Jun 222017
 

Now that summer has officially arrived, I would like to look ahead at some of the events in nature that we can expect over the next three months. The actual timing of events is directly affected by temperature, rainfall, and day length. While these environmental factors obviously change throughout the year, a changing climate is also having an impact on when various happenings in nature occur.

In April, for example, Peterborough received about 1.6 times more precipitation than usual, while in May, this number jumped to 2.3 times the usual rainfall. According to The Weather Network, the summer forecast for central Ontario is pointing towards above-normal precipitation, as well. This, in turn, will probably mean more mosquitoes than usual.

Rainfall – May 2017 (Drew Monkman)

The near-record wet spring and flooding in much of eastern Canada   is almost certainly linked to climate change. First, the jet stream — the meandering high altitude winds that flow west to east — is wavier than in the past. It is also moving more slowly and can therefore become locked in place. This means the same weather can persist for weeks on end like we saw with the continuous rain in April and May. Storms, for example, get stuck over a region and don’t move out as quickly as in the past. Meteorologists are linking these changes in jet stream behaviour to a warming Arctic where surface and lower atmosphere temperatures are rising faster than anywhere else on Earth. A warming climate also means that there is more water vapour in the atmosphere. Ocean temperatures are higher, so there is more evaporation and more moist air coming onto the continent from the oceans. The intensity of storms is also increasing because of the energy released from the extra water vapour in the atmosphere.

By keeping track of the dates of happenings such as flowering, bird migration and colour change in leaves, scientists can see how seasonal patterns are changing and thereby make predictions for the future. Already, many flowering dates are happening earlier on average.  The following is a list of events in nature that are typical of summer in the Kawarthas.

Late June

·         Turtles can still be seen along roadsides and rail-trails laying their eggs. Please slow down in turtle-crossing zones and, if it is safe, help the animal across the road.

Snapping Turtle digging nest on roadside (Danielle Tassie )

·         Monarch butterflies have returned – the “grandchildren” of those that flew to Mexico last fall. Local monarch numbers appear quite good so far this year. Make sure you have some milkweed in your garden on which they can lay their eggs.

·         Is your garden a haven for bees, butterflies and other pollinators? If so, please take a moment to register your garden in the Peterborough Pollinators 150 Garden Challenge. The group’s goal is identify a network of 150 existing & new pollinator gardens in the Peterborough area to help celebrate Canada’s sesquicentennial birthday. Go to peterboroughpollinators.com/Register/

Be sure to register your pollinator garden in the Peterborough Pollinators 150 Garden Challenge – Drew Monkman

·         All of the rain we’ve had has created extensive breeding grounds for mosquitoes. We may be looking at a buggier than normal summer.

July

·         Common milkweed is in flower and its rich, honey-sweet perfume fills the early summer air. The scent serves to attract insects whose feet will inadvertently pick up the flowers’ sticky pollinia – small packets containing pollen – and transfer them to another plant. If the insect is not strong enough, however, it can actually become stuck to the pollinia and die.

Common Milkweed

·         A huge number of other plants are blooming, as well. In wetland habitats, watch for common elderberry, swamp milkweed, Joe-Pye weed, yellow pond lily and fragrant white water lily. Along roadsides and in meadows, watch for ox-eye daisy, yarrow, viper’s bugloss, black-eyed Susan, Queen Anne’s lace, wild bergamot, purple-flowering raspberry and orange hawkweed – to name a few.

·         July is a great time to turn your attention to butterflies. Although these colourful insects can be found just about everywhere, Petroglyphs Provincial Park and Sandy Lake Road south of Lasswade are two of the best locations for less common species like skippers and hairstreaks.

·         It is hard to go anywhere near water in July and not notice dragonflies and damselflies. Some even turn up in suburban gardens. To tell them apart, remember that dragonflies have thick bodies, are strong fliers, and their wings are open at rest. Damselflies are usually much smaller, have thin bodies, are weak fliers, and their wings are closed or only partially spread at rest. Some of the most frequently seen damselflies are powder-blue in colour, hence the common name of “bluets.” As for dragonflies, some common species include the dot-tailed whiteface, common whitetail, twelve-spotted skimmer and chalk-fronted skimmer. Go to odonatacentral.org/ for pictures of all Ontario dragonflies and damselflies. Click on “checklists” and then type “Ontario” in the search box.

Twelve-spotted Skimmer – Drew Monkman

·         By mid-July, the buzzy, electric song of the dog-day cicada fills the void created by the decrease in bird song.

·         Watch for mushrooms such as white pine boletes and fly agarics. Summer – not fall – usually produces the greatest variety of species. With all the rain we’ve had this year, mushrooms should be more abundant than usual.

August

·         Listen for the high-pitched “lisping” calls of cedar waxwings and the “po-ta-to-chip” flight call of the American goldfinch. Watch for waxwings on the branches of dead trees along the River Road between Trent University and Lakefield. They sally out from these branches to catch insects on the wing.

·         A large percentage of the insect music we here this month comes courtesy of crickets and katydids. For example, the soft, rhythmic “treet…treet…treet” of the snowy tree cricket sounds like a gentle-voiced spring peeper. Its beautiful rhythmic pulsations actually provide a good estimate of air temperature. Watch and listen at bit.ly/18nGrJ3

·         By mid-August, ragweed is in full bloom and its pollen has hay fever sufferers cursing with every sneeze. Goldenrod, which relies on insects to spread its sticky, heavy pollen, is not the culprit. The small, green flowers of the ragweed, however, rely strictly on the wind to spread the ultra light, spike-covered pollen grains. Research done by the U.S. Department of Agriculture has shown that over the past four or five decades the higher CO2 levels associated with global warming may have doubled the amount of pollen that ragweed is producing.

Ragweed. Note green flower spikes at top – Drew Monkman

·         Small dragonflies known as meadowhawks abound. Mature males are red, while females and immature males are yellowish. They are common in suburban gardens.

Meadowhawk (Sympetrum) dragonfly – Margo Hughes

·         Cottagers sometimes find large, mysterious, jelly-like “blobs” attached to the dock or aquatic plants. They are formed by colonies of Bryozoa, a freshwater invertebrate. Looking somewhat like an egg mass, the clumps are clear, dense, and have distinct, repetitive patterns and markings on the outside. Bryozoa are like a freshwater coral in that the mass they form is actually a colony of thousands of zooids – roughly analogous to polyps in corals. Each tiny zooid has whorls of ciliated feeding tentacles that sway back in forth to catch plankton in the water.

·         Songbird migration is in full swing by late August, with numerous warblers, vireos and flycatchers moving through. These birds can easily be attracted by pishing. If you see or hear chickadees in late August, you can usually assume that migrants will be with them.

·         Goldenrods reach peak bloom at month’s end and become the dominate flowers of roadsides and fields. These plants are veritable insect magnets, drawing in an amazing variety of species with their offerings of pollen and nectar.

  September

·         Monarch butterfly numbers are at their highest. Monarchs congregate at peninsulas on the Great Lakes such as Presqu’ile Provincial Park, a jumping off point for their migration across Lake Ontario and on to Mexico. A monarch tagging demonstration will be held on the afternoon of September 2 and 3. Monarch expert Don Davis will be on hand to answer questions and to show how the butterflies are tagged with a tiny adhesive sticker bearing a number and return address. You will even have the chance to release a tagged butterfly! There will also be bird-banding demonstrations and guided nature walks. Go to friendsofpresquile.on.ca for more information.

·         Large mating swarms of winged ants are a common September phenomenon, especially on warm, humid afternoons. Some are females – the potential future queens – but the majority are males. Ants bear wings only during the mating season.

·         Two species of white-flowered vines are very noticeable, especially along woodland edges where they sprawl over fences, shrubs and trees. They are wild cucumber, which develop into roundish, cucumber-like seed pods covered in soft bristles, and Virgin’s bower, identified by its distinctive, fluffy seed heads of gray, silky plumes.

·         By late September, the purples, mauves, and whites of asters reign supreme in fields and along roadsides and represent the year’s last offering of wildflowers. The most common species include New England, heath, panicled and heart-leaved asters.

Heart-leaved Asters – Drew Monkman

·         Be sure to put your bird feeders up this month. If you scatter millet or finch mix on the ground, you should be able to attract white-throated sparrows which migrate south in late September.

·         A bumper crop of spruce cones may bring birds such as white-winged crossbills into central Ontario.

·          Most years, Virginia creeper vine, poison ivy, choke cherry and staghorn sumac reach their colour peak at about the fall equinox, which occurs this year on September 22.

 

 

Jun 152017
 

Every culture has its own origin story. They may be short anecdotes or elaborate narratives that help explain the mysteries of our existence. “Big History” is an origin story unlike any other. Instead of being rooted in a specific culture or geography, it presents a science-based perspective and is therefore the story of all of humanity. The Big History Project was started by Bill Gates and David Christian to enable the global teaching of what they describe as “the attempt to understand, in a unified way, the history of Cosmos, Earth, Life and Humanity.”

This week, I’d like to present readers with a greatly simplified version of the Big History story in a form that can be shared with children – maybe sitting out in the backyard under a starlit sky. By knowing this story, they will understand that humans are deeply embedded in the natural world and hopefully be inspired to protect the myriad species and habitats with which we co-evolved. Learn the story yourself, and tell it to the children in your life. More information can be found at bighistoryproject.com

Humans are the Universe becoming aware of itself (Photo by Halfblue)

“Tonight, I’m going to tell you the most amazing story you’ve ever heard. And, even better, it’s true. The story is based on everything that science has discovered. Remember, science is the tool we use to find out what’s really true about the world around us. Let’s begin by looking up at the sky and at all those stars. It’s a big Universe out there. Bigger than you or I can possibly imagine. If you’re like me, you can’t help but wonder how and when all of this began. How and why are we here?

This story takes place over 14 billion years, which is an incredibly long time. It would take five human lifetimes to count to 14 billion. So, to make this easier, we’re going to imagine that the story is squeezed into one calendar year. In other words, the story will begin on January 1 and end on December 31.

Let’s get started… In the beginning, there was nothing. There were no humans, no dinosaurs, no rocks, no stars and not even space or time. It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it, but it’s true. Then, all of a sudden, there was a flash of very bright and very hot light. It was like an explosion, but brighter and more powerful than any explosion you or I could ever dream of. It was called ‘The Big Bang’ – the time when the Universe was born. It was January 1 on our time scale.

The Big Bang to the first stars – Wikimedia

At first, all there was heat and light. But, as the Universe began to cool, clouds of tiny particles called atoms began to form. These were the atoms of hydrogen – the main component of water – and helium – the gas we use in party balloons that float on air. Eventually, gravity started compacting these clouds of hydrogen and helium atoms. The temperature at the centre of each cloud grew higher and higher until, suddenly, there was a huge release of energy and Boom! – we had our first stars. Billions of them across the Universe. On our calendar, we are in mid-January.

Now, stars are like people; they are born and eventually die. When very large stars die and explode, they are called supernovae. They become so hot and their gravity so strong that the helium and hydrogen atoms are actually squeezed into new kinds of atoms like oxygen, iron, carbon and even gold. If you are wearing gold jewelry, the gold was made in a supernova explosion. So were all the other atoms in your body except hydrogen. These atoms include the calcium in your bones, the iron in your blood and the oxygen that binds with hydrogen to create the water that you drink.

Take a moment to think about what I just said. These old stars were actually our ancestors. They had to exist so that we could be here. We are made of their dust – stardust! Doesn’t knowing this make you feel like the Universe is a more wonderful place to live in?

Now, with all these different kinds of atoms swirling around younger stars like our Sun, they eventually combined to form asteroids, comets and planets. This is how our solar system and our Earth were formed four and a half billion years ago. On our time scale, we’ve jumped all the way to early September.

As the new planet Earth began to cool, rain fell for the first time and gathered into oceans. Beneath these oceans, at cracks in the ocean floor, heat seeped up from inside the Earth. New chemical reactions began to take place and atoms combined in all sorts of new ways. Some of these combinations were able to make copies of themselves and to eventually form an amazing chemical (molecule) called DNA. It’s the molecule in the genes of all living things. Scientists believe that this is probably how life began. Some think life may also have travelled here from another planet, maybe even Mars. On our time scale, we are now in mid-September.

Structure of the DNA molecule – Wikimedia

One of the most amazing things about DNA is that it’s not perfect. When it copies itself, mistakes sometimes occur. A mistake can have a positive effect, a negative effect or no effect. A positive effect, for example, might give a bird a bigger bill than other members of its species and therefore allow it to survive more easily. This new trait, which will be passed on to its young, can eventually result in whole new species. We call this evolution.

For most of the time of life on Earth, living organisms were very simple. Like present-day bacteria, they were made up of a single cell. However, these cells were still quite complex. Early plant cells, for example, evolved the ability to use the sun’s energy to make food through photosynthesis in which sunlight, water and carbon dioxide (the gas we exhale when we breathe) are converted into sugar and oxygen. On our calendar, this happened in late September.

An artist’s rendition of photosynthesis – Wikimedia

Then, about 700 million years ago (around December 5), living things made up of multiple cells began to appear. In the oceans, animals such as sponges and jellyfish emerged. The first ancestors of insects appeared in mid-December, followed by the first fish. On December 20, the first plants colonized the land when algae (seaweed) evolved ways to survive outside of water. Some of these plants were able to grow into trees when changes in their DNA led to the production of sturdy wood in the stems.

On about December 21, the first true insects appeared. Some, like dragonflies, have hardly changed since. Amphibians, like salamanders, evolved from fish that had developed the ability to crawl out of the water and breathe air. One of these, a fossil called Tiktaalik, was discovered in the Canadian arctic. It is part fish and part amphian. Next, reptiles like turtles appeared on the scene and, by Christmas day, the dinosaurs. The first mammals appeared December 26, the first birds on December 27 and the first plants with flowers on December 28.

An artist’s recreation of what Tiktaalik looked like – Wikimedia

 

Occasionally, there were disasters. Sixty-five million years ago (December 30 at 6 am on our scale), a 10 kilometre-wide asteroid smashed into the Earth near Mexico. It caused winter-like conditions over the entire planet. For a long time, it was impossible for plants to grow. The dinosaurs were wiped out. Many of our mammal ancestors, however, managed to survive and to flourish in the habitats left empty by the dinosaurs. Through evolution, they changed into many different species.

By late on December 30, some of these mammals had evolved into primates that lived in trees and evolved fingers and toes to hold onto branches. One group of primates, probably looking a little like today’s chimpanzees, learned to walk upright. These were the first primitive humans. They appeared on December 31 – New Year’s Eve – at about 10 pm.

Over time, because of changes in DNA and reasons that we’re just beginning to understand, the human brain tripled in size. With bigger brains, humans were able to develop language and became much better at learning, remembering and passing on information to the next generation. They adopted wolves, which became the dogs we know today. The dogs helped them hunt and provided protection. By eight minutes before midnight on December 31, these early humans looked almost identical to us.

About 70,000 years ago, some humans left the plains of Africa and began migrating to new continents like Europe, Asia and North America. Each migration involved learning — learning new ways of dealing with their surroundings.

Model of Homo erectus – an ancestor of today’s humans – Wikimedia

Then, just 10,000 years ago (18 seconds before midnight) humans learned to farm. With all the food they were able to produce, the human populations got much larger and different groups of humans became more connected to each other. Written language was invented and humans learned to read. At two seconds before midnight, Christopher Columbus traveled to the Americas.

In the last second of our time scale, all of modern history has taken place. With cars, airplanes, radio, phones and now the Internet, humans have become more connected than ever. This has allowed us to learn faster than ever, too. And, in the last 200 years, something else has happened. We stumbled on a cheap, incredibly powerful source of energy in the form of fossil fuels – coal, gas and oil. Fossil fuels and connected learning together explain the modern world we see around us. At the same time, however, burning fossil fuels is changing our climate and making our future less certain. It may be difficult to live as we are now in the climate that is coming.

So, hear we are at the campfire. We’ve been on a journey of almost 14 billion years. Don’t you feel lucky to know the true story of how we humans, along with all the other species and modern civilization came to be here? Where the story goes from here is largely up to us. How will you help?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jun 082017
 

When it comes to seeing new species of plants and animals, a certain amount of effort is usually required. This might mean traveling to new locations and walking considerable distances. There is, however, a way to enjoy nature’s diversity that can appeal to even the most sedentary among us. Welcome to the gentle art of moth-watching. “Mothing” can be as simple as leaving the porch light on and checking periodically to see what is clinging to the screen door.

With 165,000 described species worldwide, moths are among the most diverse and successful organisms on Earth. Their colours and patterns range from bright and dazzling to so cryptic as to define the very idea of camouflage.

Let’s begin by distinguishing moths from butterflies. Butterflies have club-like knobs on the ends of their antennae and usually perch with their wings held upwards. Moths, on the other hand, tend to perch with their wings outspread and have antennae that closely resemble bird feathers. Both moths and butterflies make a protective covering for the pupal stage of development. Moths, however, make a cocoon, which is wrapped in a covering of silk, while butterflies make a chrysalis, which is hard, smooth and has no silk covering. Unlike their sun-loving cousins, most moths are nocturnal.

Local moths

Moths are common just about everywhere there are trees and shrubs. This makes the Kawarthas a veritable moth paradise. Over 1000 species have been identified in Peterborough County, but they are probably many more. Basil Conlin, a Trent University student, has observed 560 species on the Trent campus alone!

Different moth species fly at different times of year. The season begins in late March or April with sallow moths like “The Joker” (Feralia jocosa) and extends right into December when the autumnal moth (Epirrita autumnata) can be common. Late May, June and early July, however, is the most exciting time of year for “moth-ers”, since this is when the spectacular giant silkworm moths are on the wing. From the bright yellow of the Io, to the bold eye-like markings of the Polyphemus and the palm-size wingspan of the Cecropia, these moths are truly exceptional.

Giant silkworm moths take their collective name both from their impressive size and from the fine silk they use to spin their cocoons. (Note: Commercial silk comes from the silkworm moth, which belongs to a different family.) They can turn up just about anywhere and are most active on warm, still nights after 10 pm. One of the best places to look for them is on large buildings with bright lights that shine onto walls.

Probably the best known of our silk moths is the Cecropia. Its body is red with exquisite white bands around the abdomen. Each of the dark brown wings boasts a stunning red and white crescent spot. Cecropias ride the June breezes in search of romance. The females release tiny quantities ‑ literally billionths of a gram ‑ of airborne sexual attractants called pheromones. These are still sufficiently potent to attract males from great distances. The male’s large, feather‑like antennae are covered with sophisticated olfactory sensors that sift the sweet night air for the female’s scent. If the breeze is right, males can follow a female scent plume for several kilometres. When male and female finally meet, they join at the abdomen and remain attached for up to 24 hours. The female will then begin to deposit 100 or more eggs on the undersides of leaves of trees such as cherry, birch and maple. Adult silk moths exist for the sole purpose of reproduction; in fact, they have no mouthparts and don’t eat.

A mating pair of Cecropia moths. Note the second moth below. (Ruthanne Sobiera)

Another spectacular species to watch for is the Luna. Pale green in colour, its hindwings end in a long curving “tail”. Other relatively common silkworm moths in the Kawarthas include the Polyphemus, the Promethea and the Columbia.

Sphingids and Catacolas

A group that warrants special attention from spring through fall is the sphinx and hawk moths (sphingids). Sphingids are often brown or grey in colour, moderate to large in size, and have narrow wings and sleek abdomens. This makes them fast flyers. Many have an impressively long proboscis for feeding on nectar. Although most Sphingids are either nocturnal or crepuscular (active at dusk and dawn), some species fly during the day. These include the gallium sphinx and the hummingbird clearwing moth. Night-flying sphingids are often attracted to tube-shaped white flowers with a strong scent.

Hummingbird clearwing moth nectaring at butterfly bush flowers (Rick Stankiewicz)

A few other sphingids to get to know are the one-eyed, elm and big poplar sphinxes. The latter has a wingspan that reaches 12 centimetres and, when at rest, it resembles a fighter jet!

Moth-ers also look forward to mid-summer when the underwing (Catocala) moths start flying. Unassuming at first glance, they are called underwings because of the remarkable contrast between the nondescript forewings and the bright, colourful hindwings (underwings). In many species, the underwings are boldly marked with black bands on an orange or yellow background. When the forewings close, however, the insect effectively “disappears.” Some common local species include the pink, scarlet, once-married and sweetheart underwings.

Moth identification

To identify moths, start by focusing on the larger species and those that stand out from the rest because of their distinctive colours or markings. Pay special attention to how the moth holds its wings when at rest. Are the wings spread out to the side or tent-like over its back? A moth with tent-like wings probably belongs to the Noctuidae family. Once you have an idea of what family the moth might belong to, look more closely at the patterns on the wings and try to compare these to the photographs on a website or in a field guide. I would recommend purchasing the new Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America by Canadians David Beadle and Seabrooke Leckie.

Io moth – Michael Gillespie

The guide shows you the time(s) of year each moth flies as well as its geographic range. It also gives you the host plant(s) the moth requires. If, for example, a given species lays its eggs on oaks and they are plentiful in your area, this is important information. Two excellent moth websites for identification purposes are BugGuide at www.bugguide.net and the Moth Photographers Group at http://mothphotographersgroup.msstate.edu/ You can also view local moth sightings by going to my website at drewmonkman.com Go to the topics page and scroll down to “Moths”.

Attracting moths

To bring moths to you, purchase a bulb that projects light in the UV spectrum such as a black light CFL. Screw the bulb into a lamp – a floor lamp works well – and place in front of a white sheet. The moths will land on the sheet, making them easy to see.

Not all moths, however, are interested in lights. Some are nectar-feeders and will come to a sugary bait. Mix together an over-ripe banana, a dollop of molasses, a scoop of brown sugar and a glug or two of beer. Spread the concoction on a tree trunk or hanging rope and check regularly to see what shows up. This is a great way to attract underwing moths.

Two typical underwing moths of the Kawarthas – Tim Dyson

A lot of the fun in mothing comes from photographing and identifying the insects. Be aware, however, that a flash can sometimes create washed-out images. A way to get around this problem is to carefully catch the moth in a small container and put it in the fridge overnight. You can then take a picture of it the following morning using natural light and a pleasing background such as a leaf or piece of bark. You may also wish to place a ruler beside the moth (a useful size reference) for one of the shots. You’ll only have about 30 seconds, however, before the moth warms up and flies away.

Moth atlas

Unlike birds and mammals, there are still large gaps in our knowledge of Ontario’s moths. It is for this reason that the Toronto Entomologists’ Association (TEA) recently launched the Ontario Silk Moth and Sphinx Moth Atlas to gather data on their distribution, abundance and seasonal patterns. The TEA is asking people to contribute photo records of silk and sphinx moth sightings, including those needing an ID, to inaturalist.ca/projects/moths-of-ontario. The atlas already contains about 4,200 silk observations -many of them from older databases. It can be seen online at ontarioinsects.org/moth/. The hope is that the moth atlas will evolve into a rich dataset like the Ontario Butterfly Atlas, which can be seen at ontarioinsects.org/atlas.

Researchers are seeing a disturbing decline in silkworm and sphinx moth populations across northeastern North America. This has been especially notable in species like the io moth and great ash sphinx. A possible cause is Compsilura concinnata, a tachnid fly that was introduced from Europe to control gypsy moth populations. The fly is known to also attack native moth species like giant silkworm moths.

Peterborough Field Naturalists event

On June 10, Basil Conlin and the Peterborough Field Naturalists will be holding an evening of mothing at the Camp Kawartha Environment Centre, starting at 8:30 pm. The Centre is located at 2505 Pioneer Road. Basil will give a talk on moth identification, as well as methods for attracting, collecting and observing moths. In addition, participants will be able to sit and watch moths coming to a light sheet and to bait. Bring boots, a flashlight/headlamp and maybe a blanket and snacks. The evening will wrap up by 11:30.

 

 

 

Jun 012017
 

It was the Kirtland’s warbler that made our morning. In the red cedar ten metres off the trail, the small grey and yellow bird was all but invisible. Only when it flitted from one branch to another was there any chance of seeing it – and it didn’t flit often. The small group that first spotted the bird had swollen to a hundred birders or more as word of North America’s rarest warbler spread almost instantaneously along the trails. Patience, however, eventually paid off as the bird flew up onto an exposed branch, sat cooperatively in the open and sang its heart out for all to see and hear. There are two spring migrations at Point Pelee National Park: the birds themselves and the people from all over Canada, the U.S. and even Europe who flock to see them.

The Kirtland’s warbler finally agreed to show itself – Greg Piasetzki

Located near Leamington, Point Pelee is a peninsula that extends into the western basin of Lake Erie. It is located at the crossroads of two major migration routes – the Mississippi and Atlantic Flyways. Most importantly, it is one of the first points of land that spring migrants reach after crossing Lake Erie at night. Approximately 385 different species of birds have been recorded here, including 42 of the 55 regularly occurring North American warblers.

To see the greatest diversity of warblers and other songbirds such as vireos, flycatchers, grosbeaks, tanagers and thrushes, the first three weeks of May is the time to visit the park. The birds are in their brightest breeding plumage and most species are singing. They are also relatively easy to see, since the trees leaf out later here, due to the cooling effect of Lake Erie. Anyone going to Point Pelee for the first time will be amazed at how easy it is to see spectacular birds like rose-breasted grosbeaks, Baltimore orioles, indigo buntings, red-headed woodpeckers and scarlet tanagers. Seeing a trio of male tanagers lighting up a trailside tree can be just as pleasurable as getting a fleeting glimpse of a rarity, skulking on the ground in a tangle of vines.The most spectacular birding occurs when weather fronts collide, forcing migrants down out of the sky in what is called a “fallout”. When this happens, you’ll need at least three pairs of eyes. One pair focused on the birds down low on the ground or in the shrubbery, another to check out what’s moving through the treetops and a third to keep track of birds streaming overhead!

Visitors to Point Pelee in May are almost guaranteed to see magnificent scarlet tanagers – Greg Piasetzki

Red-headed woodpeckers were more common than usual this year – Greg Piatsetzki

Once again this year, I made my annual pilgrimage to Point Pelee with friends Jim Cashmore, Mitch Brownstein, Brian Wales, Greg Piasetzki and Clayton Vardy. When we arrived on May 10 after a five and a half hour drive, early migrants like sparrows and kinglets were still much in evidence. A nice surprise, however, was getting close-up views of at least eight black-throated blue warblers. Over the course of the week, new species arrived daily, especially when a flow of air from the south provided a tail wind.

(L to R) Jim Cashmore, Greg Piasetzki, Brian Wales, Mitch Brownstein & Drew Monkman

Carolinian zone

Although we’ve been going to Pelee for years, it’s always exciting to become reacquainted with species we rarely see in the Kawarthas. These include orchard orioles, white-eyed vireos, yellow-breasted chats, Carolina wrens, blue-gray gnatcatchers, prothonotary warblers and rarer birds like summer tanagers. The Carolinian forest, too, is quite different with abundant hackberry trees interspersed with eastern redbud, Chinquapin oak, sassafras, shagbark hickory and American sycamore. Many of the trees support huge vines of wild grape, Virginia creeper and especially poison ivy. The latter are easily identifiable by the numerous hairs that anchor the thick stems to the trunk. The forest floor is covered with wide diversity of flowers like sweet cicely, spring beauty, appendaged waterleaf and invasive garlic mustard.

An eastern redbud in full bloom – Drew Monkman

Pelee offers a wide range of wildflowers in May – Drew Monkman

Sightings board at the Visitors Centre at Point Pelee – Drew Monkman

Festival of Birds

Every May, the Friends of Point Pelee organize the Festival of Birds. This year’s festival featured birding and wildflower hikes, twilight hikes, photography walks and a shorebird celebration at nearby Hillman Marsh Conservation Area. Here, volunteers like Jean Irons explained the basics of sandpiper and plover identification. There were also special presentations on everything from warbler and sparrow ID to learning to bird by ear. A welcoming touch this year was the free admission to the Park as part of the Canada 150 celebration. The Friends also host a very popular birder’s breakfast and lunch.

Birders lined up for lunch, courtesy of the Friends of Point Pelee – Drew Monkman

Birders at Pelee take regular breaks at the visitors centre, where naturalists are on hand to answer questions and give suggestions as to where to go. You can also consult the sightings board to see where species of special interest have been observed that day. Quite often, the birds remain in the same area for hours or even days. You will also find a great bookstore and displays set up by various groups like Quest Nature Tours and the Ontario Field Ornithologists.

Highlights

Each year offers a different mix of highlights. This year, great views of prothonotary warblers was one of them. On the Woodland Trail at Pelee and then again on the Tulip Tree Trail at Rondeau, we watched as they searched for food along the edge of wooded swamps. Their brilliant orange-yellow head and blue-gray wings produced a non-stop chorus of “wow!” from the appreciative birders. At one point, a spectacular male was hopping around at people’s feet. Photographers couldn’t stop clicking.

Point Pelee is a photographer’s delight with spectacular species like prothonotary warblers – Greg Piasetzki

Other memories that made the spring of 2017 special were the hundreds of northbound blue jays streaming overhead; the great views of spectacular male warblers like the northern parula, the blackburnian and the blue-winged; a tired and hungry scarlet tanager foraging in a pile of rocks and oblivious to the crowd only metres away; the chestnut-sided warbler that briefly landed on Mitch’s shoulder;  an American woodcock and its chicks feeding along a muddy trail; observing orioles and grosbeaks building their nests; the tom turkeys displaying to females with tail fanned and body feathers puffed out; a winter wren pouring out its ridiculously long, 132-note song; a black-billed and yellow-billed cuckoo perched side by side in a tree just metres overhead; the abundance of wood thrushes, Swainson’s thrushes and veerys; and getting great views of the subtle differences between similar species like Forster’s terns and common terns and American golden plovers and black-bellied plovers.

A yellow-billed cuckoo perched only metres overhead – Greg Piasetzki

Turkey vulture perched on the cross of the Catholic church at Rondeau – Drew Monkman

Birding’s allure

Despite the thousands of people in the Park and the sometimes-congested trails, birders show an unwavering respect for the birds and for fellow birdwatchers. Rarely do people speak in a loud voice or push their way past others. It’s not unusual to be surrounded by a dozen other birders but to still feel you have the silence of the woods to yourself. It’s also wonderful to be in the company of so many people of similar interests, to chat with visitors from all over North America and the United Kingdom and to be part of the instantaneous “sightings grapevine” in which birders share the location of sought-after species. People also help each other with identification problems and love to share what species are just ahead on the trail.

All eyes were trained on an elusive Kirtlands’s warbler – Drew Monkman

Pelee also reminds me each year of why birding is so appealing. At its essence, bird-watching is an exercise in focused awareness. Yes, at one level, it is a hobby, but it is also a powerful means of developing mindfulness. When you are fully focused on finding, identifying or simply watching a given bird, it is possible to live entirely in the moment as your senses completely take over and any intrusive thoughts are swept away. There is so much information for your senses to take in: the beauty, numbers and diversity of the bird themselves, the rich orchestra of different songs, the smell of the spring air and the warmth of the May sun. By learning to see, listen, smell and feel, birding teaches us to enjoy all that our senses have to offer. There is also great satisfaction in drawing upon your knowledge of habitat, time of year, song, behaviour and field marks to make an identification. Sometimes, however, you just don’t know. This is especially true for look-alike birds like many of the vireos and flycatchers.

Personally, I try to focus my attention on bird song. It provides an almost instantaneous picture of the diversity of species present as well as the number of individual birds. The soundscape at Pelee and Rondeau is dominated by the voices of Baltimore orioles, yellow warblers and red-winged blackbirds. The challenge, however, is to coax your brain to push these more common sounds into the background, so that the voices of less common species can be detected. This year, the flute-like song of the wood thrush stood out all week long and was beautiful to hear.

A wood thrush on the Tulip Tree Trail at Rondeau – Drew Monkman

When we left Point Pelee, we headed east to Rondeau Provincial Park near Blenheim. A stop at the town’s sewage lagoon provided great views of shorebirds, five species of swallows and numerous ruddy ducks. Rondeau offers a quiet counterbalance to Pelee’s frenzy. The birding can be almost as good, but there are far fewer visitors. It is also a botanist’s delight with spectacular tulip trees, diverse wildflowers and intriguing ferns. The visitors centre provides many of the same services as at Pelee but on a smaller scale. It also has a busy array of feeders that provide great photo opportunities. A visit to either – or both – of these parks is no less than a celebration of a southern Ontario spring.

If you plan to go next year, book now. Accommodation can be especially difficult to find in the Point Pelee area. For visitor information, go to festivalofbirds.ca

 

 

 

May 182017
 

My passion for nature began with turtles. Catching these wary reptiles was one of my favourite pastimes as a child. I was especially proud whenever I managed to bring home a snapping turtle, keep it for a day or two and show it off to my friends and family. I was therefore pleased to learn that the Ontario government has finally decided to ban the hunting of this increasingly rare species. This is a huge step forward for turtle conservation and a victory for science-based decision making. Like all of Ontario’s turtles, the snapping turtle cannot tolerate additional losses to its adult population. The hunt was not sustainable, especially on top of other pressures such as habitat loss and road mortalities.

Snapping Turtle digging nest on roadside (Danielle Tassie)

In late May and June, turtles are searching out nesting sites, such as the fine gravel of road shoulders. This is when people most often see turtles. However, turtle eggs stand a very poor chance of surviving the 90-day incubation period. Predators such as raccoons and skunks usually discover the nests within a matter of hours, dig up the eggs and enjoy a hearty meal. They leave behind the familiar sight of crinkled, white shells scattered around the nest area.

Roadkill, too, is a major cause of turtle mortality, especially at this time of year. Even worse, many of the turtles killed or injured are females on their way to lay eggs. Killing pregnant females not only removes reproductive adults from the population, but it also means all their potential future offspring are lost as well. Always drive carefully and keep an eye out for turtles on the road.

Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre

Sadly, numerous turtles continue to be hit by cars or injured in other ways. This is where the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre (OTCC) comes in. Located at 1434 Chemong Road in Peterborough, the OTCC has been working since 2002 to protect and conserve Ontario’s native turtles and their habitat. It is the only wildlife rehabilitation centre dedicated solely to providing medical and rehabilitative care to Ontario’s turtles.

Home to the Kawartha Turtle Trauma Centre, the OTCC operates a  hospital, which treats, rehabilitates and releases injured turtles. From an average of 50-80 turtles in the early years, the Centre now receives about 500 turtles each year as more people across Ontario learn about its work. The OTCC also carries out extensive research in the field and runs a comprehensive education and outreach program. The Executive and Medical Director is Dr. Sue Carstairs, who is an authorized wildlife custodian with over 20 years of experience in wildlife medicine.

Because so few turtles ever reach sexual maturity – females don’t even reproduce until the age of 18 – each adult turtle is part of an extremely important group. This is why it’s so important to rehabilitate as many injured turtles as possible – especially females – and return them to the wild. According to Dr. Carstairs, the most recent figures show that 1400 eggs are required to replace just one mother snapping turtle. However, as long as turtles can avoid threats such as road traffic, they can live and breed for a long time. It is believed that snapping turtles have a lifespan of over 100 years.

The OTCC is supported by a province-wide network of veterinarians and wildlife centres, including more than 30 different “first response centres”. Over 100 volunteers then drive the turtles from across the province to Peterborough. In this way, the “patients” are admitted to OTCC quickly for ongoing care. Once stabilized with fluids, painkillers, antibiotics, and wound management, each turtle is x-rayed to check for internal injuries and to see if the females are gravid (pregnant). If so, they are usually induced to lay their eggs.  With deceased turtles, the eggs are removed surgically. In both cases, the eggs are then moved to a nest container and incubated in the turtle nursery. Most hatchlings are quickly released in the marsh or pond closest to where their mother was found. However, babies from eggs that hatch late in the fall are kept over the winter and released in spring.

The public education facility at the OTCC on Chemong Road, in Peterborough – Drew Monkman

Because a turtle’s shell is made of bone, putting a fractured shell back together is orthopedic surgery. A number of different methods are used, depending on the type of fracture. Internal injuries, however, are the most life threatening. Like other injured animals, turtles go into shock, which means that timely care is of the essence. Other common medical interventions include repairing fractured jaws, removing fish hooks and treating everything from infections to pneumonia.

Drew Maxwell, a volunteer at the OTCC holds newly-hatched snapping turtles. The Centre treats injured turtles from around the province, many of which are injured after being hit by vehicles. – Drew Monkman

Education

Because education is the key to turtle conservation, the OTCC offers a number of carefully tailored presentations both off- and on-site. Audiences range from kindergarten students all the way to cottagers associations. Their Chemong Road location houses a 1000 square foot education centre. It is home to non-releasable education turtles, interactive displays and a great gift shop. Visitors can enjoy behind-the-scenes viewing of the hospital, the rehabilitation centre and adorable baby turtles! The education centre also includes a new outdoor area with ponds, trails and informative signs.

What you can do

1. If you come across an injured turtle, take note of the exact location where you found it. Place the animal in a plastic container with a secure lid and wash your hands. Call the OTCC at 705-741-5000. The Centre is staffed seven days a week from 8 am to 8 pm. NOTE: Never attempt to treat any sick or injured animal, no matter what it is. In the case of birds and mammals, contact a licensed Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre by going to owren-online.org

2. If you encounter an uninjured turtle in the middle of a road and traffic conditions are safe, gently move the animal in the direction it is travelling. Snappers can be coaxed across using a shovel, board or big stick. Never pick up a turtle by its tail.

3. If you know of a road that is particularly dangerous for turtles, contact your local councillor or other elected official to see if warning signs can be erected.

4. Do not dig up nests to protect the eggs. If you are concerned about predators, you can build a turtle nest cage. Instructions can be found at torontozoo.com. Search for a pdf called “Turtles on your Property”. Remember to keep an eye out for hatchlings from late August until snow. Hatchling painted turtles sometimes overwinter in the ground and appear in spring.

5. If you are a lakeside property owner, keep your shoreline as natural as possible. Leave an un-mown buffer of vegetation that extends at least 10 metres deep back from the water’s edge. Leave any fallen logs that lie on or close to shore.

6. You can help to conserve turtles (and other reptiles and amphibians) by reporting your sightings to monitoring programs such as the Ontario Reptile & Amphibian Atlas at Ontarionature.org

7. The OTCC exists primarily thanks to a team of dedicated volunteers, which assist with turtle care, outreach and fundraising. If you are interested in volunteering, visit the website or phone 705-741-5000.

Ontario’s turtles

Ontario is home to eight species of turtle, six of which can be found in the Kawarthas. The only species that are not found locally are the wood and spiny softshell turtles. No less than seven of our province’s turtles are now listed as Species at Risk.

1. Midland painted turtle: This is our most common and widespread species. It is named for the bright yellow, orange and/or red streaks on the head and neck.

2. Snapping turtle (at risk): Easily identifiable by its often massive size and the serrated edges at the rear margin of the shell, the snapping turtle is most often seen in May and June when it is nesting.

3. Blanding’s turtle (at risk): This species has a  dome-like shell and bright yellow throat. It is still quite common in the Kawarthas.

Blanding’s Turtle – Rick Stankiewicz

4. Musk turtle (at risk): This small, often algae-covered turtle, frequents shallow bays. It rarely leaves the water.

5. Map turtle (at risk): The shell of this large but wary species is covered by a network of map-like lines. The head and neck are streaked. They are often seen sunning themselves on the rocks of large lakes like Rice and Stony.

6. Spotted turtle (at risk): Small and secretive, spotted turtles have a smooth black shell with conspicuous bright yellow spots. There have only been a handful of confirmed sightings in the Kawarthas in recent years.

7. Wood turtle (at risk): This semi-terrestrial species spends most of its time on land in summer, inhabiting fields and forests near streams. Its shell looks like a piece of wood.

8. Spiny softshell turtle (at risk):  This is a highly aquatic species found mostly in the Great Lakes and in large rivers. It lacks the horny plates on its shell that most turtles have.

Ontario also has one non-native turtle, the red-eared slider, which is superficially similar to the painted turtle. It is sold in pet stores. Unfortunately, disenchanted owners continue to release sliders into the wild, where they represent a threat to native turtles.

Shell-abrate!

To celebrate the banning of the snapping turtle hunt, the OTTC will be hosting a fundraiser in Toronto on June 15. The event takes place at Torys LLP, located at 79 Wellington Street West. Tickets are $95 each, but come with a $45 tax receipt. There will be a short documentary on the Centre’s work, a silent auction, interactive displays and a chance to meet OTCC’s ambassador turtles!

To learn about all OTCC happenings such as regular open house events, visit ontarioturtle.ca.

May 112017
 

One of my greatest pleasures in May is the welcome sight and sound of songbirds returning right on cue from their southern wintering grounds. I was therefore delighted to hear a northern waterthrush belting out its emphatic double-note song at the start of the de Pencier Trail at the Trent Nature Area this week. Having seen these brownish warblers in winter in the mangroves of Costa Rica, the wonder of their annual two-way journey never ceases to amaze me.

The Northern Waterthrush often bobs its tail up and down as it walks. It’s one of many songbirds in the Kawarthas that migrates to and from the tropics each year. (Photo: Robin Williams Blake)

This month sees the biggest push of spring migration with the arrival of nearly all long-distance (neo-tropical) migrants – birds that spent the winter in the Caribbean, Mexico and Central and South America. It is possible to see more species at the height of migration in May than at any other time of year.

An elegant synchronicity of events occurs this month. As the green canopy of leaves develops overhead, countless caterpillars emerge to feast on the verdant bounty laid out before them. And, right on cue, millions of birds pour into central Ontario to regale themselves of this insect banquet. While some species will remain to raise a family here, others pass through quickly as they push forward to northern nesting grounds.

Bird GPS

For thousands of years, bird migration stumped the greatest minds. People used to believe that hummingbirds migrate on the backs of geese and that swallows emerge in spring from the bottom of ponds. Today, scientists have a much better understanding of this fascinating phenomenon, although much still remains unexplained.

Most bird species migrate at night when there is less danger from predators and the air is more stable. The daylight hours are used for feeding and resting. If conditions are favorable, such as with the passage of a northward-advancing warm front, birds will start migrating about one hour after sunset. Songbirds such as the waterthrush usually fly at less than 200 metres and average speeds of about 25 kilometres per hour.

Changing weather conditions during the night can cause “groundings” of these nocturnal voyagers. When a northward moving warm front collides with a cold front, the warm air – and the birds in it – rises over the cold; the air cools, rain develops and the birds are forced to land. This means that rainy May mornings can produce superb birding.

Birds use a variety of navigational cues to find their way, and different species rely on some cues more than others. Indigo buntings, for example, appear to orient themselves in relation to the pattern of stars around the North Star, Polaris. To navigate by stars, birds require a clear view of the sky. However, many birds migrate below cloud level, which begs the question of what “GPS” they are using. Researchers now have conclusive evidence that at least some migratory songbirds are able to get their bearings from the Earth’s magnetic field. The Earth is like a gigantic magnet, with magnetic field lines extending between the magnetic north and south poles. In 1984, it was discovered that the nasal tissues of birds such as bobolinks contain magnetite. This magnetic mineral acts almost like a miniature compass needle. It is thought that birds may actually be able to see the magnetic field as a visual pattern or specific colour. The northern waterthrush may in fact see north and south as a shade of blue, for example, but perceive no colour at all when facing east or west.

When songbirds cannot rely on stars or the magnetic field for direction, they may turn to information from the position of the setting sun on the western horizon. They may also align themselves to the band of polarized light, which extends perpendicular to the setting point of the sun. Invisible to humans, polarized light is created when sunlight scatters as it passes through the atmosphere. Just as the sun’s location changes with latitude and time of year, so does the position of the band of polarized light. These cues can therefore be used by birds to determine direction. Polarized light is visible to birds even when the sky is completely overcast.

Other directional signals may exist as well. They include infrasounds – sounds whose frequency is below the normal limit of human hearing, such as the roar of the ocean surf or the sounds of winds across the mountains. Wind-carried odors like the smell of certain types of vegetation may also provide useful information. Therefore, it may be that the waterthrush I heard this week “remembers” the specific smell of the de Pencier Trail wetland at Trent.

Boardwalk at beginning of de Pencier Trail (Photo: Drew Monkman)

The incredible accuracy of these navigational cues allows birds to return to the same summer and winter territory each year – maybe even the very spot where they hatched as chicks. This is especially true for songbirds like warblers. So, I make a point of saying “Hi! You’re back right on schedule!” to the waterthrushes at Trent each spring (when no one is listening, of course!). They were probably the same birds as last year.

Monitoring

Technology now plays a major role in monitoring nocturnal bird migration. Weather radar, for example, reveals the tell-tale signatures of migrating birds. The radio waves sent out by Doppler radar bounce off birds and return a signal to the receiver. The numbers can be staggering. It was estimated that somewhere in the order of three to four million birds crossed a line between Cornwall and Granby, Quebec on the night of April 15, 1994. A new visualization tool for radar data even reveals birds’ nocturnal journeys as blue streaks that sweep across a map like raindrops on glass.

Many migrants make soft chirps, tweets and buzzes as they fly overhead under cover of darkness. The sounds, which are unique to each species, may serve as a way to maintain in-flight associations and stay on course. On a good night, it is possible to hear hundreds of these faint vocalizations and, with practice, put a species name to some of them. Now, the sounds are being captured by specialized microphones and other acoustic monitoring equipment that can record, analyze and identify the call makers.

Across North America, such monitoring is allowing both research scientists and citizen scientists to discover everything from what species are flying over the backyard on a given night to how migrating birds interact with the landscapes around them. This is important information, since at least 70 percent of birds migrating to and from Canada fly over urban landscapes and many are attracted to blinking communications towers and illuminated skyscrapers. The mortality that results from collisions with these structures can be staggering. Data from acoustic monitoring can therefore be used to identify high-threat and low-threat zones in urban areas, and measures can be taken to help birds migrate successfully.

Why migrate?

Why would a neo-tropical migrant such as a waterthrush have evolved to undertake a dangerous 6000 km journey from Costa Rica all the way to the Kawarthas and back? The short answer is that it allows them to raise more young. Protein-rich insects are abundant during the Canadian spring and summer, there is a much more habitat available and the long days allow birds to feed their young for up to six hours longer than if they had stayed in the tropics. By flying north in the spring, they also free themselves from competition for food from tropical resident birds.

Using data from weather surveillance radar and eBird checklists, it has now been determined that climate change is causing the seasonality of bird migration to shift. Many birds are arriving at their northern breeding grounds earlier in the spring. This seems to be especially true for temperate migrants like robins and tree swallows, which overwinter in the southern U.S.

Get outside

You don’t have to go far afield to see neo-tropical migrants such as warblers, vireos, flycatchers, orioles, tanagers and grosbeaks. As long as there is sufficient cover, even city backyards can have their own coterie of migrants. Habitat edges such as wooded roadsides are especially worth checking. Get out early, however, preferably before 8 a.m. Keep an eye on the weather forecast, too. Winds from the south usually bring in the most migrants. The largest concentrations generally occur when these south winds are met by some change in the weather such as light rain or drizzle. Even a passing line of local thunderstorms can result in a surprising array of species.

By visiting different habitat types, an experienced birder can usually record 80 or more species on a single morning in mid-May, including 10 or more kinds of warblers. Don’t just rely on your eyes. Be sure to track down any songsters you hear uttering a strange vocalization. Be sure to pish, as well, since warblers are quite responsive to these sounds. If you’re not quite sure which migrants are arriving when in the Kawarthas, visit my website at drewmonkman.com and click on the “Seasonal Bird Abundance” tab. Most of the better known species are listed here.

City parks such as Beavermead and Ecology Park can be great spots for finding warblers and other songbirds. I would also recommend the first kilometre or two of the Rotary Greenway Trail, starting at East Bank Drive at Trent University. This is usually a great spot to hear my waterthrush friends, as well! Learn the song at allaboutbirds.org

 

May 042017
 

Take a moment to envision the most meaningful place of your childhood. There’s a good chance that it was somewhere outdoors. Ours, however, may be the last generation to remember what it’s like to deeply connect with nature. Why? Because children around the world today spend as much as 90% of their time indoors. On average, seven hours of this time is spent in front of a glowing screen. And, for the first time ever, most live in urban areas, often far from green space. This trend has serious implications for children’s healthy development – and for the health of the natural environment itself.

To address this growing lack of nature connection, more than 900 educators, public health advocates, urban planners and researchers from 22 countries gathered in Vancouver in mid-April for the 2017 Children & Nature Network International Conference. The gathering brought together people who are seeking to create a planet in which all children benefit from nature in their daily lives.

Along with Jacob Rodenburg, executive director of Camp Kawartha, I had the pleasure of attending the conference and presenting an outdoor workshop based on activities from “The Big Book of Nature Activities”, which we co-authored. There were also forums and workshops on topics such as forest kindergartens (a preschool held almost exclusively outdoors), naturalizing schoolyards, risky play, the health benefits of nature, honoring indigenous knowledge, designing natural playgrounds and supporting culturally relevant leaders. The keynote speakers included Richard Louv, co- founder of the Children & Nature Network (C&NN) and author of the best-selling book, “Last Child in the Woods”.

Jacob Rodenburg and I led activities from our “Big Book of Nature Activities” at the C&NN conference in Vancouver – Drew Monkman

Children’s Health

Children today are more likely to report symptoms of attention disorder and depression and are often medicated for these problems. Mental health issues, childhood obesity and even myopia appear to be exacerbated by a lack of time spent playing outdoors in nature. However, “Science increasingly tells us that time in nature has the power to make children healthier, happier and smarter,” says Sarah Milligan-Toffler, the executive director of C&NN.

Thirty years ago, there were no more than a handful of studies on the restorative effects of natural environments on children. Today, more than 500 studies have been done and their conclusions are well-aligned. The research consistently shows restorative effects when children have improved access to nature. Depending on the child’s age, this may be the backyard, a municipal park or a wilderness area. In a pilot program in Portland, Oregon, doctors have begun writing “spend time in nature” prescriptions to their patients as part of a longitudinal study on mental health. It’s no wonder. Humans are genetically wired to be in nature, which is where our species evolved.

While it’s not practical for most families to adopt a rural life of unsupervised child-rearing, many parents and grandparents are taking steps to ensure their kids get that potentially healing contact with nearby nature through unstructured outdoor play time. The positive effects are especially strong when they are out with other kids. “We have to do this consciously, because it doesn’t happen on its own very often,” says Richard Louv. In one response to this need, the Canadian Wildlife Federation, a co-sponsor of the Vancouver conference, has created WILD Family Nature Clubs, a loose network of families that organize group hikes and other outdoor experiences.

The conference began with an address by Gil Penalosa, who advises decision makers on how to create vibrant green cities for everyone, regardless of age, gender and social, economic, or ethnic background. His talk focused on how to create connections to nature in an urbanizing world. More than half the world’s population now lives in cities. The majority of these people do not have a park or greenspace within walking distance. Sadly, the proximity of green space decreases as income decreases. However, this can be overcome by establishing everything from naturalized schoolyards and playgrounds to vastly increasing the urban tree canopy and even closing streets to traffic once a week.
Nature connection

One of the most inspiring presentations was by Scott Sampson, CEO of Vancouver’s Science World and creator of the popular PBS show, “Dinosaur Train”. Sampson explained that achieving nature connection can be encompassed in the acronym “NEW”. The N stands for “notice”. If we, as adults, explicitly notice nature, kids will notice it, too. When you step outside in the morning, take time to smell the air, listen to the bird song and point out what’s happening in the trees and gardens. Most children won’t make a habit of noticing nature unless we do.

The E is for “engage”. Nature connection, in Sampson’s words, is a “full contact sport” involving all the senses. Kids need opportunities to get down and dirty – dig in the mud, climb trees, play with sticks, catch wild creatures and even get scraped and bruised from time to time. We therefore need to rethink the notion of risk, and ask ourselves “What’s the risk of NOT letting a child engage in nature play?” If kids don’t deal with risks when they’re young, they may not be able to deal with them when they’re teenagers – a time when drugs, alcohol, cars and other potential dangers enter their world.

The final letter, W, stands for “wonder”. Adults need to be conveyors of wonder and awaken children’s eyes to how amazing the natural world actually is. In addition to expressing wonder yourself – “Wow! Look at all the pollen on this bee!” – ask questions and encourage kids to do the same. Let’s say you come across a bird or insect that catches a child’s attention. Rather than simply saying what it is (if you know), take time to observe it: What do YOU think it is? What do you think it’s doing? Why do you think it might be that colour or behave in that way? Later, you can sit down together to check a book or website for answers. Questions are powerful and almost always lead to rich learning. Encourage children to tell the story of their nature experiences to other people, too.

What Sampson is describing here is the importance of “mentoring”. This doesn’t mean you have to be a nature expert. Rather, a mentor’s job is to be a role model, to encourage and guide questions and to share experiences. Be sure to tell stories of nature experiences from when you were a child, too. Stories are a powerful way to engage young minds and deepen nature connection.

A vision

An essential part of this “New Nature Movement” is providing an inspiring vision to young people. We need this vision to counter the apocalyptic view of the future that inhabits so many of us these days. Many young people think the world will be a far worse place when they reach old age.

The vision needs to be much more than just a sustainable planet. As one speaker said, “Would you just want a sustainable marriage?” It must embrace the idea that people need nature and nature needs people. We can’t thrive without it, and in a world moving towards 10 billion people, nature can’t thrive without us. We need to go beyond simply saying that spending too much time indoors is bad for you, and connecting to nature has all kinds of health benefits. An uplifting vision must include the idea of “relationship”. When we look at nature, we need to see ourselves as deeply embedded within it. A forest is not simply a collection of resources or a pleasant location for jogging or playing. We need to recognize and feel the intrinsic value of other species and of entire ecosystems. When we are in nature, we are in the presence of plants and animals with which we co-evolved. We share most of the same genes. Their stories are every bit as intriguing and imbued with mystery as the story of Homo sapiens. If you need a reminder of how we co-evolved with other species, just remember that at least half the trillions of cells in our bodies are non-human. They are bacteria (over 500 species in our gut alone), viruses, mites and so on. They keep us healthy, and without them we would not survive. In other words, we need to shift to biocentric thinking – an ethic that extends inherent value to all living things.

The vision must celebrate who we are as humans and where we came from. Variously called the Universe Story, Big History or the Epic of Evolution, it is the staggeringly beautiful account of our deep time origins. The story starts with the Big Bang and extends right to us – and every other living thing. Completely anchored in science, it paints the picture of a creative cosmos in which stardust has literally become living things. When children know this story, they will be inspired to shape where the narrative goes from here. Learn the story yourself, and tell it to the children in your life. Google “big history project”. Pick up a copy of Sampson’s “How to Raise a Wild Child” too. It’s full of great mentoring ideas and includes the Big History story.

When we think of the most important issues of our time, climate change, habitat destruction and species extinction all come to mind. However, unless we connect young people – and ourselves! – to nature, a long-term solution to these problems is probably impossible. If voters and decision makers have no emotional connection to the natural world, we can’t expect them to vote or make decisions in its favour. Simply stated, we will not fight to save what we do not know or love.

Apr 202017
 

One of the greatest gifts you can give a child is a sense of wonder in the natural world and how everything in nature can be explained by science and critical thinking. And nowhere is there a better example of the power of critical thinking than when it comes to evolution. Even though a full understanding of the mechanisms of evolution requires an understanding of genetics, children can usually grasp the essential components by age seven or eight. These components are variation (individuals in a population of the same species can vary somewhat in their traits), inheritance (traits are inherited from parents and passed on to offspring), natural selection (life forms with traits that help them to survive and reproduce are most likely to pass on these traits to the next generation) and time (major change usually takes thousands of generations or more).

Effective questioning 

Thoughtful questioning not only serves to clarify the components of evolution but also helps elicit a sense of wonder, curiosity and deeper appreciation of nature itself. Start by encouraging children to look in detail at the organism or behavior in question. Ask them to describe what they see and why they think the plant or animal looks or behaves that way. Always use the language of beauty and awe: “Isn’t a woodpecker amazing! Imagine yourself making a living this way!” Ask open-ended questions starting with “Why?” or “What do you think?” Encourage the kids to do the same. If they don’t know the answer, help them come up with a reasonable hypothesis — an educated guess. Model this yourself. Later, follow up with an Internet search. Remember that it’s perfectly fine to say “I don’t know” or “Scientists don’t have an answer yet.”

Pileated Woodpecker – Jeff Keller

Time activities

One of the hardest things for kids and adults alike to grasp is the concept of evolutionary time and numbers like a million or a billion. Counting can be helpful here. Ask a child to count to a 100. This might take 30 seconds if they count quickly. At that rate, counting to a 1,000 takes about 5 minutes, to 100,000 takes a day’s work (10 hours), to a million takes two weeks work, to 100 million takes five years work, and to a billion takes a whole working life. Imagine how long a billion years is!

Toilet Paper Timeline: This is a fun way to help children visualize the massive amount of time that life on Earth has had to evolve. You’ll need a roll of toilet paper of 450 sheets (tear off 50 from a roll of 500), sticky notes and a long hall or open area outdoors. Explain that the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old and that life first emerged about 3.5 billion years ago. You might add that we don’t yet fully understand how life began, but scientists are getting closer and closer to the answer.

Toilet paper roll

If you are going outside, choose a calm day. Unroll the entire roll of toilet paper. Each square of toilet paper represents about ten million years. Write down each stage (see below) on a sticky note. Attach the sticky notes to the squares indicated. Take the kids on a walk along the timeline and discuss as you go. Be enthusiastic and use the language of wonder! Note: BYA = billion years ago; MYA = million years ago 4.5 BYA: Earth is formed, along with the other planets (square 1), 3.7 BYA: Earth’s crust solidifies (square 80), 3.5 BYA: first life appears in oceans (square 100), 3.25 BYA: photosynthesis begins in oceans (square 125), 2.4 BYA: oceans contain significant amounts of oxygen (square 260), 1.9 BYA: first cells with nuclei appear in oceans (square 310),  650 MYA: first multicellular organisms appear (square 385), 500 MYA: first land life (square 400 ), 250 MYA: massive volcanic eruption kills mass extinction of 96 percent of all life (square 425), 245 MYA: Age of Dinosaurs begins (square 426), 200 MYA: the first mammals appear (square 430), 150 MYA: supercontinent breaks up and continents drift apart (square 435),  65 MYA: Asteroid impact ends Age of Dinosaurs and kills 70 percent of all life  (square 444),  3.5 MYA: first early humans appear in Africa (last square, 3.6 cm from the end),  100,000 years ago: first Homo sapiens, our species, appears (last square, 1 mm from end),  10,000 years ago: recorded human history begins (last square, 0.1 mm from end)

More activities

1.  See your DNA: Believe it or not, it’s easy to see your own DNA, the recipe that makes you. Mix a half-quart (500 ml) of drinking water with 1 tbsp (45 g) of salt and stir until salt is dissolved. Transfer 3 tbsp (14 ml) of salt water into a clear glass. Swirl the salt water around in your mouth for 1 minute. Spit the water back into the glass. Cheek cells will be suspended in the salt water. Gently stir the salt water with one drop of clear dish soap. (Note: Soap breaks down the cell membranes, releasing the DNA.) In a separate glass, mix 7 tbsp (105 g) of isopropyl alcohol and 3 drops of food coloring. Tilt the salt-water cup and gently pour the alcohol–food color mixture so that it forms a layer on top (about 1 in. /2 cm thick). 8. Wait 2 ½ minutes. You should see small white clumps and strings forming. That’s your DNA!

2.  Camouflaged Eggs: The eggs of birds that nest on the ground (e.g., killdeer, ruffed grouse) are highly camouflaged, not just in colour but in pattern, too. These birds will also choose ground (e.g., dark sand instead of light sand) that offers the best match to the egg color and pattern. In other words, birds and their eggs have evolved to maximize camouflage. Species that nest in cavities often lay all-white eggs, since camouflage is not a concern. For this activity, you’ll need hard-boiled eggs and different colored markers or tempera paint.

Show the children pictures of real eggs from ground-nesting birds. Discuss the most effective colours and patterns. Visit a natural area where the eggs will be hidden. Ask the children to think about how to best camouflage their eggs. Each child then takes two to three eggs and uses paint or markers to colour and mark them. Have them hide their eggs in a designated area. Hide a few unpainted white eggs as well for comparison. Excluding their own eggs, how many can they then find in two minutes? Which were the best camouflaged?

Cedar Waxwing nest with eggs – Wikimedia

3. Adaptations Scavenger Hunt: For many plants and animals, spring is a time of mating and reproduction. Over millions of years, special adaptations have evolved to make this process possible. These include adaptations for attracting a mate, defending a breeding site and, in the case of plants, evolving ways to have their genes spread by the wind or by animal pollinator.

Make up a list of common adaptations to look for and give each child a copy. Briefly discuss the purpose of each adaptation. Here are a some ideas: 1. brightly colored flowers (attract pollinators), 2. flowers with a strong scent (attract pollinators), 3. flowers with lines or spots on petals (guide pollinator to nectar), 4. a “catkin” flower (e.g., poplar) hanging like a caterpillar from the twig (easily jostled by wind, thereby spreading the pollen), 5. a bird chasing another away (defending nest or territory) 6. brightly colored male birds like a mallard or cardinal (attract a mate), 7. a dull-coloured female bird (camouflage on nest), 8. male birds singing (attract a mate, defend territory)

Visit an area where the kids are likely to find the flowers and birds in the list. They may want to use a camera to take pictures of the adaptations. Encourage them to add other probable adaptations that they see. Share and discuss.

4. Meet the Beast Within You:  In this activity, kids will learn about our remnant body parts and behaviors that link us to our distant past. Our ancestors needed these “vestiges” in order to survive. Our bodies still carry dozens of reminders of how we used to be millions years ago. However, humans are very different now. We no longer walk on all fours and don’t wear a thick coat of fur. Over time, we have evolved into the bare-skinned and big-brained creatures we are today.

Ask the kids to try the following: 1. Feel their coccyx at the bottom of their backbone. It is the remnant of a lost tail. 2. Using a mirror, look at their canine teeth. They were very useful to early humans for tearing tough flesh. Compare to those of a dog (show picture). 3. Using a mirror, have them make a big, toothy smile. Smiles were a way for early humans to scare away an enemy. Their meaning has changed! 4. Ask if anyone can wiggle their ears? Early humans could do this to help in hearing, just like dogs today. Because of a genetic mutation, only some people can do it now. 5. Have them put their arm in cold water until goose bumps appear. These bumps were the body’s way to erect the thick fur we once had. This made us look larger and more ferocious. Show a picture of a dog with its back hair raised. Ask why our hairy coats may have disappeared?

Coccyx (in red) (Photo by DBCLS)

Earth Day should be about more than picking up litter. Make it a celebration of our planet’s amazing biodiversity and the process behind life’s myriad forms – evolution.

 

 

 

 

 

Apr 132017
 

Kids make great amateur scientists. They love to ask “why” questions. “Why is the monarch butterfly so colourful? Why does it start life as a caterpillar? Why does it migrate? Thanks to Charles Darwin, we now understand that questions such as these are entitled to an evidence-based answer – and it is the theory of evolution that provides the answer. To quote evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Rather than taking away from the wonder of nature, understanding evolution only adds to it. There are so many mysteries in nature that we’ve not yet solved.

Children merit a truthful and passionate introduction to the natural world around them, especially if we are to harness their innate curiosity. Once children get a sense of how evolution works – and eventually link it to themselves – their eyes light up with wonder. I remember one little girl in grade 4 saying, “You mean we’re animals!” Without a basic understanding of evolution, nature study – and much of biology – risks becoming the memorization of species names and facts.

Students watching Monarch emerge from chrysalis (Photo: Drew Monkman)

Unfortunately, there’s a perception among many parents and teachers that evolution is hard to explain, or that they’ll get something wrong. It’s really not that difficult at all. Conversations about evolution should be done in context. Allow the children to think the process through themselves. A discussion might go something like this. “Look at that animal over there. What is it? (a squirrel). Is a squirrel a bird, an insect or a mammal? (mammal). How do you know? (It has hair). Okay, well if we lived at the North Pole and we saw a squirrel, do you think it would have more or less hair? (more) Why? (to help it stay warm). So, if the weather here was to get colder and colder every year, what do you think would happen with the squirrels? (develop more hair). Well, you’re right, because there’s always a chance that when baby squirrels are born, some may have more hair than others. This will help these lucky ones to survive, find a mate and have babies. They don’t “try” to have more hair; it just happens by chance. Eventually, all of the squirrels may end up with more hair, since they might be the only ones to survive the colder weather.”

In a nutshell, evolution can be explained to children like this: 1. All creatures struggle to survive and have babies, but many fail. 2. Creatures born with a helpful trait (e.g., a longer bill) are more likely to survive and have babies. 3. Parents pass on the useful trait(s) to their young. 4. Over time, these new traits can lead to a new species – one that can only have babies with its own kind.

Human origins

Eventually, the question of human origin will come up. You might say something like this: “In Africa, there were once primates (e.g., monkeys, lemurs and apes) that were similar to modern day chimpanzees. They became separated into two groups. One continued to live in forests, spent a lot of time in trees and usually walked and climbed on all fours. The other group moved into more open fields and had to spend more time on the ground. Over time, the second group started acting differently like walking upright, which is better for seeing long distances above the grass. Over about seven million years (it takes about three days to count to a million, non-stop) the differences between the groups increased, until the second group became more or less like we are today, and the first group became chimpanzees. That’s what evolution is: if living things find themselves in a new environment- let’s say living in fields instead of forests – they change over time in order to survive. As for humans, we evolved to have big, smart brains in order to “think” our way to meeting our needs. For example, we began to build tools and to develop language. Scientists have found fossils of many of our human ancestors.” A great video to watch with children eight or older can be found by Googling “Khan academy + human evolution overview”.

Model of Homo erectus, an early species of human – Wikimedia

If kids ask about explanations that don’t align with evolution, tell them not to accept what others say – even Mom and Dad – but to focus on evidence. This includes fossils, the amazing similarities in the fetuses and bodies of humans and all other vertebrates and the similarities in the genes, which you can explain as the recipes for making plants and animals. Tell them that when scientists look at chimpanzee genes, they are practically identical to those of human genes. We even share more than half our genes with bananas! Kids are great critical thinkers if you give them a chance.

Activities

1. Small changes: This activity shows how small changes over time make a big difference. Draw a simple bug on the first page of a stack of paper. Then pass the paper on to another person and have them draw the bug as exactly as they can. They should move the original to the bottom of the stack. Have them pass their copy onto the next person who will try to reproduce the bug. Don’t forget to hide the previous version under the stack. Do this at least ten times. Compare the original to the “evolved” bug. Was there much of a difference? All it takes is a small change (mutation) in each generation to create huge change over time. Think of how birds evolved from dinosaurs!

2. What’s bugging you? Here’s an interactive story about bugs, which can help young children understand the concept of evolution. “Let’s say I release 100 bugs onto a green lawn. Fifty are green and 50 are brown. Now, which bugs do you think will best be able to hide from enemies like bug-eating birds? (Most kids will say green ones.) So, if I go back in a few years, would I find more green or more brown bugs? (green again). And, what color will the babies of the green bugs be? (green). That’s right. Just as your mom or dad passed on a certain trait like your blue eyes, the parent green bugs will pass on the green color to their babies. (Now comes the tricky part.) Let’s say some green bugs that usually live on green lawns get blown in a storm to an island where there is mostly brown sand. Life will be hard. However, once in a rare while, a pair of these green bugs might produce a brown baby. This is because little mistakes sometimes happen in how an animal’s body makes a baby. Do you think those rare brown babies would escape enemies more easily? (yes). And, if the rare brown bugs live a little longer because they can hide better, do you think they may have more babies than the green bugs? (Most kids will agree.) What color would most of the babies be? (brown.)

As the years go by, brown bugs will become more and more common. Color isn’t the only thing that might change, however. Because a sandy habitat offers fewer places to hide, the babies that are born with other good traits for hiding — once again because of a mistake in how the parents’ body makes a baby — would end up surviving more easily. Such a trait might be bigger, stronger front legs that are good for digging hiding spots in the sand. Now, let’s say that hundreds of years later, there is another huge storm. Some of the brown bugs get blown off the island and end up on the grassy lawns where their ancestors came from. Would they have trouble surviving? (Kids should say, yes.) Well, that’s not the only problem they would have. Other than eating, what else do all animals do? (Prompt someone to say, “have babies.”) Well, imagine a male brown sand bug meets a female green lawn bug (or vice versa). She might just chase him away or completely ignore him. She won’t want to make babies with him because, being brown and having huge front legs, he looks so different. At this point, we can say that the green lawn bugs and the brown sand bugs have evolved into two different species. Just like horses and zebras!)

Kids are fascinated by living things and why they look and behave as they do (Photo: Drew Monkman)

3. Paper circles game: This is a hands-on version of part of the story above. It shows how nature “decides” (natural selection) who survives and has babies. Using a whole punch, make 50 sand-brown and 50 grass-green paper circles. You might want to use paint sample cards. Sprinkle 20 of each colour on a green lawn. Give the children maybe 30 seconds to remove as many of the little circles as they can (but only one at a time). Then, count the number of circles of each colour that were picked up. For every circle that remains on the grass (20 minus number picked up), add 3 or so of the same colour. This represents reproduction. Repeat the activity for a couple of more “generations”. The children will see how the “population” on the lawn shifts towards the colours that are hardest to see. You can then try the same activity on sand.

Next week, I’ll provide more activities and thoughts on teaching evolution. What better way to celebrate Earth Day than helping kids understand the reason for our Earth’s huge diversity of life!

 

Apr 062017
 

When I used to hear the words ‘brook trout’, the image that came to mind was a pristine lake in Algonquin Park. Well, that image has changed. What I now see is a tiny stream running along Rye Street in this busy commercial and industrial sector of southwest Peterborough. As surprising as it may sound, this branch of Harper Creek is an urban coldwater stream and home to a native brook trout population – an ecological gem that no other urban area in the entire province can claim. And, if wasn’t for the work of a 15-year-old boy, we would know far less about these fish.

A female Brook Trout on her redd in Harper Creek – Don McLeod

Harper Creek originates in Stenson Park, which is located just north of Stenson Boulevard. One branch of the creek can be seen flowing adjacent to the CPR rail-line on the east side of Harper Road. Another flows through the ditch along the north side of Rye Street. Both are cold water streams which eventually discharge into Byersville Creek and on into the Otonabee River.

The south tributaries flow through Harper Park, a 60 hectare (150 acre), municipally-owned, protected natural area. Roughly speaking, the Park is bordered by Westview Village condominiums and Holy Cross high school to the north, Harper Road to the east, Ramblewood Drive to the west and Fleming Drive to the south. Much of the park, as well as parts of the surrounding area, form a wetland which was recently designated as Provincially Significant. These wet meadows, forested swamp and marsh provide habitat to many locally-unique species of native plants and animals. The wetland is particularly significant because it contains numerous areas of groundwater seepage and coldwater springs which flow into Harper Creek. The bad news, however, is that Harper Park and the creek itself are under threat from multiple developments in the area, including the OLG casino and associated road development.

Bowman Study

The Harper Creek brook trout population is entirely wild; in other words, it is free from interbreeding with hatchery fish. This alone is a rarity. It is believed that the very substantial groundwater flow and coldwater springs have allowed the fish to persist in the creek despite channelization of some sections (e.g., along Rye Street), industrial development, storm sewer outflows and the dumping of fill into the stream bed.

Up until recently, this population was never systematically studied. We don’t know, for example, how it has reacted to the many pressures listed above. Now, new developments along the stream such as the casino are likely to create additional stressors such as increased water turbidity (e.g., suspended solids like silt), increased artificial lighting and periods of more salt in the water from winter road maintenance.

In the last three years, however, our knowledge of the Harper Park brook trout has increased a great deal, thanks largely to the work of 14-year-old Jacob Bowman. Jacob has had a personal interest in brook trout all his life. In 2014, when he was just 12, Jacob started studying the Harper Creek trout as a Peterborough Regional Science Fair project. In addition to making regular observations of the fish themselves, he sampled water temperature, water depth and the presence of invertebrates at various locations throughout the Harper Creek system. He found that the northern branch along Rye Street had the narrowest annual range of water temperature (9.5°C) and was both the coldest section in summer and the warmest in winter. Harper Creek, within the boundary of Harper Park, had the second narrowest temperature range (12.5°C), ranging from 3.5°C in winter to 16°C in summer. All other sections of the creek system had a far greater range. For example, during the extreme heat of July 2016, these sections reached temperatures of 20°C, which is close to the maximum temperature trout can cope with. At the same time, however, the northern branch was only 15°C. This was the coldest of all sites measured, and trout were observed here over the entire course of the study. Other sections of the creek system have less stable water temperatures and levels, which have led to highly variable occupancy by trout.

Jacob Bowman sampling invertebrates in Harper Creek in January, 2016. The local teen has been studying the ecology of Harper Creek since he was 12. (Photo by Jeff Bowman)

As Jacob has demonstrated, brook trout are highly sensitive to water temperature, especially when it comes to spawning and egg incubation. The fish spawn any time from October to late November and usually choose shallow, gravel bottom sites, where spring water keeps the eggs well-oxygenated and relatively warm during winter. Prior to hatching, the eggs will need two to three months of development. They emerge from the eggs in February to March, but an egg sac is still attached. In this “alevin” stay, the fish remain in the protective gravel of the redd (nest), and all of their nutritional needs are provided by the egg sac. The sac slowly shrinks and the “fry” start swimming up from the bottom in March or April.

Water from natural springs is warmed by geothermal heat from the earth. This will keep spring-fed creeks at water temperatures of between 5 and 10C, in contrast to surface water creeks which often see temperatures in winter drop to 0 C. Without this warming effect, successful egg development in brook trout is not possible.

From a water temperature perspective, the northern branch is the highest quality trout habitat that Jacob assessed in the Harper Creek system. Trout in this branch are buffered from the heat of summer and the cold of winter. This allows them to save energy and enjoy enhanced survival compared to other sections of the creek.

New study  

Jacob’s work has proven to be the catalyst for more research. The Peterborough Field Naturalists and the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters are now partnering with Trent University to conduct a new, two-year comprehensive study of Harper Creek brook trout. The study will use a technique known as fish telemetry, in which acoustic tags are implanted in the fish. The tags are small, sound-emitting devices that allow the detection and/or remote tracking of fish in three dimensions. The study will begin this spring with the tagging of 20 brook trout Each trout will carry a radio tag weighing less than one gram, which minimizes impacts on the fish’s behaviour. Harper Creek brook trout are quite small, averaging only 7 inches – too small for anglers to keep. The research will be conducted by Scott Blair, a Trent graduate student.

The study will track the brook trout’s seasonal movements and habitat use. Parameters such as water temperature, salinity, turbidity, prey availability and the abundance of other fish species will also be monitored. All of this information will be used to create a habitat model as well as identifying how human impacts are, and will be, affecting the fish. Like Jacob Bowman’s study, the researchers will be able to identify the most valuable brook trout habitat, project the potential impact of planned developments in the area and inform mitigation measures to protect this valuable population.

You or your organization can collaborate in this research, too, thanks to a program called “Fund and Follow a Fish”. Two options are available. You can fund an individual fish by covering the cost of its $200, hand-made tag, or you can simply make a donation in any amount to the research effort in general. By covering the cost of a tag, you will be connected directly to an individual brook trout. You will receive a picture of your fish; information about its gender, length, weight and unique traits; data about where and when it moves within Harper Creek; and a copy of the entire study when published. A picture of you and your trout – you can give it a name! – will be posted on the Harper Park website. Most importantly, you will have the satisfaction of knowing that your funding will help researchers reveal the hidden life history of the beautiful ‘brookies’ in Harper Creek. At a time when approximately 80% of the brook trout populations in Southern Ontario have disappeared, you will be helping the Trent University team gather information that could help conserve brook trout in other communities. Go to peterboroughnature.org/harper-park/trout-study/ for detailed instructions on how to make your donation.

Recommendations

The Harper Creek system is small, isolated and fragmented. It is often difficult for the various sub-populations of the fish to move from one section of the Creek to another. Harming any of the trout populations – and especially ones of high quality such as along Rye Street – will reduce the overall population size and increase the risk of all Harper Creek brook trout disappearing.

A section of Harper Creek runs in a ditch along the north side of Rye Street in Peterborough (photo: Drew Monkman)

 

Like many people in Peterborough, Jacob is concerned about the anticipated impacts from the proposed casino development and the Harper Road realignment. Any development in the area needs to maintain or enhance the connectedness of creeks in the system as well as the overall amount of cold water (including groundwater) habitat accessible to the trout.

One option may be to leave the northern branch where it is, and to plant native trees and vegetation along the edge to further protect the creek from disturbance. Failing this, it may be possible to redirect the stream to within the protected natural area. Success, however, will depend primarily on intercepting groundwater sources. Failure to do so will lead to the loss of this trout population and possibly all of the Harper Creek brook trout. And, if you’re wondering about Jacob’s science fair project, he ended up winning in his category and bought himself some fishing equipment. You won’t find him fishing in Harper Creek, however!

To see more pictures of Harper Park fish and wildlife, go to donaldmcleod.com/Stories

 

 

 

Mar 232017
 

As we turn the corner into spring, let’s pause a moment to reflect back on the winter that’s been. For many people, the temperate weather was a blessing, with only moderate snowfall and temperatures well above average. Yes, the abnormally mild winter did make life easier for most of us. At the same time, however, any remaining climate skeptics need to accept the weather – both locally and continent-wide – for what it really was: yet more proof of climate change and climate chaos.

Record-warm temperatures and extreme weather events were the pattern across North America. While California received a deluge of biblical proportions and Arctic winter sea ice dwindled to record lows, a “record-setting record” was being established across the entire U.S. and much of Canada. No fewer than 1,151 record highs were set in the U.S. in February, compared to only two record lows. This translates into a  575-to-1 ratio of highs to lows, which is believed to be a record for the most lopsided monthly ratio in U.S. history. An increasing ratio of this kind is a hallmark of climate change. If the planet wasn’t warming, that ratio should remain constant at about 1-to-1. With each passing decade, record highs are outpacing record lows at an ever-increasing rate.

Since August 2015, only one month in the Kawarthas has been cooler than average. This past January and February were both nearly 5 C above normal. Not surprisingly, many migrants returned two to three weeks earlier than usual. The last days of February saw the arrival of turkey vultures, common grackles, red-winged blackbirds and killdeer – species we usually don’t see until the third week of March. As for robins, well, they had never left. Record numbers chose to overwinter in the Kawarthas this year, thanks mostly to the huge crop of wild grape.

Red-winged Blackbird – Karl Egressy

Early bird arrivals were only part of the “spring in February” story. Maple syrup producers in central Ontario were collecting and boiling sap two to three weeks earlier than usual; the buds scales of trembling aspens,  pussy willows, lilacs and silver maple opened; and snowdrops and crocuses began to poke above the snow in many gardens. However, despite all the climate chaos we’ve been seeing, an EKOS poll found that Canadians are less concerned about climate change than they were a decade ago. I suspect that one reason for this sad state of affairs is that weather reports almost never mention climate change and always frame mild temperatures in a positive context. Other than the odd interview with meteorologist David Phillips of Environment Canada, when do you hear weathercasters alerting viewers to the connection between extreme weather and the rising concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere? This is a shameful failure of weathercasters to fulfill their duty to the public. Imagine if doctors behaved this way with their patients!

With the caveat that climate change is disrupting the timing of events in nature, I would still like to remind readers of the mileposts of spring’s progression. Regardless of what the weather throws at us, the order of the events, which are listed chronologically, should remain the same.

Late March

·         It’s time to start indoor sowing of annuals for your pollinator garden. Some great species include Mexican sunflower (Tithonia), common sunflower (Helianthus annuus) and catnips (Nepeta).

·         For anyone paying attention, the increase in bird song is hard to miss. If you don’t already know the voices of common songsters like the American robin and the song sparrow, this is a great time to start learning them. Go to allaboutbirds.org, enter the name of the species, and click on the Sound tab.

·         With a bit of work, you should be able to find a dozen or more species of migrating waterfowl. Some hotspots include Little Lake, the Otonabee River, the Lakefield sewage lagoon on County Road 33 and Clear Lake at Young’s Point. Watch for ring-necked ducks, buffleheads, lesser scaup, common goldeneye, and both common and hooded mergansers.

Common Goldeneye male – Karl Egressy

April

·          April is a busy time for feeders. American tree sparrows, dark-eyed juncos and, later in the month, white-throated sparrows move north through the Kawarthas in large numbers. They can all be attracted by spreading millet or finch mix on the ground.

·         The yellow, dandelion-like flowers we see growing in roadside ditches in early April are a non-native species known as coltsfoot.

·         Peterborough Pollinators is hoping to see 150 pollinator gardens registered in Peterborough and area to help celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday. You can register an existing pollinator-friendly garden or commemorate the occasion by starting a new one. Go to PeterboroughPollinators.com/Register.

·         The Peterborough Garden Show runs from April 7 to 9 at the Evinrude Centre. Don’t miss Cathy Dueck’s talk entitled “Pollinators: What Every Gardener Should Know” at 10:30 a.m. on April 9.

·         Now is the time to put out nesting structures for stem-dwelling bee species. Commercially-made nests are available or you can make your own out of Phragmites stems. Seeds.ca/pollination is a great resource as is the 2017 Peterborough Pollinators Calendar, which is available at the Avant Garden Shop on Sherbrooke St. or by contacting Peterborough Pollinators.

·         Close to 30 species of birds are nesting this month. Among these are Canada geese, mallards, bald eagles, mourning doves and American robins.

·         For many rural residents, the return of the yellow-bellied sapsucker is hard to miss. This migratory woodpecker loves to hammer on resonant objects such as stovepipes to advertise ownership of territory and to attract a mate.

·         If the weather is mild, local wetlands come alive in early April with the clamorous calls of countless frogs. The first voice usually heard is that of the chorus frog. Within a few days, wood frogs, spring peepers, and leopard frogs add their voices to the symphony. To learn amphibian calls, go to naturewatch.ca. In the menu at the top of the page, click on FrogWatch, then “How-to Guide”, followed by “Identifying Frogs”.

·         Hepaticas are usually the first woodland wildflowers to bloom in the spring. The flowers can be pink, white or bluish in colour. The Stoney Lake Trails are a great place to see this species and many others. Park at 105 Reid’s Road.

·         The courtship flight of the American woodcock provides nightly entertainment in damp, open field habitats such as fields at the Trent Wildlife Sanctuary.

American Woodcock – Karl Egressy

May

·         A variety of interesting butterflies is already on the wing as May begins. These include the Compton tortoiseshell, the eastern comma and the mourning cloak. Try walking the new, 1.5 kilometre interpretive trail in Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park, which was established by Ontario Parks with the help of the Buckhorn Trails Association. The trailhead is at the parking lot/boat landing off County Road 36, just north of Buckhorn. It provides an excellent example of The Land Between ecoregion.

·         The yellow-gold flowers of marsh marigolds brighten wet habitats in early May. Later, white trilliums blanket woodlots throughout the Kawarthas. A closer look will reveal numerous other wildflowers, too, like yellow trout Lily. Ties Mountain Road north of Nogies Creek provides a great wildflower display.

·         The first ruby-throated hummingbirds usually return on about May 5, so be sure to have your feeders ready to greet them. Keep your sunflower feeders well-stocked, too, since rose-breasted grosbeaks and indigo buntings may just pay you a visit.

·         The long, fluid trills of the American toad can be heard day and night. They are one of the most characteristic sounds of early May. Later in the month, gray treefrogs serenade us with their slow, bird-like musical trills.

·         Watch for native solitary bees in your garden and yard. Some common species include sweat, mason, carpenter and orchard bees. The Peterborough Pollinators calendar will help you identify these tiny pollinators.

Peterborough Pollinator’s 2017 calendar is a great garden resource – Ben Wolfe

·         If you’re looking for pollinator plants for your garden, don’t miss the Peterborough Horticultural Society Plant Sale on May 13 at Westdale United Church (9 a.m. to noon) and the GreenUp Ecology Park sale on May 21 (noon to 4 p.m.)

·         Mid-May is the peak of songbird migration with the greatest numbers of warblers, vireos, thrushes, orioles, flycatchers and other neo-tropical migrants passing through. Mild, damp mornings usually provide the best viewing conditions. Beavermead and Ecology Park can often be quite productive.

·         Wild columbine blooms in late May on rocky hillsides and along roads and trails. The flowers, a beautiful blend of red and yellow, hang in bell-like fashion and are often visited by hummingbirds. The Nanabush Trail at Petroglyphs Provincial Park is worth checking out for late spring wildflowers, including pink lady’s slipper orchids.

·         The showy, yellow and black Canadian tiger swallowtail butterfly appears by month’s end and adds an exotic touch to our gardens.

June

·         In downtown Peterborough and Lakefield, Chimney swifts are putting on quite a show. Pairs can be seen in courtship flight as they raise their wings and glide in a V position.

Chimney Swift (Wikimedia)

·         Painted and snapping turtles are often seen along roadsides and rail-trails laying their eggs. Please slow down in turtle-crossing zones and, if it is safe, help the reptile across the road.

·         The first monarch butterflies are usually seen in June. Make sure you have some milkweed in your garden on which they can lay their eggs.

·         The summer solstice occurs on June 21 at 12:24 AM. The sun will rise and set farther north than on any other day of the year. Celebrate this profound celestial event with your family.

Mar 092017
 

Stretching from Georgian Bay to Kingston, along the interface of the St. Lawrence Lowlands and the Canadian Shield, is a unique ecoregion, now known as The Land Between. It is home to loons, bears, moose, deer and more hummingbirds, at risk reptiles and habitat types than anywhere in the province. At the same time, however, this is a fragile place, which is facing multiple environmental, economic and social pressures.

The Land Between ecoregion (image from TLB national charity)

The first person in modern times to draw attention to this distinct region was probably Peter Alley. From his early childhood, he spent his summers at Muldrew Lake, just south of Gravenhurst. Alley sensed that this area where limestone meets granite had its own unique characteristics. He saw that this was not the Canadian Shield, nor was it the St. Lawrence Lowlands. For instance, he recognized that there are rock barrens here, but nowhere else. Alley wondered if there were other unique ecological features and functions, too. With remarkable dedication, Peter spent 10 years reaching out to individuals, governments and agencies to inspire participation in characterizing and mapping this landscape. His goal was to protect the significant natural features and ecosystem services for future generations. Key to this venture was persuading two land trusts, The Couchiching Conservancy, under Ron Reid, and the Kawartha Land Trust, headed by Ian Attridge, to become involved.

Aerial view of Petroglyphs Provincial Park, located in The Land Between (Photo by Ontario Visual Heritage Project)

The conservancies hired Leora Berman to move the venture forward. Berman brought a background in economics and environmental science to the project. This eventually led to the creation of nationally-registered charity, which shares the same name as the region itself – The Land Between (TLB). Berman, who is the organization’s CMO, broadened the scope of Alley’s vision to include culture and the social economy from a perspective known as “bioregionalism”. Bioregionalism is a holistic way of viewing a landscape, which encompasses and honours all the relationships that exist between and across sectors. It means mobilizing residents as opposed to simply focusing on mobilizing government. A bioregional approach understands that all aspects of a region- from the land to the people – are interdependent and interrelated. It also recognizes that nature informs culture, which in turn fosters the economy and eventually a strong sense of place in the people.

The mandate of the TLB organization is to conserve the ecological, cultural, and socio-economic features of this unique bioregion. To this end, the organization undertakes projects that increase ecological health and community and cultural vitality. The projects are multi-partnered and have multiple benefits across as many sectors as possible. TLB is now recognized as a leading model for cooperation and stewardship in North America. The charity recognizes the value of ecological traditional knowledge and First Nations’ worldviews, and is the first organization to honour First Nation treaties. All of the work they do is in partnership with First Nations. This is achieved, in part, through a dedicated board position for a Curve Lake First Nations delegate. The TLB works entirely through the support of grants, donations, sponsorships and volunteers.

Among its many accomplishments, the TLB now has planning recognition by Environment Canada for the Trent-Severn Waterway and by Hastings and Simcoe Counties. It has been involved in 42 pioneering research projects and forums. In partnership with TVO, the organization produced a three-part television documentary that has reached viewers across the province and can be seen free-of-charge online at TVO.org. TLB has also produced a free mobile app, which provides a virtual tour of the region and explores everything from its special species and spaces to First Nation worldviews. CMO Leora Berman makes dozens of public presentations each year to schools and other groups throughout the region. These presentations highlight the unique habitats, rare species, sacred spaces, history, and relationships that define the TLB landscape.

Naturalization of shorelines with native plants is one of many TLB projects (photo by TLB)

Projects

The TLB chooses projects in seven action areas: fostering cooperative solutions, conserving biodiversity through landscape conservation priorities, sustaining water quality and fish habitats, supporting sustainable economic development, cultivating vibrant culture, enhancing education and engaging youth.

Since 2006, the TLB has worked with partners to protect and conserve turtles and turtle habitats as a major biodiversity focus. The organization works to locate road mortality sites, install turtle crossing signs and support the construction and location of road underpasses. These allow turtles to safely travel to and from nesting sites. One such installation was built recently by the Haliburton Land Trust. It consists of a culvert and a drift fence to guide the turtles through the underpass. Volunteers monitor the site seven days a week through May and June. So far, there have been numerous confirmed observations of turtles and other wildlife using the culvert.

TLB is also a founder and one of many partners involved the Turtle Guardians program, which is also dedicated to turtle conservation. The program’s focus area for workshops and events is The Land Between region, since it harbours the majority population of many of Ontario’s turtles. “Turtle Guardians” learn to identify, monitor and report turtle sightings and habitat features and then apply conservation and stewardship measures on their properties. To sign up as a Turtle Guardian, visit turtleguadians.com  As part of its focus on education and youth, TLB is working with the Trillium Lakeland School Board to deliver state-of-the art learning tools for teachers and students. Engaging students is at the heart of the work done by TLB.

This spring and summer, TLB is holding three workshops to help cottagers and other landowners design a shoreline garden. Participants will learn which plants attract hummingbirds and insect pollinators, reduce erosion, provide fish habitat and deter geese. The first workshop will be held at the Buckhorn Community Centre on April 22. You can pre-order shoreline starter kits at thelandbetween.ca   and pick them up at the workshop. Seating is limited.

Social focus

In an effort to foster cooperative solutions among stakeholders, TLB will organize Land Knowledge Circles, which are a time-honoured tradition of First Nations. They will bring together the everyday people who use the land – hunters, hikers, anglers, snowmobile and ATV enthusiasts, cottagers, nature-lovers, etc. – to share their perspectives, experiences and concerns. These circles emphasize collaborative learning, where participants are encouraged to regard themselves and their ideas as part of a community working towards a collective goal – in this case, a sustainable future for The Land Between region. To participate in a Land Knowledge Circle, please visit www.knowledgecircle.ca

The Land Between is a meeting place where city dwellers, many of whom are cottagers and nature enthusiasts, rub shoulders with year-round residents. This sometimes creates friction, because of the differences in worldview that may arise: liberals vs. conservatives, hunters vs. environmentalists, Settlers vs. First Nation people, etc. However, the coming together of people with different values can also be a source of greater understanding and wisdom. With this in mind, TLB has produced a film in collaboration with Wildlife Habitat Canada. Entitled “My First Shot”, it explores hunting heritage and from a First Nations’ perspective. The film follows Erin Carmody, a left-leaning environmentalist and former vegan, who goes hunting for the first time. Her fellow hunters include Gary Williams, former Chief of Curve Lake First Nation, Keith Hodgson, a member of the Haliburton Highlands Stewardship Council and Kim Roberts, a nurse’s aid and lover of wildlife. Erin’s experience is one of brave discussion, understanding, appreciation and respect for other perspectives on the natural world and for our relationship with it. Through her eyes, the movie explores hunting with a fresh and new perspective. The film showcases the contributions hunters have made to wildlife management and conservation. My First Shot will be presented in Haliburton in late April and in Lakefield in May. Screening dates and times will be posted at www.myfirstshot.ca

To learn more about The Land Between charity, sign up for their newsletter and support their conservation efforts, go thelandbetween.ca

Land trust & Kawartha Highlands P.P. trails

From the outset, the Kawartha Land Trust has been a key partner in TLB work. Many of its properties are located in this region. The Trust envisions a connected system of protected lands, and great strides have already been made in making this a reality. It was also instrumental in launching The Kawarthas, Naturally Connected initiative, the goal of which is to create a Natural Heritage System made up of connected areas that maintain our ecological, social, and economic values.  A Natural Heritage System is a network of connected natural features and areas such as wetlands, forests, river corridors, lakes, and meadows. You can read about the initiative at kawarthasnaturally.ca

A great way to familiarize yourself with The Land Between – or maybe see it with new eyes – is to walk the three interconnected Stony Lake Trails, which the land trust has worked to make publicly accessible. They are located near the west end of Northey’s Bay Road on the north shore of Stony Lake. The trails wind through mostly deciduous forest on the limestone bedrock of the St. Lawrence Lowlands (Blue and Yellow Trails) and mixed forest on the Canadian Shield granite (Red Trail). All of the trails provide great wildlife-watching possibilities and, in April and May, abundant spring wildflowers. Park at Viamede Resort or at 105 Reid’s Road. You can print out a trail map at kawarthalandtrust.org

There is also an interpretive trail in Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park, which was established by Ontario Parks with the help of the Buckhorn Trails Association. It, too, is a perfect rendering of The Land Between. The trailhead is at the parking lot/boat take out point off of County Road 36, just north of Buckhorn. At 1.5 km, it features several numbered sign posts.  The numbers align with brochures that contain information specific to that location.  Visitors can read as they travel along the trail, and learn about the story of the nearby Mississauga River, its history and how it is linked to settlement and the history of the Buckhorn area. This is the first interpretive trail in the Park and is proving very popular. To learn more and download a trail guide, go to buckhorntrails.wordpress.com/about/

 

 

 

 

 

Mar 022017
 

When you drive up County Road 23 into Buckhorn, you have probably noticed the abrupt transition in the bedrock. As you approach the town from the south, layers of limestone line both sides of the road. However, as you exit on the north side, the rock changes abruptly to expanses of beautiful pink granite. The same transition can be seen as you drive into Burleigh Falls on Highway 28. And, if you head up County Road 6 and stop at the Second Line of Dummer-Douro, you can actually see limestone sitting on top of granite, almost like a hamburger bun atop a meat patty. Moving further east, you will see the same changes in roadside bedrock along Highway 7, especially between Marmora and Kaladar.

The Land Between ecoregion (image from TLB national charity)

Limestone sitting upon Canadian Shield rock on County Road 6, north of Lakefield – Drew Monkman

This transition zone where the limestone bedrock of the St. Lawrence Lowlands meets the igneous and metamorphic rock of the Canadian Shield is known as “The Land Between”. But why even give it a name? Well, ecologists have discovered that this area of transition has features that are entirely its own. The landscape is less rugged than further north, but not as flat or fertile as the south. The land rises and falls in patterns of low to high and wet to dry. It forms a mosaic of interconnected environments. An abundance of rivers, small lakes and wetlands are nestled between open granite ridges and rock barrens. In other areas, mixed woodlands, abundant conifers and even limestone plains (alvars) can be found. There are fewer roads and farmlands are rare.

Typical rock barren habitat of The Land Between at Rathbun Lake, near Apsley – Drew Monkman

Location

The Land Between extends from the Frontenac Arch in the east (the area of granite rock you pass through on the 401 between Kingston and Belleville) to Georgian Bay and Southern Parry Sound in the west. Over 240 km in length and averaging 35 km wide, it spans nine counties and includes much of “Cottage Country”, namely the Kawarthas, Haliburton, Land O’ Lakes and Muskoka. Looking at a satellite image of Central Ontario, you can immediately see the region as band of green that stands out in stark contrast to the much more open, relatively treeless expanse to the south.

Species

The Land Between is a meeting ground where southern species more typical of the St. Lawrence Lowlands rub shoulders with plants and animals that are common on the Canadian Shield. It represents the northern limit for species such as White Oak, Butternut, Woodchuck, Cottontail Rabbit, Green Heron, American Crow and Blanding’s Turtle. At the same time, the region is generally the southern limit for Jack Pine, Moose, Black Bear, American Martin, Common Loon, Gray Jay, Dark-eyed Junco and Mink Frog.

Some birds are almost entirely dependent on this landscape. Among these are Golden-winged and, in some areas, Prairie Warblers. At least 26 bird species have their highest population densities in The Land Between. These include Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Bobolinks, Eastern Towhees, Upland Sandpipers, Whip-poor-wills, Common Nighthawks and Pileated Woodpeckers. The area is also home to Ontario’s largest populations of uncommon turtles (e.g., Blanding’s), snakes (e.g., Eastern Hognose) and Ontario’s only lizard, the Five-lined Skink. All of these are species at risk.

Five-lined Skink, Ontario’s only lizard and a Species at Risk – Joe Crowley

As for mammals, 48 of the 80 plus species occurring in Ontario can be found here. Because many of the species are found at either their northern or southern boundary, the area may help to support mammal diversity both further north (e.g., Algonquin Park) and further south (e.g., Oak Ridges Moraine).

The Land Between also offers the darkest skies in Central Ontario and a place where you can really see and appreciate the Milky Way. It is home to Canada’s first Night Sky Preserve, the Torrance Barrens, near Gravenhurst.

Ecotone

The Land Between is an ecotone. The term describes an area of transition, which contains elements of the ecosystems it borders, but also has its own unique features. A key characteristic of ecotones is their high biodiversity – in other words, more species in the food web – as compared to the more homogeneous ecosystems. Areas of high biodiversity are especially important now because of their higher capacity to withstand the pressures of climate change.

Thanks to its abundant lakes, the Land Between has the highest ratio of shoreline to land anywhere in the province. It is also the water source for many rivers flowing into Lake Ontario and Georgian Bay. Thousands of anglers are drawn here by the populations of Lake Trout, Walleye, Muskellunge and both Smallmouth and Largemouth Bass. The area also sits within the northernmost range of the now-extirpated American Eel, which was once an abundant food source for First Nations.

The sandy or gravely shorelines of some of the lakes have relic plant species that have persisted here for 10,000 years. These rare sites are known as Atlantic Coastal Plain Communities. The vegetation spread to this area from the coast of the eastern U.S. during the melting of the last ice sheet. These plants have adapted to fluctuating water levels. Many are provincially rare, including Bayonet Rush, Twin-scaped Bladderwort, Yellow-eyed Grass and Virginia Meadow-beauty. The latter flowers in late summer and sets shorelines aglow in purples and auburns. You can see these communities yourself by visiting Bottle Lake in Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park, north of Peterborough.

Virginia Meadow-beauty, an Atlantic Coastal Plain Community species – Wikimedia

Wetlands

Marshes, swamps, fens and bogs – collectively known as wetlands – are another signature habitat. Many are situated between the rocky ridges and are largely the result of beaver dams. Wetlands contain water-loving plants and organic sponge-like soils, which work together to filter water and regulate water levels. Two of the most interesting wetland varieties in The Land Between are bogs and fens. Bogs are acidic wetlands that are low in minerals. They accumulate peat, a deposit of dead plant material mostly made up of sphagnum mosses. Many are located along shorelines. Rooted in the moss are carnivorous plants such as Pitcher Plant and Round-leaved Sundew as well as a wide variety of orchids. Crane Lake Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park and Quiet Lake in Silent Lake Provincial Park have excellent bogs.

Pitcher Plants growing in a bog in Silent Lake Provincial Park (Drew Monkman)

 

Fens are very similar to bogs in that they contain large peat lands. However, they are dominated by grasses and sedges. Fens often receive water and nutrients from a water table that is close to the surface and keeps the ground saturated. The Sharpe Bay Fen Conservation Reserve is an excellent example of this habitat type. It is located about 50 km north of Peterborough on the east side of Highway 28, just south of Long Lake Road. The area is interspersed with rock ridges and contains fen forests. It provides known habitat for the Five-lined Skink.

Alvars

Alvars are another rare habitat in The Land Between. The word describes an area of thin or absent soil cover on top of a limestone base. The sparse but distinctive vegetation may include shrub-dominated areas of junipers and hawthorns, more open tracts of grasses and wildflowers, or just flat expanses of lichen and moss encrusted rock. Large trees are either absent or widely scattered. A nearby alvar grassland is located approximately 500 m north of Flynn’s Corners, along the east side of County Road 507, north of Buckhorn.

Ontario’s new Carden Alvar Provincial Park, however, is the best example of this kind of habitat. It is located northwest of Lindsay, just north of the town of Kirkfield. The Carden Alvar is the best place in Ontario to see large numbers of grassland and scrubland birds, especially along Wylie Road. Like a remnant of old rural Ontario, you can easily find iconic species such as Eastern Bluebirds, Bobolinks, Eastern Towhees and Sedge Wrens. At night, the calls of Whip-poor-wills and Common Nighthawks ring out. The Carden Alvar is Ontario’s last remaining stronghold of the endangered Loggerhead Shrike. The scenic gravel roads are also rich in butterflies – over 80 species – and dragonflies.

Alvars are a botanist’s delight. Many of the wildflowers and native grasses found here normally occur in the western provinces, and many are rare. The signature plant at Carden is the Prairie Smoke, also known as Long-plumed Purple Avens. Large drifts of its mauve seed heads stand out smoke-like against the green grasses. Other interesting plants include Wood Lily, Indian Paintbrush, Hairy Beard-tongue, Fragrant Sumac, Balsam Ragwort and Little Bluestem.

Prairie Smoke (pink) on the Carden Alvar – Drew Monkman

Barrens and Forests

Areas of exposed granite and gneissic bedrock are one of the most striking features of The Land Between. As with alvars, the soil is very thin and supports early succession species like lichens and mosses. Scattered here and there, you can also find grasses, junipers, hawthorns, oaks and poplars. Rock barrens are perfect basking spots reptiles like snakes and Five-lined Skinks. Other species associated with these habitats include the Whip-poor-will and the Common Nighthawk. An area of outstanding rock barrens is located immediately north of Long Lake in Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park.

As is immediately apparent on satellite maps, much of The Land Between is heavily forested. Relatively mature forests dominated by White Pine are scattered throughout the area, as are forests where Eastern Hemlock, Sugar Maple and Red Oak prevail. Large tracts of forested landscape are requisite habitat for Moose, American Marten, Barred Owls and Red-shouldered Hawks. All of these forest types can be found in Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park.

Next week I will look at the pressures faced by The Land Between, the many conservation initiatives that are taking place and the excellent work being done by The Land Between National Charity.

 

 

Feb 162017
 

“Lichens are fungi that have discovered agriculture” – lichenologist Trevor Goward.

Of all the conspicuous organisms in the landscape, lichens are probably the most overlooked. They are not rare, but people who see and appreciate them are few and far between. The eye cannot see what the mind does not already know. When you begin to pay attention, however, you will see lichens everywhere, starting with those curious, crusty green patches on the bark of mature maple trees on your street. In fact, the Kawarthas is home to hundreds of lichen species. With far fewer plants to compete for the eye’s attention, winter is a great time to get to know these hard-to-classify organisms.

Lichens are found in places where almost no other organism can survive. The type of substrate (surface) they grow on is often the first step in identifying them. Some species flourish on the ground, which can include bare soil, sand, humus, rotting logs and stumps. Others make a living on sun‑scorched rocks or cliff sides. Still other species prefer the bare bark and branches of deciduous and coniferous trees. Old trees often have the most lichen diversity – the bark of a single sugar maple may harbour a dozen species or more. The substrate’s only purpose, however, is to provide a surface to which the lichen can attach.

Common lichen of the Kawarthas

Biology

Lichens are actually dual or even triple organisms, consisting of a fungus, an alga and/or a cyanobacterium (blue-green algae) living together as a single unit. The latter two organisms – the “photobionts” – use sunlight to photosynthesize glucose both for themselves and for the fungus. Fungi are incapable of making their own food. In turn, the fungus provides a home and protective cover for the photobionts, protecting them from damaging ultraviolet rays. This type of mutually beneficial relationship in nature is called symbiosis.

Although lichens are presently classified as part of the fungi kingdom, this is only a classification of convenience. Algae belong to the protista kingdom, while cyanobacteria are in the monera kingdom. In this respect, lichens are as much tiny ecosystems as they are individual organisms.

If you look at a cross‑section of a lichen body (thallus) through a 10x hand lens, you will find a protective outer skin (cortex) of fungal cells. This covers the photobiont layer of single-celled algal and/or cyanobacteria cells, which are mixed in among branching fungal filaments (hyphae). Finally, there is a third layer made up strictly of hyphae. Although lichens have no roots, they do have fungal strands called rhizines that attach the under surface of the lichen to the substrate.

Cross section of a typical lichen 1. Cortex (thick layers of hyphae) 2. Photobiont (algae or cyanobacteria) 3. Loosely packed hyphae 4. Rhizines (anchoring hyphae) – J. Durant via Wikimedia

Lichens are classified by the type of fungi they contain – usually a species in the ascomycete group. These fungi lack the typical mushroom cap and stalk and will only grow in a “lichenized” state. In other words, they can only survive when living in tandem with algae and/or cyanobacteria. They represent about a quarter of all fungal species. Conversely, the algae and cyanobacteria in lichens can live on their own. Many experts now refer to lichens as lichenized fungi or, more poetically, “fungi that have discovered agriculture.”

Growth forms

Lichens have been divided into three subgroups, based on differences in growth form. Foliose lichens (e.g., Rock Tripe) look somewhat like leaves and often have cup-like fruiting bodies (apothecia) that produce spores. Fruticose lichens (e.g., Reindeer Lichen) resemble shrubby or bushy growths, which stand upright or hang from branches. Crustose lichens (e.g., Dust Lichen) often bring to mind paint or powder sprayed on a tree or rock.

When and where

Lichens can be seen year-round, even now in the depth of winter. They survive the cold by drying out to the point of becoming brittle. If temperatures climb above freezing, however, and if sufficient moisture becomes available, photosynthesis can take place and the lichen will even grow.

Because the Kawarthas overlaps two physiographic regions – the Canadian Shield to the north and the St. Lawrence Lowlands to the south – we enjoy especially rich lichen diversity. Each region offers different substrates, especially in terms of geology and tree species. For example, some lichens prefer to grow on limestone (southern Kawarthas), while others opt for granite (northern Kawarthas). Some especially good lichen habitats include granite ridges and conifer swamps (e.g., Petroglyphs Provincial Park), limestone ridges (e.g., Warsaw Conservation Area) and hardwood stands with large sugar maples (e.g., Mark S. Burnham Provincial Park). Even Peterborough itself offers great lichen viewing. Look for them on old brick walls, gravestones, roofs and the trunks of mature trees.

A few lichens to get to know

A word of warning. It is not always easy to identify lichens to the species level. In many cases, you will have to be satisfied in recognizing the genus (the first word in the scientific name) or the group (e.g. shield lichens). Experts often use colour tests to be certain of the species. They drop a reagent on the thallus and look for a specific colour change.

On tree bark, the most obvious species are usually the foliose shield lichens like Common Greenshield (Flavoparmelia caperata). It has pale-green lobes with a black lower surface and resembles a thin, flat, leafy circle. A similar species is Hammered Shield Lichen (Parmelia sulcata). This foliose lichen has blue-gray lobes with a distinctive pattern of white cracks on the surface. It is pollution‑tolerant and easily found on the bark of city trees. A crustose species to look for is Dust Lichen (Lepraria lobificans). It is yellowish-green to pale mint in colour and resembles paint or dust on the bark. Common fruticose lichens include the various species of beard lichens (Usnea species). Bristly Beard (Usnea hirta) is very common on the branches of coniferous trees and birch. It has yellowish-green, densely branched, erect stems. Other species literally look like a beard hanging from a branch with hairs up to 40 cm in length. Many grow on spruce trees.

More common lichens of the Kawarthas

On rocks, watch for different rock tripes (Umbilicaria species), which are foliose lichens. They often resemble dark, leathery leathery lettuce leaves. Smooth Rock Tripe (Umbilicaria mammulata) grows on steep rock walls and boulders in forests. It has reddish-brown lobes and grows from a central stalk. The lower surface is pitch black. Cinder Lichen (Aspicilia cinera) is a common crustose species. It has an ashy-gray, cracked surface with multiple black spots. On limestone and limestone gravestones, you might come across other crustose lichens called firedots (Caloplaca species). Depending on the species, they are yellow or orange in colour. Sidewalk Firedot (Caloplaca feracissima) is common on limestone, including gravestones.

On ground substrate, you may come across the best known and most easily identifiable of all the lichens, namely British Soldiers (Cladonia cristatella). This fruticose species is named for its resemblance to the uniforms worn by English soldiers during the Revolutionary War. Look for greenish-grey stalks, topped with bright crimson red caps (the spore-producing apothecia). Another fruticose species, Trumpet Lichen (Cladonia fimbriata) often grows alongside British Soldiers. The grey-green thallus stands about 20mm tall with a distinctive trumpet or golf tee shape. Reindeer lichens (Cladina species), too, grow on the ground and belong to the fruticose group. They resemble tiny white, grey or greenish shrubs or coral with numerous branches. You can sometimes find three or four Cladina species in a single clump. Carpets of Cladina can cover huge areas. A common foliose genus, the pelt lichens (Peltigera species) have semi-erect, grey-green to brownish lobes and superficially resemble rock tripe.

Appreciation

Lichens are important in many ways. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds use shield lichens (Parmelia) to camouflage their nests; deer, moose, caribou and even flying squirrels eat lichens; and tree frogs take advantage of the camouflage lichens provide. Indigenous Peoples still use lichens as dyes for crafts and other artifacts.

Lichen-camouflaged nest of Ruby-throated Hummingbird – Wikimedia

By degrading rock surfaces and providing a site where organic material can collect, lichens are the primary colonizers of barren landscapes such as rocks. As the lichen grows, these processes speed up and occur over an ever‑expanding area. Eventually, mosses, grasses or ferns may take root in the modest accumulation of soil and replace the lichen.

The degree of lichen diversity in a given area is also a good “bio-indicator” of the amounts of certain pollutants in the air. Some lichens are especially sensitive to sulfur dioxide. Part of the reason for this intolerance is their extreme efficiency in accumulating chemicals (such as sulphur) from trace levels in the atmosphere. Sulphur destroys the chlorophyll in the algal cells, which inhibits photosynthesis and kills some lichens. It is therefore possible to estimate the amount of sulfur dioxide in the air by observing the number and type of lichens growing in an area.

An extreme example of a lichen’s ability to absorb matter from the atmosphere was seen in northern Scandinavia after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Reindeer lichen accumulated so much radioactivity that reindeer feeding on it were considered unfit for human consumption.

Maybe the most important reason to appreciate lichens, however, is for their beauty. Take time to look at them through a good 10x hand lens. A beautiful world will be revealed. My favourite is the colour contrast between the frosted green stalks and the red tips of the British Soldier lichen. Close-up photography, too, is very satisfying. Put your digital camera on a sturdy tripod and use the macro setting.

As for resources, I especially recommend “Lichens of the North Woods” by Joe Walewski. “Forest Plants of Central Ontario” also has a small section on common lichens. A great online resource is the lichens page of the USDA Forest Service website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Feb 092017
 

It’s hard not to love Black-capped Chickadees. Weighing no more than a handful of paper clips, their ability to survive long, cold winter nights and relative lack of food is nothing short of amazing. Although most people are familiar with chickadee behaviour at feeders – flying in, grabbing a seed and departing immediately – there is also a lot going on in the chickadee world that is not immediately obvious. However, by watching and listening closely, even at the backyard feeder, you can learn a great deal about their secret lives and interactions.

Baby chickadees have a very short tail. (photo by Drew Monkman)

Pecking order

A chickadee flock usually forms in late summer around a dominant pair of birds that has just completed a successful nesting. The flock will remain together until the start of the next breeding season. There are usually six to ten birds, but occasionally more if sufficient food is available. Some are paired adults, a few are single adults and the others are young birds born the previous spring. The latter, however, are generally not the offspring of the adult pairs in the flock. Other species, too, will often accompany chickadee flocks. They include kinglets, nuthatches, woodpeckers and, in the spring and fall, warblers and vireos. It’s interesting to note that these other species respond almost immediately to chickadee alarm calls, and fly in to see what all the fuss is about. These alarm calls can be imitated by using “pishing”. More about that later.

There is a surprisingly complex social system within the flock, which is based on a dominance hierarchy, or “pecking order”. Each bird is known to the others according to its rank. In general, older and more experienced birds are dominant over younger ones; males are dominant over females; and resident birds dominate intruders. The bird of lowest ranking is subordinate to all of the others. The rest have a ranking somewhere in between. Once a pecking order is established between two birds, it remains unchanged for years. Dominance can be expressed through vocalizations, body position, body size, chasing and sometimes even by fighting.

A friend actually witnessed the struggle for dominance taken to a rare extreme. While walking in the Trent Wildlife Sanctuary, her attention was drawn to a particularly strident version of the familiar “chick-a-dee-dee call”. The sound was higher and contained more “dees” than usual. Seconds later, she noticed some rustling in the snow. Two chickadees were actually in combat! One bird was on top, and the other was lying on the snow with its wings quivering. The only sounds were the fluttering of the combatants’ wings and the calls of a third bird that seemed to be observing the scene. The tussle lasted for well over a minute. Dominant birds rarely need to fight subordinates, however, once the pecking order of a flock is established.

Advantages of rank

High rank in the dominance hierarchy confers some important advantages. For starters, dominant birds enjoy the best and safest access to food. They tend to forage lower and closer to tree trunks than less dominant birds, who are relegated to the outermost parts of trees where an attack by a predator is more likely. At the feeder, the dominant bird can easily frighten all other chickadees away.

Black-capped Chickadee – (photo by Jeff Keller)

High-ranking chickadees enjoy greater over-winter survival – especially the males. These males are also much more successful in pairing with female flock-mates, and they enjoy greater mate fidelity. A lower ranked male is often cuckolded by his partner who tends to look for sexual opportunities with a higher ranked bird.

The female who is paired to the alpha male also enjoys better access to food and very little aggression from other chickadees. When the nesting season arrives, she will also lay more eggs than lower ranked females and her fledglings will have a greater chance of survival.

Surviving cold

Chickadees have also evolved special adaptations to survive freezing temperatures. One way they do this is by stuffing themselves with food each day, often gaining 10 percent of their body weight. They then minimize energy use (i.e., burn less food) at night by going into a state of hypothermia. When darkness falls, a chickadee is able to lower its body temperature by up to 10 C below its normal daytime temperature. This produces an energy saving of almost 25 percent. That’s a lot of sunflower seeds!

In cold weather, chickadees will often spend the night in a small tree cavity. They are able to excavate these roosting holes themselves in rotting wood. Birch is a favourite species for this purpose. The bird wedges itself in the hole, puffs up its feathers to trap air, drops its internal thermostat and burns fat all night.

Vocalizations

Considerable research has been done in recent years on chickadee songs and calls. Both are complex and language-like. Thirteen distinct types of vocalizations have been identified. The well-known “chickadee-dee-dee-dee” call, for example, is sometimes used as a predator alarm. The more “dees” in the call, the higher the perceived level of threat.

February and March are courtship months, and males can often be heard whistling their clear, descending, two or three note song. The second note is a whole-step below the first. A common mnemonic is “Fee-bee” or “Fee-bee-bee”. I like to think of it, however, as “Hi Sweetie”, since chickadees usually start singing around Valentine’s Day. Sweetie just seems more appropriate! The song increases in frequency as the winter advances and serves to advertise ownership or establishment of a nesting territory and to attract a mate.

Black-capped Chickadees start singing in mid-February. (photo by Karl Egressy)

Chickadees sing a great deal at dawn during the breeding period. Songs are also produced during the day in aggressive “countersinging” exchanges, where two males “duel it out” in song. Both frequency matching and song overlapping are important components of countersinging behavior. Females, of course, are listening in. Male performance during such exchanges influences female reproductive behavior. If a male in a neighboring territory out sings her mate, the female will sometimes fly off to the neighboring territory to seek an extramarital adventure!

Things to do

1. When chickadees come to your feeder, watch for short chases between members of the flock. This is an expression of dominance. Dominant birds will approach the feeder directly, scaring off other flock members. You will often see lower-ranked chickadees approach the feeder and then veer off without landing.

2. Can you find any of the seeds the chickadee hides? Seeds and other food items are placed in hundreds of different hiding spots, and the chickadee is able to remember them all!

3. Everyone (and especially children!) should have the experience of hand-feeding chickadees. Feeling the clutch of tiny feet and the brush of feathers is unforgettable. With patience and determination, you can train the chickadees at your feeder to feed from the hand. If you haven’t done so already, set up a feeder with black oil sunflower seed. Keep it well stocked. Go outside each day and stand quietly about six feet from the feeder, allowing the birds to feed. Move in a bit closer as the birds become more comfortable with your presence. Eventually, the birds won’t mind if you stand right beside them. Next, take away the feeder all together, and fill a small bowl with sunflower seeds. Hold the bowl with your arm outstretched, right where the feeder was. The trick is to keep perfectly still – even your eyes. After the birds are comfortable eating from the bowl, hold the seeds in your open hand instead. Soon you’ll be experiencing “that chickadee feeling”. Invite friends and family to try it too.

Chickadees can be trained to eat out of your hand. (Photo by Drew Monkman)

4. Chickadees are easy to attract by “pishing”. You can pish in chickadees in your own backyard or anywhere else you encounter the birds. Standing close to trees where the birds can land, pucker your lips and make a loud, forceful “shhhh” sound, all the while tacking a “p” on at the beginning: Pshhh, Pshhh, Pshhh… Make sure it sounds shrill and strident. Pish in a sequence of three, repeating the sequence two or three times. Wait a while and do it again. At first you’ll need to pish fairly loudly, but you can lower the volume once the birds get closer. With any luck, the chickadees will approach to within three or four feet. Nuthatches, woodpeckers and other birds may be attracted, as well. Just don’t give up too soon.

5. Like most birds, chickadees prefer feeders with nearby natural cover such as evergreens. This gives the birds an area to hide quickly when threatened as well as a protected night roost. I planted cedars for this purpose.

6. If you want chickadees to nest in your yard, build or purchase a birdhouse with a 1 1/8-inch entrance hole. Place the box at least five feet above the ground, near cover and facing away from the prevailing wind. Boxes should be placed outside by mid-March. Plans can be found at nestwatch.org.  In the wild, chickadees usually excavate a nesting hole in the rotting wood of a standing tree or enlarge an abandoned cavity dug out by a woodpecker.

 eBird workshop

A citizen science workshop entitled “Electronic Record-Keeping of Observations” will be held on Saturday, February 18, beginning at 1 p.m. at the Camp Kawartha Environment Centre, 2505 Pioneer Rd. The workshop will introduce eBird and eButterfly, two internet-based systems used to keep bird and butterfly observations recorded on centralized computer databases. For further information, call Martin Parker at 705-745-4750.

Feb 022017
 

When it comes to feeding birds, it’s important to be skeptical of ‘conventional wisdom’. There are a lot of myths out there, some of which might discourage people from putting out feeders. No one with an interest in birds should be missing out on such an entertaining and convenient way to enjoy contact with nature. Feeding wild birds also serves to develop a greater understanding and appreciation for the environment in general. It’s impossible to care about birds without becoming concerned about issues such as climate change and habitat destruction.

Male Indigo Bunting at nyjer feeder – Greg Piasetzki

The following list highlights some of areas of concern that people have when it comes to feeding birds. I have also included some suggestions to make bird feeding more successful and enjoyable.

1. Over-dependence on feeders. Birds do not depend on any one food source. They need a greater variety of food than feeders alone can provide. For example, studies with chickadees have demonstrated that even removing a feeder in mid‑winter does not result in greater flock mortality than would normally occur in flocks that do not visit feeders. Birds are well able to find other sources of food if feeders are unavailable. Putting out food for the birds can be important during extreme weather events, but birds will not starve if the feeders aren’t filled.

2. Impact on migration: People sometimes fear that feeding birds during the fall migration period might somehow stop them from flying south. Feeders will not keep birds from migrating. Migration is controlled by instinct and by external factors like daylight and weather. In fact, your feeders are providing an energy boost to help them survive these long journeys. I witness the allure of migration every October when hoards of white‑throated sparrows visit our yard. Despite a ready supply of black oil sunflower seed and millet scattered liberally on the ground, all of the birds depart by the end of the month.

Hairy Woodpecker – Karl Egressy

 

3. Hawks at feeders: It’s true that feeding birds might attract a Cooper’s hawk or even a barred owl to your yard. Personally, I feel privileged to witness the drama, even if a mourning dove or house finch pays the price. The raptor’s presence indicates that the food chain is healthy and working as it should. Raptors are also fascinating birds to observe in their own right. If predation becomes too much of a problem, you can simply take your feeders down for a few days and thereby disperse the smaller birds.

 

Cooper’s Hawk on Rock Pigeon – Helen Nicolaides Keller

4. When to feed: Many people make the mistake of waiting until winter has arrived before putting up their feeders. The greatest bird diversity at feeders actually occurs in the spring and fall. In early October, for example, a dozen or more species may turn up on a given day. The same can be true in late April. I usually start putting out sunflower seed and millet in late September, when large numbers southbound white‑throated and white‑crowned sparrows are passing through. They are easily attracted to our yards if seed is available on the ground. These sparrows come through again in late April and early May on their way north. Rose-breasted grosbeaks and indigo buntings may also show up at feeders in May and are a real treat to see. Grosbeaks are attracted to sunflower seed, while the buntings prefer nyjer seed. By putting out food in the spring and fall, you are also providing a welcome source of energy for the birds’ long flight to or from their wintering grounds.

There is no problem feeding birds in summer, either. I keep my peanut and nyger seed feeders filled all year long. Woodpeckers, nuthatches and chickadees dine on the peanuts, while goldfinches are a constant presence at the nyger seed. If you live in the country near a woodlot, rose-breasted grosbeaks and their young will often come to sunflower feeders during the summer months.

5. Metal perches: There is no reason to be concerned that a bird’s feet might stick to metal feeder perches in winter. The feet are made up mostly of scaly tissue and are well protected against the cold. Blood flow in the feet is minimal, and sweat glands are completely absent. This means that there is no moisture present to freeze to metal.

6. Peanut butter is dangerous: As far as I’m aware, there is no documented evidence that birds can choke on peanut butter. In fact, peanut butter is high in fat and therefore provides a great deal of energy.

7. Hummingbirds: Don’t wait until the warm weather of June to get out your hummingbird feeder. Hummingbirds arrive back in the Kawarthas in early May, when flower nectar is in short supply and frigid weather is still possible. At this time of year, a feeder might actually make a difference to their survival. I also recommend leaving it up until late September, when the last of the hummingbirds departs for Mexico and Central America. Whether the sugar water in the feeder contains red dye is largely irrelevant. The birds don’t need it to find the feeders. As to whether the dye can hurt the birds, the jury still seems to be out. I recommend erring on the side of caution.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds – Nancy Cafik

8. Scattering seeds: You will attract a lot more bird species by spreading seeds on the ground. Yes, you may lose some to squirrels, but at the same time, you will attract some of the many birds that are strictly ground feeders. Who knows? A fox sparrow or an eastern towhee might even show up. I prefer to use millet to spread on the grass and snow; however, I try to scatter it widely enough so that the squirrels can only glean a small part of it. Scattering the seeds near hedges and other areas of cover seems to work best.

9. Where are the birds? The number and variety of birds coming to feeders varies greatly over the year. Why bird activity is slow at times is not always clear. However, there are several possible explanations. First, many species such as cardinals and house finches travel in flocks in winter and may only frequent a small number of feeders. Yours may not be on their list. The presence of a raptor in the neighbourhood may also explain why fewer birds are present on a given day. Habitat changes in your neighborhood such as trees being cut down can also have an impact. The loss of habitat is the number one cause for the rapidly declining populations of many bird species. Finally, birds like siskins, redpolls and pine grosbeaks can be completely absent in the Kawarthas some years. This is because the wild foods they depend upon – conifer seeds, birch seeds, berries, etc – fluctuate in abundance from year to year. When there is plentiful food available in their boreal forest nesting grounds, they simply stay put. This seems to be the case this year.

 

Juncos and White-throated Sparrows feeding on ground – Drew Monkman

10. Window collisions: Feeders do increase the danger of window kills. One way to reduce this problem is to place your feeder within ten feet of window glass. In this way, birds flying away from the feeder won’t build up enough speed to seriously injure or kill themselves, should they hit a window. You will find lots of other ideas for reducing window collisions at allaboutbirds.org

Great Backyard Bird Count    

Every year I like to encourage readers to further the cause of science by taking part in the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). Launched in 1998, it was the first online citizen-science project to collect data on wild birds and to display results in near real-time. Now, more than 160,000 people of all ages and walks of life worldwide join the four-day count each February to create an annual snapshot of the distribution and abundance of birds. In 2016, GBBC participants in more than 130 countries counted 5,689 species of birds on more than 162,000 checklists.

This year’s count takes place February 17-20, which is the Family Day weekend. This makes the count a great activity to do with your kids or grandkids. For at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count, simply tally the numbers and kinds of birds you see. You can count from any location – not just your own backyard. If you’re new to the count, or have not participated since before the 2013, you must create a free online account with eBird to enter your checklists. During the count, you can explore what others are seeing in your area or around the world. Share your bird photos by entering the photo contest, or enjoy images pouring in from across the globe. All the information you need is at gbbc.birdcount.org

 

Jan 252017
 

The average North American child can identify over 300 corporate logos, but only 10 native plants or animals – a telling indictment of our modern disconnection from the natural world. Even though children are born with an innate interest in nature, our society does little to nurture this predisposition. It is largely for this reason that Jacob Rodenburg, Executive Director of Camp Kawartha, and I decided four years ago to sit down and write a book to help address this problem.
Released just last week by New Society Publishers, “The Big Book of Nature Activities: A year-round guide to outdoor learning” sets out to answer the question “What can you do outside in nature?” In response, the book provides nearly 150 activities, including games, crafts, drama, and stories. It will also help young and old alike to become more aware of how the sights, sounds, smells, textures and tastes of the natural world change from one season to the next. The book is aimed at parents, grandparents, classroom teachers, outdoor educators and youth leaders of all kinds. Much of the information – and many of the activities – will also be of interest to adults, especially if you need to brush up on your own nature skills. Adults should also be interested in the extensive background information on evolution, citizen science projects, nature journaling, nature photography and how to make the most of digital technology,

The Big Book of Nature Activities

The Big Book of Nature Activities

Introduction

We begin the book by discussing the disconnection from nature that characterizes so much of modern society. In an increasingly urbanized world, our children are much more likely to experience the flickering a computer screen or the sounds of traffic than the rhythmic chorus of bird or insect song. And sadly, they can more easily identify corporate logos or cartoon characters than even a few tree or bird species. We therefore ask the questions: Where will tomorrow’s environmentalists and conservationists come from? Who will advocate for threatened habitats and endangered species? What are the impacts on one’s physical and emotional well-being from a childhood or adulthood spent mostly indoors? We then go on to discuss some of the consequences of what the environmental educator Richard Louv calls “Nature Deficit Disorder”.

The activities, species and events in nature, which are described in the book, cover an area extending from British Columbia and northern California in the west to the Atlantic Provinces and North Carolina in the east. This includes six ecological regions such as the Marine West Coast and the Eastern Temperate Forests. In other words, the book applies to most anywhere in North America where there are four seasons.

The introduction also provides ideas on how to raise a naturalist (hint: take your kids camping!), how to get kids outside, how children of different ages respond to nature, how nature can enhance our lives as adults and the importance of being able to identify and name the most common species. We provide lists of 100 continent-wide key species to learn – everything from birds and invertebrates to trees, shrubs and wildflowers – as well as about 50 key regional species. We also introduce the reader to three cartoon characters, namely Charles Darwin, Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson who will tell stories of the wonder of evolution and the universe throughout the book.

Charles Darwin cartoon character - Kady MacDonald Denton

Our Charles Darwin cartoon character gives examples of the wonder of evolution throughout the book – Kady MacDonald Denton

Basic Skills

Connecting to nature is easier when you have learned some basic skills. In this section, we provide hints for paying attention (be patient and slow down), how to engage all the senses (learn to maximize your sense of smell), how to lead a nature hike (have some “back-pocket” activities ready to go), nature-viewing and traveling games from a car or school bus (do a scavenger hunt), how to increase your chances of seeing wildlife (try sitting in one place), how to bring nature inside (set up a nature table), how to get involved in “citizen science” (start at scistarter.com) and how to connect with nature in the digital age (make the most of your smartphone and social media). The latter section is especially detailed. Although it might seem counter-intuitive, there are actually many ways in which digital technology can inspire people of all ages to explore nature and share their experiences with others.

We also provide information on the basics of birding; insect-watching (butterflies, dragonflies, damselflies and moths), plant identification, mushroom-hunting, getting to know the night sky, nature journaling, nature photography, and nature-based geo-caching. Additional basic skills are covered in the activities in the seasons chapters themselves. These include fish-watching, mammal-watching, amphibian- and reptile-watching and tree identification.

Key Concepts

The third chapter in “The Big Book of Nature Activities” deals with four important concepts, which help us to more fully understand and appreciate nature. We start by explaining why we have seasons, and how the tilt of Earth’s axis makes all the difference. This is followed by a discussion of phenology, which is the science of observing and recording “first events”- such as spring’s first lilac bloom or frog song. Next, we talk about how climate change is affecting different habitats and species, and why a connection with nature is so important in light of this threat. Finally, we discuss the importance of understanding evolution and how it is manifested in even the most common backyard species. Armed with a little knowledge of evolution, we can learn to appreciate the wonder that resides in all species, not just the charismatic ones. We also want children to know that science is just beginning to unravel many of the mysteries of evolution and the incredible stories it has revealed. Our Darwin cartoon character tells many of these stories. The good news for young scientists-to-be is that there’s so much we don’t yet understand

The book explains the basics of evolution and natural selection, without getting into the details of genetics. We then provide a story for young children on how evolution might work within a population of imaginary sand bugs. For older children and adults, we go on a “field trip of the imagination” in which we visit our ancestors, starting with our self, our grandfather, our great-grandfather, etc. and ending up at our 185-million-greats-grandfather who, by the way, would have been a fish! This section concludes with a shortened version of Big History, the evidence-based story that takes us from the Big Bang to the present, in which we humans are “star stuff pondering stars”.

The book contains over 400 illustrations.

Hundreds of drawings

 Seasons’ chapters

The four seasons’ chapters make up the heart of the book. Each begins with a summary of some of the key events in flora, fauna, weather and the sky. This includes events that occur across North America as well as happenings that are specific to each region. Most of the activities in the chapter relate to these events. This is followed by a seasonal poem to enjoy and maybe memorize; suggestions for what to display or collect for the nature table;

ideas about what to photograph or record in your nature journal; a short seasonal story called “What’s Wrong with the Scenario” in which you try to spot the mistakes; the story of Black Cap, the Chickadee, which takes you through a year in an individual chickadee’s life and includes activities; and ideas for what to do at your Magic Spot, a special nature-rich area close to home.

The final and largest section of the seasons’ chapters is called “Exploring the season: Things to do.” It comprises 50 or more activities to activate your five senses, keep track of seasonal change, explore evolution, and have fun discovering fascinating aspects of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, invertebrates, plants, fungi, weather and the night sky. We also offer up suggestions on how to make nature part of seasonal celebrations like Thanksgiving. Some of the activities include making a scent cocktail and touch bag, using a roll of toilet paper to create a history-of-life timeline, meeting the “beast” within you, a non-identification bird walk, a woodpecker drumming game, mammal-watching with a trail camera, observing spawning salmon, a frog song orchestra, exploring seaside beaches and tide pools, a “bee dance” drama game, conducting a pond study, “adopting” a tree to observe over an entire year, dissecting flowers, a fungi scavenger hunt, a classroom “hand-generated” thunderstorm, going on a night hike, making tin can constellations, creating your own moon phases, celebrating the winter and summer solstices, ideas for Earth Day, and more. Scattered throughout the activities are suggestions for getting involved in citizen science projects. The book concludes with an appendix with blackline masters for photocopying and a detailed index.

There are 16 pages of colour photos that link to some of the activities.

Sixteen pages of colour photos that link to some of the activities.

The book also contains several hundred drawings, most of which were done by talented Lakefield artist, Judy Hyland. Others were contributed by Kim Caldwell, Kady MacDonald Denton, Jean-Paul Efford and Heather Sadler (drawings by her late father, Doug Sadler). In the middle of the book, you will find a 16-page block of colour photos by the authors and others.

“The Big Book of Nature Activities” is available at Happenstance Books and Yarns at 44 Queen Street in Lakefield (705-652-7535), at Camp Kawartha (1010 Birchview Road, Douro-Dummer), at Chapters (Landsowne Street west in Peterborough) and online at Chapters.Indigo.ca and Amazon.ca. It would make a great end of school year gift. The cost is $39.95. A book launch hosted by Happenstance will be held on July 24, from 2-4 p.m. at the Camp Kawartha Environment Centre at 2505 Pioneer Road. For more details and regular updates about the book, please go to drewmonkman.com. The authors can be reached by email at dmonkman1@cogeco.ca and jrodenburg@campkawartha.ca

 

 

 

 

Jan 192017
 

Between mid-December and early January, birders in over 2000 localities across North, Central and South America took a break from the holiday festivities to spend a day outside, identifying and counting birds. Dating all the way back to 1900, the Christmas Bird Count is one of the longest-running Citizen Science projects in the world. The information collected by thousands of volunteer participants forms one of the world’s largest sets of wildlife survey data. The data are used daily by conservation biologists and naturalists to assess the population trends and distribution of birds. The counts are organized at the local level, often by a birding club or naturalist organization.

The count area is always a circle, measuring 24 kilometres in diameter. The circle is then sub-divided into sectors, each of which is covered by a group of birders. This involves driving as many of the roads in the sector as possible and walking or skiing into off-road areas of different habitat types. The basic idea is to identify and count – as accurately as possible – every bird seen or heard.

Once again this year, two counts took place locally – one centred in Peterborough and the other in Petroglyphs Provincial Park. Martin Parker of the Peterborough Field Naturalists organized the Peterborough count, while Colin Jones compiled the Petroglyphs count.

Peterborough Count

The 65th Peterborough Christmas Bird Count was held December 18 under cold but sunny conditions. Forty-one members and friends of the Peterborough Field Naturalists spent all or part of the day in the field, while seven others kept track of birds visiting their feeders. One observer was also out before dawn listening for owls.

A pair of Eastern Bluebirds – male at upper right – Wikimedia

By the end of the day, participants found 13,860 individual birds, which is a new high. A total of 59 species was recorded. There were two new species for the count, a Horned Grebe and two Eastern Bluebirds. The grebe was found on the Otonabee River at Millennium Park, while the bluebirds turned up near the intersection of the Lang-Hastings Trans Canada Trail and County Road 35. The grebe and bluebirds bring the total number of species found on the count its 65-year history to 130.

The biggest story of this year’s count, however, was the huge number of American Robins. These birds clearly missed the memo that it was time to migrate! The 1,943 robins recorded more than doubled the previous high of 759 tallied in 2011. Observers described seeing flock after flock of robins flying across roads and fields to thickets full of wild grape – a favourite winter food and the main reason why so many robins took a pass on flying any further south. If the birds can get enough to eat, cold is not a problem. It will be interesting to see if there is sufficient food to keep the robins remain here until spring.

Record highs were also tallied for Bald Eagles (5), Eastern Screech Owls (4),   American Crows (953), White-breasted Nuthatches (120), and Dark-eyed Juncos (543). Previous highs were tied for Sharp-shinned Hawks (5) and Red-bellied Woodpeckers (8).

Three rarely seen species also turned up, namely a Lesser Black-backed Gull, a Snow Goose and a Brown Thrasher. This was only the second time the latter two species have ever been found on the count. Thrashers are usually in Louisiana at this time of year!

American Robin in mountain-ash March 2014 – Jeff Keller

As is the case every year, there were also some notable low numbers. For instance, observers only found only 71 Canada Geese. This was because cold weather just before the count had reduced the amount of open water. As has been the pattern in recent years, the number of Great Horned Owls (1) and Ruffed Grouse (2) was also very low. To put this into context, 82 grouse were recorded in 1979. It is well known, however, that grouse numbers fluctuate a great deal from year to year and even decade to decade. The factors responsible for these periodic fluctuations remain poorly understood. As for Great Horned Owls, the Canadian population has declined by over 70% since the 1960s.

The overall data for the Peterborough count is as follows: Snow Goose 1, Canada Goose 71,  American Black Duck 5, Mallard 1006, Long-tailed Duck 1, Bufflehead 1, Common Goldeneye 95, Hooded Merganser 2, Common Merganser 1, Ruffed Grouse 2, Wild Turkey 88, Horned Grebe 1, Sharp-shinned Hawk  5, Cooper’s Hawk 1, Northern Goshawk 2, Bald Eagle 5, Red-tailed Hawk 25, Rough-legged Hawk 2, Ring-billed Gull 71, Herring Gull 131, Lesser Black-backed Gull 1, Great Black-backed Gull 1, Rock Pigeon 1006, Mourning Dove 515, Eastern Screech-Owl 4, Great Horned Owl 1, Belted Kingfisher 1, Red-bellied Woodpecker 8, Downy Woodpecker 64, Hairy Woodpecker 40, Northern Flicker 5, Pileated Woodpecker 7, Merlin 2, Peregrine 1, Northern Shrike 3, Blue Jay 261, American Crow 953, Common Raven 29, Black-capped Chickadee 1722, Red-breasted Nuthatch 15, White-breasted Nuthatch 120, Brown Creeper 6, Eastern Bluebird 2, American Robin 1943, Brown Thrasher 1, European Starling 2674, Bohemian Waxwing 4, Cedar Waxwing 220, Snow Bunting 1010, American Tree Sparrow 344, Dark-eyed Junco 543, White-throated Sparrow 2,  Northern Cardinal 104, Brown-headed Cowbird 1,  House Finch 44, Purple Finch 1, American Goldfinch 533, and House Sparrow 147.

Petroglyph Count

The 31st Petroglyph Christmas Bird Count took place on December 27, in less than favourable weather conditions. The day was dull and overcast with strong winds and intermittent periods of light snow and freezing drizzle. The strong winds made listening difficult for the 24 participants. A successful Christmas bird count depends not only on seeing the birds but also on hearing them. Calm days are therefore best. Only 28 species were found, which is six lower than the 10-year average. The number of individual birds (1937) was also below average.

Although no new species were recorded, there were some notable sightings. A record 318 Bohemian Waxwings was more than four times the previous high of 76. A Cooper’s Hawk was recorded for only the fourth time on the count, and a Rough-legged Hawk turned up for only the sixth time. The 11 American Robins counted was only two shy of the previous high.

Bohemian Waxwing (Karl Egressy)

As for low counts, only six Ruffed Grouse were recorded. This is well below the 10-year average of 22 and the count high of 77. Blue Jay numbers were down, too, with only 74 putting in an appearance. The 10-year average is 271, and count high is 653. A poor acorn crop probably explains the Blue Jay’s relative scarcity. Most jays simply chose to migrate south this year in search of more abundant food. Numbers of Pileated Woodpeckers, Red-breasted Nuthatches and Golden-crowned Kinglets were also much lower than average.

A worrisome miss was the Gray Jay. A pair was visiting a feeder just before the count but was not present on count day. An average of five birds was recorded every year up until 2009. Since then, however, they have only been tallied once on the day of the count. Gray Jays are one of many species that are expected to decrease in number as the climate warms, especially at the southern edge of their range such as here in the Kawarthas.

No Barred Owls were found this year, either. This very vocal species had been recorded every year since 1995 except for 2012 and this year. With the exception of reasonably good numbers of American Goldfinch (326) and Evening Grosbeaks (44), no other finches were found.

The overall data for the Petroglyph count is as follows: Ruffed Grouse 6, Wild Turkey 43,  Bald Eagle 5, Cooper’s Hawk 1, Red-tailed Hawk 1, Rough-legged Hawk 1, Rock Pigeon 34, Mourning Dove 5, Downy Woodpecker 23, Hairy Woodpecker 25, Pileated Woodpecker 4, Northern Shrike 1, Blue Jay 74, American Crow 10, Common Raven 65, Black-capped Chickadee 676, Red-breasted Nuthatch 32, White-breasted Nuthatch 92, Brown Creeper 24, Golden-crowned Kinglet 4, American Robin 11, European Starling 45, Bohemian Waxwing 318, American Tree Sparrow 22, Dark-eyed Junco 19,  Snow Bunting 26,  American Goldfinch 326, and Evening Grosbeak 44.  A Gray Jay was also seen during the count period but not on the day of the count.

Ruffed Grouse – Parry Sound – via Rob Moos

Kids Count

In order to help young people develop an interest in birding, the third annual Junior Christmas Bird Count (CBC 4Kids) also took place on the same day as the Peterborough count. Organized by Lara Griffin, the Peterborough Field Naturalist Juniors scoured the grounds and nearby trails of the Camp Kawartha Environment Centre on Pioneer Road. The birds they found were added to the Peterborough count data. The junior event incorporates many of the same features as the adult version. However, it is far less rigorous and designed more like a game.

Great Backyard Bird Count

If you are interested in contributing to Citizen Science and maybe introducing your children or grandchildren to birding, consider taking part in the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). This year, it is taking place February 17-20. The GBBC engages bird watchers of all levels of expertise to create a real-time snapshot of the whereabouts and relative abundance of birds in mid-winter. Anyone can participate. Simply tally the numbers and kinds of birds you see for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count. You can count from any location, anywhere in the world! Go to gbbc.birdcount.org for details.

 

 

Jan 122017
 

I would once again like to thank the many people who contacted me over 2016 to share their nature sightings and photographs. This week, I will continue my year-end review with sightings from June through December. You can also find these sightings, along with videos, sound clips and more photos, on my website at drewmonkman.com

Merlin (Karl Egressy)

JULY

·        On July 20, Tom Northey of Little Britain found an active hive of wild (feral) Honey Bees in a tree cavity excavated by a Pileated Woodpecker.

·        Pat Maitland of Princess Street in Peterborough wrote to tell me about a Merlin nest near her home. “The two juveniles are getting flying and hunting lessons with lots of vocalizations as they zoom across Princess and Ware Street backyards and rooftops.”

·        Barb Evett spends part of her summers at Woodland Campsite near Lakehurst. “I cannot believe it! For three years in a row, Stanley, my campsite Ring-billed Gull has returned. He comes when called by name, sits with me on my deck when I read a book, and allows no other gulls on my site!”

Feral honey bee nest – Tom Northey

 

AUGUST

·        Tim Dyson, Barb Evett and David Beaucage Johnson all reported Giant Swallowtails. Tim wrote, “I was beginning to think that they were vanishing about as suddenly as they first appeared in the Kawarthas, back in 2011 or thereabouts.”

·         Robert Greenman Hood emailed me to say that he had a colony of more than 50 Barn Swallows at his farm on Crowley Line. This is an encouraging number, since these birds are now a Species at Risk.

·        Stephenie and Peter Armstrong of Warsaw are keen nature observers. “We regularly see the occasional Eastern Kingbird on our stretch of the Indian River, but on August 7 we were treated to a longer than usual visit of a family of four. At one point, an American Crow flew low over the tree the kingbirds favoured. The two adults went into attack mode and smartly chased the crow off upriver!”

·        On August 8, Trudy Gibson of Peterborough sent me a picture of a beautiful Black Swallowtail caterpillar feeding on dill in her garden.

·        On August 15, David Beaucage Johnson witnessed, “a spectacular aerial show of Common Nighthawks (a Species at Risk) swarming over our Curve Lake house. I would estimate 50 but it was difficult to count…There were also about 100 Tree Swallows at the same time.” Three days later, David saw his first-ever Red-headed Woodpecker on Mukwa Bay Road.

·        “On August 19, we saw at least ten bats flying over a two-kilometre stretch of the 5th Line of Selwyn as we drove towards Chemong Road. I am also happy to say that one of my American Chestnut trees at our Crystal Lake property is laden with nuts. Our trees haven’t shown any sign of susceptibility to the blight that killed nearly all of these trees early in the 20th century. I was told when I bought the trees that they were grown from nuts from a surviving stand in the Grand River Conservation Area.” Michael Doran, Peterborough

·        Annamarie Beckel lives on the Otonabee River between locks 24 and 25. “This is a fabulous place. We’re on the end of the road, so we have the river, but also mixed forest, overgrown fields, and wetland. This means we get a wonderful variety of birds:  American Bitterns, Bobolinks, Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks and now Merlins. We also have loons and a pair of Baltimore Orioles. Oh, and Bald Eagles in the winter. Who could ask for anything more?”

Bobolink (male) – Gwen Forsyth

 

SEPTEMBER

·        On September 6, Steve Kerr observed the hatching of 8-10 Snapping Turtles on Rathbun Bay at Jack Lake. Marie Windover reported that a friend on Nogies Creek had six baby Blanding’s Turtles hatch on Labour Day. Marie’s friend had covered up the nest to protect it from predators.

·        Tim Dyson of Stoney Lake paddled up the mouth of Eel’s Creek on Labour Day and saw no less than ten Map Turtles (Species at Risk), including six on the same log.

·        Dyson also spent many evenings this past summer photographing underwing moths. He used bait to attract them. Tim has baited throughout Peterborough County and has encountered 27 of Ontario’s 47 species. He has made ten plates of colour photos of these moths, which are on my website.

·        On September 11, Ken Brown found two strange, ring-like egg masses attached to a rope floating beside his dock on Crab Lake. According to Don Sutherland of the Ontario Natural Heritage Information Centre, they were the egg masses of a caddisfly.

·        Joan Major sent me a photo of a six-pound Giant Puffball, which she found on September 19 on Fire Route 15 near Stoney Lake. “It was in perfect condition and white throughout. Many people enjoyed eating it!”

·        Carl Welbourn photographed three Great Egrets in the marsh at the south end of Television Road on September 16.

·        Sean McMullen shared a number of Monarch sightings from the Warsaw area, including an adult, which emerged from its chrysalis on September 18.

Great Egret – Carl Welbourn – Television Road – August 28, 2016

OCTOBER

·        On October 4, Greg Conley of Peterborough came across a flock of close to 20 Rusty Blackbirds (Species at Risk) on the Trans Canada Trail at Lily Lake.

·        On October 8, Linda Gilbert was paid a visit by a young bull Moose in her yard on South Bay Shore Road West on Stoney Lake.

·        Kingsley Hubbs came across a small Eastern Milksnake (Species at Risk) on a dirt road at Gannon’s Narrows on October 2. You can see a video of the snake on my website. Marie Windover found an at-risk Eastern Hog-nosed Snake near Flynn’s Corners on October 12.

·        Nancy Cafik of Chemong Lake had a Ring-billed Gull, which came up under her bird feeder every day and waited there patiently for Blue Jays to come to feed. When the jays dropped a peanut or two on the ground, the gull snatched them up.”

·        On October 16, Alan Stewart and his wife came across a curious “mushroom trail” in the Robert Johnson Eco Park in Douro. You can see a video of the trail on my website. According to Jennie Versteeg, Alan had found a very large ‘fairy ring’. All the mushrooms would be coming from the same parent mycelium and the mycelium ring would have worked its way outward over many years as nutrients close in were exhausted.” This will be interesting to check out next fall.

Young bull Moose at Stoney Lake – Oct. 13, 2016 – Linda Gilbert

NOVEMBER

·        Al Dawson of Hawthorne Drive wrote, “Since about mid-August, starting just at dusk, we hear cricket-like sounds coming from the trees in our neighborhood… The sound is continuous rather than the intermittent cricket’s call. There seems to be dozens all singing at once.” Note: These may have been Four-spotted Tree Crickets, which I hear in our neighbourhood, too.

·        Peter Currier, who cottages on Catchacoma Lake, sent me a picture of his Red Squirrels’ pre-winter cone stash. “Clearly, they are an OCD lot. Note that the cones are not only symmetrically arranged, but the butt ends are all formed like rays around rocks or along the length of a fallen tree! Certainly I have never found animals in the wild to be as organized as our local guys are.”

·        Burke Doran reported that a Gray Squirrel and a Cooper’s Hawk dueled it out on the top rail of his split rail fence in mid-October. For at least 15 minutes they charged at each other fearlessly before the hawk called it quits.

·        On November 11, Helen Nicolaides Keller reported that a beautiful adult Cooper’s Hawk made a killed a pigeon in her east city backyard

·        “This summer, we had a ‘friendly’ Ruffed Grouse at our cottage near Parry Sound. Even leashed, our dog almost got him several times. The grouse would fly after us when we were walking around and land closely.” Rob Moos, Peterborough.

·        “On November 20, we had 8 Pine Grosbeaks at our feeder. During this past summer, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, along with their young, came to the feeder regularly.” Neil Boughen, Warsaw

Ruffed Grouse – Parry Sound – via Rob Moos

 

DECEMBER

·        Sandra Burri of Clear Lake emailed me on December 5 to report eight white ‘mystery circles’ in the ice on the pond adjacent to her house. How the ice circles formed is open to speculation, but her husband, Dick, has a convincing hypothesis. You can read it on my website.

·        “We live on Clear Lake and have had a number of trees chopped down by a Beaver this fall. I put out a trail camera to record the activity. Enjoy!” John McGregor, Clear Lake. The video is on my website.

·        Sandy McMullen works at the Unimin Mine north of Stoney Lake and drives to work along County Road 6. On November 28, he emailed to say, “I was seeing groups of eagles all day. Two to four at a time. At the tailings dam, I surprised more than 20 in one group. I estimated eight mature Bald Eagles and possibly some Golden Eagles, as well.”

·        “I was very surprised to see a pair of Eastern Bluebirds in my garden this morning, December 18.” Rachel Burrows, Warsaw

·        In late December, Kathy Hardill reported having twice seen a huge flock of Snow Buntings in a field just east of Selwyn and Buckhorn Roads.

·        Like many people this winter, Mary-Anne Johnston of Lakefield had an American Robin in her backyard. There is abundant wild food for robins this winter, especially wild grape.

Wild Grape – Dec. 2, 2016 – Drew Monkman

 

 

Dec 222016
 

I would like to take time this week to thank the many people who have contacted me over the past 12 months to share their nature sightings and photographs. Although I have already posted these sightings on my website (drewmonkman.com), I thought I would share them once again as a kind of year-end review. I always look forward to receiving sightings such as these and am continually inspired by the interest in nature that so many people in our community share. These reports are also a testimony to the rich biodiversity of the Kawarthas.

JANUARY

·         Hawks, eagles and owls figured prominently this month. On January 2, Sue Paradisis had a Cooper’s hawk in her Tudor Crescent yard. “The hawk sat there for quite some time, before I noticed a female cardinal in another tree. The cardinal stayed perfectly still. This went on for over half an hour with neither bird moving. Finally, I intervened. I know the hawk needs to eat, but not the only cardinal that comes to my yard! I went outside and the hawk flew off. Seconds later, the cardinal was gone in a flash.” In mid-January, Mike Pineau and his daughter watched a peregrine falcon eat a pigeon in the courtyard of the Peterborough Regional Health Centre. Now, that’s what I call entertainment for the patients!

Long-eared Owl - Jan. 3, 2015 - Wildlark Drive, PTBO - Murray Palmer

Long-eared Owl – Jan. 3, 2015 – Wildlark Drive, PTBO – Murray Palmer

·         On January 3, Murray Palmer had an uncommon long-eared owl in his Wildlark Drive backyard. It may have been attracted by all the feeder activity, since long-ears will prey on other birds. Eventually, crows drove it away. On about the same date, Graham Yates found a beautiful barred owl in Jackson Park. “The bird was napping but kept an eye on me every so often by swiveling its head. Made my day!” Brian Tinker of Warkworth also had a barred owl, this one in his backyard. He watched it sweep down and catch a mouse from under the snow – a one-claw pick off! Tim Corner reported one of the few snowy owls sighted last winter. He found it in a field west of Lindsay on January 24.

·         A number of people also reported seeing eagles. Michael Gillespie, who lives near Keene, reported, “It has taken me 70 years, but today, January 13, was the first time I saw both a bald and golden eagle in the same morning. The bald was savaging a frozen carcass… while the golden flew overhead while I was talking with a friend.” On January 23, Ross Jamieson also saw a bald eagle flying south of Lansdowne Street. Rob Welsh watched an eagle feeding on the ice near Lock 24, south of Lakefield, while Tom Northey photographed two bald eagles perched in a pine tree in the same area.

·         Red-bellied woodpecker sightings continue to be more common in the Kawarthas. Sue Hill reported a male coming regularly to her sunflower feeders on Merino Road. “It’s the first time I’ve ever seen this species. However, this bird was more yellow on the belly than red, which is confusing, given the name!”

·         As for mammals, Gord Harrison used his trail camera to snap some amazing photos of an eastern wolf (Canis lycaon) at his property north of Minden. Mike Barker reported a dozen or more flying squirrels at a friend’s feeder at Sandy Lake near Buckhorn. “It was incredible… and hilarious! The squirrels were soaring in from all directions.”

A majestic Algonquin (eastern) wolf photographed by Gord Harrison on his Haliburton far.

A majestic Algonquin (eastern) wolf photographed by Gord Harrison on his Haliburton farm.

FEBRUARY

·         On February 7 and 8, Nima Taghaboni spotted both an adult and an immature bald eagle along the Otonabee River, while Trudy Gibson photographed a pair of adult eagles on Simmons Avenue, right in Peterborough.

·         You will probably recall how mild it was last winter. On February 4, Bill Snowden reported from Ennismore that his Japanese witch-hazel was in full bloom, and the snowdrops were already showing flower buds.

MARCH

·         Derry Fairweather saw an osprey on March 13 on Upper Buckhorn Lake. It was his earliest ever. The next day, Kinsley Hubbs of Gannon’s Narrows had a sharp-shinned hawk sitting on his feeder. On about March 20, Ashley Holland found a dead great horned owl on her property in Lakefield. The bird had a tag on its leg. By checking the tag number online, she discovered that the owl had been banded five kilometres north of Lakefield in 2009.

·         Ken Guthrie, who lives on Langton Street, emailed me to say that a “white-capped chickadee” has been visiting his feeders for the last three years. ‘Its tail and wings are those of a normal chickadee but everything else is pure white.” This would have been a “leucistic” individual.

·         The sandhill crane population continues to expand in the Kawarthas. Gavin Hunter saw a pair on March 18, southeast of Kirkfield, while Jim Watt saw two cranes flying over County Road 24.

·         As for other early migrants, Marilyn Freeman heard a song sparrow singing in her city front yard on March 18. Jane Bremner listened to an eastern phoebe calling March 28 on the Indian River, just outside Warsaw. “Our harbinger of spring!” she wrote.

·         Swans, too, attracted attention. In mid-March, Martin West saw two trumpeter swans on Scollard Bay on Buckhorn Lake.” They were cool to see and a first for me!” Sharon Simpkins reported no less than nine pairs of trumpeters at Kent Bay on the Otonabee River.

APRIL

·         As you may remember, pine siskins were everywhere last spring. Rob Welsh wrote, “We returned to our Stony Lake home on April 4 and immediately filled the four feeders. The activity is the most ever….We have 10 usual species but over 50 pine siskins! At least one osprey is back, too.” A week later, Sheelagh Hysenaj saw an osprey on the nesting platform on the bridge at Young’s Point.

·         Bloodroot is one of the earliest wildflowers in the Kawarthas. Catherine Paradisis wrote, “I went out for a walk on April 20 at Beavermead. My favourite sighting was one I look forward to every year: a large patch of blooming bloodroot in the wooded area behind the chip truck.” On April 29, Margo Hughes reported that bloodroot had been blooming for several days on the rail-trail near Cumberland Drive. “The patch has grown in size! Very beautiful!”

·         On April 14, Sue Paradisis stopped at the corner of Woodland Drive and the Lakefield Highway to listen to the huge chorus of spring peepers, chorus and leopard frogs. She glanced down and discovered that she was surrounded by several ‘mating balls’ of garter snakes. “When I stepped back, they quickly fled down holes in the shoulder of the road.”

·         Ducks are a favourite subject of local photographers in spring. On April 15, Jeff Keller got some great photos of green-winged teal and wood ducks on Lynch Road, east of Lakefield. On April 29, Carl Welbourn came across 10 wood ducks in Mark S. Burnham Provincial Park.

Green-winged Teal - Jeff Keller

Green-winged Teal – Jeff Keller

MAY

·         May brought a number of mammal sightings. On May 4, Joanne O’Heron saw a mother black bear with FOUR cubs on Beaver Lake Road in Trent Lakes Township. Janet Duval, who lives on Deer Bay Reach, sent me a picture of no less than six river otters on the dock belonging to her neighbour, Jim Franklin. Jody Gozzard had a beaver in her Cameron Street flower garden. It had just cut down one of her cedars. “I watched in amazement as the beaver dragged my poor tree down to the waters edge. I now have an assortment of tree branches at my shoreline that the beaver has cut down on my yard.” On May 16, Tim Corner was out for a morning walk near the Holiday Inn on George Street when an American Mink jumped out of the brush along the edge of the river.

Otters on Franklin dock on Lower Buckhorn Lake (photo by Jim Franklin)

Otters on Franklin dock on Lower Buckhorn Lake (photo by Jim Franklin)

·         On May 6, David Johnson was watching a turkey vulture circling overhead at Curve Lake, when a large, bright white bird with black wing tips and long legs flew past it. David quickly ruled out both wood stork and American white pelican and was left quite convinced that he had seen a whooping crane. These critically endangered birds do turn up occasionally in Ontario.

·         During a trip to Boyd Island on Pigeon Lake, Warren Dunlop saw two golden-winged warblers and heard two others. Marie Windover had a voice from the past calling near her home on County Road 507 – a whip-poor-will.

JUNE

·         June is a great month for insect watching. Kim Mitchell reported a beautiful female Luna month on June 1 in Bridgenorth. “What a treat to see this species, as I have never seen one before!” On June 4, Gwen Forsyth saw her first hummingbird-like gallium sphinx moths of the year. They were nectaring during the day at petunias in her Lakefield garden. In Havelock on June 9, Ulrike Kullik had a viceroy butterfly land on her lawnmower. “At first I thought it was a monarch, but I then noticed the black, horizontal line on the hind wings,” she wrote.

Luna 2 - June 1, 2016 - Bridgenorth - Kim Mitchell

Luna moth – June 1, 2016 – Bridgenorth – Kim Mitchell

·         On June 2, Jacob Rodenburg reported a pair of loons nesting close to the shore of the Otonabee River, just south of Lakefield. The birds went on to successfully raise two young.

·         David Johnson informed me that there were two nesting pairs of bald eagles on Buckhorn Lake in June. One nest was on Joe’s Island and the other on Flat Island.

·         On June 18, Roy Bowles photographed two sandhill cranes on Northey’s Road west of Young’s Point.

I will continue with sightings from July through December in my next column. Happy Holidays to everyone!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dec 152016
 

Most readers are probably now aware that the Royal Canadian Geographical Society has chosen the gray jay as Canada’s national bird. It beat out better-known contenders like the common loon and snowy owl in a countrywide vote, followed by a panel debate. Personally, I think the gray jay fits the bill from every perspective. If you have ever “met” one, you will understand how easy it is to fall in love with these tame, gentle birds. And, if you were looking for a bird that represents our great northern forests and the tenacity of life in the dead of winter, this is the species.

Only slightly smaller than its blue-feathered cousin, the gray jay is a study in black, white and grey. It has a soft, almost rounded appearance, thanks to its short bill, large eyes and fluffy plumage. The gray jay’s silent, gliding flight and soft melodious call notes project this same aura of softness. You can almost think of it as an inflated chickadee – and equally friendly! Some would also argue that the gray jay’s lack of flamboyance is a good match with the nature of Canadians.

Gray Jay eating from my hand on Spruce Bog Trail - Algonquin Park - January 2012

Gray Jay eating from my hand on Spruce Bog Trail – Algonquin Park – January 2012

Behaviour

Gray jays – or Canada jays as they were once called – are both tame and venturesome, two characteristics that endear them to people. They seem to have an instinctive sense that humans are an easy source of food. They are well known for visiting hunt camps, traplines, nordic ski trails and backcountry campsites. They will take just about any edible scrap. Gray jays often shared meals with the men and women who built our nation – explorers, prospectors, lumberjacks, north country settlers – and no doubt eased their loneliness. They are also known as “camp-robbers” and “whiskey jacks”. The latter name was derived from “wiskedjak”, an Ojibwa word meaning a mischievous spirit who liked to play tricks on people. Choosing the gray jay as Canada’s national bird honours our First Nations. Gray jays are permanent residents. They do not migrate – not even for short distances. Mated pairs occupy a territory of about 70 hectares, which they sometimes share with a third, non-breeding individual. Staying put may partly explain why they are so long-lived – up to 16 years.

Gray jays have evolved to store food as an adaptation to surviving the winter months. Food items are saturated with sticky saliva from the bird’s enlarged salivary glands. The saliva coagulates on contact with air and becomes a viscous glue, which is used to cement the food to nooks and crannies in trees. They guard against thievery from other species by covering their food caches with a piece of bark or lichen. Gray jays can make hundreds of caches in a single day, especially in late summer and early fall when food is plentiful. This will provide nearly all of the nutrition they need from November through May. What is most astonishing, however, is that the birds actually remember where they have hidden their food! Maybe this isn’t so surprising, since gray jays belong to the Corvid (crow) family, arguably the smartest birds on the planet. The jay’s habit of putting away resources for future needs is an important lesson to all Canadians, especially at this time of record personal debt.

Gray Jay in Algonquin Park - Jan. 2012 - Drew Monkman

Gray Jay in Algonquin Park – Jan. 2012 – Drew Monkman

Nesting

Gray jays begin nesting in early March, when sub-zero temperatures and heavy snow cover rein supreme. One reason the young are able to survive the cold is superb nest construction. Unlike the blue jays’ flimsy nests, those of the gray jay are bulky, deep and well insulated. They are lined with feathers and even bits of fur. The three or four nestlings are fed food that the parents cached the previous year. By nesting early, the young get a head start on amassing the food stores they will need to get through their first winter.

Juvenile gray jays are a sooty grey all over and almost look like they belong to a different species. In June, they begin a serious struggle for dominance. The young jays chase each other more and more aggressively until one of them will have expelled its siblings from the parents’ territory. This more dominant bird will continue to live with its parents for two or three years, or until a nearby territory becomes available. This is why you often see gray jays in groups of three. Sometimes, however, the third bird is an “ejectee” from another territory that is now living with unrelated adults. The weaker siblings are forced to leave the territory and most will die before winter arrives. This strange behaviour on the part of young jays makes evolutionary sense. They are probably not skilled enough to store sufficient food for their first-winter needs and have to rely on help from adult birds. It is unlikely, however, that there would  be sufficient food for a second or third juvenile, hence the fight for dominance.

Range

Gray jays are found from coast to coast in Canada and in all of our provinces and territories. In Ontario, their range extends from the edge of the tree line in the north to the last isolated spruce bogs where the Canadian Shield meets the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence Lowlands in the “Land Between”.

However, you won’t find  gray jays in our towns and cities. This might make you wonder why we would  want a national bird that so few of us can easily observe first-hand? David Bird, Emeritus Professor of Ornithology at McGill University, argues that this very fact might motivate more Canadians to visit the northern forests to see their national bird and learn more about its increasingly threatened habitat.

Gray jays can still be found in the northern Kawarthas, although their numbers are decreasing. Up until about 15 years ago, at least one pair had a territory at the Kawartha Nordic Ski Club north of Woodview. Skiers would enjoy sharing a few bread crusts or sunflower seeds with the birds at the Tanney Cabin. They were also present in Petroglyphs Provincial Park and in the Apsley area. In “Our Heritage of Birds” (1983), Doug Sadler wrote, “In winter, gray jays…have been found even in the southern parts (of Peterborough County) as early as September and as late as April (Miller Creek Conservation Area). They sometimes visit feeders.” The birds Sadler describes were probably immature jays, which had been forced out of their parents’ breeding territory.

There is still a pair of gray jays coming to a feeder on County Road 507, north of Flynn’s Corners. There are also occasional sightings from the large bog on Jack’s Lake Road south of Apsley and even scattered reports from Petroglyphs Provincial Park. Whether there is still a breeding pair at these locations is unclear, however. Just this week, I also learned of a lone gray jay spotted on Algonquin Boulevard in Peterborough.

Gray Jays - Nov. 17, 2016 - County Road 507 - Marie Windover

Gray Jays – Nov. 17, 2016 – County Road 507 – Marie Windover

Your best chance of seeing and feeding gray jays, however, usually requires a trip to Algonquin Park. Late fall and winter is an excellent time to find them on Opeongo Road, at the top end of the Mizzy Lake Trail and on the Spruce Bog Trail between the parking lot and the boardwalk. If you hold out food, they will glide down from a tree and land on your bare hand. The sensation of the bird’s talons on your skin and the close-up view of their fluffy plumage and big black eyes are unforgettable.

You will also be able to witness their caching behaviour. When you share food with  jays, they hardly eat any of it. Instead, they continually fly back into the forest and conceal each tidbit. Your handouts are being transformed into survival insurance. How can you not be impressed!

Climate change

Even in Algonquin Park, gray jay populations have suffered a marked decline in recent decades. The population is only half of what it was in the 1970s. It may be that a warming climate is speeding up the decomposition rate of perishable food caches like insects and pieces of meat. In other words, the birds’ natural refrigerator is failing. This, in turn, may be making winter survival and successful nesting more difficult.

Gray Jay on nest in late winter - Dan Strickland

Gray Jay on nest in late winter – Dan Strickland

This hypothesis comes from  a decades-long study of gray jays in Algonquin Park by Dan Strickland, a former head naturalist. Annual air temperature in the park has been increasing by about 0.7 degrees Fahrenheit per decade. Habitat that once supported breeding jays, including many areas along Highway 60, is now abandoned. The worst losses have been in areas dominated by hardwood forests, while the least attrition has occurred in boggy, lowland areas covered with spruce. It is thought that the antibacterial properties of spruce bark and resin may help preserve cached food.

Despite – or maybe because of – the many challenges the gray jay faces, I am delighted with its choice as our national bird. Although the loon, snowy owl and chickadee would have also fit the bill, the gray jay is something fresh and new and just might encourage people to get outside and to explore the north – if only Algonquin Park. For that reason alone, you have to like the selection. And, just in case you are a stickler for Canadian spelling, please note that the bird’s official name is indeed gray jay and not “grey jay”!

 

 

 

Dec 082016
 

Looking back at the fall of 2016, the warming trend that is affecting the entire planet was certainly noticeable in the Kawarthas. While the average temperature for October was only 1 C above normal (compared to the mean temperature for 1971 – 2000), both September and November were nearly 2 C warmer. In fact, 15 of the past 16 months in the Kawarthas have seen above-average temperatures. We need to remember that the Paris Agreement is based on limiting warming to 2 C, since the laws of physics clearly demonstrate that any warming above this threshold will almost certainly result in massive negative impacts to civilization as we know it. However, on a day-to-day basis, we experience this warming in only subtle ways and often welcome the milder temperatures. It is therefore difficult to fully comprehend and ‘feel’ the enormity of what’s occurring and harder still to support forceful action – like sufficiently aggressive carbon taxes – to mitigate the warming. The human brain has simply not evolved to react effectively to slow-motion phenomena like a changing climate.

Although it’s hard to know what kind of weather the coming months has in store for us, the nature events listed below are typical of an average winter in the Kawarthas.

Bald eagle eating a dead carp near Lock 25 on the Otonabee River.

Bald eagle eating a dead carp near Lock 25 on the Otonabee River.

DECEMBER

·         December 21 marks the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year and the first official day of winter. The sun rises at its southernmost point on the eastern horizon, and sets at its southernmost point in the west. Sunrise is not until 7:46 a.m. while sunset is already upon us by 4:37 p.m. This translates into a mere 8 hours and 51 minutes of daylight. The winter solstice was celebrated by ancient cultures throughout the northern hemisphere and, in the opinion of some, was a precursor to faith. Try to imagine how an early human would experience the solstice and the weeks leading up to it. In late fall, the hours of daylight are only half of what they are in June, and the Sun is rising and setting further south each day. At a time pre-dating modern science, it would have seemed that the Sun was on the brink of vanishing completely and utter darkness and oblivion would follow. However, the decrease in daylight suddenly stops! Instead of rising and setting further and further south, the Sun abruptly halts its southward march and appears to “stand still ” – the meaning of the word solstice – before proceeding to rise and set further north and to climb higher in the sky. If anything was worthy of celebration, this certainly was.

·         Cassiopeia looms like a towering letter “M” in the north sky in the evening. The Inuit imagined the shape of this constellation as stairs sculpted in the snow.

·         Overwintering ducks, along with deer carcasses, are an important source of food for bald eagles that spend the winter in the Kawarthas. Watch for them along the Otonabee River and in the vicinity of Jack, Katchewanooka, Buckhorn, and Stony Lakes. Eagles are sometimes seen sitting on the ice beside open water, perched in nearby trees, or soaring overhead.

·         Robins should be quite plentiful this winter. The fruits that constitute the robin’s winter diet – mountain-ash, buckthorn, and especially wild grape – are abundant.

·         At most city feeders, the number and variety of birds have decreased since the heady days of October. White-throated and white-crowned sparrows, along with most of our blue jays, are now on their wintering grounds in the southern U.S. Although a few scattered flocks of pine grosbeaks have shown up in recent weeks, there is no indication yet of a major incursion of finches such as redpolls or pine siskins.

·         Take a drive along River Road north to Lakefield to look for ducks such as goldeneyes and mergansers. Little Lake in Peterborough is also worth checking. A red-throated loon has been there since late November.

·         With Christmas wreaths and planters everywhere, December is a great month to learn to identify our native conifers. Here are three simple memory aids that link the sound of letters in the trees’ name to its characteristics : pine needles are long like ‘pins’; spruce needles ‘spiral’ around the twig and are ‘spiky’; while fir needles are ‘flat’ and very ‘flexible’.

·         Christmas Bird Counts take place across North America this month. The Peterborough count will be held on December 18, while the Petroglyphs count is slated for December 27. A special Christmas Bird Count for kids will take place at Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park on December 17. It will be a morning of birding, campfires and hot chocolate! To register, please email shannon.mcgaffey@ontario.ca

·         Scattered twigs on the ground below conifers are a sure sign of red squirrel activity. The squirrels are after the buds and cones on the twigs.

JANUARY

·         Watch for ruffed grouse perched high in trees at dawn and dusk. The birds often appear in silhouette as they feed on buds such as those of trembling aspen.

·         Winter is a good time to make plans for additions to your gardens. If you’re interested in attracting more bees and butterflies, you may wish to pick up a copy of the 2017 Peterborough Pollinators Calendar – A 12-Month Guide to Pollinator Gardens and Backyard Nature. The calendars are available at Avant-Garden Shop, Hunter Street Books, Peterborough GreenUp, Chapters and Happenstance in Lakefield.

·         The Peterborough Field Naturalist’s 76th Annual General Meeting takes place on January 20. Leora Burman will speak on ‘The Land Between’. Contact Jim Young at 705-760-9397 for tickets. You will also find more information at peterboroughnature.org

·         Coyotes are quite vocal during their January to March mating season.

·         On January 25, Marcy Adzich will speak at the Peterborough Horticultural Society on “Edible Urban Ecology: Food Forests and Beekeeping in our Urban Community” For more information, visit peterboroughhort.com

·         If you’re walking in the woods, you’ll notice that some of the trees have retained many of their leaves. These are usually beech, oak, or ironwood.

American beech in winter. Note lingering leaves. Photo by Drew Monkman

American beech in winter. Note lingering leaves. Photo by Drew Monkman

·         Barred owls sometimes show up in rural backyards and prey on feeder birds or mice and voles that attracted at night by fallen seeds.

Barred Owl on cottontail - Jeff Keller - 01 24 14

Barred Owl on eastern cottontail in backyard near Lakefield – Jeff Keller – 01 24 14

FEBRUARY

·         Groundhog Day, February 2, marks the mid-point of winter. In case you were wondering, no animal or plant behaviour can portend upcoming weather beyond a few hours.

·         On February 8, Basil Conlin will speak to the Peterborough Field Naturalists on mothing in Peterborough. To date, he has found an amazing 560 species. More information at peterboroughnature.org

·         Although tentative at first, bird song returns in February as pair bonds are established or renewed. Black-capped chickadees, northern cardinals, and white-breasted nuthatches are usually the first species to start singing this month.

·         Gray squirrels mate in January or February and can often be seen streaming by in treetop chases as a group of males chases a half-terrorized female.

·         The Great Backyard Bird Count takes place February 17-20. This citizen science event engages bird watchers of all levels of expertise to create a real-time snapshot of the whereabouts and relative abundance of birds in mid-winter. Anyone can participate. Go to birdcount.org for details.

·         Watch for river otters in winter around areas of flowing water. Their trough-like, snow-slide trails are often seen on embankments or even flat ground.

River otter eating a fish at Gannon's Narrows, Buckhorn Lake (by Kinsley Hubbs)

River otter eating a fish at Gannon’s Narrows, Buckhorn Lake (by Kinsley Hubbs)

·         Late February is courtship time for ravens. Males engage in aerial nuptial displays, diving and twisting like corkscrews over Canadian Shield country.

·         On mild, sunny, late winter days, check the snow along the edge of woodland trails for snow fleas. What looks like spilled pepper may begin to jump around right before your eyes!

·         Testosterone-charged male skunks roll out of their dens any time from mid-February to early March and go on nocturnal prowls looking for females. The smell of a skunk on a damp, late winter night is a time-honoured sign of “pre-spring.”

·         By month’s end, spring has sprung for overwintering monarchs in the mountains of Mexico. As lengthening days trigger the final development of the butterflies’ reproductive system, male monarchs begin zealously courting females. In December, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada recommended that the monarch be listed by the federal government as Endangered.

EARLY MARCH

·          Duck numbers increase as buffleheads and hooded mergansers start arriving.

·         Chipmunks make their first appearance above ground since late fall. They did remain somewhat active all winter, however, making repeated trips to their underground storehouses for food.

·         On March 8, Peter Mills will speak to the Peterborough Field Naturalists on the larval life of frogs, toads and salamanders. He is the author of “Metamorphosis”. More info at peterboroughnature.org

·         The furry catkins of pussy willows and aspens poke through bud scales and become a time-honoured sign of spring’s imminent arrival.

·         The first songbirds, too, usually return by mid-month. In the city, the most notable new arrivals are robins and grackles. In rural areas, watch for red-winged blackbirds perched high in wetland trees.

 

 

Dec 012016
 

“The woods are wide and full of wonders, but we boys were mere counters, nibblers and sniffers at her mysteries. Just two skinny lads roaming fields like foxes searching for whatever we could find. Here a quartz rock, there an emerald snake, and over there a woodcock’s nest.”

Local author Gord Harrison’s new book, ‘My Cousin & Me: And Other Animals’ is a powerful natural history memoir of two young lads chasing wildlife in the hinterlands of Haliburton County. Scattered throughout the pages are more than 350 of the author’s fabulous wildlife photos of everything from eastern wolves and snowy owls to Cecropia moths and orchids. Harrison’s heartfelt love for the land where he grew up and now calls home rings true on every page.

Gord Harrison's new memoir evokes a Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn childhood (Gord Harrison photo).jpg

Gord Harrison’s new memoir evokes a Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn childhood (Gord Harrison photo).jpg

Themes

“My Cousin & Me” is many things. First, it is a celebration of a childhood that few kids today will ever know – a Huckleberry Finn childhood, free of the shackles of over-protective parents. At the same time, the book is an invaluable guide to seeing nature through the lens of evolution by natural selection – “the single best idea anyone has ever had”, as the philosopher Daniel Dennett famously stated. Finally, “My Cousin and Me” is a tribute to the diversity and wonder of nature in central Ontario.

Enthralled by the glorious life all around him, Harrison came to realize that all of this beauty is the result of natural selection, namely the process whereby organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring. As Harrison explains in multiple, fascinating ways, predators and prey like flowers and bees ‘dance’ together in the struggle for existence. Each shapes the other.

In a chapter on white-tailed deer, the author demonstrates how nearly every characteristic of a deer has been molded by millions of years of “descent with modification”, as Darwin liked to call it. While humans would quickly and miserably perish in the conditions that deer must face, the latter “appear to have just walked out of a grooming salon.”

Harrison is a proud, unabashed non-believer; but he knows his Bible. He is especially critical of creationism which, in addition to simply being wrong, reduces the wonder of nature to “God did it. End of story”. Nor is he a fan of authority. He explains how blindly obeying the powers that be – parents, priests, politicians  – can often lead to bad outcomes. “If all you know is to follow authority and imitate your parents, how do you judge novel situations? If a plague hits your region, you pray; the plague persists and millions die… However, science recognizes no authority but reality.” Thankfully, knowledge derived from science now saves countless millions every year. His mistrust in officialdom and ‘business as usual’ is also grounded in the sad reality that humans have treated the wilderness and its wildlife as the enemy to be subdued, killed, eaten or skinned. He adds, “It has been a long night’s journey into light, and we’re not there yet.”

Harrison’s book is not just for nature lovers, but will delight anyone who is curious about science and critical thinking. It will also resonate with readers who remember what it was like to grow up in rural Ontario in the 1940s and 50s. The author recounts the story of how is ill-natured, superstitious aunt suffered from goiter and actually believed in the healing power of snakes. She asked Gord and his cousin to go out and capture a snake long enough to “wrap around her neck twice”. Local wisdom affirmed that doing so would cause the goiter to shrivel up and disappear. Because the boys didn’t particularly care for their aunt, they decided to grant her wish by catching a garter snake for the job, knowing all too well that the foul-smelling musk the snake exudes would linger on her neck for days! And it did. The book is full of similar amusing anecdotes.

You'll find an entertaining story of Barney, the black bear, in the book. (photo by Gord Harrison).jpg

You’ll find an entertaining story of Barney, the black bear, in My Cousin & Me. (photo by Gord Harrison).jpg

I couldn’t help but be impressed by Harrison’s first-hand insights into animal behaviour and how ‘received knowledge’ is not always accurate or the whole picture. He tells the story of a female black bear leaving her 18-month old cub to fend for itself. Rather than aggressively driving the cub away as many books describe, Harrison observed how she commanded her obedient cub to stay in the middle of his field. She then shambled off into the forest only to return in 20 minutes to see her cub again. Then, once more, she left. “This coming and going repeated itself half a dozen times over a period of three hours. It had every appearance of a long, sad goodbye. Finally she left forever.”

Morality

As this story suggests, Harrison is convinced of the innate morality of animals – not something God-given but rather the result of natural selection. In other words, being ‘moral’ is beneficial to the survival of the species. In an amazing story charged with heart-breaking emotion, the author describes how he came to know a paraplegic mother bear – probably the victim of an encounter with a vehicle or a hunter’s bullet. Despite the pain of warn-away fur and exposed flesh, the bear literally dragged herself by her front legs in the service of her cubs. Harrison contacted to the Ministry of Natural Resources who told him that if the sow made it through to hibernation, the cubs would have a better chance of surviving the winter. Harrison decided to feed “Mother Courage” and her cubs and put the food outside his back window. He watched for several weeks as the cubs always arrived first, followed by their heroic mother dragging her bleeding backside out of the deep forest, only to collapse in exhaustion. He discovered that mother and cubs were travelling nearly a kilometre over arduous terrain from their winter den to his house. “I was stunned by the magnitude of her endurance and the power of her instincts. Neither torn flesh, nor exhaustion, nor death itself I thought would prevent her daily rounds… Clearly, this mother bear was exhibiting behaviour that can only be described as moral.”

Math in Nature

Anyone with a love of mathematics – Harrison was a high school math teacher himself – will be intrigued by a chapter entitled “The Young Pythagoreans”. It highlights the famous Fibonacci sequence in which the next term in a number series is simply the sum of the previous two terms. For example, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55… Amazingly enough, the sequence can be found in everything from the florets of composite flowers to the spirals of pine cones. Harrison recounts how he and his cousin stumbled upon some terms in the Fibonacci sequence by counting flower petals. With composite flowers – those with multiple florets on their heads like daisies and sunflowers – there is actually a double Fibonacci pattern. Ox-eye daisies have 21 spirals going clockwise and 34 going the other way. Although different sizes and species of composite flowers have different numbers of spirals, they’re always neighbouring pairs from the Fibonacci sequence. The same is true for pine cones. Harrison goes on to discuss how nature molds such order out of what appears to be chaos. As it turns out, a Fibonacci spiral is the best method to pack seeds closely, and evolution is “on a close-packing quest: produce more seeds, have more progeny, be fruitful and multiply, or perish.”

A majestic Algonquin (eastern) wolf photographed by Gord Harrison on his Haliburton far.

A majestic Algonquin (eastern) wolf photographed by Gord Harrison on his Haliburton far.

You have probably gathered by now that Harrison crafts beautiful sentences, which is yet another way to enjoy the book. He holds nothing back! In talking about wild turkeys, the author writes, “…let it be said that turkeys dispatch bodily liquids and solids through a single orifice. A combination not unlike rain and hail having the colour of gray gravel glazed with an indescribable stench…”

At almost 300 pages, “My Cousin & Me” covers a lot more territory than I can do justice to in one article. Harrison also takes the reader on fascinating journeys into the lives of bumble bees, Cecropia moths, fishers, flying squirrels, owls, hawks, moose and especially wolves. The book contains many of Harrison’s exquisite photographs of the Algonquin (eastern) wolves that he regularly sees and hears on his property. The book concludes with a chapter on the human history of “The Land Between” where Harrison’s farm is located. But it’s not just any human history. Harrison tells the ‘deep’ human past as revealed by his own DNA, an epic story he traces all the way back to Africa. “We are all one tremendous family; ideas of race are false, totally false! We are all Africans.”

My Cousin & Me can be purchased at The Avant-Garden Shop on Sherbrooke Street east, Chapters Peterborough, Hunter Street Book Store, and through Amazon.ca

 

2017 Peterborough Pollinators Calendar

I am proud to announce that a group I belong to has just published a calendar & nature guide to our gardens and yards. It contains a year’s worth of plant and pollinator explorations. Each day of the year has its own nature happening, suggested activity, local event or garden task. The calendar is illustrated with 80 beautiful colour photographs of bees, butterflies, birds, plants, trees and more. All proceeds go to Peterborough Pollinators, which is working to create a pollinator-friendly community for citizens and pollinators alike. The calendar sells for $20 and is available at Avant-Garden, Peterborough GreenUp, Hunter Street Books, Bluestreak Records and Happenstance. Order online at calendar@peterboroughpollinators.com

March photo spread from new calendar. (Ben Wolfe)

March photo spread from new calendar. (Ben Wolfe)

Cover of Peterborough Pollinator's new 2017 calendar (photo by Ben Wolfe)

Cover of Peterborough Pollinator’s new 2017 calendar (photo by Ben Wolfe)

Calendar page for December 2017 (Ben Wolfe)

Calendar page for December 2017 (Ben Wolfe)

 

 

 

Nov 172016
 

In her recent Environmental Protection Report entitled “Small Steps Forward”, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, Dianne Saxe, called upon the government to put words into action to monitor biodiversity, combat wildlife declines, control invasive species, and follow through on better forest fire management.

The large-scale loss of biodiversity is a crisis in Ontario and around the world. Ontario’s most “at risk” species are snakes, turtles and freshwater mussels. However, many freshwater fishes, birds and mammals are also experiencing alarming declines. In addition, when you include species that may be at risk, we also find mosses, amphibians, lichens and many vascular plants. Overall, about 30 per cent of all species groups in the province are either sensitive, maybe at risk or already at risk. This year’s report highlights three examples of current wildlife declines in Ontario.

Moose

Ontario’s moose population has dropped by almost 20 per cent in the past decade. Declining populations are being observed across North America, including Manitoba and Quebec. Although no single cause has been identified, there appear to be common pressures across the continent that are driving the declines. These include habitat degradation, disease and parasites (e.g., winter ticks), hunting, predation and climate change. The latter is especially important. Climate change is contributing to higher parasite loads, heat stress, decreased food availability and even increased predation. The optimal climatic conditions for moose are shifting northward. This is bad news for areas like the Kawarthas, where moose are at the southern limit of their range.

Moose in roadside ditch - Terry Carpenter

Moose in roadside ditch – Terry Carpenter

Ticks negatively impact moose in a number of ways, including blood loss. In addition, when the animals attempt to dislodge the parasites by rubbing up against trees, the resulting hairless patches can result in hypothermia.

Among other measures, the Ontario government is placing new restrictions on hunting calf moose by shortening the hunting season. There are about 98,000 licensed moose hunters in Ontario. On average, they harvest about 5,700 animals a year, although serious gaps still exist in the actual reporting of moose kills.

Bats

Eight species of bats are native to Ontario. Five of these species hibernate in caves or abandoned mines, which makes them susceptible to white-nose syndrome, an aggressive fungal disease. Four of these “cave bats” – eastern small-footed myotis, northern myotis, little brown myotis (bat) and tri-colored bat – have been classified as endangered due to the disease. The big brown bat is thought to be less affected by WNS. Three other species, known collectively as “tree bats”, migrate south each winter and do not use caves or abandoned mines. Their susceptibility to WNS is unknown.

Little Brown Bat with White Nose Syndrome - Wikimedia

Little Brown Bat with White Nose Syndrome – Wikimedia

Before WNS, the little brown myotis was the most common bat species in Ontario. Now, all known little brown hibernation sites are affected by WNS, including sites in the Bancroft area. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forests (MNRF) has little hope that the species can recover in Ontario. Because of their classification as endangered, these bats are protected from being killed, harmed or harassed, and from having their habitats damaged or destroyed. It also means that recovery strategies must be prepared for these species.

Currently, there is no treatment for WNS. There is, however, promising research that is being done. In research done at Georgia State University, some bats were able to survive WNS infection through exposure to a common soil bacterium, which produces compounds that inhibit the growth of the fungus. There also appear to be some small populations that are surviving, even in areas affected by WNS. However, it may be too late for Ontario’s cave bats, which have already experienced massive die-offs.

In 2015, Ontario released a White Nose Syndrome Response Plan. It outlines a co-ordinated provincial response with respect to prevention, monitoring and research. Among the plan’s goals are to increase public awareness about WNS and to limit the inadvertent spread of the disease by human activities. The fungus can be spread by people who visit caves and abandoned mines. MNRF’s current research initiatives include developing a citizen science network to contribute to monitoring and identifying natural caves/hibernacula and maternity roosts as well as monitoring known maternity colonies and hibernacula at appropriate times of the year.

Amphibians

Amphibians are the most threatened group of vertebrate animals in the world, with 42 per cent of amphibian species in decline. Ontario’s amphibians are faring only slightly better. Of the 27 native species and subspecies of frogs, toads, salamanders, and newts, three are believed to be extirpated (meaning that they no longer live in the wild in Ontario), and an additional five species are listed as endangered. Over the last several decades, researchers have also observed declines (some localized) in several Ontario species, including the pickerel frog, bullfrog and western chorus frog. Fortunately, these species still seem to be doing well in the Kawarthas.

Chorus Frog (photo by Tim Dyson)

Chorus Frog (photo by Tim Dyson)

 

One of the major drivers of the international amphibian decline is a chytrid fungal infection that has caused mass mortality of frogs, toads and salamanders. This fungus has not been a major threat to Ontario’s amphibians to date, though there are concerns about their potential vulnerability. In Ontario, the most significant threats are habitat loss, habitat degradation (e.g., from pollutants such as agrochemicals and road salt), habitat fragmentation, road mortality, overharvesting, invasive species, and climate change,

Large areas of amphibian habitat, particularly woodlands and wetlands, have been destroyed or degraded by development, infrastructure, roads, forestry, aggregate extraction and mine development. There are various provincial policies that are supposed to provide a degree of protection for wetlands; however, these crucial habitats continue to decline. For example, provincially significant wetlands are not protected from agricultural drainage under the Drainage Act

Citizen Science

Most of the information Ontario has about its amphibian populations is a direct result of citizen science monitoring programs. In 2009, Ontario Nature and its partners initiated the Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas. Since then, more than 3,000 volunteers have submitted over 250,000 sightings of amphibian and reptile species. New technologies like mobile apps are increasing the potential power of citizen science. In spring 2016, Ontario Nature launched the Directory of Ontario Citizen Science, a new online hub that connects volunteers with various kinds of citizen science projects across Ontario. Such programs are valuable conservation tools and provide opportunities for people to engage with nature.

Invasive species

The spread of invasive species is one of the biggest threats to biodiversity. Invasive species are (normally) non-native organisms that harm established ecosystems. They are able to disrupt ecosystem processes, introduce diseases, and reduce numbers of native plants and animals because of abilities and characteristics like rapid growth, prolific reproduction, and tolerance for many different environmental conditions. They are also thriving as a result of climate change and the higher carbon dioxide levels n the atmosphere.

Dog-strangling vine is an invasive twining and trailing plant from Eurasia that out-competes native herbaceous plants and tree seedlings. Photo by Drew Monkman

Dog-strangling vine is an invasive twining and trailing plant from Eurasia that out-competes native herbaceous plants and tree seedlings. Photo by Drew Monkman

As much as 66 per cent of Ontario’s species at risk are threatened by established invaders such as garlic mustard (a forest herb), Phragmites (a tall, plumed grass), emerald ash borer (a beetle), round goby (a fish) and zebra mussels. All of these species are present in the Kawarthas. Last year, Ontario passed the new Invasive Species Act, 2015. However, most of the hard front-line work is still left to municipalities, conservation authorities and private landowners. Lack of monitoring is another critical gap.

The emerald ash borer, an invasive wood-boring beetle from Asia, is steadily chewing its way through millions of ash trees across North America, threatening the species’ very survival. It is now present in Peterborough. Dog-strangling vine is an invasive twining and trailing plant from Eurasia that out-competes native herbaceous plants and tree seedlings. It can turn a forest floor or field into a mass of impassable knotted stems that prevent native trees and plants from regenerating. Dog-strangling vine also threatens plant biodiversity in natural forests, and can have a negative impact on monarch butterflies – the butterflies mistake dog strangling vine for milkweed and lay their eggs on its leaves, which don’t sustain monarch caterpillars.

Phragmites is an invasive reed also from Eurasia that chokes out native plants in wetlands and ditches. It grows in dense, monoculture stands that provide poor habitat and food for wildlife. The dense, dry stems are also a fire hazard. Phragmites stands are becoming quite extensive along roadsides in the Kawarthas, especially south of the city in areas such as the airport and along County Road 28.

Phragmites on a roadside south of Peterborough - Photo by Drew Monkman

Phragmites on a roadside south of Peterborough – Photo by Drew Monkman

It is important to learn to identify invasive species and to try to remove invasive plants on your property. Check out the Ontario Invasive Plant Council’s best management practice guides at ontarioinvasiveplants.ca. The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters also provides an excellent resource at invadingspecies.com

Recommendations

The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario has made the following recommendations. The MNRF should: 1. Implement mandatory reporting for all licensed moose hunters. 2. Examine and publicly report on whether habitat-related issues are playing a role in moose declines. 3. Take accelerated steps to identify and implement potential recovery actions for at-risk bat species as soon as possible. 4. Take steps to remedy the chronic delays in finalizing government response statements to at risk species. 5. Develop and implement a broad- scale biodiversity monitoring program.

In addition, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing should prohibit infrastructure in provincially significant wetlands, and the Ministry of Transportation should finalize and publicly consult on its draft wildlife mitigation strategy for provincial roads.

The Small Steps Forward report also includes a review of government compliance with the Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR) and places a renewed focus on citizen applications using their environmental rights. Small Steps Forward can be downloaded at eco.on.ca

 

 

 

Nov 102016
 

Nature is replete with beautiful vistas, vibrant colors, intriguing species, poetic moments and always the unexpected. It is wonderful to be able to capture some of these discoveries on paper and to reflect more deeply on the experience. Journaling is an activity that can help everyone – regardless of age – retain memories and impressions of nature for years to come.

Nature journaling is simply the act of using words and sketches to record observations, feelings and thoughts about an aspect of nature that has caught your attention. It provides a wonderful opportunity to relax and spend time alone or with friends and family. The nature journal soon becomes a much-loved companion to all of your outings. Because the act of drawing requires focus, you end up seeing so much more. This is especially so for details such as colour, shape, texture and interesting behaviours. In this way, you remember an experience or sighting in greater detail than by simply taking a photograph. Even years later, clear memories of a special moment in nature come flooding back as you leaf through the pages of your journal.

A page from a child's nature journal - photo by Drew Monkman

A page from a child’s nature journal – photo by Drew Monkman

Rather than drawing as an artist, it is less intimidating to think of yourself as a scribe or reporter. This is not an art exercise, but something done for enjoyment. Think of a nature journal as a treasure hunt. You may wish to make detailed descriptions of your observations, or simple, point-form notes scattered around a drawing. Your notes can include questions about what you are observing, philosophical ramblings, personal reflections and favorite quotes or lines of poetry.

You don’t even have to be outside. You can record the observations you make from a window or draw items collected on a walk (e.g., a variety of leaves) after you get home. You might also want to take some photographs and glue them in your journal as well.

Some basics

A small, hard-covered sketchbook with unlined paper works best. Buy a few 2B pencils (softer graphite for plants and birds) although any pen or regular pencil will do. You should also have some good quality coloured pencils and/or watercolour pencils, a small pocketknife for sharpening purposes and an eraser.

Include the date, time (clock time or “early afternoon”), location, weather, approximate temperature and any other environmental conditions of note (e.g., birds singing, a certain smell in the air). Take no more than five to ten minutes for most drawings. Use point-form notes and arrows to briefly describe what you draw. Include any species names, if you know them. You might also want to include a measurement if it’s important for identification purposes. Know your thumb and forearm lengths for reference.

A group of children sketching in their nature journals - Photo by Drew Monkman

A group of children sketching in their nature journals – Photo by Drew Monkman

Try to draw a mixture of ground observations such as things you can draw life size (e.g., a maple key), eye-level observations (e.g., entire plants or trees), things happening overhead (e.g., a soaring bird, clouds), and whole landscapes. The possibilities of what to draw are endless. To get started, focus on the commonplace and the near-by. You might also want to choose subjects that change over the course of the year. This can be as simple as a tree in your backyard or a distant vista. Nature journaling is a wonderful way to really get to know the place you live and the creatures that inhabit that space through the seasons.

Working with kids

Nature journaling can be a wonderful way to help children develop a personal relationship with the natural world. It is also a great intergenerational activity when parents, grandparents or teachers do journaling with family members or students. When you are working with children, however, there are a some things to keep in mind: 1. As a rule, encourage the children to do quick, diagrammatic drawings, also known as line drawings. Have them add written notes of the object’s size, colour, interesting characteristics and name if known. 2. Try to limit the time devoted to each drawing and descriptions to no more than ten minutes. 3. Remind the children that they are not doing “art” and do not need to feel inadequate if their drawings are less than realistic. Extra details can always be added when they get home. 4. Before moving on to the next location or subject, you and the children should take a moment to share your drawings and to point out what caught your attention. 5. Over time, you may wish to teach the children some drawing techniques such as perspective, shading and how to capture basic shapes. 6. Return to the same location regularly to increase a sense of belonging to a natural environment and foster awareness of the subtleties of seasonal change. 7. Encourage the children to draw from lying down, sitting and standing. 8. Ask them to record how they feel about what they are observing. 9. You might also challenge the children to have a special place in their journal for their own poetry or personal thoughts about the natural world. 10. Most importantly, let them see you journaling, too!

Quick sketches work best. You don't have to draw the whole bird . Sketch by Kelly Dodge.

Quick sketches work best. You don’t have to draw the whole bird . Sketch by Kelly Dodge.

Seasonal ideas

FALL– Flocks of birds including geese or gulls overhead, starlings on wires, squirrels in different locations and showing different behaviours, late-blooming flowers, leaves of different colours and shapes, trees of different colours and shapes, a variety of seeds and berries, the seed heads of grasses, fungi and lichens, woodpecker holes in a tree, a landscape showing colourful trees on distant hills, different cloud types, sunrise and/or sunset drawn from exactly the same location as the season progresses (the sun’s position on the horizon will change as the months go by), nature-based decorations associated with the harvest, Thanksgiving and  Halloween

WINTER:  Abandoned nests in trees, a page of the different bird species at the feeder, tracks in the mud or snow, squirrel antics at the feeder, silhouettes of winter deciduous and coniferous trees, twigs and buds, the needles of different conifers, leaves still clinging to twigs, goldenrod galls, dead  flowers in a garden or field, snowflakes, icicles, frost on a window, long winter shadows, moon phases, constellations, the same landscape as in the fall, sunrise and/or sunset from the same location, nature-based decorations associated with Christmas

SPRING: Return of migrants (e.g., robin in snow), activities of nesting birds, a singing bird accompanied by a representation of its song, earthworms on the sidewalk, the frog chorus coming from a wetland (small bells could represent a spring peeper’s song), the first flowers in the garden or on a tree, the emergence of a single leaf (drawn from one day to the next), changes in a tree over the spring, rain storms & puddles, the same landscape as in the fall and winter as leaves begin to emerge, sunrise and/or sunset from the same location, a visit to a sugar bush, Earth Day activities

SUMMER: Hummingbirds at a feeder, birds taking a bath, robins in different locations and showing different behaviours, a selection of birds in flight, close-ups of insects, garden flowers, roadside flowers, leaves of different shapes and vein patterns, aquatic plants, document and illustrate the weather for a week, the same landscape as in the other seasons, sunrise and/or sunset from the same location, nature sightings during a family vacation

 

 

 

Nov 032016
 

Big changes in the landscape will soon be a reality in the Kawarthas as extensive growth is looming on the horizon. For many, there is a fear that our region could easily lose its “nearby nature” character and become another Ajax or Barrie – in other words, a landscape that would be hard to distinguish from the 401 corridor running through the GTA. What will our community look like in the next 10 or 20 years? How will we ensure the protection of the special landscapes, natural areas and overall quality of life that have inspired so many of us to make Peterborough and the Kawarthas our home?”

One of the biggest factors contributing to quality of life in Peterborough and the Kawarthas is the proximity of nature. It is no exaggeration to say that a majority of local residents have a closer connection to the land than people living elsewhere in southern Ontario. We are farmers, cottagers, hikers, campers, hunters, anglers, boaters, cross-country skiers, naturalists, and more. We know what stands to be lost.

Growth Plan

The Ontario “Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, 2016”, which is currently under review, identifies areas for new growth in southern Ontario. The Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH) extends north to Georgian Bay, south to Lake Erie, west to Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo and east to Havelock. Room for growth is limited, largely because the province’s existing Greenbelt, Niagara Escarpment and Oak Ridges Moraine are protected areas. They are also slated to be expanded. The proposed Greenbelt expansion includes a huge part of Simcoe, Wellington and Northumberland Counties. This means that much of the new growth will have to happen in areas of the GGH that are located outside of the protected zone. In addition to parts of the GTA and cities such as Barrie and Guelph, the plan identifies the perimeters of Lindsay, Peterborough and even Norwood as “greenfield areas”, which means areas for urban growth.

The relentless march of housing developments into rural land. Parkhill Road at Ravenwood Drive (Drew Monkman photo)

The relentless march of housing developments into rural land. Parkhill Road at Ravenwood Drive (Drew Monkman photo)

According to the placestogrow.ca website, “the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH), together with the Greenbelt Plan, Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan and the Niagara Escarpment Plan…will establish a land use planning framework for the GGH that supports the creation of resilient and sustainable complete communities, a thriving economy, a clean and healthy environment, and social equity.”

As lofty as this vision may seem, growth will inevitably mean the building of new roads, along with new housing and commercial developments. The downside is that natural heritage resources, such as rivers, lakes, woodlands and wetlands, will be in danger of being changed or erased all together. This is especially true for natural areas close to urban centres.

Other Threats

There are other reasons for concern. Highway 407 is inching closer to the Peterborough area and is scheduled to reach Highway 35/115 by 2020. The new phase of the 407 extension opened this summer is already bringing thousands of more people to our region faster than ever before. At the same time, record housing prices in the GTA are driving people here to find affordable real estate. Just in the past year, the price of housing in Peterborough has increased by as much as 30%, according to one source. Traditionally, house prices in Peterborough went up only with inflation.

More development and soaring house prices are likely to create social problems. By driving up the price of real estate, the gap between income and cost of living will increase, especially for people who both reside and work here. Living in the Peterborough area will become less affordable for local residents, compared to those living here but working in Toronto and earning Toronto salaries.

While many embrace the idea of growth and increased population, we do have to weigh the benefits against the potential losses. Right now, the Peterborough region has one of the highest live-work ratios in the province. Many more people both work and live in our community than travel to the GTA to work. This leads to more community interaction and participation and is partly why so many of us consider Peterborough and the Kawarthas to be a caring and supportive place to live.

Jackson Creek Meadows housing development on Parkhill Road. It backs onto a provincially significant wetland. (Drew Monkman)

Jackson Creek Meadows housing development on Parkhill Road. It backs onto a provincially significant wetland. (Drew Monkman)

Other pressures, too, like aggregate development and new approaches to agriculture will continue to have an impact, especially on the natural world. The consolidation (expansion) of farm fields, partly through the removal of hedgerows, is not only changing the cherished character of the landscape but is destroying crucial habitat for birds and pollinators.

All of this is happening against a backdrop of climate change, which is causing further stress to natural and urban areas alike. It will only get worse, even if all greenhouse gas emissions were to stop tomorrow. No less than 14 of the past 15 months in Peterborough have been warmer than the 1971-2000 average. The same trend is happening globally. The record warmth of August continued a streak of 11 consecutive months (dating to October 2015) that have set new monthly temperature records for the planet. September was the second warmest ever. It is almost certain that 2016 will end up being the warmest year the Earth has seen since record keeping began.

We can only hope that the intensification targets (i.e., moving the focus of new residential development from peripheral farmland and greenspace to existing built places) which are in the province’s growth plan will be able to balance investment in the economy and the protection of both natural areas and our quality of life.

Striking a balance

As the population grows and the predominantly rural character of our region becomes increasingly urbanized, any commitment to growth should be matched by a commitment to expanding our network of protected spaces and natural areas.

An example of this commitment is the admirable work being done by the Kawartha Land Trust (KLT). The land trust’s mission is to support these goals by actively seeking out, prioritizing and securing new sites for long-term conservation. The KLT envisions a connected system of natural lands that are cared for by members of our community. It has already made great strides in making this a reality. For example, along with other partners, the KLT was instrumental in launching “The Kawarthas, Naturally Connected” which sets out a vision and required actions for conserving and enhancing protected lands in our region. It has been tied to local planning initiatives as part of compliance to the Ontario Growth Plan, which is referenced above.

Kawartha Land Trust logo

Kawartha Land Trust logo

Protected lands offer a double benefit for the climate. They not only help absorb greenhouse gases, they also prevent significant greenhouse gas emissions that would result from development — including deforestation, construction and the additional driving required by poorly planned growth. Protected properties are also important reservoirs for protecting biodiversity.

The approach of the KLT is flexible. The organization is able to work with all landowners, whatever the situation or intention. For instance, their approach allows for formal conservation of private lands through a unique tool called a conservation easement agreement. However, the KLT can also draw up a memorandum of understanding with landowners who don’t yet have a specific plan for their properties. The land trust depends primarily on private funding from hundreds of volunteers and donors each year. More, however, are needed. In Ontario as a whole, donations to environmental causes have decreased in recent years.

If we are to have any hope of reaching the targets outlined in the report “State of Ontario’s Biodiversity 2015” all sectors of Ontario society – government, industry and individuals – will need to dig deeper into their pockets. This is why my wife and I are monthly donors to the Kawartha Land Trust.

You can learn more about the Kawartha Land Trust by attending a fun and informative gathering on Thursday, November 10. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Starting at 7:00, there will be a presentation on recent KLT highlights and its vision for the future of the Kawarthas (Strategic Plan 2017-2020). The Kawartha Land Trust is now located at the Mount Community Centre at 1548 Monaghan Road in Peterborough. To see their financial statements and annual report, go to kawarthalandtrust.org.

 The Howson family property near Rice Lake. Known-as Glen Burn, it is protected under Conservation Agreement with the Kawartha Land Trust

The Howson family property near Rice Lake. Known-as Glen Burn, it is protected under Conservation Agreement with the Kawartha Land Trust

 

 

 

Oct 202016
 

Once again this fall, I’ve been kept busy meeting the food demands of the hordes of birds that have descended upon my yard and feeders. At least two dozen white-throated sparrows have been gorging themselves on the millet finch mix I scatter on the ground. These small seeds have also attracted white-crowned sparrows, dark-eyed juncos and three beautiful fox sparrows. Black oil sunflower aficionados like blue jays, house finches, cardinals, chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches and American goldfinches are also putting a serious dent in my birdseed budget. Not to be outdone, hairy and downy woodpeckers have been on a non-stop crusade to empty the peanut feeder.

Fox Sparrow - Wikimedia

Fox Sparrow – Wikimedia

Clearly, October is a wonderful month for feeding birds. But, despite our best attempts to entice them to stay, migrants such as white-throated sparrows abandon our yards in late October for wintering grounds in the southeastern U.S. By early November, there is often a marked decrease in feeder activity. Most years, however, a second wave of visitors eventually fills the void. These are the so-called “winter finches”, a term used to describe highly nomadic species like redpolls, siskins, purple finches and pine grosbeaks, all of which belong to the Fringillidae family. Some winters, they are totally absent from the Kawarthas, while other years they can eat you out of house and home. Last year, big flocks of pine siskins and purple finches were a constant presence at local feeders Why is it that finch numbers fluctuate so widely? The short answer is the availability of wild food.

Common redpolls may show up at feeders in the Kawarthas this winter - Missy Mandel

Common redpolls may show up at feeders in the Kawarthas this winter – Missy Mandel

Winter finches move southward – or east or west – when there is a shortage of food in their breeding territories in the boreal forest of northern Ontario and Quebec. The wild foods the birds depend upon most are the seeds and berries of deciduous and coniferous trees such as birches, mountain-ashes, pines and spruces. If seed crops are good in the north, the birds stay put. If food is lacking, they will sometimes fly thousands of kilometres to find it. Whether they actually choose to spend the winter here in the Kawarthas depends on the abundance of wild food crops in this region.

Since the fall of 1999, Ron Pittaway of the Ontario Field Ornithologists has prepared an annual forecast of what winter finch species are most likely to show up in southern and central Ontario over the upcoming fall and winter. The forecast is based on the relative abundance of seed crops in the boreal forest. Much of the data comes from Ministry of Natural Resources staff. So, what is the seed crop situation this year and what are the implications for the thousands of area residents who enjoy feeding the birds? Below you will find a species-by-species breakdown. Although not finches, four other bird species are included in the list, namely the blue jay, red-breasted nuthatch, bohemian waxwing and American robin.

PINE GROSBEAK: This, our largest finch, will probably stay in the north, because native mountain-ash berry crops are good to bumper across the boreal forest. If some grosbeaks do wander south into the Kawarthas, they will search out European mountain-ash berries and ornamental crabapples. They will occasionally come to feeders, too, if sunflower seeds are available.

PURPLE FINCH: Purple finches have been moving south since late August, when small numbers were appearing daily at my feeder. The southward flight is due to poor seed crops on deciduous trees in the north. An easy way to tell purple finches from house finches is by checking the tip of the tail; the former has a distinctly notched or slightly forked tail. The house finch’s tail is squared off. Both species prefer black oil sunflower seeds at feeders.

RED CROSSBILL: Expect a scattering of red crossbills in central Ontario this winter. Listen and watch for them on spruces and pines, including large-coned ornamental pines. Petroglyphs Provincial Park is often a good place to see these birds.

WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILL: This crossbill moves back and forth like a pendulum across the boreal forest looking for bumper spruce cone crops. It ventures south only in years of widespread cone crop failures. We can expect some white-winged crossbills; however, abundant cone crops in the north will probably keep them at home. Both crossbill species increasingly use feeders with black oil sunflower seeds when conifer seeds are scarce.

Male White-winged Crossbill - Wikimedia

Male White-winged Crossbill – Wikimedia

PINE SISKIN:  This is another species that depends on the seeds they extract from spruce cones. Since the cone crop is generally poor in the boreal forest of Quebec, we can expect some siskins to move south into central Ontario this winter. Most, however, are probably making a beeline to northern Ontario where abundant food awaits them. At feeders, siskins prefer nyger seeds in silo feeders.

COMMON REDPOLL: Given that birch seed crops are generally poor in the north, redpolls should move south this year and grace local feeders. Like siskins, they prefer nyger seeds. Hoary redpolls, which are paler and larger, are often mixed in with flocks of common redpolls.

EVENING GROSBEAK: Breeding populations of this spectacular finch continue to increase in Ontario and Quebec. This is due to increased outbreaks of spruce budworm, a staple food for nestlings. It is likely that some evening grosbeaks will show up feeders in the Kawarthas, like the pair that paid me an unexpected visit in mid-September. Like so many other winter finches, evening grosbeaks prefer black oil sunflower seeds. If you want to travel a little further afield, the feeders at the Visitor Centre in Algonquin Park usually have grosbeaks in winter.

The abundance of other birds – albeit not finches – also varies greatly from one year to the next. Once again, numbers depend on the availability of wild food.

BLUE JAY:  The number of jays that tough it out in Ontario in a given winter is linked to the acorn, beechnut and hazelnut crop. Acorn production was good in many parts of central Ontario and the Kawarthas this year, although the drought damaged some of the crop. It is likely that good numbers of blue jays will hang around this winter.

RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH: A southward movement of these small, hyperactive birds is underway right now and is evidence of poor cone crops in northern Quebec. It is unclear whether these nuthatches will show up in the Kawarthas in above-average numbers.

BOHEMIAN WAXWING:   Most bohemians will likely remain on their breeding grounds in northern Ontario and western Canada this winter, given that native mountain-ash berry crops are good to bumper across the boreal forest. Most years, however, at least some bohemians show up in the Kawarthas, possibly due to reliable annual crops of European buckthorn berries. If they venture south, bohemians are also attracted to European mountain-ash and ornamental crab apples. They can be distinguished from cedar waxwings by their rufous undertail feathers, yellow tips on wing feathers and dark grey belly.

Bohemian Waxwing (Karl Egressy)

Bohemian Waxwing (Karl Egressy)

AMERICAN ROBIN: Given the abundant fruit on wild grape vines this year in the Kawarthas, it is likely that larger-than-average numbers of robins will spend the winter with us. Flocks can often be seen along the Trans-Canada Trail west of Jackson Park and along the Parkway Trail between Hilliard and Cumberland streets. The best way to attract robins to your yard in winter is by planting wild grape, European mountain-ash and ornamental crab apples. Robins may also come to a heated winter birdbath and to offerings of raisins and apple halves.

PROJECT FEEDERWATCH

If you enjoy watching birds at your feeder and would like to become a “citizen scientist”, consider joining the more than 20,000 FeederWatchers who count and submit the kinds and numbers of birds at their feeders. This information helps scientists study winter bird populations. Project FeederWatch participants receive a full-colour bird poster and calendar, a FeederWatch Handbook and Instruction Book, and access to the data entry portion of the FeederWatch website. Visit birdscanada.org for more information or contact the Canadian coordinator at 1-888-448-2473

To conclude, it looks like a variety of winter finches and other birds could show up at your feeder this fall and winter. These predictions are not yet an exact science, however, so we’ll have to wait and see. To get up-to-date information on what birds are turning up in the Kawarthas, go to ebird.org, click on “Explore Data” and then “Bar Charts”. Choose “Ontario”, followed by “Counties in Ontario” and then “Peterborough”. Set the “range of years” for the current year only. And, If you haven’t done so already, get out your feeders and stock up on black oil sunflower, nyger and millet seeds. The birds will thank you for it and you’ll have non-stop backyard entertainment!

BOOK AWARD

The recently-published “Big Book of Nature Activities”, which I co-authored with Jacob Rodenburg, has won a silver medal in the North America-wide 2016 Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards. The book was entered in the category “Activity Books: Educational, Science and History” Each year’s entries are judged by expert panels of youth educators, librarians, booksellers, and book reviewers of all ages. “The Big Book of Nature Activities” is available at Happenstance Books and Yarns in Lakefield, Avant-Garden Shop and Chapters in Peterborough, and from online booksellers.

SILVER MEDAL WINNER Moonbeam Children's Book Awards 2016

MEDAL WINNER! Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oct 132016
 

In October, our attention is drawn to leaves like at no other time of year. They never cease to astound us with their blazing colours and wonderful, spicy smell as we rake them into piles. For the rest of the year, however, we mostly take leaves for granted. They just seem to “be there” doing nothing. But, like everything in nature, leaves are far more amazing than what initially meets the eye. Nothing about them is arbitrary or purposeless.

The characteristics of leaves only make sense when considered through the lens of evolution by natural selection – the process that favors the survival and reproduction of individuals that are best adapted to their environment. So, let’s consider leaves the way Charles Darwin would: By asking “why” questions. Let’s begin by exploring why trees have leaves in the first place. Simply put, leaves make food for the plant – be it a towering white pine or a lowly moss – so that it can grow. This happens through photosynthesis. “Photo” is the Greek word for “light,” and “synthesis” means “putting together.” That’s exactly what is happening. Leaves harness the energy of sunlight to make food in the form of sugars like glucose. Some of the glucose is immediately used for growth (e.g., the production of cellulose and lignin which makes up wood) while the rest is stored for later. Glucose is produced from two ingredients: carbon dioxide and water. Plants breathe in the carbon dioxide, an invisible gas, through tiny holes in the leaves. They use their roots to suck up water. Some of the water is released back into the atmosphere through the leaves by transpiration. At the same time as glucose is produced, oxygen is released as a waste product. Not only is photosynthesis responsible for the production and maintenance of most of the Earth’s oxygen, but it provides the organic compounds necessary for life on Earth. No small feat!

Sugar Maples - Cy Monkman

Sugar Maples – Cy Monkman

Photosynthesis is directly related to another why question: why are leaves green? Leaf cells house tiny structures called chloroplasts. Each chloroplast contains a green pigment (chemical) called chlorophyll, which absorbs the sun’s energy and carries out photosynthesis. As long as chlorophyll is present, the leaf remains green and oxygen and glucose are produced.

Colour change

This begs the question of why leaves change colour and why they are shed from the tree. Both of these phenomena are manifestations of the tree’s preparation for winter.  It is a coordinated undertaking on the part of the entire organism.  Since winter is a time of drought in which water is locked up in the form of ice, trees are less able to take up water through their roots – most of which are near the surface in soil that freezes.  In addition, leaves are continually releasing water vapour through transpiration – think of the high humidity of a greenhouse. Trees must therefore get rid of their leaves in order to minimize water loss and death through desiccation. Also, the leaves of most trees are far too delicate to withstand the rigours of winter.

Before shedding their leaves, however, trees have evolved to salvage the scarce but valuable minerals or nutrients in the leaves. These were originally obtained from the soil through the roots. They include magnesium (an essential component of chlorophyll), calcium, phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen, which is part of all proteins. Given their relative scarcity, a tree can’t afford to lose most of these nutrients each fall when the leaves are shed. It wouldn’t be able to reabsorb them in time or in sufficient quantity to be available for the next generation of leaves. Therefore, as daylight begins decreasing in mid-July, trees start removing these nutrients from their leaves and storing them in the woody tissues until next spring. By sometime in September, the leaves can no longer manufacture chlorophyll and begin to lose their green coloration. At this point, other pigments like the yellows and orange carotenoids gradually become visible. These pigments were present in the leaves all along but were masked by the chlorophyll.

A group of red or purple pigments known as anthocyanins are also abundant in some leaves like those of white ash and both red and sugar maples. They are produced in late summer from excess sugars and are brightest in years with lots of sunny days and cool nights. Scientists are not yet certain about the role of anthocyanins but they may protect the leaves from ultraviolet light.

Leaves of red maple changing colour - Photo by Drew Monkman

Leaves of red maple changing colour – Photo by Drew Monkman

The actual shedding of the leaves is achieved by the formation of a cork-like “abscission” layer of cells at the base of each petiole (leaf stem). Eventually, the leaf’s connection with the twig is broken, and it falls off in the wind, rain or simply from the warming effect of the morning sun.  You have probably noticed how squirrel nests, made up largely of leaf‑bearing twigs nipped off the tree during spring and summer, will hold their leaves for years at a time. This is because the cork layer never had the time to form so the leaves remain attached.

Other stories

Leaves have many other why questions to answer and stories to tell. To think like Darwin, let’s consider other challenges a leaf faces. These include being eaten, over-heating, drying out, being blown off the twig, receiving enough sunlight – to name a few.

You may, for example, wonder why so many different shapes and sizes have evolved. Scientists have discovered that toothed or lobed leaf margins (e.g., toothed in elms, lobed in oaks) are an adaptation that allow leaves to more quickly rid themselves of absorbed heat. If heat release is not a problem, as with plants like hostas that grow in shady habitats, the margins are “entire”, which means they are even and smooth all the way around. Almost all leaves, however, come to a sharp point – often at the tip – which is an adaptation to shedding water.

Darwin no doubt wondered why some leaves are “simple” like those of a maple or compound like those of a sumac or walnut. To tell if a leaf is compound, look at where the petiole (leaf stem) is attached to the twig (usually a different colour and woody). You should be able to see a bud. A simple leaf has a petiole and one blade. A compound leaf has an elongated petiole with three or more leaflets (blades) coming off it. Each leaflet looks like a separate leaf, but there is no bud at the base of the leaflet’s stem (petiolule) – only where the main petiole is attached to the twig.

Why would natural selection sometimes favour compound leaves? First, they provide lots of surface area for photosynthesis – sumacs can have 31 leaflets – but still allow wind and rain to largely pass through them. Imagine what would happen to a huge simple leaf in a storm! In addition, compound leaves don’t heat up so much because air circulates around the leaflets. These advantages may explain why compound leaves are so common in the tropics.

Compound leaf of ash (left) and simple leaf of sugar maple Note tiny bud where stem meets the twig - Photo by Drew Monkman

Compound leaf of ash (left) and simple leaf of sugar maple Note tiny bud where stem meets the twig – Photo by Drew Monkman

The overall size of leaves is not a matter of chance, either. Leaves tend to be largest on plants that grow in shaded areas – think of the size of Hosta leaves – and on the lower, more shaded branches of trees such as oaks. Leaves at the top of a tree tend to smaller. Larger leaves, of course, gather more light.

Leaf thickness, texture and hairiness are also interesting. Hairs and even spines on leaves have evolved to make them less appetizing to herbivores like caterpillars and deer. Hairs can also protect delicate growing parts from the cold. You often see them on early-spring species like hepatica and arugula. Thick and waxy leaves – think of conifer needles and the leaves of English holly – suffer less water loss, which means the tree doesn’t need to shed them in the winter. They are also common in hot, dry environments.

Take time to smell leaves and to ponder the question of why some leaves are so aromatic. Although certain leaves might smell good to us – wintergreen and bergamot, for example – it’s quite likely that the chemical compounds responsible for the smell are poisonous or taste bad to leaf-munching herbivores!

Leaf collection

Why not take some time this fall to really get to know the leaves of our common broad-leaved trees? One way is to make a collection, either by yourself or with your children, grandchildren or students. Place the leaves between sheets of newspaper with heavy books on top. Leave for a week or so. When the leaves have dried out, you may wish to place them between two sheets of clear, adhesive contact paper for greater protection. Using one or two sheets of Bristol board, group the leaves by colour, by genus (e.g., all the maples together) or by simple and compound. A basic collection for the Kawarthas would include simple leaves like sugar maple, red maple, silver maple, red oak, white birch, American elm, trembling aspen, American basswood, chokecherry and willow. As for compound leaves, try to find white or green ash, staghorn sumac, Manitoba maple, black walnut, Virginia creeper and black or honey locust.

Fall is a wonderful time to explore and celebrate nature, especially through the lens of why questions. Nothing in this Universe is more magical or awe-inspiring than reality!

Oct 082016
 

Walking through the woods and fields of the Kawarthas in early October when the landscape is ablaze with colour is a fall tradition for many local residents. Not only do you feel closer to friends and family, but there is an indelible “sense of place” and connection to the land. Over the last week or so, my wife and I have had the pleasure of discovering some of the new public trails established by the Kawartha Land Trust (KLT). If you are looking to add some exercise and nature-appreciation to your Thanksgiving weekend, I can’t think of any better destinations.

Formerly known as the Kawartha Heritage Conservancy, the KLT is a not-for-profit charitable organization committed to protecting the land we love. The Trust works with landowners and community members to identify and protect key ecological features of the Kawarthas. The KLT acquires a protective interest in land by receiving land donations or by managing properties, many of which have significant cultural value. The organization can also enter into long-term conservation agreements and provide professional advice about creative land conservation approaches.

The KLT trails now open to the public include three on the north shore of Stony Lake, one on Boyd Island near Bobcaygeon, and five on the McKim-Garsonnin property (Ballyduff Trails) near Pontypool. They are all easy-walking and well-marked with a trail map posted at the main junctions.

The Stony Lake and Boyd Island trails are located in the Land Between, which describes the “ecotone” or transition zone between the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence Lowlands to the south and the Canadian Shield to the north. The landscape is characterized by low exposed granite to the north side and limestone plain and outcroppings along the south side. It is home to many rare species and habitats.

Heart-leaved Asters along Blue Trail - Drew Monkman

Heart-leaved Asters along Blue Trail – Drew Monkman

It’s a happy coincidence that Thanksgiving weekend is usually synonymous with fall nature at its best. All of the KLT trails provide a smorgasbord of the sights, sounds and smells of the season. Red and sugar maples are now approaching peak colour with their vibrant oranges, reds and yellows. The wine-coloured leaves of white ash and the deep reds and maroons of Virginia creeper and staghorn sumac are already at their best. The leaves, however, are only part of the show. The white and mauve blossoms of asters such as the heart-leaved, New England and heath are abundant right now along trails and roadsides. Flocks of yellow-rumped warblers, white-throated sparrows and kinglets are moving through the area and, strangely enough, ruffed grouse can often be heard drumming. If you turn over rocks and logs, now is a good time to find salamanders such as the red-backed and blue-spotted. Of particular interest this year is the wide variety of fungi that have fruited. Fruiting refers to the appearance of the fleshy, spore-bearing body of the fungus, which is typically called a mushroom or toadstool. Thanks to the recent rains, dozens of species can be seen, especially in mixed forests with pine, hemlock beech, birch and poplar. Watch for turkey-tail, artist’s conk, various puffballs and a variety of amanitas, russulas and boletes. Fungi are also a lot of fun to photograph.

Russula mushroom on edge of Red Trail near the large marsh. Drew Monkman

Russula mushroom on edge of Red Trail near the large marsh. Drew Monkman

Stony Lake Trails

If you want to see rich plant, animal and geological diversity, my first recommendation would be the three interconnected KLT trails located south and west of Northey’s Bay Road on the north shore of Stony Lake. Ten kilometres of easy-walking trails wind through four distinct environments: mostly broadleaf forest on limestone bedrock; mixed forest on Canadian Shield granite; large groves of hemlock trees; and an extensive wetland. All of the trails provide great wildlife-watching possibilities, including deer and wild turkeys. The KLT, neighbouring landowners, donors and volunteers, have worked together to make these publicly accessible trails a reality.

Stony Lake Trails - Kawartha Land Trust

Stony Lake Trails – Kawartha Land Trust

If you decide to go, I would suggest leaving the car at Viamede Resort or at the KLT parking lot at #105 Reid’s Road. We parked at the latter location and started our walk by exploring the 2 km Ingleton-Wells trail (yellow) through property belonging to the KLT. Follow the path east along the edge of the open field in front of the parking lot to get to the trailhead. The Ingleton-Wells loop takes you through upland forest of hemlock, birch, maple and bitternut hickory, over mostly limestone bedrock. Watch for yellow birch growing on the top of old, disintegrating pine stumps. An old stone wall along the trail attests to the property’s agricultural past, as does an old apple orchard. In the spring, this is a great trail to see wildflowers such as hepatica and Dutchman’s breeches. The brown-coded sub-section of this trail takes you through a glacial outwash, which supports southern species like bitternut hickory and butternut. The latter is an endangered species in Ontario. Mature butternuts have distinctive bark with wide, flat-topped ridges.

After completing the Ingleton-Wells loop, you can return to the parking lot, have a snack, and then cross Reid’s Road to do the 3 km Viamede Trail (blue). The first 50 metres or so is particularly rich in mushrooms. Turn right at the T-junction and follow the blue markers for a kilometre or so to a fascinating section known as “The Chute”. An ancient glacial river eroded the limestone here forming a long, gully-like cut through the rock. Each side of the trail is bordered by 1-2 metre high limestone “wall” covered in moss and ferns. It is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. KLT has even erected a bench – one of many on the trails – where you can sit and contemplate the force of the ancient torrent that once flowed through here.

Limestone cut in "The Chute" section of Blue Trail - Drew Monkman

Limestone cut in “The Chute” section of Blue Trail – Drew Monkman

When you are walking this trail, be sure to follow the blue markers on the trees, since there are several other paths branching off to the side. You will also see metal baskets and various signs that have been erected for guests at the Viamede Resort who come to play “disc golf”.

The 3.5 km red trail provides a great taste of Canadian Shield habitat. It can be accessed from the Ingleton-Wells loop or by parking on the side of the road at #81 Fire Route 10. Like the Viamede trail, this trail winds through private property open to the public thanks to a special agreement with landowners. Just remember to “tread lightly”, stay on the path, and respect all signs.

From Fire Route 10, you have two options. If you head west, the trail meanders uphill through a granite outcropping, traverses a mostly birch forest – watch for a huge old maple “den” tree – and then crosses an old beaver dam bisecting a huge marsh. The dam is very rich botanically with species like sensitive fern and winterberry holly. On the west side of the marsh, there are beautiful hemlocks and mature maples.

Alternatively, you can head east from Fire Route 10, follow the trail halfway up a steep road and then take the branch to the left. You will enter a majestic grove of hemlocks. The exposed tree roots and granite bedrock are particularly interesting in this section. You will also come to a large pond where salamanders and frogs breed in the spring. Most of the red trail is shaded by a canopy of mature broad-leaved trees and scattered pines and other conifers. Although you can usually see deep into the woods, there is a wonderful feeling of seclusion. More open areas of the trail are dominated by red and white oaks with shrubs such as blueberry and arrow-wood viburnum growing underneath. The red trail also takes you over lichen-covered granite ridges and past imposing “erratics”. These boulders were transported by glaciers – often from hundreds of kilometres to the north -and deposited when the ice melted.

You can wrap up your day with dinner at Viamede Resort (call ahead of time at 705-654-3344) or at Uncle George’s Bakery & Dining (705-654-3661), located just north of Woodview.

Boyd Island

If you are looking to add a little paddling to your KLT trail explorations, consider a trip to Boyd (Big) Island, located on Pigeon Lake near Bobcaygeon. Most of the island was donated to Kawartha Land Trust in 2015. It is the largest undeveloped island in the Kawarthas and home to diverse forests, old meadows and rich flora and fauna. A 1.2 km trail has now been established. The trailhead is about halfway down the east side of the island. A boat launch at the end of Bear Creek Road in Trent Lakes Township gives you the shortest paddling route across.

Boyd Island Trail Map - Kawartha Land Trust

Boyd Island Trail Map – Kawartha Land Trust

Ballyduff Trails

Another option for a fall hike is the Ballyduff complex of trails, located at 851 Ballyduff Road near Pontypool. The five trails, which wind through 260 acres of the McKim-Garsonnin property, are protected through a conservation agreement with KLT. The property is on the Oak Ridges Moraine and contains many of the features of this glacially-formed terrain: rolling hills, sand deposits, an esker and a botanically-rich wetland. Of particular interest is a tallgrass prairie that the owners have established as part of their mission to restore the ecological integrity of the land. Please make arrangements before you come by contacting the owners at 705-277-3490 or by email at ralphmckim@i-zoom.net

 

For more information about the Kawartha Land Trust and to print off maps of all the above-mentioned trails, go to kawarthalandtrust.org. You can also contact the Trust at 705-743-5599.

Sep 222016
 

A love of nature begins in childhood;  every boy and girl is a budding naturalist. This should come as no surprise. Up until the agricultural revolution and, later, the emigration into villages and cities, humans grew up and lived in intimate contact with natural environments. Survival depended on detailed knowledge of plants and animals. Although our way of life has changed drastically, these ancestral instincts and affections still live within us.

Eric Fromm, a German psychologist, coined the term “biophilic” to describe the innate need that all children have to connect with other species. There is a critical window, however, that must be respected. If children are provided with rich and repeated experiences in nature from early childhood to about 14 years of age, they are far more likely to develop a life-long love appreciation for the natural world. If children spend nearly all their time indoors, however, nature may simply become a backdrop to their lives – a green blur as trivial as billboards, strip malls and parking lots.

As Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson writes, being a naturalist is not just an activity but also a rich and honorable state of mind. It is a way of “being” in the world. An ability to recognize and classify different species is seen by many cognitive psychologists as one of the eight major categories of intelligence. We see this intelligence in the young child who can readily identify different farm animals, dinosaurs or even Pokémon characters and car models. How then can adults – be they parents, grandparents, teachers or youth leaders – cultivate a naturalist’s intelligence in every child?

Children love to play in nature - and climb trees! (Jacob Rodenburg)

Children love to play in nature – and climb trees! (Jacob Rodenburg)

 

Set an example

  • If you show enthusiasm for nature, your excitement will be noticed and copied by children. If they see you making an effort to be out in nature, they’ll want to do the same. Open doors but don’t “push them through.” Ultimately, loving nature should never be forced.
  • As adults, we often forget the power of words and body language. They transmit values. If a little girl runs up to show you the caterpillar she’s just caught and you frown and say “Put that dirty thing down”, the joy and value of the discovery are ruined. To cultivate a sense of wonder, you need to use the language of wonder. “Wow – is that ever cool. Look at all the different colours and the little hairs on its back. Where did you find it? Let’s put it in a jar and keep it for a while.”
  • Good questions inspire curiosity, which is the engine of learning. They also invite other questions. Encourage children to ask why, to marvel and to explore further. Let’s imagine you’re watching birds at a feeder. All of a sudden, a nuthatch flies in and begins feeding in their characteristic upside-down position. You might ask, “Why do you think it feeds upside down?” (Scientists think nuthatches can spot food from this vantage point that “right side up” birds like woodpeckers miss.) “Look how long and narrow its bill is. I wonder why?” (to get at food hidden deep in the cracks of bark). Encourage the child to ask why questions, too, and to hypothesize at what the answer might be. If you don’t know the answer either, admit it. Think of this as an opportunity to do some research together. And, if you can’t find the response, perhaps this is something that science cannot yet explain or has never investigated. Remind children that there are many things science does not yet know, and we need more bright young people like them to pursue a career in areas like biology.
  • Go forth with explorer’s eyes. Be amazed at what you see, but let the child “own” the discovery. For example, you might know where to find salamanders along a certain trail. Instead of saying, “Hey! Do you want to find a salamander?” you might simply ask, “I wonder what we’ll find under these logs?” In the first question, you owned the discovery; in the second, the joy of discovery belongs to the child. It’s so satisfying for a parent or teacher to hear a child bellow out, “Look what I found!”

    kids are born biophilic-loving the natural world Photo by Drew Monkman

    kids are born biophilic-loving the natural world Photo by Drew Monkman

 

Play

  • Play, too, is a powerful teacher, and the natural landscape lends itself to creative play. A stick becomes a magic wand or a sword; a copse of trees becomes a castle. It is through unstructured play that children cultivate their imagination. Being creative, means creating, so let children catch animals, make forts, throw rocks, climb trees, get scraped and dirty, and even disturb nature a bit, on their own and without too much coaching. These experiences are at the very heart of developing a love for the natural world. Children need to “mess around” a lot and do so as much as possible on their own. If it helps, think of the child as a little hunter-gatherer!
  • Not all parents feel comfortable letting their kids roam freely. However, you can take your children outside yourself and be a “hummingbird parent”. Just stay out of the kids’ way as much as possible, so they can explore and play in nature on their own. You can always “zoom in” like a hummingbird if safety becomes an issue. Slowly increase the distance and the kids’ autonomy as time goes by. Kids thrive on autonomy, so don’t be afraid to let them loose sometimes – with a minimum of rules.
  • Allow adolescents to undertake adventures with others such as overnight hiking and canoe trips.
  • Children have a yearning to create dens, nests and hiding places. One of my most memorable experiences of childhood was going into the woods and building small shelters or “forts” as we called them. Children can do so using found supplies from the outdoors or the garage – old branches, sticks, fallen tree boughs with leaves, conifer branches with needles, scraps of lumber, a sheet of plastic, etc. The building process is wonderful for problem solving and creativity.
  • A simple shelter can be built by propping a long pole against a tree and using branches to create a frame on both sides. Pile evergreen boughs and then leaves to cover the frame. For added comfort, pile leaves inside the hut, too.
The natural world offers endless opportunities for creativity. (Jacob Rodenburg)

The natural world offers endless opportunities for creativity. (Jacob Rodenburg)

Other ideas

  • Buy your child a good hand lens (10X), a small compound microscope and, when they are 10 or so, a good pair of binoculars. Children delight in the very small, from the cells of leaves enlarged by a microscope to the feathery antennae of a moth revealed by a hand lens. Magnified, close-up views provide an entirely different perspective on nature. Teach them how to use binoculars to view birds, butterflies, dragonflies and the night sky.
  • Set up a terrarium in your home or classroom. A terrarium is basically an aquarium that is filled with plants, soil and rocks suitable for terrestrial creatures. Allow your children to bring home “pets” for a few days – caterpillars, frogs, salamanders, insects, etc. Alternatively, buy an ant farm. Ants are fascinating to watch.
  • Put up several different kinds of bird feeders and keep track of the different species that visit. Give your child the responsibility of keeping the feeder stocked with seed. Make sure it’s located near a window where the family spends a lot of time. Avant-Garden Shop at 165 Sherbrooke Street in Peterborough has a great selection of feeders, bird seed and other bird-related resources
  • Create a collection table on which the children can display their discoveries, – feathers, flowers, seeds, cones, galls, skulls, dead insects, nests, etc. Add new items as the seasons change.
  • Encourage your child to take part in junior field naturalist activities, such as those provided by the Peterborough Field Naturalists. Go to peterboroughnature.org/junior for more information.
  • Take your child to the zoo. Pick a particular animal for focused observation instead of just wandering passively through the exhibits. Visit natural history museums, too, such as the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa.
  • Go camping. Being outside for 24 hours a day allows you to see and hear things you will otherwise miss. Positive camping memories will make it much more likely your child will want to camp as an adult.

 

From the freedom to explore nature and the knowledge acquired largely by personal initiative come self-confidence, lifelong enjoyment of the outdoors, and a desire to protect our natural heritage. What more could we ask for our children and for the good of humanity?

You will find many more ideas for connecting kids to nature in “The Big Book of Nature Activities”, which I wrote with Jacob Rodenburg, executive director of Camp Kawartha.