Terry Sprague discusses County’s natural heritage during Flashback February

Retired Gazette columnist and Prince Edward County's premier naturalist Terry Sprague was part of last week's Flashback February. (Submitted Photo)




Around 40 participants enjoyed a virtual talk from avid birder and nature enthusiast Terry Sprague about  natural heritage in Prince Edward County (PEC) last week.

Hosted by the Friends of Wellers Bay, the presentation touched on many different monuments and places in the County starting with Scotch Bonnet Island off the western coast of the island to Sandbanks to different ecologically significant marshes and swamps,  all with different history and importance.

“At first glance, when we speak of the County we tend to think it is a place of limestone and rock, and indeed it is,” Sprague stated. “Scotch Bonnet Island is only about 2 acres in size and it’s almost 99 per cent limestone slabs, very little soil, any soil that is present is up around the old lighthouse remains.”

West Point at Sandbanks Provincial Park is very similar with the shelves of limestone rock, which is a dominant feature in the county along the shore lines. 

The precambrian rocks formed the actual foundation upon which the leader rocks like limestone were formed.

“This basement of metamorphic rock and granite rock is very regular through the region,” said Sprague. “Now if your up in the Consecon area and had a shovel for instance, you would have to dig down about 700 feet before you would reach the precambrian rock, if your in the Sandbanks area you would have to dig a little further about 1,000 feet before you would strike it, but this basement just suddenly and unexplainably just rises above the surface right in Ameliasburgh ward and geologists would tell you this is not true granite. People refer to this as granite but it’s not true granite you would find lets say in Highway 7 area -that nice pink granite that we know so well, this is more of a metamorphic rock and its called gneiss (pronounced nice)  and one could say that it isn’t “gneiss” to be taken for “granite”, and if your laughing out there I can’t hear you but I hope you are.”

From one extreme to the other we go from that hard metamorphic rock to fine sand at Sandbanks where the West Lake sector which extends about 8 km all the way to the village of Wellington and stands as the largest bay mouth sandbar separating fresh water in the world.

“You might argue that and say well I’ve been down to Lake Erie and down to Long Point Provincial Park and it supposedly stretches out there in the lake for 40 km. Well yes that’s true but the key thing is, is that this is separating two bodies of fresh water where Long Point stretches out into the lake and doesn’t separate any bodies of water at all. So it’s a very important natural feature of the county.”

With the retreat of the Wisconsin Glacier around 12,000 years ago, what we now call West Lake and East Lake were all part Lake Ontario and as the currents brought the sand in that was left by the retreat of those glaciers it built up underwater sandbars which eventually rose above the water level and formed the sand dunes and sandbars that we know today like Outlet beach for instance.

“Now what happened was these bars eventually became very well vegetated,” said Sprague. “There was a massive white cedar forest growing there, some of the cedars were as old as 300 years old and if you walk up those sand dunes today  you will find remanence of that white cedar forest, almost dried up cores of wood that are still standing from that forest because the sand had moved and covered up those trees, continued to move and left these petrified stumps behind.”

It took more then 40 years to stop that sand movement. It started moving in the late 1800’s early 1900’s like a giant snow drift coming across the land. It was covering up buildings, it was covering up roads, it covered up the West Lake road and it had to be re-routed three different times in 50 years.

“Thats why if your traveling the West Lake Road today it takes that little snakey turn around the end of the dunes and comes out at the 4-way-stop. So it took about 40 years of that migration of dunes, planting millions, and millions and millions of trees and finally after laying mulch and doing a lot of other things, they stopped the sand from moving and its becoming well vegetated once again,” Sprague said.

Sprague expressed another very important part of our natural heritage as McMahon Bluff. This is known geologically as a mesa, is about 240 acres in size and rises about 150 feet with a flat top mountain.

Dunes Beach at Sandbanks. (Jason Parks/Gazette Staff)

“This is something you normally see down in Southern United States, mainly South America where they call them tepui or table top mountain. And there are some rare plants that grow there which came to our attention. One is Ginseng but the most significant plant that grows there is a species of milkweed called four leafed milkweed and there are only three areas in Prince Edward County where this plant grows. One is here, the other is on the plato of Macaulay Mountain Conservation Area at Picton and a third location was found just last year at Green Point and it may very well be three of very few areas in all of Canada where this rare plant grows so it a very significant area.”

Sprague then circled back around to Sandbanks and it not being the only sand bar in the area.

“SandBanks isn’t the only sand bar in the area there are lots of sand bars as you well know all the way up to Wellers Bay,” Sprague stated. “We also of course have the Outlet Beach which is very infamous now given the number of visitors that have visited every year, but its not the only sandbar there are others- for instance there is Pleasant Bay and North Beach and then of course we have the Bald Head Peninsula or the Wellers Bay National wildlife area which lacks about 1 km being the same length of Sand Banks. There are a lot of other barrier beaches but not sand, Little Bluff conservation area down at south bay and there is a beautiful barrier beach down there of gravel and you can almost see what has happened over the centuries where the incoming waves have closed off what use to be part of Prince Edward Bay and has created this barrier beach.”

Sprague stated how it’s at Little Bluff Conservation Area where we begin to realize there is a lot of history in these areas and Sprague thinks history factors quite predominately into what natural history you can find there such as the wild flowers and the wild life.

It determines a lot of what happened in the past, determines what is growing or living there today.

“back in 1860-1890’s, we went through a period called the barley days when PEC was producing thousands of bushels of barley and it was fetching a good price. It was worthwhile to produce with the brewing of beer in the United States and there were barley wharfs all over the county-one was at Sand Banks, one was at Little Bluff Conservation Area,  there was one at Big Island and they were doted all over the area.  Ships would come in and schooners would be loaded with barley and take it over to Oswego, New York.”

Another place filled with history is at Main Duck Island and the islands have a lot of natural history and a lot of cultural history is there. A light house that was built in 1913 out there, is still there today and Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip had a private picnic on the island back in 1984.

The Main Duck Island Lighthouse as it looks today. (Kraig Anderson/Lighthousefriends.com)

“There is a gravel beach on Main Duck Island that Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip had a private picnic on in 1984 when they were doing a tour of Ontario,” said Sprague. “It’s also the beach that was owned by John Foster Dulles, who was the secretary of state under U.S. President Eisenhower. He owned the entire island in fact from about 1941 till 1959 when he passed away.”

Only a few buildings remain on the island including the lighthouse keepers home, the assistant light keepers home, a schoolhouse and the lighthouse. No one resides on the island now as the lighthouse was automated in 1978. Later, with the advent of GPS and satellite navigation, Lighthouse operations were discontinued.

“There is the harbour at Main Duck Island and you can imagine back in the 1920’s rum runners coming in and waiting for darkness to fall so they could take their illegal booze over to the United States, so certainly a lot of history there,” Sprague said. “When we did our tours on Main Duck we were actually following an old road way that once extended from the harbour at Main Duck Island to the lighthouse, it was a distance of about 2 miles and apparently in the earlier times, they had a jeep out there they would use to get from the harbour area to the lighthouse and back again, so that was the trail we followed when we did our walking tours out there.”

Sprague pointed out how Main Duck Island is very close to the international border and is a natural chain of islands which extends over the the United States. The Islands are about 25 kilometres off the most southwestern point of Prince Edward County.

“The Lighthouse and the residences was meticulously maintained and mowed,” Sprague said. “The lighthouse keepers had their own electricity there that they generated with diesel generators so it was very well kept up. Now, it doesn’t take mother nature long to recapture after the humans have left the island.When we would do our guided tours out there I would have to come out with a team of volunteers and we would have to maintain the trail so that people could walk it easily to where the lighthouse is. I haven’t been there since 2012.”

Nicholson Island is less then a kilometre away from Huycks Poin and  is about 200-240 acres. The island serves as a private hunting club and members hunt pheasants. In past years bobwhites and chuckers were among the stocked varieties.

 “They use to raise a few pheasants out there,” Sprague said. “But now I think it’s just put-and-take. The club has them raised elsewhere, drop them off and hunters will hunt them. There is a little landing strip for some of the hunters the fly in use, I spent a couple days out there working on the breeding bird atlas so I got to know the island quite well.  The late  Bing Crosby once spent a day out there hunting pheasants.”

Nearby,  Scotch Bonnet Island and its dangerous shoal rises above the level of Lake Ontario.  Other shoals,  half hidden under the surface of the water, caused many shipwrecks in the early days.

“These locations were all marked by lighthouses and I believe all they were constructed around the same time of 1871. The dangerous shoals have resulted in about 100 ship wrecks, 60 of them have been documented and the majority of them off Prince Edward Point and Main Duck Island which is called the grave yard of Lake Ontario or the Marysburgh vortex it’s often called where the waters can get very rough as a result of it narrowing up and the prevailing winds creating quite a high wave action,” Sprague said

One of the more remarkable formations in Prince Edward County where a lot of myths and legends surround is Lake on the Mountain. It is one of three similar lakes in PEC.

Sprague explained Lake on the Mountain is believed to be a “collapsed doline” where through erosion and water running underneath from springs  formed this deep basin of about 100-109 feet deep and it rises about 200 feet or more above the Bay of Quinte.

“I don’t know what the current belief is as to how this formed but when I was doing tours I always said it was a collapsed doline and every one went away happy,” Sprague said with a laugh.  “There are two other similar lakes and you’ve got to wonder were these created the same way because they are sort of on the edge of the escarpment that runs along the north edge of the county- Robin Lake at Ameliasburgh and Fish Lake in Spohiasburgh which is a  little further in but not that far from the escarpment, and they certainly give rise to some thought on the formation of these little basins. So geologically, I always refer to this as a lopsided layer cake and Main Duck Island is exactly the same way.”

Sprague also spent time differentiating between swamps and marshes.

“There is a difference between swamps and marshes,” expressed Sprague. “Swamps are not marshes and marshes are not swamps and yet you hear the two terms being interchanged quite regularly. A swamp is defined as a wet area dominated by trees, no cat tails to speak of just trees, its a flooded area, so the Big Swamp on County Rd. 4  would be a good example, but there are other swamps too the Albury swamp along Rednersville Road is a good example and this is more or less a man-made swamp down off Charwell Point off Army Reserve Road. It’s quite huge and the dead trees once attracted over 250 nesting great blue herrings and over time, a lot of the trees toppled over and the herrings moved elsewhere, so that entire south shore area has a lot of interesting aspects about it. Now marshes on the other hand are dominated by cattails, one of the largest ones in the county is the Seguin marsh and other include Big Island marsh, Cressy marsh and the Bloomfield marsh and if you have cattail marshes you have almost an entire different makeup of species and one of the more common ones other then the red winged blackbird is the marsh wren.”

In terms of the South Shore and the busy birding and migration area which at the southern peninsula, Sprague spoke of the critical nature of this stopover.

“The South Shore Important Bird Area takes in the entire South Shore of the county and into Soup Harbour up at Point Petre and includes South Bay,” Sprague said. “All this area is very important from the standpoint of bird migration because this is where they must stop and feed. They then work their way down to Prince Edward Point where sometimes there will be millions of bird in trees, and of course when you have that many birds you have birders coming to enjoy the spectacle. In 1978 it was recognized by the Canadian Wildlife Service to have significant importance to bird migration so it was designated the Prince Edward Point National Wildlife Area, I think they’re about 1,500 acres all together if my memory serves me correct.”

Sprague also spoke on the importance of the bird banding season here in the county.

“The most important part of the banding season down at Price Edward Point is of course the Northern saw-whet owl banding,” said Sprague. “It was found to be an important staging area for northern saw-whet owls back in 1975 I think it was, so banding has taking place every since  during September and October. 2007 was a record year we banded between 1,500 and 1,600 saw-whet owls and it turned out to be the highest total in all of North America and so we are just now beginning to understand where these owls have nested and where they are migrating too from these recoveries of these bands that people find.”

Talking about the impact of tourism 2020,  Sprague mentioned when he worked at Sandbanks in 1980’s, the park had as many as  380,000 people during the summer. In recent years, visits are upwards of 1 million.

“Earlier I had mentioned about the damage that had been done to the Sanddunes due to the trampling of cattle,” Sprague said “We don’t have cattle on the dunes now but we have all these people, we’ve got to wonder, is the same thing going to happen again at Sandbanks where the sand is just going to surrender under all these feet? We certainly hope not.”

He also pointed out the issues with invasive plant species such as purple loosestrife, dog strangling vine, buckthorn, garlic mustard and how in the last number of years phragmites has been taking over.

For more information please visit www.friendsofwellersbay.org and keep an eye out for the posting of the presentation.