Photo: Elizabeth Pratt

Kathryn, Trish, Nellie Sue, Hermione, Robin on Spring Ephemeral walk. Photo: Elizabeth Pratt

The first event of the SONSI year in 2012 took place at, by now, the well known Hall Train Studios, and as usual the reason for the gathering was more than enough to prick a few ears.  This time members were invited to view two of Hall’s newest models just before they were sent off for permanent display The Museum of Natural History (the one in New York where the displays come to life after closing time, according to Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation).  If this were true then there would be an extra forty foot Golden Orb spider and eight and a half foot Trapdoor spider to deal with.  Thankfully, for all in attendance, the only live spiders at the studio were in jars and of a regular size.

The second June event followed suit with one of the world’s (genuinely) largest spiders, the Giant or Goliath Bird-eating spider.  This time the spider was being shown en plein-air to simultaneously amazed and trepidatious members by Tom Mason, the curator of birds and invertebrates at the Toronto Zoo, as part of a special behind the scenes tour.  The tour included two fuzzy baby African penguins, a West African scorpion, Whip scorpion, Eastern Fox snake, Babirusa and aside from the velvety spider, petting an awesome Indian rhinoceros and hornbill.

In July members congregated at the home of fellow member Fiona Reid for a night of mothing, it isn’t even a word, but it is the type of activity which creates the reaction of excitement in a very select group of people, including nature and science illustrators.  A delicious sounding concoction of various ingredients including banana and Reisling was smeared on nearby trees to attract moths buffet style after nightfall.  White sheets with lights shining through were set up in order to catch glimpses of the moths as they fluttered towards the light.  Members were able to identify some beautiful moth species, a few other anthropods and a porcupine.

In the last of the summer heat SONSI members followed Trish Murphy at the Dickson Wilderness Area on a hike to find wild fruits.  As with many things, the fruits were more numerous when they were being sought out, with over sixteen spotted during the hike, and, as is to be relied upon on any hike with SONSI, many other species and objects of interest were spotted, including a preying mantis.

After an ominous morning in October SONSI members met in the Arboretum of the Royal Botanical Gardens as the sky cleared and made way for clear sunshine and a fall hike.  Nature performed beautifully, providing arresting colours, heavenly scents and delightfully hungry wildlife, happy to be fed by obliging SONSI members.  Many different species were identified, and along with the burnt-sugar scented Katsura tree were a flock of bluebirds and innumerous Chickadees.

November saw SONSI returning to the Royal Ontario Museum with another member associated with the museum, Barry K. MacKay.  With Mark K. Peck, curator of birds and natural history, members were taken to the ornithology collection and shown an eclectic selection from some of the  thousands of “skins” and other specimens such as egg shells and nests.  The selection gave a wonderful example of how diverse this class of animals really is, with the tiniest hummingbird, no larger than a queen bee, avant-guard birds of paradise, and baby-sized elephant bird egg.  After the collection Barry treated engrossed members to a demonstration of his ornithological illustration skills with some excellent tips and invaluable advice.

During the holiday season all members receive a greetings card from SONSI with an illustration from a SONSI member, this time the illustration was a waggish santa-fish from Charles Weiss.  Inside was an invite to the now annual SONSI holiday party and pot-luck, and in 2012 it was held at member Fiona Reid’s home.  There was no banana-Reisling concoction but a splendid array of dishes from all members.  The pot-luck is a good time to catch up with fellow members, which can sometimes be difficult at other events, food and art are great vehicles for conversation.

2013 started with SONSI’s third exhibit.   As always, the art on display was an eclectic and scintillating sample of science and nature art with many different styles, mediums and subjects to muse over.  The exhibit coordinators excelled themselves with a quaint location, marketing and a busy opening reception.

In March a familiar face and familiar place came together in an epic exhibit, Battle of The Titans, created by Hall Train and shown at the RBG.  The exhibit, featuring a Tyrannosaurus Rex and Triceratops, presented interesting, accessible and relatable information about each of the Mesozoic creatures, resulting in a more sympathetic and realistic impression.  A guided tour by Hall started the day and helped a larger than usual group of SONSI members understand the theory, research and design of the exhibit.   The prehistoric part of the tour ended and took off with a tour of the RBG by Dr David Galbraith, Head of Science at the RBG, who started with a romp through the history of the RBG.  The tour followed on to the RBG’s herborium, library, archives, Mediterranean Garden and ended in the surreal Cactus Garden.

SONSI members met for a second time in March, but for the first time in London, at the Museum of Ontario Archeology.  The name may seem grand but this is quite far from the truth; the museum is in a very unassuming location, tucked away at the end of a residential street, the building is small and modestly signposted and the interior, humble.  But appearances are not everything, the museum is situated on an important archeological site, the Lawson sight to be exact, which is a 500-year-old Neutral Indian Village.  There are two reconstructed long houses, a reconstructed defensive maze wall, and several excavated features.  In the stubborn winter snow the features were covered and the long houses chilly, dripping with icicles and in need of a good fire, some homey hides and part of the former community of up to 1,500 people to bring it to life. Inside there appeared to be a quaint but small main display area, but on closer inspection there was much more to be seen, mostly hidden away in display drawers, with the unadorned, dated air of forget.  Really, the lack of modernization, added a great deal of charm and healthy measure of discovery to the museum, with its 1930’s diorama complete with red foil fire (and cobwebs), quirkily painted murals and Victoriana displays of arrowheads.   It is lovely to see something that has not lost it’s identity by desperately trying to fit in with modern tastes and expectations, but at the same time, the history and culture that the museum represents really deserves more interest and recognition.

The second part of SONSI’s day in London went from the past right up to the cutting edge of research, in ornithology to be exact, at the Advanced Facility for Avian Research at the University of Western Ontario.   Led by Scott MacDougall-Shackleton, who is from UWO’s Department of Psychology, the group was led on a tour of the facility.  According to their website AFAR is a world-class facility… for interdisciplinary studies of birds.  Understanding how birds adapt their reproductive and migratory strategies to environmental pressures requires detailed knowledge of how their neural and physiological systems respond to changes in the environment.  Researchers at AFAR come together from a variety of disciplines to explore how birds work, and how they respond to their environment.
The building is custom built for this purpose and amongst other impressive and unique pieces of equipment, houses the world’s first hypobaric climatic wind tunnel for bird flight that allows for research into the physiology and aerodynamics of bird flight in high altitude conditions.
The inhabitants of the facility seem to be very well catered for, with en-suite pools for water-fowl, polite door knocking practices to keep the birds informed, comfortable looking desks for the staff and researchers and an outdoor holding area, which receives wild visitors from the neighbouring woodland area.  All of the detailed and specific questions asked by SONSI members were answered with aplomb, of which there were quite a few as the crowd consisted of a few bird enthusiasts.

The day certainly consisted of many contrasts; past and present, culture and science, civilization and nature, but the one thing that did join them was knowledge and understanding, and of course interest.

Trout lilies white and yellow. Photo: Elizabeth Pratt

Trout lilies white and yellow. Photo: Elizabeth Pratt

The final event of the year was another hike led by Trish Murphy, this time the hunt was for Spring ephemerals in the Valley Park in Oakville.  The date was delayed due to a rather late Spring, but it proved wise as there was plenty to see on the day.  The first and perhaps the most talked about species were the white trout lilies (Erythronium albidum) which are uncommon in Ontario were their relative, the yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum) is quite abundant.  As always the group caught on quickly and were busy spotting various species, all verified by Trish.  Amongst the flowers spotted were a type of Spring Beauty (Claytonia), Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Virginia Bluebell (Mertensia virginica),  Wood Anemone, Early Meadow Rue (Thalictrum dioicum) and the very distinctive and cheekily named Duchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria).  Naturally, the curiosity did not begin and end with Spring ephemerals and many other interesting flora and fauna were seen, including a characterful toad, delicate fungus, and sedges.  (More photos from the Spring Ephemeral walk on the event page.)

– Elizabeth Pratt