What we did in 2021-22

Sept. 11, 2021: Frogs and snakes by the dozen

Photo of Macoun Club member on the run in pursuit of a sighting

Lemuel in hot pursuit

We spent our time in the Study Tree Woods and the adjacent vernal pond’s floodplain, away from the hikers and joggers, cyclists and dog-owners so frequent on the trails. In fact, we didn’t see anyone else at all for hours.

In the upland maple woods where most of our Study Trees have been chosen, Wood Frogs were the commonest capture. They tended to be small, but not so small as the Spring Peeper that eventually came to attention. Meanwhile, a few Tree Frogs trilled from their chosen trees.

Rivaling the frogs in frequency were little Garter Snakes, young of the year, mostly about six inches long.

Photo of two Macoun Club members in sunny sedge meadow

A sedge meadow where in spring the water lies a metre deep

In recent years, a dense band of Glossy Buckthorn has grown up to separate the dry hardwood forest from the soft maples that flood every spring. This floodplain is one of the best preserved habitats in our Study Area. So is the Woodland Pond, as some of us call it. The waters of spring had long since evaporated, but in the thick sedge meadow were big Leopard Frogs — and big Garter Snakes.

One member chose an unusually contorted Silver Maple for his Study Tree. It has a down-reaching branch that lets him step up into it, like a rider stepping into the stirrup.

From out in the sedges one Macouner came running back to report a Porcupine.  It scuttled up the nearest Red Maple tree, and looked down from a place of security.


Sept. 18, 2021: What could be under that rock?

Photo of Macoun Club members closing in on creatures under a rock

Boys and girls were equally keen on checking under rocks

With many hands to employ, our group lifted a lot of rocks and rolled many logs. Most of the time, there was nothing to see, or only mysterious smudges and lumps that elicited the unanswerable question, “What the heck is that?”

Photo of Blue-spotted Salamander and Eastern Newt in Macoun Club member's hands

Blue-spotted Salamander a Eastern Newt from the same place

Often enough to be encouraging, though, were suddenly frantic ant colonies (usually small yellow ants of the genus Lasius), or large beetles with a metallic, purple luster (exotic ground-beetles, Carabus nemoralis). We uncovered invasive earthworms of two different species; they were scarce, reflecting the summer’s dryness.

Finally, just when we were in the most remote part of our Study Area, and it was time to turn back, a Blue-spotted Salamander was discovered. Another rock was lifted, revealing an Eastern Newt. Before the rock could be put back, a second newt was noticed. Raising one more flat slab of sandstone brought to light another three Eastern Newts!

An hour later and half-a-kilometer away, it was snakes we found — all Garters.

While so many eyes were turned down, some were turned up, which brought to attention a Porcupine high up in a White Birch. Why a birch, when all around are nut-laden hickories and oaks? A cut branch the animal had dropped suggested why: the twigs were laden with fat green seed-catkins, which are presumably nutritious.


With the time we had left, Rob launched our canoe and took new members on a tour of the pond, pointing out signs of higher and lower water levels in the past. The pond was dotted with white feathers from Trumpeter Swans, which have settled into the broader region in recent years.

Renewed rains followed us out of the woods.

Sept. 25, 2021: The swelling roar of a thousand pairs of wings

Photo of 10-inch-long Northern Water Snake

Young Water Snake in hand

Our Study Area is a big place! Setting out from the same starting point as on the last two trips, we lit out in a third direction, yet never crossed our previous routes in the five hours we were out. There were far fewer snakes than last time, but in compensation one of the two seen was a young-of-the-year Water Snake. And there didn’t seem to be any frogs in these new places.

The woods were rather quiet at first. Few birds were in evidence until we stopped to listen to a far-off chatter and rushing sound — the raucous squeaks and general noise of a flock of birds advancing toward us through the woods. In places there, the ground was carpeted with recently fallen Ironwood seeds. Perhaps this is what they were after. Presently, dozens and dozens of Grackles, and then dozens more dropped into sight in the farther reaches of the forest. Suddenly, startled, hundreds roared up into the trees. As the flock moved on, Rob estimated that there were well over a thousand.

Photo of Four-Toed Salamanader

Four-toed Salamander: note constriction at base of tail

With a crew much given to rolling rocks and logs, we brought some interesting finds to light. The highlight of the day was a pair of Four-toed Salamanders. Only one had ever been found in our Study Area (and it was discovered in the same place in 2018). This species can shed its tail when it feels threatened, leaving it twitching to distract a predator (the first one we saw, in2018, did this).

After the farthest point we reached, we descended into the largely swamp formerly characterized by Black Ash trees. The Emerald Ash Borer has opened up the canopy, while dense Glossy Buckthorn thickets have sprung up to replace them. Rob led to four of the large earthen ant mounds we have been studying for 14 years. These mounds still had live colonies, but the ants in one of them were infested with large red parasitic mites that we have never seen before.

October 17, 2021: Change of weather, change of season

Photo of lines of Brant geese in the sky

Brant geese passing high overhead

Just after a prolonged warm spell (about 9ºC above normal) we headed into the Pakenham Hills — Mary Stuart’s old property, now Gerry Lee’s — where the Macoun Club has been roaming for 54 years. Following a day of rain, the ground was wet underfoot and, at lunch, our firewood wet. Yet it was the right sort of a day for salamanders (we found a Red-backed). Riding the cold front that had come in overnight, flocks of Brant passed overhead in wide, overlapping U-shaped lines, muttering continuously as they went.

At this point, most deciduous trees have shed their foliage; still green were all the oaks, which had put out a second set of leaves after being stripped by Gypsy Moths in early summer. Mushrooms had popped up all over, ranging from edible Sulfur Shelf (“Chicken-of-the-Tree) on oak trunks to Destroying Angels (Amanita virosa) on the ground.

Photo of Macoun Club members canoeing on a Pakenham pond

Canoeing in the rain

Crossing a mud-crested beaver dam (the same now as 50 years ago) we pushed on to the Upper Pond for lunch, and built a small fire out on a familiar rocky point. An early flock of Ring-necked Ducks rushed into the air; later a small group of 15 howled in on stiff-set wings. A bunch of Canada Geese rose in a clamour and did not come back.

With the time we had left, Rob launched our canoe and took new members on a tour of the pond, pointing out signs of higher and lower water levels in the past. The pond was dotted with white feathers from Trumpeter Swans, which have settled into the broader region in recent years.

Renewed rains followed us out of the woods.


October 23, 2021: Rob risks his fingers

Photo of Rob attracting attention from Macoun Club leaders and members with a Wolf Spider in hand

People were astonished that Rob would take a Wolf Spider into his hands

The season had advanced since our last visit to our Study Area (Sept. 25th). The leaves are down, and although we have not yet had any frost, so many wild creatures have withdrawn from the forest scene — flown south or found winter quarters underground — that the woods were rather open and quiet. We saw one Ruby-crowned Kinglet, one Chickadee, and two Blue Jays, plus some Common Crows. The warmth of mid-afternoon sunshine enticed two Garter Snakes to come out from their rocky hibernaculum, but none of the keen eyes in our group detected the leap of a single frog in the upland places we wandered.

What was left? Under some of the stones we lifted we found a few invertebrates. Rob encouraged a Wolf Spider to walk onto his hand, and when a Macouner tried it, the boy exclaimed, “It’s so light!” Once a Bald-faced Hornet queen was uncovered in a cozy cell she had excavated in the ground under a log, and we left her alone.

Photo of Formica sanguinea group ant biting a Macoun Club leader's fingertip

Red ant defending its colony against an intruding fingertip

The most interesting discovery came with a close examination of the ants disturbed by ripping up a rotten stump. There were black ants stumbling around in the dirt, and red ants that were larger. Although everything was cold and slow, it appeared that these ants of obviously different species were living together in peace.

Some of us have witnessed the “slave raids” of red ants on black ants in summertime, when they bring back the others’ larvae and raise them as their own. This is the result: a colony of red ants (probably in the Formica sanguinea subgroup) being served by workers of another particular member of the genus.

One of the red ants worked up enough animation to defend the nest by biting Rob’s fingertip. It then curled its abdomen under its body in the way that a Carpenter Ant would when squirting formic acid into a wound. But Rob’s fingers are so tough that he didn’t feel a thing. (Maybe the ant was just too cold to exert much force.)

When we finished eating lunch, someone finally looked up and noticed a Porcupine in a tall, bare Bitternut Hickory. A few steps away a small Raccoon was noticed perching on a big maple stub. They must have had an anxious hour, stranded in their trees by the 16 people below.

October 30, 2021: Autumn rain

The end of October has come, and there has still been no widespread frost, but without sunshine we are seeing no snakes or frogs. Wet weather was forecast, so Rob set the hours for a short trip — just three hours. We started out dry enough, but light rain soon set in and didn’t let up. From earlier rains, water had pooled in low places on the trails, and footpaths were muddy.

Photo of Macoun Club member perched in his Study Tree, a contorted Silver Maple

Lemuel chose a unique and climbable Silver Maple for his Study Tree

We made checking our Study Trees a priority. Max’s tree (a mature Sugar Maple whose lichens were featured on April 23, 2020), still had a thin yellowish crown, but Ryder’s, a vigorous youngster only 20 cm in diameter, had been in that state more than two weeks earlier, and had now dropped all its leaves. Lemuel’s Silver Maple was leafless, too. Late though the season is, we found two blossoms on Herb Robert (Wild Geranium).

We saw one Porcupine, and heard just a few chirps and cries from birds (a Robin and a Blue Jay). Under logs and rocks, earthworms were the most abundant invertebrates. We also chased out a few Wolf Spiders.

With everyone getting steadily wetter, and the poorly dressed distressingly colder, we made for a sheltered place under the Cedars of a limestone escarpment for lunch. There the steady precipitation was reduced to a tolerable dripping. After that, Rob chose a return route just the right length to keep us moving (for warmth) until the moment we were picked up.

Hours later, Rob found an adult Deer Tick embedded in his skin. In follow-up, he ascertained that no one else had been bitten.


November 6, 2021: The pleasant (and the unpleasant)

Photo of Macoun Club members on the wooded shore of a natural pond

Macouners on the eastern shore of “The Woodland Pond” (Pond IX)

Since we were out last week, there have been two or three hard frosts in our Study Area — the first of the season. The cold weather seems to have knocked most of the remaining leaves out of the trees. One pleasant result of that is that sunlight streams into the forest, just when one most wants it for warmth. We sought out a sunny knoll overlooking the beaver pond known to us as “Pond II” for lunch.

Another benefit of bare trees is that Porcupines are more easily spotted overhead. We saw two.

Ponds and streams were eagerly sought, but yielded no frogs or turtles. A net dragged through “Pond IX” came up clogged with fallen leaves. We had slightly better luck looking under logs: earthworms, centipedes, and slugs. Winter Moths fluttered here and there.

Photo of vial in hand containing 12 Deer Ticks plucked of clothing

Twelve of the 18 Deer Ticks leader Rob Lee plucked off the group’s clothing with tweezers

We encountered few of the birds that may stay all winter, such as Black-capped Chickadees and a Hairy Woodpecker; we heard a Raven call.  Canada Geese flew over, going south in the morning, and north in the afternoon.

We began finding Deer Ticks in that sunny lunch place, where there was much weedy ground cover. And as our experience grew, we became apprehensive about passing through brushy places, too. By day’s end, Rob had plucked 18 ticks off the group’s clothing — a successful measure, in that none got past our collective scrutiny to bite us later, as follow-up showed.

At home, Rob found that some of the ticks in the vial were clumped together, entangled — mating. No wonder they were so active today.

Ticks will be a concern until snow covers the ground.


November 20, 2021: Crossing paths with Gerry Lee

Google Earth image showing a passing jet aircraft over the Macoun Club's favourite waterfall at Pakenham

No, this jet aircraft was not parked in the woods at the waterfall; it was flying by when the Google Earth satellite took this picture. We were eating lunch at the red “X” when Gerry paddled up beside us.

On a chill, grey November day, we were so enjoying being out that we were late getting home, again. We were dressed for the weather.

We were in the Pakenham Hills, following old familiar trails until it was convenient to leave them. Then, we ascended a boulder-strewn slope to walk over mossy ground under the pine trees. Yellow Birch twigs, we found, had the same flavour as Wintergreen berries, which are ripe and tasty now. A number of the taller trees had blown over (in the big windstorm of 2012) and Rob, getting out his magnetic compass, demonstrated that they all point south — one of the handy natural direction indicators in this wild place.

Photo of Macoun Club friend Gerry Lee

Gerry Lee sliding past us in his canoe

Coming down the hill, we followed the sound of rushing water to a lunch place by the pond just out of sight of the waterfall. With wood still damp from recent rains, we got a hot little fire going right beside the swollen creek. Some roasted hot dogs and sausages; others reheated pizza and apple pie; and one pushed foil-wrapped potatoes, garlic and carrots right into the blaze for trouble-free cooking.

While we were so engaged, the landowner, Gerry, came along in his canoe and stopped to trade stories of wildlife sightings. He reported seeing two female Hooded Mergansers ducking under water for aquatic food; we had seen a Belted Kingfisher circling the pond again and again in its typical lurching flight, landing in an Elm tree briefly twice, and issuing a rattling call all the while, as if annoyed at our presence on its hunting grounds. They both will have to depart for the south if just a little more ice forms, or they won’t be able to dive for food.

Before starting back, Rob led over rough terrain and onto an island right at the waterfall. We dropped a leaf into the plunging channel above, then a small stick, and finally chucked a big, man-sized log in, to see how roughly it would be treated. Our turtle enthusiast figured it would fetch up somewhere below and be a good basking log for turtles, next summer.


November 27, 2021: Sun and shadow

Photo of Macoun Club member barefoot in the late November sunshine

The ice in sunny places was weak. Result: a quick soaker.

Here we were, almost in December, with a dusting of snow over the dead leaves and grass, and we’ve got a kid walking around barefoot! What’s going on?

It was cold, alright, around -5º C, and a stiff wind was sweeping down out of the northwest. But we had tucked our lunch fires into a sheltered bay in the side of Barbara Gaertner’s beaver meadow, and from that calm alcove watched the marsh grasses tossing vigorously just a few steps away. As lunch wound down, people began flopping down in the grass or exploring. Exploration led to an encounter with weak ice. Hence the shedding of boots and socks, and the further discovery that it was pleasant to walk about in that sunny place.

Photo of Macoun Club members cautiously checking out the ice in an ash swamp

In deeply shaded places, the ice only crackled. Result: a delayed soaker. Felix, Max, and Theo.

Stirring ourselves, we crossed the stream that emerges from the beaver meadow and climbed the wooded hills beyond. Upon reaching the highest point we looked out and saw — only forest falling away in all directions.

Perched between hills was a long, narrow wetland, an ash swamp hemmed in by cedars. In the deep shade there the ice was stronger, though it crackled underfoot at every step. The boldest among us slid one foot before the other, to spread their weight out, but that only got one of them to a place where he could break through and get another soaker.

It was a strangely lifeless day. There were no mushrooms, only frozen jelly fungus and dry brackets. We saw one mammal — a Porcupine hunched up into a tight ball of fur and quills far up in a Hemlock tree. A boy picked up an old deer antler, the tines having been chewed down to sharp points by rodents (you can see it in his hand, in the picture on the right). One bird — a Raven — passed over us, twice.

Where were the squirrels, the chickadees, the jays?


December 4, 2021: Fresh tracks, meadow voles, and skaters

Photo of Wolf Spider found in the snow

Wolf Spider found in the snow

There had been no snow around at daybreak, but in mid-morning parents had to drive through near-whiteout conditions to get their kids to the field trip before noon. The snow stopped falling just before their arrival, and indeed, the sky lightened steadily.

We walked a long way down the little-used California Road, near Rob’s home, seeing in the fresh snow the same few kinds of animal tracks over and over, and therefore getting to know them well: Grey Squirrel, Red Squirrel (narrower than those of the Greys), and Red Fox (dainty line of footprints). A small Wolf Spider discovered on the snow hunched down and drew all its legs together each time we disturbed it, but relaxed after a few seconds. We let it go in the leaf litter under the two inches of snow.

Photo of Macoun Club member on top of a beaver lodge on a frozen pond

Ryder and Max investigating a Beaver lodge: the air hole on top smelled of animals

When we got to the beaver pond that was our destination, the tracks of a mouse (probably Deer Mouse) showed how it had hopped back and forth along the shoreline. We started a lunch fire at once and did our cooking over the embers and flames. Right under the logs we meant to sit on, two Meadow Voles dashed from cover to cover, and the boys sought them hard and long. They disappeared, they came back; one broke from cover at a run and was chased over the snow until it dove under the surface and tunneled to safety. You would think the little creatures would have been terrorized, but by the time we got to roasting marshmallows, those voles were crouched under those same logs, munching on something. Someone poked a dry grass stem at one, and it gradually chewed up the end it had been offered.

th white feathers from Trumpeter Swans, which have settled into the broader region in recent years.

Renewed rains followed us out of the woods.


December 12, 2021: Old tracks and a butterfly

Photo of Fisher tracks in snow (front foot, hind foot, front foot, hind foot from top to bottom)

Tracks of a large Fisher next to an adult’s boot track (front foot, hind foot, front foot, hind foot from top to bottom)

Since our last trip, six inches (15 cm) of snow fell, and then almost melted away. The soggy snow that was left has turned crusty; it holds footprints made days ago. Upon entering our Study Area, we saw a lot of old Deer tracks turned to ice, and the tracks of two Fishers of different sizes, widely separated from each other. Later we saw places where voles had plowed their way through the thin snow, sometimes being able to tunnel.

We ate lunch in the same place as on October 23rd, but neither of the animals seen there on that date were on view. It could be that they were snug in their dens in the hollow trees there, or perhaps they were just keeping safely out of sight: the smaller Fisher had passed beneath them.

Photo of Macoun Cub leader Rob and members in forest

Rob bends a sapling over to examine “crown galls”

In fact, the only mammal we actually sighted was a Red Squirrel.

Max found a tiny spider descending from Rob’s hat on a silk thread. And Rob picked up a plastic flowerpot that had been discarded, thinking to remove this piece of trash. But when he tipped out the dead leaves lying loosely inside, the last bit of debris flashed its yellow-tipped wings at him. It was a hibernating Mourning Cloak butterfly. (Rob put everything back the way it had been.)

Twice we passed under Bitternut Hickory trees laden with knobby wooden growths that we used to call “crown gall.” But recent studies suggest that they are something else, caused by a fungus rather than a bacterium. Rob pulled down a sapling so that the children could examine the growths that had already formed on the twigs; they were fist-sized. The little tree whipped back up in the air when released.

We also rescued an Ironwood sapling that had been bent low by a dead Ash tree falling on it. But it had been pressed down so long we had to struggle to raise it to an angle close to vertical.


January 15, 2022: Last chance for skating in the wild

Photo of Macoun Club group on the ice

We cleared some lake ice for skating

Sheltered beaver ponds, we found last week, have good ice that is badly crusted over with the snow that settles in the woods. Seeking better ice, we tried White Lake itself, where strong winds had swept the snow into drifts, leaving patches of bare ice in between. More had fallen, but it was just fluff, and we shoveled ourselves a clear patch. But only in a sheltered, south-facing bay. The temperature was about -20ºC, and when we went out around the point, the ice was so cutting it took much of the fun out of the afternoon.

We made our lunch fire right on the ice, and kept it going all the time we were skating and sliding around, too.

Only a wandering domestic dog had left tracks out on the snow-covered ice, but in the woods Red Squirrels, Deer, Voles, and a Fisher had left their mark.


January 22, 2022: Looking for Porcupines

Photo of Macoun Club member peering into porcupine den in hollow log

It is best to be cautious when peering into an animal’s den

On yet another cold day following a night of deep cold, this time without the welcome warmth of winter sunshine, we made a big deal of building a substantial lunch fire only a short distance into the woods across from Rob’s house. Yet we were well out of sight of any sign of civilization throughout the trip.

Pleasant though it is to loaf around a fire and roast marshmallows, Rob led off again, bringing the group to an open depression in the forested hills — a vernal pond that was recognized from last year. A big bird flashed by — long pointed wings and light belly. Was it a Gyrfalcon?

Photo of hollow Basswood chewed by Porcupine around the entrance hole

The Porcupine denning here risks killing the tree it lives in by eating the bark around its doorway

Taking off in the lead once more, he pressed on through trackless woods until he recognized another such pond. From its contours, he found his way to a remembered hollow log. Old, snowed-in tracks to an opening showed it to be in use again as a Porcupine den. Sniffing at the entrance yielded an “animal” smell: the den was occupied.

Not far away was a standing tree that had been used as a den last year. As we approached, those in the lead could hear a kind of moaning from within — another occupied den. When we got around to the side with the den opening, it was plain that this Porcupine had been literally eating his own home. Too much of this kind of thing will kill the tree.

Other dens, remembered from last year, were found to be empty.

We hadn’t seen any Porcupines, but we did hear and smell them.


January 29, 2022: Snowshoeing

Photo looking down at traditional snowshoes framing a deer hoof print in the snow

The two-toed print of a Deer in the snow

This was the last day of Ontario’s 10-person cap on “outdoor gatherings” and we had 9 people out. It had been cold overnight (-31ºC) but warmed up to about -15º.

With some on cross-country skis and some on snowshoes, we entered the woods directly from Rob’s place. We followed a trail he had already laid out to a sheltered pocket of sunshine in the shady forest — a vernal pond that won’t fill with meltwater until April. In his old snowshoe tracks, fresh two-toed footprints showed that a White-tailed Deer had found it easier walking on the packed snow.

Photo of Macoun Club members playfully tumbling in the snow

While Rob leads on, kids playfully tumbled in the snow

We made a lunch fire with dead cedar branches, and were kept so busy feeding it that we couldn’t stop to eat until some ash (hardwood) was added to steady the blaze. Sausages and grilled-cheese sandwiches were followed by marshmallows on sticks.

Moving on, we flushed a Ruffed Grouse from the trees over our heads. Later, we saw a Hairy Woodpecker. But the woods are rather empty this year, with few mammal tracks, not even squirrels.

Snowshoeing can be hard work, but our little excursion (just 4 hours) in no way exhausted the kids’ energies. They exaggerated every stumble to tumble laughing in the snow, and when the trip was over, continued to play while the adults waited to get them into the cars and head home.


February 21, 2022: People and wildlife in our Nature Study Area

Photo of Macoun Club leader Rob Lee with group of snowshoers

Rob leading an observant Macoun Club group in our Nature Study Area

What’s been happening in our Study Area this winter? We snowshoed in to see. (The snowpack is little more than a foot deep.)

In the Area and on the western approaches to it, we frequently encountered the tracks of people. The established trails were in heavy use, as they have been during previous periods of covid pandemic restrictions. (As he drove by, Rob noted that the parking lot on Eagleson Road for the  Old Quarry Trail, which connects with our trails, was filled almost to overflowing with visitors’ cars.) People were walking and trail skiing, and the ski tracks were being respected. But new paths have been pushed into many previously remote parts of the Greenbelt, and snowshoe tracks showed that people are still exploring in all directions.

We ourselves pushed into wet tangles of brush (mainly Glossy Buckthorn) and found that these difficult places were like refuges for wildlife. We saw the usual array of animal tracks — squirrels, Deer, Snowshoe Hares, Fisher. A Ruffed Grouse’s subnivean roost was unusual only in that this species has disappeared from the Area in recent years.

Photo of male Pileated Woodpecker in the Macoun Club's nature-study area

Male Pileated Woodpecker in our Study Tree Woods

A Red Squirrel grew upset and scolded when we stopped under an isolated grove of Eastern White Cedars on a rock outcrop for lunch, but later a woman walking a dog pointed out a very small Porcupine, less than a year old, up in the top of an American Elm tree just 30 feet from a major trail. It seemed entirely unconcerned by the passage of so many skiers and joggers. It was busily engaged in cutting off thin twigs one after another with a series of slicing bites, holding each in turn with both front paws, and nipping off all the buds for food. It dropped each twig, stripped, before reaching out for another..

In among our Study Trees, we watched two noisy Pileated Woodpeckers on the top of tall, standing stubs 50 or 60 yards from each other. The only Study Tree we paid special attention to was Lemuel’s Silver Maple.  It is shorter than most others around it, and while their crowns were beaded with swelling flower buds, Lemuel’s wasn’t. He chose this tree only last October 30th. This will be the first spring he has observed it — we’ll see if Rob is right that it won’t flower.


March 5, 2022: Probing the untracked forest

Some of us wore snowshoes, and some cross-country skis, but we all went to the same places in the forests surrounding Rob’s home in Lanark County. We made a lunch fire in a new place, and practiced fire-lighting skills. We found Fisher tracks and followed them, noting where the animal had abruptly changed direction when, from 30 feet (10 m) it scented the egg shells Rob had tossed out with his compost. It must have been disappointed to find them empty.

March 27, 2022:  Drinking syrup like cider

Photo of Macoun Club people making maple taffy over a campfire

Waiting for Rob to spoon condensed syrup onto a tray of granular snow, to make taffy

Rob has tapped a new set of Sugar Maples at his place this year, and is in the midst of a prolonged season. Although the particular day chosen for a field trip (Sunday) seemed unlikely — grey and windy and cold (-5ºC), with the sap flow frozen into immobility — we had the advantage of a boiling pan full of half-formed syrup ready to be reheated. Rob built a new fire under it and by feeding it constantly got it boiling.

Those who dipped their cups into the hot, coloured liquid were surprised: it wasn’t like drinking syrup, but more like cider or tea. Except that it tasted really good.

We also made a lunch fire close by, and only when everyone had eaten their fill did Rob set a pot of last year’s syrup over the fire, to be boiled down by half again. We suspended this pot over the fire on a forked stick, so it could be swung aside to cool every time it frothed up and threatened to boil over. It seemed to take a long time, but after many premature tests, the hot syrup, poured from a spoon, congealed on a tray of granular snow: taffy. And as Rob spooned it out, anyone could snag a bit of the sticky stuff with a twig and pop it in their mouth. And pretty soon, the whole pot of syrup was gone.

Finally, we took a quick walking tour of the woods, finding tracks of Deer and Squirrels. A Raven came by and circled several times, no doubt curious, and then a Goshawk swept over the treetops. Up on a long ridge the week’s sunshine had melted away the snow, and here a dozen Robins were engaged in flipping the compacted leaf litter over, looking for insects to eat. Their tracks, in the dusting of snow over the 6-inch deep crust, were the day’s only fresh tracks.


April 2, 2022: The sap was still running!

Photo of Macoun Club members pouring a pail of freshly collected Sugar Maple sap into a barrel

Macoun Club members pouring maple sap into a barrel

The syrup we sampled last week had been poured off for final processing, and the pan refilled with fresh sap. Rob, anxious to stay on top of the flow, invited the Macoun Club back to where he was at work for a second weekend. The sap was running this time, and when they saw that the buckets on the trees were beginning to overflow, Macouners ran around collecting from each tree and collectively filled a 75-litre barrel.

Photo of Scarlet Club fungus in the hand

Scarlet Cup mushroom; this early-spring fungus produces spores from the red surface

We made a lunch fire, and afterward used it to boil a pot of syrup down until it was thick enough for taffy, ladled it out onto a tray of snow. Those with experience also brought their own cups and sampled the boiling syrup at that halfway stage.

About half the snow cover had melted, and in one of those places where it had been gone for a week or so someone’s eye was drawn by a spot of vivid red: a very early Scarlet Cup fungus.

When we got back to Rob’s house, a small orange-and-black mottled butterfly flew up from his laneway. He recognized it as one of the Commas that are common in early spring.



April 9, 2022: Where did all the people go?

Photo of Macoun Cub leader Rob showing a member an invertebrate in hand

Macoun Club leader Rob showing new member Hugo some tiny sign of spring life

On our last visit to the Macoun Club Nature-Study-Area (Feb. 21st) we noted that the established trails were seeing heavy use from people walking and trail-skiing, and even jogging through the snow; the NCC parking lot to the northwest was filled to overflowing. Now the snow is gone, but today we saw only three people besides ourselves, and if an organized group of about 15 hadn’t gathered in that parking lot, it would have been almost empty of cars.

The difference seems to be that the Ontario government has eased Covid restrictions so much that people are able to do most of the other things that had been denied them: being in the outdoors is no longer the only permissible activity.

Photo of newly hatched earthworms found under a rotting log

Earthworm eggs are packed in bunchs inside tiny coccoons, and hatch together

Not so the Macoun Club. We poked along, rolling logs and listening for birds and frogs — the first frogs of the year. In our Pond 8 Wood Frogs were occasionally breaking into chuckling chorus, despite the surface being more than half-covered with remnant ice. And in Pond 11, Spring Peepers were shrilling away. We didn’t find any salamanders under logs, and guessed that they, too, were down in the breeding ponds. Using a small container to scoop up water, we saw early mosquito wrigglers, red water mites, and copepods. Canada Geese and Wood Ducks were there, too.

Most logs harboured invasive earthworms — 14 under one short section, and a fresh hatch of a dozen under another (these were tiny, unpigmented worms that were just ingesting their first meals of earth, which we could see through their transparent skins). A colony of pale yellow Lasius ants had brought their herds of root aphids up from winter storage, to warm up when the sun should warm the stony roof over their heads. Not today, but soon.


April 23, 2022: Raiding a trapper’s bone pile

Photo of Macoun Club group walking beside Stanley Creek, Pakenham Hills, Ontario

Macoun Club group beside Stanley Creek

Photo of Macoun Club members discovering treasures in a trapper's bone pile

Bones galore: leg bones, vertebrae, and skulls!

On a cloudy day drifting toward rain, we headed into the Pakenham Hills for lunch by a favourite beaver pond. Along the way, log-rolling turned up the day’s only salamander: a Red-backed. It was near a bend in the trail where we always find them.

Though Alder and Beaked Hazel flowers were producing pollen, the heavy buds of Round-lobed Hepatica were just starting to break, the first petals separating out.

Making our way to our trapper-friend’s cabin, we pawed through a rich assortment of bones — leg bones and ribs, vertebrae and skulls. Rob identified Beaver, Raccoon, Fisher and Coyote skulls.

Yet these were mostly old bones; Gerry says he hasn’t trapped around his cabin for two years. Pandemic restrictions closed the great fur auctions. China and Russia are major markets, and what with political tensions and even outright war, prices fell so low it wasn’t worthwhile. He wonders if the fur industry will survive.


April 30, 2022: The quiet advance of a protracted spring

Photo of Red Oak acorn sending out its first root

Red Oak acorn “hatching” (note the rare round sand grains in the soil)

In an unusual move, we set out into our Study Area at the time in the afternoon when we’d usually be leaving (3:30 p.m.), and stayed until sunset (8:30 p.m.). In mid-April the choruses of frogs run right through the day, but this far into the breeding season, they don’t start up until late evening. We were there to hear them.

Photo of Red Eft exposed under a log

Red Eft found under a log

On the way to the ponds, we poked around in various hardwood forests, looking under logs and rocks and finding big Dew Worms, unusually vigorous millipedes (they thrashed about when held), and yellow ants (genus Lasius) still herding their aphids. There was even on salamander, a Red Eft. Another bright red object was in plain sight: a Red Oak seedling that had split its shell and was sending its root underground. It was in plain sight because invasive earthworms have stripped away the leaf litter.

In the “Woodland Pond” beside our Study Tree Woods, Macouners netted lots of Fairy Shrimps and mosquito larvae. Only one wriggler had contracted into a comma shape — a pupa — which could emerge as an adult within days. (The mosquitos that were biting us were genus Anopheles, which had overwintered in cracks in tree bark or rotting wood.)

About 8 p.m., Spring Peepers began to call in the usual ponds, almost drowning out the few Chorus Frogs that are still active.


May 7, 2022: Macouners at Brewer Park Pond

Photo of Maocun Club members examining aquatic life caught in dip nets

Macoun Club members with nets introduced visitors to the life of the Pond

Gathering jointly with the OFNC’s Hume Douglas and Holly Bickerton, the Macoun Club informally hosted a nature event for the city’s children. People walked and biked and drove to Brewer Park Pond to let their kids search for frogs and turtles with other children their own age. In two short hours, Holly’s aquaria and Hume’s flat trays received temporary contributions of reptiles, amphibians, aquatic insects, and molluscs.

Photo of kids searching a pond for aquatic life

Macoun Club members led visitors all around Brewer Park Pond

The aquaria rapidly filled with Green Frogs, Bull Frogs, Leopard Frogs, and a few big tadpoles that had overwintered. Our more aquatic Macoun members waded out and herded Painted Turtles, big and small, into the shallows where they could be caught and admired. The multitude of dip nets also retrieved Water Boatmen, and a single Damselfly larva.

Right off the bat a Macoun-Club parent caught a Garter Snake and left it with Rob, where it basked in his hands for hours. Snakes are old friends to Macoun Club members, but many small city children had never seen one before and edged closer to hesitantly touch the tip of the tail, then stroke its scaly skin, and worked up in stages to hold it in their own hands. One older boy couldn’t believe his eyes: “Is that a snake?” At times it retreated into Rob’s pocket, or disappeared up his sleeve, emerging between his shirt buttons.

Meanwhile, Tree Swallows darted about, a Double-crested Cormorant dove for fish, and Canada Geese out on the Rideau River beyond the pond raised a clamour.

In the end, all the animals were returned to their homes.

May 14, 2022: Some like it hot, and we were not

Photo of Macoun Club group cooling off on a hot day, wading in a vernal pool

Everyone waded right in to beat the heat

When the rest of the world is baking in record high temperatures (32ºC), Macoun Club field trips gravitate toward water. In fact, today we just kept walking from dry land into deep vernal pools in our Study Area.

These ponds fill with spring runoff and later dry up as summer comes on; they are not connected with other, more permanent bodies of water. They are the special breeding habitat of our most common amphibians because there are no fish in these temporary water bodies to eat the eggs of frogs and salamanders.

Photo of Macoun Club child, wading, closing in on a Toad floating in a vernal pond

Closing in on a floating Toad

Vernal pools are also safe for wading because there are no blood-sucking leeches. (But there can be Snapping Turtles — we saw a huge one basking beneath the surface.)

And so the Macoun Club — its leaders and members, and even parents — waded right in. Most of the time masses of dead grass obscured the bottom, but the water was clear and crowds of growing tadpoles wiggled into hiding.

Toads were trilling, and were easy catches even for beginners. The early breeders like Spring Peepers and Wood Frogs had already come and gone, and crowds of their tadpoles wiggled into hiding as we forged ahead. And the next species, Eastern Gray Tree Frogs, were already gathering in the shrubs and trees overhanging the water, assembling in their natural habitat before descending to the water in a week or two. We saw dozens.

Mosquitoes, which appeared only a few days ago, were biting, and we had to let them because you can’t wear insect repellant while wading — it’s toxic to aquatic life. So we were itchy, but never felt the heat.


May 21, 2022: No field trip. Damaging storm instead (many trees down)

May 28, 2022: Walking the California Road

Photo of Macoun Club leader Rob Lee and Macoun Club family walking a dirt road

Rob Lee and Macoun Club family walking the California Road

Almost everybody rattles over Lanark’s California Road in a car or truck, on a motorcycle or ATV, or on bicycle — and we stepped aside for all of these — but we walked. And so we saw insects and heard birds singing, and often handled elements of the natural world unavailable to those who sped by us.

We looked at the foliage of a Balsam Fir intermingled with that of an Eastern Hemlock, which made it easy to see the differences of these look-alikes. Rob nipped off a Yellow Birch twig with his pocket-knife, and scraped the bark to release oil-of-wintergreen fragrance, and later shredded a glossy Wintergreen leaf for the same purpose. And he explained the chemical relationships between the oil, acetylsalicylic acid and salicylic acid (from willows, genus Salix) — the latter being a compound willows use to deter munching insects.

Photo of fossil (tabulate coral) found in limestone gravel from the Ottawa Valley, Ontario

A fossil in the gravel — a tabulate coral

Columbine was in flower — we saw a Hummingbird, which would draw nectar from red flowers such as this — and also purple violets and White Trilliums (many of which had turned pink or even deep rose). Yellow Lousewort was in bloom, and also Golden Corydalis.

From a marshy creek, Rob extracted a red-bellied leech for examination, and pulled up a carnivorous bladderwort plant. Millipedes were crawling across the road, and our attention directed there, new member Mae found enough prettily coloured gravel stones to fill her knapsack to its limit. Most of the gravel was grey limestone, often marked with iron-oxide stains or growths of calcite crystals. But some stones were igneous, and quartz and feldspar were often identifiable. And once, she found a genuine fossil in the limestone — a fragment of a tabulate coral dome, which lived in the Ordovician period, about 470-million years ago. (Photo shows a cross-section of several columns built by individual animals, section by section, as they grew.)



June 4, 2022: Crossing the creek at Pakenham

Photo of Macoun Club members trying to tease crayfish out of a rocky stream retreat

Max and Ryder trying to catch crayfish

Trees broken and toppled by the intense storm of two weeks ago have changed the local landscape in certain places, but we threaded our way between them to the waterfall at Pakenham. Our group explored everything within reach — the pool where crayfish can always be found, the slope of rock and the water sluicing over it, and the natural seating arrangements for lunch. One boy even scampered over a fallen pine bridging the creek and made his own discoveries on the other side.

Photo of Macoun Club family crossing a boulder-strewn creek

Macouners crossing the boulder-strewn creek

Continuing along the trail, we noted that the Trilliums were no longer in flower, and that the Miterwort that had been in bloom was now in seed. We spotted a large Water Snake in the space between two ponds, and Ryder, who asked, “Do they bite?” (careful answer: “They have a reputation for biting”) chased it until he could pin it down and get his hands on it. The snake soon relaxed. Evidently it’s a matter of how you hold them that counts.

In the course of repeatedly bending down into the long grass for his snake, Ryder came up with two ticks, one on his hat, and one on his hand. Rob captured both for later examination.

Upon reaching Gerry’s cabin, it was remembered that there was a bone pile on the far shore. All our members (and one parent) skipped from rock to rock across the creek and scavenged more thoroughly, coming back with a respectable collection of leg bones, phalanges, shoulder blades, jaws, and skulls. Rob identified the skulls of Beaver, Fisher, and Otter. Our members headed home well laden with their finds.


June 11, 2022: In the aftermath of the storm

Photo of Macoun Club people among windthrown trees in the Club's Study Tree Woods

Eating lunch on the bedrock exposed by a toppled tree

On May 21st an intense storm blew trees down across roads and knocked out power in our part of the Ottawa Valley; even in the city some people were without electricity for 10 days. Today we got around to finding out what had happened in our Study Tree Woods.

From the outside, the woods showed only minor damage, but as we walked in and looked down the slope, we could see that whole half-acres had been flattened. The big Sugar Maple Phil Belley chose in 1999 had been tipped over into Luke Porter’s Silver Maple; it would have fallen without that support. Michelle Caputo’s Basswood (chosen in 1998), however, lay flat. John Foster’s “Sway-based Maple,” chosen by him in 1991 and now perhaps the biggest Sugar Maple in the whole forest, had had its crown ripped away completely, leaving a towering stub with a fresh, jagged break at the top.

Photo of water-worn channels in bedrock, cut by meltwater squirting under the base of the glacier under enormous pressure at the end of the Ice Age, and revealed by an uprooted tree

Twisting, scoured-out channels in the bedrock were revealed

Current members’ trees, such as Lemuel’s, Mae’s, and Ryders, had survived, as had those chosen by the leaders.

A score of anonymous trees, never chosen by anyone, had been ripped up by the roots and thrown one against another, toppling them all. We ate lunch among the gaping holes and tangles of still-green foliage. Macouners clambered down and under, up and over, and all along the now-horizontal tree trunks.

Under some of the fallen trees, the lifting of the soil revealed water-worn channels cut into the bedrock, which we had never suspected but which explain certain puzzling geological features of the surrounding area. (Such channels can be seen in the limestone river-bottom above and below the Five Arches Stone Bridge in Pakenham, when the water is at its summer lows.) These scoured-out channels record some of the last stages of the Ice Age, when sediment-laden meltwater seeped and plunged to the base of the glacier and squirted over the bedrock under enormous pressure.


June 18, 2022: An indoor meeting, first in more than two years!

Photo of Macoun Cub skull collection, the catalogue shredded by a mouse building its nest

A mouse had shredded our collection catalogue!

A program of endless field trips is good for all of us who take part, but without indoor meetings, the Club lacks coherence and commitment. Given the relaxation of provincial Covid restrictions, we thought we’d check out our meeting place in the Fletcher Wildlife Garden’s Resource Centre, and revive old customs.

Diane Kitching had the door open for us on time; inside we found the furnishings much as we remembered, though growing boxes for the Wildlife Garden’s plant-growing boxes  obstructed the regional topographic map on one wall, and the whiteboards on the other. Our skull collection, assembled in the 1960s by Jim Montgomery and donated by him five years ago, had gathered a little dust. Rob asked the boys to find the catalogue, and they brought what was left of it to him. Only a fragment with just 8 of the 149 entries remained; the rest of it had been shredded by a mouse in order to make a nest.

Photo of Macoun Club members watching year-end film

Properly masked and distanced Macouners watching “Rise and Fall of the Great Lakes”

That survey completed, the oldest member present, Leaf, brought the meeting to order by the traditional means of warbling on a water whistle. There was no hubbub to be brought under control; only a handful of members were present. Although the provincial restrictions have been lifted, with the approval of Ontario’s and Ottawa’s chief medical officers, those with authority over the use of the building still require 2-metre spacing and the wearing of masks. Curiously, they said nothing about ventilation, which is more important for our safety — we kept windows open.

Photo of fledgling Tree Swallow that sees a parent coming with food

The reluctant baby did leave the nest, and now sees a parent coming with food

Right away we launched into “Observations” — Susan’s report on Dave Seburn’s annual protection-of-turtle-eggs project; Rob’s discovery that, contrary to what can be found on the Internet, female Case-bearing Clothes-Moths do fly (he had watched the specimen in question laying eggs after swatting it out of the air); and Barbara’s account of the last Tree Swallow left in her family’s nest box, too scared to launch itself into the world. The parents tried and tried to entice it out for 24 hours, but would not feed it. Would it starve to death?

It has been traditional for 35 years or more (and possibly almost 55) to play the short Bill Mason film, “Rise and Fall of the Great Lakes” at this time of year, and so we did, wrapping up the meeting, and the Macoun Club year.

Happy Post Scriptum: When Barbara got home, she was informed that the last baby swallow had left the nests, and its parents had been feeding it all day on the back deck.

June 25, 2022: Life goes on in the midst of devastation

Photo of Macoun Club members climbing around in the crown of a very large, fallen American Beech tree

Macoun Club members exploring a massive Beech blown down on May 21st

Even though we’d seen it once (on June 11th), the windstorm damage across successive swaths of our Study Area forests is impressive. One of our members, returning after being out of the country for several years, asked to see his Study Tree, a double Ironwood, with one part dead. Rob’s notes placed it within a zone of devastation, and he expected to find it obliterated, like some other kids’ trees. The 5-year-old directions — “7 feet S of Garrett’s 2nd White Birch, which is 35 feet NE of Terri’s rocks” — were good, and enabled Rob to take Zander right to it. The boy’s Ironwood was right on the edge of a blowdown, but on the wrong side of the dividing line. It had been split in half, partly uprooted, and squashed down at a low angle by a neighbouring tree. Yet Zander was able to identify key features that proved it was his.

Photo of fledgling Great Crested Flycatcher perched on Macoun Club member's knee

Priya using her phone to get a picture of the bird on her knee

We checked out another patch of forest, outside our Study Tree Woods, and discovered that the biggest American Beech in the square mile had been thrown to the ground. (This is the tree, probably remembered by generations of Macoun Club members, that showed a pattern of a climbing bear’s claw marks going up the smooth trunk.)

Back among our Study Trees, one that had survived the windstorm had also harboured feathered survivors — a pair of Great Crested Flycatchers had raised their family in a nest cavity, and today the young birds left the nest. One of them could fly just over the ground, and stopped to rest on Priya’s knee. Already its stubby tail showed the typical reddish-brown feathers, and its underside was washed with yellow.

It was even hotter today than last month (May 14th) when we waded in Pond XI to stay cool. This time Rob led the group into Pond X, which is deeper (chest-deep on him) and colder (being a small pond set inside the forest). Though the air temperature was 34ºC, some of the smallest members of hte group were shivering, teeth chattering.