A Weekend in Carolinian Canada

It promised to be a warm 3 days as 9 Saugeen Naturalists piled in 3 cars to meet conservationist Peter Carson at a restoration site near Port Rowan on the Friday after lunch. Although the cars originated at different points and travelled over 4 hours from different directions, we all arrived at the baking parking lot within 5 minutes of each other. Obviously everyone was eager to get out and explore this ecological community that differs subtly from our own.

Peter began by explaining the work that he and Mary Gartshore had done at the 400 acre site, which is owned by the Nature Conservancy of Canada. They planted a mix of seeds for trees, shrubs and forbs; altering the ratios and components of the seed mix depending on the soils, moisture levels, and aspects of the fields. Acorns dominated the tree seed mix, with some hickory, and as Lloyd went out and wandered among the trees, many of which were over 15 feet tall, he found a very few hickory seedlings. The acorns seem to have a better germination rate than the hickory nuts in this site.

As we followed Peter across the fields, we came across areas dominated more by prairie forbs than by trees, indicative of the success of planting the varying mixes of seeds, rather than sticking to one species as farmers tend to do when they are cropping in a traditional way.

Mary and Peter have learned their restoration techniques from decades of study and practice. We didn’t ask how many acres that they have restored to native species in Norfolk County and elsewhere, but it must number in the thousands. Later after travelling to several other smaller restoration sites, Peter took us to his and Mary’s farm and talked about how they had started there. Because of the limited availability of seed, which they had to collect by hand from existing prairie remnants, they were only able to plant a couple of acres at a time at the beginning. Then as the years passed and the size of the crop of prairie grasses like Big and Little Bluestem, and Indian Grass, and forbs like Bush-headed Clover, Butterfly Milkweed, and Showy Tick Trefoil grew, they were able to harvest their own seed and expand the prairie. Eventually the size of the field grew to 60 acres, and they planted some Black Oak to develop a Black Oak Savanna habitat. They burned the prairie regularly, as would have happened in nature, to encourage the growth of prairie species and discourage weedy species from the surrounding area, and they developed or obtained specialised machinery for harvesting the seed mechanically. They are now able to provide a significant amount of seed to sell or use for further prairie restoration work all over Carolinian Canada.

Besides visiting a few restoration sites, we also walked through several different Carolinian habitats. The first was on our walk into the Nature Conservancy fields, where we immediately spotted a magnificent Spicebush Swallowtail, Sassafras Trees, and the Spicebush with it’s strongly scented leaves which is the host plant for the Spicebush Swallowtail. A second highlight was the true Old Growth forest that Peter took us to visit. Here the trees seemed to stretch up forever, and were so widely spaced that although the canopy was almost closed from their hugely spreading tops, the forest floor was very open, with few shrubs and saplings. Although the ground was crowded with Jewelweed and other forbs, we could tell that it would have been relatively easy to drive a horse and cart through woods like these, and to clear a spot for a log cabin. Even clearing a place for a field would have been far less work than it would be in say Kinghurst Forest, where there are many more trees per acre. The fertility of the forest floor was quite evident from the lushness of the undergrowth.

On Friday evening after dinner, some of us returned to the Gartshore/Carson farm, where we saw the giant Cecropia Moths that Mary had captured so that she could collect their eggs when they mated. We also spent a fascinating hour looking at the hundreds of species of moths that were attracted to the lighted sheets that had been hung out for this purpose. Mary and Peter were counting moth species as part of a local area bioblitz that took place on this same weekend.

On Saturday evening, although we were all getting quite weary from the many places we visited, we managed to get out onto Long Point, where we saw an Endangered Spotted Turtle, the rare Black Tern, and many small Marsh Wrens calling from the reeds.

A wonderful weekend outing: we learned a great deal, saw a great many species that were new to us, and enjoyed each others’ company in the evenings at the two B&Bs where we stayed.

Photo by Sandy Bunler – Spicebush Swallowtail

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