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The Whig-Standard

Nature preserve expansion aims to save rare bird

February 14th, 2011

The Eastern Loggerhead Shrike may flourish again in Ontario, thanks to a new 24-hectare, $100,000 addition to a local nature preserve.

"Protecting the habitats of our most vulnerable species helps sustain Ontario's rich diversity of plants, animals and ecosystems," Natural Resources Minister Linda Jeffrey said in a release.

The Nature Conservancy of Canada and several other partners worked to make the expansion possible because the bird's numbers have been seriously dwindling recently, especially in the Napanee area, said conservancy spokesperson Laura Mousseau.

The Eastern Loggerhead Shrike is a black, white and grey mix of predator and songbird that winters in the United States.

It is slightly larger than a robin and depends on open grassland habitat interspersed with trees and shrubs for the insects, mice and small birds it eats.

Shrikes kill and carry their catch to a thorny tree or shrub, or a barbed-wire fence. The thorn or fence holds the prey and the shrike uses its beak to eat. In 2009, Napanee had seven confirmed pairs and possibly two more, but in 2010 there were only four confirmed pairs and possibly one more, said conservation biologist Todd Farrell.

In 2009, Ontario had 31 pairs but in 2010 that dropped to 22.

One shrike pair uses the new 24-hectare addition and another pair the existing preserve west of it, said Kurt Hennige, Wildlife Preservation Canada's eastern Ontario shrike biologist. That is why extending and maintaining these habitats are crucial, he said.

The nature preserve project is part of the Greenlands partnership, an Ontario government land securement program that gives money to non-government groups such as the Nature Conservancy to secure sensitive natural heritage lands and conserve biodiversity.

The partners commit to raise matching funds for each provincial dollar received.

Mousseau said she could not provide a breakdown of how much government money went into the project versus private funds, just that the total $100,000 budget for the 24 hectares included securing the land, legal fees and ongoing maintenance and stewardship costs.

She did say her group has so much support from dedicated environmentalist in the area most of its projects leverage government money at a three-to- one ratio.

She also noted the programs to preserve the shrike helps farmers preserve land to graze cattle, as this is prime shrike territory.

Two day-long volunteer projects helped clear land for the habitats and scores of dedicated volunteers turned up, she said.

"People really care about the communities (where they) live in a major way so it becomes an act of the heart for them," she said. "We work really well with farmers (and the project is) mutually beneficial. If they clear red cedar, (it) open ups habitat that is kept to graze cattle."

This new 24-hectare block lies to the east of the existing 46 hectares of rare alvar habitat in the Scheck Nature Reserve near Newburgh. Alvars are naturally open habitats where few plants grow due to either a thin covering of soil or no soil over a base of limestone or dolostone.

Hennige said the alvar grasslands are rapidly shrinking and, by monitoring the shrike, biologists can track the loss. Other important species, the bobolink bird and the prairie smoke, a plant, are nearly extinct and need the same habitat.

There are also hundreds of insects and other endangered wildlife native to the alvar grasslands that should be preserved, he said.

He likens the shrike to the "canary in the mineshaft" to trace the environmental changes.

The EJLB Foundation, Kingston Field Naturalists, private donors and Nature Conservancy supporters from the local community contributed to this project.