November 20, 2012

Ecology park provides environmental education

As published in Country Routes

Whether you're looking for a fun, educational outing for the kids or a leisurely, scenic hike, the Willow Park Ecology Centre in Norval has plenty of attractions to offer.

This year-round nature preserve is great for bird watching, picnics and photography, featuring a butterfly garden, a wildflower meadow, a wetland pond and a snake hibernaculum. There are community events, and opportunities for volunteers to help improve the site.

The five-acre park is located just off Highway 7 – turn on Mary Street and park at the ball diamond. A former residential trailer park, it is at the point where Silver Creek, flowing down from Erin and Georgetown, joins the Credit River on its meandering journey to Lake Ontario.

Before crossing the bridge to the Ecology Centre, check out the tribute to Anne of Green Gables author Lucy Maude Montgomery, who lived in Norval from 1926 to 1935. She described the charm of the area in a hand-written journal, now archived at the University of Guelph:

"Norval is so beautiful now that it takes my breath. Those pine hills full of shadows – those river reaches – those bluffs of maple and smooth-trunked beech – with drifts of wild white blossom everywhere. I love Norval as I have never loved any place save Cavendish. It is as if I had know it all my life – as if I had dreamed young dreams under those pines and walked with my first love down that long perfumed hill."

At a recent volunteer work day, teens and adults were out helping Credit Valley Conservation (CVC) staff clean up the trails and gardens, and dig out invasive species such as buckthorn and garlic mustard.

"We can only do a little bit at a time, but definitely progress is being made," said Lindsey Jennings, Assistant Program Coordinator, Community Outreach at CVC.

Park activities carry on throughout the year. This Sunday, November 25, Willow Park has events to mark Universal Children's Day, with a drum circle starting at 1 pm, then nature activities and children's games from around the world, 2:00 - 3:30 pm. (It is also the weekend of Buy Nothing Day, an opportunity to teach kids about having fun without buying more stuff.) Entrance to the park is always free.

Register for events and learn more about the park at Celebrate the Longest Night of the Year on December 21, 7:00 - 8:30. Dress  warmly for a Winter Solstice night hike, games, and hot chocolate with marshmallows around a bonfire.

Willow Park Ecology Centre is operated by a volunteer board of directors, in partnership with CVC, the Town of Halton Hills, the Ontario Trillium Foundation, the Sobey's Community Endowment Fund and Wastewise. They also get support from Halton Region, Halton Hills Hydro, the Ministry of Natural Resources and corporate sponsors.

Schools can take advantage of their environmental field trips and in-class presentations, designed for various grade levels. Willow Park will customize programs for pre-schoolers or groups such as Scouts-Cubs and Girl Guides-Brownies. They also run sessions for adults at their Renewable Energy Education Station.

The Carolinian Forest Zone in Southern Ontario has many vulnerable, threatened or endangered species, including the American Chestnut tree (threatened) which is represented at Willow Park. They have a tree monitoring program to help determine current and future needs of the forest, a Tree Trail to help people learn about different species, and beaver guards to make sure that no trees are chopped down.

One of the major education exhibits is focused on compost, and with the help of Wastewise, there's a demonstration area showing how found or discarded objects can have a second life in a garden.

Willow Park has one of the few public butterfly gardens in Ontario to use exclusively native wild plant species. It provides a living environment for the four stages of a butterfly's life cycle, plus hibernation boxes, and education about how to promote habitat for birds and butterflies on your property.

On the river banks, wooden cribs are used to provide sheltered resting and feeding places for fish. They are called LUNKERS (Little Underwater Neighbourhood Keeper Encompassing Rheotactic Salmonids).

A viewing platform, suitable for wheelchairs and strollers, has been built at the wetland area, which is home to a variety of frogs, snapping turtles, garter snakes, salamanders, mallard ducks, red-winged blackbirds, damselflies, and even pond scum – the green algae that provides an environment for tadpoles, insect and microscopic life.

Chimney swifts, a species of bird that stays in flight except when nesting and roosting, is threatened by the lack of suitable chimneys, so Willow Park has a special tower to replicate this environment for them.

Snakes need a frost-free shelter to survive the winter, so the hibernaculum features buried rocks, logs and stumps on a south-facing slope to maximize sun exposure.