25th Trillium Award

On Writing, with Drew Monkman

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Drew Monkman

The May long weekend is finally here! As you head outside to enjoy the spring sunshine, you may find yourself wondering about the bird calls your hear or the flowers you find in bloom. Naturalist Drew Monkman's new book, Nature?s Year: Changing Seasons in Central and Eastern Ontario (Dundurn Press), is an almanac of key natural events that will help you fine-tune your attention to the passing of the seasons.

Today, Drew talks to Open Book about his new book, as well as the secret tricks of birders, cougar sightings and a worrying absence of bats.

Contest! Win one of three copies of Nature's Year: Changing Seasons in Central and Eastern Ontario. To enter, send an email to [email protected] and tell us your favourite sign of spring. The contest closes June 1st and is subject to the following rules.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Nature?s Year: Changing Seasons in Central and Eastern Ontario.

Drew Monkman:

The book is a month-by-month chronicle of the passing seasons in central and eastern Ontario. Like an almanac, it describes the most noteworthy events happening each month in our birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, fish, invertebrates, plants, fungi, weather and the night sky. This includes everything from when trilliums start blooming and hummingbirds arrive back at the feeder to when the ice usually goes out on Shield lakes and the Orion constellation becomes visible once again in the evening sky. The events are listed in easy-to-reference bullet form, complemented with line drawings, photographs, charts and tables. Background articles explain in detail what?s happening with many of the events.

For example, you will learn why the seed or fruit crop is particularly heavy in certain years, what our common songbirds are up to on their wintering grounds in Latin America and how frogs survive the winter frozen on the forest floor. The book applies to the entire region extending from Lake Huron to the Ottawa River and encompasses the areas often referred to as cottage country. There is also a section outlining where to go to more easily see some of the events first-hand as well as some of the best websites to consult. I was fortunate to be able to draw upon the expertise of a great many experts with field experience throughout the province to verify the accuracy of my dates and events.


When did you first become attuned to the predictability of nature?


Growing up, my mother remarked every year that lilacs were always in bloom on my birthday. Later, when I became a serious birder and started keeping records of my observations, I was struck by the fact that the first Tree Swallows always returned to the Kawarthas in the last few days of March and the first Northern Waterthrush arrived exactly one month later . It also became clear to me that many bird, butterfly and dragonfly identifications can be made simply based on the time of year. This is one of the secret tricks that birders use to identify birds by voice. In other words, given the time of year and habitat, only a small number of species could be singing. Finding and identifying plants and animals often comes down to knowing what to expect given the month at hand.


Every season has its allure. Is there one you favour more than others?


I?m not sure I have a favourite month. As much as I love May?s diversity of species and the dizzying change apparent from one day to the next, I also look forward to November?s quiet and the chance to slow down and focus on the commonplace, like the mosses of the forest floor. I guess what I love more than anything is simply seeing the months and seasons unfold as they should with the expected species turning up, the expected songs in my ears, the expected behaviours taking place and even the expected weather occurring. That?s why I wasn?t a great fan of the unprecedented heat wave we had in March this year. It was not normal and could potentially create havoc in nature. There?s a great George Santayana quote that says: ?to be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.? That?s how I feel (although I do love spring!)


On your website you keep a ledger of sightings. What?s the most thrilling and scary sighting you?ve discovered??


Among the most thrilling are the many reports of cougar sightings that I?ve received. One man had a cougar cross the road right in front of his truck. When he stopped, a second cougar came out of the bush and sat and stared at him, only metres away. The man was a hunter who had seen cougars before in British Columbia. One of the scariest sightings was a non-sighting. Just last fall, I received an email from a family that has been cottaging on Salmon Lake in the Kawarthas for over 50 years. 2011 was the first summer in all those years that they have not had bats swooping over the lake at sunset. Other people on the lake noticed the same absence. I later found out that there is a bat hibernation site close to Salmon Lake where white-nose syndrome, the disease that has been killing bats, has been found.


For the novice wanting to start an "own backyard" sighting chart, what tools would you recommend to have on hand??


I would recommend having a day planner with a space for each day of the year. Just keep it close to the window where you do most of your backyard nature observations. To facilitate recording, use short-forms such as AMRO for American Robin and BCCH for Black-capped Chickadee. Record when migrants first show up in the spring and, for species such as hummingbirds, when they are last seen in the fall. You should also keep track of first bloom, full leaf-out, peak colour change and complete leaf-drop dates for some of your favourite plants and trees.


You?re also an educator. How does your passion of nature go hand-in-hand with teaching?


As a teacher (I retired in June, 2011) I tried to incorporate environmental education into all facets of my teaching. My main goal, however, was to help my students develop a basic literacy in the workings of the natural world — everything from pollination in dandelions to the life cycle of the Monarch — as well as a seasons-based awareness of our local flora and fauna. For example, my students had to try to observe a list of plants, animals, constellations and other manifestations of nature that are most in evidence each month. My guiding principle was simply: ?we will conserve only what we love and love only what we know.? In other words, if you know little or nothing about the many creatures that inhabit a given habitat — and feel nothing for them — you probably won?t really care if the habitat or the species is at risk.

I was also involved for many years in schoolyard naturalization. In 1990, I began a naturalization project on the schoolground at Edmison Heights Public School. The ?Habitat Area? remains a popular destination for kids at recess and for classes doing science studies, art or even creative writing.


What prompted you to start writing columns?


Doug Sadler had been writing a nature column in the Peterborough Examiner since the 1950s. When Doug stepped down, after producing more than 2000 columns, the paper asked me if I?d be interested in doing a similar column. The column allows me to tell the fascinating stories of the many species that inhabit the Kawarthas, a region rich in biodiversity. It also serves as a platform for promoting values around conservation and environmental ethics in general. Finally, the column keeps me in touch with the many people living in rural parts of the Kawarthas who routinely make the most fascinating wildlife observations and, in the past, did not know where to report them.

Drew Monkman is a retired teacher, naturalist and writer whose popular nature column "Our Changing Seasons" appears weekly in the Peterborough Examiner. He participates in wildlife-monitoring programs, including the Breeding Bird Survey and the Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas, and is the author of Nature's Year in the Kawarthas. Monkman lives in Peterborough, Ontario.

For more information about Nature's Year please visit the Dundurn Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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