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Newsletter 34
Autumn 2008

Make a Date with Mother Nature!

Saturday, September 20—circle that day! Then come on down to the Birds, Beavers and Butterflies Festival at the Thickson’s Woods Nature Reserve, for an awesome day in the out-of-doors.

And bring your favourite kids! They’re sure to enjoy the many wildlife-related activities and events as much as you will. Creepy critters, beekeeping, bird banding, bugs—our festival events will reveal many fascinating worlds to the curious kid in everyone.

Tours of the woods take place all day, 9:00 to 4:00, led by expert botanists and birders. Wildlife shows run regularly, interspersed with appearances of that magnificent magician, Warren Toaze.

Paint a rock, build a nature box or hang a wish on our wishing tree. Bid for treasures at our silent auction, and while you’re eating lunch in the meadow, keep scanning the sky. If the winds are right, hawks will be migrating, and you might see raptors soaring over the meadow.

This will be our 7th annual fall festival, and it’s worth pausing to think about all the children who’ve attended these special events through the years. A six-year-old who petted a beaver or released a tagged monarch butterfly at our first festival, in 2002, is entering high school now. A twelve-year-old excited by a beetle discovered on a goldenrod blossom may be studying biology in university.

What adults pay attention to, kids grow up believing is important. And what’s more important than the natural world we live in?

Goodies and Gift Items Needed!

Cookies, pies, muffins, cakes and squares…our most popular fund-raiser for the woods at the festival is our annual Bake Sale, and we always run out! Please take an hour to whip up some tempting delights to donate to a very worthy cause: preserving wild places in an ever-more-urbanized world.

If you have some unique skill or service people might like to bid on at our Silent Auction, or a nature-related item that could be auctioned off, we’d love to hear from you! Phone 905-433-7875.

All proceeds from the festival—every cent—will help protect wildlife habitat.

For festival details see the flyer at the back of this newsletter. Please post the flyer on a bulletin board in your neighbourhood.

Gifts That Will Last Forever

Metres of the nature reserve have been saved in the name of: Silvana Chichakian, Margaret Horton, Stephen Kreider, Anne Liphardt, Pat Patterson, Betty Pegg.

Thank you to everyone who gave a friend or loved one a share in this living legacy—a gift that will last forever!

Treasurer's Corner
by Brian Steele

Everything has been rather quiet on the financial front since my last column. We have been working to get the new lot we purchased last year into the Province’s Conservation Land Tax Incentive Program (CLTIP). This program recognizes the critical need to maintain at least some natural spaces, and compensates land owners for their stewardship by reducing their tax burden.

We file our financial information annually with the Federal Government. By going to the charity section of the Canada Revenue Agency web site (http://www.cra-arc.gc.ca) you can find Thickson’s Woods financial information for the past several years. There is also a list of directors and the purpose of our charity. You will note that 100% of funds donated are used for the upkeep of the nature reserve. There are no salaries, retainers or fees.

Come join us on September 20 at this year’s Birds, Beavers & Butterflies Nature Festival. You’ll be amazed at how Mother Nature is transforming the meadow from a pasture that was destined to become paved parking lots and warehouses, into a vibrant living world of butterflies and wildflowers. Last year’s festival was the best yet, with excellent weather. This year’s promises to be even more exciting, with activities to captivate everyone in the family. Muskoka Wildlife will be rejoining us, and we never know what fascinating creatures they will bring. Creepy Critters will also be there, and Jim always has an intriguing selection of snakes & spiders. Where else can you help hold up a 10-foot-long constrictor? At $10.00 for a family of four, it’s an unbeatable value.

Our heartfelt thanks to all whose generous financial support made Thickson’s Woods Nature Reserve a reality and continues to keep it vibrant. On September 20, come join us for a day of fun and excitement; and don’t forget to take time out to marvel at what you’ve accomplished.

Nature Notes
by Dennis Barry

Late summer is an excellent time to get to know some of the smaller residents of Thickson’s Woods Nature Reserve. Numbers of many species of insects and spiders peak in autumn. Goldenrod flowers and other blossoms in the meadow are excellent places to study insects. I recently watched a medium-sized bumblebee racing in circles over the surface of several Queen Anne’s lace umbels, before settling to extract nectar from a nearby heal-all floret. Nearby, a large member of the Halictidae family of bees (sweat bees and their relatives) buried its metallic green body in the pink blossom of a Scotch thistle in search of nectar. Pale crab spiders lie in wait in Queen Anne’s lace to ambush unwary visitors.

Goldenrod flowers may be home to crab spiders camouflaged yellow. Insect visitors may include honey bees, and more than one species of bee mimic hover fly. Unlike most insects, including bees, flies have only one set of wings.

Butterfly visitors to goldenrod include both clouded and orange sulfurs, which reach peak numbers in the meadow in September. Monarchs, too, like goldenrod, although numbers this year are much reduced, perhaps due to an unusually cool and wet spring and early summer. There was no concentration of monarchs in the middle of the woods this August, no doubt because large numbers had not emerged prior to the normal departure date.

Summer azures seemed to thrive this year. They were most often observed in the vicinity of lilacs. In the woods itself watch for newly emerged mourning cloaks and eastern commas enjoying the autumn sunshine before tucking away for the winter in some sheltered spot. They’ll be the first butterflies to appear on warm March days waiting for sapsuckers to tap a sugar maple to provide them with a sweet food source.

In the meadow small damselflies with green thoraxes and powder blue near the tips of their abdomens may have been eastern forktails or sedge sprites. The larger dragonflies racing about were blue darners, a migrant species moving along the lakeshore on their journey south.

An Amazing New Insect Resource

While there are excellent field guides for butterfly identification, and guides for dragonflies and damselflies are rapidly improving, with promises of better things to come, identifying many other insect species is still a daunting challenge. A giant leap forward occurred in 2006 with the publication by Firefly Books of Insects Their Natural History and Diversity. Authored and illustrated by Stephen A. Marshall, Professor of Entomology at the University of Guelph, this book is amazing! Its more than seven hundred 8 _ by 11 inch pages contain many hundreds of superb colour photos of members of every order of insects, from the tiniest springtail to the largest moth. While the identification key alone is more than 80 pages long, it’s very user-friendly.

The introductory section to each group of insects consists of many pages of fascinating, easy-to-understand information about insects most of us have never heard of. Typical is the beginning of chapter eleven, Flies, Scorpionflies and Fleas. It’s forty-four pages long and not one sentence is boring. Did you know that there’s a species of mosquito that specializes in getting blood from green frogs, or a closely related species that locates male tree frogs by their loud spring courtship songs? How about snail killer flies, a species of marsh fly whose larvae feed on aquatic snails, or ant-decapitating flies whose larvae feed on the brains of ants and then pupate inside the protection of the ant “skull” removed by digestive enzymes secreted by the fly larvae?

Stephen Marshall has been fascinated by insects since the age of five and has discovered hundreds of new species. Most of his photos were taken in Southern Ontario which makes this book all the more useful to us. While the guide would be an excellent source to take with you into the field, at nearly seven pounds, you may want to hire a caddy to carry it for you.

Meanwhile, if you know any budding young entomologists, why not encourage them by bringing them to the Birds, Beavers and Butterflies Nature Festival on September 20th?

Happy Silver Anniversary, Thickson’s Woods Supporters!

As migrating hummingbirds buzz about the nature reserve, guzzling nectar from jewelweed, and sharp-shinned hawks slip among the trees like shadows, eyeing warblers busily fattening up on insects, it’s good to take a moment and give thanks. If the woods had become a condo development, and the meadow a recycling plant, as planned, where would birds pause to rest during their long flights south?

On behalf of all wildlife that shelter in Thickson’s Woods Nature Reserve, and all humans who find peace and serenity there, we want to thank the many many individuals who have helped protect it during the last busy 25 years.

Check out the Glorious Green Growth on the Berms

What a difference a year makes! Last August, newly planted trees, wildflowers and shrubs on the berms were parched and withered, seared by the summer-long drought. When enthusiastic volunteers planted eight new crabapple trees on Earth Day this April, we vowed to keep them well watered all summer, no matter what.

To aid our efforts, Chad Pescod of envirosponsible, a Whitby firm specializing in enviro-products, donated a rain barrel to the Thickson’s Woods Land Trust, complete with a spigot for easy watering. Thank you, Chad!

His contribution did the trick, ensuring that we haven’t had to water once, since Mother Nature has done such a remarkable job of turning on the rain at least once a week. As a result everything growing on the berms is lush and green. Including a big patch of bergamot, pearly everlasting and coneflowers salvaged from the Rossland Road butterfly garden in Oshawa in late May, compliments of Dianne Pazaratz and other members of the Durham Region Field Naturalists. And ginkgos, mountain ash and hop trees raised and donated by Whitby’s native-plant specialist, Richard Woolger.

On the Thickson Road side of the berms the walls of baby white spruce are well established, and getting ready to grow into a year-round green hedge for birds to shelter in during blizzards and rainstorms. On the meadow side, a grove of Richard’s cucumber magnolia trees, a Carolinian species, are flourishing—those not nipped off by deer that wander through the nature reserve.

Cottontails girdled many nannyberry bushes in the deep snow last winter, but you’d never know it now, with all the lush green growth throughout the meadow.

As well as planting, garbage pickup and garlic mustard control on Earth Day, another project was cleaning up the newly purchased lot in the woods. Two trailer loads of metal scraps, old mattresses and other debris were hauled off the property, to be carried away by the Town of Whitby’s special Earth Day truck—Thank you, Whitby Parks! Volunteers formed a human chain to toss cement blocks and bricks from a crumbling fireplace into an old root cellar, which, when some logs and fallen branches were mixed in, made a perfect hibernaculum for milk snakes, a rare and threatened species in Ontario.

Thanks so much for your recent donation, and your longtime support!

American Association of Zookeepers
Durham Region Field Naturalists
Home Depot
Johnson Controls
Ontario Power Generation

Woodcrest Public School
October 26, 2007

Dear Thickson’s Woods Land Trust,

We had an amazing time at Thickson’s Woods. We walked to the beach and found beautiful, smooth and shiny rocks. Then we walked down the path to see tracks from all sorts of animals, and we even saw a rabbit. It was beautiful. After, we walked past a raspberry bush, but don’t worry, we only tasted one each. Then we walked past a crab apple tree. It was pretty, and we took a bite of an apple; it was marvelous. It was really fun to explore the woods and see beautiful places. I had an amazing time! Thank you for letting us go. It was a great experience. THANKS!


One of your tourists,

Great Waterfront Trail Adventure –Thickson’s Woods Walk

In early July, the Waterfront Regeneration Trust hosted a week-long bike tour of the Waterfront Trail, beginning at the west end of Lake Ontario and following the north shore of the lake eastward. As a side trip, Thickson’s Woods Land Trust provided a site guide for a walk around Corbett Creek Marsh.

Here is a modified version of the guide that will lead you through Thickson’s Woods, eastward along the Lake Ontario shore, through Intrepid Park, and back westward around Corbett Creek Marsh to Thickson’s Woods Nature Reserve. It’s a very pleasant two to three kilometre walk through a variety of habitats. This guide points out a few things of interest along the way, but each seasons will bring new and exciting experiences.

Giant Ironwood Tree

As you enter the woods through the rail fence, you will see a large ironwood tree. This is the biggest specimen of the species in Thickson’s Woods and one of the largest in Southern Ontario. The name may refer to the weight of its very heavy wood, or may have been derived from the fact that the sap turns bright orange after it runs down the trunk when the tree is tapped by yellow-bellied sapsuckers each spring. Some of the faded orange may still be visible on the trunk.

History & Mayapples

On the left a little farther along the trail is a sign that gives some of the history of Thickson’s Woods and its large white pines. As you descend the first hill past the sign there is a patch of May-apples. Beneath the large leaves you can see the “apples” forming. They ripen in September, but are not especially tasty.


On the left just before you start up the next rise is a moss-covered stump, the remains of a large white pine that was killed by a lightning strike many years ago. The largest white pines in Thickson’s Woods are more than 100 feet tall, and are the tallest points in the neighbourhood. Nearby are some young white pines that were planted after the giants were felled. Some succumbed to white pine blister rust, but others seem to be surviving. The other small evergreens here are white spruce and balsam fir. The balsams have needles that come out from the sides of their twigs. Their branches were used as a base for beds in the lumber camps in pioneer days. The spruces have sharp-tipped needles coming out all around their twigs, and so would have made an uncomfortable bed.

Forest Openings, Monarchs & Blue Beech

At the top of the hill is an opening where a large silver poplar blew down during an autumn gale, taking with it some smaller trees. Some years in late August hundreds, sometimes thousands of monarch butterflies gather here to await the right time to begin their epic journey south to cool, fir-clad mountains north of Mexico City. As you turn right around the blowdown, you’ll see several small trees beside the path. These are blue beech, nicknamed “muscle tree” because of the way the trunk bulges in places, like the muscles of a wrestler. This is as large as the species gets.

Great Horned Owls

A little farther along the trail are several large white pines that were saved from the lumberman’s axe. Hiding high in their branches is a family of great horned owls, two adults and a youngster. If you’re lucky you might spot one roosting, or see it fly to a new perch. Blue jays or crows scolding will be a clue that they have discovered one of the owls.

Black Cherry Trees

One of the commonest deciduous trees in Thickson’s Woods is the rough-barked black cherry.

Bird Sightings

Past a wooden bench on the left down a gentle slope is a green wooden box atop a post. Inside is a black binder in which visiting birders record interesting sightings, especially during the busy migration months of April, May, August and September. Turn right on the first trail past the green box.

Jewelweed & Herb Robert

A common wildflower throughout the woods is spotted jewelweed. Related to impatiens, its orange snapdragon-like blooms attract migrating ruby-throated hummingbirds later in summer. When the outer hull of a ripened seed is removed, a green jade-coloured “jewel” is revealed. The plant’s other name, touch-me-not, derives from the fact that the ripened seed pods explode when touched, sending the seeds flying in all directions. A much shorter wildflower in bloom along the path is herb Robert, perhaps six inches tall, with feathery foliage and small deep pink blossoms.

Giant White Pines

As you traverse the “valley of the giants” you will pass beside two of the largest white pines remaining in Thickson’s Woods. As you stare up into their towering tops, imagine the sights and sounds they witnessed some two hundred years ago when they were saplings, as millions of passenger pigeons filled the trees and sky as they paused to rest, or passed overhead. As the path ends, turn left along the shaded gravel roadway that leads to Lake Ontario.

Red Oak Trees

The small cottage on the left has several relatively large red oak trees growing in the yard. Opposite on the right, nestled against the back of a newer house, is a massive oak that may be the mother of these younger trees.

On reaching a “T” junction with another gravel road near the lake, turn left and make your way eastward.

Down to the Beach

At the end of the road, make your way around the brown wooden gate and climb carefully down to the beach. For the next kilometre you can experience the Lake Ontario shore as it may have been for centuries. Winter storms with high waves periodically erode the sandy shoreline, uprooting even the largest trees. The wave-washed pebbles on the beach have many origins. Some are the remains of granite boulders carried by glaciers; others are left over from times when the area was part of an ocean floor. A close look at some of the gray limestone rocks may reveal fossils of ocean dwellers from millions of years ago. Fossils may also be seen in a few of the flat black pieces of shale. This shale is oil impregnated. Strike a piece with another rock and you might detect an oily odor.

Corbett Creek Marsh

At the end of the forested shoreline is the mouth of Corbett Creek. Corbett Creek Marsh is a typical Lake Ontario shore wetland. During drier periods, strong winds from the south pile up gravel at the exit, creating a dam that blocks the flow of the creek. Water still seeps through the porous gravel, but no actual stream flows into the lake. Subsequently, heavy rains cause the water in the marsh to rise well above the level of the lake, until it overflows. The force of rushing water soon cuts a channel through the gravel dam. This quickly widens into a wider channel with a raging torrent rushing into Lake Ontario. When the water levels in the marsh and lake have reached equilibrium, the flow slows again until the next strong south winds begin the cycle anew.

If you’re quiet as you make your way around the fallen branches of the willow near the creek mouth, you might surprise a great blue heron fishing in the shallows of the marsh, or hear the rattle of a kingfisher flying past.

Uphill to the Waterfront Trail

After you make your way across the gravel dam at the creek mouth, leave the beach and follow a grassy path uphill to the northeast through fields of goldenrod. At the top of the hill turn left onto the paved Waterfront Trail and begin your journey back to Thickson’s Woods.

Camp “X”

On a hill to the right you might notice several flags. Here, a plaque is all that remains to remind us that this was the site of Camp “X”, the first secret agent training school in North America, where spies and guerilla fighters perfected their deadly art. Submarines surfaced in the dark, offshore, to deliver high-ranking officials to secret meetings, then whisked them away again into the night.

Westward Along the Trail

As you descend back down to the level of the marsh, you will notice a large building behind a tall wire fence. This is a major LCBO automated distribution warehouse. Evergreens growing at the end of the wooden boardwalk are white spruce transplanted here some twenty years ago.

View from the Bridge

As the trail turns left across the east branch of Corbett Creek, the wooden sides of the bridge act as a blind to shield passersby from the view of waterfowl and other wildlife in the marsh below. The common birds are mallards and Canada geese, but you might also glimpse a Virginia rail family, or a black-crowned night heron fishing along the shore.

Wild Grape Vines & Back to the Marsh

The austere wire fences bordering the trail around the sewage plant are becoming softened somewhat by the wild grape vines beginning to cover them. After winding around the sewage treatment plant for some distance, the trail turns right and widens, heading west toward Thickson’s Woods. Corbett Creek Marsh is again visible, on the left. A pair of mute swans can sometimes be seen here, as well as the occasional muskrat collecting cattail stems to build its winter home.

The Old Beaver Pond

On the right is the remains of a beaver pond. The outline of the dam is still visible just upstream from the causeway. Beavers construct their dams by placing sticks on the downstream side at a forty-five degree angle to the water surface. Water pressure pushes the lower end of the sticks into the mud below the dam, thus holding the dam in place. Mud, stones and other sticks and plant roots are added to finish the dam. However, in this location, the stream bed had only a thin layer of mud over a bed of coarse gravel. When the ends of the sticks rotted a bit, they slid off the gravel bottom and the dam collapsed. After this happened several times, the beavers gave up and moved elsewhere. What remains is a beaver meadow which has grown up to grasses, sedges and other plants tolerant of seasonal flooding. In settlement days “beaver hay” harvested from these meadows was the only livestock food available until the pioneers could clear land to grow crops.

Serviceberries & Chokecherries

The earlier heavy crop of serviceberry fruit along the roadside here has been replaced by chokecherries and wild grapes, much to the delight of robins, cedar waxwings and catbirds. The species of serviceberry growing in western Canada, known as Saskatoon berries, is used for pies and jams. Near Thickson’s Woods the birds usually get to harvest first.

As you round the bend and start up the hill, you will see the starting point of your journey. Don’t forget to explore the meadow portion of Thickson’s Woods Nature Reserve.

Richard Woolger, our (wonderful) Native Plant Guy

Just about any time you phone Richard Woolger, his wife has to call him in from the backyard. And no matter what you’ve phoned about, the conversation soon gets around to some tray of native tree or shrub he’s grown “extras” of and wants to donate for planting in the nature reserve. Half the time he puts them in himself.

Today is no exception. He has some potted hop trees, a Carolinian species that giant swallowtails lay eggs on. He’s seen swallowtails hanging around them in the past few days, in fact, and promises to watch for any caterpillars that may appear. And by the way, he has a tray of native hibiscus shrubs that need full sun and damp soil. If we have any open space near the creek, he’d be happy to drop them off….

Richard has always loved gardening, but attending a meeting of the North American Plant Society in recent years got him interested in native species in a big way, enough that he built a greenhouse in his backyard and started propagating all sorts of ferns, wildflowers, shrubs and trees.

“You just have to look around at all the alien plants to see how they upset the balance,” he says when you ask him about his passion for native ones. “Dog-strangling vine and garlic mustard are taking over all our wild spaces, choking out plants that used to grow there.” Making native plants available to other gardeners is his most satisfying pastime, and a great gift to the world. Whenever Richard sells plants at TWLT events he donates half his proceeds to the land trust.

Next time you’re walking in the meadow, take a look at the waist-high trees growing up along the east side of the berms. Richard raised them, planted them, waters and feeds them, and has surrounded each one with a mesh guard to keep the “ferocious” rabbits from devouring them.

Someday in the future, when they’ve grown up into towering shade trees, we hope Richard will take a break from his work, sit down under one and relish what a wonderful service he’s done for Thickson’s Woods Nature Reserve.


Summer it is
that opens country roads
for me,
finds tracks
that need no final destination.

Along the way
I stop for bellflowers,
loosestrife, thistles
and sweet clover,
bunched yellow flowers
that borrow the sun.

And through the park
a swallow skims the ground,
sweeps round me
in a curve and I rise
on the split sheen
of its arrow-swift flight.

--Lucy Brennan


Whitby poet and playwright Lucy Brennan was born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, and emigrated to Canada in 1957. Her play Daughter of the House was performed by the Alumnae Theatre Company of Toronto this spring.

Lucy’s love of nature shines through in “Swallow” and many other poems in her collection Migrants All, published by watershedBooks. “I’m a frogwatcher!” she exclaims proudly, with a laugh, then explains how she’s supported the Toronto Zoo Adopt-A-Pond program for many years.


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