Backyard Biodiversity: Exploring the Museum’s Outdoor Habitats

Students Cassandra Robillard and Emma Lehmberg have been learning a lot this summer as environmental monitors ─namely, the tremendous variety of species and habitats that surround the museum’s research and collections facility. Here, they share their observations of what they have discovered in our ‘backyard’.

During the average workday at the museum’s research and collections facility, named the Natural Heritage Building, staff and visitors will see only a small portion of the vast property the facility was built on, even over the course of a break-time walk. And yet there are approximately 73 hectares of land making up the museum’s ‘backyard’, equivalent to about 32 Ottawa city blocks, an area larger than Ottawa’s downtown core! Within this area there are four largely differing habitats supporting a unique biota.

Two views of a wooded area with trees.

The wooded portion of the property is a mosaic of forest types, containing both maple (left) and cedar (right) canopies. Image: Emma Lehmberg © Canadian Museum of Nature

Wet Forest

The wet forest is the largest and most diverse habitat, and it covers most of the property. The landscape within the forest varies throughout the monitoring trail network. This diversity ranges from upland forest to some areas swampy enough to support peat moss (Sphagnum sp.), and from dappled deciduous thickets to the straight-line, grey columns of a conifer forest.

Species of note include large cedar trees (Thuja occidentalis), the endangered Butternut hickory tree (Juglans cinerea), red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), and American Toads (Bufo americanus). There have also been sightings of two Barred Owls (Strix varia) this year.

The Hydro Corridor

Woman holds plant in front of face.

Don’t forget the mosses! Cassandra shows off a sporophyte of hair-cap moss (Polytrichum sp.) near the Hydro corridor. Image: Emma Lehmberg © Canadian Museum of Nature

A large portion of property to the north of the forest is used, or was once used, as a right-of-way for hydro power lines. The habitat is open meadow that is flooded in spring and early summer. The area is home to many wetland plants such as Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis) and Alder (Alnus sp.).

White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) frequent this open area, as do hawks (e.g. Buteo lineatus) that prefer hunting in open areas and nesting in nearby woods.

There a lot of meadow wildflowers such as the native Canada Anemone (Anemone Canadensis) and Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), or the alien Red clover (Trifolium pratense) and Everlasting Pea (Lathyrus latifolius).

A white flower with green leaves.

Canada Anemone (Anemone canadensis), a native wildflower found in the Hydro corridor. Image: Cassandra Robillard © Canadian Museum of Nature

Juniper Meadow

The Juniper meadow is a sandy-soil habitat at the west end of the abandoned Hydro corridor. It has sandy soil and a ground cover of herbs dotted with clusters of low, wide Juniper shrubs (Juniperus communis).

View of meadow with sandy area in front.

Panorama of the juniper meadow. Image: EMP team 2010 © Canadian Museum of Nature

This area is in the early stages of succession toward a forested habitat, but the sand makes it unique for adapted species of grass, moss and lichens; it is also perfect for the Antlion, a larva of the Lacewing fly (family Myrmeleontidae), which uses the sand to make slippery pits for ants to fall into.

The Pond

Two people dip nets in pond.

Museum research assistant Noel Alfonso and Emma Lehmberg go dip-netting in the pond. Image: Brian Coad © Canadian Museum of Nature

This little area is familiar to anyone who has taken a leisurely stroll down the path around the museum’s facility. The pond is at the southeast corner of the parking lot and has been maintained with the goal of restoring that portion of the property to a natural wetland ecosystem.

During the spring, high flood water allows minnows (e.g. Fathead Minnow (Pimephales promelas) or Finescale Dace (Phoxinus neogaeus)) to colonize the area. The abundant insects laying in the warm water create a feast for a multitude of Green Frogs (Lithobates clamitans), and for a family of Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus). The abundance of amphibians and fish in turn seems to have attracted a young Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina). This animal has been in residence there for at least a year now, and sometimes hops into the shallows to say hello!

Close-up of a Snapping Turtle in hand.

Watch your fingers! Emma holds up our resident Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina). Image: Brian Coad © Canadian Museum of Nature

All these areas have something interesting to see, and more importantly to preserve─no matter when we visit. This includes the diverse flora and fauna that we have yet to discover for ourselves. While there isn’t space to describe all these here, we hope we’ve been successful in giving you an introduction to the sights at the museum’s property around its research facility, and in sharing with you some of the feeling we get while discovering our very own backyard.

A green heron in pond.

A Green Heron (Butorides virescens), an uncommon but beautiful sight at the pond. Image: Brian Coad © Canadian Museum of Nature

This entry was posted in Animals, Education, Fieldwork, Plants, The green museum and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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