Roundup: 4 great trails for birdwatching
People & Places

Roundup: 4 great trails for birdwatching

Whether it’s a physically distanced catch up with a friend or a chance for solo reflection, getting outdoors provides respite from the things that ail us and offers a chance to pick up a new hobby as a welcome distraction. Here, a look at four pathways where birds abound — plus tips for picnic spots and to-go snack shops nearby.

An American Redstart at Mud Lake. Photo by Jan Przybyło

It’s a popular hangout for a reason: While it’s close to the city, it feels far away. Mud Lake is nestled in the Britannia Conservation Area, off roads lined with cottagestyle houses. The 79-hectare area contains wetlands, forests of oak and white pine, and easy hiking trails. Plus, it’s a popular stopover for all kinds of birds. Mud Lake is a major migratory corridor with peak period sightings of screech owls, flycatchers, warblers, and vireos in spring.

There’s a spot along the main road with a nice old tree and a right-sized nook for small breeds of owls. If you check the Ebird app, you’ll find a hint as to when and where to go to see this great species, thanks to crowd-sourced spotting notes. A more analog cue is a huddle of regulars
with long lenses and binoculars gathered near a tree, mostly still, yet happy to break the silence to share tips on nearby avian sightings.

En Route: The retro-themed Britannia Bakeshop opened in May of 2021, kittycorner from the trailhead on Howe Street. Inside a chalkboard sign reads “Bake the World a Better Place”— and shelves are full of preserves from local company Gingham Wisdom, stick candy, Lucky Elephant popcorn , and tea stands of butter tarts, croissants, and squares.

A Common Grackle at Shirley’s Bay. Photo by Artur Przybyło

If you get lost in thought while you wander, then stick to the main loop at Shirley’s Bay. You’ll be sure to round back to where you started — and ideally with a clearer head. The main trail is popular in winter with skiers, snowshoers, and hikers who demarcate their respective paths to keep the ski tracks pressed. Shirley’s Bay is on the edge of the Greenbelt toward the west with inland wetlands, seven kilometres of trails, views of the Gatineau Hills, and lots of free parking. As you roam, you experience a range of scenery: it goes from open-air bright sky, to beautiful canopies of trees, and then to pebble and dust at the farm road’s end that bisects the trail.

Be sure to stop by the feeding areas to see a nice variety of birds, including sparrows, blue jays, woodpeckers, and common grackles. After coming here for a while, you start to recognize the human regulars too. “I think I follow you on Instagram,” I hear one person holler to another on the trail. Like others, me and my friends became accidental birders during the pandemic joining an existing cadre of Boomers, and the newly converted from Gen X, Y, and Z. The hobby starts as the ideal distraction and then you develop a rhythm and an affinity for the endlessly fascinating winged things.

Mid-Route: Pop over to the seasonal store of Beetbox Co-op for fresh local produce. Call ahead to ensure a good selection, or take your chance and choose from what’s available. Located on Davidson’s Side Road (you’ll see signs for the farm along the trails), it’s open from June to October.

An Evening Grosbeak at Mer Bleu. Photo by Jan Przybyło

If you head here some mornings when the light hits the mist, the wetland gets a blue look to it where, to some, it resembles the sea. I look for the sea vibes on one late winter morning, but I find it fleeting. I walk over to find out if my hiking mate sees it and then we pause for a little
to take in the vastness of the place and try to think how long ago 7,700 years actually is by another measure: lifetimes, generations, watching paint dry – that’s how old the bog is and the thought of it brings to mind a mash of monster movies with galumphing peat-covered creatures emerging from the swamp. I try to extinguish the endless pop culture loop in my head and turn to look for the birds frequently spotted here including Baltimore orioles, American bitterns, and rose-breasted grosbeaks. We walk across the well-Instagrammed boardwalk and take in the view — no filter — before picking up another hiking trail. There are a few to choose from spanning more than twenty kilometres within the 3,500-hectare conservation area: the Mer Bleue Bog Trail is usually the busiest with families skipping along there most weekends, or
else along the Dewberry Trail, which is a quick trek at one kilometre in length. If you decide you’re game for more, you can pick up a connecting trail to extend your walk.

End Route: Best to bring a picnic lunch to this spot. Best bet nearby: the Mid-East Food Centre at Belfast and St. Laurent. Enjoy it at the sheltered picnic area at the end of the trail.

A Barred owl at Stony Swamp. Photo by Artur Przybyło

The more than 40 kilometres of trails in this network course through the woodier parts of the Greenbelt. The short loop of the Sarsaparilla Trail feels too short at less than a kilometre, but the dock overlooking the beaver pond makes it worth the trip. From there, it’s a short drive to the nearby Jack Pine Trail where families with kids of all ages abound. Jack Pine Trail’s widening loops suit all stamina levels — there’s the small ring of 0.7 kilometres, the medium loop (1.7 km), and the large path (2.3 km). The wooded scenery is broken up with dashes of whimsy. Hand-painted mini birdhouses of varying levels of craftiness hang off the trees. We see a boxy number made of taped together oat milk containers that provides shelter for the winged, while squirrels pop in and out of the sturdier wooden structures made brighter by splashes of glitter and pom-poms. Deeper into the woods, we spy wild turkeys milling about and their combination nodding-pecking
gait draws our eyes away for a moment while looking upward for sightings. The Barred Owl has been spotted here as has the broad-winged hawk.

Snack Attack: Remember to BYOB (birdseed). Along each route, you’ll usually find people with outstretched hands, waiting for chickadees to land for just a second to nab a few morsels before flitting away.