Category Archives: Reflections of a Naturalist

Coyle Creek Clean-up for the Beavers

Two Sundays ago, a group of local residents conducted a cleanup of Coyle Creek; a slow-flowing, meandering waterway that is a significant tributary to the Welland River.

The lower-section of this creek constitutes an oasis of wild habitat in an otherwise increasingly developed area of southern Pelham and the western part of Welland.

While I was canoeing the creek back in the summer of 2006 I devised a plot to organize a group of local volunteers to keep the creek free of litter and carry out various conservation-related initiatives.

I did have some past experiences with Coyle Creek, as I had worked one summer for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. I had helped plant native fauna along the creek’s banks at the Welland River golf course (since renamed Pelham Hills).

As there was no community group devoted to Coyle Creek in existence yet, I decided to establish the Friends of Coyle Creek (the FCC) with the assistance of some like-minded residents.

One of the major motivations for forming the group was the fact that Coyle Creek is actually home to a colony of beavers.

Beavers were once widespread across North America, however, due to habitat destruction and trapping, the beaver’s range has been greatly reduced. Thus, Coyle Creek’s beavers are a comparative rarity in heavily populated Southern Ontario.

In order to keep the human impact on the beaver’s fragile environment to an absolute minimum, we conducted our recent cleanup via canoes. In this manner, we were able to avoid disturbing the beavers on land, where they gather wood for their lodges and bark saplings for sustenance.

The flotilla of vessels we managed to assemble consisted of a 13-foot cedar-strip canoe, a 16-foot fibreglass canoe, and a rowboat. Our little fleet travelled downstream: we started at a stone bridge that spans the creek on South Pelham road, and ended up at the Welland River.

We were determined in our efforts to remove whatever litter there was to be found—beer bottles, plastic bags, coffee cups, even part of an old stove—and to ensure that recyclable and non-recyclabe materials were kept separate.

We also removed purple loosestrife, a harmful species of weed that is not indigenous to North America, but was in fact introduced here on account of gardening centres.

Purple loosestrife chokes out native species, and if left unchecked, can monopolize entire creeks and other wetlands.

The creek itself and surrounding forests are rather beautiful.

Lilly pads dot the surface of the creek, arrowheads protrude up through the clear water, and on shores grow large oaks and maples. Both the roots and tubes of arrowheads—so called because the broad green leaves of this plant resemble an arrowhead—as well as lilly pad roots, are edible.

The creek’s shoreline had a great deal of luscious wild grapes growing, and on the banks in many spots is jewelweed. The stalks of jewelweed when crushed can be utilized as a remedy for the maddening itch caused by poison ivy.

Sunfish were observed swimming in the clear, shallow waters of the creek, and basking in the warm sun on a log was a painted turtle. In the adjacent deciduous forests were noisy grey squirrels and numerous bird species.

While we did not have any luck spotting beavers on this particular day, we did note their handiwork: pencil-shaped stumps jutting up from the banks, cut by the beavers’ strong teeth in order to use the wood for their lodges.

At least two different beaver lodges, (one of which is possibly abandoned), are on Coyle Creek. These industrious animals, an enduring symbol of Canada for nearly two centuries, build remarkable lodges partially submerged and partly on the banks, which serve as their homes.

On the whole, the cleanup was a great success, and it is my sincere hope that the creek will remain as it now is—-in all its natural splendour—for many generations to come.

An Ancient Wonder: The Comfort Maple

Half a millennium ago, deep in a virgin forest, a small seed in the form of a maple key began to take root. In time it would germinate into a sapling that would grow into a massive sugar maple tree; along the way enduring countless storms, avoiding blights, forest fires, and evading the pioneer’s axe.

This incredible tree, which defied all odds, still stands tall and proud today, in the midst of farmland in North Pelham. Known as the Comfort Maple, the immediate area surrounding the tree is a Niagara Peninsula Conservation site.

The Comfort Maple, at approximately five hundred years old, is widely believed to be the oldest sugar maple (accer saccharum) in Canada. The towering tree was already a century old when Samuel de Champlain was exploring Canada; and well over 250 years old when the first settlers arrived in this region.

In 1816, shortly after the conclusion of the War of 1812, the Comfort family obtained the land, which contained the then three centuries old maple.  Providentially, the Comfort settlers never felled the mighty tree, and thus it became the oldest of its kind in all the land.

On a recent Sunday afternoon I paid a visit to this ancient wonder. Located off Metler road, the tree is situated at the end of a dusty, bumpy, country lane. To the right side of the dirt lane grow several sugar maples, which are dwarfed by the colossal size of the Comfort Maple.

It soars some eighty feet high, and is a full twenty feet around the trunk.

The tree, while somewhat misshaped, is nevertheless an awe-inspiring sight to behold. I circled it several times, gazing upwards at its thick, snake-like branches, while listening to the warm breeze rustle through its green leaves.

Staring at the great tree conjured in my mind remembrances of Grey Owl’s short story, “The Tree” from his classic 1936 book “Tales of an Empty Cabin.”  The legendary Grey Owl, Canada’s greatest nature writer and a prophet of wilderness preservation, tells the tale of a fictional ancient tree in that story.

Guy wires help support the tree’s branches, and concrete has been laid in the cavity of one of the tree’s two main branches. (Presumably to protect it from disease and insects.)

I was somewhat surprised to see the tree itself is remarkably free of graffiti carvings, however, the concrete within the tree did contain a few. Apparently, Dave and Jenn as well as BW and SW thought it fitting to proclaim their love for each other by marking it on the concrete within the tree.

A rustic wooden sign nearby informs visitors that Miss Edna Eleanor Comfort donated the tree and the ground directly around it to the NPCA “for its preservation” on April 30, 1961. The land had been in the Comfort family for nearly a century and a half by that point.

The tree is officially dedicated to the memory of Earl Hampton Comfort.

As Mary Lamb noted in a previous Voice column, according to legend the Comfort Maple is also the site of an ancient Native burial ground. If true, the tree perhaps embodies more than the memory of just Mr.Comfort, indeed, that of a whole vanished people.

As I left the cool shade provided by the giant tree to return to my parked vehicle, I found myself hoping that the great Comfort Maple endures many more years to come.

The Gem of Pelham: the Short Hills

To be forthright, Pelham is not exactly a nature lover’s paradise—at least not anymore. There is nothing resembling wilderness left in the town, and residential expansion persists at an alarming rate.

As far as waterways go, Pelham can boast a few nice creeks, yet its only river, the Welland River, leaves a lot to be desired.

I have canoed the river on numerous occasions, and can tesitfy that it requires a rather vivid imagination to mistake it for something like the French or even Grand River.

In boyhood days I endeavoured my best to imagine it as the mighty Mississippi (and myself as Huckleberry Finn) but with somewhat limited success.

Fortunately, Pelham does have at least one redeeming natural gem: the Short Hills. And best of all no imagining and romanticizing is even required to spice up the natural beauty of the Short Hills.

Located in North Pelham, the Short Hills constitute an oasis of natural splendour in our densely populated Niagara Region.

The rolling hills, Carolinian forests, deep ravines with gentle streams running through them, and magnificent waterfalls nearly seem like a world away from the hustle and bustle of the city, rather than a ten minute drive from downtown St. Catharines.

Short Hills Provincial Park protects 735 hectares of this area, making it the second largest protected space in the Niagara Peninsula. (The Wainfleet Bog Conservation Area ranks first, at 801 hectares.)

While the park is not pristine—transmission lines cut across the southern portion of the park like a scar, subdivisions encroach just beyond the north boundary, and a scouts camp with mown lawns and several buildings is contained by the park—it is still a remarkable place.

I personally have experienced many memorable walks through the Short Hills, and never fail to encounter some form of wildlife. Wild Turkeys are prevalent in the park, as are whitetail deer and coyotes. It is also an excellent locale for bird watching.

Perhaps the park’s most notable feature is Swayze Falls, a waterfall of impressive height that plunges into a deep gorge. In the spring at high water Swayze Falls is truly an awe-inspiring sight, and for the more imaginative visitors, they can picture it as the scene of Sherlock Holmes supposed death in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Final Problem.”  At least I like to do so.

The park also offers trails for horseback riding and mountain biking. While I have not as of yet ridden a horse in Short Hills, I have on several occasions exhausted myself along the winding paths and steep hills on my mountain bike.

As far as mountain biking in Niagara, the trails of Short Hills Procincial Park are unsurpassed.

All motorized vechiles are thankfully prohibited within the park, as is camping and campfires. These measures help preserve the park’s ecological integrity and keep the human impact on the park’s flora and fauna to a minimum.

A dedicated group of volunteers, the Friends of Short Hills Park, works to preserve the park. For more information on their projects and the park itself visit their website at

Although Pelham may not be a nature lover’s paradise anymore, the Short Hills is the best vestige of what must have been at one time a true paradise of natural wonder.

Wildlife of Pelham: Past and Present

Once upon a time, black bears, eastern cougars, and wolves all roamed the hardwood forests of what is today the Town of Pelham.

However, these large predators, as well as several other species, were gradually extirpated from Pelham and most of Southern Ontario as a result of increasing human populations and rampant hunting.

Today, these creatures’ ranges have been pushed further north, far away from Pelham, which personally, as an avid naturalist, I consider to be rather unfortunate.
(Though there are claims that the eastern cougar is making a comeback.)

On the brighter side, some species were once extirpated from the area but have since been successfully reintroduced. The most outstanding example of a reintroduced species found in the woods and fields of Pelham is the wild turkey.

For years now I have encountered these large birds while on my frequent excursions in woods across Pelham. Just the other day while taking a stroll through the forest surrounding my family home in Fenwick I collected a couple of turkey feathers.

Indeed, the Ministry of Natural Resources’ wild turkey reintroduction program of the 1990s was such a success that the birds are once again hunted for sport in the province.

Another popular game bird that can be found in the fields of Pelham is the ring-necked pheasant, which in fact is not native to North America. These beautiful-looking birds were actually introduced here from overseas for the purpose of providing ideal game for sport hunters.

Certain other specices, such as the coyote and opossum, have expanded beyond their historic ranges on their own account, and are now prevalent throughout Southern Ontario. Warmer winters might explain the opossum’s migration northward to this area, whereas the coyote was able to expand its range in the wake of the wolves’ extirpation.

For those of us who enjoy a jaunt in the woods after dark, the howl and yapping of coyotes is a common sound.

Perhaps quite a few readers would be surprised to learn that Canada’s national animal, the beaver, is one species that has managed to maintain a foothold in Pelham despite the widespread destruction of its habitat.

Specifically, a beaver colony exists on the lower reaches of Coyle Creek, a slow flowing, meandering waterway that stretches across the Pelham-Welland municipal boundary. The creek is an important tributary to the Welland River, and drains much of Southern Pelham.

I first became aware of this little colony of beavers in the spring of 2001, while fishing on the creek with a couple of friends. We first noticed the telltale signs of several pencil-shaped tree stumps, which could only be cut by a beaver, and later discovered a few beaver lodges.

Last summer, out of concern for Coyle Creek’s beavers, I decided to form the Friends of Coyle Creek (the FCC), with the aim of preserving the creek and thus the beavers. The FCC has since grown into a group of over a dozen dedicated volunteers.

In order to keep the human impact on the beaver’s fragile environment to an absolute minimum, we conduct all our clean-up operations via canoe. In this manner, we are able to avoid disturbing the beavers on land, where they gather wood for their lodges and bark saplings for sustenance.

Pelham’s bears, cougars, and wolves may all have disappeared long ago, but the town remains home to plenty of fascinating creatures from the animal kingdom. Hopefully, these creatures, from the beaver through to the turkey, will continue to find homes in Pelham if we all do our best to preserve the local natural environment.