Would you cash out your savings to protect a few trees? Your neighbours did, and almost thirty years later, they say it was worth every penny. Read on to learn about our hike through this natural oasis in Whitby, guided by the dedicated naturalists who protect and maintain it.
Don't miss the Thickson's Woods Festival on September 22.
In a small corner of Whitby, no one would expect to find an old growth forest. But at the bottom of Thickson Road, just steps from Lake Ontario, you’ll find remnants of just that. Thanks to a small group of concerned naturalists and birders, a twenty-four acre natural haven was protected from logging and development by the formation of a land trust: a legal tool that enables private ownership of land for public good. [Learn more about land trusts here.]
Originally, majestic white pines within the woodlot were reserved to be used for Her Majesty’s naval fleet, but as technology progressed, ships with large masts were no longer used or needed. In the 1980s, the logging rights were sold, and one fateful weekend in 1983, the large, century-old white pines were felled. Sixty-six trees were brought down in total before a small group of naturalists stopped the felling by purchasing the logging rights with their own money. They were able to save ten of the towering pines at that time. They later purchased the entire woodlot for a small fortune.
Margaret Carney and her husband Dennis Barry are among the original group of naturalists that helped protect this significant migratory stop-over. Recently they agreed to join me for a walk of the woods to tell their story.
“We first purchased the logging rights from the logger, Dennis and I. On the third day of cutting [we] went and took all the money we had out of the bank. It was two thousand bucks,” Margaret says.
That money bought the logging rights for the ten remaining trees. Within no time at all, a down payment of $30,000 was raised by five people. Through voluntary public donations from birders and sympathizers from around the world, the entire mortgage of $90,000 plus interest was paid off in less than five years. The land is now available for the public to enjoy for birding, walking, and exploring nature close to home.
As we hiked through the woods, we spotted a number of natural wonders. Monarch butterflies were having a rest prior to beginning their long haul to Mexico. In previous years there have been close to a hundred thousand monarchs in one day in the woods, and approximately 10,000 monarchs on one tree.
The seeds of the spotted touch-me-nots, also known as jewel weed, were ripening beautifully, and perfect for popping. In the early spring, these woods come alive with the songs and calls of warblers and other song-birds. When asked about the most peculiar sighting they’ve ever seen, both Dennis and Margaret agreed on the “black-throated grey warbler,” which is actually an Arizona species. Thickson Woods gets visitors from all parts of the world, including the international birders they receive every May for the spring migration. Yet many local residents don't even know it is there, or assume it is a government-run park.
In the early 2000s, the woods faced another threat, encroachment and development from surrounding lands. To protect the woods, the Thickson Woods Land Trust pooled their resources and with the assistance of very generous supporters, purchased the adjacent meadow for half a million dollars.
With the nature reserve protected and with the waterfront trail providing easy access to the lands, there are now few threats to the land from a development perspective. The greatest threat currently facing the property, however, is still human driven: the introduction of invasive species. Garlic mustard, dog-strangling vine and common buckthorn are among the worst of the lot, and the volunteers that run the land trust are looking for helping hands. Anyone is welcome to help including school groups, corporate volunteers or individuals to assist in removing these invasive species. Learn more on their website.
As we continue to walk through the meadow, we all seem to suffer from "nature distraction disorder," spotting interesting insects such as bluet damselflies, saddlebags and 12-spotted skimmer dragonflies. We stop and enjoy some ripe riverbank grape vine with very tart fruit, which helps get us back on track.
This meadow is home to the annual Birds, Beavers & Butterflies Nature Festival held every September and is a great way to engage children of all ages in the natural world. This year will be the festival’s 11th year and includes activities such as bird-box building, guided nature walks, bugs and botany ID and some very interesting visitors from Muskoka Wildlife.
In addition to that, there will also be a magician, and a small worlds exhibit: this exhibit allows participants to look at samples of sand through magnifying glasses, which as the name suggests, introduces the viewer to a very small world. It is truly fun for the whole family, and each year the festival garners interest from over 1,000 individuals. This year’s festival will be held on Saturday, September 22. All the money raised goes toward the Thickson Woods Land Trust sustainability fund to help preserve this reserve for future generations.
As Margaret recounts the history of the woodlot, and the legal and financial battles they went through to preserve these lands, without a doubt in her voice she announces: “it was worth every penny.” Standing next to the giant pines, and listening to Dennis and Margaret tell their story with such passion and unequivocal devotion, I can’t help but hope that my generation is able to create and preserve such legacies too.