Friday, February 26, 2010

Snowy Owls and More

Three Bridges Road

I took a drive after work one sunny afternoon along my favourite country roads north of the city. I was on the look out for Snowy Owls, Rough-legged Hawks, an elusive Red-shouldered Hawk and whatever else might catch my eye. If I found nothing but rays of sunshine, I would have been satisfied.

It is always interesting to drive by well kept Mennonite mixed farms and to see people going about their daily business. Flocks of Snow Buntings flew between corn fields and the edge of the gravel road and Horned Larks sang their tinkling tunes from fence posts.

Photographers and Snowy Owl

I turned onto another road and saw a line of vehicles parked near a field. A group of photographers were focused on a female Snowy Owl sitting on the ground. This was my first Snowy Owl sighting of the winter but I didn't stop because the area was busy enough already. There are many responsible wildlife photographers, but some will disturb birds hoping to get an exceptional picture. Some birding forums are discouraging birders from reporting rare sightings to protect the birds from harassment. On the way home I drove by the section of river where a Red-shouldered Hawk had been seen on a regular basis. A photographer with big gear had parked his pickup truck on an angle blocking half the roadway so he could get a picture of the hawk. He effectively stopped anyone else approaching the area.

Song Sparrow

I enjoy taking pictures of birds, but am just as happy watching them or focusing through my binoculars. I prefer to walk along a path rather than parking myself for long periods of time waiting for one bird. Recently, Raymond Barlow, a skilled local nature photographer, shared his photos and tips at a photography club. As a professional he spends many hours in the field looking for wildlife but he is committed to ethical practices in his work. He has a blog on nature photography called Nature Images Online Magazine that is well worth checking out.

Near the end of my little road trip, I saw my first Song Sparrow of the season. Maybe he was telling me that spring is just around the corner and that he would stay long after the Snowy Owls, Snow Buntings and Horned Larks went north again.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Death and Life in the Park

The first bird we saw as we drove through Algonquin Park was a Golden Eagle which flew from a tree top in front of our vehicle. It was the first time I had seen this large bird which winters in this region. Near the east entrance to the park, the visitor centre had several displays featuring taxidermic animals and birds. One showed a Golden Eagle feeding from a deer carcass while Ravens and a Bald Eagle waited their turn.

Park rangers placed a road-killed deer far out in a bog below the visitor centre and had a telescope focused on the animal. Wolves had been spotted earlier near it but there were none around when I took this picture. Three days later, wolves removed the carcass and the pack is shown on this YouTube clip.

My husband is standing on the balcony of the visitor centre looking for action around the dead deer. Winter is difficult for wild creatures and many do not survive the harsh conditions. There are few seeds and berries for the birds this year and feeders here have supported Goldfinches, Gray Jays, Pine Grosbeaks, Chickadees, various woodpeckers and a few Pine Martens. Pine Martens are particularly fond of eating Red Squirrels and there were plenty of squirrels around the feeders.

We are very used to Chickadees feeding from our hands but Red-breasted Nuthatches seldom are this tame. The birds were accustomed to humans and flew toward us before we had seeds ready for them. While we saw very few animals in the days we were there, fresh tracks criss-crossed the snow and provided evidence of life in the bogs and forests. Most of the action was taking place during the night and pre-dawn hours of the day. We stayed in a nice motel in town, but I would consider staying in one of the yurts (with electricity and floors) which are available for winter camping in the park. Perhaps I would see the animals who leave the tracks as they work to survive in the wild.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Discipline of Waiting

A number of years ago we watched a segment on ABC's news magazine 20/20 about deferred gratification and emotional intelligence. In a classic experiment, young children were given a marshmallow and were promised another if they could wait 20 minutes without eating the first marshmallow. The experiment was repeated on the TV show and some children were able to distract themselves from the temptation of the treat while others ate the candy right away. In the first experiment, children who could wait were better adjusted as adolescents and were more successful in school.

Deferred gratification is the ability to wait for something we want. Today was a beautiful late winter day and I walked through the Arboretum in Guelph, Ontario in the sunshine. There is nothing we can do to make spring come faster and nature waits beneath a blanket of snow for the time when it will bud and bloom once again.

In our society, waiting is an unknown discipline for many people. "Buy now, pay later" attitudes have led Canadians to the highest levels of personal debt in history as reported in news stories this week. We indulge our children and many grow up feeling immediately entitled to their every whim and desire. Others want God to immediately bestow their demands and expect him to deliver them from uncomfortable situations rather than learning and growing in grace.

This is the Lenten season but more attention is given to Mardi Gras celebrations and Pancake Tuesday than to the pre-Easter fast. Late winter fasts used to be a natural occurance as food stores were depleted after many months of cold weather. It is not hard to fast if you have no food. We now live in a world where for the first time more people die of obesity related illness than from starvation according to a recent report from the World Health Organization.

Fasting generally refers to abstinence from food but there are many other things we can refrain from for a season. Rachel Held Williams wrote an excellent Lenten post and her ideas for observing the season are spiritually and socially meaningful.

When is the last time I felt real hunger for anything?
When is the last time I truly sacrificed when I gave to someone in need?
Do I demonstrate emotional maturity by my ability to delay gratifying myself?

Our fasts are not to be public demonstrations of piety but our lives should be examples of discipline and self control. And that is something we will not see advertised on a billboard or television commercial.

Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously,
and he will give you everything you need.
Matthew 6:33 (NLT)

Here is another interesting post on deferred gratification from the blog Turbulence Ahead.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Friday Flowers: Spring will come to Narnia

My mother called me a few days before we drove to Algonquin Park and told me that snow showers were in the forecast for the area. She lives in Mexico but could look up the weather in Huntsville, Ontario on the internet. Winter driving in Ontario can be unpredictable especially near the Great Lakes where heavy snow squalls can move inland quickly, but snow showers seldom bring much snow accumulation.

There were snow showers each day we were there and the landscape looked like the inside of a snow globe. The trees were dusted with snow and were very pretty. I took the first picture at the west gate of the park. The lampstands were still lighted and the scene looked like the entrance to Narnia at the back of the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis' book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. This is the land where according to Mr. Tumnus, "It is always winter and never Christmas."

But according to Mr. Beaver, "There's no mistake. Aslan is on the move."

I bought a pot of daffodils at the grocery store which were just developing buds. We watched them develop and open this week and the blooms brightened the dull, grey days of late winter. The signs of spring are far more subtle outdoors but they are there in longer days, enlarging tree buds, the song of the House Finch and the new bright feathers on the Goldfinches.

Spring is coming.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Gray Jay Nesting Season

Gray Jays are known to be very tame and like Black-capped Chickadees, will perch on the hands of people for food. We watched this pair of Jays and tried to get them to hand feed but they were not interested in us at all. The pair sat together on a post covered with peanuts and sunflower seeds . The larger bird fed the smaller and they devoted their attention to each other.

The larger bird had yellow and red bands visible on its legs. Each Gray Jay in Algonquin Park has its own banding colour combination which makes it easy to identify individual birds from a distance. Gray Jays have declined significantly in the park since the 1970's and are not found in the west end any more. These birds do not migrate and store food for the winter underneath the bark of trees.

The Gray Jay builds its nest in late February and the female lays eggs in March when the temperatures are still very cold. This was obviously a mating couple and they will be nest building very soon. I was glad to get these pictures instead of shots of them feeding from our hands.

Here is a link to interesting information about Gray Jays in Algonquin Park.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Winter Weekend at Algonquin Park

When this blog was very, very new, I wrote about Grandma's birding club which had its inaugural outing on May 3, 1937. In the first picture, Grandma and her friends are sitting on the ground outside the cabin at the farm which is 5 miles outside of Aurora, Ontario. In another post I wrote about a birding birthday party held on the property in 1944.

In early 1942, a Gray Jay, also known as a Canada Jay or Whiskey Jack was seen at the farm. The Gray Jay is a bird of boreal and sub-alpine forests and is rarely seen as far south as Aurora. On January 11, 1942 the bird was banded by the Toronto Field Naturalists and the event was written up in the newspaper along with this picture of the bird.

I have never seen a Gray Jay and this past long weekend, my husband and I drove three hours north of Toronto to Algonquin Park for some winter trail walking and nature exploration. Birding has been very slow at the park this winter as there are few pine cones or berries around. Last winter large numbers of winter finches and grosbeaks were found all over Ontario but only a handful of sightings have been reported this year.

Gray Jay at Algonquin Park

Highway 60 runs west to east for 56 kilometers through the southern portion of Algonquin Park. Most of the 7630 square kilometers of this huge provincial park are inaccessible by road. But there are many trails along the highway where people can walk, ski or snowshoe in the winter and animals like moose, deer and wolves are sighted daily. At kilometre 10, we had a magnificent view of a Golden Eagle flying up in front of the truck. This eagle is not very common our area. We found no Gray Jays the first day and were a little overwhelmed trying to decide where to look for them. A helpful employee at the visitors' centre told us of a few places to start our search and we came back early the next morning.

Gray Jay
February 15, 2010

We found two Gray Jays who stayed in very close range for over half an hour. They are beautiful birds and are much larger than I expected. In my next post I will share more pictures and information about this pair of birds.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy Valentine's Day

Mourning Doves at a local feeder

Love life and life will love you back.

Love people and they will love you back.

Arthur Rubinstein

A gift of flowers from Sandland Brother in the United Arab Emirates

Thursday, February 11, 2010

More Adventures with Food

Greens at the Chinese Market

I find my exploration of vegetarian meal options very interesting and have discovered that many ethnic cuisines feature vegetables, grains and legumes served in tasty combinations. One of our larger local supermarkets has two rows of international foods including ingredients for Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Central American, and South Asian dishes. I like the bags of rice and chick pea flour, the many varieties of rice, beans and lentils as well as the pouches of unfamiliar herbs and spices.

Vegetables Bahjis with lime and hummus

The Becka has perfected vegetable bahjis which are made with chick pea flour or besan. This week, I bought a colourful bag of mixed lentils and used them in a vegetarian version of my mother's ground beef goulash recipe. The experiment turned out well and the recipe is posted on Come Home for Supper. There is a Chinese supermarket downtown which has the largest selection of reasonably priced fresh green vegetables I have ever seen. Last week I bought a large bunch of mustard greens, a vegetable I have never found in our regular stores. It has a peppery flavour and is tasty in soups and stir fries.

Rice and Lentils with mustard greens

My daughter and I spent two weeks last fall in Nevada, Arizona and California. I managed to find healthy vegetarian food most of the time. Las Vegas was the most difficult place to find a good restaurant so I drank a lot of Odwalla smoothies and ate fresh fruit from a nearby Walmart. California is a very vegetarian friendly state and even the ferry we took across to Alcatraz sold vegan lunches at their snack bar.

Roasted Vegetable Fajitas, El Torito, Monterey, CA

We ate at a Mexican restaurant near Cannery Row in Monterey and enjoyed a well presented vegetarian fajita sizzler. Served with rice, beans and tortillas, it was so big that we enjoyed another meal of leftovers the next day.

My main complaint with restaurant meals is the high sodium content of almost every dish. I really notice salty foods because we use few processed foods or canned soups at home. So I prefer to spend money on good ingredients and experiment with herbs and spices instead of relying on salt for flavour. I am enjoying this food adventure very much!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Remember Whensday: Green and Warm

(click to enlarge)

Winter has been long enough but it is not going away any time soon. Before our children were born, I visited my family in Mexico every March or April and looked forward to the trip during the cold months in Canada. There is no warm destination in my immediate future so my pictures from our fall vacation in the sunny south west of the continent will have to suffice. I have hundreds of pictures and haven't taken the time to post many here. My daughter took this picture of me walking down Lombard Street, the crookedest street in San Francisco. I would go back to this city in a moment!

Follow this link for more Remember Whensday posts.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Cold as Ice

Ice buildup at Webster's Falls, Hamilton, Ontario

A strong high pressure Arctic air mass pushed down from the north this weekend protecting us from the bad snow storms south and east of the Great Lakes. Along with very cold temperatures, we enjoyed bright sunshine and clear skies. We have so little snow that winter boots are not necessary in the city but they are needed for warmth if you are outdoors for any length of time. I bundled up in several layers of clothes and actually went to a store to buy a warm winter hat this weekend. Hats are not my favourite accessory and I usually manage with just the hood of a jacket if the wind bothers my ears. But this cold demands some extra precaution.

Webster's Falls

The Niagara Escarpment winds its way around the Niagara peninsula, through Hamilton and Milton and north through Orangeville up to Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron. We are in easy driving distance of many sections of the escarpment. Many creeks drop over the limestone cliffs creating picturesque waterfalls. Niagara Falls is the most famous escarpment cascade, but there are many others worth visiting. I heard about the ice formations at Tiffany Falls in Ancaster near Hamilton and set out to visit it on Saturday. It is the only area waterfall where ice climbing is permitted. The falls are about half a kilometer in from the road and I made it two thirds of the way before sheer thick ice on the trail slopes made me turn back. I watched three people in a row fall hard while trying to walk on the ice. I did see one climber on the ice as he made his way up the falls.

Ice Climbing at Tiffany Falls, Ancaster Ontario

The Dundas Peaks have several spectacular waterfalls and the Bruce Trail allows safe viewing access. Webster Creek falls 30 metres over the escarpment and nearby Tews Falls drops 41 metres into the Spencer Gorge. The trails were easy to walk because of the lack of snow yet the cold air turned the spray from the falls into interesting ice shapes.

Deer along the Bruce Trail

The Escarpment is home to many wild animals yet the urban sprawl of Southern Ontario is encroaching on it in many places. Iroquioa Heights Conservation Area is bordered by new housing developments, an expressway and big box stores. The deer population has grown and the animals have no place to go outside the park. They have become used to human contact and look for handouts of food from people who use the trails. I came across three deer and expected them to run as I approached. Instead, they came toward me expectantly but I had nothing to offer them except sunflower seeds. While this was a interesting experience for me, it is not a good situation for the deer.

I like old cemeteries and the plot of the Webster family is near the falls of the same name. Old epitaphs were often written as moral lessons and warnings to the living and George's tombstone is a good example. He was a young man when he died but he is not forgotten as his grave is viewed by all who walk this section of the Bruce Trail.

Come near my friends and cast an eye
Then go your way prepare to die;
Learn here your doom and know you must
One day like me be turned to dust...

...or on this winter day, be turned to ice!


Friday, February 05, 2010

Blogging is so last year!

Thanks to Jayne for directing me to

I offered to drive her to the bus terminal on my way home and she accepted the offer gratefully. Young and pretty, she held her PDA in one hand, plugged the end of an earphone in the unit and the other in her ear. I watched out of the corner of my eye as she moved her thumbs with amazing speed and sent text messages to an invisible recipient while listening to her music. A few seconds later the PDA vibrated, a response was acknowledged, and her thumbs went into action again. Five minutes of silence passed and more as we waited at a red light near her destination. I am comfortable with companionable silence and did not interrupt her social networking agenda. I am older than her mother, but right now am also a person who can pass or fail her on the final placement of her course. She is fashionable and bright but interacting with real people in new situations makes her visibly nervous and anxious. She has difficulty engaging in small talk.

I watch teenagers in church as they text their friends during the sermon. Others text while driving, putting their lives and the lives of others at risk.

I dropped her off and she thanked me politely for the ride. The news came on the car radio and the announcer said,

"Blogging is so last year... A study has found that young people are losing interest in long-form blogging, as their communication habits have become increasingly brief and mobile." (source)

Writing and commenting on blogs is taking a back seat to other forms of social networking with people under 30 years old. I have a Facebook account and interact with family and friends daily on this platform. But I have avoided Twitter and texting, accessing the internet from my computer only. I still read real books but all types of print media are struggling to make a profit these days. I doubt this young student opens a book outside of school. Another news report this week said,

"Little or no grammar teaching, cellphone texting, social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, all are being blamed for an increasingly unacceptable number of post-secondary students who can't write properly. (source)

I got a "fashionable" Razr cell phone three years ago which is now a relic in the fast changing world of electronic devices. (It is a really lousy phone too!) My cellular provider has sent me letters advising of the opportunity for a "free" iPhone or Blackberry with my next contract. Do I want to enter this portable internet world, a world requiring good eyesight, fast thumbs and multi-tasking prowess? Will I have to own one eventually? Technology prophets predict that PDAs will be used instead of credit cards before long.

For the time being I will continue to read books, write blog posts, use Facebook moderately, and buy a basic cell phone. I will be sure to engage in face to face conversations with people each and every day, but the world is not following my example.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Olympic Countdown

The Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics are almost here and the theme song "I Believe", performed by 15 year old Montreal singer Nikki Yanofsky, is featured on the YouTube clip. The Olympic Torch has travelled across Canada and I wrote this post when it came to our community in December. The video shows footage of the Olympic Torch Relay. I have mixed feeling about the "amateur" status of the Olympic games but I will watch for stories of courage and perseverance which will undoubtedly emerge in the next couple of weeks. Today the torch was carried by Sarah Doherty, an amputee from United States. Her story is inspiring and she is the type of champion I cheer for, one who embodies the Olympic spirit. This was taken from the Olympic Torch Relay website.

Paralympian Sarah Doherty is the final torchbearer and cauldron lighter in Sechelt. She has competed in athletics throughout her life. At age 14, she was struck by an impaired driver while riding her bicycle, resulting in the amputation of one of her legs.
Doherty was a member of the United States Disabled Ski Team from 1983 to 1985 and a member of the 1988 United States Adaptive Ski Racing Team. She is the first woman to summit Mount Rainier on crutches. She has also climbed Mount McKinley — the highest mountain in North America — as well as Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Doherty also competes at the international level in adaptive paddling and participates in kayaking and outrigger canoeing.
She holds a degree in occupational therapy from Boston University. She has worked on the development of specialized sport crutches, called SideStix, to help people with mobility challenges lead active, healthy and productive lives.
Doherty works as a pediatric occupational therapist. She is a role model to her clients and their families, demonstrating what a person with mobility challenges can accomplish.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Half way through winter

February 2, 2010 ~ 9 hours 50 minutes of daylight

Today marks the half way point between winter solstice and spring equinox. Wiarton Willie is our regional groundhog and his annual prediction about the end of winter is highly anticipated. Today dawned cloudy and grey and the chances of Willie seeing his shadow were most unlikely.

No shadow=early spring
Shadow seen=six more weeks of winter

Truth be told, spring does not arrive here until the first or second week of April which is a good eight weeks away. Most of us would be happy with only six more weeks of winter. Wiarton is about a three hour drive north of our city and it was overcast there as well. Imagine my surprise when I heard that Willie had seen his shadow! I left for work shortly after the 8:00 AM announcement and sure enough, the sun was visible behind high clouds and cast enough light to make a faint shadow.

No one knows if cold winter weather and snow will persist past the third week of March, but it is certain that the days will continue to lengthen. I took the picture below on January 14th on the way to work and the sun was much lower in the sky. Today, at the same location, the spectacular sunrise was missing, but the sun was noticeably higher. The days have lengthened about 40 minutes in the past two and a half weeks.

Life goes by fast enough so I resist wishing winter away. We are planning a visit to Algonquin Park in a couple of weeks and nice winter weather would be most welcome. And I also look forward to Red Maple blossoms and Snowdrops by this day in April regardless of Willie's prediction.

Happy Groundhog Day!

January 14, 2010 ~ 9 hours 8 minutes of daylight

Monday, February 01, 2010

January Bird Count Final Tally

Wild Turkey

January 2010 was sometimes bone-chilling cold but we had less snow than usual. Toronto is an hour east of us and I was surprised to see they had no snow at all on Saturday. In the past week we have had persistent flurries off Lake Huron making driving treacherous and visibility poor, but actual accumulation of snow has been just a few centimeters. Because of the extreme cold with windchills in a dangerous range, I did not do any birding in the past week. I dragged The Becka on a fruitless drive through farm country looking for Snowy Owls which are there, but they stayed hidden for me. Unless they are perched on a pole, silo or hay bale, they are difficult to see in the fields.

Look up for a big woodpecker

I looked hard for a Pileated Woodpecker and startled one who was drilling fresh holes in a tree in a bush near our home. I didn't get a picture of the bird but I did catch its handiwork. This is a good time of year to see Wild Turkeys foraging in corn fields for grain and several flocks are found consistently just north of the city.

Pileated Woodpecker Wood Working

I have never spent much time identifying gulls. Winter is a good time for gulls in Southern Ontario and areas like the Niagara River are popular places to look for migrating species. Acting on a tip on our local birding forum, I stopped by a field near our home which is being cleared for a new mall. I would never have noticed anything but Herring Gulls but with help was able to see some white-winged gulls, the Glaucous and Iceland Gulls. There were juveniles of several species in the mix which made identification even more confusing.

So my final tally was 56 birds, 5 short of last year, but 11 more than my goal for this month. Winter finches are still absent around here this season and I had several of them on my list in 2009. I added four birds to my life list which was unexpected.

Here is my final list:

Northern Cardinal
Blue Jay
House Finch
Black-capped Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Mourning Dove
American Crow
Dark-eyed Junco
Coopers Hawk
Common Merganser
Hooded Merganser
Mallard Duck
Canada Goose
Ring-billed Gull
American Tree Sparrow
Brown Creeper
House Sparrow
Rock Pigeon
Red-tailed Hawk
European Starling
Purple Finch

Red-bellied Woodpecker
Snow Bunting
White-throated Sparrow

Herring Gull
Rough-legged Hawk
Horned Lark
Belted Kingfisher
Bufflehead Duck
Goldeneye Duck
American Kestrel
Mute Swan
Trumpeter Swan
Black Duck
Red-breasted Merganser
Northern Shoveler
Bald Eagle
Greater Scaup
Long-tailed Duck
Canvasback Duck
White-winged Scoter
Black Scoter*
Surf Scoter*
Redhead Duck
American Coot
Northern Shrike
Wild Turkey
Great Black-backed Gull

Glaucous Gull*
Iceland Gull*
Pileated Woodpecker

*life bird