History

NATURAL HISTORY SOCIETY OF PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND

1969-1989

by Margaret E. Mallett

As published in Island Naturalist – No. 107 Nov/Dec. 1989

THE BEGINNING

A nature walk on a trail in the Dalvay – Stanhope area of the Prince Edward Island National Park in the autumn of 1969 brought together several persons who unwittingly were about to create a bit of history.

It happened thus: Park naturalist Bob Gray was leading the walk. Ruth I. Ross of Charlottetown and friends (former Islanders) Marion and Verna Newson of Vancover were among those present. In her delight when Bob Gray pointed out a Cedar Waxwing Verna Newson exclaimed, “Ruth, you should start a Natural History Society on the Island”!

This was the spark that would touch off the Natural History Society of Prince Edward Island. Bob Gray was enthusiastically supportive of the idea. Ruth promptly sought guidance from Professor Thomas M. Lothian, an instructor at the former Prince of Wales College and a director of the Canadian Audubon Society. Mr. Lothian assured her that the way was all clear and gave her his blessing. Ruth arranged for a meeting room at the Y.M.C.A. and put a notice in the newspaper inviting “persons interested in Nature and the out-of-doors to meet in Room “B” at the Y.M.C.A., Prince Street, Charlottetown at 8 p.m. October 23, 1969 for the purpose of reactivating a Natural History Society.”

Right from the start the Society appeared to be a project whose time had come. A report of the organization meeting appeared in the Charlottetown Guardian of October 27, 1969 and is quoted here verbatim.

NATURAL HISTORY SOCIETY REACTIVATED

More than 25 nature-oriented persons met at the Y.M.C.A., Charlottetown, on Thursday evening October 23, 1969 for-the-purpose of reactivating the Natural History Society. Miss Ruth Ross chaired the meeting.

Highlighting the meeting was a set of color slides photographed and narrated by Bob Gray, naturalist at Prince Edward Island National Park. The series was photographed on Blooming Point sand bar and was entitled “Here Only the Sea Shall Speak”. Mr. Gray also spoke about other Natural History Societies and their interests such as birds, flowers, trees, fungi, minerals, etc.

Stanley Vass, director of the Fish & Wildlife Division of P.E.I. Department of Fisheries, spoke stressing the urgency of preserving large areas to provide a suitable environment for the various species of wildlife.

Mr. Vass noted that a great part of the attraction the Island holds for visitors is its relatively unspoiled naturalness. Many forces are working toward the destruction of the quality of this natural environment. This includes the great number of summer visitors themselves, and the services and accommodation that are being provided. Urban sprawl, the encroachment of summer homes, the acquisition of marshland and wilderness by private interests, agricultural practices, road building, construction, etc., these are taking their toll and are making the Island a less suitable home for wildlife–hence the need for reserved areas.

The next meeting was called for Thursday, November 13. Until then Bob Gray was appointed interim President, and Margaret Mallett interim Secretary – Treasurer.

Eighteen persons paid membership fees of $1.00 each. The members also agreed to have a nature walk at Cavendish on Saturday morning, Nov. 1.

Of the 18 charter members of the Natural History Society of P.E.I. we have the names of only 14:

  • Ruth I. Ross,
  • Robert Gray,
  • Margaret E. Mallett,
  • M. Vera Beck,
  • Randy L. Dibblee,
  • Nelson G. Hurry,
  • Andre Lavoie,
  • Thomas M. Lothian,
  • Eleanor M. Lowe,
  • Wendall MacKay,
  • Bruce C. Pigot,
  • William A. Reddin,
  • Rev. James Stahr, and
  • Stanley Vass.

(It would be appreciated if the names of the other four presumed charter members could be supplied to complete this list.)

The present Natural History Society is actually the third to exist in this province. The first, The Prince Edward Island Natural History Society, was formed a century ago on March 26, 1889, in the time of P.E.I. naturalist Francis Bain. The second, the Prince of Wales Natural History Society, was formed in the late winter of 1966, before the merging of Prince of Wales College with Saint Dunstan’s University to become the University of Prince Edward Island in April 1969.

MONTHLY MEETINGS, EXCEPT IN SUMMER

The first regular meeting of the present society was held Thursday, November 13, 1969 in Room “C” at the Y.M.C.A., Charlottetown. In the absence of Bob Gray, Ruth I. Ross conducted the meeting. Five new members joined the group. It was decided to hold our meetings on the the first Thursday of each month, except on a holiday, in which case, on the second Thursday. The Society agreed to continue to meet at the Y.M.C.A. paying $3.00 rent per meeting for the room. The first executive was elected:

  • President, Andre Lavoie;
  • Vice President, Eleanor M. Lowe;
  • Secretary – Treasurer, Margaret E. Mallett;
  • Program Convener, Nelson G. Hurry; and
  • Lunch Committee Convener, Ruth I. Ross.

Randy Dibblee entertained the group with a slide talk on denizens of fresh water marshes and ponds as well as on many of the plants that grow there. We were beginning the experience of learning about nature which would continue to this our 20th year, and, we hope, far into the future.

The first three regular meetings were held in room “C” at the Y.M.C.A.. The next four in Room 214 of the Downtown Campus, so called because the University of P.E.I. was using some space at the former Prince of Wales College. The next five meetings were held in Room 306 or 320 (the former Prince of Wales College), then four from pillar to post between the MacKinnon Lecture Theatre and Room 619 Holland College.

The December meeting of 1972 found us back at the Y.M.C.A. It was at this meeting that Wendall MacKay and Thomas M. Lothian began to draw up a constitution for the new society using as a guide the constitution of the Prince of Wales Natural History Society. It took several meetings before the constitution was completed. The Society is grateful to Mr. MacKay and Mr. Lothian for their interest, expertise, time and effort they put into the making of this document. It has guided us through the years with only an occasional amendment or addition as the need arose.

It was at the same meeting in December 1972 that the members heard with pleasure Wendall MacKay’s offer to try to secure a meeting room in the Provincial Administration Building on Rochford Street. He was successful. January 17, 1973 found the Society meeting in Conference Room 47 on the third floor of the Health Building where we would meet for the next 12 years until May 7, 1985 when alterations to the Health Building made it necessary to find a new meeting room. In 1974 we found that our meeting NIGHTS were as mixed up as meeting PLACES had been earlier. To try to settle the problem each member was given a blank calendar form on which to indicate which nights of the month were regularly unsuitable. By this method the first and fourth Tuesdays were found to be equally uncluttered. It was put to a vote and the first Tuesday of the month was chosen.

For the meeting of October 1, 1985 the Society “went underground” to meeting room No. 2 which is under the Jones Building. Our stay here was brief, only to the end of 1986. Here the Society’s participation in the 5-year Breeding Bird Atlas project got under way with Rosemary Curley as the Island Co-ordinator. The Maritimes Co-ordinator, Judith Kennedy of Halifax, was the speaker at the April meeting and gave us a pep talk and some helpful hints on bird atlassing.

On January 6, 1987 we began holding our meetings at the Farm Centre on University Avenue. We continue to meet there.

BIRDING EVENTS

In the early years of the Society we relied rather heavily on the P.E.I. National Park naturalists, particularly for guiding the nature walks which were a very important feature of our program. Bob Gray introduced the Maritime Nest Records Scheme of having people fill out a card with data on each nest observed with the cards to be returned to the Canadian Wildlife Service in Sackville, N.B. by October 1st each year.

Richard (Rick) Howie became park naturalist in 1971. Rick re-instituted the Christmas Bird Count on the Island. He selected two areas for counts, divided them into sections, and was the compiler for both counts. Twenty persons went on one and/or the other of the counts. Rick left at the end of 1972 to go to Kejimkujik National Park and Joan Saunders became Park Naturalist. She guided us on some walks in the P.E.I. National Park, joined our Society, and compiled the second Christmas Bird Count. Since then, John Wright, David Cairns, Winifred Wake, Geoff Hogan, Rosemary Curley, and Dan McAskill coordinated the counts. For many years there was keen competition for the “Cookie Ladies”‘ zone where the lucky counters were treated to the finest Christmas baking. In 1983, Winifred Cairns started the Montague “fun count” for birders in eastern Prince Edward Island. When she left for Ontario, Rosemary Curley and later Gary Schneider took over the organization of this count. Over the years various individuals hosted the social potlucks at which counters gloated over their rarities or defended their sightings. The Hillsborough Count was featured as the kickoff event for Wildlife ’87, the centennial of wildlife conservation in Canada.

Some years, in the autumn, a small group of Island birders left their cars at Wood Islands and took a ferry trip across the Northumberland Strait to see what landlubbers usually miss. The last time, they counted 18 species of birds and some seals. They took their lunches and had a picnic on board. What a great idea!

BONSHAW HILLS TRAIL

October 27, 1973 saw the opening of the Bonshaw Hills Trail. Eight persons from our Natural History Society met at the Crapaud Curling Club with about 50 other persons. The ladies of the Englewood Water Safety committee served coffee and doughnuts on arrival. A series of Bonshaw Hills Trail slides were shown by Dave Morgan, Chairman of Renewable Resources, Holland College. The slides certainly were timely and greatly enjoyed by all. Dr. Walter R. Shaw was in his element as he happily endorsed the making of the Bonshaw Hills Trail and reminisced about wildlife encounters in his own woods in St. Catherine’s where the Bonshaw Hills Trail begins. We went to Appin Road where Dr. Shaw cut the ribbon to open the trail. About 20 persons set out to walk the trail to Green’s Brook and back. Light rain was falling but it stopped after a while.

MEMORABLE OUTINGS

Four other walks stand out in our memories from among many other nature outings that we had. On Valentine’s day 1970 there was bare ground, the temperature was zero F.(-18 degrees C.), and Bob Gray led a walk in Sir. Andrew MacPhail Provincial Park at Orwell. At lunchtime we made a fire in a fireplace. Ruth Ross hung some Valentine hearts on a tree and she even cooked some sausages. We ate our lunch while standing around the fire. At the next meeting, on March 5, 1970, there was no trouble to get a decision that, for going on a field trip, the bottom line temperature should not be lower than 15 degrees F.(-9.4 degrees C.).

On Sept. 30, 1972, on a cloudy, warm day on the north end of Appin Road Mr. and Mrs. T. M. Lothian joined us for a ramble through field and forest to a lane that led back to Appin Road at a point about a quarter mile from our cars. The Lothians graciously invited us to their sylvan hideaway “Appinwood” to have our lunch by their outdoor fireplace. There was a charming little spring brook running past that supplied running water in the house.

Another outing is memorable because of the wonderfully sunny day 20 degrees F. (about -6 degrees C.). Leaving our cars on the East Suffolk Road, a group of eight snowshoed or just walked (either was fine) along the old East Suffolk road to the woods at the north end, then along a trail which brought us to a sunny clearing at lunchtime. We each laid mitts on a snowshoe for a comfortable seat and basked in the sunshine as we ate lunch. There were remarks such as “Who would want to go to Florida”?

The Old Princetown Road tour was long thought about. The Heritage Foundation and the Natural History Society had tried to arrange this “walk and ride” trip for the 1971 bicentennial of the laying out of this historic road. For various reasons it did not get off the ground. We finally accomplished it at bicentennial plus ten years on Saturday, October 3, 1981. We were glad to have several persons from the Hazelgrove area join the group making 22 persons for part of the day. All but one, a driver, walked the first mile to the first intersection. All but four walked the next 1 1/2 half miles to the Millvale Road. They experienced firsthand the difficulty presented long ago on this direct route over the steepest hills in the province. Five or six die-hards even refused a ride to South Granville church. For them it was on foot all the way from Hazelgrove to South Granville then along the nature trail to the Devil’s Punch Bowl Park – six or seven miles in all. Noontime lunch at the park was very welcome. Some of the cars left at Hazelgrove had been collected by shuttle service. After lunch, the group broke up: three cars with about nine people drove to the site of the once proposed county seat, Princetown. This is a windswept, treeless area sloping gently to Malpeque Bay.

NEWSLETTER PUBLISHED

It was a red-letter day for the Society when our first newsletter was published in April, 1974. Credit for the idea goes to Kathy Martin. Kathy edited the first 40 issues. Then she just kept on going and wrote a book – “Watershed Red – The Life of the Dunk River”, Prince Edward Island, published 1981.

At Kathy’s resignation Winifred Cairns took up the torch and carried it for the next 38 issues until August 1984 when she was about to be married to David Wake and depart for Ontario.

Once more there was someone prepared to step into the breach, Gary Schneider. When number 79 came out it had a new name, “Island Naturalist”. When Gary left on a cycling trip, Sue Stephenson and Jane Symmes took over the newsletter. Gary resumed the task upon his return and continued until the 20th anniversary (number 106). A pile of single copies from 1 to 106 measures 3 inches in thickness (7.5 centimetres). That represents a stupendous amount of work and time spent by the editors and anyone who has written articles. Without a doubt, the newsletter has helped to increase the membership. Many members have written notes of appreciation. Some persons are members just for the newsletter and have never attended a meeting. Some even live out of the province. Thank you Kathy, Winifred, Sue, Jane, and Gary for our newsletter. Thank you, writers of articles, your readers and the editor appreciate the help.

PUBLICATIONS AND OTHER EVENTS

1974 produced other good things. Director Wendall MacKay introduced the nature slide competition for members of this Society. It is held at the May meeting every year. A photographer is invited to judge the slides (about 100 in all), to select three prize winners and some honorable mentions and, at the meeting, to give a commentary on the slides. Mr. MacKay also suggested that the Society have a logo. There was a contest for a design and Claire Martin’s entry was selected. This logo was made into a crest and sold to the members. A copy was presented to the South Moresby Caravan leaders to put on the Island blanket sent with them for presentation to the Haida elders.

In 1975 the Natural History Society published “Winds of Sea and Wood”, a 38 page book of nature articles selected from our newsletter or written especially for the book. It was generously illustrated with appropriate drawings from many artists.

About 1976, our Society purchased the unsold copies of “Our Adventures at Warren Grove”, a 62 page book written and illustrated by Mrs. Eileen Stewart’s 1975 Grade Five Class of West Kent Street School, Charlottetown.

After our publishing expenses were paid off, any money from book sales was deposited in a separate book account, at higher interest, to accumulate for future publications.

It was very pleasing to pay cash on the barrelhead when our second book, the colouring book “Island Wings” appeared in 1988. It contains 12 of Connie Gaudet’s drawings of Island birds in suitable habitat – one bird representative for each month. A commentary on each bird was provided by Geoff Hogan. The book is meant to be educational as well as fun for the children who will be colouring the pictures. The colouring book also contains a table of Spring migration on P.E.I. “Island Wings” is available at Island bookstores including Geoff’s “Bird’s Eye Nature Store” on Queen Street and at the P.E.I. Museum and Heritage Foundation at 2 Kent Street. Layout, design, notes and additional drawings were donated by “Island Naturalist” editor, Gary Schneider. Ruth Richman coordinated the sales.

PROVINCIAL EMBLEMS

At the meeting of April 1, 1975 the subject of a provincial bird was discussed and initial steps were taken towards selecting an avian emblem. At this point, Director Wendell MacKay related the facts about how tile Pink Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium acaule) finally emerged as the floral emblem of our province. Some years earlier, someone had recommended the Showy Lady’s Slipper (C. hirsutum) which was renamed C. reginae about 1949. The Showy Lady’s Slipper was proclaimed in the Legislature as the floral emblem on P.E.I. When it became apparent that the Pink Lady’s Slipper or Moccasin Flower was far more abundant and therefore a better choice, an amendment was made in 1965 and the Pink Lady’s Slipper was proclaimed to be the floral emblem of Prince Edward Island.

In 1976 the Natural History Society sponsored a public vote to select a Provincial bird. The Blue Jay was the winner and was proclaimed the avian emblem for the Province at the Spring session of the Legislature in 1977. In 1987 the Natural History Society worked with the P.E.I. Subsection of the Canadian Institute of Forestry to host and judge a provincial tree contest. The Red Oak was proclaimed the Island’s Provincial tree after a vote on eight species of trees that had been nominated by various groups.

CANADIAN NATURE FEDERATION CONFERENCES

H. Winston Johnston was elected President in 1978. With his experience from various conferences, Winston guided us through the preparation for the annual Conference of the Canadian Nature Federation which began on August 17, 1978 at U.P.E.I. in collaboration with the New Brunswick Federation of Naturalists. The banquet was a lobster supper at New Glasgow on Saturday evening, August 19. Visitors expressed pleasure in visiting Prince Edward Island. The Canadian Nature Federation considered the conference an excellent one

In celebration of our 20th anniversary the Canadian Nature Federation again visited the Island for its annual conference in June of 1989. This time it was co-hosted by the Society and the Island Nature Trust. Piping Plovers, cormorants, Scenic Heritage Roads, seals, and wildflower tours were on the venue. Of course, there was another lobster feast!

AFFILIATIONS

It may surprise some of our members when they read that our Society affiliated with the Canadian Audubon Society which, shortly thereafter, changed its name to the Canadian Nature Federation.

A close association exists between our Society and the Island Nature Trust. A fairly large number of people are members of both groups and some of the Natural History Society members were active in helping the Island Nature Trust get organized in 1979. Using profits generated at the CNF conference, the Society made the first large donation received by the Trust for its inaugural property purchase, the Beauregarde Property located in Blooming Point on Deroche Pond. The two groups have been mutually defensive against over-development in natural areas and protective when protection was needed. The Society has the pleasure of appointing one member to the General Council of the Trust.

In 1981, the Society affiliated with the Canadian Coalition on Acid Rain.

PIPING PLOVER

A fine example of affiliations in action is the plight of the endangered Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) which would have been even more precarious had NHS fellow member Winifred Cairns not chosen the Piping Plover for research and made it the subject of her thesis for her master’s degree. Subsequent extended observations on our Island beaches provided her with more photographs and data to begin to get the message out that a little shore bird in Atlantic Canada was barely holding its own against all manner of beach users in addition to destruction of nests by storms, predators, and even vehicles.

The logical place to seek cooperation was our National Park which has the Island’s largest Piping Plover population and by and far the largest congregation of human beings on Island beaches, But plovers and people do not mix well. A fence to close off a sandspit in the nesting season met with strong disapproval from tourist operators. Intervention by the Society and its affiliate, the CNF, led to a national news story highlighting the issue. The Piping Plover story was told from coast to coast by television and people were interested.

Winifred, backed by by Rosemary Curley and others, used the publicity as leverage to persuade objectors that it would be to their advantage to have the plovers protected from intrusion in the nesting season except for walks guided by Park’s personnel. When Winifred left the province, her work was continued by student survey crews supervised by Joyce MacLeod, Rosemary Curley, and Dan McAskill. In 1987 the Natural History Society assisted in planning and hosting the Tourism and Nature workshop which emphasized the value of wildlife, particularly birding, to tourism. In 1988 the Society used funds from the Island Conservation Assistance Program to join with the Atlantic Center for the Environment to co-produce a poster on the Piping Plover. Also in 1988, Winifred and Dan co-produced a video production on the Piping Plover for distribution by the Society and the CNF.

Thanks, Winifred Cairns Wake, you really are for the Birds!

BIRDATHON AND OTHER EVENTS

In 1978 our Natural History Society organized the first Francis Bain Memorial Birdathon which has been held annually since then on the last Saturday in May. This has meant 12 more outings at a pleasant time of the year.

On Sunday, September 23, 1979 a large gathering of about 200 showed up at a mushroom outing on the Bonshaw Hills Trail at St. Catherine’s. They kept three leaders busy identifying fungi.

As time progressed the Society’s activity in various environmental action issues rose and fell. In 1988 the Society took on one of the largest initiatives in its history when it registered a Land Use Appeal on the subdivision of Boughton Island, the largest Great Blue Heron colony in Eastern Prince Edward Island. Sue Stephenson, Diane Griffin, Ruth Richman, and Gary Schneider played key roles in this public hearing. Their action resulted in changes to the development proposal.

IN CLOSING

The Natural History Society is profoundly indebted to the long-suffering Lunch Committees who have patiently lugged in mountains of delicious goodies for the meetings, and doled out barrels of coffee in our 20 years of existence. Their hours involved were astronomical. Thank you all most sincerely.

To wind up this history, here are the names of all who have been president of this Natural History Society:

  • Andre Lavoie 1969 – 1972,
  • Bruce MacLean 1973,
  • Eleanor Lowe 1974 – 1975,
  • Diane Griffin 1976 – 1977,
  • H. Winston Johnston 1978 – 1980,
  • Rosemary Curley 1981,
  • Geoffrey Hogan 1982 – 1984,
  • Jane Symmes 1985,
  • Rosemary Curley 1986 – 1987,
  • Susan Stephenson 1988 – 1989,
  • Patrick Wooton 1989.

All are still members except Jane Symmes who has moved away from the Island.

Author’s Dedication: This history is dedicated to Miss Verna Newson for providing the spark and to Miss Ruth I. Ross for fanning it into the flame that started the Natural History Society of Prince-Edward Island on October 23rd, 1969.

The author also wishes to acknowledge the Editor, Dan McAskill, for his unfailing encouragement and for providing information not obtained from the minutes of meetings nor from the author’s memory.

Editor’s Note: On a July night this past summer, I received a phone call from Miss Ruth I. Ross. She was aware of the work on the history and wished all the members of the Society to know the key role Margaret played in keeping the Society going through these past two decades.

Thank you Margaret, from all of us. J.Dan MacAskill

Update:

Presidents of the Society since this was completed in 1989 have included:

  • Patrick Wootton   1989-1990
  • Barbara Currie     1991-93
  • Ray Cooke             1994-1998
  • Ben Hoteling         1999-2001
  • David Seeler         2002-03
  • Dwaine Oakley    2004-2007 
  • Fred McCardle    2008-2009
  • Diane Griffin        2010
  • Ian Scott               2011-2014
  • Rosemary Curley 2014-present

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