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OttawaRiverEcosystem

Longnose Gar: Living Dinosaurs of the Ottawa River
Yikes! What was that huge, scaly, needle-nosed creature you just saw gliding through the water near Fitzroy Provincial Park? No, it wasn't an alligator; it wasn't an exotic escapee from an aquarium; and it wasn't even a particularly rare fish. It was the longnose gar, a startling, but otherwise common, aquatic species of the Ottawa River.

Like the stately sturgeon (also an Ottawa native), the longnose gar is an ancient species, dating from the Cretaceous period of up to 140 million years ago. It is one of 2 gar species found in Canadian waters, although its relative, the spotted gar, is becoming increasingly rare. The longnose gar populates the St. Lawrence River and the southern Great Lakes, but is particularly prevalent in the Ottawa River and its tributaries. Some sports fishers consider the highly predatory gar to be an unattractive nuisance, but others appreciate its fighting spirit. The gar has a number of distinctive features and characteristics:

A torpedo-shaped, bony body, long beak-like snout, needle-sharp teeth and hard, diamond-shaped scales: "Like a pike, only pointier" is one way to describe the gar. Its olive to dark green body is cylindrical and elongated, and the length of its slender, needle-nosed snout is 15-20 times its width. Gar can grow very large—up to 1 metre in length and 10 kilograms in weight—and can live up to 22 years. Gar skin is so tough and sharp that it has historically been used as an abrasive material; its enamel-like scales have been used as arrowheads and jewelry. The gar's strong jaws and needle-like canines make it an efficient top-level carnivorous predator of other fish, crustaceans, frogs and insects.
A lung-like gas bladder that allows it to breathe air: You may catch sight of the longnose gar as it drifts close to the surface of shallow, weedy bays, pools and backwaters. A unique air bladder allows the gar to gulp air to supplement its gills, and enables its survival in murky, even stagnant, low-oxygen conditions.
Adhesive eggs that are poisonous to predators: In late spring to early summer, longnose gars spawn in the weeds of shallow inlets or offshore shoals. The fish provide no care for their young, but their eggs are equipped with a special adhesive that attaches them to underwater vegetation, and a substance that is highly toxic to predators, including humans. Note: The flesh of the longnose gar is edible, though it is difficult to prepare and is rarely eaten.

Visit the Gillies Grove Old Growth Forest
Look for Barred Owls, Brown Creepers and a giant Pine tree when you enter the ecologically opulent world of the Gillies Grove old growth forest in the upper Ottawa River town of Arnprior. Follow the Gillies Trail, part of the municipality's Millennium recreational trail system, as it winds beneath the soaring branches of White Pine, Eastern Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Yellow Birch, American Beech, and Basswood that form the Grove's living museum. The 23 hectare site, one of the few remaining old growth forests in Ontario, extends along a natural section of the Ottawa River. Preserved first as the backyard forest of a lumber baron's residential estate, and now as a protected land trust, Gillies Grove is home of Ontario's tallest White Pine, a 50 metre giant that may still have room to grow. The Grove is a haven for a wide variety of bird species, including Downy, Hairy and Pileated Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, White and Red-breasted Nuthatches, Black-capped Chickadees, Purple Finches, Pine Siskins, American Goldfinches, Cardinals and the elusive Red-shouldered Hawk.

An Old Growth Forest Gets a Reprieve

If the Ottawa Valley was the subject of a film or video depicting the passage of recent geological time, viewers would witness the gradual rise of the area's forests - followed by a breathtakingly sudden and drastic decline.

Vanishing Pine: In the early 1800's, when Napoleon blocked Britain's access to Baltic timberlands, attention quickly shifted to the virgin forests of the North American colonies. Within 5 decades, the "endless hills of pine" described in the journals of early Ottawa Valley settlers, had largely disappeared. Vast stands of towering White Pines, their ramrod-straight, weather-resistant trunks ideal for the tall masts of British sailing ships, had been harvested and floated down the river to Quebec.

In 1845, the upper Ottawa River watershed was the source of more than 3 million cubic metres of squared pine timber, and an army of almost 10,000 raftsmen was employed in transporting the massive harvest. From softwoods such as White and Red Pine, the logging juggernaut moved on to oak (valued for barrel staves and ship decks), and other hardwoods. In the Ottawa Valley, a booming lumber industry succeeded the squared timber business, and by the 1880's, about 75% of the region's forests had disappeared.

Residential Rescue: Ironically, one of the few surviving pockets of old growth forests in the Ottawa Valley is located on the former residential estate of an upper Ottawa River lumber baron. In the 1930's, when David Gillies of the Gillies Brothers lumber company purchased lands in the town of Arnprior from the McLachlin family, founders of the town's earliest logging operation (and largest White Pine sawmill in Ontario), he recognized the value of preserving the undisturbed woodland of the riverside estate. The "Grove," as the estate and its backyard forest became known, became the property of a local religious order. But in 1990, when it appeared that the forest would be destroyed by a housing development, conservationists began a campaign to protect it. In 2002, with the support of corporations, non-profit groups and individuals, the site was purchased by the Nature Conservancy of Canada and placed under the stewardship of the Land Preservation Society of the Ottawa Valley. The groups are committed to the maintenance of the woodland as an old growth forest.

Young and Old in the Old Growth Forest
Contrary to popular belief, not all trees in an old growth forest are tall and ancient. Authentic old growth forests contain trees of all ages and sizes. They are complex ecosystems of supercanopy species such as White and Red pines, mature canopy trees,understory trees, shrubs and saplings, decaying wood, ground cover such as mosses, wildflowers and ferns, and soil-building organic litter. In addition, undisturbed old growth forests contain pits and mounds formed by uprooted trees (ideal germination sites for Red Oaks, White Pine and Basswood), living or dead trees with holes and cavities (critical habitat for owls, wood ducks, porcupines, ermines), and "snags"—standing dead trees that provide homes for woodpeckers, warblers, bats and raccoons. Some species, such as the Cerulean Warbler, are dependent on the habitat conditions created by old growth forests, and cannot survive in cleared or newer growth conditions.

Old growth forest succession is the result of natural disturbances such as ice storms, wind storms, forest fires, disease and insects that create openings in forest canopies and provide a steady supply of nutrient-rich woody debris. With time and careful management, new growth forests can be transformed into old-growth forests by:

• Preserving "mast" species such as Oak, Butternut, and Black Cherry that bear nuts and seeds for wildlife
• Leaving snags (standing dead trees) and trees with cavities undisturbed
• Creating canopy gaps to increase sunlight penetration and speed succession
• Encouraging native plant species.
• Video Bonus.

Floodplain Flora of Petrie Island
Gattinger's Panic Grass, Moss-Like Love Grass, Wild Madder…the rare plants of Petrie Island on the lower Ottawa River won't alter your state of consciousness, but their unusual environment—an archipelago of wetlands, sandy ridges and floodplain forest near Cumberland, Ontario, just east of the city of Ottawa—may leave you feeling that you have entered another world.

The Petrie Island area was formed by sand deposited at the end of the last ice age; over thousands of years, the sand was eroded into marshes, beaches, dunes and riverside thickets. Now just 12 kilometres in total length, the island complex is a tiny vestige of the vast delta that covered the area more than 8,000 years ago. The flood-prone area supports at least 29 rare plant species and the only major stand of Hackberry trees in the region; many plants depend on annual spring flooding and continual shifting of shoreline sediments for their survival, and have adapted their reproduction and growth patterns to cyclical water inundation.

The quiet backwaters, flooded forests and sandy dunes of the Petrie Island ecosystem attract a wide variety of resident and migratory birds, including the Red-winged Blackbird, Bonaparte's Gull, Black Terns and Marsh Wrens. Birders have recorded at least 16 species of warblers, including Magnolia Warblers, the Northern Waterthrush, and the Ovenbird. Woodcocks can be observed in wooded areas.

The distinctiveness of the Petrie Island environment has been recognized by a number of official designations, including classification as a Provincially Significant Wetland (Class I, the highest rating in the Ontario system) and as a regionally significant area of natural and scientific interest. Since 1998, Friends of Petrie Island, a local volunteer organization, has promoted conservation and passive recreation in the area. Recent proposals to expand nature trails and active recreational activities have drawn further attention to the exceptional and fragile nature of this unique landform.

Common Mammals of the Ottawa River
In the boreal forest and mixed wood lowlands of the Ottawa River watershed, some of the most abundant animal species are rarely seen by humans. Common Shrews, Northern Short-tailed Shrews, White-tailed Mice and Meadow Voles go largely unnoticed as they scurry about in a never-ending quest for food. But sightings of Woodchucks, Grey Squirrels and Eastern Chipmunks are frequent, and Snowshoe Hares, Eastern Cottontail Rabbits, Red Squirrels, Muskrats, Red Foxes, Ermines, Deer Mice, Mink, Striped Skunk, White-tailed Deer and both Little Brown and Big Brown Bats are numerous.

Other mammals with robust populations include:

Beaver Lodge Logistics
-- A dam is built when beavers need to enlarge the underwater habitat that will be available to them during the winter. The object is to create a deep pond that will not freeze to the bottom, preserving year-round access to lodges and downriver food supplies.
-- The beaver begins dam construction by laying sticks and rocks in the stream or riverbed where the noise of moving water is the greatest.
-- It then places twigs and stones in front of and around the foundation sticks.
-- It pushes mud up from the bottom, or carries mud from elsewhere, to surround the dam and provide an erosion-resistant water seal.
-- A lodge is made from a pile of twigs, sticks, mud and stones that is shaped into a series of tunnels and chambers. Every lodge contains an underwater entrance, a feeding chamber, a dry nest den, and an air intake. The lodge is covered with a layer of mud that hardens into a protective shell.
-- The beaver completes its winter living arrangement with a nearby food cache, a collection of woody items placed in deep water, held below the surface and insulated by a top layer of small leafy branches of trees and shrubs that it does not care to eat.

Beaver - Meandering streams, bubbling creeks, shallow bays, leafy poplars and succulent birches…life doesn't get much better for a Beaver than it does in the Ottawa River watershed. Visitors to outlying areas of Canada's capital (and even a few quieter sections of the city itself) have a good chance of spotting the nation's animal mascot—or at least the mound-shaped dome of its mud-plastered lodge. North America's largest rodent, with its fat, leathery, paddle-shaped tail, large, webbed hind feet, delicate, dexterous front paws and dense brown fur is a common sight along the entire length of the river. The Beaver is well-equipped for its watery habitat, aided by ears and nostrils that can be closed for swimming, eyes that can be protected by a special transparent membrane, lips that can close behind teeth for underwater gnawing, and oil glands that keep its fur oiled. The chisel-like sharpness of the Beaver's teeth is legendary; the animals gnash their top and bottom incisors together so that their continually growing teeth are kept worn down and sharp. Beavers are highly territorial, proclaiming their boundaries with scent mounds covered with a yellow-orange substance secreted from their castor glands. Beavers mate for life; they produce 3 or 4 kits a year, and at least 1 adult stays with the young at all times. Ottawa River beavers may be justified in their wariness of marauding otters and hungry coyotes, but except in the river's most northerly reaches, they are blessedly free from the wolves, bears and wolverines that prey on them in other areas of the country.

Porcupines - Pine-loving porcupines of the Ottawa River no longer enjoy the habitat paradise they inhabited a century ago, before the age of logging, but the mixed forests and riverside thickets of the Ottawa Valley continue to support a healthy population of Canada's second largest rodent. The blunt-nosed, small-eyed, hump-shouldered, bow-legged creature is best known for the sharp, barbed quills that are concealed in its coarse yellowish-brown coat. When threatened, the porcupine will try to crawl under a rock or up at tree, but if directly assaulted, will erect its quills and push them toward the attacker. With as many as 30,000 quills on its body (some up to 12.5 centimetres in length), the porcupine can well afford to lose a few hundred (lost quills are replaced by new ones), but the dogs, fishers, red foxes and coyotes that tangle with the animal will yelp with pain as the barbs swell on contact with moist flesh. (Some clever predators attack the head of a porcupine or flip it over quickly on its back, capitalizing on the fact that the animal's face and belly are unprotected.) Porcupines feed largely on the inner bark of trees, favouring White Pine, Maple, Alder, Poplar and Willow. They adore the leaves of Water Lilies and Arrowhead, and will wade far into the water to satisfy their craving. Porcupines have continually growing teeth; like puppies with a need to gnaw, they seek out bones, antlers, and—to the dismay of campers and cottagers—just about any wooden object left at their disposal.

Raccoons - A little bit of water, just about any kind of food, and a sheltered spot to spend the winter—the highly-adaptable, low-maintenance raccoon doesn't ask for much. The habitat diversity of the Ottawa River watershed is more than adequate for this grizzled gray, ring-tailed mammal with the mischievous-looking black facemask. Raccoons will consume both plants and animals—corn and crayfish are 2 special favourites. Turtles, snails, grasshoppers, crickets, frogs, berries, grubs, garden vegetables, birds and small animals and yes, household trash, are all part of the raccoon's resolute determination to build up a 2.5 centimetre layer of fat around its entire body before the onset of winter. During this period of inactivity—not outright hibernation—raccoons den in hollow trees, stumps, logs, caves and burrows vacated by other animals. Many a city resident has been startled by the discovery of the creature in a chimney, attic or garage. The raccoon is famous for "washing" its food before eating it, but the habit has more to do with sorting out inedible matter than with obsessive cleanliness.