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Northern lights and a northern map turtle make the Mother's Day weekend extra special

Self-proclaimed 'nature geek' Owen Bjorgan was thrilled to see aurora borealis and a rare turtle sighting on the same outing.

Are you ready for two tales of the north that are rare in the south?

A tradition has formed in my life involving a camping trip along Lake Erie's shoreline every Mother's Day weekend. Initially, I started taking filming trips for my upcoming Hidden Corners: Canada's South Coast documentary to the Long Point area on this calendar weekend since 2020. Now, I return with my parents, girlfriend, and friends on the same weekend every year.

Every spring, that particular time slot provides a small yet precious window to see the most wildlife and plants in action here in southern Ontario. It hosts the early spring species who have thrived since March, while also welcoming in the summer species. For example, you are likely to find amphibians who are still hanging around since March breeding, while humming birds are just returning to Canada from the subtropics. Just about every tree species has burst into leaves while spring's first flowers remain bashful for a couple of more weeks.

Mother's Day weekend is the fine line between being pummelled by mosquitoes or having none at all. It is a pivotal transition where the earth feels really alive and at its best — a feeling our mothers have provided around the world for thousands of years. On that note, to any of the mothers reading out there — you’re special, and it is no wonder we call the great powers of the natural world Mother Nature.

On our first night camping, something caught my eye in the sky beyond the flicker of campfire and smiling faces. A brilliant green ribbon appeared. It was glassy and fluorescent in nature, the green like that of a Jolly Rancher candy. You could sense a certain massiveness about the spectacle, which made it something worthy of undivided, primal attention. The northern lights were upon us.

“Am I seeing things, or are those the northern lights?” I asked myself and the group at once. Sure enough, the ribbons, sheets, waves, splashes and pillars of colour danced across the sky for the next handful of hours. The phenomenon is created when the sun emits a highly charged bundle of solar energy, which then collides with the earth's magnetic field. The interaction occurs and turns molecular energy in our atmosphere into light we can see.

The northern lights, or aurora borealis, were seen across much of North America, and Eurasia in areas further south than usual. The intense solar storm also activated the southern lights, or aurora australis, in places like New Zealand. The storm, essentially caused by an energy belch from the sun, was rated a 5 out of 5 on the scale of solar storm strength. It was the strongest recorded geomagnetic event since the autumn of October 2005.

How fortunate we are to have experienced a total eclipse, plus a possibly once-in-a-lifetime northern lights performance, within about a month of one another.
We felt the collective excitement of the celestial event, as it seemingly carried over into the days to follow. There was almost a sense of luck in the air.

When we visited Long Point, I was thrilled to have spotted a turtle I have never seen before in the wild, a northern map turtle. It was a lifer, a colloquial word used by nature geeks like me, but it carries weighted significance. It means when you see a species that you have never seen before in your life, and it is always a special moment. Sometimes, a lifer is the first and only encounter you will ever have with that particular animal.

Looking at this species, I knew that although it is not endangered, it is still a very rare find due to its specific habitat preferences. This turtle will only accept high quality habitats in terms of water and vegetation characteristics. Although the turtle is only ranked as a species of “special concern” in Ontario, we must consider that is takes the females about 10 years to reach reproductive maturity. That long period of time makes issues like habitat loss and road mortality magnified as more of Lake Erie's shorelines become developed.

As the northern lights reached further south on the map, it reminded me to consider what's in a name for the northern map turtle. The markings you can see on its flesh resemble contour lines on a map, a truly unique pattern you're unlikely to find on any other living thing.

It was a truly unforgettable Mother's Day weekend, where Mother Nature delivered everything we needed — and didn't even know we needed. I guess that's what mothers do best.