Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Spring comes to the Hamilton Harbour Watersheds

By March, the worst of the winter would be over. The snow would thaw, the rivers begin to run and the world would wake into itself again.
Not that year.
Winter hung in there, like an invalid refusing to die. Day after grey day the ice stayed hard; the world remained unfriendly and cold.”
Neil Gaiman, Odd and the Frost Giants

The above quote pretty well sums up our situation here in the Hamilton Harbour watersheds. Following a very cold and snowy winter, spring has arrived. The presence of a polar vortex this winter has kept us in its frigid grip. In a changing climate we fully expect that extreme weather events will be the new norm. The question remains are we ready to deal with these events? 

This winter saw snow and ice accumulations in excess of the 30 year average for the month of February. Temperatures for January and February were 4 to 5 degrees colder. The ice storm in December kicked off winter and was very quickly followed by a number of significant snow storms. Snow has been on the ground since December and accumulation has risen to some of the highest we’ve seen in the Hamilton area. Lower winter temperatures have allowed for thicker ice formation in creeks and ponds, making the potential for ice jams and associated flooding a real concern.

With no January thaw this year, a spring melt will generate higher than normal flows in local streams and creeks. Also of concern this year is the remnant impact of the ice storm in December as trees and other vegetation that were broken and damaged during the ice storm are now washed into creeks and carried downstream. The potential for debris jams is high which in turn elevates the potential for flooding. 

This spring, temperatures have remained below normal and this has allowed for our runoff to local creeks to be more gradual. However there has been strong daytime melting and the power of water can be daunting and should never be underestimated.

Spring is the time of year when rivers and creeks are hard at work moving sediment and
water from the headwaters of their watersheds to the confluence with a larger river or lake. As water and sediment are transported along a stream corridor important work is being done to shape the bed and banks and this allows the creek to armour itself against erosion. Higher flows now mean that a creek can access its floodplain and create new life by providing excellent conditions (nutrients, moisture etc.) for various floodplain species to grow and thrive. There is a natural balance as creeks carry on this work.
As creeks empty into Cootes Paradise there is a calming effect as the water flow slows down and water levels rise and empty into Hamilton Harbour.

The contribution of surrounding watersheds via their creeks to Hamilton Harbour is enormous. Contributions include water, sediment, ice and debris. The Harbour reflects these contributions and the resulting conditions are what you see which starts with the spring freshet.

Happy Spring!

Hazel Breton
Manager of Water Resource Engineering
Hamilton Conservation Authority 

Monday, 3 February 2014

Snow please!

Winters like these are few and far between and I can’t quite remember having as much snow in a winter since I was a kid.  I have to say, it’s awesome! I love living in Southern Ontario and experiencing the great outdoors in all four seasons.

If given the choice, I’d much rather have a winter with snow than without – maybe  because apartment living means no shoveling, but maybe it’s because there’s nothing quite like seeing the trees with a fresh coating of snow and feeling as if someone has just shaken up the snow globe. A winter with snow allows for some pretty awesome winter sport opportunities.

Working within the heart of the Dundas Valley, lunchtime hikes are a regular occurrence (I know –I’m lucky!). It’s amazing how a quick 15 or 20 minute hike can clear your head and not to mention, burn a few calories! I love hiking in the winter, seeing all the fresh tracks and figuring out what wildlife has recently trekked through the same spot - sweating less is a bonus too!

I even tried cross country skiing this year for the first time after a little (or a lot) of convincing. Having only downhill skied in the past, I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to just glide around but hitting the trails at Christie Lake helped me realize what all the hype was about. I fell over a few times, had some good laughs and a ton of fun.

I’m looking forward to having my first ice fishing experience at Valens Lake next month for the Ice Fishing Derby. Maybe I’ll even catch a big one and you can look forward to reading my next blog on that time I caught a fish that was thiiiiiiis big!

Having so many winter sports waiting at your doorstep, there’s no need to bundle up and hibernate all winter (well ok maybe just on those -40C…or even -30C days). Whether it’s a hike, skiing, snowshoeing or even fishing, you better hurry up and get outside before all that white stuff melts away…

Brittany Berlinghoff
Hamilton Conservation Authority

Monday, 27 January 2014

A Messy Surprise but Lucky Deer

Seldom is there a time of year when beast or human can travel through or over the fen in the Fletcher
Creek Ecological Preserve in Puslinch Township.

At the end of January the snow cover on the fen was about 35 cm deep. With the freeze thaw cycles that we have been experiencing the snow was very crusty. Not hard enough to support a person on foot but on cross country skis or snow shoes you didn’t sink at all. Also taking advantage of this crusty snow were some deer making their way out over the fen with their tracks visible in a number of places.

Other than at times like this, deer are not likely to travel onto the fen because of the very soft wet soils. The sparse vegetation growing on the fen in the spring and summer is also not likely to be at the top of their menu choice.

What is a fen anyway?  A fen is one of the four types of wetland and they are very rare in Southern Ontario. A fen for many of us might look like a wet field. By definition a fen is a wetland that has water flowing through it all year but the water has a low amount of nutrients in it and thus the vegetation that can grow in it are only plants that have adapted to grow in wet and low nutrient environments.At our fen the vegetation is mostly sedges, rushes, some grasses and mosses. We might want to call this fen a marsh as marshes have water flowing through them as well but the water in a marsh carries higher levels of nutrients and you find plants like cattails, smartweeds and other succulent emergent water plants. Marshes are highly productive wetlands with plants that grow quickly and can recover from disturbance fairly well.  The plants in fens grow slowly and disturbances in fens may last for countless years before they can heal themselves.

The fen in the Fletcher Creek Ecological Preserve (FCEP) is likely the only fen in the watershed of the Hamilton Conservation Authority. It is a couple of hectares in size. The water flowing through our fen is low in nutrients because it comes from springs that are found in and around FCEP. These spring waters are one the major sources of Spencer Creek. The springs come from the aquifer known as the Galt moraine that lies at the northern boundary of FCEP. The rain water flows down through the gravelly hills of the moraine, a glacial deposit, and some of this water comes back to the surface as springs. When the water comes out of the ground it is clean and pure, low in nutrients and 10 degrees Celsius all year round. The creeks draining these springs in the FCEP never freeze in winter because the water starts off so warm.   

The fen at FLCP is special in its own way. It sits on top of about 2 meters of peat. Anything trying to travel over the fen will simply sink most of the time. The plants are sparse and their root network is not strong enough to support the weight of large mammals. This peat has been accumulating in a shallow depression left on the landscape after the glaciers left this area around 16,000 years ago. Over this time what started out as shallow lake has filled in with organic debris, peat, and today we have our fen.

There is a small creek that meanders through the fen and it carries a lot of water but water also travels
through the entire fen, just slower. Think of the fen as a giant sponge about 300 m or so across and 2 meters thick. Wow!

The creek here is special too. It is kind of floating on the fen as it travels through it. Creeks are usually found at the bottom of a ravine or valley. Our creek here has a visible current at the surface but it is running over 2 meters of very very saturated muck. What looks likes a creek to your eyes is almost bottomless to your foot. Once the creek leaves the fen and travels through the forest it has a hard gravelly bottom like most creeks do.

So back to the deer and why they might not travel in the fen very much. Take a look at the picture. (Sorry, it is not the best photo.) Here two deer were travelling over the crusty snow and tried to jump the creek that winds its way through the fen. Normally jumping this short distance for a deer would be easy but the crusty snow gave it a spongy take off platform and they only made it half way across the creek . When the deer landed in the middle of the creek they would have sunk almost completely into what scientists refer to as loon muck (they actually use another word because of the smell of this sulphur rich muck but we will just call it muck). To us it would be like jumping into quick sand. The deer would have had to struggle with great difficulty in trying to get a footing to get out the creek. Think of swimming in a pool of jello. The large amount of muck shown on the snow on the other side of the creek shows the amount of loon muck and yuck that fell from the deer and was shook off as they travelled towards the forest.

I can sort of hear the first deer say “Oh Muck, watch out” to the other one but the warning was too
late. As they headed towards the forest I think the second one was heard saying, “ Oh you just had to take the short cut, now look at us, we smell like Muck.”

In other areas of the fen where the deer travelled the creek is much narrower and the deer stepped across from one snow bank to another. Here the deer might have gotten a little too confident about the first step. If you are up in Puslinch Township and you see some dirty deer you now know why. They will likely stink for weeks.

In the Hamilton area we have only one fen, lots of marshes, lots of treed swamps and one true floating mat bog in Copetown. 

Bruce Mackenzie
Director of Customer Services

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Stewardship in Action

I will admit that I was pretty excited when I received a referral from one of our Watershed Steward Award winners that put me in touch with the owners of Weir’s Lane Lavender.

I have a great job, and one of the best parts about my job is the experience of getting to see how people use their properties in different ways. During our on-site visits to properties our goal is to assist the property owners in learning more about the natural areas on their properties and if applicable, assisting them with completing projects to create new, enhance existing, or protect natural areas. The property owners that live in this watershed are so diverse and I have learned a great deal from their experiences of living on, and working their lands. My visit to Weir’s Lane Lavender was no exception.

It’s a story that I never tire of hearing.

Kevin Beagle was working for a software company in downtown Toronto. His wife, Abigail Payne, commuted long hours between the couples Toronto home and her job at McMaster University. Six years ago they decided it was time for a change in their hectic lifestyle, and they made the move to Weir’s Lane.

Since 2010 Kevin and Abigail have been growing and harvesting Lavender, and the property features 5,500 Lavender plants on-site, with plans to add two to three thousand plants per year to the western edge of the property, eventually converting all of the current cash crop rotation to lavender fields.  An apiary was a natural addition to this site, and there are presently approximately 250,000 bees on-site with plans to add more hives. They opened a store on-site which features a variety of their own lavender products, including lavender infused honey and locally produced giftware. In 2012, Weir’s Lane Lavender & Apiary was recognized as the Agri-Tourism Business of the Year by Tourism Hamilton.

Kevin and Abigail were more than happy to educate me about Lavender. Lavender has no known natural pests, requires no fertilization and no spraying occurs to protect the health of the honey bees and other pollinators on-site. Their interest in educating the public is what prompted our visit. By the end of our visit, the plan for a native plant garden that would serve as forage for pollinators and a demonstration site with interpretive signage was underway.

On June 16, 2013 Kevin and Abigail, with the help of friends and family, some McMaster University students and the Hamilton-Halton Watershed Stewardship Program, planted 936 wildflower plugs in 3 newly dug gardens near the apiary in record time. Species planted include:

Brown-eyed Susan Rudbeckia hirtaLance-leaved Goldenrod Euthamia graminifolia
Common Milkweed Asclepias syriaca
New England Aster Aster novae-angliae
Flat-topped Aster Aster umbellatus
Sweet Oxeye Heliopsis helianthoides
Dense Blazing-star Liatris spicata
Wild Bergamot Monarda fistulosa
Foxglove Beardtongue Penstemon digitalis
Virginia Mountain Mint Pycnanthemum virginianum

There is a great little rhyme with perennial plants “In the first year they sleep, in the second year they
creep, and in the third year they leap!” I was invited back to the farm to act as a resource on native plant gardens during the 2013 Farm Crawl and I was pleased to see the plugs holding their own. In addition to the native plant/pollinator friendly demonstration garden, Kevin and Abigail also began letting areas of the property along a watercourse quietly begin to naturalize, creating a riparian buffer which will provide habitat to wildlife, help cool the watercourse by providing shade, and filter runoff from adjacent areas.

The Hamilton-Halton Watershed Stewardship Program was pleased to be able to offer technical and financial support to this project. While small-scale to start, it provides a large-scale opportunity in reaching out to the over 800 annual visitors to the farm. I look forward to revisiting the site in 2014 to see the plants grow and installing the interpretive signage that is currently in development. We look forward to working with Weir’s Lane Lavender in the coming years to ensure the success of the site, add new species, and potentially expand the native plant garden to new areas.

 Are you interested in establishing a demonstration project on your property or at your businesslocation? Feel free to contact me to discuss your ideas. I can be reached at celwell@conservationhamilton.ca.

Cherish Elwell
Watershed Stewardship Technician
Hamilton-Halton Watershed Stewardship

Interested in learning more about Weir’s Lane Lavender? Visit their website at http://www.weirslanelavender.com/ or like them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/weirslanelavender. The farm store remains open up to Christmas (see website for hours) before Kevin and Abigail take a well deserved rest for the winter.