Hank and Judy Bird: Guarding Their Neighbourhood Wildlands

04 Dec 2023

Just half an hour from Halifax lies the Pennant River Conservation Lands, a 300 acre jewel well-loved for generations for its scenic swimming holes, hiking trails, and fishing pools.

And helping to keep it wild yet welcoming are Hank and Judy Bird, who have been Property Guardians at Pennant River since 2019. If you’ve attended a work party or guided hike on the land since then, you’ve almost certainly met these two stalwarts, who don’t hesitate to wade knee-deep through a muddy bog or wield a hand saw in the service of maintaining the trail for visitors to enjoy.

Hank and Judy Bird in the Usambara Mountains of Tanzania in 2019.

Both Hank and Judy grew up in Nova Scotia; they met each other as students at Halifax’s Queen Elizabeth High School and have been together ever since Sadie Hawkins Week in 1959. Judy attributes her love of nature to her father, who travelled all over the province on weekdays as a travelling salesman and on Sundays with Judy, her mother, and her four siblings in tow. Those family trips (which always began with an ice cream cone) introduced Judy to the amazing variety of landscapes in Nova Scotia.

Hank’s experience was the opposite. “My parents didn’t have a car and we didn’t go on country trips, so my exposure to nature was the Public Gardens and Point Pleasant Park,” he explains (a good reminder of the importance of access to green spaces in urban environments!). He became more of an outdoor enthusiast when his work as an engineer and physicist led him out of Nova Scotia. “We lived up the Ottawa River for three years, and the wilderness was just across the river from us. We did a lot of hunting and fishing there. Then we moved to BC for a year or so, with the mountains and more outdoors.”

When they moved to New Jersey, intending to stay just a few months, Judy discovered a love of gardening. She joined a vibrant gardening club and studied botany at the local community college. “You may not think of it that way,” Judy says, “but New Jersey is actually very rich land, with very rich soil, heat and humidity. It’s the ‘Garden State.’ Things just grow!” Judy’s garden club also included junior gardeners, and their daughter joined in.

Pennant River Conservation Lands. Photo: Corey Isenor

“Between family ties and friends, and a feeling for the land, we always felt attached to Nova Scotia,” says Hank, and after an unexpected 33 years in New Jersey, Hank and Judy returned home. They appreciated the relatively unspoiled nature and the variety of natural areas to access. A friend invited them along to a Nature Trust event, and their interest was piqued by the ongoing need for volunteers. Soon after that, they heard about a newly protected property on the Pennant River – their neighbourhood. “The northeast corner of it touches on the Sambro Basin, very close to where we live. So we thought, we could help!”

They completed their Property Guardian training in 2019 and have been active Guardians ever since, keeping the primary trail clear and engaging with visitors. “There’s a swimming hole up the river past the waterfall that the locals have been using for generations, and the people who use the trail and the area seem to take good care of it,” says Hank. There are also other volunteers who regularly help clean up the area on behalf of the Nature Trust, for whom Hank and Judy express great appreciation. They also join regular work parties for more intensive maintenance work, like removing fallen trees blocking the trail or installing boardwalks over flood-prone sections.

Hank and Judy in front of some other very large rocks – the Great Pyramid at Giza (2022).

There’s always more to learn about the land. “I found a couple guys recently coming back from bouldering,” recalls Hank. “They said Pennant River is one of the better bouldering places around because there are a lot of challenging boulders, and they’re granite which is good because even when it’s wet you still have good traction.” Judy laughs, “That really made us more aware of all the big rocks!”

“For some of the people we’ve talked to on the trail,” continues Hank, “it’s their first time there. They didn’t know it was there until someone told them about it, and they talk about how good it is to have a place like that so close to Halifax.” The Pennant River Conservation Lands are a wonderful example of the magic of protecting urban wildlands for nature to thrive. Judy’s wish for this protected land is that “people come and enjoy it, that they get health, inspiration, pleasure out of exploring it.”

“There’s so much nature around. You’ve just got to preserve more and more of it,” Hank concludes. “It’s making a big difference.”

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