Conserving and restoring ecosystems
The term “Lake Erie Sand Spit Savannah” is used to describe the sand dunes, dune shrub-lands, savannahs, and sand barrens, generally found along the shoreline of Lake Erie’s major sand spit features. Lake Erie Sand Spit Savannah at Point Pelee has three unique parts: Red Cedar Savannah (interior), Shoreline Savannah (coastal), and Woodland. Savannah is sandy, dry, nutrient poor, and open with just a few trees to provide a bit of shade. These conditions are perfect for a variety of grasses and wildflowers. Woodland is a balance of open, sunny areas and shady spots. Woodland is not as dense as a forest and has more trees than a savannah. The savannah gradually changes to woodland or thicket, before becoming a dry forest. This gradual transition is called succession.
Lake Erie Sand Spit Savannah is extremely rare in Canada; there is only a few other places outside of Point Pelee National Park in which it is found. Lake Erie Sand Spit Savannah is not just important for the Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus, it provides habitat for 25% of Point Pelee’s federally-listed Species at Risk such as the five-lined skink, eastern foxsnake, yellow-breasted chat, common hoptree, and red-headed woodpecker. Lake Erie Sand Spit Savannah is dependent on periodic disturbances such as fire and shoreline processes, such as sand deposition, wind and ice scour, to prevent succession to dry forest. In the last 90 years, anthropogenic changes to the area in and around Point Pelee National Park have altered these disturbance regimes. Additionally, changing weather patterns have resulted in less severe winters and storms reducing the impacts of ice scour and wind. The loss of these disturbances causes the Lake Erie Sand Spit Savannah habitat to be overgrown with thickets and non-native vegetation, crowding out native plants and reducing the habitat and food sources needed for species at risk. Restoration is needed to mimic these disturbances which set back succession to an earlier stage.
How is Restoration Done?
Restoration is achieved using a variety of methods like mechanical clearing, prescribed fire, and herbicide application which mimics natural processes and helps control invasive and non-native species.
Restoration activities are timed to minimize disruption to wildlife. Work starts in September as staff prepare the sites and mechanical clearing continues later in the fall when most species have either migrated or are preparing to hibernate for the winter. Plants listed as species at risk, those that are provincially rare and nesting locations of fauna are marked to prevent disturbance during the restoration process.
Step one: invasive, non-native and encroaching native shrub species are manually removed. The stumps are treated with herbicide to prevent regrowth. In areas specifically chosen for the yellow-breasted chat, the stumps of native encroaching shrubs are left untreated. This is because Yellow-breasted Chats enjoy thickets and prefer them at varying heights.
Step Two: the canopy is opened up through the removal of select trees. Some large trees will be completely removed, others will be left dead standing, leaving the trunk intact. As the tree decays, it will provide nesting and roosting cavities.
Step Three: Once the areas have been opened, they will be maintained through prescribed fire performed in late winter and early spring to minimize impacts to breeding birds, as well as reptiles and amphibians coming out of hibernation. Following the fires, the native seed bank will be enhanced through the seeding of native Lake Erie Sand Spit Savannah species and the ongoing pulling of invasive species which may try to re-establish in these areas.
Savannah loving species:
Where can you see and enjoy LESSS?
Since the restoration program began, over 38 hectares of Lake Erie Sand Spit Savannah has been transformed. This includes approximately 23 hectares of shoreline and interior savannah, 11 hectares of woodlands, and 4 hectares of yellow-breasted chat thicket.
Visitors can view this transformation at the following locations:
Shoreline Areas: Along the shoreline near Sanctuary and West Beach picnic areas
Trails and Paths: West Beach footpath, Redbud Footpath, Anders Trail, Cactus Field Footpath, DeLaurier Trail, Centennial Bike and Hike Trail South of White Pine to West Beach.
Help Along the Way
A special thanks to the following schools and clubs that helped make the Lake Erie Sand Spit Savannah program possible by assisting with planting, seeding collection, and seed propagation:
- Caldwell First Nation
- Cardinal Carter Catholic High School
- Holy Names Catholic High School
- Junior Naturalists
- Queen Elizabeth Elementary School Eco Club
- St. Thomas of Villanova Catholic High School
- Western Secondary School
Restoration projects like this allow the opportunity for volunteers to get involved. An important component of this restoration program is native seed collection in the fall and native plantings in June. Check out our volunteer page for upcoming opportunities.