Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists
February 6, 2014
Enjoy Field Naturalists’ Wet and Wild!
By Cathy Keddy
The Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) 2013-2014 public lecture series, Knowing and Caring Connect Us to Nature, continues February 20 with its 5th presentation, “Wet and Wild!” Anyone who possesses a curiosity or appreciation for wild nature will enjoy these lectures. Cottagers, hunters, fishermen, canoeists, hikers, campers, artists and seasoned field naturalists alike will find something to interest them as we explore what lives in Lanark County and how best to protect it for future generations. Refreshments are offered at each lecture.
Many wetland species, such as the ones in the photos above, are dependent upon annual flood pulses: (a) white ibis (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), (b) Mississippi gopher frog (M. Redmer), (c) dragonfly (C. Rubec), (d) tambaqui (M. Goulding), (e) furbish lousewort (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), and (f ) Plymouth gentian (Paul Keddy).
At this upcoming meeting we will take a look on the wet side of Lanark County. Dr. Paul Keddy, a professor of ecology for over 30 years and author of Earth, Water, Fire: An Ecological Profile of Lanark County, will give a presentation on wetland communities—the places you have to wear big boots. He has studied wetlands, forests and other upland communities of the Ottawa Valley, the Maritimes, and the Gulf of Mexico. Dr. Keddy has authored several prize-winning books on ecology and received a National Wetlands Award for Science Research. He has advised groups including The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, and Earthjustice.
All life contains water. From distant space, Earth appears as a mosaic of blue and green, blue for water, green for plants. This talk will be about the connections between green and blue—wetlands. The surrounding uplands interact with the low wetlands. For example, amphibians, such as tree frogs, over-winter in the forest, while nutrients and runoff from the forest enter the wetland.
Wetlands have always influenced us. Early civilizations first arose along the edges of rivers in the fertile soils of floodplains. Wetlands continue to produce many benefits for humans—along with fertile soils for agriculture, they provide food including fish and waterbirds. Additionally, wetlands have other vital roles that are less obvious. They produce oxygen, store carbon, and process nitrogen. Of course, wetlands have also been a cause of human suffering, such as providing habitat for mosquitoes that carry malaria. And, for thousands of years, human cities in low areas have flooded during periods of high water. Philosophers and theologians may enquire how it is that one system can be both life-giving and death-dealing.
This promises to be an entertaining night—fish that breathe air and eat fruit, mosses that drown trees, plants that eat insects, and frogs that climb trees. We will also be introduced to the world’s largest wetlands, wetlands that perch on hillsides, wetlands that burn, and of course, wetlands that flood. Our neighbourhood wetlands and what we can do to conserve them will also be featured. Wetlands are one of the most productive habitats on Earth, and they support many kinds of life.
Signed copies of Dr. Keddy’s book on Lanark County’s natural heritage will be available for purchase at the meeting.
Hear about wet and go wild, at MVFN’s next lecture, “Wet and Wild,” where Dr. Keddy will describe the wonders of wetlands on Thursday, February 20, 7:30pm at Almonte United Church, 106 Elgin St., Almonte. All are welcome ($5 fee for non-members). For further information please contact MVFN’s Program Chair Cathy Keddy at 613-257-3089.
Which forest is healthier? Lecture report by Christine Hume
Which forest is healthier? If you selected the first one pictured below you are on the right track. At the recent Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) talk “Coarse Meaty Debris: The Significance of Large Dead Animals in our Forests” given by Dr. Paul Keddy, we learned that a forest that has a healthy mixture of living trees, fallen decomposing trees, and dead standing trees is a healthy forest ecosystem. The talk focused on the deciduous forests of eastern North America.
Many of the forests in this area were cut by the end of the last century, so most of the ancient old growth forests are long gone. Slowly our deciduous forests have come back; some of the key indicators to help judge the health of these forests were discussed. The presence of diagnostic species such as spring ephemerals (e.g. Trillium), Wood Warblers and Salamanders are good signs. Additional indicators include: more big trees, canopy composition, a diverse herbaceous layer, wildlife trees, woodpecker nesting trees, and coarse woody debris. The woody debris is a major source of biological diversity, allowing ferns, mosses and fungi to thrive.
It is important for landowners with forested property to understand the benefits of maintaining and managing biological diversity. We learned that it is beneficial to a wide range of plants, animals and insects to let a tree that falls in the woods—just lie there. A general rule of thumb is to leave 8 fallen trees per acre—the bigger the tree the better!
Dr. Keddy then noted that as he was preparing the talk and thinking about the benefits of “woody debris” – the phrase “meaty debris” came to mind. The talk next focused on the importance of “coarse meaty debris” (animal carcasses) and the contribution it makes to a healthy forest. Of particular interest to me, was the description of the simple study conducted by Dr. Keddy and his wife Cathy on their property. On a beaver pond they set up a man-made carcass—a pile of trim (meat and bone scraps) from their local butcher. Then they recorded detailed field notes and observations over a period of 3 – 10 days noting which birds and mammals came to feed on the “carcass”. We were very surprised to learn that the first bird that came to feed on the meaty debris was a tiny little chickadee. It was feeding on the fat of the carcass. Next in the carcass line-up was a couple of crows, then turkey vultures, then a large gathering of crows and ravens; several coyotes and so on. It was a powerful demonstration of the number of species that will feed on carcasses and may depend on the availability of ‘meaty debris’ for survival.
The first bird to visit and feed on the ‘artificial’ carcass was a tiny chickadee. Photo Cathy Keddy
Another study that was conducted in Algonquin Park was presented— the ‘meaty debris’ in this instance included deer and moose carcasses. Species that eventually found the carcasses included: ravens, turkey vultures, fox, black bear, otter, and wolf. Black bears are known to be carrion feeders. There is a huge array of species that feed on carcasses. They are a centre of biodiversity. The bodies are cleaned up—animals may tear, grind, pick, gnaw and disperse pieces of the carcass. Anything remaining goes back into the soil. After a few weeks there is nothing left. Quite fascinating really!
It was also interesting to learn about the 68 species of burying beetles. The beetles bury small carcasses; lay their eggs in the carcass and their young then feed off of it. And then Dr. Keddy presented some examples of how humans can interfere with the circle of life – and keep it from running smoothly.
Given a total deer population for Ontario of 400,000, (estimated by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources), the range of deer i.e. covering about 40% of the area of the province, and a natural annual mortality rate of 10%, the natural deer carcass density would be approximately 1 carcass/10 km2. The annual removal of potential carcasses through hunting (60,000 – 70,000, estimated by OMNR) is high relative to the 40,000 animals that naturally become “meaty debris.” The removal of deer by hunting results in a steady drain of carcasses, nitrogen, phosphorus, and calcium from our forests. This probably has a significant negative impact on all the species that feed on carcasses.
And going back 10,000 years Dr. Keddy briefly discussed “megafauna” and the big carcasses of that era, now missing, including: woolly mammoth; sabre-toothed cat; giant ground sloth and more. The cause of the demise of these giant creatures at the end of the last ice age is widely debated. We saw photos of hand-chiseled spearheads that were found along with the remains of some of these gigantic mammals. It is suspected that our human ancestors became a bit too skilled at hunting and likely were largely responsible for exterminating the megafauna.
This talk really made me think of the circle or web of life – and how interconnected and interdependent the trees, plants, mammals, insects are on each other.
How can we contribute to keeping our forests healthy?
Find out what is being done with road kill that is collected? Instead of it being incinerated or disposed of, can some be distributed in managed forests to support a healthier ecosystem? Can some be put where naturalists can observe and learn the effects of meaty debris?
Increase public awareness that dead trees and carcasses in the woods are an essential part of nature— a “good thing,” not something to be offended by— they will be cleaned up by nature itself.
Resources: To learn more about our forests and the Managed Forest Program, check the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources website at http://www.mnr.gov.on.ca/en/. If you are interested in volunteering and helping with forest management projects, refer to information provided by OMNR, the Ontario Forestry Association (http://www.oforest.ca/) and the Eastern Ontario Model Forest http://www.eomf.on.ca/ . For more information about the research work of ecologist Dr. Paul Keddy, please visit his website at http://www.drpaulkeddy.com/
Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists
January 3, 2013
Death’s Bounty in the Forest
The Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists’ (MVFN) 2012-2013 public lecture series, Nature Beneath Our Feet, continues January 17 with the fourth presentation, “Coarse Meaty Debris: The Significance of Large Dead Animals in Our Forests.” You do not need to be an expert to enjoy the presentations—just possess a curiosity or appreciation for wild nature. Cottagers, hunters, fishermen, canoeists, hikers, campers, artists and seasoned field naturalists alike will find something to interest them as we explore what lives in Lanark County and how best to protect it for future generations. Refreshments are offered at each lecture.
This lecture will be presented by Dr. Paul Keddy, a biologist and writer now living in the forests of Lanark County. A professor of ecology for 30 years, he has published over 100 scholarly papers. He achieved international designation as a Highly Cited Researcher, has received awards from several scientific societies, and locally, is an MVFN-designated Champion for Nature. He has published several books used in university courses, including Wetland Ecology: Principles and Conservation. His recent lectures have included Washington, Toronto, Madrid, and Lyon. This year he will start with a lecture in Almonte, on a topic that is new and timely, the role of death in winter forests.
Within hours on a sunny morning in March, a pile of trim on a beaver pond in Lanark County (above) attracted a bald eagle (below), a coyote and 21 crows and ravens.
To prepare us for death’s bounty, Dr. Keddy will first give us a brief overview of forest restoration. There are, he says, a few simple steps which we can all take to begin to restore our native forests. He wrote about these steps in a scholarly paper back in 1996 (see www.drpaulkeddy.com) and said encouragingly, “It is entirely possible for us to restore large tracts of native forest this century, to repair the damage our species has caused. This will require, of course, time, since trees grow slowly. Hence, it is better to start sooner than later!”
This background leads naturally and ultimately to the topic of death in our forests. Large dead trees and large dead animals are vital to healthy forest ecosystems, and can be considered two indicators of restored forests. There is a natural rate of mortality and the forest floor would at one time have been strewn with both dead trees (slow to decay) and dead animals (fast to decay).
The importance of dead big trees is already rather well understood Dr. Keddy says. Scientists have known for years about the importance of dead trees, both standing and fallen. Standing dead trees, sometimes known as snags, provide important wildlife habitat. They provide holes and dens for wild species including woodpeckers, flying squirrels, tree frogs and porcupines. Some have called such trees ‘apartment buildings for nature.’ Fallen dead trees, known as ‘coarse woody debris,’ have received somewhat less attention. However, fallen dead wood is vital to forests. Fallen dead trees also provide habitat for animals, particularly reptiles and amphibians (e.g., salamanders, frogs). A piece of coarse woody debris will be teeming with more life than when it was standing alive and erect—a life after death experience! Hence, when large logs are removed from forests, many plant and animal species suffer.
But what about big, dead animals? This will be Dr. Keddy’s main focus as we know least about this aspect of forest ecology. Today this means mostly deer, but in the recent past moose, elk and caribou were also important. He adds, “But I want to make it clear from the start that this general principle applies way beyond Lanark County and beyond forests. Think of a dead elephant in South Africa, or a dead Bison in Alberta. These are not aberrations, or tragedies, but the basis of an enormous food web and a sign of a healthy ecosystem.” We can call dead animals ‘coarse meaty debris’ to emphasize similarities to coarse woody debris. They are large pieces of biological material that, left in place, will support a rich variety of other species. Their great value in energy and nutrients contributes to their far more rapid disappearance relative to dead trees. A tree may take decades to disappear, while a carcass can take only days.”
Carcasses arise out of death. It may be death from starvation in deep snow, death from old age and disease, or death from a large carnivore such as a wolf. If you visit a winter carcass, the first thing that stands out is the amount of activity around it. The snow is often beaten flat, with trails radiating out in all directions. The carcass is gone in a matter of days, with even the bones scattered in all directions.
Large birds of prey such as Golden Eagles and Bald Eagles may arrive first. Smaller scavengers such as Crows and Ravens feed among the eagles. Turkey Vultures also come early. Many mammals including fishers, minks, and other weasels come to enjoy.
What is more surprising, perhaps, is the number of smaller birds that are attracted to carcasses, such as woodpeckers, nuthatches, and chickadees. Keddy says, “Think of all the birds that visit a feeder to eat suet. A suet feeder is really a small carcass for wild birds. It replaces a food source they used to find whenever wolves or cougars killed a moose or deer.”
Even the bones are soon dispersed. Bones contain phosphorus, a vital nutrient for producing more bones in living animals. Many kinds of small mammals arrive to gnaw on the bones.
Winter carcasses are vital to the survival of many animals. Summer carcasses have their own story, since many kinds of summer birds and insects participate in the feast. There may, or may not, be time for Dr. Keddy to talk about burying beetles, but the topic of carcasses is a good place to begin a long cold winter. Perhaps Sam McGee already knew this story.
Discover which species visit a winter carcass feeding station in Keddy’s forest and what may feed on you if you succumb to the cold while snowshoeing. Tell us about animals you have seen feeding on winter carcasses. Let’s start the conversation about how we get more large carcasses back in our forests. Dr. Keddy’s lecture “Coarse Meaty Debris: The Significance of Large Dead Animals in Our Forests” will be held at 7:30 pm on Thurs. Jan. 17, 2013, Almonte United Church, 106 Elgin St., Almonte. All are welcome ($5 fee for non-members). For further information please contact MVFN’s Program Chair Cathy Keddy at 613-257-3089.
by Pauline Donaldson
The Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) held their Spring Gathering 2011 and AGM May 19th at the Almonte Civitan Community Hall. The evening was a celebration of wild nature and a tribute to those who help champion it including keynote speaker Paul Keddy, and Mike McPhail (MVFN Champion for Nature for 2011). The over one hundred members of MVFN and the public in attendance were treated to a delicious banquet served by Civitan volunteers.
MVFN President Joyce Clinton presided over a short business meeting during which MVFN’s officers for the 2011-2012 year were elected. Returning to MVFN’s board of directors are Joyce Clinton, President; Janet McGinnis, Vice President; Mike McPhail, Past President; Janet Fytche, Secretary; Cathy Keddy, Program Chair; Brenda Boyd, Chair of Environmental Education; Bill Slade, Chair Environmental Issues; and Janet Snyder, Social Committee. Newly elected to the board of directors are Elisabeth DeSnaijer, MVFN Treasurer; Ken Allison, MVFN Chair Publicity; and Bob McCook, MVFN Director at Large.
Clinton reported on the year’s highlights, including a recent significant change to MVFN’s status. “I am pleased to announce that through the efforts of the board of directors and in particular Cathy Keddy and Howard Robinson, the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists is now officially a charitable organization. To help the board gain a clearer focus for the future, we held a visioning meeting in August last year. Our financial pulse is strong and healthy. Our treasurer Howard Robinson will be stepping down this year. I want to thank Howard for all his hard work over the last 3 years. Referring to other highlights with implications for children and youth Clinton stated, “The Environmental Education committee (Chaired by Brenda Boyd) has also begun the process of developing a plan for an MVFN Young Naturalists Program. The project is still in the pilot project stage, but it is a very exciting step for our group.”
A special part of the evening was presentation of the 2011 MVFN Champion for Nature Award, given to individuals or groups who make outstanding contributions to the natural world in the Mississippi Valley. “This year we are awarding the MVFN Champion for Nature Award to Mike McPhail” said Clinton. “Mike was born and raised in Almonte . . . a geologist by training and has many passions in the field of nature. As MVFN’s vice president for three years, then president for three, Mike continues to serve on MVFN’s board.” Without a doubt, many MVFN projects would not have taken place without the driving force of Mike McPhail, a quintessential organizer, natural public speaker and leader, and a man with a passion and curiosity for our natural world. To mention a few such projects: Mike researched and organized MVFN’s first bioblitz which was held on the Bell property in Mississippi Mills in September 2009. This bioblitz quickly become a model for other clubs. Another project close to Mike’s heart is MVFN’s Habitat Creation which has resulted in hundreds and hundreds of blue-bird houses for our feathered friends as well as duck nesting platforms and other habitat projects still in the works.
Mike was unable to attend the evening due to illness, however the award was accepted on Mike’s behalf by his wife Peggy McPhail and daughter Christine (photo above).
Following the banquet and business meeting, the audience settled in for local ecologist Dr. Paul Keddy’s presentation “Natural Faces of Wild Mississippi Places.” “These [wild] species don’t come to meetings and don’t vote, so it is easy for them to be overlooked. One of my tasks at this spring celebration is to talk on their behalf.” Keddy’s virtual tour gave the audience an opportunity to reconsider a few of Lanark County’s special natural places, or to learn about them for the first time. In Lanark County we live in the great northern deciduous forest region which also includes some relatively rare (globally) areas of deciduous forest over marble. In the county, as farm land returns to forest, we are seeing good signs, such as the return of fishers, natural predators of porcupines. We share the northern deciduous forest with Ontario’s only lizard species (the five-lined skink), but few of us realize just how many salamanders we share it with. ‘Salamander Central’, the forest is teeming with these seldom seem amphibians. In addition to the return of favorite birds, spring in the deciduous forest means that spring ephemerals are about. These include often fragile and beautiful perennial woodland plants, such as wild columbine. These plants must quickly sprout from the forest floor, grow and flower while the sun can still reach them through the leafless trees. Attached to the seeds of ephemeral species such as Trillium, Hepatica, and Dutchman’s breeches is a little oil-rich snack for ants. Attracted to this food, the ants spread the seeds, but colonization of new areas occurs only very slowly. When plants are lost from an area, re-colonization is very slow and not guaranteed, since, as Keddy pointed out, ants do not travel far and are not good at crossing highways. As soon as the leaves bud out on the trees the tree frogs arrive and summer begins again in the forest.
A second special place featured was the Innisville Wetland Complex, an area officially designated as an ANSI (Area of Natural or Scientific Interest) by the provincial government. It is a huge, significant wetland area and yet it is relatively unknown and unseen by visitors and locals alike. Why aren’t there interpretive signs and perhaps an access point to the Innisville Wetland Complex, and a boardwalk to allow people to safely enter and experience this important natural area?
A third local area discussed was the ‘Lanark Highlands Glacial Spillway Forest’, an area so named by Paul Keddy. This glacial spillway, near White Lake, is a remarkable area which was carved in the past by tremendous volumes of glacial meltwater which flowed past carrying and depositing loads of sand and gravel. Surprisingly, one corner of the spillway ‘valley’ actually overlaps part of Blueberry Mountain, but this is possible. As is often the case for unique areas such as this, a variety of interesting things are aggregated there. For example a rare southern tree species, the shagbark hickory has been found there, and in shady areas, walking fern (found in forests over marble) which spreads by producing new plants where the leaf tips touch the ground.
Keddy’s lecture was an excellent conclusion to MVFN’s 2010-2011 lecture series Biodiversity and Vital Connections for Fauna, Flora and People. People connected with the presentation, the local natural areas featured and were educated and inspired. MVFN’s lecture program is on break now until September but the canoe and summer outing season is just getting started. The next MVFN summer walk takes place June 19th at the Purdon Fen and the next canoe outing is scheduled for July 10th. Please watch the MVFN member email network or consult mvfn.ca for further details on these outings.
Press Release April 24, 2011
Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists
Natural Faces of Wild Mississippi Places
Take a walk on the wild side with the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) at MVFN’s Spring Gathering 2011 which will take place on Thursday, May 19 at the Almonte Civitan Community Hall. All are invited to enjoy a delicious banquet and keynote presentation “Natural Faces of Wild Mississippi Places” by internationally recognized ecologist and Lanark County resident Dr. Paul Keddy.
Dr. Keddy is well qualified to speak about the “wilder” features of our area that make it a unique and special place to live. He will speak on behalf of a natural world he is very passionate about: “Wild places are essential for the survival of other living beings, as well as for us. I will give you a tour of some of our wild places in Lanark County, and introduce a few of the special, wild species that live there. Driving along the highway, it is easy to forget that a forest or wetland over the next hill may have wild species that are every bit as amazing as those found in Africa or South America. The wilder parts of our county still harbour important wildlife species. Since these species don’t speak English, and don’t come to meetings, and don’t vote, it is easy for them to be overlooked. One of my tasks at this spring celebration is to talk on their behalf. I will have to be their representative.”
“The most important thing we can do for these species is to protect their homes, or speaking more precisely, their habitats. Cities, subdivisions, farmland and clear cuts are not places where most wild species can live. Among the remarkable species of Lanark County, a few of my personal favorites are the gray ratsnake, Blanding’s turtle, black-throated blue warbler, fishers, and gray tree frog. And let’s not forget the plants—some of these special plants include hackberry, walking fern, ginseng and Ram’s-head Lady-slipper. None of these will survive for future generations without the wild places in which they live. Although I will be emphasizing the importance of wild places for wild species, we should remember that it is not only wild species that need wild places. People do too. We have a deep need for wildness. We too need wild places, even if we sometimes have difficulty explaining why.”
When Dr. Keddy was younger he spent many hours canoeing on the Mississippi River and hiking in the surrounding forests. He is probably best known locally for his book Earth, Water Fire: An Ecological Profile of Lanark County. Now in its second printing as a revised edition, this book is an easy-to-digest, delightful and informative sail through the surprising natural history and recent geological history of this area. “In my lifetime many of the places I once loved have been turned into subdivisions or carelessly logged. Species that I used to see are missing, or there are only a few individuals remaining where they were once abundant. We forget so soon. For example, people have already forgotten that Passenger Pigeons, now extinct, are recorded as having nested in Beckwith Township. Today species including chorus frogs, musk turtles, and Blanding’s turtles and even eels are in decline. Even populations of bull frogs and snapping turtles, which were once abundant along the Mississippi are far less common. Our challenge is to identify the causes of the declines and reverse them. The key in nearly all cases is to maintain the habitat that the species need.”
“It is not all bad news though. The county now has a scientifically justifiable and officially recognized list of significant wetlands and natural areas. The latter are called Areas of Natural Scientific Interest (ANSIs). I will show where these areas are in Lanark County and talk about a few of the biggest, including the Innisville Wetland Complex at the west end of Mississippi Lake and the Lanark Highlands Spillway Forest in the north part of the county. Some species are also recovering from past harm inflicted on them. Ospreys and bald eagles, for example, are now more common, since we took the step of banning DDT. Fishers and wolves, which are important wild predators, are recovering from near extermination. Areas like the Burnt Lands Alvar and the Purdon Orchid Bog are now officially protected.”
Several years ago Dr. Keddy returned to live in Lanark County but continues to do restoration related work for wild places elsewhere. In this talk though, he does not want to talk about alligators in the Everglades, or salmon in San Francisco. These sorts of species get lots of attention from residents of Florida and California. He wants to talk about our own wild species, the ones in our own county in particular, and the Ottawa Valley in general. These wild species are ambassadors for the wild habitats in which they live.
MVFN invites you to take a walk on the wild side and celebrate spring with others who care about wild places. Come to Spring Gathering 2011, Thursday May 19 at the Almonte Civitan Community Hall, 500 Almonte St. (just west of Highway 29), Almonte. A reception beginning at 6:00 pm will be followed by a banquet and Dr. Keddy’s presentation “Natural Faces of Wild Mississippi Places.” Tickets ($30) are available at Read’s Book Shop (130 Lansdowne Ave.) in Carleton Place, Nature Lover’s Bookshop (62 George St.) in Lanark and Mill Street Books (52 Mill St.) in Almonte or by contacting MVFN’s Brenda Boyd (613-256-2706). For further information, please contact MVFN’s Program Chair Cathy Keddy at (613) 257-3089.
NOTE: Tickets must be purchased in advance by Friday May 13.