Our Planet, Our Future: SEU Didgest, No21

Dear friends and co-fighters,

Welcome to the next issue of Positive News. Let you spread it among your friends and co-fighters in your countries and around the Earth. Please, send me the addresses of your friends and colleagues to be included in the list. I will be glad to receive and publish your positive news from the fields and offices. If you know sites or mailing lists where I can find positive news for our digestы, please send me their addresses.

Sviatoslav Zabelin, SEU coordinator

An Urgent Call for Action

This statement was inspired by the discussions at the 2021 Nobel Prize Summit, issued by the Steering Committee and co-signed by Nobel Laureates and experts.

“It seems appropriate to assign the term ‘Anthropocene’ to the present.” Paul Crutzen (Nobel Laureate 1995). Geologists call the last 12,000 years the Holocene epoch. A remarkable feature of this period has been relative Earth-system stability. But the stability of the Holocene is behind us now. Human societies are now the prime driver of change in Earth’s living sphere – the biosphere. The fate of the biosphere and human societies embedded within it is now deeply intertwined and evolving together. Earth has entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. Evidence points to the 1950s as the onset of the Anthropocene – a single human lifetime ago. The Anthropocene epoch is more likely to be characterized by speed, scale, and shock at global levels. The global commons. Global heating and habitat loss amount to nothing less than a vast and uncontrolled experiment on Earth’s life-support system. Multiple lines of evidence now show that, for the first time in our existence, our actions are destabilizing critical parts of the Earth system that determine the state of the planet. For 3 million years, global mean temperature increases have not exceeded 2oC of global warming, yet that is what is in prospect within this century. We are on a path that has taken us to 1.2oC warming so far – the warmest temperature on Earth since we left the last ice age some 20,000 years ago, and which will take us to >3oC warming in 80 years. At the same time, we are losing Earth resilience, having transformed half of Earth’s land outside of the ice sheets, largely through farming expansion. Of an estimated 8 million species on Earth, about 1 million are under threats. Since 1970s, there has been an estimated 68% decline in the populations of vertebrate species.

Inequality. “The only sustainable prosperity is shared prosperity.” Joseph Stiglitz (Nobel Laureate 2001) While all societies contribute to economic growth, the wealthy in most societies disproportionately take the largest share of this growing wealth. This trend has become more pronounced in recent decades. In highly unequal societies, with wide disparities in areas such as health care and education, the poorest are more likely to remain trapped in poverty across several generations. More equal societies tend to score highly on metrics of well-being and happiness. Reducing inequality raises social capital. There is a greater sense of community and more trust in government. These factors make it easier to make collective, long-term decisions. Humanity’s future depends on the ability to make long-term, collective decisions to navigate the Anthropocene.

Technology. The accelerating technological revolution — including information technology, artificial intelligence, and synthetic biology — will impact inequality, jobs, and entire economies, with disruptive consequences. On aggregate, technological advancements so far have accelerated us down the path toward destabilizing the planet. Without guidance, technological evolution is unlikely to lead to transformations toward sustainability. It will be critical to guide the technological revolution deliberately and strategically in the coming decades to support societal goals.

Planetary stewardship. “We must break down the walls that have previously kept science and the public apart and that have encouraged distrust and ignorance to spread unchecked. If anything prevents human beings from rising to the current challenge, it will be these barriers.” Jennifer Doudna (Nobel Laureate 2020). Effective planetary stewardship requires updating our Holocene mindset. We must act on the urgency, the scale, and the interconnectivity between us and our home, planet Earth. More than anything, planetary stewardship will be facilitated by enhancing social capital — building trust within societies and between societies.

Is a new worldview possible? 193 nations have adopted the SDGs. The global pandemic has contributed to a broader recognition of global interconnectivity, fragility, and risk. Where they possess the economic power to do so, more people are increasingly making more sustainable choices regarding transportation, consumption, and energy. They are often ahead of their governments. And increasingly, the sustainable options, for example solar and wind power, are similar in price to fossil fuel alternatives or cheaper — and getting cheaper.

The question at a global systems level today is not whether humanity will transition away from fossil fuels. The question is: Will we do it fast enough? Solutions, from electric mobility to zero-carbon energy carriers and sustainable food systems, are today often following exponential curves of advancement and adoption. How do we lock this in? The following seven proposals provide a foundation for effective planetary stewardship

The City of New York has filed a lawsuit in state court against Exxon Mobil (XOM), Shell, BP (BP), and the American Petroleum Institute for allegedly misleading New York consumers about the role their products play in climate change and for allegedly “greenwashing” their practices to make them seem more eco-friendly than they are. “Three of the largest oil and gas companies and their top industry trade association—have systematically and intentionally misled consumers in New York City…about the central role their products play in causing the climate crisis,” the lawsuit states. “They have engaged in this deceptive conduct both to compete against growing safer energy options and to distinguish themselves from industry competitors as they vie for consumer dollars.”

Boats laden with seagrass seeds set off from Plymouth Harbour on Wednesday as England’s largest seagrass restoration project got underway. Led by Natural England, the LIFE Recreation ReMEDIES programme will plant eight hectares of biodiverse seagrass meadows off the coast of southern England over the next four years. The project aims to turn the tide for the beleaguered ecosystems, which have declined by 90 percent in the last century due to pollution, trawling and coastal development. Reckoned to sequester carbon 35 times faster than a tropical rainforest, the meadows provide a haven for seahorses and other marine life.  

Trees will no longer be cut down in this 950 sq km (236,000-acre) area after the land was bought by a coalition of conservation organisations to save one of the world’s last pristine rainforests from deforestation. “The forest will now be protected in perpetuity,” says Kay. The news is timed to coincide with Earth Day, the annual event established in 1970 to mobilize action on environmental issues. The newly named Belize Maya Forest is part of 150,000 sq km (38m acres) of tropical forest across Mexico, Belize and Guatemala known as the Selva Maya, a biodiversity hotspot and home to five species of wild cat (jaguars, margay, ocelot, jaguarundi, and puma), spider monkeys, howler monkeys and hundreds of bird species. Combined with the adjacent Rio Bravo Reserve, Belize Maya Forest creates a protected area that covers 9% of Belize’s landmass, a critical “puzzle piece” in the Selva Maya forest region, helping secure a vital wildlife corridor across northern Guatemala, southern Mexico, and Belize. Protecting large areas of pristine rainforests will help mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis. “Forests like these hold vast amounts of carbon,” says Julie Robinson, Belize programme director for the Nature Conservancy, one of the partners behind the acquisition. “We’re at a tipping point, so it’s really important to try to reverse the trend we’re on.” The area was owned by the Forestland Group, a US company that had permits for sustainable logging. When it came up for sale, the Nature Conservancy and others, including Rainforest Trust, World Land Trust, University of Belize Environmental Research Institute, and Wildlife Conservation Society, saw an opportunity to buy the land

Saimaa Geopark has been granted UNESCO Global Geopark (UGG) status by the UNESCO Governing Body. The matter was announced today, Thursday, April 22, 2021 at 3 pm (Finnish time) in Paris. Recognition of the status will continue the development work of Saimaa Geopark, focusing on international nature tourism and bringing vitality to the region, as well as strengthening environmental education with stakeholders in the region. The vitality has been also strengthened by cooperating with entrepreneurs in different projects and creating a Saimaa Geopark Partner network. All the activities of the network are based on principles of sustainable development and the United Nations Agenda 2030 goals. 

Starting in 2004, Asiatic black bears Ursus thibetanus were reintroduced and tracked in the Republic of Korea, along with their descendants, using radio telemetry, yielding 33,924 tracking points over 12 years. Along with information about habitat use, landscape, and resource availability, we estimated the population equilibrium and dispersal capability of the reintroduced population. Researchers used a mixed modeling approach to determine suitable habitat areas, population equilibria for three different resources-based scenarios, and least-cost pathways (i.e. corridors) for dispersal. The population simulations provided a mean population equilibrium of 64 individuals at the original reintroduction site and a potential maximum of 1,438 individuals in the country. The simulation showed that the bear population will disperse to nearby mountainous areas, but a second reintroduction will be required to fully restore U. thibetanus. Northern suitable habitats are currently disconnected and natural re-population is unlikely to happen unless supported. Our methodologies and findings are also relevant for determining the outcome and trajectories of reintroduced populations of other large carnivores (Andersen et al., 2021).

The Garter Snake on the forest path…

The mating behavior of snakes is not so easy to see. The mating displays usually occur immediately after the snakes leave their hibernacula (this term is used for winter shelters, where snakes brumate of sleeping, similarly to hibernation of other animals such as mammals) places, where they sometimes congregate in large clusters. But getting to such a hibernacula without a special purpose and without knowing the peculiarities of the ecology of snakes is almost impossible.

In spring, garter snake likes to bask in the morning near forest path

But then one day at the end of April, on a forest path, the rustling of foliage attracted my attention. I did not immediately understand where the rustle came from, but looking around I spotted an extraordinary sight. On the dry foliage of last year, covering the first shoots of the breaking green growth, an unusual ball rolled, from which for a moment heads or tails appeared on the surface … Yellow stripes on the body made it possible to immediately identify the species – it was a mating procession of a Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis). One larger snake was distinctive from another dozen and half snakes of smaller size that are literally hovered around it. Squirming, first merging into one large ball, then stretching in a chain, the snakes continued their movement along the invisible pass in the dry foliage. But as soon as I took a step towards this extraordinary procession, the ball instantly became alert, assessing the situation, and began to disintegrate. Individual snakes crawled on the sides, looking for cover under the foliage, in the cracks between the hard rocks and between the roots of trees. Nevertheless, about a dozen of the most persistent continued to follow the largest snake. The presence of a small rock in the forest indicated that the snake hibernacula was somewhere nearby: snakes usually hibernate in cavities under rocks or in natural depressions formed under the roots of dead trees, where they can gather from several tens to several hundred or even thousands of individuals.

The common garter snake is widespread in Ontario. In the forests around Ottawa, it is the most common snake species. The slender body of garter snakes with a light stripe running along the keel from head to tail, with yellow or reddish longitudinal stripes on the sides and an elegant narrow head that smoothly merges into the body, allow anyone to immediately unmistakably identifies this species. The average length of a snake with a tail is 50-70 cm. Sometimes there are specimens that are larger – up to a meter in length, but they rarely can be found. Females are much larger than males. Only one female, accompanied by more than a dozen males, led the mating procession that I observed. This feature of the biology of the species directed to the fact that there are much more males in the population than females. Garter snakes are also remarkable by the reproduction features: they can both lay eggs, from which small snakes then hatch, and give birth to alive little snakes. Usually, individuals living in the north latitudes give birth to live offspring, and more southerly occurring counterparts lay eggs. In Ontario, garter snakes give birth to live young. During the season, the female can give birth from ten to forty offspring. But only a few individuals survive to adulthood since snakes are a desiring prey for both four-legged and feathered predators. In addition, a significant number of snakes are killed on the roads, under the wheels of cars in populated areas with a dense road network. In Ontario, there are two subspecies that are externally different: in the south, the nominative subspecies of Eastern Garter snake has the bright yellow stripes on the sides of the body, and in the northern subspecies, the red-sided garter snake has reddish-orange stripes.

Garter snakes are found in a wide variety of habitats, both in forests and in meadow communities as well as around wetlands. In the Ottawa Greenbelt and around, it is definitely a forest species, inhabiting light deciduous and mixed forests. The main food items for snakes are amphibians and earthworms, but on occasion these snakes can catch small rodents and passerines, as well as small fish. Hunting strategy includes two types of behavior.  Sometimes, garter snakes wait for prey, attacking approaching animals. But more often they actively pursue their prey, effectively catching fast tadpoles and small fish.

Garter snakes are harmless to humans. But this does not mean that anyone can catch them. It must be understood that the capture of any living creature is a huge stress for the latter. Therefore, if you notice a garter snake near the forest path, walk by, or watch the snake from the side without trying to catch it.

Garter snakes often hide in construction near human settlements, especially near forest cabins

If you wish, you can also join one of the programs of Ontario Nature such as Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas or Youth Circle for Mother Earth, and contribute to wildlife monitoring and conservation.

Migration of Monarch Butterfly along Ontario Lake

Roosting monarch butterfly

The migration of monarch butterfly along shore of Ontario Lake. In the fall of last year, we witnessed an amazing phenomenon that occurs every year, but possibly that not every year it is so intense. This phenomenon is the migration of monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) along the shores of Lake Ontario. In early September, we observed how individual butterflies and their small clusters easily rise above farm fields and flowering meadows and rush into the blue sky, driven by strange forces. Thus, the migration of monarch-butterflies starts.

In mid-September, I arrived to Toronto on business and keeping in memory of these soaring butterflies over fields and meadows, I suggested to visit the shore of Lake Ontario, where my friends observed congregations of butterflies many years ago. What if we are lucky this year with similar migration? Before that, we already knew that flying monarch butterflies gather during the autumn migration period in Point Pelee National Park in southern Ontario, where their migration clusters are monitored annually. But in Colonel Smith’s park in Toronto, where we planned to go, the monitoring of migratory butterflies is not carried out, since the clusters here are not so large and are not always observed …

On the first day – September 14th – we arrived at the park after dawn at about 8 a.m. There were quite a few monarchs on the bushes along the path leading to the lake, but all of them were kept alone or in small groups on the bushes of the goldenrod (Solidago ssp.), Canadian horseweed and asters, and on the branches of various bushes.

Butterflies just woke up, they lazily spread their wings and reluctantly flew from bush to bush when we approached them. Along the path closer to the lake there were many thickets of goldenrod and asters. Some movement was already noticeable there. The awakened monarchs scattered and settled comfortably on the flowers for morning feeding. Noticeable assemblages were nowhere to be seen. However, butterflies were everywhere, and there were surprisingly abundant. They gathered in small groups, mainly on plants of the goldenrod, where solitary butterflies and small clusters constantly moved and interacted with each other, finding out the dominance relationship. Of course, there were many butterflies scattered, compared to what happens here in the summer, but not as many as expected… We did not find monarch roosting places.

On the second day, we arrived at the park earlier – even before dawn and immediately went towards the bank, where on the eve we saw many butterflies dancing over the thickets and flowers. At first we did not notice anything – the sun had not yet risen and all the bushes and tree branches seemed equally gray. We walked slowly along the tree line, growing closely to the banks of Lake Ontario, carefully looking at the flower thickets, as well as bushes and trees. And finally – a miracle! Suddenly, the first rays fell on the still hanging branches of green maples and we saw that they were strewn with garlands of butterflies.

Butterflies merged with the surface of the foliage, they all sat with their wings closed and looked like a monotonous brownish-gray fringe, which at first we did not even distinguish from the surrounding foliage, because the butterflies were numb. First, we saw garlands of butterflies on one tree, then on another, then on a third, then more and more… Butterflies sat very tightly and it was impossible to estimate their number. But it was obvious that tens of thousands of monarchs gathered on the narrow strip of trees along Lake Ontario, and maybe more, because we stopped at a spot with a dozen trees to watch the butterflies.

It was gradually getting light. The rays of the sun peeked, then hid behind the clouds that had rushed at dawn. When a bright beam pierced through the clouds and illuminated the trees, individual butterflies spread their wings and bushes came to life from bright “lightings”. But the beam was hiding and again the monarchs closed their wings and fell into a lethargy. Nevertheless, the morning gradually came into its own, and with its light the living bulk on tree branches came to life and began to swarm.

The monarchs opened their wings, catching the energy sent by the sun’s rays, and preparing for a new day. Those that were higher in the branches were better stricken by sun and they woke up earlier. When the butterflies woke up and warmed up, they slowly took off from the bushes, circled around in a slow dance and gradually descended down into the thickets of flowering fodder plants – the goldenrod, Canadian horseweed and asters. A little more than half an hour passed and the morning magic disappeared. All the butterflies left their roosting places and literally disappeared into the surrounding thickets of grass and shrubs or, probably, flew away to south. At about 9 a.m., butterflies could only be seen fluttering over colored plant patches and feeding on flowers. There was nothing left on the trees. However, there was a memorable happiness and the urge to touch one of the secrets of the wilderness…

Well, of course, our wonderful pictures and videos of this amazing natural phenomenon of the migration of monarch butterfly remained… After a few days, the accumulations of butterflies in the park disappeared. It is likely that they flew to their wintering sites in Mexico in the Mariposa Monarca Biosphere Reserve, located in the pine and oak forests of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt.

Whatever it is – the mass migration of monarch butterfly along shore of Ontario Lake is one of the wonders of the world, which keeps the secret of Universe that remains to be solved one day…

Butterfly on flower
Monarch butterfly feeding on the aster

Bird Migration on Mud Lake in Ottawa (Ontario, Canada)

A very common Song Sparrow near Mud Lake during fall migration

In Ottawa there is an amazing place called Mud Lake. Mud Lake is located not far from the central part of the city, close to the Ottawa River. This area is truly unusually rich in a variety of all kinds of animals: from amphibians, snakes and turtles to a remarkable diversity of mammals. The lake is also part of a protected area called the Britannia Conservation Area. It is managed by National Capital Commission (NCC).

But this territory has become special fame as a transit corridor for a great number of birds that make regular migrations from their breeding habitats in the northern forests to wintering sites in the southern hemisphere. Mud Lake is part of the Lac-Deschenes – Ottawa River Important Bird Area (IBA). This important bird area is really exceptional because it serves as a stopover place for a very intensive migration of birds nesting in the Canadian taiga, both in spring and autumn.

Throughout the year, naturalists love to visit the Mud Lake area as a place to observe many types of wildlife in a city setting. But especially many people – naturalists, birdwatchers and photographers – gather here during the periods of bird migration: in spring – from April to early June, and in autumn from mid-August to October. Thousands of naturalists come to Mud Lake to watch one of the most amazing natural phenomena – the seasonal bird migration.  

Now one of the migration peaks of small passerine birds is observed – when long-distant neotropical migrants which fly from the northern forests into the jungles of Central and South America to spend time there, when the northern forests will be covered with winter frosts and sheltered with dense snowdrifts. Migratory birds have not yet molted and wear unsightly faded plumage, but some of them are already sporting mating attire.

The small ridge separating the lake from the Ottawa River is exactly where many waves of migrating birds stop. For an hour of observation, on some days, you can see from 30-40 to 70-90 bird species. The birds hide and feed in the bushes growing on the slopes of the ridge that rolling to the banks of the Ottawa River, in the crowns of tall trees, as well as among the needles of pines, firs and spruce trees growing around the lake. There are especially many birds after rains and winds, when harsh weather push brave migrants wait out the bad conditions in the bushes. Birds are not only wait they inspect all vegetation around searching for diverse insects and other invertebrates hidden in the branches and under the bark of trees.

Every naturalist will be “rewarded” with unique moments of observation of migratory species, gathered in one place… Hurry up to say goodbye to the brave passengers flying away for the winter and wish them all to come back to their breeding grounds in spring …

Dumoine River in Quebec, Canada: place to visit

Dumoine River in May

The Dumoine River is one of the nine main tributaries flowing into the Ottawa River, and the last remaining undammed river in southern Quebec. The Dumoine River flows south from Dumoine Lake into the Ottawa River, about 200 km upstream from Canada’s National Capital, Ottawa. It has a basin area of 5,380 km2 and is 129 km long. For most of its length, it acts as the boundary between the municipalities of Temiscamingue and Pontiac. It also happens to be home to the largest area of unfragmented boreal forest in southern Quebec. Not only is Dumoine River located close to the Vérendrye Wildlife Reserve, but it serves as a very significant wildlife corridor linking La Vérendrye Wildlife Reserve to Algonquin Park, further linking to Adirondacks in New York state, and then to the Appalachian Mountains.

Long ago, Wiskedjak, a prominent character of the Algonquian legends, came across Kiwegoam or the “turn-back lake” (Dumoine Lake). As he walked to the opposite side, he found a round, high, mountain that looked like a beaver lodge. Wiskedjak wanted to hunt the giant beaver that lived in this lodge, and decided to drain Kiwegoam (Dumoine Lake). While the water was draining, Wiskedjak took a nap. When he woke up, he couldn’t find the beaver, and thought that the beaver had followed the draining water and left the lake, so he followed the beaver. He went past the Coulonge River, past the Pembroke Lakes, and arrived at Calumet Chutes, but he found nothing. He turned around and began to follow his own tracks, thinking they belonged to the beaver. Finally, after several attempts Wiskedjak gave up. Nonetheless, his efforts made a significant contribution! His draining of the Dumoine Lake created the Dumoine River, while his trail established the Calumet portage, or simply the Wiskedjak tracks (Ottawa River Heritage Designation Committee, 2005; Schaber, 2015). This is an ancient legend, but confident beavers still inhabit the riverbanks…

Since that time and until now, the Dumoine River area is a great piece of intact nature still free of invasive species, and full of wilderness. Many natural habitats have been kept along the river providing healthy environment for settlements of boreal inhabitants. Fresh bear and moose footprints can be found in many places as well as animals themselves. Mostly wild animals are very cautious and try to avoid direct meetings with people. But they leave the evidence of their presence on the roads and in the woods. Other animals even pose for observers, because they are not scared by “bipedal aliens”, disturbing their realm.

The boreal forest is amazingly rich with many bird species, representing good northern species diversity. The birds are the most abundant and diverse group of vertebrate animals around Dumoine River, including many boreal specialists that inhabit the woods and make regular seasonal migrations. Some species are very abundant, others are more secretive and hidden in the woods and in the foliage of deciduous trees. It is hard to spot them in the crowns, but they can be recognized by calls and songs.

Morning light is something special on the river and time spent in the wilderness is very valuable for inspiration, and motivation of curious and artistic minds, as well as for enjoyment of life in all its fullness. The life is empty without such moments. Dumoine River still maintains wonderful landscapes, untouched wild nature and pieces of real wilderness that probably do not produce measurable goods and services, but fill the human sense by belonging to all living creatures and responsibility for the future of this virgin life. It is important to keep such “sacred” places for other people and future generations, because there is more to life than the fast paced urbanized society many of us live in.

Only small portion of photos taken by author was used for illustration. The Dumoine area always surprises the curious minds by unexpected observations of wildlife dynamics and picturesque sceneries.