Connecting people with nature in Ontario's Mississippi Valley

MVFN’s Our Natural World: Conservation Challenges series

MVFN’s Our Natural World: Conservation Challenges  series

-notes on the first three presentations by Pauline Donaldson

The goal with the lecture series is to spread awareness and information about the natural world, offering a sense of kinship and fun as we hear about issues along with like-minded local folk! Each lecture is preceded by a nature ‘show-and-tell’ for anyone with something interesting to report. The featured guest speaker is introduced by a host for the evening and refreshments are always provided. There are always good insights from these lectures and it is hoped that this year’s series will help us learn what we can do for conservation of several groups or species which make up our natural world. The three lectures held so far have certainly done that.

In September we were truly inspired by nature-lover and local resident Jamie Fortune, Director of Eastern Canada for Ducks Unlimited, as he presented an introduction to our series. Jamie Fortune has traveled a great deal in his work with Ducks Unlimited, but told us “Lanark County is the nicest place to live in the world.” He said that we have a bounty of natural treasures and quality of life to enjoy here because of the beauty and pristineness of our natural world which is always so apparent to him when he returns home here after travel. Last year during Paul Hamilton’s talk on Water, we learned that right now the Mississippi River’s water quality rivals pristine rivers in Northern Europe. However, things must be done to keep it this way. Using words directed at our naturalist club Mr. Fortune said he believes “. . . the great challenge of this century is for volunteers to step up to bat.” This, he explained, is because governments are finding it more and more difficult to drive forward the people’s agenda and therefore they seem to be getting more receptive to positive feedback in the form of suggestions of what can be done.

Two of the most important things we can do, Fortune suggested, are to get out and enjoy what nature has to offer. Use it or lose it. Teach your children and grandchildren to know their trees and animals. Take them out hiking and fishing and eat the healthy fish from our rivers. Also continue what we are doing as a club.

In October we were treated to a presentation by Diana Beresford-Kroeger, the lively woman who speaks for trees, author of Arboretum America: A Philosophy of the Forest. Through her, our native trees were revealed as complex beings with an ‘eco-function’ and biochemistry fine-tuned over millennia. Trees evolved over 320 million years ago on this continent and without them, she says we would not be here today. Trees are the lungs of the world and along with the largely unseen underwater ocean forests, use carbon dioxide and release oxygen and water and can also help remove particulate pollution. Not only that, as she illustrated during the lecture, “Trees bank carbon dioxide into some of the most exciting medicines of our times.” A key conservation issue which emerged was not simply the loss of individual trees but the loss of a diversity of native trees many of which have such great potential. The take home message is to get out and plant trees, but choose a native tree species which will do well in a particular site. “It is time to plant trees to rebuild the forests of the future, so that we can live again in the true cathedrals of our natural world” says Beresford-Kroeger.

November’s Focus on Snakes with Tobi Kiesewalter of Murphy’s Point Provincial Park was another wonderful presentation as we enjoyed a video featuring black ratsnakes and became experts at the identification of Eastern Ontario’s often misunderstood, and thus sometimes persecuted, nine snake species after viewing Tobi’s excellent slides. We learned that forest edge habitat is critical for conserving snakes since they need both cooling forest shade and open areas for basking in the sun. In winter black ratsnakes congregate in communal hibernacula, returning to the same ones year after year. Therefore they should not be relocated far from home or they will likely die. Finally, it is critical not to disturb rock piles, rotting stumps or standing dead trees as these are important sites for ‘incubating’ eggs. We also learned that many of our snakes are live-bearers. Road hazards are a serious threat to our snakes and are especially serious when a ‘gravid’ female is involved.

 

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Successful field naturalist meeting with Kiesewalter on snakes was informative and fun

Press Release
Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists
Submitted by Pauline Donaldson
November 19, 2007

Last Thursday an enthusiastic crowd gathered at Almonte United Church to learn about our nine Eastern Ontario snakes from Tobi Kiesewalter at the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) lecture. ADHS teacher Mike Keffer introduced Tobi who had just returned from New Zealand where there are no native snakes!

Kiesewalter lecture (1280x960)

 

Kiesewalter has been studying and educating people about snakes for more than 10 years as
naturalist at Murphy’s Point Provincial Park, and his enthusiasm on the topic was infectious. He
works hard to get out the Park’s message “live and let slither” on behalf of the 9 species that call
Eastern Ontario home. Key conservation issues which emerged included maintaining habitat and
increasing awareness of risks snakes face from road hazards and human persecution. Although
none of Eastern Ontario’s snakes pose a danger to humans, as Tobi explained, they are often
misunderstood or feared because they are rarely seen or when seen they may be mistaken for a less
benign species. Our Northern Water snake for example may be mistaken for the venomous water
moccasin. The Eastern milk snake may be encountered acting aggressively while shaking its tail
against dry leaves, and be incorrectly identified as a rattlesnake.

The evening began with an excellent video, Black Ratsnake Conservation in Ontario, filmed in St.
Lawrence Parks and Murphys Point Provincial Park and featuring university researchers and
Ontario Parks staff conducting research on this species considered ‘threatened’ in Ontario. The
snakes were seen climbing trees, being measured or implanted with tracking devices and having
their over-wintering hibernaculums monitored. Tobi donated a copy of the 20-minute video to
MVFN, who is pleased to loan it out. Sightings of rare black ratsnakes can be reported to the
Natural Heritage Information Centre at http://nhic.mnr.gov.on.ca.

Tobi followed the video with fantastic slides of other snakes. The audience learned the difference
between black ratsnakes and the northern water or eastern milk snake, and the northern brown
versus the northern redbelly. There were also wonderful photos of white half moon markings in
front of the tiny northern ribbon snakes’ eyes and of the elusive but beautiful smooth green snake.

Tobi showed us that our snakes are a tough bunch. They survive in spite of challenges of being
‘ectotherms’ in our cold climate, thanks to adaptations and to the proper habitat still being found
here. Forest edge habitat is critical since to regulate body temperature they need both cooling
forest shade and open areas for basking in the sun. In winter black ratsnakes congregate in
communal burrows or hibernacula and they return to the same ones year after year. Therefore they
should never be relocated more than 100-200 metres away because they will die when winter
comes. Temperature regulation is also important in the summer. Eggs layed in carefully chosen
nests will require 10 weeks of 30 degrees C to develop. Therefore it is critical to not disturb rock
piles, rotting stumps or standing dead trees.

Surprisingly, although it is generally rare for snakes, five Eastern Ontario species do not lay eggs
at all but give birth to live young. The live-bearing or ‘gravid’ females can control the temperature
of developing young by regulating their own temperature. As a consequence, however, hazards of
the road are even more serious for these species if a gravid female is involved.
Following the slides, Tobi brought out the 20-year-old, bred-in-captivity black ratsnake which had
accompanied him to Almonte and challenged those uncomfortable around snakes to hold the
animal. The snake was seen moving from person to person, checking its route with a constant flick
of its forked black tongue drawing in traces of a chemical trail to determine if it was going right or
left.
The public is invited to the next lecture of MVFN’s “Conservation Challenges” series January 17,
2008 with Jean Lauriault of the Canadian Museum of Nature who will focus on Butterflies. For
further information please contact MVFN’s Program Chair Joyce Clinton at 613-257-4879 or see
MVFN’s website at http://mvfn.ca.

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