Landscapes large and small – September 1st, Hockley Valley Conservation Area
September 1 Hockley Valley Conservation Area – Landscape/Ecological tracking
So I want to begin with mentioning that photographing landscapes and geological changes due to climactic changes over the last 120,000 years is tough. But that was a big focus of the day, so I’ll try to discuss some of the finer points which I remember.
We began the day by having an opening circle at the top of a small hill surrounded by Red and White Pines, chattering Red Squirrels and maybe even a Black and White Warbler. After some gratitudes Alexis shared about some of the geology and indigenous histories of the land, some old old histories some being “rediscovered” and reconstructed still. We learned about the rivers and trails used as trade routes. We learned about the settlement history as well and how settlers cut so much of the older forests down that the hills began eroding into the rivers. We learned about how this erosion contributed to the decline and eventual extirpation of the Atlantic Salmon who used to swim along the banks of the rivers who’se headwaters all bubble up just a short ways from where we sat.
I then spoke a little to the glacial impacts on the land, the legacy of the Laurentide glaciation and a little on how it shaped the land. We spoke of the the height in some areas being about 2000 metres high, and the sheer weight of the glaciers, heavy enough that still, 15,000 years later, the land is still rebounding, rising up after being pushed down.
We talked a little more about the glaciers then and there on the hill, but we also wanted to get out and look at other features on the land, as a yet to be idenfied nest down the hill was one. So we got up and made our way down to check it out. We looked a the shape and briefly passed around some ideas, but decided we would come back at the end of the day to decide who’d built it.
I had to run back to the cars to grab my sweater and when I met up with the group some folks were admiring some mink tracks by the small creek on the trail and others were investigating what might have been woodpecker holes in what appeared to be a dead White Ash tree. I took a look at the tracks, and discovered a couple more headed towards the short foot bridge, and then went to the bridge to see if there were more around there, of which I couldn’t find any.
I then took to the White Ash tree and noticed folks were peeling away the loose bark to reveal beautiful galleries below. As we looked on the galleries and wondered we noticed some of the larvae which appeared to be creating them.
The strangely triangularly ridged larvae were about 27mm long, 2 -3mm wide and slimy looking. They were in the
widest sections of the oscillating S shaped tunnels feeding on the phloem between the bark and the inner wood. It’s within this thin phloem tissue that the tree conducts fluids, sugars and other nutrients to the rest of the tree.
By hijacking this nutrition corridor, the larvae are able to feed, grow and emerge as full grown Emerald Ash Borers, a highly invasive species which are killing off a few of the native Fraxinus species across North America.
It was beautiful to see such delicate forms of the larvae and also recognize the damage they are doing and as we all left wishing luck to the woodpeckers on the front line of Ash defence.
As we walked a deer trail up through a lush little valley of Goldenrods the day was overtaken by insect sightings and wonderings. We saw a couple caterpillars, such the Banded Tussock Moth (Halisydota tessellaris) and a Milkweed Tussock Moth (Euchaetes egle) hanging out near by. One interesting sighting which I am still uncertain about were some eggs which we could not identify certainly.
They were sitting on the leaves of a Goldenrod. I believe they are eggs because of similar looking eggs I saw in the book “Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates”. The eggs in the book were Assassin Bug eggs (Reduviidae), and they look so similar, my guess is that these are Assassin bug eggs as well, but I am not certain. Luckily it is a big family, who like Goldenrods and many live in our area, so the chances are high.
As we climbed the hill further there were some galls on Wild Grape folks were exploring. Again, this is another mystery I can’t figure out for certain but are likely some variety of Midge, or small Fly species. It is one of those times I wish we had spent a little more time with, perhaps cut a few open to check to see what the insides looked like and if we could find a larvae within.
As we kept walking I noticed the Blue Stem Goldenrod, which is one of the easier Goldenrod species to identify. It grows in woodlands, and I have mostly seen it in more open woodlands, with high “loose” canopies. It may grow in more dense tree cover, and Lawrence Newcomb says it may grow in open clearings, but I have not seen this so far. Blue Stem Goldenrod is named for the blue-purpley stem upon which the beautiful golden asterish flowers grow.
We climbed a little higher and checked out the False Solomon Seal and the Canada Mayflower, both of whom’s berries we tried. I do like the taste of the Canada Mayflower, but it may not be for everyone. I have found no references to the plant being edible or inedible, but it was one that I have tried and I enjoy.
While looking down at the Mayflower, others were looking up at a tan brown furry mystery on a nearby Sugar Maple
tree. The the soft hair like mass was about 35mm long and was fairly flat against the tree. I stroked it a couple of times and remembered that I had seen this before at the Arboretum in Guelph. While others were passing around the Insect Track and Sign book I was helping others by offering clues, but no direct answers. This way they would think about it longer, wonder at it deeper and would have to observe a little more to draw out conclusions, and they did. We hung out for a while at this and other similar signs on some other nearby Maples and through sleuthing on the tree and researching in the book it was revealed that this was the egg mass of the Gypsy Moth! The female Gypsy Moths lay their eggs in a large mass and then pull the tan hairs from their abdomens and affix it somehow to the eggs, protecting them. What some mothers go through!
Another insect investigation began when Annie found a stick with a strange looking cocoon. It was another familiar one I had learned about during a winter tree i.d. workshop. This one was only about 15mm long, with a small hole at the base. I thought at first the hole was at the top, but Annie told me that I was holding the twig the other way around from how she had found it. We examined a little further and then checked out our book and it was in there. This cocoon was from a Sawfly and it survived. These cocoons are predated upon by Short Tailed Shrews, and I have been reading that Sawflies are consumed so much that a Short Tailed Shrew may consume up to twenty-three thousand Pine Sawfly cocoons in a year!! Holy Short Tailed Shrews! They were cool before, but now their Sawfly-destroyer-cool! Not that there is anything wrong with Sawflies… it’s just cool that the Shrews eat so many of them.
We moved on and Alexis explained more about pillows and cradles and how we can use these land based sign to age a forest. We spoke about how when a tree falls the roots come up with it, leaving behind a gap or cradle in the forest floor. The presence of these ‘cradles’, depressions in the soil where the root mass once was, along with the ‘pillows’ or small hills of decaying wood, roots and organic matter can tell us where a tree once stood, which direction it may have fallen in. If we see many of these in a forested landscape we know that the forest has been there for a while, with lots of trees growing and falling and decaying back to the forest floor. The absence of these pillows and cradles can also tell us something. Perhaps the area was logged, hence no remaining tree mass to decay and turn into the pillows of soil and new life. If the forest floor is pretty flat, then perhaps the area was cleared entirely and plowed. Plowing levels the soil, evening out the rises and subtle valleys making it easier for crops to grow.
It was interesting to walk through the woods, down the hillsides and being mindful of this when we encountered a depression in the earth. We can look into the past by considering how the hills got there (glaciation), and how the smaller lumps and bumps were formed (trees falling in the woods), and seeing the small ephemeral tracks from ourselves and other animals which are left behind.
Tiny and massive disturbances on the land which map a deep history which we observe as we make our way through the woods. It really is awesome and wonderful.
We took a break in a previously cleared area, a small open meadow with radiating spokes of Deer and Raccoon trails leading to and from a nearby Apple tree. Folks ate and laid about, watching the Broad Winged Hawks or the Turkey Vultures making their way overhead. We reviewed notes taken of Coyotes in a straddle trot, and chatted about future places we should explore.
When we got up some of us passed the Apple tree and I noticed one with a significant bite taken from it yet still hanging about 185cm off the ground. Some Deer had delicately taken a couple of bites from this Apple while still being careful enough to not let the fruit fall. I measured the incisor marks and they were about 9mm across the width of one tooth, and generally 20mm across the both of them. I have been trying to look up incisor widths or measurements for a White Tailed Deer, but I can’t find any specific measurements yet to compare to.
Meandering down to the river got me excited. This quiet cover of old Northern White Cedar, Balsam Fir, Moss, and Ferns gracefully dappled this tributary to the Nottawasaga River as it flow out to Georgian Bay and Lake Huron. I remember this course because I remember why I want to be here – the Salmon. I can’t quite remember if they are Chinook or Coho Salmon, but I’m going to roll with Chinook as they seem to be the best lookalike from my research. The Chinook Salmon are originally from the Pacific Ocean, but have been stocked in the Great Lakes since the 1960’s, originally to control the non-native Alewife and Rainbow Smelt populations, and also to create a recreational fishery which might bring some money to local economies along the shores of the lakes. It seems to have been a success with lots of communities benefitting from the endeavour.
Why Pacific Salmon? Why not our native Atlantic Salmon? I have been answering this question as I tell people the story of our day out, so I’ll explain as best I can here as well.
Atlantic Salmon were never in Lake Huron, or at least that is what I can gather, but they were in Lake Ontario, and had been there since the lake was part of a post-glacial sea around 12,000 years ago. They were a staple to many indigenous populations and were revered and regarded with deep respect. When early colonists arrived in what would become southern Ontario they could catch Salmon by the barrel. But this did not last.
As colonists cleared once forested habitats throughout Ontario during the 19th century, the once rich soil no longer held by the lush root systems and ground cover of riparian edge species was washed away due to weather, land use and erosion. Alongside this, the absence of tree cover and shade along river and stream edges allowed for an increase in water temperatures, further rendering the rivers unsuited to the Atlantic Salmon. The last Atlantic Salmon was caught off of the Scarborough shoreline in 1898.
Since 1916 Pacific Salmon, and more specifically, Chinook Salmon from the Frasier River in BC were stocked into Lake Ontario and Lake Huron. Folks thought that the fish were good to eat and fun to catch so they brought them to this side of the continent and worked to keep their populations well stocked. The populations never really took off until Ontario, Michigan and New York state governments pushed together in the 1960’s to stock the Salmon. Since then the Salmon have been stocked yearly and there is suggestions that some of the Salmon who are spawning may be naturally reproducing on their own and their young, the Smolt, are returning to the lakes to live out natural lives before returning to home tributaries to breed again in 1-3 more years.
I don’t really know much about Salmon ecologies, or most anything about fish in general, but I do know when I am moved by watching an animal in the wild doing it’s most basic work of migrating and breeding. When I got down to the river and began watching for the Salmon it felt like I was in an airport or train station waiting for a long missed friend or lover who was coming to visit. I was searching through the shimmering refractions of light and fallen logs for any sort of movement. I was decieved by rocks a couple of times before hearing the quick splash of whipping caudal fins upstream and knew they had arrived.
I had to wait for some of our crew to catch up and I was anxious and frustrated in the same way a child might be when having to wait to open presents at a birthday, but they showed up and I quickly made my way to a wide shallow part of the river where we’d seen the Salmon congregate last year. This year was the same. There were about 6 or 7 of them moving through with a couple holding down small territories in the corners and spillways, possibly in an attempt to disrupt the advancement of late arrivals. I ran from this pool to a bridge of fallen logs I had laid across the year before, but as I didn’t see a fish within 20 seconds of laying down I quickly got up again and walked back to the wide pool where everyone else was gathering.
Last year I watched as folks attempted to touch the fish, and this year I was burning to give it a shot as well, to grasp the wild heart of this late summer river, if only for a second or two.
I followed Alexis’ lead of getting low to the shore so as to not scare the fish with our looming bearlike predatory shadows and instead move slow and carefully, becoming part of the river and observing more than moving. I was sitting on a sandy island created by a dam of logs and braches in the middle of the river but I was
still too far away from the fish to feel like I could really feel them so I began to slowly take off my shoes and socks. I remember having so many things in my pockets that it felt like forever to stuff them in my shoes. Wallet, camera, notebook, other notebook, loose change and my field lens all stuffed in beside my socks and I began very slowly making my way towards the one fish who held the spot between Alexis and I.
When I got close enough to reach out and touch the Salmon’s tail a larger Salmon came in close and whirled in the pool, pushing my Salmon off for a moment, but as they returned I leaned in and gently grasped the caudal fins and gave two tugs.
The feeling of the fin in hand was pretty neat. Again, I don’t fish. I haven’t a lot of experience hanging out with fish, or grasping them for a photo, or even eating them (I don’t really like the taste most of the time). Grasping the fin was new to me and I savoured the sensation. The fin felt like my ear, thin, cartilage-like yet more defined and with more muscle, as if every spine in the fin had muscle and flexion all it’s own. It was strong and toned, and the slight strength used to pull away from my hand was indicative of a greater strength which the fish could rely on, and had relied on to get all this way upstream.
I felt the tension of the moment dissipate after that moment and I went to get my things and put my shoes back on. The group’s voices rose a little in volume and it seemed we were getting restless to keep on tracking the riverbanks on our way back to the parking lot.
I walked back on the opposite bank of the rest of the crew, looking for sign of animal predation on the Salmon, but only found a dead one at the bottom of the river, too deep to dislodge with an armlengthed stick I found, so I just left it and kept searching. I was hoping that more scouts would have more luck discovering something.
Last year, as we departed that same pool we’d been at earlier, we had found a flayed Salmon skin on another island in the centre of the river, as well as a fairly intact, but entirely dead carcass of a male Salmon just beside the shore. It was a lovely chance to get up close and see the entirety of the body. We even cut the Salmon open and milky sperm spilled out onto the forest floor (sorry for the description, but that’s how it was!).
I didn’t find too much more Salmon sign as we walked back, though there was lots of other things to look at. Pileated Woodpecker sign on a Cedar tree, some Ant filled scat, but my head and heart were still with the Salmon.
We did stop again at the nest on our way out to gave it another look and refer back to the Track and Sign of Insects book we’d carried the whole way. There was discussion and a little debate as to who had built and was living in the nest., until finally Annie and I teamed up and she got on my shoulders to courageously take some closeup video of
the wasps departing and returning. From her photos and her video we could see that the wasps were yellow and black helping us to exclude one of our two possibilities. It wasn’t the Bold Faced Wasp afterall, but instead Yellow Jackets. I think having settled that, we could all go home fulfilled.