Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Peregrine by J.A. Baker

The Peregrine
by
J.A. Baker

    In August 2004 while poking through the dusty shelves of a second hand bookstore (surely one of life's greatest pleasures) I came across a volume unfamiliar to me, as was the name of the author. The book dealt with the Peregrine Falcon and the price was reasonable, and in this manner I acquired it.
    Subsequent attempts to learn more about the author have turned up virtually nothing. He seems to have been a single-minded recluse, (although he dedicates the book to his wife), whose life became absorbed by the falcon, which he followed on his bicycle around his native county of Essex. I say reclusive for he never hints at friends or family and even the dedication to his wife is barren of emotion. It says simply, "To my wife;" not a name nor an expression of affection is included.
    What sets this book apart from all others that I have read is the unrivalled command of language. It could easily take its place among the greatest works of literature and not suffer by comparison. The sheer mastery of English, and an ability to use every phrase to its most magnificent advantage, is staggering. I have no hesitation in saying that this is the finest nature work of its kind that I have ever read. It stands alone at the highest pinnacle of excellence.
    This short dissertation is not intended to be a book review (indeed I would feel ill-equipped to write one), it is simply meant to express my admiration of the work and to try to convey the impact it has had on me. One must remember that this story has no plot. Every chapter is a continuation of the daily round of the peregrine but one cannot help but continue to read and experience regret when the book is finished.
    I am citing below some of the wonderful prose to be found, in no particular order. Indeed one might pick up the book and discover other pearls on every page.

    Wherever he goes this winter, I will follow him. I will share the fear, and the exaltation and the boredom, of the hunting life. I will follow him till my predatory human shape no longer darkens in terror the shaken kaleidoscope of colour that stains the deep fovea of his brilliant eye. My pagan head shall sink into the winter land, and there be purified.

    The sun bronzed the splendid stubble-coloured brown and yellow hawk, and gleamed his clenched feet to sudden gold.

    I remember those winter days, those frozen fields ablaze with warring hawks...it is sad that it should be so no longer. The ancient eyries are dying.

    Morning was hooded and seeled with deep grey cloud and mist. (How wonderfully allegorical to the mantle of a captive falcon, hooded and seeled [its eyes sewn shut]).

    In ten seconds the hawk was down, and the whole splendid fabric, the arched reredos and immense fan-vaulting of his flight, was consumed and lost  in the fiery maelstrom of the sky.

    Evanescent as a flame, peregrines sear across the cold sky and are gone, leaving no sign in the blue haze above. But in the lower air a wake of birds tails back, and rises upward through the white helix of the gulls.

    We live, in these days in the open, the same ecstatic fearful life. We shun men. We hate their suddenly uplifted arms, the insanity of their flailing gestures, their erratic scissoring gait, their aimless stumbling ways, the tombstone whiteness of their faces.

    Snipe shuddering from the dykes. White glinting water welling in, mouthing the stones of the sea-wall. Moored boats pecking at the water. Dark red glasswort shining like drowned blood.

    These vivid images shrink into a rainbow of crushed colour, and set below the horizon of their memory. Other images arise, as yet like mirages distorted, to be made clear in the long whiteness of the continental coast, in far islands now in darkness, in cliffs and mountains sailing out from the night.

     Perhaps you too will share my enthusiasm for this passionate canonical prose. If you can find a copy of this book I can recommend no more worthy an addition to your bookshelf.



Saturday, 26 January 2013

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus
St. Jacobs, Ontario
26 January 2013

    The Red-bellied Woodpecker has the most restricted range of all Ontario woodpeckers and was formerly extremely rare in Waterloo County. The recent Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario states "The probability of observation of the Red-bellied Woodpecker increased significantly by about 250% in the province as a whole from the first to the second atlas." Although hardly classified as common in this area it is no longer an unexpected sighting, but always a great source of delight. This individual had been feeding on corn cobs hung in a tree in front of a Mennonite farmer's house and a kernel is visible in its beak. It was our good fortune to watch this bird for several minutes. No doubt backyard feeders have contributed to this species' ability to spend the winter at this latitude. 



Blue Jay

Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata


    This inquisitive Blue Jay kept its eye on us as we watched a variety of other species feeding on sunflower seeds on a wall. It did not stray far from us but never came down to feed while we were there.

Red-Shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk Buteo lineatus
Hawkesville, Ontario
26 January 2013


    For several years a Red-shouldered Hawk, presumably the same bird,  has spent the winter in Hawkesville, ON. This species is not common in Ontario at any time of the year and most breeding birds leave our area before the onset of winter. The degree of winter site fidelity of this individual is quite remarkable. The bird is obviously a survivor since it masters all the rigours of the breeding season to return each winter to delight all who are fortunate to see it.

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow Spizella arborea

    This handsome American Tree Sparrow was feeding on a pile of sunflower seeds left by some kind soul on a low concrete wall on Three Bridges Road near to the Conestogo River dam. Its bicoloured mandible, one of the identifying characters of this species, is clearly visible.

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
26 January 2013

    As I was leaving home this morning to run some errands I was surprised to hear a male cardinal in full vocal repertoire. It certainly seems very early to be engaged in this kind of performance, but it was quite wonderful, especially after the bitterly cold spell we have just experienced. Today was sunny with little wind and a high temperature of around minus four degrees - very pleasant indeed.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Common Redpoll

How about this beauty?

    Does it get any better than to look out the window on a cold morning with pristine snow and see this stunning Common Redpoll Carduelis flammea on the feeder?

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Owl Pellets

Owl Pellets

    Yesterday we visited the arboretum at the University of Guelph and searched for a Barred Owl Strix varia which had been reported there. Evidently this bird moves around, for the closest we came to locating it was a tree with "whitewash" and a few pellets underneath it. Pellets are made up of a bolus of the undigestible parts of the owl's prey species and the fur and bones of small mammals can be seen here. For the competent observer these remnants reveal a great deal about the owl's diet.




Friday, 18 January 2013

Rock Dove

Rock Dove Columba livia


18 January 2013

    These pictures were taken at Hillcrest Mall, Richmond Hill, ON where a fairly large flock of Rock Doves seems to hang out. I was surprised to see several males already into high courtship mode. Alas (for them) the females seemed totally disinterested!

House Sparrow

House Sparrow Passer domesticus


    This female House Sparrow was feeding on frozen white bread when I took this photograph at around ten o' clock this morning. The temperature was minus 13° C.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Common Redpoll

Common Redpoll Carduelis flammea


We're not quite sure how this individual came by its unique "hairdo" but it did not seem to change at all and the feathers never slicked down. The temperature was well above freezing so if ice was the culprit it would have melted. Perhaps somehow the bird came into contact with some kind of sticky substance.    


  
  

Monday, 14 January 2013

Wellesley Township

Wellesley Township, Waterloo County
12 January 2013



    One would expect snow-covered fields and cold January winds but these are the scenes which greeted us during this unusually warm winter. Note the Red-tailed Hawk perched in the tree. 

Crazy January Weather

Crazy January Weather


    The weather this winter has been so warm much of the time we have primulas blooming in our front garden in January! The temperature was 13° C when this picture was taken.

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis
with prey


    A few days ago my wife and I were driving around the side roads of Wellesley Township and came across this Red-tailed Hawk consuming a rodent. Just a short time later we also saw an American Kestrel Falco sparverius tearing into a rodent on a fence post. Given the large numbers of wintering raptors in the area, including a substantial population of Rough-legged Hawk Buteo lagopus, and a few Northern Harrier Circus hudsonius, it appears that the biomass of rodent prey is high this year.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Redpolls again

Redpolls again!

    This morning I went out to shovel the driveway and sidewalk, and top up the bird feeders. When I came back into the house I thought that my just reward was a cappuccino and biscotto! How delightful it was to sit sipping coffee watching a flock of about thirty redpolls through the window. It's still snowing so I'm sure to have to clean the driveway again; perhaps the redpolls will oblige a second time.



    In case anyone missed it, I am absolutely entranced by these charming winter visitors and it's hard not to get excited every time they descend into the yard like little gems falling from the sky.
    I have only ever seen one Arctic Redpoll Carduelis hornemanni that I was absolutely confident of identifying and I keep searching the flocks I am seeing  this winter. Perhaps my second, third, fourth....is out there waiting for me.
    If you have access to the December 1995 issue of Birding there is an excellent discussion of the two redpoll species in winter. I consult it every time there is an irruption.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Common Redpoll

Common Redpoll, Carduelis flammea
3 January 2013






    I seem to be blogging quite a bit about Common Redpolls recently, but the fact is that we are experiencing one of the greatest redpoll invasions in living memory. For example, our count on the Linwood CBC was a staggering 2,965 individuals, demolishing the previous record of 79! Most days we look out the window at our feeders and see up to a dozen or so but today we were visited by a flock of at least fifty birds and probably more. The pictures above, while not great, (taken through the window in poor light just after daybreak) show the extent of this event. It may be many winters before we have a repeat of this phenomenon. In fact in many years we do not see a redpoll at all. 

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Rock Dove

Rock Dove, Columba livia
31 December 2012

    Often maligned, and certainly an under-appreciated species, this flock was guarding the ramparts, so to speak, at the Conestogo dam. When one considers the services rendered to mankind by carrier pigeons, and the popularity of pigeon racing, I often wonder why this species is frequently treated so dismissively. Personally, I think it is a wonderful component of our avifauna here in southern Ontario.

The Mennonites of Waterloo County

The Mennonites of Waterloo County
31 December 2012


    One of the great attractions of living in this area is the influence of its Mennonite population, especially the old order adherents with their simple lifestyle, based on fervent religious beliefs. These two photographs show a typical house constantly enlarged to adapt to the burgeoning population of subsequent offsprings, and a horse drawn conveyance returning to the farm with a third horse in tow behind the cart.