Stewarding the Future

In a previous post, I wrote about how my appreciation for nature began while studying evolution and ecology in university. It’s through those experiences that I began to take an interest in landscapes. In particular, I am interested in how changes to landscapes impact biodiversity. This is what has primarily motivated my research endeavours and my current career path.

One of my field sites for my master’s research. I was studying some of the effects of landscape fragmentation on swallowtail butterflies.

As I gain more experience working in the conservation field and take opportunities to explore new natural landscapes, it becomes clearer to me how important it is to protect these areas and to conserve their ecological integrity. To me it’s obvious that biodiversity is critical to our survival and that species are inherently tied to the landscape. But, perhaps that’s due to my biology focussed education. Regardless, it is why stewardship of our natural landscapes is so essential.

Taken from a recent trip to Algonquin Provincial Park.

It appears that many people also see value in conserving natural landscapes. In his most recent book, world-renowned biologist, E. O. Wilson calls for half of the Earth’s surface to be put aside for nature. Here in Ontario, many land trusts and their supporters work towards protecting our lands for biodiversity. The land conservation movement is gaining momentum.

Land trusts are organizations that acquire land for conservation and protect them in perpetuity. They rely on donations and grants to be able to secure these lands and many people are willing to contribute. Acquiring it is a major and important first step in land conservation. But it is only the first step.

More often than not, these protected lands require some level of stewardship in order to conserve biodiversity. To steward land means to play an active role in minimizing threats that disrupt natural biological processes. There are major threats to biodiversity on a global scale. They include land use change (i.e., development, degradation, fragmentation, deforestation), invasive species, climate change, and pollution. Active stewardship works to address these threats to varying degrees. Actions may involve forming positive relationships with neighbours. This can help ensure that what they do on their land will have minimal impact on yours. Other actions may involve producing an invasive species management plan. A plan can help tackle invaders that have the most severe impact on the native biodiversity. Stewardship can also involve monitoring how climate change might be impacting the lands.

Garlic mustard, one of the worst invasive species in southern and eastern Ontario.
Garlic mustard, one of the worst invasive species in southern and eastern Ontario.

Furthermore, each conservation land may have property specific threats that require action. This can include addressing unauthorized use by motorized vehicles, illegal collection, or trespassing. It might involve a restoration project to improve habitat for biodiversity. Or sensitive species may be present and need extra care and monitoring for their survival. If our goal is to protect these lands for biodiversity in perpetuity, it should include identifying and addressing these pressures as best as we can through active management.

To protect these lands means to know what exactly we are protecting. More specifically, it means to know what types of ecosystems are present, what species live there, and what natural processes are sustaining these ecosystems. This also includes monitoring them to know how they change over time. It means to understand what particular threats are present that challenge the survival of the native biodiversity and to work towards addressing those threats. It means setting conservation goals, meeting them, and setting new ones again.

Effective stewardship, based on the best science available, is precisely what we need to combat the devastating decline in biodiversity. However in my experience, stewardship often goes underappreciated. Stewardship staff is often limited, if there is any, and underfunded. Resources are in short supply.

The conservation field is growing and land stewardship should be seen as part of the solution and as a priority. We need to make investments into staff, people with expertise and the equipment required. After all, it’s the work these people do that make supporting land trusts worthwhile.

As a society, we need to start viewing the loss of biodiversity as a serious issue that requires long-term investments. Effort at every level is necessary. It can take the form of volunteering with a local land trust, employment, or donating money. Whatever it may be for you, it’s important to support efforts of land conservation as a whole. This includes land acquisition, as well as long-term stewardship.

A Wander in the Dark

In my experience, daytime is for fieldwork and the evenings are for campfires. However, this past summer I spent more time outside in the evening for fieldwork than I did in previous years, conducting amphibian surveys and helping out with bat surveys. People often associate walking around the woods at night with horror movies. I’m here to tell you this is not the case.

Earlier this month I spent an evening helping out with a bat survey in southern Ontario. I’ve been to this site before during the day, but at night it’s a different place. We arrive about a half hour after sunset. At dusk, it’s just light enough to see the last few birds fly over before settling for the night and the bats are starting to coming out. These animals can easily be missed if we don’t look up. They flit about and sometimes dip low, making their flight distinctive from birds. There’s a short time frame at dusk where you can see them flying above, but once the night sets in they are next to impossible to make out.

Bats find their way with echolocation calls at a higher frequency than what is detectable by human hearing. Sometimes we can hear the chattering of bats if we’re near a roost, and every once in a while I can hear a faint sound of a low frequency echolocation. We were using two kinds of bat detectors: one that strictly records and one that converts high frequency sounds into sounds humans can hear, to give us an idea of the bat activity in real time. We put on our headlamps, test the bat detectors, and we’re off.

As we set off to walk the transect the sky quickly darkens. In the fading light I can’t see more than a meter or two in front of me. The crickets and cicadas fill my ears. Sometimes I miss a low branch and get a reminder to look up from the ground once in a while. I can’t help but feel more vulnerable. It is more difficult to navigate, even on familiar trails. A good headlamp and a compass is a must.

Well into the transect I start to feel more comfortable. It also helps to have a field partner, especially one to lead the way and encounter the spiderwebs first! I recognize the trail and different parts of the property. We walk through the meadow I helped seed and the wetland I helped plant plugs in. The evening is a busy time for wildlife. During certain sections of the property, bat activity is almost continuous. But we also encountered pollinating moths, a katydid, and heard coyotes yipping not too far off.

Moth on golden rod
Moth on golden rod

By the end of the survey the stars are out, the temperature has dropped slightly, and the bats have been recorded. Another successful survey completed and it’s time to turn in for the night.

Of course there are more than bats to see or hear on a given night. Some of the highlights from my previous night time excursions include being deafened by the sound of spring peepers finding a mate in the early spring, fields lit up by fireflies by the end of June, and coming across different eye shines of nocturnal animals throughout the year.

Spring peeper
Spring peeper

Going outside at night is not as scary as Hollywood would have us believe. In fact it gives a whole new perspective to an area you may be very familiar with during the day. It becomes a whole new place to explore. If you think you know a place, go for a walk there at night to see the difference. Or you can join a night hike, or just sit, listen, and watch, preferably somewhere away from streetlights. You’ll be amazed at what you might find.

The Natural Naturalists

This summer I have spent a lot of time both leading guided hikes and attending them. The larger proportion of the demographic at such events tends to be an older and supportive crowd. However, it’s some of the younger hikers who have made the largest impression on me. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have many experiences growing up akin to some of the ones I witnessed in the past few months.

Some of those moments include the look of excitement on kids’ faces when I release a butterfly on their hand and it sticks around for a few extra seconds allowing them to see it up close. Or a young boy proudly showing and telling the other hikers that he caught a European skipper. The “ohhs” and “ahhs” during a night hike when the first bat makes an appearance are rewarding. Or when kids holding a bat detector exclaim to their parents, “I hear one!” These are the kind of interactions with nature that I hope are one of many for these kids.

A quick glimpse of a little brown bat in flight. Photo by Toby Thorne

Another moment was when one family came late to a hike that I was helping to lead and I ended up guiding them on a more private tour. The young boy is eight years old and asked me to show him some of the ferns in the area. We talked about the differences between native and non-native species and how to tell the invasive scots pine from our native white pine. We observed a monarch flying from milkweed to milkweed looking for a spot to lay its eggs. He hypothesized that those plants were too small and it was looking for a larger plant. His curiosity for nature and ability to start problem solving was impressive to say the least.

Monarch butterfly
Monarch butterfly

This kind of introduction to nature and persistent exposure is often a large part of facilitating an appreciation for nature. This appreciation is what influences attitudes towards the natural environment and in turn, influences our actions and behaviours that impact it. The lack of appreciation for nature is, in my opinion, the greatest threat to biodiversity.

It’s never too late to start gaining an appreciation for nature. However in a world that is full of unnecessary distractions, it is becoming all the more important to encourage this at a young age. Like the great Sir David Attenborough once said he, “never met a child who was not interested in natural history.” When we share our knowledge and encourage young people to be inquisitive, observant and interested in the natural world, we are fostering a new generation of future leaders who will make a conserving a healthy environment a priority.

From Prairie to Forest: My Journey to a New Environment

This blog post is also posted on Nature Conservancy of Canada’s Land Lines blog here.

I spent many of my formative years as a field biologist in the Carolinian region of southern Ontario. The landscape is highly fragmented. It’s largely agricultural with bits of restored tallgrass prairie and scattered tracts of Carolinian forest. It’s one of the most biodiverse places in Canada and has more endangered and rare species than any other lifezone in this country. I spent time getting to know the area while collecting data for my master’s research, tracking badgers and finding snakes and turtles for work. In many ways it was comfortable place to be; I was familiar with the area, the community and the biodiversity. But a change of scenery can be a good thing too.

Tall grass prairie
Tallgrass prairie

Three months ago I moved to work in a new region, Happy Valley Forest, which is located in King Township, just north of the Greater Toronto Area. At more than 1500 acres, it is one of the largest remaining tracts of forest along the Oak Ridges Moraine. It’s only about a two-hour drive from the Long Point area, but the differences are distinct. I was sad to leave that familiarity behind, but I was also excited to start a new adventure. Of course, anything new comes with new challenges.

Red eft, the juvenile stage of the eastern newt, common in Happy Valley Forest
Red eft, the juvenile stage of the eastern newt, common in Happy Valley Forest

My past home in Norfolk County is a much more rural area. Farmland is the dominant landcover type intersected by country roads and dotted with roadside vegetable stands – which I miss very much. The atmosphere is just a little bit more relaxed and laid back. In contrast, Happy Valley Forest is surrounded by the growing pressure of urban development. I live outside the big city, but the hustle and bustle of urban sprawl is ever present and it was a bit of a shock moving here! Cars weave in and out of lanes without signalling, drivers honk uncontrollably and they rarely let you into their lane – alright, there might some slight exaggeration. While many people are driving their shinny fancy cars to their offices, I often feel judged for driving my well-worn Matrix that’s obviously seen a few dirt roads!

The terrain is another noticeable difference. There can be some steep ravines in the Carolinian region – I got to know them well while looking for badgers. But overall the landscape is pretty flat and easy walking. Happy Valley Forest, on the other hand, sits on the Oak Ridges Moraine, a prominent geological feature in the Ontario landscape. In the last glaciation, about 13 000 years ago, glaciers deposited sediment as they moved along creating deep valleys and hills – a moraine. By southern Ontario standards, it’s one of the more challenging terrains to hike. Historically, the area was logged. Due to the difficult conditions of the logging camps and the hilly terrain the workers jokingly named the area: Happy Valley Forest or more perhaps accurately, Pinchgut. Hiking here took some getting use to. Nonetheless it makes for a good workout and a beautiful landscape to work in.

One of the more difficult things to overcome was accepting that I would not see all of the same species that I was use to seeing further south. In my mind, the appeal of the Carolinian region is the vast biodiversity. It’s the northern edge of the range for many species that are uncommon or don’t occur in other parts of Ontario. The Carolinian region is also a hub where many conservation organizations focus their efforts on protecting the remaining species and their habitat. I knew when I moved, I would no longer see the species that I got to know well there – spicebush swallowtails (or spicebush the understory shrub), tulip trees, badgers, foxsnakes, hognose snakes and many others. Happy Valley Forest doesn’t have the diversity that the north shore of Lake Erie does. But contrary to popular belief, high biodiversity and rare species isn’t everything.

Spicebush caterpillar
Spicebush caterpillar

For me, one of the big draws to Happy Valley has become the expansive forest. Much of southern Ontario would have been covered with deciduous or mixed forests with a few openings for prairie species. The forest in Happy Valley has regenerated in the last few hundred years and is expected to reach ‘old growth’ status in the next 50 years. Once in Happy Valley Forest, you are surrounded by trees as far as the eye can see. It’s hard to believe that once upon a time, much of southern Ontario would have looked this way. Having such a large and well connected landscape means that it’s more resistant to natural disturbances and disease; animals that have large habitat area requirements can thrive; and that there is a large interior forest – the deep woods, for those species that depend on that type of habitat. Ecologists say that the deep woods begin 100m in from the forest edge. Therefore, large forests like Happy Valley that have sizeable interior forest are critical places to protect.

Typical scenery in Happy Valley Forest
Typical scenery in Happy Valley Forest

Working in each new natural area has its charms. I’m fortunate enough to get to know these places a little more intimately than most. Moving to a new one can often feel like starting from the bottom again. However, I’ve learned that my previous experiences in different areas and ecosystems each contribute to every new experience. As scary as change can be, it’s how we learn and grow. And anyway in a field as complex and difficult as ecology, maybe every year should be called a ‘formative year’.

Feeling Small in a Big World

This blog post is also posted on Nature Conservancy of Canada’s Land Lines blog here.

When I was in grade school, I would spend some time at a friend’s lakeside cottage during the summer. We would catch toads and frogs and put them in a bucket with some water. I would think, “this is neat, they are slimy and weird looking.”

That was about the extent of my interest in wildlife back then. I cared for animals, but I didn’t understand them. It was not until I immersed myself in the field of biology and I learned about the Earth’s geological history and the evolutionary history of biodiversity that I began to value the nature I saw around me. All of a sudden the rocks, plants and animals had stories behind them that I wanted to hear. It is easy to get caught up in our day-to-day human activities. We often forget that the planet we live on has billions of years of history and plenty of tales to tell.

The Earth is 4.543 billion years old to be exact. A timeline that is virtually inconceivable to us, with our short lives. It is only when I took the time to learn about what happened during these geological eras that I really began to appreciate such a timescale. The oldest evidence of life dates back to 3.5 billion years ago. Over a third of the Earth’s existence so far was spent going through geological changes that made it eventually habitable for life. Most of the biodiversity we are familiar with today are the descendants of the life forms from nearly 540 million years ago during the Cambrian Explosion. If the geological timescale was scaled to the timeline of one year, this event would have begun on November 18 at 5:11pm! I found this analogy quite astonishing and it helped put into perspective our place in the history of the Earth.

Between then and now there has been a myriad of organisms where some lineages live on today and others have gone extinct. One story that has stuck with me is about one of the oldest lineages still around today, sharks. Sharks are some of the earliest jawed fish to have evolved around 425 million years ago. Their body shape has remained largely unchanged and species from millions of years ago would still be recognizable to us today as sharks. Some may describe them as primitive, but these animals have found an incredibly successful life strategy and stuck with it. They have survived warming periods, ice ages and four mass extinctions!

In comparison, Homo species began to appear less than 2 million years ago and Homo sapiens, specifically, have been around for less than 300 000 years. When scaled to a year-long timeline, our species appeared on December 31 at 11:48 pm. In other words, we are a very young species, one that is in our infancy, geologically speaking. We have become an incredibly influential species in nature, for better or for worse, but when it comes our long-term success that is yet to be determined. Sharks, on the other hand, got something right to have lasted this long and our species could probably learn a thing or two from them if we want to ensure our legacy continues.

Similarly, it is easy to overlook the millions of species we co-exist with. It is easy to think that humans are the greater species; everything that came before was leading up to us. However, in studying ecology we learn that it is a less linear progression and that species adapt in a way that makes them well suited for their particular environment. The evolution of biodiversity is more like a web growing outward in different directions rather than a tree growing only upward.

There is nothing like going to a harsh environment to see first hand the incredible adaptations species have to deal with these challenges. During my undergraduate, I took a field course to the Sonoran desert. Deserts are dry, hot and water is a precious resource, yet plenty of life has found unique ways to cope with the challenges. The saguaro cacti are succulent plants that have deep taproots that can reach groundwater. Some plants have small waxy leaves or cracks of green in their stem to minimize energy use and retain water, but they are still able to photosynthesize in the dry heat. I began to see that one species is not necessarily superior than another, but rather each species is well adapted to its niche and is part of a greater, complex and well tuned system. A system that has had millions of years to work out the kinks and that continues to adapt.

Typical Sonoran Desert landscape.
Typical Sonoran Desert landscape.

Over the last several years, I have started to discover the story behind a fraction of the biodiversity past and present and a bit about the Earth’s geology. This is what compelled me to start caring about the state of biodiversity today. Listening to and observing the story of life on our planet changed my perspective from one that was human-centric to one that views each species, including us, as part of a larger picture in nature.

Now when I find a frog, my thought process is very different from my earlier days. I think about what species it is, why I found it in a particular area and what it was doing. I also think about how amphibians were the first land vertebrates and what the adaptations were that allowed for this new way of life. Now knowing more about their biology, I am more wary of catching and handling them than I once was. It can cause unnecessary stress for an animal and if not careful, any residue left on my hands could be absorbed through their sensitive skin and cause them harm.

A spring peeper I recently found one evening in Happy Valley Forest.
A spring peeper I recently found one evening in Happy Valley Forest.

We have learned a lot about the natural world through research and observation, but there is so much more to be discovered. When we know about the biodiversity around us and gain a greater understanding of it, we can appreciate it and respect it. After all, the history of the Earth and the biodiversity around us is part of our very existence, our story and necessary for our survival.