Adventure Awaits with Night Sky Stewardship

The very essence of a hiking trail, canoe route or scenic vista can impose questions to outdoor enthusiasts in Ontario about the value of these places as natural resources. It is often a first instinct to think about natural environments in terms of trip times, environmental conservation values, and safety measures. But as the sun sets day after day, not all natural resources disappear to the naked eye, especially in locations situated in central and northern Ontario. Pending the atmospheric conditions are right, a single glance up into the sky at nighttime can trigger a sense of discovery in what is known as one of the most wondrous resources available to all living things on the planet: The night sky.

Northern Lights

As dusk falls on campgrounds, lakes, and properties of the Couchiching Conservancy, stepping outside can be an ideal way to explore extra-terrestrial marvels from right here on Earth, and can provide people with several opportunities. A simple evening relaxing beneath the stars is powerful educational opportunity. Gazing above at special features in the sky, such as the moon, planets, stars, meteor showers and the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights), is a fantastic chance for people to start, or to build on their appreciation for natural phenomenon occurring in the solar system and beyond. Further, the night sky provides vital services to wildlife, contributing to healthy ecosystems.

Through resource appreciation, citizens can help protect the quality of night skies in Ontario. When people develop connections to the night sky, like knowing a variety of constellations, or known grouping of stars, they’re more likely to care for how well they are visible to the naked eye. The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) has recognized this and designated a few areas in Ontario as Dark Sky Preserves. These are areas which artificial lighting is not visible, which means light pollution is not an issue, like in the densely populated regions of southern Ontario. Thus, the stars and other features in the night sky are highly visible if not impacted by cloud cover and other atmospheric factors. In late summer, fall, and winter, the Aurora Borealis (northern lights) can be seen ‘dancing’ in the night sky, showcasing a colourful display of moving light. In summary, the northern lights are a result of electrical particles from the sun that interact with the magnetic poles of planet Earth; in this case the North Pole, resulting in a magnificent light show. Experiences like seeing the northern lights for the first time are powerful memories that guide people to appreciate the night sky over their lifetime.

Light pollution causes poor visibility of the stars and other unique features visible in the sky at night, impacting the quality of astronomers’ experiences, but more than humans suffer from these effects. Plants and animals are dependent on the natural rhythm of light and dark cycles because they have adapted this way for billions of years; it’s in their DNA. Daily, periods of light on Earth characterize a species ability to reproduce, sleep, migrate, and keep themselves healthy. For example some birds migrate distances totalling thousands of kilometres relying on moon and sunlight to guide the way. If light pollution attributed to cities and populated human areas is impacting the intensity of light coming from the night sky, these natural navigation aids become less helpful for bird species. Consequences include migrating too early or too late, which, due to variables such as climate, may threaten the survival of these animals. This is just one example of how animals, too, are reliant on the night sky as a natural resource.

Billions of individuals on planet Earth the value the night sky for many reasons. Whether they see educational opportunities while observing the Milky Way, seek sheer wonder through displays of the Northern Lights, or helping to protect bird species that are guided by the light emitted from the night sky. By participating in any level of night sky activity, whether at home, or while visiting a Couchiching Conservancy property, individuals can naturally become stewards, or protectors of this valuable natural resource.


Also published in the Orillia Packet & Times: A healthy look at the night sky

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’.