May 252018

I’ve just returned from my annual birding trip to Point Pelee and Rondeau parks in southwestern Ontario. And, yes, the birds of spring were present in all their diversity and beauty. Every year, however, I notice something deeply unsettling: the reduction in abundance. Take the Wood Thrush, for example. Instead of seeing and hearing dozens or even hundreds of individuals, we maybe counted ten.

Wood Thrush – Greg Piasetzki

The park experience is changing in other ways, too. Each year, more and more trees are being blown over by severe windstorms. This spring, near-record rainfall also caused so much flooding at Rondeau that the campground was closed and rubber boots were a necessity to access several of the park trails.

The upcoming provincial election only adds to my anxiety level when it comes to issues such as these. The front-runner, Doug Ford, is clearly unconvinced – or simply doesn’t care – that a conservation or climate change problem even exists. He is promising to get rid of Ontario’s cap and trade climate tax. He was also prepared to open up part of Ontario’s Greenbelt to housing development, until he reversed his position for largely unknown reasons. Despite the reversal, this speaks volumes of where his heart lies – and it’s not with land conservation or enlightened urban planning.

Ford is also promising to reduce government spending to find billions of dollars in savings. This will probably mean drastic budget reductions to government departments as the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forests and the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change. We can also expect rollbacks to the Liberal’s urban planning legislation – the most progressive in North America and a key tool against urban sprawl. I’m sure that progressive urban planners across the province are shaking in their boots about what may be coming. As for Peterborough, a bridge over Jackson Park will probably be much more likely.

Doug Ford in Thunder Bay in May 2018 – Wikimedia

The Great Thinning

British environmental writer Michael McCarthy describes the reduction in wildlife numbers such as those I’ve alluded to as “The Great Thinning”. Thinning doesn’t grab headlines or spur campaigns the way that extinction does. It inhabits a space below the radar, especially to those who aren’t really paying attention. Something similar could be said about climate change. Unless people are flooded out of their homes or forced to evacuate because of forest fires or sea level rise, a changing climate remains an abstraction. The mountains of science-based data about how dire things are becoming don’t resonate with those not directly affected. Polls still show that climate change remains far down the list of concerns for most Canadians.

As a naturalist living in the 21st century, everything that means the most to me – beyond the well-being of family and friends – is under siege. I live in a world of loss – a thinning in abundance of everything from bees and butterflies to reptiles, mammals and birds. Where diverse, abundant nature was once at our doorstep, most Ontarians now have to make a concerted effort to see many species and experience healthy, rich habitats.

When I lived on Westbrook Drive in the 1980s, Barn Swallows nested each spring in our carport; the calls of Common Nighthawks resonated over downtown Peterborough on summer nights; large swarms of bats fed over the pagoda pond in Jackson Park; and Monarchs were so common that we hardly noticed them. Even a car drive on a summer night spoke volumes of species abundance. I clearly remember how the windshield and headlights would become so splattered with moths and other flying insects that I sometimes had to stop to wipe them clean before carrying on.

The predictability of climate, too, was taken for granted. Snow usually arrived in early December and stayed until mid-March. The odd January thaw would occur, but it was still possible to have a backyard rink for most of the winter. Extreme heat, rain and wind events occurred on occasion but were far less common.

Peterborough is already feeling the effects of climate change such as the flood of 2004 – Janine Jones photo

Fast-forward three decades. With luck, you might find a barn where swallows still nest; you sometimes see nighthawks during their fall migration; if you know exactly where to go, there are still a few small colonies of martins on Rice Lake; I still hear of the occasional single bat turning up in older homes; and seeing one or two Monarchs in the garden has become an event of great excitement, rather than the norm. As for night-flying summer insects, our windshields are eerily clean.

When it comes to climate and weather, we no longer know what to expect, other than it will be an extreme of some sort. Over the past 15 years, Peterborough has experienced an epic flood, numerous severe wind and freezing rain events with a huge loss of trees and record-cold winter months interspersed with record-warm winter months. More and more, our weather is delivered in extremes. All of this is playing out against a background of three months out of four being warmer than the 1971-2000 average.

Sad and frustrated

In light of all these changes, the feelings I experience most are sadness and frustration. Sadness that my granddaughters who love nature will probably never experience its richness and diversity the way I have, and frustration that I can’t even convince many close friends that aggressive action on climate change has to be a bare minimum for anyone seeking public office. I find it appalling that politicians like Doug Ford can get away with putting short-term political gain ahead of the kind of world we are leaving for our children and grandchildren. Just as Ontario is making progress on fighting climate change, Ford is promising to undo it all by getting rid of the cap and trade agreement with Quebec and California. That a political party could get itself elected in 2018 on a program that includes ditching a price on carbon is horrifying. It’s almost like someone saying, “Vote for us and we’ll roll back the laws on same sex marriage, restrictions on smoking in public places and equal pay for work of equal value”.

Everywhere we look, climate change predictions are being confirmed. If you believe in science – humankind’s best way of discovering what’s true – you have to believe that forecasts for the coming years will prove true, as well. Yes, it’s difficult to think beyond the present moment and the many worries and stresses of everyday life. However, we can’t put our heads in the sand. Parents who are outraged when their child is exposed to second-hand smoke or unsafe playground equipment remain somehow paralyzed when it comes to the infinitesimally  greater threat represented by climate change.

Our very civilization depends on a stable, predictable climate, but we fail to grasp the enormity of the climate calamity at our doorstep. In most areas of our lives, the majority of human beings are kind, moral people. However, where is the morality of ignoring what science is telling us? Do we really think we’re better informed than the scientists are? Where is the morality in letting a politician like Doug Ford get away with cancelling a carbon tax and muse about opening protected land to housing development? Ford is making us look like a bunch of fools.

We have no true sense that the Earth is our larger body that we breathe, drink, eat and turn to for inspiration and spiritual well-being. We still haven’t learned to look at nature – be it wildlife or climatic systems – as part of ourselves, as something in which we are deeply embedded. It remains something “out there” and apart. If we truly understood the importance of nature – for our spirits, our souls and our physical and emotional well-being – the on-going destruction of species, habitats and climate systems would never be tolerated. At the very least, we wouldn’t let politicians get away with campaigning on policies that will only lead to greater destruction.


I still hope that there might be “a great turning” — a transition from a society shaped primarily by unbridled economic growth and the savaging of the natural world to a more life-sustaining ethic. And, to be fair, progress is being made. We see it in ways of generating energy, producing food, learning from the wisdom of indigenous people and even new metrics for measuring prosperity, happiness and wealth. I think our love and awareness of nature is growing, too. In Peterborough, this is apparent in things as simple as the number of “I brake for turtles” bumper stickers on cars and the many people who now garden with pollinators in mind. Respect for smaller-scale, more conservation-minded agriculture can also be seen in the huge public support for locally-produced food.

Now is not the time to turn our back on this progress. Climate change and conservation are not problems like the others. We are in a race against the clock. If greenhouse gas emissions are not brought down to almost zero in the next couple of decades, the very worst impacts of climate change are a near certainty. As for conservation, once species and habitats have disappeared, they are gone forever.

On June 7, vote for a party that is honest about the climate threats we face, supports a tax on carbon and believes in conservation and progressive urban planning.


Oct 292015

The first thing that strikes you about Boyd Island is its sheer size. At 1,167 acres or five square kilometres, it is the largest undeveloped – but still unprotected – island in southern Ontario. Located just east of Bobcaygeon at the north end of Pigeon Lake and only 20 kilometres from Peterborough, it is home to unspoiled wetlands, diverse forest types, and a wide variety of wildlife and plant species. “When you look at the island compared to the surrounding landscape, it could almost be classified as being pristine,” says Dr. Eric Sager, a scientist educator Trent University’s nearby McLean-Oliver Ecological Centre.

A ribbon of White Cedar grows along the shoreline, while a little further inland hardwoods such as Sugar Maple dominate. There is also a fascinating area of old growth Eastern Hemlock forest on the west side, and poplar and mixed conifers in the northwest. In the central open area, old pasture is the dominant feature. It was once used for raising a cattle-bison cross known as “cattaloes.” A scattering of Eastern Red and Common Junipers, aspens and other successional species are gradually reclaiming the area. Another habitat of note is an alvar-like expanse in the northwest. Alvar is characterized by flat limestone pavement covered by thin or no soil. This results in sparse grassland vegetation with many interesting prairie-like plants like Wild Bergamot.

The island also boasts extensive wetlands. A large marsh and island complex is located in the southeast and in the southwestern bay. Along the western shore, low limestone cliffs can be found, along with a steep slope up an esker or moraine. Steeper cliffs take over along the northern shore with granite outcrops in the northeast. This makes the island part of the “Land Between, the biologically diverse zone where the Canadian Shield meets the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence Lowlands. The Land Between is home to a greater species diversity than you find further north or south. In this respect, Boyd Island is like a microcosm of the entire Kawarthas.

Aerial View of Boyd Island - Kawartha Land Trust

Aerial View of Boyd Island – Kawartha Land Trust


An exceptional opportunity has been offered to the Kawartha Land Trust (KLT) to secure Boyd Island and forever conserve its natural and cultural heritage. The current landowner, Mike Wilson, intends to make a generous donation of the island to KLT. However, the necessary funds to manage the property must be secured before November 30. The goal is to raise one million dollars to be held in trust. The money will generate sufficient annual income to support basic stewardship activities on the island such as responsible management of resources and planning. Mr. Wilson has made a leading pledge of $100,000 to the campaign, in addition to paying for costs (e.g., planning, legal) to complete the transaction. The Kawartha Land Trust is hugely appreciative of Mike’s generous commitments to this project.

Thanks to his generosity, the efforts of KLT and its many volunteers, and the co-operation of local citizens and municipalities, the campaign is now close to securing title to the island. There are large donors ready to contribute, but who want to see the greatest possible buy-in and support from the public beforehand.


According to Trent University anthropologist Dr. James Conolly, there is evidence of human occupation here going back three or four thousand years. First Nations peoples used Boyd Island as a meeting and harvesting place, and it still maintains its cultural value to the Curve Lake First Nations. The island has also been an iconic feature of Pigeon Lake as far as local cottagers and outdoor enthusiasts can remember. The island was formerly owned and farmed by the Boyd family, one of the first and most prominent early families in the Bobcaygeon area. More recently, it has been owned by a series of private owners, some of whom have tried to develop the island for residential and commercial purposes. The most recent development plan was to create 95 residential lots.

A Naturalist’s Delight

I had the privilege of taking part in a species and habitat inventory of the island this past June. Along with Mike McMurtry, a recently retired ecologist from the Natural Heritage Information Centre, I spent an entire day exploring the area. We were impressed by the rich bird life, which includes Black-billed Cuckoo, Scarlet Tanager, Indigo Bunting, Osprey, Eastern Towhee and species at risk like Eastern Wood-pewee and Golden-winged Warbler. Walking among giant Butternut trees, Bitternut and Shagbark Hickories, Red and White Oaks, and towering White Pines, it was hard to imagine we were only minutes away from the town of Bobcaygeon. On the forest floor, wildflowers like Round-leaved Hepatica, Gaywings and both White and Painted Trilliums abound. There is also an impressive diversity of ferns such as Lady Fern, Spinulose Wood Fern, Maidenhair Fern and the regionally rare Hay-scented Fern. Interesting geological features like marbelized limestone and huge limestone boulders also caught our eye.

Future Uses

If the Kawartha Land Trust is able to secure Boyd Island, it will become a place of celebration for the entire community. People will be encouraged to come and explore the site, with the proviso to “tread lightly.” Activities such as hiking, walking, fishing and cross-country skiing will all be encouraged. The Land Trust will also engage in an on-going dialogue with the community to assess the appropriateness of other uses such as overnight camping, hunting and snowmobiling. Plans to establish trails, put up picnic tables and run research and educational programs are all in the works.

For those that don’t have a boat or a way to access the island, KLT and its partners will be organizing interpretive tours as well as opportunities to take part in stewardship activities (e.g., trail development, signage, invasive species removal, species inventories). The property will be managed in collaboration with lead research organizations like Trent University and Fleming College. KLT also looks forward to organized groups visiting the island, some of whom may wish to be part of stewardship or interpretive activities.

We always seem to be compromising when it comes to development versus the environment, the latter usually being on the losing end. Here is a chance to move in the other direction. It’s hard  to imagine a better legacy to future generations. Please consider contributing to this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, possibly by sponsoring an acre of the island for $1000. Every contribution, however, no matter how big or small, counts. It’s hard to imagine a better Christmas gift to the conservationist in your family. The opportunity to acquire a property of this size and quality does not come along often. Losing Boyd Island to private development would be a tragedy, and the pristine beauty and educational opportunities would be lost forever. For more information, please go to and click on “Save Boyd Island.”



Feb 072015

In a cave, tunnel or old mine near you…nothing is stirring. Some of our most fascinating animals survive the cold of winter by hibernating. They enter a deep torpor, a kind of suspended animation. By allowing their body temperature to fall dramatically they reduce their metabolism to a level at which it is just ticking over, slowly consuming stored fat reserves as they wait for spring. Bats are among the animals that adopt this strategy. Since all Canadian bats are insectivorous it is no surprise that they have evolved to do this since there is precious little for them to eat during the winter. Some of our local bats prolong their feeding opportunities by migrating further south before hibernating and a few of our larger tree-roosting species may keep the need to hibernate to a minimum by flying as far south as Mexico. Many other bats are quietly hibernating right here in Peterborough County. Hibernating bats need cool, frost-free, stable conditions where humidity is high and they are safe from the attentions of potential predators. Caves, old mines, tunnels and other sites offering these conditions suit them best.

Like us, bats are mammals and so are warm-blooded creatures. While they are active, bats maintain a core body temperature very similar to our own, around 35oC to 37oC, but unlike us, they can allow their body temperature to fall during periods of inactivity and so conserve energy. They can do this at any time of the year, but during the winter this torpor becomes their long-term condition. Hibernating bats are largely inactive with only basic body functions operating at a level to keep them alive. They will occasionally wake up, use their fat stores to quickly raise their body temperature back to normal levels and then go in search of a drink to avoid death by dehydration. During these periods of wakefulness some male bats will also take the opportunity to mate with unaware, slumbering females. The sperm they deposit stays viable until the females become active and ovulate in the spring.

Most bats, including all Canadian species, are very small mammals. The adults of species found locally range from just 3g. to 39g.. It is surprising how long such small animals can live. Some species regularly survive in the wild for over twenty years while animals well into their thirties have been recorded in Ontario. These impressive figures have caught the attention of researchers interested in improving human longevity, since bats have the longest life spans of any mammals in relation to their size. Research shows that the bat species with the greatest life spans produce two specific proteins that may be linked to their longevity Bats are also generally very good at fending off disease so the efficiency of their immune systems is also attracting interest. Unfortunately however, their immune system is not fool proof.

Little Brown Bat with White Nose Syndrome (US Geological Survey)

Little Brown Bat with White Nose Syndrome (US Geological Survey)

Tragically, the last eight years have been a perilous time for our hibernating bats as a new disease has emerged against which they have little defense. In 2006 at a cave near Albany, New York State, bats were found to be sick and dying. Around their muzzles was a growth of a powdery fungus. The new disease became known as White Nose Syndrome. We know now that this fungus, previously unknown to science, originated in Europe and Asia. Bats on those continents can carry the fungus, but do not appear to be made sick by it: they must have evolved immunity to the fungus, possibly over thousands of years. It is assumed that spores of the fungus reached Albany on the clothes or footwear of a visitor to the cave system. Since 2006 the fungus has spread at terrifying speed and is now found in five Canadian provinces, including Ontario and twenty-five US states. It is estimated to have killed well over five million bats.

The White Nose fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, gets into the skin of hibernating bats and disrupts their hibernation cycle. Infected bats wake up repeatedly, causing them to burn up their limited fat reserves and become dehydrated. Researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey and Wisconsin University recently discovered that hibernating bats with the disease use twice as much energy as healthy bats. Additionally, the infected bats show physiological imbalances that could disrupt processes such as as normal heart function. Infected bats will often leave their hibernation site in search of water and needlessly use up stored energy in a futile attempt to feed. Five of the eight species found in Ontario are thought to be vulnerable to the disease and the vast majority of infected bats die. The Little Brown Bat, formerly by far the most common bat in this part of the world, is one of the most hard-hit. The fungus is transmitted primarily from bat to bat and some experts believe it is causing the most dramatic population decline ever witnessed in mammalian populations anywhere in the world. Fortunately the fungus does not appear to pose a risk to humans, pets or livestock.

Bats consume vast quantities of insects, including mosquitoes and pests of agriculture and forestry, so the ecological and financial impact of losing so many bats to White Nose Syndrome is expected to be considerable. It is thought to have already cost agriculture many millions of dollars in extra pesticides to cope with the rise of pest populations that bats would previously have suppressed. Canadian crops most likely to be hardest hit include wheat, barley, corn, oats, canola, flaxseed, and other oilseeds. The loss of bats from natural food webs will also have unforeseen consequences as some species suffer as a result of the loss and others exploit the decline in bat numbers.

In response to the White-Nose crisis the federal government has added three species of bats to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk in Canada (also known as Schedule I of the Species at Risk Act). These three bats species – the Little Brown Bat (Myotis lucifugus), the Northern Myotis (Myotis septentrionalis) and the Tri-colored Bat (Perimyotis subflavus) are all found in this area and have been listed as Endangered.

It is believed that some North American bat species may be facing extinction because of White Nose Syndrome. Others may eventually develop immunity, but because most female bats are capable of producing only one pup per year, it may take centuries for their populations to recover. Researchers are desperately trying to find ways to protect bats. They are hoping to find natural agents that may help to rid hibernation sites of the deadly fungus.

A scientist documenting a victim of White Nose Syndrome (US Geological Survey)

A scientist documenting a victim of White Nose Syndrome (US Geological Survey)

What can ordinary people do to help bats? The most important thing is to avoid entering hibernation sites such as caves and disused mines, especially during winter. It is easy to disturb hibernating bats, causing them to unnecessarily use up their stored fat, making them even more vulnerable to disease. If we have to enter such sites we should follow the Ministry of the Natural Environment’s guidelines and take precautions to avoid disturbing bats and spreading fungal spores from one site to another. Unusual bat activity or deaths can be reported to the Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Centre (1-866-673-4781) or the Natural Resources Information Centre (1-800-667-1940). We should all do what we can to avoid disturbing bats at any time of year. We should protect their summer roosts in trees, barns, roofs and bridges and help maintain the natural habitats they depend on.

Jan 222015

Running is an odd activity.  To non-enthusiasts, it is a mix of monotony and self-inflicted pain.  Yet, in Canada, many adults list running as their favourite participation sport – more than soccer, softball, hunting, fishing, aerobics, or tennis.  Strange pleasures, it seems, are found on the trails and treadmills of this country.

I run – sometimes.  To be honest, my pace is much closer to a plod.  On top of the soreness and stiffness, I can recount incidents of slipping on ice, blisters, dog bites, overheating, and freezing.   Oh joy.  This is the gift of experience:  a long list of excuses for not lacing up the shoes.  Not today.

I’ve also discovered something more detestable than running:  Not running.  Indeed, many of us have mixed feelings about exercising and other personal resolutions.  Think of our good intentions for healthy eating, giving up smoking, doing homework, or saving for retirement.  Time is the nub of the problem.  Workout or diet, anyone?  The discomfort is assured, obvious, and immediate.  The upside, if any, appears somewhere down a long and uncertain road.  The pains, the gains are doled out at different times – weeks, months, even years apart.

For many, this calculation is way too easy.  Impulse wins out.  But when the time horizon reaches decades or centuries, the computations become prickly.  What is the value of something distant?  The answer is pivotal to the future – and not just your future.  Especially not yours.


A choice experiment is one way to get a handle on people’s preferences and how they change with time.  Start with a straightforward question.

Q1. Which do you choose: $100 now OR $100 one year from now?

That’s a snap.  Almost everybody would pocket the instant cash for some very simple reasons.  We are mortal beings and there’s some doubt about that future payment.  Even though $100 hasn’t changed, what has changed is our perception of $100, coloured by time.  A benefit delayed is a benefit diminished.

Let’s change up the numbers.  Another question.

Q2.  Which do you choose: $100 today OR $200 one year from today?

Smaller sooner or larger later?  Studies show that most respondents still go for the fast cash – an inclination to snatch the immediate reward, even at the expense of a bigger, future reward.  This behaviour also reveals the rate at which people devalue a future reward.  Economists call it the discount rate.  A high discount rate seriously diminishes the future value; a low discount rate places the future value on par with a current one.

Welcome to Discount World.  More than just dollars are at stake here.  Many species – the passenger pigeon is the most famous example – have been harvested to extinction.  Today, around the world, over-exploitation remains the third most common reason for the decline of wildlife.  Consider the blue whale, the largest animal ever to roam the globe.  An adult blue can stretch to one-third of a football field, weigh the equivalent of 13 city buses, accelerate to 50 kilometres per hour, and live for more than a century.  Here is a fascinating creature – bigger than a yacht, faster than a yacht, more durable than a yacht.

And, in the past, more valuable than a yacht.  During the 20th century, 369,000 blue whales were taken in the Southern Ocean – the most stunning case of wildlife exploitation in history.  Propelled by steam engines, explosive harpoons and shortsightedness, harvesters pushed these whales to the brink, to less than 1% of their original numbers.  Whaling is now banned.  Ethics aside, this brush with extinction seems bizarre.  Surely a more measured pace – a sustainable harvest – would have been more profitable?


Think of blue whales as offshore banknotes, cashable at any time.  Choose one of the following options:  (A) Harvest these whales sustainably and indefinitely or (B) promptly liquidate the stock and re-invest elsewhere.  While a sustainable harvest looks sensible (roughly 5% annual return), a larger payoff comes from aggressively harvesting to extinction and re-investing in a higher yield, dot-com or other stock.  This is a stark and sobering conclusion.  Extinction is  entirely rational from a dispassionate, economic standpoint.

A blue whale kite soars at a festival in Sydney, Australia  – a life-size replica of the largest animal that has ever existed.  The other species in this photo has decoded its own origins, understands the plight of the blue whale, and can foresee far-future events.  Mark Metcalfe, Getty Images

A blue whale kite soars at a festival in Sydney, Australia – a life-size replica of the largest animal that has ever existed. The other species in this photo has decoded its own origins, understands the plight of the blue whale, and can foresee far-future events. Mark Metcalfe, Getty Images

A blue whale kite soars at a festival in Sydney, Australia – a life-size replica of the largest animal that has ever existed. The other species in this photo has decoded its own origins, understands the plight of the blue whale, and can foresee far-future events.

A blue whale kite soars at a festival in Sydney, Australia – a life-size replica of the largest animal that has ever existed. The other species in this photo has decoded its own origins, understands the plight of the blue whale, and can foresee far-future events.

Not surprisingly, some creatures cannot thrive in Discount World.  Large-bodied animals, like blue whales, have a “slow” lifestyle.  They are late to mature and slow to reproduce; an average mother is more than 30 years old and she gives birth to a single calf only every 2-3 years.  The financial return – how quickly the species can reproduce in the face of harvesting – is no better than 7% per year.  These biological traits are shared by countless plants and animals:  sharks, tigers, parrots, rhinoceros, elephants, chimpanzees, sturgeon, white pine and many other timber trees.  Little wonder these species are vulnerable to over-exploitation.  They are simply too slow to be included in our portfolio.

In Discount World, the economic value of wildlife in the long run can fade to zero.  It is a faulty telescope.  The tale of the blue whale is also a reminder that discounting cannot be divorced from ethics.  It is not merely a question of dollars, but sense.


Given the choice between $100 now and $200 one year from now, many people preferred the instant reward.  Let’s introduce a subtle twist – with a surprising result.

Q3.  Which do you choose:  $100 in five years OR $200 in six years?

You see the change.  The situation has shifted to the future.  And with it, most people accept the delay and favour the larger, $200 payoff.  This answer is telling.  When we visualize our better selves, our future selves, we stress the long term.  We are more patient.  We discount less.  Time changes our perceptions of time.

Humans are intriguing creatures.  Among animals, our species is unrivalled in its capacity for language, for manufacturing and using tools – and for anticipating long-term future events.  With little effort, we can picture succeeding generations.  Answers become vivid.  Ponder some of the masterpieces of nature – the Great Barrier Reef, Great Lakes, and Great Blue Heron.  Won’t these natural treasures be as important to your great-grandchildren as they are to you?  The virologist Jonas Salk posed the key question:  Are we being good ancestors?

To be good and fair ancestors, we will need a variety of tools, including financial levers, applied with care and foresight.  These days, a growing chorus of economists and scientists is calling for a price on carbon – a simple economic instrument to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, encourage alternate energy technologies, and lessen the hazards of climate change.  A new tax, even revenue neutral, may not be warmly welcomed.  But we might listen to the future – and realize there’s something far worse than a carbon tax:  No carbon tax.

Decisions, from planetary to personal, are a feature of modern life.  I’m working on a new philosophy to continue lacing up the shoes and keep running.  It’s one stride at a time, eyes firmly fixed on the horizon.

James Schaefer is Director of the Environmental & Life Sciences Graduate Program at Trent.





Oct 232014

For some people, the natural world can be an intimidating place. Although it might seem illogical to be afraid of a tiny creature like a spider or bat, we can’t deny that some animals do indeed elicit a fear response. With Halloween upon us, what better time to talk about fear of the natural world, be it anxiety at the sound of thunder or revulsion at the sight of a spider running across the bathroom floor.
An aversion to particular animals was almost certainly critical to the survival of early humans. As much as being too fearful would have made survival difficult, insufficient fear would have led to reckless behaviour and possibly death. In the 21st century, however, you can still have these feelings of angst and at the same time experience a deep appreciation and respect for the animal in question. Stephen Kellert, author of “Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World” says that: “While aversive emotions towards (certain) animals are typically strong, they can also be positively channeled into fascination, curiosity and exploration.” For example, a fear of snakes or wolves doesn’t have to provoke destructive behaviours.
When I was teaching, I always made of point of encouraging my students to hold or touch the many animals that visited our classroom or that we encountered outside. However, there was always the odd student who would refuse to do so. I would sometimes be a little facetious and say something like: “Did you have a bad experience with a snake once and get bitten?” Never was this the case. So, where do fears like this come from and what are we to make of them?

Eastern Hog-nosed Snake  (Joe Crowley)

Eastern Hog-nosed Snake (Joe Crowley)

Snakes – Approximately one adult human in three suffers to some degree from ophiophobia, a fear of snakes. Some people are afraid of even thinking of snakes or looking at images of them. This fear may be an inherent reaction, however, and we aren’t alone in this regard. An innate fear of snakes is present even in our closely-related primate cousins, the monkeys. In one famous experiment, monkeys literally panicked when suddenly exposed to snakes, even though they had been raised in a laboratory and had never seen these reptiles before.
Snakes and early primates may have been involved in an evolutionary “arms race” of sorts. According to Lynne Isbell, an anthropologist at the University of California, the survival of early primates depended to a large extent on ways to detect and avoid snakes. Fossil and DNA evidence suggests that the snakes were already around when the first primates were evolving some 60 million years ago and were among the first serious predators our ancestors faced. Early primates were adapted to living in trees, searching for food at night and sleeping in the canopy during the day. Snakes slithering through those trees would have been a constant threat. This may explain the evolution in primates of adaptations such as a better eye for colour, detail and movement. All of these abilities would have been very important for detecting threats at close range. To keep up with primate evolution, snakes had to get better at killing their prey. This may have driven the evolution of venom, according to Isbell.

Bats – A fear of bats may simply be related to the natural startle response experienced by an unsuspecting person when a bat somehow finds itself into a house and flies about erratically looking for a quick exit. Tied to this are vague notions of these flying mammals getting caught in your hair (never happens) or that most bats have rabies, which isn’t true either. Even among sick bats submitted for rabies testing, only a tiny percentage ever test positive, and those that do are usually clumsy, disoriented, and unable to fly. We should also remember that you can only get rabies if a rabid animal bites you. Contrary to a widespread misconception, only three species of bats feed on blood – mostly livestock – and these species all live in Latin America. In fact, the majority of bats are terrified of humans and see man as a potential predator.

Little Brown Bat (with WNS) Wikimedia

Little Brown Bat (with WNS) Wikimedia

If anything, we should be afraid FOR bats, not of them. White-nose syndrome (WNS) named for a distinctive fungal growth around the muzzles and on the wings of hibernating bats, has resulted in the deaths of at least 6 million North American bats. In fact, the once-abundant Little Brown Bat is expected to go extinct in the wild. In Ontario, it is now on the list of endangered species. In the seven years since WNS first showed up, Ontario’s bat population is estimated to have dropped by over 90 per cent. This is an extinction tragedy of unprecedented proportions. You don’t have to find bats warm and cuddly to feel great sadness in the crisis they are now facing. Their disappearance is making the natural world a lonelier and less fascinating place.
Wolves – When it comes to the complicated relationship between fear and fascination for a wild animal, there are few better examples than the wolf. Wolves used to be universally reviled and many people wanted to annihilate them altogether. Yes, they may have represented a real danger to our distant ancestors. In modern times, however, wolf persecution is more closely linked to reasons such as livestock depredation. Thankfully, attitudes towards wolves have now shifted dramatically. Much of this has to do with a growing understanding of wolf biology and the huge ecological value of these animals. When wolves are behind bars in a zoo or wildlife park, however, and any element of danger has disappeared, the sense of wonder they inspire falls precipitously. That is why having healthy populations of wild wolves is so important.
Invertebrates – Bugs – to use the vernacular – seem to attract an especially widespread aversion. It’s true that a healthy respect for wasps, leeches, spiders and similar creatures is a useful trait, since it helps us to avoid pain and disease. There are certainly deeper psychological reasons, too, for a dislike of “creepy crawlies.” Their lack of feeling and reason is a probably a big part of it. As Kellert writes: “All they seem to have in common with us are vaguely familiar body parts and a passion to survive and reproduce.” Despite this innate dislike on the part of many people, it’s still possible to learn to respond to these creatures with curiosity and a sense of wonder. There is still so much we don’t know about the invertebrate world. An entire scientific career awaits curious, young researchers.

Black and Yellow Garden Spider (Argiope aurantia) Wikimedia

Black and Yellow Garden Spider (Argiope aurantia) Wikimedia

So, what should we be afraid of in 2014? I would argue that climate change should be near the top of any list. It’s clear that living in a highly technological society where so much of nature has been subdued has greatly reduced our fear of extreme weather. This may partly explain why we continue to engage in the dangerous behaviour of pouring ever-greater amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. This is why I was so discouraged last week by the cries of joy when the cost of gasoline plummeted. Why aren’t more people joining the dots linking low fuel prices, increased consumption, increased greenhouse gas emissions and accelerated disruption of the climate? Evolution, however, never prepared us for slow-motion threats like climate change. We’re much better at reacting to something like the Ebola outbreak where the impact is immediate and dramatic.

Jul 172014

In my last column, I began a discussion about the importance of our native bee species. It is becoming increasingly clear that native wild bees – not just Honey Bees – are vitally important pollinators for our food system and ecosystem health in general. The bad news, however, is that bees are under siege from many quarters. This week, I’d like to take a closer look at the life cycle of these fascinating insects, the threats they face and how landowners and gardeners can provide help.

furry-faced mason bee exiting a nesting hole - photo by Orangeaurochs

Furry-faced mason bee exiting a nesting hole – photo by Orangeaurochs

Life cycle
Almost three-quarters of wild bees (most species of the Halictidae, Apidae and Colletidae families) nest in the ground. Nests are typically located in well-drained areas with minimum plant cover and a southern exposure. Look for a straw-sized hole with a “slag” heap of excavated soil around the perimeter. Andrenidae (miner bees) and Megachilidae (leafcutter, orchard and mason bees), on the other hand, are cavity nesters and often lay their eggs in the hollow part of a stem or in a hole excavated in wood.
To understand a typical native bee’s life cycle, let’s take the example of the squash bee, a ground nester. Adults first appear in July, having over-wintered as pupae. When squash and related plants flower and pollen and nectar are available, the female excavates a nest 12 to 22 centimetres below the surface of the soil. She will make five cells, depositing an egg and a pollen ball in each cell. When the eggs hatch, the larvae eat the pollen and eventually pupate. Development stops at this point and the baby bee will remain in the pupal or “resting” stage until the following July, when it emerges as an adult. Females may construct more than one nest in a season. Males live outside of the nest and have nothing to do with domestic duties.
Bumble bees are a notable exception to the typical native bee life cycle. Their behaviour resembles that of Honey Bees. Unlike the latter, however, the only bumble bee to survive the winter is the queen. She enters hibernation -or diapause as it is called in insects – already mated. When she emerges in the spring, she begins foraging for pollen and nectar and, depending on the species, makes a nest in the ground or in some kind of cavity. Typical nesting sites include rodents’ holes, rock piles and cavities in a tree or wall. For the first few weeks, the queen will raise only worker bumble bees, who are much smaller in size. Later in the season, however, the queen will stay in the nest and become solely an egg-layer. In the fall, she will begin to produce males and a generation of new queens. The job of the males is to mate with the queens – preferably from another population. The old queen will then die, as will the workers and the males. The only bees that will survive the winter are the young, mated queens. Because bumble bee colonies only survive one season, they are much smaller than Honey Bee colonies.

Leafcutter bee on goldenrod -  Bob Peterson

Leafcutter bee on goldenrod – Bob Peterson

Despite the 400 or so species of native bees in Ontario, there have been serious declines in many populations. For example, the once-common Rusty-patched Bumble Bee is now on the provincial Species at Risk list with a designation of Endangered. As you might expect, human activity is the main reason for these declines. The negative impacts often come as a side effect of modern management practices on farms, in greenhouses, along road allowances and even in our gardens. Among the practices that reduce food sources for bees are the cutting of hay fields at first bloom (to achieve maximum nutritional quality in the hay), the removal of hedgerows (to facilitate the use of large machinery on fields), the elimination of weeds from roadsides and field margins (many weeds are great sources of nectar and pollen) and the use of new flower varieties in gardens (often bred not to produce pollen and/or nectar). Nesting sites, too, are often destroyed or made inaccessible as a result of cutting back raspberry canes, using mulch in gardens, removing dead trees and, once again, eliminating hedgerows. It is also thought that bees that are managed for pollination on a large scale (like bumble bees in a greenhouse) are having a large impact. This happens when disease-carrying individuals escape into the wild and spread the disease to wild bee populations.
As has been widely publicized, a more direct cause of population decline is the use of pesticides. They may kill adult bees directly, affect their behaviour and efficiency as foragers of pollen and nectar, affect the development of brood that is feeding on pesticide-tainted pollen and/or weaken the bees and make them more vulnerable to disease. Neonicotinoids (neonics), a neurotoxin, appear to be especially dangerous. New research from the University of Guelph and Imperial College shows that neonics harm bumblebees by impairing their ability to learn how to collect pollen. Bumble bees probably even suffer more damage than Honey Bees from exposure to these pesticides, since their colonies are so much smaller. Neonicotinoid pesticides are commonly coated on agricultural seeds for crops such as corn and canola to protect the plants from insect pests such as aphids. Fortunately, Ontario plans to eliminate the widespread, indiscriminate use of neonicotinoid-based pesticides and move to a permit-based system. A study by Friends of the Earth also found the pesticide in more than half of the garden plants tested at Home Depot outlets across Canada. Home Depot has now announced that it plans to begin labelling all plants that contain neonics.

Wild bee conservation
If you are a landowner, you can do a lot to protect wild pollinators such as bees. The size of your land matters little, since many species will even thrive in small urban spaces if encouraged to do so. Here are a few suggestions for getting started.
• Stop using pesticides. In addition to neonics, the insecticide Furadan is extremely toxic to bees. For more information on pesticide toxicity, visit the OMAFRA website.
• Take time to become aware of wild bees already foraging and/or nesting on your property. If they have pollen balls on their hind legs or are covered in pollen, they are bees! Remember, though, that native bees can come in all sizes, colours and shapes.
• Leave any hedgerows or other natural areas on your property undisturbed.
• Plant mostly native flowers, shrubs and trees. Some of the best choices include wild apple (Malus pumila), willows, chokecherry, staghorn sumac, raspberry, Joe-pye weed, goldenrods, asters, evening primrose, common sunflower (Helianthus annus), purple coneflower, pumpkin/squash, lamb’s ears and comfrey. Soil-improving crops, too, like clovers, alfalfa and buckwheat provide a veritable feast of nectar and pollen. Make sure the plants you buy are pesticide-free such as those sold by GreenUp Ecology Park in Peterborough.
• Establish and protect suitable nesting sites. Reserve some south-facing slopes and field margins for this purpose. Keep any grass cover cut short. Some species will also nest in sandy areas, including abandoned sandboxes. If you grow raspberries, don’t destroy the old stems, but keep them in vertical bundles in the garden for at least a year. Not only will yellow-faced and leafcutter bees use them for nesting, but you will have a stable population of pollinators. You can also make artificial nests for stem-dwelling bees, including mason and leaf-cutters, by bundling together the hollow stems of Phragmites (also called Common Reed – found along roadsides). Cut 20 stems to a variety of different lengths of about six to eight inches, bundle them together with string and place them in a plastic pail or similar container lying on its side. This provides protection from the elements. Attach the pail to a branch or post, so that the stems face east or southeast. For more detailed instructions, click here to see a great video at  by Susan Chan of Farms at Work. also provides information on building a variety of native bee nesting structures.
You can also purchase commercially-made bee nesting tubes from websites such as Their BeeEndeavour Kit has been recommended to me. This website is an excellent resource for native bee information in general and has a great newsletter. I also recommend picking up a copy of A Landowner’s Guide to Conserving Native Pollinators in Ontario by Susan Chan. It is available at the Avant-Garden Shop or by contacting Chan herself at Avant-Garden also carries bee nesting structures.

nest for stem-dwelling bees made out of Phragmites - Kim Zippel

Nest for stem-dwelling bees made out of Phragmites – Kim Zippel

Jun 192014

For anyone with an interest in wildflowers, June is synonymous with orchids. At least a dozen species of this fascinating plant family bloom this month in the Kawarthas, and the spectacle is not to be missed. In addition to their exquisite colours and designs, orchids are a wonderful testament to the power and wonder of evolution.
The Kawarthas has long enjoyed a special status among orchid lovers. The first book on Ontario’s orchids was researched and written here by a Peterborough resident, Frank Morris, in 1929. Some of the most interesting passages are his vivid descriptions of orchid searching trips to the Cavan Swamp and Stony Lake. Unfortunately, one becomes immediately aware that orchids were much more plentiful at that time. Because of habitat loss, indiscriminate picking and digging up for transplanting into gardens, most orchid species have declined greatly in number. In fact, I recall that well-known naturalist Doug Sadler once told me that in the 1950s people used to sell bouquets of Showy Lady’s slippers at the Peterborough Farmers’ Market!

Showy Lady's-slipper - Drew Monkman

Showy Lady’s-slipper – Drew Monkman

Peterborough County is home to about 36 orchid species including one, Helleborine, which is an alien species from Eurasia. Of the 36, 14 are considered rare or their presence is based on very old records. Species belonging to the genus Cypripedium, commonly known as lady’s slippers, are the most renowned of our orchids. The Kawarthas boast four species. Probably the best-known member of this genus is the Pink Lady’s slipper, also known as the Moccasin flower. It is usually found in dry, upland sites, quite often in association with pines. Petroglyphs Provincial Park and the north shore of Stony Lake provide good habitat for this species. The largest of our native orchids is the Showy Lady’s slipper which measures up to 80 cm in height and occurs in open to semi shaded wetland edges. This species requires 10 years of growth from germination to the time it flowers. Dry to moist calcium rich sites are the preferred habitat of the Yellow Lady’s slipper, possibly our most common member of the genus. This species is widespread in the Warsaw area. The Kawarthas also has good numbers of Ram’s head Lady’s slipper. They prefer cold, undisturbed wetland edges and are often found in association with White Cedars.
One reason I love orchids is that they have so much to tell us about evolution. They show amazing adaptations – or contrivances, as Charles Darwin described them – to attracting and exploiting their insect pollinators. In his book “Fertilization of Orchids”, Darwin explained in detail the complex relationships between these flowers and their pollinators and how this led to the co-evolution of both. He realized that as the insects changed, so did the orchids that were dependent upon them. And vice-versa. Darwin’s work provided the first detailed demonstration of the power of natural selection. Co-evolution between orchids and insects has led to an incredible amount of diversity. In fact, with close to 30,000 different species, orchids represent the world’s largest family of plants. They are also a very old family. The first orchids are believed to have appeared some 80 million years ago. This means that they may have co-existed with dinosaurs! Despite the huge number of species, most orchids tend to be uncommon and almost never dominate a given landscape. Paradoxically, they produce seeds in astronomical quantity well over a million in some species.
The Pink Lady’s-slipper, one of the more common local species, provides a great example of the complicated dance between orchid and pollinator. Its sweet odour and enticing pink pouch – a modified petal – attract bumblebees. On the hunt for nectar and pollen, these large, hairy insects pry their way into the large, slipper-like pouch through the incurved slit down the front. Once inside, the slit closes and traps the hapless bee. Exiting by where it entered therefore becomes impossible. But, it’s not all bad news. The upper part of the pouch is lined with sticky hairs coated in nectar, and there are translucent areas where light shines through. Attracted by the light and sugar reward, the bee climbs upwards to gather nectar and to make its escape. The pouch constricts, however, below two small exits to the outside. In order to regain its freedom, the bee must crawl under a large flattened structure. As it does so, the insect’s back rubs up against the stigma, the female part of the flower. Any pollen sticking to its body – presumably from another orchid it visited earlier – is scraped off. Bingo! The orchid is pollinated. But one last bit of trickery still remains. As the bee finally makes its way out of one of the strategically-located exit holes, it inadvertently rubs up against a sticky mass of pollen grains, which adheres to its back and sides. If it enters yet another Pink Lady’s-slipper, the bee will follow the same path and unwittingly leave behind pollen once again. In this manner, cross pollination between plants is assured.
Despite this elaborate pollination mechanism, Pink Lady’s slippers seem to spread mostly through their rhizomes. Rhizomes are underground, creeping stems that are capable of forming new plants. This explains why, unlike most other native orchids, Pink Lady’s-slippers are sometimes found in large masses.

Pink Lady's-slipper - Thomas Barnes

Pink Lady’s-slipper – Thomas Barnes

Three other species are of considerable interest this month, both because of the unique design of their flowers and the special habitats in which they grow. They are the Arethusa (Dragon’s mouth), Calopogon (Grass pink) and Rose Pogonia (Snake mouth). All three are pink in colour and grow in the acid soil of bogs and wet meadows. All can be found in Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park. Pollination for these species, too, depends on some very clever adaptations. In the case of Calopogon, downright deception comes into play. Bees are immediately attracted to the top petal of the flower because of a mass of stamen like objects, which appear to be loaded with pollen. However, upon landing on these hairs, the insect quickly realizes there is no pollen to be found. But, before it can fly away, the bee’s weight causes the petal to collapse downward. The hapless bee ends up on its back, pinned against a trough like appendage that contains the true sexual parts of the flower. The bee’s hairy back may pick up sticky pollen located here or transfer pollen from a previous visit to another Calopogon to the stigma, thereby assuring pollination. Evolution rarely takes the easy route to solving the challenges of reproduction!
Orchids, like all plants, follow a definite blooming schedule. Most of the lady’s slippers bloom in late May through mid June. Showy lady’s slipper, however, along with Arethusa, Calopogon and Rose Pogonia, usually bloom in late June. Rose Pogonia can sometimes still be found in flower as late as mid July. Later in the summer, watch for Spotted Coral root (July), Dwarf Rattlesnake plantain (late July and August) and Nodding ladies’ tresses (late August and September). Once again, Petroglyphs Provincial Park is a good place to try for all three of these summer blooming species. Ladies’-tresses also grow in damp areas along the edge of the Trans-Canada Trail, just east of Highway 7.
It’s important to resist the temptation to dig orchids up and transplant them into your garden. Not only does this put the species further at risk, but it is rarely successful. Orchids depend on a special relationship with fungi, which provide the plants with minerals and other nutrients that they cannot attain by themselves. Without the presence of the right fungi in the soil, most orchids will not survive.

Calopogon - Drew Monkman

Calopogon – Drew Monkman

Jun 122014


Over the past couple of weeks, the milkweed plants in my perennial garden have literally bolted out of the ground. The Common Milkweeds already have flower buds, and the patch of Butterfly Milkweed is much larger than it was last year. However, as I admire these remarkable plants, I can’t help but wonder whether Monarch butterflies will ever visit them this year, because the forces working against this iconic insect are many. Still, maybe there is room for a least a little optimism. Last Saturday, the first Monarchs to arrive back in the Kawarthas flitted over the Carden Alvar near Kirkfield, and there is finally serious talk of a recovery plan for the Monarch.
Back in January, the overwintering numbers reported by World Wildlife Fund Mexico were discouraging. The total area occupied by Monarch colonies at overwintering sites was only 0.67 hectares, compared to a 2004 – 2014 average of 3.51 hectares. This is the smallest overwintering population ever recorded. According to Dr. Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas, the main reason for the decline is the loss of Monarch habitat, which really means a loss of the milkweed plants on which the species depends. The finger of blame can be pointed primarily at the adoption of herbicide tolerant (HT) crops. The invention of HT corn and soybeans has made growing more efficient, since it allows farmers to spray and kill off everything else – clearly bad news for milkweed and Monarchs.

Monarch Butterfly - Terry Carpenter

Monarch Butterfly – Terry Carpenter

When tilling was used to control weeds in the corn and soybean fields of the Midwestern United States, some milkweed survived the process. However, with the adoption of HT crop lines, the use of glyphosate has all but eliminated milkweeds from these habitats. Healthy Monarch habitat in the Midwest is crucial because this region produces more Monarchs per acre than anywhere else on the continent. In other words, Monarchs are losing the milkweed in the most important part of their northward migration route, namely the area bordered by Kansas in the southwest, the Canadian border to the north and Ohio to the east.
According to Taylor, the acreage of corn and soy has increased by 20 million acres over the last seven years. This increase is largely due to the demand for ethanol, which has had the effect of driving up the price of corn. In much of the Corn Belt, farmers have removed hedgerows and narrowed field margins, with little habitat remaining for any form of wildlife. Grasslands, including some of the last remaining native prairies, rangelands, wetlands, and even conservation lands – have been plowed under to produce more corn and soybeans. Most of these acres formerly contained milkweeds.
Taylor estimates that since 1996, urban development has also eaten up at least 17 million acres of habitat that was once used by the eastern North American population of Monarchs. He also points out that there are habitat losses due to excessive mowing and use of herbicides along roadsides. These were significant milkweed and monarch habitats in the past. In many areas, milkweed is still listed as a noxious weed. In Ontario, however, milkweed has now been delisted as a noxious weed.
Taylor concludes that, in total, at least 167 million acres of Monarch habitat have disappeared since 1996. This is an area almost equal in size to the entire state of Texas! Because of the economic forces involving crop production and human population growth, these losses will continue. It is clear that if our goal is to save the Monarch migration, ways must be found to mitigate the loss of Monarch habitat.
New research from University of Guelph has come to the same conclusion as Taylor. The researchers suggested that Monarch populations were four times more sensitive to the loss of milkweed on their breeding grounds than the loss of the forested habitat in which they spend the winters. Using their model, the scientists found a 21 percent decline in milkweed abundance between 1995 and 2013. The largest declines, namely those in the American Midwest, line up with the largest declines in the butterfly population.
Weather, too, plays a role in how well Monarchs fare. 2012 and 2013 both deviated from normal with 2012 being too hot and 2013 being too cold at critical times during the butterfly’s life cycle. The poor weather further contributed to low overwintering numbers. Monarch numbers will rebound, but only if the weather cooperates AND there is sufficient milkweed. On a more positive note, Taylor believes that while we will never get back to the large populations of the 1990s, there is still enough milkweed to produce Monarchs in sufficient numbers to colonize 3-4 hectares of the forests in Mexico. However, this will require favorable weather conditions over the next several years – something that is far from certain in this time of climate change.

Monarch caterpillar on Common Milkweed - Jane Zednik

Monarch caterpillar on Common Milkweed – Jane Zednik

A Recovery Plan
Although Monarchs can be found throughout the U.S. and southern Canada in the summer months, most of the population utilizes two critical areas, which Taylor calls the “milkweed/monarch corridor”. They are 1) the spring breeding area of Texas, Oklahoma and parts of Kansas and 2) the upper Midwest or Corn Belt. Monarchs arriving in the spring breeding area in March lay eggs on milkweeds, and most of the adults that develop as a result of this reproduction move northward into the upper Midwest in May and early June. They eventually spread out over the north from the Dakotas to Ontario and even on to the Maritime Provinces. However, it is the production of the Monarchs in the Corn Belt that is critical. Tagging data has shown that most of the Monarchs reaching the overwintering locations in Mexico originate from the Corn Belt.
Taylor’s vision is that the Monarch migration can be saved if there is commitment to offsetting on-going losses of habitat by planting milkweeds and nectar plants in areas from which they have been extirpated. This will require the development of greater capacity to restore milkweeds than exists at present. It will also depend up marketing and outreach to engage citizens, government agencies, corporations, farmers, nurseries and schools. Taylor believes that offsetting the annual habitat loss will require the establishment of at least 5-15 million milkweeds via the planting of seeds and plugs.
Some heavyweight support for a recovery plan was announced at this year’s NAFTA summit in Toluca, Mexico. The leaders of Mexico, the United States and Canada agreed to take measures to “conserve the Monarch butterfly as an emblematic species of North America.” More than 100 scientists, Nobel Prize winners and environmentalists had written to Pena Nieto, Harper and Obama before the summit, calling on them to establish a “milkweed corridor” through the three countries. The petitioners called for the massive planting of milkweed along roadsides and toxin-free buffer zones in Canada and the United States.
So, it’s simple. If we want Monarchs, we need to plant more milkweed, and to protect the milkweed we already have. The real battle, however, is restoring milkweed in the all important “monarch/milkweed” corridor of the U.S. Visit for information on all aspects of Monarchs and their future. You can also make a vitally important financial contribution by clicking on “Chip in for Monarch Watch!”

Apr 032014

Last Sunday, my wife and I went for a long walk, finally able to enjoy some sunshine and warm temperatures. As usual, however, I couldn’t help noticing that there were no kids playing outside. Why not? Well, partly because many parents consider it too risky to let their children play outdoors and to engage with nature without adult supervision. This is simply one of numerous examples of how our sense of where real risk lies in the 21st century is out of sync with reality. If we want to learn about clear and present danger, more of us should start paying attention to climate change and especially to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that was released this past Monday.

Hooded Warbler -Wikimedia

Hooded Warbler -Wikimedia

The report states unequivocally that climate change is driving humanity and the natural world in which we are embedded toward an unprecedented level of risk and devastation. And the wild ride has only just begun – to wit the Calgary Flood of this past summer. The report predicts that the highest level of risk will first hit plants and animals, both on land and in the acidifying oceans. In other words, nature is the early-warning system – the proverbial canary in the coal mine. The report states that “Spring advancement” – the earlier occurrence of spring events, such as breeding, bud burst, breaking hibernation, flowering, migration – is being seen in hundreds of plant and animal species in many regions.” With this in mind, I thought I would remind readers of how a changing climate is already affecting the Kawarthas and what is in store for the longer term.

Happening now

• From 2010 through 2013, 40 of the 48 months (83%) in Peterborough were milder than the 1971 to 2000 average. Yes, this past winter has bucked the trend, but more about that later.

• Species that used to be restricted to extreme southern Ontario such as Virginia Opossums, Southern Flying Squirrels, Hooded Warblers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Giant Swallowtail butterflies are now seen regularly in parts of the Kawarthas.

• Southern Flying Squirrels are mating with Northern Flying Squirrels and creating hybrids.

Black fly - Wikimedia

Black fly – Wikimedia

• Short-distance migrants such as Red-winged Blackbirds are, on average, returning earlier in the spring. Some species are nesting earlier, too.

• The peak calling period of early breeding frogs (e.g., Spring Peeper, Wood Frog) is now 10-20 days earlier than in 1995.

• The peak bloom in spring wildflowers such as Trout Lily and White Trillium has been two to three weeks earlier than the traditional mid-May average in recent years.

• Black flies now reach peak numbers in late April or early May. In the 1960s, peak numbers were not until mid- to late May. Quite often, the Victoria Day Weekend was the worst.

• Tree pollen is emerging roughly two weeks earlier and has been very abundant in recent years.

• We are seeing a marked increase in invasive plant species such as Common Reed (Phragmites), Dog-strangling Vine and Garlic Mustard.

Phragmites -Drew Monkman

Phragmites -Drew Monkman

• There has been a huge decline in Monarch butterflies. Although the eradication of milkweed in the American mid-west is probably the main reason for the population crash, climate change impacts along the butterfly’s migration route and on its wintering ground have been significant.

• Gray Jays, too, are dwindling in number. This species used to be seen regularly in the northern Kawarthas. However, mild falls and winter may be leading to the spoilage of the food these birds hide for later consumption and therefore affecting their breeding success. These birds are late winter nesters.

• Waterfowl has been lingering much later into the fall and earlier winter. This is directly linked to a later freeze-up of lakes and rivers most years.

Extreme Events

     Increasingly, occurrences of extreme weather are causing unprecedented events in our flora and fauna.

• In mid-March 2012, we had eight days of 20 C temperatures. Frogs were calling, Mourning Doves were nesting, trees were flowering and the ice went out of the lakes. These events are typical of mid-April on an average year. Ontario lost 80% of its apple production, because the record-early blossoms on the apple trees were later killed by frost.

• April 2012 saw an unprecedented invasion of at least 300 million Red Admiral butterflies into Ontario. The butterflies arrived from Texas where unparalleled drought (climate change?) had killed all of the predatory insects. When rains finally came and wildflowers bloomed, there were no predators to reduce the number of Red Admiral caterpillars. The butterflies reproduced like never before. When spring arrived, wave came north. However, nearly all of the Red Admirals died, because their nettle host plants had not yet emerged.

Red Admiral butterflies - April 2012 - Drew Monkman

Red Admiral butterflies – April 2012 – Drew Monkman

• The summer of 2012 was maybe the worst on record for aquatic plant growth, which caused many a headache for boaters. The phenomenal plant growth was linked in part to an extremely warm summer and a record-early ice out – hence a longer growing season.

• The frigid winter of 2014 saw a complete reversal of the multi-year warming trend we’ve seen. Even March was 5.3 C cooler than average. Some climatologists believe that the intense and long-lasting cold may be linked to changes in the Jet Stream resulting from a warming Arctic. Species of ducks and grebes that we almost never see in Peterborough turned up on the Otonabee River, having been displaced from the almost entirely frozen Great Lakes. This past winter also saw an unparalleled invasion of Snowy Owls into Ontario. This has been linked to a population boom in owls in the Arctic last summer because of exceptional lemming numbers. With so much food available, Snowy Owls were raising six or more owlets instead of the usual one or two. Climate change may be an important reason why lemmings became so abundant.

Concern for the future

Here is a sample of the many changes that are being forecast for the Kawarthas in the coming decades.

• Coldwater fish species like Walleye are expected to decline substantially with increased air and water temperatures.

• Black-legged Ticks, which carry Lyme disease, are expected to have spread all over Southern Ontario by 2020. They may already be in the Kawarthas.

• Our forests will take a beating. This will be due to increased temperature, more frequent drought, competition with invasive species, greater risks from insect pests and more fungal infections.

• A changing climate is likely to favour non-native invasive animals and plants with generalized requirements over native species with more specialized needs. This will likely compound the impacts of climate change in aquatic ecosystems.

       Unfortunately, there will also be emotional distress. We can expect a huge change in how it “feels” to live in the Kawarthas. Many seasonal rituals (e.g., a backyard skating rink) are almost certain to disappear. There will also be a marked decline the quality of our experience of the natural world. With less of a sense of what to expect and what is normal, we’ll have to learn to expect the unexpected.

       Unless thousands of scientists have it all wrong, climate change is maybe the greatest known risk humanity faces. But, here’s the good news: The IPCC says that the impacts of climate change—and the costs of adaptation—will be “reduced substantially” if we drastically cut our emissions of greenhouse gases. As for me, I’ll be voting for political parties that promise to bring in a carbon tax.


Side-bar: Learn about Australian Nature

At the April 10 meeting of the Peterborough Field Naturalists, Paul Elliott of Trent University will make a special presentation entitled “Koalas, Kangaroos and Kookaburras”. He will be sharing stories of his encounters with the plants and animals of the Dandanong Ranges and the coastal areas of Victoria and New South Wales. The meeting is in the auditorium of the Peterborough Public Library and commences at 7:30 p.m. Everyone is welcome. For additional information contact Martin Parker, or 705 – 745 – 4750



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.


Nov 212013

A naturalist on the Moose hunt – part one

Raynald and Claude in front of the hunt camp

Claude (left) and Raynald in front of the hunt camp

I had rarely experienced such intense silence. Yes, there were sounds, but they were the sounds of undisturbed nature – the whispering of spruce and birch swaying in the wind, the harsh chatter of a disgruntled Red Squirrel and the loud whistles of a Gray Jay. This was the resonance of nature at its most natural – a soundscape that is nearly impossible to find these days. Obtrusive, man-made sounds were completely absent, save the passing of a float plane once or twice a day. But there was one group of sounds in particular that I was hoping to hear – the grunting, moaning and thrashing of Moose during the rut.

In mid-September, I made the 1500 kilometre trip to the Manicouagan Reservoir in northeastern Quebec to experience a Moose hunt. This man-made lake is located at approximately 51 degrees north latitude, between Baie Comeau and the Labrador border. The hunt camp itself is on l’Ile Rene-Levasseur, a huge island in the centre of the lake. The lake and island are clearly visible from space and are sometimes called the “eye of Quebec.” For many years, my friend Raynald Pilon, a physician in Fermont, Quebec, had regaled me with stories of his annual Moose hunt, the incredible emotions involved and the stark beauty of the boreal forest landscape. This year, I was invited to come and join Raynald and his long-time hunting companion, Claude Moisan, to see why they are so passionate about la “chasse a l’orignal.”

Some people may be surprised that I should want to take part in a hunt. However, I have never been opposed to most types of sustainable hunting. I also don’t want to be a hypocrite. I still eat red meat on occasion and realize that someone has to kill the animal. Hunters simply eliminate this middle man. Secondly, I would probably never have become a naturalist if it wasn’t for a hunter. The late Maurice Clarkson, a well-known Peterborough physician and avid duck hunter, was also a very knowledgeable birder. He used to take me and his son, Peter, on bird-watching outings and taught us a lot about identification.

One of the world’s most influential ecologists and environmentalists, Aldo Leopold, enjoyed hunting, too. In his famous book “A Sand County Almanac” (1949), there is a wonderful essay on Ruffed Grouse hunting entitled “Smoky Gold.” Beautifully composed, Leopold describes his love of season, of trees – especially the smoky gold Tamaracks of October – and his love of grouse hunting. Not only have his ethics of nature and wildlife preservation had a profound impact on the environmental movement but reading Aldo Leopold was largely what inspired me to write my first book, “Nature’s Year in the Kawarthas.”

Hunting, for most of our evolutionary history, was the way in which humans experienced nature. Only in recent decades have large numbers of us had the luxury of the free time and resources to enjoy the natural world as mostly a leisure pursuit. Still, I am well aware that hunters and naturalists/environmentalists are often at odds with one another. I was therefore hoping that by experiencing a Moose hunt, I would discover more about what these two groups have in common and where they differ.

Stark but beautiful landscape

Stark but beautiful landscape

Having taught in this part of Quebec for two years in the late 1970s, I knew that rediscovering the flora and fauna of the boreal forest would be a treat in itself. Moose or no Moose, I would not be bored. As Raynald and I made the one hour hike from his main camp on the shore of Rene-Levasseur Island to his smaller hunting and fishing camp on Lac Fourchette, it was like reacquainting myself with old friends. I had forgotten just how different the boreal forest is from the forests we are used to in the Kawarthas. First of all, thee vast majority of the trees are conifers, with Black Spruce the dominant species. There are also smaller pockets of White Spruce, Balsam Fir, Tamarack (Larch) and Jack Pine.  As for broad-leaved species, these are limited to scattered stands of Trembling Aspen and White Birch.

But the understory is what I find most interesting. It is made up primarily of shrubs in the Ericaceae family (heathers), a group of flowering plants most common acid and infertile growing conditions. These include abundant Labrador Tea, Sheep-laurel and Blueberry. This year, the Blueberries were so heavily laden with fruit that you could literally pull off a handful with one swipe of the hand. Other common understory species include Bunchberry (its red berries almost looking like drops of blood on the ground), Swamp Birch, Swamp Red Currant, Twinflower, Squashberry, Black Chokeberry, Mountain Alder, Speckled Alder, willows, cranberries and a host of different mosses and lichens.  In fact, the mosses and lichens form a vast, mattress-like green carpet over the forest floor that almost beckons you to lie down and have a nap. Sorting out all of the different species, however, will have to wait for a future trip.


Beaver lodge south of  Lac Fourchette

Beaver lodge south of Lac Fourchette

It is estimated that the avian population of the boreal represents 60% of the landbirds in all of Canada. However, by mid-September, the majority of these have already departed for more southern climes.  The species I saw and heard most often was the Gray Jay, also known as the Canada Jay. Most days, we also encountered Spruce Grouse, Dark-eyed Juncos, Golden-crowned Kinglets and White-throated Sparrows. A Common Raven occasionally passed over and both a Bald Eagle and Northern Goshawk put in an appearance. Migrating flocks of American Robins and Bohemian Waxwings were also seen on several occasions. On Lac Fourchette, a family group of Common Loons kept us company, as did three Common Mergansers. As for mammals, Red Squirrels were a constant presence and Beaver ponds, dams and lodges were everywhere. Judging by the amount of scat we saw, Gray Wolves were certainly in the area, as well. Some of the scat contained bones as big as quarters. Most importantly for our purposes, however, the island also has a healthy Moose population. Raynald and Claude kill a bull, cow or calf most years and signs of Moose activity are usually fairly easy to find. We were therefore watching closely for recent tracks, droppings, browsed shrubs and both rubs and scrapes on tree bark.

The camp itself was quite a site, especially for the uninitiated like me. A huge rack of Moose antlers adorned one of the exterior walls and, to keep bears out, an “unwelcome mat” of upward pointing nails was placed in front of the door. The windows were covered with steel bars. Inside, there was another, even larger, rack of antlers, a dining area and a bedroom with bunks. The table, counters, chairs, walls, beds and floor were littered with everything you could conceivably need to have a comfortable, safe and successful hunt. I think this is when I fully realized just how far out of my comfort zone I had wandered. Not only do I know relatively little about rifles and hunting, but I’m not terribly technically-minded. Here I was immersed in a world of outdoor motors, batteries of all kinds, chargers, generators, gun paraphernalia, walkie-talkies, satellite phones, GPSs and esoteric talk of hunting techniques. What was most intimidating, however, was having to quickly familiarize myself with hunt camp rituals and do’s and don’ts dating back 30 years – and all of this in French. To add another twist, it was the first time a third person had joined Raynald and Claude on the hunt. And not just any third person, but an Anglais who’s not a hunter! I had set myself up to feel, well, kind of dumb.

Raynald with head of bull shot in 2012 (photo by Claude Moisan)

Raynald with head of bull Moose shot in 2012 (photo by Claude Moisan)

There was also a moral dilemma that I had not yet addressed. Raynald explained to me that we would each be hunting separately and that there was every possibility that I might encounter a Moose on my own. I was therefore provided with a gun. What would I do? Would I shoot and probably feel guilty about having killed such a majestic animal? But, the implications of not shooting were grave, as well. The last thing these guys wanted was for me to come waltzing in the door at the end of the day to show them some beautiful Moose photos. Yes, this was serious business and I was expected to do my part in assuring a successful hunt. To be continued