Welcome to the Macoun Field Club!
The Macoun Club has started up again, after 6 months without any Club activities. We do not expect to resume indoor meetings this autumn, but have launched a program of field trips in natural areas. The schedule will be reduced from what it was in pre-COVID times, but will still be fairly regular.
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 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, 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.” By summer’s end, 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 are 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 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[at] ofnc.ca. The Macoun Club is sponsored and supported by the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club (OFNC); there are no fees.
Schedule of Activities
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!)
Oct. 31: Field trip (camping trip) for older members. Contact Rob for information.
Nov. 7: Field trip for younger members. Call Rob at 623-8123 for information on Thursday
Nov. 14: To be announced
Nov. 21: Field trip for older members
What are we doing this year?
It’ll be field trips only, as far as we can see.
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 the 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.
During the COVID-19 shutdown, Macoun Club members and Macoun Club leaders sometimes got together on their own from March through August. Here’s what they did.