The Kingston Field Naturalists at 40 Years (1949 to 1989)
by Robert B. Stewart
The Kingston Field Naturalists are pleased to host the 58th Annual Meeting and Conference of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists as a part of our celebration of forty years activity as a naturalists organization. While forty seems rather like "just getting started" compared to the Ottawa Field Naturalists who are 110 years this year and the McIlwraith Club of London who will celebrate their 100th anniversary next year, we are nevertheless proud of our accomplishments during our brief history. This will be the fifth time we have hosted the F.O.N. The previous meetings were in 1951, 1965, 1974 and 1982. On several of those occasions, as well as on others, the Blue Bill and other media carried accounts of our history (Stewart, 1954; Quilliam, 1974; Evans, 1982; Mason, 1982).
While we officially came into being in November of 1949 as the Kingston Nature Club, there was a considerable amount of organizational activity which preceded. This began with the arrival of Dr. George M. Stirrett in Kingston in 1948, as the wildlife officer for Ontario in the relatively new Canadian Wildlife Service. Dr. Stirrett had been Director of the Dominion Entomological Laboratory in Chatham, Ont. since 1926 and was one of the founders of the Kent Nature Club in Chatham. The first Executive Committee of the F.O.N. in 1931 had George Stirrett from Chatham and G. Toner, representing Queen's Natural Historical Society, as members (F.O.N. Publication No.1, October, 1931). These were two of the seven clubs in the infant federation.
An organizational meeting was held on March 31, 1949, with twenty-two attending. A fall meeting was planned at which time a constitution was to be presented for adoption and two intervening field trips were scheduled. Five attended the first in late April in heavy rain and fifteen attended the second on June 1. A constitution was adopted on Nov. 24th and George Stirrett was elected our first president. In April of 1950 at our first annual meeting, we voted to join the F.O.N. Our membership at that time was about sixteen and in one year's time we would be asked to host the F.O.N. Conference.
We were all very much beginners and George's background of knowledge and leadership were important to our beginning. Perhaps the most important of all the lessons we learned from George, was that naturalists belong in the field and to be there with a purpose.
Since the very beginning the Kingston club has had a strong orientation toward field projects. Our first bird-banding activity was to continue the Chimney Swift banding program that had been initiated by Prof. R.O. Merriman in 1928 and continued without interruption except for 1941-1944 until 1947 (Bowman, 1952). We took it up again in 1950. Among our other projects during the decade of the fifties was the erection of Wood Duck nesting boxes on the Little Cataraqui Creek, Woodcock and Mourning Dove breeding surveys, mid-winter waterfowl inventories, gull banding on some of the islands in the St. Lawrence River, Christmas bird counts and, importantly, beginning the publication of the Blue Bill in 1954. The thirty-five years of continuous publication has given us an important record of our activities and observations and we hope has been of value to our readers, some of whom live far from Kingston.
Helen Quilliam and her husband, Brigadier C.D. Quilliam, arrived in Kingston in 1953. Helen involved herself very quickly in the club activities, contributing enthusiasm and energy to many of our programs. The operation of The Old Book Collector on Brock Street, and the Gestetner used to produce book catalogues, launched Helen as the publisher of the Blue Bill, several times Editor and, importantly, gave her a very accurate sense of the changes occurring in our local bird life. When George Stirrett left Kingston in 1959 for Ottawa, to take up his duties as the first Chief Naturalist of the National Parks, Helen continued the column "Local Notes on Natural History" published in the Kingston Whig-Standard. These activities provided her with the insight to write "The History of the Birds of Kingston, Ontario," first published in 1965, saw a new edition in 1973, the year of Kingston's Tercentenary, and a supplement co-authored by Dr. Ron Weir in 1980. Helen has continued to provide leadership and support for many club activities. She has held many of the executive positions in the K.F.N., including the Presidency, has been an F.O.N. Director and was awarded an Honorary Life membership in that organization. The K.F.N. elected Helen as an Honorary President, not only in recognition of her many contributions but as an expeditious way of keeping her on the Executive Committee for as long as she wished to serve and provide us with continuing wise counsel and leadership.
As the fifties were drawing to a close, we found new individuals raising their level of commitment to natural history and conservation. Pres. George Stirrett and Wesley Currant from the Biology Department at Queen's University represented our interests on the F.0.N. Board of Directors in the early half of the decade. In 1957 Dr. Martin Edwards of the Physics Department at the Royal Military College was elected to the F.0.N. Board of Directors and served as K.F.N. President during this period. Martin became the F.0.N. President in 1969.
The sixties with their turbulence and excitement brought naturalists into a new range of activities, many of these associated with a growing concern for the quality of our wildlife and natural areas. Concerned by development and reduction of "unspoiled" woodlands into small parcels, the K.F.N. in 1963 had the opportunity to acquire 85 hectares of land bordering on Otter Lake in Loughborough Township. Forty hectares were added in 1967 and a further seventy-seven in 1981. The acquisition of the first property in 1963 resulted in our name change from a Nature Club to Field Naturalists as more legally suitable for charitable organization status and land owner. The proximity of Frontenac Provincial Park contributes to the preservation of a large ecosystem important for the continued nesting of many warbler species. While the Otter Lake Sanctuary does not have the focus of club activities that it once did, it is there and will undoubtedly generate club projects in the future.
The need to preserve wetlands, natural drainage systems and the natural areas around them was a part of the support for the province's regional conservation authorities. Dr. Jim McCowan undertook the enormous task of bringing the Cataraqui Regional Conservation Authority into being. Jim began this task while a chemist at Dupont Canada Limited and is now a member of the Chemistry Department at Queen's. The Authority was established in 1965 and Jim as its Chairperson until 1970. During this period a major activity of the Authority was the acquisition of land and for this all of us locally are grateful for Jim's foresight. During this time Jim also served as the Recording Secretary for the F.O.N.
Other areas, of environmental concern that involved K.F.N. were pesticide accumulation in gull populations. A field trip to Pigeon Island, organized by Martin Edwards in 1963, resulted in the notation of thin-shelled eggs from the birds nesting on the island. This led to further field trips and studies and subsequently was continued by the Canadian Wildlife Service to more fully document the effect of pesticides on our breeding gull population. Among Martin's other related activities during and slightly beyond the sixties was in the formation of the Canadian Natural Federation and service as its President, as well as serving as a one-man Royal Commission established by the Province of Ontario to investigate a sudden die-off of waterfowl on Centre Island at Toronto.
This period saw many of our members undertake responsibility for a number of the 25 mile routes for the North American Breeding Bird Survey. This stimulated the Club to use the same technique to monitor our own area. Rather than a random selection of routes, we selected ours to reflect the diverse habitat of the region with the result that the changes and, in some cases, the causes, are much better understood. Our involvement with Prince Edward Point in Prince Edward County began in 1960 with a field trip. It and subsequent trips began to alert us to the possibility that the point was attracting migrants in both spring and fall from a wide geographical area. Dr. Ron Weir, Department of Chemistry at R.M.C. organized a data collecting system to study spring migration at the Point in 1971. This program continued for two years, requiring daily field coverage from the beginning of April until the end of May. The data more than supported previous speculations and, again with Ron's leadership, our level of activity at the Point increased with the leasing of the Lighthouse (the Red onion) and the establishment of the Prince Edward Point Observatory. The next few years were of intense activity, not only banding hut the fund-raising required to keep the project going - daily banding from spring migration through the autumn migration, including the night banding of Saw-whet Owls in October.
The owl banding still continues and the migration banding serves now to educate students in the Biology program at Queen's and is carried out by members of their faculty on an irregular basis. Inability to acquire stable funding on a continuing basis resulted in the diminution of the Club's efforts at the Point, which is rather a pity in terms of the need for the kind of data that was generated as our habitat is continually being degraded. The Observatory and Lighthouse headquarters served also to provide an insight and experience for students at senior and junior levels that has influenced career choices and an empathy with the natural environment. The data generated by the banding and other biological studies provided the basis for the proposal, initiated by Ron Weir, to the Canadian Wildlife Service to create a National Wildlife Area at the Point. While none of this could be accomplished without the efforts of so many individuals, it is the faith and commitment of dedicated leadership that makes these things happen.
These migration studies also led to Ron's study of the bird kill at the Lennox Generating Station during certain weather patterns during migration: The publication of this highly detailed study added importantly to our knowledge, understanding and methods of controlling at least some of the hazards birds face on migration. Ron has served on the F.O.N. Board and represented them in the contentious hearing related to the acquisition of lands by Parks Canada in the Thousand Islands National Park complex.
Our most recent acquisition of 100 hectares of land adjacent to the "bar" on the east end of Amherst Island as result of the K.F.N.'s own fund-raising and the general support of Wildlife Habitat Canada was also very much an initiative of Ron's. More recent members of F.O.N. will know Ron as the author of "Arrivals and Departures" in Seasons and the author of the sections on the Raptors in the Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas.
There have been so many other activities and so many other people who have given so much of themselves, their time and resources to the K.F.N. programs, that it is not possible to identify all. While many who read this will not likely remind me of sins of commission, there are many of omission. In closing this article I can mention only a few. Anne Robertson has provided inspired leadership for our junior naturalist program over many years. It is recognized as one of the strongest in the Province and Anne has been recognized by F.O.N. awards for her skills in this area, as well as being an often repeated part of the programs at the F.O.N. Annual Meetings. She has brought our junior membership to well over one hundred and many of our executive must shudder at the thought of finding her replacement when she decides she would like to do something else.
Dr. Fred Cooke and the late Dr. Roland Beschel of the Biology Department at Queen's contributed much to our growth over the years. Roland was a superb teacher of botany and the skills in this discipline remaining in the Club are much a result of his efforts. Fred's initiation of adult education in natural history in night school sessions at a local high school in the late 60's brought us many new members. Fred and his students' (both graduate and undergraduate) contributions to our natural history projects have been invaluable, as has been his professional expertise. Fred has also served as an F.O.N. Director. Other more recent K.F.N. Executive who have served on the Board and Executive Committee of the F.O.N. are: Dr. Ron Black, Dr. Mike Evans, Dr. Laurie Wright, and Faith Avis.
To those I have mentioned, as well as to so many I haven't identified, we all owe a debt of gratitude for making a fortieth anniversary both possible and certainly worth celebrating.
Bowman, R.I.: Chimney Swift Banding at Kingston, Ontario, from 1928 to1947. Can. Field. Nat. 66, 151-164. 1952
Evans, M.: The KFN - Past and Present. Blue Dill 29, 27-29. 1982
Mason, M.: Introducing Kingston Field Naturalists. Kingston Whig-Standard. October 13, 1982
Quilliam, Helen R.: A History of the Kingston Field Naturalists. Blue Bill 21, 26-31. 1974
Stewart, R.B.: A Brief History of the Kingston Nature Club. Blue Bill 1, 5-6. 1954