This episode begins with an engraving that was tucked into the corner of a 18th-century map of North America, a beaver map. The engraving depicts an almost Hieronymus Bosch-like scene. One that’s a psychedelic, fever dream of beavers in Canada. In the background, a bifurcated Niagara Falls tumbled into a broad river. In the mid- and foregrounds are rodentesque creatures, dozens of them. These are part beaver, part bear, part human animals that have the orderliness and industry of a work crew of navvies.
Some carry logs on their shoulders like the seven dwarfs hefting shovels, some carry cowpats of mortar on their tails. Others seem to be barking orders from neatly constructed ramps. The beavers, an inscription on the engraving tells us, are building a Great Lake through their organized labour.
To understand that map, and beavers' relationship with the landscape I spoke with Glynnis Hood, a professor of environmental science at the University of Alberta, Augustana Campus.
Glynnis is a beaver expert. She’s studied the big-toothed rodents impact on the Canadian landscape. She’s especially interested in how its industry and ingenuity has keep water on the land, even in times of drought. And, how its ecological engineering has created and maintained wetlands for centuries.
Ducks Unlimited Canada folks, like many Canadians, have a relationship with the beaver that is, well, complicated. As Glynnis will explain, the fur trade almost wiped out the entire population castor condensis, our native species of the rodent. In the late 1930s Ducks Unlimited wanted to enlist beavers as ecological good soldiers. It encouraged a beaver comeback, that was pretty successful. But these days, loggers, folks in the oil and gas industry and cottagers have seen the reborn beaver populations flood their lands and thwart their industries.
Even Ducks Unlimited Canada researchers find their wetland water control efforts confounded by busy beavers.
I spoke with Glynnis about all of that, and how Canadians can best make peace with our little rodent friends.
We begin this episode 40 miles above the fertile fields of Alberta. From up here the rectilinear hashmarks of crop boundaries are pocked and dented by darker, irregular patterns, like raindrops pooling on a patio table. Those are pothole wetlands left behind by the scraping and gouging of the receding Wisconsin glaciation thousands of years ago. These days you’ll find these watery basins, often as many as 40 per square kilometre, all over the prairies in Canada and the U.S. But, when the glaciers receded their were many, many more of them, millions of them. They became an essential habitat for hundreds of plant, animal and insect species - especially at their margins. But in the last century humans have managed destroy a lot of those formerly abundant wetlands. In some places 70 per cent are already gone. Those that remain are often sometimes precariously surrounded by vast fields of canola, wheat or barley.
In previous podcasts we’ve talked about the importance of those wetlands to waterfowl, for flood and drought protection, as natural water filters and as environments that increase our general health and sense of well-being.
But, in this episode we’re going to explore another advantage of prairie potholes. To do that, we need to get a lot closer to the ground.
Down there, a few feet about the heart of a wetland we’re in insect territory. Thousands of species of bees, flies, spiders and beetles make their homes in hollows, holes and native grasses. And many of those insects are pollinators. Others are predators that could make a light lunch out of other insects that attack the crops that surround the wetland.
So, could the insects this wetland husbands be of service to the surrounding crops? In other words, could pollination and pest control be another advantage of keeping wetlands around?
To find out I talked with Paul Galpern, a Landscape ecologist at the University of Calgary.
This episode is all about scum. Stinky, toxic, and beach fouling scum, better known as blue-green algae. You’ve probably seen it in a pond or lake near you. It looks like someone changed their mind about painting their living room French Canadian pea soup green and dumped gallons of the ill-considered pigment into a nearby body of water.
But, it’s not paint, it an early form of life on earth called a cyanobacteria. If the conditions are right, sunlight, high temperatures and lots of nutrients, especially phosphorous, those bacteria can multiply like samollena on luke warm chicken. The billions of bacteria cause what’s called a bloom, but not one that smells very sweet. And, when the bacteria die they can release a toxin that can cause kidney failure.
In fact, in 2014 a blue green algae bloom in the west end of Lake Erie was so huge it caused the city of Toledo, Ohio to completely shut down its water system for fear of poisoning Toldeoans.
But, ironically, if it weren’t for cyanobacteria billions of years ago nobody would be alive in Toledo, or anywhere else in the world. That’s because we have Cyanobacteria to thank for the oxygen we breathe.
Cyanobacteria are biological survivors. Billions of years ago they were literally, the scum of the earth. They grew on land, rocks and in water - fresh and sea. They were early photosynthetic organisms. That means one of their waste products was oxygen, oxygen that until about three billion years ago was removed from the earth’s atmosphere as its surface iron rusted. But then, over the next 100’s of millions of years the rusting slowed down and oxygen started building up.
So, if you like breathing, thank a lake scum.
These days, we’re cyanobacteria’s best friends. Human activity has helped global warming, we’ve converted swamp and other wetlands into towns and cities or turned them to farmlands that dump phosphorus rich runoff into creeks and streams. We fertilize our lawns injudiciously and produce all manner of waste rich in the nutrients blue green algae eat like it was a free wedding buffet.
To learn more about blue green algae and what’s being done to combat it I spoke with Katie Stammler. Katie is water quality scientist and source water protection manager at the Essex Region Conservation Authority. The Windsor Essex area is a short hop across the shallow Lake Erie from Toledo. It’s home to the world-famous birder’s paradise Peele Island and is a flat, fertile terrain full of streams, creeks and wetlands that feed the Great Lake. Katie and her team have worked with Ducks Unlimited Canada to save and nurture those wetlands.
To date, DUC has completed more than 60 projects within the Lake Erie watershed and DUC’s Institute for Wetland and Waterfowl Research is implementing research, monitoring, and outreach components projects in the area.
Katie and her all-female crew, known as the Ladies in Wading, are the home grown heroes here. They also monitor water quality and educate the public about how not to succumb to the scum.
Why do maritime fish fight currents, waterfalls and man-made barriers to get to inland ponds and lakes to spawn? What barriers do they face? How does that odd behaviour help the ecology of wetlands? And, how can we make their job easier? We talk with Nic McLellan, the Atlantic Science Coordinator for Ducks Unlimited Canada to find out. Plus, we discover what tracking road race runners has to do with counting fish.
Did you know ducklings have their own social network? No spoilers, but you'll be amazed by how those little ducks make sure they all share the same birthday, thanks to a quick chat we had with Dave Howerter. He's the Director of National Conservation Operations at Ducks Unlimited Canada. Dave's up on the equivalent of bird Twitter.
Like to learn more about these topics and other aspects of wetlands conservation? You can at ducks.ca.
And, you can email your questions and feedback to email@example.com.
Conservation Programs Specialist, Atlantic Canada
Nic McLellan grew up in Sackville, NB where he developed a keen interest in biology and the outdoors.
Prior to his current job at Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC), Nic worked on several research projects with the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) and the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources. These projects involved a variety of bird species including shorebirds, songbirds, seabirds, and waterfowl.
David Howerter, PhD
Director, National Conservation Operations
Dave Howerter is an accomplished scientist with a track record of successfully managing a complex scientific program, demonstrated ability to build teams, build consensus, and develop partnerships. Dave is responsible for all programs national in scope related to engineering, education, international partnerships, government relations, research and conservation planning.
Thirteen is the most unlucky of numbers, so it’s appropriate that this podcast is all about two unlucky wetland dwellers - the Northern Leopard frog and the Blanding’s turtle. Why unlucky?
Because both are in ecological trouble. The northern leopard frog is endangered in parts of British Columbia, the Blanding’s turtle is threatened in Ontario.
Take the northern leopard frog. Its habitat, which the little guys are pretty fussy about, is shrinking, bullfrogs are invading from the U.S. and the leopard frog is prone to a nasty, lethal fungus. As we’ll learn, it takes a egg-cursion from B.C. to Calgary and back again, to put the little “not-easy-being-green” amphibians on the road to recovery.
The Blanding’s turtle with it high, helmet back and yellow throat is a distinctive turtle. It’s also a long-lived meandering one that ranges across roads and ATV tracks as it moves to nesting grounds. But those grounds are shrinking and the turtles, which can live to 75 years old are threatened by predators, cars, ATVs and even by climate change.
Like ducks, both those fraught frogs and tenuous turtles live a good part of their lives in wetlands. So, as go the amphibians, perhaps, so goes the wetlands.
To find out more about our loping and leaping wetland friends, and what’s being done to save them from territorial oblivion I spoke with two experts Lea Randall, an endangered species ecologist at the Calgary Zoo and Mark Gloutney with DUC, out of Ottawa.
Eduardo Carrera is the CEO of Ducks Unlimited Mexico, DUMAC for short. Eduardo oversees a Ducks Unlimited team that tackles threats its country’s wetlands much the way a grassroots NGO would. Folks who live in poor rural Mexican communities often lack modern sanitation technologies. And, they’re not aware of the impact their wastewater is having on nearby and fragile wetlands. So, to save those wetlands Eduardo and his colleagues provide those technologies and that education to teachers in the communities, students and even professionals who need evidence-based resources to help them understand ecological issues in Mexico and beyond.
Meanwhile on the coasts of Mexico tourism and shrimp farming threaten mangrove swamps that are the winter homes to migratory birds including ducks from Canada.
We spoke with Eduardo about the complex issues and ingenious solutions he explores every day.
Meanwhile, in P.E.I., Lucy is a stubborn black duck who, for the past few years has raises her family in the garden plants outside a Superstore in Charlottetown, PEI. When the kids are ready, Lucille, good mother that she is, waddles her brood to a set of ponds DUC created right across the road from the shopping centre. A road that the police close for the Lucy parade. The black duck is also a webcam superstar thanks to a video feed DUC fired up last season. We spoke with DUC's Jana Cheverie about the tale of migrating mother who’s made wetland education a family affair.
If you’d like to learn more about Lucy’s story you can at ducks.ca/lucy. If we’re lucky, and she returns, her popular TV show will be there as well.
In celebration of DUC’s 80th anniversary, this episode is all about volunteers. Volunteers, those men and women whose passion lets them eschew paycheques, have been a vital part of DUC since it’s earliest, distant days.
First up I chat with Leigh Patterson, a DUC staffer who’s just finished a quest for Keeman. Last fall, Leigh wanted to track down some of DUC's first volunteers, called keemen. Her co-workers told her it couldn’t be done, that it was a crazy quest. Well, she proved them wrong, really wrong. And, about the keeman name? Listen in.
Then I have a quick conversation with a super volunteer, Serge Mathieu. Serge love ducks. And he’s a maniac for the green head DUC’s logo, as you’ll learn. Serge is also a manic volunteer for DUC, something he’s been doing for 25 years. The Nicolet, Quebec native was named DUC Volunteer of the Year for Quebec this year. And, he’s a wildlife biologist who teaches at the forestry school in La Tuque Quebec.
Leigh Patterson began her career with DUC more than 25 years ago in the mailroom. Today, she’s the editor of Conservator magazine, a dedicated DUC volunteer and an ace Keeman and Keewoman tracker.
Serge Mathieu is a wildlife biologist and long-time DUC volunteer. He resides in La Tuque, Que. with his partner, their two children, and more ducks than he can count.
In this episode, we’ll be learning about a kind of wheat ducks love, not to eat but to hang out.
Then we’re off to another duck playground - peatlands, peatlands that need preserving. Why? Because they’re great at keeping vast amounts of biomass from wreaking havoc on our climate.
Winter wheat is a hardy strain of grain that can survive even a -40 winter as it hibernates under a blanket of warming snow. Warming snow? You’ll see. In the spring when other crops are barely in the ground, if they’re lucky, winter wheat is showing off its first leaves and then it grows like mad and attracts ducks looking for a nesting ground.
DUC has been working to raise the profile/ dispel myths around winter wheat for years. They’ve been helping understand why is winter wheat such a duck magnet and why should we should care. To find out more about winter wheat, last April I talked to Lee Moats, a farmer in Riceton, Saskatchewan. We thought, with spring coming on it would be a good time to revisit that conversation.
Peatlands are the unsung heroes of climate change. Beneath their soggy, sodden surfaces are millions upon millions of metric tons of carbon in the shape of plant matter. The cold temperatures and oxygen-starved waters of the bogs sequester all that carbon. That’s good because released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, it would crank up the global thermostat like a chilblained grandad on a cold winter’s night. I found a champion of these shy climate superheroes in Pascal Badiou a research scientist for Ducks Unlimited Canada’s Institute for Wetland and Waterfowl Research.
In this episode, we’ll be celebrating, in our small way, World Wetlands Day. This year that event is highlighting wetlands for a sustainable urban future. We’ll learn how those moist, mushy and fecund habitats do just that.
Next up, twelve days after World Wetlands Day comes Valentine’s Day - which is mushy in its own right. And, it’s an event that’s a tad bittersweet for the lovelorn. It turns out that drakes (those are male ducks) have tons of techniques for a attracting a mate, and female ducks know just how to clue into the sometimes curious courtship rituals.
Lisette Ross is a wetlands biologist for Ducks Unlimited Canada. For her urban wetlands are some of the most valuable real estate in growing, sprawling cities worldwide. Without them, the millions of people flooding into cities would miss out on the diversity, cleansing powers and spiritual uplift of these vital habits. Here’s my conversation with her about World Wetlands Day and the diversity of solutions urban centres have discovered for preserving and nurturing the healing habits at their very hearts.
Drake courtships are a curious combo of burbling, burping, dancing and rushing headlong into love. Lauren Rae a National Conservation Biologist for Ducks Unlimited Canada explains it all to us.
We talk with Brendan Kelly, a conservationist and avid photographer from Paradise, Newfoundland. Kelly explains how taking the time to wait for his natural subjects allows him to tune into their habitats and appreciate them as remarkable, intelligent animals.
You can see samples of his work on instagram at _brendankelly_