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Belfry, Victoria, Nova Scotia

Featured Site Created By MB Whitcomb and David Quimby

This stunning piece of property in Victoria, Nova Scotia is managed by a couple who takes pride in, “liv[ing] small, based on a philosophy of enough.” Though their primary goal is to minimize their human impact, the improvements they’ve made creating native habitat for wildlife are huge. The past ten years were spent meticulously studying their landscape, learning about the species that are present (or conspicuously absent), removing invasive species, and re-planting natives. Their work is a constant labor of love, which has resulted in a vibrant, bio-diverse neighborhood. Read their story below and explore their detailed map for a rich history of this magical belfry.

Eco-Region: Acadian Forest Region
Planting Zone: 5a

What work has been done to improve this site for birds and other wildlife? How long did it take?

northern red oak

Photo © MB Whitcomb and David Quimby
We have been here for 10 years. Forty mature spruce died from bark beetle within the first three. Keeping a property natural is not a matter of leaving it alone, because non-native invasive species can take over. We planted over 100 seedlings of native trees such as American Beech (Fagus grandifolia), Sugar maple (Acer saccharum), Yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis), oak, and Black ash (Fraxinus nigra). We also have added shrubs, such as Red-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea), arctic willow (Salix arctica), clethra, cephalanthus, and viburnum.
trout spawn pool

Photo © MB Whitcomb and David Quimby

Speckled trout spawn in two brooks here. They need quality, cold water. The stream next to the house had been stripped of native vegetation “for the view”. The banks were overwhelmed with several invasive species: moneywort, creeping Charlie, and coltsfoot. We’ve removed any plant that was not native in our wild areas. The hard work is endless.

We make carefully considered decisions to improve trout habitat. These involve fixing a faulty septic system that was compromising the brook, removing old dumps, and re-locating our woodshed, making room to plant trees to shade the main pool. We also want to move the driveway away from the stream.

We study everything about our land: plants, hydrology, soil, insects, and even lichens. Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home is our favorite book. We use science and experimentation to make decisions about simple things like where to put bird feeders. We have gleaned much from Habitat Network and by participating in citizen science. We monitor the spruce budworm, and volunteer with the Canada Nature Conservancy. We realize how little of the “big picture” is understood.

vernal seep

Photo © MB Whitcomb and David Quimby

A big “aha” was the epiphany that a garden of perennials and annuals is about 10% of the equation. Vertical structure allows for many new microhabitat opportunities. Our study has helped us understand that a low wet spot is an important vernal pool for our spring peepers; that our outdoor lights are hazardous to our bird’s protein supply; and that bird window strikes are senseless deaths that can be avoided. This makes us better land stewards.

What are some successes that you've seen since the improvements were made? (alternatively, "What are you most proud of, or excited to share about this site?")

Removing invasive plants has resulted in the re-appearance of aster, jewelweed, goldenrod, orchids, and various mushrooms, including chanterelles (yum). Raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries are recovering. Our fall colours are outstanding!

native blueberries

Photo © MB Whitcomb and David Quimby

We try to stop the little spreaders, such as the mouse eared hawkweed, which moves quickly underground and has air-borne seeds. These kill mosses and other ground covers such as bunchberry, which are important for moisture retention in the soil, but the moss recovers quickly.
Last year, a robin nested above the restored brook edge in a cherry tree. There are many more successes in the narratives in our map.

Plants are what make humans possible and we need them in every possible way. We have taken great joy in teaching groups about invasive plant species. Marian grew up in South Florida where there have been massive ecological changes from introduced species. We set up several Facebook sites related to Cape Breton for potential land stewards. These are: Cape Breton Garden and Botany Lovers, Baddeck Christmas Bird Count, Cape Breton Invasive Plants, and A Little Less Litter Cape Breton (ALLL). There are also Pinterest ID sites for invasive and native plant identification. Marian has fibromyalgia and uses her “down-time” in these efforts. David has started an invasive plant consultation/control service. These all help us not to be discouraged about the state of the planet while meeting several interesting people.

Favorite bird or wildlife spotting?
We are missing some of our favorite friends. Some birds have quietly disappeared and yes, our springs are going silent. Research into bird decline motivated us to give science-based “state-of-the-birds” presentations, and to participate in bird studies in our area. Our house is called “The Belfry” because sixty-four bats used to breed there (and eat our blackflies). Last year? None. The diversity of insects is greatly reduced. Tiger, Black Witch, Luna, Cercopia, Rosy Maple and Polyphemus moths, are no longer here. The number of bumblebees is down too.

Ruffed Grouse in yellow birch

Photo © MB Whitcomb and David Quimby

We’ve seen moose, deer, beaver, mink, barred owl, and Canada jays. An occasional heron, kingfisher, racoons, rabbits, chipmunks, grouse, and three species of woodpeckers. The geese still call as they leave in the fall. Our healthy garden is home to, salamanders, frogs, toads, and snakes. We admire the beauty and importance of moths, caterpillars, and other insects. Our goal is to photograph, name, and know all of our neighbors and to be good neighbors in return. We are glad to have so many microhabitats for our one-acre piece of heaven!

Are there any tough decisions that had to be made regarding its management? How were they handled?

the cat

Photo © MB Whitcomb and David Quimby
Once ground is disturbed, it is extremely difficult to return the native communities. Even removing invasive plants is a “disturbance” event. Marian is a recovering plantaholic, and David loves big projects and machines.

We have learned the hard way that we should have a closed system if possible. Compost brought in to improve the soil gave us new weeds. Now, we compost all organic matter on-site. We got a nasty little yellow oxalis that throws its seeds in your face and grows four generations a year from a potted nursery plant. Now we grow from seed, bare-root any potted purchases, and burn or cook the soil, because this saves a lot of hard work in the long run.

We love our cat, but we keep him inside, and he will be our last. We want to live small, based on a philosophy of enough. The energy that goes into producing pet food is a luxury. We know that if we do not start taking individual responsibility for the way we live, we will lose the best free things in life. With overwhelming evidence of climate change, we cannot expect governments to do the right thing. Politics are selfishly motivated, and nature has no vote. Conservation must be a conscientious personal decision. If we deny climate change and are wrong? What then? But if we act on it? Which is the safer assumption? David and I are trying to leave the shrine of convenience, but it is, admittedly, hard.