Things to Do at F.W.R. Dickson Wilderness Area
Skunk Cabbage is aptly named both for shape and smell. Find it by the wetland boardwalk where it is already growing in the late snow.
This Arum relative can flower so early in spring because it warms itself 15-35°C above ambient temperature. It not only melts its way through frozen ground, but its heat also spreads its foul “body odor” to attract carrion-eating flies. The flies pollinate the skunk cabbage flowers.
Skunk cabbage has another trick – contractile roots – They slowly pull the plant into the peat of the wetland, so that it is difficult for animals to dig it up or eat it! Older plants are mostly underground.
On the slope at the end of the boardwalk is a magnificent Carolinian forest. Carolinian forest is an ecosystem with mostly southern species, and the most characteristic of the Carolinian trees at this site is Sassafras. You’ll recognise it by its distinctive leaves. You will probably remember the name of the tree from its use in sassafras tea and root beer. However, sassafras oil is no longer used commercially due to health concerns –So please don’t pick the leaves!
Taking Out the Trash
Fall is a great time for walking at the Dickson Wilderness Area! Trees are withdrawing nutrients and sugars from their leaves into the stems and roots, and what is left is jettisoned as dead leaves – tree trash. Leaves for colour and leaves to scuffle through!
Deciduous trees like oaks, maples and hickories here at Dickson are flowering plants with broad leaves that drop off in fall in this climate.
The conifers, a more primitive group with tiny flowers and needle-shaped leaves, keep their needles as long as possible, letting them go only when they are physiologically worn out. These trees do not drop many leaves in fall. The Ontario provincial tree, Eastern White Pine, is an example that you can see right here. It has long, soft needles in bunches of five (occasionally of three).
However, one conifer, Tamarack, drops its needles in fall like the broad-leaved deciduous trees. It is growing in this fen wetland, and has bright yellow foliage in fall. The needles are in bunches on little woody pegs.
The leaves dropped by trees rot down, so releasing their remaining nutrients to the soil. The dead leaves will be used by many soil creatures and the leaves will lend structure to the soil. It’s good to know that the trees are taking out the trash!
Winter is chickadee time at Dickson Wilderness area! Chickadees are little fluffy birds that feed on insects and seeds. After they have finished breeding in summer, these birds gather in flocks such as you can see here.
The species of chickadee here is the Black-capped chickadee. Chickadees are useful insect pest eaters in gardens.
Chickadees have various calls. One is a territory call “see saw”: “This is my space”. Another is “Chickadee dee dee”: “I see danger!” (The bigger the threat the more “dees” there are). A third is “chiddly-joink”: “Get out of my way you, you’re bugging me” – Called by a dominant bird to a lower-ranked one who gets too close.
If you put some food (e.g. black sunflower seed, meal worms) on the open palm of your hand the birds will come to you to feed. You must keep quiet and still or they will be scared off!
Some birds are the bosses here, and some are “at the bottom of the pecking order”. The dominant birds always feed first. Can you see who’s dominant among this group?
We normally do not encourage you to feed wild animals – It can cause all kinds of problems from introducing diseases into the wild to turning animals into nuisances. However, chickadees have been fed here for so many years that it’s become a tradition.
Do you hear it? Gedoink! Like a banjo. That is the male Northern Green Frog whose call resonates here from spring until mid-summer. He is advertising his territory down by the pond. The Green Frog is a large green frog (Though it does come in other colours too) with distinct ear drums. Unsurprisingly, its other name is “banjo frog”.
After mating, females lay eggs that they drape across water weeds in the pond. They hatch into tadpoles that swim in the water and they start with a vegetarian diet. As they grow, the tadpoles absorb their long tails and grow legs.They also change over to animal food. Adults green frogs eat small land and water dwelling creatures – insects, spiders, fish, crayfish, other frogs, tadpoles, small snakes, small birds and snails.
A Prairie in Ontario?
Yes, there are prairies in Ontario! This township of North Dumfries was once home to many prairie patches and savannah (Scattered trees and grassland). The European settlers called these “plains”.
The grassland ahead of you was mostly filled with European species when Dickson Wilderness was first preserved. However, among the smooth brome grass and the nodding thistles there were remnants of the native prairie grasses and herbs.
Now the area has been deliberately burned in several years during late spring. European weedy plants here mostly start growth early in the spring, but the native prairie plants are adapted to spring fires. They do not sprout from the ground until the fire hazard is lessened, so they survive the fires and thrive. Fires also serve to kill young trees and to stop the forest invading the site.
The tallgrass prairie grasses include big bluestem, Indian grass and little bluestem. There are also colourful herbs like orange butterfly milkweed and pink-flowered round-headed bush clover.
In fall, ducks and geese gather at the pond in the Dickson Wilderness area. They are using the area to feed and for resting up before continuing South. Some species that you are likely to see here are mallards, black ducks and Canada geese.
Many of the Canada geese here are local, but others have come from as far away as the Hudson Bay lowlands in Northern Ontario. These days, some of the birds will over-winter because of corn left in Ontario fields. However, many birds will continue south to the Atlantic Coast of the USA.
Photo: © 2016 Roger Suffling
If we have snow your boots or snowshoes will be making distinctive tracks, but others are making tracks here. How many animal tracks can you recognise on your way?
Follow the tracks and see what the animals have done. Do the tracks end in a burrow? Or a food source? Or as a red smudge, with the tail and wing marks where a red-tailed hawk made a kill?