Thu. Feb 29th, 2024
A forest of friends

Today’s post comes to us from Heather Stern, naturalist at Bon Echo Provincial Park.

Many people visit the parks each summer looking for vacation, relaxation, adventure, or generally a break from city life. These are all good reasons to get out and enjoy nature.

However, while visitation to provincial parks is increasing, we want awareness of the unique plants, animals and habitats these parks protect to also increase.

Nothing to see here, friends!

Forest landscape in summerHigh Pines Trail in Bon Echo

Working at Bon Echo Provincial Park as a park naturalist, I have the pleasure of helping visitors learn more about what they see in nature.

Initially, when I ask people what they have seen while exploring the park, the answer is often “nothing.”

Now, while they may not have seen charismatic megafauna like a deer or elk, they’re certainly still seeing something. The rocks, trees and lakes found in provincial parks are often what draw visitors to visit them in the first place!

Knowledge = greater enjoyment of nature

While knowing the natural environment of your campsite or backyard is no longer necessary for survival, it can make your time spent in nature much more enjoyable.

Person walking through a forest Shield Trail in Bon Echo

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Instead of taking a walk through the woods and seeing a dense wall of unfamiliar foliage, if you know how to identify those plants, you’ll see the mosaic of different species growing together in dappled sunlight on the forest floor.

Imagine the forest as a room full of people.

Going out into nature can be compared to walking into a room full of people. When you know a few people in the room, it’s not as scary to socialize and chat with other people. On the other hand, if you don’t know anyone, it can be extremely intimidating to walk in and start meeting people.

Forest with diverse flora.All your friends at Mara Provincial Park, Riverside Trail

Similarly, if you go into the forest and are able to recognize even the most common plants and animals in the area, it will be much easier for you to investigate and try to identify species you don’t know.

Whereas, if you’re not familiar with either species, researching them one at a time may seem like an impossible task.

I have to start somewhere!

Once you get started, and as your natural identification skills begin to progress, you will begin to recognize more species around you.

I discovered this for myself in the spring when I was trying to learn about the different birds that live in the Bon Echo area.

Before I could distinguish a black-and-white warbler from a black-capped titmouse or a white-throated sparrow from a Cypriot sparrow, all the little birds flying above me looked the same. But once I learned a few key identifying characteristics, my morning walks became much more interesting.

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Two songbirds in black and white.Black-capped Chickadee in Presqu’ile Provincial Park (left) and Black and White Warbler (right). Warbler Photo: William H. Majoros

Suddenly, I saw dozens of different species of birds, unlike the few I thought I had seen before.

Learning the names and characteristics of the different species around me has been as important as the binoculars around my neck in my quest to enjoy the outdoors.

So how can you develop your identification skills?

Two people identifying a plant.Start with the plants and animals in your backyard or neighborhood.

If you are interested in birds, you can make a bird feeder and try to identify the birds that come to visit.

Once you are able to identify some species, things start to get easier because you can compare any new species with the ones you already know. There are many apps, like iNaturalist, that can help you with your identification skills.

If you keep working at it, the next time you go for a walk in the woods, the species you know will feel as familiar as a friend in a room full of people. And this will help you better understand the unique habitats we protect in Ontario parks.

Your challenge: Go out into a green space this week and identify a species you’re not familiar with. Use an identification book or iNaturalist!