5 cool facts about skinks

If you’ve ever seen a Five-lined Skink, you know just how neat they are!

The Five-lined Skink, which looks a bit like a salamander, is the only lizard species native to Ontario. And while researchers continue to study skinks, we still don’t know very much about what they do on a day-to-day basis, particularly from September to May when they’re hibernating.

Here are five cool things we DO know about Five-lined Skinks, courtesy of Alistair MacKenzie, Resource Management Supervisor at Pinery Provincial Park.

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10 signs of spring at Ontario Parks

Spring has sprung at Ontario Parks!

The sun is out, the birds are chirping, and the days of snow and sleet are (hopefully!) behind us. As the snow melts, enjoy the sensory delights of spring in our provincial parks as we see and hear signs of warm weather to come.

You know it’s spring in Ontario Parks when…

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Join us for Algonquin’s “Meet the Researcher Day”

Today’s post comes from wildlife biologist Patrick Moldowan.

Within Algonquin Provincial Park, wildlife researchers work within an outdoor laboratory of a massive scale!

You might find them tucked away amid the dense forest, waist-deep in a wetland, or investigating a wolf den.

Welcome to the Algonquin Wildlife Research Station (WRS)!

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10 reasons you should try spring camping

To many, camping brings visions of sunshine, the leaves trembling as the trees slowly sway in the wind, sand and waves gently crashing around your toes as you enjoy your days on the beach. Your face is flush with your first dose of spring sunshine and your ears are filled with the beautiful songs of migrating birds.

Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

Here are our top ten reasons to try spring camping this season:

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5 ways to make every day Earth Day in Ontario

Visiting your nearest provincial park is a start

As people around the world prepare to celebrate Earth Day on April 22, Ontarians have everything they need right in their own backyard. With more than 330 provincial parks covering 8.2 million hectares of parkland, Ontario is a veritable playground for all things fun and environmental.

Here are five ways you can enjoy the spirit of Earth Day in April and throughout the year:

Learn to camp

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Soundscapes from across Ontario

One of my favourite signs is from a lookout over the Grand Canyon.  It simply says,

ONE MINUTE.
DON’T READ.
DON’T TALK.
NO PHOTOS.
JUST LOOK…..AND SEE.

It is something that I hope you will do often when you visit our parks or other natural areas in Ontario.  But how about this variation?

TWO MINUTES.
PUT DOWN YOUR PHONE.
DON’T READ.
DON’T TALK.
SIT QUIETLY…AND LISTEN.

And you can do that right now.

Below are some one to two minute recordings of birds and amphibians. Several organizations contributed recordings from across the province.

On these recordings you will hear a multitude of bird, amphibian, and perhaps some insect species. You will even hear wolves in the recording from Ivanhoe Lake Provincial Park!

So put on some headphones, sit quietly, and simply listen to these natural soundscapes.

You may need to increase the volume on your computer or device to hear them properly. Just don’t start at full volume! Download them to your computer or other device if you wish.

How do I survey birds and amphibians?

I Listen.

A trained person can identify bird or amphibian species from their distinctive calls. When I was an intern, I first trained by accompanying a more experienced birder. Now I listen to recordings of bird songs and amphibians calls. It is a skill one needs to practice to maintain.

There are great training apps for computers, tablets and smart phones.  There are also websites, such as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library.

Surveying for birds can be passive or active. In passive surveying, I listen for a five or 10 minute period and record all the species I hear.

However, some species rarely call. For these species I use a portable sound system to broadcast their calls, and wait for a response. Broadcasting calls is a form of harassment, so I do it only a few times at any one site.

We strongly discourage park visitors from broadcasting calls, unless it is a research activity that we have reviewed and approved.

White-crowned sparrow and gray catbird.

Why do I survey birds and amphibians?

Sometimes I just want to know what species occur in our various parks.

Sometimes I am looking for specific birds or amphibians, such as a species at risk.

Which ones are common? Which species are rare?  What kind of habitat do they need?

Over time I could discover population trends that alarm me, comfort me, or even excite me. And sometimes I survey birds for environmental assessments, so that I understand which species may be affected by a new development or restoration project.

Why do birds and amphibians “sing”?

A pair of birds may call to each other as part of courtship behaviour. Birds may call to communicate with other members of their family or flock. However, most of the time it is the males that sing. For them it is all about defending territory and trying to impress a mate.  They are basically saying “This is my land. Keep out!” and “Hey ladies….check out MY colours!”

In songbirds, the song is learned from parents at an early age. For the researcher, young males practicing their ‘voice’ can be misleading. Within some bird species the variation in songs can be interesting, or even frustrating. For example, the American Redstart has several song variations.

American Redstart.

What’s that green box strapped to the tree?

A few years ago I invested in a few automated recording devices. These can be programmed to record at certain times of day, for almost any length of time.  At a minimum it is a 10-minute recording half an hour after sunrise, and a 5-minute recording half an hour after sunset.

These devices increase my ability to survey birds and amphibians. Essentially, they allow me to be in more than one place at the same time.

They may also record things I otherwise would not hear.  Why? Some species know when I am present, and may remain silent or avoid me. But they behave normally if only the device is present, and are more likely to be recorded.

Ivanhoe Lake, setting up a recording device.

I take the device back to the office, download the recordings, listen to them, and record what I hear.  I can listen to the recording as many times as needed. I am much less likely to miss or misidentify a bird than an on-site survey. And if still unsure, I can extract the confusing call and send it to an expert.

Can’t the computer identify the species for you?

Yes, but…

Current computer software may be used to search for calls of specific species, but I would have to train the software to recognize them.

I am interested in recording the entire bird and calling amphibian community, so I have not explored this software capability. Manually interpreting the recordings also ensures that I maintain or improve my ability to identify all species when I am working in a park.

I do use software to help me interpret what I hear, however. The software can help me isolate particular sounds from background noise, or sometimes the sounds of other species. It also produces a graphical representation of the bird’s or amphibian’s song: a sonogram. Different species produce distinctive patterns.

Sit quietly…and listen!

Chestnut-sided Warbler.

After hours of intense listening, interpreting, and tabulating data, I realized I had been mentally dissecting the recording but not really listening.  I “rewound” the recording and just enjoyed it without concerning myself with what species were calling.

So take a few quiet moments, sit back, and listen to these recordings.  You may find yourself transported to another place and time.

Ed Morris
Ecologist, Northeast Zone

Additional recordings supplied by:

  • Evan McCaul, Ontario Parks, Northwest Zone
  • Janet Jackson, Natasha Formsma, Dean Phoenix of MNRF Science & Research Branch (Thunder Bay, South Porcupine)
  • Dr. Lauren Fitzsimmons
  • Dr. Doug Tozer, Bird Studies Canada

Turtle doctor helps Blanding’s preemies

By: Corina Brdar, Southeast  Zone Ecologist, Ontario Parks

There is some cutting edge research on preemie health and survival taking place in Ontario Parks.  The “preemie” babies in question are Blanding’s turtles –a species at risk in Ontario.  Each year the Kawartha Turtle Trauma Centre (KTTC) in Peterborough takes in injured (or sadly, dead) female Blanding’s turtles and rescues their eggs.  Injured turtles treated at this unique animal hospital are “induced” to release their eggs using oxytocin, just like an expectant mom would be.  The eggs are hatched at the centre and raised until they are 2 years old.

Left: Hatchling room at KTTC Right:Lynda Ruegg, a conservation technician with the KTTC, collects data on a headstarted Blanding’s turtle that she’s following in a provincial park.

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Wolf, caribou scat offers vital clues to migration, possible renewal

Scientists are combing the backcountry of Ontario this winter scooping up samples of wolf and caribou scat, hoping the DNA-rich pellets will provide precious clues into the lives of these endangered species.

The collection is part of ongoing efforts to capture the important data far less invasively than by trapping or collaring the animals. Every winter for the past few years, scientists have flown by helicopter over parts of the province and landed where they have spotted certain tracks. They then follow the tracks on foot and bag the scat along the way. That way they can capture the samples they need without ever having to frighten or interact with the animals in any way.

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