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Once in a lifetime…

We all look for those moments, don’t we? We may not even realize at the time that what we are seeing, or doing, could be a once-in-lifetime experience. How many such special moments will we be lucky enough to have? I have friends who used that sentiment as their email address while globetrotting; they certainly recognized the significance of their adventure.

Green sea turtle on Big Island


Some of my own unique times have involved nature observations: the glimpse of a rare Resplendent Quetzal in Costa Rica (sadly no photo); standing in the water while a green sea turtle checked out my feet in Hawaii.


I thought my 1993 sightings that added up to 26 whooping cranes in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas would be once-in-a-lifetime too. They’d been elusive in all of our searches in Saskatchewan for years.


So here’s the best photo of that experience, taken with an old print camera. Only good enough to prove it was there.


But this fall, I had the amazing opportunity to see 120-140 whooping cranes in one flock, an hour or so north of Saskatoon. Other birders who saw them reported a high count of 156, some saw fewer but mostly over 100. The elegant birds stepped along the edges of a slough and stood among hay bales around it. A few stretched their wings and gave their distinctive bugle-like call that I won’t soon forget.

Photo by D. Young

Photo by D. Young

Photo by D.Young


I was traveling to a writing workshop—we’d taken a detour, with knowledge of the cranes’ whereabouts— so I had no binoculars or camera. My friend took the photos (thanks for sharing these, Dianne), and we had only her telephoto lens to help us count.

What an incredible sight! I hadn’t expected to have one of those ‘moments’ that day.




Fruits of Fall

On a recent trip to the West Kootenays in BC, I found a couple of plants that invited closeup photos. Both are familiar: one is a shrub, often found in my home area, in fact, and even around the edges of my garden. The other is a tree I seldom see because it isn’t native to BC.


The bush is snowberry—but I think a couple of its other names, waxberry and ghost berry, are utterly appropriate. They grow wild around vacant properties near my home (and across Canada), but this one was planted as an ornamental in a small formal garden below the hotel in Nakusp where we spent a night.


Apparently it is unusual precisely for those white berries (known as drupes) which not many plants produce. I’ve seldom seen anything eat them so they may persist right through the fall and winter. But sources says they are on the menu of bighorn sheep, white-tailed deer and grizzly bears, as well as some birds. Even though they are poisonous to humans, that shouldn’t stop you from using a branch or two of them as fall decorations on the front door.

The tree belongs to the red oak family which has pointed leaf lobes. This oak isn’t native to western Canada, and so was planted as an ornamental on the walkway that runs alongside the Upper Arrow Lake which forms part of the Columbia River passing by Nakusp.



I collected an acorn (they’re also called oak nuts, of course) from those littered under the trees. Growing up in Ontario, where oaks are common, I remember painting faces on these rotund little figures with jaunty brown berets. We can eat them, but they take considerable work to process: cracking, soaking in water to reduce the amount of bitter tannin, roasting, grinding. Best leave them for jays, ducks, squirrels, mice, deer, rabbits and other critters. Acorn woodpeckers relish them, obviously, but that bird’s habitat is far south of BC (we saw them at Clear Lake, CA) where oak forests provide this main diet item.


Poop on a Stick

Yeah, you read that right. Take a look at this photo, and I’ll bet you agree that is an apt description for this image.

On a recent visit to Saskatchewan, on a hike, we saw this curious fungal tree disease on chokecherry bushes. I recalled having seen it many times before but I don’t remember wondering what it was.

This is actually black knot fungus. It affects small shrubs of chokecherry or pin cherry in natural areas, especially on the prairies. Spread by spores like all fungi, it is mostly carried by rain to other bushes. It develops under the bark at first, so what you see as blackish lumps surrounding the limb is the second year growth. It is not considered harmful to humans, and a cherry tree can be pruned to control it.

Never had I heard it labeled so perfectly, but, I mean, it is often at just the right height, so… . Anyway, I won’t forget the name, now. You?

Now you see it……….?

If it hadn’t flown to this tree trunk right in front of me, I would have walked by this little songbird without knowing it was there. Its mottled plumage blends in so well with the bark, it seemed to disappear once it landed, hugging the trunk so its white underbelly didn’t show. It’s a brown creeper (find it in the bird guide with chickadees and nuthatches) that likes shady coniferous forests and wet areas across North America and into northern Central America. I found it in Saskatchewan’s Cypress Hills Provincial Park in May, on a slope alongside a marshy spot.

The creeper hooks its long claws into the bark and ‘creeps’ in a spiral up and around the trunk poking its down-curved bill into crevices to find spiders, insects or their eggs. Stiff tail feathers brace against the tree to help the bird climb up, but never down. When it reaches as high as it wants to go, it flies to the base of another tree and starts the climb again.

Birding on the Bay

The Shuswap Naturalist Club always begins its new season of outings with a walk on the Salmon Arm foreshore. “Nature Bay” is given a top recommendation in Best Places to Bird in British Columbia, by authors Russell and Richard Cannings. Spring has been slow to get underway around here, so April 19 was a good day to see what birds had arrived in their summer habitat.

Since this area has abundant rivers and lakes, one regular resident is the osprey. Some call it the sea hawk, or fish hawk.

Many of them nest around the Shuswap watershed. They often take a liking to hydro poles, but the power companies prefer to discourage that problematic practice, offering alternatives. This pole by the wharf is intended for the osprey—probably the one that has returned to that nesting site repeatedly—but someone else got there first. Take a close look……it’s a Canada goose sitting up there.

The osprey was not amused, circling and calling in frustration. Likely the goose will stay put until its eggs have hatched, and the osprey will have to find alternative housing. Good thing it is adaptable and not a threatened species due to its worldwide distribution and long life expectancy.

The bay was also busy with American coots. A member of the rail family, they are seen everywhere in spring around the lake, feeding on vegetation. But I’ve noticed as the summer progresses, their numbers drop on the bay close to my home. It appears they are a tasty meal, easy to snatch, for the bald eagles that cruise by and perch on treetops overlooking the lake.

We counted 35 species on this first April outing. Among them, at a small waterfront park, this song sparrow posed and sang to welcome spring.

Two “Explosive” Events….

April is the anniversary of two “explosive” events—one deadly, one designed to save lives – described in my recent books.

In 10 Routes That Crossed the World….

120 years ago….dreams of Klondike gold sent 40,000 stampeders to Dyea, Alaska. Their attempts to climb the snow-covered Chilkoot Trail to reach gold fields proved deadly on April 3, 1898 when “the roar of three avalanches thundering down the slope….caught, tumbled and buried dozens”, some of their bodies not recovered until summer.

In Kaboom, Explosions of All Kinds.….

60 years ago….the Canadian government decided to remove a shipping hazard in a narrow passage between mainland British Columbia and Vancouver Island that had snagged and sunk about 120 ships, and claimed at least 110 lives. Known as Ripple Rock, the pair of sharp, rock peaks lurked beneath only 3 metres of water. But it took several attempts between 1942 and 1958 before explosives planted inside the rocks finally blew off their tops. It was not until April 5, 1958 that “one of the largest planned non-nuclear explosions ever” left the peaks with 14 metres of water hiding them at low tide. Ships are now safe as they navigate this National Historic Site…but unpredictable currents still pose a challenge.


Owling….a Citizen Science project

Since 2000, I’ve been doing an annual spring owl count, in March, along a rural road near my home in the BC Interior. One of Bird Studies Canada’s Citizen Science programs, the BC-Yukon Nocturnal Owl Survey collects data to monitor the status of various owl species in the province. The information becomes part of a Canada-wide database, and helps with conservation initiatives. On my route through a valley just west of Shuswap Lake, we’re most likely to hear Northern Saw-whet Owls, Northern Pygmy Owls or Great Horned Owls, but others are possible, such as Barred Owls, and Short-eared Owls.

Great Horned Owl, courtesy of J. Aitken

People have asked me if we go out there with flashlights. Uh-uh. This is not a visual search—it starts at dusk so we bird ‘by ear’. It involves (at least) 10 stops along the road spaced 1.6 km (1 mile) apart. That’s to minimize overlapping of calls, although when the road curves, we sometimes hear the same owl at 2 stops, in different directions. The protocol requires listening for only 2 minutes, then recording any owl calls heard along with direction, distance, noise and weather details. We’ve been lucky to find Saw-Whets on at least half of our surveys and once a Great Horned Owl, but more often we get no owls at all. That’s disappointing, but it’s also valuable to know as part of population trend data.

Last year, we heard a Saw-whet at our last stop. Its ‘beep, beep, beep’ call is similar to the back-up signal on a truck. Of all the stops we make, it seemed the least likely to produce an owl: it’s not far off the main highway (so some noise is always present) and on the edge of a housing area. But the trees and nearby pond make it suitable habitat. So, hopeful again, we drove the route on a calm evening, about 3 degrees, but with no success through nine stops. Would #10 save us from being skunked? Sadly, no luck this time.

All that’s left is to enter the data online so it can be compiled with that submitted by other volunteers throughout the province doing the same thing on about 70 routes. Then we look forward to doing it all again next year!