Connecting people with nature in Ontario's Mississippi Valley

Turtle time (again) in Lanark County

LOCAL NOTE INJURED TURTLES:  Outside of Peterborough the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre has the following advice: “If you live outside of Peterborough, call us at 705-741-5000. We work with over 30 Turtle First Response Centres across Ontario – these are private clinics, or rehabilitators that we have trained in emergency treatment for turtles; the availability of these varies so please call us to arrange. We will be able to direct you to the appropriate one, while transfer to our hospital is being organized.” 

In our local area contact the Rideau Valley Wildlife Sanctuary near North Gower (258-9480) who works with OTCC and sends all of the serious injuries there. The benefit of going to RVWS first is that they can provide fluids and pain meds to the turtle before sending it to OTCC which can take a day or more.

 LOCAL NOTE AT RISK TURTLE NESTING:  If you are aware of a turtle nest at risk, please see the following note from Canadian Wildlife Federation Biologist, David Seburn.”It is turtle nesting season! We are collecting Snapping and Blanding’s Turtle eggs from roadside nests to incubate them and then release the hatchlings back into the wild. Roadside nests can’t be caged and without protection most of turtle nests get predated by Raccoons. If you see nesting Snappers or Blanding’s Turtles please email me the location and we will try and collect the eggs (davids at cwf-fcf.org). We are only permitted to collect nests from Ontario and are working in Ottawa, Lanark, and Leeds & Grenville Counties.”

NOTE: Re-printed below is an article on turtle nesting season written in 2009 by Dr. Paul Keddy and published in local print media on behalf of the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists. Dr. Keddy, is a local Lanark County resident,  scientist and author of many articles and books on wetlands and wildlife including Earth, Water, Fire: An Ecological Profile of Lanark County; Dr. Keddy’s website:  http://www.drpaulkeddy.com/  

June is here.  The nesting turtles are back! March is for maple syrup, in April it’s goodbye to the melting ice, 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!

Map turtles. photo Pauline Donaldson

Map turtles. photo Pauline Donaldson

 

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Most of the time turtles are rather secretive – hibernating nearly half the year on the bottom of lakes and pond. 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.

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 turtlemap turtleBlanding’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.

NESTING IS A DANGEROUS TIME!

So, for about 50 weeks out of 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 half the size of 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.

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 [completely irresponsible driver] . . .  to hit one with a car.

Turtle Parade

CAUTION PLEASE: Crossing the road!  In June, Lanark County turtles cross the roads to look for nesting sites.  The three species most often seen are the painted turtle (left), Blanding’s turtle (middle), and snapping turtle (right).  Please, drive carefully, and let them nest in peace. Images courtesy of Toronto Zoo Adopt-a-pond conservation program- 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.

Paul Keddy

NOTE: For more information on identifying Lanark County turtles, please visit a local bookshop or consult the Toronto zoo’s adopt- a- pond website  www.torontozoo.com/adoptapond/turtles.asp.

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Help reduce bird collisions all around Lanark County

Our windows reflect a lot of beauty, but please make sure the windows at your home or business are not harmful to birds. During the Almonte screening of The Messenger, a documentary film about the decline of songbird populations, the issue of fatal light attraction and collision with windows was highlighted. Two “striking” revelations from that film, and worth emphasizing particularly for our rural area of Ontario:

  • Windows that reflect natural surroundings (trees, hills, forest, water etc.) may present more of a hazard to birds than those reflecting an urban landscape
  • many more bird deaths could go unnoticed in a natural environment or in locations where industrial buildings are directly on the water (hydroelectric and other structures).

    Almonte built landscape circa 2015

There are ways to reduce collisions at home and elsewhere.

According to Safe Wings Ottawa:

“Residences are responsible for 44% of bird collisions, while low-rises (4 to 11 storeys) account for 55%, and high-rises less than 1%. This is because most collisions happen within 5 storeys of the ground, and there are many more houses and low-rise buildings than big towers.

Many of these incidences go unnoticed because homeowners are away during the day, in another room, or otherwise not aware when collisions occur. They also may not find any dead or stunned birds because these are quickly picked off by neighbourhood cats or other creatures.

So just because you haven’t witnessed many collisions does not mean your home is not killing birds — for every collision you witness, there may be dozens more every year. And that means treating any hazardous windows as well as clear deck railings can make a tremendous difference.”

The key to preventing collisions is to make your windows visible to birds by applying visual markers in a dense pattern, ideally with a maximum gap of 5 cm (2″) between pattern elements, on the exterior surface of the glass. Read on for tips and strategies for reducing collisions at home.”

Read more at Safe Wings Ottawa about how to ensure your house or business does not present a risk to birds; also what else you can do to help reduce bird mortality due to collisions by monitoring buildings, reporting collisions, rescuing birds and other volunteer activities.

Criteria for window patterns which help reduce collisions. See more details at http://safewings.ca/strategies/homes/

 

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Winter Wildlife Survival: Outwit, Outlast, Outplay

Survivor: Winter Wildlife Edition—Outwit, Outlast, Outplay 

NOTE: This story was originally published in 2013; a report by Elizabeth Wiles & Pauline Donaldson of the February 2013 MVFN lecture presentation by Patty McLaughlin (nee Summers), Wild Bird Care Centre.

A delightful, clearly delivered talk to the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists by Patty Summers from the Wild Bird Centre, February 2013 described the varied and intriguing ways wildlife prepare to survive winter. How do they do it? Summers divides wildlife winter-survivor strategies into three categories – outwit, outlast and outplay, with outwit being by far the most widely employed strategy.

Outwitting winter, Summers explained, involves turning the tables, knowing the science of cold and of snow and cold water to find the secret, hidden warmth. Fresh snow can be up to 90-95% air and is a good insulator. In the ‘subnivean’ space 15 cm under the snow, small mammals such as mice and voles inhabit a relatively cozy 0 degrees C space between snow and ground. They are not alone there; in fact an entire foodchain inhabits the subnivean space: bacteria, fungus, springtails, spiders, shrews, weasels etc. Likewise aquatic ‘outwitters’ seek out the relative warmth of deep water zones way below the ice. Cooler water sinks and stabilizes at 4̊ C with no circulation and there it has a higher concentration of dissolved oxygen than surrounding layers. Fish here eat less, move less or, like carp, bury themselves in mud. Some aquatic plants have turions which survive in the 4 degrees C water at the bottom of ponds. These turions, or overwintering ‘buds’, sink, but will outwit winter to rise again in spring, and grow new plants. Dragon flies stay in the water in the nymph stage. Another outwit strategy is ‘Build a four season home’. Bees do this. They consume honey for energy and form tight shivering clusters which are 32 degrees C in the middle. Individual bees regularly rotate position, with bees near the centre trading places with bees on the periphery so there is a better chance for survival. Waste is excreted outside the cluster.

Not surprisingly there are challenges faced by the ‘outwitters’, and some will not survive. Life in the subnivean space is risky. The insulating capability of snow depends on its density. Freeze-thaw cycles compact snow, reducing its insulating ability and allowing dangerous levels of carbon dioxide to accumulate. There is also the threat of hunters of the subnivean space. Foxes can hear prey under the snow and can leap and pounce through. Grey owls can locate prey 2 feet under the snow and plunge through a snow crust that can hold 175 pounds!

While outwit involves taking advantage of subnivean and deep water spaces, or building a four-season home during freezing weather, outlast involves becoming dormant and conserving energy. Or, as Summers described it, “dig deep and stay there”. This is the way of the frog, toad, ant and worm. Earthworms survive 6 feet underground in a slimy membrane. Ants burrow into the soil or under tree bark. Others such as groundhogs, chipmunks, and woodland jumping mice hibernate below the frost. Frogs and salamanders, who can absorb oxygen (O2) and emit carbon dioxide (CO2) through their skin, go deep underwater, as do turtles, who can survive but must dig very deep. Another slogan of the outlast survivors is “It’s better with friends”. Snakes can’t dig but they gather by the hundreds in tree stumps, holes, or in cracks or caves among rocks and share their warmth. Ladybugs do the same under bark and rocks or the south side of a house.

Dormancy or hibernation is another key ‘outlaster’ strategy. In an extreme example, some frogs cryopreserve themselves. As ‘frogcsicles’ their heart is stopped but their organs stay ‘alive’ with no oxygen or nutrients. They survive fatal freezing damage by eliminating water from inside their cells; no ice is formed inside their cells because, instead of water, cells are high in glucose which does not freeze easily. Box turtles and many insects use a freeze-tolerant mechanism; the arctic woolly bear caterpillar may freeze and thaw seven times before finding conditions right for it to pupate, often a matter of years. Some animals have a unique super cooling ability; using high sugars or sugar alcohols and excreting waste, they can lower their body temperature below freezing without becoming a solid. Mourning cloaks, slugs, snails, gall wasp larvae do this but it is risky if they touch ice or if it gets too cold. Perennial plants outlast winter as well, storing nutrients in roots below the frost line. Trees reabsorb valuable nutrients from leaves before the leaves are shed and form buds before winter. Conifers form protects them from snow load and as their roots go past the frost line for water, valves can shut off if ice is present.

Just as there are risks to outwitting winter, there are also risks when attempting to outlast winter. Turtles hibernating under the mud with their hearts beating only once every few minutes are totally vulnerable if they did not dig deep enough. They will be eaten if found because they will not wake up.

A third winter survivor strategy is ‘outplaying’ winter. Dress for winter, remain active and ‘play’ all winter despite the harsh conditions. Birds increase feathers and down layers, lose bright colours, eat more and spend nights in torpor, with lowered metabolic rates and body temperature. They keep their feet warm with extra feathers, and a heat-exchange blood circulation system. Some birds will tuck alternate legs up inside their feathers to keep them from freezing. “Who needs boots?” says Summers. One well-dressed ‘outplayer’ among the winter survivors is the ptarmigan with feathers around its toes and ankles and projections off its feet that look like mittens. Mammals will increase fur, change color to a dull white fur which has more air pockets for better insulation. They will fatten up with brown fat. Some small mammals like chipmunks and flying squirrels are active in their burrows and often emerge on sunny days. Squirrels are active all winter, as are deer, that ‘yard’ in an area of good browsing and shallow snow. They keep the snow beaten down with their trampling for ease of movement.

Another game of the outplayers says Summers is “Cache and Seek”. Birds, mammals, squirrels will hide (cache) extra food to use in winter. Many birds cache food in the fall and find it later by smell and in some cases by their amazing memory. ‘Bird brains?’ Beavers live in their houses with food stored nearby and muskrats make and live in mounds of vegetation called ‘push-ups’. They also establish food caches and bundle together for warmth. Others, such as weasels continue to hunt. Some owls have lopsided ears which allow them to locate prey through triangulation of sound. As mentioned, a grey owl can locate prey under deep snow and plunge through to catch prey. Another strategy is ‘form an alliance’. Crows roost together. Flying squirrels must nest in groups together. Large ungulates will follow group paths through the deep snow. In cities birds flock to roost near warm buildings or chimneys.

Which of these strategies is best? If there was an award for the best winter survivor amongst wildlife, which animal would it go to? At the conclusion of her presentation, Patty Summers, told us that for her, the star of ‘winter survivor wildlife’ is a bird, the golden crowned kinglet. This tiny bird does not enter torpor. It maintains a normal body temperature which is 3̊ C higher than other birds. This ultimate outplayer of winter also manages to find three times its weight in food daily, and may raise two broods per year – a marvel of activity!

 

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The not so hidden world of ‘human-related threats to birds’

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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Conservation: Community Forests

Community Forests Comunity Forests
When the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources downloaded management of County forests to County governments last year (2001), the County of Lanark decided to appoint a team of three experts (The Management Team)  to set up a Business Plan to manage the lands. Part of the team’s mandate was to involve the public in consultations throughout the process. Recently, the management team, produced a draft of the plan and sent it out to various groups for comments. Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) was one of those groups.MVFN has been involved with the process since the beginning. They attended public meetings and responded to survey questionnaires. MVFN member and Chair of the MVFN Natural Resources Issues Committee Dr. Jim Bendell, participated  on the plan’s advisory committee. Recently, a small group of interested MVFN members met to pour over the Draft Plan and submit it’s comments on behalf of MVFN.

Key to the response to the Draft Plan was an appeal for inventory of all of the natural aspects of the community forested lands, recognizing that good management of these resources cannot proceed in an orderly way without knowing what is there. In a call for a broadening of the vision for our community lands, MVFN also appealed to the County for more public input into the final document before it goes to County Council on Nov. 13, for approval.

Recognizing that our community forested lands contain more values that just timber production, values such as tourism, recreation, social and spiritual attributes,  MVFN recommends that these lands always remain within the public domain on behalf of the people of Lanark County.

MVFN welcomed  the opportunity to participate in this important challenge and offers to  help to advance the cause in anyway it can. Overall, MVFN congratulates the Management Team of Jim McCready, David Oliver and Chair and chief facilitator Gord Harrison for championing this project. Through their efforts and the process, the public is now aware that these lands exist.

Stand on guard for Canada!
(an open letter from Jim Bendell)Our lands and waters provide the nature we love and need ~ trees, birds, frogs, soil and much more. Should we not be concerned about the health and care of the provider?Twenty percent of the County of Lanark is land and water that is in Crown Land or our public lands. We are rich in natural resources. The Ministry of Natural Resources looks after our Lanark area forests and decides on their use. Considering the demands on our resources, are we and the Ministry doing the best job of resource care and management?Recently, the Province downloaded our Community Forests to the care of Lanark County. These lands and waters consist of some 43 properties totalling 12,000 acres and were essentially Crown Lands. A big difference now is we are locally and directly in control of this resource. The Council of Lanark County has established a team of consultants to examine and recommend what should be done with our forests. They are: Gordon Harrison, Jim McCready and David Oliver.

The team has held two public meetings and organized a steering committee to represent the views of the people. The committee includes a logger, trapper, hunter and fisher, snowmobiler, teacher and others, including me, for the Naturalists.

The team seems open to all kinds of suggestions and to want a best outcome for people and the land. Our Issues and Natural Resources Issues Committee have met with them, discussed the issues, and planned to visit some of the properties. All our welcome.

Where do we stand?  There is much interest in the properties from a number of users who make compelling arguments. A general view is that the forests must make money and not be a cost to the tax payer. We agree with the use of our resources, of course, but want to be sure that they are used well. Our history is replete with squandered natural wealth.

Good land use depends on good planning. For good planning there must be adequate inventory and evaluation of features as they are and might become. For example, where do we have an adequate and representative forest of old  growth Sugar Maple and how is it protected?  What will it return in tourism, recreation and knowledge? What helps in our management of Sugar Maple? We fear an adequate inventory of our resources has not been done. Yes, the trees have been mapped in standard forestry fashion(FRI maps) but there is much more to the forest than trees! What about ordinary, rare and uncommon features such as ecosystems like bogs, rocks and minerals, glacial effects, plants and animals scarcely looked for?

A second fundamental of good planning is to provide protected areas of representative and adequate natural features, especially those that are rare and uncommon. There are many reasons for this need but paramount are: to see, enjoy, and understand how nature works without the impact of humans and to obtain a base line to measure our progress in managing resources beyond our preserves. Give nature a chance!

We are convinced if nature in our Community Forests is adequately inventoried and protected we will derive the greatest benefits of all kinds. We produced a position paper as such which follows. We gave this to the consultants and members of the steering committee and hope it influences the outcome of their work. At present, their response is favourable but what action is taken remains to be seen.

What do you think should be done with our Community Forests? Will you help in our efforts? What should be done by the MVFN?

Please contact our President, Sandy Atack, at 256-6912 if you wish to talk about this important issue. It’s your environment.

Jim Bendell, Chair, Natural Resources Committee, MVFN.

MVFN’s position on our Community Forests
(Summary Approved by the Board of the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists)

1. The Community Forests of Lanark County, as with associated Crown Lands, contain many features that are unique and uncommon globally. Included are: rocks, minerals, fossils, glacial features, soils, waters and wetlands, plants, animals and human history.

2. The Community Forests and Crown Lands are public lands and the public determines their stewardship.

3. Natural features have immense values, including economic, cultural, spiritual, ecologic, educational, scientific and recreational.

4. The inventory of natural features on our public lands is
inadequate and therefore careful planning for their use is severely compromised. Immediate attention must be given to an adequate inventory of our Community Forests.

5. We must have protected areas that are adequate and representative of all natural values. Protected areas are essential to obtain the greatest benefits from natural values and from the best use of areas beyond ­ that are managed.

6. The MVFN will help as much as possible in the identification and care of natural values. We welcome questions and comments.

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