Nature’s Balancing Act

On a recent trip to Haida Gwaii, we stopped on our drive north from Daajing Giids (Queen Charlotte City) to Masset to see Balance Rock. It’s listed as ‘not to be missed’, for the mystery of its precarious position. It isn’t unique—apparently there are lots of similar examples in the world—but we could get up-close and personal with this one.

How is the rock kept in place? Gravity and contact friction are the glue holding it at such a perilous angle. After being carried by glaciers to this spot, the ice melted and—what luck—set the rock down in this amazing position. It’s estimated to be anywhere from 200-100 million years old, but may have only been plunked here several1000s of years ago. You can’t see the contact point at high tide, but only when the sea has receded to reveal its unusual nature on the rocky shore. Imagine the sight when storm waves batter it, flinging spray from this immovable object!

Looking south from the rock towards Skidegate

How does it feature in Haida Gwaii folklore? Good question with few solid answers. There might have been a story in oral legend, but many of those tales were lost when 90% of the population succumbed to diseases brought in 1787 by Captain George Dixon, the British explorer who named the collection of islands the Queen Charlottes. It might be a perfect symbol for the Haida, though, of their enduring land as a sanctuary where all is connected in a fine balance, a quiet place apart from the mainstream of the busy world, striving to find stillness, and subsequently, peace.

The view north, overlooking Hecate Strait

Who Couldn’t Love a Banana Slug?

This may not be everyone’s idea of a neat critter, but the Banana Slug has a lot going for it.

Not your common garden slug (you will rarely find it there), this terrestrial gastropod is the world’s second largest slug, and is native to cool, temperate coastal rainforests of the Pacific northwest. Here, the Banana Slug spends its days happily sniffing out and munching on decaying plant and animal material, doing the world a favour with this garbage cleanup routine. In turn, it is itself food for birds, small mammals and reptiles. Sounds like a win-win, to me.

Not all Banana Slugs are yellow, but this one was the prettiest I’ve seen. We found it along the Tow Hill Trail in northern Haida Gwaii in June. We didn’t touch it….the idea of the slime is off-putting. But it’s not poisonous—though it may numb your tongue if you decide to take a taste (eew!). It’s hard to rinse off the skin, so best to let it dry, then it rubs off easily…so I’m told.

Smarter than a squirrel?

I think I’ve outsmarted a squirrel. How? But maybe first …..why?

If you’ve visited here before, you know I’m a birder. On winter days, a sunflower seed feeder hangs by my deck. In summer, there’s a hummingbird feeder within easy view. We live in bear (and raccoon) country, so the seed feeder is taken indoors at night. And then there are the squirrels. After several years of squirrel absence, one red squirrel has turned up in the back garden….lots of trees out there, plenty of habitat and food.

But, of course, a seed feeder is a tempting target for a meal. Easy too: all you have to do is climb up on the deck rail, take a short leap….bingo, food! But my feeder is for the birds. Squirrels are on their own. They don’t hibernate, just nap the colder days away. When the temperature rises and the sun is out, they emerge to forage. Our ‘resident’ squirrel is energetic, plump, healthy looking. It doesn’t need my seed.

So how to keep this one at bay? There are all kinds of ‘squirrel proof’ feeders out there if you have the right place to hang them. The inventors recognized that the squirrel is a highly intelligent, determined. rodent, able to problem-solve. But I found a hopper-style feeder without a tray (where the seed gets mucky and encourages diseases to spread) but with a slim perch rail from which birds can reach the slits to pick out a seed.

American Goldfinches

I hung it above a shrub so birds could also perch on the branches….until the squirrel showed up, climbed up, hung on it and munched away. So we moved the feeder to hang under the house eaves a short distance away. That’s when squirrel figured out it could leap from the deck rail, no problem.

I watched this manoeuvre and decided it wouldn’t do. I needed something to block its path. So I hung up an elastic cord (bungee style) and dangled an inch-wide lanyard ribbon with a bit of weight on it between its take-off spot and the feeder. Theory: a visual distraction might work. Squirrel took the leap, grabbed the ribbon, and rode up and down as the elastic stretched. So funny to watch! It didn’t move on to the feeder….hmmm. But once it had taken a couple of bungee rides, it realized the ‘distraction’ wasn’t harmful. It could leap right past…and it did.

Over to me: obviously, I needed a wider distraction. So I added a foam tray, slits cut in it to thread the lanyard through. It swung in the breeze…would it bother the birds? I added a metal key ring for a weight to calm it down, and removed a bit of the bulk by cutting zigzags along the edges.

Now the chickadees and song sparrow were happy, but the squirrel not so much. It has jumped onto my free, homemade-with-recycled-material distracter, taken some bungee rides up and down but is unable to reach the feeder…so far. Can’t go over it, can’t go under it… Around it? Not so far. The distracter is too wide so it can’t angle its leap around it. Nor can it give a firm enough push off it to jump the rest of the way to the feeder.

So we are at a stalemate…either my solution continues to work, or ‘smarty squirrel’ will outsmart me again! Meantime, I’m happily watching and counting the birds. Spring is coming, so maybe a sweetheart squirrel will turn up and the two of them will be too busy racing through the trees to bother me anymore.

How can you tell it’s cold?

When the temperature hits -20s, it’s cold for this part of BC. Add a little wind (it doesn’t take much) and the wind chill value makes it feel more like the prairies (I remember that well!). So we bundle up with extra layers, scarves, hoods and courage to take a daily walk. Don’t stay out as long as usual, head back for a hot cup of tea. Curl up with a good book and light the gas fireplace. Admire the snow that decorates the cedars, piling up on the patio bench …and what’s that?

It’s a song sparrow that hangs out here all winter, spending most of its time on the deck cleaning up sunflower seed that chickadees and others drop from the feeder. Not sure where it sleeps, but it’s a tough character. Looking more like a small brown puffball with a long handle, it has enough insulating feathers to survive. We gave it extra helpings of seed for Christmas.

The birds can inflate their feathered layers. What can plants do to show us it’s c-c-c-cold? Of course the maples, hawthorn, mountain ash and other deciduous trees lost their leaves long ago, so they simply stand fast within their tough bark. But what of those that hold onto leaves all winter? The rhododendron in the flower bed caught my attention recently. It’s an evergreen shrub, and after the recent cold snap moved in, I noticed its leaves had rolled up tightly, lengthwise. They drooped, looked dead. But next year’s buds appeared firm and healthy. What was going on?

Some suggest that this leaf droop and curl in some species of rhodos is an attempt to reduce the amount of light falling on the leaves. With no summer shade, light intensity is high in winter; could it damage the leaves? Interesting idea. Apparently, the more accepted thought is that once rhodo leaves freeze at about -8 Celsius, they are safer from damage during freeze/thaw cycles if they stay curled up (curling up was one of my winter defence mechanisms, too). Wise rhodos!

So just as the return of robins has always been a good indicator that spring is on the way, watch those rhodo leaves. When they flatten out, they must be dreaming of balmy summer days ahead, and their chance to show off glorious blooms once again.

If you Think Winter Days are Still …

Our first snowfall arrived this week…almost 6 weeks to the day that the white stuff appeared on the lake’s north shore mountains. That’s in line with the predictions I’ve heard from long-time residents, so it seems they know whereof they speak! It wasn’t enough snow to shovel, and it’s melting away quickly. But it put an end to many of the last fall sounds of our community: no more lawnmowers, leaf raking or blowing, no kids on skateboards rumbling down the road.

It didn’t silence the birds, though. Flights of Canada Geese still honk from V-formations. Mallard ducks that will likely stick around as long as there is open water in the bay still mutter and quack while feeding in the shallows. The Song Sparrow is always ready for a whistle, and Northern Flickers send out their strident calls from atop the cedars. So do Black-billed Magpies and Steller’s Jays.

Northern Flicker
Steller’s Jay

The most welcome sounds now are the chirps and twitters of the feeder birds. Every day, Chickadees and nuthatches stop by for snacks. Juncos breeze in and out, picking up what’s scattered on the deck. Lunchtime seems to be a favourite interlude, with lots of activity. So it seems a fitting time to post this poem I wrote years ago, and which was published in KNOW Magazine, Jan/Feb 2006.

If you think winter days are still,

If you think winter days are still,

That nothing moves in deepest chill,

If you think all is frozen hard

And it seems quiet in your yard,

Listen well,

Look and see,

Something’s moving in that tree.

Perky, small,

Black and white,

Turns into a blur in flight.

Buzzing call,

Dee-dee-dee,

Hold some seed out, wait and see…

Feathers puffed,

Snug and warm,

Dressed to weather winter’s storm.

If you think winter days are still,

That nothing moves in deepest chill,

Perhaps you’ll be surprised to see

The lively, cheery chickadee.

Mountain Chickadee

Cleanest bird in town is….?

Make sure you provide a source of water in your garden for the birds. It can be high-tech or not, as long as it’s wet. Especially in hot weather (like this week’s extreme heat wave), everyone—feathered or not—needs to stay hydrated. We have both a small water bowl on the deck rail for drinking, and a larger bird bath on a stand in the flower bed. They are used interchangeably: don’t know why, but some birds like to bathe in the soup-bowl sized drinking bowl. Go figure! We haven’t posted rules. Please yourself!

The jury seems to be out on why birds like hopping into the shallow water. In the garden, it’s songbirds, of course, that frequent a small water source. Most likely their feathers need a good clean to rid them of dust, mites, or perhaps to help tidy them for peak performance. After all, without the power of flight, a bird is….well…a penguin, an emu, an ostrich, a kiwi…but never a robin.

Robin cleaning up his act

The clients that line up for our bathing spots include the American Robin, Gray Catbird, Song Sparrow and even a Western Tanager shows up once in a while.

Gray Catbird
Song Sparrow checking depth in the bowl
Western Tanager, male

But, wings down, the prize for most frequent visitor and probably the cleanest bird in the garden goes to the gorgeous, red-eyed Spotted Towhee.

Morning, afternoon and evening—anytime is a good time to see either Mr or Ms Towhee splish-splashing, spraying water onto the plants below (thanks for watering them!) until there’s not much left. I know they nest nearby, so this swimming hole is convenient. They’ll stay for a few minutes, in no hurry as they dip and flutter, soaking all those brilliant orange, black and white feathers.

Mr T enjoying his ablutions

Finally, bedraggled, they hop off to a branch to shake, ruffle and preen everything back into place.

Mr T, in particular, likes to vocalize in the tub. If I hear his buzzy trill close by, it’s wise to check the birdbath first because…oh, excuse me, I have to go and refill the bird bath.

An Invasion!

Declining songbird populations—it’s a serious issue in the bird world. So it was refreshing to see one species appear in healthy numbers in my yard this week. The White-crowned Sparrow arrives on migration in late April in this area, sweeping through in large flocks that hang around a couple of weeks, before moving farther north for nesting. They stand out with their distinctive bold black and white head stripes and pinky-orange beak. They are a sturdy looking bird, fast moving on the ground as they pick at seeds, and taking off in a flurry if disturbed.

I have an ambivalent relationship with this bird. Since moving from the prairies, where the White-throated Sparrow was my #1 favorite spring songster, the White-crowned’s lilting, lispy whistle has taken over that spot. It’s lively and uplifting to hear a flock of 20-30 in concert together. However, their habit of scouring the ground like a living carpet for seeds—in particular the grass seed I just planted—makes them less popular. Timing is everything: I thought I’d beaten them to it this spring, planting the seed on a bare patch of lawn a couple of weeks ago. It has been slow to germinate and then… the ‘living carpet’ moved in for a banquet. Anything left to grow? I’m afraid to look. (Sorry, hard to capture the crowd in a photo as they are always on the move).

I have another issue with White-crowneds this spring. Project FeederWatch (see below) kept me busy all winter noting the species that visited my feeder for 2 consecutive days each week. The project wound up this week, and after a small flock of White-crowneds touched down a few days ago, I was gleefully anticipating large numbers to report. My hopes dwindled—down to only 3 birds on count day. Classic Murphy’s Law scenario. So imagine my mood the next day when, about 20 minutes after I’d submitted my final report to the website, suddenly I heard that tell-tale wispy call, in great volume. On the deck, in the yard, all over the shrubs, around the feeder….dozens of White-crowneds! It would have been a spectacular way to end my counting records, if only…..

For that final count record, though, a couple of other feathered regulars provided a satisfying finish: both Rufous and Calliope Hummingbirds showed up to be included.

Rufous Hummingbird, female

An Uninvited Guest

Since we’ve been staying close to home this year, taking on Project FeederWatch seemed like a worthwhile idea. We enjoy all the birds that visit our feeders anyway, so why not record them and contribute to this Birds Canada Citizen Science program. Beginning in November, and for 2 consecutive days each week until the end of April, we’ve monitored the activity at a seed feeder and a suet feeder in a small site around our back deck.

Regular guests have showed up: Pine Siskins (it’s been a good year for this species, unlike some winters when they seem scarce)…

Pine Siskin

…Black-Capped and Mountain Chickadees (the former are always here, the latter occasionally), Red-breasted Nuthatches, Song Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos and American Goldfinches.

Mountain Chickadee
Black-capped Chickadee

American Goldfinch

For most of the winter, a Ruffed Grouse ate berries from our bushes. One week we were excited to see Pine Grosbeaks feeding on Mountain Ash berries in the lot next door; a couple came to perch within our site boundaries so we included them in our count. Now that Spring is here, we also have Spotted Towhees and Robins frequenting the site. I’m hoping for the return of hummingbirds before the project ends.

The most unexpected visitor, though, came with a price. On a morning when all was quiet out there—too quiet, I finally realized—it wasn’t hard to spot the cause. Although we’d seen a Sharp-shinned Hawk flashing through the site before (they like to hunt small birds around backyard feeders), we’d never been able to get a clear look at it. We’ve never seen it take any prey, but it seemed to know a likely hunting spot should produce a meal sooner or later. We didn’t expect such a closeup view (but through the screen door): it had tucked itself in right beside the deck rails beneath the feeder.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Perhaps it thought to fool the small birds by remaining immobile but, even though so well camouflaged, its presence had been detected and none of the little guys would venture close enough to risk becoming its lunch. That was not the case this morning. The hawk boldly posed on the deck rail, allowing me a much clearer photo.

Soon after it dropped lower into a bush to perch, a small bird (song sparrow?) carelessly ventured out from under the deck and the hawk pounced. I saw a flurry of wings and dead leaves stirred by the commotion before the sparrow fled across the patio with the hawk in hot pursuit. Not sure how that chase ended, out of sight, but I was cheering for the little guy. On the other hand, everyone has to eat.

One More E-book…

Take a look on my E-books page for more about my new collection of short stories for readers 9-12 and older.

A second e-book!

Find out more about Take You With Me on my E-books page….