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Return of the Tallgrass Prairie: Exploring Hazel Bird Nature Reserve

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Photo credits: Chelsea Marcantonio, NCC

As an avid hiker, I’m a little embarrassed how little I know about plants. If it’s not a maple tree, trillium, or poison ivy, there’s a good chance I’ll be stumped. I read interpretive plaques in the hopes of raising my identification game, though, which is how I stumbled upon the remarkable work of the Nature Conservancy of Canada at Hazel Bird Nature Reserve. The Northumberland County property has been the site of some major ecological breakthroughs since the 1980s—though it sometimes takes a trained eye to appreciate the difference.

For starters, I learned the types of terrain I’d be passing through. From the parking lot at 9636 Beavermeadow Rd E, the trail winds through an expanse of tall grass prairie. It transitions into a sparsely treed black oak savannah before entering a corridor of shady oak woodland, rising eventually to a sand barren that feels oddly like a beach without the water. It’s a whirlwind tour of diversity packed into a 3.6km trail, but the real surprise is signposted partway along. If you’re like me and not well-versed in natural history, you might miss the fact the property has been carefully restored to pre-colonial conditions. Before and after photos show how the removal of Scotch pine, an invasive species that encroaches on the habitat of native species like black oak, has allowed the original ecosystem to flourish again.

A casual glance at an evergreen treeline would have seemed quintessentially Ontario to me, so I contacted Mark Stabb of Nature Conservancy of Canada to bring me up to speed. “We’ve been restoring the habitat there for about 15 years now through mapping, removing invasive species, planting, seeding,” Stabb said. “People who’ve been coming there for a number of years will have seen Scotch pine gradually disappear to the point where it’s almost a rare plant on the 300-acre Hazel Bird property, whereas before it probably covered easily 20, perhaps 30 percent of some of the fields there. You know, restoration can work with the right planning. We’re really proud to be involved with this, along with Alderville First Nation and many other groups who are doing this work across the county.”

Clearly, I’d reached the right person. The NCC is a not-for-profit land conservation organization devoted to protecting biodiversity across the country through land protection and property stewardship; Stabb is the NCC’s program director for Central Ontario East. He’s had a key role in the restoration work at Hazel Bird, though he’s quick to mention the hard work and dedication of NCC biologist Val Deziel and other conservation staff, as well as the pioneering efforts of the property’s namesake.

Hazel Bird was a Northumberland County teacher and naturalist concerned about the decline of the eastern bluebird. As invasive plants consumed their native grassland habitat, the once-common species was placed on the endangered list. Throughout the eighties and nineties, Bird worked tirelessly to establish more than 400 boxes that would provide nesting cavities while the bluebird population recovered. Her achievement is even more impressive considering the constraints she worked under—a single mother of seven who didn’t drive, Bird relied on a network of volunteers for transport as she visited and maintained her nest boxes. The eastern bluebird was taken off the endangered species list in 1996, due in part to improvements in agricultural practices but largely thanks to nest box programs like Bird’s.

“Her contribution was amazing,” says Stabb. “We still have connections going with the Hazel Bird family, her kids. A number of them live right down the road. They love coming to the property, and when we have events they come out with their kids and the grandkids, and it’s so great to see that connection continue.”

Stabb considers tours and volunteer events the best way to initiate kids and outdoor enthusiasts to the finer points of conservation, though at the time of writing large gatherings were still on hold due to COVID-19. He’s hopeful that organized events can return soon. “We used to have a small army of volunteers who would come out consistently to help us beat back the invasive plants that are excluding the native plant habitats from thriving,” he says. “Year after year with that continued effort, they see the progress and they see the native plants coming back.”

Volunteers have been involved with pulls and seeding, but technicians have also employed prescribed burns. Fire provides an effective means of purging invasive species without harming the communities native to tall grass ecosystems. “The Indigenous people did use fire to maintain open habitats for the benefit of game species like whitetailed deer, and also to enhance food crops like berries and so on,” Stab says. “There was also natural fire. When it’s really high and dry and prone to drought, fires would come more frequently than they would, say, in a place that has a maple beech forest. So combined those factors helped to create what was once a much larger tall grass ecosystem.”

That ecosystem was so extensive that the Mississauga Ojibway’s original name for Rice Lake was Pemedashkotayang, or Lake of the Burning Plains. Efforts to restore it has been the decades-long mission of the Rice Lake Plains Partnership, which Stabb describes as an organization made up of “all the local groups practically who have a shared interest in the land and in wildlife habitat: conservation authorities, land trusts, naturalist clubs, Alderville First Nation.”

The number of groups involved means there are plenty of ways to support conservation initiatives. Nature Conservancy of Canada accepts general donations as well as targeted ones for specific projects and properties. Stabb notes the stewardship endowment fund, which is used to sustain the NCC’s existing properties in perpetuity, is a particularly crucial part of his organization. He also suggests people support their local land trusts, like Kawartha Land Trust, Northumberland Land Trust, and Lone Pine Land Trust: “They have a really great role to play, and they need support as well.”

There’s no fee to visit Hazel Bird Nature Reserve, but Stabb hopes people will support the restoration efforts in less obvious ways. Apart from the usual precautions that apply to any hiking destination in the region, such as being vigilant about poison ivy and blacklegged ticks, it’s especially important to stay on the trail and keep dogs on the leash. Though native species are returning to the area, rare and threatened species like the Eastern Meadowlark are still sensitive to disturbance. “Sometimes when people see big open spaces they feel it’s a great place to let their dog roam free. And you know, for a ground nesting bird with young ready to fledge, to be disturbed by a dog puts that whole generation of new birds at risk. Also, it kind of negates all the work that’s gone into helping restore that habitat as well.”

After seeing the extent of the efforts, respect for the work of conservationists should come quite naturally. “We’ve had many seasonal technicians, young people come and learn the ropes of restoration and go on and do great things elsewhere. Their impact, their legacy is enhanced and restored ecosystems that you can see at Hazel Bird.” When you take a walk through a quiet green space teeming with healthy native species, whether you can tell a bobolink from a blackbird or a black oak from a red maple, you can sense those efforts have been worthwhile.


Read more about conservation efforts in Kawarthas Northumberland in our feature article, “Preserving the Kawarthas for Generations: Kawartha Land Trust.”

For more on the Nature Conservancy of Canada, visit natureconservancy.ca/en/where-we-work/ontario/

For more on the Rice Lake Plains Partnership, visit ricelakeplains.ca

For more info about the Hazel Bird Property property, access, etc, see naturedestinations.ca/story/hazel-bird-nature-reserve/

To read more about the conservationist Hazel Bird, see Mark Stabb’s article “Driving Miss Hazel.”

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