Sep 132019
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Under siege

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

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

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

 

 

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

A new bylaw?

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

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

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

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

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

Climate Crisis News

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

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

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

 

 

Sep 062019
 

Looking ahead to events in nature in the Kawarthas

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

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

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

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

 

September

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

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

·       Fall songbird migration is now in full swing. Migrants such as warblers are often in mixed flocks with chickadees and can be coaxed in for close-up views by using “pishing”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

October

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

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

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

White-throated sparrow (Karl Egressy)

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

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

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

·       The first northern finches usually start turning up in late October. To learn which species to expect this fall and winter, Google “winter finch forecast 2019-2020”. The forecast, compiled by Ron Pittaway, is usually available online by early October.

November

·       Oaks, tamaracks and silver maples are about the only native deciduous trees that still retain foliage in early November. The brownish orange to burgundy leaves of red oaks stand out with particular prominence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

CLIMATE CRISIS NEWS 

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

Aug 092019
 

Your enthusiasm for nature will be noticed by children

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

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

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

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

 

Set an example

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other ideas

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note: This column first appeared in September 2016.

Climate Crisis News

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Jul 192019
 

The Kawarthas is home to a fascinating variety of odonates

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

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

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

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

Odonates of the Kawarthas

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

Interesting behaviours

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

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

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

 

Photography

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

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

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

Viewing and identifying

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

Immature meadowhawk dragonfly – Margo Hughes

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

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

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

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

Chalk-fronted Skimmer – adult male – Drew Monkman

 

Climate Crisis News

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

Jul 122019
 

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

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

Students watching Monarch emerge from chrysalis -Drew Monkman

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

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

Where to look

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

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

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

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

What’s flying now?      

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Viewing tips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Butterfly count

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

Climate Crisis News

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

 

 

Jul 052019
 

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

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

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

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

The science  

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

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

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

Why a declaration?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arguments against

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going forward

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

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

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

What can you do?

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jun 212019
 

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

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

Late June

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

July

  • Cedar waxwings nest any time between late June and early August as berry crops, their main source of food, begin to ripen. In late June and early July, reddish-purple serviceberries are a common source of food.
  • Family groups of common mergansers are often seen feeding and traveling along shorelines on lakes in the northern Kawarthas. Because broods of mergansers sometimes combine, it is not uncommon to see a female with a parade of 20 or more young in tow.
  • Common milkweed is in flower and its rich, honey-sweet perfume fills the early summer air. The scent serves to attract insects whose feet will inadvertently pick up the flowers’ sticky pollinia – small packets containing pollen – and transfer them to another plant.
  • A huge number of other plants are blooming, as well. In wetland habitats, watch for common elderberry, swamp milkweed, Joe-Pye weed, yellow pond lily and fragrant white water lily. Along roadsides and in meadows, common species include bird’s-foot trefoil (often on lawns), ox-eye daisy, yarrow, viper’s bugloss, black-eyed Susan, Queen Anne’s lace, purple-flowering raspberry and orange hawkweed.
  • Join butterfly expert, Jerry Ball, to explore the diverse habitats of Sandy Lake Road (off County Road 46) and its abundance of butterflies. Meet at 9 a.m., July 14, at the Country Style at the corner of Hwy 7 and Old Keene Road.
  • Identifying and photographing dragonflies is also a wonderful way to spend a summer afternoon. Among the most common July species are the dot-tailed whiteface, common whitetail, four-spotted skimmer, and chalk-fronted skipper. Some of the most frequently seen damselflies are powder-blue in colour, hence the common name of “bluets.” Go to odonatacentral.org/ for pictures of all Ontario dragonflies and damselflies. Click on “checklists” and then type “Ontario” in the search box.
  • By mid-July, the buzzy, electric song of the dog-day cicada fills the void created by the decrease in bird song.
  • Watch for mushrooms such as white pine boletes and fly agarics. Summer – not fall – usually produces the greatest variety of fungi. The wet conditions this summer should result in a large mushroom crop.
  • Mid-summer is a wonderful time for learning about ferns. On July 21, Sue Paradisis and Trent MSc candidate, Kathryn Tisshaw, will lead an outing to discover the ferns of the Warsaw Caves Conservation Area. Of special interest is the rare walking fern. Meet at 10:00 a.m. at the Riverview Park and Zoo or at 10:30 at the Warsaw Caves park gate house. Wear sturdy footwear, and bring binoculars, your phone, insect repellent and cash for park admission
  • Late July through September offers some of the best shorebird watching of the year. Semipalmated sandpipers, pectoral sandpipers and greater yellowlegs are several of the most commonly seen species. Presqu’ile Provincial Park is a great shorebird destination.
  • The ghostly-white Indian pipe blooms in the heavy shade of hardwood forests.
  • Being opposite the high-riding summer sun, the summer moon travels low in the southern sky. This translates into the longest moon shadows of the year.

August

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

September

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

CLIMATE CRISIS NEWS

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

 

 

 

Jun 142019
 

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

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

In May, most of the pollen comes courtesy of the flowers of deciduous trees like Sugar Maple and White Birch. In June, however, the main culprits are the male cones of conifers such as pine, spruce and fir. Cones – named after their shape – are the reproductive parts of an ancient branch of plants known as gymnosperms. In this respect, they are akin to flowers. Conifers form the largest group of living gymnosperms, but Ginkgo trees also belong to this class of plants. About 300 million years ago, the gymnosperms became the dominant trees on the planet. They continued their dominance throughout the Triassic and Jurassic periods – the age of the dinosaurs. Their cones were even a favourite food of species like duckbill dinosaurs. The gymnosperms reigned supreme until the rise of the angiosperms – the flowering plants – during the Cretaceous period.

As is the case with many flowers, cones can be either male or female. Except for junipers, both occur on the same tree. Let’s look at the female cone first. These are the typical hard, brown, woody cones. They consist of a central stalk surrounded by stiff, overlapping scales, reminiscent of wooden shingles. The ovules, which when pollinated become seeds, are located at the base on the inner surface of the scale. If you pry open the scales of a mature cone before it falls from the tree, you can often see the seeds inside. In White Pine and Balsam Fir, the female cones are located high up in the tree at the tips of the branches. In most other species, they can also be found lower down.

The male or pollen cones are much smaller – often only a centimetre or two in size – softer and less conspicuous. Usually located on the lower branches, they are usually light brown or reddish in colour and resemble little spikes or buttons. They have a central axis, which bears pollen-producing structures. You’ve probably brushed up against them, causing a smoke-like puff of yellow dust. Soon after the pollen is released, the male cones whither and drop from the tree.

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

White Pine

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pollen grains

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

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

Allergies

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

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

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

Climate Crisis News

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

 

 

 

Jun 072019
 

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

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

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

Slow down

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turtle Walks

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

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

Climate Crisis News

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

 

 

May 242019
 

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

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

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

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

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

Point Pelee

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

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

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

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

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

The people

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

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

Rondeau

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

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

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

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

Climate Crisis News

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

 

May 102019
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memory aids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Song Sparrow – Karl Egressy

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yellow Warbler (Karl Egressy)

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

Resources

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

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

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

Climate Crisis News

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

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

May 032019
 

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

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

Flower parts 101

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

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

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

The parts of a flower (Drawing by Judy Hyland)

Male catkins of Speckled Alder – Drew Monkman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

One house or two?

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

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

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

The flowering calendar

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

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

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

The maples

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Arguments for Climate Action

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

 

 

 

 

 

Apr 192019
 

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

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

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

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

What remains of hope?  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Canada’s leadership

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

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

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

Role of radical action

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Apr 122019
 

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

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

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

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

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

April

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

Monarch on Tithonia – (Drew Monkman)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

Ruffed Grouse – Jeff Keller

American Woodcock – Karl Egressy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

May

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

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

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

Yellow Trout Lily – Drew Monkman

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

Baltimore Oriole – Karl Egressy

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

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

 

 

June

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

ARGUMENTS FOR ACTION ON CLIMATE CHANGE

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

 

 

 

Feb 082019
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Giant tortoises

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

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

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

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

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

Amazing plants

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

 

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

Climate Change

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

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

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

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

Local Climate Change News

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

 

 

 

Feb 012019
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unlike anywhere else

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

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

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

The daily routine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Local Climate Change News

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dec 142018
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Local Climate Change News  

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

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

 

 

Oct 132018
 

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

The Big Book of Nature Activities

The Big Book of Nature Activities

Introduction

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

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

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

Charles Darwin cartoon character - Kady MacDonald Denton

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

Basic Skills

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

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

Key Concepts

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

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

The book contains over 400 illustrations.

Hundreds of drawings

 Seasons’ chapters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Oct 122018
 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Inspiration

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

Individual action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it too late?

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

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

Oct 052018
 

Looking ahead to Peterborough and the world of  2038 

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

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

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

A hopeful vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sep 212018
 

Additional obstacles to taking action on climate change

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Sep 142018
 

Low turnout at climate rallies highlights the huge disconnect between the evidence for catastrophic climate impacts and a sense of urgency for action

Last Saturday, with its sunny skies and cool temperatures, was a beautiful day for a rally. More than 150 people showed up for Peterborough’s “Rise for Climate” event to listen to speakers, enjoy poetry and join a New Orleans-style funeral march with a banner featuring Tahlequah, the orca, holding her dead calf above the water. The message was the extreme gravity of the climate crisis. This was one of more than 900 rallies held worldwide demanding more serious climate action from politicians.

Forcing political action is a numbers game. If there had been a couple of thousand people at the rally, politicians might react, but 150 can be written off as a special interest group. It was also clear that probably half of the participants were the same faces as at previous climate change rallies. Most, too, were 40 years of age or older. I couldn’t help but wonder why more and different people didn’t come, and why younger people were largely absent. Weren’t this summer’s record wildfires and heat waves enough to inspire people?

About 150 people turned out for the “Rise for Climate” rally last Saturday at Confederation Square. Organizers, however, were hoping for many more, especially if politicians are to pay attention. Photo by Clifford Skarstedt

Despite the science on human-made climate change being absolutely conclusive, there is still a huge disconnect between the evidence for catastrophic climate impacts and a sense of urgency for action. As Barak Obama said in 2015 ” No challenge – no challenge – poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.” Why don’t severe climate-related events and disturbances resonate more with people, given their huge financial, social and ecological impacts? Why doesn’t the evidence motivate governments, corporations and individuals to take immediate serious action? How could Ontarians elect a government that campaigned on getting rid of cap and trade and other mitigation measures without promising anything to replace them?

I do believe that most people care about climate change, but being concerned is not the same thing as taking action. The climate crisis is still near the bottom of people’s concerns when compared to other societal problems. This week and next, I will present some thoughts on this disconnect from reality.

The Five D’s

Per Espen Stoknes, a Norwegian psychologist, examined several hundred peer-reviewed social science studies and was able to isolate five main barriers that keep climate messages from engaging people. They are what he calls “the Five Ds”: Distance, Doom, Dissonance, Denial, and iDentity. I would highly recommend his Ted Talk, entitled “How to transform apocalypse fatigue into action on global warming”.

1. Distance – For many people, climate change is seen as something far away in space and time. When climate models talk of 2050 or 2100, it seems like eons from now. When we hear about the loss of Arctic sea ice or see polar bears on melting ice floes, it might be disturbing but we struggle to see any bearing on our day-to-day lives.

2. Doom: Climate change is usually framed as an impending disaster, so our brains want to avoid the topic altogether. As one observer said, “After 30 years, we’ve become numbed to collapse porn.” That being said, the jury is still out on how much fear serves as a motivator or demotivator for action. It appears to resonate with some people but not all. It all causes a great deal of grief, too. As my daughter, Julia, told me, “It makes me so sad to know that the polar bears in the books I read to my girls will probably be gone from the wild when they are adults.”

3. Dissonance: When we think about taking action on addressing climate change, there is an inherent conflict between what most of us do on a regular basis – drive, eat red meat, fly, lead a high consumption lifestyle – and what we know we should do – greatly reduce all of these behaviours. Consequently, dissonance sets in, which is felt as an inner discomfort. It makes many of us feel like hypocrites, myself included. To lessen the dissonance, our brains start coming up with justifications. “My neighbour has a much bigger car than me. What difference does it make if I’m the only one to change my diet? How can I visit friends and family or go on a winter vacation if I don’t fly?” This last excuse always creates feelings of guilt and hypocrisy whenever I fly.

4. Denial: For some, the uncomfortable feeling of dissonance makes them turn to denial and to say things like “the climate is always changing”. For others – maybe most of us – we simply avoid thinking or talking about the issue, largely because we feel powerless to make a difference. As my daughter said, “Bringing up climate change with friends and family is a conservation stopper. The room goes silent.” We therefore take refuge in leading a kind of “double-life”, both knowing the science but shutting it out.

5. iDentity:  For some, cultural and political identity override the facts. A conservative-minded voter might say, “I believe in lower taxes, minimal government involvement in my life, and the right to drive as big a car as I want.” Someone on the left might say, “Government should be more involved in solving society’s problems. I’m fine with paying higher taxes, and we should all be driving smaller cars.”

There is still a huge disconnect between the scientific evidence for catastrophic climate impacts and the public’s sense of urgency for action. Photo by Clifford Skarstedt

Other factors

Other factors, too, help explain our lack of engagement with climate change and point to the overwhelming size the problem. Many of these are strongly linked to the five D’s above and all are inter-related.

1.  Our brains – Maybe the biggest reason why humans struggle to come to grips with climate change lies in the very nature of our brains. Like the frog in the proverbial pot of boiling water, we have trouble reacting to slow motion phenomena like a gradually changing climate. This is sometimes called “shifting baseline syndrome”. For example, we quickly forget how much colder winters used to be and how countless species were so much more abundant.

We also deal poorly with future threats and to threats that are characterized by a degree of uncertainty. Although scientists are 100% certain that human-generated greenhouse gases are the main cause of climate change, they usually cannot say with certainty when the worst impacts will occur. Ironically, these impacts seem to be happening earlier and with more intensity than originally predicted. To make matters worse, gratification for action now is in the future. We therefore struggle to address issues that don’t necessarily impact us today. It’s not even clear if our brains allow us to care deeply about the generations to follow.

2.  All seems fine – For the most part, life in 2018 seems normal. We enjoyed a warm, sunny summer, albeit with four times as many 30+ C days as usual; our economy – on the surface at least – appears healthy; stores are overflowing with food and consumer goods; we don’t see much blatant poverty; and human thriving across the planet is probably at an all time high. In many ways, we live in the best of times, so why go to rallies or spend time worrying about climate change action?

Although we live in the worst of times when it comes to the environment, the immediate, visible impacts of problems like climate change are subtle (e.g., new species, earlier springs, later falls) and often only apparent to people who are really paying attention such as naturalists or anyone tracking weather data. There’s an absence of perceived change. There are also long gaps between extreme events such as Peterborough’s flood of 2004. This allows us to downplay the urgency of tackling climate action. Not enough people have seen it impacting their lives or the activities they enjoy doing.

3. Day-to-day life: Many, if not most of us, struggle to meet the demands of everyday life. People have enough trouble simply making ends meet. Understandably, there is not much energy left to devote to the abstract future. Parents with small kids have little brain space and energy left for things outside of parenting. Many individuals are also dealing with mental health issues, poverty, social injustice and both job and personal insecurity. We therefore shouldn’t be surprised that climate change seems too overwhelming and too abstract.

4. Optimism bias: People often overestimate the likelihood of positive events happening to them and underestimate the likelihood of negative events. In some ways, this is advantageous, because it reduces stress and anxiety about the future. The bias derives partly from a failure to learn from new undesirable information like climate change stories. It also makes it awkward to talk about climate change with family and friends for fear of accusations of being a worrywort or overly negative. It seems that climate change, like politics, religion and death has entered the domain of topics that are not discussed in polite conversation. If the topic does come up, it’s often dismissed by statements like “It won’t affect us personally, we’ll find a technological solution and really it will only be a problem for future generations.” Large numbers of people – in fact, many people I know – have developed unconscious cognitive strategies that allow them to remain optimistic despite evidence to the contrary. The problem, however, is that threats like climate change really must be considered with great urgency, and optimism bias can have significant negative consequences when it comes to discounting serious risk.

Next week, I’ll share more ideas on this theme, including distrust of experts, the impact of social media and the scant attention paid by traditional media to climate change. I would like to thank the many people who contributed their ideas for this article via Facebook. The response was extraordinary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sep 072018
 

Looking ahead to events in nature after another summer marked by climate change 

As it was in the summers of both 2016 and 2017, the biggest story of the past three months has been the weather chaos unleashed on planet Earth by climate change. Just in Canada, we saw the worst fire season ever in B.C. as well as 89 heat wave-related deaths in Quebec. In Peterborough, the last four months have all been well above the long-term monthly normals. July and August were a scorching 2.4 C and 3.3 C above the 1971-2000 averages. In fact, 75 of the past 104 months in Peterborough have been warmer than normal.

Since late June, Peterborough has registered 23 days above 30 C. When you compare this to the long-term average of only 6.3 days per summer, you get a sense of how exceptional this summer has been. However, according to the latest projections prepared for the City of Peterborough by ICLEI Canada, 23 days above 30 C will be the norm by the 2030s. In other words, summers just like this one where it’s often uncomfortable to do much of anything outside.

On July 3, Dr. Blair Feltmate of the University of Waterloo wrote in the Globe and Mail that suggesting that Canada’s recent heat wave and climate change are not linked “would be like arguing that no particular home run can be attributed to steroids when a baseball player on a hitting streak is caught doping”- an apt metaphor to use when explaining to friends and family how climate change and extreme weather events are linked.

On a more positive note, a heartening story this summer has been the abundance of monarch butterflies. For example, on August 30, I counted more than 80 monarchs migrating west along the shore of Lake Ontario – just in the space of 15 minutes. I have also had monarchs in my garden every day now for weeks. According to Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch, there is a good prospect that the overwintering population in Mexico will increase from 2.48 hectares last year to 5 hectares this coming winter.

Many people have also commented on the rich, backyard cricket chorus this summer. Most of the voices are courtesy of fall field crickets, ground crickets and both snowy and four-spotted tree crickets. If you haven’t yet taken in the performance, the music should continue for several more weeks.

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

September

  • On September 8 at 1 pm, the Peterborough Alliance for Climate Action will be hosting a “Rise for Climate” rally at Confederation Park, across from City Hall. There will be a short parade, speakers and information booths. If you care about climate change – and your children’s and grandchildren’s future – please try to attend.
  • Fall songbird migration is now in full swing. Migrants such as warblers are often in mixed flocks with chickadees and can be coaxed in for close-up views by using “pishing”. To see a video I made on September 2 using this technique, go to http://bit.ly/2wKE2IH. The response I got was no less than spectacular.
  • Spectacular swarms of flying ants are a common September phenomenon. Some are females – the potential future queens – but the majority are males. A given ant species will swarm and mate on the same day over huge areas, sometimes covering hundreds of kilometres. The males soon die, and the mated females disperse to establish a new colony.
  • On the evening of September 12, the young waxing crescent moon will appear about “one fist” above Venus in the southwestern sky. A great photo opportunity!
  • Although their reproductive purpose is for another season, gray treefrogs and spring peepers sometimes call from woodland trees in late summer and fall. They are most vocal on warm, humid days like this past Labour Day Weekend.
  • If we continue to get rain, this should be a good fall for mushrooms. In fields, watch for giant puffballs, which look like an errant soccer ball or a loaf of white bread. This species is edible when young. If you step on an old one, dust-like brown spores will “puff” out.
  • Kawartha Land Trust’s Stony Lake Trails are a one of my favourite destinations for mushroom-viewing. Details at http://bit.ly/2h3nYJg
  • Peterborough Field Naturalists hold their Sunday Morning Wildlife Walks each Sunday in September and October. Meet at the Riverview Park and Zoo parking lot at 8 am and bring binoculars. Indoor meetings take place on the second Wednesday of each month (7:30 pm) at the Camp Kawartha Environment Centre at 2505 Pioneer Road. On September 12, Scott Blair will speak on “Brook Trout in Harper and Byersville Creek… A Story of Survival”. For more information, go to peterboroughnature.org
  • As the goldenrods begin to fade, asters take centre stage. The white flowers of heath, panicled and calico asters, along with the purple and mauve blossoms of New England, purple-stemmed and heart-leaved asters provide much of the show. Visit http://bit.ly/2fhW4sN (Ontario Wildflowers) for tips on identifying these beautiful but under appreciated plants.
  • Don’t miss the spectacular Harvest Moon, which occurs this year on September 24, rising at 7:21 pm. The Harvest Moon is the full moon closest to the fall equinox (September 22). For several nights before and after this date, the moon rises at almost the same time. This allowed farmers to work into the evening under bright moonlight. Moonrise times for Peterborough can be found at http://bit.ly/2M1QOHr
  • Cuddly brown and black woolly bear caterpillars are a common fall sight as they look for a sheltered location to overwinter. Watch also for yellow bear and American dagger moth caterpillars, which are similar in size and also have a hairy appearance.

October

  • Fall colours in the Kawarthas usually peak early in the month. As long as September is not too hot and dry, the sugar maples will provide most of the colour. County Roads 620 and 504 around Chandos Lake east of Apsley makes for a great colour drive.
  • Sparrow migration takes centre stage this month, making October one of the busiest times of the year for backyard feeders. Scatter millet or finch mix on the ground to attract dark-eyed juncos and both white-throated and white-crowned sparrows.
  • Fall is a great time to plant trees and shrubs. Ecology Park on Ashburnham Drive has a wide selection of native species.
  • Salamander hunting is a fun fall activity for the entire family. 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.
  • Flocks of “giant” Canada geese (the subspecies that nests in the Kawarthas), rIng-billed gulls, red-winged blackbirds, American crows, and American robins are widespread.
  • A tide of yellow spreads across the landscape in mid- through late October. The colour is supplied courtesy of trembling and bigtooth aspens, balsam poplar, silver maple, white birch and, at month’s end, tamarack.
  • As ducks move southward, consider a visit to the Lakefield sewage lagoon. It is located on the south side of County Road 33, just south of Lakefield. Be careful to avoid blocking the gate when you park. Goldeneye, buffleheads, scaup and mergansers are often present in large numbers. If you have a spotting scope, be sure to take it along. The sewage lagoon is one of the best birding locations in the Kawarthas.
  • 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 2018-2019”. The forecast, compiled by Ron Pittaway, is usually available online by early October.
  • On October 24, the Peterborough Horticultural Society will present a talk on bees featuring Joe & Hazel Cook of Blossom Hill Nursery. The meeting, which is open to all, takes place at the Peterborough Lions Centre at 347 Burnham Street starting at 7 pm.

November

  • Oaks, tamaracks and silver maples are about the only native deciduous trees that still retain foliage in early November. The brownish-orange to burgundy leaves of red oaks stand out with particular prominence. At a glance, you can see just how common oaks are in many areas of the Kawarthas.
  • We return to Standard Time on Sunday, November 4, and turn our clocks back one hour. Sunrise on the 4th is at 6:54 am and sunset at 4:58 pm for a total of only 10 hours and 4 minutes 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.
  • 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.

I would like to thank Tim Dyson, Annamarie Beckel, Jo Hayward-Haines and Gordon Harrison for having done such an admirable job filling in for me this summer. We are fortunate in the Kawarthas to have so many people with extensive knowledge of nature and the importance of the natural world in our lives.

 

Jul 132018
 

Get up close and personal to nature while reducing your carbon footprint

 “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best.” Ernest Hemingway

Riding a bicycle can be a wonderful way to engage with nature and the changing seasons. The feeling of setting off on two wheels is like an adventure, as each outing offers something different. You can enjoy areas that are inaccessible to a car and move along much more quietly. The result is that you see and hear so much more. Even a slow bike ride – the kind I’m referring to – also allows you to wind down, get some exercise and reduce your carbon footprint.

There are even some advantages over walking. You can cover much greater distances and pass quickly through areas of little interest. At the same time, travelling by bicycle is slow and gentle enough to take in all the same sights, sounds and smells as you would on foot. When something of interest grabs your attention, you can simply stop.

Nature-viewing from a bicycle has many advantages – Drew Monkman

Birding    

Birding and biking are made for each other. Just this week a friend told me he heard and/or saw 24 species during a 90-minute ride on the Trans Canada Trail from Jackson Park to Ackison Road and back. Highlights included an osprey near Ackison and two northern harriers at Lily Lake. He also saw numerous birds carrying food to feed young. Birding from a bike is far less confined than from a car. There’s no window frames or roof to block your view and no annoying engine, fan or beeping sounds. Unlike getting out of a car, there’s also no need to quietly close the door. When a bird darts across the road or trail, you can quickly and safely stop, put your feet down and lift your binoculars to your eyes. Just remember to pedal slowly enough to observe the habitat you’re passing through, avoid potholes or other obstacles and pay attention to other trail users. Pedalling slowly also eliminates wind noise.

For people who are new to birding – children, for example – travelling by bike is also more fun, since much of birding involves walking, standing and waiting – over and over again.

Equipment

A hybrid is probably the best bicycle choice, although any bike that is suitable for riding on gravel will do. Remember to dress warmly, especially in the spring and fall. Always wear a helmet and consider bringing a pump and maybe even a spare inner tube. Be sure you have a kickstand and lock, too, since you’ll often want to stop, get off the bike and maybe wander down a pathway. Don’t forget water and maybe a snack.

A pair of binoculars is a must – the lighter the better. Remember to keep them around your neck. A binocular harness can be useful, too, because it will stop your binos from swinging about. Don’t forget your smartphone. It can be used as a camera, sound recorder, notebook and for consulting field guide apps like the Sibley eGuide to Birds.

Engaging the senses

Enjoying nature from a bike is a great way to engage all of your senses. A good rule of thumb is to stop briefly each time you enter a new habitat type such as a wetland, woodlot or stream crossing. What new species can you see and hear? Here are some other pointers to keep in mind.

  1. Vision: Look skyward, to the sides and far ahead. Don’t forget to check the road or trail surface for caterpillars, butterflies, dragonflies, frogs, snakes or maybe even a baby turtle. Check out spots where birds tend to perch such as wires, telephone poles, fence poles and branches of dead trees. In the early morning or evening, scan meadows for deer and maybe even a fox or coyote. Watch the sky, too, for soaring birds like vultures and raptors. Learn to identify the different cloud types and signs of a change in the weather.

Midland Painted Turtle hatchling -WikiMedia

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Smell: Notice how the smells change as you pass through different habitat types. Each month, too, has its signature smells. May smells of lilac and balsam poplar; in late June and early July the fragrance of common milkweed and freshly-cut hay often fills the air; late summer can smell of rank vegetation, while the spicy perfume of fallen leaves is a time-honoured scent of fall.
  2. Touch: Pay attention to how the air temperature changes as you pass from a warm, sunny area to a shaded section of the road or trail. Feel the warmth or coolness of the wind in your face.
  3. Hearing: Listen for frogs and birds in spring and early summer. The insect chorus begins to take over in mid-July and lasts through early fall. Listen to how each habitat type offers up different voices. Cupping your ears will greatly increase your ability to hear distant sounds.

Seasonal highlights

For each season with the exception of winter, I have provided a very brief list of some common species, nature happenings and sounds to watch and listen for from your bike. How many can you see or hear?

Summer: Red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures, cedar waxwings, grackles, great blue herons, American goldfinches, eastern kingbirds, gray squirrels, chipmunks, groundhogs, painted turtles basking on logs, egg fragments from raided turtle nests, garter snakes, leopard frogs, bumble bees, dragonflies, damselflies, monarchs, sulphur butterflies, Carolina locusts flying up from the ground, fireflies at nightfall, ox-eye daisy, black-eyed Susan, Queen Anne’s lace, tall white clover, common milkweed, Canada goldenrod and poison ivy. Common sounds:  Red-eyed vireo, cedar waxwing, American goldfinch, song sparrow, house wren, green frog, dog-day Cicada, crickets

The song of the Red-eyed Vireo is one of the most common sounds of summer on bike trails. (Drew Monkman)

House Wrens are inveterate singers – Carl Welbourn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fall:  Blue jay, large flocks of blackbirds, migrating turkey vultures, Canada geese, ring-billed gulls, deer in fields, beavers active in wetlands, squirrel nests in trees, baby snapping turtles, woolly bear caterpillars crossing roads, red and yellow meadowhawk dragonflies,  colour change in leaves from  early September (e.g., Virginia Creeper, sumac) to early Nov. (tamaracks, oaks), abundant purple New England aster and various white asters, puffball and shaggy mane mushrooms. Common sounds: Blue jay, American crow, Canada geese, crickets

Spring: American robins, red-winged blackbirds, mallards, tree swallows, song sparrows, yellow warblers, groundhogs, muskrats, baby painted turtles, turtles laying eggs, spawning fish, mourning cloak butterflies, midges, green darner dragonflies, tent caterpillars, bumble bees, pussy willows, coltsfoot, trilliums, trout lily, fiddleheads, blooming trees and shrubs, emergence of leaves. Common sounds: Spring peeper, chorus frog, ruffed grouse, American robin, red-winged blackbird, song sparrow, northern flicker, woodpeckers drumming

A few itineraries

The following roads and trails offer different habitat types and a wide variety of species. The roads are relatively free of traffic. To learn about other quiet routes in the Peterborough area, go to biketoptbo.ca/longer-rides/city-cycling-routes/ Created by Cary Weitzman, this site is a treasure-trove of information. Printed maps are available as well at City Hall and local bike shops.

  1. Hubble Road (east of Stony Lake off Cty Rd 44) Rare birds.
  2. Sandy Lake Road (30 minutes north of Havelock on Cty Rd 46) Rare birds and butterflies.
  3. County Road 24: Start at Cty Rd 18 and follow north to Cty Rd 20, north to 10th Line and east to Cty Rd 25. Return the same way. Great wetland and field habitat.
  4. Fifth Line west from Bridgenorth Trail parking lot to Pinehill Road. Follow Pinehill to Steinkrauss Drive and continue north through residential streets of Bridgenorth to East Communication Road. Follow to Miller Creek Conservation Area on 7th Line. Return to 5th Line by way of Bridgenorth Trail. Great views and varied habitat.
  5. Roads in provincial parks such as Petroglyphs, Presqu’ile and Carden Alvar.
  6. Trans-Canada Trail (gravel) from Jackson Park, through Lily Lake Wetland and on to the trestle bridge past Orange Corners Road. Wetland species, diverse shrubs and flowers
  7. Trans-Canada Trail (gravel) from Lang to Hastings. High butterfly diversity, deer
  8. Rotary Greenway Trail (paved and gravel) from Peterborough at Parkhill East, past Meadowvale Park, past Trent University, north to County Road 33 and east to Lakefield Sewage Lagoons. Back track and continue up to Lakefield and west to D’eyncourt Street to Lakefield Marsh. Warblers, sparrows along trail; ducks at lagoons, along river and at Lakefield Marsh
  9. Little Lake Loop (roads and trail) Little Lake Cemetery north to Millennium Park and across pedestrian bridge to Beavermead Park and Ecology Park. Ducks in spring on Little Lake; songbirds and feeders at Ecology Park
  10. Parkway Corridor (paved) from Jackson Park to Cumberland Street. Retention pond with ducks. Birds in dense vines at Cumberland end.


Rotary Greenway Trail where it traverses the Promise Rock Nature Area -Drew Monkman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fun activities

  1. Do a family scavenger hunt by using the species and sounds above to make a checklist.
  2. Go on a sounds ride – how many different natural sounds can you hear?
  3. Count an individual species – how many monarch butterflies, turkey vultures or other species can you spot?
  4. Choose your own “Magic Spot”. Find a quiet, nature-rich location along the road or trail where you can get off the bike, sit quietly for five or 10 minutes and relax. Note seasonal changes.
  5. If you love birding, do a “Big Day” to see how many bird species you find over the course of a day. Former Peterborough resident, Jody Allair, a staff member at Bird Studies Canada, did his Great Canadian Birdathon by bike this spring and found 132 species. He and his team biked 32 kilometres in the Long Point area on Lake Erie.

I’d like to thank Chris Risley and Marilyn Freeman in the preparation of this article.

Jul 062018
 

Flocking provides many benefits but questions remain

“How early in the year it begins to be late” Henry David Thoreau

Nature plays a cruel joke on us in early July. Just as summer is getting started, intimations of autumn can already be seen. One such sign is the formation of flocks in some birds. In the city, large congregations of European starlings will soon be roosting in shade trees and advertising their presence by their clamorous calls and frequent flights from one tree to the next. In local wetlands, red‑winged blackbirds are flocking up and, by mid‑July, swallows will start to congregate on wires, especially around farms.

Swallows on wire in post-breeding flock – Wikimedia

A flock of ring-billed and Bonaparte’s gulls at Hillman Marsh near Point Pelee National Park – Drew Monkman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advantages of flocking

Flocking confers a number of advantages to birds. First, there is safety in numbers. By flocking together, the chance of any one individual being killed by a predator is lower than if the bird was by itself. With so many eyes watching, it is likely that at least some of the flock members will spot an approaching predator while other birds are busy feeding, sleeping or simply looking in the wrong direction. When predators attack a flock, they try to single out a bird on the edge of the group to pursue. However, once in flight, most flocks change shape constantly and both expand and contract in size. This makes it very difficult for the predator to remain focused on one bird. There is also evidence that it may be physically dangerous for a predator ‑ which may not be that much larger than the prey species it’s pursuing ‑ to dive into the middle of a fast flying mass of birds.

Flocking can also provide better access to food. After spending the night together in a communal roost, it is thought that birds gain information about good feeding resources by following older, more experienced individuals when they fly off to feed. This becomes especially important in the fall when food is erratically distributed and cooler weather, along with the demands of the approaching southward migration, mean energy requirements are higher.

Scientists have often wondered why older birds would want to share food information and potentially end up eating less themselves. It appears there is a worthwhile trade-off. In several species, it has been shown that older birds, being more dominant, actually appropriate the safest, most central locations in the roost while the younger, weaker birds are relegated to the edges. This exposes the less dominant birds to a greater danger of predation. The arrangement is advantageous for both groups ‑ older and stronger birds allow their weaker brethren to bear the brunt of predation while younger and weaker birds get to follow the others to good foraging sites.

Flocking also enables birds to expend less energy in flight. When the lead bird flaps its wings, it creates uplift for the birds behind. Each bird (except the leader) is flying in the up wash from the wing of the bird in front. This enables the flock to use less energy and reduces fatigue.

Mobbing and pishing

Although not technically flocks, birds will also congregate together to attack, chase or simply pester a predator. This is usually done to protect offspring. Known as ‘mobbing’, the behaviour includes flying around the intruder, dive bombing and calling or squawking loudly. The loud alarm calls also serve to summon nearby individuals to join the attack and drive the predator away. Mobbing is especially noticeable in crows, which can often be seen and heard pestering a cat, fox, owl or other predator.

A crow harrassing a Red-tailed Hawk in Peterborough – Helen and Larry Keller

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although mobbing may involve some risks, there are obviously benefits. All of the birds in the mob increase their chances of survival and reproduction. An individual on its own, however, would stand little chance against a predator. There is also research showing that crows may even place sentinels in trees to watch for possible predators. This is done so that other nearby crows can safely feed on the ground. When the sentinels start calling loudly, the feeding crows will either fly off or begin to mob the intruder. Don Finigan of Peterborough told me recently about a fox that makes regular visits to his yard to hunt squirrels. Each time, the fox’s arrival is announced by the raucous displeasure of the crows.

The mobbing reflex on the part of some birds explains the effectiveness of a birding technique known as ‘pishing’. It is used to bring birds in closer for better views. The raspy, rough quality of the pish sound birders make is similar to the alarm or scolding calls of small songbirds such as chickadees. Scientists believe that birds interpret the sound as that of another bird that has discovered a predator and is recruiting help. An alternative explanation is that some species of birds are simply curious and have evolved to investigate unknown noises.

To pish, choose a place where there is already some bird activity such as the calls of chickadees. Place yourself close to some trees or shrubs where the birds you 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 the sound is shrill and strident. 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, wrens, finches and sparrows will usually approach as well.

Quite often, the birds that are attracted by pishing are actually feeding together in loose flocks. For example, chickadees that glean insects from leaves, bark and punky wood are often found in the company of nuthatches, woodpeckers, kinglets and warblers that are searching for similar – but usually not identical – food items. Having more individuals searching for food increases the likelihood that a rich feeding patch will be located and food-poor areas can be avoided. Individuals probably also learn about new food sources from other species. In one study, titmice were observed visiting a site where a woodpecker was pecking at bark. It quickly began foraging in the same place. Mixed-flocks are most common outside of the breeding season.

Blackbirds

By mid‑July, most Red-winged blackbirds have finished breeding. Males lose their intolerance of one another and form feeding flocks, which roost together at night. Initially, these flocks are small and include only the adults and young of local breeding populations. However, as summer advances, these smaller roosts will begin to break up and much larger flocks form. A mixing of different species occurs, too, with common grackles and European starlings often joining in with the red-wings. The roosts are often cattail marshes, thick stands of alders or even upland woodlots.

A flock of Red-winged Blackbirds over a Kansas field – Bob Webster

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Starlings and crows

For city dwellers, starlings and crows are usually the most noticeable roosting species during the summer months. Large deciduous shade trees are the preferred roosting sites. Thousands of starlings may occupy a given stand of trees and will sometimes return each night until the leaves drop. As sunset approaches, the birds start arriving in the vicinity of the roost and perch in nearby trees, often making frequent, noisy flights from one tree to another. This activity, known as staging, goes on for about half an hour before they actually settle into the roost trees. For nearby residents, the noise and commotion can be irritating to say the least.

Watching a flock of starlings take flight and then change directions simultaneously is fascinating. How does the group manage to turn and maneuver, almost as a single unit? As it turns out, the behaviour does not depend on the actions of any one “leader” but is rather a property of the group itself. The maneuvering of the flock, known as a murmuration, is determined by the second‑to‑second decisions of individual birds as they respond to what seven – yes, exactly seven – of their flock neighbours are doing. When one bird changes speed or direction, its seven closest neighbours do the same. In this way, the information spreads almost instantaneously across the flock. Google “flight of the starlings” to see a beautiful video of a murmuration filmed in the Netherlands.

A murmuration of European starlings over Minsmere in the United Kingdom – photo by Airwolfhound

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crows, too, often congregate in the hundreds or even thousands to sleep in communal roosts. An hour or two before darkness, they start flying to peripheral congregation sites, located close to the overnight roosting spot. There is usually a lot of noise-making, chasing, and general squabbling that goes on at these sites. Then, right at dark, the crows move on to their nearby final destination.

What to watch for this week

Young frogs are transforming into adults and leaving their natal ponds. Watch for tiny (less than one centimetre in length) wood frogs, spring peepers and American toads on moist areas of the forest floor from July through September. In backyards and parks, listen for the buzzy, electric song of the first dog-day cicadas of the summer.

 

 

Jun 292018
 

A preview of summer nature events with a nod to climate change

Now that summer has officially arrived, I want to look ahead to some of the events in nature that we can expect over the next three months. As a result of climate change, however, the actual timing of events is becoming less predictable. This was especially true last fall when unprecedented warmth and drought delayed and weakened the intensity of the fall colours.

It was exactly 30 years ago that NASA climate scientist Dr. James Hansen appeared before Congress, where he predicted how human-made emissions would impact the climate. As it turned out, the predictions he made in 1988 were almost entirely on target. As emissions have soared, the planet has warmed relentlessly; every year of this century has been hotter than 1988. This past May was the warmest on record in the U.S. As he predicted, the ocean is rising at an accelerating pace, the great ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are melting, coastal flooding is rapidly increasing, and the Arctic Ocean ice cap has shrunk drastically. Despite all of this, conservative politicians across Canada want to get rid of carbon taxes and undo the meagre progress the country has made in addressing climate change. Let’s not forget that on a per capita basis, Canada is the biggest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.

This past spring, we had several reminders of the impact climate change is having on nature in the Kawarthas. On May 4, Peterborough was hit by a major windstorm with gusts up to 120 km/hr. This was the worst storm to hit the city since the ice storm of April 2013. Numerous trees were blown down, including a tall spruce on Maple Crescent that literally snapped in half. Dozens of other spruce were uprooted across the city. At the corner of Monaghan and Lansdowne, nearly half of a huge iconic oak tree came down, as well. The number of trees that have been destroyed by ice and wind in Peterborough and the Kawarthas in the past couple of decades is a tragedy.

The demise of many ornamental, non-native  cedars in the Kawarthas also has a probable link to climate change. Wild temperature fluctuations this winter -especially in February with four days above 11 C – caused freeze-thaw cycles that put stress on the trees, causing them to  turn brown and, in some cases, die.

The following events in nature are typical of summer in the Kawarthas.

Late June

  • Turtles can still be seen along roadsides and rail-trails laying their eggs. Remember to slow down in turtle-crossing zones.
  • Monarch butterflies have returned – the “grandchildren” of those that flew to Mexico last fall. Local Monarch numbers appear encouraging so far this year. Make sure your garden has a selection of different plants blooming from spring through fall to provide pollen and nectar to bees and butterflies. It’s also important to have some milkweed on which Monarchs can lay their eggs. Both Swamp (A. incarnata) and Butterfly (A. tuberosa) Milkweed are the best choices for small gardens.

Monarch Butterfly – Terry Carpenter

Snapping Turtle digging nest on roadside (Danielle Tassie )

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

July

  • Common Milkweed is in flower and its rich, honey-sweet perfume fills the early summer air. The scent serves to attract insects whose feet will inadvertently pick up the flowers’ sticky pollinia – small packets containing pollen – and transfer them to another plant.
  • A huge number of other plants are blooming, as well. In wetland habitats, watch for Common Elderberry, Swamp Milkweed, Joe-Pye Weed, Yellow Pond Lily and Fragrant White Water Lily. Along roadsides and in meadows, common species include Bird’s-foot Trefoil (often on lawns), Ox-eye Daisy, Yarrow, Viper’s Bugloss, Black-eyed Susan, Queen Anne’s Lace, Wild Bergamot, Purple-flowering Raspberry and Orange Hawkweed.

Common Milkweed

Joe-Pye Weed – Drew Monkman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • July is a good time to learn the common, non-native invasive plants. Some of the most noticeable roadside denizens are Wild Parsnip, Dog-strangling Vine and Phragmites (Common Reed). For more information, contact the Ontario Invasive Plant Council at ontarioinvasiveplants.ca.
  • July is infamous for deer, horse and stable flies, which belong to the Tabanidae family. Deer flies have black-patterned wings, iridescent eyes and tend to fly around your head. Horse flies are larger, grey in colour, and have huge eyes. They prefer to bite lower on the body. Stable flies are house fly-size and have four dark stripes on the thorax. They often attack the ankles and are very difficult to swat. Stable flies lay their eggs on rotting vegetation along shorelines and often show up at cottage docks.
  • It is hard to go anywhere near water in July and not notice dragonflies and damselflies. Many turn up in suburban gardens. To tell them apart, remember that dragonflies have thick bodies, are strong fliers, and their wings are open at rest. Damselflies are usually much smaller, have thin bodies, are weak fliers, and their wings are closed or only partially spread at rest. Some of the most frequently seen damselflies are powder-blue in colour, hence the common name of “bluets.” As for dragonflies, some common species include the Dot-tailed Whiteface, Common Whitetail, Four-spotted Skimmer and Chalk-fronted Skimmer. Go to odonatacentral.org/ for pictures of all Ontario dragonflies and damselflies. Click on “checklists” and then type “Ontario” in the search box.
  • By mid-July, the buzzy, electric song of the Dog-day Cicada fills the void created by the decrease in bird song.
  • Watch for mushrooms such as White Pine Boletes and Fly Agarics. Summer – not fall – usually produces the greatest variety of fungi.
  • Quiet country roads with lots of thick cover can be good for summer birding. If you hear contact calls, stop and pish. Warblers such as American Redstarts often fly in quite close.

August

  • Listen for the high-pitched “lisping” calls of Cedar Waxwings and the “po-ta-to-chip” flight call of the American Goldfinch. Watch for waxwings on the branches of dead trees along the River Road between Trent University and Lakefield.

Cedar Waxwings – Wikimedia

Immature meadowhawk dragonfly – Margo Hughes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Late July through September offers some of the best shorebird watching of the year. The Nonquon Sewage Lagoon, located just north of Port Perry, is the destination of choice. A ten-dollar permit is necessary, however. It can be purchased at Durham Region Transfer Site at 1623 Reach Road, Port Perry. Call 905-985-7346 ext. 112 for more information.
  • A large percentage of the insect music we here this month comes courtesy of crickets and katydids. For example, the soft, rhythmic “treet…treet…treet” of the Snowy Tree Cricket sounds like a gentle-voiced spring peeper. Its beautiful rhythmic pulsations actually provide a good estimate of air temperature. Watch and listen at bit.ly/18nGrJ3
  • By mid-August, Ragweed is in full bloom and its pollen has hay fever sufferers cursing with every sneeze. Goldenrod, which relies on insects to spread its sticky, heavy pollen, is not the culprit. The small, green flowers of the Ragweed, however, rely strictly on the wind to spread the ultra light, spike-covered pollen grains. The higher CO2 levels associated with climate change are greatly increasing pollen production. It is also causing Poison Ivy to thrive.
  • Small dragonflies known as meadowhawks abound. Mature males are red, while females and immature males are yellowish.
  • Cottagers sometimes find large, mysterious, jelly-like “blobs” attached to the dock or aquatic plants. They are formed by colonies of Bryozoa, a freshwater invertebrate. Looking somewhat like an egg mass, the clumps are clear, dense, and have distinct, repetitive patterns and markings on the outside. Bryozoa are like a freshwater coral in that the mass they form is actually a colony of thousands of zooids – roughly analogous to polyps in corals. Each tiny zooid has whorls of ciliated feeding tentacles that sway back in forth to catch plankton in the water.
  • Bird migration is in full swing by mid- to late August, with numerous warblers, vireos, flycatchers and Common Nighthawks moving through. One of the best places to see nighthawks is Back Dam Park near Warsaw. Migration peaks around August 20. Go in the evening and watch the sky for loose flocks.
  • Goldenrods reach peak bloom at month’s end and become the dominate flowers of roadsides and fields. These plants are veritable insect magnets, drawing in an amazing variety of species with their offerings of pollen and nectar.

  September

  • Monarch butterfly numbers are at their highest. Monarchs congregate at peninsulas on the Great Lakes such as Presqu’ile Provincial Park, a jumping off point for their migration across Lake Ontario. Don’t miss the Monarch tagging demonstration at Presqu’ile on the afternoon of September 1 and 2. Monarch expert Don Davis will be on hand to answer questions and even let your kids release a tagged butterfly. Go to friendsofpresquile.on.ca for more information.

Tagged Monarch – Drew Monkman

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Chinook and Coho Salmon leave Lake Ontario to spawn in tributaries of the Ganaraska River. Huge salmon can be seen jumping up the fish ladder at Corbett’s Dam on Cavan Street in Port Hope.
  • By late September, asters reign supreme. Their purples, mauves, and whites light up fields and roadsides and bring the year’s wildflower parade to a close. The most common species include New England, Heath, Panicled and Heart-leaved Asters. They make a great addition to any pollinator garden.
  • Be sure to put your bird feeders up this month. If you scatter millet or finch mix on the ground, you should be able to attract White-throated Sparrows which migrate south in late September.
  • Most years, Virginia Creeper vine, Poison Ivy, Chokecherry and Staghorn Sumac reach their colour peak at about the fall equinox, which occurs this year on September 22.

 

 

Jun 222018
 

Last of a three-part series exploring local nature destinations

This week, I will conclude my exploration of some of the best nature-viewing areas in the Kawarthas – and beyond – by looking at destinations located mostly south of Peterborough. Almost all of these areas offer excellent opportunities to see a wide range of species and not just those mentioned in the highlights.

For a detailed list of what bird species can be found in the more popular locations (e.g., Briar Hill Bird Sanctuary, Rice Lake – Pengelly Landing, Presqu’ile Provincial Park) go to ebird.org. Click on Explore Data, Explore a Region, type in Peterborough (or another county such as Northumberland), click on Hotspots, click on the destination of your choice and then click on Bar Charts. You will see a list of all birds seen, along with their seasonal abundance.

Nature destinations in the Kawarthas (note: Not all of the destinations in this article appear on the map) – Dylan Radcliffe

Briar Hill Bird Sanctuary: Located on north-west corner of Co. Rd. 21 and 28. Highlights:  Waterfowl and shorebirds, especially during spring and fall migration. A spotting scope is necessary.

Millbrook Valley Trails: Take Distillery St. south from King St. in Millbrook and park at trailhead near the millpond. Highlights: Check the millpond for ducks, geese and shorebirds. The Baxter Creek Trail (3 km) traverses a diversity of habitat types including cedar-hemlock forest, extensive wetland (boardwalks) and meadows, each with its representative birds and plants. This is a great trail for wetland flowers, shrubs and birds. Finish up with coffee at the Pastry Peddler Café in downtown Millbrook!

Sign at entrance to Millbrook Valley Trails – Drew Monkman

 

Pleasant Point Rd:  From Co. Rd. 21, take 4th Line east. Highlights:  Screech owls possible all year round in wooded areas along road. Large variety of warblers such as Northern Waterthrush and Black-throated Blue in the low, swampy forests.

Gravel Pit Conservation Area: Located at south end of Crowley Line, which is one line east of Bensfort Rd. Park where Crowley turns west and becomes Rosa Landing Road. Walk in along unmaintained road allowance, which continues south. Climb over gate on left. Continue until you arrive at a large open area with ponds. Highlights: Good general birding, shorebirds possible at ponds during migration

Scriven Road: Located one line east of Bailieboro, between 4th Line and the north shore of Rice Lake. Highlights:  A good place to look for Snow Buntings, Horned Larks, Snowy Owls and Red-tailed Hawks in winter. Field birds like Eastern Meadowlarks and Bobolinks in spring and summer.

 

Rice Lake (Pengelly Point to Hiawatha):  Take Co. Rd. 2 east from Bailieboro. Turn south at Scriven Rd. and follow to Pengelly Point on Rice Lake. Check lake in all directions. Further east, good views of the lake can also be had from Bb Beach Rd., Perrin Point Rd., Southview Dr.,  Wood Duck Dr. and from Harrick Point in Hiawatha First Nation. Highlights:  Rafts of migrating ducks in early spring (late March through early April) and in late fall. Excellent area for Osprey, too.

Herkimer Point Road:  Turn east off Co. Rd. 31 at Hiawatha First Nation. Highlights:  Excellent birding from spring to fall in a variety of habitats, including deciduous forest, swamp and marsh. Good views of Rice Lake from the end of the road, where there is a nice woodlot with wildflowers such as Wild Geranium. Bird species to expect in marshes include Virginia Rail and American Bittern.

Mather’s Corners:  Located east of Drummond Line, just south of Co. Rd. 2 at Mather’s Corners. Highlights:  Ducks, geese and sometimes swans in early spring in flooded cornfield. They include Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler and sometimes even Snow Geese and Tundra Swans. The birds are best viewed with a spotting scope from Drummond Line. Continue to south end of road where there is a heronry with large numbers of nesting Great Blue Herons. The fields here are often good for Bobolinks and Eastern Meadowlarks.

Tundra Swans at Mather’s Corners – Luke Berg

Indian River at Keene: Large wetland located just east of village. Explore north and south of the bridge by canoe. Highlights:  Typical wetland plants, amphibians, reptiles and birds such as Virginia Rail and Marsh Wren.

Indian River at Warsaw: At village of Warsaw, take Rock Rd. east about 1 km to Back Dam Park. You can look for birds from the parking lot or explore the river by canoe or kayak. Highlights: Good general birding in spring and early summer. Common Nighthawks migrate south over the river in late afternoon and evening, from mid-August through early September. 50 or more possible on a good evening.

River Road – Take 2nd Line of Asphodel south from Co. Rd. 2. River Rd. is first road on left. Follow across to 6th of Asphodel. Highlights:  Beautiful old forest with impressive mature trees, diverse ferns, abundant spring wildflowers and sometimes birds like Red-bellied and Red-headed Woodpecker.

 

Trans-Canada Trail East (Peterborough to Hastings and beyond):  Section between Drummond and David Fife Lines can be very good, especially where it borders the wetland east of Nelson Road. Highlights:  Excellent birding and butterfly –watching from May through early fall. Watch for Baltimore Checkerspot butterflies east of Nelson Road where Turtlehead wildflowers grow.

A little further afield…

Ballyduff Trails (McKim-Garsonnin Property): Take Hwy 7A to Hwy 35. Head south to Ballyduff Rd. Turn right and continue to Wild Turkey Rd. Park at 851 Ballyduff Rd. Parking is also available at 1020 Gray Rd. (South Pond Farms), located north of Wild Turkey Rd. Highlights:  Explore five trails winding through meadow, forest, wetland and a tall grass prairie restoration project. Go to Kawarthalandtrust.org to print off a trail map.

Fleetwood Creek Natural Area: Continue on Ballyduff Rd. past Wild Turkey Rd. and watch for signs. Highlights:  380-hectare property located within the Oak Ridges Moraine. Trails take you through mature lowland forests, meadows and steep valleys. You will find a diverse flora, interesting geology and impressive fall foliage.

Nonquon Sewage Lagoons: Located on Scugog Line 8, east of Highway 12, north of Port Perry. Highlights: Diverse and sometimes abundant migrating shorebirds in spring, summer and fall. Close-up views. N.B. a ten-dollar permit is necessary. Obtain at Durham Region Transfer Site at 1623 Reach Road, Port Perry. Call 905-985-7346 ext. 112 for more information.

Peter’s Woods Provincial Nature Reserve –  From Co. Rd. 28 at Bewdley, travel east on Co. Rd. 9 and Co. Rd. 29 to McDonald Rd. Turn right (south) on McDonald Rd. to the reserve. Highlights:  Magnificent old-growth forest with huge maples, beech, ash, pine, etc. Diverse ferns, orchids, spring wildflowers and birds.

Second Marsh – McLaughlin Bay Wildlife Reserve – Take Highway 401 east towards Oshawa. Take exit 419. Turn left onto Bloor St. E, then left onto Regional Road 56 and left onto Colonel Sam Dr. Follow to Reserve entrance on right. Highlights: 137-hectare provincially significant coastal wetland; important breeding and migratory stopover area for birds; numerous trails, interpretive signs, viewing platforms with excellent opportunities to see shorebirds, waterfowl, field birds, raptors, etc. Scope will come in handy.

Cranberry Marsh – Take Highway 401 east towards Whitby. Exit at Brock St. (exit 410). Go south 0.5 km to Victoria St. (eastern extension of Bayly). Turn right, go 3.2 km to Hall’s Rd. Turn left, and follow to roadside parking area at pathway. Leads to platform over the marsh. Highlights: Waterfowl (both in marsh and along the lakeshore), owls, migrant songbirds. Excellent hawk-watching in fall. Especially mid-September for Broad-winged Hawks.

Fall hawk-watch at Cranberry Marsh – Drew Monkman

Thickson’s Woods – From Highway 401 in Whitby, Ontario, take Thickson Road south past Wentworth Street to the Waterfront Trail. Turn east (left) 100 metres to a small turnaround. Highlights: Last remnant of old-growth white pines on the north shore of Lake Ontario. Superb late April – early May destination for migrating songbirds like warblers, orioles, tanagers and thrushes.

Cobourg Harbour – From Exit 474 on Highway 401, go south on Division St. (Highway 45) to east pier. Highlights: A great place to see wintering and migrant gulls, ducks and sometimes Snowy Owls. October to April is best. Migrant shorebirds often show up along the west side. Further lake views can be had from the foot of D’Arcy St. where more gulls, grebes  waterfowl often loiter. Flat rocks here contain fossils. Port Hope Harbour on Mill St. is also excellent.

Ganaraska River – Corbett’s Dam: Follow Co. Rd. 28 to first set of traffic lights south of Highway 401. Go west on Molson St. and turn right at Cavan St. Follow to Corbett’s Dam where the fish ladder is located. Highlights: In April, watch Rainbow Trout making the run upstream to spawn. In September, Chinook Salmon can be seen jumping up the ladder and waiting in the hundreds in the water below the dam.

Don Davis tagging Monarchs at Presqu’ile Provincial Park

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Presqu’ile Provincial Park – Located south of Brighton on Lake Ontario. Follow signs. Highlights:  The 10-km-long peninsula jutting into Lake Ontario is a migrant trap for many species of birds. Waterbirds and shorebirds migrate through in large numbers. Unique late-summer wildflowers including False Dragonhead, Grass-of-Parnassus and Kalm’s Lobelia. Staging area for migrant Monarch butterflies in late summer. Special event weekends include Waterfowl Viewing Weekend in March and the Monarchs and Migrants Weekend at Labour Day. If you go to Presqu’ile, be sure to check out the Brighton Constructed Wetland for ducks and other wetland species. It is located at 211 Prince Edward St. (at junction of Harbour St.) about 2 km east of the park entrance.

 

Jun 152018
 

Part 2 of a 3 part series

This week, I would like to continue my exploration of some of the best nature-viewing areas in the Kawarthas by looking at destinations located mostly north of Peterborough. I have started in the northeast with the Carden Alvar near Kirkfield and worked eastward towards the Havelock area.

To see a detailed list of what bird species can be found in the more popular destinations (e.g., Lakefield Sewage Lagoons, Petroglyphs Provincial Park, Carden Alvar) go to ebird.org. Click on Explore Data, Explore a Region, type in Peterborough or Kawartha Lakes, click on Hotspots, click on the destination of your choice and then click on Bar Charts. You will see a list of all birds seen, along with their seasonal abundance.

Nature destinations in the Kawarthas (note: Not all destinations in this article appear on the map) Dylan Radcliffe

Carden Alvar:  Located northwest of Lindsay, about 75 minutes from Peterborough via Hwy 7 and Kawartha Lakes Co. Rd. 6. From Kirkfield, take Co. Rd. 6 north and turn right onto McNamee Rd. Explore concessions such as Wylie Rd., Shrike Rd. and Alvar Rd. Highlights:  Best early summer birding destination in southern Ontario, especially for uncommon and rare grassland birds (e.g., Loggerhead Shrike, Upland Sandpiper, Eastern Bluebird) and marsh birds (e.g., Sedge Wren); unique alvar plant communities (e.g., Prairie Smoke, Indian Paintbrush)  Google “Carden Alvar Birding Guide” Right now (mid-June) is the best time to go!

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

Altberg Wildlife Sanctuary Nature Reserve:  About 70 minutes from Peterborough via Kawartha Lakes Co. Rd. 49 and 121. From Kinmount, Co. Rd. 45 west for 7 about km. The property is at address marker 4164. Highlights: 470 hectares of high-quality forest straddling the contact between the granite rocks of the Canadian Shield and the limestone of the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence Lowlands; great diversity of habitat types, breeding birds and flora. For more information, Google: “Altberg Wildlife Sanctuary”

Ken Reid Conservation Area:  From the junction of highways 7 and 35, go 5 km north on Hwy 35. Turn right on Kenrei Park Rd. and go 3 km. Highlights:  Forest, fields and huge marsh with boardwalks; high density of active Osprey nests

Emily Tract: Located on Peace Rd. (Kawartha Lakes Co. Rd. 14) just west of Cowan’s Bay and Emily Provincial Park: Highlights: wide variety of mature trees including old pines; excellent display of wildflowers in spring

Gannon’s Narrows: On Co. Rd. 16 north of Ennismore at junction of Pigeon and Buckhorn lakes. Highlights:  Waterfowl in winter, spring and fall; eagles possible; otters on ice.

John Earle Chase Memorial Park Trails: Just north of Gannon’s Narrows. Park 0.6 km down Anchor Bay Road. Highlights: Three new trails totaling 7.5 km. Partnership between Kawartha Land Trust, Trent Severn Waterway and Municipality of Trent Lakes. Mature maple forests, rich wetlands and great views of Pigeon Lake. Go to Kawartha Land Trust site for info and map.

Big (Boyd) Island: Situated at north end of Pigeon Lake, this 1100-acre Kawartha Land Trust is only accessible by boat. You can park and launch a canoe from Bear Creek Road on the east side of the lake. Go to Kawartha Land Trust site for info and map. Highlights: extensive wetlands; large marsh and island complex; limestone cliffs on west shore and granite cliffs in the northeast (a microcosm of The Land Between); diverse bird life (e.g., Eastern Towhee, Golden-winged Warbler); alvar habitat; old growth Eastern Hemlock (west side); impressive diversity of ferns

Aerial View of Boyd Island – Kawartha Land Trust

Galway-Cavendish Forest Access Road: From Buckhorn, take Co. Rd. 36 north to Co. Rd. 507 and follow north to just past the Mississauga Dam Rd. Turn west onto Galway-Cavendish Forest Access Rd.. Highlights: excellent butterfly diversity, including rarities such as West Virginia White; watch for some species perched on road (e.g., Eastern Comma, Compton’s Tortoiseshell)

Bridgenorth Trail: Located between Hilliard Street North (at 5th Line) and Brumwell St. (off East Communication Rd. on east edge of Bridgenorth) Highlights: birds, butterflies (especially gravel pit at Bridgenorth end), amphibians, late-summer flowers

Selwyn Beach Conservation Area: Located on east shore of Chemong Lake, at 2251 Birch Island Rd. Access from 12th Line of Selwyn. Highlights: A nature trail passes through wetland, woodland and open field; impressive stands of beech, maple and oak; excellent wildflower display in May

Lakefield Sewage Lagoons: On southeastern edge of Lakefield. Turn east off Co. Rd. 32 (River Rd) onto Co. Rd. 33. Parking on right. Open to public, but avoid blocking the gate. Footpath around gate on east side of parking area. Both lagoons are worth checking. Highlights: Wide variety of migrating ducks in spring and fall; rare Black Terns in summer; diverse songbirds. Number one eBird Hotspot in Peterborough County. Spotting scope useful.

Lakefield Marsh:   Located at south end of Lake Katchewanooka. Turn north off Co. Rd. 29 (Bridge St.) onto Clement St. Turn right on D’Eyncourt St. Follow signs. Highlights: Wetland birds including Black Terns, American Bittern and migrant ducks; large assortment of dragonflies and damselflies in summer, especially when explored by canoe; observation tower and interpretive signage.

Lake Katchewanooka:  The lake is best viewed from the bottom of Stenner Rd. off east side of Hwy 28, just north of Lakefield. Highlights:  Waterfowl in fall, winter and especially spring; eagles possible all year. Often perch in pine trees on the islands to the south

Miller Creek Wildlife Area:  On 7th Line of Selwyn, about 2 km west from Co. Rd. 24. Highlights:  Wetland birds (e.g., American Bittern, Virginia Rail, Swamp Sparrow) in swamp at southern end of main trail. Marsh at observation tower now mostly grass-covered. Watch and listen for Sandhill Cranes.

Camp Kawartha: Located at 1010 Birchview Road, north of Lakefield. Park beside Camp office. Highlights:  Explore the large network of trails on west side of Birchview Road, opposite the Camp. Wetland, woodland and alvar-like habitat. Detailed trail interpretive guides for orange and yellow trails can be found online at campkawartha.ca/orange-trail-guide and campkawartha.ca/yellow-trail-guide/ If possible, check in first at camp office.

Four-toed Salamander at Camp Kawartha (Jake Fell)

Lynch’s Rock Road and Sawer Creek Wetland: Follow Hwy 28 north almost to Lakefield. Turn east on Strickland Rd. and then north on Douro 5th Line. Turn east on Lynch’s Rock Rd. and follow through Sawer Creek Wetland Wildlife Area. Continue south along Douro 3rd Line. Highlights:  Large wetland with nesting Least Bittern. Sandhill Cranes and Upland Sandpipers possible in fields adjacent to Douro 3rd Line.

Warsaw Caves Conservation Area: Take Co. Rd. 4 north from village of Warsaw. Turn east at Cave Rd. Follow signs. Highlights:  Fascinating limestone geologic formations including kettles and caves; large variety of ferns including Walking Fern; variety of habitat types

Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park:  Located north of Buckhorn Lake between Co. Rd. 507 and Hwy 28. Access points include Coon Lake Rd., Long Lake Rd. and Anstruther Lake Rd. Best explored by canoe. Highlights:  A huge Canadian Shield park with vast rock barrens and strong wilderness qualities; high-quality bogs, fen communities, alvar and Atlantic coastal plain plant communities; mature forest stands; high concentrations of Whip-poor-will and Common Nighthawk; dark skies for astronomy.

Silent Lake Provincial Park: Located on Hwy 28 between Apsley and Bancroft, about 70 minutes from Peterborough. Highlights:  Diverse habitats, including mixed medium-aged forests, sphagnum bogs (abundant Pitcher Plants and Rose Pogonia at southeast end of lake), beaver meadows; valleys support 25 fern species

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

Jack Lake Road: Turn south off Co. Rd. 504 on east side of Apsley. Follow to Jack Lake and then west and south to sand and gravel pits at end of road. Highlights:  birds (e.g., crossbills in tamarack bog just south of Hwy 504); large variety of butterflies, especially in bog and in sand/gravel pits further south; abundant deer

Stony Lake Trails: Follow Hwy 28 north from Burleigh Falls to Mt. Julian Viamede Rd. Turn right and continue to Reid’s Rd. Park at address marker 105. Highlights: 10 km of well-marked, interconnected trails with benches. Open to the public thanks to a special agreement with landowners, including Kawartha Land Trust. Deciduous forest on limestone bedrock with moss and fern-rich gully called “The Chute” (Blue Trail); mixed forest on Canadian Shield granite with large groves of hemlocks, extensive wetland, vernal ponds (Yellow and Red Trails). Go to Kawartha Land Trust site for info and map.

Stony Lake Trails – Kawartha Land Trust

 

Petroglyphs Provincial Park:  Follow Hwy 28 north from Burleigh Falls to just past Woodview. Turn right on Northey’s Bay Rd. and follow for about 11 km. Highlights: Situated on southern edge of Canadian Shield; excellent birding and botanizing (e.g. Pink Lady’s-slipper)on Nanabush Trail; large stands of Red and White Pine; abundant White-tailed Deer; birds of interest include Bald Eagle, crossbills, Evening Grosbeak, warblers and sometimes Black-backed Woodpecker; Five-lined Skinks fairly common; diverse butterflies along edges of roads and wetlands.

Minnow Lake on the Nanabush Trail – Drew Monkman

Hubble Road: Follow Co. Rd. 6 along south shore of Stony Lake and turn right at Co. Rd. 44. Continue southeast for about 4 km to Hubble Rd. on right. Highlights:  Woodland and alvar-like habitat with uncommon birds such as Golden-winged Warbler, Whip-poor-will and Eastern Towhee.

The Gut Conservation Area on Crowe River:  From Apsley, drive east on Co. Rd. 504 to Lasswade. Continue east for about 7 km. Watch for signs. Highlights:  Impressive gorge in basaltic rock; Canadian Shield birds; impressive showing of spring wildflowers in May; abundant ferns and mosses

Sandy Lake Road:  From Co. Rd. 46, turn right about 6 km north of Oak Lake onto Sandy Lake Rd. Highlights:  Diverse butterflies including uncommon skippers (e.g., Mulberry Wing, Broad-winged in summer) along the edge of the sedge marshes; uncommon spring butterflies in May (e.g. Chryxus Arctic, Olympia Marble); Pine Warblers in pines; eagles and crossbills in winter.

Next week, I’ll look at some destinations south of Peterborough.

 

 

 

Jun 082018
 

Part 1 of a 3 part series on local nature destinations 

People often ask me where they should go to see birds and other wildlife. My initial answer is usually “just about anywhere.” Although this is true, I realize that a little more detail might be helpful. This week I’d like to begin a series of three articles on nature destinations in Peterborough and the Kawarthas. I haven’t written on this topic for over six years, and I’ve either discovered or been told about many new locales. But first, a little background information is helpful.

Peterborough County and the Kawarthas is largely defined by the Trent-Severn Waterway and the Kawartha Lakes. It also embraces two of Canada’s main physiographic regions. Driving north from Peterborough along Highway 28, we enter the southern edge of the Canadian Shield at Burleigh Falls. Suddenly, beautiful pink granite and other Precambrian igneous and metamorphic rocks are easily visible along the roadside and conifers like White Pine become much more common. Satellite images clearly show a largely unbroken expanse of dark green tree cover on the Shield, interspersed with lakes, wetlands and rock barrens.

The land south of the Shield is lower in elevation and has more fertile, calcareous soils. It belongs to the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Lowland, a region of younger sedimentary rock. Limestone, laid down 490 million years ago during the Ordovician period, overlies the basal Shield rock deep below. This limestone is most visible in road cuts all along the edge of the Shield such as the southern entrance to the village of Buckhorn.

This mix of Shield country, lowlands and waterways makes for one of the richest assortments of habitats in the province. These also include rarer habitat types like the bare rock ridges and acidic bogs of Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park and the flat, open limestone pavement habitat of the Carden Alvar.

With such a wide variety of habitat types, the Kawarthas enjoys one of the greatest diversities of plants and animals in the province. Nature-watching destinations abound. The list of locations that I am proposing is by no means exhaustive, nor is the list of Highlights that accompanies each locale. To see a detailed list of what bird species can be found in the more popular destinations (e.g., Jackson Park, Little Lake, Trent University Wildlife Sanctuary, Lakefield Sewage Lagoons, Harper Park) go to ebird.org. Click on Explore Data, Explore a Region, type in Peterborough, click on Hotspots, click on the destination of your choice and then click on Bar Charts. You will see a list of all birds seen, along with their seasonal abundance. You can choose different date ranges, as well. I suggest Jan-Dec, 1900-2017 (or present year).

Readers may wish to email me their own favourite locations (preferably within an hour of Peterborough), which I may be able to include in the next two articles.

City of Peterborough and Vicinity

The best birding and general nature-viewing destinations in Peterborough are often along the Otonabee River-Little Lake corridor and adjacent green spaces. Linear green spaces such as rail-trails can also be excellent. Birds, butterflies and mammals often travel along these corridors.

Little Lake: Located east of George St. south. Good observation points include Little Lake Cemetery, Mark St. boat launch, Edgewater Blvd. and Lock 20. Highlights: Waterbirds in early spring, late fall and winter (ice conditions permitting) including diving ducks, grebes, loons and uncommon gulls; Bald Eagles possible in winter; land birds in the cemetery (e.g., Merlin) and a wide variety of mature native and non-native trees

River Road: Also called Co. Rd. 32. Located on east bank of Otonabee River between Trent University and Lakefield. Highlights: Diving ducks such as goldeneyes and mergansers during migration and in winter; migrating swallows in spring; Bald Eagles and otters sometimes seen

Otonabee River South: Located just north of the Peterborough By-Pass (Hwy. 7), this section of the river is best viewed either from Sherin Ave. on the east or Cameron St. on the west. Highlights: Diving ducks and sometimes grebes during migration and in winter; Bald Eagle possible.

Lock 19 on Otonabee River: Take Sherburne St. south from Lansdowne St. Turn left at Morrow St. and follow to Lock 19 parking lot. Highlights:  Spawning Walleye and suckers in early April; diving ducks in late fall, winter and spring

Crawford Rail Trail: From Monaghan Rd., just south of Lansdowne St., to Crawford Dr. Highlights:  Good general birding, especially at Crawford Dr. end

Harper Park: Located west of Harper Rd. /Rye St. Access from entrance to Harper Rd. Composting Facility where Harper Creek passes under Harper Rd. Highlights: 150-acre natural environment park, provincially-significant wetland, coldwater creeks, meadows, forest, wild brook trout, deer, diverse native birds and plants not normally found within city limits (e.g., Great Horned Owl, Great Lobelia, Cinnamon Fern), numerous migrants in spring. Go to harperpark.ca for more information including a trail map

Kawartha Heights Park: Located between Kawartha Heights Blvd. and Redwood Dr. Access from south end of Crestwood Ave. – Highlights:  birds, plants, butterflies, amphibians, mature trees

Loggerhead Marsh: Located on north side of Ireland Dr., east of Brealey Dr. Highlights: Provincially Significant wetland, two large ponds, diverse shorebirds and songbirds during migration; wetland species like rails, warblers, snipe, herons, and ducks, raptors such as Osprey and Cooper’s Hawk, amphibian chorus in spring. Go to loggerheadmarsh.org for more information.

Jackson Park: Located at junction of Parkhill Rd. and Monaghan Rd. in Peterborough. Highlights: Migrant land birds in spring and fall, stream invertebrates, numerous old-growth trees such as White Pine, Eastern Hemlock, Eastern White Cedar and American Beech, diverse ferns and wildflowers (e.g., Turtlehead, Zig-zag Goldenrod) along rail-trail and especially in the wooded section of the path that borders the east side of the lagoon.

Fairbairn Street Wetland:  Located on west side of Fairbairn St., just north of Co. Rd. 19 (Line Rd. 3). Highlights:  Wetland species like bitterns, gallinules, rails and ducks. Occasional rarities like Nelson’s Sparrow (Oct. 2017)

Trans-Canada Trail: From Jackson Park, east to Omemee Highlights: Wide variety of trees, shrubs (e.g., Silky Dogwood), ferns and wildflowers border the trail; wetland species at Lily Lake and east to Ackison Rd. (e.g., Wood Duck, Swamp Sparrow, Beaver, River Otter, Snapping Turtle, Nannyberry, High-bush Cranberry); Fringed Gentian and Ladies’-tresses Orchids just east of Hwy. 7 overpass

Parkway Trail: A paved trail extending from corner of Fairbairn St. and Highland Rd. to Cumberland Ave. Highlights:  Hilliard to Cumberland section has large concentrations of migrant sparrows in fall and robins in winter, occasional Barred Owls, abundant Virginia Creeper and Wild Grape. Chemong to Hilliard section has a section of wetland (e.g., Common Yellowthroat) and a large retention pond with ducks and herons.

Trent University Nature Areas: Numerous trails traverse a variety of habitats on both sides of the Otonabee River. These include the Trent Wildlife Sanctuary trails east of University Rd., the Canal Nature Area west of University Rd. and the Promise Rock Trail, which can be accessed opposite the small parking lot on the west side of Nassau Mills Rd. near Lock 22. Highlights: wetland, forest and meadow habitats, diverse birds (e.g., warblers, Winter Wren, American Woodcock, Great Horned Owl, Great Blue Heron nesting colony, active Tree Swallow nesting boxes), butterflies, amphibians, etc.

University Road wetland: Located just north of the Warsaw Rd. (Co. Rd. 4) on University Rd. Highlights: Impressive frog and toad chorus in spring

Rotary-Greenway Trail: A 20 km, mostly paved trail from the Ecology Park on Ashburnham Dr., through East City in Peterborough and north to Lakefield. Highlights: Birds (especially in the marsh just north of the Trent Science Complex), butterflies, amphibian chorus in spring.

Meadowvale Park: Located at west end of Frances Stewart Rd. at Ashdale Crescent W. Extends west of Rotary Greenway Trail. Highlights: woodland, field and stream habitat, good general birding, ducks on river

GreenUP Ecology Park: Located on Ashburnham Dr. just south of Maria St. Highlights: wide variety of display gardens, native plant nursery and sales, diverse butterflies and nesting songbirds (e.g., American Redstart, Gray Catbird), winter bird feeder trail maintained by PFN, migrants in spring in fall, nature education program, gardening workshops

Beavermead Park: Located on Ashburnham Dr. just south of Maria St. Best locations include Tollington Bridge area and Beavermead Campground. Highlights: ducks and herons along Meade Cr., spring and fall migrants in campground

May 312018
 

All eight species of Ontario turtles are now designated as at risk

With the arrival of June, turtles are once again on the move. Unfortunately, this migration often  involves a hazardous trek across busy roads and highways. Clearly, a turtle’s shell is no match for the crushing weight of a motor vehicle. The result is that thousands of turtles are killed or injured by cars and trucks in the Kawarthas each spring and summer. The carnage is devastating for turtle populations, since egg-bearing adult females are usually the victims. On the bright side, an increasing number of people are now aware of the potential presence of turtles on the road and are adjusting their driving accordingly. It is not hard to avoid striking a turtle if you are driving at a reasonable speed and scan the road ahead.

Snapping Turtle digging nest on roadside (Danielle Tassie )

Starting in late May, turtles begin searching out a place to lay their eggs, preferably with well-drained, loose, sandy soil or fine gravel. This helps to explain the popularity of road shoulders as nesting sites. The female scrapes out a hollow with her hind legs before proceeding to deposit the eggs. Painted Turtles lay five to ten white eggs, elliptical in shape and about two centimetres long. Snapping Turtles may lay as many as 70 eggs! They look remarkably like ping-pong balls but are much smaller. When the turtle has finished laying, she uses her hind legs to fill in the hole and press down the earth around the eggs. She then drags her shell over the nest and sweeps the area with her hind feet as if to cover up any sign of her presence.

Peterborough County is home to six species of turtles, although only three, the Painted, Snapping and Blanding’s are commonly seen. Seven of Ontario’s turtle species have been classified by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forests as species at risk. The situation for Spotted Turtles is so critical that they are now listed as endangered, meaning they face imminent extinction or extirpation. Both the Blanding’s and Eastern Musk turtles are classified as threatened. The Snapping Turtle, along with the Northern Map Turtle, are designated as species of special concern. Just last month, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) also designated the Midland Painted Turtle as a species of special concern. This means that all of Ontario’s turtles are now at risk of disappearing from the province.

Turtle populations are in decline for a number of reasons. First of all, turtle eggs stand a very poor chance of surviving the long incubation period. Predators such as Raccoons and Striped Skunks usually discover the nests within the first 48 hours after egg-laying, dig up the eggs and enjoy a hearty meal. They leave behind a familiar sight of crinkled, white shells scattered around the nest area. Since these predators tend to flourish anywhere there is human settlement   – Raccoons are probably twenty times more abundant than 50 years ago – very few turtle nests go undiscovered. You can help our beleaguered turtle populations by not feeding Raccoons and by assuring  they do not get into your garbage.

As already mentioned, roadkill is also a very significant cause of turtle mortality, especially during the June nesting season. Killing pregnant females not only removes reproductive adults from the population, but it also means all their potential future offspring are lost as well. According to Dr. Ron Brooks, professor at the University of Guelph, even a loss of 1 to 2% of adults annually from the “extra” mortality of roadkill will eventually lead to the disappearance of local populations.

So, what can drivers do to protect turtles? It’s mostly a matter of slowing down and watching the road carefully at this time of year, especially when travelling near wetlands, lakes and rivers. If you see a turtle on the road, consider stopping and moving it to the shoulder in the direction it was heading. Don’t return the animal to the side of the road it came from, because it will simply turn around and march right back into the traffic. You must, of course, be sure that there is no danger from oncoming cars before you perform this kind of intervention.

If the turtle is small, you can simply carry it across the road. If you are dealing with a Snapping Turtle (which can bite) the safest technique is to push and prod the animal along with a stout stick or shovel. You can also lift or pull the turtle, holding onto the rear of the shell. A Snapper can reach its midpoint so do not pick it up near the middle of the shell. Nor should you ever pick up a turtle by the tail, since this may damage its spine. It is also important not to straddle a Snapping Turtle with your car. Snappers jump up when they feel threatened, thereby hitting the undercarriage of the vehicle as it passes over them. This results in serious head trauma and shearing injuries to the carapace.

As for nesting turtles, you should never dig up a turtle nest in order to protect the eggs. You may damage them and it is also illegal. However, if you find a nest that has been disturbed by a predator, carefully place the eggs back in the hole and bury them, or bring the eggs to the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre (see below) to be incubated. Record the location of the nest as precisely as possible and be careful to keep the eggs right side up during transport. You can also help to protect new nests by lightly sweeping the surface of the nests (to disperse the scent) or temporarily covering the nest with a board for the first few days. If you have a turtle that is nesting on your property, keep an eye out for hatchlings from late August until snow and then again in spring the next year.

Painted Turtle nesting (Rick Stankiewicz)

Since June 2002, the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre (OTTC) has been saving injured native turtles and releasing them back to where they were initially found. Because so few turtles ever reach sexual maturity – females don’t reproduce until they are 18 years of age – each adult turtle is part of an extremely important group. This is why it is essential to rehabilitate turtles – especially females – that have been injured as a result of run-ins with vehicles. As long as they can avoid human-related threats, turtles can live and breed for decades and thereby perpetuate the species.

If you have found an injured turtle, call the OTCC at 705-741-5000. Do not email because an injured animal needs medical attention as soon as possible. Remember to note the location (road, major intersections and/or distance from a given landmark) where the turtle was found. This is necessary in order to ensure that the turtle can be released back into the wild according to provincial regulations. Carefully place the injured animal in a well-ventilated container – plastic, if possible – with a secure lid. Do not transport turtles in water and do not offer the turtle anything to eat. Be sure to visit the OTTC website at ontarioturtle.ca or drop in at the Centre itself. It is located at 4-1434 Chemong Road, just north of Peterborough.

Nearly all of Ontario’s amphibians and reptiles – snakes included – are in a steep decline. In order to monitor changes in the ranges of these animals and fluctuations in their population numbers, volunteers are needed to submit their observations. Take note of the date and location and report your sighting to the Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas. Observations can be submitted via an online form at ontarionature.org/programs/citizen-science/reptile-amphibian-atlas/  Most importantly, be sure to vote next Thursday for a political party that take species conservation and climate change seriously. This means providing greater habitat protection and assuring adequate funding for the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. The future of the natural world is in a race against the clock.