Oct 112019

Grassland birds and aerial insectivores among the hardest hit

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

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

An alarming report

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

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

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

 The worst declines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to do?

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

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

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

What to watch for this week 

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




Sep 222017

Myriad threats and declines evident in the Kawarthas, too

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

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

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

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

Losses in the Kawarthas

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

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

Snapping Turtle digging nest on roadside (Danielle Tassie )

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

Little Brown Bat with White Nose Syndrome – Wikimedia

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

Male Bobolink – Wikimedia

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

Barn Swallow (Karl Egressy)

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

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

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

Taking Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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










Aug 312016

I live on the Otonabee River between locks 24 & 25, and saw a pair of what I believe were Merlins flying over our yard Wednesday evening, August 24. Both of them had the shape of small falcons. I got a good look only at the brownish one when it landed on a cedar tree, but the markings looked unmistakable (definitely not a kestrel).

This is a fabulous place to live. We’re on the end of the road, so we have the river, but also mixed forest across the river and overgrown fields on two sides, one of which also has wetland, so we get a wonderful variety of birds. We had an American Bittern gullunking all spring, as well as Bobolinks in the fields. Also regularly see a Northern Harrier and American Kestrels, sometimes Red-tailed Hawks… and now Merlins. We also have loons as well as a pair of Baltimore Orioles, who, judging by the number of fledglings, had two clutches this year. Oh, and Bald Eagles in the winter. Who could ask for anything more?

Annamarie Beckel
writer ~ editor ~ ecologist




Bobolink - Wikimedia

Bobolink – Wikimedia

Baltimore Oriole on hummingbird feeder - Doug Gibson

Baltimore Oriole on hummingbird feeder – Doug Gibson

American Bittern - by Don Pettypiece

American Bittern – by Don Pettypiece

Merlin (Karl Egressy)

Merlin (Karl Egressy)

May 262016

I heard and saw the first Bobolinks May 10 and managed some photos more recently. The males perch right on the tip of an apple tree branch to sing.  I’ve also included pictures of two cormorants on one of their favourite perches on the river just south of Lakefield near the entrance to the Greenhouse garden centre on May 21.

Gwen Forsyth, Lakefield

Bobolink (male) - Gwen Forsyth

Bobolink (male) – Gwen Forsyth

Double-crested Cormorant - May 2016 - Gwen Forsyth

Double-crested Cormorant – May 2016 – Gwen Forsyth

Double-crested Cormorants in tree - May 2016 - Gwen Forsyth

Double-crested Cormorants in tree – May 2016 – Gwen Forsyth

May 222016

On the morning of May 17 on roads west of Highway 7A, there were abundant Bobolinks, Eastern Meadowlarks, two Brown Thrashers, Savannah Sparrows, Eastern Kingbirds, Tree Swallows, and several Baltimore Orioles together in a shrub.

Enid Mallory

Eastern Meadowlark - Karl Egressy

Eastern Meadowlark – Karl Egressy

Brown Thrasher  - Ken Thomas WM

Brown Thrasher – Ken Thomas