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Autumn Nature Notes: Birds, bats, wasps and eels
Nature is full of surprising curiosities. There is always something to learn.
Bird facts never cease to amaze me.
Each year, one to three billion birds of more than 300 species spend the summer in the forests and bogs of Canada’s boreal forest. This 1.2 billion acre area supports more than 80% of the Western Hemisphere’s breeding populations of cavity-nesting Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Three-toed Woodpecker, Black-backed Woodpecker and Boreal Chickadee. Some 80% of waterfowl species, 63% of finch species, and 53% of warbler species in North America breed in our boreal forest.
Terns are graceful in just about everything they do, including their courtship behaviour. Royal Terns perform much of their courtship in an aerial ballet, with the pair circling and spiraling high in the air in synchronized flight. But they also court each other on the ground, with ritualized feeding, posturing and bowing. Some Arctic Terns fly an average of 90,000 km on the round trip – the longest migration known. During their lifetime of about 30 years, terns may travel well over 2.4 million kilometres. That is equal to three or four round trips to the moon – a mind-boggling achievement for a bird that weighs only about 100 grams. Because Arctic Turns experience the summer at both poles, they see more daylight each year than any other creature on Earth.
In most true shorebirds, such as sandpipers and plovers, the downy young are able to feed themselves as soon as they hatch. But the specialized feeding habits of American Oystercatchers take more time to learn, so the adults will feed the young for at least their first two months, teaching them how to open shellfish and find other kinds of prey. Most kinds of birds defend territories during the breeding season, driving away other birds of their own kind.
Although Northern Gannets may mate for life, members of a pair might not see each other for months at a time. After wintering out at sea, they return to their nesting colony in spring and are reunited at their traditional nest site. Rebuilding or repairing the nest is an important part of their breeding-season ritual, with the male bringing most of the material and the female adding it to the nest. I think we could learn from this behaviour.
Bats are often forgotten and not much liked animals. Canada is home to 19 different species of bats and each and every one of them is important to our environment and also our economy. You may have bats in your home. This news might freak out a lot of people, but don’t put your house up for sale just yet. It’s easier to cohabit with bats than you’d think. But why are they there in the first place? In one word, the reason is roosting. Female bats scout out spots to roost and raise their young way back in the Spring. Those babies are usually born between June and August. So if you’ve got bats in your attic now, there’s a very good chance that there will be babies too. Bats seem to return time and time again to the same maternity roost each year.
Here’s why it’s so important that you take a step back and really think about it. So many of Canada’s bats are at-risk. The Tricoloured, Northern Long-eared and Little Brown Bat are all listed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) as endangered. The Pallid and Eastern Red Bat are listed as threatened. The Fringed, Spotted, Townsend's Big-eared, Western Small-footed, Yuma Myotis and Free-tailed Bat are considered species of special concern.
The biggest threat bats face is habitat loss. They simply don’t have enough places to call home. Considering that their survival relies less on high birth rates and more on high survival rate, and that they only have one or two young ones a year, it’s critical that they find shelter for them to survive.
Canada’s bats have some mighty challenges. And now researchers are concerned that they could be dealing with yet another threat – neonics. Neonics have been introduced into insecticides that get right into the plants – from the roots to the leaves. Neonics have a devastating effect on bees, butterflies and other pollinators, but it seems bats are very likely to be affected by them too.
Living with a bat doesn’t mean you have to share a bathroom with it. In fact, you really shouldn’t notice that you’re living with a bat at all. Bats can be relegated to the attic. By retrofitting your home, you’ll be providing bats with a safe roosting spot. Blockages, partitions and specific entry/exit points encourage bats to hang out in a specific area of the attic, where they do no harm.
Wasps don’t have the best reputation either. They’re not exactly a welcome sight at BBQs or outdoor picnics. Studies show that wasps are more disliked than their fuzzy bee relatives. Unfortunately, the negative feelings toward wasps are very likely due to the fact that there is significant lack of knowledge and education regarding the substantial benefits wasps bring to the planet’s function, health, and sustainability. However, these hard-working critters are actually one of humanity’s most economically and ecologically essential organisms. Wasps play a role in pollinating crops and flowers, and there are 30,000 identified species. Wasps can be found everywhere except in Antarctica. They can recognize another wasp by identifying the individual from their unique facial patterns. They are also incredibly proficient at managing pest populations. Social wasps use their stingers as a defence, whereas solitary wasps use their stingers and venom for hunting. Only female wasps have stingers, and the stingers are actually a modified egg-laying organ. Wasps come in any colour imaginable including red, orange, green, blue, and, of course, yellow and black.
American Eels are an important part of Ontario’s ecosystems. They were once one of the most common fish species in Ontario and supported important commercial and indigenous fisheries. These amazing fish swim 5,000 kilometres from Ontario to the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda to spawn. Their offspring then start the long journey back as babies and finish several years later in Ontario as juveniles. In the early 1990s, biologists sounded the alarm about a drastic decline in eel populations in Ontario. The number of juvenile eels returning to Lake Ontario from the ocean had dropped from about one million per year in the early 1980s to merely tens of thousands.
Despite this warning, eels were not listed as endangered in Ontario until 2008. Unfortunately, this listing has done little to protect eels in this province because the government has still not finalized their action plan for the species. This action plan, called a Government Response Statement, outlines what steps the government of Ontario plans to take to ensure the protection and recovery of the species. The good news is that the government has issued a draft of their response statement. The bad news is that the draft statement still does not set out immediate and clear requirements for the recovery of the species in Ontario, and instead proposes another three years of planning. The main threat facing eels in Ontario are hydropower dams, which block juveniles from migrating upstream, and whose turbines kill adults when they try to return to the sea to spawn at the end of their lives. Getting eels around hydro dams is not easy, but a variety of solutions exist. Let’s hope for the best.
Final thought: without a sense of wonder there can be no conservation. As kids, we are in awe of nature. As we grow up, it is our duty to protect it.
Sources: Canadian Wildlife Federation, Nature Conservancy Canada, World Wildlife Fund-Canada, Toronto Wildlife Centre, National Audubon Society, Toronto Field Naturalists, Environment and Climate Change Canada, and personal field notes
Nature Notes are posted as blogs on the website of Nature Canada. Earlier editions are archived on the websites of the Rouge Valley Conservation Centre and of the Rouge Valley Naturalists.
This blog is written by Steve Gahbauer and edited by Sam Nurse.
Since 2012, Nature Canada has worked in close collaboration with the Cree Nation Government (CNG), the Cree Trappers Association (CTA) and more recently, the Eeyou Marine Region Wildlife Board (EMRWB) in support of efforts to identify important bird habitat with and for the First Nations along the eastern coast of James Bay.
Until 2017, our fieldwork was entirely within the territory of the Cree Nation of Waskaganish, but since 2018, we ventured north a few hundred kilometres, in support of the Cree Nation of Wemindji. The village of Wemindji is pretty and picturesque, nestled on an inlet that leads through a maze of scenic islands known as the Painted Hills into the expansive and capricious James Bay.
Our first field expedition into Wemindji territory
During the seventeen-hour, 1400 kilometres drive from Ottawa to Wemindji, Marc-Antoine, and I had lots of time to ponder what rare bird species we might find in this new area. At the bottom of that list of potential rarities, more as an afterthought, was Northern Wheatear. It was at the bottom because it was so unlikely. Let’s face it, there were no documented records of this species for the eastern side of James Bay. Though this small, slick-looking songbird breeds on the extreme northern coast of Quebec, Labrador, Baffin Island, and other islands to the north in Nunavut, the closest to Wemindji of a known breeding site was still about 1000 kilometres. That is a long, one-day flight for some of the shorebirds breeding in the same area that migrate south along the James Bay coast. But the reason why so few Northern Wheatears are ever observed anywhere in Canada outside of their breeding area is their special migration.
Unique to North American songbirds, Wheatears migrate eastward to Europe and then south to Africa rather than southward. One bird that was outfitted with a geolocator on September 23rd, on Baffin Island made landfall in Great Britain four days, later, traveling 850 kilometres per day, before flying south to Mauritania on the coast of Africa, where it spent the winter (R.D.Montgomerie, in Richards and Gaston, 2018). Birds are hard-wired for migration, so when a bird turns up outside of its usual route, it is unexpected but exciting for birders.
Bingo . . . Marc-Antoine went on to explain the circumstance around the observation . . . a glimpse of a different looking bird, on this rocky, arctic-tundra-like island. A rich rufous wash to its breast, a flash of white when it flew, and some tail bobbing. Initial confusion with American Pipit, some of which had the same rusty colour in the breast at this time. Then the key moment, when he saw the white rump, then there was no doubt – this was a Northern Wheatear. While I was excited for them, I was haunted now by the earlier observation. I hesitated . . . “I think that I saw the same species earlier this morning right here in front of the cabin. Let’s see if we can find it?” Out we went, and within 200 metres we found it . . . Marc-Antoine’s second Northern Wheatear in one day, and my first. One is extraordinary. Two . . . well, a statistician might say that is the beginning of a pattern.
We celebrated the visit of this unique arctic songbird to coastal Wemindji in the warmth of the cabin and James’ superb meal. We had so many questions such as “are there more out there?”, and “could this be a regular occurrence along the coast that no one has noticed because of the remoteness, the timing and the similarity of this bird with pipits?” It also served as a good reminder about observing birds, noticing details and trusting your intuition. Marc-Antoine kept after his Northern Wheatear, although his initial impression was that it might be an American Pipit, because his intuition told him that the field marks and behaviour didn’t add up, and he stayed with it until he confirmed its identify. As always, there are the “if I did this differently” thoughts, and mine was that if I had shared with Marc-Antoine my doubts about the “pipit on the rock” before we headed out to do our surveys, we would have surely identified it correctly, and the Island Wheatear would have been his second of the day.
What kind of nature lover are you?
Spring Bull Moose by Ron Simpson
What iconic Canadian animal are you?
Roosevelt Elk. photo by Brian Miller.
We take a lot of pride in our natural spaces. From coast to coast to coast, Canada has some of the world’s most incredible natural spaces.
Add your name to our mailing list to help keep it that way.
But nature and wildlife are steep decline. In October 2010, Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity adopted a package of important measures including the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and its Aichi Biodiversity Targets to help address this urgent issue.
In response, Canada's federal, provincial, and territorial governments released the 2020 Biodiversity Goals and Targets for Canada in 2015, which includes a target to ensure protection for at least:
17% of terrestrial areas and inland water, and
10% of marine and coastal areas.
By making room for nature, that pledge helps give threatened species a chance to avoid extinction. It also is an opportunity to support the crucial role that Indigenous communities play as front-line guardians of nature.
With efforts in recent years, Canada has managed to reach the goal of 10% of marine areas and we’re up to 12% of terrestrial areas. It’s a good start, but even more can be done—and you can help.
Join our mailing list to find out how you can help #MakeRoomForNature in Canada.
In memory of Graeme Gibson, our Friend and Bird Champion
Nature Canada and its supporters were saddened to learn of the passing of our friend, supporter and mentor, Graeme Gibson, in London in September. He will be deeply missed. Graeme, who was born in London in 1934, was a celebrated author, birder, environmentalist and social justice advocate. He was awarded the Order of Canada for his outstanding contributions to our country.
He published both fiction and nonfiction over his writing career, and his novels Five Legs (1969), Communion (1971), Perpetual Motion (1982) and Gentleman Death (1993) were widely acclaimed. He co-founded of the Writer’s Union of Canada and the Writer’s Trust of Canada and the English branch of PEN Canada. In the early 2000s he published his two last books, The Bedside Book of Birds and The Bedside Book of Beasts. Graeme was Margaret Atwood’s partner since 1973, and they worked together in support of many causes, including bird conservation.
Graeme was a founder and President of the Pelee Island Bird Observatory, and served with Margaret as co-Presidents of BirdLife International’s Rare Bird Club. Over the years they have led various campaigns, and most recently they have been the inspiration and driving force behind our campaign to Save Bird Lives. Graeme is survived by his partner, Margaret, their daughter Jess, and his two sons Graeme and Matthew.
Nature Canada is blessed to have had the support of this kind, thoughtful, generous, and witty man. We are grateful for his contribution to our organization, and to our country.
The birds and the bees: A conversation about neonicotinoids
In the aftermath of the environmental destruction of the mid-1900s caused by the widespread use of synthetic pesticides, such as aldrin and the better-known DDT, many countries reached a consensus that we could no longer afford to continue using such devastating chemicals on our food and ecological systems.
Introduced as a safer, more efficient and an environmentally friendlier option, neonics (neonicotinoids) were developed by Bayer Crop Science and made available in the market in 1980's to lead the charge as the next wave of pesticides for our agriculture industry.
Neonics are a class of systemic insecticides which target the nervous systems of insects with a lethal effectiveness and kills them. Bayer has always claimed that neonics are harmless to vertebrates and are environmentally friendly, as the pesticide itself is coated on the seed, which removes the need to spray toxic chemicals on a field, which would lead to toxic run-off and contamination of water systems.
This, however, is only half the truth. For the last decade, scientists around the world have been studying the environmental impacts of neonics and concluded that neonics are indiscriminately killing one of the most important members of the food web, the pollinators.
Bees, and other pollinating insects, which are extremely vital in the continued production of our food are dying at a rapid rate, and strong evidence points to neonics. This evidence forced Health Canada (HC) to re-evaluate the impact of neonics on pollinators, which led HC to cancel certain uses of the pesticides, while implementing restrictions on other uses. In 2018, the European Union also expanded a ban on the three most common and widely-used neonics.
A recent study published in the journal Science, researchers from University of Saskatchewan found that neonics, specifically imidacloprid, one of the more commonly used types of neonics, undermines the survival of songbird populations.
Researchers found that when White-crowned Sparrows, a wide-spread and relatively abundant migratory songbird, ingest small doses of the chemical, they experience significant weight loss and delays in migration due to disorientation. Chemically treated seeds left on the field at the time of planting could be extremely attractive and deadly source of food for songbirds. Over 90% of corn and 50% of soybeans are treated with neonics in the USA. Migration is one of the toughest periods for a bird as it has to locate reliable sources of food to fuel its journey and only has a short window of opportunity to do it. A few days late could mean less food at stopover sites, more exposure to predators and fewer opportunities to find mates. Over 70% of farmland birds in North America are declining. Grassland birds are one of the fasted declining groups of birds in Canada, as determined by the State of Canada’s Birds 2019. Neonics appear to be another contributing factor to these declines.
Despite claims made by Bayer, researchers have found that neonics don’t stay within the confines of the seed it was applied to. In fact, only 2-20% of the chemical makes it into the plant, which leaves 80-98% of these neurotoxin chemicals unaccounted for. This could explain why researchers have found traces of neonicotinoids in other parts of the environment, such as surface water systems and untreated farm fields. Other studies have also detected neonicotinoids in a variety of different wildlife species, including rodents, birds of prey, mammals, fish and amphibians, indicating that neonicotinoids are directly or indirectly impacting different levels of the food chain.
Does this story sound familiar? We have seen the wanton destruction at the hands of synthetic chemicals, such as DDT, made corrections, yet we seem headed down the same path again.
DDT was completely banned from use in Canada and the USA in the early 1970s after many naturalists and activists, most notably Rachel Carson, voiced their concern of the unintended damage it was causing to our species and ecosystems. This, combined with strong management, brought back the impacted species from the brink of extinction, to the point that populations of birds of prey such as the Bald Eagle are actually rising in Canada.
Once again, we are at the same crossroads. Do we continue on the same path of using chemicals that indiscriminately destroy our native species, while ignoring the findings from scientists and naturalists? Or do we try to change the way we think and act? Rather than relying so heavily on costly chemical applications that time and time again have unforeseen impacts, could we not use nature to provide these services for free?
As always, the choice is ours.
80 years of big accomplishments
Eight decades of advocacy and education, of protecting parks and species at risk. For over 80 years, members and donors like you have helped create more than 110 million acres of Protected Areas in Canada—and safeguarded the countless species that call those areas home.
There may be much work yet to be done, but we also want to celebrate the successes that our members have made possible.
Here are a few of our many victories for nature from the past 80 years:
Species at Risk: In 1977, Nature Canada played a lead role in establishing The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and, after years of pressure, in 2002 the Canadian government finally adopted the Species at Risk Act. In 2005 Nature Canada produced our first national report card on the federal government’s implementation of the law.
Acid Rain: Kids today have no idea what acid rain is. Why? Because of the work we’ve done, thanks to supporters like you. In 1982, we were founding members of the highly successful Canadian Coalition on Acid Rain, which became the country’s largest environmental coalition, bringing a powerful and united voice to demand reductions in acid rain emissions.
Fighting Pipelines: Nature Canada has intervened countless times to protect habitats and species from the dangers of pipelines and gas projects, including bringing expert evidence to the hearings for the Northern Gateway, TransMountain, and Energy East pipelines. In 2013, with the support of our members, we called on the government to reject a proposal by energy giant Cenovus to add 1,275 shallow gas wells and 220 km of pipeline within Suffield National Wildlife Area. And because of you—our members—we were successful.
Climate Change: In 1984, Nature Canada published a major article called “The Greenhouse Effect.” That’s right: 35 years ago, we were talking about global warming! In 2000, Nature Canada helped to launch NatureWatch, a nationwide volunteer program to help scientists monitor the effects of climate change on the environment. And now, we’re bringing nature groups together to find nature-based solutions to climate change!
Green Budget Coalition: In 1999, Nature Canada pulled all of Canada’s major environmental groups together to present a unified request that the federal budget invest in nature conservation. The government finally began to listen and implemented half of our recommendations, including the $1.3 billion investment in nature in the 2018 budget.
Saving Bird Lives: With our partner Bird Studies Canada, Nature Canada has been working to protect over 600 Important Bird Areas in Canada, recruiting hundreds of passionate volunteer NatureCaretakers in the process. Your gifts support on-the-ground conservation projects that protect birds in decline, including grassland birds, shorebirds and aerial insectivores, from coast to coast to coast.
Thank you to our members, now and long term that have allowed for these great nature wins in collaboration with our partners to protect wilderness and wildlife from coast to coast to coast.
Out in the field: Monitoring swallow roosts along Grand River
Imagine being out on a calm, methodical river, while you are paddling a canoe with the sun slowly inching its way down towards the horizon. Imagine a group of blackbirds flying over your head towards the marshes across an orange-yellow sky as if they were part of an artistic masterpiece. Imagine a majestic Osprey, perched on a dead-standing tree, scanning the river for its next meal.
Imagine everything coming to a standstill, while you wait on your canoe in the middle of the marshes, with goosebumps across your body as you know you are about to witness a natural phenomenon – something that has been happening since time immemorial, but something only a handful of people ever get to experience.
This was the lead up for Alex Bencke (Nature Canada’s Conservation Technician) and I, as we paddled north on the Grand River, towards the marshes near Dunnville, ON where we were expecting to monitor a post-breeding swallow roost.
Roosts tend to form starting in late July and disband in early September. They are where swallows congregate in huge numbers—anywhere from hundreds to hundreds-of-thousands—before they start their fall migrations to their wintering grounds in Central and South America. They occur in areas with good foraging habitat, which also offers swallows protection from predators.
Swallows congregate in these sites every night around sunset and disperse in the morning right before sunrise. If a roost is big enough, their morning dispersal can be seen on weather radar.
There are many mysteries surrounding the function and dynamics of a swallow roost. When so many birds— especially at-risk birds such as swallows—congregate in such a small area, monitoring and protecting these roost sites becomes vital for the long-term protection of swallows.
Back on the river, we waited patiently as we knew it was only a matter of time before we would also get a chance to view the swallows returning from their day’s activities to the marshes to roost for the night. We were not left disappointed. Fifteen minutes before sunset, they arrived. First in small groups of hundreds, but eventually there were so many swallows that they blanketed the sky. So many swallows that we couldn’t see where their numbers ended. They spent nearly twenty minutes streaming over our heads and vocalizing. We were left speechless.
Only when the swallows had settled in the marshes for the night were we snapped out of our awestruck state. Even if we don’t have all the answers to the purpose of a roost yet, it was obvious this was something special that must be protected.
Just in this particular roost alone, we estimated there to be anywhere from 17,000-22,000 swallows, with members from each swallow species found in Ontario. An incredible feat as all six species of swallows commonly found in Ontario are undergoing rapid declines since the 1970s.
To learn more about the work Nature Canada is doing to protect our swallows, click here.
Roost monitoring is part of Nature Canada’s Save Our Swallows campaign, funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation.
Perhaps you’re sitting in your home, or outside on the porch and you hear a thud against a window. Maybe you’re walking and see a small frame laying or hopping amidst the grass or leaves. It’s all too common to find a bird who has been injured or is unable to fly. But what do you do when you find a feathered friend in need of assistance?
According to statistics from the Swiss Ornithological Instituteover 1 billion birds collide with structures or are injured in some other form a year. Out of these one billion birds, many do not survive due to trauma or internal injuries.
In order to help a bird you’ve found that has suffered injuries due to a collision, or some other form of trauma, you need to understand both what to do and what not to do. FLAP Canada (Fatal Light Awareness Program) provides comprehensive information on what to do and what not to do to help a birds chances of survival.
What Can I Do?
Information provided by FLAP Canada and Safe Wings Ottawa highlight multiple things one can do should they ever be in a position to save one of our feathered friends.
Dark Space is Good Space: A bird that has collided with a building and survived will be quite dazed and sitting on the ground near the building. A dazed or injured bird needs a dark safe space to recover. Use a box or unwaxed paper bag to gently place the bird into. If it recovers in the hour, great! In this case you will hear movement from within the container you’ve used. If it doesn’t then please go to step 3. ↓
Take the Bird to a Rehabilitation Center: If the bird has suffered extensive injury such as, broken bones, swollen eyes, broken beak, or is unresponsive following one hour, then please take the bird to a wildlife center where it can be properly looked after. Organizations, like Safe Wings in Ottawa, will provide advice about the bird’s injuries.
Do Not Overhandle the Bird: It is important to only handle the injured bird as much as you have too. But also note that handling an injured bird does not pose a significant health risk to humans but make sure to wash your hands.