Ojibway Prairie Provincial Nature Reserve.
After working with the Ojibway Prairie Reptile Recovery Team (OPRREC) in Windsor, ON for two years, I am writing this blog post from Kamloops, BC! After a five-day trip across the country that involved more hand sanitizer than I have ever seen in my life, I am finally back in beautiful British Columbia. I am currently self-isolating, despite wanting nothing more than to hike some of my favourite trails from two years ago. I know a lot of people are feeling the same way right now. On the bright side, being in self-isolation has given me the time to review some of my photos taken while working for Wildlife Preservation Canada. So, I wanted to write this blog to say goodbye to such an amazing project and landscape, and to highlight some photos or experiences that really stood out during my time in the Ojibway Prairie Complex and Greater Park Ecosystem (OPCGPE).
This goodbye post obviously has to start with massasaugas. After working with the larger western (northern pacific) rattlesnakes in the southern interior of British Columbia I was very excited to work with the relatively smaller massasauga, and they did not disappoint.
Chunks the eastern massasauga rattlesnake.
The above photo very quickly became one of my favourites. Not only is Chunks, the female massy pictured here, one of the most photogenic and cooperative wild snakes I have ever encountered, she is also one of only six individual massasaugas that I saw during this project. Two years and only six individuals. Let’s just let that sink in a little. We are slowly watching this population disappear, and they need our help now more than ever!
Lead Biologist Jonathan Choquette and I (Jennifer Barden) processing Prairie, the only massasauga seen in 2019.
In the above photo, Jonathan Choquette, Lead Biologist of the team, and I are processing Prairie, the only massy seen in 2019. This was a late encounter and we were starting to worry that we wouldn’t see any all season! She was understandably a welcome sight. Hopefully the OPRREC team has better luck in the 2020 season.
Other Herps (Herpetofauna = reptiles and amphibians)
Besides massasaugas, our surveys focused on other species at risk reptiles like the butler’s gartersnake, eastern foxsnake and snapping turtle. The foxsnakes, in particular, were always interesting finds. A surveyor searching for massasaugas focuses their efforts on the ground level, as massasaugas are not very good climbers. It is often hard to change our focus to the trees and bushes, so we don’t miss any foxsnakes “hanging out”. Besides species at risk snakes we saw more common species such as eastern gartersnakes, northern brownsnakes, northern redbellied snakes, American toads, leopard frogs, green frogs, chorus frogs, and painted turtles. These species were more abundant and could be observed most days if the weather cooperated. The chorus frogs have been calling in this area since early March and American toads have started calling. Their mating calls serenade people’s daily walks and field technician surveys.
This eastern foxsnake was sharing this hollow tree crevice with another eastern foxsnake. Sadly we were so excited about spotting the first one that the second one got away.
A butler’s gartersnake found under a cover object during a survey.
Preparing for Massasauga Translocations
I am often asked by family and friends what I did over the winter while working on a snake project. Valid question for sure. One of the projects that I worked on over the winter months was a hibernation habitat study to identify potential release sites for conservation translocations of massasaugas. This winter was extra special because I even got to work with eastern gartersnakes in the field over winter. Twenty-one eastern gartersnakes over-wintered in artificial hibernacula to help evaluate three potential release sites. These snakes were monitored every other week using a borescope and will help identify suitable habitat for hibernating snakes and eventual releases.
A curious eastern gartersnake in one of our artificial hibernacula, coming towards the borescope to investigate by flicking its tongue.
Watching the snakes via borescope over-winter was a lot of fun. I was able to observe the water level in the bottom of the artificial hibernacula changing over time and watch the snakes moving underwater. I also noticed that their behavior changed with the temperature. One particular artificial hibernacula has five younger snakes that would cluster together on cold days and become what I described on the survey sheet as a “snake ball”. On warmer days I had to make sure they didn’t escape; they were so active and curious about the borescope and would come up to it flicking their tongues (like the individual in the image above).
These snakes are still in their artificial hibernacula and though I won’t be there to see it, they will soon be released by the OPRREC team!
Plants, Bugs and other Creepy Crawlies
While searching for massasaugas took most of my concentration during surveys, I will admit to a slight distraction when it comes to plants and insects. The Ojibway prairie is home to an incredible amount of biodiversity. Over 160 provincially rare plants and animals call this park complex home. So, conducting surveys in these areas feels a little like playing Pokémon. While the focus is on the legendary species such as massasaugas, you can always find something hidden in the tall grass (or tallgrass prairie).
Over the two years I was a technician on this project I took pictures of insects and plants for later identification and ended up with more than I expected. I took photos of over 60 species of insect alone, though it seemed like more before I identified all the caterpillars/moths/butterflies and confirmed most of those predictably overlap. On top of the insects, I also have photos of twelve different spider species, nine fungus species and twenty-eight plant species. These are some of my favourites:
A monarch butterfly resting on dense blazing star. Two species at risk in one photo! Monarchs are classified as special concern in Ontario and the dense blazing star is threatened.
A walking stick insect that was crawling on the pants of my field partner at the time (Kaitlyn Hall).
An orb weaver enjoying an insect meal.
This is a small yellow lady-slipper orchid. This flower is a rare sight and blooms in late May-June.
Working on this project has been an amazing experience, and not just because of the snakes! I have met a number of people, and friends, who are so protective of their local environments and the wildlife that calls these areas home. I hope to take everything I learned from this experience, and the passionate conservation biologists that run the projects at Wildlife Preservation Canada and use it in future conservation work.
Jennifer Barden – Former Lead Reptile Recovery Field Technician