Adventure at Sixteen Mile Creek

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February 18, 2016 – The icy grasp of winter has been relatively mild this year – but even in the mildest of years, the snows and cold temperatures are still sure to make themselves known. The temptation to stay cozy and warm indoors with a hot cup of coffee is very strong – but take that coffee to go, cover yourself properly in warm winter clothing, and throw on those thick socks and boots! There is a winter wonderland awaiting you outdoors, and its name is Sixteen Mile Creek.

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The parking lot down the hill at the end of Lions Valley Park Road (off of Dundas Street West) is closed-off at the top of the hill during parts of the winter (as seen here). Fear not! The trails are still open (including from this access point), and they are avidly used! As long as municipal parking signs (a) and bylaws are properly observed, limited street parking may still be available here and on other streets and parking lots surrounding the nature sanctuary. There is also a very convenient bus stop nearby on the #5 Dundas bus route.

Click here to be directed to the main page, with a list and map of ideal parking areas and bus stops.

If you live in Oakville, chances are you have spent at least some time visiting or admiring Sixteen Mile Creek, even if you didn’t know it by its name. The creek and its massive valley stretch through rural, suburban and urban Oakville, from where Fourth Line meets Highway 407, wrapping around west and south through Glenorchy Conservation Area, down through Lions Valley Park between Proudfoot Trail and Neyagawa Boulevard, careening past several golf courses along the way south (Oakville Executive Golf Course, Rattlesnake Point Golf Club, Glen Abbey Golf Club, and Oakville Golf Club), flowing around the bend past the Oakville GO Station and out the Oakville waterfront between Tannery Park and Lakeside Park. Sixteen Mile Creek is widely appreciated and very accessible, no matter what the season!

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The late afternoon sun paints a cool blue winter shadow over Sixteen Mile Creek valley (above), looking southeast from the Dundas Street West bridge. The trail system zig-zags across the northeastern shore of the creek beneath a canopy of a sleeping deciduous forest. Such views are readily available from the bridge lookouts (a, b), which bulge off of the sidewalk on both sides of the bridge. Far beneath the Dundas Street bridge (below), a pedestrian bridge gracefully curves over the creek from the Lions Valley Park parking lot (right side) to the general use fields (left side). In the background, the steep valley wall wraps around, curving sharply north to follow a densely-forested tributary ravine.

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If you can make it up to Lions Valley Park – whether by car, bus, or on-foot – you will find an extensive trail system to hike, trailing a beautiful, surprisingly natural valley that shuts out the surrounding world. A great many plants, birds, fish, insects, amphibians, reptiles and mammals live in and around this valley system. One of the first wildlife signs you will likely clue in on are a unique reward to the winter adventurer: snow tracks! Scattered across the trails, trailsides and the creek itself are a profusion of boot, paw, foot and feather marks, each holding tell-tale secrets about its owner – if you have a keen eye!

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Of all the snow tracks in Sixteen Mile Creek, human and domestic dog tracks are by far the most common. Dog tracks come in a wide variety of sizes (a), to match our biggest and smallest breeds. They take the familiar form of a triangular palm pad topped by four toes, each toe tipped by the point of a claw (sometimes not obvious in bad snow) (a,b). Dog tracks are usually found among and beside human tracks. When found away from the trail, their paths are usually not in very straight lines – they swerve and double back-and-forth as they play, sniff and investigate everything on their walk (c), something wild canines (like foxes) with limited energy supplies cannot afford to do.

In Oakville, we are lucky to be able to share our nature sanctuaries with a wide variety of animals. However, the vast majority of animals have a healthy fear of humans – a vitally important instinct that keeps them safely glued to their valley home, preventing them from getting hit on roads, and stopping them from becoming a nuisance to nearby residents. Many are also crepuscular (active during twilight) or nocturnal (active at night), beginning their nightly activities long after visitors have left the trails, which works out to be another safety feature for them. When walking alongside the creek from the Lions Valley Park trailhead after a fresh snow, you can see traces of the secret lives of our animals – from the trudging of Muskrats along the frozen shoreline, to the bounding of Grey Squirrels and Eastern Cottontail rabbits, to the tiny scampering trails of a Deermouse and the dignified trot of a Red Fox. With a sharp eye, the vital signs of the winter forest come alive, hinting at the secret dynamics of forest life in a way is impossible to see during the summer.

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Tracks of Sixteen Mile Creek: Part 1 – “Hoppers” The symmetrical, bounding tracks of the Eastern Grey Squirrel (a,b) are often confused for the asymmetric leap tracks of the Eastern Cottontail rabbit (c,d). When bounding forward, both of these animals land on their small front paws first, but the squirrel puts down both of its paws equally side-by-side, whereas the rabbit puts down one front paw before the other, making the rabbit’s paw prints lopsided. Photo (b) is from a resting squirrel (instead of a running squirrel), so the front paws sit in front of the hind paws, with “fingers and toes” visible. The tiny paw prints of a small mouse (likely a Deermouse) (e) straddle the drag line made by its tail, the classic pattern for scurrying mice. If spooked, these same mice can make clean long-distance jumps without the tail drag (f), looking like a miniature squirrel track! The pairs of tiny, stick-like, 3-front-toed tracks of small perching songbirds (likely a Black-capped Chickadee or American Tree Sparrow) (g,h) are occasionally flanked by feather marks on either side as the bird lands or takes off (g). These paired bird tracks contrast with the alternating gait of walking bird tracks (i), which tend to come from larger birds like American Robins and American Crows (though these can still hop if it suits them).
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While walking down in the creek lowlands on a sunny winter’s day, you may be joined by a variety of birds as they forage for food. You might recognize familiar birds such as the Northern Cardinal (a), House Finch (b), Black-capped Chickadee (c) or maybe even the American Tree Sparrow (d) from your backyard feeder, but other species like the Pileated Woodpecker (e) and Belted Kingfisher (f) prefer natural habitats and natural sources of food. You are not likely to find these other birds unless you venture out of suburbia and onto the trails.

On a sunny winter’s day, perhaps the easiest way to find live animals is to keep quiet and listen closely to the sounds around you. Even if you cannot identify them, the songs, calls and chatter of birds and squirrels will show you where to look. With practice (and helpful binoculars), you’ll be able to home in on these cheerful day-active animals. The best strategy is to just enjoy the walk while staying aware of the sights and sounds around you. 9 times out of 10, the most interesting sightings on a hike happen when you were least expecting them!

The trail system connected throughout Lions Valley Park extends south to Upper Middle Road West on both sides of the creek, but the experience on each side is very different. Where the northeast side spends a lot of time down low, following close to the creek channel amid the lowland moist forests and swampy and marshy fringes of the creek, the southwest side mostly follows the upper valley ridge. This diversity of habitat regions makes for a fascinating walk – but more importantly, showcases some of the crucial habitat that makes the valley so important on our landscape.

If you look beside the rushing waters fringed with ice sheets, the tan, brown and straw-coloured tufts and thickets of creek-side marsh, meadow marsh, swamp and floodplain forest stick out haphazardly amongst the carpet of snow. Their drab winter colours bely the massive importance they have on the landscape. The wetlands and lowland forests in a creek’s floodplain are, in some ways, more important to the regional ecology than the creek itself. Marshes (dominated by non-woody plants) and swamps (dominated by shrubs and trees) are some of our most diverse and productive ecosystems, housing huge numbers of plants and providing necessary habitat and breeding areas for insects, fish, birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians, all while filtering water and moderating water flow and retention. Winter is a low-activity time for most plants, as well as animals like turtles and frogs that go dormant for the winter, but don’t think that the winter stops everything! Even under the ice, aquatic insects and even small fish continue to live out their lives – as evidenced by the Belted Kingfishers who raid open-water sections of stream even in February. Above the ice, birds and mammals like the Muskrat and American Mink follow the shores and ice sheets as they search for food. Life around the frigid February waters doesn’t stop because of a little chill! Nature has a way of making the most out of all seasons.

 

 

 

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Lowland forests and wetlands are important habitats for any creek valley. Here, in the floodplain of Sixteen Mile Creek (a), trees like Willows (orangey branches) and Green Ash thrive in the high water table that would likely choke the roots of trees like American Beech or Red Oak. Creek-side wetlands are habitat for animals like Muskrats, whose footpaths show up on the snow-and-ice borders of the creek (b). Gaps in the creek ice (c,d) tend to occur in high water-flow zones, allowing fish-eating species like the Belted Kingfisher and American Mink easy access to their aquatic foods. These gaps are also important for the emergence of Small Winter Stoneflies (family Capniidae) (e), one of the first groups of insects to emerge as adults from the water, and one of the only to be found crawling over the snow.

Rising out of the lowlands, there are some breathtaking views as you reach the trails that follow the top ridges of the valley, especially northeast side of the valley. Here, among the hilltop White Pines, the rushing creek is framed by a cradle of trees, shale and snow on all sides, apparently oblivious to the neighbouring human landscape.09

The blanket of snow coating the forest floor is not only scenic, but functional; snow is a natural insulator, protecting dormant plants and tunneling animals from the full chill of winter. Under a thick layer of snow, temperatures at the soil surface are not just more stable, but they can be very close 0°C even when air temperatures plummet far below that mark. Furthermore, for small animals like mice, tunneling under snow is the perfect way to get around without being seen by predators. These advantages of snow make winter much easier on plants, small mammals and insects, even though thicker snow gives us more work to do with shoveling, snow-blowing and plowing.

The hilltop trails wind around the top of the valley ridge before dipping down to give the option of crossing the river, and continuing up the southwest side. From here, the valley trail is often set-back onto the tops of small ravine ridges that feed down into the valley more gradually than some of the cliffs they face on the opposing side. The forests on the slopes that are strongly north-facing are great places to find dense patches of slow-growing Eastern Hemlock trees, which love slightly-cooler slopes. Although guilty of occasionally “blocking the view” through the bare deciduous trees, dense patches of these evergreens are important shelter (especially in winter) for animals like owls.

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The cracked bark (a), uneven needles and tiny cones (b) of the Eastern Hemlock tree (unrelated to poison hemlock) are a common sight on shaded ravines and north-facing slopes, where they thrive on the localized cool and shady “microclimate” caused by the slope direction. Whether on a trail or in your backyard, you are probably familiar with these black- and grey-coloured squirrels (c,d), but did you know they are the same species? The Eastern Grey Squirrel may be born as a black or a grey “colour morph,” both of them found in the same areas – and even in the same litters of young! On the opposite end of the “easy identification” scale, Downy Woodpeckers (e) (male and female seen courting) and Hairy Woodpeckers (f) are often found in the same places and look nearly identical, in spite of being different species. Bird enthusiasts have to train their eyes and ears to pick out fine differences in size, song and feather patterns. Seemingly out-of-place in the middle of winter, American Robins (g) can actually be found in forests and thickets, sometimes in large flocks with other Robins. With the snow and cold covering and freezing the ground, winter Robins seek out winter berries and fruits, which they are sometimes found sharing with groups of berry-loving Cedar Waxwings.

At the end of the day, no matter what side you come from, Sixteen Mile Creek is sure to provide a breath of fresh air, and a relaxing break from the stresses and congestion of city life. Make sure to put those trails to good use – Sixteen Mile Creek valley is naturally yours, at all times of the year!

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Tracks of Sixteen Mile Creek, Part 2 – “Walkers” Solitary tracks that lead into protected ravines away from people (a) are more likely to have been made by wild animals, which stay far away from humans when possible. As a bonus, small frozen creeks at the ravine bottom (b) offer flat, clear paths that appeal to many animals. The Red Fox leaves behind a dainty line of paw prints in nearly a straight line (c, likely), almost looking as if it was hopping on one foot. They do this by stepping neatly into their own tracks, placing their hind paws neatly in the marks of the front paws (a technique called “direct register”). Closer to dog-size, the Eastern Coyote (b,d) also makes the most of creek beds and natural corridors, preferring to stay far away from humans and typically keeping hidden until evening. Their tracks (e) are extraordinarily similar to dog tracks, and are best identified by their direct, no-nonsense routes across the landscape. The low slushy trudge of the Muskrat (f) may commonly be found along the banks and ice sheets of creeks and watercourses (g), although they spend a lot of time inactive during the winter.