Welcome to the Macoun Field Club!
We’ve started a new Macoun Club year, which 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
Oct. 12: No meeting, but a special camping trip for high-school students is in the works
Oct. 19: Edible plants with Priya Morbia Boles
Oct. 26: Field trip (call Diane at 226-3306 anytime Thursday to register, or e-mail if she has signed you up for it)
Nov. 2: Indoor meeting
What are meetings and field trips like?
Here’s what we’ve just done . . .
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.
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.