Mar 242016

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

The Big Book of Nature Activities

The Big Book of Nature Activities

Amphibian Orchestra

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

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

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

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

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

Chorus Frog (photo by Tim Dyson)

Chorus Frog (photo by Tim Dyson)

1. Wood frog – sounds similar to a quacking duck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Spotted Salamander - Luke Berg

Spotted Salamander – Luke Berg

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

Nature’s Amazing Magic Act – Raising Toads

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

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

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

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

American Toad singing (Wikipedia)

American Toad singing (Wikipedia)

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

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




Mar 202014

The spectacle of bird migration that occurs twice each year in Canada has few equals anywhere on Earth. Billions of birds leave Canada every autumn for locations to the south, only to return the following spring and once again announce the change of season. Many of these migrating birds depend on a network of crucial feeding, resting, breeding and overwintering sites scattered throughout the Americas. Collaborative efforts that span international boundaries and focus on full life cycle conservation are therefore essential to ensure the long-term survival of bird populations.


Black-bellied Plovers near Point Pelee IBA - Mike Burrell

Black-bellied Plovers near Point Pelee IBA – Mike Burrell

The Important Bird Areas (IBA) network represents one such effort. The IBA Program is a global initiative coordinated by BirdLife International to identify, monitor, and conserve a network of the world’s most important sites providing habitat for birds. The program uses scientific criteria to identify potential IBAs. Sites can qualify based on the regular presence of significant numbers of species at risk, species with restricted ranges, habitat-specific species and species that gather in significant numbers (greater than 1% of their continental or global population). IBAs range in size from tiny patches of habitat to large tracts of land or water. They may encompass private or public land and sometimes overlap legally protected sites. The majority of IBAs, however, have no formal protection.

Because IBAs are identified using criteria that are internationally agreed upon and science-based, they have a conservation currency that transcends international borders. This, in turn, promotes international collaboration for the conservation of the world’s birds. About 90 percent of Canada’s birds migrate within and beyond our borders, so it is essential to protect these species throughout their annual migratory range. By working alongside partners in the United States, the Caribbean and Latin America, the IBA Program does this.

In Canada the IBA Program is managed jointly by Bird Studies Canada and Nature Canada. To date, nearly 600 sites have been designated. Most sites in Canada qualify for IBA designation because they regularly host globally or continentally significant numbers of a given bird species. Most Canadian IBAs are located along our Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic coasts, on the Great Lakes and on the Prairies. Some are extremely remote, while others are actually located within our largest urban centres. These sites are not only critical for birds, but also for many other kinds of plants and animals. They are also a great place for the public to connect with nature. Ontario’s 70 IBAs cover more than 23,000 square kilometers, and are located mostly along the Great Lakes and the coasts of Hudson and James Bays where birds naturally concentrate. To see a short video of huge numbers of migrating Hudsonian Godwits in James Bay, go to

IBAs near Peterborough

Whimbrel - Mike Burrell

Whimbrel – Mike Burrell

1. Presqu’ile Provincial Park (Brighton) – At least two species are regularly present during spring migration in globally significant numbers. They are Greater Scaup and Whimbrel. In addition, the park supports globally significant breeding populations of Ring-billed Gulls and Caspian Terns.

2. Carden Plain (Kirkfield) – This is one of the few areas in eastern Canada that still supports nesting Loggerhead Shrikes, a nationally endangered species. Several other nationally threatened species nest in the area, too, including Red-shouldered Hawk, Short-eared Owl, Least Bittern and Red-headed Woodpecker.

3. Napanee Limestone Plain (Napanee) – This site is very similar to the Carden Plain and together they provide nesting habitat for most of the remaining Loggerhead Shrikes in eastern Canada.

Carden Plain IBA - Drew Monkman

Carden Plain IBA – Drew Monkman

4. Prince Edward County South Shore (Picton) – The number and diversity of landbirds that concentrate in this small area during spring and fall migration is outstanding. A total of 162 landbird species (excluding raptors) have been recorded at this site including 36 species of wood warblers. The shoals and deep waters off the tip of the peninsula represent a globally significant waterfowl staging and wintering area for Greater Scaup, Long-tailed Duck and White-winged Scoter.

5. The Leslie Street Spit (Toronto) – Ring-billed Gulls and Common Terns nest on “the spit” in globally significant numbers. There is also one of the largest Black-crowned Night Heron colonies in Canada. Large concentrations of migrating songbirds can be found here in the spring and fall as well as migrant ducks from fall through spring.

Other nearby IBAs within a two- or three-hour drive of Peterborough include the West End of Lake Ontario (Hamilton), Wye Marsh (Midland), Tiny Marsh (Elmvale) and Matchedash Bay (Waubaushene).


Tundra Swans at Long Point IPA - Mike Burrell

Tundra Swans at Long Point IPA – Mike Burrell


One of the recent accomplishments of the IBA program in Canada is the development of a comprehensive website ( which provides detailed information on Important Bird Areas across the country. By using the website map viewer or site directory, you can easily access a great deal of information on each IBA, including a site description, a summary of the most significant bird life, a discussion of conservation issues, a printable map of the area and an eBird link to report your own sightings while visiting the IBA. There is also a very useful seasonable abundance chart for all bird species found there.



Volunteers are needed for the IBA program - Mike Burrell

Volunteers are needed for the IBA program – Mike Burrell

Get involved

Getting involved in the IBA Program can be as simple as visiting an IBA and using eBird Canada ( to report the bird species you find there. However, a current focus of the IBA Program is to develop a national Caretaker Network to engage citizens in conservation actions. These volunteers can monitor bird populations, conduct IBA assessments, report on threats, work with partners on stewardship activities, and/or help build community awareness about the importance of IBAs. Caretakers can be clubs, individuals, or groups of individuals that share the common goal. Volunteers are equipped with the tools they require to be effective observers, advocates and citizen scientists. If you or your group would be interested in helping in this regard please contact Mike Burrell, Important Bird Areas Coordinator, Bird Studies Canada at 1-888-448-BIRD(2473) x 167 or by email at



Spring Peeper (John Urquhart)

Spring Peeper (John Urquhart)

Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas Needs Volunteers 

The familiar voices of frogs and toads will soon fill the day and evening air throughout the Kawarthas. Sadly, though, Ontario’s reptiles and amphibians are becoming increasingly rare. In fact, three quarters (18 of 24) of Ontario’s reptile species are already listed as species at risk. More information is needed, however, to monitor changes in the ranges of these animals as well as fluctuations in their populations. The data also helps to identify and manage important habitat for rare species. Volunteers can play an important role in this effort. Please consider sharing any observations you make of Ontario’s reptiles and amphibians. Observations can be submitted via an online form, an Excel spreadsheet (useful for submitting multiple observations) or a printable data card that can be mailed in. Visit the Atlas website by going to, clicking on Protect and scrolling down to Species. You can also contact Jon Boxall at (705)743-6668 or by email at Presentations and training workshops for groups that are interested in participating in the Atlas project are also available.