Conservation Comes Naturally for the Green Snakes on the Plain

On your mark, get set… go! The light was as green as our name and we were off to observe as many species of wildlife as possible on the Carden limestone plain. Surrounded by alvars, wetlands, woodlands, and the array of wildlife they support, you can’t help but marvel at the wonders of nature before your eyes. I invite you to ride along with team Green Snakes on the Plain as I reflect on an annual tradition, fourteen years strong, known as the Couchiching Conservancy’s Carden Challenge.

The pace was set, the tour began, and the countdown was on until the sun began to set as we rolled down Wylie road. Exuberance was radiating from everyone as we started to check off grassland species off our checklist, including: Bobolink, eastern meadowlark, Wilson’s snipe, eastern bluebird and upland sandpiper (among others).

It was almost an instant reassurance that our gracious donors would be proud of the observations being made so early in the evening. But the excitement continued to build as dusk encroached. Then suddenly… boom!

The aerial dive/ rebound flight of the common nighthawk ignited the atmosphere with a sound unlike no other. Not only did we have the pleasure of hearing and seeing this behavior, but it happened several times, within close proximity to our team! Other creatures began to join in the orchestra like the eastern whip-poor-wills, eastern coyotes and American toads. Fortunately for the Green Snakes on the Plain, there was no barrier between us and the raw wilderness being observed all around.

The alvars of Carden seemed to come to a special kind of life and there was definitely more to what met the eye… literally! Dawn hit us and the opportunities for birding by ear began as we searched for wood warblers and other must-finds along the country roadsides. One of our biggest highlights was observing a Canada warbler by ear as well as sight. I was able to capture the beauty of this Species of Special Concern (in Ontario), perched in a dead tree, in a photograph.

A few hours past waking up at 4:30a.m., the mosquitos were (mostly) done feasting on us, and it reached our turn for a morning nutrition break.

Through patience and perseverance, the remainder of the day brought many rewarding sightings. Blanding’s turtle, eastern milksnake, porcupine, and gray comma (butterfly) made appearances, contributing to our species checklist.

We also saw our namesake species, the smooth green snake! It was 10cm in length. Of course the identification of observed species would not be possible if it weren’t for the knowledge and skill that each member of our roster brought to the field. However, the team agreed that our MVP was indeed Susan Blayney, naturalist and pollinator ambassador of Kawartha Lakes. Susan’s mentorship was an invaluable asset to our success as a team and her passion for the natural environment was contagious.

For another year the Carden Challenge finished up with dinner and awards on the shores of Lake Dalrymple… and most importantly, with healthy servings of pie. But the evening just kept getting better. With much delight, we slithered into first place in the biodiversity category with 193 points for 156 species of wildlife counted! Our fundraising efforts amounted to $2,149 — thanks to our amazing supporters. Full of pride, we accepted our trophy and reflected on the absolutely incredible time we, the Green Snakes on the Plain, had participating in the 2018 Couchiching Conservancy Carden Challenge.

Full 2018 Carden Challenge Photo Album

Species Observed:

Species Count
Birds 98
Mammals 12
Herptiles 16
Butterflies 16
Dragonflies 14
Total 156

 

Expedition Alvar: The 2017 Carden Challenge

Just imagine the opportunity to embark on an environmental expedition that immerses you in the depths of wilderness, where you get to learn, explore, and engage with nature alongside like-minded people. A whirlwind “safari,” if you will, for 24 hours observing species at risk, breathing in fresh air, and taking immediate conservation action all while having fun.

Sometimes there isn’t a need to travel thousands of kilometres from home to have these kinds of experiences. With an increased need to spread awareness on the effects of climate change on species habitat what a better time to join forces with nature at the local level.

Wylie Rd., Carden

Annually, the Couchiching Conservancy welcomes participants of all skill levels to partake in the Carden Challenge. Thanks to the generosity of supporters far and wide, in May 2017 this renowned biodiversity and birding marathon raised over $19,000 for environmental conservation on the Carden Alvar, east of Orillia. This mosaic of globally-rare habitat is home to some of the Province of Ontario’s species at risk (SAR) and is an important area to sustain for the long term.

Team Pedalling for Nature.

This year I took to the backroads of Carden as a member of team “Pedalling for Nature” where we set off on a mission to observe as many bird species as possible (in the recreational birding category). Riding bicycles as our mode of transport, we became well acquainted with the rain-filled potholes of Wylie and Alvar roads. There is something to be said about doing the challenge by bicycle because you are continually exposed to the natural environment throughout the entire competition. There are no car doors to open and shut and the opportunities for viewing and listening to the wildlife around you are [mostly] constant.

Bobolink

One of our first close encounters was when an American bittern flew right between our team as we stood patiently on the roadside listening for grassland birds. Our attention immediately turned away from the soothing melodies of bobolinks and eastern meadowlarks towards the graceful incoming of this member of the heron family. There have been years previous that it has seemed impossible observe the American bittern so we were off to a great start indeed.

As the sun set on the horizon of the alvar some really unique species began to let us know of their presence. Two common nighthawks, nocturnal insect hunters, were both seen and heard within 30 metres of our team. These fascinating birds descend vertically in the sky to defend their territory during breeding season. As a result of this act their wings generate a distinct “booming” sound. It’s one of many forms of entertainment that nature allowed us to observe while biking the Challenge.

The adventure continued to excite team “Pedalling for Nature” as a whole including hearing a pack of coyotes, or perhaps coywolves, as we pedalled through the night. The eastern whip-poor-will was another species that fuelled our adrenaline as we rolled along the roads of the alvar. Hearing and seeing these wild creatures were just one more way that the experience connected us directly to nature.

Exhilarating night biking.

Pedalling the route really awakens one’s self to the realities of the natural world. Moving at a good pace down Alvar Rd. at nighttime was one of my favourite experiences of the Carden Challenge. With a good headlamp and an enthusiastic and ambitious team I found spotting or hearing species to be both fun and rewarding. This was also true for during our daytime pedalling. Our list of observed species grew until we reached a total of 95 for the 24 hour period. Our team was full of energy and it continued until we reached the 60 kilometre mark of our journey.

So next May if you’re feeling adventurous and eager to learn, gather your colleagues, friends, or join the Carden Challenge as an individual.  You’ll thank yourself you chose to embark on the Challenge, and nature will certainly thank you! The Carden Challenge is an amazing way to partake in a local grassroots initiative to conserve the important habitats of the Carden Alvar.


Also published in the Orillia Packet & Times:  Answering the call of Carden