Mudpuppy night for the OFNC

photos by Bill Bowman

According to Fred Schueler, Kemptville Creek, just below the dam at Oxford Mills, is the only place in Ontario where our giant aquatic Salamanders can be easily viewed during their winter activity.

According to Fred Schueler, Kemptville Creek, just below the dam at Oxford Mills, is the only place in Ontario where our giant aquatic Salamanders can be easily viewed during their winter activity.

Searching for salamanders at this site has become a regular weekly event for Fred.

Searching for salamanders at this site is a regular weekly event for Fred, and he has records dating back to 1984.

On Saturday, 18 February, OFNC members joined Fred and Aleta from 7 to 10.

On Saturday, 18 February, OFNC members joined Fred and Aleta from 7 to 10, wading in the cold water with flashlights and headlamps.

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From Bill and Barbara Bowman: "Many thanks Fred and Aleta for sharing your knowledge and enthusiasm for mudpuppies last night. Our family really enjoyed your presentation and the hands on learning experience."

From Bill and Barbara Bowman: “Many thanks Fred and Aleta for sharing your knowledge and enthusiasm for mudpuppies last night. Our family really enjoyed your presentation and the hands on learning experience.”

More about Mudpuppy Night in Oxford Mills on Fred and Aleta’s web site

4th ANNUAL OFNC MEMBERS PHOTO NIGHT: FROM BACKYARDS AND AROUND THE WORLD

By Barry Cottam

Once again OFNC members got together to share their passion for nature and nature photography. And once again, we discovered the amazing range of interests and experiences Club members explore. We could have used even more time than the three hours scheduled for this event. Each presentation by the ten participants was interesting and informative and the photography was excellent. Organizers Hume Douglas and I never really know until the evening starts just how many presenters we’ll have and what they are presenting, but we’ve been more than happy with results every time.

doug-luoma-hummingbird-clearwing-moth-mud-lake

Doug Luoma – hummingbird clearwing moth

In a way, this event is like a pot luck that always works out. Some club members love to travel while others find a world closer to home, sometimes right in their own backyard. And while birding is the most popular activity, our event reminds us of the many other aspects of nature we explore. Keith Wickens started the evening off at home and far away, sharing photos of shore birds from Mud Lake and New Zealand. He has a special interest in hard-to-identify juveniles. Bev McBride took us on a whirlwind world tour, from home here in Ottawa to the French Pyrenees, the Tibetan Plateau in the Qinghai province of China, returning via Alaska and the NWT. Bev is passionate about small plants that grow in cracks in rocks, many rare and difficult to identify: she would appreciate hearing any information about the plants shown here. Eden Bromfield is also interested in rare plants and fungi too. His presentation travelled through time and space, a seasonal trip through natural landscapes, with wildlife, such as

eden-bromfield-eastern-purple-bladderwort-utricularia-purpurea
Eden Bromfield – eastern purple bladderwort

a grizzly in northern BC. We visited another north with Gordon Robertson, who explored birding spots around Edinburgh, Scotland; good thing he had a map! Jakob Mueller warmed us up in Cayo Coco, Cuba. His specialty is reptiles, but he started off with several fascinating Cuban endemic birds, including the Bee Hummingbird aka the world’s smallest bird, pictured here, a very difficult subject to photograph. He explained that birds are reptiles, too, before getting down to the lizards and snakes. Justin Peter’s video account of Demoiselle cranes took us to India, a highlight of a tour he had guided there last year. He told us the story of a field, famous for attracting these large birds in their thousands. Would they turn up or not – the tension mounted!

We criss-crossed Canada as well. In addition to mentions above, Doug Luoma captured memorable wildlife at Mud Lake in his 10-minute video. In addition to his photo grabs here, he showed rare footage of several species of nesting woodpeckers, including their various calls. Barry took us to his family home-away-from-home in rural eastern Prince Edward Island, focusing on the rich variety of arachnids there, including several species of crab, jumping and orbweaving spiders. He was surprised how many people admitted liking these critters… Owen Clarkin continued his explorations of the trees of eastern Ontario; showing the largest elms of the region and the rarer species. Lorne Peterson brought us back to his Ottawa backyard, filled with flowering plants from the FWG plant sales. These attract numerous pollinators, proof of the effectiveness of providing microhabitats for these threatened species.

As in previous blogs, participants share their favourite photos. They provide a taste of the evening’s images and stories. We look forward to more next year. Thanks, everyone!

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Youth Summit 2016: thanks for the opportunity

by Priya Nagpal

Experiencing nature up close. Photo by Daynan Lepore

Experiencing nature up close. Photo by Daynan Lepore

I am high school student from Ottawa. At my school I run the environment club with a group of friends and have been involved with environmental leadership. When I saw an application for a grant to attend the Ontario Nature Youth Summit for Biodiversity and Environmental Leadership, I decided to go for it and apply. When OFNC told me that I had received the grant and would have the opportunity to attend the summit I was excited; I could not wait!

The summit took place in Orillia and our facilities were surrounded by a beautiful forest. I was able to meet people from all over Ontario and learn about environmental initiatives taking place in their hometowns’ from school pollinator projects to community gardens. It was great to meet so many youth who share my interests

I was able to meet people from all over Ontario and learn about environmental initiatives taking place in their hometowns - from school pollinator projects to community gardens. Photo by Daynan Lepore

I was able to meet people from all over Ontario and learn about environmental initiatives taking place in their hometowns – from school pollinator projects to community gardens. Photo by Daynan Lepore

I attended a number of workshops ranging from different topics over the course of the summit. In “Livin’ La Vida Local” I learned about the impact of eating local and different programs put in place to making eating local easier. This workshop was hosted by Youth Council members who had faced challenges eating local especially while at university.

There was also a workshop about emotional intelligence that I really enjoyed. Matt Tod, the speaker, talked about what emotional intelligence is and how to become aware of it. In this interactive workshop, we learned what the qualities of a good leader are. This provided us with many tips to improve our leadership skills to become better environmental leaders at home.

During our weekend in Orillia an Aboriginal leader from the local community joined us. He brought all of us together with his captivating stories by the campfire and shared many important lessons.

An Aboriginal leader from the local community brought all of us together with his captivating stories by the campfire and shared many important lessons. Photo by Daynan Lepore

An Aboriginal leader from the local community brought all of us together with his captivating stories by the campfire and shared many important lessons. Photo by Daynan Lepore

I also went canoeing one morning on Lake Couchiching. It was wonderful to be out on the calm water in the early hours. Some students went on a birding hike and others braved the cold water and went for the polar dip.

Overall the summit gave me some ideas for my environment club and showed me different ways to protect the environment. Thanks OFNC for this opportunity!

It was wonderful to be out on the calm water of Lake Couchiching in the early hours. Photo by Daynan Lepore

It was wonderful to be out on the calm water of Lake Couchiching in the early hours. Photo by Daynan Lepore

Help end the Snapping Turtle hunt

by David Seburn

An increase of only 0.1% in the annual mortality rate of 15+ year old Snapping Turtles would halve the number of adults in the local population in less than 20 years. Source: Management Plan for the Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) in Canada

An increase of only 0.1% in the annual mortality rate of 15+ year old Snapping Turtles would halve the number of adults in the local population in less than 20 years. Source: Management Plan for the Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) in Canada

Snapping Turtles face many threats including the loss of wetlands, traffic mortality, by-catch from commercial and recreational fishing, persecution, and toxic chemicals. If that were not enough, the province of Ontario also allows hunting of Snapping Turtles. Right now, the province is re-considering the hunt. Submissions requesting the hunt be ended are urgently needed.

In less than 5 minutes, you can submit your comments to the government and help protect Snappers. Below is the submission I helped prepare on behalf of the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club. It provides more detail on why hunting long-lived species like Snapping Turtles is likely not sustainable. And below that are two sample letters you can submit for yourself. It is always better to personalize letters so it doesn’t sound like a form letter. Re-word a few sentences. Add a personal anecdote. Do even a little to make it your own. Or write your own letter.

How to submit your comments

  1. Make submissions via the Environmental Registry.
  2. Go to the Environmental Registry page.
  3. Click on the Submit Comments button.
  4. Fill out some contact info and then paste your submission into the comment box and hit save. It really is that simple.
  5. Comments are accepted until January 30, 2017.

OFNC’s submission

Comment on EBR Registry Number: 012-9170
Re: Harvest of Snapping Turtles

The current proposed changes to the Snapping Turtle hunt are to “Restrict snapping turtle harvest across Ontario in accordance with guidance provided by the draft Small Game and Furbearer Management Framework, in consideration of the biology of the species, and consistent with recommendations in the Proposed Management Plan for the Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) in Canada.”

The proposed changes would shorten the hunting period and reduce the possession limit to two Snapping Turtles. Unfortunately this does not adequately take into account the biology of the species, or the recommendations in the proposed management plan. The management plan clearly states “Considering the reproductive strategy of the Snapping Turtle (i.e., delayed sexual maturity, high embryo mortality, extended adult longevity; see section 3.4 – Limiting Factors), harvesting (legal or illegal) of adults and older juveniles is especially harmful for wild populations” (sec. 4.2, p.14).

Snapping Turtles in Ontario may take 20 years or more to reach maturity and any hunting and killing of the species must take into account such factors. Snapping Turtles have a suite of life history characteristics involving delayed maturity, high nest predation rates, but extended adult lifespan. This life history strategy is successful when adult mortality rates remain extremely low. Snapping Turtles already face significant threats in Ontario including traffic mortality, boating mortality, fishing by-catch, persecution, toxic contaminants, and habitat loss and fragmentation. Additional sources of mortality, such as from a legal hunt, are likely not sustainable in many areas of the province.

Scientific studies on turtles are very clear that removal of adults will cause a population to decline and recovery may not occur even after a few decades. A Snapping Turtle population in Algonquin Park has been studied by the lab of Professor Ron Brooks for more than 25 years. It experienced significant “hunting” from River Otters in the late 1980s. Following the reduction in the adult population, there was no increase in clutch size, numbers of hatchlings and juveniles, growth rates, or adult recruitment. There has been no population recovery in the last 25 years.

Under the proposed regulations of a daily limit of one Snapping Turtle and a possession limit of two, five people on a weekend hunting expedition at a cottage could take 10 Snapping Turtles from a single population. Removing 10 adults (particularly if they are adult females) could be catastrophic to many small or medium sized populations.

The “Draft Small Game and Furbearer Management Framework for Ontario” states that the first management objective is “sustainable populations.” Yet the evidence based on the life history of the Snapping Turtle, the statements about hunting in the proposed management plan, and the allowable hunting rates in the proposed guidelines all clearly indicate that the hunting and killing of Snapping Turtles is not sustainable. If wildlife management in Ontario is to be science based, then MNRF should not simply restrict the hunt, but end it completely.

Sample submissions

Feel free to copy one of the following sample letters as your submission to the Environmental Registry. You can also borrow some text from the OFNC letter. A personalized letter always counts for more, so please make it your own by re-wording some sentences or adding your own thoughts.


The legal hunting of the Snapping Turtle should be halted.

Snapping Turtles are listed as a species at risk both provincially and federally. They face numerous threats, including road kill, loss of habitat and persecution from many people. Large numbers of dead Snapping Turtles are seen on roads every year during the nesting season and most of these are adult females looking to lay their eggs. This threat alone likely is causing some populations to decline. Additional sources of mortality, such as from a legal hunt are likely not sustainable.

Please halt the legal hunt of this species at risk.


The government of Ontario should end the legal hunting of Snapping Turtles.

Snapping Turtles can take more than 20 years to reach maturity. Many of them die on our roads every June as females look for nesting sites. And the Snapping Turtle is now listed as a species at risk both provincially and federally. Why is the hunting of this species still allowed? Please end the hunting of this species to help ensure Snapping Turtles have a future in Ontario.

A comparison of the reproductive pattern of some commonly hunted wild mammals with that of Snapping Turtles.

Birds of the Galapagos

Blue-footed Booby showing those namesake feet! Photo by Justin Peter

Blue-footed Booby showing those namesake feet! Photo by Justin Peter

by Marissa Carroll

Justin Peter, director of programs and senior naturalist for Quest Nature Tours and vice-president of the Toronto Ornithological Club, brought his extensive knowledge of fascinating Galapagos birds to the Ottawa Field-Naturalist Club’s monthly meeting this past Tuesday.

Host to unique and interesting species, the Galapagos Islands are home to the swallow-tailed gull, the albatross, the Galapagos hawk, a variety of Boobies, and Darwin’s finches. Although some of these species live on the islands year-round, others come and go with the seasons.

Interactions between these species are varied. The Nazca Booby is known for its antagonism toward other birds and its general lack of intelligence. Darwin’s finches’ claim to fame includes the slight differences between birds of different islands, variations that were key to the development of Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

Overall, the Galapagos Islands host an impressive array of interesting birds. Whether of historical importance, or present day comedy, the birds found on the islands draw ornithologists from all over the world. Luckily for us, the natural seclusion of the Galapagos means none of the species found there have learned to be afraid of humans. The Galapagos Islands are an incredible place to observe fascinating fowl up close.

"The Game of Love". This male Magnificent Frigatebird on North Seymour appeared to be exhausted from courtship duties. Photo by Justin Peter

“The Game of Love”. This male Magnificent Frigatebird on North Seymour appeared to be exhausted from courtship duties. Photo by Justin Peter

Mushrooms of MacSkimming

By Julia Cipriani

Mushrooms collected in the forest, photographed by the MacSkimming Centre team

Mushrooms collected in the forest, photographed by the MacSkimming Centre team

On Saturday, October 1, well over 110 people met at MacSkimming Outdoor Education Centre to participate in the MacSkimming open trails event. There were members of the general public, of OFNC, and of les Mycologues amateurs de l’Outaouais (MAO). The enthusiasm was palpable.

Participants lay out their mushrooms at MacSkimming. Photo by Andrée Juneau

Participants lay out their mushrooms at MacSkimming. Photo by Andrée Juneau

Yolande Dalpé and Brett Stevens led the foray. After exploring the woods of MacSkimming for a couple of hours, participants returned with baskets overflowing with mushrooms. It was a stunning harvest. The MAO group placed laminated images of mushrooms on the tables which facilitated grouping and the initial identification of the harvest. Yolande and Brett worked with the participants to identify mushrooms that were puzzling.

It was great to see such a large range of ages interested in fungi and engaged with the outdoors. The OFNC would like to thank the MacSkimming Centre team for welcoming us to their site.


The Harvest

compiled by Yolande Dalpé, Research Scientist (AAFC) & Director (Mycologues amateurs de l’Outaouais)

BASIDIOMYCETES

Agaricales

Agaricaceae
Amanita amerifulva
Amanita citrina
Amanita flavoconia
Amanita muscaria var guessowii
Amanita vaginata
Amanita virosa
Lycoperdon perlatum
Lycoperdon pyriforme
Lycoperdon subincarnatum
Melanophyllum haematospermum
Plicaturopsis crispa

Coprinaceae
Coprinopsis atramentaria

Cortinariaceae
Cortinarius alboviolaceus
Cortinarius armillatus
Cortinarius caperatus
Cortinarius chrysolitus
Cortinarius claricolor
Cortinarius delibutus
Cortinarius semisanguineus
Cortinarius traganus
Crepidotus applanatus
Gymnopilus luteus
Gymnopilus penetrans

Entolomataceae
Fibropilus abortivum

Hydnangiaceae
Laccaria laccata s.l.
Hebeloma mesophaeum

Hygrophoraceae
Ampulloclitocybe clavipes
Cuphophyllus borealis
Cuphophyllus pratensis
Hygrocybe chlorophana
Hygrocybe coccinea
Hygrocybe conica
Hygrocybe marginata
Hygrocybe parvula
Hygrocybe punicea
Hygrocybe squamulosa
Hygrophorus pudorinus
Hygrophorus purpurascens
Porpolomopsis calyptriformis

Lyophyllaceae
Hypsizygus tessulatus
Lyophyllum connatum
Lyophyllum decastes

Marasmiaceae
Clitocybula familia

Mycenaceae
Mycena leaiana
Panellus stypticus

Omphalotaceae
Gymnopus dryophilus
Rhodocollybia maculata

Physalacriaceae
Cyptotrama chrisopepla
Hymenopellis furfuracea

Pleurotaceae
Pleurotus pulmonarius

Pluteaceae
Pluteus cervinus

Strophariaceae
Hypholoma lateritium
Pholiota lenta
Pholiota limonella
Pholiota spumosa
Pholiota squarrosoides
Stropharia hardii

Tricholomataceae
Clitocybe coniferophila
Clitocybe phleophthalma
Lepista nuda
Pseudoarmillariella ectypoides
Tricholoma aurantium
Incertae sedis: Cotylidia pannosa

Boletales

Harrya chromapes
Leccinum atrostipitatum
Leccinum holopus
Leccinum scabrum
Leccinum snellii

Hygrophoropsidaceae
Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca

Scleroderma citrinum, photographed by the MacSkimming Centre team

Scleroderma citrinum, photographed by the MacSkimming Centre team

Sclerodermataceae
Scleroderma citrinum

Cantharellales

Cantharellaceae
Cantharellus cinnabarinus

Clavariaceae
Clavulinopsis corniculata
Clavulinopsis fusiformis
Ramaria gracilis

Dacrymycetales

Dacrymycetaceae
Calocera cornea
Coltricia cinnamomea

Gomphaceae
Ramariopsis kunzei

Hymenochaetales

Inonotus obliquus

Fomitopsidaceae
Piptoporus betulinus

Ganodermataceae
Ganoderma applanatum
Ganoderma tsugae

Gloeophyllaceae
Ischnoderma resinosa

Meruliaceae
Irpex lacteus

Polyporaceae
Daedaleopsis confragosa
Fomes fomentarius
Lentinus levis
Polyporus badius
Polyporus squammosus
Postia stiptica
Trametes ochracea
Trametes versicolor
Trichaptum biforme
Tyromyces chioneus

Russulales

Auriscalpiaceae
Lentinellus cochleatus

Hericiaceae
Hericium americanum

Russulaceae
Lactarius affinis
Lactarius cinereus
Lactarius deceptivus (Lactifluus)
Lactarius deterrimus
Lactarius glyciosmus
Lactarius helvus
Lactarius pyrogalus
Lactarius rufus
Lactarius subpurpureus
Lactarius thyinos
Lactarius torminosus
Lactarius vinaceorufescens
Russula adusta
Russula aeruginea
Russula compacta
Russula emetica
Russula fragilis
Russula mariae
Russula variata

Helvellaceae
Gyromitra infula

SORDARIOMYCETES

Hypomyces chrysospermus

MYXOMYCETES

Liceales

Lycogala epidendron

Physarales

Fuligo septica

Peary Caribou: an iconic High Arctic species

OFNC monthly meeting, 13 September 2016

By Marissa Carroll

Dr. Micheline Manseau, an associate professor at the Natural Resources Institute of the University of Manitoba and an ecosystem scientist for Parks Canada, was the featured speaker at the OFNC meeting this September. She lectured on the iconic High Arctic Peary Caribou. Understanding the species’ origins and unique characteristics is key to the management and conservation of this fascinating animal.

Dr. Micheline Manseau (second from the left) posing with club members (left to right) Irwin Brodo (former OFNC president), Murray Citron (OFNC poet laureate), and Michael Davidson.

Dr. Micheline Manseau (second from the left) posing with club members (left to right) Irwin Brodo (former OFNC president), Murray Citron (OFNC poet laureate), and Michael Davidson.

Contrary to popular belief, caribou and reindeer are the same species, Rangifer tarandus, but different subspecies. The Peary Caribou is a subspecies found in the High Arctic islands of northern Canada. Although unproven, there is strong evidence to suggest they descended from populations that survived in a High Arctic, unglaciated region. Peary Caribou were named after Robert Edwin Peary who is known best for his three attempts to reach the North Pole. He learned from Northern peoples and used animal skins and traditional food practices on his expeditions.

Peary Caribou are small. Their short legs and large hooves are useful for dealing with the tough snow and ice that covers lichens and low-lying plants in the north. Peary Caribou are generally sedentary, but are known to move when necessary. Their main predators are wolves.

Many Aboriginal groups have their own names for caribou. For instance, the Mi’kmaq word for caribou is “Qalipu,” meaning “an animal that shovels snow.” Caribou dig through the snow to find lichens, one of their primary foods. Dene people have different names for caribou found in different habitats.

Early fall birding along the Ottawa River

Northern Flicker, photographed by Sarma Vishnubhatla.

Northern Flicker, photographed by Sarma Vishnubhatla.

On Sunday, 11 September, Jeff Skevington led an outing to Britannia and points west along the Ottawa River. At least 28 participants spent the day visiting the best birding spots along the river, looking for migrants and, especially, shorebirds.

As Jeff reports, “We had many groups of warblers and ended up with 20 species of warblers for the day. My personal highlight was a group of warblers at Shirleys Bay that were coming to a puddle to drink. We had 6 Northern Parulas, 1 Tennessee Warbler, 1 Magnolia Warbler and 1 Black-throated Blue Warbler all attending the puddle at one time.

“We also saw 11 species of shorebirds, with the highlights being Sanderling and Short-billed Dowitcher. The species total for the day was 85.”

Sarma Vishnubhatla was kind enough to share her photos with us, and Jeff uploaded the list of species seen to eBird – if you have an eBird account, click here for the day’s checklist

Some of the participants in Sunday's birding excursion, led by Jeff Skevington (at right with scope).

Some of the participants in Sunday’s birding excursion, led by Jeff Skevington (at right with scope).

The importance of snags and downed logs to wildlife

by Christine Hanrahan

Snags are standing dead trees. They are also known as den or cavity trees and increasingly as wildlife trees. (photo by Christine Hanrahan)

Snags are standing dead trees. They are also known as den or cavity trees and increasingly as wildlife trees. (photo by Christine Hanrahan)

Walking through our local forests and along trails at the city’s edge, your eye may be caught by the stark form of a standing dead tree or by a fallen log stretched across the forest floor. Perhaps you have seen a woodpecker fly from a hole in the tree’s trunk, or noticed a squirrel running along the log, using it as a sort of elevated highway through the forest, and recognized the value of this dead wood to birds and other forest creatures. To many people, however, standing dead trees represent a threat to their safety, or an eyesore to be felled. Yet these standing dead trees and downed logs are an important feature of forest ecology.

A forest is a living entity, constantly changing and evolving. Old trees die, new ones sprout up and, over many years, the very composition of a forest changes as climax species eventually come to dominate the early and middle succession periods of the forest community. An important component of all forests are dead and dying trees, whether standing as snags or lying on the forest floor as downed logs. So vital is their role in the forest ecosystem that it is not an exaggeration to say that dead trees give life to the forest. Norse (1990), writing of a Pacific Northwest rainforest, states:

“Rotting snags and logs provide the tunnels, dens, and nesting cavities needed by animals from black bears and spotted owls to land snails and springtails. They are the birthplaces for western hemlocks, Sitka spruce, and smaller plants…. They are sites of biological nitrogen fixation, adding to the nutrient wealth of the forest.”

Although writing of the Pacific Northwest, his words ring true for our forests as well, albeit with some species difference.

Snags or wildlife trees

Snags are standing dead trees. They are also known as den or cavity trees and, increasingly, as wildlife trees. The latter term is especially appropriate for their value to wildlife is immeasurable, as they provide food, safe nesting sites in the form of cavities and platforms, roosting and denning sites, hunting perches, display stations, and foraging sites for a wide variety of species (Guy 1994).

From the time a standing tree dies until it falls to the forest floor, its many stages of decomposition attract different birds, mammals and invertebrates. Charles Elton (in Kennedy, 1991) observes that “dying and dead wood provides one of the two or three greatest resources for animal species in a natural forest… if fallen timber and slightly decayed trees are removed the whole system is greatly impoverished of perhaps more than a fifth of its fauna.”

Not all snags occur within a forest. Sometimes isolated trees, left standing by design or chance, hold a lonely vigil over fields or cottage lots, or some other cleared area. These, too, represent an important wildlife resource, offering nesting platforms for Ospreys (if near water), or hunting perches for flycatchers, Eastern Bluebirds, swallows and other birds, as well as food in the form of invertebrates inhabiting the tree.

Death of a tree

How a tree dies In human terms, most species of trees are effectively immortal, but urban and suburban environments can be stressful in various ways, and trees may be killed by disease or insect pests, various problems with water, light, and nutrients, and especially by disturbances inflicted on their root system.  - Fred Schueler

How a tree dies
In human terms, most species of trees are effectively immortal, but urban and suburban environments can be stressful in various ways, and trees may be killed by disease or insect pests, various problems with water, light, and nutrients, and especially by disturbances inflicted on their root system.
– Fred Schueler

The primary “colonizers” of snags are insects and fungi, which soften the wood allowing it to be easily shredded by birds and mammals. If you usually think of insects as pests, you might be surprised to find out that they’re essential to all the other wildlife species that depend on or make use of cavities. The variety of invertebrates inhabiting dead and dying trees is staggering: millipedes, mites, earwigs, beetles, spiders, ants, and even earthworms These insects then attract woodpeckers and other forest-dwelling animals who in the course of excavating for food, create holes or cavities that become, in turn, nesting sites for birds and small mammals. Biologists call those species that greatly influence other species, “keystone species.” Woodpeckers are one such example, for the holes they create as they search for food provide homes for countless other creatures. Fungi also provide food for other creatures, as well as being used by many insects.

A standing dead tree can remain in place for many years. Smaller trees come down sooner, but even they can last for many years, and this should be remembered when considering the “safety” aspects of snags in public places.

Downed logs

Like snags, downed logs provide shelter and denning sites for mammals, birds, and for amphibians and reptiles such as salamanders and snakes.  (photo by Christine Hanrahan)

Like snags, downed logs provide shelter and denning sites for mammals, birds, and for amphibians and reptiles such as salamanders and snakes. (photo by Christine Hanrahan)

An old-growth forest is full of fallen trees, or downed logs, whereas in second-growth eastern hardwood or pine forests, logs are much less in evidence. Yet even here they form an important part of the overall ecosystem just as they do in any forest or wooded area. In fact, biologists are now calling logs the “hot-spots” of the forest ecosystem.

When a tree falls to the ground, it is quickly taken over by insects, especially beetles. Earlier, woodpeckers were referred to as a keystone species; beetles serve that same function in downed logs (Norse 1990). As they bore into the log they open up the way for fungi, which in turn help to decompose the inner bark. As the beetles tunnel further into the log they provide access for spiders, ants, millipedes, and salamanders and the process of decomposition initiated by the beetles continues.

Like snags, downed logs provide shelter and denning sites for mammals, birds, and for amphibians and reptiles such as salamanders and snakes. Small animals such as squirrels use logs as easy routes through the forest.

Logs also act as “nurseries” for plants, allowing them a nutrient-rich base in which to take root. Many plants take root on downed logs and it is a fascinating exercise to count the number of plant species growing on a single “nurse log.”

Ecologists have classified five stages of decay in a downed log, from the first stage when a log is intact and not yet decayed, to the fifth, where the log has crumbled into a mass of organic material. Because logs are more moisture-retentive than snags they decay more slowly since oxygen is excluded from wet wood (Norse 1990). Large old-growth logs can take 200 or more years to decompose completely. Smaller logs, such as those found in this region, will decay much faster.

“Coarse woody debris”  refers to all the woody debris on the forest floor, not just logs, but stumps and branches as well, rotting or otherwise. (photo by Christine Hanrahan)

“Coarse woody debris” refers to all the woody debris on the forest floor, not just logs, but stumps and branches as well, rotting or otherwise. (photo by Christine Hanrahan)

The term “coarse woody debris” or CWD, refers to all the woody debris on the forest floor, not just logs, but stumps and branches as well, rotting or otherwise. As Fred Schueler points out, our eastern forests are more full of CWD in recent decades thanks to the influx of invasive species such as the Emerald Ash Borer. He says:

“Now, largely due to Dutch Elm Disease, and successional squeezing out of Aspens, there seems to be a plethora of CWD, and when the Emerald Ash Borer is done with us we’re going to have huge quantities of both standing and fallen wood which will presumably make the woods much more old-growthy than their age would indicate.”

According to Owen Clarkin, it has also been pointed out that various woody plants require a good layer of coarse woody debris in order to regenerate.

Thus, not only standing and fallen dead trees, but stumps and other woody debris contribute to the overall ecosystem of the forest and the wildlife therein.

Wildlife using snags and downed logs

Woodpeckers are "keystone species" because the holes they create as they search for food provide homes for countless other creatures. (photo by Christine Hanrahan)

Woodpeckers are "keystone species" because the holes they create as they search for food provide homes for countless other creatures. (photo by Christine Hanrahan)

Birds
Many people perhaps do not realize that when they put up nest boxes each year they are offering homes to cavity-nesting birds whose natural nest sites are holes (or cavities) in snags; hence, the use of the terms den or cavity trees. Some of our most familiar birds are cavity-nesters along with numerous other species, perhaps less familiar. However, nest boxes can never be a complete substitute for natural cavities, for while certain species readily adapt to man-made nest boxes, many others will not, or cannot adapt.

Not all birds make use of the cavities in snags for nest sites. For some birds, such as the tiny Brown Creeper, it is the loose bark on dead trees that gives shelter for nests, while for others such as Ospreys, standing dead trees near water provide platforms on which to build their large, bulky nests.

Not all uses of wildlife trees are for nesting purposes. Ruffed Grouse use downed logs for “drumming” in their spring courtship ritual. And as noted earlier, many birds use snags as hunting perches or display stations.

Mammals
Mammals also make use of snags for both shelter and for rearing young. Martens, weasels, squirrels, other small rodents, bats, even bobcats will den up in cavities. Black bears may sometimes find winter refuge at the base of large snags, as well as in hollowed out downed logs. Squirrels and chipmunks and other small rodents use logs as forest highways.

Invertebrates
As noted earlier, a multitude of insect species thrive on dead and dying trees whether standing or down on the forest floor. In turn, these insects provide much needed food for a variety of wildlife. When these trees are removed from the forest ecosystem, the insects associated with them are also removed, and in turn, the wildlife that feed upon the insects.

Standing dead trees in your garden

A snag surrounded by lilacs. (photo by Fred Schueler)

A snag surrounded by lilacs. (photo by Fred Schueler)

Unless you live on wooded rural property, your backyard is certainly not part of a forest ecosystem. But if you are a gardener wanting to create a healthy, viable wildlife habitat in your own backyard, you will by now recognize the role that dead trees play in attracting birds and other species. As well as harbouring food for insectivores in the slowly rotting wood, snags also offer safe nesting cavities. In the winter these cavities are often used as roost sites, providing the necessary insulation that nest boxes cannot. (However, nest boxes are a suitable supplement to natural cavities in your garden.)

If your standing dead tree is quite large, you may be worried about heavy falling branches. Cut away some or all of them and leave the trunk. If you still think the snag is too tall and overpowering, topping the trunk to a reasonable height might be a solution. A “reasonable height” depends on what you feel comfortable with and what is in the immediate vicinity of the snag (i.e., your house, neighbouring houses).

But if you cut the snag back too much, you might as well fell it completely and leave it as a log; it will have little value as a nest site if it is only a couple of metres tall. Naturally the best thing to do is nothing, leaving the tree to take its own course, but in a small suburban lot, safety concerns must be evaluated.

If you’ve left the snag at 4.5 metres or better, but want to disguise it somewhat, plant lightweight climbers such as wild cucumber vine (Echinocystis lobata) or native clematis (Clematis virginiana) to twine up the trunk. You’ll need to provide some support for these vines to get started. Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) and wild grape (Vitis riparia) grow fast and can quickly cover a snag with a dense green cover, but these vines are very heavy and can hasten its collapse.

If you want to “dress up” your snag, you can hang seed feeders from its branches or from simple hanging brackets. Suet feeders can be affixed right to the trunk. If you really want to turn your snag into a work of art, hang flower baskets as you would the feeders. Plant them with nectar-rich flowers for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds (see the FWG information sheet on butterfly gardening).

When the snag eventually collapses you can either leave it where it falls, or move it to a more remote part of your garden where it will continue its work of feeding insects, birds, and your soil.

If your neighbours complain about your snag, tell them what you are doing and why; you might change their way of looking at standing dead trees. It is only by changing how we view the land around us that we can begin to help restore and nourish both it and its wildlife.

References

  • Guy, Stewart. 1994. More than dead wood. Protecting the wildlife tree resource in British Columbia. BC Naturalist 32(1): 4-6.
  • Kennedy, Des. 1991. Death of a giant. Nature Canada 20(2): 18-26.
  • Norse, Elliott A. 1990. Ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest. Island Press.

This is the third in a series of suggestions from the OFNC’s Conservation Committee for things you can do around your home in aid of wildlife and conservation. They are all based on personal experience – ours and colleagues’. We would love to hear your thoughts about these practices and your experience with them – good or bad. And your suggestions for further good practices are very welcome.

Other “Conservation how to” articles

OFNC’s 16th annual butterfly count

team

The butterfly count is an annual OFNC event organized this year by Jeff Skevington. Working in groups or alone, participants patrol the same location – a 24-km diameter circle centred on Manion Corners – each year from about 9 a.m. to about 4 or 5 p.m. Data are submitted to the North American Butterfly Association.

Ideal habitat for a large number of butterflies, the count site includes both alvar and swamp.

Ideal habitat for a large number of butterflies, the count site includes both alvar and swamp.

This year, the count got off to a delayed start when high winds on Saturday caused the organizers to postpone the event hoping for better conditions on Sunday, 3 July. They were rewarded with a sunny morning, with wind speeds of 7-25 kph, although it became windier later in the day. By 3 p.m., light rain was falling, ending the count early. A potluck dinner followed.

Many of our veteran area leaders were away this year, so coverage was below normal. The largest group included both experts and enthusiastic newbies: Jeff Skevington, Angela Skevington, Alexander Skevington, Rob Ellis, Li-Shien Lee, Derek Ellis, Julia Ellis, Celeste Cassidy, Elizabeth Gammell, Reni Barlow, Juliet McMurren, Gabriel McMurren, Sarma Vishnubhatla, and Lakshmi Vishnubhatla. Well know local butterfly expert Rick Cavasin covered two other areas with help from Ian Whyte.

The results were very good for the two groups that were out. Wetlands were dry as a result of the drought conditions in our area, so Sedge Skippers and related fauna were absent or not detected.

According to Jeff, “The Delaware Skipper is increasing its range and moving north. They were rare in our area a few years ago and are now regular on counts (you can see the change over time on the summary count sheet). The others are all regularly observed species.”

Thanks to Sarma Vishnubhatla for the photos of the participants above and to Reni Barlow for the gallery of butterfly photos below (be sure to click on them for a better view)!

Summary of this year’s count
Inventory of species for 1998-2016