Cottages and camping are standard features of Canadian summers and tend to revolve around shoreline areas. A quiet canoe across a misty morning lake, a late afternoon trip trolling for fish, or simply lying quietly on a dock as the water’s tide rocks you to sleep are wonderful ways to spend part of a summer day. But what would those moments be without the hawk silently circling overhead or a dragonfly zipping past as it hunts for insects. Wildlife is an integral part of life in Canada and shorelines are a great place to experience it.
Those of us that are lucky enough to own a piece of Canadian shoreline need to consider how we can ensure that our property continues to support wildlife. Natural shorelines are the best habitat for the greatest diversity of wildlife. The most effective thing shoreline landowners can do to ensure our aquatic wildlife survives is to keep their shorelines natural. But what if your shoreline has been altered already? How can you welcome wildlife back to your property?
If human activity has already unnaturally altered your shoreline, you may still be able to welcome back wildlife with a bit of effort. If the changes are not too great, you can just leave the area alone and allow nature to take its course. If there is little nature left, however, you can help wildlife by adding some native shoreline vegetation.
Seek out qualified advice before you make any changes. Choosing the appropriate species and ensuring that plant material is locally native is not always easy. There are plenty of government agencies, shoreline conservation groups, cottage associations and lakeholder associations that provide advice and resource material on everything from shoreline restoration to the proper maintenance of septic systems. They can also advise you on any approvals you may need.
But you can be proactive all on your own, too! Learn about the wildlife associated with your area and what they need to survive. What features does your property provide? What is missing? If aspects are missing, is it because your property doesn’t naturally provide them or has it been altered? Shorelines vary naturally, even along the same stretch of lake. Some areas are rocky, others muddy and vegetated, while some have natural sandy areas. Each of these areas has its part to play in an aquatic ecosystem. Don’t try to change your shoreline from its natural state into something different. Not only will this harm wildlife and the lake as a whole, but it won’t last. An area that’s not naturally a sandy beach can’t be forced to be so even if you continually dump sand along the edge. It will quickly wash away into the lake, damaging fish habitat in the process.
Keep in mind that shoreline areas are protected under a variety of federal, provincial and municipal legislations. Leaving these areas natural is not only beneficial for wildlife, but can also save you money. Altering shorelines in a way that damages fish habitat without first seeking the proper authorization can result in large fines and significant restoration costs. Before you make any changes to your waterfront, such as adding a dock, contact the appropriate municipal, provincial and/or federal authorities. It is your responsibility to ensure that you have all the proper approvals.
Any efforts you make to improve the habitat potential of your shoreline will be rewarded through the diversity of wildlife that will visit, enhancing your wilderness experience. Just think of those quiet mornings watching a great blue heron skulk along the shoreline searching for fish or the excitement of spotting a river otter as it slides into the water. It is these experiences that make spending time along a shoreline so worthwhile.
Providing Shoreline Habitat for Wildlife Tips
- To support both water and land birds, ensure your shoreline has sufficient emergent vegetation (plants that grow up out of the water), such as bulrushes or cattails, upland grasses and other vegetation. These provide food, cover and nesting sites. Trees, both living and dead, and shrubs along the shore not only provide food and nesting sites but also offer perches for sighting prey and shelter from the elements.
- Vegetation that grows above the water along shoreline areas provides vital cover for shoreline mammals to reach the water’s edge without being spotted by predators. Seeds, nuts, fruits and tubers provided by aquatic and shoreline vegetation are a direct food source.
- Protect existing aquatic vegetation (plants within the water) as fish habitat. It provides spawning areas, oxygen, nurseries for young fish, food sources, hunting grounds and shelter from predators.
- Protect or add trees and shrubs along the shore to help shade the water to keep it cool and well oxygenated, filter out pollutants and stop erosion, which decreases water quality.
- Fallen trees, logs and other woody debris in the water may seem unnecessary but are actually important for the provision of shade, shelter and feeding sites.
- Amphibians and reptiles need sufficient aquatic and shoreline plants for nesting, food and shelter. Plants also support the insects that are important in their diet. Add some logs and rocks for shelter, nesting and basking sites.
- Due to the permeable nature of their skin, many amphibian species are susceptible to aquatic contaminants. Remember that handling amphibians with sunscreen, insect repellent or other chemicals on your hands can also be hazardous to their health.
- Emergent vegetation, such as sedges and rushes, and shoreline vegetation are important for dragonflies as cover from predators, places to crawl up as they emerge from the water as adults and as resting spots.
- Fertilizers are one of the chemicals that can have a huge affect on water quality. In contrast, naturally vegetated shorelines help to filter out nutrients and chemicals and keep them from reaching the water. Leave your landscape natural and forgo a lawn. If you want a bit of lawn, plant it further away from the shoreline, avoid the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and leave a buffer zone of native plants along the water's edge.
Plants — both large and small — play a crucial role in keeping our water systems healthy. The diversity of plant species directly affects the variety of wildlife that a habitat is able to support. Ensure that your shoreline has a diversity of native plant species along the water’s edge, in the water and also in upland areas.
Some Good Plant Choices -
Trees and Shrubs:
- Cedar – Cedars help to stabilize shoreline areas while also providing food for mammals, such as deer, hares, and birds, such as common redpolls and pine siskins. Their dense foliage is important nesting and winter shelter for many animals and birds.
- White pine – Due to their great height, white pines are considered super canopy trees – trees that poke through the top of the forest canopy. This allows them to act as landmarks for migrating birds and as essential nesting spots for large raptors, such as bald eagles and osprey. These trees are also a valuable food source for birds, such as nuthatches, grosbeaks and crossbills, and mammals, such as chipmunks and squirrels.
- Maples – Maples provide food for many animals, including snowshoe hares, grey, red, and flying squirrels, ruffed grouse, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and purple finches. Maples also supply one of the first tastes of nectar for early bees and are good cavity-nesting sites for wood ducks and other birds and mammals.
- Willows - The extensive root systems of willows are invaluable in reducing soil erosion. They are also great shelter shrubs and an important food source for many wildlife species including butterfly larvae, pollinating insects, birds such as alder flycatchers, woodcocks, warblers and grouse, and mammals, such as muskrats and porcupines.
- Serviceberries – Serviceberries provide fruit for songbirds and mammals, while their flowers are a good early season food source for bumblebees and other pollinators.
- Red osier dogwood - Red osier dogwood is a valuable wildlife plant for the food it provides to pollinators, mammals and especially to birds, such as great-crested flycatchers, American catbirds and pine warblers. It is also a great soil stabilizer when planted along shoreline areas.
- Marsh marigold – Their flowers attract pollinators.
- Joe-Pye weed – Joe-Pye weed provides nectar and pollen for butterflies, bees and other small insects and its seeds provide food for birds such as finches, sparrows and wild turkeys.
- Sensitive fern – This and other ferns provide valuable shelter for shoreline wildlife.
- Asters – These flowers are an important late-season source of nectar and pollen for butterflies, bees and other pollinators. Their seed heads provide a good source of seeds for small birds.
- Sedges - The seeds are eaten by songbirds, such as sparrows and finches, as well as rails, grouse and some ducks. Mammals such as moose eat the foliage and roots. Many Carex species are butterfly larval plants, of particular importance to many of the skippers.
- Blue flag iris - Bees eat the pollen of blue flag iris, hummingbirds drink its nectar and its rhizomes are sought after by muskrats, beavers and waterfowl.
- Common cattail - This species provides nesting material and sites for birds, such as marsh wrens, red-winged blackbirds and American coots. The rhizomes provide food for geese as well as muskrats. Cattails also provide spawning areas for fish and are great for stabilizing shoreline soil.
- Water smartweed - Water smartweed seeds are a valuable food source for waterfowl and many songbirds. The flowers attract pollinating insects.
- Pickerelweed - Pickerelweed seeds, leaves, pollen and fruit are eaten by muskrats, waterfowl, songbirds, such as red-winged blackbirds, redpolls, and sparrows, and butterflies, bees and other pollinating insects. The plant also provides cover for fish such as pickerel.
- Yellow pond lily - This plant’s large leaves offer shelter to fish below and serve as a platform for frogs and insects. Yellow pond lily provides food for waterfowl, marsh birds, fish, insects and mammals, especially moose.
- Floating arrowhead – Arrowhead serves as a food source for birds such as rails, geese, mallards and teals, and for mammals such as muskrats.
- Coontail - Coontail leaves and seeds are food for waterfowl and shorebirds, and muskrats occasionally eat the leaves, but it is more often used as shelter for small animals, insects and fish.
- Pondweeds - Pondweeds are an important shelter and food source for numerous animals, such as invertebrates, muskrats, moose, deer and beavers. Waterfowl, such as mallards, teals and pintails, eat its seeds.