Sciensational Sssnakes!!

Conservation Through Education

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Hands-on Herpetofauna Conservation Projects

The following is an article I wrote a few years ago for the now defunct Ontario Herpetological Society newsletter. The NCC did purchase Clear Creek, the Toronto Conservation Authority did build the pond (spectacularly so!), and we've been taking groups to Pelee Island for four years now with great success!

This issue’s subject is something I hope will be of importance to all of our members. I will cover some of the projects that are on-going, or upcoming, where people can get involved with helping to conserve reptiles and amphibians, and their habitat, for the future. Some of these projects could be local; some may involve travel. Most involve some physical activity, but there are aspects which do not. It has been my intention over the last year get people more active in local conservation projects and recovery efforts, in addition to their captive collection interests. While the start has been slower than I had planned, the involvement has been growing, and hopefully, it will continue to grow. I hope that everyone will make the effort to do at least one thing to benefit herps in the wild this year!

Negative responses that I have heard repeatedly when broaching this subject are that there is no point in engaging in these efforts while the habitat is being destroyed, and that this is an activity for the government, not individuals. The first argument is somewhat valid. Stopping habitat loss is critical for many species, and trying to count frogs in a swamp as the bulldozers idle next door may well be a waste of time. Many projects, however, involve restoring previously damaged areas through wetland or microhabitat creation, native plantings, etc. In other cases, those frog counts may just turn up something that might stop the bulldozers. I find the second point particularly frustrating. Indeed, government agencies play the lead role most of the time when it comes to species recovery programs and habitat protection, but that doesn’t mean that individuals should do nothing. There are many examples of individuals whose efforts have resulted in significant conservation achievements, and sometimes these efforts spur the government to take further action! Concerned citizens, acting together for a common interest, can have a great effect on the local environment, and often on a wider stage as well. Organizations like the Nature Conservancy of Canada (which purchases land for nature reserves) are an ultimate example of this, but even small groups like the OHS can achieve results.

One project that almost everyone can help with is Frogwatch. This is a program run by Environment Canada’s Ecological Monitoring and Assessment Network (EMAN). You can find more details at Frogwatch participants monitor a wetland, preferably over several nights, recording the presence of species by calls (and sightings if possible), to determine what species are where, and whether they are still there the next year. You can report data over the web, or call toll free, 1-888-31FROGS.

The Great Lakes Marsh Monitoring Program,, is similar to Frogwatch, but more rigorous. A set of stations within the same wetland are monitored on 3 nights, when the air temperatures are 5C, 10C and 17C, for 3 minutes per station, between ½ hour after sunset and midnight. One of three call level codes is assigned to each species calling. This quantification of data is important to assess species abundance and distribution over the long term. The program has been on-going since 1994, so trends should be starting to emerge.

The Federation of Ontario Naturalists,, runs a program called “Working for Wilderness” where participants assist with a wide variety of projects throughout Ontario. Most are not specific to herps, but usually benefit the habitat. There will soon be a list of projects for 2001 on the web.

The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC),, raises money for land acquistion and protection. Those who can’t dig or slog through swamps can certainly help with this. One project for this year is the protection of an island in Lake Huron, which is one of the last remaining undeveloped islands in the area and is home to 30 reptile and amphibian species, and 273 plant species. This island is being protected as a reserve class provincial park for nature interpretation and appreciation. The NCC is also currently working on protecting the Clear Creek Carolinian forest in Kent county, having secured a one year delay in logging while funds can be raised. So far, $600,000 has been raised to protect 89 ha (220 acres), but another $1.4 million is need to protect all 324 ha (800 acres). Clear Creek forest is a provincially significant ‘Area of Natural and Scientific Interest’ (ANSI) and has been nominated as an internationally important bird area. Habitats within the property include interior forest, shoreline, ravines, swamp, and savanna. Some of the largest trees in southern Ontario are found there, as are several vulnerable and endangered species. The NCC has a planned giving program, so people can will properties to them, and also helps landowners to protect habitat for the future through conservation easements, which ensure that the land will not be developed, though it remains in private ownership and can be sold and lived on. Contact the NCC through the web, or toll free at 1-877-343-3532.

All of the above organizations, and many others, can also be found through the Links section of our website,

One OHS member, Steve Marks, began a spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata) survey at an Ontario Park last spring. Spotted turtles were known to exist in the park, but there had been no sightings for several years. Several volunteers went out for two weekends, and found two turtles, one of which was captured and marked. I was lucky enough to go for the second weekend, but unfortunately the weather was too warm, and we were unable to find any. We did see water (Nerodia sipedon) and ribbon (Thamnophis sauritus) snakes while searching, though. This survey is performed under an MNR scientific permit, and it is probably the only way that most people would ever be able to legally catch spotted turtles! Steve is hoping to have more volunteers, and cover at least four weekends in the spring of 2001, so come on out and help! You can reach Steve at

Closer to home, I am starting to work with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority on the creation of a pond and a hibernaculum within the Lower Humber watershed. This pond will take the run-off from a potable water splash pad in a park, and then overflow into a Humber tributary which suffers from low base flows in the summer. The existing splash pad drains into the creek through a culvert, and the new design will drain into the sewer system unless the pond is built; neither of these does much to benefit herps. Currently American toads (Bufo americanus) are the only amphibian that seems to survive in the area. A small pond would likely be a great help in enabling frog species to recolonize the area. The location of the project is near Islington and the 401- not too far to travel for a lot of our members! I am hoping that it will get underway in the late spring or early summer, so let me know if you are interested in being involved.

And finally, more on Pelee Island! If you missed my last article, which discussed Pelee in depth, there was a fall trip planned to do some habitat creation at the Wilds of Pelee Island Centre for Conservation. Unfortunately, the planned weekend didn’t work out for some people, so only a couple of us went. Some other volunteers were on hand, along with director Ben Porchuk and staff member Rob Willson, so we were able to get quite a bit done. We cut exotic vegetation and used it to build nesting piles for eastern fox snakes (Elaphe gloydii) and blue racers (Coluber constrictor foxii). We moved rocks which will be used in the creation of ‘hot rocks’. These are assemblages of rocks, mortared together, to form a thick mass which will not exceed 30C during the day (underneath) but will retain enough thermal energy that the temperature does not drop very far overnight. We also collected wildflower seed for tall grass prairie restoration, and of course, found some herps! The racers were already down for the winter, but we saw lots of garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) and two fox snakes. The fox snakes were captured (again, under scientific permit), weighed and measured, and implanted with passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags or ‘microchips’ so that they could be identified if recaptured in the future. This is part of the on-going work at the centre, and it was great to get a chance to be involved in it first hand.

Due to a happy coincidence, a second trip occurred. Ben had previously asked me about building a pond at the centre (as some of you may know, when I’m not working with reptiles, I’m usually building ponds and fish tanks). Shortly thereafter, I was asked to build a large pond for the stage of the Gemini Awards at the end of October. One of the great things about television work is that it is often very short-lived, and you sometimes get the materials back, so I ended up with a lot of pond liner! Rather than re-selling it, I donated it to the Wilds of Pelee to create a pond that was much larger than they envisioned, ~20m by 8m. It will be important habitat for a variety of herp species, and hopefully will become the site for a Blanchard’s Cricket frog (Acris crepitans) reintroduction program. I would like to thank Jason Culp, his friend Ron, and Dan & Gord Hoops, for volunteering their time to help, and the Grand River Conservation Authority for providing a truck to transport the liner. Unfortunately the reptiles were all underground (Pelee is pretty far south, but it was the middle of November) but we did find some eastern newts (Notopthalmus viridescens) and some small-mouthed salamanders (Ambystoma texanum), a species for which Pelee Island is the only known Canadian locality.

I am planning a couple of trips to Pelee Island for the spring, probably one in May, and one in June. Let me know if you would be interested in participating. If you don’t have transportation, it can often be arranged, and food is generally provided. The Wilds of Pelee Island Centre for Conservation is a charitable centre, so they can give tax receipts for donations. As it is probably the most herp-focused conservation group in Ontario, it is certainly deserving of our funds.

I hope that more of our members will get involved in some of these, or other, worthwhile projects in the upcoming season. There is a lot of work to do if we are to conserve the diversity of herpetofauna in Ontario. If we assume that others will do it, then it will never get done, so please, help out in whatever way that you can. If you can dig, dig a hibernaculum. If you can hike or paddle, count snakes or turtles. If you can walk, collect seed, or help spread it. Volunteer to cook for a group if you are daunted by bugs or terrain. If you can’t travel, you can always help fund raise, and educate the public! Everyone is capable of doing something, and I hope that you will find the time and energy. If you have any questions or ideas relating to this column, conservation activities, or legislation, please e-mail me at or write to the OHS mailbox.

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