Monday, July 5, 2021

Nature in the City : Railtrails, Prairie Birds, and Bison

It was another hot sunny morning as we  made our way back through the subdivision to meet up with the Harte Trail again.  

As we were heading to the trail a friendly young lady pushing her baby in a stroller asked us where we were hiking and why.  When she learned we were interested in birding she mentioned that there were Yellow-headed Blackbirds living in the newly constructed drainage pond in the middle of her subdivision.  We walked with her to the cattail-lined pond, and sure enough, we heard the somewhat prehistoric sounding calls of these incredible birds! We were delighted to see how effective the simple urban restoration efforts had been in supporting birds, and that this random encounter had given us a new species! 

As we continued down the Harte Trail we soon discovered it had a very sweet personality.  There were small painted bird feeders hanging in the branches of the trees on either side of the trail.  Each road crossing was marked with a hand-painted wooden sign showing a different bird along with the street name.  These artistic markers reminded us of the handcrafted signs along Newfoundland's East Coast Trail.  Periodically we passed benches, each of which had a unique quote on a plaque, and some of which were accompanied by flower boxes and drinking bowls for dogs. 

The shady and tree-lined trail was full of people out cycling, jogging, and walking.  Progress was slow because many of these friendly folks stopped to chat.  Many people asked about our Radical Design carts.  A grandfather and his young granddaughter told us they are planning to cycle across Canada together in a few years.  It was clear that Winnipeg has a very active and engaged outdoor community, and everyone had a smile and a few kind words for us.

Historical plaques along the way informed us that we were passing the former site of the Pacific Junction Train Station and the Searle grain elevator. We were following the route of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway which continued west to Prince Rupert, BC.  The Grand Trunk Railway fell into financial difficulties when its owner sunk with the Titanic in 1912, and it was taken over by the Canadian National Railway after WWI.  The Prairie Dog Central Railway began operation in 1970, and ran until 1974.

When we reached the end of the Harte Trail we emerged onto the Thundering Bison Trail, which was a paved bicycle route running parallel to a busy road.  We followed this past a horse farm, and then into a commercial area where we stopped for an iced coffee at Tim Hortons, which gave us a much appreciated break from the heat.

The path soon diverted onto a well-used mountain biking trail, and then took us over a small grassy hill into the FortWhyte Alive tallgrass prairie reserve.  Restoration and wildlife conservation efforts have been underway at FortWhyte Alive since the 1950's, and it now features an Interpretive Center and a winding trail system which offers abundant birding opportunities in grassland, forest, marsh, and aquatic habitats.  In spring and summer it is possible to spot American White Pelicans, Great Egrets, Black-crowned Night Herons, and a wide variety of songbirds in this urban nature reserve.

As we made our way through the grassland section the cool breeze was filled with the sweet smell of blooming wildflowers.   Feathery grasses swayed in the wind, and bees and monarch butterflies visited the delicate yellow, purple, and white wildflowers.  The songs of Clay-coloured, Grasshopper, Vesper, and Song Sparrows, Western Meadowlarks, Bobolinks, and American Goldfinches rang out through the grasslands. 

When we came to the tiny, marshy, Overwater Pond we were in for a treat.  A pair of Mallards was paddling around in the duckweed, and a Gadwall was perched on a floating log.  Two pairs of Red-winged Blackbirds were busily feeding nestlings among the cattails, and a pair of Yellow Warblers was attending their young in the dense willow shrubs surrounding the pond, next to yet another Clay-coloured Sparrow.  In the tall trees surrounding the pond a pair of magnificent and boisterous Black-billed Magpies were kicking up quite a fuss. The impractical seeming length on their long tails was truly impressive looking!

A short distance later the winding crushed stone dust trail brought us to the edge of a much larger pond that was filled with ducks and Canada Geese paddling about in the open water.  In the background cyclists skillfully navigated the winding trails of the Bison Butte Mountain Bike Course, zipping down the maze of dirt tracks on the side a steep grassy hill. 

We stopped at a conveniently located bench and watched several Canvasbacks, a small flock of Blue-winged Teals, a group of Wood Ducks, lots of Mallards, two pairs of Hooded Mergansers, a tiny Bufflehead, and a lone Scaup paddling in the water.  Overhead a group of active and noisy Bank Swallows was foraging for insects, joined occasionally by a Tree Swallow or two.

After reluctantly deciding it was time to continue onwards, we followed the trail through a mixed aspen and bur oak forest.  The straight trunks of these thick, sturdy trees stood in rows, and the branches, with their tough, leathery leaves swayed gently in the breeze.  Walking under the corridor of green, with the winding cross-country ski trails beckoning on either side, it felt like we were tucked into a protected hollow, sheltered from the sun and wind.  The sweet songs of Red-eyed Vireos, Warbling Vireos, and American Robins accompanied us through this shady heaven.

As we progressed through the forested area we passed lots of educational signs, informing us how aspen forests regenerate, and how the Aspen Parkland ecosystem will likely shift northward into the Boreal as the climate continues to change.  The land we were standing on was once tallgrass prairie, where Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, and Porcupine Needlegrass would have reached our waists, and large herds of grazing bison would have freely roamed the land, helping to maintain this ecologically
significance habitat.  Today only about 0.5% of the original 6,000 sq km of tallgrass prairies remains.

Eventually we emerged onto a Bison Lookout Point, which provided a view of a herd of about 30 bison.  There were several fuzzy, cinnamon coloured baby bison laying curled against their mothers at the far edge of the 70 acre pasture, and we enjoyed watching one of the enormous animals rolling in the dust, its legs flailing about towards the sky.  Throughout the fenced enclosure were large boulders which apparently are used as scratching posts by itchy bison.

At one time, 30-60 million Plains Buffalo roamed the grasslands and prairies of North America between what are now Mexico and Canada.  Sadly, by the 1800's bison hunting and indiscriminate slaughter by European settlers had brought these animals, which played an essential role in shaping grassland ecosystems, to the brink of extinction.  Grasslands are now one of Canada's most endangered ecosystems, making restoration and protection of these amazing animals, and all the birds and other wildlife that rely on the habitat they share, extremely challenging. 

Interpretive signs described a Buffalo Pound, which was a chute that Indigenous hunters used to construct to corral bison herds.  Brush, trees, stones, and bones would be used to create the chute, and hunters would drive bison, elk, and deer into their trap.  For Indigenous Plains Peoples the bison was a symbol of sustainability and sustenance, providing food, shelter, clothing, bone tools, and tradable goods.  It was  central to their nomadic culture, and they moved around the plains in concert with the bison herds, living in tipis which could be easily transported and re-assembled in new locations.  With the near extinction of the bison, their way of life was also lost.

Shortly after visiting the Bison Lookout we came to the Interpretive Center, which was tucked among the trees at the edge of Lake Devonian.  The center was closed, but it was still possible to rent small sailboats to explore the lake, and to climb the tall wooden lookout tower at the edge of the water.  We sat at the picnic tables in the shady park for a bit, enjoying watching an active colony of Purple Martins foraging and feeding young in a large complex of wooden homes on a tall metal pole.

After the short break we headed off down a set of narrow, floating, wooden boardwalks leading through a series of small ponds and marshes.  The hot afternoon was pretty quiet, but we enjoyed watching Painted Turtles of all sizes basking on small logs and floating in the duckweed.  American Goldfinches and Yellow Warblers moved busily around in the willows at the edges of the pond.  A Grey Catbird surreptitiously fed her fledglings at the pond's edge, and Cedar Waxwings foraged openly  in the tree tops above.  Mallards and Canada Geese paddled lazily around in the water, and the raucous calls of Red-winged Blackbirds filled the air.  It was easy to imagine that this would be a spectacular spot for birding during spring and fall migration.

Eventually the trail brought us to the edge of the Fort Whyte nature preserve, where we had to dash across a busy road before winding through a quieter subdivision on paved sidewalks.  Even there the sidewalks were full of people cycling and hiking, and we stopped to chat with a couple who were backpackers themselves.  As the afternoon wore on, and we followed a paved cycling trail beside busy highways, the heat began to feel oppressive.  A sign on the highway indicating that we were only 10 km from The Forks, the point where we began 3 days and 50 km of trail ago, did nothing to cheer us up.  Neither did the taunting melodies of an ice cream truck that seemed to follow us without ever being quite in reach.  However, as we finally head towards the edges of Winnipeg after a slow beginning, we are glad we explored it in full. 

We were left impressed by the amount of outdoor green spaces, restored habitats, and parks that exist within the city, and by the number of people who were out enjoying them.  One of the messages we've been trying to share through our hike is that nature really is everywhere, even in our largest cities, and Winnipeg is definitely a fantastic example of this.

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