Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Ecology of Wasaga Beach

Mayflies, killdeer, ring-billed gulls, wormwood, sea rocket, and marram grass share Wasaga's beach area with millions of visitors each summer. The 14-km beachfront not only provides recreation space for sunbathers and swimmers; it also provides valuable habitat for wildlife. The Wasaga Beach shoreline is mostly devoid of life, making it the park's harshest environment. Wasaga's beach sand consists of tiny grains of granite and other types of rock and very little nutrients which is a requirement for plant life to grow and the shoreline is constantly changing in response to wind, wave action, and currents on the Bay. Additionally, the heat of the sun on the beach can increase shoreline ground temperatures to over 50 degrees Celsius. All of this activity makes it very difficult for plants to take hold and exist on the beach.

Although there is not a great deal of vegetation on the beach, the park is established on a dynamic system of dunes that is constantly evolving. Great Lakes coastal dune ecosystems are among the rarest and most heavily impacted ecosystems in Canada. Most of Ontario's dune plant community types are globally imperiled; however, the dunes in Wasaga Beach are among the largest and best protected in the country.

Marram grass is one plant species that has specially adapted to survive and actually thrive in this harsh beach environment. As a colonizing species, this plant is able to stretch itself towards the lake from the dunes and supply new shoots of the plant with nutrients from the original plant. Marram grass has the ability to hold sand in place and create dunes on the beach and for this reason park staff will plant this species annually in an attempt to maintain natural dune stabilization. The process of building dunes occurs gradually as a result of two features of the plant: long blades of grass which slow the movement of blowing sand, and a vast network of roots that stabilize sand. As marram grass is established on the beach, past roots and blades of the plant provide nutrients for other plant species to exist in the dunes on the beach.

At the most eastern and western fringes of Wasaga Beach sand dunes are not present; however, in these locations wetland meadows exist. This is a unique environment that forms as a result of lower water levels on Georgian Bay. Presently, near shore areas where the water table is close to the surface, water seeps up and through the sand and plants such as three squared rush and soft rush are present. These are plants specialized to grow in wet environments.

Lake levels, season, prevailing winds, temperature, and other extreme weather conditions are all important elements that bring about change in a shoreline environment. Wasaga's beach is no exception. Each season at Wasaga Beach brings new and exciting opportunities for wildlife viewing; be sure to bring your binoculars and camera to view the gulls and killdeer in the summer and migrating waterfowl in the spring and fall seasons!

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