Welcome to the Macoun Field Club!
May 21: Long weekend — no field trip
May 28: Field trip (call Rob at 613-623-8123 for details, and to register)
June 4: Field trip
When you see a trip date proposed here that you’d like to go on, contact Rob at 623-8123 or e-mail him at email@example.com. Details are provided only when registering for a trip.
You can also contact Rob anytime to discuss the scope and meaning of the covid regulations with respect to getting outdoors.
What we’ve been doing during the pandemic period
Since early summer in 2020, the natural world has been recognized 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 organization Outdoor Play Canada has posted an excellent how-to guide for going out safely; the Macoun Club has endorsed it.
The underlying principle of outdoor safety 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. (Indoors, by contrast, respiratory droplets and aerosols accumulate and become concentrated.)
Still, while Covid-19 is still circulating, we want parents and children to practice constant awareness of an extended personal space until it becomes second nature, and to anticipate “chokepoints.” For example, when a frog or snake is discovered and draws people together, it is time to put on our masks.
Families can 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.
May 14, 2022: Some like it hot, and we were not
When the rest of the world is baking in record high temperatures (32ºC), Macoun Club field trips gravitate toward water. In fact, today we just kept walking from dry land into deep vernal pools in our Study Area.
These ponds fill with spring runoff and later dry up as summer comes on; they are not connected with other, more permanent bodies of water. They are the special breeding habitat of our most common amphibians because there are no fish in these temporary water bodies to eat the eggs of frogs and salamanders.
Vernal pools are also safe for wading because there are no blood-sucking leeches. (But there can be Snapping Turtles — we saw a huge one basking beneath the surface.)
And so the Macoun Club — its leaders and members, and even parents — waded right in. Most of the time masses of dead grass obscured the bottom, but the water was clear and crowds of growing tadpoles wiggled into hiding.
Toads were trilling, and were easy catches even for beginners. The early breeders like Spring Peepers and Wood Frogs had already come and gone, and crowds of their tadpoles wiggled into hiding as we forged ahead. And the next species, Eastern Gray Tree Frogs, were already gathering in the shrubs and trees overhanging the water, assembling in their natural habitat before descending to the water in a week or two. We saw dozens.
Mosquitoes, which appeared only a few days ago, were biting, and we had to let them because you can’t wear insect repellant while wading — it’s toxic to aquatic life. So we were itchy, but never felt the heat.
May 7, 2022: Macouners at Brewer Park Pond
Gathering jointly with the OFNC’s Hume Douglas and Holly Bickerton, the Macoun Club informally hosted a nature event for the city’s children. People walked and biked and drove to Brewer Park Pond to let their kids search for frogs and turtles with other children their own age. In two short hours, Holly’s aquaria and Hume’s flat trays received temporary contributions of reptiles, amphibians, aquatic insects, and molluscs.
The aquaria rapidly filled with Green Frogs, Bull Frogs, Leopard Frogs, and a few big tadpoles that had overwintered. Our more aquatic Macoun members waded out and herded Painted Turtles, big and small, into the shallows where they could be caught and admired. The multitude of dip nets also retrieved Water Boatmen, and a single Damselfly larva.
Right off the bat a Macoun-Club parent caught a Garter Snake and left it with Rob, where it basked in his hands for hours. Snakes are old friends to Macoun Club members, but many small city children had never seen one before and edged closer to hesitantly touch the tip of the tail, then stroke its scaly skin, and worked up in stages to hold it in their own hands. One older boy couldn’t believe his eyes: “Is that a snake?” At times it retreated into Rob’s pocket, or disappeared up his sleeve, emerging between his shirt buttons.
Meanwhile, Tree Swallows darted about, a Double-crested Cormorant dove for fish, and Canada Geese out on the Rideau River beyond the pond raised a clamour.
In the end, all the animals were returned to their homes.
April 30, 2022: The quiet advance of a protracted spring
In an unusual move, we set out into our Study Area at the time in the afternoon when we’d usually be leaving (3:30 p.m.), and stayed until sunset (8:30 p.m.). In mid-April the choruses of frogs run right through the day, but this far into the breeding season, they don’t start up until late evening. We were there to hear them.
On the way to the ponds, we poked around in various hardwood forests, looking under logs and rocks and finding big Dew Worms, unusually vigorous millipedes (they thrashed about when held), and yellow ants (genus Lasius) still herding their aphids. There was even on salamander, a Red Eft. Another bright red object was in plain sight: a Red Oak seedling that had split its shell and was sending its root underground. It was in plain sight because invasive earthworms have stripped away the leaf litter.
In the “Woodland Pond” beside our Study Tree Woods, Macouners netted lots of Fairy Shrimps and mosquito larvae. Only one wriggler had contracted into a comma shape — a pupa — which could emerge as an adult within days. (The mosquitos that were biting us were genus Anopheles, which had overwintered in cracks in tree bark or rotting wood.)
About 8 p.m., Spring Peepers began to call in the usual ponds, almost drowning out the few Chorus Frogs that are still active.
April 23, 2022:
On a cloudy day drifting toward rain, we headed into the Pakenham Hills for lunch by a favourite beaver pond. Along the way, log-rolling turned up the day’s only salamander: a Red-backed. It was near a bend in the trail where we always find them.
Though Alder and Beaked Hazel flowers were producing pollen, the heavy buds of Round-lobed Hepatica were just starting to break, the first petals separating out.
Making our way to our trapper-friend’s cabin, we pawed through a rich assortment of bones — leg bones and ribs, vertebrae and skulls. Rob identified Beaver, Raccoon, Fisher and Coyote skulls.
Yet these were mostly old bones; Gerry says he hasn’t trapped around his cabin for two years. Pandemic restrictions closed the great fur auctions. China and Russia are major markets, and what with political tensions and even outright war, prices fell so low it wasn’t worthwhile. He wonders if the fur industry will survive.
April 9, 2022: Where did all the people go?
On our last visit to the Macoun Club Nature-Study-Area (Feb. 21st) we noted that the established trails were seeing heavy use from people walking and trail-skiing, and even jogging through the snow; the NCC parking lot to the northwest was filled to overflowing. Now the snow is gone, but today we saw only three people besides ourselves, and if an organized group of about 15 hadn’t gathered in that parking lot, it would have been almost empty of cars.
The difference seems to be that the Ontario government has eased Covid restrictions so much that people are able to do most of the other things that had been denied them: being in the outdoors is no longer the only permissible activity.
Not so the Macoun Club. We poked along, rolling logs and listening for birds and frogs — the first frogs of the year. In our Pond 8 Wood Frogs were occasionally breaking into chuckling chorus, despite the surface being more than half-covered with remnant ice. And in Pond 11, Spring Peepers were shrilling away. We didn’t find any salamanders under logs, and guessed that they, too, were down in the breeding ponds. Using a small container to scoop up water, we saw early mosquito wrigglers, red water mites, and copepods. Canada Geese and Wood Ducks were there, too.
Most logs harboured invasive earthworms — 14 under one short section, and a fresh hatch of a dozen under another (these were tiny, unpigmented worms that were just ingesting their first meals of earth, which we could see through their transparent skins). A colony of pale yellow Lasius ants had brought their herds of root aphids up from winter storage, to warm up when the sun should warm the stony roof over their heads. Not today, but soon.
April 2, 2022: The sap was still running!
The syrup we sampled last week had been poured off for final processing, and the pan refilled with fresh sap. Rob, anxious to stay on top of the flow, invited the Macoun Club back to where he was at work for a second weekend. The sap was running this time, and when they saw that the buckets on the trees were beginning to overflow, Macouners ran around collecting from each tree and collectively filled a 75-litre barrel.
We made a lunch fire, and afterward used it to boil a pot of syrup down until it was thick enough for taffy, ladled it out onto a tray of snow. Those with experience also brought their own cups and sampled the boiling syrup at that halfway stage.
About half the snow cover had melted, and in one of those places where it had been gone for a week or so someone’s eye was drawn by a spot of vivid red: a very early Scarlet Cup fungus.
When we got back to Rob’s house, a small orange-and-black mottled butterfly flew up from his laneway. He recognized it as one of the Commas that are common in early spring.
March 27, 2022: Drinking syrup like cider
Rob has tapped a new set of Sugar Maples at his place this year, and is in the midst of a prolonged season. Although the particular day chosen for a field trip (Sunday) seemed unlikely — grey and windy and cold (-5ºC), with the sap flow frozen into immobility — we had the advantage of a boiling pan full of half-formed syrup ready to be reheated. Rob built a new fire under it and by feeding it constantly got it boiling.
Those who dipped their cups into the hot, coloured liquid were surprised: it wasn’t like drinking syrup, but more like cider or tea. Except that it tasted really good.
We also made a lunch fire close by, and only when everyone had eaten their fill did Rob set a pot of last year’s syrup over the fire, to be boiled down by half again. We suspended this pot over the fire on a forked stick, so it could be swung aside to cool every time it frothed up and threatened to boil over. It seemed to take a long time, but after many premature tests, the hot syrup, poured from a spoon, congealed on a tray of granular snow: taffy. And as Rob spooned it out, anyone could snag a bit of the sticky stuff with a twig and pop it in their mouth. And pretty soon, the whole pot of syrup was gone.
Finally, we took a quick walking tour of the woods, finding tracks of Deer and Squirrels. A Raven came by and circled several times, no doubt curious, and then a Goshawk swept over the treetops. Up on a long ridge the week’s sunshine had melted away the snow, and here a dozen Robins were engaged in flipping the compacted leaf litter over, looking for insects to eat. Their tracks, in the dusting of snow over the 6-inch deep crust, were the day’s only fresh tracks.
March 5, 2022: Probing the untracked forest
Some of us wore snowshoes, and some cross-country skis, but we all went to the same places in the forests surrounding Rob’s home in Lanark County. We made a lunch fire in a new place, and practiced fire-lighting skills. We found Fisher tracks and followed them, noting where the animal had abruptly changed direction when, from 30 feet (10 m) it scented the egg shells Rob had tossed out with his compost. It must have been disappointed to find them empty.
February 21, 2022: People and wildlife in our Nature Study Area
What’s been happening in our Study Area this winter? We snowshoed in to see. (The snowpack is little more than a foot deep.)
In the Area and on the western approaches to it, we frequently encountered the tracks of people. The established trails were in heavy use, as they have been during previous periods of covid pandemic restrictions. (As he drove by, Rob noted that the parking lot on Eagleson Road for the Old Quarry Trail, which connects with our trails, was filled almost to overflowing with visitors’ cars.) People were walking and trail skiing, and the ski tracks were being respected. But new paths have been pushed into many previously remote parts of the Greenbelt, and snowshoe tracks showed that people are still exploring in all directions.
We ourselves pushed into wet tangles of brush (mainly Glossy Buckthorn) and found that these difficult places were like refuges for wildlife. We saw the usual array of animal tracks — squirrels, Deer, Snowshoe Hares, Fisher. A Ruffed Grouse’s subnivean roost was unusual only in that this species has disappeared from the Area in recent years.
A Red Squirrel grew upset and scolded when we stopped under an isolated grove of Eastern White Cedars on a rock outcrop for lunch, but later a woman walking a dog pointed out a very small Porcupine, less than a year old, up in the top of an American Elm tree just 30 feet from a major trail. It seemed entirely unconcerned by the passage of so many skiers and joggers. It was busily engaged in cutting off thin twigs one after another with a series of slicing bites, holding each in turn with both front paws, and nipping off all the buds for food. It dropped each twig, stripped, before reaching out for another..
In among our Study Trees, we watched two noisy Pileated Woodpeckers on the top of tall, standing stubs 50 or 60 yards from each other. The only Study Tree we paid special attention to was Lemuel’s Silver Maple. It is shorter than most others around it, and while their crowns were beaded with swelling flower buds, Lemuel’s wasn’t. He chose this tree only last October 30th. This will be the first spring he has observed it — we’ll see if Rob is right that it won’t flower.
January 29, 2022: Snowshoeing
This was the last day of Ontario’s 10-person cap on “outdoor gatherings” and we had 9 people out. It had been cold overnight (-31ºC) but warmed up to about -15º.
With some on cross-country skis and some on snowshoes, we entered the woods directly from Rob’s place. We followed a trail he had already laid out to a sheltered pocket of sunshine in the shady forest — a vernal pond that won’t fill with meltwater until April. In his old snowshoe tracks, fresh two-toed footprints showed that a White-tailed Deer had found it easier walking on the packed snow.
We made a lunch fire with dead cedar branches, and were kept so busy feeding it that we couldn’t stop to eat until some ash (hardwood) was added to steady the blaze. Sausages and grilled-cheese sandwiches were followed by marshmallows on sticks.
Moving on, we flushed a Ruffed Grouse from the trees over our heads. Later, we saw a Hairy Woodpecker. But the woods are rather empty this year, with few mammal tracks, not even squirrels.
Snowshoeing can be hard work, but our little excursion (just 4 hours) in no way exhausted the kids’ energies. They exaggerated every stumble to tumble laughing in the snow, and when the trip was over, continued to play while the adults waited to get them into the cars and head home.
January 22, 2022: Looking for Porcupines
On yet another cold day following a night of deep cold, this time without the welcome warmth of winter sunshine, we made a big deal of building a substantial lunch fire only a short distance into the woods across from Rob’s house. Yet we were well out of sight of any sign of civilization throughout the trip.
Pleasant though it is to loaf around a fire and roast marshmallows, Rob led off again, bringing the group to an open depression in the forested hills — a vernal pond that was recognized from last year. A big bird flashed by — long pointed wings and light belly. Was it a Gyrfalcon?
Taking off in the lead once more, he pressed on through trackless woods until he recognized another such pond. From its contours, he found his way to a remembered hollow log. Old, snowed-in tracks to an opening showed it to be in use again as a Porcupine den. Sniffing at the entrance yielded an “animal” smell: the den was occupied.
Not far away was a standing tree that had been used as a den last year. As we approached, those in the lead could hear a kind of moaning from within — another occupied den. When we got around to the side with the den opening, it was plain that this Porcupine had been literally eating his own home. Too much of this kind of thing will kill the tree.
Other dens, remembered from last year, were found to be empty.
We hadn’t seen any Porcupines, but we did hear and smell them.
January 15, 2022: Last chance for skating in the wild
Sheltered beaver ponds, we found last week, have good ice that is badly crusted over with the snow that settles in the woods. Seeking better ice, we tried White Lake itself, where strong winds had swept the snow into drifts, leaving patches of bare ice in between. More had fallen, but it was just fluff, and we shoveled ourselves a clear patch. But only in a sheltered, south-facing bay. The temperature was about -20ºC, and when we went out around the point, the ice was so cutting it took much of the fun out of the afternoon.
We made our lunch fire right on the ice, and kept it going all the time we were skating and sliding around, too.
Only a wandering domestic dog had left tracks out on the snow-covered ice, but in the woods Red Squirrels, Deer, Voles, and a Fisher had left their marks.
December 12, 2021: Old tracks and a butterfly
Since our last trip, six inches (15 cm) of snow fell, and then almost melted away. The soggy snow that was left has turned crusty; it holds footprints made days ago. Upon entering our Study Area, we saw a lot of old Deer tracks turned to ice, and the tracks of two Fishers of different sizes, widely separated from each other. Later we saw places where voles had plowed their way through the thin snow, sometimes being able to tunnel.
We ate lunch in the same place as on October 23rd, but neither of the animals seen there on that date were on view. It could be that they were snug in their dens in the hollow trees there, or perhaps they were just keeping safely out of sight: the smaller Fisher had passed beneath them.
In fact, the only mammal we actually sighted was a Red Squirrel.
Max found a tiny spider descending from Rob’s hat on a silk thread. And Rob picked up a plastic flowerpot that had been discarded, thinking to remove this piece of trash. But when he tipped out the dead leaves lying loosely inside, the last bit of debris flashed its yellow-tipped wings at him. It was a hibernating Mourning Cloak butterfly. (Rob put everything back the way it had been.)
Twice we passed under Bitternut Hickory trees laden with knobby wooden growths that we used to call “crown gall.” But recent studies suggest that they are something else, caused by a fungus rather than a bacterium. Rob pulled down a sapling so that the children could examine the growths that had already formed on the twigs; they were fist-sized. The little tree whipped back up in the air when released.
We also rescued an Ironwood sapling that had been bent low by a dead Ash tree falling on it. But it had been pressed down so long we had to struggle to raise it to an angle close to vertical.
December 4, 2021: Fresh tracks, meadow voles, and skaters
There had been no snow around at daybreak, but in mid-morning parents had to drive through near-whiteout conditions to get their kids to the field trip before noon. The snow stopped falling just before their arrival, and indeed, the sky lightened steadily.
We walked a long way down the little-used California Road, near Rob’s home, seeing in the fresh snow the same few kinds of animal tracks over and over, and therefore getting to know them well: Grey Squirrel, Red Squirrel (narrower than those of the Greys), and Red Fox (dainty line of footprints). A small Wolf Spider discovered on the snow hunched down and drew all its legs together each time we disturbed it, but relaxed after a few seconds. We let it go in the leaf litter under the two inches of snow.
When we got to the beaver pond that was our destination, the tracks of a mouse (probably Deer Mouse) showed how it had hopped back and forth along the shoreline. We started a lunch fire at once and did our cooking over the embers and flames. Right under the logs we meant to sit on, two Meadow Voles dashed from cover to cover, and the boys sought them hard and long. They disappeared, they came back; one broke from cover at a run and was chased over the snow until it dove under the surface and tunneled to safety. You would think the little creatures would have been terrorized, but by the time we got to roasting marshmallows, those voles were crouched under those same logs, munching on something. Someone poked a dry grass stem at one, and it gradually chewed up the end it had been offered.
Then Max laced up his skates and glided away. The ice that had been only 1 inch thick yesterday was 3 inches thick today, and perfectly smooth under the light snow. Others followed and on foot and on skates, we explored around the pond.
As we finished up, the sun came out and the late afternoon sky became bright blue, a wonderful way to end our day.
November 27, 2021: Sun and shadow
Here we were, almost in December, with a dusting of snow over the dead leaves and grass, and we’ve got a kid walking around barefoot! What’s going on?
It was cold, alright, around -5º C, and a stiff wind was sweeping down out of the northwest. But we had tucked our lunch fires into a sheltered bay in the side of Barbara Gaertner’s beaver meadow, and from that calm alcove watched the marsh grasses tossing vigorously just a few steps away. As lunch wound down, people began flopping down in the grass or exploring. Exploration led to an encounter with weak ice. Hence the shedding of boots and socks, and the further discovery that it was pleasant to walk about in that sunny place.
Stirring ourselves, we crossed the stream that emerges from the beaver meadow and climbed the wooded hills beyond. Upon reaching the highest point we looked out and saw — only forest falling away in all directions.
Perched between hills was a long, narrow wetland, an ash swamp hemmed in by cedars. In the deep shade there the ice was stronger, though it crackled underfoot at every step. The boldest among us slid one foot before the other, to spread their weight out, but that only got one of them to a place where he could break through and get another soaker.
It was a strangely lifeless day. There were no mushrooms, only frozen jelly fungus and dry brackets. We saw one mammal — a Porcupine hunched up into a tight ball of fur and quills far up in a Hemlock tree. A boy picked up an old deer antler, the tines having been chewed down to sharp points by rodents (you can see it in his hand, in the picture on the right). One bird — a Raven — passed over us, twice.
Where were the squirrels, the chickadees, the jays?
November 20, 2021: Crossing paths with Gerry Lee
On a chill, grey November day, we were so enjoying being out that we were late getting home, again. We were dressed for the weather.
We were in the Pakenham Hills, following old familiar trails until it was convenient to leave them. Then, we ascended a boulder-strewn slope to walk over mossy ground under the pine trees. Yellow Birch twigs, we found, had the same flavour as Wintergreen berries, which are ripe and tasty now. A number of the taller trees had blown over (in the big windstorm of 2012) and Rob, getting out his magnetic compass, demonstrated that they all point south — one of the handy natural direction indicators in this wild place.
Coming down the hill, we followed the sound of rushing water to a lunch place by the pond just out of sight of the waterfall. With wood still damp from recent rains, we got a hot little fire going right beside the swollen creek. Some roasted hot dogs and sausages; others reheated pizza and apple pie; and one pushed foil-wrapped potatoes, garlic and carrots right into the blaze for trouble-free cooking.
While we were so engaged, the landowner, Gerry, came along in his canoe and stopped to trade stories of wildlife sightings. He reported seeing two female Hooded Mergansers ducking under water for aquatic food; we had seen a Belted Kingfisher circling the pond again and again in its typical lurching flight, landing in an Elm tree briefly twice, and issuing a rattling call all the while, as if annoyed at our presence on its hunting grounds. They both will have to depart for the south if just a little more ice forms, or they won’t be able to dive for food.
Before starting back, Rob led over rough terrain and onto an island right at the waterfall. We dropped a leaf into the plunging channel above, then a small stick, and finally chucked a big, man-sized log in, to see how roughly it would be treated. Our turtle enthusiast figured it would fetch up somewhere below and be a good basking log for turtles, next summer.
November 6, 2021: The pleasant (and the unpleasant)
Since we were out last week, there have been two or three hard frosts in our Study Area — the first of the season. The cold weather seems to have knocked most of the remaining leaves out of the trees. One pleasant result of that is that sunlight streams into the forest, just when one most wants it for warmth. We sought out a sunny knoll overlooking the beaver pond known to us as “Pond II” for lunch.
Another benefit of bare trees is that Porcupines are more easily spotted overhead. We saw two.
Ponds and streams were eagerly sought, but yielded no frogs or turtles. A net dragged through “Pond IX” came up clogged with fallen leaves. We had slightly better luck looking under logs: earthworms, centipedes, and slugs. Winter Moths fluttered here and there.
We encountered few of the birds that may stay all winter, such as Black-capped Chickadees and a Hairy Woodpecker; we heard a Raven call. Canada Geese flew over, going south in the morning, and north in the afternoon.
We began finding Deer Ticks in that sunny lunch place, where there was much weedy ground cover. And as our experience grew, we became apprehensive about passing through brushy places, too. By day’s end, Rob had plucked 18 ticks off the group’s clothing — a successful measure, in that none got past our collective scrutiny to bite us later, as follow-up showed.
At home, Rob found that some of the ticks in the vial were clumped together, entangled — mating. No wonder they were so active today.
Ticks will be a concern until snow covers the ground.
October 30, 2021: Autumn rain
The end of October has come, and there has still been no widespread frost, but without sunshine we are seeing no snakes or frogs. Wet weather was forecast, so Rob set the hours for a short trip — just three hours. We started out dry enough, but light rain soon set in and didn’t let up. From earlier rains, water had pooled in low places on the trails, and footpaths were muddy.
We made checking our Study Trees a priority. Max’s tree (a mature Sugar Maple whose lichens were featured on April 23, 2020), still had a thin yellowish crown, but Ryder’s, a vigorous youngster only 20 cm in diameter, had been in that state more than two weeks earlier, and had now dropped all its leaves. Lemuel’s Silver Maple was leafless, too. Late though the season is, we found two blossoms on Herb Robert (Wild Geranium).
We saw one Porcupine, and heard just a few chirps and cries from birds (a Robin and a Blue Jay). Under logs and rocks, earthworms were the most abundant invertebrates. We also chased out a few Wolf Spiders.
With everyone getting steadily wetter, and the poorly dressed distressingly colder, we made for a sheltered place under the Cedars of a limestone escarpment for lunch. There the steady precipitation was reduced to a tolerable dripping. After that, Rob chose a return route just the right length to keep us moving (for warmth) until the moment we were picked up.
Hours later, Rob found an adult Deer Tick embedded in his skin. In follow-up, he ascertained that no one else had been bitten.
October 23, 2021: Rob risks his fingers
The season had advanced since our last visit to our Study Area (Sept. 25th). The leaves are down, and although we have not yet had any frost, so many wild creatures have withdrawn from the forest scene — flown south or found winter quarters underground — that the woods were rather open and quiet. We saw one Ruby-crowned Kinglet, one Chickadee, and two Blue Jays, plus some Common Crows. The warmth of mid-afternoon sunshine enticed two Garter Snakes to come out from their rocky hibernaculum, but none of the keen eyes in our group detected the leap of a single frog in the upland places we wandered.
What was left? Under some of the stones we lifted we found a few invertebrates. Rob encouraged a Wolf Spider to walk onto his hand, and when a Macouner tried it, the boy exclaimed, “It’s so light!” Once a Bald-faced Hornet queen was uncovered in a cozy cell she had excavated in the ground under a log, and we left her alone.
The most interesting discovery came with a close examination of the ants disturbed by ripping up a rotten stump. There were black ants stumbling around in the dirt, and red ants that were larger. Although everything was cold and slow, it appeared that these ants of obviously different species were living together in peace.
Some of us have witnessed the “slave raids” of red ants on black ants in summertime, when they bring back the others’ larvae and raise them as their own. This is the result: a colony of red ants (probably in the Formica sanguinea subgroup) being served by workers of another particular member of the genus.
One of the red ants worked up enough animation to defend the nest by biting Rob’s fingertip. It then curled its abdomen under its body in the way that a Carpenter Ant would when squirting formic acid into a wound. But Rob’s fingers are so tough that he didn’t feel a thing. (Maybe the ant was just too cold to exert much force.)
When we finished eating lunch, someone finally looked up and noticed a Porcupine in a tall, bare Bitternut Hickory. A few steps away a small Raccoon was noticed perching on a big maple stub. They must have had an anxious hour, stranded in their trees by the 16 people below.
October 17, 2021: Change of weather, change of season
Just after a prolonged warm spell (about 9ºC above normal) we headed into the Pakenham Hills — Mary Stuart’s old property, now Gerry Lee’s — where the Macoun Club has been roaming for 54 years. Following a day of rain, the ground was wet underfoot and, at lunch, our firewood wet. Yet it was the right sort of a day for salamanders (we found a Red-backed). Riding the cold front that had come in overnight, flocks of Brant passed overhead in wide, overlapping U-shaped lines, muttering continuously as they went.
At this point, most deciduous trees have shed their foliage; still green were all the oaks, which had put out a second set of leaves after being stripped by Gypsy Moths in early summer. Mushrooms had popped up all over, ranging from edible Sulfur Shelf (“Chicken-of-the-Tree) on oak trunks to Destroying Angels (Amanita virosa) on the ground.
Crossing a mud-crested beaver dam (the same now as 50 years ago) we pushed on to the Upper Pond for lunch, and built a small fire out on a familiar rocky point. An early flock of Ring-necked Ducks rushed into the air; later a small group of 15 howled in on stiff-set wings. A bunch of Canada Geese rose in a clamour and did not come back.
With the time we had left, Rob launched our canoe and took new members on a tour of the pond, pointing out signs of higher and lower water levels in the past. The pond was dotted with white feathers from Trumpeter Swans, which have settled into the broader region in recent years.
Renewed rains followed us out of the woods.
Sept. 25, 2021: The swelling roar of a thousand pairs of wings
Our Study Area is a big place! Setting out from the same starting point as on the last two trips, we lit out in a third direction, yet never crossed our previous routes in the five hours we were out. There were far fewer snakes than last time, but in compensation one of the two seen was a young-of-the-year Water Snake. And there didn’t seem to be any frogs in these new places.
The woods were rather quiet at first. Few birds were in evidence until we stopped to listen to a far-off chatter and rushing sound — the raucous squeaks and general noise of a flock of birds advancing toward us through the woods. In places there, the ground was carpeted with recently fallen Ironwood seeds. Perhaps this is what they were after. Presently, dozens and dozens of Grackles, and then dozens more dropped into sight in the farther reaches of the forest. Suddenly, startled, hundreds roared up into the trees. As the flock moved on, Rob estimated that there were well over a thousand.
With a crew much given to rolling rocks and logs, we brought some interesting finds to light. The highlight of the day was a pair of Four-toed Salamanders. Only one had ever been found in our Study Area (and it was discovered in the same place in 2018). This species can shed its tail when it feels threatened, leaving it twitching to distract a predator (the first one we saw, in2018, did this).
After the farthest point we reached, we descended into the largely swamp formerly characterized by Black Ash trees. The Emerald Ash Borer has opened up the canopy, while dense Glossy Buckthorn thickets have sprung up to replace them. Rob led to four of the large earthen ant mounds we have been studying for 14 years. These mounds still had live colonies, but the ants in one of them were infested with large red parasitic mites that we have never seen before.
Sept. 18, 2021: What could be under that rock?
With many hands to employ, our group lifted a lot of rocks and rolled many logs. Most of the time, there was nothing to see, or only mysterious smudges and lumps that elicited the unanswerable question, “What the heck is that?”
Often enough to be encouraging, though, were suddenly frantic ant colonies (usually small yellow ants of the genus Lasius), or large beetles with a metallic, purple luster (exotic ground-beetles, Carabus nemoralis). We uncovered invasive earthworms of two different species; they were scarce, reflecting the summer’s dryness.
Finally, just when we were in the most remote part of our Study Area, and it was time to turn back, a Blue-spotted Salamander was discovered. Another rock was lifted, revealing an Eastern Newt. Before the rock could be put back, a second newt was noticed. Raising one more flat slab of sandstone brought to light another three Eastern Newts!
An hour later and half-a-kilometer away, it was snakes we found — all Garters.
While so many eyes were turned down, some were turned up, which brought to attention a Porcupine high up in a White Birch. Why a birch, when all around are nut-laden hickories and oaks? A cut branch the animal had dropped suggested why: the twigs were laden with fat green seed-catkins, which are presumably nutritious.
Sept. 11, 2021: Frogs and snakes by the dozen
We spent our time in the Study Tree Woods and the adjacent vernal pond’s floodplain, away from the hikers and joggers, cyclists and dog-owners so frequent on the trails. In fact, we didn’t see anyone else at all for hours.
In the upland maple woods where most of our Study Trees have been chosen, Wood Frogs were the commonest capture. They tended to be small, but not so small as the Spring Peeper that eventually came to attention. Meanwhile, a few Tree Frogs trilled from their chosen trees.
Rivaling the frogs in frequency were little Garter Snakes, young of the year, mostly about six inches long.
In recent years, a dense band of Glossy Buckthorn has grown up to separate the dry hardwood forest from the soft maples that flood every spring. This floodplain is one of the best preserved habitats in our Study Area. So is the Woodland Pond, as some of us call it. The waters of spring had long since evaporated, but in the thick sedge meadow were big Leopard Frogs — and big Garter Snakes.
One member chose an unusually contorted Silver Maple for his Study Tree. It has a down-reaching branch that lets him step up into it, like a rider stepping into the stirrup.
From out in the sedges one Macouner came running back to report a Porcupine. It scuttled up the nearest Red Maple tree, and looked down from a place of security.
What we did last year
July 10, 2021: Loon meets balloon
Last week we were content to look into our favourite wild, little lake hidden in the Lanark County woods. This time, one of us took to the water on a mission of investigation.
At noon a Common Loon had slid in to a gentle landing out in the middle, and it stayed there for an hour, tacking back and forth every few seconds. It was preening, making sure its waterproof coat of feathers was well oiled and tightly arranged. From time to time it raised a shower of water with its wings.
Presently, we noticed a strange object slowly approaching the swimming bird. We couldn’t make out what it was, but the thing appeared to be man-made. At one point it disappeared, as if the Loon had pulled it under. Fearing that it was a piece of fishing gear adrift, our best swimmer was dispatched to deal with it. Samantha returned with . . . the remains of a burst balloon and yards of pink ribbon. It had fallen out of the sky.
While we were discussing this, the Loon popped up right behind us, making its own investigation. Loathe to come out of the very pleasant water, Samantha hung on to a clump of sedges and let schools of minnows nibble at the skin of her forearms.
Meanwhile, her mother went off into the woods and returned with a bag of Chanterelle mushrooms, a delicacy for the family table.
July 3, 2021: Return to the California Road
We tramped down the winding dirt road a little more quickly than we did two weeks ago, hearing this time the singing of three birds that are typical of the upland maple forests: Red-eyed Vireo, Ovenbird, and Scarlet Tanager. The flamboyant Wood Lillies had finished blooming.
We got to sample the first red raspberries and currents. Lemuel, turning over each leaf of a roadside Common Milkweed , discovered two small Monarch caterpillars. We were not troubled this week by Gypsy Moth caterpillars, however. Though we found a few crawling about, great numbers have died from fungal and viral diseases running rampant through their population.
We left the road, skirted a marsh, and settled in our familiar spot for lunch. In vain we searched the far shore for the Black Bear seen last time. The lake, too, was empty — of Loons.
But there were fish, and suddenly one was flashing oddly. Lemuel leapt to his feet: “It’s a snake with a fish!” It turned out to be a young Water Snake, hardly bigger in the body than a pencil, though longer. Out in the open water, it had seized a Golden Shiner by the tail. Wrestling it to shore, it sought a place to drag it out of the water. Lemuel hovered over it for 15 minutes as it tried one thing and another, and different places along the shore. Finally it succeeded in shifting its grip toward the front end of the fish, and worked its jaws over the head. Just as it had its meal almost all the way in, a second little Water Snake darted in and seized all that was left in sight — the tail. But the first one had the best of it, and swallowed the whole fish.
June 26, 2021: Notes on the passage of time
This was a quiet day, with few people out on the Study Area trails, and few Macouners out on what had been forecast to be a weekend of heavy rains (we didn’t see a drop).
We made a tour of our Study Tree Woods, with Rob Lee reaching back into his memory for one story after another, and newcomers seeing things for the first time. Our Study Tree Project was set up 30 years ago. Enough time has passed for the roots of once freshly windthrown trees (in this case Solange’s fallen White Ash) to have rotted away, and the earth they pulled up to have settled into a smooth, mossy mound. The hollow the earth came from became known as “Rebecca’s Study Pool,” which fills with water each spring, and sometimes hosts Fairy Shrimps. Mound and hollow will last for centuries, to us an identifiable part of the forest’s micro-topography.
Ten years ago, someone battered Ainsley’s roadside Sugar Maple sapling with a heavy club, crushing the cambium layer and killing the inner bark. After a couple of years, the outer bark fell away, revealing bare wood surrounded by new bark and wood growing in from the edges. As we passed by Ainsley’s tree today, Rob remarked that the wounds have completely healed over. Someday, perhaps, all trace of this wound may be effaced by the ever-thickening bark, if the tree survives its first hundred years.
Meanwhile, a Red-eyed Vireo sang and an Eastern Wood Pewee called, and a couple of Eastern Gray Treefrogs trilled in the forest. Orange-slime Slugs (Arion subfuscus) were gliding around in the renewed humidity, mosquitoes were few, and “face flies” (non-biting Black Flies) were barely noticeable.
June 19, 2021: Off to the races!
We had a full turnout today, reaching the mandated limit of 10 people (counting members, leaders and parents). It took us half-an-hour to walk down the California Road, hearing a Northern Waterthrush singing from a swampy hollow, and seeing Wood Lilies in bloom.
There were also Gypsy Moth caterpillars, bigger now, dropping down on us from the trees and crawling across the dirt road in search of a new food tree. The shrubs of the undergrowth, from Beaked Hazel to Sweetgale, were riddled with the holes they’d eaten.
We ate lunch by the shore of Willis Lake, where the warmth of the sun tempted three of our number to plunge into the water. A Common Loon cruising along the far side gradually swam in close to have a look. Later, when the shivering was over, a Black Bear was sighted moving among the trees of the far shore.
At our lunch place, and along the road out, we kept finding “giant”millipedes (Narceus americana). Each member managed to have his or her millipede form a ring round a finger. The ripple of hundreds of gentle feet tickled as the harmless creatures slowly explored hands and arms. Suddenly we were inspired to put them to a race. Alma kept nudging hers, and not surprisingly it stopped in protest. Lemuel had to herd his to keep it going straight, and Felix maintained the finishing line. (Lemuel’s millipede won.)
June 12, 2021: Amphibians and caterpillars at Pakenham
Rolling logs at Pakenham is sure to produce a salamander or two, and that is what Lemuel found — two Red-backed Salamanders. Later, at the waterfall on Indian Creek, he netted a small Wood Frog. And at day’s end, Rob drew attention to what looked like “a lump of mud” on a boulder sticking out of the creek — a basking American Toad that seemed to have melted down onto the sun-warmed rock.
Birds were singing all day, especially Scarlet Tanagers and Red-eyed Vireos, a Hermit Thrush and several warblers. Lemeul, first to reach the creek, met a startled Great Blue Heron.
But the dominant life form — dominating our awareness, and the now-suffering forest — was the Gypsy Moth caterpillar. Last year’s eggs hatched about a month ago, and the caterpillars are well-grown now. Having stripped aspens and oaks, they are moving into the pines. Sometimes so many needles have been bitten off and fallen that the ground underneath looks like a freshly mown lawn. In places the oak and poplar branches are bare; in others the sound of caterpillar frass falling on leaf litter is like the patter of drizzle. Everywhere caterpillars are dropping down on silk threads, and swarming up nearby tree trunks. We escaped them only under the narrow path of open sky along the creekbed. Where they also fall into the water we saw that neither frogs nor fish will touch these fat, wiggling “worms”: they’re also mouthfuls of long stinging hairs.
From April 3rd and April 8th to May 22nd, June 2nd, and June 11th: varying levels of lockdowns, “Emergency Brakes,” and Stay-at-Home orders in Ontario
April 3, 2021: At last — first frogs! First snakes!
And first Woolly Bears. The snow has been gone for a week or two, and it is likely that caterpillars and even overwintering snakes have been nosing around a little before we found them today, but Rob lives within hearing range of the breeding ponds of several species of frogs, and has been listening in vain. But in mid-afternoon a silent pond he had led a single Macoun Club family past in the morning began to ring with the powerful calls of tiny Spring Peepers. That was the crowning delight of a wonderful day.
Alma’s first thrill had been a Woolly Bear caterpillar slowly crossing a much-used dirt road, and she rescued it from being crushed by the pickup trucks and strings of ATVs roaring up and down the track.
We made a lunch fire in a narrow valley on the headwaters of Indian Creek, sheltered from the light but chilly wind, warm in full sunshine. The stream rushed through a dozen gaps in an abandoned beaver dam and spread out into a marsh; beyond that lay a small lake.
On the hilltop above we discovered our first Garter Snake of the year, and Alma slowly walked up to it and lifted it from the ground. “It didn’t even musk me!” She examined it minutely, determined that it was probably a male, and physically just about perfect. Releasing it and letting it go on its way, she followed at a distance it did not find threatening, and so watched it exploring the uneven ground, poking its nose into one little hole after another, but never finding what it was looking for.
From a higher vantage point, we could see that most of the lake was still covered with leaden-looking ice. Two Fox Sparrows flew up into a pine tree — transient migrants on their way to the northern half of the boreal forest.
April 2: Roaming the snowless woods
With two groups of five, we explored the lands across the road from Rob’s home. One group visited the nearby Porcupine dens, empty since mid-March since the animals are no longer confined to their shelters. The other passed through an old sugar-bush, getting to know Leatherwood shrubs and seeing signs of other wintertime animals, such as Coyotes and Pileated Woodpeckers. We heard Dark-eyed Juncos singing a little, and lifted our eyes to see what had caused a big shadow to flicker across the forest floor (a Turkey Vulture). Both groups converged on an agreed-upon lunch place — a vernal pond still too cold for any frogs or aquatic life to be active — and made separate, distant lunch fires.
After eating our fill, the two groups moved in tandem, making first for a remarkable wetland noted for its old-growth Cedar trees and rare lichens. These trees are probably 300 years old, judging by annual rings and inch-thick bark. They lean and curve and sway in ways that young trees, growing up in sunlight, do not. Beyond the swamp deciduous trees appeared on higher ground — big Basswoods 160 years old, and a few old Sugar Maples with long, columnar trunks supporting heavy crowns, 50 or 60 feet to the first branch. Finally, Rob lead through a screen of trees to the shore of White Lake itself. Two Wood Ducks flew up, whistling, from a sheltered bay.
(It should be noted that Deer Ticks are active now; last week one attached itself to the member of a Macoun Club family that went out on its own.)
March 20/21: Three field trips in a weekend
Rob was tapping his trees again, and welcomed three sets of Macoun Club families in succession. Each group helped gather in firewood and to tip the sap from the metal pails on the trees big white buckets, and had a meal over their own campfire.
There was time, too, for explorations into the surrounding forests: to vernal ponds, not yet flooding; to wooded hilltops; and to visit wintertime porcupine dens, now vacated.
On the second day, a small anglewing butterfly alighted on the snow, but took flight before anyone could get a camera aimed at it. There were Robins where the forest floor had opened up, and Red-shouldered Hawks screaming from the trees where they nested last year. The last group, visiting in the evening, heard the first Sandhill Cranes calling from the distant marshes on White Lake.
March 13, 2021: Early spring in the Study Area
Since last week, the snow shrank before a powerful thaw — Rob saw temperatures as high as +18ºC. A couple of cold nights then froze the compacted snowpack hard out in Lanark County and for this trip he recommended against snowshoes. But he had misjudged: the Study Area snow was still soggy under a crust, and he was literally breaking trail once more.
We followed the same general route that had proved so good last week, and saw many of the same things. But the thaw had exposed a few rocks, and inveterate rock-turner Niccolò found the year’s first ant, feebly moving. We also visited a swamp-ant mound (genus Lasius) by walking over the ice, but that colony must have been deep in the mound’s core.
Crows were active and noisy in one direction, and a Pileated Woodpecker in another. We all stood under the tree the woodpecker was working in, trying to figure out whether it was opening the tree for food, or excavating a nest cavity. It is that time of year.
March 7, 2021: Late winter in the Study Area
The snowpack, about 18 inches deep, had become crusted enough to bear the weight of smaller animals, but not Deer or Humans. We all wore snowshoes and sank in only partway. With a week’s worth of tracks underfoot, we gained the impression that the deciduous woods were just full of Gray Squirrels, and busy with Fishers and Coyotes. There were signs of Porcupines — small conifer twigs cut and dropped — but only once did we hit on Porcupine tracks. We followed the trail to the den, tucked under the roots of a fallen tree. It was a very poor den, open to the sky, and we looked down on the animal at arm’s length.
Down in the cedar forests and swamps, Deer tracks and trails were abundant. Under a Balsam Fir the snow was littered with twig tips. Close examination showed that the tiny, crowded pollen-cone buds had been eaten out. Or if these were absent, the end-buds. These are an important fall-back food for Red Squirrels when the previous year’s seed-cone crop has been poor or had failed.
It was cold in the deep shade, and we made for a sunny Black Ash swamp for lunch. Sweeping between the bare tree boles the wind had thinned the snow and allowed the ice below to form. But we had trouble in crossing a willow swamp, for there the thickets had let the snow lie deep and fluffy. The first two or three snowshoers passed over safely, but under the feet of the next, the disturbed snow broke down and let her into the water below. The snow, falling into the water, turned to slush and turned stiff as wet cement. The sunken snowshoe had to be dug out (using another snowshoe as a shovel). Luckily, the air temperature was only -7ºC, so the slush did not freeze hard, as it would have in the depths of winter.
February 28, 2021: Still more Porcupines
We didn’t set out to see Porcupines, but when we first set out we found that the trail we’d meant to take was overcrowded with people fleeing pandemic confinement. Turning in another direction, we started across a frozen lake toward trackless forest on the other side, only to realize that our snowshoes were sinking through a snow crust into six inches of slushy water over ice. (In some winters, rain soaks into the snow, and the weight presses the top of even good solid ice down into the water below.)
By the time we made our third start, in the opposite direction, it was noon, and yet we had a distance to go before reaching a place that provided both firewood and sunshine. We found it on the shore of an empty seasonal pond deep in a forest, and roasted sausages.
After lunch, we strapped on our snowshoes and turned in yet another direction. Rob, breaking trail, led to some Porcupine dens he’s been watching all winter. On the way, we encountered old deer tracks crowding around a fallen maple tree — the deer had had a feast of fresh twigs.
We weren’t expecting to see any animals, as they are nocturnal, but as we approached one of these dens, the Porcupine itself was spotted, high up in a tall Red Oak. It had been feeding on patches of bark, from the top to the bottom. Rob suggested it had come out to soak up some of the spring sunshine. Its trail led back to a very large, hollow Basswood tree.
Two other dens were in hollow logs, and we were able to see these Porcupines by beaming sunlight inside with a mirror. Both animals turned their backs on us, presenting a mass of quills. Their well beaten trails led to White Cedar feeding trees — and the fresh tracks of Fishers showed that these fearless predators had been checking out the possibilities.
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 – Nov.1, 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.