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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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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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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.

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Related Posts:

Proust’s madeleine? Here it is.

One duck at a time

Two Trees Make a Forest: A Book Review

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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