Connecting people with nature in Ontario's Mississippi Valley

Mike McPhail Bird Viewing Shelter


This special project to create a new local birding facility was conceived, developed and built by the MVFN Birding Committee and many other construction-minded MVFN volunteers.  The viewing shelter is dedicated and named for the late Mike McPhail, a former President of MVFN and a tireless advocate for nature in our community.  The Mike McPhail Bird Viewing Shelter is located along the same path as the Al Potvin Observation Tower, which has been well used by birders from near and far for many years and overlooks the largest and westernmost of the decommissioned lagoons.


Bringing a big project from conception to completion involves a lot of planning and many steps.  Starting in the spring of 2017, the investigation of several designs and sizes and shapes of bird viewing shelters was undertaken, and a preliminary structural plan was designed by Michel Gauthier.  This was taken to Mississippi Mills municipal staff for review, and a request to build beside the lagoon on town property.  The project was approved unanimously by Council in the fall, and the necessary building permits were obtained.

A call was sent out to MVFN members for help with construction, and the response was amazing – 22 people signed up!  The first step was to level the ground, and spread gravel, which was done by Howard Robinson and his trusty tractor.  Because of the early onset of winter in mid-November, the cement support posts had to be formed and dried in Al Potvin’s heated garage.  Over the long winter months, volunteers calculated materials needed and arranged to purchase them from Home Hardware in Almonte.

Then the long wait for spring to arrive began, and the crew waited, and waited, then waited some more. Finally, we emerged from early spring to high summer weather, the ground was dry and firm, materials were ordered, and the eager volunteers finally began construction. There were many talented volunteer carpenters and apprentices, which kept the cost down significantly.  However, the “commanders-in-chief” had a knack for organizing work crews on the very hottest days of June!  In spite of the heat, however, the construction moved along quickly, and by early July, the shelter was complete.

And what a beautiful and sturdy shelter it is, with a perfect panoramic view of the lagoon and marsh areas.  Constructed of beautiful pine with a green metal roof, it can be seen off in the distance from Wolf Grove Road.



The MVFN Board of Directors and members are delighted with the results of the tireless efforts of the co-managers and construction crews.  We are proud to offer the public birding community a unique place to visit, spring, summer and fall.  MVFN is also very grateful to the Municipality of Mississippi Mills for allowing the shelter to be built, for the help and support they offered throughout, and to Home Hardware for their expert advice.

Besides migrating waterfowl and shore birds at the lagoon, there are woodland birds along the path, and field birds which can be seen out from each side of the path.  To access the path, turn right off Wolf Grove Road to Concession #8.  The path is located a few hundred meters up Concession #8, across the road from the far end of the Auld Kirk Cemetery.  Parking is permitted on both shoulders of the road, except in front of the gate.  The rather hard-to-see entrance to the pathway is marked with a small yellow sign on the right.  Please respect the “Rules of Etiquette” on the path and in the shelter.

E-bird checklist for this location

Continue reading...

Wild Fluctuations of Bird Numbers at the Almonte Lagoon – Fact or Fake News?

This year again, the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists, held four bird-watching events at the Almonte Lagoon. The Fall Open Houses, as we call them, took place on consecutive Wednesdays in September at the brand-new Mike McPhail Bird Viewing Shelter. The total number of visitors during the four events topped one hundred.

Enthusiastic birders at the Mike McPhail Bird Viewing Shelter

Before the first event on Sept 5th, we celebrated the official opening of the shelter. After speeches and ribbon cutting, visitors filed into the structure where our volunteers showed many species of birds to anyone interested in looking through one of the available scopes. And so it went for the first two events: people in the shelter, ducks and geese on the water, birds in the sky, and hot weather for all.

To some of the observers, the hot weather of the first two weeks seemed to hinder bird movements. Ducks in particular, did not fly to and fro as much as expected, and numbers appeared to be down.

The third week saw cooler temperatures and the arrival of a large flock of Canada Geese. Now the lagoon was covered with geese and ducks. Thoughts of fewer birds dissipated in the breeze.

During one of the later events, a few conversations turned to climate change and how it could possibly cause wild fluctuations in bird numbers. Were those conversations based on facts or on subjective observations? In the past, we had to rely on personal experience to form a judgment on this, but not anymore.

For the last three years, volunteers from our birding committee have recorded our events’ data into eBird, an online citizen science tool launched in 2002 by Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University. eBird keeps our data in a central database, available to us at the click of a mouse. Now, we can find out what is really going on with our bird numbers.

Take a look at the following charts. The average number of birds spotted at the Almonte Lagoon during our fall events decreased in 2017 only to bounce back higher this year. On the other hand, the number of species increased in 2017, but decreased this year. So, we end up with a quandary: more birds counted in the years when fewer species are present.

Do those charts show that our bird numbers fluctuate because of climate change? We do not have enough local data to properly answer that question. Some of us wish we did, but we don’t – not yet anyway. Many factors may have skewed this year’s high bird count. For instance, had the large flock of Canada Geese arrived one week later, our average count would be lower. Also, the experience and accuracy of our birdwatchers may have changed over the three-year period. More importantly, the time frame and the sample size of our data are too small.

But what about the hot weather of this year’s first two weeks? Well, some people would say it was just a normal fluctuation. Hum… So many factors to consider…

In any case, our data gathering is a good start. Our checklists now form part of eBird’s database, a database that includes more than twenty million checklists – a huge sample size. It includes historical sightings going back to the days of the passenger pigeon.

Scientists across the globe use this windfall of data to study anything and everything that has to do with birds, including the effects of climate change on bird populations.

Their findings? Yes, climate change has an enormous effect on bird populations. Some species fare better, others worse. Migration patterns change. Ranges expand or contract depending on how well species adapt to change, and according to Nature Canada (How is climate change affecting birds?), extinction risks are on the rise.

But hey, we should remain neutral and not speak about climate change. After all, it’s fake news, right?

Enough said for now. We will revisit the issue next April, after the Spring Morning Walks, yet another yearly MVFN series of bird-watching events.

Until then, hold on to your binoculars.

Photo, charts and report by Michel Gauthier, MVFN

Click here for bird species and numbers at 2016, 2017, 2018 Almonte Fall Open Houses – an xlsx document

Link to current e-bird data for this location at

Continue reading...

2011 Champion for Nature Mike McPhail

Mike McPhail is a quintessential organizer, natural public speaker and leader, and a man with a great passion and curiosity for our natural world. Born and raised in Almonte, a geologist by training, Mike served as both Chair of Environmental Issues and Vice President on MVFN’s board. For three years he led the club as President.

Mike McPhail

There are very many MVFN’s projects which, without a doubt, would not have taken place without Mike McPhail. Mike researched and organized the huge logistical and multi-team effort involved in MVFN’s first bioblitz held in September 2009 on the Bell property in Mississippi Mills. A great success, this bioblitz quickly become a model for other clubs. At Mark’s Lookout on Spring St. in Almonte, Mike organized a shoreline cleanup day and planting of native shoreline shrubs and plants. Mike had significant input into MVFN’s part in MVC’s Kintail Country Christmas and was the inspiration behind the Champion for Nature awards. He has donated time, enthusiasm and expertise (and sometimes his dissecting scope) for MVFN information booths at the Art of Being Green and many other events.

In 2007 Mike played a major role in the planning and running, the Weathering the Change Climate Change workshop held in Almonte, and acted as M/C throughout this 2-day long workshop. Another projects which is close to Mike’s heart and would not have happened without him is MVFN’s Habitat Creation program which has resulted in hundreds of blue-bird houses for our feathered friends as well as duck nesting platforms and other habitat projects still in the works.


Continue reading...

2011: Interesting Wild Mississippi Places and Faces, and their Champions

by Pauline Donaldson

Press story pdf with photos

The Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) held their Spring Gathering 2011 and AGM May 19th at the Almonte Civitan Community Hall. The evening was a celebration of wild nature and a tribute to those who help champion it including keynote speaker Paul Keddy, and Mike McPhail (MVFN Champion for Nature for 2011). The over one hundred members of MVFN and the public in attendance were treated to a delicious banquet served by Civitan volunteers.

MVFN President Joyce Clinton presided over a short business meeting during which MVFN’s officers for the 2011-2012 year were elected. Returning to MVFN’s board of directors are Joyce Clinton, President; Janet McGinnis, Vice President; Mike McPhail, Past President; Janet Fytche, Secretary; Cathy Keddy, Program Chair; Brenda Boyd, Chair of Environmental Education; Bill Slade, Chair Environmental Issues; and Janet Snyder, Social Committee. Newly elected to the board of directors are Elisabeth DeSnaijer, MVFN Treasurer; Ken Allison, MVFN Chair Publicity; and Bob McCook, MVFN Director at Large.

Clinton reported on the year’s highlights, including a recent significant change to MVFN’s status. “I am pleased to announce that through the efforts of the board of directors and in particular Cathy Keddy and Howard Robinson, the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists is now officially a charitable organization. To help the board gain a clearer focus for the future, we held a visioning meeting in August last year. Our financial pulse is strong and healthy. Our treasurer Howard Robinson will be stepping down this year. I want to thank Howard for all his hard work over the last 3 years. Referring to other highlights with implications for children and youth Clinton stated, “The Environmental Education committee (Chaired by Brenda Boyd) has also begun the process of developing a plan for an MVFN Young Naturalists Program. The project is still in the pilot project stage, but it is a very exciting step for our group.”

Christine and Peggy










A special part of the evening was presentation of the 2011 MVFN Champion for Nature Award, given to individuals or groups who make outstanding contributions to the natural world in the Mississippi Valley. “This year we are awarding the MVFN Champion for Nature Award to Mike McPhail” said Clinton. “Mike was born and raised in Almonte . . . a geologist by training and has many passions in the field of nature. As MVFN’s vice president for three years, then president for three, Mike continues to serve on MVFN’s board.” Without a doubt, many MVFN projects would not have taken place without the driving force of Mike McPhail, a quintessential organizer, natural public speaker and leader, and a man with a passion and curiosity for our natural world. To mention a few such projects: Mike researched and organized MVFN’s first bioblitz which was held on the Bell property in Mississippi Mills in September 2009. This bioblitz quickly become a model for other clubs. Another project close to Mike’s heart is MVFN’s Habitat Creation which has resulted in hundreds and hundreds of blue-bird houses for our feathered friends as well as duck nesting platforms and other habitat projects still in the works.

Mike was unable to attend the evening due to illness, however the award was accepted on Mike’s behalf by his wife Peggy McPhail and daughter Christine (photo above).

Following the banquet and business meeting, the audience settled in for local ecologist Dr. Paul Keddy’s presentation “Natural Faces of Wild Mississippi Places.” “These [wild] species don’t come to meetings and don’t vote, so it is easy for them to be overlooked. One of my tasks at this spring celebration is to talk on their behalf.” Keddy’s virtual tour gave the audience an opportunity to reconsider a few of Lanark County’s special natural places, or to learn about them for the first time. In Lanark County we live in the great northern deciduous forest region which also includes some relatively rare (globally) areas of deciduous forest over marble. In the county, as farm land returns to forest, we are seeing good signs, such as the return of fishers, natural predators of porcupines. We share the northern deciduous forest with Ontario’s only lizard species (the five-lined skink), but few of us realize just how many salamanders we share it with. ‘Salamander Central’, the forest is teeming with these seldom seem amphibians. In addition to the return of favorite birds, spring in the deciduous forest means that spring ephemerals are about. These include often fragile and beautiful perennial woodland plants, such as wild columbine. These plants must quickly sprout from the forest floor, grow and flower while the sun can still reach them through the leafless trees. Attached to the seeds of ephemeral species such as Trillium, Hepatica, and Dutchman’s breeches is a little oil-rich snack for ants. Attracted to this food, the ants spread the seeds, but colonization of new areas occurs only very slowly. When plants are lost from an area, re-colonization is very slow and not guaranteed, since, as Keddy pointed out, ants do not travel far and are not good at crossing highways. As soon as the leaves bud out on the trees the tree frogs arrive and summer begins again in the forest.

A second special place featured was the Innisville Wetland Complex, an area officially designated as an ANSI (Area of Natural or Scientific Interest) by the provincial government. It is a huge, significant wetland area and yet it is relatively unknown and unseen by visitors and locals alike. Why aren’t there interpretive signs and perhaps an access point to the Innisville Wetland Complex, and a boardwalk to allow people to safely enter and experience this important natural area?

A third local area discussed was the ‘Lanark Highlands Glacial Spillway Forest’, an area so named by Paul Keddy. This glacial spillway, near White Lake, is a remarkable area which was carved in the past by tremendous volumes of glacial meltwater which flowed past carrying and depositing loads of sand and gravel. Surprisingly, one corner of the spillway ‘valley’ actually overlaps part of Blueberry Mountain, but this is possible. As is often the case for unique areas such as this, a variety of interesting things are aggregated there. For example a rare southern tree species, the shagbark hickory has been found there, and in shady areas, walking fern (found in forests over marble) which spreads by producing new plants where the leaf tips touch the ground.

Keddy’s lecture was an excellent conclusion to MVFN’s 2010-2011 lecture series Biodiversity and Vital Connections for Fauna, Flora and People. People connected with the presentation, the local natural areas featured and were educated and inspired. MVFN’s lecture program is on break now until September but the canoe and summer outing season is just getting started. The next MVFN summer walk takes place June 19th at the Purdon Fen and the next canoe outing is scheduled for July 10th. Please watch the MVFN member email network or consult for further details on these outings.


Continue reading...

Canada’s Next David Suzuki in Local School?

Press Release
Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists
Submitted by Mike McPhail
February 20, 2005

Canada’s Next David Suzuki in Local School?

Andrea Howard with TarantulaAttendees at Mississippi Valley Field Naturalist’s 5th lecture on Biodiversity on Feb. 17, were awed by the shear magnitude and quality of educational material’s and teaching techniques that Andrea Howard, from the Eastern Ontario Biodiversity Museum in Kemptville and speaker for the evening, incorporates into the ” Museum in a Suitcase Program”. This exciting interactive, and hands on program brings environmental education into the classrooms of our local schools.

Introduced by MVFN host Janine deSalaberry, Andrea Howard explained many people believe that our relationship with nature is forged in childhood. This was certainly the case with David Suzuki, who developed a real love of nature through father-son camping and fishing trips. Programmes such as Andrea Howard’s bring that outdoor environmental experience right into the children’s world of the classroom.

Could one of our own local children become a leading environmentalist & educator like Canadian David Suzuki? That is certainly a dream and aspiration shared by both Andrea Howard and the MVFN who, through it’s granting programme, help to fund local environmental education initiatives like the “Museum in a Suitcase Program”.

Ms. Howard showed how the programme starts by presenting our children with the known natural world knowledge building blocks and then encouraging them to question the infinity of existing scientific knowledge. Equally important she pointed out is to convey to them that they can play an important role in the world and that each generation has a responsibility to aspire to do a better job than the previous one in our important role of stewards of the land.

Children have much to teach us about maintaining a sense of wonder and respect for the natural world, said Howard. “Listening to them may help us regain the perspective we often lose in the bustle and din of our artificial urban environment. Take the time to incorporate outdoor family recreation into your busy schedules because time spent in the outdoors forges lifelong relationships with nature.”

At the end of her talk, Andrea was joined by MVFN member Franziska von Rosen of Pinegrove productions and presented MVFN with a peak of selected footage of “Our Incredible World”; a dramatic and multimedia resource series on biodiversity based on the pan-Canadian Life Sciences curriculum.

Mark your calendars for MVFN’s 6th Biodiversity lecture entitled “Lichens: an overlooked and threatened aspect of biodiversity,” by Dr I. Brodo of the Canadian Museum of Nature, to be held on Thursday March 17th at the Almonte United Church, 106 Elgin St. at 7:30 pm. If you are not yet a member of the MVFN, this may be a good time to join. For further information, please contact MVFN Programme Chair Tine Kuiper, 256-8241 or consult our web site:

Continue reading...