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.
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 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.
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.
Bet you didn’t know goats and flea beetles went to a vegetarian restaurant together they’d probably order the same thing - Leafy spurge. But, that menu choice would be about the only thing that would go well on that date. What’s that got to do ducks? Leafy spurge is the bane of grasslands, like the one that surrounds a Duck Unlimited Canada managed wetland called Frank Lake in Alberta. We’ll find out how the dynamic dining duo of goats and bottles beat that noxious supervillian spurge.
Next, our first serving of a scrumptious sampler of information sushi we’re calling Duckoids. Homewrecking ducks and sidewalk chalk coming up.
Frank Lake is a restored wetland near High River Alberta. Waterfowl and shorebirds aplenty flock to its shores or nest in its surrounding prairie grasses, wild rose and scrub. It’s a delicate ecosystem sustained by water diverted from the Highwood River and a DUC, government and industry partnership.
But that ecosystem is threatened by an invasive species, leafy spruge that may have arrived in Alberta in a contaminated seed shipment. It’s a noxious and obnoxious weed that chokes out indigenous plants and makes cattle choke. But there are a couple of other living things that have developed a taste for the gross greenery - flea beetles and goats. To find out how and why DUC is letting them lose at Frank Lake I spoke with Ashley Rawluk Ducks Unlimited Canada's Conservation Programs Specialist
To wrap up, a brand new feature of this podcast we’re calling Ducktoids - facts about waterfowl that’ll knock your feathers off. This time out, we get those ducktoids straight from Scott Stephens. Scott is DUC's director of regional operations for Prairie Canada.
Dave Phillips, the chief climatologist for Environment Canada this country's homespun, homegrown weather guru. The Don Cherry of weather in terms of fame on the CBC anyway. For decades now he’s been the avuncluar go-to guy for journalists from coast-to-coast who want a folksy, informed dose of weather history, retrospective or prognostication. Why was it so hot in Calgary last August? Ask Dave. What’s with all the rain in Halifax. Ask Dave.
But these days Dave Phillips, now 72, is answering a different, deeper question. Why has the weather been so aggressive, so persistent and, well, just plain weird lately?
I caught up with Dave as he was about halfway through a Canada wide tour answering those questions in a talk he calls: Weather and Climate: Not What Our Grandparents Knew”
The exhausting tour is Environment Canada’s way of celebrating Dave’s 50 years as this country's most famous civil servant. And, as you’ll hear, its also a chance for an older, wiser Dave Phillips to share his concerns and hopes for a country and world facing what he considered to be the most important issue of the day - extreme weather and climate change.
We talked about that with a special emphasis on the role natural habitats, and especially wetlands, play as buffers against the increasing hard blows of amplified weather. As Dave says, it used to be that we worried about what falls from the sky. Now we need to worry about the surfaces it falls on. What happens with urban landscape replace and ignore the natural? Find out as I chat with Dave Phillips.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
A map of Lake Ontario, like one in an old geography textbook, might miss Cootes Paradise. Without detail it can seem this great lake runs dry at western shore of Burlington, about 50 kilometres from Toronto. Some more careful maps have it end in Hamilton Harbour. But no, Lake Ontario fades out in a little 320 hectare triangle of marshland called Cootes Paradise. It’s really a river delta, but a remarkable one. On either side over two dozen streams, the largest being Spencer Creek, flow over the Niagara escarpment and the shallow basin.
Once, those waters made this a hunting and fishing Mecca. Then its location at the head of the lake and some industrious canal work n the 1820s turned Cootes Paradise into a short-lived shipping lane. A century later it almost became an airport. It’s also been home to shantytown of “canal rats”, a ragtag community. Those homes, sometimes on stilts, clung to the marsh’s shores in the 1920s and 30s. Residents playing hockey on its frozen surface in the winter and sometimes hosted hobos from the railway that ran across the sandbar that separated it from Hamilton Harbour.
These days, though, the shantytown is long gone. So are much of the indigenous plants and waterfowl. They’ve been upstaged by voracious carp and relentless phragmites and manna grass. In a canoe, as the sun creeps to the horizon, you can see the trouble in paradise. In the murky marsh, carp jump and shimmer. A paddle shaft vanishes from sight two feet down. High water a couple of years ago submerged a barrier that was to keep the bullying bottom feeders out.
Now what was once so dense a marsh it was surveyed as land, is now open water. In 1941, when the environmental trouble from industrial and urban runoff was becoming obvious, the Royal Botanical Gardens was given stewardship of Cootes. It’s been a hard row to hoe for the environmental champion. Bad luck, climate change, urban expansion, oxygen-sucking algae have set the RBG’s plans of recovery by years.
But there is a hero in this story, the man who’s in charge of saving paradise. His name is Tys Thysmeyer, the head of natural lands for the Royal Botanical Gardens. I spoke with him about his work and his passion for saving a remarkable wetland.
Corixids, or water boatmen, are wetland insects with oars for legs and wings that can carry them kilometers from their homes when it's time to migrate.
Stephen Srayko, a PhD in biology candidate at the University of Saskatchewan, has been studying that migration for years. He watches as the corixids lift off from marshes and land on the shores of the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers in swarms during the fall.
There white sucker, longnose sucker, and goldeye fish feed on the massive influx of food. In turn, they provide sustenance to the rivers' game fish.
Srayko thinks the corixids provide a near-invisible link between wetlands and the nearby rivers. They're one more reason why conserving wetlands helps a broader eco-system.