File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS Moira River in the Napanee Plain Natural Area in Ontario is shown. A conservation group said Monday it had bought 16 hectares of property in eastern Ontario that is a hot spot for many grassland birds such as the endangered eastern loggerhead shrike.The Nature Conservancy of Canada said its Napanee Plain Alvar Nature Reserve, between Belleville and Kingston, is in one of the rarest ecosystems in the Great Lakes region.

Conservation group buys Ontario bird hot spot

A conservation group said Monday it had bought 16 hectares of property in eastern Ontario that is a hot spot for many grassland birds such as the endangered eastern loggerhead shrike.

The Nature Conservancy of Canada said its Napanee Plain Alvar Nature Reserve, between Belleville and Kingston, is in one of the rarest ecosystems in the Great Lakes region.

The plain is made up of wetlands, forests, lakes, grasslands and alvars, which are found in only a few places globally. Alvars, naturally open habitats with limited soil covering a limestone base, are perfect for grassland birds such as the common nighthawk, the eastern whippoorwills and the eastern meadowlark.

The property serves as an important breeding and feeding ground for the endangered eastern loggerhead shrike — one of North America’s few predatory songbirds known as the butcher bird. It is the site of a loggerhead shrike release program, which is increasing the local population with captive-reared birds, the conservancy said.

In 2015, there were 12 breeding pairs of shrike in Ontario, down from 50 in 1992. In 2016, the number had reached 18.

The group said it had been working on the deal for a year, and the purchase brings the total conserved area in the Napanee Plain to 747 hectares.

“This new property is an expansion of the existing habitat [the shrike] are using. It is the most consistently occupied (nesting) territory in the Napanee Plain. They have told us that they like it — by breeding and feeding here,” said Mark Stabb, a program director for the nature conservancy. “Year after year, they are coming back (so) whatever we are doing is the right thing.”

The next step is to do an inventory of the area, identify any threats that might exist along with any endangered species, and incorporate them into a property management plan, Stabb said.

The Napanee Plain is home to several at-risk species such as Blanding’s turtle, eastern milksnake, least bittern and butternut. It also supports three globally-imperilled plant community types found in alvar habitats, such as the juniper sedge.

The organization said the migratory shrike is an example of an “area-sensitive species,” adding the bird requires large areas of open terrain before it is comfortable enough to nest.

Conservancy vice-president James Duncan said the plain and its globally rare alvars are “incredibly important” to Ontario.

“It’s critical that we strive to conserve its biodiversity, not just for the species that it supports, but for the benefit of current and future generations,” Duncan said in a statement.

Funding for the property came from sources including the Canadian government, Kingston Field Naturalists and individual donors. The non-profit group is also raising money to buy 32 hectares of property to the west of the reserve that has a shrike-nesting site.

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