regenerating oak trees and blooming wildflower meadows.

“You could say that the Hazel Bird Nature Reserve is a diamond in the rough that is now really starting to shine,” says Mark.

In 2011, NCC hosted a grand opening on the property, which is named after the late Hazel Bird, a local naturalist, Conservation Volunteer and teacher. Hazel Bird’s children and their families were at the opening to help NCC celebrate Hazel’s legacy and the protection of the property.

“Having Hazel’s great-grandchildren there running around helped make the event really special,” says Mark. “Years ago, she ran a large eastern bluebird nesting box project in the area and introduced dozens of local naturalists to the property. They helped her monitor and care for the nest boxes. Many of these community volunteers later helped NCC acquire the land for conservation, and many return to visit and help steward the property.”

The Rice Lake Plains

This area of 40,470 hectares (roughly 100,000 acres) is located at the eastern end of the Oak Ridges Moraine, southeast of Peterborough. It may be one of the most intriguing areas on the moraine.

Historically, the Rice Lake Plains were covered with tall grass prairies and oak savannah, dominated by massive black and white oak. Grasses like big bluestem, Indian grass and switchgrass grew more than two metres high and a diverse range of wildflowers blossomed. Today, the oak savannah and tall grass prairie of the Rice Lake Plains are badly fragmented and overgrown with non-native species.

The Hazel Bird Nature Trail spans 3.6 kilometres and includes a breezy lookout with a bench that features a sweeping view of the meadows and tall grass habitats in the south of the property.

Species to Spot

– black oak
– eastern bluebird
– eastern meadowlark
– grasshopper sparrow
– monarch
– New Jersey tea
– northern harrier
– prairie buttercup
– red fox
– red-tailed hawk
– savannah sparrow
– wild turkey

Endless opportunities for discovery

Four seasons of exploration await at this property. Visit in spring for the returning birds and the wildflowers, or in summer for the grassland bird viewing and vistas. Fall colours in Ontario never disappoint and here visitors can see the subtle lavender colour of the white oak. And no winter visit is complete without spotting woodland wildlife tracks and owls.

“It gives you a sense of what the vast tall grass ecosystems of the Rice Lake Plains used to be like, and what they could be like again with enough commitment and hard work,” says Mark.

The Hazel Bird Nature Reserve is host to globally rare habitats, including oak savannahs, which are among the most endangered habitats in North America. Grassland birds and other rare species, including eastern hog-nosed snake, depend on this habitat to survive.

“I didn’t realize there would be so many grasshopper sparrows here,” says Mark. “It really gives you a chance to hone your skills at identifying these ‘little brown jobs‘ of the bird world.”

Protecting a unique landscape for Canadians to enjoy now and forever

But you don’t have to be a field biologist or wilderness adventurer to explore this dynamic landscape.

“Exploring nature in any fashion, on our own or with the help of guides, helps us connect with our natural neighbours and understand nature’s benefits to us,” says Mark. “Nature needs allies, armies of them, and getting out there helps build these forces for good.”

When NCC first acquired the property, Mark was inspired by the potential for restoration in a diverse landscape. Now, the property is ready for Canadians to enjoy for the long- term.

“It has taken a lot of work, and there has literally been blood, toil, tears and sweat, but real progress has been made and we are ready to show Hazel Bird Nature Reserve off to visitors,” he says.

Photo Credits (Top to bottom): NCC; NCC; NCC; NCC; Lorne; NCC.

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