A wildlife haven

This rare alvar habitat boasts an array of plant, butterfly, dragonfly and bird species

T There’s a place deep in the Carden Alvar in central Ontario where magic happens.

In late spring, the property is enchanted with vivid wildflowers that dot the grasslands. As you walk along the trail, the bright green deciduous forest gives way to lush pockets of mixed tamarack and poplar forest. On either side of the trail, wetlands teem with life and birds can be heard chirping all around.

Welcome to North Bear Alvar.

Located northeast of Lake Simcoe, the Carden Alvar boasts pristine habitat that supports around 450 plant species, 142 butterfly and dragonfly species and 238 bird species.

Tucked away in the northern portion of the Carden Alvar is North Bear Alvar, purchased by the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) in 2011. This property adds 787 acres (318 hectares) to NCC’s growing network of conservation lands on the Carden Alvar.

“NCC’s goal, in partnership with the Couchiching Conservancy, is to create a natural corridor from the Queen Elizabeth Wildlands Park down through to the conservation lands south of Kirkfield Road 6,” says Tom Wilson, property steward and president of the Carden Field Naturalists. “North Bear creates a beautiful chunk of this corridor.”

North Bear Alvar supports several types of globally rare alvar habitat. Alvars are naturally open habitats with thin to no soil over a base of limestone or dolostone. They may have large areas of exposed bedrock that can support sparse shrubs and trees. They are a hot spot for plants and insects that are specially adapted to harsh conditions, such as drought and flooding.

“Depending on the summer conditions, if it is really dry you can walk through wetland areas and explore new areas of the property,” advises Tom. “You have to keep your eye on the weather, though. If it’s rainy, you can’t reach certain places on the property.”

North Bear Alvar provides habitat for species at risk, including eastern ribbonsnake and common nighthawk. The endangered butternut has also been found on the property.

The open alvar here is also perfect habitat for lichens, mosses and fungi.

Tom has been a volunteer property steward for NCC’s North Bear Alvar since the property was first purchased seven years ago. In this role, he is responsible for controlling and monitoring the spread of invasive species, including dog-strangling vine, and taking visitors around the property. When available, Tom will take groups out, but visitors can explore this beautiful natural area on their own, too. Exploring the property regularly has allowed Tom to see some of the area’s hidden creatures.

“Two years ago, we took a group out to some of the less-visited parts of the property and saw two fishers in broad daylight,” recalls Tom. “Those critters probably hadn’t seen anyone in a long time, so they were startled to see us.”

NCC installed a boardwalk in 2015 that takes visitors over a wetland, through a juniper shrubland and into open alvar. Tom has a particular fondness for the open area at the north section of the trail.

“It’s a special place – just an open landscape typical of the alvar,” says Tom. “It’s a great place for me to have lunch or take a break. I always want to walk further, and have done so many times. There’s still a lot of unexplored area out there.”

Because North Bear Alvar is large, there are many options for visitors looking for a shorter or a longer walk through this magical natural area.

“I like that visitors have a few decision points on the trail. [I ask] do they want to do the whole boardwalk? From there, do they want to go through the juniper? It depends on the group.”

Tom isn’t finished exploring this beloved natural area.

“I get out there four to six times a year. There’s just one corner of North Bear that I haven’t been to, and it’s my goal to get there.”

But he isn’t in a rush to do it.

“It takes a few hours to do the whole trail if you want to stop and enjoy, explore and admire what’s going on. You could hustle and do it faster, but why would you? Once you do take the time, it’s a pretty special place.”

Listen to our podcast and transport yourself to this important natural area. Learn about NCC’s conservation work here.

Species to Spot

– balsam ragwort
– black bear
– blueflag iris
– common nighthawk
– eastern whip-poor-will
– field sparrow
– fisher
– golden-winged warbler
– little bluestem
– moose
– northern leopard frog
– painted cup
– prairie smoke
– swamp milkweed
– upland sandpiper
– white-tailed deer

A globally rare habitat

North Bear Alvar supports several different types of globally rare alvar habitat. Alvars are naturally open habitats with thin to no soil, over a base of limestone or dolostone. They may have large areas of exposed bedrock, or can support sparse shrubs and trees. They are a hot spot for specialized plants and insects that are adapted to harsh conditions, such as drought and flooding.

Globally, alvars are restricted to islands off the coast of Sweden, the eastern European Baltic region, the United Kingdom and Ireland. In North America, almost 75 per cent of these alvars are located in Ontario.

Photo Credits (Top to bottom): Bill Macintyre; NCC; NCC; NCC; NCC.

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