Today’s post comes from Natural Heritage Education Leader David Bree at Presqu’ile Provincial Park.
2017 was a rainy year for provincial parks.
If you visited Lake Ontario this spring, you know that water levels reached record highs. At the beginning of May, the lake was 10 cm higher than its highest level since records began in 1918. This is also a meter higher than average.
The damage this caused has been well documented. At Presqu’ile Provincial Park, we had facilities flood, lost land to erosion, and had to close for four weeks in June to prevent further damage to our soggy landscape.
The flooding was certainly an inconvenience for us, but what effect did it have on the nature and wildlife of the park?
Presqu’ile is born from the lake.
The park is a sand and gravel tombolo that connects two coastal islands.
For thousands of years, it has faced all kinds of water-related problems: droughts, big waves, and even record high water levels.
Nature usually has a way of balancing extreme natural events, and this year was no exception.
So the record high water level resulted in losers, but also winners.
How did the birds do?
The high tide certainly affected the plovers in a negative way. Last year, this endangered species nested in the park for the first time in 100 years.
By the end of April, the male plover had returned, ready to establish a territory and leave again. But over the next few weeks, the water continued to rise and little by little the beach was covered by about 10 cm of water.
No beach? No Piping Plover Habitat
Plovers nest on beaches, so without a beach there is no nest. Our male gave up and moved on.
In contrast, the flooded beach in July was a major attraction for long-legged shorebirds migrating south. We have never had so many Lesser Yellowlegs!
We also tend to have a small breeding colony of Barn Swallow and Rough-winged Swallow in the day use area. These declining species dig nests in the small cliffs next to the lake.
This year, those cliffs were hit repeatedly by waves and actually eroded a couple feet away in some areas. It would be suicide to nest there and our swallows didn’t even try.
Trees and other wild animals.
Pannes are low, open areas between sand dunes. This year, our panels were filled with water for an extended period. This appears to have killed several cedar trees growing there.
The pannes are our most important habitat globally and they were becoming filled with too many trees. Therefore, its reduction was not so bad for the overall health of a single habitat.
And speaking of pannes, all that extra water resulted in a banner year for frog and aquatic insect production.
Frogs use temporary ponds to reproduce. Ponds usually dry out in July, but if they dry out too soon, the tadpoles cannot transform into frogs in time and will die.
The frogs had no worries this year!
The excess of tadpoles was an advantage for our turtles. With many tadpoles, many turtles made the trip from the swamp to the panne to feed.
All those aquatic insects were also an abundant food source for many nesting birds.
Abundant spring rains also allowed for lush plant growth. Again, this was good for more insects and birds.
So was high tide a bad thing?
It depends who you ask.
As we can see, in the natural world there were both winners and losers. This illustrates the need to preserve a variety of habitats across the province. For example, if there is no beach here this year, we need inland beaches where the piping plovers can go.
It is important to preserve and promote a robust and wide-ranging ecosystem. This allows nature to adapt to shocks in extreme years like this. Then this year’s losers will have the means to bounce back in the future.
The pannes (G2 ecosystems) in Presqu’ile will thrive thanks to the additional water.
This means we must protect habitats in our parks, but also become good stewards of the land elsewhere. Parks aren’t big enough to do the job alone (want to help?).
If we can all do that, we will be in good shape for our next high tide year.