How to Observe Hundreds of Species in Your Backyard

I’m going to let you in on a little secret… I didn’t grow up a naturalist. In fact, I wouldn’t have ever dreamed about calling myself a naturalist until my mid-twenties. My main priorities as a teen were to be a top 50 competitive Age of Empires II player and to become a chef. I was successful in both of those pursuits; before retiring.

I’d always enjoyed nature, but I’d have been hard pressed to identify more than 10 bird species. But herein lies my secret, since I started on this journey relatively recently I still remember learning to observe. I’m no master naturalist (In fact I’m probably more of a geographer), but I thought I’d share some tips for how to find as many things as possible in your backyard!

This weekend Peterborough will be having its first ever backyard bioblitz. But some of you may be thinking “nothing lives in my backyard” and that my friends is where you are wrong! Some backyards are more diverse than others, but no doubt, there is life out there waiting to be discovered! I’ll share a few pointers to get you started, but remember to use all your senses, intuitions and you’ll have success!

1. Don’t Dismiss Anything

When you’re making your observations, it is easy to dismiss things as “not important” because they are so common or familiar. Be sure to include everything you see! Grey squirrels are common and easy to ignore, but make sure you include the common things when making your list. You’ll be amazed at the number of species you can already identify if you include everything!

2. Look On Things

It’s easy to look at a tree, identify it and move along. Don’t forget that trees are an excellent source of habitat for a multitude of species. The bark can provide crevices for beetles or lichens to hide in, birds build nests on the branches, or chipmunks build dens among the roots. Remember to look carefully at everything and think to yourself if there are good hiding places for things big and small.

3. Look Under Things

Underneath rocks and rotting logs is home to some of the greatest discoveries you might find! Snakes often hide under warm rocks to capture some of their heat. Salamanders and frogs will be found under rotting logs as moist hiding place. Beetles make their homes in an abundance of different types of cover. Be sure to leave no stone unturned!

4. Focus

Pick a spot, any spot. Sit down. Look in front of you. REALLY look in front of you. Breathe. Look again. Do you see it? A small snow drop hidden in the mud, emerging just in time for you to see it. I’m sure you’ll be amazed what you can find when you look closely. If you don’t know what it is, take a picture and share it on iNaturalist, we’ll see if we can identify it for you! When you really get down into the weeds, you’ll be amazed what you can find!

5. Look Up! Way Up!

Look up into the trees, there’s all sorts of life waiting to be discovered. Among the tops of the trees you might see a squirrel’s drey, a nesting bird or if you’re lucky maybe even a porcupine! Look even further into the sky, what do you see? Perhaps some passing Canadian Geese, or a Gull. Make sure to include everything you see!

6. Come Back Later

Many species of animals enjoy coming out at different times of day so make sure to come back in the morning afternoon and evening to see what different species you can find. Don’t forget to check in at different temperatures. Many species of insects are sensitive to temperature fluctuations, so come back at the warmest part of the day to see what else you can find.

Hopefully these tips help you get started on your journey to discover as many species as you can in your backyard! Don’t forget to log your sightings in one of the many citizen science applications! This March 28th, you can practice with the rest of Peterborough during the first ever backyard bioblitz!

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Peterborough Self Isolation Backyard Bioblitz! March 28th

This spring while we are all in self isolation it’s important to remember that exposure to nature can be a great way to reduce your stress levels. That’s why on March 28th Steward’s Notes will be holding Peterborough’s first ever self-isolation backyard bioblitz! Be a citizen scientist, make the world a better place, and feel good while you do it. With the spring migration in full swing and plants emerging from the winter, now has never been a better time to be a naturalist!

How To Participate:

On March 28th make sure you have iNaturalist installed on your smartphone or tablet and go out into your backyard, watch from your window or look under your couch for as many different species of animals and plants as you can find. (It is also possible to submit sightings using your computer) With spring in full swing, there should be plenty of opportunity to see birds, plants and insects of all types! You can learn to use iNaturalist here. I’d recommend submitting a few sightings of wildlife before the big day!

Prizes:

We will be offering a prizes for the most observations, so be sure to submit your sightings early and often over the course of the day. Also, share your photos on social media using #ptboBYBB (Peterborough Backyard BioBlitz) We’ll also award a prize for the best photo posted online!

Sign Up and Learn More:

You can sign up for the project at the above link. If you have any questions, feel free to send me an email using the contact form and I will get back to you ASAP. Alternatively, you can communicate using the iNaturalist project page.

Four Ways To Be A Citizen Scientist Without Leaving Your Home

Around Ontario and the globe many people will soon likely be confined to their living quarters for many days or weeks. Even at home, there are still plenty of opportunities to help make the world a better place. Citizen science has revolutionized the way we do conservation and restoration work around the globe, and you can contribute to the movement from the comfort (Or quarantine) of your home! It can be fun for kids too! With the spring arriving fast (along with all the migrating creatures!), there’s never been a better time to learn to be a citizen scientist.

Citizen Science: “The collection and analysis of data relating to the natural world by members of the general public, typically as part of a collaborative project” – Oxford Dictionary

There is no need for you to be an expert on any particular topic, you just need to be willing to learn. There are a multitude of resources out there to help you on your citizen science journey, and hopefully this article can be your starting point.

New: Join the Peterborough Great Backyard Self-Isolation Bioblitz!

For Kids:

For kids and students who are burgeoning environmental scientists may I suggest you create a worksheet or workbook that records the date and time you spot the plant or animal, the weather, who spotted it, where you spotted it and any other special notes. Notes might include that the animal was building a nest, or that the plant was the first to emerge, anything that might be special about your sighting. If you have a printer at home download and print the attached worksheet to track your sightings! If you want to use one of the below citizen science programs, may I suggest starting with Journey North. It is an easy and intuitive website to use for beginners.

Journey North

Website: https://journeynorth.org

A spring peeper emerging in the spring time. Near Guelph Ontario – DR

Journey north is a citizen science tool for tracking the migration and emergence of creatures and plants in North America. It is incredibly easy to participate and you might already have the skills to take part! On the projects page they are tracking the migration of American Robins, Monarch Butterflies, Earthworms, and frogs to name a few. If you are a beginning citizen science this is a great place to start! This website is probably a great way to get the kids involved in tracking different species. With the spring on its way, this is an excellent project to get involved with.

eBird

Website: https://ebird.org

A Pilleated Woodpecker in the Spring at Kawartha Highlands – DR

eBird is one of the world’s largest citizen science communities. Using their smartphone application or their website, you can submit all of your bird sightings. These sightings can be used to track bird migrations declines or increases in species numbers as well as the availability of food. To participate from home all you need to do is look out your window and try to identify as many birds as you can! If you need help learning to identify birds Merlin Bird ID is a great and intuitive tool to learn how. I personally started using ebird nearly 5 years ago and I found it was a great way to learn how to identify birds while contribution to the knowledge of our local bird populations. I’m sure you’ll be surprised to learn how many different bird species you can already identify!

iNaturalist

Website: https://www.inaturalist.org/

Crayfish disturbed by the spring flooding adjacent to Jackson Creek – DR

iNaturalist is another excellent tool for participating in citizen science. This global community is dedicated to the identification of all living things big and small. The sightings submitted by naturalists have been used for things like planning large conservation projects or making better decisions around municipal planning. Many bioblitzes are organized using this website. Any skill level is encouraged to participate, and sightings are often verified by an expert. If you have difficulty identifying creatures, you can use the accompanying app Seek by iNaturalist. With projects like “Never Home Alone: The Wild Life of Homes” you don’t even need to go outside!

EDD Maps

Website: https://www.eddmaps.org/ontario/

A welcome sight in the springtime, although it is an invasive plant! – DR

If invasive species get you excited, then look no further than EDDMaps! EDDMaps tracks the distribution of invasive plants, animals, diseases, and insects. This information can be used to plan response efforts for controlling or eradicating invasive species. They provide a multitude of resources on their website for identifying invasives in your neighborhood or back yard. There are over 3,100 species they are tracking so there are sure to be some in your area! When you’re done identifying invasives in your neighborhood or back yard you can plan a stewardship project to remove them and replace with native plants!

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A Little Toolkit For Confronting Climate Inaction

2019 was heralded as the year that ended climate change denialism. Enter a new era, where we must face a new threat: inaction on climate change.

Just over a week ago I published a short writeup on my twitter feed explaining how an enormous fountain in our town was an outsised contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in our city. This was due to the sheer volume of electicity used to power the monstrous pumps that spewed a steady stream of water 6 stories into the air.

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Stay Tuned, Steward’s Notes Will Be Back After This Short Break

The past two years of writing for Steward’s Notes has been an incredibly rewarding experience. Those of you who follow and comment and send me such pleasant emails really make this project a lot of fun, and it is much appreciated! As some of you may know, I have been in the process of writing a master’s thesis: Polycentric Models for Urban Greenspace Management. I am desperately trying to finish writing in the coming month, and I really need to set this project (Steward’s Notes) aside for a little bit. I miss you lots and I really can’t wait to come back! I have lots of exciting plans for the months and years ahead and I can’t wait for you all to take part. However I really need to hit the pause button for a little bit. Make sure you don’t miss the return by subscribing below! Thank you all for your understanding and I’ll likely see you in the new year!

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To fill the time, why not check out some of the most popular content of all time!

A Subwatershed Plan for Harper Creek

Harper Creek is arguably one of the most environmentally sensitive areas in Peterborough. On September 23rd Peterborough City Council approved the transfer of funds to complete a subwatershed plan for Harper Creek. This is an exciting opportunity to explore how future impacts on the sensitive local environment will be mitigated. The RFP includes several items that will ensure that both the built and natural environment will be protected.

Some of the most exciting proposals include identification and analysis of the natural environment and its sensitivity. This is particularly exciting as the extent of the Harper Park Wetlands has never been assessed since the upgrade of the wetland to a provincially significant status. Additionally an analysis of cumulative impact of the built environment on the natural environment will be addressed. This is especially important as the impacts of surrounding developments on Harper Creek although purported to be small have created significant changes on the local environment when added all together.

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Note: All of this would not have been possible without the amazing leadership of Kim Zippel on who worked on the ad hoc committee who set the objectives of this study. Congratulations Kim.

Comments on Peterborough’s Draft Natural Heritage Plan

Recently the city of Peterborough released their draft official plan for public comment. The official plan will guide the development of the city for the next several years and council cycles and provide some certainty to members of the public about how the city will develop over the next couple decades. The official plan is divided up into several sections, the one that I am personally most interested in is the Natural Heritage System. The natural heritage system is made up of all of the natural areas in our city, and the connecting features between them. This section includes a map of all identified features in our city, as well as a section of policy that will determine how these areas are regulated and managed. Over the past several years several people including myself have taken part in stakeholder meetings that will help determine the contents of the official plan before it is presented to council to vote on. With the release of the official plan, I have a couple comments and suggestions for the policy portion of the official plan.

In the draft plan. Natural areas designations are divided into “levels” to signify their importance and degree of protection. Under this system unevaluated wetlands are not defined under any level of protection. I would encourage the city to evaluate all wetlands within the city limits and re-evaluate wetlands within the city limits to further understand their boundaries and functions. Currently, although Harper Creek wetlands are designated as provincially significant there has been no effort to evaluate or update the wetland boundary. As a result several developments have had significant negative impact on the wetland function including flooding nearby neighbors.

Harper Creek Wetlands

The draft plan makes mention of the requirement to conduct environmental impact studies on new developments. I would encourage the city to lay out the exact requirements for an EIS as several other municipalities in Ontario do. In addition, the plan should encourage or development proponents to consult with municipal staff or our new environmental advisory committee. The environmental advisory committee will be an excellent resource for our city, so we should put them to work! This is a common practice and one need only look as far as the region of Durham to find an example.

Citizen’s being great natural stewards!

Finally I would encourage the city to experiment with new ways in which citizens might become involved in the identification, protection and monitoring of natural heritage functions within our city. The city of Peterborough is home to one of the greatest concentrations of environmental knowledge in Ontario, and it would be a disappointment to not put that resource to use. Formally recognizing the role that citizen science and stewardship plays in protecting and enhancing our natural areas!

The draft plan is a great first step, let’s make this plan something we can all be proud of!

The Endangered Bird Above Peterborough’s Downtown

Next time you’re in downtown Peterborough, look up and there’s a good chance you’ll see one of Canada’s endangered species. The chimney swift is a bird that lives entirely on the wing, only landing to rest in its roost, often a chimney. Before European settlement, chimney swifts made their homes in large hollow trees that were common before the landscape was cleared for agriculture. Chimneys made a suitable replacement for their roosts, hence their name. Here in Peterborough, we have even erected a chimney swift “tower” in Beavermead Park to provide them with some additional habitat.

A chimney swift tower in Beavermead, Park Peterborough, Ontario 2019

Often confused for a swallow, chimney swifts can be identified by their high pitched chirping as they erratically pursue insects above the downtown. They will generally forage within 1/2 km of their roost but sometimes as much as 6 km.

This year, several field naturalists including myself have identified chimney swifts in areas far beyond their typical range in Peterborough’s downtown, so I have started collecting sightings of chimney swifts around Peterborough. Send me your sightings on twitter @StewardsNotes or using the contact form. I’ll be sure to add your sighting promptly! (Special shout out to Alexandra Anderson for all the great sightings!)

If you’re interested in monitoring chimney swifts in greater detail join Bird Studies Canada on their Swift Watch I assure you it is a relaxing way to spend several evenings!

Your Next Bird List Could Have a Big Impact!

Header Image

If you don’t know about ebird you should! It is one of the most widespread global citizen science projects in existence that helps track the migration an population of birds worldwide. To participate simply create an account on the website or app and go out to a nearby hotspot to start birding. Every species you are able to identify helps increase our collective knowledge of bird movements worldwide. Plus it is a great way to brush up your own birding skills. Peterborough and area has one of the most active Ebird communities I am aware of. We have as many active participants as the entire city of Toronto! Even still there are some gaps in the map that should be filled in. With the summer birding season upon us, let me make a few suggestions about how your next bird list could have an outsized impact.

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Where to Find Spring Wildflowers in Peterborough

With spring finally showing up on our doorstep I thought I’d share some of my favorite wildflower hotspots in Peterborough! The spring wildflowers are incredibly diverse with some early ones quite delicate such as hepatica, or incredibly showy such as the iconic trillium, it’s difficult to pick a favorite. (If I did pick a favorite it would be Bloodroot) There are many places to find them in and around Peterborough, but some places are better than others. Most species seem to prefer upland deciduous forests. By appearing before the tree canopy fills in, they are able to soak up the sunlight before disappearing until next year. Many of these flower species are also pollinated by one of the less known pollinators: the humble ant. So if you want to find some spring wildflowers, look no further than this list.

1. Fleming College Trails

Trillium on the Forest Floor

The lands surrounding Fleming College in the south west corner of the city make for perfect wildflower viewing. Some years the forest floor is blanketed with trilliums in a way that I have never seen elsewhere. Many of the other spring wildflowers such as hepatica, bloodroot, and trout lillys are present.

2. Burnham Woods

A “Towering” Mayapple

Probably the best place in Peterborough to see spring wildflowers is Burnham Woods. The old growth deciduous forest makes perfect setting to see all of the spring classics. Blue Cohosh, Mayapples, and Bellwort are all visible along the paths through the forest. Look close to the forest floor and you might even be able to find a violet or two.

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3. Lady Eaton Drumlin at Trent

Jack in the Pulpit

Again, this is perfect habitat for Spring wildflowers, parking is easy at Trent now that school is out for the summer, and it is also quite accessible by bus! Access the drumlin by walking up the slope behind Lady Eaton College at the university. You’ll be astounded by the diversity of wildflowers that are present at the top of the hill. In some of the low lying areas around the hill you can find another spring classic… the showy marsh marigold.

Hopefully this inspires you to get out and explore the best that Peterborough has to offer! Subscribe to Steward’s Notes to get more tips about nature spots in Peterborough or follow on Facebook or Twitter.