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My alternative diary title is: 'My First Backyard'.  These photos document some of the things I saw a couple of weeks ago when I visited various branches of my family in Ontario, Canada.  My mother's parents purchased property on a lake in eastern Ontario shortly after WWII in order to build a summer home (or a cottage as such structures are invariably called in Canada although I have learned that, at least in some regions of the US, this terminology can be a bit confusing).

Born in mid-summer, I first visited my grandparents cottage when I was a few weeks old and spent time there every summer.  The scene below could have been taken 40 years ago when my week at the lake was the high point of the year. Instead I took it just 15 days ago.  However my main goal in this diary is not to talk to you about me but rather to introduce you to the biology of this area and how it has changed over the years.  It is appropriate to publish this on labour day which was often when I visited the lake for the last time each year when I was in university.

This diary is visiting, the Rideau Lakes region, a southerly extension of the Canadian Shield, a vast geological formation that dominates much of eastern and central Canada.  Hudson's Bay is more or less the centre of the Shield and most of Labrador, Quebec, Ontario, the mainland Northwest Territories and Nunavut, Baffin Island, and northerly portions of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta are part of the shield.  Much of Greenland is also in the shield as is a comparatively small portion of the northern US (northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and New York).

The Shield is characterized by a very thin to absent layer of topsoil with highly weathered igneous rock either right under the surface or exposed.  Glacial action has worn down the rock so that the terrain is rugged without being mountainous.  The uneven nature of the landscape and lack of drainage means that the shield is also an aquascape - covered with vast numbers of lakes of various sizes.  The shoreline is often steep and rocky, sometimes flat and swampy.  Beaches do occur but are not common.

Most of the Shield is covered with either boreal forest or arctic tundra.  These areas are sparsely populated by humans.  Most human activity in the last 200 years has been concentrated along the southern perimeter of the shield, which although geologically similar to the northern regions, has a rather different biology.  Europeans, with a rather hopeless optimism, originally tried to farm parts of this area.  This continues to this day in favourable spots, although it is tough trying to grow stuff on bedrock.  My own ancestors on my father's side attempted this in the late 19th century in the Muskoka region but eventually turned to logging and tourism before moving west to the prairies.

Long Term Changes

Mining has been the dominant economic engine of the shield, although thankfully far from the Rideau Lakes.  With post-WWII prosperity, a cottage was longer just something for the wealthy but became part of middle class Canadian life.  One consequence of this is that there has been a fair amount of reforestation of former (poor) agricultural land and that many animals have moved back into areas where they had been formerly hunted or trapped out.  Animals that were unknown on the lake when I was a child but have returned to the area include: black bear, fisher, beaver, raven, and bald eagle (eagles were present when I was a small child but vanished soon thereafter).

Unfortunately frog abundancess have changed in the opposite direction.  This happened long before the concern over global declines and I am inclined to blame the impact of acid rain on breeding pools as well as possible collecting pressure from fishermen looking for bait.  My brother, cousin, and I would effortless catch dozens of frogs in a morning in the late 60s.  They are still around but in drastically reduced numbers.  Other aquatic animals do not seem to have been so strongly affected.

Green Frog - Rana clamitans

My family's property is only about 10 miles or so from the southern edge of this part of the shield.  The habitat is Great Lake/St. Lawrence forest, a transitional habitat between eastern deciduous forest and boreal forest.  The GL/STL forest is dominated by birches, maples, oaks, and pines.  In this southerly region there is a richer community of deciduous trees such as the shag-bark hickory in the picture below.

OK I know this is basically a picture of a Cicada but it is on a shag-bark hickory I promise.

Another striking southerly resident of the Rideau Lakes region is the black rat snake, Pantherophis (formerly Elaphe) obseleta obsoleta.  This is a wide ranging and common snake in the eastern and central US but has been reduced or eliminated by agriculture elsewhere in southern Ontario.  The rocky open forest suits this large and impressive snake just fine and it remains common.  Unfortunately I didn't see one this year so have no pictures.

The Current Environment

Like much of North America, eastern Ontario has been stricken by drought this summer.  Rains had alleviated much of the immediate impact when I arrived but numerous dead saplings could be seen.  Dead vegetation was particularly prominent on rocky outcrops with little soil to trap moisture.

Drought damaged Junipers.

However the drought seemed somewhat less severe than reported elsewhere.  There were quite a few plants and animals to be seen, particularly in Lost Bay, really two narrow bays with a single entrance hidden behind rocky headlands.

The shoreline is steep and rocky, even clifflike in much of the central part of the bay, with lower, swampy areas at each end.  The land around the bay is Crown Land, the Canadian equivalent of National Forest or BLM Land.  Although it is a short boat ride from roads and cottages it is quiet little pocket of wilderness.
I kayaked over and spent about an hour.  Here is what I saw (the frog above is also from Lost Bay).  The snake is a Northern Water Snake, Nerodia sipedon and the turtle is a Painted Turtle, Chrysemys picta.  I'm afraid of the plants I only know the Cardinal Flower and I believe the fern is an Osmunda.  The white flower is a water lily of some sort.  All the plants are either aquatic or growing right on the shore.
Plenty of wildlife to be seen right around the cottage as well.  Several pairs of Common Loons, Gavia immer, breed on the lake and their calls are an unforgettable part of summer.  Every now and then one will fish close enough to shore or boat to allow some pictures.
The juvenile broad-winged hawk showed up just outside the cottage.  The picture looks a bit fuzzy due to being shot through window screen
An early fascination with insects was generated by all the exoskeletons of dragonfly naiads that were left behind on the boathouse walls when they molted to adults.

Originally posted to Backyard Science on Mon Sep 03, 2012 at 02:01 PM PDT.

Also republished by J Town, Canadian Kossacks, and Pink Clubhouse.

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