What the Macoun Field Club did in 2016-17

  • Sept. 17, 2016: Invasive species at every turn

    Photo of two boys holding Giant Water Bug

    With warm rain expected, netting aquatic life in our Study Area seemed like a good way to put in our time. At the Sarsaparilla Trail, however, the observation dock has become so closely surrounded by tall stands of Narrow-leaved Cattails (and their hybrids) that little open water was available for our nets. We managed to catch a couple of Brook Stickleback minnows, and let them go. Working south along the shore, thick masses of Reed Canary Grass lay between us and the cattails. Only Rob found his way out to open water and he did it by walking off the end of a floating log (thereby getting a rubber-boot soaker).

    Photo of two girls up in our biggest ash tree

    As lunchtime approached, Rob changed course and led the group overland through seemingly endless thickets of Glossy Buckthorn, eventually emerging into a well remembered clearing with a small stand of Rhubarb. Samantha and Gabby happily chewed on the unsweetened stalks for a long time, even after their meal.

    After one more attempt to reach water, Rob gave up on Pond I and led back past the dock and north to Pond II. It was choked with tall vegetation, too, but we hit on an old beaver canal from which we dredged up several kinds of pond snails, a bunch of Mudminnows, and three Green Frog tadpoles. The main problem was the mat of floating Frogbit plants that had to be lifted off the net in order to see anything. Owen competently reached in and plucked out a Giant Water Bug, holding it safely so that all could see.

    There is a really big old ash tree by the trail, and we were saddened to see that it is half dead from the attacks of the Emerald Ash Borer. Over the years, the hollow trunk and knotholes have been home to Honey Bees, young Porcupines, and a White-breasted Nuthatch family.

    Narrow-leaved Cattails and their hybrids, Reed Canary Grass, Glossy Buckthorn, and European Frogbit, as well as the Emerald Ash Borer, are all invasive species that have been substantially reshaping our Nature Study Area from what we have known it to be.

  • Sept. 24, 2016: Return to the old Study Area

    Photo of two Macoun Club members scanning limestone for fossils

    Photo of two Ordovician bryozoans in limestone

    For a change, we made a cross-country trip from the Greenbelt’s Lime Kiln Trail north to the Wild Bird Care Centre. Only Rob knew, and he never mentioned it, but this is the terrain of the Macoun Club’s old study area, the one we used from 1968 to 1970. We petitioned for a new one because this area was being despoiled by indiscriminate logging. It has some features that our current Study Area does not have: the aftermath of a recent forest fire, some well preserved fossils, vertical fissures in the bedrock, and a couple of invasive plants (Phragmites, Coltsfoot, Japanese Knotweed, and the introduced land snail Cepea nemoralis). It has also become the home of the Wild Bird Care Centre.

    The route past the big cattail marsh runs right by the ruins of a lime kiln from the late 1800s; on the shaded quarry face behind the main structure, Rob named the wall of orange fuzz as the rather rare terrestrial alga Trentopolia.

    Not far away was an extensive patch of cedar forest that was killed by a summertime forest fire in 2012. The bare, blackened tree trunks still stand, but the charred ground is now hidden by a chest-deep growth of Staghorn Sumac and Trembling Aspen. This was our third visit: see also Oct. 20, 2012 and Nov. 23, 2013 under Past Activities.

    We examined a lot of limestone and peered into the 3- and 4-foot deep fissures where wide areas are exposed, but found good, clear fossils only at a minor exposure somewhere along one of the trails. There were delicate byrozoans, broken up crinoids (single segment rings), two species of brachiopods, and one nautiloid. All are of Ordovician age (470 million years).

    We hit open water at only one point, and from an observation platform looked down on eight sleepy Mallards lined up on a floating log. Not two seconds after we turned away, there was a sudden noisy commotion behind us. All of the ducks had plunged into the water with frantic quacking — a deadly Goshawk had just sailed over them.

  • Oct. 1, 2016: How the birds were saved in 1916

    Photo of Rob Lee explaining the plume hunting trade of the early 1900s

    One hundred years ago, just after the last Passenger Pigeon and Carolina Parakeet died, rendering both species extinct, the International Migratory Birds Treaty was signed, protecting the remaining birds of both Canada and the United States where single states and provinces, and even countries had not been able to do it. Today, Rob explained how unrestrained hunting in the late 1800s and early 1900s was driving many others to extinction. In those days, people were shooting birds for food (pot hunting), slaughtering birds to make money (market hunting), killing birds to sell the feathers for decorating hats (the millinery trade), and “potting” birds just for the fun of seeing them fall.

    Rob traced out a part of this history by reading aloud from a book by Jack Miner, who hunted hard for the first half of his life, but turned almost completely around and created a sanctuary for Ontario waterfowl that continues in operation to this day. Jack was born in 1865, early enough to join his father in shooting Passenger Pigeons in Ohio. When he was 14, he and his brother took up market hunting to help provide for their parents’ family. “We soon became expert shots,” he said, “and the result was we left a bloody trail behind us. For at least five miles around the birds appeared to fear us, and fly and scream as though Satan himself was after them.” But they couldn’t keep it up: “I am pleased to say that we two boys soon outgrew this murderous practice, and hunted for pleasure only.”

    Hunting ducks was Jack’s chief joy in life, and when he got the chance he started knocking down the first Canada Geese to appear in his neighbourhood. But one day in 1903, the family of geese that he was calling down out of the sky spotted him despite his concealment and fled in panic. As he headed home empty handed, he was doing some “tall thinking” as he called it. “Why did they pass right over two other men within shooting range, and then shy before getting that close to me? Moreover, why were they so dreadfully frightened? Possibly because the leader saw one red hair of my topknot projecting from under my blanket and, to his sorrow, he had seen that fellow before. They know me as their enemy.” And then he had a further thought: “If they know me as their enemy, surely they would know a friend if they had one.”

    Jack reflected that birds were becoming scarce: “I have seen more birds in one day, before I was ten years of age, than the average ten-year-old of the present day has seen in all his life.”

    He went home and dug a pond and stocked it with captive ducks and geese. Year after year he looked for wild geese to settle in with them, and in 1908 he was rewarded with a small flock. He persuaded his neighbours not to shoot them. Every year after that, more came until he had to say, “Really, I did not know there were so many Canada geese on earth.” He had become their friend and protector.

  • Oct. 15, 2016: Silicate minerals

    Photo of phlogopite mica, chert chips, amethyst, jasper, and garnet crystals

    Quartz, olivine, garnet, pyroxene, hornblende, the micas and the feldspars — what unites them? There is an underlying order in their composition. They are all share chemically identical molecular silicate skeletons. It is said that if you get to know the minerals just named and recognize them when they appear in more complex rocks, you should be able to identify most of the rocks on the face of the earth.

    As a start, from his own collections Rob handed out samples of the minerals pictured at right. He explained that the molecular building blocks of all of them are tetrahedrons — triangular pyramids — each with a single silicon atom surrounded by four of oxygen. In mica, the tetrahedron units are very strongly connected together in broad sheets, while adjacent sheets are very loosely held to each other; mica peels away thinner than paper. Clay particles are layered like this, too, allowing a mass of clay to absorb water and become squishy and capable of being molded into pottery. Rob passed around portions of prehistoric Iroquoian pots made more than 500 years ago.

    In quartz (amethyst is a variety) the tetrahedra are bound to each other in three dimensions. A large specimen can be a single crystal. In chert and jasper, also considered varieties of quartz, there are millions of crystals, all microscopic. in garnet, the tetrahedra are isolated from each other.

    Photo of Macoun members inspecting arrowheads

    Photo of prehistoric chert arrowhead and one chipped out of glass

    Rob’s father was an archaeologist, so he has specimens of prehistoric stone tools. He showed everyone Iroquoian arrowpoints made from chert, together with similar points he himself had made out of broken window glass. Glass is another silicate.

    For hundreds of thousands of years, until metals came into use, humans shaped naturally occurring silicates into their tools. Now, several kinds of artificial silicon-based materials are used all through our material world. Pure silicon, a metalloid, is the basis for integrated circuit electronics. Zeolites are used in hair gel, non-clumping cat litter, and water filters. Silicone (silica-oxygen polymers with organic side chains) have been designed to serve as lubricants, rubber sealants, and kitchen utensils.

  • Oct. 22, 2016: Pakenham in the late autumn rain

    Photo of Macoun member taking picture of salamander in her hand

    Late autumn on a cold, rainy day: what is there to see in the woods? We dragged a small sheet over the ground but collected no ticks at all. Apart from a solitary Raven circling high overhead when we walked away from the cars, there were no birds. Two types of mushrooms were seen several times: Destroying Angel and Jellied False Coral. Three individual wildflowers were in bloom: Heart-leaved Aster, Bunchberry, and Sweet White Clover. But at lunchtime on a high granite ridge covered with scattered White Pine trees and Reindeer Lichen, the gathering of firewood was interrupted by the discovery of one salamander after another. In all, four Red-backed and one Blue-spotted. (One of the Red-backed Salamanders was tiny, about 3 cm long.)

    There had been enough of a lull in the days of rain for the fine pine twigs we rely on to become less soggy, but it still took much care and a couple of handfuls of birch-bark slivers to bring the fire into full strength. Then we were able to continue cooking even when the rain picked up again.

    Circling, we explored new trails, and then cut cross-country once Rob and Rachel were sure of their direction. We hit on the spot where our granite ridge rises out of the ground and followed it right back to our lunch place, which lay not far off the bush road back to where we’d parked.

  • Oct. 29, 2016: What’s out there when the sun goes down?

    Photo of deep blue sky at twilight

    What’s out there as night falls? Not down here, where owls hoot and mice scurry, but up there where first one faint light and then another appears. People have been wondering in a serious way about the sun and the moon and the stars for thousands of years. Today Rob guided an exploration of the cosmos by probing and expanding our collective knowledge.

    The ancient Greeks took some significant steps forward, and some back. Anaxagoris calculated the distance to the sun and said it was just a big ball of fire, and got banished from Athens for his pains; Hipparchus turned his geometric diagram around and said that because the earth was round, not flat, that what Anaxagoris had really measured was the radius of the earth. Knowing the size of the earth enabled him to use more geometry to calculate the distance to the moon (using the time the earth’s shadow obscured it during lunar eclipses).

    Macoun member Carter said that today we measure the distance to the moon by bouncing laser beams off it, and dividing the time taken for signal to return by two. Rob pointed out that you have to know the speed of the speed of light for that method to work, and suggested how we could calculate that with instruments no more special than an ordinary telescope and a stop watch. How? Well, you had to be there to join in the fun!

  • Nov. 5, 2016: Up the creek without a paddle

    Photo of group struggling across a log jam

    Indian River is a minor watercourse that runs slow and deep out into the farmland of Lanark County, but has its origins in springs and lakes in hilly country. We settled down for lunch in woods beside the last stretch of rushing water above miles and miles of marshy meanders. The steep valley sides seem to have protected the place from human disturbance. Big Sugar Maples and White Cedars stood close along the banks, and like the boulders, were green with thick mosses and liverworts.

    Photo of boy exploring watery boulder field

    Half the group had already crossed by rock-hopping or wading when Rob decided to take the rest across over a tangled log jam. From there we explored upstream, reaching a point where the tumbling water ran almost out of sight through a field of boulders. We found several dead Green Frogs, the bedraggled remains of a small bird, and one live Bull Frog. This species is so poorly adapted to low temperatures that, even at plus 10° C, this big one could only ponderously clamber out of reach among the rocks.

    Going back, we had to pass through a managed Red Pine plantation on the high ground above. Selective logging had been carried out earlier this year, leaving the ground ribbed with deeply compacted skidder trails every 30 feet or so, and wood-cutting waste in every direction. Pioneer rock piles showed that this ground had been plowed; charred stumps of the original forest showed that it hadn’t been fertile enough to be worth completely clearing. It must have been planted to pines 50 years ago.

  • Nov. 12, 2016: “The Story of Stuff”

    Photo of industrial-scale logging

    We began by reviewing last week’s field experiments, in which we measured the speed of sound by timing three repeat echoes off an isolated house (getting a result of 1010 feet per second). Rob explained how we can use that figure to tell how far away lightning is striking as a storm approaches. We had also heard echoes from the forests on either side of the field, at a higher pitch than those from the flat wall of the house. How come?

    Then we turned to watch the famous 2007 video, “The Story of Stuff,” which was written and narrated by Annie Leonard. In this animated documentary, Leonard explains the story behind the consumer society we all, willingly or not, take part in. Behind all the material things we buy is an unsustainable linear system that begins with destructive resource extraction and toxin-generating manufacturing and finishes in pollution-generating disposal.

    Photo of a couple's weekly garbage output

    She said that recycling by individuals like us is still important, but that what goes on in the other parts of the production-and-disposal chain is so much bigger that we have to understand and deal with that, too.

    To Rob, one of the most significant elements in the story is the tale of how the system of planned obsolescence was invented. In other words, the drive to buy, consume, and throw away is somebody’s idea, lived by billions of people from birth to death. This isn’t “just the way the world is;” it doesn’t have to be this way.

  • Nov. 19, 2016: Study Trees and more

    Photo of Rob tracing our route on NCC waypoint map

    Our Study-Tree Woods is only 10 acres in extent, yet after 25 years of choosing trees, new Macoun members can still find ash trees and ironwoods that no one else has ever studied before. We spent the morning hours touring all those that current members are following (and picking new ones). One very large White Ash had split wide open and fallen in big pieces. Niccolo took it as his own and counted the exposed annual rings: the tree appeared to have been 70 years old. Ana was entranced by a Christmas Fern, bright green amid all the brown of the late autumn forest. No other member has ever chosen a fern for study before.

    Photo of girl and her Christmas Fern for study

    After lunch, we took a newly (and unofficially) developed trail north past “the waterfall” — now dry — but more often walked parallel to it. Rob was watching the crevices in the limestone escarpment for the Study Area’s only Walking Ferns, without success.

    We came out on the Trans-Canada Trail that forms our northwestern boundary, and —it’s never been done before — then explored beyond it all the way to Robertson Road. Right away we found a massive Sugar Maple bigger than any we have seen before. Past that were blocky rock outcrops with gastropod fossils that are absent from our Study Area. And then alvar-like terrain overgrown by Jack Pines planted in the sixties.

    We finished up by examining the ruins of a long-abandoned farmhouse and out-buildings (also outside our Study Area proper), including a spring-house (root cellar), barn, and silo.

  • Nov. 26, 2016: The Museum’s reptile exhibit

    Photo of boy and Alligator Snapping Turtle eyeing each other

    A month ago, Macoun member Morgan told us about an amazing travelling exhibit of 30 live reptiles that is being presented at the Museum of Nature this winter. Today we visited as a group.

    With the benefit of prior experience, Morgan held intense consultations with some of the boys. Heads together, the three of them sidled along, gesticulating, and punctuating their conversation with bursts of laughter, and exclamations of “Oh! That reminds me!” Rory and Aidan told her all about how there’s something in Gila Monster spit that, when refined and administered to people with addiction, “turns off” addictive cravings.

    And kids with parents dragged them along, too: “Mum! Mum! Come see . . . .” And the parents would be propelled toward the objects of their fascination. They’d be brought to a Veiled Chameleon, brilliantly striped in the greens of her leafy perch, and three Frilled Leaf-tailed Geckos.

  • Dec. 3, 2016: Rob’s winter forest

    Photo of Macoun members around their lunch fire

    Rob Lee lives in the forest, and today we explored part of it. We found a good lunch place where the bare deciduous trees (Sugar Maple, Beech, and Ironwood) let a little sunshine in, and a few White Pines provided dead, dry branches for a hot, steady fire. The temperature never got above freezing, but those sitting closest soon stripped off coats and boots. At the end, we used snow to douse the last flames and embers.

    Then we were off, running and jumping, and zig-zagging around tangles of fallen trees. Rob led over rising ground, and then down, down to an old-growth cedar swamp, where aged specimens of these normally thin-barked trees had bark almost an inch thick. Then up over one last hill, to burst onto the open expanse of White Lake. There was ice in the bay, but open water out beyond. We looked, but there were no ducks.

    We saw little wildlife this grey day — a Red Squirrel (but plenty of eaten-out cedar seeds in piles), a couple of Black-capped Chickadees, and just a few passing Ravens. Ulyses turned a rock and revealed two kinds of millipedes and a couple of Ground Beetles tucked in for the winter. There were tracks, however, in the patches of snow — Deer, Fisher, and Fox.

  • Dec. 10, 2016: Skulls and bones

    Photo of boy checking the catalogue against bear skulls

    Macouners are notorious scavengers of skulls and bones, routinely raiding a friendly trapper’s carcass pile with abandon, and dragging home items that parents with more sensitive noses may relegate to the garage, the backyard, or even earthen burial. But well chosen, cleaned, and prepared specimens can be things of fascination and beauty. OFNC member Jim Montgomery has donated his own childhood collection, and came in with two other enthusiasts to share their knowledge. David Campbell is a retired zoologist from the Museum of Nature, and Mary Beth Pongrac has previously presented her own collection to us (see April 28, 2012).

    What sets Jim’s collection apart is the catalogue he kept of each new specimen, which allows one to pick up a Raccoon skull, no. 33, for instance, and learn that it was “found eaten (hide inside out, no meat or innards) in ravine behind Sunnybrook Hospital on April 6, 1965. Probably not run over before being eaten; no broken bones. This skull is one of the biggest I have seen.”

    Others had been donated, received in trade (from David Campbell), or as birthday gift (“from Mom and Dad”). With 150 specimens to chose from, our experts were able to point out the key features that separate species, and the patterns of suture fusion and tooth wear that indicate biological age.

  • Jan. 14, 2017: Earth’s atmosphere

    Photo of mountain tops with fresh snow

    Why do puffy clouds have flat bottoms? This was just one of the many questions Rob posed as we explored different aspects of earth’s atmosphere. Earth’s breathable atmosphere is the only habitat we really, truly live in, but owing to the normal invisibility of air, we forget about it.

    So why are clouds flat on the bottom? Rob characterized clouds as forming when bubbles of warm air break loose from the ground and rise up. We know higher places, like mountains, are colder. If there’s enough water vapour in that air, as it rises past a critical altitude the vapour condenses on microscopic particles, producing visible water droplets. The visible cloud may be flat bottomed, but below that straight-line, level zone where condensation begins, the lower part of the bubble of warm, rising air may be as round as the top.

    Rob presented his own photos of a variety of other phenomena, such as violent downdrafts tumbling out the bottom of a cloud, the natural blue haze of clean desert air in the Grand Canyon, and mirages of both the Mojave Desert and the Canadian Arctic.

  • Jan. 21, 2017: searching for mammals

    Photo of Macoun Club members approaching beaver lodge

    There were animal tracks all over the place at the Study Area, but apart from a few squirrels, we really had to search to see anything with fur on it. There were the footprints of all sizes of dogs along the walking/skiing trails, deer tracks crossing those trails, and muddy raccoon footprints leading from one muddy melted-out patch to another. Luckily, Rob knew just where to search, and how. We focused on porcupines.

    One of the sure places to find porcupines is up in the cedars and spruces on the wooded slope falling away to the north. We had to go off-trail for this, wading through heavy, wet snow as much as knee deep. The litter of fallen green twigs on the snow gave the animals’ locations away, and seven times a search of the thickly branched, crowded treetops revealed a solitary porcupine, high up.

    Our search brought us out to Pond VI and a beaver lodge. Farther up the shore freshly cut cedar stumps and drag marks of cedar branches on the snow suggested that the beaver is getting hungry. Rob, in the lead, was the only one to spot the animal as it dove from the shore into a beaver canal running under the ice.

    As for squirrels, we watched a black-phase Gray Squirrel running through the treetops in a maple woods, getting closer and closer to a scraggly bundle of twigs high up in a White Birch. It paused to one side, then entered the bundle — a nest! There are so many of these clumps of debris up in trees, and one never knows whether they’re active or old.

  • Jan. 28, 2017: Winter on the James Bay Road

    Winter scene on the James Bay Road

    If you wanted to see Woodland Caribou in the wild, how could you do it? They have been pushed so back into the far reaches of Canada that in most places you’d have to fly into some northern community. But there are one or two places where you can also drive into the north. It’s a long drive, but Mary Beth Pongrac set out from Ottawa in mid-December to drive the James Bay Road, a 2400-km round trip.

    Photo of Willow Ptarmigan in winter plumage

    Mary Beth watched constantly out the windows for wildlife, and soon saw species that you just don’t ever see in Ottawa. Willow Ptarmigan had come out to the road to peck at sand grains, and waded around in the soft snow to get at the buds of deciduous shrubs for food. They were in winter plumage, white as snow except for their bills and a few tail feathers. It isn’t unusual for them to get hit by cars, so she had samples of their feet, densely feathered to the tips of their toes. There were other animals typical of the boreal forest, such as ravens and foxes, that no doubt patrol for roadkill. But the caribou were not wintering along the road this year and she didn’t see them.

    On a still day, it was the deep silence that impressed Mary Beth. She described it as being so quiet she could hear individual spruce needles falling out of the trees, and a car approaching along the road could be heard a quarter hour before it appeared in the distance.

  • Feb. 4, 2017: To snowshoe, or not?

    In planning for today’s field trip, we had to make a decision about snowshoes three days ahead of time. During January, daytime temperatures had been at or above freezing for weeks (this being about 6°C above normal), but then the weather had turned cold and added five inches of fresh snow. Would the shrunken snowpack underneath have frozen hard enough support our weight? Rob went out and walked around enough to judge the situation. He found that he could walk around easily most of the time, but sometimes sank in to his knees unexpectedly. His recommendation: snowshoes for big kids and adults, but the smallest children would be free to run around unencumbered. We dug into our supply of donated snowshoes and outfitted any big person who didn’t have their own.

    Photo of Macoun Club snowshoers

    It turned out to be a good choice, enabling us to get well off trail for lunch. We made our cooking fires in a new spot where we could eat out of the wind and in occasional sunshine. And when we started up again, we were free to go in any direction we pleased. We slid to the bottom of a steep hill (even on snowshoes), probed both coniferous and deciduous forests, and crossed a half-drained beaver meadow. We even got into an environment destined to disappear from the earth: a Black Ash swamp.

    All along the way we were crossing the tracks of the animals that occupy these woods. Those of Deer were deeply sunken into the snow, while Coyotes had trotted around on top, like our lightest kids. Two Fishers had run all through the woods; we saw their tracks often, sometimes together. A Snowshoe Hare had almost floated on top of even the powdery snow, while a Red Fox had drifted about almost as lightly. We could see where Red Squirrels had dashed from tree to tree, and a Porcupine had waddled back and forth between its den and a favourite feeding tree (a big Hemlock, reduced, after successive years of attack, to a skeletal state). We saw Wild Turkey and Ruffed Grouse tracks, too, but never a single living creature.

  • Feb. 11, 2017: Mammals of the Ottawa area

    Photo of Gordon Roberston showing image of White-tailed Deer

    Unlike birds, most wild mammals are little seen. Some are nocturnal, some are crespuscular, some are subterranean — and a good many have reason to fear us and hide. But they are here all around us and Gordon Robertson from the OFNC reviewed our local species groups. The meeting was a great success because everyone — our speaker, our leaders, and our members — has had memorable experience with one or more of our local mammals.

  • Feb. 18, 2017: The ice is thinner than it used to be

    Photo of Macoun Club member out in the open

    The Sarsaparilla Trail in winter seemed like just several loops of well beaten pathways and a bunch of greedy Chickadees. The observation dock, scene of so much wildlife activity spring, summer, and fall, looked out over an unbroken expanse of snow over ice. We fed the Chickadees, and then marched out into the middle of The Big Pond. The snow out there was completely unmarked by humans, animal tracks, or even the touch of recent winds, and when we sat down for lunch, no Chickadee or squirrel dared come out so far for handouts. But there was something Rob figured we could see only there.

    Photo of Macoun Club snowshoers

    Rob remembered that in 1974, the ice on this pond had been 20 inches thick. In this era of global warming, with average temperatures 1° higher than they were back then — indeed, in a year when January temperatures had run about 6° above normal, and today’s (at +12°) was 16° above normal — how thick would ice in the same place be? We started chopping.

    It turned out to be slow work, and pretty soon everyone was eating lunch while Rob, Ulyses, and Samantha took turns swinging the axe. They broke out big chunks of ice, which were full of bubbles. That meant the ice had formed mainly by water seeping into snow, rather than water freezing directly. Finally, Ulyses punched through and hit water, which slowly welled up. The ice was a foot thick, little more than half what it was in the mid-1970s.

    Rob’s curiosity satisfied, we toured the northern margin of the pond where the tracks of an Otter showed how much it loves to slide along on its stomach, and flocks of Robins (more than 30 birds seen) had found food in muddy seeps below the beaver dam.

  • Feb. 25, 2017: American eels in the Ottawa River

    Photo of Nick Lapointe explaining eel life cycle

    Our speaker, Nick Lapointe, was himself once a member of the Macoun Club, so he was confident of having a knowledgeable audience. “What is the eel’s scientific name?” Anguilla rostrata. “Where do they start from when they hatch?” The Sargasso Sea! “Where is that?” Bermuda. “Where do they go to grow up?” Rivers that empty into the Atlantic Ocean.

    Macoun members who have been around long enough already knew the answers because we had heard about eels from Lauren Stoot on November 2, 2014. And even some of our newest members could answer Nick’s questions from their own general knowledge. But we very quickly got beyond that. There are hints that somehow the young eels “know” which river they should ascend. We learned that in all the species’ range (from Greenland to the northern part of South America), the eels of the upper St. Lawrence (including the Lake Ontario and Ottawa River watersheds) grow to be the biggest (1.1 metres) and oldest (50 years) before returning to the sea. The enormous number of eggs the huge Ottawa-River eels produced meant that they constituted a quarter of the species’ reproduction. The implication for conservation is that this watershed is of outsized importance.

    Photo of boy touching model of eel

    Historical records show the American Eel was once the dominant fish species in the Ottawa River, but almost none are left. What happened? It wasn’t over-fishing, even though eels had been a major resource taken by native people in Ontario. It wasn’t pollution. It wasn’t habitat loss, either. The trouble — and it isn’t too late to remedy it — is a series of barriers to the twice-in-a-lifetime migration of eels. In a pattern opposite to that of salmon, young eels migrate up the Ottawa, and mature eels migrate down in order to complete their life cycle. Four all but impassable hydro-electric dams bar upstream travel, and their turbines constitute a generally lethal route downstream. The second of the four is right in downtown Ottawa.

    The dams were built mainly between 1900 and 1960 to generate electricity. That was before wildlife such as fish were taken into account. It is expensive to retrofit them, but the organization Nick is working for (the Canadian Wildlife Federation) has been working with the dams’ owners. The Ottawa Hydro dam will soon accommodate eels traveling in both directions. Nick is involved in the further natural history research needed to give eels a reasonable chance of surviving the industrialization of one of their most important river systems.

  • Mar. 4, 2017: Icy cold at Pakenham

    Photo of girl examining partly eaten muskrat on the snow

    Conditions were almost perfect in the Pakenham hills today: a refrozen snowpack we could all walk on, with animal tracks showing in a light layer on top; brilliant sunshine to warm us (it was minus 18°C); ices as smooth as a skating rink running down a hill (for inveterate sliders); and a steady wind (to make the pines sing).

    Photo of Macoun members and curtains of icicles

    We saw all the usual tracks as we walked in: deer, hare, fox, coyote, squirrel, deer mouse, vole, shrew, fisher, turkey, and porcupine, plus raccoon, otter and ermine. After lunch, we came upon a dead muskrat with one leg chewed off. Coyote tracks were all around it. We saw a raven and an eagle, and heard a nuthatch.

    It was such a beautiful day, and the leaders remembered such a special scene in a distant place, that we risked being late getting out and made for an “ice waterfall.” It’s a thing that can be seen only in winter, after a strong thaw, such as we’ve just had. A considerable quantity of melting snow on the hillside above drips over the lip of a small rock face, gradually building curtains and columns of icicles. (In summer, the water just wets the surface and drains away.)

    And we were late.

  • Mar. 25, 2017: Birds of Africa and North America

    Photo of author Rob Alvo and the Ostrich family in the road

    We started with some exotic birds. Rob Alvo had recently made a birding tour of southern Africa, hitting as many different ecosystems as possible. Surprisingly, we recognized many of the birds, which we ourselves had never seen: weavers, owls, ostriches, and African penguins. Rob asked thought provoking questions that led into issues of conservation.

    Photo of Macoun member with "Being a Bird in North America"

    Then, switching continents, our guest led an exploration of his new book, “Being a Bird in North America.” He had a copy for everyone to peruse. With a different species on every page, and a custom cartoon for every bird, the kids quickly became absorbed in it.

    But Rob also read aloud some of the species accounts, and elaborated on them. One of our members, Morgan, asked if she could read out the species that had caught her interest. Each account characterizes the species and summarizes its conservation status and any threats to its survival. We studied the photos and range maps, and discussed as much as time would allow.

  • Apr. 1, 2017: The wild life in Mongolia

    Photo of RNick Lapointe explaining the Whitehorse, Yukon fish ladder

    What do you see when you look at the horse shown here? It is rather stocky, isn’t it? Note its thick neck and large, blocky head. And how its mane stands up so stiffly. Domestic horses don’t have these features. This is a wild horse, the world’s only surviving wild horse species. Known as Przewalski’s Horse, it lives wild in Mongolia.

    Our speaker, Roy John, had photographed this horse in the course of touring this still-wild land. His pictures showed the short grass of the Asian steppe running off to the horizon without a landmark in sight, let alone telephone poles or wires. We wondered how he could ever get close to the wildlife he had hoped to photograph. Yet he succeeded, and showed us a variety of birds, mammals, a lizard, and a huge grasshopper.

    The people of Mongolia also came before Roy’s lens, and we were introduced to herders and their gers (yurts, in Russian) and riders — above all, riders. Herders on horseback, jockeys at the races, and children. He spoke of a little girl, maybe eight years old, who had spotted her brother coming over a distant hill and leapt onto one of the nearby horses and took off across the grassland to meet him. Roy rode a horse, too, to get into some of the special places.

  • Apr. 8, 2017: Seeing the snow go

    Photo of boy touching moss Dicranum scoparium

    Photo of Macoun member testing the ice

    On our first spring trip to our Nature Study Area, we could have used both snow boots and rubber boots. We tramped through acres of snow still deep enough to go over the tops of rubber boots, but there were also pools of meltwater that proved irresistible. Rubber boots or no, we soon had water soakers as well as snow down our boots. It was the first warm day, however and nothing aquatic could be seen. On land, however, the opening ground had released a small number of feebly kicking insects: Stink Bugs green (Acrosternum hilare) and brown (Podisus serieventris), and one green Assassin Bug (Zelus luridus)

    Julia drew attention to a large, dead tree with something tapping inside. Drawing close, Rob recognized the slow, heavy pounding of a Pileated Woodpecker, yet Julia was right, it was inside the tree. When we drew back, a male Pileated stuck its head out an opening and started flinging out little bits of wood. Then we noticed that the snow under the tree was littered with thousands of wood fragments. The bird was chiseling out a nest cavity.

    Other birds were signaling spring, too: we heard a Robin, a Song Sparrow, a Brown Creeper, a Junco, a Black-capped Chickadee, and a Phoebe singing.

  • Apr. 22, 2017: Swimming 3200 km to get home

    Photo of Nick Lapointe explaining the Whitehorse, Yukon fish ladder

    We have all seen video of salmon leaping natural obstacles and dodging bears. We have also heard that the spawning runs are faltering in many places. Today Nick Lapointe explained that Chinook Salmon spawning in the upper Yukon River are a shadow of their former abundance. Why this should be is a puzzling problem to fish biologists like him, because the Yukon River is largely free of trouble.

    In its 3200-km course, there is only one dam, built in Whitehorse in 1958, and salmon have always been able to bypass it. (Nick explained in detail the factors that had to be taken into account to make the fish ladder work.) Running through the Yukon and Alaskan wilderness, the river water is also clean. Being in such a rigorous northern environment, it is largely free of invasive species. There are commercial fisheries along the river’s length, but they appear to be actively managed. The destruction of salmon in the open ocean of the Bering Sea has been curtailed. Yet since 1961 the Chinook population upstream of Whitehorse has been only a tenth of what it had been.

    Nick is employed by the Canadian Wildlife Federation to investigate more closely. He carries out field research on the river, and studies existing reports for clues that have eluded others. He told us that the large number of fish people see going up the fish ladder at Whitehorse breaks up into many smaller sub-populations that spawn separately on small tributaries of the Yukon River. Each of these might be made up of no more than a few hundred individual fish, and any one of them could be wiped out through either some local natural disaster or unevenness of the commercial catch along the course of the lower river. Such losses would eat holes in the overall population. Nick also highlighted for us evidence that the age structure of the population has been altered so as to favour younger fish, which are far less prolific than the much bigger, old fish that used to be present. It is possible that the successful management of the fish as a single population along the whole Yukon River has not been able to protect the sub-populations in its farthest reaches.

  • Apr. 29, 2017: Creatures of earth, sky, land and water

    Photo of caddisfly and mosquito larvae with Fairy Shrimp

    The number and range of things to see increases tremendously as spring arrives. We hadn’t quite entered our Study Area when a Great Egret flew out of it, big and white against the blue sky, and bucking the strong north wind. Once in, under a little grove of Red Maples we noticed that the leaf litter was gone already, consumed by introduce earthworms (we found the culprits under a log: Lumbricus terrestris, along with L. rubellus and Aporrectodea turgida). In the over-browsed main maple woods, a limited roster of spring ephemerals was in bloom: Spring Beauty, Dutchman’s Breeches, and Bloodroot. Several members found Garter Snakes.

    Photo of Yellow-spotted Salamander in hand

    This being a late-afternoon and evening trip, we settled down for supper overlooking a sparkling woodland pond. Those who finished their meal early poked around in the shallows, coming up with fascinating invertebrates: Fairy Shrimp, caddisfly larvae, and mosquito wrigglers.

    Along the shoreline, under logs, Niccolo found two salamanders, one the common Blue-spotted,and the other the very first Yellow-spotted Salamander we have ever seen in the Study Area. And we have been looking since 1970! As night came on, a dozen Spring Peeper choruses came to life, and in one corner of the Woodland Pond, we heard three Chorus Frogs.

  • May 6, 2017: Nature-art workshop

    Photo of girl sketching frog from her smart-phone screen

    Photo of girl's sketch of frog

    As the end-of-May deadline for Little Bear contributions approaches, we all sat down to sketch and draw creatures that appeal to us. Some members flipped through bird books, one used a field-trip image on Rob’s laptop as his model, and Rachel called up a picture on her smart-phone. Niccolo drew his subject from life — he had brought in bunch of Gypsy Moth eggs that had begun to hatch, and examined the tiny caterpillars under a dissecting microscope.

    Our artwork will appear in issue number 71 of our annual publication, which will be distributed at the annual party at the end of June.

  • May 13, 2017: Field trip in the rain

    Photo of Red Eft in handn

    Birds were singing — we heard a Winter Wren, Ovenbird, and Northern Waterthush. Biting flies were out, and we had recently emerged Black Flies in our faces, but they weren’t quite biting yet.

    Photo of girl standing in rain-dimpled pond

    We directed out attention to a much neglected corner of our Study Area — the far southwestern corner, in fact. The small patch of deciduous forest there had some Saskatoonberry trees with their white flowers, and quite a number of American Beech trees with uncharacteristic white stripes on the bark. These were aggregations of white, waxy Beech Bark Scales, first stage in a disfiguring and generally fatal disease complex. We found the first occurrence of this introduced just last year (see May 28, 2016 for more information), about a quarter mile distant.

    A shallow wetland yielded small tadpoles of two sizes; the smallest ones were developing hind legs, so were probably Spring Peepers. We didn’t hear any Peepers calling all day; their breeding season is over, and they have returned to the forests they occupy in summer. Eastern Newts were also reported here.

    On land, under rocks and logs, we found many, many introduced earthworms, some beetle larvae, ant colonies, and some more salamanders. Among them were two Red Efts, the terrestrial juvenile stage of the Eastern Newt.

  • May 27, 2017: Members’ photo day

    Photo of girl taking picture of flower

    Photo of Mourning Dove on nest

    We had no sooner settled in for our meeting when a late arrival reported that the Mourning Dove just outside the door was feeding its nestling. Everyone rushed out to watch. The bird had started building her nest during one of our meetings, and is so used to people she wasn’t perturbed at all.

    Macouners all seem to have cameras and use them to get nature photographs. When our meeting resumed, we took turns presenting our pictures to the group. Rachel’s images ranged from a hanging drop of rainwater that had focused the world beyond within itself, to a black squirrel with glowing yellow eyes. Jan’s pictures reflected his interests and adventures: cormorants in Ottawa, a Grey Seal and a Fin Whale, and a Gannet colony. Samantha showed photos of a crowd of Carp plowing through the shallow water of her family’s flooded meadow. Gabriel had pictures of birds, including a local Red-headed Woodpecker and a thousand Snow Geese (with several Blue Geese mixed in). Niccolo had pointed his camera through a microscope and captured images of Gypsy Moth caterpillars hatching.

  • June 3, 2017: Two-part trip: Brewer Park and Study Area

    Photo of family examining the contents of a dip net

    Photo of a girl touching a Moccasin Flower

    In recent years we have run a joint field trip with the OFNC at Brewer Park, introducing neighbourhood children to the aquatic life of the river-side pond. In the usual pattern, kids caught frogs and crayfish; they were put on display in an open-air aquarium and then released in a safe zone. Our member Niccolo caught a small Painted Turtle. Rachel photographed the Red-winged Blackbirds that were nesting just a few steps away from all the activity.

    We all took our lunches to the Macoun Club nature-study area in Stony Swamp, and tried to see the Scarlet Tanager singing overhead while we ate. All the other birds typical of a mixed forest were there: Ovenbird, Eastern Wood Pewee, Red-eyed Vireo, Pileated Woodpecker, and Pine Warbler. Afterward, we searched under rocks and in the soil for root aphids — the “livestock” that some species of ants tend for honeydew. Starflowers dotted the forest floor, and we came across two or three Pink Lady’s Slippers (Moccasin Flowers).

  • June 6, 2017: Why were Ice Age animals different?

    Photo of Robby Stewart with illustration of mammoth anatomy

    Former member Robby Stewart returned to Macoun Club to get us thinking about why Ice Age mammals were so big. Not only was the climate cold during the Pleistocene glaciations, but dry, too. The forests had retreated southward, opening up dry, cold plains with tough vegetation. How, Robby asked, had herbivores like mammoths and giant bison evolved to thrive in that environment? Insulating fur, we said, and he pointed out their bulky intestines for digesting tough grasses and fat reserves for winter.

    What about the predators? He spent a lot of time on the Short-faced Bear. Its shortened muzzle was an adaptation protecting it from bitter cold, and its long, relatively slender legs allowed it to outrun its prey. He discussed the pros and cons of saber teeth, and pointed out that there have been other periods in earth’s history when predators were similarly armed. He suggested that these were times when predators were few and didn’t have to defend their kills against competitors.

    And why are they gone? The vast Arctic has persisted for 10,000 years, but the Pleistocene megafauna disappeared. It is popular to attribute these extinctions to the arrival of humans, but Robbie appears to be a skeptic.

  • June 17, 2017: Pakenham in early summer

    Photo of young Northern Water Snake in hand

    Photo of a small blue caterpillar

    At first all we were noticing were the wildflowers along the trail: Common Buttercup, Wind Flower, Maple-leaved Viburnum. But then we began finding caterpillars. First there was an Eastern Tent Caterpillar nest, and then Forest Tent Caterpillars (with white marks down the back instead of a straight line). After lunch one that had rolled a strip of dead leaf into a tube around itself drew attention to itself by dragging the camouflaged case along. And as we were walking out, someone picked up a blue-backed caterpillar.

    Avalon caught a baby Water Snake in the creek, and Garrett netted a bunch of tiny Sunfish. Then the rest of us went swimming below the old dam — just the thing to do on a hot day. Our toes were surely perfect bait, but we failed to nab a single leech, crayfish, or snapping turtle.

  • June 24, 2017: Annual party

    Photo of Macoun Club audience watching favourite movie

    Our meeting started as usual, with Observations. Rob had seen six Sandhill Cranes while driving in, and Jan had been to the Sarsaparilla Trail in the Macoun Club study area. We starting remembering what we’d seen on last week’s field trip — especially the two Water Snakes, which led into a slide-show review of the event.

    Then it was time to hand out the awards. First-time members were presented with badges, and old-timers with individualized cards featuring photos of themselves in the course of the year.

    Everyone got a copy of The Little Bear, with its articles and poems, and drawings of birds, mammals and mudpuppies. Finally we got to what everyone was waiting for: the classic Bill Mason film, “Rise and Fall of the Great Lakes.”

Originally posted on Sept. 8, 2017, by R.E. Lee. All photos were taken by Macoun Club participants.