Reportage, Photography, Video

Inside the Mud Lake Biodiversity Project

In Uncategorized on January 3, 2015 at 6:48 am

“Do we have this one yet?” Harold Sotomayor asked his friend and project partner Patrick Killeen after we came across a white capped mushroom covered by bushes to the side of the trail.

“Well, let’s snap a photo of it anyways, just in case.”

Welcome to the world of the Mud Lake Biodiversity project, an ongoing citizen science experiment in which the goal is to document and record every living organism in the Mud Lake area of Ottawa, Ontario. The project, which has attracted photo contributions from outside members of the community, is a brilliant mix of deductive science and taxonomic gamification and has helped its creators learn a lot about their local environment and its biodiversity.

   mud lake biodiversity

Sotomayor explained the initial idea stemmed from the television show and video game Pokemon which he used to watch and play as a child.

“When I started, the idea for the project was to create a catalogue like a Pokedex” Sotomayor said. “I genuinely thought we would come out here and find like five birds. I had no idea about how much I did not know.”

Home to over 200 species of birds, around 50 varieties of moss and hundreds of different trees and plants, Mud Lake is a naturalist’s dream. Located just west of downtown Ottawa, the area contains many ecological biomes including: a riparian section along the bank of the Ottawa river, a woodland area and wetlands around the lake itself.

Unlike the mass of wildlife found at Mud Lake, the project has remained reasonably quiet and contained. For the past four years, Patrick and Harold have been making trips out to the lake with a camera and documenting any life they find. Nothing is omitted from the project. Plants, animals, fungi, insects… even bacteria and protists, which Harold collects and analyzes at home under an electron microscope, are included and added to the growing database and website.

under microscope

“We began with just animals and plants, but once people started visiting the website, we sort of felt an obligation to expand and include everything,” Sotomayor said.

Patrick Killeen, 20, makes up one half of the pair. He is currently a computer science student at the University of Ottawa and is credited by Harold as having the greater taxonomic knowledge of the two.

white breasted nuthatch

“I wasn’t really interested in biology before the project,” Killeen said. “Growing up my dad would tell me stuff and I was sort of forced to learn the information. But then, after the project began, I actually wanted to learn so that’s when I gained a huge boost of knowledge.”

Harold Sotomayor, 29, is the creative mind behind the enterprise. He is currently using the site to work on his programming skills while working part time and also managing the biodiversity project.

The two have been able to parlay the project into educational opportunities with outside organizations. Harold and Patrick have led educational tours through Mud Lake with adult high school students as well as by leading tours at Nature Canada’s fall bio blitz event.

The pair want the project to remain small and and without ads and said their next goal is to include more of the areas diverse mosses and insects. They are also collaborating on a for-profit historical Android application video game about western American slave trade.

For those interested in learning more about the project, or contributing to the growing collection of photos you can check it out at: The site is also expected to receive a coming user interface revamp in the coming weeks with new graphics.


The Rapid Growth of Community Gardens in Canada

In Uncategorized on January 3, 2015 at 6:39 am

Vancouver now has over 75 of them; Halifax 25; and Ottawa, at least 40. No matter where you look in Canada, community gardens are becoming one of the country’s quickest growing outdoor activities as more people look for a way to get outdoors, grow their own plants and get back to nature.

A community garden is an urban green space allotted to the growing of plants by the public. All manner of plants can be grown, from herbs and vegetables to fruits and flowers. The green space is divided into plots and each plot is assigned to the public on a first come first serve basis. The spaces themselves are as diverse as the plants grown on them. Some are hundreds of plots large, while others only have allotments numbering in the single edit

The community gardens are typically run by local groups that may organize a single or group of gardens. Anyone can apply to be a community gardener, but in many cities, plots are being filled faster than new gardens can be created.

Jordan Bouchard is the Interim Coordinator of Just Food’s Ottawa-based community gardening network. He’s seen first-hand the rapid increase of community gardens in the city.

“Community gardening is growing quickly,” Bouchard said. “We’ve more than doubled the amount of urban gardens in Ottawa in the last five years.”

It’s popularity has grown to the point that city websites are warning of wait times to receive a spot.

“Some waitlists are years long,” Bouchard said. “Because of this, many groups are working towards getting more set up in the city.”

There are a multitude of factors behind the recent surge of popularity of community gardening. Some people, like community gardener Brad Mitchell, 47, find tending to a plot of fruit and vegetables a good reason to get outside and into nature.

“I like to get my hands dirty,” Mitchell said. “Some of the gardeners will go and plant fully grown vegetables, but I get a lot of satisfaction out of watching a plant grow from seed and raising it all the way up.”

Mitchell spent five years waiting to get a shot at tending a space at the Laurier and Bronson community garden in Ottawa. While waiting, he volunteered by mowing the grass between plots, helping friends tend to their gardens and by doing general maintenance work around the site.

Mitchell grows beans, tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers and other vegetables that all appeared to be growing well, but he said there are a few dangers gardeners should be on the lookout for.

“Since the plots are so close together, everything grown is organic. Because of this, we get bugs and pests that will come in and eat the produce,” Mitchell said. He pointed to one of his leafier plants which was dotted with small holes and bite marks.

Another problem gardeners face is thieves who will steal produce. Mitchell said he has lost a fair amount of vegetables to other humans who have picked freshly grown vegetables from his garden.

“I came in one day, and one of my eggplants was just gone. Then I came in the next day, and the second one was gone,” he said. “And not only that, but whoever took it had snipped off the buds, so no more would grow.”

While taking food that a person has not grown is never encouraged, some gardens have begun to implement open pick spaces to combat food theft. The idea being that if someone is going to steal food from a garden, they should do so from a more communal plot that doesn’t belong to any one particular gardening member.

Despite the problems, Mitchell has now been growing for the past five years and said he still enjoys coming out nearly everyday to tend to his plants.

While gardening may be a fun outdoor exercise for many, there are also practical reasons why one might choose to grow in a community space.

Silvia Quintana, 50, works a patch of tomatillos at Ottawa’s Strathcona park. She says that gardening gives her an opportunity enjoy the outdoors, but also has economic and practical benefits.

Quintana watering her tomatillos at the Strathcona community garden in Ottawa.

Quintana watering her tomatillos at the Strathcona community garden in Ottawa.

“Tomatillos are very common in my home country Mexico, but not so much in Canada,” Quintana said. “Some people here know how to use them, but many people don’t even recognize them.”

Tomatillos (Physalis philadelphica) are used in salsas and dips like guacamole. Common in Mexico, Quintana says she would have to pay upwards of 15 dollars for a bag of them in a Canadian supermarket.

I come out every couple of days [to tend to the plants], but mostly for pleasure,” Quintana said. “They’re a very hardy plant and can grow well on their own.”

Quintana is able to reap multiple harvests per season from her tomatillos and says she has more than enough left over to give to friends and family.

As the public’s enthusiasm for local urban-agricultural spaces has increased, support and resources from government and non-profit groups has been made available to help those looking to garden in an urban environment.

putting on netting

Vancouver has instituted tax breaks for landowners who develop green spaces on their property. The city now allows developers to classify community gardens as class eight recreational property, reducing the cost owed to the government to about a third of typical commercial property tax fees.

In Ottawa, Just Food, in concert with garden organizers and the city government, works with an $80,000 a year budget to provide tools, equipment and construction materials to those looking to work in or organize a community garden.

And in Halifax, the Halifax Garden Network organized a creative initiative in 2013 called the Urban Agriculture Tour which brought together a group of growers from the city. The gardeners toured a host of local growing spots and exchanged ideas on what to plant as well as thoughts on gardening techniques.

For those who may be interested in joining a community garden, more information can be found on your city’s community gardening network web-page including: contact information of local garden organizers as well as helpful information on how to start working a new plot of land.

scarecrow editXXX

Canadian writer, director Michael Stasko’s latest film set to feature world of ornithology

In Uncategorized on September 30, 2014 at 4:19 pm

The natural environment has been a prominent theme in Canadian born writer and director Michael Stasko’s films. His previous movie, Iodine, chronicled the mental decline of a man searching for his lost father in the northern Canadian wilderness.

His latest movie, the revenge comedy The Birder, is no exception. The film follows middle-aged school teacher Ron Spencer (played by Tim Cavanagh) as he competes for the head of ornithology position at Point Pelee National Park. His rival is the younger, cooler Floyd Hawkins whose popularity and knowledge of modern cultural trends leads to him getting the promotion. Angry that a less experienced birder has leaped ahead of him, Spencer decides to takes matters into his own hands and win back the position he believes is rightfully his.

I sat down with Mike to discuss his latest film, his love for nature and the influence it has had on his film making.

Dylan: Hi Mike, thanks for agreeing to the interview.

Mike: No problem. I’m glad to be here!

Co-writer Michael Stasko on the set of The Birder

Tell me a bit about yourself. What’s your life like now?

Well, I teach film and communications studies at the University of Ottawa and Ryerson University, but I also write and direct films. I do government and industrial contracts for training videos as well. My goal is to be a full time teacher and also make a movie every few years. I want to teach a really good film program to students and get them inspired to go out and make Canadian films.

What originally got you into film making?

In high school, I was pushed into the sciences. I did a test in the 80s that told me I should be something like a dermatologist or an air traffic controller so I took it like: “Oh, a computer printout told me to be a dermatologist so I must do that!” Eventually, I ended up going into biochemistry, but early in University I became enamored with the TV show Twin Peaks which got me interested in film more. Eventually, it came down to one of those life decisions: Do I become a doctor or do I do the thing I really want to do which is film making? It was definitely a hard decision to tell my parents and make that move into film, but once I did I was happy.

The root of film making I’m attracted to is the art of storytelling. It’s about finding a narrative and finding an arch and doing things in a unique and different way. Storytelling is something that isn’t going to go away. It’s a rock; it’s been around since cave men and the invention of fire. Now we’re seeing it transition into new media like video games, but it’s essentially the same thing in regards to characters and plot.

What made you decide to focus on the world of ornithology for your latest film?

The very first kernel of a concept was having a teacher live in a school for a summer. But as we started to develop the character Ron Spencer more, a lot of his qualities and quirks reminded me of the world of birdwatching and birdwatchers.

Also, I grew up in the Windsor-Essex region and the Pelee area is a major birding hotspot so it kind of made sense to go with what you know and write about it. It was pretty early on that we decided to make the main character an ornithologist and show that world. It works well because it’s a scene, in film making at least, that hasn’t been tapped too much yet.

Are you a birder yourself?

In University, I did a lot of birding, One of the things that I really liked, and kind of attracted to me to hang out with the other birders, was the idea of just quickly jumping in a car and traveling east on the 401, heading out of Windsor and off to a small hamlet in the middle of Essex County to see a bird. A place so close to my home, yet I would have never visited otherwise. It gave me an excuse to
explore my own backyard. As I got into it more I realized I was a big time novice. I would call myself a birder and would go out maybe twice a month which is not even close to what a hardcore birder does. Some go out every day and they’ll drive thousands of miles to try and find a specific bird that has been spotted in a certain location.

What was your most memorable birding experience?

I saw a beautiful blue heron once. It was a notable sight because if you see them, they’re usually out on the water, but this one was up in a tree actually making its nest. I pointed it out and a bunch of people gathered around to come look. That was exciting!

How much research on ornithology went into making the film?

Ted (co-writer Theodore Bezaire) and I did a lot of research. We learned stuff like how to identify certain bird calls and even how to properly hold your binoculars. There’s probably some hard core birders who will watch our film and find some mistakes in it and that’s fine, it’s not meant to be a bird watching documentary, but rather a family revenge comedy set against characters from that universe. However, we had a couple ornithologists on set, to make sure things were going right. Sarah Rupert was the head ornithologist there. She does a lot of birding down in the Windsor region.

Your previous film Iodine and now The Birder, both feature the natural environment prominently in the script. Is the Canadian environment a big influence on your film making career?

Yeah, for sure. I was lucky enough to spend 13 summers of my youth, starting around age seven, as a sailing instructor or camp councilor. For four months of the year I was living in nature either in a cabin or by a lake. And I still go camping – real camping. Not the kind where you bring beer and stay with friends who are right next to you, but like, I’ll go to Algonquin park with a bit of food and a canoe and that’s it. So yes, I’ve always been very attracted to nature and that element.

I find that in film making, nature becomes this crucible in which you can explore so many things. For example, if you walk into a forest in 2014, it will look pretty much the same as it did 200 years ago, but our cities now are so different from the environment humans have usually lived in. There’s something interesting about taking a character, putting them in the forest and being able to relate to it in a primal brain sort of way. That’s something generations of humans can relate to. On the other hand, these past couple generations are the only ones that know the feeling of putting their hand out of a car window and feeling the wind pass by; it’s a completely new sensation. Today, we’re addicted to Iphones and blackberries which seems normal to us, but for the last 5000 years, we’ve all been living much closer to nature. That kind of more natural storytelling has been going on for a long time and is something I like to explore.

As a teacher, do you find it hard to inspire students to become film makers in Canada’s film industry?

It’s very difficult. Canada doesn’t really have – I think we have a lot of talent – but the resources haven’t been pooled together yet properly. Telefilm Canada is trying to produce films good enough to compete with the American market, but we still only have about 1.5 % of total Canadian box office revenues coming from Canadian films.

What’s happened up to this point – and I get in trouble for saying this – is that they’ve been trying to make Canadian films about playing hockey or how funny beavers are and presenting that as Canadian content when, in reality, Canadian content should really look a lot like American content. I don’t think we should be ashamed of displaying stuff that’s modern to show off Canadian society. Let’s tell stories about 2014 and our melting pot society. To try and make a culture about Tim Horton’s and maple syrup is weak material. What about a story about a teenager who is unsure about what to do in his life, and it happens to take place in Toronto or Montreal? That’s Canadian! He doesn’t have to also be trying out for a hockey team.

Now that your work on The Birder is coming to a close, what’s your next project?

I’m working on a comedy called Boys Versus Girls. It’s about a camp in the late 80s early 90s where, for economic reasons, it turns co-ed for the first time. It’s kind of based on a true story because in that time period camps were closing left and right and in order to make them viable, some decided to integrate male and female campers. The first few summers when they were trying this out were actually very hostile where boys and girls sort of hated each other because they thought they were trying to take over each other’s territory. So I’m on my third draft of that right now. I’m also doing some sci-fi stuff that I can’t talk about. I’d rather just let it happen!

The Birder has already had theatrical showings across Ontario, but you can catch it when it opens in Orillia, Ontario July 25 at Galaxy Cinemas Orillia or in Ottawa July 31 at The Mayfair Theatre. The film is also set to be released for wide distribution in late August. For more information please visit:



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