Monday, November 22, 2010

Gophers and Thistles and poop, oh my! Alice Y. and Curtis W.

Monday, September 20, 2010

After weeks of preparation, the first journey into the vast wilderness was finally undertaken by groups of young eager students, each excited to discover and unravel the ecology lying underfoot in the ponds, grasslands, and forests of Nose Hill Park. Carrying notebooks, pens, and recording instruments, we set off on our own to use the three hours needed to understand the nature in each of our respective fields. As the temperature dropped to a chilling 3 degrees Celsius, students fumbled for gloves and coats in the fear that snow and wind would soon force us to retreat to the hollowed halls of Sir Winston Churchill High School. Past the fences encompassing the park’s interior. Past the gates encompassing the whole of Nose Hill Park ventured the class, gaping into the sheer size of the never-ending hills and valleys as far as one could see.               
 To the grasslands we walked, where a stray deer galloped away a stone’s throw away, the hum of grasshopper wings accompanying the orchestra of human steps and voices. Past the ponds we went, to the dominating area of grasses, teeming with life, where we would attempt to learn as much as we possibly could about the ecology of the Nose Hill Grasslands.
             Directly to the North-West of the grasslands study area lay the communities of Edgemont and Hawkwood, Dalhousie to the West, Charleswood and the University of Calgary to the South, Panorama Hills and Hidden Valley, and the Calgary International Airport about 3 kilometres to the East, a large public park in Calgary, Alberta (1129 hectares), Nose Hill Park is located in the Northwest Quadrant of the massive city. Completely surrounded by the daily to-dos and lifestyles of one million Calgarians, the area in itself required massive infrastructure and municipal buildings in order to support the population. The park is also surrounded by major roadways built by the city. Along the south end of the park lies John Laurie Boulevard, Shaganappi Trail along the West side, and 14th Street encompassing the East side of the park. Sir Winston Churchill Sr. High School is located to the South-West of the park, The Park is surrounded by the 180+ number of communities in Calgary, being utilised on a daily basis by bikers, dog-walkers, joggers, and the average Calgarian. 

            Located at in the grasslands area of the SW section of the park, the first measurement recorded was the location of the transect. The coordinates recorded were (in degrees) N 51.1136o (+/- 6.72693m) and W 114.1299o (+/- 6.72693m)/ (in minutes) N 51.6o 6'48'' and W 114o 7'47''. A 10meter by 1.0 meter transect was set up on a grassy hill, clumps of grass and wildflowers gently swaying in the wind. The forest area loomed behind us back by the path taken to get from the pond area to the forest and grasslands area. Using the wooden stakes, hammer, string, and measuring tape, we set off building the transect on which we would soon begin to delve into the thriving system present there. A 0.5m by 0.5m area was sectioned off about 2.5 meters up from the bottom of the transect for general observations. Once the transect was completed, we set off on the beginnings of our observations.
            First, a hill profile was recorded along the Eastern side of the transect, from the lowest part of the hill upwards to the top. Using the clinometer tool, the angle of the hill was recorded at each 1.0m increment for a total of ten measurements along the side of the transect. A profile of the hill has been analyzed and produced according to the observed values seen on the clinometer. After these observations were taken, the temperature of the soil was recorded 5.0cm below the ground, at ground level, and 1.0 meters above the ground, These measurements were recorded as 5.6oC five cm below, 5.2oC at ground level, and 6.8oC five centimetres above ground level. Afterwards, the plant species present in the area were recorded using photography and writing.
             There were many plant species observed in the grasslands transect under study. The majority of the ground was covered with thick coats of Rough Fescue-Parry Oatgrass and Smooth brome (Bromus inermis).  Buck brush/Western Snowberries (Symphoricarpos occidentale) are abundant in the area, characterized by white, waxy berries and small, purple-blue flowers. The berries last throughout the winter, and are considered unpalatable by most (berries are mildly toxic). There were flat, green and yellow leaves on stems with fuzzy hair-like appendages sticking out of the stem. These were like bushes, all branches leading out to the white snowberries and blue-purple flowers. Canada thistle was another common plant species seen in the grasslands area as a whole. The bulbous parts of the flower appeared purple, while white (extremely light purple) flower strands were seen coming out of the tops. These plants’ stems are spiked, which most likely alludes to self-defence against potential predators that would eat them. A final plant species of stinkweed, or pennycress (Thlaspi arvense), was identified in the transect. The plant consisted of bare branches and white, flat leaf-like structures extending from the “branches.” The leaf-like structures were white in colour, and dark patches (looked like seeds) were held in the leaves. Most branches were bare when viewed, however, which makes sense due to the impending winter months (“leaves” drop in colder temperatures). 

Animal species seen in the Grasslands area of Nose Hill consisted of a lone white-tailed deer running off in the distance the moment we arrived on scene in our study area. The deer most likely use the grasslands as areas for rest at night, as identified by more concentrated numbers of deer droppings found in the area and flattened grass (the second time the same area was observed). Piles of dirt found in the area are most likely pocket gopher mounds, made by Northern Pocket Gophers in their pursuit for underground tunnel networks that may sometimes extend up to 60 meters deep. Richardson’s Ground Squirrels also reside in the area, as small holes under grass cover were found which match the burrowing habits of the animal (size of the hole was large enough for an average-sixed ground squirrel to fit (measured around 5cm x 5cm large)). Although a couple of birds were seen during the time spent at Nose Hill, not enough was observed during the fleeting seconds that they flew by, making identification and natural habits/tendencies difficult to identify, and would most likely prove to be inaccurate. One of the birds was a dark black colour, and most likely was an American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos), of which are common to stay in these large field areas until late October. There are many species of birds that are present in the sanctuary found in Nose Hill Park, which many animals capitalize on when humans aren’t around to interfere. A single white-tailed deer was also spotted in the park, which allows us to conclude that deer reside in the general area, or come to the corner of the park to drink or rest in the pond area next to the park’s entrance.
The most abundant organisms, yet the least seen, were the insect species. Only a few were able to be captured and identified, but there were definitely hundreds of other organisms that went unnoticed and unseen by us. The first identified was a “Packard’s grasshopper” (Melanoplus packardii). The grasshopper was a pale brown-caramel colour, with large hind legs and distinctly recognizable thorax and abdomen. Dull stripes were observed on the grasshopper’s wings/abdomen area, which is another characteristic that defines the specific grasshopper species. The second organism that was collected would most likely be a predatory plant bug of the family Miridae. It has the praying mantis-like claws, leg structure, and wings that match those of a predatory plant bug. It was only about a centimeter in length, which is too small for a mantis (most likely it was very young), and its structures were difficult to see with the naked eye. The Plant Bug would probably prey on smaller insects. A spider was caught among the grasses within the string confines of the transect. The spider was identified as a common garden-variety orb spider, of which there are countless similar-looking varieties, but are most commonly associated with the family Araneidae.
After the plants and animal species were recorded, the trough was used to dig up a 30cm by 30cm square of soil, 20cm deep in the smaller area sectioned off in the transect earlier on. The portion, composed of mostly grass and soil, was put into a plastic bag for future analysis and observation back in the classroom. Clippings of all of the plant species seen in the transect were taken using the clippers, and kept for future identification and analysis.
             By 12:30 PM, all observations were taken, and it was time to pack up to return, our minds buzzing with excitement over our newly found data just ready to be processed. With backpacks and minds full, we set off, with a newly found mind set and appreciation for the great outdoors just a twenty minute walk from our own school. What a time to be a Calgarian student at Nose Hill!

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