Connecting people with nature in Ontario's Mississippi Valley

Coarse Meaty Debris: Talk by Paul Keddy

Press Release

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.

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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.

 

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A Stitch in Time: Monitoring Indicator Species to Diagnose Ecosystem Vitality

Press Release

Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists

by Pauline Donaldson

A stitch in time: Monitoring indicator species, such as the Whip-poor-will, to diagnose ecosystem vitality

With spring just around the corner, I wonder how many of us will be startled again by the sudden haunting cry of the Whip-poor-will on a warm evening. As the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) Big Picture Conservation lecture series continues, the focus will be on indicator species—birds including the Whip-poor-will, and other diverse species—whose health is a touchstone for the health of entire communities of living things. For this lecture MVFN is pleased to welcome back Dr. William Crins, Senior Conservation Ecologist with the Parks & Protected Areas Policy Branch at OMNR, Peterborough. In 2006 Crins made a tremendous impression on MVFN members who continue to be inspired by his closing slide listing the “7 Things We Can Do” (for the natural world).

Bill Crins has devoted his career to the study of living things, specializing in the evolution and ecology of important grasses and sedges. In the early 70’s Dr. Crins worked as interpretive naturalist at Algonquin Park and later conducted biological inventories and assessments to develop the park’s Nature Reserve Zone system. As Senior Conservation Ecologist, he now applies his knowledge of conservation and biodiversity to projects such as Ontario’s Ecological Land Classification system, the development of old growth forest policy, and the inventory of Ontario’s habitat resources including Species at Risk habitat mapping guidelines.

What can we learn about entire ecosystems just by looking at select individual species? Interestingly, the answer is quite a lot, but the reasons are as complex as the physiology and lifecycles of the species themselves. For example, species such as frogs might be considered ‘indicator’ species because they are particularly sensitive to the quality of the water they are in, absorbing oxygen and pollutants through their skin. So monitoring their health provides us with an indication of the health of the entire aquatic ecosystem and this allows us to identify and solve problems before they become more serious. Also, certain ‘keystone’ species may be useful as indicator species because they play a pivotal role in the functioning of entire ecosystems—their absence would have major impacts on a broad range of species. The beaver is an example of a keystone species as is sugar maple. Species with special habitat requirements may also be good indicators of an ecosystem’s condition. Birds are particularly noted as indicators of overall environmental health. Aerial insect foragers, such as the Whip-poor-will, are in serious trouble in some areas.

Dr. Crins will explore what determines ecosystem vitality and how indicator species are used. Ideally a suite of indicator species would include species from different organism groups and could be used to measure vitality at different scales such as a woodlot, Algonquin Park, the Algonquin to Adirondack corridor, or even the entire deciduous forest region of North America. Examples of potentially good indicator species (e.g. Whip-poor-will, Lake Sturgeon) or guilds of species (e.g. pollinators) for eastern Ontario, i.e. that are easy to survey, are not too common or too rare, and which have particular life history features, will be presented.

To learn more about indicator species, what they reveal about the health of our ecosystems, and what we can do, attend MVFN’s March lecture. Dr. Crins’ presentation, “A Stitch in Time: Monitoring Indicator Species to Diagnose Ecosystem Vitality” will take place Thursday March 18, at 7:30 p.m., Almonte United Church, 106 Elgin St., Almonte. For further details, please contact Cathy Keddy at 613-257-3089, or visit www.mvfn.ca.

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MVFN Lecture by Dr. Paul Keddy- Earth, Water, Fire: Lanark County’s Natural Heritage

Press Release

Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists

October 6, 2008

Submitted by Pauline Donaldson

Ecologist Paul Keddy to share his passion for Lanark County’s natural heritage and special places

MVFN’s lecture series From the Ground, Up: Celebrating the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists’ First 20 Years continues Thursday, October 16th. The lecture Earth, Water, Fire: Lanark County’s Natural Heritage by Canadian ecologist Paul Keddy, should open hearts and minds to the inherent natural beauty of Lanark County.

Dr. Paul Keddy has been a Professor of Biology at the University of Guelph, University of Ottawa and Southeastern Louisiana University. He is author of several prize-winning books on ecology and a recipient of a National Wetlands Award for Science Research. Although his career studying wetlands, forests and other upland communities has taken him around Ontario and far away to the swamps of Louisiana, his love and appreciation for the local Lanark natural environment has been ever present. So much so that in 1999 he wrote Earth, Water, Fire: An Ecological Profile of Lanark County, one of the most comprehensive books on the ecology of our area – a must-read for newcomers and a plea to protect natural spaces. Paul Keddy continues to champion local natural conservation efforts and occasionally lead nature walks.

In some ways, Lanark County can be thought of as a model in miniature for all of Eastern Ontario. Regions once flooded by the Champlain Sea share features with areas east to Montreal. Landforms and forests of the northwestern parts are reminiscent of Algonquin Park, and some areas of rich agricultural land are not unlike southern Ontario. In other ways, Lanark County is unique. The number of breeding birds is higher here than almost anywhere else in Ontario. The Frontenac Axis rivals the Niagara Escarpment in its beauty and biological significance. It is gratifying and exciting to learn more about the special and often fragile places here – areas where the loggerhead shrike may nest, the Purdon Orchid Fen, Pakenham Mountain, and Wolf Grove, to name a few. As we explore Lanark, we will see which of its features are typical of the Ottawa Valley, and which are unique.

The lecture by Paul Keddy takes place at 7:30 PM, October 16th at the Almonte United Church, 106 Elgin St., Almonte. Free for MVFN members and $5 for guests. All are welcome. For further information, please contact MVFN’s Program Chair Cathy Keddy at 613-257-3089 or see MVFN’s website at www.mvfn.ca .

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