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Less Travelled By

I made an exciting discovery this spring. In past years, on a few occasions, I've hiked along a rail line that crosses March Valley Road. (The crossing is an easy walking distance from my house.) I knew this wasn't quite kosher, but since those tracks were barely used and only for slow-moving freight, I figured it was pretty safe. In 2014 I went further than I'd ever gone before. The tracks run through a golf course, then alongside a DND (military) complex, with uncultivated fields that attract grassland birds and woods on the other side.

I was hoping to get past the complex and into more fully wild land. But when I heard traffic in the distance--presumably Carling Avenue--I decided to turn back.

Now the rails have been torn out. The railbed is officially disused. So there seemed no reason not to explore to my heart's content. This spring I decided to keep going after I heard traffic, and indeed I arrived at Carling: specifically, at that annoying spot where Carling narrows to accommodate the rail overpass. It was a lot more fun walking over that than driving through it.

And then I kept going. And pretty soon I was thrilled to realize that I had hiked my way to Watts Creek! I bird the Watts Creek area frequently and had no idea it was practical to get there from home on foot. No longer does being stuck without the car mean that I can't get any good birding in--at least in the warm months. Better still, if it's practical for Mike to drop me off at, say, Carling and Rifle, I can walk home one-way, which leaves lots of leeway for further hiking along the many crisscrossing trails in that area.

It was the bridge rattle that gave it away first. There's a wooden pedestrian/bike bridge over Watts Creek (link is to a past blog post) that makes a huge ruckus every time someone rides a bike over it, a sound that carries well into the distance. When I heard that sound I knew exactly where I was. And sure enough, a little more walking and I came to a panoramic view of the Watts Creek meadowland.

Not very panoramic, sorry--all I had was a zoom lens!

And still I walked on. After having hiked maybe 4km from the crossing at March Valley, I finally met my own footsteps, as it were, coming from the other direction. I reached the junction of this railbed with another (still active) rail line, a junction I'd been to many times before. That's the spot where you cross over to get from Greenbelt Pathway West to the Wesley Clover woods.

I spent much of spring and summer birding that old railbed, cataloguing what I saw and when. House Wrens, Chestnut-sided Warblers, American Redstarts, Brown Thrashers and many more tangle-loving songbirds sang along the margins. A wedge of forest south of the tracks bore a singing Wood Thrush. East of Carling and into the Watts Creek area, the uncommon Mourning Warbler becomes a possibility. (I didn't see any this year, but have in the past.) In summer ripe raspberries appeared in profusion and both I and the birds enjoyed them.

male American Redstart

In the DND-owned fields, Bobolinks and Eastern Meadowlarks sang in spring. The meadowlarks then moved on, apparently only using the fields as a migration stopover (and only singing as a warmup), but Bobolinks stayed to live and nest. Throughout much of May and June, the males sang, chased, and performed their exuberant flight displays. In the evening, herds of deer and flocks of Wild Turkey roamed the fields.

male Bobolink

Wild Turkeys

Through the whole spring, summer, and into autumn, I only ever encountered two other people (well, except for a few distant folk on DND land, who never seemed to pay me any mind.) One was a walker whom I never caught up with, and the other a lone motorcyclist tearing like heck down the old gravel railbed. This was a place appealing to introverts.

One day I found a skunk, out in the open in a grassy field. It was on the other side of the fence and didn't care a whit about me. It was busy digging for prey.

My most exciting find was a Black-billed Cuckoo. This is an uncommon and elusive species, more often heard than seen. It is also a beautiful, graceful bird well worth the effort of trying to see. On one of my early explorations, I heard a cuckoo's monotonous "coo-coo-coo" sounding in the distance, somewhere in the Watts Creek valley. The next time I heard that coo-coo-coo, it was much further west--no more than a kilometer's walk from my house. And it sounded nearby. I played back a recording of the same call, and the bird flew in and landed close! It held a caterpillar in its beak and didn't swallow, a telltale sign that its nest and young were somewhere close by. Having had an excellent look, in fact the best look I'd ever gotten at the species, I walked on and left it in peace.

And my strangest find was an American Woodcock. I never saw it, but on multiple occasions, it was *peent*ing (a mating call) along the railbed at dusk. What made this strange was that the sound emerged from a spot very close to the Ironstone Grill, almost as if the bird were sitting on the parking lot peenting. It was just a few minutes walk in from March Valley. One doesn't expect breeding woodcocks to be so near to human habitation, especially in the suburbs.

I hope this old railbed gets made into a public trail someday, and doesn't get left to overgrow and disappear. It would be a shame for the beautiful scenery, birding opportunities, and raspberries to go to waste.

Parc Omega, BelatedlyWetland Adventures


November 17th, 2018 at 12:56 am
It is always nice when an exploration turns up something good like this!

November 18th, 2018 at 11:02 am
I really hope this trail stays usable... or at least if not, becomes an LRT line!

November 18th, 2018 at 5:50 pm
By your description of the events, it almost seems like I am walking right beside you. I remember some of the places you mentioned. Happy birding. I hope you get some in during the coming winter months.