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We enjoy canoeing on the Sydenham River in the spring and summer, but probably our favourite season for paddling this river is autumn.  This year the month of October had warmer than normal weather and we took advantage of a forecasted picture perfect day with no wind and sunny skies for our last paddle of the season.  Heading upstream (north) from near Wilkesport, the north branch of the Sydenham River begins where Black Creek and Bear Creek merge.  Either of these tributaries is interesting so we paddled both.  Trees on the riverbank were showing their fall colours and leaves floated on the river going neither north nor south as there is very little current this time of year.  Temperatures were comfortable and the bright sun sparkled on the water’s surface.

 

Coming around the first bend in Bear Creek, we spotted a group of Wood Ducks in the water under an overhanging tree.  They didn’t notice us and we were able to glide closer and see what we believe were first fall males along with adult males and females.  It was a great juxtaposition between the young and mature males: the juveniles are colorful, but their feathers look scruffier.  The adult male however is a gentleman of distinction; beautiful colors and smooth overall.   Before we got any closer than 60 meters the group took off and headed upstream.  We saw them again from a distance, but then they were wary of us and we never got close again.

Wood Duck (Aix sponsa)

 

Wood Duck adult male

Great Blue Herons were abundant on both creeks; we observed at least five individuals, all immatures.  These birds typically enjoy having long sections of the river to themselves and in some cases they clearly didn’t appreciate the proximity of other Herons, vocally scolding the heron who encroached into their range.  We were lucky enough to watch a Great Blue Heron catch a fish; close enough (40 meters) for decent photos but far enough not to disturb the bird.  The herons stand motionless, and then lunge into the water with startling speed to snatch an unsuspecting fish.

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)

 

The Herons also put on quite a show in flight, with their plumage reflecting the bright blue sky and fall colored leaves in the background.  It’s amazing to see the way individual flight feathers are used when the bird is landing.

Great Blue Herons have specialized feathers on their chest that continually grow and fray. The herons comb this “powder down” with a fringed claw on their middle toes, using the down like a washcloth to remove fish slime and other oils from their feathers as they preen. Applying the powder to their underparts protects their feathers against the slime and oils of swamps.

 

Great Blue Herons are excellent fishers.  They exhibit great patience, standing very still in shallow water or on the shore, waiting for a fish or frog to stray too near.  Sometimes the Herons stand on one leg, which doesn’t appear to affect their ability to remain motionless.

For the most part, despite the near silence of a canoe, it’s hard to approach ducks much closer than 75 meters and the Mallards we saw were no exception.  At the first glimpse of the boat they would burst into the air in a flurry of water drops and wingbeats.

Along the riverbanks we observed numerous small birds, Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Robins, a few different species of Sparrows, American Goldfinch, Belted Kingfisher, Northern Flicker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Red-tailed Hawks, Turkey Vultures, Eastern Phoebe, Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays.

 

After five hours of paddling up and downstream, we were back to where we put in, a Red-tailed Hawk soared overhead in a cloudless sky making his trademark shriek.  Another awesome fall canoe trip was over.  We highly recommend canoeing the Sydenham; it’s truly a hidden gem of Lambton County.  For more information on this river and how to locate the boat launch site, please refer to our post from last year: http://lambtonwildlife.com/blog/natural-areas/paddle-the-sydenham-river/

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Ontario Nature organized a wonderful day to thank both Lambton Wildlife and the Sydenham Field Naturalists for their generous donations that helped make the purchase of 193 acres along the Sydenham River possible.  On September 17th members of both clubs were invited to visit the site and enjoy a hike to the largest Sycamore tree in south-western Ontario, tour the south side of the property to look at the great variety of flora and fauna (led by Larry Cornelis, a member of both Nature Groups and driving force behind the acquisition of the property), and to hear from experts about the many species of fresh-water mussels that are found in the Sydenham River.

This property is now known as the Sydenham River Nature Reserve and is an incredibly important land acquisition that will forever protect the many endangered species that are found in and around the Sydenham River.

Justin Nicol, co-president of Lambton Wildlife and a member of the Sydenham Field Naturalists thanked Ontario Nature at the end of the day for the opportunity to hike the property and for providing a wonderful lunch in a beautiful setting.

Below is an excerpt from the Ontario Nature Website:

Thanks to you, the Sydenham River Nature Reserve is a reality. Ontario Nature has purchased a spectacular 193-acre property – forever protecting one of Ontario’s most biodiverse waterways. Located in the Carolinian Life Zone, this new reserve brings Ontario Nature’s province-wide nature reserve system to 25 properties and more than 7,000 acres.

The new reserve saves a ribbon of extraordinary diversity of plants and animals in a region that is under intense pressure from development driven by hosting 25 percent of the Canadian population.

The reserve represents some of the provinces best remaining examples of imperiled and vulnerable habitats. An almost two-kilometer stretch of the Sydenham River winds through the middle of the property. Representing Ontario Nature’s first riverine reserve, the property is teaming with life:

  • 23 species at risk including birds, plants, reptiles, fish and, of course, freshwater mussels;
  • 34 species of mussel, 11 of which are listed as at-risk provincially or nationally making the property the freshwater mussel capital of Canada;
  • Two-thirds of Canada’s non-marine reptiles including the at-risk eastern spiny softshell turtle; and
  • Half of Ontario’s bird species breed in or pass through the area during migration.

In 2014, two member groups – Lambton Wildlife and the Sydenham Field Naturalists – alerted Ontario Nature about a special property on the mussel-rich Sydenham River that was up for sale. After some initial discussions and exploring the property, in February 2016 Ontario Nature signed an agreement to purchase, pending raising $860,000.

The new Sydenham Nature Reserve was announced on December 19, 2016 after those funds were successfully raised. Many individuals, foundations and organizations gave generously in support of this effort. Lambton Wildlife and the Sydenham Field Naturalists were instrumental in the fundraising, and now share the responsibility to steward the property with Ontario Nature.

This riverside property is a largely-wooded biodiversity oasis in a landscape dominated by cash crops such as corn and soybeans. It forms part of the Carolinian Canada Sydenham River Signature Site, so designated because it was identified as a critical natural area. There are major challenges conservation organizations face in sustaining the ecological connections and biodiversity along the river corridor.

The reserve is open to visitors and Ontario Nature is already planning to create new trails so that the public can explore this extraordinary landscape without damaging sensitive flora and fauna. The best way to explore the property is by canoe. If you have any questions, please contact Ontario Nature at info@ontarionature.org or 416-444-8419.

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Late summer or early fall is a great time to take a canoe for a relaxing paddle on the Sydenham River. This meandering waterway has very little current, no rapids or other canoeing challenges, and offers a chance to see a variety of wildlife. One key attraction of the Sydenham is its proximity to most parts of Lambton County. From Sarnia, you can drive there in 25 minutes. We normally put in near the village of Wilkesport, just a few hundred meters west of the Kimball Side Road on Wilkesport Line.

A decent river access is provided on the south side of the road, with plenty of room to park your vehicle. Your first choice when heading out from this point is whether to go east and under the first bridge, or west and south towards the Darcy McKeough Floodway. Either way, you will find the river a pleasant and surprisingly isolated place in a landscape typically dominated by agriculture. For various reasons, local landowners have left the shores of the river unmolested, so while you paddle your way along, trees and vegetation hide most of the evidence that this area of Lambton is almost exclusively dedicated to cash crop farming. We like the fact that only novice canoeing skills are required, and we’ve never seen a power boat in the years we’ve used the river.

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Perfect spot to put in the canoe.

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Canoe on the boat ramp, ready to go.

Last week we chose to head east under the bridge, then the river bends to the north where there is a fork. Choosing the left branch keeps you on the Sydenham while the right branch is known as Black Creek. Both tributaries are roughly the same width. The Sydenham meanders around passing under the Kimball Side Road three times. We did find a few trees fallen across the river in some spots, the last one requiring some portaging to circumvent. Typically we decide how many hours we want our outing to take and head out for half the duration and then turn back. The slow current isn’t much of a factor in travel time at this time of year. It’s surprising how the hours can slip by unnoticed as you leisurely enjoy the serenity of this river.

On this particular trip we spotted a colorful Green Heron soon after we started out.

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Green Heron on a tree.

It helps to keep your voices to a minimum to allow getting as close to wildlife as possible. Great Blue Herons are always present and will often fly to get ahead of you, only to emerge at the next bend in the river. Turtles are often sunning themselves on the numerous logs that are scattered on the river, we saw a Map Turtle on this trip.

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Map Turtle

Overhead a Red-tailed Hawk soared and called out with its unique cry. Other birds we saw included: Wood Ducks, Catbirds, Red-bellied woodpeckers, Flycatchers, Downy Woodpeckers, plus many others.

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Female Wood Duck

Later we watched another Hawk land in a tree carrying a small snake in its beak.

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Red-tailed Hawk in a tree with a snake.

On the Sydenham, after passing under the second bridge heading northeast, there is frequently a Great Horned Owl to be seen on one of the trees along the river. If you are lucky (and quiet) it’s possible to get a good a look at him (but no photo this time!) Dragonflies, Butterflies and Damselflies abound on the river, and you may see large carp near the surface, or often breaching the surface.

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A type of Bluet damselfly.

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A type of Hairstreak butterfly.

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Gorgeous Dragonfly

We observed a water snake but didn’t get near enough to identify it. Along the shores deer and wild turkey can be seen, and last year we saw adult and baby beavers. Unfortunately it appears that last winter’s ice has destroyed the beaver lodge and we have yet to find where they rebuilt. There is always something interesting to see along the river.