Wildlife Trees: A New Walking Tour of Beacon Hill Park

Text: Janis Ringuette
Photos: Norm Ringuette

Downed oak still beautiful

Not all dead trees in Beacon Hill Park are chopped up and hauled away. And that’s a good thing. Many wildlife species need dead trees for nesting, food, shelter, roosting and perching. The number of park trees officially preserved for wildlife use increased dramatically in 2006. Sixteen yellow “Wildlife Tree” signs were posted as of October 2, with more to come. According to Supervisor of Arboriculture Dan Marzocco, the wildlife tree inventory “is a work in progress.”

Old sign on Bee Tree New sign on reverse side of the Bee Tree

Wildlife signs provide an interesting new focus for a walking tour through the park. A good starting point for the walk is at the park’s north end where the first Wildlife Tree sign--one of five erected in 1999--was posted. The original sign, featuring a Pileated woodpecker, remains on the south side of a venerable old “bee tree” standing near Southgate Street west of the Heywood sports field. The original sign, with a new round metal tag (I.D. #7) nailed above it, is shown on the left. The right photo shows the new-style Wildlife Tree sign, without the woodpecker, now nailed on the tree's north side.

That large Garry oak stump hosted an active bee hive for more than two decades. Dr. Michelle Gorman, Insect Pest Management Coordinator for Victoria's Parks, Recreation and Community Development, explained when the bees were wiped out by a veroa mite epidemic, the bees misfortune presented an opportunity for other insects. She described the salvage and recycling operation undertaken: “Wasps and hornets came in and out of the old bee hive on raiding runs. First, they came in and took out sick, dead and dying bees; next was bee larvae as well as the honey and some portions of the hive itself.” Though the bees are long gone, action quietly continues. Fungi, spider webs and bark beetles holes are visible. As decay progresses, bacteria, lichens and mosses will likely appear along with borer beetles, psocids and carpenter ants.

Wildlife Tree signs are provided free to private and public property owners by the Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks and Ministry of Forests. Signs state: “Wildlife Tree. Saved for food, shelter and nesting. Do not cut or disturb.” When the first five signs were posted in Beacon Hill Park in 1999, no list of tree locations was recorded. A search turned up four signs in February, 2005; a fifth sign was uncovered May, 2005 by volunteers clearing invasive ivy in the southeast woods. In 2006, there is a formal procedure and careful record keeping. Each tree is evaluated, assigned an identification number, photographed, entered on a spreadsheet and marked on a map.

Near Arbutus Way

Looking west from the bee tree, visitors should be able to spot another new sign (I.D. #1) across Arbutus Way on a bare, whitish vertical trunk. That tree, shown on the left, was marked in 1999 and the original sign remains nailed to the west side of the tree.

Continuing to walk further south, visitors will find a prominent new sign (I.D. #8) nailed on a huge topped oak by the chip path south of the Heywood sports field. The largest concentration of wildlife signs--#2 through #6--are posted on topped firs between Arbutus Way and Bridge Way just south of Goodacre Lake. Tree #10 is hidden behind the central washroom; the sign is nailed on top of ivy vines and will soon be covered with leaves.

The most beautiful wildlife trees in the park are in Heywood Meadow. The magnificent broken oak shown at the top of the page (I.D. #9) stands between the central playground and Heywood Avenue. Each year an impressive display of fungi grows near a large hole on the north side of the tree, as shown in the photo below left. A second sign is nailed on the tree's impressive fallen section. Arborist Marzocco explained that dead trees lying on the ground are called “nurse logs.” They receive signs but not identification numbers. Signs are posted further south in Heywood Meadow on two more “nurse logs.” One of the uprooted oaks lies within a cedar fence erected to protect newly planted young oaks.

More good fungi Nuthatch nestholes behind Children's Farm

Dead trees are important in the lives of many birds. Warblers, brown creepers, woodpeckers, nuthatches and chickadees eat insects living on and in decaying wood. Great blue herons break off dead twigs and branches to build their nests. Some birds hollow out nest holes in dead branches and trees. Multiple nuthatch nest holes, excavated over the years in a dead tree behind the Childrens Farm, are visible in the right photo. Look closely at the bottom right nesthole. To protect the nest from predators, nuthatches piled a cascade of sticky pitch at the entrance. That special tree has no sign but can be found a few feet south of the Children's Farm fence

Walkers searching for consecutive tree numbers will not find #11 to #14 in Beacon Hill Park; those four numbers were used elsewhere. Within the park, Wildlife Trees are numbered from #1 to #10, then jump to #15, the identification number of a small oak south of the fence behind the Children’s Farm.

As of November 1, 2006, two trees marked in 1999 have not yet received numbers and new signs. On Marzocco’s to-do list is the small oak with an old sign half-way down the north side of Beacon Hill and a 25 metre stump near the totem pole. A dead cedar on Warren Island in Goodacre Lake near the heron colony will be preserved for heron branch collection but does not have a number. Other dead trees, not yet selected by Marzocco, deserve to be evaluated for preservation, including four sizeable stumps in the southeast woods. In the park’s northwest corner, two huge dead oaks near the Boy Scout circle are good candidates, as is a tall stump west of Bridge Way spectacularly festooned with small fungi.

In the past, Park staff and many members of the public viewed dead trees as unsightly; it was thought they made the park look “messy.” Dead trees, presumed to be safety hazards, were usually cut down and removed. Today, there is not only a better understanding of the value of dead and decaying wood to wildlife, but it appears more people now appreciate the beauty of dead stumps and branches.