Connecting people with nature in Ontario's Mississippi Valley

Exploring the Wonders of Purdon Conservation Area

by Cheryl Morris

On Thursday February 18, 2016, the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) will host the fifth presentation of the season. The theme for the current series is “Naturally Special Places.” The event will be held in the Social Hall of Almonte United Church, 106 Elgin St., Almonte Ontario at 7:30 pm.

Our guest speaker for the evening will be Shannon Gutoskie and her presentation is entitled “Purdon: Uniquely Natural.” Shannon is the Community Relations Coordinator for the Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority (MVCA) and has many years of media and communication experience in the public and non-profit sectors.

Being a newcomer to the Mississippi Valley, Shannon has enjoyed exploring all that the area has to offer. In her presentation on February 18, she will take us on a journey into a fascinating world found within our local area that can only be described as “naturally special,” the Purdon Conservation Area. It is one of the “Seven Wonders of Lanark County” and is home to the largest colony of Showy Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium reginae) in Canada. This rare plant is a member of the orchid family.  It is native to North America and is restricted to the northeast region of the United States and the southeast regions of Canada. This beautiful orchid has vanished from much of its historical range due to threats such as habitat loss, wetland drainage, and over-zealous horticultural collectors. It grows in wetlands such as “fens” and also open wooded swamps.

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Photo banner,  MVCA

The main area within the Purdon wetland is classified as a fen, which is defined as: “A peatland characterized by surface layers of poorly-to-moderately composted peat, with often well-decomposed peat near the base.” The Showy Lady’s Slipper grows mainly in mossy hummocks within this fen. What started out as a small cluster of native orchids in the 1930’s when it was discovered by Joe Purdon, has grown into a colony of more than 16,000 blooms! After purchasing the property in 1984 with the help of the Nature Conservancy of Canada, MVCA pledged to preserve the site for public enrichment. The conservation authority cares for the colony by following a management plan that was created by Ted Mosquin, a well-known ecologist, who has volunteered his expertise since the mid-1980’s. The active management of the site consists of some tree clearing to allow more light to the fen, water level management through the beaver pond (also known as Purdon Lake), and hand pollination. The MVCA offers an Adopt-An-Orchid Program to support the upkeep of this unique and vital conservation area.

From late spring until early autumn, the Purdon Conservation Area is open daily from dawn until dusk for the nourishment of body, mind, and spirit. Spanning a three-week period of time in June, visitors can stroll along an accessible boardwalk for a close-up view of the orchids. Families can enjoy self-guided hikes through an uplands (hardwood) forest or experience “extreme birding” along the boardwalk of a rare fen wetland. The Ted Mosquin Highland Trail is a more challenging 1.3 km. route along the shores of Purdon Lake and into the woodland that surrounds the orchid colony. Interpretive signs lead you through the site, identifying the plants and wildlife and telling the Purdon story. Directions to Purdon Conservation Area are available on the MVCA website at mvc.on.ca/places-to-see/purdon

Please join us for this delightful and informative presentation. Refreshments and discussion follow the talk. There is a non-member fee of $5. For further information, please contact MVFN’s Program Chair, Gretta Bradley at

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The sounds and rhythms of nature

by Cheryl Morris

On Thursday, January 21, 2016, the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) will host the fourth presentation of their lecture series which is based on the theme ‘Naturally Special Places’. The event will be held in the Social Hall of Almonte United Church, 106 Elgin St., Almonte, Ontario at 7:30 pm.

Our guest speaker for the evening will be Chad Clifford, and he has entitled his presentation “Exploring the Soundscapes of Naturally Special Places.” Mr. Clifford is a soundscaping specialist and works to record nature’s symphony of sounds. He will provide an introduction to soundscaping including the aesthetic qualities of nature sounds and how nature-based recordings are used in research. A glimpse at Cornell’s Raven Pro software will demonstrate the power of technology in studying the sounds nature provides to those who are intent on listening. Chad will describe some of the common and not-so-common gear used for nature recording, including do-it-yourself options for microphones. Numerous recordings made by the speaker will be played throughout the talk. The presentation will also describe the Mississippi Madawaska Land Trust’s efforts to collect data in support of their biological monitoring of properties, a function with which Chad has been intimately involved. As well he will touch on some public education events that are offered by this important group.

Photo by TK Marsh

Photo by TK Marsh

Mr. Clifford is the founder and director of “Wilderness Rhythms”, a  Lanark-based company with a focus on facilitating a deeper appreciation and respect for nature through quality wilderness experiences and the introduction of practical survival priorities – shelter, water, fire and food – plus an awareness of the aesthetic essence that is a part of nature. Mr. Clifford is author of the book “Wilderness Rhythms: Playing Music to Enhance the Nature Experience”. Through this insightful and sensitively-written book, Chad shares his extensive understanding of traditional woods and survival skills and nature lore, as well as his experience of injecting music into nature-based activities. The second section of the book is written in the form of a journal through which the author uncovers how a state of expanded awareness can be reached when one practices within the realm of nature.

Mr. Clifford states, “With the expanding intrusion of the noisy and mechanized world, our natural soundscapes could soon be listed as endangered. How fortunate we are in the Lanark Highlands to still find natural soundscapes where we can attain at least 15 minutes of nature’s voice uninterrupted. Beyond the aesthetics of natural soundscapes, we are collecting hundreds of hours of soundscape data within the protected land trusts of our area.”

Please join MVFN for this informative and fascinating presentation. Refreshments and discussion will follow the talk. There is a non-member fee of $5. For further information, please contact MVFN’s Program Chair, Gretta Bradley at

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Ontario Nature “Along the Snake Fence Way”

By Gretta Bradley

“Along the Snake Fence Way”, is not high art. It probably falls into the category of young adult literature really. It doesn’t require much of the reader. But the author, Vicki Branden’s use of a snake is intentional. If she had substituted cute baby pandas, our horror would have been absolute and it would have been a very different story. Not only would the story have veered into the ridiculous, but the author would have lost an opportunity to ask us to think about our relationship with the natural world. A boy in the story sits down by the fence to watch a snake basking on a rock in the weak spring sunshine admiring its beautiful markings and iridescent sheen.  As if a switch has been flipped, the boy is jarred out of his reverie with the arrival of older boys, rocks in hand, intent on “snake bashing.”  Now in dangerous social territory, the boy chooses to take a stand for the snake, and suffers for it at the hands of his bigger counterparts. Standing up for creatures that others deem as not worthy of concern is not for the faint of heart.

Dr. Anne Bell, Director of Conservation and Education for Ontario Nature, and guest speaker at the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalist lecture series; “Naturally Special Places” spoke this evening on the topic “On Guard for Nature- Ontario Nature’s Fight to Uphold our Endangered Species Act”. Ontario Nature’s stated mission is “to protect wild species and wild spaces”.  Constant vigilance of the Province’s efforts to implement the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has occupied a significant part of the organization’s resources. Dr. Bell warned that, unfortunately, according to the 2015 report on Ontario’s Biodiversity Strategy, progress to date is not encouraging.  There has been no improvement for more than 2/3rds of Ontario’s species at risk. Forest and wetlands along with 22% of Ontario’s species at risk are in decline and some of our rare ecosystems are without protection.

Dr. Bell pointed to poor implementation of the ESA as a contributing factor. The government ministry responsible for the ESA, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF), has been cited in a recent report released by Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner (ECO), as just “going through the motions”.  The ECO called for meaningful enforcement of the ESA for the protection of our most vulnerable species.

Before launching into the main topic of her talk, Dr. Bell wanted us to know that going to court is a last resort for Ontario Nature. Typically, they fulfill their mission through conservation, education and public engagement. They own and manage 24 nature reserves. They promote citizen science by engaging hundreds of volunteers to gather information on Ontario species. They work with farmers, aggregate producers, and forestry companies etc. to promote sustainable business practices. Ontario Nature also engages youth through their Youth Summit for Biodiversity.

Dr. Bell pointed out that it is their role as environmental watchdog, promoting the creation of strong laws, policies and regulations, which sometimes takes Ontario Nature into the courtroom. In 2007, the Ontario government passed what would be the gold standard of legislation for the protection of endangered species, the Endangered Species Act. Unfortunately, in 2012, the government brought forward an omnibus budget bill that contained amendments that would significantly weaken the ESA. Mobilizing their Nature Network members and many other environmental groups resulted in the government deciding to remove the amendments from the 2012 budget bill.

The victory was short lived as the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry circumvented the process that required the approval of the Ontario Legislature by putting forward a regulation under the ESA requiring Cabinet approval only.  The regulation hobbles the effectiveness and contradicts the very intent of a law passed by our elected representatives. Harmful industrial activities have exemptions from its provisions in the forestry, early mining exploration, aggregates, hydro, wind facilities, drainage works, infrastructure, and residential and commercial development sectors. Additionally, it sets a lower standard of protection and drastically reduces government oversight of activities harmful to vulnerable species.

Unwilling to stand on the sidelines, Ontario Nature, with CPAWS-Wildlands League, found themselves in court. The outcome they sought was to have the regulation deemed illegal and of no force and effect.  Ontario Nature’s lawyers would argue that a regulation couldn’t be inconsistent with the object and purpose of its enabling statute. The intent of the ESA is to protect and recover species at risk. The intent of the exemption regulation according to the MNRF appears to be increasing administrative efficiency and reducing burdens on businesses engaged in activities that might harm species at risk and their habitats.  Additionally, Ontario Nature argued that the Minister failed to fulfil a legal requirement to determine whether the regulation would have a significant adverse effect on each the 155 species that would be impacted by the regulation before recommending it to Cabinet.  In the end, the court agreed with the government’s arguments that the Minister did not need to consider impacts of the proposed regulation on individual species, and that the purpose of the Act included the promotion of economic development.

Bloodied but not down, Ontario Nature recently won the right to appeal the decision, something that has never been granted to any environmental group with respect to the ESA. The Ontario Court of Appeal is expected to hear the case spring or summer of 2016.

Not for the faint of heart.

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NOTE: To support conservation work for species-at-risk: consider becoming a member of Ontario Nature, or, write to Provincial and Federal MP’s about legislation for species-at-risk. 

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Ordinarily Extraordinary

NOTE: The following article by MVFN Program Chair Gretta Bradley reflects on a 2015 MVFN presentation by Almonte native Dr. James Coupland. His presentation “Pesticides and Pollinators: What’s Happening Down in the Pasture?”  highlighted the importance of a healthy, biologically diverse landscape and the wild pollinators on which this depends.

By Gretta Bradley

The B-ee is iconic. As if spilling from a Chiclet box, the alphabet sprawled across the top of the blackboard gave us our first insights, as children, into this important pollinator. The letter “B” was represented by that smiling yellow and black bug with impossibly small wings. “Worker bee”, “busy as a bee”, and “honey bee” were already part of our growing understanding of this cheery, sweet, industrious insect. Needless to say, it was a bit of a shock when we came into contact with the pointy end. But we would eventually learn that in its flight from plant to plant it was, in fact, enabling plants to reproduce.

Now, modern agricultural practices such as pesticide use, habitat loss and climate change have come crashing headlong into this fundamental biological process, posing a serious threat to biodiversity.

Dr. James Coupland, co-founder of FarmForest Research and an authority on Integrated Pest Management (including the use of biological control systems) began his MVFN presentation “Pesticides and Pollinators: What’s Happening Down in the Pasture?” by asking us to think differently about seemingly ordinary places like meadows and pastures, with their meandering streams and low bogs. Explaining the concept of ‘Ecosystem Service’, Coupland helped us to look at the issues around our embattled pollinators and the role they play through a new lens.

The ‘Ecosystem Service’ approach looks in detail at nature’s products (e.g. food crops) and processes (e.g. tree roots draw water into the soil, filtering harmful bacteria, replenishing the water table and municipal water supplies) and determines their worth to our economy. We have traditionally resisted putting a number on our biodiverse natural spaces. Placing a monetary value on an ecosystem and the services it provides challenges the idea that they are “free”. However, as we have depleted these resources and disrupted the processes that support our quality of life and that of the natural world, putting a number on their value helps us to understand, in a very concrete way, that these things have not been without cost. Assigning a value allows ecosystem services to be accounted for, and damaging or destroying them clearly has a negative impact on the bottom line. Assigning value allows governments to make policy decisions based on measurable outcomes that allow for accountability. Wetlands offer a dramatic example. It is estimated that they are worth $2.64 trillion U.S. or $14,785 per hectare per year to the global economy.

Having established a frame of reference, Dr. Coupland turned to the role and value of a diversity of pollinators. Although the Rufous and Ruby-Throated hummingbirds, the Silvery Blue, Canadian Tiger Swallowtail, and Monarch butterflies, Hummingbird Clearwing moth, Paper wasp, the Hoverfly and Checkered Beetle are all pollinators, it is the 4,000 species of bees in North America, and 20,000 species of bee worldwide that are considered to be ecological keystone species for pollination. These species are at the very centre of a viable, functioning ecosystem. Lose them and we risk the collapse of those systems. And scientists are now really worried about collapsing wild bee populations. Our food supply (fruits, vegetables and other crops) as well as that of many birds and most other mammals will be severely impacted. Dr. Coupland used the environmental service model, to reinforce the scope of the challenges ahead. Pollination has been valued at $195 billion for global agriculture. Pollinators are now in decline-both in numbers and diversity, and bee-dependent plants are also declining. The cost of pollinator decline will be high and we ignore the problem at our (and those species with whom we share the planet) peril.

Carefully avoiding an overly simplistic explanation of a complex problem, Dr. Coupland discussed the possible culprits for our pollinator crisis. He warned against seeing the problem as having a single source. The research that promises the greatest potential to produce solutions looks at impacts caused by interaction of a variety of factors characteristic of a species under stress. Neonicotinoids (and other pesticides), fungicides, parasites, pathogens, and reduced plant diversity (some pollinators feed on only one type of plant) are all at work in ways that are not yet fully understood. More research needs to be done. That does not mean that efforts are not underway or that steps have not been taken. Neonicotinoid pesticides have been banned in the EU for 2 years and some will probably be removed for sale in Canada in the next few years, and companies are moving to ‘biosafe’ products. As individuals, we can plant pollinator friendly gardens/lawns, support efforts by organizations to protect and set aside wild spaces, and educate others and ourselves as to the importance of preserving our wild bee populations and their habitat.

If you are looking for additional information, ask your local librarian for “Status of Pollinators in North America”, published by the National Research Council of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Several printed copies are also available from the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists on loan, and a pdf of the publication can be found on MVFN’s website (just search for key word pollinator).

“Wild bees are our best pollinators. Without them, there would be few flowering plants to produce food, to provide habitat and to make the world beautiful.” ~ Dr. James Coupland

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Ontario Nature’s Battle for the Endangered Species Act

NOTE: featured photo by Joe Crowley: a Blanding’s Turtle, is THREATENED in Lanark County.  Another prominent at-risk species in Lanark County, is Rapids Clubtail dragonfly, ENDANGERED in Lanark County and found on the  Mississippi River in Mississippi Mills.  

submitted by Cheryl Morris for the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists

On Thursday, November 19, 2015, the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) will host the third presentation of this season’s lecture series, reflective of the theme “Naturally Special Places”. This event will be held in the Social Hall of Almonte United Church, 106 Elgin St., Almonte Ontario at 7:30 pm.

The guest speaker for the evening will be Dr. Anne Bell, Ph.D., Director of Conservation and Education for Ontario Nature. She has entitled her talk “On Guard For Nature—Ontario Nature’s Fight To Uphold our Endangered Species Act”. “Ontario’s naturally special places provide habitat for over 200 species at risk. These plants and animals and the places they rely on for survival are protected under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act (ESA)”, states Dr. Bell. At-risk species include the Blanding’s Turtle, Gray Ratsnake, Eastern Meadowlark, Whip-poor-will, Rapids Clubtail dragonfly, and the iconic Woodland Caribou.

When it was introduced by the Ontario government in 2007, the Endangered Species Act was considered the gold standard law for species protection in North America. However, in 2013, the province introduced a “regulation” which exempts major industries from the law’s protective requirements. “Major industries” include forestry, pits and quarries, mining, and hydro and residential development. In many cases, industries were given a free pass to kill endangered or threatened species and destroy their habitat, as long as the harm was “minimized”. “This is a disappointing decision for Ontario’s endangered and threatened wildlife”, stated Ecojustice lawyer Lara Tessaro. “The Endangered Species Act is intended to put species first—not to let their survival be balanced against competing industrial interests. That would tip the scale towards extinction.”

In an article submitted by Dr. Bell for Ontario Nature, she writes “Environmental protection is the key to a sustainable, prosperous future…MNR is proceeding with a “transformation” plan premised on weaker environmental standards and a dramatic reduction in government oversight of activities affecting our lakes, rivers, forests and wildlife…The government tells us we can’t afford to implement the ESA in the way it was intended. Yet what we really can’t afford is to sacrifice long-term economic, social and environmental health with short-term cost-cutting measures that undo important environmental protections.” The cost-cutting measures described by the MNR were preceded by severe budget cuts to MNR and Ministry of Environment. Since 1993, the ministries most responsible for managing and protecting ecosystem services—MNR and Ministry of Environment—had seen their budgets drop by 64%. They are the two most poorly funded ministries in Ontario.

In September 2015, the Ontario Court of Appeal granted Ontario Nature and Wildlands League the right to appeal the government regulation which would limit species protection by the ESA. The appeal will be argued by lawyers from Ecojustice, including Lara Tessaro, who states “The Court has signaled that our clients’ legal challenge to this regulation, which deprives endangered species of the law’s protection, is important to Ontarians”. During her presentation on November 19, Dr. Bell will explain the ins and outs of this legal challenge and provide an update on the case.

Please join MVFN for this very important presentation. Refreshments and discussion will follow the talk. There is a non-member fee of $5. For further information, please contact MVFN’s Program Chair, Gretta Bradley at .

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