Kate's Blog

Mar 3

Desperately seeking territory: the Kirtland’s Warbler

Sometime in June, somewhere around the Great Lakes, perched at the very top of a tree in a young, densely growing forest, a male Kirtland’s Warbler throws back his head and lets rip with a series of bubbly, clear notes that steadily rise in pitch, tempo, and volume: chip-chip-che-way-o. Spring is here! I’ve found the perfect spot, he calls.

He had to work hard to find it. This is a bird that has come back from the brink. In 1973, when legislation to protect endangered species was introduced in the United States (1977 in Canada), the Kirtland’s (Setophaga kirtlandii) was one of the first on the list, its global population down to an estimated 300-500 birds. Now it’s up to 5,500, breeding mostly in Michigan, where conservation efforts started in the 60s.

The habitat that meets this bird’s needs is so specific. It occurs only in the Great Lakes basin, mainly south of the Canadian Shield: Sandy soil with young pine and oak trees, 10 to 20 years old, growing densely with frequent clearings, with an understory of native shrubs and ground cover of native forbs and grasses to generate the insect populations and fruit required to feed young. It nests on the ground, sheltered by the boughs that sweep down to soil level. As the trees age, they drop these lowest branches and these warblers have to move on.
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Mar 3

Jerusalem Artichokes – loved by bees, good to eat, but be warned

The bees love my Jerusalem Artichokes (aka Giisizoojiibik, aka Sunchokes, aka Helianthus tuberosus). They flower in a dense mass of golden daisies swaying on six-foot-plus stems in September through to October, so the late-season bees are all over them. This plant is an important wildlife resource and produces tubers that are nutritious and delicious.

But whenever I’m asked about it, I advise against planting it. That’s because this plant is an imperialist – it spreads implacably through underground rhizomes that produce tubers and the patch soon grows larger than one family can consume. That at least has been my experience. We had some planted next to the rhubarb, a crop one would think could stand up to anything, but the sunchokes moved in and did not have a positive effect. And they kept on moving.

A long time ago, I gave some tubers to two different neighbours who were very keen. I warned them. They insisted. And of course the plant spread out of bounds for them and was considered a nuisance. So I didn’t give it away any more, and I certainly didn’t sell it.
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Feb 1

Happy highways - part of a biodiverse future for Ontario?

As the snow blows in off Lake Huron and wild turkeys drop by for a feed, James Corcoran is preparing for a new phase in his working life – retirement. Expect it to be busy and enjoyable, as he concentrates on his tree nursery, Hoanaadia in Grand Bend, where he specializes in growing Eastern Hemlock from seed.

It will certainly be less hectic than his career with the provincial government: Corcoran is retiring as roadside vegetation manager for the West Region (Southwestern Ontario). He’s been the only one occupying that position in all of the province, there’s no similarly specialized person in the other four regions. Fortunately, he’s not the last. He’s presently being shadowed by his replacement - and took time to talk about his work at a recent online meeting of the Ontario Phragmites Working Group.

It's a job that became a lot more complex in recent years, he says. Blowing snow sweeping across the over-cleared flatlands of the southwest has created dangerous winter driving conditions. “All those thousands of acres and no forest to stop them - it’s led to frequent highway closures, particularly on Highways 4, 6 and 21,” he says. “The amount of snow that’s being transported is huge.”
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