KFN 75 Years Logo

A History of the Kingston Field Naturalists: The first 25 years

by Helen Quilliam
© Blue Bill (1974) Volume 21 No. 2 : 26-31

Whereas a history of a natural history club should contain a list of concrete accomplishments and their dates, the state of the treasury and of membership, these things sometimes make very dull reading. They can in the last resort be found by the eager searcher in the minutes of the club. Here we propose to deal in a more informal way with the growth and spirit of the Kingston Nature Club, now the Kingston Field Naturalists, and why we think it is a rather exceptional club.

It is a club that has grown from strength to strength. It took a number of years in the beginning for it to begin to grow but once started it went on surely and steadily. This slow start meant the establishment of a sound foundation. The original members still with us and those who have been members for 15 or 20 years look back with some nostalgia on our simple days but also with a sense of pride in the club’s accomplishments.

A club in its beginning years and for a number of years thereafter has one big advantage over the long-established club. Its members are usually all in the same state of ignorance and have the chance of learning and exploring together. This was true of the Kingston Nature Club. Bird guides were sometimes brought to meetings so that they might be referred to when discussing the most recent bird observations. A large cardboard chart was kept of first arrivals and this also was brought to meetings and filled out there. We have long outgrown the chart but this was the beginning of the good records that this club has kept for 25 years.

We were more than usually fortunate in that our founder, Dr. George M. Stirrett was a scientist and with the Canadian Wildlife Service. Although most of those gathered to start the club late in 1949 were chiefly interested in birds, they were soon becoming interested in many aspects of natural history, absorbing it from Dr. Stirrett almost without knowing it. From the beginning, because of association with him, members were participating in the gathering of scientific data. In his capacity as Dominion Wildlife Office for Ontario, Dr. Stirrett was glad of assistance from members. The banding of Chimney Swifts at Fleming Hall, Queen’s University, that had gone on intermittently for a number of years was resumed by Dr. Stirrett with members of the newly formed club. He also was glad of the extra help in Waterfowl Counts at the beginning of January and soon also members were helping on his three or four routes of Woodcock Censuses every spring. There followed gull banding on Black Ant Island. These activities gave members at once both enjoyment and a sense of purpose. His natural history column in the Whig-Standard also gave members a reason for reporting the birds they saw and stimulated them to keep good records. When Dr. Stirrett left in 1959 to become Chief Park Naturalist for Canada, members were equipped to carry on by themselves and the many activates since have attested to the good groundwork that he laid.

Early on the desire to report well for what was then Audubon Field Notes and to keep the records that George had started was well established. Soon a few members were helping with a Co-operative Migration Study run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and members took over the woodcock routes and ran them every spring until 1967.

The Blue Bill began publication in 1954 and now has just completed its 20th year without the loss of a single issue. Its object was to give the chance to members to grow in their writing and learning and at the same time to record the ornithological history of the region. Other fields of interest have not been neglected and articles on the botany of the region have probably been the second most numerous.

In the early days of a small club probably a relatively large number of members actively participated in the field. The Kingston Nature Club field trips were popular and well attended. Most of the members were at the same level of experience and still finding birds new to them. Only gradually were new members added and, because they appeared in small numbers, they could be absorbed easily into the existing group. The first years were years of good companionship afield, of exploration of new sites and of exciting finds of uncommon birds. Many of the very earliest trips were very close to Kingston although there were trips as far away as Presqu’ile and the Sandbanks in the early years. It was only gradually that trips to Wolfe Island became common and that Amherst was visited more frequently and regularly. Prince Edward Point was not discovered until 1960. Most of the country north of Sydenham was unknown to the club members of the early days although every spring there were trips to Morton to check on Pine Warblers and to Green’s woods on Highway 32 for Cerulean Warblers. The search for land of our own began the more extensive exploration of the country north of Sydenham. For a number of years we met to cook breakfast at Otter Lake or, after a very early morning start to hear the dawn chorus, finished with breakfast at a cottage on Dog Lake.

In 1966 there were two weekend field trips – one in the spring to Montezuma Wildlife Refuge in N.Y. State and Sapsucker Woods at the Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell University and an autumn one to watch the hawk migration at Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania. A weekend trip to Point Pelee was the last of these longer trips.

Gradually the participation in field trips has altered. Now they are more often made up of learners with only a few of the older more experienced birdwatchers along. There has been a growing tendency for small groups to go off on their own. This has one advantage in that we get a number of bird records from several localities at the same time.

There are, however, still plenty of members interested in going out after birds. Each year numbers taking part in the Christmas Count have increased until there were a record 61 observers in 1973. The various big days when members make up their own parties are well attended. Spring Roundup began in 1960 as a result of Martin Edwards. Nora Mansfield and Mary L’Estrange finding over 100 species on a rainy wet day in May 1959. At first the goal for any one party was to find a hundred species in a 24-hour day. In 1974 over 40 participants counted a record 204 species. Fall Roundup began because there was little interest in November field trips. Beginning as principally an owl count in 1966, its aims have expanded and the number of people attending continues to rise. For many members, old and new, it seems that the challenge of a special day is what makes the field trip worthwhile.

Members have also interested themselves in a number of more serious undertakings. In 1963 Martin Edwards organised a trip to Pigeon Island in June to survey the colonies of Black-crowned Night Herons, gulls and terns there. This survey has been repeated every year until the present and its figures gave the Canadian Wildlife Service some definite base with which to compare the results of their studies undertaken to determine the effects of pesticides on colonies of breeding birds in Lake Ontario.

Ron Weir was able to organise a roster of members sufficient to have an observer every day from early April through May at Prince Edward Point during 1971 and 1972 to obtain a complete picture of spring migration there.

Members responded quickly to the call for observers for the continent-wide breeding bird surveys organised by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service. In fact it soon was evident that we had more people than there were routes within the area so a plan to do our own local breeding bird surveys, following the same rules, was soon in operation. The result has been seven local routes censused for six years.

When Snowy Owls were particularly plentiful weekly trips were made to Wolfe Island (1965 and 1972) in order to learn as much as possible of their habits during these peak years.

The success of a club of this nature must also be measured by the caliber of its monthly meetings and programs. Anyone who has attended the meetings of the Kingston Field Naturalists for even a few years has stored up an invaluable fund of knowledge of and feeling for the natural world . In looking over past programs, for instance, we find that Dr. Stirrett in December 1954 gave a talk defining ecology and outlining its basic principles. So we got our background in this field a good ten years before this word became a household one (still rather poorly understood by most of the public).

Many of the early programs depended on our own talents and even on documentary films. But as we grew larger we felt we could ask speakers from further afield. Subjects have been varied, in fact there is probably not a facet of natural history that has not been touched on at least once. We have been particularly fortunate in that Queen’s professors and personnel have been most generous of their time and knowledge in providing us with a wealth of programs.

We outgrew the old Agricultural Hall where we had to out chairs up for every meeting and put them away again and where we boiled water for coffee in large pans and washed up afterwards and where we had our potluck suppers – real potluck with each member bringing a dish. Since 1966 we have generously been allowed to use Earl Hall at Queen’s all its modern conveniences, comfortable seats and a large screen. Potluck suppers were also outgrown and in 1961 we held the first of the annual dinner meetings at St. Mark’s Church Hall. Forty-six persons attended and paid $1.40 for their dinners. In May of 1974, 150 people came (the limit for the hall). Dinner tickers were $3.50 for this 25th Anniversary meeting.

With more and more “No trespassing” signs going up everywhere and access to Rideau Lakes fast disappearing and with the fear that, with the passing of time, cottage development would increase, it appeared to be a good thing to try to acquire some land of our own which could be left in its natural state. Also members would be able to pursue bird and botanical studies in a place where habitats would not be changed.

There followed many excellent field trips while we scoured the countryside. The exploring led us finally to the site at Otter Lake. To our great good fortune we found that the owner of the 200-acre lot, the Gananoque Power and Light Corporation, were sympathetic with our aims, had no further use for the land and so sold it to us in the summer of 1963 for a very small sum.

Acquiring this property necessitated our incorporation and that in turn a name change so that the Kingston Nature Club became the Kingston Field Naturalists. In the early days it was necessary to walk into the sanctuary because the road had been so long neglected. Soon after our acquisition of the property the township began a new road whose development we watched with mixed feelings. We would be able to spend more time right at Otter and Sucker Lakes because we could drive directly there but so could a lot of other people. At the time of the last Federation of Ontario Naturalists’ meeting in Kingston in 1965 the road was only passable from one direction and by a special effort we got our signs erected just in time for that meeting and were able to have a field trip there.

Because of being able to sell gravel for the building of the road, our treasury was enriched and we began to look for further land to add to that we already had. In 1967 we obtained a hundred acres very close to the original holding. The Roland Beschel Trail goes to this acreage most of which is still unexplored.

Policy of management has been to leave the land as nearly as possible in the same condition in which we found it. A good many miles of trails have been developed. These are single file paths only and some are furnished with botanical labels. No matter how much one thinks one knows the property something new can be found with almost every visit.

Most of the foregoing activities have been undertaken for our own enjoyment and to satisfy our own intellectual curiosity, although also contributing much useful information. But how good is our record in fulfilling all the aims of our constitution that declares that our purpose is to: “acquire, record and disseminate knowledge of natural history; to stimulate public interest in nature and in the protection and preservation of wildlife”. In this matter of spreading the word our club can be proud of its record in direct instruction and in involvement in cases affecting our environment.

The most ambitious undertaking was the night school course first organised by Fred Cooke in 1967-68 and carried on for the next two winters and again by Ron Weir for the winter of 1973. For the first three years there was an equal division of instruction between botany and birds. The classes in ornithology were divided among several members but the late Dr. Roland Beschel took over almost the entire burden of the botany instruction. The last session in 1973 was of 13 lectures only, all of them on bird identification. The courses attracted a steady membership of between 35 to 40 students and brought to the club new members.

Keeping a junior naturalists’ group going has been one of the undertakings that has had its ups and downs. Many club members have given time and effort to this project beginning particularly in recent years with Mike Evans in 1969 and continuing with Anne Rimmer and Elinore Phillips. A new approach has now been tried for a year by participation in the West End Boys’ and Girls’ Club at the Polson Park School where Anne Robertson is running a junior naturalist section with help from club members and particularly from young Ed Fletcher. Lack of continuing attendance on the part of the young people had been one of the discouraging aspects but it is hoped that the bimonthly meetings of this newest scheme will be more successful.

Although we may not always have thought that we were entirely successful in efforts to interest the young, members have given of their time unselfishly over the years with special duck identifying days, the conducting of nature walks for school children and camp groups. Individual members have given many illustrated talks to groups of all ages. In 1961 the first early morning bird walks on Wednesdays in May were organised for the general public. For the first few years these were held at Lake Ontario Park and then later at the Little Cataraqui Creek Conservation Area with early morning walks alternating with evening walks. The response of the public to these walks has been good.

Dr. Stirrett began and maintained a natural history column for about eleven years and the writer carried on for another ten years. This column resulted in much interest from the public and for many years was our only regular means of publicity. The publication of “The History of the Birds of Kingston, Ontario” in 1965 was only possible because all members of the KFN had for years reported their records. It became a truly club project when the club published a second edition as its Kingston’s Tercentenary project.

Members have expressed their concern in many environmental matters. The topics with which the club has interested itself are many and the number of briefs prepared in their defense impressive. Only a few such topics can be mentioned as examples of those causes for which the KFN have spoken: The Little Cataraqui Creek; Winter Olympics in a Canadian National Park; Management Plan for Algonquin Park; Lumbering in Quetico Park; Acquisition of Bell’s Island as a park; Wolf Bounty; Snowmobiles and All-terrain Vehicles; a Plan for Frontenac Park; Bath Road/Princess Mary Road Shopping Centre, etc.

Over the years the KFN have been particularly fortunate in the constant acquisition of new members who have contributed in an outstanding way to the club in both time and enthusiasm. Many things already mentioned have been due to this infusion of new blood and ideas.

Interest in botany took an upswing when the late Dr. Roland Beschel came to Queen’s. His many contributions to the club in this field are outstanding — the hours he gave to a botany study group that he conducted for two winters from 1962 to 1964 and his large share in the teaching load in the night school course. He made Otter Lake Sanctuary more valuable to the club by labeling plants and trees and being in the forefront of those blazing new trails. He searched out the botanically unique regions in this area and wrote at length in support of their preservation.

Many of the members also have been active in the field of conservation outside the club. It was one of our members, Jim McCowan, who was responsible for the formation of the Cataraqui Region Conservation Authority with the subsequent saving of Little Cataraqui Creek and Squaw Point as a conservation area. Fred Cooke was one of the prime movers in starting the Rideau Trail. Apart from a number of members who have served on the Board of Directions of the FON, Martin Edwards was President of that organisation for an unprecedented three terms.

Of recent events one of the most satisfactory has been Ron Weir’s contacts with Ontario Hydro and his success in persuading them to reduce the illumination of the 650 foot chimney at the Lennox Generation Station during autumn and spring migration. With this reduction of the floodlighting of the stack, the numbers of birds killed at the tower sharply declined. His intervention has also persuaded Ontario Hydro to modify the second stack so that it will be easier to regulate the lights.

Anne Rimmer, as club archivist, has put together a veritable mountain of material gleaned from club minutes. This materials is now in a readily available form and will be kept up-to-date. Much has had to be omitted in the foregoing account but for those who wish to know more of this active club, Anne’s painstaking work will serve as a source of information.

The club now has 256 members at the beginning of its 26th year — a measure of its vitality and of the growing interest in the natural world and its inhabitants by an ever-increasing number of people. The only list to appear in this history is a list of the presidents. On their shoulders rested all the large and small details of the operation as well as the policies to be pursued. We are fortunate that so many of them are still in Kingston and with us.

Past-Presidents of the KFN 1949-1973
1949-51 Dr. George M. Stirrett 1960-61 Mrs. Anne Hutchison
1951-52 Mr. A.E.S. Bell 1961-62 Mr. Lewis Lowther
1952-53 Mr. A.E. Hyde 1962-64 Mrs. Helen Quilliam
1953-54 Dr. K.F. Edwards 1964-66 Dr.J.Gilbert Hill; Dr. J.D.McCowan
1954-55 Dr. R.B. Stewart 1966-67 Dr. J.D.McCowan
1955-56 Mr. Alden M.Strong 1967-69 Dr. F. Cooke
1956-58 Dr. M.H.Edwards 1969-71 Dr.R.B.Stewart
1958-59 Mr. James A. Warren 1971-73 Lt.Col. P.T.Nation
1959-60 Mr. Walter Lamb 1973 – Dr.R. D. Weir