What the Macoun Field Club did in 2009-10
During the school year, the Macoun Club runs an almost continuous Saturday program of alternating field trips and indoor meetings. The accounts here are meant to rely some of the substance of each event.
Sept. 19, 2009
With twelve observers on the lookout, we had a very full day out at our Study Area. As we walked in, a startled Grackle flew out of the cedars, closely pursued by a Sharp Shinned Hawk. It got away. But out in the bare, dry flat-rock area, Madeleine found a dozen small animal bones. The biggest one, though fragmentary, was distinctive — it was a tibia and fibula fused together. Muskrat. There being nothing but foot bones, and the place being far from water, it was reasonable to assume that a Coyote had caught and eaten a Muskrat near some pond far away, and left the remains here in its droppings.
Rob restrained the group from grabbing one of the many Leopard Frogs that leapt out of our way, and we all sat down in a circle around it. After a minute or so, the frog visibly relaxed. It settled back slightly and rapidly patted the ground with its hind feet. It’s really easy to observe frog behaviour, if you’re just a little bit patient and hands-off.
We noted a number of introduced species: slugs from Europe (Arion subfuscus), Seven-Spotted Ladybird Beetles (Cooccinella septempunctata), stink bugs (Picromerus bidens), Earwigs (Forficula auricularia), “Canada” Thistle (Cersium arvense), and Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria). The loosetrife was the first plant in a new place, the Woodland Pond, beside our Study Tree woods. We hope we have headed off the invasion by pulling it out.
If introduced species represent something wrong with the world, we still saw a lot that was right: lots of Garter Snakes, a half-dozen salamanders, the Flooded Jellyskin lichen (a species-at-risk), and a Raccoon (just the tracks).
Sept. 26, 2009
Many young Macoun members want to study swamp ants, but slugs, says Swiss expert Ulrich Schneppat, “are at least as important in an ecosystem as ants.”
He was visiting Canada to see our native species, figure out which introduced European species we have here, and teach interested people how to identify them in a series of workshops to be held at the Bishops Mills Natural History Center. He readily agreed to give us a talk, too, and he seemed to answer every question with a fascinating story.
The slug at right is an introduced species, probably Arion fasciatus, from our Study Area.
Oct. 3, 2009
On our walk along the bush road into “Pakenham” we uncovered two Red-Backed Salamanders by rolling logs. One was had the typical red line down the back, but the other was the lead-backed phase, with a gray line. We have heard that a warming climate (and soil) favours the gray morph. Up till now we had found only red-backed individuals of this species.
Oct. 17, 2009
In connection with a workshop on seeds, run by Diane and Annie, Rob brought in a pill bottle filled with small brown seeds. We counted out 217 seeds. Rob had found them tucked into a space in his outdoor woodpile last spring. He’s seen this before, and knew that the autumn before, a Deer Mouse had painstakingly gathered and husked these seeds from the forest floor, and cached them as winter food. But the woods are full of weasels, foxes, and owls, and that mouse never got a chance to eat the seeds. None of us would have recognized them, because the mouse had extracted them from the winged “helicopters” we do all know.
Oct. 24, 2009
A floating bog in autumn is a wonderful place for children to play among the Cottongrass — all springy and moist, with wonderful smells. “It’s like a wet trampoline!” one exclaimed today.
Oct. 31, 2009
Isaac Finkelstein gave a well-delivered presentation on his family’s kayaking and whale-watching vacation along the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. (Rob had brought in several sea-mammal skulls — seal, walrus, beluga — so that we could see the increasingly committed adaptations to a marine life.)
Nov. 7, 2009
The main subject of study in our “Lasius Project” is the yellow swamp ant, Lasius minutus. It is a subterranean species, so to see what it’s up to outside of late summer (when each colony launches queens and drones into the air) we have to dig for them.
Usually the ants are so deeply withdrawn into their mounds that we find only a few, but on this day we found thousands! Sniffing a chunk of dirt crawling with hundreds, we could just detect a faint citronella smell coming from the aggregate mass — their alarm chemical. Others in the genus (i.e., Lasius claviger) can be smelled when just one ant is disturbed.
Nov. 14, 2009
Rob Lee gave a talk on one of the world’s great naturalists, William Beebe. This man began his career of adventures by circling the globe in a quest to write a definitive book about every species of pheasant in the world. But he came to see that more might be learned by staying in one place than by merely passing through all sorts of exotic places, the way biologists had been doing up till then.
Beebee set up a long-term study area in the tropics. He invited a wide range of scientists to visit and carry out their work within the bounds of a quarter-mile square of jungle, thus establishing the first research station. But the tropics are so rich in living things that he couldn’t begin to do a thorough job of it. Beebe undertook a complete study of one-square-yard of ground in this jungle, and found 17 genera of ants within it, some of them new to science. Then, informing his imagination with actual studies, he extended his minute plot of ground upward as a virtual square yard to the very top of the canopy, describing the succession of plant and animal communities one would encounter as one climbed.
Just such an endeavour is what we hope to achieve someday with our own Study Trees in the Macoun Club Nature Study Area. We made a start at it by figuring out which lichens live at various levels in Katherine Kitching’s Basswood tree.
Nov. 21, 2009
Right on the “Pakenham” bush road we discovered an 8-inch (20 cm) hairworm in a rain puddle. It was about as big around as a pencil lead. Not everyone was convinced it was a living creature, so Rob scooped it up and draped it over his finger. Slowly, slowly it began to curl up, and within five minutes had tied itself into a “Gordian knot.” Rob released it into another puddle.
Nov. 28, 2009
Biologist Eric Snyder has long had an interest in developing long forgotten, traditional life skills, such as obtaining fibres for string and rope from plants and, of consuming interest to us, how to make fire. He had brought with him two fire-starting kits and demonstrated their use. It appeared to be a trade-off between the amount of materials preparation on the one hand, and physical strength on the other. Most of us opted to try the easier method, spinning a fire drill until black embers tumbled out of a fireboard and blowing them into life. As every part of the process demanded well developed skills, we realized that we’d have to practise a lot before ever being able to make fire in an emergency situation.
Dec. 5, 2009
Seeking out a place where we wouldn’t have to worry about deer hunters (it was black-powder season) we turned to the Gaertners’ Tatlock land. Finding a sunny spot on a hillside, we tried out our new fire-starting skills. Tommy and Claude succeeded with a bow drill, Gabriel with flint-and-steel — and some learned with old-fashioned wooden matches. Everybody knew how to cook their lunch, of course.
The farther reaches of the 100-acre property have not been affected by the earthworms that afflict our Study Area, so Rob was able to cut a thick wad of duff out of the forest floor to pass around. It was an inch thick and matted together like felt. This key element of a forest ecosystem has been lost from essentially our entire Bells Corners study area. Here the duff covered a good inch of black organic soil.
The Gaertner property abounds in Prickly Ash, and several of us tried chewing on slivers of this shrub’s inner bark. It tastes hot like pepper, but numbs your tongue like an anesthetic.
Dec. 19, 2009
The Macoun Club has a new GPS unit, purchased with the Baillie Birdathon funds raised by former member Jeremy Hussell. It was -15° C out (near zero Fahrenheit) and Gabriel was asked to figure out how to use it on the spot — which he did in no time! In the course of the day we found 15 Butternut trees to waypoint, part of our big study on this endangered species.
Tracking conditions were excellent, and we found signs of many of our mammals. There were clusters of deer beds in the Red Pine plantations. And out on one of the big ponds (Pond V) we followed the trail of a Coyote pair that had been visiting each Muskrat house in the marshy edges. Robyn said it was “their version of Wendy’s.”
We finished up by scraping the snow off a patch of ice on a small, sunny pond (Pond VIII) where a Fisher had passed, and running and sliding until we were all warm again.
Jan. 16, 2010.
In this winter’s deep snow, we headed into the southern cedar swamp and, under overcast skies, spent hours circling about in this featureless environment. Only our GPS unit showed the succession of circles we were making — that and coming to our own snowshoe tracks and now-familiar trees. This wandering brought us to one Raccoon in its den in a hollow tree, and another pretending to sleep up in the branches. But we’re sure there was too much laughter and excitement for anyone to sleep. We used the GPS unit to waypoint the Raccoons, some Porcupines, and more Butternut trees, and it was mild enough for any of us to work with bare hands.
Jan. 23, 2010 (morning).
Former member Nic Lapointe came back discuss his PhD research with us. He started by asking how we would go about studying the natural history of an introduced species of fish if it were our study, and then explained what he had done in the Potomac River. His subject, the Northern Snakehead, has acquired an especially bad reputation because of alarming media coverage portraying it as a carnivorous fish that can breathe out of water and move about on land. But Nic explained that, while it can breathe air if it needs to, it really isn’t capable of crawling about on land. And although it is a predatory fish, it wasn’t directly competing with other fish in the Potomac. And since 75% of the fish biomass there is already made up of other introduced species, it’s hard for one more to make much of a difference.
A specially arranged field trip to join Fred Schueler and Aleta Karstad in counting and catching Mudpuppies in the river at Oxford Mills. These are big, nocturnal salamanders that have external gills. They come out at night to feed on frogs and anything else they can catch in the water. Our total count was about 160!
Jan. 30, 2010.
Rob led us through the woods and out onto White Lake’s Pickerel Bay. We made our lunch fires on the ice along a sunny shore, out of a stiff west wind, while Nic Lapointe sought out deeper water for some ice-fishing. He had brought a six-inch auger and soon hauled a Perch up through the hole. Gabriel, who seems impervious to cold, stuck his arm down the hole to feel the bottom of the 18-inch-thick ice. Solid though it obviously was, the ice made deep booming sounds as it contracted.
A few of us put on skates and threaded our way through the maze of icy patches among the lines of drifted snow out on the lake. We tried drilling new holes with Nic’s auger, but mainly slid round and round in the opposite direction.
Feb. 6, 2010.
Exploring our web pages with their creators: Rob, Gabriel, Dawn, and Madeleine
Field trip: ice shelves and icicles at Pakenham
Feb. 20, 2010.
This is a feature frozen in lake ice. What is it? That’s what Rob asked the assembled Macoun members at this day’s meeting. Then, with lots of pictures, he showed them that this was an unusual, lopsided form of a natural ice phenomenon that he calls “ice stars.”
After studying them in a mild winter when they were common, he determined that they are essentially drainage channels for water, converging on a hole down through the ice. Ice floats with its top surface a little above lake level, and if rain or meltwater has soaked into the snow, that water will flow out of the slush and down through any weak spot in the ice. This happens slowly, over a period of hours. Holes may open up around sticks or rocks, where methane bubbles accumulate, or over submerged logs and boulders.
At first the water moves in a sheet through the layer of slush, but eventually sorts itself into narrow drainage channels, which can reach out five feet in four or five directions and have short branches, or tributaries. The ice star pictured here, only three feet long, is lopsided because the ice was close to shore and its surface was tilted.
One of Rob’s pictures showed that the drainage channels actually curve down the hole and along the underside of the ice. This led to a discussion of how Bombardier beetles direct their vile spray, what went wrong with the world’s first attempted jet-engine-powered flight in 1910, and the Coanda effect (named for the pilot of that ill-fated flight), which ties all of these things together.
The older members stayed on afterward for their own special meeting, at which, as a treat, Rob served up a deep-dish apple pie he’d just baked.
Feb. 27, 2010.
We faced challenging conditions as we set off into the Study Area woods again, where the snow was both deep and wet. Winter boots and gaiters worked best. We found seven Porcupines, all up in trees, and recorded their locations by GPS. We also waypointed several Butternut trees.
Prohibited from making snowballs (because of the inevitable snowball-in-the-leader’s-face), the Macouners became increasingly creative in their requests: “Is it all right to make a sculpture? OK, here’s one of a tennis ball.” How about a frisbee? Rob said he’d be OK with a snow boomerang, and Gabriel really tried to make one.
Mar. 6, 2010
As a preliminary to the actual meeting (a nature-art workshop), Rob brought in an antique ski make of ash wood. He’s been showing us items made from ash trees all this year and last (on that link, scroll down to June 13, 2009), most recently a graceful, lightweight chair.
Rob wants everybody to appreciate these trees, which are being wiped out by the introduced Emerald Ash Borer. He and Barbara photographed this one spreading its wings in Ottawa’s east end. Through a break in the bark, the picture at right shows how the beetle’s larvae eat away the cambium layer and kill the trees.
(While driving to a Macoun meeting, Rob suspiciously noted several dying ash trees along Prince of Wales Drive beside the Central Experimental Farm. In June the infestation was confirmed there, meaning the insects have spread halfway from their source in the east end of the city toward our Study Area in the west end.)
Mar. 27, 2010
We devote much of our attention to introduced, invasive species, because these so often threaten our native species. But aren’t all our plants and animals just part of the broader North American ecosystem, which spread north after the end of the ice age? Well, we do share most of our species with the United States, but Carolyn Seburn talked to us about the small number that Canada alone has, such as the Banff Springs Snail and the Vancouver Island Marmot. And she put forward the idea that many of our migratory songbirds, especially some of the warblers, might be considered endemics because they have their summer breeding ranges almost exclusively in Canada. Among them are the Bay-Breasted, Blackpoll, and Orange-Crowned Warblers. We in this country are as responsible for their continued well-being and existence as we would be if they lived their whole lives here.
Apr. 10, 2010 (morning).
Yellow Perch are common and Brook Trout rare in Algonquin Park; they seem to coexist in only a few lakes there. Fish ecologist David Browne set out to discover why, and recounted his exploration of the problem to us. Among his investigations, examination of stomach contents and chemical analysis of the fishes’ muscle composition prove to be most valuable. It turned out the two species compete for food, and when they’re together in a lake, the Perch adversely affect the Trout.
Apr. 10-11, 2010 (overnight).
A bunch of us went camping at Pakenham, setting up tents or rigging shelters against the coming rain.
The next day was clear and dry. We went overland to “Troll Rock” (a hollow-sounding spot in the solid granite) and on the way startled a Northern Flying Squirrel out of what we had thought was a bird nest. It sailed over us and landed on the Trunk of a big White Pine, as pictured here, and glided away to a backup den in a hollow tree.
Apr. 17, 2010.
Every spring, Macoun members put together natural-history projects for display at the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club annual social even. Here Dawn explains her study on the swamp ant Lasius minutus to Macoun Club leader Diane Kitching and other OFNC members.
Dawn had a jar of earth she had taken from a mound as soon as the snow melted in March, and in it were a couple of hundred worker ants. She was able to keep them alive for months by feeding them sugar water. One of the most striking observations she made was that each day the ants carried out their dead and stuck them all in one place.
Apr. 24, 2010.
Gabriel Levac is an old hand at giving Macoun Club talks, and there was much hilarity in his back-and-forth with the audience as he reviewed all the genera of boa constrictors and pythons of the world.
Although he is imbued with the ethic of avoiding introduced species, he made an exception for himself with this Ball Python, a suitably calm and placid creature to present to Macoun members eager to touch a snake.
May 1, 2010.
Amanda Goth came to us from the Let’s Talk Science program and followed her talk on insect basics with a trip outside to capture whatever we could.
May 8, 2010.
We joined the leaders and members of two other groups, the Kingston and the Macnamara (Arnprior) Field Naturalists’ Clubs in a location midway between us all — the Perth Wildlife Reserve. Rain dampened our opportunities to search for birds in the extensive marshes, but did not keep us out of the woods. We traded members and explored both the trails and the off-trail areas. Anne Robertson of the Kingston group introduced many Macoun members to the basic elements of birdwatching (in the rain), while Rob’s group found a wide but (as the adventuresome proved) shallow pond with lots of tadpoles.
Some Macouners were so keen on poisoning mosquitoes with crushed cherry leaves that they alarmed some adults. But it was explained that the ultimate purpose was to identify the insects, and that if left alive in little collecting vials, the mosquitoes would batter their wings and backs against the sides, and lose the delicate scales whose white patterns are essential to identification. After the trip, Rob reported that all the mosquitoes captured were Aedes provocans. The features that characterize the genus are highlighted in the picture here.
May 15, 2010.
We had a varied sampling of natural history in our Study Area today. We found mushrooms (False Morels); earthworms (Lumbricus terrestris) and orange-slimed slugs (Arion subfuscus), familiar moth caterpillars and a Tiger Swallowtail butterfly; a Green Frog and a Red-Bellied Snake; Porcupine bones on the forest floor; and a variety of birds. Rob tentatively identified a Blue-Headed Vireo overhead in the ash swamp by its song; Gabriel photographed it at high-power zoom and showed us the key field marks. We met a Ruffed Grouse that had its black ruffs raised, and chased after it on foot for a long way. Later on we heard another one drumming.
We visited the old homestead’s orchard and detected it long before we could see the blossoms by their fragrance. A great bank of lilacs was also in flower.
May 29, 2010.
Rob introduced us the the life of the Song Sparrow as it was discovered by Margaret Morse Nice some 80 years ago. She was among the very first investigators to individually mark (by coloured leg bands) the birds in her own personal study area. That act, coupled with her diligence in keeping notes, enabled her to unravel many mysteries and secrets of Song Sparrow life.
One of her discoveries that Rob regularly puts to use is the fact that each male has its own territorial song, distinct from all the other males around it. You can keep track of where each individual is by ear. But there is a complication, also available for us to test out in our own experience: Margaret Nice realized that a single male Song Sparrow may have repertoire of five or ten distinct songs. Keep any one bird under observation for a half-hour while it’s proclaiming its territory, and your ear will soon tell you that she was right.
June 5, 2010.
We had to splash across the moat that surrounds the bog at Pakenahm, and anyone who broke through the bog mat and sank up to their chin had a close up look at the special plants, such as Round-Leaved Sundews, that thrive among the sphagnum mosses.
June 12, 2010.
Alaine Camfield studied the life of the Horned Lark as a graduate student, and now works at Environment Canada in Ottawa. On this day she gave us an overview of the factors that can put bird populations at risk, such as habitat loss and disruption of key places along the migration route. Martha Camfield, Alaine’s grandmother, was delighted to get her in to give this talk.
Martha took part in the annual party on June 19th, too, but at age 90, died just a few weeks later. She had been a Macoun Club leader for nearly 25 years.
Posted on Sept. 5th, 2010 by R.E. Lee. All photos were taken by Macoun Club participants, unless otherwise indicated. Coding revised in May and June, 2016.