Shifting Sands - Beaches, Dunes, Spits & Sandbars | Carolinian Canada

Shifting Sands - Beaches, Dunes, Spits & Sandbars

Scoured by wind, waves and ice, sandy shores are harsh places to live. Vegetation helps stabilize dunes, but sands shift over time, continually reshaping habitats. Wild species are adapted to survive extreme temperatures, droughts and low nutrient levels. Climate and lake movements are critical in maintaining natural shoreline processes by scooping, depositing and moving sand. By definition, these habitats have less than 60% tree cover, varying between open, patchy, scattered or lightly treed.

A few of the rarest Carolinian plants and animals are restricted or nearly restricted to sandy shores including Eastern Mole and Prickly Pear Cactus, both found at Point Pelee National Park. Some plant communities are only found in the Carolinian life zone in Canada including Hop-tree Shrub Dune, Red Cedar Dune Savannah and Cottonwood Treed Dune. Some sand dune species are endemic to the Great Lakes shorelines and occur nowhere else in the world.

Protected Areas

  • Port Franks Forested Dunes protected by the Pinery Provincial Park, Lambton Wildlife Inc., Lambton County and the Nature Conservancy of Canada.
  • Point Pelee National Park
  • Rondeau Provincial Park
  • Lighthouse Point Provincial Park

What’s the Problem?

Carolinian Canada’s magnificent shorelines and beaches attract visitors and cottagers from across the zone and around the world, ‘loving them to death’. These habitats and their quiet inhabitants are highly vulnerable to accidental destruction during boating, beaching and other coastal recreation. Rare and harmless snakes, moles and toads that frequent sandy shores are too often persecuted to local extinction.

Recovery Strategies

  • Fowler’s Toad
  • Eastern Hognose Snake / Eastern Fox Snake
  • Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus – Lake Erie Sand Spit Savannas
  • Lake Huron Dune Grassland

Habitat Saving Ideas

On the boardwalk! When on vacation, take care not to trample sand dunes and beach communities. Most parks provide visitor facilities such as boardwalks for low-impact access to beaches and restrict trampling and destruction of dunes. Many park programs offer opportunities to find out more about fragile dune habitats and get involved in dune restoration.

On Holiday! Municipalities and beach managers can set aside rare communities from bulldozer beach manicures. Landowners and cottage developments can protect habitat by allowing natural processes to continue and remove shading vegetation on stabilized dunes. Check out extension notes from the landowner resource centre for tips on how to maintain a natural shoreline.


Plant Communities @ Risk

Sea Rocket Sand Open Beach

G2G4 S2S3. Rare globally and in Ontario

Sea Rocket communities are usually the first encountered when moving inland from the water, on open sandy beaches immediately above the seasonal high water line. Seeds are carried by waves and take root in the shelter of drift wood and other debris. The annual Sea Rocket is a hardy Atlantic Coastal Plain species, also found on beaches along the St. Lawrence River and into the Great Lakes.

Little Bluestem-Switchgrass-Beachgrass Open Dune

S2. Rare in Ontario

The first dune ridge near the lake is usually the most active, shifting in response to wind and waves. Open rolling sand dunes may be barren, patchy or covered with meadows of native grasses dominated by Little Bluestem, Switchgrass or Beachgrass, with generally less than 10% tree or shrub cover.

Juniper Shrub Dune

S2. Rare in Ontario

Common Juniper dominates active to partially stable rolling dunes. The shrubs are in scattered to dense clusters accompanied by native grasses.


Species @ Risk

Common Hop-tree Ptelea trifoliata

G5S3. Threatened / Special Concern in Canada, Vulnerable in Ontario

This small tree has three leaflets in each leaf. Leaves and fruit are lemony, and have been used as medicine and for brewing beer in the past. It grows in sandy soils in areas of high levels natural disturbances, such as shorelines, sand spits and sand dunes. It is the food plant for the rare Giant Swallowtail butterfly.

Where? Carolinian Life Zone and southern Quebec

How Many? About 20 sites along the Lake Erie shoreline and a few inland sites, with the largest populations on Point Pelee and Pelee Island containing hundreds of trees

What’s the problem? Loss of habitat, through cottage development, replacement of native vegetation by cultivated plants and shoreline protection structures

How to Help! Protect habitat by leaving shorelines in natural condition. Remove shading vegetation on stabilized dunes. The largest populations are protected in Point Pelee National Park and Fish Point Provincial Nature Reserve. The species is easily propagated from seed and grows well in cultivation. Common Hop Tree is one of several species being addressed by the Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus – Lake Erie Sand Spit Savannas Recovery Team.

Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus Opuntia humifusa

G5S1. Endangered in Canada & Ontario

This unique plant is usually found on early successional sandy ridges or dunes. It has fleshy, low, branches covered in spines and bright yellow, waxy flowers.

Where? In Canada it is confined Essex County and Chatham-Kent. It was once more widespread near the shores of Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair.

How Many? Only found in the wild at Point Pelee National Park (where there are thousands of plants) and three other locations, two containing transplants from Point Pelee. The third small site is in a very precarious state.

What’s the Problem? Habitat loss due to erosion, shading as a result of natural succession by woody vegetation, trampling by people, and the illegal collection for transplanting to gardens

How to Help! This is the flagship species for the Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus – Lake Erie Sand Spit Savannas Recovery Strategy. In Point Pelee National Park, measures are being taken to control invasion of Prickly Pear Cactus habitat by shrubs. Awareness programs are designed to prevent the illegal removal of the cacti and accidental trampling. A boardwalk has been constructed to allow public viewing of this unique species.


Pitcher’s Thistle Cirsium pitcheri

G3S2. Endangered in Canada

This thistle has prickly leaves, pinkish-white flowers (a nectar source for bees) and downy white seed that are carried by wind. Pitcher’s Thistle is at the southern limit of its range in Carolinian Canada. It prefers early successional sand dune with a moderate amount of sand movement, and open bare areas among other vegetation.

Where? Upper Great Lakes Endemic. In Canada it occurs only at four sites, one in the Carolinian Zone at Pinery Provincial Park.

How Many? Population sizes at Canadian sites range from fewer than 50 plants to several thousand plants. A few dozen plants within the Carolinian Zone

What’s the Problem? Habitat loss has occurred as a result of cottage development; trampling and erosion from recreational use of beaches; shoreline modifications; succession and shading. Seed predation by white-tailed deer, plume moth, and American goldfinches.

How to Help! Protect sand dune habitat. Avoid excessive trampling. Pitcher’s Thistle is the flagship species for the Lake Huron Dune Grassland Recovery Team. Promotional and stewardship materials are available to shoreline landowners.


Dwarf Hackberry Celtis tenuifolia

G5S2, Special Concern in Canada

Part of the Elm family, this small, scrubby tree has stiff and leathery leaves and orange fruits eaten by birds and mammals. It prefers to grow on old sand dunes.

Where? Widely scattered across Carolinian Canada. The Dwarf Hackberry is a species of the southern United States. Disjunct populations in Michigan and Ontario are well separated from the main range, able to survive in a moderate Great Lakes climate.

How Many? There are three principle sites in Canada each with a few hundred shrubs.

What’s the Problem? Shading due to natural succession.

How to Help! The main sites are on federal or provincial lands where the trees receive some protection. This species is included in the Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus – Lake Erie Sand Spit Savannas Recovery Strategy.


Eastern Mole Scalopus aquaticus

G5S2, Special Concern in Canada, Vulnerable in Ontario

This subterranean small mammal is gray with large digging front paws and a short naked tail. It lives in deep, sandy or sandy-loam soils in open woods, fields, meadows, pastures, and lawns where it creates mole hills.

Where? It has one of the most restricted ranges in Canada of any mammal, restricted to the Lake Erie shore of Essex County from Point Pelee in the east to Holiday Beach in the west.

How Many? Unknown. Thought to be relatively common at Point Pelee.

What’s the Problem? Poisoning and trapping when considered a nuisance for creating extensive tunnels in lawns

How to Help! Use lawn alternatives including large flower or vegetable beds and naturalized areas so tunnels are not noticed.


Eastern Hognose Snake Heterodon platirhinos

G5S3, Threatened in Canada, Vulnerable in Ontario

Also known as “Puff Adder” this harmless snake is often mistaken for poisonous because it raises and inflates its head when alarmed. It is also well known for “playing dead” when threatened. You may come across this snake in a broad range of habitats from pine to deciduous forest to old fields, meadows and pastures, usually on sandy, well-drained soils. Its preferred food is toads.

Where? In Canada, isolated populations scattered throughout southern Ontario.

How Many? Unknown

What’s the Problem? Human persecution, road kills, farm and recreational equipment, decline in toad populations

How to Help! Get to know your snakes. Almost all snakes in Carolinian Canada are harmless.

Fowler’s Toad Bufo fowleri


G5S2 Threatened in Canada and Ontario.

The easiest way to distinguish this toad from the common backyard American Toad is by its mating call in the spring. Listen on the Lake Erie shoreline in May to June for its unique nasal, sheep-like bleat or wail. Prime habitats are open woodlands and meadows in sand dunes and near beaches. Breeding ponds are warm, shallow ponds, backwaters, marshes, sloughs and natural pools between dunes or along beaches.

Where? In Canada, restricted to the Lake Erie shoreline

How many? Likely less than 1,000

What’s the problem? Off-road activity in dunes, invasion of habitat by Phragmites, agricultural chemicals

How to Help! Keep cars and other vehicles off the beach to protect breeding ponds.


Dusted Skipper Atrytonopsis hianna

G4G5S1, Extremely Rare in Ontario

This small brownish-grey butterfly with pale markings feeds as a caterpillar only on Big Bluestem and Little Bluestem grasses on very dry sand dunes. Adults have been observed nectaring on Narrow-leaved Puccoon.

Where? A western species extending into Carolinian Canada where it is restricted to the dunes at Pinery Provincial Park and the Ipperwash area in Lambton County

How Many? Very rare and local

What’s the Problem? Loss of habitat, loss of food plants

How to Help! Protect areas with the caterpillar’s food plants.



Carolinian Canada Coalition 2009

Content based on 2004 guide by Michelle Kanter, Dave Martin, Veronique LeHouk, and Jane Bowles

Many Thanks to Photographers who donated their work for this project:
Jane Bowles, Allen Woodliffe, John Ambrose, Scott Gillingwater, Ben Porchuk, Rob Willson, Mathis Nativik, Shawn Staton, David Mihilik, Joe Milner, George Brackx, Kevin Railsback, Hamilton Conservation Authority, Essex Region Conservation Authority, Margaret Pickles, Leora Berman, Donald Kirk, Upper Thames River Conservation Authority, Larry Lamb, Peggy Hurst, Michelle Kanter, Gregory Peck, Jim Flynn and Rick Battson. 

Thanks also to expert support from Dan Kraus, Mike Nelson and Paul Smith.

 Assistance for this project was provided by the Ministry of Natural Resources.


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