Making Southern Ontario Wild Again?

It was a journey a long time ago for me. Wilderness completely surrounded me for hundreds of miles. Sitting on a lichen-covered rock outcrop overlooking the flowing water of a creek, I was in heaven watching a pair of Otters play in the rapids. Ok, in actual fact, I was really enjoying watching these animals, while simultaneously trying to kill several Deer Flies that wouldn’t stop trying to suck my blood!

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Moose sleuthed all around me in the rugged landscape of Georgian Bay in the early 1990s. Not long ago, they used to freely strut their stuff in what is now Toronto. Photo by Dr. Martyn Obbard.

All of a sudden, nearby screaming in the opposite direction sent chills down the back of my neck. The Otters scattered. Snapshots of Ravens through the canopy of oaks and maples dappled the sunlight even further, a the shiny black birds scattered the scene.

The screeching stopped as the animal raced through over-sized ferns towards me. I could just see a tall, brown tail shredding the plants as it neared. At the last second before impact, the animal skidded abruptly to a stop. We were face to face for a seemingly long time. It was a Fisher. I was a Human (and still am). In that moment, the small but feisty carnivorous mammal and me stared wide-eyed into each other’s core as one being. It left me with a deep picture of all things. It felt like a miracle view into the connectedness of the rocks, the river, the trees, and animals sharing it all. It was a miracle that likely exists in every moment if only viewed with the proper lens. It was also the kind of experience that deep, widespread nature affords.

It was only a few days earlier that I sat quietly picking Wild Blueberries on the edge of a patch of Sphagnum moss when an Eastern Wolf trotted by with a bear’s paw clutched gently in her mouth.

Forest Creek after Rain

On the road to Georgian Bay, there are many stops in central Ontario that will take your breath away.  Southern Ontario still has a few gems in Carolinian Canada, but we’ve lost thousands of wild treasures that we don’t even know about.

This happened about 25 years ago, in central Ontario’s much celebrated eastern Georgian Bay region, a place that has always had a wild side to it, thanks to the rugged rocky and twisting wetland terrain. While there certainly are development pressures on this landscape, I’m so grateful that in my absence all these years, I know Georgian Bay and all its wildness is still there and likely will be for a long time. It is truly a landscape populated with signature animals that both keep you on your toes, and inspire you deeply at the same time.

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Face to face (face to zoom lense?) with a Black Bear. Photo by Dr. Martyn Obbard.

While Georgian Bay is a biologically diverse, vast, and blanketed by a high percentage of land with habitat (over 75%), it doesn’t hold a candle in comparison to the diversity found in Southern Ontario’s Ecoregion 7E. This is the region defined by a trapezoid shaped area covering the landscape from Windsor to Sarnia to London to Toronto and over to Niagara Falls; it is dubbed Carolinian Canada. It’s just about the size of Switzerland. Most of the Carolinian Life Zone’s natural cover has been removed – only 18% of habitat remains in comparison. Even with most of its habitat denuded, it is the richest place in the country for plant and animal diversity, and the dubious winner of the longest list of Species at Risk.

Fishers are few and far between in Carolinian Canada, as are many other larger species that need big tracks of habitat – like Moose, Bears, and Wolves (these three are all fully absent). Maybe 50,000 people live in eastern Georgian Bay, from Midland to Parry Sound. In staggering contrast, about a quarter of the country’s population, or 7 million people, live in Carolinian Life Zone. Similarly, roads are densely webbed in the south, vs. the north that affords much bigger tracts, largely without asphalt and automobiles.

While a few parks are found in The Carolinian Zone, 95% of the lands are privately owned. Georgian Bay and other more northerly areas have is large tracts of publicly owned lands either in Parks or government owned Crown lands.

All of this begs a few key questions; how can we recover nature so that Ontario’s diverse south can provide these types of ‘deep nature’ experiences that inspire, rejuvenate and offer a health-inducing natural landscape? How can we recover rare habitats and missing species in this critical zone when it is largely owned by urban residents in cities and towns, and large farm operations in the countryside? Further, with nature literacy at an all time low, how do we get people familiar with the language and raw experiences of nature? And so, in consideration of all of this, can we ever get back to a largely wild landscape in southern Ontario?

The road to get there won’t be simple, but my five second rule answer (from the guy, not the head) tells me ‘yes’ – we can – get a lot of it back. But as a society, do we really want bears, moose, and wolves in a mix of what may be 10 or 12 million people in the next few decades?

It’s possible, but likely not, at least in the next few decades. This may be sad to some, but a major shift of perception in land sharing mentality would have to have been established. Moose aren’t teddy bears. Bears aren’t always as friendly as Elliott Moose. Cougars don’t always respond without retaliation to intense human encroachment. Cities likely won’t get smaller. Very few roads will be closed, or diverted.

But – there is room for renewed hope. While ecological literacy is low, education on climate change is really increasing. Many people now about the benefits of conservation. And after being an advocate for native plants for some time, it’s plain to see how people are resonating with the message of rebuilding nature, one native plant at a time. Thus, it is more than possible to foresee a future in which the cover in Carolinian Canada moves form 18 to 25% in the next few decades.

Whether this means we get our large predators and keystone species like bears and moose or not, it does mean at least our grandchildren will relish in the return of many smaller species. In the context of Carolinian Canada, this is really encouraging and dramatically exciting. There are many small species that dazzle and inspire.

How will we get there? It actually feels like we are moving into a new renaissance of ecological recovery. In recent years, we’ve seen the resurgence of Badgers in and around Long Point and in Brant County. We all watched Southern Flying Squirrels repopulate a tiny national park just outside of Windsor. A pond I observed being hand-dug in the middle of a barren farm field by high school students in the year 2000 quickly turned into one of the top breeding sites for Smallmouth Salamanders (Ambystoma texanum) in all of Canada. The salamanders were not introduced; they found the site on their own.

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The Smallmouth Salamander; Endangered. They recently moved into a pond constructed by high school students in 2000.

And if you try out creating habitat in an urban centre, be prepared for the onslaught; not before long, you may have Screech Owls nesting in your backyard. Not before long, you may see a fox sipping from the water’s edge of your urban pond. Not before long, you will have dozens of warblers stopping in spring to bath and drink from the water trickle of your urban wetland system.

It might not be a bear or a cougar, but it certainly could soon be a Fisher spotted moving along the edge of a creek in a city’s Environmentally Significant Area. The experience of nature back in our midst is real and happening today, piece by piece in Southern Ontario. Yes, it won’t be as rugged and wild as Georgian Bay for quite some time if ever. But if you’re here, certainly feel free to join the tide, and watch the swell grow as we bring back more and more animals, one experience at a time. And for your own good, and that of the people around you, find a relatively quiet spot nearby and sit there regularly. You’ll be amazed at what you experience in solitude in nature and how you will start to wear this calmness and groundedness with you throughout each day.

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After adding about 200 species of native plants to our urban, land-locked yard, Screech Owls nested in an old tree. Returning most years, the diversity of wildlife attracted by native plants has meant a large increase in local wildlife.

*** Two key programs for gearing you up to contribute are In the Zone Gardens (www.inthezonegardens.ca) and the Landowner Leaders Program (see www.caroliniancanada.ca).

 

 

Big Impacts Across Small Spaces…Doug Tallamy Photosynthesizes the Case for Native Plants

All photographs by Ben Porchuk.

Tallamy talks nature in Toronto. Toronto… and nature? Yes, Toronto, the city of over 6 million people. It might not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of re-building the natural world. But Doug Tallamy,  an entomologist from the University of Delaware, was invited specifically to talk about using native to plants in city gardens and yards to attract insects to create new pockets of teaming wildlife, helping recover the earth’s vastly withered naturescape. With thousands of homes with backyards adjacent to many large natural ravines, Toronto is primed to receive a major ‘nature face-lift’ in all of those front yards.

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A couple of buddies in the native plant garden just hanging out waiting for the insects to move in. The acorn that lies underneath these seven leaves is now responsible for a 12 foot oak tree only five years later. The White Trillium is still alive and keeping great company.

Tallamy  quickly became the visiting celebrity ‘landscape chef’ or as local native plant author Lorraine Johnson introduced him, the ‘rock star’ conservationist we’ve been waiting for all along.

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Man of the Hour: Prof. Doug Tallamy (left) and Jarmo Jalava of Carolinian Canada.

We’ve become more and more aware that especially in our cities, we’ve removed most native plants from the landscape in favour of non-native plants. This has left nature as a mere skeleton of what it once was. Tallamy gave compelling evidence that the loss of diversity has stemmed directly from the loss of native plants and their insect followers.

All we have to do is plant native plants. Let the native insects eat them (little bits of them anyway) and then watch the bigger carnivorous insects feed on the smaller herbivorous guys. And finally, enjoy watching the birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals eat the insects. Do this and watch biodiversity roar back before our very eyes.

In short order, after following Tallamy’s advice based on years of research, we “bring(ing) nature home” again to our cities and nearby crumpled natural areas. Crazily simple, I know.

So I’m one of the guys who bought his earth-altering book (http://www.bringingnaturehome.net) the year it came out in 2007. I was already one of the converted (a devoted Evangelical Ecologist). But I quickly embraced this subtly different fuel for fodder (as did nerds-a-like the world over). In the nearly ten years since, I added 180 native species of plants to my highly urban landscape. I also added water (key to most recipes of this nature) in the form of a series of three small ponds and a waterfall.

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Our front yard transformation in about year 3 of 10; native plants and insects have been welcomed back after a 115 year absence.

How did the recipe turn out? Well given that I’m not the most careful cook/designer, I got the ingredients all over my yard (a messy garden at times)! But the end results? I totally channeled Ray Kinsella all the way. I removed the lawn completely in the front yard, and a quarter of it from the back. I built the native garden. The insects came. Lots, and lots of other wildlife followed and we sat back watching in awe, while snacking on popcorn from the Hog Peanut, and chewing on the fruit from the Mayapples (yep, both native).

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Giant Swallowtail Butterfly caterpillar feeding on its host plant, the Hop Tree.

 

In fact, within 20 minutes of planting my first Hop Tree, NA’s largest butterfly, the Giant Swallowtail, landed on it and laid her eggs. I have to add that this butterfly is quite rare in Canada and I’d never seen it in my city before this moment. Now, they seem to know my yard as the regional birthing centre.

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Giant Swallowtail Butterfly caterpillar disturbed and sending out defense mechanism that accompanies and strong, pungent scent. Of course, note the bird dropping camouflage.

Then, I planted a few Spicebush shrubs. Same story (obviously worth repeating). A Spicebush Swallowtail came not long after. Seldom seen in this hood, this butterfly is now a regular customer too. Are you seeing a trend here? Enter a bit on the lifework of Douglas Tallamy.

Unassuming, quirky, funny, and obviously very smart, this gentlemen assembled tables and tables of facts, figures and fun images (like the caterpillar that strikingly resembles Donald Trump) that made for nerd-entertainment-extraordinaire. Everyone knows nerd is the new cool (don’t they?).

Among many other thousands of complicated tasks and calculations, Doug’s main work has been to perfect the kindergarten-aged skills of watching and counting. He counts the species (not easy to know how to identify thousands of caterpillars) and overall numbers of insects that flock to native plants. Then, at ‘show and tell’ time, he’s like the kid who surprises everyone by bringing in his firefighter mom (in full uniform!). Everyone in attendance is in total awe!

At his talks, Tallamy throws around these overwhelming facts that make you almost fall face first into your rose bush. Plant an oak tree and you’ll get 557 species of moths and butterflies. Chose a non-native Callery Pear tree instead, and you get zero moths, zero butterflies or no other insects. Translation, why not plant a plastic Callery Pear tree instead so you don’t have to rake up the leaves in fall (Doug’s joke, though it’s no joke). The plastic tree will has the same ecological value as the living Callery Pear (zilch). Whereas, the native oak, cherry, birch or pine, will bring life back to the point of healing nature big time.

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After feeding on the host plant Hop Tree as a caterpillar, the Giant Swallowtail metamorphoses into the adult butterfly and then nectars on many different plants. Here one feeds on a native prairie/savanna plant, Wild Bergamot (Orange Coneflower is in the background).

Back to Tallamy’s influence over my garden, say 8 or 9 years ago. After the bewilderment of watching billions (alliteration only, but certainly millions) of bugs hone in on their native host plants that I had seeded in my gardens, I got at the pond construction. Before I could fully install the liner, one of NA’s largest dragonflies, the Swamp Darner, was buzzing all around me frantically finding a water-soaked log on which to lay her eggs.

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Swamp Darner Dragonflies honed in on my urban wetland construction project, seeking out suitable egg-laying sites. I think I heard one say, “Come on! Come on! I could build this pond faster! (which may have been true!)”

A few days later, a hatchling Snapping turtle showed up…toads moved in.. and even a yearling bullfrog barreled into the pond. Madness! All of these animals ‘poofed’ into existence, all in a highly urban-locked place known as Wortley Village. The ‘poof’ of course, was the ‘magic act’ of even the smallest plot of land ramping back into ecosystem status.  The source of magic and thus this ecosystem is the native plant.

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A hatchling Snapping Turtle had to walk about 400m, cross a busy four-lane road, and slip under our fence to join the joy in our backyard pond.

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A female toad sitting all pretty.

What happened next, you must promise you tell no one (X-rated). The toads had sex. Yes, in the backdrop of the symphony of their mood-enhancing trilling calls, in the twilight of the most sensual afternoon delight, I mean lighting, there was literally an orgy of amplexus all over our backyard (thank God the neighbours didn’t take notice). I only write all of this in this manner as it is a well known fact that sex sells, and, well, I really want to spawn this blog all across the nation(s). As such, the word sex is one of the key search terms for this article.

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Kids sitting at our almost completed backyard pond system.

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A couple of years on, the pond system and its 15 + of native wetland plants have hosted thousands of insects for the urban yard ecosystem.

Altruistically speaking though, sex or no sex, Tallamy’s (not meaning Tallamy here, because you know about rock stars and…well,…. yah) message has to get out…native plants must get back in our urban landscapes.

After the adult toads had finally settled down, the moving and shaking of the youth movement hit the back yard by storm. Shedding their sperm-like tadpole tails, tiny little toadlets flooded out onto the dry lawn, into the native gardens, on the back of my idle electric mower, and godforsaken, right onto the back steps of my very house! Even Tallamy would have had a hard time counting them all. It was wonderful. This set the stage for a series of seldom seen observations.

Out of the blue, a hatchling Screech Owl crashed onto the lawn in broad daylight. It was nearing 5pm. Before one of my daughter’s and I could run out there to ‘save it’, one of the parent birds landed beside it and seemed to help it fly up to the side fence. Then one by one, all three of the young owlets continued this, again with their parents landing beside them. Bewilderment set in yet again. Watching more closely (what I now call a Tallamyian trait) we noticed what was going on. The adult owls were teaching the ‘kids’ how to feed on the toadlets in our yard! Word spread quickly and before long many of our family and friends had gathered in our back room to watch the feeding frenzy.

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The owlets (Screech Owls) who fledged and grew up in our yard. They are named after the Three Stooges. Guess who is who.

It’s not surprising and so much fun that those owls picked our backyard as their nesting and feeding site. Interestingly, and again in total Tallamyian fashion (this phrase makes no sense, I know), aside from toadlets, what do the owls eat? Small mammals and birds. What do small mammals and birds eat? Lots and lots of insects.  Further interesting in this case is that Screech Owls are direct insect eaters as well. Suffice it to say, had our backyard been replete with Callery Pears, Lilacs, Burning Bush, Tulips, Daffodils and many other non-native plants, none of these wildlife would have set up shop to co-live with us. Almost every year we’ve had the owls back in our yard, with our growing numbers of native plants attracting more insects, reptiles, amphibians, mammals and birds.

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One of the parent Screech Owls who doesn’t seem to mind the goings on of our family. My friend Pete Burke (bird expert and hockey star wanna be – actually, that was me…) pointed out that this one has a nice mix of the red phase of this species mottled in with the grey. Isn’t she just plainly beautiful?

My family and our home are a living example of how you can transform your little bit into a nature-factory.  Our extended neighbourhood has over 12,000 houses. Can you imagine if a few dozen of them did what we did? What about a couple hundred homes? And therein lies the point of all of this.  Just a few of us could impart “Big Impacts Across Small Spaces,” which, coincidentally, was the title of this Toronto conference. The conference had a surprising announcement; World Wildlife Fund and Carolinian Canada have teamed up to create a program called, “In the Zone” (www.inthezonegardens.ca).  This fun and timely initiative is designed to get more people in cities like Toronto, London and Leamington (core cities where program is launched) to establish native gardens. How fitting. How exciting. How grassroots.

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Dragonflies were thrilled that we provided a wetland for them…and planted native plants to bring in insects for them to catch on the wing.

Your job: please share this, re-post it, maybe tweat it? That would be great. In the meantime, put in some native plants, buy Doug Tallamy’s books, come to Go Wild Grow Wild 2017! (https://caroliniancanada.ca/grow-wild), check out www.inthezonegardens.ca and lastly, engage in a lot of safe _ _ _ (clue: amplexis).

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An Imperial Moth that requires mature, native hardwood trees, like oaks and maple. I savor the day when this species is common again even in cities!

Appendix 1: A Favourite Doug Tallamy Dish (it’s actually a sweet bar)

“Raise the Bar for what we ask our landscapes to do.”
Ingredients:

– Support life
– Sequester carbon
– Clean and manage water
– Enrich soil
– Support pollinators

Preparation Method: All of this is cooked up by using native plants. If you are at all interested in supporting varied forms of life on earth, in reversing climate change, in eating, in having clean drinking water, then take the simple act of establishing native plants where ever you might live or frequent. It’s an act as simple as 1, 2, 3, or whatever it is that you may see!

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One of the most important things you can do to support the recovery of local populations of wildlife is to plant a key insect-loving species such as a native species of oak, cherry, birch or willow. Acorns make magnificent Oak Trees in fewer years that you might think!