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.

***

Spring Cleaning

A Purification

At start of spring I open a trench
in the ground. I put into it
the winter’s accumulation of paper,
pages I do not want to read
again, useless words, fragments,
errors. And I put into it
the contents of the outhouse:
light of the sun, growth of the ground,
finished with one of their journeys.
To the sky, to the wind, then,
and to the faithful trees, I confess
my sins: that I have not been happy
enough, considering my good luck;
have listened to too much noise,
have been inattentive to wonders,
have lusted after praise.
And then upon the gathered refuse
of mind and body, I close the trench,
folding shut again the dark,
the deathless earth. Beneath that seal
the old escapes into the new.

–– Wendell Berry

Reading the Season: Sabbath Poems by Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry’s Sabbath poems are an apt respite for our busy Christmas Season. A lover of nature––yet not a pantheist––his belief is specific, the Creator behind all that he can see and hear when he goes out to take long walks or work on his farm. However, his poetic imagination can deftly ripple out from the specific to the universal.

The following poems are selected from This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems, 1979-2013, all relating to Christmas and striking a deeper resonance as they end.

+++


Remembering that it happened once,
We cannot turn away the thought,
As we go out, cold, to our barns
Toward the long night’s end, that we
Ourselves are living in the world
It happened in when it first happened,
That we ourselves, opening a stall
(A latch thrown open countless times
Before), might find them breathing there,
Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,
The mother kneeling over Him,
The husband standing in belief
He scarcely can believe, in light
That lights them from no source we see,
An April morning’s light, the air
Around them joyful as a choir.
We stand with one hand on the door,
Looking into another world
That is this world, the pale daylight
Coming just as before, our chores
To do, the cattle all awake,
Our own white frozen breath hanging
In front of us; and we are here
As we have never been before,
Sighted as not before, our place
Holy, although we knew it not.

+++

Born by our birth
Here on the earth
Our flesh to wear
Our death to bear

Our Christmas tree is
not electrified, is not
covered with little lights
calling attention to themselves
(we have had enough
of little lights calling attention
to themselves). Our tree
is a cedar cut here, one
of the fragrances of our place,
hung with painted cones
and paper stars folded
long ago to praise our tree,
Christ come into the world.

+++

The incarnate Word is with us,
is still speaking, is present
always, yet leaves no sign
but everything that is.

_______________

‘Reading The Season’ over a decade:

2020: Jack by Marilynne Robinson

2019: ‘A Hidden Life’ – A Film for the Season

2018: A Verse from Madeleine L’Engle’s The Irrational Season

2017: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

2016: Silence by Shusaku Endo

2015: The Book of Ruth

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2013: Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

2012: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle 

2010: A Widening Light by Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle

2008: The Bible and the New York Times by Fleming Rutledge 

2008: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

The Sound of Autumn Leaves

A few years ago, I flew a couple thousand miles and drove some more to see New England’s fall foliage. Today, within walking distance, I marvel at the colours of autumn right in my neck of the woods.

We don’t have maples trees here. Our fall colours are mainly yellow and rusty orange.

Birds have mostly flown south, what’s left is a scenery of silent gold… until I come to this aspen grove. No, they’re not silent at all, as I see how these trees put on a show of vibrancy.

Kawabata entitled one of his books The Sound of the Mountain. Here, I can hear the sound of flaming aspens, full of vitality and life.

Surely, Robert Frost had wisely noted that nothing gold can stay, and yet, I find these simple lines speak louder, as if in reply:

The leaves do not mind at all
That they must fall. *

If only for a short, ephemeral moment, they fulfill their purpose and shout out the sound of life.

_________________

*From the poem ‘The Leaves Do Not Mind At All” by Annette Wynne

Related Ripple Posts:

New England Road Trip begins here

The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata

Blackie Spit, Surrey, B.C.

Sometimes you stumble upon a place looking for something, unaware that there are so much more to explore. Last week I drove out to British Columbia, our neighbour province to the west. While in Surrey, I searched for birding spots in the area and decided on driving down to Blackie Spit by the coast.

The Spit is named after an early settler Walter Blackie. Way before Walter and his fellow Europeans arrived here, the place was called “Tsee-wahk” Point, indigenous language for “strawberry” or “elderberry”, a place rich in food. Their saying goes: “When the tide is out, my table is set.”

Blackie Spit is located where inlets from Boundary Bay flow in. Zooming out would be the Strait of Georgia:

I followed a path that put me inside a fairytale:

In such a setting, I shouldn’t have been surprised to stumble upon a Great Blue Heron but I was as I looked across a stream…

and just a few steps away along the path, another one. This time, right in front of me up on a tree:

Never have I seen a GBH so up close and personal, and not flying away even when I stepped right underneath it to take a picture. No cropping of the photo here.

As I walked further along the path, absorbing the stunning view of the outlet, I found yet another one. Three GBH in a row… I’ll call that a good birding day.

Or, was I dream walking? Can you see it too?

You found it?

Of course, there must be an abundance of food for them here, as the indigenous people had known a long time ago. I could see why when I saw this mural. I was in salmon habitat:

So, I was indeed dream walking…

–––––––––––––––

One or Two Things

One or two things are all you need
to travel over the blue pond, over the deep
roughage of the trees and through the stiff
flowers of lightning–––some deep
memory of pleasure, some cutting
knowledge of pain.


For years and years I struggled
just to love my life. And then

the butterfly
rose weightless, in the wind,
“Don’t love your life
too much,” it said,

and vanished
into the world.

––– Mary Oliver, lines from “One or Two Things”

***


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.

***

When human and bird collide

Spring is home construction season. The Ospreys are back and busy building their perennial home.

The Ospreys have the same address every year, that’s right on top of a highway sign. I don’t know why they like it up there above a busy highway while there are many trees close to a river nearby. No building permit required, so they are free to set up their family home and raise their young wherever they like.

This year is different. Some human have chosen that exact spot to work on something. Not sure what they’re planning for the site. A lift equipment is nearby and a little wooden triangular structure has been erected, right where the Ospreys are building their home.

So there are two different building plans on the same site, but the Ospreys are undeterred. They haul in material from nearby trees, transporting one twig at a time.

Here’s making the best of a precarious situation. When you have an unknown, triangular intrusion right by your home, might as well use it as a watch tower.

I don’t know how the story will unfold. I sure hope co-existence will be the happy ending.

***

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.

***