Trip to Carden Alvar
For a couple of weeks, my wife and I had been itching to get to Carden Alvar, located in the Kawartha Lakes region of Ontario. It is a unique environment of thin soil, sparse grasses, and unique plant life which attracts birds that are less commonly seen in The GTA, some of which are threatened species. I was particularly keen to see an Eastern Meadowlark. When I first got into birding about 10-years-ago, I saw one of these birds in a hydrofield and I was struck by how different its song is. I hadn’t seen one since.
As the sun began to peek out above the horizon, we grabbed a quick coffee and hit the highway at just before 6am ready for the hour-and-a-half drive. You are always more likely to see animal activity early in the morning.
Initially we arrived at a small gravel parking area at an area named “Cameron Ranch” where a trail allowed you to walk through the alvar. It was a mind-meltingly hot and humid day, but we spent an hour or so walking the trail. I have seen the odd Brown Thrasher before, but never so many in one place. It seemed like there was another one squeaking and squawking every few hundred feet. Like The Northern Mockingbird and Grey Catbird, the Brown Thrasher is a mimic bird that attempts to copy the songs of other birds. It is larger than its cousins, has a brown speckled chest and bright yellow eyes.
There were a lot of distinctive looking flowers and plants that I had never seen before.
During the first stretch of the trail, we saw three different types of sparrow. The first, the Song Sparrow, I am very familiar with and it is plentiful in Toronto. It has a speckled breast with a circular spot in the centre and a very familiar song (hence the name!). I heard the song of a second species, which turned out to be a Savannah Sparrow. It has a speckled chest like the Song Sparrow, but is missing the spot and there is a yellow line above the eye. This is a new bird for me and is “Lifer” number 183.
The third sparrow species I saw wasn’t a very cooperative photo model, insisting upon perching with the sun directly behind – but my “Lifer” number 184 is the Grasshopper Sparrow which looks similar to the above but also has yellow underparts and a larger beak. Identification was helped by the fact that it buzzed excitedly with a grasshopper in its beak. We also saw, far in the distance standing high in a bare tree, an Upland Sandpiper. Too distant to photograph, but this is “Lifer” number 185 for me.
We pushed through a wet, muddy area to avoid mosquitoes before coming to a turn in the trail. There was a bit of a ruckus among some quarrelling birds – a Blue Jay, as they often do, was causing some upset. A Brown Thrasher yelled from the top of a tree. A Red-Eyed Vireo flitted around and something else was calling and hiding in a shrub. Sara was able to get good eyes on it and she correctly identified it as an Eastern Towhee. I tried “Pishing” it (making bird sounds to draw it out) and managed to snap a photo of its head peeking out.
We continued a little further, but the activity seemed to die down and it was swelteringly hot. Several Great Blue Herons flew overhead and I saw a couple of butterflies – a European Skipper (known as an Essex Skipper in The UK – it is introduced into Ontario) and a pretty Bronze Copper.
Running low on water, we turned back and followed the trail back to the car. Several times on the way back (and it would continue throughout the trip), I kept hearing the song of Eastern Meadowlarks. They nest in the long grasses and so I couldn’t actually see one – until we were about halfway back to the car. There was one in the distance. Because it was distant, the rising heat in the air means it doesn’t really matter how good your camera lens is – the heatwaves makes the image blurry, but hey, I saw one! We briefly saw another later in the day, closer to us, but too brief to photograph. It quickly sang and flew away. Sara aptly commented that when the bird sings, its beak opens so wide it looks like its head will split open.
We were unfamiliar with Carden Alvar and figured that there must be more to the area than this one trail. Much frantic Googling later, we made our way to a gravel/mud road which cuts North/South through the alvar and has several areas to stop and park. We heard many more Eastern Meadowlarks, saw a male/female pair of Eastern Bluebirds, and saw dozens of Tree Swallows that were making use of the man-made nesting boxes. Some contained chicks and the adult Swallows would frequently visit with the insects they had caught.
We decided to drive the length of the road, circle back to the beginning, and then drive it again but stopping off. It took a long time to drive the full-length of the road and a 4-by-4 vehicle would be better equipped. My hatchback struggled over the large potholes and, in places, deep puddles of muddy water. It was worth it, though. After about 20 minutes, I saw a large black shape at the side of the road. “F***! BEAR!”, I swore, before it quickly ran off. Since I was driving, the best shot I got was of its backside. It was the first time I’d seen one.
Quite some time later, after circling the alvar and returning back to the beginning of the road, my car covered in mud and dust, we started over. This time we stopped off a couple of times, but didn’t see much. It was the middle of the day, the sun high, it was humid, most animals would be having a siesta. We decided to walk one of the trails without much hope. There were lots of White Admiral butterflies around and a few moths. Sara was a little ahead of me on the trail and we were contemplating turning back. Suddenly Sara shouted “Moose!”. And there it was. Just a few hundred feet away stood eating grasses in a marsh rivulet. Suddenly the crazy beast charged at us, splashing water all over itself.
It took several quick steps in our direction before pausing and staring at us. It was so close I didn’t even have to zoom. Perhaps Sara had surprised it. Perhaps it had a calf nearby. Fortunately for us, she thought better of attacking us. She turned and ran a short distance away. She looked over at us a couple of times, then ran into the scrub.
We sat in a hide for a while (in the shade, with a lovely breeze), listening to more Eastern Meadowlarks, but I was unable to get any photos while they hid in the grass. We decided to leave for the day. We stopped off at a couple of other places, explored the lakeshore east of Toronto a little (Lake Ontario), but nothing as exciting as a rampant moose to write about!
A few local trips that I need to write up! A possible return trip to Lynde Shores with a workmate. Who knows what else? (not me!)
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