Dec 062019
 

Looking back at extreme fall temperatures and ahead to what nature has in store

As is now the pattern with a changing climate, fall weather this year was marked by extreme temperatures. For many days in November, minimum temperatures were equal to or below historical lows. In Peterborough, the temperature fell to a bone-chilling -22.9 C on November 13, shattering the previous record low of -17.8 C, set back in 1871. Overall, November was a whopping 3.4 C colder than normal. The same thing occurred last November when temperatures averaged 2.6 C cooler than usual.

Some people might take comfort in these episodes of cold weather and believe that global warming is greatly exaggerated. Unfortunately, there is much about climate change that is complicated and far from intuitive. The record cold in November may in fact be linked to a disruption of the Polar Vortex, the whirling mass of cold air, which usually stays close to the poles. Research by Dr. Jennifer Francis, an atmospheric scientist at Wood’s Hole Research Centre, suggests a warming Arctic is contributing to a more extreme, wavy jet stream, which allows the vortex to spill southward. According to the Weather Network, this pattern of below-normal temperatures will likely continue all winter.

As a reminder of what to watch for in nature in the coming months, here are some highlights.

DECEMBER

·       Keep an eye out for snowy owls. Several birds have already been seen in fields along Post Road, east of Lindsay. They often turn up at the Peterborough Airport, as well. These owls typically perch on knolls, fences, hay bales, signs, buildings or right on the ground. For the latest sightings, visit my Sightings page at drewmonkman.com.

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

·       This year’s huge wild grape crop means that large numbers of robins will likely overwinter in the Kawarthas. Grapes are one of their favourite foods.

·       Watch for wild turkeys. Their large, dark bodies are easy to spot in winter as flocks feed in fields.

·       In the ongoing debate on real versus artificial Christmas trees, it still seems that real trees are the greenest choice. Artificial trees are made from non-recyclable plastic and are produced and shipped from overseas, typically China. Real trees have a much smaller transportation carbon footprint, are 100% biodegradable, smell great, and can be made into mulch for city parks. Christmas tree farms are also carbon sinks, soaking up carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as new trees are planted each year.

 

 

·       Ducks lingering on local lakes and rivers until freeze-up include common goldeneye, buffleheads and both common and hooded mergansers. Some will remain on open water such as the Otonabee River all winter.

Female Common Goldeneyes on the Otonabee River – Jeff Keller

·       Christmas Bird Count season is once again upon us. The 68th Peterborough count will be held on Sunday, December 15, while the Petroglyphs count takes place on Saturday, January 4. Participants record all of the birds they see and hear within a 24 kilometer circle. The Peterborough count includes the city itself and surrounding area, while the Petroglyph count covers a territory stretching from the north shore of Stoney Lake to the Aspley-Jack Lake area.  Anyone with an interest in birds is invited to take part . At the end of the day, all participants are invited to a count wrap-up and compilation of the results.  To register, contact Martin Parker (705-745-4750 or by email at mparker19@cogeco.ca) for the Peterborough count and Colin Jones (705-750-7998 or by email at colin.jones@ontario.ca) for the Petroglyph count.

·       Saturday, December 21, marks the winter solstice and the first day of winter. The sun rises and sets at its southernmost points on the eastern and western horizons and remains low in the sky all day. Daylight in December averages less than nine hours –  about half as much as in June.

·       Watch for evening grosbeaks at your sunflower seed feeder this winter, especially if you live north of Peterborough. It is unlikely, however, that other northern finches like redpolls and siskins will turn up this year.

JANUARY

·        If you’re up late on January 10, take a glance outside at the full moon. The early-winter moon rides higher in the sky than at any other season and passes nearly overhead at midnight. Moonlit winter nights shine with an unforgettable brilliance. The Ojibway called the moon of January the Spirit Moon.

·       In our woodlots, mixed flocks of foraging chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers bring life to the seemingly empty winter landscape. These birds are very receptive to pishing and can usually be coaxed to come in quite close.

·       The Winter Six and their assortment of bright stars light up January evenings. Look for the constellations Orion, Taurus, Gemini, Auriga, Canis Major and Canis Minor.

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

Ruffed Grouse feeding at dusk – Drew Monkman

·       If you’re driving through open farm country, keep an eye open for huge, swirling flocks of snow buntings. It is not uncommon to see hundreds of these white birds in a single flock.

FEBRUARY

·       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.

·       Being social animals, northern flying squirrels sometimes join up in single-sex groups for warmth during the winter. They will often huddle together in a tree cavity. Flying squirrels sometimes turn up at bird feeders, as well.

·       Bird song returns in February as pair bonds are established or renewed. Black-capped chickadees, northern cardinals, house finches, 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 pursues a half-terrorized female.

·       The Great Backyard Bird Count takes place Friday, February 14, through Monday, February 17. Anyone can participate. You can count for as little as 15 minutes on a single day, or for as long as you like each day of the event. This is a great event for kids. Go to gbbc.birdcount.org for details.

·       With mating season starting, red foxes become more active. It’s quite common to spot their straight-lined trails, even in suburban backyards. Occasionally we see foxes hunting for mice and voles at dusk or dawn.

·       If you are walking through a snow-covered field or along a roadside, watch for a ball-like gall growing on the stems of goldenrods. It contains the tiny, white larva of the goldenrod gall fly and is a favourite food of downy woodpeckers and chickadees.

MARCH

·       Bufflehead, goldeneye, and common merganser numbers increase on the Otonabee River, and the first hooded mergansers since December usually return.

·       On mild afternoons along woodland trails, watch for snow fleas on the surface of the snow. Only about a millimetre in length, thousands can often be seen covering the snow like spilt pepper.

Snow fleas in a deer track – Sheba Marx

·       The buds of lilac, red-berried elder, red maple, and silver maple swell this month and become much more noticeable than earlier in the winter.

·       The Presqu’ile Waterfowl Weekend usually takes place in mid-March and is well worth the drive to Brighton. You will observe one of Ontario’s great natural spectacles, namely the return of thousands of migrating waterfowl to their staging areas along the lower Great Lakes. Contact David Bree at 613-475-4324, ext 225 or david.bree@ontario.ca for more information

·       Sandhill cranes return to the Kawarthas in late March and can sometimes be seen performing their courtship dance. It includes head bobbing, bowing and leaping into the air. Douro Third Line is sometimes a good place to see these birds.

 

Climate Crisis Update

A plethora of major climate reports have come out in recent weeks to help set the stage for the COP 25 climate talks, which continue in Madrid. Here are some of the key findings: 1. The United Nations Emissions Gap report for 2019 (unenvironment.org/resources/emissions-gap-report-2019https://www.unenvironment.org/resources/emissions-gap-report-2019) says that despite scientific warnings and political commitments, greenhouse gas emissions are continuing to rise at about 1.5 percent per year. There is no sign of emissions peaking in the next few years. 2. According to the World Meteorological Organization (public.wmo.int/en/media), levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached another new record high in 2018 at 407.8 parts per million. Concentrations of methane and nitrous oxide also surged. 3. Another United Nations study (productiongap.org/2019report/) found that governments are planning to produce about 50% more fossil fuels by 2030 than would be consistent with limiting warming to 2°C and 120% more than would keep warming to 1.5 C. This is putting the world on track to warm by a disastrous 3 degrees C by 2100 and makes meeting the Paris targets  virtually impossible. Canada’s oil and natural gas production is projected to increase 60% and 34%, respectively, between 2017 and 2040. The report says that “once built, new infrastructure (e.g., pipelines) is difficult to turn away from.” 4. A frightening commentary in the journal Nature (nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03595-0) reports  growing evidence that irreversible “tipping points” in which one shift amplifies another could be triggered within a few decades. Some models suggest that the Greenland ice sheet could be doomed to disappear if the world warms by just 1.5 C. The Amundsen Sea embayment of West Antarctica might have already passed a tipping point, which could lead to the rest of the West Antarctic ice sheet toppling like dominoes. On a positive note, an article in the Independent (independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news) says that headteachers and psychotherapists in the U.K. report that involvement in climate change activism is reducing symptoms of “eco-anxiety” among young people and boosting their wellbeing.

 

 

 

 

Nov 222019
 

Book outlines challenges and reasons for hope in addressing climate change

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elements of hope

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

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

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

What to do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe Rogan (left) with David Wallace-Wells

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

 

 

 

Nov 152019
 

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

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

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

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

A 2019 wildfire burning in California (Wikimedia)

The Uninhabitable Earth

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

 

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

David Wallace-Wells (Wikimedia)

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

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

 

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

Speed

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

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

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

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

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

Scope and severity

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

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

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

What about alarmism?  

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

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

 

Nov 082019
 

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

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

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

Mosses

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

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

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

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

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

Club-mosses

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

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

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

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

Ferns and wildflowers

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

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

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

 What to watch for this week

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

Climate Crisis News

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

 

 

Nov 012019
 

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

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

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

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

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

This winter?

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

Species breakdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Algonquin Park

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

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

 What to watch for this week

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

CLIMATE CRISIS NEWS

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oct 182019
 

Still lots to look forward to in the parade of fall colours

From May’s gentle pastels and summer’s kaleidoscope of greens to early fall’s dazzling reds and oranges, each time of year has its signature colours. Now, as we move into the second half of October, yellow is taking over centre stage.

Once the red and sugar maples have shed their leaves, the main show belongs to the aspens, poplars, birch, tamaracks, and oaks. Only a matter of days ago, most of these species were simply part of the green blur, but they’ll soon stand out like yellow beacons on the landscape.

The trembling aspen is the most widely distributed tree in North America and one of my favourite species. The round, heart‑shaped leaves change from lime green in spring, to emerald in summer, and finally to lemon-yellow in fall. Not only are the leaves beautiful to look at, but they also produce their own soothing music. Their flattened leaf stem allows them to quiver at the slightest breeze, hence the name “trembling”. Why the aspen has evolved such flexible leaves is still a matter of speculation, but it may be to help protect the tree from strong winds by all allowing the wind’s energy to pass through the canopy more or less uninterrupted.

Although somewhat less common, the bigtooth aspen is an equally attractive tree. The leaves are larger than those of trembling aspen, with curved teeth on the margins. While most of the leaves do become bright yellow in the fall, some acquire rich shades of orange.

Balsam poplar, a tree of moist, low-lying habitats, also turns various hues of yellow in October. Almost as widespread as trembling aspen, balsam poplar has resinous, fragrant buds that perfume the spring air. It is the smell of May in the Kawarthas. The buds also possess medicinal qualities and exude a resin that is used to make balm of Gilead. Besides smelling wonderful, the balm is said to have anti-inflammatory and analgesic qualities.

By month’s end, tamaracks reach their colour zenith. Lime-green in early spring and smoky gold by late October, tamaracks are one of our most beautiful and interesting trees. They are the only conifer to lose all its needles in the fall. As the great American conservationist, Aldo Leopold, wrote so eloquently, the ground becomes “dusted with tamarack gold.” Our other conifers, such as pines and cedars, shed only a portion of their leaves each autumn. That is why some of their foliage becomes yellow or orange at this time of year before falling.

Preparation for winter

Colour change and the shedding of leaves are manifestations of a tree’s preparation for winter. It is a coordinated undertaking on the part of the entire organism. Since winter is a time of drought in which water is locked up in the form of ice, trees are no longer able to absorb water through their roots. Because leaves are continually releasing water vapour – think of the high humidity of a greenhouse – trees must get rid of their leaves in order to minimize water loss and avoid death through desiccation.

However, leaves are full of important, but scarce minerals, and it is to the tree’s advantage to salvage these nutrients first. These same minerals are used to produce chlorophyll, the green pigment that captures the sun’s energy and uses it in combination with water and carbon dioxide to produce the sugar‑based substances that make up all of the tree’s tissues – wood, bark, leaves, flowers, and fruit. As the amount of daylight decreases in late summer and fall, trees stop producing chlorophyll and begin to remove the minerals from the leaves in order to store them in the woody tissues until next spring. This same response occurs in times of drought.

As the chlorophyll disappears, colour change becomes apparent. Without green chlorophyll to mask the other colour pigments in the leaves – most of which have been there all along ‑ these pigments gradually become visible. The yellows and oranges come from carotene pigments, while anthocyanins give us the beautiful reds. The red pigments are created from excess sugars and seem to be brightest when there is lots of fall sunshine accompanied by cool nights such as this year.

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

The story of October’s yellows would not be complete without mentioning our non-native trees. Norway maple, a species native to Eurasia, has become one of our most common urban trees. Its purple-leaved cultivar is especially popular. Of all the maples, the Norway is the last to change colour. The trees remain green until mid- to late October, before turning various shades of yellow. Some trees usually still have leaves on Remembrance Day.

In late October through early November, you get a real sense of just how ubiquitous Norway maples are. Along with other non-native trees like weeping willow and European buckthorn, they stand out conspicuously at a time when most native trees and shrubs have lost their leaves. To me, these trees stick out like soar thumbs in late fall and, not really belonging here, take away from our sense of place.

By November, the only native deciduous trees that still retain leaves are the oaks and some silver maples. Red oaks, usually dressed in brownish-orange leaves, stand out in particular. This makes it easy to see how common oaks are in many areas, especially on the Canadian Shield. Some oaks, along with young American beech, sugar maple, and ironwood (hop-hornbeam) retain a portion of their leaves all winter.

Seed and fruit

In addition to the colour parade of the fall leaves, there’s another interesting phenomenon happening this year. Anyone paying attention to our trees, shrubs and vines has no doubt noticed the abundance of seed, be it in the form of fruits, berries, nuts, or cones. Especially noticeable is the seed crop on sugar maples, American beech, mountain-ash, apple trees, white spruce, and wild grape.

Not surprisingly, the amount of seed produced in a given year is an adaptation to assure that the plant’s genes are successfully transferred to a new generation. We may not think of trees as having survival strategies, but millions of years of evolution have fine-tuned plants as much as animals to survive in a rough and tumble world.

In the boom or bust cycle of seed production, the prodigious quantities that we see some years is known as masting. The exact mechanisms are still unclear, but some researchers believe that trees may have biological clocks that are somehow synchronized and pre-programmed to mast at opportune times. It may also be that environmental cues such as wide-ranging climate conditions trigger the masting phenomenon.

Masting may also be a clever adaptation for survival. Let’s look at the example of oaks.  For several years in a row, oaks will produce no or very few acorns. This has the effect of greatly reducing the number of acorn-eating herbivores because, with little or no acorns, many will die, leave the area, or simply have fewer young. Then, with the herbivore population knocked down a few notches, something amazing happens: the trees suddenly produce a giant acorn crop. Those herbivores that are still around quickly become satiated and can eat no more. In this way, a significant number of acorns – or, depending on the species of tree, any other type of seed – will survive to grow into seedlings.

Masting has important ecological effects, too, as the food chain becomes distorted by so much food available. For example, the abundance of seeds resulting from a masting year in conifers allows seed-eating birds such as crossbills to lay more eggs than usual and to raise more young. However, in a low seed year following masting, the larger than usual number of seed-eating birds must migrate elsewhere to avoid starving.

As for this year, the abundance of wild grape will almost certainly mean that large numbers of robins will spend the winter in the Kawarthas. This is what happened just two years ago. Why migrate further south when all the food you need is here?

What’s happening this week

Golden eagles migrate south through the Kawarthas from mid-October to early November, along with large numbers of red-shouldered and red-tailed hawks. These raptors are best seen from a height of land where a large swath of sky is visible. Last year, a group of us saw several golden eagles and numerous hawks from a ridge just east of Petroglyph Provincial Park.

Climate Crisis News 

As we head to the polls on Monday, let’s remember the importance of keeping the climate crisis front and centre in our minds. A recent article in Maclean’s by Canadian climate scientist, Kathyrn Hayhoe, and economist, Andrew Leach, graded each party’s climate plan. They give the Liberal’s plan a B for ambition and an A for feasibility; the NDP’s plan an A for ambition and a D for feasibility; the Green’s plan an A+ for ambition and a C- for feasibility; and the Conservative’s plan a D for ambition and a F for feasibility. The high marks given by experts to the Liberal plan have made my decision much easier.

 

Oct 112019
 

Grassland birds and aerial insectivores among the hardest hit

When I was a teenager in the 1960s, the Peterborough Field Naturalists made an annual June visit to Harry William’s farm near Millbrook. This was not your average nature outing. You were expected to arrive no later than 4:00 am. Why, you may ask? To take in the dawn chorus as the world would reawaken to a cacophony of bird song. Upon arriving, the most dominate  voices were those of the whip-poor-wills. They were deafening. In fact, as former club president, Martin Parker, recalls, “It was so loud your head throbbed.” Once the whip-poor-wills quieted down, other species began to sing. They were always right on cue, each at its own designated time. First came the thrushes, followed in order by the sparrows, the buntings, the warblers, and then field birds like meadowlarks. You were buffeted by a continual wave of sound. The challenge was trying to pick out and identify the different voices competing for airtime.

Fast forward to 2019. When you walk outside at dawn, even in wilderness areas, the relative silence is eerie. Yes, birds are still singing, but the boisterous wall of sound is gone. Parker agrees. “I find the dawn chorus at my cottage getting quieter and quieter every year.”

An alarming report

According to a study published this September in Science magazine, North America has lost nearly three billion birds over the last five decades. Take a moment to let that number sink in. Stated another way, about one-third of the total bird population we had in 1970 has disappeared. The study looked at 50 years of data gathered by volunteers who carry out annual bird censuses like the Breeding Bird Survey, provincial and state breeding bird atlases, and the Christmas Bird Count. Scientists also looked at data from 143 weather radars, which pick up the millions of birds migrating in the spring and fall through the sky. The decline was there before their very eyes. Although the drop in bird populations has been known for a long time,  the authors of the study were stunned by the scale of the loss.

This is not so much a story of extinction – although that may soon be the reality for some species – but rather the story of a “great thinning”, in which once-abundant birds have declined to a fraction of their former numbers. It should serve as a stark warning. As Ken Rosenburg, the study’s lead author said, “Birds are so interwoven with everything else (in nature) that if we’re seeing this loss and degradation in birds, we can be pretty sure it’s happening with other groups, and that it’s a symptom of a much larger problem with the environment that will ultimately affect people.”

A good case in point is the world-wide decline in insects. We need look no further than the windshields of our cars. No longer are they splattered with dead moths, butterflies and other insects like they once were. Insects, of course, sustain birds.

 The worst declines

Three bird groups in particular have taken the brunt of the downturn. Canada has lost 40 percent of its shorebirds and nearly 60 percent of its grassland and aerial insectivore populations. These groups also make up 80 percent of all bird species that have been newly assessed as threatened or endangered in Canada.

Let’s look at grassland species. These include familiar birds such as killdeers, meadowlarks and bobolinks. A grassland can be a prairie, a field that is no longer being farmed, or even a hayfield. Bobolinks, which love to nest in hayfields, have plummeted by 88 percent. One reason is that hayfields are often mowed during the breeding season, which destroys the nests. Grassland birds are also threatened by changing agricultural practices such as intensification, removal of hedgerows, and inputs of pesticides.

Along with the Renfrew area, the Kawarthas has the highest nesting densities of bobolinks in Ontario. I asked Dr. Erica Nol, professor of biology at Trent University, what could be done to help this species recover. She said, “Working with farmers to set aside hayfield reserves on their farms would be a useful strategy. The fields don’t have to be large and, of course, the farmers would need to be compensated. Many grassland species wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for farmers.”

Aerial insectivores – birds that feed on the wing by catching flying insects – have declined by 59 percent across Canada. This group includes swallows, martins, whip-poor-wills, nighthawks, chimney swifts, and flycatchers. The precipitous drop in barn swallow numbers has been most noticeable. Any farmer over the age of 50 can attest to the large flocks of swallows that once nested in barns and lined telephone wires. Cottagers of a certain age will remember how common they were in boathouses.

We are already well aware of the negative impacts of neonicotinoid pesticides on bee populations, but now the link between these pesticides and bird health is becoming clearer.  A recent study done by Dr. Marc Bélisle of the University of Sherbrooke  found that barn swallows fare less well in areas of intensive agriculture where pesticides such as neonicotinoids are applied. Not only do the young have a harder time surviving, but adult birds suffer from lower body weight.

As for shorebirds like plovers and sandpipers, long-distance migrants have declined most steeply. Many of these nest in the Arctic and overwinter in Central and South America. Shorebirds depend on coastal areas and inland wetlands for breeding, migration, and wintering. Vital shorebird habitat is being lost to coastal development and suffers from human disturbance such as dogs running free on the beach. Key to their conservation is protecting migration stopover and wintering sites.

When it comes to forest-dwelling birds, the picture is more nuanced. Although more forest birds have increased (e.g., blue-headed vireo, pileated woodpecker) than decreased in the past 20 years, there are still many woodland species that are declining. The drop in warblers – often the most popular species with birders – is especially sad. As a group, they are down by 600 million. The cerulean warbler has been especially hard hit.

If you were to point to one reason for bird decline, it is loss of habitat. This is a problem not only on breeding grounds, but also during migration and where the birds spend the winter,  often in Latin America. This highlights the need for strong international conservation action.

The impact of climate change is also an increasing concern. The new superstorms, fueled by our warming oceans, can have a huge impact on birds and insects. Wildlife in Puerto Rico was devasted by hurricane Maria – even the bees. There is also a growing fear that long-distance migrants, which are declining faster than resident species, will not be able to adjust their migration schedules to coincide with the shifting peak abundance of their far away food sources. This effect is known as “decoupling” and is already a cause of seabird decline. Rising sea levels will also reduce available habitat for coastal nesting birds.

It’s not all bad news, however. Some bird groups are actually faring better. Since 1970, geese and duck populations have more than doubled, as have birds of prey like hawks and falcons. Big birds in general seem to be faring well, too, with 11 of Ontario’s 12 heaviest birds showing a marked increase in the past 20 years. Among these are the sandhill crane and the wild turkey.

Waterfowl in particular have benefited from investments in habitat conservation by government, non-government and industry organizations. Raptors have rebounded from their precarious population levels of 50 years ago thanks to the ban on the indiscriminate use of DDT.  When we understand the problem and act together, conservation works.

What to do?

As with climate change, individual action is important, but new laws and the investment of public money are key. Conservation charities can’t do it alone. Anyone voting with conservation in mind can’t help but be impressed with the Liberals commitment to protect 25 percent of Canada’s ocean waters and land by 2025 and to plant two billion trees by 2030. Both of these policies will greatly benefit birds and other wildlife. I fear, however, that a Conservative government would make deep cuts in the conservation and habitat protection budget in their rush to lower the deficit. Money for protected areas and endangered species is always seen as low hanging fruit for cost savings by fiscal conservatives.

Individuals can be part of the solution, too, by donating to conservation groups like Bird Studies Canada, buying bird-friendly shade-grown coffee, keeping cats indoors, planting shrubs and wildflowers in your yard, and making windows bird-safe (see Bird Friendly Homes at allaboutbirds.org). The most effective product to apply on windows is “Feather Friendly” dotted tape, which is sold at the Avant-Garden Shop in Peterborough.

The success in bringing back waterfowl and raptor populations is proof that conservation and legislation can work. I dream of the day when our fields and forests will once again reverberate with the variety and intensity of bird song that I knew as a teenager all those years ago on the William’s farm.

What to watch for this week 

We are fortunate that the peak colour of most red and sugar maples will coincide this year with Thanksgiving Weekend. Be sure to get out and enjoy the show. Two near-by areas with a great colour display are Gooderham, north of Buckhorn, and Chandos Lake, east of Apsley.

 

 

 

Oct 032019
 

The Liberals aren’t perfect, but a Conservative government would be infinitely worse

Earlier this summer, I thought I’d made up my mind. I was going to vote Green to send a message that much more aggressive climate action is necessary. I was bitterly disappointed that the Liberals had failed to deliver on their promise of electoral reform and, to boot, had bought a pipeline. But then, equal measures of pragmatism and a better understanding of the Liberals’ climate plan made me think again.

There has never been a public policy issue where the science is clearer: We know what’s happening – the climate crisis is far worse than we initially thought; we know what’s required – reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and to zero by 2050; and we know that the window for action is almost closed.

The federal parties’ positions are also crystal clear. The Liberals, Greens, and NDP take the climate crisis seriously, while the Conservatives barely acknowledge it’s even an issue – to wit, Andrew Scheer’s absence from the hundreds of climate events last Friday. What may be less clear for voters, however, is deciding which of the progressive parties to support.

For me, it comes down to voting for the candidate who stands the best chance of winning. In some ridings, this will be a Green or a New Democrat. In Peterborough-Kawartha, however, the race is between the Liberals and the Conservatives. That’s why my vote will be for the Liberal, Maryam Monsef. We can’t risk electing a Conservative government, even if the balance of power is held by the Greens or NDPs. Let’s not forget that Steven Harper inflicted most of his damage on environmental progress before he got his majority.

Unfortunately, there is a real possibility that the Liberals will lose on October 21, both nationally and in Peterborough-Kawartha. Why? Because a significant number of voters may say no to voting strategically this time around and simply vote with their heart. I fully understand the temptation. Some of the policies promised by the Greens and NDP are indeed superior to those of the Liberals. Be warned, however, that a splitting of the progressive vote  is just what the Conservatives want.

The Liberal plan

Having lived in Quebec for many years, I closely follow the province’s environmental news. When I heard that Steven Guilbeault, a household name in Montreal, is running for the Liberals instead of the Greens, I was astounded. Guilbeault is co-founder of Quebec’s largest environmental group and the former Quebec bureau chief for Greenpeace. When asked to explain his decision, he said he’s a radical pragmatist. “I fear that the Conservatives could win the election and, if they do, everything we’ve worked for in these past four years will be gone.”

As for Trudeau’s support of the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion, Guilbeault  understands that the federal government can’t adopt policies that will completely alienate Alberta. Although he’s personally opposed to new pipelines, he points out that for every dollar the Liberals have put into the pipeline, they’ve put about 15 dollars into the fight against climate change. In a democracy, it takes time to change structures and existing policies. No government anywhere in the world has found a way to make a quick  transition away from fossil fuels.

Guilbeault is not alone in defending Liberal climate policy. Mark Jaccard, professor of sustainable energy at Simon Fraser University, sees Canada as a world climate leader. According to Jaccard, the Liberals’ carbon tax,  tougher fuel standards, and phased closure of coal plants are seen globally as the gold standard. His counterparts in China and India already notice the influence on their own countries’ policies. According to Jaccard’s calculations, greenhouse gas emissions under the Liberal plan would still fall 79 megatons short of our Paris commitment, while the Conservative plan would miss the mark by 179 megatons.  He believes the Liberals can still reach their goal, however, by either increasing the carbon tax, turning to tougher regulations, or by some combination of both.

In this campaign, the Liberals have also promised to set legally-binding, five-year milestones to reach net-zero emissions by 2050; to halve the corporate tax rate for companies that develop or manufacture clean technology; to plant two billion trees; to provide interest-free loans of up to $40,000 to make our homes more energy-efficient and resilient to floods; to provide new incentives for purchasing  zero-emission vehicles; and to create a low-cost national flood insurance program.

There are other reasons to support the Liberals if you care about the environment, not the least of which is the excellent Environment and Climate Change Minister, Catherine McKenna. The Liberals committed an unprecedented $1.3 billion in the 2018 budget for the protection of endangered species and to reach the United Nations goal of protecting 17 percent of our lands and oceans. They also have a plan to teach every young Canadian camping skills. Experiences such as camping are key to establishing a life-long love of nature.

As for the Conservatives, they have promised to reduce carbon emissions by encouraging businesses to invest an unspecified amount in green technology or research. The rest of their “plan” is all about undoing Liberal climate policy, just like what happened in Ontario. Carbon pricing? Gone. Tougher fuel standards? Gone. Measures for protecting endangered species and expanding land and ocean protection? Probably gutted. It doesn’t matter that our local Conservative candidate, Mike Skinner, is a capable and friendly guy. His party’s climate program is an abject failure.

Maryam Monsef

Maryam Monsef is both Minister of International Development and Minister for Women and Gender Equality. Her work is incredibly important, since women all over the world are disproportionally affected by the impacts of climate change. We also know that countries with high representation of women in parliament are more likely to ratify international environment treaties and that women are vital to building climate resilient  communities.

We shouldn’t  underestimate the importance of having an MP who sits at the cabinet table, even it means having to spend more time away from the riding. Having a cabinet minister gives Peterborough-Kawartha more leverage for investments. Monsef has already brought millions of dollars to our riding, including over two million for discovery research at Trent University and money to support the work of the Kawartha Land Trust.

Well-known outdoor educator, Jacob Rodenburg, is impressed by how Monsef supports local environmental organizations and how she is a bridge builder.  He says, “Maryam Monsef is not someone who is steeped in partisan politics, but rather, is able help people of all walks of life and political stripes find common ground and common solutions.”

At the Fridays for Future student climate strike on September 20, I was chatting with Maryam when two grade 11 girls from St. Peter’s Secondary School nervously approached. They told her how much she inspired them. Maryam immediately put them at ease, congratulated them for being climate leaders in their school, and provided practical ideas for further action. As Jacob Rodenburg says, “Few people are better in dealing with youth than Maryam.”

Youth

The climate issue is very personal to me. And not only because of its devastating impact on the natural world. My son and daughters are terrified by how the climate catastrophe will disrupt their lives and those of their children – my grandchildren. They have every right to be scared. As Dr. Rosana Salvaterra pointed out at last Friday’s climate rally at Millennium Park, climate change is the number one threat to our physical and mental health. It will make everything we care about infinitely worse, be it jobs, homelessness, addiction, or the possibility of  war. It’s no wonder young people question if they even have a  future and why many are deciding not to have children themselves. This is why it’s so important that they see tangible progress in fighting the climate crisis.

I know that many people have misgivings about the Liberals. However, splitting the progressive vote in this election would be disastrous. Should the Liberals be re-elected, it will most likely be as a minority government. I’m hoping the Greens and NDP will have enough seats to hold the Liberals feet to the fire and maybe even force progress on electoral reform. Because climate change is front and centre in this campaign, a re-elected Liberal government will also have much greater social license for aggressive action than it did in 2015. Given the sad reality of our first-past-the-post electoral system, voting strategically is still the only logical option. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

What to watch for this week

Tiny Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets are now passing through the Kawarthas, often in loose flocks with Yellow-rumped Warblers and Black-capped Chickadees. Watch and listen for them in conifers and thick shrubs along roadsides and trails. The Golden-crowned’s call is a very high, thin “zee-zee-zee”. The best way to see them is by pishing whenever you hear chickadees.

Golden-crowned Kinglet – Karl Egressy

The Ruby-crowned Kinglet has a prominent eye ring. (Karl Egressy)

Sep 202019
 

Shifting dates, species declines, and surprising newcomers tell us climate change has arrived

For years we used to drive up to Algonquin Park in early summer to take our daughters to camp. One of the highlights of these trips was seeing moose along the side of Highway 60. Getting closeup looks and photographs of these huge and graceful animals was always such a thrill. Now, however, we rarely see them. Moose populations in Ontario have fallen by 20 percent – in some areas, 60 percent – in just the last decade. One of the main causes is climate change. These Canadian icons are poorly adapted to warmer temperatures. They are also dying from brainworm disease, which is arriving courtesy of the northward march of white-tailed deer. Deer are thriving as the climate warns.

Ontario moose are struggling with the warmer temperatures ushered in by climate change. Populations are down by 20 to 60 percent. (Randy Therrien)

White-tailed Deer (Stephenie Armstrong) 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Slowly but steadily, nature in Central Ontario and the Kawarthas is changing. New species are arriving, the dates of key events are shifting, and extreme weather events are becoming more common. For many years now, local naturalists and biologists have been noticing and documenting these changes. What the changes all have in common is a link to a warming climate.

A new timetable

Numerous events are now happening, on average, earlier in the spring, while others are occurring later in the fall.

·       In many parts of their range, bird species are arriving back earlier on their breeding grounds. These include common species like Canada geese, red-winged blackbirds, and tree swallows. The average egg-laying date for tree swallows is up to nine days earlier across North America.

·       According to an OMNR study from 2012, the peak calling period of early breeding frogs such as spring peepers is now 10-20 days earlier than in 1995.

·       Over the past decade or so, local wildflowers such as trilliums have often reached peak bloom in late April or early May, instead of the long-term average date of mid-May.

·       Earlier plant blooming also means pollen is being released into the air earlier. With more carbon dioxide (C02) in the air, plants are able to grow bigger and produce more pollen.  The pollen season is also lasting longer. Even in downtown Toronto, pollen levels are far above those recorded in the early 2000s. Data from the United States Environmental Protection Agency shows an especially big jump in the ragweed pollen season. In Winnipeg, for example, the plant’s growing season increased by 25 days between 1995 and 2015. If you are a hayfever sufferer like me, this is bad news.

Studies are showing a big increase in the length of the ragweed pollen season. It’s bad news for hayfever sufferers. (Drew Monkman)

Sugar maples (Cy Monkman)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

·       On average, peak colour change in the fall leaves is happening later. Last year, for example, the best sugar maple colour was in mid-October instead of late September or early October.

·       The long-term average date for freeze-up of the Kawartha Lakes is mid-December, while the ice is usually out by about April 20. Since the early 2000s, however, the lakes have often been ice-free by early April, while freeze-up hasn’t happened until January. Later freeze-up means that waterfowl are lingering on local lakes until early winter. This trend can be seen in Peterborough Christmas Bird Count records, which date back to 1952.

 

Plant and animal populations

·       “Southern” birds are expanding their breeding range northwards into Central Ontario. These include red-bellied woodpeckers, which many people now see at their feeders.

·       A study based on 22 years of data from Project FeederWatch has shown that as minimum winter temperatures have increased, birds that used to spend the winter solely in the south are now wintering further north.

·       Virginia opossums and white-footed mice, both of which are southern species, have now extended their range into the Kawarthas. According to Trent University researcher, Dr. Jeff Bowman, bobcats – another southern species – are also expanding into Ontario. At the same time, the lynx’s range is contracting northwards.

According to Trent University researcher, Dr. Jeff Bowman, bobcats are expanding their range northward into Ontario and are expected to become more common. (Drew Monkman)

Flying squirrels at Sandy Lake near Buckhorn (Mike Barker)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

·       Research done by Bowman and his colleagues has also showed that during a series of warm winters between 1995 and 2003, the southern flying squirrel rapidly expanded its northern range limit. Their study demonstrated that these southern species are mating with their northern counterpart, the northern flying squirrel. This has resulted in a hybrid zone right here in the Kawarthas. The researchers believe that the range expansion and interbreeding is a possible effect of climate change.

·       Southern butterfly species are also moving north into the Kawarthas. The most noticeable and common of these is the giant swallowtail, Canada’s biggest butterfly. Until recently, this species’ Canadian range was restricted to southwestern Ontario.

·       Although the past few summers have seen greatly increased monarch butterfly numbers in the Kawarthas, the long-term prospects for this iconic insect are poor. Climate change-related droughts and abnormal weather patterns along the Canada to Mexico migration route are impacting numbers, as are winter storms on the Mexican wintering grounds. Warming in Mexico is also expected to disrupt the monarch’s period of reproductive diapause (suspension). If diapause ends too early, reproductive success will suffer.

·       Insects such as mosquitoes and ticks are thriving in our warmer climate, with some new species spreading northward. In the past, their range was restricted by colder winter temperatures. The greater number of frost-free days is also allowing for a longer reproduction season. The black-legged tick, which carries the Lyme disease bacteria, is now well-established in the Kawarthas. Hundreds of ticks are submitted annually to Peterborough Public Health from all over our region. In the 1990s, this species was found in only one region of the province.

·       We are seeing a marked increase in the abundance of non-native, invasive plant species. These include common reed (Phragmites), dog-strangling vine, and garlic mustard. Non-native invasives are more adaptable to a warming world than most native plants. They also have mostly negative impacts on our wildlife.

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

Poison Ivy – always a longer stem on middle leaflet; leaflets often asymmetrical; shiny; usually droop down a little – Drew Monkman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

·       Poison ivy is increasing both in abundance and in size. Its growth has been turbocharged by warmer temperatures and rising levels of carbon dioxide. The plants are also producing a more potent form of urushiol, the oily sap that causes the rash.

Concern for the future

By 2030, it’s expected that Peterborough will be about 2 C warmer in each season. We can also expect a huge increase in the number of days above 30 C. By 2060, temperatures are projected to be 5 C warmer. The climate of the Kawarthas will be like southern Pennsylvania today. What will this mean for our flora and fauna?

·       A number of iconic birds may no longer be able to breed here, their ecoregion (i.e., habitat requirements) having moved further north. The call of the common loon is likely to disappear from the Kawartha Lakes.

Common Loon (Karl Egressy)

Adult Round Goby (Michael Fox)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

·       The health of our forests will suffer as a result of higher temperatures, drought, windstorms, invasive plants, insect pests, and fungal infections. Species such as white pine, sugar maple, and white spruce may disappear from the Kawarthas entirely as their climate zone will have moved north.

· As water temperatures increase, our lakes and wetlands will also be impacted. Although warm-water fish like large-mouthed bass should be able to cope, cool and cold-water fish like walleye and trout will struggle to survive here. The conditions may allow non-native fish like round goby to thrive and out-compete native species for food. There will likely be an increase in the types and abundance of other invasive species such as zebra mussels and Eurasian water-milfoil.

The changes we are seeing in nature in the Kawarthas represent a “canary in the coal mine” warning that climate change is happening now. But, like the proverbial frog in water that is slowly brought to a boil, we seem unable or unwilling to react to this sinister and deadly threat to the future of all life on the planet. The climate crisis should be top-of-mind when we cast our votes in October.

What to watch for this week

Southbound white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos should be arriving in local backyards in the coming days. They are easy to attract by spreading millet or finch mix on the ground, preferably close to your feeder. The sparrows will linger for several weeks, before departing. Juncos sometimes stay all winter.

White-throated sparrow (Karl Egressy)

Juncos and white-throated sparrows feeding on ground (Drew Monkman)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Climate Crisis News

Be sure to drop by the climate-crisis booth at the Purple Onion Festival at Millennium Park on Sunday, Sept. 22. There will be information on how to reduce your personal carbon footprint as well as petitions to be signed to urge city council to declare a climate emergency as soon as possible. Other climate events scheduled for the coming weeks include the Global Climate Action Day (Sept. 27 at Millennium Park from 12:00-3:00 pm) and 100 Debates on the Environment (Oct. 3 at the Students Centre at Trent University from 7:00-9:00 pm.) The local candidates in the federal election will be taking part. This event had previously been scheduled to take place at Trinity United Church. 100 Debates for the Environment is a non-partisan, nationwide effort to highlight environmental issues in the election. More information can be found at 100debates.ca.

 

 

 

 

 

Sep 132019
 

Council expected to revisit Peterborough’s suspended tree bylaw later this fall

I have always loved trees. As a kid I delighted in climbing the sugar maples near our house and seeing how high I could go until terror set in. I also spent countless hours playing “chestnuts” with the shiny brown nuts from an old horse-chestnut tree on the Upper property on Merino Boulevard. Bruce Upper used to say, “The chestnut monkeys are back in the tree again!” We would drill a hole through the nut, attach it to a string, and take turns striking our opponent’s chestnut until it shattered.

Now, as an adult, planting trees has become a passion – no less than 30 on our property in the past 25 years. I relish everything they have to offer: the fall foliage, the winter twigs and buds, the spring leaf emergence, the summer shade, the intriguing flowers and seeds, the diversity of species, the calm they bestow on the human psyche, the beauty and grace they give to city streets and, of course, their incredible value to wildlife. Even a dead tree is an “infinite hotel” for other species.  As a contributor to the 2013 book “Beneath the Canopy: Peterborough’s Urban Forest and Heritage Trees”, my eyes were opened to the many iconic local trees. Some of my favourites are the two towering bur oaks on Homewood Avenue and Sherbrooke Street (at Albertus), the Douro Street gingko, the Camperdown elm at Little Lake Cemetery, and the enormous red oak on Aberdeen Street.

This bur oak on Homewood Avenue is one of the largest and oldest trees in the city. (Drew Monkman)

As Peter Wohlleben writes in “The Hidden Life of Trees” we should also care about trees because of the wonders they present.  We’re learning how trees communicate with one another, both over the air through scent and underground through a “wood wide web” of soil fungi. We now know that trees care and feed each other, orchestrating shared behaviours through the networks in the soil. They can even count, since trees must wait until a certain number of warm days has passed before leafing out in the spring.

As we head towards an election in which climate change is front and centre in voters’ minds, let’s also remember how important trees are in storing carbon from atmospheric carbon dioxide. The carbon in a tree’s wood, leaves, and roots makes up nearly 50 percent of its biomass. In this way, trees are a vital part of Peterborough’s Climate Change Action Plan, which includes a greenhouse gas emissions reduction target of 30 percent by 2031.

As Dr. Rosana Salvaterra wrote in her article in Tuesday’s Examiner, there is abundant evidence showing the negative impact that climate change has on health, including the risk of triggering mental-health issues. There is proof that simply living near trees improves our health – both physical and mental. A 2015 study carried out in Toronto by Marc Berman found that people who live in neighborhoods with a higher density of trees on their streets report significantly higher health perception and significantly less cardio-metabolic conditions. The researchers suggest that the benefits trees confer may relate to an improvement in air quality, relieving stress, and promoting walking. This is not surprising; we all feel better in the presence of trees.

Trees also increase property values by making individual properties and entire streets and neighbourhoods more beautiful. One of the reasons the Avenues neighbourhood in Peterborough (south of Charlotte Street between Park and Monaghan) is such a desirable place to live is the large number of mature trees. Trees also keep our lawns healthy, decrease the need for watering, and act as giant air filters. Their leaves and needles catch soot, toxic hydrocarbons, pollen, and dust as these particles float by.

 

Under siege

Trees, however, are under siege from every quarter, be it fungal disease, invasive species, drought, freezing rain, windstorms, or land development. The loss of city ash trees to the emerald ash borer has been especially devastating. If you look at photographs of locations in the city that once harboured healthy ash and then compare these to photographs taken after they were cut down, the difference is shocking. It’s not until trees are gone that we realize what’s been lost. Sadly, there are also many people who seem to love nothing more than to cut trees down, often because they deem them “dirty” or don’t like raking leaves.

A stunning black cherry at the bible college on Argyle Street (Peter Beales)

Unfortunately, tree removal became all the easier last March when city council decided to suspend Peterborough’s tree conservation bylaw, bowing to pressure from developers and tree maintenance companies. The process was flawed, however, since only opponents to the bylaw voiced their position to council. There was not sufficient time or notice provided for people to speak out in support of the bylaw. In council’s rush to make a decision, even the city’s standing committee on trees, “Made for Shade”, was left out of the consultation process. They were completely blindsided. This committee was originally set up to protect children’s health by assuring  that trees be planted in playgrounds, parks, and schoolyards to provide shade. Council’s decision was also made with little consideration for the bigger picture, such as doing everything possible to support the Peterborough Climate Change Action Plan.

 

 

To be fair, the old bylaw, passed in 2017, was not perfect. The approval process to get permission to remove a tree on private property was backed up, and property owners also had to replace felled trees with up to four new ones, which may have been excessive. Now that the bylaw has been suspended, however, permission to cut down a tree is no longer necessary. The only requirement is to provide 72-hour notice.

A new bylaw?

Council will soon consider making permanent changes to the bylaw – or scrapping it altogether. The city has hired Lura Consulting to engage in consultation with stakeholders. How widespread this consultation will be is not yet clear. While most trees in the city are on private property, the benefits they provide accrue to everyone. They affect our lives in positive and enduring ways.

Our city trees provide stunning fall foliage and beautify our streets and yards. (Drew Monkman)

I believe it’s important that some kind of permission-granting process remain in the by-law, especially for large trees. A fine, too, may still be necessary if this requirement is ignored. The bylaw should also stipulate that every felled tree be replaced – either on the same property or at another location approved by the city – and that the property owner commit to assuring the new tree survives. This may require some kind of monitoring. There should also be requirements as to the size and species of the replacement trees. It’s also worth investigating whether property owners with large trees could receive some kind of municipal tax credit. This would be a further incentive to protecting trees. A revamped bylaw must also afford protection to distinctive, iconic trees in the city and include an education program on the importance of urban trees.

Finally, it’s vitally important that the city continue planting and maintaining new trees to reverse the loss of the urban canopy. The city’s efforts in this regard should be applauded. The number of new trees being planted is truly impressive, as is the species diversity and the care (e.g, water bags) provided. It’s wonderful to see southern species like hackberry and American sycamore appearing on city streets. As global heating worsens, southern species should be able to withstand the heat stress more than native, central Ontario species.

Let’s hope that the city is able to craft a workable but robust bylaw that will protect our urban forest. Trees improve our quality of life and provide a visceral connection to the natural world – one that is available to all citizens and just outside the back door.

Climate Crisis News

The most disappointing climate news this week was Monday’s decision by city council to defer declaring a climate emergency this fall and, instead, ask for a staff report on the matter. The report is not expected until early 2020. Given the urgency of addressing the quickly worsening climate crisis, this decision is most troubling. When we cast our votes next month, climate change should be front and centre in our minds. Declaring a climate emergency in Peterborough ahead of the election is therefore incredibly important. It would be a powerful tool in focusing voters’ attention.

There might be a compromise solution, however. A climate emergency could still be brought forward and ratified by council on September 23, while specific actions tied to the declaration would  be announced when reports are received from city staff and from the new Environmental Advisory Committee in early 2020.

On Wednesday evening, Kingston city councillor Robert Kylie spoke at a standing-room-only meeting on climate change, organized by Peterborough Youth Empowerment. He explained how Kingston went about declaring a climate emergency last March. One of the “whys” for the declaration is the huge impact that the coming extreme heat events will have on Kingston’s large population of seniors. As in Peterborough, they are among Kingston’s most vulnerable people. To their credit, Peterborough councillors Clarke, Parnell, Vassiliadis, Baldwin, Riel, and Akapo attended the event. Let’s hope that they, too, feel the urgency of supporting an immediate climate emergency declaration the same way that Kingston councillors did. In Kingston, support for the declaration was unanimous.

 

 

Sep 062019
 

Looking ahead to events in nature in the Kawarthas

Although we enjoyed a comfortable summer in the Kawarthas – sunny, not too hot, and no extreme weather – the biggest story for the planet as a whole continues to be the climate crisis. July was Earth’s hottest month since temperature records began. The unparalleled heat of July followed the hottest June on record. Many European countries  experienced the hottest days in their nations’ history. Scientists agree that these record-breaking temperatures are almost entirely due to climate change.
Just this week, we also saw the unimaginable destruction in the Bahamas from Hurricane Dorian. New research is now linking the more extreme behaviour of these storms to global heating. Because a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, hurricanes are dumping more rain than in the past. Warmer oceans also provide additional energy that make the storms stronger. The fact that hurricanes like Dorian are moving more slowly than in the past – and even stalling – may be linked to decreased atmospheric wind speeds as a result of a warming Arctic.
A more heartening story this summer has been the abundance of monarch butterflies. This is the third summer in a row with good numbers of this species at risk. For example, on the July 21 Petroglyphs Butterfly Count, nearly 500 monarchs were tallied  – twice last year’s number! Several factors have come together to boost the numbers of this iconic insect. First, the overwintering population in Mexico was 144 per cent higher than 2018, which meant more monarchs headed north. As they migrated, laying eggs along the way, good weather conditions boosted reproductive success. Finally, this summer’s warm weather and sufficient rainfall allowed milkweed and nectar plants to thrive, which allowed for excellent reproductive success. We can also speculate that gardeners and landowners are  helping the cause, since so many of us are now planting milkweed in our gardens or simply leaving them be.

A Monarch butterfly drinking nectar from a New England Aster – Tim Dyson

This summer was also excellent summer for fireflies. Apparently, the wet spring created perfect conditions for worms, slugs and snails, all of which provide food for firefly larvae. Of special note, too, is the abundant fruit this year on apple trees, chokecherries, dogwoods, wild grape, and even the endangered butternut. The big cone crop on spruce and cedar is also noteworthy.

Looking ahead to the fall, here is a list of events in nature that are typical of autumn in the Kawarthas – an autumn that once again is projected to be warmer than usual.

 

September

·       Most of the evening insect music we hear this month comes courtesy of crickets. Listen for the soft, rhythmic “treet…treet…treet” of the snowy tree cricket. Its beautiful rhythmic pulsations provide a good estimate of air temperature. For the temperature in Celsius, count the number of “treets” in 8 seconds and add 5. Watch and listen at bit.ly/18nGrJ3

·       Watch for giant swallowtails, Canada’s largest butterfly. They regularly turn up in backyard gardens, even right in Peterborough. With a wingspan of up to 15 cm and striking yellow and black coloration, they are easy to identify. The northern expansion of this southern species is related to a warming climate.

·       Fall songbird migration is now 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”.

·       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.

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

·       Peterborough Field Naturalists (PFN) we be holding nature walks each Sunday in September. They usually last about three hours. The meeting spots are Riverview Park and Zoo (Sept. 8 at 8:00 am), the public parking lot on Crawford Drive at Harper Road (Sept. 15 at 1:00 pm), Country Style at Hwy 7 and Old Keene Road (Sept. 22 at 8:00 am), and Cavan Carpark/GO Bus Stop (Sept. 29 at 8:00 am). For more information, go to peterboroughnature.org

·       The PFN indoor meetings take place on the second Wednesday of each month (7:30 pm) at the Camp Kawartha Environment Centre at 2505 Pioneer Road. On September 11, Mike Burrell will speak about his new book, “The Best Places to Bird in Ontario”.

·       Chinook and coho salmon leave Lake Ontario to spawn in tributaries of the Ganaraska River. Huge salmon can be seen jumping up the fish ladder at Corbett’s Dam on Cavan Street in Port Hope.

Salmon jumping up fish ladder at Corbett’s Dam on the Ganaraska River in Port Hope (Drew Monkman)

·       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 identification tips.

·       Don’t miss the spectacular Harvest Moon, which occurs this year on September 14, rising at 8:06 pm. The Harvest Moon is the full moon closest to the fall equinox (September 23). For several nights before and after this date, the moon rises at almost the same time.

 

October

·       Fall colours in the Kawarthas usually peak early in the month. Right now, it looks like we can expect a great  colour show this fall, given that trees flourished this summer thanks to a wet spring and warm July and August. County Roads 620 and 504 around Chandos Lake east of Apsley makes for a great colour drive.

·       On October 9, Ken Lyon will speak to the PFN on “The Geological Features of the Land Between”. The talk will include the geology of the Canadian Shield and the St. Lawrence Lowlands as well as the drumlins and other features left by the glaciers. See above for location and time.

·       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.

White-throated sparrow (Karl Egressy)

·       On balmy October days, ruffed grouse can sometimes be heard drumming. Early fall is also the grouse’s “crazy season.” Young birds disperse from their parent’s territory and often end up colliding with all manner of objects.

·       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.

·       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. 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.

·       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 2019-2020”. The forecast, compiled by Ron Pittaway, is usually available online by early October.

November

·       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.

·       We return to Standard Time on Sunday, November 3, and turn our clocks back one hour. Sunrise on the 3rd is at 6:52 am and sunset at 5:00 pm for a total of only 10 hours and 8 minutes of daylight.

·       If you go for a woodland hike, watch for clusters of small, fan-shaped fungi growing on logs or dead trees. If the fungus has concentric zones or rings of white, cream, yellow, and brown, you are probably looking at turkey tail fungus, one of our most attractive species.

·       Most of our loons and robins head south this month. However, small numbers of robins regularly overwinter in the Kawarthas. This year’s huge wild grape crop will probably mean that larger than average numbers of robins will choose to remain here like they did two years ago.

·       Coyotes are often heard in late fall. The coyotes of central Ontario are closely related to the eastern wolf (Canis lycaon) and the two species sometimes hybridize. All wolf-like animals of Peterborough County contain, to varying degrees, both coyote and eastern wolf genes.

Eastern coyote photographed at Westview Village in Peterborough (René Gareau)

·       This is a great time of year to focus on several groups of plants of the forest floor that usually escape our attention. Evergreen ferns, club-mosses, and mosses stand out prominently against the brown leaf litter. Watch for wood fern, rock polypody fern, ground pine and ground cedar club-mosses, juniper moss, and fire moss.

 

 

 

 

 

CLIMATE CRISIS NEWS 

On September 11, Peterborough Youth Empowerment will hold a forum to discuss what Peterborough can do at the municipal level to address the Climate Crisis. The meeting takes place at the Peterborough Public Library from 6:00 to 7:30 pm. Robert Kiley, a Kingston municipal councillor, will explain how his council found the will to declare a Climate Emergency and how Peterborough can follow suit. Local climate activist, Al Slavin, will speak on some of the actions that are possible at the municipal level. Other climate events scheduled for the coming weeks include the Global Climate Action Day (Sept. 27 at Millennium Park from 12:00-3:00 pm) and 100 Debates on the Environment (Oct. 3 at Trinity United Church from 7:00 – 9:00 pm). The quickly worsening climate crisis should be top-of-mind when we cast our votes in October.

Aug 092019
 

Your enthusiasm for nature will be noticed by children

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

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

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

Finding a salamander under a rock or log is always exciting for kids, like my grandaughter, Juni. (Drew Monkman)

 

Set an example

·       If you show enthusiasm for nature, your excitement will be noticed and copied by children. If they see you making an effort to be out in nature, they’ll want to do the same. Open doors but don’t “push them through.” Ultimately, loving nature should never be forced.

·       As adults, we often forget the power of words and body language. They transmit values. If a little girl runs up to show you the caterpillar she’s just caught and you frown and say “Put that dirty thing down”, the joy and value of the discovery are ruined. To cultivate a sense of wonder, you need to use the language of wonder. “Wow – is that ever cool. Look at all the different colours and the little hairs on its back. Where did you find it? Let’s put it in a jar and keep it for a while.”

·       Good questions inspire curiosity, which is the engine of learning. They also invite other questions. Encourage children to ask why, to marvel and to explore further. Let’s imagine you’re watching birds at a feeder. All of a sudden, a nuthatch flies in and begins feeding in their characteristic upside-down position. You might ask, “Why do you think it feeds upside down?” (Scientists think nuthatches can spot food from this vantage point that “right side up” birds like woodpeckers miss.) “Look how long and narrow its bill is. I wonder why?” (to get at food hidden deep in the cracks of bark). Encourage the child to ask why questions, too, and to hypothesize at what the answer might be. If you don’t know the answer either, admit it. Think of this as an opportunity to do some research together. And, if you can’t find the response, perhaps this is something that science cannot yet explain or has never investigated. Remind children that there are many things science does not yet know, and we need more bright young people like them to pursue a career in areas like biology.

·       Go forth with explorer’s eyes. Be amazed at what you see, but let the child “own” the discovery. For example, you might know where to find salamanders along a certain trail. Instead of saying, “Hey! Do you want to find a salamander?” you might simply ask, “I wonder what we’ll find under these logs?” In the first question, you owned the discovery; in the second, the joy of discovery belongs to the child. It’s so satisfying for a parent or teacher to hear a child bellow out, “Look what I found!”
Play

·       Play, too, is a powerful teacher, and the natural landscape lends itself to creative play. A stick becomes a magic wand or a sword; a copse of trees becomes a castle. It is through unstructured play that children cultivate their imagination. Being creative, means creating, so let children catch animals, make forts, throw rocks, climb trees, get scraped and dirty, and even disturb nature a bit, on their own and without too much coaching. These experiences are at the very heart of developing a love for the natural world. Children need to “mess around” a lot and do so as much as possible on their own. If it helps, think of the child as a little hunter-gatherer!

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

·       Not all parents feel comfortable letting their kids roam freely. However, you can take your children outside yourself and be a “hummingbird parent”. Just stay out of the kids’ way as much as possible, so they can explore and play in nature on their own. You can always “zoom in” like a hummingbird if safety becomes an issue. Slowly increase the distance and the kids’ autonomy as time goes by. Kids thrive on autonomy, so don’t be afraid to let them loose sometimes – with a minimum of rules.

·       Allow adolescents to undertake adventures with others such as overnight hiking and canoe trips.

·       Children have a yearning to create dens, nests and hiding places. One of my most memorable experiences of childhood was going into the woods and building small shelters or “forts” as we called them. Children can do so using found supplies from the outdoors or the garage – old branches, sticks, fallen tree boughs with leaves, conifer branches with needles, scraps of lumber, a sheet of plastic, etc. The building process is wonderful for problem solving and creativity.

·       A simple shelter can be built by propping a long pole against a tree and using branches to create a frame on both sides. Pile evergreen boughs and then leaves to cover the frame. For added comfort, pile leaves inside the hut, too.

Other ideas

·       Buy your child a good hand lens (10X), a small compound microscope and, when they are 10 or so, a good pair of binoculars. Children delight in the very small, from the cells of leaves enlarged by a microscope to the feathery antennae of a moth revealed by a hand lens. Magnified, close-up views provide an entirely different perspective on nature. Teach them how to use binoculars to view birds, butterflies, dragonflies and the night sky.

·       Set up a terrarium in your home or classroom. A terrarium is basically an aquarium that is filled with plants, soil and rocks suitable for terrestrial creatures. Allow your children to bring home “pets” for a few days – caterpillars, frogs, salamanders, insects, etc. Alternatively, buy an ant farm. Ants are fascinating to watch.

My granddaughter, Anouk, holding a garter snake that her mom helped her catch. It’s important that parents set a positive example. (Drew Monkman)

 

·       Put up several different kinds of bird feeders and keep track of the different species that visit. Give your child the responsibility of keeping the feeder stocked with seed. Make sure it’s located near a window where the family spends a lot of time. Avant-Garden Shop at 165 Sherbrooke Street in  Peterborough has a great selection of feeders, bird seed and other bird-related resources.

·       Create a collection table on which the children can display their discoveries, – feathers, flowers, seeds, cones, galls, skulls, dead insects, nests, etc. Add new items as the seasons change.

·       Encourage your child to take part in junior field naturalist activities, such as those provided by the Peterborough Field Naturalists. Go to peterboroughnature.org/junior for more information.

·       Take your child to the zoo. Pick a particular animal for focused observation instead of just wandering passively through the exhibits. Visit natural history museums, too, such as the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa.

·       Go camping. Being outside for 24 hours a day allows you to see and hear things you will otherwise miss. Positive camping memories will make it much more likely your child will want to camp as an adult.

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

Note: This column first appeared in September 2016.

Climate Crisis News

Quickly accelerating climate change is once again the story this summer. July was the hottest of any month in our planet’s recorded history. All-time high temperature records were shattered across Europe with Paris reaching a historic 42.6 C (108.7 F). On August 1, Greenland shedded a record 12.5 billion tons of melt water into the sea, enough to fill 5 million Olympic-sized swimming pools. We also learned that if the IPCC’s target of a 45% carbon cut by 2030 is to be met, the plans need to be on the table by the end of 2020. This underscores the importance of assuring Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives do not take power in October.

If there is any good news, it’s the marked increase in public interest in climate change and a hunger for solutions that people can put in place in their own lives. As Sarah Lazarovic pointed out in the August issue of MacLean’s magazine, the first rule of the climate crisis is: TALK ABOUT THE CLIMATE CRISIS. With friends, with family, and even with strangers. Share your fears about your family’s future and your desire for aggressive climate policies.

 

 

 

 

 

Jul 192019
 

The Kawarthas is home to a fascinating variety of odonates

The buzz on our street this summer is not the usual gossip shared by neighbours. Rather, it’s the sound of mosquitoes. June’s warm, wet weather created perfect conditions for mosquito reproduction, and they took full advantage of it. Up until the last week or so, working outside was nearly impossible without some kind of bug protection. Few of us stop to think, however, that nature has its own mosquito control system – ancient flying machines that love nothing more than dining on these blood-sucking pests. Enter the odonates.

From gardeners to birders, and children to adults, dragonflies and damselflies intrigue us all. Known collectively as odonates (from the insect order Odonata), they also have evocative names like ebony jewelwing, Stygian shadowdragon and racket-tailed emerald. Odonates also keep civilized hours – most  don’t become active until mid-morning – and prefer warm, sunny weather.

When we look into their huge eyes, we are seeing life as it existed millions of years ago. They are as old as the first reptiles and far older than the first flowering plants. Their basic structure has hardly changed in all this time. Clearly, evolution mastered odonate design a long time ago.

Dragonflies and damselflies are easy to tell apart. Damselflies tend to be small – often only an inch or so in length – with a thin body. They are weak, tentative fliers and hold their wings closed or only partially spread when at rest. Dragonflies, on the other hand, are much larger with thick bodies. They are also strong fliers and keep their wings completely open when resting.

Odonates of the Kawarthas

Our knowledge of the dragonflies and damselflies of the Kawarthas dates to only 1993 when a small group of local naturalists began keeping detailed records of their sightings. Now, over 100 species have been recorded in Peterborough County alone, approximately one-third of which are damselflies.

Although dragonflies and damselflies are usually found around water – marshes, in particular – they also frequent fields, roadsides and gardens. All our local rail-trails provide great odonate-watching (also known as “oding”) opportunities, especially in sections that pass through wetlands. Jackson Park, GreenUP Ecology Park, and the Imagine the Marsh Conservation Area in Lakefield (off D’eyncourt St.) are also excellent destinations for seeing odonates. Watching from a kayak or canoe can be especially fun and productive.

Four-spotted Skimmer – June 18-19, 2016 – Lower Buckhorn Lake – Robin Blake

Like butterflies, different species fly at different times of the year. In July, some of the most common and easy-to-identify dragonflies are the “skimmers”, a group characterized by prominent wing patches and body markings. They include the painted, chalk-fronted, four-spotted, twelve-spotted, and widow skimmers as well as the Halloween pennant. Darners, too, are easy to find. The male common green darner is especially beautiful with its bright green thorax and blue abdomen. This species is migratory, with large numbers moving along the shore of Lake Ontario in early fall. By late summer, smaller dragonflies called meadowhawks become abundant. In most species, the males are red, while the females and immatures are yellow.

 

 

 

 

Twelve-spotted Skimmer- adult male -Drew Monkman -June-23 2014

As for damselflies, now is a good time to see ebony jewelwings, a species that often turns up in gardens. They are quite large and, at first glance, appear almost entirely black. In the proper light, however, they radiate a beautiful metallic green lustre. Other common damselflies on the wing right now include spreadwings, forktails and bluets. The latter are tiny, powder blue damselflies, which are often seen on marsh vegetation and around docks. They love to land on fishing rods.

 

 

Interesting behaviours

Odonates attract our attention in many different ways. For example, large numbers of the same species often emerge at the same time.  Black and white chalk-fronted skimmers are typical in this regard. In  early summer, hundreds often congregate along cottage roads. They fly up  each time a car passes and then immediately return to land on the road surface. Later in the summer, you’ll often see swarms of dragonflies feeding on flying ants. Dozens of ant-eating Canada darners entertained us for hours one summer as we sat on the dock at my brother’s cottage.

The rough-and-tumble world of odonate sex is especially fascinating. If you’ve ever seen a pair of mating dragonflies in the act, you probably have an idea of how much flexibility is required. First, the male bends his abdomen beneath him to transfer sperm from its production site near the tip of the abdomen to a slit in the penis, which is located near the junction of the abdomen and thorax. Next, he forms a tandem with the female by literally grabbing her behind the head with claspers, which are also located at the tip of his abdomen. The pair then alights and goes into the “wheel” position. To do so, the female  bends the tip of her abdomen around until her genitalia are brought into contact with the male’s penis. In this way, the couple forms a closed circle with their bodies.  Now, this is where things get even more interesting. The male will then use special “scoopers” to clear out any sperm that a previous male may have deposited in the female. This helps to assure that only his genes will be transferred to future generations. Having cleaned house, he injects his sperm into the female, and the wheel is broken. To keep rival suitors away, some males will actively guard their mate – or even retain her in their hold – until she has finished depositing her eggs in the water.

A pair of bluet damselflies in the wheel position – Rick Stankiewicz

 

Photography

Odonates are among the most photogenic of our insects. Many species also have the cooperative habit of returning to the same perch time and time again. You can therefore pre-focus on the perch and wait for the dragonfly or damselfly to land. All that’s required is some patience. Although a macro lens provides the best results, you can still get good pictures with a standard telephoto lens.

Try to take advantage of the softer, diffused light of cloudy days when odonates are less active and easier to approach. For species like darners that don’t often land, you can sometimes find them perched during the cool temperatures of early morning before their flight muscles warm up. You might even find a few covered in dew. Always focus on the eyes and take shots from different angles. Some of the most satisfying pictures can be achieved by shooting the dragonfly from the side with the camera’s sensor parallel to the insect’s body. Whenever possible, look for a background that contrasts with the colours of the dragonfly.

Taking a picture is also useful for identification purposes. Although most species are relatively easy to identify with a guidebook or website photo (see below), you can also upload the picture to iNaturalist.org where someone else will identify it for you.

Viewing and identifying

Almost everything that applies to butterfly-watching is also true for oding. Many species  can be readily identified with the naked eye. For the more skittish varieties, however, a pair of close-focusing binoculars is a must.

Immature meadowhawk dragonfly – Margo Hughes

Because some species rarely land, a butterfly net can also come in handy. A net is also fun to use, especially if you’re trying to catch a dragonfly in a swarm. Once you’ve caught it, transfer the insect to a  jar or Zip-lock bag for closeup viewing. Another option is to hold the dragonfly in your hand by placing your thumb and index finger on either side of the thorax and then gently move your fingers upwards. Pinch all four wings together over the body between your fingers.

I also recommend purchasing a copy of the “Field Guide to the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Algonquin Provincial Park and the Surrounding Area”. It is an excellent resource and includes all the species found in the Kawarthas. The main author is Colin Jones, a local naturalist and biologist. The beautiful illustrations are by Peterborough native, Peter Burke. A great on-line resource can be found at www.odonatacentral.org. Start with the checklist feature to get a list of those species found in Ontario. You can then go on to browse the photographs. A checklist of Ontario Odonata is also available by contacting the Toronto Entomologists’ Association at www.ontarioinsects.org

Spend some time learning the key field marks and behaviours of each of the three families of damselflies and six families of damselflies. For example, are the eyes separated or connected? Are the wings clear or patterned? Does it fly high or low? Does it perch often and, if so, how and where? Remember, too, that the males and females of some species can look quite  different, as can some of the immatures.

Odonate-watching can become a fascinating hobby. You’ll soon be enamored by their jewel-like colours, their intriguing behaviours and the challenge of finding new species. As with butterflies, the odonates are yet another window onto the amazing biodiversity of the Kawarthas.

Chalk-fronted Skimmer – adult male – Drew Monkman

 

Climate Crisis News

Climate alarm bells just keep on ringing. Boosted by a historic heat wave in Europe with temperatures reaching 45.9 C in France, Earth just registered its warmest June ever. July is on track to set a new heat record as well. Unprecedented warming is also continuing unabated in the Arctic. This past Sunday, Canadian Forces Station Alert, located at the tip of Ellesmere Island, hit a record 21 C, which was warmer than Victoria, B.C.  The normal is 7 C. For a sobering overview of just how serious the climate crisis is – and what can be done about it –  pick up the August issue of MacLean’s magazine. It includes a 26-page section entitled “The Climate Crisis. And how to stop it.”
 

Jul 122019
 

July is a great time to get to know these beautiful insects.

My special affection for butterflies began as a classroom teacher. Each September, I would collect monarch caterpillars for my students to raise. They would watch and document each stage of metamorphosis with rapt attention. We were often able to see the caterpillars spin a silk mat from which to hang in a J-shape before shedding their skin for the last time, revealing the lime-green chrysalis. The kids’ excitement would only increase over the following days as the black, orange, and white wing patterns became visible through the chrysalis covering. Then, one morning at about 9 o’clock, some student would yell, “The monarch’s coming out of its chrysalis!” We would then watch with amazement as the wet, crumpled adult pumped hemolymph liquid through its small, crimped wings until they expanded to full-size. At the end of the school day, we would head outside and release the monarch to a chorus of, “Bon voyage. Have a great trip to Mexico!”

Students watching Monarch emerge from chrysalis -Drew Monkman

The Kawarthas is home to approximately 100 species of butterflies, which represents almost two-thirds of the species occurring in the entire province. Identifying and photographing them is a wonderful summer pastime. Not only are butterflies easy to observe, but they turn up almost everywhere. Unlike birding, which sometimes requires getting up at the crack of dawn and dealing with inclement weather, watching butterflies is a  more civilized affair.  These gentle insects are rarely on the wing before nine o’clock, and they are most active on warm, sunny days. Right now is a great time to get to know these insects. More species are active in July than at any other time of year.

This month, it should also be possible to see species that are usually more typical of June. According to local butterfly expert Jerry Ball,  the cold, wet spring we experienced has delayed the emergence of many species by about 10 days. He is encouraged, however, by the number of monarchs that returned this spring. These “grandchildren” of the monarchs that migrated to Mexico last fall have already laid eggs. We can therefore expect monarch sightings to increase substantially over the next couple of weeks when a new generation of adults will be flying. If the weather cooperates – warm, sunny days with an average amount of rain – we should have another good summer for this species at risk. The overwintering population in Mexico was 144% higher this past winter as compared to the winter of 2018.

Where to look

As we approach mid-July, our roadsides, fields, wetland borders, and gardens are increasingly lush with fragrant, colourful flowers. Many of these are important sources of nectar. Butterflies are especially attracted to common milkweed, swamp milkweed, spreading dogbane, viper’s-bugloss, purple vetch, wild bergamot and orange hawkweed. Later in the summer, plants like Joe-Pye-weed, goldenrods and asters are also butterfly magnets. In gardens, butterflies are particularly fond of purple coneflower, globe thistle, butterfly bush, and Mexican sunflower (Tithonia).

Butterflies, however, are not just attracted to flowers. Many species such as white admirals, mourning cloaks and eastern commas also like to bask on roads. By extending their wings, they absorb the sun’s warmth in order to elevate their  body temperature for more efficient flight.  You will also find butterflies congregating around the muddy edge of puddles or perched on animal dung. Both mud and dung serve as an important source of minerals, amino acids and nitrogen. A third place to look for butterflies is on tree trunks, especially if they are oozing sap. In fact, one species, the northern pearly-eye, is a shade lover and routinely lands on the trunks of forest trees.

White admiral -June 18-19, 2016 – Lower Buckhorn Lake (Robin Blake)

Although butterflies turn up nearly everywhere, some locations are routinely better than others. I asked Martin Parker, former president of the Peterborough Field Naturalists, to share some of his favourite butterfly-watching destinations. Martin recommends walking or cycling along any of our local rail-trails. He particularly likes the section of the Rotary-Greenway Trail from Trent University to Lakefield, the Trans-Canada Trail between Cameron Line and County Road 38, and the BEL Rotary Bridgenorth Trail from Seventh Line to Fifth Line. The mix of wetland, field and woodland habitats make these trails particularly rich in butterfly diversity. If you’re willing to travel a little further afield, he also recommends Petroglyph Provincial Park and both Jack Lake and Sandy Lake Roads. The latter is located off County Road 46, about 25 minutes north of Havelock. Sandy Lake Road is considered one of the best butterfly destinations in all of Ontario, especially because of its wide variety of skippers like the mulberry wing.

What’s flying now?      

Most butterfly species have a specific flight period, which is the time of year in which they fly. Two easy-to-identify species that are common right now are the eastern tiger swallowtail and the white admiral. The swallowtail’s large size and yellow wings striped in black make it hard to miss. The white admiral, too, is very distinctive. Watch for a black butterfly with a large white band across each of the four wings. Some other common species to watch for in mid-July are the cabbage white, clouded sulphur, northern crescent, common ringlet, summer azure, great-spangled fritillary, red admiral, European skipper, and Dun’s skipper. Skippers are tiny, grey and/or orange, moth-like butterflies.

Canada tiger swallowtail. The eastern tiger swallowtail is nearly identical. (Robin Blake)

A common ringlet. Note the small, black spot on the underside of the forewing. (Ben Wolfe)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the coming days and weeks, you should also watch for the giant swallowtail, Canada’s largest butterfly. Because of its size and weight, it’s usually unable to land on flowers and must hover as it feeds. These butterflies are new to the Kawarthas, having extended their range northward as a result of our warming climate.

Viewing tips

Here are some pointers to keep in mind to make the most of butterfly watching.

1.      The best way to approach a butterfly is from behind, being careful to avoid any sudden movements. As Parker says, “Be patient and don’t rush them. Let the butterfly settle in and start nectaring.” You should also try to avoid casting a shadow on the insect. Being sun-loving creatures, a shadow can cause them to fly away.

2.      Getting good looks at butterflies is easiest with a pair of close-focusing binoculars. For optimal viewing, you should be able to stand up and focus on your toes. A good pair of binoculars will allow you to identify nearly all the butterflies you’re likely to see.

3.      A butterfly net can be helpful when it comes to look-alike species like the skippers. Carefully transfer the butterfly from the net to a small jar or Zip-lock bag for close-up viewing.

A fiery skipper on autumn sedum. Skippers are challenging butterflies to identify. (Drew Monkman)

4.      A camera with a zoom lens also comes in handy. By taking a picture, you can identify the butterfly at your leisure. You can also upload the photo to iNaturalist.org where someone else will identify it for you.

5.      Pay special attention to the butterfly’s size, wing shape, colour and pattern­ing. The pattern on the underside of the wing, usually visible as the butterfly feeds, is especially important for identification purposes.

6.      Learn to identify the plants that attract butterflies, either for nectar or as “larval plants” on which to lay eggs. Monarchs, for example, only lay their eggs on milkweed.

7.      To find a given species, research the time of year it flies and its preferred habitat.

8.      You will also need a guidebook. Parker recommends “The Pocket Guide to Butterflies of Southern and Eastern Ontario”, by Rick Cavasin. You can pick up a copy of this this inexpensive, laminated fold-out at the Avant-Garden Shop at 165 Sherbrooke Street in Peterborough. For a more detailed guide, I recommend “The Butterflies of Ontario”. One of the co-authors is Colin Jones, a Peterborough naturalist and biologist.

Butterfly count

On July 20, local butterfly aficionados will be taking part in the 22nd annual Petroglyph Butterfly Count. Jerry Ball is the compiler and organizer. If you wish to participate, phone Martin Parker at 705-745-4750 or email him at mparker19@cogeco.ca. The count is a fun day in which beginners are paired with more experienced watchers. It will be interesting this year to see the effects – if any – of the cold, wet spring.  Like the Christmas Bird Count, butterfly counts provide a snapshot of butterfly numbers from one year to the next. In this way they are an important tool in documenting changes in populations. Numerous studies have shown that insect numbers are plummeting in many parts of the world. The “windshield phenomenon” provides anecdotal evidence of this alarming trend. Most anyone of a certain age can probably remember how windscreens would become covered in dead insects after just a short drive in the country. No longer is this the case. The threat of ecological disruption from declining insect numbers should be of concern to everyone.

Climate Crisis News

If you’re looking for a good book to read this summer, I highly recommend “The Overstory”, by Richard Powers. It won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and is being touted as the first great American ecological novel. In telling the story of people whose lives have been profoundly affected by trees, Powers incorporates the latest tree science. This includes how trees engage in social behaviours and communicate with one another. The Overstory also fits well within the growing genre of “climate fiction” by exploring the effects of humans’ impact on the Earth. As Powers writes, “Life will cook; the seas will rise. The planet’s lungs will be ripped out. And the law will let this happen, because harm was never imminent enough. Imminent, at the time of people, is too late. The law must judge imminent at the speed of trees.”

 

 

Jul 052019
 

An activist friend told me recently about an email she received doubting the urgency of addressing climate change. The person argued that if climate change was truly a crisis, our elected leaders and governments at all levels would be saying so, and, since relatively few  politicians seem truly alarmed, there really is no need to panic.

Although scientists are telling us we’re facing a Code Red climate catastrophe, most politicians have failed to communicate any true urgency for action. The complacency reminds me of the initial Soviet response to the Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion and meltdown – silence. In fact, citizens sat out on their balconies and watched the blue haze over the reactor throughout the first night and conducted their lives normally the next day. They later died. The Soviets were not used to sharing uncomfortable truths. However, when the truth was incontrovertible, and the emergency finally declared, Soviet citizens were heroic in risking their lives to contain what was left of the reactor. There was no mad panic but bravery and focus. They prevented the radioactive lava flow from leaching into the water table and contaminating the Black Sea. Many sacrificed their lives in doing so.

An infinitely worse catastrophe is brewing as we speak, albeit largely hidden from view in day to day life. Scientists from around the world are trying to warn us that climate change is on course to destroy civilization as we know it.

Now, at this, the 11th hour, a growing number of politicians – but tragically, almost no Conservatives – are acknowledging the dire science. They are assuming their leadership responsibility and telling their constituents the truth: we are facing a climate emergency. Nearly 40 Canadian cities, including Kingston, Hamilton, London, and Ottawa, have made climate emergency declarations. The federal government, too, has followed suit. Peterborough City Council needs to assume its leadership responsibility and do the same.

The science  

In October, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) raised the threat advisory of catastrophic climate change from orange to a pulsating scarlet red. If the planet warms by much more than 1.5-degrees Celsius (we are already at 1.1 C degrees of warming), the result will be soaring death rates, huge waves of climate refugees, devastating coastal flooding, and unprecedented planet-wide species extinction. The predicted economic cost is counted in the tens of trillions of dollars.

Canada is warming at twice the global average. Communities across the country are facing debilitating heat, wildfires, and severe flooding. The climate crisis is threatening our economy, our ecosystems, our infrastructure, and our health. As Peterborough’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Rosanna Salvaterra, stated recently, “Global warming has changed weather patterns to the point where weather-related emergencies have now become the leading threat to our safety.”

The IPCC report does provide a glimmer of hope, however: Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is still possible. To get there, however, greenhouse gas emissions will have to be cut by 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030, and then brought to zero by 2050. If mounting the necessary response in such a short time frame doesn’t represent an emergency, I don’t know what does.

Why a declaration?

Declaring a climate emergency is a critical first step to launching the comprehensive mobilization required to avoid the worst ravages of climate change. It would be no less than a call to action on the part of the entire community. Here’s why it’s necessary.

1. As someone who has been talking about climate change for years – and especially its impact on nature in the Kawarthas – I am still surprised by how few people, businesses or organizations in Peterborough are truly engaged with this issue or appear to understand the severity of what we’re up against. This even includes many young people who stand to be most affected. As Dr. Dianne Saxe, the former Ontario Environment Commissioner, says repeatedly, “The climate crisis is SO MUCH WORSE than people think.”

2. Because Council has a responsibility to keep the community safe and well, citizens need to know the truth if they’re to act in their own best interests. We need to be preparing our homes for the coming severe weather events like floods, severe droughts, and crippling summer heat. We are likely to be facing long-lasting blackouts and maybe even food shortages. Climate change also exacerbates inequalities, disproportionately affecting the poorest and most vulnerable.

3. Addressing the climate crisis is something we must do together. We are well beyond the point where personal action can make the necessary difference. A declaration can help make collective action a reality and focus people’s attention ahead of the fall election. It would also provide “social license” for people to share their climate change concerns with others. Right now, talking about the climate crisis is almost a no-go zone for many.

4. The quickest path to meaningful action is at the local level. Cities and local governments have historically been the spark for progress, from minimum wage to civil rights. Local action will inspire other communities to follow and build a mandate for much-needed national mobilizations. As the owners and operators of most of Ontario’s infrastructure, municipalities are at the front line of climate damage and have the most to lose from climate inaction. According to Dr. Saxe, they are also much more vulnerable to liability lawsuits than senior levels of government.

5. A declaration would support the Greater Peterborough Climate Action Plan, which the City has endorsed. For example, the Community Sector of the plan recommends strategies such as  “fostering a culture of climate change awareness” and “encouraging civic engagement around climate change.” Actions include “Supporting Sustainable Peterborough in delivering ongoing education and outreach on climate change, hosting regular events focused on climate change, and developing a charter and guidelines to foster meaningful community engagement.

Arguments against

Despite these arguments, not everyone is convinced – including some councillors.

1. Some people may argue that these declarations are merely symbolic, empty gestures. However, climate emergency declarations don’t typically contain specific policy measures. They simply draw an important line in the sand. In an emergency, there is no room for backsliding. In this way, they are a symbol of a municipality’s commitment to fighting and communicating the dire threat of the climate crisis through future measures and serve as a guidepost to help cities focus on climate mitigation and adaptation when making decisions.

2. It’s true that Council needs to address other emergencies such as Peterborough’s opioid crisis and the shortage of affordable housing. Nowhere is it written, however, that emergencies don’t happen at the same time. We also need to remember that the climate crisis is a multiplier, which will make every other imaginable emergency even worse.

3. It can also be argued that Peterborough is already taking climate action through its Climate Change Action Plan, adopted in 2016. However, the city’s emissions targets and timelines are now outdated in light of the latest IPCC and other major reports.

4. Finally, there is the rationale that the City does not have the financial resources to take further climate action. However, no new spending is required, at least not initially. A declaration would serve primarily as an appeal to the community as a whole for greater awareness, engagement and action around climate change. Council may, of course, decide to allocate funds in a future budget.

Let’s not forget that the climate crisis is already emptying our collective pockets. In Ontario alone, insured losses from extreme weather events exceeded $1.3 billion in 2018. Uninsured losses may have been three times as high. And these figures only cover losses measured directly in money, omitting mental and physical health impacts and a wide range of ecological repercussions.

Going forward

Although Council itself should decide how best to exercise leadership, there are many potential avenues for action. Most importantly, a plan should be made to inform and engage the entire community. This could even include facilitating ward-based, small group conversations in which friends and neighbours come together to share their climate concerns and to consider possible steps forward.

The City could also form a Climate Change Task Force with representation from all sectors of the community. The task force would take advantage of local expertise and knowledge to formulate and deliver a plan to educate and engage the community around climate change and to find ways to reduce emissions.

As for the City of Peterborough itself, a declaration could mean that each city department and project must be looked at from a climate change perspective. For example, municipalities play a lead role in land-use planning. Land use is a major driver of greenhouse gas emissions in Ontario, because sprawl forces dependency on cars. Ontarians are driving more than ever. The City’s eventual goal should be no less than what the IPCC says is necessary: a 45% greenhouse gas emission reduction by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050.

What can you do?

Please consider showing your support for a Peterborough Declaration of Climate Emergency by calling or emailing your councillor. Simply Google “Mayor and Council – City of Peterborough” for contact information. It is important that the declaration be made before October’s federal election so that climate change is first and foremost in peoples’ minds at the voting booth.

For a democracy to function, truth must be the foundation. If we understand the truth – and most of us don’t when it comes to climate change – we can make informed choices. The window for action has almost closed. This is why a climate emergency declaration is so important. It’s all about telling people the truth as revealed by science.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jun 212019
 

Now that summer has officially arrived, I want to look ahead to some of the events in nature that we can expect over the next three months. As for the long-term weather forecast, seasonal temperatures are expected this summer with frequent swings from hot to colder. These swings will mean a higher risk of severe storms. Above-normal rainfall and muggy conditions are expected, as well. Unfortunately, this appears to be the perfect recipe for abundant mosquitoes.

In addition to the events in nature listed below, I have included a number of outings, which are open to the public. For more information on outings, go to peterboroughnature.org/events/

Late June

  • Today, June 21, marks the summer solstice. The sun rises and sets at its furthest points north. Take note of where the sun rises and sets in late June and then again in late December. You’ll be amazed at the difference.
  • Turtles can still be seen along roadsides and rail-trails laying their eggs. Remember to slow down in turtle habitat.
  • Monarch butterflies have returned – the “grandchildren” of those that flew to Mexico last fall.
  • On June 30, Dave Milson and Matthew Toby will be leading an all-day search for breeding birds of Peterborough County. Meet at Riverview Park and Zoo (north parking lot) at 7:30 a.m.
  • Late June nights are alive with fireflies. The male will typically fly low over a meadow and flash his heatless light in a specific pattern, colour and duration. The female then responds with her own luminous signal, usually from the ground, thereby allowing for a nocturnal rendezvous.
  • With bird activity winding down, now is the time to pay more attention to our many species of butterflies. Tiger swallowtails, black swallowtails, white admirals, northern crescents, European skippers and clouded sulphurs are particularly noticeable.

July

  • Cedar waxwings nest any time between late June and early August as berry crops, their main source of food, begin to ripen. In late June and early July, reddish-purple serviceberries are a common source of food.
  • Family groups of common mergansers are often seen feeding and traveling along shorelines on lakes in the northern Kawarthas. Because broods of mergansers sometimes combine, it is not uncommon to see a female with a parade of 20 or more young in tow.
  • 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.
  • 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, common species include bird’s-foot trefoil (often on lawns), ox-eye daisy, yarrow, viper’s bugloss, black-eyed Susan, Queen Anne’s lace, purple-flowering raspberry and orange hawkweed.
  • Join butterfly expert, Jerry Ball, to explore the diverse habitats of Sandy Lake Road (off County Road 46) and its abundance of butterflies. Meet at 9 a.m., July 14, at the Country Style at the corner of Hwy 7 and Old Keene Road.
  • Identifying and photographing dragonflies is also a wonderful way to spend a summer afternoon. Among the most common July species are the dot-tailed whiteface, common whitetail, four-spotted skimmer, and chalk-fronted skipper. Some of the most frequently seen damselflies are powder-blue in colour, hence the common name of “bluets.” Go to odonatacentral.org/ for pictures of all Ontario dragonflies and damselflies. Click on “checklists” and then type “Ontario” in the search box.
  • 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 fungi. The wet conditions this summer should result in a large mushroom crop.
  • Mid-summer is a wonderful time for learning about ferns. On July 21, Sue Paradisis and Trent MSc candidate, Kathryn Tisshaw, will lead an outing to discover the ferns of the Warsaw Caves Conservation Area. Of special interest is the rare walking fern. Meet at 10:00 a.m. at the Riverview Park and Zoo or at 10:30 at the Warsaw Caves park gate house. Wear sturdy footwear, and bring binoculars, your phone, insect repellent and cash for park admission
  • Late July through September offers some of the best shorebird watching of the year. Semipalmated sandpipers, pectoral sandpipers and greater yellowlegs are several of the most commonly seen species. Presqu’ile Provincial Park is a great shorebird destination.
  • The ghostly-white Indian pipe blooms in the heavy shade of hardwood forests.
  • Being opposite the high-riding summer sun, the summer moon travels low in the southern sky. This translates into the longest moon shadows of the year.

August

  • Listen for the high-pitched “lisping” calls of cedar waxwings and the “po-ta-to-chip” flight call of the American goldfinch. Waxwings often perch on the branches of dead trees and sally out to catch flying insects.
  • August is a good time to check milkweeds for the yellow-, black-, and white-striped caterpillars of the monarch butterfly. They are easy to rear in captivity and provide adults and children alike with a first-hand lesson in insect metamorphosis.
  • On August 15, join Paul Elliott for a night walk in Jackson Park. Paul will be using ultrasonic detectors to pick up the high-frequency sounds made by foraging bats. Meet at the lower parking lot off Fairbairn Street at the corner of Parkhill Road at 8:45 p.m.   
  • By mid-August, ragweed is in full bloom, and its pollen has hay fever sufferers cursing with every sneeze. The higher CO2 levels and longer growing season associated with climate change are greatly increasing pollen production. It is also causing Poison Ivy to thrive like never before.
  • Small dragonflies known as meadowhawks abound. Mature males are red, while females and immature males are yellowish.
  • Bird migration is in full swing by mid- to late August, with numerous warblers, vireos, flycatchers, and common nighthawks moving through. One of the best places to see nighthawks is Back Dam Park near Warsaw. Migration peaks around August 20 but continues into the first week of September. Go in the evening and watch the sky for loose flocks.
  • On August 24, the Peterborough Field Naturalists will be travelling to Presqu’ile Provincial Park to view shorebirds and other fall migrants. The fall monarch migration will be starting, too, and arrangements are being made with park staff to conduct a demonstration of monarch tagging. Meet 7:00 a.m. in the Sobeys parking lot on Lansdowne Street west, adjacent to the Tim Horton’s.
  • Watch for underwing (Catocala) moths, named for the bright colours of the underwings. The forewings, however, which often hide the underwings, look very similar to bark. These moths can be attracted by applying a sugary concoction to tree trunks. A cup of white sugar, two or more mashed bananas, one ounce of molasses, a bottle of beer, and a pinch of yeast to help with fermentation will usually do the trick. Look for the moths once it gets dark.
  • 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.
  • Pegasus, the signature constellation of fall, becomes visible along the northeastern horizon in the late evening. It reminds us to enjoy summer now because it won’t last!

September

  • Monarch butterfly numbers are at their highest. Monarchs congregate at peninsulas on the Great Lakes such as Presqu’ile Provincial Park, a jumping off point for their migration across Lake Ontario. Don’t miss the monarch tagging demonstration at Presqu’ile from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. on August 31 and September 1. Monarch expert Don Davis will be on hand to answer questions and even let you or your kids release a tagged butterfly.
  • Chinook and coho salmon leave Lake Ontario to spawn in tributaries of the Ganaraska River. Huge salmon can be seen jumping up the fish ladder at Corbett’s Dam on Cavan Street in Port Hope.
  • By late September, asters reign supreme. Their purples, mauves, and whites light up fields and roadsides and bring the year’s wildflower parade to a close. The most common species include New England, heath, panicled, and heart-leaved asters. They make a great addition to any pollinator garden.
  • Most years, Virginia creeper vine, poison ivy, chokecherry, and staghorn sumac reach their colour peak at about the fall equinox, which occurs this year on September 23.

CLIMATE CRISIS NEWS

Don’t miss the CBC News series on the climate crisis called In Our Backyard. As the series’ website states, “Climate change is real, it’s happening right now, and it’s in our backyard in devastating, even deadly ways. Its fingerprints are all over this spring’s floods and wildfires.” In addition to looking at floods and fires, the series details how the climate crisis is affecting the lives of Canadians through extreme heat and Arctic thaw. To find the series online, go to cbc.ca/confrontingcarbon and scroll down to the In Our Backyard links. I would also recommend subscribing to CBC’s environmental newsletter, What on Earth? and the CBC podcast entitled Front Burner, especially the episode from June 18 on what it would take for Canada to meet its climate targets. As Diane Saxe, the former Environment Commissioner for Ontario says repeatedly, the climate crisis is far worse than you think. For an excellent overview of the situation in Ontario, search “Diane Saxe speaking on Climate Action – YouTube”

 

 

 

Jun 142019
 

Spring in the Kawarthas is synonymous with a ubiquitous yellow dust that descends upon everything from cars and patio furniture to rivers and lakes. Even the edges of puddles become marked with what looks like yellow chalk. For cottagers, the strange powder is most visible in June, when it piles up on shorelines and beaches.

What you are seeing is pollen – a manifestation of the sex lives of our trees as copious amounts of the magical dust are released to the wind. When the weather is hot and dry, you will sometimes even notice what looks like a yellow cloud around conifers when the wind jostles the branches.

In May, most of the pollen comes courtesy of the flowers of deciduous trees like Sugar Maple and White Birch. In June, however, the main culprits are the male cones of conifers such as pine, spruce and fir. Cones – named after their shape – are the reproductive parts of an ancient branch of plants known as gymnosperms. In this respect, they are akin to flowers. Conifers form the largest group of living gymnosperms, but Ginkgo 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.

As is the case with many flowers, cones can be either male or female. Except for junipers, both occur on the same tree. 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 can also be found lower down.

The male or pollen cones are much smaller – often only a centimetre or two in size – softer and less conspicuous. Usually located on the lower branches, they are usually light brown or reddish in colour 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 puff of yellow dust. Soon after the pollen is released, the male cones whither and drop from the tree.

All conifers are wind-pollinated. Unlike deciduous trees like cherries, basswoods and, to some extent, maples, conifers do not rely on insects to spread their pollen. Cones therefore lack bright colours, nectar rewards, or tantalizing perfumes to attract pollinators.

White Pine

The reproduction story of the White Pine is typical of many conifers. In the spring, before the female cones develop, pale yellow-brown pollen cones appear in clusters at the base of new shoots. They are usually located in the lower part of the crown, although some appear even on the bottom branches.

The green-coloured, seed-producing female cones are larger and tend to be in the upper part of the crown. Female cones become receptive to the wind-blown pollen at precisely the same time as the pollen grains are being released. At this time, they are soft, pliable, and their scales are partially separated.

As pollen grains are carried off by the wind, some inevitably encounter female cones and sift down between the open scales. With luck, a pollen grain will come to rest on one of the two ovules attached to the bottom inside of each cone scale. The egg cell within the ovule thereby becomes fertilized by the male gamete (sperm cell) contained within the pollen grain.

After their pollen is released, the male cones soon wither and fall away, often dropping from the trees in a veritable shower. Dry and shriveled male cones are a common sight anywhere pine trees occur and often cover the ground under the trees. We sweep them up, muttering “dirty tree” – often with no idea what they even are.

Following pollination, the scales on the female cones fuse together, and a pitch-like material seals the outside. Over the next two years, the cone gradually grows to full size. In White Pines, the seeds are ripe by August or September of their second summer. At this point, the cone scales open again, and the seeds are released to the wind.

White Pines may start to bear female cones when 5 to 10 years old. Large numbers of cones do not usually appear, however, until the trees are about 6 m (20 ft) tall. The abundance of cones varies greatly from one year to the next. Their relative abundance has a major impact on the populations of birds and mammals that eat the seeds.

Pollen grains

Pollen grains are fascinating structures. First, they are extremely small, which means that a scanning electron microscope is often needed to make out their details. In the case of conifer pollen, they are also uniquely designed for wind travel. Two air bladders give the grains buoyancy and enable them to take what amounts to a balloon ride.

When pollen grains land on a lake, they form a temporary film but soon sink to the bottom. That is not the end of the story, however. Because they are protected by a tough outer wall, they are highly resistant to decay. The grains therefore become microfossils that remain unchanged in the bottom sediment for thousands of years. Because the wall is often sculptured and can even bear spines, the markings can be used to identify which genus or species of plant the pollen came from. This allows paleobotanists to describe with great accuracy the history of the vegetation of an area. And, by knowing what kind of vegetation existed, scientists can also theorize what the climate was like. For example, by examining the pollen grains found in deep peat bogs, scientists have been able to piece together the story of the changes in climate and vegetation that occurred during and since the last Ice Age. As the glaciers retreated, vegetation followed. The pollen grains in these peat bogs show that the first trees to repopulate the land were firs and spruces. Later, pines and tamaracks came along, followed by birches and elms. Finally, oaks and maples appeared on the scene. You can see the northward advance of spruce forests since the last ice age by Googling “spruce pollen viewer”. There is a similar video for maples.

Allergies

Pine pollen often gets blamed for allergy symptoms. However, these symptoms are usually caused by the much lighter wind-borne pollens of birch, ragweed and various grasses that are often present at the same time. Also, the chemical composition of pine pollen makes it less likely to produce allergic symptoms. People with tree pollen allergies sometimes assume that trees with colorful flowers – like apple or cherry trees – will trigger their symptoms.  Flowering trees usually have bigger, stickier pollen that doesn’t blow in the wind or cause symptoms. The same is true for goldenrod pollen.

Because the climate crisis is extending the frost-free season, trees and other plants have more time to grow, flower, and produce pollen. Some plants, too, like ragweed and many grasses, benefit immensely from the higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. This allows them to grow faster and bigger and to produce even more pollen than before. Unfortunately, allergy sufferers can expect longer and more intense pollen seasons as we continue to dump more carbon into the atmosphere. This is just one more example of how greenhouse gas emissions are already damaging Canadians’ health.

Take the time to go out and closely examine the male and female cones of our conifers this month. Their colour, shape, texture and location vary widely from one species to another, but they all share a special beauty. The deep red female cones of the tamarack (larch) are particularly attractive and almost look like scrumptious little fruits decorating the branches.

Climate Crisis News

A growing number of local groups and citizens want the City of Peterborough to declare a Climate Emergency. Several hundred Canadian municipalities have already done so, including Kingston, London, Burlington, Halton Hills, and Ottawa. There are still too many Peterborough citizens who are not engaged with this issue. Some people still think, “If things were that serious, our elected officials would be saying so.” This is the essence of why a declaration is so necessary. It would be a call to action on the part of the entire community. A Climate Emergency declaration would also support the Greater Peterborough Climate Action Plan, which city council has endorsed. Strategies in the plan include the need to “foster a culture of climate change awareness” and to “encourage civic engagement around climate change.” Citizens need to be informed in they’re to act in their own best interests, such as preparing our homes for the coming severe weather events. A declaration might also inspire people to get involved in the upcoming election and provide the “social license” to share their concerns about the climate crisis with others. Right now, it’s a no-go zone for many people. In many ways, the quickest path to meaningful action on climate change is at the municipal level.

 

 

 

Jun 072019
 

Motorists need to slow down and watch out for these increasingly rare travelers.

I have always had a special fondness for turtles. As a child, I loved nothing more than catching, feeding and then releasing these ancient reptiles. They were no less than my gateway drug to a lifelong love of nature. But when June rolls around each year, I shudder at the likelihood of seeing a dead or injured turtle lying on the pavement. Sadly, the annual road carnage is already underway. As of Tuesday, the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre (OTCC) on Chemong Road had already admitted 300 turtles to their hospital, which is higher than the same date last year. If there is a positive side to this, it shows that the centre’s outreach is working, and more people are bringing turtles in.

Peterborough County is home to six species of turtles, five or which have been classified by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forests as at risk. Of these only three, the Painted, Snapping, and Blanding’s Turtles, are commonly seen. The situation for endangered Spotted Turtles is so critical that they now face imminent disappearance from the province. Blanding’s and Eastern Musk turtles are classified as threatened, while the Snapping Turtle and Northern Map Turtle are designated as species of special concern. Even Painted Turtles are now listed at risk federally.

Slow down

Starting in late May, female turtles begin searching out a place to lay their eggs, preferably with well-drained, loose, sandy soil or fine gravel. Both males and females turtles also cover many kilometers in search of mates, feeding grounds, and preferred summer hangouts. Invariably, they encounter roads in their travels. Although Southern and Central Ontario has Canada’s highest concentration and number of turtle species, it also has the country’s highest density of roads. This spells disaster. The road carnage in June is especially devastating, since egg-bearing adult females are often the victims.

So, what can drivers do? The most important thing is to slow down and carefully watch the road surface ahead, especially when travelling near wetlands, lakes and rivers. If you see a turtle on the road and traffic conditions are safe, consider stopping, putting on your emergency flashers, and moving the animal to the shoulder in the direction it’s heading – even if it’s going away from the water.

If the turtle is small, you can simply carry it across the road. If you are dealing with a Snapping Turtle, however, the safest technique is to push and prod the animal along with a stout stick or shovel. You can also lift or pull the turtle, holding onto the rear of the shell. Another option is to simply stand guard, and let the traveler get where he’s going on his own. It is also important not to straddle a Snapping Turtle with your car. Snappers jump up when they feel threatened, thereby hitting the undercarriage of the vehicle as it passes over them. This results in serious head trauma and shearing injuries to the carapace.

If you find an injured or deceased turtle, call the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre (OTTC) at 705-741-5000. Remember to note the location such as the road, GPS coordinates or the distance from an intersection a given landmark. In the case of an injured turtle, carefully place it in a well-ventilated container with a secure lid. Do not transport turtles in water and do not offer them anything to eat. The OTCC has First Responders throughout the province. They are primarily veterinarians who have been trained in emergency turtle care. There is also a team of nearly 1,000 province-wide volunteers who help get the turtles to the centre.

Turtle populations are also in decline because of habitat loss and egg predation. Predators such as skunks and raccoons usually discover the nests within 48 hours of egg-laying, dig up the eggs and have a feast. They leave behind a familiar sight of crinkled, white shells scattered around the nest area. Since these predators flourish most anywhere there is human settlement, few turtle nests go undiscovered.

If you come across a nest that has been disturbed by a predator, carefully place the eggs back in the hole and bury them. Another option is to bring the eggs to the OTTC to be incubated. The centre is located at 1434 Chemong Road, just north of the lights at County Road 19. Record the location of the nest as precisely as possible. You can also help to protect new nests by lightly sweeping the surface of the nests (to disperse the scent) or temporarily covering the nest with a board for the first few days.

Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre

Opened in June 2002, the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre is the only wildlife rehabilitation centre dedicated solely to providing medical and rehabilitative care to native Ontario turtles. Admission numbers have steadily climbed, and 2018 saw 945 patients. These turtles come from every corner of the province.

Because so few of these animals ever reach sexual maturity – females can take anywhere from 8 to 25 years before breeding – each adult turtle is part of an extremely important group. Therefore, it is essential to rehabilitate turtles that have been injured. Fortunately, turtles are resilient, and their ability to recover from injury is quite high. Once healed – often after an overwinter stay -they are released in the closest body of water to the rescue site.

Shell fractures are one of the most common injuries, and putting the shell back together is no less than orthopedic surgery. Fractures are initially stabilized using an adhesive and tape. After administering an anesthetic, shell pieces can then be wired together, using orthopedic wire and a dental drill. Although a shell fracture can be the most obvious injury, internal damage is more life threatening. Just like any animal that has experienced extensive trauma, the turtle goes into shock, hence the need for timely veterinary care. Surgery is also required for facial injuries, fractured jaws and the ingestion of fishing hooks. Hooks can become lodged in the head, mouth, stomach or intestines, and can easily become fatal.

A Snapping Turtle hit by a car on June 1, 2017, provides a great example of the work done by OTCC. This individual was suffering from trauma to the head, which is a common injury in Snapping Turtles. Unlike other species, they are unable to protect their head in their shell. When the turtle was brought in, he was given pain medication and fluids in order to stabilize his situation before surgery. He was then anesthetized, and surgery was performed by Dr. Sue Carstairs, the centre’s Executive and Medical Director. By mid-August, the turtle had recovered fully and was released to the wild by month’s end.

The OTCC also has an impressive hatchling program. Since half the admitted turtles are females and many are carrying eggs, it’s essential to ensure that these eggs are not lost. The pregnant mothers are induced in the same way as humans. Eggs are also collected from deceased turtles, which can also be checked out for disease and used in studies on environmental contaminants. All the eggs are hatched at the centre, and the babies released back into the mother’s wetland. In 2018 alone, 4011 eggs were incubated, and 2100 turtles returned to the wild.

The OTCC is a Registered Charity and depends on donations from the public. Donations can be made online at ontarioturtle.ca or in person. You can also help turtles by volunteering for the Turtle Taxi program, turtle care (e.g., feeding, cleaning tanks), fund-raising projects, and education and outreach. Complete the contact form at the bottom of the Volunteer page on the website. Visitors are always welcome at the centre, which is open Monday to Friday from 9:00 am – 5:00 pm, and on Saturdays from 9:00 am – 3:00 pm.

Turtle Walks

To raise money to help save Ontario’s turtles, an organization known as Turtle Guardians is holding Turtle Walks this month. Tomorrow, June 8, a two-kilometre family walk will be held in Peterborough, followed by other area walks on June 15. Meet at the Riverview Zoo parking lot at 10 am. There will be face-painting, crafts and ambassador turtles like 60-year-old Jeremiah, the Snapper. For more information, go to turtlewalks.ca.

You might also want to become a Turtle Guardian yourself. Guardians help track, monitor and protect turtles across Ontario. For example, level 3 guardians can become involved with road surveys and turtle tunnel assessments. Data is gathered at known ‘turtle hot-spots’ to assess the potential of installing turtle tunnels. These ingenious passageways, coupled with a cloth barrier on the sides of the road, allow the turtles to pass safely under the road. Information can be found at turtleguardians.com

Climate Crisis News

Although it seems counter-intuitive, the cold, wet weather we’ve experienced this spring in the Kawarthas may be due to a quickly warming Arctic. Research is now linking increased Arctic warming to a weakened jet stream – the narrow band of high-altitude wind that blows west to east across the Northern Hemisphere and controls our daily weather. Instead of usually blowing straight as it used to, the jet stream is now meandering much more to the north and south like an S lying on its side. It is also becoming stuck in place. When this happens, the same weather conditions can last for weeks on end. Right now, a bend to the south over eastern Canada is allowing cold Arctic air to drop down into our latitudes. The opposite happened last summer when a bend to the north ushered in blistering heat from the south, which lasted for weeks and killed scores of people in Quebec.

 

 

May 242019
 

A visit to Point Pelee and Rondeau parks is a celebration of the wonder of spring migration

For anyone wanting to see Ontario’s most spectacular birds – Red-headed Woodpeckers, Indigo Buntings, Scarlet Tanagers, Baltimore Orioles, Red-breasted Grosbeaks, and more than two dozen species of warblers – a trip to Point Pelee National Park and Rondeau Provincial Park  is a must. You will also be treated to species we rarely find in the Kawarthas, including Orchard Orioles, White-eyed Vireos, Carolina Wrens, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and Prothonotary Warblers.

Spring migration, which peaks during the first three weeks of May, is the time to be there. The birds are in dazzling breeding plumage and most species are singing. They are also easy to see, since the cool water of Lake Erie delays leaf emergence. On days when temperatures are extremely cool, birds that normally remain high in the canopy often forage close to the ground– sometimes nearly at your feet – and seem  oblivious to human presence. This allows for wonderful closeup views and superb photo opportunities.

Rondeau, which is near Blenheim, and Point Pelee, located 70 kilometres to the west at Leamington, are peninsulas that extend into the western basin of Lake Erie. They are situated at the crossroads of two major migration routes – the Mississippi and Atlantic Flyways. Most importantly, they are one of the first points of land that spring migrants reach after crossing Lake Erie at night.

On May 13, Brian Wales, Chris Risley and I, made our made our annual pilgrimage to both southern Ontario birding meccas. Here, we met our fellow birding companions Jim Cashmore, Greg Piasetzki, and Mitch Brownstein and his wife, Liliana. It was wonderful having Liliana join us for the first time. Her unbridled enthusiasm added new interest to birds the rest of us have seen countless times before.

Point Pelee

Point Pelee is arguably the best place to bird in Ontario. Approximately 385 different species have been recorded here, including 42 of the 55 regularly occurring North American warblers. Not surprisingly, the park is known as the “warbler capital of North America.” The variety and number of birds often changes from day to day, depending on temperature and wind direction. On Monday, for example, Nashville Warblers were everywhere, while later in the week species like Blackburnian Warblers and Wood Thrushes became very common. Pelee is also famous for its migrant “fallouts” which occur when weather fronts collide, and huge numbers of birds are forced down out of the sky. Such was the case on the morning of May 9 this year. A huge fallout occurred at the tip of Pelee with hundreds of warblers, tanagers, and sparrows hopping low on trees, rocks, and even the beach. Oh, to have been there!

For  anyone arriving from the Kawarthas, you immediately notice how different the habitat is. The park is dominated by Carolinian forest with abundant Hackberry Trees interspersed with Eastern Redbud, Chinquapin Oak, Sassafras, Shagbark Hickory and American Sycamore – many supporting huge vines. The forest floor is covered with wide diversity of native flowers like Sweet Cicely, Spring Beauty, and Appendaged Waterleaf.

Each day at Pelee, we usually follow the same routine. Our first stop is the park tip, where we hope for newly arrived migrants. We then make our way north along the west beach where birds often bask and feed in the morning sun. A walk through the Sparrow Field is next on the list, from where we make our way back to the Visitor Centre via the Woodland Nature Trail. We then consult the sightings board for rarities and enjoy a quick lunch, courtesy of the Friends of Pelee. In the afternoon, we usually check out Tilden’s Woods, DeLaurier Trail, and the nearby trails at Dunes and Sleepy Hollow Trail. The day concludes with a trip up to Hillman’s Marsh to look for shorebirds and ducks.

Each visit is marked by its own special moments. This year, it was watching a beautiful male Kentucky Warbler foraging for insects in a tangle of vines and shrubs. The bird’s dark mask and bright yellow throat glowed in the sunshine as it hopped about completely unperturbed by the dozen or so ecstatic birders only metres away. The Kentucky is one of several birds that routinely “overshoot” their normal breeding range south of the Great Lakes.

Other special Pelee moments this year included great views of a rare Prairie Warbler flitting about in a fallen tree in the morning sunshine; gorgeous Canada and Hooded Warblers that frequented the same section of trail for days in a row; Nashville Warblers hovering at flowers in  hummingbird fashion; a famished Rose-breasted Grosbeak eating flowers in a low shrub almost at our feet; a Black-billed Cuckoo perched a foot off the ground and only metres away; an Orange-crowned Warbler that finally showed itself after we’d waited for half an hour in the rain; and half-frozen Scarlet Tanagers posing for pictures on the shoulder of the road.

The people

There are two spring migrations at Point Pelee: the birds themselves and the people who flock to see them. Yet, despite the thousands of people in the park and the sometimes-congested trails, birders show an unwavering respect for both the birds and for fellow birdwatchers. People speak in such hushed tones that you almost feel like you have the trail to yourself. Birders also help each other with identification problems and share the location of nearby species of interest. This information is often provided without even having to ask. It’s also wonderful to be in the company of so many like-minded people and to chat with visitors from the U.S., the United Kingdom and all over Canada – Quebec, in particular. At times you hear almost as much French as English.

This year, we were also encouraged by the number of younger people, many in their 30s and 40s. Because birders ‑ and naturalists in general ‑ are usually committed conservationists, this bodes well for the future. There were also as many women as men, which is a welcome change from the past. Anyone going for the first time can’t help but notice the number of photographers, too, as large telephoto zooms are nearly as common as binoculars.

Rondeau

After two-and-a-half days at Pelee, we made the 70-minute drive east along Lake Erie to Rondeau Provincial Park. Rondeau offers a quieter counterbalance to Pelee’s frenzy. The birding can be almost as good, and there are far fewer people. Rondeau is also larger and more heavily forested with spectacular Tulip and American Beech trees. The Visitor Centre provides many of the same services as at Pelee but on a smaller scale. Unlike Pelee, Centre has bird feeders, which attract a non-stop parade of orioles and grosbeaks and sometimes even Red-headed Woodpeckers and Tufted Titmice.

A lasting memory form this year’s Rondeau experience is that of a Wood Thrush building its nest in a small tree on the edge of the Tulip Tree Trail. Standing only metres away, we watched as it fashioned the cup with dead beech leaves. In little more than an hour, the nest was nearly half completed. Watching if work, I couldn’t help thinking of a Wood Thrush that overwintered in the garden beside the house we rented in Costa Rica this winter. As absurd as it sounds, it was fun to imagine that this might even be the same bird! Not only is the Wood Thrush the most beautiful member of its genus and a gifted singer, but it has also come to represent the plight of songbird decline.

Other special Rondeau moments this year included watching an Eastern Screech-owl peering out of a hole in a giant American Beech; a pair of rare Black-necked Stilts feeding in a flooded field; hundreds of swallows and Purple Martins sitting on the road at the nearby Blenheim Sewage Lagoons; seeing all seven of Ontario’s vireos; finding 12 species of warblers along the Spicebush Trail as toads trilled in the background and wildflowers lit up the forest floor; and enjoying the evocative calls of an Eastern Whip-poor-will and an American Woodcock against a background chorus of Spring Peepers.

Experiencing Point Pelee and Rondeau reminds me each year why so many people are captivated by bird watching. When you are fully focused on finding, identifying or simply watching a given bird, it is possible to live entirely in the moment. There is so much to be enjoyed: the beauty, numbers and diversity of the bird themselves, the rich orchestra of songs, the smell of the spring air and the warmth of the May sun. Being there to experience the migration is no less than a rite of spring for thousands of people.  Each of the 150 or so species we saw provided us with its own, unique expression of the wonder of spring migration. The season of migration is now giving way to the season of nesting, which holds the promise of bountiful young birds that will commence their own journey – southward this time – in just a few short months. If you plan to go next year, or even in early September, book now.

Climate Crisis News

Across the country people are gathering to brainstorm solutions to the climate crisis. The ideas will be compiled to form a collective vision for Canada’s Green New Deal – one that provides a vision for a new economy where no one gets left behind. Your input is needed! The Peterborough meeting will take place May 30 at Trinity United Church, 360 Reid St., starting at 6 p.m. For more information, go to Facebook and search for “Green New Deal – Peterborough”  I also invite people to listen to the latest episode of Tapestry on CBC radio to get a true sense of the magnitude of the climate crisis.

 

May 102019
 

Knowing the songs of common birds opens the door to greater enjoyment of the natural world

May’s explosion of leaves will soon draw a green veil upon our neighbourhoods and woodlands. As beautiful and welcome as the burst of foliage may be, it complicates seeing and appreciating the many bird species that make spring such a wonderful season. To be fully aware of all the avian diversity that surrounds us, we therefore need to depend on our ears as much as our eyes. Knowing the songs and calls also means you don’t have to spend a lot of time and energy tracking down the mystery songsters.

With practice, nearly all birds can be identified by their vocalizations, namely their songs and calls. The distinction between songs and calls can be complicated but, in general, songs are longer and more complex and are associated with courtship and mating. They are usually heard only in the spring and early summer. Calls tend to be short – sometimes only one or two notes – and serve as alarms or keeping members of a flock together. A good example is the Black-capped Chickadee. It makes its “chick-a-dee-dee” call all year round, but usually only whistles its “Hi-cutie” song in late winter and spring.

Describing songs
Learning and describing bird song involves some special vocabulary.  For example, when talking about the quality or tone of the song, we often use words like clear, harsh, liquid, flute-like, trilled, or buzzy. A clear song is something you could whistle (e.g., American Robin, Northern Cardinal); a harsh song has scratchy notes (e.g., Common Grackle, House Finch); a flute-like song suggests a musical instrument (e.g., Wood Thrush, Hermit Thrush); a trilled song contains numerous notes in a row and too fast to count (e.g., Chipping Sparrow, Pine Warbler); while a buzzy song has a bee-like quality (e.g., Savannah Sparrow, many warblers).

Songs also differ in pitch. Most birds sing in a characteristic range, with smaller birds typically having higher voices than larger birds. The pitch might rise as the bird sings (e.g., Prairie Warbler), fall (e.g., Veery, Northern Waterthrush), remain steady  (e.g., Chipping Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco), or be variable (e.g., Song Sparrow).

Some birds characteristically repeat syllables or phrases. Brown Thrashers and Indigo Buntings typically repeat twice before changing to a new syllable. Often, bird songs can also be broken down into sections. A section begins whenever there is a dramatic change in pitch or speed. The Song Sparrow has many sections in its song, as does the European Starling. Birds also sing with different rhythms. House Wrens pour out their song in a hurry, while White-throated Sparrows opt for a leisurely pace. There is no doubt that some species sound similar.  However, when you take into consideration the context of the song – habitat, time of year and the characteristics of the song itself – the choice usually comes down to only a handful of species.

Memory aids

Memorizing bird song as pure sound is difficult. For me at least, it is much easier to convert the songs to a mnemonic, which is simply any device that serves as a memory aid. Sometimes, it’s useful to find your own, personal comparison or memory aid for remembering a song.

The following is a list of mnemonics that birders have been using for years. I have grouped the birds by the habitat in which they are most typically found: MH (many habitats), U (urban), W (wetlands), FF (fields and farmland), F (forests)

American Robin (MH):  CHEERILY-CHEERY-CHEERILY-CHEER… – a series of short, clear, musical whistles, rising and falling in pitch. Robins are especially vocal just before dawn.

American Goldfinch (MH):  PO-TA-TO-CHIP! – this distinctive call is given on the up rise of the goldfinch’s roller-coaster flight.

Black-capped Chickadee (MH):  HI-CUTY or SPRING-IS-HERE – a clear, two or three note whistle. The last note drops in pitch is often double-pulsed.

Blue Jay (MH): QUEEDLE-QUEEDLE – a pleasant, musical song, given in a quick burst. Listen also for “squeaky wheelbarrow” sounds and the jay’s harsh, descending “jaaaay” scream.

Cedar Waxwing (MH):  SREEEE-SREEEE-SREEEE – an extremely high-pitched, hissy, weak, non-musical whistle. This is a common late summer sound in the Kawarthas.

Chipping Sparrow (MH):  a mechanical, rapid trill consisting of dry chips, lasting several seconds, and almost sounding like a fast-running sewing machine.

Eastern Phoebe (MH):  FEE-BEEE – a very emphatic, two-note song with a raspy or burred second note. It is repeated constantly. Phoebes are most commonly found around cottage and farm outbuildings.

House Wren (MH): a rapid, bubbling series of trills and rattles, both rising and descending. This bird can be a non-stop singer practically all day long.

Mourning Dove (MH):  HOOO-AH-HOO-HOO-HOO – very slow and “mourning.” The song could be mistaken for that of an owl.

Song Sparrow (MH):  MAIDS-MAIDS-MAIDS-PUT-ON-YOUR-TEA-KETTLE-ETTLE-ETTLE – a variable, complex series of notes that includes one long trill in the middle.

Song Sparrow – Karl Egressy

Chimney Swift (U):  CHIT-CHIT-CHIT-CHIT – an ultra-rapid burst of notes given as the birds fly overhead, usually in Peterborough’s downtown core.

European Starling (U):  WHEEEE-ERR – a long, down-slurred “wolf-whistle,” accompanied by an unmusical series of chips, squawks and squeaky notes. Starlings often sing from telephone wires.

 

 

 

House Finch (U):  think of this bird as “the mad warbler” because of its loud, bubbly, quick-paced, warbled song. Harsh “churr” notes are often included. This bird often sings from the very top of spruce trees in the city.

House Sparrow (U):  CHIDDIK-CHIDDIK… – a dry, monotonous series of identical chips.

Northern Cardinal (U):  TWEER-TWEER-WHIT-WHIT-WHIT-WHIT or BIRDY-BIRDY-BIRDY-BIRDY – a loud, rich and persistent song, usually sung from a high perch.

Red-winged Blackbird (W):  KON-KA-REEEEE – a harsh, gurgling song ending in a trill.

Common Yellowthroat (W): WITCHITY-WITCHITY-WITCHITY-WITCH – a song characterized by an up and down rolling rhythm.

Yellow Warbler (W):  SWEET-SWEET-SWEET-I’M-SO-SWEET – clear, high, whistled notes that are rushed at the end.

Yellow Warbler (Karl Egressy)

Bobolink (FF): – a rolling, bubbling (boboling!) warble of very short notes that seem to almost trip over each other. It is given as the bird flies low over a hay field.

Eastern Meadowlark (FF): SPRING-OF-THE-YEAR – a slow, clear, slurred whistle that carries surprisingly far.

Killdeer (FF):  KILL-DEEEEER or KEE-DEE – a high, strident song, often given in flight.

Ovenbird (F): t-CHER-t-CHER-t-CHER-t-CHER-t-CHER! – a loud, ringing, series of two-syllable “teacher” notes repeated quickly and accented on the second syllable.

 

 

Veery (F): VER-VEER-VEER-VEER-VEER- a smooth, calming series of fluty, ethereal notes that spiral downward.

Red-eyed Vireo (F):  LOOK-UP, OVER-HERE, SEE-MEE, UP-HERE… – a series of simple, whistled, robin-like phrases, repeated over and over and sung from tree tops both in the city and county.

Resources

Thanks to a plethora of bird apps and websites, learning bird songs and calls is easier than ever.  One of the most convenient ways is to use an app such as Merlin (free) or the Sibley eGuide to Birds. Both these apps provide a number of different songs and calls for each species. This is because there are often regional differences or “dialects” within the same species. Another wonderful resource is xeno-canto.org. This is a website at which volunteers share recordings of sounds of wild birds from  across the world. You can download the songs to your phone or computer, as well. This is something many birders do when they travel and want to have the songs handy. Instructions for doing this can be found under “Frequently Asked Questions”. If you wish to watch a given bird as it sings, try searching on YouTube.

Some people find it useful to visualize bird songs using spectrograms (sonograms). They are a visual representation of a bird’s song. If you wish to try this technique, Google “Bird Song Hero”. This is a game in which you match the song to a choice of three spectrograms. Finally, I would also recommend allaboutbirds.org which is usually the first website that comes up when you search for a given bird on line. Click on the Sounds tab. If you go to the Topics tab and select “Bird ID Skills”, there is also an excellent resource called “How to Learn Bird Songs and Calls”.

Being able to recognize bird song is one of the most satisfying ways to enjoy the natural world. To the practiced ear, a chorus of bird song is like a symphony in which you recognize each of the individual instruments. Stepping out the back door or walking down a forest trail and hearing the expected birds singing in the expected locations provides a reassurance that the bird community is healthy, and the seasonal rhythms of the natural world are occurring as they should.

Climate Crisis News

              In a U.N. report released this week, we learned that up to 1 million of the Earth’s plant and animal species are at risk of extinction — and many within decades. In the Kawarthas, this will mean saying goodbye to species such as Golden-winged Warbler, Least Bittern, Eastern Wolf and Spotted Turtle. The burgeoning growth of humanity is putting the world’s biodiversity at perilous risk with alarming implications for human survival. Climate change is a major driver of the extinction crisis and is on track to become the dominant pressure on many natural systems in coming decades. It is already exacerbating the effects of overfishing, pesticide use, pollution and both urban and agricultural expansion into the natural world. Sustained public pressure on politicians for enlightened climate action is absolutely necessary. The Ford government’s environmental policies are the antithesis of enlightened action. It’s heart-wrenching to think that the so many of the wild animals in the bedtime stories we read to our children and grandchildren will soon be gone.

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

May 032019
 

The flowers of our common trees are an under-appreciated element of spring’s beauty

A beautiful spectacle unfolds above our heads each spring. The lengthening days and increasing warmth are stirring flower buds that have lain dormant through the long winter months. Where only weeks ago there were just bare branches, the flowers of many of our most common trees now punctuating the landscape and offering up a gentle array of colours and shapes. As the flowers open, tree crowns take on a hazy, pastel appearance, announcing the long-awaited change of season. Make a point this spring of looking up and appreciating this blossom parade that can easily go unnoticed.

Flower parts 101

Like the annuals and perennials in our gardens, all trees produce flowers. Their raison d’etre, of course, is to produce seed to assure future generations. Flowers, however, vary in their configuration and can’t be fully appreciated without knowing the various parts. This might require reacquainting yourself with some special vocabulary. Let’s start with a typical or “perfect” (hermaphroditic) flower, such as those of a cherry or apple tree. A typical flower has both male and female reproductive organs together in the same structure. The female part is the pistil, which is usually located in the center of the flower and rises above the male parts. The pistil consists of the stigma (the sticky, widened top), the style (the long tube holding up the stigma) and the ovary, which is hidden at the base of the style. The ovary contains the female egg cells called ovules.

The male parts are called stamens and usually surround the pistil on all sides. The stamen is made up of the anther (the widened, pollen-producing top) and the filament, which is the stem of the anther. When a flower is pollinated (fertilized), pollen adheres to the stigma, and a tube grows down the style and enters the ovary. Male reproductive cells travel down the tube and fertilize the ovule, which then becomes a seed. The ovary becomes a fleshy fruit. Remember this the next time you eat an apple, because you are actually eating an apple flower’s enlarged ovary. Because insect activity is so unpredictable during the often-cool days of April and early May, most early‑flowering trees depend primarily on the wind to spread their pollen.

Not all flowers are “perfect”, however. Flowers may also be unisexually male and only bear pollen-producing stamens (staminate flowers) or unisexually female and only bear seed-producing pistils (pistillate flowers). Unisexual flowers often appear in long, caterpillar‑like structures called catkins. Each catkin contains dozens of individual flowers – all male or all female. Think of a cob of corn and each tiny flower as one kernel on the cob. Some common trees with catkins include willows, poplars, aspens, alders, and oaks.

The parts of a flower (Drawing by Judy Hyland)

Male catkins of Speckled Alder – Drew Monkman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Because catkins are easily jostled by the breeze, they are a superb adaptation to wind pollination. Let’s take the example of the Speckled Alder, whose catkins light up local wetlands. In the warm April sunshine, they swell into eight-centimetre-long purple, red and yellow garlands, releasing their pollen in golden puffs when disturbed. The female flowers are nestled in small, erect catkins that become cone‑like in appearance when the seeds are ripe.

One house or two?

Like human sexuality, the sex of trees – male, female or both – is complicated. Some species have separate male and female flowers on each individual tree. That is, one branch or twig might male flowers and another have female flowers. These species, along with species possessing the more typical “male and female together” flowers (a.k.a. perfect flowers) are referred to as monoecious (from the Greek, in one house).

However, there are also plants like willows, poplars, aspens, hollies, and Manitoba Maples that have separate sexes, just as animals do. They have male flowers on male plants and female flowers on female plants. These species are called dioecious (in two houses). This means that female trees can only produce fertile seeds if there is a male nearby. Hollies are an example that gardeners are familiar with. An individual holly is either male or female and produces either functionally male flowers or functionally female flowers. The word “functional” is important here, because sterile, reduced-in-size, non-functional flower parts of the opposite sex are present in both the male and female flowers of hollies.

Even within the monoecious/dioecious framework, there are exceptions. In the case of Red Maples, for example, some individual trees are monoecious, and others are dioecious. Under certain conditions an individual Red Maple can even switch from male to female, male to hermaphroditic (perfect flowers), and hermaphroditic to female.

The flowering calendar

Trees and shrubs flower in reliable order each spring. With climate change, however, the dates have tended to become earlier on average.

Late March: Silver Maple, poplars, aspens; Early April: Red Maple, Speckled Alder, Pussy Willow;

Mid-April: American Elm; Late-April: Manitoba Maple, White Birch; Early May: Serviceberry (Juneberry); Mid-May: Sugar Maple, Norway Maple, Common Lilac, Pin Cherry, apples;  Late May: Striped Maple, White Ash, Chokecherry; Early June: Bur Oak, Red Oak, American Beech; Mid-June: Black Locust, Black Cherry, Black Walnut; Late June: Catalpa, Small-leaved Linden; Early July: American Basswood

The maples

Each spring, I like to pay special attention to the flowers on maples. The Silver Maple is the first of this genus to blossom, with flowers often appearing as early as March. The fat, bright clusters of red flower buds produce either male flowers with dainty yellow stamens or female flowers with reddish pistils. When the male flowers are ripe with pollen, the whole twig looks yellow. Twigs with female flowers appear all red when the pistils appear.

In early April, Red Maples have their turn. The profusion of tiny, red flowers against the tree’s smooth gray bark is one of spring’s loveliest sights. The flowers have small, red petals, which hang in tassels. The Red Maple wears its name proudly, because all the tree’s interesting features are indeed red: the winter twigs and buds, the spring flowers, the leafstalk and, in male trees especially, the fall foliage. In the Kawarthas, Red Maples are primarily a Shield species. Both Red and Silver Maples attract bees on warm spring days, thanks to their offering of pollen and nectar. They are also pollinated by the wind, however.

A cluster of male flowers (L) from a Sugar Maple. Three female flowers, each with two long styles, can be seen at the bottom on the cluster on the right. (Drew Monkman)

Another member of the maple clan to flower in April is the Manitoba Maple, a somewhat aberrant member of the genus. Not only does it have ash‑like, compound leaves, but the seed flowers and pollen flowers appear on separate trees. This is a very common species of urban areas, taking root in some of the most inhospitable sites imaginable

In the next couple of weeks, Sugar Maples will be flowering. To the trained eye, blooming Sugar Maples are one of the most conspicuous trees in both the urban and rural landscape. The trees glow in a garb of pale yellow-green as countless, long-stalked clusters of flowers hang from the twigs. At a glance, the floral display might be mistaken for leaf-out, but the leaves have usually only begun to emerge when Sugar Maples are in full flower.

The male and female flowers of Sugar Maples can appear on separate trees, on separate branches of the same tree, or even on the same branch in the same tree in the same cluster. There are no petals on the flowers. Clusters of male flowers are 7-10 centimetres long with hairy stalks. Each cluster has 8-14 individual flowers. At the end of each stalk is a bell-shaped, yellow-green calyx. Six to eight stamens extend just beyond the calyx. Most of the flowers low on the tree are male.

Female flowers appear in shorter clusters, measuring only 2-5 centimetres in length. The pistil has two curved styles, which protrude from the calyx. Female flowers are most common higher up in the tree. Within a week or so, the male flowers fall to the ground, leaving a yellow confetti on sidewalks and roads. Female flowers, of course, develop into paired keys, which spin to the ground in late summer.

Norway Maples, which also bloom in mid-May on average, also deserve a close look. The flower clusters resemble giant, lime-green pompoms. The leaves and flowers emerge simultaneously. Unlike the Sugar Maple, the flower clusters are erect, and each flower has five petals. Male flowers are composed of eight fertile stamens, while female flowers have eight sterile stamens and a long green pistil, which splits into a pair of curved styles.

The flower clusters of Norway Maples, sometimes resemble giant, lime-green pompoms. Drew Monkman

I encourage readers to take some time this month to look more closely at tree flowers. It’s fun to try to see all the floral parts and to determine whether the flower is male, female or a perfect flower combining both. Try to follow the progression on female flowers from blossom all the way to seed, maybe capturing the development with your camera.  Nature reveals so much more when you take time to really pay attention.

 

 

 

 

Arguments for Climate Action

              When talking about climate change with friends and family, remind them that a majority of Canadians in every province, except for Alberta and Saskatchewan, are in favour of a carbon tax.  A majority also believes that government must lead the climate effort and that individual action won’t be enough. When people say, “Well, what can I do?”, the answer is simple: support strong government action. In addition to a carbon tax, this includes phasing out coal and implementing stronger regulations like more aggressive clean fuel standards. Point out that 70 percent of Canada’s emissions are industry-related. All these initiatives, of course, involve costs to taxpayers – either transparent at the gas pump or hidden when it comes to regulations affecting industry – so paying these costs is “what you can do”. 

 

 

 

 

 

Apr 192019
 

Despite Ford’s reckless and self-serving attacks on intelligent climate policy, signs of hope remain.

Next Monday is Earth Day, an occasion that for me evokes bittersweet emotions.  As a teacher, I was involved in organizing numerous Earth Day events to inspire students to learn and care more about the environment. In the 1980s and 90s, Earth Day reflected a true sense of excitement that a much greener future was within reach. At Edmison Heights Public School, we had set up a school-wide recycling and a litterless lunch program; we carried out classroom waste audits; we raised money for everything from the Lakefield Marsh to the Costa Rican rainforest; and we even naturalized a corner of the schoolyard. Earth Day assemblies were a celebration of all these initiatives. Every year we would sing “Signs of Hope”, an environmental anthem composed and song by Ontario elementary students. And, yes, many of us believed the song’s lyrics that “signs of hope are coming, they’re beginning to appear, signs of hope are everywhere, the time to act is here.” Over the years, however, Earth Day has become little more than an occasion to pick up litter or at best plant a tree. Optimism has given way to the reality that real change is not at hand, even though environmental threats and degradation have become infinitely worse – the biggest case in point being climate breakdown, which threatens the very future of civilization as we know it.

You don’t have to look any further than the Ford government for the most current example of why so many of us feel despondent. It’s hard to think of anything more laughable, albeit deeply depressing, than Progressive Conservative politicians being photographed filling up their tanks at gas stations as part of a well orchestrated campaign to fight Trudeau’s 4.4-cent-litre levy on fuel. The hubris of these reality-denying politicians is beyond the pale. On the same day there was a chilling report from Environment and Climate Change Canada showing that our country is warming at double the global average and that the Arctic is warming even faster. This warming goes a long way to explaining why severe weather cost Canada $1.9 billion in insured damages last year. I guess the Ontario government feels that none of this matters when “The People” can save a few bucks when filling up.

If all of this was not distressing enough, we must now stomach Ontario’s legal challenge to the fuel levy and brace ourselves for the outrageous sight of the coming anti-carbon tax stickers on gas pumps. Being a strictly political ploy, the stickers make no mention of the fact that the money paid for the fuel tax will be returned to Ontario households in their tax refunds. I agree with stickers, but they should be reminding us of how our use of fossil fuels contributes to the climate crisis we are facing! As Dr. Diane Saxe, Ontario’s recently fired environmental commissioner, said in a news conference, Ontario’s climate response is “very inadequate, very frightening.” If ever there was an example of a government being on the wrong side of history and science, this is it.

What remains of hope?  

It’s little wonder that so many Canadians feel paralyzed in the face of climate breakdown. I don’t blame people for thinking “there’s nothing I can do” and carrying on as if everything is fine. For many, it’s the only way to maintain sanity and enjoy life in the present.

Where do you find signs of hope today? Are there any, or are we just grasping at straws and deluding ourselves? A growing number of environmentalists believe the latter. Call it delusional, but I’m not ready quite yet to join their ranks. How can I with six grandchildren?

I believe there is more hope out there than meets the eye. Jeremy Lent, author of “The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning” argues for a non-linear way of looking at things. Small changes at one level can have indirect, amplified, and unpredictable effects on a larger scale. There’s an inherent mystery in how change comes about, and it rarely happens in a linear way. He argues that it’s helpful to think about change through the metaphor of the Butterfly Effect, which links a hurricane in China to a butterfly flapping its wings on the other side of the planet. It may take a very long time, but had the butterfly not flapped its wings at just the right point in space and time, the hurricane would not have happened. This effect is especially true in 2019, thanks to the hyper-connected society in which we live.

This means that the actions we take as citizens – be it on climate change or anything else – can have unforeseen, unknowable impacts. We can’t know, for example, to what extent they are noticed and copied by other people. We’re all embedded in a network, and the way we behave and relate to each other is part of the future we’re creating. Recognizing this fact provides a reason for hope. Not hope based on statistics or scientific reports, but on the recognition that there’s nothing inevitable about the way that this complex system of interconnected human beings and their actions will unfold. We are rarely able to predict tipping points, but history is replete with miraculously rapid changes. And the more we envision them, and work toward them, the more likely they become.

Knowing this, we should feel more positive about those climate actions we can take, be it minimizing our red meat consumption, buying carbon offsets when we fly, making climate change a regular topic of conversation with friends and family, or supporting aggressive climate policies on the part of government, including Trudeau’s carbon tax. Trudeau’s missteps in recent months are regrettable, but they pale in comparison to the damage on climate progress that would occur if ever Andrew Scheer was to become prime minister. If you believe the science, climate change policies are what matter most to the future of civilization.

It’s vitally important to express your concerns about climate change with friends and family.

Reducing our consumption of red meat is one step we all can take in the fight against climate change.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Canada’s leadership

Trudeau is often portrayed as a climate sellout by activists, especially given his support of the TransMountain pipeline. However, according to Mark Jaccard, professor of sustainable energy at Simon Fraser University, there is actually a consensus among foreign climate experts that Canada has become a global climate policy leader. As Jaccard wrote in the Globe and Mail earlier this week, global experts are not only impressed by Trudeau’s national carbon tax but also by several other of his climate policies. These include his government’s phased closure of Canada’s coal plants by 2030. Their closure will remove the equivalent in emissions of 1.3 million cars from roads. With Britain, the Canadian government has co-founded the Powering Past Coal Alliance, a growing force of jurisdictions committed to phasing out coal. Jaccard says that his counterparts in India and China are already noticing the influence on their own countries’ policies.

In addition, the Trudeau government’s clean fuel standard, which comes fully into force in two years (should he be re-elected) will greatly accelerate the switch in transportation from gasoline and diesel to electricity and sustainably-produced biofuels. Several U.S. states are already considering a version of this policy. Jaccard also writes that the Trudeau government’s pending regulation on methane emissions is another policy of global significance.

“In just for years, these and other policies have transformed Canada from a global pariah to a model of climate action under Trudeau,” says Jaccard. He sees these globally influential policies as extremely important, even if a new TransMountain oil pipeline goes ahead. Jaccard even speculates that the pipeline could shift in the future to transporting hydrogen produced from the oil sands or biofuels from the prairies.

Role of radical action

Humanity’s efforts to minimize the extent of climate breakdown must be fought on multiple fronts. In addition to personal action and supporting the Trudeau government’s initiatives, there is also a role for more radical interventions. Most notable is the Extinction Rebellion (XR). This worldwide movement believes that government can be forced to address climate change by using long term, non-violent civil disobedience. XR demands that our governments tell the truth about the climate breakdown, commit to a timeline for net zero carbon emissions, and create a citizen-led panel to evaluate progress. Variations of this tactic can be seen in Swedish teen, Greta Thunberg’s Global Climate Strike, which brought out 40,000 students in Montreal and 1.5 million protesters around the world in March, including here in Peterborough. Under the leadership of Peter Morgan, the Peterborough Alliance for Climate Action has organized various events to challenge the slow pace of change in Ottawa and Toronto. More disruptive action should be expected if our leaders fail to act.

In addition to the arguments I’ve laid out above, I am greatly encouraged by how much more attention mainstream media are giving to the climate crisis. This is evident to anyone reading the Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, the Peterborough Examiner, or watching or listening to CBC. So, yes, I believe that “signs of hope” are real, just like the Earth Day anthem suggests. Knowing so should strengthen our commitment to making changes in our personal lives, to talking more about climate change, to letting MPP Dave Smith know how damaging his party’s policies are, and to supporting Trudeau’s initiatives – or equally strong or stronger policies from another party. Who knows? Maybe more of us will even surprise our friends and families by taking part in upcoming climate change protests. The future has yet to be written, and we can find inspiration in the knowledge that we can influence how it might unfold.

 

 

 

 

 

Apr 122019
 

Against a backdrop of more dire climate change reports, we can still enjoy the arrival of spring

Following on the heals of last fall’s International Panel on Climate Change report, which stated that global warming must be limited to 1.5-degrees Celsius to avoid a non-stoppable, runaway climate crisis, two other dire climate reports were released in the past month. Both reports highlighted the speed and intensity at which climate change is progressing.

In March 21,  a report commissioned by the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center was released explaining that the Great Lakes region – the region in which Peterborough and the Kawarthas  is located – is warming faster than the rest of the US. Since 1910, the annual mean air temperature in the region increased 0.89 C compared to 0.67 C for the rest of the country. The report explained that as air warms, it holds more moisture, causing more extreme storms and flooding, while also degrading water quality, worsening erosion and posing tougher challenges for farming. Drinking water quality may also be degraded by more releases of untreated sewage during heavy storms and nutrient runoff that feed harmful algae blooms, some toxic. Warmer temperatures will produce less ice cover, boosting evaporation and pushing lake levels down. As for temperature, summers are expected to become hotter and drier. Heat waves with days exceeding 32 C are likely to become more common, posing risks for elderly people and children with asthma.

As if this wakeup call was not enough, on April 1, federal scientists and academics warned that Canada’s climate is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world and that Northern Canada is warming even more quickly, nearly three times the global rate. Three of the past five years have been the warmest on record, the authors said. According to Chris Derksen, a research scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, the changing climate has meant extreme heat, less extreme cold, longer growing seasons, rapidly thinning glaciers, warming and thawing of permafrost, and rising sea levels in Canada’s coastal regions.

Against this frightening backdrop, it is no wonder that the timing of events in nature are being affected. I would still like to remind readers, however, of the mileposts of spring’s progression. Regardless of what the weather throws at us, the order of the events, which are listed chronologically, should remain the same.

April

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

Monarch on Tithonia – (Drew Monkman)

·       The Peterborough Field Naturalists hold Sunday Morning Bird Walks throughout April, May, and June. Meet Sundays at 8:00 a.m. in the north parking lot of the Riverview Park and Zoo. From there participants carpool to various birding hot spots as determined by the leader. Outings generally last about 3 to 4 hours. Bring binoculars and some change to help out with gas.

·       Don’t be too surprised if a half‑crazed robin or cardinal starts pecking at or flying up against one of your windows or even the side-view mirror of your car. Being very territorial birds, they instinctively attack other individuals of the same species – in this case, their reflection!

·       With a bit of work, you should be able to find a dozen or more species of migrating waterfowl this month. Some hotspots include Little Lake, the Otonabee River and the Lakefield Sewage Lagoon on County Road 33.

·       April is a busy time for feeders. In addition to Dark-eyed Juncos, Song Sparrows, Common Grackles and resident species like chickadees and cardinals, small numbers of Common Redpolls are now showing up in Peterborough backyards, adding a splash of much needed colour. Later in the month, White-throated Sparrows will be moving through. May will bring White-crowned Sparrows and sometimes rarer species like Lincoln’s Sparrows.

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

·       On April 21 from 1 to 5 p.m., discover Harper Park, a provincially significant wetland within our City boundaries. Learn about the history of the site, its interesting groundwater-based ecosystems, heritage trees, and vernal pools. Wear waterproof footwear and bring binoculars.

·       When water temperatures reach 7 C, Walleye begin to spawn. Along with suckers, they can sometimes be seen spawning at night at Lock 19 in Peterborough or below the pedestrian bridge in Young’s Point. Take along a strong‑beamed flashlight.

 

 

·       The Peterborough Garden Show runs from April 26 to 28 at the Kawartha Trades and Technology Centre at Fleming College, 599 Brealey Drive.  On the Sunday afternoon at 2:00 pm, butterfly expert and author Carol Pasternak will present “Drama in the Butterfly”. Carol’s book, How to Raise Monarch Butterflies: A Step-by-Step Guide for Kids, will be available ($10) after the presentation. Carol will explore the secret lives of insects in your yard or nearby natural area. From 12 pm to 12:30 pm, she will also present a butterfly workshop suitable for ages six and up.

·       The muffled drumming of the Ruffed Grouse is one of the most characteristic sounds of April. The birds drum to advertise territorial claims and to attract a female.

Ruffed Grouse – Jeff Keller

American Woodcock – Karl Egressy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

·       If the weather is mild, local wetlands come alive in early April with the clamorous calls of countless frogs. The first voice usually heard is that of the Chorus Frog. To learn amphibian calls, go to naturewatch.ca. In the menu at the top of the page, click on FrogWatch.

·       The courtship flight of the American Woodcock provides nightly entertainment in damp, open field habitats such as fields at the Trent Wildlife Sanctuary. Listen for their nasal “peent” call which begins when it’s almost dark

 

May

·       A variety of interesting butterflies is already on the wing as May begins. These include the Compton Tortoiseshell, the Eastern Comma and the Mourning Cloak. Petroglyphs Provincial Park is a great destination for butterfly watching.

·       On May 8 at 7:30 pm, Ellen Jamieson, a master’s student at Trent University and a Peterborough native, will present a talk to the Peterborough Field Naturalists entitled “A Day in the Life of a Shorebird in South Carolina”. Shorebirds undergo one of nature’s most fascinating migrations, but they are in trouble with many populations experiencing drastic declines. The talk takes place at the Camp Kawartha Environment Centre at 2505 Pioneer Road.

·       The yellow-gold flowers of Marsh Marigolds brighten wet habitats in early May. By mid-month, White Trilliums blanket woodlots throughout the Kawarthas. A closer look will reveal numerous other wildflowers, too, like Yellow Trout Lily.

Yellow Trout Lily – Drew Monkman

 

·       With many species nesting, try to keep your cat indoors. It’s no wonder so few baby robins ever make it to adulthood in Peterborough any more.

·       The first Ruby-throated Hummingbirds usually return on about May 5, so be sure to have your nectar feeders up and ready to greet them.

 

 

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

·       The damp morning air is rich with the fragrance of Balsam Poplar resin, a  characteristic smell of spring in the Kawarthas.

·       If you are looking for pollinator plants for your garden, don’t miss the Peterborough Horticultural Society Plant Sale on Saturday May 11, 2019, from 9 – 11 am at Westdale United Church, 1509 Sherbrooke St.

·       Mid-May sees the peak of songbird migration with the greatest numbers of warblers, vireos, thrushes, orioles, flycatchers and other neo-tropical migrants passing through.

Baltimore Oriole – Karl Egressy

·       That large, streaked sparrow-like bird at your feeder is probably a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Males are black and white, with a red breast. Just in from Costa Rica, grosbeaks are attracted to sunflower seeds. Watch, too, for Baltimore Orioles and maybe even an Indigo Bunting.

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

 

 

June

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

·       Watch for turtles laying their eggs in the sandy margins of roadsides and rail-trails.  Remember to slow down when driving through turtle-crossing zones and, if safe, help the reptile across the road.

·       The first Monarch butterflies usually appear in the Kawarthas in June. Make sure you have some milkweed in your garden on which they can lay their eggs. In January, World Wildlife Fund Mexico announced that the total forest area occupied by overwintering Monarch colonies this winter covered 6.05 hectares, a 144% increase from the previous season!

·       Five-lined Skinks, Ontario’s only lizard, mate in early June and are therefore more active and visible.  Look for them on sunny, bare, bedrock outcroppings with deep cracks such as near the Visitors Centre at Petroglyphs Provincial Park.

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

·       The Summer Solstice occurs on Friday, June 21 at 11:54 am. The sun will rise and set farther north than on any other day of the year. Celebrate this profound celestial event with your family.

 

 

 

 

 

ARGUMENTS FOR ACTION ON CLIMATE CHANGE

              Some people argue that Canada is such a small greenhouse gas emitter that it is irrelevant whether we cut our emissions or not. You can counter this by pointing out that: 1. Canada is actually the world’s 10th biggest emitter, ahead of even France and Brazil. 2. On a per capital basis, Canadians are the fourth largest emitters in the world – about the same as Americans and quadruple that of Swedes who live in a similar climate. 3. No one argued during WW II that given our small population, any contribution by Canada to the war effort would be meaningless. Sixteen times more Americans fought than Canadians, but Canada still played a very significant role in the war. The same logic applies to climate change. We have a moral imperative to do our part in this fight, which requires no less than a war-level response. What moral weight would we have to tell less fortunate countries to cut emissions if we are doing very little ourselves?

 

 

 

Feb 082019
 

From finches to cacti, the fingerprints of evolution are everywhere in the Galapagos

Over the year leading up to my Galapagos trip, I read just about every available book on the islands. My favourite by far was “The Beak of the Finch”, by Jonathan Weiner. Now a nature classic, the book describes how two scientists, Peter and Rosemary Grant, spent more than 20 years on a small Galapagos island proving that Darwin didn’t know the strength of his own theory. They were the first scientists to see evolution by natural selection happening before their very eyes, in real time, and in the wild. They saw that species are not immutable but always in flux. Natural selection is neither rare nor slow, and it is going on everywhere, even in our own backyards.

As the book’s title implies, it is the finches’ beaks that tell the evolutionary story. Adaptive changes in the size and shape of the beak has allowed each of the 17 species to fit into its own ecological niche, be it as small, medium or large seed eaters, nectar eaters, or fruit and insect eaters. DNA testing has confirmed that these birds are all close cousins, having evolved from an original pair of tanager-like birds that arrived on the Galapagos in the distant past from South America. They are also the most famous example of “adaptive radiation”, the process by which organisms diversify from an ancestral species into a variety of new forms.

Thanks to our highly skilled guides, Juan Tapia and Josh Vandermeulen, we saw 12 of the 17 finch species. We stood only metres away as Gray Warbler-finches poured out their warbler-like song from Miconia shrubs; pollen-covered Cactus finches drank nectar from Opuntia flowers; and Medium Ground Finches gleaned seeds from sprawling matplants. Watching them, I tried to remind myself that no other birds have had such a profound impact on human understanding of our own deep history.

Cactus Finch feeding in an Opuntia cactus. Both species tell an amazing story of evolution. (Josh Vandermeulen)

As I think back on these wonderful seven days, a flood of other bird memories come to mind, too. First among these were the Waved Albatross we saw at a nesting colony on Espanola Island. With a wingspan of over seven feet, they are the islands’ largest breeding bird. We were lucky to be there in courtship season and to see the elaborate ritual between male and female. This included bill circling, bill clacking, and a formalised dance with the bill raised vertically. The colony is located beside a low cliff where a strong updraft allows the birds to take off with relative ease. It was mesmerizing to watch not only albatross but a host of other seabirds as they soared along the cliff.

 

There were many other special moments, too: a male Nazca Booby courting a female by dutifully gifting her with pebbles; flocks of Red-billed Tropicbirds streaming overhead; tiny Red-necked Phalaropes riding the giant sea waves; Espanola Mockingbirds licking condensation off our water bottles; Short-eared Owls camouflaged among the rocks and waiting to pounce on storm-petrels; Lava Herons and Lava Gulls blending in perfectly against their namesake; and Swallow-tailed Gulls flashing their spectacular wing pattern. I was able to photograph a pair of these gulls sitting side by side in the late afternoon sun. With its heart-shaped, scarlet eye ring, one of the birds seems to be saying, “I love you!”

A pair of Swallow-tailed Gulls-the worlds only nocturnal gull. Note the heart-shaped eye-ring on the upper bird. (Drew Monkman)

Giant tortoises

“Galápagos” is an old Spanish word for giant tortoise.  When Darwin visited the islands in 1835, the Vice Governor told him that he could tell which island a given tortoise came from by the shape of its shell. Scientists now believe they know why. Those with a saddle-shaped carapace evolved on islands where they had to reach up high to feed on vegetation like cacti, while those with a domed carapace became adapted to feeding at ground level with no reaching up. In the highlands of Santa Cruz Island, thousands of Galapagos Giant Tortoises live in harmony with farmers. We walked among these colossuses – some five feet long, 400 pounds and over 100 years old – close enough to hear them ripping and chewing grass from the pasture. Others were wallowing in the mud of shallow ponds, seemingly oblivious to our presence and to that of the beautiful White-cheeked Pintails that swam among them.

Earlier that same day, we had visited the amazing Charles Darwin Research Station, which is a key player in the conservation of the Galapagos. Three-quarters of the staff at the station are Ecuadorian residents of the islands. This is part of a huge effort to help the islanders themselves engage with protecting the biodiversity and to become not only guides but also future scientists.

The station carries out a very successful tortoise captive breeding program, and we were able to see baby tortoises of several species. Thousands of tortoises have been re-introduced to islands where the original population has been decimated by everything from invasive rats and goats to whalers killing the tortoises for food.

There are also wonderful displays on evolution, such as the story of how Marine Iguanas and three species of land iguanas all evolved from an ancestral pair of South American Green Iguanas. The latter probably arrived millions of years ago on floating vegetation from the mainland. Seeing the black Marine Iguanas with their barnacled foreheads, erect spines, and habit of expelling salt from their nostrils, it’s easy to understand why Darwin famously called them “imps of darkness.”

Marine Iguanas on Espanola. The bottom iguana is snorting out salt. (Drew Monkman)

Amazing plants

The story of evolution is also written in the plants of the Galapagos. It is especially evident in the 15 species of Scalesia, the Darwin’s finches of the plant world. A member of the daisy family, Scalesia have adapted to different vegetation zones and evolved into trees and shrubs. In the highlands of Santa Cruz, we saw 15 metre Tree Scalesia, which are akin to giant sunflower trees with their ultra-fast growth, ray flowers, and soft pithy wood. On other islands, we saw shrub-like Radiate-headed Scalesia, which is a pioneer on barren lava.

 

The six species of Opuntia cacti are yet another example of the power of evolution.  The tallest is the Giant Prickly Pear, which grows to 12 metres tall and develops beautiful, rich brown bark. I was particularly fascinated, however, by the Opuntia species we found on Genovesa. Because there are no cacti-eating herbivores on this island, this Opuntia has soft spines. Why? Because there was never any adaptive pressure to put resources into making the spines hard and piercing. Amazing.

Climate Change

As isolated as the Galapagos are, they are not immune to the effects of climate change. Most of the iconic species stand to suffer as do the coral reefs. Warming seas, which are made worse by El Nino events, may already explain why sardines have become rare, and why sardine-eating Blue-footed Boobies no longer nest there. The climate crisis is also predicted to increase the rate and intensity of El Nino events, which are devasting for marine life as the seas warm. The effect ripples through the entire ecosystem and has a negative impact on everything from Galapagos Sea Lions to Marine Iguanas. Unfortunately, increased rainfall will be a boon to many invasive species.

As someone who writes constantly about climate change, there is maybe an element of hypocrisy in my even making this trip. We all know that flying has a huge carbon footprint. But how many of us are going to give up air travel or completely reinvent the way we live as individuals? A winter get-away, for example, is a part of so many people’s lives, as are retirement travel and visiting far-flung family members. That is why addressing climate change lies not so much in personal action (although there is much we can do personally) but rather in transitioning our entire economy away from fossil fuels to renewable, carbon-free energy. This may also lead to new technologies for less carbon-intensive air travel. Both a price on carbon and strict new emission regulations are essential to achieving this transition.

In the meantime, one thing we can also do is purchase carbon offsets whenever we fly. This is a system by which you compensate for your share of a flight’s carbon footprint by donating to offset carbon emissions elsewhere. Carbonfootprint.com allows you to easily calculate your personal footprint for a given flight. By clicking the “Offset Now” button, you can then choose a project to help fund. Our Galapagos trip footprint was 1.68 metric tons of carbon. We chose “Reforestation in Kenya” and paid $25 as an offset. Carbon offsets typically cost 5% or less of the ticket price. They are a great tool for all of us who are fortunate enough to fly regularly.

I came home from the Galapagos feeling incredibly privileged to have been able to visit the very cradle of evolutionary theory and observe first-hand the iconic species that taught the world about natural selection. Seeing so much wildlife with no fear of humans – the mother sea lions with their wide-eyed pups, for example – also made me think about how tragic it is that we humans – the very creatures of which they are so trusting – are responsible for a climate crisis that is likely to wreak havoc on their fragile lives.

Local Climate Change News

Well-known Canadian author and journalist, Gwynne Dyer, will present “The Climate Horizon: A Lecture” on Feb. 11 at 7:30 pm at Gzowski College, Trent University. “Climate change will have exponential influences on our military, politics, environment, social systems and economy, but with an unprecedented level of global co-operation, there might be a way through it,” according to Dyer. Please register at Eventbrite.ca for this free event.

 

 

 

Feb 012019
 

An unforgettable trip to the “laboratory of evolution” and the inspiration of Darwin’s earth-shaking theory

The shadowy form appeared out of nowhere in the turquoise water. It made a bee-line towards me, swimming just above the bottom. What is this? Within seconds, however, its dark back, white underparts, and stout beak were unmistakable as was my sense of incredible luck. A bird I’d dreamed of seeing for a lifetime was right below me, and I even managed to get pictures before it sped off into the distance. I had seen my first penguin ever and the smallest and most northerly of its kind.

It was a thrill to see this Galapagos Penguin speeding by in the clear turquoise water. (Drew Monkman)

Could the Galapagos Islands really be as extraordinary as I’d always heard? Since the age of 12, I had dreamed of going there. A great uncle of mine had made the journey in the 1960s and regaled me of the remarkable wildlife. For years, I had heard how the animals are show no fear of humans, and how you could get a front row seat to their intriguing courtship displays, feeding behaviours, and nurturing of the young.  My desire to go only grew as the years passed, and I became increasingly interested in Charles Darwin and evolution. Like few other places in the world, it is the subtle differences between species in the Galapagos – be they tortoises, mockingbirds, cacti or finches – that reveal the secrets of evolution and inspired Darwin in formulating “the greatest single idea anyone has every had.” In recent years, a disturbing sense of urgency had also set in as I read how climate change will irrevocably change the islands.

The Galapagos are a province of Ecuador, located on the equator 1000 km west of the South American mainland. They form an archipelago of 13 major islands and many smaller ones at the confluence of three major ocean currents. These include the Humboldt Current which brings cool, nutrient-rich water up from Antarctica. The islands emerged from the sea bottom as volcanic upheavals, which means that much of the time you are walking on lava. All the reptiles, half the birds, one-third of the plants, and one-quarter of the fish are unique (endemic) to the Galapagos – in other words, they are found nowhere else. Why would this be so? Why is the archipelago such a hotspot for evolution? It comes down to the islands’ isolation and to the subtly different climatic and ecological conditions from one island to the next.

We had booked our October 31 to November 10 trip a year in advance with Quest Nature Tours. Our group of 12 Canadians was accompanied by 28-year-old Josh Vandermeulen, who in 2012 set a new Ontario record for the number of birds seen in one year. A biologist and avid herpetologist (the study of reptiles and amphibians), Josh was an affable, attentive guide, expert photographer, and uncanny in his ability to find and identify wildlife of all kinds. We were also joined by a superb Galapagos guide, Juan Tapia. A native Ecuadorean, Juan has been guiding on the islands for over 30 years.

We flew from Toronto to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, where we spent two nights and enjoyed a guided tour of this historic city. We then took a flight to the islands via Guayaquil, before landing on Baltra Island. For the next seven nights our home was the 33-metre Beluga, a Canadian-owned yacht with a crew of eight. The food, accommodation and attentiveness of the crew were superb. Our itinerary took us to eight islands in the central and eastern part of the Galapagos. These included Santa Cruz, Santa Fe, South Plaza, San Cristobal, Espanola, Santiago and Genovesa. Most of the travelling between islands was at night.

Unlike anywhere else

My initial impression upon landing was that of a monochromatic, rocky outback, covered with cacti and small leafless trees. The uniqueness of the Galapagos quickly made itself known, however, even at the airport, which is one of the greenest in the world. The islands’ focus on sustainability – a necessity given the 220,000 tourists who visit each year – became immediately apparent, as well. Multiple signs spelled out the do’s and don’ts that tourists must follow. We even watched a dog sniffing the luggage for contraband fruit and vegetables that could introduce more invasive species to the fragile ecosystem.

A Galapagos Sea Lion posing on the beach at San Cristobal Island. The Beluga is anchored in the distance. (Drew Monkman)

Sensory overload began the moment we stepped off the bus at the harbour, courtesy of a Galapagos Sea Lion and Land Iguana within touching distance. Quintessential Galapagos birds like Darwin’s finches hopped about on the ground, while Lava Gulls and Blue-footed Boobies flew over the water. Josh and I went apoplectic trying to get photographs and not miss anything. Once on the boat, however, the mood turned more serious as Juan impressed upon us our special responsibility as visitors to respect the islands and their wildlife. “Take nothing but photos. No shells, no lava, no seeds. Nothing. And leave nothing but footprints. Stay two metres away from the animals. Don’t wander off the paths.” The values of respect and sustainability permeate every aspect of the islands’ administration, which is the shared mission of the Galapagos National Park Service and the Charles Darwin Foundation. This includes everything from a near-total ban on single-use plastics to where and when tourists can go ashore.

The daily routine

Each morning after breakfast, Juan would provide an overview of the day’s schedule and which species we were likely to see. We would then board the pangas – inflatable, motorized dinghies – which took us to shore for a dry or wet landing – the latter meaning you got your feet wet! Sometimes, before disembarking, we’d take time to travel along the shore looking for animals at the water’s edge or swimming underneath. This is how we saw our first Whitetip Sharks. Once ashore, Juan would allow us time to simply soak in the novelty of this special place: sea lions lounging on the beach, mockingbirds flitting about at our feet, brilliant orange Sally Lightfoot Crabs crawling over the rocks, Galapagos Hawks peering down from atop the cacti, and legions of black Marine Iguanas warming themselves on the lava as they snort out salt.

Sally Lightfoot Crabs were everywhere on coastal rocks. (Drew Monkman)

Once the proverbial “herding of cats” finally brought all of us together, we would set out on a trail walk, stopping regularly as Juan explained the amazing adaptations of the plants and animals. His knowledge of Galapagos botany was encyclopedic. There was always ample time to take pictures, ask questions and explore – within limits – on one’s own. After a couple of hours, we’d head back to the boat for a full-course lunch and time to relax. Later in the afternoon, we’d set out for a second hike. With the sun low in the sky, the light conditions for photography were wonderful. Some days, we’d also take the pangas to a snorkelling site for the unforgettable experience of seeing the islands’ underwater realm.

A pair of Nazca Boobies engrossed in courtship display. (Drew Monkman)

The day would wrap up with before-dinner beverages, trading stories of the day’s adventures, a gourmet supper, and the completion of our species checklist – not only the birds but everything from reptiles and fish to insects and plants. Josh would remind us of what we’d seen – species by species down the list – and we would dutifully check them off. “Blue-footed Booby, Nazca Booby, Red-footed Booby… Did anyone see a Lava Heron today?” When it came to the plants and fish, Juan took over. He then presented a short “slideshow” of the day’s highlights, and finally a preview of the next day’s itinerary. “Geez, this is like a dream university course!” one woman commented. By 9 pm we were all in bed.

Every morning I would get up shortly after dawn and join Josh on the deck. Together, we would scan the sea and shoreline for birds, cameras at the ready. There were always boobies, shearwaters, and frigatebirds putting on a show. On one occasion we watched a frigatebird attack a terrified booby, trying to make it cough up the fish it had caught during the night. Having to go back into the ship for breakfast almost seemed like a waste of time!

Experiencing the Galapagos from under the waves was particularly memorable. The number and variety of marine invertebrates and fish was astounding as was the sense of being in your own private world. In all, we recorded 35 fish species, including large schools of colourful surgeonfish and mesmerizing wrasse, parrotfish and angelfish. On several occasions, Galapagos Sea Lions joined us underwater, diving, twisting and turning within touching distance. One even came up and “kissed” me on the mask. I felt especially privileged to be able to follow a huge Pacific Green Turtle as it searched for food.

A school of Yellowtail Surgeonfish – a ubiquitous species in the Galapagos (Drew Monkman)

Next week, I’ll describe other highlights like the courtship displays of Waved Albatross and the other-worldly experience of hanging out with dozens of Giant Tortoises. I’ll also examine how the story of evolution is told by everything from Scalesia trees to the iconic Darwin’s finches. As I hope you can tell, these “Enchanted Islands” were truly the experience of a lifetime.

 

 

 

 

Local Climate Change News

Many of us with investments, either personal or through pension plans, are concerned about how to manage the risk in the stock market with looming climate chaos. Do we divest from fossil fuels? When and how?  Financial planner Tim Nash, aka “The Sustainable Economist” and recently featured on CBC’s The National, will explain how to invest safely, profitably, sustainably, and ethically in these precarious times. This free event will be of interest to individual investors, investment dealers as well as representatives of institutions with investments. The talk takes place at Trinity United Church (Simcoe St. entrance) on February 7 at 7 pm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dec 142018
 

Should we decimate a native bird at a time of unprecedented planet-wide species loss?  

Doug Ford’s buzz saw assault on Ontario’s environment never stops. It’s now clear that “open for business” really means “open season on the environment”. Since taking office, he has cancelled Ontario’s cap and trade program, sacked the Environmental Commissioner, and introduced Bill 66, which would allow municipalities to circumvent Greenbelt protections and even exempt developers from rules designed to protect wildlife. Then, on November 19, things turned even nastier. On that day, ERO # 013-4124 was posted by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forests (MNRF) on the Environmental Registry of Ontario. It is entitled: Proposal to establish a hunting season for double-crested cormorants in Ontario.

This bonded pair of beautiful Double-crested Cormorants photographed in Campbellford could easily be slaughtered in Queen’s Park’s proposed cormorant hunt goes ahead. (Photograph by Donald Munro)

With so much other madness coming out of Queen’s Park, I was not immediately aware of this proposal. Tim Dyson, a friend and frequent contributor to this column, brought it to my attention. We have therefore decided to join forces this week and present our thoughts on this cruel, unscientific and vulgar plan. If passed in its present form, the legislation would designate double-crested cormorants as a game species, create a province-wide annual hunting season from March 15 until December 31 and allow anyone holding a valid Ontario Outdoors Card and small game hunting license to kill up to 50 cormorants per day (1,500 per month or more than 14,000 per season). The only constraint on hunters is having to dispose of the carcasses. Unlike other game, the cormorant would not be killed for food.

What we have here is clearly NOT a “hunt” of any kind. Hunting involves some level of skill on the part of the hunter and requires patience, stealth and the ability to make a clean kill. We have no issue with ethical hunting. However, what we have before us is simply a slaughter of a species that has twice before been on the Endangered Species List and yet has rebounded from extremely low numbers to now breed in relative abundance across much of the province. DDT use dramatically decreased cormorant populations in the 1960s. When DDT was banned and chemical pollution of the Great Lakes was reduced, the birds made a spectacular comeback. In fact, for many years cormorants were the poster species for the Great Lakes cleanup. The recent rise in cormorant numbers is therefore the result of a recovery from a previously precarious position. Although cormorant populations appear to have now plateaued, some sectors of the public have been led to believe that there are still too many.

The best way to think about this proposal is “slob hunting”, namely an activity in which people are content to kill for the sake of killing. In the case of cormorants, it will be child’s play for hunters to shoot the birds as they sit on their nests or fly in and out of the colony. Zero skill will be required to kill them from boats positioned only metres from nesting colonies. The young of the dead or gravely injured adults will slowly die of dehydration, hypothermia, and starvation. All of this will happen in the absence of scientific data to justify such rash action and likely without sufficient monitoring by the resource-strapped MNRF. Small congregations of cormorants could be wiped out in just a few minutes, while larger colonies could be destroyed in a matter of days. Years of effort and thousands of dollars to help this species recover from near-extirpation will have been for nothing. Supporters of the proposed slaughter argue that the cormorant population will remain at a healthy level. We are not convinced. Given the wide-open nature of the government’s proposal, how many years will it be before the double-crested cormorant becomes a species at risk once again?

It is almost certain that this slaughter will also result in the disturbance and death of federally protected, non-target bird species such as terns, gulls, herons, and egrets. Many of these birds are ground-nesters and often breed alongside cormorants in nesting colonies. When hunters go to retrieve the carcasses, nests are likely to be trampled. The “approach and open fire” in multi-species nesting colonies alone would violate federal laws. It will also disturb the public by allowing hunters to discharge firearms throughout the spring, summer and fall season when lakes and natural areas are populated by cottagers and tourists. Imagine trying to explain what’s going on to your kids. Non-hunters who enjoy the outdoors already stay clear of many natural areas during currently designated hunting seasons. This will only add to people’s stress.

It is widely known that commercial fishermen and the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH) and are the driving forces behind this proposal. And, to be fair, there is more than one perspective within OFAH on what is being proposed. However, let’s look at some of the so-called facts presented on their website. First, we are told that cormorants reduce game fish populations. Through careful analysis of cormorant feces, regurgitates, prey remains and stomach contents, the Canadian Wildlife Service has repeatedly found that only two percent of a cormorant’s diet is made up of game fish. Has any concerned angler or commercial fishing company done the same study? In fact, it is widely acknowledged that the presence of cormorants indicates a healthy fishery. If such were not the case, the birds could not survive in their present numbers. We should also ask ourselves, “How much commercial fishing is done on the Kawartha Lakes?”

We are also led to believe that cormorants destroy ecosystems. Clearly, the very idea that a naturally occurring species can destroy an ecosystem is preposterous. Ecosystems are not something that humans can successfully manipulate and keep the same forever. That is called a controlled area. Ecosystems and all their component species, including cormorants, are in a constant state of change. With the possible exception of invasive species, the best way to help an ecosystem is to simply allow nature to unfold as it constantly does. And, speaking of invasive species, is it at all logical to demonize a native bird in order to defend non-native species coho and chinook salmon, both of which were introduced into Lake Ontario? Does this demonstrate sound ecological logic? We are simply falling back on the old thinking of our European ancestors: scapegoat certain native but “undesirable” species – once it was wolves and now it’s cormorants – and remove them through unnatural means. All in an effort to make to fashion the natural world to our liking. Human manipulation of nature rarely turns out well.

We also hear that cormorant colonies are smelly and noisy. Indeed they are. But, they are also part of an ever-changing system with a right to exist and change naturally. We should also consider that once the birds move on through natural processes, the nutrient-rich guano they leave behind will lay the foundation for an even richer array of plant and animal life. This includes more and healthier trees than were present before the birds established colonies in the first place.

Yes, cormorants can cause damage to properties. However, Ontario law already allows property owners to deal with this problem. Under the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, property owners can scare away, capture or kill most wild animals if the animal is causing property damage. Current legislation also addresses extenuating circumstances with cormorant populations. Culls carried out by the MNRF take place to protect heritage sites and sensitive areas (e.g., islands at Presqu’ile Provincial Park where other nesting species are also present). This case-by-case approach is much safer than lifting protection entirely. It allows us to be sure that intervention is justified before we take action.

Most importantly, let’s try to feel in our hearts what is being proposed and turn away from the usual trap of a “we say, they say” debate. Maybe we can take this as an opportunity for something different. Maybe we can make our choices from a place of decency and compassion. Do we really want to demonize and slaughter a native species at a time when the planet is experiencing unprecedented species loss? What lesson are we teaching our children? Don’t the lives of other sentient beings matter outside of measurable value to humans? How is it ethical to heap scorn on beautiful, exquisitely adapted birds like cormorants while at the same time loving and caring for our cats and dogs like in no other moment in history?

Please take time to go to the MNRF website at ero.ontario.ca/notice/013-4124 and voice your opposition to this slaughter. The deadline is January 3, 2019. Do so with the knowledge that in a few months time, there could be thousands of baby cormorants starving, baking in the sun, and shivering at night until death brings them relief. You can also go to change.org, search for “cormorants” and sign the online petition against the slaughter.

Yes, consider your heart, but don’t demonize hunters and anglers. Most are ethical practionners of these pastimes, and many have grave misgivings about what’s being proposed. And let’s not forget government biologists, either. More than anyone, they know this is a terrible idea but can’t speak out if they want to keep their jobs. This insanity must be especially difficult for them.

Local Climate Change News  

Camp Kawartha has undertaken a $3.5 million capital campaign to support its vision of becoming a national leader in environmental programming. The Camp plans to build a new dining hall, kitchen and sleeping quarters, all demonstrating the latest in green architecture. This certified “living building” would be the second of its kind in all of Canada. From living walls and a living roof, to geothermal heating and the use of all-natural materials, the building would show how people and nature can live together and be healthy for both. The building will be “net zero”, which means zero toxins, zero waste and zero carbon and therefore be a showpiece for sustainability. Please consider donating to the campaign at campkawartha.ca.

At the Camp Kawartha’s Annual General Meeting this week, Chris Magwood delivered a wonderful talk on “How Buildings Can (help) Save the World”. Chris is Executive Director of The Endeavour Centre, a not-for-profit sustainable building school based in Peterborough. He pointed out that buildings are responsible for 25% or more of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Surprisingly, from a GHG perspective, a building’s energy efficiency is not the main issue. Rather, we need to look at “embodied emissions”, which are the GHGs associated with producing the building materials. They represent 60% of a building’s carbon footprint, which is much more than the operational emissions from heating and cooling the building. Magwood emphasized that reducing embodied emissions should be the building industry’s main focus in fighting climate change. Buildings made from materials such as straw, hemp, bamboo and fibreboard are actually net storers of carbon, emit zero toxins and can be affordably built right now. Go to endeavourcentre.org for more information.

 

 

Oct 132018
 

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

The Big Book of Nature Activities

The Big Book of Nature Activities

Introduction

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

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

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

Charles Darwin cartoon character - Kady MacDonald Denton

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

Basic Skills

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

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

Key Concepts

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

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

The book contains over 400 illustrations.

Hundreds of drawings

 Seasons’ chapters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Oct 122018
 

Latest IPCC report warns we have 12 years to limit climate catastrophe

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead

Monday’s dire International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report weighed heavy on my mind as our family sat down for Thanksgiving dinner. While my three grandchildren giggled and squirmed on their chairs with innocent joy, it was hard not to feel deep sadness and anxiety for their future.

My grandson, Louie. What does the future hold for his generation if we continue to ignore the warnings of devastating climate change – photo by Drew Monkman

 

The international climate science community has just raised the threat advisory of catastrophic climate change from orange to a pulsating scarlet red. If the planet warms by much more than 1.5-degrees Celsius (we are already at one-degree of warming), the result will be soaring death rates, huge waves of climate refugees, devastating coastal flooding, the demise of all coral reefs, and unprecedented planet-wide species extinction. The predicted economic cost is counted in the tens of trillions of dollars.

The report does provide a glimmer of hope, however: Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is still possible. To get there, greenhouse gas emissions would have to be cut by 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030, and then brought to zero by 2050.

Last week, I offered a hopeful vision of what Peterborough and the world could look like in 20 years, if decarbonization of the world economy was to become a reality. The vision incorporated everything from electric vehicles, dietary changes and more energy efficient homes to cancelling any new fossil fuel projects and accepting a carbon tax with revenues returned to the citizens. With this vision in mind, I want to focus on what we as individuals can do right now. But first, let’s get some real-world reasons for hope.

Inspiration

On a per capita basis, Canadians emit 15.6 tons of greenhouse gases, which is just slightly less than Americans. Looking at countries with a climate similar to ours, the Finns only emit 0.09 tons, Swedes 3.86 tons, and Norwegians 6.87 tons. Clearly, it’s possible for Canada to do much better. Scotland has already cut its emissions almost in half from 1990 levels. China and India are making huge leaps forward in deploying green energy, and the cost per kilowatt/hour for producing solar-generated electricity has fallen by 80 per cent since 2009. Wind power is also showing similar steep declines in cost. Affordable technology is available right now to vastly improve Canada’s performance.

Individual action

As much as recycling, driving a fuel-efficient vehicle and reducing meat consumption are important, they will not be enough. Changing social norms and taking political action are key.

1. Vote wisely: At this, the eleventh hour, a meaningful response must be led by all levels of government, including our local municipal councils. On October 22, I will be voting for a mayor and city councillors who understand the issue of climate change and are ready to act aggressively.

To understand how Peterborough can reduce its carbon emissions, I highly recommend reading the Greater Peterborough Area Community Sustainability Plan, which is posted at sustainablepeterborough.ca. The plan shows us how the interdependence of environment, economy, social life and culture must all be considered when government plans for the future. As voters, we must ask our candidates to explain how they would implement the policies in the document, and elect those whose understanding of what needs to be done is most  convincing. For a list of candidates in your ward as well as contact information, visit PeterboroughVotes.ca.

Diane Therrien would make an excellent choice for Mayor of Peterborough in the October 22, 2018 election.

I also urge everyone to consult the “City Council Report Card” (at v4sp.ca) to see how local candidates compare when it comes to supporting sustainability. Based on past voting patterns (for incumbents) and the responses to a sustainability questionnaire each candidate received, the most progressive voices include Diane Therrien, Dean Pappas, Kemi Akapo, Jane Davidson, Jim Russell, Gary Baldwin, Keith Riel, Sheila Wood, Don Vassiliadis, Charmaine Magumbe,  Kim Zippel, Stephen Wright and Zach Hatton.

2. Phone your elected representatives:  Simply picking up the phone and talking to your elected representative or their office is hugely important. I recently heard that one reason the National Rifle Association is such a powerful force in the U.S. is because they make sure politicians’ phones ring off the hook when legislation is proposed that runs counter to their (misguided!) interests. Call the office of MPP Dave Smith (705-742-3777) and voice your support for either a meaningful price on carbon in Ontario or regulations that will accomplish the same amount of greenhouse gas reduction. Insist that the Ford government do its part to honour Canada’s Paris Accord promises. Let MP Maryam Monsef (705-745-2108) know you support the Liberal’s policy of imposing a carbon tax on provinces that do not have their own. Insist that revenues from the tax be directly refunded to households and not to the provincial governments in question. (N.B. The 2018 Nobel prize for economics was awarded to William Nordhaus for his groundbreaking work on carbon taxes. It’s clearly an idea that has huge merit.) If you live outside of Peterborough County, contact your elected representatives, as well.

3. Talk about climate change: We need to spread social norms that are positive to solutions. One of the most important actions we can all take is to simply talk about climate change with friends and family. Right now, many of us don’t even want to broach the topic. However, we’re often wrong in “what we think others think.” Most people are far more concerned about climate change than they ever acknowledge publicly. The more that people hear conversations on the topic, the more socially validated these conversations become. Showing your concerns and personal observations about the climate makes it easier for others to open up, as well.

You don’t have to be an expert. You really only need to say that 97% of climate scientists agree it’s happening now,  it’s caused by humans and it’s going to get terribly worse if nothing is done. Mention the latest IPCC report. You could then add, “I believe the experts. If they were wrong on the fundamentals, we’d know it by now.” By simply stating, “I’m terribly worried about my kids’ and grandkid’s future,” you are communicating a message that others can relate to. Emphasize the solutions, nearly all of which are available now. Talk about the benefits to our health and to job creation. Most importantly, stress the importance of acting immediately.

It’s vitally important to be talking more about climate change with friends, families and even strangers. (photo by Mikhail Gorbunov via  Wikimedia)

Start the conversation where others are at on the subject – not where they should be. How do you know? Ask them. Listen to their answers with patience and interest. It might be their family’s future, new diseases, severe weather events, or something else. Connect the issue to Peterborough and the Kawarthas. People are most open to acknowledging climate change when they are able to observe its effects locally. Point out the severe wind storms, the countless trees we’ve lost, the flood of 2004, the 23 days this summer over 30 C, the longer and more intense allergy season, and the invasive species choking our lakes and woodlands. Try to connect what you say to the values you share with this person – love of the outdoors or of family, for example. Remember, too, that the moment at which someone reverses a previously held opinion rarely happens during a single conversation. The goal is to increase the amount of conversation, not to make conversions on the spot or keep score. Be polite and challenge falsehoods or inaccuracies gently. In a world where there is already so much combativeness, your commitment to simple humanity, compassion, and respect will stand out.

A handful of people still deny the very reality of climate change. Many others don’t see the urgency of taking action or don’t support a carbon tax. You might ask these people the following: How have you come to this conclusion? How confident are you in this belief? Are you sure? Do you really think the scientists have got it wrong? If I showed you studies disproving what you’re saying, would that make a difference? What would make you change your mind? If not a carbon tax, how else could we quickly wean society off fossil fuels?

4. Be informed: For basic information on the greenhouse effect and climate change, I recommend climate.nasa.gov and realclimate.org. To learn how to address climate change denial arguments, visit skepticalscience.com. To stay up to date on the latest climate news, subscribe to the free Daily Climate newsletter at dailyclimate.org 

5. Be active on social media: Share climate change information online and start discussions on social media platforms such as Facebook. You’ll be surprised by how many people will engage.

Is it too late?

Clearly, time is running out. Humanity essentially has ten years to cut greenhouse gas emissions by almost half. There’s no excuse this time; each and everyone of us who is concerned about our kids’ and grandkids’ future —and the natural world as we know it – must act.

My friend, Laura, recently shared an anecdote, which, I think, can give us hope. She wrote, “The survival skills of living creatures are incredible. For me, this really hit home when I rescued a dying snake plant. I had picked it out of a garbage can – sick, uprooted, dehydrated and leafless. I focused on supplying the basic needs: nutrients, water, sun and love – and then let it be. It wasn’t until two months later that the first root sprouted. I was thrilled! Since then, it has matured into a gorgeous, healthy plant. It surpassed the odds of a sure death. It not only survived but flourished.” As Laura says, every life form has evolved to maximize the same outcome: survival and, with time, flourishing. It’s in our human nature to do the same. Our children and grandchildren deserve nothing less.

Oct 052018
 

Looking ahead to Peterborough and the world of  2038 

“The universe is a communion of subjects – not a collection of objects.”  Thomas Berry

Here is the reality we face, courtesy of the laws of physics. Scientists have calculated how much more greenhouse gas (GHG) humans can emit before temperatures spill over the critical threshold of 2 C of warming. Above this, unstoppable feedback loops such as melting permafrost are likely to create “Hothouse Earth” conditions, making much of the planet uninhabitable. If emissions continue at current rates, we will reach this threshold in just 20 years. To avoid this disaster scenario, emissions need to peak by 2020 and approach zero by 2050. This will mean cutting global emissions by half every decade. We will also need mass deployment of solar and wind energy, enhancement of carbon-absorbing forests, behavioral changes, technological innovations and transformed social values. Right now, we are nowhere near on track to meet this goal.

In my last two columns (posted at drewmonkman.com), I looked at the many obstacles that thwart action on climate change. This week and next, I’ll consider some possible ways forward. To move ahead, we require an inspiring vision of how Peterborough and the world of could look in two decades.

A hopeful vision

It’s mid-October 2038, and my wife and I have just hobbled onto one of the guided light transit buses that will whisk us from our Little Lake condominium to the beautifully restored Trent Nature Areas. Looking out the bus window, I’m still astounded by how much Peterborough has been transformed.

And, yes, the climate itself has changed more or less as predicted. Spring weather now arrives about a month earlier. This means mosquitoes are already a pest by mid-April, and the pollen and allergy season starts earlier and lasts longer. Mild fall conditions last well into December, and winter as we knew it is a fading memory. Summer is much hotter, too, with about one-third of the days over 30 C. Although severe wind and rainstorms are more frequent, major investments in infrastructure have allowed Peterborough to adapt. In fact, thanks to the massive decarbonization of the planet that began in 2020, most scientists are confident that the Hothouse Earth scenario has been avoided. In fact, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere is actually starting to fall, thanks to new carbon removal technologies. One such technology was developed here at Trent University and used in a plant near Millbrook. Technology has also revolutionized air travel, thanks in part to the use of fuel from biomass. People also fly less.

As the electric bus makes its way north through the downtown – now closed to private automobiles – I admire how landscaping features and the architectural style of both new and renovated buildings reflect our local cultural heritage and ecology. A sense of place permeates the city.

“Human scale” describes the new Peterborough. We have a fully integrated transport system comprised of walkways, cycle paths, and both transit and car lanes. Thanks to compact city development, car ownership is no longer the necessity it once was. In fact, most families now only own one car – electric, of course – or make use of car-sharing. City speed limits have also been lowered and pedestrian zones surround most of our schools

Although the population has doubled, all of the new housing has been provided within the existing city boundaries thanks to the 2019 intensification and redevelopment plan. Residential neighbourhoods are now mixed-use and high density, thanks in part to renovations to single-family homes to create rental units and small businesses. Solar panels and pollinator gardens are everywhere, and the huge investment in shade trees – albeit mostly heat-tolerant southern species – provides much appreciated shade. The best news, however, is that Peterborough’s development model reflects urban living across much of the planet.

How did this revolution happen? If I remember correctly, it went something like this. As climate change and its ripple effects caused more and more developing countries to teeter on the brink of collapse, the tide of refugees overwhelmed much of Europe and North America. A non-stop series of wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, floods, rising sea levels and insect-borne diseases almost bankrupted many countries. In Canada, this led to acceptance of an aggressive nation-wide price on carbon, in which most of the revenue was returned to the citizens. People weren’t necessarily more enamored by big government, but they realized that their very survival depended on a collective response. North Americans came to realize that we can’t live in isolation and that the only way for any country to prosper was through a more egalitarian world. This led to a huge investment in developing countries, many of which had been left behind by our new, high-tech global economy. International tensions were greatly reduced and billions of dollars were saved in military spending.

The many extreme weather events made us realize we can’t be complacent. People began to make noise, realizing we live in a democracy and have the power of our votes and our wallets. The impetus for change came from nearly every quarter: anglers and cottagers were shocked by the degradation of our lakes, plummeting walleye numbers and the proliferation of invasive species; winter sports enthusiasts lamented the disappearance of backyard rinks and the scant and unreliable snow cover; while farmers bemoaned the increasingly frequent droughts and floods.

In this future scenario, climate action was spurred by multiple concerns, including degradation of local lakes. Here we see a new invasive species – Starry Stonewort. Special to Examiner

We also learned to have respectful conversations with people who denied or downplayed the seriousness of climate change. Some say it was a positive backlash to the divisiveness that boiled over during the Trump presidency. By engaging multiple perspectives – including conservative values such as personal responsibility  – people began to think differently and seriously engage with what climate science was telling us. All of this has helped to usher in a model of prosperity focussed more on quality of life and deeper respect for the natural world.

We realized that we were all in this together and that only a planet-wide solution could turn things around. Maybe the biggest change has been in how we think about “economy”. We are much more engaged with the idea of assuring the “continuation of all forms of life” on the planet. What happens in the Arctic and in developing countries, for example, affects us here. As Pope Francis said back in 2015, “Nothing is indifferent to us,” be it poverty, famine, homelessness, sexism, racism, species extinction or carbon pollution. Everything eventually comes home to roost.

Despite the loss of jobs from closing the Alberta tarsands and cancelling new pipelines, the huge expansion of renewable energy projects has created millions of jobs planet-wide, including thousands in the Kawarthas. Retrofitting existing houses to make them more energy-efficient has generated enormous employment, too. Many people are also working in habitat restoration and creation. There’s actually a project underway to create a series of connected wetlands in Peterborough. They will not only provide wildlife habitat but also absorb much of the water from the intense rainstorms we now see.

While my wife and I chat about all these changes, she reminds me how much feminine values have permeated society. My daughters tell me, too, how much they were influenced by role models like Rachel Carson, Harriet Tubman, Jane Jacobs, Vandana Shiva, and Christine Blasey Ford. By privileging female perspectives – informed by love, compassion and nurturing – we see greater collaboration across society. The vastly increased number of women in leadership roles in business, science and politics, along with an unleashing of anger by female voters at economic, social and environmental injustices, helped make this happen. Having had a woman mayor in Peterborough for 20 years, along with a majority of councillors either female or of colour, has been a huge difference maker locally.

As the bus passes alongside the Otonabee River with its busy new biking and walking trail, I recall how people began linking climate-friendly behaviour to health, safety, and both clean air and water. This became clear as many of us contracted Lyme disease due to the northward expansion of ticks. People were also alarmed by the increase in mental illness, which health professionals linked to the devastating storms and unprecedented heat waves. We’ve also learned that even a short walk in local green space like the Parkway Green Corridor can make us feel so much better. It’s now common knowledge that regular exposure to nature plays a key role in our physical, mental and spiritual health. This has led to the huge popularity of practises like Forest Therapy.

In the Peterborough of 2038 it is well known that regular exposure to nature contributes to our physical, mental and spiritual health. Photo by Drew Monkman

As we pass the new Patio Restaurant overlooking the river, I’m still amazed that locally-produced food makes up most of our diet and helps the local economy. Both plant-based and cultured meats are now extremely popular. By drastically reducing the consumption of conventional meat, GHGs dropped by 15%. What we’ve learned about animal consciousness and suffering also helped to bring about this change. Hunting, however, remains relatively popular, with little stigma attached to harvesting and eating game. And, yes, we still love fast food but gone are single-use plastic containers, bottles and straws.

Arriving at Trent, we make our way to the fully accessible trails. As a group of students pass by, I reflect on how education has changed, too. The curriculum now embodies Indigenous values such as gratitude and reciprocity towards nature. Teachers act more as “facilitators” and use a problem solving approach. They assist each child to clearly define the issues, analyse patterns and causes, research reliable websites, employ critical thinking skills and choose the best solutions.

I realize that my foray into the future may seem optimistic, but a response of this magnitude is the reality we face.

 

Sep 212018
 

Additional obstacles to taking action on climate change

When Al Gore described climate change as an inconvenient truth, it was a mamoth understatement. In fact, it is more like a perfect storm. As I argued last week, a huge number of obstacles make it near impossible for humans to engage with the issue. Many of these relate to the very nature of our brains. We are brilliant when dealing with an immediate crisis like hurricanes, but largely paralyzed when facing a slow motion threat like climate change. I also introduced a framework in which to think about these barriers, namely the Five D’s: Distance, Doom, Dissonance, Denial and iDentity. This week, I will briefly touch on a number of other hurdles, which together point to the enormity of the challenge. The bottom line, however, is that we have at most 20 years – at current worldwide emission rates – before runaway, catastrophic climate chaos will be unavoidable.

1. It’s complicated: Climate change is complex. Unlike “the hole in the ozone layer”, it can’t be reduced to a single striking image. Greenhouse gases are invisible, and it’s hard to wrap our heads around concepts such as “a ton of carbon dioxide.” In addition, notions like “3 C of warming would be catastrophic” are not intuitively easy to understand. You therefore can’t blame people for thinking, “Yesterday was 3 C warmer, so what’s the big deal?”

2. Scant media attention: People who limit their information on climate change to traditional media like television, radio and newspapers have little sense of the urgency of the situation. The media works with our politicians to take the edge off the climate crisis. For example, pundits talk non-stop about the Trans Mountain pipeline fiasco, but make no mention of climate change. It’s only about the jobs at stake and how building the pipeline is in the national interest. There is implicit denial that a life-threatening situation is at hand. Hurricane Florence is another good example. Watching CNN, I heard no mention of climate change as a proven contributor to the intensity, size and slow motion advance of this storm. To be fair, the CBC, the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and the Peterborough Examiner have greatly increased their coverage of the issue.

Weather reporting is even more problematic. Take The Weather Network, for example. Why isn’t there a dedicated, daily segment for climate change-related stories and basic climate education? The only time it’s ever mentioned is on their News segment. Is the reason because the depressing message would drive away listeners and alienate advertisers – car manufacturers, for example?

Daily weather forecasts don’t mention climate change, either. For example, there is never a comment comparing recent temperatures to the long-term normal and framing this in the context of climate change predictions proving accurate. We should be hearing statements like “Peterborough had four times as many 30+ C days this summer as usual. This is predicted to be the new normal by the 2030s.” All we hear is how wonderful all the heat and sunshine are.

Doug Ford has promised to cancel Ontario’s Cap and Trade program and to fight the federal government’s plan to impose a carbon tax on provinces who do not have their own. Photo from Wikimedia

 

3. Politics: The policies and actions of politicians such as Donald Trump and Doug Ford make it clear they don’t take climate change seriously. This attitude makes people feel we’ll be fine doing only a bare minimum – or nothing at all. When faced with a choice between economic growth and environmental responsibility, politicians invariably choose economic growth – the worldview of most voters and donors demands it.

Trudeau’s policies send mixed messages, as well. He seems to be saying that we can reduce carbon emissions while increasing the extraction and exporting of tar sands oil. He concluded that the only way to get Alberta on board with a pan-Canada price on carbon is to push forward for a pipeline. In terms of political realities, he may be right. However, climate change will not abide a “politics as usual” approach. We are facing a situation akin to wartime.

The policies of Premier Ford are even more  damaging. He has no known plan to address climate change and is quickly dismantling the many excellent programs brought in by the Liberals. Like Trump, he has framed climate change as politics of the left. Therefore, in an increasingly tribal mentality, more and more Conservatives are against any action as a basic principle.

4. A successful denial campaign: The blatant lying from the fossil fuel industry, which continues to willingly and knowingly suppress the truth about climate change, has been tragically effective. The tobacco industry used the same strategy to great success. By stoking fear, uncertainty and doubt, they have succeeded in delaying aggressive action. The difference is that most smokers only killed themselves.

5. Economics: Right wing politicians have been increasingly successful in framing initiatives such as a price on carbon as a tax grab. Consumers want low prices and a wide variety of choices with minimal government interference on our consumption behaviours. To make matters worse, the portfolios of many investors, both individuals and organizations, are heavily concentrated in fossil fuels. People expect profitable returns, so these companies have a mandate to deliver growth and profits. We therefore accept greenhouse gas pollution and ecosystem destruction as the necessary requirements of economic growth. In a modern world so disconnected from nature, environmental protection is almost seen as an expensive luxury.

On September 19, Kate Grierson, a climate change communicator, spoke at the Lion’s Centre. She discussed how to tackle climate change issues at the local level to a crowd of 50 people at an event organized by Ashburnham Ward councilors Gary Baldwin and Keith Riel. Photo from Wikimedia

6. Distrust of experts: Public understanding of science and the scientific method is poor. There is also a widespread perception that no single opinion is better than any other is – even when it comes from the scientists themselves.

7. Faith in a technological fix:  There are also people who assume some technological fix will solve the problem. However, there are no technological solutions under development, which can be perfected and implemented rapidly enough to avoid runaway climate change. Getting off fossil fuels is the only solution.

 

8. Our schools have failed: Our education system does an abysmal job addressing environmental education. Part of the problem, however, is an absence of pressure from parents to make it a priority. Most schools won’t even let the kids play outside anymore when there’s the least issue with the weather. Add to this the inordinate amount of time children spend in front of screens along with their over-scheduled lives, and it’s little wonder that the natural world has become a foreign entity. Students therefore grow up with the illusion that modern society is only tangentially dependent on nature and a stable climate.

9. The internet: Social media has made it possible – almost to the point of an addiction – to connect daily with like-minded people who reinforce our perceptions and worldviews. You can simply “unfriend” or no longer follow people you don’t agree with. This happens to me all the time on Twitter when I tweet about climate change. The internet is also chocked full of pseudo-science and right wing websites that deny climate change in the first place. Our lack of critical thinking skills and science literacy makes many of these sites appear legitimate.

10. Limited options: The number of ways an individual can act, either personally or publicly, seems – on the surface at least – to be limited. This results in a perceived lack of control. “What can I as one person do? Even if I do everything I can, it won’t make a difference.” There is lack of opportunities for civic engagement – rallies, for example, are not everyone’s cup of tea. There is also the attitude that once politicians are elected, they aren’t going to change their mind no matter what public pressure is brought to bear. Tragically, Doug Ford is proving that perception right now. Individual action can also seem meaningless, since we have reached a point where only a collective, political response will make a difference.

11. Culture and religion: Many Canadians grew up in a country that didn’t have the luxury of worrying about environmental issues because of poverty and the huge challenge of simply surviving from day-to-day. For these people, worrying about climate change might still seem like a luxury. Less understandable, however, is the attitude among some Evangelical Christians. According to a 2014 survey from Forum research, climate change denial is higher in this group than any other sector of the Canadian population.

12. Young people: Numerous surveys have shown that young people care deeply about climate change and are better informed than most of the population. However, they also suffer from higher levels of anxiety than any previous generation – and, for good reason. They deal with job insecurity and fear for the future on multiple levels, environmental devastation being one of them. It’s therefore understandable that some believe that the generation who created this mess – Baby Boomers like myself – ought to be held accountable and take the lion’s share of responsibility. Many teenagers and millennials also see climate issues as intimately bound up with issues like poverty, civil rights and the exploitation of people and land.

13. The emotional impact: An increasing number of people suffer from an overwhelming sense of grief, mourning, anger and confusion caused by an acute awareness of environmental destruction. This anxiety and despair helps explain why some choose to avoid engaging with climate change at all. It’s simply too much. If such feelings go unacknowledged, however, they too can thwart action.

Despite this litany of impediments to action, exciting new approaches to breaking the logjam are on the horizon. These range from incorporating indigenous knowledge and values into education, to new strategies to bridge the political divide. Only through collective, political action can this problem be solved. To be continued.