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herptiles

hare-2

The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) recently announced some changes to small game hunting regulations. I’m not sure what to think about them – mostly I see that the changes aren’t based on scientific evidence, as there is little to no research being done in Ontario on management of small game species. And given how quickly the MNRF backed down on one of the significant changes they made – within days! – it suggests to me the MNRF is flying by the seat of their pants.

One of the changes made was to ban completely the harvest of snapping turtles (This one is particularly weird. Snapping turtle harvests were shown in the Hunting summary, but you needed a Fishing licence to harvest them). Prior to the complete close, residents and non-residents could harvest 2 snappers a day and have 5 in their possession. In most of northern Ontario, the season was the entire year (despite the fact the north is generally frozen solid from sometime in November through into April). In much of the south, the season ran from July 14 to Sept. 15. I don’t harvest turtles personally, so this doesn’t impact me, but I have to wonder what the evidence is to ban their harvest completely, everywhere. When I was a District Biologist I recall southern based managers telling me there were few records of snapper in the north, so their belief was they must be uncommon. People didn’t believe me when I told them that, in fact, snappers were very common, and that was the reason sightings weren’t being documented. Just like no one documents sightings of field mice . . .  .

Now, snappers live for many decades, so killing a big old snapper (might be 80 or 100 years old) for a bowl of soup or some delicate tid-bits of meat from the back could certainly be questioned, but it seems to me a complete ban is over the top. Apparently, when changes were proposed by the MNRF, the option of a complete ban was never presented.

Another change? It’s to ruffed grouse daily bag and possession limits in Wildlife Management Units 68, 73 to 76, 82 to 84. They will be 5 and 15 respectively for both residents and non-residents – however, when I look at the 2016-17 Hunting Regulations Summary, I don’t see any change . .  .I’m missing something . . .

Regardless, it’s 5 and 15 everywhere there’s an open season for ruffed grouse in Ontario (actually, it’s ruffed grouse and spruce grouse combined). Interestingly, a few years ago, for a few years, I wrote the game hunting forecast in Ontario for Ontario Out of Doors magazine. My contacts in southern Ontario always told me that ruffed grouse were just not doing all that well there. It’s the same in many parts of the USA. Indeed, friends of mine, avid grouse hunters – some hunt with dogs – seldom IF EVER get a limit of ruffed grouse in the woods near Ottawa, which for those who don’t know, is in south-eastern Ontario. I think the only reasoning behind ‘5 and 15’ is “that’s the way it’s always been”. There’s certainly evidence (research done in the states) that hunting can have an impact on ruffed grouse populations. But rather than at least see if reduced limits, and maybe shorter seasons, tried over a ruffed grouse cycle of say 10 years, in a few, chosen WMUs might improve grouse numbers, the decision was to opt for same everywhere. It’s easier, less confusing and maximizes ‘hunting opportunities’. Again, I don’t see any evidence of use of science behind this decision, except for the buzz that it’s a management scenario that meets the criteria of ensuring ‘sustainability’. These days, that’s all that counts.

Meanwhile, no changes yet to sharp-tailed grouse seasons or bag limits. Many parts of Ontario let you take 5 a day of these birds and possess 15 – (5 and 15 is a meme, or at least a mantra in Ontario) even in WMUs where few or even none have been seen for decades (and there are a number of WMUs that fall into that category). Many jurisdictions in Canada and the USA where sharp-tails are common have a relatively short season (about a month, as opposed to Ontario’s 3 or 4 month season) and have a daily bag limit of 3, possession limit of 6. That’s what it is in eastern Alberta – and I’ve shot lots of sharpies out there – it’s great hunting. Back here in Ontario, I’ve only shot a handful of sharpies – and many years I see none – but the season is 3 months long and the daily bag limit is 5 and I can put 15 of them into the freezer. It makes no sense to me.

Another change was the change that didn’t happen. At first, snowshoe hare and cottontail rabbit seasons were going to be reduced – instead of the season ending on June 15, like it has for decades, the season was to end on March 31.  Almost immediately there was a hue and a cry from a number of quarters and then quick as a bunny the MNRF backed down on this proposal and said the old season would remain – at least for this year. Obviously another management option that wasn’t well thought out . . . . the consensus was this change was responding to emotive pleas from some people and organizations that the government lends an ear to .. . .  .

There were some other changes, but for me, these where the highlights.

More changes are forecast for the future. I’ll be watching.

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snapper-2

The big turtle still lurks in the pond out front of our house. It’s a snapping turtle (Chelydra serpintina) and she’s huge; it’s quite likely she’s also very old. It’s been in the pond, as a large adult, for several years. And like from the start of her occupation, she’s still snapping down and making off with waterfowl.

Snapping turtles eat a wide variety of things including “a surprisingly large amount of vegetation”. Sounds like an omnivore to me.  It’s no wonder snapping turtles remain rather abundant (really?) even in areas as highly populated with people and their developments as Ontario.

In Ontario, they’re classified as a ‘Game Amphibian’. If you have a valid fishing licence (either a resident or non-resident) you can catch them ‘by hand or with a box or funnel trap’, according to the hunting regulations (what?). There’s a season for Ontario residents and another for non-residents. The daily bag limit is two and as long as you’ve never caught and kept more than two in one day, you can have up to five in your possession. There are other rules and regulations (of course!) that pertain to your interactions with snapping turtles, but the point I’m making is that since you can harvest them almost everywhere in Ontario, in a season that in many Wildlife Management Units never ends (the open season is all year long), there must be a lot of them around. Right?

However, some believe the present fishing and hunting legislation and regulations don’t do a good job of managing  snapping turtles.  And, they say, at least in some places, there aren’t many snappers left. Some of these individuals and groups believe snapping turtles should be managed as a ‘Species at Risk’ (SAR); not as a ‘Game Amphibian’.

A big problem is there isn’t a lot known about Ontario’s snapping turtles and the information that’s available is limited in scope. For example, while it’s mandatory to complete a questionnaire if you actually harvest a snapping turtle, not many mandatory questionnaires are submitted. Why? Probably because:  A, I suspect not many people who live in or visit Ontario actually harvest snapping turtles (do you know anybody?); and B;  for those who do harvest a turtle, it’s unlikely they fill in the form and report it to the provincial government.

“B” is probable because the last time I looked, no one has ever been convicted of the offence of not completing and submitting a mandatory hunt report. That applies not just for snapping turtles, but all mandatory reports about ones’ hunting activities of game animals in Ontario. So even the harvest data that does exist, is suspect.

Aboriginal and Metis, with a few restictions, can harvest snappers without a license and there are no season, catch or possession limits. I suspect that harvest methods are also less restrictive than they are for others.

Still, if snapping turtle populations have declined over time, I’m certain hunting is only one of many potential factors. Because they have a relatively low reproductive rate (the survival rate of all early age classes is dismal), anything that increases the death rate among adults could spell trouble. In some places they might be getting killed because they’re viewed as as a pests and nuisance. It’s common to see them killed owing to collisions with automobiles. Developments that drain marshlands and otherwise harden the landscape don’t do turtles favors.

Probably in some places, there are lots of snapping turtles; other places, not so many. Seems logical.

But the bottom line is no one really knows how many snapping turtles there are in Ontario.  Are there a lot? Enough? Not enough? It’s an ongoing battle that has potential for serious repercussions, not only for those who harvest snapping turtles, but for all sorts of human endeavors that require permits to proceed.

It’s busy work, keeping a lot of people occupied, but I don’t think the ongoing discussions are accomplishing a whole lot. On the other hand, it is what governments do.

Meanwhile, I know where there is one really big snapping turtle that’s still up to her old tricks. Out there in the pond, sneakin’ around, snappin’ up waterfowl . . .

toad-1

It’s the end of May and it doesn’t look like we will be getting any late season frosts this year. The last couple of years the end of May had been very cool; some nights in early June the temperature dipped below freezing.

When the spring is a cold one, the pond in front of our house is much quieter than during a warm spring, as some of the frogs and toads really don’t like the cold. Wood frogs, the first to sing in our area, sound like they are saying its “c-c-c-c-o-o-o-o-l-l-l-d-d-d-d”.  And it usually is when they start singing. One can count on hearing wood frogs.

But as I said, it has not been a cold spring (kind of cool and dry, although there have been some warm days and some timely rains). As a result, all the species of frogs and toads normally found in our pond have been quite vociferous of late.

Once the wood frogs were really into it, the chorus frogs, the leopard frogs and the spring peepers got into the act. But it needed to get much warmer to get the toads and tree frogs trilling and singing (actually, I have to say I’d describe both as trillers).

Sometimes there are green frogs here, but not many, and I only hear them on occasion. This year, to date,  I haven’t heard any. No bull frogs, either, as it’s well out of their range; although I suspect they would thrive if they were introduced (which would not be a good thing!).

It’s nice to listen to the amphibians sing; it’s really quite entertaining. But it can be overly loud. Sometimes one can’t talk on the phone or hear the TV if the door to the deck is open and the chorus is on.

A couple of days ago, a tree frog found its ways into our satellite TV dish and wow, is he loud! Maybe he’s hoping he can be heard in outer space – or at least get top billing on the pond based on volume.

I was totally amazed by the number of toads (in our pond they are all American toads) frolicking about in a reproductive frenzy the other day. The shoreline in front of the house was alive with dozens of toads not only trilling, but doing a lot of other rather naughty stuff. They really went at it for a few days. I think they finally wore themselves out. It’s mostly tree frogs doing love songs now.

After a few years of scarcity, local leopard frog populations have rebounded and for the last few years there have been good hatches. However, it seems to me that when I was a kid, young-of-the-year leopard frogs were super-abundant each summer. Maybe that was an anomaly – there is not a lot of information on what constitutes ‘normality’ with respect to population dynamics of many of Canada’s frog and toad species.

A few years back, when alarm bells were ringing suggesting that frogs and toads could be doomed because the ozone layer was thinning, and there was some indication frog populations were almost universally declining, the Ontario government put restrictions on use of frogs as bait. In case you didn’t know, anglers often use frogs to catch fish like bass, walleye and pike. The best frog is the leopard; now it’s the only frog that can be used as bait, based in part on their super-abundance (at least in the past).

I guess that’s good, but while it is legal, and leopard frogs do make good bait, I can’t use them myself; they squirm too much for me. I prefer to not use live bait at all, but sometimes I do use minnows and worms. There are no easy answers. . . .

Anyway, I do love to listen to the singing and trilling of frogs and toads. For me, their calls help make things seem right in this world.

 

rg-1

It was another hot and humid day yesterday, and raining again today. Lots of rain this year, although no huge deluge, like in some years. But a lot of rain. Lake levels are up, ponds and marshes are brimming. The forest is lush.

Sometimes early summer rains wreak havoc with small game like ruffed grouse and snowshoe hare. The prevailing thoughts are that the rains result in hypothermia, and too much moisture can mean a lot of biting insects and other factors which result in poor offspring survival. This is especially true if the timing of the rains coincide with birthing dates and especially if the rains are coincident with cold.

Fortunately, the heaviest rains seemed to have been late enough to get many of the wee creatures into their second or so week of life, and weren’t associated with undue cold. Plus, after several years when the mosquitoes in particular seemed to be worse with each year passing, this year saw a dramatic fall in mosquito abundance. Oh, there were still mosquitoes, but this year I didn’t need to wear a bug net when I went outside at dawn or dusk, like I had to last year. And the numerous dragonflies seem to be keeping the lid on the deer and horse flies, which I really appreciate.

It is always difficult to foretell what’s happened with respect to reproductive success of all the creatures out in the forest, but based on a number of observations, many species appear to have had good reproductive success. I’ve seen several broods of ruffed grouse and numerous small snowshoe hares. Lots of young Canada geese, who seem to have bred early as the young are already starting to fly, which is about two weeks earlier than in some past years. I’ve also seem broods of wood ducks, ring-necks and of course, mallards.

Other species – the non-game variety – also seem to have had a good year of reproduction. Tree swallows, barn swallows and cliff swallows all seemed to bring off young. In the recent past, some years have been complete failures for the local swallows. In general, the passerines (or dickie birds) seem to have had a good year. Around the house and flitting over the pond, there are numerous eastern kingbirds, cedar waxwings and American goldfinches. I’ve also seen some young of the year ruby-throated hummingbirds over the last couple of days.

And it’s been a good year for some frogs and garter snakes. Leopard frogs seem to be everywhere, which is great, as for many years they were scarce and seemed to be headed towards oblivion. Lots of tiny spring peepers too. But I haven’t seen any small toads – last year and the year before they were numerous – and we haven’t even heard many adults trilling. Same goes for the tree frogs, although there were some adults singing earlier in the year.

Friends of mine – biologists who had a special interest in herptiles (reptiles and amphibians) – say we actually don’t know much about herptile population dynamics and what the main drivers are. It seems populations go through inexplicable ups and downs, and not in a cyclical fashion like many other species.

That’s my quick mid-summer update on the status of the local small fauna. I’ll try to get back to some more controversial topics in the weeks ahead, but summer is a time to relax, and enjoy the heat. It won’t last long.