Sunday, January 30, 2011

Upward and Onward

I watched yesterday as a hot air balloon floated above our house on a sunny yet frigid January day. Two men leaned over the basket taking in the view from the skies, their perspective far different than mine was from the ground. Today is my birthday and my perspective as the years add up is also far different than it was when I stood at the starting line as an adult.

One of my favourite patients at the moment is a frail, old man near ninety who has been robbed of speech fluency by a stroke. He struggles to form each thought and sentence and I must stop, sit and listen carefully to each word he manages to say. He is very appreciative and thanked me one day for my patience with him. I told him it was not hard because I am not all that far behind him and would want to be treated the same way if I had a disability.

"Yes", he agreed. "Inside I feel like I am still in my fifties. Those were good years when my family was grown, my career was at its peak and my health was good."

I have learned that I don't need "things" to be happy and it is not gifts or an expensive dinner that make a birthday special.

My husband came home with a bouquet of flowers, a card and fresh, out of season cherries for me.

At the stroke of midnight I received birthday greetings from Mom and Dad and Ginger, part of an ongoing avalanche of special greetings from special friends.

My daughter emerged to give me a big hug and didn't make a comment about my age.

The sun shone briefly through clouds for me at dawn as I put seed and suet out for the birds illuminating the snow covered trees and bunny tracks below.

I got a Kindle for my birthday and the first book I downloaded from Amazon was a newly released title by Ann Voskamp, a blogger, farmer's wife and mother of six children from south-western Ontario. She endeavoured to write down one thousand blessings over the year and found that the daily exercise of expressing gratitude for small things changed her profoundly. One Thousand Gifts is a beautiful and inspiring read and the simple concept is something I would like to embrace.

Dad, my brother Philip, me, Aunt Lois

...But one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind 
and reaching forward to those things which are ahead,  
I press toward the goal for the prize of the
upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 
Philippians 3: 13,14

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Deep Winter Scenes

 We did not see many birds on our January outing but the winter landscape was beautiful in a brilliant, icy way in Old Order Mennonite country. I will not complain about scraping car windows or sitting on hard frozen seats until the heater warms when I contemplate what it must be like to travel by horse and buggy at twenty below.

Every mile is two in winter. 
~George Herbert

 "Pale January lay
In its cradle day by day
Dead or living, hard to say."

  Alfred Austin, Primroses

"January is here, with eyes that keenly glow,
A frost-mailed warrior
striding a shadowy steed of snow."
Edgar Fawcett

 "It is deep January.  The sky is hard.  The stalks are firmly rooted in ice."
Wallace Stevens

Quotes from egreenway

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Birding in a Deep Freeze

Rough-legged Hawk and a Frozen Landscape

Southern Ontario is in a deep freeze this weekend. Folks from the prairies and Northern Ontario wonder what we are whining about as this is pretty normal weather for them all winter. It is not customary for me to plug in the engine heater of my car, to have my potatoes and carrots freeze in the garage, to wear long underwear or to cover my face with a scarf. Most people went about business as usual and the two nature outings I wanted to go to were well people, not birds. Five hours of outdoor searching did not net a single new bird for the January count and the closest I got to one was observing some fresh sawdust created by a Pileated Woodpecker.

Here we are on the first walk examining the fine details of coyote scat, complete with the undigested portion of some rodent. This was only 200 metres from the road and parking lot of the nature area within the city. 

Our very knowlegable guide showed us various animal tracks in the snow and we learned how to identify some trees by their bark and branch formation. When I went to leave, a group of Chickadees and Juncos were eating seeds in a ditch beside my car and they were the first birds I saw moving about in two hours.

A surprising number of people showed up to look for raptors in the countryside. The people leading the tour are likely the most experienced birders in our region and they compiled an impressive list of species in the recent Christmas bird count. Armed with a big scope, they could pick out a hawk in a rural back acre.

We stopped by some feeders in a small hamlet and saw a few Chickadees and a Tree Sparrow. The rushing water from a nearby dam kept the river open for a few kilometers and in the cold mist, a variety of ducks were found.

I will be surprised if I add any more birds to my count this month. But getting out and looking is not about numbers. I got plenty of exercise, met interesting new people, enjoyed beautiful winter scenery and learned more about the world around me.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Noticed or Unnoticed?

Our feeders have been very busy these cold days and it was not surprising to see a Cooper's Hawk swoop into the lilac tree. The yard was totally silent and even the silly doves were nowhere to be see. But one bird did not make an escape into the big pine tree. A White-breasted Nuthatch flattened itself and clung motionless on the tree bark just a metre away from the hawk. It was hidden only by the width of the small branch and its blue feathers stood out in the afternoon light.

 I know the nuthatch saw the hawk, but did the hawk see the nuthatch? Was this a game to see who would be still the longest?

We watched through the window not wanting to see the small bird become dinner, but then, the bigger bird had to eat too. After several minutes things were unchanged. I walked non-chalantly out on the deck and still there was no movement from either bird. Finally the Cooper's Hawk flew off but the White-breasted Nuthatch remained. I could have picked it up but instead shooed it off and watched as it departed with a squawk to the safety of the pine tree.

Lucky? Smart? I would think both are correct answers.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Birds Here, There and Everywhere

Great Kiskadee, Nayarit, Mexico
 A Sharp-shinned Hawk visited a neighbourhood bird feeding station today and became number fifty on my January bird list. This month has been relatively uninspiring with long strings of very cold, grey days. Snow has fallen in dribs and drabs, two or three centimetres at a time on most days. I have walked for thirty minutes along trails without hearing or seeing a bird or animal at all. The pine cone crop is poor for the second year in a row and very few winter finches have ventured south. Even the usual Snowy Owls are in hiding this season or they did not have to come this far south for food.

San Lucas Robin, Nayarit
Things are different in Nayarit, Mexico. My dad has continued to take pictures of the birds seen on their property in the last few weeks. I am a little envious of the colour of his world and the birds I have yet to see in person.

White-tailed Kites in a bamboo tree
 A pair of White-tailed Kites are nesting in a tree near their house. This striking looking raptor was greatly depleted in numbers in the early 1900s by shooting and egg collecting, but the species made a comeback since 1940.

Hovering over a sugar cane field in Mexico

These Kites are found in California, southern Texas, Mexico, Central and South America. Their diet is primarily rodents and they are known for their ability to hover over fields while in search of prey. Their colouring is similar to some gulls, but their facial features are very distinctive.

Successful hunt
This weekend a couple of group birding outings are planned in our area. Saturday promises to be the coldest day we have had yet this winter but unless there is a blizzard or ice storm, I will go as it may be the last good chance to see more January birds. And for now, the weather gurus say the sun will shine in spite of the cold which is a bonus because my sun meter is very, very depleted right now.

All photos by David Tolman

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


The feeders are very busy these January days as the birds eat as much as possible during daylight hours to maintain the energy needed to survive the bitter winter temperatures. Most people in the First World eat for pleasure first, not for survival. There are those cannot go for a drive, sit at a desk, attend a meeting, go for a walk or talk on the phone without a drink or snack of some sort in hand. I would venture to say that most people I know go no more than two hours during the day without some sort of oral intake.

Our society has come to expect instant gratification. We buy what we want now, even if we do not need it or cannot afford it. Our children are savvy consumers who quickly learn how to influence the purchasing habits of parents. Advertisers keep us constantly aware of what we must have to enjoy life. Few of us really know what it is to hunger for anything in a material sense.

Most, if not all world religions encourage periods of fasting for spiritual reasons. For a long time I was under the impression that fasting was a sure way to get God to answer our prayers and petitions. Fasting is not a way to earn God's favour, but is a way for us to turn our focus from the material things of life to a hunger for the spiritual realm and an increased recognition of the needs of others. The health benefits of intermittent fasting are also well documented and it has been shown that decreasing caloric intake slows the aging process. Yet some practitioners encourage several smaller meals a day as a way to health rather than giving the body a rest from the digestive process. Fasting has lost favour as a spiritual and physical discipline in our materialistic society.

I had a long 40 hour period of time to think about this as I fasted prior to a routine colonoscopy this week. While my stomach rumbled a little, and my awareness of the sight and smell of food was heightened, I missed the routine of eating more than food itself. A lot of time is freed up in a day when you do not prepare or eat meals. By day two I felt energetic and absolutely pain free. I remembered how a chronic itchy rash my husband had for weeks cleared up completely when he fasted for the same procedure a few years ago.

I have been more mindful and appreciative of my food today. And I won't wait for another colonoscopy (if there ever is another one!) to choose to practice the discipline of fasting again.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Matthew 5:6

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Big January Lifer and Old Mother Goose

Light morph Rough-legged Hawk  (taken with my Canon SX30 IS on 35X zoom, hand held)
Some bird groups such as shorebirds, gulls and raptors can be challenging for an amateur to identify, especially if they are seen only in flight. Very slowly, I am becoming more confident in recognizing local hawks and falcons. On April 14, 2007 I had to ask for help to identify a Red-tailed Hawk and now I see them so commonly that I hardly take notice of them. Last Sunday a Coopers Hawk flew right above my head on its way to a bird feeder in a yard adjacent to the church parking lot. You can be sure it was not looking for sunflower seeds.

Red-shouldered Hawk
At this time of year there are many Rough-legged Hawks in the farmland north of our city. During the recent Christmas Bird Count they outnumbered Red-tailed Hawks. They are easy to identify in flight as their black "bracelet" bands stand out under their wings. Northern Harriers are readily found this year too with their distinctive flight pattern and black wing tips. Red-shouldered Hawks are locally uncommon but one bird is very consistent in its winter territory which is in an accessible location by foot and car.

Red-tailed Hawk
The old lift bridge at the entrance to Hamilton Harbour has been home to Peregrine Falcons for some time. I have stopped here often hoping to see one, but without success. Last Sunday I was disappointed that the parking lot near the canal was closed and I took another trail along the lake front instead.

Burlington Lift Bridge
As I was looking for ducks, I watched a Peregrine Falcon fly off the bridge and catch a pigeon in mid air in easy viewing distance. It then flew back to the bridge to the tower and proceeded to eat its lunch. I don't think I would have seen it if I didn't see it land as it looked like a small dot on the big steel structure. I took the picture below with full digital zoom.

Peregrine Falcon (life bird) with a fresh Pigeon
I spent another hour or more in the area and saw one more kill. Dozens of hapless pigeons sit on the same bridge lined up like bar-b-qued chickens at a supermarket take-out. The Peregrine pair do not have to go far for food and have an ideal location for raising their young each spring. 

On a much less regal note...
I saw this fat goose near the shore and hoped that was an unusual wild species. However, it could be a domestic goose gone wild as it does not resemble anything in my bird guide. Does anyone know for sure? I have not counted it in my total yet.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Big January 2011: The First Ten Days

The white dots in the water are Long-tailed Ducks
For the third year, I am counting bird species during the month of January. It gives me a reason to get out in the cold and while the waterways, woods and meadows seem quiet at this time of year, winter birding is unique as many birds, particularly raptors and ducks, come south to our area between December and March.

The first bird I saw on New Year's Day was a Black-capped Chickadee at our feeders. It was mild and rainy but I went out and found all the usual suburban suspects. I was fortunate to see the Varied Thrush which is still over wintering in the region. A walk along the Grand River allowed me to see Common Mergansers, Common Goldeneye, Bald Eagles and a variety of woodpeckers. On one old tree above the river bank I saw a Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied Woodpecker and a White-breasted Nuthatch all at the same time.

Yesterday was a clear, sunny day, cold and crisp just like January should be. In the afternoon I headed down to the shores of Lake Ontario at Burlington. The marina at Lasalle Park is home to many winter ducks and swans.

Near the beach, many Mallards and swans waited for human handouts but further out, rafts of ducks including Canvasbacks, Red-head, Ring-necked, Greater Scaup, Buffleheads and Goldeneye ducks fished, snoozed and swam in the water.

Trumpeter Swans made a racket and Mute Swans stood out with their orange bills. Some of the Trumpeter Swans were paired and moved up and down in syncronized mating dances. There was one odd swan in the usual mix. A lone tagged Tundra Swan with its shorter, thicker neck and yellow eye patch swam with the others. It was the first time I have seen the three Ontario swans in the same place.

My next stop was the Burlington Canal where the old lift bridge and newer skyway span the opening to the harbour. Unfortunately, the lift bridge was still undergoing repairs for the second winter and I could not park close to the water. Construction workers were busy on a Sunday and the racket from the heavy machinery was deafening. I did not expect to find much in the area.

I had to walk along the water front trail to get to the pier and as usual, there were hundreds of Long-tailed Ducks near the lighthouse. Last year there were many Mergansers as well a three types of Scoters in the canal. I believe the construction has discouraged some of the regular winter birds.

On the way back to the car, I saw an unfamiliar bird eating berries in a tree by the bridge. I have only seen one Northern Mockingbird in Ontario. This one allowed me a much closer view.

On the way home, I stopped at the Royal Botanical Garden Arboretum just before the sun set. I was surprised to find a flock of about thirty American Robins in the trees near the road. There are a few Robins which brave our cold winters each year, but I have only found them once before.

I have counted 46 birds so far. Last year my goal was 45 and I found 56. The year before I counted 61 but I was off work at the time following knee surgery and went out in the car every day looking for birds. I saw a life bird yesterday too, but will save that story for the next post.

Saturday, January 08, 2011


I clearly remember the bathroom in the house where we lived in Durban, South Africa when I was a young school girl. The commode faced the door and a calendar hung on the back of that door. I studied the calendar each time I used the room and to this day, can easily count forward by 7's. (Now I practice counting backwards by 7's in preparation for the day when some young health professional will give me the MMSE to test my cognition)


Calendars reinforce the concept that time is linear. But we have come around to another January, to another weekend, to another day of 24 hours. Circles represent repetition, continuity and eternity in our lives.

I spent time in the hospital chapel one day this week during my break. The stained glass windows are not typical of those found in Christian churches and represent humanity rather than divinity in the interdenominational setting. As family units, neighbours, and a global community, the sphere of the earth represents human connection far more than straight, non-intersecting lines into space and time.

This tower stands as a memorial to the pioneers who settled in our region over 200 years ago. It is high on a bluff above the river and individual fieldstones catch the light of the late afternoon sun as it shines on the circular structure. It is surrounded now by a modern subdivision and bustling city which the original settlers would never have imagined.

This week Dad told me a little about things which shaped his outlook on life and how he and mom were different because of events in their respective birth families. In fifty plus years he has never spoken of such things to me yet I know the generations before me are part of the sum of who I am today. It is good to talk about the past, to understand each person who is in our historical and present circle.

We see life encircled in the womb, a cocoon, an egg, a nest, a seed, a piece of fruit. As we age, we need to reach out and hold onto those who are younger so they recognize their sphere and know their place in this world. It is a lonely journey when we move in a straight line away from the love and support of those closest to us. Yet many people do that with critical attitudes and an unwillingness to accept variations and changes around them.

Last evening I found a jar of bubbles in the cupboard. I put a towel on the floor and blew bubbles until the Becka was quite sure I was insane. The soapy circles were beautiful to look at but were very fragile and fleeting. And so is life...

Many are the woes of the wicked but the Lord’s unfailing love
surrounds the man who trusts in him.
Psalm 32:10

Sunday, January 02, 2011

This Year I Resolve to... Enjoy Life's Small Pleasures

My guilt-free New Year's Trifle

I reduced my New Year’s Resolutions to one word or phrase over the last couple of years. In 2009 my word was “simplify” and it is still a daily goal for me. Last year I resolved to make “the best choices” knowing they are not always the easiest ones.

As years go by it is apparent that it is rare to experience “the best year ever”. Good health, prosperity and happy relationships require ongoing perseverance and in spite of our best efforts, we will not experience success in all areas. Life comes in a mix of good and bad, and events will happen which are beyond our control. I am glad I do not know what is ahead for me in 2011. It is enough to live one day at a time.

So this year I resolve to take time to notice and enjoy life’s small pleasures. I bought an inexpensive kit of pre-cut wood to make a small platform bird feeder. Juncos, Doves and Cardinals are some of the birds who do not really like the perch feeders in our yard. Yesterday I glued the pieces according to the instructions before nailing them together. Even with a pattern and the right materials my feeder is not perfectly constructed. There are a couple of bent nails which went off course due to knots in the wood and my poor aim with the hammer. But the feeder is functional if not perfect and the birds do not mind the irregularities in the structure. 

I too am far from perfect and realize that my efforts to achieve “perfection” in this life will certainly fail. I am a work in progress and have some bent nails and knot holes, but it is possible to be useful and fulfilled just the way I am. Words from 2 Corinthians 4 are printed on a plaque in the bathroom. Our treasure is in fragile jars of clay and while outwardly we may be breaking down, inwardly we can be renewed each and every day. That renewal comes through God’s life in us and an attitude of gratitude, of giving thanks in all circumstances.

So I wish everyone a Happy New Year and hope you discover the joy in life's small pleasures.

January 1st was dull and rainy but I enjoyed
  • building a feeder
  • watching the birds at my new feeder
  • having tea and trifle with two of my daughters
  • talking to my other daughter and mother on Skype
  • seeing the movie The King's Speech