Bristol Guides experience Cushing Nature Retreat

The room was dark. Nine faces, illuminated by Jo Ellen Cushing’s slides, reflected excitement as the First Bristol Girl Guides’ Company listened to this expert talk about her passion: birds of prey.

“What endangered species is this?” Jo Ellen asks.

Beside me, Chelsea Smith responds, “Peregrine falcon!”

“Good!” says Jo Ellen. “It’s a buteo. There are two types of hawks in our region, the accipiters and buteos.”

She explains the difference between them. The former have long tails and short rounded wings, design features that assist navigating through forests, while buteos have short, fan-shaped tails and long tails, making soaring on thermals in open spaces easier.

Eight other young women are in the troupe: Rachel Whelen, Pam Henderson, Taylor Tubman, Heather Dale, Natasha Plouffe, Rebecca Zacharias, Adrienne Plouffe, and Elizabeth Whicher. In the company of group leader Ann Taylor and her mother Yvonne Taylor, the girls enjoyed a four-hour outing at Cushing’s Nature Retreat, near Ladysmith, on Sunday October 14. I was to tag along.

The Cushing’s goal, as stated on their website, is to “provide a semi-wilderness environment that encourages relaxation, recreation and education through self-discovery by observing and communing with nature.”

It was a treat for the girls to first enjoy a guided hike on the Cushing’s Yellow Trail to a beaver pond and rockfall, then tour the Cushing Mews where Jo Ellen keeps her birds of prey. The pièce de resistance was the slide show where, after the hike, the girls participated in a lively discussion. Jo Ellen herself took most of the superb photographs, which depicted the seven different kinds of birds of prey in Canada: Eagles, hawks, falcons, osprey, owls, vultures and buzzards.

First, the hike. Now, you know kids: possibly their most intriguing find was a pile of bones. “A deer!” announced Derek Cushing, the oldest of the Cushings four children, eager to identify the scattered bones beside the trail.”

“Euwww…” The collective groan emanated from the gaggle of guides. But predictably, they all drew closer. A few adventurous ones clustered around the pile, becoming detectives. “What’s this?” Elizabeth Whicher asked, pointing to a vertebrae. A lively discussion followed, chaired by Derek and his brother Kirk, while proud parents Geoffrey and Jo Ellen watched.

Identifying marks were discovered by the kids: a clump of hair, bleached by the elements, was found beside the remnants of the skeleton. Definitely deer, all agreed.

But the kill site wasn’t the actual feature of the hike. The beaver pond with its sturdy dam was the focal point of the hike. Beside the pond, in the protection of the woods, we sat while listening to Geoffrey explain the ecology of beaver habitats. The girls learned about the habitat beavers create for songbirds like pileated woodpeckers and white-throated sparrows, and how beavers prefer to eat poplars.

“If you see spruce or balsam fir ringed by beaver, you know that the animal is stressed.”

“How long would it take the beaver to create this dam?” asks a Guide.

“Good question,” nods Geoffrey. “I’m guessing here but it would perhaps take two days for two beavers to construct a dam about this wide.” As he speaks, his arm describes an arc between two trees perhaps 1.5 metres high and 4 metres long.

He expands on his theme of habitat and keen observation. “Everything tells a story here. There are trees that are two, three hundred years old here. Trees that were saplings in 1652 when Montreal was being settled. The old timers here call the very old white pine ‘yellow pine.’ We’ll see one in a few minutes, leaning out over a rockfall on the other side of the pond.”

With that, he invites us to walk across the beaver dam that his four kids, Derek, Kirk, Corie Jo and Janna Lee have already tested for us. Their successful scamper encourages us all, and soon we’re at the four hundred year-old rockfall, which starts a discussion of plate tectonics, fault lines and earth tremors. Our region is susceptible to earthquakes, and the giant boulders now provide a habitat for other species such as porcupine.

“Look down there,” says Jo Ellen. Two smooth bones, looking for all the world as if they’d been carefully placed there by someone, gleam in the daylight. Not only does the rockfall provide a home for woodland critters, it provides the cover so that predators can devour their prey sheltered from the elements.

The same elements that have weathered the rocks. “What causes erosion?” asks Geoffrey of the Guides, who are all clustered on a boulder that perhaps a few hundred years ago tumbled into what became the beaver pond. As the girls discuss the weathering action of the elements… the freezing/melting action of snow and ice, the wind and rain… my mind wanders, scanning the intense faces of the girls.

This Girl Guide group is having a ball. There’s no better way to learn than being outside, involved, participating in an activity that leads to hands-on exploration of our natural world. I observe that there’s not a whimper of objection, not a bored-looking young lady in the group. Geoffrey then suggests a scramble up the rockfall and, while Jo Ellen and I step aside, the entire group passes by, eventually getting on hands and knees in sections, as they negotiate the steep slope.

On the other side, we rejoin them, re-crossing the dam and returning to the lodge. Very soon we’re at Cushing Mews, examining Jo Ellen’s birds of prey up close. She explains the different action of hawks… the accipiter’s “dash and grab” style of hunting, versus the buteos which spy their prey from the sky, else perch on a branch, scanning for a rodent or smaller bird.

We meet Casper, the barn owl, an endangered species. “There are only three breeding pairs left in Ontario,” she notes. The group is particularly entranced by the Ferruginous hawks, a male and female. The latter is the largest. Says Jo-Ellen. “Females are 35% larger than the males.”

And later, as we watch her slides in the lodge, she explains why. “The females such as the ferruginous hawks, have a large brood patch in the middle of their breast, unlike the males. The male will sit a nest, but he cannot cover the eggs totally or for long. As well, she needs to be bigger because when food is scarce she can hunt larger prey such as rabbits, and won’t compete with the male.”

All too soon 7:00 p.m. arrives and parents are waiting in their cars. The evening is over. But not quite… “May we see the eggs?” pipes up Chelsea Smith eagerly. Jo Ellen smiles and before we know it, is holding up different sized and coloured eggs before the group of Guides.

A most excellent afternoon was had by all of us.


Katharine Fletcher is a freelance journalist based north of Quyon. Contact her at