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Rare, ancient Ottawa sand dune at risk
Volunteers needed to help Pinhey Sand Dune ecosystem survive
Blog Radio interview with Executive Secretary Stephen Aitken on “From the Top – The UN Decade on Biodiversity”
October 25, 2012
Sand dunes get stewards,
Conservationists form group to protect
Nepean’s unique landform
Article, By Jennifer McIntosh
EMC news – Conservationists that beat back the forest to reclaim an inland sand dune near Slack Road announced they will remain on guard.
The group of residents, scientists, local politicians and staff from the National Capital Commission met on Oct. 18 at the newly-dubbed Pinhey Sand Dune for the inauguration of the Stewards of Sand Dunes (SOS-Dunes).
The conservation effort received a $100,000 boost from the Ontario Trillium Foundation in June 2011 to be handed out over two years.
“It’s amazing the work that has been done with that grant,” Nepean-Carleton MPP Lisa MacLeod.
The dunes were formed by movement of the ice, during the last ice age, which started to recede approximately 10,000 years ago. Over the past 60 to 70 years in eastern Ontario, the dunes have declined to only one per cent of their natural coverage.
This is a concern because they are home to as many as 65 regionally-rare species of plants and animals.
One such animal is the ghost tiger beetle – a 12-millimetre long insect the same colour as the fine-grained sand and whose only home in Ottawa is the dunes on Slack Road.
If that system isn’t preserved, the species will become extinct in this region.
The group worked with aerial images of the area over the last 75 years to track some of the damage, then removed plants, weeds and trees to reclaim some of the area.
Dr. P.T. Dang, president of Biodiversity Conservancy and one of leaders in the conservation effort, said the group is very grateful to the community for all their help.
“We had children from local schools here, learning about biodiversity and helping out,” he said.
Now that the area has been reclaimed it will be up to volunteers with the SOS-Dunes to keep an eye on the area to prevent the trees from encroaching on the rare habitat.
Dr. Henri Goulet, an entomologist who used to work at the Experimental Farm has been combing the area for nearly 30 years, getting an up close look at the habitat of the rare insects.
“I came here to see the white tiger beetles and fell in love with this place,” he said.
The surface temperature of the sand on the Pinhey Sand Dune is 70 C. The beetles burrow under the surface. The anthrax – or “bee fly” – come along and drop their eggs holes in the fine-grained sand.
“There are creatures here that can’t be found in the surrounding forests or the neighbouring lawns,” Goulet said.
Now the dunes have been restored to some of their former glory, the stewards and the National Capital Commission – will become caretakers and put up signage to educate the public about the ecology.
Knoxdale-Merivale Coun. Keith Egli said the area gives him bragging rights around the council table.
“It’s an incredible example of biodiversity and a great example of community,” he said. “Three levels of government came together, along with residents and other volunteers.”
Gynn Norman, a resident of Merivale Gardens – the community that surrounds the dune, said the experience has been great for her children.
“My son’s favourite thing to do in the morning during the summer is go out and talk to his retired friends,” Norman said, recalling a time when her son tried to beat Dr. Andrew Mott up a tree.
Eva Katic, an NCC manager for natural resources and land management within the Greenbelt, said the call from Dr. Henri Goulet asking if they could go in and do conservation was like winning the lottery.
“It’s very rare that we get calls from scientists wanting to do conservation work,” she said. “In 14 months the sand dune has doubled in area and it has become a catalyst for community involvement. It’s a great opportunity to preserve the ecology and for research.”
Note: This article also appeared in yourottawaregion.com
October 18, 2012
Ottawa’s suburban sand dune
Article, Tony Spears, Capital City News
After a few thousand years, even the hardiest sand dune needs a little help from its neighbours.
And the sand dune tucked into the forest near Slack and Merivale roads needs more help than most.
It is of that most rare species: the suburban sand dune. Utterly landlocked, without so much as a brook to babble at, the Pinhey dune is slowly being eaten up by encroaching woods.
“This one’s about 12,000 years old, it’d be formed during the last glacial retreat,” said Stephen Aitken, project co-ordinator with the Pinhey Sand Dune Conservation Project. “It’s the sand from the Champlain Sea.”
The Champlain briny covered the Ottawa Valley once upon a time before the sea slunk back to the Atlantic Ocean, leaving a sandy floor behind.
“The inland dunes were the remnants of that sea” Aitken said. “The Pinhey Forest is all underlain by sand as well.
“This is one of the last remaining little areas of that original sand.”
To fight back against pernicious vegetation, the dune’s allies have received a provincial grant and help from the National Capital Commission, which has already removed a number of trees.
“We figured in about five years that dune was going to be gone,” Aitken said.
Concerned citizens have also formed the aptly named Stewards of Sand Dunes group — or SOS Dunes — which will officially be launched Oct. 19.
The NCC and the Biodiversity Conservancy have granted the group permanent stewardship over Ottawa’s dunes.
The Pinhey dune supplies suitable condition for the finicky, delicate Lady’s Slipper orchid, but it is also home to fearsome horrors.
Ant lions look a bit like tiny armadillos, except that they have massive mandibles that clamp down on their prey, who don’t know what’s happening until it’s too late. They dig out small conical depressions in the sand that look innocuous, but when an ant wanders in it transforms into a hell pit.
That’s because the ant lion has buried itself at the bottom, mandibles poised at the centre of the depression.
The ant lion seizes its prey to drag into its maw; if it misses the ant can try to scale the sides of the pit to escape — but the fine sand prevents it from getting good footing and it will inexorably fall back into the jaws of its pitiless killer.
Aitken hopes to expand the dune’s foot print to three or four times its current size.
“It’s history in Ontario from the last Ice Age,” he said.
July 27, 2012
Canadian Youth Volunteer at Sand Dunes
Article, Ward 9 Newsletter, Councillor Keith Egli
On July 23, 12 youth and three adult leaders from all across Canada arrived in Ottawa to work with local conservation group, Biodiversity Conservancy, to save and protect the rare inland Pinhey Sand Dune ecosystem located within the National Capital Greenbelt.
As part of their 2012 focus on leadership and sustainability, the Children’s International Summer Village (CISV) youth joined in the effort to create awareness of this conservation project, identifying and cataloguing endangered insects, and clearing encroaching vegetation to restore this unique habitat.
Councillor Egli was on site to welcome the youth and help search for ant lions and other insects. “Over the past year we restored a large, core dune with the help of the local community and many dedicated volunteers,” said Stephen Aitken, project coordinator of Biodiversity Conservancy. “This rare ecosystem harbours many unique organisms and this year, with the collaboration of the NCC and a new generation of enthusiastic volunteers, we hope to recapture more of the original sandy dune habitat.”
For information: www.tc-biodiversity.org/.
Download Newsletter pdf (750kb)
August 8, 2011
Digging dune to save doodlebugs from ruin
By Joe Lofaro, Metro Ottawa
Few people know that Ottawa has a rare, desert-like ecosystem near Woodroffe Avenue ‘ even though it’s been there for nearly 10,000 years.
The Ottawa Greenbelt Sand Dune is home to many unique species but it’s slowly disappearing because of encroaching vegetation, such as trees and small plants. A group of scientists and volunteers is trying to preserve it by removing the trees that were planted there to open up the area and keep it hot and dry.
One threatened species is the antlion, which survives by building traps in the sand to capture ants.
“The sand dune is the result of the last ice age,” said Tropical Conservancy president Dr. P.T. Dang, who is leading a two-year preservation project. “If we remove this (sand dune) habitat, animals that live here are going to be lost forever,” he said.
Grade 12 students from Merivale High School and other members of the community have been volunteering on weekends to uproot trees and other vegetation.
“It’s difficult work but it’s really satisfying because you can see the progress,” said Anish Muradia, 16. “It’s a really unique feature of our area,” added Rahul Chandan, 17.
Read the article online (includes photos)
August 5, 2011
Local youth work to save rare in-land sand dunes in Ottawa
By Vani Edwardson, Blog Post, Transition Ottawa
Ottawa’s Children’s International Summer Village (CISV) today announced a partnership with local conservation group, Tropical Conservancy, to save and protect a rare in-land Sand Dune eco-system within the Ottawa Green Belt near the corner of Woodroffe ,Slack road and Vaan. As part of their 2011 focus on sustainability, CISV youth will join in the effort to create awareness of this conservation project, identify and catalog endangered insects, and clear invasive vegetation to restore this unique habitat. More at Transition Ottawa . . .
July 15, 2011
Rare Slack Sand Dune under threat
Local conservationists keen to save Ottawa’s last inland sand dune are digging up invasive species plants that pose a threat to a rare unique ecosystem and remnant from the last Ice Age.
High-school students armed with rakes and shovels removed plants at the sand dune off Slack Road in Nepean on Friday, in an effort to restore the shrinking habitat.
The Nepean sand dune — the largest in Ontario — was created when the glaciers retreated some 10,000 years ago.
Stephen Aitken, the project co-ordinator for the Ottawa Greenbelt Sand Dune Conservation project, said the Slack Sand Dune is in danger of being lost unless there’s some intervention to remove invasive plant species.
“Ontario is down to one per cent of the sand dunes that they used to have, and they are a vital part of Ontario ecosystems and Ontario life.”
NCC vows dune will be protected Dr. Henri Goulet, a retired entomologist who worked with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada for 33 years, said there were some insects that still remain unique to the dune’s ecosystem.
“We’re losing a unique fauna that is not found in your backyard, that is not found in marshes,” he said. “It’s only found in this type of habitat.”
June 12, 2011
Nepean conservancy group gives nature a helping hand
By Jennifer McIntosh, YourOttawaRegion.com
Trillium Foundation grants $100,000 for protection of rare land form
A group of Nepean-based conservationists are giving nature a helping hand.
Ottawa Greenbelt Sand Dune Conservation — an offshoot of Tropical Conservancy —has received a $100,000 grant over two years from the Ontario Trillium Foundation to support their efforts in reclaiming the habitat of the shrinking sand dunes in the forest behind Slack Road.
Stephen Aitken, who is coordinating the project with Tropical Conservancy, said the dune is the last one of its kind in the city — and one of a rare few in the province.
“Sand dunes are more associated with beach areas, but inland dunes are very rare,” he said, adding that the area is a couple of football fields long as well as wide.
The danger is the surrounding forested area has begun to encroach on the dunes with trees and other invasive species moving in.
With the help of volunteers from the Merivale Gardens Community Association and the students at Merivale High School, Aitken said he hopes they can re-establish the area by removing the trees and plants and then returning them to the forested area.
“We had some kids come and help pull some poplar balsam, blackberry bushes and buckthorn shrub,” he said, adding that younger kids from the community were sifting through sand to remove the organic matter.
The group is working with aerial and satellite images of the area over the last 75 years to track some of the damage.
The dunes were formed by movement of the ice, during the last ice age, which started to recede approximately 10,000 years ago. Over the past 60 to 70 years in eastern Ontario, the dunes have declined to only one per cent of their natural coverage. This is a concern because they are home to as many as 65 regionally-rare species of plants and animals.
One such animal is the ghost tiger beetle — a 12-millimetre long insect the same colour as the fine-grained sand whose only home in Ottawa is the dunes on Slack Road.
If that system isn’t preserved, the species will become extinct.
Aitken said the NCC has been very supportive of the group’s efforts and will work to put up signage to discourage bonfires and other practices that may damage the dunes.
He also said a community-level group will be set up once the two-year grant period is completed to make sure the area is maintained.
“Once we return it to its former glory, it should be pretty easy to maintain,” Aitken said.
The group plans to hold workshops and visit school to educate residents on the rare firstname.lastname@example.org
Ottawa This Week-Nepean
June 9, 20211
Group hopes to save rare Ottawa landform
(EMC Nepean/Barhaven Article)
EMC News – A small but dedicated group of conservationists are planning to save a rare piece of geology in Nepean from being swallowed by encroaching nature.
Hidden from the public’s view in the woods off of Slack Road is the only example of a naturally occurring sand dune ecosystem in Ottawa, a remnant of the retreat of the last Ice Age. The formation is in danger of disappearing entirely due to the spread of invasive (non-naturally occurring) plant species that were introduced to the Greenbelt decades ago.
Ottawa Greenbelt Sand Dune Conservation, a subgroup of Tropical Conservancy, has recently received a two-year Ontario Trillium Foundation grant to reverse the loss of habitat and restore the shrinking dunes.
Tropical Conservancy is an Ottawa-based (and registered) charitable scientific organization that publishes the scientific journal Biodiversity, the subgroup was formed in March of this year to target the threatened piece of land.
“It’s the last remaining visible sand dune in Ottawa,” explained project coordinator Stephen Aitken. “The area is a couple of football fields long as well as wide. Nature has moved in and is basically reforesting it.”
With the grant money, the group aims to enlist the help of volunteers as well as the National Capital Commission in removing the invasive plants, putting protective measures in place, and educating the community on the area’s significance.
Already they have brought students from Merivale High School to visit the ecosystem, while workshops are planned for the coming months to introduce the wider community to the project and their intentions.
The Slack Sand Dune, much like the Burnt Lands alvar to the west of the city and the Mer Bleue bog to the east, is an example of an unique ecosystem existing in isolation far removed from its natural habitat. The glaciation of 10,000 years ago is responsible for the creation of each of these examples.
However, unlike Mer Bleue and Burnt Lands, the dune is smaller, more vulnerable, less known and currently unprotected.
Being a scientific organization, the group plans to write a scientific paper on the area, and are planning a species inventory of the area with the help of biologists.
The dune is home to the Ghost Tiger Beetle, a half-inch long insect the same colour of the fine-grained sand that risks becoming locally extinct if the destruction of the ecosystem continues to erode.
It will be the NCC’s job as the regulatory body overseeing the Greenbelt to put signage and access measures in place to limit the more destructive of human practices, such as bonfires (a bad idea as it is) and four-wheeling.
“The NCC is very invested in our project,” said Aitken. “They’ve wanted to restore it but didn’t have the scientific expertise.”
He added the removal of invasive plants will undo much of the damage of well-meaning planters from decades past.
“We’re giving nature a helping hand – earlier planters didn’t understand the ecosystem at the time.”
Information on the workshops will be forthcoming, following the project, a community-level group is expected to be formed to maintain the area into the future.