What are meetings and field trips like?
Here’s what we did in 2017-18.
Sept. 9, 2017: Start-up meeting
We began, as we do every meeting, with “Observations.” What have we seen in the natural world since we last met? In this case it had been more than two months. Gabriel had been out whale-watching on the east coast, and Jan in B.C.. It’s pretty hard to beat Humpback Whales and Orcas. But Julia had brought in a rearing cage containing five bright green Monarch chrysalises dotted with gold, waiting to turn into butterflies. And then someone remembered the recent solar eclipse.
Many hands went up to indicate who had witnessed the partial eclipse that was visible in Ottawa on August 21st (total in a narrow band across the United States. Some had made pinhole cameras, but Rob explained how he had used binoculars to project the image onto a piece of paper on his deck.
Sept. 16, 2017: A perfect autumn day
We lazily walked in to a place we know as “Rock-wall Pond” at Pakenham, finding a Spring Peeper, Wood Frog, and Leopard Frog, and many American Toads beside the trail, and passing pale asters as we went. We ate lunch on flowing steps of thick moss on a rocky hilltop, and resumed our ambling.
When we reached our destination, a floating bog, we found that high water levels had tripled the width of the moat to about 10 feet, which gave us pause. In past years we have been able to jump across with a single leap, but the unusually warm temperatures eventually encouraged us to wade out and climb up onto the bog mat. It wobbled and bubbled as it sank underfoot. Jumping up and down made waves of moss ripple out. Some of the sphagnum mosses were rich red colours, rivaling the early-changing Red Maples around the shore.
The bog was dotted at knee- to waist-level with tufts of cotton grass, and peppered underfoot with plump (but unripe) cranberries. Macoun members noted these things, but were drawn by the mysterious openings in the floating mat, and one after another slipped, sank, or jumped into the cool, dark water. They found a baby Water Snake in such a place.
Sept. 23, 2017: Trees indoors!
Most of us already have our own Study Trees that we visit on field trips, but today Rob brought trees-for-study right into the building — little ones. Some — Sugar Maple and White Pine seedlings — were only a few inches tall, but one of the several Balsam Firs was about five feet tall. You can see in the picture that it was sort of top-heavy, with all the live foliage at the top.
The one Rob is holding in the picture was just a dead, bristly stick, but Macoun members were still able to read its past. Slightly bigger Firs had blocked the light overhead, causing it to become lop-sided, growing long, snaky branches on only one side, just to reach the sunlight. Others, including the big one, had given up on growing their way out of the shade, and put all their energy into maintaining all their life-giving foliage at the very top.
We noticed little things, too, such as tiny bumps on the Fir trunks that had a readily discernible origin (needle scars), and ring scars on the tiny Maple stems that signaled previous year’s growing points. But Rob had no answer for Rachel’s observation that the slightly yellowing leaves on her Leatherwood shrub felt waxy, whereas the still-green ones on Gabriel’s of the same species had a soft feel.
Sept. 30, 2017: Return to the Study Area
On this cloudy, early autumn day we encountered two flocks of migrating songbirds, the first consisting of White-throated Sparrows, and the second of Kinglets (and maybe warblers). By looking under logs and rocks we found a few Blue-spotted Salamanders and Red Efts. At lunch in a small field, we were dogged by light swarms of “face flies”, which are really Black Flies. Some members complained they were getting bitten. And then the day’s only Monarch butterfly was discovered. It eventually warmed up enough to take flight.
We spent the rest of our time revisiting our Study Trees. The only big change was that the top had fallen out of Gabriel’s Yellow Birch, but we had to check on every tree to be sure. As we moved about the Study-Tree Woods, we found more salamanders and a couple of Garter Snakes. Rob collected a mosquito off of Rachel’s forehead and later keyed it out as Aedes trivittatus, a species he had previously seen only in July and August of other years.
Oct. 14, 2017: Member’s share their nature photos
We began with images of local wildlife taken by Ana (Red-bellied Snake) and Garrett (llttle turtles and one huge fish — a Carp), and then ranged over Canada from coast to coast with Jan. He began with his excitement at visiting wildlife refuges in the American Rockies and seeing his first Ferruginous Hawk. There he had encountered Bison, too.
In the Canadian Rockies Jan encountered Clark’s Nutcrackers, birds of the conifer forests just below the timberline.
He had already told us of having seen the world’s largest Orca, and now showed us how much its dorsal fin towered over that of an average Orca, photographed together in BC waters. He had also been to Newfoundland and had pictures of Humpback and Minke Whales, as well as seals and a Common Puffin.
Oct. 20, 2017: Special astronomy trip
At the invitation of Rick Scholes of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, a small group of Macouners drove out to the Society’s observatory, near Almonte. Rick began by orienting us to the main constellations of autumn (the Summer Triangle, the Big Dipper, Hercules, and Pegasus). Then he trained the telescope — an 18-inch reflector — on a series of interesting object in the sky: the famous Ring Nebula (M57), a globular star cluster in Hercules (M13), and the Andromeda Galaxy (M31). These appear to be just wispy splotches in the night sky until viewed through a strong telescope. Rick explained what what each of them is, and how far out in space each is. He said the Andromeda Galaxy, 2.5 million light years away, is the most distant object you can see with the unaided eye.
We finished up by admiring the brightest star in the summer/autumn sky, Vega, burning white with a hint of blue. It is only 25 light years away, which is quite close in astronomical terms.
Oct. 21, 2017: Perfect autumn days continue
Summery weather has continued well into October, owing to a persistent pattern in the northern hemisphere jet stream that has lasted five weeks. Under bright blue skies, today’s high temperature was 22° C. There have been no hard frosts yet, and few nights even near freezing.
We ate our lunches in front of Gerry’s cabin, a well-known and safe place where kids could explore around and find interesting things, such as animal skulls on a rock they named “Bone Island.”
Then we revisited the floating bog that was so much fun earlier this fall (Sept. 16th). Those who braved the chillier water found the cranberries more nearly ripe, and gathered the abundant fruit to take home for their families.
Oct. 28, 2017: Exploring topographic maps
Having seen that young people today are not getting to handle paper maps — everything is viewed on little hand-held screens — we spread out rolls of old topographic maps covering different parts of eastern Ontario. Upon finding Perth one boy exclaimed “Here’s where my grandparents live!” “This is the dock where my sailing group’s tall ship is berthed,” said another, pointing to a feature on the Brockville map.
Rob drew attention to the legend, where every symbol is explained, the scale at the bottom and the military grid that is laid over the whole map, and the date in the lower left corner that tells what year the aerial photographs on which the map is based were taken.
Rob also showed the group how topo maps are based on aerial photographs, laying out a pair of overlapping images and inviting everyone to look at them through a home-made stereoscope. He had chosen air photos of the Study Area from 1968. It was like looking down on a real landscape, so that the trees stood up taller than the farmhouses. “Is this, like, the original version of 3D movies?” asked one girl.
Nov. 4, 2017: In the grey chlll of November
On a day that started with frost and ended with grey stratus cloud threatening rain (if not snow), we had to search for living creatures in the places where they hide. Under rocks and logs we found Dew Worms and slug eggs; in cracks in thick bark, a black-and-red stinkbug, and surrounded and hiding unsuspected in a hollow tree stub, a Gray Squirrel that suddenly scrambled to the ground and bolted away through the forest.
Lifting the roof off a natural pile of rocks, we found a secure cavity where some very small animal had left shreds of the food it had eaten. Peering in more closely, part of an acorn shell held a single tiny black thing — a mouse dropping. Another, more organized pile of rocks Rob, with his archaeological background, explained as the reject pile left by pioneer stonecutters 150 years ago.
After lunch, we made a tour of our Study Tree Woods. The living deciduous trees were all bare and their fallen leaves had lost the little colour they’d had this year, but Rory’s “Study Moss” was a spot of brilliant green on the drab forest floor As a bonus, a Spring Peeper that had been perfectly camouflaged in the leaf litter leapt up onto the green cushion.
Nov. 11, 2017: A year of bioblitzes across Canada
Macoun-Club Leader Annie Bélair works for the Canadian Wildlife Federation. The CWF is based here in Ottawa, but from March through October her job had her traveling to more than a dozen Bioblitz events all across Canada, from Vancouver, BC in the west to PEI in the east, and north to Cambridge Bay in the High Arctic. Each event was a 24-hour-long effort to catalog nature at the species level in a particular natural place, and involve the public in the process.
When Annie wasn’t working at the CWF kiosk handing out pamphlets and talking to people, she was out in the field, participating in the capture and identification of animals. She saw everything from a lemming in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut and a family of Richardson’s Ground Squirrels in Regina, Saskatchewan, to a White Sucker and unidentified salamander larvae above Montmorency Falls, Quebec. All of the pictures were taken by Annie herself, with only one or two from Wikipedia to give another view of the animal.
Annie quizzed the group every step of the way by having us identify her pictures. “What province or ecozone do you think this habitat represents?” “What kind of ground squirrel is it?” She engaged us all by linking her photographs of birds to the page number in our field guides, which we all have when seated at the table, which no speaker has ever done before. In conclusion, it was a top notch presentation. (Write-up by Aidan H.)
Nov. 18, 2017: In the grey of November
What’s there to see when you’re out in freezing rain in November? Since we were starting out from the Sarsaparilla Trail in our Study Area, we were beset by hungry Chickadees; Julia even got a White Breasted Nuthatch to come to her hand. We saw Deer tracks, but far fewer than expected. The open pine and spruce plantations that were full of rutting deer in November 2012 have filled in with thickets of Glossy Buckthorn. The masses of six-year-old, pencil-thin stems obstruct vision in all directions, which may not suit the Deer any more than it does us. Where did they all these shoots come from?
The tentative answer that’s relevant in our Study Area is that these slender stems are probably the third generation since the species’ introduction: the progeny of the first one or two specimens have grown big enough to produce heavy crops of seeds themselves. Our one goal today was to relocate the biggest specimens, which were about six inches in diameter when last seen, in 2013, and sample their annual rings.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t find those biggest Glossy Buckthorns (Rhamnus franagula), but we did find a pretty big European, or Common Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) — it was five inches thick. They are both invasive aliens. We had seen places where European Buckthorn is proliferating, too, so we cut this one down and collected a disc of wood for careful ring-counting. Our rough count was 40, meaning that this individual had started growing in the mid-1970s.
The ground underfoot often crunched, and in one wet, peaty hollow, we could see that a special type of freezing had taken place. Bundles of clear ice crystals had grown up out of the muddy ground as much as four inches and curved gracefully out to the sides. This is “brush ice,” which seems to form only at this time of year, especially in organic soils. The growing point of each crystal is at the bottom, where it continuously draws available water molecules from the soil. As they freeze onto the crystal, all that has previously formed is pushed upward.
Nov. 25, 2017: The evolution of bats, and where they stand now
Mike Anissimoff, a biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Federation, gave a comprehensive overview of bats. He covered their evolution and biology, current threats to their continued existence, and conservation measures being developed.
Dec. 2, 2017: Still snowless at the start of December
Today we resumed the search, begun two weeks ago, for the first buckthorns to invade our Study Area. This time, Rob led the group to the biggest (and presumably oldest) specimens in the Study Area’s NE sector. The first one we came to was a European Buckthorn, which was eight inches (20 cm) in diameter where we cut it, about a foot off the ground. Right away we could see that the annual rings were unusually large. A rough count on the spot indicated about 25 of them. By then it was lunchtime. Some members of the group sat on our specimen to eat.
Those who finished lunch first cast about for something to do. Jan hunted far and wide with his long lens, but not much was moving on this early December day. We didn’t even see a Chickadee. Niccolò, however, came up with a tiny orange slug (Arion subfuscus), seemingly just hatched (we also found slug eggs) a Four-humped Stink Bug (Brochymena quadripustulata), and, growing out of some soggy dead leaves on the ground, a few tiny, delicate white mushrooms.
Soon after we’d moved on, we found the biggest Glossy Buckthorn we saw all day, about four inches in diameter. We cut it down to determine its age. In the field the large annual rings appeared to number about 25, the same as today’s European Buckthorn, but at home under his dissecting microscope, Rob found seven more small ones at the center: it had started growing around 1985.
Snow has come and gone a couple of times in recent weeks — we didn’t see any — but the pools and ponds have stayed frozen over, though few would dare try their luck on the ice.
Dec. 9, 2017: Salamanders are still out there!
Many species of frogs around the world are in trouble, and some of them have gone extinct. It looked as if eastern Ontario’s most abundant salamander was starting down this same path, but herpetologist Dave Seburn had some doubts. Dave has a long history with the Macoun Club, and on this occasion he talked to us about his research into this species, the Eastern Red-backed Salamander. He began by discussing what is normal in salamanders, and how this one is fundamentally different (it has dispensed with the aquatic part of its life cycle).
Atlas data showed that there are many places where this species was known in the past, but has not been reported in the last 20 years. Dave and a colleague searched in 15 of these places from Ottawa westward across Algonquin Park. They turned over logs and rocks, just as Macoun Club members do on field trips, but with more focus and method. They kept track of how many objects they turned before they found something, and how many things they looked under within a single hour.
Happily, Dave found Red-backed Salamanders in most of the places where they were no longer being reported. What has disappeared is the reporting of salamanders. People engaged in citizen science more readily submit their sightings of frogs, snakes, and turtles, which live in the open.
Dave’s study has just been published in The Canadian Field-Naturalist. Volume 131, No. 2. Macoun Club families can read it online by logging in through their OFNC membership.
Dec. 16, 2017: fun in the sun, at the beginning of winter
The Pakenham Hills were perfect for a field trip today — fresh, fluffy snow six inches deep that we could walk through easily, unusual rocks and logs to play on, and abundant dry firewood for a lunch fire. The forest was criss-crossed with tracks we identified as Coyote, Snowshoe Hare, White-tailed Deer, Fisher, and various small mammals — weasels, voles, mice, and shrews.
We saw three deer, too, and an immature Bald Eagle. Turkeys had kicked up the leaf litter right through the snow in several places; we thought they might have been looking for acorns. Late arriving members, coming in long after the rest of us had passed, reported startling a large flock of the big birds right on our trail: “They put their necks up straight, and then burst into the air!”
We visited the landowner’s cabin — he wasn’t home — and left a Christmas gift and card signed by all of us.
Jan. 13, 2018: Obstructed by Buckthorns
Following a rainy January thaw (with a record high of +11.9ºC) today’s noontime temperature of -15º seemed hard to bear. From the Sarsaparilla Trail parking lot, Rob led south into a spruce plantation, through an extensive undergrowth of European Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) stems. The pencil-thin stems were stiff and their perpendicular, thorn-tipped branches so spiky that we fought to press our bodies between them. It was hard going, and we wouldn’t have chosen to do it, except that Rob intended for us to eat lunch in the lee of the forest, and in the sunshine.
Upon emerging into the open, Macoun member Samuel asked, “Why aren’t there any buckthorns out here, when they’re so thick under the trees?”
Well, there actually were a few European Buckthorns in the old farm field, but they were big and old, and the main clue to the mystery is that their branches were laden with tens of thousands of blue-black berries. Birds, we have sometimes observed, eat these berries and leave their blue-stained droppings behind, distributing the seeds. In autumn, flocks of a thousand Common Grackles forage through our Study Area, and at night the flocks roost in trees — in this case, about six years ago, spruce trees. From farm-yard plantings a hundred years ago, that is how this European species has invaded our Study Area.
Three or four inches of fresh snow had fallen last night as the temperature plummeted, and its surface held the tracks of Cottontail Rabbits and Snowshoe Hares, Red Squirrels and, criss-crossing the whole scene, Red Foxes.
Jan. 20, 2018: Sharks in the water
Lots of us have seen sharks on TV or in an aquarium, but have you ever seen a shark in the wild? Former Macoun member Alec Todd has not only seen and caught them (for research) but has put them into a trance and held them, unprotesting, in his hands.
The trick, he said, is to roll the shark over. Then it stops moving and can be examined, measured, and tagged. “Like you can with rabbits?” asked one of our young members. Yes, and Rob remembers that painter Norman Rockwell did it with chickens when he wanted his model to stand still for him. (With a chicken, he said you had to rock it back and forth for a few minutes.)
Alec had maps showing where sharks can be found – basically oceans the world over, plus a few rivers, like the Mississipi in the United States. And more species than you might imagine can be found in Canadian coastal waters. Sharks have survived five mass extinction events, but people have been killing such vast numbers of them that the populations of a number of species have declined more than 90%.
Jan. 27, 2018: Oaxaca, Mexico
At our request, world-travelling naturalist Roy John came in to tell us about what he found in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. He went for the birds, searching for the rare Oaxaca Sparrow, and finding the altogether common (back in Canada) Hooded Merganser, an exciting rarity for his Mexican hosts.
Just as they are woven together in the real world, Roy’s talk blended together the natural and human worlds, from the prehistoric ruins of the civilizations the Conquistadores destroyed to the Christmastime Radish Festival.
Feb. 3, 2018: Eagle and Owl
Even at one of our regular field-trip destinations, it didn’t take much for Rob to guide us away from the routine trails and into new territory. The quieter portions of Indian Creek had frozen solidly, so we were able to cross to the far shore. We worked our way up through mixed woods to a beaver pond with several big stick nests up in some drowned trees. We had just seen a Golden Eagle being dogged by a seemingly tiny Raven, so raptors were much in mind, but the nests were those of the Great Blue Heron.
Coyote tracks laced the snow-covered ice, and the woods were full of tracks, assuring us that the winter landscape was rich in hidden wildlife. Red Squirrel and White-tailed Deer predominated, but we also saw Wild Turkey and Ruffed Grouse, mice and shrews, ermine, Mink, and Fisher. (No sign of Porcupines, however.)
Just as we were turning back, those at the front flushed a large, light-brown bird that flew only a little way before swooping up to perch: “A Barred Owl,” said Rob. It calmly allowed the whole group (16 of us) to gather around below it, swiveling its head all around to study us. We left it in peace.
Feb. 10, 2018: Nature quiz: what’s the story here?
On Macoun Club field trips, we regularly encounter strangely shaped trees that are hard to figure out. On last weekend’s outing to Pakenham we found this sturdy White Pine sapling that had formed a complete loop. The tree had recently died, so we collected the loop for the upcoming Awards Night nature quiz. The annual rings at the base showed it to be 61 years old. It had been growing in a mixed forest with pines and oaks about 18 inches in diameter all around.
This week, we spent more than an hour selecting from dozens of curious specimens like this one. Almost all involved injuries to trees, and the trees’ growth responses – suitable subjects for a midwinter nature quiz. All were challenging, requiring keen and close observation, recognition of species, and some knowledge of the natural history of both trees and animals.
Macoun members came up with a half-dozen hypotheses for how this tree might have grown in a tight circle upon its own vertical axis. What do you think? We hope to have a definitive explanation ready by Awards Night, Feb. 24th.
Feb. 17, 2018: Return to the haunts of eagle and owl
Led by 11-year-old Ana, we retraced our route from two weeks back, and even made our lunch fires in the same places, but did not cross paths with those exciting birds again. We only heard a Blue Jay and saw the tracks of Ruffed Grouse (3) and Wild Turkey (7 or 8).
The Grouse had been nipping the bud-bearing tips of fine deciduous twigs within their reach. Red Squirrels had been foraging among Hop Hornbeam seed packets scattered about on the snow, and dismantling the seed-bearing cones of White Spruce and Pine.
From the pond with the heron nests (this time we inspected the third one), we pushed a little farther back into the hills and wetlands, seeing still more new country. A dusting of last night’s snow on the ice crust made for perfect track impressions: Fisher and Ermine, Red Squirrels and Snowshoe Hares. In a few places we saw the trails of mice and voles and shrews, and Raccoon footprints that had been made in yesterday’s melting temperatures.
Feb. 24, 2018: Preparation and conduct of Despotic Nature Quiz
Under the direction of Macoun Club leader Peggy Leger, we prepared a set of graphic clues to aid OFNC members in tackling our nature quiz at their Awards Night later today. Since most of our specimens were parts of trees and knowledge of the species involved would be important, we traced the outlines of the appropriate leaves onto stiff paper, cut them out, and painted them.
Changing topic, Peggy told the group what she’d done with the hundreds of Red-Oak acorns they’d collected for her at Pakenham back on October 17th. She had cracked them open with a heavy hammer, skinned the kernals and ground them up. The coarse grit required many changes of water over days and weeks in order to wash out the bitterness. After drying, she ground the material into flour and last night used it to bake chocolate brownies – which she now distributed to each child and parent in the room.
When evening came, we got together again in a different location and set up our Despotic Nature Quiz on a big table. We had some easy things, such as a Great Horned Owl’s flight feather and a Red-eyed Vireo’s fallen nest, but the more complicated objects we’d assembled drew a lot of attention. If anyone had the answer, Macoun members were trained to ask them how they knew, and then say, quite cryptically, “Those are very good reasons.”
After all the adults had had a chance to examine our specimens (and view Macoun members’ Soirée projects) and after they got their normal business out of the way, leader Rob Lee went up front and explained the story behind each puzzling object.
Mar. 3, 2018: Out on the ice
Rivers are opening up with recent mild weather, and lake ice is now treacherous, but we had confidence that our Study Area beaver ponds would be as safe as ever. In fact, under a dusting of new snow, the broad ice surface turned out to be so smooth, we could have gone skating.
All the snow that the winter winds had blown off the open spaces lay in billowing drifts in the cattails around the edges. Among the cattails we found Springtails (Snow Fleas) everywhere, and in one place, masses of Deer hair and scraps of Deer hide. Coyote tracks suggested that they had brought down their prey here earlier this winter.
We ate lunch under the big pine tree across from the Sarsaparilla Trail’s observation dock. Getting ashore was difficult, as the ice among the emergent vegetation was poor and several people found their feet punching through into the water below. After eating, we got back onto the reliably solid pond ice and marched to the south end to run and slide, over and over.
Mar. 24, 2018: The frogs will soon emerge from winter
Herpetologist David Seburn, who spoke to us last December 9th on salamanders, today gave us an overview of the frogs we can see around Ottawa. Taxonomically, they’re grouped into families, like Tree Frogs (Eastern Gray Tree Frog, Chorus Frog, and Spring Peeper) and True Frogs (Leopard, Green, Bull, Wood and Mink Frogs). But for us, he presented them and their mating calls in seasonal order: in April we should hear Spring Peepers, Chorus Frogs and Wood Frogs; in May, American Toads and Leopard Frogs; in early June, Eastern Gray Tree Frogs; in summer, Mink, Green and Bull Frogs.
Most Macoun members had seen most of the Ottawa-area species, but only Garrett had seen a Chorus Frog — and he had actually seen it out of water, which is very unusual. “I saw it while cutting grass,” he explained.
Apr. 7, 2018: Getting to know dragonflies
Many dragonflies are big, strikingly coloured fliers that can be observed almost as one watches birds, with binoculars and field guides. In summer they dart in close to us to snatch away mosquitoes, black flies and deer flies. They are equally predatory in their aquatic stages, too, and today Mary Ann Perron from the University of Ottawa introduced us to her field of study.
We began by differentiating the nymphs of dragonflies and damselflies, and then used a simplified pictorial key to identify preserved specimens to genus. Mary Ann’s key focused our attention on the shape of the enormously modified lower lip (used to snap up prey items at a distance) and the degree of taper of the abdomen.
When nymphs are ready to become adults, they climb up some grass blade or twig that emerges from the water. Clinging to this object, they split their old skin and struggle out of it. Once their wings harden they fly away. The empty, split skins preserve all the same features that enable us to name the nymphs, and we were able to determine their identity, too.
As summer approaches, we intend to begin making an inventory of the dragonfly and damselfly species that inhabit the Macoun Club Nature-Study Area.
Apr. 14, 2018: What can a microscope show us?
As a follow-up to last week’s workshop, we tried out a variety of subjects under the microscope: live aquatic insects and crustaceans, preserved specimens, lichens, and rocks. We had obtained water samples from our Nature Study Area and Lanark County, and even from the Fletcher Wildlife Garden’s backyard pond. We observed the larvae of a Phantom Crane Fly and a Caddisfly (without its case), and several amphipods.
The preserved specimens had been collected at the Study Area, too — back in 1990. The Macoun Club leader at that time had also made a collection of common lichens, too.
The one rock was a smoothly rounded pebble that Rob identified as Nepean sandstone. Rob also provided a dozen fragments of rock that he had obtained from the gizzard of a road-killed Ruffed Grouse. They were ground down, too, but the Grouse could have picked them up from the roadside, already water worn.
Apr. 21, 2018: A study on apples
Macouners have studied many things in their Nature Study Area, but never the apple trees that occur there and their fruit. Apple trees are not native to the Americas, but have become widely distributed across the countryside because in pioneer times, almost every farm family had its own orchard. Five such orchards still existed within the Study Area in the 1970s, but most became overrun with plantations of pines and spruces. Today, Rob Lee proposed a new project in which we will rediscover where the trees are by their blossoming in May, and return in September to document the diversity of apple types.
To make a start at documentation, several of the leaders brought in apple varieties that are popular in local grocery stores. Rob recounted the origins of each – McIntosh, Granny Smith, Honey Crisp, and Pink Lady – and then we sampled them, making notes as we went. We learned that even a “sweet” apple will taste sour if it’s unripe.
Apr. 28, 2018: West side of Study Area
We began by pushing our way through extensive tangles of Glossy Buckthorn and European Honeysuckle bushes that have grown up under a former Red-Pine plantation (the pines have died in recent drought years).
The lack of interest we found in that invasive-dominated environment was brought into sharp contrast when we emerged into natural hardwood forest. Native wildflowers were coming up, and while eating lunch there, we became aware of a Barred Owl hanging around a part of the woods with large cavities in old trees, which might be suitable for nesting. We thought it might be exhibiting guarding behaviour.
We had hoped to hear the old choruses of spring frogs, but perhaps owing to the rather low temperatures (8º to 10º C) under cloud we could only verify their continuing presence in our Study Area.
May 5, 2018: Coming into the Study Area from the south
This week, for the purposes of surveying the Chorus Frog population, temperatures were right (rising from 16º to 23º C). But once again, numbers were low and we had to suppose that we had missed the height of their breeding season.
We did find a number of salamanders under logs, mostly Blue-spotted, but two were Red Efts. We also found salamander eggs in vernal pools.
Some migratory birds were back – Great Crested Flycatcher, White-throated Sparrow, Palm Warbler – but the extraordinary sighting was of a Gray Jay, which we haven’t seen in our Study Area in 45 years.
Spring wildflowers were in bloom or at least showing buds, and insects were responding. Overall, these plants are quite sparse owing to years of over-browsing by White-tailed Deer. Even Mackenzie Burns’ Leatherwood shrub was in flower – the only one left in our Study Tree Woods (again, owing to past browsing of the former hundreds by Deer).
May 12, 2018: The northeastern approach to the Study Area
Our Nature Study Area is so big that three successive field trips from different directions this spring have left whole swaths of forest and swamp unexamined. On this trip we passed through several very small old fields (we were looking for wild Apple trees) and White Spruce plantations (established in the early 1970s). A foray into a marsh netted us (literally) a Central Mudminnow and a Brook Stickleback — fish species that have been present for 45 years that we know of. A lunchtime probe of a small beaver pond produced four Eastern Newts.
This year’s spring season has been so prolonged with unusual cold weather that the Black Fly larvae we saw were still a week away from emerging as biting adults. But today the leaves had just started to come out on the trees, which meant that leaf-eating insects had also hatched. The deciduous canopy over our lunch places was alive with warblers. The birders in the group identified Myrtle, Black-and-White, Blackburnian, and Magnolia Warblers. Two Baltimore Orioles were also foraging among the emerging foliage.
May 20-21, 2018: Camping trip in the Pakenham Hills
Taking advantage of the last days before the biting flies become serious pests, the older members of the Macoun Club carried their backpacks for an hour, until the familiar trails ran out, and then, after picking their way across a beaver dam full to the brink and climbing a hill, set up camp by remote, sparkling waters surrounded by White Pine forest.
The Pakenham Hills are now a hotbed of Black-legged Ticks, which in this place are known to carry Lyme disease bacteria at a rate of 50%, so we set up our tents on an island too small for the ticks’ mammalian hosts and focused our activities on the aquatic environment. The result: only one of the nine campers got bitten by a tick.
And the aquatic environment repaid us with a late-season chorus of Spring Peepers, sightings of Mink Frogs and a Ribbon Snake, and the special pleasure of the company of a Common Loon and two Trumpeter Swans.
May 26, 2018: “Rob, what’s this habitat?”
On field trips, Macoun Club leader Rob Lee is often called back to answer the question, “Rob, what’s this? (insect, plant, fungus, animal track or dropping, etc.). But no one has ever asked, “Rob, what’s this habitat?”
Today, naturalist Rob Alvo came in to talk about natural habitats and how to think about them. We were all familiar with high-level terms such as forest and wetland, and even a few low-level terms, such as “Sugar Maple Forest.” He explained that a formal hierarchy of terms (comparable to the classification of plants and animals, from Kingdom to Species) is being developed for Canadian environments so that we’ll all talking about the same thing with words we have in common.
To make progress, he said, it is necessary to get away from the familiar term, habitat, because “habitat” is inevitably followed by the question, “Habitat for what? His point was that a recognizable type of natural environment, such as “Sugar Maple Forest,” is an entity in itself, worthy of being known, studied, and preserved, even if contains nothing but common species in no danger of individual extinction.
June 2, 2018: Frogs here, and frogs there . . .
We started with a joint field trip with the OFNC at Brewer Park pond by the Rideau River, where each year city children are introduced to the Ottawa’s aquatic wildlife. The main activity at this annual event is the catching and then release of frogs: Bull Frogs, Green Frogs, and Leopard Frogs. But Macoun members have developed deeper interests, and for a long time, Owen studied a dragonfly nymph under our field microscope.
Then most of our group shifted to the Macoun Study Area in Stony Swamp. We sat down for lunch in a Red Pine Woodland, which we have newly recognized as a significant ecological entity, following last week’s talk by Rob Alvo. At our feet were the very wildflowers we had been led to expect in this plant association: Bracken Fern, Canada Mayflower (in bloom), Bunchberry, and Wintergreen.
From there we waded into what is left of another distinct plant community, a Black Ash Swamp. Over the last few years, most of the canopy trees of this species have been killed by Emerald Ash Borer. The ground vegetation, however, has not yet begun to change, and we got back to chasing Green Frogs among clumps of Cinnamon, Royal, Interrupted, and Sensitive Ferns.
June 9, 2018: Fish, from beginning to end
Robbie Stewart, former Macoun Club member and our favourite paleontologist, has come in again this year, this time to present an overview of the evolution of fishes through time, beginning with the first armour-plated Placoderms. “Why do they have so much hard, bony protection?” he asked. ‘Because there were powerful predators around,’ our group answered. “And why didn’t later fish need such armour?” ‘Because fish got faster, and could outswim their predators.’
He illustrated his talk with pictures that always showed a modern human for scale, but Macouners already knew that the fish of ancient seas had been gigantic. Yet one of the biggest, he said, the one shown here with the gaping mouth, was a filter feeder. He pointed out that it was the next one down that was the predator, with massive jaws and impressive teeth. (The most common of these fish was a little bottom feeder.)
And so it went, through time, with fish getting faster and lighter of body. Eventually, however, slow fishes with stout, bony pectoral fins appeared again in protected environments – shallow swamps full of sunken logs to crawl over. These fish became the most successful of all – although few have persisted in their original form. “What do you think I mean, then, when I say that they are the most successful?” After a thoughtful pause, a voice from among the kids spoke up: ‘Because they evolved to become us.’ “Right you are;” said Robby, and he showed a series of skeletal diagrams that traced the evolution of the fishy fin bones into an amphibian leg, a reptile’s, and ultimately a primate forearm. With great enthusiasm, he concluded: “We’re all fishes.”
June 16, 2018: Afternoon at the waterfall
For the last field trip of the Macoun Club year, we settled into a familiar, relaxing place at Pakenham – some of us right in, into the water. It was a hot day. While the boys chased frogs up and down the creek, Rachel stepped into the pool above the falls and offered the dancing Ebony Jeweling damselflies a finger to perch upon. One of them claimed her, and returned again and again.
Meanwhile, the rest of us were waving off a steady stream of Deer Flies, and soon Garrett returned to have a Deer Tick removed from his skin. (On the way out, Rachel caught another one by dragging her net through the trailside vegetation.)
Immersed in nature for hours and hours, we enjoyed an interval entirely away from the civilized world, no sight or sound of machinery or their marks on water, landscape, or sky.
June 23, 2018: The annual party
This year’s annual party was occasion for some small celebration of the Macoun Club’s 70th anniversary. Rob gave a very brief historical overview, and then the former members who attended told us what the Club had meant to them: Robin Collins and Darrell Larose from Rob Lee’s era (the 1960s and ’70s) and the three pictured here from the 1990s. Also, Robbie Stewart (member from 2004 to 2009), who had given us a presentation on the evolution of fishes just two weeks ago, told us that he learned about Macoun Club even before he came to Ottawa and joined. His family was moving here from Nova Scotia, and he knew he would be leaving his friends behind; he wanted to find new ones who would share his interests. And he found that the community of fellow naturalists in the Macoun Club so to his liking that he comes back, year after year.
We wrapped up with the traditional showing of Bill Mason’s film “Rise and Fall of the Great Lakes.”
At the very same time all this was going on, a memorial plaque to John Macoun was being formally unveiled at the Canadian Museum of Nature on MacLeod Street, attended by interested scientists, officials, and the Minister for Parks Canada, Catherine McKenna. As Tom Spears reported in The Ottawa Citizen, Macoun, along with James Fletcher, “laid the foundations of federal government research in biology.”
Page created by Rob Lee on Sept. 2, 2018