Beginning in 2017, the County of Simcoe embarked on a unique habitat creation and forest restoration project. The project aimed to establish 130 acres of early successional pine-oak forest. This habitat is crucial for the Kirtland's Warbler, which is a globally endangered migratory bird that used to call Simcoe County home. Creating habitat for the Kirtland's Warbler has been an international effort but this project is the first of its kind in Canada and further demonstrates the County's strong commitment to forestry and habitat stewardship.
The restoration site was a former aggregate pit which is part of the Museum Tract of the Simcoe County Forest. The County of Simcoe has a long history of reinvestment of revenues from forest management back into forestry projects such as property acquisitions. The 300 acre property was an acquisition purchased in 1999. Prior to the County acquiring this property, it was owned by CP Rail and formerly used for the extraction of sand and gravel to build rail beds. The existing condition was dry and degraded, consisting primarily of scattered non-native trees and shrubs. Restoration of the site involved removal of non-native plant and tree species, significant site grading, site preparation for planting including a controlled burn, planting of over 85 species of native shrubs, herbs, grasses and wildflowers and planting over 150,000 tree seedlings. Although the main focus of the project was to establish an early pine-oak successional forest habitat suitable Kirtland's Warbler this habitat type is regionally rare yet important for many other common and rare fauna.
County staff worked with leading experts from the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) and GEI Consultants to complete the project. Funding partners included the Government of Canada through the Habitat Stewardship Program, American Forests and Forests Ontario with in-kind funding from GEI Consultants and Mary Gartshore Consulting. Additional in-kind support was also provided through the County of Simcoe Forestry, Roads and Solid Waste Management Departments.
About the Kirtland's Warbler:
The Kirtland's Warbler is a globally rare and endangered migratory bird which was nearly extinct 50 years ago, but has since begun to recover due to multiple habitat projects in North American and abroad. Overwintering occurs in the Bahamas while its summer breeding grounds are historically within Michigan, Wisconsin and Ontario. Kirtland's Warbler requires large tracts of young, dense forest of primarily jack or red pine for its nesting habitat, which was probably commonplace within Simcoe County prior to European settlement, land conversion and fire suppression. Suitable habitat also existed in the mid 1900's due to the significant levels of reforestation which occurred at that time.
The Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS), working with GEI Consultants, has been investigating opportunities within Canada to create appropriate nesting habitat to expand recovery efforts. As Kirtland's Warbler was historically known to nest within Simcoe County, Forestry staff were approached in 2016 to explore the potential for habitat creation within the Simcoe County Forest. In consultation with the subject matter experts with CWS and GEI, Simcoe County staff have assessed the County Forest for the potential to incorporate early successional pine-oak forest and identified an opportunity at the Museum Tract in 2017.
In 2018, 105 acre parcel was acquired as an addition to the Simcoe County Forest 'Packard Tract' in the Township of Essa. An assessment of the property identified opportunities to substantially enhance planned forest restoration to include habitat creation for the endangered Kirtland's Warbler.
The restoration and habitat creation project began in fall of 2019 with the removal of non-native Scot's pine and Norway spruce and the removal of some marginal red and white pine on approximately 15 acres of the property. Site preparation using a controlled burn and other mechanical equipment was completed in 2020. This was followed up in spring 2021 with the planting of approximately 28,500 native trees and the seeding of approximately 75 different native shrubs, grasses, herbs and wildflowers.
On June 9, 2022, the restoration team confirmed that no fewer than four male Kirtland's Warbler's were now using some areas of the restoration site at the Packard Tract. It was also confirmed that there was at least one female on the site and it is anticipated that the species is now breeding in it's new home.
The County of Simcoe Forestry Department completed the project with funding from Ganawenim Meshkiki through the Eastern Georgian Bay Initiative. The County of Simcoe also partnered with the Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority and the Ontario Heritage Trust to complete forest restoration and habitat creation work on an adjacent property owned and managed by these partners.
The Packard Tract is located at 8398, 9th Line Essa. The project area is approximately 145 acres in total.
This project was the second project of its kind in Canada (the first was in the Simcoe County Forest Museum Tract) and is part of an international effort to create habitat for Kirtland's Warbler, an endangered song bird. This species relies on large tracts (100+ acres) of early pine-oak successional forest. In addition to creating early successional pine-oak forest for this rare bird, this regionally uncommon habitat type will benefit numerous other wildlife species.