What the Macoun Field Club did in 2015-16
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.
Aug. 22, 2015: Special late summer trip
It was a small group (only four!) who could respond to our call for a special trip to our Study Area. We started right in the parking lot, where hundreds of tiny orangish Ostracods (crustaceans in shell-like armour) scuttled about in two puddles. Then we made for the Black Ash swamp, where we explored a new section and chose new ant mounds for later study. The canopy overhead had become patchy because the Emerald Ash Borer has half-killed so many of the trees since last year.
After a long walk, we reached our other study site, where it’s trees that get chosen. The girl who chose the tree pictured here found small branches lying all over the ground. They had been cut by a Porcupine that had climbed up to the top of her new tree. It had been feasting on the ripening acorns. Those of us who have been around for a long time know that it does this every August — that’s why the crown is so thin and bare.
Aug. 29, 2015: Leading an OFNC trip into our Study Area
This was a two-part field trip. The first few hours were very relaxed, poking along the trail and then nosing into the woods away from it. In a grassy clearing we probed a low earthen mound and discovered it occupied by orangy-coloured ants, even one of which smelled of citronella (Lasius claviger), while everywhere in the woods we found very pale yellow ants under rocks (Lasius nearcticus).
After a leisurely lunch, we picked up a group of OFNC members and led them deeper into the woods, into the Black Ash swamp where we explained the mound ants there (Lasius minutus) to them. Every now and then we’d find an interesting caterpillar on a tree trunk. Some guessed that the one pictured here was the larva of a Cecropia Moth, but its body was too corrugated, and it had slanting lateral stripes one each segment. It was the caterpillar of the big and beautiful Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus).
Sept. 12, 2015: Start-up meeting
We invited new members to come half-an-hour early, and that gave us time to get to know each other a little before our returning members filled the room. After a reviewing the two special summer trips, Rob challenged the group to figure out where we were exactly — in the natural world.
Everyone knew they were in the city of Ottawa, in the province of Ontario, but only a few could say what biome we were living in. It turned out there are different ways of defining the ecosystem type we are living in. At one level, we are within the “temperate deciduous forest” biome of eastern North America. At another level of detail, we can be said to be in the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence mixed woods biome. But looking around our neighbourhood, we couldn’t see much woodland. A new way of looking at things is coming into focus, and under its definitions we can each be said to be living in either an urban anthrome, a “dense settlement,” “populated rainfed cropland,” or in an “occupied forest.” An anthrome is an anthropogenic biome — a biome dominated or defined by human activity and occupation.
At the end there was still time for those who had brought their summer vacation pictures on a memory stick to share them with the group. Helena got a lot of admiration for her pet jumbo rats Whiskers and Mischief. Ioan impressed us with his family’s photos of Bonaventure Island and its Gannets.
Sept. 19, 2015: Fossils in limestone
Low water allowed us to search the exposed, Ordovician limestone beds and loose blocks along the riverbank in Pakenham village, all around the famous Five-span Stone Bridge (made of the same limestone). The more we looked, the more we saw.
Most likely to catch attention were the larger fossils — nautiloids (the straight, tapering shells of cephalopods), the internally patterned spheres of colonial corals, and the irregularly layered lumps of stromatolites (algae). More delicate forms then came to light: bryozoans (“soft corals”) dotted with the tiny pockets the individual animals once lived in, and crinoid fragments (“sea lilies,” actually something like scrawny starfish living upside-down at the top of a long stalk). Fossil ripples 450 million years old lay on the bottom of a present-day side-channel, looking as though they were made yesterday.
After lunch by the water, we drove for 10 minutes to our more familiar destination and made a start into the Pakenham Hills. In an old sandpit, we found a few chalky, Arctic-type seashells (10,000-year-old fossils of Macoma balthica from the Champlain Sea). In the adjacent forest, we found none of the salamanders we were looking for, but did pick up a big, well-fed American Toad.
Sept. 26, 2015: A day out in the early autumn woods
Early autumn? Or still late summer? The leaves hadn’t changed colour yet, but the berries of both Nannyberry (edible, also known as Wild Raisin) and White Baneberry (poisonous, also known as Doll’s Eyes) were ripe. We rolled a number of logs, and lifted some rocks, but didn’t see any ants at all, which were so active just a month ago. Just small millipedes of a type we believe to be introduced from Europe.
Everywhere we saw trees suffering from the attacks of Emerald Ash Borers. In the little Red Ash swamp not far into the woods, most trees of that type stood bare, in contrast to the the green of elms and maples. We saw the first signs of this destructive insect from northern China just three years ago.
We spent a long time in our Study Tree Woods, reacquainting ourselves with familiar old trees and choosing new ones. In many places we could see from the discarded branches on the ground that Porcupines have been feasting on Bur Oak acorns and hickory nuts. But there is still so much foliage in the canopy that we didn’t see a single one of these animals.
We hardly saw a mosquito at all for the first five hours, but suddenly at 3 p.m. we had two species attempting to bite us: the native Aedes vexans and the introduced Aedes japonicus. Like the Emerald Ash Borer, this Asian species has swept across half the continent in less than two decades.
Oct 3, 2015: What world did those fossils (Sept. 19th) represent?
We always begin with observations, and Rob contributes a slide show in which he reviews and elaborates on what we saw and did on the last field trip (or two trips, as in this case).
On August 19th, we had explored the 450-million-year-old limestone along the riverbank and in the very structure of the Five-span Stone Bridge in Pakenham village. There we found the fossils of filter feeders (bryozoans and crinoids), and predators (nautiloids). These three groups were almost completely wiped out in the Permian mass-extinction event about 250 million years ago, but a few of each have persisted down to the present day. Rob brought his photos of our fossils together with images showing the modern-day representatives. He was seeking to paint a picture of a rich marine ecosystem through scientific knowledge and educated imagination.
Then we elected the Club officers who will run meetings, introduce speakers, and make a written record of what we do.
Oct. 17, 2015: Autumn at Pakenham
In our favourite places, like the Pakenham Hills, we know certain rotting logs that can almost always be counted on to produce at least one Red-backed Salamander. They produced two, one of each colour phase. The brighter one persistently sought shelter in our members’ sleeves, and eventually made it up as far as one girl’s elbow. (It was safely retrieved and released.)
We made our lunch fires right by the shore of a familiar beaver pond, with two old beaver lodges in sight, and a floating bog dotted with Cotton Grass (which also appears in the banner photo at the top of this page). But it was too cold for us to go out there. Two girls on their first Macoun field trip saw a turtle swimming underwater in the bog’s moat.
Moving to Indian Creek, where there was an empty Phoebe nest clinging to a lichen-rich rock face, Rob had to redirect attention to bright green, hand-sized encrustations on submerged boulders. Pulling out a dead twig that was also encrusted, he had members run their fingers over the surface: it was rough, and had a distinctive smell. Mental bells began to ring — these were freshwater sponges. The green comes from symbiotic algae.
Most sponges, Rob explained, live in the oceans. They are animals of primitive organization. They are filter feeders.
Oct. 24, 2015: Autumn in our Study Area
Now that most of the leaves have changed colour and fallen, the greens that stand out are those of the mosses. They feel so soft, too, even silky. Rory had previously chosen one bright green cushion for long-term study. Rob has identified it a Broom Moss, Dicranum scoparium.
There were new kids in the group, so there were new trees to choose and record. One girl started up a big, old Yellow Birch quite familiar to old-timers — no one’s ever done that before — and ended up choosing it.
We had a little time in the Black Ash swamp and checked into the status of a dozen of our Lasius minutus ant mounds. Digging in with our fingers, we couldn’t find a single ant; they’ve evidently retreated to the deep core of their mounds for the winter.
Back on solid ground, however, Rob lifted one more rock and exposed another kind of ant’s starter home. A huge queen ant had cleared a little space in the dirt and raised a small brood of tiny workers — they were hardly any bigger than her own waist — and they were looking after the next brood of larvae. Rob collected one of the workers and later keyed it out as Tetramorium caespitum. That is our first record for the Pavement Ant in our Study Area.
Oct. 31, 2015: Ant mound surprise!
For six years we have been on the lookout for something we had never seen — adults of the honeydew-producing root aphids that the mound-building ants in our swamp completely depend on. The immature aphids we’ve always been finding can’t be identified beyond genus (Prociphilus). It wasn’t in our plans, but today two of the girls worked their way out to some untested mounds. Scraping at the dirt revealed nothing in the nearest two, but Samantha reported tiny bluish insects with wings. Rob knew what that meant and rushed out with a collecting bottle.
Success is not yet assured. Aphids of a single species come in almost half-a-dozen forms, and it will take microscopic examination by an expert to see if these are the right kind of adult for identification. We really want to find out before the whole Black Ash swamp succumbs to Emerald Ash Borer, which is already causing great damage. If the aphids are feeding only on the roots of the ash, they will soon die, and a thousand populous ant mounds with them.
Then, thinking to fill a gap in the biological inventory of our Nature Study Area, we made a search for pyxie cups, reindeer “moss” and British Soldiers, these all being lichens in the genus Cladonia. An expanse of bare sandstone becoming slowly overgrown by mosses, shrubs and pioneer trees is rich with them. But everywhere this special place bears evidence of human impact. Widespread trampling and random bike riding have crunched most of the lichens with a shrubby growth form, and the endless rebuilding of “inukshuks” out of loose rocks has deprived those that take decades to grow of their formerly stable platforms. Simple abrasion by thousands of boots appears to have completely ground away one species, the Crescent Map Lichen, which was known only here on the Ontario side of the Ottawa River.
Nov. 7, 2015: Autumn in our Study Area
Many of us spent more than an hour squeezing through the crowded stems of a Buckthorn jungle, just to see what was there (not much). These invasive shrubs have sprung up under the broken canopy of an extensive Red Pine plantation. These trees were planted in 1971 on soil that eventually turned out to be too thin to sustain them through the drought of 2012. The sunlight flooding in past the bare skeletons of the pines has stimulated rapid growth of the buckthorns that were probably seeded in by roosting birds about 10 years ago. A second generation of buckthorn is forming an ankle-deep carpet under the shrubs.
There were mosses, but we choose to give them full attention in a very different environment — the hardwood forest we call our Study Tree Woods. There essentially all the plants, from wildflowers to canopy trees, are native. This year, for the first time, several Study Mosses have been chosen, too. Leaders Rob and Barbara identify the species, but it’s the Macoun members who know which ones are theirs. This week Mya had to sweep aside the thick covering of recently fallen leaves, for the trees above now stand bare. Her moss, Atrichum crispulum, grows directly on the forest soil.
As we moved from one child’s Study Moss to another’s Study Rock (yes, we learn from rocks, too), we happened on a couple of Spring Peepers and a late-season Garter Snake. We found one green Stink Bug (Acrosternum hilare) and one lone Winter Moth (Opherata bruceata).
Nov. 14, 2015: Macouners are photographers, too
The widespread availability of digital cameras has made easy what was so difficult in past years: to take nature photos on vacations and field trips, and share them with the group. Since 2007, Rob has routinely reviewed the previous week’s field trips in images (in this case four of them in a row!). Today, Macoun members new and old brought in a selection of their recent favourites on flash drives and had them projected on the screen for all to admire. In the process they revealed their often unsuspected interests and related their outdoor experiences. New leader Allison Patrick introduced herself with pictures taken in the course of field research — Snowy Plovers with colour-coded leg bands guarding their young in the midst of seaside predators (Herring Gulls).
One by one, members got up front and explained what they’d captured digitally. There were images of huge slugs attacking Sulphur Shelf fungus and videos of New Zealand animals. Julia’s family had visited Jasper and she had pictures of Elk right in the townsite, and Pikas up in the mountains. Gabriel’s range of subjects included birds (Rusty Blackbirds at a banding station), fungi (a perfect Shaggy Mane mushroom), and a Viceroy butterfly (exhibiting the diagonal line that distinguishes it from a Monarch). Carter had photographed a Coyote that had come to the fallen apples under a tree he could see out his window. Others among us had pictures from Macoun field trips, such as the beautiful Turkey Tail bracket fungi we so often see.
Nov. 21, 2015: Searching the swamp for Pitcher Plants
Rob led the whole group over the rolling hills of his hardwood forest, through a belt of upland cedar, and down, by a route he had picked out in advance, into his old-growth cedar swamp. Though the living trees are not themselves old, the swamp forest has been in continuous existence for centuries. This unlikely fact was revealed by Rob’s inventory of the tiny old-growth indicators known as Stubble Lichens, or calcioids. It explains why this swamp is also so richly endowed with macrolichens. They often coat every dead twig and tree trunk. Underfoot, a dozen different kinds of moss (including sphagnums) make a deep, continuous bed over watery peat, and the fragrance of Labrador Tea scents the air.
Also unexpected in this swamp — at least previously unknown to local residents — is the occurrence of Pitcher Plants. But we left them to last, for Rob led everyone to another surprise — an outcrop of crystalline limestone that forms a tiny, dry island in the midst of the boggy tangles, on which we could sit, make small campfires, and cook our lunches.
As the meal wound down, small parties of Macouners started searching more and more widely. Where the adults had failed, a 10-year-old (with relevant experience obtained in Newfoundland) discovered the first small rosette. Then a second one, bigger, and finally a crowded clump comprising dozens of hollow tube leaves.
Nov. 28, 2015: Amazing adventures in places rich in wildlife
How is it that the abundance of Alaskan lemmings determines whether or not Steller’s Eiders will reproduce in any given year? Why is it a waste of time and energy for a Smooth-billed Ani in Puerto Rico to lay her eggs at the beginning of her breeding group’s nesting cycle?
To help field biologists in different countries answer curious questions like these, Kathryn Peiman has got herself hired on as a research assistant and travelled the world. In the course of her years as a graduate student she has worked on bird projects in some fabulous locations, such as Hawaii’s Tern Island sanctuary. In the months spent at each research station, she became so thoroughly immersed in these studies that she was easily able to answer our group’s questions to any depth we desired. “Did you also see Groove-billed Anis?” “What’s the difference between a seal and a sea lion?” “Why do Lasyan Albatrosses sometimes feed lethal pieces of plastic to their chicks?”
With regard to lemmings, Kathryn soon elicited a useful answer from the group: perhaps, someone ventured, when lemmings are abundant they distract predators from the duck’s nest. That was close enough for her to elaborate on the relationship between lemmings and the nesting of Snowy Owls, and how by making its own nest nearby, the Eider can benefit from the Owl’s ability to drive off egg-eating foxes. Such lessons drawn from nature illustrate the field of behavioural ecology that Kathryn has entered.
Who wouldn’t want to be a field biologist after meeting someone who has lived and worked in the very places we see on popular nature documentaries? What does it take? “Creativity and attention to detail,” she said, so that you can meet the challenges of working in physically difficult circumstances; “a sense of humour, and the ability to work both on your own and in a group,” for remote fieldwork often means intense isolation in cramped quarters with other people who are all pursuing their own special interests.
Dec. 5, 2015: Halfway into history
This week, we explored one of the far corners of Barbara’s hundred-acre woods, which like Rob’s place (visited Nov. 21st), is also in Lanark County. It took a while to get there. First we filed down a well-worn footpath, taking care to keep clear of the Prickly Ash stems on either side, and as the trail petered out, proceeded my memory. We were heading for a remembered hillside looking down onto a watery beaver meadow. There the group split, with some settling down for lunch up on the hill, and the rest making a new campfire right by the water.
While gathering firewood, Rob and Gabriel discovered a big patch of Beaked Hazel shrubs (ideal for roasting-sticks) and Samantha, a section of forest floor greenly carpeted by Balsam Fir twigs. She knew a rodent had cut them down from the treetops, but was it a Porcupine or a Red Squirrel?
It was such an unseasonably warm day (high 7° C) that we dawdled over marshmallows and cooked apples, leaving Rob little time to carry out his plans. But we did it.
Rob’s idea was to combine compass skills with the recognition of the original cedar rail fences that defined Barbara’s property 150 years ago. Starting from a well preserved remnant, we lined up our compasses on it and took a bearing of 228°. By sighting over the compasses and picking out landmarks in the distance, we were able to skip over places where the wooden rails had completely rotted away and still get to the right spot where the next piece of evidence awaited us. After several jumps like this we came to the obscure back corner of the property, halfway up a hill and nearly hidden by a tangle of fallen trees.
Dec. 12, 2015: Always carry a compass in your pocket, and a map in your head
Everyone who goes out on our field trips knows that Rob is most at home leading his group off-trail, over hills, through swamps and bogs, down dried-up streambeds. How, without consulting map, compass, or GPS, does he always get everyone out of the woods at the end of the day?
Rob revealed his secret by reading aloud from one of the most illuminating, and at the same time entertaining accounts on the subject: Mark Twain’s story of how he entered the profession he was always proudest of, that of a riverboat pilot in the days before there were any aids to navigation, which he published as “Old Times on the Mississippi”.
Twain portrays himself as a naive teenager who had to be taught even the most basic elements of piloting — the value of every point of land, picturesque tree, and mud bank as a landmark. Only when he had mastered the 1200 miles of landmarks between New Orleans and St. Louis both ways was he introduced to a much more challenging subject: the shape of the river. “My boy,” his mentor advised him, “the shape of the river is all there is left to steer by on a very dark night. You learn it with such absolute certainty that you can always steer by the shape that’s in your head and never mind the one that’s before your eyes.” Rob Lee, in his turn, has come to believe that he, too, navigates by the shape of the land.
It must be the rise and fall of the ground, he thinks — its sweep upward toward a summit still hidden in the forest, or its twist sideways underfoot as it falls away into a valley — that is imprinted into the map he holds in his mind. And now, after 40 years of work by three scientists who shared the Nobel prize in 2014, we also know how and where he keeps it — the place and grid cells of the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex. We all have them, you and me, the lab rats they were discovered in, and as Rob suggested, probably even bumblebees, too.
Dec. 19, 2015: Pakenham: “The best trip ever!”
What qualifies a field trip to be rated so highly?
It can’t be the meals we cooked over our two lunch fires — we do that all the time. It couldn’t be the collection of Coyote skulls Gerry left out for us — not everyone got one.
The dusting of snow helped with our mood, making it feel like the Christmas season in a year that threatens to be green on December 25th. There was just enough to see a few animal tracks: Red Squirrel, White-tailed Deer, Coyote, and Wild Turkey. But there wasn’t enough to do much with.
Sighting a Porcupine wasn’t exceptional either, but it had to run from its bouldery den to the nearest pine tree to escape us, and Morgan, who walked beside it as it ran, was awed to have it turn in mid-flight and look right into her eyes. And while some Macouners practically fought over the toothy Coyote skulls Gerry had set out for us, it was the fresh deer cranium he had opened that brought thrills. Just poking at the pink, convoluted contents had Samantha jumping up and down: “I touched a brain! I touched a brain!” We all did: it was slightly soft, but firm underneath.
But it is often the simple things in life that are most satisfying, and it was playing hide-and-seek in the tall marsh grass of Ediths’ Pond, and getting soakers by stomping through the skin of ice over puddles in the trail that brought grins to faces.
Jan. 9, 2016: What bird made that nest?
Every spring, birds like Robins and Red-eyed Vireos build nests and raise families right over familiar trails and roads, and get away without our even noticing them. Each autumn, the leaves come off the trees and reveal these empty nests, leaving one to wonder, How could I have missed that one?
Most birds, of course, like it that way. Most of them go to great pains to hide their endeavours. Even when picking up an obvious beakful of grasses or a twig, they don’t fly straight to their homesite. They fly up to another tree and pause, looking around to see if anyone is watching. Swallows and Phoebes are typical exceptions; they often build in plain sight right on the houses or cottages we live in. But they are generally out of reach.
Our speaker, Allison Patrick, explained how, even in mid-winter, we can still find a lot of interest in figuring out who built a nest we’ve found from the clues. What sort of nest is it? A cup? A platform? Is it in a bush or a tree? What’s it made of? Each species builds in a particular way and position, and lives in a characteristic habitat.
There are books and websites (like Nestwatch to help us with species that are beyond our current experience. Or you can always ask a naturalist, like Allison (who is now a Macoun Club leader) or Rob.
Jan. 16, 2016: Snow and ice
A snowy day in early winter, with not even fresh animal tracks to follow — what can you do with a bunch of energetic kids? We asked them to bring skates. “Aren’t we going to shovel the ice?” someone asked, upon seeing the white expanse of the big beaver pond at the Study Area. No, we just skated right through it. If you’re first and out front, it’s a unique experience to be gliding over an unbroken, featureless blanket of white, your skates hidden in four inches of fluffy snow.
When we tired of that, we took off our skates and cleared a narrow runway with our feet, and ran and slid the length of it over and over. We did it twice, in different places. The second time, someone noticed a large frog embedded in the ice several inches below the surface. There was talk of chiseling it out, but we sat down for lunch instead. That’s when we noticed two American Robins hanging around the pond’s outlet stream. They can usually find food there, such as insects or tadpoles.
After that, we went searching for Porcupines. It was a long rambling exploration of a low-lying cedar woods, with abundant signs of Snowshoe Hares. They seemed to have been everywhere. Eventually we spotted some dark holes under an uprooted tree. The snow, still falling, had obscured any tracks, but there was movement inside! We were just inches from a Porcupine. Not far away we spotted another one, way up in a pine tree.
Jan. 23, 2016: Natural history of Ottawa-area snakes
Macouners have an extraordinary eagerness for snakes, and just as their many hands reach out for every snake we see on field trips, hands were going up left and right every time our speaker, Bill Halliday, moved on to another slide in his presentation. Sometimes they were answering his questions, sometimes asking their own, sometimes offering comments. But the room was never still over a period of nearly two hours.
Our six local snake species represent some of the major differences in patterns of life. Half, for instance, lay eggs; half are viviparous. Drive north for a couple of hours, Bill said, and the egg-layers can’t be found. Even though there are advantages, their eggs need external warmth to hatch. So we’re near the northern edge of those species’ continental range.
Garter Snakes, on the other hand, are live-bearers, and can be found all the way to James Bay (a 10-hour drive). But carrying little snakes around inside until they are big enough to look after themselves is too demanding for a snake to do every year; the females have to take every second year off and rebuild their reserves.
As a PhD student, Bill has studied Eastern Garter Snakes in greatest depth, working right in the Ottawa Greenbelt, just east of our own Nature Study Area. If you’re a Macoun Club or OFNC member, you can read about this research in the latest issue of Trail & Landscape.
Jan. 30, 2016: Introduction to Climate Change
Or is it “global warming?”
These are both valid ways of talking about the world-wide increase of atmospheric (and oceanic) temperature that we attribute to carbon dioxide released by the burning of fossil fuels. Rob explained the history of our knowledge of the greenhouse effect, which is a normal and essential feature of the atmosphere, and how it might be increased by rising levels of CO2. He showed a number of graphs derived from ice cores and the preserved leaves (needles) of Western Hemlock, and from the direct measurement of CO2 in the atmosphere (the famous Keeling curve).
Rachel then got up and talked about carbon-dioxide release in the wider context of industrial pollution, followed by Carter, who presented statistics showing how valuable the planting of new forests could be in counteracting industrial carbon-dioxide releases.
We finished by considering what we can — and can’t — reasonably do to improve the situation.
Feb. 6, 2016: We can see that these fish are different. But why?
We are all familiar with variation within a species — hair-colour differences between ourselves and size differences among domestic dogs. Such differences also occur in the several varieties of Arctic Charr featured in the photograph at right. Not only do these fish — all from the same species — look different, but they have different behaviours. The big, robust one at the top is a hefty bottom feeder, capable of crunching up snails. The streamlined pelagic version eats free-swimming crustaceans. And the last one eats smaller fish (even young of its own species). How can we figure out whether these differences are caused by inheritance (genes) or the places where the fish live (the environment)?
Kathryn Peiman, who had recounted her exciting wildlife adventures on Nov. 28th (below), came back today to explain in more detail why she goes to such exotic places. What she’s really interested in, she said, is animal behaviour, and for an experimental approach, fish are a good choice. That’s why she’s been working with Brook Stickleback in northern Ontario, Three-spine Stickleback in Denmark, and Arctic Charr in Iceland. It is much easier to raise fish than birds in a classic “common garden” experiment.
With plants that look different, you can grow them together in the same garden. If the normally short variety stays short, you can conclude that the genes are responsible. For each species of fish, she takes eggs from the different varieties to hatch and raise in the same lab, and, after marking them, releases them back into the wild to see what happens. She’s off to Denmark soon to recapture them and find out the results.
Feb. 13, 2016: What a difference a microclimate makes!
The Pakenham forest never reached the forecast high of -21°, but we knew a place where on cold winter days the sun pours into a sheltered alcove and made straight for it. The place — “Rock Wall Pond” — wasn’t as balmy as we’d hoped, because the strong NW winds kept pouring down over the treetops and swirling around us, but the better adapted among us were able to work bare-handed much of the time.
Yet it was the trip through the wind-tossed, shadowy forest that was the more interesting part of the day, for wild animals had been out at dawn and had left their tracks. There were dainty shrew, vole, and mouse tracks, and tunnel entrances where they plunged into the soft snow. A weasel had dashed about in long leaps, hunting them. Porcupines had made long expeditions out from their dens to reach their favourite food trees (Hemlock), and both Coyote and Red Fox had wisely left them alone. We saw Snowshoe Hare, Red Squirrel and Fisher tracks, but predator never met prey within our sight. An Otter had crossed over a high ridge to get from one watershed to another, tobogganing down the slope.
We met the landowner, Gerry, as he was coming in. ‘Had we seen the eagles?’ he wanted to know. Four of them — one Golden and three Bald — had been keeping watch on an animal carcass outside his cabin window. And what were we doing out there anyway, he joked: “It’s minus 24 degrees!”
Feb 20, 2016: Climate change and stability
We have been keen to discuss climate change ever since university researcher Delphine Amer researched us last spring. She had heard that young people are weighed down by the warnings of the man-made catastrophes to come: rising sea levels, droughts, floods, and extinctions.
Rob Lee explained to the group that the culprit, carbon dioxide, is also essential to life on Earth. He talked about the Gaia Hypothesis, which holds that the Earth is acting as if it were a living organism, maintaining its temperature over the ages by means of the greenhouse effect. It is the sudden excess of CO2, as a pollutant, which our civilization is dumping into the atmosphere, that is the problem, threatening to push Gaia beyond its stable limits.
Delphine reports that Macoun members are just as aware of the threats as other children and young people, but that our spirits are also more resilient, perhaps because we are so regularly immersed in nature and know its capacity to heal itself.
Feb. 27, 2016: Traversing the wildest part of Stony Swamp
Hundreds of other people use our Study Area every weekend, so many that the skiers find their trails trampled into a rough footpath. Our group of 15, however, snowshoed out of the parking in another direction. We entered the forest immediately and headed northwest by the feel of the land, not emerging on the other side for three hours. A stiff wind was rocking the taller trees and its low growl soon drowned out the roar of traffic on Richmond Road.
The forest grew wet beneath the snow, as we could tell from the predominance of Black Ash trees. Beyond the ashes lay the cedar swamp, where tracks of Snowshoe Hares were everywhere; also Red Squirrel and Fisher. Just before lunch in there, we found a big Porcupine well up in a tall spruce. One of the leaders (Barbara) found its den nearby. We ate sitting on logs, mounds of snow, and our own snowshoes.
After a long time, billows of dry land ahead rose above the level of the swamp; we stepped ashore onto familiar ground. It was a place where Deer congregate, as we could see from the tracks. There were still more forests to cross and a hill to climb before we came out on a trail. Along it we met families and groups of people — and skiers struggling with the uneven surface.
Mar. 5, 2016: Ferns of the Ottawa area
Macoun leader Allison Patrick introduced us to a group of plants we have all encountered, but which most of us don’t really understand: ferns. She characterized them as seedless vascular plants, and said they’ve been around since long before the dinosaurs. They reproduce by spores, in a two-stage life cycle.
Allison focused on six local species, all of which occur either among our Study Trees (Christmas, Maidenhair, and Polypody) or our Study Ant-mounds (Royal, Sensitive, and Ostrich). She showed their distinguishing features, and then invited us to draw them on the whiteboards newly installed in our meeting room. The wall was immediately crowded with eager artists.
It’s one thing to recognize a distinctive fern on sight, but to identify most species it may be necessary to use a dichotomous key. Allison illustrated the process by generating one on the spot to our six species, and we ran through a couple of them to get the hang of it.
Right afterward, Rob Lee showed a short video of a fractal fern — a fern look-alike generated by a straightforward mathematical equation. There are many available for viewing online.
Apr. 2, 2016: the morning meeting
What’s on the Macoun Club web site? Rob encouraged members to explore a little more than they might otherwise. Seated at his computer, some of them made fun of navigating the fifty-plus pages.
Rob remembers that it was Macoun Club member Andy Wagner who established our web site around the year 2000, and managed it for the first several years. Then the Potvin family took over, and Jon Hickman. Finally Rob learned how to do it.
Our Home page is called “Current Schedule and Recent Actviites.” Rob writes up each meeting and field trip. It is a matter of pride that essentially all the photos we use are our own; we don’t grab them off the Web. At the end of each year, Rob transfers the weekly accounts to their own page, under “Past Activities.” There’s a continuous list going back 10 years.
The activity that generates the greatest number of web pages is our ongoing investigation of the Macoun Club Nature Study Area. There are lists and maps and articles on many aspects of the area’s natural history. We go to Pakenham almost as often, but our experiences there are quite different and get little press.
In the continuing history of the Macoun Club website, former Macoun parent Chris Burns undertook an overhaul of the coding a couple of years ago, making it HTML 1.0 strict. Later this year, the entire site will be transfered to the new OFNC web platform.
The whole time we were poking around online, a mouse was sitting on the floor just behind the girls, patiently waiting for release from a live trap. No one noticed until only Rob and Barbara were left in the room. They let it go outside.
Apr. 9, 2016: Making maple syrup
Rob offers something special at his backyard syrup-making operation — the freedom to sample the product as the sap is boiled down and the syrup slowly thickens. Everybody brought a cup for the purpose.
Macouners were also able to experience almost all aspects of the process: hanging buckets on the trees, gathering firewood and cutting it up, carrying sap to the boiling pan. Two full pails can weigh 70 pounds, so Rob made a yoke based on antiques he saw when he was young.
Before long it was time for lunch, and we made a separate fire off to the side and cooked our meals on roasting sticks and a handy fold-out grill.
After that, attention switched to the long, slow process of boiling syrup down into taffee over a small campfire. With a lot of testing along the way, Carter finally had it thickened to the point where it would harden on the granular snow in our bowls.
Parents, meanwhile, set up lawn chairs and sat around in the sunshine, talking.
But it was still a field trip, and Katie discovered fresh Porcupine tracks beyond the last of the tapped trees. Following the trail, she found the animal itself, up in a White Cedar tree.
Apr. 16, 2016: How snake behaviour is studied
Fearsome as snakes may seem to some of us, they are really quite vulnerable to being pounced on by predators, so even rattlesnakes rely on being supremely well camouflaged. You can look right at one curled among rocks and lichens, and not see it. Now, if your aim is to study the behaviour of snakes out in the wild, how do you find them in the first place? And then, how do you find the same snake again?
Complementing Bill Halliday’s talk about our six local snakes back on January 23rd, Rob Willson covered three more Ontario species from around the Great Lakes: the Fox Snake, the famous Hog-nosed Snake, and the Massassauga Rattlesnake. He has followed individual rattlesnakes through their lives for many years.
Snakes can’t be radio-collared like an Elk, or have a device attached to the body as researchers do with turtles. The transmitter has to be implanted inside the snake. Rob does this surgically, and explained how even the long antenna is inserted without puncturing the snake’s internal organs. (How far the signal can be detected subsequently depends on whether the snake’s body is extended, or coiled up — coiled up, a snake doesn’t transmit so very far.)
Once the snake had recovered and been released, tracking it requires taking a directional radio antenna into a place the snake is thought to be living and trying to pick up a signal. Zeroing in on it allows Rob and his co-workers to spot their subject before it sees them. They get to see the snake living its life without reference to humans — basking in the sun, meeting up with mates, hunting prey. What’s they’d really like to do is find the snakes’ hibernation sites, because these dens are so important to their survival. The radio signal can even be detected from underground!
Apr. 23, 2016: Spring trek at Pakenham
Things are happening thick and fast in spring, but we rushed right past most of them in order to reach a distant objective, the High Pond. It’s up on top of a wide plateau, beyond our usual range. Members said it was worth it.
We did make quick checks for tracks in muddy places (Deer, Dogs) and rolled several logs (nothing). As we walked, we sniffed crushed Wintergreen leaves and ate the bright red berries, and hurriedly photographed the first, half-opened Round-lobed Hepatica blooms. The early-flowering trees and shrubs caught our attention, too — Speckled Alder and Beaked Hazel, Red Maple and Trembling Aspen.
Most of us successfully threaded our way along the narrow crest of the Upper-Field-end beaver pond; all of us warmed up by climbing the hill and basking in the sunshine at the top. Over lunch, we watched two pairs of Canada Geese disputing the near end of the pond. The capture of a couple of red-bellied leeches (Macrobdella decora,) absorbed a lot of our energies.
And then it was time to race homeward, down the hill, across the dam, through the old farm meadow, and out the long, winding trail.
Apr. 30, 2016: members’ photo day
“Bring 5 or 10 photos,” Rob had said. But apparently Macoun members can’t count, at least when they don’t want to. But no matter, we had time for all their pictures. Some were beautifully composed and crisply focused shots of birds, showing that there’s some real photographic talent in the Club. Others wouldn’t win any awards, but carried a lot of meaning for those of us who were there. The story behind many pictures is well worth hearing.
Adults have lots of pictures of kids up in trees, but today they were shown what it looks like from the kid’s point of view, at right.
Some families had traveled to Florida during the March break, and brought back fabulous photos of Everglades environments, wildlife, and tricky situations. The blue cap at left was retrieved, after being “sampled” by two alligators in succession. We got our Macoun member, Christopher, back, too.
Others stayed home, so to speak, but found interesting subjects right here in Eastern Ontario. The white bird at right is instantly identifiable to species without need of any field marks: an upright white bird stalking about in a barnyard has just got to be a Cattle Egret.
And so we learned about a diverse range of topics, and about each other’s interest, skills, and sense of humour.
May 7, 2016: That perfect time in spring
We enjoyed one of those last perfect days in spring, when wildflowers are in bloom and birds either back from the south or already sitting on nests, yet before the mosquitos have taken wing. We saw lots of Spring Beauty blossoms, a few Trout Lilies, and one Bloodroot, and found the nests of Phoebe and Pileated Woodpecker.
We also checked some of the ant mounds we are studying (Lasius minutus) in the Black Ash swamp and found the ants in at least some, but the situation was puzzling. Where did the winged queens and winged root aphids that we were finding last October 31st go? Maybe they were taken back down deep inside the mounds, and are being kept there until warmer weather prevails.
Rolling rocks and turning logs revealed a few slugs, pillbugs, and too many earthworms, but not one salamander. One Lasius ant colony, probably L. flavus, was still keeping its herd of root aphids under their rock shelter, but overhead the trees and shrubs were starting to leaf out. Within days the juices will flow reliably and the ants’ “livestock": will be put out to pasture. Many ants feed on the honeydew aphids produce.
Everyone’s old study-tree seemed to have survived the winter, and new ones were chosen, including the American Beech with the Pileated Woodpecker nest, pictured above.
May 14, 2016: Artists at work
Rob introduced today’s nature-art workshop with a slide show of prehistoric nature art — cave paintings from Altamira, Chauvet, and Lasceaux in France. He pointed out that these vibrant works of art were created with just three colours: black, from charcoal, and red and yellow from iron-based ochre. The forms are simple yet evocative because the artists knew the anatomy and movements of their subject intimately and successfully portrayed them. And although the bulk of each bull or horse’s body might be merely outlined or simply blocked in, the fine details of the head, hoof or leg joints lend realism to the paintings. They are very, very old, but not primitive.
By way of advice to our young artists, he drew attention to the way even apparently simple outlines involved curves that swelled from thin lines to thick bands of pigment where the shadows would have fallen most heavily — a technique that can be achieved on paper by rolling a moving pencil from the vertical until it’s lying on its side.
Finally, he produced images of a magnificent cave painting from one place, and a small, engraved stone from another 300 km away. The genius of antiquity evidently carried a sketchbook with him.
And then everyone was turned loose to draw from nature, from magazine or internet images, or from the imagination. The results, produced within the hour, were collected for publication (and preservation) in our Little Bear magazine.
May 28, 2016: Beech Bark Disease: what are we going to do about it?
It’s been 125 years coming, but Beech Bark Scale Disease is here. It was accidentally introduced at Halifax, NS, in 1890, on some European beeches sent over by Queen Victoria. It is a two-stage disease, the first being the introduced scale insects. Though tiny, they proliferate over the bark of a tree, visible as a scurfy white waxy covering. When the feeding activities of the scales have opened thousands of tiny wounds, fungi invade and kill patches of bark. The lovely, smooth trunks become disfigured. The wood underneath rots and most trees die.
In our Study Area, we have found them on only a few American Beech trees along Trail 25, west of parking lot P6. But feeding scales give rise to crawlers, and they may be expected to spread in the same manner as Brown Scale.
The scales cannot be stopped, and most advice is to cut down the trees. But they can be studied, and we discussed how we might map them, as we have done with Hemlocks and Butternuts. And we can try to learn the details of the insects’ life cycle. While Rob was talking about these things, Morgan was busy drawing. She produced a composite image from his slides of a diseased tree he had photographed in the Maritimes, and the rich, coppery coloured autumn foliage of one here at home.
June 4, 2016: an afternoon at the waterfall
There are several places where we could have got into the water on this hot day — the floating bog (pictured at the top of this page), a deep cool basin in a beaver pond up on the plateau, or at the narrows on Indian Creek. But Morgan asked to go to a fondly remembered place from when she was new to the Macoun Club, the waterfall.
For miles upstream, Indian Creek meanders through a marshy floodplain, but here it meets ridge of hard, resistant igneous-metamorphic rock (gneiss) and sluices down a narrow chute. Just at the head of the falls is a natural whirlpool bathtub, which can hold more than a half-dozen people at time. The outlet can be plugged by any suitably plump person, causing the water level to creep higher and higher behind them and the whole waterfall below to go eerily silent. When the back pressure feels right, that person jumps up and the pent-up flood bursts to roar down the smooth rock slide below — and over anyone clinging to the rocks below. As far as the creek and the kids are concerned, this cycle can be repeated endlessly.
But it’s a biologically interesting place, too. Big brown-and-white Caddisflies were clumsily fluttering around their breeding site, and upon landing, turning their heads to look at us. Gleaming Ebony-winged Damselflies flew by jerkily, and various kinds of caterpillars were sliding down silk threads from the surrounding trees. Every now and then a Kingfisher barreled down the narrow little canyon, rattling emphatically.
June 11, 2016: Wildlife of the Kalahari
The Kalahari Desert is so dry that when the 1000-mile long Okavango River flows into it from the north, it sinks into the sand without even forming a lake. Well-known ONFC member Roy John has been there with his camera.
He showed us pictures of the Big Five tourist animals, and then all sorts of mammals from an Aardvark to Zebras. Roy said he hadn’t realized it until afterward, but in every picture he took of a Roan Antelope, the animals had their tongues stuck up their noses. He doesn’t know why. The eco-tour guides were so tuned into what Roy wanted that when he’d shout, “STOP! There’s a mouse in the middle of the road!” they’d stop and help him try to figure out what kind of mouse-like animal it was.
But Roy is also a birdwatcher, and knows his African birds. He showed us brilliant kingfishers and bee-eaters, weaver-finches and their nests, and many kinds of hawks, eagles, vultures, and owls. We’re not sure where his interests stop, actually. One photo had been taken at night, lit only by the eerie glow given off by a scorpion bathed in ultraviolet light. Glowing spots were either scorpions or bird poop and it was great fun chasing them down in the dark until someone stepped on a venomous snake, which doesn’t glow. The snake, a Puff Adder, didn’t bite, but everyone turned on their headlamps after that.
Every photo seemed to have an adventure story related to it, and we all learned much more from Roy John than just the wildlife of southern Africa.
June 18, 2016: an afternoon on the bog
Everyone wanted to spend another afternoon at the waterfall, but Rob knew that Pakenham has other attractions on a hot day (high 33° C), and took us all to the a bog. Two Sandhill Cranes took flight as we approached. The problem then that we were looking at a floating bog with a moat all the way around. It gets close enough to step onto in a couple of places, but the edges are thin and fragile and, as it happened, not everyone made it unscathed.
For those of us who were walking the bog for the first time, it was a total surprise. What looked like a meadow was wet; we sank into it at every step and it sucked at our feet. It rippled like water when we agitated it, and sometimes it broke underfoot, dropping us chest-deep into muddy holes with water below. There were small brown mushrooms in the sphagnum and leatherleaf, and wildflowers to be found only in that habititat — Bog Cranberry and Rose Pogonia.
At length, Rob brought everyone off the bog and we washed off at the waterfall. But it has been so dry! The creek could now be dammed with one’s ankles alone. The Caddisflies of two weeks ago were gone, but in the reduced flow we now found crayfish and frogs
June 25, 2015: End-of-year party
We began the year’s last meeting in the usual fashion, with Observations and a slide-show review of the last field trip. But then Rob had a couple of special things to convey to the group. First, he read from an old, old book (published in 1931) about the Jackass Penguin of South Africa, by a little-recognized pioneer in animal behaviour and bird photography, Cherry Kearton. This man and his wife had spent five months living in among 5,000,000 nesting penguins, studying what they did and how they responded to life’s challenges. They’re down 99% to 50,000, and extinction is now looming for the species.
Then Rob recounted the tragic tale of a hiker who stepped off the Appalachian Trail for just a few minutes, but got lost and eventually died of exposure within two miles of safety. The story is in the news because when her remains were found after two years in the woods, her moss-covered journal revealed that she had survived 26 days. What should she have done?
Just as in real-life situations, nobody proposed the obvious. We all know how to read and write. If the unfortunate woman had written notes to searchers (saying things like “It’s Saturday afternoon and I think I’m lost”) and stuck them on trees, instead of writing notes to family and leaving them in her notebook, the rescue operation would have known fairly closely where to look.
When he presented the awards for participation in our activities, Rob also handed each member a little kit consisting of a marker pen and a length of flagging tape. “If you are ever lost, or are searching for someone yourself, LEAVE MESSAGES! Write them on the tape, scratch them in the dirt, use charcoal on a birch tree.”
We finished with two Macoun Club traditions: Bill Mason’s “Rise and Fall of the Great Lakes,” and tables full of tasty finger food.
Page created on June 17, 2016, and completed July 3, by R.E. Lee. All photos were taken by Macoun Club participants and friends.