Giving gifts in the Napanee Limestone Plain

Friends enjoying some time together while helping open up the landscape (Photo by NCC)

Friends enjoying some time together while helping open up the landscape (Photo by NCC)

December 14, 2018 | by Amanda Tracey

The Nature Conservancy of Canada’s (NCC’s) Conservation Volunteers program is a well-established and successful program that engages volunteers across the country. Recently, I hosted our first event in the Napanee Plain, and I have to admit that I was a little nervous. Once the event registration went live on our website, to my shock, it filled up almost immediately. And when more spots were added, it filled up immediately again. I was thrilled with the interest in the area! It was such a gift that people wanted to help conserve this special area.

The Napanee Plain Alvar Nature Reserve is located in Newburgh, Ontario, on the beautiful Napanee Limestone Plain. This 300-acre (121-hectare) nature reserve is mostly alvar, meaning there is only a shallow layer of soil over limestone bedrock. Alvars are home to a suite of highly specialized species, including fascinating plants, rare butterflies and nesting grassland birds. This alvar in particular is home to the endangered eastern loggerhead shrike. Very few shrikes remain in the wild in Ontario, and the Napanee Plain is one of the few places you can still find them. Shrikes tend to be picky when it comes to site selection, as they enjoy open areas where they can easily feed, and they require sizeable trees for nesting.

Red cedar encroaching on the alvar (Photo by NCC)

Red cedar encroaching on the alvar (Photo by NCC)

Cattle have been used as a management tool at this site. The cattle graze the vegetation (including grasses and small deciduous trees) to keep the vegetation low and landscape open for shrikes, and so far this has worked quite well. However, cattle won’t eat everything, and without natural processes like fire, species such as red cedar tend to encroach on landscapes that would otherwise be quite open, such as alvars. Managing the encroaching red cedar can be quite difficult on properties of this size, and that is where the fantastic Conservation Volunteers came to the rescue.

Event day — December 1 — rolled around and I was at the site early getting tools set up and directional signs in place. Alvars are stunning in the spring and early summer when they are lush and full of life, but are less visually appealing once everything dies back for the winter. But there was something particularly beautiful about the alvar that morning in the bleak cold of December.

The Napanee Plain Alvar Nature Reserve glowing in the morning sun (Photo by NCC)

The Napanee Plain Alvar Nature Reserve glowing in the morning sun (Photo by NCC)

The fence was completely frozen. Every crevice of the metal had a thin layer of ice decorating it. The flooded sections of the alvar, which normally look wet and muddy, appeared crisp with a striking, thin layer of ice on top. Remnants of an earlier snowfall sparkled under the bright rays of the sun. And yes, the sun! We hadn’t seen the sun in over a week, so this really was a wonderful gift.

As start time approached, 27 volunteers arrived on site, bundled up and ready to get to work. We split into a few groups and made our way across about six acres (two hectares) of the property, cutting down any small red cedar seedlings we came across.

Volunteer cutting a small red cedar tree (Photo by NCC)

Volunteer cutting a small red cedar tree (Photo by NCC)

By the end of the morning, we had selectively cut over 1,500 small red cedars off the landscape, something no machinery could have done as carefully in that short amount of time.

I was so grateful that morning to meet fantastic folks who wanted to help conserve this property. As we made our way back to the gate, I chatted with some of the volunteers about the day, and realized that this day was a gift, not just for me, but for lots of the volunteers, and in lots of different ways. One volunteer said that it was a joy simply to get out of the city and get some fresh air. Another commented on how it was a nice opportunity to spend some time with his family who tagged along for the day — undoubtedly a gift in his eyes. One volunteer even said “So, this is kind of like a Christmas present to the shrikes then? A nice open area when they return in the spring!” That is certainly a wonderful way of looking at it!

Volunteers proudly displaying their wreaths (Photo by NCC)

Volunteers proudly displaying their wreaths (Photo by NCC)

We returned to the office with a few bags of branches in tow. We warmed up with some hot chocolate and good conversation and then got to work. Music floated through the air and the smell of fresh-cut cedar filled the room, as we used some of the red cedar we had cut to make festive holiday wreaths. It was an absolute blast creating the wreaths. Everyone’s was beautiful, and no two looked alike. Some took them home for themselves, while others made them as gifts for friends and family.

On this day in the Napanee Plain, lots of gifts were given. The gift of new skills and knowledge, whether wreath-making or tree ID-ing. The gift of new friendships as people laughed, chatted and got to know one another throughout the day. The gift of seeing new places and experiencing new things. And of course, the best gift of all: getting to spend time enjoying, exploring and helping conserve the natural world — a present to ourselves, each other, future generations and to the flora and fauna that call this place home. To all of the Conservation Volunteers who helped with this event and others, thank you for sharing your day with us!

The Napanee Plain Alvar Nature Reserve was generously supported by funding from the Government of Canada, through the Natural Areas Conservation Program.

Amanda Tracey

About the Author

Amanda Tracey recently finished a PhD at Queen’s University where she completed 10 field seasons at the Queen’s University Biological Station. She recently joined the Nature Conservancy of Canada team as the coordinator of conservation biology for Central Ontario East.

Read more about Amanda Tracey.

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