On this date in history….

These events in my recent books have anniversary dates to note in 2018.

In 10 Ships That Rocked the World …..

230 years ago in Australia….the First Fleet convict ship “Lady Penrhyn dropped anchor on January 20, 1788, in Botany Bay. There would be no return from this final destination” for the 122 women and children from Britain sentenced to transport, a form of exile often for petty crimes. The transports continued until 1868, bringing settlers who are the ancestors of 20% of today’s population, which celebrates Australia Day on January 26.

154 years ago, off the South Carolina coast.…H.L.Hunley, the first submarine developed as a weapon during the US Civil War, set out to torpedo a Union warship on February 17, 1864. “After delivering its fatal blow, the Hunley disappeared….It was lost, along with the entire crew (of 8 men)…” Rediscovered in 1995 and raised from the sea, this ship showed that undersea warfare was possible, and inspired the modern submarines used for deep-sea investigation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 10 Plants that Shook the World…..

150 years ago…. brothers George and Richard Cadbury first came up with the idea to make boxed chocolates in England in 1868. Our favorite Valentine’s treat would not have been possible without cacao beans, known to Indigenous people in Central America for centuries, but later grown on plantations powered by slaves.

190 years ago.… “in 1828, a Dutchman, Coenraad Van Houten, invented a press to squeeze out most of cacao’s fat content” to create the powder we know as cocoa. Enjoy your hot chocolate drink, but remember the dark path of cacao’s history, as even today, child workers are treated unfairly in some tropical regions where it is grown.

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Robins…..in my life

This is the collection of robins…….stained glass, stuffed, carved, framed….that is arranged around my work station at home. They are special for several reasons. Of course, because I’m a birder, watching for that first spring robin is a tradition, and they are always welcome in the garden.


My indoor robins offer inspiration and support when the muse is off taking a vacation. But they represent more than feathered friends. They remind me of human friends …..particularly, my writing group. The collection came together mainly as gifts from some of these special women. We call ourselves the Round Robins, after a letter package that we circulated among the group when we first met in 1984. We live in different towns, and there was no email back then. We have a great website—pay us a visit, meet the group, check out the wealth of writing we’ve all published: https://books4kids.ca/

After 34 years together, my writing sisters have become invaluable beyond the writing. They’re always ready to offer cheery (like the robin’s song) notes, thoughtful advice, empathy, encouragement, hugs…. By chance, we picked a highly visible symbol we all encounter frequently (robins even turn up on Christmas bird counts). When I see a robin, real or representation, my thoughts fly to my best friends and soul mates. Cheers, ladies!

 

 

A Birding ‘Moment’

I’ve mentioned before that birding is a favorite activity for me. While I don’t pursue it with the passion of ‘professionals’—traveling globally to chase rare species—I’ve always tried to take advantage of opportunities such as RV vacations that took us near nature sanctuaries to add to my list. Bird Counts, like the Christmas ones that I’ve participated in for over 30 years in my local community, are easily accessible and challenging. Over time on the same route, you get to know what to look for in a particular spot. It’s interesting to see the trends; in Saskatchewan, we knew where we’d likely find a Snowy Owl, and for years, a Townsend’s Solitaire awaited us at the nearby BC provincial park. Sometimes there’s a prize: a new species or at least a rare one.

On my second Bird Count of this winter season, in the Enderby area in early January, a friend and I covered almost 100 km of rural roads. It was a brilliant day, about minus 8. Little wind. On those quiet roads, we cruised along picking up a few Black-capped Chickadees here, small flocks of Eurasian Collared Doves there, and a predicted Red-tailed Hawk posing in the morning sunlight. Magpies floated across a clear sky, Evening Grosbeaks gossiped at a backyard feeder and the hammering of a few woodpeckers caught our attention: Hairy, Downy and Pileated. Nothing unusual or unexpected. Sadly, no owls like the Northern Pygmy Owl we’d hoped to find. But you never know….

By mid-afternoon, we’d despaired of having an exciting story to relate to the group at our rendezvous point after the count. We’d just about run out of designated roads, finding ourselves approaching the small town for our meeting rather early. But we’d misread the map and made one wrong turn, missing a short section as a result, so we decided to backtrack to find it and correct the map for next time. That took another half hour or so, until we once again found ourselves pointed in the direction of our meeting place. We had two options to reach town, but the first looked uncertain on the map (which we no longer trusted!): did the road go all the way to town or not? Rather than take the chance, we returned to the original road, now driving along it for the third time, and still a bit early.

“Let’s stop and add up the numbers,” I suggested. “Find a spot where we can pull over and sit in the sun.” We stopped on a wider section of the road and I began the tally.

“What’s that bird on the snowbank?” my friend said. “I don’t think it’s a species we’ve seen yet today.”

I couldn’t see a bird at first, but when I did, a long look through binoculars left me puzzled. It was a bit larger than a song sparrow. Paler underneath, it had a dark cap, and dark mask below the eye and down the side of a yellowish throat. A distinctive small black breast band was a good field mark. It looked somehow familiar, but my memory couldn’t pin it down.

We started guessing: not a sparrow species, but surely a variety of songbird. A ground feeder. A quick scan of the list we were using of usual species for the area showed it clearly wasn’t among them. I began to flip through the pages near the back of the bird guide. Then some distance memory emerged. Of course! It was a bird I’d often seen on Saskatchewan roadsides searching for bits of grit in the dead of winter. A check in the book confirmed it. A Horned Lark! The tiny ‘horns’ are barely visible. But this bird was not a likely one in this area of the BC Interior in winter. We’d struck gold: our birding moment of the day!

So here’s the evidence, albeit of not quite sharp focus.

 

 

 

 

 

I’m sure serendipity played a role in our day, as it does in so many aspects of life. We were finished our count, we were making a third pass along the same bit of road, and we’d picked that spot to stop by chance. We could have easily driven right past the driveway where those 2 little birds hopped about. What were the odds of seeing a fairly rare species? It is these prized moments of excitement that make birding so much fun.

 

The Snail Days of Summer

Our BC summer has been unusually hot–you’ve heard of those ‘dog days’, of course, that seem to crawl by through July and into mid-August. Not humid, though. Just the opposite, in fact. Too dry! Finally, today, it is raining. First time I’ve seen, heard, smelled (glorious, after all the wildfire smoke we’ve been eating) and felt rain since June. Besides ushering in the fresh air, it has brought out oodles of garden snails. But in spite of the lack of natural moisture for weeks, I’ve seen plenty of snails enjoying moist shady patches in the sprinkled garden all summer. So why not call these the ‘snail days’ of summer?

Snail crossing an island in the water bowl

I’ve long admired the colorful swirls on snail shells. They brighten up patches of dark soil, and turn up everywhere: climbing up the sides of the rain barrel, sitting on plant stems, tracing the rims of flower pots, traversing the patio stones, even crawling up the window glass. When I mention how many I see, others frown and suggest they are bad news. But I have to look hard to see any signs of harm in the garden. Sure, the odd leaf has a few holes, and I did find one small marigold struggling to grow while being dined upon by a snail. But I can ignore that for all the good these gastropods might do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Favorite land snail foods are rotting vegetation, algae, fungi, dying plants and dead organic matter…they take on the role of recycling and clean-up crew. Fine with me! In turn, they might be eaten by small mammals, birds, worms, insects and snakes (yes, there’s a small garter snake living in the flower bed). So unless I see a lot of plants disappearing, I’ll let nature balance the equation at a snail’s pace.

Looking for munchies among the moss and leaf litter

 

 

 

 

 

 

My curiosity about these snails led to the question…what is the smallest and the largest snail? In Borneo, scientists discovered a teeny snail (Acmella nana) only visible with a microscope. On the other end of the scale is the African giant snail (Achatina achatina) with a shell around 27 cm long.
The largest snail I’ve seen isn’t a land snail. It’s the sea or marine snail called the Moon snail (Euspira lewisii).

 

 

 

 

 

I first saw this one on west coast beaches, and again this June in the Bonne Bay Marine Station Public Aquarium in Norris Point, NL. Enterprising hermit crabs use the empty shells as a new home, to replace one they’ve outgrown.

So did someone say snails weren’t useful?