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snapper-1

Lately, while driving around, I’ve seen lots of turtles digging out holes on the shoulders of the roads to lay their eggs. Most of them are painted turtles, but there’s also a fair number of large snapping turtles. These are the only two species found in this area.

People must be looking out for them, I’m happy to say, as I haven’t seen very much in the way of road kill. Some years there is a lot of turtle carnage on our local roads. But it’s still early in the year. Turtle egg-laying will last another month.

Painted turtles are smaller and seem to be more common, but I think the snapper biomass is substantial. Some of these turtles are huge; easily over 30 cm across their carapace and weighing over 6 kg.  Snapping turtles, like many turtle and tortoises, are long-lived – it’s believed their life-span is well over a hundred years. As a group, turtles haven’t changed much over the past 200 million years, so one has to suspect they are reasonably well designed and suited to their lifestyle. They certainly look prehistoric.

Not surprisingly, there’s not a lot an adult snapping turtle has to fear – outside of humans and their vehicles. Some people like to eat snapping turtles (painted turtles can’t be harvested) as they supposedly make a good soup. I’ve not tried it, but have to think that whatever the taste, large snapping turtles likely have high concentrations of elements and toxins that can’t be good for you. That’s what happens when you live a long time.

Interestingly, despite the fact snapping turtles have been listed as a ‘special concern’ species under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act,. 2007, hunting them is allowed. It’s a kind of a weird situation; the regulation on harvest and possession are listed in the hunting regulations summary, but to harvest a turtle (they are in a category called ‘game amphibians and reptiles’) you need to have a valid sport or conservation fishing license. Both residents and non-residents of Ontario (most of the snapping turtle harvest in this area has been by Americans) can harvest turtles. The season is open all year – with a daily bag limit of 2 and a possession limit of 5. If you harvest a snapping turtle one must complete and submit a mandatory Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (OMNRF) questionnaire (both online and printed versions are available). But like all mandatory hunting reports the OMNRF requires one to fill, it’s mandatory in name only. There has never been a charge laid with respect to failing to do any mandatory report, be that for bear, wild turkey, wolf or snapping turtle. So at least at this point in time, it’s a useless and toothless regulation.

There’s a large snapping turtle in the beaver pond in front of our house and it’s been there for many years. Snappers are scavengers and hunters and will eat just about anything they can, including frogs, snakes, goslings and ducklings. Lil rescued a duckling from it’s jaws once a few years ago, but I imagine it’s got a few we are unaware of. Maybe it’s one of the reasons all the geese and ducks left the pond this year shortly after the young fledged.

Sometimes, if it’s a cold year, the eggs a snapper lay won’t hatch that year, but might the year following – if the nest isn’t found by skunks, raccoons, crows, ravens, mink, marten or otter. Although the turtles cover the hole with sand and gravel, I suspect the scent trail gives it away. Or the crows and ravens, which spy on everything, simply wait for the turtle to leave before helping themselves to a meal of fresh eggs. Lil over-wintered a cache of eggs one year that someone stumbled across while doing some construction work, and had good success in getting them to hatch out. Unlike adults, young turtles are preyed on heavily by a host of meat-eating birds and animals.

Female snappers can hold sperm from males they’ve mated with for several seasons, “using it  as necessary”.

Snappers got their name because they snap – unlike many turtles, they are too large too hide in their shell, so instead they use their might to hiss and snap at animals they perceive to be a threat. They don’t have teeth, but have a powerful beak, and one doesn’t want to get bitten.

I like turtles, even the somewhat hideous and kind of scary snappers.  With a bit of luck, turtles might be around for another 200 million years. They’ll probably out last us.

morel-1

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.

 

 

woodie-5

I was going through some journals and magazines the other day when I came across an article on the benefits California condors have reaped from a lead-reduction program. It confirmed a vague recollection of mine about a widespread ban on lead ammunition. It was California that passed a statewide ban on lead ammunition in October of 2013. Some in the gun rights lobby weren’t pleased, which given American politics around guns, isn’t surprising.

There’s a large body of science on lead, a natural compound made up of four stable isotopes, and its harmful effects on both humans and wildlife. Notably, lead poisoning in ancient Roman, Greek and Chinese dynasties has been well documented. First in the United States (1991) and later in Canada (1999), the use of lead shot for hunting waterfowl was banned specifically because it was believed there were just too many ducks and geese dying of lead poisoning each year, and the culprit was hunters spewing lead shot. Most waterfowl research types, managers and many hunters continue to be supportive of the ban and it’s believed far fewer ducks and geese are dying today because of it (annually, the estimate is 1 million plus). But like any number, there are critics, and disputes about the nature, implementation and effectiveness of the ban are likely to continue for some time.

Although the shift to non-toxic result had a rocky start, I think the end result is much better shot shell ammunition than existed in the era of lead. Better shells for the hunter and better for the environment. I like it.

In the article I was reading, one of the main points trying to be made was that it was possible to get favourable end results (in this case, less use of lead ammo) by use of voluntary instead of legislated measures, if certain protocols were followed. Namely, if the agencies responsible for wildlife management were trustworthy and provided correct information, were respectful and provided their clients with the ‘tools’ they needed, great strides in conservation could be made. They detailed how well a voluntary ban on the use of lead bullets for big game hunts in Arizona’s core California condor range was working. Between 70-75% of big game hunters had switched to non-lead ammo, and over 20% of the hunters who still used lead were packing out their gut piles. Condors were still dying of lead poisoning in both California (legislated ban) and Arizona (voluntary ban), but deaths rates were similar. Obviously the lead problem wasn’t ‘solved’, but at least one potential impact was being mitigated, and the general consensus was things were moving in the right direction.

I’ve observed that when I’m hunting on my favourite stomping grounds within a couple of hours driving distance of my home, the crows, ravens and eagles keep a close watch on me. Other hunters I’ve spoken to have made similar observations.  These smart birds recognize hunters, and know hunters often (hopefully!) take them to gut piles. Invariable, some of these birds ingest lead fragments and get sick. Some die. I know this, as my spouse Lil is a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, and some of her wards are lead poisoned bald eagles.

I think the less lead we put into the environment the better. However, I’m not supportive of banning use of lead everywhere – it’s partly that ‘trust’ and ‘respect’ thing.  Do we really have to worry about gut piles at the gun range?

I don’t know of any other alarming widespread die-offs of birds or animals occurring from ingestion of lead ammunition used by big game, small game and varmint hunters (waterfowl and possibly California condors exempted). But lead is toxic, and by all accounts, less is best. Some studies even suggest there is a danger to pregnant women and young children from eating wild game harvested with conventional lead bullets, but then again, people have been eating wild game taken with lead ammo for centuries with no obvious, discernible, negative effects.  There’s a lot of important information on lead that all hunters need to know.

I’m slowly switching to non-lead ammo for use in all my rifles and shotguns as I try to reduce my personal use of lead. Someday, there may be, and will likely be, more bans on things made with lead. In the interim, I think we should all be trying to at least reduce our use of lead. I think it’s the right thing to do.