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Birds of the Big Meadow Bog

Brair Island Birds - English sign
Herring Gull

Herring Gull    Photo by June Farnsworth

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow   Photo by Kim Walker

Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier     Photo by Dr. Richard Stern

Great Blue Heron

The birds of the Big Meadow Bog are not very well known, largely because access to the Meadow became increasingly difficult after the ditches were dug and heavy impassable vegetation invaded the drying areas. With the recent restoration, the rise of the water table, and the building of the boardwalk, we can expect more birding and greater knowledge, but also changes of the resident birds. 

During summer, the main birds likely to be seen along the trail include residents such as Swamp Sparrows and Common Yellowthroats in the wetter areas, Savannah Sparrows in the drier grassy areas, and Song Sparrows and Alder Flycatchers in shrubby vegetation. It is an open question if Nelson’s Sparrows are summer residents, although as the area becomes wetter, they may colonize the Big Meadow Bog. Many nesting Herring Gulls, and a few Great Black-backed Gulls are still present in a long-standing colony in the central region. At least one pair of Northern Harriers has nested in or very close to the Big Meadow Bog and adults regularly forage over the bog. After mid-summer, immature Harriers are frequent in the area.  Flocks of Common Grackles, frequently with a few Red-winged Blackbirds, make feeding sorties into the bog from the higher land on each side. Swallows find the marshy areas, especially near Westport, good for feeding. Most of them are Tree Swallows, but the Island’s few Barn Swallows are usually there too, and occasionally a Cliff Swallow or Bank Swallow will join the feeding birds. Turkey Vultures are common overhead from mid-summer into the autumn, less common at other times.

The ponds are favoured by waterfowl, especially Black Ducks and the occasional Mallard, but Green-winged Teal and American Wigeon likely nest in the bog or adjacent to it, possibly also Northern Pintail and occasionally Gadwall. Nearly every heron species on the Nova Scotia list has occurred in the ponds at one time or the other. Great Blue Herons do not nest on Brier Island, but immature birds arrive to feed in the bog ponds after mid-summer. More rare southern herons like Snowy Egret, Great Egret, Tricolored Heron and Cattle Egret, along with two species of Night Herons, are possible as vagrants, especially in early spring (March-April) and in late summer. 

During spring and fall migration peaks – mid-May to early June and mid-August to October – nearly any migrant species and a good many vagrants could be seen fleetingly along the Big Meadow trail. This makes it all but impossible to predict what could be there at these times.  For an account of the more than 350 species known from the Island, see the publication by Eric Mills and Lance Laviolette (2011), The Birds of Brier Island, Nova Scotia, published by the Nova Scotia Institute of Science.

Text by Dr. Eric Mills


Great Blue Heron   Photo by Dr. Richard Stern

Green Winged Teal

Green Winged Teal    Photo by Kim Walker

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret   Photo by Dr. Richard Stern

Alder Flycatcher

Alder Flycatcher     Photo by Kim Walker

Plant signage

Plants of the Big Meadow Bog

Brier Island Plants - English sign
Bakeapple fruit

Bakeapple fruit. Photo by David Masserole, Parks Canada

Round Sundew

Round Sundew. Photo by Dr. Nick Hill

Dwarf Birch

The Big Meadow Bog is a peatland surrounded by two basalt ridges. A diversity of flora inhabits the fens, grassy marshes, forested swamps, and bogs that make up the Big Meadow Bog: some disjunct (species separated from their main range) Atlantic Coastal Plain flora and artic-alpine plants mingle with the more common boreal species that make up most of the Big Meadow Bog. The upwelling waters of the nearby Bay of Fundy keep the climate cool in summer allowing these plants to survive. Flora typical of a saltmarsh can also be seen.  
Atlantic Coastal Plain Flora: The Atlantic Coastal Plain runs along the Atlantic Coast extending from Florida to New England. Southwestern Nova Scotia is home to a variety of Atlantic Coastal Plain plants, disjunct from their main ranges in glaciated and unglaciated areas of this coastal plain. Atlantic Coastal Plain flora in Nova Scotia is largely restricted to wetlands in the southwest of the province but some are found in the Big Meadow Bog (ferns, orchids, and shrubs) where they have mingled with arctic-alpine and boreal plant species.


Bayberry. Photo by Jeanette Denton

Arctic-alpine Plants: Arctic-alpine plants grow much farther north or in the mountains. These plants are separated from their usual arctic-alpine habitat by the boreal forest. As glaciers formed, these plants were pushed south. As the ice retreated, the arctic-alpine plants followed. In the suitable colder regions, the arctic plants remained. Arctic-alpine plants have a slow growth rate and a very short growing season, typically blooming in May or early June. Brier Island was possibly the first place in the Maritimes to deglaciate, according to core samples taken in bogs on the island.

Dwarf Birch   Photo by June Farnsworth

Two arctic-alpine plants that grow in the Big Meadow Bog are the endangered Eastern Mountain Avens (Geum peckii) and the rare Dwarf Birch (Betula michauxii). The cool climate favours these plants. The Brier Island Avens population is disjunct from the only other global locations, the White Mountains of New Hampshire and a small population at Harris Lake on Digby Neck. The Big Meadow Bog restoration project supports the endangered Eastern Mountain Avens population, which blooms in June through September. The Dwarf Birch is not accessible from the trail.

Boreal Forest Plants: Boreal plants of peatland communities are able to tolerate acid, infertile and flooded habitats and include conifers (black spruce, larch), shrubs (alder, Labrador tea, bayberry, sheep-laurel, blueberry, mountain honeysuckle), sub-shrubs (bakeapple, cranberry, bunchberry), sedges, and cotton grasses. Other common species include herbs, mosses, fungi, and lichens. Two rare boreal plants found in the bog are Germander liverwort and livid sedge (Carex livida).

Eastern Mountain Avens

Eastern Mountain Avens. Photo by Jeanette Denton

Grass Pink Orchid

Sphagnum moss forms a thick, spongy blanket over saturated soils. Because the soils of the boreal forest are acidic, they are not favourable to nitrifying bacteria. Some plants have adapted ways of acquiring nutrients from animal protein, producing enzymes that digest nutrients from insects. These carnivorous plants include the pitcher plant and sundew.


"Biodiversity in the Boreal Forest: Shrubs, Mosses and Lichens."


"Boreal forest of Canada."


Crowley, Megan and Beals, Lindsey. Atlantic Coastal Plain Flora in Nova Scotia Identification & Information Guide. Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute, 2011.


Munro, Marian C; Newell, Ruth E.; Hill, Nicholas M. Nova Scotia Plants. Province of Nova Scotia, 2014. 

Grass Pink Orchid. Photo by Dr. Nick Hill

The Eastern Mountain Avens

The Eastern Mountain Avens

Species at Risk

Brier Islands Avens - English sign

The Eastern Mountain Avens (Geum peckii) is a disjunct arctic-alpine perennial plant that grows only in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and in Nova Scotia. Over 95% of all Eastern Mountain Avens individuals in Nova Scotia are found on Brier Island, and a small population occurs at Harris Lake on Digby Neck. On Brier Island, only 10% of the Eastern Mountain Avens population occurs in old-field habitat, and 90% occurs in peatland habitats. Peatlands are wetlands where dead Sphagnum moss—as well as other mosses, sedges, and woody plants forming peat—accumulates over time. There are three types of peatlands: bogs (a Gaelic word meaning “soft ground”); fens (an Icelandic word for “quagmire”); and some swamps. Peatlands are special places where plants, such as sundews, pitcher plants, heath plants, and orchids have adapted to a low nutrient environment.

The endangered Eastern Mountain Avens is part of a community of peatland vegetation that is unique in Canada, and found only in Nova Scotia. Wetland habitats where most Eastern Mountain Avens are located are rich in biodiversity and provide important ecosystem services.

A high-water table and low nutrient availability are typical qualities for Eastern Mountain Avens. They tolerate shade and prefer cool, moist habitats. Eastern Mountain Avens live along the margins (laggs) of the Big Meadow Bog where runoff from the surrounding basalt ridges provides calcium. During the 1950s, drainage ditches were dug the length of the Big Meadow Bog to create agricultural land. The plan failed, but the water continued to drain from the Big Meadow Bog. Nesting gulls and competing vegetation moved in, threatening the survival of the Eastern Mountain Avens population.

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) assessed the Eastern Mountain Avens as Endangered in 1986. The species was listed as Endangered under the Nova Scotia Endangered Species Act in 2000 and the Federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) in 2003. A recovery strategy was created outlining the measures needed for the recovery of the species and to protect critical habitat. The restoration involved the diversion of water away from the drainage ditches to keep the water in the Big Meadow Bog.

The Big Meadow Bog peatland is being restored in the hope that the increased water levels will discourage the thousands of nesting Gulls that are polluting the Bog with their droppings. These nutrients threaten a healthy ecosystem and the quality of ground water, in addition to flora habitats, including that of the Eastern Mountain Avens and other rare and endangered flora.

Eastern Mountain Avens might be mistaken for Tall Buttercup. The leaves of Eastern Mountain Avens are round and grow at the base of the plant. They bloom from June through September producing one to five yellow flowers, 1-3 cm in diameter. The flowers have five petals and grow along a stalk that is 20-40 cm tall.

By protecting the Eastern Mountain Avens and its critical habitat, benefits extend to other species and the ecosystem at large. The rare boreal low spikemoss (Selaginella selaginoides) and possibly the coastal plain curly grass fern (Schizea pusilla) have already been lost when the Bog was ditched. It is expected that the recovery plan for the Eastern Mountain Avens will benefit the larger ecological community of the Big Meadow Bog.


Eastern Mountain Avens (Geum peckii): action plan 2018 




Photos by June Farnsworth

Text by Jeanette Denton

Eastern Mountain Avens
Eastern Mountain Avens
Eastern Mountain Avens
Eastern Mountain Avens

Traditional Uses of the Bog

Traditional Uses of the Bog
Brier Island Traditional Uses of the Bog

Brier Island and its coves, coastal waters, mudflats and forests provided food and haven for Mi’kmaq, while the local lava basalt rock served as a rich resource to craft implements for hunting and fishing. Mi’kmaq on Brier Island have used the peat bog for thousands of years; artefacts found in the area place Mi’kmaq people living here dating back to 1000 BC.


In the mid-1700s Europeans settled on Brier Island, and they made their living by fishing, hunting, and berry picking in the bog. The bog has always been intriguing to all who venture in.  It is both wild and difficult to explore; yet it has the power to draw people into its quiet and magical space.  Recently, Islands Consolidated School students surveyed several Brier Island seniors who could reflect on the bog and its changes. They explained that once the wide-open bog became overgrown with trees and shrubs, few had visited the area in recent decades. How could such a habitat be valuable to the residents of Brier Island? 

George Morrell and his team of oxen

George Morrell and his team of oxen that hauled wood with his winter sled

Photo courtesy of Eleanor Bailey

Ice-cream machine

Ice-cream machine

Photo by Jacqueline Journeay

As interview questions were answered, the seniors’ eyes lit up with excitement and the smiles widened as they revealed the true blessings supplied by this ancient bog.  Each fall the bog outlet was dammed to raise water levels to harvest winter ice for a year-round supply stored in three Westport ice houses. Before refrigeration this practice was instrumental in keeping household foods cold and providing ice to the village ice cream parlour store for preparing and serving the beloved treat. Best of all the ice was of great value to the fishing industry. 


The young and old were able to skate on Jimmy’s Pond and down along the twisting stream affectionally called Snake River, nearly reaching the other side of Brier Island. Bonfires and skating parties were common. Hockey was also a main attraction, and although some of the sticks were handmade and the occasional missing puck might have been replaced with a small rock, the game was thrilling to play! The frozen pond was used as a winter path by oxen teams for carting loads of firewood necessary for heating homes.


The seniors told of how in the past they taught young people how to hunt for deer in the meadow and ducks in the lily ponds. There were family outings to pick a variety of berries, such as blueberries, cranberries, and Jones berries, also known as bakeapples, and fathers making Sunday trips to the lily ponds for dining table bouquets. 


As the bog is restored to its natural state, we remember the importance the bog contributes to all life on Earth.

Text by The Bay of Fundy Discovery Centre Association

Photo courtesy of Islands Historical Society

Photo courtesy of Islands Historical Society

Photo courtesy of Islands Historical Society

Photo courtesy of Islands Historical Society
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