Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 in a Nutshell

News outlets have been running the top headlines of 2010 this week. Our local radio station and newspaper feature community stories and national networks focus more on world-wide events. Each year also brings individual memories of little events which may not change the world, but will change our lives. I liked this Facebook application which took some of my status updates and summarized 2010 for me. There were plenty of good memories and special times with family and friends. It was a good year, but not without sadness and loss. So for those who are not on Facebook, this was my 2010 in a nutshell.

Wishing everyone a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year!!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Early Friday Flowers and Birds of Mexico

Macro of wild asters

Dad has always been interested in photography and used good SLR cameras for taking slides as we were growing up. In my opinion, he has never had a decent digital camera to match his ability as a photographer. He bought my Canon SX10 this year when I upgraded to the Canon SX30 and is having a great time taking pictures with the 20x zoom, sports mode and the macro feature. Two weeks ago I shared flower pictures he took around their home in Mexico. The honeysuckle, which is pretty much finished blooming now, attracted some beautiful birds. Here are a few pictures Dad took this month.

Male Altamira Oriole
Female Altamira Oriole Feeding on Honeysuckle

Can you see the Hummingbird?
I am not sure what type of Hummingbird this is

 Camera comments...

I am still getting used to the Canon SX30 but I don't think it takes better pictures than the SX10 Dad is now using. The newer model has a 35x zoom which is fine if there is excellent light, but there have been few days this winter bright enough to use the full zoom capabilities. I am happy with its size and weight as I do not want to carry a DSLR and heavy lenses out on walks. The manual came on a CD which I find quite inconvenient so perhaps I will print it out and get better acquainted with the SX30 in the new year.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Varied Thrush

The Cornell Lab of Orthinology describes the Varied Thrush as "a large, robin-like thrush of the Pacific Northwest. The Varied Thrush is a characteristic bird of the mature, dark coniferous forests. Wandering individuals turn up regularly far from home, wintering around feeders in the midwestern states."

One of them wandered even further into south-western Ontario and is enjoying the hospitality of a generous family in our region. I drove to the property just outside the city after work. It is a haven for birds with several bird houses, feeders and many mature trees. This Varied Thrush is consistent in visiting a particular feeder under a juniper bush in the front yard. The  friendly hosts have invited birders to sit in their cars in the driveway where they have an excellent view of this rare, vagrant bird. And many people from all over the province have stopped by in the past two to three weeks. It was dull day and a fine snowfall obscured the mid-afternoon light, but I was able to get a few pictures for the record of this beautiful bird.

The Varied Thrush is large and I took a couple of reference shots to show its size. Here it is with two Northern Cardinals and the picture below includes a couple of Juncos.

Like most Thrushes, it was shy and tended to stay beneath branches and I had just a couple of opportunites to see it in the open.

People are more secretive about bird sightings as postings of unusual species on the internet can encourage some rude and intrusive visits from inconsiderate people. There are few people who share locations where owls have been seen because irresponsible photographers will stop at nothing to get the pictures they want. So I appreciated the opportunity to enjoy an unusual bird on private land owned by people who are nature lovers and nature sharers.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Birds' Christmas

The morning was frosty and the wind blew strongly out of the north, but the sun was shining and that was enough to entice me to take an walk today in a local nature area. This particular spot offers some protection from the wind and is home to many winter birds. A man walked a distance ahead of me carrying a pail of bird seed. Every so often he placed a handful here and there along the path.

An American Tree Sparrow perched on a rotted stump, its feathers all fluffed out against the cold air. Blue Jays, Cardinals, Juncos, Downy Woodpeckers and Nuthatches moved around on the bare tree branches while keeping a safe distance away from people passing by.

The generous man had placed seed on every post along the boardwalk and soon the sparrows and finches arrived for a breakfast buffet.

The Tree Sparrow left his perch and did not seem to notice the small seeds stuck on his bill.

There was lots of food for those who were not shy and there would be plenty left over for the birds who arrived for a second seating.

Another bird lover hung pine cones filled with peanut butter and seeds on low branches and the Chickadees enjoyed the tasty ornaments. I think my friend Cheryl may have been the one who made these treats.

I talked to the man with the pail on his return trip. He brings seeds for these birds several times a week and buys only the best mix of peanuts, black sunflower seeds and finch feed. He doesn't do it to get a picture or for thanks from anyone but his feathered friends. People like this make our community a special place indeed.

I am reading an old Christmas book which belonged to my mother. The Birds' Christmas Carol by Kate Douglas Wiggin is not about birds but is a sad Victorian story about a dying girl who celebrates her last Christmas by inviting a needy family for a festive meal. But the scene today made me think of the title of the book. This was a bird's Christmas carol if I ever heard one.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve

So the Word became human and made his home among us. 
He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness.
And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son.
John 1 :12 (NLT)

This tiny clay nativity scene was made in Peru. I love its simplicity and the symbolism of God's hands in the creation of life. Mary and Joseph are resting after a difficult, eventful day. Nothing was sanitized or polished in the humble place where Jesus was born. I don't pretend to believe that Jesus was born on this actual night and it really doesn't matter when he really made his human appearance. If I claim to belong to Christ, I must demonstrate his unfailing love and faithfulness every day of the year.

 You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.
  Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
  Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
  he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.
  Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
and gave him the name above all other names,
   that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
  and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. 
Philippians 2:5-11 (NLT)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Longest Night

9:30 AM today

The plants in my kitchen window grow spindly and they reach toward the weak rays of winter light in these days of late December. As long as there is open water on the Great Lakes, clouds cover our skies frequently and time is marked by shades of gray and black.

8 AM today

One lighted tree hangs on the wall upstairs to brighten the dark mornings and evenings. The white lights reflect and warm the cold window panes with their glow. On my calendar I count down the days to winter solstice as I anticipate the slow return to light that will lead us to June's longest day.

9 AM today

I am listening to Handel's Messiah on the way to and from work this week. The bass sings Isaiah's words,

"For, behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people; but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and His glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising." followed by,

"The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined." as a prelude to the joyful chorus,

"For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given: and the government shall be upon His shoulder: and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.

Dusk- December 20, 2010

Like my plants, I too reach for the light. This year a full moon lights our darkest night and yesterday we watched with anticipation as it rose above the thin clouds on the horizon. It shone brightly in the dark sky until midnight when more clouds moved in to obscure its form. But it still illuminated the clouds and the earth below.

I was disappointed that the rare total lunar eclipse of the winter solstice was hidden from view above our house. What is it that draws us to watch these events in the sky? We are so insignificant when compared to the vast size of the universe. The moon shines, the shadow of the earth blocks the sun and its reflected rays, then the moon shines again.

Early morning December 21, 2010

Light triumphs over darkness, life triumphs over death... and that is the message of Christ's coming.

Here is a picture taken by a local photographer in the Guelph ON area. He found a break in the clouds at the time of eclipse.

Dec. 21, 2010 Lunar Eclipse

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Old Christmas Cards

We pull Grandma's Christmas scrapbook out of the crawl space each year along with the other decorations. Many of the pages had torn out of the binding and I reinforced all of them this month, hopefully extending the life of the old book. Grandma meticulously pasted clippings and old cards in the scrapbook over many years and I enjoy re-reading them. Here are two cards, each over 100 years old. Grandma would have been eight years old when she received the card from the Toronto school board chairman and eleven years old when she received the Father Christmas card. I sent two cards by mail this year and hand delivered a few more. Most of my Christmas greetings will be by email, but no one is likely to paste them into a  scrapbook.

Do you send or save Christmas cards?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Friday Flowers: Mexico at Christmas time

Poinsettia in my family's yard in Tepic Mexico
My dad took these pictures of the poinsettia and honeysuckle flowers in their yard in Mexico. They are also enjoying Hummingbirds, Orioles and Kiskadees in the garden at this time of year. The night time temperatures at their elevation are around freezing but the days are warmer after the sun gets up.

Honeysuckle on the fence behind the house in the late afternoon
Some may think our snowy landscape in Ontario is "Christmas-sy" but I think these flowers are far more festive. Apparently there are hundreds of lighted poinsettias on the trees along the streets in the city.

Poinsettia macro

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I'm Dreaming of a Green Christmas

As a family we have enjoyed reasonably good health over the years, but when I think back, we were most often sick at Christmas time. I spent more time in emergency rooms and medical clinics in December for myself and our children than I care to remember. I was working one Christmas day in ICU and my ears were so blocked, I could hardly hear a thing in my stethoscope. The doctor who checked my ears said there was no infection, yet my head felt like it would burst. I have had two bouts of influenza in December which left me ill and congested for weeks. For several years I was the first in line for my flu shot but I no longer get one even though I work in health care.

 Many illnesses can be treated symptomatically with drugs but it takes time and detective skills to figure out the root causes. If a patient comes to me with back or neck pain, I ask about their occupation, their chair, mattress and pillow before I treat their problem area. Sometimes a simple change is all that is needed to eliminate the pain. And I have linked most of our December illnesses to sugar overload. A classic study published in 1973 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition* demonstrated that 100g of various sugars and starches reduced activity of white blood cells up to 45%. This effect on the immune system lasted for five hours.

Growing up, I was taught to avoid addictive substances like alcohol, nicotine and other drugs but sugar, which is also highly addictive, was often used as a reward by kind adults, teachers and family. If there was one thing I would do differently in raising my children, it would be to avoid the use of sweets and simple carbohdrates as the highlight of birthdays and holidays like Christmas and Easter. As I get older, I recognize that too much sugar and processed food increases the likelihood that I will have fatigue, joint pain, headaches, fluid retention and higher blood pressure. Taking nutritional supplements does not replace our need for a healthy diet with plenty of vegetables and fruit.

I have eaten oatmeal for breakfast for decades but recently started eating a big salad instead. I fill a bowl with greens, add fresh fruit, a handful of nuts and seeds and splash it with good quality balsamic vinegar. It leaves me satisfied all morning. I often have a lunch salad but add legumes and cut up vegetables instead of fruit and nuts. Kale is one of the healthiest greens around, but I am not very fond of the taste and texture. Every week I juice a bundle of kale along with a whole lemon, oranges or apples, celery or cucumber, carrots and a knob of fresh ginger. I freeze the juice in daily portions and drink it diluted half and half with water. Someone accustomed to sweet sodas may think this is a wretched combination, but my tastebuds have become used to the taste.

The French translation= "cool very hot"
 There are many special food treats to enjoy at this time of year which are not sugary. We bought a box of fresh citrus fruit this month and stocked up on fresh nuts, special cheeses and other savoury items. I visited a local Indian grocery store last weekend to buy some spices for a delicious curry recipe that a lady brought to a church potluck meal. The chili powder came in two varieties;- "Very Hot" and "Extremely Hot". I had to laugh at the English translations on the imported spice packages. This shop had the most delicious vegetable samosas at the counter and they were a treat that beat any boxed chocolate at Walmart.

Here is to a healthy, green Christmas!

Sanchez A, et al. Role of sugars in human neutrophilic phagocytosis. Am J Clin Nutr 1973; 26: 1180-84

Ringsdorf WM jr, Cheraskin E and Ramsey RR jr. Sucrose, Neutrophilic Phagocytosis, and Resistance to Disease. Dent Surv 1976; 52 (12): 46-48

Friday, December 10, 2010

Friday Snow and Flowers

Recent weeks have been eventful and time is moving ahead quickly. At the hospital, many of my rehab patients hold on to the hope that they might be home for Christmas and we do our best to help them achieve their goal, even if they can just be with family for a day. In the midst of seasonal busyness, winter arrived in Ontario with a vengeance. Our daughter lives an hour west of us in London ON which is in the Lake Huron snow belt. While we received a couple of centimetres of snow, her city was dumped with 100-150 cm of snow over three days. A community 20 minutes north of her house received 176 cm (which is over five feet). She is a nurse, and while the rest of the city was shut down, hospital and emergency workers had to get to work. She said she worked, shovelled, slept and shovelled for four days. That storm system is gone but more bad weather is on the way. The biggest snowfall I have seen is 30 cm or one foot and that occurs rarely in our area.

I really miss the sun at this time of year with our short days and cloudy skies. In eleven days that will start to change with the arrival of winter solstice. My husband and I visited a local green house recently. It was the perfect antidote for a damp and dreary day.

Several adjoining greenhouses were filled with blooms of various shades and colours. Santa will surely be busy with deliveries!

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Another Life Bird

Red-shouldered Hawk
It has been a while since I found a new life bird in its natural habitat (not in a bird net). Today I drove north into Mennonite farm country to get some fresh farm produce. The sun was shining for a change and that compelled me to keep driving to look for the raptors which overwinter in our region.

Several Old Order Mennonite farmers were spreading manure on their fields from horse-drawn wagons. Other years I have seen Snowy Owls and Bald Eagles close to farm buildings where manure piles attract rodents and other small mammals.

I pulled to the side of the road and watched a couple of Northern Harriers skim over fields. They moved too quickly for me to get a good picture but the males are easily identified with their dark wing tips and white bellies.

I stopped by a river bank and heard a loud raptor call from a large tree. A beautifully marked Red-shouldered Hawk watched as I approached on foot and posed as I took many pictures. Unfortunately the sky had clouded over but there was enough light to get some clear shots. It was a good morning for winter birding and many more birds will arrive here for the next few months. Here is my list for the day.

Red-tailed Hawk (4) Northern Harrier (2), Rough-legged Hawk (1), Red-Shouldered Hawk (1),  Downy Woodpecker (1), Red-bellied Woodpecker (1), White-breasted Nuthatch (3), Slate-coloured Juncos (4), Blue Jay (1), Black-capped Chickadees (many) as well as the usual farm field suspects...Crows, Pigeons, House Sparrows, Canada Geese, Mallard Ducks, Herring Gulls. And at my feeders... Northern Cardinal (2), House Finch (6), Red-breasted Nuthatch (2),Goldfinch (several), (Chickadees, WB Nuthatch, Blue Jay, Juncos)

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Christmas Lights

Our city has a strong German heritage and hosts Christkindl Market the first weekend of December. We attend it annually and I have written about it before on this blog. The opening ceremony is at 6 PM on the Thursday night and this year we bundled up and went to the outdoor procession for the first time.
Walk to the downtown park a candle from the table
...ask a stranger to share their light
...listen to the Philharmonic Choir sing carols at the clock tower

The night time chill which numbed fingers and toes did not seem as harsh when surrounded by flickering candles and a warm community spirit.

Mary and Joseph waited patiently in the cold with their live donkey. At the appointed time they led the candlelight procession for two city blocks to city hall. The choir and crowd sang Oh Come all Ye Faithful and Joy to the World as we walked along the street. At city hall, others watched the parade approach and a brass ensemble played as Mary and Joseph took their place in the outdoor live nativity scene. 
Beautiful, meaningful
...lump in my throat
...a diverse community comes together to celebrate

The choir sang Handel's Hallelujah Chorus and the market officially opened. I already have one of the nicest Christmas memories for this season.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

A New Day

There is something motivating about the start of a new month as we set plans and goals on a new page of the calendar. After a very emotional week, this new month is extra special;-  a gift of time to enjoy life and make a difference in the lives of others.

Our friend Jim was laid to rest yesterday. The tears which were shed at the service would fill a lake yet there was reason to celebrate a life well spent. I always hope the deceased will hear what is said at a funeral, especially when the tributes were as loving as the ones shared by family and friends. We realize how important it is to share what people mean to us before they are gone.

A couple of things stood out to me, characteristics which made this man’s life special in many ways. He was a very successful business man, an exceptional family man and a pillar in serving the church we attend. I believe it was his son who commented that he never criticized others, only encouraged them. In thinking back, I realized this was true. In our world this is a very rare character trait as negativity, sarcasm and criticism run deep in our society. Jim proved that being a positive, encouraging person does not make you a doormat, and it is possible to be successful without being negative.

The other gift he had was making many people feel he was their best friend and confidant. He took a genuine interest in others and listened to them without inserting his opinions. Many people are self-centred in their relationships which sets them up to be easily offended if others do not act in a certain way toward them.

One of our pastors is a beautiful woman who lost a young son and a middle-aged husband to cancer. Her words were spoken from a heart which has had more than its share of grief, yet without bitterness. She emphasized that Jim’s dear wife and family need the time to grieve and that healing comes through grieving. In our fast-paced world we sometimes expect people to get over a loss quickly and get on with life. People used to wear mourning clothes for extended periods of time and society allowed them the time to enter a new normal routine. I follow the posts of bloggers Eileen and Ruth who have recently lost their husbands prematurely. They both have a strong faith in God, but the journey is not easy in the months after a significant loss.

So this new calendar month is a good time to evaluate what is most important, to be a good listener, and encourager and to consider each day as a gift to share with others with joy and gratitude.

This song was shared at the end of Jim's service as a slide show of his life was presented. Written and performed by Chris Tomlin, its words were very meaningful.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Goodbye for now...

I took this picture of our friend with his little granddaughter four years ago and used it in a blog post in December 2006. He was diagnosed with cancer a couple of weeks later. His suffering ended early this morning and a family is left to mourn his passing. He was a good husband, father, son, brother and friend, a generous and gentle man who loved God and served others. We cannot understand the "whys" but are reminded that life is precious and our time on earth is fleeting. Live each day without regret, with gratitude, forgiveness and love.

Life is eternal, and love is immortal, and death is only a horizon;
and a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Under a Blue Moon

The full moon was yesterday, but tonight was the first time in several days that it broke through the cloudy skies for a few minutes. This is the third full moon of four this autumn. Most seasons have three full moons but when there is an extra one, it is called a blue moon. The next one will not occur until August 21, 2013. So the related saying "once in a blue moon" refers to an equally unusual or rare event. 

I enjoy a happy life with blessings of health, family, good employment and the freedom to come and go as I please. But this year has brought an extraordinary degree of sorrow and suffering to people we know and love. I visited a dear friend at the hospital tonight who is clearly losing a battle with cancer. I cannot describe here the suffering and multiple losses their family has endured in the past year. I feel almost guilty writing about the frivolities of my life while they approach the Christmas season with heavy hearts. I told my friend recently how grateful I was to be able to spend a beautiful day outdoors while birding. They remarked that we should appreciate nature and the little pleasures which come with each day, for a time will come when we cannot do that.

I saw this diagram on Southfielddrive's blog this week and thought it belonged with the musings of Solomon in the book of Ecclesiates. 

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.” 

"Once in a blue moon" we come to a place of unanswered questions, unanswered prayers, into circumstances which seem meaningless and unfair. Everyone eventually goes through times of loss and suffering. Solomon puts into words the thoughts and feelings people experience in the hard seasons of life. But he acknowledges that our finite understanding is limited and the value of our life's work is determined in eternity.

What does the worker gain from his toil?  I have seen the burden God has laid on men.  He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.  I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God.   (Ecclesiastes 3)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Goodbye Autumn

It is still a month or more until the winter solstice and the official change of seasons. But fall has faded away and winter is upon us. The trees on our property shed the last of their leaves this week and the raking is done. One of our daughters always phones me at work when the first snow flakes start falling. (for some reason it tends to happen during work days) Today I got the call..."Mom, it's snowing!!!" I know the west and midwest of the continent have had significant snow accumulations already and our turn will come soon.

We have a Mountain Ash tree in the backyard which had a bumper crop of berries this year. I came home from work one afternoon to find dozens of robins and starlings on the ground and in the tree. They stripped every piece of fruit in a short period of time. Robins are one of the earliest birds to arrive in the spring and there are still a few of them in local wood lots this week. A few may stay in protected areas through the winter.

Starlings look quite smart in their winter coats but unfortunately they show up with too many of their friends. I took the picture below in September when they were starting to gather in large flocks, officially known as murmurations. Fortunately this murmuration was not in our yard or I would have felt like I was in a scene of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds.

There are some winter birds I would like to see in the next few months. Evening Grosbeaks are reportedly visiting feeders within three hours of our home and they would be life birds for me. I have seen a female Pine Grosbeak, but not a male of that species. Perhaps winter finches will be irruptive this year. In the meantime, the feeders are up and our usual visitors will entertain us until the seasons change again.