Atlantis Woods - Selby Plains

Atlantis Woods/Selby Plains Re-naturalization Project

Speaking notes for WBCA AGM November 29, 2017

re Atlantis Woods/Selby Plains Re-naturalization Project

by Elliot Rodger


At last year's AGM we mentioned WBCA's interest in rehabilitating the Atlantis Woods and Selby Plains area within our community.  This is the area inland from the beach area and bounded roughly by the parkway, Atlantis and Selby. A map will be displayed shortly.


We introduced a new WBCA initiative with two objectives:

  • firstly to conduct a natural inventory of the area and 
  • secondly to develop recommendations as to what could be done to strengthen the natural values of the area and make the area more suitable as habitat and for passive recreation and enjoyment.

We developed a draft vision for the area which we feel corresponds closely with the NCC's visioning and conceptualization of the river parkway as expressed in their "Plan for Canada’s Capital – 2017-2067” while being a natural contrast to the more intensively developed and used Westboro beach area.  The draft vision is as follows:


The wooded areas in and bordering on Westboro Beach community and the nearby Ottawa River are restored, managed and protected for their ecological integrity as thriving natural habitat for a diversity of indigenous animal, vegetative and bird species. Invasive species are reduced, managed and controlled as much as possible. The areas are to be available for enjoyment by people within and beyond the Westboro Beach community with activities based on low impact recreation (e.g. walking, cross country skiing, snowshoeing) and passive enjoyment (e.g. contemplation, bird watching, nature study by children). Infrastructure in these areas is limited to trails, benches, bat and bird nesting boxes, and similar small scale and low impact structures. These areas are managed and connected ecologically with other nearby natural areas including the Champlain Woods to the east across Island Park Drive and the woods and the shoreline woods along the Ottawa River.


WBCA was very fortunate in gaining the involvement of the Ottawa Stewardship Council through Janet Mason and Lindsay Crawford who in turn engaged a very committed group of fourth year students at Carleton University's Environmental Science Department.  The Carleton team includes: Colleen Harper, Carlo Gallota, Connor Hill, Brianna Scaringi, Megan Swiatek, and Angle Wen and supervisor Tanya PrystayWBCA thanks them all most sincerely for their commitment and diligence in carrying out the work, often done on a cold or rainy day, that they are about to describe to you.  The project also benefitted from the participation of expert ecologists and botanists who willingly aided this project including Erin Neave, Nancy Kingsbury, Gary Allen, and Owen Clarkin.


WBCA would also like to thank the NCC and in particular Mike Muir for their continuing receptiveness and goodwill in being open to WBCA's ideas for re-naturalization and use of the area.


WCBA feels the subject area is an under-valued natural jewel in our midst.  We would be interested in any resident feedback on this project and WBCA's draft vision and we very much hope that residents will come forward as volunteers when it comes time to do some physical work to implement improvements to the area: site clearing, tree planting, tree watering, etc..  The draft vision, a map of the area, and further background information are on WBCA's website.


Atlantis Woods/Selby Plains Site Assessment Report (Gary Allen)


Brief description of the site: The Site is a remnant natural area at the west side of Westboro, very proximal to the Ottawa River, but separated now by Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway. It consists of a remnant forest know as Atlantis Woods, and a predominantly open field area known as Selby Plain. The woods is quite degraded from past disturbances, and is dominated by an overstorey of Norway Maple, with an understorey of Common Buckthorn. Selby Plain is an area with thin soil on limestone bedrock, dominated again by non-native plant species.

Importance of the site from a biological perspective:
Selby Plain provides habitat for species that require open areas, in particular pollinators, and specifically habitat for the endangered Monarch Butterfly, which is totally dependent on the milkweed for its survival. Habitat loss has been implicated in the dramatic decline of the species in the past couple of years, and its resultant drop in status from Special Concern to Endangered by COSEWIC. In addition, a suite of grassland bird species also depend on such associated habitat types for their survival, e.g. Bobolink, Eastern Meadowlark (both of which are species at risk), and Savannah Sparrow.

With its proximity to the Ottawa River, and exposed limestone visible at the surface, Selby Plain may also be a representative of alvar vegetation; albeit a degraded one. Alvars are areas where the limestone is at or near the surface, resulting in thin granular soils, supporting primarily herbaceous perennial vegetation, with savannah or prairie affinities. If in a good quality state, these alvars are considered to be provincially rare habitat types (NHIC Vegetation Typology, Bakowsky), with the Ottawa area representing the known northward extent of alvars in Ontario (e.g. The Burntland Alvar west of Ottawa is the best remaining local example, now owned by the Nature Conservancy of Canada and managed by Ontario Parks). For the time being, we are referring to Selby Plain as alvar-like, recognizing that more inventory work needs to be done, in order to properly classify the site.

Threats to the site:
Alvar sites are maintained by some form of natural disturbance, to maintain their open aspect, e.g. fire, drought, Great Lakes water levels; and in the absence of such disturbance, will succumb to plant succession, with shrubs and young trees creeping in from the edges and out-competing the sun-loving herbaceous plants - - the open species giving way to the shade tolerant species, and the habitat eventually converting to forest. The Selby Plains receives annual spring flooding from the Ottawa River and is mowed, which may be serving to maintain open habitat conditions.

Being adjacent to Atlantis Woods, Selby Plain is very vulnerable to encroachment by Common Buckthorn and Norway Maple in particular, as invasive species capable of altering and dominating such an open landscape, in the absence of natural disturbance, e.g. fire. Such field-type habitats in the Ottawa area are also especially vulnerable to invasion by Dog-strangling Vine, an extremely aggressive alien vine that has the ability to out-compete all of our native open habitat and semi-shade herbaceous plants. Either way, the above threats, if left unchecked, will eventually alter the site, so that it is overgrown and unable to support species like milkweed, Monarch, and open habitat songbirds.

Management recommendations:
The present value of the site is the open character of Selby Plain, what it may support in terms of open habitat-dependent species, and its to-be-determined value as a possible remnant alvar. A breeding bird survey and botanical inventory should be conducted, to determine whether Selby Plains has value as an alvar and/or as grassland/old field nesting habitat for migratory birds. With this baseline inventory, a simple management plan can be prepared, including setting objectives for the desired end state vegetation for the forest (Atlantis Woods) and for the existing open habitats (Selby Plains).

A program for controlling invasive alien species at the site should be an aspect of the above noted management plan, and a simple management plan prepared. Informal controls could commence any time, targeting Selby Plains, and specifically the three species noted above. Invading woody invasives Common Buckthorn and Norway Maple, and native woody species such as Staghorn Sumac can be cut and treated with a glyphosate application during the growing season, while any invading individuals of Dog-strangling Vine can either be hand-pulled, or treated with glyphosate. Other potential alien invasives at the site, in particular those with a public safety warning, e.g. Wild Parsnip, should be flagged on a neighbourhood “Watch List”, in order to remove them upon first detection.

To maintain the site as open and grassy, some form of disturbance is required, with the most straightforward method currently being mowing. The primary factor to consider in establishing such a mowing regime is that migratory birds may use the site for nesting, and they are protected under the Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994. Mowing operations by NCC should at all costs avoid harm to individuals of protected migratory birds, by realizing that normal prime mowing season - - June & July - - is also prime nesting season for our native bird species. To help with determining regionally relevant periods when nesting is likely to occur, Environment and Climate Change Canada has published estimated regional nesting periods https://www.ec.gc.ca/paom-itmb/default.asp?lang=En&n=4F39A78F-1 For the Ottawa area (C3 Nesting Zone), it is recommended that no mowing be conducted between mid-April and late August. Suggested mowing regime for Selby Plains then would be twice a year, up to mid-April, prior to return of nesting species, and in September, after young have fledged and most migratory species have moved south.

Beyond migratory birds, such a management regime for mowing will help maintain populations of milkweed, and their use by Monarchs butterflies, which begin to migrate in late August through September, by controlling encroachment by shrubs and trees.




Map - Atlantis Woods and Selby Plains subject outlined in red on the left


Selby Plain Botanical Inventory – 26 July 2017 (Gary Allen)

Description of the site:

The Site is a remnant natural area at the west side of Westboro, very proximal to the Ottawa River, but separated now by Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway.   It is a predominantly open field area adjacent to a remnant forest known as Atlantis Woods.  The woods is quite degraded from past disturbances, and is dominated by an overstorey of Norway Maple, with an understorey of Common Buckthorn.  Selby Plain is an area with thin soil on limestone bedrock, also dominated by non-native plant species - - Orchard Grass, Timothy, Common Buckthorn - - the latter invading from Atlantis Woods, now found throughout the site, mainly at approximately one metre in height.  Wet pockets of standing water were present throughout the site, although this was a very wet summer.


Biological Significance:


Selby Plain provides habitat for species that require open areas, and supports a number of pollinator plants, including Common Milkweed, on which the endangered Monarch Butterfly is totally dependent for its survival.  Habitat loss has been implicated in the dramatic decline of the species in the past couple of years, and its resultant elevation in status from Special Concern to Endangered by COSEWIC.  In addition, the open fields and shrub edges support nesting migratory birds, e.g. Song Sparrow was observed.


With its proximity to the Ottawa River, and exposed limestone visible at the surface, Selby Plain was considered as a representative of alvar vegetation; albeit a degraded one.  Alvars are areas where the limestone is at or near the surface, resulting in thin granular soils, supporting primarily herbaceous perennial vegetation, with savannah or prairie affinities.  If in a good quality state, these alvars are considered to be provincially rare habitat types, with the Ottawa area representing the known northward extent of alvars in Ontario.


To determine whether Selby has any significance as an alvar, I requested an evaluation from alvar expert and local botanist Dan Brunton, who is familiar with the site, and received the following: “Selby Plains is not alvar, not even Cultural Alvar.  It is artificial landscape over thinly buried limestone with exposed bits resulting from land clearing activities over the last 90 years or so. It was formerly developed (a half dozen residences occurred across from Selby Plains) up until the 1940s and likely until expropriation for the Parkway in the early 60s. A railway corridor (the CPR main line) existed just south of both spots into the 1960s and much of the 'Atlantis Woods' was also built upon for decades.” (Brunton, pers. comm. 1 August 2017).


I also requested an evaluation from Dan Brunton of the Smaller Scullcap (Scutellaria parvula) found on site, and previously considered as an alvar indicator (Catling et al. 1975).  He responded with, “Scutellaria parvula is pretty widespread on limestone flats across eastern Ontario - much more common than we knew. I have it documented from 14 sites in the City but it occurs in numerous locations within several of the larger sites such as the Burnt Lands, Morris Island and, the Marlborough Forest and I consider it to be functionally Uncommon here. Marginally significant, in other words. It's weak as an alvar indicator, even though it certainly is found on every alvar around. It also occurs in old quarries, along roadsides, etc. I don't think there's a local map.” (Brunton, pers. comm. 1 August 2017).

  

Conclusion:  Selby Plain certainly offers pollinator habitat, and specifically habitat for the endangered Monarch Butterfly, and migratory bird habitat; but does not support alvar or alvar-like habitat, as it is lacking the cohort of vascular plant species indicative of such a specialized habitat.

Recommendation:  If retained as a municipal natural area, and in particular if it is to be maintained as open pollinator habitat, it is recommended that a strategy be devised to begin to control the dominance of invasive plants.  If not addressed, some of especially aggressive invasives will continue to overrun the entire site, e.g. White Sweet Cover, Garlic Mustard, Creeping Bellflower; and with the Common Buckthorn unchecked, the open habitat will soon succeed to a shaded, closed canopy buckthorn shrub land.  Of particular note, one plant of Dog-strangling was found, and in its prime habitat at Selby, this extremely aggressive species could rapidly carpet the entire site.  

References:

Catling, P.M., J.E. Cruise, K.L. McIntosh, S.M. McKay.  1975.  Alvar Vegetation in Southern Ontario.  Ontario Field Biologist 29(2): 1-25.

Vascular Plant List (from 2-hour survey by Eleanor Thomson and Gary Allen):

Acalypha rhomboidea (Three-seeded Mercury)

Agrostis gigantea (Redtop)

Alliaria officinalis (Garlic Mustard)*

Ambrosia artemisiifolia (Common Ragweed) 

Asclepias syriaca (Common Milkweed) 

Barbarea vulgaris (Bittercress)

Campanula rapunculoides (Creeping Bellflower)*

Carex annectans (Yellow-fruited Sedge) 

Carex bebbii (Bebb’s Sedge)

Carex crawfordii (Crawford’s Sedge)

Carex pellita (Wooly Sedge)

Carex vulpinodea (Fox Sedge)

Cirsium arvense (Canada Thistle)

Cirsium vulgare (Bull Thistle)

Conyza canadenis (Horseweed) 

Cynanchum sp. (Dog-strangling Vine)

Dactylis glomerata (Orchard Grass)

Daucus carota (Wild Carrot)

Echium vulgare (Viper’s Bugloss)

Erigeron annuus (Annual Fleabane)

Fragaria vesca (Wild Strawberry)

Fragaria virginiana (Virginia Strawberry)

Fraxinus pennsylvanica (Green Ash)

Gallium mollugo (Hedge Bedstraw)

Hemerocallis fulva (Day Lily) 

Hypericum perforatum (Perforate St-John’s-wort)

Juncus dudleyi (Dudley’s Rush)

Linaria vulgaris (Butter-and-eggs) 

Lonicera tatarica (Tatarian Honeysuckle)

Lotus corniculatus (Bird’s-foot Trefoil)

Lythrum salicaria (Purple Loosestrife)*

Medicago lupulina (Black Medick)

Melilotus alba (White Sweet Clover)*

Parthenocissus sp. (Virginia Creeper)

Plantago major (Common Plantain)

Plantago rugelii (Rugel’s Plantain)

Poa compressa (Canada Bluegrass)

Poa pratensis (Kentucky Bluegrass)

Phleum pretense (Timothy) 

Polygonum aviculare (Common Knotgrass)

Populus tremuloides (Trembling Aspen)

Potentilla argentea (Silver Cinquefoil)

Potentilla recta (Rough-fruited Cinquefoil)

Rhamnus cathartica (Common Buckthorn) 

Rosa blanda (Smooth Rose)

Rumex crispus (Curled Dock) 

Scutellaria parvula (Smaller Scullcap)

Silene vulgaris (Bladder Campion)

Solanum dulcamara (Bittersweet Nightshade)

Solidago altissima (Tall Goldenrod)

Taraxicum officinale (Dandelion)

Tragopogon dubius (Yellow Goat’s-beard)

Trifolium arvense (Rabbit-foot Clover)

Trifolium pratense (Red Clover)

Trifolium repens (White Clover)

Verbascum thapsus (Mullein)

Vicia cracca (Cow Vetch)

Vitis riparia (Wild Grape)


* Indicates aggressive alien/invasive species


Application for Funding under the TD Friends of the Environment Foundation

Submitted by 

Westboro Beach Community Association

February 5, 2016

Objective

 To implement an urban re-forestation and naturalization project on two adjoining natural areas (referred herein as “the site”) in Westboro Beach community of Ottawa through community leadership and engagement and to increase community awareness of the value of trees in an urban community.

Background

Westboro Beach Community Association (WBCA) is a voluntary non-profit organization devoted to improving the quality of life for residents in the Westboro Beach area of Ottawa.  Run by a volunteer Board of Directors, the Association has a very small budget for which funds are generated by bake sales, donations at community events, and an annual tree and shrub sale.  The website www.westborobeach.ca provides further WBCA background.  Westboro Beach community is home to approximately 3500 people of mixed incomes living in diverse housing styles.  Its population will continue to grow due to on-going intensification through new development. WBCA was founded in September 1995 and incorporated June 3, 1998 (Ontario Corporation Number 1296156) and letter of patent June 3, 1998.

WBCA has a proven track record in effective administration and use of external funding to achieve results in the community.  This includes funding received from the City of Ottawa’s Community Tree Planting Program in 2008 to plant trees at Westboro Beach for which several members of the community watered the trees during the months after the planting.  Other examples include funding and in-kind donations from Telus, the United Way, and the Harry Ward Foundation.

WBCA’s website and its heron logo convey the Association’s commitment to the natural environment (see the website’s “About Us” section).  Of note also is the website’s section on “Nature” which is indicative of WBCA’s on-going commitment to trees, greenspace, and environmental awareness in the community.  Related on-going WBCA initiatives include: 

  • annual tree and shrub sale featuring indigenous species obtained from Ferguson Nurseries
  • fighting for the preservation of existing trees on infill development sites
  • participation in the Champlain Oaks project, including co-creation and co-ownership of an adult-sized tree costume used to engender tree awareness at community events
  • creation of an inventory of burr oaks in the Westboro Beach community
  • public environmental lecture series most recently focusing on: 1) global and local impacts of climate change and what residents can do and 2) a birding presentation by an internationally recognized professional birder on local bird populations, impacts of climate change on birds, and what residents can do to create bird habitat.  WBCA foresees a lecture on trees in association with the subject re-forestation project.
  • establishing a “green gateway” at the west entrance to the community.

The Site

The project site comprises two contiguous areas of significant ecological value but differing natural character.  Located within the Westboro Beach community near the Ottawa River corridor, the areas are commonly referred to as Atlantis Woods (forest) and Selby Plains (open grasslands).  Approximately ten hectares in size combined, they represent an opportunity WBCA has envisaged for sometime to restore as a model urban forest.  While these are relatively small patches of greenspace, they act as a vital urban refuge for numerous species of wildlife and are highly valued by residents who regularly walk, ski and snowshoe through the site. 

The Atlantis Woods area is wooded with deciduous trees and shrubs while Selby Plains is a grassy area with scattered shrubs.  It maintains qualities of an alvar ecosystem, a globally rare habitat that is known to occur along the Ottawa River Valley.  Both areas play host to a variety of birds that do not commonly occur in an urban setting such as great-horned owls, northern harrier, wild turkeys, bohemian waxwings, yellow warbler, northern cardinals, nesting ravens, and baltimore orioles, as well as more common (but no less important!) birds such as black-capped chickadees and red-winged blackbirds.  Both areas hold significant potential for WBCA’s annual spring community bird walk and WBCA foresees featuring the site, once restored, as an element in its bird walks. Both areas have been noted in the Richmond Road/Westboro Community Design Plan as crucial to preserve as greenspace and as being highly valued by residents. The overall site is within or adjacent to the boundaries of the globally significant Lac Deschenes Important Bird Area.

Strategic re-forestation of the site would support the creation of a natural corridor from the Atlantis Woods to Selby Plains to the Champlain Forest to the east.

The site faces a number of pressures, including alien invasive species, continued loss of connectivity due to residential intensification, and the loss of important mature ash trees from the Emerald ash borer.

Vision

WBCA has long targeted Atlantis Woods and Selby Plains for enhancement to firstly, restore and then maintain the natural heritage of this special urban area which encompasses two different habitats and the associated biodiversity and secondly, to provide a peaceful natural area for the enjoyment of residents and the education of children.  WBCA has had a preliminary plan prepared toward this goal but until now there has never been a catalyst to get this going.   WBCA’s vision is to benefit from the TDFOE funding to undertake re-forestation and implement a complementary education program in the community.  WBCA envisages that, once completed, the re-forested site could serve as a demonstration project regarding what can be done to enhance urban forests and how local residents can be engaged to support and benefit from such a forest.  Ecology Ottawa and, it is hoped the City of Ottawa Forestry Department no less, would play a part in making this project known for the broader benefit of the city of Ottawa.  It is also foreseen that the site could serve as the locus for on-site environmental education purposes by nearby schools.

With regard to this vision WBCA has requested and received the (non-financial) support of the National Capital Commission (NCC) being the owner the property.  This adds two additional elements to WBCA’s vision: firstly that the site, once restored, would be integrated into the NCC’s proposed Sir John A. MacDonald Parkway (SJAM) Linear Park which is currently in the preliminary concept stage and secondly, that the site would be integrated into the formal groomed cross-country ski trail system along the Ottawa River that WBCA is working to establish with the support of the NCC and Nakkertok Ski Club.  The site itself has potential to be included in the groomed ski trail network which, in phase one, will start at the nearby Westboro Beach.

In support of the above vision, it is to be noted that three of the six elements of WBCA’s stated overall Vision Statement (source: www.westborobeach.ca) relate to nature as follows: building on our “green” credentials, retaining and enhancing our recreational and greenspaces, and protecting the Ottawa River for both our own community and the rest of the citizens of Ottawa. The Vision Statement also provides for building on Westboro Beach as a focus for active outdoor living and linking our active outdoor greenspaces to other areas for the benefit and enjoyment of all Ottawa residents. 

Action Plan

Action items for the project would include:

1. The WBCA Board will inform and engage community residents to establish a team of volunteers to meet the initial and on-going work requirements of the project. There is a core group of residents living near the site who are standing by to take this on.

2. undertake an inventory of current tree and shrub species and densities on the site.   This would be done informally using local expertise or if funds were available more formally using a professional forester or arborist.

3. prepare a re-forestation plan to indicate where and what species should be planted and in what quantities.  Species would be obtained from Twigs Nursery.  Selection of species would take into account the characteristics of each of the two areas.  We are hoping for advice from an arborist.  For Atlantis Woods possible trees to be planted include red maple, sugar maple, shagbark hickory, American beech, and burr oak.  Trees will have to be of sufficient size as to maximize the prospects of survival, for example to access sunlight and out-compete the invasive buckthorn.  We would favor fewer larger trees than many smaller trees for this reason. For Selby Plains we foresee planting a small number of dispersed shrubs appropriate to the existing soil and drainage conditions and which would provide habitat and food sources for wildlife.  Such species might include highbush cranberry, scarlet hawthorn, and eastern red cedar.  Quantities would have to be determined in the context of Action item 4 below and in consideration of how many trees can successfully be nurtured and maintained by community volunteers.

4. site preparation in accordance with the characteristics of each site. For Atlantis Woods planting locations would have to be cleared and prepared amongst the existing tree and shrub cover.  Existing cover includes alien invasive species such as Manitoba maple and buckthorn.  It is not considered feasible to cull or thin these species at this stage though this could be a long-term goal.  Rather, planting sites would be chosen, cleared, established and maintained among the existing forest. For Selby Plains planting locations are more readily available and would be chosen with a view to creating habitat and food sources particularly for birds, while maintaining the area’s alvar-like qualities.  Skills, equipment and safety procedures will have to be provided for.  We foresee support from a heavy equipment company with connections in the community.

5. preparation of a tree/shrub maintenance plan to maximize the on-going success of the plantings.  This action item will be oriented to implementation by community volunteers.

6. preparation of an interpretation and education action plan to focus on: interpretive signage on the site and in the community*; a leaflet to be promulgated through WBCA’s electronic, poster and mail-drop communications tools; a public lecture as part of WBCA’s environmental lecture series; liaison with local schools to inform them of the project and discuss associated educational opportunities; and liaison with the City of Ottawa Forestry Department to discuss publicizing the project as a model urban forest.

* If funds permit interpretative signage will be prepared to identify particular species, mention tree facts of interest (e.g. traditional use by native peoples), and foster better knowledge and appreciation of the value of urban forests and specifically the role they play with regard to wildlife habitat and food, air quality, health, shade, and beauty.   These signs would be placed strategically on the site and elsewhere the Westboro Beach community.

7. monitoring of the project to assess the success rate of the plantings, to observe noticeable changes in wildlife populations, and to consider further stages in advancing the Atlantis Woods/Selby Plains urban forest.

Budget:

Funding from TDFOE is estimated to be in the range of:

  • $ 600 for the services of an arborist for action items 3 and 4
  • $ 2400 for the purchase of trees and shrubs
  • $ 2000 for the design and production of durable signs for action item #6.  One of the core group of residents mentioned in Action item #1 owns a professional sign company and it might be possible to obtain reduced costs for signage.

In-kind support from the community would include: 

  • labour associated with the above action plan item #4
  • hand tools and small equipment needed for action item #4
  • donated support from a heavy equipment company re action item #4
  • overall leadership, organization and services (e.g. communications) from WBCA for all action items 
  • painting of a mural on the SJAM parkway underpass near the site to convey the presence and value of native trees, birds and aquatic life in the area using funds from another external funding source