Sunday, 31 March 2019


     Spring was coming along nicely. Snowdrops were blooming, narcissus were poking up out of the ground, temperatures were rising.
    Then, BAM! This morning this was the scene on our deck.

     Just two days ago Miriam and I were sitting out there having afternoon tea and cookies.
     The backyard looked quite beautiful, but this is February beautiful not last day of March beautiful! The word "beautiful" did not figure in the words muttered under my breath when I got out of bed and glanced out the window.

     I was supposed to take my friend, Anne Godlewski, birding but we cancelled. The areas we planned to cover would have presented difficult driving - and there will be other opportunities.
     This squirrel took it all in stride.

     The feeders were no doubt especially welcome to our feathered friends this morning. As soon as I finish this post I will go out and top them up.

     In the first shot you will see a long mesh feeder with peanuts in it (courtesy of my friend, John Sanderson). I wage a constant battle with the squirrels (who are patently smarter than Stephen Hawking) to keep them away from it, but this morning nine Common Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) visited the back yard and four of them ganged up on the squirrel and drove it off the peanuts. How do I let the grackles know they are welcome to take up residence here? 
     Despite my best attempts, I could not get a decent picture of a single grackle in the open.

    We have seen several Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) this spring, but this morning they paid us a visit.

     At least five Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) romped in the snow, nothing to worry about for these little winter warriors.

     An American Robin (Turdus migratorius) was pretty stoic about it all.

     And I suppose I must be too. I can tell you one thing though, I am not shovelling the damn driveway! The sun will melt this late season intrusion soon enough.

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Ken Hussey, a Master Carver and a Fine Gentleman

     Over several years I have developed an appreciation for that unique form of great art produced by wood carvers (who are also consummate painters), especially when it involves birds; I might even say almost exclusively when it involves birds! I have invested a few dollars in my own collection!
     At the recent Canadian championships, I was privileged to spend best part of the day with Ken Hussey and Tim Forler, and through Ken I came to appreciate in a way I had never done before the class of carving known as Contemporary Antique.

Ken Hussey
     A rudimentary insight was gained by listening to Ken as he explained some of the processes involved in creating this genre, right from the initial thought process, before a knife ever touches a block of wood, through to the final dab of paint on the finished bird.
     I was anxious to know more and when I asked Ken if I could visit him at his home in Brantford and see his workshop he agreed instantly.
     It was serendipitous, and richly deserved, that for the first time in the history of the Canadian championship one of Ken's works in the Contemporary Antiques category won "Best in Show." It was proudly displayed for me to see along with the rosettes and plaque presented to him.

     It is such a splendid work, and Ken placed a couple of his decorative carvings with it, to show the evolution of his work from his early days when he did real life representations of shorebirds and ducks, to his present oeuvre. 

     Ken came to carving relatively late in life in 1983 and did so initially as the practical response of a hunter who wanted better decoys. From this developed a love of bird carving in all its forms. 
     Contemporary Antique was first introduced as a category in the World Championships held in Ocean City, MD each year only in 2007, a very recent addition to the many classifications already in existence. 
     Ken has had the great good fortune to have come to know Larry Barth, probably the finest exponent of this art form extant in the world, and to have been tutored by Larry on several occasions. Ken says that Larry is as considerate and kind a gentleman as one could wish to meet, and based on my interactions with carvers I have little difficulty accepting this assessment. (For a great insight into Larry Barth and his work see Birds, Art & Design, Stackpole Books, Larry Barth (2015).)
     Ken has taught many people over the years and still does an annual teaching stint at the Haliburton School of the Arts. Who knows but perhaps one of his students may go on to eclipse the best the world has to offer today?
     Wood carving has its origins deeply rooted in North America, and is essentially still a uniquely North American art form, but other countries around the world are getting into the field, especially decorative carving. Ken recounted to me seeing a carver from China at the world championship, a fellow known as a National Treasure, followed everywhere by a Chinese television crew, no doubt with state-mandated sycophantic zeal! 
     I had not realized that carvers often create clay models of works they are contemplating before ever starting work on a piece of wood. This gives them the freedom to work out their design concepts ahead of starting the actual work and permits them to rethink and modify without investing hours of effort that may not produce the desired result.

     We talked at some length about painting, and Ken explained to me how the process is always begun with a coat of Gesso, a white paint mixture consisting of a binder mixed with chalk, gypsum or pigment, or a combination of these components, to serve as a base before applying decorative colours. To create the work of fine art you see on the display table at a show can take between thirty and forty hours! This is not a chore to be tackled by the faint of heart!
     In his early days of decorative carving Ken was approved to borrow skins from the Royal Ontario Museum to establish colour and dimensional accuracy, but has not done so in recent years as he has concentrated on contemporary antiques, which are stylistic to a degree and not having dimensional precision as an imperative.
     In order to create his work, he has closely studied the output of many artisans spanning over a century, and taken the best of different genres and blended them into one representing his own distinct style. One of the influences that has predominated for him is the work known as the Toronto School (Warren, Reeves and Wills), whose principal occupation was boat building at Ashbridges Bay. Ken signs all of his work with his distinct brand.

     His fondest dream is that perhaps one day people might refer to a "Hussey" in the same way that he now cites the Toronto School.
     Decoys manufactured by the Toronto School are distinctive, having a thin bottom board and are hollow, most of the interior wood having been removed, thus being very lightweight.

      When working with students Ken makes an initial pencil sketch of the subject contemplated and then creates final plans on the computer, a copy of which is presented to each novice carver to guide him or her through the process.


     Ken showed me the procedure whereby he pares down the initial block of wood to get to the right size and begins to establish the contours.

     Often the head is created separately and attached to the body. If the entire bird were to be carved from one block of wood there would be a great deal of waste, so fusing the head to the body is both practical and economical.

     Waterfowl are not the only family for which decoys are created. Depicted below is a Mourning Dove.

     Books are an important part of every carver's resource material.

     And past successes are there to be celebrated and to act as the impetus to continue to do better.

     The shelves in a carver's workshop speak for themselves in a fashion more eloquent than I could ever hope to.

     On the drive home, I was pondering what seems to be a bit of an oddity, unique perhaps to the fine art of carving. Other than for the competition for the annual duck stamp in the United States, pictorial artists do not enter pictures into a show and have their pictures judged against others to be awarded prizes at different levels. Yet this is an integral part of the year of the bird carver and to win is something eagerly pursued by all. The resulting prestige, to say nothing of the financial reward, is significant.
     So what did I take away from my time with Ken? A renewed and even greater esteem for this wonderful creative pursuit, certainly; the degree of excellence achieved is simply staggering. But most of all, what I took away, is the sheer grace and friendliness of the artists involved, their absolute love for what they do, the constant striving to achieve a better result, the drive to portray nature at its finest. This year was superb; next year will be better. 
     Thank you Ken for your kind hospitality and your willingness, eagerness even, to share your knowledge with me, and to enable me to understand in some small measure the creative spirit that motivates your daily life. I salute you and all your kind. May you long produce works of beauty for all to enjoy.

Friday, 22 March 2019

Tuesday Rambles with David - Long Point, Norfolk County, ON

19 March 2019

     The last day of winter was a bright, sunny day and a visit to Long Point, where Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus) should be arriving in their thousands seemed like a fine plan. Judy and Mary had other arrangements for the day, but we met up with Franc, Carol, Jim and Francine to begin a rewarding session of birding.
     Our first stop was at Port Rowan harbour where the sheer number and variety of waterfowl out on the bay was staggering. Most were far out, however, and seemed to be moving farther away as we watched.

     There were many Tundra Swans and a few were reasonably close.

     In the distance we could also see two Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) perched against the shoreline, no doubt ever vigilant for a duck in trouble.
     We scanned the harbour from a couple of different vantage points and while the spectacle of such a huge concentration of waterfowl was very exciting, it was also distant. However, we were confident that as we explored other areas of the Long Point complex closer views would be possible.
     Our next stop was at the Lee Brown Waterfowl Management Reserve, but the water there was still frozen solid and not a duck was to be found. In this general area Tundra Swans historically have congregated by the thousands and I have been present when a bare field having barely shed its cloak of snow is transformed back to white by thousands of swans descending on the dun coloured soil. Today was no exception, there was a constant procession of swans coming in, called noisily to each other, in sheer exuberance perhaps to be returning to their Arctic nesting grounds, going home so to speak.

     This annual rite of spring is one of the greatest of all natural spectacles to be witnessed in Ontario, an event that fills me with awe each time I see it.
     Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) populate Long Point and the environs year round, but we saw only five individuals the whole day.

   Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) have returned to the province and a couple were spotted in a conifer, one spreading its wings, perchance to capture the warmth of the sun.

     Carol had spotted a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) and while we were watching it another bird flew in. It played hide and seek with us for a while but finally showed itself reasonably well. An Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) is always a pleasing sighting.

     We moved along to the headquarters of Bird Studies Canada where the assortment of species can sometimes be very rewarding.

      As you might imagine Miriam could not resist taking a picture of this barn quilt.

     In recent years barn quilts have popped up in many counties in southern Ontario and they add a pleasant dimension to the rural landscape. I find them very attractive.
     The pond at Bird Studies Canada was still frozen, but we noticed something at the lip of the entrance to a nesting box designed for Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) and, knowing that it is not unusual for Eastern Screech Owls (Megascops asio) to opportunistically occupy these boxes, were delighted at what we found.

     The box was far away but you can see the owl quite clearly taking advantage of the warmth in the sun's rays. This view was especially exciting for Carol who had never been with us before when we had located a screech owl.
     For the past couple of years when we visit Long Point, Carol's sister Betty who lives there, always permits us to take our lunch to enjoy it inside at her house, a very kind gesture indeed. If she is not at home Carol knows where to find a key to the front door, but today Betty was there to welcome us, and we were all delighted to see her. A fresh pot of coffee enabled us to enjoy our lunch with a steaming hot drink.
     Our next stop was at the Long Point Bird Observatory and in homage to my good friend, Phil Slade, an English blogger who interned at Long Point many years ago, I am including a couple of pictures that might bring back fond memories for him.

       It seemed that we could barely turn our heads without seeing scores of Common Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) and Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus).

     This Red-winged Blackbird seemed to exhibit partial leucism, the first time I have seen the condition in this species. 

     As is so often the case, a Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) perched quietly in a tree, aloof from the raucous scrum of blackbirds and sparrows below.

     Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) was a very common species, being seen frequently throughout the woodlot.

     On our way back along the causeway we stopped at various points and a Merlin (Falco columbarius) accounted for the absence of songbirds in the immediate vicinity.

     Its crop was bulging so I suspect it might have just eaten and was resting to aid in digestion.
     The ice on the bay was starting to melt a little at the edges but in general it was still locked in ice.

     An American Beaver (Castor canadensis) had embarked on a particularly ambitious venture! When the ice recedes it will perhaps return to finish the task.

     Invasive phragmites are a real problem throughout Ontario's wetlands, and while a major (and expensive) attempt at removal is underway at Long Point, it remains a serious issue.

     Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) aplenty were seen close to shore, males outnumbering females each time we saw them.

     Ring-necked Duck (Aythya collaris) was also quite common. In the photograph below you can actually see the very faint ring for which this species is named - a name (along with a few others) that seems to have been conferred by a taxonomist with a perverse sense of humour!

     We saw literally thousands of Tundra Swans but only two Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) the entire day.

     But there were many, many Canvasbacks (Aythya valsineria).

     Just before leaving the causeway to begin our journey home we pulled over to the side for one last look at the Tundra Swans, a fitting end to a day of excellent birding, another encounter with nature at its best.

     We will return in the fall when the swans undertake their reverse migration to winter off the Atlantic coast. À la prochaine, mes amis!

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.