I’m standing in the forest, mosquitos buzzing all around me waiting for the bug spray to wear off, a grey squirrel tries to stare me down before losing interest and taking cover from a cooper’s hawk flying overhead. All this while I wait somewhat patiently for the pileated woodpecker to return to it’s nest to feed two impatient young. After nearly an hour, I was about to desert my post, and just then the female flew in and landed on the dead tree trunk. There was ruckus as the two squabbling chicks poked their beaks out of the hole, gape-mouthed and ready for the fresh catch. Just as quickly she appeared, the mother flew away, leaving the young with their mouths gaping, staring out from the safety of their hole. I did’t stick around for the dad to come back - the vampire mosquitos were beginning to bite through my shirt. I had donated enough blood for one day.
This little plot of woods in Fort Erie, Ontario was reclaimed by nature nearly 90 years ago, and now the large maple and oak trees provide a home to a variety of wildlife. Just last month we counted nearly a dozen different warblers on their migration north, we’ve also spotted red headed and downy woodpeckers, and witnessed a coopers hawk desiccating another bird for dinner, indifferent to our presence.
Coming into a new place without any prior knowledge is always a great opportunity for discovery. With each day a new history reveals itself to me - starting from the most obvious, Old Fort Erie, the place with the distinction of being the bloodiest battlefield in Canada, to being a gateway to freedom for many slaves fleeing bounty hunters due to it’s geographic proximity to Buffalo.
Back to the 7-acre plot of woods, it was once the location of a Erie Beach Amusement Park, bringing in people from Buffalo by steamship or by train along the ‘Sandfly Express’ from Fort Erie for a stroll down the promenade, a thrill on the rides, or a swim in the outdoor pool, of course, there was also a casino and dancehall. We try to figure out what each of the concrete remains used to be. A circle of low pillars, not dissimilar to stone henge, lays in the middle of the forest, perhaps a base for something called a Tumble Bug ride. Then there is a maze of concrete that looks to be a raceway for go-karts? At the shore, the waves break over the weathered pier, remains of concrete breaching before being concealed beneath exceptionally high water levels.
Ultimately, I am always drawn to wild places, and these areas are becoming harder and harder to find in the suburban sprawl, replaced by monotonous rows of grass and the accompanying relentless drone of lawnmowers. The fate of this little wild spot is precarious, and it is slated for development. This may be a small scale problem, but one that is magnified a million times over around the world as habitat loss accelerates, silencing the wildlife and eventually sentencing them to extinction.
I head back into the woods later in the day, hoping for another glimpse of the little ones before they fledge. I have learned that simply by being still in the woods, life will begin to reveal itself to you, and that just by listening and watching, it doesn’t take long to understand the natural world around you. I have, in a sense, become a suburban naturalist.
As I wait, the male pileated woodpecker lands on the tree above me then swoops to the nest to the awaiting insatiable mouths. Hopefully, next year, the parents will find this hollow log to make another home.