Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Natural History and the Decline of Some Species

Pointe aux Pins spring 2007

I recently read a paper by H. B. Wressell of Chatham that was written for the Kent Historical Society sometime around 1960. I do not know much about H. B. Wressell, but he was a keen naturalist and historian and was quite well known in the area.
The article I read was entitled Flora, Fauna and Naturalists in Kent. It is quite interesting since he described the natural history of Kent County and how it has changed. Many species have been extirpated from the area or have declined drastically. This theme fits in nicely as this week both myself and Jeremy Hatt have been talking about some declining birds on our blogs.

As an aside, a number of years ago I picked up a copy of the Spring Birds of Point Pelee (1960) in a used book store that obviously belonged to Harry Wressell. His name was scribed on the cover and he had inserted some of his own notes in the book.
Mr. Wressell made a notation about a Pinewoods Sparrow they observed on May 14, 1961 near Post House in Point Pelee. Names of observers, among others, included Don Young, Fred Bodsworth (of “Last of the Curlews” fame), and Ron Scovell. Ron is still quite active as a birder, as I met him at Niagara this past November.
Anyway, this sparrow is now called the Bachman’s Sparrow and is a declining species where it is normally found farther south. When was the last time one of these was in Ontario? (I have no idea!)
Back to the article at hand, Wressell talks about many things and I will mention a few. He starts with trees, and describes “Pointe aux Pins”, which is really Rondeau Park. The park has (or had) a significant stand of White Pine, unique to Kent County. They are presently declining and not being replenished due to things like deer browsing.
Kent was extensively covered in dense forest except for prairie in the present Dover area and small patches elsewhere. Dominant trees were black walnut, butternut various species of hickory, elm, maple, ash and oak.
He talks briefly about herbaceous flowering plants, fungi, and mosses.
Mammals in Kent included the elk, black bear, wolves, fisher and marten. These are no longer anywhere near here! Beaver were also more plentiful, then declined, and in recent years they have seem to have increased in numbers.
Regarding birds, Wild Turkey were quite numerous. We all know they were eventually extirpated at some point. Reintroduction of this species has made it a fairly common sight nowadays. Perhaps it is getting too common and causing problems with the species it preys upon!
With the large forest cover, Kent had lots of Pileated Woodpeckers. They require large stands of forest for survival, so obviously we do not have many left in Kent today.
Cardinals were once not found in Ontario, but are now very common. Probably the first of that species ever taken in Canada were two at Chatham in May 1849 by Rev. Sandys who had an extensive collection of stuffed birds.
Birds were killed and collected, rather than “watched” in those days. Many famous naturalists like Dr. W. E. Saunders of London spent much time in Rondeau.
Grassland birds thrived in the prairie areas of Kent. Perhaps, initially, they took advantage of agriculture when areas were cleared for pastures.
Nowadays, most fields are devoted to cash crops, not conducive to bird life. This type of farming has created a "monoculture" that is not healthy to the natural world, especially birds. UPLAND SANDPIPER 1997 (pasture no longer exists)
Pastures have disappeared at an alarming rate over the last twenty years since I have been birding. This type of land has been converted to the “monoculture” of cash crops. So many species have simply been “killed off” when the pasture disappears. They have nowhere to go. Essentially, there is no vacancy elsewhere.

Things like meadow crayfish just disappear, as well as the reptiles and amphibians from the wetter areas. There is no food for birds, so this seems like a domino effect.
Wressell went on to describe the formation of the Kent Nature Club that came about in late 1930. It was formed by naturalists of the area who were dedicated to the study of natural history.
Shortly afterwards, a group of naturalists, particularly in Toronto, decided to form a provincial group in May 1931. That was the beginning of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists which exists today as Ontario Nature. The Kent Nature Club was a charter member of that group, but eventually dwindled to non-existence sometimes in the 1980’s.
There are many things contributing to the decline of species that I did not cover in this article, but it interesting to see how things have changed for better or worse. Mostly worse it seems!

BLUE-WINGED TEAL (a declining species)


  1. Excellent post, Blake. Very interesting to hear how much has changed over the past 40 odd years. Flora, Fauna and Naturalists in Kent sounds like a great read. Is the article available online?

    Interesting that you mention Bachman's Warbler, a species that I searched for quite extensively in the Panhandle when I went to Florida but couldn't find any even in reliable locations. Of course, this was more to do with timing (a silent, secretive sparrow is not an easy find), but with the amount of new developments going up in the area, it's no wonder a species like this is on the decline.

  2. Jeremy, I know you meant Bachman's SPARROW. OOps! No wonder you didn't find the warbler! That's another species that has gone extinct!

    I doubt the article is online anywhere, but I'll look. This post of the article was forming in my mind almost a week ago, so it was nice timing.

  3. OH NO!!! Yesss, I meant Bachman's Sparrow! I say Bachman's Warbler so often when I mean Bachman's Sparrow that Marianne doesn't even correct me anymore. I guess it's just second nature to always follow the word 'Bachman's' with 'warbler' in my mind. I have to stop it!

    If I ever find a Bachman's in Ontario (which will likely never happen), I will no doubt post it as a Bachman's Warbler and make the birding community believe I'm crazy.