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Creek breach

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The topic of water source protection brought us to the York Region in Newmarket today to listen to the South Georgian Bay Lake Simcoe Source Protection program. Here you see Brook talking to us about the creek in the Eastern Creek Naturalisation Project under the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority.

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To break down the complicated scenario here, we have urban development located on a floodplain that can potentially flood; a man-made pond introduced into the middle of a natural creek (that is unmanaged nor maintained); manicured lawns that perimeter the creek and pond that allow all rainwater to drain directly into the creek/pond without filtration; and water runoff from urban development (carparks and buildings surround the area).

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This is how the creek looks like now, and the vegetation has grown back in part because of the efforts of the LSRCA. One of the main methods that have worked really well seemingly (it has only been a year since they’ve done it) is to place Willow and Red Osier Dogwood clippings into a fascine. Growth from the clippings then strengthen the soil and earth structure around the bank, and prevent erosion.

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This is the fascine visible from where I’m standing. You can also notice that the water is pretty clear, not very turbid or silty. The stream floods when heavy rains arrive, and when it floods the erosion isn’t too bad because of the fascines and because manicuring of the banks isn’t done anymore. Planting of vegetation that is able to tolerate water as well as salt (salt that comes from road salt used on the snow in winter to make roads more manageable) is planted, so not just any plant will do.

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Fishes are present too! He didn’t mention too much about whether frogs and other animals were here though. Fish population doesn’t seem much affected by the management work done on the creek and ponds (largely because they took a very short time to work – in these situations working as fast as possible and staying in the river as short a time as possible is important).

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Wood chips placed on the ground also help retain moisture for the plant as well as prevent the grasses from overcrowding the woody vegetation that they want growing there. Ingenious eh? (:

So with the naturalisation project things seem set to go well, and once they start creating the systems needed to treat water going from the pond into the creek that comes from urban runoff, we’ll really see how things work out. right now, oh man its pretty interesting to see bio-engineering at work!

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A trip to the Carden Alvar in the morning was overseen by the Couchiching Conservancy, where Kaira, our guide, first brought us around the alvars and told us what they were. Areas with very shallow soil over limestone rock, vegetation on this habitat is very specific and have special adaptations to deal with the drought and floods that come with the seasons, as well as the overall lack of rain/water.

Granite deposited when glaciers retreated resulted in a mix of granite and limestone rock in the area, and this particular alvar is an ecotone that supports many plant and animal species (especially birds like the Nighthawk and Bobolink, which are species at risk in Canada). Alvars have calcareous soil and are nutrient-poor, and this results in low competition: which then allows for more species to move in in a bid for space. Calcareous soil also is better for plants compared to acidic soil, so this type of habitat ends up having more biodiversity than ones with acidic soil.

So enough about the introduction of alvars, here it is:

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Looks like man-made pavement? That’s exactly what I thought as I stepped into the area, walking from a graveled road to what I thought led to the most bio-diverse habitat in the temperate regions of this part of the world. lo and behold, it actually was limestone alvar that we were standing on, and one must remember that while the tropics are species diverse in every spot you look, temperate regions are different, and that’s still something to celebrate. I was still surprised though, but some of the rock in the area had fossils!

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In one square metre of land the alvars contain as a habitat comparatively more species than any other habitat in the temperate countries, containing lichen, mosses, woody vegetation and grasses, which in turn provide a suitable system for many insects, grassland bird species to nest, as well as snakes and other predators.

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You can see tall grasses and some woody vegetation here, and generally it looks like meadows and tall grasses. The alvars cannot support large trees (unless you leave succession to take over in many decades) easily, though Cedar tends to grow here. Even though this particular alvar is largely undisturbed, humans have already introduced a couple of invasive species into the area.

To give you a bit more information about the Couchiching Conservancy, they work like the Nature Conservancy in that they buy land (though funds from the federal and provincial government, as well as through donations/fundraising efforts) and then work on conservation through that. On top of that, the CC also works together with private landowners on managing their land effectively and in an environmentally friendly manner.

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I could hear the distinct sound of crunching and crackling as I walked around the dry habitat, and looking down, one could see many plants amongst the twigs and dry grass. There is lichen (white in colour) at the top of this picture, moss in a dark green colour all around, and in the centre stands a succulent plant that is an indicator of alvars, and is also an arctic disjunct species that breaks up stone as they grow, and retain moisture in their succulent state. Click on flower to see photos of their flowers.

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Plants in water deficient areas also tend to have an adaptation to ‘clump’ at the base to absorb and retain more moisture, and this can be seen in a number of plants in the area. Plants that have this ability are called caespitose plants. Pretty cool eh!

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Kaira also talked about indicators of alvar habitats, and these plants include the Skullcap (above) and the Field Chickweed (below). Plants have what is known now as an ‘alvar association’ rank in percentage, and this tells you how much it is dependent on alvars for survival. Plants like Fragrant Sumac and Bee Balm however, can live on alvars (though its tough to do so because of harsh conditions) but do not NEED to live on them. On the far extreme edge of the coin then also presents you with North Honeysuckle and Grey Dogweed that are unwanted species.

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Thoughout our walk through the alvar landscape, Kaira told us about how different plant species were at different levels of endangerment – special concern, threatened, endangered, expatriated, extinct – and giving us examples for some of them. One of them is the Butternut tree, seen above, whose attack by an invasive fungus brought in by numerous vectors (insects, water/wind) was bringing down its numbers and making it almost a matter of time before it would die out. Sad! [comparable to dutch elm disease]

The other example she gave us was about the Red Mulberry, whose situation of limited numbers was brought about both by the introduction of a invasive introduced virus as well as hybridisation with the White Mulberry, of which hybrids are no longer Red Mulberries (which is how they are reducing their numbers).

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And here we see two frogs! Not sure what species they are, but this made us recall the various frog sounds Mary taught us the day before (see entry: fields) at Dufferin Marsh.

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It was cool to see the alvars and get educated by them – I had never before heard of the term even before this!

So, two concepts for you:

1. The main threat to the alvars now are the lack of natural disturbances. Knowing that grazing and nature fires used to be present but are now gone (as a result of human intervention), the woody vegetation is not being pushed back anymore, and these threaten to take over the alvar area (which is essentially open grassland) and through succession create an entire forest where alvar once was.

Without natural small fires also means that tinder would have built up over the years and if a fire comes one day it would burn hotter and consume more land – eventually resulting in what happened to some other forests that suppressed fires: nearly two feet of burnt soil, barren land, seeds that would not generate because they died due to the too-hot-fires. Extreme, but very possible.

This would mean alvar habitat would be lost and species that depend on alvar habitats are gone – and the most bio-diverse area in the temperate regions are also lost. So now what would one do? Introduce grazers? Carry out prescribed, control fires?

2. When do you know if it is worthwhile to protect an area/species? Do you necessarily have to choose areas to ‘sacrifice’ or ‘keep’? If an area is too small, or a species population is too small to sustain itself, would you invest money to sustain it by hand? What about fragmented areas – if, like the Dufferin Marsh, you know that the marsh was surrounded by urban sprawl and you know that it could not be expanded – is it worth putting in effort to sustain it?

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So you know I’m at Toronto studying the environment and its systems, as well as doing a bit of anthropology and economics studies on the side. We did a summer field course before officially starting the school year, and the following will be some posts on the field trips we had and issues we covered.

The course was held at Koffler’s Scientific Reserve at Joker’s Hill, a 348 ha reserve that contains the largest site of old growth forest found in the whole of Oak Ridges Moraine. It is owned by the University of Toronto, and also recognised as both an Earth Science and Life Science Area of Natural Scientific Interest – a designation that acknowledges the exceptional quality of the forest at Joker’s Hill.

In the first week we did projects (small group projects on a topic we choose from a list of given topics, and a large group project analysing a dataset together). The second week however, was full of field trips and discussions. We went to Dufferin Marsh Conservation Area with Mary Asselstine leading the lecture about issues and concerns of the DMCA and troubles she has had to deal with.

AND WE GOT TO SIT ON A MAGIC SCHOOL BUS!! (:

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Just about half and hour’s ride from KSR, DMCA is an area almost completely surrounded by residential and commercial development, the 5 ha plot of marsh/swamp land has had to deal with un-cooperative developers and municipals alongside handling and involving the community in conservation and action.

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Something I always brought back from class with Prof Peter Ng and Sivasothi was to ‘choose your battles’ carefully (in conservation class), and now it was reiterated here by Mary. With all the problems that have surfaced and all the problems dealing with these problems, hearing about them continuously from Mary for a few hours would just make you either cry or shake your head in disbelief and frustration. Here’s a short list:

With too many agencies employing regulations on one area with no clear jurisdiction, it takes a long, long time (and many tiring communications) to do one thing. It is inefficient, ineffective, and it does not help the community in both humans and animals/plants.

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And then there’s the problem of invasives: on one hand you have the Purple Loose Strife (a wetland invasive from europe), and on the other you have hybrid Cattails that are rampaging all over the wetland, causing problems with water flow and nutrient trapping. but wait, the story’s not over, because you also have the Phragmitis (Reed) from europe taking over wetland edges and growing extra fast.

Sometimes action plans work. Mary spoke about how she would have a dedicated team of volunteers from the Village of Schomberg who would gather every other year to clear out the Purple Loose Strife, and who have the ability to because they are trained (by Mary’s team). Successful storm water management ponds built also successfully treated urban runoff and kept out the geese (by sheer mechanical imagination: ropes built across the pond kept the geese from flying in).

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But even with all these successes, there  are things to note: animals that live in habitats that require more than one area (e.g. treefrogs need the forest AND the pond to live and breed in); pests that come with urban development (rats, raccoons, feral cats) prey off smaller animals in the communities that are not used to having them around; how do you get the municipals and township on your side; how do you involve the community, and, is it significant to conserve a 5 ha area – or would it just end up as a biological city? The bottom line is, is it worth it?

Trees are dying because of raised water levels that are a result of so many factors, and solutions are stopped dead in their tracks because of regulations placed by agencies that do not claim to then have jurisdiction over the area – but if you do something against regulation you will get prosecuted – what can be done, really? It’s such a tough fight, and it reminds me of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve in Singapore so much.

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It was really inspiring to hear of Mary’s fight (continued, fight) to carry on, and I hope people out there somewhere continue as well. You never know who you touch out there, a child in the crowd, that may become the next mayor, political activist, politician, engineer, who may then have the capability of influencing the environment effectively and in a positive way.

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It’s a long road ahead, and a hard fight. keep going, activists.

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