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.

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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!

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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.

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A Winter Walk

What do you do when almost everything attractive is closed except the essentials which you’ve already stocked up for the next week or two? To the woods I go, to find relief for cabin fever and a breath of fresh air despite the crisp -12C (10F) weather on this winter day.

Dust of Snow

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

–– Robert Frost

Frost is right. A dust of snow can dispel a stuffy mood. Also birds, mosaic of dried leaves on the ground, wavy patterns of the icy river, chickadees and downies on branches are some other natural remedies.

Or this bluejay in the tree which occupied me for half an hour or so. Why, such a common bird, you might say. But for me, not so, not on a cold, winter day.


Or, this swirling pattern of frost on water, where I spotted a goldeneye swimming by, oblivious to the cold. Don’t see her? Right by the rock:


But it’s this scene that mesmerized me most, entry to an imaginary place, where the escapist in me can flee:

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Parable of the Migratory Birds

Fall is migration season. The Pond is a stopover for avian migrants enroute to coastal NW United States, or further south to the Gulf Coast and even Mexico. This year, for some reasons, the traffic at the Pond and the adjacent lake is particularly busy, all to a birder’s delight.

October came in like a lion and out like a lamb. We had heavy snow by the middle of the month when the leaves had not all fallen off from the trees and the grass was still green. The lowest temperature reached was -18°C, that, my friend to the south, is 1°F. The water at the Pond was frozen by the third week. But after that premature winter, we were blessed with warmer days towards the end of the month, and even breaking a one day record high on Nov. 2, reaching 23°C, or 73°F.

But it’s not the temperature that interests me. What I find amazing is the variety of waterfowl converging here on their way to the south and the way they come together.

Here are some photos in the past couple of weeks. Mallards, Mergansers, and Ring-billed Gulls side by side. I think I heard Lady Merganser say: so what if my Lucille Ball hairstyle or its colour is different from yours, just let me be and swim to my heart’s delight. Whether you dip or dive for your food, these diverse avian species know how to get along and enjoy the warm sun, fresh air, and clear water:


What does it matter that a female Goldeneye is leading a flock of Buffleheads:

From the front of the line: Female Goldeneye, Male Buffleheads (wearing white hoodies), followed by two Female Buffleheads (white patch on cheek).

At a lake nearby, more migrants converged. It was a pool party of diversity: Canada Geese, Goldeneyes, Mallards, Coots, Gulls… those were just the ones I could see from afar. Only when there’s peaceful coexistence can they conserve energy for the long haul, and leisurely soak up the sun, preen their plumage, do yoga stretch, and of course, fuel up on nature’s buffet.

Thanks to other birders alerting me, that’s the first time I saw Swans here. From a far distance, I sighted several of them on the half frozen lake (or, half melting lake):


I can’t decide even after researching online whether they were Trumpeters or Tundra Swans as I was unable to see their bills from so far away, not even from the enlarged photo later. The two on the right in the picture above are juveniles as they’re greyish in colour. The one in the middle in the foreground standing on one leg is a Canada goose. Note the difference in size.

That day, I had my fill of avian sightings, albeit just watching from the shore far from the activity. The swans stood out in their sheer physical impression among all the ducks and geese, yet they were gentle and not bullies.


Maybe the migratory birds know that they’re only here temporarily, as they’re all in transit. As time is short and their presence ephemeral, might as well be at peace with each other and indulge in what they are given: Nature’s bounty, and enjoy their fill of common grace.

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Clashing Beauty

Whenever I photograph birds, I try to avoid any human structures in the frame, even houses from a far distance, but that’s not possible all the time. Sometimes, the juxtaposition of human society and nature can be seen aesthetically, and not as a clash.

These pelicans are like dancing musical notes flying into the sky.

A steel and concrete bridge could be a major obstruction to natural beauty, but it’s there because a river runs through it:

A sunset is still a sunset, even from the parking lot of a Costco. This is the first Costco opened on First Nation land in North America. Located in the Tsuu T’ina Nation bordering the southwest boundary of Calgary, Alberta, not too far from the Pond. A sunset is still a sunset no matter where you see it.


That voice from 1992 LA still rings true: we need to get along, human and nature, human and human. Signage in that Costco is bilingual, English and the Dene language (Northern Athabaskan) of the Tsuu T’ina Nation. We’re used to bilingualism in Canada, but this is the first time I see an Indigenous language posted together with English.

A needed directional pointer for things to come, not to stop but to press forward to accommodate multiplicity and live in harmony. That too, is a form of beauty.

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One Duck at a Time

I went to the Inglewood Bird Scanctuary last weekend. The famous migratory visitors there are the Wood Ducks. They come every spring to breed, stay for the summer, and fly away in the fall. But strangely, you can’t always see them there. So it’s a delight just to catch one or two hanging out.

Last weekend, I was excited to find not just a couple but a flock of Wood Ducks there. That could well be my last glimpse of them before they take leave. How we need something beautiful to look at this fall. Like canning your summer harvest for winter enjoyment, the photos I take will be my winter treats.

See the fallen tree trunks in the centre of the water in the above photo? That’s their hub. See them? Here’s a closer look:

Some might just walk by and not give them a second look, just some ducks they might think. But in my limited birding experience, the Wood Duck is probably the most beautiful ducks I’ve seen.

Beauty in a tangled mess of broken trunks and decaying wood makes me think of the Japanese notion of Wabi-sabi:

They like to gather on the branches, often just sleeping, preening, or sunbathing. So, it’s a real treat to see them swim out so I can take these photos. I can see how Monet would paint the scene if he were here:

Check out this slide show below:

Don’t know if I have the chance to see them again this fall, so I’ll just bid them adieu until next year. Don’t know much about anything these days, but I’ll take one duck at a time, and be glad to count my blessings, bird by bird.

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Serendipitous Finds: Bambi, Weasel, and Whatchamacallit

This is a mixed bag, but with one thing in common. These are all unexpected encounters.

First off, there are lots of deer in our neck of the woods, white-tailed deer, albeit I usually come across adults or at least teenagers. Seldom do I see a young fawn, pure and fresh, like Bambi. He was scared to see me, of course, he was all alone.


For this little guy in the following pic, at first I thought it was a gopher but the shape was long and slender. When I uploaded the photo on my laptop did I realize it was a weasel. So, this is my first time seeing a summer weasel. Taking this snap shot is easy and fast, serendipitous. My winter weasel was totally different. I hid behind a tree in -20C temp. for over an hour. But well worth it. Here are the two seasonal coats:

And I caught sight of this tiny inch-long critter crossing the road. Yes, I give my neck full exercise when I walk, look up for birds and down for bugs. But what is this?

Here’s the head. The white spikes are like bristles of a bottle brush. Later I find its name to be Lophocampa maculata, a caterpillar that will turn into the Spotted Tussock Moth or Yellow-Spotted Tiger Moth. It was first described by American entomologist and botanist Thaddeus William Harris in 1841. I’ll just call it bristle head. No offence. Love the colours.

And finally, on a crazy, windy afternoon. I was walking by the river and it felt like a storm looming. Suddenly I was the spectator of a Merganser Race, the mood exhilarating. I can see what Wordsworth mean, ‘My heart leaps up.’

And sure enough, the gulls followed. All of a sudden, hundreds of them took to the sky, maybe a premonition of an imminent change in weather:

Serendipity. That’s one of my favourite words.

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Serendipitous Find: The Osprey Family

Whenever I go out birding, I’ve this expectant mindset: ‘Surprise me,’ or, ‘Make my day.’

Here’s one serendipitous find a few weeks ago. The Osprey family. I’ve since gone back to visit them many times and see their baby grow.

Papa watching over the family home:

Mama and baby in the nest. I’ve since learned that other than just the size or the plumage, I can tell the difference between an adult and a juvenile Osprey by the colour of their eyes. Mom’s are yellow, baby’s orange. You can’t see here in this small pic, but on my laptop they’re dramatic.

A nice spot to build a home, by the river:

Just a couple weeks later, baby has come out of the nest. Sunbathing with Mom. Baby’s the one closer to the nest. Yes, almost as tall as Mom.

And a few days later, trying his wings. Who taught Baby to fly? I never saw any training wheels. You might ask, how do you know it’s Baby and not Mom? The secret’s in the eyes.

Even blew a raspberry at me:

Kids these days, sure grow up fast.

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The Library Reopens

For the first time in months, I set foot into a public library yesterday. To be exact, three different branches, to make up for a regular activity I’d enjoyed before the Covid lockdown. Our library system is very modern, creative, and full of resources, a pleasure to visit. The New Central Library opened two years ago had become a tourist point-of-interest even.

Yesterday I didn’t head all the way downtown to the main attraction (picture above). A visit to a branch closer to my home welcomed me with numerous brand new paperbacks. As they’ve been closed for a few months, new books kept coming in and now they have the chance to display them. Piles and piles of them, all brand new. I couldn’t resist but drove to two other branches just to check out their new offerings.

The following is a list of books I got from my library escapade yesterday. Just in time for the summer staycation. All pristine, never-opened (that’s important in this Covid time) brand new paperbacks. Which ones have you read? What books are you reading this summer, this very extraordinary summer. I welcome your two pebbles thrown into the Pond and share some ripples with us.

Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks –– I was thinking of reading this for ‘Paris in July’ all because of the title, but not sure now since it’s quite late in the month. I’ve always wanted to read a S. Faulks novel knowing his work had been turned into movies and TV series, e.g. Charlotte Gray and Birdsong.

Summer of ’69 by Elin Hilderbrand –– I haven’t read any books by Elin Hilderbrand, hailed as the ‘Queen of Beach Reads’. Two of her books are in development now for a movie. I’m far from the beach, any beach, but hope this one can offer some sunny breaks at least during my staycation.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow –– The book cover is the main attraction plus this blurb on the front cover: “Unbrearably beautiful.” And some more on the back, like this one: “A gorgeous, aching love letter to stories, storytellers, and the doors they lead us through. Absolutely enchanting.” How can I resist?

Quichotte by Salman Rushdie –– I knew about this book, actually have been debating if I should read it without having read Cervantes’ Don Quixote. I’d appreciated Rushdie’s writing, imaginative and original, but also not easily accessible. Will see.


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My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell –– I’ve seen this title everywhere, and know the general story idea, and all the controversies and ripples it has generated. I’d just like to sit down quietly without having to be influenced by the cacophony from all sides, and just read it.

Reader, Come Home by Maryanne Wolf –– Subtitle: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. I’ve started reading it and find it quite interesting. I missed Wolf’s earlier book Proust and the Squid so here’s a catch-up and a welcome update. A scholar, educator and developmental researcher on reading and the brain, Wolf is an advocate for ‘deep reading.’ This is going to be a slow read.

Up in the Trees

What I find walking in the woods can be redundant and mundane, that goes for my photos too. But looking up into the trees can be therapeutic psychologically, especially these days, not to mention beneficial for the neck muscles.

Mundane or unusual, here are some sightings during my walks in the past weeks.

You see them everywhere, their by-products littering your grounds. But the Canada Geese in my neck of the woods don’t gather at the Pond or on the ground, but high up on trees. I think they nest there too:

Another CG on tree

Here’s one taking the abode of a previous tenant, the owl family. How do their young come down from so high up? They’ll have to learn to fly first, just like other birds, another birder said when I asked. Or, the mother could carry them on their wings, my imagination added.

New Tenant

occupying the nest of the owls

A Robin, never too common for me, especially when I capture a handsome one:

Robin not common

One time, I saw this ball from afar:

Ball on tree

Walked closer and found this. Do porcupines nest on trees too, or just for naps? Or, is it something else? The next day I went back to look for it and it was gone.

Porcupine ball

Mundane or unusual, my curiosity is piqued walking the same paths year after year. This curious Yellow Warbler well represents my feelings:

Curious Yellow Warbler

Here’s another curious one:

Curiosity

In a previous post about the Yellow-rumped Warblers, I’d noted that the white-throated one is called the Myrtle Warbler of the East and far north, and the yellow-throated one the Audubon’s Warbler from the West. Just curious, what do you call this one with both white and yellow on the throat:

Yellow-rumped Hybrid

Curiosity in the mundane. Maybe that could get me out of bed on those days when I get too used to that stay home mandate.

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Cloud Gazing

To avoid the crowds these days, I take late evening strolls. I’ve a painter friend who likes to look at clouds, which prompted me to notice them more intentionally. Last evening, I saw the clouds change from a placid white to orange to dramatic red.

Here’s the sequence, just within 20 minutes before sunset at 9:30 pm. Yes, wait till June and we get light till ten. I didn’t have my camera with me, so I just used my cell phone. For authenticity, I’ve kept these photos in their original form.

I’ll begin with this view from the escarpment high up, the same spot I saw my moose/elk neighbour:

Evening Sky

After a few minutes, the clouds began to change to a golden hue:

Evening Sky 2

Then into a Turner painting:

Turner Painting

From golden to pinkish delight, marshmallows in the sky:

Pinkish Delight

And in another part, the scene was more dramatic with a streak of lava splitting through:

Orange Lava in the sky

Here are the panoramic takes of the lava in the sky:

Lava Panoramic

Red Lava Pano 1

Red Lava Pano 2

Red sky? Or red clouds and blue sky? No matter, with scenes like these, words became unimportant. But words did come up in my mind… Red sky at night, birder’s delight. I knew what tomorrow would be good for.