Category Archives: author – Scallen

A Letter to Forks of the Credit Provincial Park Seeking Preservation of Meadows 2016

Attention: Jill Van Niekerk, Superintendent of Forks of the Credit Provincial Park

Forks of the Credit Provincial Park contains many hectares of old field habitat, resulting from the abandonment of agricultural land. These expansive meadows provide habitat to a diversity of flora and fauna including a number of species at risk.

Meadowlarks (threatened) nest here. Bobolinks (threatened) use the extensive old field habitat for foraging before fall migration. Bank Swallows (threatened), nest in adjacent quarry operations and forage over the meadows. Monarch butterflies (special concern) lay eggs on the abundant milkweed and nectar on the profusion of asters, goldenrods and other old field wildflowers.

Beyond these species at risk are a number of plants and birds at FCPP that are locally uncommon. Among the plants are Hoary Vervain (Verbena stricta), Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis) and Amethyst Aster (Symphyotrichum x amethystinus). Locally uncommon birds, supported by the old field habitat, include clay-colored sparrow and orchard oriole.

According to Biodiversity in Ontario’s Greenbelt, a document released by The David Suzuki Foundation and Ontario Nature in November 2011, “only 441 hectares of the Greenbelt is covered by grasslands – far less than one per cent of the entire plan area.” The Nature Conservancy of Canada states that “Grassland bird species have shown steeper, more geographically widespread and more consistent decline than any other category of North American species.”

According to the Bobolink and Meadowlark Recovery Strategy prepared by the Government of Ontario in 2013 “Over the most recent ten year period, it is estimated that the Bobolink population has declined by an annual average rate of 4% which corresponds to a cumulative loss of 33%. Over the same period Eastern Meadowlark populations have declined at an average annual rate of 2.9% (cumulative loss of 25%).”

Although various factors are responsible for these declines, the loss of old field and grassland habitat in Ontario is widely acknowledged to be one of the major drivers.

FCPP is gradually reverting to woodland. Over three decades of observation by HNPN club members, this transition has been very evident. Without human intervention, the ecologically valuable old field habitat and the diverse flora and fauna that it supports, will eventually be lost.

Our club recognizes that species diversity depends in large part on habitat diversity. We are supportive of the maintenance of a mosaic of habitats at FCPP. Extensive forest in the valley of the Credit River should clearly be protected. The current meadowlands merit protection as well, which will necessarily entail some measure of active landscape management. Areas of shrubby growth – also very important habitat – should be maintained as well.

The Forks of the Credit Provincial Park Management Plan published in 1990 by the then Ministry of Natural Resources (Now Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry) appears aligned with the concerns of the Halton/North Peel Naturalist Club. Article 3.0 reads: The goal of Forks of the Credit Provincial Park is to protect the park’s outstanding natural, cultural and recreational environments and to provide a variety of outdoor recreation opportunities. The existing old field habitat has both natural and cultural value.

A specific protection objective of the FCPP management plan (Article 4.1) is to protect the park’s six species of vascular plants which are regionally rare. Only one of these plants – Aster pilosus – is listed in the management plan, but the other five may include other plants that depend on open meadow habitat to grow.

The Forks of the Credit Management Plan also includes a commitment for managing a portion of the upland meadow complex as open landscape. An entry under Vegetation Management (Article 7.2) reads: The vegetation of the field in the Natural Environment Zone in the eastern plateau will be managed (i.e., periodic mowing and/or burning) to maintain the open character of this rolling landscape. Care must be taken to protect a representative portion of the old field succession, for interpretive purposes as well as to maintain the regionally rare plant, Aster pilosus.

As cited earlier there are several other significant species of plants, birds and insects, also dependent on the old field habitat of FCPP, that merit protection. The Halton/North Peel Naturalist Club calls on Ontario Parks to act on the provisions of article 7.2. to maintain this old field habitat.

With Forks of the Credit Provincial Park there is an opportunity to help conserve a significant expanse of old field habitat that is critical to the future of at-risk species. There is an opportunity as well to educate users through interpretive initiatives (signs, display boards, publications) about the critical importance of grasslands and old field habitat for biodiversity.

With respect,

Don Scallen,

President, Halton/North Peel Naturalist Club

RELATED: Grand River Conservation Authority “Grassland for bobolinks in the central Grand”

A Message From our new President

Though Thanksgiving has passed, this is an apt time for me to offer thanks to the people who help make our club strong. As your new president my first order of business must be a heartfelt thankyou to Fiona Reid, our outgoing president. Under Fiona’s leadership our club has thrived as a vibrant community of naturalists. Fiona effectively communicates her passion for nature through art and writing. We are fortunate that she served and can be thankful that she will continue to contribute to our club as “past-president”. Many other members have also made valued contributions to our club in recent years. I shudder to think where we’d be without the various Dobsons. Club secretary Emily Dobson produces excellent minutes of our executive meetings, contributes thoughtful ideas and manages SwiftWatch with great effectiveness. Ramona Dobson, Emily’s mom, has the newsletter well in hand. Another Dobson unrelated to Emily and Ramona, except in commitment, is Valerie. Valerie is a fine membership coordinator. Her welcoming messages to new members and gentle haranguing to pay membership dues are much appreciated.
Yet another Dobson, Kim – Ramona’s partner and Emily’s dad – is the club’s construction engineer, building homes for swallows and bluebirds in need of accommodation.
Our treasurer, Janice Sukhiani, has almost as much history with the club as I do. I am grateful that she has decided to continue in her position for at least another year. And in this era, it is crucial to have a website and I’m grateful that John Beaudette has brought his expertise to this important task.
I’d also like to formally welcome Ian Jarvie to the executive. Ian is a passionate birder and an all-round great guy. His fine sense of humour will add welcome levity to future executive meetings.
Your executive will continue to offer the membership engaging talks on a diverse range of topics of interest to naturalists. We will try to offer at least one outdoor activity each month as well. We will also look for opportunities to make a difference in our community and beyond.
Please speak to any member of the executive if you have any suggestions for walks or meetings. Your input is valued.
Finally, my thanks to all of you for making the atmosphere of our club so welcoming. I look forward to seeing you soon!

Don Scallen
President, Halton/North Peel Naturalist Club

Bird Feeders at Georgetown Hospital

By Don Scallen –

I’ve spent a lot of time recently at the Georgetown Hospital, visiting my mother who suffered a broken pelvis on December 1st. Looking out the windows of the various rooms she’s occupied, it occurred to me that a strategically placed bird feeder or two could be a pleasant diversion for bed-bound patients.

birdfeeder-donThe hospital management heartily endorsed my proposal to install the feeders. I purchased two feeders along with poles and squirrel baffles from Wild Birds Unlimited in Guelph. Manager Richard Tofflemire generously offered a large discount on the total cost after I explained the project. He also provided two 20kg bags of seed and a carton of suet cakes at no cost.

Sandy Gillians and I erected the feeders just prior to Christmas. They now await discovery by the neighbourhood birds.

I’ll maintain the feeders throughout the winter and then likely remove them as the voracious grackles return in early spring. I’ll re-install them next fall. Both feeders are currently placed fairly close together in the hospital’s courtyard. One may eventually be relocated to another area of the hospital grounds.

Our club executive has agreed to help pay for these feeders, with money from membership fees. They are ours to celebrate.

Beech trees

By Don Scallen –

The smooth gray bark of beech trees evokes elephant skin, making beech strikingly unique among the large trees of the forest. This smooth bark sometimes offers signs of mammals that have passed by: claw marks left by climbing bears, or declarations of love etched by romantic humans.

beechbarkBeechnuts nourish wildlife. This bounty, properly referred to as “mast,” once fed legions of passenger pigeons. Where beech trees and black bears co-exist, the bears cling to the trunks and pull branches towards them to feast on the nuts, inadvertently tangling the branches to form structures fancifully referred to as “bear nests”.

Beech trees offer not only food, but also housing to wild creatures. Pileated wood-peckers chisel nesting holes into them. Other tenants, including flying squirrels, move in when the woodpeckers move out.

Woodlands in parts of southern Ontario were once referred to as maple-beech forests. Beech, like sugar maple – but unlike oak and pine – can grow in very shady conditions. This allowed beech, along with sugar maple, to dominate mature deciduous woodlands.
No more. Beech are being destroyed at heart-breaking speed by an introduced pathogen called beech bark disease.

The demise of beech goes largely unnoticed by people who don’t hike in the woods; this because beech trees seldom grow in the open. They require the shade, moisture and shelter of the forest’s embrace.

Beech trees also likely depend on soil-born forest fungi. Many trees, and other woodland plants, have a mutualistic, “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”, relationship with fungi. The fungi take carbohydrates from tree roots and, in return, help the roots absorb water and minerals.

Regardless, the forest disposition of beech trees means you won’t see their bleached bones on the open landscape as you do elm trees. The glorious beech trees with the elephant-skin bark, die largely unmourned as they tilt towards the fate of the passenger pi-eons they once fed.

New Year’s Resolutions for Naturalists

By Fiona Reid and Don Scallen –

Food for Feathered Friends!

  • Consider adding peanuts or suet for extra fat at this time of year
  • A heated bird bath can be very important in midwinter

Turn down the Heat! Prowl for an Owl!

  • Save money and reduce consumption of non-renewable energy supplies by turning down heat at night or when out
  • Owls nest really early so now is a good time to go out at dusk and listen for them, or imitate them and see if you get a response

If you build it they will come! Homes for Birds, Bats, and Bees

  • Order a new bird house or bat house. Check out new domiciles for bumble bees
  • Make your own house if you are handy
  • Bees and wasps like soft wood: drill holes of varying thicknesses in a 6 x 6 or larger log and hang this on an outer wall or barn

Salamander Season!

  • Join HNPNC on a salamander walk at Silver Creek to learn about these amazing animals
  • Hunt for frogs in local ponds
  • Head to Willow Park in Norval on a sunny day later in the month to look for emerging snakes around the rocks of the hibernacula or beside their small pond
  • Woodcocks may be back and on territory so go for a woodcock prowl at dusk

Help our Pollinators by going Native!

  • Join HNPNC in converting a stretch of the river bank by the St Alban’s church into a home for pollinators and a bank for nesting turtles
  • Help remove non-natives and plant natives
  • If you have a large lawn, why not convert a section into a native plant garden?

Dig it, Dig it Good!

  • Put in a pond in your back yard – nature will come to you (details coming in March newsletter)
  • No space? A dripping hose can attract birds, or a small fountain will lure in dragonflies
  • Turtles love ponds, and this month they will also be out looking for nest sites. Report your turtle sightings to the Toronto Zoo’s Turtle Tally Program
  • Do some pond-dipping to see the huge array of small creatures that live in a healthy pond

Out with the Invaders!

  • Now is the time to pull out dog-strangling vine and other invasive species before they set seed and spread further
  • Start a local initiative to remove Norway Maples and plant native trees
  • Talk to a neighbour about planting native trees and shrubs to provide food for declining birds (caterpillars far prefer native plants and they in turn feed birds)

Have a Wild Night out!

  • Join HNPNC on a moth night, or paint sticky goop (beer, banana and sugar) on trees near your own home to see what moths you can attract
  • Come on a Monday evening walk
  • Watch bats forage over water near the cottage

Help Migrants Journey in Safety

  • Put up weighted threads outside large windows to reduce reflection and bird collisions (check out for more information)
  • Keep cats inside when thrushes and warblers are passing through backyard habitats
  • Plant asters and other late-blooming natives for traveling Monarchs

Fall into Nature!

  • Take a trip with our club to see migrating hawks
  • Look for fall warblers and sparrows
  • Take a child for a walk in nature; it is a great time of year to see animals of all sizes on the move

Buy a new Field Guide and get on Track!

  • It’s slowing down out in the forest, so why not get some new nature books to study for next year and check off what you have seen to date
  • Get out after the first snowfall to look for animal tracks, and bring a book to identify them

Have an Eco-friendly Holiday!

  • Use recyclable wrapping (bags, newspaper, scraps of cloth)
  • Decorate the tree with popcorn and cranberries to put out for birds later
  • Minimize use of colored lights
  • Give nature-inspired gifts – for the friends who have everything, consider buying an acre of rainforest
  • Take part in the Christmas Bird Count and tell your friends all about it

Of Birds, Cats and the Urban Landscape

by Don Scallen –

There are ten species of birds that commonly nest in suburban Georgetown: Mourning Dove, Black-capped Chickadee, House Wren, American Robin, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, House Finch, Chipping Sparrow, Common Grackle and Brown-headed Cowbird – a nest parasite.

One other, less common nesting species is the Chimney Swift, relying on the specialized nesting habitat of uncapped chimneys.
I have observed another three species nesting one time in suburban Georgetown: American Crow, Tree Swallow and Baltimore Oriole. Blue Jays and Red-winged Blackbirds are probably occasional nesters as well.

I can write about this with some authority, because I’ve been a resident of suburban Georgetown most of my life. I realize that homeowners fortunate enough to live along Silver Creek ravine may entertain other nesting species on their properties. Kerry Jarvis and Melitta Smole, former HNPNC members, attracted Great-crested Flycatchers and Screech Owls to bird boxes on their ravine lot for example. Downtown Georgetown, with its mature tree canopy, may also provide habitat for a few other species.

Regardless, town and city-scapes have a very low diversity of nesting birds. This contrasts with the higher diversity found in natural areas surrounding those urban centres. Consider the results of the second Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario (2001-2005.) The atlas project divided Southern Ontario into “squares” measuring ten by ten kilometres. The “square” that held most of Georgetown also contains forest, wetland, fields and agricultural land. This “square” harboured 60 species of confirmed breeding birds, six times greater than the number nesting commonly in Georgetown’s urban area. Evidence gathered – primarily by club veteran Ray Blower – also identified 35 additional species as probable breeders and 17 as possible breeders.

Some specific comparisons of various categories of breeding birds between the atlas square and urban Georgetown are instructive.

Category Number of breeding species in atlas square Number of breeding species in Georgetown urban area
Warblers 8 confirmed, (8 others possible or probable) 0
Sparrows 5 confirmed, (5 others possible or probable) 1
Swallows 5 confirmed 1 rarely
Woodpeckers 5 confirmed 0


This low diversity of nesting birds in Georgetown applies almost certainly to other urban areas throughout the province. The urban landscape is simply not suitable for most birds. Birds avoid nesting in our towns and cities because of our roads and how we landscape our parks and yards. We remain wedded to our lawns. (I’m guilty – my front yard is still largely cropped grass.) Our yards lack the cover, the plant diversity, the water, the insects, which birds need to survive. As housing density increases, and it will, the situation will become even bleaker.

Some may invoke free-roaming cats to help explain the lack of bird diversity in urban areas. After all, studies have found that cats kill billions of birds (and small mammals) annually. While cats are almost certainly a major problem in rural areas where they can gain access to fields and woodlands, they shouldn’t be blamed for the low diversity of birds and mammals in urban settings. I suspect that if, miraculously, all of Georgetown’s cats were kept indoors starting today, the town’s diversity of birds would change little. The same ten species would continue their residence; the rest would continue to keep their distance.

Homeowners, both urban and rural, need to be more humble. It is disingenuous to condemn cat owners for letting their pets roam, while we habitually fire up the lawn mower for another diversity-reducing shearing of our grass. This applies to suburbia, but also to the ridiculous swaths of turf that surround rural estates. Yes cats are killers, but those that roam urban environments have little impact on an environment already severely compromised by us.

Great Egrets

By Don Scallen

Great egrets evoke notions of southern swamps – of alligators, bald cypress trees and Spanish moss. And yet, they are now common inhabitants of Ontario wetlands. At this time of year, post- nesting egrets are assembling at foraging sites, prior to their southward migration. Sandy Gillians and I counted about 50 egrets along the Beaver River near Kimberly recently. Other late summer roosts include Luther Marsh and Cootes Paradise.

Great egrets are a balm to disillusioned naturalists all too familiar with the loss and retreat of wildlife. They represent the promise of recovery. Once teetering on the brink of extinction, they were rescued by a remarkable conservation effort initiated by a small group of women in Boston.

egretsEgrets were being slaughtered by the thousands in the 19th century America. Fashion mavens of the day advertised their status by adorning their heads with wildly extravagant hats, sprouting flowers and fruit. But more exotic accoutrements were desired.

Milliners obliged by affixing feathers, heads or the bodies of colourful birds to the hats they sold. Feathers of bluebirds, blue-jays, orioles and, of course, egrets were all commonly used. Stuffed warblers and hummingbirds peeked out blindly between the plumes. Even small stuffed mammals and reptiles clung to the hats of Patrician ladies as they sipped their afternoon tea.

Like today, most 19th century consumers thought little about the provenance of the products they bought. As now, purchases of clothing and accessories were motivated primarily by style and price. Sometimes though, uncomfortable truths rattle the public conscience: Think the Bangladeshi garment industry or the blood diamond trade.

The uncomfortable truth of bird slaughter for the millinery trade dawned on a group of well-connected Bostonian women in 1896 and the Audubon Society was born. They launched the first modern-style conservation campaign, successfully pressuring politicians to end to the killing.

The success of those early conservation pioneers is evident in the magnificent egrets that grace Southern Ontario in the 21st century.

Wood Frogs

by Don Scallen
Wood Frog female laying eggs
Wood Frog female laying eggs

Behold the wood frog, an evolutionary masterwork. A soft bodied amphibian that survives the fury of Canadian winters as far north as Old Crow in the Yukon. In that cruelest of seasons, wood frogs lie quiescent in beds of leaves, biding time until snowmelt softens their stiff bodies. They protect their delicate cellular machinery by shunting water out of their cells to freeze benignly in the spaces surrounding those cells. And as if that metabolic alchemy isn’t remarkable enough, wood frog cells become infused with glucose – enough, milligram for milligram, to kill a human many times over. For the wood frog though, this sweet syrup becomes a life-saving antifreeze.

Wood frogs are aptly named for they are utterly dependent on woodlands for survival. Essential, too, are ponds for breeding. Usually wood frogs choose ponds that hold water only temporarily – a roll of the dice that can lead to the death or salvation of their progeny. The absence of tadpole-chomping fish in a temporary pond explains the gamble. But, if the pond dries early, mass tadpole-cide will result. The prospect of drying ponds and limited life spans, force a particular urgency on wood frog sex. Of 52 weeks in the year they have but two or three available for reproduction in earliest spring. Moreover, wood frogs may have only one or two of these brief sexual opportunities before they end up in the gullet of a frog-hungry predator.

No wonder then, that a wood frog pond in April is a frenzy of activity. Males beckon females with quacking voices. They battle rivals – scrambling atop them and pushing them under water. Multiple males pursue lone females, in desperate attempts to couple. The mated females lay hundreds of black eggs that soon yield wriggling tadpoles.

The frenzied mating of the marvellously adapted wood frog has persisted for tens of thousands of years. Given woods and water, it should continue for thousands more.

Find more wood frog photos and a rather grainy video of wood frog mating activity at


by Don Scallen, Vice-President

Our landscape is networked by roads – ribbons of death where myriad animals from butterflies to deer meet their demise. And though morbid, an objective look at this mortality can provide insight into changing animal populations.

In the 1960’s and 70’s groundhogs, aka woodchucks, were among the most frequent victims of vehicular faunacide. Their bodies littered roadsides as raccoon carcasses do today.

Groundhogs are now rare road-kill victims. No, they haven’t evolved the ability to look both ways before crossing. Rather, the lack of road killed groundhogs suggests that their population has fallen off an  ecological cliff.

When I was young, groundhogs – when not playing Russian roulette with cars – stood sentinel in meadows. Boys with 22’s shot them, with the approval of landowners who reviled groundhogs as varmints – diggers of holes that could snap the leg bones of cattle and horses.

I didn’t wield a rifle as a child, but I would sit patiently beside groundhog burrows, waiting for the myopic mammals to poke their heads above ground and sniff the air for predators.

I enjoyed these close interactions with groundhogs and imagined that First Nation’s hunters may have used this technique – crouching like polar bears at the breathing holes of seals – to capture the plump rodents.

So what happened to the groundhogs? Well, certainly their population has been reduced by the aforementioned road – kill, but it is likely no coincidence that the fall corresponded with a rise in coyote numbers.

In southern Ontario and throughout much of North America, coyotes have flourished in recent decades, assuming the role of top predator, filling the void left by the disappearance of wolves.

If a 12 year old boy can approach a groundhog near enough to see its whiskers twitch, consider how easy this would be for a coyote – with predictably unpleasant consequences for the groundhog.

Read more by Don Scallen at his blog, Notes from the Wild

Red-backed Salamander

by Don Scallen, Vice-President
Red-Backed Salamander
Red-Backed Salamander

They weigh about as much as a paper clip. Dew worms dwarf them. They are, by weight, the smallest vertebrates in Ontario. But what they lack in size they more than make up in numbers. Red-backed salamanders are abundant, outnumbering all of the reptiles, rodents and birds that share their forest habitat. Densities of red-backed salamanders have been estimated as 500 to 9000 per hectare of woodland!

For several years I took part in a salamander monitoring project at Forks of the Credit Provincial Park. Boards were placed on the forest floor to provide cover for salamanders. Particularly bountiful monthly counts would yield upwards of 70 red-backed salamanders hiding under the boards.

Almost all amphibians need to lay eggs in water. Not so the red-backs. They have escaped the surly bonds of aquatic existence. Females lay small grape-like clusters of eggs, under stones or suspended in the cavities of rotting logs.

Freed from the necessity to remain close to ponds, red-backs can disperse to occupy the entirety of the available habitat in woodlands. Laying eggs sans aqua also allows their larvae to avoid becoming lunch for ravenous pond-dwelling predators like dragonfly nymphs and diving beetles.

Of interest as well is that red-backs are lungless, drawing oxygen through the skin. For this to work the skin must be moist, so during the day the salamanders stay out of sight under forest debris. In especially dry weather, and during the winter, they retreat underground.

Many populations of red-backed salamanders are now completely separated from each other. Creatures with legs smaller than carpet tacks cannot readily cross roads and farm fields. Isolation drives the creation of new species. In a few millennia or so, future herpetologists – reptile and amphibian biologists- may have their hands full, cataloguing a diversity of red-backed salamander descendants.

More of Don’s red-backed salamander photos

Read more by Don Scallen at his blog, Notes from the Wild