Tuesday, 25 December 2018


     As the year draws to a close I reflected on some of the books that have impressed me this year and would like to share a few of them with you. These are not necessarily recent books, but works that are new to me. They are not presented in any particular order; the idea is not to rank them, rather it is to share with you some first rate nature titles which gave me great pleasure, and also made me think.

The Seabird's Cry by Adam Nicolson, Henry Holt and Company (2018)

     I was first alerted to this volume when my good friend, Marg Paré, told me of a book that she had purchased in a European airport where she was changing planes. I borrowed her copy and immediately bought my own. Nicolson, like so many good nature writers today, has a command of language that would rival a fine essayist, and the book not only covers important aspects of the life of seabirds, it does it in a style guaranteed to captivate. 
     It is a story of the global tragedy of seabirds and the urgent need to change our ways to ensure the future survival of these magnificent creatures. Sombre stuff indeed, but a story that needs to be told.

This isn't just about 'seabirds.' It's about the living poetry of winged beings who share our planet as though inhabiting another world.  Carl Safina

This marvelous book inhabits with graceful ease both the mythic and the scientific, and remains alert to the vulnerability of these birds as well as to their wonder. It is a work that takes wing in the mind.  Robert MacFarlane

Birds of Prey of the East, Birds of Prey of the West by Brian K. Wheeler, Princeton University Press (2018)

     These companion volumes are as fine a work on raptors as one might wish for, with text and illustrations by Brian K. Wheeler, a name associated with birds of prey for well over thirty years. His familiarity with these birds is reflected in his superb illustrations and detailed, comprehensive text. It is a compendium of knowledge refined over a lifetime of study and thousands of hours spent in the field observing the birds first hand. It is called a field guide, but is in fact much more than that. For a single work on the raptors of North America I can think of nothing better.

Brian Wheeler's new field guides are must-haves for every bird of prey aficionado, hawk watcher, raptor biologist, or field naturalist. The wonderfully detailed plates and text synthesize the latest knowledge on plumages for each species, including information on aging, and mark a new frontier in raptor identification books.  Laurie J. Goodrich

The spectacular colour illustrations and detailed text should make Birds of Prey of the East and Birds of Prey of the West welcome additions to the library of any serious aficionado of diurnal birds of prey - or to anyone who has ever looked skyward and marveled at the grandeur of a soaring raptor.  Wayne R. Petersen

The Most Perfect Thing - Inside (and Outside) a Bird's Egg by Tim Birkhead, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc (2016)

     Birkhead brings his formidable scientific knowledge and impeccable writing style to this enchanting work. I have recommended this volume to non birding friends and they have universally enjoyed it, a testament to the way that Birkhead can cover a topic to make it interesting to dedicated naturalist, biologist and lay reader alike.
     It covers every aspect of the avian egg - shape, colour, design, fertilization, development, efficacy, the sorts of care needed, incubation and hatching. After reading this book you will never look at a bird's egg the same way again. Even writing this brief review, I find myself already wanting to read the book for a third time!

Full of wonder and surprise, and beautifully written.  Nick Davies

A thrilling voyage through what most of us think of as an ordinary item sold at the supermarket.....What makes this book such a pleasure is not just the author's breadth of knowledge.....but his unbridled enthusiasm and the clarity of his explanations.....One doesn't have to be a bird enthusiast to relish this book, but it would be the most perfect gift for anyone who is.  Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

The Red Canary by Tim Birkhead, Bloomsbury USA, Paperback Edition (2014)

     Another fine work by Tim Birkhead in which he dons his deerstalker hat to play detective in a work that delves into the field of genetics and eugenics and illustrates the inter-relationship between nature and nurture, a field hotly debated in recent years. His pursuit of the truth leads him to probe the use of eugenics as a basis for racial purity and the dark uses to which this was put in Nazi Germany. The hero of the piece, Hans Duncker, had a darker side, perhaps unknown to any extent before Birkhead's scholarship revealed the details.               And all this in the quest to breed a red canary!
     Birkhead also comments on the relationship between ornithologists and bird fanciers, and explores how the long held hostility between the two groups is both unnecessary and limiting to scientific research.

Popular science at its very best - a perfect blend of exactness and superb entertainment.   Mark Cocker

The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf, Vintage Books (2016)

     Alexander von Humboldt was arguably one of the most famous scientists of his day and without doubt the most adventuresome explorer, going where few people had been before, fearlessly and without regard for personal comfort and security. Many of Humboldt's discoveries changed the way we understand the natural world and his legacy lives on in the many towns, parks, the ocean current, birds, etc. that bear his name. 
     I had the finest pelagic birding adventure of my life in the Humboldt Current off the coast of Chile and marveled at the antics of a Humboldt Penguin. The name Humboldt piqued my curiosity, for I knew little of the man behind the name, and this detailed and superbly written account of this great naturalist and larger-than-life figure fills in every detail. I am left breathless at the energy and drive of the legendary explorer.
     Andrea Wulf deserves great praise for this stunning work.

Gripping...Wulf has delved deep into her hero's life and travelled widely to feel nature as he felt it...No one who reads this brilliant book is likely to forget Humboldt.  New Scientist

A big, magnificent, adventurous book - so vividly written and daringly researched - a geographical pilgrimage and an intellectual epic... a major achievement.  Richard Holmes

The Running Sky by Tim Dee, Vintage Classics (2016)

     I was unfamiliar with Tim Dee until a recent visit to Australia when my friend and fellow bibliophile, Stewart Monckton, presented me with a copy.
     Yet again, Dee demonstrates that serious scientific issues can be presented in a non-threatening way, free from intimidating jargon, and written in soaring poetic fashion. Simply to appreciate the use of language is reason enough to read this book. And the degree of scholarship is astounding.
     The book is a month by month account of the lives of birds and begins in June at a seabird colony in the Shetlands. It continues its exploration of birds both familiar and exotic, in locations close to home and in far flung corners of the globe. Throughout the work Dee's passion is evident and the extent to which influences from his sometimes troubled childhood have shaped his life's work is explored in the book. 

Dee's extraordinary, beautifully written account of a life spent watching birds is a fine addition to the flourishing genre of British nature writing.  Sunday Times

The Running Sky has the makings of a classic. It's beautifully written, extraordinarily vigilant, and very moving. Most remarkable of all, it mamanges to give a sense of the bird world as being something which embraces and contains our own - which mean that, as we read it, we learn a lot about ourselves as well as the fellow creatures flying through, over and around our own lives.  Andrew Morton

Thursday, 20 December 2018



Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Eastern Screech Owl (Petit-duc maculé)

18 December 2018

     December is turning out to be a very good month for owls for us, as we spotted the third species of the month, an Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio). What made this sighting even more agreeable than any routine view of an owl was the fact that it was a red morph bird, considerably in the minority here.

     Eastern Screech Owl is found in two principal colour morphs, grey and red, with grey more common in the northern part of its range and red predominant in the south. There is actually a third variant, a brown morph, but this is extremely uncommon and a phase I have never seen. Most of the birds discovered in southern Ontario are grey morph birds.
     The call of the Eastern Screech Owl has always carried a tinge of the melancholy. Thoreau called it "a most solemn graveyard ditty, the mutual consolation of suicide lovers!" That seems a touch extreme to me, but the call is nevertheless somewhat spooky to my ears, especially when heard walking home on a dark, rainy night.   
     Visually, this little owl is the epitome of cuteness.

     Eastern Screech Owls roost in cavities (natural holes or nest boxes) during the day and are therefore seldom seen. On a bright, sunny day, however, such as was the case today, they will often sit at the lip of their hole basking in the sun.

     Eastern Screech Owls favour hardwood or mixed forests, but have learned to adapt to parks, cemeteries and gardens and will even breed in residential neighbourhoods, where they are subject to intense predation by domestic cats unfortunately.
     "The screech owl enjoys a varied bill of fare including almost every class of animal life," wrote Arthur Cleveland Bent in 1938, which no doubt accounts for its relative abundance. Insects, rodents, small birds, and even small fish and crayfish form a regular part of the screech owl diet, depending on the season.


     A typical clutch for Eastern Screech Owl is four eggs, and all four young are often raised to fledging. Because the chicks all regurgitate pellets and defecate in the nest, the smell, accentuated by prey remains can be atrocious. The olfactory lobe in a screech owl is not well developed!
    On a crisp, clear winter's day, with the temperature around minus two, odour was not a concern!
    Recently our naturalists club, Waterloo Region Nature, had winter toques with the club logo made, and today all four of us (Franc, Jim, Miriam and me) all wore our new gear. Anyone seeing us might be forgiven for assuming that we were on a club outing!


     In my book, any day with an owl, is a great day. The others felt the same and we all returned home delighted.

Sunday, 16 December 2018

Bad Weather - Good Birds

15 December 2018

     The weather here of late has been unrelentingly grey and gloomy, with fog and rain being all too regular.
     We have not been doing much birding given the conditions, but sooner or later the genetic imperative kicks in and one cannot resist any longer!
     On a grey day, with compromised visibility, Miriam and I packed up a thermos of coffee and two of her heavenly blueberry muffins and set out to see what we could find on a drive through the hinterland of Waterloo and Wellington Counties. Most of the snow has disappeared and the farmers' fields are brown and soggy.

     In truth, there was very little bird life, but what we did encounter was very interesting. 
     At this time of the year we scan the trees for Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) and Rough-legged Buzzards (Buteo lagopus), the latter an arctic raptor that spends the winter here in large numbers. We found but a couple of Red-tails and no Rough-legs!
     However, the scan of a distant bare tree revealed an adult Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), no doubt eyeing the terrain for potential prey. The following picture perhaps gives some idea of the distance.

     Miriam's camera has a bigger zoom than mine and her images give a little more detail.

     It is always especially pleasing to us to sight a Bald Eagle, thankfully no longer a rare event here. This species, although the national bird of the United States has been subjected to merciless and unceasing persecution by humans, with many states paying bounties on Bald Eagle kills, and it was also severely impacted during the dark days of organochlorine pesticide use, with death and thin-shelled eggs causing severe population declines. (It is hard to imagine that anyone is not familiar with Rachel Carson's classic work Silent Spring but if you have not read it get down to your local library right now!)
     Benjamin Franklin's reaction to the adoption of the Bald Eagle on the great seal of America, probably spurred on those bent on its annihilation. Here is what he wrote to his daughter on the subject.

Franklin's Letter to His Daughter (excerpt)
"For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.
"With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country...
"I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America... He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on."
     An adult Bald Eagle is a stunning bird, and a view of one never fails to elicit admiration from me, and many others I suspect. Whenever we have visited Vancouver Island where Bald Eagles are common, people with hardly a passing interest in birds in general, go out of their way to point them out to us.

     While not passing up the opportunity to scavenge on carrion they are adept at taking live fish from the water in spectacular fashion and are equally proficient at capturing waterfowl in the winter when the lakes and rivers are frozen.
     And they are frequently quite approachable. Here is a picture I took a couple of years ago of an individual exploiting the resources of the Conestogo River, not all that far from where the pictures were taken yesterday, especially as an eagle flies!

     Several pairs of Bald Eagles have nested successfully in the Grand River watershed in recent years, with one pair nesting in the town of Conestogo, well within sight of human settlement, for three successive years and fledging young each year. The standard Bald Eagle clutch is two eggs and if sufficient food is available both young usually survive to leave the nest. 
     A dull day was certainly illuminated for us by this encounter, but the illumination was about to get a little brighter.
     As we drove along, pulling over onto the shoulder all the time to let faster traffic pass by, we searched the fields for Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiacus), a bird of great mystery for most, but a common winter visitor here. Just as we were about to conclude that we had been skunked for the day, Miriam told me to stop. Far off in the distance she saw a "bump"on a patch of snow.

     Snowy Owls always seek out remnant patches of snow where they are camouflaged, rather than standing out as a stark patch of white on the brown substrate of the field.
     It was indeed a Snowy Owl!

     These pictures are of course entirely unsatisfactory but it was the best we could do given the distance, our equipment and the appalling light.
     Snowy Owls that spend the winter here seem to be especially drawn to certain fields and we can reliably expect to find them in familiar locations. Here are pictures taken last year at same farm, albeit a little closer. A piece of rusting farm machinery was obviously an appealing perch for this female.

     And for this one a tree served equally well.

        The biggest challenge Snowy Owls seem to face in Southern Ontario comes from over-zealous photographers who stop at nothing for the perfect photograph and trespass on private property and willfully put up the owls in order to obtain flight shots. Owls resting to conserve energy are sorely and unnecessarily stressed by this behaviour.
     Here are a few other shots of Snowy Owls taken over the past few years.

     Climate change on their arctic nesting grounds is having a deleterious effect on Snowy Owl breeding success and the future does not look bright for this iconic species, perhaps the most recognizable owl in the world. Most birders have this species in the top ten of the birds they wish to see. Let us hope it will still be possible for them to do so for many generations to come.    

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

A Snowy Ottawa Weekend

07 - 10 December 2018

     We drove to Ottawa on Friday 7 December to spend the weekend with my daughter, Caroline, son-in-law, Andrew, grandson, Will and other grandson, Sam, who has now moved out of the family home but who would be visiting with his girlfriend, Melanie, to have dinner with us on Saturday night.
     We had a perfect drive up to the Nation's Capital, experiencing only a brief delay on the final leg of the journey due to a vehicle collision on the highway. Even that incident cost us only about twenty minutes.
     Caroline prepared a great dinner and we were happy to catch up on each other's lives.
     We awoke on Saturday morning to a classic Ottawa winter weekend, with the early morning temperature registering minus 20°C, with bright sunshine and barely any wind. By mid morning we decided to take the dog (Nallah) for a romp through the woods near to Caroline and Andrew's house in the eastern suburb of Orléans. It was very pleasant indeed and I am not sure who enjoyed it more, us or the dog!

Miriam, Caroline, Andrew

     Nallah is an old dog now, but still with the heart of a pup, and she loves to gambol through the snow. She is truly a faithful companion, always looking back to make sure that her human charges are within view. 
     On Sunday, still experiencing glorious conditions we ventured a little further afield, to Gatineau Park across the Ottawa River in Québec. We had decided to do an approximately 5 km trail at the William Lyon Mackenzie King Estate, managed by the National Capital Commission.
     William Lyon Mackenzie King was Canada's longest serving Prime Minister, heading the government from 1921-26, 1926-30 and 1935-48. He is especially remembered for steering Canada through World War II and for the important role he played as an international statesman dealing with Winston Churchill of Great Britain and Franklin D. Roosevelt of the United States.


     Mackenzie King was a great lover of nature and the outdoors and spent every summer for almost fifty years on his 231 hectare estate in Gatineau. Upon his death the property was bequeathed to the people of Canada to be enjoyed by them for all time.
     It is a magnificent location with topography characteristic of both the Canadian Shield and the Boreal Forest, a landscape somehow imprinted into the psyche of every Canadian. In many ways it identifies who we are as a northern people.

     Walking through the woods on a crisp winter day in La Belle Province, one cannot help but call to mind that great Québec poet, publisher and songwriter, Gilles Vigneault, who wrote "Mon pays ce n'est pas un pays, c'est l'hiver," a song which has become a sort of unofficial anthem in Québec. 
     For a while I lived in Québec City, Caroline was born there and Sam is now living in Gatineau. We all cherish our association with this beautiful land.
     There is much to learn about the Mackenzie King Estate; buildings have been restored and history abounds. What is the story behind the ruins of this abbey?

     I had neither the time nor the inclination to find out, only wishing to embrace the outdoors, but I vow that I will, and much more too. We live in Waterloo, Ontario and our city has a connection to Mackenzie King, for it is here that one may visit his boyhood home.
     The woods were quiet as we explored their snowy solitude with barely the sound of a bird, sometimes the crunch of our boots in the snow being the only intrusion on the silence of the deep woods.

     The few leaves remaining on the trees, especially the golden foliage of the beech, were the only reminders of the riot of autumnal leaves so recently fallen to the ground and now buried deep beneath the snow.

        The deep croak of a Northern Raven (Corvus corax) caused up to look up as it coursed over the treetops. 

Northern Raven (picture from the internet)

     Caroline and Miriam often walked ahead, enjoying their time together in the great winter forest.

      As Andrew and I dawdled along behind, Caroline suddenly spotted an Ermine (Mustela erminea), but it darted away, and even though we could follow it, we were never able to get a picture, so I am relying on the internet to provide you with images of this delightful creature.

     It is a fierce and proficient hunter and when we last caught sight of it had a rodent of some kind in its mouth.

     In former times these animals were trapped mercilessly for their fur which was used to trim the capes of the European aristocracy and its religious élite.
     The chatter of Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) suddenly attracted our attention as we searched in vain for the Ermine which had removed itself from the scene.

      These little charmers are the familiar companions of winter and survive even the harshest of conditions. It always brings great pleasure to enjoy their company.
       This outcrop of granite was barely visible beneath its coat of snow.

     The splendour of the forest was visible at very turn.

     Andrew stopped and kneeled down to get the best possible angle for a photograph. Caroline was no doubt offering words of encouragement.

     Nearing the end of the trail we heard the nasal call of a White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) and it did not take long to find a bird. (Pictures from our archives).

     It had been a splendid walk, enjoyed not only by us, but by numerous other outdoor Canadians too, both walkers and cross country skiers. Many were families with young children being introduced to the essence of their country. I think at times we fantasize about living in a climate with year round warm weather, a place where you need never wear a toque or gloves, but I think if push came to shove, we would all confess to being pretty happy where we are.
     Vive Le Canada! Vive Le Québec! Vive La Neige!

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.