What are meetings and field trips like?
Here's what we did in the 2007-08 year
Sept. 8, 2007After hearing about all the wonderful things members had observed over the summmer, we headed outdoors for a tour of the Fletcher Wildlife Garden. Leader Annie Bélair took us on a tour of several habitats: pond, old-field, butterfly garden, and ash grove. A big yellow caterpillar was identified as the larva of an American Dagger Moth. It feeds on tree leaves.
Sept. 15, 2007A little rain made for a cool, damp field trip into the western parts of our Study Area. With the temperature hovering around 11° C (52° F) under gray skies, all flying insects seemed grounded -- no late season butterflies or mosquitoes, and no "face flies." Amphibians were scarce, with just one Wood Frog (left) and one small American Toad coming to our attention, as compared with about a dozen frogs on almost the same date two years ago, when we had sunshine and temperatures of 17° C (65° F).
Another, far more significant change is also recorded in this photo -- the ground the frog is sitting on is mostly bare earth. The picture was taken in the maple forest that is our Study-Tree Woods. In former years the ground would have been completely covered by leaf litter and a multi-year mulch. Just beyond the frog is a little pile of "straw," which is all that is left after an earthworm has pulled all the nearby leaves to its burrow and eaten them (the "straw" being made up of indigestible leaf stems). Last year and this, an earthworm infestation has completely cleared five acres (2 hectares) of forest floor! It is no exaggeration to call this an ecological catastrophe, for an environment that has always before created topsoil is now suffering soil erosion.
Sept. 22, 2007How do you tell people how to work with a study tree? Rob Lee brought in an entire small tree that had been accidentally cut down at his place. He said that you can identify some trees by the smell of the broken twigs, so everyone seized a branch and tried to snap it in half. It couldn't be done! Before anyone got too frustrated, he said SOME trees can be identified by the smell, but not this one. The twigs of the Leatherwood are as flexible and strong as leather.
We measured its height and circumference, and from that figured out the diameter. There were caterpillars mining inside the leaves, and treehoppers had laid their eggs on the bark. When we had looked at everything, we stripped all the bark off to make strings and rope and braided bracelets.
Sept. 29, 2007We've walked over the flat bedrock in our Study Area's south end countless times, but a 10x magnifying glass turned all the familiar, ordinary things into a strange world of miniature jungles and bizarre creatures.
We lifted rocks and found crickets, dug into mossy stumps and found Goldthread root, looked up and saw a Red-Tailed Hawk soaring round.
We even got to our Study Tree woods -- and for some reason, possibly related to last week's meeting, somebody chose a Leatherwood, one of the last left in the woods.
Oct. 13, 2007Diane Kitching, who has spent much time on Prince Edward Island, brought in some of her seashells and other things from the sea and passed them around the table. She told us what each kind was, and something about its habitat and behaviour. There were surf clams and razor clams, periwinkles and limpets, oysters and scallops, and even a skate's egg case.
We also talked about the extraordinary proliferation around P.E.I. of a previously absent creature -- a tunicate -- which in great numbers practically smothers the blue mussels that people are growing in ocean-based aquaculture.
Oct. 20, 2007Everywhere we went this day at "Pakenham," we encountered signs of beavers. There was a new beaver dam that is being built right under the bridge. We ate lunch beside a pond with two beaver lodges, and then hiked through the woods to another pond that also had two lodges -- which made some people think we'd gone in a circle! There we examined an elm tree, well known to us, that had just been cut down by a beaver. We could see all the tooth marks and chips, and annual rings in the stump.
Oct. 27, 2007On almost every field trip we see significant evidence of Beaver activity -- most of our wetlands, home to so much wildlife, are beaverponds. We walk along the crest of the dams to get to the other side. We see the stumps of trees felled by these animals. And sometimes, when a pond dries up, we get to crawl inside the Beaver's home! (Who is that disappearing into the lodge? Francis? Julien? Nathan?)
We thought we knew a lot about Beavers, but today former member Katherine Kitching told us a more than we had imagined we could know. She even brought in sticks and "mud," and had us build our own beaverdam.
Nov. 3, 2007We crossed the entire Study Area from east to west, and had enough time to check our many Study Trees. New members chose their very first trees, and we started to notice interesting things about them. The Sugar Maple had lost a patch of bark on its trunk to the burrowing of a Sugar Maple Borer (Beetle). The Yellow Birch sapling stood on the buried, rotted remains of some former tree. And the big Bur Oak had fed a Porcupine, judging by the twigs it had cut and dropped at summer's end.
We heard and saw more mobile forms of life, too -- the season's first Pine Grosbeak, a beautiful Mourning Cloak butterfly, and a Stinkbug (which Rob sketched, for subsequent inclusion in our Nature Journal).
Nov. 10, 2007Like ants crawling through the grass, we humans spend our time creeping through the forests with little understanding of the landscape. But Rob has taken pictures of our usual field-trip places from a small plane, and now we could see the shape of the beaverponds and their relation to each other, and the patterns of deciduous and coniferous forest.
In this 20-year-old picture of the eastern part of our Study Area, we see the combined extent of beaverponds nos. 5 and 6, the smooth-topped coniferous plantations to their left, the darker and more ragged natural spruce and cedar forest in the foreground, and the smoothly billowing, slightly coloured tops of the maple forest to the right. In the lower part of the picture the grey patch is a cedar forest that drowned when the beavers first flooded the place.
Nov. 17, 2007We ventured into a seldom-visited part of our nature-study area and found one of our few remaining old fields (most of the others having grown up in row upon row of Red Pines). Hidden among the encroaching trees we found the drystone foundation of a pioneer farmhouse and a stone-lined dug well. A century-and-a-half of agriculture, ending 50 years ago, has had a powerful effect on the landscape.
Some of the fields, however, were taken over by beavers. The ups and downs of the water over the years has encouraged a cattail marsh to flourish around the pond's edge. This picture was taken at the Sarsparilla Trail near sunset, looking toward the observation dock.
Nov. 24, 2007Arctic researcher Emily Choy got us all thinking about what makes an arctic food web, and then took us outside to play out the scenario of a remote food web that becomes contaminated with pollutants from the south.
First she linked everybody in a web of yarn. If anyone tugged on their part of the web, everyone else felt it! Then Emily assigned roles of predators and prey in a simplified food chain (fish, seals, and polar bears), and sent the fish out into the environment to "feed" on candies. As the "seals" captured the fish, and the "bears" preyed on the "seals," the bears accumulated a nice little stash of candy. But some of it was colour-coded to represent contamination. (That made everyone sad, but was forgotten in the actual feeding, which came later.)
Dec. 8, 2007Macouners brought in their accumulated deer bones, and Rob Lee brought in his medical and archaeology books, and between us we all worked out such things as what was a humerus and how it was different from a femur. Then we matched up our specimens with the pictures in the books -- figuring out how to tell human bones from deer. Because when you find a skeleton, you really don't want to make a mistake in either direction!
We saw obvious differences in the femur (short neck on deer, long on human), ribs (deer curve slightly, humans curve sharply), veterbrae (many projections all round on deer, few and one-sided on human), and pelvic girdle (long and narrow in deer, wide in human). The skeleton in this picture had gently curving ribs and long, narrow pelvic bones (over near the Macouners' feet).
Dec. 15, 2007For the first time in years, there is too much snow to walk through. Rob brought the whole group out to his place, and got everyone up on snowshoes. Across the road and into the woods we went, and before very long it was lunchtime. Everyone is getting very practiced at making lunch fires, and didn't seem to mind the cold (-16 degrees C) and sunless conditions. Almost the only fresh animal tracks we found were those of a Deer Mouse. We followed them over the snow for about 150 yards -- a very bold mouse, in a land of foxes, owls and weasels. Then the mouse had circled back, giving us our first insight into this species' home range size.
Jan. 12, 2008Three-quarters of December's heavy snowfall had melted away by the time we got out to the Study Area, so walking was as good as snowshoeing. There were lots of animal tracks -- deer, raccoon, fisher, grouse. We split into two groups. Rob's group checked several places for beavers, and found fresh tracks in the snow, chewed up sticks, and pond ice broken from underneath. Diane's group relocated the big den tree we remember from previous years, and saw the porcupine that lives inside. We all met up in the Study-Tree woods, checked our old trees (one had broken off and fallen, victim of Dryad's Saddle Fungus), and picked one new one.
Jan. 19, 2008We had a presentation on winter ecology. Andreia Couto introduced the group to the idea of the subnivean world -- the life of small mammals lead in the almost hollow space that develops under the snow pack. Then, after discussing what animals need to be like to survive the winter, Macoun members set out to design their own perfectly adapted creature.
Jan. 26, 2008After the big thaw, the cold was able to penetrate the thinner snow cover and build up some ice on the ponds. Rob brought an axe and chopped a hole to check its depth and quality. The ice was 9 inches thick (about 22 cm), but was cloudy and white -- all formed out of melted snow, and not very strong. But perfectly fine for us to walk around on. Rob even made his lunch fire on the ice -- but everybody else ate on shore. Afterward, we followed the toboggan-like trail of an Otter back into the woods between ponds.
Feb. 2, 2008Holly Stephens (left) and Krystal Lapierre made the life stories of sea turtles very real to us through games and activities. We came to appreciate how many eggs a turtle has to lay every year, just for one or two to survive in the end. And baby turtles have so many predators! But if they survive, they grow up to be HUGE!
As human-induced threats against sea turtles have increased to the point where populations are imperilled, conservationists try to help out by finding turtle nests before predators and poachers get to them. Kept safe on the beach until hatching, the baby turtles are safeguarded as they crawl down to the sea.
Feb. 9, 2008We had 18 people up on snowshoes, and crossed the whole Study Area from east to west (and back again). Among the trees fringing Pond Five one member spotted a White-tailed Deer. In the various forests, we checked up on the Porcupines in their dens, and spotted a fourth up in a Jack Pine, where it was cutting twigs to eat the needles. We repeatedy crossed the trail of a small Fisher, and came across the tracks of a Ruffed Grouse, but the two hadn't met up with each other. Off our snowshoes we sank in knee-deep, without coming close to the bottom of the snow pack.
Feb. 16, 2008We had one speaker for each group -- Pat Whitridge for the Juniors (pictured at right), and Gabriel Levac for the Intermediates. Both had chosen the same topic -- global warming -- but with very different approaches and messages. Pat brought in computer-generated maps showing how the world will change as this century progresses. Gabriel illustrated his talk with pictures of the things we humans do that are changing our world's climate, and suggested alternatives.
Feb. 23, 2008Getting around in the woods this winter requires skis or snowshoes, and at this point we're pretty well outfitted. We crossed the several channels of Stanley Creek on snow bridges, with open water sometimes to the left or right, and made our lunch fires (left) on the well-frozen surface of Butternut Pond. All around us were the tracks of Ruffed Grouse, Fisher, and Coyote. Afterward, we climbed out of the one watershed and into another. There we all safely stepped out onto the first beaverpond on Indian Creek, except the one boy who had chosen to leave his snowshoes behind. Where the ice on a pond is always least reliable, he sank through the big shoreline snowdrifts into muddy water with both feet. Being well experienced with such things, he jumped out right away and continued on his way -- sticking thereafter to solid ground.
Mar. 1, 2008Gerry Lee is more accustomed to talking about wildlife with us at his camp out in the Pakenham Hills (as he was when this picture was taken -- Rob Lee on the left, Gerry Lee on the right) but today he came in to our meeting and gave us a talk on one of his great interests -- furbearers.
It's an artificial class of animals, he said, and we were all able to think of lots of Ontario mammals that have fur but aren't called furbearers -- Flying Squirrels, Woodchucks, and Black Bears, for example.
There's apparently a lot more to getting furs than just catching the animals. Furs are worth taking only in the winter, when they're thick, and bring good money only when they're at their best -- when they're in prime. That period is different for each species, and for some, like Mink, it can be a very narrow window of time, perhaps only a couple of weeks out of the year. The fur of others, like Muskrats, may be in prime much longer, but still becomes worthless toward spring, when the males fight each other so much their skins are full of wounds. Knowing so much about the biology of wild animals requires considerable education and study. Gerry showed us some of the books he still studies from.
As an aside, Gerry urged us to approach his cabin more quietly next time we go out. When things had settled down after our last noisy visit, on Feb. 23, a Fisher cautiously came out of the woods to feed on a dead animal, and then slipped back into cover when a Bald Eagle flew in for the same purpose. All these animals are wary and skittish, he warned us, and will be seen only by the quiet and observant.
Mar. 29, 2008Would you laugh at a presentation on sharks?
Former member Alec Todd (from the 1980s) returned to tell us about his adventures into the world of shark research, and put our knowledge to the test with a challenging series of questions: what did we know about sharks?
Among the more thought-provoking questions he asked: do sharks ever come into fresh water? "Yes," said a small voice. Do they come very far up rivers? "Yes, as much as 1000 miles," the voice gravely confirmed
To put our unease in perspective, Alec told us that vending machines kill more people in the United States each year than sharks do (by falling over, in case you were wondering).
Apr. 5, 2008The sap was running so we all headed out to Rob's place to help collect sap . . . and consume a large quantity of taffy. Although we skipped all the hard intermediate stages, like stoking the fire day and night, we still saw more wildlife along the roads than on the hour-long drive out to Lanark County.
Apr. 12, 2008Retired professor Don Smith brought in several trays of bats specimens so that we could all see the varied and specialized features of bats. He first instructed us on how to handle these delicate study skins without damaging them. As he explained the anatomical differences between macrobats, like the fruit bat in his hand, and microbats, we took a quick look at each specimen's data label -- more valuable than the actual specimen. The earliest had been collected in 1956! There were details of place and time, a few key measurements, and the name of the collector, which was usually D. Smith, of course.
All eight of Ontario's bats are microbats; they all have a small projection called the tragus visible in the ear. From the left in this tray, we could see the Hoary, Red, and Silver-backed Bats; at the far right, the species locally most common, the Little Brown Bat. Fourth from the right was the Big Brown Bat.
Apr. 19, 2008We timed this field trip just right for finding Garter Snakes (20 of them!) recently emerged from their hibernating places. For Rob, the highlight of the day was encountering one of these harmless snakes that gaped wide and lunged repeatedly, eventually managing to wrap its jaws around his finger. Ellen, however, thought the Domestic Rabbit, which somebody abandoned at the trailhead, was the most important thing. And for Gabriel, the best find was probably a Painted Turtle he discovered in the shallows of Pond XII.
Apr. 26, 2008Canada's National Park system gives refuge to a number of endangered species, and Briar Howes gave us a sampling of them from across the country. She said she had studied one in particular, the Five-lined Skink, for her Ph.D., and she engaged the group in a discussion about their ability to leave their tail behind when attacked by a predator. (The pictures on the screen show this phenomenon -- in the lower right image, the lizard has returned to eat its own tail, while in the upper right, the tail that grew back was forked.)
May 10, 2008For those of us who aren't birdwatchers, even the most common birds are worth a good, careful look through binoculars, and comparison with the pictures in a birdbook. In an hour's walk around the Arboretum, several such species appeared before us -- Robins, Song Sparrows, and Red-Winged Blackbirds. The male Red-wing lives up to his name, especially when displaying, but for the female left) its all about camouflage.
May 24, 2008With guest leader Diane Lepage we set out into our Study Area with an eye for butterflies, and we found them -- mainly Spring Azures and Eastern Commas, but also a delicate Henry's Elphin. But for many of us the highlight of the day was found under a rotting log -- a large black-and-orange millipede. We haven't seen this species (Sigmoria trimaculata) before. It was in the Study-Area's last remaining patch of undisturbed forest floor, where the leaf litter still decays into thick, moist mulch. (Earthworms have destroyed this vital compenent of the forest ecosystem across the rest of the area -- see Sept. 15, below.)