You know you’re in for a great night when your guide for an owl expedition drives up with the license plate “Dr. Hoo.” Such was the case when my colleagues and I set out to Birds Hill Park to meet with award-winning naturalist, artist and educator, Dr. Heather Hinam for a hike in the dark.
We started just as the sun was setting with a lesson on owl calls, wing spans and skeletons. Believe it or not – owls are mostly feathers and have tiny skeletons and hollow bones. Their wings are designed for stealthy flight, with minuscule fringes along the wing that create tiny turbulence. Heather demonstrated an owl’s unique ability for silent flight by comparing the sound made by the flap of an owl wing to that of a raven – which in contrast, was quite loud and audible. I was impressed already.
With over 20 years of experience as a nature and heritage interpreter, Heather Hinam of Second Nature is a true ambassador for Manitoba. She also happens to be an artist and you you might start to see more and more of her work pop up around the province as she creates gorgeous interpretive signs for a variety of sites. For visitors and locals alike, Heather helps individuals and groups explore our natural world with highly customized hikes throughout Manitoba based on budget, duration and location.
When asked about her favourite owl, Heather was hard-pressed to choose just one. The Northern Saw-whet Owl will always be close to her heart because she got to know them intimately for her Ph.D. research. Barred Owls also came up as a possible favourite, being the only owls with brown eyes, commonly found in Riding Mountain National Park and the Duck Mountains. Barred Owl also have a distinctive call, often compared to a dog’s bark when heard from a distance – but unfortunately, due to relatively small size of the trees in Birds Hill Park, Heather doubted we would hear any during our hike.
As the sky darkened, it was time to head out on the chickadee trail, a 4km trek in Birds Hill Park. As it was my first time hiking at night, I wondered if I would feel a little nervous or scared. It seems natural to be wary of the darkness – especially in an outdoors setting – but Heather assured us that the night is something you can adapt to and become more comfortable with over time.
“When I started my studies, a lot of people questioned why I chose to study owls and I used to say it was therapy. It’s mainly just a joke at this point, but I was a bit scared of the dark when I was a kid. It gets very dark in Grindstone where my cottage is and I used to be afraid to stray very far from home once the sun was down. Working with owls forced me into the darkness and got me learning to identify all of the different sounds around me. Once you know what you’re listening to, the dark is a lot less scary. It actually become quite magical.”
When you’re relying mainly on sound rather than sight, it is especially useful to be able to recognize the various sounds of the night. Heather can identify about 200 bird calls and 10 Manitoba frog calls.
We stopped at several points along the trail and stayed completely silent, listening for any sign of life. We heard squirrels, geese and crow – but alas, no owl. Again, we continued along in hushed conversation until Heather stopped in her tracks.
“It’s a woodcock,” She said quietly, imploring us to listen carefully to a distant call.
“Woodcocks aren’t very common to see. They have very good camouflage, and I’ve only come across one when I almost stepped on it.”
On a hike with Heather, every discovery is a learning opportunity, and she pulled out her phone to show us the woodcock’s two different sounds – the one we were hearing, and the other which was made with their wings while flying. The peculiar looking bird has eyes far back on their head, allowing them to see with depth perception behind them. For a prey bird, this is especially beneficial as they are able to keep an eye out for predators. We listened for a few more minutes before continuing on our way.
“Welcome to the tallest point in Bird’s Hill Park,” remarked Heather as we came upon the lookout. It was the ideal spot to take a break for hot chocolate, watch the gorgeous orange sunset and listen to more stories. As most of us from the Travel Manitoba office dwell within the city limits, we were eager to hear about how we could better connect with nature on a daily basis.
“Connecting with nature is so important, not just for the health of the planet, but for yours as well. My current favourite place for exploring nature is Bois des Esprits. It’s a lovely stretch of river-bottom forest along the Seine River, east of St. Anne’s Road and south of Fermor. You can access it from John Bruce Road in Royalwood. I also love Kildonan Park and Assiniboine Forest. Living Prairie Museum is also lovely and if you’re willing to pay a small admission fee, Fort Whyte Alive is a wonderful place to spend a day. I’ve been going there for decades and roaming the forests and marshes and I always see something new.”
The stories and advice seemed endless, and very welcome. Heather had us laughing with personal accounts of a porcupine chasing its tail, mistaking a coyote for her friend’s dog, and being approached by a moose in Riding Mountain (okay, maybe that one is a bit more scary).
The stories came to an abrupt, hushed stop as we heard a call from the distance.
“Prove me wrong, why don’t cha?” Heather commented. It was the call of a Barred Owl! And while it was clear the owl was quite far away, Heather was surprised to hear one in the park. Barred Owls nest in tree cavities, and most of the trees in Birds Hill Park seem to be too small in diameter to have a cavity big enough for a bird that large. Surprise or not, Heather was particularly excited by the sound – and so were we.
After a short time spent listening, we headed back down the trail as the night ended. Even in short excursions, our province’s variety continues to amaze me – something that Heather says is one of the greatest misconceptions people have about our natural landscape.
I think a lot of people who either aren’t from the province or don’t have the opportunity to travel outside of the city think that Manitoba is just flat prairie. That couldn’t be further from the truth. We’re an enormously varied province with rolling hills, towering cliffs, thick forests and more lakes than you can count. There is so many ecosystems to explore that it could keep you busy for a lifetime.
And when it comes to nature experiences that are still on Heather’s bucket list, visiting Churchill for belugas, arctic birds and polar bears are on the top of the list, as well as the areas around The Pas, Flin Flon and Pisew Falls.