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

 

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

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: 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:

The Role of Recreational Fishing in Environmental Conservation

With the spring season upon us, the excitement to venture outdoors has struck many nature enthusiasts in full force.

Of the countless ways Canadians choose to enjoy the outdoors, recreational fishing serves a dual functionality. It is a great way to get outside and promote environmental conservation as well as achieve good health and wellness at the same time.

While at first, recreational fishing may appear contradictory to environmental conservation, I believe it has the potential to be an impactful ecological tool when conducted responsibly.

The question can be asked: How is fishing, which has the potential to harm the animals, and impact their populations, beneficial to the aquatic environment?

Let’s examine the situation from the perspective of defending native fish habitats.

Inland waters such as Upper and Lower Lake Dalrymple, in Carden Township, Ontario, have experienced the introduction of invasive/ non-native fish species in the late 1900s. This lake will be examined as a case study. These non-native species of fish include northern pike and black crappie.

 

Both of which pose direct threats to the reproductive success of native fish species in Dalrymple such as muskellunge and walleye. Spawning periods of non-native and native fish overlap and the invasive pike often outcompete the muskies for their breeding grounds. The black crappie prey on young walleye shortly after they have hatched, lowering their survival rate.

Not coincidentally, on August 6th, 2014, I caught and released my first muskie! That’s another story on its own!

The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry has recognized this problem, and addressed it by altering the fishing season for northern pike and black crappie. Beginning in 2010, an open year-round fishing season was introduced at Lake Dalrymple (Fisheries Management Zone [FMZ] 17) in an effort to alleviate some pressure on the native fishery. This brings increased fishing opportunities to local anglers. Ice fishing becomes involved and more attention is drawn to the lakes in FMZ 17 on an annual basis.

Realistically, there are several options to perhaps consider with respect to the issue of non-native species in Lake Dalrymple and how fishing can play a positive role in overall lake health. I will outline some suggestions that I think are important to consider:

Target the invasive [fish] pike and crappie, removing them from the ecosystem;

Go fishing to indulge in the outdoors, to help yourself and others better appreciate nature; and;

Fish for native species with the intent to release them, strengthening their populations

Although some may view fishing as a negative impact to ecosystems, I believe it is important to outline the various positive environmental and human health benefits from the activity.

Overall, recreational fishing is a tradition that provides outdoor enthusiasts an escape from urban life. Other hobbies and interests can easily be discovered through recreational fishing. Personally, it has served as a gateway to my nature photography, which in return attempts to promote conservation awareness. I have dropped my fishing rod several times in order to capture magnificent scenery and unique wildlife sightings with my camera.

By considering the suggested options, ones choice of wetting a line through the sport of fishing can actually influence the ecosystem to achieve an equilibrium closer to its natural balance. The choice of allowing the invasive species completely take over the classical ecosystem, becoming a “novel” or new ecosystem, serves as a second option to the above suggestions. This system would be a Northern pike-dominated community. I don’t currently view this as necessary.

Using the example of the inland waters situation above, you can understand the benefits and drawbacks of fishing with respect to sustaining the ecological health of natural areas.  If considered, anglers might see more success on the water in the long-term.

This article is opinion of the writer and all facts have been learned through word of mouth and through some consultation from https://www.ontario.ca/ministry-natural-resources-and-forestry.

Carden Nature Festival 2014: “Plain” and Simply Inspiring

I had the opportunity to attend the 2014 Carden Nature Festival which fell on the weekend of June 7th & 8th, 2014 at the Carden Community Centre on the shores of Lake Dalrymple. Touching a special place in my heart due to its location, this event proved to be a success with respect to spreading conservation awareness and coming together as a community in an effort to sustain the natural lands of the township of Carden and the Carden Plain.

The event was an opportunity for a wide range of environmental professionals, knowledgeable locals and passionate nature enthusiasts to gather and simply appreciate nature at a local level. Through educational seminars participants like myself got to visit select properties owned and managed by the Couchiching Conservancy.

During the festival I got to explore North Bear Alvar, Little Bluestem Alvar and Prairie Smoke Alvar. All of the sites showed many signs of wildlife including bear, moose, fox, coyote, rabbits, amphibians, insects and birds! Click here to view my entire album of photos from the weekend.

One of the highlights of my experience at the Carden Nature Festival was having the opportunity to travel a segment of Wylie Road monitoring eastern bluebird boxes. Herb Furniss, leader of the Carden Bluebirds program, took me and 3 other festival attendees (including our marshall) to roadside locations near and along the road in search of eastern bluebird chicks. Herb tracks and documents nesting activity in over 75 nesting boxes in the area. Based on previously recorded data he knew where the best opportunities for observing active boxes would be. In total, we got to see 3 active bluebird boxes and 1 active tree swallow box, all containing newly hatchedand/or fledging young.

Practical, hands on work with wildlife such as with the Carden eastern bluebirds project can help community members and beyond to appreciate the value of nature. Being able to hold the fledglings in the palm of your hand allows for a more intimate understanding of what is at risk. To put it simply, real-life experiences of getting your hands dirty have great potential of making a difference in ecosystems that may be potentially threatened by human activity. Thanks, Herb for this fantastic experience.

So, if you’re located in the Greater Toronto Area, Carden, Ontario is a short 90 minute trek by car; take the time to understand why the Carden Plain is so significant and worth protecting! Learn more at CouchichingConserv.ca.

– Cameron

Mud Inspired Photography: Nature Harmlessly Captured.

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