Posts Tagged ‘ontario’


When I was driving into town recently, I did a double take as I passed a field of foraging geese and noticed two tall birds accompanying the flock. Canada Geese are common migrants at this time of year, but this pair represents my first sighting of Sandhill Cranes! What a cool sight!

Sandhill cranes are more commonly associated with the prairies, but there is also an eastern population. In Ontario, they mostly breed far north in the Hudson Bay Lowlands, and south to Sudbury through Sault Ste. Marie and Manitoulin Island, with a sprinkling of pairs across the rest of Ontario. In autumn, Sandhill cranes come together into flocks, or stage before heading to Florida and other southern locations for the winter.

Sandhill cranes were extirpated from southwestern Ontario in the 1920s. Today, their numbers are thought to be stable or increasing slightly. Bird Studies Canada estimates their numbers at 40,000 to 80,000 birds.

Googling for information about cranes in Ontario brought up sites suggesting a hunting season should be considered. While I was thrilled to be able to photograph this pair, such sightings make trigger fingers itch for a multitude of hunters. Crane numbers are still infinitesimal when compared to the human population. In 2011, the population of the Greater Toronto Area exceeded 6 million. That’s a lot of people. It’s pretty obvious which species is excessively represented, and it’s not cranes.


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These days, there’s scarcely a retail store you can enter without being confronted with a collection bin for a local food bank. Even the LCBO has one! (The liquor store. Are they hoping for donations of beer? The poor could probably use one.) And every time I see a collection bin, I wince. It’s embarrassing. I feel so ashamed of us Canadians. Here we are, one of the most fortunate of nations, and yet we expect our poorest citizens to beg for food from strangers.

The biggest problem with food banks is that they simply can’t meet the needs of the hungry. Many food banks are so overwhelmed that they must limit households to one hamper per month. The supplies they are able to provide do not insure users will have nutritious diets. Food banks can only supply what is donated, often canned and boxed goods, with few fresh items.

Further, food banks only reach a minority of those in need. A survey by Human Resources Development Canada showed that only one in four “hungry” Canadians used food banks. Others would rather go hungry than accept charity, or they choose to leave what is available for those who they believe ‘really’ need it. See It’s Time to Close Canada’s Foodbanks by Elaine Power)

Beyond feeding the hungry, food banks serve less conspicuous functions. Food banks unintentionally divide citizens into ‘Haves’, those who make donations, volunteer or participate in food drives, who can feel good about helping out, and the ‘Have Nots’, who may be demoralized at having to accept handouts. This reinforces an old charitable model, where one group of privileged people helps the underprivileged, perpetuating an us-and-them atmosphere.

Food banks are good for corporations, especially food corporations, who may use food banks to offload edible food they can’t sell while advertising themselves as caring businesses. Grocery stores invite shoppers to buy extra supplies to donate in their collection bins. Some even offer pre-packaged bundles you can purchase for donation. Corporations may thus be content with the status quo.

In providing a band-aid solution, food banks allow governments to sidestep their obligation to look after the well-being and security of all citizens. The failure of governments to deal with poverty has been a growing problem in Canada, with income inequality, the gap between the rich and the poor, increasing every year.

In Ontario, 375,814 people were assisted by a food bank in March of 2013. Of those 35% were children. That compares to 314,258 in March of 2008, an increase of 19.6%. This is not a problem that is going away. (Numbers from Food Banks Canada’s report Hunger Count 2013, linked here.

No one wants people to go hungry. That’s what prompted the establishment of food banks in the first place. But they were only ever intended as a strategy to hold things together until better solutions were found. Now here we are, decades later, and things haven’t improved. Food banks represent our failure as a just society. It’s time for governments to start tackling the real issue behind food banks: poverty.

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Brewer Lake, Algonquin Park

Thanks to daughter Seabrooke, who kindly volunteered to animal-sit for a couple of days last week, we were able to make a little jaunt out to the Bruce Peninsula to visit relatives. We followed a loop through Algonquin Park in the hope that we might be able to stop and do a bit of hiking. Alas, it was not to be. The sky was overcast when we left home, and by the time we reached Ottawa, it was raining. At the outskirts of Algonquin Park, the rain had become snow. The weather deteriorated and we drove straight through to Huntsville on some sometimes slippery roads.


Lake of Two Rivers, Algonquin Park

We were glad to reach our hotel and settle in for the evening. The morning brought better weather, but it was still cold, and the ground was covered in snow. Here’s the view from our hotel room over Fairy Lake, Huntsville.


Fairy Lake, Hidden Valley, Huntsville

I enjoyed watching these geese foraging in the snow.


Snow Geese

We continues on our way via the road that follows Georgian Bay from Wasaga Beach to Owen Sound. We stopped in Collingwood briefly so that I could take a few shots of the water. Wow! The wind blowing in from the water was icy cold.


Nottawasaga Bay, Collingwood

Later in the day, the sun triumphed and all in all, we had a pleasant drive out to Wiarton. The next morning, we enjoyed the sun shining on Colpoy’s Bay.


Colpoy’s Bay, Wiarton

I like the way the trees line the edge of the Niagara Escarpment.


Niagara Escarpment, Wiarton

These icicles attest to the fact that, though the sun was shining, it was still cold.


Niagara Escarpment, Wiarton

We had a very pleasant, if too short, visit with family. It included a little outing to see Sauble Beach dressed in snow…


Sauble Beach

…before heading home the next day.


Sauble Beach

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Since Europeans first arrived in North America, the history of Canada has been one of exploitation and greed. Beavers were among the first victims of a ruthless no-holds-barred attack on the natural world. Beavers were hunted to the edge of extinction, with beavers completely extirpated from many regions. Fortunately for beavers, the craze for felted beaver-pelt hats fell out of fashion in Europe just in time to save them. Beavers have been able to stage a comeback. Fortunately for us, too, as beavers are a keystone species whose constructions are essential to providing vital habitat for many other species.

Beavers build wetlands. We, on the other hand, recklessly destroy them. In Ontario, over 70 per cent of southern Ontario’s large inland wetlands (over 90% in some regions) have been lost, drained or converted to other land uses, and this loss continues at an alarming rate.

Nothing much has changed in Canada since the early days of European colonization. Canadians don’t respect their land. Canada has one of the worst environmental records in the developed world. Consider this passage from Dr. David R. Boyd:

That Canada has become an international laggard in environmental policy and practice is now an incontrovertible fact. In 2009, the Conference Board of Canada ranked Canada 15th out of 17 wealthy industrialized nations on environmental performance. In 2010, researchers at Simon Fraser University ranked Canada 24th out of 25 OECD nations on environmental performance.

Yale and Columbia ranked Canada 37th in their 2012 Environmental Performance Index, far behind green leaders such as Sweden, Norway, and Costa Rica, and trailing major industrial economies including Germany, France, Japan, and Brazil. Worse yet, our performance is deteriorating, as we rank 52nd in terms of progress over the 2000-2010 period. Even Prime Minister Harper has candidly admitted, “Canada’s environmental performance is, by most measures, the worst in the developed world. We’ve got big problems.”

You can read the full account linked here: Little Green Lies: Prime Minister Harper and Canada’s Environment.

Things have only gotten worse since the Harper Conservatives came to power. Through a series of omnibus bills (C-38, C-45) the Conservatives have removed what little protection once existed. The goal is to allow industry, especially Big Oil, full and unencumbered access to all and any resources they fancy. Canada has effectively become a subsidiary of TransCanada and Embridge and the oil companies they serve as cronyism and monopoly capitalism are given free rein.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, we now have the Ontario Liberals following the Conservative lead. Ontario’s Endangered Species Act is being rewritten and you can bet that what the government euphemistically terms ‘streamlining’ isn’t being done for the benefit of any species but humans. You can read more at the Sierra Club Canada website, linked here.

When land isn’t protected, when vital habitat is destroyed, endangered species have nowhere to go. Extinction is forever.

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Over the last week or so, I have been preoccupied with assorted small trials, including the extraction of a couple of wisdom teeth. While I have been distracted, the season has moved inexorably onward, with the leaves first changing colour and then falling to carpet the ground. One positive event has been the return of our small river. As the drought we suffered through this summer deepened, the stream began to dry up until, by mid-September, I was able to walk more than a kilometer up the dry stream bed.


I took the opportunity to see what lies hidden from the eye most of the time. The mud-bottomed river is perpetually cloudy, and one can’t enjoy watching the fish and other small waterlovers. During the drought, any fish were confined to small, increasingly oxygen-deprived puddles, where they were easy prey for raccoons. There were plenty of raccoon tracks along the river course.


Near our house, where there have been human inhabitants living near the river for more than a hundred years, the river bed was littered with broken glass and bottles. I took a couple of buckets and collected up a couple of large pails full of garbage, mostly glass but also a few shoe soles and sheets of plastic.


I soaked the glass in water for a few days so that I could clean up the glass a bit and put it out for recycling. When I was cleaning off the mud, I was surprised by a crayfish! He was perhaps hiding in one of the bottles. I put him in a pail and returned him to a puddle of water. He matched the colour of the muddy bottom perfectly.


The area north of here was hit harder than we were, and many farmers experienced a diminished harvest. With global warming bringing rising temperatures, it is likely we will experience hotter and drier summers more frequently.

Farming must be more dependent on reliable weather patterns than just about any other occupation. Unless you have been living in a hole at the bottom of the sea, you know that our current Conservative government has turned its back on Kyoto targets and is now failing to even meet their own downsized goals for emissions reduction. You might expect farmers to be circling their tractors on Parliament Hill, demanding action! But you would be wrong. At election time, rural areas are a sea of Conservative signboards. In effect, the farmers voted for drought. Very strange. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot with your unregistered long-gun.


It has been a comfort to see the river slowly return, first to a trickle and then to a small stream. I’m certain that all of those creatures who depend on its water for their very lives are unimaginably relieved. Here’s a Great Blue Heron that has returned to search for a meal once again. He watched me warily as I walked down the laneway, ready to make a quick escape.


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It’s not unusual to see a Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) drifting high overhead, its broad, 1.8 metre wide wings set in the distinctive ‘V’ that makes the bird so easy to identify. V is for Vulture. It’s less common to see them on the ground, but I recently spotted this individual resting on a fence post.

Turkey Vultures are a widespread species, with three subspecies ranging from Northern Ontario to Argentina. They haven’t been found in Ontario in large numbers until the last few decades. You are still most likely to view a Turkey Vulture in the south-west of the province, where the climate is a bit warmer. However, since the 1980s, the eastern Ontario population has more than doubled.

Turkey Vultures are almost exclusively scavengers and rarely kill live prey. It’s thought that one factor in their range expansion has been the relentless construction of new roads, which along with high volumes of speeding traffic, bring plentiful numbers of roadkill.

In rocky terrain, Turkey Vultures nest on cliff ledges or in crevices or caves. In more agricultural regions, they may use a hollow tree or an abandoned building. They prefer to nest in darkness, well hidden from predators and humans. The dark loft of an old, abandoned barn may thus provide good nesting habitat.

A migratory species, Turkey Vultures begin to move south in mid September, with the peak migration period running from the beginning to middle of October. Perhaps my fence sitter is resting up while contemplating the journey south.

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One of the routes I can take into town leads through a wetland. I love this attractive place. On one side of the road, cattails line the ditch and it is difficult to see inland. In winter it becomes obvious that this marsh is home to a host of muskrats, whose winter shelters become snow-covered igloos. You can see pictures of Muskratville here.


On the other side of the road, the wetland is more open and swampy. Of course, in a sane world, there would be no road running through the middle of a wetland. How ridiculous! But there is, and on one recent sunny day I stopped to help a small turtle cross to the other side. He was stopped in the middle of the road, inviting disaster. It was a smallish painted turtle. When I picked him up, he quickly withdrew his legs and head into his colourful shell. I carried him over to the shore towards which he was headed and gently placed him in the water. He rapidly reemerged and swiftly sped away, disappearing into the vegetation. Turtles may be slow on land, but they can get around just fine under water.


It was a very pleasant day, and I took a few minutes to hunker down at the water edge and appreciate the view. It’s not too busy a road, and it was quiet and serene there. Nature can’t often be appreciated at the speed of a video game. It takes time to sit back and let the natural world reveal itself. As I sat there, a large darner dashed by. These big dragonflies are almost impossible to photograph. They move very fast and rarely pause. I noticed a frog watching me though.


He doesn’t know how lucky he is. Sure, there’s a road right beside his home. No doubt road salt and oil run off the road into his habitat. But at least he has a pond. That’s more than many former wetland denizens can claim. A Ducks Unlimited Canada report, released in October 2010, states that:

Seventy-two per cent of southern Ontario’s large inland wetlands have been lost or converted to other land uses and this loss continues at an alarming rate. The decline to the wetland base has been most drastic in southwestern Ontario, parts of eastern Ontario, Niagara and the greater Toronto area, where in some regions the loss is greater than 90 per cent.

By-and-by a meadowhawk landed nearby. Meadowhawk species are difficult for the amateur to differentiate, but it may be a Cherry-faced Meadowhawk (genus Sympetrum). A moment later, I noticed a golden female dragonfly, possibly of the same species.


Few wetland losses have been more egregious than the damage done to the South March Highlands by an extension of Terry Fox Drive in Kanata on the fringe of the City of Ottawa. The South March Highlands are a Provincially Significant Life Science Area and contain a Provincially Significant Wetland Complex. The Highlands are home to the densest array of biodiversity in the Ottawa area. Eighteen known Species At Risk reside here, including the threatened Blanding’s Turtle (Emydoidea blandingii).


Every level of government participated in this wanton act of environmental destruction. The Harper Conservatives, renowned for their monumental disregard for all things linked to the environment, contributed cash through their Infrastructure Funding project. In response to protests by concerned citizens, the city made a token gesture of concern, and included plans for specially designed fencing and walls to prevent wildlife access to the roadway and work zone, and culverts to provide access to lands within the urban boundary.


The road will connect the north and south ends of Kanata, making the commute a little easier on Kanata north residents. “This is very good news for us,” said Karey Mulcaster, a resident of rural Kanata. “This road is definitely going to facilitate travel for Kanata north people,” said Mulcaster. “Can you tell we’re anxious for it to be opened?” (From Ottawa River Keeper site)

There is a wonderful video about the South March Highlands on Youtube. It is beautifully filmed and well worth viewing.

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Lately, I’ve been reading about early Ontarian architecture, and have been ‘collecting’ houses with my camera whenever I am out and about in our local region. One of the earliest styles to emerge in Upper Canada was the Georgian, which arrived with immigrants from Britain and the United Empire Loyalists at the end of the 18th century. It enjoyed considerable popularity well into the 19th century. Georgian architecture is noted for symmetrical facades with limited ornamentation. As the 19th century progressed, Georgian designs were interpreted with neo-classical elements and a generally lighter treatment.

The house shown above is beautifully situated on the St. Lawrence river. It features the typical central doorway, nicely accented with a fanlight, and the twelve-over-twelve paned windows evenly spaced across the facade. The neo-classically inspired porch was probably added at a later date. The windows of the end wall are balanced, two over two, and a small half-moon window allows light and perhaps ventilation into the attic. The two heavy chimneys are typical of the style, but they are unusually placed. The chimneys would normally be placed at either end of the roof.


This second house is located near the first and is similar in construction. The two houses perhaps shared an architect. Here, you can see the simple doorway with fanlight and side pilasters. The cornice molding that decorates the roof line is an unusual element. The massive size of this house can be seen in this view of the side, below. Rather than a central half-moon window, two quarter-round windows are featured.


This smaller, but exquisitely detailed home stands a bit farther west along the St. Lawrence river. The neo-classical doorway features an elliptical fanlight that stretches over both the door and the side lights. The prominence of the central entrance, and its delicate and intricate detailing are departures from classical Georgian design.


Vernacular interpretations of the style and building materials abound. This semi-detached unit, like the house above, shows the more typical chimney placement. I don’t know if this house was built as two units or was divided into two at a later date.


The house illustrated below has lost one of its chimneys and a porch has been added, but its Georgian features are still conspicuous.


The Georgian style was adapted to a small story-and-a-half vernacular cottage that was repeated often in the region and many examples can be found. A story-and-a-half format was common because taxes were assessed according to the number of floors, so the half-story maximized space without accruing the penalty of additional taxes connected with a second story.





It’s not clear whether the last house, above, was built in 1846, by George Shaver, or a few years later in 1862 by the Ellis family. In any case, it is recorded that the house served as a mail stop for the stage on its way to Spencerville in 1898 and the Ellis family ran a general grocery store from their home. The house remained in the Ellis family until 1918. Notable features include the five-paned square transom over the door and the three-paned sidelights.

This final example was built with straight coursed stone and a recessed centred front door with sidelights. It was probably built after 1861 by the Huchcroft family, and was owned by the Huchcrofts into the 1930s.

For more about historical Ontario house styles, visit Willow Books.


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Why did the turtle cross the road? Probably for the same reason as the chicken: to get to the other side. I recently came across my first road-crossing turtle, early in the season. He was just a little guy, parked in the sun, halfway across the road. It wasn’t a busy road, but when you move at the speed of a turtle, any road crossing is hazardous. I stopped my car and got out to give him a hand. It was obvious that his mother had told him “Never talk to strangers!”, because as I approached, he withdrew tightly into his shell. I picked him up and, after a couple of commemorative photos, set him down in what seemed like as safe a spot as possible on the other side of the road. Even though he was not disposed to communicate with me, I could tell what he was thinking: what the heck is a road doing in the middle of my home???

Good question. Certainly, in a sane world, it wouldn’t be there, running as it does through a wetland. The road is a sign of Canada’s overpopulation problem. We tend to think of overpopulation as a problem in China or India, but the fact is, there are way too many people right here in Ontario. Canada may be a large country, but most of its 30 million or so citizens live in a narrow band along the southern border. This fringe is the same region that is home to much of the country’s biodiversity, and too many people have stressed many regions to the limit. A good example is Carolinian southwestern Ontario. Although Carolinian Canada makes up just 1% of Canada’s land area, it has a greater number of flora and fauna species than any other ecosystem in Canada. One third of the rare, threatened and endangered species of Canada are found there. Ninety to 98% of the natural habitats in this region have been destroyed or altered by human activities. All that is left of the once-rich natural diversity is huddled in a scattering of parks and conservation areas.

In the case of turtles, the arrival of so many humans invading their habitat has been nothing less than a disaster. Most Ontario turtles live south of the Canadian shield. After 250 million years of residency here, when they survived even the cataclysmic forces that killed the dinosaurs, 6 of Ontario’s 8 hard-shelled turtle species are now threatened with extinction. The cause? Us.

The wetland homes of turtles have been drained or filled in at an incredible rate in the last century. Pollution and pesticides take a toll, but among the greatest hazards facing turtles are roads. In overpopulated Ontario, roads run everywhere and cars don’t stop for lumbering turtles. Many turtles are run over and killed on roads. A perfect example of our inability to control our excesses, our horrific impact on the domain of turtles, is ongoing right now in Ottawa. A planned extension of the Terry Fox Drive is poised to destroy the wetland home of a population of the threatened Blanding’s Turtle. The Sierra Club and other environmental groups are fighting to put the development on hold, but delays are likely to be temporary.

The environmental footprint of the average Canadian is a size XL…extra large! When the number of people living in a region can not be permanently maintained without depleting resources and without degrading the environment, you have a serious overpopulation problem. And in this case, the Blanding’s Turtles are the latest victims.

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After running some errands in Brockville on Friday, RailGuy and I visited the Mac Johnson Wildlife Area, located on the northern edge of the city, and enjoyed a short hike. The day was a bit overcast, but it was mild and there wasn’t much wind. The main feature of the wildlife area is a large lake and wetland, and several trails follow the shore of the lake and wind through mixed woodland.

We followed the Railway Trail, which is so named because about half its length follows the abandoned bed of a railway track. It was quiet in the woods, as is usual at this time of year. Apart from a troop of chickadees, we didn’t see any wildlife stirring. However, there were signs of summer activity.

Close to the trail, I noticed this nest, still in good shape for so late in the winter. The weather has taken a toll on many nests by February. From the trail, it looked like a woven ball, but by pulling the branch down a bit, the interior of a nest was revealed. It was probably constructed by a red-eyed vireo (Vireo olivaceus). Red-eyes are common woodland birds, but they are more often heard than seen as they usually sing from perches high up in the canopy of the forest. They are about 6 inches long, a bit bigger than chickadees, and rather plainly dressed in olive grey. They really do have red eyes. Their song always reminds me of a hyper robin.

The nest, constructed by the female, is typically deep-cupped and suspended in a horizontal fork of a slender tree branch. She uses grasses, paper, bark strips and rootlets. It may be bound to the supporting twigs and covered on the outside by spider webbing.

Another tree showed evidence of yellow-bellied sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus varius). Sapsuckers drill holes in trees in spring and drink the sap, usually early in the year when insects are still scarce. Their handiwork, or maybe billiwork is very distinctive. The small holes are drilled in orderly rows. These holes may have been a couple of seasons old. They were perhaps drilled in 2008.

This snag had been well-worked over by a piliated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). Piliateds are very large woodpeckers, about 18 inches in length. They are year-round residents, but it is more usual to find their excavations, sometimes very large, than to see the birds themselves.

The rail path leads down to the waterfront. Looking out over the lake, we spotted a paraskier near the far shore. He/she was moving along quickly…until a tumble.

Close to shore, there were a few muskrat lodges.

Farther along the trail, this pile of branches suggested a beaver had been at work at some time, but the lodge didn’t look occupied. In fact, the long stems and seed pods of Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) were springing from the branches.

On a section of the lake near the parking lot, ice had been cleared for an outdoor skating rink, and there was even a heated cabin for changing into skates available. Probably the ice is busy on weekends, but on a Friday afternoon, there were no skaters on hand. The park is a nice spot for dog-walking and is probably popular, being close to the city. We just met one dog and his walker, as we were returning to our car. Samson was delighted to meet RailGuy. Mac Johnson Wildlife Area offers Brockville residents a great spot to enjoy nature close to the city.

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