"The Old Back Pond" The History of the Mac Johnson Wildlife Area by Don Wright
Photos | 2007 Report | Swan News
FLORA AND FAUNA
Thank you for inviting me to speak about the Resource Inventory that Jane Delange, Stephen Kenny and I did in 1982. However a lot of the details are not quite as fresh in my mind now (17 years later). At the time we felt we knew every blade of grass after we were done. It was a wonderful summer's work - very hard physical work (we walked miles every day) but very rewarding. We set up in the Nature Centre (picture) and had a canoe to launch at the small pond (picture). It was open at both ends for access to the reservoir. (Most of the pictures were included in the report.) There were very few people here then, only geese and us and Leonard Walker (pictures). First we spent some time flagging our area into study plots. We made observations as we went along in field notebooks (show), using binoculars (joined permanently to my neck), carrying nets and bags tied to our belts for collections, mosquito netting on our faces, heavy boots - we were quite a sight (picture). We pressed plant specimens at lunch or at the end of each day.
We soon realized what a treasure this conservation area was.
Historically, it was called Buell's Creek Marsh and it was studied by other naturalists (Roland Beschel, 1966, Ian MacDonald 1972, L. Luciuk, 1975). When the dam was built in 1966, it was flooded. Despite the flooding, this area is still a significant wetland habitat (given a provincial classification of Class 1 Wetland). It is the home for over 160 species of birds, both migratory and nesting species. It is an important nesting habitat for waterfowl such as mallards, teals, wood ducks. There is an abundant herptile population of frogs, turtles, snakes, salamanders and rich aquatic life.
There is a wide variety of forest cover from swamp deciduous woods, rich mature evergreen forest, to sugar maple woods.
There is interesting shrub lands and wide open fields and meadows.
And from what we observed, there was a bog in the centre of the reservoir. Remnant plants species such as the carnivorous pitcher plant and bog cranberry are still there, although literally struggling to keep their heads above water.
A large mammal population is found here - deer, fox, porcupine, hares, beavers, muskrats, mink, possibly bear and others - all playing a role.
And historically significant features such as the old farmstead dating from the 1860's, an ababdoned railway bed, and the old mill on Buell's Creek are still visible. A lot of unusual plants are found near the homestead, planted there by early families. (Horseradish, many currants species, columbine, caraway, orpine, white dead nettle).
This area has a lot to offer.
It comes under the jurisdiction of the Wetland Policy for the province of Ontario. This prohibits development eg. building a subdivision or a hotel. It allows benign use eg. trail use, but prohibits the drainage of land, altering water courses, and grading of land. It ensures no destruction of habitat (so there could not be peat extraction as was done in the 1800's).
I would like to outline some special habitat areas around the conservation area that contain interesting features of note, and point out the significant species in each habitat. Looking back on an Inverntoy shows you the list of species, but sometimes the locations of these things are not always apparent anymore.. They get lost in the lists.
We are all aware of the unique physical features of this area - the two sand dunes, formerly the old marine beaches of the Champlain Sea. One is near the Nature Centre and one is near the old farmstead.(see map). Now, it is significant to us as a primary turtle laying area for snapping turtles and other turtle species.
On the south side of the Reservoir, a wonderful example of Karst topography can be found . This is the flat fractured limestone area which is potholed and broken apart by the groundwater and underground springs. It is a fascinating area, and shows characteristics of an alvar (picture) where unique hardy plants survive on shallow soils. A different world! Although it appears to be a barren, it is far from it.
North East Woods- a swamp deciduous forest (picture) with a high water table for most of the year. It includes elm, white ash, sugar maple, and an unusually large cottonwood tree. It has a rich and varied undergrowth with many species that are considerer rare or uncommon..This includes the nodding trillium, a northern plant at its southern range here. There are liverworts, mosses, jack in the pulpit, purple fringed orchid, marsh speedwell and probably one million mosquitoes. The shoreline here is crowded with willows, a variety of ferns, spirea, dogwood, alder and the rare arrowwood and the rare swamp birch. Beschel in 1966 recommended that the NE section not be developed but protected because of these species. Near the railway tracks, small ponds and streams provide nesting areas for wood ducks and breeding areas for frogs, turtles and salamanders. We saw the rare Blanding's turtle quite near the road laying its eggs.
North West Woods - mixed deciduous woods near McClary Road. This woods consists of black cherry, silver and red maple, birches, aspens, alders, and nannyberries, all providing good feeding and shelter for deer (doe and two fawns were seen here). Also several snowshoe hare were seen here, and quite a lot of small mammals such as meadow jumping mice, star nose mole, and shrews. The rare carex formosa (sedge) is also in this woods and the striking red cardinal flower (picture - woodcocks in alders).
West Woods - on the west side of the reservoir. This is a large section of mature mixed forest with such trees as hemlocks, white and red cedars, basswood, and yellow birch. Lush undergrowth of ferns, mosses, liverworts and ground cedar grow along small streams and channels of water. Yellow clintonia, starflower and bunchberry grow here. A pair of great horned owls nesting in a large white pine reared two young. Other bird species found here were thrushes, vireos, and ovenbirds.
Another area of swamp deciduous woods is nearby. It is represented by the occurrence of black ash growing with red and silver maple, all species that can tolerate the high water level and needing rich soil. The uncommon painted trillium was found here and the rare white aster. Both these areas would be best left undisturbed and probably unapproachable anyways because of the high insect population.
Sugar Maple Woods - on the south west section of the Reservoir near Beaver Pond. This is a mature sugar maple woods with ironwoods making up much of the understory. It shows signs of disturbances from the former practise of cattle grazing which destroyed the herbaceous layer. It was probably once a rich woods. There are still wild leeks and many spring wildflowers such as violets, blue phlox, wild ginger, trout lilies and columbine. It provides important denning sites for animals such as the porcupine. Snakes can also be observed crawling through the cracks of limestone.
Swamp Scrub - on the eastern side of the Reservoir. This is a bog-like area near the centre of the reservoir. Dominant shrubs are the rare swamp birch (found in sphagnum bogs of the north), red osier dogwood, sweet gale, leatherleaf, - northern species. Swamp loosestrife (Decoden) a purple-flowering introduced species that chokes out native species occurs here, the rare bog goldenrod, pitcher plants, bog cranberry and buckbean. These are all species of a bog. It is important nesting and feeding area for many species of waterfowl.
Fen area (picture)-near the Beaver Pond. Along the south shore of the Reservoir, there is a fen-like area. The shrubs found there are the rare southern arrowwood (at its northern limit here), shrubby cinqefoil, uncommon hoary willows and arrow grass. The least bittern was seen here and the secretive sedge wren. Many small sedges and grasses provide hummocks for nesting species, and we always saw the black tern around here.
Old Field - On the south side, a beautiful type of plant community exists with colourful varieties of field flowers. The vegetation here is composed mainly of herbaceous species, such as goldenrods, asters, Queen Anne's Lace, milkweeds, joe pyeweeds and others. This area is important for seed eating birds and for butterflies feeding on milkweed and the goldenrods before thier migration south. This area and the tall shrub area has unfortunately been reduced by the practise of tree plantings. (We need to let a field to be a field). A lot of people appreciate seeing butterflies.
Tall Shrub - The tall shrub area represented the largest land area at the Back Pond (33%). The shrubs were either in dense clumps or scattered with the herbaceous plants typical of the old field type. The most notable area of shrubs occupied a great part of the southwest corner of the property near the Beaver Pond. Most of the species included hawthorns, buckthorns and prickly ash, and some apple trees. In the wet areas around the Beaver Pond, nannyberries, thickets of dogweeds, alders and willows lined the shore. There were also many respberries and brambleberries. Of course with all this abundant food sources and good thick nesting cover, it was no surprise that this area was the most productive for bird species.. It was always alive with species such as redstarts, warblers, catbirds, orioles, flycatchers and others.
Beaver Pond - This area has been noted as an area of high value for breeding and migratory birds. Mallards with six young were seen here and birds such as virginia rail, bitterns, marsh wrens all feed in this area. The Black tern seemed to have its nest around here also. More than 1/2 of Ontario's birds are dependent on wetlands at some stage in their life cycle - either for breeding or resting on migratory routes. They need the quiet shallow waters and marshes in the reservoir without human intrusion.. The beaver pond is also home for many herptiles such as water and garter snakes, snapping and painted turtles, bullfrogs and leopard frogs. (Talk about a food chain - perfect!)
Reservoir - provides excellent feeding areas for so many species of birds and mammals. The shoreline should not be too developed as deer and other mammals (mink) were observed coming to the water's edge to drink. Many fish eating birds come here regularly such as ring billed gulls, kingfisher, great blue heron, green heron, osprey (formerly declining). We saw many shorebirds such as spotted sandpipers, short billed dowitchers on their migratory routes. Large predatory birds such as owls, marsh hawks, cooper's and sharp shinned hawks made their homes here. We saw hundreds of warblers and lots of waterfowl such as loons.
Old Tree Specimens - There are wonderful examples of large old sugar maples near the old house foundation - probably as old as the house and interesting for people to observe.
A lot of species we discovered at the Back Pond were species with "black" in the name and were out of their range here.
Black Maple - usually found south of here and characterized by the drooping appearance of its leaves and the velvet under surface. These occur along the west shore of the reservoir and prefer the moist location.
Black Ash - found in the swamp woods.
Black Locust - large drooping white flowers in early summer attract bees.
Black Cherry - common here - easily destroyed by caterpillars but good for birds.
Black Willow - not common.
Black Spruce - found in bog, and of course the Black Tern. We began to wonder if the Pond Should be called the Black Pond!
Conclusion - In conclusion, Our Friends group has a wonderful role to play - to promote and to protect this area. Mac Johnson is a valuable, natural, and community resource. We can become models of environmental citizenship. Canada's Green Plan (put out by Environment Canada) recommends providing a system of protected areas and suggests people be "stewards of spaces and species" - to respect the natural spaces and be an environmentally conscious person. Species need space - the number of species at risk in Canada now is 193. Small songbirds in eastern North America have drastically diclined, partially because natural spaces are at risk. Only 4.6% of Canada is now protected and wetlands are especially disappearing. 70% of southern Ontario's wetlands have been destroyed since European settlement. The wetland habitat at Mac Johnson can be protected. Since 1/3 of all endangered species depend on wetlands at some point in their life, this area can offer sanctuary to many of the species that we are concerned about.
My concern -
We need to think of the large picture - helping individual species such as bluebirds and ospreys is excellent, but we need to think of the long term effect of altering habitats such as old fields and shrub land into white pine plantations. What will it be 10, 20 years in the future? - not good habitat! Hopefully we can look forward to good planning for the future.
"The Old Back Pond" The History of the Mac Johnson Wildlife Area by Don Wright
Photos | 2007 Report | Swan News