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

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’.

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.