It was a bright sunny day when I took a walk with Larry Cornelis through his family farm just north of Wallaceburg. Larry is a self-employed landscaper, naturalist and natural heritage surveyor. He and his family moved to the farm that backs on to the Sydenham River, from Sarnia in 1987. He remembers his life as a child on the farm when his grandparents lived there - he could fish from almost any point along the river bank and take long hikes both along the river and in the local woods and wetlands. Along the river, he would see turtles, snakes, frogs, cattails, and a variety of riparian plant species. Today, when he walks toward the river, these sites are no longer as visible because invasive Phragmites has become so tall, thick and dense that you can barely walk through the area. The Phragmites extends into the water and inland from the water’s edge another ten to fifteen meters. He thinks about his future grandchildren and how they will never have the same childhood experiences that he did. Larry is an avid birdwatcher and butterfly enthusiast. Being involved in these activities gives him the sense that he is seeing the last remnants of the habitat which he loved in his youth. Larry’s voice saddens as he tells me that, “Every day we are losing more and the changes are quite drastic”.
He looks out at what used to be a ten-hectare soybean field. He can still remember back to the fall of 2005 when his family negotiated the deal to build a wetland here. Historically, this area had been a wetland so they knew it would be possible again. Ponds and channels were dug out to create areas to hold water so that animals such as fish and turtles to be able to survive there year round.
During the first spring of the project, the area consisted of mud flats with ponds. There was no vegetation within the area. Larry can still remember the excitement he felt when thousands of shore birds showed up on the mudflats. Rare birds such as the Eurasian Ruff and Snowy Egret appeared which lured many bird watchers to the area.
Larry can recall there being concerns regarding how native plant species would be able to return. Fortunately, in June 2006, little green plants started showing up all over the wetland which turned out to be native aquatic species such as cattails, different sedges, burweed, water plantain and monkey flower. Larry was truly impressed that despite the land being farmed for almost a century the seed bank remained, waiting for someone to create the right environment for the plants to grow again.
The area continued to flourish to the point that after three years, it was filled with birds such as Green Herons, Swamp Sparrows, Marsh Wrens, Spotted Sandpipers and many other species. There were also thousands and thousands of frogs and toads that came out of the ponds every spring and invaded the entire farm. As Larry says, “It is unbelievable how nature has responded to that property.”
The farm is also home to both Milksnake and Eastern Foxsnake. The Foxsnake population is an endangered species while the Milksnake is considered a species of special concern in the Chatham-Kent area. More habitat projects were created to support those species. During the restoration project shrubs were planted along the river, a prairie was created and trees were planted. They built snake hibernacula and snake nesting structures on the property. Many students have come to Larry’s family farm and helped out with aspects of this restoration project.
Larry’s journey of habitat restoration on the Cornelis family farm has been a wonderful success story and a true testament to the importance of land restoration.