What the Macoun Field Club did in 2005-06

During the school year, the Macoun Club runs an almost continuous Saturday program of alternating field trips and indoor meetings. The accounts here are meant to rely some of the substance of each event.

September 17th, 2005: Frogs and salamanders

Photo of Blue-spotted Salamander in hand
Field trip to the south end of the Study Area. What turned up mostly was frogs and salamanders. A long summer dry spell had just ended, so even though it had been raining since the day before, the ground under rocks and logs was still dry! That is where this Blue-spotted Salamander was found hiding. We put the rock back and released the salamander. Three hours later we checked, and it had crawled back under its home rock.


Macoun member Madeleine Levac learning from leader Martha Camfield
Photo of Sugar Maple seed embryo

September 24th, 2005: Seeds under the hand lens

Botany Workshop with Martha Camfield, who taught everyone how to use a hand lens successfully. She had us dissecting maple keys to see the curled up plant embryo inside, and let us look at the many features of seeds that make them so interesting.

October 1st, 2005: Mushrooms!

Photo of Red-belted Bracket fungus

Field trip to the Study Area’s south end. Guest leader Otto Loesel, of the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club, led a mushroom identification foray until nearly lunchtime. He showed us lots of bracket fungi, such as the Red-belted Polypore shown here, and crust fungi, too. After lunch, we followed a series of previously recorded compass directions into the big cedar swamp, which took us to the whitened skeleton of a deer that we had found last winter, freshly killed. We also visited our Study Trees.


October 15th, 2005: World of the White-tailed Deer

Photo of White-tailed Deer focusing eyes, ears, and nose on threat

Former Macouner and current leader, Jon Hickman, entertained us with an imaginative “hands-on” demonstration of how the White-tailed Deer senses its world, and derives nourishment from plant material we couldn’t begin to live on. Here a young deer focuses its eyes, ears, and nose on something near the photographer.


Photo of kids starting a lunch fire

October 22nd, 2005: First frost

Field trip to Pakenham. We were hardly away from the cars when we noticed strange “tracks” in the fine, silty mud of a puddle almost dried up. They looked like the impressions of pine needles, which have been falling at this time of year. But the “tracks” were mysteriously empty. The answer was discovered in a shady place, where the rising sun had not yet melted the last remaining ice needles. We had just had the second hard frost of the season. We walked a long way into the forest, and made three lunch fires on the rocky shore of a beaverpond. Afterward we explored some broken-down old log barns, in little fields hidden deep in the forest.


November 5th, 2005: Lunch by the Indian Creek

Field trip into the Pakenham Hills, an hour’s drive west of Ottawa. We spent the first hour exploring an abandoned sandpit, looking for sea shells left over from the Champlain Sea, which washed against the melting continental glacier before draining away 10,000 years ago. A few of these fragile, whitened shells had been washed out of the sand by rain. The species, Macoma balthica, still lives the Arctic. Then it was time to hurry on to a suitable lunch place by Indian Creek. One boy found a crayfish, and it nipped him. Afterward, we had a sketching session, with art paper and pencils, on the slope above a beaver meadow.

Photo of Nic Lapointe

November 12th, 2005: Fish in an urban river

Former member Nic Lapointe (early 90s) came back to tell us how his longtime interest in fish has led him into summer work outdoors. For two years he’s been searching for endangered and threatened fish species in the Detroit River, which carries Lake Huron waters into Lake Erie. With a true Macouner’s breadth of interests, he began by telling us about the wildlife along the river’s edge first — the birds, baby rabbits, and turtles. He used historical maps to show how almost all the floodplain wetlands have been developed, either for agriculture or urban-industrial uses. The river water is so murky (from wind-blown dust off adjacent farmland) that he couldn’t just look for fish, but had to catch them with nets and minnow traps. His project’s goal was to identify habitats that were important to fish.


November 19th, 2005: Deer fight!

Photo of Black-capped Chickadee taking seed from Madelein Poirier's hand

Field trip to the Study Area, crossing from the Sarsaparilla Trail in the east to the Study-tree Woods in the west. We have never had so many Chickadees coming for sunflower seeds all at once — two and three to a hand, sometimes! Away from them, we discovered a “witness” (a Porcupine high up in a tall pine) to a “crime scene”, where two White Tailed Deer had scuffled back and forth, leaving blood spatters on the snow. Not 50 feet farther, a beautiful Fisher came bounding by us. And that was just the beginning of the day.

Photo of speaker Steve Wendt

November 26th, 2005: Nature in winter

Steve Wendt, of the Canadian Wildlife Service, engaged the Junior members in thinking about how the natural world survives winter. He encouraged us to think about the specific challenges that winter brings: freezing of water, low temperatures, snow as a covering over food and shelter. And about how plants and animals have adapted so well that, in some cases, these problems can become essential to survival.


December 3rd, 2005: Tracks and trees

Macoun members Johnny Pimm and Madeleine Poirier in winter forest

A little fresh snow again at the Study Area, which showed us the tracks of White-tailed Deer, Fisher, and Red Squirrel. We fed chickadees and nuthatches sunflower seeds, and watched a Hairy Woodpecker dig its own natural food (a grub) out of an Ironwood sapling (we’re getting ready to examine the holes at right). Our special project of the day was to find the biggest specimens of certain tree species. We measured Japanese Larch, White Pine, Sugar Maple, Peachleaf Willow, and hybrid poplar.


December 10th, 2005: The Thelon Game Sanctuary

“Have you ever been somewhere you couldn’t get to by road?” Max Finkelstein asked our group. We thought hard, and couldn’t come up with any place farther away than we could walk past a dead-end road. But Max had been in the Thelon Game Sanctuary, 600 miles from the nearest road. If you couldn’t travel by float plane, he said, you’d have to paddle. And if you started in the spring from Yellowknife, you might just get there at the start of the next winter. The Thelon is rich in caribou, wolves, and bears, and because it’s wide-open tundra, you can see them the same way you can see great herds of wildlife in the Serengeti, in Africa. Max has written books about this and other wilderness places. You can find out more by searching the internet for ‘max,’ ‘thelon,’ and ‘river.’

Photo of Julien and Patrick Caron snowshoeing

December 17th, 2005: Snowshoeing at Rob’s

Everyone came out to Rob’s house in Lanark County, but never set foot in it. We all strapped on snowshoes and struck out into the woods across the road. There had been more than a foot of snow just the day before, so we needed them. There were hardly any of the animal tracks that Rob had been seeing before the big snow — no shrews or squirrels, fisher, fox or grouse. Even the deer had retreated to the more coniferous forest farther away. We had a good lunch fire and roasted pieces of deer meat (provided by a neighbourhood hunter). Beyond the woods we came to White Lake. There was slush hidden under the snow, right on top of the ice, and it made the cold snow freeze to our snowshoes.


January 14, 2006: Adaptations

What is your favourite animal? How is it adapted to its environment? Ian MacKay challenged our members to think about things they already know in new ways. He explored the subject of adaptation with them, in the context of evolutionary theory and life-history studies. He focused on the kiwi, which lays a single huge egg, as an example of a biological oddity that helps us think about what advantages and disadvantages might be inherent in a particular trait, be it physical or behavioural. (Kiwi photo from “Bone clones: Osteological Reproductions”.)


Photo of male Purple Finch

January 28, 2006: Winter bird identification

After the big migrations, quite a number of beautifully coloured birds stay behind. Some even chose this time of year to come to the Ottawa area. Rob Lee and the other leaders showed members how to use a birding field guide to figure out who’s visiting. At right, a male Purple Finch.


February 4, 2006: Who is the Macoun Club named for?

Who was John Macoun? And how do you pronounce his name anyway? Macoun was Canada’s first Dominion Naturalist, and the Macoun family says they pronounce it the same way you would “crown.”

Photo of John Macoun

Martha Camfield told us that John Macoun came to Canada as a young teenager before Confederation. He found he wasn’t educated enough to get a better job than picking stones out of farm fields, and to get out of that life he taught himself what he needed to become first a school-teacher, then a college professor, and finally a botanist. He grabbed the opportunity to join the young Canadian government’s exploratory surveys across the continent, starting in 1869. Everywhere he went, he observed and collected. His original specimens, labelled in his own find handwriting, dot the shelves of the National Herbarium in Ottawa. He died in 1920.

Macoun was a man of strong opinions, and he promoted the settlement of the southern prairies on the basis that the native plants growing there indicated good cropland. But he saw that land in a period of wet years, and it goes dry at other times. Agriculture has been controversial there for 130 years.


Photo of Macoun group at broken-down log cabin

February 11, 2006: Tracks everywhere!

There were tracks everywhere at Pakenham. We saw signs of White-tailed Deer, Foxes and Coyotes, Fisher, Mink, and Least Weasel. There were tracks of Snowshoe Hares and Ruffed Grouse, and we followed a Porcupine from its feeding tree to a deep, dark cleft in the rock. Rob used a mirror to shine a beam of sunlight on the animal. We saw Otter tracks, too, and slid down the hills Otter-fashion ourselves. We roasted hotdogs and apples in a sheltered corner of the sun-drenched Rockwall Pond, and afterward inspected the ruins of old log cabins. We had such a wonderful time it was hard to believe that the people we’d left behind in the city considered it a cold day.


Photo of Matthew Jessulat giving talk

February 18, 2006: Chemical defences at the cellular level

Matthew Jessulat, of the Let’s Talk Science program, explained to us how cells defend themselves against invaders by comparing them to a modern city fighting King Kong. He showed us that food spices we use in our cooking, such as cinnamon, are really chemical defences plants produce to fight off fungi, including his experimental example, common baker’s yeast.


February 25, 2006: Lost in a snowstorm!

That’s what some people thought when Rob led them in a couple of circles. But he came out right after an hour or so, and then led straight to the only spot in the whole Study Area that was out of the driving snow. But even in the calm under a limestone outcrop the air was still -15 degrees C, and hands bared to hold sandwiches were soon too numb for even that. Somewhere in the whirling snow we discovered the Study Area’s biggest Balsam Fir (16 1/2 inches diameter). In places better known to us, we also found three big Porcupines holed up in a hollow tree, and happened on the remains of a deer kill, presumably made by Coyotes.

Photo of former Macouner giving talk

March 4, 2006: Rocks and minerals

Former member Phil Belley brought in some of his prize mineral specimens, ranging from delicate, hair-like crystals to a nickel-iron meteorite. In a darkened corner of the room, he showed how UV light makes some ordinary looking but very special rocks glow with intense colours. Afterward, he looked at specimens the members had brought in and helped with identifications.


Photo of speaker Ed Becker

March 25, 2006: Insects

Photo of insect specimen box

What is the biggest insect you ever saw? Entomologist Ed Becker brought in some of his most extreme insect specimens, including the Goliath Beetle, visible in the upper left corner of this cabinet. All kinds of questions flowed from the material in front of us, and Ed was ready to answer all of them.


April 1, 2006: Early spring trip to Pakenham

Winter had mostly melted away in the previous week. There were still patches of snow in the forest, but the creeks were running at full flood. We found a Blue-spotted Salamander under a small log, and a few Wood Roaches beneath a rock. Where a small logging operation had just been completed, we counted annual rings in the stumps of White Pine, Red Maple, and Trembling Aspen, getting ages of 50 to 100 years for trees that had been 12 to 24 inches in diameter. Rob says this is typical for second-growth forest.


April 8, 2006: Nature Art Workshop

Macouners gathered at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden, for a change, and under the guidance of former member Susan Laurie-Bourke sketched and drew all manner of natural subjects. A few or us also made a little field trip down a ravine, where we watched a pair of beautiful Mallard ducks digging into the stream bottom for food.


Macoun Club president Gabriel Levac sampling pond water

April 22, 2006: President’s Pond

In the cloudy hours before sustained rains set in, we set out to see what spring had brought. In the wetter and rockier places, Red (soft) Maples were in flower, while underfoot in a hard-maple forest, we found Spring Beauty.
Drawing of Phantom-midge larva
Most of us just have study-trees, but in spring our President has his own 300-square-foot vernal pond. He sampled the shallow water and found Cyclops copepods, red water mites, two kinds of amphipods (shrimp-like crustaceans), a pinkish flatworm, and a predatory phantom-midge larva (shown here in a drawing made by Rob from another Study-Area sample in 1976).


Apr. 29, 2006: The history of the Macoun Club’s nature study area, with Rob Lee

When the Study Area was new to us, we members took on the task of exploring it and enumerating its natural inhabitants. What birds nested there? What elusive mammals roamed its woods and fields? These are still questions that we ask, and the answers are often quite different. Now that so many things have changed in terms of habitat, invasive species, and human encroachment, those early lists and maps serve as baseline studies against wich we can make comparisons.


Photo of Blanding's Turtle under water

May 6, 2006: Field trip to Pakenham

How long can a turtle stay under water? We all sat down to watch one hiding under dead leaves on the bottom of a shallow pond. Without its yellow throat and chin, we never would have seen it. The turtle was probably wondering, from its place of concealment ‘How long can a bunch of kids sit still?’ The turtle won — we walked away after 35 minutes.


May 13, 2006: Making your own maps!

You can buy every kind of map but one — the map you draw yourself, to show what is important to you. Air photos, and satellite images downloaded off the internet are a great starting point. Lay a piece of clear plastic down over the photo and trace out your own house and neighbourhood streets, or local stream and pond, with a marker pen. Trace those lines onto paper — and now you have a base map. Make copies of it and add in other things you’d like to emphasize. Label the things that matter, like what the map shows, when, and where north is. That is how Macoun members originally made the Macoun Club’s own study-area maps.


Photo of landmark and Study Tree Maple Cross

May 27, 2006: Field trip to the Study Area

Killdeers had nested in the flat-rock area in the south, but something had eaten their eggs — we found the broken shells. On some of our study trees — only the Sugar Maples — the twigs were lined with hundreds of brown scale insects. It was an infestation of Parthenolecanium corni, an introduced species. The leaves and everything else underneath these insects were spattered with sticky, sweet honeydew.

American Toad tadpoles

June 10, 2006: Rescuing stranded tadpoles!

There were thousands of them crammed into the last remnants of a puddle in an abandoned sandpit at Pakenham. We scooped up all we could, and released them in a deeper, marshy pond nearby. In its water, we found larval salamanders. When we were finished, we climbed up on a high pine ridge for lunch. Having no buckets, we put out the fire using sphagnum moss sponges to bring water from a rain-pool in the rocks.


June 17, 2006: Annual Party, with awards, a challenging nature-quiz, and our favourite film (Rise and Fall of the Great Lakes, by Bill Mason).


Originally posted week-by-week by R.E. Lee; posted archivally at year’s end, and revised in August, 2008. Coding revised on May 25, 2016. All photos were taken by Macoun Club participants, unless otherwise indicated.