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London’s Environmentally Significant Areas are great for birds and nature lovers

Right within London’s borders are twenty-one natural spaces that have been designated by the city as Environmentally Significant Areas or ESAs. They represent a range of important habitats for flora and fauna. Ecosystem features such as woodlands and wetlands are protected, as are significant wildlife habitat. ESAs that have been degraded may be restored.

ESAs are not simply parks. They are defined by city councils across Ontario using provincial processes and guidelines. All ESAs have natural features and perform ecological functions that warrant their retention in a natural state.

There may be provincially-designated Areas of Natural and Scientific Interest – known as ANSIs – within ESAs. ANSIs meet established criteria for high-quality and unique life science features and earth science features across a variety of landscapes throughout the province. They reflect the breadth of Ontario’s biodiversity and landscapes.

I reached out to Marnie Shepley, an Ecologist Planner with the City of London’s Planning and Economic Development team. She clarified that “ESAs are delineated based on the extents and quality of a contiguous natural feature, not property lines, so many ESAs (managed or unmanaged) include private property parcels along with city-owned land.” Some ESAs in London are privately owned.

Twelve ESAs are currently managed by the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority (UTRCA) including Westminster Ponds and Pond Mills, Medway Valley Heritage Forest, Kilally Meadows, Kains Woods, The Coves, and Meadowlily Woods.

The Westminster Ponds/Pond Mills ESA is situated in south London. At 200 ha, this is the city’s largest ESA. It was formed 13,000 years ago when a glacial ice sheet receded. It has also been designated as a Provincially Significant Wetland. European settlers first started farming the area in 1810 and more than a century later the land was bisected by a London to Port Stanley railway track. Part of the Westminster Ponds property was later designated for federal hospital use and in the 1940s veterans facilities were constructed. In the 1960s, another part of the property was being used for landfill. It was in the 1970s that the city and the UTRCA purchased most of what is now know as Westminster Ponds for conservation purposes. The property now is excellent for hikers in all seasons. From Great Horned Owls in the winter and warblers flying through during spring migration to the breeding birds of summer such as Pileated Woodpeckers, it is a legitimate bird watching hot spot.

The Medway Valley Heritage Forest ESA is in the north end of the city. It stretches from Sunningdale Rd. to south of Windemere Rd. It has a rich history. More than 500 years ago there was an Attawandaron village at the site of the Museum of Ontario Archaeology. European settlers farmed in this area in the 1800s and into the 1900s. Farming ceased and residential development commenced in the mid-20th century. A 25 ha donation of land from the estate of Elsie Perrin Williams was the start of what is now a 95 ha ESA. Detailed conservation plans are prepared and followed to enhance the protection of each ESA. The plan for the south part of the Medway Valley ESA from 2018 is a good illustration of the detail level.

Kilally Meadows is an ESA that straddles the north branch of the Thames Rives between Adelaide and Highbury. Like the Medway Valley ESA, the Kilally area was farmed in the 1800s and into the 1900s. Before being bought by the city in the 1960s, sand and gravel were extracted from the ground. Birders know that this is an excellent location to see the courtship display of the American Woodcock each spring.

Kains Woods stretches out along the south side of the Thames on the west side of the city. This is privately held land but the city has an easement. As well as seeing a good range of migrating birds each spring and fall, this is a good location to spot Bald Eagles.

Like the Medway Valley ESA, The Coves ESA was populated by Indigenous peoples for hundreds of years. An early European record of this location was cited in the 1793 accounts of the Lt. Gov. John Graves Simcoe expedition. Through most of the 1800s much of the land was farmed. The land was subsequently used as a firing range, a paint factory, and an orchard. Euston Meadow which is above the ponds was annexed in 1960. I find The Coves to be a particularly good location to find heron species. An hour-long movie, Crusaders of the Coves, is posted to YouTube and provides some of the backstory to this ESA.

Meadowlily Woods ESA is towards the southeast of the city and straddles the south branch of the Thames Rives. Ancient Indigenous artifacts have been found across this area. Through most of the 1800s and 1900s there were some homes and farms in the area. Much of the area remained a woodland. The city obtained the land of the ESA in the 1980s. If you are birding in Meadowlily Woods this summer you might see or hear Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Warbling and Red-eyed Vireos, Baltimore Oriole, and Indigo Bunting.

Other ESAs managed by the UTRCA include Warbler Woods, Pottersburg Valley, Sifton Bog, Kelly Stanton, Lower Dingman, and Byron Valley.

Some basic and sensible rules have been established that help in preserving these natural environments. Hikers are to stay on the managed trails, dog walkers are to keep their pets leashed, wildlife should not be disturbed, and wildflowers should not be picked.

For more information about London’s ESAs, visit one or click on London’s ESAs – Upper Thames River Conservation Authority. There is also an online map of the city that shows all of the ESAs.

Few people have gone to every one of London’s ESAs. Each is interesting in a unique way. Why not circle one that you haven’t yet visited and discover its charms?

The Sifton Bog in west London is one of twelve Environmentally Significant Areas that are managed by the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority. Part of the Sifton Bog habitat resembles a more northerly boreal habitat. photo by PAUL NICHOLSON

The Westminster Ponds and Pond Mills Environmentally Significant Area in south London is the city’s largest ESA. It is popular with London bird watchers, especially during the spring and summer migration seasons. photo by PAUL NICHOLSON

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