Alvars are globally rare, naturally open habitats of flat limestone or marble bedrock. In places, thin soil and sparse vegetation of lichens, mosses, herbs, and shrubs cover the rock. Trees are absent, scattered, or in clumps. Three-fourths of North America’s alvars are located in the Great Lakes region of Ontario.
I first went to Carden Alvar in the summer of 1990 to study the Eastern Loggerhead Shrike, a critically endangered subspecies in Canada. I quickly learned that the alvar is a birder’s paradise. The sheer abundance of birds is unprecedented in southern Ontario because Carden lacks intensive agriculture and sprawling urbanization.
The highlight is Wylie Road, the best early-summer-birding back road in southern Ontario. Along its 5.8-mile (9.4-km) stretch, you’ll see raptors, snipe, Upland Sandpiper, Sedge Wren, grassland and scrubland sparrows, Bobolinks, and many other species. Watch for Loggerhead Shrike near bluebird box 10 about 0.5 mi (0.8 km) north of the only house on the road. — Ron Pittaway
Alvar grasslands, cattle ranches, mixed woods, marshes, and lakes.
Flat. 21-mile (35-km) loop on back roads.
Specialties: Yellow Rail (May), Upland Sandpiper, Loggerhead Shrike, Sedge Wren, Golden-winged Warbler, Clay-colored and Grasshopper Sparrows. Regulars: American Bittern, Northern Harrier, Wilson’s Snipe, Common Nighthawk, Whip-poor-will, Black-billed Cuckoo, Alder Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, Horned Lark, Eastern Bluebird, Brown Thrasher, Cedar Waxwing, Eastern Towhee, Field and Vesper Sparrows, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Bobolink, Eastern Meadowlark.
When to go
May to mid-July is excellent.
Restaurants in Kirkfield and at the Lift Lock. Overnight accommodations include an inn in Kirkfield and motels in Orillia. Restrooms and picnic tables at Lift Lock.
Mix of private and public property and Nature Conservancy land. Birds easily seen from roadsides.
A spotting scope is helpful for viewing grassland birds. Eastern Loggerhead Shrike (subspecies migrans) is endangered in Canada. Please view from a distance with binoculars or scope. Poison ivy common along roadsides. Learn its three distinctive leaflets and avoid it. Biting insects rare during daytime, but bring repellent just in case.