Driving southward, you’ll soon witness a dramatic change in the vegetation along the shoreline. Different species of plants and trees suddenly appear along the landscape and the variety increases the farther south you drive.
Slightly higher atmospheric temperatures along southern Ontario and the higher water temperature of Lake Erie combine to nurture biodiversity. This region is the northern end of a broad belt of mixed forest that extends from the coastal zone of the Carolinas, northward between the Mississippi River and the Appalachian Mountains, to southern Ontario. In the United States, this belt is called the eastern deciduous forest, but in Canada it’s referred to as the “Carolinian zone.”
Ontario’s Carolinian zone is small, being less than one percent of the Canadian land mass, and its diverse flora and fauna contain many species that can’t be found anywhere else in the country.
The region’s moderate climate has spawned agricultural and urban development that has dramatically reduced southern Ontario’s once-extensive marshland. Only Rondeau Provincial Park and Point Pelee National Park, southern preserves, have large remnants of wetlands still intact.
Near the village of Blenheim, Rondeau Provincial Park’s nearly 8,000 acres provide an excellent example of lush Carolinian forest vegetation. Sassafras and tulip trees, species typically found much farther south, are plentiful in the park. The habitat includes beach dunes and open shoreline, extensive forest stands of pines, oaks, beech and maples, and marshy wetlands.
The park’s bird checklist notes 360 species, with 39 warbler species. Bald Eagles are numerous and a common sight as they hunt over the marshes and sloughs. Prothonotary Warblers nest in the park, which is at the northern edge of the species’ range.
You’ll find good birding along the Spicebush Trail that meanders through a Carolinian forest next to extensive wetlands. Look for birds along any of the park’s five trails, including Tulip Tree Trail with boardwalks that bridge the sand ridges and sloughs. On Marsh Trail, you can explore the heart of the marshy wetlands that are studded with remnant forest patches.
The 600-acre Wheatley Provincial Park, about 42 miles from Rondeau, feels almost tropical with its sassafras, tulip tree, shagbark hickory, and thick Virginia creeper vines. Trails crisscross the park that will bring you close to its forest tracts and wetlands. Birdlife is similar to that found at Point Pelee in a highly concentrated area.