Welcome to the Macoun Field Club!
We’re well into our autumn 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
Nov. 17: Field trip (call Diane at 226-3306 anytime Thursday to find out details and register)
Nov. 24: Indonesia, home of Komodo Dragons, with Roy John
Dec. 1: Field trip
Dec. 8: Where does water go when it sinks into the ground, with Sam Morton
Dec. 15: Field trip
What are meetings and field trips like?
Here’s what we’ve just done,
followed by a sample of what we did last year.
November 10, 2018: Exploring old collections
For 70 years, people have been donating their collections of natural objects to the Macoun Club, and today, after an introduction by Morgan, we opened six boxes of seashells and seashore life that have been sealed up for a dozen years.
Inside were hundreds and hundreds of mollusk shells – univalves and bivalves of varied sizes – and a few dried starfishes, corals, and a seahorse. We got out a microscope for closer examination. We recognized oysters and cowries and scallops; other shells we looked up in our field guides.
A very few specimens had been labeled by the collectors, such as one with a note that was dated 1955 and signed E.L.B (for the late Ed L. Bousefield, a Macoun Club leader in the early 1950s.). Some had been numbered at one time, but no catalogue has come down to us. We had a fun time, but without information on who the collector was, and where and when the specimen was acquired, we couldn’t do much more than admire the forms and colours, and learn about them in a general way.
November 3, 2018: Life in the cold, wet woods
What would we see in the cold, wet woods, with rain still falling, and winter just around the corner? For a long time all we saw was trees — Sugar Maple, Butternut, Bitternut (Hickory), Ironwood — and we named them all. Eventually, rolling logs, we saw tiny millipedes (family Julidae) and introduced earthworms (Lumbricus rubellus). No ants or salamanders, but something one can see only at this time of year — a large wasp, an overwintering queen, concealed in a hibernating cell she’d cut into the compressed debris under the log.
At long intervals we glimpsed the small birds of late autumn or winter moving about — a few Black-capped Chickadees, a Downy Woodpecker and White-breasted Nuthatch, and a Brown Creeper. Blue Jays started calling. Mostly the woods were quiet, with just the steady patter of rain on the yellow leaf litter of the forest.
All day, Rob kept scanning the treetops — the oaks and the spruces — for Porcupines, and finally, minutes before leading the group out of the woods, he spotted one. It was a very small Porcupine, just born this year. The freshly exposed, light orange inner bark of a nearby Red Oak showed what it had been feeding on, but it had moved from the big tree to a little sapling, and had nowhere to go while we crowded around.
After seeing the early departures off, the small group remaining went back for another look at this little animal, and nearby happened on two White-tailed Deer that were feeding on the last soft green vegetation to be found. Their demeanour seemed unconcerned, but their ears kept swivelling back and forth between us and passersby on a nearby trail. Finally, several dogs put them to flight.
October 27, 2018: Under the eye of the photographer
Once or twice a year Macoun Club members bring in a selection of nature photographs they have taken themselves and have the images projected on a screen for all present to appreciate. Some are fine pictures, well composed and focused; others represent well the fleeting glimpse that so often is all we get in the wild.
Julia had travelled, and showed us a Formosan Rock Monkey, endemic in Taiwan, at home in a forest there. She’d also given her attention to exotic insects – a blue-and-red dragonfly that she knew to species, and some kind of hairstreak butterfly. She had also gone to Point Pelee in southern Ontario in hopes of seeing great numbers of migrating Monarch butterflies – but found she’d just missed the spectacle. She did get pictures of some migrating raptors: an immature Bald Eagle and a small accipiter.
Jan filled our screen with pictures of European birds he’d seen in Poland: Greylag Geese, Mute and Whooper Swans, Avocets and a Curlew.
It turns out that Niccolo, who is forever turning logs and finding salamanders, has also been raising butterflies from caterpillars, and had photos of Black Swallowtails and Monarchs, documenting the stages of pupation.
October 20, 2018: Late autumn at Pakenham
In the Pakenham Hills, the leaves of the forest were mostly down and birds were few, but we found three different species of salamander under rotting logs: Eastern Newt, Blue-spotted, and Red-backed (the lead-backed form). Rob found an introduced earthworm, too. In a wooded hollow, we disturbed two Great Blue Herons that seemed to be hunting for frogs in a wet, sedgey place.
We made a lunch fire on a rocky island on a bend in Indian Creek, with the water flowing by on either side. We were out of the cold north wind, and in full sunshine when the clouds parted.
A sudden urgent croaking made us look up as a Raven powered overhead, hard on the heels of a large accipter. But they swept by so quickly that we could not agree on what species of hawk. We had a better chance to examine a late autumn dragonfly too much chilled to flee. “A Saffron-winged Meadowhawk,” suggested Gabriel. “It isn’t black,” he said, ruling out one species, “and doesn’t have yellow legs or black triangles on the abdomen,” eliminating two more. “But that’s just a wild guess,” he modestly concluded.
Oct. 13, 2018: Can Chimney Swifts do without chimneys?
Our speaker, Melanie Farquhar, came in with lots of questions for us, all relating to Chimney Swifts. There must have been a time, only a few hundred years ago, when there were not yet any chimneys, but this species has so completely switched over that natural roosting and nesting behaviour is rarely observed. Now their population has fallen 99% since the 1970s, and people wonder if the disappearance of masonry chimneys is to blame. Would they use artificial chimneys that we build for them? Melanie’s field research examined this issue, and she said that the birds use such structures in Texas, but not here at the northern edge of the Swift’s range.
Swifts are aerial insectivores, and other flying insect-eaters have declined, too. Chimney Swifts winter in South America, and it may be that habitat loss in the upper Amazon Basin is a factor, too.
Sept. 29, 2018: Did you worry about your Study Tree?
We returned to our study area, focusing attention on our Study Tree Woods. Powerful gusts of wind had torn a gash through the forest, knocking over a dozen big Sugar Maples in a row. It was disorienting at first, because the trees are our landmarks. As far as Rob could tell, no current member’s Study Tree was uprooted, and only one that was chosen back in 1992 (the “Sway-based Maple”) was badly damaged — it lost half its crown. These are among our oldest trees, about 150 years.
Continuing our apple project, begun April 21st this year and resumed on Sept. 15th (see below), we headed to a familiar abandoned orchard. The trees are arranged in rows, but seem to be wild nonetheless: their trunks are multiple and the fruit is small and sour.
Among the apple trees, Niccolo and Garrett found a small Milk Snake, a seldom-seen resident of our Study Area.
Sept. 22, 2018: In the aftermath of wild winds (and tornados nearby)
We had scheduled a members’ photo day, but there was no power in the Fletcher building — or for hundreds of thousands of Ottawa residents. Yesterday afternoon, very strong winds knocked out electrical substations and downed hydro poles; tornadoes tore through Dunrobin and parts of Gatineau. Not all members could make it to the meeting. We shared observations, examined a regional topographic map, and held elections, before finishing up with a brief exploration of the crabapple plantings on the adjacent Arboretum.
Sept. 15, 2018: Wild apples and a native EAB parasitoid
Historically, the Macoun Club’s square-mile nature-study area outside Ottawa was occupied by five or six farming families. The people and their buildings are long gone, but the old homesteads are still discernible by some of the non-native food plants, garden flowers, and fruit trees that have persisted for 60 or more years: Rhubarb, Lily-of-the-Valley – and Apple trees.
We could find only the wild descendants of orchard trees, with fruit that tended to be small (< 6 cm), hard (which preserves them from pests), and usually sour (an acquired taste). We sampled apples from half-a-dozen trees. Some were very attractive, with a red blush or red striping, but the only sweet one was a light green colour.
Along the way, we found many Green and Leopard Frogs, a couple of Garter Snakes, and (in a marsh) a Water Snake. After lunch, sounds like a toy horn drew us to a Bitternut Hickory with two large Porcupines high up in the crown; the ground below was dotted with hickory nuts. And in the midst of the wave of Ash tree death sweeping our Study Area (because of Emerald Ash Borer) we saw several tiny insects moving in and out around a Red Ash tree. They appear to be a native parasitoid (genus Atanycolus).
Sept. 8, 2018: Start-up meeting
By way of getting to know each other, we asked each member, new and old, what they were most curious about and would like to learn more about this year. The answers ranged from trilobites to otters. We aim to pursue some of these subjects in the course of the year.
Rob brought out a box of bones and said it had been donated with no more identification than “Tortue sp.” (some kind of turtle). Only one member was interested in having the bits and pieces until Rob revealed that the note also included the location, right down to latitude and longitude, as well as the names of lakes and rivers where the specimens were found. Equally important, this label gave the name of the collector and the date. Rob said that with these three pieces of data — place, date, and collector’s name — this specimen would be acceptable in any museum of natural history. Now another boy wanted it. As for the species, that will have to be worked out by comparison with other specimens in a reference collection. We had a Snapping Turtle skeleton right at hand, and ruled that one out, at least.
June 16, 2018: Afternoon at the waterfall
For the last field trip of the Macoun Club year, we settled into a familiar, relaxing place at Pakenham – some of us right in, into the water. It was a hot day. While the boys chased frogs up and down the creek, Rachel stepped into the pool above the falls and offered the dancing Ebony Jeweling damselflies a finger to perch upon. One of them claimed her, and returned again and again.
Meanwhile, the rest of us were waving off a steady stream of Deer Flies, and soon Garrett returned to have a Deer Tick removed from his skin. (On the way out, Rachel caught another one by dragging her net through the trailside vegetation.)
Immersed in nature for hours and hours, we enjoyed an interval entirely away from the civilized world, no sight or sound of machinery or their marks on water, landscape, or sky.
June 9, 2018: Fish, from beginning to end
Robbie Stewart, former Macoun Club member and our favourite paleontologist, has come in again this year, this time to present an overview of the evolution of fishes through time, beginning with the first armour-plated Placoderms. “Why do they have so much hard, bony protection?” he asked. ‘Because there were powerful predators around,’ our group answered. “And why didn’t later fish need such armour?” ‘Because fish got faster, and could outswim their predators.’
He illustrated his talk with pictures that always showed a modern human for scale, but Macouners already knew that the fish of ancient seas had been gigantic. Yet one of the biggest, he said, the one shown here with the gaping mouth, was a filter feeder. He pointed out that it was the next one down that was the predator, with massive jaws and impressive teeth. (The most common of these fish was a little bottom feeder.)
And so it went, through time, with fish getting faster and lighter of body. Eventually, however, slow fishes with stout, bony pectoral fins appeared again in protected environments – shallow swamps full of sunken logs to crawl over. These fish became the most successful of all – although few have persisted in their original form. “What do you think I mean, then, when I say that they are the most successful?” After a thoughtful pause, a voice from among the kids spoke up: ‘Because they evolved to become us.’ “Right you are;” said Robby, and he showed a series of skeletal diagrams that traced the evolution of the fishy fin bones into an amphibian leg, a reptile’s, and ultimately a primate forearm. With great enthusiasm, he concluded: “We’re all fishes.”
Apr. 21, 2018: A study on apples
Macouners have studied many things in their Nature Study Area, but never the apple trees that occur there and their fruit. Apple trees are not native to the Americas, but have become widely distributed across the countryside because in pioneer times, almost every farm family had its own orchard. Five such orchards still existed within the Study Area in the 1970s, but most became overrun with plantations of pines and spruces. Today, Rob Lee proposed a new project in which we will rediscover where the trees are by their blossoming in May, and return in September to document the diversity of apple types.
To make a start at documentation, several of the leaders brought in apple varieties that are popular in local grocery stores. Rob recounted the origins of each – McIntosh, Granny Smith, Honey Crisp, and Pink Lady – and then we sampled them, making notes as we went. We learned that even a “sweet” apple will taste sour if it’s unripe.
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.