Tuesday, 24 May 2022

A Tree for Betty Cooper

      At least once in a lifetime, everyone should have a Betty Cooper as a friend. She was an amazing person in so many ways, warm, friendly, intelligent, independent, determined, with a deep well of knowledge on all matters related to the natural world. She was also encyclopedic in her knowledge of Waterloo Region Nature, her favourite nature club, and there was hardly a fact she couldn't recall from memory, and if it didn't come immediately to mind she certainly knew where to find it!
     Miriam took the picture below when Betty took part in one of my walks in October 2020. It was approximately a 3.5km round trip along the Mill Race in St. Jacobs, on a decidedly cool October day.

     Betty was ninety-three years old.
     As a keen naturalist Betty loved all trees, but her special passion was reserved for oaks. So, it was entirely fitting that we decided to plant an Eastern White Oak (Quercus alba), at the rare Charitable Research Reserve in Cambridge, ON, to honour this lady who was as straight and as strong as an oak herself.
     Many of her friends gathered to take part in the ceremony.

     Along the way we all helped to set the tree in the ground and fill the hole.

     The shovel was passed from hand to hand.

     Soon, thanks mainly to the care and attention provided by Fraser and Jim, it looked just right.

     Larry and David replaced a rock in its original position, exactly as Betty would have wished.

     Jenna provided some water.

     And Betty's tree stood tall and straight, ready to flourish, majestic as only an oak can be, and a fitting reminder of our stalwart departed friend.

     Betty's two good friends, Elaine LaRonde and Mary Ann Vanden, delivered some touching remarks, far better than I could compose, and I urge you to read them here. 


I feel very honoured to be asked to pay tribute to our mutual friend Betty. Some of you had the privilege of knowing Betty far longer than I did. It wasn’t until I joined the board of KWFN that I really got to know Betty and discovered what an integral part of the club she was. She was the archivist, the historian, the librarian – it seemed that anything you wanted to know about the club’s history you could find out from Betty. Much later I discovered what an important force she had been throughout her 62 years as a member of the Naturalists.

As Mary Ann mentioned in Betty’s obituary in The Heron Betty and her husband, Fred, had been heavily involved in KWFN – almost from the beginning of the club. They both served on the board, published The Heron, volunteered on special projects like the Bluebird Project and the Peregrine Falcon Release Project. Betty’s fingers were in many pies – of the natural sort!

It wasn’t just Betty’s dedication to the club that brought us all here today. She demonstrated so many fine qualities in her every day life as well. I’m convinced that if you look up the meaning of the word “independence” in the dictionary, you would find Betty’s photo. I certainly became aware of her independent spirit when I began to drive with her to club meetings. While we were still meeting at Wing 404 she would inevitably have a heavy box of books or plants to take to the meeting. I would try to carry the box for her only to have her insist that it would be too heavy for me and she would refuse to release it until she reached the car. Considering that she was almost twenty years older than me, this was always a bit embarrassing!

Betty loved all aspects of our natural world but her special love was for gardening – especially native plants. I know she exchanged planted species with other plant lovers in KWFN and was always generous in sharing with others. I feel privileged to have some special plants in my yard which started as seedlings in Betty’s garden. Betty didn’t just share her plants with others, she also shared her wisdom and kindness too. When my husband died a few years ago, she walked with me and helped me see that life continues even after losing your life’s partner – a lesson that she had learned many years earlier when her beloved Fred had died.

Even in her nineties, Betty had a zest for life. She loved her home and her garden, her feline friend, “Puss”, her church life and her friends, her neighbours who really valued her and her friends from KWFN/WRN, which was such an important part of her life. When her family moved to BC and asked her to join them, Betty said, “No thanks” – her life was here. We were her family too! Even during COVID, and as her health deteriorated, she was always interested in knowing how other people were doing. She would have been thrilled to see her naturalist friends here today. And how appropriate to have this oak tree planted in her memory.

Mary Ann

Planting White Oak Ceremony at rare in Honour of Betty Cooper 
Fri. May 6, 2022

To honour Betty Cooper, a decision was made to plant a tree. But what kind of tree? 
That was the question posed to Elaine and me.

Our response was immediate: an oak. Let me explain why.

The story begins in the late ‘90s. I was a teacher then, in Kitchener, at St. Bernadette School. 
I remember many times being outside on yard duty and noticing the line of trees along the back fence of the school playground. One tree, in particular, stood out to me. It was a tall, stately oak, just on the other side of the fence. In those rare moments when I didn’t have little kids tugging and swarming all around me, I would sometimes stop to admire that magnificent oak.

By the early 2000s:
- I was retired
- I’d joined the club
- I’d met Betty
- She invited me over to her home
And, as often happens the first time at someone’s home, she wanted to show me around. 

She first took me to her front garden there on Highland Rd. Many of you have seen it. 
Next, she led me to her back yard. She unlatched the gate, we stepped through and I just stopped in my tracks. 

“Betty, Betty – on the other side of your fence, that’s the school where I used to teach!” Well, she was pretty amazed at that.

“Ya,” I continued, “and, right along the fence, I remember, there was this really magnificent oak tree I used to admire.”

Betty turned, and pointed to the back corner of her garden. “Is that it?”

I recognized it immediately. “Ya, that’s it! That’s the one!”

We were both astonished at the coincidence.

Well, then, she couldn’t resist. She started telling me the story of that English Oak in her back yard.

Betty’s paternal grandfather, Rex Pierce, grew up in Dover, England. Then, as a young single man, he immigrated to Canada settling in London, ON. Soon after, he joined an English social club in London where, on one occasion, the Sherrif of Nottingham came to speak. The Sherrif brought acorns which he’d gathered from English Oaks growing in the royal gardens at Westminster Palace. These he distributed to attendees at this meeting. Rex Pierce made sure he got one, and planted it. 

Betty’s English Oak is a direct descendant of that original acorn. She considered it part of her family heritage.    

The sapling being planted today in Betty’s honour is a White Oak, not an English Oak. However, as a gardener and long time member of our club, Betty understood the importance of planting native trees. She’d be happy that an oak has been selected, and doubly happy to know that it is a native oak.

And, I’m quite confident that Betty’s hope and wish for this little White Oak sapling would be that it, too, should thrive and grow into a strong stately tree just as magnificent as the English Oak in her back yard.

     We'll miss you Betty, but we'll think of you as we nurture this tree in your memory. You can count on that!

Friday, 20 May 2022

Book Review - Gulls of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East - Princeton University Press


     There have been many fine books on gulls published in recent years, and one might be forgiven for asking, "Why another?" A close examination of the text and the incredible array of stunning photographs will answer that question for you. For those of us with masochistic tendencies who delight in poring through flocks of gulls looking for rarities and teasing apart details of aging, there can never be too many works anyway! Perhaps these distinguished authors will now turn their attention to a companion volume on terns, the neglected waifs of the Laridae.
     There are those for whom gulls are an anathema to be ignored at all costs, and to these birders the authors pose the following question, "Is your hobby really birding, or is it ignoring birds?"  The message is clear, don't be afraid of gulls, get out there and enjoy them, and don't be chastened by your ID failures. As in all things practice makes perfect and once you develop proficiency you will rejoice in these sublime members of your avifauna.
     The question of larid taxonomy seems to have been in a state of flux for as long as I can remember, and long before that. The treatment in this book follows the International Ornithological Committee for the most part, but deviates when it comes to Thayers Gull (how many times has this bird been considered a full species or a sub species of Iceland Gull?), and Short-billed Gull (aka Mew Gull). Actually, in the case of Short-billed Gull the most recent version of the IOC List now assigns full species status to Short-billed Gull, so only Thayer's Gull remains controversial. Don't bet the farm on that species not being re-evaluated too!
     Many tips are given on how to identify gulls, with comparisons between similar species, and "fail-safe" identification features. In terms of aging the authors use the concept of 'cycle' rather than 'first winter' or 'second winter' and so on. Gulls do not suddenly change from first winter plumage to second winter plumage so cycle is a more appropriate way of looking at immature gulls.
     The authors embark on a useful discussion of a holistic approach versus an analytical approach; of course, one does not deny the other and operated in tandem is the best course.
     The value of digital cameras is manifest in this book, with a huge number of photographers combining to provide a visual feast.
     If you glance at your bookshelf and find a gap where the book on gulls should be, this is the volume to fill the space. It is a fine work indeed and merits your close attention. It will help you to become that dedicated larophile you always wanted to be!

Gulls of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, An Identification Guide - Princeton University Press
Peter Adriaens, Mars Muusse, Philippe J. Dubois, and Frédéric Jiguet
Softcover - US$29.95 - ISBN 9780691222837
320 pages - 1,200 photos and illustrations - 6.75 x 9.25 inches (16.875 x 23.125 cm)
Publication date: 5 April, 2022

Monday, 16 May 2022

Are we capable of change?

 We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we start to see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.
Aldo Leopold
     It hasn't happened yet, Aldo.
     Laurentian Wetland is a gem in the City of Kitchener, encompassing about 22 acres of wetland and surrounding shoreline, a magnet for wildlife, a haven for the weary urbanite, a refuge from the noise, dirt, clutter and frenzied pace of a city.

     Well that was the idea anyway. A grand idea it was too.
     We could have this.....

   ..... and this.

     How would this be?

     And this, and this.

     We are even encouraged to be good stewards of the environment (not that we should need encouragement).

     That entreaty falls on deaf ears obviously  Community stewardship, it says. What the hell does that mean?

     Far better we throw an old tyre in the water.

     Or dump the sofa cushions.

     Perish the thought that we should pay a couple of bucks and have them disposed of properly.
     Interestingly while I was there, a municipal crew was undertaking the semblance of a cleanup but in the desultory fashion of such crews much was left behind, and for the forty-five minutes I was there the crew of three talked at their truck and I never saw them pick up anything.
     There was no lack of opportunity.

     Might have had to don hip waders at times.

     Don't you love those people who scoop the poop after their dog and hang the bag on a branch?

     I could have presented you with a whole gallery of these.
     Humans are disgusting, I tell you. We are the only species that degrades, pollutes, damages and soils its own environment, knowing full well what we are doing, yet keeps on doing it. How much sense does that make? In the process we poison the land and water and destroy the homes of so many other fellow creatures who have an equal claim on this Earth. In the process we have changed the biosphere so radically that we are experiencing terrifying rises in temperature, out of control wildfires and floods, droughts of epic proportions, oceans that have become huge garbage dumps. And on it goes. We now know that microplastics have been detected in human blood: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/mar/24/microplastics-found-in-human-blood-for-first-time
      But, I digress. I started by expressing concern over one little wetland in my own area, the region that I have chosen to call home, the place where Miriam and I conduct our daily lives. Wouldn't you think we could join together to keep it clean? It requires, quite literally, no effort to do so.
      We choose this instead.

     Is this really how we want to live? That's a rhetorical question, I suppose, since the answer is obviously. "Yes." Every time I have ever been involved in the cleanup of a natural area, within days the trash  starts to appear again.

     There is no end to it. Is this the styrofoam tray that you tossed out? The one you disposed of properly only to have it picked up by the wind at the dump and dispersed far and wide?

    Is this the landscape you wish to bequeath to your children and grandchildren? The indestructible trash will be here a thousand years from now.

     It makes me very sad that so grand an idea can have gone so awry. I can conceive of no nobler goal than to integrate humans and other wildlife, to have a living, breathing, functioning wetland as part of a neighbourhood, yet the residents seem utterly determined to make sure it doesn't happen.
     If a madman in Russia doesn't start a nuclear conflagration to annihilate us all we may have embarked on a path to do it ourselves. It may take a little longer but the result will be just the same.  

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Book Review - Insectpedia - Princeton University Press

      I have been very much enamoured of the "Pedia" series from Princeton University Press and this latest edition sails along in the tradition of its forerunners, presenting facts in brief (yet complete) form, while engaging in a little whimsy at the same time. It takes a deft touch to straddle the unlikely partners of science and humour but Eric Eaton has proven himself to be a master of the task.
     Each of the "Pedia" books are like an extended dictionary, and go from A to Z in traditional fashion, in this case beginning with "Acarinaria" and ending with "Zoos, Insect." Along the way there is much to learn and entertaining commentary to be enjoyed.
    I was particularly struck that Eaton weaves social commentary into discussions of science. Let me give you an example from page 74 on Gynandromorphs, "In an era when we are finally recognizing and respecting human beings who identify as nonbinary, it helps to remember that in nature, male and female exist in a variety of ways and not always separately." Amen to that!
     It is well known to all that fruit flies in the genus Drosophila have been the lab choice for countless research projects because we Homo sapiens share 60% of our DNA with Drosophila melanogaster, and 75% of the genes known to cause human diseases can be found in fruit flies. There are doubtless reactionary politicians or religious fundamentalists who would reject this science, but that makes it no less true.
     Eaton pays fitting tribute to Margaret James Strickland Collins who became the first black female entomologist and was a full professor at Howard University, a remarkable achievement when it was difficult for any woman to be acknowledged as a scientist, let alone a woman of colour facing the double tyranny of a general rejection of women of intellect and toxic racism.
     The issue of pesticides has long been controversial, and continues to be so, as humans employ short-sighted, short-term solutions to complex issues. Insects develop resistance to toxins necessitating the application of ever more potent poisons, to which the targeted insects acquire further immunity. This is termed the "Pesticide Treadmill," as coined by Robert van den Bosch in his book The Pesticide Conspiracy. Despite mountains of evidence that indiscriminate use (abuse) of pesticides is counter-productive, we seem to be incapable of dismounting from this treadmill.
     As in all things, human influence looms large. Eaton's final paragraph in the Afterword leaves an impression with me, and no doubt will with you.
"Meanwhile transition from a pest -killing mentality to an interest in the conservation of insect diversity must overcome the inertia of profit-making enterprise, and accommodate endeavours that are necessary for the survival of the entire ecosystem. The private homeowner, plant nursery manager, landscape company, city planner, rural farmer and others, can all have a hand in promoting a new paradigm of coexistence with our six-legged friends. It can happen. It has to."
     The book is illustrated throughout by Amy Jean Porter, whose line drawings add immeasurably to the delight of this little volume. 
     As stated above I am a great fan of this series; each one reinforces the pleasure, perhaps none more than this one. I recommend it highly.

Insectpedia, A Brief Compendium of Insect Lore
Eric R. Eaton
Hardcover - US$16.95 - ISBN 9780691213046
200 pages - 51 black-and-white illustrations - 4.5 x 6.75 inches (11.25 x 16.875 cm)
Publication date: 3 May, 2022


Saturday, 7 May 2022

Book Review - The Lives of Moths, A Natural History of Our Planet's Moth Life - Princeton University Press

 "Moths are somehow more cuddly, more like mammals, than butterflies."
Roger Deakin

     I don't think you would find much disagreement that moths have taken second place to butterflies when it comes to public acceptance. This is the book that is about to change your mind.
     Moths evolved long before butterflies, and the sheer number of species, and their incredible diversity is breathtaking. There is a sublime beauty to these winged creatures, primarily nocturnal, but also day-flying, that is hard to beat. As someone who has put in my time with black lights and sheets at night, the diversity available even in a suburban backyard is breathtaking. Most are tiny creatures that will fit on the nail of your little finger, but every so often a giant apparition comes fluttering through the gloom, to mesmerize you with its beauty. If you ever see an Io Moth, or a Polyphemus, or a Luna Moth, you will not soon forget it. A Cecropia Moth will cause your jaw to drop.
     And of course there are plume moths, and geometers, crambids and leafrollers, lichen moths, underwings and owlets, carpets and pugs, daggers, sallows and midgets. The variation in size, colour and structure is endless it seems. Then there are the caterpillars, large and small, benign, toxic, hairy, spiny, resembling bird droppings, with opercula to repel dragons, snake mimics, inchworms....and on and on.
     Moths and caterpillars are key components of many different ecosystems, predatory in some, and an important food source for a multitude of other organisms. It may be said without exaggeration that many species of bird would be unable to raise their young without a bounty of lepidopteran larvae to provide nutritious food filled with fat and protein.
     This book begins with a comprehensive examination of the biology, physiology, classification and lifestyle of moths. Even if you have never contemplated the structure of a moth's wings before, or even heard the term ovipositor, never contemplated a proboscis or pondered Batesian mimicry, you will be engaged with these pages, and acquire knowledge quickly and easily.
     The succeeding sections are then devoted to moths in their various habitats - Moths of Tropical Rainforests, Moths of Grasslands and Meadows, Moths of Deserts and Tundra, and so on, with detailed coverage of archetypal species of these various biomes. 
     Sadly, as is the case with every other life form on Earth, human influence in the form of soil and water degradation, deforestation, acid rain, and other abuses too numerous to mention, but well known to all, are affecting moths in deleterious ways. If we can only come to view ourselves as one part of a greater whole, with respect for all other creatures, we can begin to address the imbalances we have created, and remediate the egregious despoilation of the planet.
     The book is gloriously illustrated; page by page it leaves your mouth agape.
     Study it well, learn from it, get involved with moths, learn how to protect them and deal rationally and sensibly with those that present challenges to humans. Both you and the moths will be all the better for it.

The Lives of Moths, A Natural History of Our Planet's Moth Life - Princeton University Press
Andrei Sourakov and Rachel Warren Chadd
Hardcover - US$29.5 - ISBN 9780691228563
288 pages - Colour photos and illustrations
7.5 x 9.5 inches (18.75 x 23.75 cm)
Publication date: 26 April, 2022

Tuesday, 3 May 2022

Bald Eagles, House Sparrow Sex and More!

      Spring this year has been characterized by changeability in the weather, with one day as high as 26 degrees while some mornings we got out of bed to a dusting of snow.

23 April, 2004

     We went to check on "our" Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) nest and were delighted to observe two healthy youngsters in the nest.

     The pictures are not the clearest one might hope for but we are shooting from a long way off and the images are cropped.
     The male kept a vigil from nearby. We had hoped to witness a food delivery, but it was not to be.

24 April, 2022
Lakeside Park, Kitchener, ON

     Unrepentent voyeurs that we are, we witnessed a pair of House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) in flagrante delicto. Undeterred by our gaze, they went about their business in rapid bursts of activity.

     Satisfaction seemed to exude from both of them as they preened and fluffed following their exertions.

     No doubt a new generation of House Sparrows is in the works.
     A Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) can sometimes look downright regal.

     A Pine Siskin (Spinus pinus) seemed intent on mimicking a Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia) as it acrobatically probed for food.

     If I have seen a Pine Siskin go down a tree head first before, I don't recall it.

     Myrtle Warbler (Setophaga coronata) is a hardy little bird and is usually the first warbler we see in the spring.

     It seemed that they were everywhere we looked.
     Birds, drawn to them as we are, are only one aspect of spring, and this stand of Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) brought us great joy.

     Does it not make you smile just to look at it?

26 April, 2022
Lakeside Park, Kitchener, ON

     It was back to Lakeside Park for our regular Tuesday "Rambles with David" outing.
     Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) have returned to southern Ontario, and were not hard to find.

     One pair was already committed to a partnership for the season, and was investigating a potential nest site.

     A little cleaning is necessary before it will be ready for occupancy and the important duty of incubating eggs.

     The paths were quite muddy and slick, easy to slip on so we picked our way downslope as befits a party of pensioners!

     I am quite sure that had one of us slipped we would have tumbled together in one pile, so it is questionable whether our method was effective. I got to hold hands with Carol and Mary though, so what's not to like about that?
     I exepect that this Wooly Blue Violet (Viola sororia) would have giggled if it were able to do so.

 A pair of Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris) found the lake exactly to their liking.

     The pattern on the male's bill is nothing short of exquisite.

     Seldom did a Myrtle Warbler fail to entertain us.

     And a Belted Kingfisher (Megacercyle alcyon) scanned for a passing fish on the far side of the lake.

     Here is another Myrtle Warbler to bring pleasure to your day.

     A female Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) looks so different from a male that some early ornithologists thought they were different species.

     Here is a male House Sparrow gathering nesting material.

     Perhaps it is the same one we saw two days earlier having so much fun. Now the hard work begins.
     Even a squirrel has to gather material to make a home for the next generation, soon to be born.

26 April, 2022
Columbia Lake, Waterloo, ON

     There had been a report, supported by pictures, of a Yellow-throated Warbler (Setophaga dominica) at Columbia Lake, a mere five minutes from our house, so we stopped by on the way home. 
     It was bitterly cold with a strong wind imparting a distinct chill to already unfavourable conditions, and we were unable to find the warbler. Perhaps it has moved on - a wise choice!
     We glimpsed a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) through the reeds.....

     ..... but it decided it wanted nothing to do with us.

     A Canada Goose sat resolutely on her nest and we wished her well.

     Miriam had made a delicious ham and potato soup, and baked fresh bread, so we headed for home with that on our minds. It made for a wonderful lunch. Not a bad way to end a morning of birding, I am sure you will agree.

Land Acknowledgement

We acknowledge that the land on which we are situated are the lands traditionally used by the Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabe, and Neutral People. We also acknowledge the enduring presence and deep traditional knowledge, laws, and philosophies of the Indigenous Peoples with whom we share this land today. We are all treaty people with a responsibility to honour all our relations.