Posts Tagged ‘Canada’

The Birds at my Feeders


Monday, October 15th, 2012
backyard birds

Red-breasted Nuthatch, adult male © Claude Nadeau/VIREO

The Birds at my Feeders by Gene Walz

My bird feeders have been mere ornaments since last December. I haven’t filled them in quite a while.

But with the snow we had last week, I decided that it was time to be a conscientious bird food provider again. I filled my feeders over the weekend. All six of them: with suet, peanuts, black and striped sunflower seeds, niger, and millet.

Within minutes of stoking them, chickadees began flitting in, grabbing a seed, and flitting away. Not more than ten or fifteen minutes later, all of my usual suspects had arrived: House Sparrows, of course, plus Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, House Finches, White-breasted Nuthatches, and new for the year, Red-breasted Nuthatches.

backyard birds

Hairy Woodpecker adult male, Eastern © Glenn Bartley/VIREO

How do they know when to show up, and so quickly? What senses do they employ to discover new sources of food?

Were there sentries around somewhere that saw me filling the feeders and remembered that I’m usually a pretty reliable provider?

Did they hear me noisily working at the feeders? And do birds communicate with one another to share food info, not just chickadee to fellow chickadees but chickadee to nuthatches, et alii? Is there a “universal bird language” for food, a sort of avian Esperanto?

Or did they smell the seeds and zero in on them via their olfactory senses?

We don’t often think of birds as having a sense of smell. But recent genomic and brain studies have shown that the sense of smell is much more important in birds than previously thought.

The standard wisdom now is that some bird species can use their sense of smell to navigate, to forage or even to distinguish other individuals. “Birds as diverse as sparrows, chickens, pigeons, ducks, shearwaters, albatrosses, and vultures are able to smell.” Rails, cranes, grebes, and nightjars as well.

backyard birds

Black-capped Chickadee adult, Eastern © Glenn Bartley/VIREO

Chickadees are such resourceful little birds with such adaptable brains that I’m not surprised that they were the first to show up. Smell may have lured them in. I’m just glad they showed up.



Thursday, May 3rd, 2012
Weeping Willow Tree

Weeping Willow © Kent McFarland

As Fats Domino used to say: “The wind in the willows plays a sweet melody.” But their service to mankind is much more than musical. They provide crossword puzzlers with an easy answer. Every couple of weeks you’ll find the clue “willow” in a newspaper puzzle; if you don’t know the answer by now (osier), you are not paying enough attention to NY Times crosswords.

You probably also know that Acetylsalicylic acid, i.e., aspirin, comes from Salicin in willow bark. So, the next time you get a headache, give thanks to the willow.

Willows are also great for kids. The poet Robert Frost may have been a “swinger of birches”, but I was bouncer of willows when I was young. Because their limbs are close to the ground, they’re easy to climb onto. And the limbs are, well, limber rather than stiff; the bottom limb of a huge willow near my house was as close to a trampoline as I got at age ten.

I even convinced my dad to plant one in our backyard when we moved. But the shallow roots grew faster than the actual tree. When they spread under our fence and attacked the new swimming pool next-door, the tree was doomed. Our grumpy neighbor poisoned it.

Because they are so fast growing, willows (there are over 400 varieties!) are more beneficial than my neighbor and I imagined. They “sequester” carbon (especially when young), absorb nitrogen, soak up wastewater, and they can purify polluted soils by taking up heavy metals (a process called phyto-remediation, in case you ever get that as a crossword word). They’re as voracious and omnivorous as teenagers.

With their domed structure, their silvery bark, dangling branches and slender leaves, willows are beautiful summer trees. In springtime it’s a different matter. Their dangling, fragile flower clusters (“aments” – another good crossword word) fall to the ground on the easiest breeze. They make yard clean up an extended chore. Every May I remember why I like to look at them in other people’s yards. They’re beautiful, valuable nuisances.

Bumble Bees


Thursday, November 17th, 2011

American Bumble Bee

As I was sweeping my back patio this week, I found a dead and desiccated bumblebee. Since I’m no entomologist, I have no idea whether it was male or female. I hope it was a male.

Unlike honey bees – which hive together in large numbers over the winter, bumble bees rely solely on their queen bees for the propagation of their colonies. The workers and drones all die off each fall. The queen bee spends the winter alone in the ground or in some other warm place.

When I first came to Manitoba, I was delighted to find bumble bees here because I thought the winters might be too cold for their survival. But they are hardy critters; they live as far north as the Arctic Circle. They’re found on Ellesmere Island, in fact, less than 500 miles from the North Pole. They’re especially familiar on the prairies and mountain meadows.

Like most other kids, I loved finding bumble bees when I was a kid. Back in the days when yellow and black were the colors of warning signs rather than florescent lime green, bumble bees seemed to be equipped with their own furry warning coats.

With their deep, rumbling buzz, their chubby bodies, and seemingly undersized wings, they were not only noticeable, they were the easiest flying insects to catch. I regret to admit that many a bee died in a Mason jar with a nail-punctured lid while in my youthful custody.

Nowadays, they too are in serious decline. A University of Illinois researcher, Sydney Cameron, did a study of eight of the fifty species of US bumblebees a couple of years ago. Four of the eight are in serious decline. A 96% decline.

Kids and I aren’t the only ones who’ll miss them. Since they pollinate tomatoes, cranberries, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and apples, we all should take heed of their possible demise.



Thursday, November 10th, 2011
Jasper Columbine

Jasper Columbine


Location: Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

If I had to pick a favorite wildflower, it would be Columbine, but if I had to narrow it to only one species of Columbine, deciding which one among the 50 or so that exist in the world would be impossible. They are all so beautiful! I came across this variety a number of times during the backpacking trip near Banff, Alberta that I’ve written about several times now.

Columbine are members of the buttercup family and are closely related to earlier blooming anemones. While only the red and yellow Aquilegia canadensis, a hummingbird attractor, lives in the East. About a dozen grow in the Rocky Mountains. One of the western species, the lilac and white variety, is called Rocky Mountain Columbine (A. caerules). It is Colorado’s state flower.

Columbine has had a past as colorful as its many varieties. It was once nominated as our national flower, but was disqualified because of an old tradition in which a man is supposed to give his wife a bouquet of columbine if he is unfaithful. It was also mixed into a lotion that was used to treat sore throats. Taking a couple of Columbine seeds with a glass of wine was supposed to speed up childbirth. Some Native Americans ate the roots and brewed a tea from its seeds to cure a fever. The Meskwaki Indians in Iowa used its seeds in love potion. While I don’t buy Columbine’s ability to work as an aphrodisiac, I have fallen in love with this uniquely shaped flower that grows in rugged terrain and comes in so many colors. In addition to this yellow and crimson clump, I’ve seen two-tone yellow, pure white, white and yellow, red and yellow, pink, blue, and purple and white ones. Each seems so delicately form, so lovely and demure with their nectar-filled lobes sitting like a tall crown on top of their bowed heads.

Tiger Salamander


Thursday, October 13th, 2011

Manitoba’s weather can change dramatically in a matter of hours. Thursday it was clear, sunny and hot. Record-breakingly hot. 31.1 degrees Celsius (about 88 degrees Fahrenheit) – the hottest October day ever. On Saturday we were walking the dikes of Whitewater Lake in mitts, toques, and winter jackets, wondering where the sun and warmth had gone.

We’d car-pooled there to check on the migrating waterfowl, and we were all nervous the change in the weather would chase them all away. But the place was still teeming with ducks, geese, shorebirds, and even egrets.

The change in the weather did catch one thing by surprise, however. We found a Tiger Salamander (Abystoma tigrinum) laying on a path, evidently waiting for the return of the sun. It was very lethargic and cold to the touch.

Tiger Salamanders are usually pretty secretive. This one had probably emerged from its burrow during the warm night in search of its usual diet of insects and worms and got caught off-guard when the cold front moved in.

Although Tiger Salamanders can have brilliant yellow splotches or stripes on a dark brown, black or green base (like a tiger), this was uniformly dark greenish-brown and had almost no markings at all. It was curled up in a ball, its chunky body, ten-inch length, and thick tail entirely disguised. Half our group passed by it unnoticed, thinking it was black bear scat.

At Whitewater Lake Tiger Salamanders are at the northern edge of their Manitoba range. It’s amazing that these amphibians can survive here. The lake in some drought years can shrink to almost nothing, and waterfowl can die of botulism during those years. Somehow the hardy Tiger Salamanders can adapt pretty well to dry conditions.

Adapting to a dramatic change in the Manitoba weather is an entirely different proposition.

Photos by: Stuart Oikawa

Hawk vs. Flicker


Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

Hawk vs. Flicker by Gene Walz

Cooper's Hawk, adult male

Cooper’s Hawk, adult male © Brian K. Wheeler/VIREO

It took me far too long to finish rebuilding my deck. But it was unexpectedly warm and sunny on Sunday. So, I lollygagged while replacing the joists and the floorboards. It was too nice to work hard.

In the middle of the afternoon a couple of Northern Flickers looped into my backyard and began searching for ants and grubs. They provided a pleasant distraction. Until….

In a flash an immature Cooper’s Hawk swooped in and struck one of them. It tore the poor bird apart in short order, scattering feathers in a small circle and feasting on its flesh. I didn’t intrude (it would have been too late anyways), content to watch what Tennyson called “Nature, red in tooth and claw” – or in this case “red in beak and talon.”

Flickers are easy targets. They’re big and colorful, they’re rather slow, and they sit out in the middle of open fields as if they have a big target on their backs. I’ve seen the remnants of quite a few of them over the years in a nearby park, where they’ve nested virtually side by side with Cooper’s Hawks. Symbiosis in action.

Northern Flicker, adult male Red-shafted

Northern Flicker, adult male Red-shafted © Glenn Bartley/VIREO

Flickers are such easy prey that juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawks will practice taking them down even though the flickers are too big to catch and eat. The sharpies will just dive bomb them, spook them a bit, and probably fly off chuckling to themselves.

It got me thinking about bird migration. I’ve heard that Northern Saw-whet Owls will move along with the Hermit Thrushes as they migrate south, following the food. I wonder if Coops follow flickers. I hope not.

Even though I can see over a hundred flickers a day at this time of year, it seems that these are one of the species that aren’t as plentiful as they once were. And Cooper’s Hawks are more abundant. I don’t like those odds.

Columbian Ground Squirrel


Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

Location: Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

Two weeks ago, while backpacking in Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada, a flash of grizzle-gray fur caught my eye. I was hiking across a long broad meadow filled with paintbrush, alpine daisies and other wildflowers, staring down as much to concentrate on the path as to check out the blossoms when I saw the movement. A Columbian ground squirrel (Spermophilus columbianus) scurried across the path about 20 feet ahead of me. It paused just long enough for me to take one photograph before it zipped down its hole. I’ve seen lots of squirrels in my backcountry wanderings, but never one quite this big nor this color. Its body was 10 inches long, with red-orange fur above its nose, legs and belly and a white-tipped tail.

Columbian ground squirrels inhabit a modest geographic area though they are common within that area. They live mainly in the Canadian Rockies along the Alberta-British Columbia border, Idaho, western Montana and eastern Washington and Oregon. Sometimes called “red diggers”, they are avid burrowers.

The obvious hole in this photo does not likely contain young. Nesting holes are well camouflaged and plugged at night. A typical red digger will expand its tunnels up to 13 feet annually, impressive considering these portly squirrels are only truly active about three months per year during which time they must also stash winter food – they eat flowers, berries, nuts and insects – and raise their young.

A highly social species, Columbian ground squirrels greet each other by “kissing”. That would have been fun to see, but this fellow apparently didn’t have any friends nearby. He wasn’t too concerned about me either. If he felt threatened he would have chirped loudly to warn the rest of his warren.

The Three Bears


Friday, August 26th, 2011

Once upon a time there were three black bears who lived on the edge of the boreal forest near Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba.

Correction: it wasn’t once upon a time; it was actually just a week or so ago. Being modern bears, they likely weren’t a family. And they didn’t have an actual house with furniture, and they didn’t leave that house while their porridge was cooling.

It’s been a very hot and exceedingly dry summer in Manitoba. So, the bears could not rely on the berry crop. There weren’t enough to even keep the birds happy, much less the bears. They had to go in search of food outside their familiar woods.

Their noses led them to Grand Beach, one of the top ten sand beaches in North America. Because it was such a hot and dry summer, hardly a mosquito could be found there. This drew hundreds of sun-lovers, beachcombers, and swimmers to the beach. Their fast-food and garbage attracted the bears.

The first one, a great, huge bear, showed up on a Thursday. It scared a lot of bathers, except for one woman. Let’s call her Goldilocks. Unlike the original, this Goldilocks decided to chase the bear in her car. The bear panicked and climbed a tree near the beach. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police came and “had to” shoot it because it was agitated. Perhaps they should have shot Goldilocks too.

The next one, a middle-sized bear, showed up the following Monday. Attracted by the smell of cooking fat and discarded French fries, it got between the bathers and their cars. Conservation officers were forced to put it down. Simply darting it with a tranquilizer was not an option. Too many people nearby.

Later that day a small, wee bear arrived on the beach. It met with the same sad fate. Ka-blam!

Modern bears can’t talk the way they do in fairy tales. They can’t say: “Someone’s swimming on my beach” to warn other bears away. They don’t stand a chance when people’s right to suntan and swim unimpeded trumps their need to eat.

Sorry, Disney. Fairy tales don’t always come true.

One Buggy Evening


Friday, July 29th, 2011

© Arthur V. Evans

On my recent eastern roadtrip I stopped for a while to visit my sister in a suburb of Windsor, Ontario, Canada (Tecumseh, on Lake St. Clair). Out on our evening walk, my dog Buddy and I stumbled unsuspectingly into a blizzard of Fishflies. Maybe not quadrillions of them as in the Richard Wilbur poem, but enough of them to make the sidewalk slippery underfoot and my skin crawl from their overpowering, fluttery presence.
Bad timing!
Fishflies (also called Mayflies, as in the Wilbur poem, dayflies or shadflies) are the most primitive flying insects. They live but a day – 24 hours or so; some of the almost 650 different species in North America live for a mere fraction of a day – maybe half an hour.
Like some NBA basketball players and politicians, fishflies devote their adult lives to having sex. Get born, take flight, find an ephemeral partner, have sex, die. Buddy and I had the exquisite bad timing to arrive on the fatal evening of their frantic, buggy orgy. Somehow we escaped.
As darkness thickened, we cut through a meadow and chanced on a second hatch of insects. Just above the tall grass I caught a glimpse of my first flicker of light. Then another. And another. We walked slowly into the middle of the meadow so that we could be surrounded by the half-second flashes of yellow-green light. Probably Big Dipper Fireflies (one of 180 species in North America, found only east of the Mississippi).
Because of their bioluminescence, fireflies seem a more advanced species than fishflies. They also have a longer lifespan – up to a few weeks. But their short lives have the same fateful purpose. They crawl up from the ground to the tops of blades of grass and fly upward from there to attract mates. I don’t know whether they take longer to find mates or longer to savor the experience afterwards and then die.
Those 40 or 50 fireflies redeemed the day. It’s amazing how these tiny creatures can inspire such childish awe and delight. Fishflies: Yuck! Fireflies: Yay!



Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

At 6:30 am a few Wednesdays ago, a couple dozen birders met at Fort Whyte Alive for a two-hour bird-walk and a hearty breakfast. Nobody was optimistic.

The centre’s thermometer read 3 degrees, and a fierce face-chafing wind made it feel colder, especially for May.

I have a ready term for people who engage in this kind of activity: daffy birdwatchers. I included myself.

Fort Whyte Alive is a former stone quarry converted to a nature-education centre surrounded by malls and suburban housing. A large, deep pond that attracts migrating ducks and geese is its main feature. A quick scan of the water revealed nothing special. We split into five or six groups, grumbled like spoiled teenagers, and headed into the surrounding “woods.”

Our spirits perked up when we encountered more than a smattering of sparrows, scratching up the undergrowth. Many of us quickly and unexpectedly toted up 8 or 10 first-of-the-year sparrows.

Then we started to discover warblers—in bunches. Mixed flocks of early arrivals like yellow-rumps (“butter-butts” to the slangy among us) and orange-crowned, mingling with the other varieties. Our group had a dozen species of flitty, colorful warblers by breakfast.

Some of us ate quickly, phoned in late for work, and headed back into the bush.

Foul weather can sometimes be a boon rather than the bane of our birding experiences. The cold and wind had precipitated a warbler fall-out. They were everywhere, low to the ground and sluggish from the temperature and easily spotted because the trees had not yet begun to leaf-out.

Our group had 14 species of warblers of the possible 24, and 67 other species for the morning. Another group had 18 species of warblers. A miracle morning.

The fair weather birders who stayed home missed a surprisingly fruitful morning. Shakespeare was right: fair can be foul and foul can be fair.