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

 

Recipe for Nature Conservation

A recipe triggering ambition and growth:  The realization that like-minded, passionate changemakers exist in the world, eager to protect nature for the benefit of future generations. If this has yet to happen to you, March 3rd, 2018 presents an exciting learning opportunity.

This discovery of hit me four short years ago when I discovered the Couchiching Conservancy (CC) land trust, based out of Orillia, through the former Carden Alvar Nature Festival. CC offers diverse opportunities to grow personal connections with the natural environment. Whether it’s through environmental stewardship coupled with emerging citizen science techniques or advocating at community events for the protection of special natural spaces. CC’s mission is executed by hundreds of motivated community members, and it is down right inspirational.

Through firsthand experiences, I’ve explored the wilderness of the Carden Alvar, east of Orillia. From the age of three to present, I have developed a special connection with the land, water and associated species of wildlife. Whether observing reptiles, fish, amphibians, mammals or birds, my young self, unbeknownst, had established a strong mindset: To do whatever it takes to ensure a fair chance is considered for nature conservation. Protecting the rich habitats of the Orillia region is a mutual goal between the Couchiching Conservancy and I. It’s been amazing to witness species such as the bald eagle make a return to the landscape, evidence that conserving their habitat is crucial now more than ever.

The youngster in me is ecstatic for community collaboration opportunities in achieving nature conservation. It is a dream come true. The recipe is unique blend of communication and cooperation between ambitious groups of people. Join the Couchiching Conservancy at ODAS Park for our Annual General Meeting on Saturday, March 3rd, 2018. Warning: you may leave inspired to change the world.

Originally appearing on www.MudInspired.com. Also published on www.Simcoe.com, a Metroland Media Group, for www.CouchichingConservancy.ca Land Trust. 

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

 

All You Need is an Hour on the Alvar

It was October 1st, 2016, with one whole hour to spare before heading back to the campground just west of Carden, Ontario. I wondered where I should head out for a hike.  Given the vastness of the near-by Carden Alvar landscape in terms of natural and recreational resources, I thought I would make a decision on-the-fly as to where to explore.

After driving over the narrows at Lake Dalrymple I had a brisk thought that I would set out on the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s (NCC) Prairie Smoke Alvar property, which is stewarded by the Couchiching Conservancy, NCC and the Carden Field Naturalists. With autumn having recently arrived I was alert for evidence of the changing seasons.

Before setting foot in the parking lot, I was greeted by a sign that read “Black bear with 3 cubs spotted in field on Saturday”. A spontaneous adventure awaited indeed! It’s always a good idea to be prepared for wildlife encounters on Carden Alvar (and all applicable) hikes, so the early warning sign to respect this American black bear (Ursus americanus) family was greatly appreciated. Fortunately I included my bear bell in my day pack, in an effort to make myself known to these large mammals. Doing so eliminates the probability of startling wildlife such as Black bears when in close proximity, so I fastened it onto my person for the following hour. Right off the bat, several signs of scat (bear droppings), provided evidence of bears foraging for food in preparation for their winter hibernation. This was a sure indication that fall was off to a good start.

Wandering down the Prairie Smoke Access Trail, I kept the idea of black bear presence in the back of my mind, as I always do when hiking in similar habitats. I continued up the trail transitioning from grassland to woodland and into pavement alvar communities where I was able to observe several signs of an active natural area. An array of large fungi, some as large as basketballs, could be viewed attached to mature maple trees. Below these natural works of art, glacial erratics, or larger rock boulders transported and deposited during the last deglaciation, were found throughout the forest floor.  Emerging from the woodland into the open alvar pavements, I noticed a few small scattered patches of Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare) in bloom. These small blue wildflowers served as a small reminder of this past summer on the Carden Alvar. After experiencing the marvels of my walk in to the property, I started to think about heading out – my hour was nearly up!

As I reached my turn around point, I headed back towards the parking lot, viewing the trail in an entirely different perspective. As I transitioned through the unique habitats again, I caught a glimpse a small black creature scurrying across the trail, approximately 500 metres ahead, near the beginning of the first woodland. This animal, located in the field ahead, was accompanied by other individuals which I could hear coming from the adjacent woodland. With no zoom lens on my camera, I quickly turned to my binoculars to assess the sighting. It was the sight of a Wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) – not the highly anticipated American black bear cub that I was expecting. Full of adrenaline, I chuckled, and continued onwards to mark the end of my adventure.

Whether you have a day trip planned, or have an hour to spare while passing through the Couchiching region, consider spending some quality time exploring the many properties of the Couchiching Conservancy. You never know what you may see!


Also published in the Orillia Packet & Times:  An hour on the alvar

NCC Creative Conservation Challenge: Mud Inspired 2015

There’s no question that I had a ‘wild’ 2015. My experiences in nature encapsulated discovery, wilderness, adventure, learning, and community-building. Through these experiences, I learned an abundance of natural heritage and ecological information about the Carden Alvar and other areas in Ontario.

Close encounters in globally-rare environments have been ingrained into my memory thanks to countless days roaming the transitional southern boundary of the Canadian Shield in Central Ontario. I also became acquainted with several new species, some of which I heard, but never actually had the opportunity to see!

I believe my conservation efforts contributed to the greater health of the natural environment. In return nature was there for me in times of need, as well, especially when I had to say goodbye to a couple influential people in my life during summer 2015.

Part A: Look back on your year

What species did you learn about for the first time this year?
This summer I learned about several new species, most of which were, but not limited to, birds:

Blue-winged teal, Northern Harrier, Virginia rail, Whimbrel, Ovenbird, Gray catbird, Semipalmated plover and various sparrows. Fortunately I was living in an “Important Bird Area” known as the Carden Alvar just east of Orillia. Here, I repetitively experienced the sounds and sights of these, and many other birds which helped me to learn their unique attributes.

What is your most memorable close encounter with nature from 2015?

I have quite a few memorable encounters from 2015. However I would have to say the one that stands out most occurred at the Carden Alvar Provincial Park on June 25th. A coyote was predating on two adult Sandhill cranes. Quickly, the coyote caught sight of my group and headed off in the other direction. This occurred mid-morning and was just like a moment straight out of a national geographic documentary.

Balsam ragwort and Painted cup alvar wildflowers of Carden
Balsam ragwort and Painted cup alvar wildflowers of Carden

Blue sky, beautiful alvar landscape, slight breeze – pure silence – broken by the rattling call of the Sandhill cranes being chased by the beautiful coyote. Truly an unforgettable moment. Also equivalent in the ‘most memorable’ category were my first-ever moose and bald eagle sightings in Carden township! These sightings were greatly overwhelming.

What fact did you learn about the natural world in 2015 that most surprised you?

One of the most surprising facts I learned about the natural world was that adult beavers are very territorial. They will attack any beaver that enters their territory if they are not related. This is mostly due to the limited resources that a beaver may have access to in its given territory.  Overall I resonate with the beaver in that family is important. Haha.

beaver
Beaver

What three things did you do that helped the natural world in the last year?

Supported the Couchiching Conservancy land trust. This was my second year as a volunteer with the organization. I also had the privilege of working for the Couchiching Conservancy as a Conservation Assistant. Efforts of the conservancy and its volunteers help protect nature for current and future generations.

Saved turtles from becoming road kill. Specifically, I assisted one snapping turtle, one Blanding’s turtle, and 3 painted turtles off of the road throughout the summer. Fortunately, no significant damage was done to any of the animals.

Participated in a stewardship activity at Point Pelee National Park collecting Big Bluestem grass seeds for park-wide ecological restoration initiatives. Learning about the natural history of Point Pelee definitely put the rest of Southern Ontario into perspective regarding topics such as habitat protection, etc.
What natural areas did you explore for the first time?

Natural areas that I explored for the first time include: Carden Alvar Natural Area: Sedge Wren Marsh Walking Trail, and Prospect Marsh.
What species did you learn to identify, by sight or sound?

I had the opportunity to practice identifying several species of birds while living in Carden, Ontario in 2015. Some neat birds by sound include: Wilson’s snipe, White-throated sparrow, Grasshopper sparrow, Field sparrow, Eastern meadowlark, Common nighthawk, Whip-poor-will, and Indigo bunting. By sight, I learned to identify species such as: Broad-winged hawk, Northern harrier, Red-eyed vireo and Brown thrasher.

Part B: Your 2015 year in nature — Collage

2015review-2

 

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Hay Bales: Perfect for playgrounds – and conservation

Who cares about environmental conservation?

Or rather, how does one develop the deep care and concern to advocate for true preservation of our natural environment? I was struck by this question last week while I drove home from Carden Alvar Provincial Park in Sebright, Ontario.

Following a sharp bend in the road I was face-to-face with a hayfield, where recently baled hay dotted the entire landscape.  I noticed 3 youngsters frolicking about hay bales, and wondered what these kids were thinking besides how much fun they were having.

After watching a rather ‘awakening’ video on YouTube [as seen below] regarding the deprivation of nature in the lives of youth today, I jokingly asked “were the kids just outside passing time while their iPads were inside charging?” Or, were these kids genuinely enjoying the raw beauty of planet Earth? Assuming the latter, I was absolutely thrilled to have witnessed these children playing; likely within the rural setting in which they had been raised.

Screaming, chasing, and pure smiles of joy were radiating from the farmland. Children are being deprived of these forms of interactions when they invest time in the various types of virtual reality; such as video games.  I believe, that by just simply engaging with nature, the children I witnessed in the hayfield were subconsciously strengthening their bond with it. This is critical to conservation efforts at all scales.

Today, we live in a modernized society where engaging with various forms of media is inevitable. In order for children to develop a true passion for nature, and indirectly for conservation, it is probably best that they balance [or outweigh] quality time outdoors to their ‘screen time’.

Carden Field Journal: Amphibians, reptiles and insects

It’s starting to feel like summer here in Carden! Over the course of weeks five and six, I continued working with species at risk and partook in an invasive species control effort with the Nature Conservancy of Canada. This is meaningful work which will help Carden Alvar Natural Area thrive ecologically. Aside from work I had encounters with various wildlife.

Amphibians, reptiles and insects delivered much excitement while I was driving down or exploring the back roads. One rainy day I was driving on a road which passes through a swamp, and I came across a snapping turtle. Unfortunately, it scurried off the road so quickly that I didn’t have time to take a decent photo. The good news is he made it off of the road, safe from passing vehicles.

On the same road, the next week, I had to assist a blandings turtle across the road. This animal posed for a few photos which was cool, and it had a decent sized leech attached to its shell. I took a moment to peer into the swamp, adjacent to Lake Dalrymple, where the turtles had been travelling to and from, and admired the details and colour the wetland had to offer.

In addition, I handled my first smooth green snake on the warmest day of this two-week span. The snake was approximately 30cm in length. It didn’t mind being handled for a brief moment, so we had time for a photo-op. I also saw a spittlebug for the first time; many times I see evidence of it which looks like saliva on grassy vegetation. The foam-like substance, essentially bubbles, acts as the bugs natural defence mechanism.

Other neat moments from weeks five and six include seeing a natural nesting cavity  of an American kestrel, observing the changing wildflower colours and finding karst geology on the Carden plain. Oh and I can’t forget the turkey hen that I startled unintentionally while hiking… it caught me off guard majorly and I laughed it off.

Carden Field Journal: Busy time

One month has passed in Carden!

Some great observations this week included: Yellow warbler nest with eggs; Sparrow nest with chicks; Great blue heron with 3 chicks; Tree swallow chicks; Watching the Eastern phoebe chicks fledge; American kestrels nesting in a box; Eastern meadowlark chick, waiting for its four siblings.

The 9th Annual Carden Alvar Nature Festival, was also held in week four, which I will dedicate an article to in place of week five.

Carden Field Journal: Fast pheobes

May 24th to May 30th was the quick period between the Carden Challenge last week and the forthcoming Carden Nature Festival. It was neat to check up on the Eastern phoebe chicks from last week, which I will now make a weekly habit. The Eastern phoebe chicks are doing well! They have grown significantly and have occupied all available space in their nest. Other interesting sightings this week included intense thunderstorms, white-tailed deer, and the entertainment of Carden cows.

Next week will be intense as we have the Carden Nature Festival – Saturday, June 6th!

Carden Field Journal: Wildlife and The Carden Challenge!

Week two was action-packed and full of exhilarating wildlife sightings! Highlights of the week included watching nesting birds with their young, attending the 10th annual Carden Challenge, and coming across several painted turtles.

Throughout the week my co-workers and I saw several nesting birds. Some nests contained eggs, while others were home to already-hatched chicks! We had flushed an Eastern meadowlark from its nest on Windmill Ranch in Carden to find 4 healthy looking eggs in the grass-based nest. This was a unique find that will be reported to the Royal Ontario Museum. Next, Eastern phoebes had hatched and were being safely guarded by their mother. Upon two visits, I was able to see the chicks as the female was off foraging. Lastly, a favourite bird of mine, the Great blue heron, was seen feeding at least 3 young on its nest near the north shore of Lake Dalrymple. I was able to snap a photo with my cell phone through a viewing scope. My week was made by having the opportunity to capture these birds from 100s of meters away.

The Couchiching Conservancy fundraiser, the Carden Challenge, took place over the span of 24 hours starting on Friday, May 22nd, 2015. Teams assembled to compete in different categories, to see who could come across the highest number of species within a set buffer zone on the Carden Plain. I got partnered with 3 experts from Bird Studies Canada, so I was fortunate to learn the songs, calls, and physical characteristics of tens of new birds I had never seen or known. To the Bittern End was our team name, which near the end of the competition, served to be appropriate.

In total, our team found 111 birds. Of special note, we saw a Merlin, a Whip-poor-will, and a Blue-winged teal. I learned the sounds of birds such as the American bittern (Glug, glug), and the Least bittern (heh, heh, heh). As our team name suggested, we left taking the chance to observe the Least bitterns to the very end of the challenge… half an hour before the end at Prospect Marsh. We were very certain we heard one, but couldn’t say for sure… leaving it out of our count. We were excited to receive second place in the competitive category, and were awarded the Teeter-Ass Trophy for best sportsmanship. Overall, the Challenge was an amazing learning experience which raised over $15,000 through pledges for the Couchiching Conservancy.

Despite their abundance in South-Central Ontario, I am still excited to find painted turtles. On Alvar road, I saw 8 painted turtles during one car ride. They were basking on dead, fallen trees in a swamp landscape. This made for a great photo-op. These turtles were very shy as one-by-one, they’d fall into the water as I crept closer with my camera.

Painted turtle
Painted turtle

Another day I helped remove (so heavy…) another Painted turtle, which wasn’t shy, from Victoria road. There are many chances to see turtles which never fail to amaze me. Enjoy my other photos from week 2: