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Canada’s Creatures of the Night

In Features on May 2, 2016 at 8:56 pm

creaturesofthenight

We began our walk along the dark trail guided only by the beams of light provided by our head lamps and flashlights. The low, constant hum of crickets could immediately be heard from the brush lining the path and was occasionally punctuated by the chirp of birds that had bedded down for the night. We approached our first bait station, located near the trail entrance, to see what creatures our fermented brew had attracted.

By day, Ottawa’s Mud Lake is host to a wide variety of active creatures from snapping turtles, to blue heron and all manner of insects, but by night, the wooded areas surrounding the lake transform and — if you’re lucky or have a particularly attuned set of eyes – a very different set of creatures can be seen.

On this evening, a group of visitors had gathered at Ottawa’s Mud Lake to explore the often overlooked bio diversity of the area at night.  A prized sighting would have been a nighthawk or screech owl and our eyes periodically darted up to the sky hoping to see the silhouette of one of these illusive creatures.

preparing for the walk

Preparing for the upcoming night walk at Ottawa’s Mud Lake.

Spotting nocturnal animals is a fun activity, but it’s also an important one if we are to know the makeup of Canada’s biodiversity. Nature Canada conducts a bio count in the spring and fall seasons as both a fun public event to help people connect with their natural environment, but also as a scientific exercise — to highlight the importance of paying attention to the state of Canada’s local biota. Shifts in the biological makeup of an area could signal environmental changes or problems that we as stewards of the environment need to know about.

We had no luck at the first bait station. Our mixture of brown sugar, oats, yeast, molasses and maple syrup should have done the trick to attract some of Canada’s over 2000 species of moths, but the cool night time temperatures of the approaching fall season were hindering our bait’s effectiveness.

“Moths are cold blooded so it may be too chilly for them this evening,” Our guide Alex MacDonald said. “They actually need to warm up in order to digest their food, otherwise they can’t eat.”

We carried on deeper into the woods, a rabbit stopped to observe our group at one point, its eyes glowing eerily from the reflected light of our camera flashes. At our second bait station we encountered not moths, but a group of white banded ants that our sweet potion had attracted. The ants quickly scurried away from the gaze of our lights, but we were able to get a close look at a black spider that had set up a web between two bushes nearby.

As we made our way to the final bait stations, we stopped to look out on the lake. A muskrat bobbed up and down in the dark water as it made its way to the far shore.

At the final station we found that our bait had attracted a moth! It stayed still long enough on the tree for us to identify it as a sharp-winged shade. Based on what we know about moths (and our own limited success at spotting them at the Mud Lake nature walk) in the fall season, moths become more difficult to see due to falling temperatures. However, there are plenty of other nocturnal creatures that can be seen year-round in the Canadian environment.

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Field guides are used to determine what plants or animals are seen on nature excursions.

Chris Earley is an Interpretive biologist at the Guelph Arboretum at the University of Guelph, where he’s been leading night time nature walks for close to 20 years. He says that many of Canada’s nocturnal creatures can still be seen when the temperature drops including: great horned owls, barn owls, flying squirrels, rabbits, coyotes and other small mammals.

“Nature walks are actually a great winter activity,” Earley said. “The freshly fallen snow makes it a very pretty environment to go owl watching.”

Earley leads evening nature sightseeing events and workshops called Owl Prowls in which a group of visitors learn about the creatures before heading out into a wooded area at the arboretum to attempt to spot or hear the owls using territorial calls.

Earley says going out and exploring Canada’s nocturnal creatures can lead to some interesting nature stories and sightings.

“One time, As I was doing a screech owl call we actually had a flying squirrel swoop down and fly over our head. It was a really cool thing to see.”

For those interested in going on, or organizing their own, nature walk we offer the following tips to improve the experience:


Dress Warmly

 Often times you’ll be standing still listening for creature noises or stopping to examine an animal you’ve come across. Don’t underestimate the drop in temperature during the night.

Bring Flashlights, but use them sparingly

 Flashlights will not harm nocturnal creatures, but they will scare them off. It’s often best to let your eyes adjust to the natural light reflected by the moon than it is to use battery powered lights.

Bring a recorded owl call

 Recorded owl calls are a great way to induce a barn or screech owl to return a call, but use them sparingly as owls will assume a potential rival is infringing on their territory and you don’t want to disturb them too much! It’s best to start with small owl sounds first, like the saw-whet owl, and work your way up to the larger owls because the calls of larger owls will scare away the smaller creatures.

Be as quiet as you can

 In the dark, listening to creatures can be as important (and rewarding) as seeing them with your eyes. Naturalists are just as happy to hear an owl as they are to see one. However, you do stand a greater chance of seeing animals if you’re not making a lot of noise.

Have people look in different directions

 Organize your group so that your eyes cover as much of the surrounding area as possible. A sighting is a sighting whether it’s done by you or someone else!

Know the trails before heading out

 The last thing you want is to be lost out on the trails in the middle of night. Make sure you have prior knowledge of the pathways and always no how to get back to the entrance. Bring a map, if possible, and ensure you have some a cellphone in case of an emergency.

Thanks to Alex MacDonald with Nature Canada, Chris Earley with the University of Guelph and Casey Whiterock with the Stanley Park Ecological Society for providing information for this article. For those looking for more information on the Guelph Arboretum’s Owl Prowl events, please visit http://www.uoguelph.ca/arboretum/. For information on the Stanley Park Ecological Society’s  Creatures of the Night theatrical Nature Walks visit http://www.stanleyparkecology.ca.

 

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A Taste For Tea

In Features, News on April 30, 2016 at 3:25 pm

Originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen April, 2011

Server Maya Oka-Pregel moves between the pairs of attendees. At the front of the windowed room, 31-year old Venk Prabhu stands and spouts facts about the drink his guests are sampling.

“Green tea is never steeped with boiling water,” Prabhu explains, even as Oka-Pregel begins pouring the next offering, a black tea, into small, white cups. “Wait for it to cool at least six degrees before you pour it.”

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Venk Prabhu and his wife Priya Prakash. The couple own Shanti teas, a tea import company in Ottawa, Ontario.

Prabhu and his wife, Priya Prakash, own Shanti Teas, an import company that brings organic and “fair-trade” teas from Asia, the Middle East and Africa to Canada. Tonight he is here to spread his knowledge to eight guests attending a tea workshop at the Grounded Kitchen and Coffee House in downtown Ottawa.

He has been in the business just two years, but Prabhu knows his tea. Twelve examples are brought out in succession, and he is able to offer up history, facts and proper preparation techniques for each.

Shanti, which started in an apartment in Toronto, has become Canada’s largest importer of purely organic teas, its owners say. Prabhu and Prakash brought the company to Ottawa to allow Prakash to work on a degree in naturopathic medicine. Shanti Teas has storage in Ottawa and warehouses in Montreal and Vancouver.

In the overall world of tea, it’s a small player. Shanti expects to gross $450,000 in 2011. Last year, it imported an estimated 15 tonnes of organic tea.

But the company sees much potential for growth as more people move to the market for organic tea, which comes from a growing process deemed free of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Standards, however, can vary from country to country. Shanti’s tea is certified by Ecocert, a Quebec-based company set up in 1995 to certify organic products.

Tea had a 12-per-cent share of the non-alcoholic beverage market in 2008, according to Agriculture Canada. Data from Statistics Canada show that the Canadian market for tea and coffee totalled almost $1.5 billion in 2008.

The majority of Shanti sales comes from private-label teas it packages and sells to retailers and coffee shops. It also sells its own tea brand, which is available at Ottawa outlets including the Urban Pear, the Flour Shoppe and C.A. Paradis.

Melissa Summers, owner of the eat-in “cupcakery” the Flour Shoppe, which operates just around the corner from the Shanti Teas office, says the organic teas are popular with her customers.

“All of them have been fantastic sellers, the blends are very unique,” Summers said.

“The customers love it, often times the’ll walk over to the Shanti tea store and look for some they can bring home.”

Retail tea chain Teaopia, which is opening its 35th store in Hillcrest, Ont., this week, says more people want organic products.

“We will continue to expand our organic line,” says Elise Cappuccitti, director of communications for Teaopia, which does not carry Shanti Teas. “Certainly there’s a demand for it, and customers will choose organic over nonorganic if given the choice.”

Cappuccitti cautions, however, that an organic designation is not necessarily an indicator of the quality of tea leaves.

After the tasting, Prabhu sits relaxed in his chair as he rapidly relays stories, information and his tea philosophy.

“Tea is the one thing in life where you’ve got to slow down. It’s not like coffee -you can’t forget about it because it will over-steep, you can’t use boiling water because then you will burn the leaves. There’s so much to pay attention to that you almost have to forget about everything else that’s going on in your life -it’s like meditation.”

Slowing down, however, is not in Prabhu’s business plan. He says he works 20 hours a day, if not at physical labour, then in thinking about his company’s strategy, the next move he will make.

Prabhu began his university studies in engineering, graduating with a bachelor’s degree, and then changed his focus to architecture, in which he obtained a master’s degree at Carleton University. But he doesn’t see himself as a fullfledged architect until he better understands the cultures of the world, which he feels is essential to the art.

“To learn about cultures takes time,” he explains. “I feel like when I’m 50 or 60, I’ll be more responsible to do architecture then.”

In the past year, Prabhu has travelled to Sri Lanka, Japan and Egypt to inspect tea farms. He says he prefers those that let him simply show up and look around. He says it’s very important the farms treat the workers well. In the future he plans to go to China, Kenya and South Africa.

tea pickers

Tea plantation workers in Sri Lanka. Prabhu routinely travels to foreign countries where he can inspect the tea crop and its growing process.

Recently, Shanti teas were given as a gift to winners at the Genie Awards In Ottawa. The company holds tea tastings and workshops to boost awareness of the drink.

The company’s next event is a tea blending workshop on March 25 at 6: 30 p.m. at Grounded on Gloucester Street. Attendees will learn about which teas mix well and will be able to make their own blend. Other events, including a chai tea preparation workshop, are scheduled for April.

Prabhu says the company’s goal is to increase the size of the organic tea market and lower the price of organic tea for consumers.

“We want to have the largest selection of organic teas,” he says. “We have to support organic farming because it takes a farm three years to convert from non-organic to organic. Recently, we had a farm (we buy from) convert back from organic because it was losing too much money.”