Great Kiskadee

Great Kiskadee

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Some Natural Areas of Chatham-Kent, Part 1

The Sydenham Field Naturalists are hosting several outreach events at the Chatham Public Library, to encourage more residents to be aware of the local environment and what they as a club are doing within Chatham-Kent and southern Lambton County. I was asked to be the first presenter, and as some readers will already know, I gave a presentation on Some Natural Areas of C-K just a few days ago.

It was very encouraging to see the packed house and enthusiasm of the crowd. Some folks came from almost an hour away! I heard the attendance was in excess of 80, and clearly there was standing room only. Since there were folks who couldn't make it but are interested in the subject, and had they all arrived there wouldn't have been enough room anyway, I have decided to break down my presentation into a dozen or so individual blog posts. They won't be posted concurrently, since I will be reporting on other things I will have done as the winter subsides and early spring arrives. But over the next couple of months (I hope!), I will highlight the same sites that I covered in my library presentation. So check in once in awhile if you like.

Some Natural Areas of Chatham-Kent, Part 1

Historical Context

The municipality of Chatham-Kent covers about 240,500 hectares.

At the time of settlement, about 66% of the landscape (~160,000 hectares) was wetland, which includes both cattail marsh
and swamp, also known as lowland forest. Due to the topography of C-K being very limited, with only small differences in elevation other than a very few creek valleys, the landscape is a mix of gentle undulations with water accumulating in the depressions and the higher, slightly drier areas supporting more upland forest.
Currently there is no more than about 3.5% remaining.

Estimates of tallgrass prairie (yes, Ontario could be considered a 'prairie province') ranged as high as ~40,000 hectares! Estimates are based on historical surveyors descriptions as well as an analysis of soil maps.
Present day Ontario tallgrass prairie, Essex
Present day Ontario tallgrass prairie, Lambton

Here is how Patrick McNiff, a land surveyor who was one of the first to describe what would eventually become C-K back in 1792, says. Referring to the lower reaches of the Thames River, he writes:

"On each side, and for a distance of 6 miles, were extensive meadows and marshes without any wood except for a few scattered trees. On the Dover side, the marshes and meadows extended north northeast as far as the eye could see. To the south they were confined to much shorter limits.” 

It perhaps looked something like this, which is actually a photo I took not of an Ontario tallgrass prairie (I wish!) but one of the spectacular tallgrass prairies I've explored in Missouri.

Upland forest, which is the drier woodland not the swamp forest referred to earlier, made up an estimated 40,000 hectares.
Today, no more than 5% of both upland and lowland forest remain in C-K.

Anna Jameson was an early pioneer traveller, who had the foresight to record her thoughts on her travels through C-K back in the 1830s. At one point she travelled through C-K heading westward through Morpeth along what is now known as the Talbot Trail. When her party got as far as about what is now C-K Road 15, they had to change direction due to the almost impenetrable area known as the Ten Mile Bush, which was the general area of forest and swamp between C-K Road 15 and Blenheim. I grew up in that area along the Talbot Trail, but more than 120 years after Anna Jameson did.

No one who has a single atom of imagination can travel through these forest roads of Canada without being strongly impressed and excited. The seemingly interminable line of trees before you; the boundless wilderness around; the mysterious depths amidst the multitudinous foliage where the foot of many hath never penetrated—and which partial gleams of the noontide sun now seen, now lost, lit up with a changeless magical beauty……the wondrous splendour and novelty of flowers—the silence, unbroken but for the low cry of a bird or the hum of an insect, or the splash and croak of a huge bullfrog—the solitude in which we proceeded mile after mile, no human being, no human dwelling within sight—are all either exciting to the fancy or oppressive to the spirits according to the mood one may be in.” 

How savagely, how solemnly wild it was! So thick was the overhanging foliage that it not only shut out the sunshine, but almost the daylight; and we travelled on through a perpetual gloom of vaulted boughs and intermingled shade. There were no flowers here…..The timber was all hard timber, walnut, beech and basswood, and oak and maple of most luxuriant growth.”

It perhaps looked like this:

Lest we think it was always a pleasurable experience, here is what else Anna Jameson had to say:

Mosquitoes…suddenly we were again surrounded by our adversaries; they came upon us in swarms, in clouds, in myriads—entering our eyes, our noses, our mouths, stinging until the blood followed.”
 Clearly travelling through such swampy terrain was a challenge.

This next quote from Anna Jameson is interesting:
A Canadian settler hates a tree, regards it as his natural enemy, as something to be destroyed, annihilated by all and any means.” I guess things weren't so different in the early 1800s than they are in the 21st century!
Chatham-Kent in 2013
This next photo is one I took in April of 1989, showing southwestern Chatham-Kent, at a point about two kilometers west of Port Alma along Hwy 3/Talbot Trail. There were two tiny fragments of woodland present in this photo at that time, and one of them has disappeared since.

Nonetheless, there are some fabulous natural areas remaining in Chatham-Kent. Some are reasonably well known, such as Wheatley Provincial Park and Rondeau Provincial Park.

Wheatley Provincial Park

Wheatley PP is about 240 hectares in size. It has a small, but impressive woodland component to it, as well as is the outlet for a creek system.
 Within the woodland are a few small individual American Chestnut trees, an endangered species that at one point was one of the most common trees in area woodlands but was almost entirely wiped out due to chestnut blight.
Am Chestnut trunk

Am Chestnut leaf

Am Chestnut flowers, almost never seen anymore

Am Chestnut fruit
There is a good population of Climbing Prairie Rose present.

The endangered Acadian Flycatcher is known to nest here occasionally. I was the first to discover this species nesting here in the early 1980s.
A bird only recently considered a regular nesting species in Ontario is the Orchard Oriole.
Wheatley is a delight to explore from spring,
to fall.

Next in the series will be a brief overview of Rondeau Provincial Park.



  1. That is great so many attended your presentation. I was tempted to go over but stayed home instead!

    1. I wasn't sure what to expect for a turnout, given the amount of colds, etc that are going around. At least the weather wasn't a factor for travelling. And unless you came at least 10 minutes before the start time, you likely would have ended up having to stand!

  2. Great post! I always enjoy reading your blog!

  3. It must have been an incredible landscape originally!

    1. Indeed....I would love to have a time machine to go back to the time of settlement....with my digital camera equipment, of course!