Monday, June 29, 2020

The Hamilton-Brantford Railtrail : Hamilton to Brantford (ish)


Our hike today began with ice cream, which is a pretty good way to begin any day. We didn't get back to the trail until around 2 pm, which was somewhat later than we anticipated, but in the end it worked out well.

The air was still, hot and humid as we set off down the Hamilton to Brantford Rail Trail. We were enormously grateful to find ourselves on a well maintained, gravel dust trail under a beautiful green corridor, sheltered from the sun.  Once again we have to admit that our expectations of crossing the GTA were unfounded.

Although there were lots of cyclists on the trail, and we were still in the city of Hamilton, it didn't feel like it. Occasionally we would hear children playing in a backyard, catch the scent of a delicious smelling BBQ, or hear a radio playing in the distance, but mostly it felt like we were surrounded by trees.

Even in the hot afternoon air we could hear Red-eyed Vireos asking their perpetual questions, Blue Jays launching their raucous complaints, a Chipping Sparrow's shape fast trill , and an American Robin lazily singing in a trailside shrub.  In addition to which we caught site of a Redstart and Catbird on the edge of the pathway.

A few kilometers down the trail we were met by Rob Porter, creator of the Songbirding podcast. This is one of only two Canadian podcasts dedicated to birding, and it was an absolute privilege to do an interview with Rob as we walked the trail. Rob's unique podcast provides listeners with an opportunity to immerse themselves in various soundscapes of Ontario while learning to identify the birdsongs in these environments.


It was fascinating to walk the trail with someone who was so finely attuned to birdsongs, and to learn about his work work with Automatic Recording Units (ARU's). While we were chatting we heard a Palm Warbler, a family of Hairy Woodpeckers, a Blue Jay, and a baby Red-tailed Hawk begging for food, among many other species. In the same area we spotted a molting Indigo Bunting. It took us a moment to recognize what species it was with its unusual plumage and apparently streaked belly.

We walked with Rob as far the Visitor Center in Dundas Valley Conservation Area. This 1,200 hectare Conservation Area supports lush Carolinian forests, colourful meadows, clear, cold streams, and interesting geological features, and it is home to an array of rare plants, birds, and other wildlife. The rich natural environment existing here and along the Niagara Escarpment has been designated a World Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).


The Dundas Valley Conservation Area has a network of hiking, cycling, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and horseback riding trails. We know from past experience that the 900 km long Bruce Trail, which runs from Niagara-on-the-Lake to Tobermory is one of the trails that crosses through the Conservation Area.

We stopped at the Dundas Valley Trail Center, which is a replica of a Victorian railway station that is located at the hub of the conservation area's network. In normal years it has a food concession, interpretive displays, and maps of the trails. Today only the washrooms were open, but we really couldn't complain about that.

There are a few restored train carriages outside the Trail Center which help illustrate the region's ties to the railway, and as we continued down the trail we passed quite a lot of interpretive signage and a bird feeder observation area. It was nice to see a few families out and about, enjoying a picnic and learning about nature.


As we continued down the forested trail , just past the centre, we stopped to talk to a father and daughter who were out cycling together and curious about our hike. The young lady shared a story about a recent camping trip, and when we said we were trying to encourage youth to play outside more often she told us she went to a school where they had an hour and a half long recess every day, which she spent playing outdoors. It turns out she was a fellow Waldorf student! What a small world.

As we left Dundas Valley behind we were very pleased to discover that the shady, forested trail continued. The surrounding landscape became a little less hilly, and more fields of wheat, corn, and soy began to appear. Much of our surroundings were still forested, or contained small marshes, and there was plenty of wildlife.


We spotted several baby cottontail rabbits darting across the trail and then freezing in the grasses on the edge, one shiny eye fixed on us as they tried to blend in and become invisible. A small snake slithered with surprising speed into a patch of poison ivy at the edge of the trail. Three very large American Toads were startled into action as we pulled off to the side to let cyclists pass. In one section of trail dozens of toads the size of my pinky fingernail were crossing the trail (all in the same direction), and had to be avoided.

Just before we got to the very busy highway 52 we had another wonderful treat. Monica joined us for a few kilometers on the trail, and brought some cold, fresh, watermelon! It was so refreshing in the hot, humid, afternoon.

It was a joy to walk with Monica for a while, learning about favourite birding spots in the area, talking about nature, and gaining some valuable insights into what lay ahead on the trail. Meeting people along the way, and hearing their stories is one of our favourite parts of this journey, and today was a real treat.

As we were walking we passed two interesting Environmentally Significant Areas. Summit Bog is a wetland containing an island of sphagnum moss floating atop a bed of peat. Plants that prefer wet, acidic, and nutrient-poor conditions grow in and around the area. This bog is also an eBirding hotspot. The Summit Muskeg Preserve is a biologically significant bog that contains plants representative of Arctic muskeg vegetation, such as cranberries, pitcher plants, and sundew plants. I had no idea these patches of muskeg existed so far south!


After crossing hwy 52 we came to a small shrubby field in a clearing on the side of a small hill. We heard a bird call we didn't recognize at first, and soon discovered it was a Blue-winged Warbler. While we were watching the colourful warbler, an Indigo Bunting in full iridescent blue plumage alighted beside us. A House Wren was making frequent trips to and from a nest box in the clearing, and a pair of Northern Cardinals was feeding offspring at the base of a dense shrub. The inquisitive burbling of a Gray Catbird could suddenly be heard in the shrubbery beside us, and at almost the same time a Blue Jay arrived, being pursued by three irate American Goldfinches. It was quite an exciting pocket of activity.


As we continued on we spotted some urban wildlife of a different kind. A Siamese cat was lounging nonchalantly in the middle of the trail. It got lazily to its feet as we approached. There was a toll to be paid to pass the feline which involved rubbing its ears and petting it's silky coat. This was clearly a pampered cat, not one of the barn cat variety.

As the landscape opened up to farmland we passed a patch of Sumac that was in full bloom. The red cones produced by Sumac in the fall are more familiar to me than the very light green blossoms of summer, but it seems their flowers attract a host of pollinators. We could hear a low buzzing as we passed the Sumacs at the edge of the trail, and soon discovered it was coming from dozens of bees on the flowers. There was also a very cool looking Virginia Ctenucha Moth on one of the blossoms!


Our next wildlife highlight was stopping to admire a small grey squirrel that was lying stretched out flat on its belly on a branch, its front paws tucked under its chin as if it was lazily watching TV. Just below it was what we first thought was an American Robin, but turned out to be an Eastern Bluebird!

We approached the outskirts of Jerseyville around 7 pm, and were thinking of trying to find a place to camp for the night. We stopped beside a promising looking woodlot, but cycling traffic had really picked up as people went for an after dinner ride. There seemed to be at least three cyclists in view at all times, which made disappearing into the trailside trees difficult.

As we waited, we spotted a tree that was covered in the most amazing looking Northern Pearly-eye Moths. They seemed to be mating, dispersing and then regrouping in a pile on the same tree.


We decided to continue on for a bit, and soon found ourselves in wide open farmland. Fields of wheat and corn extended in both directions, and barns were silhouetted against the horizon. As the sun began to set it turned the sky a brilliant pink and gold.

As if to echo our sentiments we came across a bench with 'Life is Good!' engraved on the back. We couldn't agree more.

We took a short break at a trailside stand beside a bicycle repair station. On the wooden bulletin board was an ad for FarmStays. When we Googled it this seemed to be an AirBnB initiative offering cyclists and others the opportunity to stay at farms, either camping or renting a room. Unfortunately, we couldn't determine if there was a FarmStay location where we were or not, but we will definitely look into this for the future! At the kiosk there was also a very cool piece of art!


Our hopes were raised when we spotted a stand of trees up ahead. It looked like a good place to camp, but as we approached we realized it was already occupied by three cyclists who were also stealth camping. What are the odds?


As the sun set and twilight began to fall we found a secluded spot to pitch the tent. We are under a canopy of trees and at the edge of a meadow. The darkness is now punctuated with hundreds of glow bugs! It is absolutely magical, and it is possible we will just lie here, watching the show until the sun comes up.

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