Sarsaparilla Trail, located on Richmond Road just north of West Hunt Club, is one of the first trails I visited after moving to Kanata South. It features a small 0.8 km circular trail traversing through the woods and a picnic area in a more open setting. The chickadees and nuthatches here are among the friendliest I have encountered, and the Red-breasted Nuthatches in particular are not afraid to steal morsels from an outstretched hand. They especially love sunflower seeds and peanuts.
Sarsaparilla Trail lies within the Stony Swamp Conservation Area, which itself is part of the National Capital Greenbelt. In the woods, the trail diverges into two loops. The outer loop passes through an area of deciduous trees with very little understory, while the inner trail passes through a dense stand of conifers. On the western side of the trail, a short boardwalk leads to a small observation platform which juts out over a large beaver pond.
Because of its proximity to water and mix of habitats, Sarsaparilla Trail is home to many different species of wildlife. It has something to offer the nature lover in every season, from the mammals that live here year-round to the butterflies and amphibians which are present only in the warmer months, to the different bird species which come and go with the changing of the seasons.
Winter is the quietest and bleakest time of the year here in Ottawa, although its proximity to the boreal forest means that it is at the southernmost range of a number of boreal birds. As a consequence, Ottawa is an excellent place to see some of these species in the winter when food shortages drive them further south. The coniferous forest of Sarsaparilla Trail makes it a good place to search for boreal species such as Purple Finch, White-winged Crossbills (heard frequently in the winter of 2008-09), Pine Siskins and even Pine Grosbeaks which were seen feeding on berries near the picnic shelter in December 2008.
Year-round residents include Black-capped Chickadees, both Red- and White-breasted Nuthatches, Brown Creepers, Common Ravens, Blue Jays, and Downy, Hairy and Pileated Woodpeckers. A winter walk along Sarsaparilla Trail will yield most of these species, as well as the occasional flock of Golden-crowned Kinglets (which are more commonly seen during migration) or Ruffed Grouse. American Tree Sparrows are sometimes present in the scrubby margins of the pond near the boardwalk. If you visit this trail in the winter, be sure to bring peanuts and sunflower seeds for the birds…they will readily take them from your hand.
The most commonly seen mammals in the winter are Red Squirrels and White-tailed Deer. The squirrels can be found scolding intruders from the trees or scrounging for food wherever seeds and nuts have been left for the chickadees, whereas the deer are mostly likely to be seen early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Porcupines, too, are present in the Stony Swamp Conservation Area, although it’s been at least a year since I’ve seen one at Sarsaparilla Trail. Many other mammals call Stony Swamp home, including voles, shrews, mice, raccoons, fishers, weasels, snowshoe hares, foxes and coyotes; most of the time they reveal themselves only by the tracks they leave in the snow. Of the above, I have only actually seen one Snowshoe Hare at Sarsaparilla, though the tracks certainly tell a different story.
By mid-March the first signs of spring begin to appear. The snow begins to retreat, the ice on the pond begins to break up, and the first migrants return to Ottawa. Although Sarsaparilla Trail is by no means a migrant trap, it attracts its share of migrating birds nevertheless. I have seen Canada Geese, mallards, American Black Ducks, Hooded Mergansers, Ring-necked Ducks, Wood Ducks, Blue-winged Teals, and Pied-billed Grebes in the beaver pond; some of these birds stay to breed while others only stop for a brief visit. Other early migrants found at Sarsaparilla include Great Blue Herons, Red-winged Blackbirds, robins, Eastern Phoebes and Killdeer. Northern Flickers and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers return for the summer as American Tree Sparrows are about to leave for their breeding grounds in the north.
Migration continues throughout April and May, when the woods become alive with Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, juncos, and White-throated and Fox Sparrows. These species stop here every spring and fall, usually in large numbers. In the spring it is not uncommon to hear them singing. Other songbirds that I’ve seen occasionally during spring migration include Winter Wren, Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Blue, and Black-and-white Warblers. Goldfinches are present year-round but are more noticeable in the spring when their lively songs issue cheerfully from the treetops. Belted Kingfishers appear in the spring and can be found in snags overlooking the pond from time to time whenever the water is ice-free.
Chipmunks, Garter Snakes, frogs, and Painted Turtles emerge from hibernation and the first insects begin to stir. One mammal that I was surprised to see here was a groundhog in the spring of 2008. I only saw him a couple of times, usually in the grassy area behind the outhouse. Spring is a wonderful time of year to visit Stony Swamp.
The summer residents which breed at Sarsaparilla Trail and its environs make their presence known through vigorous birdsong and mating displays in the early part of the summer. Eastern Kingbirds have nested somewhere near the pond for the past couple of summers, and I often see the adults flitting from snag to snag over the water or feeding their young, all the while singing their peculiar song which sounds like a boisterous, musical sneeze. Common Yellowthroats sing from the shrubs at the edge of the swamp, while Ovenbirds, Red-eyed Vireos and Eastern Wood-pewees sing from the depths of the woods. One summer I noticed that a male Red-breasted Nuthatch taking peanuts from my hand wasn’t stuffing them in tree bark for later but rather feeding three baby nuthatches which were following him around! I have also seen an adult Virginia Rail being trailed by a dark, fluffy baby in the marsh, and I’ve heard Ruffed Grouse drumming and American Bitterns calling early in the morning.
In the summer, many different colourful dragonflies and butterflies can be found at Sarsaparilla Trail. Butterflies include Spring Azures, Mustard Whites, Henry’s Elfins, Black Swallowtail, White Admiral and Northern Crescent. Odonates I have found here include Racket-tailed Emerald, Dot-tailed Whiteface, Common Green Darner, Band-winged Meadowhawk, and Taiga Bluet. I haven’t been keeping as detailed records for insects I’ve seen at Sarsaparilla as I have for birds, and hope to remedy that this coming season.
Fall is a beautiful season in Stony Swamp. Many of the birds that pass through in the spring also stop by in the fall, particularly Golden-crowned Kinglets, large flocks of Dark-eyed Juncos, and smaller flocks of White-throated and Fox Sparrows. In 2010 I came upon a juvenile White-crowned Sparrow two weekends in a row, a species I don’t recall seeing here before. Waterfowl, including the resident Mallards, Canada Geese, and American Black Ducks, can be seen on the pond until freeze-up, though never in spectacular numbers.
Other birds stop in on their way south. Winter wrens can sometimes be found around brush piles and fallen logs, and Yellow-rumped Warblers are the most commonly seen warbler in the open areas near the lawn and picnic shelter. Once I had a Magnolia Warbler and a Blue-headed Vireo foraging in the same tree in late October (2010); to my surprise, the vireo was singing! A flock of Pine Siskins once stopped by in the fall of 2008, at least three Hermit Thrushes were seen foraging on the ground in the woods in 2006, and I’ve heard American Pipits flying over more than once. My best sighting came in late September 2006, when I discovered a pair of Black-backed Woodpeckers working on some softwood at the back of the trail. This species was a lifer for me (indeed, this sighting has been my only sighting of this species to date), although I didn’t realize at the time how significant my discovery was. They were gone the following day.
By late fall the chipmunks have begun to hibernate and the squirrels are busy caching stores of food to get them through the winter. A few dragonflies, the meadowhawks, may persist into late October, but most other species have long since disappeared.
For such a short trail and such a small area, the number of bird species I have observed here seems astonishing, especially since I have only been birding seriously since late 2006. As of the date of this posting I have a total of 60 species on my eBird location life list for Sarsaparilla Trail. I am sure there are more than that, as I have only been recording my sightings on eBird since the summer of 2010 and haven’t kept full species lists from my outings prior to joining eBird. For example, I don’t have either Swamp or Song Sparrow on my eBird list, though I’m sure I’ve heard them, if not seen them, at Sarsaparilla! In this regard, one of my goals this year is to keep track of all the species I see on an outing and record them in eBird so that I do have a comprehensive list of all the species seen at some of my favourite places such as Hurdman, Mud Lake, Jack Pine Trail, etc. I also hope to keep detailed records of the different mammals, butterflies and odonates found on my outings as well.
Author’s Note (December 12, 2012): An updated list of all the birds recorded at Sarsaparilla Trail and the Beaver Trail can now be found here.
Sarsaparilla Trail is well worth the visit if you only have time for a short walk. I usually stop here on my way to or from other birding destinations to see what’s around or escape the busier birding areas such as Shirley’s Bay or Mud Lake. Spring and summer are my favourite seasons, chiefly because there is a greater diversity of wildlife present during these times of year, but autumn is an excellent time to visit as well. It is one of my favourite trails because interesting species of wildlife have a habit of turning up here whenever I least expect it.