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From Aggregate to Benefit

The other day, I went for an early morning walk with some colleagues from North Durham Nature (NDN). Our goal was to go to a gravel pit and look for birds, uncommon ones at that. Wait, why would I go to a place where giant machines move dirt, crush rocks and generally seem to disturb the natural environment? The answer is obvious if you have a good corporate citizen like Lafarge Aggregates, who own and manage aggregate sites in many places, including Durham Region.

Ontario uses approximately 170 million tonnes of stone, sand and gravel per year, so companies like Lafarge provide a valuable resource, to assist in the development of important infrastructure for roads, bridges and buildings. Pits and quarries are regulated in Ontario, under the Aggregate Resources Act. It contains requirements which necessitate the progressive and final rehabilitation of these sites, once they have outlived their usefulness. Many companies just do the minimum required - filling, grading, planting a few trees and then hope nature does it's part to fix the scar left by the mining operation.

But, in our case, Lafarge locally has partnered with NDN, for years, to assist nature. The primary focus has been to allow NDN access to the site, to install, maintain and monitor breeding bird nest boxes for Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows. In addition, Lafarge has held a number of community tree planting events at the site, linking existing bordering conservation forests, to enhance the habitat onsite and create new wildlife corridors for the animals.

Recently, as part of the site restoration, Lafarge brought in several loads of clean topsoil, which fortunately and inadvertently led to the discovery of an unknown nesting colony of Bank Swallows onsite. These birds are protected, provincially, under the Species at Risk Act. Once notified by NDN, Lafarge immediately changed their plans and stopped depositing the soils near the colony, to protect the birds.

Flash forward to our walk. Lafarge allowed NDN access to this restricted site (remember, this is an active quarry, even though no trucks were present when we were there), so unauthorized access is never allowed. We were looking for unusual sparrows at the site, as it was comprised of many sparrow-friendly habitats, such as weedy patches, grassy edges, small shrubs and even clear ground. To our delight, we found every species of sparrow we’d hoped to see – Vesper, Song, Clay-colored, Grasshopper, Chipping, Field, Savannah Sparrows and Eastern Towhee (which is also a sparrow). Each occupies a unique niche within this complex ecosystem, and each exhibits different behaviours during the breeding season. Some perch high and proud and sing their glory from the top of a tree; others skulk and sing snippets of song from hidden perches; others sit on mulleins and sing incessantly or rarely, depending on their mood; and others seem almost ventriloquial, as their song seems to come from everywhere and nowhere. Along the edges of the site, forest birds also thrive, as we saw orioles, flycatchers, Indigo Buntings, Mourning Warblers and Scarlet Tanagers. In total, during our 2.5 hours onsite, we recorded 47 species at this wonderful site.

The outcome of having a diverse habitat is, other species benefit as well. Brown Thrashers like these same open, sparsely treed landscapes, while Killdeers thrive on the scarred ground near the work faces. Bank Swallows nest in undisturbed sandbanks, and ducks and blackbirds nest in the small wetland which persists onsite. All these add to the bounty of wildlife here. Dragonflies, butterflies, other pollinators and amphibians also utilize the new open landscapes. We even saw evidence of recent visits by a Black Bear, Coyotes and White-tailed Deer.

So with the right partnership, a willing and informed landowner and a helpful community, wildlife can greatly benefit from an industrial site which originally seemed only a place where the land was to be mined. Now in fact, this becomes a diverse ecological niche which benefits myriad animals and plants over time. Thank you to Lafarge for what they are doing to ensure nature benefits in the end!

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