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.
Sept. 10, 2011: First meeting of the year
We heard a summer’s worth of nature observations from our many excited observers — a bear outside the tent, a Moose by the highway, a Cecropia Moth caterpillar on the street. Duncan had fed pieces of apple to a Snapping Turtle. Morgan reported a slender, completely white forest plant — Indian Pipe. We passed around last June’s Little Bear magazine and suggested some of these observations would make great little articles.
Sept. 17, 2011: Pakenham fossils and (wild) foods
It has been dry this summer, and the resulting low water levels opened much of the limestone flats at Pakenham village’s Five Arches Bridge Park to our examination. We found fossils embedded in the limestone and used an artist’s reconstruction of Ordovician life to turn the puzzling fragments and outlines in the rock into a mental picture of a living sea-world. There were corals, coral-like bryozoans, crinoid rings, and the long, straight shells of predatory nautiloids.
From there we moved a few miles to the Pakenham Hills for lunch. The granite hilltops were carpeted with moss and lichens, and there we found Red-Backed Salamanders and Russula mushrooms. Where soil had accumulated on the slopes were mixed forests and in a clearing we used a digging stick to uproot a handful of Hog Peanut tubers for an experimental meal at home. And in trickle of water in the valley bottom, we caught crayfish and frogs.
Sept. 24, 2011: Horned Larks of the high places
Some birds are fully adapted to cold alpine regions, but Horned Larks are little birds that nest in open places all over North America. Alaine Camfield spent six years studying one population up above the BC treeline, trying to understand how and why some of them live in such a forbidding environment. On a summer day the temperature can rise from below freezing to above 30 degrees C, and July snowstorms can deprive growing lark families of insect food; parents sometimes have to choose which of their offspring to raise, and which to let die.
It turned out that, in spite of the difficulties, Alaine’s hundred alpine birds were raising more young on average than a sister population being studied in Oregon. Her BC birds formed a stable population, while the lowland birds in Oregon were gradually dying out. Although her alpine site was not entirely safe from destructive human actions, the home ground of the other population was subject to a barrage of detrimental activities that ranged from ATVs to suburban development.
Oct. 1, 2011: The autumn woods on a chilly day
On a chilly, gray day — dry, at least, in the midst of a rainy week — we crossed the entire Study Area to visit our old Study Trees and select some new ones. One of the new trees was chosen because it had “a weird thing” growing in a shady recess; another because an expanded canker wound “looked like an open mouth.” During lunch, we found a small Eastern Gray Tree Frog on the ground. It readily climbed a tree for us, exposing the normally hidden orangey parts of the hind legs (which we have on other occasions seen flashed at avian predators).
We also visited a grove of wild apple trees — all that is left of a pioneer orchard — and found another visitor already up in one of the trees — a Porcupine.
Oct. 15, 2011: Research in James Bay
One of our favourite speakers, Roy John of the OFNC, told us about his participation in an international study on a shorebird whose population is in serious decline: the Red Knot. These birds are one of the world’s great travelers, nesting in arctic Canada and wintering in southern Argentina. Overfishing of a food supply species (horseshoe crabs — the birds plump up on the billions of crab eggs) in Chesapeake Bay is blamed for a 70% drop in numbers. The Knots are tagged with numbers readable at a distance, so that individuals can be tracked from one end of the hemisphere to the other.
Oct. 22, 2011: The sun comes out!
Rain, of which there has been so much recently, had finished not long before we arrived in the Pakenham Hills, and in the course of the next several hours the gloomy gray skies gave way to sunshine and warmth. We pushed hard to make it all the way to the Upper Pond, slowed down only slightly by lunch in the woods and the opportunity to discuss waterfowl with our old friends, the duck hunters. They’d shot a young Ring-Necked Duck, an adult Black Duck, and a Canada Goose.
The beaver dam was less difficult than usual to cross, as water levels were still low following a rather dry summer, but the stream coming down the hill was flowing easily; we all cupped our hands and drank from the little waterfall. Up on top of the hill, the pond we worked so hard to reach was clean and clear of summer growth, and beautiful in the sunshine.
Oct. 29, 2011: The oldest study-tree ever
For more than a thousand years a remarkable Ponderosa Pine flourished near Mesa Verde, at the ‘four corners’ of the United States. In 1903 it was cut down for lumber, but on striking the ground the massive trunk shattered, and the disgusted loggers walked away, leaving it to rot.
The tree had been a favourite of Colarado resident Enos Mills, and having, as he said, deciphered the autobiographies of many a century-old tree, Mills set to work with axe and saw, unveiling the hidden record of its life the huge tree had made by laying down a thin new layer of wood over its trunk, its branches, and its roots every year. From the 1047 annual rings at the base, he determined that the tree had begun growing in the year 856. There had been rich years, when the annual deposit of new wood was thick, and terribly hard years when the rings were almost microscopic. Old wounds, mostly healed over long centuries before, spoke of penetrating injuries from other trees toppling into it, of snow loads so heavy they snapped off limbs a foot thick, of earthquakes that had cracked the trunk itself. The most violent of these quakes had loosed a barrage of rocks off the neighbouring cliff: Mills discovered a five-pound rock embedded in the wood.
Man had left his mark, too, at first only lightly. Mill’s saw struck flint arrowheads that flew from bows drawn in the year 1486, and his dissection revealed that the first Spaniards to explore the region had hacked at the tree with steel axes. Men built fires against the base of the tree, and used it for target practice. Lastly, of course, they chopped it down — Mills had watched them do it.
Mills wrote a little book about this amazing tree, which is still remembered: The Story of a Thousand Year Pine. Rob read it out loud to the group today, and then we thought about our own study-trees, whose own stories we see unfolding from month to month and year to year.
Nov 5, 2011: Weird things in our woods
Macoun members hosted a special ONFC trip into our Study Area, explaining to our guests the natural features we have come to know so well — the 500-million-year-old ripple marks in an exposure of Nepean sandstone; glacial chattermarks only 20,000 years old in the same rock; and domed ant mounds in the swamp, perhaps only a decade old.
We revisited out Study Trees and explained how the various distortions of growth had come about, through disease, injury, and lack of light under a dense canopy. We hauled a weird-looking mushroom out of a deep recess in someone’s fallen oak and, once we had it in hand, it was identifiable as the Shellac Mushroom (also known as Ling Chi). It is said to possess all kinds of medicinal properties.
Nov. 12, 2011: The biological richness of the tropics
Herpetologist David Seburn and his family visited Cuba last winter, and with their varied interests they gave their attention to the wide variety of animal life on the largest island in the Caribbean. There were birds — some familiar to us here in Ontario, and some endemic to the island — and mammals, not all of which have survived several centuries of European colonization, being known only from bones. But Dave’s keenest interest shone forth when he got to the reptiles and amphibians. Cuba has frogs and snakes and turtles and lizards, but no salamanders. Why not? Since so many species are found nowhere else in the world but Cuba, Dave led a running discussion on endemism and how animals might originally get to an island, and once there, not get off again.
Nov 19, 2011: A return to the Study Area
Taking advantage of this year’s unusual dryness, we went right back to the swamp with the ant mounds for a closer look at the ants and their environment. Though we dug right to the core of several ash-swamp mounds, we couldn’t find any ants, but moving into the adjacent cedar swamp, we not only found ants, but workers tending ant larvae and root-aphids. The difference may have to do with moisture. Digging, we found water one foot (30 cm) below the ground surface in the ash swamp, whereas it was just a few inches down under the conifers. When mounds become too dry, perhaps the ants move downward.
We were also interested in what lay below the water-logged surface. Our shovel revealed peat to depths of two and three feet; we did not hit bottom in the cedar swamp. Though the mossy swamp floor was dry enough for walking, our holes rapidly filled with water.
The moss was so thick and soft and inviting, one member settled into a cozy nook beneath some upheaved roots — on the very doorstep of a porcupine den.
Nov. 26, 2011: Would you grab this insect?
It looks like a wasp, but is it? Tom Sherratt led us, step by step, to consider how to approach the problem. Sure, the creature is black-and-yellow, but if you count, it’s got only two wings, not four. And is the waist really narrow enough for it to be a wasp? Most conclusively, the head bears the stubby little antennae of a hover fly, not the long black antennae of a stinging insect.
But that’s not the end of the story — notice the left front leg, which differs from the others in being black, instead of yellow. When this fly wants to look like a wasp, it holds its two front legs out in front of its face, and may even wave them about the way a wasp does with its antennae. And Prof. Sherratt explained the elegantly simple experiments he does to determine which features best deter a potential predator. It turns out that after the misleading colours, it’s the fake antennae.
Dec. 3, 2011: The Beaver: where would it come up next?
In a lull in the rural deer-hunting season, we slipped into the Pakenham Hills for a few hours, making our lunch fires in a new place by the shore of Indian Creek. A beaver had built a new lodge up against the far shore — and was still plastering it against the winter cold and predators, judging by the muddy trackways up to the peak of the dome. It had also assembled a big submerged food pile out front. But it was a rather static scene, and we went about gathering wood and sharpening roasting sticks, and fussing over our food without paying much attention.
Those who finished eating early carefully probed the capacity of the inch-thick ice at the water’s edge, and with wet feet sent the resulting pieces skittering across the skin of new ice reaching across the whole creek, which made weirdly ringing chattering sounds. Eventually the beaver came out to see what was going on, alternately exposing itself to view and then withdrawing underwater. Where would it come up again next?
Dec. 10, 2011: Introduction to fishing
Macouners had a lively session identifying all the fish of Ontario, species by species, in a slide show David Chong had prepared for us. Usually somebody in the group knew the names, but sometimes even our most avid fishermen were stumped. David encouraged us to chip in with anything we already knew about, while introducing us to his great passion, which means figuring out where these fish naturally live and inducing them to take the bait he offers. He takes part in fishing tournaments which are, he explained, 98% catch-and-release events. But there’s more involved, as he has to bring his fish in for measurement alive and healthy. Points are deducted if a fish has died.
David also went over the main introduced species disturbing Ontario waters, ranging from sea lampreys to round gobies
Dec. 17, 2011: A return to the Study Area
Today we launched a new study-area-wide project, the mapping (by GPS) of American Beech trees. This one is no. 6. It is unique for its low, wide-spreading branches. Almost all our other Beech trees have long, branchless trunks with — so far — smooth, grey bark. We anticipate the destruction of most of these trees by beech-bark scale disease, which is already on the doorstep of Ottawa.
We checked on our individual Study-Trees, too — the oaks and maples and baby spruces.
Winter’s cold had arrived, but not the thick blanket of snow that makes for winter in a ecological sense here.
Jan. 7, 2012: Part 1. The life of the Beaver
Many, many times former member Katherine Kitching has crossed the Pakenham beaver dam with a pack on her back, carried it up the last, long hill on the trail, and made her camp on the shore of our favourite beaver pond. She has been known to sit up all night, wrapped in her sleeping bag, in her determination to see activity there in the moonlight. Years later, while working for Ontario’s provincial parks, she combined her experiences with considerable research to create a fascinating public-education program. Today she entertained and intrigued us with an abbreviated version.
For our older members who are starting to think about summer jobs, Katherine also recounted her experiences as a park naturalist at Algonquin and Murphy’s Point. She pointed out that parks differ not only in their natural environments, but in the character of their programming, so that it would be wise to know what you want. She explained, too, that there are trade-offs between the amount of outdoor time and the pay. And, she concluded, it was wonderful to work in a place where she could go canoeing every evening.
Jan. 14, 2012: A fine day, far below freezing
The latest storm brought enough additional snow for us to all get out our snowshoes for a trip into the Pakenham Hills. Along the way we noted how the regular walking tracks of a White-Tailed Deer became all bunched together in confusion in one place, with bits of White Cedar foliage scattered over the snow. The overhanging branches were too high for a deer walking to have reached; it must have reared up on its hind legs to browse. Nearby, a Snowshoe Hare had also paused in its movements to nip off a few Ironwood twig tips just a 6 inches above the snow.
All seemed safe and secure out on the beaver ponds, which, one would think, are surely well frozen after several bouts of deep cold (including this one, with a high of -18 degrees C, or zero Fahrenheit). But inadvertent probing revealed the weak spots in their usual places, tight against the shore, and over the Beaver lodge’s underwater entranceway.
So we finished up at Gerry’s cabin, drying off in front of a roaring fire in his woodstove and drinking cup after cup of the tea our host offered us.
Jan. 21, 2012: Do species respond differently to climate change?
We all know some of our local butterflies to see them, such as Monarch, Mourning Cloak, Tiger Swallowtail, and Cabbage White, which are typical of our region. A warming climate may allow — or compel — these and other insects to move northward. A new ecological pattern will develop. Which species are likely to succeed is the subject of Jay Fitzsimmons’ PhD studies at the University of Ottawa.
Jay had summarized the life histories of a dozen local butterflies on the back of custom-made picture cards and asked us to consider which species are most likely to be able to shift their distribution ranges northward. Several factors seemed to matter most: the size of the populations, the mobility of the adult butterfly, and the availability of particular food plants in their new home.
We got to keep the cards, which are beautiful and interesting!
Jan. 28, 2012: Fresh snow, for animal tracks and for kids to play in
Conditions seemed poor — there’d been freezing rain, which left an ice crust, followed by a little wet snow. But the snow ended in the night, which meant that all the creatures that are out and moving at dawn, had left their mark on the clean, new surface. Though we scarcely saw a living creature (other than birds in the air), by the tracks we knew we were sharing our Study Area woods with White-Tailed Deer, Snowshoe Hares, Red Squirrels and Gray Squirrels, Deer Mice and weasels, Raccoons and Ruffed Grouse.
And if any of these creatures were to take up our trail of snowshoe tracks, they would see that we had peered into Porcupine dens, chopped holes in the ice (to sample for aquatic invertebrates), and spent a lot of effort trying to climb ridiculously small hills of snow where someone had stood defiantly on top.
Feb 4, 2012. EAB: There are no survivors . . . but there is hope
For nearly 10 years we have been watching and worrying about the Emerald Ash Borer as it spreads from its starting point in Detroit, Michigan. We first learned about this invasive species from quarantine entomologist Bruce Gill back then, and today he came in to give us an update.
Bruce brought in samples of ash wood completely stripped of their cambium by the beetle larvae, and bark punctured by the characteristic D-shaped holes. He also had sample bottles filled with larvae and pinned specimens of the beetles themselves, which we examined under a microscope. (For more pictures, see the account of March 6, 2010.)
The beetle jumped the main barrier set up to stop it several years ago. In Ottawa it has spread into most neighbourhoods in the city, and in some whole streets are being cleared of trees this winter. Bruce confirmed what we have heard from other biologists: there are no survivors in the world of native ash trees. But he described how other entomologists have tackled two important questions: how to detect the arrival of this insect in new locations, and how to control its population so that ash trees may survive. The answer to both questions appears to be wasps.
There is a native Canadian wasp that very efficiently hunts down wood-boring beetles like this one, and brings them back to its nest. Watching at the nests will bring the species to light years before it becomes numerous enough to be caught in man-made traps. And searches in China, where the Emerald Ash Borer comes from, have resulted in the discovery of two tiny parasitic wasps that probably keep the beetle under such tight control there that it has always been considered rare. One of these wasps, which are new to science, has been released in the United States, and there are hopeful signs that it may someday exert control here, too, wherever the ash borer has not invaded.
Feb. 11, 2012: Ice and snow and sun and cold
Starting with temperatures around minus 20 degrees C, we strode confidently into the Pakenham woods, and when we arrived at our favourite winter lunchplace, the clouds all blew away and the sunshine poured down. It was still cold. Certainly we were comfortable, and lounged about in our parkas and snow suits. But we had to bare our hands to eat, and whenever we had to hold them in even our own shade, or a gust of wind whipped down over the trees, it was a trial. Our group of 20 made five fires for cooking and warmth.
On our trip into the woods, during lunch, and afterward as we pushed on as far as the well remembered “narrows ice-fall” (see Dec. 18th, 2010) we noted a variety of natural features. There were many old tracks, sunken into the snow, and a very few delicate footprints made even as we watched the animal, such as the tracks of Wild Turkey and Ruffed Grouse. We disturbed a Pileated Woodpecker that swooped away through the forest. Around the pond edges were banks of Leatherleaf shrubs (still holding their leaves) and Speckled Alder, with tight, hard catkins waiting for spring.
There was a mass of ice at the narrows, rather than curtains of icicles as in past years. In the few open spaces leading back into the ribbed and columned structure were dozens of snow fleas, the only ones seen anywhere all day.
Feb. 18, 2012 (morning meeting): The “Students on Ice” program
Tim Straka came to tell us about the Students on Ice program he works for, which takes young people from Canada and many other countries to the polar regions for a unique educational perspective. He sounded us out on our knowledge of the differences between the Arctic and Antarctic and their respective faunas, and then talked about what it’s like to actually be there. He told us how on arrival in Antarctica, students were immediately sent out to find a place alone where they could experience the profound silence of that ice- and rock-bound land, often for the first time in their lives.
Then-and-now pictures of an Antarctic landscape taken nearly a hundred years apart, and a series of necessarily more recent satellite images, showed how the region has changed dramatically with the advance of global warming; drilling deep into the glacial ice revealed the connection between carbon-dioxide concentrations and atmospheric temperatures going back more than a million years.
It didn’t come up at the meeting, but two former Macoun Club leaders, David Gray and Paul Hamilton, are featured on the program’s website as Expedition Educators.
Feb. 18, 2012 (special evening trip): Counting Mudpuppies on a winter’s night
Every Friday night all winter Fred Schueler invites the public to join him in surveying for Mudpuppies in a short stretch of Kemptville Creek, a 45-minute drive south of Ottawa — but we requested a special Saturday event. Two of our Macouners brought their own hip waders and strode into the dark water with Fred’s huge light and a long-handled dipnet. They found 42 of these big, fully aquatic salamanders that hunt for food here only in winter.
Feb. 25, 2012: Eagles in the winter sky
We were just finishing up lunch and putting out our fire when Gerry happened by. He told us there’d been seven eagles feeding on dead animals in front of his cabin, so we put on our snowshoes and hurried over. Three of the big birds came sliding down the wind toward us while we were still in the forest, and wheeled about overhead on the updrafts.
Mar. 3, 2012: Introduction to Arctic botany
Last summmer Paul Sokoloff was part of a small team of botanists from the Canadian Museum of Nature on an expedition to Victoria Island — the biggest one in the western archipelago — to collect specimens for the national herbarium. Specific locations were chosen to fill in gaps in our scientific knowledge of the vast Arctic bioregion. In the past, people have naturally sampled the environments either along their travel routes, or at the widely scattered settlements, so plant distribution maps tend to show where the collectors have been, rather than where the plants were.
Paul described what it takes to get there and be self-sufficient on the land, how he digs up plants and preserves them. Herbarium specimens enable scientists to know exactly what species were living in a given place and time by re-examining the material and consulting the associated data. Our understanding of the plants, their ecosystems, and changes of global scale (such as warming climate and spread of invasive species) grows out of such work.
Paul had brought in a plant press and dried, pressed specimens, and challenged us to match them up with his photographs. You might think it would be hard to do, but Macouners got it right time after time.
Mar. 24, 2012: The life stories of three Study Trees
Macouners have chosen hundreds of study-trees since 1991-92, but there are three that have been near and dear to Macoun Club leaders. All three trees have had dramatic lives, and we have been there to see and care.
Rob has been following an Ironwood practically since it sprouted; it is now over 18 feet tall! But its twin is almost twice as big. In its early life, Rob’s tree was used as a handy scraping post by a deer with antlers and it almost died. Only because a bud sprouted just above the roots was the tree able to re-grow, and tall though it is, it has fallen behind in its twin companion in their race for the light of the sun.
Barbara chose a mature White Ash because it had been split open top to bottom by lightning, and the limber slivers of wood flexed open and closed in the wind like an accordion. It had lived 25 years in that condition, as we determined by counting annual rings in the scar around the wound, but it weakened and sagged over soon after she chose it. The top got hung up in a neighbouring tree, and took years to come down.
Diane chose a tall Trembling Aspen and took pleasure in seeing it flower and leaf out every spring. It had survived the attack of a Beaver, which had chewed a deep notch into the base, and tolerated the invasion of a Carpenter Ant colony through the wound. But after 15 years it was struck by lightning and suddenly died. The leaves shriveled up and turned brown; the tree stood bare and stark in a green forest. With the life gone out of it, the trunk yielded to gravity and leaned more and more every month. One day Diane found most of her tree lying on the ground, though the stub stands to this day.
Through seeing so many tree’s major life events, we have learned to interpret similar signs in other trees, and can help new Macouners interpret their trees’ markings and shapes, for all trees must strive to overcome disease and disaster.
Mar. 31, 2012: A bright spring day at Pakenham
The snow and ice is gone a month early, and a Song Sparrow was singing in the grassy margin of the creek where we made our lunch fire. Below the overflowing beaver dam Rob scooped up some small bits of debris that were moving around under water. Looking closely in puzzlement, Macouners were astonished to see a little larval head and six legs poking out one end — a Caddisfly larva in the protective case it had made!
In even the tiniest of streams we found crowds of blackfly larvae on the underside of submerged twigs; in large puddles and pools, mosquito wrigglers. On land we looked under logs and pulled up native millipedes and invasive earthworms. One leader found a plump Blue Spotted Salamander.
The trip was almost over when a boy with experience in Algonquin Park noticed a cluster of large, brown pellets that hadn’t been in the trail earlier and identified them as moose droppings. A girl with experience in the Macoun Club then pointed out moose tracks in the dirt. And someone else on his first trip with us looked up and said, “There’s the Moose!”
It’s a young bull with spike antlers. Local people say it’s been ranging across forest and farmland all the way to Almonte (10 km away) since last September.
Apr. 14, 2012: Loons still face acidified lakes
Rob Alvo has studied the fate of Common Loons in the Sudbury region across a span of 20-plus years. He began by exploring our group’s knowledge of the birds, and then explored what their needs are when it comes to raising families. It is obvious, when you think about it, that when loon chicks are newly hatched balls of fluff, the parents must feed them tiny food items — insect larvae. As they grow, the chicks can handle progressively larger prey, such as crayfish and small fish. So it stands to reason that a lake must provide loon food in each of these size classes. And normally they do.
In lakes that are not naturally protected against acidification by industrial pollutants falling as rain, some types of creatures die out. Rob found that loon parents on such lakes hunted harder for food for their chicks, and found less. They were unable to raise their families successfully. The chicks died.
Apr. 21, 2012: One of the Study Area’s biggest pines is down
We caught a lull in the rain for a short field trip to the Sarsaparilla Trail. Down at the observation dock, one pair of Canada Geese hurried over in hopes of handouts, but we offered none. While the birds swam about literally within arm’s reach, we began to notice differences between their seemingly identical plumages. One had a longer neck, with a fuller white cheek patch; the smaller one’s cheek patch had a slightly different shape, too. Distinguishing individuals in nature is one of our great interests.
Moving back into the woods, we came upon one of the Study Area’s biggest White Pine trees (about 76 cm diameter, vs. 86 cm for the largest). It lay broken and brown-needled on the ground. Macouners explored it from base to tip, clambering among the branches, but when it came to finding where the log came from, they were “stumped.” Finally, back to a huge pine trunk, Rob Lee suggested they look up. The tree had broken off at a weak point 30 feet above the ground.
Apr. 28, 2012: Bones!
Some people’s eyes just light up when the subject is bones, and we had them both in the person of our speaker, and among our members. Mary Beth Pongrac brought in a great armload of skulls, spinal columns, and leg bones, and invited us to identify them. She had collected most of them (Black Bear, Fisher, Long-tailed Weasel) from wild places around Ottawa and eastern Ontario, with a few (dolphin and seal spines, pelican leg bone) from beaches and shores in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and on the eastern seaboard of the USA. She had deer, moose, and caribou antlers, and sometimes skulls with antlers attached.
Every specimen offered insights into the animal’s lifestyle and circumstances, from a bear who had worn his canines down into useless stubs, to a delicate Star-nosed Mole with tweezer-like incisors. Sometimes we could tell which were males and which females, or tell whether an animal had been young or old.
When asked who had ever seen a Moose, it seemed that every hand shot up. We all did, just a month ago (March 31st).
May 5, 2012: Bird Banding During the Spring Migration (see notice of new film on May 16th, above)
Whenever you look up information on migratory birds — where they go in winter and summer, what routes they follow, how long they live — you are tapping into a fund of knowledge that has been built up bird-by-bird for a hundred years. Dedicated people all over North America gently capture wild birds, put numbered bands on their legs, and release them in the hopes that they will come into someone’s hands again someday. The number on the band links the bird’s starting point with its next interaction with human beings, which can be many years and thousands of miles apart.
Volunteers at Ottawa’s Innis Point Bird Banding Station took our group on a tour of their delicate nets, which are strung up on poles in light woods, and disentangled a number of small birds — Blue Jays and White Crowned Sparrows and even Starlings. Each was slipped into a small cloth carrying sack and taken back to a central building for banding.
There, one person fitted each bird in turn with an aluminum band, while another recorded standard information: the type of bird, its weight, and its state of health. Birdwatchers make their identifications at a distance with the help of handy field guides, but bird-banders refer to detailed manuals that require them to examine the shape of particular feather tips and the colours of the bill and iris of the eye to determine age and sex.
And one by one the birds were taken outside and released. One was observed to fly up into a tree and peck briefly at its shiny new leg band, before resuming its day in the wild.
May 12, 2012: Aquatic life in a city park
The Macoun Club joined a “kid friendly” OFNC trip to Brewer Park, right beside the Rideau River at Bronson Avenue. Experienced Macoun members found themselves in demand for catching things and explaining them to younger children from the neighbourhood. Bigger animals, like these two frogs (a Bull Frog and a Green) and a Painted Turtle, were brought back to a large aquarium. Smaller creatures, such as Damselfly nymphs, were held up in small jars for viewing.
Meanwhile, birds were singing on every side: a Song Sparrow, Red-Winged Blackbirds, and Baltimore Orioles. A sweetly perfumed Choke Cherry shrub was just behind us; in front, an oval pond ringed with cattails and kids, and beyond, the river.
There were even boulders for the geologically minded to examine — local in origin, but brought in and placed along the paths by landscape designers. Still, we could examine them for fossils (none), erosional features (glacial faceting and water-mediated abrasion), and current life forms (lichens of six different kinds). There was also a large lump of rusted iron embedded in the limestone — an ancient meteorite, maybe?
May 26, 2012: Which wasp will control the pest?
When an invasive species has just turned up, it is still possible to get rid of it by physically getting rid of it. But what do you do when it has spread out over the whole country and grown astronomically in numbers?
One of the smartest methods is to find a biological control agent. Usually one has to go to the pest’s homeland to find it. But in the case of Canada’s valuable mustard crop, Canola, and the Diamondback Moth whose caterpillar sometimes breaks out and devastates it — both imported from the Mediterranean area — there are at least two parasitic wasps already here, native to Ontario.
Under mentors at Agriculture and Agrifoods Canada, Macoun member Adamo Young has undertaken a series of experiments on these insects, trying to tease out the answer as to which tiny wasp will better serve the purpose of control. He explained how he set up his experiments, what he learned as he proceded, and where he plans to go next with this project.
June 2, 2012: What comes out on a wet day in the woods?
What comes out? This time, it was more orange-slimed slugs than we’ve ever seen before — as many as 15 gliding over a single 1-metre length of a barkless log. They were up in the trees, on the ground, and munching on fungi. This is an introduced species, apparently in the midst of a population boom.
There was also a big Snapping Turtle, right on a dirt path in the woods. Its tracks showed it had walked right down the path like any other user, to the point where it was 200 to 300 metres (or yards) from the nearest water. It was surely on its way to lay eggs somewhere, or on its way back.
Mosquitoes were out, but in such low numbers that Macouners chased down each one, in hopes of having Rob identify it. All, he noted, were in the genus Aedes.
June 9, 2012: Whales in their world
Have you ever been whale-watching? Time slows while you wait and watch and look out over the empty sea, and then suddenly a huge animal breaks the surface, blows, rolls forward and disappears. You may not see it again. What is it doing underwater? Where is it going? How does it relate to other whales? What is its world?
Men have been killing whales for hundreds of years, but though they came very close to taking every individual of some species, they have taught us essentially nothing about the life of whales.
You can watch for whales, but you really can’t watch them the way you can birds or lions or butterflies. The ocean is vast, deep, and dark. Yet the whales know their way around it, and some of them have home hunting grounds. Shane Gero is the lead researcher studying Sperm Whales groups that live off Dominca, in the Caribbean, since 2005.
Seven years is a long time, but Sperm Whales live on a time scale ten times longer, and from that perspective Shane has had only a brief glimpse into their lives. He and his colleagues have worked out ways of knowing which whale is which, both at the surface and, incredibly, when are under it. His family groups are basically all females — grandmothers – mothers – calves; at 10 to 12 years of age the males all go away to live alone in polar seas.
“But why do the males have to leave?” our members kept asking. Do they want to go? Shane described how one of the calves he knows well is living out the answer. He — this whale — is being pushed out by his family, farther and farther, a little bit more each year.
Will this teenager come back when he’s 30? What is his life going to be like in those unknown years? Will he remember his family and come back to them? Would they remember him? After all, the whole world is his to explore, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans.
Shane wants to be there to find out, and hopes that some of our members who may have become fellow marine biologists will be there too.
June 16, 2012: Getting up close to the wildlife
We found something for everyone at Pakenham today — plant person, entomologist, birder, ichthyologist. On a sandy ridge, little conical pits had even our experienced members puzzled, until Rob called for some ants. Barbara knew where to look and we dropped some in each hole; instantly there was a mini-explosion of sand, and one of the hapless ants was dragged out down out of sight, while the survivors struggled to escape up the walls of sliding sand. Ant Lions! We dug one out and someone made a drawing of the creature’s impressive jaws.
By lunchtime it had become rather warm, so Rob donned a diving mask and plunged into the pool below the waterfall. He found himself swimming through schools of shiners, and handed the mask over to someone else. But it was the girl with the plastic bag who finally figured out how to catch the fish (though the only species she could capture was the Pumpkinseed sunfish).
For the botanist, we found Poison Ivy in bloom; for the birder, two Phoebe nests, one on a natural rock face over the water. Mammalogists plundered a trapper’s carcass pile, coming away with a bunch of fairly clean Coyote, Beaver, and Raccoon skulls.
June 23, 2012: The end of another Macoun Club year
The end-of-year party is when we formally recognize members for their contributions to the Macoun Club — writing articles or making drawings for publication in The Little Bear, developing projects for the OFNC Soiree, and taking part in activities generally. New members received cloth badges; those who already have one but merit another received personalized Honour Certificates.
On the previous week’s field trip we found a symmetrical bone that reminded us of a chicken’s wishbone, but it was larger, more robust, and differed in the shape of its parts, too. We sent this photo to Mary Beth Pongrac, who talked to us about bones of all kinds on April 28th, and she suggested that it was indeed from a bird. Remembering just where our specimen was found, we think that it is most likely a Canada Goose’s furcula, or wishbone.
Rob also drew attention to a street-by-street map of Ottawa, available online, that shows how badly your neighbourhood is infested by Emerald Ash Borer. You can find it through our Links and Resources page, at left.
We wrapped up with a 45-year-old Macoun Club tradition, Bill Mason’s film “Rise and Fall of the Great Lakes.” And then a tradition that is even older — sharing cakes and cookies and fruit at lunchtime.
Revised on July 20, 2013, by R.E. Lee. All photos were taken by Macoun Club participants.