Saturday, November 24, 2012

Hendrie Valley Sanctuary - First Impressions

Yesterday, Friday Nov 23rd, the weather was awesome but weather forecasts called for an abrupt change to colder temps and stormy skies, even possibly snow to the Southern Ontario region we call home. My wife Tammy, our chihuahua Isabeau and I had been enjoying the warm weather and sunny skies all week with daily adventures at a range of our regular haunts and favorite places. We'd explored Bayfront Park, the Princess Point / Cootes Marsh trails, even a couple walking excursions around our home neighborhood and Hamilton's downtown core. With colder temperatures and snow in the forecast for the Saturday I wanted to take full advantage of Friday's awesome weather by adventuring in an area new to us and decided we'd go to the Hendrie Valley Sanctuary.

The  Hendrie Valley Sanctuary is owned and maintained by the Royal Botanical Gardens. It's located near their main visitor center and garden displays area just outside of Hamilton's borders in the adjacent city of Burlington. We accessed the park from a lot on Plains Road West near Botanical Drive (Map) but there are other points of entrance available. As usual at RBG owned areas parking costs $1 an hour so we were expecting that but it was a pleasant surprise to discover the ticket machines accept the new 2013 loonie coins and somewhat surprising to discover there was no daily limit (usually $5) and the Valley was open to visitors 24hrs.

The  Hendrie Valley Sanctuary is a 100 hectare wilderness park that is considered by the province of Ontario as an Area of Natural and Scientific Interest (ANSI). It contains a 50 hectare Marsh fed by Grindstone Creek and lots of forested slopes and ridges. The Valley and wetlands within (which apparently drain a 90 square kilometer area) is also considered an Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) because it contains many rare and endangered native plants, fish and other species. Some areas and trails are closed to better protect the environment but there is still lots to see and experience. 

Trails through the park are sometimes hilly but almost always wide and smoothly surfaced. It can get wet and muddy in some spots so appropriate footwear is advised. On the valley floor there are elevated wooden walkways which give park visitors a great vantage point to enjoy the wetlands and creek without impinging on the natural flora and fauna. Trails are well marked and many contain Family Activity Panels at various points of interest. The colorful panels usually have 4 nature-based questions and exercises which encourage young park visitors to learn more about the area and its natural denizens by engaging in hands-on challenges and activities like 'touch 4 different kinds of trees to see the difference in bark' or 'find a caterpillar'. There were a few family groups at the park on Friday and they all, kids and adults, seemed to be enjoying the Family Activity Panels.

It was apparent as soon as we entered the Hendrie Valley Sanctuary trail system via the Cherry Hill Gate that one activity regular park users enjoy is feeding the resident squirrels. The park is home to Eastern Gray Squirrels and their Black cousins. Both species seemed totally unconcerned about Isabeau or us posing some kind of threat. To the contrary, the squirrels approached us willingly and only got wigged out after realizing we had no food to offer them. Not that they needed any! I don't think I've ever seen so many squirrels so fat before. These guys are definitely not hurting for a meal.

There were more Gray Squirrels than we normally see and they had some interesting physical traits not common to the Gray Squirrels we see elsewhere... These Hendrie Valley Gray Squirrels had white-tufts of fur behind their ears. It's a feature found on many Gray Squirrels but not as pronounced and common-to-all as it was on the ones here. Another interesting easily observable difference the park Gray Squirrels had from squirrels in other areas was the length of their tails. The Hendrie Valley squirrels have shorter than usual tails. Even the park's Black Squirrels had shorter tails than usually seen on these species. I assume it's some genetic trait within this community of squirrels that accounts for the physical differences between them and squirrels elsewhere. Whatever the reason, it doesn't impact their ability to gain weight and certainly doesn't negatively affect their cuteness factor.

We had a great time at Hendrie Valley Sanctuary. I love exploring areas for the first time. Every step, everywhere you look there are never before seen wonders and this park is full of amazing natural beauty. At this time of year with most leaves carpeting the forest floor instead of on the trees it was possible to see vistas and forest views unavailable in the spring. There are multiple ponds along Grindstone Creek as it winds and curves across the valley floor on its way to Lake Ontario. Views from the trails were awesome (thanks in no small part to the absence of leaves) but there were also spots where platforms were provided allowing park viewers an unobscured view.

As always we were hoping to see birds and the Hendrie Valley Sanctuary gave us a birdwatching experience like we've never had before. We spotted our first bird just moments after entering the park, a large Red-tailed Hawk cruising through the treetops in a glen to our right which put it almost eye-level with us. Less than a hundred steps later when we paused to shoot photos of a particularly fat Gray Squirrel we were suddenly surrounded by a mixed flock of Dark-eyed Juncos and Black-capped Chickadees. With them came a White-breasted Nuthatch which was the first of my many "Wow!" moments that day. That initial group of birds was very casual in their approach, a behavior which repeated numerous times with other birds we encountered in the park on our visit. The feathered denizens of Hendrie Valley are obviously comfortable and conditioned to the presence of humans and dogs.

That the smaller birds in the park had no fear of humans was made even more apparent as we traveled deeper into the trail system. The Chickadees and Nuthatch's were especially bold, often following us as we walked along the creekside trail, sometimes even cruising past us only inches away or perching in branches directly overhead. On a whim, Tammy offered an outstretched open hand and to our delight and astonishment a Chickadee flew down and perched on her fingers. It was an amazing. Until that moment a wild bird had never landed on Tammy before and we were both excited although I was disappointed not to have gotten a picture.. 

When another group of Chickadees greeted us further down the trail I began searching my pockets and found the crumbs of a granola bar in an old wrapper deep in my pocket. With this offering Tammy was able to have multiple Chickadees land on her hand and this time I was ready with my camera to capture the magic moments. To our mutual surprise and delight a White-breasted Nuthatch also alit on Tammy's out-stretched fingers, instantly becoming our new favorite bird!

I was also able to offer a few crumbs to our new feathered friends and the birds blessed me with finger-perching magic moments as well. Both the Chickadees and the Nuthatch made visits to my hand. We later saw other park visitors hand-feeding the birds and it's apparently well documented behavior for the Hendrie Valley Sanctuary Chickadees and Nuthatch's so be sure to take some wild-bird seed or bird-friendly sunflower seeds with you if you visit the park. And be sure to have your camera ready to record the magic miracle moment when a wild bird chooses to land on you. I personally found it to be a very humbling moment, one I'm very grateful for.

In addition to Black-capped Chickadee, White-breasted Nuthatch and Red-tailed Hawk we also saw a number of other bird species... Great Blue Heron, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Northern Cardinal, American Black Duck, Mallard Duck, Downy Woodpecker and thankfully just one House Sparrow. (I say thankfully because House Sparrows are one of the most damaging introduced invasive species to ever blight our shores. More about that in a future blog.) We also saw a couple of species which were kind of surprising considering what time of year it is... Redwing Blackbirds and American Robins.

It's not uncommon to see the occasional Robin around at this time of year, especially when the weather has remained relatively mild through the fall as it has this year but seeing a flock of robins is definitely out of the ordinary. They've usually all split to warmer climes in the south by now so encountering a flock of them at Hendrie Valley was a bit of a shock. It's interesting to note they all appeared to be young birds so maybe they just don't get that being Robins, they're supposed to fly south for the winter. It's not inconceivable that successive seasons of warming temperatures could temper a migratory bird's inherent genetic urge to move south. It has been unseasonably warm, who wouldn't want to skip school (or work) to enjoy a day off in the park? Perhaps the flock of young Robins we saw skipped the class on migrating at bird-school back in August. 

We also saw a couple of young Redwing Blackbirds which was even more surprising than seeing Robins. We haven't seen Redwing Blackbirds around for almost a month. The two we saw at Hendrie Valley were both still sporting the spots identifying them as young birds. They were huddled deep inside some trail-side shrubbery, puffed up against the cold despite it being one of the warmest days we've had of late. They didn't look happy at all to be there. I don't have much hope for a happy ending for them. With the temperature drop overnight, the snow and high winds... conditions are far worse than they were yesterday. If those Blackbirds were having a hard time then it must be seriously discomforting, maybe even life-threatening to them today.

Putting aside any concerns about the young Blackbirds we saw in Hendrie Valley Sanctuary yesterday's adventure was definitely among the year's favorite outdoor excursions. In the almost 3 hours we spent at the park we didn't see all of it but what we did see was enough to ensure we will be visiting again and again. I recommend the park to anyone looking for an interesting easy-to-access nature experience. We look forward to seeing the park through its upcoming seasonal changes and I'll probably shoot thousands of photos there over the next year. (I shot almost 400 on Friday.) It's a beautiful spot, another natural wonder practically in our backyard. At a cost of $1 and hour, it's hard to find a more economical spot for anyone (especially families) to enjoy a day in the great outdoors.

In closing I again recommend the Hendrie Valley Sanctuary to anyone in the GTA - Golden Horseshoe area looking for a fun, easy-access wilderness adventure. Just a few more notes for those thinking of going...

I saw no designated picnic areas in the park but there are plenty of areas where a group could sit and eat lunch. There are no garbage cans in the park though so be prepared to carry out whatever you carry in. And speaking of garbage... we saw very little trash at Hendrie Valley which was a pleasant surprise since littering is so prevalent these days. Perhaps its close proximity to RBG headquarters ensures the Sanctuary gets a little more attention than some of the other wilderness areas where littering and trash dumping is an issue. 

Like in all other RBG wilderness areas bicycles are NOT permitted on any of the trails in Hendrie Valley Sanctuary and we saw no evidence people were riding bikes within the park boundaries (unlike other areas like Princess Point where cyclists regularly ignore such rules much to the detriment of the natural terrain and enjoyment of pedestrian park users. No doubt the subject of another future blog) Again, maybe it's the closeness to Royal Botanical Gardens which helps keep bicycles out of Hendrie Valley. It may be that regular park users police it themselves or maybe bike riders shun it because the trails offer no route that is easier or shorter than pedaling around it on city streets. Whatever the reason, this RBG wilderness area is refreshingly free of bicycle traffic and for that alone is warrants a high-enjoyability ranking.

Those requiring wheelchairs or scooters to get around, and those whose mobility issues are such that walkers are required might find Hendrie Valley Sanctuary inaccessible. The wooden walkway on the valley floor and many of the trails are certainly wide enough and smooth enough for wheelchairs but getting down to those trail is the issue. You're going steeply downhill entering the park and climbing up to get out of it. Many of the bridges and elevated walkways lack ramps, it's all stairs so I don't recommend this park to the mobility challenged. (And parents of young kids - you'd probably be better off with a backpack or similar body-worn device rather than stroller to carry your little ones.)

Enjoy your outdoor adventures at Hendrie Valley Sanctuary and elsewhere but remember...

Take nothing but photographs and memories.
Leave nothing but footprints.


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