Thursday, 26 December 2019

It's Hard to Put into Words

24 December 2019

     For ardent believers, today is the lead up to a portentous event. To those less ecumenically inclined it is the last chance to jostle cheek by jowl in overheated stores to load up on gobs of "stuff," all the while serenaded by bland renditions of Christmas music repeated ad nauseam. For others it is time to put the finishing touches to the baking, perhaps; to make sure the lights on the tree are winking properly.
     And for Miriam and me? It is a day to do what we do best, go out and discover nature. And so, armed with a thermos of coffee and two blueberry muffins, we set off to explore Ontario's snowy wonderland. Our primary quest was to find that spectre of the north, that bird so mystical to many, so remote for those who do not live in a northern land, the Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus). Every year we are accorded the rare honour of being in the presence of these regal creatures who spend a few short months with us. Yet most of the birders in the entire world will never see one.
     Today we found two. Our first bird was a wonderful white male, hunkered down along a row of conifer saplings, oblivious to the cold, conserving energy and scanning its surroundings, alert for any sign of prey.

     Mostly it remained still, other than for moving its head in a 270 degree swivel, but after an hour or so of observation it shifted a few metres.

     Thanks to modern technology we were able to text our friends who might be interested to join us to view the owl, and Francine and Jim who were out and about themselves took up the offer, and joined us in the ecstasy of the moment.
Miriam and I had already enjoyed the bird for over an hour and we left to return home for lunch. Jim and Francine stayed behind to wallow in the pleasure a while longer.
     We were not more than three kilometres down the road when Francine texted to advise that they had discovered a female close by. What to do but turn around and go to see it! 

     Now we have seen these birds many times. In fact at a rough mental count, I have seen well over two hundred of them; Miriam somewhat less, but many nevertheless. Furthermore some of our encounters have been of the close and personal kind, with birds mere metres away from us.
     What drives us to go and search for them over and over again? Why do we get the itch to do so every winter? What is it that spurs Miriam to say, "Let's go and look for owls?"
      I think that Peter Høeg defines it best in his novel Smilla's Sense of Snow. "Understanding snow," he says, "is like listening to music. To describe it is like explaining music in writing." And so it is with Snowy Owls. Don't even try to explain it, don't bother to understand it, don't attempt to rationalize it. Just enjoy the experience over and over again. For me that's about as spiritual as it gets.

Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Merry Christmas - Joyeux Noel

May Peace, Happiness and the Richness of Nature be with you always.
David and Miriam

Monday, 23 December 2019

Jonah Feeds a Chickadee

22 December 2019

     On a fine winter's day we met up with Kayla and Jonah to do a little birding along the Mill Race Trail in St. Jacobs.
     Kayla is originally from the Toronto area and Jonah from Ottawa, and neither one had ever seen the assembly of Mennonite horses and buggies at a church, so we took them first to the meeting house on Three Bridges Road in order that they might witness this remarkable sight.

     The horses waited patiently at the hitching rails while the service continued inside. And we waited too until a few of the conveyances left so that Kayla and Jonah could take in the whole scene, following which we returned to the start of the Mill Race Trail to begin our walk.
     I have to tell you that Jonah is a beer chemist, a fellow engaged in fermenting, brewing, fusing molecules, alchemy almost, a sophisticated creator of the unique tastes associated with micro breweries - but he has never fed a Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) from the hand. Ergo, his education was clearly incomplete.  Furthermore, when Kayla raised the possibility he scoffed at the very idea. Scoffed, mind you, dismissed the notion as a foolish flight of fancy. Obviously this grave misapprehension had to be rectified and we had brought bird seed along with exactly that aim in mind.
     Chickadees on the Mill Race Trail have been habituated to friendly humans for years and recognize every two-legged creature as a potential source of food.
     It did not take long for Jonah to experience the unique joy of contact with a wild creature. The sheer elation on his face speaks volumes as he follows a bird that had just left his hand with a seed in its bill.

          Once is never enough, of course.

     Kayla was in on the secret all along and knew with certainty what Jonah's reaction would be.

     Some days happiness is a little bird on your hand.
     It was unlikely that this American Crow (Corvus brachyrynchos) would be following the lead of the chickadee!

     The Mill Race looked quite splendid clad in its winter coat.

     At one point a train went over the old trestle bridge, slowly, and almost elegantly it seemed.

     Kayla and Jonah were happy to watch it go by.

     I am sure that this female Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) had other activities to occupy her daylight hours, not the least of which was securing food.

          It was very seldom that several chickadees did not travel with us on the trail, joined by others along the way. Each one represented sheer delight for us.

     The sun was shining, the temperature was mild, there was snow on the ground, the green of conifers all around - it was good to be out and about.

     No stroll along the Mill Race Trail would be complete without a visit to the Eco Café at the St. Jacobs end of the walk. I think that for Jonah it was almost in the nature of a victory celebration. He even got a cookie with his coffee!

     Every year a few Belted Kingfishers (Megacerlye alcyon) tough out the winter and remain on territory rather than migrate. It has always been my theory that males remain behind, accepting the trade-off of cold weather versus migration in order to have a territory established for when the females return in the spring. The birds I have seen in the winter have always been males. Today there were two Belted Kingfishers on the Conestogo River and as the picture below clearly shows one is a female.

     I am inclined to believe that this has something to do with climate change. The temperature was around 4.5° C, whereas the expected value for this period in December is minus 4.1° C. It now appears that mated pairs will, at least sometimes, remain to face the winter together.
     There were expanses of open water on the river, and Kayla had mentioned that she had only ever seen kingfishers in flight and had never seen them perched. Our obliging female dived into the river, caught a fish, went to a perch and swallowed it. The whole performance was staged for Kayla, I have no doubt.
     Chickadees were our companions on the return journey as they had been on the outward leg, and Kayla and I could not resist feeding them again.

     We saw numerous species, but Black-capped Chickadee was the unchallenged star of the day.

     I suspect that Jonah learned a brand new formula today, and it looks like this.....


     ..... where SC = Scoffer Jonah, BCCH = Black-capped Chickadee, resulting in Happiness squared.

     You many not be able to brew beer with it but it is guaranteed to bring a smile to your face on a snowy winter's day.


Sunday, 22 December 2019

Happy Hanukkah - Hanukkah Sameachi

May Peace, Happiness and the Richness of Nature be with you always
David and Miriam

Saturday, 21 December 2019

Ring-necked Pheasant (Faisan de chasse)

21 December 2019

     Today is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, and Miriam and I got an early start on a ramble through the hinterlands of Waterloo and Wellington counties, in search of the winter specialties which are starting to take up residence here. We were especially searching for Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) but were unsuccessful in our quest, although the conditions are now suitable for this most glorious of birds. I have little doubt that in the next week or two we will find one or more.

     The temperature hovered around minus 6 degrees C, with bright sunshine, perfect weather for a winter's day in Ontario.
     Creeks and streams are now frozen over.

     In driving around today my mind took me towards John Riley's great work of 2013, The Once and Future Great Lakes Country, and I was doubly reminded of the great fortune we have to live in such a wonderful part of the world. 
     It will be hard for many to give credence to the fact that we came across a "better" bird than a Snowy Owl, a species in fact that I have seen but twice  in Waterloo Region and today for the first time in Wellington County. I am referring to the Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus), and we encountered a magnificent male specimen.

     I remember vividly during a visit to the UK several years ago seeing this bird almost every day, and sometimes several at a time. It is an introduced species, having been brought into both the UK and Canada for hunting purposes. Thousands are released each year in order that they may be promptly shot, but some birds inevitably elude the gunners and feral populations become established, more so in England it appears, for it is seldom seen here.

     This individual was about as cooperative as a bird can be and was within photographic range for nigh on a half hour. 

     We had pulled onto the shoulder of the road, and by following Miriam's instructions - 'Pull forward a couple of metres," "Back up a little," "Go past the tree," and so on, she was able to capture some very pleasing shots.

     At one point it was in the open in a field of corn stubble.

     It was altogether a very pleasing encounter, and our day was made. Anything after this would constitute the proverbial icing on the cake.
     We didn't have cake with us, but we did have two of Miriam's world class blueberry muffins on hand, and a thermos of coffee, the pleasure of which was magnified by our serendipitous encounter with a handsome bird.

     For a birder every day holds promise, and every day delivers in greater or lesser measure. Today was one for the record book. There are many more to come, I am sure.

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Northern Shrike (Pie-grièche grise)

18 December 2019

     Northern Shrike (Lanius borealis) is a bird that spends the winter in our area, and is always an exciting bird to find. 

     It helps to know where they traditionally appear for they seem to be faithful to their winter quarters.
     Although not uncommon, it is a bird that is infrequently encountered. Miriam and I were out doing errands this morning, and knew where we might expect one, and made our way to the area where we have seen the bird in the past.
     We were not disappointed.

     The bird was perched atop a small sapling and by using the car as a blind we were able to approach quite closely, pulled off to the side of the road I might add, to the consternation of other vehicles I have no doubt!
     It was prone to flying off, but never far, and by careful stalking we were able to secure a few reasonably decent pictures.

     This species is coloquially known as a Butcher Bird by some, due to its habit of impaling its prey on thorns or barbed wire to soften them up for consumption later. It is not often that I have seen this larder, and I have no idea where this bird might maintain it.
     I expect we will see it several more times during the winter as we revisit the area. It never fails to excite and please us.

Saturday, 14 December 2019

Birds, Bread and a Brisk Walk

13 December 2019

     I was sitting at the computer where, like many of us I suspect, I spend far too much time, and Miriam sidled up to say, "Let's go for a walk." I think it took all of a nanosecond for my bum to leave the chair.
     Hillside Park is mere minutes from home, and we needed bread from our favourite bakery which is in a small shopping plaza nearby, so that is where we headed.
     It was a gorgeous day, the kind that makes you rejoice in winter. The sun was shining, there was little wind, and the temperature was hovering right around zero, sometimes edging just over into positive territory, the kind of day to walk forever.
     The park looked splendid. There was ice still on the creek, but it was giving way to open water, and the play of sunlight verged on magical. 

     It pays to pause a while and take it in. The patterns of nature are varied, glorious and ever changing.

     Thank goodness for urban parks. 

     They are not perfect, but any area bearing even a resemblance to a natural state is appreciated, providing a respite from the unceasing presence of a burgeoning humanity.
     Bare branches against the sky told the tale of trees in dormant mode, waiting for the warm days of spring and increasing hours of daylight to renew their cycle of leafing out and bearing fruit.

     The green of conifers stood in stark contrast to denuded limbs.

     European Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) is found throughout southern Ontario. It is a serious invasive pest, extremely difficult to eradicate, which was originally used by early settlers for fencing purposes since it grows quickly and forms a dense barrier.
     The berries, however, are greatly favoured by birds, and many species take advantage of them.

     One of the great problems is that the berries function as a natural laxative and pass through the bird very quickly, which means that seeds are deposited where they were taken from the tree, and in short order the multiplier effect creates whole stands of the offender. And the process repeats itself. It is noteworthy that the berries are toxic to humans but pose no equivalent danger to birds.
     House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) were unconcerned with such matters. Food was the only thing on their minds. The males seem exceptionally handsome this year in their scarlet livery.

     For the first time ever, we saw Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) in the park. The picture is quite unsatisfactory, but it serves to record this initial sighting of a species that has thrived in spectacular fashion in recent years, habituating to suburban backyards with aplomb.

     I had a presentation to give early in the afternoon, so we could not tarry more than an hour; otherwise we might still be there, it was so lovely.

     So, back to the car and a visit to the bakery before heading home for lunch.

     A loaf of freshly baked Kalamata Olive bread seemed just the ticket for a lunchtime sandwich.

     We had grilled eggplant, a superb smoked Gouda cheese and fresh tomatoes for the filling. 

     Does life get much better than this? I don't think so. How about you?

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.