Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Happy World Wetland Day!

Wetlands; a favourite habitat for many birders, hikers, conservationists and hunters, and yet many others likely have never seen or possibly even heard of one.

Had I been asked back in early highschool what a wetland was, I likely would have fallen into the last category. I am going to guess that my answer would have sounded something like: "Uhm...an area of land that...is wet? Oh, and probably has a lot of bugs." In fact, growing up in Chatham-Kent, I was surrounded by some of the most well known and productive wetlands in southern Ontario, and yet I didn't even know they existed.  Little did I know a few years down the road I'd be back in the area and working in them.

Big Creek NWA Wetland
Now, while that is technically not wrong, it really doesn't encompass all that wetlands are. It wasn't until taking courses in my undergrad, going on field trips to various wetlands, and working at two major southern Ontario wetlands, that I really understood them and loved them.

Just as the boreal forest can be represented as the lungs of the world, wetlands can be represented as the kidney or digestive tract.  While those do not sound like the most pleasant, both are dire to our survival.

St. Clair National Wildlife Area, Chatham-Kent
Coming from Chatham-Kent, it is hard to imagine that at one time, much of this land was tall grass prairie and wetland.  In fact, according to Ducks Unlimited Canada, wetlands once covered 56.4% of the county area. With the rise of agriculture, most of this area was drained to make way for fields and crops. While necessary to grow food for an ever growing population, it really leaves a void for other ecological needs. Today wetlands are making a bit of a comeback! Ducks unlimited and other hunting-conservation organizations are placing so much effort into restoring these ecosystems, and townships are even incorporating wetlands into sewage treatment plants as we are only now realizing how amazing they are at cleaning our waste water. 

Marshy edges to this sewage lagoon in Lakefield, Ontario. 

Best of all, it's creating habitat for the many creatures that call wetlands home. Year round, wetlands are called home by a variety of birds, mammals, herptiles, insects and plants, many of which are species at risk. Winter time, wetlands are a great place to practice your mammal tracking, spot some wintering waterfowl, and take in some amazing sunsets. 

Great Blue Heron at Mississippi Lake NWA

Bufflehead and Ring-necked Duck at St. Clair CWA

American Tree Sparrow at St. Clair NWA

Scouting for birds at Lakefield Marshes

In wetlands, my personal favourite time of year is in the early spring; it's when I believe the true magic of wetlands happens. I experienced this magic a few times while at St. Clair National Wildlife Area and Rondeau Provincial Park; the magic of migration.  Every year swans, geese, and ducks funnel into these wetlands for shelter and fuel.  If you are able to pin point the right day, you can sit and look at the sky to see clouds, not those big fluffy white clouds, but clouds of birds. It is a magnificent sight. 

Tundra Swans nearby St. Clair NWA

No words can really describe how amazing it is to see thousands upon thousands of ducks, geese, and swans flying in and at the same time during dawn watching clouds of blackbirds and other migrants streaming into these stopover areas. Every person should attempt to make a trip to these areas, as it really shows you how important these places are to thousands of individual birds.

I have tried a few times to photograph and film these "bird clouds", but nothing seems to do it justice.  During one visit to Rondeau Provincial Park, I got as close as possible to getting a photo of the vast number of birds we see (below).  In the Bay at Rondeau Provincial Park, we could see hundreds of Tundra Swans and many different species of ducks including: Scaup, Canvasback, Redhead, Ring-neck, Bufflehead, and Mergansers.  I had brought my father for a "Wings of Spring" event at the park, so this was the first time he got to experience not only waterfowl but also the Park itself.  At this event I attempted recording a video to capture the sounds these birds can make in a group.  My father and I could even hear from from a kilometer away on a forest trail.  This was back in 2014, so while the visuals are crappy (this was before I invested in a camera!), the sound still works and only captures a portion of what we could really hear.

Birds at Rondeau Bay

Wetlands are a special and necessary habitat. For World Wetlands Day, I highly suggest we all make a pledge to visit one this year! 

Have you visited a wetland? What are some of your favourite areas and memories? 

Sunsets at Long Point