Welcome to the Macoun Field Club!
Schedule in brief (more below)
Jan. 9: Field trip. CANCELLED, owing to the upcoming tightening of public-health restrictions
The rest of January, into February: No field trips, owing to the convoluted public-health guidance put out by the Ontario government. We hope Macoun Club families do get out on their own, as the outdoors is safe and outdoor exercise — specifically activities that include cross-country skiing and skating — is explicitly exempted from the Stay-At-Home order as “essential.” And the National Capital Commission openly encourages people to get out on Greenbelt trails and the Rideau Canal Skateway.
The limitation on Macoun Club leaders is that total group size is limited to five, and “guidance” is that one should exercise close to home, and only with members of one’s own household.
What we’re doing during the pandemic period
The Macoun Club started up again for the autumn sesssion, after 6 months without any Club activities. We were not able to resume indoor meetings after early March, but in September launched a program of field trips in natural areas. The schedule was reduced from what it was in pre-COVID times, but was still fairly regular. All activity is paused again now, in January.
During the spring and summer shutdown, Macoun Club leaders occasionally joined up with single families on a series of private, unofficial outings. All were confident that the children would be safe with respect to COVID-19 because these get-togethers were outdoors. The underlying principle is that, with the essentially infinite dilution of outdoor air, the chances of acquiring a sufficient viral load from a carrier during passing contact are “infinitesimally small,” to quote BC’s Provincial Health Officer, Bonnie Henry.
The leaders used the summertime opportunity to develop the COVID-appropriate protocol that is now coming into use on larger, official Macoun Club trips. One key, they found, is to practice constant awareness of an extended personal space until it becomes second nature, and to anticipate “chokepoints.” For example, instead of picking up a frog or snake, which draws people together, the animal is to be left on the ground for safely spaced viewing. If, in their excitement, this is forgotten, knots of people have to be broken up promptly, keeping close contacts brief and passing.
But not everyone has to maintain the 2-metre distance that is the standard in Canada; in Ontario “social bubbles” of up to 10 people are acceptable. We have experimented with coloured arm bands and showy pom-poms to easily signal who may be close to each other, and tried out other innovations.
We do not envision indoor meetings as long as COVID-19 is circulating in the community, but when public-health orders permit them, field trips will take place on alternate Saturdays and typically run about 5 or 6 hours. We go to wild places in Ottawa’s western Greenbelt (Stony Swamp) and Lanark County (the Pakenham Hills).
By early summer in 2020, the natural world was increasingly seen as the safe place to be; COVID-19 is transmitted “in closed spaces, in crowded places, where contact is close and continuous.” Spending time outdoors was recognized by Dr. Anthony Fauci, de facto spokesman for America’s response, as an important means of controlling the pandemic itself, along with physical distancing. The trails in our Study Area have been thronged with people. The organization Outdoor Play Canada has posted an excellent how-to guide for going out safely; the Macoun Club has endorsed it.
Families can still enquire about the Macoun Club 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.
Schedule of Activities
When permissible under public-health rules, the Macoun Club program will consist of field trips only, two per month for younger members, one per month for teenagers/high-school students. (It should be good!)
Jan. 9: Field trip. CANCELLED, owing to the imminent tightening of public-health restrictions
The rest of January, into February: No field trips, owing to the convoluted public-health guidance put out by the Ontario government. We hope Macoun Club families do get out on their own, as the outdoors is safe and outdoor exercise — specifically activities that include cross-country skiing and skating — is exempted from the Stay-At-Home order as “essential.” And the National Capital Commission openly encourages people to get out on Greenbelt trails and the Rideau Canal Skateway.
The limitation on Macoun Club leaders is that total group size is limited to five, and “guidance” is that one should exercise close to home, and only with members of one’s own household.
What are we doing this year?
It’ll be field trips only, as far as we can see.
December 21, 2020: Porcupines galore!
Snow has come and gone several times, and now lay on the ground in just a few places. Yet we need snow in order to track Porcupines to and from their dens. Despite these unfavourable conditions, we set eyes on more than a dozen of these animals, and were able to follow their trails twice. Around noon, one Porcupine had gone out and was up in a Red Pine, and another had come down from a White Pine and was found at home. All the rest were up in their feeding trees (or had taken refuge from a noisy bunch of Macouners coming through the woods).
We used our Study Area’s hiking trails to get to where we were going, and then probed out of the way places for the objects of our search. The occasional patches of snow revealed the passage in the preceding 24 hours of other mammals: Red and Gray Squirrels, Snowshoe Hare, Coyote, Fisher, and Raccoon.
Birds were seldom seen or heard: a couple of Chickadees expressing interest in lunch, a few Pine Grosbeaks (up in the treetops), and a flock of 150 Canada Geese flying north. This is just what one would expect of the local population. They had spent the night on the Ottawa River, flown south to breakfast on farms where corn was spilled in the harvesting, and were now on their way back to the river. They’ll stay in Ottawa until there is too much ice on the water and too much snow on the land. Then they’ll go south.
We finished up in the Study Tree Woods, dropping by to check on our trees. Of hers, Lillian says (in the Little Bear article she promptly wrote up): ” It’s a small Spruce tree with a height of two-and-half lengths of my hands. I was very worried someone would step on it, so I placed three big sticks around it. It is healthy and in good condition for the approaching snow.”
December 5, 2020: How do you find a Porcupine?
Last weekend we searched a well-remembered cedar woods in our Study Area and found five Porcupines in the space of an hour. Today we took a little longer, and found four more. How do we do it?
When there is snow on the ground, we look down and watch for tracks. But last week’s snow had entirely melted away. Instead, we looked up, scanning the treetops. “I never knew there were so many squirrel nests!” remarked more than one of our group of seventeen. Even a big, woody burl high up in a maple tree fooled someone. (That same burl has been fooling people for 30 years.)
Some of the smallest children, being closer to the ground, perhaps, began to notice “porcupine peanuts,” as we call them, under likely-looking conifers; then we’d move back and forth while peering up. Thus we found one in a tall White Pine, and another in the thick foliage of a White Cedar.
But the easy ones were up in leafless deciduous trees. Though perfectly safe, the one in the hickory seemed to become nervous, and backed its way down the small branch it was perched on, and up another that must have seemed sturdier.
In the course of our searching, we passed through our Study Tree Woods, and two new Study Trees were chosen. But farther on, in the wider reaches of our Study Area, Alma came upon an absolutely irresistible Study Tree. It was something of a contortionist, going up, down, and sideways. And it’s growing in a lovely spot, too, in a close-canopied cedar woods on a slope with limestone outcroppings.
November 29, 2020: Where are all the Porcupines?
In years past, say during the 1990s, there were so many Porcupines in the Macoun Club Study Area that we were assured of finding them every time we were out. Indeed, we would come across a half-dozen on a typical day. But in recent years, it seems more usual to see just one in the course of a day.
Today, therefore, we set out on a search. We kept an eye on the treetops, because that is where Porcupines feed, and on the snow underfoot, for tracks. It soon became apparent that in some deciduous forests that used to harbour Porcupines, all the big, hollow trees had fallen down and rotted away, leaving no suitable den sites. Shelter is important for Porcupines in cold weather (below -12ºC), so woods without such sites are no longer suitable habitat.
Returning to the place where a Porcupine had chewed away the bark of a small Sugar Maple, we found that the snow had forced the animal into its den, in a small culvert under the road. But there must be more!
Finally, Rob, who remembers where the Porcupines were most numerous in past decades, led into a coniferous forest. Before long, we discovered one of these animals up in a White Pine. Its tracks led farther into the woods, with three more Porcupines up in other trees. Their tracks led to a partly uprooted tree, which provides the protection from the weather.
We had a second focus, too: geology. One of our members has a school project and was keen to see the three types of rock that occur in our Study Area. On higher ground we came across a block of Ordovician limestone that had been heaved up on edge either by a moving glacier during the Ice Age, or by a falling tree that had wrapped its roots around the rock. The sedimentary layers were plain to see, chemically eroded to varying degrees, as was a large, rounded hole where the calcium carbonate had been dissolved away while the rock was still in the ground.
Downslope we found sandstone bedrock from the Cambrian period. And on top of them all sat a huge boulder of gneiss, dropped here by the glaciers that had brought it down from the north.
November 14, 2020: A sunny, silent day in the woods
Most of the birds that go south have gone; some of the northern species have arrived here. We have already seen Snow Buntings and Pine Grosbeaks — but not today. Apart from a few Chickadees and two Woodpeckers (Downy and Hairy), we neither saw nor heard any other birds. And not a squeak out of a Spring Peeper, either. It was just too cool for amphibians or crickets.
Instead, we ambled around sunny, wooded hillsides examining the distinguishing characteristics of trees. We started with Hop Hornbeam, with its shaggy, vertically peeling bark, Jack Pine, which has tightly closed, curved cones, and the birches, White and Yellow. Eventually we settled on Butternut, and thereafter pursued every specimen we could find. We encountered 15 trees, all of which had been tagged and waypointed by leaders Rob and Barbara many years before. Twelve of these 15 trees had died and fallen down, suggesting 80% mortality in the course of the past 30 years.
Thinking of trees made us think of Porcupines. We found fallen branches of hickory and oak with wilted, shriveled leaves, which Porcupines had cut down back in September for the nuts and acorns. We found young Sugar Maples that had much more recently been peeled of bark here and there; one had been peeled for 30 feet, from uppermost tip to the ground. And eventually one of these animals was spotted, high up in the tallest White Pine tree around.
November 7, 2020: Yet another wonderful autumn day!
After the leaves had fallen, after the first snow, a stretch of warm, sunny weather set in. Expecting the Greenbelt trails to be even more crowded than they were two weeks ago, we went all the way out to Lanark County to be on our own. One of our leaders, Barbara, invited us out to explore her hundred acres of forest, field, and wetland.
We split into two groups for the morning. In Barbara’s group the children took the lead once they were in the woods, ascending a little streambed and then making for a brightening in the forest — which brought them out at Barbara’s house again. A more directed march took them down to the creek, where they waited for Rob’s group.
Rob’s group, meanwhile, was crossing the 15-acre field lying south of the house, and began finding deer scrapes along its margin. These are places where a territorial buck has pawed away at the leaf litter and grass, and planted an emphatic hoof print in the bare earth.
From the corner of the field, Rob led across a wide, trackless cedar forest and Sugar Maple grove to the hill above the creek. While some ate lunch there, others poked along the marshy shore below. Two boys saw a White-tailed Deer bounding away, while a third found the empty shell of a large Snapping Turtle. Dragonflies — “meadow-hawks” — were seen.
In the afternoon, Barbara led the group across the beaver dam into the farthest reaches of her property, a rising, rolling, open hardwood forest. It was just a very pleasant place to ramble, sit down and rest, and enjoy the autumn sunshine and woodland odours.
October 31, 2020: Adventuring into rough, broken country
Older members of the Macoun Club hoisted packs and set off into the wilds of Lanark County, down the tenuous thread of the mainly single-lane California Road, and turned into the woods at an unmarked place known to the leaders, Rob and Barbara. When we sat down for lunch, we had to choose our ground carefully because rains have been frequent for months, and every bit of moss was a sponge; winter had taken its first bite, and there was ice in shady places.
But there was also sunshine, and patches of warmth. After we had set up camp and gathered firewood, Rob led along the deeply indented south shore of Willis Lake: he wanted to see the beaver dam a half-mile back that has raised the lake to within a foot of flooding the road. It was rumoured to be 10 feet high.
Our way was rich with matters interesting to naturalists: a beaver’s feeding platform, a wide patch of Trailing Arbutus, perched wetlands, frozen Chanterelles and Black Trumpet mushrooms. Whole hillsides were deeply covered with moss, and many slopes were obstructed by windthrown trees. Again and again we picked up deer trails and, after following them a little way, lost them. Rock faces rising up in the forest barred our way, and frost-broken rubble made for treacherous footing. But we broke out within sight of the great beaver dam. It might be as much as five feet high, but only one foot of the top was showing above the high water of the dam below. The California Road could be under threat from a beaver dam a mile downstream, if the beavers prove ambitious.
(A licenced trapper is already on the job. Rob and Peggy have met him. But the road still floods.)
Starting back, we broke out of the shadowy forest to stand on the granite cliffs overlooking the lake, in the full glare of the lowering sun. The marshes that surround the lake were golden, the sky and water blue, the granite grey with lichens. Two silent Ravens flew over.
We made three separate supper fires for six campers, right by the water. As night fell, we saw first the reflection of Mars in the east; then the full moon rose sharply. Coyotes burst out yipping and howling, and fell silent. The whole night was silent, except for a rising wind in the pines, and the occasional patter of shrew’s feet on the leaf litter.
Morning brought thickening cloud and eventually rain; we were out before lunchtime.
October 17, 2020: The swamp impenetrable
With a warm, sunny day and a population cooped up too long by Covid fears, the Greenbelt parking lots were overflowing with cars and our Study Area trails thronged with people. It is now widely understood that outdoor activities are just about the safest things you can do, and walking trails is one of them. Unfortunately, the Greenbelt trail system was not built to handle so many family groups, each trying to stay a safe distance away from the others.
We avoided all this by going off-trail at once, down into our favourite ash and cedar swamps. There we examined a few boulder-sized ant mounds. Shallow digging did not reveal a single ant or (their food source) root aphid. These insects had evidently burrowed deep into the interior for the winter.
The swamps were more watery than had been expected, and generally obstructed by newly grown and extensive thickets of Glossy Buckthorn, and after an hour we retreated from them. There had been interesting lichens, fungi and plants, but we climbed up to dry land for lunch. After eating, we edged northward along the swamp’s margin.
One of this zone’s special features is a deeply rotted log that has persisted from the time of the original forests. Even lying dead over soggy ground for 150 years, the base is about 90 cm in diameter. The annual rings are about millimetre-size, and if the tree grew that slowly throughout its life, it would have lived to 450 years old. The log is 82 feet (26 m) long, but it doesn’t end at the tree’s top; the top had broken off leaving the small end 60 cm in diameter. The entire, living tree, therefore, would have been about 150 feet tall, double the height of the modern forest canopy.
Eventually we landed on a dry wooded slope filled with sunshine, and settled down to enjoy the peacefulness of the place.
October 3-4, 2020: Birds in the autumn wildlands
The forests had coloured up wonderfully, making it a special pleasure to renew acquaintance with the wild places we know. When we reached a favourite lunch place, clamouring flocks of Canada Geese were passing over, heading south. As we finished eating, flocks of geese came over, going the other way. We knew they were from different populations (Arctic geese going south for the winter, local geese going north for the afternoon) but joked that they’d been turned back at the US border.
Thirty crossbills swept by in a chittering group, and smaller flocks of blackbirds crossed over the pond. We heard both Red-winged and Rusty Blackbirds singing. There is something about this time in autumn that brings a resurgence of song. A Blue-headed Vireo sang a phrase or two, Chipping and Swamp Sparrows sang a few times, and in the morning a Song Sparrow sang for hours. We heard a Ruffed Grouse drumming, too.
Our plan was for “solo camping under supervision.” Upon reaching an old, familiar shoreline, we spread out into half-a-dozen private sites, each member or family group making its own cooking fire. As dusk came on, the wild, rattling calls of Sandhill Cranes rang out; a pair crossed the southern sky, wings lifting and falling in ponderous beat.
Great Horned Owls called to each other in the small hours of the morning, and at dawn flocks of Ring-necked Ducks swept by, wings whistling. After a few light showers, a Raven known to Rob and Peggy by its peculiar features flew by. They know it from years of acquaintance on its home range, 15 km to the west, and it seemed to know them, calmly flying directly overhead in this time of peril for wild birds — hunting season.
And there had been shooting off in the distance, most of it target shooting, some perhaps someone hunting for grouse. At dusk and dawn there were gunshots far off in the south and northwest. In mid-morning a lone Canada Goose splashed down, calling and calling; along the shore we found another goose lying dead in the water. It had been there a while, and we wondered it they’d been a pair.
September 26, 2020: “This is my paradise”
This must have been Indian summer, following a frosty week, with temperatures of 25º and 26º C. Asters and late Goldenrods were blooming in open places, and Herb Robert in the forest. A passing Monarch glided back and forth just overhead several times, then beat its wings and went up over the forest canopy, heading south. Rambling off-trail, we found crowds of brown puffballs and clusters of small, pink globes — Wolf’s Milk Slime — on rotting logs.
Everyone was finding Garter Snakes, several of them being young-of-the-year, just five inches (13 cm) long. We graduated from catching everything in sight to following these animals as they went about their business. The last one surprised Alma by disappearing down a tiny hole right in front of her.
We heard Spring Peepers and Eastern Gray Tree Frogs calling from within the forest, and around the “Woodland Pond” (Pond IX) netted and released Leopard and Wood Frogs. Under a chunk of rotting wood, we found an Eastern Newt. Mostly, under logs, we found large numbers of invasive earthworms (Aporrectodea turgida), which destroys humus and duff. The forest floor had been stripped of leaf litter by another species, Lumbricus terrestris.
In our Study Tree Woods, new members Aliya and Alma each chose a mature Sugar Maple for their own. Alma’s has a den cavity high up, originally made by a Pileated Woodpecker but apparently used by other animals. Zahra checked her Silver Maple and found a Gypsy Moth egg mass on the trunk, and a growth of Bearded Tooth fungus inside the central cavity (her father had to lift her and her little brother up to see).
As the afternoon grew very warm, we abandoned our more ambitious plans and loafed about the woodland fringe of Pond IX, counting frogs or dozing in the sunshine, as suited each one of us. Alma voiced her feelings: “This is my paradise.”
But even in paradise . . . there were mosquitoes, enough to be a nuisance at times. Rob, who captured several to identify at home, reports at least three species: Aedes vexans (this includes the many really tiny individuals), Aedes trivitattus, and one that got away but raised an itchy bump on his normally immune skin.
September 19, 2020: And a perfect day at Pakenham
Today was for the older members (teenagers, high-school students), and we walked straight in to a favourite Pakenham beaver pond where we have camped before. Our group was joined — rejoined — by well-remembered former Macouner Julia Ellis, who needed some specimens for her Aquatic Ecosystem course.
While grubbing around under water Julia bumped into a melon-sized, jelly-like globe, which, she was told, was a freshwater bryozoan colony. The tiny animals are filter feeders, and their individual homes lightly pattern the surface. The colony will produce overwintering cysts, and disintegrate as the ponds start to freeze.
At lunchtime we solved the problem of social distancing at our meal-time campfire: we multiplied them, so that each family group had its own. Some families achieved distancing by taking turns at cooking.
Asters and goldenrods enlivened the trailsides, and the woods were still richly dotted with late-summer mushrooms. Garrett found himself a Painted Turtle, and Rob, a mixed flock of small birds, part of the great autumn migration. Jeremy fell asleep in the sunshine, and awoke refreshed. And Julia filled out her course requirements on a Macoun Club trip.
September 12, 2020: A perfect day to get back into the field
Under blue skies, a restless breeze, and hints of colour in the landscape, eight excited children, half of them completely new to the Macoun Field Club, headed out on a field trip to the Club’s nature-study area. It soon developed that their common interests were focused on snakes and water. Roaming across the big maple woods, we encountered 15 Garter Snakes and laid hands on 11 of them. Two were just babies, recently “born,” the new girl Alma informed us, from eggs that had hatched inside the mother snake.
We halted for lunch on a broad rock ledge overlooking a marsh, and from the watery edge the children retrieved the skeletal remains of a large Snapping Turtle. Putting the two halves of the carapace back together, Rob measured its former length as 14 inches (35.5 cm) — a big turtle, when you realize that the tail and head would each have been about 8 inches long, for a total length of about 30 inches (75 cm).
The group poked around the main stream that drains ponds from the Sarsaparilla Trail (Pond I) all the way down. They walked its edges in search of Leopard and Green Frogs at its midpoint (“the culvert”, between Ponds III and IV), waded into the marshes of Pond VI, and splashed over the watery terraces below the last beaver pond, Pond VII. Although Water Snakes were reported, none were seen for confirmation by the adults in charge, who hung back on dry land.