Spring Debutante

This year, there’s only one owlet at the Great Horned Owl household. Since the coming-out party, the family’s debutante is poised to become the star of the woods. Birding paparazzi converge and they’re not disappointed.

But first, a Where’s Waldo quiz for you. Can you spot mama and owlet on this tree:

Ok, blame it on my blurry pic. Mama’s on the top of the picture, baby at the bottom. Can’t see clearly? Here are some close-ups:

Mama is always nearby… the lower right of the photo gallery.

And this little one is a natural talent for the movie screen. Here are some photos for the audition portfolio:

CONSIDERING
DEMURE
SUSPICIOUS
Thank you… yes, this fluffy coat is very comfy… I like it too.

***

Early Spring in High Park

High Park is a natural oasis in the hustle and bustle of Toronto. Almost 400 acres, it’s the largest park entirely within the city proper. The Grenadier Pond on the western boundary of the park spans 35 acres and a key resource for the teeming variety of wildlife.

Its urban setting reminds me of Central Park in NYC which is twice as large. Unlike the entirely manmade Central Park, however, High Park is the remaining sandy soil of retreated glaciers with a long natural history dating back to 12,800 years ago.

Here’s a lookout from Grenadier Pond:

Grenadier Pond in High Park, Toronto

About three weeks ago I visited High Park for the first time. It was early spring. Leaves had just started budding on trees and paths were still wet from winter, but I was able to capture some of the vibes:

Can you ID them all? I’m most curious to know what kind of tree buds are those on the upper right corner above. They look velvety and utterly exquisite.

As a birder, of course I was on the lookout for avian sightings, especially those I couldn’t find here at my own small Pond. But it was the trees that stood out for me that day. First the budding willows by the south end of Grenadier Pond:

A budding willow tree

I also came by a grove of cherry trees that were yet to bloom. And as I walked to the Nature Centre in the north side, I found this glorious oak tree. Still bare without leaves, its form was magnificent… I’ve read that the predominant oak in the savannah of High Park is the black oak. I think this is one of them. Not sure if it would look better with fully bloomed foliage. Because, right now, it looks magical:

A Black Oak in High Park

Here’s an image from the webpage The Oaks of High Park, the illustration taken from the book Who Goes to the Park by Warab´é Aska, 1984:

“Spreading Oak”

I can imagine this spreading oak being a character in an animated movie just from this picture… and I can see how versatile it can be.

***

A walk in the woods in early spring

I need to specify early spring because we do have four seasons distinctly. And with each passing day, there are nuanced changes, if not the obvious. Last week we still had snow on the ground but yesterday it went up to 18C (64F), very warm for us at this time.

The Pond had melted, but for some reasons I didn’t see any ducks yesterday afternoon. A walk in the forest made up for it. The woods were teeming with life, birds chirping and Canada geese honking to mark their territory. Here are some of my sightings. Can you ID them all?

What is that in the lower right? Yes, you guessed it… a porcupine up on a tree. This is not the first time I see a ball of a porcupine high on a tree branch. A natural ‘Do Not Disturb’ notice… as if saying, ‘just let me sleep it off.’

But here’s the highlight. I was walking in the woods when a few geese flew by flapping wildly and then I saw something not exactly like a Canada goose but… an owl, a Great Horned Owl, landing on the familiar owl’s nest high up on an old tree cavity, that same spot where generations of owls had nested to breed but had been abandoned in the past few years:

The air b&b is being occupied once again! Papa Owl checking to see the home is secure for Mama and her babies. Then he noticed me, and quickly gave me a nasty stare: ‘Whatcha looking at?’


And then he flew right at me. In a split second, I decided to just stand there and watch instead of raising my camera to capture the owl in flight coming directly at me. I wouldn’t have time to frame and adjust my camera anyway. I was too stunned and didn’t want to lose the chance of seeing a Great Horned Owl heading straight at me wing spreading 4 feet wide.

So, no photo for what could have been a marvellous shot if I’d the time and the autofocus of my camera had worked fast enough. No visual to share, but the picture in my mind is indelible.

Good that Papa Owl wasn’t aggressive. He glided past me, yes, brushed past, just flew by a couple of feet beside me and then up a tree. From there he stayed on a branch to watch his home… as he always has, a loyal sentinel.

Anything can happen during a walk in the woods. This time it’s bringing me back to the very basic of seeing, just with my naked eye, and store the solitary experience in a personal vault devoid of any digital or hard copy… so, no need to declutter in the future.

***

Peaceful Coexistence



One afternoon, in just one hour, I saw twelve different kinds of living creatures at a pond. Here they are, can you ID them all:

Top left are the Red-necked Grebes which I ‘discovered’ for the first time early this spring.

The ubiquitous mallard on the left second down, and at the bottom left, the American Coot.

The Franklin Gull on the upper right and below it, the Black Tern, which was so fast that I could hardly get a clear picture.

The red-winged blackbirds (third left down) as usual, called loudly and posed for me. The one big picture on its right is the female red-winged blackbird.

So what’s left are the bottom two… I was surprised to see a Grackle by the pond hiding behind the cattails, its head a beautiful, iridescent blue:

But the highlight of that one hour at the pond, two kinds of herons together, the Great Blue Heron and the Black-crowned Night Heron. Unfortunately I did’t have a clear pic of them both. They were hanging out and flew away together as I tried to get a few steps closer. That was the first time I saw a Black-crowned Night Heron, well, without the crown here:

The Great Blue Heron with Franklin Gulls accompanying:

And the two Herons flew away together:

Didn’t I say twelve different kinds of living creatures? There are ten in the first tiled gallery. Well there was a beaver but I wasn’t able to capture it in picture as it dived and swam away. But this one I had lots of time to get my camera ready: Human

The birds didn’t seem to mind the loud choo-choos. So, let’s give an air elbow bump, live and let live.

***

The best laid plans of birds and men

Previously on Ripple, I posted about the Ospreys and human eyeing the same spot to execute their building plans. It turned out that the triangular structure human erected at the perennial home of the Osprey’s was to discourage them from building their nest, as one reader had commented. Apparently, some bridge work is on the agenda.

Human had a Plan B for the birds: Relocation. They built another structure and moved the nest there:

Would Mr. and Mrs. O. like their new home? It’s not far from the old site, but not exactly what they’d in mind I’m sure. Coexistence sounds ideal but may not be a beautiful picture:

Here’s Mrs. O. inspecting the new home. Is it a good place for her babies to be born and safe for them to fledge?

Mrs. O. doing home inspection while an aloof Mr. O watches from a distance on the light pole.

I saw them the first couples of days at their new home, but not afterwards. The next time I visited, the nest looked abandoned. A robin seemed interested, but too big for her family:

Now workers have begun work and fenced off the area. I might not be able to follow their story. Wherever they are, I wish them a happy summer and all the best for their family.

***

Spring Sightings

First time is always the most exciting. These past weeks, I came across three sightings of something I’d never seen before. They may be common for other birders or nature watchers, but what’s important for me is, those were my first time.

From afar, I knew that wasn’t a Chickadee or a Nuthatch, albeit about the same size but plumper. I took the picture and later looked it up. It was a Dark-eyed Junco. Sure I’ve heard of the junco before, but have never come face to face with one. I further found out that it was one of the most common birds in Canada. Oh really? This was the first time I saw it, and that made it special for me. Love that tiny pink beak.

Another first-time is this photo here. Someone’s having a hearty meal, its delicate hands holding up a green shoot and chomping away. Can you guess what it is? Not a mouse:

Here, its tail gives it away… a baby muskrat. I’ve seen the adult ones but sighting a pint-size muskrat was my first time. At first I thought it was a baby beaver, but the narrow, long tail distinguishes it from the beaver, which has a flattened, paddle-like tail. Here’s a helpful page.

But the following is the most exciting find for me. In a shimmering pond lined with cattails…

I found a water bird I’d never seen before. It had a greyish white patch on its cheek:

I learned later that it was a Red-necked Grebe, breeding mainly in Canada (distribution map here). A grebe is not a duck; it doesn’t have webbed feet. I went back several times and found there were two pairs of them. I look forward to seeing their babies on their back in the coming days or weeks. I’ll be visiting them often.

Their colour features are fine and distinct, rusty red long neck and breast, with a yellow strip along their beak. Loud and distinct calls. Male and female have similar appearance.

I can’t explain it… I’m mesmerized by their serene movement, and yes, crazy calls. I’ve gone back a few times already, at different times of the day and in different weather. Nature’s calming sessions.

***

Heralds of Spring

April is unpredictable. One day we have warm, sunny weather, the next there would be flurries. But the creek and pond have mostly melted. A new sound I heard a few weeks ago when I was walking by a stream, something I had never encountered before. The sound of melting: the cracking of ice, like a small firecracker had gone off.

But this is the true herald. When I saw the first robin, I knew Spring had arrived. There were many of them during my walk last week, turning the woods into a convivial nesting playground.

And up in the sky, a red-tailed hawk flew by. Sunlight seeping through its feathers:

At the bird sanctuary, the wood ducks are back, brightening up a cold morning:

But here’s what made my day: my first time sighting a Hooded Merganser. This is rare in our locale. From their range map, they’re only passing through during migration.

I often think of the female Common Merganser as having hair like Lucille Ball’s. I’ve found another celeb look-alike… the male Hooded Merganser’s hair sure has an Elvis look:

As for the female, I always find them to be more playful than the male, both the Common and now as I observed the Hooded one. Wish I’d taken a video to share. She was splashing and calling out in exuberance, while Elvis glanced back in nonchalant coolness:

Sure, shake your sillies out… Spring has sprung!

***

Beauty in the Curves

Yesterday I went back to the place where just a few days ago I saw the Trumpeter Swans, and this time I found more. One adult and five juveniles were swimming leisurely in a peaceful surrounding. The scene was breathtaking.

This was the closest I’ve ever got near to a bird this big. They were swimming just a few feet from the snow-covered river bank where I was standing. This time, I could observe much clearer the beauty of their form… and discovered, of course, it’s in the curves!

Their naturally endowed, long neck is a posture of grace when held up straight, elegant and serene:

But when they bend down, the velvety, long neck creates curves that are sensually stirring:

When they fly, I could see the lofty curvature composed by their wings:

Beauty in its most natural and simplest form. Not flaunting, just being. Nothing they do to cultivate that, all endowed by their Maker, the creative Giver of life and grace.

________

The Swan

Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air –
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music – like the rain pelting the trees – like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds –
A white cross Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings Like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?

– Mary Oliver (italicized lines her own)

_________

“A white cross streaming across the sky”

Yes, I saw it… and felt it. Still rippling in my heart.

***

Swans in February

Previously on Ripple, I posted pictures of song birds that stay here in the winter. The House Finches surprised me, still chirping away in -24C (-10F) wintry air. But today, as I walk along the river, basking in the balmy weather (just at freezing point), I behold an even rarer sight. Trumpeter Swans!

Normally, they fly to the south and the Pacific Northwest beginning October, but ‘normal’ is no longer a term with relevance these days. Maybe the birds already knew that. With Texas bombarded with arctic storm and sub-zero F. temperatures this week, the Trumpeter Swans must have decided not to bother months before. Staying close by the river here above the 49th at least there’s food. And, as they say, if you don’t like the weather, just wait––normally five minutes––I’ll give it a few days.

An adult Trumpeter Swan with two juveniles on the river close by the shore, unafraid of the few of us birding paparazzi shooting away.

Interestingly, two Mallards cling to the Swans closely, reminds me of the term ‘imprinting’. Parent Swan keeps an eye on them fondly. Neighbourhood watch.

Half a mile up the river, there’s another juvenile all on its own. I gather it must be a teenager, as the plumage is more white than grey as the younger ones, also for its personality. This one just wants some alone time, seeking independence. Note the black foot out:

A fruitful day of birding and workout chasing after swans.

***

Which birds still sing in the deep, cold Winter?

First caught my eyes when I looked out the window were the movements of flight. It was -23C (-9F), which birds were still active in these temperatures? I could hear them chirping cheerfully out on the trees in my backyard.

House Finches are not supposed to be hanging out in this latitude, according to Audubon. But here they are, right in my own backyard, saving me a birding trip which I’d never take in this weather.

House Finches eating the remaining fruits on trees. Apparently not just for the food, but the drink. Never thought how birds in winter get their water from, since everything’s frozen. The snow, of course! Here they are taking in the snow. Not very clear picture, but you can see the snow on their beaks if you enlarge the pic. Trust me, they were feasting on the snow.

The other day, I took these photos as I saw a group of birds perched high on some tall trees in a distance. I heard their electrifying trills. Yes, Waxwings! But in the winter, the Cedar Waxwings have all flown away. What we have here are the Bohemian Waxwings, the vagabonds of birds, kind of rare for some birders located in the eastern and southern parts of North America:

They are more plump in the body than the Cedar Waxwings, but with the same spiky crest and yellow-tipped tail. Don’t have anything closer than these photos as they were so far away.

These birds still sing in -20’sC weather, plus the chickadees and the nuthatches, the downy woodpeckers too. Not to mention the ducks.

Life goes on.

***

Swans on frozen lake

Half frozen or half melted? Not a trick question, or a philosophical pondering on half full or half empty. The answer is factual. By mid October, the lake was frozen already. But by the end of the month, it began to melt. So there you go, beauty in double measure, not half. As for the birds, they can handle both.

And on that half frozen, half melted lake I saw them. Thanks to some fellow birders alerting me. Who would have expected to see swans stopping by here? They must be migrating from the Tundra, flying south to the US. And we’re their midway rest stop. Just a few days of respite here in sunny (most of the time) Southern Alberta.

The following pics are from a long distance, so quite blurry. I think I saw a Trumpeter here with a juvenile. Ice on lake? No problem. It’s Nature’s dance floor. Let’s just call it a father-daughter dance here:


Here are several Tundra Swans, noting the yellow edge of the bill:

A couple of days later, I saw this solitary juvenile swan at the Pond some distance away from the lake. Not sure if it was lost. Even though just by itself, I could sense its calmness… eat some, swim some, preen some, always congenial, thoroughly enjoying the environs there. How do I know it’s a juvenile? From its greyish plumage, pink bill, and yellowish tan feet:

While I was taking its photos, I saw in a distance a group of large birds in the sky heading my way. What an opportune timing! I quickly snapped these shots as they flew over me. When I uploaded the pics, lo and behold, I saw they were Tundra Swans. This time quite clearly. The yellow patch by the edge of the bill is the distinct difference from the Trumpeter. And learned a new word to call them: a wedge of swans (in flight).

I don’t have a garden, so no canning of harvest for the winter. But these photos and sightings will be my canned treats for the frozen months ahead… yes, something like Proust’s madeleine dipped in tea.

***

Related Posts:

Proust’s madeleine? Here it is.

One duck at a time

Two Trees Make a Forest: A Book Review