Azure aster, Rice Lake Plains, ON (Photo by NCC)

Azure aster, Rice Lake Plains, ON (Photo by NCC)

Protecting habitat for the birds on the Rice Lake Plains

Red-headed woodpecker (Photo by David Fast)

Red-headed woodpecker (Photo by David Fast)

When you think of grasslands, you probably picture the wide-open prairie of southern Saskatchewan. You might picture these expanses dotted with bison or pairs of pronghorns. You probably don’t think of southern Ontario.

Yet here in Ontario, we have our very own prairie ecosystem. While we might not have the iconic large mammals of the west, Ontario’s tall grass prairie is habitat for a variety of interesting and at-risk species.

The black oak savannah and tallgrass prairie ecosystem is one of the most endangered in the world. In the Great Lakes region, less than one per cent of this important natural habitat remains.

Historically, Ontario’s tall grass prairies and savannahs were maintained by fires, both natural and set by Indigenous peoples. These suppressed the growth of trees and shrubs, and allowed tall grass prairie species to flourish. Since European settlement, these fires have been reduced. Much of the land has been converted for agricultural and development purposes.

The Rice Lake Plains, located on the eastern side of the Oak Ridges Moraine, is home to some of the largest black oak savannah and tall grass prairie remnants in the Great Lakes region. The area was once dominated by native grasses, such as big bluestem, little bluestem and switchgrass, wildflowers such as butterfly milkweed, wild bergamot and slender blazingstar, and trees such as the iconic black oak. But the Rice Lake Plains have fallen victim to fire suppression and invasive species.

This is where the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) comes in.

Since 2001, NCC has been working to conserve and enhance the tall grass prairie of the Rice Lake Plains. NCC has acquired remnant habitats and then restored them through a prescribed burn program and customized stewardship efforts. Actions have included invasive species removal and the planting and seeding of native prairie grasses.

These habitat restoration activities are critical to ensuring that many of the rare species, such as ghost tiger beetle, prairie buttercup, wild lupine and eastern hog-nosed snake, continue to have the habitat they need to thrive. The area is also home to numerous grassland bird species, which are experiencing steep population declines throughout North America.

It is through strong partnerships that NCC has been able to continue to steward and expand the Rice Lake Plains. One of these partnerships is the Rice Lake Plains Joint Initiative (RLPJI). This collaborative of 11 partners is working together to protect and restore key sites on the Rice Lake Plains and to promote the long-term sustainability of the tall grass prairie and savannah habitat. A growing network of Conservation Volunteers committed to tall grass restoration has been generated through this partnership.

Another partnership is with the Gordon and Patricia Gray Animal Welfare Foundation. Started by Gordon Gray, former president and chairman of Royal LePage, and his family, this foundation is dedicated to protecting species around the globe.

“We decided that saving the world’s nature the animals, the fish and the birds is more important than anything else,” said Gordon Gray about his family’s foundation.

Working with NCC, however, was a departure from the animal welfare work that the foundation usually supports.

“We thought about it a lot, because it was quite a departure from the direct things we do,” said Mr. Gray. “But we became convinced that acquiring land was a good way to ensure that significant wildlife species not disappear.”

In 2014, the Grays decided to support NCC’s work on the Rice Lake Plains to protect habitat for grassland birds and other species. Their gift helped NCC secure the 36-acre (15-hectare) North Burns property. This area is important for many species, including the eastern hog-nosed snake and eastern whip-poor-will.

“If you can’t get a hold of the land, you can’t preserve nature,” said Mr. Gray.

The birds of the Rice Lake Plains

Threatened by habitat loss and other human activities, these are just some of the birds that NCC’s work on the Rice Lake Plains helps protect:


Bobolink (Photo by Bill Hubick)

Bobolink (Photo by Bill Hubick)

These small, migratory songbirds have large, somewhat flat heads, short necks and short tails. No other North American bird has a white back and black underparts (some have described this look as wearing a tuxedo backwards). Males have a distinctive straw-coloured patch on the head.

Found in tall grasslands, uncut pastures, overgrown fields and meadows, bobolink populations have declined considerably over the past half century. Listed as threatened by Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), the quality of bobolink nesting habitat has declined over time due to modern hay production practices, such as earlier maturing seed mixtures and shorter crop rotation cycles.

Eastern meadowlark

Eastern meadowlark (Photo by Bill Hubick)

Eastern meadowlark (Photo by Bill Hubick)

A medium-sized, migratory songbird, the eastern meadowlark has a bright yellow throat and belly, a black "V" on its breast and white flanks with black streaks. It breeds primarily in moderately tall grasslands, such as pastures and hayfields. It is also found in alfalfa fields, weedy borders of croplands, roadsides, orchards, airports, shrubby overgrown fields or other open areas.

Listed as threatened by COSEWIC, eastern meadowlark numbers are shrinking due to the loss of suitable habitat due to development, changes in farming practices, grassland fragmentation, reforestation and the use of pesticides.

Eastern whip-poor-will

Eastern whip-poor-will (Photo by Tammy McQuade, Macaulay Library)

Eastern whip-poor-will (Photo by Tammy McQuade, Macaulay Library)

Known for its characteristic "whip-poor-will" evening call, this medium-sized bird has mottled brown and grey feathers that help it blend in with its surroundings.

The whip-poor-will is usually found in areas with a mix of open and forested areas, such as savannahs, open woodlands or openings in more mature, deciduous, coniferous and mixed forests. Listed as threatened by COSEWIC, the main threat to the species is likely habitat loss and degradation.

Red-headed woodpecker

Red-headed woodpecker (Photo by David Fast)

Red-headed woodpecker (Photo by David Fast)

This medium-size bird is easily recognizable by its vivid red head, neck and breast. The red-headed woodpecker prefers open woodland and woodland edges, especially in oak savannahs and riverbank forests, which can be found in parks, golf courses and cemeteries. These habitats contain a higher density of dead trees, which they use for nesting and perching.

An omnivorous species, the red-headed woodpecker feeds on insects in the summer and nuts in the winter. Listed as threatened by COSEWIC, the species’ population has declined significantly due to habitat loss and competition for nest sites from the European starling.

Common nighthawk

Common nighthawk (Photo by Gail F. Chin)

Common nighthawk (Photo by Gail F. Chin)

A medium-sized bird, the common nighthawk has long, narrow, pointed wings and a long tail that is slightly notched. Its plumage is dark brown with black, white and buff specks. This allows it to blend in with roost sites, such as gravel beaches and rocky outcrops or burned woodlands.

The nighthawk’s habitat consists of open areas with little or no ground vegetation, such as forest clearings and burned-over areas. Listed as threatened by COSEWIC, the nighthawk population has decreased due to habitat degradation resulting from fire suppression, land use changes and an increase in intensive agriculture.

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