Welcome to the Macoun Field Club!
The Macoun Club year will run until late June. Families can enquire about having their children join at any time. Either phone Rob Lee at (613) 623-8123 (note that “Macoun” rhymes with “crown,” not “croon”), or e-mail him at Macoun[at] ofnc.ca. The Macoun Club is sponsored and supported by the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club (OFNC); there are no fees.
Indoor meetings take place at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden building beside the Experimental Farm’s arboretum (Building no. 138). Meetings start at 10 a.m. and wrap up between 11:30 a.m. and noon. Field trips take place on alternate Saturdays and typically run about 5 hours (sometimes with the option to attend only the part before or after noon). We go to wild places in Ottawa’s western Greenbelt (Stony Swamp) and Lanark County (the Pakenham Hills).
Schedule of Activities
Dec. 7: Field trip (call Diane at 226-3306 anytime Thursday to register, or e-mail if she has signed you up for it)
Dec. 14: Fishes of the Ottawa region, with Noel Alfonso and Katrina Ilves
Dec. 21 and Jan. 4: No meetings (holiday period)
Jan. 11: First meeting of 2020
What are meetings and field trips like?
Here’s what we’ve just done . . .
November 30, 2019: Canada’s Ice-Age megafauna
During the last ice age there was pretty much nothing but massive ice and rock here in Ottawa. But the continental glaciers didn’t cover the whole continent, and a part of it north of the ice sheets (Yukon and Alaska) lay bare the whole time, connected with Eurasia. Arctic and steppe vegetation flourished in this region, known as Beringia, and animals now extinct, such as Woolly Mammoths, the Yukon Horse, and Giant Beavers prospered.
Last summer, Margaret Currie of the Canadian Museum of Nature took part in a collecting expedition to the Old Crow River area. The team she joined flew into a remote site by helicopter and set up their tents on the sandy banks of a meandering river.
The mineralized bones of the extinct animals have been washed down the river and deposited in the very sands they were camped on. They fished out the bigger bones by hand, and caught small fragments by sieving the sand. She brought a selection of specimens in for us to examine.
For comparison, Margaret held up the jaw of a present-day Canadian Beaver side-by-side with the jaw of an extinct Giant Beaver. Close examination revealed that they differ not only in size, but in the relative proportions and the ridges and hollows of the parts.
Lots of us have trouble telling artists’ drawings of Woolly Mammoths apart from American Mastodons, but their teeth were totally different: you could see how a paleontologist would know their fossils at a glance. (Briefly, before these animals died out, they came into Ontario after the ice sheet melted back enough.)
November 23, 2019: winter retreats a little
After a few warm days, there wasn’t enough snow left for animal tracks anywhere, but all the ponds were more or less frozen. The ice was cloudy, because it had formed as snow fell into the water, but was nonetheless thick enough (4 inches) to support our weight without cracking.
Today we sought out some of the more notable trees of our Nature Study Area. A tape measure showed us that, at 34 inches in diameter, the largest Sugar Maple in the whole square mile has grown three inches thicker in the past 25 years. Nearby, we were dismayed to find that a well-known American Beech (31 inches in diameter) has become heavily infested with the generally fatal Beech Bark Scale Disease. The insects were first discovered in 2016, a mile away, at the other end of our Study Area.
It took much searching to find the Study Area’s only Eastern Red Cedar. The whole surrounding area has grown up in thickets and young trees that tower over the 23-foot-tall conifer. Having been overtopped by a vigorous Sugar Maple, it seems to have spread out sideways rather than growing taller.
Looking up led to the discovery of a seldom-seen atmospheric phenomenon – an “upside-down rainbow.” Its arc opened away from the mid-afternoon sun. Wikiepedia explains it as a form of halo that displays colours purer than a rainbow, owing to refraction through well oriented plate-like ice crystals rather than raindrops. Some of us counted seven colours.
November 16, 2019: Through the Southern Ocean to Antarctica
How doyou get to Antarctica? Roy John outlined the possibilities before showing his most recent route by ship. He began with the remarkable birds he’d seen in New Zealand, where he had embarked. The ship subsequently touched at McQuarrie and other isolated islands, and as they proceeded, the diversity of petrel, albatross, and penguin species perceptibly diminished. Roy’s ship rolled so much in heavy seas that he and his fellow passengers suffered bruises and broken bones. Eventually they began to see tremendous icebergs; Roy explained that Antarctic icebergs differ from those calved in Greenland in being flat-topped. Greenland ice gets rolled and rounded as currents push them through shallow water.
Just as interesting as the birds of the southern ocean were Roy’s accounts of the first Antarctic explorers, notably Robert Scott, Roald Amundsen, and his childhood hero, Ernest Shackleton. Roy had been to the places these men had established their bases for exploration, and, in the case of Shackleton, the tiny beach on Elephant Island where they took shelter after their sailing vessel had been crushed in pack ice. The buildings these famous men had put up have been preserved by the perpetual cold, together with their furnishings, cans of food, and even a partly dissected penguin specimen, which has been lying on a wooden table for more than a century.
Nov. 9, 2019: Ground-proofing our new map
Last week Macoun Club members traced the outlines of different habitats in our Study Area for a map. Today we went out there and made note of what was on the ground, taking a route marked in pink. On this version of the new map, blue represents open water, of course: beaver ponds III, V, and VI (pond IV is obscure). Yellow shows marsh vegetation. Brown is for deciduous forest, and dark green for spruce. Light green shows cedar woods.
Along the way we saw a flock of Common Goldfinches and Pine Siskins, a few Blue Jays, and two Ravens chasing one another. A Red Fox had left footprints in the light snow cover of a small field, and Red Squirrels had run along fallen logs in many places. We rolled a number of logs and found a most surprising thing under a chunk of wood in the middle of a muddy bicycle trail: a hibernating frog. Some thought it was dead, but taken in hand, it slowly, slowly opened its eyes, and shortly began to crawl away. We gave it a new log to hide under.
Nov. 2, 2019: Map-making and more
How do you make a map? Rob Lee was part of the group that made the original vegetation map of the Macoun Study Area back in 1972. That being before satellite images were easily available, they started with an aerial photograph taken from an airplane. Laying a sheet of clear plastic over the picture, Rob and the other Macoun members chose the boundaries and marked them with ink, and then traced the outlines of beaver ponds, fields, and forests of different types.
So much as changed out there in the woods that today we started all over again. But we started instead with a Google Maps image and projected it on a whiteboard on the wall. Using washable markers, we traced the outlines of ponds and the course of footpaths that didn’t even exist back in 1972.
The next step is to transfer the outlines to paper (via digital photography) and have in hand a blank map that we can begin to fill in on our next field trip.
There was enough time left over to run the Bill Mason film “Rise and Fall of the Great Lakes,” with Rob pausing it every time he thought there was something worth commenting on – eskers and drumlins, and glacial striations in bedrock, and water pollution of a kind (phosphates) that got cleaned up in the 1970s.
Oct. 26, 2019: Field trip in the autumn sunshine
Though the peak of colour had passed, the forests of the Pakenham Hills still glowed as we walked into them — and not only the oaks and poplars, but the low shrubs of bogs and rocky shorelines. Leatherleaf foliage takes on a reddish hue in autumn, and we ate lunch on the shores of a floating bog. Determined searching of the waters netted an Eastern Newt, its spotted belly a warm yellow
We had found a dead Red Squirrel on the road where we parked, and Rob carried it in for examination. After lunch he opened it up with his knife, showing all who were interested the heart and lungs, liver, and the stomach and spleen. The sharp edges and ends of broken bones in the pelvic area showed that it had been run over by a car; the small amount of coagulated blood that it had died very quickly. He left it for Raccoon or Raven.
October 19, 2019: Edible plants
Everybody wonders, from time to time, whether this berry or that mushroom seen in the outdoors is edible. Today Macoun member Priya gave a personal account of her experiences with edible plants. She covered equipment for foraging, the necessity of correctly identifying plants (to avoid eating poisonous ones by mistake), and the different parts of various plants that may be eaten. She explained food preparation, too: drying, powdering, boiling . . . and recipes. And then she offered a plateful of crackers, made from the dried, powdered and baked inner bark of Eastern White Pine.
“Isn’t that a starvation food?” someone asked. “Well, some people think so, but I like it,” replied Priya. And she has been known to strip the outer bark off a fresh twig and nibble it on the spot.
Oct. 5, 2019: Developing map-reading skills
We had a two-part session today, with two age-groups taking turns working on map-reading skills with leader Jen Line indoors, while the other made a casual tour of the Fletcher Wildlife garden. Jen described the basic features of maps and related them to the real world, and then had members find their own homes on fold-out maps.
Meanwhile, the other group worked its way around the FWG trails, pausing often. We looked under logs (finding introduced types of millipedes (Julidae), earthworms (Lumbricus terrestris), and land snails (an unbanned form of Cepea nemoralis, with a purplish-brown flared lip). We spotted the last bloom in a patch of Purple-flowering Raspberry, tasted the fuzzy berries of Staghorn Sumac, and worked out by examination how long Eastern White Pine keeps its “evergreen” needles.
In a small, artificial pool or pond that was almost covered with Duckweed, members of the older group spotted a large Green Frog. The younger members found a small Garter Snake, hatched just this year judging by its size. It was cold and docile, and slithered easily from hand to hand between us all.
September 28, 2019: How to, today, plant a tree 25 years ago
On an unpromising trip to the Study Area in the rain, we did surprisingly well. In addition to the Wood Frogs and Spring Peepers one might expect in such weather, Macouners caught a Garter Snake, heard Blue-headed Vireos singing, and saw a Coyote!
The Butternut is an endangered species because of an invasive fungal blight. One of the surviving individuals in our Study Area produced an exceptionally heavy crop of nuts this year, which, having matured, had just fallen. Some clusters held three or four nuts each; thousands carpeted the ground. (Within a week, the resident Red Squirrel had cleaned them all up, caching them for its winter food supply.)
In these times when reversing deforestation has a global urgency, we twice took the time to rescue small trees that had been dragged down to the ground when bigger ones fell on them. They had not been down long enough to be permanently flattened, and only needed help standing upright again. If the best time to plant a tree is 50 years ago, then today we managed something close to this, for these Sugar Maple saplings are each about 25 years old. They have already proven their genetic strength, having survived insects, deer browsing, and drought.
Sept. 14, 2019: Apples and bees go together
Almost a year ago to the day, we launched a survey of wild apple trees in our Nature Study Area. Returning to the same area, we now found fruit on trees that had been barren, and bare trees from which we had collected apples last year. Sadly, the only wild apple tree with sweet fruit has died; it will never produce again. But a tree that was bare last year has turned out to bear apples bigger than any we found last year (up to 7 cm).
We couldn’t see much of the Big Pond because the whole shoreline is hemmed in by tall hybrid cattails (the observation dock, which we would normally use, had been vandalized, and barricaded by the authorities).
Those of us who have been around for years realized that the entire Sarsaparilla Trail area has become hemmed in by another invasive plant, Glossy Buckthorn. Up until ten years ago – even five – we could roam around pretty much anywhere. But dense stands of this shrub have made almost everything off the trails impassable.
Our most unexpected find was a wild Honeybee colony, with bees streaming in and out of a woodpecker hole. They were so intent on gathering and storing nectar that they ignored us, no matter how close we stood.
Sept. 7, 2019: Start of a new Macoun Club year
Observations ran overtime, and leaders talked too long about the things they’re interested (the dire effects of DDT on birds 50 years ago, the way birds have planted a whole backyard full of wildflowers, and how to tell a falcon from a hawk in flight). But these first-hand accounts served to give the many new members a good idea of what to expect from those around them.
There was talk of what we might do in our Study Area’s 50thyear, coming up.
And Rob directed attention to the giant topographic wall map of the Ottawa region, with its hills to the north and flatlands to the south, ancient fault lines (the southern boundary of Gatineau Park), and evidences of the last Ice Age (the cultivated sand plains north of the Park, in an otherwise rocky territory).
We also found where our Nature Study Area is (just behind the head of the boy in blue).
. . . and a selection of what we did last year
June 1, 2019: The forest had greened up!
On our last visit, four weeks ago, the Study-Tree Woods were still bare and brown; now everything had leafed out. Willem and Anna’s Sugar Maple, which had blown over last fall on the day of the Ottawa tornados, had put out a full set of leaves (and flowered!). Even Christmas Fern, which is green all winter, had put out new fronds – with fertile tips. Mosquitoes had become adults and were biting, but not enough to bother us.
We found a Blue-spotted Salamander under a log, and a thumbnail-size Tree Frog, bright green, on an Ironwood sapling. And a tiny fawn, curled up at the foot of a maple tree, enthralled us. Rather than run, it trusted to its camouflage.
Some parts of the forest, where ash trees were numerous, are obstructed by the fallen trunks. We gave the ash log previously pressed into service as a teeter-totter another test: this time it held over 1000 pounds of Macoun Club members without obvious strain.
(To reinforce the message that you have to look after yourself: we found three more ticks in our Study Tree Woods, two of them having already inserted their mouthparts into the skin of one leader and one member.)
May 25, 2019: Weirdness in the Reptiles of the Triassic
Paleontologist Robbie Stewart knows us as only a former Macoun member can. He launched right into this year’s topic and explored the question of why such weird creatures came into existence, thrived, and went extinct. There were reptiles with long, snaky necks, gliding and flying reptiles, and sail-backed reptiles. The world has not seen their like again.
Robbie began with the Permian extinction, known as “the great dying,” because 95% of life on earth died out. The cause appears to have been geological, with widespread volcanism setting fire to immense beds of coal, triggering extreme CO2 levels in the air and acidification of the oceans.
Only about 5% survived, leaving gaping holes in ecosystems around the world. The few survivors adapted in different ways to vacant niches all over the place. Without much competition or predation, body plans that would be vulnerable in more normal times flourished.
What was there to eat,? Two groups of animals had had the capacity to come back from the brink of extinction because of their high reproductive rates: insects, and fish. So adaptations for snapping up insects and catching fish abounded.
But as the millions, and tens of millions of years went by, food webs diversified, new predators evolved, and competition intensified. Body plans were forced into the most competitive, predator-resistant forms, and the weirdest ones in their turn were driven to extinction.
May 4, 2019: Fun in the outdoors (no mosquitoes yet!)
Our Study Trees weren’t quite ready to leaf out, but we found snakes and frogs on the forest floor, and mosquito wrigglers (Aedes provocans) just half-grown in the pond next door. Rubber boots were pressed into service as containers for holding tadpoles.
Our woods are full of dead White Ash trees, killed by the Emerald Ash Borer infestation, now into its 8th year, and some have already fallen over. One specimen, lying crosswise over another, invited an investigation of its inherent mechanical strength: as a teeter-totter, it held six happy children. Ash wood is known for being light, tough, and strong. It was used in making canvas-covered biplanes!
One unhappy note: two of us acquired the season’s first ticks in these woods (collected while still crawling over our clothing).
January 26, 2019: The international trade in endangered wildlife
We’ve all heard news stories about elephant poaching, and how rhinoceroses are being driven to extinction solely because of a popular demand for rhino horn as “medicine.” Just last week the media reported that a man who was caught smuggling live falcon eggs through Britain to the Middle East (for falconry) has been sentenced to three years in prison. Today Sheldon Jordan told us that dealing with this man’s plunder of Gyrfalcon nests in northern Quebec nearly 20 years ago was his first case.
December 1, 2018: Early winter is barely hanging on
Winter is proceeding in fits and starts, and although the snow that fell two weeks ago hasn’t quite melted away, it is getting thin. We saw several flying insects and spiders on or over the snow.
Having penetrated far enough into the Pakenham Hills to feel we were in a really wild place, we left the familiar trails and disappeared into the snowy forest and set about making a central lunch fire. It was more difficult than we expected because even the best firewood was damp after so many damp days – snow clinging to the branches had melted and soaked in. How would Macoun members respond? They spread out and made their own fires, and cooked or warmed our meals.
Afterward, we walked over to Gerry’s cabin; while the many adults (parents and leaders) engaged Gerry in conversation about wildlife, the kids explored the streambanks. Looking up, he explained that a passing eagle was just checking for animal carcasses toward the end of hunting season, and the beginning of fur trapping. Seven of eight hunters had got their deer; he offered us a spare set of first-year antlers.
Oct. 13, 2018: Can Chimney Swifts do without chimneys?
Our speaker, Melanie Farquhar, came in with lots of questions for us, all relating to Chimney Swifts. There must have been a time, only a few hundred years ago, when there were not yet any chimneys, but this species has so completely switched over that natural roosting and nesting behaviour is rarely observed. Now their population has fallen 99% since the 1970s, and people wonder if the disappearance of masonry chimneys is to blame. Would they use artificial chimneys that we build for them? Melanie’s field research examined this issue, and she said that the birds use such structures in Texas, but not here at the northern edge of the Swift’s range.
Swifts are aerial insectivores, and other flying insect-eaters have declined, too. Chimney Swifts winter in South America, and it may be that habitat loss in the upper Amazon Basin is a factor, too.
Sept. 8, 2018: What makes a collection valuable?
Rob brought out a box of bones and said it had been donated with no more identification than “Tortue sp.” (some kind of turtle). Only one member was interested in having the bits and pieces until Rob revealed that the note also included the location, right down to latitude and longitude, as well as the names of lakes and rivers where the specimens were found. Equally important, this label gave the name of the collector and the date. Rob said that with these three pieces of data — place, date, and collector’s name — this specimen would be acceptable in any museum of natural history. Now another boy wanted it. As for the species, that will have to be worked out by comparison with other specimens in a reference collection. We had a Snapping Turtle skeleton right at hand, and ruled that one out, at least.