Connecting people with nature in Ontario's Mississippi Valley

NOTE: The following is a reflection on MVFN’s January 2016 natural history presentation. Join MVFN on February 18th for “Purdon: Unique Wonder of the Natural World” with guest speaker Shannon Gutoskie, as MVFN’s “Naturally Special Places” series continues.

Feature photo is by TK Marsh

By Gretta Bradley

Sit quietly and listen.  You may be surprised at what you can learn. Chad Clifford of Wilderness Rhythms, speaking at the monthly MVFN speaker series advocated just that, and because we can, get a little help from technology.

When Chad’s father suggested he read a book by pioneering soundscaper Bernie Krause, as can often happen with books, something shifted.  Not wildly.  Already deeply interested in enhancing our experience in nature through music, Mr. Clifford slipped seamlessly into soundscaping.

Originally, soundscapers recorded rain and wind and whales from exotic locales, orchestrating beautiful compositions to evoke powerful emotional responses to the sounds of the natural world. Relax, uplift, inspire.  Now, research has begun to document the power of nature to heal, and “nature deficit” as having an adverse impact on our well-being. For all our sophistication, there is still a part of us that needs the call of the wild.

How do you get the sound of larvae hatching in the bottom of the pond or sap running in the tree? Capturing the sounds that fall outside our capability to hear, offered Chad a technical challenge. Microphones and dishes are commercially available, but jerry-rigging is often required to adapt the equipment to the requirements of the job.  Very appealing to the tinkerers in the crowd.

While sound recording continues to be used to human benefit, it is software that has allowed soundscaping to morph into a research tool in the service of protecting wild spaces. Chad illustrated how audio software can take the “noise” of a busy marsh, separate and record as an audio signature (spectrogram), one chirp, call, howl, bark, or warble from another. Databases can help distinguish and identify, in a cacophony of sound, the spring peepers from the leopard frogs, the feeding chuckle of a mallard, the throaty call of an American bittern and the presence or, more importantly, absence of a species. Each species occupies its own niche on the spectrogram much as they do in the marsh.

Sometimes in a presentation, there is a point when your jaw drops without you even realizing it has happened . . . surprise: the human reaction to learning that something we thought we knew to be true, is wrong. Chad’s story was of one of the most surprising examples of what we can learn about the impact of human intervention on an environment, if we only listen.  Lincoln Meadow is in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. It was at this site in 1988 that a company planned to do selective logging, the “greener” alternative to clear cutting. Bernie Kraus had recorded the meadow in photographs and sound before the logging company moved to take the selected trees. In 1989, he returned to the site to photograph and audio record the meadow following completion of the operation. The result can be described as no less than astounding. The photographs were virtually identical. Anyone would have been hard pressed to find differences in the two. But the sound recordings revealed a dramatically changed landscape.  The original recording was filled with bird song, and the spectrogram, the “picture” of the sound, showed abundant birdsong in the higher sound frequencies and a rushing stream in the lower.  A year later the silence is deafening.  Birdsong is absent. The stream still shows up in the recording, but a lone woodpecker’s tap as it extracts bugs from infested trees is the only bird sound occupying the once crowded recording.

These tools have given rise to whole new lines of research. Acoustics as applied to the study of the natural world is advancing our understanding of volcanoes and fault lines (geophony) and elephants and whales (biophony) and the impact of human sound (androphony) on the natural environment.  Recordings give science new insight into the density and diversity, the habits and communication patterns of animals, and establish baselines to determine changes over time: data that can be used to determine findings as diverse as the health of a habitat to the likelihood of a volcanic eruption.

That book, by the way, was entitled “The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places.” Described as simultaneously weird and wonderful, it is a halcyon call. Not surprisingly, natural soundscapes are at risk. Having recorded in 15,000 places over the past 40 years, Bernie Krause estimates that at least half of these soundscapes have been silenced, or thinned or drowned by the intrusion of human din or the loss of species and habitat. Chad stated that only three places in the continental U.S. have to date been identified as being free of the intrusion of human sounds for a span of 15 minutes.  In the same way as we recognize the need to protect our sky from light pollution, Chad has called on Canadians to set aside preserves where we can experience untainted, wild soundscapes protected from noise pollution. Places set aside for sitting quietly and listening.  As Bernie Kraus famously said, “While a picture is worth a 1,000 words, a sound is worth a 1,000 pictures.”

Carson Walk sedge

A vernal pool,  Burnt Lands Alvar, June 2015. Photo  Pauline Donaldson

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Click here to link directly to the Ontario Nature Action Alert

Ontario is proposing to weaken legal protection for migratory birds by exempting commercial building owners from a key provision of the Environmental Protection Act (EPA). The proposed regulatory amendment would remove the requirement for owners to deal with light reflected from tall commercial buildings, which is known to lead to the death or injury of millions of birds in Ontario every year.

Please join Ontario Nature in helping oppose this proposal (EBR Registry Number 012-3605)!

In 2013, an Ontario court ruled reflected light from building windows to be a ‘contaminant’ under the EPA. The court confirmed that the Province had the legal authority to require building owners to deal with light reflected from windows that were at high risk of killing or injuring birds. Yet, instead of acting upon the findings of the court, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) is proposing to give up its power to protect migratory birds from reflected light.

The 2014 – 2015 Annual Report of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario called out the MOECC for abdicating its responsibility:

“… it appears that the ministry’s preferred approach is to ignore its regulatory responsibility and leave it up to property owners and managers to voluntarily follow guidelines and suggested strategies.” (p. 63)

Voluntary approaches will not address the problem. Based on over two decades of work by the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) Canada, it is clear that most commercial building owners will not take voluntary action.

Millions of birds, including many species at risk, will continue to die if the problem of reflected light is not adequately addressed. Sadly, these deaths are preventave. Technical solutions are available, but they will continue to be ignored without the compliance and enforcement measures in place to drive uptake by commercial building owners.

Join Ontario Nature in urging the MOECC not to proceed with this ill-founded proposal. Let the ministry know that Ontarians expect it to strengthen environmental laws, not to weaken them by changing the rules to sidestep its duties.

Please send in comments by the December 04, 2015 deadline. You can go to the Ontario Nature  article to submit comments, being sure to reference Environmental Registry #012-3605. Or set yourself up with a user name on the Environmental Registry and you can post comments confidentially to Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner on this issue (Reference  Environmental Registry #012-3605) and other notices posted directly on  Ontario’s Environmental Registry site on-line.

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logo_OntarioNatureHomeThe Ontario government is proposing to extend the two-year spring bear hunt pilot for another five years and to expand it into all areas where fall bear hunting is currently allowed (EBR Registry Number: 012-5485). The excuse? Public safety. The reality? Study after study shows that shooting more bears does not reduce human-bear conflicts.
The government’s fall-back rationale is tourism dollars. Accordingly, the plan is to open up the hunt to trophy hunters from outside the country.Black-Bear_and_cub_Missy_Mandel_banner

Ontario’s spring bear hunt was originally cancelled in 1999. Many felt that the spring hunt was not sporting or fair chase as hungry bears came out of hibernation and were attracted to bait stations where they were shot by hunters waiting on platforms – like fish in a barrel. For the next 15 years, black bear hunting was limited to the fall. But in 2014 the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) decided to reinstate a limited spring hunt as a pilot.

The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario’s 2014 – 2015 report provides troubling information about the so-called pilot. In reinstating the hunt, the ministry ignored the advice of its own expert Nuisance Bear Review Committee. It failed to put recommended conditions on the hunt such as: prohibiting the killing of all females; providing proof of the age and sex of the bears killed; and timing the hunt to reduce the vulnerability of females.

One thing the ministry did require was that hunters who had purchased a bear hunter licence tag report on their spring hunting activities. But less than 50 percent of the hunters complied with the requirement, begging the question of what the government could actually have learned from the pilot. As noted by the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, “incomplete information on the number, age, sex and location of the bears harvested each year prevents the MNRF from effectively evaluating the hunt’s ecological impact and making informed management decisions.”

Indeed, collecting data on two critical factors that are known to lead to an increase in human-bear conflicts – natural food shortages and the availability of garbage – were not part of the ministry’s proposed approach.

Please join Ontario Nature in opposing the unjustifiable extension and expansion of the spring bear hunt. The government should be listening to experts and scientists who have found no evidence that the spring hunt reduces nuisance activity by black bears. Instead, the government should invest in educational programs and solutions to human-bear conflicts that are supported by evidence and science.

Please send in comments by the November 30 deadline. Be sure to reference Environmental Bill Registry #012-5485. Comments can be sent in via the EBR site also at this link. Search for EBR #012-5485.

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The not so hidden world of ‘human-related threats to birds’ – cats, houses and cars!

What are the leading causes of human-related bird mortality in Canada?

Findings are in an Environment Canada report (Avian Conservation and Ecology 8(2):11) which can be found at http://www.ace-eco.org/vol8/iss2/art11/ The report details the sources and studies used to generate the data and the range and caveats associated with the numbers which are included.

Michael Runtz (distinguished author of Wild Wings: The Hidden World of Birds) usually dwells on the positive. And although he does not like to look at the negatives, at our February lecture, Runtz outlined these leading causes of bird mortality related to humans. He also gave many insights into a range of other threats, including invasive species, climate change (for example studies with Gray Jays) environmental toxins etc.

Per year in Canada,  the leading causes of bird mortality related to human activity, are the following.  These factors (cats, buildings, cars) are associated most closely with highly populated areas, and this is where most bird kills due to these causes occur, states the report:

# 1 killed by feral and domestic cats (70- over 200 million birds killed per year)

# 2 collisions or electrocution due to power lines (25 million birds per year)

# 3 collisions with houses (20 million birds per year)

# 4 collisions with vehicles (14 million  per year)

A full report of Mike’s talk will be posted soon. Note: photo of Gray Jays by Howard Robinson

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by Dr. Paul Keddy, ecologist and author of many articles and books on wetlands and wildlife including Earth, Water, Fire: An Ecological Profile of Lanark County.

Turtle

June is here. The nesting turtles are back! March is for maple syrup, in April the ice melts away, in May the leaves come out, and in June it’s turtle time! Every one of these annual events reminds us where we live; the previous statement could not be made in Paris or Los Angeles. Of course, if you are a high rise building dweller who rarely ventures outside the big city, you may not appreciate my point. Here in Lanark County, every June, many turtles crawl out of their ponds and streams and start crossing the highways looking for nesting sites. Elsewhere, tourists might pay a fortune, say, to travel to South Africa for lions, or British Columbia or Quebec for whales, but here the wildlife comes to visit us!

Most of the time turtles are rather secretive – hibernating nearly half the year on the bottom of lakes and ponds. Much of the rest of the year they swim around looking for dead things to eat and occasionally taking a break to warm up in the sun stretched out on a log. Overall, turtles are harmless, and in fact do some good since they are efficient scavengers that clean up dead animals from our water supply. All of our turtles – even the large snapping turtle – are opportunist feeders. They eat whatever they can conveniently find, which is mainly insects and dead fish. Biologists have spent many years studying turtle diets -by counting the items in their stomachs – and have this well-documented. Even large snapping turtles, which get blamed for eating ducks or game fish, rarely have any of these items in their stomachs. They too eat carrion. Yes, snapping turtles will snap at you — when on land — particularly if you let your dog frighten them, or if you poke them with a stick. Many people would do the same.

Baby Turtle

Hatchling- photo Chris Hume

Let me mention, too, that every part of the world has its own set of turtles. If you were lost, and someone gave you a list of local turtles, you could pin down almost exactly where you were. North America has just over 50 species in all. Some places, like the west coast, are impoverished, having just one species. Other places, like Louisiana, are blessed with turtles – more than 30 species. Lanark County, has exactly, five. In approximate order of size, beginning with the smallest, they are musk turtle (or stinkpot), painted turtle, map turtle, Blanding’s turtle and snapping turtle. All but the painted turtle are now considered species at risk – that is, they are declining. Two, the musk turtle and the Blanding’s turtle, are officially considered threatened species. The decline has two main causes, (1) death on roads and (2) destruction of wild places.

Turtle Crossing
Nesting time is a dangerous time:

So, for nearly 50 weeks each year turtles are rather quiet, inoffensive neighbours, who pretty much keep to themselves. In this way, they might set a good example for human neighbors, like the ones with the loud stereos and motorbikes … but I digress, I was asked to write about turtles. My point is that, finally, after 50 weeks of peace, all hell breaks loose in mid June! All the females of reproductive age climb out of the water and begin the laborious task of hiking around to find a nesting site. It is probably terrifying for them to leave the familiar water and venture onto land, but the nesting urge is too strong to resist. Once they find just the right location, they dig a hole, bury their eggs, and leave. That is the end of motherly care. The eggs are heated by the summer sun, and then, in September, baby turtles about the size of a half-walnut dig their way up to the surface and somehow find their way back to water.

This means that without fail, near the middle of each June, we are treated to a parade of female turtles, wandering around our roads and properties, trying to nest. They have been doing this for about 200 million years, more or less. Turtles existed before the dinosaurs, and they even survived whatever it was – an asteroid collision? – that eliminated the dinosaurs. Despite their long history, turtles just have not had time to learn to adapt to two new things: cars and roads. That tiny brain has no idea that a road means danger. And so, increasingly, we are losing our turtles as the reproductive females (and often the eggs they contain) are killed on highways.

Biologists have calculated how important certain types of individuals are to their species survival, i.e. their “reproductive value”. New baby turtles have low reproductive value because only a few ever survive -skunks, raccoons, crows, fish and even bullfrogs eat them. This high mortality rate for babies is natural for turtles. However the reproductive value of the adult female turtle is extremely high. Once she has made it to 20 years old she has the capacity to make up for the high mortality rate of the babies by laying from 10 to 30 eggs every year for decades. The turtles being killed on our roads are usually the adult females — with the highest reproductive value. When a female is killed – it means the loss of hundreds of offspring she might have produced over future summers. These loses cannot be replaced. As a result, turtles that were present in my childhood, like musk turtles and Blanding’s turtles, are now uncommon. Not only do turtles just cross roads, they are actually attracted to roads. The warm sand and gravel along the road side makes a perfect nest site. So turtles will come long distances to climb onto the shoulder and lay their eggs. If drivers are careless, the highway becomes a ribbon of death.

Turtle Crossing
So what can we do?

1. The first is to accept and even appreciate this annual event. Just as the maple syrup flows in March, so do turtles flow across our roads in June. We might even build an annual tourist event around the nesting week. We could put up some highway crossing signs at critical locations, or better still, plan ahead and build small underpasses when roads are being reconstructed. And, of course, we have to protect critical nesting areas from subdivisions. More urgently there is the immediate issue of death on the roads.

2. Drive carefully. Turtles are slow-movers, so it really does take a complete idiot to hit one with a car.
– Don’t tailgate (which your driver training instructor no doubt told you anyway), as you may run over a turtle that the car in front just missed.
-Help them out. Stop, and carry the turtle the rest of the way across the road – in the direction she was headed, of course. Yes, some will not appreciate your help, and might try to scratch or bite, so keep a pair of gardening gloves handy and perhaps a shovel to help lift. A big snapping turtle is heavy, so I would recommend extreme care – probably best to simply act like a shepherd.
– Alert other drivers. Yes, you can stop your car and let other people know that a turtle is crossing the road. Not a good idea at 100 kilometers per hour, perhaps, but certainly feasible on many side roads.
-Let them nest in peace. If one arrives in your yard, keep the pets away, and let the children watch quietly from a respectful distance more than ten feet away. Think about the respect we give to pregnant women, and give the pregnant turtle the same courtesy. If she does nest, you can put a piece of chicken wire (not mosquito netting – that will trap the baby turtles in the fall) over the nest. Then, wait. Given the right amount of sun and rain, baby turtles should emerge in September.

One of the joys of living here is the annual spectacle of the June turtles. If you still think you must drive so fast that you ignore the crossing turtles, may I respectfully suggest you consider moving to downtown Phoenix or Las Vegas or Toronto, or one of our other larger urban centers, where you won’t have to be inconvenienced by other living creatures. Learning to share the landscape with wild animals is part of what it means to live here. We might start with courtesy to turtles, and then extend it to frogs, birds, butterflies, bears and all the other animals that lived here long before our ancestors decided to settle in North America.

Not everyone can personally save a blue whale, or a black rhinoceros, but everyone can drive responsibly, and, like a good boy scout, help the occasional turtle across the road.

 

 

 

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