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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.

As the tough winter in much of Canada and the US continues, it becomes more and more likely losses of game animals, especially deer and turkey, but others as well, will be substantial. That's problematic for managers, as budgets of state and provincial wildlife agencies are often linked to sales of hunting (and fishing) licences. This becomes problematic because many agencies - and hunting and fishing advocacy groups - are reticent to restrict hunting opportunities to the extent they maybe should when populations drop, fearing the loss of revenue. In my opinion, too strong a linkage to license sales and management budgets isn't, as Martha Stewart  would say, 'a good thing'.

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Well, posting the first bit of ‘Stupid Laws’ worked easier than I thought (feared) it would, so I’ll go ahead and post the rest of the article. Enjoy.

If exotic game birds aren’t your thing, maybe you should try to match wits with the Arctic Fox. You can hunt Arctic Fox in all of Ontario from Oct. 26 through to March 31 – no limit! But only if you’re a resident of Ontario, as the season is closed to non-residents. Oh, and the hunting summary makes a point of stating that “Generally, furbearing mammals may not be hunted in Provincial Parks . .  . and Crown Game Preserves . . .” I’ll be sure to keep that in mind next time I’m hunting in Rondeau and spot a pack of Arctic Foxes eyeing up my dekes.

If you like hunting raccoons, be sure to have the proper loads handy if you happen to be on a goose hunt in the James Bay region. Raccoon season is open in all of Ontario to both residents and non-residents from Oct. 15 to Jan. 15. Non-residents can’t hunt raccoons at night, though, so when you’re in an Atawapiskat goose camp with your American buddies, they’ll have to stay in camp at night playing cards – or something – while you’re out sloshing around in the muskeg chasing ‘ol ringtail.

Wolf (including coyotes) hunting has some issues as well. I like the fact wolf hunting requires a separate tag – others might not – but regardless, it still looks to me like a half-way measure. That’s because you need to have a valid small game licence to hunt wolves, in addition to the wolf tag itself. That isn’t a big deal for residents, as most resident hunters have a small game licence, and even if you have to buy both because you don’t hunt small game, it’s only just over $30 to get you out the door and off chasing wolves or coyotes.

But it’s a different story for non-residents. Not only is the cost of a non-resident wolf licence (2012) $263.93, the cost of a non-resident small game licence is $112.46, for a total cost of $376.49. But at the end of the day, the cost isn’t really the issue. As the saying goes, if you want to play, you have to pay.

What’s stupid in my opinion is how wolf tag validity is intertwined with big game hunting (deer, moose, elk and black bear) in much of Ontario. According to Section 77 of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, 1977, it’s not permissible to hunt wolves with a rifle of greater calibre than a .22 rimfire whenever there is an open rifle season for big game, unless you also have a valid big game licence (in parts of southern Ontario, where there are fewer wolves and a lot more coyotes, the calibre minimum is upped to .275. There are also restrictions, everywhere, on the size of shot in shotguns when wolf or coyote hunting during concurrent big game seasons).

In other words, if you are deer hunting and tag a deer, but the deer season is still open, you can’t hunt wolves, at least not on your own, with a rifle that’s appropriate for wolf hunting – a high powered, centre fire rifle. And that applies to both residents and non-residents. It’s particularly stupid when it comes to non-resident deer hunters, many who’d like to hunt wolves during the deer hunt. Not only do they have to pay a good buck for the privilege of wolf hunting, they can’t do it after they’ve tagged a deer. It’s led to a lot of problems with respect to marketing of wolf hunts to non-residents by outfitters, as well as enforcement headaches. During the deer season, most non-resident wolf hunters are apparently shooting first, and buying a wolf tag later.

Presumably, the law was brought in to prevent poaching of big game by ‘wolf’ hunters. It may have been a valid concern when wolves were simply included on the small game tag, but given the cost of a wolf tag – especially for non-residents – these days the regulations, including calibre restrictions,  don’t appear to me to be necessary or warranted. Rather, they seem to be plain stupid.

Hunting is generally recognized to be a very safe activity, but that wasn’t always the case. The introduction of mandatory hunter safety training is largely credited for making hunting one of the safest of all the so-called leisure activities.

Along with hunter training, other pieces of legislation, such as mandatory wearing of hunter orange during big game firearms seasons, are also credited with improving safety of the sport.

Now we all know that Aboriginal and Treaty rights exempt most Aboriginal and Métis people from the majority of hunting and fishing regulations, such as seasons and limits on applicable Treaty and traditional hunting areas. However, I’ve been told by several law enforcement officers that safety regulations, such as shooting down or across roads, apply to everyone.

Well, that’s only partly right. First, it is necessary for anyone who wishes to possess a firearm have at least a federal Possession Certificate, and dependent on age and other factors, it may also mean having to take the Canadian Firearms Safety Course.

But there is no mandatory requirement for Aboriginal or Métis hunters to take the Ontario Hunter Education Course, or special safety training like the course most of us have to take to hunt wild turkeys. Nor do they have to wear hunter orange when hunting big game during firearms seasons. I can understand not having to take the Ontario Hunter Education Course on Treaty lands, but hunter orange seems to me to be related only to safety concerns. Problem is, the hunter orange ‘rule’ applies only to licensed hunters. If you aren’t hunting under the authority of a license, the legislation doesn’t apply.

I’ve seen Aboriginal moose hunters in Ontario dressed in black on a couple of occasions, which I found disconcerting and alarming. It certainly didn’t seem to me to be a very safe way to moose hunt.

The lack of safety regulations seems to be at least partially implicated in the accidental shooting of Peter Kosid in November 2012, when he was archery hunting deer on the Grand River reserve. He was shot with a rifle by Stan Jonathan, a Six Nations hunter, who was also hunting deer. Jonathan was charged with criminal negligence causing death.

While accidents can happen anytime, anyplace and to anyone, it seems to me that there have been a number of hunting accidents and fatalities in Canada in recent years involving Aboriginal hunters following hunting practices prohibited for licensed hunters, such as night hunting big game.  It may be traditional, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe.

Dumb laws aren’t found only in hunting world. Fishing rules and regulations also have their fair share of stupidity.

On Eagle Lake, just to the south of Dryden in northwestern Ontario, it’s illegal to fish “at night”. This regulation was brought in more than 20 years ago when there was a concern too many big walleye were being harvested at night. At the time, the daily catch and possession limit for walleye was six, there were no size limits and ‘catch and release’ thinking was in its infancy.

Given the reduction of daily catch and possession limits of walleye on Eagle to four fish, none between 46-58 cm in total length and only 1 greater than 58 cm, as well as the large scale change in angler ethics and attitudes, the retention of no night angling – for any species – seems stupid. Angling at night for many species, like bass and muskie, in addition to walleye, is effective and fun. I really can’t see it being a sustainability issue today – and it isn’t anywhere else in Ontario, as far as I know. I hear the main driver for retaining the rule on Eagle Lake is that (some) tourist operators don’t want to see the regulation changed because it takes their guests off the lake and helps to keep them from getting lost at night.

To top it off, the Ontario recreational fishing summary doesn’t define what ‘night fishing’ is. Fellow OOD editor Drew Myers tells me he asked the Dryden District MNR what the actual time restrictions are with respect to ‘night’ on Eagle Lake. He told me “No one seemed to know”. The hunting regulations in Ontario say you can’t hunt from ½ hr after sunset till ½ hr before sunrise – but the only reference I can find to restrictions on angling hours in the fishing summary is in reference to baitfish – it’s possible to dip for baitfish only during daylight hours, which according to the summary is “after sunrise and before sunset”.

Which means I can’t use a dipnet to scoop up crayfish after the sun goes down, something I used to do on warm summer nights on some of the sandy beaches of Kenora on Lake of the Woods.  It was a great way to load up on the big Rusty Crayfish there that I used to take home to boil up and chow down on with my favourite beverage. But I can’t do that anymore, either.

Crayfish, crawfish, or crawdads, whatever you want to call them, are great table fare. If you like lobsters, you’ll love crayfish. They’re a popular item at restaurants specializing in Louisiana, Cajun style dishes. However, the crawfish I’ve eaten in Ontario restaurants aren’t near as scrumptious as the fresh home-caught crawdads I used to feast on until the rules on capture and transportation of crayfish changed a few years back.

As I said, during the summer months I used to enjoy an occasional meal of Rusty Crayfish caught fresh from Lake of the Woods. Rusty Crayfish, unlike most other species of crayfish, are very large – often 4” (10 cm) in total length, with very large claws. Large is important, as even a large crayfish with large claws isn’t much more than a tasty morsel. It takes at least a dozen or so large individual ‘dads’ to make a meal.

But the Rusty Crayfish isn’t native to Ontario. It’s an alien invader, very prolific, and quickly displacing native species in lakes and rivers where it’s been introduced, most likely by anglers inadvertently dumping unused bait at the end of the day. To keep the Rusty from spreading, it’s now illegal to transport crayfish overland (Conservation Officers have told me that’s in reference to ‘live’ crayfish, but that’s not what the Fishing Summary says). They must be used on the water body where captured.

Problem is, for safe and enjoyable eating, crawfish should be put in cool water for at least several hours so they can purge, and like lobster, are best cooked by tossing them live into boiling water until they turn bright red.

I can sort of follow the logic of the current regulations – although not the ban on night dipping – but who uses 10cm long crawdads with large, pincer-like claws that can hurt bad, as bait? It’s . . . you know . . . stupid.

I’ve also pretty much given up on catching my own leeches, which I’m sure is the intent of the current leech regs. There’s no other reason why you’re only allowed to use one leech trap ‘no more than 45 cm in any dimension’ unless the intent is to discourage people like me from capturing my own bait. I’ve trapped leeches, and been out with people licensed to take them commercially. In my experience, a single leech trap – a couple of small sheets of aluminum scrunched together holding a piece of meat for bait – usually catches no more than a few leeches, so if you can only use one trap, you need at least a couple of days trapping to have a enough to take fishing.

While you’re also only allowed to use one minnow trap to catch minnows, it’s common to catch two or three dozen minnows – or more – in an overnight set.  I’m okay with that – leech trapping, not so much.

On my bucket list is a desire to catch and eat a sturgeon. That’s going to be a lot harder to do now, ever since the lake sturgeon was designated to be a Species at Risk (SAR). In Ontario, it’s now illegal to keep a sturgeon under the authority of fishing licence. In some fishing zones, where the sturgeon is listed as a Species of Special Concern, you can still fish for them, but it’s no longer permissible to keep any.

On Lake of the Woods, the lake sturgeon population has been recovering nicely over the past few decades after being almost wiped out from commercial overfishing in the early 1900’s, but it’s recently been identified to still be in such poor shape (Threatened) that you aren’t even allowed to practice catch and release. Interestingly, Minnesota, which also has a large chunk or Lake of the Woods, doesn’t think the sturgeon fishery is in near as bad a condition as does Ontario. They’ve designated those same fish as a Species of Special Concern. So in the spring, when the sturgeon run up the Rainy River to spawn, we Canucks have to be content to watch American anglers catch and keep thousands of pounds of sturgeon on their side of the river, less than a stone’s throw away, while we sit in our boats twiddling our thumbs.

Or, we could, according to Phil Talmage with the Minnesota DNR, go over into Minnesota, buy a non-resident Fishing Licence and a $5 special sturgeon tag, fish the US side of the river, and harvest one sturgeon.

It’s a similar story with respect to caribou.

You can’t hunt caribou – no open season – in Ontario under the authority of a hunting licence. On the southern portion of their range, occupied by the non-migratory, forest dwelling ecotype, they’ve been identified as a SAR and designated as Threatened, which means hunting is out of the question. However, woodland caribou more to the north (technically, all caribou in Ontario are the woodland sub-species) are more numerous, and aren’t believed to be at risk. Minimum population estimates for these northerly herds run around 15,000, although recent surveys by the MNR suggest that number is low, and 25,000 plus is probably more representative. But still, no licensed caribou hunting.

Population estimates of caribou are difficult, as they roam over thousands of square kilometers. In fact, Ontario’s northern caribou herds are actually a shared resource with Manitoba . . . which has an annual hunt for those same woodland caribou. Even non-residents can hunt caribou in Manitoba, although not in the WMU immediately adjacent to Ontario.

It’s not as if caribou as a species (and there is only a single species of caribou in North America) are in trouble at all. While numbers do rise and fall, often dramatically, a few years ago the number of caribou in Canada were estimated to be a little under 4 million, roughly equal, or slightly more, than the total combined populations of white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk and moose. You read that correctly.

And recall that Ontario does have a licensed hunt for elk. Total elk population in Ontario? Less than a thousand.

As you can see, there does seem to be more than a few stupid fish and game laws in the province. I highlighted only a few. There’s more. A lot more.

Fortunately, many don’t do real harm – hunting Arctic Foxes in southern Ontario isn’t a threat to the fox population – but I think many of these dumb pieces of legislation reflect badly on the outdoors community, including fish and wildlife managers.

It also brings into question the appropriateness of other rules and regulations.  For example, there were 34 WMU’s, including WMU 13, with open season for huns last fall. Seasons were from 6 days to 8 weeks in length, with a uniform daily limit of 8 and a possession limit of 16. While I did find an old, 1980 article by Pat Madigan in the Angler and Hunter extolling the virtues of hun hunting, which back then was “fast becoming one of the top gamebirds for Ontario hunters”, I haven’t heard much about huns since. I know there are still some in the Ottawa area, but for many years now, when OOD staff have done their annual province-wide game forecast, there’s not much on the gray partridge to report. It’s more than a remote possibility that the seasons and limits for this great gamebird aren’t just stupid with respect to WMU 13.

It’s of no great comfort, but stupid fish and game laws can be found in just about any jurisdiction that exists. In Manitoba, for example, I was told it’s illegal to put out food plots – because food plots are considered to be bait, and you can’t bait deer in Manitoba. So you could be charged for hunting in a ½ acre food plot of alfalfa, but it’s okay to hunt deer in a farmers’ 1000 ha field of sunflowers . . . or alfalfa.

Like Tom Hanks reminds us in the movie Forrest Gump, “Stupid is as stupid does”.