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Monthly Archives: May 2015

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This spring has had some rain, but not a lot. But enough to keep the woods from being tinder dry. There have been a couple of forest fires, but because it’s really only semi-dry, the fire suppression folks have had an easy time of stomping out wildfires. While wildfires are scary (I live in the woods), they are actually a good thing in the boreal forest – fire are in fact necessary to renew these northern forests and without fire, the boreal turns into a mess.

One other good things about having enough moisture, is that it allows mushrooms to sprout. Mushrooms are a delicacy for many – I love them – and spring is the only time in the boreal forest one can find the true morels, which are said to be “probably the best known and most sought after of all the edible fungi”. Morels are actually widespread in their distribution and are found far south of here, and can be far more abundant in those much richer forest ecozones. Still, they do occur here, and for that I’m grateful.

On the weekend, I checked one of my favourite shroom spots and was rewarded with a bountiful harvest of more than 40 black morels, Morchella angusticeps. That might not sound like a lot for areas where morels are common, but that’s a good haul in this neck of the woods. It’s partly because where I live, the forests have a lot of conifer trees, and morels seem to prefer almost pure stands of poplar or ash and occasionally oak (oaks stands are anything but common here). In addition, those stands need to have very little in the way of grasses or shrubbery on the forest floor – plus – the best poplar stands seem to be between 10 and 20 years old. All in all, it’s not only a chore to find those forest types, the morel picking season is limited to a couple of weeks. All the more reason to cherish almost every mushroom.

True morels are rather easy to identify as there are only a few varieties and they all look similar. People with poor taxonomic skills, or who can’t seem to grasp detail, should avoid mushrooms, as many can make you ill, some can cause hallucinations and others can actually kill you. Some species, like the false morels, which as you might have guessed look somewhat similar to true morels, can be eaten by some individuals, but others not at all. Even the toxins that can dwell in the false morels and other mushrooms aren’t completely understood. Worst of all, some people have mushroom allergies, and can’t really eat any mushroom without experiencing at least some discomfort. That’s the case with my spouse Lil, and some of her siblings.

When I was in university, a good friend – ‘Wild Bill’ – didn’t show up for three days. He’d spent time in a ditch watching cars go by after nibbling on some amanitas, a very dangerous and hallucinogenic shroom.

Another time, I was hunting turkeys in Wisconsin in May and the morels were out in force. The only place they seemed to be was wherever an American elm had died due to Dutch elm disease and the tree had fallen to the ground. Those morels, growing amongst the downed and decaying branches of the elms, were gigantic! A single morel was all I could hold in my hand. We sliced them up and fried them in a pancake mix. Delicious!

This was a good spring for me, known in early university days as the ‘fungi hunting Finn.’ I hope the rest of the year brings more shroom bounty.

 

 

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It’s May 18 and it’s been snowing outside, with the temperature hovering a few degrees below the freezing mark. Not at all pleasant.

But, it’s northern Ontario, so not totally unexpected. As we are fond of saying up here – at least it keeps the bugs down!

One worry about these late spring frosts, especially when they occur after an extended period of nice, warm weather (although it hasn’t been all that nice, or warm . . . . ) is the potential to hurt the berry crop, especially blueberries. Not only are blueberries yummy human food (and blueberries produced by the agribusiness industry do not hold a candle to their wild cousins with respect to the taste department), they are by far the most important food there is for a myriad of  species of wildlife. Birds, bears, white-tailed deer, groundhogs, foxes, and even timber wolves are just a sampling of wildlife that eat blueberries with gusto. So when the blueberry crop fails in the north woods, life can be hard, as there just isn’t the diversity of foodstuffs that exist in more southern climes.

And blueberries were definitely in bloom when the cold and snow hit.

Fortunately, blueberries are hardy, and can often survive a late winters blast. And not all the berry bushes will have been at the same stage of development. And not all blueberries are the same, as there are at least three species common in our area (the highbush, lowbush and velvetleaf). Still, I’m sure there will be an impact. Time will tell how bad it was.

Taxonomically, blueberries are a member of Heath Family of plants that are found mostly in temperate and cold regions around the world, as well as up in the mountains in the tropics. On a finer scale, they are in the Huckleberry Subfamily, which contains about 330 species word wide.

Blueberries thrive in acidic soils with good exposure to sunlight, although a bit of shade can actually help produce more succulent berries. After wildfire, or following a timber harvest, blueberries can be unbelievably abundant. In a good year, it’s not hard to pick a five-gallon pail in a couple of hours, or less.

Blueberries are without a doubt a health food. They contain a variety of natural phytochemicals such as anthocyanin and wild blueberries have twice the antioxidant capacity per serving of domesticated varieties. They can be eaten ‘as is’, sprinkled on cereal, put into pancakes and make an excellent pie as well as great tasting jam and jellies. Aboriginal people often used blueberries to make a vegetal pemmican, which could be kept for up to two years. Blueberries also make a nice, sweet wine, which can be drunk, but is better, in my opinion, when used as a marinate to reduce the strong, gamey taste of birds such as sharp-tailed grouse. Indeed, marinating the breasts of sharpies for as little as a half-hour before putting them on a BBQ is all it takes to make a great tasting dish. There are many, many ways to dish up blueberries.

Interestingly, not all blueberries are blue in colour. Some are black, and I have occasionally found ripe blueberries that were white as snow. Maybe that’s what happens when they get a late spring surprise like we got today.

When there’s a good crop of blueberries, the number of nuisance bears is low. When the crop fails, their numbers surge. In Kenora, there can be dozens of bears in urban areas by late summer, raiding gardens and rooting for garbage. Many get destroyed because a hungry, nuisance bear is a real pest – and are almost impossible to dissuade – as well as a threat to human safety.

Here’s to hoping the berry crop wasn’t done in by the cold and snow.

trumpeter

About 100 years ago, trumpeter swans were on the verge of extinction. It was thought there were less than 200 in all of North America, done in largely by unregulated hunting and, in some areas, habitat loss. Around 1960, about 2,000 swans were found in Alaska. Today, they are widespread across much of the USA and Canada, and they number in the many thousands, and are still increasing. It’s a really good news story.

In Ontario, trumpeter swans were considered to be extirpated until restoration efforts began in 1982, following successful restoration efforts in the USA that began in the 1960’s. The first successful hatching of trumpeters in 200 years in the province was believed to be in Wye Marsh in southern Ontario in 1993, but that observation had to be revised because unknown to government biologists, trumpeters released in mid-western USA states had traveled north and started nesting and producing young in the Kenora area of northwestern Ontario as early as 1989. This information was provided to me by a commercial bait fisherman, and was subsequently verified by Lil and I.

Today, there are well over a hundred nesting pair in northwestern Ontario, and I don’t know how many in southern Ontario. Lots. As I mentioned in my last post, it was quite delightful when four birds roosted for the night in the small pond beside the cabin I was staying in with friends, near Kemptville, which is just south of Ottawa, the nation’s capital.

They are a huge bird, weighing up to 30 pounds, or about 14 kgs. They are called trumpeters because that’s their call, and once you’ve heard it, you won’t forget it.

One of the problems in early restoration efforts was lead poisoning. The birds were picking up spent pellets from waterfowl hunters, and the adult birds were having difficulty reproducing. But efforts to ‘shake’ the marsh the birds had been released in (to sink the lead pellets), and the ban on lead shot for the purpose of hunting waterfowl, eventually worked and the lead pellets that remain in marshes have largely sunk out of reach of the swans and other dabbling types of waterfowl. Reproduction these days is quite good, and at least in the Kenora area, swans with up to seven cygnets have been recorded.

Interestingly enough, the trumpeters have never been classified in Ontario as a Species at Risk.  In my opinion, the way species at risk are identified and managed needs a total re-think. It’s mostly, again in my opinion, a piece of legislation that is used more for political purposes than as a management tool. I’ll discuss this more in future posts.

So welcome back, trumpeter swans. We’re glad you’re home.

 

 

 

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I went down to the Ottawa region for a week to do a bit of spring turkey hunting. Given the facts that my hunting friend and guide had spent the past 5 months in the Bahamas and the winter down east had been, from what I could tell, dang cold and snowy, I didn’t know what to expect. I feared turkey numbers might be down.

It quickly became clear that turkey numbers were indeed down from previous years, or they were hiding, or something. I only heard two, maybe as many as four, turkeys gobbling during five early mornings and four evenings of hunting in three different spots. Lucky for me, I managed to call in a jake – but it came in silently.

On the first morning, the youngest member of our quartet, hunting by himself, bagged a nice tom. Three of us hunting on a nearby farm heard and saw nothing, although I may have heard a single gobble in the distance (with tinnitus, it can be hard to hear sounds clearly). The next morning, back at the farm, one gobbler was going at it and was lured in by Don, who promptly missed. That’s all we saw or heard.

That evening I hunted where young Brian had bagged the tom, and where I had spotted a turkey in the distance earlier in the afternoon. No action for about an hour, but then suddenly at 6:30 pm there was a turkey at my decoy and that was it for him.

After that, not much was seen or heard. We saw a few turkeys driving around, but far fewer than in years past. Few chances for photos, and in fact I didn’t get any of note. Old Brian, whose hunt camp we stayed at, decided that given the apparent low numbers of turkeys in the area he hunts, he probably won’t harvest another, unless turkeys start showing up all of a sudden, which is possible.

Winter can be hard on turkeys. In the Ottawa area, far north insofar as turkeys are concerned, has regular bouts of cold, snow, freezing rain, thaws and then more cold, snow, freezing rains and thaws.  In addition, the Ottawa region is flat and swampy, which means there are few sunny, south facing slopes where turkeys can gather to mitigate the effects of inclement weather conditions. Their saving grace are farm fields that often remain bare, or partly bare, owing to farmers spreading manure, or other farm related activities beneficial to turkey. Plus I suspect many rural folk feed turkeys like they do other wild birds.

It was still a good hunt and nice to be out in the spring woods. The ruffed grouse were drumming, ducks and especially Canada geese were everywhere, and one evening four trumpeter swans landed and stayed the night on the pond beside the cabin.

In addition to the the wildlife, it was nice to visit a number of friends I tend to see infrequently

So a good week and really nothing to complain about.