What the Macoun Field Club did in 2012-13
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. 8, 2012: Welcome, new members! And welcome back to the old
Members new and old brought in interesting things they had found or acquired during the summer. One girl brought in a large, heavy-bodied insect she had captured; we were able to tell her it was a Cicada. Everyone hears these shrilly buzzing insects from up in the trees, but few get to see them. Another brought in the shed skin of a large snake from her cottage. We thought it was most likely that of a Water Snake. A boy who had been to the Maritimes passed around a long, slender bone; from the way the light shone through it we judged that it was hollow and therefore from a bird. What kind we could only guess. One of the oldest boys recounted a wilderness canoe trip down to James Bay.
Sept. 15, 2012: Our Greenbelt Study Area
We had a two-part trip, starting at the Sarsaparilla Trail. On the way down to the big beaver pond, we stepped aside to admire clusters of scale-studded
mushrooms sprouting out of rotten wood. Then, as soon as we walked out onto the observation dock, three Great Egrets grabbed our attention. From here, Rob pointed to landmarks in the north, the west, and the south, and showed where these lay on the map Macouners made years ago. The Study Area, he said, is many times bigger than everything you can see from this point.
Moving away from the crushed stone pathway, we probed the old field nearby and found the ruins of an old farmhouse whose drystone foundations are now exposed. Nearby was the old orchard with its century-old apple trees, and a single clump of Rhubarb that has survived all these years.
Our sense of smell enabled us to identify two kinds of ant: the Odorous House Ant (Tapinoma sessile), inside the Rhubarb’s hollow flower stalk, and a yellow field ant (Lasius claviger) under a large rock on a grassy rise. Our close vision netted us a third species, an Acrobat Ant (Crematogaster cerasi) under a rock right beside the first. Ants in this genus have a uniquely heart-shaped abdomen.
We spent our afternoon exploring the great cedar swamp of the south, rich in mosses, tall ferns, and boreal forest wildflowers.
Sept. 22, 2012: Why do animals get together in groups?
Biologist Alaine Camfield asked us why animals get together. Why is it a good idea to be in a group? What are the disadvantages? (She had a photo of someone sneezing.) We had lots of ideas.
To let us experience the advantages, she created a game of snakes-and-frogs for us to play. The lesson learned was two-fold: first, groups survive better than individuals; and second, you’re less likely to get eaten if you’re low in the food chain and join a group. In the end we got to eat the “frogs,” which were chocolate.
Sept. 29, 2012: The colours of autumn
A warm glow has come over the woods and fields of the Pakenham Hills, but not all the colour was in the trees. Twice on the dirt road where we park we found Red-bellied Snakes. One had died there, but the other was just soaking up the sun’s warmth until we came along. Red-bellies are small, delicate snakes that wouldn’t hurt a fly — well, maybe a fly. They do have to eat.
Other creatures we found dead even on a little-used bush road were a Water Snake and a Star-nosed Mole. Live sightings included a Ruffed Grouse, three Sandhill Cranes, and two Blue Jays being hassled by a would-be bird-eating Sharp-shinned Hawk no bigger than they were. The Jays squawked but only dodged about just out of reach. When we arrived at our favourite lunch place, “Rock-wall Pond” two Wood Ducks and three Canada Geese took off in alarm.
We found a number of Woolly Bear Caterpillars, once or twice heard Spring Peepers calling in the woods, and breathed in the sweet fragrance of Wintergreen leaves, crushed between our fingers.
Oct. 13, 2012: The 42-year Little Bear book on the Macoun Club’s Study Area
The Macoun Club has been exploring the natural world in its square-mile nature-study area since 1970. Current leader Rob Lee still remembers the wonderful October day when he set first set foot in it, and how a wall of vibrantly coloured foliage rose up to meet the brilliant blue sky above. In those early days, Rob’s Macoun Club friends undertook to write an account of what they could find there, and put lists of birds and articles about fish, flowers, diatoms in the Club’s annual publication, The Little Bear. Year after year, decade after decade, Macouners have continued to write about the Study Area — its trees, its Porcupines, its human visitors.
Now, for the first time, Rob has assembled everything ever written about the Study Area in a single, 350-page book. With it in hand, one can see what hasn’t been done for a while (“the fish were last listed 1991) and what has never been done (no mushroom list has ever appeared).
We also had a look at a unique resource for anyone thinking of what to do next — the comprehensive notebooks known as the Study Area Nature Journals for 2010 and 2011, that have just become available.
Oct. 20, 2012: Out of the ashes . . .
In last summer’s drought a nearby part of the western Greenbelt (along the Lime Kiln Trail) caught fire and burned. Three months later the dead trees stand blackened and stark, except where Hairy Woodpeckers have chipped away the bark to get at the grubs of bark beetles that swarmed into the damaged stand while it was still warm. It’s a pretty sooty place.
Another form of life that specializes in fresh burns popped up on the charred ground in great numbers — tiny brown cup fungi called Geopyxis carbonaria. There are other such species, which we haven’t identified yet. Safely underground through it all were the earthworms.
The burn exposed deep cracks in the limestone bedrock, which, where still covered by leaf litter probably offer any number of hibernacula, and nearby we found several species of snakes — a Garter Snake, some Water Snakes, and Red-bellied Snakes.
Nearby was the early industrial structure the trail is named for, which we explored and learned about. Rock quarried from immediately around (CaCO3) was burned in the kiln, driving off part of its chemical constituents (the carbon dioxide, CO2) and leaving calcium oxide (CaO). Mortar for cement and plaster, lime for “limelights,” and whitewash were some of the uses lime could be put to. Our civilization still uses this process, but on a gigantic scale and producing a lot of greeenhouse gases.
Oct. 27, 2012: How much space does a turtle need to live in?
Last spring (May 5, 2012) we visited the Innis Point bird-banding station at Shirley’s Bay. To get there we had to drive several kilometres through a variety of habitats, watching for birds all the way. There were sandy fields, coniferous woods, swamps with trees growing in the water, and marshes. Today we learned that this is also the habitat of a good population of Blanding’s Turtles.
When you see any animal, you can be fairly sure that it’s in its chosen habitat. But is what you can see right there all that it requires? Turtles, for instance, like watery places, but many lay their eggs in sandy or gravelly places away from water, where egg- and hatchling-eating predators won’t think to look for them. So female turtles have to travel.
Today, David Seburn explained how he attached tiny radio transmitters to Blanding’s Turtles and followed them about the landscape with a directional antenna. It turns out that they spend a week in one wetland, then move to another hundreds of metres away. After a month, they might move back. Or maybe not. They’re all different. Late in the autumn, around this time of year, they finally move to the wetland where they will spend the winter. Dave’s antenna can track them even under water!
Nov. 3, 2012: A butterfly in November
Two weeks ago we saw how some plants and animals had survived the worst possible consequence of a summer drought — a forest fire. Today, in our own Study Area, we found trees that had been simply dried out to within an inch of their lives. Following twelve months of low precipitation, five weeks without rain in July sucked many Sugar Maple saplings dry of moisture. The leaves turned crisp and brown where they stood. Life began leaving their twig tips, their branches, and had retreated down the skinny trunks — when the rains started to fall again. Desperate to salvage something out of the growing season, these saplings put out short, little epicormic shoots all up and down the trunks, and now they’re keeping these new, late-growing leaves green weeks longer than everything around them. We have seen this before in Study Trees that are faced with death.
Otherwise, the November woods were bare, with hardly even a bird to be seen anywhere. A Goshawk, which would normally hunt birds, just hurried by.
Then, while rolling an old, rusted car-tire rim down a hill for fun, someone noticed a dull brown butterfly tumble out (surely it was dizzy!). It clung to a gloved finger for 20 minutes. We tickled its nose to make it pump its wings, and were rewarded with the sight of its rich chestnut brown upper wings, each with a row of vivid blue dots. We breathed warm air over it, and then saw it start shivering. A moment more, and it took flight, seeking a new place to hibernate. If it survives, it will be just about the first butterfly we’ll see in the spring.
Nov. 10, 2012: Seeing Seabirds When They’re Out of Sight
Tony Gaston, of Environment Canada, introduced himself with a story of how it was rainy one day when he was a boy of 11 in London, England, so he chose his school’s bird-watching club over soccer. A lifetime career studying Canadian arctic seabird colonies grew out of that choice. To give us the flavour of his work, he showed us videos of himself catching Thick-billed Murres at the top of great cliffs rising out of the sea, and attaching lightweight sensors to their legs. Sometimes Polar Bears, driven ashore by the too-early melting of the sea ice, were catching the birds instead, and eating them.
Some of the colonies are right in the Northwest Passage, which is opening up to commercial shipping. When rearing chicks, murres fly far out over the ocean, drop onto the water, and begin diving. Tony’s temperature sensors record the warmth of the breeding colony, the flight through the cool air over the ocean, and the plunge into the sea. The water at the surface might have been heated by the sun a little, but as the bird swims down, beating its wings, the temperature drops a little below 0° (salt water stays liquid when freshwater would freeze). The data from the sensor shows how many dives the bird makes before it finds a fish to carry back to its chick.
At the end of the nesting season, the flocks of murres, young and old, fly out into the open sea. A third kind of sensor can track each bird’s latitude and longitude by recording nothing more than the time of sunrise and sunset. (The hour of sunrise provides the longitude, and the length of day, the latitude). From this information, Tony and his colleagues can make maps showing where the birds are at this time of year (northern Hudson Bay) and all winter when the Bay is frozen over. Murres from some colonies winter in the open waters between Baffin Island and Greenland (as shown on the map above); others range farther south, right into the areas where oil companies are doing deep-sea drilling off Newfoundland.
Nov. 17, 2012: Little things in November
The Sugar Maple saplings that we saw two weeks ago, which looked like green columns in the bare woods, still have green leaves. But the leaves have been well frozen now, and being a little dry and crisp, probably aren’t doing these desperate trees much good.
Though this was a return to the Study Area, for a change we explored along the hydro corridor that forms our southern boundary. The forest right at the southwest corner has a lot of young American Beech trees, and among them we found the parasitic plant Beechdrops. We puzzled over a tiny white plume of what looked like mold on a dead, fallen leaf. Under the high-voltage power lines the environment was totally different: a sort of barrens covered with broken-up sandstone slabs. There were lichens on the rocks and on the organic debris that has accumulated between them.
Seeking a more natural setting for lunch, we crossed the nearly dry bottom of the border pond and sat around on its shore to eat. Chickadees seeking seeds found us there; we found a June beetle, and two species of earthworms.
After that we descended into the ash swamp to check up on our ant mounds. All the rain we’ve been getting this autumn has saturated the soil and started to sit on the surface. Some of us got wet feet. We probed a little, but didn’t find a single ant.
Nov. 24, 2012: What kinds of birds occur in our Study Area?
When, in 1970, the Macoun Club set out to inventory the natural history of its new Study Area, listing the birds was one of the first and most popular undertakings. That done, we explored many other facets of the terrain. Now we find that our bird list hasn’t been updated since 1978.
But the information does exist! It is scattered throughout our notebooks. Today we passed out copies of all seven volumes of our Nature Journal, from 2005 to 2011, and like Nathan in the foreground, opened them to the annual indexes. One by one members called out the species listed there, almost but not quite the same in each year. As bird’s name was read out, leader Annie Bélair put its photo up on the screen and current member Carlos Barbery explained its field marks. Rob Lee typed up a list on another screen as we went.
In the course of the meeting, we got from Bittern, American, through Goshawk and Mallard, to Owl, Saw-whet. We’ll have to finish up on another occasion. It promises to run over 100 species. Then we’ll compare the new list to the old, and investigate any differences.
Dec. 1, 2012: Explorations in early winter
On a raw, gray day we explored a forgotten corner of our Study area, thick with fallen trees and dead conifer branches pointing in all directions. The tracks of deer and red squirrels were everywhere. We crossed a wetland complex.
To get back, we circled westward and crossed the 600-foot long beaver dam that forms Pond I. Near the other end lies the Sarsaparilla Trail. Halfway along we passed the beaver’s freshly mud-plastered lodge, with the brushy tips of its food pile sticking up through the ice. (The tower sticking up above the skyline is one of the high-voltage power-line towers on our Study Area’s southern boundary, a kilometre away.)
Dec. 8, 2012: How to Follow Fish
Finding where fish live is all very well in pleasant summer weather, but where do they go in fall and winter? Former Macoun member Nick Lapointe has been tracking bass, pike, and carp all year round. His aim is to see how these fishes use the aquatic environment and what is important to them. He does this by remote sensing. He’s working in Toronto Harbour, a study area 8 km across, which has both deep water and shallow bays.
Nick implants small electronic devices in fish large enough to carry them. When activated, these devices emit coded pulses of sound that can be picked up by submerged hydrophones spaced intelligently around Toronto harbour — the restricted entry and exit points, the likely spawning grounds, and the possible wintering places. Whenever an individual fish is near a receiver, the time of its presence, the water temperature, and the depth pressure are recorded. Twice a year Nick retrieves these data loggers and figures out what each fish was up to. He can plot where it went through the year, whether it was actively moving around in the water column (feeding), hovering at a constant depth (in winter torpor), or floating at the surface (dead).
He is learning what parts of the environment are important to each species, and whether man-made changes help or harm the different populations. The main focus is on native species, but the Common Carp, from Asia, makes up 50% of the fish biomass. Its feeding habits are destructive in the spawning beds of other species, so it’s well worth understanding, too.
Dec. 15, 2012: Skating!
The temperature has been up and down dramatically this fall. Ponds and lakes froze over, and then just over a week ago we experienced the warmest Decemeber day ever recorded in the Ottawa area (18° C, or 64.4° Fahrenheit). But it’s been cold enough since then to put some solid ice back on small country ponds, so today we confidently took our skates to Pakenham.
We even make our lunch fires on the ice, and roasted hot dogs, deer meat, and marshmallows over the flames. Then we were off skating and sliding. There were animal tracks frozen into the ice, made on one of those warm days when the surface was slushy. Judging from the way a single line of footprints divided up into five or six, and then converged on a possible Muskrat house, we figured they were Coyote tracks — whether a pack, or one animal retracing its steps on successive days, we couldn’t tell.
When we were tramping through the woods, we could hear a lot of excited croaking from Ravens overhead. Only the last three in the group had a clear view through a patch of leafless deciduous trees, and could see the reason for all the commotion. Two adult Bald Eagles were soaring round and round on a thermal, with seven or eight Ravens milling about them as they rode the rising air. When they were high enough, the two eagles sailed away south together.
Our fun didn’t end just because we were leaving. The bush road out was frozen, too, and with much laughter all the Macoun members threw themselves down every icy hill, no matter whether it was going in the right direction or not.
Jan. 12, 2013: Insects, in Photos and Research
So often on field trips exciting sights induce Macouners to pull out cameras and start snapping, and we wondered what other nature pictures they take. So we invited everyone to bring in five or ten of their favourite digital images to share with the group. The results took most of an hour to work through — photos of fungi and fish and cicadas emerging from their larval skins. Some of us have travelled widely, and had pictures of the French Alps and glaciers taken out the airplane window.
After lunch, most of us joined an OFNC tour of the National Insect Collection. Our group was led by Jeff Skevington, who started with the big, showy things — giant silk moths, tropical butterflies, and enormous beetles. But most insects are really tiny things, and Jeff took us into his office and brought out trays of flies, which seem to be his favourites.
Jan. 19, 2013: First signs of Emerald Ash Borer
Ten years ago we first learned of the grave threat to several closely related tree species in our Study Area. At that time a tiny beetle from northern China, brought into Michigan by mistake, had crossed into Canada in the Windsor, Ontario, area. Five years ago it had jumped to Ottawa, and since then we have watched it spread across the city, from east to west. This winter we have found it within the Study Area for the first time.
The first trees to show signs of the Emerald Ash Borer are several Red Ashes on the north side of the Sarsaparilla Trail parking lot (P7). The larvae have been chewing winding pathways under the bark; this activity will kill the trees. Woodpeckers detected them and have begun chipping away the bark to get at the larvae for food.
We expect every ash tree — White Ash, Red Ash, and Black Ash — in our entire Study Area to die within three years.
But there is a whole lot more than ash trees to the Study Area, and we spent the next several hours exploring it. The snow was perfect — thin and light in most places, for easy walking, and piled deep and soft around the pond margins, to discourage any but the most determined explorers.
We found the tracks and trails of Coyotes, examined two Beaver lodges, and measured the diameter of some of our Study Area’s biggest trees. And we made our own tracks, running and sliding over and over again on the slick ice just under the snow.
Jan. 26, 2013: An introduction to the world of bats
Word of the terrible disease that began sweeping through the bat colonies of eastern North America in 2006 has reached a wide cross-section of the Canadian public. Our speaker, Rachel Hamilton, outlined what is known about White-nose Syndrome, and put it in context for us. The disease involves a new cold-loving fungus that afflicts bat colonies that overwinter in caves. Five of Ontario’s eight bat species hibernate in cold caves, including those most familiar to us all — the Little Brown Bat and the Big Brown Bat.
But there are also bats that sleep in trees, and three of them live in Ontario, including Rachel’s favourite, the Hoary Bat. These three species migrate south for the winter, and should not be affected.
Rachel opened our eyes to the diversity of bats. All Ontario bats, for instance, are insect eaters, but not all insect-eating bats catch moths and beetles on the wing. Some are gleaners, picking them off the leaves of trees. There are more and more kinds of bats to be found as one moves toward the tropics, and some of them have specialized in other foods, ranging from fish to fruit — and, of course, blood (Vampire Bats).
Feb. 2, 2013: Roaming the Winter Landscape
The trails were dangerously icy so we cut across fields, ponds, and creeks, climbed ridges and picked our way through logged over lands. We were attracted to a cluster of trees that blew down last summer; they fell in different directions but their root-masses remain woven together and have flopped over, creating several cave-like rooms for us to explore and a staircase of snow to ascend to the roof. It was a cool place, but not one to stay in because of the dirt constantly raining down.
We made lunch where many White Pines had blown over in the same storm, giving us easy access to dead branches for firewood. But everything was still damp from a recent mid-winter rain, and we had to work hard to cook our meal. As we dropped down into the next valley, a Snowshoe Hare broke from cover among the Fir trees and zig-zagged away. We saw tracks representing a wide selection of winter mammals: deer, porcupine, weasel, deer mouse, meadow vole, and shrew.
Feb. 9, 2013: Birds of the Study Area: part 2
What lives in our Nature-Study Area? We have been out there hundreds of times since the beginning, but our bird list hasn’t been updated since 1978!
Our many and often wonderful sightings have not been lost, however. They were written down in our Nature Journal notebooks. Today we resumed the task of extracting those records from the indexes of the last eight books, from 2005 to 2012, to come up with a current list. One by one, Carlos Barbery explained each bird’s field marks.
Feb. 16, 2013: Emerald Ash Borer in our Ant-mound Swamp!
We had the idea of spending a few hours in the great Black Ash swamp in the southern part of our Study Area, in order to bear witness to an environment that will soon vanish from the face of the earth. Sooner than we thought, evidently, for we discovered signs of the Emerald Ash Borer on a few of the trees. Woodpeckers have been flaking away the bark on live trees, exposing the larval galleries underneath. Up until today, we thought the nearest infested trees were 1 km to the north.
Right on the edge of the swamp, however, we looked up and saw a small Porcupine peering down at us. Everyone knows that Porcupines have quills, but they also have fur to keep them warm — long, reddish-brown hair.
After much wandering in the swamp, we happened on fresh Coyote tracks. Gabrielle set out to follow them. They eventually led out of the swamp and into an area frequented by deer. Their tracks and the places they had bedded down in the snow were everywhere. And toward the end of the trip, when we were long out of the swamp, Rob took us past a Porcupine den he’s known for years. To our surprise (and perhaps the Porcupine’s) it was occupied by two small Raccoons. They felt quite secure in their maple fortress, and hardly bothered to take note of our group gathered below.
Feb. 23, 2013: Of Mites and Maps
Part 1: A big part of our meeting room’s wall is covered in 16 map panels centered on a reddish blob that is the city of Ottawa. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a good set of maps is worth a million, and every time Rob glances at this wall he attempts to read a little more of it. Today he took us from some of the basics, like, “Why the top half is a lot more green than the bottom half?” to the underlying reasons, which were revealed by a set of geological maps that he brought in. They show that most of the land north of the Ottawa River is rugged Canadian Shield granite, unsuited to farming, while to the white areas to the south are flat-lying limestones covered by glacial-age sediments — and farms.
The circle is a 30-mile/ 50-km radius that defines “the Ottawa area” for naturalists.
Part 2: Rob is planning a field study for us in which we will track the destruction of forest-floor faunas by invasive European earthworms. Tiny little mites make up much of the animate life in the rotting-leaf environment, and we explored a fabulous gallery of mite micrographs on Macromite’s Blog to see what we might find. Check it out — you’ll be amazed!
Mar. 2, 2013: Insects up close
Insects are mostly small and quick-moving, so how do you get a really good look at them? How do you see those compound eyes, jointed legs, delicate scales and bristles? Fenja Brodo set up a half-dozen binocular microscopes and gave our members free choice of pinned specimens to examine. There were tiny mayflies, big dragonflies, and huge Luna moths.
From the word go there was a flurry of activity, with kids reaching for beetles and bumblebees, sticking their pins into styrofoam holders, and spinning the focus knobs up and down. It was a very hands-on experience, well suited to one-on-one instruction as Fenja moved from one microscope station to another.
Each pin held not only the preserved insect, but one or more labels with the data that give the specimen it scientific meaning — where and when it was collected, by whom, and its scientific name.
Mar. 23, 2013: Conserving Salamanders and Turtles
Finding salamanders is still a regular part of Macoun Club outings — they turn up under logs and rocks, and are seen swimming in shallow water. But will we always be able to find them so easily? Our speaker Matt Ellerbeck is deeply concerned about the future of salamanders, and he explained that habitat loss and fragmentation is bringing many kinds of salamanders into the risk of ultimate extinction. One of Ontario’s original species, the Tiger Salamander, has already been wiped out here.
Matt’s colleague Clint has the same kinds of concerns about turtles, and in his part of their joint presentation he brought out a supremely placid Snapping Turtle that kids could safely approach. They’re quite different when they feel threatened, of course, and that makes it hard to help them across roads when they get only partway across. (They drop down and sit tight when startled by a passing car.) Clint suggested sliding something like a car mat under a big turtle from behind, and pushing it in the direction it was originally going.
Apr. 6, 2013: Sheets of ice in springtime
On a crisp, bright spring morning we set out for our Study-Tree Woods and were delayed by sheets of new, clear ice over every puddle and meltwater pool. Sometimes they held our weight, but more often not — not even the old ice on the ponds. (We got several soakers determining that.)
The water had often drained away, so that the pieces we broke could be picked up and examined. In other places where pools had formed over bedrock, moss plants got frozen into the ice. In other places, weird bumps, ribbons, and ridges had formed as the water had retreated.
Apr. 20, 2013: The “firsts” of springtime
The first day in our Study Area without seeing a speck of ice or snow! First Trout Lily leaves poking up. First Turkey Vulture seen. First Garter Snake! (Its portrait does not match any of the two-dozen individuals previously photographed.)
From the Sarsaparilla Trail observation dock we spotted a Canada Goose sitting on her nest atop the beaver lodge in the NW part of the pond. In the conifer woods off to the NE we came upon four Porcupines up in White Spruce trees — two of them practically climbing over each other in the same tree. Under logs we found mostly introduced earthworms and slugs.
Here and there on the ground we came across old animal bones — Deer, Woodchuck, and Beaver.
Apr. 27, 2013: How many frogs do we have, anyway?
The first thing our herpetologist Dave Seburn asked was, “Is there anyone here who has never seen a frog?” He said that when he talks to school groups in Ottawa, quite a few kids never have. This was astonishing to Macoun members, who see frogs on most of our warm-weather outings — some manage to find them even in winter!
We like frogs — Green Frogs and Leopard Frogs, Spring Peepers and Gray Tree Frogs. Dave went over the distinguishing features of each of the nine local species, and then quizzed us with pictures and recordings of their calls.
Most of these species live in our Study Area, breeding in particular ponds that suit their life-cycle requirements. The two that we do not have (the Bull Frog and Mink Frog), we can find at Pakenham.
May 4, 2013: Let me see!
Swamp water over our feet took the heat out of a hot day as we explored several of our Study Area wetlands. These sedge-bottomed seasonal pools were off the beaten path, surrounded by forest. Both are known to host breeding colonies of Chorus Frogs, but they had all finished calling by this point. Instead, we saw thousands of caddisfly larval cases on the bottom, thousands of mosquito wrigglers twitching in the clear water, and dozens of salamander eggs attached to sedge stalks under water.
In one of the ponds and in a small stream, we caught two very young Water Snakes. They were very calm, and perhaps welcomed the warmth of our fingers, as they had been swimming in cold water.
May 5, 2013: There’s more to Brewer Park than soccer fields
There is a little-noticed pond beside the Rideau River in Brewer Park, and the Macoun Club joined the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club for a special field trip to introduce community children to nature in their own neighbourhood. Many brought their own dip nets; we provided containers to show off their catches and offered identifications on the spot. There was great excitement when even very small children discovered they could catch (and release) frogs and turtles along the shore.
For those who could get beyond the excitement of frogs, we had special nets to scoop up minute aquatic life, trays in which to display them, and magnifying lenses to better see them. There were backswimmers (insects), crustaceans, water mites, and snails.
May 11, 2013: Do you like drawing nature?
Do we like drawing? You bet we do! Macoun members settled down with paper and pencil to render their perceptions of the natural world, working from a variety of models: live invertebrates in an aquarium, bones and skulls from home, printed illustrations, and most impressively, memory and imagination.
Morgan drew herself on the shore of Brewer Park’s pond last week (see above). She observed Red-Winged Blackbirds in the Cattails, a duck dabbling, frogs swimming, a turtle and a snake and flies . . . and remembered it all.
May 25, 2013: Thinking about colours in nature
After introducing our members to several colour concepts, including the spectrum of visible light and characteristics such as hue and saturation, Roy John used wildlife photos he has taken all around the world to start us thinking about how colours are produced, perceived, and used, in nature.
“What colour is a Blue Jay’s feathers? he asked (which is different from asking what colour a Blue Jay IS). “Blue, black . . . gray . . . and white,” answered Macouners, realizing that there was some catch to this question, but not knowing what it would be. “The blue is an illusion,” said Roy. With other birds, like a Cardinal, you can use a solvent to extract red from the feathers. but there is no blue in a Blue Jay’s feathers — the appearance of blue is produced by their microscopic structure rather than pigment.
Roy used many of his pictures to challenge aspects of the obvious and the accepted — that Zebras’ stripes are for hiding in tall grass; that Viceroy butterflies mimic Monarchs; and that venomous creatures are brilliantly coloured as a warning (if so, then why is the Fer-de-Lance so exquisitely camouflaged?)
June 1, 2013: Traverse of the Study Area
We packed a lot into this visit to the Study Area. We returned to a Garlic Mustard patch we’d attacked last year, and were pleased to find that we’d reduced it from 1000 flowering plants to about 150 (which we now pulled out). There were Green Frogs where the main wetland system flows north through a big culvert. In crossing the big maple woods, a 7-inch-long Garter Snake eluded capture with ease, but we caught Wood Frogs, a Spring Peeper, a Blue-spotted Salamander, and a Giant Millipede (left). Some of our Study Trees were OK, but one girl’s baby Spruce tree had died in last summer’s drought, and another is just barely clinging to life.
And then — to everyone’s surprise — Rob led the group out of the Study Area on the other side! It became clear why when we walked up to a Bridlewood subdivision where there was acre upon acre of Garlic Mustard under the trees. “This,” said Rob, “is why we are making such an effort to keep this invasive plant out of our Study Area.” We could all see that it just takes over the ground, more than waist-deep. It secretes toxins into the soil that have an adverse effect on Sugar Maples and other native plants. Garlic Mustard may even play a role in the growing prevalence of Black-legged Ticks, which carry Lyme Disease.
We then returned to our Study Area and (because the day had become rather hot) waded the length of Pond XI. There were tadpoles and damselfly nymphs in the knee-deep water, and a Red-winged Blackbird nest in a sedge clump (it held four eggs). From there, it took more than half-an-hour to get back to our waiting parents.
But the trip wasn’t truly over until, after we got home, everyone had checked for ticks. Only Rob found some — two tiny nymphs. He carefully removed them and confirmed their identity under the microscope.
June 8, 2013: What cannot be studied anymore in our Study Area?
Forty years after the Macoun Club selected it, our Study Area now turns out to be the best preserved part of Stony Swamp, where natural values have been least disturbed by human activities. There are hiking and biking trails, but also large blocks of forest and swamp where people seldom penetrate. The wetlands appear to be the least disturbed of all, even by invasive plants.
On land, however, the earthworm invasion has swept across the entire square mile so effectively that there is no place where we can still see it happening. Macoun Club leader Rob Lee explained how he is setting up a study plot out in the distant countryside where he can plot the worms’ advance, and their effect on the creatures of the forest floor. What will survive? He had photographs of the spiders, mites, springtails and ground-beetles he has collected from a wrom-free forest near his home. He said, however, that he had learned most of his methods and developed his plans in the Study Area.
June 9, 2013: Sand dunes in the city of Ottawa?
Shifting sand dunes must have seemed like a most unproductive landform to previous generations, and in the 1920s people began to “reforest” a band of dunes more than a mile long in what is now Ottawa’s west end. Only a tiny remnant of the original sand surface has survived — just enough for a few sand-dependent insect species to persist. Now a group of scientists and volunteers has started to reopen the dunes to give these rare and unusual species a future here.
Entomologists Henri Goulet and Pete Dang gave us a tour of the restored dune area and the surrounding man-made woods. Henri challenged our members to catch the wary Tiger Beetles inhabiting the open sandy spaces, and they soon had some in hand.
June 15, 2013: A water day after all
The day was cool enough that lunch fires didn’t seem out of place — we cooked hot dogs and browned marshmallows by one of our favourite beaver ponds. Only two Macouners slipped into the water by mistake, when they tried too hard to reach some Sundew plants on a floating log.
As we set out again with hours ahead of us, however, it suddenly began to feel like a warm day, so we headed for Indian Creek to cool off. After recent rains, a lot of water was moving through the system, but we know a safe backwater where there was room for all.
June 22, 2013: Wrapping up the year
Our program runs more or less on the school year, and today we held our annual party for the whole group. We showed our favourite outdoors movie, and leader Annie Bélair presented a series of tough photographic challenges — a few feathers on a bird, or bumps on an amphibian, and challenged the kids to identify the animal with no more clues than that.
We also presented our awards and distributed freshly printed copies of our annual publication, The Little Bear.
Created on July 17, 2013, by R.E. Lee, with advice on coding from Chris Burns. All photos were taken by Macoun Club participants. Coding revised again in June 2016.