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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.

 

 

 

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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.

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I heard some disturbing news this week about ‘farmer attitude’. Most of us hesitate to be overly critical of farmers or anything to do with farming, as farmers provide us with food, which all of us need. Farming is also what let us evolve from being simple hunters and gatherers, so farming is really the hallmark of modern civilization. We need farmers.

Still, there are problems and issues with respect to farmers and farming. For example, in Canada, there is virtually no original tall grass prairie left. Before the plough, though, Canada had millions of hectares of tall grass prairie; native tall grass prairie was so high, you apparently had to stand on a horse to see over it. Now it’s all wheat, canola, sunflower seeds and other crops. Further west, in the short grass prairies, there’s more rangeland – a lot of it’s too dry for crops – but it’s still mostly farms and ranches.

Of course, that’s not so much the fault of farmers, but government policy, which over the years encouraged every hectare to be ‘put to good use’. Along the way, tens of thousands of wetlands have also been drained. As a result, the Canadian prairies have more species Threatened and Endangered with extinction than any other biome in the country.

Despite the problems, there’s still a lot of wildlife in the prairies, and over the years I’ve been spent a lot of time there hunting big game, upland birds and waterfowl. During that time, I’ve watched landowners – farmers and ranchers – continue to drain wetlands and cut down patches of trees, shrubs and hedgerows to put more land into production.

One result was a bit of cowboy poetry. This one is called ‘Stubble Rap’. I wrote it years ago, and was reminded of it this week, so I thought I’d share.

Stubble Rap

When you’re living on the prairies and you see a slough
You’ve got to ditch it, drain it, burn it too
You can’t leave the prairies wild and free
It’s especially important
To remove every tree

Can you ditch it, can you drain it, can you burn it?
Can you fence it, can you plant it, can you spray it?

Put away the tractor
A combine won’t do
It takes a backhoe to drain a slough
Then you plant some wheat
Some canola too

You fear the heavy rain but you don’t want drought
If the hoppers come you spray them out
And if you’re really lucky come the harvest moon
You’ll be another wealthy farmer
From a town like Saskatoon

Can you ditch it, can you drain it, can you burn it?
Can you fence it, can you plant it, can you spray it?

You can ditch them, you can drain them, you can burn them black
But rain, sleet and snow will see the sloughs come back
Precipitation is the farmer’s foe
Always on the backhoe
Always on the go

Can you ditch it, can you drain it, can you burn it?
Can you fence it, can you plant it, can you spray it?

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There is close to a meter of snow on the ground – and more is falling today. This past week,  I had to start shoveling it off the roofs of our outbuildings from the ground using a roof rake, and was floundering around like a beached whale. Obviously, my body design wasn’t made for snow travel.

Lynx, though, do well in deep snow. There has been at least one on our property recently, and I was amazed at how little it was sinking in the white stuff, despite the fact the snow has been very fluffy, with little packing and no crusting.

After an absence of 20 some years, bobcats had started showing up in northwestern Ontario, but I suspect this winter will be hard on them. Unlike lynx, bobcat have small feet, and are more like me than a lynx in the deep snow. Indeed, there will be a lot of deaths in the north woods this year. But the creatures adapted to deep snow and cold have a much better chance of survival than those who favour milder climes, and had been inching their way north with the milder winters of the recent past.

And that, I think, is a good thing.

Looking at the frozen pond in front of our house, with the temperature (again) hovering in the -30 C range, made me wistful for spring. Although we sometimes get blue-winged teal visitors to our pond, they have never nested here, preferring larger wetland complexes, at least in this area. They are the 2nd most abundant duck in North America and one of the first duck species to leave their breeding grounds come autumn. Most spend their winters in northern South America. They really don't like the cold, which is why I thought of them this morning.

Pileated woodpeckers are usually very shy, but this male has become very tame. It even landed on Lil's arm the other day, when she was re-filling the suet holder. Early in the 20th century, there was fear the pileated would become extinct. Fortunately, the population recovered. They can do a lot of damage to utility poles, though, and the Hydro crews in northern Ontario are constantly replacing 'problem' wooden poles - ones the woodpeckers like to nest in - with steel girders.

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I’ve been reading that wild turkey populations in many areas of the USA have declined in recent years, and there’s lots of speculation as to why. I’d suggest it has a lot to do with expected population dynamics – when a species is introduced to suitable, but unoccupied habitat, the population tends to surge, often overshooting what biologists call ‘carrying capacity’. Given that many, many populations are the result of re-introductions into areas where wild turkeys had been extirpated decades earlier, the rise and subsequent fall of their numbers in recent times shouldn’t be a surprise.

In Ontario, populations are, for the most part, still in the ‘surge’ state. This winter might temporarily halt that, but I think recovery will be quick, and the population growth will continue for a while yet.

Wild turkey restoration across North America is a one of the most spectacular recent, conservation success stories.