Nestled deep in the heart of Southern Ontario, the St. Williams Conservation Reserve is 1085 hectares of reclaimed Carolinian forest. In the early 1900’s the settlers had cut down the original forest for timber and the light sandy soil had begun to erode without the tree roots and forest floor holding it in place. The area was quickly becoming a desert when pioneering conservationists began replanting trees to bring back the forest. This is how the St. Williams Forestry Station came into existence.
In 2007 the St Williams Conservation Reserve was established under the Provincial Parks and Conservation Reserves act to protect the extraordinary biodiversity and unique cultural and natural heritage of the site. A not-for-profit Community Council oversees the day to day management of the Reserve and works in partnership with the MNRF to protect and restore the lands contained in the Reserve, while also encouraging the public to enjoy compatible recreational and cultural opportunities within the Reserve.
I joined the St Williams Conservation Reserve Community Council this winter and have enjoyed working with a team of people dedicated to forest restoration and conservation. The Reserve is home to many different types of birds, animals, reptiles, and insects, many of which are Species at Risk in Ontario. The Council works closely with MNRF staff to ensure that these species are protected.
The SWCR provides a refuge for species at risk and also provides a location perfect for researchers, scientists, citizen scientists, and the public who are interested in studying the flora and fauna that call this southernmost part of the Carolinian zone home.
Today was a busy day, although it started out slow, with a weather delay. I was scheduled to help the Long Point Basin Land Trust with the annual Fox Snake survey but we had to delay due to a morning rain shower. I spent the morning trudging through bush and fields looking for the elusive snakes but yet again we were disappointed. My time wasn’t wasted though as I was taking pictures of all the plants I found interesting. Many of them I haven’t identified yet.
If anyone knows what the following plants are, I’d love to know.
On one of the properties surveyed, there is a very healthy deer population. There are subtle signs of their presence everywhere you look if you know what to look for. Tracks and scat are the obvious signs to look for and there is plenty of that. By looking carefully, one can also find deer hair, laydowns (bedding areas) shed antlers in the spring and lots of game trails. Can you see the game trails in the photos below?
After the snake survey and the subsequent removal of several ticks, I went off in search of some fishing. I went to one of my favourite spots and ate my lunch while watching the birds. The spot I fish at is the mouth of a small creek that flows out of a provincially significant wetland. The creek on one side of the road is contained within the boundary of a national wildlife reserve. I was standing on that side, in the reserve, when I looked down and saw movement in the water. My first thought was that I’d found a water snake!! But no, this was much much better. I had stumbled upon a school of spawning Longnose Gar!!! I estimated there to be well over 50 individual fish in the school and they were amazing!! Up till that point I had only seen one or two and here there were scads of them and I could watch them in their natural habitat and watch their spawning behaviour. Longnose Gar is an ancient fish, practically dinosaurs, and they are one of very few fish species that breathes air. They perform a gas exchange by skimming and snapping along the surface of the water and this behaviour was very apparent today. I was mesmerised!
While the bugs were horrible and I did get a sunburn, it was all told a wonderful day in the field in Norfolk County!!
I regularly work with the Long Point Bay Land Trust during the field season and this has given me plenty of great experiences in helping to protect and conserve Southern Ontario wildlife. Last week we cleaned out wild bird nesting boxes in preparation for the return of migratory birds. The boxes were built and placed in habitat suitable for native bluebirds, in the hopes of fostering a population of these elusive birds.
Nesting boxes are a common sight throughout Southern Ontario as farmers and birding enthusiasts install them along fields and woodlands. The bluebird suffered a serious decline in the mid 20th century due to various factors, including pesticide use and loss of habitat. Bluebirds are cavity nesters and have several requirements for where they will set up housekeeping. Unfortunately, the bird boxes that are provided for them are prime real estate for many other species of birds, necessitating that they be emptied and cleaned yearly of the previous inhabitants nests.
Sparrows, starlings, and house wrens will all take over the nesting boxes, and some birds will even take over a bluebird’s nest and lay their own eggs. We sadly found evidence of this in some of the boxes, with the original bird’s eggs pushed to the bottom of the nest box. These eggs had partially developed embryos inside. The invading bird then laid and hatched it’s own clutch in the stolen nest.
We found nests containing a variety of natural materials, from the usual grass and twigs, to waterfowl feathers and moss. One ingenious bird had even woven a piece of discarded plastic wrap into her nest. I found that each nest told a story; about the species of the bird who made it, about the success of the hatch, and about the dramas that unfold in the bird world.
I look forward to monitoring the bird boxes throughout the season and seeing what new life emerges. We can only hope that we did well in the eyes of the bluebirds and will be rewarded with their approval.
Despite being a Species At Risk, snapping turtles are still legally hunted in Ontario. On December 19 the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) announced proposed changes to hunting and trapping rules for small game and furbearers. Unbelievably, the snapping turtle is still considered small game in Ontario and is the only reptile legally hunted for sport in the province. The MNRF proposes limiting, but not eliminating, the season and bag limits for snapping turtles and bullfrogs. The public has until January 30th to weigh in on the suggested amendments.
Turtles are the most threatened species worldwide and even in our own province 7 of our 8 species are at risk of becoming endangered. Many threats such as habitat loss, road mortality, and poaching, affect all of Ontario’s reptiles. However snapping turtles are especially vulnerable due to their own biology. It can take a snapping turtle up to 20 years to mature and begin to reproduce. They experience limited reproduction success, which means that very few eggs hatch and reach adulthood. An adult must reproduce many times over before it can replace itself, let alone increase the population. Therefore, every adult that is removed from the general population strikes a blow to the entire species. Currently, residents with a fishing license can harvest 2 snapping turtles per day during the summer and they have a possession limit of 5. One
hunter alone could potentially decimate an entire population in one season.
The snapping turtle does not hold a place of high esteem in the public view. It is not cute and it is not friendly. There are many misconceptions about this creature and many people erroneously fear it. However, it has an important part in the ecosystem. It keeps the environment clean by disposing of dead animals and fish, it creates paths and tunnels underwater that other animals need to use and it cleans up underwater vegetation. We may never know how much we rely on the snapping turtle to do until we’ve let it disappear forever.
You can have your say on ending the snapping turtle hunt in Ontario by clicking here
I’ve lived in Southern Ontario all of my life. I grew up on a family run dairy farm in the middle of rural Haldimand-Norfolk. I consider myself privileged to have had the freedom of the woods, fields, and streams as a child and I think it was this freedom to wander and discover that lit a life long passion for Ontario wildlife and nature in my heart.