Without the chorus of birdsong and frog calls heard in warmer months, it’s easy to picture wetlands as vacant in the winter.
But appearances can be deceiving. Snow-blanketed ice transforms into a living guestbook wildlife sign with their feet. Barren trees become stopovers for visiting birds. A wetland in winter may be a quiet scene, but far from empty.
The American cranberry bush (Photo a) is a large deciduous shrub that grows in wetlands and is famous for its clusters of bright red berries that are popular with many birds, particularly waxwings, starlings and migratory species.
In winter, red osier dogwood (Photo b) is an easily distinguishable shrub with bright red bark. Leading into winter, it produces red berries that are high in fat, which gives birds energy and insulation. Many species of birds rely on red osier dogwood for food or shelter including the American robin, blue jay and brown thrasher.
Staghorn sumac (Photo c) is a small deciduous shrub named for its branching pattern reminiscent of antlers. It is highly attractive to birds, especially during winter when its clusters of persistent fruit are vital food sources for many species including wild turkeys, finches and chickadees.
The Refuge of Wetlands
By Rosa Fragomeni – a Youth Council member who is passionate about sustainable development in her post-secondary education.
Each footstep on the wooden boardwalk echoes across a vast landscape filled with vegetation and ice-covered pockets of water. Loud footsteps on the wood beneath your feet separate you from the wetland. Beneath you, garbage and plastic food wrappers lay on the exposed soil. Even in a place that seems wild and free of human activity, pollution reaches every corner of nature. Further evidence of human activity is also present below. The buried petroleum pipeline beside the boardwalk transports a profitable commodity while keeping secret the risk of degrading local water quality. This risk remains despite efforts to safely dispose waste products and prevent interactions between pollutants and water.
Signs along the trail at Rattray Marsh highlight wetlands as a refuge for wildlife. Staghorn sumac, among other vegetation, is a visual sign of the food chain. Its bright red fruit supplies food and shelter for wildlife. Many animals, like birds, temporarily visit Rattray Marsh for a rest stop during their migration in spring and fall.
Wetlands act as carbon sinks. Carbon sinks absorb carbon dioxide that comes from nearby greenhouse gas sources such as vehicle and industrial emissions. Wetlands provide environmental advantages and serve as a reminder of the importance of protecting the quality of water bodies so all life can prosper, including us.
Beavers don’t migrate or hibernate. They remain active in wetlands throughout winter living in their lodge, which can be viewed as a snowy mound with protruding sticks. Beavers build lodges of sticks and mud in wetland habitats; with an underwater entrance they enter and exit by swimming under the ice. Beavers store their food underwater, preserving it and keeping it and themselves safe under the ice, as they are slow-moving on land and susceptible to predation by wolves.
When not eating from their underwater food store, beavers eat the buds and outer bark of willow, alder, poplar and other shrubs. Gnawed trees or sticks that have been stripped of their bark can be more difficult to spot in winter due to frozen waterways and snow accumulation but are still visible.
By Maya Davidson & Ontario Nature Youth Council Members
Starting at Ontario Nature as a Communications intern for ON Magazine, Maya is a lifelong naturalist and birder. She is now the Education Coordinator and is responsible for organizing and supporting the Nature Guardians Youth Programs. Maya holds a B.A. in Media, Information and Technoculture from Western University and is an environmental writer, photographer, and educator who is driven by her passion for biodiversity conservation. You can find her skiing, cycling, planning her next backcountry canoe trip, or posting on her nature blog.