Members of the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club are as diverse as the taxa they study; from birders to botanists, highschool students to university professors, backyard garden admirers to conservation officers. The OFNC blog will be featuring profiles of members to showcase the incredible array of natural history enthusiasts. Whether you’ve just joined or are a lifetime member, please contact email@example.com if you’d like to share your natural history story!
From Toys to Cartoons: Once a Kid, Always a Kid
By Natalie Sopinka
OFNC members know Rob Alvo as the loon enthusiast who leads excursions and hosts monthly meetings. Rob’s natural history interests include birds, amphibians, and insects. He is also passionate about the protection of biodiversity at the community and individual species levels (see www.natureserve.org, of which Rob is a cooperator, for more information on ecosystem level conservation). I met with Rob to find out how he entered the world of natural history.
His story starts when, as a teenager recently moved from Montréal to Greece, he found vast hills, winding trails, a pond below a waterfall… landscapes near Thessaloniki that begged to be explored. During his many walks to and from school and beyond, Rob encountered small snakes, puttering tortoises, ponds filled with tadpoles, and a variety of feathered fauna including Jackdaws (Corvus monedula), Syrian Woodpeckers (Dendrocopos syriacus), Hoopoes (Upupa epops), and Great Tits (Parus major). He also found spent bullet heads and shells left over from World War II and Greece’s civil war. Rob had a keen eye for wildlife in the area, and his aim with a pellet rifle wasn’t bad either.
It was a family of Long-eared Owls (Asio otus) nesting near Rob’s home that set the course of a life-time interest in birding. He would often watch in awe at the motionless branchers (young owls that leave the nest but reside on branches until flight is perfected) as they stared back at him. One day, in a juvenile attempt to make the bird his own, Rob decided to shoot one of the branchers and had it mounted. Then something suddenly changed. His curiosity for the natural world had evolved; he was always fascinated with birds but now acknowledged that their place was in the wild. He didn’t enjoy seeing caged birds that many people kept, such as the striking songster European Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis). Rob sold his rifle and bought a pair of binoculars, a field guide, and eventually a camera. For his remaining years in Greece, from Mytikas peak on Mount Olympus to the sacred monasteries of Mount Athos in the Halkidiki Peninsula, Rob “captured” birds by identifying and photographing them.
When Rob returned to Canada he started his undergraduate degree at Queen’s University in Kingston. Although he didn’t fare too well in histology lectures crowded with 800 students, Rob found his stride and like-minded ecologists in the field courses held at the Queen’s University Biology Station. Spending hours outside observing, identifying and studying insects, aquatic vascular plants, and birds recreated the human-nature connections he had developed in Greece. Rob went on to complete undergraduate and master’s level research on the behaviour and reproduction of Common Loons (Gavia immer).
You may have read about Rob’s research in the The Canadian Field-Naturalist. His first publication in 1981 “Marsh Nesting of Common Loons” was an unofficial introduction to the OFNC, which he later officially joined after moving to Ottawa in 1992. His current main project is a book entitled, Being a Bird in North America (www.babina.ca), which he plans to make the first in a series of books on North American animals. Each species has a story to tell, and if he can figure out what the story is, explain it to the layperson, and embellish it with a cartoon, then he will have “captured” it. What’s the Common Loon’s story? To Rob, it’s how their reproduction is affected by acid rain.
What is your fondest OFNC moment?
Spring birding at Presqu’ile Provincial Park.
What is your most shocking natural history moment?
Visiting Colorado and Greece this year and seeing bone-dry reservoirs and lakes that are meant to provide water for farms, cities, and wildlife.
What is your favourite species?
If you could be any species which would you be?
A California Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens). I would live for a long time and be able to sit in one place in a natural setting and watch the change – accumulating historical knowledge, like one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s ents.
What is your favourite natural history medium?
Where in the world would you want to observe?
Where is your favourite place in the Ottawa region to observe?
The Nature Conservancy of Canada’s Kenauk Nature property near Montebello, Québec.
What do you always have on hand when you observe?