Welcome to the Macoun Field Club!
The Macoun Club — leaders, members, and the whole organization — normally goes on holiday in the summertime, but with so many families staying home rather than travelling because of COVID-19, Rob Lee plans to continue with the informal, family-size field trips he and Barbara have been conducting since March.
These field trips are in the nature of friends-calling-friends, so contact him if you want to get out. Such trips will necessarily be limited in size, and our practices will reflect physical-distancing requirements for the safety of all participants. We will not hold official field trips open to everyone at the same time until the OFNC Board of Directors gives general approval.
We do not know when regular field trips will be permitted, let alone the indoor meetings that ought to start up in September. If they do, the meetings will take place at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden building beside the Experimental Farm’s arboretum (Building no. 138). Meetings will start at 10 a.m. and wrap up between 11:30 a.m. and noon. Field trips normally take place on alternate Saturdays and typically run about 5 or 6 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).
After having closed them from March 28th to May 22nd, the NCC has reopened most Greenbelt parking lots, such as our Study Area’s P7 (the Sarsaparilla Trail). The parking lot (P6) under the big hydro lines is closed because of major construction on Old Richmond Road. Neighbourhood entrances have remained open throughout.
The natural world is increasingly being seen as the safe place to be; COVID-19 is transmitted “in closed spaces, in crowded places, where contact is close and continuous.” On Study Area trails, people are giving each other space as they pass by. 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
July 4: Rob and Barbara may visit the Study Area
July 11: Rob and Barbara may visit the Study Area
July 18: Rob and Barbara may visit the Study Area
July 25: Rob and Barbara may visit the Study Area
What are meetings and field trips like?
Here’s what we’ve done in the past year. . .
June 30, 2020: Niccolo’s Study Tree
Rob and Barbara conducted another family into the Study Area on an informal field trip, but Niccolò knew his own way to his Study Tree. It was dead and broken when Niccolòfound it, but Rob and Barbara remember back to the 1990s when it was a living thing that kids could climb. It was a White Ash.
On each visit, Niccolò examines the standing part, a shattered stub, and then the fallen trunk, and finally the broken pieces of wood lying on the ground. Under one piece he found a blocky, pink insect larva: “A glow-worm!” he exclaimed. And under another, one a little more advanced, a pupa, soon to be a firefly. (There are fireflies flashing in the woods these nights.)
Nearby, Niccolò called attention to four dusky butterflies in whirling chase round and round a Bur Oak tree’s trunk. Rob caught one in a net, and identified it as a Northern Pearly Eye.
Around his tree we saw and caught tiny Wood Frogs, evidently only recently emerged from the nearby Woodland Pond (number IX), which has dried down to puddles. But the deeper, cooler Kidney Bean Pond (number X) still furnishes a home for Wood Frog tadpoles, and we found them — with spindly hind legs starting to grow.
June 14, 2020: Gravitating to the swamp
Although Ontario has moved into Stage 2 of reopening the province, permitting gatherings of up to 10 people, the OFNC still requires Macoun Club leaders to meet with members informally, by private arrangement, for field trips. Today, two families sent out their children, who are best friends together, with one of the parents.
On this beautiful late spring day, we found the trails busy with many other families just bursting to get out of the restrictions that were lifted only yesterday. The trail sides were colourful with wildflowers, many of them introduced from Europe, most prominently Yellow and Orange Hawkweeds, Common Buttercup, and Common Daisy. But there were some native berry plants in bloom, too.
We left the trail almost at once to track down a woodpecker that was drumming pretty steadily: a Downy, high up on top of a dead, dried-out Red Oak limb. And again when we reached the Study Tree Woods. After that, we saw no more people until we came out. We ate lunch seated on logs facing each other across a comfortable space under the Sugar Maples.
But Zahra’s tree is a Silver Maple, which grows down on the Woodland Pond’s floodplain. Although her tree had flowered, and presumably produced seeds, the seeds had already been released from all the Red and Silver Maples, and dotted the soggy ground. But although the water had gone down so much since March that we could almost walk out to it, Zahra’s tree, standing on a low knoll, was still surrounded by water and its seeds had floated away. We had to wade, barefoot, to get to it.
May 26, 2020: Bumping about in the dark
Two Macoun Club members, Rory and Aidan, eagerly set out this night in Rob’s old canoe, squeezing between the trunks of trees standing waist-deep in his ash swamp. They were searching for Eastern Gray Tree Frogs in full breeding chorus, trying to catch one in a flashlight beam in the act of calling. The ringing sound came from many sources at once, all around: QUIR-R-R-R-R-R-R-R! QUIR-R-R-R-R-R-R-R! Was that high or low? Quite near or just a little farther?
It is hard to maneuver, they found. You’re going too slowly to steer properly. And while you’re aiming your light off to the side where the frog is, the canoe drifts on into the darkness, running into unseen tangles of broken branches, fallen or suspended, and rafts of old logs floated by the spring flooding.
Suddenly you see your first one. The frogs, it turns out, are mostly calling from the water’s edge, sitting on a floating log, or half-in, half-out. Some are higher up, on a stump or the side of a tree. Shiny with skin stretched taut by having taken a deep breath, the frog suddenly directs the air into its throat, which puffs out like a big bubble, and a vibrant trill fills the air for a few seconds.
Once you know what you’re looking for, the awkward wet lumps on logs and bunches of forest debris take on meaning. There were a dozen frogs on one floating log; there must be hundreds!
And in among them, a gentler, more musical trill, drawn out for many seconds: American Toads! Just a few, and harder to find amidst the general din of the Tree Frogs, but Rory and Aidan saw them.
Finally, the two worked their way back to their starting point and came ashore. Up close, the call of each frog had seemed harsh or strident, a pressure on the ears. But experienced as a whole, the chorus of the Tree Frogs had had a somewhat musical quality.
May 16, 2020: Spring has been stretched out
Rob and Barbara made a return visit to the Study Tree Woods, right at the end of this spring’s prolonged cool weather. Everything in nature seems to have been waiting for warmth before proceeding with life; whatever had already started back in April has just kept going. We heard Chorus Frogs in the ponds beside the Woods, for instance, weeks after they would normally have gone quiet, while the mosquito larvae there have remained in the aquatic stage.
Zahra’s Red Maple, which began so early (April 23rd), had finished flowering, On dry land, the dominant Sugar Maples, too, had already flowered on the otherwise bare branches. Red Maples flower every year, but Sugar Maples do this on an irregular schedule. This is going to be one of the unusual years when Theo’s tree, Max’s, and Samuel’s produce a crop of seeds.
These same trees have responded to the first hints of warmth by opening their leaf buds, giving the still-open woods a greenish cast. With the first hints of green come the insects that have been waiting for their food, and anticipating this, the more hardy insect-eaters had appeared: we heard or saw Black-and-White and Black-throated Green Warblers, a Great-crested Flycatcher, and several Blue-headed Vireos.
On the forest floor, seedling trees were opening their leaves, too, and Rory’s Study Moss, which is green all year, was browning slightly with masses of spore capsules in an early stage of growth. Five years ago Rob had to search carefully to find just one capsule with which to make his identification. Now, hundreds are in the making on the same moss cushion.
The Barred Owl that drew Leah to choose her first Study Tree two weeks ago was still hanging around. We heard it call once.
May 9, 2020: working for Monarch conservation
Last year, Macoun Club member Genevieve Leroux made a pencil sketch of a Monarch butterfly for The Little Bear — see page 40, if you have a copy. And also page 60, for an interesting account of her activities.
She also gave us a talk on Monarch conservation, which she has been involved with since she lived in California. On a snow-whitened day this spring, in early May in fact, Rob received word that Genevieve has now produced a video featuring Jane Goodall, as well as herself, talking about Jane’s “Roots and Shoots” program and her plan to link up all the Monarch conservation projects from Canada to Mexico. They invite other kids who want to be Monarch activists like Genevieve to join them.
We have seen other butterflies already this spring, including overwintered adults of Commas and Mourning Cloaks, and also another migrant species last weekend at the Study Area, the Painted Lady. But our earliest record for a Monarch in the Study Area was June 23, 2012. They have a long way to come, and it takes several Monarch generations through the early part of the year to do it.
May 2, 2020: Waders and watchers
Although it is still not permissible to organize field trips, even after seven weeks of difficult social restrictions intended to slow or arrest the spread of the COVID-19 virus, Rob and Barbara managed to coordinate their arrival at the Study Area with a young Macoun Club family that lives nearby. It was a warm, sunny day and the trails were full of people walking, cycling, even jogging, all automatically keeping the requisite 2-metre distance from others.
We got even farther away by exploring the bedrock plateau beside the Scissons road-allowance trail, and then out of sight altogether in the Study Tree Woods. Wildflowers — the “spring ephemerals” that leaf out and then wither away within the month — had sprung up. We saw the nodding yellow flowers of Trout Lily (also known as Dog-toothed Violet), the small delicate pinkish blooms of Spring Beauty, and the clean white petals of Bloodroot. (The buds of White Trilliums were still tightly closed.)
We drifted downhill from west to east until we reached the shore of the Woodland Pond (number IX), where a few Chorus Frogs were calling. Way out in the water, Zahra’s tree was still in bloom. Dipping in the shallows with a wide plastic container brought up loads of mosquito larvae, a Fairy Shrimp, a red “bloodworm” (midge larva), and two tiny Pea Clams. Inevitably, explorations into deeper water took the children in over their boot-tops.
As we started out, the children’s mother looked up into a tree, right into the eyes of a roosting Barred Owl! Rob turned back to look, but all he could see at first was a Porcupine. Naturally, with two big animals in the same tree, it was irresistible as a Study Tree. Indeed, this day six new Study Trees were chosen.
April 23, 2020: Macoun member Max’s Study Tree
On a beautiful but chilly Thursday (we are no longer constrained to Saturdays, because of the coronavirus shutdown), Macoun Club leaders Rob and Barbara checked out another member’s Study Tree. Five months ago to the day, last November 23rd, Max chose a large Sugar Maple for study. It is about 15 or 20 feet north of a rusty well-pipe.
The bulges on the trunk, some of which are still unhealed knot-holes, show that his tree grew up in sunshine: the forest, which is younger, grew up around it. Shade from the new trees eventually killed the maple’s lower branches. When they had rotted enough to break, they fell off. A recently fallen one now lay on the ground, and it was covered with lichens.
Looking over this whole branch, which had been growing about 25 feet above ground, Rob identified a dozen species. This is about the same number as on Zahra’s Red Maple, which was featured on April 4th, but Max’s tree has a few that are different. There are the common, often sun-loving foliose species, such as Candelaria concolor, Parmelia sulcata, Physcia millegrana, Physcia adscendens, Physcia aipolia, and Xanthomendoza fallax; and some more typical of the shadowy forest: Phaeophyscia rubropulchra and Flavoparmelia caperata. Among these generally more showy lichens were several subtle crustose species: Chrysothrix caesia, Lecanora allophana, and Ochrolechia arborea.
It is a good thing for the sake of science that the branch had fallen, for on all of Max’s trunk where it can be examined from the ground, the bark is only speckled with tiny scraps of two species — the already named Phaeophyscia rubropulchra (Orange-cored Shadow Lichen) and Candelaria concolor (Lemon Lichen).
The buds on Max’s Sugar Maple had barely begun to swell, but the crown of Zahra’s Silver Maple was a red haze of open flowers.
April 4, 2020: Home examination of a Macouner’s Study Tree
Rob wasn’t able to get out this weekend. On last week’s trip, however, he had walked out on the ice to Zahra’s Study Tree (it’s standing in a big pond now), and even crawled around on his stomach taking pictures of its larger lichens. Her Silver Maple stands well out on the Woodland Pond’s floodplain, which at this season is flooded, of course.
Lichens grow on every part of Zahra’s tree that is exposed to light, thickly over the root collar, scattered up the trunk and limbs, and thickly again on the branches, almost to their tips. The roots are submerged now, as happens every spring, but on the day she chose it, November 23rd — see below — Rob pointed out that down at the bottom, the base was covered with the Flooded Jellyskin (Leptogium rivulare). Above the waterline are lichens that might be common on any rough-barked tree trunk, such as the Common Powderhorn (Cladonia coniocraea) and the Hammered Shield Lichen (Parmelia sulcata).
One of the upper branches, which had died, broke off during the winter and hangs tip downward, within easy reach. Rob took as a sample a bit of its paper-thin bark for closer examination.
Crowded together on a scrap of bark no bigger than Rob’s thumb were eight species: the foliose Melanohalea subaurifera, Physcia aipolia, Physcia millegrana, and Parmelia sulcata, and crustose types Chrysothrix caesia, Lecanora symmicta, Rinodina freyi, and Catillaria nigroclavata. Another species that was on these branches, but not on the sample collected, was the Common Greenshield, Flavoparmelia caperata.
Rob was looking particularly for lichens, but noted different kinds of mosses, too. He also spotted a Winter Firefly (Ellychnia corrusca) hidden in a crevice. The larvae are like glow-worms, but the adults of this species don’t flash. And while looking at the lichens under a low-power dissecting microscope, he observed two tiny, glassy roundworms (nematodes) moving about.
Thus, Zahra’s tree is beginning to reveal an unsuspected amount of biodiversity: 11 species of lichens, at least two mosses, and two invertebrates. And, if you look at it just right, a dragon.
March 28, 2020: The sweet and the bitter
There was no field trip for members today, owing to the need to avoid gatherings during the COVID-19 epidemic, but Macoun Club leaders Rob and Barbara did visit members’ Study Trees. The woods were about half snow-covered, and the adjacent Woodland Pond was frozen solidly enough to walk around on. But not at edges — Rob got a soaker.
Rob made quite a study of Zahra’s Silver Maple, which stands by itself in about two feet of water and ice. The flower buds on the twig tips were not even close to bursting open, but a few sunny spring days will bring them out. With his background in lichenology, Rob was able to recognize nine species on the branches, and four on the trunk (not counting the Flooded Jellyskin, Leptogium rivulare, which we already know is there, submerged by the rising water). The mosses and fungi also present will have to await another expert’s visit.
We had safely passed by four or five families or couples on the trails, but no one was in the woods. Someone had been there, however: brand new sap pails had been hung from spiles on at least two trees. This shouldn’t be happening on conservation lands like our Study Area, but the harm is small, and not likely to be repeated, once the person responsible tastes the syrup. Whoever drilled the holes couldn’t tell a Sugar Maple from other species that share the forest. One was on a White Ash; the sap had no hint of sweetness. The other was on a Red Oak, of all things; its sap was as bitter as you would expect.
If Zahra were allowed to tap her tree, she’d find it as sweet as regular maple syrup from a Sugar Maple, but it’d take much more boiling to concentrate it.
March 7, 2020: Filling in the blank spaces on local wildlife range-maps
In many books or on websites featuring wildlife, range maps show in colour where the creature occurs. But any such map must be based on observations, and if you look at thoseunderlying maps, there are often gaps that the map-maker just assumed were occupied by the species in question. Our speaker today, Jakob Mueller, has been studying iNaturalist maps of reptiles and amphibians in the Ottawa Region, and he’s been finding intriguing gaps and patterns. Do these distribution maps show what’s really there? Or has no one looked?
One by one, with pictures and sound recordings, he reviewed all the frogs and snakes, turtles and toads that we are familiar with, and among them were species that we have not yet encountered, such as Ring-necked Snakes. He has even found these snakes in the western parts of Ottawa, but not their classic prey, the Red-backed Salamander. Rob Lee stuck up his hand: “I know where to find them in our Study Area.” “I will want to talk to you about that,” said Jakob. And afterward, Rob showed him the entries in our Nature Journal for 2009, detailing exactly where we had made our observations. But only when Rob adds his documented observations to the iNaturalist site will that gap in the map be filled. In future, we aim to contribute our sightings as we make them, using the iNaturalist smart-phone app.
February 29, 2020: Back to “Rock-wall Pond”
We made the best of sun and cold and returned to the Pakenham Hills. This time our snowshoes enabled us to take a different route, off into the woods, across a beaver meadow and through its fringe of Speckled Alders. Then up another wooded slope — where we crossed the very fresh tracks of an Otter that was also travelling from pond to pond — and onto a snowy expanse that only the leader, Rob, was expecting. But as we rounded a corner, kids started saying, “I know this place!”
It was our familiar “Rock-wall Pond” where we’d made our lunch fires just two weeks ago, completely snowed over, our tracks erased. This time we benefitted from having the firewood and roasting sticks we’d stashed right at hand.
On the walk out, one of the boys spotted a tiny bird nest in a snowy tree branch right over the trail: the nest of a Red-eyed Vireo — a bird off in the Amazon rainforest right about now. We knew what it was because the nest was slung below a forked branch, and had strips of birch bark woven into it.
February 22, 2020: Making windows safe for birds
From time to time, volunteers from Safe Wings Ottawa come to the Fletcher Wildlife Garden, where we hold our meetings, and release birds that they have helped recover from flying into window glass. We were inspired to ask for a presentation on the subject.
Today, a team from Safe Wings came in and Willow English, an arctic-seabird biologist, explained that windows on buildings kill a billion birds a year in North America. Glass-covered office towers in big cities are terrible bird traps, but birds are unnecessarily killed right around your home, too, or at school.
You hear a thump somewhere around the house, and maybe see a tuft of feathers stuck to the glass; you go out to look and find a bird lying on the ground below the window. What should you do?
Willow told us that a stunned or unconscious bird is ready prey to any number of predators, from cats and raccoons to jays: it needs to be picked up at once and protected. Scoop it up with your hand, she said, and set it into a small box or paper bag (Safe Wings provides such bags to people who go looking for injured birds regularly.)
Then, even if it perks up and seems like it wants to get away, take it to the Safe Wings people, or the Wild Bird Care Centre. The bird very likely has more injuries and may be in a weakened state — unable to flee predators — and need medical care. Birds taken away from cats need antibiotics, because infection from claws and teeth produces fatal infections.
When experienced people judge that the bird is ready for release, they take it to the place it was found, or some safer place, and release it.
February 8, 2020: Winter for a weekend
With it turning cold (minus 23º C in the night) and the woods snowbound at last, we headed for the Pakenham Hills. Tracks were few: White-tailed Deer, Fisher, Otter, and one Deer Mouse. A narrow furrow where some small animal had ploughed through the deep powder was a challenge for most of us, but a wind-swept hummock provided the proof of one suggestion: a Ruffed Grouse. Animals were few, too: a few Chickadees and two Ravens.
As it was rather cold for stopping to examine and discuss the vegetation, we pressed on for a well-remembered lunch place. “Rock-wall Pond” offers unobstructed sunshine and shelter from north and west winds, and at -15º we were able to work and eat barehanded without giving it a thought.
Just as we were leaving, Gerry Lee, who owns all this land, drove up on his snowmobile and stopped for a talk. He thought it remarkable that he had met a Black Bear on December 21st, and had a small bat emerge into his cabin on Christmas Eve.
February 1, 2020: Botany fun, with Jen Line
In our darkened meeting room, botanist Jen Line (who once was a Macoun Club member herself) had the group recalling with delight the fruits and vegetables they enjoy at the dinner table, with the bonus of now knowing what sorts of plants they are.
For each of several plant families, such as the Rosaceae, she’d ask us if we could think of foods that represent that group, and then showcase them on our projection screen. In this case, rose-hips came to mind among our wild foragers, but also apples and pears, raspberries, cherries . . . and almonds, she had to advise us.
Almonds? How can “nuts” like almonds and fruits like apples be alike? Jen asked. “Have you ever had a peach-pit split open, and discovered inside a seed that looks like an almond?” Almond trees and apple trees have the same flower structure, and for each family Jen illustrated their essential features. Flowers ultimately produce seeds, and, the almond is a seed inside a pit, within the fruit of the almond tree. (Such seeds, even apple seeds, normally contain cyanide, but the tree variety known as the “sweet almond” has been bred to be safe. There is a “bitter almond” that still is toxic.)
She showed us mouth-watering pictures of familiar grocery-store produce, and then challenged us to think of wild representatives of the same plant family. In Rosaceae, we have Wild Strawberries around here. In this way, we were reminded of the plant families that contain onions (and Wild Leeks), artichokes (and thistles), Brussels sprouts (and Toothwort), and cereal grasses and Sugar Cane (with many wild grasses hereabouts).
January 25, 2020: Mark it “Unexplored”
When the Macoun Study Area was established 50 years ago, one corner was left out. What is in there?Today we poked about for several hours, and made some interesting finds.
Garrett found Leopard Frogs, alive and kicking, in a grass-choked stream. Ruben found several Rock Elm trees, a rare endemic species. We found a Porcupine – pretty common. And we found that all of the water that flows out of the Study Area – from the big beaver pond at the Sarsaparilla Trail more than a kilometre away right on down through Ponds II, III, IV, V, VI and VII – disappears into the ground, vanishes under a Bells Corners subdivision.
Gradually, the shape of the land and its patchy coverings of White Pine, Red Pine, Jack Pine and White Spruce plantations began to take form in receptive minds, and make sense.
Just in time we came back onto familiar ground, and knew just where to go when ice pellets and freezing rain began to pelt our faces. We spent our last hour sheltered in the northern White Cedar woods, finding the places where White-tailed Deer had bedded down in the snow, where Red Squirrels had been feeding on conifer-cone seeds, and where a lone Ruffed Grouse had walked. We also measured the diameter of a big Balsam Fir; at 18.5 inches, it turned out to be the biggest we have ever found in the Study Area.
January 18, 2020: Disturbance and restoration in the Greenbelt
Sometimes speakers introduce themselves by telling us how they got into their field of study and action; today, Alex Stone told us that his career path began 20 years ago with the Macoun Club! University studies subsequently took him to the Northwest Territories, where he studied Olive-sided Flycatchers. He works now for the National Capital Commission, which owns and manages Ottawa’s Greenbelt lands, including the Macoun Club’s nature-study area in core natural area “Stony Swamp.”
Alex is involved in the NCC’s monitoring programs, and told us about surveying for frogs, turtles, and bats across the Greenbelt. We were all on common ground here, because the Macoun Club surveys for reptiles and amphibians, too.
Alex outlined some of the things that disturb the natural environment, such as the invasive species Glossy Buckthorn and Emerald Ash Borer. Again, he had a receptive audience because the Macoun Club has first-hand experience with these things, too. Then he covered the ways in which the NCC tries to restore natural ecosystems – eradicating buckthorn and re-establishing wetlands — much of which is physically beyond the capacity of Macoun Club members.
January 11, 2020: Adventure on a glacier
Rob settled everyone down and began to read from John Muir’s story Stickeen,from his Alaskan journey of 1880. Muir had set out from camp one morning to explore a new glacier. He had a dog on his hands that he didn’t want with him, but it wouldn’t be shaken off. “So at last I told him to come on if he must . . . then we struggled on together, and thus began the most memorable of all my days.”
In these days when people have to be urged to get out and walk, it is staggering to realize what Muir undertook that day. He worked his way three miles over fallen trees and boulders beside the ice to reach a point where he could safely walk out onto the glacier, “a seemingly boundless prairie of ice” seven miles across; he crossed it. A few miles farther up along the other side he encountered an entrancing side valley and explored it for “three or four miles.” And then, 17 miles out, he noted the late hour and threatening weather and started back.
At this point, Rob drew everyone’s attention to the circle with a 30-mile radius around Ottawa that is marked on the room’s wall map, and explained that it had been agreed upon in John Muir’s day (and John Macoun’s) to be a reasonable distance for a man to travel on foot, out and back, when botanizing or searching for birds.
The 34 miles of Muir’s round trip doesn’t take account of the innumerable crevasses that had to be jumped, or else explored for a way around – often more sideways travel than forward. The little dog Stickeen bounced over every obstacle without seeming to notice danger at all, until confronted with an ice bridge 70 feet long, “the most dangerous and inaccessible that ever lay in my way,” said Muir.
Muir had an original explanation for how ice bridges form in the first place, and Rob related the extreme weathering Muir described to every child’s experience of icicles that “melt” away in cold weather, by sublimation. The bridge had become a sliver. It had to be chopped into shape before man or dog could cross it, with perhaps a thousand feet of booming chasm below them.
Looking back years later, Muir said: “Nothing in after years has dimmed that Alaska storm day. As I write it, all comes rushing and roaring to mind as if I were in the heart of it. Again I see . . . the vast glacier outspread . . . and in the heart of it the tremendous crevasse . . . low clouds trailing over it, the snow falling into it; and on its brink I see little Stickeen, and I hear his cries for help and his shouts of joy.”
December 14, 2019: Of many fish, and fishes
Ichthyologist Noel Alfonso of the Canadian Museum of Nature found a very interested audience in the Macoun Club today. We knew we had one “extreme angler,” but kids who’d never come to notice as knowing or wondering about fish had question after question for him. He gave us an overview of the fishes of both the Ottawa region and the Arctic, where he’s done research from sea-going vessels, and along the way highlighted interesting features of many individual species.
He taught us to focus our attention on the positioning of a fish’s fins and mouth, and see that a predator like the pike has power built into its tail, while other fish may have an upturned mouth for picking insects or zooplankton off the surface above them. Northern Cod, for instance, glean their food off the bottom of the sea ice – a rich ecosystem that supports plankton, small fishes, bigger fishes, seals and seabirds, and Polar Bears.
Noel often commented on the beauty of the fishes, and we realized he was seeing them in his mind’s eye, alive and in living colour. He had brought in several jars of preserved fish, which had lost all colour and poise. But that is necessary for permanent record and proof of a species’ existence at a given time and place, and often for identification as well.
Finally, one boy asked, “Why do we say ‘fish’ for more than one sometimes, and sometimes ‘fishes’?” Noel’s answer made it simple and clear: if it’s two of the same species, they’re “fish;” if they’re two of different species, “fishes.”
December 7, 2019: Just enough snow for it to be winter
We took a walk down a road that is not maintained in winter today, the California Road in Lanark County, with forest all the way. Pickup trucks have been keeping it open, so the walking was easy, and when we wanted to we got off it and made a lunch fire by a big beaver meadow. All along the way we identified animal tracks: voles and mice and shrews; Ermine and Fisher; Red Squirrels, Red Fox, and Coyote. There had been a Gray Squirrel, too (the black version), but something had caught and eaten it, leaving only the furry tail.
Most of the ice was thick enough to walk on (Rob checked with an axe) but there were open places and we were cautious. In a beaver canal, Garrett scooped up a tiny Sunfish in his net. Nearby a little stream flowed out of the hillside and ran down to the pond, the emerging groundwater still too warm to freeze.
Coyote tracks ran back and forth all over another beaverpond, and in one place circled about so thickly that we could imagine a pack of them playing chase with one another round and round in the moonlight last night.
We saw not one bird – just the marks in the snow where two Ravens had checked out the remains of the squirrel to see if any scraps had been overlooked.
November 30, 2019: Canada’s Ice-Age megafauna
During the last ice age there was pretty much nothing but massive ice and rock here in Ottawa. But the continental glaciers didn’t cover the whole continent, and a part of it north of the ice sheets (Yukon and Alaska) lay bare the whole time, connected with Eurasia. Arctic and steppe vegetation flourished in this region, known as Beringia, and animals now extinct, such as Woolly Mammoths, the Yukon Horse, and Giant Beavers prospered.
Last summer, Margaret Currie of the Canadian Museum of Nature took part in a collecting expedition to the Old Crow River area. The team she joined flew into a remote site by helicopter and set up their tents on the sandy banks of a meandering river.
The mineralized bones of the extinct animals have been washed down the river and deposited in the very sands they were camped on. They fished out the bigger bones by hand, and caught small fragments by sieving the sand. She brought a selection of specimens in for us to examine.
For comparison, Margaret held up the jaw of a present-day Canadian Beaver side-by-side with the jaw of an extinct Giant Beaver. Close examination revealed that they differ not only in size, but in the relative proportions and the ridges and hollows of the parts.
Lots of us have trouble telling artists’ drawings of Woolly Mammoths apart from American Mastodons, but their teeth were totally different: you could see how a paleontologist would know their fossils at a glance. (Briefly, before these animals died out, they came into Ontario after the ice sheet melted back enough.)
November 23, 2019: winter retreats a little
After a few warm days, there wasn’t enough snow left for animal tracks anywhere, but all the ponds were more or less frozen. The ice was cloudy, because it had formed as snow fell into the water, but was nonetheless thick enough (4 inches) to support our weight without cracking.
Today we sought out some of the more notable trees of our Nature Study Area. A tape measure showed us that, at 34 inches in diameter, the largest Sugar Maple in the whole square mile has grown three inches thicker in the past 25 years. Nearby, we were dismayed to find that a well-known American Beech (31 inches in diameter) has become heavily infested with the generally fatal Beech Bark Scale Disease. The insects were first discovered in 2016, a mile away, at the other end of our Study Area.
It took much searching to find the Study Area’s only Eastern Red Cedar. The whole surrounding area has grown up in thickets and young trees that tower over the 23-foot-tall conifer. Having been overtopped by a vigorous Sugar Maple, it seems to have spread out sideways rather than growing taller.
Looking up led to the discovery of a seldom-seen atmospheric phenomenon – an “upside-down rainbow.” Its arc opened away from the mid-afternoon sun. Wikiepedia explains it as a form of halo that displays colours purer than a rainbow, owing to refraction through well oriented plate-like ice crystals rather than raindrops. Some of us counted seven colours.
November 16, 2019: Through the Southern Ocean to Antarctica
How doyou get to Antarctica? Roy John outlined the possibilities before showing his most recent route by ship. He began with the remarkable birds he’d seen in New Zealand, where he had embarked. The ship subsequently touched at McQuarrie and other isolated islands, and as they proceeded, the diversity of petrel, albatross, and penguin species perceptibly diminished. Roy’s ship rolled so much in heavy seas that he and his fellow passengers suffered bruises and broken bones. Eventually they began to see tremendous icebergs; Roy explained that Antarctic icebergs differ from those calved in Greenland in being flat-topped. Greenland ice gets rolled and rounded as currents push them through shallow water.
Just as interesting as the birds of the southern ocean were Roy’s accounts of the first Antarctic explorers, notably Robert Scott, Roald Amundsen, and his childhood hero, Ernest Shackleton. Roy had been to the places these men had established their bases for exploration, and, in the case of Shackleton, the tiny beach on Elephant Island where they took shelter after their sailing vessel had been crushed in pack ice. The buildings these famous men had put up have been preserved by the perpetual cold, together with their furnishings, cans of food, and even a partly dissected penguin specimen, which has been lying on a wooden table for more than a century.
Nov. 9, 2019: Ground-proofing our new map
Last week Macoun Club members traced the outlines of different habitats in our Study Area for a map. Today we went out there and made note of what was on the ground, taking a route marked in pink. On this version of the new map, blue represents open water, of course: beaver ponds III, V, and VI (pond IV is obscure). Yellow shows marsh vegetation. Brown is for deciduous forest, and dark green for spruce. Light green shows cedar woods.
Along the way we saw a flock of Common Goldfinches and Pine Siskins, a few Blue Jays, and two Ravens chasing one another. A Red Fox had left footprints in the light snow cover of a small field, and Red Squirrels had run along fallen logs in many places. We rolled a number of logs and found a most surprising thing under a chunk of wood in the middle of a muddy bicycle trail: a hibernating frog. Some thought it was dead, but taken in hand, it slowly, slowly opened its eyes, and shortly began to crawl away. We gave it a new log to hide under.
Nov. 2, 2019: Map-making and more
How do you make a map? Rob Lee was part of the group that made the original vegetation map of the Macoun Study Area back in 1972. That being before satellite images were easily available, they started with an aerial photograph taken from an airplane. Laying a sheet of clear plastic over the picture, Rob and the other Macoun members chose the boundaries and marked them with ink, and then traced the outlines of beaver ponds, fields, and forests of different types.
So much as changed out there in the woods that today we started all over again. But we started instead with a Google Maps image and projected it on a whiteboard on the wall. Using washable markers, we traced the outlines of ponds and the course of footpaths that didn’t even exist back in 1972.
The next step is to transfer the outlines to paper (via digital photography) and have in hand a blank map that we can begin to fill in on our next field trip.
There was enough time left over to run the Bill Mason film “Rise and Fall of the Great Lakes,” with Rob pausing it every time he thought there was something worth commenting on – eskers and drumlins, and glacial striations in bedrock, and water pollution of a kind (phosphates) that got cleaned up in the 1970s.
Oct. 26, 2019: Field trip in the autumn sunshine
Though the peak of colour had passed, the forests of the Pakenham Hills still glowed as we walked into them — and not only the oaks and poplars, but the low shrubs of bogs and rocky shorelines. Leatherleaf foliage takes on a reddish hue in autumn, and we ate lunch on the shores of a floating bog. Determined searching of the waters netted an Eastern Newt, its spotted belly a warm yellow
We had found a dead Red Squirrel on the road where we parked, and Rob carried it in for examination. After lunch he opened it up with his knife, showing all who were interested the heart and lungs, liver, and the stomach and spleen. The sharp edges and ends of broken bones in the pelvic area showed that it had been run over by a car; the small amount of coagulated blood that it had died very quickly. He left it for Raccoon or Raven.
October 19, 2019: Edible plants
Everybody wonders, from time to time, whether this berry or that mushroom seen in the outdoors is edible. Today Macoun member Priya gave a personal account of her experiences with edible plants. She covered equipment for foraging, the necessity of correctly identifying plants (to avoid eating poisonous ones by mistake), and the different parts of various plants that may be eaten. She explained food preparation, too: drying, powdering, boiling . . . and recipes. And then she offered a plateful of crackers, made from the dried, powdered and baked inner bark of Eastern White Pine.
“Isn’t that a starvation food?” someone asked. “Well, some people think so, but I like it,” replied Priya. And she has been known to strip the outer bark off a fresh twig and nibble it on the spot.
Oct. 5, 2019: Developing map-reading skills
We had a two-part session today, with two age-groups taking turns working on map-reading skills with leader Jen Line indoors, while the other made a casual tour of the Fletcher Wildlife garden. Jen described the basic features of maps and related them to the real world, and then had members find their own homes on fold-out maps.
Meanwhile, the other group worked its way around the FWG trails, pausing often. We looked under logs (finding introduced types of millipedes (Julidae), earthworms (Lumbricus terrestris), and land snails (an unbanned form of Cepea nemoralis, with a purplish-brown flared lip). We spotted the last bloom in a patch of Purple-flowering Raspberry, tasted the fuzzy berries of Staghorn Sumac, and worked out by examination how long Eastern White Pine keeps its “evergreen” needles.
In a small, artificial pool or pond that was almost covered with Duckweed, members of the older group spotted a large Green Frog. The younger members found a small Garter Snake, hatched just this year judging by its size. It was cold and docile, and slithered easily from hand to hand between us all.
September 28, 2019: How to, today, plant a tree 25 years ago
On an unpromising trip to the Study Area in the rain, we did surprisingly well. In addition to the Wood Frogs and Spring Peepers one might expect in such weather, Macouners caught a Garter Snake, heard Blue-headed Vireos singing, and saw a Coyote!
The Butternut is an endangered species because of an invasive fungal blight. One of the surviving individuals in our Study Area produced an exceptionally heavy crop of nuts this year, which, having matured, had just fallen. Some clusters held three or four nuts each; thousands carpeted the ground. (Within a week, the resident Red Squirrel had cleaned them all up, caching them for its winter food supply.)
In these times when reversing deforestation has a global urgency, we twice took the time to rescue small trees that had been dragged down to the ground when bigger ones fell on them. They had not been down long enough to be permanently flattened, and only needed help standing upright again. If the best time to plant a tree is 50 years ago, then today we managed something close to this, for these Sugar Maple saplings are each about 25 years old. They have already proven their genetic strength, having survived insects, deer browsing, and drought.
Sept. 14, 2019: Apples and bees go together
Almost a year ago to the day, we launched a survey of wild apple trees in our Nature Study Area. Returning to the same area, we now found fruit on trees that had been barren, and bare trees from which we had collected apples last year. Sadly, the only wild apple tree with sweet fruit has died; it will never produce again. But a tree that was bare last year has turned out to bear apples bigger than any we found last year (up to 7 cm).
We couldn’t see much of the Big Pond because the whole shoreline is hemmed in by tall hybrid cattails (the observation dock, which we would normally use, had been vandalized, and barricaded by the authorities).
Those of us who have been around for years realized that the entire Sarsaparilla Trail area has become hemmed in by another invasive plant, Glossy Buckthorn. Up until ten years ago – even five – we could roam around pretty much anywhere. But dense stands of this shrub have made almost everything off the trails impassable.
Our most unexpected find was a wild Honeybee colony, with bees streaming in and out of a woodpecker hole. They were so intent on gathering and storing nectar that they ignored us, no matter how close we stood.
Sept. 7, 2019: Start of a new Macoun Club year
Observations ran overtime, and leaders talked too long about the things they’re interested (the dire effects of DDT on birds 50 years ago, the way birds have planted a whole backyard full of wildflowers, and how to tell a falcon from a hawk in flight). But these first-hand accounts served to give the many new members a good idea of what to expect from those around them.
There was talk of what we might do in our Study Area’s 50thyear, coming up.
And Rob directed attention to the giant topographic wall map of the Ottawa region, with its hills to the north and flatlands to the south, ancient fault lines (the southern boundary of Gatineau Park), and evidences of the last Ice Age (the cultivated sand plains north of the Park, in an otherwise rocky territory).
We also found where our Nature Study Area is (just behind the head of the boy in blue).