HERITAGE HIGHLIGHTS - A walk on the wild side
To really see Browning Island, you need to walk away from the shoreline
MUSKOKAN - Most Browning cottagers cling to the shoreline for their activities and their views. This certainly makes sense as these views are compelling, and playing and relaxing by the water’s edge offers so much pleasure. Occasionally a loon may pass or a raven may croak to remind us that we share the island with other creatures.
But bushwhacking across the island in summer can be daunting with kamikaze deerflies and flesh-tearing brambles.
There are subtle rewards, however, if you are willing to break trail and watch for smaller creatures.
On July 12, three fellow cottagers and I explored the southern interior of Browning Island from the west side across to the east side. Typical of 2012, it was hot and sunny. Although this was a hike and an exploration, we were there on behalf of the Muskoka Heritage Trust to look for any species at risk that might occur on the island, the middle of which is a 300-acre nature reserve.
Plants and animals considered to be at risk in Ontario are assessed by the Committee on Status of Species at Risk in Ontario (COSSARO). Some of these are offered legislative protection under the provincial Endangered Species Act (ESA).
In addition, the Natural Heritage Information Centre (NHIC), a branch of the Ministry of Natural Resources, ranks species in Ontario. Species with ranks of S1 (Critically Imperiled)) and S2 (Imperiled) may have recovery plans, and they may receive legislative protection. The presence of a species at risk on Browning Island may limit future attempts at development.
It being mid-July and late in the breeding cycle for birds, song was desultory. Nevertheless, we managed to see and hear 35 species of birds. A yellow-throated vireo sang its rich notes and a couple of male scarlet tanagers with stunning black and crimson plumage also proclaimed territories. Six species of warblers – those avian jewels from the tropics – uttered snatches of their spring and early summer songs but with waning enthusiasm. A couple of recently fledged ruffed grouse fluttered away.
We poked along, stopping to examine every butterfly and dragonfly. Amidst abundant and fragrant milkweeds, a just emerged monarch struggled to expand its partially folded wings. We saw about 20 of these charismatic long-distance migrants.
In total we saw eight butterfly species, not a great variety but to be expected in this dry summer. A couple of lovely Baltimore checkerspots were certainly highlights.
In recent years naturalists have turned their attention to damselflies and dragonflies. Aside from their beauty, they are good indicators of water quality as many species require highly oxygenated water in their immature stages.
We see them as adults but the larvae spend most of their lives in ponds, lakes and rivers where they eat voraciously. Emerging as adults they live a few short weeks and grace our waters and woods with extraordinary beauty. I find nothing more peaceful than to watch them coursing to and fro, leading out their lives in silence.
On our walk we encountered 16 species of Odonates (the group that dragonflies or damselflies belong to) or “Odes” as I like to call them. None of these is especially rare although amber-winged spreadwing is an S3 species, meaning that it is Vulnerable.
A few years ago I saw an arrowhead spiketail on a tiny stream that flows into the lake on the west side of the island. I haven’t seen any these past two dry years as the brook has dried up, but they may return when we get a wetter summer. The arrowhead spiketail is an S2 (Imperiled) species in Ontario.
“Ode” species that Browning cottagers may see on their docks include the magnificent dragonhunter, the staid slaty skimmer and small damsels such as powdered dancer among numerous others. In addition, watch for and do no harm to northern map turtles: this reptile is listed as Special Concern under the Ontario’s ESA.
It’s great fun to identify and list animals and plants that you find on or around your property. There are some great field guides that can help you do that and there is always the internet. For butterflies, I suggest Butterflies through Binoculars, The East, A Field Guide to the Butterflies of Eastern North America by Jeffrey Glassburg, Oxford University Press. It contains excellent photographs.
The best book for “Odes” is Field Guide to The Dragonflies and Damselflies of Algonquin Park and the Surrounding Area by Colin Jones et al. Contact The Friends of Algonquin Park, algonquinpark.on.ca.
In all we walked for three hours before returning to our shore tired and hot but quite refreshed by these encounters with nature.
For 25 years, the Muskoka Heritage Foundation has protected, conserved and nurtured the area’s natural and cultural environment for the benefit of future generations. You can help us conserve Muskoka’s environment: become a member, make a donation, leave a legacy. For more info contact 705-645-7393 ext. 200 or visit muskokaheritage.org.