Not all special places are far away. The final entry in my Earth Day weekend list of special collecting spots is only a few minutes from my office at the west end of Montreal Island.
Stoneycroft Wildlife Area, Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Quebec. Stoneycroft is an old farm that was given to McGill University many years ago and it seems McGill wasn’t entirely sure what to do with it. It’s sandwiched between the popular Morgan Arboretum and the popular Ecomuseum, but doesn’t get nearly the attention of either one. Maybe that’s a good thing. I discovered Stoneycroft in 1995, during my first summer as a professor at McGill. A big old-field habitat, with scattered ancient apple trees and newer conifers on the high, dry ground, and patches of forest in the low, moist places. A small pond near one end, that dries out completely in drought years, but has turtles in wet years. A chain of temporary pools at the far end that produce clouds of mosquitoes in summer. Patches of goldenrod and raspberries and wild grape. And cattails and irises by the water.
My first cohort of undergraduate project students learned about entomology and insect collecting back there during the summer of 1995, and many new students since then have spent time at Stoneycroft learning how to set up a Malaise trap, how to aspirate clouds of flies out of a net, how to plan sampling design, how to identify plants, how to look at nature and really see what’s happening, and how to think like a scientist.
It’s often the first field trip of the spring for us. Somebody from the lab usually heads back there as soon as the snow melts off the campus and the first wolf spiders start running across last year’s dead, matted grass.
We’ve collected insects from bird nest boxes, reared larvae from damaged plants, swept countless flies from the tall grass and goldenrod, and dipped a surprising diversity of water beetles out of the otherwise unimpressive-looking pond (my friend Rob Roughley, a water beetle specialist, once postponed a meeting in Ottawa to grab an extra few hours to splash around Stoneycroft Pond one humid summer day looking for beetles and bugs).
We’ve described new species of flies from Stoneycroft, literally in our own backyard, and we’ve published journal papers based on insect material from back there.
When I was an undergraduate student in 1983 I started my senior Honour’s Project with Dr. Bill Threlfall, the most demanding, cantankerous, inspirational and caring professor I’ve ever had. On my first afternoon in the lab we packed up mist nets, aluminum poles, rope, stakes, bird bags, notebooks, and bottles (I was going to work on external parasites of songbirds, so obviously I needed to catch birds before I could catch their bugs). I carried the big bag. He invited me to his house for supper with his family and then I picked up the big bag again, he packed up a smaller bag and we climbed the forested hill behind his house. We sat on a rock overlooking the city and he opened the smaller bag, which contained nothing but beer. We sat there until dark – drinking beer, looking at birds and plants and rocks, and talking about what it was to be a scientist, to be a naturalist. We never did open the big bag of equipment, but we did finish the beer. I learned a lot about science and nature and fieldwork in those few hours.
When I go back to Stoneycroft, alone or with students, to wander in the grass and watch insects and spiders and plants and birds and toads live their lives, it reminds me of that evening on the hill behind Bill Threlfall’s house. It reminds me why I became a biologist.