On March, 16, 2020, the OFNC Board of Directors cancelled all further official activities. On June 12 Ontario advanced its provincial Stage 2 reopening (raising the allowable size of outdoor gatherings from 5 to 10 people), and on July 17, Stage 3 (up to 50). At the beginning of September, the Board voted to resume outdoor activities.
We were in a COVID-19 shutdown, and it wasn’t possible to hold official trips
Here’s what some Macoun members and leaders did together unofficially
August 30, 2020: Snakes alive!
At the very beginning of this month, Macoun member Lemuel and his friend searched and searched for snakes across the Study Area, all in vain. But within days the drought broke, and immediately snakes reappeared around the country homes of Macoun leaders Rob and Barbara. They must have been deep in shelter from the heat.
Today Lemuel made a triumphant return, having to catch one big Garter Snake while holding another in his other hand. And best of all, in the hardwood forest that is our Study Tree Woods, he came up with a baby Garter, which he knew would have been live-born quite recently.
There were frogs, too — Leopards in the open places, and Wood Frogs and Spring Peepers not far from the baby snake. Lemuel is an expert at placing his net just where his quarry will jump into it.
Fellow Macoun member Priya made her way to her Study Tree, a towering Eastern White Pine whose crown was out of sight in or perhaps even above the deciduous canopy. Rob walked all around it looking down and pronounced, “It doesn’t seem to be bearing cones this year.” Out his way, at White Lake, the topmost limbs of the pines are sagging under the weight of their cone crop, and Crossbills have nested, raising a brood. Red Squirrels are cutting down the cones by the hundred and dropping them — these are what Rob was looking for and not seeing on the ground below Priya’s tree.
Aug. 12, 2020: What Macouners do in the heat
Prevailing upon their mother, Peggy, Macouners Rory and Aidan brought their friend Emmett out to Rob’s house, and they all got into one car for a short drive. This was an occasion for masking all round, with people from three family/social groups in a closed space together.
Rob drove down the single-lane “California Road” and pulled off the dirt track near a little-known wild lake where everyone could have a swim. It’s ringed with pines and steep rock slopes, down which boulders have tumbled; the boys found underwater seats upon which to relax. They were soon swarmed by minnows that brushed by and nibbled their skin. Leeches could be found, but did not find them.
August 1, 2020: It’s been a hot, dry summer
Two boys, close friends, joined Rob and Barbara for an outing in the southern half of the Study Area. Having ascertained from a parent that they are in each other’s “social bubble,” we did not insist on social distancing for them — just between them and the adults.
Their first find was a Luna Moth caterpillar, inching right down the path. We moved it to safety in the adjacent woods. Next was a Gypsy Moth laying hundreds of eggs in a compact mass on a Red Oak. We saw only a dozen in the course of the day.
The boys really wanted to find snakes, but it has been hot and dry (temperature today, 31ºC) and no snakes were out. There weren’t a lot of frogs, either, but Lemuel and Alex found a Blue-spotted Salamander by rolling a log at the side of the trail. It didn’t move when touched, and lay limp and seemingly lifeless in the hand. Had someone thoughtlessly stood on the log? Rob didn’t think so; he poured his good well water over the amphibian in Lemuel’s cupped hands, and it instantly revived and struggled to get away.
The soil under logs was not quite dry — it has rained recently — and there were also earthworms, ant colonies, a centipede, and what we call a giant millipede, Narceus americana. Not as good a find as a snake, but Lemuel said he found the creature soothing as it walked over his hands.
July 25, 2020: Exploring a Macoun Club member’s backyard
When naturalists move into a new home, what do they do? Rob and Barbara accepted an invitation to explore Genevieve’s new back yard — the wild tangle of trees and shrubs, wildflowers and ferns beyond the last of the lawn. She and her parents already knew some of the birds, such as Northern Flickers, which had raised their young in a tall poplar snag, and the Blue Jays. Soon a Red-eyed Vireo was singing, and Rob pointed out that that bird had spent last winter in the Amazon rainforest.
The forest fringe at the top of the slight slope was made up of old Ironwoods; immediately behind them was a big bed of Sensitive Fern, which generally indicate wet ground. As we worked our way down, we passed substantial Red Maples and American Elms, and beds of Ostrich Ferns, which also do well on very moist soil. Yet there were also American Beech and Sugar Maple trees.
Underfoot, the ground was mostly bare, thanks to the action of introduced earthworms, and tree roots had sometime been left looping high and dry through the air where the humus had been eaten away. Rob drew attention first to some Jack-in-the Pulpit plants, and then to a mat of wide, heart-shaped leaves low to the ground. He encouraged Genevieve to slide her finger down a root and scrape it with her fingernail: Wild Ginger!
Yet there were many plants that neither Rob nor Barbara knew, so another visit, by a botanist, is warranted.
July 5, 2020: Niccolo’s tree, revisited (and more)
Just one week ago, Niccolò examined his study tree minutely (it’s mostly mossy tree trunks lying on the ground); today, Macoun members Zahra and Samantha discovered that vigorous growths of Sulfur-Shelf fungus had sprouted since then. Rob and the families of these two members ate lunch on Niccolo’s study-tree.
There had been other changes. Zahra’s tree, which on March 28th stood in knee-deep water and on June 14th, on a little island surrounded by ankle-deep water, had become completely stranded as the pond it stood in dries up. She had to walk way out in the emerging sedge meadow to find any water (and tadpoles).
And Samantha’s Bitternut Hickory, which had died years ago after falling over, now seems to have retained an unsuspected hold on life. With the loss of soil caused by invasive earthworms, we could see that the 25-foot-tall sapling just a yard away is actually a sprout off one of the still-living roots radiating out from the original tree!
All along the way we were finding wildflowers and insects — Purple-flowering Raspberry and Northern Crescent butterflies in sunny places, and Northern Pearly Eye and Eastern Comma in the Study Tree Woods. And salamanders — Eastern Newts, crawling about on the wet but waterless floor of the Woodland Pond.
June 30, 2020: Niccolo’s Study Tree
Rob and Barbara conducted another family into the Study Area on an informal field trip, but Niccolò knew his own way to his Study Tree. It was dead and broken when Niccolò found it, but Rob and Barbara remember back to the 1990s when it was a living thing that kids could climb. It was a White Ash.
On each visit, Niccolò examines the standing part, a shattered stub, and then the fallen trunk, and finally the broken pieces of wood lying on the ground. Under one piece he found a blocky, pink insect larva: “A glow-worm!” he exclaimed. And under another, one a little more advanced, a pupa, soon to be a firefly. (There are fireflies flashing in the woods these nights.)
Nearby, Niccolò called attention to four dusky butterflies in whirling chase round and round a Bur Oak tree’s trunk. Rob caught one in a net, and identified it as a Northern Pearly Eye.
Around his tree we saw and caught tiny Wood Frogs, evidently only recently emerged from the nearby Woodland Pond (number IX), which has dried down to puddles. But the deeper, cooler Kidney Bean Pond (number X) still furnishes a home for Wood Frog tadpoles, and we found them — with spindly hind legs starting to grow.
June 14, 2020: Gravitating to the swamp
Although Ontario has moved into Stage 2 of reopening the province, permitting gatherings of up to 10 people, the OFNC still requires Macoun Club leaders to meet with members informally, by private arrangement, for field trips. Today, two families sent out their children, who are best friends together, with one of the parents.
On this beautiful late spring day, we found the trails busy with many other families just bursting to get out of the restrictions that were lifted only yesterday. The trail sides were colourful with wildflowers, many of them introduced from Europe, most prominently Yellow and Orange Hawkweeds, Common Buttercup, and Common Daisy. But there were some native berry plants in bloom, too.
We left the trail almost at once to track down a woodpecker that was drumming pretty steadily: a Downy, high up on top of a dead, dried-out Red Oak limb. And again when we reached the Study Tree Woods. After that, we saw no more people until we came out. We ate lunch seated on logs facing each other across a comfortable space under the Sugar Maples.
But Zahra’s tree is a Silver Maple, which grows down on the Woodland Pond’s floodplain. Although her tree had flowered, and presumably produced seeds, the seeds had already been released from all the Red and Silver Maples, and dotted the soggy ground. But although the water had gone down so much since March that we could almost walk out to it, Zahra’s tree, standing on a low knoll, was still surrounded by water and its seeds had floated away. We had to wade, barefoot, to get to it.
May 26, 2020: Bumping about in the dark
Two Macoun Club members, Rory and Aidan, eagerly set out this night in Rob’s old canoe, squeezing between the trunks of trees standing waist-deep in his ash swamp. They were searching for Eastern Gray Tree Frogs in full breeding chorus, trying to catch one in a flashlight beam in the act of calling. The ringing sound came from many sources at once, all around: QUIR-R-R-R-R-R-R-R! QUIR-R-R-R-R-R-R-R! Was that high or low? Quite near or just a little farther?
It is hard to maneuver, they found. You’re going too slowly to steer properly. And while you’re aiming your light off to the side where the frog is, the canoe drifts on into the darkness, running into unseen tangles of broken branches, fallen or suspended, and rafts of old logs floated by the spring flooding.
Suddenly you see your first one. The frogs, it turns out, are mostly calling from the water’s edge, sitting on a floating log, or half-in, half-out. Some are higher up, on a stump or the side of a tree. Shiny with skin stretched taut by having taken a deep breath, the frog suddenly directs the air into its throat, which puffs out like a big bubble, and a vibrant trill fills the air for a few seconds.
Once you know what you’re looking for, the awkward wet lumps on logs and bunches of forest debris take on meaning. There were a dozen frogs on one floating log; there must be hundreds!
And in among them, a gentler, more musical trill, drawn out for many seconds: American Toads! Just a few, and harder to find amidst the general din of the Tree Frogs, but Rory and Aidan saw them.
Finally, the two worked their way back to their starting point and came ashore. Up close, the call of each frog had seemed harsh or strident, a pressure on the ears. But experienced as a whole, the chorus of the Tree Frogs had had a somewhat musical quality.
May 16, 2020: Spring has been stretched out
Rob and Barbara made a return visit to the Study Tree Woods, right at the end of this spring’s prolonged cool weather. Everything in nature seems to have been waiting for warmth before proceeding with life; whatever had already started back in April has just kept going. We heard Chorus Frogs in the ponds beside the Woods, for instance, weeks after they would normally have gone quiet, while the mosquito larvae there have remained in the aquatic stage.
Zahra’s Red Maple, which began so early (April 23rd), had finished flowering, On dry land, the dominant Sugar Maples, too, had already flowered on the otherwise bare branches. Red Maples flower every year, but Sugar Maples do this on an irregular schedule. This is going to be one of the unusual years when Theo’s tree, Max’s, and Samuel’s produce a crop of seeds.
These same trees have responded to the first hints of warmth by opening their leaf buds, giving the still-open woods a greenish cast. With the first hints of green come the insects that have been waiting for their food, and anticipating this, the more hardy insect-eaters had appeared: we heard or saw Black-and-White and Black-throated Green Warblers, a Great-crested Flycatcher, and several Blue-headed Vireos.
On the forest floor, seedling trees were opening their leaves, too, and Rory’s Study Moss, which is green all year, was browning slightly with masses of spore capsules in an early stage of growth. Five years ago Rob had to search carefully to find just one capsule with which to make his identification. Now, hundreds are in the making on the same moss cushion.
The Barred Owl that drew Leah to choose her first Study Tree two weeks ago was still hanging around. We heard it call once.
May 9, 2020: working for Monarch conservation
Last year, Macoun Club member Genevieve Leroux made a pencil sketch of a Monarch butterfly for The Little Bear — see page 40, if you have a copy. And also page 60, for an interesting account of her activities.
She also gave us a talk on Monarch conservation, which she has been involved with since she lived in California. On a snow-whitened day this spring, in early May in fact, Rob received word that Genevieve has now produced a video featuring Jane Goodall, as well as herself, talking about Jane’s “Roots and Shoots” program and her plan to link up all the Monarch conservation projects from Canada to Mexico. They invite other kids who want to be Monarch activists like Genevieve to join them.
We have seen other butterflies already this spring, including overwintered adults of Commas and Mourning Cloaks, and also another migrant species last weekend at the Study Area, the Painted Lady. But our earliest record for a Monarch in the Study Area was June 23, 2012. They have a long way to come, and it takes several Monarch generations through the early part of the year to do it.
May 2, 2020: Waders and watchers
Although it is still not permissible to organize field trips, even after seven weeks of difficult social restrictions intended to slow or arrest the spread of the COVID-19 virus, Rob and Barbara managed to coordinate their arrival at the Study Area with a young Macoun Club family that lives nearby. It was a warm, sunny day and the trails were full of people walking, cycling, even jogging, all automatically keeping the requisite 2-metre distance from others.
We got even farther away by exploring the bedrock plateau beside the Scissons road-allowance trail, and then out of sight altogether in the Study Tree Woods. Wildflowers — the “spring ephemerals” that leaf out and then wither away within the month — had sprung up. We saw the nodding yellow flowers of Trout Lily (also known as Dog-toothed Violet), the small delicate pinkish blooms of Spring Beauty, and the clean white petals of Bloodroot. (The buds of White Trilliums were still tightly closed.)
We drifted downhill from west to east until we reached the shore of the Woodland Pond (number IX), where a few Chorus Frogs were calling. Way out in the water, Zahra’s tree was still in bloom. Dipping in the shallows with a wide plastic container brought up loads of mosquito larvae, a Fairy Shrimp, a red “bloodworm” (midge larva), and two tiny Pea Clams. Inevitably, explorations into deeper water took the children in over their boot-tops.
As we started out, the children’s mother looked up into a tree, right into the eyes of a roosting Barred Owl! Rob turned back to look, but all he could see at first was a Porcupine. Naturally, with two big animals in the same tree, it was irresistible as a Study Tree. Indeed, this day six new Study Trees were chosen.
April 23, 2020: Macoun member Max’s Study Tree
On a beautiful but chilly Thursday (we are no longer constrained to Saturdays, because of the coronavirus shutdown), Macoun Club leaders Rob and Barbara checked out another member’s Study Tree. Five months ago to the day, last November 23rd, Max chose a large Sugar Maple for study. It is about 15 or 20 feet north of a rusty well-pipe.
The bulges on the trunk, some of which are still unhealed knot-holes, show that his tree grew up in sunshine: the forest, which is younger, grew up around it. Shade from the new trees eventually killed the maple’s lower branches. When they had rotted enough to break, they fell off. A recently fallen one now lay on the ground, and it was covered with lichens.
Looking over this whole branch, which had been growing about 25 feet above ground, Rob identified a dozen species. This is about the same number as on Zahra’s Red Maple, which was featured on April 4th, but Max’s tree has a few that are different. There are the common, often sun-loving foliose species, such as Candelaria concolor, Parmelia sulcata, Physcia millegrana, Physcia adscendens, Physcia aipolia, and Xanthomendoza fallax; and some more typical of the shadowy forest: Phaeophyscia rubropulchra and Flavoparmelia caperata. Among these generally more showy lichens were several subtle crustose species: Chrysothrix caesia, Lecanora allophana, and Ochrolechia arborea.
It is a good thing for the sake of science that the branch had fallen, for on all of Max’s trunk where it can be examined from the ground, the bark is only speckled with tiny scraps of two species — the already named Phaeophyscia rubropulchra (Orange-cored Shadow Lichen) and Candelaria concolor (Lemon Lichen).
The buds on Max’s Sugar Maple had barely begun to swell, but the crown of Zahra’s Silver Maple was a red haze of open flowers.
April 4, 2020: Home examination of a Macouner’s Study Tree
Rob wasn’t able to get out this weekend. On last week’s trip, however, he had walked out on the ice to Zahra’s Study Tree (it’s standing in a big pond now), and even crawled around on his stomach taking pictures of its larger lichens. Her Silver Maple stands well out on the Woodland Pond’s floodplain, which at this season is flooded, of course.
Lichens grow on every part of Zahra’s tree that is exposed to light, thickly over the root collar, scattered up the trunk and limbs, and thickly again on the branches, almost to their tips. The roots are submerged now, as happens every spring, but on the day she chose it, November 23rd — see below — Rob pointed out that down at the bottom, the base was covered with the Flooded Jellyskin (Leptogium rivulare). Above the waterline are lichens that might be common on any rough-barked tree trunk, such as the Common Powderhorn (Cladonia coniocraea) and the Hammered Shield Lichen (Parmelia sulcata).
One of the upper branches, which had died, broke off during the winter and hangs tip downward, within easy reach. Rob took as a sample a bit of its paper-thin bark for closer examination.
Crowded together on a scrap of bark no bigger than Rob’s thumb were eight species: the foliose Melanohalea subaurifera, Physcia aipolia, Physcia millegrana, and Parmelia sulcata, and crustose types Chrysothrix caesia, Lecanora symmicta, Rinodina freyi, and Catillaria nigroclavata. Another species that was on these branches, but not on the sample collected, was the Common Greenshield, Flavoparmelia caperata.
Rob was looking particularly for lichens, but noted different kinds of mosses, too. He also spotted a Winter Firefly (Ellychnia corrusca) hidden in a crevice. The larvae are like glow-worms, but the adults of this species don’t flash. And while looking at the lichens under a low-power dissecting microscope, he observed two tiny, glassy roundworms (nematodes) moving about.
Thus, Zahra’s tree is beginning to reveal an unsuspected amount of biodiversity: 11 species of lichens, at least two mosses, and two invertebrates. And, if you look at it just right, a dragon.
March 28, 2020: The sweet and the bitter
There was no field trip for members today, owing to the need to avoid gatherings during the COVID-19 epidemic, but Macoun Club leaders Rob and Barbara did visit members’ Study Trees. The woods were about half snow-covered, and the adjacent Woodland Pond was frozen solidly enough to walk around on. But not at edges — Rob got a soaker.
Rob made quite a study of Zahra’s Silver Maple, which stands by itself in about two feet of water and ice. The flower buds on the twig tips were not even close to bursting open, but a few sunny spring days will bring them out. With his background in lichenology, Rob was able to recognize nine species on the branches, and four on the trunk (not counting the Flooded Jellyskin, Leptogium rivulare, which we already know is there, submerged by the rising water). The mosses and fungi also present will have to await another expert’s visit.