Thursday, March 28, 2013

Nice day for a walk

It's ironic, given that title, that I haven't had time to get out of the office today. Yesterday, though, I went out for a while to see if I could find spring. These photos won't look especially springy considering all the snow that's still out there, but the melted-out tracks show that it's coming.

I caught a glimpse of one of last year's Red-wing Blackbird nests amongst the cattails on the West Gaetz Lake. It seems hard to believe, but it won't be too long before the blackbirds are back at our feeders.

The Nature Nursery kids were having some fun playing on the snow pile beside our staff parking lot.

If you look closely at the centre of this shot, you'll see the hole in the lake ice amidst the tracks.

When there are lots of Waxwings around the trees almost look decorated. How many can you find in this picture? I see four, but there may be more than that.

This isn't a Sanctuary photo (obviously), but it is a reminder that it's worth looking up at night even in the city. Last night from my balcony I was able to find the constellations Orion (to the left, with the line of three stars for his belt) and Taurus (the v-shaped Hyades cluster as the bull's head, the two "horn" stars above, and to the far right the Pleiades cluster that makes the bull's shoulder). The bright "star" above the Hyades -- the brightest thing in the shot -- is actually the planet Jupiter. This was taken after 9:30 pm looking WSW. Why not try having a look for yourself on our next clear night?

Our next Family Planetarium show isn't until April 14th, but if you're looking for some fun before then don't forget about our Easter Spring Fling on (oddly enough) Easter Sunday. There are crafts, activities, prizes and a nature egg hunt. It goes from 1 - 4 pm on March 31. Give us a call at 403-346-2010 for more information.

Monday, March 18, 2013

On Disappearing Turtles

This article came across our desks today.

The long and the short of the article is that about 71 million years ago the turtles that were living in the area that would become Drumheller and the surrounding region, disappeared. Until recently this local disappearance was thought to have been caused by climate change. However, new evidence suggests that the real culprit is the loss of habitat; the wetlands disappeared.

Wetlands are critical natural habitats. This is just as true today as it was at the time of the dinosaurs. In prehistoric times, wetlands were vital hunting and breeding grounds for turtles, small dinosaurs, crocodiles - imagine finding a crocodile in your local Central Alberta wetland today - and small mammals. Today, take out the crocodiles as climate cooling drove them south millions of years ago, but add in dozens of species of waterfowl, three species of frogs, and Tiger Salamanders. Wetlands today are home to an extremely diverse array of plants and animals. The north-south network of wetlands provides migrating waterfowl with the critical rest and feeding stops, that allows the birds to fly for thousands of kilometres each year.

When the wetlands dried up 71 million years ago, they did over a long period of time, perhaps more than a thousand years. These were entirely natural processes, evolving without any external intervention. Today's wetlands are facing a challenge that is an order of magnitude more critical than the one faced prehistorically. Not only are the plants and animals living in wetlands forced to change with rising temperatures due to climate change, they now must contend with human interventions.

As we eat up vast tracts of land for housing and commercial development, wetlands often pay a heavy price. They are divided for road access, outright drained and filled to make more room for buildings, and subject to untreated surface run off. This run off adds sediments, and chemical and organic pollutants to the water, altering the water chemistry.

We have seen the effects of these habitat stresses manifest themselves in the animals that live there; Most often in the frogs and salamanders that are born with deformities caused by such close contact with polluted water. This is not a local-to-Red Deer only phenomenon, rather it's a pattern of behaviour that has been repeated across North America.

However, if there is one habitat that will benefit from our ability to learn from our mistakes, it may will be wetlands. Today, because of their critical role in the migration of waterfowl, many wetlands enjoy regional, Provincial, and/or Federal protection. The East and West Lakes in the Gaetz Lakes Sanctuary, here at the Nature Centre, have those protections.  Today wetlands are seen as being assets to a community, increasing property values, rather than as places that are in the way of "progress". Modern urban planners often work to protect local wetlands in their neighbourhood plans, or to create built environments that mimic the natural wetlands' processes.

Here in Red Deer, we are about to protect a vast wetland surrounding Hazlet Lake, just to the north of Highway 11a. Seen in this map, Hazlet Lake as an intact wetland will become an integral part of Waskasoo Park, as we expand over the next decade and beyond. It has been identified as a key location in the River Valley and Tributaries Plan; a plan that calls for significant buffer zones around all waterways and bodies of water.

We may not see the arrival of the the descendants of those turtles that disappeared 71 million years ago, but we are taking steps to ensure that the offspring of the plants and animals that depend on local wetlands today, will have them in future. A future that will remain, probably, crocodile-free.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Big tracks, little tracks

Anyone here at the Nature Centre can tell you that I'm not a winter person (just because you're a native Albertan doesn't mean that you're born with a love of Alberta winters). On a gorgeous day like today, though, even I couldn't help but take the camera for a walk around the Dr George Trail. Here's a little of what I saw.

Red Squirrels tend to use the same routes over and over. This may look like a squirrel gang, but it was just one running back and forth. Probably chattering if anyone dared to be in the way, too.

Tiny tracks tell a tale as well. Mouse and vole tracks (I'm certainly no expert, so I couldn't say which this is) may look like they suddenly disappear, but if they do there's a hole in the snow somewhere nearby. These little animals make entire warrens of tunnels under the snow, often complete with special sleeping chambers and latrines.

A deer trail down the lake, with the Nature Centre in the distance. Deer, like people, generally make use of paths that have already been started. Why break a new trail if you don't have to?

If we had more days like this, I'd find winter a lot more pleasant. Still, I can't help myself wishing that spring was a little nearer and that I was taking pictures of crocuses or Early Blue Violets instead of tracks. Speaking of spring, though, our spring newsletter and event calendar are out and should be in your mailboxes soon. If you're not a Friends of the Kerry Wood Nature Centre member but would like copies, drop by the Nature Centre to pick them up. If you'd like more information about the Friends, give us a call at 403-346-2010.