What the Macoun Field Club did in 2014-15
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. 13, 2014: Everyone here’s interested in nature!
With a lot of new members, we began by having the four leaders introduce themselves — what their interests are, their backgrounds, and how they got involved with the Macoun Club. Then we asked each child or young person in the room to give their name and tell us their biggest interests in nature.
Some were very specific: “fish;” “birds, bones, and fossils;” “aquatic insects.” Othes said they were just happy to be out in nature. Several named rocks and minerals (and fossils), and mammals were popular.
Then we called for observations. Rob led off with the Blue-spotted Salamander he’d meant to pick up from under its favourite piece of wood and bring in this morning, only to find it was being guarded by a nest of yellowjacket wasps. Jordan had been to New Orleans recently and reported Alligators, which growled ferociously but seemed to subsist on marshmallows. Gabriel recounted the highlight of his recent birding trip to Prince Edward County — an out-of-range Glossy Ibis! Rob outlined its shape and size with his hands, and we all looked around at each other’s clothing for something to represent its colour.
Rob told the group what members might gain from their time in the Macoun Club. He said he’d like to see them develop the ability to be comfortable in the wild outdoors, not just the sense of staying warm and dry, but confident of knowing where they are and how to proceed. Beyond that, he hoped they would become exceptional and perceptive observers of the natural world, like fondly remembered Macouners from other years.
Sept. 20, 2014: Late Summer Wildlife of the Study Area
Owing to the large turnout, we split into three groups, each with its own leader, and took different routes to get to a common lunch place among our Study Trees. Some explored more than others, requiring a compass to get through an extensive pine plantation with a dense understory of introduced Glossy Buckthorn, and seeing things no one else did, such as a big Porucpine going up into a Bur Oak. It kept pausing to look back at everyone.
We encountered a variety of late summer insects, including little clouds of “face flies,” which are actually a species of Black Fly that hovers so close to human faces that it often gets in the eyes. We were happier with cuddly Woolly Bear caterpillars, big blue Blister Beetles (Meloe, which leaked toxic juices onto our fingers from their leg joints), and a Viceroy butterfly. Rob tried to catch the one mosquito he saw, without success. After some of us stumbled onto a Yellowjacket nest, we were quite respectful of a dozen Bumblebees working intently in a single clump of goldenrod.
We also found a good many insect-eating amphibians, mainly Wood Frogs and Spring Peepers, but also Gray Tree Frogs (bright green), one Leopard Frog, and one American Toad. Under a small log we found a Red Eft.
Other creatures under logs included introduced earthworms (Lumbricus and Aporrectodea), millipedes (three different species, including the giant Narceus americana), one reddish centipede, and orange-slimed slugs (also introduced) and their eggs, but no isopods.
Birds, so much in view yesterday when it was sunny and cool, seemed scarce under today’s clouds, which threatened rain — just Chickadees, a White-breasted Nuthatch, and a flock of Common Grackles. There were Red Oak twigs cut down by Porcupines all over the place, but apart from the Bur Oak mentioned earlier, the trees overhead were always empty. But we all saw black-phase Gray Squirrels.
Sept. 27, 2014: The Passenger Pigeon
One hundred years ago this month the last Passenger Pigeon died of old age, long after all all of her kind had disappeared. In memory of this event, Rob Lee brought together a series of spectacular images (found on the internet) with the eloquent accounts of eyewitnesses like Simon Pokagon, John James Audubon, and Ross King (found in old books in the Macoun Club library, and new books in the public library).
The Passenger Pigeons flew in huge flocks that must have numbered a billion or more, even here in Ontario, roosted so thickly in trees that heavy limbs fell under their weight, and nested in colonies that were miles and miles long. Yet W.R. Manlove was convinced that few men had ever seen a wild pigeon in all of its beauty, “as the birds were so shy that one could not approach them closely in the daylight. Once only I saw a living bird so close as to be able to see that in life it had an eye like a brilliant topaz, softened by a dark iris, and that every feather glowed with colour, so that the little creature was a living gem.” Audubon said that circling flocks would flash azure, as their backs were presented to him, and purple as they came around to face him.
Writer after writer spoke of flocks that streamed overhead from morning until night, darkening the sky so that lamps had to be lit, and thundering so loudly as to force people shout back and forth to make themselves heard. And they wrote of the destruction the birds met essentially every time they came within reach of civilized human beings. They were shot out of the skies, baited and entrapped in nets, clobbered with sticks, and had their trees chopped out from beneath them on their nesting grounds. “The poor pigeons got little rest, day or night.” When the slaughter became industrialized, with hundreds of professional pigeoners being called to each remaining breeding site by telegraph, and the birds being shipped to urban markets in the hundreds of thousands daily on the equally new railway system, the Passenger Pigeon was finally hunted off the face of the earth. Many people who later became conservationists, such as Ontario’s Jack Miner and America’s John Burroughs, shot the last one they ever saw, not realizing until later what they’d done.
Oct 4, 2014: The autumn woods in the rain
The Pakenham woods were wet with overnight rain, but warm enough to be quite pleasant, even when the showers were renewed after lunch. It was just the right sort of day for finding salamanders — about a half-dozen in all. All were the same species, but only one had the colours to match its name, the Red-backed Salamander. The others were all “lead-backed,” the less striking colour morph. We turned a great many logs and rocks to find these few salamanders, but also noted small colonies of ants living under almost all these shelters. They were almost always the small yellow ants we recognize as being in the largely subterranean genus Lasius.
Despite the wetness of the day, we got three fires going at lunchtime (for a group of nearly 20). This was made easy by the ready availability of dead pine twigs and branches on a granite ridge we know as “Lichenland.” The open ground there is covered with Reindeer Lichen.
Given the weather conditions, there wasn’t much wildlife to be seen: a Red Squirrel, and Eastern Chipmunk, a Spring Peeper and a Leopard Frog, a mosquito, and some minnows in a creek. But around the trapper’s cabin were animal bones and claws to be gathered up, and a freshly killed nuisance Beaver to be examined. It was also weather suited to mushrooms, which were sprouting from rotting wood all over the place.
There was so much of interest, in fact, that we were a little late starting out of the woods, and had to keep moving down the leaf-covered trail.
Oct 18, 2014: Members’ photo day: birds, butterflies, hammerhead sharks, and more
Macoun Club members not only see amazing things in nature, they photograph them. Today members had some of their most interesting pictures projected on the screen for all to view. Gabriel has been birdwatching and showed pictures of a wandering Glossy Ibis in a Prince Edward County field and small birds held in hand in the course of bird-banding. At left is Hermit Thrush, recognizable by its rusty coloured tail.
Rory and Aiden had visited an aquarium in the States, and had photographed a Hammerhead Shark as it cruised over the shark tunnel, a Lance Lobster in its rocky refuge, and a swarm of jellyfish. Samantha had been to the sea itself, in the Saguenay down the St. Lawrence. She had been kayaking, and had pictures of Belugas, or White Whales. There were hiking trails among spruces and blueberries, and she had a photo of a Mink among the rocks by the seashore.
Julia’s family raises butterflies, and her selection included Monarchs, Black Swallowtails, and a Painted Lady. Uly showed pictures of a Mexican salamander in his home aquarium, a species that appears to have become extinct in the wild in the past couple of years. It lived in the lakes around Mexico City, which at more than 20 million people, has obliterated or polluted the salamander’s habitat. He also had photos of Mexican lichens, and of a scorpion.
Many of these subjects prompted comment and discussion, and the thought that we want to know more about them.
Oct. 25, 2014: Another rainy day at Pakenham
Warm sunshine enticed us deeper into the same woods as two weeks ago, to the shore of an abandoned beaver pond that has nearly drained away. Rob remembered a wide rock ledge overlooking this beaver meadow, where we could eat lunch. A dozen nervous Mallards took flight from the shrunken pool of water when we arrived — this is hunting season, after all (we heard shotguns in the distance). But a more trusting Great Blue Heron that also flew up hung around, flying from place to place and alighting in the treetops. The wet ground in front and the tangled forest behind forced us into a compact grouping around two small fires. And then light rain showers swept down on us.
When we got under way again, Rob led through the dripping forest rather than the sodden tall grasses, around the numerous windthrown trees of recent years, over granite outcrops with covers of Reindeer Lichens, and past the dark green leaves of Wintergreen with their tasty, bright red fruits. We came to a halt upon finding a fresh-looking green plant with a small cluster of sac-like, pink-and-yellow flowers — Pale Corydalis. This is our latest record by three weeks of this species flowering (previously noted Oct. 2, 1988). Though it’s nearly November, there were unopened buds among the tiny blossoms. Also surprising at this season, we saw a Saskatoonberry shrub with fresh new leaves bursting from the leaf-buds that had been meant for next spring.
Nov. 2, 2014: The American eel: from the Sargasso to the Ottawa
The American Eel is an amazing creature — a snake-like fish that grows to adulthood in streams and creeks around Ottawa, swims down the rivers to saltwater, and spawns in the Sargasso Sea. After the eggs hatch, the tiny, transparent larvae soon begin their journey to freshwater, eventually swarming up the rivers that pour into the ocean along the eastern shores of North America.
Lauren Stoot came in to introduce us to this fish, telling us that historically it was so abundant that half the fish biomass in the Ottawa River was once eels. This past summer, working for the Canadian Wildlife Federation, she attempted to catch some for their research. She couldn’t get any in the river at Ottawa. What has happened?
Eel catches — they are an edible species sought in commerce — were sustained until about 25 years ago; within the next 10 years their numbers fell precipitously to almost nothing. One of the main causes, Lauren explained, is known to be the damming of rivers for electric power. There are three dams in our part of the Ottawa River that the eels must pass: one halfway up from Montreal, one at Ottawa, and one near Arnprior. Young eels ascending the river can’t get past them to reach optimal habitat, and adult eels going down to spawn get chopped up in the power-generating turbines. Lots of rivers have dams like these.
One of the solutions for young eels is a specially designed fish ladder that enables them to wriggle their way upstream. But their placement is pretty much guesswork, so Lauren was working with radio tags, acoustic tags, and microchip-type tags to define their basic use of the habitat. She brought in some of her working equipment for us to examine.
Nov. 8, 2014: In the chill grey of November
In our Study Area, even the smallest and most ordinary things are worthy of notice. Within minutes of arriving, we discovered three above-ground caches of pine cones among the rocks of a pioneer stone pile. The heap of stones and boulders was assembled by generations of farmers as they cleared their fields, but that particular horse pasture has been converted into a dense Red Pine plantation. The cones had been brought from treetops all around and, one after another, carefully patted into place in a neat, compact heap by a Red Squirrel. Nothing else but another Red Squirrel would steal them, and the owner will fight to keep all of its kind at a safe distance.
At lunchtime, we found a grassy clearing where we could all sit down. We had seen fuzzy black-and-brown Woolly Bear caterpillars, and in the maple woods Winter Moths (Opherata bruceata) on the wing, but now a tiny brown bug appeared on someone’s hand. Where it came from, she could not say, and with an inaudible snap it soon sprang away, almost too quick for the human eye. But before it left she photographed it, and from the picture we can say it was probably a Diamond-backed Froghopper (Lepyronia quadrangularis), the adult form of the summertime spittlebug.
Passing through a gloomy cedar forest, Morgan looked ahead and called out “A Porcupine!” It was on the ground and it stayed there, gnawing away at the base and exposed, flaring root of a big spruce tree. Realizing that this animal was, if not tame, at least unusually tolerant, Rob directed every member of the group to make a slow, quiet approach one at a time. The animal hardly paused in what it was doing, steadily flaking away the dead, dry outer bark, chewing and swallowing the nutritious inner bark, and licking up the sap.
Though snow was soon in the air, we saw Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) and Common Speedwell (Veronica officinalis) in bloom.
Nov. 15, 2014: Why did the chicken (I mean, turtle) cross the road?
If all turtles looked as big as the one featured here, maybe all drivers would make an effort to avoid running over them. We all know it happens, though, and it isn’t always an accident. Some people seem to regard animals on the road, or even on the shoulders of the road, as targets, and go out of their way to hit them.
Our speaker, James Paterson, talked all about turtles and then encouraged the group to think about why they might be on the roads at all. There seemed to be two answers. First, female turtles living contentedly in one place may have to go overland to find a suitable nesting site, one with good sand or gravel underfoot, and given how dense our network of roads is, they are almost sure to find it on the other side of a road. Second, the best sand and gravel for burying eggs in may be the roadbed itself, or the shoulders of the road if it’s paved.
What James has been investigating is the possibility of providing good egg-laying sand on the same side of the road as the prime turtle habitat. “It’s quite easy, if you have a dumptruck!”
But is a truckload of sand just the same to the turtles? He has run several experiments, and also computer simulations, to make specific comparisons. He found that the temperature and humidity of the two kinds of nesting sites were the same. Turtle eggs hatch just as well — better in fact. (The artificial nesting sites had plastic liners to prevent plant growth; he said he’d elsewhere found turtle eggs that had been punctured by roots.) But what are the chances that a turtle setting out from its home pond or stream is going to find the pile of sand? A turtle has to pretty well stumble on the sandpile, whereas a roadbed stretches all the way across a turtle’s path.
Nov. 22, 2014: The first taste of winter at Pakenham
Is it winter? There’s been a bit of snow, just enough to cover the toes of our boots, and a few nights well below freezing, just enough to put some ice on the beaver ponds. But is it winter?
Some ecologists say the winter cannot be said to have arrived until the snow is deep enough to reach the top of your boots (about 8 inches, or 20 cm). Under that much cover, small mammals can safely go about their subnivean life. With that much insulation, the frost does not penetrate deeply enough into the ground to freeze Chipmunks in their sleep. The small mammals whose tracks we saw — Deer Mouse, Red-backed Vole, and maybe some kind of shrew — had been much on the surface, or only half-tunneling in the snow. The ice on the ponds was too weak and sickly looking to tempt anyone out on it. We saw where Beavers had braced themselves against a submerged rock and pushed up from underneath.
When winter is really upon us, we no longer see “Winter Moths” (Opherata bruceata)) fluttering over the forest floor, and we did catch one on the wing. It was mild enough, too, for a midge and a small spider to be out.
But there was snow enough for snowballs (forbidden!) and to serve as ready-made cupholders by our lunch fires, and we added our own footprints to the maze of animal tracks. Everywhere we were reminded that we share these woods with their natural inhabitants — Deer and Coyote, Red Fox and Red Squirrel, Raccoon, Fisher, and Snowshoe Hare.
Nov. 29, 2014: Birds of New Zealand
Everybody knows at least one bird endemic to New Zealand (the Kiwi, of course). Some of the great readers in our group knew of others: the Blue Penguin, the Black Robin, and the White Tern. Each of these is famous in its own way, for being blue and being the smallest of the penguins; for having been down to one reproducing female and having come back; for making even its eggs perch on a branch.
Our speaker, fellow Macoun member Gabriel McMurren, introduced us to 60 other species, ranging from the smallest songbird (“the Rifleman”) to the largest (the Moa, extinct). Many species have distinctive personalities, and Gabriel is genuinely fond of them all. He is shown here describing the dangerous circumstances of the large, nocturnal parrot, the Kakapo, which is also flightless and at risk of extinction, and the world’s only alpine parrot, the Kea. He thinks the Kea may be one of the world’s most intelligent birds; he said it is mischievous and playful, and enjoys tobogganing down roofs.
Gabriel explained that the two big islands that we think of as New Zealand and the several clusters of small ones offshore have offered a tremendous variety of topographic situations for birds to evolve in, all so distant from other lands that few creatures other than birds have been able to get there on there own. Isolation from ground-based predators originally enabled quite a number to safely adopt flightless lifestyles and forms. That has now rendered them vulnerable to such destructive mammals as the Norway Rats, Ship Rats, and Domestic Cats that humans have brought, and too many bird species are now seriously endangered. Some have gone extinct already.
Dec. 6, 2014: Roaming the Study Area
In the 44 years the Macoun Club has been exploring our Study Area, it has been significantly invaded by several European plant species. Two of the shrubs or small trees are Glossy Buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula)) and Common Buckthorn (R. cathartica)). There are so many thousands upon thousands of these shrubs that we cannot possibly remove them, but by cutting down a few, we are able to study the invasion itself. The number of annual rings at the base of the trunk of the biggest specimens we can find tell us when the species arrived in each place. This method indicates that the species first took hold in old farm fields near the Sarsaparilla Trail about 50 years ago, and reached the spot where we cut this tree (Pond V) 17 years ago. We might suppose that it will take a full century or more for this invasion to spread everywhere it can in our Study Area.
Another invasion, that of the Emerald Ash Borer, seems likely to play out to completion in less than a decade. Instead of adding a species, however objectionable, to the mix, it is removing them, taking out our three ashes, the Red Ash of fields and wetlands, the White of the hardwood forests, and the Black of the great swamps. We first noted the beetle two years ago — again, at the Sarsaparilla Trail. Now it, too, occurs from end to end of our Study Area. The infestation has built to the point where thousands of larvae inhabit each infected tree. Woodpeckers flake away the bark to get at them, showing us which trees are dying. The tree shown here is more significant than most, for it is the thing that a species-at-risk, the Flooded Jellyskin lichen, grows upon. (The blackish band at the base of the tree, in Pond IX, is the lichen.) Soon after the tree dies, the lichen on it will be lost. Our Pond IX has the largest population of this lichen in North America.
Both matters — buckthorn and beetle — were just incidental observations in our wanderings today. We followed trails, edged cautiously across frozen wetlands, and visited our Study Tree Woods. We spread out to have lunch in an old field, found clear ice for sliding (the same Pond V), and made a close approach to an active Beaver lodge. There were Coyote and Fisher tracks on the lightly snow-covered pond ice, and, getting down on hands and knees to see, a Porcupine in a familiar den.
Dec. 13, 2014: The world’s largest land carnivore — and it lives in Canada!
Last spring (March 1st, 2014), Rachel Vallender told us about the delightful little ground-nesting bird known as the Golden-winged Warbler, so small that one time she found its babies had been gobbled up by an American Toad! Today she told us that her real work now is on the Polar Bear. In fact, she was in the Arctic just last week.
Rachel began by acquainting us with the Polar Bear’s life, from its birth in a snow cave to its death (usually by old age and starvation — what else could do in a top carnivore?). Although the Polar Bear can be counted as a land animal, it is really a maritime creature. The essential things for a Polar Bear are fat seals and the sea ice that makes it possible to hunt them. Baby Ringed Seals are born in snow caves, too, and the bears detect them by smell, through the windswept snow, rear up high and smash down with their forepaws, crashing through the seal’s roof. Adult seals rest and sleep on ice, and come up periodically at air holes, and as Polar Bears grow up they learn how to catch them. But even in the Arctic the ice may either melt in summer, or break up and be blown away; then the bears come ashore. If they have fattened up well, they are able to fast for months, until freeze-up comes again.
To learn about the lives of bears, where they roam and what might be in their food beside nutrients (seal fat concentrates man-made toxins, which have spread world-wide), researchers like Rachel search them out, tranquilize them with a dart gun, and take measurements and samples while the bear sleeps. Such bears are marked with an identity number tattooed inside their upper lip, and sometimes fitted with tracking collars. Not every bear can be tagged, of course, so the population size has to be estimated by techniques like mark-recapture and aerial survey.
From such work, we now know how many hundreds of kilometres the female bears can swim in the open ocean to get to the retreating ice, and how much territory they need to live their lives (as much as 400,000 square kilometres). Rachel explained that the big males can’t be fitted with either radio collars or satellite ear-tags, which means their lives are more of a mystery.
Jan. 10, 2015: Seashores have invasive species, too
In a winter when woodpeckers are flaking away the bark of insect-infested ash trees all around Ottawa (see photo for Dec. 6th, below), Nick Wong came in to talk about an invasive crustacean in New Zealand. In the year 2000, at about the same time the Emerald Ash Borer was coming to attention in North America, the Asian Paddle Crab was noticed in New Zealand waters. It is spreading there. Another similarity between the two invaders is that essentially nothing was known of their natural history. Nick said he had a blank slate to fill in.
The first thing was to catch some specimens — without being caught himself. With bodies the size of a man’s hand and pinchers reaching far out to the sides, these crabs take up an aggressive posture when threatened. Nick warned us that they can reach all the way around to defend themselves even if grasped from behind. And it was his experience that they are not easily persuaded to let go.
Over a period of years, Nick worked out the crab’s reproductive cycle in relation to New Zealand’s marine environment and then set out to see just where they came from. This type of Paddle Crab (also known as a Swimming Crab) is native to most of the Asian coastline, from Thailand to Japan. Helpful people sent him samples from that region and he sequenced their DNA. The results suggested they come from Japan (New Zealand’s main Asian trading partner), presumably hitching a ride in seawater taken into ballast tanks in Japan and released in New Zealand. The lack of genetic diversity he found in New Zealand meant that the entire population could be accounted for by just two individual crabs.
Jan. 17, 2015: Life in the cold
We knew it would be cold — the forecast nighttime temperature would be -28°, with not a lot of recovery during the time of our proposed field trip. There would be a bitter wind, and not much sun. To cope with these conditions, we chose a destination where we could get to a lunch place quickly and, sheltered from the wind, get a fire going without delay. We went to Barbara’s place an hour’s drive west of Ottawa.
While waiting for late arrivals, we scouted around. We were able to follow the trail of a Red Fox until it crossed its own slightly snowed-in tracks from the day before, and began to loop and circle, and then disappear in a confusion of Deer footprints under the cedars fringing the field. From the freshly torn twigs about 6 feet off the ground we knew that the deer had been rearing up on their hind legs to feed. We also found several rather convincing imitation mouse tracks with little snowballs at the end. The wind had apparently knocked little clumps of snow off the winter weeds and sent them bouncing over the snow for 5 or 10 feet.
Once the group finally got together, we hastened down into the thickest young pine woods and from then on, all of our attention was on building our several campfires and warming up beside them, while also managing lunch.
Jan. 24, 2015: Where did our favourite Study Area animals come from? Porcupines, salamanders, and snakes
Where did they come from? Former member Robbie Stewart didn’t mean just where in the local landscape, but where in the distant geological past. Thinking back to his years in the Macoun Club about 10 years ago, he fondly recalled the snakes, salamanders, and porcupines of our nature-study area.
Plunging right into the paleontological multitude, he filled the hour with all the images of bizarre and gigantic ancestral animals you’ve ever seen, and to his delight, found himself back home with the amazing group he remembers — kids calling out the names of creatures their parents never knew of, and offering comments on their most fascinating attributes. (Giants of all kinds are very popular.)
Paleontologists, Robbie explained, try to figure out where on the planet the oldest of anything (such as a porcupine) first appeared, and then how it moved around between the landmasses that became our modern continents (in this case, from Asia to North America, where we now have them). They also have to trace the evolving lineages through adaptive radiations (when the ancestral amphibians — temonspondyls — had a chance to fill a wide variety of ecological niches) and near-total extinction events (such as happen because of runaway volcanism or asteroid impacts) leaving only a couple of representatives to become modern-day frogs and salamanders.
But paleontologists put the pieces of the fossil puzzle together differently, and Robbie gave us the competing versions of each story. For the ancestors of snakes, he favours the paddle-limbed marine lizards known as mososaurs over the theory that lesser lizards burrowing in the sand lost their legs. Mososaurs could be up to 60 feet long, so they’re our favourite candidates, too.
Jan. 31, 2015: Comfortable in the cold
The day started out just as cold as on the last field trip, two weeks ago, but the clouds were gone, and what a difference it made! We were able to eat barehanded while sitting well back from the fire, and then (necessarily well bundled!) bask in the sunshine.
We ate in a brilliant little gem of a place, a tiny clearing in the surrounding coniferous forest. The place was ringed with Black Ash saplings, and noticing that and other signs, people began asking, “Is this a pond?” Rob, who had led the group here, was able to confirm their deductions, explaining that it was actually a vernal pond, which fills with water only in springtime.
On our way back out of the woods, Rob took a few minutes to demonstrate the use of axe and maul in splitting wood for next winter’s fuel. Then the group split, with some strapping on snowshoes and going down to the lake, and others going indoors to explore the crowded contents of Rob’s home, which includes the Macoun Club’s displaced library and natural history collections.
Feb. 7, 2015: Little Bear workshop
Last weekend, Macouners discovered what they thought was Rob’s diary among the Macoun Club things he’s storing in his home. Today, Rob started by reading out some of the entries, and it soon became apparent that it wasn’t his diary, but that of the Macoun Club in its earliest years. It was the record, the “minutes,” of the meetings on January 14th, 21st, and 28th, 1950: “There was a discussion of the possibilities of a club magazine … The club decided to have the stories all written out ready to be mimeographed … It was decided that a write up on a hike or an observation would go in the magazine and no pictures.”
“That’s The Little Bear! someone called out in recognition. Rob showed a worn and tattered copy of the very first issue, and then we got down to working on the next one. But no pictures? By the end of the meeting we had 20 drawings inspired by imagination, memory, and smart-phone photos taken by the members themselves.
Barbara took the time to explain another image — that of the Macoun Club logo that has appeared on the cover of every Little Bear for 65 years. It’s a small bear, she said, a little bear clambering up the letters M F C that stand for the Macoun Field Club.
Feb. 14, 2015: Snowshoe trip
A little cold, a little snow in the air, and a day so good we were late coming out of the woods. We went to Pakenham, and after noting tracks and tasting tree twigs, made three lunch fires in what previous Macoun members once called “lichen land.” (You get more enjoyment out of dainty wild edibles before lunch, rather than after. Yellow Birch twigs, chewed, reveal wintergreen fragrance, and Prickly Ash bark burns like pepper — until your tongue goes numb.)
“Lichen land” is a sparsely wooded granite ridge, with reindeer lichens carpeting the ground and tufted Usnea lichens sprouting from the limbs of dead conifers. Some branches were so laden with common “shield lichens": (Parmelia sulcata) that we couldn’t see the bark, but they burned just as well. The reindeer lichens appeared only when our campfires melted away the knee-deep snow — lichens and mosses.
Off trail we wore snowshoes — a diverse collection of traditional and high-tech types. All was going well until one member of the party suffered an equipment failure: an old leather binding broke. What to do? Rob pulled a 5-foot piece of rope out of his knapsack and looped it into a traditional snowshoe binding, and away we went. He had learned it from the delightful 1947 book by John J. Rowlands, Cache Lake Country. We’re not sure how we’d restore a modern metal-and-plastic snowshoe to service out in the woods.
Feb. 21, 2015: The Champlain Sea, then and now
Imagine a time when ocean waves battered against the upper slopes of the Gatineau Hills, and when all the flat land below was sea bottom, from the valley of the Ottawa River to the valley of the St. Lawrence, was alive with sea mammals, saltwater fish, and barnacles.
When the Ice Age glaciers melted back from this area, the land had been depressed so low that saltwater flooded in and, until the land sprang back up 2000 years later, the life of the Champlain Sea flourished. Rob showed pictures of the animals that we know, from their bones and fossils, lived here. Vertebrae from a Bowhead Whale were found long ago near his house by White Lake, an hour’s drive west of Ottawa; bones of a Humback an hour south, at Smith’s Falls. The remains of Belugas are known from the sandpits around Ottawa’s international airport.
The sea-bottom clays along the Ottawa River yield nodules that may contain anything from arctic-type seashells and small fish (Capelin) to small mammals whose bodies got washed into the Sea from its southern shore (a Marten was once found this way). In 1986, Dick Harrington of the National Museum led Macouns like Peter Manga, Lindsay Copland, and Paul Kry on a field trip there, and today Rob passed around a collection of those nodules for everyone to handle. One can’t collect from the Green’s Creek location anymore, because it has been “improved” by shoreline stabilzation, but it is possible at Breckenridge Creek on the Quebec side.
Feb. 28, 2015: Glorious sunshine!
After several days without any snowfall, the forest was full of animal tracks. We could see that Deer Mice had been shuttling back and forth between food cache and nest in the moonlight. By day, Red Squirrels had been retrieving buried pine cones and stripping them of their scales for the seeds within, while, in the course of its own food-gathering activities, a Porcupine had dropped dozens of Hemlock branches, drawing Deer to share in the bounty of fresh foliage from the canopy. Leaving the trail, our group snowshoed up a wooded hillside and then the whole length of a trackless expanse of snow to reach one of our favourite destinations: Rock Wall Pond.
In a sheltered place where the sun would shine on us for hours before casting the first shadows, we built our several lunch fires and relaxed. To go anywhere, however, even for just a few minutes, it was wise to strap on our snowshoes again. The snow is deep enough that the deer, too, find walking difficult, and have taken to leaping and plunging to get around.
Mar. 7, 2015: Mammals up close
Rob brought in the frozen body of a bat that had come out of winter quarters too early, and as it thawed in the course of the meeting, was able to stretch out its wings. One of the key identifying features for small bats like this is the shape of a tiny, upright flap of skin in the ear, called a tragus. We looked for it on the bat, and then all felt for our own tragus, which in our ear is small and rather stiff.
Rob also passed out specimens of many other mammals from the Macoun Club’s collection — Masked Shrew and Meadow Vole, Eastern and Least Chipmunks, Red Squirrel and Gray Squirrel, Flying Squirrel and Woodchuck. But these were only study skins, stuffed with wads of cotton batting. How, he asked, would you know which were rodents and which were carnivores if you had never seen them before? “The teeth!” someone said. So then everyone got to handle the tooth-bearing skulls of these and other animals — Woodchuck again, but also Raccoon, Porcupine, House Cat and Beaver — even a Lynx!
Mar. 28, 2015: How many variations can you make with a basic plan of just six legs?
New leader Vinko Culjak Mathieu, who some members have already dubbed “Bug Guy”, told us that more than a million species of insects have been described and named by entomologists, and thousands more are being identified every year. All, at some stage in their lives, have three pairs of legs, one pair of antennae, and — at some stage in their lives — wings. He told us how biologists have organized the diversity of life of which insects form a major part (orders, genera, and species), and then showed us members of some of the more important groups.
Vinko then presented (as photographs) a series of extreme insects — the biggest (a moth), the smallest (smaller than a paramecium microbe), the most venomous. It wasn’t, as one might think, the Argentine bala or bullet ant (which we have heard can knock a strong man off his feet), but the harvester ant, which has a more potent venom. Luckily for us, it’s much smaller.
He finished up by telling us how we could safely and responsibly collect our own insects, and how to preserve their scientific value. Afterward, we all crowded around his personal collections of pinned insects, each specimen with its own tiny label saying where and when it had been obtained.
Apr. 11, 2015: First butterflies, first snakes, first frogs
Most insects leave only eggs to survive over the winter, but some simply go dormant as adults and are ready to go as soon as the snow melts. The butterfly shown here, a Green Comma, is one; we also saw the first Mourning Cloaks. Other small creatures might only have paused in their activities — we saw lots of very active earthworms. Though most of the ponds were still ice-covered, around the edges we found a couple of large diving beetles.
In such places we also found many dead frogs and minnows, and remembered that it had been a long, cold winter — the ice was thick, and very likely the oxygen dissolved in the water got used up. Fish and frogs can die in such conditions. There were hundreds of dead Brook Sticklebacks floating by the shore. (But some had survived and darted away at our close approach.)
A passing Ring-billed Gull — a recently returned migrant — spotted one of these dead things and dragged it out on the ice. It tore it apart and gobbled it down. We think it was a dead frog. Twice we scared up a Great Blue Heron, which would want only live frogs and fish.
In our favourite maple woods (where our Study Trees live) we found two or three Garter Snakes just out of winter hibernation. Chipmunks were out and about. The first few green things (Wild Leeks) had started up out of the warming earth, but over our heads the buds of the trees had only started to swell. It’ll be weeks yet before they open.
Apr. 18, 2015: When a bluebird flashes to an apple bough
A hundred years ago, Frank M. Chapman, the author of the classic “Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America” could write — and be understood — that “a bird so familiar as the Bluebird needs no introduction.”
Yet around our table in 2015, only two out of 20 Macoun members could say that they had seen one (apart from Rob, who was giving the presentation). We had to look it up in the Peterson field guides distributed around the room. What has happened to the Bluebird?
Already in 1915, Chapman was writing about the Bluebird’s struggles with the invasive House Sparrow, not over food, but over places to nest. When the migratory Bluebirds return, he said, they often found the Sparrows in possession. Rob recounted how his friend Gordon Pringle had helplessly watched a House Sparrow reach into an occupied nest box it wanted high above him and pitch the other bird’s babies over its shoulder to splat on the pavement below.
A hundred years ago, native birds were still part of people’s everyday emotional life. To Chapman, the Bluebird’s song “is freighted with all the gladness of springtime, while the sad notes of the birds passing southward tell me more plainly than the falling leaves that the year is dying.” Confederation poet Bliss Carmen wrote how a Bluebird in March could change a whole landscape:
. . .
And then to bring the winter scene to life,
Etched on the memory like a haunting smile,
A bluebird flashes to an apple bough.
Other changes brought about in those long ago days involved the sweeping protection afforded to most bird species in North America by the Migratory Birds Treaty of 1918, just when it seemed so many were doomed to follow the Passenger Pigeon into extinction. House Sparrows and others considered pests were exempted. That law, which remains in force, is why people in Canada and the United State appreciate living Robins and shorebirds, rather than roasting them on skewers or baking them into “peep pie.”
Apr. 25, 2015: Into the night
Starting in mid-afteroon, we explored several of the habitats that make up the Gaertner’s land in Lanark County (near Tatlock). We started in the old farm fields, where the persistent forage grasses Smooth Brome and Timothy, and a couple of native goldenrod species, lie flat, after having been squashed by the heaviness of the melting spring snows. We checked for Bluebirds, but the nest box they occupied in the past was without any kind of occupant. The fields were empty and silent.
Nearer the forest, White Pines have seeded in and grown up round and bushy, due to introduced weevils; some kids played hide-and-seek in them.
Through deciduous trees mixed with Balsam Firs, we ascended “Hornbeam Hill” and glimpsed the moody forest skyline of ridges off in the distance, and then dropped straight down into a valley. At bottom was a shallow pond, remnant, as we could see from the stranded crest of a beaver dam, of a much deeper pond that has been abandoned for many years, and its diminished outfall, rushing through a meandering channel we had to jump three times.
The far shore led us into an open maple woods with Scarlet Cup fungi on the ground, and golden-yellow Leatherwood blossoms glowing in the lowering sunlight. We crossed back over the creek on another broken beaver dam a long way downstream and made our supper fires on a rocky slope. While we ate, Spring Peepers began to call in the marsh below; by the time we left, well after sunset, a fine little chorus had broken out.
Picking up the faint thread of a trail in the failing light, we climbed a long slope back to the field — just in time to hear the beginnings of what we had come for. From here and there over the dim grass sounded a nasal “beent!”, and then, scarcely visible in the fading light, single birds rocketed into the sky and performed a twittering, circling dance. Having spotted one of the takeoff points, our group rushed over and seated themselves to wait. The preoccupied birds, American Woodcock, plumped down at their starting points, called out again several times, and repeatedly launched themselves for another courtship display.
May 2, 2015: How much brain does a bird have?
Whether birds have intelligence is a question that ornithologists have long debated. In his classic Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America, written in 1895, Frank M. Chapman asked, “Admitting that some species exhibit barely a glimmer of intelligence, are there not birds at the other end of the scale birds which possess the power of reason?” Defining reason as the ability to draw a logical inference (“to think the therefore,”) he considered all that was then known and was compelled to answer, “I have seen no conclusive evidence of reasoning power in my