Archive for August 2009


woke up this morning and it was so freezing! convinced myself to get out of bed to do some readings and call the boyfriend – quite amazing right? even took a shower, which actually literally made my teeth chatter.

as with all cold places, its not the actual cold (though for some places it can be) that ‘kills’ you, its the wind. the WIND. cold winds blowing around you, wrapping around your bones and sending the chills everywhere.

all i would say now is that i’m extremely glad i got to experience canadian summer (albeit the end of summer) and receive the golden sun on my back in the fields that i’ve seen on the television screen ever since i started watching tv.

summer’s living on borrowed time though. and fall’s here to take it back.


stay, summer! (: (not the lo family’s dog)



the topic of water source protection brought us to the York Region in Newmarket today to listen to the South Georgian Bay Lake Simcoe Source Protection program. here you see Brook talking to us about the creek in the Eastern Creek Naturalisation Project under the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority.

DSC_0220 DSC_0229

to breakdown the complicated scenario here, we have urban development located on a floodplain that can potentially flood; a man-made pond introduced into the middle of a natural creek (that is unmanaged nor maintained); manicured lawns that perimeter the creek and pond that allow all rainwater to drain directly into the creek/pond without filtration; and water runoff from urban development (carparks and buildings surround the area).


this is how the creek looks like now, and the vegetation has grown back in part because of the efforts of the LSRCA. one of the main methods that have worked really well seemingly (it has only been a year since they’ve done it) is to place Willow and Red Osier Dogwood clippings into a fascine. growth from the clippings then strengthen the soil and earth structure around the bank, and prevent erosion. 


this is the fascine visible from where i’m standing. you can also notice that the water is pretty clear, not very turbid or silty. the stream floods when heavy rains arrive, and when it floods the erosion isn’t too bad because of the fascines and because manicuring of the banks isn’t done anymore. planting of vegetation that is able to tolerate water as well as salt (salt that comes from road salt used on the snow in winter to make roads more manageable) is planted, so not just any plant will do.


fishes are present too! he didn’t mention too much about whether frogs and other animals were here though. fish population doesn’t seem much affected by the management work done on the creek and ponds (largely because they took a very short time to work – in these situations working as fast as possible and staying in the river as short a time as possible is important).


wood chips placed on the ground also help retain moisture for the plant as well as prevent the grasses from overcrowding the woody vegetation that they want growing there. ingenious eh? (:

so with the naturalisation project things seem set to go well, and once they start creating the systems needed to treat water going from the pond into the creek that comes from urban runoff, we’ll really see how things work out. right now, oh man its pretty interesting to see bio-engineering at work!


a trip to the Carden Alvar in the morning was overseen by the Couchiching Conservancy, where kaira first brought us around the alvars and told us what they were. areas with very shallow soil over limestone rock, vegetation on this habitat is very specific and have special adaptations to deal with the drought and floods that come with the seasons, as well as the overall lack of rain/water.

granite deposited when glaciers retreated resulted in a mix of granite and limestone rock in the area, and this particular alvar is an ecotone and supports many plant and animal species (especially birds like the Nighthawk and Bobolink, which are species at risk in Canada). alvars have calcareous soil and are nutrient poor, and this results in low competition: which then allows for more species to move in in a bid for space. calcareous soil also is better for plants compared to acidic soil, so this type of habitat ends up having more biodiversity than ones with acidic soil.

so enough about the introduction of alvars, here it is:

DSC_0151 alvar picture #1

looks like man-made pavement? that’s exactly what i thought as i stepped into the area, walking from a graveled road to what i thought led to the most bio-diverse habitat in the temperate regions of this part of the world. lo and behold, it actually was limestone alvar that we were standing on, and one must remember that while the tropics are species diverse in every spot you look, temperate regions are different, and that’s still something to celebrate. i was still surprised though, but some of the rock in the area had fossils!

DSC_0182 fossils in alvar rock

in one square metre of land the alvars contain as a habitat comparatively more species than any other habitat in the temperate countries, containing lichen, mosses, woody vegetation and grasses, which in turn provide a suitable system for many insects, grassland bird species to nest, as well as snakes and other predators.

DSC_0153 alvar #2

you can see tall grasses and some woody vegetation here, and generally it looks like meadows and tall grasses. the alvars cannot support large trees (unless you leave succession to take over in many decades) easily, though Cedar tends to grow here. even though this particular alvar is largely undisturbed, humans have already introduced a couple of invasive species into the area.

to give you a bit more information about the Couchiching Conservancy, they work like the Nature Conservancy in that  they buy land (though funds from the federal and provincial government, as well as through donations/fundraising efforts) and then work on conservation through that. on top of that, the CC also works together with private landowners on managing their land effectively and in an environmentally friendly manner.

DSC_0155 Saxifraga virginiana [flower]

i could hear the distinct sound of crunching and crackling as i walked around the dry habitat, and looking down, one could see many plants amongst the twigs and dry grass. there is lichen (white in colour) at the top of this picture, moss in a dark green colour all around, and in the centre stands a succulent plant that is an indicator of alvars, and is also an arctic disjunct species that breaks up stone as they grow, and retain moisture in their succulent state. click on flower to see photos of their flowers.

DSC_0158 clumping effect – caespitose

plants in water deficient areas also tend to have an adaptation to ‘clump’ at the base to absorb and retain more moisture, and this can be seen in a number of plants in the area. plants that have this ability are called caespitose plants. pretty cool eh!

skullcap Skullcap

kaira also talked about indicators of alvar habitats, and these plants include the Skullcap (above) and the Field Chickweed (below). plants have what is known now as an ‘alvar association’ rank in percentage, and this tells you how much it is dependent on alvars for survival. plants like Fragrant Sumac and Bee Balm however, can live on alvars (though its tough to do so because of harsh conditions) but do not NEED to live on them. on the far extreme edge of the coin then also presents you with North Honeysuckle and Grey Dogweed that are unwanted species.

DSC_0181 Field Chickweed

DSC_0150 Butternut

thoughout our walk through the alvar landscape, kaira told us about how different plant species were at different levels of endangerment – special concern, threatened, endangered, expatriated, extinct – and giving us examples for some of them. one of them is the Butternut tree, seen above, whose attack by an invasive fungus brought in by numerous vectors (insects, water/wind) was bringing down its numbers and making it almost a matter of time before it would die out. sad! [comparable to dutch elm disease]

the other example she gave us was about the Red Mulberry, whose situation of limited numbers was brought about both by the introduction of a invasive introduced virus as well as hybridisation with the White Mulberry, of which hybrids are no longer Red Mulberries (which is how they are reducing their numbers).

DSC_0183 DSC_0197

and here we see two frogs! not sure what species they are, but this made us recall the various frog sounds Mary taught us the day before (see entry: fields) at Dufferin Marsh.


it was cool to see the alvars and get educated by them – i had never before heard of the term even before this!

so, two concepts for you:

1. the main threat to the alvars now are the lack of natural disturbances. knowing that grazing and nature fires used to be present but are now gone (as a result of human intervention), the woody vegetation is not being pushed back anymore, and these threaten to take over the alvar area (which is essentially open grassland) and through succession create an entire forest where alvar once was.

without natural small fires also means that tinder would have built up over the years and if a fire comes one day it would burn hotter and consume more land – eventually resulting in what happened to some other forests that suppressed fires: nearly two feet of burnt soil, barren land, seeds that would not generate because they died due to the too-hot-fires. extreme, but possible.

this would mean alvar habitat would be lost and species that depend on alvar habitats are gone – and the most bio-diverse area in the temperate regions are also lost. so now what would one do? introduce grazers? carry out prescribed, control fires?

2. when do you know if it is worthwhile to protect an area/species? do you necessarily have to choose areas to ‘sacrifice’ or ‘keep’? if an area is too small, or a species population is too small to sustain itself, would you invest money to sustain it by hand? what about fragmented areas – if, like the Dufferin Marsh, you know that the marsh was surrounded by urban sprawl and you know that it could not be expanded – is it worth putting in effort to sustain it?


so this week is full of field trips and discussions, and today we went to Dufferin Marsh Conservation Area with Mary Asselstine leading the lecture about issues and concerns of the DMCA and troubles she has had to deal with.


DSC_0072 DSC_0118

just about half and hour’s ride from KSR, DMCA is an area almost completely surrounded by residential and commercial development, the 5 ha plot of marsh/swamp land has had to deal with un-cooperative developers and municipals alongside handling and involving the community in conservation and action.


something i always brought back from class with Prof Peter Ng and Sivasothi was to ‘choose your battles’ carefully (in conservation class), and now it was reiterated here by Mary. with all the problems that have surfaced and all the problems dealing with these problems, hearing about them continuously from Mary for a few hours would just make you either cry or shake your head in disbelief and frustration. here’s a short list:

with too many agencies employing regulations on one area with no clear jurisdiction, it takes a long, long time (and many tiring communications) to do one thing. its inefficient, ineffective, and it does not help the community in both humans and animals/plants.


and then there’s the problem of invasives: on one hand you have the Purple Loose Strife (a wetland invasive from europe), and on the other you have hybrid Cattails that are rampaging all over the wetland, causing problems with water flow and nutrient trapping. but wait, the story’s not over, because you also have the Phragmitis (Reed) from europe taking over wetland edges and growing extra fast.

sometimes action plans work. Mary spoke about how she would have a dedicated team of volunteers from the Village of Schomberg who would gather every other year to clear out the Purple Loose Strife, and who have the ability to. successful storm water management ponds built also successfully treated urban runoff and kept out the geese (by sheer mechanical imagination: ropes built across the pond kept the geese from flying in).


but even with successes, there  are things to note: animals that live in habitats that require more than one area (e.g. treefrogs need the forest AND the pond to live and breed in); pests that come with urban development (rats, raccoons, feral cats) prey off smaller animals in the communities that are not used to having them around; how do you get the municipals and township on your side; how do you involve the community, and, is it significant to conserve a 5 ha area – or would it just end up as a biological city?

trees are dying because of raised water levels that are a result of so many factors, and solutions are stopped dead in their tracks because of regulations placed by agencies that do not claim to then have jurisdiction over the area – but if you do something against regulation you will get prosecuted – what can be done, really? it’s such a tough fight, and it reminds me of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve in Singapore so much.


it was really inspiring to hear of Mary’s fight (continued, fight) to carry on, and i hope people out there somewhere continue as well. you never know who you touch out there, a child in the crowd, that may become the next mayor, political activist, politician, engineer, who may then have the capability of influencing the environment effectively and in a positive way.


it’s a long road ahead, and a hard fight. keep going, activists.

sunday! rest day over here (the only one day in the field course of two weeks – and i actually didn’t expect any rest days at all! so bonus for me yayy :D) and woke up early to talk to the boyfriend (: happy! been so long since i saw/talked to him (:

and midway through the conversation, we got interrupted by a bird that curiously got ‘stuck’ onto the window screen: here you can see daniel trying to talk to the bird “heyy little birdie, fly away! go on, you don’t belong here, there’s nothing for you here”. i pulled one of the claws loose of the screen, and after daniel tried to move it to the bird feeder, it plopped suddenly down onto the window sill and sat there for a few seconds before flying off suddenly into the distance (:

 DSC_0044 DSC_0046

drama event of the day!

its a cold morning (and colder night last night) at 18 degrees today with showers predicted in the afternoon and night! –makes face.

today was supposed to be photo day with evelyn and desmond (was gonna walk around and take many photos and explore joker’s hill) but cloudy skies don’t bode well for expensive electronic equipment!

anyway, here’s a side view of the classroom:


project presentations yesterday went really well, and we headed up to the Koffler’s mansion to do presentations with powerpoint and ‘conference’ chairs too. ivana did the opening of the presentation and treated us like scientific delegates gathered at a conference! it was cool. i love presentations, and it’s fun coz my project’s complicated but it’s all good! it was also really funny to watch my friends present. :D work hard play hard!

these are our results! (annie and i formed one group)


so looking at milkweed as a study species, we found that as the number of flowers (in an inflorescence) goes up, the higher the number of fertilised flowers result. (good for us!) and we also found that as density increases (as a function of cumulative distance between plants), the percentage of fertilisation increases!

supported our hypothesis somewhat, and in the future its about testing for self-fertilised aborted pods as well as other self-compatible plants! (because Aclepsias syriaca our study species is self-incompatible).

DSC_0420 annie in the field. literally!

bonfire last night (pictures are with desmond and sarah) was really cool! we had pizza for dinner – and to think it was only because the caterer wasn’t providing for saturday dinner – and it was absolutely delicious! four slices for each person, and piping hot cheese tomato based crusty bread with toppings never felt so good! wine and alcohol was passing around, and lying down watching the stars with a crackling fire beside us and fantastic company with beautiful singing, it’s completely an experience to soak in and just, enjoy. (:


it’s been an awesome week working hard (in the field and getting so tanned omg!) and playing hard (we laugh so much its unbelievable!) that i can’t wait for the next week to come! its more field trips coming up and we’ll even be moving out of joker’s hill to explore the area.

more coming up soon (:



friday today – and that means that we have just one more day before project presentations hit us tomorrow afternoon! :D

my project’s on milkweed – how its reproductive output is affected by its neighbours, so yes ladies and gentlemen, your neighbours play a huge part in that because they influence your surroundings! imagine if they’re peeking through the windows when you’re –ahem- doing your thing? lose the mood already right? grins.

DSC_0421 this is common milkweed. Asclepias syriaca.

for the biologists in you (you know you have it), milkweed is that famous plant that has toxins in its sap that gets taken in by the even more famous and charismatic monarch butterfly! the very same butterfly that flies miles and miles as it migrates from Canada to Central Mexico every August to December. cool eh? now i’ve finally gotten to see it in the flesh!


this project’s one part of the field biology course held here on Joker’s hill in Koffler’s Scientific Reserve that Ecology in Human-Dominated Environments (the module) takes place on. we stay onsite (i stay at North Barn, which was once utilised as a stable) and everything’s done here. this place is also just about an hour’s drive from downtown toronto, which makes it convenient to get here! i’m planning to come back in winter to visit and also to see how the place transforms in winter (:

DSC_0167 DSC_0400

the scenery here is absolutely beautiful, with conifers and temperate plants colouring the background a lush green, vivid orange/yellow and making the whole landscape rustic looking as if it just popped out in front of your eyes from a postcard you held in your hand. all sorts of birds scatter across the landscape, and more than anything else you’d notice the amazing number of thorny/spiny plants that make sure to brush against you and leave their seeds velcro-ed onto your clothes!

bird chipmunk

i think also that there’s a resident groundhog living next to the classroom, but he’s too shy to come out.


meals everyday mean heading up to the top of the hill through a thicket of old field plants, or taking the long route via a winding tar road. that said, the food here is more than adequate, and even borders on luxurious. of course, i don’t want to jinx myself. i’m happy that there’s such good food here! however, the caterers don’t seem to like vegetarians very much – they’ve given me cannellini for three days in a row now. the pasta is nice, but its not that nice, if you know what i mean. thank goodness that its at least tomato based.

and now, before i leave you:



on the airplane with four other crazy dudes and this accompanying me:


blocks of ice floating – and my vegan meal which was absolutely delicious! tasted like cheese with mexican rice or something like that.

i couldn’t wait to get off the plane and set foot in the country i had been dreaming of going to ever since i felt it was possible. soon we all fell deep asleep and concussed on the later flights, and i was lucky not to miss this:


stepping out into the cool air of the night and finally reaching downtown toronto after close to 28 hours of travel had me filled with a supreme feeling of satisfaction, excitement, and anticipation all rolled into one – immigration had been a sitch, and the only gripe some of us was about how unitedairlines treated our luggage (very rudely).

thought: this beautiful city needs to be explored right away!


but alas, it was midnight when we finally settled in, and sleep beckoned, and i gave in to the soft bed and clean, washed linen of the canadianabackpackers.



karen arrived the next day at 7am (and i received her, surprised and sleepy-headed at the door) and she promptly went to bed for the short while that she had before breakfast was served.

pancakes and maple syrup (cheapo kind) was kindly provided for by the hostel, and after filling up on glucose and flour, we set out with a mission of exploration and a need to settle our tcard matriculation into uoft, amongst other things.


and so, we walked.

and walked.

and walked.

the town is beautiful, and stretches for miles with quaint electric trams, rustic bicycles (which triggered romanticised notions in evelyn) and colourful buildings and alleyways. the feeling of peace and serenity was all about with the laidback attitude we all took in with each breath, and it all made us grin like little kids with new lollipops!


sneaker shops, awesome names for shops (like eggspectation!) and witty/cheeky advertisements popped out from each corner as we crossed blocks and figured out how to understand the traffic lights.

finally reaching uoft itself, i was astounded by how beautiful the buildings were: macham mini-castles complete with creeper vines that climbed across the buildings effortlessly. cottage-lookalike houses dotted the outskirts of the campus, and stereotypical hotdog stands would appear at every other street.

we realised that toronto has an extreme daylight hours: from 6am the sun shines all the way to when it’s 9pm at day night. how did we realise it? by feeling extremely tired and not having realised that we had been walking for about 10 hours until we decided to look at our watch. seriously. it’s pretty amazing and disorienting if you ask me!


the next two days was spent exploring the town in every direction and getting extremely distracted by gorgeous shops that we found at every turn, getting horrendously lost and loving it. settled the apartment lease, visited the apartment (now eve and i can’t wait to make it our own!) and settled some bank issues as well. accomplished!


expenditure was pretty high so far, but it was coz we had payments to make for a number of things. oh oh! and we also got our handphone numbers for canada. (:

little italy, portugal, france, church street, queen/king street and bloor area were just a few of the places we had visited and completely loved! especially bloor area, which is near to our apartment. supermarket (window) shopping, sitting on mowed lawns in ufot eating pizza, getting lost in huge bookshops, and discovering basement shops with scandalous buys filled our days here (:


and if you want to know about food, other than the occasional asian buy, we’ve had pizza, hotdogs, subs and coffee (timhorton’s is pretty darn good) that saved us quite a bit of money and also cost us quite a bit. the ranges here are from 2CAD to 28CAD for a meal. it all depends on where you go, and what you want to eat!


like us, you can sit on the lawn with air-con cold lofty breezes, lush grass and beautiful company!

loving talking to stallowners and people on the street got me acquainted with irena (of tdbank) from croatia, the polish lady who sold us hotdogs and a few other colourful characters. it feels like the adventure has only begun, and i only wished that i had years to spend here!

looking forward to spending time immersed in toronto life and with splendid company in fantastic classes,


signing off,

Twitter Updates