Nov 222019

Book outlines challenges and reasons for hope in addressing climate change

In last week’s column, I provided a glimpse of our bleak climatic future as described in “The Uninhabitable Earth”, by American journalist David Wallace-Wells. The book lays out in terrifying detail how climate change will soon become the defining issue of the 21st century and impact every aspect of our lives. “The assaults will not be discrete,” he warns. “They will produce a kind of cascading violence, waterfalls and avalanches of devastation . . . in ways that build on each other and undermine our ability to respond.” Among the impacts: climate wars.

A climate crisis of unprecedented speed, scope, and severity is already unfolding – although most of humanity has barely awoken  to this new reality. To put this point into stark relief, Wallace-Wells quotes the author of “Carbon Ideologies”, William Vollmann. “Someday, perhaps not long from now, the inhabitants of a hotter, more dangerous and biologically diminished planet than the one on which I lived, may wonder what you and I were thinking, or whether we thought at all.” Humanity has never seen this scale of existential drama in which nature itself is the enemy. For Wallace-Wells, the only analogies are in mythology and theology.

The solution to the climate crisis is both totally obvious – reduce and then eliminate greenhouse gases – and almost impossible to imagine. Economics, politics, and culture are all aligned against action. Achieving the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) target of a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 – remember that emissions are still going up each year – would require a total reconfiguration of our politics and call for unprecedented global cooperation. But, for Wallace-Wells, “Thinking like a planet is so alien to the perspectives of modern life—so far from thinking like a neoliberal subject in a ruthless competitive system—that the phrase sounds at first lifted from kindergarten.”

The necessary scale of response would require reimagining infrastructure and the use of cement (a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions); reimagining the world’s electricity systems, including the grids; reimagining agriculture and our consumption of animal protein; reimagining ground, sea and air transportation; and taking on the task of retrofitting millions of buildings. Given the political actors on stage today, it’s all but impossible to think that this could happen by 2030.

Let’s remember, too, that every country in the world is incentivized to do only the minimum to keep face, and then let the rest of the world clean up the mess. This was clear in the Conservative Party’s climate plan in the October federal election. How many times did we hear, “What Canada does won’t make any difference on the world scale, so why punish ourselves?”

It’s not surprising that Wallace-Wells believes that meeting the IPCC target for 2030 is all but impossible, as is keeping warming below 2 C. However, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be taking the most aggressive action possible. Every ton of carbon dioxide we avoid putting into the atmosphere makes a difference, so there will always be a reason to act, even decades from now.

Elements of hope

Although David Wallace-Wells is less focused on solutions than on presenting the scale of the problem – “what we should do”, for example, is never fully fleshed out – he does see some elements of hope. “The thing is, I am optimistic,” he says. “I know there are horrors to come. . . . But those horrors are not yet scripted.” First and foremost, he finds hope in the fact we know the cause of climate change: human activity. This that means humans must solve the problem. He is also buoyed by the huge increase in both media attention and public concern for climate change in the past year. Seventy-three percent of Americans now believe that human-caused climate change is real, which represents an increase of an amazing 15 points since 2015. What has woken people up? Fear and alarm to a large extent. One of the best teachers has been the repeated climate disasters we’ve seen: floods, wildfires, hurricanes, and more. Add to this the non-stop series of scientific reports that have come out in the last year.

Wallace-Wells notes that all of the Democratic presidential candidates are serious about climate change with many pushing for some form of the Green New Deal.  He also points out that we already have all the tools we need to avoid the worst of what might come. These include carbon taxes, new approaches to agricultural practices, a shift away from beef and dairy in the global diet, and public investment in green energy and carbon capture.

There is also hope in energy production, which is the “low-hanging fruit” of greenhouse gas reduction strategies and probably the easiest emission problem to solve. The cost of wind turbines and solar panels has already decreased dramatically. Remember, however, that energy production represents only 30 percent of the world’s emissions. Economic arguments, too, are giving traction to the need to act quickly. The new economic wisdom seems to be that fast action on climate change is better for the economy than moving slowly. We now know that reinventing our industries based on low greenhouse gas emissions is good for growth.

What to do?

First, David Wallace-Wells argues convincingly that the solution is political; it is not through individual action. He provides the example of flying. Just one flight across North America releases the same amount of carbon per passenger as eight months of driving. However, if you decide not to fly, millions of others will. He agrees that we should still try to set an example in our own lives, be it reducing meat consumption, driving a hybrid or electric vehicle, or simply consuming less. An individual’s decisions do influence other people. He believes that the two most important individual actions anyone can take are voting with climate change top-of-mind and sharing your fears for the future with friends and family.

Although every country must do its part, Wallace-Wells believes that the future of the planet will be determined by China, which is now responsible for 30 percent of the world’s  emissions – double those of the U.S. More than anyone, Chinese President Xi Jinping holds the cards. Let’s remember, however, that China wants to preside over an intact world, not one that is completely broken by climate change. China, therefore, is incentivized to act.

As for political measures we can take, Wallace-Wells touches on a few:

1. As a society, we will need to think of everything we do in terms of its carbon impact. A good starting point is to end fossil fuel subsidies immediately. It is estimated that in 2017 they totaled a staggering five trillion dollars worldwide.

2. We must mobilize and work collectively in an effort to force our governing bodies to coordinate an immediate and dramatic reduction in emissions. Wallace-Wells finds inspiration in the Extinction Rebellion Movement and the student strikes started by Greta Thunberg.

3. Carbon removal technology, which removes carbon from the atmosphere, will have to be a big part of the solution. At present, however, we are far from having the technology at a scalable level.

How our future climate will play out is full of uncertainty. This is not because of scientific ignorance but, overwhelmingly, from the open question of how we respond. Will we sit back and simply watch in horror as cities like Venice flood and countries like Australia burn, or will we somehow find the means and the will to act. And maybe most importantly, will we learn in time what acting even looks like?

“The Uninhabitable Earth” issues a stark warning. “One way we might manage to navigate (rising temperatures) without crumbling collectively in despair is, perversely, to normalize climate suffering at the same pace we accelerate it.” After all, urban air pollution already kills millions each year. “We live with . . . those death tolls, and hardly notice them,” he writes.

Joe Rogan (left) with David Wallace-Wells

At the very least, it is incumbent upon us to understand the scale of the climate emergency. Reading “The Uninhabitable Earth” is a good starting point – but be prepared. I also recommend listening to the many interviews with David Wallace-Wells on YouTube, some of which helped to inform this article. I especially enjoyed the talk he had with Joe Rogan, in which he is more optimistic than in the book. He says that “we’ll see much more aggressive action in the decade ahead than we’ve had in the decades in the past”. We must all do our part to assure this happens.




Nov 152019

“The Uninhabitable Earth” explains how climate change is much worse than you think

“We declare, with more than 11,000 scientist signatories from around the world, clearly and unequiv­ocally, that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency.” These were the dire opening words of a report published November 4 in the journal BioScience. The declaration comes just two years after 15,000 scientists from 184 countries issued a similar warning to humanity.

Now, as I sit down to write this column, one of the biggest international news stories is the cataclysmic wildfires ravaging eastern Australia. Coming on the heels of another bad wildfire season in California, scientists have long warned that the hotter, drier conditions brought about by climate change would make fires more frequent and more intense.

Right outside my window, another climate story is taking place. Much of North America is in the grips of unprecedented November cold and snow. Although it may seem counterintuitive, there is also more and more evidence that a quickly warming arctic is actually the culprit.

A 2019 wildfire burning in California (Wikimedia)

The Uninhabitable Earth

Having just read “The Uninhabitable Earth” by American journalist David Wallace-Wells, the climate calamities we hear about almost everyday now are not surprising. On every harrowing page, the author makes it abundantly clear climate change is the all-encompassing story of our time and that humanity is well on the way to destroying our planet.


Wallace-Wells was motivated to write the book because of what he was seeing and hearing in the media – or rather not seeing and hearing. There was little sense of how alarming the climate science truly is. He saw that people accept the reality of climate change but are not really engaged. For a plethora of reasons, so many of us continue to live “in a state of half-ignorance and half-indifference”. This led to two years of research in which he read hundreds of scientific studies and met with dozens of scientists. In a recent interview, Wallace-Wells said, “I could count on one hand the number of studies I’ve seen that show an optimistic view of our climate future.”

David Wallace-Wells (Wikimedia)

Our frail response to date is not surprising. We have countless cognitive biases that make acting difficult, including an innate sense of optimism about the future. We look outside, and all still seems fine. Living in New York City, Wallace-Wells himself used to think he lived outside of nature. But science is telling us with ever-increasing urgency that we can’t look at the future based on the way most of the world is today. A potential hellscape is coming, and the science which proves it is rock solid.

Climate change is happening now and promises to get much, much worse. As the defining issue of the 21st century, it will impact every aspect of our lives, no matter how rich we are or where we live. Tragically, we have barely started to think about it in any meaningful way.


We used to think – most scientists included – that the scarier impacts would only occur in the distant future. Forget that. Wallace-Wells explains that we are already living on what is essentially a different planet. At our present 1.1 C degrees of warming above pre-industrial times, the climate is hotter than at any point since humans began walking the Earth. The author makes it abundantly clear that a climate crisis of unprecedented speed, scope, and severity is unfolding before our very – albeit still somewhat closed – eyes.


Although day-to-day change is difficult to perceive, the story of climate change is one of unparalleled speed. By one estimate, the climate is changing ten times faster than at any point in 66 million years. What is even more extraordinary, about half the greenhouse gases responsible for the crisis have been emitted in only the past 30 years. In other words, since 1989, the year in which “Seinfeld” began and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was created. In this short time, we have gone from a mostly stable climate to one of quickly-approaching chaos. As the IPCC reported a year ago, we now have 30 years to bring emissions to zero if we’re to avoid truly catastrophic impacts. This 1989 to 2050 timeframe is less than the span of an average human life.

However, emissions nearly everywhere in the world are still increasing. This is putting us on track to pass 1.5 C degrees of warming by 2040. One-and-a-half degrees is the threshold to avoid at all costs, according to the IPCC. As much as the 2015 Paris Agreement was a triumph of global cooperation, almost no country in the world is on track to meet its commitments. Canada included. Even if the Paris targets were met, the planet would still warm by 3 C. Still more depressing, we probably cannot avoid even 2 C of warming, no matter what we do, based on the tools and technologies that are presently available.

Already, the Greenland ice sheet could reach a tipping point of irreversible melting at just another 0.1 C degrees of warming. One billion people around the world are presently at risk for heat stress, including workers in the sugarcane region of El Salvador where as much as one-quarter of the men have chronic kidney disease.

Wallace-Wells points out that there are multiple layers of uncertainty when it come to predicting future outcomes. We don’t know, for example, how aggressively humanity will act – or when. Nor do we fully understand the effects of feedback loops. Already, permafrost in the rapidly warming Arctic is melting. Permafrost contains twice as much carbon as is currently suspended in the earth’s atmosphere. Much of it may evaporate as methane, which is 34 times as powerful as carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. There are other feedback loops, too, such as forest dieback. Dying trees strip the planet’s natural ability to absorb carbon, which causes still hotter temperatures and more dieback.

We should also keep in mind that nearly all climate change predictions have proven to be too conservative. In an article from November 10 in the New York Times, Eugene Linden points out that scientists have consistently low-balled their assessments of the consequences and time-lines of the greenhouse gases we continue to emit. Because of a perceived need for consensus, scientists have tended to underestimate both the severity and rapidity of threats. The same can be said for the predictions of economists.

Scope and severity

Climate change will be all-encompassing, shaping and distorting nearly every aspect of human life as it is lived today. The litany of impacts is almost too lengthy to fathom. Suffice it to say that climate change will adversely affect everything else we worry about, be it economic growth, food security, war, crime, gender equality, physical and mental health, plagues, drinking water, refugee emergencies, species loss, and much, much more. It will also transform our politics (a hint of which we saw in the federal election),  our culture, and our sense of history as a march towards an increasingly better world. It will also be happening everywhere.  Although climate change will impact some people on the planet much more intensely than others – especially the global south and countries like India – it will be inescapable.

Climate change is on course to eliminate economic growth. Should we do nothing, there will be a 30 percent or more decline in global GDP by 2100. By the end of the century, worldwide grain production could fall by half. However, the world may have twice as many people. By 2050, the expected heat and humidity will make hundreds of cities in Asia uninhabitable in summer. We will also be on course for dealing with 200 million climate refugees. Just two degrees of warming will mean irreversible ice melt, which would eventually flood Miami, Dhaka, Shanghai, Hong Kong and a hundred other cities around the world. And let’s not forget cost. A seawall to protect New York City alone would cost tens of billions of dollars and take 30 years to build.

The impacts on the oceans and ice sheets were further highlighted in a  IPCC report released this past September. It explains how melting glaciers will affect the drinking water supply of countless millions, how marine heatwaves will drastically reduce the productivity of fisheries, and how a huge increase in marine pathogens will contaminate seafood.

What about alarmism?  

Not surprisingly, David Wallace-Wells receives pushback for being too alarming. That being said, the book has received almost no criticism from the scientific community. When the author looks out at society, he sees far more people who are still too complacent about climate change than people who are at risk of falling into fatalism and despair. He believes that alarmism is of great value. He looks at how much momentum there has been over the last year, with much more alarmist rhetoric circulating about climate change in the aftermath of last October’s IPCC report. These include the world-wide climate strikes initiated by Greta Thunberg and the rise of the Extinction Rebellion movement in the U.K. In a recent interview, he explained how “all of these are unprecedented climate protest movements, and all of them are very, very explicit about the need to panic immediately.” Nor should we forget that alarmism helped us win World War Two, stop the use of DDT, radically curtail tobacco use and drunk driving.

The lasting message of this book is that there is lots to be terrified by. But just how bad things get will be totally up to us. The future is not yet written. What is certain, however, is that the solutions will be political – not individual action. More about this next week.


Nov 092019

Lingering blackbirds: A Red-winged Black-bird and a Brown-headed Cowbird were coming to our feeders in late November but seem to have disappeared. A Common Grackle has also been coming. Here is a picture taken December 1 during the snow storm.  Greg Warner, Cherryhill Road, Peterborough

Common Grackle – December 1 2019 – Kawartha Heights – Greg Warner








My grand daughter, Grace Mackie, observed an opossum running along Oriole Blvd during the week of November 16. I knew they had made it to Toronto, but did not know they were in Peterborough. I am intrigued by how they would survive our winters – under decks, garages, wood duck tree nests? Perce Powles

Note: Virginia Opossums are definitely here but still relatively uncommon. They probably do take advantage of all the shelters you mention. I sometimes hear about them coming to feeders where seed has spilled onto the ground. D.M.

Opossum on Johnston Drive, south of Peterborough – Mary Beth Aspinall – Feb. 2014












Adult Golden Eagle: On November 30, I had just gone up to the north part of the field here to move some rocks. Just as I got there, I looked up at a lovely adult Golden Eagle slowly gliding in overhead! If that wasn’t enough stimulation, it began to soar right above me. High in the background there was an upper-tangent arc caused by the sun lighting up the hexagonal ice crystals of the cirrus cloud deck. Wow. A Golden Eagle with a vivid rainbow backdrop! I just wished I had taken my camera “to work” with me, but instead, I had to settle for burning a mental memory photograph into my head. Tim Dyson, Douro 1st Line near Warsaw

Golden Eagles from the Crossley ID Guide










Beavers:  On Tuesday, November 26, I also saw two Beavers along Hooton Drive, just west of Peterborough. Hooton Drive crosses the Cavan Swamp and runs parallel and to the south of the west extension of Sherbrooke Street (County Road 9).   Carl Welbourn

Snowy Owls on Post Road – Nov. 23, 2019 – Carl Welbourn

Beaver on Hooton Drive – November 26, 2019 – Carl Welbourn











More Snowy Owls:  I was back up to Post Road east of Lindsay last Saturday, November 23, and saw these two Snowy Owls.  Carl Welbourn

Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis) (100)

– Reported Nov 26, 2019 07:53 by Travis Cameron
– Lakefield – Home, Peterborough, Ontario
– Comments: “Fairly accurate estimate count. First heard calls, then located the flock flying slow and low south along otonabee river valley.”

Sandhill Cranes – November 17, 2017 – Lakefield – Bill Buddle

Sandhill Cranes – Sept. 2018 – Lindsay area – Tim Corner








Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) (1)
– Reported Nov 23, 2019 21:05 by Steve Paul
– Otonabee – Keene Rd., Peterborough, Ontario

Great Horned Owl – Dec. 23, 2015 – Glen Grills

Northern Leopard Frog in grass








Frogs on the move:  On November 21, at around 5:30 pm, I was driving up to Lakefield along Cty Rd 32 from Trent and was surprised to see numerous (dozens at least, perhaps hundreds) of frogs hopping across the road towards the river (the majority were heading in that direction). It was drizzly out and had been raining lightly, and I know that frogs often move on nights like that, however given that it was only 3 degrees C (according to my car thermometer) and the 21st of November (after a period of cold weather) I was quite surprised to see frogs out and about in such weather. Is this a common event that I’ve just not noticed before? Unfortunately, it was very difficult to avoid hitting some of the frogs (going as slowly and carefully as I could…but there was other traffic as well) and I believe there were likely lots squished on the road…although it was hard to distinguish leaves/other debris on the road from what may have been frog carcasses in the dark and rainy conditions, and it was not safe enough to pull over and check it out. Anyway, it was an interesting but rather unfortunate event to witness last night.      Carrie Sadowski

Note: I’m not aware of frogs “migrating” towards the river at such a late date and especially not after such a long period of cold, with temperatures as low as -20C. I imagine most of them were leopard and green frogs, which overwinter on the bottom of large bodies of water like the Otonabee River. I wonder if they got “caught” by the sudden arrival of cold whether before being able to make it to the river. They do feed in upland locations during the late summer and fall. Certainly the cold we’ve seen this month is unprecedented, so maybe they had to hunker down where they were and simply ride out the cold snap. Maybe they were able to move into small ponds/puddles in the interim. They would not have been able to stay there, however, because eventually the ice would freeze to the bottom and there would be insufficient oxygen. Drew Monkman

Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) (1)
– Reported Nov 21, 2019 12:50 by Ben Taylor
– Timberline, Peterborough, Ontario
– Comments: “Bright red head with black and white body. Heard and then seen working on a knot in an oak tree about 20 meters from us. Chris has pictures.”

Red-headed Woodpecker – Greg Piatsetzki

Female Ruddy Duck – Wikimedia








Snowy Owls are back: At least one Snowy Owl returned to the Lindsay area this week. This bird was photographed at the north end of Post Road, just east of Lindsay. Carl Welbourn,
Kawartha Camera Club

Snowy Owl – Post Road – Nov. 20, 2019 – Carl Welbourn











Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis) (1)
– Reported Nov 19, 2019 12:54 by C Douglas
– Peterborough–Auburn Reach Park, Peterborough, Ontario
– Comments: “Small diving duck. Dark bill, top of head black, cheeks, breast and sides greyish, dark back, belly (seen when stretching wings) reddish, tail held erect”

Canvasback (Aythya valisineria) (1)
– Reported Nov 15, 2019 15:46 by Iain Rayner
– Rice Lake–Pengelly Landing, Peterborough, Ontario
– Comments: “Swimming way out with 4 scaup directly out from point in the middle of the lake. Honestly at the edge of ideable range and too far for photo. Female type. I first noted the long sloping forehead and light brown head and was thinking eider…but then it turned showing pale flanks and back. It briefly showed the high crown and sloping beak but promptly went too sleep. Was noticeably larger compared with scaup and goldeneye.”

Male and female Canvasbacks – Wikimedia







Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii) (2)
– Reported Nov 08, 2019 08:07 by Daniel Williams
– Peterborough—Maria St. to Water St., Peterborough, Ontario
– Comments: “Stubby bills, short necks. Noticeably smaller than CANG.”

Cackling Goose (foreground) – Brendan Boyd

Cackling Geese – Little L. – Dec. 2015 – Iain Rayner

Nov 082019

Evergreen forest floor plants are an under-appreciated feature of late fall

At first glance, a walk in the November woods seems uneventful, with little of interest to catch our attention. Yet, this is a wonderful time of year to focus on elements of the forest that we may have missed in the green blur of summer. Of particular interest is the beauty and diversity of our evergreen mosses, club-mosses, ferns, and even wildflowers. Standing out like green beacons against the faded browns and yellows, it’s as if they are calling out: “Come and take a look at me!”

Evergreen plants are excellent examples of adaptations to the shorter growing season of northern ecosystems. Since they don’t shed their leaves, these plants can begin photosynthesis as soon as the snow cover melts. They can also continue to produce food later into the fall. Because water is unavailable in the winter – locked up in the form of ice – some of these plants have waxy coatings on the leaves to limit water loss. This is particularly noticeable in evergreen wildflowers like wintergreen and pipsissewa.


One of the first things we notice when we start paying attention to the denizens of the November forest is the abundance of mosses. Emerging into clearer view now that the profusion of summer foliage has retreated, mosses are usually found on boulders, tree stumps, rotting logs, and around the base of trees. They come in dozens of shades of green, ranging from shiny emerald to almost black. Take time to get down on your hands and knees to examine them carefully. It is like entering a verdant Lilliputian forest.

Mosses are flowerless plants that evolved millions of years ago from algae. Given their aquatic origin, they are believed to be among the first plants to emerge from the water and to adapt to terrestrial life. Some species still grow submerged in streams. Mosses have tiny stems and leaves, but the stems only serve as a support for the leaves and do not actually conduct water or food to other parts of the plant. Even the rhizoid filaments that anchor the moss to the ground, rock or tree bark are not true roots, since they play no part in absorbing water or minerals.

Like nearly all woodland evergreen plants, mosses grow in small colonies that spread through vegetative reproduction by putting down new rhizoids. However, new plants can also grow from spores. Spore‑based reproduction is complicated but very interesting.

Moss really consists of two distinct generations – the green, leafy gametophyte and the wiry and leafless sporophyte with the capsule on top. When they are ripe, the capsules open and the spores are dispersed. If a spore lands on a surface with enough moisture, it will begin to grow into a mass of green hairs. Buds appear on these hairs, which grow into stems with narrow leaves. These structures are called gametophytes. Some of the stems will produce either male or female sex organs among clusters of leaves at the top. Sperm produced in the male organ use a film of water from rain or dew to swim to the female organ on another stem. In this way they fertilize the egg. The embryo, embedded in the cluster of leaves surrounding the female organ, then grows to form a sporophyte, which is the familiar wiry stalk with the capsule at the end. The base of the sporophyte remains anchored in the cluster of leaves at the top of the female gametophyte. The latter essentially becomes host to the parasitic sporophyte. Spores develop in the capsule which disperse, germinate and repeat the cycle.

The Kawarthas is home to dozens of species of mosses. In conifer swamps, different types of sphagnum (peat moss) usually dominate. They are spongy and can form carpet‑like mats. Other common groups of mosses include the upright species such as juniper and hair‑cap moss, hummock forming species like pin cushion moss, and creeping mosses like shaggy moss.


Club‑mosses, too, are a key feature of the late fall woods. The strange name stems from their moss-like appearance – at least at first glance – and from the club-like structures that project from the plants.  Some species look like tiny, ten-inch-tall coniferous trees. Club‑mosses usually grow in the rich, shaded soils of mixed deciduous and coniferous woods. They often form colonies that can cover large areas of the forest floor. Individual plants are connected by horizontal stems that run above ground (runners) or below ground (rhizomes). These plants are a close relative of ferns and reproduce both vegetatively and by spores. They were among the first plants to develop true roots, stems and leaves, along with cells capable of transporting water long distances. Three hundred million years ago, club-mosses grew over 30 metres tall and dominated the great coal swamps of the Carboniferous period. You can thank (or curse) them for the gasoline you burn in your car.

There are several club‑moss species or “lycopodiums” that you can expect to find during a woodland walk in Peterborough County. Ground‑pine (Lycopodium dendroideum) has a symmetrical shape that resembles a tiny pine tree. This probably explains why ground-pines are sometimes used as Christmas decorations. The spore‑bearing leaves are tightly clustered at the tip of the stem and form a yellowish, cone‑like structure called a strobilus. It is composed of sporangia, which produce numerous minute spores. The spores germinate to form the small, leafy stage of the plant’s life cycle known as the gametophyte. The life cycle then continues in a manner similar to mosses.

Club-moss spores are packed with fats and oils, which make them both inflammable and water‑repellent. Northern Europeans collected the spores in the 19th century to use in the manufacture of fireworks, as a substitute for talc, and as a source of illumination in early photography.

Shiny club‑moss (Lycopodium lucidulum) has glossy, needle‑like leaves and grows from a horizontal stem that is usually hidden in the leaf litter. Bright yellow spore cases appear on the upper surface of the last leaves produced each growing season. You should also watch for ground‑cedar (Lycopodium complanatum), interrupted club‑moss (Spinulum annotinum), and wolf’s claw club‑moss (Lycopodium clavatum). All five species often grow in close proximity.

Ferns and wildflowers

Several species of ferns are also evergreen. Probably the most common is the marginal woodfern (Dryopteris marginalis). These attractive, dark green ferns have widely arching crowns and are common in mixed forests, especially on the Canadian Shield. They keep their fronds (leaf-like structures) for one year before replacing them in the spring. In late fall, the stalk softens, and the formerly erect fronds lay flat on the ground. They then survive the winter – still green – under the snow. By laying flat, the fronds suffer less frost and mechanical damage. They are capable of photosynthesis as soon as the snow melts and the fronds are exposed to the spring sun. In this way they take advantage of the intense light available on the forest floor prior to leaf-out.

The Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is another attractive species to watch for. Its name comes from the leathery, spiny‑toothed leaflets, which are reminiscent of holly and from the fact that the plant is still green at Christmas. It is sometimes used as a holiday decoration. I have had both Christmas ferns and intermediate woodferns in my gardens for years. Keep an eye open, too, for rock polypody (Polypodium virginianum), a small fern that grows mostly on rocks and boulders in cool, shaded areas.

Coniferous and mixed forests are also home to a variety of evergreen wildflowers. Many look as luxuriant in winter as in summer. Pipsissewa, for example, has glossy, dark green leaves. Watch also for trailing arbutus, goldthread, partridgeberry, twinflower, and winterberry. The berries and leaves of the latter have a pronounced wintergreen taste and are pleasant to chew. The Nanabush Trail at Petroglyphs Provincial Park and Bonny’s Pond trail at Silent Lake Provincial Park are excellent locations for most of the evergreen plants mentioned in this article.

 What to watch for this week

Snowshoe hares and weasels are now acquiring their white winter coats. In the case of the hare, the ears and feet turn white first, while the back is the last part of the body to change colour. Except for the black ear tips, snowshoe hares are usually completely white by early December. Both the short-tailed (ermine) and long-tailed weasel also turn white, except for the last third of the tail, which remains black year-round.

Climate Crisis News

The world’s largest oil and gas companies would need to slash their production by more than a third by 2040 to meet international climate targets, according to a new report from Carbon Tracker. You can read the report at The seven listed oil majors, which include ExxonMobil, BP, and Shell, would need to cut daily production by 35 percent to avoid driving temperatures 1.5 degrees C higher than pre-industrial levels. This means that governments would also need to stop issuing new oil and gas licenses for fossil fuel exploration. The report showed that global oil projects that have already been approved are almost enough to meet demand in a 1.6 degrees C scenario and there is “very little headroom for new fossil fuel projects.” Reports such as these question the advisability of  any future expansion of the Alberta oilsands.



Nov 012019

Seeing winter finches this year may mean a trip to Algonquin Park

Some of my favourite backyard birds during fall and spring migration are white-throated and white-crowned sparrows. These migrants arrive each year right on schedule – almost to the day – and feed on the millet I scatter on the ground. Despite my best attempts at coaxing them to stay, however, most will have moved on by early November, headed for the warmer climes of the central and southern U.S. Some of the void left by the sparrows’ departure is filled by dark-eyed juncos. More and more are now arriving everyday. Large numbers of juncos will spend the winter in the Kawarthas, along with resident species like chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, cardinals, and mourning doves.

Although the juncos and resident birds provide ample winter entertainment, what birders and backyard feeder enthusiasts really hope for is another wave of avian visitors – the so-called winter finches. These species, which breed primarily in the boreal forest of northern Ontario, are noted for their erratic migrations in search of tree seed crops.

Because their nomadic ways are an adaptation to the ups and downs of seed production, the appearance of winter finches in central Ontario is no guarantee. They can be here one winter and completely absent the next. If seed crops are good in the north, the birds stay put. Conversely, if the northern seed crop fails, they will sometimes fly thousands of kilometres to find food. In years when seed production is especially low, finches often turn up in the Kawarthas as early as mid-fall. This is what happened last year when siskins and redpolls started arriving in late October. Later in the fall, evening grosbeaks also moved into our area in numbers not seen for years. When finches descend upon our region, they readily come to feeders, especially if nyger and black oil sunflower seeds are on the menu.

The seeds and berries that finches depend upon most are those of birch, mountain-ash, pine, spruce, hemlock, and tamarack. Many factors affect seed crops, including early and late frosts, too much or too little precipitation, insect pressures, and disease. These factors often result in seed production being reduced or completely aborted over hundreds of kilometres.  Other influences seem to be in play, as well, but are poorly understood.

This winter?

Monitoring seed production in trees allows biologists to make reasonable predictions about finch movements in the upcoming winter. Since the fall of 1999, Ron Pittaway and Jean Iron of the Ontario Field Ornithologists have prepared an annual forecast of which winter finches are most likely to show up in southern and central Ontario. Much of the data on seed production comes from Ministry of Natural Resources staff.  This year, apart from pines, seed crops are good to excellent across northern Ontario and Quebec. The cone crop on spruce trees is especially impressive. This means that most winter finches will stay in the north this year and few, if any, will turn up in the Kawarthas.

Species breakdown

The annual forecast includes a species-by-species breakdown. Non-finch species are also included in the list, namely the blue jay, red-breasted nuthatch, bohemian waxwing and American robin.

PINE GROSBEAK: Pine grosbeaks specialize in eating the fruit of both the showy and American mountain-ash. This year, the berry crop on these small trees is excellent, which means that most pine grosbeaks will remain close to their breeding grounds. A few, however, may drift south to Algonquin Park. Adult males – a minority in most flocks – have a bright rose plumage. First year males look like females.

EVENING GROSBEAK: Most evening grosbeaks are expected to winter in the north, because conifer and deciduous seed crops are abundant. This is especially so for black ash, which grosbeaks relish. However, because large numbers of grosbeaks came south last winter, there may be a small “echo flight”. This poorly understood phenomenon is also common in snowy owls. The feeders at the Algonquin Park Visitor Centre attract evening grosbeaks every winter.

PURPLE FINCH: In most years, purple finches leave Ontario in the fall, returning in mid-April to mid-May to breed. They are often seen moving south through the Kawarthas in September. Most have now left the province.  An easy way to tell a purple finch from the very similar house finch is by checking the tip of the tail; the former has a distinctly notched or slightly forked tail, while the house finch’s tail is squared off. Many house finches also migrate south in fall.

PINE SISKIN:  Siskins wander the continent in search of conifer seeds, especially those of spruce, fir and hemlock. According to this year’s forecast, most siskins will stay north this winter, although some may take advantage of the big spruce cone crop in Algonquin Park. At feeders, siskins relish nyger seeds.

COMMON REDPOLL: Redpolls resemble siskins and goldfinches in size, shape, and habits.

With birch and alder catkins loaded with seeds across the north, redpolls are expected to remain in the boreal forest.  A winter trip to Algonquin Park may yield a few redpolls, but very few are expected to venture any further south.

RED CROSSBILL:  Red crossbills will be scarce this winter in the Kawarthas. If some do show up, watch for them in pines. Petroglyphs Provincial Park is often a good location to see both species of crossbills. Crossbills rarely come to feeders.

WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILL: These crossbills move back and forth like a pendulum across the boreal forest looking for bumper spruce cone crops. They venture south only in years of widespread cone crop failures. White-winged crossbills are currently widespread and locally common in northern Ontario. We can expect to see some this winter in Algonquin Park.

The abundance of some non-finch species that turn up in our yards in winter also varies greatly from one year to the next.

BLUE JAY: Jays move south into the U.S. in varying numbers every fall. The percentage of the population that remains in Ontario is linked to the abundance of acorns, beechnuts, and hazelnuts.  Given this year’s excellent nut crop in many parts of central Ontario, large numbers of blue jays are expected to stay put this winter and should turn up at feeders.

BOHEMIAN WAXWING:  The excellent berry crop on American mountain-ash trees across the boreal forest should keep most bohemian waxwings in the north. For whatever reason, some flocks do wander south into the Kawarthas each winter, where they are attracted to the fruit of European mountain-ash, ornamental crabapples, and European buckthorn. They can be distinguished from cedar waxwings, which may also be present, by their rufous undertail feathers, yellow tips on wing feathers, and dark grey belly.

AMERICAN ROBIN: Given the huge wild grape crop this year in the Kawarthas, it is likely that large numbers of robins will spend the winter with us. Robins also feed on mountain-ash, crabapples, and buckthorn.

Algonquin Park

The best place to see winter finches in central Ontario is Algonquin Park, only a two-and-a-half hour drive from Peterborough. Cone crops are excellent in Algonquin so most finches should be present this winter. The feeders at the visitor centre (km 43) are always busy and convenient to watch from the viewing deck. The centre is open every day in fall and winter. Weekday services are limited, but snacks and drinks are available. Be sure to check out the bookstore, which has one of the best selections of nature books in the province. The nearby Spruce Bog Trail at km 42.5 and the Opeongo Road at km 44.5 are also good locations to see finches, along with Canada jays (formerly gray jay), boreal chickadees, spruce grouse, and even black-backed woodpeckers.

To get up-to-date information on winter finches or other birds, go to, click on “Explore” and then “Explore Regions”. Type in the county you want to search. This might be Peterborough, Kawartha Lakes or Nipissing (for Algonquin Park). You can then click on “Hotspots” to see a list of popular birding areas. If you click on “Bar Charts” and set the “Date Range” to the current year only, you can see at a glance what birds are currently being seen.

 What to watch for this week

The smoky, golden-yellow of tamaracks is lighting up wetland borders throughout the Kawarthas right now. These trees make for one of the most beautiful sights of fall and, along with the orange-brown leaves still clinging to our oaks, represent the final act of autumn’s colour parade.


Although the outcome of the federal election provides reason for guarded optimism for more aggressive greenhouse gas reduction, few of us really understand the scale of the climate challenge. This is why I recommend reading “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming”, by David Wallace-Wells. As he writes in the first sentence of the book, “It is worse, much worse, than you think.”  The author lays out in terrifying detail what the coming decades will look like should we continue on our present carbon emissions trajectory. In fact, the elements of climate chaos are so horrendous that halfway through the book Wallace-Wells commends any reader who has “made it this far”. At the same time, he points out that we already have all the tools we need to avoid a worst case scenario. These include “a carbon tax and the political apparatus to aggressively phase out dirty energy; a new approach to agricultural practices and a shift away from beef and dairy in the global diet; and public investment in green energy and carbon capture”. However, Wallace-Wells acknowledges that acting quickly enough will be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.