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 http://www.shuswapnaturalists.org/index.htm 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!

Signs of the Season

It has been a tough winter around here. Oh sure, I suppose compared to those living under the threat of a polar vortex, that may sound wimpy. But the snow came earlier, heavier and has lasted longer than I remember during our 20 years living here in BC. Finally, this week, melting has begun. At last, the 2-foot high covering on my roof is shrinking.

View from the back deck

I’m hearing more bird songs—chickadees calling in their spring voices, juncos trilling, robins chuckling… and a couple of woodpecker species are becoming more active.

Northern Flickers are around all year, but lately they’ve begun drumming on metal chimneys to loudly announce their presence to other flickers (it’s a territorial thing, as well as the way to attract a mate).


Flickers might enjoy the noise, but residents of the houses they choose…not so much. However, these birds eagerly dine on ants, so they’re welcome in my yard.

Another woodpecker, the Pileated, is a large black bird with black and white facial markings and a red crest. This one’s loud voice echoes around the neighborhood, and I often see it hammering on utility poles. While they may not find much of their favorite food—carpenter ants—on those treated wooden poles,  the noise resonates nicely as a communication tool. What a terrific low-tech ‘social media’ device!


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.