At the first meeting of this new Macoun Club year, we caught up on each other's nature news, and then headed outdoors. We tried out a biodiversity checklist that led us to look for everything from lichens and wildflowers to slugs and millipedes, all in the space of 20 minutes.
We started our first full field trip of the year in our study-area's Black Ash swamp, where mounds of the little yellow ant Lasius minutus abound. We tagged a large number of previously undocumented mounds before lunch, and investigated a few to see what was going on. All summer, when colonies were readying their new queens and drones for launch, worker ants had been readily found just below the surface. But within the space of a week, they had retreated to the depths of their mounds, and we found very few.
We ate sitting on the ground just outside the swamp, and then hurried north to check on our Study Trees.
On our way out, we saw a number of large, bluish gray mushrooms by the trail. They were deep blue inside -- Indigo Milkies.
Alaine Camfield has had the great fortune to study territorial behavior of Broad-tailed Hummingbird in the beautiful Colorado mountains. Hummingbirds, she said, defend their food supply assiduously. She set up study plots with feeders containing varying concentrations of sugar, then made daily observations about the birds' behavior over a two-month period. We learned that the issue is more complicated than we would have thought, and everyone joined in the discussion of her results.
The forest was full of autumn colour as we walked into the Pakenham Hills. Some trees had already lost their leaves, as if exhausted by this year's extra-long growing season (spring came a month early in 2010). We found Leopard and Wood Frogs (1 each) and heard a Spring Peeper calling (prompted by the daylength, which is the same now as in springtime). Two huge Blue-Spotted Salamanders were hiding under a log. A Turkey Vulture sailed over us so low that we could see its red-skinned head. Although there has not yet been any frost, we were unable to find a single Sundew plant on or around the bog.
Just last month, former member Alec Todd joined a shark research team in the outermost Florida Keys. By night he was netting and tagging juvenile Lemon Sharks. By day, if he wasn't catching up on his sleep, he was catching the big ones with bait and hook (to see if they had been tagged in previous years). Every shark had to be measured in three different ways and checked over for scars or disease before being released.
Although the key's lagoon was full of other marine life, such as horseshoe crabs, barracuda, and sea turtles, to some minds, the most interesting thing was that, more than an hour's boat ride from the nearest land, the mangroves were full of voracious mosquitoes. Where do these freshwater-aquatic insects breed in a salt-water environment?
Our rush up the trail to our planned lunch place ground to a halt at a big log that leader Barbara realized was recently fallen (the broken wood was fresh and white). This being our Nature Study Area, Rob then recognized it as a familiar Basswood tree that had first came to our attention in the spring of 2006. At that time, Honey Bees were streaming in and out of a small hole 25 feet up.
The log was hollow, and inside were lots of waxen combs. Those we could reach were tantalizingly fragrant, but empty. There must have been honey deeper in the tree, for all our serious scientific interest stirred up the bees -- who then stirred us to run and scatter.
As a followup to last weekend's field trip, Rob had photographed some of that day's little creatures through a dissecting microscope. The exceptionally late-season mosquito wrigglers Gabriel captured turned out to be the larvae of Aedes vexans. Rob made the identification with a key to mosquitoes of Ontario from 1961, and pointed out that in the write-up, larvae were said to persist into August and September. Fifty years later, we have larvae in late October, and are perhaps seeing a local manifestation of global warming. [Subsequently, Rob and Barbara found some wrigglers in the Study Area on November 3rd.]
Rob walked the group through the keys. Among the features that led to our identification were the long breathing tube with only one tuft of hairs, which are short (indicated by the arrow); the row of spines on one side (pecten) with a couple of isolated spines, below the arrow; the incomplete brown saddle on the offset segment; and the single, irregular row of scales between the saddle and the breathing tube.
It was a raw, grey day, barely above freezing, but we had such a good time that we stayed out an extra half-hour! One group encountered a virtual blizzard of Chickadees seeking sunflower seeds. The other turned logs and collected slugs, waded into a pond and found a dead frog, and peered into an empty Red-Eyed Vireo nest. After meeting up for lunch, we started finding the territorial markings of White Tailed Deer -- patches of ground scraped down to bare earth, saplings gouged by antlers, and overhanging branches bitten and broken down for scent marking (deer have scent glands around the face). Continuing on into the big maple woods, we right away saw two big bucks. One trotted away, tail up; the other came running past us.
Although Roy John modestly claims not to be a photographer, he certainly succeeds in getting bird's pictures, as the Chestnut-Sided Warbler he showed us attests. It's a matter of being up early enough to find birds and other animals in the active part of their day, and having a camera ready-to-hand. He took us through the seasons of birds in the Ottawa area, shifting from birds to turtles and dragonflies and back again, as opportunity had presented itself.
Roy had enlightening stories connected with his photos, including the history behind Quebec's "fleur de lis" (it actually represents a famous yellow European iris, not a lily, having been transformed in colour and name by French royal and colonial history). He told us a cautionary tale about always believing an unseen bird's song to truly represent its identity, too. (We have heard the same warning, also based on personal experience, from nature-sound recorder Monty Brigham.)
We made for one of our favourite lunch places at Pakenham, and shifting slightly to get out of the stiff north wind, made small campfires and cooked our meal. The floating bog lay just offshore, but it was judged too cold to go out there, so we went to the old farm homestead for the afternoon. Rob remembers when all the buildings were still standing, and pointed out the details of dove-tailed construction. We found the old, stone-lined well once used to water the livestock, and hidden in the long grass, a variety of old, horse-drawn farm equipment, such as drag harrows.
The woods and fields seemed empty; we did not see or hear a single bird, and glimpsed only one small mammal (a vole).
Long ago in our Study Area, on a series of June nights in 1979, National Museum ichthyologist Dan Faber dropped a light-trap of his own invention over the end of the Sarsaparilla Trail dock and waited. Tiny, transparent creatures dotted with black melanophores swam toward the light, passed through funnel-like aperatures, and, when the device was raised, they settled into a jar attached to the bottom.
The creatures were beautiful fish babies, the big-headed and huge-eyed larvae of Red-bellied Dace, a species whose development had never been studied before. He traced out their growth stages and realized that the pattern of black spots (the UV-protective melanophores) could be used to simplify the process of identification, much as birdwatchers use field guides rather than technical keys. Dan had scientific illustrations prepared, and published the results in the Canadian Journal of Zoology.
This work was part of a huge national pioneering effort to develop the materials scientists would need to identify baby fish in both Canada's freshwater lakes and rivers, and in our coastal waters. Without this knowledge, we would not be able to find out what parts of aquatic ecosystems each species of fish requires for its life cycle. Some fish could die out if, in ignorance, we failed to protect what was important to them.
Dan brought in the very light-trap he'd used in our Study Area and explained the features that overcame the problems he encountered, and he talked about what had been learned about a number of a number of species. He told us he has his own web page, which describes the fish larvae and how he came to study them.
On a grey, chill day, the last before the snow came, we worked our way up the west side of our Study Area. Knowing the best place to eat lunch out of the north wind, Rob led the whole group (nearly 20 people) to a grassy clearing under an escarpment. Afterward, we resumed our search for the Walking Fern that grows on a few shady limestone ledges there. We failed to find it (again!) but did see two other rare ferns, Maidenhair Spleenwort (photo at right) and Ebony Spleenwort. On the flat land above, we also relocated our Study Area's only Eastern Red Cedar tree. It had been lost to view for years because it had been enveloped by a faster-growing Jack Pine. Finally, our newest members chose their very own Study Trees, complete with fascinating fungi and other tree-based life forms.
As on our trip two weeks ago, at Pakenham, the woods seemed almost empty of bird and animal life. We heard some Chickadees; a lone Canada Goose flew over; and five Crows swept over, playing on the wind above the forest.
For 40 years the Macoun Club has been surveying the plants and animals of ourStudy Area, and plotting their locations and distributions on paper maps. Recently we've been using a GPS receiver to record this same information, and today we got some ideas on how we might begin to use it. Matt Tomlinson is with the National Capital Commission, which also owns our Study Area, and he said that when we have data that the NCC might find useful, such as our 18-year Butternut Tree survey, we'll be taking it to him for processing.
But today Matt explained how the ecological side of his field, which is Geographic Information Systems (GIS), complements and extends the work that is done on the ground. He emphasized the greater spacial scale of GIS, and the principle of applying the patterns of geographic imagery to understand the processes underlying them. (The satellite image here shows the Mackenzie Delta in special colours that reveal particular features of the landscape. There was still ice in the Beaufort Sea when the picture was taken.)
The snow has come and all the ponds have frozen over, and even slow seeps over rock walls have turned into curtains of icicles. We made our lunch fires out on the ice by a set of these frozen "waterfalls," and, leaving, followed a Coyote's long line of tracks north-westward along the pond's edge.
Below the "Narrow's" beaver dam, even the slight current running there was enough to ruin the ice. After breaking through a few times, we turned inland to cross over to Indian Creek (which was no better -- more soakers). The woods everywhere were dotted with snow fleas (springtails) hopping about. We saw Snowshoe Hare and Fisher tracks in most places today, and eventually came across the footprints of a Porcupine. As we could tell from the raggedly eaten pine twigs on the ground, it had been feeding high up in a very tall tree. It was no longer there, so we followed the tracks to its den under the roots of a wind-thrown tree. In the dim recesses we could see that there were actually two of these animals sharing that space.
Winter with snow on the ground is a wonderful time when the lives of many secretive animals, and even their unsuspected presence, is revealed. But you have to be able to see marks in the snow as tracks first. At our meeting, we all agreed that, as Macouners, we regularly find ourselves walking with other people who are oblivious to the plainly written record as we pass by. There is an art to seeing, and its first, most fundamental element is awareness that there is something to see. You have to notice tracks and give them your attention.
Sometimes tracks are easy to identify, like the Snowshoe Hare tracks Rob showed us from his track sketchbook (Jan. 27, 1974), at right. Mostly, though, they're blurred by the looseness of the snow or the passage of time and weather: they require an educated effort. Field guides help. You can make your own record with a camera, or better still from the point of view of learning, draw them. What goes through your eyes and brain and out through your fingers stays with you for life.
Often you still have to follow the trail of an animal for a while to see how it behaved. If it ran to each tree, climbed a little, and jumped off the far side, it's pretty sure to have been a squirrel, rather than a weasel. And it's in following the trail, interpreting each change in stride, looking around to see what the animal saw when it stopped and looked around, that you find yourself reading tracks, instead of just identifying them, understanding the animal almost through its own eyes and ears and nose.
Let others curl up indoors on a snowy day — twenty of us headed for Pakenham and made the most of it. There was fun the whole time, what with skating in snow so deep it looked like we were floating across the pond, and ice underneath just perfect for running and sliding. Who would expect to find animal tracks in such conditions? Yet, blurred though they were, we readily recognized Snowshoe Hare and Otter tracks, the latter having done its own sliding.
In recent years we've been told that frog populations around the world are in dramatic decline. If it started to happen in your own environmental backyard, would you know it?
In 2001, Herpetologist Dave Seburn took an interest in Chorus Frogs, already reported to have vanished from the Montreal area. He knew that a colleague had found vigorous populations of both this frog and the similar Spring Peeper in a string of 17 ponds near Cornwall, Ontario, in 1990, and he went back to see whether they were still there.
They weren't! The Chorus Frogs were dismally absent from all 17 marshes where they'd been before. And they hadn't come back when he checked yet again, in 2007. But why?
There are some possible causes we can all think of, such as habitat change, chemicals from roads and agriculture, and disease. But Dave urged Macouners to think about possible problems in the study, too, which might only give the appearance of a total decline.
Maybe, we thought, the frogs were still there but just weren't singing when he went by (like the 1990 survey, his follow-up relied on hearing the frogs' powerful breeding choruses). He explained how he'd anticipated that possibility and planned for it. Maybe, it was suggested, the habitats had all changed and just weren't suitable for frogs anymore. Dave pointed out that the Spring Peepers were still chorusing in those same ponds. Maybe, we thought . . . .
Eventually, we agreed that while Dave's resurvey indicates a real decline, we don't know enough yet to figure out what happened in the years between 1990 and 2001.
Every cold-weather trip to Pakenham centers on our lunchtime campfires; all else is just getting deep enough into the woods to really be in the wilds.
We have to pick a place appropriate to the weather. There has to be room for everyone, and good seating, if possible. Most important, we have to have lots of dry firewood close at hand.
For our short lunch fires that means finding dead pine branches of small size. Recently dead trees will do, but we also know to look for young White Pines, say less than 60 years old, that started in the open but have since become immersed in maturing forest. They will have outgrown their lowest branches, but not quickly enough to have dropped them to the ground. At least some of these branches must still bear fine twigs, which we use instead of birch bark for tinder. They have to have been dead long enough to have completely dried out — they should break with a snap, and not bend like rubber. Spruce and fir will burn just as well, but throw too many sparks.
Thus, every Macouner who would cook his or her meal must learn to distinguish, dead or alive, the different trees, and be able to judge the moisture content of the wood, which makes the difference between a hot, clean fire and a smoldering, smoky one.
And all this before the first match is struck, or knapsack opened.
We tend to take it for granted that you can pick up a bird book and name almost any bird you find yourself looking at, but few realize that the modern field guide is a fairly modern invention. John James Audubon painted accurately and beautifully in the 1830s, but you still had to figure out how to tell one species from another for yourself. John Macoun's time (ca. 1900) it was still customary to shoot any bird you wanted to look at.
In 1934, Roger Tory Peterson wrote and illustrated a bird book you could carry in a pocket. He, too, painted beautifully, but he deliberately arranged small groups of similar species on a page, and with arrows and concise descriptions drew attention to the few details that distinguish each.
We took our copy outdoors and put it to use at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden's backyard birdfeeder. We saw Black Capped Chickadees, a Downy Woodpecker, a few Dark-eyed Juncos, and a small flock of House Finches.
There are hundreds of thousands of trees in our Study Area. Most of them have grown to a size typical for their species in this time and place, but a very few are exceptional. Today we tramped around on snowshoes, making for the biggest specimen of each kind of tree.
Forty or 50 years ago, a quarter of the Study Area was in field or pasture, and it was planted with row upon row of Red Pines. Almost all of them are packed closely together and have grown tall and thin, but here is one that got left out alone out in a clearing. It seems to be our biggest plantation tree, at 17 inches (43 cm) diameter.
Carlos spotted the biggest tree of the day, a naturally established White Pine that is probably close to 140 years old. Its trunk is 34 inches (85 cm) in diameter, but what makes it impressive is the way it towers above the surrounding natural forest.
Unless you're a birdwatcher, you'll be aware of only a handful of species that raise their young in and around Ottawa — the chickadees and finches that come to your feeder, the robin that nests by your door, the crows that, all winter long, stream across the sky morning and evening. But to the discerning eye and ear, there are something like 150 kinds of birds in the city, in the Greenbelt, and in the diminishing rural lands closely surrounding it.
For four years, volunteers with the Ottawa Breeding Bird Count have blanketed the region with hundreds of observation stations, identifying and recording everything that might be nesting nearby. Adam Smith acquainted us with the program and its results, and we discussed what they might mean.
With much excitement, we joined Fred Schueler on the banks of Kemptville Creek a 45-minute drive south of Ottawa in hopes of seeing Mudpuppies — the large, spotted river salamanders that in this place can be found only in the dark of night, and the cold of winter.
Only two of us had hip waders and could join Fred in the fast flowing water. Dawn and her friend netted four Mudpuppies and tried for a dozen more that scurried or swam beyond their reach — we could see the animals' light-coloured forms wriggling through the water.
This was our second trip to the creek, the first having been Jan. 29, 2010. Fred surveys for Mudpuppies here every Friday night all winter long, and welcomes interested visitors.
We had a perfect winter day at Pakenham, with sunshine at lunch, and temperatures just right for active people — not too cold, and not overly warm, either. We took a new route to a place we've been before, which we call Butternut Pond (see Jan. 15th of this year). We crossed the tracks of mink and mouse and snowshoe hare, and just as often, they criss-crossed each other. The natural world is a busy place — just not all at the same time. Fishers and coyotes detoured regularly to check out the fairly well frozen muskrat houses, which must be irresistible, if unbreachable, for these carnivores.
Looking up to see why there was a brief chill in the air (a cloud puff), Carlos spotted a large bird circling so high up it was little more than a speck against the sky. It required binoculars to determine that it was a Raven.
Last week in the Pakenham woods, we each collected a sample of whatever lichens grabbed our attention. Today, Heather Coffey, a graduate student studying lichens, had us examine them under magnification, and propose their distinguishing features. "Colour!" said one member, for some lichens were grey, others yellowish green, and one was tipped with deep red. "Shape," said another. Some of our lichens were leafy things, others shrubby. "What they're growing on," declared a third.
And all these answers are not only correct, but are the basis of the system that all lichenologists use to put the right names on their specimens. Identification keys typically start by separating leafy from shrubby (foliose vs. fruticose) and move on to substrate, the thing the lichen grows upon. Some species grow only on rock, others on tree bark. Colour, particularly yellow in any form, is also an important character.
But what is a lichen, anyway? Heather explained the essential and interesting features that properly define lichens, but surely the most useful answer to this question she put forward is that, after you've learned to recognize a few on sight, you pretty well know whether you're looking at one or not. And that's just what we were doing, starting to get the feel of the thing with our own, hand-gathered specimens.
(Within the last 10 years, the Macoun Club has made a major effort to identify all the lichens in our Study Area.)
Kate McNeil, of the Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre, has had a lot of hands-on experience with the wild animals that we only glimpse from time to time, and she engagingly represented the personality of each species to us by mimicking their voices and actions — skunk and porcupine, raccoon and fisher. She said that people think of these creatures who live, usually hidden, among us only when they have a problem.
But most such problems are really of our own making and can be resolved, or better yet, anticipated and prevented, with knowledgeable appreciation of the animals' real lives, and attention to the things around our homes that may attract and deter them.
The snow is quickly melting away; the fields are bare, the woods half snowbound, and the ponds still iced over. We crossed the Study Area from east to west, checking our Study Trees and searching yet again for the elusive Walking Fern. (See December 4th, above.) This time, success!
Walking Fern is an unusual sort of fern, strap-like rather than lacy. In our Study Area it grows only on shaded limestone ledges, and hadn't been seen for years. Will it grow there much longer? The few specimens we could find were small and embedded in thick mats of moss.
We had hopes of finding the first Garter Snakes, but were probably a day too early. But we did find the season's first earthworms and slugs (under logs), and one big Leopard Frog (in a stream).
And we revisited our Study Area's biggest Eastern White Pine, part of our project of locating the largest specimen of each tree species.
On a chilly, damp spring morning, barely above freezing, we made a short 2 1/2-hour visit to the south end of our Study Area — ample time to roll a few logs in the mixed forest north of the parking lot, revisit a few of our ant mounds in the swamp, discover and measure the biggest Red Pine tree in the entire Study Area, eat lunch, and relocate two tiny specks of a rare yellow-green lichen on acres and acres of sandstone bedrock.
In the better weather of the preceding week, many insect-eating birds such as Tree Swallows have been seen, but today they and the insects seemed to have gone into hiding. Under logs, we found just a few earthworms and a slug; under a rock, a colony of yellow Lasius flavus ants, with their larvae and one root aphid. Two deer put up their tails and bounded away.
Macouners are never slow to sample maple syrup, and that is what Ian MacKay encouraged us to do, comparing what he had made himself with what can be bought in the grocery store. He talked about how to tap into a Sugar Maple by drilling a hole and inserting a spile (new word for some), and he let each of us hammer one in, just to see how it goes. Here he is pointing to the short, dark radial lines in a cross-section of a maple trunk, which are the healed over holes drilled in past years.
It almost looked like the trees were leafing out today, but the treetops were more yellowish than green, and fallen twigs revealed dense clusters of inconspicuous flowers. This is one of those infrequent years when all the Sugar Maples bloom. Many times we saw Porcupines, who have been on their usual starvation diets all winter, reaching out and greedily stuffing bunches of nutritious maple flowers into their mouths.
We sampled several ponds with nets and small bottles, and captured Fairy Shimps, caddisfly larvae, and mosquito wrigglers (Aedes communis). Some larvae had already curled up into dark brown pupae, so adults should be out and biting within a few days.
Right after lunch we started finding Garter Snakes, which we photographed as part of our project to determine how far afield each animal ranges. We are learning to tell them apart by colour patterns. This snake, GS22, has a thin, continuous line along the side.
Another snake, GS24, had a sort of broken, or dashed lateral line, and its yellow lacked any orangish tinge. You can make out a number of other difference if you look back and forth between the two pictures.
Shane Gero seems to live in two communities, the human one where we met him, and the whale world in the open sea. Sperm Whales occupy almost the whole of the world's oceans, but hundreds live conveniently close to shore off the Caribbean island of Dominica. Since 2005 Shane has been investigating the family relationships and behaviours of this particular population. He is able to do this only because he has spent thousands of hours with his whales and can identify each of them by sight (photography), sound (hydrophones and computer analysis of their click patterns), and DNA (from bits of skin the whales shed like dandruff), and because he keeps detailed records on each animal year after year. (We asked for advice on how to more easily sort out our own study-area Garter Snakes, which we, too, are trying to track as individuals.)
Shane described how his whales live in small family groups, all females and calves -- several generations together. They live their lives, he said, on the same sort of time scale as humans; but the males are absent because by the time they have become teenagers, they have forever left their groups and live far away, in near-polar oceans. Sperm Whales feed almost exclusively on deep-ocean squid, mainly smallish, bite-sized ones, but sometimes the Giant Squid illustrated on his T-shirt. Check out his study's website.
Although his whales are thriving as a species, Shane is distressed by how much damage our industrial civilization is doing to the whole ocean world — the other kinds of whales whose survival is more precarious; the big fish, top predators of the sea, that have been reduced in number by 90%; the coral reefs that are the nurseries for perhaps a quarter of the world's fish. He urged us to add our voices to the chorus of calls for change, both by educating others and writing letters to the people have power over what happens to our world, and the whale's world.
Finding beetles would have been easier if the day were dry and sunny, because then many of them would be visiting the various flowering trees around the Fletcher Wildlife Garden. But the rain had just ended, so we had to literally beat the bushes. Holding a spread-out cloth under shrubs and small trees, we tapped the branches with a stick to see what would fall out. Not much luck there — we got small spiders and true bugs. We dug under piles of dead leaves — and found earthworms. Finally, we found an orangish Click Beetle grub under a rock. Then among some older trees we began finding the adults; trapped in a bottle or the palm of our hands, they would "click" and spring into the air.
Hume knew of other places beetles live hidden lives, under loose bark on dead trees, and in dying birch branches, and we made some interesting finds there.
We haven't done this before, starting at the Old Quarry Trail and walking right through to the Study Area. The old quarry floor was flooded, so we didn't see many of its geological features (just fossil ripple marks from when this was an ocean shore). But there were lots of deer there and in the fields as we approached our Study Area from the west. We examined our study trees and in the foliage of one found two kinds of beetles (a Click Beetle and possibly a Japanese Beetle). And one of us nearly stumbled over a fawn patiently waiting for its mother to return. It never moved.
We checked several Garter Snakes against our photo collection, and determined that they had not yet been included in our study. We measured and weighed them, and then let them go. Compare this one (no. 27) with the two shown for May 7th, above (nos. 22 and 24).
We routinely refer to the important book Butterflies of Canada to identify what we see. Today, one of the book's coauthors, Peter Hall, came in and talked to us about how butterflies are faring in the face of issues that concern us, such as invasive alien species and climate change. Introduced plants that are very familiar to us, such as Garlic Mustard and Glossy Buckthorn, may have either negative or positive effects, depending on whether their larvae die on the new plants (West Virginia White on Garlic Mustard) or thrive (Henry's Elphin on buckthorn). One species, the Early Hairstreak, seems almost exclusively dependent on mature, nut-producing American Beech trees; it's prospects are dimming as the introduced Beech Bark Scale Disease sweeps the continent (he says the disease is killing Beeches in Gatineau Park, just across the river).
Taking advantage of the sunny weather, we all went out into the surrounding fields, pond margins, and woodlots to catch, observe, and release butterflies. Peter has seen the butterfly biodiversity around the Fletcher Wildlife Garden multiply fivefold in 15 years as the habitats he helped plan have become established. Here he points to a picture in his book of a Silvery Blue: one had just flown by.