Grass pink [photo by Fiep de Bie]

Black Marsh

The Nature of PEI | by Gary Schneider

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There are so many beautiful areas on Prince Edward Island to observe nature—remnants of our native Acadian forest full of migratory warblers, breathtaking beaches dotted with shorebirds, offshore islands with colonies of great blue herons and cormorants.

One of my favourite places to visit in the summer and fall is Black Marsh, a boggy area in North Cape. There are spectacular views, the North Cape Wind Test Site, and the Wind and Reef Restaurant. But it is this unique natural area that keeps drawing me back.

The 5.5 km trail is a gentle walk along the coast, with the large windmills always in sight. About half of the distance is on a boardwalk through the wetter areas and there is signage along the way to help visitors understand what they are looking at.

Unlike most of our bogs—inland wet areas with no outflow and acidic soils, dominated by mosses and black spruce—this one is very close to high cliffs. Depending on the time of year, you will see a wide variety of birds and plants. In early summer, you can (carefully) look over the cliffs and spot sea ducks such as common eiders and black scoters. And if you’re lucky, you’ll catch sight of some black guillemots in their breeding plumage. I regularly see these small sea birds in the winter off East Point, when they are non-descript with grey and white plumage. But they breed along the cliffs along the north shore and they are a different beast altogether during late spring and early summer. Their plumage is jet black, with bright white wing patches and startlingly red feet.

The trees and shrubs are full of common yellowthroat warblers, yellow-rumped warblers, and song sparrows. Along the edges are dozens of bank swallows looking for insects. They nest in burrows in the cliffs and seem to have no fear of people. Researchers say that this species “has shown a severe long-term decline amounting to a loss of 98% of its Canadian population over the last 40 years… The reasons for these declines are not well understood, but are likely driven by the cumulative effects of several threats. These include loss of breeding and foraging habitat, destruction of nests during aggregate excavation, collision with vehicles, widespread pesticide use affecting prey abundance, and impacts of climate change, which may reduce survival or reproductive potential.”

This is sad news, but we’re lucky to have some areas left where you can see these wonderful aerial acrobats.

While birds are one of my passions, the plants are what repeatedly draw me to this area. Walking along the boardwalk, you can find three orchids.  Grass pink is a slender plant topped with an unusual pink flower, and you’ll also find the beautiful rose pogonia and common lady’s slipper.  Other rarities include bakeapple and bog rosemary, as well are pitcher plants and round-leaved sundew, two carnivorous plants. In addition, you’ll see cotton grass, cinnamon fern, and a large variety of native shrubs, everything from wild rose and bayberry to serviceberry and chokeberry.

The area is highly affected by punishing winds, with stunted trees that are short but quite old. There are hummocks throughout the area that are about one foot tall, with balsam fir towards the shore and eastern larch behind it. It appears as though someone repeatedly clipped the tops of these almost horizontal trees, which I found particularly fascinating.

A visit to Black Marsh should be on everyone’s bucket list, and I suspect that as always, the closer you look, the more you will see.

Gary SchneiderThe Nature of PEI
Gary Schneider

Gary began writing for The Buzz in the May 2018 issue. He co-chairs ECO-PEI and started the Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project in 1991. The project demonstrates ecologically-sound forest management, with a focus on environmental education, conservation of rare plants, and the restoration of PEI’s native forest. He is an avid birder and lives in Tea Hill.