Exploring the 'crop circles' of Tantramar Marsh

·3 min read
Odd designs have been carved into the human-made wildlife habitat of the Tintamarre National Wildlife Reserve at the New Brunswick-Nova Scotia border. (Shane Fowler/CBC News - image credit)
Odd designs have been carved into the human-made wildlife habitat of the Tintamarre National Wildlife Reserve at the New Brunswick-Nova Scotia border. (Shane Fowler/CBC News - image credit)

If you stand in the centre of the Tintamarre National Wildlife Reserve in New Brunswick near the Nova Scotia border, you get no hint of the art that surrounds you.

But birds can see it: acres of sprawling circles, wandering waves, and crisscrossing chevrons, all carved into the wetlands.

On Google Maps, the work looks like a child's drawings, or alien crop circles.

"It probably looks very bizarre from the air," said Garry Donaldson of Environment Canada. "But guaranteed no aliens were involved in those."

Google Maps
Google Maps

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This wildlife reserve in the Tantramar Marsh comprises a vast area of saturated soils, wetlands and farmers fields on the Isthmus of Chignecto.

The low-lying area connects the two Maritime provinces and has recently been a subject of climate concern, especially the possibility of seawater flooding the entire area if steps aren't taken to keep the tides out.

But this crop-circled area has already undergone significant engineering. The crop circles were cut into the landscape by conservationists.

"This is a man-made habitat, and as such it doesn't function the same as a natural wetland," said Donaldson, the Atlantic manager of protected areas and stewardship for the Canadian Wildlife Service.

Shane Fowler/CBC News
Shane Fowler/CBC News

The designs were put in place to protect wildlife, specifically ducks, herons and other waterfowl. Each design was cut to encourage breeding and nesting. And since different birds respond better to different designs, the mixing of so many different cuts allows for a sort of division of the species in the marsh.

"There's kind of two structures that you'll see," Donaldson said. "One are these circular, big doughnut-shaped things or crop-circle-like structures, and those are really to provide safe nesting habitat."

WATCH | Drone footage reveals hidden 'crop circles' in Tantramar Marsh

Predators like foxes may not be as inclined to cross a moat to the nesting islands in the centre of each doughnut, Donaldson said. But with other predators, such as mink, where water isn't an obstacle, the open water gives nesting birds a clear view of their approach.

The second kind of structures is the zipper cut, Donaldson said.

"They're like channels through the wetland, but they're zigzagged, and what those do is provide a lot of corners, so the waterfowl can kind of stay hidden from anything it doesn't feel comfortable exposing itself to."

If it looks like there's a bit of creative freedom that went into the design of these marsh cuts that's because conservationists were playing around with different concepts when the cuts were designed.

"Admittedly, we do a little bit of experimentation to try and figure out what the wildlife will respond to," said Donaldson. "What works in one marsh may not work in another marsh, depending on the species composition."

Old art

The Tintamarre National Wildlife Reserve is open to the public, but Donaldson said those who have been visiting for years may not have been aware of the carvings they were standing in. Some designs have been in place for up to 40 years.

They're only now becoming more visible to the general public thanks to technology such as drones and satellite mapping apps.

And designs and how they're created changed a bit over the years, as wildlife managers learned what cuts the animals respond to.

"We used a few techniques that we definitely don't use anymore," Donaldson said. "Those might have involved dynamite and explosives."

"Seemed like a good idea at the time."

Shane Fowler/CBC News
Shane Fowler/CBC News
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