The Kingston Field Naturalists at 50 (1949 to 1999)
by Mike Evans
In its fiftieth year, the Kingston Field Naturalists is pleased to host for the sixth time the annual conference of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists. The last occasion on which the conference was held in Kingston marked the KFN's fortieth anniversary. The special edition of The Blue Bill published for that conference included a history of the club's first forty years written by Dr. Bob Stewart. (1) It was on November 24th, 1949, that nine people attended the inaugural meeting of what was first known as the Kingston Nature Club. One of these nine founding members was a young Robert B. Stewart. To describe his many contributions to the club and to the FON would require an article far longer than this one. Needless to say, his knowledge of the early days of the club is unique, and it would be pointless for one far less qualified than Bob to try to give a history of the first forty years yet again. Instead, only major milestones of those years will be mentioned, and the more recent history and present activities of the KFN will be described here. It should also be mentioned that in her introduction to History of the Birds of Kingston, Helen Quilliam gave a highly readable account of the club's early days, and also some carefully researched details of the history of ornithology of the Kingston area dating back to the 1850s. (2) There is even a reference to birds seen in the Kingston area by members of Champlain's entourage in 1615.
Much credit for the founding of the club must go to Dr. George M. Stirrett, who came to Kingston in 1948 as Dominion Wildlife Biologist. In five years the membership had increased to 50, and it exceeded 100 by the early 1960s. By this time Helen Quilliam had become a central figure in many of the KFN's activities. Her weekly articles on birds published in the Kingston-Whig Standard were read by members and by numerous non-members, many of whom were introduced to the club through them. Helen continued this endeavour for nine years, her last column appearing towards the end of 1968. Mention has already been made of her book, History of the Birds of Kingston, originally published in 1965. A second edition appeared in 1973 as the KFN's contribution to the City of Kingston's tercentenary celebrations. By this time the checklist of birds seen within a 50 km radius of Kingston contained 303 species. In his book Birds of the Kingston Region published in 1989 on the club's 40th anniversary, Dr. Ron Weir described the status of 343 species that had been observed up to that time in the Kingston area. (3) This number continues to rise slowly, and now stands at 360.
Birding was then, and continues to be, by far the most popular club activity. However, since the early days of the KFN members have felt that one of its major interests should be the preservation of natural areas in the Kingston region. In 1963 the club purchased 200 acres (approximately 80 hectares) of land north of Sydenham with shoreline on Otter and Rothwell Lakes. The acquisition of the property necessitated the club becoming incorporated, at which time it changed its name from the Kingston Nature Club to Kingston Field Naturalists. Three further purchases of land adjacent to the original property have been made possible by generous donations from club members. The original Otter Lake Sanctuary grew by 40 hectares in 1967, by a further 80 hectares in 1981, giving access to Gould Lake, and most recently by the purchase of the 6.6 hectare peninsular on Otter Lake known to members as Vanluven Point. On 11 June 1995 the Otter Lake Sanctuary was renamed the Helen Quilliam Sanctuary to honour a lovely and talented lady who had guided the KFN for close to 40 years.
The club also owns approximately 100 hectares of pasture and marsh at the eastern end of Amherst Island purchased in 1986 with the aid of funds from Wildlife Habitat Canada. Under an agreement with Duck's Unlimited part of the area is managed to maintain water levels in the marsh to protect nesting Wilson's Phalaropes and other marsh dwelling species. An Osprey platform on the property is one of several that have been erected in the Kingston area by the KFN in the past few years. Each has been quickly occupied by a pair of Ospreys.
As was stated earlier, many of the KFN's members are active birders. A Kingston area Christmas Count has been conducted since the club was founded, and members have organized other counts in the surrounding area for many years. Last year counts were conducted in Kingston, Napanee, Amherst Island, Westport, Prince Edward Point and the Thousand Islands. Christmas Count species totals for Kingston rival those of Long Point, Rondeau and Hamilton. Other birding events that have become KFN traditions are the Spring Roundup in late May, which started in 1960 as the Big Day, and since 1966 the Fall Roundup, formerly the Owl Hunt, in early November. These events have generated a wealth of data over the years, as well as contributing greatly towards building a camaraderie and, at times, a little rivalry between club members. Other field trips are held throughout the year, again mostly to well known birding areas such as Wolfe and Amherst Islands and Prince Edward Point. Recently, field trips for beginning birders have been held as part of what is referred to as a Field Studies program. Each trip focuses on a group of species such as hawks and owls, or ducks, to allow new birders to learn about these species at a more leisurely pace than is usually experienced on regular field trips and roundups.
A number of more scientifically conducted surveys have also been KFN projects over the years. Breeding Bird Surveys were first undertaken for the Canadian Wildlife Service and US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1966. More recently several members have participated in the Forest Breeding Bird Monitoring program. Some of the other surveys in which members are involved are mentioned later in this issue. However, without doubt the KFN's biggest project started in 1971 when daily surveys of the Spring migration at Prince Edward Point were organized by Dr. Ron Weir. The survey was repeated the following year and later grew into a Spring and Fall migration banding program which continued until 1981. Between 1975 and the end of 1980 over 78,000 birds were banded. This massive effort allowed the KFN to establish the importance of Prince Edward Point as a major migration stop-over, and persuade the Canadian Wildlife Service to set aside the area as Canada's first National Wildlife Area for non-game species. Fall banding of Saw-whet Owls also determined that this species migrates through the area in considerable numbers each year. This activity is still carried out intermittently as part of the KFN's educational program. To date over 5000 Saw-whet Owls have been banded at Prince Edward Point. In 1998 the area became the fourth in Canada to be designated an Important Bird Area (IBA).
Education has always been one of the club's objectives. The greatest effort has been directed towards programs for the young. The Kingston Junior Naturalists has operated under the KFN's umbrella for 35 years. In its early days the group met in Earl Hall, the home of the Biology Department at Queen's University, under the direction of a KFN member. In 1972 the junior naturalists group became part of a new venture known as the West End Boys and Girls Club which met at Polson Park School. (4) This arrangement lasted only a short time before the Kingston Junior Naturalists resumed meeting at Earl Hall once again. Under the enthusiastic leadership of Anne Robertson with strong support from Diane Lawrence, the group thrived, and was subdivided into two in 1987. The younger members meet twice a month from September to April in McArthur Hall at Queen's, where they participate in a variety of natural history activities under the guidance of Anne, Diane and a number of student volunteers from the Faculty of Education plus several KFN members. Field trips are also held regularly and are well attended. The teens group, also led by Anne Robertson, has a more extensive outdoor program that includes canoeing, cross-country skiing and helping with activities such as the Bio-Blitz and the annual cleanup of the Helen Quilliam Sanctuary.
As the club has grown, the membership has taken part in an increasing number of projects, some of which have already been described above. In the December 1997 issue of The Blue Bill, Bud Rowe described thirty projects in which members had recently been involved. (5) Many of these projects continue to this day. Some of the non-bird ones that are still active are amphibian call counts, butterfly, moth and lady beetle surveys and an invasive plants survey. Last year saw the club's first Bio-Blitz, an event that will be repeated in June this year. Currently the membership list shows that there are over 180 individual memberships and over 150 family memberships. Since each of the latter represents at least two persons, the total number of people involved in the club is over 480. The Executive of the KFN feels strongly that to keep a club healthy it is important to have members involved in a wide variety of projects. At fifty, we believe there are many signs indicating that the club is in good shape. One hopes that this will still be the case for many years to come, and the FON will also flourish so that we will be able to welcome its members to Kingston yet again in the not too distant future.
1. Stewart, R.B. 1989. The Kingston Field Naturalists - Forty Years. Blue Bill 36(2): 205-208.
2. Quilliam, H.R. 1965. The History of the Birds of Kingston, Ontario. Published privately.
3. Weir, R.D. 1989. Birds of the Kingston Region. Quarry Press, Kingston.
4. Robertson, A. 1990. Natural History Education in the KFN: Part II. Blue Bill 37(4), 79-83.
5. Rowe, B. 1997. Projects, Projects, Projects. Blue Bill 44(4), 144-151.