We started our first meeting in the normal manner, but outdoors, at the Study Area's Sarsaparilla Trail. It wasn't long, however, before our recounting of observations from memory gave way to an excited little voice behind us: "Wow! It's huge. And black. And it has only seven legs!" — a spider, then, obviously. It was promptly popped into a capacious container. When Rob reached in, the boy who had found it in the vegetation just behind our picnic tables warned him: "It might bite; it's raised one leg as a warning!"
Once we broke away for a real field trip, we found all kinds of things — skull bones from a fawn that died before all its teeth had erupted, several baby Garter Snakes, and two different kinds of frogs. Both are adults, but of very different sizes: a tiny Spring Peeper and a locally unusual brown-coloured Leopard Frog.
It isn't every year that any of our tree species produce heavy seed crops — some years, rodents and birds starve for lack of food. But not this time round. This year is one of those rare occasions when it seems every tree and shrub has set seed, so the deer and porcupines will be putting on a healthy layer of fat reserves, and mice and squirrels will go into winter with larders stocked full. We have seen abundant seeds on Sugar Maple, Hop Hornbeam, and White Cedar, nuts on Red and Bur Oaks and Bitternut Hickory, nutlets on Basswoods, and berries on Glossy Buckthorn and honeysuckle shrubs. For weeks the porcupines have been cutting the nut-tree branches and munching on acorns, and what they drop is scooped up by deer.
There was even something for us — a long abandoned orchard with masses of wild apples, all quite healthy despite a total absence of horticultural care for 60 years. Porcupines were up in the trees seeking the best fruit, and so were we. As one child put it, "The first one was really sour, but all the rest tasted good!"
Even among the apple trees, we found frogs and snakes, but there were even more in our Study-Tree Woods. We found three Blue-Spotted Salamanders under logs, along with the usual earthworms, slugs, millipedes and centipedes. There were slime molds and puffballs, grasshoppers and face-flies — thousands of face-flies (Simulidae) — deer and porcupines and one mixed flock of nuthatches and warblers.
The passage of the seasons — seasons of abundance and scarcity — leaves the mark of the years on many living things, as well as some geological deposits. Robert E. Lee brought in several specimens to illustrate these effects, and talked about what we can learn from them.
Trees, of course, grow a new layer of wood every year, which sheaths the whole trunk and every branch and twig. We see these layers as rings when a tree is cut down. You can tell how old a tree was by counting the rings, but that is only a starting point, and paying attention to the thickness of the rings can tell you much more. In the photo at left, several narrow rings representing the years 1988-1991 reflect the years when the beavers abandoned Pond I in our Study Area. The neglected dam developed holes, the pond drained away, and this cedar tree, growing on the shore, endured several dry years. When beavers recolonized the pond, the water level rose and the tree flourished. More precise measurement of the succession of thin and thick rings in other trees enables archaeologists, ecologists, and climatologists to figure out different aspects of the vanished past.
Fish scales, turtle scutes, clam shells, and the teeth of some animals (such as bears) also bear annular markings. All of these features allow biologists to determine the age of individual animals. Knowing how old animals are can tell them how healthy the population is.
Annual layers also form in some geological deposits. As the ice age was ending, for instance, meltwater filled new lakes in Ontario, and where the water was very deep, the very finest rock particles (clay) settled out in seasonal two layers, light and dark, each year for thousands of years. These lakes eventually drained away, and the old lake-bottom deposits are sometimes cut open during road construction. Rob explained how the Swedish geologist Ernst Antevs rode railway hand-cars around northern Ontario in the 1920s, counting and measuring the layers in this varved clay in these lake deposits. Since no one lake recorded the whole period of time, he had to match the distinctive patterns of thick and thin from the bottom of the most recent lake deposits with those at the top of the next oldest, and vanished lake by vanished lake worked out the chronology of deglaciation. Around Ottawa, the ice melted away about 11,000 years ago. (Rob is named after this famous man.)
Leader Rob Lee lives right in the woods and knows right where the best Beech groves and biggest Bur Oaks are. Today he had the Macoun Club out to gather the fallen nuts and acorns from below these trees. We could see from the twigs cut down by Porcupines that we were not the first on the scene. The Porcupines have to fatten up for the winter, but we'll just sample these edible fruits after drying them for a few weeks.
(In most years, these trees don't flower or produce nuts — certainly not all species all at once, in such abundance.)
With so many eyes directed downward, we found many giant millipedes (Narceus americana). They are loaded with poison glands, but you won't know that unless you put the living animal in your mouth. In the hand, these eaters-of-decomposing-wood are harmless, and fun — they tickle when they walk! We also found one rather flat-bodied millipede (Sigmoria trimaculata) which released a strong cherry or almond smell — cyanide. Both are native species.
We also found many juvenile Wood Frogs, a couple of Spring Peepers, and a few Blue-spotted Salamanders.
Macouners are observant and find nature interesting wherever they go. They take lots of pictures, too, and today a few members shared their digital photographs with the group. We projected them onto a big screen so that everyone around the table could see them.
There were a few photos of local mushrooms, and lots of pictures from fabulous trips to the Maritimes — jellyfish and barnacles, sea stars, whales, and kelp. One girl had photos of fossils and places she'd collected rocks, and brought in the specimens, too (all carefully labelled, we noticed).
Macoun Club leaders Annie Bélair and Diane Kitching teamed up to give a presentation on macrofungi — those that you can see without a microscope. Diane explained what fungi are and are not; Annie outlined the traditional classification of mushrooms into sensible groups like puffballs, gilled mushrooms, and boletes. She told us that modern taxonomic treatments are changing everthing — the names an the groupings — but these old divisions still enable us to use field guides and name the many beautiful species we see on field trips.
Most of Annie's photographs were her own, and taken on Macoun Club field trips in our Study Area, too. (Rob likewise found the tiny but still "macro" Shaggy Scarlet Cups, at right, in the Study Area.) Annie finished up with a photographic quiz that required members to dig into their memories and recall what they'd just heard from both her and Diane.
In light rain, at a temperature not much above freezing, we walked well into the Pakenham Hills — all the way to the High Pond, in fact. Along the way those out in front glimpsed a White Tailed Deer, a Fisher, and a Ruffed Grouse (everything is very skittish these days, because there are hunters in the woods, and shooting every day). The rest of us, trailing behind, saw the things that couldn't get away: leaf litter scratched up by Turkeys; puffballs, Orange Jelly, and a tiny White Elphin Saddle fungus; and banks of green Polypody ferns on rocky slopes.
Lunch was on hold until we got to that pond high up on the hill. First we had to cross an old beaver dam, so thick with grasses that it appeared to be abandoned. But here and there mud from the pond bottom had been pushed up over the top, and in the mud were small Beaver footprints. As we broke out onto the shore of the pond up on the hill, a flock of ducks lifted off from the far shore and disappeared.
With rain-wetted birch bark, fine pine twigs and a helpful wind, we got two separate fires going and cooked hot dogs ("spider dogs"), spiced apples, and marshmallows. Leaving, we followed the stream downhill from the upper pond to the lower, filed across the same beaver dam, and walked out.
Owls, explained our speaker, Richard McAteer, usually swallow their mice and voles whole, and later cough up what they can't digest. The bird's gizzard compresses the bones into a fur-wrapped pellet, and if you find one and open it up, you'll find out what the owl had been eating. He'd brought more than two dozen Barn Owl pellets — sterilized and x-rayed — for us to investigate.
We teased apart the little packages with toothpicks, and cleaned up the bones we found with old toothbrushes. There were ribs and leg bones, and delicate rodent skulls.
The temperature hovered around the freezing point again today. Winter may seem slow in coming this year, but the nights have had enough of a frosty bite to put a skin of ice on our Study Area ponds. We could still wade about in Pond VIII without problem, chasing Green Frog tadpoles and capturing Mayfly nymphs, but even in the afternoon the ice was as thick as window glass, just not as clear.
The November woods can seem very empty. We saw and heard only a couple of birds (a Crow and a Blue jay), a couple of squirrels (Red Squirrel and Chipmunk), and a few insects (Tiger Moth caterpillars, Winter Moths (Opherata buceata, and Green Stink Bugs (Acrosternum hilare). Winter Moths were often on the wing, and though the Stink Bugs were on their last legs, they still had just enough strength to right themselves when flipped over.
Under one log we found a few earthworms, an isopod (sowbug), and some millipedes.
Some plants were still green — mainly the invasives (Glossy Buckthorn, Garlic Mustard) and some still held tough yellowed leaves (Red Oak). We found fresh Porcupine claw marks on some of our Study Trees (Samuel's and Ulyses' White Birches), lichens on others (Red-cored Shadow Lichen on Daniel's Red Oak and Samantha's Bitternut Hickory), and Turkey Tail fungi on our Study Logs (Tanon's White Ash and Helena's Bitternut Hickory).
Everyone seems to have a camera these days, and today Macoun members shared their best nature photographs. There were geese and chickens, Gray Seals, fungi and lichens. Some showed videos, too, and everyone wanted to see just how many eggs the turtle would lay, no matter how long it took.
In the terribly dry summer of 2012 the forest in the southwestern Greenbelt caught fire and burned. We had visited a few months later, when everything was still very sooty, yet showing signs of life returning (see Oct. 20th). Having heard that the burn site had greened up remarkably, we made a repeat trip today. Unfortunately, snow began to fall as we set out, and by the time we got there the ground was white. But the blackened tree trunks still stood up against the sky quite starkly.
Under its fresh snowy cover, the greenery turned out to be huge rosettes of Common Mullein and some kind of thistle. These are both biennial plants. Surprisingly some of the Mulleins had already flowered and set seed, raising the question of whether their first-year rosettes had already been growing under the dense Cedar canopy before the fire and survived, or whether some individuals do it all in a single growing season.
Unexpected things kept turning up in the course of the hours of horsing around in the season's first snow. Right off the bat someone discovered that the segments of the big horsetail stems by the trail were filled with ice. How did it get there? In summer, these plants are air-filled. We reasoned that the water had to have been pulled up through the roots and would therefore be safely filtered — we sucked on our "horsicles" freely.
We benefitted from Wayne Knee's expertise at last spring's aquatics trip at Brewer Park (see May 5th), and today he introduced us the the vast but sub-visible world of mites that is his real work.Mites are so tiny that even though they're all around us (some of them possibly on us), and can live underfoot in unbelievably huge numbers, few of us can say we've ever seen them. Wayne, however, knows where to find them and how to bring them into view: in his work he uses not just specialized collecting equipment and microscopes, but SEM (scanning electron microscopy). They turn out to have an extraordinary range of body forms, from robust, armoured little beasts to worm-like things that retain only vestiges of their eight legs.
Some mites, as gardeners and farmers know, feed on plants; a great many more feed on decaying plant material and help convert it back into usable nutrients. A lot of them are predators on other tiny invertebrates. Wayne's special interest is in mites whose habitat is the living bodies of other animals. He showed us amazing images of mites that hitch-hike on beetles, mites that squeeze into the spaces between the barbs of feathers, mites that feed between the scales of snakes, and mites that inhabit human hair follicles. He has found new species burrowed into the skin of birds like Evening Grosbeaks, and told us of others found in the nasal passages of walruses and the cloacas of sea turtles. He talked to us about dust mites and phoretic mites (which hitch-hike from carcass to carcass on burying beetles) and mites that live on other mites.
All in all, mites play a fascinating and often vital role everywhere, usually without our ever being aware of it.
We started getting a picture of who lives in Barbara's woods and fields almost as soon as we got out of the cars. There were deer tracks at her front door, and a Meadow Vole burst out of the snow for a short run to another tuft of grass. We recognized weasel tracks along the forest's edge. Under cedars, firs, and pines we found the snow covered with cone-scales and seeds — the sign of Red Squirrels feeding. And then a Snowshoe Hare burst from cover and ran before us. That made five species of mammals, all before lunch!
Even before we had put the fires out and closed up our knapsacks, the kids were pleading with the adults to hurry farther into the woods and see the bear tracks they'd discovered. Its footprints had been made in wet snow and turned to ice, so we knew they were two days old and felt free to follow. The bear went pretty much in straight line through the tangles of the forest, and down in to a cedar swamp, where we abandoned it.
Turning away, we soon came to a small stream with signs of Beaver cuttings, and close by, for easy comparison, a Sugar Maple freshly chewed by a Porcupine. Total: nine mammalian species.
Wherever you live, there are bound to be some birds in the neighbourhood, even with the ground covered with snow. Where we hold our meetings, we can look out the back window and see a few birds at the feeder — one of this kind, a few of that. Is that all of them?
To help us find out, Macoun member Carlos planned a tour of the Fletcher Wildlife Garden — its feeding station, the stream down below, the ash grove on the far side of the ravine — by way of a Christmas Bird Count. He began with a slide show of the species we were likely to see, and explained their field marks. We bundled up (it was about -20° C, or F -5°!) and went out.
Right away there were some bird's faint call notes outside the building — a Cardinal! And in the tree above it, a bird we all thought had gone south — a Robin. Down in the streambed, a whole flock of Robins (9 of them) appeared, drinking from a little hole in the ice. They seem to be surviving this bitterly cold weather by eating crabapples. We counted three White Breasted Nuthatches, 10 Black Capped Chickadees . . . and different number of seven other species. We'll get Carlos' official count in January.
Macoun member Robbie Stewart always told us that he would be a paleontologist when he grew up, and now he's come back to prove it. He led a spirited discussion of what fossils are, how they form, and what we can find in our home region.
We are so lucky, he told us, that the fossil record in the Ottawa area represents two such vastly different periods in the earth's history: the 470,000,000-year-old shales and limestones that give us Ordovician crinoids, trilobites, and brachiopods, and the end-of-the-Ice-Age sands and clays that yield up 10,000-year-old seashells, capelin, and sea-mammal bones. These are fascinating periods, but unfortunately, for everything in between you have to go someplace else.
When she was in Nova Scotia, one girl said, she'd found a huge feather fossil, and she stretched out her arms as far as she could. "That wasn't a feather," Robbie corrected her; "it was something much cooler." And he painted a picture for us of the Carboniferous swamplands where the mosses were tree-sized and the millipedes gigantic. "Those were the tracks of one of those millipedes."
People are not used to deep snow anymore, so came to Rob Lee's to be outfitted with snowshoes before heading out into the woods. We found a place with enough pine and cedar to keep us supplied with firewood for an hour or so, and set about cooking hot dogs and sausages and marshmallows. There were animals about, as we knew from the tracks (Raccoon, Snowshoe Hare, Gray Squirrel) but the only one we set eyes on was a Red Squirrel.
Part 2 of the trip required us to take off our snowshoes and go indoors, so that Macouners could be introduced to their own nature library. Over a period of nearly 60 years we built up an extensive collection of books (more than 1000!) on plants and animals, the rocks under our feet and the skies over our heads. For want of a permanent space, they are now being shelved in the homes of two Macoun Club leaders, Rob and Barbara. In addition to occasional visits to the library, members can use the online index and ask for the particular books they want.
Rob Lee's father patiently started him in rock collecting when he was seven, bringing home specimens and writing down what they were in a notebook. At eight or nine, Rob took over and collected until he had about 500 catalogued.
It was many, many years later that Rob came across a picture of a familiar rock in a Macoun Club library book ("Ontario Rocks: three billion years of environmental change," published in 2002, by Nick Eyles). He could still remember its look and feel, and therefore read with special interest. He learned that such banded iron formations (magnetite and hematite) represent an early part of the earth's history, when for two billion years all of the world's oxygen was being soaked up by the iron then so abundantly dissolved in the ocean. Only when that excess of iron had been oxidized and deposited on the sea floor, about 1.7 billion years ago, could oxygen begin to accumulate to the point that more complex life forms could be sustained. Digging it out of storage, Rob found that his specimen of banded iron was recorded, in his father's handwriting, as no. 2.
Today Rob brought in that original catalogue, its paper now yellowed and brittle, with specimens no. 1 and no. 2, Cobalt, and Banded Jasper. Every stone has a story, he said, and he told it.
Then he started everyone on their own rock collection by handing out specimens from the Macoun Club's large collection — metal ores and beautiful crystals and intriguing fossils — and notebooks for everyone to start their own catalogue.
Madagascar is a special place for amazing wildlife, and Laura Cowie had photographed many of the beautiful and startling creatures of that island. Being on just one corner of the island, she had seen about a dozen of the country's hundred species of frogs, some hardly larger than a thumbnail. She showed us several of the lizards, including the Leaf-tailed Gecko, and some of the snakes, such as boas. None of the large animals of nearby Africa live there, and the biggest mammalian predator, the cat-like Fossa, seems to be about as big as our Otter. Laura's favourites were the lemurs (which can be the Fossa's prey).
Equally fascinating were the invertebrates. Part of Laura's research involved probing the rainforest at night, and the clouds of moths fluttering around her headlamp made it difficult to pick her way through the vegetation. "I was afraid of spiders before I went there," she said, " but not afterward." There, the spiders were as big as her whole hand. Everything back here is just so small it's hardly worth getting excited about. And if you have to face such creatures, what can be more fascinating than a Net-casting Spider?
There are few places in the world where the wildlife is so critically imperiled by habitat loss. Almost all of the country has been deforested, leaving just a thin line of forest fragments around the coast. Each "island" of forest has a part of the whole fauna, and islands, whether geographical or ecological, are tragically vulnerable to losing species. Many of Madagascar's animals (and all of the frogs) are endemic to the island, and should they die out there they are gone from the world.
Now that we're acquainted with our snowshoes, we were better able to take a long trek through the winter woods. We snowshoed all the way up to our Study Tree Woods — with lunch on the way, far enough to keep us occupied for five hours. It's only a 30-minute walk on summer trails. What delayed us?
Breaking trail through fresh snow is hard work, and in thick brush there are all kinds of pitfalls for snowshoers. There are logs to clamber over, sticks to snag the webbing, and other people standing on your snowshoes!
There are also signs of wildlife almost everywhere. Deer tracks and sometimes deer trails were all over the place — we saw four of the animals themselves. Porcupines had been cutting conifer branches in the treetops (we saw one) and dropping them for the Deer and Snowshoe Hares to eat. In the cedar swamp we saw Red Squirrel tracks, and in the maple forest, Gray Squirrel. Deer Mice had run back and forth between destinations important to them, and once we saw the even more delicate tracks of a shrew. It must have had a body no bigger than a thumb. Twice we saw ermine tracks; in one place they seemed to go down a hole in the snow after a mouse. A big Fisher had been bounding in most places, but almost as often just walking, which is unusual. That's nine species of mammals But in all our walking, not one Red Fox or Coyote.
Ten years ago, Macouner Michelle Caputo graduated from high school and said goodbye to her study tree. Next month, she's heading for the Indian Ocean off South Africa to study endanagered dolphin species. How did she make that jump?
She developed her interest, she says, through many years in the Macoun Club, and at university began studying fish nests in lakes around the Ottawa region. The next level of her studies, for a Masters degree, took her to Gros Morne, in Newfoundland. People there enjoy eating Brook Trout, many of them preferring to catch these fish when they come down the rivers into the sea. How old are the trout when they do this? Do they go back and forth between salt water and fresh? Figuring out the life history involved examining the ear bones of many fish. These tiny bones have annual rings like trees, and sampling each ring for a sea-water element like strontium enabled her to see when individual trout had been in freshwater (very little strontium) and in salt (lots). How did she get hold of a hundred ear bones? What Newfoundlander could resist her offer: "I'll clean and gut your fish, if you let me keep the heads!"
A couple of trips to South Africa followed, and now she has it all lined up to study several species of dolphins. Where do they go when they're not all gathered together to feed on the seasonal sardine run? Does each species range freely over the expanse of the ocean? Or are there a number of sub-populations that come together when food is abundant and concentrated? We'll hear how she goes about answering these questions next time she visits the Macoun Club.
There's a good trail into the Pakenham Hills, but we left it as soon as we could and snowshoed through the forest. Coming across a Porcupine trail, we followed it about 50 yards, from the animal's feeding tree (an Eastern Hemlock) to its den under an uprooted tree (a White Pine). A network of trails led to more fallen trees (all pines) and more dens, with more Porcupines inside, as we could see.
By then it was lunchtime, and we settled into a sunny glade with pines all around, just out of the wind rushing through the treetops. Firewood was close at hand, and rich with interesting lichens growing on the dead pine branches. But Rob saw that there were all common species, as common as dandelions in the city, and we burned them all the same.
The snowpack is about 50 cm (20 inches) deep, so we needed our snowshoes to get around. But yesterday we had had rain, and today the sun softened the snow even more. Wet snow is hard on the traditional snowshoes we've been using on field trips (the webbing stretches) so we put everyone up on modern, high-tech snowshoes with metal frames and plastic webbing. These are smaller, and let us sink in more deeply, but we still got around OK and didn't worry about our equipment.
How do animals that once were common get driven toward extinction? Overkill? (think of Passenger Pigeons and Atlantic Cod). Attack by invasive species? (think Emerald Ash Borer). Habitat loss? (Burrowing Owls). Did you consider that a species can be overwhelmed genetically? Our speaker, Rachel Vallender of the Canadian Wildlife Service, has been studying how this is happening right here in Ontario and Quebec.
The Golden-winged Warbler is a beautiful little bird, strikingly marked in black and white. They range over a big part of eastern North America, as far north as the Ottawa Valley, but their numbers are few and they are one of the rarest warbler species. And they're getting rarer. That is partly because their favoured habitat — shrubby fields at the edge of forests — is disappearing. The other big factor seems to be that they're getting mixed up with their sister species, the also beautiful Blue-winged Warbler.
When Golden- and Blue-winged Warblers become parents together, their offspring are hybrids, which include such well known forms as "Lawrence's Warbler", pictured here. It has the facial features of the Golden-winged. But there are also less distinct forms, often with only a trace of the markings of one parent or the other. In her field work, Rachel catches, bands, and samples the DNA of all these birds, and she is finding that in most places, even what looks like a genuine Golden-winged Warbler sometimes has Blue-winged genes in its DNA. Over time — and it seems to take about 50 years — one species genetically swamps the other. That may seem like too long a time for us to be getting worried, but it means that someday you may find yourself saying, " When I was young enough to be in the Macoun Club, I used to see and hear Golden-winged Warblers, but they're pretty much gone now."
This kind of thing happens to other animals, like Black Ducks, and plants, too. We have real Butternut trees in our Study Area, but where we meet in the city, they're crossed with European Walnuts. Cattail marshes are being converted from the native Broad-leaved species to the European Narrow-leaved and their especially vigorous hybrid. The changeover in cattails is physically altering the nature of wetlands. The Golden-winged Warbler is perhaps too rare, and too rarely seen, to matter to most people, but what is happening to it is eating away at the richness of our biodiverse world.
Many people, already becoming accustomed to a warming climate, have been finding this winter to be overly long and cold. Frogs, says Dave Seburn, just turn their backs on it and say, "Wake me up when spring comes!" They're drowsing away these many winter months at the bottom of wetlands and buried in leaf litter — some species let themselves freeze solid.
They'll all soon be stirring themselves or thawing out, and the Spring Peepers, Chorus Frogs, and Wood Frogs will right away head to their traditional breeding ponds and begin singing. Dave went over the distinguishing characteristics of each type and played recordings of their calls.
Then the American Toads will begin to issue their long, musical trills. A little later, in May and June, the Eastern Gray Treefrogs will take their turn in the ponds, and finally the Green, Mink, and Bull Frogs will make themselves heard.
Everyone tries to catch frogs, and Dave explained their proper handling — to have toxin-free hands (no insect repellant or sunscreen on your palms) and to let the frog squirm halfway out of your hand so that you're just grasping it firmly by its hind legs (as in the picture he showed on the screen).
Returning to the Pakenham Hills, we repeated much of last month's trip, checking out the same Porcupine dens (one animal seen) and having our lunch in the same place (with the addition of maple taffy boiled over the fire). We slid down the same steep slopes, sitting on our snowshoes, but this time the creek was much more alluring than before. Though the waterfall was still frozen over, Otters had been sliding down the icy incline and splashing into the short stretch of open water below. Huge bubbles, six to ten inches across, kept forming and riding along the current for a few seconds.
We got as close as we could and still be safe, and threw snowballs at the accumulated foam. Right at our feet, someone noticed a small insect crawling over the snow, and Basil photographed it. With those patterned, wrap-around wings and long antennae, it looked like a Winter Stonefly — possibly Taeniopteryx maura.
Tearing ourselves away, we snowshoed overland to the cabin of a hunter and trapper, where the inside is decorated with deer and moose antlers, and a Beaver's fatty tail has been nailed to a tree to provide suet to hungry birds. Gerry himself showed up and told us that several Bald Eagles and one Golden Eagle had been feeding on the rest of the Beaver's carcass, which he'd placed down below where he could watch it. Though we saw the season's first Red-shouldered Hawk heading north, we missed out on the eagles.
Back in January, Rob focused attention on three types of rocks and the elements they are made from: iron ore, cobalt, and molybdenum. Today, he picked three more: graphite, silver, and asbestos.
Graphite, as all seemed to know, is one of the three forms of carbon a geologist will find — the others being coal (Rob passed around samples of anthracite and bituminous) and diamond ("ask your mother"). But there are also manmade forms, and he held up an aluminum shovel with a carbon-fiber handle. Technologists have improved on the platy structure of graphite to produce graphene. They both have the same hexagonal atomic arrangement (like a honeycomb), but the 1-atom-thick layers of graphene can be made in strips (carbon fibers) or rolled into cylinders (carbon nanotubes).
Pulling a package of cotton socks out of his knapsack, Rob turned to the next element to be developed through nanotechnology. These new socks, he said, were advertised as "anti-microbial." Minute silver filaments are supposed to kill the bacteria that make dirty socks smell bad. But the tiny filaments come out in the washwater, go through the filtration plant, and end up in aquatic ecosystems, still killing microbes.
The products of nanotechnology, he said, have already entered our daily lives, and promise to become as ubiquitous as plastics, but scientists are only now — literally in the first years of this decade — beginning to investigate the possible environmental effects. Rob also had samples of asbestos, which has been known to cause cancer in humans for decades. There is concern that carbon-fibre fragments (which are not biodegradable) might cause harm through the same mechanism. Rob passed around asbestos samples — both the raw mineral in solid rock, and heavy cloth woven from the fibres — all sealed in plastic bags.
Two days earlier the woods were still snow-bound, but the succession of warm, sunny days had opened field and forest alike. The melt-water pools were still too new to have aquatic inhabitants — we found only drowned and drowning caterpillars, slugs, and sprouting Sugar Maple keys with doubtful futures. We rescued what we could. But the creatures of the land that had only to awake were all over. We found Wood Frogs on the forest floor and in the open fringes of the still-frozen ponds, and Garter Snakes already dispersed from their hibernacula. There were earthworms under logs (3 species, all from Europe) and Stink Bugs crawling over the leaf litter (2 species, native — the green Acrosternum hilare and the brown Parabrochymena arborea).
We don't get to see Sugar Maple keys sprouting every year, because the seeds are produced in the necessary abundance at long intervals. Last year, 2013, was such an occasion. The seeds actually sprout under the snow when it's still more than ankle-deep, for the probing root must find a hole down through the matted leaf litter before it becomes desiccated by the hot spring sun.
The day grew very warm just when we left the woods for the bare fields, and it wasn't long before we had two cases of sunburn! No wonder Environment Canada has resumed issuing UV forecasts.
"What's special about salmon?" our speaker, Natalie Sopinka asked. "They move back and forth between fresh water and saltwater," our members answered. It seemed everyone knew some parts of the salmon's life cycle: the returning fish running up rivers from the ocean, spawning and dying; the young fish (smolts) going downriver and disappearing into the sea for years.
There are five species of salmon in Pacific salmon in British Columbia, and Natalie had a simple mneumonic device for keeping them straight, from Chum ("thumb") to Pink ("pinkie"). Natalie had focused on Sockeye salmon ("index" finger, the one that could poke you in the eye).
This one species has a hundred populations in different parts of the Fraser River watershed in B.C. and each of them runs its own risks. No doubt life in a sea of predators is stressful from time to time, but our civilization has added infinitely greater dangers. The little smolts may suffer serious sea lice infestations as they pass pens of farmed salmon on their way out to sea. And coming back as adults, commercial fishing boats scoop them up by the thousands — Natalie showed an underwater photo of a great ball of panicky fish straining to get out of a net. Do those that escape get over it? It may not matter so much to the adults, which have only a few weeks to live anyway, but her research showed that the effects of stress turn up in the next generation. Salmon that she had experimentally chased with a net before they reproduced subsequently had offspring that could not swim fast —as they must to escape predators — for as long as others.
"Keep your umbrella handy," said CBC weatherman Ian Black, and we had one. Spatters of rain came and went, but hardly affected us. We found a new place to eat with lots of dry firewood at hand and maintained two small campfires. Hepatica was blooming close by, and Spring Peepers in the pond close by came to life with each passing shower.
Though we were well into the woods, Rob was able to find European earthworms under the leaf litter — a little pocket of these invaders 100 metres from the nearest source.
After eating, we headed over to the landowner's cabin for some lessons in wildlife from Gerry, a lifelong hunter and trapper. He demonstrated how to remove the castor gland from a Beaver he'd already skinned, and pulling out a wild Turkey he'd recently shot, discussed their plumages, display postures and resulting feather wear (the males drag their wings on the ground). He explained why, although hunters are allowed to take two Turkeys in a season, they can shoot only one per day. Apparently a subdominant bird may accompany the biggest male, and as soon as it has been shot, instantly step forward to take that bird's place — an altogether too easy shot.
As we walked out, Samantha noticed a big Blanding's Turtle in the woods. The closer we approached, the more she withdrew into her shell, until finally nothing was sticking out. This one had had the left shoulder of her carapace chewed away many years ago; it'll be easy to recognize her next time we meet.
We had scheduled an art workshop indoors, but it was such a wonderful day outside that most of our group headed for the Fletcher's Backyard Garden, and some trooped down the hill to a pond. It was harder, we found, to draw animals from life than from photographs; they dart about and turn their heads. Wildflowers were easier.
The big attraction in the pond was the little colony of American Toads that were singing close at hand. Being right by a public walkway, they are used to humans looming up over them, and don't flee until one reaches out to touch them. The males puffed out their throats and filled their vocal sacs, and their calming trills filled the air. Here and there were males clasped on the backs of females, just floating in the water.
Back up on the hill, an immature Red-tailed Hawk (with a finely banded tail) attracted a small crowd of observers by perching in a small dead tree down below us in the ravine. All around, smaller birds were dashing back and forth to the feeder or singing in the still-bare tree branches. A sweet-singing, brilliantly coloured Baltimore Oriole, just back from Mexico or beyond, was a favourite.
The artwork we produced will illustrate this year's edition of our Little Bear magazine, Issue no. 68!
This was a two-part field trip, beginning at Brewer Park Pond beside the Rideau River. This has become an annual opportunity to introduce young children to aquatic life in their city. Each year the catch seems a little different. There were frogs and tadpoles, as always, but also crayfish for the first time. Turtles and water mites were missing. Damselflies were emerging and flying around. Someone found a Red-winged Blackbird nest with four eggs in the cattail marsh. Barn Swallows —aerial insectivores so rarely seen now — were building a nest on the facilities building.
From there we moved five miles westward to the Macoun Club Study Area for the express purpose of removing as much Garlic Mustard as we could in a short time (which we do under permit from the NCC). This invasive plant will completely carpet the forest floor if it gets away from us, by reproducing abundantly and poisoning native plants. We tackled four of the 20 patches known to us. While uprooting one, three Meadow Jumping Mice bounded away (with excited Macouners in hot pursuit), a Viceory butterfly's larva was discovered, and a green-coloured Eastern Gray Tree Frog hopped onto Morgan's hand.
Over the last six years, the Macoun Club has become acutely aware of European earthworms as invasive species here. We try to identify which of Ontario's 20 introduced species we encounter, and seek to understand the changes they bring about in our forests. We have come to recognize a range of signs that worms are present, from the disruption of the forest-floor leaf litter to the melting away of organic soils, leaving living tree roots stranded. We have estimated the number of worms in our Study Tree Woods and measured the extent to which roots are exposed. Why study these things? Why not just look up the answers on the Internet?
Rob Lee explained that the trouble with worms has only recently been recognized by scientists and this field of study is still being developed. We routinely see things happening that no one has reported yet, and by doing the work ourselves can have the fun of discovering things ourselves and contributing to knowledge.
We have heard that earthworm invasions make it harder for wildflowers to flourish the way they would without worms; since most of the variety in the forest is on the forest floor, this is a biodiversity issue. With the extraordinary seed crop of Sugar Maples sprouting this year, we have the opportunity to see if the seedlings of this dominant tree suffer, too.
It has also been reported that worms spread relatively slowly — about 5 - 10 metres per year. At that rate, it would take them a century for their invasion to advance one kilometer (160 years to go a mile). Yet we have seen worm populations appear relatively suddenly after logging equipment has been used in a forest, or ATVs ("4-wheelers") have opened a new trail. Worm eggs (in tiny cocoons) probably get stuck in the mud adhering to the rugged tire treads, and fall off in new places. If we can show that it does, we would give landowners and managers an excellent reason to control the access these vehicles have.
Starting 40 years ago, Paul and Kathy Keddy began buying up the best patches of wild land they could find, not far west of Carleton Place. They now have about a square mile of forest and wetlands, and through the Mississippi Madawaska Lands Trust Conservancy, have obtained protection from development for 999 years. (The legal document is renewable!)
The Macoun Club was on the invitation list when a call went out to experts to identify everything they could on what is now called the Keddy Nature Preserve. We arrived for the last three hours of a 24-hour bioblitz. People who had been there overnight reported four beautiful Luna Moths, among many other finds. We ourselves started with a Giant Swallowtail in an old field, and several species of lichen that grow on rocks there, including Candelariella vitellina, the Common Goldspeck. Rolling logs, we found a tiny Red Eft. Frogs and toads of five kinds drew our attention by hopping out of our way, and giant millipedes did so just by gliding around on open surfaces (with their dozens of poison glands, they feel invulnerable).
We were treated to a series of small slide shows by members who had taken pictures around their homes and across the country. Some were of wild nature, some of nature in the city, and some of animals from other continents. Each had a story behind it.
The Snowy Owl, for instance, was the first Gabriel had ever seen. He and his family drove to where the bird had been reported, and found it! He had other bird pictures, too, several of them of beautiful spring birds in hand at a banding station on Prince Edward Point on Lake Ontario.
The Ibex, on the other hand, stuck its head in the car window at Parc Omega, a wildlife attraction in the region. Morgan, the photographer, was intrigued at the shape of the animal's iris.
Samantha had pictures of turtles big and small, including a Snapping Turtle digging holes in her family's garden, and a thrush that had bounced off a pane of glass. Nathan and Jordan, brothers, had taken pictures of Moose, Mountain Goats, and Large-mouth Bass from Newfoundland to BC.
The Macoun Club year is over . . . until September! We wrapped things up with a nature quiz specially prepared by one of the leaders, Annie Bélair. She had selected a diversity of natural subjects to challenge the accumulated expertise of the group, from fungi to mammals like the Mink pictured here. Only a few of her subjects defied our capacity to identify them to species.
Macouners who have participated fully in the year's activities are presented with either a badge bearing the Club's logo, or if they have already got one and merit another, a Badge Winner's Honour Circle certificate. These certificates are individualized with a photo that will have meaning to the recipient — themselves in the field, or as part of the group doing memorable things. We had reason to award more of these than usual this year.
With the copy of The Little Bear magazine that each member receives, we also gave out very basic "survival kits." Leaders Rob and Barbara have noted for years that when the inevitable new reports of people lost in the outdoors come in, the search teams never report finding written messages. It seems that when people lose their way, they also lose their heads and forget that we all know how to read and write. Each member was presented with three long strips of flagging tape and a permanent marker pen, to be carried always in his or her knapsack. We ourselves don't get lost, of course, but now we can leave helpful messages for anyone else who goes missing, like " Wait here. We will come back to this spot for you."