Welcome to the Macoun Field Club!
We have now well into the 2018 winter season. 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@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
Week of Feb. 18-23: Time to be working on “Soirée projects.”
Feb. 24, 2018: Morning: Rob proposes a new Macoun Club project
In the evening, hosting the Nature Quiz at the OFNC Awards Night. Some Macouners will present nature projects.
Mar. 3, 2018: Field Trip (call Diane at 226-3306 anytime Thursday to register)
Mar. 10 & 17: No meetings or field trips (Ontario’s March Break)
Mar. 24, 2018: The Frogs of Spring, with David Seburn
What are meetings and field trips like?
Here’s what we’ve done so far this year
Feb. 17, 2018: Return to the haunts of eagle and owl
Led by 11-year-old Ana, we retraced our route from two weeks back, and even made our lunch fires in the same places, but did not cross paths with those exciting birds again. We only heard a Blue Jay and saw the tracks of Ruffed Grouse (3) and Wild Turkey (7 or 8).
The Grouse had been nipping the bud-bearing tips of fine deciduous twigs within their reach. Red Squirrels had been foraging among Hop Hornbeam seed packets scattered about on the snow, and dismantling the seed-bearing cones of White Spruce and Pine.
From the pond with the heron nests (this time we inspected the third one), we pushed a little farther back into the hills and wetlands, seeing still more new country. A dusting of last night’s snow on the ice crust made for perfect track impressions: Fisher and Ermine, Red Squirrels and Snowshoe Hares. In a few places we saw the trails of mice and voles and shrews, and Raccoon footprints that had been made in yesterday’s melting temperatures.
Feb. 10, 2018: Nature quiz: what’s the story here?
On Macoun Club field trips, we regularly encounter strangely shaped trees that are hard to figure out. On last weekend’s outing to Pakenham we found this sturdy White Pine sapling that had formed a complete loop. The tree had recently died, so we collected the loop for the upcoming Awards Night nature quiz. The annual rings at the base showed it to be 61 years old. It had been growing in a mixed forest with pines and oaks about 18 inches in diameter all around.
This week, we spent more than an hour selecting from dozens of curious specimens like this one. Almost all involved injuries to trees, and the trees’ growth responses – suitable subjects for a midwinter nature quiz. All were challenging, requiring keen and close observation, recognition of species, and some knowledge of the natural history of both trees and animals.
Macoun members came up with a half-dozen hypotheses for how this tree might have grown in a tight circle upon its own vertical axis. What do you think? We hope to have a definitive explanation ready by Awards Night, Feb. 24th.
Feb. 3, 2018: Eagle and Owl
Even at one of our regular field-trip destinations, it didn’t take much for Rob to guide us away from the routine trails and into new territory. The quieter portions of Indian Creek had frozen solidly, so we were able to cross to the far shore. We worked our way up through mixed woods to a beaver pond with several big stick nests up in some drowned trees. We had just seen a Golden Eagle being dogged by a seemingly tiny Raven, so raptors were much in mind, but the nests were those of the Great Blue Heron.
Coyote tracks laced the snow-covered ice, and the woods were full of tracks, assuring us that the winter landscape was rich in hidden wildlife. Red Squirrel and White-tailed Deer predominated, but we also saw Wild Turkey and Ruffed Grouse, mice and shrews, ermine, Mink, and Fisher. (No sign of Porcupines, however.)
Just as we were turning back, those at the front flushed a large, light-brown bird that flew only a little way before swooping up to perch: “A Barred Owl,” said Rob. It calmly allowed the whole group (16 of us) to gather around below it, swiveling its head all around to study us. We left it in peace.
Jan. 27, 2018: Oaxaca, Mexico
At our request, world-travelling naturalist Roy John came in to tell us about what he found in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. He went for the birds, searching for the rare Oaxaca Sparrow, and finding the altogether common (back in Canada) Hooded Merganser, an exciting rarity for his Mexican hosts.
Just as they are woven together in the real world, Roy’s talk blended together the natural and human worlds, from the prehistoric ruins of the civilizations the Conquistadores destroyed to the Christmastime Radish Festival.
Jan. 20, 2018: Sharks in the water
Lots of us have seen sharks on TV or in an aquarium, but have you ever seen a shark in the wild? Former Macoun member Alec Todd has not only seen and caught them (for research) but has put them into a trance and held them, unprotesting, in his hands.
The trick, he said, is to roll the shark over. Then it stops moving and can be examined, measured, and tagged. “Like you can with rabbits?” asked one of our young members. Yes, and Rob remembers that painter Norman Rockwell did it with chickens when he wanted his model to stand still for him. (With a chicken, he said you had to rock it back and forth for a few minutes.)
Alec had maps showing where sharks can be found – basically oceans the world over, plus a few rivers, like the Mississipi in the United States. And more species than you might imagine can be found in Canadian coastal waters. Sharks have survived five mass extinction events, but people have been killing such vast numbers of them that the populations of a number of species have declined more than 90%.
Jan. 13, 2018: Obstructed by Buckthorns
Following a rainy January thaw (with a record high of +11.9ºC) today’s noontime temperature of -15º seemed hard to bear. From the Sarsaparilla Trail parking lot, Rob led south into a spruce plantation, through an extensive undergrowth of European Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) stems. The pencil-thin stems were stiff and their perpendicular, thorn-tipped branches so spiky that we fought to press our bodies between them. It was hard going, and we wouldn’t have chosen to do it, except that Rob intended for us to eat lunch in the lee of the forest, and in the sunshine.
Upon emerging into the open, Macoun member Samuel asked, “Why aren’t there any buckthorns out here, when they’re so thick under the trees?”
Well, there actually were a few European Buckthorns in the old farm field, but they were big and old, and the main clue to the mystery is that their branches were laden with tens of thousands of blue-black berries. Birds, we have sometimes observed, eat these berries and leave their blue-stained droppings behind, distributing the seeds. In autumn, flocks of a thousand Common Grackles forage through our Study Area, and at night the flocks roost in trees — in this case, about six years ago, spruce trees. From farm-yard plantings a hundred years ago, that is how this European species has invaded our Study Area.
Three or four inches of fresh snow had fallen last night as the temperature plummeted, and its surface held the tracks of Cottontail Rabbits and Snowshoe Hares, Red Squirrels and, criss-crossing the whole scene, Red Foxes.
Dec. 16, 2017: fun in the sun, at the beginning of winter
The Pakenham Hills were perfect for a field trip today — fresh, fluffy snow six inches deep that we could walk through easily, unusual rocks and logs to play on, and abundant dry firewood for a lunch fire. The forest was criss-crossed with tracks we identified as Coyote, Snowshoe Hare, White-tailed Deer, Fisher, and various small mammals — weasels, voles, mice, and shrews.
We saw three deer, too, and an immature Bald Eagle. Turkeys had kicked up the leaf litter right through the snow in several places; we thought they might have been looking for acorns. Late arriving members, coming in long after the rest of us had passed, reported startling a large flock of the big birds right on our trail: “They put their necks up straight, and then burst into the air!”
We visited the landowner’s cabin — he wasn’t home — and left a Christmas gift and card signed by all of us.
Dec. 9, 2017: Salamanders are still out there!
Many species of frogs around the world are in trouble, and some of them have gone extinct. It looked as if eastern Ontario’s most abundant salamander was starting down this same path, but herpetologist Dave Seburn had some doubts. Dave has a long history with the Macoun Club, and on this occasion he talked to us about his research into this species, the Eastern Red-backed Salamander. He began by discussing what is normal in salamanders, and how this one is fundamentally different (it has dispensed with the aquatic part of its life cycle).
Atlas data showed that there are many places where this species was known in the past, but has not been reported in the last 20 years. Dave and a colleague searched in 15 of these places from Ottawa westward across Algonquin Park. They turned over logs and rocks, just as Macoun Club members do on field trips, but with more focus and method. They kept track of how many objects they turned before they found something, and how many things they looked under within a single hour.
Happily, Dave found Red-backed Salamanders in most of the places where they were no longer being reported. What has disappeared is the reporting of salamanders. People engaged in citizen science more readily submit their sightings of frogs, snakes, and turtles, which live in the open.
Dave’s study has just been published in The Canadian Field-Naturalist. Volume 131, No. 2. Macoun Club families can read it online by logging in through their OFNC membership.
Dec. 2, 2017: Still snowless at the start of December
Today we resumed the search, begun two weeks ago, for the first buckthorns to invade our Study Area. This time, Rob led the group to the biggest (and presumably oldest) specimens in the Study Area’s NE sector. The first one we came to was a European Buckthorn, which was eight inches (20 cm) in diameter where we cut it, about a foot off the ground. Right away we could see that the annual rings were unusually large. A rough count on the spot indicated about 25 of them. By then it was lunchtime. Some members of the group sat on our specimen to eat.
Those who finished lunch first cast about for something to do. Jan hunted far and wide with his long lens, but not much was moving on this early December day. We didn’t even see a Chickadee. Niccolò, however, came up with a tiny orange slug (Arion subfuscus), seemingly just hatched (we also found slug eggs) a Four-humped Stink Bug (Brochymena quadripustulata), and, growing out of some soggy dead leaves on the ground, a few tiny, delicate white mushrooms.
Soon after we’d moved on, we found the biggest Glossy Buckthorn we saw all day, about four inches in diameter. We cut it down to determine its age. In the field the large annual rings appeared to number about 25, the same as today’s European Buckthorn, but at home under his dissecting microscope, Rob found seven more small ones at the center: it had started growing around 1985.
Snow has come and gone a couple of times in recent weeks — we didn’t see any — but the pools and ponds have stayed frozen over, though few would dare try their luck on the ice.
Nov. 18, 2017: In the grey of November
What’s there to see when you’re out in freezing rain in November? Since we were starting out from the Sarsaparilla Trail in our Study Area, we were beset by hungry Chickadees; Julia even got a White Breasted Nuthatch to come to her hand. We saw Deer tracks, but far fewer than expected. The open pine and spruce plantations that were full of rutting deer in November 2012 have filled in with thickets of Glossy Buckthorn. The masses of six-year-old, pencil-thin stems obstruct vision in all directions, which may not suit the Deer any more than it does us. Where did they all these shoots come from?
The tentative answer that’s relevant in our Study Area is that these slender stems are probably the third generation since the species’ introduction: the progeny of the first one or two specimens have grown big enough to produce heavy crops of seeds themselves. Our one goal today was to relocate the biggest specimens, which were about six inches in diameter when last seen, in 2013, and sample their annual rings.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t find those biggest Glossy Buckthorns (Rhamnus franagula), but we did find a pretty big European, or Common Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) — it was five inches thick. They are both invasive aliens. We had seen places where European Buckthorn is proliferating, too, so we cut this one down and collected a disc of wood for careful ring-counting. Our rough count was 40, meaning that this individual had started growing in the mid-1970s.
The ground underfoot often crunched, and in one wet, peaty hollow, we could see that a special type of freezing had taken place. Bundles of clear ice crystals had grown up out of the muddy ground as much as four inches and curved gracefully out to the sides. This is “brush ice,” which seems to form only at this time of year, especially in organic soils. The growing point of each crystal is at the bottom, where it continuously draws available water molecules from the soil. As they freeze onto the crystal, all that has previously formed is pushed upward.
Nov. 11, 2017: A year of bioblitzes across Canada
Macoun-Club Leader Annie Bélair works for the Canadian Wildlife Federation. The CWF is based here in Ottawa, but from March through October her job had her traveling to more than a dozen Bioblitz events all across Canada, from Vancouver, BC in the west to PEI in the east, and north to Cambridge Bay in the High Arctic. Each event was a 24-hour-long effort to catalog nature at the species level in a particular natural place, and involve the public in the process.
When Annie wasn’t working at the CWF kiosk handing out pamphlets and talking to people, she was out in the field, participating in the capture and identification of animals. She saw everything from a lemming in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut and a family of Richardson’s Ground Squirrels in Regina, Saskatchewan, to a White Sucker and unidentified salamander larvae above Montmorency Falls, Quebec. All of the pictures were taken by Annie herself, with only one or two from Wikipedia to give another view of the animal.
Annie quizzed the group every step of the way by having us identify her pictures. “What province or ecozone do you think this habitat represents?” “What kind of ground squirrel is it?” She engaged us all by linking her photographs of birds to the page number in our field guides, which we all have when seated at the table, which no speaker has ever done before. In conclusion, it was a top notch presentation. (Write-up by Aidan H.)
Nov. 4, 2017: In the grey chlll of November
On a day that started with frost and ended with grey stratus cloud threatening rain (if not snow), we had to search for living creatures in the places where they hide. Under rocks and logs we found Dew Worms and slug eggs; in cracks in thick bark, a black-and-red stinkbug, and surrounded and hiding unsuspected in a hollow tree stub, a Gray Squirrel that suddenly scrambled to the ground and bolted away through the forest.
Lifting the roof off a natural pile of rocks, we found a secure cavity where some very small animal had left shreds of the food it had eaten. Peering in more closely, part of an acorn shell held a single tiny black thing — a mouse dropping. Another, more organized pile of rocks Rob, with his archaeological background, explained as the reject pile left by pioneer stonecutters 150 years ago.
After lunch, we made a tour of our Study Tree Woods. The living deciduous trees were all bare and their fallen leaves had lost the little colour they’d had this year, but Rory’s “Study Moss” was a spot of brilliant green on the drab forest floor As a bonus, a Spring Peeper that had been perfectly camouflaged in the leaf litter leapt up onto the green cushion.
Oct. 28, 2017: Exploring topographic maps
Having seen that young people today are not getting to handle paper maps — everything is viewed on little hand-held screens — we spread out rolls of old topographic maps covering different parts of eastern Ontario. Upon finding Perth one boy exclaimed “Here’s where my grandparents live!” “This is the dock where my sailing group’s tall ship is berthed,” said another, pointing to a feature on the Brockville map.
Rob drew attention to the legend, where every symbol is explained, the scale at the bottom and the military grid that is laid over the whole map, and the date in the lower left corner that tells what year the aerial photographs on which the map is based were taken.
Rob also showed the group how topo maps are based on aerial photographs, laying out a pair of overlapping images and inviting everyone to look at them through a home-made stereoscope. He had chosen air photos of the Study Area from 1968. It was like looking down on a real landscape, so that the trees stood up taller than the farmhouses. “Is this, like, the original version of 3D movies?” asked one girl.
Oct. 21, 2017: Perfect autumn days continue
Summery weather has continued well into October, owing to a persistent pattern in the northern hemisphere jet stream that has lasted five weeks. Under bright blue skies, today’s high temperature was 22° C. There have been no hard frosts yet, and few nights even near freezing.
We ate our lunches in front of Gerry’s cabin, a well-known and safe place where kids could explore around and find interesting things, such as animal skulls on a rock they named “Bone Island.”
Then we revisited the floating bog that was so much fun earlier this fall (Sept. 16th). Those who braved the chillier water found the cranberries more nearly ripe, and gathered the abundant fruit to take home for their families.
Oct. 20, 2017: Special astronomy trip
At the invitation of Rick Scholes of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, a small group of Macouners drove out to the Society’s observatory, near Almonte. Rick began by orienting us to the main constellations of autumn (the Summer Triangle, the Big Dipper, Hercules, and Pegasus). Then he trained the telescope — an 18-inch reflector — on a series of interesting object in the sky: the famous Ring Nebula (M57), a globular star cluster in Hercules (M13), and the Andromeda Galaxy (M31). These appear to be just wispy splotches in the night sky until viewed through a strong telescope. Rick explained what what each of them is, and how far out in space each is. He said the Andromeda Galaxy, 2.5 million light years away, is the most distant object you can see with the unaided eye.
We finished up by admiring the brightest star in the summer/autumn sky, Vega, burning white with a hint of blue. It is only 25 light years away, which is quite close in astronomical terms.
Oct. 14, 2017: Member’s share their nature photos
We began with images of local wildlife taken by Ana (Red-bellied Snake) and Garrett (llttle turtles and one huge fish — a Carp), and then ranged over Canada from coast to coast with Jan. He began with his excitement at visiting wildlife refuges in the American Rockies and seeing his first Ferruginous Hawk. There he had encountered Bison, too.
In the Canadian Rockies Jan encountered Clark’s Nutcrackers, birds of the conifer forests just below the timberline.
He had already told us of having seen the world’s largest Orca, and now showed us how much its dorsal fin towered over that of an average Orca, photographed together in BC waters. He had also been to Newfoundland and had pictures of Humpback and Minke Whales, as well as seals and a Common Puffin.
Sept. 30, 2017: Return to the Study Area
On this cloudy, early autumn day we encountered two flocks of migrating songbirds, the first consisting of White-throated Sparrows, and the second of Kinglets (and maybe warblers). By looking under logs and rocks we found a few Blue-spotted Salamanders and Red Efts. At lunch in a small field, we were dogged by light swarms of “face flies”, which are really Black Flies. Some members complained they were getting bitten. And then the day’s only Monarch butterfly was discovered. It eventually warmed up enough to take flight.
We spent the rest of our time revisiting our Study Trees. The only big change was that the top had fallen out of Gabriel’s Yellow Birch, but we had to check on every tree to be sure. As we moved about the Study-Tree Woods, we found more salamanders and a couple of Garter Snakes. Rob collected a mosquito off of Rachel’s forehead and later keyed it out as Aedes trivittatus, a species he had previously seen only in July and August of other years.
Sept. 23, 2017: Trees indoors!
Most of us already have our own Study Trees that we visit on field trips, but today Rob brought trees-for-study right into the building — little ones. Some — Sugar Maple and White Pine seedlings — were only a few inches tall, but one of the several Balsam Firs was about five feet tall. You can see in the picture that it was sort of top-heavy, with all the live foliage at the top.
The one Rob is holding in the picture was just a dead, bristly stick, but Macoun members were still able to read its past. Slightly bigger Firs had blocked the light overhead, causing it to become lop-sided, growing long, snaky branches on only one side, just to reach the sunlight. Others, including the big one, had given up on growing their way out of the shade, and put all their energy into maintaining all their life-giving foliage at the very top.
We noticed little things, too, such as tiny bumps on the Fir trunks that had a readily discernible origin (needle scars), and ring scars on the tiny Maple stems that signaled previous year’s growing points. But Rob had no answer for Rachel’s observation that the slightly yellowing leaves on her Leatherwood shrub felt waxy, whereas the still-green ones on Gabriel’s of the same species had a soft feel.
Sept. 16, 2017: A perfect autumn day
We lazily walked in to a place we know as “Rock-wall Pond” at Pakenham, finding a Spring Peeper, Wood Frog, and Leopard Frog, and many American Toads beside the trail, and passing pale asters as we went. We ate lunch on flowing steps of thick moss on a rocky hilltop, and resumed our ambling.
When we reached our destination, a floating bog, we found that high water levels had tripled the width of the moat to about 10 feet, which gave us pause. In past years we have been able to jump across with a single leap, but the unusually warm temperatures eventually encouraged us to wade out and climb up onto the bog mat. It wobbled and bubbled as it sank underfoot. Jumping up and down made waves of moss ripple out. Some of the sphagnum mosses were rich red colours, rivaling the early-changing Red Maples around the shore.
The bog was dotted at knee- to waist-level with tufts of cotton grass, and peppered underfoot with plump (but unripe) cranberries. Macoun members noted these things, but were drawn by the mysterious openings in the floating mat, and one after another slipped, sank, or jumped into the cool, dark water. They found a baby Water Snake in such a place.
Sept. 9, 2017: Start-up meeting
We began, as we do every meeting, with “Observations.” What have we seen in the natural world since we last met? In this case it had been more than two months. Gabriel had been out whale-watching on the east coast, and Jan in B.C.. It’s pretty hard to beat Humpback Whales and Orcas. But Julia had brought in a rearing cage containing five bright green Monarch chrysalises dotted with gold, waiting to turn into butterflies. And then someone remembered the recent solar eclipse.
Many hands went up to indicate who had witnessed the partial eclipse that was visible in Ottawa on August 21st (total in a narrow band across the United States. Some had made pinhole cameras, but Rob explained how he had used binoculars to project the image onto a piece of paper on his deck.