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Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Some Days You Get Lucky

26 November 2019
An Outing to Long Point, ON

     Recently, our group of eight has been intact as we go on our outings, adding to the pleasure of the day. Today was such a day; Mary and Judy rode with Miriam and me, Franc and Carol picked up Jim and Francine at their house.
     November, in its infancy, presented us with cold weather and snow. We all groaned and complained about an early start to winter, but of late inclemency has morphed into benign and pleasant conditions, and we looked forward to a day of sunshine and a temperature climbing to 10° C. And we were not disappointed! Furthermore, a day at Long Point is always made all the more enjoyable by the fact that we are permitted to use Carol's sister, Betty's house to have our lunch, including fresh coffee which Carol always makes for us. It is never less than very agreeable, but on a cold day it verges on heavenly.
     Just to the north of Port Rowan we glanced off to the side and saw hundreds upon hundreds of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) in a ploughed field. This is one of the signature attractions of the Long Point area in the fall and the spectacle we were to witness would exceed all our expectations.



     Everywhere we looked there were cranes, adults and juveniles, birds landing, birds on the ground, spectres high in the sky and others coming in to land in that magical fashion of cranes of every species throughout the world.  Never had we seen so many in Ontario.



     In the evocative words from Paul Johnsgard's little book Those of the Grey Wind: The Sandhill Cranes - "The long, wavering grey line of cranes was like a giant aerial armada, weaving and advancing in wave after wave of birds stretching as far as the eye could see - and beyond."
     And so it was for eight awestruck observers, humbled by the grandeur of it all.
     The voice of these magnificent birds evokes wonder, joy, contentment, tranquility and a link to the primeval and vital quality of nature. It is at once a burble, a booming, a bugling, a glorious chorus in celebration of life, a choir of the great outdoors, a symphony borne on the wind, a trumpet of joy to sooth the most troubled breast. 


      The cranes were not the only spectacle, however. Fall on the north shore of
Lake Erie is equally renowned for the arrival of Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus) fresh from their breeding grounds above the Arctic Circle. The skies were filled with swans. Swans vied with cranes to capture our attention. The chorus of the cranes was reinforced by the melody of the swans. We were delighted to see so many young birds, clear evidence of a successful breeding season.




     Upon landing the swans lined up in regimental fashion, all facing the same way, as though on a parade ground with a sergeant-major putting them through a drill.


     Swan or crane? Where did one look first?




     As we meandered along slowly, stopping all the while to feast anew on the spectacle, we saw more and more birds of both species, but the Sandhill Cranes had the edge in numbers. It was truly a remarkable show.




     The sky just kept on delivering cranes, and even provided a hint of celestial  colour as a fitting backdrop.





      In Europe many have seen spectacular concentrations of Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) and while we do see large flocks in North America, they pale by comparison to the European spectacles. This was about as large a flock as we have seen and they wheeled around in unison, maintaining a tight formation, and thrilling us with their aerial exploits.


     Normally we all meet at the harbour in Port Rowan, but we had been occupied with the cranes and swans and were distracted from our regular pattern, but we decided to visit the harbour before lunch to check out the waterfowl. 
     The fish huts looked serene in the bright autumn sunshine.


     What few ducks were present were way out on the water. It is duck hunting season in Ontario, so perhaps they were wisely seeking safe haven in the middle of the bay.


     Most of the ducks in the image below were Canvasbacks (Aythya valsinaria).
Doubtless there were a few other species but we could not be sure of their identification.


     A Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) was surveying the area, seeking prey no doubt, from atop one of the fish huts.



     At nearby Bird Studies Canada headquarters a Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii put on a bit of a show for us.


     A couple of stops along the causeway produced very little in the way of birds. But some of the trees still retained their leaves and looked quite splendid in the sunlight of this fine day.


     After lunch we went down to the area known as Old Cut, where Mary insisted on a group picture of some of us at least.

David, Mary, Carol, Franc
     There were many House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) around the feeders near to the banding station, and this picture reveals just what an attractive little bird this much maligned species is.




     We saw a couple of Brown Creepers (Certhia americana) in the woodlot and Francine managed not a bad picture.


     And not to be outdone she snapped her own group shot too.

Judy, Miriam, Jim, Mary, David
     It had been a fabulous day, highlighted by the Sandhill Cranes and the Tundra Swans, a day we will not soon forget. It was great that the whole group was able to enjoy it together.



Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Book Review - The Renewable Energy Transition, Realities for Canada and the World - Springer Nature Switzerland

     This is an important book, both for Canada and the world. John Erik Meyer has a lifetime of experience dedicated to this field of study and we benefit greatly from his expertise.




     The critical questions are succinctly posed in the preface, viz:

     1. How long do we have to change our consumption patterns before the climate is changed irreparably? 
     2. How long will it be before fossil fuel resources decline in quality to the point of destabilizing energy flows and unsettling financial and production systems?
     3. How long for a society to transition away from fossil fuels to the degree that both climate and energy supply threats are greatly reduced?

     These questions have enormous relevance for the future of mankind, and are particularly germane in Canada today, where we have the elected governments of resource-rich western provinces, especially Alberta, committed to increased extraction in the tar sands, with a commensurate ongoing destruction of the boreal forest. In the process greenhouse gas emissions will increase exponentially to the point that, were Alberta a separate country, it would be the worst polluter on the planet.
     The Federal Government of Justin Trudeau, while touting itself as being a friend of the environment, has nonetheless committed to pipeline construction, having gone so far as to purchase (with taxpayers' money) the Kinder-Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline to transport crude and refined oil from Alberta to the ports of British Columbia, when the company simply gave up on the venture. There is fierce opposition to the pipeline from all manner of groups with indigenous people and environmentalists being on the front lines of resistance. Trudeau's liberal government, which was unable to elect a single member of parliament from the west in the recent election, now has to seek ways to assure the west that it is an important part of the federation, and no issue is dearer to the hearts of western politicians than pipelines. Furthermore, Québec is equally adamant that it will not permit pipelines on its territory.
    And all of this in pursuit of a technology that is already at the edges of obsolescence. But even as reliance on fossil fuels continues to decline, marginally at best it must be said, the danger to the very life support systems of the planet increase. The tipping point is not far off. Many credible scientists postulate that if significant modification of our appetite for, and use of, fossil fuels is not moderated to a substantial degree - immediately - we will have lost the battle by 2030.
     Meyer's book begins with the history of Canada since the first European settlers arrived on our shores, who instantly began the exploitation of its resources, including substantial quantities of wood for heat in a hostile winter, thereby releasing stored carbon into the atmosphere. From that modest beginning, with a renewable resource (lumber), we have progressed in less than 500 years, (a mere nanosecond in the existence of the planet), to the point where the very health of the earth is threatened by the modification of its atmosphere, with industrialized societies around the world sharing the blame. And all brought on by the exploitation of non-renewable, dirty, health-jeopardizing, climate-modifying fossil fuels.
     Meyer takes us on a step by step journey through the past to the present, with a prescient look into the future, and examines the consequences in a factual, reasoned, scientific fashion, free of the hyperbole on both sides often associated with climate change, of what will inevitably occur if we fail to act - and act soon.
     It is perhaps instructive to look at the chapter titles.


1. Stored Energy Builds a Northern Nation
2. Canada's Energy History
3. Energy Budgets for People and Nations
4. Abundance Abounds, Why Change?
5. Renewable Energy Learning Curve
6. Renewal Energy in a Spectrum of Countires
7. Choosing the Right Metric for the Job
8. Public Policy Formation for Successful Change
9. The Transition from the Ground Up
10. Building a Renewable Energy Network - Canadian and Northern Options
11. A New World for Public Policy
12. Steps Towards the Other Side of the Transition

     One very significant point that the book makes concerns the reliance on GDP as the measure of the wealth, and hence the success, of a society, with its implication for eternal growth at whatever cost, as an inviolable principle, self-evident in its rectitude. In fact GDP reflects only the financial side of society, and imperfectly at that, with no regard for the laws of physics and the factors which will ultimately determine whether society writ large even continues to exist. The concept of EROI (Energy Return on Investment) is critical in both historical terms and as a matrix for the future in ensuring the ongoing health of a society and its citizens. To understand and accept EROI is probably the most important contribution the book makes to our grasp of the forces which will shape our future, and the extent to which renewable clean energy is critical to our survival as a species. The switch to clean energy is not a choice, it is an imperative. As Meyer points out, even if the whole world puts off fossil fuel reduction, all it gains is thirty years of business as usual, and then we will have to deal with a vastly worse climate scenario.
     The text is greatly enhanced by a series of charts, graphs, figures and illustrations.



     These devices materially assist in translating complex topics and large numbers into visual aids that enhance our understanding of them, facilitating a quick grasp of the subjects covered.




     I repeat that the book, page by page, deals with issues in a factual, scientific, evidence-based way. No position is taken without solid back-up, and a supporting bibliography. Meyer has done a great service to all Canadians, to all mankind in fact, in presenting in a highly readable format, the facts before our eyes which we have all too often looked at through clouded spectacles. Indeed some have worn blinders the whole time and remain reluctant to let the light in.
     The time for indifference and complacency has passed. The call to action is clear. As the title of Primo Levi's magnificent work says, "If not now - when?"
     If I have one niggardly complaint about the book, it is that it seems to suffer from less than rigorous editing. There are far too many typos, a few missing words and the like, "us"  sometimes becomes "use," and there are even outright incorrect statements - for example, Jeff Bezos, celebrated as the founder of Amazon and the world's richest man, is correctly referred to on page 327, but has morphed into George Bezos by page 349.    
     None of this detracts from the importance of the book. It should be essential reading for everyone concerned about the future of our planet and the future of our children and grandchildren. In fact if you are sixty years of age or younger, it directly concerns you, for you will be living with the changes that have to occur. This text will be my constant companion as I seek to understand the issues of climate change and our ability to deal them on a daily basis.
     I salute John Erik Meyer for a compelling read, a vision for the future, a clear understanding of how we have got to where we are, and a prescription for what we need to do to remediate the damage we have done. 

The Renewable Energy Transition, Realities for Canada and the World,
Lecture Notes in Energy No. 71
John Erik Meyer, Canadians for a Sustainable Society, Parry Sound, ON
Springer Nature Switzerland. Published November 2019

    

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Red-bellied Woodpecker (Pic à ventre roux) in the manner of Arthur Cleveland Bent

       Inscribed in the honour roll of American ornithologists, the name Arthur Cleveland Bent (1866-1954) takes pride of place among many notables. He is widely known for his monumental (and this is an instance where the word is not used lightly) 21-volume Life Histories of North American Birds. To this day, if you examine the bibliography of contemporary ornithological works, reference to Bent is commonplace. His work has stood the test of time.
     Bent is not only renowned for his scholarly discipline, but also for the whimsical, almost folksy style in which he wrote. Make no mistake, he did not lack sophistication for he was a Harvard alumnus, but he perhaps aimed his treatise at a lay audience as much as to fellow ornithologists, and the results are delightful. Whenever I refer to Bent (alas I have only  two volumes) I always linger longer than I need to, simply to take pleasure in reading his accounts.
     I thought it would be fun to try my hand at this, and so I will attempt to convey the flavour of Bent to you in the following piece on Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). I am under no illusion that I will approach his mastery of this style, but I hope that I will be able to impart to you some of the sheer fun to be had from reading his work.


Red-bellied Woodpecker

     The Red-bellied Woodpecker no doubt was named by someone suffering from an excess of libation, or possessed of a perverse sense of humour, for the alleged red belly is little more than a smudge on the lower regions, and not frequently seen by the casual observer.



     Nevertheless, as you may readily conclude from an examination of the male  above, he is a very handsome chap, with red nape and cap, and a stout bill with which to probe every crevice, every stump, in search of delicacies such as spiders, grubs and arthropods of all kinds that happen to cross his path.



    Furthermore he is not above dining on fruit, berries, nuts and the like, and should an opportunity present itself he does not eschew the eggs or young of other birds. Even small mammals and a careless frog do not escape the attention of this catholic diner.



          Usually found in his woodland home, he is quick to exploit friendly environs provided by human habitation, where a buffet table of seed and fat is often laid out for him.



      He is not shy to announce his presence by uttering a deep churr call, hoping that the ladies of the area pay attention to this sound. He is declaring jurisdiction over his domain, and also announcing his availability as a suitor.



      The object of his ardour is similar to the male, but the red does not form a hood, and only her nape is clothed in crimson.


   
      Her head is grey at the top, nor does she support the the orange blush on her cheeks as featured in the male. Confident in her beauty, she perhaps has no need for further ostentation.






     The female is vocal in this species, although not so much as the male, but sweet calls are exchanged between the two sexes to establish a pair bond before nesting. Although calling throughout the year, but especially in late winter and spring, they do not consort together until the requisite hormonal changes incite their instincts, at which time they may be seen together at all times. Once sexually charged in this manner both sexes exchange low-pitched grr sounds, reflecting no doubt their passion for each other. Indeed, the female often initiates copulation by mounting the male, a curious behaviour one might conclude, but it serves to incite the male to perform his duty.
     

     

     The culmination of their union is a nest hole prepared mostly by the male, but with assistance from the female at the end of the process, where no doubt specific requirements are taken care of; in the way of humans, the female arrogates to herself the choice of final decor and other details of the home.
     Four to six eggs are laid and both devoted parents take part in incubation, the male generally assuming the night shift. When the young hatch they are provisioned by both parents who do not lack in industry in ensuring the healthy development of their brood.
     Once the young woodpeckers leave the nest the ties of devotion between the two former lovers is severed and they go their separate ways. In the following season they may serendipitously renew their tryst, but more likely they will find a new partner, and begin the whole process anew.

     

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

An Eagle or Two.

08 November 2019

     It was Judy who suggested we should go and look for eagles. 
     Sounded like a fine idea to me, so I canvassed the members of our Tuesday group, and had but two other takers, Miriam and Franc. The others had prior commitments or simply did not wish to go.
     The period covering the first two weeks of November is the prime time for southward movements of Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). The winds have to be right, strong north-westerlies being ideal, and Friday's forecast seemed made to order. A consensus was reached; hawk watching we would go!
     Our destination was the aptly named Hawk Cliff, near the lakeside community of Port Stanley in Elgin County, hard by the upland contours of the land as it skirts along the north shore of Lake Erie. The conditions could not have been more perfect, both for migrating raptors and for human observers. At times hawk-watching can resemble nothing so much as an exercise in masochism, undertaken by people otherwise quite normal in their lives. Not so today. The sun shone, the temperature was a mere smidgen below zero, and the winds came as close to perfection as could be.
     Judy was the only one with an intimate knowledge of the area and she found a perfect clearing for us from which to scan the sky. A farmer had very obligingly cleared some of the corn from his field, and that which was left standing gave us a windbreak, and a clear view of the usual flight path of migrating raptors. 


       We set down our chairs and settled in to begin the vigil, warmly dressed, and with a thermos of hot coffee. Barely had our behinds nestled into the seat than Miriam said, "Two hawks coming in." And so began a non-stop movement that was as spectacular as any I have witnessed. Our chairs were not occupied again until lunch time!
     The sky was filled with birds; all the raptors we might hope to see. Additionally, hundreds of American Crows (Corvus brachyrynchos) were moving through and there was activity in every direction. Even when the passage of hawks and eagles slowed for a moment there was a constant stream of Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) which did not abate all day.





    I have to tell you that Judy is a retired anesthesiologist; a profession requiring a calm head and a steady hand. That description bore faint resemblance to "Hawk Watch Judy," who was as giddy as a newly emerged mayfly in summer. "Look here, David," she said, and as I did she yelled, "Oh, look over there." As my eyes pivoted she screamed, "Golden Eagle coming in to the left" - and so on. It was that kind of day. It was hawk watching at its very best.
    Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) were the most numerous of the raptors, and we saw this polymorphic hawk in every plumage imaginable, and in every age class. We saw them high, we saw them low. At times they cruised above our head, and circled lazily: at other times they hurtled through as though they had a thermal to catch.






     Franc, fully expecting the birds to be higher, had taken a monopod and a larger lens than he normally would, and he felt he was hampered somewhat by his choice of equipment. Nevertheless, he achieved results for the record book, high quality images displaying the birds at their best. Ever modest, he demurs at the suggestion that we are mightily impressed with his results. I will let you be the judge.
     The holy grail of raptor watching in southern Ontario is without doubt  Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). Sometimes, even with dedicated effort, and freezing hands and feet, with face reddened from the biting wind, and several journeys to renowned locations, you can miss the migration entirely. Today we had five, possibly six individuals, since we were not quite sure whether one bird had doubled back on us.






     For those not familiar with the species, a Golden Eagle derives its name from its golden nape, clearly visible in the pictures above.
     We were all in awe. These birds cut through the winds like a hot knife through butter. They render you speechless with their strength and power. They are indeed royalty and we are but peasants in their presence.
     Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is far more common than in times past, but it does not suffer at all from familiarity. It is an impressive bird by any measure, adult or juvenile.





     Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) is not a species I see frequently during the breeding season, some years not at all, so a cohort of them on migration is always a welcome opportunity.




     As far as I recall we saw but one Northern Harrier (Circus hudsonius), and Franc managed to get a picture.



     There were small numbers of other raptors, including Merlin (Falco columbarius) and American Kestrel (Falco sparverius), but the main excitement is covered above.
     I wish to express my deep gratitude to Franc for downloading and editing his pictures so quickly. He set aside other files he was working on to get me these images for my blog. To Judy, "Thanks for suggesting the outing in the first place."
     The final shout-out I would offer is to Brian K. Wheeler for his book Raptors of the East which I reviewed for Princeton University Press when it was published last year. It simply is the very best. You need nothing else!