Feb 102018

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


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





Feb 082018

February 12 is a day to reflect on the principles of perpetual curiosity, scientific thinking, and hunger for truth as embodied in Charles Darwin.

With the arrival of February – a time I like to call ‘pre-spring’ – bird sound is slowly returning to the natural world. A week ago, I heard the boisterous song of the cardinal for the first time since last summer. Our neighbourhood Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers are making their presence known, too, as they drum against resonant tree trunks to advertize ownership of territory and to renew or establish pair bonds. Whenever I hear this hammering, I can’t help but wonder how their brains have adapted to endure a lifetime of head-banging at such incredible forces of acceleration. Humans suffer concussions at forces ten times smaller.

However, thanks to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, science has a powerful tool with which to investigate this question. In the 25 million years that woodpeckers have been on this planet, their bodies have undergone a continual process of evolutionary adaptation. There have been changes in the beak, the neck muscles, the skull and even at the level of certain proteins. Recent research has shown that woodpecker brains have high levels of a protein called ‘tau’, which is also present in the brains of humans who have suffered brain damage or neurodegenerative disease. Scientists are learning that some kinds of ‘tau’ are protective, while others can become toxic. Do woodpeckers have the protective form and therefore don’t suffer neurological repercussions? Learning more about woodpecker tau may be highly useful some day in treating concussions and neurodegenerative disorders in humans. This is just one example of how the theory of evolution is routinely used to figure out where to look for potential cures. Without his discovery of natural selection – the process whereby organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring – the greatest achievements in medicine and human well-being over the past two hundred years would have been impossible.

Pileated Woodpecker 2 – Jan. 1, 2016 – Mark St. Peterborough – Helen Keller

Time scale

Part of the difficulty in understanding evolution is our inability to grasp the staggering amount of time it has had to work with. Our brains have evolved to understand time on the scale of decades and centuries at most. The idea that life has been evolving for over three billion years is therefore quite impossible to grasp. To make this time-span a little more tangible, let’s imagine it as a 4.6 kilometre walk, starting at the Disc Golf Course at the north end of Riverview Zoo and ending at City Hall in downtown Peterborough. The starting point represents the moment in time 4.6 billion years ago when planet Earth was created from a nebula cloud of gas and dust. The end point represents the present day. As we walk along the route, we’ll point out the moments in time when key events in evolution occurred. At this scale, each step represents about 700,000 years. (Note: BYA = billion years old and MYA = million years ago)

For the first kilometre, Earth is devoid of living things. You see little more than a scalding rock with choking fumes. However, as we pass the zoo’s miniature train station and the fighter aircraft on display (3, 5 BYA), the first life appears in oceans. At Marina Boulevard (3.25 BYA), life evolves the ability to capture the sun’s energy through photosynthesis. Twelve minutes of walking later, at Anson Street (1.9 BYA), the first cells with nuclei have evolved, but it’s not until we arrive at Locks Salon & Spa, just south of George Street (650 MYA) that multi-cellular organisms emerge. Having mastered the cell, evolution can now start moving faster. At Edinburgh Street by Amusé Coffee (500 MYA), the first land plants show up and at London Street (245 MYA), the age of the dinosaurs begins. Then, as we pass in front of the former George Street United Church (200 MYA), the first mammals arrive on the scene. Having crossed McDonnel Street, a mass extinction at 65 MYA event wipes out all of the dinosaurs, but not the branch that went on to become birds such as woodpeckers. However, it’s only when we arrive at the bottom of the steps at City Hall (3.5 MYA) that the first proto-humans appear. At this point, we’ll need to get out our tape measure. At a mere 10 cm from the main doors, evolution produces Homo sapiens, our own species. But it’s only in the last centimetre – 10,000 years ago – that recorded human history begins, and only in the last one-fifth of a millimetre that we enter the Industrial Revolution and present-day times. Now, take a moment to reflect back on how far we’ve walked – and all the time that evolution has had to produce a species that can reflect on its own origins!

City Hall – Peterborough, ON – Michael Morrit






Darwin Day

Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, England, on February 12 1809. Ever since he published his radically insightful book, On the Origin of Species, Darwin has been the focus of commemorations and tributes by scientists, artists and scholars. The 200th anniversary of his birth in 2009 saw an entire season of BBC programming on Charles Darwin himself as well as evolution and natural selection. Since then, Darwin Day events have been organized each February throughout the world.

Charles Darwin (Wikimedia)

The purpose of Darwin Day is to promote Darwin’s contribution to science and to call attention to the importance of science in general. According to the International Darwin Day website, the day “will inspire people throughout the globe to reflect and act on the principles of intellectual bravery, perpetual curiosity, scientific thinking and hunger for truth as embodied by Charles Darwin.” Science is our most reliable knowledge system and has provided enormous benefit to the health, prosperity and intellectual satisfaction for our human existence. These are worthy achievements for all people to celebrate. This is especially important given that some people, including the U.S. government, appear unconcerned by scientifically-proven threats to civilization such as climate change.

Get informed

A great way to celebrate Darwin Day is to become more informed about evolution yourself. Make a point of talking about it with your children and grandchildren. If you are a teacher, consider organizing some Darwin Day activities. Your students would love a classroom science celebration.

Darwinday.org provides wonderful resources for becoming more informed about Darwin himself and his theory of evolution. They include six websites, four books for children, eight books for adults, six videos, four documentaries and two dramas. I especially enjoyed looking at “Darwin’s Diary”, which delves into Darwin’s life and work through an interactive diary created for PBS’ program, Evolution. The “Understanding Evolution” website is also excellent. This “one-stop website for information on evolution” provides an in-depth course on the science of evolution as well as superb teaching materials for grades K-2 all the way to 9-12. You will also find a fascinating article on how backyard birdfeeders in the U.K. appear to be driving the evolution of longer beaks in Great Tits, a type of chickadee. If you’re interested in fish, I’d also recommend checking out “A fisheye view of the tree of life”. This interactive evolutionary tree highlights some of the amazing innovations that have evolved in the different lineages of fish.

The annual Darwin Day Lecture will also be taking place at the Royal Ontario Museum on February 13 from 7:00 -8:00 pm. It is entitled “How do Tardigrades Survive Everything?”

Discovered in 1773, tardigrades, also known as “water bears,” are found everywhere on Earth. Dr. Thomas Boothby, from the University of North Carolina, will explain how evolution has equipped these micro-animals to survive the most extreme environments imaginable, including outer space. Call 416-586-5797 for more information.

Vancouver Resolution

The Darwin Day Foundation believes it’s time for a global celebration of science and humanity. To this end, they have introduced Darwin Day Resolutions to the U.S. House and Senate and in various states. Cities, such as San Diego, Omaha, Regina and Vancouver have also passed Darwin Day resolutions. The text of the Vancouver Resolution reads as follows:

WHERAS February 12, 2013 is the anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin in 1809; AND WHEREAS Charles Darwin is recognized for the development of the theory of evolution by the mechanism of natural selection; AND WHEREAS Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is recognized as the foundation of modern biology, an essential tool in understanding the natural world and the development of life on earth; AND WHEREAS Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection has provided, and continues to provide, the basis for great advances in science, medicine, and philosophy; AND WHEREAS The anniversary of Darwin’s birthday is an appropriate period on which to reflect and celebrate the importance of scientific advancement to all people; AND WHEREAS The City of Vancouver is rightfully proud of its commitment to scientifically-based environmental awareness, appropriate technology, and progressive education: NOW, THEREFORE, I, Gregor Robertson, Mayor of the City of Vancouver, DO HEREBY PROCLAIM February 12, 2013 as “INTERNATIONAL DARWIN DAY” in the City of Vancouver.  Let’s encourage Peterborough City Council to pass a similar resolution next year!

Finally, the next time you hear a woodpecker drumming, pause for a moment to thank Charles Darwin for making sense of what’s going on – and why the bird isn’t suffering from a splitting headache!


Feb 012018

Abundant Wild Turkeys entertain rural residents with their interesting behaviours.

It was a blockbuster trade for the ages. However, it wasn’t athletes that were shuffled around. It was wildlife. In 1984, Ontario sent River Otters to Missouri, Ruffed Grouse to New York and Moose to Michigan in exchange for 274 Wild Turkeys from all three states.

The last native Wild Turkey disappeared from Ontario more than 100 years ago. Habitat loss and unregulated hunting did them in. There were many attempts at reintroduction, including at least one in the 1960s with turkeys from Pennsylvania. It was spearheaded by ‘Turkey Jack’ Davis, a well-known outdoors writer who later moved to Peterborough. His daughter, Wendy, remembers a “garage full of turkeys” at their Port Credit home. These early attempts were never successful, unfortunately, because they used captivity-raised birds, which couldn’t adapt to life in the wild. However, thanks to the wide genetic spectrum of the turkeys acquired in 1984, this reintroduction was an astounding success.

Bearded hen & tom Wild Turkey – April 8, 2017 – Doug Gibson

Since then, Ontario’s turkey population has skyrocketed to about 100,000 birds. Most remarkably, they now range as far north as Algonquin Park and Sudbury, which is likely outside their historical range. Initially, there were fears that the climate would be too harsh, but the resilient turkeys proved the biologists wrong.

Catching the wild American birds was made possible by the development of a Howitzer-propelled net – a technology still used today. Jennifer Baici, a PhD student at Trent University who studies Wild Turkey social structure and behaviour, describes how the trapping works.” We begin by finding a flock and learning its schedule. This includes noting when the birds typically leave the roost, the path that they take throughout the day and what time they tuck in for the night. Turkeys are highly predictable in the winter, so we can make a plan about how to bait them. This involves intercepting their daily path with a ‘bait line’ of corn. We extend this line out into the middle of a field where we put down a large pile of corn. Once the flock is visiting the bait at roughly the same time each day, we set up a camouflaged net and wait for the turkeys to arrive. Although these birds are usually quite predictable, they still surprise us by occasionally sleeping in way later than expected!” To see a 10-second video of turkey trapping in action, click HERE.

A bird we notice

In researching this article, I contacted a number of people living out in Peterborough County for any turkey anecdotes they might have. As we’ll see, everyone had numerous stories. I should note, too, that turkeys often show up right in Peterborough.

Wild Turkeys are a striking bird. They have iridescent bronze-green feathers and bare skin on the head and neck, which can vary from to red to blue-grey. The bare skin probably plays a role in heat dissipation, since turkeys are essentially southern birds where hot weather is a challenge. Males – and very occasionally females – also have a bristly “beard” made of modified feathers that extend off the chest. Its purpose is poorly understood, but it may play a role in mate selection by the female.

Wild Turkeys in front of barn on Chemong Road at 3rd Line – Wasyl Bakowsky

In early spring, the toms (males) gather in clearings to perform courtship displays. They strut about gobbling with hormone-charged exuberance. Annamarie Beckel, who lives just south of Lakefield, has had a front row seat to the spectacle. “We woke up one May morning to find a tom and about six hens in our front yard. The hens were browsing in the grass, while the tom was displaying for all he was worth – the fully fanned tail, the fluffed up feathers and the dropped wing. The hens, of course, appeared to ignore him!”

The hens nest in hedgerows, along the edge of woodlots and sometimes in hayfields. The birds stay in family groups most of the summer. Sometimes two or three hens and their broods will join together. Winter flocks, however, are the largest. On average, a flock contains 25-50 birds, but sometimes there are many more. “In winter, we’ve seen large flocks of 100 or more in neighbouring fields,” says David Frank, who lives on Stewart Line near Cavan.

Wild Turkey nest (Marie Adamcryck – Bailieboro)

Turkeys are well-established north of Peterborough, too. Dennis and Lynn Johnson, who live on the north shore of Stony Lake, have been noticing them for at least 12 years. Across the lake on Dodsworth Island, Rob Welsh sees them there, too. “In winter, they parade between islands in more or less single file – a comical sight!”
At dusk, turkeys fly up into trees to roost for the night. For several years, Tim Dyson watched a flock that roosts in trees west of the junction of Preston Road and Fire Route 23 near his former home at Belmont Lake. One night he counted 118 turkeys lining the branches.



Turkeys eat just about everything. This includes acorns, beech nuts, hickory nuts, fruit, insects, worms, snails and even amphibians. Tom Northey of Little Britain told me of a hunter friend who was cleaning a bird and found Leopard Frogs in its crop. They will also eat crops such as wheat and corn, which does not go over well with farmers.

Turkeys can also turn up at backyard feeders. Dyson recalls a behaviour he dubbed the ‘Kenturkey Derby’. “The birds would see me go outside with a tub of bird seed. After I went back in the house, they would come running from 100 metres across the field to gorge themselves.” Dennis and Lyn Johnson’s Stony Lake birds will come right up and practically eat out of their hands.

Unfortunately, the turkey’s taste in foods can become problematic. Dennis explains. “Last year, my wife Lynn made her usual fall/winter outdoor pots of greenery. Included in the arrangement were several sumac heads. We’d never seen them eating sumac in the wild, but they sure enjoyed eating them from Lynn’s arrangement. After replenishing the sumac three or four times, Lynn decided that the turkeys could go down the road and get their own!”

Wild Turkeys at Armour Road condominiums (Betty Mitchell)



An abundance of nutritious turkey meat has not gone unnoticed by predators. Several people I emailed have seen coyotes stalking the birds. Raptors, too, are getting in on the action. Rick Stankiewicz of Keene writes, “On the edge of an open field at daybreak, I watched as a Great Horned Owl attacked and tried to fly off with a turkey decoy!” Tom Northey saw a Northern Harrier grab one in a hayfield, and this past fall his daughter came across a Bald Eagle eating a turkey.

Tim Dyson watched a female Northern Goshawk attack one of eight wild turkeys as they fed on scattered seed behind a house. “Once the hawk had seized the much heavier turkey by the rump, the other turkeys quickly surrounded the two and put on a rather aggressive display by spreading their tails and dragging their wings in an manner not unlike their courtship display. This intimidation seemed to work, since the hawk soon released her grip and sped off. The turkey fared well – only minus a few feathers!”

The interplay between turkeys and competitors for food is also interesting. Rick Stankiewicz has seen numerous interactions between turkeys and White-tailed Deer.” They always seem curious and tolerant of each other, but not in a friendly or playful way.” Trent’s Jennifer Baici also has an interest in these interactions. She is studying flocks of turkeys that congregate with groups of deer and hopes to learn more about the social dynamics between the two.

Turkeys and geese also interact in curious ways. Laura Summerfeldt, who lives near Keene, writes: “A few years ago in late autumn, we saw an extraordinary spectacle. A flock of Canada Geese had settled in the corn field adjacent to our house. The resident flock of a dozen or so turkeys withdrew to the hedgerow. The geese stayed on. The next afternoon we happened to be watching and observed that the turkeys “rallied” and en masse CHARGED the flock of geese in an organized manner. With wings outspread, they ran across the field in a line. Truly, it was like a cavalry charge. They drove the geese to the far end of the field and then resumed feeding!”

Wild Turkeys at Dodsworth Island – Feb. 2017- Rob Welsh


Thanks to their abundance, there is now both a spring and fall turkey hunt. In the spring, only males can be targeted. This puts less pressure on the population, since the toms are highly polygamous and can impregnate up to 15 hens. Hunting turkeys is not easy, however. Turkeys are extremely wary and have excellent eyesight and hearing. The success rate for both seasons is only one bird for every three hunters. For hunters who are successful, the meat is delicious and close to domestic turkey in taste.

Population study

Part of Jennifer Baici’s research is to investigate the usefulness of citizen science platforms such as eBird and iNaturalist in estimating turkey population size. This winter, she is running a pilot project in Peterborough County and is requesting turkey sightings that fall between December 1, 2017 and March 31, 2018. This can be done either by adding observations to eBird or by submitting photos of any flocks seen to the Peterborough Wild Turkey Count project on iNaturalist. You will need to sign up for the project first. Be sure to include where you saw the birds and how many there were. Eventually, Jennifer hopes to expand the project and explore whether citizen science platforms can be applied to estimate Wild Turkey population size for larger areas, such as the province of Ontario – so stay tuned.







Jan 182018

Exploring the characteristics of twigs and buds is a great winter pastime     

After the dramatic reds, oranges and yellows of fall leaves, it’s easy to think that the seemingly barren trees of winter offer little of interest. Fortunately, for those of us who enjoy winter botanizing, the trees are anything but barren. A closer look reveals that they are adorned with buds, tiny jewels that harbour the promise of spring. Better still, they provide a surefire way to identify the tree. All that’s needed are observant eyes – a curious nose can help, too – and some knowledge of what species grow in our area.

Although we tend not to notice them until autumn when the leaves have fallen, the buds of most species have been present since summer. Stored within three kinds of buds, the tree’s entire future lies in waiting. Leaf buds contain embryonic stems and leaves – miniaturized, folded and pressed together like the tiniest and tightest of parachutes. They are biding their time, waiting for their turn to capture sunlight and manufacture food. Flower buds, as their name suggests, contain one or more flowers. We often forget that trees are flowering plants in the same way as roses and tulips. As such, they produce flowers whose goal it is to produce seeds and assure a new generation. Flower buds are generally larger than leaf buds, sometimes differently shaped (e.g., red and silver maples) and often located at the tip of the twig (terminal bud). Finally, trees also have mixed buds, which house all three structures – undeveloped stems, leaves and flowers. It’s usually necessary to dissect a given bud to know exactly what is hidden inside.

Bud biology

Although trees can usually be identified by their overall shape and by characteristics of the bark, buds provide a much more reliable means of identification. The starting point for understanding buds is to be able to recognize the twig, the part of the branch where the buds are located. The twig is the section at the end of each branch that constitutes the previous year’s growth. A twig’s point of origin is marked by a distinctive, ring-like node around the branch and a change in the colour and smoothness of the bark. The node is where the scales of the previous year’s terminal bud fell off and left several lines encircling the twig. For this reason, it is called a bud scale scar. To see how much the twig grew last year, measure the distance from the tip of the twig to the first bud scale scar. You can usually find the bud scale scars from two and three years ago, as well.

Bud arrangement is critical information in species identification. Because buds form in the angle between the stem and the stalk of the leaf, both leaves and buds have the same arrangement on the twig. In opposite arrangement, the buds on the sides of the twig (lateral buds) are located directly across from each other. In alternate arrangement, they are staggered singly at intervals along the twig. Only a few genera of trees and shrubs have opposite buds and leaves. This makes their identification easy. They include honeysuckle, ash, maple, lilac, viburnum, elderberry and dogwood. Just about all of the other tree and shrub species are alternate. The following mnemonic (memory aid) that I devised – which unintentionally sounds like a rallying call for animals rights – may be helpful in remembering these seven groups: HAM LIVED! Each genera or group corresponds to one letter in the mnemonic; lilac corresponds to LI. Start by learning the opposite buds, especially maple, ash and dogwood, and then move on to some of the common and distinctive alternate species like poplar, elm and willow.

Opposite buds (H=honeysuckle, A=ash, M=maple, LI=lilac, V=viburnum, E=elderberry, D=Dogwood) Alternate Basswood buds on far right.
















If you take a closer look at a bud, you will notice that it is covered with scales. These structures, which are usually leathery and sometimes hairy, serve to protect the embryonic leaves and flowers from the elements. The number, shape and arrangement of the bud scales are different for each species of tree. Beneath the scales, you will sometimes find tiny hairs, which provide additional protection to the bud’s precious cargo. Pussy willow buds are a well-known example of this feature.

Leaf scar and bundle scars of horse-chestnut – Wikimedia











Below each bud, you will also see a leaf scar. It marks the location where last summer’s leaf was attached. The scar therefore corresponds in shape to the base of the leaf stem. Each tree species has its own characteristic leaf scar, almost like the tree’s fingerprint. In red maples, the scar is U-shaped, while in white ash there is usually a deep notch in the scar. You may need a small hand lens to see this. If you look carefully at a leaf scar, you will see tiny markings known as bundle scars where veins passed from the stem of the leaf into the twig. These veins carried water into the leaf and food – made through photosynthesis – back out into the twig and to the rest of the tree. In some species – black walnut, for example – the leaf scar looks like a little face.

Flower bud opening on Norway Maple – Drew Monkman

Leaf buds of Manitoba Maple opening up – Drew Monkman









A primer

Let’s look at the buds and twigs of some familiar, easy-to-find species. You might want to go outside and gather these or use Google Images as a visual reference.

1. Sugar maple: Shiny, reddish-brown twigs with opposite buds. Buds are brown and conical, almost looking like upside down ice-cream cones, minus the ice cream. Covered by 6-8 pairs of scales, which are arranged in staggered rows. Large terminal bud. V-shaped leaf scar, containing 3 bundle scars.

2. Red oak: Reddish brown twigs with alternate buds. Buds are reddish-brown with 10 or more bud scales. Terminal buds form a cluster. Leaf scar is a semi-circle with numerous, scattered bundle scars.

3. American basswood: Light-brown, smooth twigs of zigzag shape. Buds are reddish, plump and opposite. 2-3 bud scales of unequal size. Leaf scar is semi-circular with 3 bundle scars.

4. Balsam poplar: My favourite winter buds! Narrow, long, pointed alternate buds with 4 leaf scales. Terminal bud larger, up to 25 mm, with 5 scales. Leaf scar roughly circular with 3 bundle scars. All buds are resinous and exude the smell of spring when rolled between your fingers.

Numerous guides for winter tree identification can be found online. Just Google “winter tree identification Ontario”. I especially like “Appendix C Winter Tree ID”, which should come up first in the search results.


1. What’s inside? Try opening some buds to see what’s hidden below the scales. Lilac and horse-chestnut buds work especially well. Using tweezers or just your fingers, try peeling back the scales and unfolding the contents. Count the tiny leaves inside. A hand lens will come in handy. Can you already see what shape the leaves are? Children are often amazed to see so many miniscule leaves are hidden inside such a small object. Large lilac and horse-chestnut buds may have tiny, pre-formed flowers inside. For small children, try cutting open some Brussels’ sprouts, which are actually large, immature leaf buds containing tightly overlapping leaves.

2. A twig collection: Collect the twigs of the most common trees and shrubs of your area. Attach these to a piece of cardboard with a glue gun, grouping them by opposite and alternate. Make sure you include twigs with both side and terminal buds. Cutting the twigs at an angle will expose the pith (the inside of the twig), which can also help in identification. Label each species.

3. Sneak preview: If you just can’t wait for spring to arrive, try forcing twigs for indoor blooming and leafing out. I’ve had especially good luck with dogwood, forsythia, crabapple, silver maple and birch twigs, but any species is worth trying. Head outside and cut off foot-long twigs with big, healthy buds. Make an angled cut at the base. Strip away buds and twigs that will be under water. Smash the woody bases with a hammer to enhance water absorption. Place in a water-filled vase in a cool, dark spot. Once the buds start to open – usually 7-12 days – move to a window, but out of direct sunlight. The cooler the spot, the longer the leaves and blooms will last. You might want to photograph or sketch the leaves, stems and flowers as they emerge. Try to identify which buds produced leaves and which produced flowers – or both!

Spring’s promise

Knowing these finer details of our trees and shrubs opens up a whole new world of winter beauty and adds immeasurably to any outing. Keep in mind that by March, sap will flow upwards from the tree’s roots, directing water and minerals to the buds and causing them to swell. With the warm days of late April and May, a new generation of leaves, shoots and flowers will emerge. The new growth will provide food for legions of insects, which in turn will become fuel for the rest of the food chain. The song of a Baltimore oriole on a May morning is directly linked to the buds of the winter forest.

Baltimore Oriole by Karl Egressy





Jan 112018

The annual Christmas Bird Count reveals the ups and downs of bird populations – and always some surprises.

Between mid-December and early January, birders in more than 2,500 localities across North, Central and South America take 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 probably the longest-running Citizen Science project in the world. The information collected by thousands of volunteer participants forms one of the world’s largest sets of wildlife survey data.

One of the most interesting trends the numbers show is the decades-long northward march of the Mourning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Carolina Wren, Northern Mockingbird, Tufted Titmouse and Northern Cardinal. Mourning Doves, for example, were extremely rare in the northern states and Canada until the 1960s, and it was only in the 1970s that their numbers really increased. All of these species used to be restricted to the southern U.S. Their range extension northward is most likely the result of a combination of milder winters and more people feeding birds.

The counts are organized at the local level, often by a birding club or naturalist organization. The count area is a circle, measuring 24 kilometres in diameter. The circle is then sub-divided into sectors, each of which is covered by a different group of birders. The basic idea is to identify and count – as accurately as possible – every bird seen or heard.

Once again this year, two local counts were held – one centred in Peterborough and the other in Petroglyphs Provincial Park. The Petroglyphs Count circle can be viewed at bit.ly/2EfuPt8. Martin Parker of the Peterborough Field Naturalists organized the Peterborough count, while Colin Jones was in charge of the Petroglyphs count.

Ruffed Grouse – Jeff Keller

Peterborough Count

The 66th Peterborough Christmas Bird Count was held December 17 under cold but sunny conditions. Seventy-one members and friends of the Peterborough Field Naturalists spent all or part of the day in the field, while 10 others kept track of birds visiting their feeders.

By the end of the day, participants had found 13,166 individual birds of 60 species. A pair of Fox Sparrows and a Sandhill Crane were new to the count. Both of these migratory species should have left the Kawarthas well before mid-December. At the compilation dinner after the count, Scott McKinlay described his group found and identified the crane. “I saw this bird through my scope from a considerable distance – maybe a kilometre – as it flew low over an open field in full sunlight. It had broad wings and the slow, arching wing beats typical of large herons and cranes. It was clearly brown in colour. I was reluctant to call it as a Sandhill because of the distance and time of year, but nothing else fit. A short time later, I reunited with the rest of the group, who had been surveying the area in the direction of my sighting. Before I uttered a word, they yelled out, “I think we saw a Sandhill Crane!” They described it as being the size of a Great Blue Heron with an outstretched neck, long trailing legs and flying low over a field in my direction. All three were adamant, however, that it was not a heron.”

Sandhill Crane (Wikimedia)

Record high numbers were tallied on the count for Cooper’s Hawk (12), Bald Eagle (13), Red-bellied Woodpecker (16), Pileated Woodpecker (28), Dark-eyed Junco (731) and Northern Cardinal (144). Previous highs were tied for Merlin (3) and Peregrine Falcon (1). The 466 Blue Jays tallied was three short of the previous high of 469.

There were also some notable low numbers. As has been the pattern in recent years, Great Horned Owls (2 vs. 40 in 1992), Ruffed Grouse (17 vs. 82 in 1979) and House Sparrows (181 vs. 2209 in 1981) were conspicuous by their relative absence. It is well known fact that Ruffed Grouse numbers fluctuate a great deal from year to year and even decade to decade. However, the factors responsible for these periodic fluctuations remain poorly understood. Road mortality and changes in habitat, especially south of the Canadian Shield, probably play a role, as well. These include forest fragmentation and fewer early-successional, aspen-dominated forest blocks. Ruffed Grouse are only capable of relatively short flights.

The decline of Great Horned Owls is another mystery. The Canadian population has dropped by over 70% since the 1960s. Collisions with vehicles and high mortality of fledged young due to starvation are acknowledged as playing an important roles. Declines in principal prey species, such as cottontails, hares and rodents (e.g., a big drop in muskrat numbers) may be a contributing factor.

Great Horned Owl – Drew Monkman

The downturn in House Sparrow populations, however, may be the biggest enigma. This is evident across the bird’s range, which includes every continent except Antarctica. The cause or causes are not yet known. In rural areas, it may be that changes in agricultural practices have resulted in fewer nesting sites and less food availability. In northeastern North America, it also been postulated that competition with a relatively new arrival, the House Finch, is a playing a role. However, House Finches have also been declining for a number of years. Only 181 were found this year, which is about one tenth of the record high of 1197.

Finally, not a single American Kestrel was found on the count. It is estimated that the continent-wide population of this small falcon has declined by about 50% since 1966. Part of the reason may be the felling of standing dead trees on which they depend for nesting sites. Removing hedgerows and brush as part of “clean” farming practices are almost certainly having an effect, too. According to Don Sutherland of the Natural Heritage Information Centre in Peterborough, American Kestrels are still common in parts of northern Ontario, particularly in the Big and Little Clay Belts where agriculture is less intense and there is an abundance of hayfields and pasture.


American Kestrel – Nima Taghaboni

The total tally sheet for the Peterborough count is as follows:   Canada Goose 400,  American Black Duck 8, Mallard 964,  Bufflehead 2, Common Goldeneye 100, Hooded Merganser 1, Common Merganser 7, Ruffed Grouse 17, Wild Turkey 223, Sharp-shinned Hawk  2, Cooper’s Hawk 12, Bald Eagle 13, Red-tailed Hawk 49, Sandhill Crane 1, Ring-billed Gull 9, Herring Gull 121, Glaucous Gull 1, Iceland Gull 1, Great Black-backed Gull 1, Rock Pigeon 1680, Mourning Dove 1088, Eastern Screech-Owl 2, Great Horned Owl 2, Snowy Owl 1, Belted Kingfisher 1, Red-bellied Woodpecker 16, Downy Woodpecker 90, Hairy Woodpecker 62, Northern Flicker 1, Pileated Woodpecker 28, Merlin 3, Peregrine 1, Northern Shrike 8, Blue Jay 466, American Crow 612, Common Raven 9, Black-capped Chickadee 2065, Red-breasted Nuthatch 27, White-breasted Nuthatch 88, Brown Creeper 7, Golden-crowned Kinglet 28, American Robin 181,  European Starling 2227, Cedar Waxwing 115, Snow Bunting 143, American Tree Sparrow 439, Dark-eyed Junco 731, Fox Sparrow 2, Song Sparrow 1, White-throated Sparrow 5,  Northern Cardinal 144, Red-winged Blackbird 2, Brown-headed Cowbird 1,  House Finch 181, Purple Finch 2, White-winged Crossbill 1, Pine Siskin 99, American Goldfinch 424 and House Sparrow 181.  A Northern Harrier, Ring-necked Pheasant and Carolina Wren were also seen during the count period but not on the day of the count.

Petroglyph Count

            The 32nd Petroglyph Christmas Bird Count took place on December 27, in frigid weather conditions. The 24 participants braved temperatures of close to -30 C in the early morning and only -18 by mid-afternoon. Despite the weather, 32 species and 1826 individual birds were tallied, which is close to the 10-year average of 33.5 species and 2,248 individuals. There was virtually no open water, however, and therefore no waterbirds.

Although no new species were recorded or records broken, there were some notable results. An above-average 7 Bald Eagles, 146 Red-breasted Nuthatches, 122 American Tree Sparrows and 134 Dark-eyed Juncos were counted. A Gray Jay was also located in a bog along the Sandy Lake Road south of Lasswade. Up until 2009, this species was recorded annually but since then only observed in 2014 and during the week of the count in 2016. Two other birds of note were an immature Golden Eagle seen soaring over the Kawartha Nordic Ski Trails near Haultain and a Black-backed Woodpecker in Petroglyphs Provincial Park.

Black-backed Woodpecker – Wikimedia

As for winter finches, 41 Red Crossbills and 8 White-winged Crossbills turned up, some of which were singing! These birds will nest in any month of the year if sufficient food is available. This year, nearly all of our conifers produced a bumper seed crop. Crossbills feed almost exclusively on conifer seeds. Two Purple Finch, 114 Pine Siskin, 103 American Goldfinch and 2 Evening Grosbeak rounded out the finch count.

The total  tally sheet for the Petroglyph count is as follows: Ruffed Grouse 7, Wild Turkey 40,  Bald Eagle 7, Red-tailed Hawk 2, Golden Eagle 1, Rock Pigeon 10, Mourning Dove 9, Barred Owl 1, Downy Woodpecker 25, Hairy Woodpecker 39, Black-backed Woodpecker 1, Pileated Woodpecker 11, Gray Jay 1, Blue Jay 206, American Crow 4, Common Raven 42, Black-capped Chickadee 641, Red-breasted Nuthatch 146, White-breasted Nuthatch 40, Brown Creeper 17, Golden-crowned Kinglet 32, American Robin 2, European Starling 10, Cedar Waxwing 6, American Tree Sparrow 122, Dark-eyed Junco 134, Purple Finch 2, Red Crossbill 41, White-winged Crossbill 8, Pine Siskin 114, American Goldfinch 103, and Evening Grosbeak 2.



Backyard Count

If you are inspired by the Christmas Bird Count and want to contribute to Citizen Science yourself – and maybe introduce your children or grandchildren to birding – consider taking part in the Great Backyard Bird Count. It takes place February 16-19 and 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 do so from any location. Go to gbbc.birdcount.org for details. To see the results of last year’s count, visit gbbc.birdcount.org/2017-gbbc-summary/




Jan 042018

2017 saw dire environmental stories grab centre stage but all was not doom and gloom

As we shiver into 2018, I would like to take a moment to look back at 2017 and revisit some of the top environmental and climate change stories. The past 12 months represent a stark cautionary tale that our climate is changing faster and with more catastrophic intensity than ever before. Scientists also reminded us this year that it is 100 percent human-caused. In fact, if it weren’t for Homo sapiens, the planet would be cooling.

To anyone paying attention, these changes are also apparent here in the Kawarthas where extremes in temperature and other weather events have become the norm. We might not know what the weather is going to bring, but we can be increasingly sure that it will be an extreme of some sort – and that it will last for much longer than ever before.

A year of extremes

1. Stronger storms: This was a savage year for hurricanes in the U.S. Three ferocious storms (Harvey, Irma and Maria) pummeled Florida, the Gulf Coast and Puerto Rico, causing deaths and billions of dollars of destruction. A growing scientific consensus is that climate change is increasing the rainfall, wind speeds and storm surges associated with hurricanes. Many experts believe that the intensity and frequency of these events will only increase.

2. Flooding:  Ottawa and Montreal had their wettest spring on record with over 400 mm of rain falling. According to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, more than 5,000 residences were flooded. This resulted in 15,750 claims and $223 million in property damages. In April and May, Peterborough was drenched with 299 mm of rain, which was almost exactly double the 1981-2000 normal of 150 mm. In mid-May, water levels in Lake Ontario were their highest in 157 years.

On August 28, Windsor received 222 mm of rain in less than 48 hours. Insurance payouts totaled $154 million, which was the most expensive single-storm loss across Canada in 2017. This occurred less than a year after a record $153 million flood hit Windsor and Essex County in 2016.

Peterborough Flood 2004 – Janine Jones photo

3. Wildfires: British Columbia saw its longest and most destructive wildfire season ever. The BC Wildfire Service reported 1,265 fires that charred 1.2 million hectares of timber, bush and grassland. This represents an area twice the size of Prince Edward Island. It shattered the previous record for burned land by 30%. Fighting these fires cost the province more than half a billion dollars, while insured property losses approached $130 million. In California, too, the wildfire season was the most destructive in recorded history. This included the 20 most destructive fires ever seen in semi-urban areas. With climate change fueling more and bigger blazes, the Western wildfire season in the U.S. is now 105 days longer than it was 45 years ago.

4. Record heat: Planet-wide, 2017 will likely go down as the second-warmest year on record. What is most astounding is that this occurred in the absence of an El Niño, which drives up global temperatures. The hottest year ever was 2016, which broke the record set in 2015. The ten hottest years have all occurred since 1998. In eastern Canada, we saw “summer in September”. From September 22 to 27, over a thousand heat records fell. The mean monthly temperature in Peterborough was 2.6 C warmer than the 1971-2000 normal, while October temperatures soared an amazing 3.2 C above normal. To put this into context, the goal of the Paris Agreement is to limit planet-wide warming to well below 2 C.

5. Record cold: This December and January have been unbelievably frigid – once again thanks to the polar vortex. The mean December temperature in Peterborough came in at 3.2 C below normal – in other words, as much colder as October was warmer. It’s not just the severity of the cold, however; it’s also the duration. Outbreaks of cold weather almost never last this long. Bone-chilling Arctic air is projected to be with us through at least January 10.

So, doesn’t the cold mean that global warming is nothing to be concerned about – maybe even desirable? It’s important to remember that this is a short-term weather event and not a long-term climate trend. In fact, warmer-than-average air is dominating the rest of the planet right now.

The polar vortex is influenced by the temperature difference between the Arctic and more temperate regions to the south. In recent years, the Arctic has been warming at twice the global rate as sea ice melts. Many scientists now believe that the narrowing of the temperature difference between the Arctic and more southerly regions has caused the jet stream to weaken and become more wave-like. This weakening appears to have allowed Arctic air masses to spill southward and remain in place longer. In the past, a robust jet stream usually impeded Arctic air masses from spilling southward for more than a few days.

6. Donald Trump: From his announcement to exit from the Paris climate accord to appointing climate change deniers like Scott Pruitt to key environmental posts, the U.S. president did his best in 2017 to undo any environmental progress President Obama had made. Protected land was an easy target as he sought to weaken bans on industrial activity. He appears committed to gutting Obama’s Climate Action Plan.

Dire warning

In November, more 15,000 scientists from 184 countries issued a warning that the ongoing destruction of the Earth’s ecosystems is putting the very future of humankind at severe risk and leading to catastrophic biodiversity loss. It stated that humankind must take immediate action to reverse the effects of climate change, deforestation, unsustainable agriculture (especially ruminants for meat consumption) and species extinction. The alert came on the 25th anniversary of a similar warning in 1992. This time, however, 10 times as many scientists were signatories. The warning states that we have unleashed a mass extinction event – the sixth in the past 540 million years. The scientists provided a number of broad solutions: They include moving away as quickly as possible from fossil fuels; using energy, water, food and other materials much more efficiently; promoting a diet of mostly plant-based foods; reducing and eventually eliminating poverty; ensuring sexual equality and guaranteeing women control over their own reproductive decisions. Not surprisingly, the warning generated very little reaction.

Barn Swallows have seen their population crash by at least 80% in the last two decades – Karl Egressy

According to another major study published in July, the extinction crisis is far worse than most people think. Of the 177 mammals for which the researchers had detailed data, over 40 percent have lost more than 80 percent of their ranges. In terms of individual animals, wildlife populations have decreased by 50% in just the past four decades. “The massive loss of populations and species reflects our lack of empathy to all the wild species that have been our companions since our origins,” says lead author, Gerardo Ceballos of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Good news

It was not all doom and gloom, however. There were some good news stories.

1. Canada, along with four other Arctic coastal countries, signed a 16-year moratorium on commercial fishing in an area covering 2.8 million kilometres of the central Arctic Ocean. This is roughly the size of the Mediterranean Sea. The treaty is seen as a historic victory for Arctic conservation.

2. Thanks to a DDT phase-out and reintroduction programs, the peregrine falcon has been assessed as no longer at risk by the Committee on the Status on Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

Peregrines at Anstruther Lake nest – July 19, 2014 – photo by Drew Monkman

3. The ozone hole this year was the smallest since 1988, thanks to a decades-long international effort to ban ozone-depleting chemicals.

4. Monarch butterfly numbers bounced back this summer, following several years of severe declines. Tim Dyson, who lives near Warsaw, tallied no fewer than 532 monarchs in 2017, which was more than double his previous high. It is expected that the overwintering population in Mexico will increase from the 2.91 hectares of last year to 4 hectares or better this winter.

5. The evidence of a strong link between health and time spent in nature received increased attention this year – even by groups like the World Economic Forum. Human health is quickly becoming an important driver for conservation.

6. Local environmental organizations continued to do excellent work this year. The number of such groups is truly astounding for a community our size. They include Peterborough Pollinators, Peterborough Field Naturalists, Peterborough Greenspace Coalition, Peterborough GreenUp, Sustainable Peterborough, Camp Kawartha, Otonabee Conservation, Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre, The Land Between Conservation Organization, Transition Town, Kawartha Land Trust, For Our Grandchildren, Leap Manifesto Group, Natural Heritage Information Centre and many more. UNESCO also recognized Peterborough-Kawarthas-Haliburton as a Regional Centre of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development. No small accomplishment!

Peterborough Pollinators garden on Medical Drive – photo by Drew Monkman


Like me, you have probably been asking yourself for years why humans allow climate change and other forms of environmental degradation to continue unabated. Research provides a clear but disconcerting answer: for most people, the environment is simply not a priority relative to other issues in their lives. This is true even in developed, prosperous countries like Canada. We are all caught up in a complicated web dominated by material culture and values such as perpetual economic growth and our separateness from nature – the very values that have allowed industrial capitalism to flourish. However, many social scientists would argue that a deliberate shift in what we value is unlikely. An optimist, I suppose, might contend that the huge change in attitudes vis-à-vis  the rights of women, homosexuals and minorities proves that profound value shifts are indeed possible. I just wish I was more convinced.




Dec 212017

The winter solstice is a time of wonder and the assurance of spring’s return

Today marks the winter solstice and the first official day of winter. It is a time of contemplation and reverence, not only in its spiritual dimensions but also as a reflection of the human capacity for wonder. I always imagine being out in space and casting an eye down on our blue planet as the northern hemisphere tilts at its greatest angle away from the sun. The solstice is a tangible reminder that we earthlings are indeed passengers on a body of rock and water orbiting a luminous sphere of hot, glowing gas.

From our perspective here on Earth, we see the sun tracing its lowest and shortest trajectory through the sky. Even at noon, it climbs little more than halfway above the southern horizon. The sun rose this morning at its most southerly point on the eastern horizon; likewise, it will set at its most southerly point in the west. This results in the shortest day of the year. At the solstice, Peterborough receives only eight hours and 51 minutes of daylight – approximately half of what we enjoy in June.

The solstice serves of a reminder of why we have seasons. Think of our planet as a spinning top, tilted at an angle of 23-and-a-half degrees – just like a desktop globe.  As Earth cruises through space, the northern hemisphere leans towards the sun for part of the year – our summer – and away from the sun for part of the year – our winter. In fall and spring, Earth is intermediate between these two positions. This tilt causes a huge difference in the amount of heating the Earth’s surface receives from one season to the next.

The Winter Solstice assures us the days will once again grow longer – Edmison Heights grade 4 class

In summer, sunlight strikes the northern hemisphere almost perpendicularly. Heating is fast and efficient. The solar radiation also takes a shorter path through the energy-absorbing atmosphere before striking Earth. This also means that noontime shadows are very short. Winter sunlight, however, arrives at a much shallower angle and closer to horizontal. The light also travels through more atmosphere and scatters over a larger area. This results in far less heating occurs. Mid-day shadows are much longer, too.

The difference in heating between the summer and winter can be demonstrated with a flashlight – the stronger, the better. Shine the flashlight directly over a tabletop so that the beam is nearly vertical. You will notice that the light is concentrated in a small area. If your flashlight is strong enough, the tabletop will soon feel warm to the touch. The light beam is just like the solar radiation of early summer when the sun is high in the sky. If you place a small, vertical object on the table, you will also see that it casts a short shadow. To simulate winter, angle your flashlight to the side so that the light scatters over a larger area. You should be able to feel that far less heating occurs, because the same amount of light spreads out over a larger area. The shadow cast by the object on the table will be much longer, as well.

The tilting also means that there are more hours of daylight in the summer and fewer hours in the winter. This makes a huge difference in the lives of plants and animals, be it the rapid plant growth and frenzied bird song of sun-soaked June or the dormant plants and avian silence of December.

The word solstice means “the point at which the sun stands still”. However, Copernicus demonstrated that the sun does not move, at least not in relationship to Earth. The very fact that we continue to use the word “solstice” – even in the face of its scientific inaccuracy – should remind us all of how far humanity has come in our understanding and appreciation of the world around us. What better time than the solstice to acknowledge the great scientists – Copernicus, Darwin, Einstein and many more – who challenged the status quo and rescued us from myth and superstition.


For ancient peoples with no knowledge of science or the movement of celestial bodies, we can easily imagine that the solstice was a time of profound fear but also gratitude.  It is an event that was noticed and celebrated by cultures across the world. Neolithic farmers, whose lives were intimately tied to the seasons and the cycle of harvest, were closely attuned to the movements of the sun.  They would see the sun rising and setting further south each day, notice the hours of daylight growing shorter and struggle to stay warm in the increasing cold. They would almost certainly have feared the sun’s complete disappearance. However, just when the world appeared to be on the brink of utter darkness and oblivion, the sun would suddenly stop its southward march in sunrise and sunset points.  Its mid-day elevation, too, would cease to slip lower and lower in the sky.  The sun would appear to stand still before once again moving northward and climbing higher in the sky.

The fear that the failing sunlight and warmth would never return was no doubt the reason why the ancients felt compelled to intervene with vigil and ceremony. Ancient Mesopotamians celebrated 12 days of fire building in an effort to “rekindle” the dying sun. The Romans paid homage to Mithras, the Persian god of light, in the feast of Saturnalia – the Celebration of the Unconquered Sun. In 350 AD Pope Julius I declared December 25 as the birth date of Jesus, purportedly to take advantage of these well established solstice festivities and to  attract new followers to Christianity. It is intriguing how the solstice themes of light and the tenacity of life as reflected in evergreen trees have combined to make one of the dominant symbols of modern Christmas: the Christmas tree.

Get outside

The winter solstice reminds us of the close links between the holiday season and the rhythms of the natural world. What better way to celebrate these connections than to get outside ourselves. Here are some things to pay attention to.

  1. The profound silence: Other than the sound of the wind, the crunching snow beneath our feet and the odd call of a chickadee, nature is quiet. Notice how the birds aren’t singing; there is no reproductive reason to do so.
  2. Winter colours: Pay attention to the subtle shades of the sky and the paleness of the sun. Watch for red and orange berries still clinging to vines and shrubs, patches of brightly-coloured lichens on tree bark and the different shades of green of conifers.

    Greenshield Lichen – Drew Monkman

  3. Shapes and patterns: Look closely at the tree twigs and you’ll notice that some are opposite each other (e.g., maples and ash) while others are positioned in an alternating fashion (e.g., oak, poplar). Compare the shapes of pines and spruce and how their needles differ. Have fun looking for faces in tree bark and for different shaped holes in the trunks. A long, rectangular hole is the telltale sign of pileated woodpecker activity.
  4. Bird and squirrels nests: Scan the bare branches for big, bulky grey squirrel nests and the much smaller, cup-shaped nests of songbirds.
  5. The absence of smell: Unlike spring and summer, the winter woods and fields have few natural smells. Take time to rub conifer needles and the buds of trees to enjoy the hidden scents of the season.
  6. Sunrise and sunset locations: Take an early morning or late afternoon walk to watch sunrise and sunset. This is convenient to do in December since families are often up before daybreak and darkness falls so early. Pack some warm drinks and head to a large open area with an unobstructed view of the eastern and/or western horizon. Armour Hill is a great location if you live in Peterborough. Take note of exactly where the sun rises and/or sets in relation to landmarks such as trees or buildings. You might also want to snap a quick photograph. Do the same at the spring equinox, summer solstice and fall equinox, making sure to stand in the same spot. You will be amazed by how much the sunrise and sunset point changes with each new season. Taking time to appreciate the beauty and location of the rising and setting of the sun is also energising and uplifting.

    Path of the sun through the seasons – Judy Hyland

  7. Shadows: Notice how long your shadow is. Stand up straight with your back to the sun and take turns measuring each other’s shadow. By doing so at the beginning of each new season – preferably at noon each time – you’ll discover how much shadow length changes over the course of the year. Measuring shadows helps all of us – adults and children alike – understand that shadow length depends on how much our hemisphere is tipped toward or away from the sun. It also lays the groundwork for understanding why we have seasons.
  8. The night sky: Find a spot free of light interference and look up at the heavens. Try to find the Orion constellation, the Pleiades and Sirius, the brightest star of winter. When you are finished stargazing, walk with candles for a short distance. The kids will love it.

As a final thought, always remember that the winter solstice represents the assurance that the days will once again grow longer and spring indeed will come.


Dec 142017

Seeds, bee houses and more: Tips for what to put under the Christmas tree

If you have someone on your Christmas list who would rather spend time in the garden than head to the mall, who prefers nature books to the latest novel, and who wants to support conservation and environmental education, you might be looking for some gift ideas this holiday season. The good news is that there are some wonderful options. Better still, most have a local flavour.

Seed Packages

In its ongoing effort to promote the creation of pollinator gardens throughout Peterborough and the Kawarthas, the Peterborough Pollinators has undertaken a special seed project called “Rewilding Our Gardens”. They have prepared gift bags containing seven seed envelopes of pollinator-friendly plants: Bee Balm, Borage, Bachelor Buttons, Calendula, Cosmos, Mexican Sunflower, and Zucchini Squash. The package also includes a beautifully illustrated story guide, along with planting instructions. Each plant has a story to tell, whether it is ecological, spiritual, medicinal or culinary. Bee Balm, for example, can be used to make a wonderful potpourri, thanks to its Earl Grey tea aroma. It is also a magnet for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. Zucchini blossoms attract squash bees, the males of which crawl inside the flowers in the afternoon and fall fast asleep!

Last year, the Pollinators produced a beautiful calendar, which also served as a pollinator garden and backyard nature information resource. This year’s seed project is more of a direct action phase, by making it easy and inexpensive for people who have never planted a pollinator garden before. The seeds can also be used to enhance an existing garden. We can all make a difference in reversing the decline in many pollinator populations by growing plants that provide the pollen and nectar on which these species depend. In fact, cities are becoming places of refuge for pollinators, with urban gardens supporting healthy pollinator populations.

Planting a pollinator garden is a wonderful way to get children interested in nature and conservation. These gardens also enrich family life as parents and children alike discover the fascinating and beautiful insects that come to visit. Pollinator gardens also contribute to a sense of community in neighbourhoods, as people can come from all sorts of backgrounds but still find common ground over what’s happening in their garden.

Peterborough Pollinators is looking forward to hearing the stories that come from people’s experiences with planting these seeds and making their own gardens, be it in a schoolyard, in pots on the deck or balcony or as part of an existing perennial or vegetable garden. The seed packages are available in Peterborough at the GreenUP Store, Kawartha Local Marketplace, Avant-Garden Shop and Bluestreak Records. You can also purchase them in Lakefield at Happenstance Books and Yarn. At only about $12 per bag, this is a great stocking stuffer. It is also affordable for students and for kids wondering what to buy their mom or dad.

Bee houses

Another way to support our declining pollinator populations is to provide nesting sites for native solitary bees, all of which are important pollinators. There are about 300 species in Ontario alone. These bees have been here for thousands of years – well before the first settlers brought over the European honey bee. They are called “solitary” bees, because they live on their own and don’t form colonies with a queen and workers like honey bees and bumble bees. Most nest in small tunnels in the ground, but some choose the hollow stems of dead plants or holes in wood. Many species are very small and not easily recognizable as bees. Each female builds her own nest, collects her own nectar and pollen and lays her own eggs. She will then usually use mud or leaves to build walls and divide the tunnel into a series of sealed cells. Each cell contains an egg, along with a deposit of pollen for food. And, no, solitary bees are not aggressive. Even if you were to grab one and squeeze, you would barely feel the sting.

Because solitary bees don’t travel more than 500 metres between their nesting site and food sources, an important part of supporting our local pollinator population is to ensure that they have a place to nest. Stem- and hole-nesting bees will readily use an artificial bee house – or “bee B&B” if you want to be cute about it. A variety of bee houses can be found at Avant-Garden Shop on Sherbrooke Street, just west of George, and at Kawartha Local Marketplace at 165 King Street in downtown Peterborough. The bee houses at Kawartha Local are built by Three Sisters, a social enterprise founded by three Peterborough women who are passionate about native gardens and plants. They are made of reclaimed wood and finished with a natural, non-toxic stain to ensure a safe and long-lasting nesting site. Three Sisters has created a selection of houses to choose from, each of which accommodates different species or combinations of species of solitary bees.


If you would prefer to make a donation in someone’s name this holiday season, consider Peterborough GreenUp. They are raising money for the construction of a new Children’s Education Facility in 2018. Your donation will also ensure that GreenUP’s renowned environmental programs will continue for years to come. With any donation of $30 or more, you will receive a puppet to give to the little nature lover on your list!

You might also consider donating money to groups such as Kawartha Land Trust, which is in the business of protecting habitat. Pressure on habitat in the Kawarthas is expected to increase exponentially with the completion of Highway 407 to Highway 115 by 2020.

Camp Kawartha, too, is an excellent organization to keep in mind. Both the Camp and Environment Centre, which is located on Pioneer Road, depend largely on contributions from individuals and businesses to provide their award-winning outdoor education and environmental programming. As a teacher, I took my students to Camp Kawartha for over 20 years and, even now, they often tell me that it was one of the most memorable experiences of their school years.


In just the past few years, a number of excellent books on pollinators and pollinator gardening have been published. Some of my favourites include “Pollinator Friendly Gardening: Gardening for Bees, Butterflies and Other Pollinators” by Rhonda Fleming Hayes, “The Bee Friendly Garden: Design an Abundant, Flower-filled Yard that Nurtures Bees and Supports Biodiversity” by Kate Frey and Gretchen LeBuhn, “100 Plants to Feed the Bees: Provide a Healthy Habitat to Help Pollinators Thrive” by the Xerces Society, “Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Observe and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants” by Heather Holm and “The Bees in Your Backyard: A Guide to North America’s Bees” by Joseph Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril.

You will also find lots of pollinator games and activities for children in “The Big Book of Nature Activities: A Year-round Guide to Outdoor Learning”, which I co-authored with Jacob Rodenburg. The book also contains instructions for building bee houses and creating your own pollinator garden. If you are new to the Kawarthas or new to nature observation, you might also be interested in my 2012 book entitled “Nature’s Year: Changing Seasons in Central and Eastern Ontario”. The book is an almanac of key events occurring in nature each month – often in your own backyard – and covers birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, fish, invertebrates, plants, fungi, weather and the night sky. My goal in writing the book was to help people to become more attentive to and appreciative of the many wonders of the natural world that surround us in this exceptional region of Ontario. Both of these books are available at the GreenUp Store and Avant-Garden Shop. You will also find “The Big Book of Nature Activities” at Chapters, Kawartha Local Marketplace, Hunter Street Books and Happenstance in Lakefield.

Dec 072017

The holiday season is the perfect time to get to know the conifers

With practice, it’s possible to identify many plants and animals by size and shape alone. Any two European starlings will always look plump, have a relatively long, straight bill and sport a short, square tail. In flight, the wings will appear triangular and pointed. The shape of trees, too, is remarkably consistent and often allows for quick recognition at a glance. Identifying distant trees against the winter sky adds enjoyment to any walk or car trip as you mentally compile a list of the species you observe. It is also a useful skill to have when pointing out the location of a distant object such as a bird. “Do you see the hawk perched at the top of the white pine over there? I think it’s a red tail.”

The holiday season is an especially appropriate time to sharpen our conifer (i.e., cone‑bearing trees) identification skills. Whereas deciduous trees are now bare to the sky, our conifers are dressed in their finest holiday foliage. Juxtaposed against their leafless neighbours, the unique contour of each species is easy to see. Christmas is also the time of year when we decorate our homes with evergreen wreathes, make winter planters and put up a real (the only choice!) Christmas tree. But, how many of us can tell the different species apart?

For each conifer group described below, I’ve provided hints for identifying the trees by shape and by characteristics of the needles. I’ve also included a memory aid or mnemonic with similar spelling for linking these characteristics to the name of the tree. (e.g., pine and pin).


Towering high above its forest neighbours is the eastern white pine, Ontario’s official tree and an iconic species of the Kawarthas. If you only learn the shape of one species, learn this one. The irregular crown and stout, wing-like branches growing at right angles to the trunk make this species instantly recognizable. The crowns of many white pines become one‑sided in appearance because of the effect of the prevailing wind. Jackson Park in Peterborough is crowned by a majestic stand of these imposing giants.

Although less common, the red pine is also native to the Kawarthas. Like the white, large sections of the trunk are visible almost to the top. The crown, however, is usually symmetrical. This species also has a very open, airy look with most of the needles grouped together in ball‑like “tufts.” This is because the foliage is crowded towards the tips of the branches. The scaly reddish bark is also a useful field mark. There is a stand of red pine planted on the south side of Lily Lake Road, just west of Ackison Drive.

A pine needle is like a long like “pin”. The white pine has bundles of five needles, which is the number of letters in the word “white”. Red pine has bundles of two needles. (Sorry, but red has three letters.) Care must be taken, however, not to confuse red pine with Scots (Scotch) pine, an introduced species whose needles also come in pairs. The red pine has long brittle needles (close to six inches) which break in half when bent. The needles of Scots pine are only half as long and are twisted. Just to confuse matters, the two-needled Austrian pine is another commonly planted conifer in cities and along highways. The bark, however, is dark brown to gray.


Our most common native species is the white spruce. The entire tree has a near-perfect symmetrical appearance. The crown is cone-shaped or somewhat rounded. Most of the trunk is usually hidden by the bushy branches. The bark is gray and scaly, becoming darker with age. Spruce are particularly easy to identify this year because of the abundant cones, which are concentrated at the top of the tree. The cones of white spruce are about two inches in size.

By far the most common spruces in Peterborough, however, are the non-native Norway and Colorado (or blue) spruce. In fact, they are the most common tall conifers of any species in the city. Norway spruce are often planted around farms, too, where they serve as windbreaks. This species is easily distinguished by its large, horizontal branches from which secondary branches hang straight down. The cones, on average, are about six inches in length. Colorado spruce have a striking bluish colour, especially at the tips of the branches.

Spruce needles “spiral” all the way around the twig and are usually “stiff”, “spiky” and painful to touch. Because they are rounded, they roll or “spin” between your thumb and index finger.


The only fir you’re likely to see in eastern Canada is the balsam. Unfortunately, they are rarely planted as ornamentals and are therefore uncommon in the city. Firs have a near‑perfect symmetrical shape, but differ from spruce in that they are narrower and taper to a skinny point at the top. This gives them the nickname of the “church steeple” tree. The smooth, grayish bark of young trees is covered with raised sap blisters, which are fun to poke. This species makes a great Christmas tree, thanks to the wonderful balsamic fragrance, symmetrical shape and the long-lasting, dark green needles. Fir needles are “flat” and very “flexible”. You can’t roll them between your thumb and finger. Fir are most common in low, damp habitats on the Shield. Watch for them along Highway 28 north of Burleigh Falls. They also grow in Harper Park.


The eastern hemlock is another tree with a conical crown, but it becomes ragged and irregular with age. This gives the tree an untidy outline. Unlike the spruce and fir, the tip of the crown and other branches usually droop. Hemlock foliage has a feathery – almost lacy – look to it and the tiny cones can be found on even the lowest branches. While the white pine surely qualifies as king of the forest, the hemlock is my choice as the queen.

Hemlock needles are flat like balsam fir, but very short (less than an inch) and nearly white underneath. To connect the needles to the word hemlock – yes, it’s a stretch – think of the prefix “hemi”, which means half (e.g., hemisphere). Hemlock needles are half white (underside) and half green (topside). There are a number of spectacular hemlocks in Jackson Park, where they grow on the north side of the steep hill above the concrete bridge over Jackson Creek.


By far the most common conifer in the Kawarthas south of the Canadian Shield, white cedars grow in dense, single-species stands or along forest edges. Trees growing in open environments such as fields are conical to almost columnar in shape and have a neat, trimmed appearance. The foliage is dense and often hides the trunk right to the ground. Forest-grown trees have a visible trunk and open irregular crown. The lower branches are usually dead. The bark, which matures into flat, stringy narrow strips, is shiny, smooth and reddish brown in young trees and grey in older individuals. This year, cedars are laden with an exceptionally heavy crop of small, tightly packed cones.

Cedars are unique in that they have scale-like, flattened needles. If you need a mnemonic – another stretch, I’m afraid – remember that cedar needles have scales, just like fish in the sea! (“sea”dar).


The only tree-sized juniper in the Kawarthas, Juniperus virginiana, is usually known by its inaccurate common name of eastern red-cedar. They are small trees (usually less than 30 feet tall) and are most abundant in abandoned fields. The shape is variable, ranging from oval to columnar or pyramidal. The berry-like cones are dark blue in colour and often covered with a whitish powder. They are a favourite of robins and waxwings. There is a tall hedge of eastern red-cedar on the north side of Parkhill Road, just west of Wallis Drive.

Junipers have two kinds of bluish-green leaves: soft, rounded scale leaves, resembling those of the white cedar, and sharply-pointed needle leaves. The scale leaves can become yellowish-brown in winter. Both types of leaves often appear on the same branch. So, to remember the juniper, think of a pair of different kinds of leaves or juni”pair”.

Tamarack (larch)

Watch for these medium-sized, spruce-shaped trees in swampy lowlands, especially on the Shield. Winter identification is simple: the branches are bare because all the needles are shed each fall. In fact, you might mistake them for dead spruce. All that remains on the twigs are seed cones and some little protrusions or lumps, where the bundles of needles grew. Maybe think of “leafless larch”. There is a particularly nice stand of tamaracks on County Road 10, just south of Hooton Drive/Wilson Line on the west side of the road. They are beautiful in the fall when the foliage changes to a smoky gold.

Being able to recognize the various conifers that dot the landscape of the Kawarthas provides a very satisfying sense of place. Like the common loon and the white‑tailed deer, the pines, spruce, cedars, firs, hemlocks, junipers and tamaracks tell us we are home.






Nov 302017

Expect a lot of snow and a ‘classic Canadian winter’

In my fall nature almanac, I had the temerity to predict that the sunshine and cool temperatures of early September would lead to extraordinary leaf colour. Well, I sure got that wrong. In fact, this fall’s colour show was one of the worst in recent memory – especially for sugar maples, which are a dominant tree species in the Kawarthas. From all accounts, the reason for the poor display was the intense heat that soon arrived and lasted until the end of October. With average temperatures about three degrees above normal and near-drought conditions, the intense reds, oranges and yellows never materialized. Yellow and brown leaves dominated the landscape and many leaves fell early. As a result of climate change, warmer temperatures are expected to delay the onset of peak colours in future years and shorten the colour season as a whole. When temperatures are as extreme as they were this year, duller colours are likely to be the norm, as well.

Looking ahead to winter, the forecast right now is for more snow than usual – a “classic Canadian winter” in the words of The Weather Network. La Nina conditions in the equatorial Pacific are expected to affect the weather pattern across North America in the coming months. La Niña is a large-scale climate pattern associated with cooler than normal water surface temperatures in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean. La Niña often results in greater precipitation in eastern Canada. That being said, the winter is not expected to be unusually cold.

As a reminder of what to watch for in nature in the coming months, I have prepared the following list of highlights.


·        A large incursion of snowy owls is possible this winter, maybe similar to 2013-14. Several birds have already been seen locally, including one at the Peterborough Airport. Snowy owls are usually observed in fields, where they perch on knolls, fences and hay bales.

·        Last winter, record numbers of American robins overwintered in the Kawarthas, thanks mostly to a huge crop of wild grape. This year’s grape crop is quite small, however, so far fewer robins are likely to remain. Those that do stay might be attracted to the abundant berries on eastern red cedars and winterberry hollies.

·        Keep an eye out for wild turkeys. Their large, dark bodies are easy to spot in winter, as flocks feed in fields. Jenn Baici, a PhD student at Trent University, is studying these birds and would love your help. If you see wild turkeys, please submit your sighting at eBird.org. You can also share a photo of the flock at the Peterborough Wild Turkey Count project on iNaturalist.org. Just be sure to include the location and number of turkeys observed. Using this data, Jenn hopes to estimate the size of Peterborough County’s wild turkey population.

·        Throughout the late fall and winter, gray squirrels are often seen high up in maples feeding on the keys.

·        Ducks lingering on lakes until freeze-up may include common goldeneye, buffleheads and both common and hooded mergansers  A small number of common loons, mostly young-of-the-year birds, remain until the ice comes, as well.

·        The early morning hours of December 13 and 14 are the peak viewing times for the Geminids meteor shower, which is the most consistently good meteor display of the year.

·        Before too much snow falls, take time to walk around the edge of wetlands to look for interesting ice formations such. These include ice crystals imitating stalagmites. Leaves, sticks, and bubbles frozen in the ice can also be intriguing.

·        Welcome to the “dark turn of the year.” Daylight this month averages only about 8 ¾ hours. Compare this to 15 ½ hours in June – a difference of nearly seven hours!

·        Balsam fir makes the perfect Christmas tree. I love its symmetrical shape, long-lasting needles and wonderful fragrance.

·        From December 14 to January 5, Christmas Bird Counts take place across North America. The counts data reflect trends in bird populations. The 66th Peterborough Christmas Bird Count will be held on Sunday, December 17, while the Petroglyphs Count is scheduled for Wednesday, December 27. Birders of all levels of experience are welcome to participate. For more information, contact Martin Parker (mparker19@cogeco.ca) for the Peterborough Count and Colin Jones (cdjonesmclark@gmail.com) for the Petroglyph Count.

·        Thursday, December 21, marks the winter solstice and the first day of winter. The tilting of the Earth away from the sun also produces the longest night of the year. The sun rises and sets at its southernmost points on the eastern and western horizons.

·        Watch for common redpolls and pine siskins at your nyger-seed feeder. There is a good possibility that both species will turn up this winter. Keep an eye on the tops of your spruce trees, too, for flocks of white-winged and red crossbills. They love to eat the seeds hidden in the cones, and this year’s cone crop is huge!


·         Even though the days grow longer after the solstice, they begin to do so very slowly. In fact, in the first week of January, sunrise is later than at any other time of the year. The sun doesn’t peak over the horizon until 7:49 a.m. Compare this to June 20 when the sun rises at 5:29 a.m.

·        Watch for ruffed grouse at dawn and dusk along tree-lined country roads. The birds often appear in silhouette as they feed on buds such as those of trembling aspen.

·        Small numbers of common goldeneyes and common mergansers can be seen all winter long on the Otonabee River, at Young’s Point and at Gannon Narrows.

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

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

·        Honeybees are the only insects to maintain an elevated body temperature all winter. They accomplish this by clustering together in a thick ball within the hive, vibrating their wings to provide heat and eating stored honey for the necessary energy.

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

·        In late January, black bears give birth to cubs no larger than chipmunks. Generally, two cubs are born.


·        We begin the month with about 9 ¾ hours of daylight and end with 11, a gain of about 75 minutes. The lengthening days are most notable in the afternoon.

·        Groundhog Day, February 2, marks the mid-point of winter. However, our groundhogs won’t see their shadow – or light of day, for that matter – until mid-March at the earliest. In case you were wondering, no animal or plant behaviour can portend upcoming weather beyond a few hours.

·        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 several of the birds that usually 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. Amazing acrobatics are usually part of the show.

·        The Great Backyard Bird Count takes place Friday, February 16, through Monday, February 19. 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 www.birdcount.org for details.

·        The male common goldeneye puts on an elaborate courtship display in late winter. He thrusts his head forward and then moves it back towards his rump. With his bill pointing skyward, he utters a squeaky call.

·        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.”


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

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

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

·        By mid-March, the first northward-bound turkey vultures are usually seen. 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.

·        For anyone paying attention, the increase in bird song is hard to miss. If you don’t already know the voices of common songsters, 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.

·        Jupiter and Mars are spectacular in the early morning sky this month.

·        The spring equinox occurs on March 20 as the sun shines directly on the equator. Both the moon and sun rise due east and set due west. For the next six months, we can enjoy days that are longer than nights.




Nov 162017

The Boundary Bay area is one of Vancouver’s premier wildlife destinations

As we walked slowly along log-strewn Blackie Spit, flocks of shorebirds flew low over the waves, their white feathers shimmering in the early morning sun. Ducks and cormorants streamed overhead, while loons and grebes dove in the waters offshore. A group of harbour seals lay hauled up on a nearby sand bar. With the sun still low on the horizon, the side-lighting made for superb viewing conditions. After some careful searching, we were finally able to make out a pair of marbled godwits, hidden among a flock of American wigeon in the tall grass. At the same time, a long-billed curlew popped into view, its prodigious bill dwarfing those of the godwits.

Our guide to the natural wonders of Boundary Bay was Anne Murray, a well-known naturalist, environmental activist and author in the Vancouver area. She has written two books on the natural and human history of the bay, which I would recommend to anyone visiting the Surrey – Delta area. The bay itself, which sits on the border between British Columbia and the state of Washington, has been designated a Hemisphere Reserve by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network and a Canadian Important Bird Area.

With a son and daughter living near Vancouver – and now two grandchildren – I am fortunate to visit the area on a regular basis and enjoy nature almost at your doorstep. Nowhere else in Canada can you find abundant raptors, waterbirds, salmon and intriguing flora right in the heart of an urban area of nearly three million people.

From my daughter’s house in North Delta, I set out almost every day to discover a new park or nature reserve. Everywhere I walked, the sweet, earthy smell of the Pacific Northwest permeated the cool November air. Eastern grey squirrels and Douglas’s squirrels scurried over the thick carpet of fallen leaves, while northwestern crows, glaucous-winged gulls and bald eagles soared overhead. Every so often I’d come across a small flock of chickadees. As is always my habit, I would stop and start pishing to draw them closer. The chickadees would quickly approach – both black-capped and chestnut-backed – and, within a minute or so, a coterie of other species would join them. These usually included spotted towhees, gorgeous Oregon dark-eyed juncos, song sparrows, fox sparrows, golden-crowned sparrows and sometimes even a Bewick’s wren.

Anyone visiting the Vancouver area can’t help but be impressed by the huge, towering conifers. The three most common species are usually coastal Douglas-fir (cones with “rat-tail” projections), western red cedar (shredded, reddish bark) and western hemlock (flat, short needles). The dominant broadleaf trees are bigleaf maple (leaves 15 -60 cm across), red alder (a tree-sized version of our local speckled alder) and black cottonwood (a western form of the balsam poplar). As for small broadleaf trees and shrubs, you can’t go far without seeing vine maple (leaves with 7-9 toothed lobes), tall Oregon grape (spiny, holly-like evergreen leaves), salmonberry (raspberry-like shrub), hardhack (Spirea-like), Pacific rhododendron (large, leathery evergreen leaves), salal (small evergreen leaves) and Himalayan blackberry (thicket-forming; red, prickly stems). The latter is a non-native species that is abundant along roads and open trails.

At the level of the forest floor, fungi, mosses, horsetails and ferns prevail. The most visible of these are the sword ferns, whose robust, leathery fronds can measure more than a metre high. Deer fern, lady fern and licorice fern are also common. The latter tends to grow on the moss-covered limbs of broadleaf trees like bigleaf maple. Although yellow is the dominant fall colour on native trees – the oranges and reds of vine maple being an exception – the bright reds and burgundies of Japanese maples and sourgum trees stand out along suburban streets.

Boundary Bay

The cities of Surrey and Delta, where I spent most of my time, are located in the Boundary Bay watershed. This landscape was created by British Columbia’s mightiest river, the Fraser. The entire area is located on the Pacific Flyway, which is a broad north-south migration corridor extending from Alaska to Argentina. Birds interrupt their northward and southward journeys to rest and feed here. Some species, like grebes and harlequin ducks, arrive from the Rocky Mountains and Alberta to overwinter here.

Every fall, a succession of shorebirds arrives on the mudflats, shores and upland fields. Even in early November, large flocks of dunlin and black-bellied plovers are still present. In fact, many overwinter here. As fall progresses, waterfowl join the shorebirds until up to 200,000 ducks, geese and swans gather on the bay or in the fields of the surrounding area. This includes up to 80,000 snow geese, which descend from Wrangel Island, off the northeast coast of Russia. The majority of the wintering ducks on the bay itself are dabbling ducks like mallards, American wigeon, northern pintail and green-winged teal.

Thanks to the rich soil and strict development restrictions, much of the area is still farmland, where everything from blueberries to cranberries are cultivated in huge quantities. In parts of Delta, there is also old-field habitat where raptors abound. As you drive through this landscape, you can’t go far without seeing red-tailed hawks, peregrine falcons and bald eagles perched in trees or on hydro towers. In fact, this area has the highest diversity of winter raptors in Canada. Flocks of snow geese and trumpeter swans are also a common sight.

Hedgerows with grassy margins are a prominent feature in many fields. They represent miniature wildlife sanctuaries in their own right. Dominated by Himalayan blackberry, crabapples, hawthorns and roses, hedgerows provide food, cover and nesting sites for songbirds, raptors and small mammals. They also act as “insectaries”, providing habitat for a host of beneficial insects, including pollinators like bumblebees and native solitary bees. Management of these hedgerows is coordinated through the Delta Farmland and Wildlife Trust, which promotes the preservation of farmland and wildlife habitat in the Boundary Bay watershed through co-operative land stewardship with local farmers.

A life bird

When I visited Boundary Bay this year, I was determined to see a species that has always eluded me – the barn owl. The Boundary Bay area represents the northern limit of the barn owl’s range and is one of the few regions in Canada where a resident population still exists. After we left Blackie Spit, Anne and I, along with my friend Pat O’Gorman, drove over to the bottom of 72nd Street. Barn owls had been flying over the fields here earlier in the day. Although we found many interesting birds – a short-eared owl and a northern shrike, for example – it was too late for barn owls to be flying. Anne suggested I return at first light the following morning.

When I arrived shortly after 7 am, a group of photographers was already there. Judging by their focused attention, they had clearly found something. Almost immediately, I saw my first-ever barn owl. It was flying gracefully over the field with slow, buoyant wing beats. Every so often, the bird would drop into the grass for a minute or so, presumably having caught a vole. As daylight increased, I was struck by the contrast between the tawny-orange back of the bird and its white breast and belly. I was also impressed by the owl’s size. Its 42-inch wingspan was much larger than I expected. The curious dark eyes and white, heart-shaped face were also a treat to see when the bird flew close to the roadside.

Before long, a short-eared owl joined the hunting parade, as did a pair of northern harriers. At one point, a harrier tangled with one of the short-ears in full flight. This was clearly an attempt to steal food. Red-tailed and rough-legged hawks also flew by on occasion, while bald eagles perched in nearby trees. Before I left, I asked one of the photographers, Susan Tam, to send me some of the superb photos she got that morning.

Next, I decided to drive up to the Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary on nearby Westham Island. This is another wonderful birding destination. I stopped at a farm near the entrance to the sanctuary and asked the owner for permission to enter his barn. After a bit of searching, I found a big pile of white droppings and brown, regurgitated pellets on the barn floor. Looking up, two ghost-like barn owls peered down at me from a timber high overhead. Judging by the number of pellets at my feet, the hunting had been good. In fact, the barn owl is a superb “mouser” and has the keenest hearing of any bird ever tested. They can catch mice in total darkness, relying on sound alone. They swallow their prey whole and cough up pellets twice a day.

Other destinations

The Surrey and Delta area offers a large assortment of parks with well-maintained trails through beautiful forests. You often feel far from civilization. Over the course of my stay, I visited Green Timbers (home of the Surrey Nature Centre), Watershed, Bear Creek and Tynehead parks. The latter two are great locations to watch salmon spawning. They also have excellent interpretive signs explaining the life cycle of the salmon. At Tynehead, I saw several large coho, the males of which were a deep red colour. At Bear Creek, chum salmon were easy to observe. The fact that salmon habitat has been protected in such a densely-populated urban area made me wonder why Peterborough can’t make a similar commitment to protect the brook trout population in Harper Creek. And, for that matter, make Harper Park a showcase nature destination with trails, boardwalks, signage and a nature centre!




Nov 092017

Late fall is a great time to get to know these enigmatic structures

I’ve always loved November. Maybe it’s the change of pace and the sense of nature slowing down. Yet, we do notice changes. As deciduous trees shed their leaves, our eyes are drawn to the conifers like at no other time of year. They stand out in all their green splendor and beautiful shapes. And, if you look closely, you’ll notice something special this year: they are laden with a huge crop of cones.

You’ve probably held them, maybe used them to make a holiday wreath, but how many of us really know what cones are? The short answer is that cones – named after their shape – are the reproductive parts of an ancient branch of plants known as gymnosperms. Conifers form the largest group of living gymnosperms, but gingko trees also belong to this class of plants. About 300 million years ago, the gymnosperms became the dominant trees on the planet. They continued their dominance throughout the Triassic and Jurassic periods – the age of the dinosaurs. Their cones were even a favourite food of species like duckbill dinosaurs. The gymnosperms reigned supreme until the rise of the angiosperms – the flowering plants – during the Cretaceous period.

The arrival of gymnosperms was revolutionary, because it heralded the advent of the seed. This was as profound an evolutionary event as the development of the shelled egg in reptiles. Just as the egg allowed reptiles to become the first truly terrestrial vertebrates – and break nearly all aquatic ties – the evolution of the seed meant that plants no longer had to grow in moist environments like their fern and moss ancestors did. They could therefore colonize upland habitats. The gymnosperms protected their embryos from drying out by encasing them in a tough waterproof seed coat.

A closer look

All conifers produce cones. In fact, this is where the name “conifer” comes from. It is not accurate to call these trees evergreens, because some species, the tamarack for example, actually shed all of their needles in the fall, just like a maple or an oak. And not all cones are pine cones. This term only describes the cones of the pine tree. The cones of the other conifers should be named according to their parent tree.

Gymnosperms are different from angiosperms in that they lack true flowers. There are no petals, stamens, pistils or ovaries. In fact, the word gymnosperm actually means “naked seed”, because the seeds are not enclosed in an ovary. They simply develop from an ovule (egg) located on the inner surface of each of scales. Flowers, on the other hand, are produced by angiosperms, which include everything from oaks and maples to grasses and daisies. Angiosperm seeds develop when a pollen grain adheres to the stigma at the top of the pistil, travels down through the style and fertilizes an ovule located in the ovary. When you eat an apple and spit out the seeds, you are eating the enlarged ovary.

Male vs. female

As is the case with many flowers, cones can be either male or female. Both usually occur on the same tree. Junipers are an exception, having separate male and female trees. Let’s look at the female cone first. These are the typical hard, brown, woody cones. They consist of a central stalk surrounded by stiff, overlapping scales, reminiscent of wooden shingles. The ovules, which when pollinated become seeds, are located at the base on the inner surface of the scale. If you pry open the scales of a mature cone before it falls from the tree, you can often see the seeds inside. In white pine and balsam fir, the female cones are located high up in the tree at the tips of the branches. In most other species, they are found lower down, as well.

The male cones, also known as pollen cones, are much smaller (often only a centimetre or two in size) and far less conspicuous structures. Usually located on the lower branches, they are most often brown or reddish and resemble little spikes or buttons. They have a central axis, which bears pollen-producing structures. You’ve probably brushed up against them, causing a smoke-like cloud of pollen. Soon after the pollen is released, the male cones whither and drop from the tree. You will often see piles of male cones under pine trees in early summer.


Each conifer species follows its own reproduction timetable. In the case of the white pine, Ontario’s provincial tree, clusters of male cones first appear in the spring at the base of new twig growth. A few weeks later, the soft, green and purplish female cones emerge. At the time of pollination, they are about two centimetres long. Towards the middle of June, the male cones release their pollen grains. The grains are so well adapted to wind pollination that they actually contain two air bubbles. Only an infinitesimally small amount of pollen ever makes it to the female cones, however. Most of it simply descends from the sky turning cottage decks, shorelines and puddles a lemon yellow.

At the same time as the pollen is released, the female cones become receptive to receiving the airborne sex cells. The tiny cone scales open slightly  and a small amount of fluid is secreted which serves to “trap” the pollen and draw it in towards the two ovules at the base of each scale.

Having secured pollen, the scales begin to thicken and to press tightly together. The cone continues to grow, hardens and turns from green to brown. Strangely enough, the actual fertilization of the ovules by the pollen only occurs 13 months later. It then takes an additional 13 months or so for the seeds to mature. In late summer, the scales dry out, flex backwards and open up one final time. This allows the seeds inside to simply escape to the wind. Each seed has a tiny wing, which helps it to float on the air, travelling up to 200 metres from the parent tree. In all, the process of reproduction will have taken over two years. The cones themselves drop off the tree during the late fall or winter, a few months after seed release. You can find them on the ground right now under almost any white pine.

Cone and seed development in all of the other conifers requires less than one year. In the case of white spruce and eastern hemlock, for example, the cones open and shed their seeds during their first fall or winter. The seeds often litter the snow. Spruce cones drop from the trees during this same period, but the cones of the hemlock remain on the branches until spring. White cedar cones also open in the fall and shed their seeds over several months.

With balsam fir – the best choice for a Christmas tree – the process is quite different. The scales themselves drop off the cone while it is still on the tree, thus liberating the seeds to the wind. All that is left is the bare, stick-like core of the cone. It can remain on the tree for several years. Balsam fir cones grow in dense groups near the top of the tree and stand straight up like candles.

In some conifers like junipers and yews, the scales on the female cone swell up and fuse together after pollination. This leads to the formation of a small, soft, fleshy cone, which superficially looks like a berry. You may have noticed the huge number of blue, berry-like cones on junipers (e.g., eastern red cedar) this year. Each contains one to four brownish seeds. Red cedar “berries” are very popular with birds like waxwings and robins.


Cones are a testament to the wonder of evolution. The arrangement of the spirals of scales, for example, is anything but random. They follow nature’s numbering system, known as the Fibonacci pattern. It goes like this: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34… (each subsequent number being the sum of the two preceding ones). If you look closely at a pine cone, you’ll see a double set of spirals, each going in a different direction. When these spirals are counted, the two sets are found to be adjacent Fibonacci numbers. For example, you might see eight spiraling counterclockwise and 13 spiraling clockwise. Larger or smaller cones can have different pairs of numbers. No, trees are not mathematicians. This arrangement is simply the best use of space, so it has been favoured by evolution.


For a great holiday activity, you might want to try making a cone wreath. Going out to gather the cones themselves is half the fun. Try to find cones from different species. You’ll also need to make a cardboard base. The base can be cut into any shape you like – maybe a snowflake. Paint the cardboard or glue on a piece of felt. Then, using a glue gun, attach the cones to the base. If you spray the cones with water several hours before you begin, the scales will usually close and be easier to work with. Glue on the larger cones first, and then fill in the remaining spaces with the smaller ones. You can also add accents such as acorns and sumac berries. After the cones have fully dried and the scales reopened, spray the wreath with a clear lacquer. Handled with care, it will last for years and be a beautiful holiday reminder of the fascinating biology of cones.


Nov 022017

Much remains to be explained about these familiar birds    

When a species is as common as the blue jay, we tend to take it for granted. We are often dulled into thinking that there’s little new to be discovered about its behaviour. Well, think again. From their aggressive mobbing behaviour and seed caching, to their enigmatic migrations and mimicking of other species, there is much that remains a mystery. We even have to be wary of our own senses. A jay’s feathers, for instance, aren’t really blue. The colour pigment they contain is actually brown. The blue we see is caused by the scattering of light by special cells in the feather barbs. The feathers appear almost black when backlit.


A big part of the blue jay’s success as a species comes down to being a generalist. They will eat everything from seeds and nuts to insects and carrion. Even the eggs and nestlings of other species are sometimes on the menu. When jays visit feeders, they prefer peanuts, suet and sunflowers offered up on a tray or hopper feeder. Just this week, I watched as one jay gobbled up at lest 20 sunflower seeds, before flying off presumably to cache them.

Jays have a pouch in the throat and upper esophagus in which they transport food – as many as three acorns at a time, for example. They then store the food in caches – often in the ground – to be eaten at a later date when the pickings are scarce. One study showed that a single blue jay can cache up to 5,000 acorns over the course of an autumn. Some of the food, of course, is never eaten, so acorns can end up germinating and producing new trees. It is believed that jays are responsible for the spreading of oaks after the glaciers retreated. However, the extent of caching appears to differ widely among individual jays.

Because this year’s crop of acorns, beechnuts, hickory nuts and beaked hazelnuts is quite good, it appears that large numbers of jays will remain in Kawarthas this fall and winter. I am already seeing a lot more than this time last year. But, as we’ll see later, the link between food availability and migration is far from clear. Although much of their winter diet consists of acorns – at least in parts of their range – jays cannot survive on these nuts alone. Some of the literature even states that jays don’t really care for the acorns of red and white oaks, which are the two main species here in the Kawarthas. Go figure.

It was once thought that the eggs and nestlings of other species made up a big part of their diet, too. This habit even attracted the attention of John James Audubon, who wrote, “It robs every nest it can find, sucks the eggs like a crow, or tears to pieces and devours the young birds.” The actual extent of nest predation, however, is unclear. Recent studies show that eggs and nestlings make up a negligible part of a jay’s diet.

In one famous study on the palatability of monarch butterflies,  captive blue jays were fed monarchs. As caterpillars, the monarchs had been raised on milkweed leaves, which is the only plant the larvae will eat. Ingesting the butterflies caused the jays to vomit, and they refused to ever dine on them again. It is now a well-known fact that monarchs are unpalatable to birds.


We have blue jays in the Kawarthas every fall and winter, but the number varies significantly from one year to the next. Fall migration is most noticeable in mid- to late September, although it does continue until the end of October. Jays return to the Kawarthas in May, when migrants arrive back to join their brethren who never left.

The best place to observe fall migration is along shorelines of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, where thousands can be seen daily. The birds fly in a loose, string-like flocks ranging in size from about six to over a hundred jays. They travel during the day- especially in the morning – and are usually silent. In the autumn of 2007, hawk watchers at Holiday Beach, south of Windsor, counted 50,000 jays streaming past in a single day. That being said, it is believed that no more than 20 percent of the population migrates, even in northern parts of the blue jay’s range.

No one has figured out why an individual jay or jay family migrates when or if they do. Some individuals migrate south one year, stay north in their nesting area the following winter, and then migrate again when the next fall rolls around. Individuals that depart an area in autumn may be replaced by those migrating from farther north. It was once thought that young jays migrate more than adults, but recent analyses of banded jays show no significant age difference between migrant and resident birds. Migration may indeed be related to the availability of wild food, but this is not yet certain.


“Along the line of smoky hills / The crimson forest stands / And all the day the blue jay calls / Throughout the autumn lands.” These words by the Canadian poet William Wilfred Campbell are as true today as they were in 1889. The loud and brash calls of jays are maybe the most typical bird sound of early fall. Blue jays are well known for their large variety of vocalizations, the most familiar of which is a shrill, descending “jaaay” scream. They also make a whistled “toolili” sound, which is often referred to as the “rusty pump” call, since it resembles the sound a hand-operated water pump. Quiet, clicking rattles are also common. Unlike other songbirds, blue jays don’t sing as such. This may be because they are not territorial and don’t appear to defend a discrete space the way that robins do, for instance.

Jays are also mimics and do an amazing rendition of red-shouldered hawk calls. Why they do so is unclear. It may signal to other jays that a hawk is present, or it may be a feeding strategy. Upon hearing the jay’s uncanny hawk imitation, some birds immediately fly away. The jay then eats the food left behind or raids its nest. Like migration, this is an area where much more research is needed.

Jays also use body language to communicate. Holding the crest down low, for example, indicates a lower aggression level. The opposite is also true. Watch the next time you see a blue jay squawking: the crest is usually erect.


Jays, like crows, blackbirds and chickadees, often take part in mobbing behaviour, which refers to a group of birds fluttering and calling loudly around a perched hawk, owl, cat or other predator. The purpose of this behaviour is still debated, but it seems to be done in an effort to hound the intruder until it decides to move along. In the case of a hawk, it is not clear why the pestered raptor doesn’t simply turn on its tormentors and grab one or two for an easy meal.


Blue jay populations have remained constant for years, despite some mortality in recent decades from West Nile Virus. The 2000-2005 Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas shows a small northward extension of range, possibility because of more people feeding birds. Jays are most abundant in the southern shield region, which includes The Land Between. You can also find large numbers of jays in older urban and suburban areas of large cities throughout southern Ontario. Like many generalist species, jays adapt easily to changes in the landscape, and their populations may actually increase with climate change.

Male vs. female

People have often wondered how birds like blue jays and Canada geese recognize the opposite sex. In both species, the male and female appear identical to human eyes. The only apparent difference between individual jays – but not the sexes – is the size and shape of the black bridle or necklace across the nape, face and throat. This may help jays recognize different individuals.

Research now is revealing that birds have much better colour discrimination than humans. They see an entire range of colours that we cannot perceive or even imagine. This includes colour in the ultraviolet range. This means that birds may actually be seeing distinct differences in plumage colour. They may see colours that are unimaginable to us such as a blend of ultraviolet and yellow. Colour, of course, is a construct of the brain.

In one study, a stuffed male and female yellow-breasted chat, a type of warbler, were placed in a cage with a wild, living male chat. Since it was the breeding season, the wild male attacked the stuffed male in an effort to chase it from the cage. However, it displayed mating behaviour in front of the female. There is an important lesson here. As humans, we must learn to be much more modest about how we perceive the world. We have evolved in a limited perception bubble. We have significant sensory shortcomings and are by no means the pinnacle of evolution. In evolution, course, there is no pinnacle – just differences. As Joe Smith wrote recently in Cool, Green Science, “We must accept that as beautiful as birds appear to us, we will never be able to behold their true colors. We are left only to revel in the known unknowns and wonder about the ‘unknown unknowns’ yet to be discovered in the invisible world around us.”







Oct 192017

Bird numbers and diversity at feeders at feeders depends on wild seed abundance

If you’ve been paying attention to coniferous trees this fall, you’ve probably noticed the abundance of cones on many species. Cedars and spruce, for example, have produced an especially heavy crop. The quantity of seed on sugar maples, too, is of epic proportions, most likely in response to last summer’s drought. In fact, the maples put so much energy into manufacturing seeds that the leaves on many trees never grew to their normal size.

The relative abundance of seed has a ripple effect on other species, as well. For instance, it goes a long way to telling us what birds are most likely to keep us company in the coming months. Anyone who feeds or watches birds knows that the relative abundance and diversity of species varies widely from one winter to the next. Last year, for example, thousands of robins overwintered in the Kawarthas. This was largely due to an abundance of wild grape. American goldfinches and purple finches were also very common. Other species, such as pine siskins, were almost completely absent.

The fluctuation in winter bird abundance is most noticeable in a group known as winter or northern finches. The term is 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 don’t show up at all, while other years there are so many that they empty your feeder in only a day or two.

Northern finches move south – or sometimes east or west – in late fall when there is a shortage of seeds in their breeding range, which extends across Canada’s boreal forest. Seeds come in many forms. These include berries (e.g., mountain-ash), catkins (e.g., birch) and cones (e.g., spruce). In the case of cones, the seeds are located under the scales. The key seeds affecting finch movements are those of white and yellow birches, alders, American mountain-ashes, pines and spruces. If seed crops are good in the boreal forest, the birds usually stay put. If food is lacking, they will sometimes fly thousands of kilometres to find it. Whether they actually choose to spend the winter in central Ontario and the Kawarthas depends mainly on the abundance of seed crops here.

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 make an appearance in southern and central Ontario during the coming fall and winter. The forecast is based on information he collects on the relative abundance of seed crops in the boreal forest. According to Pittaway, cone crops across northeastern North America are of bumper proportions this year – maybe the best in a decade or more. Given the amount of food available, this should be a banner winter to see cone-loving species such as pine siskins and both white-winged and red crossbills. The big question, however, is whether these birds will concentrate in only some areas or be spread out across the entire northeast.

Finch forecasts

1. Pine Siskins – Siskins should be common in the Kawarthas this winter, drawn here primarily by the abundant cone crops on spruce. They will almost certainly turn up at nyger seed feeders, as well.

2. Common Redpoll – Redpolls, too, are likely to put in an appearance. The birch and alder seed crops on which they depend are below average in northern Ontario, so they won’t be hanging around. However, this southbound movement may be slowed or stopped as soon as they discover adequate food supplies. If redpolls do make it to the Kawarthas, good local birch seed crops and an abundance of weedy fields should keep them here. You can also expect them at your nyger seed feeder. If a flock of redpolls graces your backyard, watch for small numbers of hoary redpolls. They tend to be larger, paler and smaller-billed than common redpolls.

3. Crossbills – Thanks to the crossed tips of the upper and lower mandibles of their bill,   crossbills are able to specialize in removing seeds from beneath the scales of conifer cones. Red crossbills prefer pine cones, while white-winged crossbills are attracted mostly to spruce, tamarack and hemlock. There should be a good showing of red crossbills in central Ontario in the coming weeks and months. In fact, many will probably take time to breed, despite the snow and cold. Both species of crossbills are able to nest at any time of the year if food is abundant. Watch for streaked juvenile birds.

Red crossbills are of particular interest to scientists who study evolution. Research suggests that there are nine or ten discrete populations, each of which specializes in a different conifer species. They do not interbreed and may represent different species. Careful examination shows differences in body size and in the length of the bill tip (degree of “crossing”). Most types are impossible to identify, however, without analyzing recordings of their flight calls. Matt Young, a researcher at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York, is studying red crossbills and needs your help. He is asking people to use their smartphone to record the birds’ flight calls and to send him the recordings at may6@cornell.edu He will then identify which of the populations the birds belong to and let you know.

White-winged crossbills move east and west like a pendulum across North America, searching for bumper cone crops. Large numbers have already arrived in parts of the northeast, where they’ve been gorging on spruce seeds. There’s a good possibility that they will also turn up in the Kawarthas, too, and probably right here in Peterborough. Watch and listen for their loud trilling songs given from tree tops and during circular, slow-flapping display flights. Algonquin Park, however, is usually the best place to see these birds. Both red and white-winged are often observed right on Highway 60, where they glean grit and salt from winter road maintenance operations. Unfortunately, crossbills rarely come to feeders.

4. Pine Grosbeak – Most pine grosbeaks will probably stay put this winter, since the mountain-ash berry crop is abundant across the north. A few might get south to Algonquin Park, but they are unlikely to turn up in the Kawarthas. When they do make an incursion into central Ontario, they usually found feeding on European mountain-ash and ornamental crabapples. Considered the most beautiful of the boreal finches, pine grosbeaks can be surprisingly tame.

5. Evening Grosbeak – Most evening grosbeaks are expected to remain in the north this winter. However, you can usually see grosbeaks by checking out the feeders at the Visitor Centre in Algonquin Park. In 2016, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) declared the evening grosbeak as a species of Special Concern due to worrisome population declines.

6. Purple finch – Most purple finches will stay north this winter, thanks to the heavy seed crops on conifers and mountain-ashes. They usually appear at my feeder in early fall, but this year I’ve haven’t seen any. An easy way to tell purple finches from look-alike house finches is by checking the tip of the tail; the former has a distinctly notched or slightly forked tail, whereas the house finch’s tail is squared off. Both species prefer black oil sunflower seeds at feeders.

Non-finch species

1. Blue Jay – Thanks to a good crop of acorns, beechnuts and hazelnuts, large numbers of blue jays will probably remain in the Kawarthas this fall and winter. I am already noticing above-average numbers.

2. Red-breasted nuthatch: Like many of the finches, this species depends primarily on conifer seeds. Pittaway is therefore predicting large numbers in central Ontario this winter. This was certainly the case on Thanksgiving weekend at Big Gull Lake, south of Bon Echo Provincial Park. Red-breasted nuthatches were by far the most common bird.

3. Bohemian waxwing: Most bohemians should stay in the north, because of the large berry crop on American mountain-ash. That being said, we almost always see at least a few flocks of this species in the Kawarthas every winter. This may be partly due to the local abundance of European buckthorn, a non-native shrub that produces a large berry crop every year. Bohemian waxwings are also attracted to European mountain-ash and ornamental crabapples.

4. American robins:  Although not part of Pittaway’s forecast, I suspect that robin numbers will be low this winter, given the poor crop of wild grape. Last year, thousands of robins overwintered here and gorged themselves primarily on abundant wild grapes.

The best way to stay on top of bird movements across Ontario is to subscribe to Ontbirds. You will receive a daily digest of sightings. Sign up at ontbirds.ca/mailman/listinfo/birdalert_ontbirds.ca To follow what’s happening locally, I recommend using eBird. When you go to the website, click on “Explore Data” and then “Explore a Region”. Type in “Peterborough, Ontario”. Choose “Current Year” and then click on “Set”. You will see an up-to-date list of all species seen in the area. By clicking on “Species Name”, the birds will appear in the same order as in your field guide. By clicking on the date, you will see where the bird was seen, along with other species observed at the same location.

Project FeederWatch

If you feed birds, you can support research and conservation by taking part in Project FeederWatch. Simply count the kinds and numbers of birds at your feeder, and then submit your observations. This information helps scientists study winter bird populations. To register, go to birdscanada.org/volunteer/pfw/ or call Bird Studies Canada at 1-888-448-2473.





Oct 122017

Everything from climate change to invasive species are threatening our lakes, rivers and fish populations

Slowly but steadily, the lakes and rivers of the Kawarthas are changing. The abundance and variety of fish populations are undergoing a transformation that could make them unrecognizable in a few short decades. This week, I’d like to provide an overview of some of these trends.

Climate change

Climate change may be the single largest factor influencing the future of fish populations – not just in the Kawarthas, but across the planet. According to Climate Change Research Report CCRR-16, prepared by the Ministry of Natural Resources in 2010, most of the Kawarthas is expected to warm from an annual mean temperature of about 6.4 C (1971-2000) to approximately 7.7 C (2011- 2040), 9.2 C (2041-2070) and 11.4 C (2071-2100). Although annual precipitation is not expected to change significantly, extreme precipitation events will be more common as Windsor, Kingston and Hamilton learned this year. To put the change into context, in just 25 years the Kawarthas could have the same climate that Windsor does today. By the 2080s, it could feel like we’re living in present-day southern Pennsylvania.

Warmer temperatures and increased evaporation will lead to warmer lakes and rivers, lower water levels, altered stream flow patterns and decreased water quality. The structure of existing fish communities will also change, as the productive capacity for warmwater fish species (e.g. bass, muskellunge) is likely to increase, while coolwater fish species (e.g. walleye) will struggle to survive here. Changes to water temperature will likely alter the timing of fish migrations, as well as spawning and hatching times. These conditions will probably allow non-native fish like round gobies to thrive and out-compete native species for resources. There will likely be an increase in the types and abundance of other invasive species, too, such as zebra mussel, Eurasian water-milfoil, frog-bit and fanwort. Climate change will also compound the impacts of other stressors, including pollution, industrial development, dams and habitat loss. There’s a sobering article in the Globe and Mail this week (October 10) about how climate change is already having a multiplier affect by exacerbating human impacts – industrial activity, for example – on the Mackenzie River watershed.

Invasive species

Invasive species influence both the productive capacity of our lakes and the makeup of the fish community. Specific impacts are different for each invading species. Round gobies, for example, reduce fish diversity through competition with, and predation on, other fish species.

The spread of zebra mussels has increased water clarity as their feeding behaviour filters plankton from the water column. This, in turn, decreases the nutrients available to lower levels of the food chain, which reduces the overall productive capacity of a water body. The result is more favourable conditions for species like bass and less favourable conditions for walleye. These large-eyed fish evolved to live and hunt in more turbid water conditions. Therefore, when the water becomes clearer, walleye lose their competitive feeding advantage over other fish species.


Many fish diseases can also be considered within the context of invasive species. These include parasites, viruses and bacteria. For example, during the summers of 2007 and 2008, bacterial infections and Koi Herpesvirus (KHV) caused the deaths of tens of thousands of carp in the Trent-Severn Waterway. These were the first confirmed cases of KHV in Ontario. KHV disease is caused by a virus that affects only carp, goldfish and koi. Another disease, viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS), had big impact on muskellunge several years ago.

Fishing pressure

Overfishing, too, is a serious threat to certain fish stocks. Although it’s hard to quantify, anecdotal reports of people flaunting fish regulations are widespread. Population growth in southern Ontario and the completion of Highway 407 to Highway 115 will also increase the pressure on fish stocks as anglers from the Greater Toronto Area and beyond will be able to travel to the Kawarthas more easily.

We may already be seeing a number of these threats combining to  reduce lake trout populations in the Haliburton area. There are now far fewer lake trout in most of the Haliburton lakes, and those trout that are caught are usually small. A number of factors appear to be in play: competition from thriving populations of warmwater species like rock bass and yellow perch; the arrival of northern pike into some of the lakes; increasingly warm water temperatures which, in summer, reduce the amount of deep water oxygen available to trout and, in the other seasons, disrupt reproduction; and greater summer and winter fishing pressure on many of the lakes.

Species at risk

The Species at Risk in Ontario (SARO) List is the official list of endangered, threatened, special concern and extirpated animals and plants in Ontario. The following fish are currently listed as species at risk in the Kawarthas and south to Lake Ontario.

1. Channel Darter (Threatened): A member of the perch family,  the channel darter only measures  three to seven centimetres in length. An isolated population still exists in the Trent River. They are threatened by soil washing into the river from nearby urban and agricultural areas and by invasive fish species.

2. American eel (Endangered):  These long, snake-like fish once supported a multi-million-dollar fishery in Ontario. They have historically been documented in the Trent River and as far inland as Rice Lake. Despite its name, there is no actual proof yet that eels existed in Eel’s Creek. American eels are threatened by dams and other in-water barriers, which prevent access to feeding and spawning areas.

3. River redhorse (Special Concern) The river redhorse is a thick-bodied sucker with a prominent snout and a reddish tail fin. They have been documented in the Trent River. Like eels, they are threatened by dams, which inhibit spawning migrations. Increased siltation and water turbidity from farming and urban development are also a threat.

4. Lake sturgeon (Threatened):  This long-lived species is the largest strictly freshwater fish in Canada. When European settlers arrived here, sturgeon occurred  throughout the Trent River system. They may also have been present in the Kawartha Lakes, although this has not yet been verified. In recent years, this species has only been found in the Lower Trent River, where a spawning population exists at Dam 1 in Trenton. A large dead sturgeon was found south of Glen Ross in 2010. Historically, over-fishing was the main cause of population decline. Now, habitat degradation and the presence of dams pose the greatest threats. Please report any sturgeon sightings to the Ministry of Natural Resources.

Fewer anglers  

The number of active anglers in Canada is decreasing. According to federal government recreational angling surveys, more than one in five Canadians fished for sport in 1975; by 2010 the number was about one in ten. This may be because over 80 percent of Canadians now live in cities and have fewer opportunities to get out fishing. The decrease in the number of kids who fish is especially acute, dropping from about 1.75 million in 1990 to less than 50,000 in 2010. As fewer people fish, there is less awareness of the depletion of fish stocks and less concern for the health of our lakes. As Alanna Mitchell writes in the current issue of “Cottage Life” magazine, “a whole fishing generation has gone missing.”


Although many of the threats affecting fish populations demand collective action by governments at a global level – climate change and invasive species for example – there are things that individuals can do.

1. If you are an angler, throw back any large fish you catch. It’s simple: large fish are a lake or river’s brood stock and critical to self-sustaining fish populations.

2. If you own property, leave shoreline vegetation and woody debris like large logs in place. If necessary, restore native plants. Trees and shrubs that shade the water are a boon to fish stressed by warmer lakes. Refrain from mowing the lawn to the water’s edge.

3. Speak out. Right now, for example, brook trout in Peterborough’s Harper Creek are threatened by the casino development and the Harper Road realignment. Let your councillor know that everything possible must be done to protect this population.

4. Take your kids fishing. A new generation of anglers will assure a strong voice for conversation.

5. Learn more about the fascinating lives of the fish themselves. One way to do this is by taking your family fish-watching. Lock 19 in Peterborough is a great location to see large schools of spawning walleye in April, along with abundant white suckers. Go to the downstream base of the lock in the evening and shine a flashlight into the water. Watch for the bright eye-shine from the walleye’s large eyes.

I also recommend visiting Corbett’s dam in Port Hope to see rainbow trout in the spring and salmon in late summer. Another great way to see fish is to slowly paddle along shallow shorelines in June to look for bass or sunfish nests. The fish sweep out circular patches and then guard the nests once eggs have been laid. Often, these nests are visible from docks. You might even want to invest in an Aqua-Vu underwater camera to watch live underwater footage of fish from a boat or the water’s edge. You can also take photos and videos. The camera provides a fascinating up-close glimpse into the private lives of fish. Go to http://bit.ly/2xwNFIt for a video of the camera in action.

As much as anything, protection of fish populations requires a critical mass of people who spend time outside on our lakes and rivers – whether it’s through fishing, fish-watching, canoeing or other nature-based activities – and who value these amazing ecosystems.







Oct 052017

 Threats loom but fish populations in the Kawarthas are still doing well

One of my most formative nature experiences as a boy was fishing with my grandfather at the family cottage on Clear Lake. The excitement of hooking into a large bass or walleye was unforgettable. Even at that time, however, he always insisted that I throw the fish back – something I did with great reluctance at the time. His conservation ethic has stuck with me ever since.

The Kawarthas is home to world-class fisheries. In fact, our lakes are the most heavily fished inland lakes in Ontario. Today, the sport fish community is composed of muskellunge, smallmouth and largemouth bass, walleye (pickerel), yellow perch, bluegill, pumpkinseed and black crappie. While walleye populations have declined, most other populations are doing well.

For management purposes by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, the Kawartha Lakes, along with Lake Ontario creeks and rivers to the south, are located in Fishery Management Zone 17 (FMZ 17). Roughly speaking, FMZ 17 extends from Lake Ontario, north to Dalrymple Lake in the west and across to Belmont Lake in the east. The zone includes 64 lakes greater than five hectares. Rice Lake is the largest. All of the Kawartha Lakes have similar fish communities because of their similar habitat and their connectivity via the Trent-Severn Waterway.

Lakes in the northern Kawarthas (e.g., Anstruther, Jack, Chandos) are not considered part of the Kawartha Lakes and belong to a different management zone (FMZ 15). The fish community is similar, however, with the exception that some of the lakes are also home to coldwater species like lake trout.

All of the lakes in FMZ 17 are classified as “warmwater”. A number of major warmwater rivers also flow through the area. These include the Otonabee, Trent and Crowe Rivers. Coldwater streams are generally limited to the Oak Ridges Moraine, which runs parallel to Lake Ontario. These streams support fisheries for migratory rainbow trout and salmon from Lake Ontario, as well as resident populations of brook and brown trout. Surprisingly enough, Harper Creek in Peterborough is also a coldwater stream and provides habitat for an endangered population of brook trout. The lakes within FMZ 17 offer very little in terms of coldwater fish habitat.

Historically, the sport fish population of the Kawartha Lakes and the Crowe River watershed consisted primarily of muskellunge, smallmouth bass, pumpkinseed (sunfish) and yellow perch populations. However, starting in the 1920s, walleye were intentionally introduced into all of the lakes. Largemouth bass and rock bass then spread into the Kawartha Lakes and Crowe River watershed, followed by bluegill (another sunfish) and black crappie. The latter two are native to the Trent River system. Northern pike have become established, via range extensions and/or unintentional introductions to the periphery of the zone, including Canal Lake near Kirkfield and Belmont Lake north of Havelock.

Walleye: Following their initial introduction, the Kawartha Lakes supported abundant walleye populations, which soon became the dominant predatory fish. By the 1980s, however, the lakes had undergone a series of significant environmental changes that altered the composition and structure of the fish community. These included a rise in both water temperature and clarity and a decrease in phosphorus concentration. Phosphorus is a necessary nutrient for both plants and animals.

Increased water clarity from the spread of zebra mussels has reduced the competitive advantage that walleye possess over other species in more turbid (murky) water conditions. Zebra mussels filter plankton from the water column, hence the greater clarity. Their presence has also decreased nutrients like phosphorus available to lower levels of the food chain. This has likely decreased the overall productive capacity of the lakes and created more favourable conditions for species like bass and muskellunge and less favourable conditions for walleye. As water clears, the amount of habitat for the light sensitive walleye is reduced and predation on young walleye is likely to increase. In lakes where bass are thriving, walleye tend to do more poorly. This is mainly because bass prey on young walleye.

Walleye decline continued through the 1990s, which was a decade that saw increases in new species such as black crappie and bluegill. Fewer large walleye in the lakes and rivers also means reduced predation of other species such as yellow perch, which feed on juvenile walleye.

Bass:  Overall, populations of smallmouth and largemouth bass in the Kawartha Lakes are considered healthy. The trends in their abundance are best explained by the ecology of each species and the habitat present in each lake. Some lakes, such as Rice and Pigeon Lakes, provide diverse habitat and are able to support abundant populations of both species. Other lakes, such as Balsam Lake, offer limited habitat for largemouth bass but do support abundant smallmouth bass populations. At the other end of the spectrum, lakes such as Chemong and Scugog provide a greater amount of shallow, vegetated largemouth bass habitat while smallmouth bass habitat is less abundant. Changes in water clarity, temperature and shifts in the predator community have also increased bass production. Climate change modeling predicts a dramatic increase in warmwater fish species, including bass.

Yellow perch:  Yellow perch populations are healthy and show successful and consistent reproduction. This species provides a critical prey base for a number of species, including walleye.

Sunfish and crappie: The abundance and distribution of bluegill, pumpkinseed and black crappie populations are best explained collectively, since these species are closely related and interact a great deal. Bluegills and crappie both compete with native pumpkinseed. The latter has undergone a gradual decline in abundance since bluegill and black crappie arrived and exploded in number. Now, bluegill abundance appears to have stabilized, but black crappie may still be increasing. Bluegill and crappie are now thriving in the northern Kawarthas, as well.

Pike and muskie:  FMZ 17 supports a healthy, high quality muskellunge fishery. This is likely attributable to the combination of suitable habitat and the absence of northern pike. Pike and muskellunge compete for both habitat and food resources, and muskellunge density is typically lower when pike are present. Northern pike are currently not present in the majority of waters in FMZ 17. However, as already noted, they are present around the periphery of the zone and moving downstream from the west. Pike have typically been managed as an invasive species due to concerns for muskellunge populations and disruption of lake ecosystems. While muskie populations are currently healthy, the potential invasion of northern pike to the Kawartha Lakes remains a serious threat.

Brook trout: Brook trout (speckled trout) are the only self-sustaining, naturally reproducing native salmonid (salmon, char and trout) species in FMZ 17. They are synonymous with high quality environments. However, they are now mostly limited to isolated, often low density, populations in streams on the Oak Ridges Moraine. These include Baxter Creek near Millbrook and Fleetwood Creek near Bethany. Their low abundance is explained mostly by habitat degradation and competition with brown and rainbow trout, both of which prey on juvenile brook trout. Brookies have experienced considerable losses across their native range in eastern North America.

Sustained by cold groundwater, Harper Creek in the south-west end of Peterborough is home to one of the few remaining wild brook trout populations in Southern Ontario. A research team recently tagged 20 of these trout and will be able to follow their daily and seasonal movements. This will provide a window into the life history of wild brook trout in an urbanized and severely threatened watershed.

Lake trout: Northern Peterborough County still boasts healthy lake trout populations. In Jack Lake, for example, a naturally reproducing population is present in Sharpe’s Bay. Water quality here is excellent, with oxygen present right to the bottom.  Deepwater sculpin provide much of the food base for these fish. Historically, Stony Lake also had a population of lake trout, but they are believed to have disappeared the late 1980s.

Brown trout:   Brown trout were stocked between 1920 and 1975 in many streams in order to diversify fishing opportunities. They are a resident fish, which means they complete their entire life cycle in the same stream. Like brook trout, they spawn in the fall. Brown trout out-compete their native cousins, particularly when rainbow trout are also present. Their competitive advantage is due to greater temperature range tolerance, more spawning flexibility and larger body size.

Rainbow trout:  The stocking of rainbow trout also began in the 1920s. Not only are the populations healthy and self-sustaining, but they are now the most dominant salmonid in most Lake Ontario tributaries. Since 1974, the spring rainbow trout run has been monitored at the Ganaraska fishway at Corbett’s Dam in Port Hope. The construction of the fishway in the 1970s provided access to upstream spawning and nursery habitat.

Atlantic salmon: Starting in the 1980s and 90s, Atlantic salmon were experimentally stocked in eight Lake Ontario streams, including Wilmot Creek and the Ganaraska River. The Ganaraska offers excellent juvenile habitat for Atlantic salmon. Once a dominant Lake Ontario species, they were extirpated by the late 1800s.

Chinook and coho:  Native to the Pacific coast, Chinook and coho salmon were stocked in Lake Ontario in the late 1960s to provide recreational angling opportunities and to establish a top predator salmonid species following the dramatic decline in lake trout abundance in the lake. The populations are now reproducing naturally. Every year in September, they can be observed jumping up the fish ladder at Corbett’s Dam in Port Hope as they move upstream to spawn. It’s quite a spectacle!

Next week, I’ll turn my attention to non-game and endangered species. I’ll also look at the many challenges that fish populations are facing in the Kawarthas.

Sep 222017

Myriad threats and declines evident in the Kawarthas, too

Living in a country as big and relatively unpopulated as Canada, it might come as a surprise that much of our wildlife is in serious decline. This was made abundantly clear last week when World Wildlife Fund Canada (WWF) released its annual Living Planet Report.

WWF studied 3,689 population trends for 903 monitored vertebrate species (mammals, fish, birds, amphibians and reptiles) in Canada, for the period 1970 to 2014. Using this database, they developed a national Living Planet Index – similar to a stock market index – to reflect how Canada’s wildlife is faring. The findings surprised even WWF: Half of the monitored species (451 of 903) are in decline, and of these declining species, the average drop is a whopping 83 per cent. Even more surprising, the numbers for at-risk species – those protected by the Species at Risk Act, or SARA – are even worse. SARA-listed populations have continued to decrease by an average of 28% and the rate of decline is actually increasing – all of this, despite protections afforded by the act.

Mammal populations have decreased by 41%, fish by 20% and reptiles and amphibians by 34%. Although overall bird populations have increased slightly, there are widely differing trends. Since 1970, grassland birds (e.g., bobolinks, meadowlarks) have plunged 69%, aerial foragers (e.g., swallows, swifts, flycatchers) have fallen 51% and shorebirds (e.g., plovers, sandpipers) have decreased by 43 %.

One of the most troublesome population declines in Canada’s central region, which includes Ontario, is that of reptiles and amphibians. These include snakes, turtles, lizards, frogs and salamanders. The study looked at 73 monitored populations of 28 species. Habitat loss, in combination with fragmentation (i.e., dividing the landscape up into smaller and more isolated parts), road mortality and pollution are some of the major threats to these animals. Freshwater fish have also taken a beating. Looking just at Lake Ontario, fish populations declined 32 per cent, on average, between 1992 and 2014. Later this fall, I hope to do a column on the status of local fish populations.

Losses in the Kawarthas

Unfortunately, the Kawarthas is not immune to these declines, either. A brief look at four iconic species is very telling.

1. Snapping turtle: Although snapping turtles can live for more than a century, they take up to 20 years to reach breeding age. Therefore, the loss of even one turtle can have a big impact on the population. Threats include habitat loss and degradation as well as road mortality. This year has seen a huge spike in turtle deaths and injuries, mostly because of collisions with cars and boats. As of August 16, the total number of turtles brought to the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre in Peterborough was close to 800! This included 273 snapping turtles. The Centre has never seen so many injured or dead turtles. One very large snapping turtle was classified as “attacked by human”. A large metal rod was removed from the turtle’s shell, but internal injuries led to its demise. Snapping turtles are currently listed as a species of Special Concern under SARA.

Snapping Turtle digging nest on roadside (Danielle Tassie )

2. Little brown bat: Bats have been suffering for years from habitat destruction and persecution. Now, they are up against white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that arrived in the Kawarthas about six years ago. The disease causes the bats to awaken too early from their winter sleep. Early awakening depletes their body reserves of stored water, electrolytes and fat, and they end up dying. White-nose syndrome has already wiped out 94 per cent of little brown bats in eastern Canada. This may be the most rapid mammal decline ever documented. Large numbers of little brown bats used to overwinter in abandoned mine shafts in the Bancroft area and even some in the Warsaw Caves. The little brown bat was emergency-listed as Endangered under SARA in 2014.

Little Brown Bat with White Nose Syndrome – Wikimedia

3. Bobolink:  These sparrow-like birds are a joy to see and hear. The males have a distinctive jet-black front and big patches of white. They were once a common sight in meadows nearly everywhere in the Kawarthas. The intensification of farming operations, however, has resulted in widespread loss and deterioration of their old field and meadow habitat. Because they nest in hay fields, they often lose their eggs or young to mowing. Bobolink populations in Canada have crashed by 88 per cent in just 40 years. In 2017, a SARA listing was proposed for this species as Threatened.

Male Bobolink – Wikimedia

4. Barn Swallow: For anyone growing up on a farm or spending time at a cottage in the Kawarthas, barn swallows used to be a constant presence in summer. They would dart gracefully over fields, barnyards and open water, swooping effortlessly to catch insects. They were taken as much for granted as robins are now. Between 1970 and 2014, barn swallows declined by 66 percent in Ontario. Although not yet fully understood, the causes for the decline include loss of nesting and feeding habitat, along with what appears to be a reduction in insect numbers. Insect decline may be linked to pesticides, which often end up in water bodies where insects breed. Barn swallows are now listed as “threatened” on the Species at Risk list in Ontario. This means that the bird is likely to become endangered if the appropriate steps are not taken.

Barn Swallow (Karl Egressy)

As we have seen from these profiles, wildlife declines are being driven primarily by habitat loss. This comes mostly from the impacts of forestry, agriculture, urbanization and industrial development. Other threats include climate change (Canada’s warming is twice the global average); pollution (e.g., pesticides, agricultural runoff, heat and noise pollution); invasive species (e.g., zebra mussels) and unsustainable harvest (e.g., overfishing). These effects are cumulative and cascading. For example, changes in the status of one species (e.g., insects) often lead to changes in others (e.g., insect-eating birds).

You don’t have to look far to see these threats playing out in the Kawarthas. Regardless of the merits of a given project or practice, wildlife are almost always on the losing end. In terms of habitat loss, housing developments (e.g., Lily Lake, Television Road, Millbrook)  destroy habitat for grassland birds; hedgerow removal (e.g., Keene area) is eliminating nesting sites for birds as well as pollinators; widening Rye Street will undoubtedly impact Harper Creek brook trout; new or expanded cottages and homes on the Kawartha Lakes is degrading nesting habitat for loons and spawning sites for walleye; a proposed housing development adjacent to Loggerhead Marsh will almost certainly effect amphibians; population growth, along with new roads (e.g., 407 extension, widening of Pioneer Road ) is resulting in more road mortality for turtles; Peterborough’s new casino will degrade the habitat value of Harper Park because of light and  noise pollution, along with increased traffic; and the replacement of old barns with new, less nesting-friendly structures, is impacting barn swallows. Non-native invasive species such as Phragmites and dog-strangling vine are thriving in the Kawarthas and choking out native vegetation in the process. Another invasive, the emerald ash borer, is decimating ash trees. Climate change, which actually accelerates the growth of many invasive plants, is already making the Kawarthas too warm for formerly common birds like gray jays. Climate change-related weather extremes, such as the drought we experienced last summer, are further weakening many tree species, which are already under siege by fungal diseases. These include butternut, beech and elms.

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

Taking Action

The findings of WWF-Canada’s national Living Planet Report make it clear we need to do more to protect species at risk. We also need to halt the decline of other wildlife before they land on the at-risk list in the first place. We need action from communities, industry, government and individuals. As a nation, we need to do a better job collecting and sharing data on ecosystem health and species habitat. We must also enhance research on the impacts of, and response to, climate change; strengthen implementation of the Species at Risk Act and shift toward ecosystem-based action plans instead of a species-based approach. Expanding Canada’s network of protected areas is also crucial.

None of this will happen – or happen fast enough – unless more Canadians make a personal commitment to nature. Individual action is powerful, especially when your neighbours, friends and family see you stepping up. So, what can you do?

1. Most importantly, be careful who you vote for. Support parties and candidates who put environmental values such as wildlife conservation and climate change measures front and centre. Be sure your vote goes to politicians who value green space and will fight for adequate funding of government agencies like MNR and Parks Canada. Maybe run for office yourself!

2. Give money. In the U.S. last year, environmental giving represented only 3% of all charitable donations. I doubt the numbers are much different in Canada. If you want to give locally, consider the Kawartha Land Trust or the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre.

3. Take direct action. You can do this by planting pollinator gardens, stopping for turtles, removing invasive species or participating in a Citizen Science project in which you monitor species. The possibilities are endless.

4. Encourage your child’s teacher and principal to provide nature and outdoor education opportunities for students.

5. Be a role model. Show interest, enthusiasm and concern for nature. It’s contagious.

6. Going forward, we all need to consider whether it’s really possible to maintain healthy and diverse wildlife populations in a society based on continual economic growth – no matter how green future energy sources might be. We might be kidding ourselves.










Sep 142017

For anyone paying attention, the biggest story of the past summer has been the fury unleashed by planet Earth as a result of climate change. As Clive Hunter, an Australian public intellectual, said on CBC Radio’s Ideas recently, “What we’re now confronted with is a wakened, angry, raging beast.” The evidence is everywhere: the worst fire season ever in B.C.; the worst wildfire ever in Los Angeles; hundreds of billions of dollars of hurricane devastation in Houston, the Caribbean and Florida; catastrophic flooding affecting millions in India, Nepal and Bangladesh; temperatures too hot for jets to take off in Phoenix – and the list goes on.

It’s hard not to despair. Equally despairing, however, is that denial – or simply ignoring or downplaying the threat of climate change – is still rampant. And not just on the part of Donald Trump. How often does the topic come up in your own circle of family and friends? If you listened to hurricane coverage on American TV networks, you wouldn’t have even heard the words climate change. However, what climate science research has learned and is predicting for the future are facts – not ideologies, opinions or preferences. They come from three hundred years of perfecting the scientific method and are as robust and well-defended as any body of knowledge out there. Sitting back and simply being “hopeful” that things won’t be as bad as science is telling us is a recipe for even greater disaster. We cannot let skeptics dismiss these disasters as natural weather events we cannot influence. That being said, the scope of the necessary response in terms of mitigation and adaptation is far beyond anything politicians are currently proposing. Many experts believe it will require nothing less than a complete re-thinking of our economic system and of humankind’s relationship with the natural world.

On a more positive note, a heartening story this summer has been the stellar rebound in monarch butterfly numbers. Whereas last year I may have seen a few dozen, this year I’ve observed hundreds. Don Davis, an Ontario monarch expert who tags these insects, told me this week that he found over 100 caterpillars near Cobourg in just a few hours of searching. He also said that 2000 monarchs were at the tip of Point Pelee National Park on September 8 and that there were recently 100 or more on the west beaches of Presqu’ile Provincial Park. According to Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch, there is a good prospect that the overwintering population in Mexico will increase from the 2.91 hectares of last year to 4 hectares or better this coming winter.

Monarch on Buddleia (butterfly bush) at Millennium Park – photo by Ben Wolfe

The most likely explanation for the boom in numbers is simply the weather. This summer did not see the hot, dry conditions of recent years, which killed wildflowers and reduced the availability of nectar. Weather conditions were also good this spring for the monarch’s migration from Mexico to Canada. Monarchs are extremely vulnerable to weather extremes, many of which are linked to climate change. This is true during the breeding season, along the migration route and on their Mexican wintering grounds.

The public is becoming much more aware of the need to protect monarchs and pollinators in general. An indication of this is the growing popularity of pollinator gardens. These are gardens planted predominantly with flowers that provide nectar and pollen for a wide range of pollinator species from spring through fall. Host plants (e.g., milkweed) on which butterflies can lay their eggs should also be included. Here in the Kawarthas, nearly 180 pollinator gardens have been registered with Peterborough Pollinators, a group dedicated to creating a pollinator-friendly community. If you wish to register your garden, please go to PeterboroughPollinators.com/Register. Once registered, you can pick up a garden sign by emailing ptbopollinators@gmail.com  A map of existing gardens will be on display at the Peterborough Pollinators’ booth at the Purple Onion Festival on September 24 at Millennium Park. There will also be pollinator exhibits and garden signs will be available.

Peterborough Pollinators garden on Medical Drive
(photo by Drew Monkman)

Looking ahead to the fall, here is a list of events in nature that are typical of autumn in the Kawarthas.

Mid- to late September

·         Fall songbird migration is in full swing. Migrants such as warblers are often in mixed flocks with chickadees and can be coaxed in for close-up views by using “pishing”. To see and hear this birding technique in action, go to http://bit.ly/2cpznE8

·         Broad-winged hawks migrate south over the Kawarthas in mid-September. Sunny days with cumulous clouds and northwest winds are best. Watch for high-altitude “kettles”, which is a group of hawks soaring and circling in the sky. Migration usually peaks on about September 15.

·         Thanks to ample rain, this should be a great fall for mushrooms. Kawartha Land Trust’s Stony Lake Trails are a great destination for mushroom-viewing. Park at 105 Reid’s Road. Details at http://bit.ly/2h3nYJg

·         Peterborough Field Naturalists hold their Sunday Morning Nature Walks this month and next. Meet at the Riverview Park and Zoo parking lot at 8 am and bring binoculars. Indoor meetings take place on the second Wednesday of the month. For more information, go to peterboroughnature.org

·         As the goldenrods begin to fade, asters take centre stage. The white flowers of heath, panicled and calico asters, along with the purple and mauve blossoms of New England, purple-stemmed and heart-leaved asters provide much of the show. Visit http://bit.ly/2fhW4sN (Ontario Wildflowers) for tips on identifying these beautiful but under appreciated plants.

Canada goldenrod (left) and New England aster on Trans-Canada Trail (photo by Drew Monkman)

·         Listen for the constant calling of blue jays and the metronome-like “chuck-chuck…” call of chipmunks, which can go on for hours. The call is often given in response to danger such as the presence of a hawk.


·         Fall colours in the Kawarthas usually peak early in the month. The sunshine and cool weather in September should mean excellent colour this year. County Roads 620 and 504 around Chandos Lake east of Apsley makes for a great colour drive.

·         Don’t miss the Harvest Moon. This year it occurs on October 5. The Harvest Moon is the full moon closest to the fall equinox (September 22).

·         Sparrow migration takes centre stage this month, making October one of the busiest times of the year for backyard feeders. Scatter millet or finch mix on the ground to attract dark-eyed juncos and both white-throated and white-crowned sparrows.

Juncos and White-throated Sparrows feeding on ground – (photo by Drew Monkman)

·         Indian Summer days are magical. Watch for floating threads of “ballooning” spiders.

·         Ecology Park holds its “Little Tree Sale” on October 15. Fall is a great time to plant trees.

·         A tide of yellow spreads across the landscape in mid- through late October. The colour is supplied courtesy of trembling and bigtooth aspens, balsam poplar, silver maple, white birch, and, at month’s end, tamarack.

Trembling Aspen (photo by Drew Monkman)

·         As ducks move southward, consider a visit to the Lakefield sewage lagoon. It is located on the south side of County Road 33, just south of Lakefield. Be careful to avoid blocking the gate when you park. Goldeneye, buffleheads, scaup and mergansers are often present in large numbers. If you have a spotting scope, be sure to take it along. The sewage lagoon is one of the best birding locations in the Kawarthas.

·         Watch for Venus and Mars at dawn and Saturn in the evening.

·         The first northern finches usually start turning up in late October. To learn which species to expect this fall and winter, Google “winter finch forecast 2017-2018”. The forecast, compiled by Ron Pittaway, is usually available online by early October.

·         On October 25, Jacob Rodenburg will speak to the Peterborough Horticultural Society on “Pathway to Stewardship: How we teach kids about the environment” The meeting , which is open to all, takes place at the Peterborough Lions Centre, 347 Burnham Street.


·         Oaks, tamaracks and silver maples are about the only native deciduous trees that still retain foliage in early November. The brownish-orange to burgundy leaves of red oaks stand out with particular prominence. At a glance, you can see just how common oaks are in many areas of the Kawarthas.

·         We return to Standard Time on Sunday, November 5, and turn our clocks back one hour. Sunrise on the 5th is at 6:56 am and sunset at 4:57 pm for a total of only 10 hours of daylight. Compare this to the 15 1/2 hours we enjoyed back in June!

·         The red berries of wetland species like winterberry holly and high-bush cranberry provide some much needed November colour.

Winterberry holly – (photo by Drew Monkman)

·         Most of our loons and robins head south this month. However, small numbers of robins regularly overwinter in the Kawarthas. Their numbers will likely be much lower than last year, given the small wild grape crop. Grapes are a staple food for winter robins.

·         Ball-like swellings known as galls are easy to see on the stems of goldenrods. If you open the gall with a knife, you will find the small, white larva of the goldenrod gall fly inside. In the spring, it will emerge as an adult fly.

·         Damp, decomposing leaves on the forest floor scent the November air.

·         With the onset of cold temperatures, wood frogs, gray treefrogs, chorus frogs, and spring peepers take shelter in the leaf litter of the forest floor and literally become small blocks of amphibian ice. Glycerol, acting as an antifreeze, inhibits freezing within the frogs’ cells.

I would like to thank Martin and Kathy Parker, Tim Dyson, Cathy Dueck and Gordon Johnson for having done such an admirable job filling in for me this summer. We are fortunate in the Kawarthas to have so many people with extensive knowledge of nature and environmental education.

Jul 202017

First, a disclaimer. I am far from being an expert on the edible wild. That being said, this is an area I want to explore in coming years, partly because it has great potential in getting more people interested in nature. This is especially true right now, given the popularity of locally-sourced foods.

The allure of the edible wild goes beyond the food itself. Heading out into the fields and woods in search of edible species is akin to hunting or even birding; there is great pleasure in simply searching. Also, who could pluck a ripe mayapple without becoming interested in the plant that produced it? How did First Nations use it? Does it have medicinal properties? Even if you don’t indulge in the food yourself, knowing which species are edible is yet another way to fix them in your memory and gives them a certain romantic glamour.

Clockwise from top – mayapple, cedar, yellow birch, wild grape, wild ginger


  1. Only take what you need. Remember, you must never impede a plant’s ability to thrive in the location where it is growing. Begin with just a small sample. It’s also fun to simply nibble on these foods when out for a hike.
  2. Never eat wild foods that may be exposed to pollutants or pesticides from busy roads or nearby farms.
  3. Only drink or eat a little bit at a time, especially if you are new to the species.
  4. Be sure of identification. I have included the scientific names, which will make an online search easier if you are not familiar with the species. “Spp” means there are different species in the genus.
  5. The list below is simply an overview of the many edible species in the Kawarthas.

Fruits and seeds

Thoreau once wrote: “It takes a savage or wild taste to appreciate a wild fruit.” That being said, many wild fruits have a delicacy of flavour that compete quite favorably with horticultural varieties.

  1. Mayapple (Podophyllum pelatum) Although mayapples appear in early spring with their umbrella-like leaves and hidden, single white flower, the apple-like fruit does not ripen until later summer. By that time, the rest of the plant is withering and the fruit has gone from green and hard to yellow and soft. The “apple” can be eaten raw but remove the rind and spit out the seeds. The taste is vaguely tropical.
  2. Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) Also known as Juneberry and Saskatoon, the red to purple-black fruits ripen in June and attract numerous birds. The berries can be enjoyed fresh, dried like raisins or even mashed to make jam. This has always been an important food plant to First Nations’ people across Canada.
  3. Riverbank or frost grape (Vitis riparia) This woody vine with maple-like, toothed, alternate leaves grows everywhere in the Kawarthas. The grapes are dark blue to black with a waxy coating. They are sweetest after the first frost and often still delicious in winter. They make excellent jellies and jams. Learn the difference between frost grape and moonseed, a poisonous species. The latter has leaves with smooth edges – not toothed – and the fruit’s single seed is crescent-shaped. Wild grapes have many seeds in each fruit.
  4. Raspberries and blackberries (Rubus spp.) Both of these plants can be common along roadsides and in thickets. Raspberries have numerous fine prickles on the stem, while blackberries have large, well-spaced spines.
  5. Wild rose (Rosa spp.) Wild roses have fragrant flowers that blossom from June to August. The fruits, which are known as rose hips, are red to purplish and shaped like a pear. They often remain on the prickly twigs well into winter and can be eaten raw. Be sure to spit out the seeds.
  6. Strawberries (Fragaria spp.) The tiny, sweet berries of this familiar plant are best enjoyed as something to gather and nibble on when walking a trail. They also make a delicious tea or cold beverage. Bruise the berries and let them steep in hot water. Drink hot or cold.
  7. Blueberries (Vaccinium spp.) Blueberries grow in abundance in dry, open areas such as granite outcrops with scattered white pine. The lowbush blueberry (V. angustifolium) is the most common species locally. The berries ripen in July and August and can be eaten fresh off the plant.
  8. Ground-cherry (Physalis heterophylla): While the rest of the plant is inedible, the orange fruit is a sweet-sour delight. It is held in a dry, papery husk. This uncommon native plant grows in fields and open woods.
  9. Common elderberry (Sambuscus canadensis): This common shrub of damp habitats has clusters of small, cream-coloured flowers. The purple berries ripen in mid-summer. Although inedible raw, the berries can be used for jams, pies and wine.
  10. Wild rice (Zizania spp.) Wild rice grows in large masses on the edges of lakes. The seeds are purplish when ripe in late summer. It was used extensively by eastern First Nations as a staple food and was abundant in the Kawarthas before the construction of the Trent-Severn Waterway. This nutritious food is planted and harvested in Pigeon Lake and can be purchased at the Peterborough Farmers Market.

Salad plants

  1. Ostrich fern (Matteucia struthiopteris): The coiled fronds (leaves) of young ferns are known as fiddleheads, because they resemble the scroll of a violin. Ostrich fern fiddleheads make for the best eating. Collect them in mid-spring when the plant is less than 15 cm high and the fronds are still tightly curled. Fiddleheads can be eaten raw or cooked for 10 minutes in butter. The taste is similar to asparagus.
  2. Watercress (Nasturtium officinale): This small, prostrate plant has opposite, oval-shaped leaves and a green tangled mass of shoots. It grows in shallow running water and is present year-round. In summer, watercress has small white flowers. It is one of our most nutritious wild foods. Watercress can be eaten raw in salads or as cooked green.

Roots & shoots

  1. Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis): Common around cottages on the Canadian Shield, “wild licorice” has three stalks, each with three or five leaves. A woody root runs on or just below the soil. The root can be eaten as a sweetish, licorice-flavoured snack. It is a main ingredient in traditional root beer.
  2. Cattail (Typha spp.): The shoots, rhizomes, flower spikes and pollen of cattails are all edible. Eating the shoots is easiest. Grab a young shoot at its base and pull up until it breaks off. Peel off the outer layers. Wash well. They are delicious raw, steamed or stir-fried and taste somewhat like asparagus.


Stopping to make a tea adds a fun element to hikes. Kids love building a fire!

  1. Eastern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis): Plays a few sprays of cedar leaves into water and bring to a gentle boil. Continue until the water is yellow to light green. Sweeten with honey or sugar to taste. Young spruce needles can also be used in the same manner. Cedar and spruce are rich in vitamin C.
  2. Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina): The densely-haired red fruits can be made into a refreshing rose-coloured drink with a lemony flavour. Crush them first and soak in cold water. Strain to remove hairs and debris. Sweeten with sugar and serve cold. The fruits are most flavourful in late summer or early fall. You can also chew and then spit out the fruit as a “trail nibble”. It leaves a pleasant taste in the mouth.
  3. Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens): Also known as teaberry, this small, glossy-leaved plant creeps along the forest floor, usually under conifers. The leaves and berries have the spicy, aromatic flavour of wintergreen. Take a few young, tender leaves and steep in boiling water for a few minutes. Add sugar and even milk to taste. You can also chew the leaves and eat the red berries as you walk through the woods.
  4. Yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis): Like Gaultheria, the twigs and leaves have the flavour of wintergreen. They can be chewed raw (and spit out) or steeped in boiling water to make a tea.
  5. Mint (Mentha sp.): This herb has a four-sided stem, pinkish flowers and usually grows in moist areas. It has a strong mint smell. The leaves can be eaten raw or used to make iced mint tea. To do so, tear up a handful of leaves (to release more flavour) and place in a heat-safe bowl. Pour in boiling water and allow to steep for 10 minutes. Squeeze in some lemon juice and add sugar if desired.
  6. Wild ginger (Asarum canadense): This plant of rich woodlands smells and tastes like commercial ginger. The leaves can be made into fragrant tea, while the rootstalks can be used fresh, dried or ground as a spice.
  7. Others: Teas can also be made from the fragrant leaves of sweet-fern (Comptonia peregrina), wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Labrador tea (Ledum groenlandicum) and sweet gale (Myrica gale) – among others!

True to its name, Wintergreen stays green all winter – Drew Monkman


Giant puffball (Calvatia gigantea): Widespread and common, giant puffballs fruit in field and woods. They are often bigger than a loaf of bread and have smooth white skin. Cut the puffball in half and make sure the inside is uniformly white. Peel off the outer covering with a knife. Do not wash. Sauté thick slices in butter with onions. Other species such as gem-studded puffballs are safe to eat, as well. Just make sure they are all-white inside and have a uniform internal consistency.

Giant Puffball mushroom – 6 lbs! – October 13, 2016 – Joan Major


  1. The Edible Wild Plants of the Gamiing Nature Centre. Go to http://bit.ly/2tGM2Gc
  2. Edible & Medicinal Plants of Canada, published by Lone Pine (2014).


Jul 132017

In case you might be looking for some new reading material this summer, I would like to suggest some of my favourite books from the past few years. If there is one theme they have in common, it’s that science, nature history, intellectual satisfaction and wonder are all part of an indivisible whole.

Some great nature books for your summer reading pleasure! (photo by Drew Monkman)


1. Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body – By Neil Shubin (Vintage Books, 2008)

Neil Shubin, the American paleontologist who discovered Tiktaalik, the “fish with hands”, explains in this book how our bodies became the amazing but sometimes less-than-perfect machines they are today. By examining everything from fossils to embryos and DNA, he shows us that our bodies are the legacy of ancient fish, reptiles and primates. You will learn, for example, that our hands are modified fish fins and that major parts of our genome look and function like those of worms and fish. Shubin writes “If you know how to look, our body becomes a time capsule that, when opened, tells of critical moments in the history of our planet and of a distant past in ancient oceans, streams and forests.”

2. Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation – By Bill Nye (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2015)

With his trademark enthusiasm, the host of “Bill Nye the Science Guy” shows us that evolution is the most powerful and important idea ever developed in the history of science. Nye explains why race doesn’t really exist; how new species are born; and takes us on a stroll through 4.5 billion years of time. The book was sparked by a highly controversial debate with Christian creationist Ken Ham, which you can watch on YouTube. Nye writes, “My concern is not so much for the deniers of evolution as it is for their kids. We cannot address the problems facing humankind today without science – both the body of scientific knowledge and, more important, the process. Science is the way in which we know nature and our place within it.”

3. Why Evolution is True – By Jerry Coyne (Penguin Books, 2009)

As the title says, Coyne’s book takes the reader through the multiple lines of proof of why evolution is true. Drawing from many different fields of science, Coyne explains what evolution is and how it’s written in rocks, geography, embryos and genes. I especially enjoyed the chapter on how sex drives evolution. It explains why winning males have the loudest voices, the brightest colors, the sexiest displays – all decided upon by the females. Coyne also describes how evolution can favour genes that lead to cooperation, altruism and even morality. In the conclusion, he writes: “Many scientists have found profound spiritual satisfaction in contemplating the wonders of the Universe and our ability to make sense of them.” Even Albert Einstein saw the study of nature as a spiritual experience.

General nature

4. The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World – By Andrea Wulf  (Vintage, 2016)

Chosen as one of the New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year, this illuminating biography is the story of Alexander Von Humboldt (1769 – 1859). Humboldt was a visionary German naturalist whose discoveries forever changed the way we understand the natural world. In doing so, he formed the basis of modern environmentalism. Humboldt was the first naturalist to see the natural world as a unified whole that is animated by interactive forces. He brought together exact scientific data with an emotional response to what he was seeing. “Nature must be experienced through feeling,” he wrote to Goethe. By combining nature and art, facts and imagination, he linked the previous mechanistic view of nature to a new emphasis on subjectivity. Humboldt even developed the idea of human-induced climate change, based on the deforestation and erosion he saw in South America. He was the first to recognize that humankind had the power to destroy the environment – with catastrophic consequences.

5. The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – By Peter Wohlleben (Greystone, 2015)

After reading Wohlleben’s book, a walk through a forest will never be the same. Drawing on the latest scientific discoveries, the German forester explains that the trees in a forest care for each other: parents communicate with their offspring, support them as they grow, share nutrients and warn of dangers. In doing so, their most important allies are soil fungi, which allow trees to share both resources and information. You’ll learn how trees use scent to summon parasitic wasps to rid themselves of pests, how leaves send out electrical signals and that a dead trunk is as indispensable for the cycle of life in the forest as a live tree. Intriguing activities are also scattered throughout the book, such as putting your ear to a tree trunk to hear how well it conducts sound. Wohlleben concludes with some encouraging thoughts on trees’ ability to withstand climate change, thanks in part to the great genetic diversity in a single species. If there is one message to take from this book it’s that trees are not the static beings we mistake them for.

6. New and Selected Poems – By Mary Oliver (Beacon, 1992)

I love to turn to the poetry of Mary Oliver as a source of inspiration and contemplation about nature. This collection has become one of the best-selling volumes of poetry in North America. Take it along on your next walk. Her poems are both companions and daily meditations. As the Poetry Foundation website explains, “Oliver’s verse focuses on the quiet occurrences of nature: industrious hummingbirds, egrets, motionless ponds…” I especially recommend poems such as “Wild Geese”, “Creeks” and “The Summer Day”. Oliver’s poetry is firmly anchored in place – a place that often evokes the Kawarthas – and is eminently accessible to the general poetry reader. In “When Death Comes”, she writes, “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement. / I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”

7. Naturally Curious: A Photographic Field Guide and Month-by-Month Journey through the Fields, Woods and Marshes of New England – By Mary Holland (Trafalgar Square, 2010)

Don’t let the focus on New England fool you. “Naturally Curious” is almost entirely applicable to the Kawarthas and a complement to my own book, “Nature’s Year in Eastern and Central Ontario”. At 474 pages and full of beautiful colour photographs, this is one book I always keep on my desk. It takes the reader through a typical year in nature, species group by species group, and will please the skilled naturalist as much as the nature neophyte. You will also find important background information on key concepts like photosynthesis, mating rituals, frog and toad calls, incomplete vs. complete metamorphosis and seed dispersion. Highly recommended!

8. Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Observe and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants – By Heather Holm (Pollinator Press, 2014)

If you are interested in bees and pollinator gardens, this book is a must. Holm explains in detail the specific relationships between native pollinators and native plants. Organized by plant communities, the book profiles over 65 perennial native plants, many of which are native to central and southern Ontario. It also lists the pollinators, beneficial insects and flower visitors that each plant attracts. With over 1600 photos of plants and insects, this is my go-to book for identifying the native bees, moths, beetles, flies and butterflies that turn up in my garden.

Environmental education

9. How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature – By Scott D. Sampson (Mariner, 2015)

Sampson is Dr. Scott on the PBS kids how “Dinosaur Train”. In “How to Raise a Wild Child”, he explains how kids connection to nature changes as they mature. The emphasis is on the importance of nature mentors and how to become one yourself. You need not be a nature expert – just a source of enthusiasm and support. Story-telling, too, is a skill he recommends cultivating. Children will value what you value, so start noticing and appreciating nature yourself. Sampson explains the importance of unstructured outdoor play, risk-taking and asking questions. He argues that kids need to know the story of how the Universe began and how evolution explains everything we see around us in living nature – including ourselves.

Climate Change

10.  Climate Changed: A Personal Journey through the Science – By Philippe Squarzoni (Harry N. Adams, 2014)

This  pen-and-ink graphic novel  is basically the author’s personal  journey in understanding the science and multiple impacts of climate change. As he educates himself by talking to experts, he educates us, too. The book also weighs the potential of some solutions and the false promises of others. The result is a balanced view of the magnitude of the crisis. If you’re new to graphic novels, pick this one!

Jul 062017

As a tide of green leaves transforms the landscape each spring, a near limitless smorgasbord of food is offered up to leaf munchers of all kinds. Among the most noticeable of these are tent caterpillars. Eastern tent caterpillars – the ones that make an actual tent – were especially abundant in the Kawarthas this spring and stripped both apple and cherry trees of their leaves. In the Ottawa area and in Frontenac County near Bon Echo Provincial Park, closely-related forest tent caterpillars have defoliated large expanses of deciduous woodlands. This has caused people to ask, “Why are there so many caterpillars all of a sudden?” This week, I’ll try to answer this question and provide an overview of the fascinating natural history of these two species.

Eastern tent caterpillar

The eastern tent caterpillar (Malacosoma americana) is the species people are most familiar with. It spins the well-known silken tent we see in the crotch of apple and cherry trees. Eastern tent caterpillars emerge in mid-May from “varnish-coated” egg masses wrapped tightly around the twigs of their host trees. The caterpillars are hairy, with blue, white, black and orange markings and a white line down the back. They exit the tent three times during the day to feed – before dawn, in mid-afternoon and just after sunset. The tent is used only for resting, protection and for heat regulation. They have a layered structure, which allows the caterpillars to adjust their temperature by moving from one layer to the next. Even though they may completely defoliate their host tree, new leaves emerge soon after and the tree usually recovers. When fully grown, the caterpillars spin a cocoon in some sheltered location. By summer, they will have transformed into three centimetre-long, reddish-brown moths with two pale bands on each fore wing.

Eastern Tent Caterpillar on surface of “tent” – D. Monkman

Forest Tent Caterpillar with clearly separated “snowmen” down the back (photo from Wikimedia)










Forest tent caterpillar

Like its tent-building cousin, the forest tent caterpillar (Malacosoma disstria) is dark with blue stripes down the sides. Along the centre of the back, however, it has distinctive markings that resemble tiny snowmen.

The timing of events in a forest tent caterpillar’s life cycle varies from year to year. This year, caterpillar development was a little later than usual because of the relatively cool spring weather. The eggs hatch and caterpillars appear as the buds open on their host trees, usually sugar maple and red oak. In central and eastern Ontario, this is usually in early to mid-May. Once the host tree is defoliated, however, they wander widely in search of more food. This often takes them over roads, where they can become a slippery hazard when motorists apply their brakes. As the caterpillars wander, they lay down a scent trail, which is deposited as part of the abdomen drags against the ground or other substrate. The rest of the colony follows the scent trail to the new source of food. These caterpillars also set down silk trails, which help them to adhere better to the leaves and branches where they are feeding. When the light is right, it is possible to see hundreds of these silk highways in the treetops.

The larvae go through five growth stages called instars and can reach nearly three centimetres in length. Each instar takes seven to ten days to complete. Depending on the weather, the larval stage can last until late June. It is common to see 50 or more of these caterpillars clustered on pads of silk spun on leaves or on shaded bark surfaces. These are known as bivouacs and are used for resting and for heat regulation. In the case of eastern tent caterpillars, the tent itself serves as a bivouac. This is a good time to remove the caterpillars if you are concerned about your trees.

Having completed the fifth instar, the caterpillar seeks out a leaf, the side of a building or some other structure on which to spin a cocoon. The yellow cocoons are covered by loose silk webbing and are a familiar sight to many cottagers. The cocoon is impregnated with yellow crystals of calcium oxylate, which are secreted by the caterpillar. The caterpillar then transforms into a black and grey, hard-shelled pupa inside the cocoon. This past weekend, my wife and I removed dozens of cocoons from the walls of my brother’s cottage on Big Gull Lake, near Bon Echo Provincial Park. The calcium crystals blew off in the wind like dust.

Forest Tent Caterpillar cocoon – D. Monkman









Seven to 10 days after entering the pupal stage, the adult moth emerges. Forest tent caterpillar moths are similar to their “eastern” cousins, but the lines on the forewings are dark instead of pale. These moths are night flyers and come to lights in large numbers. After mating in early to mid-July, the females lay several clusters of 150 -200 eggs on the twigs of host trees like sugar maple and red oak. The clusters form a dark ring around the twig and are easy to see, especially in the fall after the leaves drop. They are anchored and protected by a bronze-coloured sticky substance called spumaline. It forms a casing, which protects the eggs from drying out. The eggs easily survive Ontario winters, even when temperatures drop to -30 C or colder. After laying their eggs, the moths soon die.

Moth of Forest Tent Caterpillar – photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren









During large infestations, broad-leaved trees can be completely defoliated over large areas. Aspen are the preferred trees, although they will readily feed on other hardwoods, too, such as birch, basswood, oak and sugar maple. One exception is the red maple, which is not attacked by the caterpillars. I also noticed this past weekend that dogwoods, serviceberries and ironwoods had escaped the caterpillars’ wrath. Many of the oaks, birches and aspens, however, had been stripped of nearly all their leaves. Most trees can survive several years of defoliation and will produce new leaves within three to six weeks.

During outbreaks, the biomass (total weight) of forest tent caterpillars outweighs that of the collective biomass of all other animals in the forest. Dr. Jens Roland, of the University of Alberta, estimated that the weight of caterpillars in a square kilometer of aspen forest is equivalent to that of 657 caribou!

Defoliated trees along cottage road near Big Gull Lake in Frontenac County – Drew Monkman

Outbreak intervals

Like the eastern tent caterpillar, forest tent caterpillars are a native species. Outbreaks are therefore a natural event in the forest ecosystem and occur regularly. The actual cause of a given outbreak, however, is not well understood, nor can the interval between outbreaks be predicted. They do not necessarily occur “every ten years or so”, despite what many websites say.

From 1867 to 1987, province-wide outbreaks occurred in Ontario at intervals of 9-16 years. Caterpillars remained in outbreak numbers for 1-8 years (average 3 years). Some areas, however, seem to be able to go outbreak-free for decades. This means that historical data cannot be used to predict when an outbreak will occur or how many years it will last. This reflects the randomness of the elements that come together to cause population explosions. Clearly, more research is needed.

Outbreak collapse

Although populations of forest tent caterpillars may expand for several years in a row, they inevitably collapse. They are naturally regulated by factors such as late spring frosts, bird predation – cuckoos love them – and parasitic and predatory insects. Climate change, too, may work against them as increasingly warm winters can cause the caterpillars to emerge too early in the spring. If the eggs hatch too many days before the leaves emerge, the caterpillars can be left with nothing to eat and die from starvation. The downside, however, is that caterpillar mortality means far less food for the migrant bird species that return later in the spring.

The forest tent caterpillar’s worst enemy – and probably the main factor in stopping an outbreak – is the large flesh fly (Sarcophaga aldrichi), another native species. In early summer, flesh flies emerge from pupae in the ground and fly about looking for forest tent caterpillar cocoons. Right out of a horror movie, the female fly gives birth to a live larva (maggot), which it deposits on a cocoon. The larva then bores into the caterpillar pupa, feeds on its flesh and eventually kills it. The maggot then drops to the ground where it overwinters, pupates and emerges as an adult the following year. Flesh flies can destroy over 80% of the caterpillar pupae in a given season. This means their impact doesn’t become apparent until the following spring when caterpillar numbers are much reduced. The fly population, too, crashes because there are far fewer caterpillar pupae to feed on.

Large Flesh Fly (photo by Gilles Gonthier)

Flesh flies are black or dark grey with three black stripes on the thorax, similar to house flies. However, they are larger and have a checkerboard pattern on the abdomen. Their numbers often explode in the years following a caterpillar outbreak and people wonder where all the annoying flies suddenly came from. Although they like to land on people, animals and food, they don’t bite, nor do they spread disease. People sometimes wonder if they’ve been released by a government agency, hence the name “government flies” in some areas like New York state. This, however, is not the case. The flies are simply evolution’s response to an abundant food source!

It’s hard to predict when the next forest tent caterpillar outbreak will occur in the Kawarthas. Given outbreaks in eastern Ontario, however, it might be soon!



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.


·         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.


·         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.


·         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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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!