Mar 092017

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

The Land Between ecoregion (image from TLB national charity)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Social focus

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

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

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

Land trust & Kawartha Highlands P.P. trails

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

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

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






Mar 022017

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

The Land Between ecoregion (image from TLB national charity)

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

Barrens and Forests

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

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

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



Feb 162017

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

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

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

Common lichen of the Kawarthas


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

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

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

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

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

Growth forms

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

When and where

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

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

A few lichens to get to know

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

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

More common lichens of the Kawarthas

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

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


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

Lichen-camouflaged nest of Ruby-throated Hummingbird – Wikimedia

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

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

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

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

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










Feb 092017

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

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

Pecking order

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

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

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

Advantages of rank

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

Black-capped Chickadee – (photo by Jeff Keller)

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

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

Surviving cold

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

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


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

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

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

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

Things to do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 eBird workshop

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

Feb 022017

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

Male Indigo Bunting at nyjer feeder – Greg Piasetzki

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

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

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

Hairy Woodpecker – Karl Egressy


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


Cooper’s Hawk on Rock Pigeon – Helen Nicolaides Keller

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

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

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

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

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

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds – Nancy Cafik

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

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


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

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

Great Backyard Bird Count    

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

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


Jan 252017

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

The Big Book of Nature Activities

The Big Book of Nature Activities


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 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 and 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 The authors can be reached by email at and





Jan 192017

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

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

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

Peterborough Count

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

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

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

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

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

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

American Robin in mountain-ash March 2014 – Jeff Keller

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

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

Petroglyph Count

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

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

Bohemian Waxwing (Karl Egressy)

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

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

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

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

Ruffed Grouse – Parry Sound – via Rob Moos

Kids Count

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

Great Backyard Bird Count

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



Jan 122017

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

Merlin (Karl Egressy)


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

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

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

Feral honey bee nest – Tom Northey



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bobolink (male) – Gwen Forsyth



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Ruffed Grouse – Parry Sound – via Rob Moos



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

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

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

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

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

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

Wild Grape – Dec. 2, 2016 – Drew Monkman



Dec 222016

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Green-winged Teal - Jeff Keller

Green-winged Teal – Jeff Keller


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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








Dec 152016

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Climate change

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

Gray Jay on nest in late winter - Dan Strickland

Gray Jay on nest in late winter – Dan Strickland

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

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




Dec 082016

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barred Owl on cottontail - Jeff Keller - 01 24 14

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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



Dec 012016

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Math in Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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


2017 Peterborough Pollinators Calendar

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

March photo spread from new calendar. (Ben Wolfe)

March photo spread from new calendar. (Ben Wolfe)

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

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

Calendar page for December 2017 (Ben Wolfe)

Calendar page for December 2017 (Ben Wolfe)




Nov 172016

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

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


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

Moose in roadside ditch - Terry Carpenter

Moose in roadside ditch – Terry Carpenter

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

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


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

Little Brown Bat with White Nose Syndrome - Wikimedia

Little Brown Bat with White Nose Syndrome – Wikimedia

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

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

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


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

Chorus Frog (photo by Tim Dyson)

Chorus Frog (photo by Tim Dyson)


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

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

Citizen Science

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

Invasive species

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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




Nov 102016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some basics

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

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

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

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

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

Working with kids

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

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

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

Seasonal ideas

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

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

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

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




Nov 032016

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

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

Growth Plan

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

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

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

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

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

Other Threats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Striking a balance

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

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

Kawartha Land Trust logo

Kawartha Land Trust logo

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

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

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

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

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

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




Oct 202016

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

Fox Sparrow - Wikimedia

Fox Sparrow – Wikimedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Male White-winged Crossbill - Wikimedia

Male White-winged Crossbill – Wikimedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bohemian Waxwing (Karl Egressy)

Bohemian Waxwing (Karl Egressy)

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


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

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


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

SILVER MEDAL WINNER Moonbeam Children's Book Awards 2016

MEDAL WINNER! Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards 2016








Oct 132016

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

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

Sugar Maples - Cy Monkman

Sugar Maples – Cy Monkman

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

Colour change

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

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

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

Leaves of red maple changing colour - Photo by Drew Monkman

Leaves of red maple changing colour – Photo by Drew Monkman

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

Other stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leaf collection

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

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

Oct 082016

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

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

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

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

Heart-leaved Asters along Blue Trail - Drew Monkman

Heart-leaved Asters along Blue Trail – Drew Monkman

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

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

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

Stony Lake Trails

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

Stony Lake Trails - Kawartha Land Trust

Stony Lake Trails – Kawartha Land Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boyd Island

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

Boyd Island Trail Map - Kawartha Land Trust

Boyd Island Trail Map – Kawartha Land Trust

Ballyduff Trails

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


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

Sep 222016

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

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

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

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

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


Set an example

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

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

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



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

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

Other ideas

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


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

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

Sep 152016

Looking back at the summer of 2016, two words come immediately come to mind: drought and heat. August was a whopping 3.7 C warmer than the 1971-2000 average, while as of this week, September is about 3 C above normal temperatures. As for precipitation, July only saw one-third of normal rainfall. Precipitation was heavier in August but still only about half of what our region usually receives.

Drought - August 2016 - Drew-Monkman

Drought – August 2016 – Drew-Monkman

The combination of drought and intense heat was hard on our flora and fauna. Entire fields turned a ubiquitous brown, which meant that butterflies struggled to find nectar and healthy plants to lay eggs on. Monarchs may have been especially hard hit as only a handful of sightings were reported over most of the summer. Numbers have increased somewhat in recent weeks, however. On September 5, for example, I had three monarchs visiting my garden together. According to Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch, the continent-wide data to this point suggest that this year will be a repeat of 2014 with a significant decline in both migration and overwintering numbers.

The drought has also resulted in a number of trees changing colour and/or shedding leaves much earlier than usual. Oaks growing in the thin soils northern Peterborough County have suffered with many trees turning a sickly shade of brown. Most should be able to recover, however, as long as precipitation levels return to normal this fall and over the coming winter and spring.

The drought has also been hard on birds and other animals as fewer young have been able to survive. A lack of nuts and berries, for example, is proving difficult for bears, which may result in more conflicts with humans as they search for food. Lower water levels and increased water temperatures have been hard on fish, too, especially cold-water species like brook trout. As water levels dropped in wetlands, frogs were more vulnerable to predators such as herons and raccoons, while some turtles were forced to roam widely afield in search of appropriate habitat. It’s likely that many did not survive the journey.

In other news this summer, a new species of butterfly was recorded for Peterborough County. On June 21, Jerry Ball and Ken Morrison found a female pipevine swallowtail on Sandy Lake Road, off Highway 46 north of Havelock. This species is usually restricted to the Carolinian zone of southwestern Ontario. With climate change, more and more butterflies are extending their range northward. The giant swallowtail is a well-known example.

The common loons that nested on the Otonabee River, just north of Lock 25, appear to have been successful in raising their two young. On August 19, Dave Milsom observed and photographed the two juvenile loons with an adult. The young loons were constantly flapping their wings in preparation for their first flight.

There was also encouraging news regarding chimney swifts, a species at risk in Ontario. In a citizen science monitoring program known as Swift Watch, Dan Williams observed 123 swifts entering a chimney behind Wildrock on Charlotte Street. On June 6, Ariel Lenske saw 83 birds fly into the same roost, where they spend the night.

Finally, Loggerhead Marsh, located on Ireland Drive in west-end Peterborough, has just been classified as a provincially significant wetland. This designation normally means that no structures can be built within a 120 m buffer zone bordering the wetland. This is welcome news for such a rich and easily accessible nature-viewing destination.

As the autumn equinox quickly approaches, here is a list of events in nature that are typical of fall in the Kawarthas. If the mild weather continues, however, some events may occur later than usual. Not surprisingly, this has become the norm as climate change tightens its grip.

Late September

  • Fall songbird migration is in full swing. Migrants such as warblers are often in mixed flocks with chickadees and can be coaxed in for close-up views by using “pishing”. To see and hear this birding technique in action, go to
  • Broad-winged hawks migrate south over the Kawarthas in mid-September, especially on sunny days with cumulous clouds and northwest winds. Watch for high-altitude “kettles”, which is a group of hawks soaring and circling in the sky. For your best chance of seeing this phenomenon, consider a trip to Cranberry Marsh, located on Halls Road at the Lynde Shores Conservation Area in Whitby. Expert hawk watchers are on hand each day. Thousands of broad-wings pass over this area in mid-month every year.
  • Peterborough Field Naturalists hold their Sunday Morning Nature Walks this month and next. Meet at the Riverview Park and Zoo parking lot at 8 am and bring binoculars. For more information, go to
  • As the goldenrods begin to fade, asters take centre stage. The white flowers of heath and calico asters, along with the purple and mauve blossoms of New England and heart-leaved asters provide much of the show. Visit for tips on identifying these beautiful but under appreciated plants.

    A Monarch butterfly drinks nectar from a New England Aster - Tim Dyson

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

  • Listen for the constant calling of blue jays and the metronome-like “chuck-chuck…” call of chipmunks. The call is often given in response to danger such as the presence of a hawk. Chipmunk numbers are high this year, partly because of a strong acorn crop last fall, which allowed most of these small squirrels to overwinter successfully and have large litters.


  • Fall colours in the Kawarthas usually peak early in the month. However, because of the hot, dry weather this summer, leaf colour is expected to be more muted than usual. County Roads 620 and 504 around Chandos Lake east of Apsley makes for a great colour drive.
  • Sparrow migration takes centre stage, 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.
  • On October 12, Mike McMurtry, a recently retired ecologist from the Natural Heritage Information Centre, will be speaking to the Peterborough Field Naturalists on “Learning the Plants of the Kawarthas”. The talk will provide tips for identification and conclude with a quiz. The presentation begins at 7:30 pm at the Camp Kawartha Environment Centre on Pioneer Road. Everyone is welcome.
  • Fall is a great time to find salamanders. The red-backed, which is almost worm-like in appearance, is usually the most common. Look carefully under flat rocks, old boards, and logs in damp wooded areas and around cottages.

    Red-backed Salamander - Drew Monkman

    Red-backed Salamander – Drew Monkman

  • 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 lagoons, which are located on County Road 33, just south of Lakefield. Just be careful to avoid blocking the gate when you park. Goldeneye, buffleheads, scaup and mergansers are often present in large numbers. If you have a spotting scope, be sure to take it along.

    Common Goldeneye male - Karl Egressy

    Common Goldeneye male – Karl Egressy

  • If you find a Halloween bat in your house, it is probably a big brown. This species often overwinters in buildings. Little browns, on the other hand, choose caves and abandoned mines as winter quarters. Their population is in a free-fall because of White Nose Syndrome. Big browns are less susceptible to the disease.
  • 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 2016-2017”. The forecast, compiled by Ron Pittaway, is usually available online by early October.


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

    Oak leaves - Evolution has made them deeply lobed and leathery. (Drew Monkman)

    Oak leaves – Evolution has made them deeply lobed and leathery. (Drew Monkman)

  • We return to Standard Time on November 5th and turn our clocks back one hour. Sunrise on the 5th is at 7:56 am and sunset at 5:57 pm for a total of only 10 hours of daylight. Compare this to the 15 1/2 hours we enjoyed back in June!
  • The red berries of wetland species like winterberry holly and high-bush cranberry provide some much needed November colour.
  • Most of our loons and robins head south this month. However, small numbers of robins regularly overwinter in the Kawarthas. Their numbers should be particularly high this year, thanks to a plentiful wild grape crop. Grapes are a staple food for winter robins.

    Riverbank (Wild) Grape - Drew Monkman

    Riverbank (Wild) Grape – Drew Monkman

  • Ball-like swellings known as galls are easy to see on the stems of goldenrods. If you open the gall with a knife, you will find the small, white larva of the goldenrod gall fly inside. In the spring, it will emerge as an adult fly.
  • Damp, decomposing leaves on the forest floor scent the November air.
  • With the onset of cold temperatures, wood frogs, gray treefrogs, chorus frogs, and spring peepers take shelter in the leaf litter of the forest floor and literally become small blocks of amphibian ice. Glycerol, acting as an antifreeze, inhibits freezing within the frogs’ cells.

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


Jun 232016

With summer upon us, finding things for kids to do can be a challenge. This week, I’d like to propose a few activities from the new “Big Book of Nature Activities”, which I co-wrote with Jacob Rodenburg of Camp Kawartha. We’re confident that many of the activities will be fun for adults, as well! For more information on the book, go to

The Big Book of Nature Activities

The Big Book of Nature Activities

Scent Trail

You’ll learn:  How animals follow scent trails

You’ll need:  Lemon, almond, mint, maple or orange extract, blindfolds

Background: Unfortunately, our human nose isn’t sensitive enough to follow natural scent trails. However, many other mammals can. Canids (or members of the dog family) have an incredible sense of smell – many thousands of times better than humans. We might say, “hmmm mac and cheese.” Canids, on the other hand, might say, “Hmmm noodles and cheese and butter and salt and milk and bread crumbs and metal pot and Aunt Marge must have just made this!”

Procedure: In this game, you’ll be given a “helping nose” so that you can follow a scent trail to a reward at the end. Work in partners. One person is blindfolded while the other lays down a scent trail with extract. You only need a drop or two every foot or so for about 30 feet (10 m). Try to lay down a curving trail to make it more challenging. At the end of the scent trail, place a wrapped candy. Guide the blindfolded partner to the beginning of your trail and let them use their nose to find the reward at the end.

Nature Table

A simple, on-going activity is to set up a nature table in your home or cottage. You may wish to label some of the items you display. See if you can find some of the following: leaves of different sizes, shapes, edges, textures, and shades of green (preserved between 2 sheets of clear Mactac plastic); a bracket fungus from a tree trunk; egg fragments from turtle nests that have been dug up by a predator; different types of cones, seeds, berries; a vase of roadside wildflowers;  dragonfly exuviae (cast skin); dead insects like dragonflies or butterflies that you come across;  “scent bouquet” of wild bergamot, milkweed flowers, etc. You can also set up a glass bottle terrarium for temporary “guests” like a toad or salamander.

Pirate Eye

While sitting quietly outdoors, shut one eye and cover it with your hand for about three minutes. Observe the scene through your one open eye. Notice anything? You’ve lost depth perception! After three minutes, switch between your eyes, opening one, then the other. Do this repeatedly. The shades of colours will have completely changed between your eyes. That is because one pupil (the black spot in the middle of your eyes) dilated —  got  bigger —  when you closed it. When you open your eyes again, the world looks brighter through this eye. The other eye, with a smaller pupil, creates darker shades. So which color is real? Do you think all humans see exactly in the same shades? As visual creatures, we humans can distinguish over two million shades of colour.

Pirate eye!

Pirate eye!

Fish Prints

You’ll learn: The patterns and scale structures of different kinds of fish.

Gyotaku fish print - Jacob Rodenburg

Gyotaku fish print – Jacob Rodenburg

You’ll need: A whole fish, a newspaper, acrylic paint, paintbrushes or rollers, paper towels, paper (e.g., tissue paper, construction paper, rice paper, paper plates), fabric (e.g., T-shirt). • Background: Gyotaku, or fish printing using rice paper and ink, originated more than 100 years ago in Japan as a way for anglers to record the size of their catch.

Procedure: Cover the work area with newspaper. Wash off any mucus on the fish and pat dry with paper towels. Place the fish on the newspaper. Slather paint all over the exposed side of the fish using rollers or brushes. Make sure you cover one entire side of the fish. Place a sheet of paper or fabric (e.g., T-shirt) over the fish and press it down firmly, being careful not to move it. Smooth down. Carefully remove the paper or fabric and allow to dry. You can use the fish again for another print. Just carefully wash off all of the paint under a tap.

Natural Perfume

Collect leaves, flowers and buds that are strongly scented (e.g., milkweed flowers, lavender flowers, mint leaves, wintergreen leaves, balsam poplar buds) Chop into small pieces until you have enough to fill a measuring cup. Empty the pieces into a bowl and add a cup of water. Let the mixture sit overnight. Strain the water through a coffee filter and into a clean spray bottle. Spritz over yourself and your friends and enjoy the sweet scent!

Firefly Fun

You’ll learn: How to attract fireflies and make a natural night “light”

You’ll need: Flashlight, glass jar, ice cream tub with lid.

Background: The firefly is a beetle with a special organ in its abdomen capable of mixing oxygen, a pigment called luciferin and the enzyme luciferase. When the insect flies upward, these chemicals mingle and create a flash. As the insect descends, the flash turns off. When a female of the same species sees the flash, she responds with her own light signal. Eventually the male and female fireflies find each other and mate.

What to do: On a summer evening, just as dusk fades into night, visit a meadow where there are fireflies. If you have a flashlight or a wristwatch that glows in the dark, try reproducing the pattern of flashes. Different species of fireflies flash at different rates. Like Morse code, each pulse of light communicates a special message to the opposite sex. Can you attract a firefly by imitating the sequence? You might also wish to make a “night light” for your bedroom. Catch several fireflies in a plastic ice cream tub and transfer them to a glass jar with a lid. Add a few leaves and a drop or two of water. Lie in bed and fall asleep to their lovely star-like flashes. Let them go in the morning.

Plant Weaving

You’ll learn: To create inspiring art by using the vibrant colours of summer.

You’ll need: A forked branch, string or wool, flowers, leaves, grasses, small evergreen boughs.

What to do: Find a sturdy forked stick about as wide as your thumb width and 20–28 in. (50–70 cm) long. Wrap string or wool between the forks approximately  every inch (2 cm). Weave the plant material through the crisscrossing string. You’ll be amazed at the color, texture and form of your creation.

Try this: Collect natural objects (e.g., leaves of various shapes, sizes and  colors; twigs; seeds; acorn caps; evergreen needles; berries; shells) and use them as building blocks to make caterpillars, leaf bugs, flowers, spiders and more. Use your imagination!plant-weaving-jacob-rodenburg

Pond Study

You’ll learn: Some of the intriguing invertebrates that live in ponds.

You’ll need: Pail (preferably with a lid), small aquarium or large glass bottle, small plastic viewing jars, fine-meshed net, shoes you can get wet, hand lens, guide to aquatic invertebrates (go to:

Background: Some of the common invertebrates found in ponds, swamps or streams include mayfly larvae, caddisfly larvae (usually in cases of plant material), damselfly nymphs, dragonfly nymphs, giant water bugs, water striders, water boatmen, backswimmers, leeches and crayfish. Tadpoles, frogs and aquatic salamanders may live here, too. All are easy to catch. What to do: Take your pail, plastic containers and net to a nearby pond, swamp or shallow stream. Either from the edge or by wading out into the water (no more than knee-deep), dip your net down into the dense aquatic vegetation where many creatures hang out. When you catch something like a “wiggling bug,” put it in your pail. Add a little aquatic vegetation to the pail, too. Continue until you have a variety of different creatures. Try different parts of the pond, including the muddy bottom. Don’t pour mud into the pail, however. If you are catching creatures in a stream, many will be attached to the underside of rocks. Gently push them off the rock and into the pail. Don’t be afraid to hold the creatures briefly in your hand. When you have caught a nice variety of different invertebrates, transfer a few to viewing jars for close-up looks and identification. You can then either let them go or take some home to keep for a while in an aquarium or a large glass bottle. Pour the water and creatures into the aquarium and set it on a white sheet away from direct sunlight. If you haven’t done so already, take some time to view and identify each of the different creatures with a hand lens by placing them briefly in a small plastic bottle. Change about one-third of the water every couple of days with fresh swamp or stream water. Have a look every day at what’s going on in the bottle. Have new creatures hatched out of eggs? Have some creatures fallen prey to predators? Be sure to sketch the various species in your nature journal or even photograph them. Include the name. Return the invertebrates to where you caught them after a week or so.


Jun 092016

With our daughter home for a few days last week, we decided to take advantage of the great weather to do some hiking. Sophie has always had a special fondness for the Canadian Shield, so Petroglyph Provincial Park was the perfect destination. We also wanted to reacquaint ourselves with the special beauty of the area. Located on the north shore of Stony Lake, Petroglyphs Provincial Park is home to Canada’s largest known concentration of First Nation rock carvings. More than 900 figures, including turtles, snakes, birds and people, were carved into exposed marble, as far back as 1100 years ago.

Nanabush Trail

After purchasing our day pass at the visitor centre, we decided to walk the 5.5 kilometre Nanabush Trail, which starts near the main parking lot. The trail crosses a variety of habitats from wetlands and mixed forests to granite outcrops. The sunny weather, light breeze and near-total absence of biting insects made for especially pleasant walking. As we traversed the open, meadow-like area at the trailhead, we were entertained by large numbers of chalk-fronted skimmers, a black-and-white dragonfly, which often emerges in large numbers in late spring. Big yellow, white and black Canada tiger swallowtail butterflies flitted among the dogwoods, cherries, New Jersey tea and balsam ragwort. Along with species like Canada plum and woodland sunflower, these latter two plants make the Park an especially interesting destination for anyone interested in botany.

Passing through mixed forest of mostly pine, spruce, maple, and basswood, our attention was immediately drawn to the many wildflowers in bloom. Just like hardwood forests come alive with trilliums and trout lilies in May, coniferous and mixed forests offer up their own wildflower display in June. The stars of the show are the red blossoms of wild columbine; the pink, bird-like flowers of fringed polygala (gaywings); and the white flowers of species like Canada mayflower, starflower and wild sarsaparilla. Sarsaparilla is especially abundant on the Nanabush Trail. It has three compound leaves, each with five leaflets. Ball-like clusters of greenish-white flowers grow on leafless stems, which are sometimes hidden by the leaves. The roots of sarsaparilla were once used to make root beer.

Wild Columbine on Nanabush Trail (Drew Monkman)

Wild Columbine on Nanabush Trail (Drew Monkman)

Leaving the forest, the trail enters a large wetland with great views of the marsh from the boardwalk. Typical marsh birds like common yellowthroat warblers, alder flycatchers and red-winged blackbirds sang repeatedly, often competing with the banjo-like “boing” calls of green frogs. At one point, we were startled by the splash of a large beaver, only metres away. For anyone interested in wetland plants like speckled alder, nannyberry, sedges and a wide variety of ferns, the boardwalk provides wonderful close-up views.

Re-entering the woods on the west side of the marsh, I stopped to watch a mourning warbler that was pouring its heart out in song. At my feet, I noticed several large patches of bunchberry, which is a species of dogwood and a signature plant of the Canadian Shield. Some bunchberries have four leaves while others have six, even in the same patch. Strangely enough, only those plants with six leaves produce flowers, which form a greenish cluster in the centre of four white bracts.

As we walked further into the forest, a number of different warblers advertized their presence. The most common was the ovenbird. Its loud “teaCHER, teaCHER” rang out at regular intervals along the path. Another sound that caught our attention was the slow, irregular drumming of the yellow-bellied sapsucker. The pattern has a stuttering quality and often sounds like Morse code. The sapsucker is well known for the parallel rows of tiny shallow holes that it makes in tree bark. The birds lap up the sap that leaks from the holes, using the fibrous, brush-like projections on their tongue. At the same time, they will also grab small insects that may have been attracted to the sap wells. It is not uncommon to see hummingbirds and butterflies partaking of the sap, as well.

A little further down the trail, my wife motioned me to stop. A ruffed grouse was standing statue-like right in front of us, its head feathers erect. We could hear a faint, peeping sound coming from the surrounding vegetation, which meant that young were present. With careful searching, we were finally able to catch glimpses of the sand-coloured, ping-pong ball-sized chicks. The chicks can walk and feed themselves within 24 hours of hatching.

Minnow Lake

Before long, the trail opens onto a granite ridge with scattered white pines, red oaks and blueberries. Sun-warmed pine needles scented the air as we enjoyed the view of the small lake below. This is a great spot to stop for a picnic lunch. I kept an eye out for any five-lined skinks that might be sunning themselves on the rocks. The glossy black juveniles are especially beautiful with their bright blue tails and five cream-coloured stripes down the back. The skink is Ontario’s only native lizard and is common in the Park. I was told that they are often seen around the glass-walled building at the Petroglyph site itself.

Minnow Lake on the Nanabush Trail - Drew Monkman

Minnow Lake on the Nanabush Trail – Drew Monkman

At the end of the lake, the trail climbs steeply and enters a deeply shaded stand of eastern hemlock and white cedar. The two warblers most closely associated with hemlocks – the blackburnian and black-throated green – sang repeatedly from the crowns of the trees. As in many areas along the Nanabush Trail, barren strawberries proliferated on the forest floor. They are easy to identify with their yellow flowers and three roundish, toothed leaflets. We also took some time here to scan the dead trees and floating logs in the flooded valley further to the west.

Looping back along the south side of Minnow Lake, we stumbled upon one of my favourite plants – the pink lady’s slipper or moccasin flower. A member of the orchid family, the lower petal of the flower forms an inflated pink pouch with reddish veins. The pouch tells an amazing story of how far evolution will go to assure pollination. On the hunt for nectar and pollen, bumblebees pry their way into the large, slipper-like pouch through an incurved slit down the front. Once inside, however, the slit closes and traps the bee. But, it’s not all bad news. The upper part of the pouch is lined with sticky hairs coated in nectar, and there are translucent areas where light shines through. Attracted by the light and sugar reward, the bee climbs upwards to feed and then make its escape. However, a narrowing at the top of the pouch forces the bee to crawl under a flattened structure where it rubs up against the stigma – the sticky female part of the flower. Unbeknownst to the bee, some of the pollen on its body hairs will adhere to the stigma and pollinate the plant. But one last bit of trickery still remains. As the bee finally exits, it is forced to rub up against the anthers – the male part of the flower – and inadvertently pick up more pollen. When it flies off to another lady’s-slipper, the bee will follow the same path and unwittingly leave pollen behind once again.

Pink Lady's-slipper tells an amazing story of evolution - Drew Monkman

Pink Lady’s-slipper tells an amazing story of evolution – Drew Monkman

Arriving at the east end of the lake, we crossed another long boardwalk where more dragonflies and both bluet and jewelwing damselflies abounded. Painted turtles, too, were basking in the warm June sun. We then followed the path back to the trail entrance and headed back up to the Learning Place visitor centre. The Learning Place offers a number of excellent displays on First Nation culture such as ceremonies, the medicine wheel, medicinal plants and beliefs associated with the four cardinal directions. You can also watch the award winning film “The Teaching Rocks”. The Learning Centre prepares the visitor for a more meaningful visit of the nearby Petroglyph site itself. Local First Nation’s people call the site “Kinoomaagewaapkong” which translates to “the rocks that teach”. The Curve Lake First Nation acts as the steward community of the rock carvings, providing Ontario Parks with guidance in this culturally significant and ceremonial place.

I often meet people from Peterborough who have never been to Petroglyph Provincial Park. If you enjoy nature, hiking and First Nation history and culture, I strongly recommend a visit. Like most everywhere in the Kawarthas, however, there is poison ivy. Learn to identify the plant and don’t forget to wear shoes, socks and preferably long pants when walking the trails.

Jun 022016

When we debarked from the shuttle that takes birders out to the tip of Point Pelee National Park, it was clear that something was up. Hundreds of people lined the trail along the west beach, fully engrossed by the activity around them. Birds were everywhere – on the ground, flitting about in trees and shrubs, and even perched out in the open. I had never seen so many smiling faces in my life. Decades ago, birders would say that there are days at Pelee when the birds are “dripping from the trees”. Now, for the first time ever, we were witnessing one of these days ourselves.

In addition to large numbers of white-crowned and white-throated sparrows, most of the migrants were warblers, a group highly coveted by birders in the spring. The variety of species and sheer number of individuals was overwhelming. Just in our section of the trail, there were dozens each of Cape May, black-throated green, northern parula, American redstart, chestnut-sided, palm and blackburnian – just to name the most abundant. It was a veritable feast for the eyes. The majority were males, adorned in the stunning yellows, oranges and reds of spring plumage. Many of the birds moved through in waves, sometimes making their way northward up the tip but then changing direction and heading back out towards the lake. At times, it was hard to know where to look, especially since people were continually yelling out rare species. I could simply focus my binoculars on a given branch only metres away and the birds would move through my field of vision. They paid no attention to the awe-struck crowd, but were strictly focused on gorging themselves on the midges that swarmed in and around the vegetation. When we turned our attention skyward, other species streamed by overhead. The oohs and awes were loudest when a red-headed woodpecker, followed by six eastern bluebirds, flew by.

All I could hear were superlatives: “The best morning in decades!” ….”This is amazing!” …”C’est incroyable!” Everywhere, there was a constant  clicking of cameras. I can only imagine some of the stellar images that must have been captured. Despite the excitement, there was no pushing or shoving, even as people rushed by to catch a glimpse of a rarity like a Cerulean or Canada warbler. As birders always do, people helped each other locate and identify the birds. After three hours of uninterrupted action and suddenly aware of our aching necks and shoulders, we finally headed back to the visitor centre, thrilled with having tallied no less than 20 warbler species, not to mention numerous flycatchers, kinglets, gnatcatchers and others.

Prothonotary Warbler - Greg Piasetzki

Prothonotary Warbler – Greg Piasetzki

Over coffee and muffins provided by the Friends of Point Pelee, people shared theories as to why this amazing “fallout” of birds had occurred. Up until that morning, birding had been quite slow. So, what had changed? It seems that winds from the south had materialized the evening before, allowing a huge backlog of birds on the Ohio side of Lake Erie to finally head northward. Sometime in the early morning hours, however, the winds had changed to the northeast and, not able to fly against the strong headwind, the thousands of migrants descended en masse on the first land available – the tip of Point Pelee.

Over the four days at Pelee and one day at Rondeau Provincial Park, we tallied no less than 140 species, ranging from the warblers described above to large numbers of avian gems like scarlet tanagers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, black-bellied plovers, and both Baltimore and orchard orioles. We were also treated to a great horned owl nest containing three very inquisitive owlets. Close-up views of more than 100 short-billed dowitchers were a real treat, as well.

Short-billed Dowitchers - Blenheim Sewage Lagoon - May 12, 2016 Drew Monkman

Short-billed Dowitchers – Blenheim Sewage Lagoon near Rondeau Provincial Park – May 12, 2016 Drew Monkman

Bearing witness each year to the wonder of spring migration provides a tangible sense of the change of season and a profound feeling of reverence. How can you not be amazed at tiny songbirds that have used solar and magnetic orienteering to fly from the rainforests of Central and South America all the way to Canada? It is no less than an affirmation of life itself and the wonder of evolution.

 Baxter Creek

You don’t have to travel all the way to southwestern Ontario to enjoy the birds of spring. The Kawarthas offers numerous locations to enjoy rich birdlife. Upon my return, a friend and I spent an especially pleasant morning walking the Baxter Creek Trail, which is part of the Millbrook Valley Trails system, located on the edge of Millbrook. The first birds we saw were arctic-bound lesser yellowlegs and pectoral sandpipers that were feeding in the shallows of the millpond. As we watched, we could hear the shrill whistles of an Osprey soaring overhead and the clattering rattle of a belted kingfisher.

Osprey - June 18-19, 2016 - Lower Buckhorn Lake - Robin Blake

Osprey – June 18-19, 2016 – Lower Buckhorn Lake – Robin Blake

Black-throated green warblers, winter wrens and a wood thrush were singing in the deeply shaded cedar forest at the trailhead. Together with the rays of sunlight streaming through gaps in the canopy, the songs created a cathedral-like ambience. An exquisite patch of red trilliums in full bloom enhanced the feeling of connection with the natural world. The trail then winds through rich wetland where the voices of yellow warblers and common yellowthroats competed with beautiful marsh marigolds for our attention. We also had great views of a male rose-breasted grosbeak pouring out its robin-like phrases from the top of a giant black willow. Some birders remember the song as “a robin that has taken voice lessons.” As crazy as it sounds, memory aids like this really work. Other birds of note heard or seen along the trail that morning included great crested flycatcher, black-and-white warbler and eastern kingbird. Spring azure butterflies were also quite common. Shaded pools along the creek make a great place to sit and simply soak in the tranquility of the area. After the walk, we stopped for a great lunch at the Pastry Peddler on King Street in the village.

Algonquin Park

Savoring the rich diversity of May nature is not complete without a trip to Algonquin Park. I fell in love with the park on my very first visit in September of 1964 when my father took me on three-day canoe trip. I still remember the stunning leaves at peak colour and the schools of brook trout in the Crow River. Doug Sadler, a well-known local naturalist, writer and mentor to many young birders in the Peterborough area, also came along and helped me to identify my first-ever gray jay – a huge thrill for a twelve year-old.

So, when our friends Mike and Sonja Barker invited Michelle and I up to their campsite at the Lake of Two Rivers Campground last week, we jumped at the opportunity. Their site overlooked a wetland that was alive with bird and beaver activity. Algonquin’s signature sound – the high clear whistle of the white-throated sparrow (“Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada”) – was everywhere. The highlight of the visit, however, was riding the Old Railway Bike Trail from Lake of Two Rivers to Cache Lake. The trail follows the abandoned bed of the historic Ottawa, Arnprior, and Parry Sound Railway and winds through a variety of different habitats such as open field, coniferous forest and wetland. Only metres down the trail, the strangely gentle tapping of a woodpecker caught my attention. Sure enough, a beautiful male black-backed woodpecker was flaking bark off a red pine, only a couple of metres above our heads. The all-black back and alluring yellow crown make it quite different from any other woodpecker.

White-throated Sparrow - Karl Egressy

White-throated Sparrow – Karl Egressy

Riding along the trail through thick stands of fragrant balsam fir, we stopped to take pictures of a remnant block of ice, hidden away in a rocky crag. Our attention was also drawn to numerous patches of trailing arbutus, which was still in bloom and smelled wonderful. At least 10 species of warblers were singing along the trail including the Tennessee, a bird of the boreal forest that reaches the southern edge of its breeding range in Algonquin Park. Another highlight was an olive-sided flycatcher that Mike heard calling (“quick, three beers!”) from a huge marsh we passed through. The trail crosses the scenic Madawaska River in several locations where we stopped to admire the many shades of green on the distant hills. Because Algonquin Park is so much higher in elevation than the Kawarthas, most of the trees were just coming into leaf. Some, like bigtooth aspen were still leafless. The trail is flat along its entire length and has numerous interpretive signs. There are even washrooms at the Cache Lake end.

The next day, we walked the Beaver Pond Trail, which is an easy two kilometre loop offering excellent views of two beaver ponds and a classic beaver dam. The free guidebook at the trailhead provides an introduction to Algonquin’s fascinating beaver pond ecology. Before leaving the Park, we also stopped by the Visitor Centre, which has one of the best nature bookstores in all of Canada. There are also interactive exhibits on the Park’s human and natural history.

View from lookout on Beaver Pond Trail - Drew Monkman

View from lookout on Beaver Pond Trail – Drew Monkman

I feel so fortunate this year to have been able to get out and enjoy so much of what May has to offer. Although it’s hard to talk of a favourite month, for anyone who takes pleasure in watching the seasons unfold, May has no equal. And, by the way, June is pretty good too!

May 192016

The Kawarthas is home to at least 100 species of butterflies, 135 kinds of dragonflies and damselflies and a thousand or more different moths. Learning to identify the more common species is a great way to connect to the natural world around us and get kids interested in nature.


Who has not been enchanted by butterflies – the delicate, colorful wind danc­ers that are the hallmark of a warm spring or summer day? Belonging to an order of insects known as Lepidoptera, butterflies are easy to observe and turn up everywhere from woodland trails to backyard gardens. In fact, butterfly-watching also adds a whole new level of enjoyment to gardening. Compared to birding, which can involve getting up at the crack of dawn to take advantage of peak avian activity, identifying and photographing butterflies is a more civilized affair. Butterflies are rarely on the wing before 8 am and are most active on warm, sunny days.

Getting good looks at butterflies is easiest with a pair of binoculars, especially those that focus to within six feet or less. A camera with a zoom lens also comes in handy. By taking a picture of the butterfly, you can identify it later. Lots of excellent guide books and apps are available such as the “ROM Field Guide to the Butterflies of Ontario” and the “Audubon Butterflies” app. Some butterfly-watchers also use a net for catching hard-to-identify species such as skippers, which tend to be very similar. The butterfly can be transferred to a plastic viewing jar and then released.

Here are a few additional suggestions to keep in mind.

1. To find a given species, research the time of year it flies and its preferred habitat. Spring azures, for example, are most often seen in May; Canadian tiger swallowtails are active in June, while many of the fritillaries are observed in mid-summer.

Spring Azure - male - Wikimedia

Spring Azure – male – Wikimedia

2. Roadsides and wetland edges can be particularly productive, as long as there are sufficient flowers in bloom.

3. Learn to identify the plants that attract butterflies, either for nectar or as “larval plants” on which to lay eggs. Among the most important are the milkweeds.

Coral Hairstreak on Butterfly Milkweed

Coral Hairstreak on Butterfly Milkweed

4. Watch for butterflies basking in the sun on gravel roads (e.g., anglewings) and tree trunks (e.g., satyrs). Some species are attracted to animal dung and muddy puddles, which serve as a source of minerals, amino acids and nitrogen.

5. Be careful not to cast a shadow on the butterfly, since this will usually cause it to fly away.

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


If you would simply prefer that insects to come to you, then moth-watching may be your thing. Mothing, as it is sometimes called, can be as simple as leaving on the porch light and checking periodically to see what’s clinging to the screen door. Unlike butterflies, most moths are nocturnal. However, there are exceptions. To distinguish moths from butterflies, remember that butterflies have club-like knobs on the ends of the antennae and usually perch with their wings held upwards. Moths, on the other hand, perch with their wings outspread and have antennae that closely resemble bird feathers.

While a simple incandescent light will attract some moths, the most effective bulbs are those that project light in the UV spectrum such as a black light CFL. Grow bulbs, designed for plants or aquariums, also work well. An even more effective option is to use a mercury or sodium vapour bulb, which broadcast an extremely bright light and draw in moths from further away. Set the light up in front of a wall or, even better, a white cotton sheet where the moths can land and be studied at close range.

Not all moths, however, are interested in lights. Some are nectar-feeders and will come to bait such as over-ripe bananas. A particularly effective way to entice moths is with a syrupy “goop.” One mixture calls for one over-ripe banana, a dollop of molasses, a scoop of brown sugar and a glug or two of beer. Mix the ingredients in a blender and spread the concoction on a tree trunk or a hang­ing rope. Check regularly after dark to see what has been attracted. With any luck, species such as Catocala (underwing) moths will show up. During the day, the bait may also attract butterflies.

Gallium Sphinx moth - June 4, 2016 - Gwen Forsyth

Gallium Sphinx moth – June 4, 2016 – Gwen Forsyth

A lot of the fun in mothing comes from taking pictures of the insects. Be aware, however, that using a flash may create washed-out images. A way to get around this is to carefully catch the moth in a small container, put it in the fridge overnight and take a picture the following morning using natural light. Place the moth on a pleasing background such as a leaf or a piece of bark. Make sure your camera settings are ready, because you will only have 30 seconds or so before the insect warms up enough to fly away. Placing a ruler beside the moth for one of the shots serves as a simple size reference.

Moth identification can be challenging, so keep in mind the following tips:

1. Start by focusing your ef­forts on the larger moths and those that stand out from the rest because of their large size and distinctive colours and markings (e.g., giant silkworm moths, sphinx moths).

2.  Take note of how it holds its wings when at rest. Are they spread out to the side or tent-like over the back? The former is probably a moth in the family Geometri­dae while the latter likely belongs to the family Noctuidae.

3. Once you have a rough idea of what family the moth might belong to, look more closely at the patterns on its wings and compare these to the photo­graphs in a guide such as “Peterson Field Guide to Moths” by Seabrooke Leckie.

4. Keep in mind the time of year. Like butter­flies, the moths you see change with the seasons. Knowing a given moth’s flight period will help to narrow down the species.

5.  Look at the range maps and make sure the species occurs in your area.

6. Check the type of host plant (larval food plant) the moth requires. If, for example, a given moth lays its eggs on plants that don’t grow in the Kawarthas, you can probably discount it.


Almost everything that applies to butterfly-watch­ing is also pertinent to the observation of dragonflies and their close cousins, damselflies. Collectively, these two groups of insects are known as the Odonata or simply “odonates.” Like butterflies and moths, there is a great deal of species diversity, and they, too, make wonderful subjects for photography.

On warm, sunny days, dragonflies and damselflies can be found around any wetland, lake or river. Many species are also attracted to meadows, roadsides and backyard gardens. In addition to using binoculars and a camera to help with identification, it can be fun to catch the insect in a butterfly net. It can then be transferred to a transpar­ent jar or plastic bag. Despite what many people think, dragonflies cannot sting you and their “bite” – on the rare occasions when this happens – is usually more startling than anything else. Here are a few simple suggestions to get started as an odonate-watcher.

1. Learn the different dragonfly (e.g., darners, skimmers) and damselfly (e.g., bluets, spreadwings) families. Knowing the family will greatly narrow down the choice of possible species.

Male Ebony Jewelwing, a species of damselfly (D. Gordon Robertson)

Male Ebony Jewelwing, a species of damselfly (D. Gordon Robertson)

2. Pick up a copy of “The Dragonflies and Damselflies of Algonquin Provincial Park and Surrounding Area”. Written by local naturalist Colin Jones and illustrated by former Peterborough resident Peter Burke, it covers all of the species you are likely to find in the Kawarthas.

3. For dragonflies, take special note of overall size, eye position (e.g., do the two large eyes touch each other?) as well as any patterning on the thorax, abdomen or wings.

Immature meadowhawk dragonfly - Margo Hughes

Immature meadowhawk dragonfly – Margo Hughes

4. Remember that the male and female in many species can be quite different.

5. As with common moths and butterflies, you may want to start collect­ing odonates to have a small reference collection. Doing so will not have any impact on the population. Guidelines for proper collecting (e.g., using glassine envelopes) can be found online.

You will find more ways to develop a stronger connection to the natural world in my new “Big Book of Nature Activities: A Year-Round Guide to Outdoor Learning” which I co-wrote with Jacob Rodenburg, executive director of Camp Kawartha. The book will be available in June.




May 122016

By any measure, birding has never been more popular. Its allure lies in the satisfaction of using one’s knowledge of season, range, habitat, field marks, song and behavior to identify and appreciate the birds around us. Birding can also become a window on environmental issues. Many environmentalists started out as birdwatchers, perhaps because you quickly recognize just how vulnerable bird popu­lations are to pressures like urban sprawl, habitat destruction and climate change.

The Sibley eBird app is an excellent birding resource.

The Sibley eBird app is an excellent birding resource.

Bird identification is about three things: Paying attention, being patient and knowing what to expect. Paying attention means looking and listening with complete concentration. Being patient can mean standing motion­less in a forest for several minutes until the bird you just heard sing eventually calls again and lets you know where it is lurking. In fact, one can often see more birds by standing in one good spot than by always moving. Finally, knowing what to expect means having a good idea of what species should be present in a given time of year and habitat. Experienced birders have a 95 percent idea of what they will probably see in a given day and place. Birds are found at predictable times and locations.

So, just who is that little brown bird visiting your feeder? When you come across a bird you can’t immediately identify, try following these steps:

  1. Take note of the bird’s general shape. Many birds can be identified by shape alone, often at considerable distances. Is it stocky and short-tailed like a starling or slender and long-tailed like a grackle?
  2. Turn your attention to the bird’s size by comparing it to a common benchmark species. Ask yourself if it is closest in size to a hummingbird, spar­row, robin, crow, or goose.
  3. Examine the plumage and field marks. Take a careful look at the wings, under­parts, rump, tail and head. If you find mnemonics (memory aids) useful, think WURTH. Start with the part of the bird you can see best, but try to look at its entire body before it flies away. Try to see if it has bars on the wing or if its chest, belly and sides have spots, stripes or a special coloration. Is there anything special about the tail or rump? Pay special attention to the head. Many small songbirds such as warblers and sparrows can be identified by characteristics of the head alone. Does the eye have a circle around it? Does the crown or throat have special markings such as stripes or a contrasting color? Take note of the size and shape of the bill.

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

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

  4. Watch what the bird is doing. Is it feeding on the ground, perched at the very top of a tree, moving headfirst down the trunk, standing motionless in shallow water or soaring high overhead? Is it alone or with others of the same species? Some common feeder birds, for example, almost always feed on the ground in small flocks (e.g., white-throated sparrow), while others are nearly always seen on feeders (e.g., black-capped chickadee). If the bird is flying, how would you describe its flight pattern? Some hawks, for example, soar in circles on motionless wings, while others have a “flap, flap and glide” style of flying.
  5. Consult your field guide or app. Don’t forget to look at the range maps, relative abundance of the species, whether it is migratory or resident, its preferred habitat and its typical behavior. The guide will also point out the most important field marks and how the bird compares to any similar species.

Keep in mind…

~ Bird identification is not an exact science and at times it is difficult to be completely certain of what species you have seen. Being “reasonably certain” is sometimes the best you can do.

~ When you are looking at an uniden­tified bird, remember that it could be a female or an immature. Although the male and female are quite similar in most species, there are birds — the red- winged blackbird, for example — where the differences are striking. Ducks, too, show a big differ­ence between the sexes. When identifying eagles, hawks and gulls, remember that you might be looking at a juvenile or immature bird.

~ The bird in your binoculars may not be in its breeding plumage. In a small number of species (fortunately!), the plumage can vary considerably between spring and fall. These birds tend to be colorful in the breeding season but drabber in fall and winter. American goldfinches are an example of this chal­lenging characteristic.

~ Many songbirds respond well to “pishing” and will come in quite close so that you can take a closer look.

Before you begin to pish, place yourself close to some trees or shrubs where the birds you wish to attract can land. Pucker your lips and make a loud, forceful “shhhh” sound, while tacking a “p” on at the beginning: “Pshhhh, Pshhhh, Pshhhh”. Make sure it sounds shrill and strident. You might want to try adding an inflection at the end, as in PshhhhEE. Do it in a sequence of three, repeating the se­quence two or three times. At first, you’ll probably need to pish fairly loudly, but you can lower the volume once the birds get closer. Continue pishing for at least a couple of minutes after the first birds appear. This will give other species that may be present a chance to make their way towards you. Chickadees and nuthatches are especially receptive to the pishing sound, but other species like warblers and sparrows will usually approach as well.

~ The habitat in which you see the bird can also help with identification. Some species are almost never seen outside of their preferred habitat, except during migration.

~ Many birds are found along habitat edges such as the edge of a woodlot, a road or a wetland.

~ Learn common bird sounds. Identifi­cation by songs and calls will really boost your birding skills and provide a great deal of satisfaction. With practice, nearly all birds can be identified by song. Start by learning the songs of the common species you see and hear around your house. Listen to recordings of their songs — in the car, for example — and learn the associated mnemonic for the species you’re interested in. Chickadees, for example, sound like they are singing “Hi Cutie”. There are many bird identification apps that include songs and calls.

~ Purchase a pair of good binoculars. Many bird-waters find 8 x 40 or 8 x 42 the best choice. They provide good magnification but also offer a wide field of vision. Look for a pair with a roof prism design.

A wide range of binoculars and field guides are available (Drew Monkman)

A wide range of binoculars and field guides are available (Drew Monkman)

~ Choose a field guide with paintings of the birds rather than photographs, and a range map right beside the illustrations. My favourite is “The Sibley Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America” because of its convenient size and weight and the multiple plumages it shows of each bird. “The Sibley eGuide to Birds” is probably the best app available and includes recordings of all the songs and calls.

~ Check out seasonal abundance charts for your area. These show how the numbers of a given species change over the course of the year. With time, you will start to develop a mental checklist of what birds are most likely, given the time of year. The eBird website ( provides these charts in the “Explore Data” section.

~ Keep track of your sightings — and share them with others — by using eBird. Subscribers also receive alerts of rare birds in your area as well as birds you have not yet seen during this year

Bird identification is one of many skills for connecting to nature. Next week, we’ll turn our attention to butterflies, dragonflies and moths. You will find more ways to develop a stronger connection to the natural world in my new “Big Book of Nature Activities: A Year-Round Guide to Outdoor Learning” which I co-wrote with Jacob Rodenburg, executive director of Camp Kawartha. The book will be available in early June.


May 052016

The time that birders have awaited since the lonely, frigid days of winter is now upon us. With May comes the peak of spring migration as long‑distance migrants pour into the Kawarthas from the neo‑tropics ‑ Mexico, Central America, the West Indies and South America. In Peterborough County alone, a day of birding in mid-May can produce over 100 different species. Not only do their flamboyant colours symbolize the tropical habitats whence they’ve come, but their vigorous singing heralds that high spring is finally here.

An elegant synchronicity of events is happening before our eyes. As the green canopy of leaves develops overhead, countless caterpillars emerge to feast on the verdant bounty laid out before them. And, right on cue, hundreds of millions of birds arrive to regale themselves of this insect banquet. While some species remain to nest in the Kawarthas, others are only passing through on their northward journey and won’t be seen again until their flight south in the fall.

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks - Drew Monkman

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks – Drew Monkman

You may wonder why an eight inch, two-ounce bird like a rose-breasted grosbeak would risk a perilous 4000 km journey from Costa Rica all the way to Kawarthas just to nest? Obviously, there must be compelling reasons. The short answer is that they are able to raise more young than had they remained in the tropics. Protein‑rich insects are abundant during the Canadian spring and summer; there is a much larger geographical area over which to spread; and the long days allow birds to feed their young more than four hours longer than had they remained in the south.

Enjoying the show

May’s bounty of birds can be enjoyed right here in Peterborough, especially if you have tree cover on your property and an offering of sunflower seeds and sugar water. Early May sees the arrival of ruby-throated hummingbirds, Baltimore orioles and rose-breasted grosbeak, all of which will come to feeders. House wrens, too, are arriving from the tropics and are easy to attract to nest boxes. In the downtown, watch and listen for swallow-like chimney swifts coursing above George Street like chattering “flying cigars”.

Male Indigo Bunting at feeder - Greg Piasetzki

Male Indigo Bunting at feeder – Greg Piasetzki

By mid-month, an indigo bunting may also make a guest appearance at your feeder – an unforgettable sight in its radiant blue plumage. Watch and listen too for up to 16 species of warblers, many of which put in a brief appearance in city backyards. Decked out mostly in yellows, oranges, whites and blacks, warblers are the true gems of spring migration. Bringing up the rear, late May ushers in species such as the red-eyed vireo, which have flown all the way from the Amazon Basin. If you live in a part of the city with mature trees, listen for the vireo’s repetitive, robin-like song as it forages high in the treetops.

Red-eyed Vireo - Karl Egressy

Red-eyed Vireo – Karl Egressy

If you want to take in the entire migration spectacle, however, you will need to be out looking and listening almost every day, especially when the weather is damp and mild. Bird activity is usually most intense in the morning between about 6 and 9 a.m. Song is the key to the birds’ presence, so it’s important to pay attention to the different voices. Warblers, for example, tend to have high-pitched, buzzy songs, while birds like scarlet tanagers, orioles and grosbeaks sing in rich, musical notes. The good news is that many May migrants show up in loose, mixed-species flocks. If you find one variety of warbler, for example, other species are probably nearby as well. Pishing will often bring them in closer for great views.


Where to go

Although migrants can turn up anywhere, some habitats and specific locations are consistently better than others. Habitat edges are most productive, including wooded roadsides, the trees along rail-trails, hedgerows, and the shrubby borders of wetlands. Among my favorite places for spring birding are Herkimer Point Road (east of County Road 31 in Hiawatha), Beavermead Park and Ecology Park on Little Lake, Jackson Park,  the Rotary-Greenway Trail (especially the Promise Rock section north of the science complex at Trent University), Lynch’s Rock Road and Sawer Creek Wetland (northeast of Lakefield), Hubble Road (east of County Road 44, north of Havelock), Petroglyphs Provincial Park and Sandy Lake Road (east of County Road 46, just south of Lasswade).

Favorable winds

Flying at an elevation of about 1000 metres, most songbirds migrate at night, which allows them to see the stars for navigation purposes and to avoid predators such as hawks. It is quite common to hear their contact calls as they pass overhead in the inky darkness. Songbirds almost always wait for a tail wind – a wind blowing in the same direction they are headed – before migrating in large numbers. A tail wind allows the birds to expend less energy in flight. In the spring, tail winds are associated with warm fronts advancing from the south or southeast. However, a sustained south winds may cause birds to fly right over your favorite birding destination without stopping. The key to great May birding is to watch the local forecast for some change in the weather such as a forecast of rain and fog. When a northward-moving warm front collides with a cold front, the warm air ‑ and the birds flying in it ‑ rises over the cold. The air cools, rain develops and the birds are forced to land in what is called a “fallout”- sometimes right in your own backyard! This means that rainy mornings in May can produce superb birding, especially when the precipitation is light and starts after midnight. During spring fallouts, I’ve seen trees hopping with dozens of warblers of ten or more species.



To the practiced ear, a chorus of bird song is like a symphony in which you recognize each of the individual instruments. As a beginner, though, you should learn to focus on one song at a time and not the entire symphony, which can be quite overwhelming. Focus your attention first on the closest, loudest and most obvious songs. You can then move on to the softer voices. Cupping your ears can be very helpful. American Redstart in full song  - Karl Egressy

There is no doubt that some species sound similar to others. However, when you take into consideration the context of the song ‑ habitat, time of year and the bird’s behaviour ‑ the choice usually comes down to only a handful of species. It is also crucial to learn the memory-aids or “mnemonics” for the songs. To me, a rose-breasted grosbeak sounds like a robin that has taken voice lessons, while a scarlet tanager is reminiscent of a robin with a soar throat! Go to for a great list. My favorite bird song app is the Sibley eGuide to Birds. is another superb resource.

Being able to recognize bird song is one of the most satisfying ways to enjoy nature. To step out the back door or walk down a forest trail on a May morning and hear the expected birds singing in the expected locations provides reassurance that the bird community is healthy, and the seasonal rhythms of the natural world are occurring, as they should.




Apr 212016

The lovely spring weather we’ve enjoyed this past week has caused an explosion of plant growth. Buds are swelling, grass is turning green, and a half-dozen species of wildflowers are in bloom. The blossoms are already attracting the first bees. Although I’ve witnessed this rebirth of nature over too many springs to count, the wonder of flowers and their pollinators never ceases to amaze. What better way to celebrate Earth Day than to take some time to understand and appreciate the extraordinary story of pollination and to think about what you can do to welcome pollinators to your garden or balcony.

A Monarch butterfly drinks nectar from a New England Aster - Tim Dyson

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

To human eyes, flowers embody beauty and vitality. We rave about the colours, the shapes, the symmetry and, of course, the intoxicating scents. It’s therefore tend to forget that human beings are not the target audience for these alluring plant structures. Flowers have evolved for one thing only: to produce seeds and thereby assure another generation. The mechanism by which this occurs – pollination – is one of nature’s most fascinating phenomena and a crowning achievement of evolution. Yet, the beauty, intricacy and importance of pollination is often taken for granted, as is the role played by a host of pollinator species, many of which are in serious decline.

What is pollination?

To understand pollination, we need to reacquaint ourselves with the parts of a flower (see diagram). As with human beings, some flowers are either male or female. Separate male and female blossoms can be on the same plant – most often a tree or shrub – or on separate plants. A willow tree, for example, is either male or female, with only the female trees producing seed. Other flowers , known as “perfect” (like the one in the illustration), have both female and male structures. The latter produce pollen, which is the source of male sex cells and analogous to sperm in animals. Pollen production takes place in the anther at the top of the male flower part known as the stamen. The eggs (ovules), or female sex cells, are located in the ovary at the bottom of the pistil, the flower’s female part. At the top of the pistil, there is a sticky surface called the stigma – think of “stickma”. Pollination occurs when pollen grains are transported by the wind or on the body of an animal from the anther of one flower to the stigma of another flower of the same species.

The parts of a flower (Drawing by Judy Hyland)

The parts of a flower (Drawing by Judy Hyland)

The second step in the pollination process is fertilization. A flower becomes fertilized when a pollen grain on the stigma grows a pollen tube, which makes its way down through the style and into the ovary. Inside the pollen grain, male sex cells are then produced. These cells travel down the tube and fertilize the ovules. The fertilized ovules grow into seeds, and the ovary wall becomes the encasing fruit around the seeds. The next time you bite into an apple, take a moment to reflect that you are actually eating an apple flower’s ovary! Similarly, a milkweed pod is simply a ripened ovary containing seeds.

An analogous process occurs in conifers. Male cones – the small, delicate ones that litter the ground in late spring – produce pollen. They are yellowish when ripe, because of the pollen dust they contain. The pollen grains are carried by the wind and, by dint of their astronomic numbers, some come into contact with female cones. These are the familiar woody “pine cones” and contain ovules. The ovules are located under plate-like scales. The scales open temporarily in the spring to receive the pollen. They then close during fertilization and maturation. The scales re-open again at maturity to allow the seed to escape. Depending on the species, seed maturation takes 6–8 months in conifers such as spruce but from 18 – 24 months in most pines. Female cones are quite different in size and shape from one kind of conifer to the next.


Plants that rely on wind to move their male sex cells have light and dusty pollen. The male flowers often hang loosely and sway back in forth in the wind, which helps to release the pollen. Some, like those of poplars, oaks and birches, look like soft caterpillars hanging down from the stems. In most cases, these flowers lack petals, are dull in colour, and have no fragrance. There’s no need for the plant to invest in petals, bright colours and alluring scents since there’s no need to attract pollinators. Wind-pollinated flowers usually appear before the leaves come out, since evolution has “learned” that leaves would get in the way of effective pollen transfer.

A great many plants, however, depend on insects to transport their pollen, although hummingbirds and bats sometimes do the job. Collectively, these animals are known as pollinators. They visit flowers in search of food, which can be nectar or the protein-rich pollen itself. Bees intentionally collect both pollen and nectar. They feed the pollen to their developing offspring. Butterflies, moths and hummingbirds, on the other hand, feed only on the nectar. Markings in the flower sometimes guide the pollinator to the nectaries where the sweet liquid is located. As they feed, the pollinators brush up against the stamens and pollen inadvertently adheres to their body. Then, when they move on to another flower, the pollen is accidentally transferred to the sticky top of the pistil. Animal-pollinated plants produce pollen, which is too heavy to be moved very far by the wind. This is why goldenrod pollen is not the cause of hay fever. Rather, the light, wind-borne pollen of ragweed is the culprit.


Flowers have evolved in remarkable ways to attract pollinators, which in turn have evolved in response to changes in the plants. In other words, each organism has developed adaptations, which work to its own benefit. For instance, flower evolution has produced an amazing array of colors, markings, shapes, fragrances and even different flavours of nectar. Some plants like skunk cabbage even go further. Skunk cabbage could almost be described as “warm blooded” because they generate heat. The warmth, along with the plant’s putrid smell, attracts early spring insects, which are looking for food and a spot to warm up. In exchange, the insects end up accidently pollinating the plant.

The flower-pollinator relationship is especially interesting when it comes to bees. Many species are attracted to the colours blue and yellow, to bilateral symmetry (e.g., the shape of a daisy) and to flowers with lines leading to the nectar. Consequently, over millions of years, many plant species have evolved these characteristics in order to attract bees. The bees, in turn, inadvertently distribute the plant’s pollen grains and optimize its reproductive success. It doesn’t stop there, however. Simultaneously, the plants have exerted pressure on the bees by favoring behavioural and structural traits that allow these insects to take advantage of the nutritional rewards offered by the plant. Hairiness is one such trait. Hairs all over the bee’s body actually have a strong positive charge with attract the negatively-charged pollen grains. This kind of relationship is known as co-evolution.

Honey Bee - Wikimedia

Honey Bee – Wikimedia

Richard Feynman, a famous American physicist, had an artist friend who said that a scientist can’t appreciate the beauty of a flower the way an artist can. His artist friend felt that by studying a flower scientifically and ‘taking it all apart’, the flower loses its beauty. Feynman disagreed. He said that, as a scientist, he sees more beauty and wonder in a flower – not less – than even the most sensitive artist sees. Scientists can imagine the cells, the complicated actions going on inside, and the fact that the colors evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate the flower. In other words, scientific knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. The more you understand the biology of plants and pollinators, the more your appreciation grows, starting in your own garden.

Peterborough Pollinators

      How do we empower citizens to protect pollinators and, in doing so, create, restore and celebrate natural environments in the Peterborough area? A group of local citizens has set out to answer this question. Peterborough Pollinators is working to encourage the creation of pollinator gardens throughout the city. Not only will these gardens help pollinators, but they will also bring greater food security, sense of place and community development to our neighbourhoods and daily lives.

We’ve all heard about the mysterious decline of honey bees. However, other bee species are also declining, largely because of habitat loss. You can make a big difference just by creating a bee- and butterfly-friendly space in your garden. To learn more about Peterborough Pollinators, take part in upcoming workshops, access resources and sign up for their newsletter, visit Resource information is also available at


Apr 142016

How do we raise engaged and concerned citizens in the 21st century? How can we teach our children to care for each other as well as the land, water and other species? Who will be the conservationists of the future when the average child can identify over 300 corporate logos, but only 10 native plants or animals?

A local community-based strategy is taking form to answer these crucial questions. Initiated by Camp Kawartha, a year-round environmental education centre and summer camp, “Pathway to Stewardship” provides a direction forward so that collectively, we can help foster tomorrow’s stewards, today. What is a steward? Someone who tends to and takes responsibility for the well-being of all community members, the human and non-human alike. As the American ecologist Aldo Leopold wrote, we need to cultivate an ethic, which “enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”

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

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

Why now?

Warning signals are everywhere these days that something is wrong. Psychologists are pointing to a near epidemic of mental health issues, ranging from anxiety in children and teenagers to alienation and depression in adults. In classrooms across Canada, there has been a surge in the number of children with special needs such as attention deficits and anti-social behaviour. Health care providers have grave concerns about children’s fitness levels and the huge increase in obesity. An increasingly sedentary, indoor lifestyle characterized by too little physical activity and too much screen time means that today’s children may be the first in generations to not live as long as their parents.

Much of the research into the causes and potential solutions to these problems is coming to similar conclusions, including the importance of opportunities to play and explore freely in natural outdoor environments. Among the many benefits of playtime spent in nature are stress reduction, improved mental and physical health, greater creativity, enhanced concentration and conflict resolution skills, higher self-esteem, better problem-solving abilities and a life-long interest in learning.

Providing children with regular positive experiences in the natural world, especially at a young age, is also a powerful way to stimulate a sense of community, of belonging, and a sense of responsibility towards the world around them. By engaging in simple, age-appropriate acts of stewardship, we inspire advocacy for both the human and land community.

Sadly, most childhood experiences in the modern world push children in the opposite direction. Their days are pre-scheduled from the time they awake; we drive them to and from school; and, for “safety’s sake”, we’ve made our schoolyards and many of our parks into sterile environments with little opportunity for creative play or interaction with nature. Our exaggerated sense of risk, often fueled by the media focus on rare incidents of child abduction or abuse, results in unintentional but long-lasting harm to children. It’s no wonder that so many young people today are fearful of strangers, intimidated by nature and feel powerless and disconnected from the world around them.

It's essential for the future of conservation to cultivate an interest in nature in young people - Drew Monkman

It’s essential for the future of conservation to cultivate an interest in nature in young people – Drew Monkman

About the Strategy

The Pathway to Stewardship strategy is a community response to these issues, which will be strengthened from further ideas and feedback. Grounded in research in child development and educational theory, it includes many concepts that echo Indigenous knowledge. It is also informed by the thoughts, ideas and insights of local educators and environmental leaders.

The strategy sets benchmarks or specific achievements based on the developmental needs and abilities of children from birth to late teens. For each age group, important principles are provided – many of which apply to all ages – that underpin the benchmarks. All of these integrate with the Ontario School Curriculum. Most importantly, the document identifies local resources to support the achievement of each benchmark. For children four to five, for example, an important principle is developing a sense of the awe and wonder of nature by being outdoors in all seasons. The corresponding benchmark is to visit a favourite outdoor location each week in all seasons. Two simple activities that support the benchmark are participating in nature scavenger hunts and creating a nature table to which items are added each season. Resource providers range from the Peterborough Junior Field Naturalists and Riverview Park and Zoo to the Camp Kawartha Summer Kindercamp.

For children 10 to 11, a core principle is expanding their understanding of the relationships between living things and their habitats. The related benchmark is to explore biodiversity by discovering what lives in a wetland. One suggested activity is to visit a pond and, using a net and magnifier, to try to find at least 10 different organisms that live there. The long list of community resources for this age group includes Kawartha Pine Ridge Public School Board Outdoor Education Centres and the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH).

For 16 and 17 year olds, a key principle is the importance of challenging outdoor recreation experiences. The benchmark for this principle is to organize and go on an extended trip (e.g., canoe, hiking) in a wilderness area for at least five days. Activities include planning where and when to go, the gear and food you will need and safety concerns that should be considered. Several key community resources for this age group are Camp Kawartha, Ontario Parks, the BIKE Community Cycling Hub and the Canadian Canoe Museum.

A key component of the Pathway to Stewardship is that everyone in the community has a role to play in fostering tomorrow’s stewards. To this end, the steering committee hopes to seek official endorsement from local groups and agencies such as those mentioned above. Each will be asked how they can support the plan. Gaps in existing resources will also be highlighted. This latter point is especially important, because it will identify a “wish list” of key supports and projects. For instance, these could include a list of local natural areas suitable for visits by the general public and accompanied with maps; access to stewardship mentors and role models (supportive mentors are critically important to help children enjoy outdoor time); designated “nature play” areas on public and private land (such as the one at the Camp Kawartha Environment Centre); training opportunities for parents, teachers and caregivers to facilitate creative outdoor play; and a series of regular neighbourhood walks throughout the community.

Steering Committee

Peterborough is rich in community resources when it comes to experiencing and learning about the natural world. This wealth is reflected in the makeup of the steering committee that guided the writing of the draft document. There is representation from both local school boards, Trent University’s School of Education, Otonabee Region Conservation Authority, Peterborough City-County Health Unit, Sir Sandford Fleming College’s Early Childhood Education program, Riverview Park and Zoo, Camp Kawartha and Kawartha Land Trust. The lead researcher is Cathy Dueck, an environmental and landscape educator and founder of Peterborough GreenUp’s Ecology Park. The committee interviewed more than 75 community leaders from a wide variety of sectors to learn what childhood experiences helped promote their own love of the natural world. They were also asked for their recommendations on how to best cultivate this love in today’s young people.

The Pathway to Stewardship is a call to action to all of us who care for, plan for or work with children – parents and relatives, teachers, community groups, health professionals and government agencies. According to Dueck, “Initial feedback on the Pathway to Stewardship is very encouraging. This project could really galvanize the entire community around a common goal – the present and future well-being of our children.”

For more information, email the organizers at There is also a community consultation being held today, April 14, at the Camp Kawartha Environment Centre (2505 Pioneer Rd., on the Trent University campus). The first session is from 3-5 PM, and a second from 7-9 PM. Everyone is welcome to come and hear about the project and discuss its implementation.



Apr 072016


Less than a year ago, we said goodbye to our 16-year-old cat, Polly. She had lived a long, healthy life, but it was still gut wrenching to finally have her put down. We loved her quirky, independent personality, how she was aware of anything that was new in the house, including the odd visit by a mouse. She was our Indoor Rodent Control Officer. Polly received lots of love and affection, but was never allowed to set foot outdoors. We still miss her greatly.

In a world where people are increasingly isolated from each other and often connect with fellow human beings more through social media than face-to-face, our relationship with pets is treasured like never before. Not only do they serve as a source of comfort but there is also something about animals that seems genuine and honest – unlike many human relationships. Dog and cat ownership has exploded in Canada and the United States, and people are going to extraordinary lengths – and expense – to keep their pets healthy and happy.


But cats aren’t the only species with welfare concerns. People like me who object to free-roaming cats are often dismissed as “nature lovers”, which implies that we value the life of an individual bird or chipmunk more than a cat. This is false. What I value is biodiversity – a rich natural world where every species can thrive. I don’t lose sleep over the death of an individual robin or small mammal and, yes, the death of a family cat is clearly more traumatic. But I am concerned about what kind of world we’re leaving future generations. I want my grandchildren to have the same opportunities to enjoy nature as I have had. We are setting our children and grandchildren up to live in a much lonelier planet where a multitude of avian voices will have been forever silenced. Cats, however, are in no danger of extinction. Future generations are absolutely guaranteed to be able to enjoy the companionship of these fascinating animals.

Birds today face formidable obstacles. During migration, the list of death traps includes tall buildings, towers, power lines, windows, road traffic, pesticides, loss of feeding and resting habitat, and climate-change fueled storms that are more intense than ever before. More and more birds arrive back on their nesting grounds to find it logged over, paved over, fragmented by new roads, or converted into housing developments, shopping centres, and golf courses. Free-roaming cats, however, represent the biggest of all human-caused threats.

Cats have evolved to be indiscriminate predators and take a huge toll on species that are already plummeting in number such as many of our warblers, thrushes, flycatchers, and grassland species. Many of these birds turn up in city backyards during migration or nest around cottages and farms – places where an encounter with a cat is very likely. Cats also leave countless baby birds orphaned and almost sure to die. Even just a scratch from a cat’s claws can be enough to kill many small creatures.

Wood Thrush, a species in serious decline - Wikimedia

Wood Thrush, a species in serious decline – Wikimedia


In a four-year study carried out by Environment Canada and published in 2013 in “Avian Conservation and Ecology”, it was found that human-related activities kill roughly 269 million birds and two million bird nests in Canada each year. Most human-related bird deaths (about 99%) are caused by the impacts of feral and pet cats, and collisions with transmission lines, buildings and vehicles. Cats appear to kill as many birds as all other sources combined – more than 100 million birds annually in Canada. Species that nest or feed on or near the ground are especially vulnerable to cat predation. They also estimate that collisions with residential and commercial buildings kill an estimated 16-42 million birds each year – mostly at house windows.

Many people feel that not allowing a cat to wander freely is cruel and that they miss out on something vitally important to their well-being. However, allowing your cat to roam around outdoors is not good for the animal, either. Outdoor cats live an average of only five to seven years while indoor cats can easily live to be 15 or more. They also run the risk of being hit by cars, attacked by other animals, being exposed to diseases like leukemia or feline AIDS, suffering at the hands of an irate neighbour, or simply getting lost. They also swell the population of stray or feral cats.

Some cat owners also deny that their tabby ever kills birds and mammals while roaming outdoors, but these are wishful thoughts. Critter-cam videos reveal that even the most docile and adorable felines routinely kill birds, chipmunks, baby rabbits, monarch butterflies and many other creatures. Feeder birds are especially easy prey. Cats often lurk in shrubbery near feeders and birdbaths awaiting a chance to pounce. Even if they are wearing a bell collar, they quickly learn to control their movements to prevent the bell from ringing.

It is also important to remember that cats have never been part of North American ecosystems. They are a non-native species that descended from the Middle Eastern wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica). Our North American birds, therefore, have never had time to evolve adaptations to avoid cat predation. It therefore makes no sense for Canadians to say that allowing a domestic cat to go outside to hunt is part of the natural order of things. It is no more natural than the zebra mussel or purple loosestrife.

Cat carrying a bird it had just killed - Wikimedia

Cat carrying a bird it had just killed – Wikimedia

Keeping tabby happy

Like dogs, cats should be allowed to explore the outdoors under supervision, such as a securely fenced yard. One local resident who contacted me had two leash-trained cats and both lived to the old age of 20. She added, “When people say ‘leashes aren’t natural for cats’, you can tell them about mine!” Some local cat owners have a window cat enclosure built onto the house, which the cat can access at will. From emails I’ve received, cats love them and use them day and night. There is a wide variety of commercially-available enclosures.

With a little patience, cats that are used to being let out can be trained to stay inside. Yes, there might be a lot of meowing at first, but the task is not impossible. Different strategies include keeping the cat indoors for gradually longer periods and making life inside fun by providing a cat tree or kitty jungle gym to climb. You might also want to give your cat a feline friend for company and entertainment.

 Taking action

An attempt to address the problem of feral cats – free-roaming felines living in groups (colonies) in the wild – is already taking place in Peterborough through Operation Catnip, a very committed group of volunteers whose goal is to reduce the population and suffering of feral and abandoned cats in our community by providing TNR (Trap/Neuter/Return). Over the past three years, Operation Catnip has provided TNR to 441 cats in 115 feral cat colonies. The goal of TNR is to slowly reduce feral cat populations over time. However, scientific evidence clearly indicates it’s impossible to spay or neuter a sufficient number of cats to affect feral cat numbers at the population level. Studies have also proven that feral cats are an even greater threat to wildlife than owned cats and perpetuate problems such as transmission of disease and damage to property.

Operation Catnip also supports responsible pet ownership bylaws, which require cat owners to keep their pet on their property. The group is the impetus behind an animal welfare initiative that Peterborough city staff has prepared, which will also address the issues of feral cats and cats roaming at large. Council’s Committee of the Whole will receive the report later this spring.

Municipalities across Canada are taking action. In Calgary, for example, cats are treated in the same manner as dogs. They are licensed, provided with an identification tag but not allowed to run free. They must remain on the owner’s property. Calgary has seen a dramatic drop in cat euthanasia and a huge increase in the return of lost animals to their owner. Oakville, too, has taken steps to control free-roaming cats. Cats are no longer allowed to wander at will and must have identification, which can be a tag or microchip.

There is also the question of respect for neighbours. In addition to the aggravation of having a cut foul and dig in your garden, a free-roaming cat in the neighbourhood reduces the enjoyment of feeding birds and chipmunks. There is always the nagging fear – and sense of guilt – that you are making them more vulnerable to being killed. As a society, we have come a long way in recent years. No longer do we smoke or wear strong scents in public, let our dogs run loose, or spray our lawns with pesticide. Nor should we allow our cats to roam freely.

Eastern Chipmunk - Wikimedia

Eastern Chipmunk – Wikimedia








Mar 242016

With the arrival of spring in the Kawarthas, local wetlands will soon come alive with the calls of countless frogs and toads. This annual spectacle provides a wonderful opportunity to engage with nature. Here are three activities adapted from “The Big Book of Nature Activities” that I have written with Jacob Rodenburg, Executive Director of Camp Kawartha. The book should be available by late May or early June.

The Big Book of Nature Activities

The Big Book of Nature Activities

Amphibian Orchestra

You’ll learn: The songs of our local frogs and toads

You’ll need: Frog song descriptions, ideally eight or more participants, internet access

Background: One of the wonders of spring is to listen to the melodious strains of an amphibian orchestra, courtesy of our local frogs and toads. Frogs sing for the same reason birds do. The males are trying to attract a mate, and many species are fighting for territory. Species like the wood and chorus frogs call in early spring, while bullfrogs and green frogs don’t start until late May or early June.

Procedure: Explain to the children that you are the conductor, and they are the various frog and toad species found in the Kawarthas. Each child will imitate the song of one species. If necessary, more than one student can perform the same song. To begin, have the children listen

to recordings of the songs by going to In the how-to-guide menu, click on “identifying frogs”. After listening to each song, ask the children to imitate it as best they can. Suggestions on how to do the imitation are given below. Decide who will perform each species, maybe based on who mimics each song best.

Chorus Frog (photo by Tim Dyson)

Chorus Frog (photo by Tim Dyson)

1. Wood frog – sounds similar to a quacking duck

2. Spring peeper – a high-pitched “peep-peep-peep”

3. Western chorus frog – a fast “tick-tick-tick-tick-tick” like the teeth of a comb

4. Leopard frog – a throaty “ahhhhhhhhh…” with a few snoring sounds thrown in

5. American toad – a sustained trill (at least 10 seconds) from lips or throat

6. Gray treefrog – a slow, musical, bird-like trill lasting 2 to 3 seconds. Use your lips or tongue.

7. American bullfrog – deep, resonant “rr-uum” or “jug-o-rum”

8. Green frog – “gulp-gulp” deep from the throat

As a conductor, you need to give clear signals to your orchestra. When you point to a frog species, it begins to sing. When you cross your hands and swipe them outwards (like a referee), they stop singing. When you raise both hands simultaneously upwards, the individual sound becomes louder. When you lower your hands, the sound becomes quieter.

Begin with the wood frog, which is usually the first species to sing in the Kawarthas, and add the other frog and toads songs until all the species are singing in joyous chorus. Come to a dramatic crescendo and then fade out. You will have conducted a rendition of a wetland symphony, courtesy of your local frogs and toads!


You’ll learn:  How to observe frogs, toads and salamanders as they prepare to breed

You’ll need:  Rubber boots, flashlights, camera, sound recorder (optional), amphibian guide or app

Background: The frogs of early spring usually begin calling when nighttime air temperatures have warmed to at least 8 C. Calls are usually loudest at dusk and during the first few hours of darkness. The best weather conditions for hearing a full chorus are mild, damp, windless nights that follow a period of rain. Evenings when a light rain is falling can also be excellent. These are also the conditions when many salamanders move to breeding sites.

Procedure:  Grab a pair of rubber boots, a strong flashlight and a camera (your smartphone will do) and try to arrive at the wetland before it gets dark. Take a few minutes to make a sound recording or video of the wetland and chorus. Try to identify the various species calling. If necessary, use an app like “Audubon Reptiles and Amphibians” or a website such as Then slowly walk in the direction of the calls. When you first approach the area, you can expect all of the frogs and toads to stop calling. However, all you need to do is pick a promising spot and wait. Eventually the calling will start again. Softly rubbing two stones together or whistling an imitation of a call will sometimes jump-start the chorus. Try to pinpoint the calls of one individual and shine your flashlight in that direction. Scan the water, the floating plant debris and the lower stems of the vegetation. Remember that many species such as chorus frogs are only the size of bumblebees and drably colored. They are often easiest to find by looking for the shiny throat sac moving in and out with every call. Some species such as wood frogs might be floating on the water itself. Their vocal sacs are actually on the sides of the body. If you are close enough, take some pictures, either with a flash or by having another person shine the flashlight on the frog. You can always try to slowly move in closer for a better look as well.

Spotted Salamander - Luke Berg

Spotted Salamander – Luke Berg

There is also a good chance that salamanders will be on the move. They are most easily seen by driving slowly along back roads that pass through low, swampy woodlands or where there are flooded ditches adjacent to the woods. By watching carefully, you may be able to see the salamanders on the road. You should then park your car and get out and walk. Take time to photograph some of these beautiful animals. Shine the flashlight on some of the roadside pools, as well. If you are lucky, you may see salamanders mating in a sort of underwater dance.

Nature’s Amazing Magic Act – Raising Toads

You’ll learn: All or part of a toad’s life cycle

You’ll need: Toad eggs, pail with lid, pond water, terrarium, fine screening, food for tadpoles and adult toads, hand lens, small viewing bottle

Background: Raising toads allows you to see one of nature’s most amazing magic tricks: the complete metamorphosis of an amphibian from egg to adult. Some key milestones to look at are: the tiny gills of young tadpoles, the small bumps that appear on both sides of the tadpole near the base of the tail,  the appearance of the hind legs and then the front legs, the gradual disappearance of the tail, and the change in the shape of the mouth as it gradually widens.

Note: It is much more difficult to raise frogs to the adult stage. However, if you cannot find toad eggs, use frog eggs instead, but return the tadpoles to their pond of origin when the legs appear. Frog eggs look like a floating jelly-covered mass.

American Toad singing (Wikipedia)

American Toad singing (Wikipedia)

Procedure: In spring, when the toads are calling, look for long strings of jelly-covered toad eggs in the vegetation of small ponds and flooded ditches. Reach into the water and take or break off a string of a dozen or so eggs. If you have too many tadpoles, the larger ones will eat the smaller ones. Put the eggs in a pail with about 15 centimetres of pond water. At home or in the classroom, place the pail in a bright area but not in direct sunlight. Keep a hand lens and a small plastic viewing bottle beside the pail to look at the eggs and tadpoles as they develop. The eggs should hatch in 3 -12 days. Notice the external gills on the tadpoles. They will become internal after a few days. Tadpoles eat tiny algae in pond water, so change half the water twice a week, using water from the same pond (never use tap water). Bits of boiled lettuce or hard-boiled egg can also be fed to the tadpoles. Remove any old food before adding more. When the tadpoles start to develop legs (hind legs first), add some pieces of bark so they can climb out of the water. After about two months when their tails disappear, you will need to move the tiny toads to a terrarium. Make sure there are pieces of loose bark, twigs and stones for the toads to hide under. Having plants in the terrarium is not necessary. Place a shallow bowl of pond water flush with the soil at one end of the aquarium. Add a few small stones to the bowl. Continue to put in fresh pond water twice a week. Place 4-5 toads in the terrarium and return the rest to the pond. Tape a screen to the top of the terrarium to keep the toads from escaping. Try feeding your toads the smallest insects available at the pet store such as tiny crickets and mealworms. You can also try giving them the smallest earthworms you can find. After a week or so – sooner if they won’t eat – return the toads to the edge of the pond where they came from.

Be sure to take lots of pictures (e.g., the pond, the eggs in the water, eggs at home, newborn tadpoles, etc.) of each stage of the show. Make notes and sketches, too, in your nature journal and don’t forget to make regular use of your hand lens.