A walk in Summit Woods
By John Fretz
This article was previously published in WesountMag.ca
Though it covers only 23 hectares, this urban forest is a renowned bird-watching site, notably for migratory warblers in Eastern Quebec.
Aline Gubbay and Sally Hoof, Montreal’s Little Mountain: A Portrait of Westmount
Celebrate spring by joining a bird-watching tour. The exciting migratory flyover begins in late April. It’s entirely possible to see 20 or more bird species in two hours at Westmount’s Summit Woods. If you are a novice birder, you quickly find it takes practice to zero-in with binoculars on a warbler as it flits through the budding foliage. And even with a good bird guide, it’s hard to identify many species because of the subtle differences in seasonal and male-female plumages. So it’s a good idea to link up with an experienced, friendly group of bird watchers who will take you under their wing. The Jim Houghton Warbler Walks are free to the public. They are led by Bird Protection Quebec (BPQ), and meet at Westmount’s Lookout on Summit Circle every Tuesday at 7 a.m. from late April to early June.
Let’s assume it’s a brilliant May morning and you’ve just arrived for your first warbler outing. The early birders already gathered at the Lookout’s parapet wall are dressed in casual outdoor wear with handy pockets for notes and pens. They enjoy recounting the rare birds seen on their latest outings with BPQ. You’ll notice the high-powered binoculars they carry. If you’re just starting out, you might consider Nikon Travelite Ex binoculars that are moderately priced, have a bright image and a handy belt carrying case.
You’ll notice the birders chuckle and murmur as if perpetually afraid of scaring off our fine-feathered friends. And it often happens that one smiling participant will arrive and reel off eight or ten bird species he or she has gleaned in walking over the mountain to join the group. Pace your questions is my motto; and remember that even hushed voices interfere with the frowned concentration that goes on while everyone stops, looks and listens on the trails. And often you’ll find yourself in a clustered group, all with their binoculars trained upwards, so be careful of stepping backwards onto another birder’s toes.
The troop sets off at 7:10 a.m. You’ll have admired the majestic view beyond the dazzling ribbon of water that surrounds our island metropolis; the vast Richelieu River plain lies southwards, darkly hemmed on the horizon by Vermont’s Green Mountains. The lowland continues along the broad Lake Champlain valley, flanked by the Adirondack’s High Peaks on the west side. This corridor is a natural bird migratory flight path.
Westmount’s summit is perched on a monadnock; there are seven of these volcanic magma bluffs in the Monterégie. From a bird’s-eye view, this knoll appears like a green beacon for warblers seeking a stopover; the woods are a refuge, the fresh vegetation containing the promise of a feast of insects. Indeed, the banks of Trilliums that peak on Mother’s Day in mid-May are a delight to the inhabitants who visit the summit’s pathways, as much as they are benefit to the feeding warblers.
Most of the 30 or more species of warblers that have been sighted in Summit Woods fly to the boreal forest to nest.
And sometimes a strong prevailing wind will simply act like sling in sending them over Montreal’s Little Mountain, in which case it feels like a silent spring for warblers. But that happened only once a few years ago.
We troop up the short hill, pausing at the height of a grove of sumacs. Downslope to the east is a copse of tall black cherry trees. Though deciduous, their scaly, darkly barked limbs seem somewhat similar to conifers. High in the forest branches our intrepid birder friends spy a Cooper’s Hawk’s nest. The male of the pair is easily identifiable by its barred brown breast, as imposing as a Roman legionnaire’s breastplate. The budding trees will sprout dense new foliage in a timely fashion that camouflages the nest just as the chicks hatch.
We proceed to the nature board at a junction of several trails. A pair of Phoebes – phee be, phee be – has built a nest in the rafter. However, for two years running, they have produced no fledglings. Third time lucky? With their long, formal-looking tails, they seem like stylish New Yorker birds.
Then comes the quiet deliberation of which way to proceed. Warblers are very plentiful along the southern flank, traversed by a main trail on the height and a narrow bisecting pathway. The group splits, later joining up again with an excited comparison of sightings. These are like glad tidings: although the bird count for warblers and other species generally holds on a yearly basis, the actual bird populations are down. Prior to the walk disbanding shortly before 9 a.m., a tally will be made that appears on the Bird Protection Quebec web site, that also lists many other outings that are free but it is a good idea to support the organization by joining it.
Summit Woods reveals many delights. On one occasion an adult raccoon caught our attention, causing a fuss like a male grouse intent on luring predators away. Meanwhile, three burglar-masked cubs were being ushered up a tree by the other parent into in a high knothole. Flitting over the glistening dead leaves one sees the Mourning Coat Butterfly, priestly-looking with its deep purple wings and a white collar.
A year-round resident is the Eastern Screech Owl that habitually sends birders on a merry quest to find its new, always well-hidden abode.
One spring two owlets inhabited an oak hole along a pathway. A CTV crew arrived to record the event; no doubt these cute fledglings were the most publicized anywhere. In the woods nearby one can find the cement platform and blocks that once anchored CFCF Radio’s transmission tower that enabled North America’s first radio broadcast in 1922. CFCF was the parent company to CTV.
Suddenly the woods resound with the jungle roll of a Pileated Woodpecker hacking away at an old tree trunk. It is a huge bird with a red cap not unlike the famous cartoon woodpecker. A shy bird formerly unused to urban life, it is now a woods regular.
If you are new to birding it is a good idea to consult a bird guide prior to going on a Warbler Walk. Their names are as exotic as they are exquisite: Magnolia Warbler, American Redstart, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, et cetera. However, no photograph will equal seeing the bird’s plumage through a pair of binoculars.
What better way to start the day!
Images: John Fretz
Warbler images: Chuck Kling
John Fretz has written nature articles that have appeared in local media, including a feature article on urban foxes. He recently completed a three-year ceramics sculpture program at Concordia University as an independent student and has exhibited locally.