What the Macoun Field Club did in 2006-07

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 16th, 2006

Our first full field trip of the year! We drove out to the village of Pakenham, on eastern Ontario’s Mississippi River, and searched the limestone riverbank for fossils. Gradually we built up a picture in mind of a shallow sea-bottom, sometimes wafted into ripples by the wind-driven waves above, the mud sprouting knee-high forests of “antler corals” (bryozoans). In places low domes of stromatolites (blue-green algae) made for a lumpy surface. Predatory nautiloids (like squids, but with a long tapering shell floating behind them — a 24-inch-long specimen is pictured below) must have prowled for creatures too soft to have been preserved here.

Fossil orthocone (nautiloid) in cross-section

September 23rd, 2006

For this nature-art workshop with Susan Laurie-Bourke, we each made our own pocket-sized sketch pads, and then took them outdoors for a half-hour of field sketching in the gardens behind the building. We moved from plant to plant, sketching blossoms, rain-chilled bumblebees, and clusters of wild grapes.

(To make our instant sketch pads, we folded an ordinary piece of paper in half, three times; then stapled it to a piece of cereal-box cardboard the same size. The pages were freed up by slitting the folded edges with a knife. The resulting sketch pad fitted in the palm of the hand, and was easily slipped into a pocket.)

September 30th, 2006: Field trip to our Nature Study Area in Ottawa’s western Greenbelt

Photo of fossil sedimentary scour feature in Nepean (Cambrian) sandstone

Right away we got into the local geology, searching a flat expanse of Nepean sandstone for sedimentary and glacial features, and trying to understand each of them. We found ancient ripple-marks and in-filled scours, from when this was an ocean-side beach, almost 500 million years ago. The scours look like glacial chattermarks, but a 10x hand lens reveals eroding sediment layers with different-sized sand grains, not crescentic fractures.

Our next planned stop was the Study-Tree Woods, a 10-acre hardwood forest a half-mile to the north. Here new members picked their own study trees, and old members checked up on theirs. The forest was still green inside; only the outside had turned orange.

October 14th, 2006

A multi-part meeting, starting with a nature quiz on the unique kinds of knowledge and experience that come with being in Macoun Club

Next, Rob read aloud from an old, old book, “The Story of a Thousand Year Pine”, by Enos Mills. This original Study-Tree had had a long and eventful life, which was revealed, after it was felled, by Mills’ patient investigations with axe, saw, and magnifier. He found stone arrowheads and lead bullets, woodpecker holes and earthquake fractures, all healed over and covered up by new wood for centuries. His magnifying lens enabled Mills to count even the finest annual rings and, by seeing which rings were broken, and which grew around the wounds, determine the year in which each event had occurred.

And then finally we were ready to go outside, where Annie Bélair led us around the Fletcher Wildlife Garden and explained how natural features had been restored, step by step, over the past 15 years.

October 21st, 2006

Photo of old Maple Borer wound on tree trunk

Fully six hours in the Study Area! We focused on interpreting tree wounds, as a means of determining our Study-Trees’ life histories. Most common were frost cracks in the bark, with their series of parallel healing lines on each side, and half-healed-over branch stubs. Porcupines had nibbled here and there, and clipped off small branches. Some trees had been thoroughly, but only superficially, clawed by climbing animals. After 20 years, however, a Paper Birch still bears the scars of a knife-wielding vandal. A tall White Pine had been blasted apart by lightning, while nearby a Trembling Aspen only had its bark blown away in strips (though it died as a result). Some trees had very old wounds that we could not guess at, but we recognize the one pictured at right as the L-shaped wound started probably 50 years ago by the larva of a Sugar Maple Borer, Glycobius speciosus.

October 28th, 2006

Every time we go to our Nature Study Area, we see all kinds of things that should be recorded, so we make notes. We write down our observations in an archival Nature-Journal devoted to this one area. Today we transferred some of our latest sketches of our study-trees, done in the field last weekend, to customized NatureJournal pages.

November 4, 2006

Photo of Macoun member Amber Stewart pointing to pine tree ripped open by Black Bear marking territory

A long hike for a chill, dreary day — all the way to Mary’s narrows, and back by way of the old fields. We made a cluster of three little lunch fires on a rock shelf by Edith’s Pond. We were looking particularly at wounds on trees, trying to deduce their stories from the evidence before us. Old barbed wire fences emerging from the middle of big trees are now an old story for us, but inspecting exposed wood on a Red Maple, we found a spattering of lead pellets from a shotgun. Tugging at a piece of antique farm machinery (a drag harrow) that had recently been leaned up against a Bur Oak, we saw that already the heavy iron has left an imprint in the growing trunk. We will watch to see how it turns out. And we found the tooth punctures and lines of wood fibers torn by a bear’s claws, when it nearly ripped a conifer sapling in half while marking it. Shown here, Amber Stewart pointing to such a tree in these same woods, when the claw marks were still fresh, in 1988.

November 11, 2006

It is a shame that we know so few of our great naturalists (other than John Macoun, of course) even by name! Who among our members had heard of frère Marie-Victorin before Martha Camfield introduced his memory to us today? This botanist of international reputation founded the Botanical Gardens of Montreal, and wrote the classic work, Flore Laurentienne. This comprehensive flora is relevant to much of northeastern North America. Though we may consider its taxonomy outdated, its enduring interest is literally in the fine print. Marie-Victorin compiled a wide range of information about individual species, which any naturalist would be keen to have — what animals eat or otherwise use the plant, what uses the pioneers of Quebec put it to, and even what superstitions were connected with it. In a culture that is deeply estranged from the natural world, it is astonishing to see how much a part of life the plant world was, only a few generations back.

Then it was time to hurry back to the Sarsaparilla Trail, to await the great numbers of Canada Geese that, having filled up on spilled grain in outlying farmlands, flock to the Big Pond every night at this season, until freeze-up. In the half-hour after sunset, more than 2000 geese swept in a circle overhead and then splashed down. We watched until the last flocks to arrive were just about lost in the gray gloom. Three days later the pond froze over.


November 18, 2006

Photo of Camel CricketWe splashed across an abandoned beaverdam to get to our Study-Tree Woods, where Madeleine and Diane both discovered that their trees had fallen down! This was expected, because of their feeble condition on our last visit, but the big event is always a great surprise. We determined that Madeleine’s Basswood had been 58 feet tall, and Diane’s Trembling Aspen, 71 feet. Everyone else’s tree seemed to be OK. While other people were looking up at them, Peter was looking down. Under a small slab of dolomite he found (and photographed) a Camel Cricket (shown here several times life size).

November 25, 2006

Photo of Macoun Club group wading into the Macoun Marsh, Ottawa

We met at the Macoun Marsh in Beechwood Cemetery for a mini-field-trip, under the guidance of Mike Leveillé. This little marsh is the last remnant of a once extensive wetland that has been filled in and built over for a hundred years. If you drive along the adjacent stretch of St. Laurent Boulevard, you are driving over what was once a rich ecosystem. Mike and his students from the nearby Educarium have been investigating the biodiversity of the minute percentage (about 1 acre) that is left — and they have identified over 1000 species of plants, animals, and fungi! Our group plunged right in through the icy surface and dredged up some snails and aquatic snow fleas, but these were all familiar species for Mike and his students.


December 2, 2006

Macouners at glacial erratic

With the Study Area’s first snow fresh on the ground, for once we had more to do with mammals than birds. We saw the tracks of Red Fox, Fisher, Raccoon, White-taild Deer, and Domestic Cat; and sighted a Meadow Vole, a Porcupine, a Red Squirrel and one Cottontail Rabbit. We saw millions of insects, too — Snow Fleas and Brown Scale crawlers. One sowbug (isopod crustacean) too. Perhaps the discovery of a new patch of Garlic Mustard poking up through the snow will turn out to be our most important observation of the day, as this invasive alien plant threatens to change our ecosystems.

But the highlight was all the fun, feeling the ice slowly give way underfoot on every puddle, and having a huge glacial erratic in the Study Tree Woods to climb up and over.


December 9, 2006

Photo of speaker Pat Whitridge and son Julien

Is looking a bird up in a birdbook like trying to spell a word by using a dictionary? Pat Whitridge (shown here with her son Julien, who is a Macoun member) gave us some basic lessons in what to focus on when you see a new bird, and how to use different kinds of birdbooks. Sometimes all you get to see is a silhouette. Even when there’s vivid colour, you may have to choose between look-alikes. Pat talked about where to see birds around here, how to make a life list, and asked us what we thought was Ottawa’s most abundant bird on the October bird census (answer — Canada Goose).


January 6, 2007

Photo of Macoun leader AJ Fedoruk with picture of bat

Most of us have heard of the common Little Brown Bat, but did you know there are also Big Brown Bats, Hoary Bats, and even Red Bats in Ontario? And have you seen how fluttery and jerky bats are in flight? Biologist A.J. Fedoruk explained that this isn’t poor flying, but some of the best. The skin-wings of bats are so much more flexible than the stiffly feathered wings of birds that they can twist and turn far more effectively. A.J. has studied bats in many parts of the world, and her stories reminded us how important bats (both insectivores and fruit-eaters) are ecologically.


January 13, 2007

Photo of Macoun member making lunch fire on ice

What would you do with a perfect winter day (-8 degrees C, blue skies, and wind) that lacked snow? We’ve had an extraordinary, extended January thaw that came at the start of winter, rather than in the middle of it. Creeks are running at spring levels, and pond ice is mostly uncertain. We headed out to the Pakenham Hills and found a place where a tall hill had kept a pond in the shade, and the ice was good! We ran and slid and fell and ran some more. We played with pieces of ice we broke out of the weaker shoreline, but kept away from the beaver lodge with its food pile, and the dam, where ice can also be thin. Many hands contributed to this special fire on the ice — and no, it didn’t melt a hole down into the water.

January 20, 2007

Photo of Gina Schroeder giving talk

On our field trips we keep running up against introduced species that have become ecological problems, such as Butternut Canker and Gypsy Moths. Today Gina Schroeder gave us an overview of where these things come from, and why they’re so relentlessly on the move. “There are many more invasive plants and animals than most of us knew about,” said one boy afterward; “Even everyday species like house cats are invasives — they come from Asia.” Sometimes a species has been deliberately brought in for some economic purpose, like the Gypsy Moth (to make silk) or the White Mulberry (for silkworm caterpillars to eat), but these days there is a flood of accidental introductions because of the enormous increase in global trade in other goods. Because rich countries import the most, they are getting most of the problems.


January 27, 2007

Photo of Hugo Kitching and Ian Jason-Byerley feeding the lunch fire

An icy cold winter tday became comfortable and friendly once we had some lunch fires going. Here, former member Hugo (from the 1990s) and current member Ian work together on their fire. We had tried crossing the big cedar swamp near Rob’s house, but under the snow the ice was soft and breaking underfoot, so we returned to high ground. It took an hour to eat and clean up, and then we were off through a maple forest. Signs of activity in the snow ahead led us to check out a hollow Butternut tree — a Porcupine was holed up inside! We could hear it clawing its way up the interior walls, when all of a sudden it slid back down to the bottom and we could see it!


February 3, 2007

Photo of Macoun member Julien Quesnel with speaker Aaron Philips

Carleton University grad students Aaron Phillips (shown here) and Dave Mans encouraged Macouners to assess the characteristics of minerals that we can use to identify them — colour, shape, hardness, and streak. We smashed some with a hammer, scraped others across a streak plate, and dripped acid on others. We compared the heft (density) of rocks that looked alike but weren’t. One we could identify by taste.

At right, chunks of dark grey hematite, a pink feldspar crystal, and some native copper. What do you think the blue mineral was?


February 10, 2007

Photo of Black-backed Woodpecker

The highlight of our trip to the Study Area was not the wonderful new lichen species for our list (Ramalina americana), not the four Porcupines we sighted, and not even lunch, but a female Black-Backed Three-Toed Woodpecker. This beautiful bird of the boreal forest is an uncommon visitor, and only in winter. It specializes in flaking away all the bark scales from dead or dying conifers, to get at the bark-beetle larvae underneath. Afterward, the trunks look reddened. It was working away on Jack Pines (another boreal species, planted here by foresters) at the junction of two ski trails, so lots of people have a chance to see it.


February 17, 2007

We found our long-lost nature library, and pitched in to put all 1500 books back on their shelves. Some of us found our old favourites, and others jumped on some exciting new titles. We connected to the internet and used the Macoun Club’s subject index to pick out still more books.

February 24, 2007

Photo of fresh Pileated Woodpecker holes in Eastern White Cedar

Two weeks after we first saw the Black-Backed Woodpecker, we found her again, in the same place! We also watched a Pileated Woodpecker drilling deep holes into a live Eastern White Cedar (shown at left). There were deer in the background, and Porcupines in dens. We spent much of our time down in the “great spotted swamp”, trying to keep off of weak ice.

March 3, 2007

Scale-insect crawlers (Parthenolecanium corni)

Fuad Tanha and fellow graduate student Feraz talked about plants (showing us video clips from a website), followed with samples of live plant pests that we could examine under low-power microscopes. Rob brought in Sugar Maple twigs whose bark was reddened with hundreds of overwintering scale-insect crawlers (shown at right).

These crawlers have been found on many of our study trees; come spring, they will start to suck sap and grow into sedentary adults. We knew that they had survived this winter’s deep cold (often -25 degrees C) when some of them felt the warmth of our illumination lamps and started to crawl around.


April 21, 2007

Macoun Club group at pond shore

The ponds were alive with all kinds of creatures — minnows making nests, Canada Geese sitting on their eggs, leeches probing about. And on land, we saw a herd of a dozen deer. Some study-trees (elm) were in flower. We found snakes and a salamander. There was something going on wherever we looked. And then the sun went down, and the frogs began to chorus in earnest.

In this picture, the group is on the rather overgrown Pond 6 beaver dam at the northern edge of the Study Area, with Red Pine plantations in the background.


April 28, 2007

Photo of Richard Pither giving talk

To really understand what’s going on in nature, you have to figure out who you’re dealing with on the individual level. In the case of Woodland Caribou in northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Richard Pither and his colleagues have been putting radio collars on the animals and tracking their movements, as well as collecting material for DNA analysis to figure out which groups of animals are distinct.


May 5, 2007

Maoun members on floating bog

Between the season of ice and the launch of the mosquitoes, Macouners explored a floating bog in the Pakenham Hills. They had to swim across the wide moat and then scramble out of the water — only to find that “sinking bog” might have been a better name for this environment. Though the main pond still held an icy chill, water trapped on top of the sphagnum mat had warmed up remarkably under the hot spring sun.

On more solid ground, we saw a Mourning Cloak butterfly, Round-lobed Hepatica in full flower, and Trailing Arbutus just finished blooming (still fragrant).


May 26, 2007

Photo of notebook covers

Everything we see, notice and remember at our Study Area is recorded in the Macoun Club’s nature notebook, The NatureJournal. The 2006 edition fills 300 pages, almost twice as much as 2005! It’s all indexed, and organized with a Table of Contents. Rob explained that beyond being a great collection of memories, specific pieces of information can be extracted from the notebook woven together by a writer to make a story — a history — of the natural world in this place.

This issue deals a lot with birds, certain insects (particularly scales), and what Rob indexes under “landscape features”. These include environmental conditions, such as snow cover and water levels, ecological units such as particular cedar swamps, and human activities, whether current or practically archaeological, such as rail fences, pioneer quarries, and lilacs.



Originally posted weekly by R.E. Lee; revised in August 2008. Coding revised in May and June, 2016. All photos were taken by Macoun Club participants, unless otherwise indicated.